It had been a long, exhausting drive through the rolling foothills of the Sierras, but as Ashley stepped through the doors of the old familiar diner, she knew it had been worth the effort. Simply opening the doors brought back memories of home. Having grown up in the town, all she thought of was escape into a big city, and took the first opportunity that presented itself.
Now she yearned for the comforts the town offered, small-town neighbors who knew everyone and everything, but not in an –in-your-face gossipy kind of way. And so she had come, hoping that things had remained the same.
The Pines Café still stood in the center of town, flanked by Guy’s Barber Shop and Lou’s Hardware. When Ashley opened the diner doors, she did so with trepidation. One look around told her that nothing had changed. Not the red plush bench seats, the chrome table tops, the neon signs in the windows, and not even the waitress who approached her table.
“Hello, Dearie,” the woman said. She was a slim woman, hatchet face, one droopy eye and gray hair tossed into a bun on the back of her head. She stood back, hands on hips, as her eyes scanned Ashley’s face, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Ashley smiled. “Yeah, I used to come in here all the time, but that was years ago. I’ve added ten years and twenty pounds since then. But you look the same.”
“Honey, you must be blind as a bat, but I appreciate the compliment.” She placed a menu on the table. “The menu’s changed a bit. New chef. He’s added salads, tofu, and veggie burgers. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Ice water would be nice.”
Ashley looked over the menu, admiring the variety of items. This used to be a burger and fries joint, catering to hungry teens looking for a place to go after school and football games. On weekends, campers came into town, tired of their burnt meals and luke-warm beer. Once she knew what she wanted, Ashley put down the menu and looked around.
The place was nearly empty. An old man hunkered over a cup of still steaming coffee, reading the paper as if his life depended on it. A middle-aged couple sat in a booth, not talking, but holding hands. There was a sad look in the eyes of the man. Made Ashley wonder if there had been bad news recently. A death or a health crisis. Maybe even both.
The waitress delivered the water. “Are you ready to order?”
“I’ll have the chef’s salad, but easy on the dressing. In fact, can I have it on the side?” Ashley smiled when she read the woman’s name tag. “Dolores? I remember you,” she said. “Aren’t you Joseph’s mom?”
“Whatever happened to him? He was a few years ahead of me in school, so we were never close friends, but I recall that he was headed off to college.”
Dolores nodded. “Let me turn in your order and freshen up the drinks, then I’ll be back. Things are kind of slow, so I can sit and talk for a bit.”
Ashley tried to picture Joseph as she last knew him. Tall, but not lanky. Mussed black hair that hung to his shoulders. Wide shoulders and a barrel chest, like a weight lifter, but not quite as bulky. She never knew whether or not he was a good student, but rumor had it that he had earned a scholarship to USC. For football. Or was it basketball?
Dolores slid into the seat across from Ashley. “Now, then, you asked about Joseph.” A sad look crossed her face as she shook her head. “He never did make it to college.”
Dolores sighed. Lowered her head to her hand. “He fell in love, that’s what.”
“With a high school sweetheart?”
“Oh, no,” Dolores said with a shake of her head. “With exploring. He used to go out hiking into the hills. Usually with a friend, but sometimes on his own. Looking for relics, like arrowheads and pieces of gold.” A bell rang from the kitchen. “Let me get your meal.”
Just like Joseph, Ashley had developed an itch for exploration. Recent news stories spoke of hidden Native American villages, deep in the mountains, and Ashley, being a historian, yearned to be the first to find one. She had come prepared with camping gear and an ample supply of food. She had typographical maps, a compass, and a good pair of binoculars. What she needed was a trail head and a safe place in which to park her car.
She had done her research. She knew some of the lore, the most troubling being that of the crying woman. That’s what she needed from Dolores: more information as to where the woman had lived and what her problem was.
After taking care of recently arrived customers, Dolores returned and fell onto the bench. “My feet are killing me,” she said. “So, why are you here after all these years?”
“I want to find that Native American village. The one where the crying woman lived. Do you know anything about that?” Ashley leaned forward and smiled encouragingly.
“I’ve heard said that the village is at the base of Snowshoe Mountain.” Dolores patted the back of her head, tucking in a few loose strands of hair. “Now, about the woman, that’s a good story.”
“Tell me about her.”
“Well, it’s said that she cries at night, a low, mournful sound that echoes off the hills. That it’s especially loud when there’s a full moon and the skies are clear.”
“Interesting,” Ashley said. She pulled her map out of her backpack and spread it across the table. She found Snowshoe Mountain and pointed it out so that Dolores could see.
“Can you show me where the village is?”
“No. Not really. Joseph took off, looking for it, but came home empty-handed. He went out night after night, leaving just before dusk and coming home just after dawn. He often heard the woman crying, and tried to trace the source of the sound, but never found a thing.”
Just then the manager called out, reminding Dolores that she had a job to do, so she left, leaving the bill on the table. “Pay at the cash register on the way out,” she said.
Ashley wanted to know why Joseph gave up his search, but Dolores was busy and she needed to take off. She left a nice tip on the table, shouldered her purse and paid the bill on the way out.
Knowing that the moon would be full, or nearly full, the next few nights, Ashley took off in her Jeep. She headed down one-lane country roads which soon turned to gravel, and then dirt, until she reached the end. It was little more than an open patch of hard-packed dirt, and the most troubling thing was that no other vehicles were there. She parked in front of a gate that lead through an old barbed wire fence, settled her backpack into place, and took off.
At first the trail meandered through firs and the occasional small, now-dried out stream, but as time passed, it turned into a slow and steady climb marked by fallen logs and small boulders. Whenever she came to a junction, Ashley examined her map for clues, made a decision, then headed out.
It was a beautiful walk. Flowers bloomed whenever there was an open spot not covered by the canopy of trees. She passed a few meadows of undulating grass, now browned. Along the edge of one, she thought she spotted a strange formation of rocks, so stepped off the trail to investigate.
Sure enough, the rocks were arranged in a pattern, not unlike ones explorers used to mark trails. Large rock on the bottom, middle-sized next, small one on top. A tower. Ashley looked around, hoping to find more markers. She noticed places where bears most likely sharpened their claws, a reminder that she would have to be careful when nighttime came.
She heard the raucous calls of Steller’s jays and the rhythmic tap of a woodpecker at work.
Just to the right of a particularly large tree, Ashley spotted a notch, something possibly made by a hatchet, so she decided to travel in that direction for a bit to see what it revealed.
She kept her eyes peeled at shoulder height, and thankfully, found more and more markings, leading her deeper and deeper into the forest. She knew from her map that she was at the base of the foothills, above the town, but not yet into the mountains, and so a likely place for an abandoned village.
Stopping only for water and an occasional snack, Ashley proceeded with glee in her heart. She knew, just knew, that this trail would take her to a magical place. A place long ago inhabited by the natives, a place that resonated with history, spirits, and souls of those who once made it home.
Frequently checking her watch helped Ashley keep track of time. She had given herself thirty minutes to travel in this direction. If she found something that looked interesting, she would continue on. If not, she’d turn around and retrace her steps until she returned to the meadow. By then it would be approaching dusk, so she’d make camp and stay for the night.
Just as the allotted time was coming to an end, Ashley found another tower of rocks. To the left of it, almost hidden by a scree of bush, she spotted what appeared to be woven branches of a low-hanging tree. She pushed them aside and looked into the darkness. Was that a cave or simply a depression in the hills?
No matter. The spot was off the trail, partially hidden, and a remarkably good place to spend the night. Ashley slipped off her backpack and began to set up camp. She gathered sticks and branches for a fire, scooped up leaves to make a bed, took out her flashlight, matches, camp stove, pot and packaged meal. She smiled and nodded in pleasure, looking forward to rice and beans, even though freeze-dried food was never really that great. Nutritious, filling, but bland.
After eating and cleaning up her dirty dishes, Ashley tossed a rope into the branches over her head. It caught on the first try. She tied her backpack to one end and pulled it as high as she could, hoping it was out of the reach of bears and other marauders.
Time for bed. She climbed into her sleeping bag even though it was still warm outside, but the thought of snakes, bugs, or rodents crawling over her while she slept gave her the creeps.
Sometime during the night, Ashley awakened. She listened for movement outside her makeshift shelter, but heard nothing. The moon’s light pierced the entrance mat, sending sparkling dots of light over her sleeping bag.
She closed her eyes and snuggled a little deeper. A sudden cry brought her out of her comfort zone. Not the cry of a bird, but of an animal. An injured or terrified animal. An eerie. Bone-tingling sound.
Ashley sat up to try to determine location and distance.
Again she heard it. This time chills swept up her arms. Noise-maker was in trouble, but Ashley had no weapon and was not physically strong enough to fight off human or animal.
She pulled aside the mat, peered into the darkness, in order to see whatever it was, but saw only shadows of trees. Once again the being cried out, even more plaintively than before.
Unable to sit there doing nothing, Ashley slipped on her jeans and boots, pulled her sweatshirt over her head and picked up her flashlight. She pulled aside the matted branches and stepped out. There was nothing there.
When it came again, the cry seemed close at hand. Whatever was making it was clearly in distress. Ashley flipped on her flashlight and shone it around to the left and right, but there was no one there. She was scared, but not too scared to take a few steps into the darkness.
She scanned the area around her camp, moving slowly, checking the ground for footprints, clues that might lead her to the source of the sound. She found nothing. She ranged further, this time in a circle, moving with precision from right to left. Again she found no trace of passage other than her own footprints.
Ashley trembled with fright, knowing that she was just a small woman, no match for man or beast, and so useless when it came to being a rescuer. Realizing that she would be better off safe in her camp, hidden from whatever was causing the distress, Ashley turned off her flashlight and nestled back in her bag, this time fully dressed in case sudden action was required.
She heard the sound a few more times, each cry making her tremble with fear. As the night passed, the cry continued, but thankfully, moving further and further away.
In the morning, after a breakfast of a granola bar and water, Ashley packed up her gear. Before heading out, she walked around the area, pushing aside branches, looking for any signs of a scuffle. But there was nothing.
She slid on her pack and slowly, carefully, retraced her steps. She made it to her car in time for a quick lunch of another granola bar, then drove back into town. She parked in front of the diner and went inside, hoping Dolores was on duty.
“You’re back pretty soon,” Dolores said as she handed Ashley a menu.
“Yeah. I got spooked out there. Do you have time to sit and talk?”
Dolores looked around, saw that none of the customers needed anything at the moment, and took a seat. “What did you want to talk about?”
“Joseph, when he went searching for the Native American village, did he speak of what happened when he was out in the woods?” Ashley leaned forward, arms on the table top.
Dolores nodded. “He got spooked. Said he heard what sounded like a crying woman. He searched the area, but found no evidence that anyone had been there.”
Ashley nodded. “Yeah. I heard it too.”
“After that Joseph did some research into local lore. He read old newspaper accounts of murders, domestic violence and other such misdeeds. He found references to some spooky happenings, raids by neighboring tribes, killings by soldiers intent on riding the area of native peoples, and even a random shooting of gold miners.”
“Why did he give up looking for the source of the sound?”
Dolores shook her head. “It seemed pointless. Plus I think it freaked him out.”
“Where is he now?”
Dolores passed her hand across her face as if erasing ancient memories. “He applied for jobs in the city, got hired and moved out. He’s never been back, not even for a quick visit.”
Ashley picked up the menu and gave it a quick glance. “I’ll have the tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. And a huge glass of ice water.”
“Sure,” Dolores said as she stood and pulled out her order pad. “Before he left, Joseph talked to a few of the old-timers that had lived out in the woods their entire lives. They had been hearing the sound for years. Called it the crying woman.”
Ashley nodded. That’s what she’d heard and she knew she’d never go back.