I'll never forget the day my dad dropped the bomb.
"Wig," he said, "I put in a request, and I've been transferred to Woodrock."
“What a shame,” I thought. I had made some really good friends in Boulder, but this house reminded me a little too much of Mom, and so I didn't complain about the move.
Dad and I moved to Woodrock early in the spring of my thirteenth year. When we first got there, I thought we had driven onto a film set for The Twilight Zone. It was a beautiful little piece of Americana, a little town on one of the blue highways that stretches across the landscape through the forested mountains of the Continental Divide. Woodrock had been built over a hundred years ago on the only level place for miles around. There was the inevitable courthouse on the square, brick streets, and American flags waving here and there. Local farmers drove muddy 4x4 pickups with fence posts and spindles of barbed wire in the back and rifles hanging in the back windows.
There was the drug store soda fountain where the teenagers loitered with their friends, and there was a tee shirt-wearing guy with a purple hotrod everybody purported (whether it was true or not) to be the fastest car in the state. The whole place was mighty 1950’s-like for the 1980s!
My dad transferred to Woodrock because there was a vacancy at that office left by the previous ranger, who had apparently died in a one-vehicle accident.
I left a middle school in Boulder that I dearly loved and would finish out my seventh grade year at Woodrock Junior High, where I was a virtual stranger to everyone.
Nobody knew exactly what had happened to the previous ranger. He had been missing for a couple of days when they had found his pickup overturned in a deep creek at the bottom of a local canyon, but the man's body was never found. The ranger's widow and his daughter still lived in Woodrock.
My peers in that little mountain town were a mighty clannish bunch. I never had much of a problem fitting in anywhere else, but I was eyed with suspicion here. I was accustomed to being prodded about my name; not many boys are named "Wig", and I never have figured out why my mother stuck me with it. Dad didn't even know. Ordinarily when I didn't react to the jibes, the needling would stop, but here in Woodrock, it seemed to persist. I kept hoping I would find a friend, but for a while I didn't, and I developed a strong dislike this little town within a few days.
When we got settled in, Dad and I began attending Pine Mountain Community Church every Sunday, and it was in my Sunday School class there that I met the previous ranger's daughter. Her name was Rainy and she was a year older than me, with a deep olive complexion, short blond hair and dark brown eyes that were almost black. If it weren't for the color of her hair, Rainy might pass for an American Indian. Her face was wide and her cheekbones high, like some of the Apaches I had met when my dad was stationed in Montana. She always dressed in loose, faded blue jeans and a boy's shirt like a tomboy. Around her neck she wore a chain with a cross made of turquoise and silver. She didn't fit in with the prissy, backbiting girls in that community and the boys had a tendency to shun her because she dressed like a “hippie.” Like me, she was something of an outcast, and we seemed to gravitate to each other. Rainy and I found out we were made of pretty much the same stuff. The soda fountain across from the meat market had the best lemonade in the world as far as I was concerned, and we started spending a lot of time together as spring melted into summer. We both got used to the other kids laughing at us behind our backs and the air was thick with rumors borne of the speculations floating around about what she and I might be doing when we were alone and nobody was watching. "Wig and Rainy" were two names that naturally seemed to fit together.
Rainy and I had more in common than we realized. We both loved horses, but neither of us rode any more. My dad had sold our horses when we left Boulder, while Rainy's mom had sold their horses after her dad’s accident. Since neither of us was old enough to drive, we had to do our traveling on foot or bicycle, and we were both building our leg muscles pedaling new bikes. In addition to our both being rangers' kids, there was more. We started comparing notes, and it turned out that I had lost my mom to cancer about six months before her dad's accident.
We were both trying to deal with the loss of a parent, and in that context, we were both wondering about the love and goodness of God we were always reading about in the Scriptures. It's easy to get mad at God when He takes somebody you love. I had prayed hard for my mom to be healed, but she only got worse. Rainy had prayed hard for her dad to come home every day, and he never did. For some reason, we had both lived in fear of losing a parent before our losses, and the very thing we feared the most had come to pass for both of us. Now we were both almost afraid to pray, figuring we might get the opposite of whatever we prayed for, and nothing anybody said could make either of us feel different. But somehow we both held on to our faith in God in spite of it all.
Our friendship deepened as summer cooled into autumn. We spent hours together, riding bikes and walking through the woods. The hardwoods are always beautiful in the mountains when the leaves begin to turn, and Rainy's mom could fix a really good meat loaf sandwich. While much of the community believed we were engaged in an immoral relationship, our parents knew us better than that and we had free reign to spend plenty of time together. We ate our picnics on the crest of a hill called Lookout Point, sitting on a red-checkered tablecloth spread on the grass and eating our lunch out of a classic straw picnic basket that looked to have dated back to around 1954.
School had started early in September, and I can still remember the smell of crisp new clothes, new pencil graphite, and stiff plastic three ring binders that might or might not last until the following May.
Rainy’s classes and mine didn't quite coincide as we had hoped they would, but we still found time to walk together between first and second periods in the morning, and our lunch schedules allowed us to eat at the same time.
The school bully was a guy named Rob Arnak was always calling me "Ranger Wig." He was constantly trying to find my "hot" buttons (and everybody else’s). He was generally looking to make trouble and had great skill at making whatever confusion he caused look like somebody else's fault.
Example: I lost control of myself in P.E. class because of a remark a Rob Arnak made. He called Rainy a slut and said I was a pimp. I shoved him, he smacked me across the jaw, and I saw red. I got under him like one of those WWF guys and heaved him off the floor for an airplane spin. His macho growl turned into a rather feminine falsetto as I spun him around and around up there until his face was nice and red, and then I threw him against one of the locker basket racks. When it fell, the rest of the racks went down like huge dominoes, with tennis shoes, T-shirts, and gym shorts flying everywhere and half-naked bodies scrambling of the way. A couple of the guys were trapped in the wreckage, but nobody was seriously hurt. I got smacked hard on the backside five times with the coach's paddle and wound up sitting in the principal's office waiting for Dad to come pick me up.
"Wig," my dad told me on the way home, "the remark that boy made about you and Rainy might have been offensive, but that sudden temper of yours will cause you grief for the rest of your life if you don't get it under control. I know you don’t like to fight. But I also know you have a natural ability when it comes to defending yourself. If you did enjoy fighting, I’d be seriously concerned. As it is, I want you to spend the rest of the day reading the Bible, and I want what you read to become a part of who you are. When Jesus said to turn the other cheek, He was referring to how we should react to all sorts of insults, from pranks and slander all the way up to being hit in the face. You failed to factor His Word into your response.” He shook his head slowly and went on “You’ve certainly damaged whatever sort of Christian witness you might have at school." We pulled up to a stop sign and Dad pressed the clutch pedal, shifting the truck into low gear and looking both ways twice before he pulled out.
"Now, I want you to memorize Proverbs fourteen twenty-nine and fifteen thirty-two by this evening, and I want you to spend at least an hour on your face before the Lord about this thing. It seems like Satan's temptations get stronger for some people around Halloween."
I knew Dad wasn't kidding about the verses or the hour of prayer. He would expect me to be able to quote those verses to him when he got home. It seemed like I learned a lot whenever he disciplined me into reading the Bible after doing something stupid like that. I turned to the book of Proverbs.
"He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who is quick-tempered exalts folly." I got 14:29 down pat, then went to work on 15:32:
"He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who captures a city." And then there was Proverbs 19:19: “A man of great wrath shall suffer punishment: for if thou deliver him, yet thou must do it again.” Boy did that one hit home!
After I had been on my face before God for an hour, I was flipping around in the Old Testament and came across a passage in Isaiah where the Jews were complaining about how they were going through all the motions of good religion and God wasn't impressed. His answer was that their relationships were rotten and they focused only on themselves. They were working their servants too hard and in chapter 58 verse 4, it seemed that God was talking to me when I read the phrase "...contention and strife and to strike with a wicked fist."
I had never gone looking for trouble, but it always seemed to find me, and things got worse after I accepted Jesus as my Savior when I was ten. Other kids would keep prodding me until I snapped, and I hadn't yet figured out how to control that tendency of mine, at least not yet. It was no comfort at all to me that all my fights ended with me on top. I just wanted to control my temper.
Dad wouldn't let me have any visitors at home or even use the phone while I was suspended from school, so I wouldn't get to see Rainy at all until the weekend. I spent the next two days of my suspension from school working around the Ranger Station, raking leaves and hoeing the dry weeds around the edges of the compound. Did you ever wash a dump truck with a bucket and a rag? You get your clothes wet that way. I never knew there was so many acres of painted metal on one of those trucks.
While I was washing the trucks, one of the rangers, a guy named Jack, kept me company for awhile and told me how he had known of a Golden Gloves boxing champion who came to faith in Jesus Christ.
"Whit had won every fight he ever fought," Jack told me. "Before he became a Christian, he had an uncontrollable temper, and he got in a lot of trouble because it was so easy for people to make him mad. One day not long after Whit got saved he was trying to share his faith in Christ to a man he met in a coffee shop, and something he said hit the guy right between the eyes. They were standing in line waiting to pay out at the time, and the guy reared back and smacked Whit right across the face." Jack paused for a long moment. I kept waiting for him to continue…
"Well, what happened? What did Whit do?" Jack smiled.
"What would you do?" Jack asked me.
"I don’t know…"
"Yeah, I'll bet. From what I heard, Rob Arnak didn't even hit you and you cleaned his plow!"
"Actually, he did hit me once."
"Even though you put a whippin’ on him he won’t soon forget, he still won the fight.”
“How do you figure?” I was thinking the same way he was about that, but I wanted his take on it.
“You gave him control and danced like a puppet on the string he pulled. You gave him exactly what he wanted." I didn't like the sound of that, but I realized he was right. Rob Arnak had pushed a button and I had jumped, effectively giving him control of my emotions.
"You see," Jack went on, "Satan tempts us at the lowest level where he thinks we'll yield. That’s what he did to you through that Arnak kid. And when that man punched Whit at the coffee shop, he was tempted to react like you did to Rob Arnak. But Jesus' words were rapidly becoming a part of him, and he made the tough choice. He decided to act on what the Master had said. It went against every fiber of his humanity, but he just folded his arms, waiting for the next one. The guy was standing there ready to fight, and Whit was just smiling at him with folded arms. The guy got all red-faced and left the restaurant. Whit made the guy look like a fool in front of everybody. You see, Satan misfired on that temptation because Whit was drawing his strength from the Word of God. And besides that, since Whit was no stranger to being punched in the face, he drew his past experience in the boxing ring to resist the urge to hit the guy back. The boxing ring was one place where he had never lost his temper. That's why he won all his Golden Gloves fights."
"I don't know if I can ever handle that the way he did, Jack. But I can try."
"It’s something you have to grow into by making the right choices each time you’re confronted with a threat like that. According to Acts 2:38, the Spirit of God lives in you because you know Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. The catalyst that brings your spirit and His Spirit together in the real world is the time you spend reading the Scriptures. You can draw your strength from what you know God’s Word says and yield to the Spirit of God, and let HIM handle it, or you can yield to Satan and continue to react the wrong way. It's your choice. Oh, yeah, one more thing. Be particularly careful on Hell's holiday."
"Yep. Satan's forces will be working extra hard on Halloween to win every victory he can over you. He manages to convince a lot of Christian people that there's nothing wrong with dressing their kids up like monsters and walking dead people, even though God hates that sort of thing. Just read Deuteronomy 18. And the way he's been working on you since you lost your mom, it wouldn't surprise me if Satan's lackeys didn't have something special in mind for you on Halloween."
Halloween was definitely getting nearer. There were fake ghosts hanging in the trees and plastic jack-o-lanterns in people's yards. I spent every waking moment that weekend with Rainy. It was that weekend that we found the cave some of the guys at school had been talking about. The stories got spookier as Halloween drew nearer. Supposedly, a prospector had been trapped by Indians in a cave in the mountains during the 1800’s. They had finally stormed the cave, captured him, took him up on a rock ledge nearby, where they sacrificed him to their one of their gods, supposedly condemning his spirit to live forever in that ghost cave where he had holed up. While nobody knew for sure whether this wild story was true or not, it generated a lot of embellishment in the telling and re-telling at kids’ campouts. The “ghost prospector” had been supposedly been sighted by more than one reliable witness.
We had ridden our bikes down highway 30 and into an unfamiliar hollow, just exploring new territory. I had my instamatic camera in my pocket in case I ran across anything photo-worthy for my biology project. We pedaled along slowly on the flats, coasting downhill into each valley and pedaling as far we up each succeeding hill.
"I was daddy's little tomboy," she told me, "and we went everywhere together. He taught me how to shoot a rifle as good as any boy I knew. He was my everything. Don't get me wrong; I love my mom, but I really miss the time I used to spend with my dad. I always wore pants like I do now because I never knew when he might wheel up to the house and tell me to hop in the truck for a run up the mountain..." Her eyes filled with tears as her voice trailed off as she wiped her cheek with her sleeve. I could empathize with her. I remembered how my mother had come home from the doctor’s office with the bad news. I remembered how she lost her hair during the chemotherapy treatments. I remember watching her waste away while I prayed for God to heal her, and my eyes got a little moist as well.
Rainy and I chose to leave the road at a point where the creek curved in and ran parallel to it, parking our bikes in some undergrowth so they wouldn't be so easily noticed. We found a flat rock ledge about forty feet by thirty feet stretching out over the water where we could sit and watch the creek wash over smooth boulders on its way to the Colorado River. From the ledge to the rock-strewn creek bank below was an easy fifty feet. The drop didn't look so terribly far as to be all that dangerous, but a person could easily break several major bones if he or she fell from this ledge.
We obviously weren't the first to sit here and enjoy this view. There were cigarette butts stomped flat here and there, and there the ashes of a fairly recent campfire near the center of the ledge.
In the creek, there were rainbow trout in abundance, and I found myself wishing I had my rod and reel. Rainy hadn't mentioned my fight with Rob Arnak in the locker room until we settled down on the rock to enjoy the scenery...
"I heard what Arnak said in the locker room," she was fiddling with a pinecone, breaking little pieces off and tossing them in the creek.
"Yeah," I said, a bit uncomfortable. I wasn't proud of the fight and I didn't really want to talk about what Arnak had said that started it.
"Isn't it silly how everybody starts rumors? Just because we spend a lot of time together, people like Arnak think we're having sex." I was hoping she hadn't been watching me close enough to see me wince.
"It's the way people think nowadays, I guess,” I said carefully. I wanted to change the subject somehow. I always go nervous when the word “sex” came up and girls were around. "Arnak and his bunch are into that Dungeons and Dragons stuff. There’s no telling what any of them might say or do. They’re all sold out to Satan… Hey! Look over there!” A movement caught my eye on the other side of the creek, and I saw a silver timber wolf moving through the brush. If it was a female, she might have some cubs stashed on that side of the creek, and she might be out hunting for food. As I studied the rocks and timber on that side of the creek, I noticed what looked like the outline of a cave in the shadows of some big Jeffery pines and under the shelter of a ledge.
"Look, Rainy, over there," I said, pointing, "isn't that a cave?" She strained her eyes in the direction I indicated.
"I don't see anything."
"C'mon. I think we can cross the creek right down there. Maybe I can get close enough to take some pictures of her cubs, if she has any." I was already picking my way through the rocks down to the creek bank.
"But we don't even have a flashlight,” Rainy protested following close behind me, "and I don't have my .38."
We made our way across the creek stepping from one rock to another, with big rainbow trout sliding through the water all around us. I thought about Zebco rod standing in the corner of the garage at home. Rainy made it across okay, but I slipped off a wet rock and fell, wetting one leg, and filling my left boot with water. It was ice cold. That foot would be wet for hours. We made our way up the creek bank to the place where I thought I had seen the mouth of the cave and turned into the trees. I found a stout piece of dried oak that made a nice club and tested the weight of it. It wouldn’t do to be without some sort of protection.
Between two low bushes led an almost invisible trail. The bushes had to be shoved back so we could squeeze between them, and a well-worn footpath became visible leading straight to the mouth of a cave, which wouldn't have been noticeable from any spot other than the rock from which I had seen it. It was almost invisible, even from there.
The cave seemed vacant at the moment, but it appeared that somebody besides wolves was living there. At the mouth of the cave, the dry sand had the disturbed look of regular and recent traffic. There were hides stretched on racks and a smoldering fire near the mouth of the cave, but there was almost no smoke at all. That would explain the wild stories circulating at school about the spook that lived in the cave by the creek. Our imaginations were running wild. Who lived here, and where did he come from?
"Do you smell something?" Rainy wanted to know."
"Yeah, a sort of a body odor smell...” Even as we spoke, I seemed to feel a presence behind us, and we both wheeled suddenly to face the man who lived in the cave. He could have stepped out of a Grizzly Adams movie. All his clothing was hand made from animal skins. He cut quite a figure in his Daniel Boone-style coonskin cap with his salt-and-pepper hair showing around the edges. His beard was more salt than pepper, and he wore peculiarly fashioned homemade boots and tanned buckskin pants. He had a necklace of rawhide with what looked like mountain lion teeth strung on it. We could smell him from twenty feet away, and what we smelled wasn't very inviting. In one hand he held two dead squirrels, and in the other hand he held a short flint-headed spear. The only thing that didn't fit in with the rest of his outfit was the fact that he was wearing octagon shaped wire-rimmed spectacles. It was hard to tell by looking at his face what he intended to do about our trespassing. He seemed about to speak when a loud whooping yell split the air from across the creek. He turned to look through the trees at the very spot where Rainy and I had been sitting when I saw the cave. He was positioned on our side of a large tree trunk in such a way that we were visible in our brightly colored clothes (although we weren't aware of it at the time) to the unknown group of people on the ledge, but they couldn't see him. When he turned to peek around the massive tree at the ledge, Rainy and I both took the opportunity to run, and we stumbled over rocks getting out of there, both of us expecting at every moment to feel a spear sink into our backs. We had scrambled past the wild man at an angle and made our way back down toward the creek, stopping just short of the bank while we were still in the bushes. I had lost my club in the mad scramble, so I was empty-handed again. From where we had stopped, we saw Rob Arnak and a few other guys from school smoking cigarettes and staring over toward the cave. One of them had a goat on a leash. Why were they there? What was the goat all about? Why had they made that loud whooping noise?
We waited a few minutes until they left before crossing the creek in the same spot we had crossed before. When we made it back to the place where we had left our bikes, they were gone, and it wasn't too hard to figure out who had taken them.
"It's gonna to be a long walk back to town," I said ruefully.
We had walked about a mile when Jack came along on one of the Forestry department dump trucks I had washed. I told him about our bikes and the old man by the cave. We speculated that folks had been seeing the mountain man in the trees along the creek and thought he was the “prospector’s ghost.” “Truth to tell,” Jack said, “he’s probably just an old man who lives in the cave and wants to be left alone.” Rainy said nothing, but I could tell she had something on her mind.
Rainy remained quiet until we were standing in her front yard. My foot was still wet; Jack was sitting at the curb in the dump truck with the engine idling. She was standing there with the cool October breeze tugging at her short blond curls. I had never been so physically attracted to her as I was at that moment. She spoke for the first time since we had left the creek.
"Wig, did you notice the glasses that old man was wearing?"
"What?" I had to gather my thoughts and rewind my mental videotape
"His glasses. The octagon shaped glasses the mountain man was wearing."
"Uh huh. They looked like the only part of his outfit that didn't seem to fit."
"Those glasses belonged to my dad. I'd know them anywhere. That old man has to know where my dad's body is. Wig, we have to go back out there and talk to him!"
I didn't know how on earth we were going to get back out there. Our bikes were gone, and neither of us could legally drive.
"Okay," I said, mentally tossing all the obstacles to making the trip aside, "as soon as we can, we'll go."
The next day at Sunday School, Rainy seemed rather pensive. But she had fixed her hair a different way and I was shocked to see that she was wearing a dress! I had never seen her in anything but loose jeans. She never even wore shorts. She looked very nice, and I wasn't the only one who noticed, either. Some of the high school guys were giving her the once-over as we made our way down the hallway to our class, and I felt my neck getting a little hot and my temper growing short. I had never felt it before, but I would later recognize that feeling as jealousy.
The next day at school was Halloween. Rainy wore another dress, and the guys who had been ignoring her all year started taking notice.
She and I ate together in relative silence. I wanted to ask her why she had changed her appearance all of a sudden, but I was afraid I'd scare her off or make her mad or something, and she had suddenly taken on a whole new light. I had come to know her well over the past several months, and she was as beautiful on the outside as I knew she was on the inside.
Rob Arnak and his hucksters came by the table dressed for Halloween as vampires (how appropriate! I thought) and whistled at Rainy. They couldn’t seem to take their eyes off her. It was another new experience for me. Before, everybody but me had shunned her, and now she was the center of attention. I felt my blood pressure rising, but I kept my cool. I must have growled or something after Arnak and his cronies whistled at her, because Rainy looked up from her mashed potatoes with a twinkle in her dark brown eyes.
"Why have you been acting so strangely, Wig? You've hardly said anything to me since Saturday afternoon."
"Oh, that’s a hot one! I thought YOU were the one playing shut-mouth! Why are you suddenly dressing like a girl?" She smiled at one of the handsome ninth graders who had been staring at her.
"Because I AM a girl, Wig! Don't you like the way I look?"
"I think you look great, Rainy! So does everybody else! What's the deal? Why did you suddenly change your clothes?"
"I had never fully accepted the idea that my dad was gone for good until I saw that mountaineer wearing his glasses Saturday. I kept wearing the clothes I always wore when he was alive and prone to pull into the yard on his pickup. They were his clothes, some he had given me to wear when we were in the woods together and he was working. I kept hoping to see him drive into the yard one more time and wave me toward him so we could go on another one of our adventures. Wearing his old clothes was my way of expressing my faith that God would bring him home to us one day. I had never let go of the idea that he might come back. When I saw his glasses on that old man in the woods, I knew then that he was gone for good. So I put his faded blue jeans and flannel shirts away and started wearing the dresses mom made for me. A long time ago, Mom accepted the fact that Dad is gone for good, and now I’ve cried all my tears away I’ve accepted it too."
"Could the mountain man have been your dad in a beard and dressed in animal hides?"
"No way. He was too tall and too old and his eyes were the wrong color. I'd have known him right away if he had been my dad."
Rob Arnak came swaggering over to the table in his vampire cloak. His black hair was slicked back and he had applied some fake gray to the hair at his temples. I had meant to have a private conversation with him, but this looked like the moment of truth.
"Nice costume for Halloween, Rainy. Nobody knew you had such nice legs." She smiled sweetly, rolled her eyes at me, and lifted another small bite from her plate. I decided to make a tough choice.
"Sit down here, Rob," I said, "I have something to say to you." He looked at me strangely, but sat down.
"I don't like what you've been spreading around about Rainy and me, and I got a bit miffed and lost control when you made that remark in the locker room..."
"A bit miffed! You destroyed the whole place, and made me look like a fool, you jerk! Nobody humiliates Rob Arnak like that. Is that what your 'Christianity' is all about? We're not through with that locker room fight…"
"...what I was trying to say is that I want to put all this behind us. I'm sorry it happened." It was hard for me to say those words, and he definitely wasn’t impressed. His sneer became more pronounced and he spoke loud enough for everybody in the lunchroom to hear.
"No way I'm gonna ‘put anything behind us.’ I think you're yellow. It's you and me tonight at midnight on the flat rock ledge above ghost cave by the creek. It's your God against my god. The guys and me saw you and Rainy out there in the woods Saturday near the haunted cave. Everybody knew you two were slipping off somewhere to do your stuff and now we know the truth!"
Talking to this guy was obviously a losing proposition. He was doing his best to make me look like a coward and a fool in public and humiliate Rainy in the process. Everybody in the lunchroom was watching me now, including the ladies behind the steam table that served the food. I was tingling all over with suppressed anger, and I wanted to hit Arnak right between the eyes, but I couldn't afford to get another three days worth of zeros in all my classes. I suddenly leaned toward him, and he recoiled slightly. A mild hush fell over the lunchroom. I spoke quietly, deliberately, through clenched teeth:
"I'll be there, Rob, me and my God. But first I want Rainy’s bike delivered to her house and my bike delivered to my house. Otherwise I won’t come. And my God will give me what it takes to prove you're the troublemaking fool everybody knows you are. Your god is a murderer and a liar. You've already lost. So has he, Halloween or no Halloween. Now get away from my lunch. You're making it smell rotten."
After he left, Rainy sat looking at me for a long moment.
"I can't believe what you just did. You agreed to a fistfight in the name of God. What a contradiction of our faith!" I just sat looking at her. She was right, of course. But now, at least in the eyes of those who heard, I had no choice.
The moon was full and bright when Rainy and I stopped our bikes at the bottom of the hollow. She was wearing her jeans and flannel again. I hadn’t wanted her to come, but she would have it no other way. Her mom and my dad had gone to a fall festival together and wouldn't be home until early in the morning. It was eleven thirty. We hid our bikes in a different place this time, under the deep shadows of a big pine and covered them with brush. We made our way with my dad's Mag light through the trees to the rock ledge. We found a place to kneel and we prayed an energizing prayer for about twenty minutes. We both prayed silently at first, then she prayed in a whisper that God would give us wisdom, the grace, and the strength to live out the principles we had both absorbed from God’s Word. We prayed that He would be exalted by whatever happened that night. We finished our prayers and came to our feet. I reached for Rainy and gave her a quick hug.
"I love you, Rainy," I told her. Her short blonde curls shone like corn silk in the bright moonlight and she smiled, but said nothing. The creek gurgled and trickled over the boulders below. We sat down on the ledge to wait for Rob. The luminous dial on my wristwatch read 11:50 when we saw the flickering light of a torch making its way down the thickly forested hillside above the ledge. Rob and three of his lackeys emerged onto the far side of the ledge. One of them was carrying a lantern, another was carrying a torch, and the third was leading the goat we had seen the previous Saturday. Rob carried a staff with a homemade pentagram on the end. They were all smoking cigarettes and they wore black robes. Two of them seemed pretty scared and kept looking around, wide-eyed, like they were afraid of what might jump out of the dark. The lantern light flickered on their faces and the goat stood impatiently tugging against the leash as we faced each other from ten feet away. Rainy stood close to my side and slightly behind me, clutching my arm with an iron grip. Rob took off his black cloak to reveal his powerful torso clad in a black T-shirt. Two of the other guys went to work building a fire.
"This is our god's holiday. Your God has no power over our god, who reigns supreme over the forces of darkness. Tonight I'll defeat you, we'll offer a sacrifice right here where the Indians sacrificed the prospector, and we will all four ravish your lover.” I heard Rainy gasp. “What will your God do to stop us? Nothing at all." We had no idea they had anything like that in mind or we wouldn’t have come. This seemed to be turning into a bad dream. In spite of it all, the Spirit of God had settled in me, and I felt strangely calm. The dry wood stacked and kindled by Rob’s lackeys had become a roaring bonfire.
“Be careful with that fire, guys. The woods are awfully dry this time of year.”
I said nothing to Rob at that point, but I took off my coat and handed it to Rainy. She took it, and whispered,
“God bless you, Wig. Remember the Word. This fight is God’s not yours. Remember, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord’” That quote from Zechariah four meant more to me at that moment than it ever had in the past. Then she stepped back, and lowered her head in prayer once more.
Rob handed his stupid pentagram scepter to the guy holding the goat and stepped forward with his fists raised. I just stood there with my hands at my sides. He took a long step forward and smacked me across the right side of my face with a stinging backhand slap, and I felt a little blood trickling from the corner of my mouth.
"Fight, you jerk!" he shouted. I stood there and took another slap on the other side of my face, but never raised my hands. Then I thought of what Jack had told me about Whit and folded my arms. Rob was dancing around like a boxer now. He grinned malevolently.
“I’m gonna enjoy this.”
Behind Rob’s three buddies a loud pop broke the silence, like the breaking of large dry stick. The goat, startled by the sudden noise, and suddenly pulled free, instinctively scampering away from the noise and circumventing the bonfire. The startled animal managed to run between Rob’s heels as he was stepping back. He stumbled backwards over the goat, falling into the edge of the fire. His black trousers caught flames and he rolled over wildly trying to put the fire out. He was closer to the edge of the ledge than he thought and he squealed in terror as his body swung out over empty space. Flailing wildly in the orange firelight, he managed to catch hold of an outcropping of rock and he was hanging by one hand, terror written all over his face. In a moment I managed to fall down on my belly and grab his arm, up near the elbow just as he lost his grip. I held him there, with his hand gripping my arm and my hand gripping his.
"C'mon, you guys! Give me a hand!" I growled frantically through clenched teeth.
"They're gone, Wig. They ran off."
"Don't drop me Wig!!" squeaked a suddenly humble Rob Arnak.
"Don't drop him Wig!" Rainy shouted.
“I wasn’t planning on it! Rob, can you get a foothold anywhere down there?" It was all I could do to hold him. Suddenly I smelled the same body odor smell Rainy and I had smelled in the woods when we saw the mountain man and a huge arm longer than mine reached past me, gripping Rob's arm up near his shoulder. Rob’s eyes were wide as he looked into the shadowed face of the “ghost prospector” and he was hauled effortlessly up onto the ledge gasping for air. Rob stumbled past the giant woodsman and disappeared into the trees calling for his friends, crashing off into the distance until there was no sound except the creek bubbling along below and a slight stirring of the wind in the pines.
Rainy stepped forward and took her place beside me. I put my arm around her and we moved away from the edge of the precipice.
"Thanks, mister," I said. But he wasn't looking at me. He was looking at Rainy.
"Where did you get those glasses?" She asked him. “They belonged to my dad.” There was no hint in his eyes that he understood her words, but he kept staring at her until she became uncomfortable. He reached in a bag hanging from his belt and pulled out a small photograph. When Rainy examined the image, her breath caught in a sob. It was a picture of Rainy and her dad standing by his state forestry truck. The bonfire had died down somewhat, and the big man kicked the burning logs away from the woods and over the ledge into the creek. Hundreds of sparks spiraled into the sky as each log rolled across the rock and tumbled out of sight. He put his hand on my shoulder and pointed into the woods, gesturing that Rainy and I should follow him. He picked up the lantern Rob's group had left and made his way in a broad circle to a place where the creek was very easily crossed, and in a few moments we were standing at the mouth of his cave. He indicated that we were to wait outside. He disappeared into the cave, and after a few moments and then he brought out a bearded man in a faded Ranger's uniform. Even by the light of the lantern, and even through a thick black beard, Rainy recognized her dad. I did too. They had the same eyes, the same nose, and the same cheekbones. Rainy took a sudden breath. She broke from my side and ran to the bewildered man who had to be her father. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tightly. In the light of the lantern, I watched while his eyes reflected confusion, recognition, amazement, then realization…
"He had been suffering from amnesia and had no idea who or where he was. The mountain man kept him fed and nursed him back to health after the accident. There were rumors, but nobody really knew for sure that the old man really existed. He certainly isn’t a ghost, like everybody thought!"
My dad was on the phone with one of the guys at the state capitol.
"When he saw his daughter, smelled her hair when she hugged him, and heard her voice, it triggered his past memories of her and within a few hours he had experienced a total recall of his memory. He'll be in the hospital for a few days for observation, but he'll be okay."
That was twelve years ago. Rainy's dad is alive and well today and still works as a Forest Ranger. I wish I could say that Rob Arnak changed as a result of what he went through that night, but he didn't. He spread lies the next day about how he had beat me in a fair fight by the creek. His addiction to the occult grew worse and he became addicted to heroin. The newspapers reported that he was killed in a high-speed one-vehicle accident in a stolen car in Eldorado, Arkansas while trying to elude pursuing police cars.
As for Rainy and me, we got married as soon as we graduated from high school and now we have two children, a boy and a girl. Whit is four and Summer is two. We’ve been so blessed by the hand of God since that night on the rock ledge above Ghost Cave all those years ago. After it was over, I went back to the ledge with Rainy and we set up a memorial stone beneath the trees that border the ledge. On the memorial I scratched a verse of Scripture:
"...for them that honor Me I will honor..."
I Samuel 2:30b
Incidentally, we don't dress our kids up like monsters and celebrate Halloween at our house. Dungeons and dragons is taboo around here, as are bloody video games.
I'm a Sunday School director on Sundays and a Forest Ranger during the week. Rainy's dad is my supervisor, and my dad is retired.
As for the mountain man, Rainy’s dad obtained a waiver for him from the State Forestry service so he could continue to live out his days in the cave. Nobody knows where he came from, why he can’t speak, or even who he is. We leave him alone, and so does everybody else.
Oh yeah, that story Jack told me about Whit, the Golden Gloves champion? Whit turned out to be my dad. He always hated his middle name, and he never told me what it was.
One thing I learned that cool October evening in 1983 stuck with me. As long as Rainy and I stay in the Word, spend time alone with God regularly, and do things Jesus’ way, He will provide the grace and the strength to endure anything this life can throw our way. Hopefully, our kids will learn to apply the same truth.