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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

America the Horrific: Just in time for Halloween!

This anthology includes tales of true hauntings at a variety of places in America. Using sort of a Tales from the Crypt motif, a group of travelers are stranded when their bus breaks down. They chose to wile away the time telling scary tales. I was intrigued when I saw Bards and Sages call for submissions for this anthology and my story, The Benson Hut Ghost, seemed like a natural for a topic. Guess it was since they accepted it. I've had a chance to read the rest of the tales and they're really quite diverse. The Kindle version is only $2.99 and I'd encourage anyone to settle in with this hair-raising bunch of ghost stories. After all, it's nearly Halloween: a perfect time for that sort of thing. An excerpt from my story follows:

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 California.  It’s a ridge that goes from Mount Lincoln along a high escarpment to a hut on the flanks of Mount Andersen about six miles distant.  Been a popular back-country ski route for years.  Folk, they can go from Sugar Bowl resort to 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…”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

From a Wolf’s Point of View

It’s hard to imagine my life without the three canine life forces that are almost always milling around me. From time to time, I try to adopt their mindset to shed some light on how they think. For example, while making lunch today I dropped a single shrimp on the floor. Kua, the youngest of my three, swooped in and picked it up in his mouth. He then proceeded to drop it and try to roll in it. (It’s a pretty small shrimp, mind you, and this is a hundred pound wolf hybrid.) When that didn’t seem to work out for him, he simply lay there with the shrimp between his front legs and his head laid atop it. Since he obviously wasn’t going to do anything but guard the shrimp, I decided I’d try to give it to one of the other two. A sharp growl when I went after the prize told me Kua hadn’t given up on it. Sucking it back into his mouth, he tried to eat it again. But it just wasn’t right. This time, when he spit it out, it was in four pieces. Sigh… About an hour later, once he’d moseyed off to greener pastures, I surreptitiously picked up the pieces and tossed them.

Then there was the marmot they ganged up on during one of our long backpack trips this summer. Two of them killed it, then proceeded to play tug of war, growling and snarling at one another seconds after they’d tag teamed on a successful hunt. Go figure. One of the sayings around Mammoth Lakes is there are no friends on powder days, meaning everyone is on their own as we hunt down untracked powder stashes to annihilate. The wolf version of that must be there are no friends when there’s carrion to be eaten. That marmot got a lot of mileage, let me tell you. One of them dragged it the mile or so back to our camp. Another dragged it miles to our next camp. And the third, who’d had no hand at all in anything, simply waited. When the other two were exhausted from carting around what had to be a ten pound marmot, wolf number three closed in, took it and ate over half. The other two circled him the whole time he was eating. The second he made the mistake of getting up to go get a drink from a nearby stream, they took the carcass back and wiped it out down to the toenails. I was ever-so-grateful we didn’t run into anyone that day. Saved a lot of explanations. Like, “What’s that your dog is carrying?” Followed by the inevitable, “Ewwww—“
And then we have the food dish issue. My oldest hybrid is pushing eleven. Over the past couple of years, he’s decided he can’t eat when the kibble dish is next to the wall. So, he noses it till it’s in the middle of the room. Of course, this puts him in a direct line to the second dish and the water. No one can go round him without an unholy fuss. So, when Nikki is eating, the kitchen is off limits for the other two. One of the advantages of hybrids is I can free feed and they self-modulate their intake. But I just know Kua and Naia resent the hell out of Nikki’s progressively-lengthier meals. Sort of like with kids, though, it’s best if they can solve their own problems.

Okay, so my current crew are mildly neurotic. Doesn’t make them one whit less endearing. Someone whose name escapes me once said it's our flaws that make us loveable.

We had German shepherds for many years. And I loved them to tears. But they were a much more high-maintenance breed. Many of them are not fond of any humans outside their immediate family. Remember, they’re bred to be guard dogs. But, they’re also regal and beautiful. People like to pet shepherds they’ve never met before, often with less-than-optimal results. I used to be amazed at the responses I’d get when I’d tell a stranger not to pet my dog. They’d range from, “Why not?” to “Oh, it’ll be fine. Dogs really like me.” I heard this last more than once when the shepherd who was on heel next to me was growling with his hackles at half-mast. Why anyone would persist in wanting to sink their fingers into the ruff of a large, powerful animal that’s growling at them defies credibility.

I had a great German shepherd trainer in the Auburn area and I still remember her telling me this is a breed that has rules. She went on to say that responsible shepherd owners needed to figure out just what those rules were for each particular dog. I suppose at one level, it’s simply the application of psychology to the canine mind. 
Maybe that’s why I’m so tolerant when my dog kids misbehave—because I assume I missed a critical cue somewhere along the way. A saying in our home is, “It’s never the dog’s fault. They’re just being dogs.” Late one night, I watched one of our shepherds in a Montana motel. It was just Bob, McKinley and I and the dog was restless. He circled the small room a couple of times and then lunged for a bagel Bob had sitting on a bakery bag. Once it was in his mouth, McKinley looked immensely pleased with himself, retired to a corner and proceeded to chew on his prize. I took it away from him (the ‘out’ command is useful), but you could see the wheels turning in his little doggie brain before he went for what he wanted. I figure he decided we’d be mad at him, but we wouldn’t kill him or kick him out of the pack, so the risk of displeasing us was worth the gain. He gambled and lost, but he didn’t lose much. He knew we’d still love him, and we did.

If any of you have dog stories, send 'em along! I'm a sucker for anything that's canine-related.