Part I

The first thing Mountain Dave saw when he opened his cabin door that fine Spring morning was the same first thing he saw most every morning—the bright sun rising over the mountains, chasing away the morning mists like a big scary ball of fire. “Ahhh, another splendiferous day!” he rumbled, scratching his beloved beard contentedly. Growing a beard had been a great idea. Shaving always took so much time every morning, hunched over the sink in his cramped mountain bathroom with nothing to see out the window but a bunch of tree trunks. Not-shaving, on the other hand, was something he could do anywhere, even while standing on the front porch, enjoying the sunshine. Plus he could put the money he didn’t spend on razors and shaving cream and Band-Aids and styptic pencils (a craggy fellow, Mountain Dave used to go through one a month) into his Australia Jar. He’d always dreamed of one day taking a trip to Australia to see if kangaroos really did like to box, and whether koalas were as surly as he’d heard. Someday he’d have enough to pay for a nice long vacation Down Under. The second thing he saw that fine Spring morning, however, was something brand new, something that had never been there for him to see before. Or rather, it had never not been there for him to see before —his trusty wood-chopping axe was missing! He was darned sure he’d left it leaning up against the woodchopping stump last night, and now it was nowhere to be found. As he hunted around the cabin for it, he noticed that other things were missing as well. One of his favorite swamp-splashing boots was gone, and so was the broken mountain bird feeder he’d been meaning to repair. The only trace of the jar of pickled eggs he’d left on the back porch overnight (kept out of sight to help him resist the temptation of late-night snacks) was a faint ring on the wood. “Well, flap my jacks and jack my flaps—just what in the Sam Scratch is goin’ on around here?” Dave muttered, looking around in utter befuddlement. He didn’t have many neighbors out here in the mountains, and what few he had were far too polite to borrow someone’s things without asking. He supposed there could be a pickled egg thief in the area who needed an axe to help in his getaway, perhaps by building a raft or scaring a moose into giving him a ride, but who would take a single swamp boot or a broken bird feeder? One-legged people shouldn’t be hopping around in swamps, and mountain birds were too superstitious to eat out of a broken feeder. The more he wandered around trying to figure out the mystery, the more absences he discovered. His antique acorn-sorter, left to him by a grateful traveler whom Mountain Dave had saved from a pack of greedy squirrels; his Wild Asparagus action figure, personally autographed by Euell Gibbons; even his prized outdoor quick reference grammar card, laminated for protection from the elements and wildlife. This crime wave made no sense at all! He stood in the midst of his violated space, bewildered.

Part II

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Mountain Dave decided that he’d had enough of this puzzlement. It was time to put his keen mountain instincts to good use. He started by cultivating a Zen-like state of detachment, to enable him to understand that all material possessions are transitory. This would keep him from worrying about his missing things, to better focus on the task of tracking down the pilferer. Buddhists liked to come to the mountains to relax, and he’d learned some valuable lessons from the occasional visiting monk. They could also do some great tricks with firewood. After he’d achieved sufficient clarity of mind and purpose, Dave set about looking for evidence. He began by methodically searching the area around where each missing item had been. This was known as the Targeted Zone System, and was very useful for finding lost objects. He wasn’t sure it was appropriate, since these particular objects had been stolen rather than becoming lost, but it seemed like a good starting point. One by one, he visited each of the spots where an object had been, alternately moving in close to look at individual details of the scene and stepping back to take in the whole picture. This was an approach Dave had invented, combining Gestalt theory with what Einstein called “die Beobachtung der Einzelheiten,” which was a mouthful, but echoed very impressively when spoken loudly in canyons. He had yet to come up with a name for this system, but was confident that one would occur to him when the time was right. Once the intrepid mountain man felt that he had sufficiently absorbed the nuances of each crime scene, he stood back to survey the entire area and started putting all the clues together. A bent twig here, a crushed dandelion there, a few twisted grass stalks over yonder… taken together, they described the trail the thief had taken as he wended his pilferous way through the yard. This mysterious bandit had approached from the south, lingering beneath a tree for a while, perhaps pondering the morality of his pending misdeeds. He then embarked upon his rampage of nighttime thievery, wandering hither and thither, clearly indecisive about what to snatch and what to leave behind. Certain items showed signs of having been picked up and replaced, such as the ceramic mountain rabbit Dave had placed on the porch for improved feng shui (he carefully readjusted it, of course). A muddle of back-and-forth tracks indicated that his potted mountain cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii) had been taken away and put back at least four times. This crime spree appeared to be a spontaneous act rather than a pre-planned job. Dave first suspected that the thief was a raccoon, a species notorious for their casual attitude toward notions of personal property. The evidence, however, said otherwise. The trail spoke of a sort of blithe insouciance, an attitude not typical of raccoons. Furthermore, raccoons generally focused on one or two items, and were rarely troubled by indecision. Finally, no raccoon worth his stripes would waste time lurking in the shadows pondering ethical matters when there was thieving to be done. No, clearly this was not the work of Procyon lotor. Could a bear be behind it all? Bears were underrepresented in local crime statistics, and a particularly competitive specimen with a criminal bent could be trying to even things up. On the other hand, bears were not known for their spontaneity, and surely a bear attempting to boost the ursine crime stats would have planned a much more sensational crime. Speaking of sensational crimes, Dave had long worried about the

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vulnerability of the weekly snack deliveries to the local visitors’ station. The possibility of a would-be master bear criminal at large, however unlikely, reminded him to once again urge the staff to adopt his ideas for heightened security protocols. One by one, Dave ran through the possibilities. Possum? No, a possum would surely have taken the cactus, and possums cared little for proper grammar. Fox? No, foxes always left a haughty calling card to brag of their escapades. As he eliminated suspects one by one, he continued to follow the trail as it wound its way away from his cabin. He had just ruled out ferrets and expatriate kangaroos when he spotted clear tracks in a muddy patch, and everything suddenly made sense.

Part III
Dave stood over the tracks, feeling the warm glow of a riddle answered. Five webbed toes, small claws, a whiff of fish, and a devil-may-care twist of the ankle—only one of the many and varied critters that populated these mountain woods could leave a track like that. Shocking though it was, the culprit in this baffling crime spree was clearly a river otter, Lutra canadiensis. This thieving behavior was not at all like the otters Mountain Dave knew, but his tracking skills never lied. Sometimes the truth hurts, yet it must be faced. Dave followed the trail a few hundred meters further, eventually finding himself on the bank of his fifthfavorite mountain stream. This area was quite popular with the local otter population thanks to its abundant fish and plentiful flat rocks, perfect for moonlit raves. At the moment, however, there were no otters in sight, despite the fine frolicking weather. A confusing welter of paw prints in all directions obscured the thief’s trail from this point, so Mountain Dave sat beside an artfully stacked pile of smooth river stones to ponder his next move. Scant moments later, he leapt to his feet, eyes wide. Stacked rocks! He’d been so preoccupied with his tracking that he’d barely noticed them. Where stacked rocks appeared, calamity was sure to follow. No one on the mountain knew who or what was responsible for the phenomenon, but they all knew to steer well clear of such structures. Small wonder the warm afternoon sun hadn’t lured any otters out from their dens. Dave quickly began a cautious retreat from the area, constantly scanning for danger. It was a familiar ritual from his youthful days as a poacher thwarter. Check left, back, right, ahead, down, and up—people always forget to look up. Keep your eyes moving and don’t fall into a pattern. He had just executed a complicated left-up-left-up-up double-take fake-out maneuver of his own invention when he heard the unmistakable sound of rock sliding against rock back at the stream. He stopped, balancing lightly on the balls of his feet. Should he sneak back? The temptation to catch a glimpse of the mysterious rock-stacker was nearly overpowering, but was it worth the risk? Everyone on the mountain knew the tale of the hiker who’d staggered into the Damp Creek Ranger Station late one winter night babbling incoherently, his hair snow-white, a single smooth rock clutched in one white-knuckled hand. As it turned out, he was a German tourist who spoke no English and had become separated from the rest of

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his group, and his hair had been white since the age of 32. Nevertheless, he’d seen something pretty darned scary up there, though he would never say what it was, and it was three days before he could let loose his grip on that rock. Then there was the time an out-of-season deer hunter had come screaming out of the woods into the arms of a game warden and begged to be hauled into custody just to get off the mountain. He said he’d been relieving himself into a waterfall next to an unusual pile of stacked rocks when an immense hairy beast had burst from the cascade and charged right at him, bellowing like a freight train. Fleeing for his very life, he’d scrambled, stumbled, and occasionally rolled through the trees, sure that the beast would be upon him at any moment and rend him limb from limb. This narrow escape was what really got the locals concerned about the mysterious rock formations. Now, it’s true that the beast in question had been Dave, who had been peacefully enjoying a brisk shower in his third-favorite mountain stream when he suddenly found himself being peed upon by a mysterious figure, so maybe that one shouldn’t count. Certainly from the hunter’s point of view the whole affair was quite calamitous, though, and getting doused with beer-laden urine in the middle of a mountain shower was hardly Dave’s idea of fun. Call this one “undetermined.” There had been other, less spectacular, occurrences over the years. Hikers finding themselves wandering in circles despite compass and GPS, picnic baskets bursting into flames, the time a black bear had snuffed out an illegal campfire with a terrified camper’s butt—always a pile of stacked rocks was somewhere nearby, exuding its malign influence. And yet curiosity has always run strong in the mountain man’s blood, back to the first man who looked at a tall peak and said, I bet nobody’ll bug me up there. He had to see. Exercising even more caution than before, moving in utter silence, he began to make his way back to the stream.

Part IV
A lifetime of mountain living enabled Dave to move with stealth and guile almost as quickly as the average person could saunter, and he was soon back in sight of the stream. A sturdy oak provided ample concealment as he cautiously scanned the area, squinting into the dazzling sunlight reflecting off the water. Behind the stacked rocks a shadowy figure was lurking, and a faint whrn whrn whrn could be heard. The noise was familiar, and a sudden suspicion rose in Mountain Dave’s mind. Sure enough, with a scrape and a rattle, a portion of the pile collapsed, and a lithe brown figure darted away, clutching a smooth, grey stone in one paw and grunting quietly to itself. It paused for a moment, looking from the pile to the stone it carried and back again several times before continuing on its way in a sort of hunched galumph. Dave was sure now. The thievery, the indecision, the otterness—clearly this was the mysterious midnight bandit. And yet, despite Dave’s moral outrage at this shameless criminal behavior, a greater concern now was the danger this young otter was unknowingly courting. Bad enough to be lingering so close to a pile of stacked rocks, but actually disturbing one could only lead to catastrophe. In fact, the

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mountain man was sure he could feel a gathering heaviness in the air, and his thumbs were definitely pricking. A cold breeze ruffled Dave’s hair, cutting through the heat of the mountain afternoon. The otter paused nervously on his way back to the pile, eyes wide, his air of blithe insouciance crumbling as he sniffed at the air. Behind him rippled a disturbance like heat shimmer, but it was unlike any Dave had seen before. Through the haze, the landscape behind appeared flat, the colors faded and sickly. It seemed to be gathering in intensity, slowly expanding toward the panicky otter, who was now hunching around in frantic little circles. Dave had to act fast. He wasn’t about to let some mysterious force threaten any of the critters on his mountain, even if the critter in question was a sneaky kleptomaniac. This called for action— mountain-style.

Part V
Bursting from behind the tree with a powerful war cry, Dave took two mighty strides to build speed and dived to the ground, falling into a forward roll while scooping up a large pine cone in one hand. As he came out of the roll, he used his forward momentum to launch himself to his feet, hurling the pine cone with deadly accuracy smack through the middle of the strange shape that was beginning to form out of the shimmering air. Sure of his aim, he didn’t hesitate to look as he dropped to the ground, whipping one booted foot around to scatter the stacked rocks in every direction as the otter, paralyzed with fright, trembled in front of him. Continuing his spin, Dave tucked his chin down and rolled across his shoulders, reaching out to scoop up the frightened creature and popping back onto his feet in an action crouch as the stones clattered to the ground around him. It had been a long time since he’d seen Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, but he still remembered the moves. The otter wriggled in his arms, its heavy tail thumping Dave’s cheek as he studied the mysterious phenomenon that now hovered a few yards in front of him. Flakes of pine cone seemed to be caught up in it somehow, floating in the writhing air. He sensed a powerful anger emanating from it, though there was something distinctly alien about the emotion. His ears suddenly popped as the pressure plummeted, and he broke into a run down the slope as whatever it was abruptly flowed toward him. With no need for stealth, Dave could move through the woods faster than anyone. His intimate knowledge of the area allowed him to duck, bob, dodge, and weave through the trees, as sure as a rollercoaster on a very crooked track. The otter made a vain attempt to help steer him by tugging on his beard, and while Dave appreciated the sentiment, it was more distracting than helpful. The constant terrified cries of määäh, määääh uttered directly into his left ear didn’t help much either. Behind them, the shimmering blob was coalescing into a more definite figure that seemed to be leaping from tree to tree in pursuit, but it was slowly losing ground. Feeling cocky, the otter perched atop Dave’s head and directed a series of rude noises toward it. Dave took advantage of his lead and slowed his pace slightly, scanning the ground around him as he ran. The sight of those fragments suspended in air had

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given him an idea. He darted left and snatched a fistful of mountain moss off a boulder, then leaped onto a fallen tree and skidded sideways down its length, his boots scraping off a spray of bark that he scooped up his other hand. The otter was now wrapped snugly around Dave’s neck, which would have been quite comfortable had Dave not had more pressing matters on his mind at the moment. Detouring to the right, he launched himself off a stump, delivering a solid side-kick high on a Scotch pine. For a fraction of a second, Dave remained poised on the trunk like a big, burly woodpecker. Pushing off with one leg, he spun backwards to soundly thump a second tree, the otter’s tail flying out behind him like the ponytail he’d abandoned after his college years. With another leap, he bounced off a low branch, dropping lightly to the ground amid a shower of pine cones. He didn’t dare hesitate, and took off running again. His hands full, he would have to trust in his passenger’s greedy instincts.

Part VI
Sure enough, a satisfied musteline cackle behind him told him the otter had caught one of the falling cones. He risked a quick look back, confirming that their pursuer was gaining on them. Jamming the moss into his shirt pocket to free up a hand, Dave plucked the pine cone from the disappointed critter’s paw and deftly palmed it. He ducked forward into a cartwheel, pushing the pine cone into the soft soil of the forest floor and yanking it free again as the otter screeched and clutched his ears in a death-grip. He popped up again without breaking his stride and stuffed the fragments of bark into the dirt that now packed its crevices, wrapping it all with the moss and squeezing it into a solid lump. With the nearly-solid figure almost upon them, leaving ashy grey patches of dead bark wherever it touched a branch, Dave held the mossy lump to his lips and muttered a few short phrases taught to him by a Druid with whom he had once shared a campfire. “Hang on tight, little feller,” he muttered, and felt the grip on his ears painfully tighten. He faked left, jogged right, and then threw himself flat on the ground, sliding downhill on his belly as slick as a mountain penguin as the figure passed directly over them, letting out a hissing shriek that made Dave think of gravel cascading over old bones. Still sliding, he heaved himself up onto his knees and hurled the pine cone with all his might, the effort sending him tumbling forward. The improvised missile, filled with the goodness of Nature, blasted through the shimmering creature and burst it like a boulder thrown into a puddle. Dave rolled to an awkward stop just short of a dangerously pointy stump. After a silent moment, the otter poked his head out from a pile of leaves and peered around anxiously, whiskers twitching. Dave carefully sat up, brushing debris from his beard as he inspected his surroundings. There was no sign remaining of whatever it was that had been chasing them, nor was there a trace of the pine cone that had saved them. He took a deep breath and tasted nothing but fresh air. “Looks like the coast is clear, friend,” he said. With an excited volley of whrns, said friend burst from the leaves and began bouncing in happy circles around him.

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After a moment, however, the celebratory dance abruptly halted as the otter, sensing something wrong, looked up to see Dave glowering down at him. “I surely do appreciate your able assistance back there, make no mistake,” he rumbled, “but there yet remains the matter of my missing possessions.” Long years of mountain living had taught Dave much about the body language of the animals that populated his neighborhood, and this particular creature’s eloquent stance could best be translated as “Why, kind Sir, I have not the slightest idea what you are talking about, though I gather you have been the victim of some sort of theft? O tempora, O mores! Such times we live in! Might I suggest you contact the appropriate local law enforcement agency while I venture to search for clues somewhere far, far from here?” Dave crossed his arms, elevating the glower to near-Condoleezzan strength. The otter wilted under his determined stare, whiskers slumping in resignation. “Now why don’t we mosey on back up to your holt and you can unburden your conscience by returning my assorted cherished belongings?” With a histrionic sigh, the otter turned and began trudging back up the hill, tail dragging. “Very well,” said his posture, “I suppose there’s a slim, a very slim chance indeed that some malefactor chose, for mysterious reasons unfathomable to a humble, law-abiding creature such as myself, to conceal his ill-gotten booty in my own den in a transparent attempt... oh, fudge it. Let’s go get your stupid stuff that I don’t even want anyway.” Later that evening, as Dave relaxed on his porch sipping an icy Mountain Cooler, he reflected on the mysteries of mountain life. With luck, today’s terror-filed escapade had taught the young otter a valuable lesson about the perils of sticky paws. His knowledge of body language lacked sufficient nuance to determine what had been the appeal of such things as his wood-chopping axe and grammar reference card, but he was content just to have them back. The otter had seemed genuinely attached to the broken bird feeder, so Dave had done a quick repair job and hung it from a tree near the grabby critter’s holt. When last seen, he had been sprawled on a rock, enchanted by the fluttering of a pair of quarreling blue jays. As for the phenomenon of the stacked rocks, Dave was chilled by his narrow escape, despite his outward unflappable air. Clearly there was far more to this matter than a simple air of ill fortune associated with the formations. Had the danger been permanently dispelled by his makeshift attack? He would need to keep an ear to the mountain grapevine, alert for any unusual activity. Life on the mountain could be dangerous, but as he watched the sun set in a sprawl of red and gold behind the distant pines, Dave knew he could never live anywhere else.

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