Actually this is part one. My first post was from the middle of the story.
Quapaw University maintained a small flotilla of canoes. They spent most of their time sitting on a rack out behind the Student Recreation Center. A couple of times a year they served their official purpose of carrying the school’s geology and biology students on field trips to study riverbank strata layers or swampy flora and fauna. Now and then the school also rented them to students who wanted to use them on float trips.
This was how Nik and her friends got the two canoes they needed for their weekend trip on the upper reaches of the Quapaw River. Glenn Greeson had come up with the idea. Nik loved the outdoors and was all for it. Jack Otwell counted himself in. Linda Kelly, a bit to Nik’s surprise, also joined. Nik felt even more surprised when Heather, with a bit of persuading, agreed to go. Of course, Heather did like to do anything that involved being near Glenn for the weekend!
Early on Saturday morning—not as early as Glenn had hoped, thanks to Heather being a bit slow to get ready--they hitched the trailer with two canoes on it to Glenn’s pickup. All their gear went into the bed under Glenn’s camper shell. Glenn and Jack rode together in the truck, while the others followed in Heather’s car. In about two hours they had reached their destination, a little community called Zoar. Like most such mountain settlements it had a store, a few houses, and a church or two, all dotting a section of the river valley between two ridges green-clad ridges.
Nik loved driving through little places like this. She had grown up on the flat land in the Arkansas River valley to the north and east of here, seeing the mountains from a distance. Going up into them had always been a treat when she was a girl.
At Zoar they turned onto a gravel road and drove several winding, dusty miles to a designated public river access point. They would end their downriver trip here some time the next day. They left Heather’s car in the access point’s little gravel parking area. Heather climbed into the cab of the pickup with the guys. Nik and Lindy crowded into the back under the camper shell with the gear.
From there they bumped back over the gravel road to Zoar, turned west on the state highway, and drove to another community called Winton. They would get on the river here. Winton looked rather like Zoar—small, isolated, and pretty.
The group stopped at the Winton store for a few provisions. Inside they saw a counter covered with area hiking and floating maps. A bulletin board on the wall bore photographs of bears and other wildlife. Another board had photos of local people showing off their prize fish and deer from the previous season.
Off to one side sat several tables and chairs—the store doubled as a local eatery. As it was near lunch time, several people sat talking there. The rest of the store contained assorted convenience store merchandise and, near the back, some carvings of animals and other local handicrafts for sale. Heather gravitated toward those.
“Oooh, these little bears with fishing poles are so cute!”
“Those were done by a local fellow named Johnny Wright,” said the middle-aged woman who stood at the cash register. “He brings us a batch of his latest work every few months when he feels like it. Never know what he’s going to come up with.”
“I don’t suppose he had anything to do with that fish hanging over your door, did he?” Lindy pointed to the entrance. Hanging above it Nik saw a large mounted bass with what appeared to be a set of dentures in its mouth.
“That there is what you call a `chomping bass,’” the sales clerk said. “You don’t see too many of them around.”
“I’ve only seen one,” said Lindy. “It’s hanging in the hardware store back home.”
The woman laughed. “Well, I didn’t say we had the only one! Where are you all from?”
“We’re from different places. Heather and I are from Faulkner County near Conway. Nik grew up near Dardanelle, Glenn’s from Edgewood, and Jack’s from Jacksonville.”
“We all go to school at Quapaw University,” Glenn added. “We’re taking a float trip on the river. We’ll put in here and take out near Zoar.”
“That’s a pretty good ways. You’re getting started a little late to finish up by nightfall.”
“We’re going to camp out,” said Nik. “There’s supposed to be a good camping area on the river near Wolf Pinnacle Mountain.”
“I don’t guess you’ll have much company there!”
“Yeah, it is kind of early in the floating season,” Jack remarked.
“That ain’t what I’m talking about. Lately people ain’t wanted to spend the night there.”
“Why’s that?” asked Nik.
“Cause there’s the ghost of a wolf-man been seen there.”
Heather’s mouth fell open. “A WHAT?”
“You ain’t never heard of the Wolf-Man of Wolf Pinnacle?”
Lindy put her hand to her chin. “No. It sounds like an interesting story.”
“It got started about thirty years ago….”
“Thirty-five!” called a man who was sitting at a nearby table chatting to another man.
“Thirty-five years ago. Jonelle Green and her husband used to live over at Mineola community on the north side of Wolf Pinnacle—the side away from the river. One day he had a carry a neighbor to the doctor in Little Rock and wouldn’t be back until late. Jonelle was there by herself. Along toward evening she noticed a thunderstorm gathering toward the west. This was in the summer time.”
“No, it was in May!” the man at the table called.
“Close enough! It’s practically summer by then anyway! Well, Jonelle looked across the pasture toward Wolf Pinnacle in the distance and seen something coming toward her. She thought at first it was a man. Then it got down on all fours and started running! Her dogs started barking and carrying on, and she run into the house with them and locked the door.
“A little later the storm broke. It started pouring down rain. Jonelle laid down on her bed and listened to it. There was a flash of lightning. That’s when she seen something looking in the bedroom widow. It was a face that looked like it was part man, and part wolf.”
“Wow!” said Heather. “What happened then?”
“She just laid there, too scared to move. After a while she fell asleep. She never seen it again. She was afraid to go outside by herself for a long time after that.
“I used to know Jonelle. We was distant kinfolks. I heard her tell that story a couple of times, years after it happened. She got this look in her eyes like she could still see it.”
“But what does that have to do with the river?” Lindy asked.
“Over the years people told stories about seeing the Wolf-Man. I think it was just kids making things up, but maybe not. One story the kids got to telling said that back in the 1800s local people chased a werewolf up on Wolf Pinnacle and killed it. He had been bewitched or something. Ever since then, they say, his ghost has haunted the place.
“About two weeks ago…”
“No, it was three weeks ago!”
“Who’s telling this story, Virgil? Anyway, a couple of weeks ago Little Pete was hiking on the trail that runs north of the river along the ridge there. He comes in and hikes this area every spring. He spends the winter hiking out west, and goes up north for the summer and fall. Anyway, Little Pete decided to go down to the old sawmill near the river and camp there. That evening he heard something going around outside his tent. He looked out. There was a bright moon out. By the light he seen this thing standing on its hind legs with a head like a wolf. He ducked into his tent and grabbed his axe. When he looked back out it was gone. Little Pete didn’t look out again for the rest of the night! He heard it walking around and sniffing around his tent a couple more times. At first light the next morning, he ate himself some breakfast and then packed up his tent and headed out of there!
“Next weekend a canoeing group like yours—I think it was a group of students from Fayetteville--paddled down and spent the night camping below Wolf Pinnacle. That night they seen the Wolf-Man too. One of them started chasing it into the woods. It disappeared. When he got back to camp it jumped out at him and like to scared the life out of him! They holed up in their tents ‘til morning like Little Pete did and then got out of there. People been afraid to go out there at night since then.”
Lindy had her hand up to her chin again. “I wonder why a ghost would haunt a mountain for years and only later start haunting the river near it?”
“It beats me. I just know what people been telling me. Little Pete’s told some stories before, but I can tell he ain’t kidding about this. I spoke to a couple of them kids from Fayetteville too. There’ve been rumors of other people seeing it. It would be a good idea if you didn’t camp too close to Wolf Pinnacle tonight.”
The group completed their business at the store and drove several miles over back roads to the place along the river where they would begin their trip. They carefully unloaded the canoes and gear. Most of the gear was loaded in the canoe that Glenn and Jack would paddle. Glenn carefully stuffed the provisions and some of the more fragile gear into waterproof bags to protect them in case of a tip-over.
“Between starting late and visiting at the store we’re getting on the water later than I really intended,” said Glenn. “We’ll have to pull over for lunch pretty soon. Oh well, we’re not really in a hurry.”
“I don’t mind getting a late start, if it means we won’t make it to Wolf Pinnacle before we have to stop and camp,” Heather said. “You did say in the truck that we wouldn’t get that far, didn’t you?”
“I keep telling you to relax! We’ll probably be a good mile or more this side of the Pinnacle when we stop.”
Heather looked at the river. “Then all I have to worry about is the river!”
“You don’t have to worry about that either!” Nik assured her. “This river only has Class I and Class II water. That’s considered pretty easy. We’ll have to do some maneuvering, but not anything we can’t handle.”
“I don’t know,” Jack put in. “The water’s flowing pretty good after the recent rains. There might be one or two spots of Class III water.”
“Class III water?” Heather repeated. “Is that bad?”
“It means medium difficulty rapids,” said Glenn. “It isn’t anything dangerous. We’ll be all right. The worst thing that can happen is that we might tip over and get a little wet.”
“Come on, Heather, it’ll be fun! I’ll be in back steering, since I’m the heaviest. Lindy will take the bow. You’ll just have to sit in the middle and watch the scenery go by.”
Nik took a glance at Lindy. She stood quietly beside the canoe they were about to board. Lindy looked odd in the pants, flannel shirt, and cap she wore. The only sign of her usual dressy outfits was a contrasting scarf worn around the collar of her shirt. What was it with Lindy and her scarves, anyway?
Lindy seemed a bit nervous. Nik guessed why. Lindy had only gone canoeing a couple of times before. She probably was not yet too confident of her ability to handle rapids. Nik had a fair amount of experience and did not worry about herself. She did wonder just a little how well Lindy would do. For Heather’s sake neither she nor Lindy said anything. Really, there wasn’t anything to worry about. As Glenn had said, the worst that might happen was that they could tip over and get wet. Hopefully even that would not happen. The water was cold!
“Okay!” Glenn called. “Time to get on the water!”
He and Jack grasped the gunwales of their canoe and shoved it over the gravelly beach into the river. Jack climbed into the bow, his feet scarcely touching the edge of the water. Glenn gave another shove and stepped in to his place in the stern. Within a few moments the guys had taken paddles in hand and begun moving into the river channel.
Nik grasped her canoe. “Okay, go!” She and Lindy pushed their craft into the water. Lindy got in without mishap.
Heather stumbled as she got her short legs over the gunwale. For a second Nik feared she might tumble over the side. Instead she caught herself and sat down in her place. A moment later Nik herself was aboard.
She and Lindy paddled into the channel and were soon moving easily down the river behind the guys. Within a few minutes she and Lindy had established a good rhythm of paddling. Now Nik started to relax and enjoy the trip.
“How are you doing, Heather?”
“I’m fine. This is pretty nice. We picked a good day for this, didn’t we?”
Nik certainly agreed. The day felt nice and warm. Cold-natured Lindy and Heather had even rolled up their shirt sleeves. The world around the river had turned green, white, and blue—the green of the wooded hills and banks on either side of them, the white of the occasional clouds, and the blue of the sky. Here and there along the bank Nik saw a stretch of gravel beach, or a couple of boulders.
Some miles down the river Glenn called a halt. “It’s time for lunch! This beach coming up will be a good place for it.”
The two canoes landed on the beach without much difficulty. Nik and one or two others got their feet wet in the frigid water while getting their craft beached. Otherwise they managed without mishap. They removed their life jackets and pulled their lunch bag out of Glenn and Jack’s canoe.
For a while they relaxed along this still section of the river. Jack skipped a couple of rocks across the water. They saw no sign of other canoes.
Lindy sprawled back on her elbows in a most un-Lindy-like fashion. “Glenn wasn’t kidding when he said we’d have the river all to ourselves.”
“I guess the werewolf ghost talk scared them off,” said Heather.
Glenn laughed. “No, it’s just early in the canoeing season. Come summer there’ll be dozens of people paddling through here on a Saturday. I am a little surprised to see absolutely nobody else on a nice day like this. There are probably others on the river who got started before we did.”
Nik sighed happily. “I like it this way. It’s quiet out here.”
Lindy rose, removed her shoes, rolled up her pants legs, and stepped across the smooth rocks to wet her bare feet in the water.
Jack let out a wolf-whistle. “You’re showing some skin there!”
“It was nice and quiet,” Nik groaned.
“If Jack’s the worst wolf we meet on this trip, we’re pretty safe,” Lindy said, smiling. “Ahhhh, that cold water feels nice and bracing! I don’t want to get wet higher than my ankles in it, though.”
Jack walked over to Lindy. “So, detective, got any ideas what caused all those wolf-man stories?”
“I don’t know enough about them to say very much. The fact that the woman who first saw that werewolf face in the window was lying in bed suggests she had a nightmare and didn’t realize it. I don’t know what she might have seen in the pasture before that. People see things for reasons that are impossible to reconstruct at a later date. As for the later stories, I’m sure they’re just local folklore.”
“What about those guys that said they saw a werewolf lately?”
“I don’t know. Tall tales…a bear misidentified in the dark….”
“How could anyone mistake a bear for a werewolf?”
Lindy stepped back out of the water. Her feet had turned almost blue. “Bears rear up on their hind legs. That gives them a vaguely humanoid appearance. The sightings were brief and took place at night. Stranger misidentifications have happened. There certainly are bears around here.”
“There are?” Heather had been listening to the conversation. “I’d just as soon meet a werewolf as a bear!”
“We don’t have to worry about bears,” said Glenn. “The ones around here are too shy to bother people. We’ll just have to be careful where we keep our food overnight.”
After a while they got back onto the river. Over the next couple of hours they passed a few more sections of swift water. None of them gave any real trouble. Nik could see Lindy gaining confidence in her paddling ability. Heather relaxed and enjoyed the scenery.
Late in the afternoon they heard a shout of consternation from Glenn and Jack’s canoe.
“What’s wrong?” Lindy called.
Glenn turned in his seat and rested his paddle on his knees. “I just realized something. We were getting along so well, we passed the place where I had planned to have us spend the night! We’ve had such a good trip that we’ve made up for all the time we lost this morning.”
“Can’t we go back?” Heather asked.
“I guess we could, if we really had to. It would take an awful lot of paddling against the current. We’d have to get out and wade to push the canoes in a couple of spots. It would take more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Could we take the canoes out on the bank and portage them?” Lindy wondered.
“That would be at least as much trouble. No, going down river is kind of like driving on an interstate highway. If you miss your exit, you’ve got to go on to the next one. We’ll just go on to the place where I originally planned to camp. It won’t take too much longer at the rate we’re going.”
A few minutes further Nik saw a mountain looming above the left bank a little downstream. It looked a little higher than most of the ridges they had seen so far. “Hey, Glenn, what mountain is that?”
“I think that’s Wolf Pinnacle!”
The girls watched as the mountain drew nearer. Nik had imagined that a place called Wolf Pinnacle would take the form of a dramatic, jagged crag rising into the sky like a fang, or resemble a hunched, crouching monster in some way. Instead the mountain looked just like a typical tree-clad Ouachita ridge. Here and there through gaps in the tree cover she saw bare rock formations. The mountain had nothing at all sinister about it but its name and its legend.
“Heads up!” Glenn’s voice broke into Nik’s thoughts about the mountain. “We’re coming up on our campsite.”
They passed a little inlet where a small creek drained into the river. Beyond it they rounded one last bend. Then Nik saw a gravel beach on the left bank. Glenn and Jack steered for it and landed there. Nik and the others joined them.
Glenn strode across the narrow beach to a cleared area higher on the bank. The others saw a large fire circle made of rocks there. The size of the pile of ashes and half-burned trash in it showed that it had seen many campfires. Someone had built benches of rocks and small logs around the fire circle.
“Look at that—somebody even left a nice pile of firewood nearby. It’s just as well we came here. This is a better campsite than the one upstream anyway.”
Heather surveyed the site. “But it’s near that wolf mountain! I’d rather have camped upstream. Or go downstream a ways.”
Glenn looked up at the sky. The sun had dropped low in the west and begun to develop a red color. “We won’t have enough daylight to do that and still have time to make camp. The next decent camping place is a good way further down.”
“Don’t worry, Heather,” said Lindy. “You know there is no such thing as a werewolf—let alone the ghost of one!”
Glenn started back toward the canoes. “Well, come on! We need to get camp set up, build a fire, and put supper on!”
They hauled their gear up to the campsite and dragged the canoes completely out of the water. Glenn and Jack built a fire and gathered some more firewood. Nik supervised the setting up of the tents. She then joined Glenn in beginning preparations for supper while the others finished making various arrangements.
For supper they had a nice meal of homemade camp stew and fire-roasted apples. After washing their dishes in the river they toasted some marshmallows. By now it had gotten quite dark. With the sun gone the air cooled. Lindy and Heather pulled on their jackets.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” Jack said to Glenn. “It looks like there’s a trail that heads away from this camp site toward the east. Where does it go?”
“It goes to the old sawmill. It’s not more than a ten-minute walk or so from here. There’s also a connecting trail from the sawmill to the backpacking trail that runs over the ridge parallel to the river.”
Nik pulled a blackened marshmallow out of the fire. “Is there anything left to see at that old place?”
“There sure is. It’s just about the only abandoned sawmill site in these mountains that still has any real ruins. I had planned for us to land at another spot a little farther down the river tomorrow to investigate it. We can hike there just as easily from here, though. We’ll have plenty of time to do that in the morning before we get back on the water.”
“That sounds good! Count me….”
A loud, long howl rang out from the woods at the edge of the campsite a few yards away. It startled Nik so badly that she dropped her marshmallow stick.
Five pairs of eyes fastened on the spot of woods from which the howl had come. They saw a sixth pair of eyes glinting on the outer edge of the firelight. The eyes suddenly disappeared.
“What was that?” wondered a worried Heather.
Lindy stared at the trees and brush. “It looked like a pair of animal eyes reflecting the light. Maybe it was a deer or something.”
Glenn rose to his feet. “That was no deer we just heard! That sounded like a wolf.”
Heather swallowed hard. “Or—or a ghost of a werewolf.”
Jack now rose as well. “Somebody’s pulling a stunt. You want to check it out, Glenn?”
“Yeah, I’ll check it out. Let me get our lights.”
Glenn retrieved several flashlights from the nearby tents. He gave one to Jack and took one for himself. The others he set down next to the girls. “Might as well keep these near you.”
Heather seized Glenn’s wrist as he passed by her. “Glenn, it could be dangerous!”
“It’s not a good idea to walk around in these woods at night,” Lindy pointed out.
“Oh, there’s nothing to worry about! The sound came from over by the trail that leads to the sawmill. We’ll just follow it a little way. We have flashlights. It’s a bright night anyway. The moon’s practically full!”
“Just right for hunting a werewolf!” said Jack. “I’m ready when you are.”
Glenn and Jack stepped over to the edge of the camp. Glenn turned back to look at the girls. “We won’t be gone too long. I bet it’s just some hikers camped not too far away trying to scare us. We’ll be careful not to get lost.”
Glenn and Jack strode past the light of the fire. Within a few moments the dark woods had swallowed them and their lights.
“That’s guys for you!” Nik commented. “They’ve always got to show how brave they are.”
“Their psychology is an interesting field of study,” said Lindy.
A smile came to Heather’s worried face. “I’ve seen you study the guys. Every time you see a good-looking guy walk by at school you study him! I think you’re secretly boy-crazy.”
“Appreciating the male form hardly makes one boy-crazy!” Lindy sounded just a bit defensive.
Nik kept her eyes on the woods. “Speaking of crazy boys, I’ll just bet those two are going to try to circle back and scare us. We should be ready for them. Here, let’s each pick up a flashlight and be ready to shine it on them if they jump out at us.”
Lindy reached for a light. “That sounds like a wise precaution. Especially when we’re dealing with Jack!”
Heather also took a light. “Hey, I think I hear something now. It’s over on the edge of the clearing, on the other side from the trail.”
Nik lowered her voice to a whisper. “Sure enough—they circled around to try to jump us from the opposite direction. When they jump out at us, we’ll shine our lights right in their eyes.”
Now Nik heard a twig snap from the direction Heather had indicated. She fingered her light, ready to turn the tables on the guys. Even though she knew what to expect, she felt nervous.
A snarling form suddenly burst from the brush into the circle of firelight. Nik snapped on her light. The others did the same.
What they saw revealed in the beam looked nothing like Jack or Glenn. Jack and Glenn did not normally stand hunched over. They were not covered in fur. Their hands had no claws. They did not have fangs or a snout or tall ears.
The figure before them had all of those things.
For just a moment the wolf-man stood in the light of their three flashlight beams, panting heavily. Abruptly he gave a great snarl and charged at them, waving his paws.
Nik screamed and turned to run. Frantically she swept the trees with her beam, looking for a gap through which she could escape. She spotted the trail the guys had used a few minutes earlier and rushed for it.
Glancing over her shoulder she saw Heather and Lindy coming along behind her, their flashlights bobbing wildly. From further back she heard an especially loud snarl. Nik turned her face back to the trail and kept running.
After a minute or two she heard a cry and the sound of a body tumbling to the ground. She stopped and turned back. The beam of her light illuminated Heather standing over a fallen Lindy.
“I’m okay,” Lindy panted. “I just tripped over a root or something. Is it still behind us?”
He is no fool who gives what he can never keep to gain that which he can never lose.