The Paw Print
Brad’s brown bomber jacket stopped most of the morning breeze, but the faster he pedaled on his bike, the more chilled he became. The town was quiet and waking, bathed in the soft morning light hinting at the coming warmth of summer. The sound of the bike-chain rotating and the wheels whirring echoed in the empty suburb streets. A few weeks ago, someone had stolen the tattered baseball card that Brad had fastened against the spokes, and he still had no idea why.
Cutting the corner of Third Street, he swerved to the middle of the road and continued to ride in the center of the lanes. He turned his head around to look for cars and smiled, picking up speed. As he passed Sue’s house, he mused, Why aren’t I dating her? She’s pretty… comes to every game. Plus, we still have a whole summer before college…
Sheriff Howard pulled around the corner in his squad car and waved Brad from his thoughts.
“Heya, Brad!” he called. “Fine morning we got, isn’t it?”
Brad slowed down and leaned on one foot with both hands still on the handlebars. “Mornin’ Sheriff,” he said.
“Now, I’ve been told you and Ann Dibson were playin’ back seat bingo at the drive-in last Friday.”
Brad just grinned and put his hands up in a yeah-maybe motion.
“You listen to me son,” Sheriff Howard said sternly, though his mouth quirked upward slightly, “there’ll be plenty of time for all that later. You need to focus on school… you know your father gave up everything so tha-“
“I get it, I get it,” Brad interrupted, clenching his jaw.
“Right. Where you off to this early anyway?”
Brad looked at the ground, holding tight to his bike’s handlebars. “Nothin’ too radioactive, Chief, just goin’ for a hike. I haven’t talked with Ann since Friday, honest.”
Sheriff Howard grinned. “Not sure how much talkin’ you were doin’ then anyway. All right youngster, keep outta trouble.”
“Scout’s honor!” Brad called, and in moments, he was off on his bike again.
Rounding the corner of First, Brad heard the stream calling in the wood. Houses with trimmed lawns stood on the right side of the street and a thin field of trees lay to the left. The solemnness of the barn dream seemed to be mocked by the high pitch of morning birds. As Brad moved forward, the trees thinned on the left, and an empty park with a dirt trail came into view.
Brad leaned his bike against the wooden fence, hopped over it, and followed the dirt trail into the woods.
Dad and I used to come out here and throw baseball before the war, but I can’t recall ever seeing a barn of any kind.
As Brad walked, he found that the grass was still wet with dew and soaked the cuffs of his pants. When he reached the tree-line, the shade made it downright cold. He wrapped his arms in a hug to try and keep warm.
The forest was dense by the stream, where the dirt trail ended at a large, reddish fallen log. Brad summited it and peered uphill, ducking his head left and right while charting a precise navigation, which he then followed. This plan included a constant back and forth across the stream, and had he not spent the rainy winter running for football, he would have been winded. As it was though, he found each leap from rock to boulder natural, and dashed across lying timber and sandy shallows with ease.
Lost in the preoccupation of not falling into the widening rivulet, he snapped to attention when he suddenly saw it: the tire from his dream, half-in the water and half-out. He made his way to it, and saw a weed-covered path paralleling the river.
I’ve never seen this path before. It doesn’t look like it’s been used in forever.
Seeing that the path along the river would be a good deal easier than crisscrossing the deepening water, he decided to take it. However, the bank was steeper here, and Brad sent torrents of yellow earth dripping into the stream as he climbed up the path.
The trail was skinny, with dark brush to the right and an increasingly steep bank to the left. Tufts of bright grass grew in a “V” shape, extending down the path as far as Brad could see. It was quieter now that the stream had deepened, and the morning sun was all but forgotten in the shade of the forest canopy. The birds seemed farther off here, adding to the sense of stillness.
Into the quiet Brad whispered, “Dad, I miss you.”
In the shade, he grew cold again and picked up pace. The trail went on for a mile or so, with several steep climbs and long stretches of flat. Brad was out of breath when he came to a light brown wooden bridge, gently looped with vines.
A bridge out here? And in perfect condition too. Wait… are… are those footprints?
Across the wooden planks, Brad could make out the traces of an average-sized set of feet.
“These don’t look more than a day old,” he said aloud. “Who comes out here?”
Continuing on, Brad was a good deal more alert, full of anticipation and dread.
Maybe me and Dad came out here when I was a baby and I just had a flashback last night… Maybe there’s camping out here and hikers left those footprints…
Before Brad could contemplate any more “maybes,” he burst through the edge of the woods into a clearing. Standing in the middle of a field of waist-high golden grass was the proudest red barn he had ever seen.
To be continued… Come back next time for part three!