Cougar flipped through the trail log. He found the name "Chaz" two pages back from where he'd just signed, and checked the date. Damn, the bastard was a full day ahead of him. At this rate he'd never catch up. Letting the logbook fall back into place, he unscrewed the cap of his Nalgene bottle and took a long swig of water. It was his own damn fault. Last night he'd partied at a dive bar in Bennington instead of getting to bed early. He'd planned on hiking twenty miles today, all the way to Bascom Lodge at the top of Mount Greylock. He glanced at his watch: it was already four o'clock, there were only a few hours of daylight left. Between the hangover and his late start, he was lucky to have made it this far. He'd have to find somewhere to stay in North Adams tonight, maybe even stealth camp next to the trail if the motels were too expensive.
He looked around for a place to set his camera. Carefully perching it in the crux of two branches, Cougar squinted through the viewfinder at a sign proclaiming, in bold white letters, "Welcome to Massachusetts. Pine Cobble Trail: 1.3 miles. Sherman Brook Campsite: 2.3 miles." He quickly ran a hand through tousled brown hair while the self-timer's red light flashed. Posing, he grinned and flashed a double thumbs-up sign, then resumed his scowl as soon as the shutter clicked.
Fuckin'Chaz, he thought. He should never have signed up for this trip with that competitive bastard. The Appalachian Trail was a huge undertaking, one he would never have done on his own. It involved hiking for months across fourteen states, starting in Maine and ending in Georgia, a total of over two thousand miles. Chaz had talked about nothing else their senior year, wearing Cougar down until he finally agreed to come along. They'd spent Christmas and spring breaks poring over maps, planning every detail.
"Dude, it'll be totally awesome," Chaz had said, gnawing on his usual nasty wad of chew. "Last hurrah before we become slaves to the man."
And he was right, the first few weeks had been awesome. By the time they left Maine, the initial soreness had worn off and they'd grown accustomed to the weight of their backpacks. The mountains in New Hampshire had been challenging but rewarding. Every night they ate under the stars and either slept in a trail hut or out in the open. For Cougar, a city boy born and bred, it was his first real camping experience, and he loved it. He and Chaz had spent long hours around the campfire discussing everything: politics, philosophy, what the future might hold for them. Chaz had brought along some amazing weed, and they'd get high and stare up at the night sky. Despite his initial misgivings, it was turning out to be the best time of Cougar's life.
Then a few nights ago, after a particularly grueling stretch of the Green Mountains in Vermont, they drank too much and fought over who ate the last piece of turkey jerky. Cougar awoke the next morning to find that Chaz had already taken off, and now he was busting ass trying to catch him. It was the end of August. They'd started late enough in the season that they hadn't hit many other southbound thru-hikers, but he should be hitting the northbounders soon. There would probably be lots of other cool people to hang with, maybe even some hot chicks. It would serve the antisocial bastard right, Cougar thought as he shrugged the backpack onto his shoulders and marched through delicate stands of white birches. His fifty-pound pack felt like nothing now; after the mountains of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, the rest of the trail through New England should be a cakewalk.
The forest was thinning the farther south he got, densely packed fir and spruce trees giving way to cedar. Some sections were steep and plunged sharply, forcing him to skitter down sideways, loose stones cascading under his feet. Now, as he entered Massachusetts, the trail finally leveled out. Small beaver ponds dotted either side of the trail, the wind kicking up small whitecaps on their surface. It was quiet; Cougar paused for a minute. He was still a little spooked by that weird guy he and some others had hitched a ride with last night. Most locals who lived near the trail understood that hikers went by a handle; out here he was known as Cougar, which was far superior to his real name. He loved the way it looked when he signed it in the trail logs, loved the fact that no one (besides Chaz, of course) knew that in the real world he was just Jeff Feldman from Boston, a nerdy kid who deferred dentistry school to make this trip. But the creep driving the shitty Tercel kept pressing for his real name, making him wish he hadn't called shotgun. Something about the way he eyed him, too, just hadn't felt right. But the guy had dropped them at the trailhead as promised, and Cougar completely forgot about him during the drunken stumble back to Congdon Shelter.
He paused and cocked his head to the side. Shouldn't there be more birds? He had become attuned to a certain level of wilderness background noise, yet as soon as he crossed the state line everything became still. A blackfly landed on his neck; he swatted it away absentmindedly and made a mental note to buy more deet in the next town. He started walking again, more briskly even though he was probably just being paranoid. What kind of asshole would have followed him seven miles down a trail? If the guy had wanted something, he could just as easily have tried it last night, or snuck up to the shelter when they were all crashed out. The other hikers wouldn't have suspected anything if they'd woken in the morning and found him gone. Happened all the time, people decided to get a jump on the day and left without saying goodbye. The thought sent a chill down his spine; he tugged at his bandanna in aggravation, swiped at the sweat pooling in the nape of his neck. This was all stupid; he was just freaking himself out. Fucking Chaz, he thought again angrily. Chaz was six-three and weighed in at two-fifty. If they'd stuck together, no one would consider messing with him.
A loud crash to his left made him stop short. He heard the sound of branches breaking. Something large was lumbering his way. Cougar froze, then slowly turned toward the source of the noise. It was coming closer. He debated running, but where the hell to? As far as he knew there was nothing but woods for miles in every direction, and he hadn't seen another hiker all day. He backed up a few steps, the hairs on the back of his neck rising. He scooped a stick off the ground; bark crumbled away in his hand, but it felt like it had some heft to it. His pack scraped against something and he spun around. He was up against a tree, a good-size sugar maple. Whatever was coming, it was getting closer, splashing through the pond he'd just passed. As it emerged from the bushes a few yards away, Cougar's breath caught in his throat and his grip on the stick tightened.
It was a brown bear, and a big one, several hundred pounds of matted fur. As it turned toward him, he saw a branch dangling from its mouth. It eyed him curiously. Cougar's mind raced; the Thru Hiker's Guide provided instructions on how to handle a bear encounter, but damned if he could remember any of them now. All he knew was that you weren't supposed to run. The bear opened its jaws and the stick fell out, then it lumbered closer. Cougar's breath was coming in short gasps, it felt like his lungs had withdrawn deep into his chest and refused to expand. A trickle of urine ran down his leg, soaking his inner thigh. The bear's head tilted upward, snout raised toward the sky as it whiffed the air, then issued a loud chuffing noise. After a moment, its head lowered and their eyes met. Cougar's breath snagged in his chest as the bear gazed at him, eyes dark pits that seemed to be measuring him, trying to decide whether or not to charge. With a loud grunt, the bear suddenly shifted left and ambled back into the woods, passing within a few feet of Cougar. Just then, Cougar heard voices. Other hikers were heading up the trail. His knees buckled, and his body slid haltingly down the tree until he landed with a thump on the dirt. As his breath slowly returned to normal, the sense of overwhelming relief quickly changed to embarrassment at the telltale damp stain on his shorts. He definitely didn't want to gain a rep as the guy who pissed himself when he saw a bear, that would hound him all the way to Georgia. He leaned forward and awkwardly shrugged out of his pack, then hurriedly dug inside it. By the time the group emerged on the path behind him, he'd managed to cover the stain by knotting a flannel shirt around his waist.
Just in time, because it turned out to be a group of girls. Judging by their small packs they were day-hikers, and not unattractive. He jerked his head toward them and said, "Hey." "Hey, what's up," answered the blonde in the lead. Her hair wound down from a red scarf in two ponytails, she wore a matching red jog bra and tight black shorts. She looked him over. "You a SOBO or a NOBO?"
"SOBO," he answered. SOBO was trail jargon for "southbound." A day-hiker who knew that was probably local, he surmised. If he played his cards right, he might have a bed to sleep in tonight after all.
"Yeah? Still got a ways to go then, huh?"
He shrugged casually. "Yeah, but the hardest part is over. The White Mountains, those were rough."
"Yeah, I've heard that," answered one of the brunettes, cute but not a looker like the blonde. They had stopped about ten feet away from him, almost exactly where he'd had the showdown with the bear. He was already framing the story in his mind, only in this version he scared the bear off, when she glanced at the ground, "What's that?"
She was pointing at the stick the bear had dropped. Cougar strolled forward with exaggerated nonchalance. "Oh yeah, you guys just missed..." His voice trailed off as they all stared at the object. It wasn't a stick, after all.
"Omigod, is that..." The blonde took a step back, then glanced up at him in horror.
Bile flooded his mouth; he choked it back. "I think..." His voice faltered, and he cleared his throat. "I think we better hike into town and call the cops."