Joel put his truck into park and turned the engine off. He stifled a yawn, stretched in the confines of the cab and admired the horizon as dawn broke across it. Unbuckling the seat-belt, Joel opened the door and stepped out into the chill morning air, breathing in the deep scent of Fall. The pops and pings of the Chevy’s engine as it cooled interrupted the natural beauty of the morning’s stillness.
Smiling, Joel took the keys to the back of the truck and tucked them into a small niche he had fashioned for that sole purpose. From the pickup’s bed, he took out his hiking pack and pulled it on, adjusting the straps and clipping them into place before tugging on his knit cap and leather gloves. Flexing his fingers to loosen the stiff leather, Joel walked over to his toolbox and withdrew a pair of heavy-duty wire-cutters.
Humming to himself, Joel strolled to the chain-link fence that ran the length of Old Man Duncan’s woods, surrounding and protecting the hundreds of acres of old growth forest Duncan Blood owned.
And no one, Joel thought as he stepped up to the fence, should be allowed to keep that much of the environment locked away for themselves. It should be illegal.
Sighing, Joel ignored the ‘Warning’ and ‘No Trespassing’ signs secured to the woven wire barrier. Joel cut the fencing along one of the posts, starting at the bottom and working his way up. In a few minutes, he had a three-foot length separated and rolled back, keeping it open with a branch before putting the cutters back in the truck. With a spring in his step, Joel walked back to the fence, slipped through without his backpack catching, and soon stood up. He paused for a moment to admire his handiwork; then he rolled the barrier back into place.
Taking a deep breath in through his nose and letting it out through his mouth, Joel glanced at the trees and saw a small game trail between a pair of elms. Nodding to himself, he headed out along the trail. His long, easy stride moved him quickly along the trail, which widened the deeper he moved into the forest. The undergrowth fell away, the forest dim, barely touched by the sun’s ascent. Boulders soon appeared on either side of the trail, and birdsong filled the air. Acorns sporadically rained down, thrown by squirrels in the massive oaks that crept up among the elms and pines.
Soon Joel passed through a small clearing, the branches of the trees around it forming a thick canopy above. And while the spot was pleasant, he wanted to be further into the woods before he established camp.
Continuing on, Joel enjoyed the solitude of the wilderness, the deep silence of the old growth around him. At almost an hour into the hike, he came to a stop, confused by what he saw.
A stand of young birch trees had been crushed flat, as though some piece of heavy machinery had come in, left no other mark, and destroyed the trees. The ground around it was churned, but not by tracks or tires. Joel looked at it for several minutes, confused. He had hiked all over the country, he had even finished the Appalachian Trail, and he had never seen such destruction.
The sight left him uneasy, a sense that what he looked upon wasn’t right.
With a shudder, he shook off the feeling of dread and resumed his hike.
In less than an hour, he came upon a stream and turned his head, nauseous at the sight before him.
There had been a beaver dam and a lodge.
Both had been shattered, their remnants scattered around. The beavers were dead, mangled and mashed into bloody lumps of protruding bones and pressed flesh. Joel had a quick, vicious mental image of someone shoving the animals into an apple-press.
Disgusted at the violence, he shook his head.
Does the Old Man know what happened here? he wondered. Hell, did he do it?
Leaving the grotesque scene behind him, Joel followed the stream. Another hour passed without any more horrors, and then a second hour as well before he arrived at the perfect campsite.
Joel came upon it suddenly, the forest falling away from the stream, the water whispering around a trio of boulders that were half as tall as the trees. The earth around the near side of the stream was beaten down, and the remains of a tremendous bonfire occupied the center of the battered earth. Amongst the ashes, Joel noticed, were charred and broken bits of deer bones.
There was a sense of age to the charcoal and bones, an appearance of benign neglect and a feeling as though it hadn’t been used in months.
Safe enough for a single night, Joel thought.
He shucked his pack and gloves, rubbing his shoulders to free them of the ache long hikes always left him with. The sun was almost directly above him, a sure sign that noon was creeping up on him. Leaving his gear near the ashes, Joel wandered around the stream and boulders. He picked up deadfall and branches, carrying several loads to his gear where he formed the wood into a rough pyramid. When he finished, he stripped the bark off some of the smaller pieces and laid them in as tinder. With the wood prepared for later, Joel turned his attention to his pack, retrieving his one-man tent.
Joel put the tent up, sat down beside it and dragged his pack closer. From one pocket he took out his food, a second supplied his water bottle, and from a third, he withdrew his copy of Kiss Me, Deadly, by Mickey Spillane. Joel ate and read slowly, eventually taking off his cap and sweatshirt, balling them together to serve as a pillow as the day continued to warm up.
By the time the sun neared the western horizon a definite chill had settled into the air. Putting the book down, and the sweatshirt and cap back on, Joel set a match to the tinder, coaxing the fire into life. Once the flames moved steadily around the dead wood Joel gave a snort of disgust, and he pushed the deer bones to the edges of the pit, shaking his head at the deep gouge marks in the bone.
Savages, he thought. Who knows what the hell the Old Man does out here.
Joel smiled as the fire threw off a pleasant heat that slipped around him as evening arrived. Humming, Joel took out his dinner, a prepackaged vegetarian meal, and added wood to the fire, building it up. It wasn’t nearly as large as the remains of the bonfire that he had found, but it was bigger than most he built.
But Joel wasn’t worried about being seen. He was deep in the forest, far from the old man’s house on the property’s northern border.
By the time the sun set Joel had finished both his meal and the book. He rolled a cigarette, lit it off a branch from the fire, and lay back. Joel listened to the night birds and watched the stars populate the night sky. He grew tired from the heat of the fire, his eyelids drooping as he flicked the butt of the cigarette into the flames.
This, he thought with a sigh, closing his eyes, has definitely been one of the better hikes.
The earth trembled beneath him, and Joel’s eyes snapped open.
Again, the world shook, trees swaying in the darkness.
An earthquake? he thought, sitting up. He glanced nervously at the giant trees and stones bathed in flickering light.
Another tremble and something in the forest fell.
Panic rose within him, and Joel forced it down, trying to focus as himself to think as the earth shook again.
That’s no earthquake, he thought. That’s got a rhythm.
He scrambled to his feet. What the hell is that?
And his answer stepped out of the forest by the stream, coming to a stop.
A giant stood opposite Joel, a man easily a dozen feet tall and standing naked in the firelight. He carried a massive wooden cudgel and coarse, dark hair covered his wiry body. Black hair hung in dreadlocks to his chest, and a braided beard reached nearly to his waist. His face was broad, the features thick and he broke into a smile when he saw Joel, his nostrils flaring.
The creature took a step forward, a tremor rippling through the ground.
Joel took a nervous step back, glancing from left to right.
The giant chuckled.
“There is nowhere to run, little one,” the creature said, his voice deep. “This is Jack’s parcel of Blood’s Forest, and none know it better than Jack.”
Jack advanced another step, and Joel retreated one as well. Jack swung his cudgel casually. “Which way shall you run, hmm, little one?” he asked. “Back the way you came? Or shall you run right, to the Goblins’ Keep?”
Joel licked his lips nervously, his heart beating faster.
“Is it left then, little one, behind the Stones of Coffin’s Stand to Blood’s dark orchard?” Jack raised an eyebrow. “Or perhaps you shall run by me, into the forest’s dark heart where things worse than old Jack await the sweet taste of man?”
“What are you?” Joel blurted out.
“What am I?” Jack chuckled. “I’m Jack, a humble baker.”
“A baker?” Joel asked, his blood pounding in his ears.
“Yes, yes. A baker,” Jack said with a grin. “You’ve not heard the rhyme then, little one?”
Joel shook his head, confused.
Jack laughed, broad yellow teeth catching the glow of the firelight. “I’m sure that you have, and you’ve just forgotten.”
In a singsong voice Jack called out softly, “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread.”
Joel stiffened, the full horror of the situation rushing through him.
“See there, little one,” Jack said, winking. “Now you remember. Old Jack’s a baker.”
He ran towards the giant, leaping the stream and cutting hard to the right.
The cudgel caught him in the stomach and Joel folded over it, his breath rushed out of him as ribs cracked. He felt himself fly backward and in a moment he splashed into the stream. Joel struggled to stand, but Jack was there, plucking him out of the water. Pain ripped through him as Jack carried him to the fire. The giant dropped his cudgel to the ground, and he casually peeled Joel’s clothes off.
Agony wracked Joel’s body, but he couldn’t move. His terror kept him immobilized, a helpless child in the giant’s hard hands.
Jack made a neat pile of Joel’s sopping wet clothes, then he stood and held Joel at arm’s length, examining him. Joel hung limply in Jack’s grasp, unable to bring himself to do anything.
Jack nodded and set Joel down, turning his attention to the fire. Pain spiked in Joel’s ribs and jarred him out of shock.
When Jack turned away to throw more wood on the fire, Joel scrambled to his feet and ran.
He sprinted past the giant, aiming towards the game trail he followed in earlier. In spite of the searing agony in his ribs, Joel rushed towards the tree-line.
Something heavy struck him in the back of the knee, sending him rolling onto the hard forest floor. He struggled to get up, but Jack was there. The giant picked him up easily, shaking his head as he brushed Joel off with a huge, calloused hand.
“Don’t run, little one,” Jack said, carrying Joel gently. “You will only die tired.”
And Joel wept as he heard the crackle and snap of the fire and felt the warmth of it upon his bare skin.
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