The Severed Arm
Growing older is hell. Nothing seems to work quite as well as it once did. It doesn't happen all at once, but slowly creeps up on you week after week until suddenly one day, despite all your protestations, you can't deny it any longer. This was Brian's day.
His left boot slid off the wet, rocky foothold and gouged a yellow streak in the muddy clay below. Instinctively he swung his hiking pole back to catch his fall and simultaneously clutched at a small vine maple with his right hand. The trail was steep here and the interminable spring rains had turned it into a treacherous stream of muddy rivulets. He got a firmer grip on the little shrub, took a deep breath, and hauled himself up onto the flat ledge above.
He paused a moment in the tiny clearing to catch his breath and felt sweat beginning to form under his arms and in the small of his back beneath the heavy pack. He adjusted the hood of his jacket to block the misty rain that swirled through the little clearing and wiped his glasses with an old bandanna that he pulled from his back pocket. On a clear day he could see a sliver of blue harbor and the top of the crumbling old lumber mill far below in the little village of Seaview where he started over three hours ago. Today he could barely see Sawmill Creek roaring down the steep, boulder-strewn ravine less than a hundred feet below.
Brian pulled his left sleeve back and glanced at his watch again. He knew it wasn't possible to reach the mountain meadow before nightfall. He had known that for the past hour but stubbornly refused to admit it and had been pushing much too fast. He had hiked this trail often as a teenager and in conditions much worse than this. Then he would already be at the top, but now his ankle and the muddy trail were conspiring against him. There was less then half an hour of light remaining. He would camp beneath a cedar grove where the trail meets the creek about a quarter mile ahead and climb the last two miles in the morning. Jenny would be waiting at the top. The thought of being with her again after all these years gave him a little surge of energy and he hiked on.
He reached the cedars just as twilight was fading. The rain was intense now, driven almost horizontally by the wind. The dense foliage of the conifers provided some protection . He found several long, straight branches nearby and laid them parallel to one another beneath the largest cedar. Over that he heaped the driest needles and duff from under the tree to form a raised sleeping bed that would help insulate his body from the cold, wet ground. He unfolded a thick sheet of black plastic from the pack, laid it over his handiwork, and anchored the end of the plastic with a heavy log to keep the wind from getting underneath. He crawled beneath the shelter dragging his pack behind and shed his boots and rain gear. Then he shook out his sleeping bag and slipped into the cocoon savoring the warmth that slowly returned to his body.
The hard climb made him ravenously hungry. He had bought a day-old blueberry scone and a cup of lukewarm coffee at three this morning while waiting for the rental car to be brought around and had wolfed down a Snickers bar on the trail during a brief break. A thousand sugar-laden calories in, and three thousand exerted. It was time to balance the equation.
He rummaged through his pack and found the bag of Raman's noodles and a small package of beef jerky that he had hastily bought from the cranky old lady at the general store early this afternoon after Jenney had shown up unexpectedly at the back door with her strange and urgent request. He reached in again and fished out an aluminum pot and a small backpack stove. Still laying comfortably in the sleeping bag, he arranged all the items under the front corner of the tarp tenuously propped up by a stick. A fine spray of water blew over the stove, but the faithful little instrument sprang to life with a roar and and a high yellow flame that nearly ignited the plastic just above it. He adjusted the fuel flow and was rewarded with a steady, hot blue flame. He balanced the pot on top and reached for the water bottles. With an audible groan, he realized they were both nearly empty. He should have filled them when he first reached the campsite. It was a small problem but it irritated him more then it should have. He realized he was tired and distracted by the disturbing events of the day and the long flight on the red-eye. He was never able to sleep on planes.
He needed hot food with plenty of carbohydrates to satisfy his hunger and raise his spirits. Cold trail snacks wouldn't accomplish either. He had to go for water. He pulled the wet rain pants and gore-tex jacket on over his shorts and undershirt, then stuck his bare feet into the cold, damp boots and loosely laced them. He strapped the miner style headlamp onto his forehead and adjusted the beam. Grabbing both bottles and the water filter, he launched himself from beneath the plastic sheet toward the stream before he could reconsider.
The stream was several hundred feet west of the camp just past clumps of low, brushy rhododendrons and up a slight grade. It cascaded down through the boulders from the meadow above, made a steep turn, and continued down the ravine staying just below the trail he had struggled up this afternoon. It originated from several large springs farther up the mountain, gathered strength from a myriad of side-streams, and ended in the harbor below to become an insignificant drop in the vast Pacific Ocean. It was icy-cold year round and had served as both a pure water source and food supply for the early settlers of the village.
Swinging his head in a gentle arc, he let the beam of the headlamp play along the edge of the stream until he located a quiet pool partly protected from the boiling water in the center by a ring of large rocks. He squatted beside the gently swirling pool and attached the thin output hose of the filter to the top of his water jar. When he camped here as a teen, he drank directly from the stream, but over the years he had become wary of any open water source. To the intake opening, he attached another hose that had a small piece of foam attached near its outer end that caused it to float slightly above the bottom and kept it clear of any silt that would clog the fine pores of the filter.
He began to work the lever and with each stroke a reassuring spurt of water hit the bottom of the bottle. The end of the intake hose slowly drifted to his right carried by the current and buoyed by the foam bobber. It was suddenly deflected toward the bank by an object in the shallow water causing a sharp kink in the hose. Cold, tired, and hungry, he had little patience left. He reached for the hose to straighten it and as he turned his head toward it, the fading beam of light struck the object.
He recoiled backward in horror, left out a startled cry, and fell seat-first onto the muddy bank. The half-filled jar slipped from between his knees and the filter tumbled into the water with a splash. An arm lay in the water. He blinked several times and rubbed his eyes in astonishment, unable to believe what he saw. The shoulder end was pointed toward the middle of the creek and the open hand lay on the bank with delicate fingers curled upward as though beckoning him to join it in the pool.
He recovered his composure after a moment, refocused the headlamp, and let the light travel up the full length of the limb. For a brief instance he thought it might be part of a discarded manikin, but deep inside be knew it wasn't; it had a certain quality that was unmistakably human He could not bring himself to touch the flesh. He picked up a small stick and gently tugged at the far end of the arm to swing it toward the bank. He saw the end of the broken femur and torn tissue where the limb had been violently separated from the body. Then light struck a distinctive red and black tattoo just below the separation. A deep dread permeated his body. He had seen that mark this afternoon!
With a sudden surge of energy, he bounded up the rocky slope swinging his head back and forth to search the rocky crevices on either side of the creek. The loss of blood and trauma from such a violent event left little hope that she was still alive. The guilt was nearly overpowering. Why had he stopped for the night like some pathetic wimp? Jenny had obviously started down from the meadow when he didn't meet her before nightfall and had slipped into the rushing water and been dashed on the rocks.
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