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Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I'll tell you a story.”
--F. Scott Fitzgerald

Horror & Ghost Stories

Alaska is still a frontier of sorts...a place where the boundaries between our comfortable modern world and the forces of nature are thin indeed... Here is a tale of something that clawed its way through those boundaries on a dark windy Alaskan night, at the edge of a storm... An entity that has preyed upon human sleepers throughout all recorded history. It begins a mystery where myth, dreams, the imagination and the darkness of the human heart  form a strange alchemy.


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Dream Reaper here

Dream Reaper - Originally published as Steamboat Slough

Mythic Mystery ( 5.5” by 8.5” Quality Trade Paperback)
316 Pages
$3.99 eBook
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Excerpt from...

Dream Reaper - by John Schettler


Excerpt: From Chapter 4 - Dream Reaper, by John Schettler

There was something under the ice at Steamboat Slough. You couldn't get anyone in the village to say what it was, but it had most of them scared half to death even to talk about it. The Eskimos, at least the older ones, seemed to find a spirit in every bough, bush, rock and stone of their world. Demons and devils were a convenient way to account for the unseen work of a pernicious virus. When a man was taken ill, it was really a devil that had hold of his body, probably hungry and tired from wandering around in the wilderness, and ravenous once inside the warm, blood rich body of a live man or woman. And if the man died, as many did when they were sick in the days before antibiotics, it was said that the devil would finally come out of his body, and show itself in the last agonizing moment before he breathed his last breath. "This is why you must leave the land of the Men," it would say as it called his name. "For I have eaten of your flesh and blood."

 They would find him somewhere, his body frozen in a grotesque pose, the life and warmth drained away forever. The mask on his face would tell whether the devil was fierce and evil; one to be avoided and feared by the other people in the village. Sometimes a devil's hunger would not be stilled, and it would prowl around the edges of the village, taking the old and the weak first, and the children. The people would hide themselves in their cabins, and take down all the strips of smoked salmon and animal skins they hung on wooden racks to dry. They didn't want the devil to see how well off they were—to see that this was a home where there was plenty of food, and good shelter, and many warm bodies to satisfy its hunger.

 When a devil stalked through the village in those days, St. Ann's seemed a desolate and empty place. Nobody home, the scene would say to anyone passing by. None here but this scraggly wolf-gray dog moaning at the wind. No fish on the smoke-racks; no pelts, or sleds, or anything else. Go away devil, and find another place to eat and sleep. There is nothing here for you—nothing.

 The people would gather from time to time, and the headmen of the village would stand before them, wearing their amulet belts wound tightly around the waist, and chant a warning to the devil while the hunters would brandish their spears and move like a circle of shadows around the elders. Other men would beat on the sealskin drums with tawny wands of willow bush, and the strongest of the hunters would come forward in the end, bearing a feathered fan and thrusting it out before him with a sharp movement of his arm. Each feather stood for the spirit of a deer, or a moose or even a bear. These we have taken, he seemed to say. See how many? Go away now, and find your own. Go and find the meat of a seal or ptarmigan and leave us alone.

 Perhaps, if they could shame the devil, it would stop stealing the life of the children in the village. But some devils would not be shamed. They would not listen to the sound of the sealskin drums, or pay any heed to the carved amulets on the belts of the headmen. They lingered on, festering like a rotting wound, and would not go away.

 But the village had changed a great deal from those days. The mission was established just after the turn of the century and slowly transformed the people, replacing their amulets with scapulars and rosary beads; taking down the totems and putting up crucifixes in their place. The shamans and village headmen lost face when a devil would come to the village and they were powerless to drive it out. But the men and women who peopled the mission had strange new powers. They called the Demons by names that the people did not know: measles, mumps, whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and influenza. They had new medicine, herbs and potions, to protect against these newly named devils in the land, and they always prevailed in the end.

 Time went by and more and more white men came to the land to dig for gold and oil. By the time Daniel showed up the glut of oil money spawned by the north slope excavations had transformed the Eskimo way of life forever. Each and every native was suddenly entitled to a share of the money the White Men paid to take the oil to the lower 48. The village itself would receive a larger co-op share of the wealth, and it was money that brought the power of another world into the villages, and shattered the way of life that the Eskimo people knew for so many generations.

 Their names were the first to go. The Yupik language with its guttural clicks and tongue twisting vocabulary was simply too much for the white men to ever understand. They could not know that holiktuk was a parka, that a kuspuck was a brightly colored hooded dress worn by the women. They could not remember proud names like Uktilohik, Elaitutna or Alhalikmiuit, or ever hope to say them if they did. So, the first thing the white men did was to change all the names, and each time they did, they took away some of their power and reason for being in the world.

 You could not control a thing if you could never speak its name. So the white men called the people they found in Alaska, the proud Yupik and Ihalmiut people of the north, by other names. They took some from the black books they carried and read from during all their ceremonies, and re-named the Eskimo people after elders from their own race. So it came to be that the family of Kaminikuak was re-named after the bright red beans the people brought with them from the lower 48. Sometimes they used the name of a building or other object; or names from their Bible. Everything was different after that. Now instead of Epeetna, and Alikanuk, and Katelo, there was Freddy Beans, and Mary Church, and Johnny Moses. Generations later, these Eskimo families still bore the demeaning brand given to them by their white missionary friends so long ago, though some still clung to a part of their original family name, like the Eskimos as a whole still held on to a fading remnant of their older culture. This would produce unlikely combinations such as Richie Tuluk, or Molly Ayulak. It was a compromise with the world of the lower 48 that would devour them utterly if they did not give at least as much as a part of their name to appease that devil.

 But the devil that lived under the ice at Steamboat Slough wanted more than a name; more even than the simple flesh and blood of a man or woman when it found them alone in the dark. Daniel never could find out much about it, though he often prodded the village elders for stories about the old steamboat that came up river one spring, running aground on the mud bank and sinking in the shallow water near the edge of the slough. When a boat that big floundered on the mud and sunk it was impossible to pry it loose before the river would freeze again and fix it in place the whole winter long.

 Once the ice closed in it would expand with the cold and force its way into the bones of the ship until it split the beams of the hull wide open. It would never ply the rivers again after that, and people avoided it, saying it would bring the devils. The spirits would wonder what it was, and creep inside from under the ice to live in the shattered remnants of the boat. The Eskimos would gather together and tell stories to frighten away the children's curiosity when they could, and Daniel listened closely to some of the tales hidden away in the minds of the elders.

 Something was under the ice. Something bad. It lived in Steamboat Slough and it was very dark and hungry. It was never safe, the elders would caution, to stray among the broken ruins of the ship where it jutted through the ice like a bare whetted skeleton. Things could happen, and you might be taken by the thing under the ice. It would smell the sealskin in your mukluks and reach up to grab your leg. And once you go under the ice in the winter your heart will freeze in just three beats. Then the devil will have your body there all winter long, and it would chew and gnaw the flesh away and grind on your bones until they were gone.

 That was the way they told it, years ago. Just like the old Elton John song Daniel listened to so often, there really was a kind of ‘Madman Across The Water’ out in Steamboat Slough, and a boat with a broken back.

 They probably still told the stories to the children in the village. The ice would freeze thinner around the wreck, Daniel knew. There might be cracks and weak spots where a child could easily slip and fall into the frigid water below. Every story had its moral, so this was what he supposed the intent of the legend of Steamboat Slough to be: just a warning to watch your step when you walked on the ice near the ruins of the boat. It was just a simple bit of practical advice wrapped up in a ghost story; that was all. Then he found himself on the river the day after he returned, and he couldn't believe in simple stories anymore.

PictureThe cold in Alaska is something that never quite leaves you, even if you flee to warmer climes in the south. Once you have experienced it, your life is never the same. It's a cold that reminds you of your frailty and vulnerability to the forces of nature, for without the layers of warm clothing, a parka, wool cap, mittens and the all important cold weather boots, you would die in a few minutes if exposed to the elements at even mild temperatures like 10 below zero. The environment pressed in on you from every side in Alaska. The immense scale of the land was simply too big to be cowed by man and his sprawling concrete cities. It was humbling, and strangely invigorating to live in a place where the boundaries between life and death were a little thinner, and the comfortable padding of civilization was replaced by a down vest and a good wolverine ruff on the hood of your parka.

Daniel remembered how he seemed to turn inward against the cold, just as he would tuck his chin in and bow his head against the streaking wind out on the river. The wind was his worst enemy. It used the cold like a lash, flailing at him in the vast open places of the wildland, and giving him no rest. No matter how many layers of wool and down he wrapped himself in, or how snug the fit of his scarf and boots, the wind would find a way under his clothing, and chill his soft warm flesh with fingers of ice. Daniel hated the cold, but he had to face it every day. Once, in a fit of defiance, he deliberately gave himself to it, as if to taunt the frigid wind with the fire of his body.

He was walking in one of the sloughs which wound their way through the rolling tundra country, not far from the mission.  You didn't have to go far to be completely alone in Alaska. A ten minute walk would take you to a place where it was absolutely dark, and quiet, save for the moaning of the wind if it was prowling that night, or the brilliant display of stars in the night sky overhead. If you were lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the Northern lights--a green milky phosphorescence that illuminated the sky and  confirmed for the unschooled visitor that this was an otherworldly place indeed.

One night Daniel was out on the river, back in Steamboat Slough. He was trudging along the crusty snow, watching the play of faint moonlight in the wind carved drifts near the embankment. Off to one side, a dark rake of willow bush thickened toward the ice. For some reason Daniel climbed up the embankment and crept into the midst of the thicket, until he was deep under the scraggly bare plants in the dark of the night. It was as far away from human eyes as he could get that night. There was no sign of the mission, or the village, not even the faint glow of the lamp posts which lit up the crusty gray ice of the mission walkways.

Daniel huddled in the cold, lying on his back and looking up at the night sky through the thin fingers of the willow bush. It was cold, yet he could feel the warmth of his body held in by the thick parka. He slipped off his mittens and the chill air bit at his hands. Working as fast as he could, he opened his parka and unzipped the down vest beneath. The cold rushed at him, stealing away the heat of his body like a starved animal finding food in the desolation of the Alaskan winter. Daniel opened himself to the cold, teasing it. His fingers were starting to hurt now, but he forced them to unbutton his wool shirt and threw it open. His smooth chest was laid bare now, and the cold fell on him with an evil lust.

There was a certain thrill which came over him. He wanted to go further, to strip away all of his clothing and submit his body to the searching touch of the wind and cold. He was minutes away from death, he knew. Already his frame was shaken with an involuntary shiver; his bare hands were getting numb. Here I am, his body seemed to say. Take me if you can.

Then he closed up his shirt, numbed fingers struggling with the buttons, and sealed his body away from the cold with layer upon layer of protective clothing. A minute later he crawled out from under the bush on his hands and knees, and slid down the embankment to the flat open area of the slough.

A sheet of wind struck at him, angry at his escape. Not tonight, he thought to himself. I'm alive, and warm, and free to go back to the shelter of the cottage and sleep behind thick insulated walls, safe from the wind and cold. He was exhilarated by the experience, and tramped his feet as he walked to get his heart rate up again. The shivers left him as warm blood forced its way out into his extremities again. His fingers hurt for a while, but that was a good sign. The blood was pushing its way back into the fleshy fingertips through tiny capillaries, and it hurt. But the pain was life--not the numb empty void of a frozen death.

Daniel went out to the edge of the river and bared his chest to the void. It made him feel the fragility of his life, and the wonder of it all at the same time. He was alive. The wind and the snow, and the cold were all elements in the world around him, but they were dead and bare, like the withered branched of the willow bush next to his naked body. They envied him for the life his body held, and they coveted it. Whenever he walked outside from that moment on, he could feel the wind tugging at his parka, wanting to strip it away from him again, and get at the soft white flesh beneath--like a wounded lover, clawing after him as he walked away.

The wind wanted him. The cold wanted him, and something else wanted him that night on Steamboat slough, though he was not aware of it then.

He made his way to the mouth of the slough where it emptied into the wider bed of the Andreafski river. The wind harangued at him, scratching at him from behind. Daniel looked up to see the sky was now streaked with cold white clouds, pale ghostly shapes in the dark as they fled in the van of a weather front. Up ahead he could dimly see the sharp edges of broken wood jutting up through the ice. He was very near the wreck of the Steamboat now, and the old native stories clamored in the back of his mind. Watch your step. Be careful. Its dark. The night is angry. The wind is jealous, and you're alone.

Daniel came up the edge of the wreck, his footfalls a little tentative as he neared it. The river froze three months ago, he thought. It was twenty below zero! The ice was probably three feet thick by now, wreck or no wreck. He continued on, until he was standing on top of a bare sheet of exposed river ice in the heart of the sunken steamboat. Cold seemed to reach up and tangle his feet, and he looked for patches of snow to offer better footing and insulation. The wreck was very near now.

Bleak boards jutted up through the ice from the flat riverbed below. A part of the foredeck was still exposed, and the structure of the pilot's cabin remained intact. A few meters away, the weathered remains of the paddle wheel protruded through the ice, shrouded in a blue-white frost. He took a step toward the cabin, peering through the tunnel of his ruff as he made for the open doorway there. Then he heard a sound that nearly froze his blood, a long raking wail that seemed to come from under the ice.

He stood still, paralyzed by the sound. He wanted to turn this way and that to find the source, but an unnatural fear shivered up his spine, dulling his nerves and freezing him in place. What was it? Something hissed at him from under the ice. He wanted to run, but his boots seemed fixed in place on the rock hard slab of the river. He looked down at his feet and saw tiny drifts of snow driven about them by the wind. Run!

Daniel could not move, and the cold reached up from the bottom of the river and took him by the feet and ankles, tugging at him; holding him fast. He could feel the bite of pain in his toes, and knew he had to move to keep the frost away. But he could not move, in spite of the rising alarm in his chest and the pulsing of blood at his temples.

A trap, he thought. I must have stepped into a trap. He stooped down onto his haunches, feeling with his gloved fingers for the thing that held his feet in place. There was nothing but the blue-gray ice and crusty snow--and the terrible cold which grappled with him in the night. He started to lose his balance and pushed one arm against the ice to keep from falling. The cold took hold of his wrist, holding tight.

This is crazy, Daniel thought. I have to move, have to get up and back to the mission. Can't stay out here in the dark...Front moving in...Let me go!

He heard his own voice screaming at the night, and the horrible sound which surrounded him wailed in response. The cold had his legs, and his hand, and his arm. His heart pounded with fear, and with one last effort of his will he pushed for all he was worth and stood up. He was moving, staggering away on shaky legs. The ice was exposed in many placed by the gusting wind, and Daniel found the footing treacherous on its glassy surface.

Something was after him!

He started to run, but his footing gave way and he fell hard on the ice near one of the jagged beams from the wreck of the Steamboat. His knee was seared with pain. A sharp splinter of wood penetrated his leggings and jabbed at the flesh on the inside of his right knee. It was painful to move, but Daniel forced himself to his feet and limped away from the wreck of the boat. The wind wailed at him from behind, but he was out on the river now, and the lights of the mission glowed up ahead, beckoning to him from across the wide expanse of open ice.

He did not dare look back, though he felt as though something was dogging his footsteps, a hairs breath from his back as he hobbled toward the mission hotel. He was more frightened than he had ever been in his life. Keep moving...Don't look back...Watch your step...Don't fall again!

He was half way across when another fear rose in his mind to prey upon him. He couldn't swim! Yes, the river was three feet thick with ice, but there was water down there somewhere--black icy water just under the surface, and he was right in the middle of it now, dead in the middle of the river. Whenever he walked over bridges, Daniel could never bring himself to look at the water below. He couldn't see the water now, but he knew it was there. He could barely see anything as he stumbled along in the murky black. What if he ran into a crack or a hole in the ice where Jakes had been fishing--a wound that hadn't the time to heal and freeze up again. What if he fell through?

He imagined himself on a bridge, a narrow causeway leading to the far bank of the river with "Watch Your Step" on his left, "Keep Moving" on his right and "Don't Look Back" behind him. The brittle crack of crusty snow punctuated his footsteps, and his breath came fast and hard. He imagined himself falling through a thin spotin the ice and vanishing into the turbid depths below.

But he didn't fall, and the river was frozen thick and solid as rock. Daniel clutched at his wounded leg and somehow made it to the far bank where a few boats lay like beached whales, belly up to the moon until the winter gave way. He pushed between them, and struggled up onto the snow-draped embankment, safe at last.

The lights of the mission enfolded him in a soft yellow glow. He could hear the sound of the generator purring and churning in the distance. The dogs were howling in the village nearby, first one, then another, as if they were braying at the passing of an unwelcome stranger in the night. Daniel was safe. He took in a deep breath and caught the smell of wood smoke in the frigid air. For the first time since he started back, he looked over his shoulder.

Nothing was there.

The moonlight gleamed on sheets of bare river ice, then fled into the gathering rift of clouds. Whatever it was that had clutched at his boots and pulled him onto his knees, it was gone. But a voice was calling his name.

Daniel spun around, eyes wide with fright.

"Not a good time, Daniel." A stocky figure was standing in front of him, an Eskimo wearing a thick black wool cap and gray sweats. It was Jakes, a hired hand from the village in charge of the maintenance for the mission and hotel. A 410 shotgun was cradled against his hip, and he didn't look happy, as if Jakes was part and parcel with the storm in the night, and Daniel was an intrusion. He was squinting at Daniel from under the brow of his cap, oblivious to the cold in spite of the fact that he had no parka. It was clear that he was upset about something. Jakes wasn't the sort to say much of anything without a very pressing reason. The fact that he spoke at all was enough to convince Daniel something was wrong--if he needed any convincing after what he had just been through on the river.

"Slipped on the ice and cut my knee." Daniel gestured feebly behind him and saw Jake's eyes follow his arm with a sallow, unfriendly regard.

"Bad time. Storm coming," said Jakes. "Better inside." He spoke in short choppy statements, as if the words were foreign to him, and difficult to express. Jakes breathed the silence of his own simple world, and kept the rest of the life at the mission hotel at a distance.

Good advice, thought Daniel. Should have taken it hours ago, but it was a little late now for weather reports. He nodded to Jakes, grateful to see a familiar face and feeling a little silly now that he was back under the dull glow of a lamp post. The mission was a tiny island of man-made safety clinging to the edge of the river bank. Nine buildings, most sided with dull gray aluminum to prevent the wood underneath from weathering too badly. They stood in stark contrast to the lay of the land around them, bare rolling hills swelling away from the flat river bed and building tree sewn glens and vales where they folded into one another in the distance. The squat regular shape of the mission buildings seemed tedious and out of place in the sweep of the landscape, but it was home to Daniel for three years when he taught at the school here, and safe haven to him now on his return visit.

"Cold." It was all Daniel could think of to say. "Think I'll clean up and get some coffee."

Jakes nodded to him and Daniel shuffled away toward the cottage, the southernmost of the mission buildings where his room was waiting for him. He made his way along the icy path, eyes following the regular cuts Jakes made on the path to help footing. As he reached the outer door of the building he looked back and saw Jakes standing stone still under the glow of the lamp post, and staring out onto the river bed. He was looking back along the trail of footprints where Daniel had come, like a hunter taking up the scent of something in the distance, measuring it, and waiting it out with his rifle. Then Jakes started away, back along Daniel's trail until he slipped into the darkness and was gone.

Better inside, thought Daniel. What was Jakes doling out advice for if he wasn't prepared to follow it himself? He dismissed the thought, glad to be within arms reach of a doorway. His knee still throbbed with a dull pain , and he wanted to get inside and see how bad the wound was before he headed back over to the main lobby for that coffee. But he couldn't help wondering where Jakes was going with that rifle in the night. He couldn't be hunting at this hour. Jakes had the room next to Daniel's in the Cottage, and he was usually fast asleep by eight 'o clock. It was almost midnight!

Something woke Jakes up...Woke up the dogs in the village too. Jakes was out with a rifle instead of a parka, and damn near every dog in the village was braying like a pack of timber wolves on a moon-drenched night.

Daniel shuddered, and stomped up the three short stairs to the doorway. He pushed it open and tramped his boots in the enclosed porch to shake off the snow before he opened the inner door to the hallway. A bare yellow light bulb dangled from the ceiling and illuminated a thermometer nailed to the inner wall of the porch. It was thirty-five below, and with a front blowing up the wind-chill factor would be much worse. He hoped Jakes wouldn't stay out too long...

PictureJakes wasn't the only man out with a gun that night. A half mile from the mission Andy Paukan was pulling on his boots in the main room of his cabin on the outskirts of the village. He stopped for a moment, listening to the dogs, and looked over his shoulder where his wife and two children were sleeping in their beds. Better inside, he thought. Bad out tonight.

“Call it a ghost story...
Call it a mystery... This book is a chilling tale any way you describe it. The haunting scenes in the frozen landscape of a near abandoned mission site are absolutely riveting!”

 - Reader Reviews

“Love ghost stories? Need your horror fix for the night? This book will keep you awake--literally--because the action is about an ancient entity that has preyed on sleepers throughout all of human history...”

 - Reader Reviews

“My God! After reading this book I will never go to sleep without thinking about what happened to Daniel...what might happen to me one day in those long, empty hours of the night!”

 - Reader Reviews

“One of those stories that stays with you in the back of your mind like a shadow for weeks after you finish it, and you have an odd sensation that, just by taking it in, you’ve put your name on some unseen list kept by the entity, and that one day it may just come calling!”

 - Reader Reviews

“I’m scared... I’m scared... I’m scared! That’s all you can say about the eerie, myth like scenes in this novel, the strange rituals, ancient magic, and the dream like quality of the prose. When you read a good ghost story you want to be scared, and this book delivers!”

 - Reader Reviews

“Layers of mystery here! The story just deepens and gets more unsettling as it goes along. It works on so many levels that you wonder what is real, and what is imagined.”

 - Reader Reviews

“After the opening the book quiets down for a little character sketching...but after they get to Alaska--watch out! Ever have the feeling you stumbled on something you shouldn’t have? Brother, the main character here soon wishes he had never taken this trip to the frozen north.”

 - Reader Reviews

“This guy’s been there--to that ‘Great Empty’ he writes about in the book. You can see it, feel it, smell it in his prose. I’ve read this twice now and it still scares me out of my wits!”

 - Reader Reviews

“A haunting tale, with a subtle erotic undertone that makes it really thrilling. Don’t go to sleep!”

 - Reader Reviews

“I’m a sourdough too, so I know exactly what the author is talking about. The long, dark Alaskan night has a frightening, haunting quality about it. You do truly feel that there is just this thin boundary between life, death and other worlds there. Great read!”

 - Reader Reviews

“The steamboat wreck...that haunted mission...the strange dreams...those tracks in the snow... And oh my, that thing that comes in your sleep. Yikes! To think that much of this was based on a real time and place makes me shiver!”

 - Reader Reviews

“That’s it, he’s done it to me. Now I’ll  never get to sleep! This happened to me once, and when I read this the fear and horror just grabbed me by the throat again--because believe me--whatever it is, this entity is real!”

 - Reader Reviews

The heat from the black pot-belly stove was fading, and when he had his boots on tight he shuffled out to the porch and brought in another wood cutting for the fire. His wife watched him from behind half closed eyes while he opened the coal-black stove and worked the log inside. The fire popped and hissed at him, and the ruddy glow from the flames played on the flat wide features of his face, painting the high cheekbones with flickering amber.

When the fire was fueled, he closed the stove again and glanced at his mate. The wife pressed her eyes closed tight, pretending to be fast asleep, though he knew she was awake just the same. She could hear the dogs outside just as he could, and she knew why he was up with his boots and parka, reaching for his rifle now as he made his way to the porch. For one brief moment he hesitated on the threshold and turned her way. She opened her eyes and stared at him in silence. Then he slipped outside and made his way to the outer door, stepping lightly on the bare wooden flooring and pulling the door open with a slow, deliberate motion.

Outside on his porch the sound of the dogs was much louder. It trailed away, carried by the wind up into the lowering sky overhead. He took in a deep breath, sniffing the cold night air as he did so. His eyes squinted at the clouds, pale gray shapes, backlit by the moon and moving fast on the wind. It was a bad night.  Something was wrong. He could feel it, and smell it on the wind.

He walked away from his house, searching the grounds around him for signs of trouble. There were two other cabins near his, and he could see the smoke thickening out from their chimney pipes before it blew away on the wind. More than one fire was burning hotter tonight, and off in the distance he could dimly see Jonas Paul standing in the lee of his entry porch just like he was, staring at the sky with one hand shielding his brow from the wind and the other holding on to a hunting rifle.

Something was wrong…

Jonas started walking, away from his cabin and down toward the river bed. Andy Paukan circled his cabin once to be certain all was safe. He didn't keep dogs, so he wouldn't have to muzzle them like the other men in the village would on a night like this. He could follow Jonas to the river, and find out what the storm was bringing in.

He trudged away through the snow, noting the wind sock on the post office just up the hill. It was full and stiff in the thick of the night, and pointing away from the river as the front blew in toward the village. Jonas Paul was just ahead, down beyond the slick wood logs that passed for a stairway near the river's embankment. Jonas reached the edge of the ice where another man waited in silence, like a statue carved in the ice and snow. Andy joined the others, hefting his rifle with a nod as he took his place on the embankment. No one spoke a word.

They were looking out across the lonely stretch of the river, watching the smoky chrome of the moon on the ice. Kaila, the spirit of the wind and sky, was restless. That was how the old men would tell it. But these were not old men. Andy Paukan was in his middle thirties. Jonas Paul was not much older. Both men saw the changes sweep through their village when the oil money came. The cabins they lived in now were clean and new compared to the old log cabins they had been born in. There were hardly any dog sleds in the village these days, now that a man could buy a ski-do if he wanted one. But the men kept dogs just the same, for the bonds that had been forged between them remained intact in spite of the cultural upheaval of years past. Andy Paukan didn't think much about Kaila, or any of the other spirits like Taktik, the face in the moon that watched them from above. But he was thinking of them now, and the words of the his old grandfather were murmuring in the back of his mind as he stared across the river.

Devils stalk the edge of a storm, his grandfather would say on a bad night like this. Then Paija comes walking through the gray ice and snow. And any man who looks in her face will have his soul frozen then and there. Paija was a jealous demon, and she would steal the life from any who saw her. A man did see her once, and died stone cold on the spot. After the storm had passed by, his brother came to find his body standing upright, knee-deep in a drift of blowing snow. He was dead and frozen, but his eyes remained open, still staring into the blue white drifts on the river--and in his eyes was the faint remnant of the image of Paija, the she-devil that walked on the edge of a storm. He was the only man that ever saw her and lived. Yet his life was dark and troubled from that moment on. The terror in the eyes of his frozen brother haunted him for the rest of his days, and each time a storm blew in on the wind, the brother would hide himself in his cabin, shivering with fear and dread.

Andy Paukan put the words of his grandfather away and hunched against the cold.  Jonas Paul was staring at the river like the dead man in his grandfather's story. Andy looked at him, afraid to see the image of some evil thing frozen in his eyes. The other man was staring too--Jimmy Beans down from his cabin at the top of first gravel, the low hillock which formed the bedrock of the village itself. Neither man said a word.

Bad night... Better inside...

Dogs not sleeping...

... Men with rifles watching at the edge of the river, and looking out with puckered eyes to a place they feared on the other side. Looking out toward the place where Daniel had been just a few minutes ago, close by the wreck of the old Steamboat, and hiding in the willow bush with his chest bared to the cold night sky...

- John Schettler

Author’s Note: This is a little slice of a novel I published in 2004. The story hearkens back to a place I once taught school in Alaska. Anyone who shared that time with me knows about old Steamboat Slough, and they also know how--well, how scary the dead of an Alaskan winter can be. We used to tell ghost stories in the volunteer house, and to the kids we taught in the school whenever there was a power failure. It was just a little easier to believe up there...and a lot easier to get scared.  There is a complete web showcase for this book at my novel website here.- JS

Copyright (c) John Schettler, Steamboat Slough, 2004, Dream Reaper , 2012

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