A brilliant flash of light filled his eyes.
“Hey, Chuck! I got it working!”
Charles tried to cover his eyes from the blinding glare. With an irritated voice, he told Joseph, “Joe, move your light; you’re killing me.” Then Charles world went black with a bright ball in the center for a few moments.
Joseph’s voice took an embarrassing note. “Sorry, Chuck.” He continued in a hopeful tone. “Hey, at least we can see where we’re going now.”
Leave it to Joe to try to find the good in the worst situations. Thought Chuck, we’ve been wandering around these woods for at least two hours, and no cell phone coverage. I should have known we were in trouble when the map on my phone showed nothing but white for miles around. No name, no creeks or rivers, and we’ve crossed two creeks already. Or maybe the same one twice. This area isn’t even on the map. Joe interrupted Charles’ thoughts.
“At least we know we aren’t going in circles. The phone app showed us moving north on the white blob.”
Charles responded in a cynical tone. “Yeah, until the batteries went dead on our phones. That was two hours ago. I was an idiot for not charging mine. Please, help me understand again why we left the hiking path?”
Joseph sighed. “My buddy, Lewis, told me there was a great place to photograph wildlife about a mile off the trail. He said you could see deer, and sometimes coyotes and bear in the valley below.”
Chuck thought for a moment, an idea popped into his head, and he said, “Okay, so the meadow we’ve been walking in for the past hour and a half is probably part of the valley. As I recall, we started north when we left the trail today.”
Joseph’s light bounced with excitement, and he started panning around them to see if he could get his bearings. Charles was able to slowly form an image out of the quick flashes of light that settled on different spots from Joe’s tactical light. The meadow seemed to go on forever to their right. The forest’s edge followed the treeline to their left. Several of the hickory trees had limbs at eye level. Joseph frowned, and thought, If I were a kid these would be terrific climbing trees, but we can’t walk in there. We’re liable to lose an eye.
Joe’s flashlight pointed back at their feet. “I have an idea, Chuck. Why don’t we just head across the valley tonight? Then in the morning, we can get to the car.”
Charles sighed. He had to give it to Joe, the man was no quitter, but he also had never been in the woods. A fact Chuck had only discovered during their outing. He attempted to sound encouraging in his response. “I like your idea, I do. However, there is an old saying. If you’re lost in the woods, stay put. Make a fire, build a shelter, and wait for help. I think we can find some wood here at the forest’s edge. I can get us some grass and dry moss to start the fire. I just need you to dig us out a small fire pit.”
Charles could hear Joe’s heavy sigh. The moon’s faint light was peaking over the trees, and he could see the silhouette of Joe’s head hanging down. “I don’t have a shovel.”
Charles attempted to muffle is snicker, but he was sure Joe heard him. “It’s okay. Just use the heel of your shoe, or anything with a hard edge to clear out this grass. It’s shallow and will come right out. We just want to avoid catching the grass on fire.”
I snap of a limb interrupted Charles’ camping lesson. Both men got silent. Joe turned around and pointed his beam towards the woods. On the very edge of the tact light’s range, three pairs of yellow eyes reflected in the faint light just past the forest’s edge. Joe slowly moved his light towards the woods, and two more pairs could be seen. Both men stood silent. The first howl came from deeper in the woods. Neither man could tell where that coyote was, but it sounded further away. The long lonely cry ran a shiver from the top of Charles’ spine to the bottom. Both men stepped to the other until their shoulders were touching.
Joe whispered, “Okay, boy scout. What now?”
Charles remembered the trees. He took Joseph’s arm and said. “Follow me. We need to get into the trees. It’s just five yards to my right.”
Joe interrupted, “You mean our left, I remember the woods to our left.”
Charles tried to stay calm. “We turned around, remember? The coyotes were behind us.”
“Yeah, oh yeah.” Joe’s voice sounded anything but calm.
Charles knew he had to take control. “Give me the light.” He reached over and took it from Joe before he could even offer it up. He quickly moved the beam to the right and saw the tree that would save them. It was no more than five yards away. The first branch would be easy, but they would both have to stand full height to pull themselves up to the next limb. At thirty-five years old, and under six feet tall, it would not be an easy climb for either man, but Charles knew their adrenaline would take care of that problem.
He tugged on Joe’s arm and said. “See that tree? Climb the first two limbs. We’ll hunker down in the branches just above those.” Suddenly there was movement on their right. Charles didn’t wait to see how close the coyotes were. He stuck the tact light in his pocket and yelled, “Now!” He nearly pulled Joe off his feet as he dragged him by his arm. Both men ran for the tree. Charles knew he could climb, so he had Joe go first. Joe shimmied up the first limb without an issue, but then he froze. A snap of a nearby twig got Charles attention.
He pulled the light back out of his pocket and turned the beam behind him. There stood three coyotes not more than thirty feet away. Another twig snapped to his right. He turned his light, but could only make out a pair of yellow eyes inside the forest. He knew it was likely the alpha. Charles could no longer wait for Joe to make the next limb. He stuck the light back in his pocket, grabbed the branch and hoisted his legs up. In one smooth motion, he was in the tree with his body pressing against Joe. They needed to keep as much weight near the thickest part of the branch as possible. The coyotes began to move closer. A pack of seven surrounded the base of the tree. They all took turns growling or howling. It was the howls that made both men shivered together.
Charles knew they had to move. If the branch didn’t eventually give way, the alpha might appear and would try to jump up to them. They were low enough to the ground that Chuck feared he might succeed. He had to help Joseph up. He spoke calmly into Joe’s ear. “I’m going to help boost you up. Just reach up and grab the branch.” Joe got a firm hold on the branch above him. “Good, now I’m going to push you up by your butt. No funny business.” Both men laughed. Charles felt calm until he heard a snarl directly below. “Here we go, Joe.” Joe began to rise. Charles pushed him by the seat of his pants and Joe attempted to walk up the tree with his legs.
Joseph got his legs swung over the tree limb and with a grunt pulled himself up. Charles took a minute to catch his breath. Above he could hear Joe moving to a better position. A long deep snarl caught Chuck’s attention. The shadow of an enormous coyote came into view. Its size could have been mistaken for a wolf. Charles grabbed the limb above and used his body and the tree to get his legs up and around the branch. A low growl approached him. It sounded like it was riding along the wind. It grew louder and closer. There was a rustle in the leaves, and then something bumped him.
Charles hung on tight. There was a cry, and then a thud. He hung there for a moment and then swung himself over on top of the limb. He lay there curled around the tree limb. Too exhausted to move. Below he could hear the sound of a dog whimpering. Chuck worked himself into a group of nearby branches. He pulled out the light and looked down.
The large gray alpha stood on three legs with the front left held in the air. The coyote had evidently hurt its paw on the lowest branch when he attempted to get Charles. Joe’s voice interrupted Charles’ surveillance of the pack moving away. “What do you think will happen to him?”
Charles shined the light towards Joe. “It depends on how hungry the pack is, I suppose.”
Both men nestled themselves into the branches and closed their eyes. The morning broke to the sound of men yelling their names. “Over here” Charles shouted and shimmied down the tree. Joe closely followed. Two rangers met them at the edge of the woods.
“How far did you have to hike to find us?” Joe asked.
The younger ranger smiled. The older ranger looked at both men and said, “We parked our truck at the side of the road about a quarter of a mile into the woods, that way.” The ranger pointed diagonally left from the forest’s edge. “You boys weren’t very far from the main road.”
Chuck shook his head and muttered, “Brilliant.”