The snow began to fall as soon as the sun went down. Huge, wet flakes the size of the silver dollars that Dave remembered from childhood drifted silently down on the trees, drawing a hush over the forest. The news predicted four to six inches before morning. The way it was coming down, he thought, the weatherman had it about right. A white Christmas was a sure bet.
Though the snow would be enough to extinguish the already dying embers of his fire, Dave poured the remaining contents of his coffee pot on the flames. An acrid, smoky vapor rose up from the hissing coals. Using the shovel he had left leaning against the trailer, he stirred the embers and added a couple of shovelfuls of moist earth to cover the bottom of the circle of stones.
He turned up the collar of his coat, pulled the knit cap a little lower to cover his ears, and slipped the headlamp over his head. He followed the wide beam in a circuit around his camp, checking the trail cameras on the perimeter one more time. Assured that all was well, he bounded up the steps into the trailer. He switched on the generator and the interior was flooded with light. The whoosh of the propane heater meant it would soon be nice and warm inside.
He hung his coat on a hook by the door and looked around at the simple interior. To his left was a couch he never sat on, to the right a pair of worn reclining chairs that use had conformed to his body. Before him was a small kitchen separated from the living area by a faux granite countertop. It was only two days until Christmas. The one clue to the upcoming holiday was a wreath he had fashioned from pine boughs hung on the inside of the door. No stocking hung from the electric fireplace…no tree, no tinsel, no mistletoe. Dave did not hate Christmas or begrudge people a holiday celebration. He was simply too busy going about his day-to-day routine to pay much attention.
The trailer, a thirty-five-foot-long fifth wheel, had been his home for the last eight months while he explored the forests of the northwest corner of California. His friends thought his sojourn alone in the woods was some type of mid-life crisis. They were partially correct, it was a crisis of sorts, but it had been burning inside of him for more than twenty years. The spark that ignited the fire amounted to nothing more than a few seconds of staring at something that should not have been there. The lingering effects of what he saw had haunted him ever since that day.
Seventeen-year-old Dave Marcel had gone deer hunting with a couple of friends in the Sierras around Icehouse. His buddies, brothers Tom and Jack Martin, had taken up stands atop a hill. Dave volunteered to be the hound. He planned to circle the hill and drive the game to his waiting friends. He liked the walking. He knew the area well, knew all the landmarks, but he found something new every time he made the trip.
It was the first of the three days that they had planned to spend hunting there. They arrived and set up camp that morning, getting a later start than originally intended. Dave gave the others a fifteen-minute lead and started out slowly to allow them time to get into position. The eight-mile-long route he’d marked out in his head would take about four hours. That would give him plenty of time before the light failed. If he bagged a deer himself though, that would seriously throw the timeline into chaos. He’d likely be dragging it back in the dark. Just to be safe, he had packed his headlamp and spare batteries.
He threw the sling of the British .303 that he was carrying over his shoulder and set out a few minutes after noon. The day was overcast, gray clouds hung low on the horizon, but no rain was forecast. The temperature was a very nice sixty degrees. It was perfect for late September. Nevertheless, something was gnawing at the distant corners of his mind. His gut picked up the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. Dave’s internal ear was tuned to his gut feelings, but he still wore the earplugs of indestructible youth. He ignored the feeling and pressed on.
He’d gone only about two miles when the first reason for regret occurred. He was skirting a ten-foot-tall boulder that was twice as wide. The ground was strewn with loose debris. His foot came down on a rock, setting off a mini avalanche that dumped him on his side and sent him sliding downhill. He stopped about a dozen feet off the trail. His jeans were torn at the right knee, where an abrasion oozed for a minute. The knee felt all right.
He ignored the laughter of a squirrel high up a nearby Ponderosa pine and climbed back onto the trail. The narrow path he was on rolled out before him in a series of small swells like waves on the ocean. A short while later, he picked up some fresh tracks. The deer tracks followed the trail for about a hundred yards before turning uphill. Dave kept to the path for about another mile before veering a little farther down the slope to circle a thick stand of Douglas fir that was often used as a bedding site for deer. He skirted the trees, pushing his way through patches of fern-like growth, but he heard nothing moving away from him.
The headache was an hour in the making as he trekked on. Dave thought at first he would be all right, but the scent eventually set off a steady pounding in his temples. The Miwok called that fern, Kit-kit-dizze. To him it was plain old Mountain Misery, a potential bane of those spending time walking the forest of the Sierra. That day, the name rang truer than ever before. It probably would have passed with less notice except the throbbing in his head was joined by another in the right knee. It wasn’t as all right as he had previously thought.
Dave was three miles from camp when the sun eased down on the horizon. The clouds and tall pines were crowding out what light there was. He was beginning to worry he would not make it back before dark even though there was no real cause to worry. He knew the area, he had his headlamp, he was armed, and he had plenty of water. He also had friends who would come looking for him. Nothing to worry about…except he was worried. Uneasiness hugged him tighter than his mama ever had.
A little later, he sat on a boulder to rest his knee. He took a deep breath, let it out…it sounded too loud. He paused to listen. It was not that his breathing was too loud. The woods were too quiet. No birds chirped in the trees, no wind rustled the branches, no bugs buzzed around him. Along with recognition of the unusual quiet, the skin-crawling sensation of being watched crept over him. He tried to shake the feeling off, but it refused to go.
“Jack! Tom!” he shouted. “You there? I’m warning you, don’t mess with me. I’ll shoot you.”
A loud knock of wood on wood answered him, sending a sudden chill down his spine. His arms broke out in gooseflesh, the hair on the back of his neck came to attention. He spun around expecting to find his buddies wearing huge cheese-eating grins. He found nothing but still, silent pines and rocks.
What the hell was that? he thought.
A rock the size of a large cantaloupe bounced a yard in front of him and rolled to a stop at his feet. He no longer cared what the sound was, he was getting the hell out of there, right then. He jumped to his feet, unslung his rifle, and faced the direction from which the stone came. His hands were trembling, making it impossible to hold his weapon still.
A shadow moved in the trees, drawing his eye in time to see a massive figure covered with dark brown hair step from behind a pine about forty yards away. The thing’s face was relatively free of hair, with a protruding brow above large black eyes, a wide nose, and thick lips. A long beard began at its cheeks and wrapped itself around the thing’s face. The two stood transfixed, staring at each other for a twenty-second eternity. The creature reached above his head and snapped a limb off a young tree.
The crack of the branch was answered by the roar of Dave’s rifle. It took him a couple of seconds to realize he had pulled the trigger and a half-second longer to start to run. Adrenaline banished the pain in his knee. He was set to run a four-minute mile. About fifty or sixty yards into that mile, he chanced a glance over his shoulder to find he was not being pursued.
He met Jack and Tom about a mile from camp. They had started in his direction when they heard the shot. They were without weapons, and Dave thought it likely that they had called it a day and left them in camp. They seemed to be in no hurry.
“Hey, hotshot, where’s the deer?” Jack asked when they were still a few yards off. “We came to help you bring it to camp.”
“I think he missed.” Tom poked Jack’s shoulder. “Told ya.”
“What’s the matter with you?” Jack said. “You look like you saw a ghost.”
“I don’t know what the hell I saw,” Dave told him. “But it scared the piss out of me.”
“What did ya shoot at?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know. Let’s just get back to the campsite, okay?”
Back in camp, the boys got the fire going and dumped canned chili into a pot they balanced on a rock on the edge of the fire ring. Jack went to see if the beer was cold and returned with three cans dripping creek water. He popped the top on one, took a deep draft, and pronounced it fit for human consumption.
“So,” Tom said. “Tell us what the hell you were shooting at out there.”
“I don’t know if I can,” Dave told him.
“Well, I don’t know what it was.”
“C’mon,” Jack said. “You were looking at it, weren’t you? You had to know what it was.”
“Both of you swear you won’t laugh?” Dave said.
“Swear,” the brothers said in unison and raised their right hands.
“I think it was a Bigfoot.”
Jack and Tom burst into laughter, and Jack fell off the stump he was sitting on. Holding his sides, he rolled back and forth on the ground. Tom kept his balance while maintaining an equal volume. Dave glared at them until the laughter finally died away of its own accord.
“Some friends you are,” he said when calm resumed. “I knew better than to tell you two.”
Jack stood up.
“Hey, are you really serious about this?”
“Hell yeah, I’m serious!”
“Tell us what happened.” Tom put his elbows on his knees and leaned closer.
“I ain’t saying another thing,” Dave responded. “Not after what you guys just pulled.”
Dave held true to his word, despite the pleas of his buddies to tell them the story of what happened. Even his share of a twenty-four pack could not shake Dave loose on the subject. Later that night, his need to explain got an unexpected assist.
The moon was past its zenith when Dave was overcome by the need to pee. He and Jack found themselves at adjoining trees just outside the camp. The moon was obscured by partial cloud cover, and the glowing embers of the fire added very little light to the night. Jack’s head abruptly came up and swiveled left then right.
“You hear that?” he asked.
“Let it go, Jack,” Dave said. “You had your laugh, leave it alone.”
“No, really, something’s moving out there.” He pointed over his right shoulder. His voice dropped to a near whisper. “I’m not kidding.”
“What was it?”
“Sounded like someone stepped on a twig. Listen.”
Dave zipped his jeans and walked over to Jack’s side. He cocked his ear in the direction Jack pointed, but he heard nothing. He was about to suggest they get back to the fire when a large stick of some kind struck a tree trunk up ahead.
“What are you guys doing out there?” Tom said from beside the fire.
“Shut up,” Jack called back and pointed to the trees.
Tom was on his feet and hopping around trying to get his boots on when Jack and Dave got back into camp.
“Let’s get that fire built up,” Jack said.
From deep in the woods came a savage, undulating scream that froze the boys in their tracks. They stared at each other, eyes wide. The scream was answered by a rapid series of knocks that came from the same place as the first blow.
“Forget the fire!” Jack shouted. “Let’s get the hell out of here!”
Tom grabbed his rifle. Tents that took minutes to put up came down in seconds; gear was thrown haphazardly into the bed of the truck while Tom stood guard. With the fire extinguished, they piled into the truck and raced away. Though none of them talked about the experience, neither did they ever return together to their favorite deer hunting spot.
Dave pulled the lever that brought the footrest on the chair up to recline. The trauma of the experience had faded only slightly since that day. He finally ventured back to the old hunting grounds years later and came up empty on two separate occasions. However, his belief in an upright, hair-covered, human-like creature roaming the forests remained strong. Bigfoot, Sasquatch, skunk-ape, Momo, Tree Man, and a dozen more English names besides the native titles… Whatever it was, Dave Marcel meant to meet it one more time. Now, that encounter would be a Christmas gift worth receiving.
He nursed the beer in his hand until sleep pressed in on him, and he felt himself sliding into that twilight state between wakefulness and slumber. His head snapped up from a nod that had nearly carried him to dreamland. Dropping the empty bottle in the trash, he shambled off to the bedroom and undressed.
His ex-wife had always told him that she envied his ability to fall asleep so quickly. His eyes closed as his head hit the pillow, and he sunk down into sleep. His dreams were not far behind.
Though they weren’t exactly visions of sugar plums, the season played in his dreams anyway. Visions of Christmases past were woven into a tapestry mixing ages, places, and gifts, recalled only vaguely except for a single scene.
He was seven years old. His every Christmas hope was bound up in one request. He wanted a puppy, and though he had pleaded with his parents to no avail, he knew Santa Claus would come through for him. But when he awoke that Christmas morning, there was no Christmas puppy and never would be. His mother said she was allergic to dogs. Although she did well around the dogs that his aunts and uncles possessed, his parents were adamant about their no-dog decision.
For a young boy, it was a big deal at the time. Dave had not really thought about it since becoming an adult. Frequent moves in the military kept him without a dog in his home. He resigned himself to the fact it wasn’t meant to be and enjoyed the dogs that belonged to friends and family. He had certainly never dreamt about it before, at least, not that he could remember.
While waiting for the coffee to brew the next morning, Dave peeked out his door to get a look at the new day. The weather forecasters had not missed by much. Their guess of six inches fell short. An undisturbed blanket of white covered the ground outside his door. The limbs of the trees sagged beneath the weight of the snow that clung to them. The clouds were gone and the air smelled crisp and clean. The bright sunlight filtered through the pines in golden bands.
He pulled his head back inside and poured coffee into an insulated mug to take along on his morning walk. The bacon had just begun to sizzle in the pan to challenge the scent of coffee for dominance. Toast popped as he was turning the bacon, and he then added an egg to the pan. He pulled on his cap and stuffed his arms into his coat, finishing just in time to scoop the contents of the pan onto a piece of toast. He jammed the second piece of toast atop the first. Then he headed out the door with sandwich and coffee in hand.
It seemed a shame to traipse across the pristine snow. Real beauty happens in fleeting moments, too soon intruded upon by duty, desire, and destiny. There were trail cameras to be checked, ground to be searched for tracks, and audio which called for a listener. He was close this time, he could feel it.
There was activity in the area. He had found odd structures, each constructed of young trees plucked up by the roots and limbs snapped from trunks at unlikely heights. These were wedged into canopies between mature pines. Nature didn’t do that on her own. Though he had yet to see footprints or capture calls on audio, he thought it only a matter of time.
In addition to the six cameras set in a ring about thirty yards from his camp, Dave had four on the perimeter of a dumpsite located about half a mile to the southwest. The site was illegal, but well-used by those with no regard for the beauty that surrounded them…or for the law.
None of the cameras near the trailer had triggered. He checked the batteries and made sure they were working before setting off for the dump. The snow slowed him down a little but slogging through it was a good workout. Winter weather found him a bit more sedentary than normal. He had snowshoes for when the snow got deeper, but for now, he decided to just push through without them.
As he trudged along, his mind wandered back to the dream of the night before. Had the experience been the death of Santa Claus for him? He supposed it was. He didn’t remember writing letters to Santa after that, except as school required it. He thought it strange that it had also somehow become the death of his hopes for a dog. His parents’ lives had silently, but surely, morphed into his own. But why? In so many areas of life, he had thrown off the expectations of others to claim his own direction. Why had this one thing gone without mending? It didn’t need to be that way, not anymore.
He was still pondering the subject when he reached the first station. The camera had triggered twice. He swapped the SIM cards, sprayed scent eliminator on the device, and moved on. The next two cameras had captured nothing, but the last showed it had activated nine times.
“Merry Christmas to me,” he said, and he changed out the cards.
Curiosity pushed the entire dog-or-not-to-dog debate from his mind. He knew better than to expect much from the cams. Game was abundant in the area. The dump grounds attracted more than its fair share of bears. Anything could trip the camera. But wasn’t that the point? He might capture anything, and that’s what he was looking for…an odd anything…something that didn’t belong.
The trip back went quickly. His excitement at the volume of results pushed him at a better than usual pace. He was breathing hard, blowing long plumes of warm breath into the chilly air when he arrived back in camp.
His fingers trembled slightly as he pulled the SIM cards from his pocket. One of them hit the floor, skittered over the linoleum, and came to rest halfway under the kitchen’s small oven. Dave dropped to his knees and gingerly reached for the card. He willed his hands to remain steady lest a twitch send the piece of plastic under the stove. He managed to work the card to the middle of the floor with a finger before picking it up, and then he made his way over to his computer workstation.
He slipped a SIM card into the reader and waited. The list of pictures popped up on the screen, and he clicked on the first one on the list.
“Oh, you got to be kidding me.” He quickly clicked on the next photo. “Damn it!”
The photos showed nothing but white…not snow, just a blank white image. He’d heard of this happening to a couple of researchers out in Colorado. They weren’t able to figure out what happened to their photos, and he had no clue either. The two shots from the other camera were of deer, one a nice buck. Disgusted with his luck, he turned off the computer and dropped down in his chair.
By noon, coffee and Dave’s inner determination had washed away the stains of disappointment at the morning’s lack of results. He had always known that trail cams were not effective; the creatures were curious about the foreign objects but tended to avoid them. Nevertheless, he’d felt compelled to try them.
He was running low on supplies and it was Christmas Eve, so he decided to make a trip into town where he had been promised a special dinner. Most of the snow had melted into a thick slush over the course of the day. The truck bounced over the pot-holed road down into the town of Fortuna, some five-plus miles away, covering the distance in about twenty minutes…not bad time. He found a grocery store still open. The slim pickings and a desire for simplicity won the day. Dave came away with a couple of Marie Callender’s turkey pot pies, a can of cranberry sauce, and a box of Twinkies. Christmas dinner in nine microwavable minutes.
His next stop was Maggie’s Diner out on Highway 101. The owner’s real name was Sally Simmons. According to Sally, she always had an insane crush on Rod Stewart and hence the name. Sally was all of five-foot-three-inches tall in high heels. Dave took her word for it since he had never seen her wear anything but worn-out sneakers.
Because he had been advertising the diner on his blog, she promised a Christmas Eve special made just for him. He had come to collect. She waved as he walked through the door.
“Okay, Bubba, he’s here,” she called through the window to the kitchen.
Dave headed for an empty stool at the counter in front of Sally. A couple of grizzled old-timers occupied a booth in the corner, but otherwise, the place was empty.
“Merry Christmas,” she said as he settled in.
“And a Merry Christmas to you too,” Dave said. “I see the joint is jumping.”
“You know it. Last Christmas Eve it was only Chet”—she nodded toward him—“and his buddy over there.”
He glanced over his shoulder. In the corner booth sat a pair of retired army types in Vietnam vet hats with orange hunting vests worn over khaki coveralls. The one Sally identified as Chet could, at this time of year, have been easily mistaken for Santa Claus. Chet’s long, white hair hung about his broad shoulders and a bushy, full beard of the same color brushed the middle of his chest as he talked. His belly was obscured by the table, but there was no doubting its existence.
His companion would never be mistaken for an elf. He was at least six-foot-four and all of three hundred pounds. His face was clean-shaven, but a dark shadow of stubble clung to his wide jaw. His high cheeks and umber skin said Native American descent, maybe a generation removed from pure blood. His face remained expressionless, though the conversation at the table was animated. However, even from a distance, Dave could see the light dancing in his dark eyes.
“They’re here every day?” Dave hooked a thumb in the pair’s direction.
“If they weren’t, I’d send out a search party,” Sally said with a laugh.
Bubba emerged from the kitchen carrying his masterpiece and set it before Dave. The monster sandwich sat in the middle of a porcelain platter surrounded by a mountain of French fries on one side and toppings on the other. Dave’s mouth began to water at the sight of two hand-made patties that had to weigh a half-pound each. Between them sat a half-dozen strips of bacon and grilled onions, deep in a layer of melted cheese. Atop the second patty lay another six strips of bacon under a layer of jalapenos.
“Merry Christmas!” Sally said with delight. “Dig in.”
“I’ve got a big mouth,” Dave said with a chuckle. “But, I’ll never get my mouth around that.”
“Maybe, I’ll just take it…” Bubba reached for the plate.
“Don’t you dare,” Dave told him.
“You’ll be ready for hibernation after eating that thing,” Sally said.
Dave dug into the massive burger with enthusiasm, pausing only to wipe juices and mustard from his face or to moan with ecstasy.
“By the way,” Sally said. “I got an email today from some guy in Vancouver, Washington who reads your blog asking about the burgers here. You’re making me famous.”
Dave waved the words off with a smile. “I only tell the truth.”
“Yeah, well, I appreciate it.” Sally suddenly looked up at the commotion beginning in the corner. “Hey, Chet! Walt! You two calm down over there.”
“No worries, Sally,” Chet said. “Just trying to set this big lug straight.”
“Like he knows jack,” Walt shot back. “He says Squatch has moved and is hanging around the headwaters reserve. What a load!”
Dave put down his burger. He slowly wiped his lips and turned around on his stool to face the men in the booth.
They had exchanged pleasantries in the diner now and again, but never really talked about much of anything. Dave was guarded with his peculiar beliefs as far as Sasquatch was concerned. He had never heard the men or Sally express an opinion either way and knew that hunters were especially skeptical about Bigfoot’s existence. He generally took silence on the subject as evidence of unbelief. This was new ground, and the prospect of news would be as good as Sally’s burger.
“You boys know something about Sasquatch?” he asked tentatively.
“Been chasing him around these mountains for years,” Chet said.
“That so? You mind if I join you over there?”
“Come ahead,” Walt said with a wave of his big hand.
Dave pulled a chair over from a nearby table; there was no stuffing any more humanity into the booth. He then went back to retrieve his dinner.
Walt eyed the huge burger on Dave’s plate and shot a look Sally’s way.
“How come you never make us one of those?”
“Because you don’t advertise for me,” she called back.
“Say, ain’t you the fella camped out there in the boonies by the reserve?” Chet asked.
“Yeah, I’m about a half-mile back of the ridge above the dumping grounds. I’ve been doing a little chasing after him myself.”
The faces of his companions lit up. Hands came out to shake his and formal introductions followed.
“You boys want a beer?” Dave asked.
“Does Squatch go in the woods?” Walt replied. “Sally, this man’s gonna buy us a beer!”
“He should know better than to feed the animals,” Sally shot back.
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t,” Chet said. “So hurry before he catches on.”
Coffee cups were brushed aside to make room for the three bottles of ice-cold beer Sally was carrying their way. When they arrived, Dave took a deep breath and looked over his new companions.
Jackpot! he thought as he let the breath go.
“So,” Dave said to Chet. “Tell me why you think a Sasquatch is active near the reserve.”
Dave left the diner two hours later, older if no wiser. Chet and Walt had not had an encounter with a Sasquatch in two years, with the exception of a couple of sixteen-inch tracks found last month. This drought was not from lack of trying. Though he refused to take sides in their on-going argument about the current best place to search, he liked Walt’s reasoning that activity was moving away from the Headwaters Forest Reserve, not towards it as Chet believed.
The reserve is a very limited-access area of old-growth redwood forest surrounding the headwaters of the Little South Fork Elk River and Salmon Creek. It is isolated from human traffic, but with the coming snow, food and forage might be better along the Eel River farther south. Dave’s camp was outside the reserve near Felt Springs, which was between the reserve and the river.
He was almost home when he was blinded by oncoming high beams. A battered, rust-and-primer colored F150 came bearing down on him out of the light. Dave steered right, his passenger side dropping off the road in an attempt to keep from being hit head-on. He saved his life, but he lost his driver’s side mirror and some paint along the side panel of the truck bed.
He eased back onto the road, trembling uncontrollably and venting an emphatic stream of shouted profanities. He brought his pickup to a stop and waited for his heart to beat normally again. The adrenaline receded slowly and was replaced by a burning desire to get the manic who sideswiped him.
Five minutes later, he was back at home. The night was clear and still. An early waxing moon sat just atop the pines, its light magnified by the few remaining drifts. He climbed the steps, and as he reached for the door, a faint sound caught his ear. He backed down the steps, set his bags on the hood of his truck, grabbed the flashlight he kept on the passenger seat, and walked in the direction of the sound.
He had gone about fifty yards into the trees when the noise became clear enough to really discern. It was a howl. Definitely not a coyote. Wolf maybe, except there were no wolves in northern California.
“Must be a dog,” he mumbled. “No. Not out here. Can’t be. Or can it?”
He hastened toward the cry.
The howling grew in volume as he worked his way through the woods following the beam of his flashlight. Before he arrived, he knew he was going to end up at the dumping ground.
The scenario was one he knew well. Some heartless soul masquerading as a human being had dumped their dog amid the discarded appliances, rotting bags of trash, and household litter, like so much other garbage. He also had a pretty good idea the culprit was the same guy that ran him off the road.
The illegal dump was an oval-shaped clearing at the base of a steep slope where long ago the ground gave way. The drop from Dave’s side of the dump was only about ten or twelve feet, but the ground was loose and the footing could be treacherous. When he reached the edge, he saw the dog.
It stopped howling and bounded up the embankment to him. Tail wagging furiously, it pulled up a foot or two away and sat. He held out a hand to the dog, and after a quick sniff and a pat on the head, it began bouncing happily around him and licking his hand.
“Hey, pretty girl,” he said in that sing-song voice reserved for pets and babies.
The pleasant tone of voice was a million miles away from his thoughts. At the moment he desperately wished he could get his hands around the throat of the human garbage that dumped this trusting soul in the middle of the woods. The dog was a little thing, maybe thirty pounds at most. She had a silver face from which shined the happiest brown eyes he had ever seen. She seemed to wear a perpetual smile. Her face was wreathed in black fur that extended the length of her back and tail and gradually gave way to a silver belly and legs. Her ears drooped in the middle and bounced merrily with her every step.
The dog drank in his attention for a moment or two and then broke off to scamper back down the hill. She returned to the spot where he had first seen her, looked up at him, and began to bark. It was then he noticed the box and heard the first whimpers from inside it. The picture was complete…and heartrending. She had puppies.
Dave picked his way down the slope and waded through the trash at the bottom to where she stood. There was no mistaking the crying babies from that distance. He bent to the box and cursed afresh. It was a heavy-duty lettuce shipping box and the thing was taped closed. It was meant to be their coffin. The mother had chewed away part of a corner and somehow managed to wriggle out, but she would not be able to get back inside on her own.
He pulled the knife from the sheath on his hip and slit the tape along the center of the box. Nine tiny creatures no larger than the palm of his hand huddled blindly together on a ragged towel.
There was no debate or question about what had to be done. He scooped up the box, balancing it on his forearms, and started for home. As he negotiated the trash field, his eyes were drawn to the bank he would have to try and climb with his hands full. It was not going to be easy. There was a thin, switchback deer track that wound its way to the top. It was his best bet, but his feet were too wide for it to be a sure thing. Still, he thought if he could make it halfway up, he could lift the box to the top and climb the rest of the way without much trouble.
Moving slowly, fighting for balance as he went, he made it far enough up to try to push the box over the top and rest the leading edge on the rim of the bank. He dug his shoes into the slope, making his base as sure as possible and lifted the box. His arms fully extended over his head, he pushed the end of the box onto the lip of the embankment. As he did the puppies shifted, the box slid sideways in his hands. He over-balanced and was forced back against empty air. The dog behind him yelped like she was hit by a bullet, broke, and ran.
Suddenly, the weight of the box was gone. It rose under its own power. His eyes grew wide as he watched it disappear over the edge. The box was replaced by a face. Staring down at him was the face from his youth. Heavy brow, dark eyes, wide nose, and thick lips looked down on him. Then, the world suddenly telescoped away with dizzying speed as the creature pushed itself to its full height.
The surface gave way under his feet and he somersaulted backward. Dave was falling. His boots arched skyward. His shoulders hit the ground first, taking most of the blow. His head followed with a loud thud and a burst of white light behind the eyes. As he tumbled, his feet flew overhead. They hit the slope, spring boarding him into the air. His head led the way back down, and the lights went out.
When he came to, he was floating on a sea of black plastic trash bags that smelled of rotten fruit. He was covered in a thin, dripping coat of things he did not want to think about. He planted his hands to lever himself up. The left one landed in something soft that oozed between his fingers. He shook off the disgusting slop and tried again. His head rebelled for a few seconds at being held upright again, but he was soon able to stand once more. A few feet away, the flashlight was shining up at the stars. He retrieved the light and cautiously scrambled back up the bank.
He looked back down the slope. The dog was nowhere to be seen. The puppies had vanished, box and all. He wasn’t sure what that meant. All the stories he heard said dogs cowered and ran from Sasquatch. There was nothing about puppies in the stories. Although, Bigfoot was known to leave people gifts of animals with their heads pulled off…Were they destined to become food? He had no idea. He had never heard one way or another. Had the helpless whine of puppies served to lure a hungry Sasquatch?
“No, no way,” he told himself. “Let’s stay positive here.”
Staying positive wasn’t going to be easy. His head was throbbing, he ached all over, and he smelled like trash. Luckily his flashlight stayed with him. He would never have made it back in the dark, and he sure as hell didn’t relish the idea of sitting alone waiting for dawn. He found the remnant of a small drift and, using handfuls of snow, did his best to wash his face and hands. The walk back seemed to take forever. His light reflected off a corner of the trailer and he knew he was close.
A small click to his right told him he would be the guest star on one of the cameras in the morning. As he entered the clearing of his camp, he heard a familiar sound. His footsteps quickened. At the foot of the steps was a Dole lettuce box. He fell down on his aching knees and opened the top. Nine black and silver bundles of joy rooted around in a big, furry ball none the worse for the trip.
The cuteness didn’t hold him for long. The mother was gone, things were about to get serious. What was he going to do with nine starving puppies? Whatever he decided, he needed to get them out of the cold. He opened the door to the trailer, lifted the box into the doorway, and followed it inside. He put the puppies near the heater while he looked for something more suitable and less fragrant to use for a bed. He could use a shower himself, but first things first.
He dumped his laundry on the bed and stuffed a couple of clean towels inside the plastic basket. Returning to the kitchen, he transferred the pups to their new bed. He threw the box out the door and just missed the mother who was waiting at the foot of the steps.
“Boy, am I glad to see you,” he told her and patted his leg. “Come on girl, get up here.”
The dog bounded up the stairs and ran to her pups. She nudged a couple of them out of the way and crawled into the basket beside them. As the puppies ate, he stripped off his smelly clothes and got into the shower. The hot water felt good. He wasn’t sure how long he had lain on the ground, but the cold had seeped down into the marrow of his bones. Six gallons of hot water didn’t go nearly far enough, but that was all he had. He toweled off quickly and pulled on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeve tee shirt.
With the puppies sated and the mother resting quietly, he was free to drop into his favorite chair and think about what had happened.
“Damn!” he said and jumped up from the chair.
The groceries were still sitting on the hood of his pickup. He gathered up the bags and realized something was missing…the to-go box from Maggie’s and his burger. He glanced around thinking it may have slipped off onto the ground. No luck. He widened the search. He found the container about ten yards away, but the remainder of his special burger was gone. The only clue to its fate was a pair of huge footprints in the mud at the edge of the camp.
Back inside, with the groceries stowed away and a six-pack in hand, he sagged down into his chair. He pulled the lever and his feet rose up before him. Compared with the tracks he had just looked at, his size 10 feet were miniatures. His mind flooded with a vision of the face he saw. It was more than a memory or a disconnected recall of the features. A physical quality came attached to the memory, so that each time he thought about it, he experienced the sensation all over again. It had happened to him a few times before. He wasn’t sure how it worked, or why that particular memory, it was just there in a way that was unlike any other memory.
He was missing something important. A nagging whisper in the far reaches of his mind struggled to be heard. He let the image play over again in his head. It was something about the face. Of course, the face was different from the one he saw more than twenty years before, that wasn’t it. Something in this creature’s face changed. In the brief moment he was looking into it, the face became different.
Dave was jarred from sleep by the sudden application of a pair of paws landing squarely on his testicles. The dog was sitting in his lap shaking badly. She shoved her nose under his arm and crawled beneath it. A series of low whimpers came from deep in her throat.
“What is it?” he said, scanning the room.
He heard it then.
Whoop, whoop, whoop!
He had heard only recordings of the sound until that moment, but he recognized it immediately. Sasquatch!
He pushed the frightened dog from his lap, and then turned off the lights as fast as he could. He yanked back the curtains beside his chair, pushed up the shade, and pressed his face to the window.
All the exterior lights were on the front side of the trailer. It was too dark out back to see anything. He didn’t need to. He could feel it coming. The impact of the footfalls of a running eight-hundred-pound creature vibrated the length of the trailer. It was coming…fast. A black shadow flashed across the pane before his eyes, followed by a loud slapping sound that shook the wall and echoed through the interior.
Dave jumped at the sound. His headlamp was hanging on a hook by the door. He slipped it over his head, pushed the button for the light, and bounded out the door. The still-wet ground outside reminded him that he wasn’t wearing shoes. Cold mud pushed between his toes. He paid it no mind. Rounding the corner of the fifth wheel, his light shone out into the trees. At first, he saw nothing. Then, a face peered around a huge pine.
The thing was massive. The face Dave was looking into had to be eight feet off the ground. Grizzled hair covered the sides and top of its head and shoulders. He could but stare. The creature seemed content to do the same.
Then, for some unknown reason, Dave did a very human thing. He slowly raised his right hand with his palm toward the creature. The movement seemed to have no effect. Sasquatch simply continued to look at him. Then, tentatively, almost gently, the creature raised its arm in return. They stood there like that for half a minute or so until the creature huffed at him, turned, and disappeared into the trees.
A kind of numbness seized Dave. It took a minute or two to be able to think clear enough to move again. He ambled back inside through a mental fog, mechanically going about stowing his light, cleaning his feet, and finding a seat. The dog jumped into his lap, and he absently stroked her head as he tried to make sense of what had happened.
He had just fulfilled a twenty-year-old dream after months of searching. Yet, he didn’t feel like celebrating. The dance he envisioned for himself upon finding Bigfoot never happened. Instead, a warm peace settled over him that spoke to him of all things being right with the world again.
Peace on Earth, goodwill to men. The thought brought a smile to his face.
It was a strange thought at a moment like that, but true nonetheless. He was at peace with himself and warmed by the love and attention showered on him by the dog in his lap. What a wonder life was. The nagging voice that haunted his memory became clear. That slight relaxing of the face as the puppies were lifted to safety was a kind of knowing smile, a Merry Christmas from a creature who had no knowledge of holidays but, perhaps…just perhaps, knew more of living than humans.
The sun was up before him the next morning. He looked out the window to see a new blanket of snow had fallen as he expected it would. Blue patches appeared scattered among the clouds that said there was more snow to come. He opened the door, took in a deep breath of clean, pine-scented air, and let it go. He was about to close the door behind him when a body brushed against his and jumped from the door into the snow. She zoomed around the camp once before getting down to business. When she bounced up the steps again, she was covered with a rime of fresh snow. She shook herself once and climbed into the basket with her puppies while Dave made coffee and claimed his chair.
It was Christmas day…a white Christmas…a Christmas with a dog, ten dogs to be exact. He had a family. Which meant he must stop thinking of the little mother as “the dog”.
“Frost,” he said, looking over at the basket on his floor. “I’ll call you Frost.”
Dave and Frost shared a pair of turkey pot pies. She declined the cranberry sauce but clamored for a Twinkie.
“These things are bad for you,” he told her.
Frost sat and lifted her forelegs in the air with a begging whimper.
“What the hell?” Dave said. “Just this once since it’s Christmas.”
Two days later, Dave made the trip to Eureka in hopes of finding an animal rescue willing to take in Frost and her puppies. He hated to do it, but he could never care for ten dogs in a tiny trailer. The news he got brought mixed emotions. There was no room at the inn, and at the shelter the dogs would probably be put down. That was not going to happen…not to his pups, and so they became his pups in fact. He eventually found homes for all the puppies, but by that time, he and Frost were bonded forever.
He never saw Sasquatch again. Chet and Walt did show up once, armed to the teeth, intent on finding him and showing the world proof. Dave steered them away with a story of a fictional sighting near Ferndale. He had erased all evidence of his encounter from around the camp and had plans to leave for a warmer home the next week. His days of searching for Bigfoot were over. He had all the proof he needed and all the hope and goodwill he could hold for the creature. He was blessed and felt it only right to share it.
At the tree where he last saw the creature, Dave hung a large bag of apples and his Christmas wreath. He then pulled away from the camp, never to return again.