It had been a cold winter in the Ozarks, but now the Dogwoods and Rosebuds were popping out, the sun was shining and Dak was cruising forest service roads on Dr. Zuk, his Suzuki dirt bike. Forest Service Road 113, sometimes called Green Road, stretched out a hundred yards or so before he had to back off the throttle for the next curve. As he scanned the road ahead, he saw a large, dark, furry creature lumber across the road and off into the woods near the curve. Dak raced toward the spot in hopes of getting a good look at the thing. He slowed as he approached the curve where he had seen it. It was standing in the distance watching him.
Dak locked the brakes and stared at the creature. It was tall, maybe seven feet, and he guessed it weighed a good four hundred pounds or more. The creature had the appearance of a black bear, except its gait was closer to that of a human, Dak noted as it walked off through the woods.
“A Sasquatch,” Dak thought, “I’ve just seen a Sasquatch!” He turned Dr. Zuk around and sped back to Fifty Six and straight to his grandpa’s house.
“Grandpa,” he yelled as he jerked open the door. “Grandpa, I just saw a Sasquatch.” The words tumbled out of his mouth, tripping over each other.
“Slow down,” Grandpa replied. “I didn’t understand a word you said.”
“I just saw a Sasquatch,” Dak repeated, a little slower, “up on Green Road. It was a good seven feet tall and must have weighed at least four hundred pounds, maybe more. It just ran off through the woods.”
“Alright, alright! Sit down and catch your breath; then tell me exactly what you saw.”
As Dak described what he had seen, Grandpa listened thoughtfully. When Dak finished, Grandpa was silent for along time. Finally he said, “The last Sasquatch seen in these parts was in 1998 down at the caverns. He was spotted by two lawyer fellers from Jonesboro. Their description was about the same as yours. However, since no evidence was ever found, people didn’t take it serious.”
What do you think they are, Grandpa?”
“Well Dak, you hear about ‘em showin up occasionally all over the country. They go by different names: Sasquatch, big foot, womble, the Fouke Monster. The descriptions all sound about the same. I think they’re feral people.”
“Feral people? What does that mean?”
“We call pets or farm animals that go to live in the wild, feral. The razorback hogs we hunt around Arkansas are just hogs that were abandoned or got away from some farmer, so they live wild. I think Sasquatch are just people who, for some reason, went off to live by themselves in the woods.”
“I think I’ll go back up there and see if I can spot him again,” Dak said.
“They don’t let themselves be seen too often,” Grandpa chuckled. “I doubt you’ll ever see him a second time. You just lucked out the first time.”
Dak rode home to grab some lunch and then headed back to the forest. “It would be too cool if I could just get a picture of the Sasquatch,” he thought. He had seen stories on TV of Sasquatch sightings. “But, it seems no one ever manages to get clear pictures. They’re always too blurry to make positive identification so there always seems to be questions about whether they even exist and if they do, what they really are.”
Dak hid Dr. Zuk in a clump of trees near the spot where he had seen the beast. He had learned his lesson about leaving the bike out in the open when the poachers stole it last fall. It was a short walk to where Dak was sure he had seen the Sasquatch walk off. He scoured the ground looking for foot prints but couldn’t find any. He walked in expanding circles scrutinizing the trees and bushes for broken twigs and branches or for hair that had been pulled from the beast. Again, he found none.
Having failed to find any evidence that the thing existed or had been through here, Dak went back to where he had seen it. Looking in the direction he had seen the Sasquatch disappear, Dak begin to follow any route that even looked like it might be part of a trail. He ambled along, zigzagging this way and that, for nearly an hour and had spotted nothing encouraging. Finally, he sat down on a log to get a little rest. As he was about to get up to leave, he felt a hard blow on the back of his head and everything went black.
When Dak came to, he was in a cave. A little day light filtered in from somewhere. Somebody obviously lived here. A Coleman camp stove and lantern set on a table. Next to the table was a fire pit with charcoal. A cast iron fry pan and Dutch oven set beside the fire pit. A small spring bubbled up in the center of the floor and a tiny stream flowed off toward what must have been the cave entrance.
The dim light faded into darkness toward the back of the cave. He could barely make out a ledge with a giant asleep on it. His head was hurting. He reached back and felt a knot where he had been hit. Dried blood matted his hair. Other than the pain, there didn’t seem to be too much damage. His muscles ached from lying on the rocky floor of the cave where he had been dumped. He stood up and stretched, surprised that he was not tied up.
He sneaked toward the entrance of the cave so as not to awaken the giant. He found the entrance blocked by a large lattice barrier made from stout saplings. Strong eyebolts embedded in the cave walls and heavy chains anchored it solid. There was a gate in the middle of the barrier secured with a chain and a padlock. Zach pushed and pulled on the gate and the barrier. He checked the anchors and found they were strong. He looked for gaps along the edges of the barrier where it met the cave walls. Nothing! “No way of escape here,” he thought.
Dak returned to where he had been lying down, scared and disappointed. He sat down and waited. As the light in the cave dimmed, Dak knew it was getting late. The light faded to nearly darkness and the giant begin to stir. “Time to eat,” he muttered, as he stood to stretch.
Dak felt his throat tighten and a slight tremble in his chest as he stared in amazement. The giant stood at least seven feet tall. As he stretched, huge biceps bulged from his upper arm. His body looked as solid as the rock walls of the cave. A black fur hide was wrapped around his middle. His black skin left him barely visible in the darkening cave.
The giant fetched wood from a corner of the cave and soon had a small blaze going. The smoke drifted toward the cave entrance. He opened what looked like a can of stew, poured it in the Dutch oven and hung it from a tripod over the fire. When it was hot, he took two spoons from a box, handed one to Dak and sat on the floor across from him. The giant took a couple of bites and passed the pot to Dak. “I guess he wants to share,” Dak thought. He took two bites and passed it back. Back and forth the pot went until it was empty.
The giant put a couple more sticks on the fire and settled back on the floor. “What’s your name,” he asked.
“Dakota, but everyone calls me Dak. And, who are you?”
“But you must have a name.”
“So people will know what to call you.”
“No one calls me.”
“As long as you’re going to keep me here, I might want to call you,” Dak said.
“Draft Dodger. Call me Draft Dodger or Dodger for short.”
“Huh! Draft Dodger? I thought you were a Sasquatch.”
“Because I was dressed in bear hide”?
“Ya, that and your size.”
“Well, I’m a draft dodger. Back in ’73, I graduated from high school. Viet Nam was hot and they were drafting everybody that wasn’t in college. I was the son of a poor dirt farmer. I knew if I got drafted, I’d just be one more nigger sent through the meat grinder. I couldn’t afford to run to Canada with the rich kids, but growin’ up in these hills, I knew how to pretty much live off the land. For the most part, that’s what poor dirt farmers did anyway. When my draft notice came, I burned it, along with my draft card and anything else that had my name on it and disappeared in the hills. I’ve been livin’ here about thirty-four years now by my calculations. So, just call me Dodge.”
“Okay Dodge. So, why’d ya feel you had to hit me over the head and drag me back here to wherever we are?”
“We’ll get to that later, but first, is that Viet Nam mess over?”
“What? You don’t know?”
“How would I know; I’m hiding remember? You’re the first person I’ve talked to in all these years.”
“Well it’s over. I mostly slept in history class so I’m not up on dates and such, but I’d say it’s been over for more than 30 years. No more Viet Nam. No more draft. In fact, it seems to me we’ve had three wars since then.”
Dodge thought for a long time. “I suppose I’m still a wanted man?”
“Not really. The President pardoned all the draft dodgers a few years after the war was over. If you haven’t committed any other crime, you’re a free man.”
“I haven’t committed any other crime,” Dodge responded.
“How about kidnapping?” Dak asked, but immediately knew from the flickering panic that crossed Dodge’s face that he shouldn’t have.
“So, up until this morning, I was a free man, but now I’m guilty of kidnapping?”
“Ya, ya, I suppose,” Dak stammered. “That is if someone wants to press charges. And that might depend on why I’m here. So, why am I here?”
“We’ll talk about it in the morning,” Dodge said as he walked back to his sleeping ledge and got a large bear rug. “You can sleep on this. If it gets cold, roll up in it. You can stretch out on the other end of my ledge.” And then, as if to read Dak’s mind, he added, “Don’t look for any weapons. I keep them in another cave, and don’t try hitting me over the head with a rock because you’ll never get out of here without me.” With that, Dodge lay down and was soon asleep.
By now the fire was dying down to little more than glowing coals. Since it was too dark to see, Dak laid down to a night of restless sleep.
It seemed like forever to Dak before light begin to again creep into the cave. Dodge had snored lightly off and on through out the night, but he woke up with the first light. He knelt down next to the spring for a long drink of cold water.
“Better get a good drink,” Dodge said. “It’s all we have for breakfast.” Dak knelt beside the spring and scooped water with his hand. The freshness of the cool water surprised him.
“I’m going to show you why you’re here,” Dodge said, “but don’t try running away because you’ll never find your way out without me.” With that Dodge walked to the cave gate, spun out the combination on the lock and the two of them walked out into a sunny Ozark day.
Dak looked around. They were part way up a ridge, just another of the hundreds of ridges and hollers that makes up the terrain. He had no idea where he was or even what direction Fifty Six would be from here. He realized escaping was out of the question, a foolish stunt that could get him killed. Besides, Dodge didn’t seem to mean harm.
“I haven’t exactly lived alone all these years,” Dodge said. “My partner is sick and injured and needs a doctor.”
Dak watched and listened as they walked along. Soon they came to another cave. This one too had a lattice barrier and gate. Dodge opened the gate and they walked in. Lying on the floor was a beautiful black panther.
“Meet Ebony,” Dodge said, as he knelt down and stroked the panther’s shiny black coat. “I found him as a kitten and raised him. I suspect a hunter shot his mother and he was starving. We’ve been together many years now. He came home a couple of days ago, dragging a big bear trap from his front paw. His leg is broken and the wound infected. Now a fever seems to have set in. He needs a doctor bad and I can’t take him to one.”
Dak too stroked the big cat’s fur. He had heard stories of these big cats in the Ozarks, but he had never seen one. He stared in amazement. “What do you want from me?” Dak asked.
“I need help figurin’ out how to do it,” Dodge said. “I’m big and strong, but sometimes that’s not enough. I see you riding in the forest on your bike a lot and thought maybe you might be someone who appreciates nature and wild animals. I let you see me yesterday morning in hopes you’d try and track me. When you rode away, I gave up, but when you came back in the afternoon, I thought I’d take a chance.”
“Well,” Dak said, “I do care about wild animals and just seeing and touching this rare cat is worth the blow to the head. Can you carry him?”
“That’s part of the problem. I can’t carry him without his broken leg flopping about and it nearly kills him. I don’t think he could survive the trip with me carrying him. The only way to carry him is to make a litter and that takes two. And, if we get him to a place where there’s a doctor, I can’t be seen without causing all sorts of problems and attention.”
“Okay,” Dak said, “here’s what we do. We’ll make the litter and carry Ebony out to where I ditched my bike. We’ll leave him behind a bush and you keep out of sight but also keep and eye on him. I’ll ride to town, get my Uncle Jim’s SUV and take him to the vet.”
“That’s the kind of suggestion I hoped you make. Let’s go back to my cave and make the litter.” On the way back, Dodge stopped at a small cave where he had some tools cached and got a machete. He cut two saplings for poles. Back at the cave, Dodge got some rope and a tarp from somewhere behind his sleeping ledge.
“Where’d you get all this stuff if you never got to town?” Dak asked.
“Mostly from camp sites. You’d be surprised what people leave behind or what they leave out after they go to bed. I used to live off the land. Over the years there has been a real increase in camping and I scrounge a lot of stuff from campers, like the stew we ate last night. I wish someone my size would leave some clothes so I could quit making my own. The pots, chains, locks and tools I brought with me from the farm when I hid out.”
They tied the tarp to the poles. “Give me a minute to put my stuff on,” Dodge said. “He quickly slid into his bear hide pants and shirt.
“Wow,” Dak said! “No wonder I thought I was seeing a Sasquatch. How long has it been since you cut your hair or shaved your beard?”
“Years. People don’t leave scissors at their campsites.”
“How long since you’ve looked in a mirror?”
“Since the last time I gave myself a haircut or shave, I suppose, “Dodge laughed. “Why?”
“Cause you look scary,” Dak said in amazement.
Dodge picked up the litter and Dak tried to keep up as they walked to Ebony’s cave.
Dak sensed the strong bond between Dodge and the large cat as Dodge laid Ebony on the litter. “We’ve been friends a long time,” Dodge said. “I’d hate to lose him now.”
Dodge took his place between the poles at the front of the litter and Dak took the rear. Together they lifted the litter and started through the woods.
Dak had no idea where they were but tried to keep track of where they were going so he could find his way back on his own. It soon became an impossible task. Dodge didn’t appear to be following a trail. He seemed to wander from tree to tree, over one ridge and through another hollow. It was two or three hours before Dak begin to recognize bits and pieces of his surroundings. Another half hour and they arrived where he had ditched Dr. Zuk.
They found a clump of bushes a hundred feet from the road and laid Ebony on the ground. “Take the litter away and find a place to hide,” Dak said. “I’m riding to the Forest Service Station to call Uncle Jim. He’s the local Game Warden and he’ll get Ebony to the vet. Meet me here tomorrow and I’ll let you know what happens.” Dak kick started Dr. Zuk, revved the engine, and popped the clutch, lifting his front tire high in the air.
Uncle Jim’s SUV was parked in front of the Ranger Station. Dak burst through the door. “Uncle Jim, Uncle Jim, he shouted. “You’ve got to come with me fast.” Dak was shouting and spitting out words like a machine gun spits out bullets.
“Whoa, whoa,” Uncle Jim said. “Slow down. You’re talking like a Yankee.”
Dak caught his breath and tried to settle down a little. “You’ve got to come with me. I’ve found a black panther and he’s dying. He needs a vet.”
“Get in my rig,” Jim said. “Where’s this at?”
“Up on Green Road.”
Jim hit his blue lights and his throttle about the same time as they sped toward the forest. “Do you know how rare a panther is in these parts,” Jim asked. “About as rare as a Sasquatch. How’d ya find it?”
“I was just scoutin for turkeys when I came across it lying behind some bushes.”
Dak showed Jim where to pull off and then led him to Ebony. When Jim saw the cat, he let out a low whistle. “He’s a beauty,” he said. “Looks like his paw is broken and he’s running a high fever. Let’s carefully load him in my rig.”
As they were driving away, Jim got on the phone to the vet. “Dr. Carlyle, Jim Slake here. I’ve got an emergency. I’m bringing in a black panther. He’s got a broken leg and seems to have a fever. He’s too sick to do any more than faintly purr.”
“We’ll have the emergency room ready,” Carlyle answered.
Jim and Dak pulled up to the emergency door of the clinic and gently carried Ebony in. Dr. Carlyle was waiting. They laid the cat on a table. “A beautiful animal,” Carlyle said, as he began his examination. He started an I.V. with some antibiotics and anesthetics. He then began to exam the cat’s leg.
“Nasty looking break,” Carlyle said. “Looks like he got it caught in a bear trap, the kind with jaws that snap shut. Those traps should be outlawed. All they do is hurt animals other than the one’s they want to trap, and they often cause a slow death,” Carlyle said.
“I can set it and chances are it will heal alright, but it will be a few weeks before he will be well again. I’ll look after his medical care, but someone’s going to have to take care of feeding him.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Dak volunteered.
“You’re going to be doing it for a few weeks so you might as well give him a name,” Carlyle said.
“Maybe I’ll just call him Ebony.”
“Sounds appropriate, Carlyle said. “Come by in the morning for a report and bring some meat.”
“We cleaned up a road kill deer early this morning,” Jim said, as he and Dak were leaving. “Come by the shop so you can cut it up and put it in our freezer. You’ll need it and some more.”
Dak met Dodge the next day about noon as they had agreed. “Ebony’s doing fine,” Dak reported. “He’s practically breathing normal again, though he was still sleeping from being drugged when I left. The doctor set the broken leg. He said it would take about six weeks to heal, but he will be alright. In the meantime, I have to feed him and look after him.”
Over the next few weeks, Dak arrived at the vet clinic at 8 o’clock sharp most mornings with a chunk of road kill for Ebony. The cat was recovering a bit more each day and the two had developed a respect for each other. Dak marveled at the beauty of the beast and the cat appreciated the gift of fresh meat. But on some days, Dak wasn’t there. He got to spending an occasional night with Dodge. On such nights the two would sit by the fire and talk. “I think Ebony is about well again, Dak said.
“That’s good. How much longer?”
“About a week, maybe. You know, Dodge, you need to move into Mr. View. You’ve lived out here long enough. You’re not a criminal anymore, not since Viet Nam draft dodgers were granted amnesty.”
“I can’t do it. Just think about it. Aside from being black, which ain’t no honor in Mt. View, I’m a freak. It was easy for me to retreat to the woods over the Viet Nam thing. Everywhere I went, people stared. I’d hear ‘em whisper as I walked by. I could never buy clothes that fit and those I found weren’t ones that looked good. As often as not, I’d scare little kids just by walking past. Out here I have the animals to keep me company. Some nights it’s like a zoo out here, only I’m in a cage and the animals come by to visit. Among the regulars are a raccoon, a squirrel, a skunk and a rabbit. Sometimes deer drop in or a coyote. Nature is a never ending work of art, the winds make music, and I’m at peace with God. Nothing gets better for me by my leaving.”
“It just doesn’t seem right, you living out here by yourself,” Dak said.
“It seems right to me. Life for me will end when somebody finds out how to get to my cave.”
“Is that why you never tell me how to find my way here? I mean, I’ve been here a half dozen times and still need a guide.”
“I’m thankful for all you’ve done for me and Ebony, but I can’t let you know how to get here.”
Dak got a call from Jim shortly after his last evening with Dodge. “Dak, you need to come by my office.”
“Okay, I’ll be right over after I feed Ebony.”
Ebony was pacing in his cage when Dak showed up with his daily chunk of meat. As he watched, he could tell the cat was well once again. He fed him, hosed out the cage, and then rode Dr. Zuk over to Uncle Jim’s office.
“Good to see ya, Dak,” Jim said. “Looks like you’ve grown kina fond of that cat you’ve been caring for.”
“Yes sir, he’s a good cat.”
“Well, he’s well and now we’ve got to decide what to do with him.”
“What do you mean. I thought we’d just take him back to the woods and let him go.”
“It’s not that simple, Dak. He’s become dependent on you. He’s too domesticated now to turn back in the wild. In fact Dr. Carlyle tells me he thinks he was somebody’s pet because he seems to have no fear of people.”
“He’ll be okay! I’m sure he will,” Dak pleaded. He couldn‘t tell Jim how he knew he’d be fine; he just insisted he would.
“I can’t take that chance,” Jim said. “If we turn him loose and he dies, all our care will have been for nothing. No, I’ve contacted the Memphis Zoo and they are willing to give him a good home.”
“But, I can take care of him,” Dak protested.
“Believe me, I’d like that,” Jim said, “but the law won’t allow it. Can’t let people keep wildlife as pets.”
“When are the zoo people coming for him”?
“But that’s only three days away, “ Dak protested. But he was thinking, “Three days to find Dodge and find a way out of this problem.”
Dak left Uncle Jim’s office and sped toward the forest on Dr. Zuk. He had to find Dodge and find him quick. He ditched his bike at the place where he and Dodge always met and started walking through the woods in the direction he thought he should go to find Dodge’s cave, though they never seemed to go the same way twice. As he walked he yelled, “Dodge,” hoping the giant would hear him.
After several miles of wandering, Dak was lost and realized there was no use in continuing to wander. He sat on a log and waited for Dodge to find him. If he was anywhere in a several mile area, chances are he had heard. As he waited, Dak tried to formulate a plan. He was deep in thought when a hand touched him from behind and Dak jumped to his feet and let out a little scream. He jerked around and there Dodge was in his bear clothes grinning at him.
“Dodge,” Dak shouted, “we’ve got trouble! Ebony is well, but they’re not going to release him. They say he’s too tame to make it in the wilds. They’re sending him to the Memphis zoo.”
“They can’t do that,” Dodge said with alarm.
“I couldn’t tell them the real story without giving you away,” Dak said. “And, even if I had, it’s against the law for people to keep wild animals for pets.”
“He’s not a pet, he’s my companion. Is there any way to break him out,” Dodge asked.
“I think so, at least I’ve got a plan.”
“Let’s have it.”
“Lead me back to my bike, and I’ll come back about midnight with my pickup truck. You can lie down in the back where you can’t be seen. I’ll haul you to the vet clinic and let you out. Then I’ll park my truck in a lot a couple blocks away. You can break Ebony out and run over to my truck, hide in the back and I’ll drive the two of you back to the forest.”
“Why not just wait for me at the clinic?”
“Because my Uncle Jim is the game warden and he trusts me. I don’t dare get caught, and if I do, I’ll have to tell him everything I know.”
“Okay! I understand. Tell me about the clinic. Where do they keep Ebony.”
“All the wild animals are kept behind the clinic in separate cages. There’s an eight foot chain link fence around the area where they’re kept, though there is a gate where people make pick ups and drop offs. The gate is padlocked.”
“How about the cages, are they padlocked?”
“No! They just have secure latches that are easy to open.”
“Can you get me an iron bar about three or four feet long?”
“I think so. Dad has some scrap rebar out behind his shed. I can cut a piece that long.”
“Okay, I’ll take you back to your bike and meet you later to night, and Dak, I can’t thank you enough. Ebony means everything to me.”
It was well past midnight when Dak got back to Dodge.
“Are you sure there won’t be people about?” Dodge asked.
“The town closes down pretty quickly after the mountain music folk leave the town square. The only one we have to worry about is officer Zerky, and he’s usually napping in his squad care behind Wal-Mart by this time. Hop in the back and keep out of sight. The bar is on the floor there beside you.”
Dak pulled up to the back of the clinic and Dodge jumped out, looking very much like a large bear. “I’ll be parked in a vacant lot two blocks to the west,” Dak said. “There are no street lights in that part of town, so I’ll be pretty well hid. Get there as quick as you can. If we get caught, I’m in for a heap of trouble.” With that, Dak drove away.
Dodge didn’t like all the light around the clinic yard. “I’d better make this quick,” he thought. He slid the iron bar between the two sides of the loop on the lock and began to turn the bar. He could feel his biceps begin to bulge and sweat popped out on his forehead. As he began to put his weight against the bar, he could hear the hoop begin to creak and break.
At the same time, he could hear car tires slowly coming down the alley. He gave the bar one last Samsonian twist. Rivets popped and the hasp broke loose. He slipped open the gate, slid into the fenced yard, and again shut the gate. A sleepy officer Zerky drove slowly past just as Dodge dropped down on all fours, his back to the alley, and rolled over on his side. Zerky stopped and looked through the fence. “I didn’t know Carlyle had a bear in his clinic,” Zerky thought. “It looks like he’s out of his cage. I’d better go by the office and call him.” As Zerky drove away, Ebony let out a scream of recognition. Dodge followed the scream to the cage, unlocked the door and let the cat out. He ran to the gate, threw it opened with Ebony at his heels, and the two of them ran full speed the two blocks to Dak’s truck.
Dak felt the two of them pile into the back. He slammed the gear shift into drive, raced down the alley and back to the street. As he passed the police station, he was surprised to see officer Zerky’s car there instead of behind Wal-Mart. And on the way out of town, he saw Doc. Carlyle’s car speeding toward town to see what kind of animal had found its way into his clinic yard.
Dak wasted no time getting his two friends back to the forest. He pulled into his usual parking spot and the three of them got out of the truck. Stars by the millions showered them with light. “Well, I guess this is goodbye,” Dak said.
“I suppose,” Dodge replied. “I appreciate what you’ve done for Ebony and me. I wish I could repay you in someway, but some gifts are just priceless.”
“And it wouldn’t be a gift if you could pay me,” Dak said. “It’s a gift I was lucky to be able to give,” Dak replied. “And, I have one more gift to give you, a new name. You’re no longer Dodge. When I write this in my diary, you’ll be Adam, keeper of the animals. Goodbye, and thanks for a knot on the back of the head.”
There were tears in Dak’s eyes as he watched Adam and Ebony disappear into the forest in the light of the full moon.
As officer Zerky finished his report about the break in at the vet clinic and the missing panther, old Tom Beerbrick staggered into the police station. His eyes were bleary and he was hung over as usual. He held a half empty fruit jar of moonshine. He slurred his words, this time from fright as much as from booze, as he tried to explain to the officer that he had been drinking in a vacant lot near the clinic when he had seen a Sasquatch run past with a panther by his side. “I swear I’m never going to touch this stuff again,” he said as he handed Zerky his jar.