The five of them used to meet at Abe Yance’s on Friday nights - in his old double-wide, pitched in the turn-around lot up top of the Seager Mountain Road. Sometimes they’d still be there Sunday, depending on how well things were going. George Traymon, Herm Childress and Corn Greet would drive the six miles up from Witcherd in Herm’s truck - shotgun up on a rack in back. Tom Wolff, who lived on the other side of the mountain in Copake, always hiked it, taking the trail through the forest and around the south shore of Telescope Lake. From there, he could drop down on Yance’s trailer from the back, mostly arriving just ahead of the others - seeing Herm’s headlights winding up through the trees across the other side of the valley like fireflies. Close enough for Tom to have shot out the lights with his rifle if he’d a mind to, but still over a mile as the road turned.
When they'd shucked off their jackets and boots and settled down with their beers, Yance would get out the cards and the session would begin. House limit twenty dollars a head, using beer caps as chips at a quarter a piece. Low stakes games. But it was never so much about the cards anyway. It was more about the five of them being there together, widowers and divorcees all - bar Tom, who'd always lived alone. It was about the beer, too, and the smokes. And Yance’s old battery wireless set in the background, tuned low to Midge Wheeler’s Night Line on WNEZ.
During the games, they wouldn't say much. Just grunts and cusses about the run of the cards. Sometimes a joke. Afterwards, though, settling back in their chairs around the stove, with the beer doing its stuff, they’d let things run. Older men’s talk, mainly – excepting Tom again, who wasn’t yet forty. He'd less in common with the others in most ways. They had a history he didn't share. Their service days. Vietnam. They didn't go into it much, and Tom had more sense than to draw them on it. He saw the look in their eyes sometimes, if the subject came up. That war had taken his own father, and they knew that, too. Maybe that was what drew them together. The thing they acknowledged, but didn't discuss.
Mostly they stuck to the common stuff. Local things. The doings in town. The prices crops were fetching. Old hunting yarns. The bastard weather, if it had been a bastard, and it usually had – too hot, too cold, too wet. Too cold as it was that particular Friday, Abe saying how they’d forecast more snow for the weekend, Herm saying how he’d seen the clouds banking up in the north earlier, felt the twinge in his shrapnel wound. It wasn’t far off.
They sat and thought on that. Six solid months of it. Snow chains. Trapped animals. Shit everywhere. And getting harder with each passing year. George twisted up a piece of newspaper and poked it into the stove, then used it to light his cob pipe. He blew out the smoke in a chuckle.
“Rosie Nouds said her Stevie’s see'd that sasquatch thing again, whatever it is.”
“Where to this time?”
“Wanderin’ in the forest, he reckoned.” His eyes creased with merriment. “Up back of a certain lady’s, shall we say, rooming establishment.”
Cackles of laughter bounced between the trailer’s tobacco-browned walls. Corn washed a cough away with a round mouthful of whiskey.
“Maybe it’s figured on tryin’ to get itself a nice piece of warm ol’ human ass.”
“Ol' bein’ the right word there, Corn,” said George. “Way Stevie tells it, I shouldn’t guess even them ones is wide enough to ‘ccommodate whatever that thing’s packin’ between its hairy thighs.”
Herm grabbed the bottle and poured a couple of fingers in his glass. "That Stevie Nouds got a big enough ass for it himself. It's where his brain is. He'll be on about friggin' space-ships next."
They laughed again. All except Tom. Herm passed the bottle to him and he poured a shot and threw it back. He'd been quiet all night. He usually was - but more so.
"Spill it, Tom," said Abe. "Something been buggin' you from the get-go."
Tom popped a Lucky between his lips and clicked his lighter to it. He puffed for a moment as the others watched him. The radio crackled and faded. Abe slammed his hand down on it and it came back. Johnny Cash was singing The Beast In Me, nice and low.
"Funny, what you was sayin'. I laughed myself when I first heard what ol' Stevie said he saw." He puffed again, thoughtfully. "But somethin' ain't right down in them woods, you know."
The radio faded out again. This time, Abe left it.
"How'd you mean?" said Corn.
Tom picked up his beer bottle and held it in front of him, staring down the neck like it was the barrel of a gun.
"I was down in there yesterday, checking the trap lines for bobcats. Found a couple, too. Something else found 'em first, though. Didn't leave much behind. Just bits of fur an' blood."
George put another twist of paper to his pipe.
"Could've been a bear. Even seen a lynx make a breakfast mess of a bobcat."
"That's true, it could've been. Probably was." He took a long swig of beer, emptying the bottle before putting it down. "Thing is... comin' up here earlier, I found a bear in pretty much the same shape. Enough damage around to see he'd put up some struggle. Maybe he did some damage of his own, 'cuz there was a fair bit of him left. Three-hunnerd pounder, I'd reckon. Black one. Not too long dead, neither."
The others sat forward. The lamplight glinted off Herm's spectacles.
"Where was this?"
"Just off the edge of the lake trail, 'bout two miles away."
Abe's face straightened.
"That's the darndest thing. Thought I heard something off that direction earlier while I was out front sawing wood. Just caught the end of it as the blade stopped. Like a wolf, but... kinda gruffer. Like some roar trailin' off in the distance."
Corn took his cheroot from his mouth and picked tobacco from his lip.
"So... what are we startin' to say here, boys? Stevie Nouds may not be as dumb as the hog-shit he seems?"
"Sayin' nothin', Corn, 'cept what I seed myself," said Tom. "Don't know much around these parts can make a meal of a healthy bear that size."
"You ain't seen me when I'm real drunk," George chuckled. He was alone in that, though.
Tom dropped his cigarette end in his empty bottle, where it sizzled like a bug on a fire.
Whether or not they all had something to add to the matter, nothing was said. They just sat for a few moments, listening to the wind whistle around the stove pipe up top, thinking their thoughts, feeling the smoke and juice in their heads, sensing the rock of the trailer on its pilings - more than it was earlier with the wind getting up, but still not above the vibration you'd feel in a slow-moving train.
Just then, the radio came back - loud - and they all jumped together. Except Tom again.
"What's up, fellahs? Somethin' spooked y'all?" he said.
Abe snorted something up the back of his nose, then hawked and spat in his handkerchief. He checked it, then screwed it up and pushed it back in his pocket.
"I'm thinking it's time for another bottle," he said. "This conversation's 'bout run its course for me."
He got up and went to the cupboard over the sink. The fresh pint of Red Eye he took from it did the trick.
"Who fancies the 'Coons for the Bowl next season?" said Corn.
With that, all thought of bear-killing monsters passed by.