Given that I love Halloween, I want to contribute a bit of spookiness of my own to the mix. Digging deep in the voluminous files of Stately Black Manor, I have blown the dust off an oldie of my own, a little vignette of a couple of raccoon hunters and their hounds. Enjoy.
Running the Dogs
The elk was a silent shadow under the moon, staring at us with a cold malice I would never have thought possible in an animal. Its eyes were pits of darkness that sucked in the thin silver moonlight, looking in and beyond us, freezing us more thoroughly than the sharp late November air. The huge bull stood as still as the stars, his evil flowing through the tall fence that bound him, an evil that cowed our dogs and jellied our knees.
“He can’t get through that fence,” Frank shivered backward, his old Mossberg twelve-gauge his only comfort, “he can’t get through that fence.”
The dogs wrapped around our legs, too frightened to whine. All except Rounder, the wise blue-tick stalking closer to the elk, hate-filled and stiff-legged, tense as a spring-trap, his growl a distant thunder. He was a climber, and the fence wouldn’t stop him. The elk shifted his black gaze to the hound, both animals continuing a war old before man walked the Earth. The moon stopped; the air grew breathless.
Somewhere there was a distant shout, a yell like no other, a deep wordless bellow that seemed to speak of dead secrets and frustrated revenge. Rounder jerked back as if kicked; Frank stumbled back a step with a strangled yelp; the elk turned and melted back into the woods from which he came. I dropped to one knee, dazed and sick, my Remington dropped beside me, forgotten.
We grabbed the dogs, Rounder moaning and fussing, and headed for the truck. Silence stood between Frank and me, neither of us willing to speak for fear of making what had happened become real. I glanced back continuously as we drew away from the fence, terror slowly building as I expected at any moment to see pieces of the darkness that was the tree-line pull away and glide across the moonlit field towards us. We were almost in a full run when we got to the truck, the dogs having torn away from us and already huddled near the tailgate.
Frank floored the pick-up away from the field, bouncing crazily down the gravel road, the dogs in their boxes, us in the cab. Frank struggled to light a cigarette, the rutted road defeating him as I switched on the radio, the classic-rock thump a welcome relief to us both. We banged along in the truck for what seemed like half the night before either of us spoke.
“God-damn that was a big elk,” Frank hugged the steering wheel, his cigarette nervous in his fingers.
“Big ain’t the word for it.” I looked out the door window of the truck at the dark farmhouses sliding by, the moon keeping pace with us.
“I mean, I seen them elk out there before, but God-damn...”
“Who keeps elk anyway? It’s gotta be expensive to bring ‘em in from out west.”
“Raises ‘em for meat; elk’s pretty expensive, I hear. Makes a lotta money, man.” He shook his head like somebody might when they wake up with a headache. “It was so big...”
“It wasn’t that it was all that big...it just looked...I don’t know...”
“Hateful. That was just one hateful-assed elk.”
A small town was passing us, one of those tiny Ohio towns down around Amish country that seem to loom off the backroads, tired and forlorn since the farmers left so long ago. The town seemed oddly familiar, looking like the small town near the elk-farm we had just left, yet hastily rearranged and placed along the road to intercept us once again. A worn out gas station - not one of those all-purpose gas station/grocery store/lottery dealer places, but an honest-to-God gas station, with analog readout pumps, rusted 7-Up sign, and sagging garage - was all that seemed to be open. Frank pulled in, balled up his empty cigarette pack, and hopped out.
I looked around us. “Where are we?”
Frank shrugged. “I dunno. I lost track back around Wellington. Down on three-oh-one, maybe, south of Homerville?”
I shook my head. “No. This looks like the place we left back there.” I jerked my head back down the road towards that place, dreading to look.
“You’re crazy. We been drivin’ twenty minutes.” He turned and went into the station, snorting. I walked out towards the road away from the lights, looking out at the moon-blued soybean fields across the way. The sound of laughter came in on the chill breeze, the strange hysterical laughter of children fighting off sleep, but with a harsh tone to it, an almost angry sound. There was movement in the soybean field, dark shapes twisting and gyrating, seeming to beckon to me. I hopped the ditch along the road and headed out to the shadows under the moon.
I could not tell how many there were. They seemed to slip and whirl around a still form on the ground, a form that bleated in pain, not animal, not human. With each yelp the shadows laughed and drew closer to the form, beating it noiselessly with arms or clubs-I couldn’t tell.
“Hey you kids...” I began to call, the words strongly begun but catching in my throat. The shadows stopped their brutal dance, twisting to face me, featureless in the dark. I moved forward, the first step the bravest I’ve ever taken. With a noise like wind in the treetops the shadow kids raced past me, giggling. I walked to the form on the ground.
The form lurched up, leaning drunkenly towards me. A hand that could not be lit by the moon reached out, grabbing my coat. A face I could not see drew near mine, cold, cold breath washing over me, words without meaning scraping my ears. I pulled away, twisting from the rubbery grasp, tripping backwards only to recover just as the form gripped me again. I pushed at its face, my hand slipping across a burning cold surface. It gobbled meaningful gibberish in my ear as I punched it, once, twice, again. It moved away, like smoke on a strong breeze, recovered, moved to me again. Then I ran.
The gas station was impossibly far away, glaring across the field like a beaten face. The truck gleamed by the pumps, the only piece of sanity left in this dark town. The laughing children swirled around me, a flock of crows after roadkill. The form behind me was fast, too fast, staggering insanely at my elbow. I jumped the ditch, pain shooting from my left ankle, a moment on the road, a rush and a roar as I saw the semi hurtling at me, a desperate spurt, the wind of the semi’s passing pulling me after and then down, somewhere in the tempest Rounder baying from his box. I scrambled up and spun, ready to make a stand.
There was nothing in the road except the flattened corpse of a rabbit, weeks old. Beyond was the empty soybean field, the stars twinkling madly. Suddenly I could feel how ragged my breathing was, how much my ankle hurt, how soaked with sweat I was. I walked to the truck, fighting to get my trembling under control. The truck was running, doors flung wide. The lights of the gas station reached out to it, and to me, luminous fingers groping into the dark. Frank was nowhere in sight.
I walked into the station, looking for an attendant that wasn’t there. Ancient Valvoline cans and stacks of antique Firestone tires patiently waited within the garage bays. A greasy, worn Chilton’s manual lay open on a shelf, schematics of a ‘51 Chevy transmission seeming to form some arcane formula in the fluorescent light. A faint hum of static came from a roughly-handled radio sitting on a work bench. It all seemed fake somehow, like a mock-up of a gas station made by an intelligence familiar with the main items but clueless on the details: woodcarving tools stored in socket set boxes; cans of yeast mixed with cans of motor oil; a pneumatic wrench too strangely shaped to have ever been used. The place felt alive, a thrumming coming from below that was felt through one’s bones rather than heard.
“Help you?” I jumped at the sound. He was an old, old man, his eyes hidden by wrinkles, his bent frame belied by the impression of a hidden tautness, like a dog ready to jump on someone coming through the door.
“The guy I was with.” I braced myself, as though waiting for a punch to be thrown. He slowly turned, thumbing towards the truck.
“I expect that’s him there.” The faintest trace of hatred was a ghost in his graveled voice. “Reckon you boys oughta be off home now.” He turned back to me, and I saw the glitter of black eyes peer out through the wrinkled brow. I tried to defy those old eyes, but I could not. I could only hold them for a moment before I had to look down, down at his twisted and mottled hands that wrung a shop rag with barely hidden violence.
I walked from the garage, my tongue thick with fear as I passed the old man. He smelled of rot and freshly turned earth. Something deep and instinctual urged me to hit him, to force him back to the ground from which he sprang, and then to run; but I resisted, the truck my only focus, the dogs rattling in their boxes, Rounder moaning a primal warning.
I got into the truck. Frank was there, his face unreadable as he pulled us back onto the road. I dreaded to speak, to voice the insanity of the night, for fear even Frank had become part of it. The more I looked at him the more he became a figure from beyond madness, a hunched insect creature affecting the shape of man, almost hugging the steering wheel to his chest. He did not look at me, staring at the humming road that rose to meet us in the night. His cigarette burned evilly, a smoldering anger in its ember. There was no comfort in the radio, the whispering hiss of static hiding some monologue of cosmic malignity. We hurtled along the nightroads, the towns of man lost to us now, passing farm buildings that were grotesque humps on the back of the land. I fought an urge to hit Frank, or what he had become, and jump from the truck. The urge became stronger, unbearable, and I felt like I was confined in a moving prison cell. Then a howl came from somewhere, everywhere, a pure, clean sound of redemption.
The dogs. Their calls were a chorus of primal good, led by the strong booming bay of Rounder. The darkness seemed to lift a bit, the stars melting and reforming, the road blurring and becoming solid again. The truck snarled and swayed, Frank convulsing in agony. I shoved next to him, grabbing the wheel, locking the brakes. He grabbed at me, punching and gouging. I lit from the truck, with him just behind. He doubled over, falling to his hands and knees. I pulled down the tailgate, opening the dog boxes one by one. The dogs spun and yowled in joy, like they did during the first snowfall. Only Rounder was subdued, standing dignified and holy over Frank, guarding for and against.
I had no doubts now about Frank. I lifted him from the road, clapping him on the back to assure both of us he was real and whole again.
“Those cigarettes are gonna kill you.”
A raspy sigh was his only reply. We sat on the tailgate, letting the dogs sniff the ditches and fields around us, the star-filled bowl of the night bright above us. The moon was low and feeble, obscured by a distant stand of trees. The eyes of the dogs flashed in the starlight. Frank finally stood, stamping his feet against the cold. He softly called in the dogs, bundling them into their boxes.
“I reckon we ought not to run the dogs out here anymore.” He clicked the tailgate shut quietly and carefully. I straightened my hat and stuffed my hands in my coat pockets. The horn of a diesel locomotive sounded somewhere far off.
“No. I reckon not.”