by Lee Dresselhaus
The night I met the Man, the rain had slowed to a fine cold mist as I got my tent set up and my gear inside. I paused for a minute and stretched, weaving my fingers into a fleshy cat's cradle and thrusting up and my head back. I found myself trying to peer through the downcast mountain sky, hoping to catch a glimpse of an early evening star, but it was useless. It seemed as if the misty rain and scudding clouds had conspired together, a whispered contract preventing my last wondering look at a treasured mystery.
When I lowered my arms to my side, I could feel the blood pound in my shoulders and back where my pack had hung for a good part of the past three days. I stretched my legs and locked my knees. Rising up on tip-toes, I reached down and pounded thighs, reveling in their taut strength and in the pure physical experience of the mountains. I looked around me in the thickening gray at the high lake before me, the occasional patch of snow and then the vast slope of the Montana side of the Bitterroot Mountains at my feet, sweeping its graceful way down to the darkening valley below.
Standing there, taking deep gulps of the misty air, with the fine rain touching my face in an almost apologetic manner, I felt the mountains around me, and my life coursing strongly through me, and I almost changed my mind. Then I looked back up to the top of the divide and remembered what I had left down there on the other side. Enough was enough, and too much of enough is a killer.
And it just seemed to me that there is too much of everything these days. I took another look around in the falling evening and listened to the solitary whispers of the high, lonely places. And not enough of this. These days.
I shook my head to clear away any conflicting thoughts and turned, crawling into my tent and fastening the flap behind me. Unzipping my pack, I produced two candles and lit them before placing them in tiny aluminum holders. Rummaging through the pack for dry clothes, I decided that if tonight was to be the final act of my play, I wanted to be warm.
After all, suicide is one thing. Cold and wet discomfort is another.
As I peeled off my wet clothing and piled it in a heap next to the tent flap, I lit a joint and inhaled deeply, enjoying the pungent aroma and rich skunky taste of the fine California. I gazed at the joint objectively for a moment, amused at myself. It wasn't something that I had ever made a habit of, but at this point petty morals and minor illegalities had ceased to be a factor in my life. Only the end game mattered now. The candles lessened the chill in the tent and after I pulled on dry jeans and socks I sat and drifted in the flickering light, and smoked and dreamed and remembered, my eyes riveted to the golden teardrop of a candle's nighttime magic.
I reflected on my decision to come to this high, secret place to die and stirred slightly, ill at ease with the sure knowledge that this was my last night. Then, once more, my thoughts drifted downslope, to the confusion and stink of the cities, the filth on the streets and in the minds of the swarms of people who inhabit the elaborate, ugly beehive of our society, and I was at peace with my decision again. No. I would not be coming down out of this place under my own steam. At the very least, I would exercise the one option that is open to everyone, and that no power of authority can strip from us, the luxury of choosing the time and manner of my own death.
My thoughts drifted from place to place, scene to scene. I thought of women, naturally, and how they can make life so sweet and so miserable at the same time. It always amused me, the fencing between the sexes, and the control that women (the weaker sex) have over men (the stronger sex). A man can be the roughest, toughest, shrewdest, and just plain baddest-ass in the state, and a five-foot woman can bring him to his knees and make him cry. Amazing. Yes, women I would miss. For all of their bullshit, they still make life bearable for us little boys.
At that thought, I started to smile the masochistic smile of men whenever they think of women and the feeling of my facial muscles arching into a pleasant bow brought me back to earth. The joint had gone out and instead of using a candle to re-light it, I reached into my pack for the Bic lighter I carried. A small decision that had a major impact, as such small choices often do.
When I reached into my pack, my hand touched and almost involuntarily closed over the vial of 10mg Valiums, and I lifted the nearly full bottle to my face. The corner of my eye caught the light of my small flame glinting off the bottle of Jack Daniels, now exposed in my pack. Its rich amber liquid waited patiently to accompany me and the forty valium in an unholy triad -- the shadowy partnership of suicide.
"Not yet," I whispered to myself, "not just yet. Just a little while longer." With that, I dug out a dry flannel shirt, slipped my boots on without bothering to lace them and started to crawl out of the tent to experience the high May night, just once more. I paused at the entrance to the tent and dropped the 10s back into my pack. The vial hit the bourbon with a clink, two of the partners planning their evening with a tiny toast of agreement. Emerging from the tent, Bic still in my hand and the half-smoked joint clenched between my teeth, I stood up.
That's when I saw him.
Less than fifteen feet away was the dim silhouette of a man standing motionless. I could feel, rather than see, his eyes upon me. He stood, not moving for a second or two while my hear raced and my pulse pounded in my throat. It was too early in the year. No one should have been this high up but me, and I had had to break snow to get across the Divide to these high lakes. I became aware that I was clearly outlined by the glow of my candle lit tent behind me, yet all I could see of the stranger was a dark shape, manlike and menacing. The shape took a step toward me and I knew that it was real, and not a trick of the mountain night. I crouched, my hands becoming hooks, and I prepared to fight for my life.
I thought about that later. A confirmed suicide preparing to fight for his life when an outside danger threatened. There has to be a moral in there somewhere.
As I crouched, a low voice came from the figure, "Be at ease, friend," he stopped a few paces away, still obscured by the falling night, "I come in peace and will not harm you." Slowly I raised the Bic. I wanted desperately to see the face of this stranger. I struck the flint, and what it revealed made me weak with a sudden, deep-rooted fear, and an odd feeling of abnormality.
The man was dressed in buckskin and fur from head to toe. He wore a wide-brimmed black hat with a beaded band, and a dark fur hung over his shoulders. A wide belt encircled his waist and thrust through that was a huge, vicious looking sheath knife. His pants were rough, greasy leather trimmed with beaded fringe and tucked into a pair of high-laced moccasins. In his right hand, it's butt resting on the wet ground, was a muzzle-loading rifle with a small bag tied over the barrel to keep out the mist. Slung around his neck was a larger bag and what had to be a powder horn.
I took all this in during the space of five seconds or so, but it was his face and eyes that caught and held my attention. He was bearded and leathery. A scar ran down one side of his face and disappeared into the tangle of beard that started high on his cheeks. Then, I realized that his eyes were locked onto the disposable lighter held high in my hand. Suddenly, he lunged forward and in a lightning motion, snatched the Bic from my hand. I leaped back against the fabric of my tent and brought my fists up, but I needn't have bothered. He stood there flicking the lighter over and over again, watching the flame with an unbelievable intensity. I could see the beginnings of a smile creep through his beard and then he threw his head back to the sky and shouted; then he began to laugh. He laughed until I could see tears glint in the yellow light, and I was just thinking, Oh, shit, I'm alone in the high country with a lunatic, when he suddenly whirled on me, thrusting a brown finger at my chest and scaring the daylights out of me. "Would you be so kind, sir," he asked in a trembling voice, "as to tell me the date?" He cleared his throat, then swallowed to contain an obvious excitement.
By this time I was in a state of total bemusement. I hesitated with my reply because things were happening quickly and I hadn't had time to sort anything out. "The date, sir!" he repeated with a note of impatience.
Watch it, I told myself, he may get mean and he is most certainly armed. I watched him carefully and slowly replied, "The tenth of May."
Striking the lighter again, he looked me in the eye. "The year," he took a breath, "what year is it?"
He held my eyes locked to his by the sheer intensity of his look, and I knew that there would be no avoiding some kind of interchange with this weird man, so I thought, OK, big boy, I'll play your game, just to see where you're coming from. And if you go for that knife or get threatening with that musket, I'll be on your chest and we'll just have to see from there. "1999." I said, and watched tensely for his reaction.
He sagged just a bit and let the lighter go out again.
"1999," he repeated. He struck the lighter again, twice, but more slowly. "Almost, this time."
He turned his eyes back to me and smiled. "You probably think I'm one of the more dangerous types of squirrels, don't you?"
I had been very ill at ease from the start with this man and nothing he was doing or saying was making this situation any easier to live with. "Well, the thought crossed my mind. So -- in order to make me feel just a little better about all this, suppose we continue with you telling me just who the hell you are, and what do you want with me?" He started to give some reply, but I cut him off with, "And why are you dressed like that. And what's this about the date? And..."
"Whoa!" He held up a hand. "I can see I startled you a bit, coming from nowhere like that. For that, I'm sorry. My name is not important, really. And what I want from you, you've already provided, so you can set your mind at ease. I saw the light from your tent and when I got close I could tell it was a modern-fabric tent, and I was trying to decide whether to risk calling out when you came out and saw me. Sort of decided the issue for me."
"Tell you what," he stepped toward me, and I stepped to the side so as not to be caught between him and the tent. Giving myself room to run seemed wise at the moment. The strange man didn't seem to notice. He just leaned his rifle against my tent carefully, then clapped his hands once and rubbed them vigorously, "we need a fire. I'm cold and I'm going to have to stick around, at least for a few hours. Got any coffee?"
"No." This was getting weirder by the minute, but by now my curiosity was beginning to chip away at my better judgment. Whatever else this man may have been, he was damned sure interesting, and I wanted to hear some more of his non-sequitur-filled explanation. "I have some whiskey." He barked a short, hard laugh. "That'll do nicely, if you don't mind sharing it with me. I'll gather some firewood for us, you get your whiskey, and then I'll tell you a story that will be well worth the price of your bottle."
He slipped off into the darkness and left me standing there a little befuddled. I could hear branches cracking as he went about his business, and my mind was racing in circles.
I just stood wondering until I could no longer hear the crack of the fire wood being gathered, and knew he was on his way back, then I slipped into my tent and snatched the JD from the lover's embrace of the valium. I stepped outside just in time to sense the man's silent approach, then together we made a peaked stack of the smaller of the wood he carried and, with the addition of a large pinch of gunpowder from the yellowed powder horn to aid in the wet wood getting started, we soon had a toasty fire despite the damp mist.
We sat in silence for the first few minutes, staring into the flame and passing the bottle back and forth. Finally, I could stand it no longer.
"Well?" I said without preamble.
"Well. Where to start." He looked at me across the fire, took a deep breath.
Something had been bugging me, something that didn't fit and that there could only be one answer for, as incredible as it was. "How about let's start at the date you asked about. You asked the year. Just what year did you think it was?"
He laughed that short, barking laugh again, "OK," he said, "here goes." He leaned a little forward, one hand resting on a crossed knee, the other gripping the neck of the bottle.
"The date, or the year, the last I knew, was sometime in the spring of 1828."
Well. There it was, out on the table, and now I could either pick at it until it fell apart, or try to digest it. "I see," I said with all the skepticism that an educated man can muster, "and I suppose that you just trip through time and show up in the Bitterroots. Sort of a Billy Pilgrim in buckskin. Well," it was my turn to learn forward, "it doesn't really wash. You seemed terribly interested in my lighter when you first showed up here this evening. And if I'm not mistaken, matches were still a relatively new thing in 1828, and lighters like this wouldn't come along for quite some time. And you knew how to use it. And your speech patterns don't fit the time period, either. That's modern, Twentieth Century English you're speaking."
I leaned back, well satisfied with myself. I was still watching him carefully for any hostile sign, but somewhat to my surprise, he just smiled slightly, his eyes turning up at the corner, emphasizing the scar on his face. "Billy Pilgrim. So, you're a Vonnegut man. Good. He's one of my favorites. Well, you're wrong about one thing, anyway. That's modern Twenty-FIRST Century English I'm speaking. You see," he thrust the bottle in the direction of my open mouth, and I reached over and took it, "I'm not asking you to believe that I'm from 1828 because I'm not. I'm from 2049. I was just visiting the 1820s. By accident. And I've been stuck in that time period for eight years. Thus, the garb."
I started to say something else, but he held out his hand for the bottle, and as I passed it over, he continued. "It was here, or will be here, or something, that it started. I was here, in 2049, camping like you·." I hadn't felt the need to tell him why I was there and what he had unwittingly interrupted, so I just let him go on. "·And -- something happened."
"What?" I whispered.
"There is... something here. A... a doorway or portal or something. I don't know. I call it that for lack of a better term for it. I fell into it. Or through it. Whatever. While I was walking near here. I set my tent up and had gone for a walk. It slipped up on me, like a cloud or a, a spot that's out of focus. I saw it and stepped into it because I just couldn't imagine what that weird little out-of-shape place was. I passed out after I got into it and when I came to I found myself waking up a long time ago.
I thought I had gone mad, at first. I couldn't find the friends that I had come with, and things were different, changed. Not the mountains themselves so much -- they've changed very little in the past two hundred years -- and I just wandered, looking for my friends and shouting my head off. Which is how the Shoshone hunting party found me." His hand reached up and traced the scar that ran down his face like a faded, pink highway. "I got this courtesy of those friendly gentlemen." His eyes hardened for an instant, and it was at that precise time that I realized that the truth was being spoken, as incredible as it was. There was no lie on the man's face and his eyes were the eyes of the sane he as groped for the words to continue. "They would have killed me, but I was so confused and kept asking question after question that they must have decided that I was nuts, and they took my clothes and turned me loose in the mountains to die on my own. Naked. Bastards." His lips were compressed, and I could see raw hatred on his face. He took the bottle and tipped it up, drinking deeply.
"I wandered around like that for a couple of days, starving and cold. It's a miracle that I didn't die of exposure, and I probably would have, if I hadn't run across Cecil and Zack. Or they ran across me. I was used up and had sat down for the last time. They were trappers, and they took me in and saved my life. Good men. Idiots, both of them, and would be locked up in my time -- or yours -- as sociopaths, but they fit well in their own time. You mentioned my speech patterns. I had one hell of a time adjusting to the speech of the period, so I mostly kept quiet the first couple of years while I learned. I knew something was bad wrong, something to do with time, but I couldn't say anything to anyone. I didn't dare. I started to figure it out after I asked them to take me to a telephone and they didn't have the slightest clue what I was talking about. I don't know what their version of a loony bin was in those days, but I wasn't anxious to find out, so I just kept my mouth shut and listened and learned from Cecil and Zack. They taught me a lot -- enough to have survived all this time in a hostile environment. Yep," he raised the whiskey and took another belt, "they were damn good men, and they knew something wasn't right about me, but they didn't ask. Out here a man doesn't get too involved in another man's business unless he's asked to. I was real sorry to hear that the Blackfeet put 'em both under up on the Powder River last year."
All doubt had fled concerning the man. I knew that I was listening to the raw truth. Unlikely truth, maybe, but truth nevertheless. But there was something I had to know, something that was stirring something inside me. "How... did you get back there? Was it another accident, or what?"
"No." he replied. "No. It was no accident this time. Or the last time for that matter. This makes my third time through the door. Or whatever it is. I told you that I just kept quiet and listened for the first little bit that I was there, and one of the things that I heard were some of the tales the trappers and Indians told about this place. They thought it was haunted, a lot of them. I heard about strange things up here, strange animals sometimes, that just showed up, or patches of snow appearing in high summer, with not a cloud in the sky, suddenly just BEING there out of nowhere, and even once or twice of good men coming up here and not coming back. I heard enough to lead me to the conclusion that the door was not just a one-time fluke that had singled me out, somehow. And that it... it reappears, at random, and at different places, but always up here, near this place. These lakes. I found it again -- or it found me -- three years ago. I don't know. Once you've been through it once, it seems like it's almost attracted to you, and if you hang around here long enough, it comes. Kind of like those guys you read about who are prone to be struck by lightning. The last time I ended up somewhere around the 1930s. That didn't get it, so I found it again and I went back through, and ended up arriving back in the 1820s just a week after I'd left. Good thing I didn't get back a week early. I'd hate to run into myself. Or maybe there is a safety catch in the door that won't let that happen. This door is here somewhere and as real as you or I. And it has probably been here since the beginning of time as we know it. Or even before. Maybe it's something in the mountains, or under them that makes it be here. I just don't know. All I know for sure is... I want to go home, to my time. And my family." He hung his head, his voice dropping, and I could feel the pain in him.
We talked on through the night, and sometime later the clouds drifted aside, and we looked at the stars that filled the Idaho/Montana border mountain sky with their diamond brilliance. Sometime after we had finished the bottle, he asked me if I wanted to know what the future, this future, had in store for me and I told him, no. I wasn't interested. He gave me a quizzical look, but didn't pursue it. Another man's business, I thought.
The sky was beginning to lighten and we were still talking when suddenly he jerked upright, quivering and sniffing the air. "It's here!" he whispered, "right here, now." He lurched to his feet, glaring round him, then lunged for his rifle, "Can you feel it? Can you?" he asked excitedly, and then I realized that I COULD feel something, a tingling or crawly feeling on my skin. The man pointed suddenly and said in a hushed voice, "Look!"
I shifted my gaze to where he was pointing and there, just a few yards away, was a whirling, hazy area, like nothing I had ever seen. Before I could move or speak, he leaped toward the disturbance, the rifle in the crook of his arm, then he was standing in the middle of it and facing me. I took a step toward him and he raised a hand suddenly.
"Stop!" he shouted, and his voice was strange, like when you shouted through the blades of an electric fan when you were a kid. I stopped, although I still don't know why, and looked at the sad eyes of the man, now slightly distorted by the strange flickering. "God go with you, my friend," he said in that broken voice, "and may time be better to you then it has been to me!"
I realized that I had my lighter clenched in my hand and without thinking I flung it at him. It seemed to slow as it reached him, then he plucked it from the air and in the same motion drew the huge knife from his belt, cocked his arm and threw it in my direction, and for a horrible instant I thought he was going to throw it at me, but his arm came forward and the knife thudded into the ground at my feet. "Farewell, friend!" I heard him shout as I bent to pull the knife from the earth. I straightened with it in my hand, a reply ready, but whatever it was died on my lips.
He was gone.
"Godspeed to you... my friend. Wherever you're going," I whispered.
I took another look around as I shouldered my pack, then headed upward, toward the Divide and the trail out and down. The hard muscle of my legs began to work, thrusting me to the slope, and when I reached the Divide I stopped and turned, looking at the three small, crystal blue lakes below me. I would need supplies and lots of them, if I were going to find that doorway. And find it I would. I had never felt such a strong sense of destiny. I knew that I had been as trapped in time in my own way as that man was in his, and I might one day return the fine bowie to the one man who had given me something that I had lost amidst the rumble, filth, and stench of civilization.
Hope. And time. All the time in the world.
Story copyright © 1999 by Lee Dresselhaus <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Artwork "Magic Mountains" copyright © 1999 by Romeo Esparrago <email@example.com>