Who exactly is the hunter?
“I’m a ghost hunter,” said Haldor. “At least, I investigate supernatural phenomena to see how real they are.”
The man behind the counter seemed unimpressed. “Ah, one of them. We get a few round here, what with the mountain and all. And I never met one who kept blathering on about it after having a look up our mountain. Not that any of ‘em ever admitted to seeing something up there.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” advised Haldor, the light of interest in his eyes quite apparent. “Heard about your mountain on my last job and come all the way to Montana to find out for myself. You ever seen anything up there?”
“Nope,” said the man. “Not my business to go chasing ghosts up in them forests. But I’ve seen plenty who went up and came back scared shitless. And there were some who never did return. That kinda thing’s best left alone, if you ask me.”
Haldor was not deterred. “Sounds interesting. Say, you wouldn’t know anyone who could guide me to the best spots up there, would you?”
“No problem. Take the road to the mountain and, a couple o’ miles out, you’ll come to an old shack by the bridge over the Mill Stream. Has a sign outside that says ‘Guides’, although that’s not true. There’s only one of ‘em. Feller by the name of Chuck Reever. He knows as much about the mountain as anyone, I reckon.”
Haldor thanked him, took his bag of supplies off the counter and left. A brief drive through the town and out on the road that seemed to be headed towards the mountain brought him to Chuck’s shack. There were a few people milling about outside and Haldor soon found that his timing was perfect. Chuck was about to take a small party out to have a look round the mountain. Haldor tagged along.
So it was that the group was soon walking up a trail into the forest on the first slopes of the mountain. Chuck kept up a monologue of information as they went, pointing out places of interest and expounding on the history of the area. He stopped when they came to a fork in the trail and waited while the stragglers caught up.
“We have a choice here,” he said, “depending on what you fellers want to see. To the left the trail goes on around the mountain and eventually joins up with the road to Bozeman. We can take that way and get a bus back to my place. Or we can go the scenic route which’ll take us further up the mountain to the ghost town and the graveyard. What do you folks want to see?”
It was immediately apparent that all the hikers had only one destination in mind. All voted for the graveyard, the cause of the mountain’s fame. It seemed that Haldor was not the only ghost chaser on this trip.
They set out on the trail to the right, soon slowing as the slope became steeper. Chuck explained as they went that they would have to come back by the same route and must be off the mountain before dark. They would have only an hour at most in the country of the ghosts.
After slogging upwards for a mile, the trail led over a ridge into a valley cradled on the shoulder of the mountain. Here the air seemed thick with mist and moisture dripping from the tall pines. As the group trudged on beneath the overhanging boughs, it was easy to imagine the dead whispering in the deep shadows.
There was no clearing for the ghost town so that they were among the houses before they realised that they had arrived. Every building was rotten with damp and decay, their timbers leaning away from each other and the roofs falling into the rooms. Chuck said it was too dangerous to enter any of the houses, so they continued on the path to the graveyard.
An arch of rotting logs marked the gateway to this eerie place and the group hushed as they entered. The mist hung heavy in the branches of the trees and nowhere did the sun shine through with any strength. All was gloomy and ill-defined. The guide insisted they stay close to him to avoid being separated.
“The ghosts are watching, remember.” No one scoffed at his words.
The graves were marked only by old wooden crosses, their inscriptions faded and eaten away by moss until illegible. Nothing was left to tell the stories of those who had lived and died here.
Haldor was doing his best to read a few of the vanishing inscriptions when Chuck suddenly grabbed his arm to prevent him moving forward. At Haldor’s feet, there appeared an open grave, its depths hidden by the gloom. Another step and Haldor would have fallen in, perhaps injuring himself in the process.
Chuck pulled him a little away from the rest, speaking quietly as he did so. “Didn’t you see that hole at all?” he asked.
“No, it was as if it opened suddenly while I stood there.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Chuck. “It’s the ghosts. They’ve invented a new game and this is it. They wait for an unsuspecting visitor and then open a grave for him to fall into. I haven’t lost any that way yet and I don’t intend to start now.”
Haldor snorted. “You’re kidding me.”
“You better believe me,” said Chuck. “Look, I’ll tell you what. Show me where the grave was.”
They moved back towards the open grave, only to find that it had gone without trace. Not even freshly moved earth indicated where a hole might have been filled in. Haldor felt the cold reach up into his body as he realised that something very strange was going on.
At that moment, a scream tore the mist that was thickening around them. Chuck bolted towards the sound immediately, fearful for his charges, and Haldor followed. They were soon groping through the dimness, seeing the occasional figure emerge from the mist, only to disappear in the next instant. They called out but received no answer.
Haldor grabbed Chuck’s arm. “This is doing no good,” he said. “We’re merely becoming disoriented with all this following of shadows. Better to wait in one place until the mist clears a little and we can see better.”
Chuck was desperate to find his group, however. “I can’t just leave them to fall in some pit,” he argued. “You wait here and I’ll try to find them.”
He rushed off into the murk and Haldor remained by a collapsed wooden cross. Chuck’s voice, still calling out for the others, faded and went silent, either swallowed by the thick atmosphere or lost in the distance. Vague shapes moved in the fog, only to dissipate into nothing as the air moved around Haldor.
It occurred to him that it had been a mistake to become separated from Chuck like this. He was now just another lost soul for Chuck to search for. All depended now on Chuck knowing the graveyard so well that he could find his way back to Haldor.
There must be something that Haldor could do to assist the group in getting back together. He tried calling out but gave it up after a few attempts. His voice sounded muted and feeble, as though the mist were deliberately smothering the sound. Moved to do anything in his frustration, he took a step forward.
Haldor felt himself falling as his foot met no support. For a moment he teetered on the edge, arms waving helplessly, and then pitched into a headlong dive into the hole that had opened before him. His last, wild attempts to save himself ensured that his head was first to hit the bottom of the grave, snapping his neck and killing him instantly. Darkness fell and the fog thickened. Silence reigned over the scene.
Weeks later, the coroner could not bring himself to enter the cause of death of the group as the result of screaming mouths filling with soil as the weight of earth pressed down on struggling bodies. He softened the blow to his imagination with a euphemism.
Death by misadventure.
Word count: 1,380
For SCREAMS!!! March 29 2021