Ned Clayton had been born and raised in the mountains. Everyone in the area knew him or at least knew of him. He was considered to be old now but he was fit, whipcord thin and still as tough as old boots. His tanned leathery face had a deep line etched into it seemingly for every one of his seventy seven years. Now the colour of steel he still wore his thick wiry hair long. Streaked with white and black it reached down as far as his waist when he untied it and let it hang loose. His grizzly beard would have been the same colour were it not so stained from food and tobacco juice.
He liked to think of himself as a true, old fashioned mountain man. Indeed he had earned his living when he was younger as a guide for city folk who wanted to spend time in the wilderness but didn’t have the expertise to do so safely. In later years he had become renowned for his knowledge of the old ways, and was consulted by movie companies, book authors and historians. A natural story teller Ned gave talks and attended seminars frequently, revelling in his celebrity.
The clothes he wore were all made by his own hands in the authentic style of an early nineteenth century frontiersman. Over his woollen shirt and canvas trousers he wore a buckskin frock coat and pants finished with fringes at the seams incorporating colourful beads and quills. He wore a quill and claw necklace and expertly beaded arm bands. His moccasins which he was particularly proud of bore intricately embroidered designs. They laced up to just below the knee and he’d never found anything more suitable or comfortable to wear while out trekking through the mountains.
On his thick leather belt hung a huge sheath carrying a razor sharp blade in the style of a Bowie knife. There was another containing a more practical hunting knife and a bag stuffed with essentials such as tobacco, fishing lines and hooks. Around his neck hung a pouch full of spare ammunition and cleaning equipment for his weapon, the one concession to slightly more modern times. It was a Winchester 94 model deer rifle that he swore by, a mere fifty years old and which he’d had from new. The entire outfit was topped off with a raccoon skin cap complete with tail which hung down his back.
Old Ned owned a small property on the outskirts of Macadam which he shared with a couple of mules and where his old pinto Connemara pony ‘Buck’ had retired to see out his final years in comfort. Ned supplemented his income by modelling for artists and photographers along with Buck and the pack mules. His image graced the covers of magazines and hung on the walls of art galleries nationwide but Ned preferred to spend as much time as possible out in the mountains. He didn’t shoot or have anything to do with hunting for sport, although he might take out a deer or trap a squirrel or two if the fish weren’t biting. But the rifle was more for show and safety rather than hunting. Besides, his eyes weren’t quite as good as they used to be and he had never taken to wearing spectacles, they spoiled the image he wanted to portray.
He just liked to take off on his own for a few days or maybe a week at a time and wander the paths and tracks he knew like the back of his hand, guided by landmarks and natural navigation instincts that never let him down, living off the land as much as possible. The range was peppered with the remains of temporary shelters he had thrown up. Small lean-to structures of a design he had perfected over time. Easy and quick to erect they stood with their back to the prevailing wind, protecting their occupant from the worst of the elements and served to trap heat from his camp fire which he would light on the open side of the shelter.
He rarely travelled anywhere without his Native American Indian flute that had been given to him by his grandfather and had probably passed through several generations before that. Intricately relief carved from the femur of a black bear and inlaid with abalone shell it was Ned’s most prized possession, housed in a protective sheath made from ancient cracked and weathered bear skin. He would play it soulfully late into the evening, sitting close to his fire, the sound carrying far out into the wilderness where often he would hear a coyote or grey wolf answer from afar.
Just a few years previously in the late sixties a good proportion of the Northern Cascades had been designated a national park therefore most of the native fauna was protected and you were supposed to get yourself a permit before you could spend any length of time out there. Park rangers patrolled the more accessible areas, keeping an eye on the wildlife, helping to manage the forests and doing their best to prevent any illegal hunting. Ned didn’t bother getting involved with any of that. It was such a vast and wild area that it was unlikely he would be noticed by another human being, not if he didn’t want to be.
Often, on his way back to civilisation Ned would call in to visit his old friend Hank Kirby down beside the highway. They would talk, pass on news and he’d be given a mug of good strong coffee and a piece of pie to eat that would sustain him until he made it home. Hank had been a good man and it was a shame that he was no longer around. Ned would miss him. He’d been surreptitiously watching over the Kirby place since Hank had died until word filtered through that some Europeans had moved in to take the place over. One of them, a Kraut so he’d heard was Hank’s nephew apparently. Ned planned to call in and introduce himself once the new owners had had time to settle in.
On this fine day Ned was returning from a couple of days out in the mountains. Reaching the lower slopes and heading down the last couple of miles towards the highway, Ned became aware of an unexpected and unnatural sound. Carried on the gentle breeze he could hear in the distance an awful, pitiful wailing, possibly an animal in distress but like no animal he’d heard before. Leaving the mule tethered to a sapling out of sight he altered his direction slightly and stealthily made his way, traversing the slope towards the din. Unslinging his rifle as he went, Ned was thinking he may have to put some poor suffering creature out of its misery. As he got closer to where the sound originated Ned spotted another person making his own way down the slope. A young man, dressed in army fatigue style pants and a sweat stained tee shirt was blundering nonchalantly along the trail as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The fellow was actually singing at the top of his voice, oblivious to the fact that he now had an audience watching from about a hundred yards away.
Ned remained still, it was movement that always gave away position. If you remained motionless you could often go unnoticed even in fairly open terrain as long as you were downwind. The young man continued on his way, taking the unpleasant cacophony with him and Ned let him go. He deduced that it must have been one of the Europeans from the Kirby place, possibly Hank’s nephew.
“Strike a light!” Ned muttered under his breath. “I hope he’s a better coffee maker than singer.”