Adventures of Me & Joe|
The Yellow Feather
By T.J. Coongate
In the bunkroom of the old cabin on a backwater of the Little Salt Pork River, the only sound was the occasional pop of a stick in the ramdown heater and the faint hiss of the Coleman lantern.
The room, attached to the back of the main cabin, contained four bunks, two on each side of a narrow center aisle. I occupied the top bunk on the right where I leaned over the edge to get a better look at Gasper Gooch, below me, and Joe on the bottom bunk opposite. Above Joe, Condon Fishbane sprawled in the top bunk, his mouth hanging open in dismay.
Joe had just finished one of his patented ghost stories, a tale guaranteed to curl the hair of any teenager trapped in the confines of a backwoods cabin late in the last night of March. Ghost stories around the campfire or in a camp are almost as serious a Maine tradition as trout and fiddleheads and Joe was a past master at squeezing the maximum amount of horror from any fabrication.
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"Close your mouth, Condon," I grinned across the aisle. Condon's mouth snapped shut with an audible click and he absently wiped a thread of drool from his chin.
"Uh...say, Joe...that was...uh, a real good one, that was!"
"Yeah, (gasp) Joe! That was (gasp) great!" Gasper chimed in from below me.
"Tell us (gasp) another one!"
"Throat's getting' scratchy," Joe sprawled comfortably on his bunk. "'Bout time one o' you told a scary story."
"Trouble is, none of us know stories like you do, Joe." I said. "And we sure can't tell them like you do."
"C'mon," Joe continued. "Somebody must have a story. How 'bout it, Condon. We ain't never heard one from you."
"Aw...uh...Joe, you know I don't know any fancy...uh...scary stories like...uh...you do." For just a moment his broad, noble forehead creased in a frown. "All I know is...uh...but that one don't count 'cause...uh...that one's true."
"What?" Joe sat quickly upright with immediate interest. "You mean you know a scary story that's true?"
Condon looked slightly embarrassed. "Well...uh...yuh. But I don't...uh...like ta talk about it 'cause it...uh...kinda...you know...scares me."
"That's just the kind we want!" Joe enthused. "Come on, Condon! Spit it out!" he grinned sarcastically. "After all, we're all here to pertect ya."
"Now's the time (gasp) Condon," Gasper grinned impishly from below me. "Can't be (gasp) all that bad."
Condon looked across at me uncertainly. For the only time since I'd known him, I detected a haunted look in the big teenager's guileless blue eyes.
"Well," he began uncertainly, "you remember when...uh...you guys went on that train trip to...uh...Montreal an' I couldn't go?"
"Yeah, you had a funeral or something, didn't you?" I asked.
"Yuh, my...uh...Great Uncle Newt. Anyway, after the...uh...funeral, they wasn't much to do. It was still...uh...winter vacation from school an' with you guys...uh...gone, I decided to do some...uh...ice fishin'."
"Where'd ya go, Logger Pond?" Joe asked.
"Nope. I decided to fish...uh...Dark Pond. Thought I'd...uh...spend the night in Lotus Cramer's old...uh...trappin' cabin."
"Dark Pond?" I asked uncertainly.
"All by (gasp) yourself?"
Dark Pond lies at the end of a five-mile trail northwest of The Elbow on the Little Salt Pork River. The trail twists through low country covered with a mixed growth of cedar, black spruce and tamarack. In summer the trail is nearly impassible. In wintertime the boggy ground is frozen and hiking is easier, but the trail is gloomy and dark even in midday.
Dark Pond covers about a hundred acres. It is surrounded by the same swampy growth as the trail in and its waters are dark and mysterious. The pond contains really large brook trout. They are as dark as the water with brilliantly colored sides and bellies. The meat is almost a fluorescent orange that seems to glow in the low light of a cabin lamp.
"They wasn't a lot of...uh...snow that winter an' I didn't need...uh...snowshoes. We'd had a dustin' of snow the night before, just enough to show tracks." Condon rubbed a hand slowly across his face and stared at the wall.
"I was late getting' started. Hit the trail with...uh...a big pack basket full of stuff about...uh...3:00 o'clock."
"But it must of been almost dark," Joe protested.
"Just about. But you know how that...uh...trail is. It's mostly...uh...dark anyway. And I had me a good flashlight."
He paused for a moment. "I was maybe...uh...a mile from the pond when I first saw the tracks."
"Tracks?" I asked.
"Yuh." He looked from one to the other of us. "You remember...uh...all them reports about people seein'...uh...a mountain lion that winter?"
"Oh, c'mon," Joe snorted. "You ain't sayin' they was mountain lion tracks?"
"I ain't sayin' nothing, just that they was...uh...big, really big cat tracks. I know cat tracks when...uh...I see 'um." He looked across at me. "I first spotted 'um alongside the trail. A couple of times they crossed the path ahead. Once..." he looked away. I noticed that the more Condon got into the story, the less he paused or stammered.
"Once I walked back the way I'd...uh...come. The tracks crossed the trail behind me. Whatever it was had stepped right in...uh...my boot tracks."
I glanced down to see Joe listening intently, a narrow look of concentration on his face.
"Anyway, once I got to the cabin, I lighted a couple of...uh...lamps and got a good fire goin' in the heater. Made me feel a lot better."
Gasper nodded his head rapidly. "Yeah, I can really (gasp) understand that."
"I needed water so I took the chisel and...uh...went out on the pond to cut a hole. The moon was up by that time and...uh...everything was pretty bright, but kinda...spooky...ya know."
"Yeah," I agreed, "I know what you mean. When the moon is full it's bright, but kind of...unreal."
"Yeah, that's the word...unreal. So, I'm cuttin' the hole and I look up." He paused. "You know how that cabin is located...uh... on a kind of arm of the pond?"
"Yuh," Joe agreed. "Can't be more'n a hundred yards acrost."
"Well...I looked up...an' they was someone standin' just inside the trees on the other side of the arm." I felt the flesh on my arms ripple in sudden goose bumps.
"You mean there was a man standing over there?"
"I don't know that it was...it wasn't like any man I ever saw before."
"What do yer mean?" Joe asked in a hushed voice. "Either it was a man or it wasn't."
"It...I knew I'd seen him somewhere before..."
"You knew him?"
"Well, he was kinda familiar. But I knew I'd never seen him in..." Condon swallowed noisily, "...in this world."
Joe had been leaning back in his sleeping bag but now he sat bolt upright so fast he hit his head on the underside of Condon's bunk.
"Ow! Whaddaya mean in this world?! What was he, a alien or somethin'?"
"No, it's just...he looked familiar but I knew he wasn't anyone I'd ever really seen before."
"Condon," Joe said roughly. "You ain't makin' much sense."
"I know. Anyway, I glanced back at the cabin, kinda for reassurance, ya know?" We all nodded agreement.
"When I looked back, he was gone."
Joe snorted. "Prob'ly just one o' them figmints o' yer imagination."
"That's what I thought. I had my flashlight and I had that...uh...chisel, so I walked across the arm to see where he'd gone." I heard Gasper's quick intake of breath.
"All by yer (gasp) self?!"
"Wasn't nobody else," Condon said absently. "I got to the edge of the trees an' I could see tracks..."
"People tracks?" Joe broke in.
"Not exactly...they was...I'd rather not say right now. Let me tell this my way. Anyway, on top of the snow was a single yellow feather."
"A yellow feather?" I asked, puzzled. "You mean, like, from something he was wearing?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But he wasn't anywhere around. An' I wasn't about to follow them tracks off into the dark woods."
"I should say not!" I agreed.
"I walked back over to the camp and," he swallowed noisily, "those cat tracks, the ones I'd seen on...uh...the way in?"
I nodded vigorously.
"They was a line of 'um right in front of the cabin. They circled right around it an' then headed off into the brush."
"I'd of gone right in the camp and (gasp) locked the door!" Gasper croaked.
"That's just what I did!" Condon agreed. "Except they ain't no lock. I stoked up the stove an' lit another lamp."
"This feller acrost the ice," Joe interrupted. "What did he look like? I mean, was he short, tall...what?"
"He was quite short, actually, but he had a big head...big for his size, anyway. And his eyes..." Condon gazed fearfully at the little back window of the bunkroom. Nothing was visible in the dark night beyond the pane. "His eyes were huge! And they...they seemed to stare at me as if...as if they weren't the eyes of a human."
Joe glanced up at me, a worried look on his face. I returned the look. I knew Condon believed totally in what he had seen. But in all our young lives banging around in the woods of northern Maine, I knew that neither Joe nor myself had ever seen anything remotely like what Condon was describing.
"I threw some more wood in the fire and brewed up a pot of tea. Finally, I put together some supper. After I ate I felt a little...uh...better. After all, I had plenty of wood in the...uh...camp, and I had plenty of food. I braced a chair against the...uh...door. I'd just wait until daylight. Somehow, I knew that everything would...uh...be better then."
"Yeah, right! It (gasp) shore would!" Gasper was completely caught up in Condon's tale and me and Joe weren't far behind.
"Ol' Lotus Cramer had left some...uh...sportin' magazines in the camp. I was readin' a story about huntin' in Alaska a few hours later when I...uh...heard it."
"Heard what?" Joe snapped.
"It was a...like a whisper of sound at the front corner of the cabin near the door." The haunted look in Condon's eyes deepened. "I knew someone was out there, just outside the cabin wall. Suddenly, ever so slow, I saw the latch on the door rise." He looked around at us.
"'Course I had that chair against the door. I could see the door move a little bit, like he was testin' it. Then nothing. Just stillness. I could hear the fire whispering, the lamps were flickering and a little bit of ...uh...wind was rustling snow granules against the outside wall.
"Then I heard the sound again, like somethin' brushin' against the cabin wall. It was along the side now, an' moving very slowly toward the...uh...side window."
Condon looked around at us. "I didn't want him to see me sittin' there. For some reason I couldn't...uh...let him see me."
"'Course not!" Gasper agreed nervously.
"I slipped out of the chair and tiptoed across the room to the wall, just to the left of the...uh...window. It was strange, you know...? Just on the other side of that six or eight inches of log wall was...whatever it was." The hair rising on the back of my neck now complimented the goosebumps on my arms.
"I was right beside the edge of the window. When he looked in, I'd be able to see him from the side...get a good look at him." I nodded in solemn agreement.
"But then...nothing happened."
"Whaddaya mean, nothin' happened?" Joe demanded nervously.
"The sound stopped. Everything was quiet. I waited and waited, but he never looked in the window. I never heard the sound again."
"So what did you (gasp) do?" Gasper wailed.
"Well...I...I went outside."
"YOU WHAT?!!!" Joe demanded. "What are you, crazy?!!"
"Look, you've got to understand," Condon's voice was strained and hoarse by now. "I was a nervous wreck. I had to see what was out there or I didn't think I could last the night!" We all slowly nodded in reluctant agreement. Better an enemy you could identify than something creeping up on you in the night.
"I had the ice chisel and I had my...uh...big hunting knife. I lighted the lantern rather than take the flashlight. I could see all around me that way." Again we nodded in understanding.
"When I...uh...threw open the door, I half expected something to fly at me...but they wasn't nothin' there. But when I stepped outside, there was a yellow feather laying on the snow. And I saw the tracks." We all leaned toward him.
"They were the same kind of tracks as I'd seen over in the trees. They came right across the ice and right around the corner of the camp. But then they came back around the corner and headed toward the shore. I followed them real slow, looking all around." He stopped for a moment. "Then I saw the other tracks. The tracks of the big cat. They were heading for the ice, too, and the other feller, the one that had been by the camp, he was following the cat. Right on his trail."
"What did you do next?" Gasper croaked.
"I followed both sets of tracks. The cat tracks veered away beside the shoreline an' I looked to the right and...I, I saw the cat."
"What did it look like?" Joe hissed.
"It was big and black," Condon swallowed again. "but it's belly was white and it was...it had reared right up on its hind legs! I could even see its nose! It was big and pink! And...and its eyes... the eyes were big, too, and they were staring at something back over my shoulder! I wheeled around, and there he was, standing right behind me!
"And then he spoke...and when he spoke, I knew immediately where I'd seen him before!"
"What did he say?!" Gasper squeaked. "What did he say?!"
"He said..." Condon stared at each of us in turn. "He said...'I tought I taw a puddy tat!'"
"WHAT?!" I reared up and banged my head against a rafter.
Condon was trying desperately to control the grin that was jerking around the edges of his lips. "And then the cat said 'Heaventh to Mergatroid!', and the little yellow bird said: 'I did! I did taw a puddy tat!'"
"Tweety Bird!" I cried.
"And Sylvester! Sylvester the cat!" Joe roared.
Condon could hold it no longer. He collapsed on the bunk, crying with laughter.
"You should have seen...the look on your faces...priceless!!" He rolled on the bed, choking with glee as tears rolled down his face.
"What...but who...I don't get it!" Gasper shouted in a puzzled tone.
"Where's the axe?" Joe growled.
Condon slithered off the end of the bunk and backed toward the main room, still giggling hysterically. "Now wait, now..."
Me and Joe climbed out of our bunks and stalked slowly toward him. Behind us, Gasper finally puzzled it out. "But I don't...oh..ohhhh...I get it!" Then he scowled ominously. "Oh, nowww I get it!"
As he backed away, grinning from ear to ear, Condon held up a pleading hand. "But, wait! Wait! You haven't heard the...uh...best part!"
We stopped and glared at him.
"It's after midnight! April Fool!!" And he turned and broke for the door.
T.J. Coongate is an active outdoorsman who writes under a pen name. It is rumored that he lives in the Millinocket area.
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