The Ghosts of Payson Past
“Whispers by the elders tell us we must be vigilant. Never fail to glance behind you as you walk the Nebo road.” Heridon paused and adjusted his goatskin jerkin. “Where the road slips into the water, beware the wet footprints arising from those murky depths, they will follow you unless…”
“We know this one Uncle Harri,” complained the children huddled around the summer campfire.
“Of course you know this one. But do you know this?” Heridon’s eyes widened and his face took on a graven look of ghostly emptiness. “If you could hold your breath and walk with leaden boots beneath the waves, down the Nebo Road, you would arrive at the steps of the temple where only the dead may enter. Hard as you pound upon the sealed doors of the marble building — the latch will hold. The green-gray waters of the Bonneville Sea will then steal your breath, fill your lungs and trap you at the bottom of the Sea.”
The children ceased their fidgeting as their honorary uncle embraced his serious tone. Their campfire had fallen to embers and only the red glowing face of the storyteller, his eyes wide with unspoken dread, could be seen. He continued.
“The drowned folk of Payson wander their town, their faces pale, their eyes black. If, while you clomp your way around the streets, your lead boots leaving clouds of sediment rising like explosions behind you, you stumble into one of these folk they will seize you, shake you like a rag and scream bubbling curses in your face!”
Heridon Helm reached down, grabbed an eight year old boy and mouthed open silence at the child, the storyteller’s face working in agonizing animation. The boy remained paralyzed in fear imagining bubbles of torment rising from the man’s open mouth.
Durr walked up to the campfire and tossed in an armload of logs. Sparks rose like angry bees to dwindle and die in the star cast night.
“Careful there Durr, we don’t want to ignite our audience,” Heridon said softly. The older man set the boy back down in his seat and affectionately tapped his forehead to reassure him. The boy smiled back awkwardly.
Durr resettled his cougar furred cap, (summer evenings in the mountains were chilly affairs) and nodded deference to the older fellow. “Sorry Uncle Harri,” said the lad. The boy, his long brown hair draped before his eyes giving him a shy look, sat at the fire and asked, “Tellin’ the story of the Payson pallbearers?”
Heridon had wandered outside the circle, just beyond firelight, and came up behind a girl of ten who busied herself stringing a silver-darter fish on a stick to roast in the flames; she’d lost track of the storyteller as she worked. He crept up closely behind her and just as she lowered her skewered snack over the fire he cried…
“Aahh! Indeed I am.” His voice startling the girl so much she shrieked and dropped her stick with its attached fish to sizzle in the glowing coals. “If you continued your tour in your leaden boots beneath the surface of the Sea, the Payson eight, you would find, carrying the casket of poor Dolly George.” The man marched back into the firelight as if carrying a heavy load upon his shoulders.
“Poor Dolly George, if she’d only kept her promise, she would have saved the town’s elders from being drowned.”
The west sea winds, blowing across hundreds of miles of open water, chilled the air of Birdseye Valley where the small troop of campers sat enraptured awaiting the story of Poor Dolly George. The children, eight to fourteen, were out these last few days learning bushcraft from Heridon, the teacher, and Durr Wassen, the assistant. Their camp, west from the town, provided a mixture of adventure and skill advancement. The village of Birdseye sat a day’s hike from their current station but the wilds of the broken world stretched all around them. Ghost stories were an honorary custom ensuring the camper’s experience left a lasting, if not educational impression. The wilds contained more mystery than even Heridon had yet seen. Survival depended on preparation. Teaching survival skills gave the elder purpose while his daughter, Thella traveled east to ‘Lorado for trade.
“You may think you know the story of poor Dolly George,” explained the tale-spinner, “but know this.” Heridon stopped before the fire, standing in the space before his own bedroll. He stared in turn at each of the six youngsters sitting anxiously within the dancing firelight. “Dolly’s promise was not in vain. These days her ghost roams the waters beneath the waves seeking out the one who betrayed her. If she finds you swimming in the shallows — beware her touch. It feels like riverweed, and flutters like a fish’s kiss. But should she think you are her forsaken love, your next breath may be your last.”
The gray hair fellow then sat and leaned back to settle himself into a comfortable position. He removed his own elk-hide hat, shaped to block the sun and channel the rain, and shrugged off his self-crafted boots, readying himself for sleep.
“Is that it?” asked one of the girls who’d paid rapt attention to his words.
“That’s it for tonight.” Heridon tucked a few errant tufts of bundled grass beneath his bed and decided to enlighten his audience further. “If a story is sewed up like a purse, without a loose end or three, it’s as if the story died and fell from a cliff. No more thought to be applied. This way, as you fall asleep, you’ll wonder in your own way, how the story might unwind. A good story leaves you wanting more. Remember that.”
The older fellow nestled himself down between his blankets. “Durr, you and Koz have set the perimeter alarm yes?”
“All rigged and set, sir.” Durr replied.
“Good man. Koz, you’re to tend the fire for thirty whistletunes, yes?”
A boy of fourteen, shock blonde hair, and tall for his age, replied in as deep a voice as he could muster. “Yes Uncle. I’m sorry I fell asleep last night, I, I must have eaten too much roasted sturgo.”
“It was tasty wasn’t it,” remarked Maybeth, the girl who’d suffered the fright earlier that evening.
“Yes, well, you all know the camp’s sleeping rules by now,” Heridon said in closing. “Whisper among yourselves if you like, but keep it down. We’ve got a long walk tomorrow and I know we’re all going to need some rest. Stars in your eyes.”
“Stars in your eyes, Uncle,” chimed the group around the fire, many of their words slurred by oncoming sleep.
Hoarfrost covered the sleeper’s bedding as the rising sun tinged the sky a faded orange. The fire had died to coals and Heridon rose to stoke it, kicking it back to life. The teacher reset the wooden tripod over the flames and hung the pot he’d filled with creek water; a breakfast of porridge and last year’s dried fruit would see the campers back to Birdseye.
“Uncle, did Dolly really betray the Elders of Payson?” asked one of the younger campers after camp has been struck and the line of hikers had started down the path through the aspen trees that lead to the ancient road to Birdseye.
“Choices were made, that is true. You know the story, Tillion, would you have abandoned the your post at the alarm bell to save your friends; knowing full well that the flood threatened the town?” Heridon waited a number of steps while the youth considered the question. When the boy seemed hesitant to answer the teacher turned to pose the question to Durr whom he knew the small boy held in esteem.
Durr smiled at Heridon’s Maneuvering. “If I were Dolly,” Durr told the boy in front of him stepping through the high grass of a summer meadow. “At her age I would think of my friends first. My family and town second.”
“Yeah, that’s what I would do too, I think. But I’d want to save my sister first, then my friends.” The boy, Tillion, seemed sure of his answer now that Durr had contributed his.
“So your sister is not a friend?” Heridon had thought he caught the boy in a quandary.
“I’m her protector. That’s what Madur says,” said the boy of twelve.
Heridon raised his eyebrows at this. Rarely did those so young don such a mantel of duty. “We have a honor-bound warrior in our midst. I had no idea,” he declared lightheartedly. “Your family, they came from the west for the summer?”
“My fadur came for the trade, yes.”
Durr, feeling inspired by the righteous youth spoke up. “We’re glad you could make the trip. Perhaps next year your sister could join us.”
“She’ll be eight then. Is that old enough?”
Durr, who would be old enough to lead the camp next year confirmed the age. “Yes. We allow eight year olds to join the bushcraft camp. We may have as many as twenty campers next year.”
The string of campers hiked onward; sometimes over exposed serpentine rock, mostly through damp grass and winding paths through the white barked trees.
Heridon’s thoughts had drifted away with the achingly blue sky and the bucolic scenery. The loud low grunt of a grizzly boar startled him out of his daydream. “Everyone stop,” he whispered loud enough to be heard. “Those in the front back up slowly. Those with me we’ll meet you in the middle. The bigger a group we form the better off we’ll be.”
One of the girls, it might have been Maybeth, Heridon couldn’t tell, started to wimper. “We’ll be fine if we group together. Whatever you do, don’t run away. If the bear charges. Do. Not. Run.”
The bear, grazing the succulent grasses growing within a swale amoung a stand of willows, showed its big square head roughly seventy-five yards from the group. It stood up on its hind feet which lifted it above the shrubs, its rubbery lips stuffed with green shoots of grass.
“It’s a young bear, probably a male. Hopefully unsure of itself.” Durr declared having studied the creatures these last half a dozen years or so.
The bear dropped and, curious, huffed through the willows to get closer to this odd assortment of beings. The girl started to wail, her keening pricking the ears of the Ursus Horriblis. In a what was later deemed an obvoius bluff, the young bear mock-charged the group testing to see what the strange creatures might do. But this was too much for the girl. She squealed in terror and turned to run from the beast. But before she could get two steps, Tillion, standing near, tackled her causing her to scream as if she’d been bitten.
Durr, prompted by the excitement, then began to yell and beat a pan he’d unslung from his pack. The other campers followed suit and within seconds the bear and turned-tail and scuttled from their sight.
Heridon gave one last banshee cry at the critter and turned to inspect the pair of children that lay in the center of the troop.
“Quick thinking there young man. Maybeth, I dare say your friend here may have saved your life. Even out hiking alone you should know that it’s better to stand your ground than ever run from a bear.”
“I…I could only see his teeth.” The girl said, being helped up by the other children. “I imagined them biting into my chest.”
Heridon showed sympathy and consoled the girl saying, “Between Dolly the ghost and Brawny the bear, you’ve had quite a trip.”
[To be continued…]
~~~ NOTES ~~~
Thella & Heridon Helm