ORIGINAL FICTION: "Climbers" (Chapter One)

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by Chip Haynes, begun November 30, 1995
Copyright 1996.

"The ability to differentiate between reality and fantasy is the definition of sanity.
The inability is imagination."
Arthur S. Crutchfield, "In Search of Sanity", London 1947.

CHAPTER ONE- Nearly at the End.

There are days in the early Fall, around the end of September, when the air turns crisp and cool without being cold. The trees are not yet at their "peak", which is to say mostly dead, but are at every point all at once. Some trees are still full, lush and green while others display the bright reds and yellows you'd normally associate with autumn. The sky is deep blue and cloudless, and the breeze still remembers summer. This was just such a day. One of those rare days that you'd recognize as perfect in time to get outside, go for a walk and take advantage of it. Ray Meadows looked to be one who knew how to take advantage of a perfect day.
Striding down the old tractor road a mile outside the village, Ray had all the moves of a man born to be outside. He looked the part of a ranger (one who ranges as opposed to one who works for the National Parks Service), a man who would live by his wits in the wild and enjoy it. And nothing could have been further from the truth. The man, if you must know, was a confirmed couch potato. He was happiest when the outside world was just that: Outside. Park him in front of a television or a computer, and you could leave him unattended for the rest of the day. But that was then and this was now. And right now, Ray Meadows was outside. And he was adapting to it, if not actually liking it.
Sporting that red barn coat to ward off near-sighted hunters and a well-worn pair of work boots, Ray was making good time down the lane, followed, more or less, by Max. Max could be seen trotting from one side of the woods to the other, crossing the lane in front of Ray, then behind. So many trees, so little time. Max was a dog. Specifically, an Irish Setter-German Shepherd mix. That would make him sort of a lunatic with a purpose. Not at all unlike Ray, who had adopted Max last summer. As Ray made that straight bee-line down the lane, Max ran interference from side to side, adding about three miles for every one Ray walked.
If you had been there, you might have dismissed the whole scene as just a man walking his energetic dog through the woods. And if you didn't look too close, that's pretty much what it was. You could have dismissed the bulge in Ray's coat as possibly his lunch, or perhaps a book to read later. Only a fool would have guessed that Ray might be hauling some rather pricey night vision binoculars into those woods. The fool would have been right.
For all of his appearance of a casual outdoorsman, Ray was well equipped for his walk. Night vision binoculars (with fresh batteries), a small disposable camera with flash, a hand held tape recorder, a small German pistol and a bit of nylon rope. All of this was carried in various pockets throughout the coat for ease of walking as well as easy access in time of need. So much for a casual walk in the woods. Ray was a man with a mission. Not so much the outdoorsy-type as Kolchak: The Woods Stalker. And Max was just another piece of equipment: His Distant Early Warning system. Better eyes, better ears and longer teeth. A perfect companion for this walk.
The old lane Ray was on was used to move tractors and equipment from one corn field to another outside the village of Lyndon, Illinois. With these rolling hills and spots of thick woods, those corn fields weren't at all like the massive square miles of big agri-business you'd see in western Kansas. Here, things were done on a smaller scale. The farms and fields were smaller, as was the equipment to tend them. No need for the huge eight-wheeled tractors and harvesters hauled in pieces on three flatbeds when the old family John Deere will do the job just fine. The village of Lyndon itself had been around for close to two hundred years, although it didn't look it. None of the homes or stores were over eighty years old, owning to a particularly nasty fire right before the First World War. The little village of Lyndon found out in one night why a volunteer fire department is so important, even if you're just a small village. And while no one was killed in the fire, the people in that little town had used up about all of their strength and resolve to rebuild the village just in time to find themselves living in a country at war. If it isn't one thing, it's another.
So the town of Lyndon was older than it looked. Wise beyond its years? Maybe. They had a volunteer fire department now, along with a real fire truck. John Tucker was employed as the police chief. Ok, he was really the entire police force. But it was full time work, and that's nothing to be scoffed at in such a small town. Most folks here either had a farm or drove some serious miles to find work. Many did both. There were a few small stores, a couple of restaurants, gas stations and a small public library. If you weren't too picky, you could do all your shopping in town for months without having to resort to that thirty mile drive to the "Big City". Most folks here made that trip about once a month. It was kind of a monthly ritual, and almost a parade on first Saturday of every month.
The road Ray was on, and Max was continually crossing, rose to the east as it left the outskirts of Lyndon. Only about half the fields outside of town had been harvested, so Ray was constantly watching for tractors or corn-crib trucks rumbling down the road. No need to get run over on such a nice day. Ray ended up standing off to the side of the lane on several occasions as machinery rolled by, first on its way to the fields, and now later in the day on its way back. Trucks that were bouncing light and empty in the morning were now groaning under the weight of the harvest as they headed back in to town.
As he rounded a bend in the road, surrounded by the woods on either side, Ray came face-to-grille with an old farm truck, stopped as dead as Elvis in the middle of the lane. Neither the driver in the cab or his hapless young assistant looked particularly put out by being stopped- or stuck- in the woods. A quick glance to the back showed Ray why: The truck was already full of harvested corn. No need to hurry now- just heading back to put it in the crib. Of course, it won't get there in a dead truck, no matter what the lack of urgency. Ray, ever the attempted extrovert these days, walked right up to the cab to say hello to Mister Robert Ludlow- Bob- who Ray had recognized by the truck before he ever saw who was driving. That one ton GMC stake bed was built before the last war, and did sort of stand out around town. Faded green paint, one dented fender and the world's weakest six volt headlights served as fair warning to keep an eye out for this one after dark. It was big, heavy and slow- and not very likely to be bothered by being hit by some small foreign car at night. Or in broad daylight, for that matter.
"Hey Bob- how you doing?"
"I'm fine. The truck's kinda quiet."
"So I see. Any particular reason?"
"Gasoline. Or the lack thereof. I sent the boy back to the farm for a can."
Ray shifted his gaze to the boy sitting calmly next to Bob. Bob followed Ray's look.
"The other boy. Ain't no limit on how many you can have."
Ray grinned. Bob had a farm family, all right. Four boys, three girls and enough dogs and cats around the house for everyone to keep busy petting something. Living on a farm out of town as he did, Bob knew Ray from his visits into the village. They had always stopped to pass the time of day, and got along well for two men who barely knew each other. At least Bob wasn't one of those folks who might think Ray was a bit- well- touched. Crazy was a bit strong, but not quite right didn't quite cover it. And more and more people in town were having less and less to do with Ray Meadows. Not that they ever had a lot to do with him. He knew it, too. It was a small town and he was paranoid when he got here. Things had not improved. But for now, he was safely alone in the woods. With Bob and one son- he wasn't sure which one- and with Max doing his usual run up, run out, run back. So there was time enough to talk. Bob was up to the challenge.
"Out for a little intentional exercise?"
"Well, seemed like a nice day for a walk."
"Yeah, well, it is that, ‘til it gets dark."
Ray frowned at the mention of darkness. He wished he could have stopped himself, but it was too late. There was that frown, out there for Bob and the world to see. At least Bob didn't seem to notice. Maybe he could cover it. Think fast, Ray.
"What, you mean it's gonna get dark again tonight?"
Nothing like humor for something to hide behind. Bob never caught the frown.
"Well, yes, I guess it will. Only way to figure out when to quit for the day."
"I guess you're right. May as well get dark. Again."
Ok, Ray, you pulled it off. No problem. Bob doesn't have a clue. Or does he? Maybe it's time to wrap this up and move on. Start by taking a long look up the road behind the truck.
"I guess if you don't mind, I'm going to continue this little excursion before it does get dark."
"You go right ahead. And if you come back this way and we're still sitting here, you can help us push. It's mostly down hill."
Ray took in the size of the truck, and the full load of corn in the back.
"Oh, yeah. That could happen."
They both just smiled at each other. Maybe they could push the truck, if that other son doesn't get back with the can of gas. But then again, push it where? It was a good two miles to Bob Ludlow's farm, and not all down hill. No one needs the exercise that bad. Not even Ray. With that smile and a nod, Ray moved past the side of the truck, dodging the bulging stake bed, and made his way on down the road. He was intent on leaving that truck behind before they might call him back for a push right now. Sorry guys, wrong way. Got to keep moving. Places to go. Things to do. Climbers to catch.
Max, always bouncing light and empty, was not one to stand quietly by and let anything pass. Whether it had gas or not. He developed a basic strategy with farm machinery: As one passed by Ray, Max would be far out in the woods, seeming not to notice anything on the road. As soon as it passed Ray, however, the situation changed. Now Max would charge at a full run through the woods, bursting out onto the road so fast he crossed it and ran into the woods on the other side. A moment later, you could see him charging back out on the lane, this time pointed a bit more toward the tractor or truck. Staying in the lane, he'd run at the machine, barking and jumping until he was sure he'd driven it off. Then he'd stop, panting, and watch the big old thing lumber on down the lane. Satisfied that he had done his job, he'd go back to his routine of running from one side to the other, smelling all the smells and doing his part for Global Irrigation. It was a tough job, but some dog had to do it.
The little dirt road they were on was leading them out of the woods now, and past two corn fields set on the hill overlooking the town. Looking out to the West, Ray could see Lyndon laid out before him like a wonderful HO scale train set in perfect detail. He could see cars and pickups rolling silently along the small streets and every house looked like an exact scale model of the one it really was. Ray was smiling about his good site selection as he turned off the road, vaulted the ditch (carefully) and made his way through the corn field uphill and to the east. His legs were working fine now- almost completely healed- but no need to do anything stupid just yet.
On the far side of the field, just below the top of the hill, a fallen tree was outlined against that crystal blue sky. The old tree had been blown over during a bad storm some thirty years before. It must have been a soft landing, though. The tree wasn't killed by the storm and in the following years it decided to grow sideways to avoid any future unpleasantness. Now it made the best in organic bleachers for one Ray Meadows, former indoor couch potato and current outdoorsy kind of guy.
Working his way up into the tree, or maybe across the tree since it's sideways, Ray found a comfortable sitting crook, where the tree branches made for a great "Barkalounger". Comfy seating with a great view. And on a perfect Fall day, no less. From one of his pockets, Ray pulled out some treats for Max, who could smell them a mile a way and came running from almost that distance. Unable to climb even a sideways tree, Max danced around on the ground as Ray threw down the treats for the dog. Not a one of them hit the ground. Once Ray stopped dropping Milk Bones from heaven, Max took up guard duty under the tree. Even a wild pup needs to rest from time to time, and right now looked like a good time to Max.
With Max placated for the time being, Ray took a good long careful look around. No one in sight. No one at all. He listened for anything coming up the road. Nothing. Hopefully, it's too late in the day for a farmer to start harvesting these two fields. No tractors, no trucks, no noise. Just that light breeze and the occasional bird or two. Ray peeled off his coat and draped it over the branch next to him, careful to not disturb the contents of many pockets. From one of those pockets, the small tape recorder emerges. Time to make note of the situation, Ray thought. The continuing story of a man who's gone to the dogs. Or someplace much worse. Ray chuckled to himself and pushed the record button.
"I am on the east side of Lyndon, on the fallen oak on the hill. It's just about three o'clock in the afternoon, and as always, I'm too early. It won't be dark for another three or four hours, and I have yet to see them in daylight. I guess I can take some comfort in that. But I'm running out of ideas and I've got to prove something while I still have my freedom. They have to be caught before I am."
With that, Ray put the recorder back in the coat, sat back and relaxed. Maybe a nap was in order before nightfall. He had no problem sleeping in full daylight now. It was the sleeping at night that was still tough. He looked down to the ground and saw that Max was snoozing away, head on paws, directly below him. Yep, time for a nap. Ray pulled his hat down over his eyes, folded his arms and relaxed.
Around him, the world slowly turned on its axis, sending Ray's part of the planet speeding away from the sun. Max slept soundly, dreaming somewhat redundantly of chasing rabbits in the field. Some dogs just never get enough. Ray stayed awake long enough to pull his coat off the branch and wrap it around himself. It was a move more to protect the coat than keep him warm. No sense in waking up in the dark, miles from home and missing your coat. To say nothing of the gun and those expensive binoculars.
Everything came to a stop. You could paint it and call it "Still Life with Man in Tree (and Dog). To explain this unassuming little scene- a man relaxing on a tree, waiting for darkness- you'd have to turn back the clock at least four months. In another city, in another time, Ray Meadows was just another average guy. And he didn't care one bit about what was going on outside. He didn't own a red coat, and certainly not a firearm. He did, however, own that little recorder. It had been a gift too interesting for a gadget freak to give away. But until all this started, he hadn't really found a use for it. Now he was finding all sorts of things. If only he could show them to everyone else.
To be continued...

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Copyright 1996,2011, Chip Haynes