Nate continued down the path, listening to the buzzing of the insects which heralded the last dying days of summer. As he walked, he glanced down to note imprints in the soft soil and a smile brushed his lips. Even a city boy like him could recognize deer sign when he saw it. From the looks of things, there were a lot of deer using the path.
After all, he mused, why not? Deer were abundant in this part of the country.
So much so, that farmers like Sam Burchill, the man who rented these fields from the former owner and now from Nate were constantly pressing for more lenient hunting laws to “thin the herd”.
Burchill was a large man with beefy arms and an amiable personality. When he shook hands with Nate, his grip said I am not a man to be trifled with, but you have nothing to fear if you treat me fairly and with respect. In many ways, he was like most of the area farmers — simple, but kind-hearted men who kept to themselves unless you asked for their help or their opinion.
“A deer can eat his weight in corn every day,” Burchill had educated Nate, during their meeting several days ago. “Damn things’ll eat their way through a cornfield, hop over into yer beans while bustin’ down yer fence in the process. Then they’ll take out half an acre for desert and finish up by jumpin’ out in the road in front of yer wife’n kinds in the family pickup, causing you more grief than a bull in a china shop. What he don’t break, he shits on!”
Nate doubted it was as bad as all that and he had nothing against deer. He hadn’t had much experience with farmers, but so far, it seemed when it came to complaining, any old excuse would do. In fact, he had hoped, by following the path as quietly as possible, to get a glimpse of a deer before it bounded off into the brush.
What a laugh, he thought to himself. If anyone had told me a few months ago that I’d be following a deer trail like some sort of modern-day Davy Crockett, I’d have told them they were out of their mind.
The smile left his face replaced by a look of curiosity. There was something else on the ground which made him wonder: nestled among the deer tracks was a large boot-print heading in the same direction Nate had chosen.
Who else could have been following this path? Was Sam Burchill using the trail to inspect the corn? The thought somehow didn’t seem likely. Again he experienced a strange, uneasy feeling that he was not really alone out here.
Suddenly something big buzzed by his ear and he cringed like a child. An enormous insect, the size of a hummingbird swooped through the air and flew out of sight around a bend in the path.
“What in the hell was that?” Nate asked himself aloud as he chased after it to get a closer look. Prying apart two stalks of corn, he peered over a couple of rows until his eyes focused on the strange insect.
It wasn’t an insect – it was two! Joined together in reproductive bliss, a pair of large, green-backed dragonflies dangled from a leaf. Nate scrambled to pull his camera out of the bag slung around his neck. He willed his fingers to stop trembling as he fumbled with the connections on his 50MM lens.
“Hold on there, babies,” he soothed as he worked to install his 70-135MM zoom. “Just keep right on doing what you’re doing. That’s it, take your time, I’m almost ready… Show her what you’ve got, big guy… Hang in there…”
“Hah!” He swung the camera to his face, thumb and forefinger twirling the focus ring. As the coupling insects came into view, they leaped into the air and drifted off into the corn to continue their nuptial flight.
“Damn lightweight!” Nate swore as he began to remove the lens and then thinking better of it, he decided to leave it in case he encountered a deer… or anything else.
“Wham! Bam! Thank you, ma’am!” He called after them. And then to himself, he muttered, “Just a flight to the moon on gossamer wings.”
Today Zelda had taken her new Geo Tracker into town for groceries when Nate had decided to take this walk into the corn. He had been puttering around in the flower garden in the backyard and then stepped out into the cornfield to relieve himself.
It’s my land, my field, he had thought smugly. Nobody’s around for miles. If’n I wants to pee, I’m agonna pee!
He had gone a few rows in and opened his fly. There he’d stood gazing up at the stalks which were a full two feet above his head. He smiled in satisfaction as the heady aroma of urine rose to blend with the smell of corn, gypsum weed and fresh earth. Something in the solitary beauty of the place had touched a nerve deep in his primal soul and made him long to travel deeper into the corn, following the rows west until he reached the edge of his field.
How strange that sounds: my field…He mused. And it was just one of several!
He ran back to the house, changed into a pair of shorts and tee shirt, opting to go barefoot so as to travel more quietly in case there were deer. With that in mind, he had grabbed his camera bag but had paused in the open doorway. He had debated on getting a canteen or maybe a thermos of cold water… Nah! Never mind. Better to travel light as possible, he had quipped.
Returning outside, he’d been amazed by how excited he felt about this adventure. He had never been in the center of cornfield or any field and the prospect of this brush with the unknown made him feel quite alive. His pulse raced; the world came into sharper focus than usual. Everything stood out, crystal clear and sparkling in his vision – a living, moving, high-resolution photograph that he could walk through and touch. Even his hearing seemed to take on heightened acuity. The wind sang in his ears and the calling of crows from across the road was impossibly near.
At the berm entering the field, he had taken a deep breath and plunged in without a backward glance. At a depth of five rows into the corn, he’d turned to look back, and was amazed to find he couldn’t even see the house or the buildings on his farm. So tightly together were the plants spaced, they virtually engulfed him in a dense curtain of foliage, effectively marooning him in their own strange, alien world.
Here, the only sounds were those of the corn rustling and the insects singing. The only smells were that of the corn and the earth. The only light that entered was what the plants themselves allowed to filter through their broad leaves. He’d wondered at the sheer peculiarity of it. Time had no meaning. It might just as easily be 1933 as 1993. In fact, it could be anytime in the last two centuries or as long as man had been cultivating corn in straight rows and growing stalks that towered over his head.
Nate had toyed with the idea that if he concentrated hard enough and used his imagination, he could traverse the centuries. When he stepped back out of the corn he might have traveled in time to the year 1880 and Billy the Kid or Frank and Jessie James could be waiting to gun him down. Or maybe he would step out into the middle of a great civil war battle and General Lee’s boys would be lined up on the hillside, waiting to give vent to a blood-curdling rebel yell. The possibilities were amusing.
He was mystified by the total isolation of it. It piqued his sense of adventure. He was at the same time awestruck and somewhat terrified. The hair on the back of his arms came alive, crawling slowly up toward his shoulders and his mouth dry as a dessert tasted like the bottom of a birdcage. Plunging ahead, he’d crossed five more rows and at a depth of ten turned and began walking west. The leaves on the stalks, as he pushed his way along the row had a tendency to slash into his skin, leaving tiny lacerations like paper cuts. But he found that by holding his arm out at a right angle to his body and using his forearm as a shield, he could deflect the leaves and thereby protect his face and eyes.
He had continued on for some time like this, pausing only occasionally to halt his labored breathing and cast furtive glances about his when some noise or other made him wonder if he were alone out here in the corn. The oppressive atmosphere and spookiness of the place had just begun to make him wonder if this had been such a good idea after all when he stumbled across the path.
Fully five feet wide, it ran at an angle across the rows and on out through the field. Almost no corn grew along its length, only occasional patches of nightshade and clumps of burdock or milkweed. Bordering the path, stalks had been trampled and were either leaning at impossible angles or pressed all the way flat to the ground.
After his initial surprise at finding it and a bit of confusion as to what may be its course, Nate made the intuitive decision that it must be a deer trail and realized this was just too good an opportunity to pass up. He immediately abandoned his original plan to follow the rows west and instead set off along the path to see where it might lead.
And after many twists and turns first one way and then another, it was petering out. The corn suddenly became much shorter and then ended abruptly at the west edge of the field. Nate emerged into a clearing of such simple beauty and charm he felt totally overwhelmed.
The clearing occurred at the intersection of four cultivated tracts of land. Before him stretching nearly to the horizon lay a bean field, its plants turning from deep green to a dazzling, golden yellow in the fullness of the late-summer days. Off to his right or northeast, more soybeans were planted but this field was much narrower than the field to the west. It ended at the beginning of a huge tract of a wooded area, shrouded by the seasonal humidity in a hazy purple mist. It was an extremely dense growth of forest and Nate was shocked that he owned such wild acreage.
He’d seen the plat maps, of course, and he knew there was timber on his land. He’d even taken driving tours of the perimeter, but nothing had prepared him for this majestic stand of tangled growth. His newly acquired property bordered the Hoosier National Forest, a vast area of natural wilderness stretching between Brown County State Park to the north and Starve Hollow State Recreation Area to the south. Beyond this stand of timber lay miles of wooded area, this being just the very edge of that sprawling expanse of natural wonder. Nate made a mental note to someday explore those woods and maybe hike on out into the state-owned lands beyond.
Behind him to the east and south, stretched acres of ripe and tall corn, the ears bursting wide from their leafy husks, awaiting the picker. After this to the southwest, the corn continued on out of sight, blending softly into the horizon.
These two immense acreages of cornfield were separated only by a fence row along which at intervals grew clumps of brush and scraggly trees. They seemed to cling together like shipwrecked survivors on a shoreline of patchwork colors. An occasional oak graced the presence of these smaller trees and here at the edge of the corn lay an entire grove of elms. It was an island oasis in a sea of farmland.
After the clearing, which stood at the conflux of the four fields, the fence row divided the two bean fields edging the forest.
Above it all lay a boundless domed sky of deep blue, dotted here and there with clouds so white and fluffy they looked as though they’d been whipped from rich, thick cream. The sun lay midway down the western sky, still warming the land and not yet coloring it with the amber tones of sunset.
The vastness of this land compared to the teeming city streets which bore him thrilled him in a way he could never express and it welled up inside him until he felt he would burst from happiness.
This was something he would have to share with his wife. At the first possible opportunity, he was going to bring Zelda back here and show her why they’d come out here to the country. Yes, this was what it was all about!
A faint growl carried on the light breeze.
He spun around, scanning the stalks and the path intently.
Was there someone… there… in the corn? Was that a movement? His mind raced and his hands curled into balled fists.
Nate stood quite still for some time staring hard into the rows. His breathing stilled and his heart quickened and instinctively he rose on tiptoe and pricked his ears, straining to hear what he could not hear – to see what he could not see.
In his college psychology class, they’d called it the fight-or-flight instinct. It was a vestige of a time long ago when man was more often the hunted than the hunter. But that was in the dim past. Today all this instinct did was create chronic anxiety complexes in busy executives, too stressed out by their hectic schedules. It was something common to city dwellers, so caught up in the rat race that they had to see shrinks to learn to relax.
None of that consciousness-raising crap for Nate Malone, thank you! Mr. Malone has moved to the country for early retirement. These days he spends his time wandering his broad estate and tending to the business of his land holdings. He snickered, laughing at his fright and turned back to the clearing.
He walked toward the trees and again was somewhat taken aback by what he found there. In the center of the clearing, someone had recently built a small campfire. There were more of those boot prints he’d seen before. Nate frowned and picked up a stick to poke at the dead embers of the fire. A little wisp of smoke arose and Nate began to feel uneasy again, realizing that the fire was still warm.
Whoever had camped here and built that bed of cornstalks at the base of the tallest elm hadn’t left all that long ago. In fact, they may still be watching, hiding in the corn. That would explain the sounds Nate had heard and the strange feeling he’d been having all day that he was not alone.
What kind of person camps way out here away from anyone? Nate wondered. A hobo? Or maybe someone on the run from the law?
Suddenly he began to wish he’d brought some form of weapon with him. Turning slowly in a 360-degree arc, he searched as far as his eyes could reach in all directions. It would be pretty hard to hide in the bean fields unless they were lying down. The forest was a definite possibility…
And so was the corn…
It would be ridiculously simple for whoever made those prints to have ducked into the corn to wait and see just who was invading the privacy of his camp.
What if I had committed a crime and was on the run? He mused. What if I was a cold-blooded killer and someone had just discovered my little hideout? How would I react to a situation like that? Depending upon how desperate this guy might be, I could be in real danger here.
Now, wait a minute, Nate. You’re letting your imagination run away with you. You’re probably much more in danger of being sprayed by a skunk out here than you are of being attacked by a psychopath. No doubt, I’ve just stumbled across some vagrant’s bedding and he left early this morning, headed for town or someplace he might cadge a handout.
All the same, he decided that whoever owned this camp would not be all that pleased to welcome an unexpected visitor, so he took one more look around the clearing and headed back down the path for home.
As he followed the path back the way he’d come, he discovered little traces of the man who’d left his prints in the soft earth: here was a wooden match, farther along he found some coffee filters, and then a popsicle stick. All of these things supported his theory that a tramp had been the culprit. After all, it was pretty hard to imagine a sadistic murderer blithely sucking on a popsicle while he planned his next atrocity against the poor unsuspecting public.
The closer he got to home, the more at ease he became until eventually, his spirits were soaring again. He found himself getting anxious to get back so he could tell Zelda all about his experiences and the wonderful little clearing. By the time he reached the spot where he’d initially discovered the path, his feelings of being watched had all dissipated. He felt jubilant and strong as he turned from the path and followed the tenth row east again to a spot he guessed to be behind his house.
Nate’s guess had been pretty good. He stepped from the corn at the edge of his yard just about fifty feet from the where he’d entered. As his toes sank into the soft green grass, he noticed the Tracker parked in the driveway. Excitedly, he ran for the house.
“Zelda!” He called. “Honey, I’m home.” He felt he’d just lived through a great adventure.
So this was where the new Meat lived.
Dzhankah had been right not to attack it. This one would be missed. It belonged. Had he given into his desires others would have come looking for it when it didn’t return. Early as a cub, he had learned well his hunting ways. He knew to only attack the strays – the ones who would not be missed. Although he had never seen this one before, it became apparent to him that this one was part of the community – that it lived here in this house.
Meats were always a welcome addition to Dzhankah’s diet, but not if the cost were discovery. This was the most important thing of all — they do not know of his existence. For as much as he reviled them and looked down upon them for their simpleness, he knew that when they are aroused, they could be quite dangerous.
If they knew who had been pilfering from their herd, picking off the occasional loner or runaway child, they would not rest until he was tracked down and destroyed. Dzhankah would not let this happen. Not ever!
So tonight he would settle for venison again. And tomorrow… tomorrow he would wait, he would watch and maybe he would find his opportunity.