The below story is dedicated to the musicians and singers that participate in the "Thursday Night Country / Gospel Jam Session" at the Central Park Church of Christ, in Tilton, IL. They have put up with their sound man sitting back in the corner, first writing a Science Fiction Novel (part of the Argo Epic series elsewhere on the Desk website), and now this. Well, as the Desk doesn't play an instrument, and we're all better off if it doesn't try to sing, This is the result.
Enjoy, Doc L
©2022 Levite, TheMediaDesk.com
I never thought things like this could happen in real life. In My Life.
It was legend. Mythology. Folklore.
And yet, here I was, and here they were, standing in front of me, talking about Merlin the Magician.
And King Arthur.
And I believed them
My real middle name is Jane, and that is what I used as my professional name for several years in the park's office because there were two other ladies in the headquarters with the same first name, so as my grandmother had called me Jane for ages, I became Jane.
And it was as Jane that I was introduced to some special individuals that I met in the course of my new job as the caretaker of a state wilderness area.
To tell you about it I have to go back a bit and begin in that office with the other "Elizabeth" and the end of a long term relationship of mine that convinced me that I needed a change of scenery for awhile.
Now, looking back at the spring of 2019 from a couple of years later, I realize I got far more of a 'change' than I had bargained for. But, I wouldn't change it if I could.
I had been working for Maine's Parks and Lands Bureau for several years, and had spent most of it sitting in an office or, even worse, a cubicle, in the main building in Augusta.
I began doing data entry converting years upon years of records from aging paper copies into computerized records. It was often tedious, but I developed a knack for being able to decipher, and in some cases, translate from French or even Acadian into something the rest of the department could read if they needed to look up who had rebuilt the bathhouse at Sebago Lake after a bad storm in the Seventies and then submitted their bill from Canada.
Then I moved from dealing with records from the park facilities to dealing with the park people.
And so I spent the first dozen or so years of a career that began not long after college.
Then what I had thought was a committed long term personal relationship dissolved in a matter of days early that year, and I found my small office claustrophobic. And then, just as summer began, I got a call from a travel agent about what was supposed to be a dream vacation for two, half of which had just been canceled, was I interested in going solo.
"No. Thank you. Cancel my half as well, and I understand that some of what has been paid cannot be refunded, that's fine, just cancel it."
As it happened, not long after that I saw a posted opening for a resident caretaker in a wilderness reserve area that was one of those odd agreements between the National Forest Service and the State of Maine and a conservation group in the central area of lakes and ponds that were linked with small streams that, in many cases, flowed through amazingly steep canyons. There were supposed to be four caretakers that rotated the duty, they were down to two, and as one of them was retiring in about a month, they were seeking two new people to begin training as soon as possible.
I'd never been up there. In fact, If it hadn't been for the fact that I remembered doing the conversion of some of the original documentation and survey information from it, I wouldn't have even known that it existed. But, while the posting said that the job required some records keeping, most of it involved patrolling the wilderness portion of the land, checking on the primitive campground, some trail maintenance, and keeping tabs on the wildlife.
The post came with a cabin, an all terrain vehicle, and the phone number to a helicopter service that was contracted to provide aerial reconnaissance on a regular basis.
I thought about it, and promised myself that I could do it for a year, and then, if the absolute solitude and the limited interaction with other people got to me I'd bid out.
It was a long drive from Augusta, and I wasn't totally sure about the directions. So I left extra early and had breakfast on the road. So, not long after eight AM I turned up a gravel road with a faded sign and looked for the office.
I found it and parked next to the large log cabin that was the main office for the preserve. I smiled as I saw the date on the building. It reminded me of when I did the records for the state's portion of the expanse. A lot of the ground belonged to the People of the United States with the state overseeing it. The buildings were owned by the State of Maine. The main office had been built after a forest fire had cleared a spot for it, without the permission of Uncle Sam as it turned out, in the nineteen teens.
The log building was now over a hundred years old, and looked it, but it was well built out of huge Maine pines, and as I walked up onto the porch I had to stop and look up at the timbers that were holding the roof up. They had been replaced by that same contractor that submitted bills in French Acadian. The memory was pleasant, and I smiled at the obvious craftsmanship that even now, blended perfectly with the old building, and you'd never know that about thirty years ago a Nor'easter had pushed a giant tree over and had taken the original porch and stairs off as cleanly as you could please, without doing more than breaking the front windows. A Maine-based contractor had replaced the windows, and submitted their bill in American English.
I took a deep breath and walked into my first actual job interview that I had been to in over sixteen years. I confirmed my original start date in my personnel file, sixteen years.
"Hello, Jane. You passed," a gentleman said as I walked in. Then he stood up and walked across the room with his hand out.
It took me a minute to recognize the parks supervisor that I had worked with a few times. "Good Morning, Ben." Then I realized what he had said, "what do you mean 'I passed'?"
"You found the place, and you're even early." He looked at the clock. "I had an interviewee last week that couldn't drive up the road and they said it was too far to walk."
"You have to admit that that is barely a road."
"We grade it once a year."
I laughed, "whether it needs it or not."
"Exactly." Then he gestured to the room, "I'm the interview committee, and you are the applicant. Do you really want the job?"
"Yes. I need a change of scenery and to get out of the office for awhile. And this is both."
"Good enough for me. You got it. I'll show you around."
Ben explained that this section of the Wilderness was Federal, but "right there" is the boundary to a section of the state's public land, and then he said it got more confusing, "and remember seeing the gate as you came up?" I nodded, "That's to a private section of several hundred acres that we oversee. It's owned by a foundation but will become public land in something like fifty years. You can check the agreement if you have trouble sleeping some night."
I smiled, "That boring, huh?"
"Amazingly boring, they spend two pages of legal gibberish describing the stakes they used when it was last surveyed in the fifties. And they go on and on about how no other fencing is allowed other than the entry gate."
I feigned falling asleep on my feet and he laughed.
Then Ben walked to the door and opened it, "Let's go for a ride, we can do whatever paperwork we have to do when we get back."
I started naming the forms I'd need to change jobs from the home office section to work in the reserve.
Ben shook his head and held up his left hand, "OK, you can fill them out and I'll sign them. Deal?" He put out his right hand.
I shook it and we went outside.
We got in an aging all terrain four wheeler, and Ben had to crank it and push and pull at the choke knob for at least a full minute before it rumbled to life. "We've got a 'save the earth' electric unit, and it's fine around here and down the road to the main camping and picnic areas, and make sure you're seen on it down there. But to go up the fire road to Lake Nevermind, and on up on the brook and stuff, take this, or you'll be walking back to get it to tow the electric one back."
"I'll remember that."
"Oh, yeah, something else, how are you on a two wheeler?"
"Bicycle or motor cycle?"
"I do OK. It's been a few years since I rode an offroad motorcycle. My brother has several of them, I do still ride when I go down there to visit. He likes to take them down the coast trails along the Narrows."
"Mount Desert?" I nodded. "We used to go fishing down there. A friend of mine runs a charter out of Bar Harbor."
I nodded with familiarity, "Does he stay in the inlet or go out into the Gulf?"
"Depends on how much you're willing to pay."
"Do you know how to ride a snow machine?"
"Been awhile, but we used to do it all the time with my grandfather. I've been on one a few times since then."
"There's a contract with Peterson's. They'll deliver them early in the winter. Hopefully before you need it. When he brings them, he'll pick up the bikes for a once over. Then in the spring, sometime, he'll swap them back."
"Oh, OK. Good. That sounds like a nice arrangement."
Ben nodded, "it is. I like it. I wish I could say it was my idea. But they set it up years before I started here."
Ben said that while we had good light he'd show me his favorite overlook on one of the creeks, then later we'd go see if anybody had made a trip out to have a picnic or set up camp in the access area. I said that sounded good to me and he turned down the service road that quickly became a single lane as it left the clearing around the buildings.
"Watch your phone signal," Ben said over the machine as we lurched through an erosion channel.
I took out my cell phone and checked, "Two bars, almost," I said and he nodded. But as we rounded a turn and went up and then down, it dropped to one. But then the side of the path dropped away and I had to look at the scenery along the far side of the gorge we were following.
Ben told me that Casper's Brook was "down in there somewhere since it rained the other day." Then he went on to tell me about what had been a lumber camp on the other side of the valley, "sometimes a college class or somebody will request to use it, you can take one of these and get to it, if you know where to go, otherwise it's walk in only."
Then the track turned back into the trees and the view changed to green. I looked down at my phone, "And now, no signal." I held it up and out and tried to aim it at where I thought the town was, it didn't help.
There was a sharp uphill portion and then Ben turned back to the left, then slowed to a stop.
The view was spectacular. On the other hills you could just see where the edges of some of the early turning trees were beginning to change into their fall colors.
He got off the ATV and pointed to the left. "The Appalachian Trail runs right along that ridge way to the south." He swung his arm a little, "Moosehead Lake is due west." Then he gestured to a high point to the north, "The Spencer Mountains are up there. So you can see, we're in the middle of everything, but nobody knows we're here. And we like it that way."
"How much land do we manage?"
"That depends on who you ask. I'll show you the maps back at the office. Wanna go see the best small waterfall in the state?"
He drove down the trail and wound through some really big rocks. Then he stopped next to a rather small but lively stream. "Come on, I'll show you the top. Then we'll see the other side of it."
We walked along the stream until Ben stopped and pointed down. The stream disappeared into a narrow crack in the bedrock. "Now, let's go around and see where it comes out."
If I hadn't just seen that it was a natural feature I would have thought that some eccentric millionaire had installed a fountain in the middle of nowhere just for fun.
The small stream of water appeared from the face of a boulder strewn cliff with a surprising amount of force to land splashing among several boulders several yards down the hill accompanied by a great deal of noise.
"It only does that after a rain. Otherwise people would be up here all the time to see it. Usually it's just trickling down the cliff."
I nodded, like this, it was something to see.
"By tomorrow, it'll be half that, then it all but vanishes into the rocks."
At first I didn't understand why he considered this the best waterfall in Maine, then as I looked at it, and its setting, I began to agree with him. The sight and sound of the water against the rocks, with the occasional surge and splash, was hypnotic.
Ben drove around and stopped where one ancient logging road intersected another one and explained what was which way, "and if you follow that one around to the north and east it comes into the back of the foundation tract. But we'll turn right and go back to the office. OK?"
"Sure." I answered. I had looked at the map of the reserve in my own office, and I thought I had some idea of the trails and roads, but now, I had no idea where we were or how to get back to where we started.
Which was dramatically proven when the four wheeler jolted out off the old road and onto the main drive in not far from the office.
He rolled to a stop next to the garage building. "You can drive us down to the day use area if you want to."
"I'd love to."
"It's a bit sluggish until the motors get warmed up."
"So am I some mornings."
"Lot of that going around," he chuckled.
He showed me how to turn off the charger and unplug the electric vehicle, then he coached me through turning it on and letting off the parking brake. "Then you just drive it almost like a regular golf cart."
"Cool. Where are we going?"
"Back down the main road and make a left just past the gate, you won't see the sign from this side."
"On our way."
He was right about the cart being a little sluggish, but once it got going, it was a nice quiet ride.
There was nobody in the picnic area, or further along in the primitive camping area. But we could see where somebody had been, and left a bag of trash that some local animals had investigated. We cleaned it up and put the trash in a garbage bag from the stash under the passenger seat, then put the refuse in the back of the cart.
"There's one more stop," Ben said as we got moving again, "there's a nature information board and stuff up trail, we'll check it out, sometimes somebody will leave a collection of beer cans or something around the bench."
"OK, I remember where that is, let me see if I can find it."
He nodded and gestured back down the road.
I remembered seeing the trail on the map between the camping area and the picnic grounds, so I slowed down and there it was. The trail was almost wide enough for the cart, with the bushes sometimes scraping along its sides and I drove slowly up the hill, and my foot almost had the power pedal all the way to the floor.
"I see what you mean about the power."
"And this isn't that steep of a hill, and it isn't loaded down with stuff either."
I parked in the small clearing and we walked around. There weren't any beer cans, but there was some odd sticks and other natural debris that we picked up and threw into the undergrowth.
Ben told me about the Boy Scout troop that put up the information board years ago as a project. And now, every so often, somebody will come out and update it with something, and about every other year he'd come out and do whatever repair or paint it needed. Including last year, putting new shingles on the roof over it.
I looked at the display. It identified a half dozen or so of the local trees, and some of the flora, and had some photos of various animals one might encounter in the Maine woods. "It's nice, I guess."
"Yeah, for what it is and where it's at, it serves as our nature center well enough."
I shrugged, "I guess that's all it needs to do," I said after looking around the clearing.
"Exactly, ready to head back?"
Two weeks later I was packed up in both my office and apartment, and headed to those Maine woods.
My landlord was all kinds of happy to let me out of the last five months of my lease, because now she could raise the rent on whoever signed the next lease to the new outrageous amount. If I had stayed, it could only have gone up five percent.
Two of my friends from the agency had borrowed a state pool van and would follow me up to the reserve with everything I didn't put in storage and thought I would need.
On the drive up I had time to think about my introduction to my new home.
When we were back in the office and I was filling out my own transfer forms for Ben's signature he told me about the cabin that he thought I'd be the most comfortable in. "It's not the big one, we have to keep that one open for any VIPs that come out here. But it is the bigger of the two open ones, and now that I'm thinking about it, I think it's the newest as well."
"The last construction invoice I saw for cabins was in the eighties, they built two that were both just over five hundred square feet. Not counting the front porch."
"OK, it is one of those, but there's a smaller one that was already here. I'm sharing the other one with Mike, he lives in town and only stays out here on the weekends." He laughed, “I GO to town on the weekends.” He chuckled for a moment, "except in the winter, then I watch a lot of movies on the big screen in the office."
I nodded at the memory of what the file said about the smaller cabin. There had been two identical ones that size, but some wood chewing insects got to one of them, and now the park had a lean-to that was used for storage, and a contract with a local exterminator to keep it from happening again.
The last unit on the loop was a bunkhouse cabin that was used for volunteer groups and families. Ben said it was already reserved for two weekends next year by a couple of groups that wanted to plant trees in the old logging tract.
After he signed the paperwork confirming that I had the job, he gave me a set of keys to the cabin and we drove around and down the hill to the small group of buildings.
The cabin may have claimed five hundred square feet, but I didn't believe it, "maybe they count the porch as living space," I joked as he walked in and opened the window in the kitchen to get some fresh air in the place.
Most of the cabin was a large single empty room, with a kitchen in one back corner, and a small enclosed bathroom in the other corner with a stacked washer and drier that looked like they'd work. There were three ceiling light fixtures in the cabin, and some wall plugs located pretty much at random around the outside wall.
"Well Jane, what do you think?" Ben asked as we finished the tour. "Oh, and we'll get you a new fridge. I stole the one from here when the one in our cabin died a couple of years ago."
"Oh, OK. Well, it is small, but it's nice. I think it'll do."
"We do have internet up here. They ran it into the office. Then I had my son and his son come up and split it off and we strung a cable up here, There's a... I know what it is, wye fie transmitter in the cottage, we all connect to it."
"In fact, I'll show you where it is in case you need to reset it. Sometimes it needs a good kick to get it going again."
I nodded and we walked out of the cabin. I locked the door then tried my key to make sure it would unlock it. It did.
As we walked over to the cottage he told me about how they all thought it was haunted because once in awhile you'd see a light in it when the only thing on in it was the wifi transmitter.
"Oh, that, and sometimes you can hear music coming from it."
"Accordion music," he said then continued as my eyebrows climbed my forehead. "Years ago there was a director out here who'd played it. When somebody had a big picnic at the old shelter he'd go down and play for them. From what I've heard, he was pretty good. He practiced in the house, I guess he's still there and has it with him."
"You've heard him playing?"
"Yeah, A couple of times, and once was in the afternoon. It sounded like a polka or something. One of the conservation officers was up here awhile back and heard him playing 'Shenandoah'. He said he recognized the song. He walked over there and as he got closer it got softer then stopped."
I looked at the house as we walked up to it, and half expected to hear music as Ben sorted through his key ring and opened the door.
But there was no music.
The two bedroom cottage was partially furnished, if outfitted with fresh linens it would serve well enough for the overnight stay for some Very Important Person who didn't want to stay at the closest motel, which was about thirty miles away.
"See, they even get a TV!" Ben said pointing to a now ancient television mounted to the wall.
"How many stations does it get out here?" I smiled at the old metallic sticker on it that proclaimed it was COLOR in gold letter.
"Two, sometimes three. Couple more at night, sometimes."
"If the wind is right," I added.
I opened the refrigerator and was surprised that other than smelling a bit musty, like the whole house, it wasn't in bad shape.
"We clean it out before and after somebody stays here," Ben said as he went to check the bathroom.
"When's the last time somebody stayed here?"
"Actually about a month ago. Mike's family came up for a few days when we had his retirement party, and we put them up in here. They even used the hide-a-bed." He gestured to the old sofa that looked like it weighed a ton.
"That was nice of you. Did they hear the accordion player?"
"No, but as much noise as his grandkids made they may have scared the ghost away."
We laughed at that idea and locked the house up and walked back to the electric vehicle.
Now, as we turned off the highway I wondered about what I was getting myself into.
While I had a fairly new TV, I wasn't sure it would get any stations even if the wind was right. And when I checked the wifi signal with my phone, I could tell I wasn't going to be streaming a lot of movies either. As for cell phone signal, well, that didn't look real promising either.
Ben said there were several places in the reserve that you could get decent signal and make a cell call. The office and cabins had wired lines to them, but that was the only sure connection to the outside world.
I had wanted to 'get away' from my old life, and this was definitely away from that, but maybe I hadn't thought completely through everything. Such as that I liked to stop on my way home from work and pick up some take out for supper. My old route home took me by everything from China to Mexico to Italy. Now, supper was up to me and the pantry.
Ben said that they usually made one trip a week into town to the stores. And that the state delivered some essentials like toilet paper and trash bags once a month. "Plus," Ben added, "if you need something, raid the supply closet. We've got a lot of stuff put back for winter."
Back in the office, he showed me the storeroom and supply closet. One of the things I decided I'd do was to go through the storeroom and throw out all the canned food that was over two years past its best by date, things like that.
As for the paper goods, they had tissue boxes that were advertising a chance to win tickets to a college football New Year's bowl game, from six years ago.
"We don't go through a lot of stuff like that," Ben said, "I guess I forgot to rotate it in storage."
"I can take care of it."
Then Ben went and checked outside, then he looked around the office and his face got really sad and serious.
"If you're going to tell me that I have to explain to the division's accountants why I threw out twenty year old toilet paper, I can do that."
"It's a lot more serious than that," he walked over to the desk and picked up the papers he'd signed, "I should have told you before I signed these, but I guess if I have to I can tear them up."
Now I knew it was serious, "What is it? Just tell me."
"It's a long story that you may not believe, but we can run out there and I can prove it to you after I explain it all. It's a little late, but we can get there and back before it gets too dark."
"Just tell me. You've got a family of Bigfoots up here. OK, I can keep a secret."
"We've had our fair share of Bigfoot sightings, but that's not it. OK, let's sit down and I'll tell you." Then he paused, "no wait, we'll just go now, we'll take the Jeep." He nodded more to himself than to me and fished yet another set of keys out of one of his pockets. "This time of day Amlodd should be in their home area."
"You'll see, some of their names are a bit odd to us. Come on, I'll explain as we go. You can unlock the gate for us." He handed me a key on a big green clip.
"OK. I can't wait to hear this one."
"But you have to swear to keep the secret. And it is a big deal. And it is important."
I nodded and held up my right hand, complete with gate key, "You have my word."
He began the story as we walked toward the old National Guard surplus vehicle, "Years ago there was a good sized pack of hunting dogs. They ended up not having a home, and they couldn't stay in the area where they were, so, as the years passed, they moved, as a pack, and ended up living around a couple of small caves and an old building on the Foundation's land. Well, as time went on, the original family that were the trusties, and knew their secret died out, and an agreement was made with the State, for the land, with some clever wording to protect the native species and any resident feral animals that happened to be on the land."
"Meaning the hunting dogs."
"The dogs," he nodded and turned onto the lane.
I got out and unlocked the gate and he drove through, then I closed it and hooked it without locking it since I assumed we'd be driving out again shortly. Then I got back in the jeep.
"OK. You're wondering what's so special about these dogs, other than they have odd names."
The lane split and he took the one that was most overgrown and almost impassible. "That way goes up toward their maintenance shed, there's not much left in it that's any good. If we have to work over here, we bring everything with us."
"Oh, OK, that's good to know."
He slowed down even more, as the track descended into a ravine, then he tooted the Jeep's horn three times quickly, then twice more.
"A signal? To the dogs?"
"Well, yeah, mostly. But also to Amlodd." Then he drove on slowly, and repeated the signal a couple more times, and eventually arrived in a clearing.
Down here in the gully, with the thick forest cover, it was already twilight. The Jeep's headlights made an oblong of brightness in the world of gloom under the trees.
"Ahhh, well met Ranger Ben. Who is your charming companion?" A thickly accented voice called out from undergrowth. Then a man emerged, clothed, if that is indeed the word, in a deerskin robe. His hair and thin beard was a dirty blond with a touch of gray, but his eyes were clear and intense.
"Oh, Arwyn, I thought this was your brother's month."
"You are always a month behind my friend. And yes, dear lady, I am Arwyn."
"I'm sorry, yes, this is Jane, she is taking the vacant resident caretaker position."
"Excellent. It has been far too long since I set eyes on such an attractive woman from outside." Then I became aware of several sets of canine eyes peering at us from the undergrowth.
"Thank you. It's nice to meet you as well."
"I sense great confusion. Let me guess. My friend Ben didn't tell you our whole story."
"He mentioned some odd names and a bit about them." I nodded to the dogs.
Arwyn laughed, and some of the dogs from back in the bushes yipped. Then Arwyn smiled broadly and said, "My dear lady, let me tell you the whole tale."
All I could do was stand there, in front of the Jeep, petting various large beautiful hunting dogs with names like Deryn and Osian, and listen.
Arwyn carried most of the story, with an explanation from Ben as needed, and I couldn't even think of a question to ask.
He told me about how the dogs were originally from England, and how they had tried to remain isolated as some of the local people attempted to exterminate them. Then, somebody heard about their plight and brought them first to Massachusetts, then eventually to Maine, where they have been ever since.
Then I asked how long they'd been here.
"Oh, a very long time dear lady. A very long time indeed. And we were in England for ages before that. You see, I am one of them."
"You're a dog?" I said in the voice I used when somebody was trying to pull a practical joke on me.
"Yes, ma'am, and Amlodd there is my brother."
Amlodd jumped up on me as if to confirm it. I glanced at the large powerful dog and could see something in his eyes that wasn't dog-like. For some reason, I accepted the fact and then looked back at Arwyn. "But." Was all that came out.
"And this is, as they say in America, the 'rest of the story'." He bent down and patted one of the others on the head. For the first time I noticed that he was wearing moccasins of the same sort of deerskin his robe was made of. "It isn't so much that we are hunting dogs, it is whose hunting dogs we are."
"Whose you are?"
"Yes, you see, we belong to." He paused and stood up straight. "We are the hunting pack of King Arthur."
I didn't laugh.
At the name several of the dogs barked excitedly.
"But, you're human."
"I am for right now, and for another few days. At the end of the coming New Moon I will revert back to my natural state," he nodded at the dogs, "and my brother Amlodd will take my place as the pack's human guardian until the next lunar cycle. And my friend Ben will be confused for another month."
"How did this happen?"
"Merlin." He said almost under his breath. Then he wouldn't say any more for several minutes.
Ben took up the story. "From what I understand, toward the end of the golden age of Camelot, Merlin the Magician was very erratic in his doings. You see that in some of the movies and stuff. Well, he got into his head that Arthur's hunting dogs, which had been tended to by his squire Gydawg, Gooddog..." He glanced at Arwyn for help with the name.
The man in the deerskin frowned, but obliged, "Gwyddawg."
"Yes, that one always trips me up. There was a big dispute, and somehow he ended up in a fight with Sir Kay, one of the knights..."
"Who was a drunkard." Arwyn said bitterly.
"Well, at any rate, Gwydog ended up killing Kay. And the King had to sentence his own squire to death for murder. Leaving them without a caretaker."
Arwyn didn't react other than petting one of the other dogs.
"Then Merlin got involved and accused them of being more loyal to Morddred than to Arthur."
I shook my head, "Wasn't Mordrid the king's illegitimate son? The one who said he was the rightful heir."
Arwyn finally responded, "Yes. But he was no Arthur, and he was cruel and stupid besides. We were not loyal to him, at all. When he took us hunting, we did our duty, but that was all."
"Merlin didn't see things that way. And one day during that time, just before the battle, he went down to the kennel and cursed the whole lot of them so they couldn't take sides in the showdown with, the bad son."
Several of the dogs that were on the edge of the clearing howled mournfully.
"They understand what we're saying?" I asked Arwyn even though I was pretty sure I already knew the answer.
"Most of it. When I am one of them I understand most of what humans say, and I remember a good deal from one side to the other. I cannot directly speak like now, but I can usually make myself understood."
"You can all but speak," Ben said, "when nobody else is around one or two of them will even come up and ride with us when we do a patrol around the reserve."
"Yes, we do. It is enjoyable. And Wyndam there is the best tracker ever, as he is, or as a human, if they are in these woods, he can find them."
Wyndam looked up at me with bright intelligent eyes.
I found myself talking to him as if he would understand me, "That's good to know, Wyndam."
Ben laughed, "especially if they have ever eaten a bacon cheeseburger."
Wyndam barked in agreement.
Arwyn finally smiled, "we do have certain weaknesses."
I looked around and counted about sixteen dogs, but it was hard to be certain of how many I was seeing as they came and went into the darkness around us. "How many of you are there?"
"Right now, fourteen that change, there are three more that are not mature yet, they will, grow into it. At most, there are only twenty of us. That was how many Merlin spoke over."
"They live a long time for a dog, sometimes twenty five years or more, but that's all. Then later, there will be a litter, and they begin again. When the dog matures, the personality comes out, and they change at the New Moon." Ben added.
"The new moon. Not the full moon?"
"No. They're not werewolves. They're almost the exact opposite."
"On or about the New Moon every month we change for about a week. Sometimes it is only three or four days, sometimes a bit longer, but that's it. Then the rest of the month, we are...." He patted the closest dog to him, I thought he said her name was Shandy.
I stood numbly in front of the Jeep and absent mindedly scratched one of the dogs behind its ears while it licked my other hand affectionately. I think they said his name was Osian, but I'm not sure. I never thought things like this could happen in real life. In my life to boot.
They were talking about legends and mythology. The folklore of old England.
And yet, here I was, in a state forest, on my new job, and here they were, all around me, while Ben and Arwyn talked about Merlin the Magician, the Knights of the Round Table, and the downfall of King Arthur, and how Arwyn and his friends were involved with it, and I believed them.
"So, King Arthur lived? What do they think? Five, six hundred AD?"
Ben shrugged, "something like that."
"Old dogs," Ben said and Arwyn laughed and smiled.
"Well, it's a heck of a story." I said as I straightened up from petting Osian and then I looked at my hands and the sleeves of my jacket, "I will say one thing," I looked at Arwyn, "Osian sheds."
"We need to get back to the office. She's got to drive back to Augusta tonight." Ben stuck his hand out to Arywn and they grasped wrists. Then I did likewise and he smiled broadly at me and thanked me for my visiting them.
"Have a safe trip Lady Jane, I look forward to seeing you again."
"Me too. I think I will love getting to know all of you."
Several of the dogs yapped loudly and I had to wade through them to get into the Jeep.
Ben waited until we were up the hill and on our way to the gate to ask what I thought of their secret.
"I think it's wonderful." I said.
"I'm that easy to read am I?"
He just glanced at me as he stopped in front of the gate.
"But it is hard to believe."
"Yes it is. I didn't believe it either until I saw them tranforming as a new moon ended. It wasn't pleasant to watch. They kind of melt from one form to the other."
"Does it hurt them to change back and forth?"
"I asked Amlodd what it felt like. All he could say was that it felt like they were changing. It didn't cause pain, but he could feel his body changing. He said he knows it is starting when he feels his teeth moving."
I shivered, I couldn't even imagine what they were going through. And then I realized that they had been going through it once a month for fifteen hundred years. "They're immortals." I said as the range of time sunk in.
"No, they all die. They've all died multiple times, and then in a year or so they are reborn as a puppy. But then, as the puppy grows up, they begin to change. Then they'll live a long time for a dog, but, in the end, they die, as a dog." He looked over at me, "Remember that one that hung back and didn't let you pet him? The really big shaggy one."
I thought about all the dogs I'd just seen, "I think so. He had really big ears."
"Mostly hair, but yes. That's Sloan. He's the oldest of this group. When he's walking you can see it hurts him in his back end, and he doesn't run any more. And I don't think he can see very good."
"What's he like when he changes?"
"He turns into an older man, that limps, and doesn't run." Ben chuckled, then got serious, "He'll stop changing at some point, then you know his time is about up. For this round, I guess you could say."
"What does the pack do then?"
"They, and we, take care of him as best we can. Sometimes I'll bring one of them up to the barn and keep them warm and safe until they pass."
"It's the least I can do. But some of them want to expire out in the wild. Sloan is one of those, when he knows the end is getting close he'll just vanish. We may never find his body. Then in a few years, he'll be back, as a man again." He turned the engine off.
I was silent until we were standing outside looking at the darkening trees. "Will the King ever come back to end their curse?"
"Or will Merlin ever lift it? I don't know. It's been a long time, and the last I checked, neither of them were around."
I looked out at the darkening sky in the East, there was no sign of either of them. Then I had turned to Ben. "It's been a really interesting day. And I can't wait to get back up here. But, you know, two weeks notice and all that."
"Oh, yeah. I'll send your papers by the next state courier, that'll be, not tomorrow unless I take them to town, the next day. Then it will be official."
I shook his hand and thanked him for everything, including doghair on my slacks that let me know that it hadn't been a dream, and left.
While it was only a two hour drive from the office to my apartment, it seemed longer. I kept thinking how totally absurd the story was. It went against everything I knew. Or at least against everything I thought I knew.
I remembered how one of my professors went on and on about how Camelot and all it stood for was a piece of romanticized fiction based on a handful of real characters scattered all over Europe. Well, OK, Dr. Lawrence, what would you have said if you had been out there tonight and heard and saw what I had.
And I thought I heard his answer when he had been faced with a modern interpretation of another piece of classic fiction, this time, a space age version of one of Shakespear's plays that, oddly enough, worked well. He had stood in front of the class after we had watched the video of the play, and first shook his head, then nodded and said, "Sometimes one must bow to the absurd."
Then I saw my exit and had to actually pay attention to my driving until I was in the parking lot of my apartment building.
The next day at work, I had to answer all sorts of questions about why I was leaving to go live and work in the middle of nowhere.
There were jokes about me becoming a nun, somebody started a rumor that I'd taken a job in a couple of different towns in Canada, or New Hampshire. There was an email with a photo I'd taken on vacation a couple of years ago on Long Island and they said my new job was down there. The only rumor I denied was the one that said I was running off to get married. All of the others, including the one about me going into a convent, I confirmed. It kept things lively while I closed out various accounts that were in my name and told the outside contractors and agencies that dealt directly with me who to call from now on. And left detailed instructions about where on the computer network to find various things, that is, until the tech guys downstairs moved everything
Fortunately, my assistant was fairly familiar with everything, and had been covering my vacations well enough for a couple of years, and now she was bidding on my position, and had a good chance of getting it just to keep things running smoothly
I gave a full two weeks notice, but by noon of the second day of the second week I was sitting in an empty office at an empty desk watching my assistant do my job. My boss approved my burning three days vacation and put me out on terminal leave with pay. I shook hands all around and went to finish packing my apartment and making another run to the storage unit that I'd already paid a year in advance on to give me time to decide if I was going to stay in the wildlands or not.
And now, here I was, leading Dave and Roger along a two lane road toward the lane into the reserve.
I wasn't sure if everything in the van would fit in the cabin, but Ben had told me that any overflow I could put in one corner of the storage building as long as I didn't mind mice and spiders making themselves to home in my stuff.
Which was why I had three big empty plastic totes with snap on lids sitting on top of everything else.
After we unloaded, and almost everything did fit in the cabin, I took the guys on a tour of the main features of the park, including the picnic area and the nature board. Then I showed them the map of the total area we covered, but when my finger passed over the gully in the foundation's section I hesitated, then just said that we supported the privately owned conservation tract as well. Then I went on and told them about the hiking trail that followed the far ridge and connected to the Appalachian Trail south of here.
"I've heard of that," Roger said.
"The Appalachian Trail?" Dave asked.
"No, the other one, it's one of the most rugged hikes in Maine. Something like a hundred and fifty miles of nothing but cliffs and creek crossings."
I nodded, "It runs all the way up past Loon Lodge. But we only take care of the trail and its campsite that's in our park."
Roger shook his head, "I don't want to hike that far."
"The campsite has a dugout with a chain link door to keep the bears away from you when you sleep."
Ben came by in his working clothes, a set of coveralls and a well worn flannel shirt, I had to laugh when I saw one of the dogs jump off the ATV and run into the trees when they came around the corner and they saw us by the office.
"Your dog ran off," Roger said as I introduced them to Ben.
"Oh, that's all right, he doesn't like strangers much."
"He's going to have to get used to Jane."
Ben nodded, "It may take a while, but I think he'll come around to her."
We all chatted, then the guys said they needed to turn the van in before the offices closed back in Augusta, and we said good bye to them.
I stood next to Ben as the van drove back down the lane, and then, was gone. And it felt like my old life in the city had gone with it.
"Well, now you're here. When do you want to start work?"
"It's still kinda early. Can I change clothes first?"
While I didn't officially start until Monday, and that was supposed to begin two weeks of hands on training, I wanted to see what they did on a day to day basis before Mike left for good next week.
Which meant I needed to work with him this weekend and the two days next week that he was scheduled to be on.
So as soon as I changed into some outdoor work clothes, which I had gone out and bought several sets of because I wasn't sure about the uniforms the state provided, and, besides, from what I'd seen, Ben and Mike only wore a shirt with their name on it, I went to work.
I rode with Ben down to the picnic grounds and we picked up the trash that a group had left from their "lunch in the reserve" outing. He told me to bring the electric cart around to the other shelter and he'd walk from here and pick up anything that needed picked up.
I drove to the far side of the shelter and did what he was doing from there.
The flier I found sitting on one of the picnic tables promised a nature walk with Mrs. Susanne Van Poppin after lunch. I asked Ben why that name sounded familiar.
He thought about it for a minute while he looked at the flier, "You might know her if you saw her. She used to do a program on public television about foraging for food. She's been to several of the parks to talk about eating pine nuts and which mushrooms to avoid."
"Oh, OK, I remember. She did one about digging up wild carrots and stuff."
We drove up to the nature board, and picked up some random trash, then I walked down the trail for a ways to see if they left anything else, and to see where the trail went. I stopped at the top of a ravine where the trail forked and one went down a series of partially eroded steps and the other went along the edge for as far as I could see. There wasn't any litter to pick up, so I went back to the ATV.
"Back to the dumpster and we'll get rid of this stuff."
"When do they pick this up?" I asked looking at dumpster.
"In the summer, every Wednesday, unless we call them for a special because somebody had a big party and filled it up." He pointed to the two blue recycling bins. "With those we call the county and they'll come out and get them when they get full. We try to sort stuff, but, you know." He gestured to the bag he was throwing into the dumpster. "If the people don't sort, I don't sort."
"Why wasn't there a recycling bin at the picnic pavilion?"
"There was. Somebody stole it. It hasn't been replaced yet. We're supposed to get one, it just isn't here yet."
"Oh, that can be my first assignment next week, finding out where it's at."
"All yours. There's one other thing we need to check. Nobody had been down to check the Log Ford for a couple of weeks, and I forgot to show it to you and tell you what we do down there. We got time, wanna go?"
"All right. How do we get there?"
"In the Jeep, I'll drive out, you can drive back."
The Log Ford was exactly that. A ford through one of the creeks on one of the logging roads that was still used for various purposes, including some local traffic to privately owned cabins along the perimeter of the reserve.
Ben explained that our job was to keep the logs that were staked to the banks on each side of the ford in place and the gravel that was between each one more or less in place to give traction on the way in and out. "There's bedrock here, you can see it, but they get really slick when the water is up and the algae and moss get to growing. And you can't keep up with the moss. So we bring in gravel using the tractor."
I did some raking to put the gravel back where it belonged on our side, then we waded through checking for debris and misplaced rocks, then I raked some more on the far side. Finally it was in good enough shape for another week or so, and we walked back through the creek to the Jeep.
"So I get to work the clutch with wet shoes."
"Part of the job."
Another part of the job that he had forgotten to tell me about at the interview was dealing with lost and confused tourists that were sitting in our parking lot wondering why this wasn't the commercial campground their GPS had said it was.
I'd never heard of the campground, but Ben had, and after he explained to them that the main road down the hill was west and what they wanted was east, then they said the directions made more sense and went away in search of a campsite that had water and electricity for their conversion van instead of the primitive walk in only spots that we had.
"That used to happen a lot more. Most updates to the GPS things corrected the error, but we still get one about once a month. Sometimes they get upset and tell us that we should update our information. It's not our address that's wrong."
"Did you tell the campground?"
He nodded, then shrugged, "We did, and they said they're showing their address as correct everywhere they put it. So, who knows?"
"Maybe eventually all the updates will get through and then it won't happen any more."
"Then nobody will come up here."
We locked up the office, to keep "the raccoon out of the storeroom and bears out of the fridge, I'm not kidding" as Ben put it, then we each drove down to the loop with the cabins on it. Ben waved and wished me good night and went to his.
By the time I closed the door to my cabin I was really tired, my shoes were still soggy, and I had moss in my hair.
And I had to cook something for my own supper from the stuff that I'd brought from my apartment in Augusta.
But then I got to sit on the front porch of my cabin, with nobody else out and about, with a big glass of wine, watching the evening shadows grow darker, and then a mama moose and a yearling calf walked through and totally ignored me.
I've lived and worked in Maine most of my life, I've spent my professional career working for Maine's parks department, so I've been around moose before. But this time was special. I didn't have to worry about trying to walk back to my car and end up with an upset eight hundred pound mother moose between me and my car.
So I sat there and watched them stroll along the edge of the woods. They stopped and munched a bit of something that must have looked tasty, then walked on. Then, on the other side of the dumpster, they walked into the woods and were gone. Then I went inside.
My first night in the cabin was eerily quiet, and, no, I didn't hear ghostly accordion music drifting through the trees.
In both of my apartments in Augusta, it was never completely quiet. There was always some sort of background noise. Highway traffic, the neighbor's air conditioner, the railroad off in the distance, and of course the occasional siren from an ambulance or fire truck. Here, when my own cabin's refrigerator shut down, there was no sound other than nature outside.
I got up and slowly opened the door and looked and listened. I could hear frogs down by the creek, there were birds rustling in the undergrowth and a light breeze stirring the higher branches of the trees. But nothing like being in the city.
Finally I shut the door and went to the kitchen and found a radio station and left it on really low to break the silence.
As I went back to bed I heard an ad for a car dealer who promised to take 'anything with wheels' in trade, and fell asleep to just enough civilization for comfort.
Saturday morning I met Mike as he came in for his third to last part time shift.
"I've still got to come in one more day after this weekend, then it's final," he smiled.
"What do you do on the weekends?"
"Drink coffee. Drive around in the four by. Oh, and something I do that nobody else does is go out to the rough trail and check the emergency supplies that we leave out there for anybody who needs them."
"I've seen that trail on the map, but we didn't get out there."
"You're in for a treat," he smiled. Then he looked me up and down, "boots, work pants, heavy shirt, hat. Ben did good training you."
"I've worked for Maine BPL for a long time, I know the wardrobe."
He nodded, "oh, that's right. Jane from State House Station, OK. Now I know who you are." Then he looked around, "You'd rather be out here than in the big office?"
"Yes. For awhile."
"I think I like you." He gestured to the storeroom, "Let's see if there's anything that looks like it wants to go for a ride and get left."
Our weekend part-timer, Jack, came in and we chatted for a few minutes. Then he took a big weed whacker and went off on the electric ATV down to the picnic grounds. He said that doing what needed down down there would probably take him the rest of the day.
Mike explained that he used to take regular canned goods, but after replacing several can openers, now he only takes stuff with easy open tops. He picked a random selection of things like beans and luncheon meats, and half a dozen bottles of water and put them in a bag and handed it to me. Then he grabbed two rolls of toilet paper and one of paper towels, and one package of four AA batteries, "That'll do," he said. "We'll check the gas and hit it. You've got to have a full tank to get there and back."
"No, not if you can fly, but to drive out there, and back, and survive the trip, yeah, it's that far."
He drove down, and around, and up, and down, and around, and finally we were creeping along what he kept calling the 'rough trail'.
"Some of this is in our reserve, and some ain't, depending on which map you look at. But we maintain all of it, just because nobody else would if we didn't."
I asked him how far south our piece went.
"About a mile south of where we came out, it crosses a county road, we stop there. And I'm not sure who is maintaining it from there on, you may want to try to find out."
"I can do that, I know people at Parks and Lands."
"Good. Cause I don't. Everybody I used to work with all the time have either retired or moved on. And one of them died."
The trail was rough all right. There were places where it would be easier to walk through the erosion channel than to try to stay on what was left of the trail. I asked Mike if I should try to do anything about it and he thought about it.
"Let's take a look," he said and parked the ATV in a small almost level spot next to the trail. Then we walked back to the worst section and talked about what we might be able to do to at least keep it from getting worse. "Remember, water always wins."
"That explains the Grand Canyon."
"Yes, it does."
We discussed everything from bringing tractor out and using the backhoe on it to put a culvert under the trail to just leveling everything that was still there and hoping for the best. Finally we said we'd bring out a few treated boards and stake them into the trail and back fill them with some gravel to at least slow down some of the erosion in that spot.
"OK, miss lady, we've got a plan, we'll do it tomorrow. Shouldn't take too long."
"I've seen the treated timbers, behind the big shed."
He nodded, "Yeah, those'll work, we'll load them up when we get back so in the morning we can just come out here and do it."
Then we got back in the ATV and went down, and around, and then up again, finally, he rolled to a stop in front of the dugout that was on the map.
I could tell that it was used more than you would expect something so remote to be used. There was even a grocery bag of personal trash and odds and ends hanging on a nail on the side of the lean to.
Mike nodded to it, "we don't leave them a trash bag, but sometimes the hikers will leave one for us. It's OK, I wouldn't want to carry trash back out of here either."
"How far is it to where they park?"
He thought about it for a minute, "Maybe about five miles that way," he pointed the way we'd come, "and I'm not sure how far to the north. At least that far, probably further." Then he looked down the hill to an even less used and more rugged trail, "And toward the lake, I don't know if there is someplace to park, but I know there's people that come up from down there. They come up to watch the sunset."
"Heck of a climb to watch the sunset."
He nodded, "and there's a photographer that will bring a big fancy camera up here to get shots of the stars and stuff, he says there's absolutely no light pollution up here."
I looked around and agreed with him.
The dugout had an expanded metal and chain link front to it that Mike said was bear proof when locked from the inside with two slide bars. The supplies were on a shelf inside.
Mike said that somebody had taken some of the stuff, but there were others still there. He went back to the ATV to get the bag of replacements
I looked at the stuff, then I found a note on the shelf that was dated from last week. I picked it up and read it, then I took it outside and showed it to Mike and read it to him. "To the ranger, thanks for the canned ham and stuff. We got all the way up here and realized we'd forgotten our lunch. I don't know what we'd have done if this stuff wasn't here. Thank you so much. Todd and Jenny." Then I showed him what had been pinned to it, "and a twenty dollar bill."
"We'll use it to buy more canned ham."
I couldn't resist doing some cleaning and straightening in the dugout. Mike even asked me if I was going to sweep the dirt floor, I answered with "There's a limit to my cleaning urges."
The last thing we did after we closed and latched the dugout was to walk around the area and check for any forgotten items or misplaced trash.
"OK, you're a young woman, maybe you can explain this to me."
"Maybe not, I'm not that young, not any more."
He laughed, "I've got a granddaughter about your age, so, to me, you're a young woman." He turned and pointed back to some bushes just up the hill from the lean-to, "One time I came out here and found a dress hanging on the bushes. Like somebody had gotten wet and then hung it up to dry. But it was still there. What I'm wondering is did she have a change of clothes with her and just forget it, or did she go home in her undies?"
I shook my head, "I have no idea. It's a long way out of here to go in your underwear, or less. I hope she had another outfit with her and just forgot it."
"It's still in the office in the lost and found, nobody's ever claimed it that I know of."
That made me smile, "If you left your dress on top of a mountain, would you come and claim it?"
We walked around doing what he called, and what I remembered from my days in the scouts as "policing the area" then he had me drive and we followed the trail north until it went down into a valley, the trail continued on and I could see that it began climbing the next ridge, but Mike had me turn west and we followed an overgrown service road down the valley toward Moosehead Lake.
But it wasn't more than a mile before we came to an old metal gate across the road with what looked like a half forgotten county road on the other side of it. "Welcome to the most western point in our reserve. Well, almost the most western point, the road bumps out a little up by the creek, so by the map that's it."
"This'll do." I looked across the road, "What's that over there?"
"Part of it is privately owned, some of it belongs to the county, there's still a few tracks owned by the timber company." He trailed off.
"Like the rest of Maine."
"Pretty much," he looked around, "ready to head back?"
I nodded and backed away from the gate until I could turn the ATV around.
"At the trail, go straight, this road will join up with the other one, and then it comes out by the office."
"OK, now I know where I'm at."
"Good, because I'm lost as hell."
He laughed when I glanced at him with worry.
While we were driving he told me about a group that was out here to do a service project several years ago that got lost.
"It was five college guys and a professor, from a college down in Boston. I don't think any of them had ever even been a Boy Scout, and they were up here to put up some bird houses. Yes, they wanted to put up bird houses in the middle of a wilderness area. Anyway, they got permission from Augusta, and came up here with a ladder, and took off to do their thing." He gestured off the trail into the back country. "The next day we sent out search parties," he stopped to laugh. "One of our dogs found them."
"Wyndam?" I asked and he seemed startled by the name.
"Yeah. Oh, that's right, you've met them. Yeah, for things like that we ask them to help. Wyndam can find just about anything, best nose ever." He chuckled for a second, "Anyway, we found the bird house guys. They'd only managed to actually hang a couple of them, then they got separated, and lost, and they lost their ladder, and were down in the South Tract walking in circles."
"Good thing you found them."
He nodded, "We put the rest of the bird houses up by the picnic area. A couple of them are still there."
"Did they ever come back to do more?"
"Not that I know of. They might have learned their lesson."
"One would hope."
I had to slow down to cross the same stream ford we'd worked on the other day. I told Mike about it and he nodded.
"That side always washes out worse, I've tried putting bigger stones over there, it helps a little. Kinda slows the erosion down."
"That's all we can do."
"That's all we can do."
When we got back to the office I parked back by the pile of lumber and said I'd load the boards we'd need.
"Oh, that's right. I volunteered us to actually work tomorrow." He chuckled to himself again, "I'll go get the shovels and stuff ready." He paused, "We'll need a pickax too. I think I know where it's at." He started to walk away, then stopped, "Have you seen the tool room?"
I nodded, "Unless it's moved since yesterday, it's in there, to the left, smelly room full of junk and rusty tools."
"That's it. I used to clean it and air it out about once a year."
"I think you've missed a couple of years."
I'd driven a tractor like the one the park owned before, and I was glad I'd paid attention when my grandfather had showed me how to run the end loader he had on it. It took me a few tries, but eventually I was able to drive it out to the stack of lumber and used the hooks on the dump blade to pick up a small stack of treated lumber. Then I carefully drove it back to the shed.
After I'd put a dozen or so treated timbers that were about the right length in the back of the four wheeler, I drove the tractor back and put the rest of the stack back where I found it, then I parked the tractor. Then I drove the ATV around and parked it in the big shed and walked into the tool room. Mike was in there digging through an old crate to pull out wooden and metal stakes and putting them in a canvas bag.
"How many do you think we'll need?" he asked me.
I picked up the bag and tried to count, there was at least twenty of them of various diameters and lengths, "maybe about this many."
We took a selection of hand tools out to the ATV, then I asked him the obvious question about Wyndam and his friends.
"Do I believe they really are what they say they are?" He repeated and I could see him thinking about it. "I've worked out here off and on for over twenty years. They've always been over there, I've gotten to know the two brothers pretty well, and, well, yeah." He looked at me, "I believe them, it's the only thing that makes sense. I mean, as far fetched as the idea is, I don't know how else to explain it. Yeah. I believe them. And I know, I'll take the secret to my grave. You may be the last person I can ever talk to about it."
"When did you start to think it was real?"
I could see him thinking about. Then he answered, "Oh, I guess, not long after I'd come back to work here full time. Oh, that's been, fifteen years ago now. Something like that. I knew there were dogs on the preserve, but I didn't bother them and they never seemed to come around when I was here before. Then after I started Old Man Pennington took me down there, like Ben did with you, and introduced me to Amlodd. I thought it was a gag, you know, put one over on the new guy. And I just kinda went along with it. Then his brother said Amlodd couldn't change any more, then it was one of the others the following month. Then there was a puppy, and I guess it was a year or so later when I went down there that Amlodd was back, except he was a really young man, but he knew me, told me about how he'd seen me come down when I brought them some new straw for their cave before winter, and all that." He glanced outside. "It was a young guy, but he looked the same, he sounded the same, it was him, just a new him."
"So they reincarnate?"
"I guess that's what it is. I don't know. All that is way above my pay grade. And if I think about it too much it gives me a headache."
"I can see that."
We made sure we had everything, including extra work gloves, a dozen bottles of water and a big bag of trail mix. Then Mike said he'd see me in the morning and went to get in his old truck.
“I've gone over todays hours, but, it's OK. I had fun working with you.”
“It was mutual,” I said.
He waved and nodded and drove away.
Mike had worked an hour longer than he was scheduled to, but then he left to go back to finish packing up his own cabin and I was left by myself the rest of the afternoon.
I took the electric cart and drove down to the picnic area and found two families playing games in the clearing. I smiled and waved and when one of the ladies spoke to me I was polite and professional and told them to enjoy their time out. Then I left them to play what looked like bocce ball with the kids.
Finally I was in the office, and there was nobody else there.
For an office run by men who'd rather be driving a four wheeler up a creek, or hanging out with King Arthur's dogs, the office wasn't in horrible shape.
Then I stopped and thought about what I had just thought to myself. Not the part about them in the ATV, the hunting dogs.
Thinking about Mike's pickup truck reminded me of the one vehicle I hadn't driven yet. An even older pickup truck that sat in a car port off to the other side of the shop building. The keys were hanging by the door so I got them and went out to check it out.
It was musty inside, and the battery was stone dead, but all the tires were still mostly round, and it looked like it'd go if I jump started it. So I spent some time thinking about what Mike had said about the dogs while the shop's battery charger hummed and the cab of the truck aired out.
To help it air out I removed several aging newspapers, some junk mail, a sack that looked like it used to have somebody's lunch in it, and a pair of sneakers that some child had forgotten somewhere at some point in time.
Five minutes later the truck was running, the low tire was round again, it had three-quarters of a tank of gas... and I did check the oil, although a bit later than my grandfather would have wanted me to... I put the battery charger up and closed the hood. Then I drove the old truck down the hill through the now empty picnic grounds, and then down to the main road. I turned around in the middle of the road when the coast was clear and drove it back up the hill. I turned down the lane to the cabins and drove around the loop in front of them.
Mike came out and waved to me. I heard him shout, "you got it running!" so I honked and waved back and kept going.
Then I parked it back in its spot and turned it off.
The silence of the area returned as soon as I closed the door to the old truck.
I spent the rest of my second work day doing busywork in the office. Busywork like filling up a trash can with papers, catalogs, and magazines that, in most cases, had never been opened and had been sitting where they were put when they arrived. It looked like somebody had done this about three years ago because most of what I found was only that old. But there were some odd bits that were older. Most went in the recycling bin, some, like the newspapers, I put in the firestarter box, other stuff went in the garbage.
It was the same story in the storeroom. I picked the shelf furthest from the door and simply looked at the what was there. There was a package of flashlight batteries where three of the four had exploded, by the date, they were guaranteed until roughly the time I started with the bureau. Oh, well.
I called it quits when all three of my cans were full. Then I had to scoot the can of garbage out to the dumpster and unload a good bit of it before I could dump it. Then came the two cans of recycling.
After that, I was tired and sweaty, and it was 'close enough' to quitting time for me to lock up and drive my own car down to the cabin.
I was somewhat surprised to see that Mike was gone, but there was a note taped to the door of my cabin.
It was from Mike. He said he'd gotten a message from a friend of his and had run into town, but he would be back in the morning to help with the trail.
So now I really was alone up here. Ben wouldn't be back until tomorrow evening. There wasn't even anybody in the campground. Other than 'the man that was really a dog', I was the only person for miles in any direction.
I wasn't paranoid, but I was also realistic about things. Here I was, a woman, by myself, in the middle of a wilderness track.
I left my cabin unlocked and drove back up to the office, and got a shotgun out of the gun safe.
Ben had said he kept one of the old state police surplus .357 revolvers in his cabin, but had never done more with it than fire it into the ground to scare off the occasional nosy bear.
I knew my own limits, and while I hadn't fired a weapon of any sort in years, I had been hunting when I was... ... younger... and knew how to handle a shotgun. I made sure it was loaded, and that I knew how to work the safety, then I walked out and drove back down to my cabin and decided where to put it so that if I needed it, I could get to it quickly.
Then I got a shower, and sat on my porch and watched a line of wild turkeys navigate their way along the edge of the bushes behind the cabins.
In the morning I made my own breakfast and decided that before long I was going to have to drive to town and do some serious grocery shopping. Then I dressed in 'work on the trail' clothes and boots, and drove up to the office.
Mike wasn't there yet. Neither was Ben. But one of the 'dogs' was laying on the porch of the office and barked excitedly when I parked where I had for my interview.
I thought the dog was one of the females, but I couldn't remember any of the other names besides Deryn and Dona. So when I said the names she just stood there and looked at me, then she jumped off the porch and started down the road at a run. Then she came back to me and yipped and turned to go down the road again.
"Oh, OK, you want me to come with you." And she yipped. Then I remembered another name, "Shandy?"
This time the dog barked and bounced and wagged her tail, then she ran up to me.
"See, I remembered," I said as I patted her. "Let me get the truck keys."
She replied with yapping and wagging and prancing in a circle.
"The pickup," I said to her when I came back out of the office and she was standing by the jeep. And, true to form, she yapped excitedly and went and stood by the old truck.
It started and I reached over and cranked down the passenger window. Which Shandy used as every dog ever has as I drove down to the gate to the gate to the preserve.
I wasn't sure how far the old truck could go down the trail to their spot, but it made it with only minor scraping of tree limbs along each side and the bottom. I tried to beep the odd sounding horn in the right sequence and hoped it was close enough to the signal.
Shandy jumped out the open window and went to greet Arwyn before the truck came to a complete stop.
I was laughing at the "Lassieness" of his messenger coming to get me while I turned off the truck and opened the door.
"Thank you for coming Miss Jane," the man in the deerskin said.
"It's no problem Arwyn, it must have been important for Shandy to come up there and wait on me."
"I think it is. Did Ranger Ben tell you about the coyote problem?"
I shook my head, "No, I don't think so. And I worked with Mike yesterday and he only mentioned that we do see them in the reserve once in awhile."
"Yes, they are seen on these lands now and again. Which is one of the things we do to earn our sanctuary here. When we encounter them, and they do not flee before us, we kill them." He gestured to a pile of fur in one corner of their clearing.
I walked over to it and it was, or at least it used to be, a coyote. It had obviously put up a fight, and lost badly.
"We are trained hunting dogs with long experience, we even took down wolves in the old country, and here once in awhile. Even your local bears do not stay in this immediate area, and those elsewhere in the preserve avoid us. And we them."
"So what about them?" I asked and kicked at the carcass.
"They're not as smart as your average bear," he said without humor.
"What do you want me to do with it?" I asked him.
"I will help you put it in the back of the truck, there's a composting dump down the ravine from the shed next to the office."
"Ben didn't show me that either."
"Shandy knows where it is, she'll show you."
I smiled at her as she yapped at her name.
Then I thought of something, "Do you think it had rabies? What if it bit one of you?"
"We are immune to everything like that. Fleas and other vermin do not bother us. I believe it is the one small mercy the magician showed toward us. Otherwise, life like this would be intolerable."
I'm glad I walked down to the composting pile with Shandy before I tried to drive down there, because it got way too narrow for the truck. So with Shandy's help I dragged the coyote down to the heap of organics and buried the body under a collection of leaves and grass, then threw several shovels of ashes and dirt over it.
Then I followed a still very excited Shandy back up the hill.
And there I found out why she was bouncing and yapping again, Mike was getting out of his truck, but he had somebody else with him.
"Well, there's Shandy," Mike said to the dog, then he turned to the young man who was with him, "she's one of the dogs that have adopted us after somebody dropped them off."
"She's been up here following me around all morning," I said and patted her side.
"She's beautiful, and it's good to have a good dog out here." Mike's friend said.
"This is Kurt, he's my nephew, I told him what we were doing out there today and he volunteered to help."
"Hello Kurt, you may regret that, but you're welcome to come out with us."
"I've helped out here before, I kinda like it."
Mike patted Shandy, then she ran off into the woods.
"She just hangs out out here with you?" Kurt asked Mike.
"Yeah, just like that. She comes and goes. Sometimes you'll see her boyfriend, but not often." Then Mike looked at me, "We brought you a coffee, and Kurt's mom made us lunch. So, ready to get on the trail? You can drive out if you want."
I almost remembered the way out to the trail, Mike only had to help me once. I'd forgotten about a trail that used to be an old firebreak. I thought it was the turn, but then when Mike told me it was further out I remembered that the road crossed the trail at the bottom of a hill.
Mike nodded, "And it is always further out than you think it is. And remember this, if you miss it, this service road will run into a creek and stop. It doesn't cross Stony Creek. It used to, but the bridge washed out during a Nor'easter, and they didn't replace it."
So I drove on, and then, at the bottom of a hill I turned before Mike said anything, and not far along the trail it turned rocky and we started going up, so I knew it was right.
When we got to the worst of the washed out section I pulled as far off the trail as I could and we all got out to inspect it and plan what we could do about it.
"Well, since I'm out of coffee we might as well start working," Mike said as he peered into his cup.
I finished what the rough drive had left in my own cup, "me too."
"Mine's been dry," Kurt said, "and I've already got my gloves."
"Then let's do it," Mike said and kicked at the spot where we were going to put the first timber and then back fill behind it.
The rocky soil, and soil-y rocks didn't want us to put the timbers in, and it really didn't want us driving the stakes in to keep the next rain shower from washing the timbers halfway to Moosehead Lake, but we managed.
And I will be grateful for a very long time that Mike brought Kurt to swing the sledge hammer while we took turns holding the old star drill to punch into the backbone of the mountain for our stakes.
I don't know which we did more of, shoveling or pounding, but before we were all exhausted we had six steps built into what had been a section of the trail that you had to walk around or risk twisting your ankle, or worse.
We took a long break, and had lunch with the best view in the park. And then just as we were debating doing two more steps on the other side a group of enthusiastic hikers on their way south came up the trail. So I asked them if they thought we needed to do to the north slope what we'd just done on the south.
"We come through here all the time, this side's never been as bad as the other, but you don't want it getting worse either." One of them said.
"You know, if you want to do it, we'll help. Where's the shovel?"
With the help of a high school cross country club, who did everything from walk trails to run track, we had the north side done in no time. They even helped us up on top to clear out some of the rubble in the dugout and then redo part of the roof to keep more rain out.
I helped a young man in track jersey and sweat pants unload another of the timbers, when he looked at me with wide eyes, "They said you loaded all of these in the back of this thing yesterday."
I nodded, "I did, but it was one at time, and from about here," I held my hand out where the pile would have been, "to there." I pointed at the ATV.
"Oh, but still, you did it."
I nodded, "and I'm glad you guys are here to help me undo it."
"No problem, ma'am."
I didn't say anything, instead I gestured for him to get the other end of the board. I've been "ma'amed" before, and it didn't really bother me, especially since I was wearing my 'official' park shirt.
With the cross country team's help we completed a lot more work than we had planned, and it was fun. Even Mike forgot he was only supposed to work half a day and we didn't knock off until almost four. The team headed back north, saying they'd gotten plenty of workout digging and pounding so they were heading back to their van while discussing supper.
We had a similar idea.
When we got back to the office Mike went in the office and figured out his time while I chatted with Kurt.
Not only had he gone over his remaining hours to retirement, between yesterday and today, the State owed him three hours.
He signed off on his time sheet and gave it to me to turn in, “By the time they figure it out we'll be in South Carolina. We're leaving first thing in the morning, team driving, we'll be there for supper,” he said and Kurt nodded. “My wife's family has a place down there, and she said my only job with wildlife will to keep the alligators from the river out of the carport.”
“I didn't know they had alligators in South Carolina.”
“Neither did we before she inherited the place.” He laughed, “we found out a couple of years ago when we went down there for a week and walked out one morning, and there it was. Maybe it wanted to get out of the rain.”
I shook my head, “I have no idea, that's one critter we don't have in Maine.”
We hugged good bye, then Mike went and joined Kurt in the truck, the remainder of what he'd had in his cabin was in his truck. He told me that anything that was left I could have, donate to somebody, or throw away. It was up to me.
I told him I'd take care of whatever was there.
Several of The Dogs were lined up by the road and barked at he went by. Then I saw Arwyn standing at the end of the line, he waved and Mike waved back as Kurt tooted the horn and waved.
Then they were gone.
I walked down and chatted with Arwyn for a few minutes, then I said I needed to finish up in the office and then I was taking the rest of the day off.
“An excellent idea,” he answered.
Then I asked him about how the others did around the roads and cars and things as a couple of them scampered around playfully.
His face got sad for a moment, then he answered, “Many years ago now, we did have issues with things like that. In fact, one of the few accidental deaths of one of our pack was due to being injured by a car. That was before we came here, Sloan was crossing a very busy road, and was struck. While we are hard to kill, and live a long life for a canine, there are some things that we just cannot survive, and that is one of them.”
“Did he, I don't know what to call it, reincarnate?”
“Oh, yes, it was some time, but he was reborn, and grew, and we knew it was him when the end of his tail became all bushy.” He nodded to the male dog with a large tuft of fur on his tail. “When he transformed he remembered the shock and pain, but that was all. He said he never saw what did it.”
I shook my head. Here was another totally unbelievable story about them, that I believed. I smiled at Sloan as he trotted along behind some of the others.
“When was that? Do you know the year?”
“I think it was what you call in the nineteen forties. It wasn't long after that that we moved here, in the nineteen seventies.”
“That's thirty years later.”
He paused and looked at me with his eyes glancing back and forth, then he paused and looked down at one of the others, “To us, thirty years isn't much at all.”
The other dogs had disappeared into the forest, then I remembered something I had checked on the calendar, "The new moon is coming up next week."
"Yes, I saw it waning last night. It won't be long," he answered.
"When will they change?"
"Most often the morning after the final crescent. Then we will have a few days like you, and we become us again."
"You'll change and Amlodd will remain."
"Yes. Thank you for remembering." He chuckled, "Ranger Ben never keeps it straight." He actually bowed slightly to me, "Enjoy your evening dear lady."
"I will, and you yours."
And now I was alone on the reserve, again. Ben wouldn't be back until tomorrow and there was no way to contact Arwyn except for driving down into the ravine they called home.
I walked back into the office and did the paperwork I needed to do, and got the package of Mike's final papers ready to send out with tomorrow's mail. Then I didn't have anything to do except to go down to my cabin and see what I could fix out of my dwindling supplies.
That's when I decided that then was a good time to run into town and go to the store. I checked the clock. I could make it before they closed for the evening.
It was close. They shut the lights off in the place when I walked up to the checkout line with my cart.
Then I had to carry it all into the cabin, and sort it out, and actually fill up the fridge.
By the time I was done I was really glad I stopped by their small deli and bought a meal to go.
I sat on my porch with a glass of wine and a clamshell container of store deli casserole, which was surprisingly good, and watched the darkness descend on the forest.
Then I locked my door and went to take a shower.
I got out of the shower and was drying off when I noticed the empty container from the store on the counter. I shook my head at the ants that had just realized there was still sauce inside. Then I wrapped my towel around myself, slipped on my shower shoes and took it out to the supposedly bear proof dumpster between the next cabin over and the one Ben used.
As I turned off the drive to the dumpster my towel came loose and, of course, landed in a muddy rut before I could grab it. Now I had a container with sauce still in it in one hand and a muddy towel in the other. I shook my head and walked to the dumpster and used my muddy towel hand to open it and drop the container in. Then I let it close and listened to the latch click.
I stood by the dumpster very self consciously and tried to decide how to rewrap myself in the towel without needing to take another shower. Then I realized where I was and exactly who was around. The only other person anywhere nearby that could see me was a dog.
I'm not all that shy about my body, I've been to topless beaches on vacation, and have been known to go to the occasional pool party where swimsuits became optional later in the evening. I won't say whether or not I participated in that sort of madness.
But now today's madness involved either just walking back to my cabin as I was, or end up in the shower again.
I shook the mud off the towel and wadded it up and simply walked back to the cabin wearing my old sandals and a scowl.
Back in the cabin I decided to go ahead and see how the washer and drier worked. I actually had to read the instructions on the washer, but it started making washer noises as it filled with water. It was small, but it held everything I had that needed washed.
Somehow I ended up sound asleep in my old recliner. The chair was perhaps the ugliest piece of furniture in the state, and as soon as I'd gotten it home I covered it with a spare bed sheet. And so it had stayed, although I occasionally changed the bed sheet, sometimes with a holiday themed one. What was on it now was a beach blanket from my last vacation down in Maryland.
As I woke up to the beeping of the drier I remembered why I had bought the chair. It was amazingly comfortable to sit in, and to sleep in. As I just proved once again. I got up and went and got the clothes out of the drier. They were dry, and still warm.
Then I went to bed.
I'd set my alarm extra early because I did not want to be late for my first official day on the job. So I got up, and realized that last night I'd gotten my nightgown out, and then never put it on.
I blamed my domestic nudity on it being a long work day, coupled with the trip to the store, and a big glass of wine, and went to make breakfast to take with me to have with office coffee.
I decided that since I was early I'd walk up the trail to the office.
I looked over at Ben's cabin as I passed between it and the dumpster, expecting to see his truck there and perhaps a light on inside, but the cabin was dark and the parking spot empty. I thought maybe he was already in the office.
The trail was divided between a series of aging wooden steps and a path covered with a combination of wood chips and a random bucket of gravel here and there. But there was no losing the path as there was nothing that crossed it or even branched off until it came out next to the office parking lot.
Ben's truck wasn't there, but as I unlocked the office I realized that I was over an hour early. So I made a pot of coffee and thought about whether I wanted to eat outside or at my desk. I opted for outside, and when the coffee was done I sat out front and watched the forest wake up around me.
I'd finished my breakfast sandwich and was thinking about another cup of coffee when the office phone rang. I hurried inside and answered it before the machine picked it up.
"Oh, Jane. I was going to leave a message."
"I came in early to make a good first impression."
"You've already made a good impression, but I don't think I am." He sounded tired, and I already suspected why he'd called.
"Why? What's up?"
"I just don't feel well this morning."
"Get some rest, and if you have to, go to the clinic and get checked out. I've got your number if something comes up."
"That's what my sister said yesterday."
"Listen to her."
I could tell that he really didn't feel good since he didn't make a smart comment back at me.
After he hung up I looked around the office and wondered what to do first.
I did the official paperwork that I needed to do to record Ben's sick day, marveling the whole time that it wasn't online, "This is 2019, not 1959." I said as I filled in a leave slip and signed it as approving it. Then I got one of those big multi-use state mail envelopes and put it in it with the courier address line for our personnel section.
Office work done for the time being I wanted to get out and do something in the park.
So I went out and drove the electric cart down to the picnic area to see if anything needed done down there. As it was clear I went up to the nature center, and it too was in good shape. So I went back to the office compound.
I worked in the shed for a bit, putting up the tools that we'd didn't get put up yesterday, then I checked the one tire on the ATV that we all thought might be a little low. Then I drove it down to the Log Ford just to see how our repair down there was holding up.
All in all, I was back in the office at noon. So I drove the old truck down to my cabin for lunch.
I was in the office cleaning off another shelf in the storeroom when the phone rang.
I was all ready to call Ben a goldbricker when I heard a telemarketer talking about how I'd won a cruise. As it was a live person I waited until they took a breath, then I asked her if the number she'd dialed was noted as belonging to the ranger station of a state park.
"No. I'm sorry. I'll remove it from our database," she said and hung up.
"Thank you," I said to the dead phone and put it down.
The other excitement for the day happened about two, when the US mail came and brought us two sales fliers, an ad for satellite TV, and a newsletter from a nature group, which was the only piece actually addressed to the park as an entity.
I signed out at three and decided to walk back down the path to my cabin with the newsletter.
That night I made a point of looking out at the moon. There was still a good sliver of light along one edge. The New Moon would be in the next day or so.
It was a bit damp and chilly on Tuesday, with no word from Ben. I didn't want to just sit in the office and worry so I went out and did work stuff. And then as I drove back up to the office from the picnic area it started raining.
I parked the electric cart in the shed and plugged it in, then walked quickly to the office. But I was still pretty wet when I got there. I checked the answering machine, still no message from Ben.
At noon I drove down to my cabin, but I took my lunch back to the office and sat by the phone.
It rang at almost exactly two thirty.
"Miss Jane?" A female voice said.
"This is Barbara, Ben's sister."
"Oh, good of you to call. Is he OK?"
"Yes and no. He's in the hospital. But they're taking good care of him."
"Oh, dear. What's wrong? If you don't mind my asking."
"It's all right, you need to know. He needs heart surgery. They're going to transfer him to Augusta for it. They should be doing that tomorrow, then the surgery will come a day or so after that."
"Oh. Wow. OK. I don't know what to say. Give him my best, and let me know how it goes."
"I will. He did want me to tell you that you can call a guy named Jack who helps out once in awhile until winter. The number is on the board. He said you'd know what that meant."
"Yes, I know, he mentioned Jack."
"And if you could, clean out his fridge, he didn't want the milk and stuff going bad in it before he got back."
"I'll take care of it. You tell him to get better."
"I certainly will. I'll be in touch."
I suddenly felt very alone. But I decided the best thing to do was to stay busy.
I got the keys for Ben's cabin from the lock box, then got a couple of bags and drove the truck down to the cabins.
His cabin was a bit smaller than mine, but the layout was exactly the same.
I packed up whatever perishables I found and decided I'd sort them in my own kitchen and dispose of whatever was either expired or questionable. I also used the opportunity to begin to defrost his freezer, which was really iced up and unplugged the unit. Then after I wiped out the refrigerator part I noticed that he didn't have the laundry setup, and the bathroom was a shower and toilet, but no sink, so I went back in the kitchen and washed my hands.
There was no doubt as to which of the two twin beds in the cabin was his because he'd left his jacket with his name stitched over the pocket on it hanging over the bed and some other personal items on the stand next to it. The bed on the other side was unmade, with nothing else there. I went ahead and striped his bed and then gathered the bathroom towels and the rag from the sink to wash back in my own cabin. That way when he came back, he'd have fresh linens.
'And a fresh uniform shirt', I thought as I added the one hanging on the back of the desk chair to the roll of dirty laundry. He didn't have a laundry basket.
It took me two trips to carry his groceries and laundry into my own cabin. By then I was sweaty and dusty and I know I smelled like whatever had been lurking in the bottom of his produce drawer under the beer cans, so I alternated between sorting out the things from his cabin, and taking care of myself. And I knew to get my own shower before I did the laundry because the tiny electric water heater under the kitchen counter couldn't do both.
As the sun went down I was on my porch, in my nightgown, with my wine, waiting for the drier to beep for Ben's stuff.
Later, all I added to my outfit was my sandals as I walked his now clean sheets, towels, and shirt back to his cabin.
The place smelled better, and now counter next to the sink wasn't sticky.
As I walked back to my cabin I saw two of the dogs. I spoke to them, but I couldn't recall their names as they yapped and ran toward me. Then they both stopped and looked up at the sky and I knew what they were telling me.
"You think tonight's the night?" I asked them, and they yapped and wagged.
"OK, I'll come down in the morning and check on you. And there's some news about Ranger Ben, I'll tell you then."
Once again they yapped and wagged, then they ran back up the road with amazing speed.
And then I was alone again.
But, in spite of that, Tuesday night was the first night I slept without the radio on.
Wednesday morning I ate breakfast in my cabin, then instead of going straight to the office I drove the old truck down the road into the private preserve and down into the valley where the dogs lived. I did remember to do the horn signal as I crept down the hill.
But there was nobody, and nothing there.
Then I saw movement in the trees and Amlodd and Arwyn both stepped out into the morning sun. Both were dressed in their customary deerskin robes.
"Welcome Miss Jane. It is so good of you to come check on us," Amlodd said.
"It's no problem, and I wanted to tell you the news I got yesterday about Ben."
"Oh, yes. I was wondering why he hadn't been down here." Arwyn said, "And I can see in your eyes that it is not good." He looked around, "Come, she is good, and she has news about our friend, Ranger Ben."
Then other people, some dressed as the brothers were, some, well, not dressed at all, came out of the undergrowth.
I had to work to advert my eyes from both the men and the women as they were all good looking.
I focused on the brothers, "No, it's not good news. He's in the hospital. They're supposed to be taking him to Augusta today for heart surgery." I thought I could guess who was who based on what they looked like now, but others I had no idea which dog they'd been.
"That's terrible. What happened?" A very athletic and very pretty but totally undressed women asked me.
She had to be Shandy. I took a chance, "Well, Shandy," I said and her strikingly green eyes brightened and she smiled with a mouthful of gleaming white teeth, "He called in Monday and said he didn't feel good and he was going to take a sick day. Then yesterday his sister called me and said they'd put him in the hospital, and were going to take him for heart surgery."
"Maercie" one of the others said with an accent that I didn't recognize.
Amlodd was visibly distressed at the news, "Please, Miss Jane, if you hear any more, please let us know."
"I will. His sister is supposed to call me as they learn more."
He nodded, "Thank you."
I tried to be pleasant to the others, and I successfully guessed a couple of the other names, but they seemed unsure of either themselves or me, and slunk back toward the trees. Then Arwyn spoke gently, "Miss Jane, they need a bit of time to get used to being a person again, we'll come up to the office later and I'll introduce everybody."
I nodded and said I looked forward to seeing them again.
I spent the rest of the morning doing busy work around the office, and checking on the picnic area where a daycare had brought a group of kids for an outing and lunch. Then I had to deal with some emails from the main office about Ben's medical leave, which as the 'acting ranger' I had to approve even though I had only been 'officially' on the job for three days. I also assured them that I could cover until he came back as he would only be out for a few days or maybe a week at most. I'd be fine and this time of year, with school back in session, the use of the reserve by the public was slowing down.
So I guess they spent the rest of the year thinking I was OK covering the whole park by myself. But I'm getting way ahead of myself.
Ben's sister called me that afternoon with the news that they were transferring Ben to Boston by helicoptor.
"He just needs more done than his doctor feels comfortable doing here. There's a specialist in, whatever he said it is, down there, and they may be able to work on him tomorrow afternoon."
"When are they flying him out?"
"Now. The helicopter just landed. As soon as they take off I'm going to run home. Then I'm going down there to meet his son at the airport."
"OK, good. Please, let me know what's going on. If you can just send me a text message. I've got your number here, I'll send you a message so you'll have it."
"OK, that'll be better."
I hung up the office phone and wrote down her number off the display. Then I sent her a message on my cell phone. She replied in a few minutes that he was stable and that the chopper had just taken off and she was heading out.
Then I just sat in the quiet and took deep breaths for a few moments.
"More bad news?" I heard Amlodd say from the door.
"No, actually, it's good." I looked out and saw the others, "I can come out and tell everybody."
"That will be good Miss Jane."
Now they were all somewhat dressed, some of them in cloth robes or somewhat outdated and ill fitting clothes, a few in skins, and one, it had to be Osian, in a loincloth and belt. All were tall, and well built, and of a fair complexion that spoke of their Welsh and Celtic origins.
They appeared to be of ages ranging from late teens or early twenties to one with gray hair and wrinkles. The oldest one turned out to be Sloan, the one from the traffic accident. But even with that he was still in remarkable shape. But then I realized that they spent the rest of their time running in the woods and eating fresh food, so they were bound to be in excellent shape. And then on top of that they had the added health bonus from...
.... ... ... from Merlin the Magician.
If I ever had any doubt about the story, I didn't now. There was a group of eighteen people, most of whom were totally out of place, and out of their element, dressed like what I expected was a big fashion hit during the last Ice Age, all speaking with thick accents from Great Britain. Not only did they look and act the part, they sounded the part.
I told them about the conversation and the text messages about Ben.
Then Dona asked me if Ranger Ben would ever come back.
"I don't know. Heart medicine like this has come a long way, and one of the men I used to work with had had lot of work done, he was out of the office for a long time, but he did come back to work. And I think he's still working, he was the last time I was over in their building."
They looked at each other, "That's good," one of the others said, "We liked Ranger Ben, he was a good man, it would be good if he can come back."
"Yes," was all I could say.
Then the brothers got my attention, "We know you are new in this position, but we have been here some time, and know the land, if not the office work, if we can assist you out here in any way, we will." Amlodd said.
"Besides just killing coyotes?" I asked him with a smile.
His brother grinned, "we've come to enjoy that."
I looked at them, "Sure. I mean, really, how can I refuse?" Then I thought of something, "I haven't been out on the trials or anything over the last couple of days, Do a couple of you want to go for a ride?"
They exchanged a few words in what I recognized as a dialect from the old country, then Shandy and Wyndam said they'd love to go this time.
We took the ATV and I drove all the way out to the shelter with them with them just looking around and occasionally speaking to each other in their home language. I stopped on the ridge next to the trail shelter.
"This has changed since I was out here last," Shandy said as she walked around.
"We did a lot of work out here over the weekend. There had been some storm damage."
"I see. It is nice now."
"They want to keep it up, as a service to the overland hikers."
"That is a nice thing to do."
I checked the shelter, but nobody had been there. So we mounted up and continued our route. The next stop was down at the junction of the major trails. Wyndam walked around and pointed out where he made his rounds, "the rest of the time" as he put it. Then we stopped at the Log Ford, and finally turned back up toward the office.
"Thank you Ranger Jane, that was a pleasant journey," Shandy said.
"It was my pleasure."
It was late in the afternoon when I got a text message from Barbara. They just got to the hospital from the airport. Ben was in the ICU and doing well, and they were all waiting to find out when they'd do it.
I thanked her for keeping me up to date and that I'd already sent his medical leave paperwork in as an emergency.
That evening I sat on my porch with Shandy and we watched the forest darken together.
"So where do you sleep when you are...."
"When we're human."
"Yes. I guess."
"We've gotten used to sleeping in the wild. In this form we just need a bit more bedding." She smiled broadly, "and we don't get to drink wine in our normal form," she took a long sip and savored it. "This isn't French." She paused for a second, "I remember from another time, yes, California."
"It's a white zinfandel. I've also got a nice red."
"Can I try it tomorrow night?"
She was still smiling, "I'm not like some of the others. I try to get in as much human living as I can. I don't even mind wearing clothes, sometimes, it's what humans do."
"What do the others do? Stay down in their cave and hide for a week?"
She nodded and sipped some more wine, "Deryn will if you let her. A couple of the men will. But she's the worst for that. There have been times when I didn't know she'd changed because I didn't see her come out."
"How do the brothers stay human for a month? Could you stay human if you wanted to?"
"It's just just the way it's always been, since he spoke the spell over us. It's always been one then the other of the two. They live longer than us, but when one dies, one of the other males will remain until the brother comes back." Then I could see sadness cross her face. Another sip of wine. "But the rest of us... Ages ago, when we were still in England, I tried to stay human. There was a..." now a sigh, then wine, "... a young man I found, like this. I wanted to stay with him, and he wanted me to remain with him." She paused and looked out into the night. "I stayed with him as the moon returned. And in the morning, as the sun rose, I felt myself changing. As I was then, I could not love him like I could as a woman. The next time I changed, he held me, but he said he could not live with a wife who was a wife for a few days a month." Then she emptied her glass. "And who was his dog the rest of the month." She looked into the glass, "Is there any more?"
"Good, because I can see in your eyes that you understand my story. I want to hear yours. Why are you out here by yourself. And I do not mean because Ranger Ben is sick. You were alone when you arrived."
"Yes." I gestured with my own glass, "Let's get a refill and I'll tell you how my own not so young man disappointed me and why I'm out here now."
It was very late before I showed Shandy that old chair of mine. And she fell asleep in it just as I had so many times.
When I woke up in the morning I could feel those last two glasses of wine in my temples. But after a shower I felt better. And when I came out I called Shandy's name softly, she stirred and then opened her eyes.
"Do you drink coffee as a human?"
"I've learned to," she stretched, "and this morning I need it."
"And breakfast?" I asked her and pointed to the microwave sausage and egg biscuits.
I found a 'human outfit' for Shandy to replace her somewhat immodest doeskin wrap and she walked up the trail to the office with me.
Later she rode down to the picnic ground with me and seemed to actually enjoy being out and about as a human. Although she said she always found the general hygiene practices of human women somewhat annoying. "But I've gotten pretty good at it."
Then I thought about something, "What will Deryn eat while she's human?"
"One of the others will bring her something. She admits she gets very hungry, but she resents being changed, and is only happy as a canine." Then she smiled and tugged at the blouse I'd given her, "and she won't wear clothes unless she has to. Like in winter."
I laughed, then nodded, "We'll take her some lunch when we go down to my cabin."
"I believe she would appreciate that."
Deryn was exactly where Shandy expected to find her. Sitting on a log outside one of their caves.. With one of their skin wraps over her shoulders.
She said the others had 'gone for a walk', and gestured up the valley toward the backside of our picnic grounds.
But she was grateful for the lunch and fresh water we brought her.
"How is Ranger Ben?" She asked me before we left.
"I got a message from his sister this morning. She said they are going to do his surgery today." I glanced at my watch, "In fact, they should be starting any time now. She said she'd let me know how it goes."
Deryn nodded, "He will do well, he is a good man," she looked down at her lunch, "and you are a good woman, Ranger Jane."
Instead of heading back to the office I turned down the service road and went down along one of the old logging tracks that we were supposed to keep passable. It was, barely. I made a mental note to haul a chainsaw down there in the coming weeks and knock back a few limbs.
Shandy said the others liked to bathe in the falls on the creek that ran just up from the nature center when they were in human form, so I followed the road that I thought would get us close enough to check on them.
"They are there," Shandy said and pointed through the trees. I could just hear laughter and somebody singing an old song in a very accented voice.
I didn't want to bother them, but Shandy insisted on both of us going down to let them know we'd taken Deryn something to eat and about Ranger Ben's surgery. So I followed her down to the clear deep pool with the trickle of clear and ice cold water that sprinkled out from the edge of the rock above.
I was far more self conscious as we walked up the small water channel to the end of the gorge and into what amounted to the world's smallest box canyon. The others were all either naked and cavorting in the water, or nearly so sitting or standing on the rocks, or sunning themselves on the far side in the only area that the sun's rays could reach because of the rocks and trees above.
Most of them gathered around and I simply read the text message that Ben's sister had sent me that morning.
"It is good of you to let us know."
Then they started trying to talk me into joining them for an open air shower in the freezing water.
"It is most invigorating," Shandy said as she took off the clothes I'd given her and high stepped into the pool.
"Well...." I shrugged.
It was invigorating.
We all walked back to the Jeep, then I drove back to the office while my hair dried and Shandy talked about all the adventures she'd had as a human.
She seemed to be just as happy as a human as she was as a dog.
We were walking around the primitive camping area when Barbara sent me a message.
"She just got to go back into the intensive care unit and see Ben. The doctor said the surgery went well, but they don't know anything yet. She'll let me know when they do the post surgical tests to see how his heart was working now."
Shandy said that that sounded like good news. That he was alive and the doctor was satisfied with what they had done.
I agreed and said we'd take that news down to the others in the morning.
The next day after we relayed the message Shandy even went with me into town to the store to get some more "human food" and a few other things that she said they'd need next week.
Next week when all but Amlodd would revert back to their original forms.
Shandy even knew where the thrift store was that she'd been to some time ago with Ranger Ben the last time she came down to buy them all new blankets to put on the floor of their caves.
We even joked about what kind of 'doggy treats' they enjoyed.
As it turned out, they were like dogs everywhere. The more natural, and meat related the treat was, the more they liked it.
Ben's sister sent me a message that evening to call her when I had time and signal.
I drove up to the end of our entrance lane and parked. There I had about the best connection I could get on my cell phone.
"Hello, Jane. How's life out in the wilderness?"
"I'm actually enjoying it. How are you holding up?"
"Not bad. I'm going to go home for a couple of days tomorrow afternoon. Then I'll come back when they move him to a regular room."
"They're keeping him in the ICU?"
"Kind of. If he's still good tomorrow they're going to move him to the recovery unit. Then if he keeps getting better, they'll find a room for him."
"OK, well, sounds like they've got a plan."
"That's what I wanted to talk to you about. They found other problems with one of his lungs during the tests. So once they get his heart going, they want to work on a blockage in his left lower lobe. I think that's what the doctor said. He said it's not cancer, but it is hurting his breathing."
"Well at least they found it and can do something about it. But it sounds like he's going to be out for longer than he had planned on."
"Yes. They said he can come back to work, but it won't be until in the spring before he'll be off enough of the medications, and the oxygen, to go back out to God's Country."
I sighed, I was afraid of something like that. But that's not what I told his sister. I said, "Thanks for letting me know, I'll pass the word up the chain of command. They'll probably send somebody out here to cover for him."
"It is always so nice to talk to you, Jane."
"Anytime. I seem to have plenty of time to talk if you don't mind hearing about the bears and picnic area trash cans."
"That sounds like a fun story. I'll call you when I get home and you can tell me about them."
Amlodd and the others took the news in stride.
His brother explained it like this speaking thoughtfully, slowly, and carefully, "Ranger Jane, please understand, that to us, Ranger Ben is just another person that has come into our lives, and he will go out of our lives again. We've known, I believe, thousands of people. And while I do find you a handsome woman, and I enjoy seeing and speaking with you, I have seen, I don't know how many, over the years. And by now the many of them have grown old and, most, have passed on. You are now friends with Shandy, and she is welcome to grow attached to you, in both forms, but, in the end, unless we are released from this fate soon, in the end she may outlive you by hundreds of years."
"Yes. As am I."
In a moment the dark cloud passed as several of the others ran into the clearing all excited about their new blankets, and they wanted me to come see where they'd spend most of the coming winter.
A couple of days later I had a lot of time to think about all that, and then do something about it.
It started raining Monday afternoon.
The radio weather guy on the morning show that I listened to because it wasn't stupid, they didn't have singing cows or musical car horns, and they didn't sit and laugh at each other, instead, they played some good music, they discussed the news of the day, and they had a weather guy that was right more than he was wrong. So I liked the show.
Anyway, he had been saying that a low pressure that was working southeast through Canada would run up against a tropical low that was coming up the Atlantic coast, and then unless something changed, they were likely to park themselves over New England, and sit there until a big high that was in Mexico right now moved in to push them out to sea. And that might take three or four days to happen.
He was right. The two low pressure areas sort of danced around each other for a day, then they all but merged, and stayed over the Hudson valley and appeared to only be thinking about moving off to the east.
By Tuesday afternoon I'd given up trying to do much of anything 'park-wise', and sat in the office and watched it rain.
Then I started writing.
At first I didn't know how to begin.
I'd done some writing before. Of course a lot of it was for work, and there was always a point to make, or instructions to give, or a new feature at a state park to tell people about. This was different. This was about me, and a group of extraordinary people, that weren't really people. So my story began to move forward in fits and starts.
Wednesday I got a message from Barbara on the office phone. She said my cell was going directly to voice mail, so I checked it. No signal at all, not even a 'low signal' alert, just nothing. I blamed the storm and we chatted about things for a few minutes.
She said Ben was doing OK in his room, and they'd had him up and moving a little, and now were talking about taking care of his lung issue, but he needed to be stronger and more able to withstand another major operation.
I thanked her for the news.
Then I hung up and watched it rain.
Then I spent my first night in the office, but I wasn't alone.
I wrote down my time and walked out on the porch. It was absolutely pouring down rain, in sheets, with the occasional gust of wind to make it even worse. It looked like the tropical side of the storm was here now. The parking lot was a lake and the road a river.
Then I saw Almodd and Shandy and the others walking through the water.
I went out to the edge of the porch and waved and shouted for them to come that way.
As humans, they were very grateful for someplace warm and dry.
Shandy helped me get them settled and relaxed while they explained that that bare trickle of water through their clearing had become an angry torrent.
"I don't know if it will reach our caves, but it might," Amlodd said.
"You're welcome to stay here. I am. I don't know if I could even get to my cabin in this."
"The road is bad. It would be better if you did not try."
And so we stayed there, although some of them went over to the storage building and, the last I saw them, were sitting on barrels and boxes, just inside the main door, watching it rain.
Then I saw something on his face, "You're about to change back aren't you?"
"Possibly tomorrow night. It does not matter if we can see the moon or not. When it changes, we change."
"Well, whenever it is, I'll do what I can for you."
"We appreciate that, Miss Jane."
In the morning, I woke up stiff and achy, but my first thought was to look over at Shandy, who had fallen asleep in a desk chair, she was still a woman. So after a trip to the restroom and a cup of coffee, I was able to function and gently woke her up.
It was still raining. The radio weather guy said there was hope that it would end sometime tonight or early tomorrow morning. But he said the worst of the heavy showers was moving east, so from here out, it was just rain.
"A lot of rain, but just rain," he said and you could hear him smiling.
I was finally able to go down to my cabin and change clothes Thursday afternoon. There were places where the road had been seriously eroded, and several of the cabins were sitting in ponds.
"I can feel it." Shandy said, "We'll go back tonight."
I nodded, "It's been fun getting to know this you."
"I have enjoyed being with you as well. It will be even more fun next month," she smiled broadly.
Then I thought of a question, "you said you can feel it. What do you feel?"
"It's, different. I can smell your coffee from here, and I can hear Dona and the others talking outside." She wiped at her mouth, "and I'm drooling." Then she laughed, and it was a laugh, "and I want to wag my tail while you're talking to me." She waved her left hand behind her.
And I laughed with her.
We took a good meal back up to the office with us and arrived just before the others were to go back down to their clearing.
I was worried that their new blankets might have gotten wet.
"We moved them up onto the ledge inside. And, even if they got wet, they will dry," Amlodd said. Then he looked around, "But it is better if we are home when we change. To wake up someplace unfamiliar is, unpleasant. It takes us, some time, to get used to being, us, again."
I could see a difference in the way some of the others were behaving. Where they had been happy and almost gleeful, now they were sullen. Yes, that was the word, sullen. Others were hesitant and a couple of them only wanted water with their meal where they had asked for soda pop before.
After supper I drove some of them down to the road and through the gate to the foundation preserve while several of the others took their time and walked down. Then I parked on the lane just before it turned up to the old shed and the fork that went down into their gully. There was a limb across the road, and I could see where part of the trail was washed out. I had a good idea that I would be using the tractor a lot over the next few days. But I didn't say anything as I walked with the others down the still wet trail and into their clearing.
The trip back from the swimming hole had been a lark with laughing and singing and horseplay between them. Now, the walk down the trail was silent except for the occasional whisper, which was almost worse than the silence.
The creek was still out of its banks, but we could see that it was going down.
"The blankets are dry," one of them said, "only the lower cave got a little damp."
"Good," I said, and noticed that several had already slipped away into the undergrowth.
I hugged Shandy and noticed that her eyes looked different now. Where they had been green, now they were brown.
"I'll come down and check on you tomorrow."
"I'd like that," she said softly. "And you can take me for a ride again."
I smiled and nodded and then as the others faded into the bushes in the direction of their caves. Then I walked toward the trail up and looked back. Shandy was still standing next to Amlodd, then they nodded to me and walked toward the forest.
As I walked up the trail I thought about going back to spy on them, but I knew that that would alienate them. And besides, if they all had the heightened senses Shandy had described, they'd know I was there, and there was nothing I could do to conceal myself from their noses and ears.
Before I got in the truck I looked at the road.
"One load." I said to the washed out spot. I thought if I could get a full bucket of the gravel out of the pile next to where the timbers were I could fill in the hole with it.
I knew I'd need at least one bucket of gravel on the road down to the cabins, and then I'd have to figure out how to do what Mike had called 'back dragging' to level it.
So after I got back to the office, I watched an online video as a farmer used an older model tractor similar to the one we had to do just that. I had to back it up a couple of times to watch what he did with the levers that controlled the bucket and arms, but then I was certain that I'd figure it out.
For the first time in a week, I was alone.
I slept with the radio on and the door locked.
And I dreamed that I was back in high school, which I did once in awhile. And, as usual in that dream I couldn't find my classroom, or my locker, and everybody in the hallway thought it was funny that I was lost. But at least this time I wasn't walking down the school hallway naked, either that or unable to find the restroom while really having to go.
I'd studied dream psychology in college. When I woke up I knew that that dream had been my subconscious telling me that I was way out of my league out here in the reserve, and while I knew what to do, and for the most part how to do it, I was still lost.
That is, I was lost in my dream. In reality. I knew exactly what to do and I was working out how to do it.
I thought about calling headquarters and asking if they were going to send somebody up here to help, but then I checked my department email and saw that almost every park in the state, as well as several state buildings, and quite a few roads were dealing with damage from the storm. My little reserve well off the beaten track would be way down the list of places to get special attention.
"If it was on the list at all," I said to myself as I read down the names of locations with reported damage.
One of those was a popular tourist location along the coast. They had a causeway that had washed out, and a shelter building that had collapsed when the ground under it had become saturated. Compared to that, I didn't have any problems at all.
After I'd started writing about my.... my what? Adventure seemed like the wrong word, but I didn't know what else to call it. What I thought would be a busywork type job out in the woods had turned into one of the most marvelous experiences a regular person could have.
Before the rain started I had been sitting on my porch with a glass of wine when Shandy began telling me about a night not long after they had been changed when they had come out of the woods trying to find a way back to what they had been, when they came upon a lady who Shandy said was still the most beautiful young woman she had ever seen. She had a couple of servants with her, but she seemed to be totally alone and in distress. So they stayed with her that day and the next, until another servant brought a carriage and she fled to the coast to get on a ship.
I asked her who the lady was.
"One of her servants said she was the princess Hilde. The king's daughter."
I had to think about it, "I remember her from one of the movies I've seen, but I don't know anything about her."
Shandy nodded, "We were kept in the stable next to the horses, we didn't get to see a princess a lot. But we knew of her. But that's all. And we felt it was our duty to protect her until she could get away after everything that happened. She'd lost her father, and her home, and everything else. They had been walking for two days, since the battle. And she was exhausted and starving. We're good at finding food in the wild, it's what we do. So some of us led her to a safe place to wait, and water, and others brought her servants something to fix so she could eat. She thanked us when her carriage came and she was still safe. We didn't know until years later that she'd gotten away from England and lived the rest of her life in Iceland."
"That's a wonderful story. It is so good that you were able to help her."
She nodded and sipped her wine. And we watched the sun go down through the trees.
And now she was a dog again.
I thought about it, maybe if they hadn't been helping the princess they might have been able to locate Merlin and convince him to lift his curse. And then again, if he had been that powerful, shouldn't he have known the truth, or wouldn't their helping her was proof of their loyalty to the king?
Then it dawned on me just how long ago that was. And here I was wondering what would have happened if they'd left the princess to be found by Arthur's enemies. I looked at the screen of my office computer and wrote the line about the sunset, then I had to go outside and walk around and think about things again.
The analytical side of my brain, that part of me that got me through figuring out all the various complexities of what I had done on the financial side of the public land bureau, and the ins and outs of the documents related to various contractors that worked for the bureau, and the vagueries of the relationships between the state and county and federal and local entities and even private citizens and businesses. At some point in my work I'd dealt with it, and was able to make sense of it, and then explain it to others. That part of my brain rejected everything they'd said. It simply was not possible.
But there was no other reasonable explanation.
It flew directly in the face of that line from Sherlock Holmes about eliminating the impossible and what you were left with. In this case, the most likely explanation was that one that was, on the face of it, impossible.
That is, it did until you thought about what could have happened if the person we knew as Merlin the Magician actually existed and could do even a fraction of what the legends ascribed to him.
Then I thought about who they said had owned the hunting pack, King Arthur. Everything I knew about the king, and everything I'd read about those who various authorities said were the source of the legend, he had inspired total loyalty in those who served him. Until the end.
And then in the tumult of the end of his kingdom, with emotions running out of control on all sides, and the tragic drama of the end, if Merlin had been there, and thought for a moment that his most loyal servants, the king's hunting dogs had turned on him. Shandy and the others were probably fortunate that Merlin hadn't called down a firestorm to burn them alive.
Then I paused. Maybe they would have been better off if he had.
But then again, if he had incinerated them, I would be out here in the woods with nothing to write about, and nothing to do except making sure that one bold raccoon hadn't dumped the trash can at the picnic ground again.
Now, because of whatever happened, however impossible it might be, I looked at the lunar calendar for the next new moon, and smiled. Twenty days, and I could spend a week with my new friend again.
So it was in the writing of the tale that I came to analyze and reason through the very existence of my new friends.
I also spent a lot of time reading the old stories and scholarly reviews of the King Arthur legends.
What I found most fascinating was that there was barely any mention of the king's domestic doings, including anything worthwhile about his hunting dogs. Which was what I was most interested in.
I found references to the fact that he did, in fact, have hunting dogs, as most nobles at the time did. And one passing reference in another that the hunting pack of Camelot was the envy of other aristocrats. But that was it.
Evidently stories about the Green Knight and the Quest for the Holy Grail were a lot more popular than stories about the king out hunting for either trophies or the table.
In short, the best research I could do without going to Merry Olde' England proved nothing other than King Arthur did own at least a couple of dogs.
Ben had his second surgery. The report said the mass in his lung was simply old scar tissue from some injury years ago. It wasn't cancer, but it had grown and hardened to where it was interfering with his breathing.
Now, with four shiny new bypasses, a couple of stints, and his lung cleared, Ben said he felt like a new man.
But as to when he was coming back to work, he said the doctor told him to quit asking.
As for my own position, I found out that somebody in a corner office had decided that when I'd said that I could cover Ben on his sick days, that they thought I meant for the rest of this season, and into the winter, until he could come back from his surgery.
I did have Jack on the weekends for another few weeks. He said he could come in 'anytime' and help out, if I gave him some notice so he could rearrange things at his other job. He was a great help, but his time up here was limited.
I told them that as it was the end of the season, unless we had a run of primitive camping leaf peepers who held mass picnics and took overland hikes, that I could handle it until we closed the public areas for the winter.
Then there was the morning when I looked in my mirror and had an odd realization.
I had gone over a month without a visit to the hair salon.
In Augusta, I had a standing appointment at Mandy's once every two weeks for a wash and trim and set, just like that. And Carol did a wonderful job on my hair. And if there was something I needed to look just so for, which did happen once in awhile, she'd touch up my eyebrows, and have Mai do my nails.
It was just something I did either Tuesday or Thursday after work, every other week.
And now I didn't even miss it.
Of course, other than Jack on the weekends, and Arwyn and them, I hadn't seen anybody that cared what my hair looked like. Well, there was the lady at the store in town, and the mailman, and the state courier twice a week, but they didn't seem to notice my hair.
The mirror didn't lie.
I was more tanned than I had ever been during this time of year when I hadn't just spent a week at the beach. I was actually smiling. And my hair looked like I'd spent the last month more outside than inside.
I'd even lost a little weight and felt more toned and in shape than I had in years.
Which really made me smile.
And then I got promoted.
As I seemed to have a lot of time in the afternoons, I had been taking an online course in conservation management. That was evidently enough for somebody to decide that I needed to officially be a Park Ranger instead of a Resident Caretaker. I knew the qualifications, and that I loosely met them, but that was it.
Then the official letter arrived and they explained that in this extraordinary circumstance, they were 'underfilling' the position until such a time as I met the general guidelines for it.
OK. That meant that in addition to Forestry Management, I would now be taking that class I saw about Conservation Law.
I could do that.
I'd already been out on the park's trail bike a couple of times, mainly just to get used to riding the thing. But today, I wanted to ride out along the northern trail where I couldn't take either the jeep or the ATV, and, instead, when I was driving them, I had to park and hike up the steep path along a valley, from either direction. I checked the motorbike out, and made sure it was full of fuel, then I headed out.
As I rode along the top of the ridge and looked out at the view I wondered how I'd ever spent so many years in an office when I could be doing this instead.
There was some evidence that hikers had been up there, but it wasn't bad, and there were no downed limbs or serious erosion to deal with. So I finished the loop and caught the logging road back to the office.
Which was a bad idea. Riding a trail bike through the Log Ford was a wet experience. Wet, but fun!
It was still over a week before Shandy would be rejoining me as a human.
Her and several of the others had ridden around with me on my patrol route in the ATV and the jeep and they all acted like they really enjoyed doing it. Especially Deryn, I could tell that what Shandy had said about her was true. While a human she was a pretty, but obviously morose woman. Now, back in her natural form, she was a lively and actually affectionate canine with shimmering brownish gray hair and ears that came to sharp points. She would bounce in and out of the vehicle, and splash in the water or chase a rabbit and be the happiest thing ever.
Shandy spent a lot of time with me, but there was usually one or more of the others around as well. Even at night, if for some reason I looked outside I often saw two or three of them trotting along under one of the exterior lights.
Which was probably why none of the trash cans around the office or picnic area had been investigated by any of the local black bears.
And I didn't feel so alone.
They killed two more coyotes, although one of them seemed to be one of those hybrids that we kept hearing rumors about. In any case, the now deceased creature was no match for '"our dogs".
And then Our Dogs proved their real worth.
Shandy and Osian were riding with me when I turned into the picnic area and ran right into about a dozen out of towners who were abusing the facility.
The fact that I had a Ranger badge on my shirt didn't impress them at all, they immediately began catcalling and telling me how sweet I looked.
I tried to turn the ATV around but they blocked the road with one of their motorcycles and several individuals.
Shandy was off like a shot into the woods and I knew she was going for help while Osian stood on the seat, growling menacingly and bristling to where he looked nearly twice as large as usual.
While the bikers were making noise at Osian, I managed to dial my phone and told the 911 operator who I was and where I was and that I needed all the assistance she could send. Then I tried to defuse the situation by telling the biker that appeared to be the leader that they were welcome to use the grounds as long as they didn't make a bonfire out of any more of the tables.
They weren't in a mood to listen, and one of the women that was with them started egging the men on to 'teach me my place'.
And then my first wave of help arrived. Led by Sloan.
The old dog went straight for the biker leader and stood in front of him with teeth bared and ears back.
"Don't move man," one of the other bikers said, "that old thing will rip your throat out. He don't care no more, look at him."
The leader swore violently, then said, "I'm looking dude, I'm looking. Hey lady, call off your dog."
"Call off yours." I said and pointed at the closest biker.
And we stood and glared at each other and listened to Sloan's low rumble from his chest.
In a minute I heard a siren in the distance, closing fast.
And then all hell broke loose.
One of the bikers reached into his pant's pocket and came out with a pistol.
Instantly Osian and one of the other male dogs whose name I couldn't remember, and one of the other females leaped toward him. And then he was on the ground, screaming.
Then two sheriff's cars and a state trooper followed by an ambulance roared up the lane.
As soon as the officers were out of the cars, most of the dogs were gone, except for Sloan who was still face to face with the leader, and Osian who had hold of the biker's pistol hand, with the gun still in it, except he couldn't fire a shot because one of Osian's teeth was between his finger and the trigger.
The deputy had his own weapon drawn and in the biker's face before I told Osian to let him go.
They didn't handcuff him until the medic from the ambulance evaluated his injuries.
"Well, well, Whitey Mack, I thought you were on your way back to Philly," the State Trooper said to the biker leader. "Who's your new friend?" He asked nodding to the still bristling Sloan.
The biker didn't answer.
"Maybe I should just let you work it out with the pooch here."
"We just stopped for a break," he said, "we didn't want no trouble."
"I find that hard to believe," the trooper answered.
"Ask the lady."
"If tearing down all the signs and setting fire to picnic tables isn't asking for trouble I don't know what is," I said when the cop turned toward me.
Whitey Mack started to put his hands down, an actual roar from Sloan changed his mind and he put them back up.
The State Trooper walked over to me, "I've never seen you up here before. I'm Sergeant Fowler."
"Ranger Jane. I've only been here a few months, Ranger Ben's in the hospital."
"I see. You pressing charges?"
I looked over at the man being treated with one hand in a handcuff locked to a waist chain while the other was heavily bandaged. Sloan still had their leader in a deadly staredown.
"Not if they really are leaving the state," I answered.
One of the deputies walked up to us. "That one's not going anywhere. He had a firearm, and a rap sheet longer than he is tall. Plus an open warrant in Bangor for assault with intent." He indicated the one with the bandage.
"Well, OK, that's one. Should I run the rest of you through and see what's what?"
"We'll go. If she tells that monster to let me move." He looked down at Sloan and seemed to shiver.
The Trooper considered it for a minute. "Very well. Whitey, you'll go down and pick up one-fifty, then stay on it until you get to 201 to I-95, then you'll burn for the state line. I'll follow you to make sure you don't get lost."
"I'll be right behind him all the way, just in case," the deputy added and the Trooper nodded.
"Ranger Jane, speak to your friend there."
"It's OK Sloan, you did good, they're leaving."
Sloan understood immediately, but he bristled and backed off slowly, growling all the while.
Whitey Mack could finally relax.
The other bikers with both dogs and deputies watching them seemed to breath easier as well.
They bundled the wounded and wanted biker off to wherever he was going. The Trooper said a truck would come by to collect his motorcycle, but Whitey said if they'd release it to him he'd have somebody ride it home for him.
"Least I can do, and one less sheet of paper I've got to fill out."
"You're all heart sergeant."
"Ain't I though?"
I found out from the medic that the biker that Osian had attacked was going to be fine, and only needed two stitches in his right hand.
"I'm surprised the dog didn't take his hand off. But I guess he knew better," the medic said.
"They're very well trained dogs."
"I guess. Good thing for you they were here."
"Yes. I'm very glad to have them around."
One by one the motorcycles fired up, then they proceeded out with several glower looks at me and Shandy standing by my side.
The ambulance and one sheriff's car followed the bikes and the trooper and the other deputy sheriff out.
Then Sloan suddenly sat down, then he laid down, and finally laid over on his side.
I ran over to him and checked on him, he was still alive, but exhausted and hurting.
I heard an excited bark and looked up, Arwyn was walking across the clearing, he was clearly worried about his friend.
"He's still alive," I told him.
"I watched from the edge of the wood. He was very brave to face that man like that."
"Yes, and I am grateful. If they hadn't been with me. I don't want to think about what they might have done."
"They intended to abuse you, in many ways," he said, "I could sense it in them. We all could." He looked down at Sloan, "It is our duty to protect you."
"Like you did the princess."
"Yes. Like the princess."
It took some time, but Sloan roused a little, and drank some of the water I offered him, then he seemed to breath easier and was able to get up. Then he slowly followed the others back into the woods.
"Well, Shandy," I said to her, "That was about enough excitement for one day."
Shandy barked and wagged and acted like she was ready for more.
She may have been, but just thinking about what Arwyn said, and my knowing some of the history of some of the motorcycle gangs from down in that area, I was almost sick to my stomach while I drove back to the office.
It was getting late in the day, but I knew what I had to do.
I went to the gun safe and opened the bottom drawer. There was a .380 semi-auto in it. I took it out and went through the ritual of checking and cleaning it. Then I loaded it and went outside and fired an entire clip into the woodpile.
From that evening on, if I went out of my cabin, I had the weapon on my belt. I didn't want to have to rely on one of King Arthur's dogs to protect me from everything from a stray coyote to another ... anything else.
Then I made a decision, instead of writing a report and requesting a new table to replace the one they burned up, I went to the junk pile and the scrap wood and made two more out of the metal frame from the burned one and the pieces and parts we had around. It took me a couple of days, but when I delivered them, and after I'd put the signs back up, you wouldn't have known anything had ever happened.
That night I caught a look at the moon, it was waning quickly into a crescent, which meant the New Moon was coming up shortly.
A couple of days I looked over at Shandy and Dona, "It's tonight isn't it?" I asked them. One of them put her head down and whimpered a little, the other just sat there.
I didn't have to look at my lunar calendar, I could tell by the way they were acting that their transformation was close. Dona was acting nervous and restless. Shandy was quiet and unsettled.
"OK, I'll take you down to the caves."
It was a quiet ride down there. Arwyn was standing in the clearing next to the stream.
"Thank you for bringing them home Ranger Jane."
"My pleasure," I said to him, "I'll see you all in the morning. I'll bring breakfast down for everybody."
"That will be most welcome," then he nodded toward Sloan who was stretched out in the sun, "I don't know if he will change tonight or not. It is getting close."
"I understand. If he doesn't, he can still have breakfast."
"Yes. There is one other that may change this time." He indicated a beautiful young female that always stayed off away from the others and eyed me with a combination of interest and caution, but she did like 'doggie treats'. "Carsyn, she's almost of age to change again. If it isn't this month, it will be the next."
"Carsyn," I said and she perked up her ears at me, "I'll see you in the morning, either way."
I spent a long night, sleeping on and off, worrying about Sloan, and what it meant if he didn't change.
Finally, about two AM, I fell asleep and stayed that way until my alarm went off at six and the morning news and weather brought me fully into the new day.
I got up and made a 'to go' breakfast for everybody, and used up all my foil wrapping the sandwiches, then I wondered if I'd be giving Sloan his as a sandwich, or on the ground as dog food.
It took some coffee before I convinced myself that worrying about it wasn't doing me, or him, any good at all. I put everything together in a box and walked out to the truck.
"Terrific," I said as I realized I was looking at a light frost around the edges of the windows. It was that time of year. Then I got in the truck and drove down there.
And I did remember to toot the code as I started down into the gully.
Carsyn hadn't changed. She was still a magnificent canine with bright eyes and attentive ears.
Sloan did change, but now he was an even older man. He did remember seeing the bikers, but his memory of the event was somewhat foggy. He mostly remembered my taking care of him afterward.
"We always remember kindness, Miss Jane," he said to me.
"And I will always remember your facing down probably the scariest man I've ever seen."
"I don't recall what he looked like," Sloan said, "I just know he was threatening you, that was enough."
"Do you think you would have killed him?"
"Of course, he would not be the first enemy I've taken down." He flexed his shoulders, "Although the last time I was considerably younger."
I didn't want to think about a battle between the huge old dog and the huge not quite as old biker. "Do you need anything while you're human?"
The old man smiled at me, "A kind word from a beautiful woman is all the balm I need this morning. That, and this very nice morning meal. Thank you for both, dear lady."
"It is my honor and genuine pleasure," I said as he bowed slightly toward me.
The others came out slowly, some were dressed in their robes, or were wearing one of the blankets as they came out to see the morning sun, others weren't dressed, at all. Then I saw Shandy come out stretching and smiling into the sunshine, without a robe. She was just as happy to see me as a woman as she had been as a her other self.
Even Deryn came out just before I left to go to the office, she took a breakfast sandwich and stood off to one side in her blanket and ate slowly. But when I spoke to her she did make eye contact and said something under her breath. Which, all things considered, was a giant step forward in our relationship when she was in this form.
I got an email from the county sheriff asking about the damages to park property the other day by the motorcycle club. I sent him an inventory that included the cost of a replacement picnic table, as well as some of the signs and hardware that I had to repair or replace. I even accounted for most of my time putting things back together.
A day later I got another message from the same deputy that had told us about the injured biker's open warrant, that he had already agreed to a plea deal that would get him out from under the habitual offender category. He was still looking at a long vacation in Warren, but he should get to go biking again in a few years.
I was out on the steps of the office the next afternoon with Shandy and some of the others when a county car came up the road. Fortunately, everybody was at least passably dressed. A lady from the crime victim's compensation board came over and explained that the park might be eligible for some assistance in recovering the cost of the damage caused because of our status as a natural reserve.
She was professional, and informative, and gave me an envelope of papers to fill out and send in, then she was gone.
I was still sitting right where I was when she had pulled in. I'd stood up to greet here, but then she told me to relax and went through her speech. Then she left.
Osian summed it up for all of us, "After meeting her, I'm quite happy here with you and the others instead of out there with her."
A couple of days later they changed back.
I tried to see a pattern based on the calendar of the lunar cycle, but there wasn't one. I even had the lunar phases as seen in Great Britain, but the timing wasn't consistent with them either.
Then I started trying to find out if the lunar cycle was significantly different fifteen hundred years ago.
The only pattern was that if they were human for five or six nights this lunar cycle, it was likely they would only get four the next month.
They didn't understand it, and, in truth, had grown to accept it as it was. And they seemed to also accept that they could do nothing at all about it.
And now, neither could I.
Of all of them, the one that seemed to accept their fate the most easily was Shandy. She had said she loved being a dog, and she loved being a human, "but sometimes the transition is not pleasant."
I thought about what she'd said about her teeth moving, and the way her hands felt the day before they changed back. But she didn't remember how it felt going from dog to human.
"I do remember running down a road barking at somebody that was running from us. It wasn't here. And it was a long time ago. I think it was in England. But I remember the joy I felt of running and barking. That's all. How happy it made me."
"That's all you need to remember," I'd said to her.
"I think I will also remember this. Sitting here with you, drinking wine, and just being friends."
I laughed at her, "Will your memory include that you forgot to get dressed again after your shower?"
"What is it with humans and clothes? This is so much nicer."
We'd been through this conversation the previous day when she'd gone for a swim in one of the small ponds, and then wouldn't get dressed again to ride back to the office in the ATV. I'd given in to the madness and let her ride along for awhile.
Then she started singing some sort of old English folk song about the fall air.
I asked Shandy where she learned to sing those songs. She smiled and said it was the one thing she remembered from their time before they were changed. One of the young girls that helped take care of them used to sing to them, and she remembers sitting next to her listening to the songs.
"That's wonderful," I answered.
Now they were all dogs again, except for the one brother, who said that now he was going to finish getting their camp ready for winter. Which included catching and drying various game animals and putting it up for winter.
"They don't eat what you're trying to store?"
Amlodd shook his head, "No. Not usually. Sometimes one of them will get to sniffing the stores cave, but then I remind them what it is for."
I nodded, "they seem to be really smart.... dogs."
"We. Are." He said almost sternly. "I know it took us a long time to learn how to do this." His eyes were far away. "I know it took us several lifetimes to learn what we needed to know. I remember going without food while a human because we didn't know how to feed ourselves like this. But now," he gaze returned to the here and now, and to me, "but now, we know, and we know who to trust and when to trust them."
"Thank you for your trust."
"No, Ranger Jane. Thank you for being trustworthy."
On my way back to the office I saw a flash of bright orange through the trees and realized that winter really was only a few weeks away, no matter what the calendar said.
In Augusta, it is normal to have kids going trick or treating with an inch of snow on the ground.
But major storms that shut the city down usually didn't happen until late November or early December.
I knew that up here in the hills, frost happened early, and snow wasn't far behind.
There had already been a few chilly mornings, but nothing seriously below freezing yet. But it wouldn't be long.
I reminded myself to check out the selection of long underwear the next time I went to town.
But with the nightly low down to just above freezing, and the radio weather guy worried about what he kept calling "a mild freeze" next week, I had a whole checklist of things to do to get the park ready for winter. Including figuring out how to put the snowplow on the tractor.
I wasn't alone, but even as enthusiastic as she was, Shandy wasn't a lot of help with the snowplow.
But for an Old Dog, she did learn a new trick.
I had watched the video and gotten the hydraulic lines of end loader assembly detached, but I still had a couple of pins to pull for it to come completely off when I said, "Shucks, I need those pliers again."
Shandy walked over to the other side of the tractor where I had been working, then she looked at the ground and nosed a couple of the tools, "Yes, that one," I said to her, and she picked up the pliers and brought them to me.
"You're the best dog ever, Shandy." I said and patted her head and scratched her behind her ears until one of her back feet was going.
Once it was completely detached and hanging from a couple of winches in the ceiling, I backed the tractor out from under it, then it was a cinch to put the snow blade on it.
I looked at Shandy as I checked the connections on the blade, "If my grandfather could see this, he'd say I'd turned out all right." Then I thought about it, "Except he'd want to know why it took me two days instead of two hours."
Shandy barked and bounced in a circle.
"Thanks for agreeing with him."
Jack worked his last regular Saturday shift the next to the last weekend in October.
He did what he said he always did. And I helped him do it so I would know what he did.
To begin with we went down and closed the picnic area, the campground, and the nature center for the season. Which involved picking up and taking out everything from trash cans to the picnic tables that we could easily move. Then we put up the bright orange chain that had a big sign on it that said 'closed for season'.
Then Jack got everything out of the unheated shed that would be ruined if it froze and put it in the other building, then he put the electric cart up as it was all but useless in the winter and unhooked the batteries and all that. Then he made room in the shed for the snow machines when they were delivered.
"Sometimes I'll come up here and ride one out on the trails. I tell them it's work. But it's really not."
"I'm good with that. When you come out, we'll both go for a ride."
"That'll be fun."
A week later I walked outside early one morning to see about an inch of fresh white snow making the lane up to the largest cabin look like a Christmas card.
I didn't need the snow plow for that one, but there was no mistake, the winter of Twenty Nineteen was here.
The next day the local rental yard that several local parks had contracts with to supply and maintain snow machines delivered two aging units that started on the second try, and even came with hitches on the back to pull sleds.
I asked the gentleman that delivered them to give me a second to make sure I knew how to start, and stop, them, and he said it was no problem. He even made sure I could pull the starter cord that was there just in case the battery didn't want to turn the thing over in the dead of winter.
"I'd rather ya'll were familiar with them instead of getting a call from ya'll saying you can't get it to go when ya gotta go out and rescue some skier."
"You're not from around here."
"No, ma'am. I was a born and raised in Georgia."
"What are you doing up here?"
"Sometimes I ask myself the same thing."
I helped him load the two old trail bikes onto his trailer, then with a wave and a honk, he said he'd see me in April, and to give "Ol' Ben" his regards.
I remember to this day, when I saw a small headline on a news aggregator about a 'new virus' that had been detected in China. I remember seeing the term "coronavirus" and remembering something about how there were all sorts of them, and the joke the professor told us in college biochemistry about how a camel had its own coronaviruses and you had your own, and it might not be a good idea to kiss your camel because some of them could cross between species.
And then we moved on to another kind of virus with a slide that showed it under high magnification.
Little did I realize how prophetic the professor's joke had been.
But that was still in the future.
In the two weeks after that first real snow I made three trips to town, one of those included a drive into Augusta to get stuff from the parks warehouse. And while I was there I swung by a couple of other stores, of course. And that trip also involved having my first lunch at a restaurant in several months.
I even picked up some special 'doggie supplies' to give to Amlodd for them to break out in the middle of winter.
The first hard freeze was the week before Thanksgiving.
I went around and checked the other cabins. The empty ones I'd run air through the lines and then pumped in some pink antifreeze. I still had hopes that Ben would be back, so I just checked his and made sure his heater was set on low.
The big cabin was the best suited for the winter. All I had to do to it was to turn off the outside spigot and open it up so it didn't freeze, and then turn the heater to 'winter' to maintain the building just above freezing.
My own was well insulated and somebody had left a note inside a kitchen cabinet to remember to prop the cabinet under the sink open to keep the trap in the drain from freezing.
Based on that note I stopped back by Ben's and the big cabin and propped their sink cabinet doors open, then I checked their bathrooms to see if the same thing could happen there.
It killed an afternoon.
Thanksgiving day I spent in Augusta with some extended family, then headed back to the park watching the snow flurries get heavier as I drove.
By the time I got to the park it was really snowing. I stopped by the office and checked for messages. There was one. From Ben, wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving and for me to enjoy the snow. Then I headed for my cabin.
The radio weatherman had predicted the area just north and west of Interstate 95 would get 'four to six inches' of snow, with some higher elevations seeing up to ten.
I didn't think we were at that high of an elevation.
By the time it stopped snowing on Saturday, there were level spots around with a foot of snow covering them, and several places where snow drifts mounted up to my waist.
I took my time making and eating a hearty breakfast, then I bundled up and walked up the trail to the office. Which was easier than trying to dig my car out.
As I was crossing the parking lot to the office I saw five of 'our dogs' in a line trotting through the snow. I called out to them and several barked back. Then Shandy broke rank and bounded over the snow to greet me.
She yapped and barked and looked back at the others. I understood what she was saying and told her that it was OK if they were doing something to go ahead with them and I'd see her when she got back. She yapped again and took off at a run.
After a couple of cups of office coffee I called Ben at the number he'd left. He answered on the second ring and we chatted about everything except his stint in the rehab center. Then finally he said that he was ready to go home, and they were talking about letting him go stay with his sister.
"I'm ready to go home, but not to Barbara's. I don't think I'm up to that." He said.
He never mentioned when they'd let him come back to work.
I got the tractor out and plowed the main road up to the office, and then cleared most of the road down to the cabins.
By the time I finished I was shivering from nose to toes as my mother would put it. But I was very satisfied with my first ever attempt to plow snow.
Sunday, I rode one of the snow machines down to check on Amlodd and the others, he was fine, and the others were all still dogs.
And to my total amazement, Amlodd was still wearing the doeskin and light footwear he had been wearing since I'd met him as a human.
"I feel that it is cold, but it doesn't bother me. This," he tugged at the deerskin wrap, "is protection from the thorns on the bushes, those are unpleasant. The cold doesn't get too much for me unless it gets really cold. The usual wintery weather just feels a little, cold, usually. But I can bear it. I always have. It would appear to be part of Merlin's plan that we not freeze to death."
I shrugged, "I can't argue with this. But. Well. If you do need anything, let me know."
"Thank you, Ranger Jane. And please take care of yourself in this weather. You are not protected from freezing by the Magician of Old."
"No, and I can prove it by how cold my feet feel right now."
By Tuesday the snow had melted into a muddy mess. But I took the opportunity to drive my car up and put it in the shed, and then I got the jeep out and made sure it was gassed up and ready to go. Whereas my car had been known to get stuck in a store parking lot when the lot hadn't been perfectly plowed, I'd driven the jeep all over several of the unplowed roads of the park, including a trip down to the Log Ford, but I knew better than to try to cross. The jeep never even acted like it knew I wasn't the most experienced winter driver in the state.
I even made it out to the dugout on the cross country trail and left one of the old military surplus sleeping bags and a blanket in it rolled up in a garbage bag.
I hadn't been able to see the moon for a week. But according to the lunar chart the new moon was still a few days away. Then I saw several of the dogs out near the parking lot and I could tell that they were still 'normal' as they trotted along the lane I'd plowed. So they probably wouldn't change tonight.
The next morning I drove the jeep to the top of the road down to their clearing.
The path down was a treacherous mix of wet leaves, half melted snow, mud, and slimy rocks. It was far more interesting to walk down than it needed to be. But I made it down to the clearing.
And they didn't seem to know I was there.
I saw one of them dash across like they were on a mission, then I called out to Amlodd, and heard a familiar bark from down the creek, then Osian came trotting up.
"Oh, hello Ranger Jane, is something the matter?"
"No, I was just checking on you. I know it's getting close again."
"Yes. I did get a glimpse of the moon early this morning. It should be another day or two at most."
"If you can let me know when you feel it, I'll bring another breakfast down."
"We will appreciate it. I will send one of them up the day before."
I nodded and saw Carsyn looking out at me, "Do you think she'll go this time?"
"Yes, she is mature now. I had thought she would, as you say, 'go', last month. But evidently she needed more time. As you can see, she is acting like the others."
I could see from the way that Carsyn was acting unsettled and anxious that she could feel it the way Shandy had described the early sensations from the change, but they weren't acting like it was going to be tonight.
About halfway up the trail I began to wonder where Shandy had been while I was talking to Amlodd. I hadn't seen or heard her. Then I began worrying about her and whether or not she was all right.
Then I stopped walking and scolded myself, "she's better off out in the woods than I am. And she has the others to look after her."
Back in the office I had time to do, nothing.
One of the problems that analytical side of my mind had with the whole thing was simply stated as mass.
I'll use Shandy and Sloan as an example. As a dog, Shandy weighed about sixty to seventy pounds, and Sloan, who was one of the largest of the dogs, might have tipped a scale at just over a hundred. But as people, Shandy was about my size, and I am not going to tell you how much I weigh, while Sloan was still a large and fairly strong man, even at his age, who probably weighed twice as much as he did as a dog.
Scientifically that was impossible. You just can't make matter appear out of the ether of the universe once a month like that, and then have it disappear back to wherever it came from when the moon changed.
But then again, everything about them was impossible.
And, being impossible, they were incredibly special.
They were, and this is the only way I know how to state it... they were, as a group, and as individuals, so completely and totally outside of anything I would refer to as 'normal' that the explanation of their existence made perfect sense.
Whatever Merlin had done, countless years ago, violated every precept I could find on science websites. Even theories about creating matter from energy required more than an old magician speaking a few words in anger. You needed high powered reactors and ways to combine and cool obscure particles with funny names so they lost their instability and became standard issue protons and neutrons. The article went on to talk about how this process may reflect some of what happened at the original big bang, then began to talk about quantum decay.
It never mentioned ancient magicians and mystical curses. I gave up and went to check and see if there were any updates on the the pre-season women's college basketball rankings and outlook.
That was one of the few things I really looked forward to in the winter. When I was in college, I made an attempt to play basketball. That's all it was, an attempt. I was good enough to make the team, but not good enough to start, and finally, I gave up trying to play and ended up just being first in line when it came time to support the team's run into the conference playoffs.
Now, a few years later, I was still a big fan of my school's team, and I enjoyed watching other women's teams through the season. My college's team, as most at that level do, ran hot and cold. They'd have a good season, or maybe two, then, to be honest about it, stink up the court for a year or so, then they'd get better, and then they'd have a good season again. It was a joke on the fan board that you knew if we did OK in the conference tournament that next season we'd be lucky to win a dozen games. And if we made the post season national bracket, just forget about the following year. It held true more often than not.
My interest in women's sports bled over a little into hockey, which I still have trouble watching because, frankly, it looks like it hurts, and soccer. But not as much. I'd have to look up my school's record in either sport last year, where with the basketball team I can tell you we were twenty-one and eight, and did OK in the conference, and were invited to the Other national post season tournament, where, as usual, they played a good game but lost in the first round to one of that year's final four teams. So on the message forum, the outlook with us returning all but three members of that team, was optimistic but guarded.
Just on a whim I went and looked at the forecast for our women's hockey team and found that it was better. After having finished third in the conference, and just missing out on the national post season, and returning the core of the team, everybody expected them to have a really good season, including winning the conference and making a statement in the national tournament. Which meant that next year they'd 'stink on ice'.
I looked away from the pictures of hockey practice and noticed it was getting dark outside.
It was getting late, and already turning to dusk under the trees.
I got up and signed out and 'put the office to bed' as we used to call it in Augusta. Then I went out and walked down to the cabin.
As I came out of the woods I heard a familiar yap and saw Shandy leading several of the others along the road toward me.
All of the sudden I was surrounded by six over excited and very affectionate dogs. They were still acting more like they usually did so I asked Shandy if she thought it'd be tomorrow night. She yapped and bounded in a circle, which I took as a 'yes'.
Then the others started trotting away on their rounds and I told her to go join them and I'd check on them in the morning. She did.
After all the noise and excitement of the dogs I found my cabin calm and somewhat refreshing.
I had the radio on low and was looking out the window when I realized I was seeing snow flurries.
It was a little too cool to sit on the porch in my nightgown and sip wine, so I sat inside and watched it snow and sipped wine.
The next morning I was really surprised when a human Shandy knocked on my door.
"Sometimes it happens like that, but it is the way it is," she said.
"Well, however it happened, I'm glad to see you. Let's make breakfast for the others."
"That's why I came to see you. As soon as I woke up, I knew you'd want to know."
But she declined to get dressed because, she said, that it might upset the others that were just waking up.
I know, but it is what she said.
Even the brothers were surprised that they had changed the previous night.
"It is seldom early." Arwyn said, "Often late, but seldom early."
"Once we were told about variations in the lunar cycle, but there is nothing we can do about it," Osian added.
Then I noticed who was missing, "How's Sloan?" I asked to the silence.
"He changed," Amlodd said, "But I am certain this is the last time for this time." He looked over toward the creek, "There they are. That's his daughter, Carsyn."
I saw Sloan, now a very old man walking with a pronounced limp, with an astonishingly beautiful young woman on his arm. But his smile told the entire story.
"She's his daughter?" I asked quietly.
"Yes. One of the few family relationships that made the transition. His bitch wasn't changed, and the rest of that litter were given away or sold. They kept Carsyn to train in the pack, and she was changed."
I stood there, I didn't know what to think of that detail. Then Sloan and Carsyn walked up to me and he introduced her.
"It is wonderful to meet this you," I said to Carsyn.
"Diolch ... breakfast," she said with a halting cadence and an accent. Then she paused and continued more naturally, "It is nice to wake up to a real human breakfast with my tad."
"It is my pleasure," I said to her. I was more uncomfortable with the fact that father and daughter were both naked, and they seemed totally unaware that it was even unusual. Which, I guess, for them, it was both usual and natural.
But finally Shandy rescued me, "Carsyn, I know Ranger Jane has something that will fit you, then we can go to town with her."
"Oh, yes. I like town," the young woman said, but then she looked at her father with concern in her eyes.
Sloan patted her shoulder, "You go, we will have the evening meal together."
Amlodd laughed, "That means he is going to go take a nap."
"Yes," Sloan agreed.
And now I was driving back to my cabin with Shandy and Carsyn, both totally naked, while hoping that the road and cabins were as deserted as they usually were.
Shandy had me write a list for her so she could remember everything she wanted for winter.
That's when I learned something else about them that I hadn't even thought of.
While some of them could read a little in one or another of the languages they'd come across in their time, only the brothers could write anything beyond a scrawl.
The way Carsyn explained it was that it was because the rest of them only had a few days as a human every month, and then they were an adult. "It is so much easier to learn when young, and do it for longer."
It made sense.
Shandy took my list and read it back to me, only pausing at something she hadn't said, "You want bottles of water," she said when she figured it out.
"Yes, in case the pump house freezes. It is on the winter checklist, and we don't have very much in the storeroom in the office."
"Oh. Very good."
"Very good idea, Yes." Carsyn agreed.
"Well then, shall we go?"
It was the ultimate "girl's day out", with a good deal of silliness and fun.
But I was also privy to Shandy filling Carsyn in on the things that she'd missed in the last couple of years when she had been reborn and not been changing every month.
And I found out something about the park that I didn't know. The pack had assisted with the arrest of a bear poacher last spring, while human.
"Oh, yes, Ranger Jane. I do remember it," Carsyn said. "My memory of it is different, but I knew he was doing something bad, and I went with the others and Ranger Ben and the..."
"Police," Shandy offered.
"Yes, and we tracked them, and they arrested them."
I thought I remembered seeing a story about a couple of out of state poachers being arrested, but I couldn't have told you any more about it. Now I wanted to go find the incident report and see how Ben explained their involvement in the arrest.
I also found out something else. Each one's taste as human was a little different.
Shandy liked sweets, of course, but Carsyn took it to a whole other level. She not only liked sweets of any type, she had a major sweet tooth, and knew all about which candy and other junk food she liked. Most of it was either solid sugar, or flavored sugar, or a sweet pastry with sugar icing.
I introduced her to a brand of packaged cinnamon rolls that I liked once in awhile on coffee break, and she ate a week's worth on the trip back to the park.
"But they were so good!" She said trying to get the last bit of sticky icing off her fingers.
It was that afternoon when I got a phone call from Augusta that ruined the rest of my week.
"I'm sorry to drop it on you like this, Jane, but we've got to. Ben was supposed to submit the amendment to the budget request for the reserve, but I understand he's been out on a medical. Do you have any idea if he had worked it up, or even what he was going to put in for?"
I had to shake my head, then answer, "no, I don't, but I do have his files and notes and stuff. Let me look around and see what I can find."
"The amendment would be for things like capital equipment and major work. Routine maintenance and things like that are already in on the yearly."
"Oh, OK, now I know what to look for. When do you need it?"
"As soon as possible. There's a couple of other outstanding requests, but we have to submit it no later than the end of the month if it is going to go on the proposal for next fiscal year."
"I'll have it to you no latter than Monday. That way if I'm starting from scratch I can do it."
I hung up and looked at Shandy and Carsyn, "Well, girls, we've got work to do."
They were both far more excited about it than I was.
The first thing I did was go through Ben's notebook where he'd even wrote down that I was coming up for an interview.
And there, two pages before that I found his proposed equipment request for 2020.
It wasn't anything earth-shattering, but it was a start. And there was also a note about requesting new battery powered equipment for the picnic area as part of our 'green initiative'. And I knew Ben had wrote it because he'd misspelled initiative.
It was enough to start with.
I looked through the records from the last few years to see what was on the request, and what had been approved. There I found a note from one of the previous rangers that said they had requested a 'bushhog' for the tractor but it had been denied.
I wasn't sure what that was, so I looked it up. And once I saw a video about how it was used, I decided I needed one.
Carsyn came over and watched one of the videos with me. "There is a machine like that not far from our home."
"Yes, in the forest. It is much older than that."
"And bigger," Shandy added.
"Can you find it?" I asked them.
"Oh yes, and if we can not, Wyndam can."
"I know where it is," Carsyn said confidently.
I drove out there with them, and after a couple of false starts we found an impressively large tractor with enormous wheels on what I thought was the front, and tracks on the rear. At some point in its service life it had been painted a couple of different colors, and had had different names stenciled on it.
It was obvious that various parts had been removed, including something large on the rear that had been mounted over the tracks. I sat in the cab for a few minutes and I could tell where two different radios had been, as well as a control unit that faced the rear. But it all of it had been taken out carefully.
But the machine was mostly still there. And from the way the tires had sunk into the ground and the rust that was spreading across the various surfaces, it had been there for a very long time.
I played detective while 'the girls' poked around in the bushes. I found a few parts that had dates on them, and a couple of leads on at least what it had been. But it was going to take more research to find an owner, and a lot of work to get it out of here.
Shandy and Carsyn turned up some tools and other gear from when they'd worked on the machine. But nothing that helped solve the mystery of why somebody would leave something this big and expensive out here. And why it had been allowed to sit here and rot for this long as well.
Now I had something to put in on the budget amendment. A request for service, to remove a large, old, deteriorating and potentially unsafe to the public, piece of logging equipment, that hadn't done anything but be a home for rodents and insects for at least three decades. The date of its latest service I based on a barely legible date on the air filter that was now more bird's nest than air filter. It had been installed in 1987, which may well have been the last time the thing ran.
In my request I emphasized how close it was to one of the trails frequented by school groups, and the evidence I found that it had been used for other purposes by those so inclined. Besides tons of rusting steel, there was still oil in the engine and that the fuel tank still smelled like diesel, and there was still liquid in the radiator, and that none of it would be good for the environment if it started leaking into the watershed of Moosehead Lake.
With the old machine as my lead item, and the brush cutter needed because of reduced staffing, I felt my capital amendment was sufficient for this year.
I submitted it the next day.
Then headquarters called.
They wanted photos of the old machine and a marker on a map as to where it was.
They had those the same day.
I knew part of their issue with the machine was whether or not it was on state, federal, or foundation, land.
From the map I had, it may have even been sitting in the middle of an abandoned county road. But I included with everything I sent that it really didn't matter whose property the thing was on, more likely sooner than later it was going to leak gallons of hazardous material into the lake.
Then on the phone I mentioned that where it was, more or less in a no-man's land, that it was probably why it was still there and nobody had taken ownership of the problem it presented.
"And you want the State to take the lead and clean it up, then see if we can send the bill to somebody else?"
"Yes. And maybe we can even track it back to whatever logging company left it there and send it to them."
There was a long silence on the phone, but I could hear some background noise so I knew we were still connected.
"I suppose it is the right thing to do."
"Yes. It is. And it will good good as part of our taking environmental responsibility and leading the way for others to follow."
"You sound like a commercial," they chuckled, "in fact, that's not a bad idea."
"You can have the idea, I just don't want to be in the commercial."
For three days of their being human, I had put them to work. We went through everything that was on the 'capital equipment' list. Including the major appliances in the cabins, the vehicles, and even inside the pumphouse.
"I don't even know which key it is," I admitted to them. Then I found it on the second ring, with a 'P' stamped on it.
I found a date written on a tag that said that the motor, and the main seal and impeller on the pump body were replaced two years ago. Before that, it hadn't had anything done to it for almost ten years. So I suspected we good for awhile.
But at night, it was me and Shandy. Sometimes Carsyn would eat supper with us, then she'd leave as it got dark to go down with the others. Only once did she stay with us, until it was late, then she said she wanted to go down and check on Sloan.
Every morning we'd rouse out and take them breakfast, then I'd go up to the office and work on the budget, sometimes with Shandy, sometimes with both of them, and we'd take a ride in the jeep and debate whether or not it would survive another year.
But then, with their advice and continual distractions, I finished the proposal and emailed it.
"Now what?" Carsyn asked me.
"Now, I take the rest of the day off, and we'll go for a drive, and then I'm going down and take my shoes off and have a drink."
Shandy was just as happy with that as anything else I'd ever said to her.
The fifth morning Shandy said she knew that it was their last day for this change.
"I knew it was coming, I could tell by the way you were acting last night."
You'd thought I had scolded her.
"No, Shandy, it's OK. It was nice. It's just the last time I had another girl in my bed I was in junior high school and I had to share a bed with one of my cousins."
She smiled, "I just needed to snuggle up next to somebody."
"And I enjoyed it."
She had done more than snuggle up next to me. And no, That didn't happen. All she did was curl up beside me, and then wiggle closer, and then shift a little, and then move closer, and then I got up and went and got a drink of water, and when I came back to bed, I got in the other side next to her. She hadn't stirred.
The week after they changed back, winter moved in for keeps and no mistake.
I told my family that I'd come down for Christmas, but I didn't want to stay too late because the main road back in got more interesting than it should be after dark in the snow.
New Years came and went, and I stayed in the park for it.
I went down to check on Amlodd and them, and he told me that he was certain that Sloan would not change this time. All he was doing was sleeping and moaning.
By the light from by cell phone I crawled into the cave where he was laying with Carsyn and patted him. He looked up at me and I could see recognition in his eyes, which brought tears to mine. "You rest easy, I'll help look after Carsyn until you come back."
I know he understood me by the way he looked at me.
I sat with them for a few more minutes, then I crawled back out. I had to spend a minute getting myself back together, then I walked back toward the clearing. Amlodd was still there.
"He's still alive, but you're right. He's..."
"This life is ending. He will be reborn."
"But then he'll be younger than Carsyn."
"No, when he returns he'll be mature, he was older than her when he was changed, so he is always older than her. In fact, he was one of the oldest of all of us back then, he still is."
I didn't think about it, I knew it would give me a headache.
I bid him a good evening and shivered my way back into the jeep and up the hill.
January 2020 was cold, but not frigid, and it wasn't overly snowy. Just enough to make some things miserable.
I spent most of my time in the park in the office. I went out on the snow machine once in awhile. And then I got real brave and drove it out to the dugout on the trail to see if anybody had been out there.
For that adventure I hooked up one of the sleds on the back of it, with everything from camping gear to extra fuel, hoping I didn't need any of it, but I knew that if I didn't have it, I'd end up stuck out there wondering if I'd be able to get back to the office before I froze to death.
But as it turned out, I stopped by my cabin and packed some extra water and 'dog food' as well, because Shandy loved to ride on the sled. When she wasn't running alongside the machine barking that is.
The dugout had been used recently. The ski tracks over the fresh snow proved that. But they hadn't used any of the supplies. Instead, they had left a new set of skier's mittens and a stocking cap in there.
While Shandy ran in circles and barked, I checked the supplies, and added some of what I'd brought to them. Including an armload of firewood that I put on the small stack next to the lean to. With what was out here I thought a couple of back country skiers who got caught in a sudden storm could hold out for a couple of days. Maybe long enough for somebody to realize they were missing and call the park, or the sheriff, or somebody, to come up here looking for them.
"OK, all set, ready to ride back?" I asked my very happy companion.
She yapped, and jumped up on the sled and wagged her tail.
Instead of going the way that I would have to try to negotiate a half frozen Log Ford I turned around and went back the way I came. About a mile later I looked back and saw her curled up on top of the canvas I'd covered the supplies with, sound asleep.
Then Jack called about riding the snow machines. I was OK with it and told him to come on up. He did the next day. We rode around, and did some odds and ends, and then he went back home after we joked about 'not getting the Chinese virus'.
A few days later when I visited Amlodd he told me that Sloan was missing, and that I shouldn't go looking for him. Carsyn was sitting with two of the others, and just sitting, all three of them seemed to be more sedate and quiet than usual. They knew what was going on as well.
That night I cried myself to sleep for a fifteen hundred year old dog that had died more times that I could count.
January of 2020 turned into February.
Now I had been through six of their 'changes' and had actually grown accustomed to having a couple of wonderful human female friends for a week or so, and then having one very good dog for another three weeks, and several others that would come and go as the mood took them.
One of the others that had been a young dog was now a young man. And as a young man Irfon was something to see. As a dog, he had been longer and leaner than the others, and was one of the fastest runners, now, as a human, he was taller than the others by several inches, and thin to the point of being skinny. But he was friendly and had a contagious laugh. And he also seemed to be Carsyn's boyfriend, or something.
"They were born about the same time to different mothers," one of the brothers said, and I'm not sure which one said it, "so they, you could say, grew up together."
I had noticed that some of the dogs seems to be closer to others as dogs than they were when they were people.
Something else I had noticed was that one of the female dogs appeared to be pregnant, but then when she was human, Dona wasn't showing a so called 'baby bump' at all.
It was another mystery of what they were that I wasn't even going to try to solve.
In most years February is the snowiest month of the winter, but this year, it wasn't. Don't get me wrong, we got snow, and then we got some more snow, and it stayed cold enough that most of it stayed around for the duration, but it wasn't as bad as it has been before.
For which I, for one, was grateful.
But even with that, there were days when I stayed in my cabin instead of trying to get up to the office. And not because of snow, but because of a thin glaze of ice that I didn't even want to try to walk or drive on.
According the the radio weather guy, we were several inches short on our snow total for the year. The overall temperature was close enough to average to be considered normal. But he never mentioned our ice total.
So I could stay in my cabin, and read the chat boards about my basketball team, and watch an old movie, and then look out the window and see a large male turkey strutting along, and be grateful for where I was and what I was doing.
And then February turned into March, and the news kept talking about a virus. How contagious it was, how many people were getting terribly sick and dying because there weren't enough life support machines in some cities.
And then I got an email in the office account. And then it appeared in my own personal state email account.
The Governor of Maine had suspended all non-essential travel on state business by state employees. It really didn't apply to me, but it was a wake up call that the 'Chinese virus' pandemic was actually serious, and getting worse, and what had been a joke was now deadly serious.
Call it a premonition from Merlin, or maybe just the realization that I was a long way from anywhere and my cabin in the middle of the woods would be the last place anybody would bring help, I went to town and loaded the truck down with everything I could think of that I might ever need. And then for most of it, I bought extra as well.
When I got back to my cabin I turned on the radio and all they were talking about was how the college basketball season had come to a screeching stop.
It just figures, my team was one of the middle seeds and there was some talk that they might make it out of the first round this year.
The executive orders went downhill from that 'no travel' order as a couple of days later she declared a state of civil emergency and pretty much everything that could close voluntarily, did.
A day or so later there was a notice about 'emergency measures'. I skimmed through it. I'd already taken the 'emergency measures' that I could. I put up a new sign on the picnic grounds about how it was closed due to the pandemic. Then I printed out a big sign for the office door with the phone number and email address for the park office and left the door locked. So much for emergency measures.
The order that allowed people to go fishing without a license didn't really apply to my park. There was only one stream big enough to have any fish in it that anybody would want to catch. And there was only one pond worth fishing in as well, but unless you went fishing on a horse, it was a three mile walk on one of our more rugged trails to get to Lake Nevermind because the old fire road was closed to civilian vehicles.
And come to think of it, unless I got up there and did some brush clearing soon, it was going to be closed to park vehicles as well.
I was sitting with Shandy and Carsyn when the order came that all non-essential businesses were to close.
Carsyn listened intently, then she asked me a question that I couldn't answer, "Is this an essential business?"
"No, I don't think so."
"But the order before was to get people to go out to parks."
"To fish, yes, but, I don't know."
And then they changed back and I was alone, people-wise, again.
I had been out on the back country trails and had come across skiers, and some hikers, who were out 'getting away from other people' because of the Covid. I chatted with most of them from well beyond the 'ten foot pole' rule that I'd seen on TV. And the majority of them agreed with the idea.
It seemed like about every other day I was getting an email or phone text about somebody that I had worked with, or knew through extended circles that had gotten sick from the virus. And several of them died.
I don't remember which day it was. I was out walking with Shandy and a couple of the others, as dogs....
.... I would have never believed that I would have to go back and add those two words to anything, ever, to explain who I was with, and what form they were in. But now, I have to. For a few days at a time, Shandy and the others are people, the rest of the time, they are large, somewhat furry, and very good, dogs. OK, yes, 'as dogs', back to what I was saying.
.... as dogs, when they started barking and looking nervous.
Usually when they hear something, one of them will come back and stand by me, and the others will go check it out. Sometimes it is a porcupine, that they have sense enough to bark at from a distance until the rodent gets a headache and waddles off, or, once, climbed a tree and then sort of hissed at them. Other times we'll hear the others running through the undergrowth woofing and howling, and then something will come through, take one look at me, and head the other way. Sometimes it's a moose, or a herd of deer, or any number of other animals that the dogs get excited about.
This time though, they didn't chase anything. Wyndam stood at attention for a long moment, then put his head down and backed up a couple of steps. For her part, Shandy looked uneasy, and moved to be closer to me, and just behind me.
Their reaction more than anything made me nervous and wonder what was going on.
Then I heard it. And got the full body shivers.
"Music," I said to them, then I put my hands out trying to reassure them as much as myself, "I'll go see."
I had to swallow hard before I started up toward the big cabin. I swallowed twice. I took a few steps that way, and, realized somewhat belatedly that Shandy was behind me instead of in front of me.
The accordion music didn't fade, or get louder, as I got closer. It took a minute, but I finally recognized the song. I didn't know its name until I got back to the office and looked it up and listened to several songs, but it was 'Lady of Spain', but it wasn't being played at the tempo on the online recording. This one was a little bit slower, but there was no mistake that's what they were playing.
I stopped just where the path to the front door branched off the driveway. The music was still there, but no louder than it had been when we were out on the cabin loop. I was at least fifty yards closer to the house, the music should be louder if it were coming from the house. Right?
Instead of walking toward the door I followed the drive up to the kitchen side door.
The music paused, then another song began. This one I never did find, it sounded like a waltz more than a polka, but it was definitely a song, I just couldn't find a recording of it.
I stopped at the corner of the house with the total and absolute feeling that I was being watched. And it wasn't by the dogs.
That was the exact moment that I realized that Shandy had stayed by the front walk. She wasn't cowering and whimpering, or with her ears back and showing her teeth, or anything else, she was just standing there watching me, with the occasional side glance toward the house.
Then as I took one more step toward the back door the music stopped.
I stood there for another long minute, then I got out my keys and went ahead and went in the kitchen door and walked through the house. It was still, and quiet, and slightly musty. I was on my way out of the bedroom when Shandy and Wyndam bounded in. While the music was playing, they wouldn't come anywhere near the building. Now, they were in it.
"OK, it's over with, let's go." I said to them. Then on the way back out of the house I turned and nodded, "I enjoyed the music, thank you. It made checking everything out nicer."
But I didn't hear it again for a long time.
But, I mean, really, if King Arthur's dogs were walking up the lane with me, why couldn't some old time park ranger play the accordion for us?
The next Tuesday I spent a long day out on the trails and checking on the dugout after a hiker had left a voice message on the office phone and said they'd spent the night out there when their partner had taken a fall and didn't feel like working their way back to their car. They thanked us several times for the place, and keeping it stocked, and said they were going to come out sometime and replace the things they'd used.
I had called the number back on Monday, and was surprised to find out that they were from New Hampshire, and were spending the time when nothing else was going on seeking out parks they'd never heard of, and going there and spending a day.
He'd seen a write up about our trial, and they thought that exactly fit the bill. And they'd spent a wonderful day hiking out, and had lunch, but then on the way back, while they were exploring up a creek, his boyfriend had tripped over something that he never saw and shook himself up. He wasn't badly hurt, but the walk back to the car would be too much since it was already getting late. They'd passed the dugout and checked it out and even made a joke about how it used to belong to some hermit who used to sit up there and tell people to talk to the trees.
Now, after his friend's fall, and not knowing how bad he was hurt, the old dugout was the first thing they thought about when they realized that neither one of them had any cell phone signal, "We'd never seen that before. One of us always has service. You really are out in the sticks."
I laughed and reminded him that that was exactly why they picked our trail.
He agreed with me, then said it was all they could do to get his friend up the hill and settled and checked out. "His knee wasn't broken, but he's still got a really ugly bruise on it, and his foot is still all swollen."
In the morning they walked out. It took them twice as long as the hike in, but they took their time, and had lunch from some of the supplies from the dugout, and finally made it back to their car.
"A friend of ours is a nurse, and she checked Buddy out. He wasn't hurt bad, and she said he had been lucky. Then she told us that the next time we go someplace like that, let somebody know where we're going and when we think we'll be back."
"That's good advice. If you come back here, call the office and leave a message with the date and time you're coming, and then another when you leave so we know you're OK."
"And don't worry about replacing the things you used, we have supplies here in the office that we buy in bulk and take out there."
"I know we don't, but we want to. As soon as Buddy is back on his feet, we want to come back out. Maybe we'll stop by the office and say hi."
"From ten feet away."
"Oh, yeah. Like that."
So early Tuesday morning I loaded up Shandy and a bunch of supplies, and a full tank of gas, and away we went in the jeep.
The hikers had even left a note in the dugout and told us what they'd used and thanked us for maintaining it.
From the evidence in the dugout they'd also used some of the stuff out of the first aid kit.
I had enough stuff with me in the jeep that I was able to restock the kit, and the supply shelf of canned goods and bottled water.
And toilet paper.
Shandy had been out sniffing around the bushes and found where they'd 'relieved themselves' and tried to cover it up. I had a shovel with me, so I did a better job of burying the evidence than they had. Then I thought about it, and put a shovel on the list of things to bring out next time.
But I was glad to have been in touch in with somebody that had actually needed the place, and had used it and were grateful for the facility.
The roads and trails out there were muddy, and all of the streams were still up, so the trip there and back took most of the day. And by the time I got back to the office, I was exhausted, but Shandy was ready to go again. But, of course, she had curled up on the seat and slept the whole way back.
I'm still not sure why the state closed all the coastal parks, except to keep people from getting too close to each other. But there was no order for inland parks, and my park was most certainly inland.
When this all started I had asked for a clarification on whether or not to leave the picnic and primitive camping areas closed. It took three days for somebody somewhere to make a decision, but they finally did. I was to reopen the picnic area for day use only, but make sure the tables were at least twenty feet apart, and to put a note on the sign about not moving tables and to maintain 'social distance' and that the toilets were 'use at your own risk'. And then I was to reopen the picnic area.
They said basically the same thing about the campground. We had ten pack-in tent sites, they were all over twenty feet apart, and the pit toilets were 'self cleaning'. So it was good to go.
It took me a whole day to get everything cleaned up from the winter and moved to where they wanted the tables and fire rings. Then I put a couple of signs up about how the place was to be used, and not to move tables, then I took the chain down and the picnic grounds were open again.
As for the 'day use only' restriction on the picnic area, it had always been for day use only.
Somebody had posted the picnic ground's status on several of the state's online accounts, and for a few days there was an increase in traffic down there.
It was good to see people, and kids, again, but then the 'new' wore off, and they figured out that we don't have a playground to speak of, and unless you want to go on a nature hike, there just isn't a lot to do.
After talking about it with a couple with a kid who was running around with Shandy, I said I'd look into getting something for kids to do.
That is, until I got to the office and got online and looked at new playground equipment prices, and then looked at the regulations as to what we'd have to do, including installing a soft ground cover, and all the rest of it, I shook my head at the screen and said the kids would have to make due with what we had.
"Sorry, Katie and Mac, we just can't do it. At least, not during the plague," I said to the air.
And then the following week, that all changed again.
Monday had been the usual collection of Monday stuff. But Tuesday, March Thirty First, our Governor followed some other states with a "stay at home" order.
So I went down and closed the picnic ground again. A picnic in a nature reserve was hardly an essential activity.
But I didn't 'stay at home'. I made one more run into town for whatever was left on the shelves, then on my way back up to the office I put out one of our "park is closed" signs that was on an old rusty metal barricade down at the bottom of the lane.
I alternated puttering around the office, and walking through the cabins, and driving around the trails, and just trying not to let the place go totally to seed while we were 'locked down'. And that goes for me too.
There was no lack of 'spring park work' to be done. And I knew I wouldn't be anybody's first choice to do it, but, right now, I was the only choice to do it. So I took my time.
I cleared all the trails, and filled ruts and holes in roads, and did a lot of site work in the campground, and redid part of the Log Ford, which could now be called the 'really big rock and log ford', and stayed busy.
While I was out on the ATV I saw a car driving up to one of the private cabins off the logging road, so I turned that way and followed it.
I stopped a sufficient 'social distance' behind them and waited until they got out and looked my way.
An older couple stood there and stared at me for a second, so I spoke to the man while watching the woman, "I didn't expect to see anybody up here, is everything all right?"
She instantly nodded and smiled, which I took as a good sign. Then the man spoke, "We're fine, thanks for checking. But we've been cooped up in our apartment in Boston for over a month. We had to get out," he jerked a thumb at the cabin, "this is our son's hunting cabin, he said we can use it for awhile."
"Oh, OK, sure. Charles and them stopped by last fall. Big guy, worst mustache in the state."
He nodded, it was only then that I noticed that he had a similar upper lip duster, but maybe dad's was a little better shaped.
"You guys stay safe, if you need anything, there's a note pad on the office door, or you can call me if you get enough signal, the number's there too."
"Thank you, ma'am," the woman said.
I smiled and waved, then I started the ATV and turned around as they got luggage and bags out of their car.
The next day I found out why they'd come up from Boston when they did. Now there were restrictions on those traveling into Maine from outside.
Well, I wasn't going to report them to the health authorities. Especially since Charles's hunting cabin was already as quarantined as it could be.
At least now I wasn't the only human human within a radius of about five miles.
A day later I was out with Shandy when I saw her go into 'alert' mode, then she barked several times at somebody walking up the road.
"It's OK Shandy, they're staying in one of the private cabins. They're from Boston."
We introduced ourselves from 'a distance' while they patted Shandy's head. Then I said goodbye to John and Trudy, and we went back into our own isolation.
It was when I got back to the office that I saw just how serious the pandemic was getting.
I read the email about the "Major Disaster Declaration" twice, then I just sat there.
I'd been following the news, and even the weather guy on the radio talked about how his own brother was in the hospital across the state line in Manchester with a bad case of the virus, and he couldn't go see him.
My own father came down with the virus, and while he was in the hospital, he never got so bad as to have to be sedated and put on a ventilator. It was close, but he avoided that.
I asked Arwyn what would happen to them if they caught the virus.
He didn't seem concerned, "if we do, and we get sick, and we die of it as you say some people are, what of it. In a year, I'll back, as you see me now. I don't think your virus will release us from the Old One's words."
"You're probably right.
That night I sat on my porch even though it was still a little 'airish' as my grandmother used to say, and drank my wine, and watched Shandy listen to the night, and thought about which event from the last year had changed my life the most.
I didn't really sleep very well that night.
I didn't want to give credit to my ex-fiance for having started the train of events that led to my being right here, in this chair, now in front of a computer typing it out. But there it was.
No, he didn't talk me into bidding on a job out in the middle of nowhere. No, he didn't curse the King's dogs and then bring them into these woods to wait for me to come out here to find them. No, he didn't come across the new virus that had brought the whole world to a standstill.
Then I thought some more about it while I looked out the office window and saw a fox trot along the treeline. I smiled at it, Amlodd had told me that they didn't bother them, but they would run wolves off, which was a lot better than the way they treated coyotes.
After the fox disappeared I sighed and kept writing. If my Ex had done this, I should thank him.
And now it is the next morning. I walked up to the office, still wondering how all of this came about.
I am out here, I'm going to save this file, and close the word processor, and go get in the jeep and drive out to the rough trail and just drive along, then I'd check the dugout, and later head down and around and back to the Log Ford to see if last night's rain washed out the retaining stones I'd put in awhile back.
If I was in Augusta, and I was still engaged, no, right now, I'd be married, to... him, I'd be stuck in a house, or worse, in an apartment, doing the work I could from home, or sneaking into the office a couple of times a week and avoiding everybody, instead of putting my boots on and thinking about what supplies I want to bag up and take out to the dugout.
I'd rather be here. File. Save. Close.
And now it is almost five PM.
It took all day. It was about ten when I got Shandy and Carsyn and Irfon into the jeep and we all went for a ride.
I stopped at where our road ended at the boundary next to the county road, and all three dogs jumped off the ATV and went running up the trail. My first instinct was to call them back, but then I realized that that was pointless. So I checked the gate, then I followed them up the mountain.
The dogs were bouncing and licking all over two young men.
I had to calm them down enough to find out that while the one was Chris, the one I'd talked to on the phone, his friend wasn't the infamous Buddy who tripped over the creek. But Chris had wanted to show his other friend, who went by the nickname, Star, the dugout and the creek, while Buddy was still recuperating at home.
They'd even brought the replacement supplies that Chris had promised.
We visited for awhile, all the time at least two big dogs away from each other, then they went back down the mountain and I checked out the dugout and lean to and the rest of it, then I called 'my dogs' and we rode on down the north slope for the rest of our rounds.
By the time I was done doing what I wanted to do at the Log Ford, all three of them were soaked to the skin, and I had had my fair share of the creek splashed on me.
But it was fun, and I only needed to put a couple of shovels of gravel around a couple of the larger rocks. Other than they, they'd held. And I was happy with that.
I drove into the foundation entrance, then down the lane to the clearing next to the creek. All three wet dogs bounded toward Amlodd, then yapped and pranced around the others that were there.
"It would seem they had a good outing. How did you do?"
"I'm a bit tired, and damp, but it was a good trip."
He watched them shake and run, "So it would seem. The moon is in the waning quarter, it won't be long now."
"According to the chart, another three days."
"But the chart, and the expectations, have been known to be wrong."
"Yes, but only by a day either way. Which, when you think about what's going on, isn't bad at all."
He considered it with his chin wrinkled up, then he said "you are very wise Ranger Jane," and bowed toward me.
"Thank you, my friend."
It was the morning of the third day after my visit with Amlodd that they changed again. I was expecting it, and had their breakfast down there before any of them walked blinking and disoriented into the sunlight.
I knew not to say or do anything that would startle them, so I simply smiled and nodded and handed them a ham and egg sandwich on toast.
They all appreciated it, quietly for the most part, even Deryn.
This time it even took Shandy a couple of hours before she was back to being Shandy. She apologized by saying sometimes after the change she wasn't sure which she was for awhile. "Sometimes I'll think I'm still a woman and try to do something and realize I'm not. And then, like today, I woke up and didn't realize that I had changed, and I came out and it everything felt different, then I realized I had hands and feet."
"That would be unsettling," I said even though I had no idea what it would feel like.
I was sitting in the office with several of them when the radio show was interrupted by a breaking news announcement.
"The Governor's Office has just announced that the Civil Emergency declared in response to the Coronavirus Pandemic has been extended until the Fifteenth of May. I repeat, the Civil Emergency for the Pandemic...."
"Miss Jane, what does that mean?" Dona asked me.
"Mainly, it means that all this isn't over yet, and isn't likely to be over for some time yet."
She looked at me, then back at the radio and was listening intently to the newscaster as he read the previous announcement about the various restrictions and limitations. "It doesn't sound good," she said as he finished and went to a public service announcement about essential travel and services.
"It's not," I said to her.
A couple of nights later they changed back. Just like that.
And I was alone again.
Then I heard that Ben had the virus.
He wasn't bad sick, at least not yet. But he had been just getting back to where he was talking about coming back to work, at least part time, as soon as the restrictions were lifted.
Now he was in the hospital, on oxygen as a precaution because of his overall condition. Barbara and her husband both had it as well, but they were still home, but she didn't know for how long given the way they were feeling.
One thing she did tell me that she was certain they'd all gotten it from taking Ben in for a doctor's visit and medication review. "His doctor wouldn't do it over the phone, so we had to go to the clinic, and walk right through their waiting room that was full of sick people."
All I could do was to tell them to take care of themselves and try to get better.
I couldn't call Jack in because he'd sent me an email saying he was on quarantine because he'd been exposed at work. "The advantage of being considered essential, they're still paying me, even though I'm off for two weeks. If I don't get sick, I can go back."
"Sounds like job security."
"It is. As long as I don't get the bug and die from it. We've already lost two others, both of them got it and were dead, just like that."
And then a week after that I got a notice that any state lands where hunting was allowed were going to be open to turkey hunting to anybody that wanted a bird, and they didn't have to check it after they bagged it.
The only area in the park that was open to hunting was the South Tract, and the strip way up north that used to be part of the lumber company's land, where the machine was.
The next morning I was out on the ATV checking the signs that were posted as to which area was which and where you could hunt and where you couldn't. The funniest part of all that was that I saw a large flock of turkeys in the foundation area, and in the main section of the park, where hunting was banned, and only a couple of them in the South Tract, and none in the old logging area. Oh well, good luck to the hunters.
One of the good things was that there was a lot of time to have long conversations with whichever of the brothers was human that month. I learned that while they were indeed very similar, alike enough that I could see how Ben would have trouble keeping them straight, they did have some differences, and some of those differences were telling.
A big difference was how much they easily remembered about their long lives here, and in England.
A good example is that whenever I was planning on making a supply run into town, I'd stop down there and ask if they thought they needed anything, or even if they wanted to go.
Amlodd went with me once. Arwyn never did.
He explained it like this, "Ages ago, some of us would try to fit into human society. And some did better than others. The females always seemed to get along better than the males. But there was always problems. Besides language, which, you've seen we can do well enough with. But when you only have three or four good days to be in society, and then much longer to be out here, it can be difficult to be with other humans."
"You all do fine with me. And with anybody that stops by, you get along well with them."
"You are one, and you know us now. The others are one or two, for a short time. It is different."
To Amlodd, it was a curiosity. He said he'd been to town with Ben several times. And even went as far as "the city", although he wasn't sure which city it was, once. He said he had enjoyed those trips, and he enjoyed his trip with me. But I could tell it wouldn't be a regular thing.
With the others, one or two of them would go with me, if Shandy or Carsyn was going, otherwise, they wouldn't.
One day I got a call from one of my cousins that an uncle had caught the virus, got sick and went from the emergency room to the intensive care unit in a Philadelphia hospital, and never woke up. Even a ventilator couldn't keep him alive as his lungs filled up with fluid. According to my cousin it was almost exactly five days from when they called an ambulance for him to when the hospital said he was dead.
And my cousin was actually surprised that he had lasted that long because he'd been sick 'for a week' before he went to the hospital, he didn't want to go in "until he had to".
Barbara called one night and said she was worried about her husband, but Ben was going to be released from the hospital to go back to his trailer in town. They didn't want him going back to her house because they were still sick.
I asked if he needed anything dropped off before he got there. She said no, that other family members who weren't infected had taken care of all that. He was still talking about coming back to work sometime in May so he could be here for somebody's Memorial Day picnic.
I told her that as far as I knew everything like that was still canceled, but it'd be nice to have some help up here.
"I hate to be the one to tell you, Jane, but the virus took a lot out of Ben. He's talking about going back to work, but I don't think he could walk from his truck into the office without needing a nap when he got there."
"That's what I thought from the way he sounded on the phone. But I thought it'd be good for him to have something to work toward."
"That is a good idea. He needs something to look forward to. I'll drop a hint or two that way. Maybe it'll get him to do his exercises at home."
And so I sat in an empty office, in an empty park, and waited for my friends to turn back into humans so I could have some company.
They were the only choice because just as I was walking up to the office one morning I saw John and Trudy driving up the lane.
"We're going back to Boston," Trudy said without getting out of the car. "It's just too isolated for us. We need the city."
I stayed more than a dog's length, counting her tail, away from the window. "It is pretty lonely up here."
John nodded, "It's more than lonely, this is... This is beyond lonely, but I don't know what that is."
All I could do was nod and tell them to stay safe and then wave as they drove away.
As spring turned into summer Ben came out for a couple of day shifts.
But most of what he did was sit in the office, wearing an actual surgical mask from his doctor's office, and complain about what they'd done to him in the rehab center.
"They wanted me to be able to walk up three flights of stairs without stopping. I told them there are no stairs out here."
"But it is more than three flights of stairs up to the dugout." I said through my own somewhat less effective looking mask.
"I drive up there."
Which reminded me about the story about Chris and Buddy and their adventure.
After he'd laughed for a bit, he sighed and said he needed to get home and get his medication. "After I take it I have to be near a potty, and my bed," he made a face, "in that order."
He got a little choked up by the way I'd taken care of his cabin, and he even took his uniform shirt with him to wear the next time he worked.
He had been impressed by my budget amendment.
"I'd forgotten about that old forestry tractor."
"What did they use it for?"
"Lifting logs. It started out with a big old boom on the back end that had a huge grappler on it that could pick up four or five full sized logs at a time and then put them on a truck. They came and took the boom off it, oh, I don't know how long ago. They said they'd be back for the rest of it."
"They never made it."
"Do you remember whose it was?"
"Yeah, I do, give me a second," and I could see him running names through his mind, then he tapped on the desk, "yeah, it was VanDyke Consolidated Logging. They'd bought out Myers, and the tractor was theirs."
I wrote down both names. Now I had something to send up the line so the State could bill the rightful owners of our massive pile of rusty metal for its removal from our nature reserve.
Ben came out on a Tuesday, and then again on Thursday, two weeks running, to 'see how it went'.
We even developed a routine, he'd come in and drink a cup of coffee with me while he checked the park's emails and phone messages. Then I'd get the jeep, which was an easier ride for him, and we'd go out and 'check something', which was mainly an excuse to get him out of the office. Then we'd stop by my cabin for lunch, and then back to the office, where he'd sit for another hour or so, then he'd go home.
And by the time he was ready to leave, I could tell he was ready to leave. But he had come out, he'd been here for several hours, and had actually helped out.
The 'dogs' were ecstatic to see him. And then about two weeks later, as people, they were happy to see him. And Ben was happy to see them both ways.
But after he left Osian whispered to me that "something wasn't the same with Ranger Ben."
I had to agree with him, "Either the heart surgery or the virus, or probably both, had taken a lot out of him."
"If that is what happened, then that is what happened," he said, "And I am sorry to see it."
From our daily attendance and use estimates, it was turning into the slowest summer in the history of the park.'
Nobody had a large gathering in the picnic area, there were no daycare field trips, nobody booked the pavilion for a party, nothing like that. Once in awhile I'd see a family at the picnic area, and there were hikers out on the trails, but they were out there in ones and twos, not groups.
Dona had her puppies.
By everything I could find, her pregnancy had gone several times the usual span for a normal canine pregnancy. But this was no 'normal canine pregnancy'.
She had two puppies. Both were born with their eyes open and able to walk around within hours of their birth. A month or so later they looked like they were about half grown. I was sorry to see that neither one looked like Sloan, but the brothers assured me that one of the next litter would probably be the old warrior.
I got an email from public health that had a checklist for state employees to monitor themselves and their families for signs of the early symptoms of the disease. So far, I hadn't had any of them.
And then again, going through their risk of exposure criteria, I hadn't had any close contact with anybody but Ben, and that was clear across the office, and he was always wearing his mask to protect me from his bugs.
But mostly, what I did all summer was to exchange emails and notes with a friend from school who was working with a group that was spending their Covid time out on Moosehead Lake on a pontoon boat trying to identify some of the sunken steamboats that were all over the bottom of the lake.
It was a fascinating bit of research being conducted by various groups that were cooperating, and in some ways, competing to find and identify the up to fifty lost commercial steamboats that were in the lake. My friend had only been out on their project boat a couple of times, but she was real good sitting in her apartment reviewing the logs from the boat's sonar scanner, looking for irregular signals that indicated everything from a sunken log to a steamboat. So far she'd found over a dozen logs, and three confirmed and two more possible boats that were awaiting verification. Two of the confirmed boats were the old steamboats, which was really cool. The third was being checked out now.
Her last note included photos from the submersible camera, and notes from one of the research partners.
There were the GPS coordinates and depth of the object she had identified. Then there were the photos from the camera the boat team had lowered down a multiple unit camera that took various sorts of still pictures as well as video. She'd found a boat all right, except it was a normal fishing boat. Complete with two mounted boat seats and an outboard on the back end of the thing instead of a steam engine.
They'd scanned the boat and got a good picture of the hull numbers on the thing, and now there were those trying to identify the thing and find out if there was more to the story,
I looked carefully at the images trying to see if I could see something to add to the investigation, but the only thing I noticed was something that had already been commented on. I couldn't tell if it was a lunch box, or a tackle box. But it was in an odd position, partially open, under a seat.
What had gotten my attention was what appeared to be a decal or sticker on the side of the box, so I asked if there was a better image of the decal.
Later my friend sent me the best shot they'd gotten of it and asked me if it looked familiar. I had to invert the photo, but then I instantly recognized it as the symbol of a fishing club that had been popular several years ago. I wrote back to her and told her what I thought it was, and that it looked like the decal they gave to their ten year members, and sent her the link to their catalog page with the information.
She thanked me and said she had thought she had recognized the symbol, but didn't notice the number on it. She agreed that it was probably from the club and added that to the information they had about the boat and it was another lead to see if one of their members reported sinking their fishing boat in Moosehead Lake about twenty years ago by the last time the boat's number had been registered.
So now her score was two steamboats, and one fishing boat, but there were still the two they had investigate with the camera to see what was down there. But one was in about a hundred feet of water, and while the other was only in about seventy feet of water, there was a lot of brush and other obstacles around it and they had to be careful about getting their camera snagged on something and losing it.
But as there was nothing going on this summer, they had plenty of time, so the boat crew had ordered some extra cable and were going to take a shot at the hundred foot target in the next few days.
"At that depth it takes fifteen minutes just to let the camera down. Then you can power up the lights and start looking," she wrote. "Then it's about twenty minutes to pull it back up. So if you're in the wrong spot, you just wasted an hour."
I told her to let me know if there were any other photos that might benefit from a fresh set of eyes.
The next morning my inbox was full of them. And I spent a lot of evenings with blurry underwater pictures of old boats blown up to maximum size on my TV while I looked for clues.
Sometimes I found clues, a lot of the time I found sunken logs, and once a large, very angry looking, turtle. I forwarded the turtle picture to a park biologist to confirm its identity. The log pictures I deleted.
One of the steamboats she had found was called the Northern Maiden. It had run a three port of call circuit on the lake in the nineteen teens and twenties, then it suddenly vanished. From the story they found in an old newspaper, the owner was facing bankruptcy due to some bad business dealings and didn't want somebody else running his boat. So he took it out for a cruise, and sank it just outside of Beaver Cove in about forty feet of water.
And there the Maiden sat until my friend's team picked it up on their scan, sitting on the bottom, upright, looking like she was ready to go again. It was fairly well preserved for having been an artificial fish habitat for a hundred years.
The Maiden was unusual in that while it was a steam ship, the information on it said it was driven by a steam motor through two propellers on the back instead of side or stern wheels. But in spite of the innovation and efficiency of that type of steam propulsion, the owner lost his shirt and vanished shortly after his boat. He was last seen out went trying to float another business venture that didn't involve something that floated. And, as the news article put it, after that sunk as deep as his boat, he vanished again, this time for keeps.
Every so often one of the news services would run a special about the heyday of tourism on Moosehead Lake during the logging boom. They'd talk about the hotel near Kineo Mountain with its 500 rooms and all sorts of amenities, and how many steamboats had been running during the twenties, and then, like the Maiden, how many of them weren't running as the Great Depression ran its course, and how many of them found their way to the bottom of the lake.
I'd grown up in Maine. I've been out on the lake. I'd seen the ruined hulk of one of them that had been run aground on one of the islands, and abandoned. But I don't think I ever knew there were that many steam boats there. Either that had been running service of various types across the lake, or were now sitting on the bottom of it.
And now, to be, even distantly, connected to the research, and in the case of many of them, the 'deep' research, because the lake gets to over two hundred feet deep in some places, was something of a thrill. And then whenever I was out on the top of the mountain where the dugout was, and looked out to the west, I could look out and see the lake, and imagine steam boats plowing across it. It would have been something to see.
Twenty Twenty was lurching its way through Autumn.
Out in the world there was a national debate about vaccines, and whether or not they'd ever work. And in places there were violent protests about wearing masks, or limiting attendance at football games, and everything else people could think to protest about.
Meanwhile, back in the Maine hills, in a nature reserve, we had our own bit of excitement.
If the one had been while my friends were in their natural state, it wouldn't have been much of an issue at all.
Earlier in the year I'd seen one of them annihilate three coyotes that had been part of a pack that I'd heard about just south of here. The family group had been scattered by a couple of farmers, and somehow several of them had made their way up here. I spotted them while I was out on the South Tract with one of my copilots.
There was no doubt about it, they were coyotes. And that they could outrun both Shandy and the jeep.
The next day I told Arwyn about them and he said they'd take care of it. Then he called to several of the others and gestured to the south and said "faol-chu", and they took off like the wind to the south.
All I could do was to get back in the jeep and head off to where I'd seen them.
It didn't take long. Wyndam and Irfon must have ran a huge loop through the South Tract, because they flushed three of them out, and these ran square into Amlodd who was trotting along the lane in front of the jeep.
Before I could get out and draw my pistol, the lone brother had ripped the throat of one open, had crippled another by snapping two of its legs, and was winning a violent fight with the third before Wyndam and Irfon plowed into them at full speed.
I fired one shot and ended the second coyote's pain from its badly broken legs. When I looked over at the third one, there wasn't enough left of it to shoot.
But this happened while they were humans.
I was in the office when I heard a great deal of shouting out by the machine shed, so I ran out there.
"There is a, oh, what is the name, bandit animal, they'll steal the food we store for winter. One of them, in there." Dona said holding her hands about two feet apart.
"Yes. More than one I think."
Amlodd and Arwyn were standing silently inside the door staring at the walls. I walked in quietly and Amlodd pointed to one side. Then there was a major commotion off in that direction and two of the others came running back our way, and Laisren's arm was bloodied. They were followed by one of their group that hadn't changed this time, and it, too was showing signs of an encounter with something that didn't want to be encountered.
Irfon was disheveled and out of breath, "Like this," he gestured with his arms, "we cannot capture it."
Laisren was looking at his arm, "and it is mean."
The young dog, Tira, I found out later, laid down next to Arwyn and didn't seem to be in a hurry to go back for more.
"I'll take case of this," I said to the brothers motioning to the wounded man, whose name I finally learned, to come with me.
"We'll kill the thing." Amlodd said with an edge to his voice that I never want to hear again. Then he looked at me, "If you give us permission, Ranger Jane."
I was already checking Laisren's arm, the wounds were minor, but there was a lot of them from the raccoon's claws. "Kill the thing. If you can't, I'll shoot it. Inside the building or not." I led him out and Tira followed us.
Arwyn smiled, "We shall see to it, ma'am."
Laisern was sitting on the steps while I cleaned up and then bandaged his arm, when there was a sudden and prolonged bout of violent noise from the shed. Then there was a quick silence, then a round of much banging and yelling in what was probably a couple of ancient languages. Tira jumped up and ran full speed into the building followed by Dona, I had to hang onto Laisren or he would have been back in the middle of it as well. There was soon another round of yelling and banging.
And then it all got quiet.
"Something, has happened." Lairsen said.
In a moment the two brothers walked out carrying the remains of one absolutely giant raccoon and another smaller one.
Both brothers were scratched up, as was Irfon, and even Tira had taken some of the creature's wrath. Only Dona appeared to have stayed out of reach.
"Ranger Jane, both animals have been taken," Amlodd said.
"It was a glorious battle," Arwyn added. "We are victorious yet again."
Even though Amlodd said they heal faster, and with less scarring as another after effect of the Magician's spell, they still needed tended to, if for no other reason than to keep them from bleeding on the floor.
But, true to what he had said, before they reverted back to canine form, their cuts and scratches were almost healed,
I do remember Shandy and a couple of the others being sorry that they'd gone for a swim in the freezing lake instead of being there for the Great Raccoon Battle.
A month later, about a week after their next change, a major storm blew through Maine.
I was in the office when the power went out, I looked over at Shandy and said that everything would be all right. To which she wagged her tail and relaxed back onto her favorite rug.
It was still raining with a steady wind and some serious gusts when I went out and fought my way to the jeep and drove it down to the cabin instead of taking a chance with my car and the road that was, once again, a river.
It blew and stormed and carried on well into the night. But then in the morning, other than the standing water, and no power, you'd never knew anything had happened.
Then, just as I was thinking about using the gas grill outside Ben's cabin to cook breakfast two of the dogs ran up barking and bouncing. They barked and yipped at me, then ran back up the road a ways, then they came back and did it again. The whole time they were moving so I couldn't be sure who they were. And now, Shandy joined them in the 'Lassie dance'.
"OK, OK, I'm coming. I'll be right behind you, let me put my boots on."
I drove down the lane as far as I could, but there was a big limb down across the road, so I had to back up to a level spot and go the rest of the way down to their clearing on foot.
"Where's Arwyn?" I said as I walked through the clearing and saw no sign of the brother that had remained human this time.
Now I could tell it was Osian that was trying to get me to follow him across to where one of their caves was.
Now I could hear a muffled bark, and an equally muffled human voice.
The storm had uprooted a large half dead tree from the hillside and washed it down the side of the hill over the entrance to the cave. Not only could they not get out, I couldn't tell you for sure where the cave was.
"Oh, no." I said. "OK, I'll be back and get you out."
"Thank you, Ranger Jane. I think if it were solely up to us, it would take a very long time." At least he sounded calm, but I still couldn't see where the cave opening was under the tree and dirt.
"I'll be back."
I couldn't run up the trail back to the jeep, but I did walk as fast as I could.
Fortunately, on my way to the office compound I got right behind Ben's truck as he pulled in.
"We got a problem, and I'll need you to at least supervise."
"I can do that. What do you need?"
"The tractor, the jeep with its winch, some chains, maybe a chainsaw, and a couple of shovels."
"Sounds like fun, get the tractor, I'll load the jeep."
We loaded up and I led the way in the tractor. The big limb moved when I rammed it with the tractor's bucket, then we were able to drive all the way down to the compound. I negotiated back toward the cave as much as I could with Ben right behind me.
"Well, that's a problem," Ben said after saying hi to Arwyn through the mess.
"I don't know if we can just pull it away or we're going to have to cut it up to do it."
Ben walked around it and looked up at the roots and dirt still up on the hillside. "Either way, that mess is going to come on down. I'll say we hook both of them up to it and just yank it this way. If it don't come, we'll start cutting and digging."
"I'll get the chains."
It took three tries, but we managed to move the tree far enough away from the cave entrance that Shandy was able to go in and bring the others out.
"Well. I guess I'm back to doing the stuff I used to be able to do. Just doing it a little more slowly," Ben said as Amlodd showed his appreciation for being rescued.
Monday of the following week Ben made it official on a conference call with our department.
"OK, Ben, if you are sure this is what you want. And remember, you're going to take a hit in the paycheck as well, but, if that's OK with you, we have no objection. Jane has been doing a wonderful job through all of this, and she has earned two commendations for her actions out there."
"I understand about the pay reduction. And I'm OK with it," Ben answered.
I hadn't heard about what he'd said about me. "Two commendations? What are you talking about?" I asked them.
"Oh, well, we haven't had the dinner, so I guess you don't know. One was from the State Police, about the biker gang. I'd have to look it up."
"I remember that."
"I'm sure you would. The other involves your helping review evidence on the Moosehead Lake steamship search."
"That was just something to keep me busy during the Covid."
"I wish more people had found a productive way to keep busy. All in all Jane, you're turning into one of our best rangers."
"I had a good teacher," I said nodding at Ben.
Ben shook his head, "I wish I could take credit for it. All of that she did on her own."
The director shook his own head, "You hired her Ben, so you're getting credit for her as your protege. And now, as your replacement. It'll be official as soon as I can get the forms filled out. You two are swapping positions, and we still have room for one more out there. Just don't be in a hurry to fill it. We're still sorting out problems from the virus."
"Thank you, sir, we'll make due with what we've got," I said.
"I'm sure. Oh, yes, Ranger Jane. One more thing."
"We're throwing some Covid money at your machine. The logging truck out in the woods. That was approved at the cabinet level as an environmental project. You can expect a crew out there... well, I was told before this call that they'll be out there to survey the thing and make their plans later this week. You should get a call tomorrow about it."
"Excellent, sir. Thank you."
Officially, Ben was now working the schedule he'd hired me for. Except he was putting in a lot more hours than was being officially recorded.
Most of it was sitting on the office porch with the cordless phone, when the weather was still warm enough. Then he moved inside.
One afternoon I remembered my experience with the music in the big cabin. When I told him about how Wyndam and Shandy had acted he nodded.
"That's the one thing that convinced me that it was real. When he's up there with his accordion, they'll walk on the other side of the road from it."
"But then, when it stopped, they were both right in there with me."
"That's when it was safe," then he laughed, "they're British, they don't like accordion music."
The recycling company called Tuesday morning as predicted, then they had two young men come out Thursday. They wore face masks and hard hats and even plastic gloves. They crawled all over the tractor, took measurements and pictures, then walked up and down the old road to make sure they could get their equipment in there.
"Well, ma'am, we can do it. And we're going to attempt to do it in one piece," the one in the red hard hat said.
The one in the white hat supplied the details. "We'll bring the eight wheel in up the road, move the unit to one side, then go past it. Then we'll back the lowboy in, and put the unit on it with the crane, and that's it."
"As long as the ground is stable. A hard rain and we'll have to wait."
Ben looked from one to the other, "When are you going to do it?"
"The crew is not busy right now. The lowboy will be here Monday, I've already requested the time on either the fifty or sixty ton crane, whichever is available. If it is available, we should be able to do it that day."
It worked out just as they said. Early Monday morning we got a call and we went out and opened the old gate on the logging road and an impressively large multi-wheeled crane drove in and up the road followed by a support truck with four big strong guys in it. The small trees and downed limbs that were growing in and along the road were no match for the thing with tires taller than I am.
Ben and I stayed back and watched as they extended and braced huge outrigger feet on the crane, then they extended the boom. They wrapped giant straps around the tractor, and with a lot of hand signals and some shouting, the crane picked the old tractor up and set it off to one side like I'd move a cup of coffee on my desk. Then they reversed the operation and and the crane drove on up the road to the other side of where the tractor had been for however many years. Then the support truck backed all the way down to the entrance to clear the way for the trailer.
Now it was the turn for the big truck driver to earn his pay.
It took a long time for him to back up the road. But he only had to pull forward and re-aim the extra long heavy trailer a couple of times. Once it was in place, they hooked the old tractor up, lifted it, and sat it on the trailer. A few chains later, the tractor was on its way out. Followed by the crane.
Before dark, the only thing left to remind us that it had been there was the depressions in the ground where the tires had been, and the rust stains on the forest floor.
Ben locked the old gate and waved as the support truck with its flashing lights followed them down the road to wherever it was all going.
I couldn't believe it. That's all it took to get it out of there. I had expected the recovery company to come in and spend a week taking it apart and hauling it out in bits. Of course, they had the biggest crane I'd ever seen up close, and one of those giant trailers with the "over sized load" signs on it, and a group of guys who were absolute professionals.
And they were here, did it, and were gone, before supper.
As autumn gave way to winter, Ben had worked his schedule into a science.
He even managed to lay out a couple of walking courses to ensure that he 'got his steps in' every day like he was supposed to. The advantage of doing it on his workdays was that he got paid to make a 'litter patrol'.
The other advantage was that, most days, he had at least one dog with him, sometimes, there'd be several running circles around him as he walked.
Snow flurries were fluttering to the ground around us.
I was standing along the road with Amlodd watching Ben and several of the dogs on his walk. He stopped walking for a second and used his 'grabber' to pick up some odd bit of paper which he dropped in his bucket.
"You are very quiet today Ranger Jane."
"Just thinking." I glanced over at him, and I could see in his wise old eyes that he wasn't going to let me leave it at that. "I was thinking about how all of this has worked out. Me getting this job, meeting you all, being out here when the virus started, Ben having his surgery, all of it."
"It has been a quite extraordinary string of events." He looked around, "even by our standards."
I nodded, "Almost like it had been arranged." I looked up and down the road. I almost expected to see. Well, Merlin walking up the lane ready to lift the curse. Or perhaps King Arthur himself to rule on the loyalty of his hunting dogs.
Do I have to tell you that the only thing coming up the lane was the mail truck?
The combination of a flier from the grocery store, the garbage bill, a newsletter from a conservation group, and a card from the health department with their new testing schedule didn't lift the spell.
We stood there until Ben went around the corner toward the office and barn.
"So what will you do?" I asked Amlodd.
"What we always do." He took a deep breath, "We survive as we are, we help our friends, and we annihilate our enemies."
"Thank you for being my friend."
"It is our pleasure my dear lady. And you, and Ranger Ben, have been very kind to us. And I will still thank you for rescuing us from the tree collapse."
"That's what friends do, they help each other. You've come to my rescue as well. It was very noble of you."
After I said it I looked back down the road, still no king or magician. Oh, well.
The year was getting old, and cold, New Years was coming.
I sat in the office with several temporary humans and listened to the news.
Dona shook her head at the radio, "He has been saying the same thing since before Summer."
"Pretty much," I agreed. "It changes a little. Maybe next year it will change a lot."
Osian summed it up, "It will change. And it will remain the same. It always has. And it always will.
"It took you fifteen hundred years to learn that?" I asked him.
He smiled and got up to go out into the snow, "No. I knew that as a dog. In Camelot. It has taken that long to simply prove that it really is true."
[NOTE: The above story was written as adventure fiction, it is to be taken as such. The Maine Wilderness Reserve as detailed in the story Does Not actually exist (but it should!). However, the sunken steam boats in Moosehead Lake do exist.
Also Note: no ancient enchanted hunting dogs were harmed in the writing of this story.
One other thing, the 'covid' Did Happen in 2020, many of the outside 'news' items related in the story are based on actual events associated with the pandemic.
Thank you, Dr. Leftover, TheMediaDesk]
Originally Published on TheMediaDesk.com