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The Stranger in the Woods

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The Appalachian Trail near Damascus, VA contains some of the most beautiful and breath-taking scenery in the Eastern U.S.  So it’s no wonder I was drawn to the area for my post college hike, a kind of reward for graduating from Amherst University Summa Cum Laude.   I have always enjoyed the outdoors and the thought of hiking this area was too compelling for me to pass by before the start of law school in the fall.  An additional attraction to the area was the fact that my great grandfather, Benjamin Hefler, was a prominent politician in this area of Virginia in the early 1900’s.  The family had moved from Virginia to Ohio after Benjamin died a suspicious death at age 43.

The sun was starting to set and the day was finally coming to an end when I entered a hiking rest area south of Damascus.  Looking for an area to pitch an overnight camp, I spied a clearing not far off the main trail that appeared to have only a single tent.  An old man, possibly in his 70’s, was starting a small campfire when I entered the area.

“Hello.  How are you?  Would it be OK for me to camp next to you?”

“Hello yourself, young man.  Yes, please pitch your tent and share my fire.  No need for you to start another this late in the afternoon.”  The old man seemed polite and cordial as he motioned to the area immediately right of his tent.

“Thanks,” I replied as I dropped my backpack on the ground adjacent to his tent.  “I appreciate the hospitality.”

The old man nodded and continued his cooking over the fire.  The smell of pork and beans was in the air as he stirred the pot mounted over the fire.

“That smells good,” I commented as I staked my one man tent in place.  “You must be a seasoned camper.”

The old man smiled.  “Oh yes,” he replied as he looked over at me.  “I have lived in this area for years and know the woods like the back of my hand.”

“Really.  You live locally?”

“Yes, just outside Damascus in a white colonial homestead.  Been there for what seems like forever.”

“Wow, my great grandfather used to live in the same area.  He died in his house around 1935.  It was such a traumatic event that my great grandmother moved to Ohio to be closer to our family.”

The old man continued to stir his pot as he gave my story some thought.  “How did your great grandfather die?”

“Well, no one knows for sure.  My great grandfather was a prominent politician and our family has had some suspicion that he might have been poisoned by a political rival.  But there was no conclusive evidence of that.”

The old man pulled the pot from the fire and started to fill two plates with the cooked beans and pork.  “Poison?  Your family certainly has an intriguing story that it’s passed down.”

I laughed.  “Well, the Heflers are known to be a colorful group of people.”

The old man sat on the ground next to me and picked at his food.  “You know Robert, sometimes there is some truth in the stories passed down in families.  You shouldn’t write things off until you have researched them a bit.”

I looked at the old man with a puzzled face.  “How do you know my name is Robert?”

The man grinned.  “Well, it’s on your backpack young man.”

I looked over at my backpack and noticed the name tag facing out at us.  “You’re very observant,” I said as I looked back at the man.

He shrugged.  “It comes with age.”

We talked further into the night before finally wishing each other good evening and turning in.  Tired from the long day, I fell asleep quickly in the cool spring air.

I awoke in the morning to find the old man gone but the campfire still smoldering.  After putting the fire out and packing, I headed on my way back to my car and a return trip home.  The old man was largely forgotten as I turned my focus to preparing for law school in the fall.

My first semester at Columbia was hard as it often tends to be for incoming law students.  Hours of study in the Columbia library followed by research sessions to defend academic briefs on issues of the law were exhausting and tedious.  But my interest was piqued one week when a class moved into the issue of homesteading rights and early 20th century Virginia law on the topic.  This was personal to me since my great grandfather had been involved in some of the first legal debates on that subject.

While paging through historic law briefs in the Columbia library, to my amazement, I came across some 1935 legal documents from an important case in the western area of Virginia.  The case involved the state of Virginia vs. Wilbur Fulton.  The arguments for the state’s position on homesteading in the area were presented by my great grandfather Benjamin Hefler while the opposing arguments were given by the defendant, Wilbur Fulton.  The briefs caught my interest and I spent well over an hour reading through the details.  As I turned page after page, I finally stopped in shock.  The final page of the briefs had a 1935 court picture of the case which captured the legal proceedings.  Benjamin Hefler was shown arguing before a local magistrate while the defendant Wilbur Fulton was seated alongside the judge for cross examination.  I gasped in horror and shock as I realized that the man in the picture was the old man that I had shared a camp with during my hike.  Then I recalled one of his comments to me:  “You know Robert, sometimes there is some truth in the stories passed down in families.”

 

The End

 

Author’s Bio: Tom Schmidt is a Chemical Engineer working in medical diagnostics in upstate New York.  He enjoys creative writing and has been published on www.short-story.me in the past.  He is currently working on the “Paul Garigan Crime Mysteries”, a collection of short stories centered around a Malibu based police detective which he hopes to publish in the future.

 

 

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