THE HOUNDS OF ELKHORN
A Paranormal Novel of Estes Park

 

 You can purchase the trade paperback novel HERE 

or the Kindle edition HERE

or see more details below… 

 

 

 

 

THE HOUNDS OF ELKHORN! Are they somehow actual dogs? Or ghost animals, spirits, even demons from the Underworld? In idyllic Estes Park, Colorado, also home to the famous Stanley Hotel, there is an older and perhaps more seriously haunted venue called Elkhorn Lodge.

In 1984, at a time when the majestic old resort Elkhorn Lodge has almost been forgotten, something reawakens, and forces far darker, far older than the alpine village itself begin to re-emerge…

What deadly secrets lurk within the Lodge, or underneath it, even today?

 

 

A sample of the newly published novel:

 

Prologue

Winter, 1983-4

 

It began with a single light burning on the second floor of the immense old building that was carefully closed up, locked for the winter, its electrical power supposedly turned off. The frigid mountain air hung still and quiet around Paul Goodfellow that night; a wave of foreboding hit him like a sudden gust of icy wind, a sinking in his gut. He had dreaded something like this for months. Now his peaceful existence felt horribly violated.

He stood below the dark outline of the magnificent two-story building saturated by antique secrets and untold stories. He gazed up at that singular ominous glow. Hands thrust deep into his coat pockets for warmth, a frown knitted his brow.

A dim light bulb appeared to burn behind the tattered curtains of an upstairs room in the north wing of Elkhorn Lodge.

The huge main building of the complex, and the thirty cabins were carefully closed up for the off-season. Paul lived in an apartment in the much smaller, older building called the Ranch House to the east along the driveway. This particular winter, in return for a reduction in his rent, he kept an eye on the entire place for the owner, who lived out of state. The owner seemed to know he could depend upon Paul.

Now Paul’s heart sank. Someone is in the main lodge! Or someone has been inside, messed with the breaker switches and left a light on.

If the wiring malfunctions, it could start a fire

The young man’s horn-rimmed glasses fogged over from his warm breath, a condition he humorously called “Clark Kent’s heavy-breathing technique.” Only now there seemed nothing funny about the serious responsibility he had accepted. He had been told that all of the electricity to the main building was turned off. Could Mr. Treadwell have left one of the breakers on in November when he departed for North Carolina? No. Paul would have noticed.

It did not seem likely, unless the window had been covered until recently, then an old rotten window shade broke off and fell to reveal the fact… Possibly?

That’s how Paul’s imaginative mind worked—only he knew that was not likely, though many things inside the old main building were indeed falling apart.

The only other options were a human intruder, or ghosts. He did not dismiss the fact that the huge old two-story structure, built around 1900, must be filled with memories and the traces of countless visitors, which made it seem highly haunted, still he felt far more concerned at the moment about vandals and vagrants who might have broken in.

Though his life here at the lodge property off-season was usually peaceful, extremely quiet, now his heart hammered fiercely in his chest.

Enough ambient moonlight shone from behind the cloud cover, that he did not even take the little flashlight from his coat pocket as he marched around the building. He tried to keep his hiking boots from crunching too loudly upon the icy frozen soil. His eyes scanned for any evidence of where someone might have broken in.

The big building was large enough, intricate enough, it remained dark enough that he really could not tell for sure.

There were few lights on anywhere in this pocket of night at the western end of Estes Park, Colorado; the resort village seemed asleep. Though he sought to carefully inspect the windows, even the base of the structure for any disruption or damage, he walked rather quickly to get the job done. He passed along the lengthy east-facing front of the two connected wings painted dark brown with ornate trim of creamy ivory color, three spacious verandas on both the upper and lower levels. Each upstairs veranda held three rounded arches of gingerbread cream against chocolate brown.

He hastened to avoid the sense that the building itself watched him passing by through the scores of windows of its lengthy face.

It had three faces with many, many eyes all along its body.

In truth, he also almost hoped his sounds would alert any intruder, that they might flee unseen, as he actually had no desire to confront a stranger here at this late hour, much less a ghost.

Wind lifted its voice and sighed heavily on the evergreen slopes to the south of the main building, where dozens of shuttered cabins kept their eyes tightly closed in the shadows of ponderosa pines. Paul passed behind the open area at the back of the two wings, beyond the empty swimming pool near where an old wishing well had collapsed into itself.

When he returned to the north side, the upstairs appeared entirely dark.

Did this mean that someone had turned the light off?

Or had it just gone out?

He saw no sign of a break-in.

So—do I call the Treadwells, or not?

He had mixed feelings about this, for the light and its disappearance suggested some kind of presence in the main lodge that he would really rather not think about.

 

 

Part I

The Hunted

 

The danger of death was around me.

From all sides the hell hounds barked furiously.

- Psalm 18, Verse 5

 

March 14, 1984

Lori Louise Traylor, sixteen years old and extremely frightened, walked slowly down the shadowy teardrop driveway towards the long, tall wooden edifice of Elkhorn Lodge illuminated by moonlight, yet saturated with enigmatic darkness. Along the front at each end, and in the middle she saw three architectural faces. The front door downstairs at the very middle of all this architecture glinted with the reflection of a distant streetlamp, like the fading star of her last hope.

She knew that she might merely indulge in teenage melodrama by allowing this ordeal to terrify her.

Lori could not help the unholy stab of fear she felt.

She knew very well that her “friends” Barb and Kathy and Link and Steve stood perhaps a hundred yards behind her past the condos among some evergreen trees by the drive watching. She did not dare to turn to confirm this fact for reassurance, for that would only prove her cowardice and failure.

Those four other young people saw Lori’s short figure walk slowly, without visible hesitation towards the building that seemed innocuous as some immense, old-fashioned wedding cake preserved for a future generation, suspended in an almost forgotten time. The structure also seemed poisonously saturated by wild, tragic stories of mysterious happenings and unknown malign spirits.

This last quality, of course, made the place irresistible to the teenagers.

Lori shuddered with a thrill both dreadful and somehow erotic, at just the thought of all those rooms, those mysterious unknown rooms full of unseen things, steeped in darkness like tea left far too long that grew too strong, too bitter to drink.

She was a round-faced, painfully shy, not unattractive girl, about to end her sophomore year at the start of summer. For some reason she had always remained overlooked and unnoticed by the more popular kids at school. Now she felt extremely anxious to prove her worth to Barb, Kathy, Link, and Steve. Naively she felt that they would truly appreciate her, would accept her as one of their social cell, if only she could fearlessly complete this ordeal.

She was smart and got good grades, though nobody seemed to care about that much, not even her distracted parents. A big part of her problem, she figured, was her lackluster mousy brown hair, which seemed to lack any style or distinction no matter what she did to it, no matter how she wore it.

The four other high schoolers said that they had all been inside the huge building plenty of times before. “There’s nothing to be afraid of in there,” Link said solemnly. “Except if you let yourself give in to fear. I mean, ghosts really aren’t something to be afraid of. They’re like dogs, because they can smell human fear. So don’t be afraid.”

Lori had nodded grimly in agreement. “Fortunately, I don’t believe in ghosts,” she said, largely to reassure herself. The others all simply looked at each other bright-eyed, then as one, looked back to her.

In the winter, while the lodge was closed up and deserted, it was easy enough, they told Lori, to go in one of the windows. They had dared her to bring out from inside an ashtray with the elk-head monogram on it. “They’re all over the place in there,” Link said. Steve and Kathy and Barb nodded agreement. They each had one, which they had showed her: palm-sized dishes of pressed glass with the enamel design printed on the bottom surface so it showed through, but did not get blackened by ash.

Lori blanked her frenzied mind out with a strident effort of will. Or at least tried to convince herself she did so. Lori forced herself to step up onto the veranda in front of the huge dining room that stretched all along the northeast end of the ground floor.

A board groaned under her sneaker, which made her jump, and she darted a glance behind her. She just barely made out the four others watching her from beyond the flagpole in the parking lot past the drive, a space for parking that served the two condos along the way towards Elkhorn Avenue. The closest streetlamp stood well beyond them, where it cast that sickly orange-ish glower of mercury vapor from so high up it scarcely lit the asphalt.

Not at all reassured, Lori returned, gulped in a huge breath and boldly stepped up to a window. She bent over, struggled; apparently the inside latches had been left undone, for the frame pushed up quite easily with only a little squeal of rusty tracks to betray her.

Unfortunately, the baleful eye of the moon dipped behind cloud at just this moment, as if suddenly concealed by a bruised eyelid.

The world about her dimmed.

Still, Lori had the momentum of determined will going. Her heart pounded desperately in her throat, as she pushed aside the sheer white curtain within. In the absence of moonlight, she could scarcely see inside.

Head thrust slightly within the frame, she gave her eyes a few moments to adjust.

The expanse of the dining room gleamed with serene white cloths settled onto dozens of invisible round tables. She could barely make out a low stage at the back, with a false brick wall behind it, to the right. A herd of dark red upholstered straight back chairs stacked high in several piles crowded the stage, in wait of summer diners.

On the north walls, she could make out two great racks of uprising antlers upon mounted heads; two pairs of huge glass eyes sparked dimly in her direction.

“Right,” she said aloud. She giggled nervously to reassure herself. “It’s called Elkhorn Lodge, after all!”

The shadows pregnant with far too many possibilities nearly inspired her to beat a hasty retreat, a sense that grew so tangible that her throat closed, which made it impossible to scream. Suddenly she wanted to yell and flee more than anything!

Then the moon emerged and the huge, long room with its very slightly warped floor abruptly flooded with pale, clear light. No ghosts. Nobody there. Just furniture and decades of memories…

She bent lower, pushed through, stepped into the room.

Enough light filled the dining room now that she could see to the far left what must be a door to the lobby in the middle of all of this. Not a single ashtray could be seen on any of all the white-covered tabletops. I’ll have to go there

Yet an oppressive certainty of habitation dropped upon her like a crushing weight: Someone is here! Someone always hasbeen here!

Lori choked in another breath, which at first seemed unable to sustain her, rather she felt it might knock her over. Somehow she managed to fight back her fear with reason, even some scorn at how ludicrous this whole thing was—how calculating those four nasty kids that she so desperately wanted to impress really were.

I’ll show them!

She steeled herself and walked quickly across the distinctly complaining floor, among the fleet of tables, between a locked up little gift-shop and the gaping doors of a bar, where glasses gleamed like another row of eyes that followed her progress.

She emerged into the front hallway where silvery light streamed through the bolted front door on her left. A large picture window on the right made her feel vulnerable: watched. In the latter direction, yet another huge mounted elk head presided above what must be a fireplace covered with a sheet of plastic. This particular head bore on its snout a pair of spectacles made of thick plastic-coated wire.

Brilliant moonlight now shafted through the large rectangular picture window—surely a latter-day addition to such a lobby—so that the rest of the region to her left appeared quite well illuminated also: there, directly opposite the doorway from the dining room she had passed through, a large reception desk presided below a grand staircase that angled up from the far left, where it began near the bolted and locked front door.

Even farther to the left on the near wall, somewhat in her own shadow, she spied a little table where a kind of album lay open with a ballpoint pen at the middle between the pages.

She stepped closer, and light fell across the pages as she recognized the guest register, bent closer and read the last signature on a partly filled page:

 

“D. Sanderson, September 23rd, 1983, Council Bluffs, Iowa.”

 

Lori felt somehow reassured by the ordinariness of this. She tried to laugh at her own fears as she picked up the ballpoint pen on the book, then began to scribble what she naively felt might prove something to her four “friends” outside:

 

“Lori L. T—”

 

Then she began to hear a distant, muted howling, a kind of frantic and hungry baying of some kind of excited creature, or rather a group of creatures, a bloodthirsty sound that grew louder even as she turned back to the picture window.

She struggled to finish her name—it became a scrawl of desperation.

This was all just too much: she feared she would pee in her pants, as sometimes happened when she got really, really frightened.

*   *   *

Link and Steve, Barb and Kathy stood together shivering with both the cold and the excitement of adrenaline and hormones. Their breath streamed in visible puffs on the air. They kept watch on the main lodge building with its long roofline below the sharp profile of Old Man Mountain that gleamed with a new sifting of powdery snowfall.

These young people seldom made any pretense of attempting scholarship at school. They remained somewhat indifferent to their impending graduation, except as an inconvenience that could interrupt their current lifestyle. In the last few years, most of their attention had been absorbed in discovering the bewildering delicious power of sexuality, drinking too much quite deliberately, also avoiding any suggestion of discovering who or what they might really be, a quest they could possibly postpone indefinitely, unless some crisis intervened to inspire self-awareness.

They whispered and giggled nervously. They kept quiet to avoid attracting attention from anyone who might hear them from the slumbering condos directly to their north, in truth not at all far away—far closer than the main lodge building to the west.

The four laughed not only at Lori’s fear and trepidation, but also her rather pathetic desire for acceptance. They danced upon the Occam’s Razor of her terror that they had deliberately induced. Nothing could be simpler than the fear caused by such an act as going into that old building on a moonlit night, though none of these four were sure they believed in ghosts or anything supernatural at all.

She had been gone inside the building for what seemed several minutes when Steve peered about, frowned, then lit a cigarette within his hands. “What’s that?”

He puffed the flare of a little red star.

They all listened.

No doubt of it. At first a shrill, quiet yammering of voices that seemed at first to come from the big building itself, a song that quickly grew louder and louder. The sound had a hungry, heated, hysterical quality, which became an undulating wave of blood-lust; unmistakably this was the voice of a pack of hounds singing their fevered chase of the prey, intent upon a kill.

Soon it grew clear that the canine voices came from behind the big building, not within it, though the pack seemed to approach rapidly, and the sound was joined by the eerie screams of wilder cousins in a frenzied mixture, which echoed from the granite slopes around them.

“There haven’t been wolves here in a long, long time,” Steve said uncertainly.

Barb whimpered. “Coyotes. Duh-uh.”

“Not only that,” Link said, his dark eyes huge. “Dogs too. Hounds. Like in a movie fox-hunt. Getting closer.”

Kathy grabbed his arm to pull him away. “Let’s get out of here!”

Steve snarled. “Wait!”

“Let’s go,” Link hissed. “They’re coming!”

The snarling, yapping, baying of the pack of dogs swept closer from behind the lodge as if the animals streamed down from Old Man Mountain to the west. Then the teenagers actually saw some kind of blurred motion rounding the corner from the south end of the building

“I’m leaving,” Kathy said.

Barb looked pale as the moon. “What about Lori?”

“She’s gotta fend for herself,” Link said. “It’s her initiation, not ours.”

Steve tossed aside his cigarette, left it to smolder on the driveway as they spun around and sprinted toward Elkhorn Avenue and the dreamy streetlights of the little mountain village.

 

 

The Coming of the Hounds

August, 1886

Longs Peak already wore a dazzling white shawl of fresh snow, the young Earl of Sunclyft noted as his dappled mare trotted along a loosely sketched trail beside the Fall River. Summer had grown full and round in these majestic Rocky Mountains of Colorado, where it brought peaceful mornings tinged by a slight haze. Hummingbirds still buzzed about prolific wildflowers, though evening air held a distinct chill that meant these tiny birds would soon begin their annual migration to the distant south.

The man remained blissfully unaware of the horrors about to erupt into his life.

This North American wilderness had successfully seduced his senses. Robert Pennmarten Windermere never before felt so keenly, so vibrantly alive. He held the reins in one kid-gloved hand with an effortless calm, through which his mount obeyed his will as surely as if they were a centaur—man and horse merged as one creature. He sat erect, in fact smoothly posted with the gait in a poised manner that effortlessly strengthened his lean legs. He comprised a slim figure in his riding pants, tall brown boots, a white silk shirt buttoned at the throat with an Indian Ocean pearl clasp. Over all of this, a long black waistcoat of cashmere wool belted by a crimson sash.

The young Earl appeared a refined and somewhat aloof person, his features as noble as his name, with narrow nose, strong chin and dark wavy hair. The full black mustaches were groomed just long enough to sweep up in little wings at the corners of the mouth. His eyes a vivid icy blue, flashed keen confidence upon all that he surveyed.

He could imagine settling into this place for quite a long spell—if only this place could belong to him, could come to bear his family’s distinguished name.

“Robin,” as only his closest friends, his intimates back in England ever called him, had learned here many things he never imagined doing, such as how to expertly chop and stack wood for the fireplace and stove with an axe, how to clean, gut, skin and dress an elk. Further, he had bathed in the frigid mountain streams with other men. This place had changed him quite radically. His embrace of it tended in the direction of ownership.

Now the nobleman’s eyes drank in the red-hot hue of nearly an acre of Indian Paintbrush in bloom on a slope just across the river, a remarkable sight that stunned his mind, caused his sensitive soul to overflow. The haunting voices of magpies and ravens called from ponderosa-to-ponderosa. The Earl reined in his obedient mount, thus they returned in a half circle to where they halted.

Together man and horse gazed over the lovely valley east of their vantage, a great open meadowland and marsh, the geological tribute of glaciers that lingered in traces among the high peaks behind them, though the ice had retreated millennia before. Those ancient rivers of ice had carved out these canyons and valleys, left moraines—ridges of rocky rubble—while they made their final retreat. In the immense near silence, broken only by the chatter of birds, sometimes the mysterious chuckle of falling rock or the loud whisper of rushing waters, the man’s eyes narrowed as he studied forested spurs of granite beneath a few fat unhurried clouds of blinding white upon Holy Virgin blue.

He wondered, so close to speaking aloud that his lips moved slightly beneath the poised wings of his mustaches—wondered if such spectacular natural beauty, such tranquility could possibly exist without some unexpected undercurrents of danger, of Ancient Evil that was supposed to lurk inherent within all of Nature? The Enemy?

He truly could not imagine anything unholy in this place, aside from some unknown human elements. His early Anglican training, plus the influence of a uniquely repressed nursemaid in his boyhood caused him to consider carefully. He shuddered.

A bluebird flashed indigo wings across the canyon where man and animal stood transfixed, as if in a dream.

Pennmarten inhaled deeply of the crystalline air. He held his breath in until he could no longer, while an ominous pounding like a pack of padded feet began to thunder distinctly in his ears. He exhaled with a deep sigh, then closed his eyes, in an attempt to master powerful emotions. From whence came such curious notions, this doubt concerning the holiness and purity of such natural splendor? He felt like Jacob wrestling the angel… so where was that spiral stair connecting all things below and above?

Surely—now he shook his tousled head slowly—there could be no evil in such an unspoiled, paradisiac place as this, not unless it was something known within himself, some personal blot upon the shimmering field of his tender conscience…

Or could it have to do with that uncanny and remarkable Mrs. Jamison?

He gazed down at his gloved hands, which should have been those of an artist or a musician, though he found that he rather liked the burgeoning calluses upon fingers and palms, from labors his associates back in the Old World would have scorned, calluses he relished for their novelty. Indeed, he possessed the talent, the sensibility for the arts as his early schooling demonstrated, while inherited wealth and position made it all too easy to purchase amusement and adventure vicariously.

Now the heart that beat steadily in his chest felt riven.

It seemed he bled down his body onto the saddle and the horse, so great was the pain that fully returned to him now, from the brief respite of distraction. Just when he thought he had grown totally detached from such base human needs, he felt forced to confront his old nemesis: the demon, Love!

Confidence be damned! He nearly laughed aloud at his own melodrama.

A breeze that brushed through pillars of the resinous pines brought him a timeless fragrance of incense. His foolish heart had now compromised the natural beauty’s seductive power over him.

Below him on a flat area by a bend of the river, on the southern bank of the Fall River lined by ruddy willow bushes stood the primary structure of Elkhorn Ranch. This Ranch House was no more than a nine-room frame building with two more rooms upstairs at the southern end. Beyond it, further south stood perhaps a score of small cabins scattered upon a steep slope at the foot of Deer Mountain. Near their west end stood a small building, newly finished this year, that served as the first school for the village. Quite often he heard the shrill voices of children during their play periods outside, and the clang of the hand bell when the school mistress called them back inside to their studies.

At present he himself occupied just two rooms at the north end of the Ranch House. Several tents, and a large canvas pavilion stood pitched between the house and the cabins, and smoke unraveled from several chimneys and fires, farther west, downhill closer to the river’s bend, a barn and livery stable abutted the large corral where horses stood or meandered. Between the Ranch House and the little schoolhouse at the foot of Deer Ridge, on a low rise stood a scattering of trees: firs and ponderosas.

His eyes followed a dirt track that led parallel to the river from the ranch property, then became a street named Elkhorn Avenue leading into the village of Estes Park itself, just past a river bend. That little town, which also held a fond place in his heart already, consisted of no more than a handful of livery stables, several ambitious wooden hotels, and a scattering of homesteads along a marshy meadow by this same river, where it converged with another flow called the Big Thompson River.

The rustic community offered few amenities, hosted some wild characters, and was characterized by a strong odor of manure, along with abundant horseflies.

Pennmarten had spent most of the summer—since early June when he arrived—at Elkhorn Ranch. He availed himself of his hosts, Mr. Daniel Hood and his wife Flora, for all of his needs. He could afford their best hospitality and travelled with three personal servants, who required quarters of their own apart from his. As proprietors of the accommodations the Hoods had done surprisingly well for him—with Mrs. Jamison’s expert help, of course.

“Lordship,” the three male servants that came with him from England still called him, faithful retainers all, however Pennmarten felt himself “modern” not to expect such language from his new American acquaintances, plus he had learned how awkward, ignorant, and sometimes resistant American proved in this matter.

He spent the days, the weeks, indolently, hunting or rambling in the exquisite canyons and gorges. Sometimes he stared into pristine alpine lakes for hours on end. In fact, he enjoyed more solitude during this period than ever before in his entire existence. His senses and perceptions seemed purified, cleansed of certain kinds of civilized artifice and compromise.

This had all felt quite exquisite until—surprising himself!—he discovered that he very much loved someone else, while he despised himself, he felt horribly wicked for the disparity of emotions. Pennmarten had been raised and educated within a formal boy’s school system that sought to narrow its victims, to prepare them for specified roles with appropriate prejudices. The system sought to dehumanize them to the extent required to fulfill their careers, thus the education isolated common feelings within manageable parameters of denial.

Since his graduation, rather that pursue a college career, as a delay tactic at the very least, he employed his wealth and privilege to broaden his perspectives with travel. He had shattered all of his preconceptions about the general nature of humanity during journeys to the Far East, primarily amid the gaudy contrasts of fabled India. Then on the return towards home, he spent some months in Ottoman Egypt, which seemed to him haunted by enigmas largely forgotten and explicitly undead, yet profoundly mysterious. The humanity could still be seen in both relics of the past and the present lives of the people, though it remained unavailable to him in each case identically.

The superiority he had always been taught he possessed remained a barrier.

Only now he had at last come alive in new and unexpected ways without being forced to discard his own heritage, in the American West: Colorado! No previous experiences could have prepared him for the chaste, magnificent terrain of the Rocky Mountains.

Presently, in the midst of muted and uncertain consideration, Pennmarten began to hear something that lay below the conscious threshold of his mind. Reacting without really thinking, he flicked his wrist to gently tug the reins, and nudged a boot heel to indicate to his mount that he wished to go downslope on the trail they had earlier ascended. Thus without specific purpose they trotted through the afternoon light; butterflies flashed their last swirls of the season; the river tumbled with a hiss of rocks and poured into deeper pools. He fought the sudden clearer foreboding that sought to clutch his heart amid the potent ambience of the place.

An irrational dread trickled upward from the saddle, through his groin, into his belly.

On top of the mare, which he whimsically considered a sort of friend by now, the Earl trotted down the trail and slowed to splash across a wide, shallow ford of the river. He allowed his mount to find her footing carefully, then emerged onto a spread of level soil that led to the sandy bank where the barn stood, and approached the split-rail corral.

By the hitching posts in front of the barn, he spied the French wrangler Devereaux astride a nervous palomino. He knew Devereaux as a stinky, unwashed man with an unshaven face, hardly more than a boy really, whose furtive eyes made him suspicious of the man’s past; still, their mutual dislike and differences had never come to the fore. The French-Canadian cowboy was of a low class, uneducated and not worthy of his contempt, though of course, Devereaux’s remarkable way with horses counted as a distinct asset to the stables of the lodge. The mounts and the wrangler shared their animal nature, in a manner that excluded the cultured Englishman.

As the Earl trotted alongside the corral, he heard a melodious baying of excited hounds on the hunt, from the higher ground west of the barn. He recognized the noble voices of the dogs that he himself had bred and trained, two of them bear hunting hounds, the rest fox hounds, and he took great trouble to bring across the ocean. This pack had been raised together. The animals represented his pride and joy, brought all the way from England for the unsurpassed sport to be found in the Rockies.

The lyrical canine song of pursuit approached swiftly through the trees of Deer Ridge: the sound carried something truly savage that he had never heard from them before, a shrill and bloodthirsty tone, like an actual hunt underway, closing in for the kill.

The Earl wondered how the dogs had escaped the control of his manservants.

Astride the palomino, Devereaux seemed to await his approach to no good end, spat tobacco juice onto the ground in his path, reeled the skittish, high-string Palomino around, and contempt narrowed his eyes.

The Earl frowned and looked about himself in confusion. “You’ll show me some respect,” he called out to the wrangler, “when this place belongs to me.”

“You think you’re better than other people,” Devereaux said; his thick accent in itself set him apart from most other Americans Pennmarten had encountered. “Don’t you, Lordship?” The gruff tone had turned actively belligerent, and the title was added with a sneer of contempt. “Don’t you, with all your high-born ways and fancified airs?” The cowboy’s dark brown eyes flashed with a triumphant light.

In truth, Devereaux himself had almost forgotten his own unfortunate origins until this last summer: born in France, came to America as a boy, then roughly resentfully fostered by frontiersmen, horsemen, a humorless Catholic priest, compelled to perform the work of a man long before he reached puberty. Only from animals had he learned anything that resembled love. The prey animals such as horses, he identified with, he understood. At present this Earl struck him as a predator, a killer by choice. Devereaux’s deep suspicion towards all of humanity seemed frequently justified during the brief existence he viewed as uniquely cursed, yet hard work and excessive drinking had served well to help him forget almost everything—until the Earl arrived.

Devereaux admired the man’s dogs, though he felt they had been excessively trained for only a specialized blood sport.

Pennmarten himself had stirred resentments deeper in the wrangler’s breast than he could even begin to understand.

Startled by the scorn on the young wrangler’s face and in his tone, Pennmarten sidled closer, perplexed and prepared to protest. However, due to the intensity and urgency of the sound, which became an unearthly chorus of hysteria, both men upon uneasy mounts turned towards the earnest, immanent regaling of canine throats.

Voices of the dogs chorused, pealed, ripped a hole in quietude of the afternoon.

The Earl stiffened, upright in his stirrups, for he recognized the unmitigated frenzy for the kill; his heart stumbled, his bowels threatened to explode.

All at once, everything felt terribly wrong.

Devereaux’s face had gone ashen, wild-eyed. He appeared a frightened boy despite his downy whiskers. He hurled an expression of loathing at Pennmarten, for which the Earl felt too stunned to return anything but his own bewilderment.

The wrangler yelped, “You ain’t any better’n me, Your Lordship! You piss in the pot or on a tree, same as me!”

“Is there any comparison to be made?” The Earl heard himself respond, only too softly to be heard or noticed over the growing din.

The unholy yammer of the hounds reached a fever pitch as they burst from the trees; in a single rippling wave of animal strength they flung themselves as fast as they could bound, down the slope. The pack raged towards the two mounted men.

In terror, the palomino reared up on its back legs and tossed the wrangler from his saddle. He flipped off sideways, with a boot hooked in the stirrup, the horse bolted, then dragged the man facedown for perhaps a dozen yards before he fell free. Already the man lay badly bloodied, his face half scoured off. Rampant hounds chased the horse past the corral while others circled the fallen man, snapped and ripped at his motionless figure on the ground.

When the Earl’s mount reared, he remained in balance and stood higher in the stirrups, though his handsome face stretched and flushed with horror. He screamed commands at his dogs to desist, which they ignored, ripping into the Frenchman’s body and shaking their heads as if famished and feasting. The Earl fumbled behind himself, and managed to rip his rifle free of its leather sleeve across the back of his saddle.

Until this point, no one had noticed that Titania Jamison, the housekeeper for Elkhorn Lodge, stood near the firs and ponderosas on the low bluff that overlooked the corral at the west side. Head enclosed in a small, plain bonnet, her pale face appeared serene, hands clasped before the ruffled black dress and white apron as if in prayer. This imposing, confident woman whom everyone respected, whom some people feared, seemed unaffected, or at least untroubled, by the grisly scene that unfolded just below her.

Her most striking feature was the extremely beautiful pair of eyes on a round and otherwise rather plain face; those eyes, quite large for the face, remarkably alert and clear, however upon close encounter often struck an observer as somehow coldly observant. The sparkle of confidence concealed a variety of mistrust with roots invisibly deep.

She unfolded her hands and raised them.

A low humming that was not quite a song, more like the buzz arising from an agitated beehive came from deep within the throat of Titania Jamison.

She began to chant quietly, yet clearly and rapidly, almost under her breath, words that merged with the continued hum: “Sacrifices must be made, lest the balance be betrayed…” Within moments she finished the invocation.

The dogs that leaped and snarled at the horses, that growled and ripped jaws at the fallen Devereaux, abruptly fell silent, grew still.

The animals turned to face her as one.

Though the mare still shuddered and stamped her unease beneath him, Robert Pennmarten’s stricken eyes lifted in search of the cause of his hunting pack’s unnatural abatement of their attack, this seemingly unnatural quiescence that overcame them. He had raised his rifle in both hands and aimed it at the dogs, but could not shoot for fear of instead killing the wrangler. His weapon sank before him as he scanned about.

He saw Mrs. Jamison on the eastern rise with both hands lifted.

The animals had utterly desisted from their attack, whined low, and now trotted towards the woman, mutely, meekly drawn to her as if on invisible threads.

Pennmarten felt a chill of foreboding, as much as deep relief, at the woman’s evident ability to subdue and summon his hounds. While perhaps he should have felt purely glad that they had been controlled, her manner of doing it, hands raised and still audibly humming, terrified him in totally different ways than the actual attack.

Somehow the chastisement by Devereaux humiliated him deeply, in a manner he had never allowed an ordinary, common person to do to him.

He felt that his soul had almost been lost amid this horrifying spectacle.

Yet now, Mrs. Jamison commanded every particle of his attention, drew him like iron filings to a magnet in a manner he could not avoid, just as she drew the dogs to her.

Suddenly he did not know what to think of this woman.

He rapidly dismounted, with a few strides led the mare to a hitching-post, where he expertly twirled the reins around it with a swift, practiced gesture. Pennmarten seemed to feel an actual physical pressure of Mrs. Jamison’s regard, though he turned and ran to where Devereaux lay face-down in the dirt. He laid aside his weapon, knelt beside the fallen figure, whose front side he dreaded to see, though the vicious tears of clothing and flesh along the back and sides were bad enough to horrify any sensitive soul.

While his own heart hammered in distress, he managed to swiftly determine that the wrangler breathed indeed.

Then, irresistibly, Pennmarten’s attention shifted, just as a sheet pulls around a sail on the rigging of a ship, drawn over his shoulder, he felt tilted in her direction.

As the pack approached her, Mrs. Jamison began to move slowly, she walked without haste towards the root cellar where they slept at night, for protection from wild animals. The dogs surrounded her, followed her onto the low rise below the cabins, some distance north and east from the schoolhouse.

She bent, lifted the cellar door, the pack streamed past her into their shelter, then silently she closed the door upon them.

Pennmarten felt at that moment that he should be tending the mutilated Devereaux. Then he heard other voices and feet moving towards him, while his heart in his chest felt like a thorny tangle of dread inextricable without terrible, perhaps mortal damage.

Still in the silent thunder of his head he thought: The hounds no longer belong to me—if they ever truly did.

(CONTINUED…)

© Bruce P. Grether 2010-2015 / All Rights Reserved