Not Even Light, Chapter 3, Part 1 of 2

Chapter 3

There were no snags or surprises my first night on my own in the woods. Once I got myself bedded down and used to the night noises, I slept a lot better than in the barracks which was always full of snoring, farting, dreamtalk, and all those little creaks and squeaks of my cohort shifting around in their bunks. The next day, I got a move on early and made my way along the Old Brucie Trail for the better part of the morning. It seems to take a lot more energy to run quietly than to bash along creating a commotion, so I felt pretty well spent by the time the sun’s heat began to leak straight down through the canopy and I stopped to rest and take stock of my surroundings. A small cloud of gnats began to swirl around my head, but I stayed motionless, ready to fade back quickly into the woods. When I was pretty sure no one was skulking about, I walked off the path to a big cedar where I dropped my pack, plopped my tired ass down, cradled my gun in my arms, and leaned back into the soft, fragrant branches.

I dug some goat jerky, honeycomb, and dried berries out of my pack–not the choicest stuff, but good for a quick bite. As I chewed the meat, I kept my eyes and ears locked on the goings-on of the woods. I couldn’t see or hear anything unusual, but I knew that anyone having unfriendly thoughts about me would be waiting for me to relax my guard. There are so many ways to mess up in the wilderness, and I’d studied them more seriously than the rest of my cohort because I’d known I’d be on the move someday whereas they knew they would not. Right then, keeping still until the woods forgot I was there was the most important thing to do. I rubbed a little more bug dope on my face and hands to ward off the deer flies, punkies, and skeeters that’d begun to swarm me and settled in for a bit of rest.

I sat tight for maybe a half hour in the rising heat. The birdsong and rustlings in the undergrowth and canopy died down as birds and critters started to snooze away the midday heat. I’d begun to think I was in the clear and was about to resume walking when down and off the path I heard what sounded like a muffled cough. I froze, my ears straining, my eyes scanning all around from the woods floor up into the treetops. I didn’t notice anything unusual during the next couple of minutes, and then I heard someone cough again.

Now, I could have moved off quietly and avoided a possible bust-up, but I figured that it’d be better to know than not who was sharing this patch of the woods with me. Our survival teachers had told us that it was never simple to locate anything by sound in the woods and they were right. I thought the cough had come from maybe fifty meters off, and I was pretty sure of the general direction it’d come from, so I set off low to the ground to circle around and move in. Now, if you’ve ever tried to move silently, especially in the woods, you know it’s almost impossible. So many critters or birds to disturb. So many rocks or roots to trip over.  You do your best and hope that whoever or whatever you’re stalking or running from will mistake any sound you make for natural. But I wouldn’t make that mistake myself, and I was just a bushcraft beginner. If I got the better of whoever was out there coughing, it’d be a matter of skill, sure, but also luck, a powerful force always out of our hands. So I started to practice the 4 s’s. I’d sensed a possible threat, so now it was time to sneak, survey, and slag if need be.

It took me the better part of a sweaty half hour of maneuvering through clouds of bugs and tangles of undergrowth to reach a decent vantage point. I hadn’t heard anything funny since I’d started off, but as I made my approach, I began to hear the sounds of someone trying hard to be quiet. That sounds strange, I know. I can’t explain it, but there is a racket coming out of the silent hole surrounding someone making an effort to be invisible sometimes. Especially someone who hasn’t completely mastered the practice of stillness and silence. It’s almost as though each little movement, each small shift in position, each stifled cough or yawn or little twitch adds up to a disturbance that circles out in all directions and draws attention the way that a pile of goat shit draws flies. As I closed in on the center of this circle I saw a figure that I couldn’t quite make out straightaway, but I was nearly certain that I wouldn’t be dealing with a Meek or a bandit scout or any other of the most likely and dangerous lurkers. I crept in closer and saw a fella who showed no sign whatsoever of being aware of me. But that didn’t signify anything. He could have been putting on an act so as to draw me in and then kill my ass, grab my gear, and be off. He could even be a judas goat, so to better my chances of living through a setup, I lay down flat and aimed my gun at the center of his torso. I ramped up my senses, started taking shallow breaths through my nose, and commenced to wait.

It didn’t take long for the mystery figure to start shifting around like a complete innocent in the woods–which of course made me even more suspicious. I stayed hunkered, and before long he stood up, threw his pack over his shoulder, and, gun in hand, moved off in the same direction I’d been heading which suited me because I’d already lost the better part of an hour of daylight maneuvering and surveying. I decided I’d let him walk past me a good hundred meters before starting to track him.

We moved along at a good clip though I wasn’t making nearly the time I’d wanted to. I was wringing wet, and I hoped he’d stop soon for a rest. Eventually he turned off the path, walked a short ways along a deer trail, and sat down on a log. And then he surprised the hell out of me. The fool, for he couldn’t’ve been anything else, called out, “Hey, who’s there?”

Naturally I didn’t answer, and again he yawped, “You there! Are you still following me?”

What kind of halfwit is this, I wondered. Can’t be much of a working brain in that skull, though, I’ll have to admit, there was enough to have noticed that he was being tracked. I kept my place and silence. The fella stood up, made for the path, and started stepping quick. Since no one else had materialized from the woods, I figured he really was on his own and not bait on someone else’s hook. Then he began to run fast and I lost sight of him. I’d studied my trail maps carefully earlier that morning, so I knew there was a sharp bend in the path not far down, and I figured that’s where he’d be waiting to ambush me if that was his aim. I headed off to the left through the woods, cut back to the path about fifty meters beyond the bend, and waited a bit before backtracking. Sure enough, there he was standing behind some scrub, looking back up the path where he expected me to be coming along. I’d not get a better chance to get a drop on him than right then. I saw he’d propped his long gun next to him on a boulder and was rummaging through his pack, so I quiet-footed to twenty meters from him, pointed my rifle between his shoulder blades, and said, “Put your hands on toppa your head.” He stiffened for a beat, and being at least smart enough to assume I meant business, he did as told. I kept my bead on him and said, “Now kneel down right there and swing yourself around so’s I can get a look at ya.”

He dropped to his knees and pivoted around. So far, so good, I thought. “Reach over real slow now and take that gun of yours by the barrel and throw it over to your right,” I told him. I imagined he was weighing his chances just as I would have done if I’d let someone get the drop on me. But he played it safe and tossed his gun.

“Now you’re gonna get rid of the knife,” I said. The handle of a big fixed-blade stuck out of a sheath he had lashed down between his shoulders. “Don’t touch it till I tell you to and then easy does it.” I gave him a few seconds to let that sink in and then said, “Okey-doke, now. Two fingers only and throw it over there to your left–far.” He fetched his blade out just as I’d said to and pitched it into the underbrush.

I was starting to feel just a little nervous. You never know who or what you’ll run into along a woods path, and this fella might well turn into more of a problem than I could handle. At the least there could be an attention-attracting commotion in the offing. I told him to stand up and turn all the way around and checked him over head to foot. As he faced me again, I shifted the point of aim to his heart and gave him a wink to let him know that I knew what he was probably thinking and said, “Just don’t make me. Now get that hair outta the way.”

He pulled his long hair back over his shoulders and stared at me from the middle of a dirty face. “Speak up. Who are ya?” I said, and he twisted up his face in a look of resignation and said, “Well, looks like I’m dead meat, dunnit?”

“Depends a lot on you,” I said.

“Doesn’t look that way from this end of the gun.”

“I got things to do before dark, and I don’t have time to waste blabbin’ here. So why not just tell me who you are, what you’re doin’ out here, and what you’re totin’.”

He shook his head a little and gave a laugh. “Stop playing around. Just do it and take my kit, why don’tcha.”

That’s just what I’d expect him to think because that’s the usual way of things in the woods. My standing there talking with him might have given him the idea that I was weak and that he ought to chance running up on me, so I said, “Good idea” and lifted my aim to the bridge of his nose.

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