Flames jetting high overhead force screams from the tall pines and the animals trapped in them. Old Johnny’ll kill me. If I survive this.
Old Johnny said to stop by the fire tower anytime. I love nature. Have to get out of the valley of money. Back to nature.
Shift the rucksack to release some of the steam broiling my back. I hope his offer’s still good. It’s a long hike.
Our families go way back. Used to share an honest-to-God log cabin down on the lake. Unpretentious, open-plan log shack with inadequate lighting, gaps around the windows, and an outhouse without ventilation. The aged timbers had cracks running their lengths and calking merely a suggestion. A cabin from which you could watch the world.
Old Johnny and I each owned half. Back in our bachelor days we’d share the cabin during the summer. Fishing, snoozing, paddling a leaky old 12-foot aluminum lazily across the tranquil water watched by sentinel mountains. Nights we’d light a fire down by the lake. A can of beans and a half-dozen hotdogs any honest man’s meal. In the morning coffee was strong. Grounds collected at the bottom of your chipped mug. If a few made their way into your mouth you spit like a man.
Marriage changes old habits. Eventually the women-folk wanted newer accommodations. Using a privy in the middle of the night in grizzly country was declared dangerous. We sold the cabin and each built ourselves newer quarters with electricity and running water. Hot and cold. We remained close. Johnny and I’d sit around the fire telling bullshit stories until all hours. I never believed him later when he told of strange things he saw up in that lookout tower.
Johnny joined the US Forestry service as a ranger and volunteered summers on fire tower duty. The missus stays in town. He says odd things happen when you’re truly alone.
It takes a special kind of guy to be a fire-watcher. Got to be comfortable in your own head. It’s a lonely job. Lonely as hell. Worse than a lighthouse. Fire-watchers climb into their observation towers by their lonesomes and remain alone for four solid months. 120 days of solitude. That’s why I’m walking up this rocky path in the tall bear grass.
Lightning strikes can occur out of the blue. Literally. Campers don’t always obey old Smokey. A hundred miles away a careless driver might flick a still-burning butt out a window, heedless of the prime tinder all around. Forest fires explode into instantaneous monsters. Fire-spotters are the first line of defense with their powerful binoculars. Radio in the coordinates. Save hundreds of thousands of acres. Alone.
Nothing Johnny hates worse than a fire bug.
Kaniksu National Forest. These mountains in eastern Washington are remote. I never see any other cars once I creep onto these dusty logging roads. The washboard surface on the gravel track kicks up impenetrable powder and shakes your deepest fears. Tall pines crowd the very edges of the unpaved course. Sun beams down from a crystalline sky heating the air like a kiln. It hits triple digits down in the valleys.
Cool relief on the mountaintops. Highest summits hoard their snow even in July.
Johnny and I were best friends as kids, but our commitments as adults wedged us apart. He stays in the hills, while I sweat out the heat of the valley. My valley is far from here, closer to the money. The gold’s here, Johnny says. Maybe money isn’t all it promises to be. Nature marks a man.
At the deserted forest ranger station, Smokey the Bear said fire danger is “Extreme.” Hasn’t rained here since May.
Puffing up this trail, I feel my desk job. Endless swaths of bear grass encompass me. You’d have to be pretty damn tall to see over it—grows over seven foot high. A lake of it. Lime-green stalks shoot straight up and explode in puff-balls of tiny, white flowers over your head. Swaying across the path. Blocking every view. I walk slow. Altitude and gradient pull me down. I’m struck by the silence. Other than the whisper of the giant stalks, no sound. When I say I enjoy the quiet of the mountains, I mean the quiet of non-human noise. The raucous bawl of the stellar jay. The scolding chatter of the red squirrel. The squeal of pikas. Complete silence is unnerving.
I pull out my map, trying to convince myself there’s no danger. Up here in the remote Rockies some animals have no fear of humans and their rifles. I’m unarmed anyway. Granola bars, water, matches, and a pocket knife all all a man needs. Nature takes care of you. Map shows the fire tower, impressively close gradient lines, and dashed scores representing the path. “3 mi.” I try not to think of grizzly bears. Three miles. How far have I walked over this rocky trail so far? Distances are difficult to gauge. I must be closer to the tower than to the car by now.
Rustling deep within the swaying grass. I feel eyes on me. Hairs on the back of my neck salute. Mountain lions, the ghosts of the Rockies. I quietly fold the map and shove it into the pocket of my cargo-shorts.
Up ahead the path curves along the contours of the ridge. Like swimming through a blond sea of heavy grains. I follow the gentle bend in the trail. At first my brain won’t register what my eyes see in the powdery dirt. A footprint. Looks human, but not. My heart bumps audibly in my throat. Bigfoot pranksters all the way up here with their plywood cut-out feet? The track looks detailed, not flat, although it’s hard to tell in this anemic, dry soil. Should I return to the car? How far have I come? What’s up ahead? The fire tower, my old friend Johnny, should be visible any moment now.
Taking a deep breath, I press onward, up the slope. Just ahead, a break in the grass. The green sea opens into an Alpine spruce grove. There, above the thinning trees, on naked rock, stands Johnny’s lonely tower. I step forward with renewed determination, feeling eyes on my back the entire way.
“Johnny!” I call out when I’m close enough. Human voices strike fear in animals. “Johnny! You there?” Fire tower, standard R-6 model. Not as tall as the stations in lower hilly regions. Nature’s vista from the top here is sufficient with the thirty-foot advantage over the five-thousand feet of this rounded peak. A set of wooden stairs winds around the outside of the thick timber supports, offering access to the glass-walled cabin at the top. Creosote aroma lingers faintly. A wrap-around porch offers clear 360-degree viewing above. Flat roof overhang gives a little shade in the intense summer heat. “Johnny!” I call again, making for the stairs.
I feel, more than hear, something pursuing me. I try to jog, but the rocks are treacherous. Panting, I reach the stairs. With a sudden adrenalin rush, race to the top.
Porch is chained off. Forestry Service sign reads, “Tower Closed.” The chain is merely a psychological deterrent. It’s Old Johnny’s place. Damn backpack gets snarled in the chain as I try to duck under. Not as lithe as I used to be. A stabbing pain jolts through my back as I try to coax another inch out of my creaking knees. What’s behind me? Frantic, I force myself further. The chain relinquishes the canvas sack.
I catch my breath. Secure up here. This is an artificial structure—human territory. Even though the tower is unprotected, it’s a cabin in the woods. I stretch out my back. Walk the course of the wrap-around porch. Strange stillness. Nature is afraid. Where’s Johnny?
If there’s something hiding out there, I don’t have a friend to watch my back. The car is three miles of broken rock from here. Long shadows creep up the mountainside. Beyond the shading eaves of the flat roof, the sun is well past its zenith.
That footprint in the dust. All I have is a glass-walled cabin.
Door’s locked. Not that there’s anything to steal.
I painfully slip off my backpack. Fish out my pocket knife. Starting above the stolid latch, I slip the blade into the crevice and gently jimmy it on down, sliding it behind the curved surface of the brass until the handle pops free. I’m no thief. Just desperate.
I slip inside and pull the door shut. Latch engages with a satisfying thunk. There’s nothing here. The place smells like an abandoned pantry. A cot with no bedding. Well-worn decks of cards. A notepad or two. Bears don’t climb towers, but the dry goods and cans are all gone anyway. Dusty cobwebs dangle in the breeze I create. The walls—everything from the waist up—are glass.
I glance around for the radio. Fire lookouts are useless without communication. I remember seeing Johnny use the big, old government-issue transmitter. Like in black-and-white war movies. Radio’s nowhere to be found. Johnny’s super-sized binoculars are gone. The sun ominously beams in.
Should I make an attempt on the car? Three miles. Trail broken and rocky. Knees feel like they’ve been run over by a truck. I might make it back before dark. Not likely. Surveying the vista, my utterly exposed situation settles home. Anything on the porch can see in. Visibility is a two-way street.
No bathroom. 99.94 percent of the time, the fire-watcher is completely alone. The call of nature. Suddenly all that metallic water I’ve been slugging down makes itself urgently felt.
As a young man I could hold it for hours. Age has a way of making bodily functions less negotiable. Who’s going to see? I unlock the half-glass door and step out onto the porch. Just in case another hiker is coming along the trail, I walk to the back of the tower—is there a back?— pull down my zipper. Instant relief of my emptying bladder. I hear the stream spatter on the dry, thirsty ground thirty feet below, achingly loud in this seclusion.
I zip up and ponder. I’ll start out at first light. Plenty of time to reach my car. In the meanwhile I’ll work with the bits and pieces of government cast-offs. Everything in this sparse tower seems to have a single, fixed function, and any other use feels unnatural. Sun balefully dips to the frozen rock waves of my horizon.
Looking down over the bear grass meadow, there’s a beaten path in the grass from this vantage point. Without binoculars, I to strain to see. No movement visible. The bear grass gives way to larches and cedars down at the tree-line, and the shadow of late afternoon has already reached them.
Bears are crepuscular, foraging in the twilight hours. Would they climb all these steps and break the glass to get at me? Cougars are even less likely to break in. What else is out here? What did Johnny see?
Will there be any light once the sun sets? Johnny used a Coleman lantern. Gone. The shelves have been thoroughly emptied. No electricity. Johnny had a generator for the radio and mini-fridge. Gone.
I scoop up Johnny’s abandoned cards and lay out a hand of Klondike on the floor. Each card slap announces I’m here.
Full moon is already in the sky. I’m glad for the illumination in the spooky stillness of this mountaintop. I drop the cards. Walk around the inside walls of the cabin. Gerbil in a terrarium. Nervously I glance toward the darkened bear grass. Watch for any movement down there.
The gray light of the moon hovers over the mountain top. Mountain peaks refract the cold, unforgiving light. Down at the cabin I spent countless nights out after dark. Entire moonless nights on the dock watching the stars and wondering. Up here darkness menaces. Nature wants me.
The distinct sound of rustling outside.
An inhuman scream pierces the night. My heart flies, a cannonball in my chest. The scream’s so loud. Animal must be close. A mountain lion screams like a woman. But this is more primal. Wild. Angry. I’m frozen. What am I up against?
Haltingly, silently, I step toward the windows. Peer down into the leaden light of the moonlit bear grass. My fluttering heart stops. Movement. Indistinct in the swaying grass. Something large is approaching. I pray it’s only a grizzly bear.
An answering scream rips the night. Shudder violently racks my shoulders. Whatever’s down there isn’t alone. I don’t want to look, but terror compels me. As still as possible, I glance around the clearing on this rugged mountain peak. There! From the bear grass! Something covered in fur emerges. My mind automatically says “bear,” framing this creature with a recognized category. But it’s no bear. It’s something that doesn’t exist.
The huge creature lumbers out on two feet. Not four. It tips back its head. Its scream forces my hands to my ears in panic. Swaying cobweb glances my neck. I stifle my own scream.
Three. Four seconds. Answering call from behind. My shaking uncontrollable, I believe the impossible. The creature lumbers toward my tower. The abandoned structure serves as a kind of landmark for animals as well as for humans. Its monstrous shape and faded creosote smell. The only thing like this for miles around.
In the feeble light of the moon, I see the long shadow cast by this lumbering giant. By the height of the bear grass it just exited, eight feet tall. Long, matted fir, dark in the night. Man-like body, only it’s much heavier than even the fattest man I’ve ever seen. And I live in Spokane. Long arms sway beneath its knees. It walks with purpose. It’s close to the tower now, hopefully unaware I’m here. Another ear-splitting scream. I melt into a quivering heap below the glass. Menaced by the impossible.
The answering cry is much quicker. Two night stalkers just below me. Silently as I can, I creep to the far side. Glance at the companion. Slowly, slowly, I push myself up on popping, crackling knees. Emerging from the larches and firs is another. The massive, furred beast makes its way toward its companion. Suddenly it stops. Close enough now to see a hairy, almost human face. Sniffing the air. It drops down. I remember where I peed earlier. Left my scent.
Grunts and snorts emerge from below me. Discovered. A coat of pins pricks my back and shoulders. What will they do? A ranger in a fire tower can’t see directly below.
Seeing even one of them is surreal. Bigfoot’s a myth. Although right next to one another, they begin a frantic screaming. I cower down, pressing palms to my head. The pitch and timbre now a shrill call of discovery. Similar cries emanate from the valley below. Others making their way here. Is this what Johnny saw? Is this why his post is abandoned?
The howling increases as more join the couple below. Communal sounds like the gorilla grunts at the zoo. I’m now the beast in a glass cage.
The timber frame shakes. Thick, lodgepole pine supports, hasped together with heavy steel plates and immoveable bolts. Silence. Another sudden jolt. They’re testing my cage. Assessing its strength. What can I use as a weapon? Another heavy shudder. They can’t topple this tower, but I am terrified that they even try. Non-human intelligence is unnatural. Just go away!
After the terrible din and violent jerking, sudden silence rages. I can’t look. Maybe they’ve made their point and will go away. My ears strain against the silent night.
Unmistakable creak of a heavy foot on the stairs. One of them is climbing up. I glance around my glass-walled cabin for shelter. Any cover. Only solid thing here is this canvas cot. At least it’s a visual shield. Any kind of barrier is better than none.
I scramble behind the cot as the unsteady, weighty steps continue their ascent. It’s not accustomed to stairs. I will need to maneuver the cot to keep it between my assailant and me. Must keep out of direct view.
Each faltering footfall kickstarts my already hammering heart. Stomp. Silence. Stomp. Silence. Silence. Stomp. The wait is interminable.
This flimsy cot’s shaking. Did I latch the door? Surely they don’t use handles. Even with the glass, an unlatched door is no protection. How near the top of the stairs? Do I have time to scurry to the door, slip the bolt? Panic decides for me. I stand. Swiftly step across the small room. My fingers sweating as I try to shove the inadequate slide bolt across. The climbing stops. The moon disappears behind a cloud.
It’s not a cloud.
I feel the red eyes boring into me from above. The glass door filled with a dark, furred shape. I cower below the level of its massive thighs. The colossal barrel chest. Thick arms sway just inches away. High above, a hideous face peers down at me. Lips parted in a snarl. My breath hitches, all hair erect before this nightmare. A clumsy, crippled insect, I scramble back behind the cot on all fours. Only now I hear more feet. Fumbling up the stairs. Wrap-around porch. Glass-walled cabin. Full visibility.
The angry beast is joined by a second. A gigantic hand suddenly raps the glass. Testing it. Solidity deters it for a moment. My heart pounds fast. Can’t distinguish individual beats any more.
The creatures swagger around my glass cage. Stooping as their heads rasp the overhanging roof. I shuffle around, holding the cot in front of me. Try to create confusion for them. Their eyes are hostile. Grunting a guttural exchange. A shattering screech fills the air. I drop the cot to cover my ears. Glass shatters. I grasp my backpack. Steel water bottle my only weapon. The matches fall out.
Everything in this cabin is old and dry. This cot will go up instantly. Shaking fingers grasp for a single matchstick. Another deafening scream. I drop the match. Scramble for another one. They’re in the room. Violently trembling fingers snatch another match.
I try to strike it. Shaking throws coordination off. Large beasts surround me. Finally sulfur and sandpaper meet, rasping a single spark into a light. Penetrates the darkness. The lit match drops from my fingers onto the desiccated cot. The flare is instantaneous.
Huge, hairy creatures scream in another key. Ape-like, they climb over the protective banister with surprising speed. The raging heat behind me. I linger to watch their dark figures scatter into the forest.
How will I stop the conflagration I started? Eyes wide with fear, tears of relief and terror leaking from the corners. I search for an extinguisher. A blanket even. Nothing here. I snatch my knapsack. Hastily unscrew my steel water bottle and dump it ineffectually on the blaze. I have to get out of here.
Stepping through the glass, I see the chain blocking the stairs has been ripped from its anchor-point. Splintered wood now exposed to the air looks strangely fresh. And very dry. I trip down the stairs. Hellish flame jetting out the cabin. Is there a fire-watcher?
Backpack constantly slipping from my shoulder, I run. Persistent pain in my knees, I lurch to the trailhead. Sinister tower aflame. I stumble into the bear grass. If the monsters have any sense, they’re far ahead of me.
Descent is more difficult than ascent. Avoiding a fall on sharp rocks takes time. Nature’s at my back. I slip and tumble into the rocky dust. Panic prevents me from assessing the damage. I drag myself upright and glance back. The whole mountain-top dancing with fiendish, orange light. Walpurgisnacht in July. My entire left side thrums with pain. I hope I haven’t broken anything. The night breeze feeds the famished fire.
“3 mi.” The trail’s longer. Unfamiliar in flickering light. Crackling flames now scream. Another stumble. I can’t distinguish sweat from blood. If I survive this fire, Johnny’ll kill me.
If he ever made it out alive.
Bio: K. Marvin Bruce has lived in six states and two countries but calls no place home. His fiction has been published in Calliope, Dali’s LoveChild, Danse Macabre, Deep Water Literary Journal, Defenestration, Exterminating Angel Press: The Magazine, The Fable Online, and Jersey Devil Press. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He works in New York City.