The man was found around a low fire alone. He sat with stillness as his eyes traced on the faint wisps of smoke crawling out from under the wood. The two hikers approached with caution as the rising sun’s light broke between the trees. The taller of the duo set down his pack, and moved towards the thin figure with an open canteen.
“Long night friend?” he asked.
“Don’t get too close,” warned Flint. “I don’t like the look in his eye.”
Colt set the water beside the man. He made no motion in response. Unwashed blonde hair littered by grey streaks sprouted from his head with a gaunt face to match.
“Ease off Flint” Colt replied. “Hey buddy did you lose your pack or something?”
The man continued to watch the cinders twirl. There was nothing resembling a campsite or supplies around the man, but he looked as if he had been there for days. The tatters of what once were jeans hung loosely around his hips, and his feet were bare and black as dirt.
“What are you doing out here?” questioned Flint.
The man blinked.
“He’s lost it” assessed Flint. “Got a name?”
“Did you come out here with anyone?”
With this the man’s eyes flickered out of the trance. He stood up, and took a surprised step away from the hikers.
“Friends? Oh yes… They left.” He started gathering twigs and branches around the campsite, tossing them erratically into a pile near the embers. “I don’t want to leave just yet. It’s better around the fire. You two can maybe go through though.”
“Good to know” Colt started. “So you’re just going to stay here?”
The man nodded.
He sat back on the ground.
“Well buddy you’re about thirty miles from the closest city. If you head back the way we came and follow the markers, you should hit the road eventually. You sure you’re ok?”
The man gazed deep into the flames once more.
“Well ok then” Colt laughed. They left the man with some water, the few snacks they could spare, and set back onto the trail.
“We can call the rangers if we get some service up ahead.” Colt assured Flint. “I’d say he looks homeless, but this is too far removed from any city for him to just wander up.”
“Who knows. Let’s just get going, we wasted enough time on him as it is.” grunted Flint.
They were aiming to complete a section of the Ozark Highland Trail over the weekend. It was Colt’s idea to get Flint’s mind off things for awhile. Colt had grown up in the area, and invited Flint to come with him on his last remaining miles of the trail. It was October in the Ozarks, and the forest was in proper attire. Preparing for the cold slumber of winter, the land exerted the last of its strength of the year. Foliage sporting vibrant oranges, reds, and yellows burst and reached towards the horizon in all directions, and a crisp breeze nipped at the hiker’s exposed hands and necks. The two moved in silence for miles simply observing it all.
“How’s the bar doing?” asked Flint.
“Hey now. Colt’s Single Action Canteen is more than just a bar these day.”
“Serving wings on Monday doesn’t make you a restaurant.”
“True but having burgers and brats on Fridays and Saturdays has pushed us over that pesky threshold”
“You haven’t changed a bit since college” Flint laughed.
“Why would I want to? Steady business up front, and I can’t get a ticket driving drunk to my room in the back. Plenty to keep me busy between the two. I think I’ve made out pretty well for myself. Jealous you didn’t invest in it with me while you had the chance?”
Flint paused at that.
“Maybe I should have.” he conceded. “I suppose I’ll be spending more time there now myself.”
“You’ve got a seat on permanent reservation there so long as it’s my name on the front.”
“How sweet of you.” replied Flint.
“Ah what the hell” cried Colt as he came to an abrupt halt.
“What?” asked Flint
“The markers man.”
Countless trail marker plates had been gathered on one tree in a strange twisted shape. Swirling about the base of the tree’s trunk, the mangled metal stretched up into the branches well over twenty feet. With no nails to hold them, they were gashed and pushed deep into the bark of the wood to hold their unnatural shape. The forest beyond the tree was as indiscernible as it was dense, and they knew the darkness of night was no more than an hour off. Attempting to forge a path any further would be more brave than wise. Colt ran his hand up the spirals in examination.
“Christ these must be from ahead for miles.”
“Who the hell would do this?” said Flint.
“No idea, but those must be from every tree in this section.” replied Colt.
“Best we turn around” concluded Flint.
“But the trip-“ started Colt.
“can wait another weekend.” finished Flint. “I appreciate what you were trying to do, but it can wait. Last thing in the world I need right now is to get lost in the middle of God knows where.”
“Well shit. I bet it was that crazy back at the campsite.” mumbled Colt as they turned around on the trail.
They saw not a single tracker as they backtracked however, and only through steady consultation with their map’s record of physical landmarks were able to find the area where they first found the man. He was still there, and the fire was now roaring.
“Oh great...” began Colt as they approached.
“Let’s just get a couple hours rest each, and head out at dawn.” said Flint “and if he tries anything weird, I have a knife in my bag big enough to skewer him.”
The two came up beside the fire without another word between them. The sun was well below the horizon by the time they unloaded their packs, but they made basic camp within the fading light all the same. Settled in as best they could, they sat opposite the stranger around the fire. Colt puffed a cigar as if he had all the time in world to do so, but Flint kept his eyes on the man. The man stared at nothing but the fire.
A distant but horrid cry rang out through the cold night air, and Colt dropped his cigar on himself as he covered his ears. Flint moved to protect his own. The fire flashed blue for a moment, and the man howled with laughter. As the painful sound subsided, the men gathered themselves. Flint retrieved his knife, and Colt went to the edge of the fire’s light to inspect the darkness beyond.
“What the hell was that?” yelled Flint.
“Too loud to be coyotes.” reasoned Colt.
“Maybe a bear?”
“Howler.” stated the man. The two turned to him, and his eyes darted to meet their own for a moment.
“Get out of here with that crap.” scoffed Colt.
“What’s a howler?” asked Flint.
“Christ I haven’t heard of that one since Boy Scouts. Same as Bigfoot, El Chupacabre, and all that mumbo jumbo BS” Colt spat “Some beast that roams the countryside by night, preying upon inept hiker if they wander too far from their fire. My grandpa use to tell of us stories of the Howler driving men crazy and worse. Just a spooky story to tell kids so they behave. That ain’t what we heard. Maybe some poor dying thing trapped out there.”
“Howler.” the man repeated.
The men did what they could to ease themselves. Colt revealed a flask from within his inner vest’s pocket, and passed it to his rattled friend. With shaky hands he relit his own cigar. First only silence reigned, but soon the liquid did its duty in luring conversation out of the men.
“This was a good idea you know.” Flint started.
“Thanks man.” responded Colt.
“After everything at home happened, I honestly couldn’t tell who was my friend anymore. All the lawyers, the papers, the gossip, it was too much for me. You know I’m no good at any of that.”
“Don’t get in your head too much about it.”
“Hard not to man.”
“It’s just a rough patch. We all hit them. Go ahead and get some sleep, I’ll stay awake and we can head out first thing in the morning. We’ll be having a laugh over some cold brews by this time tomorrow."
Flint went to his hammock with his knife still well in hand. However soon he found the soft crackle of the flame and subtle swinging to be too alluring after a long day of hiking. The horrible cry was fading to little more than a distasteful memory as he drifted off into the sweet oasis of sleep.
There was no refuge to be found in rest however, and within his dreams he found himself woefully alone in a mist filled forest. He walked. A low and deep growl filled the air behind him. He walked faster. Daring to turn his head behind him, he saw wisps of black fur. He ran. Ahead of him was a pale bone tip reflecting the moonlight. He sprinted the other direction, and the snap of swift teeth rang out in response behind him. Then the floor below him was no more, and he fell forward into nothing surrounded by sounds not found in nature. He awoke soaked in sweat, his hand gripping the hilt of the knife so tight his knuckles were white and ached deep.
Colt was gone, but the man was not. Gusts of wind rustled the dead leaves below his hammock, but otherwise the night was quiet. Flint struggled to free himself from his hammock. He paced around the fire and called for Colt. He looked to the man, in the fire, and back towards the night.
Shattering the silence came a sound more terrible than the last tenfold. Guttural and so deep the branches of the trees themselves trembled, the howl was loud beyond reason. The fire grew well beyond it’s pit, and sent fragments of the blue flame dancing between the stars before being silenced by the immutable darkness. Flint fell to his knees, and clutched his head in agony while the howl echoed off the forest for what felt like a harsh eternity. After it dwindled down, Flint rose up from the ground. Bewildered by the night, he took a seat across from the unmoved man while his head spun.
At daybreak he set out in search for his friend. Unfamiliar with the area, he carved his own markers with his knife as he searched. His calls into the forest went unanswered, and the hours passed without concern for his plight. He heard the howl the whole way, yet no matter how hard he searched he found neither the source or his friend all afternoon.
Near nightfall miles away and well off the trail, he found Colt near a small stream with his arms folded neatly across his chest. The blood in his ears was dried and flaked, but the trails running down his neck and face were still wet. His eyes were wide, frozen, and without life. In silent duty Flint gathered him in his arms, and returned to camp as the sun began to descend once more. He found the man gathering wood. Seeing the crumpled figure in Flint’s arm, he shook his head and laughed.
“You think this is funny?” Flint laid the long skinny body in the light, and went over towards the man.
He continued to laugh.
“Shut the hell up!” yelled Flint as he pushed the man over a rock.
He laughed even louder as he hit the ground.
“Stop laughing!” he commanded as he struck the man’s jaw squarely with a closed fist.
The man continued. So he hit him again, but harder. Blood with broken chips of teeth pooled in the back of the man’s mouth, but he emitted gargled laughter nevertheless. Flint struck him again and again with all his strength to no avail. Eventually he lost himself to the task of stopping the sounds that assailed him so. With calm precision Flint took out his knife, and opened the man across the throat. Lacking for air, the laughter subsided. The last look in the man’s eyes was almost gratitude.
Immediately Flint heard a cackle come from all around him, and so he sat close to the fire. As the darkness beyond grew, he saw by the flame’s light flashes of barred teeth, and heard the scuffle of hooves. When the fire grew low, he had no choice but to offer his remaining supplies in sacrifice to the light. The satiated fire spat back shadows for Flint’s weary eyes to follow.
Three shades of human form were cast by the light. Two danced with one another while the other watched and clapped, and a smile almost cracked across Flint’s dried lips. Spinning around the incandescent glow without a care, the smaller of the two began to fade. Soon it withered to a flicker, and finally dissolved into nothing more than ash and dirt. The two that remained trudged together towards the forest, but one strayed too far from the flame. The tall became lost in the darkness beyond the light, and so was consumed within it. The lone shade now looked all about the light for the small or the tall, but they both were beyond sight. A shadow of claw pursued the frantic form like a cat toying with a cornered mouse, and attempted to wrap about the lone figure who clung desperately close to the dying flame.
Flint finally removed his shirt and shoes to feed the fire, and the darkness receded once more.
Day broke soon, but Flint dared not sleep even then. He had no supplies to speak of, nor idea where he was within the forest, and the two bodies beside him were now gathering flies and worse. He heard sounds both near and far of the horrid howl, other hikers approaching, and a hundred others that blended together in a terrible cacophony. Eyes heavy as stone yet refusing to close, they remained transfixed by the cruel blue flame.