Billy Morton looked around him at a veritable sea of faces. They looked…predatory somehow. The silence was becoming uncomfortable and, indeed, someone poked him. “Oh, my turn, is it?” he responded, eyes fixed on the ground. Hearing a susurrus of affirmations rising and falling around him, a part of him—his courage—scurried deep inside. I can’t tell them about that, he thought. Shit, I’ve spent the past twenty years trying not to think about it…
But it’s the only true ghost story you know, another inner voice interrupted. And everybody else has been spilling their guts. Billy straightened his thin shoulders and ran bony big-knuckled fingers through his thinning gray-blonde hair. Hazel eyes brimming with trepidation, he agonized over how he should start his tale.
“I’m just going to run back to the bus for a second. Left my jacket in my seat,” he muttered, color staining his bearded cheeks at the half-lie. Oh, he’d left his jacket in the bus all right, but he didn’t really need it. Shoving his lanky six-foot frame past a couple of folk, apprehension practically choked him as he tried to use the five minutes he’d just bought himself wisely. But all too soon, he found himself back in his chair, down jacket in tow. In a macabre way, the storm screeching round the bus station, where he was stranded with his fellow travelers, was like eerie mood music for the story he was about to try to tell.
“S-see,” he stammered, “this whole thing, it happened just over twenty years ago. I was a young man then…or, younger anyways.” His voice ran down. He noticed the crowd had bent towards him and he reached up to claw at the neck of his shirt, suddenly feeling as if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the smallish room.
“I used to be a mountain guide,” Billy said haltingly, still feeling like it was a struggle to suck air into his lungs. “That’s how I earned a living until about five years ago when I fell and broke my back. Learned to walk again, but couldn’t carry a heavy pack anymore. It wasn’t easy adjusting to a life that didn’t include long trips in the mountains. In fact, I had a hell of a time with it. Still do. Uh, sorry, got off track there for a minute.” He tried to gin up a half-smile, but the faces that stared back at him weren’t buying it.
“Okay. Okay.” He held up both hands in the universal gesture for surrender. “I give up. See, there’s this place a ways out of
Truckee in northern . It’s a ridge that goes from California Mount Lincoln along a high escarpment to a hut on the flanks of about six miles distant. Been a popular back-country ski route for years. Folk, they can go from Sugar Bowl resort to Mount Andersen Squaw Valley in about a day on skis. And if things get rough, well, there’s this old two-storey cabin called the Benson Hut round about the mid-way point.
“Back in the seventies, two guys got lost on that ridge in a storm. One managed to find Benson hut. His buddy never made it. Not living, anyhow. The one who got to the hut spent a long night there writing his soul out, first on paper, then on the walls and floors of that hut. Good thing for him he had a wife who called the authorities when he didn’t show up on time. I…well, I was one of the rescue crew. And I saw what he’d done: guilt and pain and suffering scrawled on practically every surface. In fact, I came back there the next summer with a Sierra Club work crew to clean it up. But it seems I’m getting off track again.”
Shrugging apologetically, Billy cleared his throat. “The one who’d found the hut lost his boots hunting for his friend and ended up with really bad frostbite. It took us—there were six men and a dog in the Search and Rescue crew—a couple of days to find his buddy. The poor sap had frozen to death only about two hundred feet away. Storm was so bad he probably never even knew how close he’d been to shelter when he’d lain himself down in the snow and frozen to death. In the end it was the dog that found him in the six feet of snow that’d fallen.
“Blake, the survivor, just sort of lay on a bunk moaning the whole time we were working. ‘Course he couldn’t have helped since he didn’t have boots. We had to get a helicopter in there to get him out, but that’s another story. I heard Blake lost his mind. He kept thinking he heard his buddy calling out to him, even long after he was safe at home. People say that the one who died has haunted Benson Hut ever since. Off and on, there’ve been stories about odd sounds and falling objects. And folk who’d planned to spend the night there have sometimes ended up traveling by headlamp, or moonlight, to put some distance between themselves and that hut.
“There’ve been more in the way of avalanche-related deaths near the hut than there should’ve been, too. Fact, there were three just this spring.” Billy hesitated, head bent in thought, then he nodded to himself and added. “I, uh, understand about Blake because I had dreams about that dead man myself. Lots of dreams for a lot of years. When we found him, his eyes were open and his hands were stretched out over his body as if he’d been trying to keep the snow from burying him. Yeah, I had dreams, but I convinced myself they were nothing. Never been superstitious, see…”