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Dispatches From the Road: The Stalking

December 13, 2019

In his latest dispatch, a beast stalks Courthouse News' western bureau chief at an otherwise empty campground in Northern California.

Chris Marshall

By Chris Marshall

Western Bureau Chief for Courthouse News Service since 2014. San Francisco Federal Reporter and Northern California Bureau Chief from 2006 to 2014. Passionate about photography, camping and history.

The leaves crunched in the woods. Just another jackrabbit.

But the intervals between steps beyond the edge of my campsite near Northern California's Shasta Lake were too far apart for a scampering hare. This creature didn't want to be detected. I was being stalked.

I turned on my headlamp and walked toward the sound – definitely the smart move – and peered into the dark.

Crunch... crunch.

Not a bear, I concluded, trusting the campground had good reason to not bother with bear-proof food lockers or trash containers, and the sound seemed too light.

Then I remembered a freight train had rolled by recently. I backed up slowly as visions of somebody hopping off the train, machete in hand, raced through my head.

It wouldn't be the first time a serial killer had used California trains to move from town to town to carry out his dastardly deeds.

Perhaps I should stop watching the TV show "Forensic Files" late at night. (New season drops in February!)

That Klaus the dog and I had the loop to ourselves this sleepy Sunday night in November added to my unease.

After walking backward to the truck, I opened the creaky back passenger-side door and reached down for my hatchet. Nothing. Realizing I'd moved it inside I slowly made my way to the entrance, opened the screen door and backed into the camper.

"Hey buddy," I said to Klaus, without looking. For all I knew he could have been taking a crap next to the refrigerator, though to be fair, he wouldn't. He tries to be a good boy.

Not until I grabbed the hatchet did I remember how hopelessly dull it had become. But a thin mallet isn't useless either. I hoped the threat would be enough if it came to it.

I clambered down and scanned the woods again with my headlight. A light shone back, about the place a flashlight would be, I thought.

Definitely a person. I started the campfire, one eye on the woods, hatchet close at hand, then returned to the camper, placed the hatchet on the table and prepared dinner. Klaus didn't move. Great watch dog.

Foil packets of potatoes and carrots ready, I went back outside and placed the vegetarian fare on the grill and a plate with one and a half sausages on the picnic table, but not before I grabbed my dull weapon. Not the dog. He didn't move.

The olive oil popped quietly in the foil. When I didn't hear or see sign of anyone in the woods I figured the person might have been finishing up a late walk in the woods and carried on to one of the houses or cabins near the lake on the other end of the campground.

Created when the federal government finished the Shasta Dam in 1945, the reservoir is the third largest body of water in the state behind Lake Tahoe and the Salton Sea. Designed to store water for farms and towns in the Central Valley, the project submerged a village and other sites frequented by the native Wintun people along with Kennett, a former copper mining town. Recent attempts to raise the dam have been opposed by Native Americans, fishing enthusiasts and other groups.

When the foil felt soft to the touch, I turned around for the sausage.

The plate was empty. My heart thumped. The stalker had gotten close enough to steal the best part of my dinner.

Or did I leave them inside? Did Klaus steal them off the plate before I went outside? In either situation I would have walked outside with an empty plate.

I'm not that far gone, am I?

Nothing on the table or counter in the camper. Klaus sure looked like he hadn't moved for a while.

In the fridge I found the other half of the sausage and a full one that I'd meant to leave for dinner in a couple days.

Back outside I stared at the plate. Slight moisture marks indicated sausages had once been there.

A small noise. I moved my headlamp up and to the left. Under my camper, a large black and white beast with fangs that shone in the light of the near full moon devoured what was left of my meat. It was huge, like this big.

Oh yeah, you can't see me.

Or maybe it was a small somewhat feral housecat with a reflective name tag.

There you go again, truth, getting in the way of a good story.

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Categories / Op-Ed, Regional

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