I move on down the creek, past one hundred-foot tall yellow poplars that guard the banks.
I pass the rusted-out remains of a moonshine whiskey still, the ax marks still visible in the curled-in cuts where metal met metal of old 55 gallon drums. Scattered metal tubing and half-broken Mason jars remain along the creek bank, a testimony to a man trying to make a living in a destitute era. Some old-timer recognized that you could hide for a long time in this hollow. The smoke from his cook fire would blend in with the morning mist rising into the mountain air, just like it hides Lee’s small camp fire when he chooses to have one.
The man had to work hard to cook in this spot, carrying in his supplies and hauling out his finished product. I suspect someone ratted him out. Maybe it was a jealous customer who didn’t like seeing his neighbor with a little cash. Most likely it was a competitor. Your typical lawman sure couldn’t find this place. He would need a guide, and probably need help finding his way back to town when his job was finished.
I hope the whiskey-maker got away and found a new location, suffering nothing more than the loss of his cook pot.
But I doubt it.
Ten minutes later I reach the camp, such as it is. One man tent, stack of wood gathered for infrequent fires, food wrappers and tin cans scattered about.
Lee is sitting on a camp stool leaned back against a big white oak, his rifle across his lap. He is red-eyed and dirty, and he looks as if he hasn’t slept since I was last here four days ago. He looks right at me, but it is almost as if he doesn’t see me.
“Hey Lee,” I say.
“Were you followed?
“No. You know I wouldn’t let anyone follow me. I circled around and watched my back-trail five times on the way in. Nobody’s following me.”
“They’re closing-in man. I saw a helicopter fly over yesterday. I’m pretty sure he didn’t see me, though.”
“No Lee, they ain’t after you. Even if they were, they’d never find this place. That helicopter was just a coincidence.”
I lie. No need to make things worse.
“Why don’t you get in the tent and sleep a while. I’ll keep watch. Give me the rifle. I’ll just tidy-up your camp. I’ll build a little fire and fix us some supper after sunset. I brought some steaks. We’ll eat like kings. Just like the old days.”
“OK,” Lee says, but the answer is half-hearted and without a hint of emotion. “You watch that ridge line, now. I though I saw a sniper moving around up there last night, but I could never find him in my scope.”
“Sure, brother,” I say. “You rest easy now. I’m here. I got your back.”
I take the rifle and sit down in Lee’s camp chair. It is a changing of the guard, like an old war movie.
“You go on to sleep now.”
I watch him crawl into the tent. I hope he sleeps a couple of hours. I’ve got lots to do.
Two hours pass, and I let him sleep. I hear snoring from the tent, the rhythm of his breathing broken only by a periodic moaning, the kind of low guttural whine a dog makes when it hears a siren in the distance.
I use the time wisely. I dig a hole in the soft bottomland ground and bury all traces of our presence. The cans and food containers, all the trash people always leave wherever we go. I wonder in the end if this is all we are — a few items buried in the ground that show future generations that we were here once. Everyday things we take for granted that some archeologist will use to judge what we must have been like and how we went about living our short existence. As if the sum total of our lives could be postulated in simple trash.
“The people of this period had a diet which consisted of foods contained in metallic cylinders and something called ‘Snickers’.”
I’d like to think we are more than that. Our laughs and tears and loves and struggles mean more than what we possessed. But one thing I do know as I clean up. We never leave a place just like we found it. It’s just our nature.
I rake leaves back over the disturbed ground and find the latrine Lee has dug just down the bottom. I’m thankful he has that much woodsman left in him after all these years. I didn’t want to spend precious daylight combing the brush looking for used toilet paper. I fill in the shallow hole and cover it with leaves and a dead tree branch.
In the last light of day I survey my work. I see a tent, camp fire, and a few camping tools. Nothing else remains to show that someone has been here. Only leaves turned over that would easily be rationalized as wild turkeys scratching through the bottom for acorns.
Nothing left to do but wait. I’m in no hurry, and I’m not going to wake the man up, even from a disturbed sleep. We will both be leaving here soon enough, and at least one of us will be rested and ready for the journey.
I unload the rifle, pocket the shells, and settle-in by the fire. A big full moon is beginning to peep over the ridge. The hollow will be lit with pale light tonight, and no flashlight will be needed.
I recall that the Bible says that “what is done in the darkness will be seen in the light.”
I take no comfort in that thought.