A sudden movement made Richard quickly snap his head around to the left, but it must have just been the wind moving a branch. Then as he turned back in the direction he was walking his face turned directly into another overhanging branch which promptly shed its load of cold water down the neck of his jacket, making him cry out a mild curse. He had at last decided he was lost. For the past two hours he had been following a continually diminishing trail through the September woods. Early that morning he had left his car parked at a trailhead and started down what more than two hundred years ago had been part of the Wilderness Road, leading pioneers from the east coast into Kentucky. Now it was a hikers' path through National Forest and across the Cumberland Gap. He had planed to spend the night in a small town about a mile off a side road and return tomorrow.
Now he had to admit he was lost. Lost and the sun had set a half hour ago. He hadn't seen a sign of any civilization for the past five hours since he had crossed the last road and now even the trail looked like it hadn't been trod for years. Sometime during the afternoon it had started to rain - a cold, wet rain - and, because only cloudy weather had been predicted, Richard wore only a light nylon jacket. Now he was cold and wet and lost and it was rapidly getting dark. At least the rain had stopped an hour ago, but now a misty fog was beginning to fill every low spot and the sky was still overcast.
He carried a daypack with a lunch, now eaten, and a water bottle. For the thousandth time he berated himself for violating every rule of hiking. He knew them, but like many hikers who later regretted it, he had decided that this time he could get away with ignoring them. It probably wouldn't be fatal. He might get pretty cold tonight but the temperature shouldn't go below the low forties. Then he remembered that most cases of hypothermia were at temperatures near fifty. Still, if he could find somewhere dry he would probably survive. But he would have to find shelter. He looked around in the hopes of seeing the lights of a town off to the side even as he realized he wouldn't be able to hike cross country in the dark in the unlikely event he should spot one. Well, it didn't matter: he didn't see any lights at all. He would just try to keep following the trail as long as there was enough light to see where to place his feet and hope to find a town or even a farm house by then.
But the way things had been going lately he was more likely to fall off a cliff or into a deep creek. Richard sighed to himself and thought about how this trip wasn't having quite the effect he had hoped.
Richard was a stock broker. Not a big Wall Street broker, but a moderately successful broker working out of Norfolk. He was twenty-eight and determined to be worth a million before he was thirty. If he wasn't, it wouldn't be for lack of trying. Fourteen hour days were not unusual for him. Of course, he didn't spend all of that buying and selling. After all the market was only open limited hours. But to know what to buy and sell he had to spend many, many hours pouring over company reports and evaluations of financial positions. When he had started this six years ago, he was so full of energy and determination that he never noticed the load. Now it was habit. It was a habit that had given him a net worth of over eight hundred thousand but had cost him. It had cost him elevated blood pressure. It had cost him vacations never taken, trips never made. It had cost him a fiancee.
He had met Brenda a year ago when he ducked into an all night diner for some late supper after one of the days when he had worked until ten at night. She came through the door ten seconds after him and somehow they had started talking and ended up eating together. She was a new high school teacher - French and Spanish - and had been in town less than a week. In fact the reason she was in the diner was that she had been unpacking stuff in her apartment all day and had nothing to cook as yet. Over the next few months they had gone out more and more frequently until in May he had given her a ring. Then somewhere in the next few months - Richard couldn't even tell exactly when - things had started to go wrong. His more and more frequent last minute calls to cancel a date because he had to work late began to take their toll. He also became slightly - maybe not irritated, but at least uncomfortable - with her lack of what he thought of as ambition. Brenda had no long term goal except to continue teaching. He thought she should aim to found her own school or become an education consultant or something. Bit by bit, one small irritant at a time, their relationship wore until three weeks ago she had returned the ring and they had called everything off.
Within the same week one of the larger deals Richard had been putting together fell through and not only did he miss out on an expected large commission but also a hundred thousand profit of his own. Actually he had lost nearly fifteen thousand of his own money. His boss at the brokerage firm was not overly pleased and Richard was almost certain he would lose out on an expected promotion and bonus this year.
Overall, things had not been going well lately.
When he thought back to his college days he remembered that all he had really been interested in doing was writing fiction. But when he graduated he needed to make a living and, through a combination of luck and hard work, he had ended up in the brokerage field. He found he had a flare for it and soon it consumed him while his writing ambitions moved more and more into some distant future. Now he wondered why. He had decided to take this weekend off and try to relax a little, forget about work and Brenda. Instead he seemed to have screwed this up, too. Cold water ran down his back again and he could feel it start to leak through his boots also.
Twenty minutes later he could barely see the trail at all and it had started to rain again. This time it seemed even colder and he believed a cold front had moved east from the bluegrass into the mountains. Without seeing it, he walked directly into another branch and received another shower of cold liquid and realized he was already shivering hard. How could he have missed the trail? He had no idea. He hadn't seen even a side trail or any other kind of junction for hours. He was about to give up and try to find some shelter under some overhanging rocks or maybe against a tree trunk beside the trail when he rounded a corner and thought he saw a glimmer of light through the trees off to his right. He cautiously moved ahead and the light became a little brighter.
The trail had become more of a semi-overgrown rut with small saplings growing across what once must have been a road ten feet wide but was now just discernable among the larger trees on either side. As the light strengthened he saw what looked to be another overgrown path splitting off to the right and leading in the direction of the yellow illumination. Richard wasn't sure what the light was but it was almost certainly better than a cold wet night huddled against a dripping tree trunk, so he turned towards it. In another few yards the light resolved itself into a yellow spot in the window of a cabin. As he approached he saw that the cabin was a small log affair and the light was a single candle inside.
Thankfully he made his way up to the door and knocked calling out, "Hello. Anyone there?"
He heard a sudden movement inside and the candle shifted, changing shadows flowing across the walls. In a few seconds the door opened and inside Richard saw a young woman, maybe nineteen or twenty or so, holding the candle. She was about five foot two, eight inches shorter than Richard's five ten. Her hair was a dark honey blonde - or so it looked in the candle light - and, tied back with a yellow ribbon, reached well below her shoulders. She was wearing an ankle length dress, old fashioned in appearance and simple in style, a light brown color.
Richard was shivering so hard he could hardly speak and tried to explain what he was doing there. "Well, come on in out of the rain," the woman said, standing back. Her accent sounded a lot like the local Tennessee-Kentucky, but with a slight lilt which might have had some Irish influence. She didn't seem afraid or even startled to see Richard appear at her door.
Gratefully Richard shook off what water he could and came inside. Looking around he saw one room, about ten by eighteen. There was a table and four chairs at one end and another two chairs, somewhat larger and more comfortable, in the center facing a stone fireplace. Richard's attention was immediately drawn here where a healthy fire blazed. He made his way over to stand shivering in front of the blaze before even noticing any of the rest of the room. With his teeth still chattering he looked around and saw there was another small doorway which probably led to a bedroom.
The woman set the candle on a small side table which was next to one of the fireplace chairs and, looking Richard frankly up and down, said, "Looks like you got caught out in the rain. I've seen drowned rabbits that looked a mite dryer," but her smile took any malice from the comment.
Still shaking Richard tried to explain. "I guess I lost the trail. I didn't think it was going to rain and I expected to get into to town before dark. I don't even know where I am. How far is town anyway?"
The woman smiled at him. "It's a long piece off," she replied. "You won't be getting there tonight. But you're welcome to stay here. I'm Katie Branden."
"I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. I'm Richard Boone."
"Any relation to Dan'l?" the woman asked with a smile.
Richard laughed. "If I were, would I be lost?"
.... There is more of this story ...