George climbed higher towards the apex of the mesa. Stopping at a bend in the rocky upwards path, he sat down stiffly on a nearby rock, and, shaded from the sun by a brambly tree, took a long gulp of water from his flask. Then, reaching down, he tightened the laces on his left shoe, hoping to reduce the chance of further blistering on his heel.
Sitting back again, George surveyed the landscape. From his perch halfway up the steep face of the mesa, he could see rocky mountains on all sides, towering to lazy peaks above his head—he was scaling the baby peak of the bunch, the child surrounded by its bigger siblings. But, George thought, It holds a secret its older brothers do not. Rising, George shouldered his pack once again, and resumed his slow climb. Keeping out of the sunlight was impossible on this climb, though he had a large hat, khaki pants, and a long-sleeved shirt on to protect his skin from roasting.
But it was hot. Sweat evaporated at the arid, high elevation, and a pin-pricking needle-like sensation was the only indication that he was expending sweat to cool himself. He needed to reach the top soon—it would be unbearable come nightfall, and also cold. In addition, George did not know what creatures might come out at night. He had seen deer tracks earlier on his climb, but no deer were foolish enough to venture this high. More recently, he had seen a set of bootprints appear—and only a day or two old. This baffled him, and he felt an anxiety at the uncertainty. Who might this other person be?
George’s guide had not made it—after the first week, when the sun-browned native had become weakened and quickly sickened, George had stopped and set up camp and cared for the man—soaking a rag in cool water and laying it to the man’s forehead. But it was not enough—the man had died. And now George was alone. There was no point but to continue; so after improvising a burial for the loyal guide, George had continued on. But a dread had been slowly building in his heart—what had begun as a grand adventure, here at the end, had become almost dreamlike—and dark.
The sun was lowering, until it finally was only partly peeking over the mountaintops, catching its last glimpse of George, bidding him good night. For his part, George found a secluded crevice beneath an overhang of rock and set up a simple camp for the night—a wood fire assembled from a bone-dry tree he hacked to pieces with a hatchet.
As George arranged the logs for the fire, he thought of how hardy this tree must have been to withstand the harshness of the wild. He even felt a strange sympathy for the tree as it began to crackle and burn. The tree, clinging so fiercely to life, sending its roots deep, around and between and across the rock, finding a way to subsist on the scant light and water it received.
Being alone made George strangely introspective. It was worrisome, slightly, how much thought he was giving a simple tree. He reiterated the truth to himself, for the sake of his sanity: he needed a fire to cook his food, provide warmth, and potentially ward off the creatures of the night, and the tree was the closest available source of fuel; so he had to use it. That was all.
The meal was simple—a dry biscuit, heated slightly, as well as warm soup from a can. He was trying to conserve his supplies, in case his quest took longer than expected. Finishing his meal, he unrolled his sleeping bag and climbed inside. It was going to be a chilly night—not cold, but uncomfortably chilly. A strong breeze blew fitfully along the side of the mesa, threatening at times to snuff out George’s fire. However, George placed a few larger rocks around the windward side of his fire, and it flickered more brightly, then crawled back into his bag.
George’s sleep was wakeful and dark. About midnight, he was startled awake by a guttural howl. Rolling instinctively towards his bag, he pulled out his revolver and squinted out from his crevice in the rocks—he knew the sound well. It was a werewolf.
To be continued by Joseph…
This is part 1 in a 4-part series.