Copyright 2008 to TerribleThom (Thomas Bailey) may not be changed or reproduced without author's written permission.
"Well Mr. Ritter, I must admit you're taking this very well. If I were in your shoes, I don't think I would be so calm."
"I knew something was wrong, and this is the third opinion I have gotten. So far they have all been the same."
"What are your plans now, Sir, if you don't mind my asking?"
"I am going to have to think on that one for a while, Doctor. At least now I am totally sure there's been no mistake about my condition."
"You have filled out all the insurance forms, so all I can say is that I'm sorry, Mr. Ritter, for giving the bad news to you for the third time. I hope you have all your affairs in order."
I just smiled at him as I got up and left his office. Hell, I was a realist and I had already accepted what was happening to me, but damned if I was going to go down feeling sorry for myself. I had been a fighter all my life, and if I was going to die, then it was going to be on my own terms. When I got home, I sat outside looking at the split level house I had built years ago. I had already gotten rid of all my animals except for Cody, my old lab. I knew or at least had a plan on how I was going to go out, and he was going with me, since over the years he had been with me everywhere and gone through it all. I figured he deserved one last adventure before he passed on himself.
I let myself in through the front door. The silence was soothing after driving in the city traffic all day. Cody came over and flopped down on his favorite rug, watching me as I fixed a small meal for myself. With my sickness, I had lost a lot of weight but it hadn't been all at once. I still had the muscular build I had been able to keep since I had retired years ago. I sold the house for a huge profit last month. I had three more days before I had to vacate and give the keys to the young couple who had bought it. When I had first met them, I had taken an immediate liking to both of them and their two little ones. I was glad the new owners had kids so they could have fun with the barn and fishing in the big pond. I had built them for my own family before they had been killed in an auto accident years ago.
Unlike a lot of men, I didn't quit my job and live on the large settlement I had received after the accident. I kept working and to my surprise, I had been promoted several times over the years and was able to retire with a large pension. I hadn't used a lot of it since my needs leaned toward food and taking care of the animals I owned. Everything else was paid off, so the only bills I had were for the utilities every month, and they weren't high.
I made my last visit to my attorney yesterday, and I knew all my papers were in order. The kids buying the house would have a big surprise when my will was read, but I thought they would need it and I didn't anymore. I left just five dollars to each of my two brothers since I hadn't heard from them or seen them in years. I had several large insurance policies that would go to a good friend of mine who had always been there for me during the hard times. He had five kids and I knew it would help them out more than just my friendship. I had gotten rid of all the furniture in the house except for a single bed, which I had set up in the front room to sleep on till I left. I also had several old towels that would last until I got out the day after tomorrow.
I was sitting at the counter when the pain hit like it always did after I ate anything. I just rode it out, since I didn't want to take the pain pills I had been given. Cody came over and put his head in my lap like he always did when I was hurting. It was like he could sense it happening. I scratched behind his ears because I knew he liked it.
"Well, old fella, I think we are going on our last journey together. I decided to take you along since you deserve it. Besides, I wouldn't feel right without you by my side."
He just wagged his tail like he always did whenever I spoke to him as an equal. The pain finally passed, so I got up and went to the garage to finish up the little plan I had in mind. I got down my old backpack and checked it thoroughly to make sure it hadn't rotted over the years of non use. I had decided I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail until I went on to the other side. I had told my daughters that when they were old enough, we would all do it together. They both had been tomboys like their mother and thought the idea was great. I had taken them camping almost as soon as they were out of diapers and they had always had a blast. My wife had always gone along and I knew she enjoyed it. She was always in awe of how fast the girls took to it. I checked the small tent I used and it was still like new. The sleeping bag smelled a little musty, but was in excellent condition also. I knew I wouldn't be able to carry much so I had to pare it down to the bare essentials. I took a small 2 quart pan with a long handle and the large non stick skillet that I had owned for years. I had a six cup coffee pot, but since I couldn't drink coffee anymore, I took the guts out of it and laid it on the bench. That took care of what I needed to cook with. I would be taking freeze dried meals since they were nutritious and very light to carry. I even had several bags of dog food for Cody, just in case he didn't want to share my meals, which I doubted would ever happen. I packed two sets of silverware, just in case I met a guest on the trail. I got out the 2 quart canteen, then at the last minute decided to take the western one gallon one instead.
I packed several bars of soap and bug repellent in sheets, which were easier to carry. They also made good fire starters if I needed help making a fire. I filled several small shampoo bottles with baby shampoo. They fit into the outer pocket and also didn't weigh much. I took the small machete out of its sheath and sharpened it before reseating it again. I had made a small carry sheath that fit across the outside of the pack to carry it. I knew I could get at it easily if I had some kind of an emergency. I had been an avid camper and hiker for many years, so I knew what I could get by with without being short on creature comforts. I had several packets of toilet paper that broke down quickly in the wild, so I dug in the box and added another handful. I also had ten tubes of the strike anywhere waterproof matches in a side pocket. I checked them to make sure they were still in good shape. I stood there for a moment, trying to think about anything that I might have forgotten, but I couldn't think of anything at the moment.
I set the pack down on the bench and started back to the house. Then I remembered the two long ropes I had always carried, but they were old and probably unstable after all these years. I would replace them tomorrow when I went to town to get the freeze dried meals. I turned out the light, thinking I had forgotten something, but maybe it would come to me later.
I went in and took my shower, letting Cody in with me. I wouldn't have a chance to give him a good bath before we left and he just loved having me scrub him down. My daughters used to fight over which one would let him in the shower with them. I smiled to myself at the memory of the fights my wife used to referee over this. For some reason, he did one thing that most dogs wouldn't. He would stay in the shower and do his shaking in there. When he got caught in the rain, he used to come straight into the house and go to the shower and shake the water off there. He would wait there until one of us toweled him dry.
I went in and went to bed, totally drained. Cody lay down next to the bed in his usual spot. I drifted off to sleep, thinking about what I needed to buy in town tomorrow.
I woke the next morning at my usual time, about six in the morning. I quickly got my shower and fixed myself some tea and toast. Cody bummed part of my toast after I dipped it in my tea. This had been a ritual with us for years and I couldn't see changing it now. Since I knew nothing in town was open yet, I decided to walk the property saying my last goodbye to the home and land where I had been so happy for years.
As we walked by the barn, I thought of the first time I brought my oldest daughter out here to help me dig a few worms to go fishing with. I had jokingly dared her to eat one, and to my surprise, she scarfed it down without blinking. Of course when we got back to the house after fishing for a couple of hours, she told her mother about it. She was so mad at me for doing such a mean thing to my own child that I had to sleep on the couch. I tried to explain what happened, but she refused to listen. I got up the next morning and she apologized to me. We had a little husband and wife time before the girls woke up wanting something to eat.
I stood in my own little world, thinking about the past and all the good times, when Cody snorted his impatience at standing in one place so long. I smiled and turned toward the pond and he went nuts as usual. He ran past me to the little dock I had built and jumped in for his morning swim. He swam around for about ten minutes before coming out with a doggie grin on his face. That's what my daughters always called it. He shook and we headed back to the house so I could dry him off before we loaded into the jeep and went to town.
As I drove, I thought about what was happening to me and started to get mad about the unfairness of it all. I had already been through the "not true", the "you're wrong", and the best of all, "I might as well end it" stage. A good friend of mine had warned me all about it. I just laughed at him at the time, but as I looked back now, it seemed he had been right after all. I watched for the neighbor's cows in the road as I went around the blind curve by his house. I didn't understand the man. He had about fifty cows and they kept getting out. He couldn't seem to find time to fix his rusting fences and rotten posts. He had already been sued once by a truck driver who hit one and totaled his truck one morning on his way to work. The cow had walked off with a few road rash spots on her flank, but other than that, she was unharmed.
As I came around the curve, sure enough, about ten of them were in the road and on the sides grazing and the hole in the fence was plain to see. I put my flashers on and stopped to let Cody out, then hand directed him to put them back in the field they came out of. He loved herding and seemed to do it naturally, because I sure had never taught it to him. All I had to do was whistle and move my hand in the direction I wanted him to go and he seemed to catch on immediately. It took him a whole five minutes to push them back in the field they came out of. I walked up to look at the fence and saw one of the posts was broken. I set it up, driving a couple of branches into the hole on either side to hold it in place. As we got back into the jeep I wondered why I bothered because in a couple of days I would be out of here. Then I made a mental note to write down the reminder about the cows and put it into the envelope with the jeep title. I didn't want to see anyone hurt if I could stop it ahead of time. While I drove Cody, was looking at me with his tongue hanging out and panting, so I reached over and rubbed his head. As soon as I did, he lay down in the seat and went to sleep like he didn't have a care in the world.
It took us about forty five minutes to pull up in front of the sporting goods store I always frequented. When I got out, Cody went with me. When we walked in, there was someone new behind the counter. He frowned when Cody followed me in but I didn't pay any attention to him. I just grabbed a cart and headed to the aisle I was looking for with Cody at my heels. I carefully looked through the selection of freeze-drieds and chose those I thought would be nutritious and that my stomach would be able to handle. Since I had no idea how long I was going to be on the trail, I stocked heavy with lighter meals, but in a good assortment. I had the cart almost full before I decided I had enough for the both of us for at least a month, if I didn't start eating any more than I did now. I knew there were plenty of wild berries and plants I could eat, so I figured this would be enough for us to go. While we walked around the aisles, I remembered the rope I wanted to get and went to the back wall to see what kind of assortment they had in stock. When we reached the back wall, I could see they had completely changed their stock since I was here the last time. After carefully examining the rope on hand, I was surprised to see they had the high tensile strength reinforced mountain rope at the cheapest price I had ever seen. I quickly checked the dates on the spools and they were all well within the selling date, so I knew they wouldn't be rotten from being too old. I took a hundred and fifty feet of the strongest gauge they had and a new belt harness, since my old one was over ten years old. It came with several quick release clips and a new easy release buckle on the harness. To my surprise it was about twenty dollars cheaper for both, than what I had paid years ago for just the rope.
We were headed for the checkout counter when Cody woofed so I stopped to look and see what he wanted. He had stopped in front of a counter display, and sat down as if waiting for me to come back to him. Out of curiosity, I went to where he was sitting, and to my surprise he had sat down in front of the candle display. Then I remembered I had thrown all my old candles away last night because they were crumbling with age. I just shook my head, patting him as I picked up several of the newer twenty hour burn candles they had on sale. When I headed back to the cart with them, Cody was right back by my side like he had never left. We went up to the register and the man there, whom I didn't know, snottily told me next time I came in to leave the mutt outside. I looked down at Cody then at him before I asked him a short question.
"How much money do you think is in this cart right now?"
"I would say a couple of hundred dollars, why?"
"Do you want the sale?"
"Of course, if I turned it down my boss would fire me. Why do you ask?"
"You seem to dislike my dog, but since he is going to be eating a lot of this with me, I think it's only fair he should have a say in what I bought, don't you?"
"That's the stupidest thing I ever heard. I suggest the next time you come in, you leave the dog outside and just buy what you want. He doesn't know the difference, dogs are dumb."
"Mister, you don't know me or Cody here. I don't mind a little good natured kidding back and forth, but your attitude and sarcasm I can do without. Is Charley in the back?"
"Yes, he's doing paperwork."
"Would you ask him to come out here, please? Tell him an old friend wants to say hello."
I watched as he went to the door to the back and yelled for him instead of walking back to tell him what I said. While I waited, I was rubbing Cody's head and wondering where Charley had found this fool.
"Well I'll be, Jeremy Ritter as I live and breathe. Why you haven't been in since the funeral. It's good to see you again, my friend. Looks like you're getting ready to do a little hiking again. Well hello, Cody, good to see you too. What seems to be the problem, Jeremy?"
I didn't say anything, just pointed at the clerk. Charley turned, and before he could say anything, the clerk started telling him what he said about Cody staying outside and the rest of the conversation we had. I had to admit; he didn't change any of it, but almost quoted it word for word. Charley stood and listened to him until he was done, then proceeded to chew him out.
"I've told you before; if a man brings his dog in the store it's no problem. You don't live in a big city anymore, and the rules here are a little different. This is a hardware and sporting goods store. We have farmers and outdoorsmen who come in and they take their dogs with them wherever they go. Cody has been coming into this store since he was a pup, and is welcome whether Jeremy is with him or not. Why do you think I keep that big jug of milk bones behind the counter? I have dogs that come and scratch on the door because they know they will always get a treat from anyone in the store. Now I suggest you give Cody his treat and apologize to Jeremy, or I am going to have to let you go, family or not. We do things a certain way around here, and you need to adjust or go home."
I just stood and grinned as I watched him fight with his inner self trying to decide what to do. He finally went behind the counter and got one of the treats out, then came over and offered it to Cody. Cody looked at me to see if it was ok to take it, and I nodded my head. He took it gently out of the clerk's hand and laid it on the floor between his feet, looking at the man like he was waiting for something else. The guy looked at me, wondering what to do so I told him.
"He is waiting for you to offer your hand so he can shake it to thank you for the treat."
The clerk looked a little baffled, but offered his hand as I had instructed. Cody quickly put his paw in his hand to shake. When the guy shook it a couple of times and dropped it, Cody ate the treat like he had been taught by my daughters. The man got up with a look of wonderment on his face and started silently ringing up my purchases. Charley looked at me with a big smile on his face as he watched.
"Sorry to hear you sold your place, Jeremy. I suppose living out there all by yourself was getting to you."
"You're probably right, Charley. The young couple who bought it has two small children so you will probably see them in here off and on. They seem to be good people, so make them welcome, like you always do. If you know of anyone who has some puppies, you might suggest it to them for the kids."
"I sure will, and I think old Joe has a litter that should be old enough by the time they get settled in. He will be looking for good homes for them, and a couple of kids would be great. That way they can grow up together. We sure hate to see you go, Jeremy, you know everyone will be thinking about you. Well, I have to get back to my monthly paper mess, so I will say goodbye, my friend, and you be careful."
I smiled at him as he went back to what he had been doing. The clerk finished ringing up my purchases and gave me the total. It was a little higher than what I expected, but I had bought a lot of the dried meals. I figured it was about right as I paid. I picked up two of the lighter bags and handed them to Cody. He immediately hooked the two bags' handles with his lower teeth, picked them up, and headed for the door. The clerk looked like his eyes were going to pop out; he was so shocked at all he was seeing. I just smiled as I opened the door, heading for the jeep where I took the bags from Cody and set them in the back with the others. Next I stopped by the notary office. When I told her what I wanted, and she had me all set up in a few minutes. With the papers in my pocket for the tractor and jeep, I headed back to the house to finish filling my backpack so I'd be ready to leave tomorrow.
When we got home, I put everything in the garage and then took the plates off the jeep. I sat down at the counter and wrote a nice letter to the young couple, telling them what they needed to do and why I had left it to them to keep. I also put a "p.s." at the bottom, telling them about the cows and what to do if it happened to them. I spent the rest of the evening cleaning my mess up, throwing things away that I figured they wouldn't want or use. I made sure everything was spic and span so they would have nothing to do but move their stuff in and unpack. Cody and I went to the garage and got the pack done and then brought it all into the house. I set it by the kitchen counter, ready for the morning's early departure.
I took a shower and used the last of the baby shampoo on Cody so he would be clean for tomorrow. A friend was picking us up and dropping us off at the point that I wanted to start from on my last hike in the mountains. I looked around one last time before I turned out the lights and went to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day of work and pleasure. Work for me and pleasure for Cody, as he liked chasing the butterflies that were always along the trails we were going on.
When I woke the next morning, it was barely breaking daylight. I let Cody out for his morning run, and then fixed the last pieces of bread and my morning tea. As soon as I sat down, Cody was scratching and wanting in for his share. I let him in and gave him his share of the toast soaked in tea like always. I finished and sat back down, waiting for the pain to hit me. When it was over, I patted Cody and finished cleaning up. I grabbed my pack and put the keys to the house, along with the titles and my letter, in the small box mounted on the front door. I had put it there years ago as our personal way of leaving notes for each other. It was better than having to walk to the mailbox and taking the chance they would be accidently mailed by the postman. This had happened to my wife, and she was mortified when she got the single page love letter back the next day with the words printed on the outside; "That was sweet, but you can't mail it without an envelope or postage." Betty the Postmistress had kidded her about it at church the next Sunday, so I was tasked with building a box that only we could use. I had told the young couple I would leave the keys and any papers they needed in the box for them to get when they arrived.
Cody and I hiked the short distance down to the main road to wait for Dolly to pick us up. She was going to the next county to pick berries and had volunteered to drop us off at the Piedmont trail on her way. Since I had never gone in that way, I was looking forward to seeing some more of the mountain from a different angle. She was ten minutes early and I let Cody in the back, setting the pack on the seat next to him. I noticed the back of her Jeep was full of buckets and berry baskets. I opened the front door and got in, fastening the belt as she took off. She handed me a Styrofoam cup and when I looked at her with raised eyebrows, she quickly explained.
"I remembered you didn't drink coffee, Rit, so that's some of my home grown mint tea. I had a pretty good crop last year and it looks like it's gonna be heavier this year. Drink it, it's good for the stomach."
"How come you're going out of the county to pick berries, Dolly?"
"Herb plowed our patches under last year when he expanded the hay fields. I could have killed him for not discussing it with me first. He's lucky he and Tony both have to work today or they would be going with me to help. The Pickets over in Brewster have a heavy crop this year and said there wasn't a minimum amount per customer. I didn't get many last year, and I want to can at least a hundred quarts this year. My big thimbleberry patch is loaded, but it will be months before they ripen enough to start picking."
"Well, I sure don't envy you all the work you'll have to do today. I never cared that much for berry jam, but I always liked to pick strawberries with the girls. They always wore as much as they picked and Mary used to have a fit because we were always full when we got back. That never stopped her from eating them though."
We both got a laugh out of it with Dolly saying Tony used to be the same way when he was little. The rest of the ride was pretty much in silence, with me sipping the delicious tea and watching the road, thinking about the girls. When we came upon the Piedmont gates, she pulled over in the turnaround. I got out, grabbing the pack and calling for Cody to heel.
"Jeremy, I'm sorry about Mary and the girls. She was my friend and we spent a lot of time together in high school dreaming about what kind of lives we would have when we got married. I do know she was very happy and loved you and the girls with all her heart."
"Thanks, Dolly, I loved them too. Now you better get going before it gets too hot to be in the field picking berries. Thanks for the ride. Cody and I appreciate it."
"You and Cody be careful up there. I know you hiked a lot in college, but you're not a young man any more, Jeremy Ritter. You take your time and enjoy all the beautiful sights as you walk. Bye."
I watched as she drove away, again wondering if I was doing the right thing with the time I had left on this earth. I looked down at Cody and he was looking at me with his tongue hanging out. He had an expectant look on his face, so I shrugged into the pack, fastened the waist belt and jumped up and down a few times. With Cody at my side in heel, I went across the road and into the woods. I felt an inner peace almost immediately as I walked deeper into the woods. I was on the small trail that I knew was leading me to Shepard's Crossing. From there we would head straight west for about an hour and make our first camp for the night. Cody was still at the heel, so I released him so he could explore as we walked. He immediately bounded out ahead of me like always.
While I walked, my mind automatically started cataloging the sounds around me. I settled into the stride I had used so many years ago while roaming all around these mountains while on summer break. It was during one of my many hikes that I had met Mary. She was working for the summer at a small diner in the adjoining town. I had just come out of the mountains, getting ready to head back to class, when I suddenly decided to stop in and have a hot meal instead of something burned over a camp fire. I hadn't had a bath for a couple of days and needed a shave, but I didn't care, 'cause the smell of food cooking had my mouth watering. That's where I had met her, and to say the least, she didn't have many good things to say about my smell or the fact that I needed a shave. She was very polite, but I noticed she stayed back from me as far as possible when she waited on me. About halfway through the meal, I finally caught on to what was happening, when she stood on the other side of the table to refill my tea glass. I think she thought I was a bum who was planning on running out on the bill and her tip. I watched her with a smile on my face, and waited till she was almost done filling the glass before I spoke.
"I know I probably smell bad, but I won't hurt you. I have been hiking the trail all summer and haven't had a chance to clean up yet."
"I'm sorry, Sir, I didn't mean to insult you, but you do smell like moldy leaves and sweat. I can get you another waitress if you like."
I looked at her and just started laughing out loud at her indignation. She looked at me and I could tell she was mad about me laughing at her. She didn't say another word, just walked away with her back ramrod straight. I was still chuckling to myself as I got up. I left a nice tip and went to the register and paid my bill. I didn't say a word, but when I caught her eye as I went out the door, I smiled at her. She quickly looked away and I left, still chuckling. I knew she was still watching me as I walked across the street, because I could feel her eyes drilling holes in my back. I quickly climbed into the old Chevy pickup I was driving, and waved at her as I drove away. An hour later I was in the shower in my dorm, getting all the crud washed off. I had spent three months on the trail, exploring everything I could. I got a shave and decided to do laundry tomorrow since I was worn out. I went to bed and slept around the clock.
My thoughts were rudely interrupted by hearing Cody somewhere ahead of me, alternately growling and barking like he had something treed. Oh God, I thought, I hope he hasn't cornered another skunk. The last time he had sounded like this, that's what he was after. We both got sprayed and I had to throw the clothes I was wearing away. It took two weeks for the smell to finally wear off of him and I gave him hell every time we stopped to camp for the night. He at least had the grace to act ashamed when I did, although we both knew it was all an act on my part. I was the dummy who tried to chase it off with a stick and just upset it, and Cody, more. When the skunk left with three little ones following her, we were choking and gagging in the clearing.
I finally made it up to where he was, and the sight that greeted me almost made me bust out laughing. I called for Cody to heel, and although I could tell he didn't like it, he did almost immediately. He was still growling as he sat by my side watching the animal he had found. He probably considered it his personal toy, it was a possum. It was backed up against an old felled tree, with part of its body in a hole under it. I stood for about ten minutes watching it, trying to figure out what was so important about that tree that a possum would stand guard over it. For one of these creatures to act like this was not usual. They usually either went up a tree or played dead. For one to be on the ground was kinda strange, especially since they were nocturnal scavengers. I finally had my question answered when I saw eight little eyeballs peering out of the hole behind the mother. This was her birth cave and she was protecting her young. I looked down at Cody and he was shaking with eagerness to go after her again. I stepped around the tree, keeping Cody at heel and went back to the path.