A Thing Greatly Feared, Chapter 1

An old metal diamond marker beside the trail i...

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19 years later

“Hey, you about ready yet?”

Hank was putting the last of the gear in the bed of his old pickup, and his nephew was already in the front seat, looking back at him with a mischievous grin.

“What is it with you redheads?” said Hank as he climbed into the driver’s seat.

“It’s already eight o’clock,” said Wade, tapping his watch. “The day’s gonna be half over by the time we get there.”

“Half over,” said Hank. “You’re just like your father.”

The truck roared to life, the rear tires scrabbling at the dirt driveway as Hank backed up. The clunky crate then lurched forward, crunching its way along and leaving small dust billows in its wake.

They clambered down the narrow gravel road, firs and hardwoods crowding them on both sides. Hank was rudely reminded that he needed new shocks.

“So you think you’re up for this climb, Junior?” said Hank.

Wade scoffed. “I just hope I don’t have to wait for you at the top too long.”

They came around a corner where the view opened up on their left; Hank gazed out over the sudden dropoff and into the valley below. More tree-covered hills, green with summer, shot up in the distance.

“So when you gonna take me on one of your big hikes?” said Wade. “You know, one of your three-day treks up Mt. Makajah?”

“You think you can handle it?”

“Come on, Unc; I’m old enough to drive, I’m old enough to handle that.”

“You can drive?”

“Ha ha. One little fender-bender and suddenly I’m an old geezer with bad reflexes who should have his license revoked.”

Hank chuckled.

“Besides, I’ve got an uncle who’s one of the best hikers, best outdoorsman in the world, and he’s taught me everything I know.”

“Well that’s true.”

“I wasn’t talkin’ about you.”

“Ha ha.”

They came around another bend, and the road began a steep climb.

“You know,” said Hank, “this famous uncle of yours – you said he taught you everything you know. But has he taught you everything he knows?”

“Well, I’m sure he’s hangin’ onto one or two trade secrets … but I’ll wrestle ’em out of him.”

“And how do you plan on doin’ that?”

Wade shrugged. “I’m thinkin’ of a little wager.”

“Go on.”

“This hike today – whoever can get to Sandy’s Peak first, wins. If you win, I’ll buy you a Coke.”

Hank scoffed. “I can see I’m gonna get the short end of the stick on this deal, either way.”

“Hey, it’s all I can afford on what Dad pays me.”

“Alright. What if you win?”

“If I win … you finally take me to the Upper Basin.”

Images, dark memories, shoved their way to the front of Hank’s mind. He returned his gaze to those distant green hills, struggling to reassert control over his suddenly racing pulse. Then he considered the familiar trails leading to Sandy’s Peak, trails he’d hiked a thousand times – and many hundreds of times more than his nephew.

“Okay,” said Hank.

“Alright!”

“But just remember this.”

Wade sobered up.

“I like ice in my Coke.”

* * *

A few minutes later they were at Sandy’s Turnoff, a bare roadside spot that served as the starting point for the three trails leading to Sandy’s Peak. Two of the trails were more or less the same degree of difficulty, so they were chosen as the routes for the competition.

“I’ll let you decide,” said Hank. “Left or right?”

“Mm. I’ll go left.”

“Alright. You ready?”

“I’m all set.”

“Then let’s go!”

Hank exploded into the trees to the right, Wade only a moment behind him to the left, the two trails suddenly witness to the human machine at its most intense: boots pounding over rocks, kicking up dirt, arms and legs pumping hard. Breathing grew deep and loud in no time, the man and his nephew fighting to pace themselves along the short-but-steep trails. Succulent blueberries were passed unnoticed, and even the necessity of water was forsaken.

It had to be forsaken, Hank knew.

Pounding, pumping, grinding, gasping, over rocks and roots, under low-hanging branches. The sweat flowed in the 80-degree heat, the shirts clinging, their feet leaden despite ultralight boots. A gentle breeze kicked up, cool and refreshing to their bodies but unnoticed by their conscious minds; all they saw was the goal that lay just ahead of them now.

A moment later the bare crown known as Sandy’s Peak came into view for each of them, and a surge of energy injected their burning bodies. They knew they were dead even; it was going to be a sprint to the finish.

Grunting and pumping with even greater urgency now, as though their lives depended on it, they burst from tree cover into the open, their sights locked onto the blueberry bush that grew at the peak’s highest point. To touch that bush first was all it took, and they each knew that there was no such thing as a tie – if it ended up being that close, they would argue about who won until they were blue in the face, as they had done plenty of other times, but there had to be a winner, always.

Both within ten yards of the goal now, the man and his nephew were on a collision course. There was no getting around it, Hank decided.

I’m gonna have to dive.

Hank threw back his arms in midstride, ready to thrust himself forward into the blueberry bush, bracing for the sharp, painful, rocky landing that was sure to come.

It came, alright. As Hank was about to lunge, his toe caught on something and he was sent sprawling … and landed a yard short of the goal. Wade ran through and slapped the bush.

Wade released a primal scream. “Upper Basin, here we come!”

The Basin, thought Hank, dread creeping through his heart.

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