Ragged beams of sunlight struck the forest path; a cool breeze rustled through the trees. Pebbles and leaves crunched beneath our feet. Willoughby, our golden retriever, trotted beside me with his tongue hanging out. I held his leash and paid cursory attention to Byron’s languid try at conversation.
I enjoyed the heat on my shoulders and the trill of birds filled my ears as we hiked on. Byron put his arm around my waist and kissed my cheek.
“You’re in one of your quiet moods, so I’ll shut up,” he said.
I turned to him; he smiled at me.
“I’m sorry, what were you saying?”
“You’ll never know,” he gave me a playful wink.
I kissed his cheek and kept going.
We were hiking this mountain for the first time and the trail was getting rougher. The track closed in on us and forced us to walk in single file, flanked by high and sturdy evergreens. Even the sunlight had trouble getting through the trees. Willoughby led, and Byron brought up the rear. His heavy footfalls thumped in my ears.
Willoughby stopped and sniffed, then turned to me and gave a brief bark. I frowned. Byron stood behind me, his breath hot on my neck.
“What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
I nudged Willoughby forward, but he wouldn’t budge and let out an eerie whimper. I glanced at the trail ahead. Thick branches formed a dark, tangled canopy, and a gossamer mist veiled the path.
A man approached.
“Don’t go that way,” he said as his icy blue eyes met mine, “it’s dangerous.”
He slunk past us.
“Who was that guy?” Byron asked, but I, with clenched fists and jaw, only stared after the man who’d vanished around the bend.
I shook and knew not why. Something about him alarmed me, though I couldn’t put my finger on it. Maybe it was the way he’d appeared out of the mist and silence. Maybe it was those glacial eyes. Willoughby yelped and I patted him.
A cool breeze blew and rattled the boughs; it played with my hair. The silent forest woke a sense of foreboding in me.
“Let’s turn around,” I said, “let’s go back.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, Willoughby doesn’t want to go on, either.” I pointed at the poor animal, burying his nose between my knees. Byron shrugged and led the way down the mountain.
Later, we sat at the diner across the trailhead; Byron crunched French fries while scrolling through his cellphone. The place was old and shabby, though clean, with old-fashioned booths and Tiffany stained-glass table lamps. Pictures hung on the walls, many of them newspaper clippings.
“Oh my God!” I gasped and Byron’s eyes snapped up; ketchup smeared on his upper lip.
I pointed at a picture of a man in breeches, tall lace-up boots, and a thick dark sweater. An old-fashioned metal canteen hung from his canvas pack. He sported a thick salt-and-pepper beard, hair tied at the back and a wide-brimmed hat; his pupils were almost white and gave a frosty stare.
The fry Byron held between his fingers fell with a dull thud on the plate. He sat agape, eyes glued on the black-and-white picture which filled the front page of the local newspaper.
“Man dead on trail,” I mumbled the headline, “accident suspected, no foul play.”
“April 17, 1912,” Byron whispered the date he read on the yellowed paper.
The elderly waitress stopped at our booth when she caught us staring at the picture.
“That’s Daniel Danielson,” she said, “he often ate here after a hike. My mother worked here too. He was a generous tipper, she said.”
She leaned closer and whispered, “You saw him today, didn’t you?”
We nodded, ashen and eyes wide with wonder.
“We call him Danger Dan now,” she continued, “he appears to hikers on various parts of the mountain and warns them of danger. I’m glad you listened.”
“How do you know we did?”
“You wouldn’t be here now if you hadn’t.”