Saturday, October 6, 2012
Samedi: Ghost Stories
In many rural areas along the Mississippi River, Arkansas for instance, the landscape is dotted with hunting shacks. These are used only during "the season", at least for the most part, and to a large degree they are not furnished with the finest amenities. They are "shacks" more than cabins or homes, meant to be used for a brief time and then closed up to the next round.
This is the case in my adoptive home as well. Here in Alaska, hunting shacks are not unusual out in what locals call "the bush." While they may be hundreds of miles from one another, they are not all that uncommon and, in some cases, are literally open to all who happen upon them. In these instances they are as spare as they probably sound, but they are better than sleeping out in the raw environment of hunting season which encompasses the short, cold months of September and October. It's not January, of course, but it can be pretty bleak.
All that said, this story translates beautifully to Alaska. What happens in the bush stays in the bush for the most part. And none of what happens in this story would make an "old timer" do much more than shake his or her head...
Around the night fire the talk turned to the cabin by the lake. It had been there for ages as far as anyone knew, its timbers gray and its moss-covered roof sagging. No sane hunter had the gumption to go inside, even though it was in sight of the fire. The stories of men driven mad by the screams and wails of long dead souls were too numerous to ignore. The ancient cabin was haunted; everyone said so. No one wanted to challenge the idea if they could possibly avoid it.
No one, that is, but the grizzled hunter known as Old Pete. Pete had come up from Montana ten years ago and had soon put his tracking talents to good use showing greenhorns the best place to find a slow bull moose. He had a good reputation as a guide but a bad reputation as a companion. Old Pete was obnoxious, and when talk around the fire turned to the shack he spoke up right away.
"I'll stay up there all night," Pete said, standing up and planting his feet wide. "But I'll need money to do it."
How much money was settled on quickly - fifty dollars seemed reasonable - and the men laid out their cash. Pete also took a slab of good bacon and six cans of beer and, shouldering his pack, he hiked the short distance to the shack.
"Haunted," he mused, standing in front of the dark, low lump that would be his home for the night. "I'm more haunted than you are." And then he went in.
With his flashlight Pete could see that the place wasn't much. There were a couple of chairs and sleeping ledges built of pine. He smiled when he saw a stone hearth already laid with kindling and wood. Someone had been here and failed to light a fire; Pete wouldn't be so foolish.
When the fire was crackling, Pete unfurled his sleeping bag and put his little cast iron pot on the flames. "Time for bacon," he said and he threw the slab in the pot. Settling back in a chair, he cracked a can of beer and smiled. It was a quiet night, and not too cold. "Dinner and then to bed. Fifty dollars easy."
As Pete relaxed, he heard a shuffling sound along one wall. He didn't think too much of it; shrews and voles loved to hole up in places like this for the winter. Hell, he'd even run into a raven in a place like this once. He took a long swig of his beer, and turned the sweet smelling bacon with his fork.
The shuffling noise grew louder but Pete was comfortable. He opened another beer and thought how glad he was not to be a rodent. As he settled further back he heard something else; something like a voice...
"Smells good, Mister."
Pete sat up. "What?" He called out: "Is that you, Len?"
"Ain't Len," the voice whispered. Hissed, really. "Smells good, Mister."
The voice made Pete's skin crawl. It was like a snake or a roach, dry and sneaky. "This isn't funny," Pete called. "Len; this isn't - "
Pete saw a shadow, dark and small, move from a corner and jump - he swore later it jumped - right into his cast iron pot. The bacon let out a hiss and some steam and then he heard that voice again. But this time it came right out of the fire. "Thanks for dinner, Pete."
Old Pete looked carefully at his pot and he saw two eyes staring back at him over the rim. They were as red as the hot fire and as he looked, unable to move or blink, he heard that voice again: "My friends and I are grateful."
Suddenly a howling, squealing, groaning and screaming came right out of the wood that the shack was built from. It was as if a hurricane raged outside, but the night remained calm. Pete clapped his hands over his ears as the sound pummeled him like punches. He screamed right back, loud and long. All the same he couldn't hear himself. These noises would drive a sane man crazy.
Pete jumped up, grabbed his pack and, leaving his pot and sleeping bag behind, burst out of that old shack and ran toward his companions' fire.
When he reached them they stood up, shocked by Pete's sudden return and riveted by his appearance: from head to toe Pete was as pale as new fog - even his brown hair had turned white.
"Holy Hell, Pete;" Len asked. "What - "
"Here," Pete threw the money at his friends. "You keep it. I'm goin' home. Don't go in there. Don't none of you ever go in there!"
Old Pete left the hunt, called for the plane and paid the extra for the unexpected lift. He went to work on the North Slope and never went back to hunting ever again.
Header The Old Hunting Shack by Les Kouba via Alliance Art Publishing