Just last week, my dog and I walked through the pitch-black night, cold, squeaky snow underfoot the only sound in the quiet neighborhood.
"Excuse me," I vaguely heard but thought I imagined it.
"Excuse me," it came again, closer and from behind us. "Do you have a phone I could use?"
A kid, no more than 10, in quiet panic mode with tears running down his cheeks, clad only in pajamas, a light jacket and tennis shoes, needed help. My phone was safely in the house where I usually leave it, so I told him to come along with me. I knew a lady down the street who could help us out. I had headed him off from walking a mile or more to the nearest lonely bus stop, where, in his desperation, he wanted to look for his mother. His mother wasn't there, and in the cruelty of the cold mountain air, he might have at least suffered hypothermia or, perhaps worse, frozen to death.
As we walked, I got the lowdown, a simple story that didn't make a lot of sense, but it never does. His mother was late getting home from work, and she'd asked the school to give him that message. But being home alone on a dark winter night, he couldn't help but worry, and it eventually overtook him. I failed to ask why he didn't call her from home, but I suspect there wasn't a phone there. Once he made contact with his mom from my friend's house, a great calm came over him, and he headed home as though the whole episode had never happened. I discreetly followed him to make sure he got there.
Where does it come from, this killer known as panic? To be precise, more or less, it's an emotional state believed to be induced by the lecherous god Pan. As the story goes, Pan, disturbed during his secluded afternoon naps, let out an angry shout that inspired panic in the interlopers. Yeah, I know - it's Greek to me, too.
Late one evening, just after the dark of night swathed the lonely mountains, I returned to our cow camp to find a lost hunter ensconced there, wondering where he was and how he was going to get back to the comforts of his camp. He and another guy had shot an elk a couple of miles from my cabin and had managed to get it dressed out sometime late in the afternoon. The guy in my camp had been instructed to wait there with the kill while the other hunter walked back to their camp, about five miles distant, to get some game bags and other paraphernalia to help them pack the meat out. He promised to return.
Sitting alone in the stillness of the woods, well off the trail and next to a bloody, fresh kill, watching the sun go down and the temperature drop, the lone hunter began to feel a little vulnerable. It was strange, steep country, and he figured if he didn't strike out before dark, he would be at the mercy of hungry mountain lions, roaming black bears and other monsters. Dread set in. A gun isn't much help if you can't see the target, and in similar situations, some folks have shot themselves rather than live with the fear of what survival might bring.
Emotion choked the man's voice as he related his story, and his hands shook, but a warm fire and some encouraging conversation coaxed the fear from his being, and before long, he felt empowered to hike the three miles or so back to his camp.
And as so often happens, the hunting partner, the one who had hiked back to their encampment for more gear to help pack the meat out, didn't quite think it through and decided it would be foolish to travel back to the kill in the dark. He stayed in camp, leaving his buddy to the perils of being out in the mountains alone, prone to panic. That's how people die - from simple miscues.
Early the next morning, I used my horses to pack their elk out, which resulted in a nice strip of filet for yours truly.