The sting of sunlight was welcome.
Jim blinked away the shock as the thrill of escape settled to a bitter-sweet sensation. He was simultaneously glad to have escaped the abyss and worried by the dawning realization that he was still lost.
There was no way that he had entered this way. Else, he would have recognized something.
‘How many miles did I go?’
He risked the water. It tasted sweet.
To his left was a hill. To the right a limitless wood. He sighed.
There was nothing in his pocket except a soggy pack of Pall Malls.
The only comfort was the fact that the Zippo miraculously still worked.
‘Well, I don’t think that I went that far. There’s really no way.
He looked in the direction from where he had emerged.
The mouth of the cave that the stream fed into was set into a hillock. He guessed that his best bet was to retrace the steps he took belowground, aboveground.
This took him the most part of what he guessed was afternoon. He wished that he had drunk more because he was very dehydrated.
Slumping against a pine he tried to keep panic at bay. Reed, Kentucky was in the middle of nowhere. It may as well be a ranger station in a national park. There really was nothing to do except walk. Jim may have had street-smarts but he was no survivalist. The best that he could hope for was rain.
After the span of a half hour he rose and trudged further into the unknow.
Evening was setting in. He considered the benefits of a nap. But, decided against it. At least until it was so dark as to render the forest unnavigable.
This decision was soon rewarded by a welcome sight. There was another stream. This one wider and more robust than the one that had guided him out the cave. He dipped his hand greedily and lapped the refreshment with gusto.
‘This one probably feeds that little one… If not outright than through some underground channel.’
It was a thought that filled him with hope. He could follow a stream even in the dark. As the arresting thrill of discovery subsided, and his atheist hymn of thanksgiving tickled Jehovah’s bemused ear, he embarked.
The going was rocky and rough. At times thick bushes grew right down to the shore. He cursed every time he had to work his way round one. Jim walked on for a long time. Long enough for the ambience to shift.
Right as the first twinkling of starlight, heralded the approach of the actual night, something strange caught his eye. ‘That is the weirdest damned track I’ve ever seen.’
He flicked on the Zippo.
It was human looking but strange. So strange, in fact, that there was no way it could have been human. First, there was the size. It was too small. Then there was the absence of a heel. To add to the mystery the thing presented only four toes. With no big toe in sight.
‘What in the hell?’ Jim shrugged. He didn’t really have time to worry about it. Even if it was a predator his priority was to keep moving.
Jim had enough Daniel Boone in him to know that rivers always led to civilization. Or for what passes for civilization out in Bumfuck, Kentucky. So, he soldiered on through yet more of the same arduous terrain.
It must have been two or three hours since the sun had set that the song of the owl and the whippoorwill was joined by that damnably sweet chirping.
‘No bird makes that sound…’ Jim lamented. It was a suspicion bordering on fear. A suspicion that drove him on despite the immense fatigue and overwhelming desire to lay down and sleep.
A quarter hour more of the dogged march found the trees thinning. He probably had nerve damage because his feet combined with the adrenaline of expectation made it possible to run.
“Hooooly…shiiiiiit….” He cried out as he threw himself backward grabbing whatever hold he could.
In his haste for comfort he’d grown nearly deaf. So, he did not hear the thundering rush of water as it fell into a sleepy mountain lake.
He’d saved himself some serious injury, and possible death, but just barely. This was the fact that bore itself into his brain as he looked at the craggy doom some forty feet below.
Panting he worked his way down to the shore of the lake. He looked around and was dismayed. There were no piers, no boats, no cabins. Just a vast lake amidst foreboding mountains. It was too much, and Jim didn’t even try to get another sip of water before he fell fast asleep.
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