Stories

Demon-Rock Peak

A steep, cone-shaped peak stands against a troubled sky
“Demon-Rock Peak”, 12in x 14in, acrylic on panel

We hadn’t agreed to climb the most dangerous peak in the hemisphere for recreation purposes. We did it for science. And no one else wanted the job, because not one person had ever survived an ascent to the top of Demon-Rock Peak, though determined climbers keep trying — and keep going home in body bags.

Those hapless mountaineers are always defeated by the rock demons that live on the slopes. These are not the creatures of fantasy novels or video games, or fanciful beasts devised to scare children and amuse tourists. Nor are they “made of rock” as many disbelieving travelers say with a wink and a smile, ignoring the warnings of the locals before heading up the mountain to meet their demise.

No, this uncatalogued creature — for no biologist has examined one yet — hides in crevices of cracked stone and feeds on whatever or whoever climbs by, then heaves the grisly remains down the sheer cliff. Or it lies in wait and jumps out at climbers to scare them into losing their grip, just for the sport of watching them fall. A nasty business all around.

And yet, when a group of geologists asked if we would install a seismometer at the top of Demon-Rock Peak, you had immediately said yes. I wondered why.

“Something no one knows about,” you confided to me, “it’s hollow inside. That’s the only way to the top.”

“Is this old native lore? Or a rumor?”

“My uncle told me about it,” you said. “He was in Guatemala getting intel on that recent pyramid discovery.”

“On a secret assignment?” I knew about your uncle. He wasn’t an archaeologist.

“He wouldn’t say — naturally. But he found out about the entrance into the mountain. That’s the secret.”

So we signed up for the job.

In their defense, the geologists did suspect Demon-Rock Peak wasn’t solid all the way through, which was why they wanted to measure its resonant frequency and modes of vibration. But none of them were keen on risking life and limb to set up the necessary equipment. Fortunately, their research budget allowed for hiring outside help, though not for providing accidental death insurance.

“We won’t be in any danger,” you insisted, “once we get inside.”

“Once we get inside. But before then…”

“We’ll have to watch out.”

The day we arrived in town the sky was in a mood, but so were we — tired out from a long train ride and a four-hour bus trip through winding mountain roads. Clouds loomed overhead in warning, and we dodged the rain as we hauled our luggage to the hotel.

“Well this is gloomy,” I said, not at all pleased.

“I agree it’s rather foreboding. We need it to be sunny if we’re going to find that entrance.”

The instructions your uncle had sent us — after you cajoled him into it — gave the location of the entrance into the mountain, translated from an inscription on the newly-discovered pyramid: Look for the point of the shadow of the tallest spire on the east side of the peak at sunrise on the equinox.

“Which equinox,” I had asked, after deciphering the string of prepositional phrases, “spring or fall?”

You paused in thought. “Does it matter?”

I paused as well. “No, I guess it should be the same.”

That night in our hotel room we packed for the climb. I was to carry the seismometer, you had most of the other gear.

“Shall I let you go ahead of me tomorrow,” I gallantly offered, “so you can be first up the mountain?”

You threw the coiled rope at me. “You look tasty enough for a rock demon. I wouldn’t want to deprive them.”

The weather cleared overnight and the sun was obliging. We took a taxi to the east side of the peak, as per the instructions. The driver looked at us funny, since most climbers approach from the west, where the road goes right up to the base of the sheer rock wall. We’d have to hike though a kilometer of jungle before reaching the rocky slope that formed the skirt of Demon-Rock Peak. He also wondered why we both had full backpacks and lacked the usual array of climbing equipment, but that was our business.

“Watch out for jaguars,” was all he said when he dropped us off, then muttered, “and other creatures.”

We were both armed — I with my long hunting knife, you with a pistol and extra clips of ammunition. You had also bought a short, broad saber — which you called a cutlass — from a merchant in the city where we caught the train. Neither of us knew if having such a weapon was legal there, but details like that rarely bothered us.

We took turns going first — through the tropical forest, then up the rocky slope where we wound our way between huge boulders that had splintered off the mountain and lay in great piles. We didn’t need the rope. 

The tricky thing was, we had arrived many weeks after the September equinox and had started our hike after sunrise, being reluctant to encounter dangerous creatures in the dark. That meant the spire’s shadow wouldn’t be pointing anywhere near the fabled entrance.

But once we found the spire, we’d just need to see where its shadow lay against the side of the peak and do a little trigonometry. You left that to me, since I had looked up the details of the sun’s position throughout the day and had written them down in my journal. To locate the entrance we’d also need the spire’s distance from the peak — that was our unknown, which I labeled d in the diagram I had sketched.

Another unknown was how long it would take to find this particular rock sticking up from the base of the mountain, and whether our search would be delayed. We heard calls from farther up the slope: keech-keech and chickety-chickety-kech, followed by a chattering of teeth, tik-tik-tik-tik. Not a good sign.

I unsheathed my hunting knife. You already had your pistol out. We stepped a bit warier then, wedging our way through the boulders, pausing at times to listen and get our bearings. I glanced at the sun. It was still low in the morning sky, but well above the horizon.

“There are some pointy rocks over there,” I said, after we had rounded a bend.

“Head for the tallest one. Maybe that’s it.”

We reached a gathering of boulders that had been sheared off the mountain and jammed into the ground, pointy end up. One especially tall and narrow splinter stood out from the rest, throwing its shadow against the side of the peak, and a check of the compass showed it to be directly east. We had found it. As we approached, we both agreed that the spire-to-mountain distance was about ninety meters as the crow flies.

We set down our packs for a brief rest. I pulled out my notes to do the necessary calculations, while you unstrapped your cutlass to have it handy. Before we had a chance to catch our breaths, we heard a clattering of shale and the scurrying of many feet coming from the direction of the slope. The bushes nearby rustled and three rock demons rushed straight at us.

You fired a shot — pow! — and two more — pow! pow! One of the creatures sprung at me. I swept my arm up to knock its claws aside and stabbed at its back, but its tough scales deflected the blade. It clawed at me again. I flipped the knife in my hand and thrust upward, deep into its soft neck. It jerked back and went down, writhing in pain and oozing a brownish liquid from the wound.

You had killed the first creature with your pistol. That left one more, which you were fighting off with your cutlass, to save ammunition. You slashed at its head and neck. It ducked, leapt sideways, and lunged. You pivoted as it charged, avoided its bite, then finished it off with a well-placed jab in the side. All three attackers were down.

But we were far from safe. The mountain was full of these creatures, and now they smelled blood. We could hear several more coming our way.

“Hurry up and figure out that entrance,” you said. “I’ll stand guard.”

As I sat and picked up my journal, I surveyed the scene. The rock demons resembled giant horned lizards the size of baboons, covered in spiky scales. Their heads were protected by a prickly helmet that grew out of their skulls, and their gaping mouths had rows of teeth that could chomp through rock — or flesh and bone. Unlike lizards, their legs were long and apelike, though heavily scaled and equipped with razor-sharp claws that easily tore through thick pants and the skin underneath, as I had just learned.

They weren’t the first deadly creatures we’ve encountered in our travels. Fortunately, we were prepared. Most climbers don’t come to Demon-Rock Peak so well-armed — and we’re experienced with this kind of thing. I put our chance of survival at more than fifty percent.

The next assault came while I was plugging in numbers. 

I didn’t look up when I heard your shots, assuming you had things under control. I checked the time, found the position of the sun from my list, got an approximate angle — then wham! — a rock demon slammed into me from the side. It must have slipped past while you fought three or four others. 

I could smell its rancid breath and felt teeth scraping against my scalp as I toppled over with the beast tearing at me. You whirled around and whacked it with the cutlass, stunning it for a second. I pushed it to one side and rolled away, out of the line of fire. You shot it in the head and it slumped to the ground.

A thought occurred to me as I sat up. “I hope these things aren’t considered endangered.”

“Right now we’re considered endangered!” You turned back toward the attackers and fired two more shots. I went back to my calculations.

A minute later I had the answer. I squinted up at the side of the peak, gauging the distance and angle I had just figured out, and noted where we’d have to aim for — higher and to the left of the shadow’s current position. I stood up, then stopped to watch you for a few seconds.

You had the pistol in your left hand and the cutlass in your right — shooting at rock demons still several paces off while slashing at creatures that got too close. You raised your left arm to take a shot and swept your other arm down in a graceful arc to fend off an attacker, stepping lively to the side then pirouetting in a half turn, shooting again across your front and swinging the blade overhead in a smooth and swift motion, as your hair whipped around your face in the bright sunlight, like a modern warrior princess performing a fierce dance. It was beautiful.

And effective. The creatures got the message and backed off, then slunk away, leaving their fallen comrades. You had defeated them — for now — and bought us some time. We bandaged our wounds and you reloaded your clips, then we hoisted our packs.

I pointed to where the entrance should be. “It’s to the right of whatever that foliage is, near that vertical sort of stripe on the rock face.”

“Can you walk?”

I had three nasty gashes on my right shin — along with deep scratches on my head and arms — but could put most of my weight on that foot. “Sure. You?” 

Both of your legs had been clawed, and the bite marks on your shoulder could probably have used stitches. You flexed your knees and winced. “I’ll be fine.”

A half hour later we had made our way safely up the slope, scrambling over boulders and scree, climbing up natural stone steps, until we reached a ledge that ran along the side of the steep mountain wall. We were nearly at the height of where the entrance should be, but still to the south of it.

I went first along the ledge while you watched our backs. The path sloped gently upward into a patch of thick bushes. I borrowed your cutlass and hacked a way through, working up a sweat in the warming sun. Beyond the bushes the ledge ran into a towering slab that jutted straight out from the mountain. 

“It’s a dead end,” I said. Then I looked closer, and smiled.

I had been fooled by a trick of light and color. The play of shadows on the vertical grooves created an illusion that made the barrier look solid. I put my hand against the stone and moved it toward the mountain until I felt an edge. 

“There’s a crack here. But we’ll never get through it.”

You came up beside me, tapped my shoulder, then pointed a few meters above our heads where the crack widened into a black opening — the entrance, hidden in the shadow. No wonder it was a secret. We’d need the rope after all.

We took off our packs and I made a short climb up — wedging my fingers in the crack, bracing one foot against the wall and the other against the slab — then hauled up the packs on the rope. You stood guard again, watching and listening, but the rock demons were still deathly afraid of you and left us alone. Once I had secured the packs you holstered your pistol and pulled yourself up.

“We don’t have to worry about being attacked in here, do we?” I asked as I coiled the rope.

“Those creatures aren’t adapted to the dark any more than we are. They’ll stay outside.”

We put on headlamps and entered a narrow tunnel where twists and turns prevented a single ray of light from getting in. It seemed to be a natural formation — a fissure perhaps — that had been further carved out by ancient Maya architects. After several minutes the passageway opened up into a chamber whose walls and ceiling were beyond the reach of our lights. 

We had entered the hollow core of Demon-Rock Peak.

I resisted the urge to shout hey! and listen for the echo, but then you clapped your hands twice and waited. The sound faded into the distance and never returned. The cavity was enormous. It must have stretched a few hundred meters across and at least a thousand meters high — about the size of the peak, minus the thickness of the walls.

“There’s supposed to be a stairway,” you said. That was also part of the legend. We turned and followed the wall to our right.

“Rock demons may not like the dark,” I said, “but something might live inside this cavern.”

“More likely several things, if there’s to be a viable ecosystem in here.”

That didn’t make me feel better. I kept one hand on my knife, ready to pull it out. As it was, we didn’t run into any more creatures, not even bats.  But we did find the stairs.

The steps were carved right out of the rock, winding around the inside of the peak all the way to the top — the world’s largest indoor spiral staircase. There was no railing, though the architects had thoughtfully put a low, ankle-height wall running along the left edge of the stairs.

We began our ascent. The wide steps were worn smooth from centuries of use long ago, and the wall on the right had a layer of soot from a time when the way was lit by torches.

The air was surprisingly refreshing, invigorating even, like the smell of trees in springtime after a rain shower, though we never saw anything growing in there, nor did we see or hear any flowing water. Still, the air had rejuvenating powers — my injuries felt better and I had more energy, which made the climb easier. You mentioned it as well.

And so we continued up and up, step after step, around and around the interior of the cone whose walls grew ever closer the higher we climbed. We occasionally passed a landing — a small flat area next to an alcove that often featured a stone bench, for resting we assumed, which we sometimes took advantage of.

“Well,” I said, “one thing the Maya knew how to do — build steps.” I thought of the neatly-carved stairways running up the sides of all those pyramids in the region.

“I believe they had a few other accomplishments.”

It was early afternoon when we reached the top. The stairs ended and we crossed a long platform that led to an archway framing a smooth, flat stone.

“I guess this is a door of some kind,” I said. There was no handle on it. “Maybe we need to utter a magic word to make it open. What’s the Mayan word for friend?”

“We could just try opening it normally.”

Good idea. We pushed against the door. It groaned in protest as it swung outward on some kind of hinge, allowing just enough room to squeeze through. You slipped out and I handed the packs to you, then followed. We were on a wide patio near the top of the peak, surrounded on three sides by a rock wall in which were carved several seats and what seemed to be a fireplace, with a lovely view of the tropical forest below.

“You know,” I observed, “with a few pine torches here, a tray of hors d’oeuvres and a beverage cart, this could be a nice—”

“This is perfect. You can set up the seismometer over there, and I’ll put the transmitter here by the edge.”

We had lunch, then got to work. I still thought it would be a nice place for a soirée — and I bet the ancient Maya thought so too. We saw no signs of rock demons, and suspected they didn’t come this far up the peak, since there’d rarely be anything for them to eat.

Once we got the equipment set up and working, we immediately prepared to head back down. We wanted to be off the mountain before dark, knowing we’d be cutting it close. We squeezed back through the opening, put on our headlamps, and pulled the stone door shut. Neither of us was looking forward to the trek down the long staircase, followed by another round of fighting off rock demons.

“Are we ever going to tell anyone about this place? I don’t even think your uncle knows what’s in here — he just had some cryptic translation about a legendary entrance.”

You adjusted your pack. “Maybe some archaeologists would be interested, and those geologists. But once word got out there’d be tourists swarming up here, leaving trash everywhere and scrawling graffiti on the walls. And they’d want to get rid of the rock demons.”

“You were doing a pretty good job of that yourself.”

“Only a dozen or so! No, the authorities would exterminate the entire colony, once tourist money was at stake.”

I believe you had developed a soft spot for those noble creatures, while I rated rock demons the same as mosquitoes on the desirability scale. “Yeah, we don’t need the extinction of a species on our conscience. We’ll keep quiet then.”

“People will find out someday, but not from us.”

We started down the steps.


Armed and Dangerous

An antlered deer stands poised and alert
“Armed and Dangerous”, 9in x 12in, acrylic on canvas

We thought it would be a peaceful hike in the forest on that fine autumn day, until we heard a distant explosion ahead.

“What’s that?” you asked.

“Maybe they’re dynamiting an old tree,” I said, “before it falls over on someone. Or getting some boulders out of the way for a hiking trail.”

“That didn’t sound like dynamite. More like a grenade.”

I’m not a connoisseur of explosives like you are — they all sound alike to me — so I just nodded. “I don’t think the Forest Service typically uses those for trail maintenance, but maybe they’re getting creative.”

A family of raccoons burst out of the bushes and rushed past us. The mother stopped to give us a stern look, as if warning us, then followed her brood down the hill. We continued along the trail. A pair of jays swooped overhead and scolded us, trying to dissuade us from entering the woods, before flying off. A squirrel scurried along a branch and paused to chitter at us, then raced away in the direction the raccoons and jays had taken.

“I couldn’t quite make that out,” you said, “but it seemed frightened.”

“You’d think they were all running from a forest fire, but there’s no smoke. And why would they stop to warn us?”

“Must be some danger up ahead.”

“That explosion. And you want to go see.”

“We’re headed that way, so why not?”

I had no answer, except the standard one about avoiding life-threatening situations, which seemed too alarmist given that we were enjoying the first clear day after a week of rain, with no chilling breeze to set the spine tingling, or dark clouds to foreshadow imminent doom. I shrugged and said okay.

We hadn’t gone far before we heard a rustling to our right. A gray wolf was limping through the brush, obviously hurt. Its fur had blood on it. 

“Can we do something for it?” I asked, stepping off the trail toward the wolf. It paused and regarded us calmly as it considered whether to trust us, perhaps sensing our concern. We got close enough to see it was bleeding from several spots on one side of its body.

“Those look like shrapnel wounds.” You knelt to touch its fur but it shied away in pain, then thought better of asking for our help and stumbled off into the trees.

We proceeded with caution after that.

Around the next bend we crossed a broad meadow. If we hadn’t been keeping our eyes peeled for anything unusual we might have missed the camp. Off to the left about fifty yards from the trail stood two canvas tents in the shade of a large oak tree whose leaves were just beginning to turn. I got out my field glasses for a closer look. Besides the tents — one large enough to stand up in — the campsite was furnished with a table, two chairs, a campstove and a couple of long wooden crates — too much stuff to carry in, so whoever was staying there must have come on horseback.

“It seems quiet,” I said. “I don’t see anyone.”

“And the horses are gone. Let’s keep going.”

About fifteen minutes later the trees began to thin out as we approached a clearing. We heard a whinny ahead and stopped, then turned into the trees on our left and found a spot where we could see what was going on, while staying hidden behind some scrub oak.

Across the clearing a meeting was taking place. Two men were conversing with a few white-tailed deer, all bucks. Nearby stood a pair of saddled Quarter Horses and a brown mare used as a pack horse, quietly grazing or nibbling on twigs.

The guy doing the talking — mostly through hand-waving sign language — was tall, stocky and bald, dressed in khaki pants, gray t-shirt, hunting vest, and military-style boots. He sported a hard-eyed, mercenary look he probably got from Soldier of Fortune magazine. His associate was shorter, with black hair, glasses, dark pants and white polo shirt. He seemed to be the technical expert.

They were arms dealers, but they weren’t trading Springfield rifles for buffalo hides like in the old days. They were peddling something much more deadly. 

I handed you the binoculars. “Tell me what you make of that.”

You looked, then drew in a breath. “It’s a launcher for RPGs,” you whispered. “They have it on some kind of stand.”

We could only assume why the deer wanted rocket-propelled grenades. No doubt they were tired of being preyed on by wolves, and realized they didn’t need to be faster or grow bigger antlers, they just needed modern weapons to keep their enemies at bay. The evolutionary arms race had taken a dark turn.

Since the deer couldn’t hoist the launcher into firing position and pull the trigger, the men had built a frame to hold the device at about shoulder height and horizontal to the ground. It was mounted on a swivel mechanism and the trigger was connected to a footswitch. Clever. They had clearly worked hard to earn their customer’s business, offering a product specifically designed for hoofed ruminants. 

“Well,” I said, “that’s a pretty effective defense — what biologists would call anti-predator adaptation.”

“Hmph.”

I took the glasses back and saw one of the bucks pick up a burlap bag in its teeth and give it to the bigger guy, who I assumed was the leader. He opened it for a quick look inside, nodded and smiled. The deal was done. I noticed a couple of the deer were painted a camouflage pattern to help them blend into the foliage. I guess the brownish-tan hide nature had given them wasn’t good enough anymore. I wondered what magazine they’d been reading.

On a hunch, I looked along the edge of the clearing on our side and saw evidence of destruction — a pine with some lower branches blown off and a shallow crater in the ground nearby — probably from a demonstration of the grenade launcher, and the cause of the explosion we had heard earlier, which had injured the wolf we met.

The men saddled up and headed back along the trail in the direction of their camp. Most of the bucks left as well.

“When did the deer get so aggressive?” I asked.

“When they acquired the means to buy those things.”

“How? Gold, you think?” I couldn’t tell what was in the bag the deer handed over.

You gave me a look. “Their hooves aren’t exactly suited to panning for gold. No, it’s something else — we’ll find out later. But we must stop this.”

I was about to agree, then hesitated, caught in a philosophical quandary. 

After all, between nature lovers invading their territory, hunters shooting at them every year in the fall, and environmentalists lobbying for the reintroduction of wolves everywhere, the deer have gotten a raw deal. What was wrong with helping tip the balance of power in their favor? Seems they have as much right as anyone to buy weapons on the black market and protect their families.

You noticed my hesitation. “We have to discourage those men from setting up shop here. Look, we know how this goes. It’s only a matter of time before the wolves catch on and decide to regain the upper hand. So they’ll make a deal for some kind of arms or electronic countermeasures or… I don’t know… something.”

“Maybe a squadron of drones,” I suggested, “to locate their prey without all that sniffing and tracking. I mean, why leave your den when you can hunt deer from the air?”

“Right. Then the squirrels and rabbits would want to arm themselves against owls and hawks and wolves, who’d have to upgrade to more powerful defenses if they don’t want to starve.”

I pictured squirrels dropping acorn-size bombs from the trees. Then a scenario bloomed in my mind — the forest full of creatures running about in pitched battle, wearing armor and wielding explosives — birds dive bombing and releasing laser-guided missiles, snakes parachuting onto unprotected nests from above, rabbits laying remote-controlled traps, porcupines with incendiary projectile quills…

“… and once raccoons obtain weapons-grade plutonium,” I muttered, “we’re all doomed.” I snapped out of the vision. “Okay, I see how it can escalate.”

“And the only ones who win are the arms dealers. Not like that’s news.”

“What can we do? Maybe scare them off somehow, or go mess up their camp.”

“That gives me an idea.”

We crept back to the trail, crossed to the other side of the clearing, then made our way silently through the trees until we crouched down within a stone’s throw of where the meeting had taken place. The stand with the grenade launcher was still there, now manned by a lone sentry — a ten-point buck who peered out through the bushes, waiting for the next wolf to come by. The plan was for me to lure him away from his post so we could take the weapon, but I couldn’t think of a good way to distract him.

Finally I said, “Let’s try the direct approach.” 

I stood up and began walking toward him. The sound of my footsteps startled the poor guy, who seemed nervous about being left alone to watch for wolves. He shot me a wide-eyed look, then sprang away and disappeared into the woods. 

Once the thudding of his hooves had faded in the distance I turned back to you and said, “Well, that was easy.” Deer may be shrewd, but they lack military discipline when it comes to guarding their field artillery.

You caught up with me. “We’d better hurry before he comes back with his buddies.”

Three RPGs lay on the ground, and one was in the launcher. You gathered those while I picked up the custom-made frame. The contraption was awkward to carry — the launcher was bolted in and couldn’t be easily removed — but I was too excited to complain, considering the firepower we had just acquired.

We lugged the stolen weaponry back to the meadow, making a detour far off the trail so we couldn’t be seen from the arms dealers’ camp, and found a spot in the trees on the opposite side of the meadow, about a hundred yards away. 

The two men were milling about, busy with something. Their horses were still saddled, suggesting they would soon head out again, so we laid low and waited. A short while later they rode off, probably to go visit other prospects. Once they were gone we dragged the stand out into the open with a clear shot at the tents.

“Before we blow up their camp,” I said, “I want to go check something.” 

“It will take me a few minutes to get this thing set up. Don’t be long.”

I jogged over and quickly found what I was looking for — the burlap bag containing whatever treasure the deer had used as payment — stashed under a cot in the larger tent. I grabbed it and left everything else alone, though I paused to consider a crate that was rather tempting. I also checked the other tent, just to make sure the camp was deserted.

When I got back, you saw the bag I was carrying and nodded in approval. I stuck it in my daypack. We’d open it later.

“All set?” I asked.

“Stand back over here. These things travel at more than four hundred feet per second, so it’ll be quick.”

“There’s a crate labeled ‘RPG’ in the bigger tent.”

You raised your eyebrows and said, “This should be interesting,” then pressed the footswitch. 

The grenade shot out with a fwoosh and in less than a second the main tent was obliterated, then came the secondary blast from the box of explosives, which wiped out the whole campsite and shook the forest. We didn’t worry about starting a fire — everything was still damp after all the rain.

“Do we need to shoot another one?” I asked. I was hoping for a turn.

You shook your head, but loaded another grenade anyway and swiveled the launcher to aim it at the trail. Sure enough, a couple minutes later the two men came galloping back to see what had happened. They looked distraught as they trotted toward the ruins of the campsite. You kept them in your sights.

“Over here!” I yelled to them, waving my arms, so they’d know who was responsible. They turned their horses in our direction and the big guy pulled out a pistol. Then they recognized the grenade launcher they had sold to the deer, and saw where it was aimed. That stopped them.

“Do you want another demonstration?” I shouted across the meadow.

They looked confused for a second. “What do you want? You want money?”

“We want you to go,” you said. “Stay out of the forest. Leave the deer alone.”

Except for the threat of blowing them up, we didn’t have much authority to demand anything of them, but it was worth a try. Maybe they’d think we were zealous eco-warriors who would stop at nothing to save the animals and trees. I decided to try that tack.

“If you do not leave now,” I proclaimed, raising my fist, “we and all our fellow druid-soldiers will hunt you down and exact the justice of the forest. For we are the protectors of nature, warriors of the woods, bound and sworn to defend and preserve the mystic balance that has ruled this land since time out of mind — and you shall not pass this way again!” 

A bit too literary perhaps — you furrowed your brow at me as I delivered my speech — but it was fun to say. And it did the trick.

“All right, all right,” the lead guy said. “We’ll go.” He turned to his partner and said, “Crazy weirdos. Let’s get out of here.” They wheeled their horses around and rode off.

Later that day we informed the authorities — Forest Service, FBI, county sheriff — gave them what evidence we had and told them where to find the remains of the campsite, then we washed our hands of the problem. Let the various agencies fight over whose jurisdiction it was and what to do about the situation. A ranger told us they had found the injured wolf and taken it to a local vet for treatment. Apparently forest animals get free health care. 

We finally got a chance to open the mysterious burlap bag.

Since our hike had been interrupted, we opted for a late afternoon picnic in a city park, near the sheriff’s office we had just visited. Once we finished our sandwiches, I pulled out the bag and set it on the table. It was about the size and weight of five billiard balls, not heavy enough to be silver or gold.

I did the honors and reached in to grab a handful of what seemed to be rocks — chalky, yellowish-green color overall, a little rough in texture, with a few spots that had been chipped off to reveal a dark glasslike surface. I was disappointed.

“Why would arms dealers want these? They’re not even precious gems.” I held one to my nose. It had a pleasant, aromatic smell. “Seems to be amber, which can’t be that valuable.”

You picked up a piece and frowned as you rolled it around in your fingers and examined it from all sides. Then your eyes widened. You stood, held the piece up in direct sunlight, and gasped as the smooth part glowed an intense fluorescent blue.

“This is blue amber! But it can’t be…”

Blue amber only comes from Dominican Republic — supposedly — from a tree that’s long been extinct. That’s what makes it so rare, and so expensive.

“The deer must have discovered a new source here,” I said, “maybe deep in the forest. Those critters get into all sorts of places — if they’re not raiding your garden they’re off digging up some fossilized tree resin.”

You pulled out another piece from the bag and hefted it in your hand. “This stuff sells for more than gold.”

“Well, at least we now know what the blue-amber to grenade-launcher exchange rate is.” I wasn’t sure when that would come in handy.

“Yes, but look…” You chewed your lower lip and did some calculating. “Could the deer get more of this? And what would they want in trade?”

“Other than military-grade anti-wolf weapons? I can’t say.”

“Let’s go find out.”


The Social Scene

Three trees stand together exchanging news and gossip
“The Social Scene”, 8in x 8in, acrylic on canvas

A rumor was running through the trees that day, a blight of news that spread through the gossiping boughs. We had to chase it down — to get to the root of the matter, so to speak — before the entire forest was engulfed in a wildfire of misinformation. I said as much to you.

“Sorry, one metaphor per customer,” you replied. “Is it a blight or a wildfire? And you can’t say ‘fire blight’ — that’s still a type of disease.”

“It’s moving fast. Let’s go with wildfire. Plus, it’s dangerous to us.”

Some of the trees had come to believe we were villainous loggers who had infiltrated the forest to destroy their way of life, kidnap their offspring, subvert their belief systems, and maybe kill a sacred cow or two. It was all a lie, of course. We were simply out for a hike in the woods, minding our own business. 

Once the rumor got started — through malice or mistaken identity — it was just too irresistible to ignore. Even the squirrels began chattering about it.

We approached three stylish poplar trees — high-class members of the social scene in those woods — who huddled together and chatted in a friendly way. We wanted to warn them against the alternative facts about us making the rounds, but couldn’t get a word in edgewise. They simply ignored us. We were strangers, looked upon with disdain if not outright suspicion — easy targets for the rumor mill.

“Maybe if we dressed like the locals,” I said, “and tried to mimic their ways of speaking, we might fit in better.”

“It’s not our attire they don’t like, or our accents. It’s us.”

“They’re prejudiced against our species? That attitude seems a bit outdated.”

“That’s the way it is out here in the sticks,” you said.

“City trees are more tolerant of our kind.”

“They’ve never been devastated by clear-cutting.”

True. But that tragedy happened long ago in this forest. Trees under thirty didn’t seem to mind us. And the saplings were simply curious and thought we were funny-looking.

“It’s just an awful thing to say about us,” I complained. “Let alone repeat in decent company.”

“Some trees will believe anything.”

Blue spruces are particularly gullible, which is why so many of them are taken in by penny-stock schemes, psychic healers, and the claim that Mount Rushmore was carved by ancient aliens. Aspens are notorious gossipers who don’t give a second thought to passing along anything they hear, no matter how absurd. Douglas firs — avid listeners of public radio who tend to be more cosmopolitan than the average conifer — are as prone to confirmation bias as anyone and readily accept falsehoods that fit their point of view. Oaks are more discerning and rarely engage in rumor-mongering, but wise oaks were sparse in these woods.

That left us surrounded by too many suspicious trees ready to accuse us of evil intent, and willing to take the law into their own hands.

“But we’re not breaking any laws,” I said.

“If they think we’re a threat, well… it’s mob justice out here.”

We jogged down a trail and across a meadow, then into a stand of pines, hoping to head off the rumor before the entire forest turned against us. But the pines had already heard about us through the underground network — a lot of information gets transferred through roots and fungal connections in the soil — and they absolutely knew we were the masterminds behind the logging-industrial complex — in league with the lizard people, funded by The Bilderberg Group, involved in a vast international conspiracy to control the world by destroying forests — and probably in contact with UFOs to boot.

“A mastermind, eh?” I said. “I should put that on my résumé.”

“I’d like to know how we get that funding.”

We showed them driver’s licenses, wilderness passes, hiking permits — all to no avail. It was just more evidence of a government cover-up to hide our true identities. We gave up trying to convince them of our innocence. They dropped pine cones on us and moved to hem us in, so we pushed through the branches and hurried on our way.

We had no luck anywhere else. 

Everyone had already heard some version of the story about us — by root, by scent, by squirrel or bird — whatever their preferred means was of sharing information. And no amount of rebuttal on our part could keep the fiction from growing and spreading. Conspiracy theories feed on themselves, nurtured in the swamp of muddled imagination where no illuminating truth can penetrate, quarantined from reality and immune to clarifying facts.

It was no longer safe for us there. We finally had to leave the woods, helped by a kindly oak who hid us until dark and showed us an escape route out the back way.

“The irony is,” you said later, “we’ve actually had our share of run-ins with conspiracies and secret organizations…”

“But usually to thwart their operations.”

“… yet the rumor about us never mentioned any of those. It was a complete fabrication from top to bottom.”

“I guess our reputation didn’t precede us. We need to find out how to get better publicity.”

“Let’s go talk to those lizard people.”