The Last Walk
Copyright 2008 to TerribleThom (Thomas Bailey) may not be changed or reproduced without author’s written permission.
The Last Walk
“Well Mr. Ritter, I must admit you’re taking this very well. If I were in your shoes, I don’t think I would be so calm.”
“I knew something was wrong, and this is the third opinion I have gotten. So far they have all been the same.”
“What are your plans now, Sir, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“I am going to have to think on that one for a while, Doctor. At least now I am totally sure there’s been no mistake about my condition.”
“You have filled out all the insurance forms, so all I can say is that I’m sorry, Mr. Ritter, for giving the bad news to you for the third time. I hope you have all your affairs in order.”
I just smiled at him as I got up and left his office. Hell, I was a realist and I had already accepted what was happening to me, but damned if I was going to go down feeling sorry for myself. I had been a fighter all my life, and if I was going to die, then it was going to be on my own terms. When I got home, I sat outside looking at the split level house I had built years ago. I had already gotten rid of all my animals except for Cody, my old lab. I knew or at least had a plan on how I was going to go out, and he was going with me, since over the years he had been with me everywhere and gone through it all. I figured he deserved one last adventure before he passed on himself.
I let myself in through the front door. The silence was soothing after driving in the city traffic all day. Cody came over and flopped down on his favorite rug, watching me as I fixed a small meal for myself. With my sickness, I had lost a lot of weight but it hadn’t been all at once. I still had the muscular build I had been able to keep since I had retired years ago. I sold the house for a huge profit last month. I had three more days before I had to vacate and give the keys to the young couple who had bought it. When I had first met them, I had taken an immediate liking to both of them and their two little ones. I was glad the new owners had kids so they could have fun with the barn and fishing in the big pond. I had built them for my own family before they had been killed in an auto accident years ago.
Unlike a lot of men, I didn’t quit my job and live on the large settlement I had received after the accident. I kept working and to my surprise, I had been promoted several times over the years and was able to retire with a large pension. I hadn’t used a lot of it since my needs leaned toward food and taking care of the animals I owned. Everything else was paid off, so the only bills I had were for the utilities every month, and they weren’t high.
I made my last visit to my attorney yesterday, and I knew all my papers were in order. The kids buying the house would have a big surprise when my will was read, but I thought they would need it and I didn’t anymore. I left just five dollars to each of my two brothers since I hadn’t heard from them or seen them in years. I had several large insurance policies that would go to a good friend of mine who had always been there for me during the hard times. He had five kids and I knew it would help them out more than just my friendship. I had gotten rid of all the furniture in the house except for a single bed, which I had set up in the front room to sleep on till I left. I also had several old towels that would last until I got out the day after tomorrow.
I was sitting at the counter when the pain hit like it always did after I ate anything. I just rode it out, since I didn’t want to take the pain pills I had been given. Cody came over and put his head in my lap like he always did when I was hurting. It was like he could sense it happening. I scratched behind his ears because I knew he liked it.
“Well, old fella, I think we are going on our last journey together. I decided to take you along since you deserve it. Besides, I wouldn’t feel right without you by my side.”
He just wagged his tail like he always did whenever I spoke to him as an equal. The pain finally passed, so I got up and went to the garage to finish up the little plan I had in mind. I got down my old backpack and checked it thoroughly to make sure it hadn’t rotted over the years of non use. I had decided I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail until I went on to the other side. I had told my daughters that when they were old enough, we would all do it together. They both had been tomboys like their mother and thought the idea was great. I had taken them camping almost as soon as they were out of diapers and they had always had a blast. My wife had always gone along and I knew she enjoyed it. She was always in awe of how fast the girls took to it. I checked the small tent I used and it was still like new. The sleeping bag smelled a little musty, but was in excellent condition also. I knew I wouldn’t be able to carry much so I had to pare it down to the bare essentials. I took a small 2 quart pan with a long handle and the large non stick skillet that I had owned for years. I had a six cup coffee pot, but since I couldn’t drink coffee anymore, I took the guts out of it and laid it on the bench. That took care of what I needed to cook with. I would be taking freeze dried meals since they were nutritious and very light to carry. I even had several bags of dog food for Cody, just in case he didn’t want to share my meals, which I doubted would ever happen. I packed two sets of silverware, just in case I met a guest on the trail. I got out the 2 quart canteen, then at the last minute decided to take the western one gallon one instead.
I packed several bars of soap and bug repellent in sheets, which were easier to carry. They also made good fire starters if I needed help making a fire. I filled several small shampoo bottles with baby shampoo. They fit into the outer pocket and also didn’t weigh much. I took the small machete out of its sheath and sharpened it before reseating it again. I had made a small carry sheath that fit across the outside of the pack to carry it. I knew I could get at it easily if I had some kind of an emergency. I had been an avid camper and hiker for many years, so I knew what I could get by with without being short on creature comforts. I had several packets of toilet paper that broke down quickly in the wild, so I dug in the box and added another handful. I also had ten tubes of the strike anywhere waterproof matches in a side pocket. I checked them to make sure they were still in good shape. I stood there for a moment, trying to think about anything that I might have forgotten, but I couldn’t think of anything at the moment.
I set the pack down on the bench and started back to the house. Then I remembered the two long ropes I had always carried, but they were old and probably unstable after all these years. I would replace them tomorrow when I went to town to get the freeze dried meals. I turned out the light, thinking I had forgotten something, but maybe it would come to me later.
I went in and took my shower, letting Cody in with me. I wouldn’t have a chance to give him a good bath before we left and he just loved having me scrub him down. My daughters used to fight over which one would let him in the shower with them. I smiled to myself at the memory of the fights my wife used to referee over this. For some reason, he did one thing that most dogs wouldn’t. He would stay in the shower and do his shaking in there. When he got caught in the rain, he used to come straight into the house and go to the shower and shake the water off there. He would wait there until one of us toweled him dry.
I went in and went to bed, totally drained. Cody lay down next to the bed in his usual spot. I drifted off to sleep, thinking about what I needed to buy in town tomorrow.
I woke the next morning at my usual time, about six in the morning. I quickly got my shower and fixed myself some tea and toast. Cody bummed part of my toast after I dipped it in my tea. This had been a ritual with us for years and I couldn’t see changing it now. Since I knew nothing in town was open yet, I decided to walk the property saying my last goodbye to the home and land where I had been so happy for years.
As we walked by the barn, I thought of the first time I brought my oldest daughter out here to help me dig a few worms to go fishing with. I had jokingly dared her to eat one, and to my surprise, she scarfed it down without blinking. Of course when we got back to the house after fishing for a couple of hours, she told her mother about it. She was so mad at me for doing such a mean thing to my own child that I had to sleep on the couch. I tried to explain what happened, but she refused to listen. I got up the next morning and she apologized to me. We had a little husband and wife time before the girls woke up wanting something to eat.
I stood in my own little world, thinking about the past and all the good times, when Cody snorted his impatience at standing in one place so long. I smiled and turned toward the pond and he went nuts as usual. He ran past me to the little dock I had built and jumped in for his morning swim. He swam around for about ten minutes before coming out with a doggie grin on his face. That’s what my daughters always called it. He shook and we headed back to the house so I could dry him off before we loaded into the jeep and went to town.
As I drove, I thought about what was happening to me and started to get mad about the unfairness of it all. I had already been through the “not true”, the “you’re wrong”, and the best of all, “I might as well end it” stage. A good friend of mine had warned me all about it. I just laughed at him at the time, but as I looked back now, it seemed he had been right after all. I watched for the neighbor’s cows in the road as I went around the blind curve by his house. I didn’t understand the man. He had about fifty cows and they kept getting out. He couldn’t seem to find time to fix his rusting fences and rotten posts. He had already been sued once by a truck driver who hit one and totaled his truck one morning on his way to work. The cow had walked off with a few road rash spots on her flank, but other than that, she was unharmed.
As I came around the curve, sure enough, about ten of them were in the road and on the sides grazing and the hole in the fence was plain to see. I put my flashers on and stopped to let Cody out, then hand directed him to put them back in the field they came out of. He loved herding and seemed to do it naturally, because I sure had never taught it to him. All I had to do was whistle and move my hand in the direction I wanted him to go and he seemed to catch on immediately. It took him a whole five minutes to push them back in the field they came out of. I walked up to look at the fence and saw one of the posts was broken. I set it up, driving a couple of branches into the hole on either side to hold it in place. As we got back into the jeep I wondered why I bothered because in a couple of days I would be out of here. Then I made a mental note to write down the reminder about the cows and put it into the envelope with the jeep title. I didn’t want to see anyone hurt if I could stop it ahead of time. While I drove Cody, was looking at me with his tongue hanging out and panting, so I reached over and rubbed his head. As soon as I did, he lay down in the seat and went to sleep like he didn’t have a care in the world.
It took us about forty five minutes to pull up in front of the sporting goods store I always frequented. When I got out, Cody went with me. When we walked in, there was someone new behind the counter. He frowned when Cody followed me in but I didn’t pay any attention to him. I just grabbed a cart and headed to the aisle I was looking for with Cody at my heels. I carefully looked through the selection of freeze-drieds and chose those I thought would be nutritious and that my stomach would be able to handle. Since I had no idea how long I was going to be on the trail, I stocked heavy with lighter meals, but in a good assortment. I had the cart almost full before I decided I had enough for the both of us for at least a month, if I didn’t start eating any more than I did now. I knew there were plenty of wild berries and plants I could eat, so I figured this would be enough for us to go. While we walked around the aisles, I remembered the rope I wanted to get and went to the back wall to see what kind of assortment they had in stock. When we reached the back wall, I could see they had completely changed their stock since I was here the last time. After carefully examining the rope on hand, I was surprised to see they had the high tensile strength reinforced mountain rope at the cheapest price I had ever seen. I quickly checked the dates on the spools and they were all well within the selling date, so I knew they wouldn’t be rotten from being too old. I took a hundred and fifty feet of the strongest gauge they had and a new belt harness, since my old one was over ten years old. It came with several quick release clips and a new easy release buckle on the harness. To my surprise it was about twenty dollars cheaper for both, than what I had paid years ago for just the rope.
We were headed for the checkout counter when Cody woofed so I stopped to look and see what he wanted. He had stopped in front of a counter display, and sat down as if waiting for me to come back to him. Out of curiosity, I went to where he was sitting, and to my surprise he had sat down in front of the candle display. Then I remembered I had thrown all my old candles away last night because they were crumbling with age. I just shook my head, patting him as I picked up several of the newer twenty hour burn candles they had on sale. When I headed back to the cart with them, Cody was right back by my side like he had never left. We went up to the register and the man there, whom I didn’t know, snottily told me next time I came in to leave the mutt outside. I looked down at Cody then at him before I asked him a short question.
“How much money do you think is in this cart right now?”
“I would say a couple of hundred dollars, why?”
“Do you want the sale?”
“Of course, if I turned it down my boss would fire me. Why do you ask?”
“You seem to dislike my dog, but since he is going to be eating a lot of this with me, I think it’s only fair he should have a say in what I bought, don’t you?”
“That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard. I suggest the next time you come in, you leave the dog outside and just buy what you want. He doesn’t know the difference, dogs are dumb.”
“Mister, you don’t know me or Cody here. I don’t mind a little good natured kidding back and forth, but your attitude and sarcasm I can do without. Is Charley in the back?”
“Yes, he’s doing paperwork.”
“Would you ask him to come out here, please? Tell him an old friend wants to say hello.”
I watched as he went to the door to the back and yelled for him instead of walking back to tell him what I said. While I waited, I was rubbing Cody’s head and wondering where Charley had found this fool.
“Well I’ll be, Jeremy Ritter as I live and breathe. Why you haven’t been in since the funeral. It’s good to see you again, my friend. Looks like you’re getting ready to do a little hiking again. Well hello, Cody, good to see you too. What seems to be the problem, Jeremy?”
I didn’t say anything, just pointed at the clerk. Charley turned, and before he could say anything, the clerk started telling him what he said about Cody staying outside and the rest of the conversation we had. I had to admit; he didn’t change any of it, but almost quoted it word for word. Charley stood and listened to him until he was done, then proceeded to chew him out.
“I’ve told you before; if a man brings his dog in the store it’s no problem. You don’t live in a big city anymore, and the rules here are a little different. This is a hardware and sporting goods store. We have farmers and outdoorsmen who come in and they take their dogs with them wherever they go. Cody has been coming into this store since he was a pup, and is welcome whether Jeremy is with him or not. Why do you think I keep that big jug of milk bones behind the counter? I have dogs that come and scratch on the door because they know they will always get a treat from anyone in the store. Now I suggest you give Cody his treat and apologize to Jeremy, or I am going to have to let you go, family or not. We do things a certain way around here, and you need to adjust or go home.”
I just stood and grinned as I watched him fight with his inner self trying to decide what to do. He finally went behind the counter and got one of the treats out, then came over and offered it to Cody. Cody looked at me to see if it was ok to take it, and I nodded my head. He took it gently out of the clerk’s hand and laid it on the floor between his feet, looking at the man like he was waiting for something else. The guy looked at me, wondering what to do so I told him.
“He is waiting for you to offer your hand so he can shake it to thank you for the treat.”
The clerk looked a little baffled, but offered his hand as I had instructed. Cody quickly put his paw in his hand to shake. When the guy shook it a couple of times and dropped it, Cody ate the treat like he had been taught by my daughters. The man got up with a look of wonderment on his face and started silently ringing up my purchases. Charley looked at me with a big smile on his face as he watched.
“Sorry to hear you sold your place, Jeremy. I suppose living out there all by yourself was getting to you.”
“You’re probably right, Charley. The young couple who bought it has two small children so you will probably see them in here off and on. They seem to be good people, so make them welcome, like you always do. If you know of anyone who has some puppies, you might suggest it to them for the kids.”
“I sure will, and I think old Joe has a litter that should be old enough by the time they get settled in. He will be looking for good homes for them, and a couple of kids would be great. That way they can grow up together. We sure hate to see you go, Jeremy, you know everyone will be thinking about you. Well, I have to get back to my monthly paper mess, so I will say goodbye, my friend, and you be careful.”
I smiled at him as he went back to what he had been doing. The clerk finished ringing up my purchases and gave me the total. It was a little higher than what I expected, but I had bought a lot of the dried meals. I figured it was about right as I paid. I picked up two of the lighter bags and handed them to Cody. He immediately hooked the two bags’ handles with his lower teeth, picked them up, and headed for the door. The clerk looked like his eyes were going to pop out; he was so shocked at all he was seeing. I just smiled as I opened the door, heading for the jeep where I took the bags from Cody and set them in the back with the others. Next I stopped by the notary office. When I told her what I wanted, and she had me all set up in a few minutes. With the papers in my pocket for the tractor and jeep, I headed back to the house to finish filling my backpack so I’d be ready to leave tomorrow.
When we got home, I put everything in the garage and then took the plates off the jeep. I sat down at the counter and wrote a nice letter to the young couple, telling them what they needed to do and why I had left it to them to keep. I also put a “p.s.” at the bottom, telling them about the cows and what to do if it happened to them. I spent the rest of the evening cleaning my mess up, throwing things away that I figured they wouldn’t want or use. I made sure everything was spic and span so they would have nothing to do but move their stuff in and unpack. Cody and I went to the garage and got the pack done and then brought it all into the house. I set it by the kitchen counter, ready for the morning’s early departure.
I took a shower and used the last of the baby shampoo on Cody so he would be clean for tomorrow. A friend was picking us up and dropping us off at the point that I wanted to start from on my last hike in the mountains. I looked around one last time before I turned out the lights and went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day of work and pleasure. Work for me and pleasure for Cody, as he liked chasing the butterflies that were always along the trails we were going on.
When I woke the next morning, it was barely breaking daylight. I let Cody out for his morning run, and then fixed the last pieces of bread and my morning tea. As soon as I sat down, Cody was scratching and wanting in for his share. I let him in and gave him his share of the toast soaked in tea like always. I finished and sat back down, waiting for the pain to hit me. When it was over, I patted Cody and finished cleaning up. I grabbed my pack and put the keys to the house, along with the titles and my letter, in the small box mounted on the front door. I had put it there years ago as our personal way of leaving notes for each other. It was better than having to walk to the mailbox and taking the chance they would be accidently mailed by the postman. This had happened to my wife, and she was mortified when she got the single page love letter back the next day with the words printed on the outside; "That was sweet, but you can't mail it without an envelope or postage." Betty the Postmistress had kidded her about it at church the next Sunday, so I was tasked with building a box that only we could use. I had told the young couple I would leave the keys and any papers they needed in the box for them to get when they arrived.
Cody and I hiked the short distance down to the main road to wait for Dolly to pick us up. She was going to the next county to pick berries and had volunteered to drop us off at the Piedmont trail on her way. Since I had never gone in that way, I was looking forward to seeing some more of the mountain from a different angle. She was ten minutes early and I let Cody in the back, setting the pack on the seat next to him. I noticed the back of her Jeep was full of buckets and berry baskets. I opened the front door and got in, fastening the belt as she took off. She handed me a Styrofoam cup and when I looked at her with raised eyebrows, she quickly explained.
"I remembered you didn't drink coffee, Rit, so that’s some of my home grown mint tea. I had a pretty good crop last year and it looks like it's gonna be heavier this year. Drink it, it's good for the stomach."
"How come you’re going out of the county to pick berries, Dolly?"
"Herb plowed our patches under last year when he expanded the hay fields. I could have killed him for not discussing it with me first. He's lucky he and Tony both have to work today or they would be going with me to help. The Pickets over in Brewster have a heavy crop this year and said there wasn't a minimum amount per customer. I didn't get many last year, and I want to can at least a hundred quarts this year. My big thimbleberry patch is loaded, but it will be months before they ripen enough to start picking."
"Well, I sure don't envy you all the work you'll have to do today. I never cared that much for berry jam, but I always liked to pick strawberries with the girls. They always wore as much as they picked and Mary used to have a fit because we were always full when we got back. That never stopped her from eating them though."
We both got a laugh out of it with Dolly saying Tony used to be the same way when he was little. The rest of the ride was pretty much in silence, with me sipping the delicious tea and watching the road, thinking about the girls. When we came upon the Piedmont gates, she pulled over in the turnaround. I got out, grabbing the pack and calling for Cody to heel.
"Jeremy, I'm sorry about Mary and the girls. She was my friend and we spent a lot of time together in high school dreaming about what kind of lives we would have when we got married. I do know she was very happy and loved you and the girls with all her heart."
"Thanks, Dolly, I loved them too. Now you better get going before it gets too hot to be in the field picking berries. Thanks for the ride. Cody and I appreciate it."
"You and Cody be careful up there. I know you hiked a lot in college, but you’re not a young man any more, Jeremy Ritter. You take your time and enjoy all the beautiful sights as you walk. Bye."
I watched as she drove away, again wondering if I was doing the right thing with the time I had left on this earth. I looked down at Cody and he was looking at me with his tongue hanging out. He had an expectant look on his face, so I shrugged into the pack, fastened the waist belt and jumped up and down a few times. With Cody at my side in heel, I went across the road and into the woods. I felt an inner peace almost immediately as I walked deeper into the woods. I was on the small trail that I knew was leading me to Shepard’s Crossing. From there we would head straight west for about an hour and make our first camp for the night. Cody was still at the heel, so I released him so he could explore as we walked. He immediately bounded out ahead of me like always.
While I walked, my mind automatically started cataloging the sounds around me. I settled into the stride I had used so many years ago while roaming all around these mountains while on summer break. It was during one of my many hikes that I had met Mary. She was working for the summer at a small diner in the adjoining town. I had just come out of the mountains, getting ready to head back to class, when I suddenly decided to stop in and have a hot meal instead of something burned over a camp fire. I hadn't had a bath for a couple of days and needed a shave, but I didn't care, ‘cause the smell of food cooking had my mouth watering. That's where I had met her, and to say the least, she didn't have many good things to say about my smell or the fact that I needed a shave. She was very polite, but I noticed she stayed back from me as far as possible when she waited on me. About halfway through the meal, I finally caught on to what was happening, when she stood on the other side of the table to refill my tea glass. I think she thought I was a bum who was planning on running out on the bill and her tip. I watched her with a smile on my face, and waited till she was almost done filling the glass before I spoke.
"I know I probably smell bad, but I won't hurt you. I have been hiking the trail all summer and haven't had a chance to clean up yet."
"I'm sorry, Sir, I didn't mean to insult you, but you do smell like moldy leaves and sweat. I can get you another waitress if you like."
I looked at her and just started laughing out loud at her indignation. She looked at me and I could tell she was mad about me laughing at her. She didn't say another word, just walked away with her back ramrod straight. I was still chuckling to myself as I got up. I left a nice tip and went to the register and paid my bill. I didn't say a word, but when I caught her eye as I went out the door, I smiled at her. She quickly looked away and I left, still chuckling. I knew she was still watching me as I walked across the street, because I could feel her eyes drilling holes in my back. I quickly climbed into the old Chevy pickup I was driving, and waved at her as I drove away. An hour later I was in the shower in my dorm, getting all the crud washed off. I had spent three months on the trail, exploring everything I could. I got a shave and decided to do laundry tomorrow since I was worn out. I went to bed and slept around the clock.
My thoughts were rudely interrupted by hearing Cody somewhere ahead of me, alternately growling and barking like he had something treed. Oh God, I thought, I hope he hasn’t cornered another skunk. The last time he had sounded like this, that’s what he was after. We both got sprayed and I had to throw the clothes I was wearing away. It took two weeks for the smell to finally wear off of him and I gave him hell every time we stopped to camp for the night. He at least had the grace to act ashamed when I did, although we both knew it was all an act on my part. I was the dummy who tried to chase it off with a stick and just upset it, and Cody, more. When the skunk left with three little ones following her, we were choking and gagging in the clearing.
I finally made it up to where he was, and the sight that greeted me almost made me bust out laughing. I called for Cody to heel, and although I could tell he didn't like it, he did almost immediately. He was still growling as he sat by my side watching the animal he had found. He probably considered it his personal toy, it was a possum. It was backed up against an old felled tree, with part of its body in a hole under it. I stood for about ten minutes watching it, trying to figure out what was so important about that tree that a possum would stand guard over it. For one of these creatures to act like this was not usual. They usually either went up a tree or played dead. For one to be on the ground was kinda strange, especially since they were nocturnal scavengers. I finally had my question answered when I saw eight little eyeballs peering out of the hole behind the mother. This was her birth cave and she was protecting her young. I looked down at Cody and he was shaking with eagerness to go after her again. I stepped around the tree, keeping Cody at heel and went back to the path.
"Aren't you ashamed of yourself, Cody? She had babies in that hole and you probably scared them half to death with all your barking and growling. I think you can stay with me for awhile and stay out of trouble."
He looked up at me without the least little bit of remorse for what he had done. I picked up the pace and Cody stayed right at my side until we finally made it to the small clearing I had camped in several times. I quickly gathered wood for the fire and got the small tent up. I threw the sleeping bag and pad inside. I went to the pack and dug out one of the stew type meals and started water boiling so we could have our supper. I gave Cody a small pile of dog food, and he scarfed it down before I finished putting the rest away. He lay down next to where I was sitting, with his nose on his paws, watching every move I made as I got my dinner ready. The water was finally hot enough, so I poured it into the package and closed the top. I shook it for awhile to make sure it got mixed up good before setting it down. I noticed Cody had moved his nose a little closer to where the bag was sitting; no doubt smelling what was steeping inside of it. I was watching Cody and smiling at his antics. He would look at the bag, then at me, then at the bag again. I could almost read his mind, and I knew he would break in a few minutes and whine. Yep he did, and I laughed out loud when he did. He just gave me a dirty look for laughing at him. I decided I would play the old game I used to play with him when he was young. I wasn't doing it out of meanness, but because he had always been so funny the way he always acted. The girls had gotten more laughs out of him than they did when I tickled them. Cody had always made a big thing out of it too, and I had a feeling he enjoyed it as much as they did. I picked up the bag and made a big production out of opening the top again. When it was open, I stuck it in front of my face sniffing real loud at the smell.
“Umm, that smells good,” I said aloud.
I sniffed again, watching Cody out of the corner of my eye as I did. He had his ears up and his head cocked to the side, watching my every move. I sniffed again and he whined. I did it again and this time he started growling at me. I almost busted out laughing he sounded so ferocious. I did it again and he butted my empty hand with his nose.
I looked at him and said aloud; "This is my supper, you already had yours. If you think I am sharing, you better think again, buster."
He looked at me and just collapsed with a loud oomph next to me. I almost busted out laughing and gave the whole thing away. I looked down at him, took a spoonful, and slurped as I ate it. He got the most disgusted look on his face, that I almost spit it out, fighting back the laughter. I took a few bites, much to his disgust. He looked so sad laying there with big eyes, watching every move I made. I turned away from him, eating a couple more spoonfuls and was thinking to myself, wait for it, wait for it. Sure enough, he laid his head on my shoulder and whined plaintively in my ear, begging the only way he knew how. God I loved him for this, and my daughters had always thought he was so funny, the way he always tried to get their food. The first time he had done it, my wife made him go lay down and he wouldn't have anything to do with her for a whole week. He wouldn't even come when she called him. She had finally come to me wanting to know what was wrong with Cody. When she asked, I had busted out laughing at her sorry look, and she got mad at me for laughing at her. I finally got her calmed down and explained the whole thing to her. Why it was such a game to him, and how much he seemed to enjoy doing it. She had looked at me in surprise when I finished and sat back thinking about it. I saw the impish smile come to her face when she looked at me and said; "Why that old rascal." From that day on she was as bad at teasing him as the girls were, and he seemed to love every minute of it. Of course he got a sample of everybody’s food in the end, so it was all worthwhile to him.
I heard that whine in my ear again, so I told him to wait his turn, and that he could lick the bag when I was finished. I knew there would be plenty left for him because I had bought the large portion bags. I ate a few more bites, feeling stuffed, and ripped the bag open, laying it down in front of him. He took his time and licked the inside of the bag clean before finally laying down next to me by the small fire. I threw the bag on the fire and watched as it slowly burned to ashes before the pain hit me. This time I was weak and sweating by the time it left, and Cody had his head in my lap, whining and looking up at me.
"It's ok, boy; I think I just pushed it a little too hard on our first day out. I'll be fine as soon as I have a cup of hot tea."
This seemed to mollify him, but I noticed he watched every move I made before we turned in for the night. I carefully checked him over for ticks and didn't find any, so we went to bed. When I woke the next morning, I immediately noticed Cody was sleeping with his head on my stomach. Now this is strange, I thought. Usually he always slept next to the tent door. I couldn't ever remember him doing this before. I got up and we both went out. We watered the bushes after looking around to make sure there wasn't anyone close who had stopped during the night. A lot of time when you camped on the trail, you would awaken to see one or more small tents pitched in the same area that hadn't been there the night before. The good camping areas were well known by most of the regulars, and all of the guides knew about them. Usually you didn't hear them come in, but would awaken to find you had company that had arrived during the night.
One time I had stopped at a place where I thought I was the only one who knew about it. I had come out in the morning to see enough tents set up to start a small city. It was a group of boy scouts who had set up in the middle of the night because they had gotten off the trail. They saw the coals of my fire and followed them to the clearing. Talk about a surprise, I certainly got one that morning. I showed them on their map where they had made the wrong turn and missed their trail in the dark. Since I was headed the same way, I showed them where to turn to go back to their pick up point. I had gotten a big thanks and I think Cody was sore from all the pets he had gotten from the kids. Cody being Cody, he just took it in stride.
Today would be a short hike of fifteen miles since I was going to camp at a fork where three trails came together. I was sure there would already be someone camped there, since it was a popular camping and information spot. I would be able to pick up any news about the northwest trail I was planning on taking when we started out tomorrow. Right now though, I needed my morning tea and Cody was hungry. There would be no bread to share with him today, but like always, he would have his own cup of tea to drink. This was a habit we had gotten into on the trail, and he seemed to expect it as much as he did sharing my bread when we were home. We got our site cleaned up, and I made sure the small fire was completely out before we left. Cody was raring to go by the time I was done packing the tent and sleeping bag. I put him in a loose heel so he wouldn't get too far ahead of me. We headed for Three Sisters Forks and the next place we were to camp.
We had been on the trail for about two hours, when Cody came running full speed back to me, and immediately went behind my left side. I quickly pulled out one of the ten minute road flares I always made a habit of carrying. Bears hated the light, smell and the sparks, and I knew that's what had spooked Cody. He always acted the same way, ever since he ran into one when he was a pup. I stepped to the side of the trail next to a big oak tree, and waited to see what I thought would be coming down the trail. It was, there was a mama black bear with two cubs following her on the narrow trail. She was sniffing the air as she walked and I knew she smelled Cody. Since the wind was behind me, she could smell a human too. The cubs looked to be from the previous year, so I knew she would be running them off before the summer was over so she could breed again. I cracked the flare and she immediately went up on her back legs, looking for the noise. She spotted the flare almost immediately and sniffed the air, smelling the fumes which were blowing in her direction. She shook her head a few times and woofed at the cubs, and then immediately went into the brush with the cubs following her. I listened until she was far enough away that we could safely move out. I put the flare out and we started up the trail at a quick pace to put some distance between us and the bears. I knew she would come back out to the trail, since there was a large berry patch not too far from the clearing we had just left.
Cody decided he had enough adventure for today, and stayed by my side as we climbed the steepest part of the trail. When we got to the top at the flat rock, I had to stop and take a breather. I realized then that my strength was failing me, and wondered if I would have enough to accomplish what I had set out to do. I knew the trail from here to Three Sisters was steadily uphill, and I had just made the steepest part. I got out my canteen and poured a cup of water for Cody and myself. I sat for awhile, thinking about the summers I had spent here hiking. I thought about working at the smoke tower not far from where we would stop for the last time. I munched one of the granola bars and fed Cody his share, which he ate without tasting as usual. I had often wondered why he liked them. He never chewed them, just swallowed the piece whole as soon as it hit his mouth.
We, or I should say I, rested for about a half an hour, while Cody watered every tree and bush in sight. When we started out again, I remembered the argument I had with a guide, right after I started to work with the Park Service. I was camped at Three Sisters when he and four couples came up and started setting up their camp. The guide was giving orders like he was a big wig or something, which I didn't like at all. I didn't say anything until I saw the black bear come into the clearing, headed across the far side to avoid the human presence on this side. To this day I have no idea where he pulled the rifle from, but he was just starting to draw down on the bear when I yelled at him. He started and swung around, and saw me in uniform standing there not four feet from where he was.
"Mister, if you fire your rifle at that bear, I will arrest you immediately. You know better than to carry a firearm on Federal Ground. Now put it down!"
"Ranger Boy, I suggest you mind your own business. This is my group and I don't need you to tell me how to act. I don't like bears and I would prefer to kill every one I run across. If one of my campers gets hurt, that makes me responsible, so I don't take any chances."
"If you're a registered guide like you claim to be, then you know you're not allowed to carry a firearm in the park. I want to see your license, and I will make a report of your actions when I get back to the smoke tower."
I could tell he didn't like being ordered around, but he knew he had been in the preserve for the last four miles. The signs on the trail they had come in on clearly marked the fact that they were passing into a Federal Park. He lowered the rifle and got out his wallet. He handed me the license he was required to carry at all times showing he was a licensed and registered guide. I took it and got out the little notebook I always carried, and wrote down his name and license number. I saw he was one of Tucker’s boys, and I knew old Tuck would have a fit when he got the report about this incident. Tuck had been in business for years, and had earned an excellent reputation for his little company. I knew he took in abandoned animals and passed them on to preserves so they could have a life. This ass wouldn't have a job when I called Tucker on the radio and told him what happened today. I wrote down the information and handed him back his license.
"I want that rifle unloaded immediately and put away. If I see you with it out again, you will be arrested and locked up on several federal charges. Mr. Adams, you know better, and I am sure Tuck will make it very clear to you when you get back to base. If we have any bear problems, I will handle them without any one getting hurt."
"How do you propose to handle bears without a gun to kill them, Ranger?"
"I have a way to do it that works almost every time, and nobody has ever been hurt including, the bear."
"If yore talkin’ ‘bout that there pepper spray, it don't work against a mama bear with cubs. She will attack anything, including another bear to protect her cubs. The only way to stop her is to kill her and the cubs."
"I am not going to debate it with you, but if you kill a bear, or I find one that's been killed with a 30.06, I will come looking for you first. Now, put it away until you leave the preserve or go to jail. Your choice, Mr. Adams."
I watched as he jacked the shells out of the rifle. I thought about telling him about the flares, but knew deep inside it wouldn't make a difference to him. He was one of the types you found living around this area, and he was probably a poacher in the off season. I had his name and would put him on the watch list, and have a serious talk with Tuck when I got back to the tower. Sid was on duty now, and wasn't expecting me for a couple of days. We took turns checking the preserve, because it helped cut down on the boredom of standing watch. It also gave us both a chance to meet with all the different people who hiked the trails, which we both enjoyed. Of course, an ass like this was rare, but there were a few like him. They thought they owned the mountains, and could do whatever they wanted because they lived in the area. I had another run in with Adams when he told his party to set up their tents within a hundred feet of a huge wild berry patch. I walked over and immediately told them to set up their tents on the other side of the clearing by the spring. He started to say something back, when one of the men in his party spoke up.
"Ranger, my wife and I came out here to take some pictures and spend a couple of weeks getting to know each other again. We have been listening to Adams rant and rave, ever since we started. We have all talked it over and we’re wondering, if we fired him, would it be safe for us until we got back to base camp? As far as we are concerned, we would rather be lost than listen to him rant and rave for the next five days. If you will show us on the map where to turn on the different trails to go back, we will fire him immediately."
I watched the guide’s reaction as the man spoke, and the play of emotions across his face almost had me laughing out loud. The base camp they were talking about was on the way back to the tower. I was already headed there, and knew I could easily guide them. I couldn't recommend they fire their guide, because it would get me in a lot of hot water if I did. From the way he acted, I couldn't blame them for wanting to get rid of him. I would have to be very cautious here, because I couldn't afford to create problems on the preserve.
"Sir, I don't recommend firing your guide in the middle of the trip, but again you’re only about four days from Tuck’s base camp and the trails are easy to follow. What you decide is up to you, and I will be glad to mark your route on your map, if you decide to fire him. I am not allowed to interfere with the guides, other than to enforce preserve rules."
I saw Adams was looking at one of the other couples, and winked at the man talking to me. The man talking to me grinned and turned to the others, saying he was firing the guide because he was fed up with listening to him. He said that he would let me mark the trails, and that he and his wife would go on without a guide. Immediately the other couples agreed. The guide stomped off down the trail in a huff, telling them they wouldn't get a refund when they got back, if they did it without him showing them the way. Almost at once, I could sense a change in the couples’ attitude. They all seemed to relax when he was out of sight.
"Ranger, I think all of us appreciated seeing his back as he walked away. I don't think I have ever seen such a disagreeable specimen of a human being. Maybe we can all relax now and enjoy what's left of our trip."
"I'm not allowed to interfere with what the guides do, or how they act, but I have to agree with you. I am going right past your base camp on the way back, and will be glad to guide you safely. On our way, I will even take you to a couple of places off the trail where you can get some beautiful pictures."
They all thanked me and the next five days were a lot of fun for me as well as them. I did tell Tuck about what happened, and he refunded their money and fired Adams. He was really mad when he listened to the couples tell him what had happened. Adams had indeed shot two bears before, but outside the preserve so there was nothing I could do about it. I explained to the couples about the flares if they ever decided to come back again.
Cody and I made it to Three Sisters about two hours before sunset. There were already four tents set up, with more coming in. Usually in these situations, there was only one fire that everyone used to cook and keep warm with. I was glad to see this hadn't changed when we finished setting up our camp. Cody, of course, was the center of attention. He was already begging for scraps before I made it to the fire with my coffee pot to heat up some water. When he saw me coming, he immediately quit begging and acted like he was glad to see me, the old bandit. I put the pot on the fire and sat back, introducing myself and Cody to the others that were gathered around the fire. We had some pretty lively conversations, and to my surprise, they were all middle aged except for two kids. I found out later they were college kids, up here hiking for the summer instead of going home.
I took the hot water back to my tent to eat, because I didn't want anyone to see me when the pain hit. I quickly mixed up the beef stew, and waited for it to steep a little bit. Cody was right at my side, watching me when I opened it to eat. To my surprise, I was able to eat almost half before I felt full and gave the rest to him. I put a big handful of his dog food in it and mixed it up good for him. I made my tea and was watching him eat, when the pain hit me twice as hard as normal. It seemed to last longer this time too, and I was soaked by the time it finally passed. Cody quit eating and had his head in my lap, watching me until I picked up my tea after the pain eased. He finished his food and picked up the wrapper, and I watched in surprise as he carried it over to the fire pit. He dropped it in, moving back quickly after he did. He watched it for a couple of seconds and came back, lying down next to me with his head in my lap. I started scratching his ears without realizing it, and started talking to him.
"Well, old fella, we got another two or three days to go to reach Bald Knob and I think I will make it. I'm sorry the girls aren't with us, ‘cause they would have enjoyed camping with us. Cody, I'm glad you made it through the accident, because it would have been pretty lonely for me out here by myself. We sure have covered some ground in our time, haven't we old fella?"
He whined and licked my hand as I picked up the cup of tea to take a sip. I realized I was completely exhausted, and to my surprise, I felt that Cody was the same way. He, for some unexplainable reason, seemed to be telling me this by his actions as he lay with his head in my lap. I looked at him, and realized he was, in dog years, over 77 years old. He and I had been together a long time, I was remembering as I nodded off. Cody woke me by pawing my arm, as if to say it was time to hit the tent. To my surprise, I still had a half a cup of tea I had to pour out. We went in the tent and I passed out as soon as I lay down. This night, like a lot of others, my dreams were about Mary and the girls. I realized somewhere in my subconscious that the closer I got to the end, the more vivid the dreams seemed to be. I could almost feel Mary and the girls close to me as I dreamed. I woke with a start, realizing Cody was sitting next to me whining. I reached out and scratched his ears and he lay back down, seeming to relax when I did. As I fell back asleep, I wondered if he dreamed about the same thing I did. The rest of the night seemed to pass quickly.
I arose the next morning about six, as usual. I went out to water a bush, and to my surprise, all but two of the tents were already gone. I didn't worry about it since the young couple had already told me I would have to use the Turkey Track Trail because of a landslide by the old stone house. I took my water to the fire, which was hot already from the other campers who had eaten before they pulled out. This morning, I decided I would eat one of the breakfast meals, to see if it helped my strength. I sat by the fire as the water heated, thinking about the trail we would have to take. It was the long way around to where I was headed, but I didn't want to take a chance crossing a recent landslide. I knew I had to do it, even if it did put an extra day on our schedule. Cody wouldn't care as long as he was with me, so I decided I would enjoy spending an extra day with him. I went back to my tent and mixed the hot water into the egg powder. I dropped the small bag with the two dried sausage patties in with it, and shook it up for about three minutes so the powdered eggs would be thoroughly mixed. The last time I hadn't shaken it long enough to get the water into all the powder, and even Cody turned his nose up at the slimy mess, giving me a dirty look for trying to get him to eat it. I surprised myself, because I was remembering things I hadn't thought about in years. I probably should have kept a journal of some of our adventures. We had been through a lot since I had gotten him from a neighbor as the runt of the litter. He had only been barely a palm full, but had grown quickly on the baby formula I had fed him. Now he was my best friend and companion, and had survived the horrific accident that had taken my wife and daughters from me. No one had ever figured out how he had gotten out of the car after the accident, but he had showed up at the house the day of the funeral. He was looking half dead from his experience, and I was almost late because I had rushed him to the vet to be treated. Other than some broken ribs and cuts, he had been fine. He had stayed close to me after that, hardly ever leaving my side these last six years.
I opened the eggs rather cautiously, and to my surprise, they actually looked like scrambled eggs. Of course, Cody got the sausage patties as usual. He also ate all of his dog food before I had swallowed a forkful of eggs. He was staring at me as I ate about half of the eggs, and gave him the rest as usual. He sniffed them first for some reason, but they were gone before I had our tea poured. He again took the paper to the fire and dropped it in. This was a wonder to me, since never before had he gone near a camp fire, other than lying by my leg, and then always on the opposite side from the fire. The pain hit me, just as I set the hot water down. I noticed it wasn't as harsh as it usually was in the mornings. Cody must have sensed it again, because he was there with his head in my lap, looking up at me. When it passed, I gave him his tea and picked mine up to sip, thinking again about the trail ahead.
I knew I was getting weaker. I think Cody must have sensed it too, because he stayed close to me the rest of the day. I pushed hard, trying to make up some of the time I would lose by going the long way around. He stayed right with me the whole time, and kept watching me for some reason. It was starting to get a little irritating, but then I realized he probably realized or sensed I was fatally sick. He could sense that I was growing weaker with each mile we put behind us. He was only doing what a best friend would do, I thought. We made it to Turkey Creek and I was exhausted, even though we had a couple of hours of daylight left. Since Turkey Creek was a mountain fed stream, I refilled my canteen. I set up camp for the night with barely enough strength to put up the tent and cook our supper. I was asleep before dark overtook the mountain, and again I dreamed of Mary and the girls. It seemed as if they were reaching out for me in my sleep, telling me I was almost home.
I woke up as the sun was just peeking over the mountain, and we did our usual routine. I started the fire, and again I fixed the scrambled eggs for us. Cody scarfed down the sausage patties almost as soon as I had them unwrapped. I ate about four big spoons of the eggs and that seemed to completely fill me up, so I gave the rest to Cody. He finished them and went to the creek for a drink, while I put the fire out and rolled our stuff up in preparation for leaving. We sat and drank our tea, watching the sun come up. To my surprise, I only had a couple of cramps this morning. I was still waiting for the pain to hit, when Cody whined and drew my attention to him. He was looking behind me, so I turned around, and saw a couple just coming over the ridge. I waited till they got up to us and introduced myself, and I almost fell over in surprise when they asked if I recognized them. I had to say no, but when they told me who they were, I had to smile and shake both their hands.
"Ranger, we have been coming back every year, ever since you spent those five days guiding us, way back when. We learned and saw more with you in that time, than that other so called guide ever showed us. My wife here is known in the art world for the pictures she takes when we come out here, and has a showing almost every fall in several different states. If it wasn't for you and your love of nature, we probably would never have come back. We both owe you for that, and the fact that our marriage has always been strong and full of love. We brought the grandkids out for a week last year, and they fell in love with the area too. I think we started a tradition with them, because we had to promise to take them next year for the whole summer. Oh, that little trick you showed us with the road flares has saved our butts a couple of times. We tell everyone we meet about it now. I see you’re pullin’ out, but we are going to camp here for a couple of days. If you come back this way, look for us and I'm sure we can offer you and Cody a cup of tea at our fire."
I thanked them and watched as they made a fuss over Cody, and for some strange reason, he seemed to remember them after all these years. Cody was barking and I was waving back at them as they shouted good-bye when we crossed over the ridge. Since the trail I was on was almost downhill all the way past the stone house, I set a fast pace to try to make up for the time we lost socializing with the Ravens. They seemed like a nice couple, I was thinking, as Cody and I started past the old burned out pines from the big fire ten years ago. They never grew back for some strange reason, and a lot of shrubs and briars clogged the area now. We had come up here and cleaned it out and replanted one summer, but the new seedlings never took either. Now all the shrubs and briars choked the area, making it almost impossible to cut through. I remembered a couple of big wigs had flown in to look at it. They had gotten the idea to cut and maintain a trail through them, but that only lasted for about two summers. The shortage of manpower made it almost impossible to keep it up, so it was dropped.
I was surprised that all this was coming back to me again. I had retired within a year after Rebecca had turned five, so I could spend more time with the girls instead of working for weeks on end and being away from home. It had gotten to the point that every time I went to work, both girls would get upset, wanting to know when I would be home again. It had upset Mary so much she finally sat me down, and we had the only argument I can ever remember during our marriage. She flat put her foot down, saying she was tired of me being gone and worrying about me all the time. She also reminded me I had over thirty years in and could retire, making almost as much as I did working. The final straw that changed my mind was when both girls came in from the kitchen, crying because we were shouting at each other. That was an eye opener for me, and I put in my papers the next day.
Two months after I retired was when the accident happened, and I lost them all. It was a freak accident while they were shopping in town one day. I had seen their car, and to this day, I still haven't figured out how Cody had survived or even gotten out. The top had been smashed flat against the tops of the doors, and it had broken in the middle from the pressure of the big magnet falling on it. Almost the next day, the insurance company for the big construction company had sent a man to my house to get me to sign papers to settle. When I opened the door that day and he said who he was, I just grabbed him by the front of his shirt. I drug him to each of my daughter’s bedrooms, saying the whole time, “When I get them back, I'll settle with you.”
The neighbors had heard the man screaming as they drove by and called the sheriff. He came out, and I was still taking the insurance man from room to room in the house, saying the same thing over and over. I never realized I even had him, until the sheriff calmly shook me by the shoulders and said, “Snap out of it, Rit, before I have to take you to jail.”
He told me later the insurance man had run from the house, leaving his briefcase and his coat, never to be seen again by his company. That's when the sheriff made me call the town's attorney and let him handle it. He stopped by every day for several days to make sure I was eating and to check on me. He even stood by my side at the funeral to make sure no one bothered me. I never realized Mary had so many friends until the funeral and almost the whole town turned out. Sid and his wife and kids, as well as a lot of the local park service personnel showed up. I never hated shaking hands until that day, because it seemed like everyone had to shake my hand and tell me how sorry they were. By the time it was over, I was almost ready to scream. They were sorry alright, I thought at the time. I lose everything that matters to me and they're sorry. I withdrew from everyone for almost two months and wasn't seen by anyone. Finally the sheriff came out one day and sat me down, and that's when I finally broke down in grief. He stayed and fixed us something to eat, but first he had to go to the store to buy food. All I had in the house were a few cans of corn and some moldy bread. After that, it took me a long time to finally get back to normal. Thanks to Cody, I finally was able to function again.
The first time I got sick after eating, I just thought it was a mild case of food poisoning. It kept getting worse as the months went by, and I finally drove to the city to see our doctor. When he called me into the office and gave me the report, I almost smacked him, I was so mad. He showed me all the x-rays and the test results and explained it all to me, but I still called him a liar and stomped out of his office. The next week I went to the University and had the tests done again, and they were almost identical to the first batch. Pancreatic cancer and it was spreading to my brain. I was told it would metastasize in my brain, and I wouldn't be able to recognize anyone or even remember who I was when it did. That’s when I sought the third opinion from a new doctor, fresh from the hospital working with nothing but cancer patients. He said the same thing as the others, but added that it was spreading faster than they thought. That was the final blow to me, and it made me decide I would go out the way I had lived, out on the open trails in the middle of the nature I had loved so much.
I met Sid at the local tavern, and told him what I was going to do. He got so mad he stomped out without finishing the beer I had bought him. It took me another week of working on him to make him see I was serious about my plans. He could either help or I would do it on my own, and just let some hiker find my remains. He didn't like it, but finally agreed to my plans. From that day on, I couldn't get rid of him. He said we had been friends for over twenty years, and he was going to spend all the time he could with me. I finally had to appeal to his wife to get some peace and quiet, so I could finish making my plans. He had already told her about it, as he should have. To my surprise, she agreed fully with what I wanted to do. When I called her to pass the word to Sid that I was leaving, she just said, “We love you Rit, and I hope you find what you’re looking for when the time comes.” She always was a deep woman, and being part Cherokee, she thought about death differently than a lot of other people. Many times, I had overheard her telling Mary that a man or a woman ought to be able to pick how they die, not just go by society's rules. Then they would get into a tense discussion, and we would have to almost yell to tell them the food was ready. They always did the same thing at every BBQ we had. I always just laughed to myself and let it go, with Sid saying that was her Cherokee side rearing its head again. It had become a joke between us, but to Mary, it was food for thought, and she had asked me about it from time to time. I had never completely answered her queries, but it had made me think several times over the years. That's why I was out here now, partly because of those discussions, and the fact I didn't want to live in a nursing home like the doctors thought I should. Nope, I was going to go my way. Nobody would be feeding me drugs to keep me alive when there was no reason for it, other than to milk the insurance company for all they could get.
I was so deep in thought it took me a couple of minutes to realize Cody was pulling on my sleeve and barking at me. I stopped and looked at him, then around me, and then I finally realized that I had walked past the clearing and the fire ring where we would normally camp on this trail. If my reckoning was right, we would reach Bald Knob late tomorrow afternoon. I had been making good time and had stayed on the trail almost by instinct, it seemed. Because I was thinking so hard, I hadn't paid any attention to my surroundings. I turned and walked back to the fire ring. I set up our tent about fifty yards away and gathered wood for the fire. Cody, as usual, was picking up little sticks which he brought up and dropped. I didn't have the heart to tell him by the time he got through slobbering all over them, they wouldn't burn anyway. He was a creature of habit and had always done this. My girls had always encouraged him, and he seemed to love the attention.
When I finally got the fire started, I put the coffee pot on to heat the water for our supper and tea. I was almost exhausted, and stopping here made me realize I probably wouldn’t be able to go on if I had more than a couple of days to hike. I thought to myself I was glad tomorrow was the last day, because I was tired clear to my bones. Cody seemed to feel the same way, because he had his head in my lap. To my surprise, he seemed to be sleeping. I reached behind me and pulled out one of the steak meals I had brought. I knew the steak tasted like cardboard, but Cody loved it. However, he hated the mixed vegetables that came with it. It took me three seasons of camping to realize he buried them when I wasn't looking. I still got a chuckle out of the look on his face when I had finally caught him doing it. If a dog could be embarrassed, then Cody was. He just hung his head when I caught him. I busted out laughing at him, and he seemed to take that as the ok to finish burying the wrapper with the vegetables still inside. When he came back to the fire, he looked like he was proud because I hadn't scolded him for wasting food, like I would usually do if he didn't eat something. That was the last time I ever bought that particular freeze dried meal, and Cody had always seemed grateful. I got it open and poured the water in to let it steep. Cody, as usual, crawled up to where he could sniff it and he immediately looked at me in shock, so it seemed. He dropped his head with a loud oomph and didn't move again.
"Don't worry, ol’ fella, I will eat the veggies, and you can have the steaks. This time you won't even have to bury the wrapper."
He looked up at me and I swear it seemed like he had one of the doggie smiles, as the girls always called them. I just shook my head, thinking I was losing it for a minute, and that it must have been a trick of the light. I gave him a double handful of dog food and it was gone before I could reach the hot water to pour some more into the pack. The meat seemed to soak up the hot water like a sponge for some strange reason, and to me, it tasted like one too. Cody just loved them, and would chew each one up in small pieces, taking his time eating it like he was savoring the taste. I remembered one time when he was a pup I had given him his, and put Tabasco sauce on mine. Later, he had begged a piece of mine, and I had forgotten about the hot sauce. I caught hell from Cody when he dropped it back in my plate, refusing to eat it. The rest of the night he kept giving me dirty looks until I finally loudly apologized to him. When I was through, he looked at me and just went to the tent, waiting for me to unzip it to let him in. The next morning I let him out ahead of me. When I got in the pack for a breakfast meal, the hot sauce bottle was gone. I looked all over but I never did find it. Cody had struck again, and I never brought hot sauce camping again either. To this day I still hadn't figured out how he connected the little bottle with the steak, but I learned a lesson about camping with Cody. If he doesn’t like it, don't bring it.
That made me remember the time we had all been camping at one of the local parks, and Ellen my oldest kept teasing her sister. Finally Mary got tired of it and told her if she didn't quit, she was going to paddle her with the hair brush. Now let me clarify something here; Mary's idea of paddling was all fakery and the girls knew it. The only real paddling that was ever done was by me, at their mother’s insistence, and it hurt me more than them. On this particular night, Mary grabbed Ellen, who immediately started acting like she was being killed in between giggles, and turned her over her knee. Mary grabbed the hair brush and raised it over her head like she was going to paddle Ellen. I don't know where Cody was at, but he jumped in the air and grabbed the brush out of Mary's hand in the blink of an eye. The girls started laughing at the look on Mary's face, and she got up and walked toward Cody to get the brush back. He immediately started snarling and I knew from the sound he was serious. I started to get up when he bared his teeth at her. “Cody!” I yelled, “Bad Dog!” And he immediately went to his haunches. Mary just stopped and looked at me, then at Cody, and sat down in front of him. For the first time since I had owned him, this was the first time I had ever seen him act this way, in full protection attitude. Mary crossed her legs and told me this was between her and Cody, and for me not to interfere. The girls were looking worried because of my tone of voice, and they both came and sat down next to me, watching Cody and their mother. Although they were within thirty feet of the camp fire, I couldn't hear a word of what she was saying, other than the murmur of her voice. I was watching Cody closely to make sure he didn't attack her or anything like that. If he did, I knew then and there I would have him put down. I was of the old school that believed if a family pet attacked another family member, then he would do it again and it would be easier the second time. I wasn't about to let it happen, no matter how much we loved Cody.
I had raised him from a pup using only love and my voice to train him. He was part of my family, but he needed to learn that he couldn't bite or hurt a member of our family. He had always been a gentle dog, and the girls loved him almost as much as Mary and I did. The girls had been raised with him from the time they were born, but Mary had always been his favorite in the family ‘till the girls got old enough to realize that their four legged friend could mean hours of fun. From that point on, you couldn't separate the three of them. I don't know what Mary was saying, but in about five minutes Cody crawled up to her, whining plaintively as he put his head in her lap. She hugged him and kissed him on the nose, which he enthusiastically returned twice over. She pointed to the brush and he brought it to her, crawling again and dropping it in her lap. She picked it up and broke the handle off it and tossed it into the fire right in front of Cody. Ellen started squalling that it was her favorite brush, but her mom looked her in the eye and said in a quiet voice; "Is the brush more important than Cody's feelings? The brush can be replaced, but his hurt feelings can't, so I don't want to hear about that brush again."
Ellen shut up immediately, I think a little startled by the seriousness of her mother’s voice. Cody, although he played with the girls as usual, didn't stray far from Mary's side the rest of the trip. I asked Mary the next morning about what she said to Cody, because I couldn't hear what she was saying. I was kissed and told it was between her and Cody, and not for anyone else’s ears but theirs. I told her my thoughts about the way he acted, and she looked at me in a shocked way before she blew up all over me.
"Jeremy Ritter, he was doing what you taught him to do since the girls were born. He was protecting them from what he perceived as a threat. If I ever hear you say something like that again, you can sleep in the barn until you apologize to Cody, and me. That will never happen as long as I am living in the same house with you."
Well, that night Cody slept in the tent with Mary, and I was begrudged a place out by the fire with my sleeping bag. I swear to this day that when I looked over at my tent, Cody was looking out at me with a big doggy grin on his face. To top the whole thing off, it rained the next morning. I almost froze before I could get the heater running in the Jeep.
I couldn't believe all the memories that were coming back to me as Cody and I sat by the fire. We went to bed, and on this night, the dreams about Mary and the girls were even more vivid. I could see them all together in a large meadow, beckoning for me to come to them. Cody was running back and forth between the girls, barking and fetching small sticks that he was dropping in a pile by the fire pit. It was so vivid and real, I could feel myself reaching out to them, trying to gather them up in my arms. That's when I woke up in a cold sweat with Cody licking my face and whining. The pain was tearing across my innards like a sharp knife and I was shaking like a leaf. I looked at my watch and it was just before four in the morning. I knew I wouldn't be able to go back to sleep and I was also afraid of the dreams I was having. I sat and thought about the dream that had awakened me, and realized it was so real I could still see every bit of it in my mind. That's when it hit me, I couldn't feel my legs and I almost panicked. I started rubbing them like the doctor had told me to, and even though it felt like they were asleep, I was finally able to move them. I pulled the pack behind me and sat against it, stroking Cody's head.
"Well, old fella, it's almost over for me, I think. I just hope I have enough strength to make it to the end of our journey. If what the doc told me is right, I am in the last stages before my body starts shutting itself down. God, I miss Mary and the kids. Cody, do dogs think about where they're going after they die?"
He just whined as I stroked his head. He rose up and looked at me in a funny manner. It was almost like he was trying to get something across to me through his eyes.
"Don't worry, old fella, where I go, you will be leading the way regardless of which trail we take. I know I could have left you with Sid, but I just sensed you would follow me anyway. This is our journey to take, and we will do it together like we always have. I wish you could talk, ‘cause there are a lot of questions I would love to ask you, old friend. Cody, I know we have met a lot of people over the years, but now I realize neither one of us were ever close to anyone other than Mary and the girls. Say, do you remember that time Rebecca decided to jump in the pond and swim with you? Let’s see, I think she was about four at the time. You had to drag her out because she didn't know how to swim. That one almost scared me to death. Remember how much fun you had when I was teaching them how to swim? You kept jumping off the dock on top of me, and the girls were laughing their heads off ‘cause I was yelling at you the whole time I was drinking half the pond. Yeah, those were the good days, weren't they?"
He looked up at me with one of those looks like he completely understood what I was saying. Since it was breaking daylight, I let us out of the tent and got it packed and ready to go. This would be the last time I would need it. Deep down, somehow, I knew that today would be the last day I would set up a camp for us. I got the fire going and fixed our tea, and I fed Cody an extra large helping of his food. We sat and watched the sun rise with our tea, and I realized just how beautiful nature was and how much of it I had overlooked over the years, even though I had lived out in it over half my life. Cody seemed to be watching the sun come up as intently as I was. I smiled at him when he looked up at me as he realized I was watching him. I put the fire out and looked around at the little clearing, knowing we wouldn't be back this way.
We were going along good when my legs gave out on me again. It really frightened me this time, because if I couldn't make it to Bald Knob, then all my plans were for nothing. I had the little radio, but I knew the smoke tower wouldn't hear it unless I was on the top of the knob. Sid had made arrangements to work this week, as it was part of the plan we had made. If I didn't contact him, he would be worried sick that I hadn't made it. He would have a search party out first thing, and all the plans I had made for the privacy I wanted would be for naught. I wanted to die on my own terms, and not have it written up in headlines. I didn’t want them making me look like some kind of greenhorn; getting lost because I had gone out with a fatal disease and had gotten lost. I knew whether I made it or not, I would never get lost, and neither would Cody, but the newspapers wouldn't see it that way. I was finally able to move my legs again, and Cody was having a fit because I wasn't getting up right away. He kept nudging me with his head, encouraging me to get up and move. I was finally able to get moving again and this time I set a fast pace, so I would cover more ground in case it happened again. Cody refused to leave my side and kept looking up at me as we walked. He kept watching and seemed to whine every time he thought I was slowing down. I wondered if he knew what was happening and was trying in his own way to make sure I made it. For some reason, it made perfect sense to me, and I wondered if maybe I was starting to lose my mind like the doctor had said I would in the end. I quit thinking about that and put my whole concentration on climbing the ridge in front of us. When we got to the top, I knew we would be almost to our destination. We still had almost three hours of daylight by my reckoning. When we got to the top of the ridge looking down on the small meadow by the drop off, I let out a sigh of relief upon seeing that there were no other campers there. I stopped to rest, realizing that I was having a hard time breathing, and my head was thumping in time with my heartbeat.
When I looked out across the meadow again, my vision was a little blurred. That was when I realized I had tears running down my cheeks. I reached up and swiped my hand across my cheek. I looked at the wetness on the back of my hand, wondering why I was crying all of a sudden. Cody was up next to me, and it felt like he was shivering for some reason. I wrapped my arm around him and hugged him, and he was licking the tears off my face.
"Well, old friend, we made it. As soon as I rest a little, we will go down to the old oak tree and have a last cup of tea together. I'll call Sid and let him know we're here, so he won't worry about us. You know, for some reason I think we were fated to go out this way. We both are old and we both lost everything we ever loved, besides each other that is. I don't know about you, but to be able to look out across the valley with the sun setting in the distance seems almost perfect. Well, let’s go and get our tea, and spend an hour or so enjoying each other’s company."
I got up, and to my surprise, I was able go down the trail with a spring in my step, even though I was still having problems breathing as I walked. Cody kept watching me the whole way down to the old oak tree. It was on the edge of the drop off to the valley about 5,000 feet below us, and he kept himself between me and the edge the whole time I was gathering wood. I just smiled to myself, wondering if he thought I was going to fall over the edge or something. Since there wasn't a fire ring, I gathered a few rocks and made a small one. I put it right next to the old lightning struck oak, in easy reach so I wouldn't have to get up again. I knew that once I sat down this time, I wouldn't have the strength to get up. Cody seemed to sense it too, because he kept crowding up against me as I got everything set up within easy reach. I got in the pack, got the coffee pot and tea out, and dug around some more, finally finding our cups. It seemed like I was having a hard time controlling my motions, and everything I was doing seemed harder, for some reason. I decided I would contact Sid before we had our tea, and got out the little radio I had brought with me. It was short range, but should be able to reach the smoke tower from here, since it was below us and halfway up the side of the peak of the valley.
"Turkey Creek smoke tower, do you copy, over?"
I just started to repeat when Sid answered; "This is Turkey Creek, is that you Rit, over?"
"Sure is Sid, they keepin’ you busy down there, over?"
"Naw, Rit, it's like it always is during a wet season. You at your favorite spot?"
"Yep, we made it, but the trails this year were a little tougher than I remember. Cody is almost as tired as I am."
"Yeah, well, you’re both a little old to be running up and down those trails again."
This was part of the code we had set up ahead of time, in case someone was monitoring the channel. But with it being a wet season, I doubted if anyone was listening, because they only had a skeleton crew on duty. We still didn't want to let them know what was going on though, so we hashed out what we would say ahead of time. The next part of the conversation was a surprise, and a pleasant one.
"Hey, Rit, someone here wants to say ‘Hi’ to you, over."
"Ok, Sid, put them through but make it quick, cause the batteries in this thing are almost gone."
A female’s voice came through the speaker and it surprised me, and even Cody raised his head cocking it to the side when he heard the familiar voice.
"Hey Rit, you make sure you say hi to Mary and the girls for me. I am sure they will be glad to see you and Cody again."
"Roger that, Turkey Creek, Rit out."
"You be good, my friend, and we will see you in the morning. Sid out."
This wasn't part of what we had set up, but hearing my wife's best friend made me feel better somehow about what I was doing. For Jane to come to the tower and climb it, was a great honor, because I knew she was scared to death of the height and had always refused to climb it. Mary had done it once when we were first married, and after it started swaying in the wind, she would never climb back up again. She said that she thought Sid and I were both mentally deranged to be up in that thing for so long and I had laughed about it for a week. Sid had tried hundreds of times to get Jane to come up, but she said she would stay on the ground since Mary had already told her about it. I poured the tea for me and Cody, and he crawled up as close to me as he could without climbing in my lap. I put the radio in my pack, and got the syringe out, setting it by my leg. This was the extra one the Vet had given me last month when I had to put the old mule down. He broke his leg, trying to play with Cody like he had done all his life.
I sat sipping my tea, watching Cody sip his, trying to mimic me which caused me to smile. When I sipped, he would slurp a little bit, watching me the whole time. It made me think about his actions when the mule had broken his leg. He had come running up to the back door howling his head off trying to get my attention. When I had opened the door, he grabbed my hand and started pulling me almost immediately. I was so startled, I had sharply pulled my hand out of his mouth. His teeth cut it and started it bleeding. I started to yell at him, but he was almost out of control with his howling and whining. I followed him, and when we went around the corner of the house, we found the old mule was standing next to the gate on three legs, chuffing and trying to bray. It was then I saw the bone sticking through his front leg, and had a sickening feeling way down in my gut. Cody was running back and forth between him and me as I ran up to the gate. When I got close enough to see his leg plainly, I knew immediately what I was going to have to do. I felt sick inside, thinking about the unfairness of it all. I got Cody calmed down a little and went back to the house to call the Vet to have him come out. He was in the middle of some kind of surgery and couldn't leave, so he told me by speaker phone what to do, and said he would send one of the interns out with two syringes. He said if it didn't work within fifteen minutes, then I was to inject the second one. The intern was there within ten minutes and handed me both syringes from his truck window. I had begged him to do it, but he refused saying he couldn't kill an animal for any reason. Hell, I didn't want to do it, so I couldn't blame him. He drove off, wishing me good luck saying it was a very powerful drug, and that one syringe should do it. I finally got up the nerve when I walked back up to the gate. I saw how much pain was in the mule’s eyes when he looked at me. I went up to him and he put his head against my chest, like he was asking me to stop the pain. My heart was breaking as I injected him with the contents of the syringe. In a few minutes, when he started to wobble a little, I moved my weight against him and helped him to go down on his unhurt side, so he didn't have any pain from hitting the broken leg. I don't know how long I sat there crying with his head in my lap. I finally realized he wasn't breathing when Cody whined. He was across from me with his head lying on the mule’s neck. I wiggled my way out from under him and went to the barn to put the back hoe attachment on the tractor. I dug the hole, right where he fell, and we buried him by the back gate. I went to the house after saying good bye to him again, but Cody slept on top of his grave that night, I think. When I got up the next morning, that's where he was lying. I watched the sun come up outlining his shape, looking toward me in the kitchen window.
This made me think about the first time I had laid eyes on that ugly mule. Cody had awakened me, barking his head off at the back of the house, after I had let him out one morning. I had sat down in the chair and fallen back asleep after letting him out. I looked out the back window, and there was this scarred and ugly old mule in the pasture. He and Cody were running back and forth along the fence, with Cody barking and the old mule running on the opposite side, kicking up his heels like he was having a ball. I was trying to figure out who he belonged to and where he had come from, when Cody ducked under the rail of the fence and was inside with him. My heart almost stopped when the mule started chasing him across the pasture. I was out the back door in a flash, headed for the gate to call Cody back, when they both stopped dead still facing each other right in front of me. Cody moved to the side and that mule mimicked his move. They did this for about five minutes and it was then I realized they were playing, and both of them were having a ball. When I walked up to the gate, Cody came to me and sat down by my side, panting with a satisfied look on his face. The old mule came over to me, put his head across the gate and nudged me. I automatically started scratching him behind the ears when he did, and I watched in wonder while his eyes closed in pleasure. I heard the sound of a truck in front of the house, and the old mule laid his ears back and pulled away from me. His ears were still flat against his head when a stranger came around the side of the house.
"Well, I see he's up to his old tricks again. He broke out of his pen again this morning and almost killed my dog when it tried to keep him from leaving. Is it ok if I leave him here, until I can get my trailer to haul him to the glue factory in Brewster? Mister, I suggest you keep your dog away from him, ‘cause he is as mean as they get. He used to belong to my neighbor, but he kept running off. The neighbor gave him to me, but all he does is bite and kick everything that gets near him. I am tired of fixing up his pen and feeding him. I can get seventy five dollars for him in Brewster, so it will help me recover some of what it's cost me these last few months."
I just looked at him in shock, because what he said was the complete opposite of what I had observed this last fifteen minutes or so. That's when both girls came running out of the house and right past me into the pasture, going directly for the mule. The farmer pulled a pistol out and I grabbed his arm, afraid he would shoot one of the girls. I quickly had possession of it, with Cody growling at him.
"Mister, that mule is gonna hurt one of those kids!"
I turned and what I saw made me almost smile, I had been a little alarmed about the girls’ safety. They were on either side of that old mule. He had his head down and both of the girls were rubbing his neck and scratching behind his ears. He stood completely still, so they rubbed him all over. Even when Ellen rubbed one of the open sores on his chest, he didn't flinch or try to move.
"Tell you what, if you write me out a bill of sale right now, I will give you a hundred and fifty for him. That's double what you would get in Brewster, and you won't have to haul him there."
"Mister, I think you're a damned fool, but you got a deal."
We walked to the kitchen, and I unloaded his gun, handing it back to him as we walked. The girls followed us, and the mule was following right behind them, with Cody bringing up the rear. Besides Cody, that was the best animal I ever owned, and he was as gentle with the girls as Cody was. He used to swim in the pond with the girls on his back; they had a ball with him and Cody.
I realized it was getting dark and put some more wood on the fire. I couldn't feel my legs again, and I was having a hard time drawing air into my lungs. I could feel my heart skipping a beat, every other breath or so, and I knew my time was close. I called Cody over to me, and he laid his head in my lap, seeming to immediately go to sleep. When I slipped the needle in his neck, he didn't even flinch, and I realized he had already passed. I didn't finish the injection, but threw the needle over the cliff in front of us. I sat for a few minutes, and realized I couldn't move my left arm. I could feel my heart slowing as I slowly stroked Cody's head, my eyes blurred with tears. I looked out across the mist shrouded valley, and watched in wonder as the mists parted, and Mary and the girls were in front of me. Cody was sitting next to Rebecca, with her hand on his head. They were all smiling at me, as if waiting for me to say something. I felt my heart stop beating and blinked my eyes. As I felt my last gasp leave my lungs, I heard Mary say; "Welcome home, love."
Note to readers: I know this didn't turn out how you thought it might, but it was written as a tribute to my mother who died of Pancreatic Cancer. I was sitting at her bedside holding her hand as she passed, and I watched as she looked into the distance and smiled at whatever she was seeing.
Many, many thanks to Bill and Gunshot for their help and editing. Thanks to all of you readers, who have stuck by me as I wrote the stories I have, and sent me so much positive feedback and helped me keep on writing. Thom