3 Jan., 2018 – Specter

Scott Summers365 Stories, Magical Realism

Image

Photo by Daniel Kainz on Unsplash


You’ll find Old Shepherd’s Road about three miles north of Jackman, Maine, a winding snake of a road that wends its way northeast through the uncharted, wild country.  It’s a summertime favorite for big game hunters, hikers, and like-minded outdoorsy types with a penchant for adventure and a mind to get lost.  The asphalt doubles back on itself, a narrow two-lane switchback where the trees hug the road so close it most places that an operational error or mechanical failure is likely to leave a driver smashed up against a wall of cedar and pine before they can correct their mistakes.  In the winter, when black ice settles on the asphalt, a single mistake can kill.

That’s how Old Shepherd’s Road got its name.

People around these parts hardly remember Ramey Shepherd, these days.  Hard to blame them.  He wasn’t a staple in Jackman, except maybe to cause trouble at the bait shop now and then, when Jimmy Hodges and his boys were gouging the price of worms and crickets and the like.

“Might as well go down to the river and pluck ‘em out of the mud myself for what you’re charging,” he harrumphed.  “Can’t a man fish without someone trying to steal his wallet?”

But Jimmy always laughed it off, just like he always did, and Ramey paid the piper, just like he always did.  Complaint or no, it was just a fact of the day.

That’s where I met Ramey for the first time.  I was new in town, out to collect a little bait of my own before I found a quiet little spot along the north side of Wood Pond for a morning of easy fishing.  When he saw me, Ramey looked me over with a slight frown and shook his head.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Where you from?”

“Concord.  New Hampshire.”

“Ah, a southern boy.”

“Not quite,” I said.

Ramey laughed.  “Around here, pretty much every newcomer is a southern boy.  Comes with the territory when you live this close to the northern border.  Now buy your bait, and come on.  There’s fishing to be done.”

And there was.  To this day, I don’t know why I went with him, but Ramey had that kind of impulse about him.  We retired to a nice fishing spot a few miles out of town — not along Wood Pond, as I intended, but along Heald Stream, where the rushing snowmelt made the river swell.  By midmorning, I had seen more brook trout that I care to remember.

Ramey and I got along well after that first encounter.  Our weekly fishing expeditions became a standing appointment, as fishing was second only to the lure of stalking big game — particularly the Specter Moose, a giant white bull said to roam the Maine coast.  Ramey discounted the coastal rumor with a snap of his fingers.

“No, that old bastard lives around here somewhere,” he said.  “I saw it once when I was a kid.  He’s here somewhere, and I’m going to find him.”

*

It was a cold day in late January when he call came in.  We’d packed up our poles and were headed out to an ice shack on Wood Pond when Ramey’s cell rang .  He answered it, bantered for a minute with the caller on the other line while he got the details, then took the phone out of his ear.

“That was a buddy of mine up toward Dennistown.  Thinks he saw a white moose moving south.  I’m going to head up there and check it out.  You’re welcome to come with.  You in?”

I nodded.

“Then let’s get to it.”

Ramey reversed his truck away from the pond and headed north.  Instead of taking the 201 to Dennistown, however, Ramey took us east along Moose River Road, darting out with some abandon through the unkempt winterscape.  The asphalt stretched before us like a winding black spine, the road a clear contrast to the gray skies and white powder.

I was about to question Ramey’s decision when the truck slowed and he eased us onto an unnamed road.  We call it Old Shepherd’s Road now, but back then, it was just one out of a dozen or so nameless roads in the backcountry.  In the days since the last snowstorm, a plow had cleared the road, but the truck slid on the black ice settled between us and the road itself.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked.

“We’re going to try to cut him off,” Ramey said.  “This is the only way to do it.”

And off we went.

It’s hard to say where Ramey went wrong.  I was in the truck with him, and I’m not sure I could explain the depth of his error — or the truth behind what we saw.  Out among that ice and asphalt , details get in the snow drift.  It was no different for us.

Ramey brought us around a sharp turn just ten minutes down the old road, and a lashing of snow and wind thicker than any I’d ever seen swept up around us.  Back around the bend, the air was calm.  Here, the wind howled and flurries danced around us, as though we’d skirted the edge of a freak storm and had only now crossed over that unseen threshold.  Even the edge of the forest — so close to the roadside — vanished in the whiteout.

“We should turn back,” I said.  “This isn’t natural.”

“Natural’s got nothing to do with it, kid,” Ramey said through gritted teeth.  “I came out here to see a moose, and I’m not leaving until—”

I felt the truck sliding long before Ramey tried to correct it.  When he did, he hauled against the wheel and stabbed at the brakes, then at the gas.  It was no use.  The truck bounded into the snow.  As the tires left the pavement, the sudden traction caused Ramey to jerk the wheel.  Suddenly, we were tumbling end over end until a wall of bark and evergreen caught us.

Pain lanced through my body as the truck hit the trees at speed.  I jostled hard against the door before my seatbelt caught me and the airbags deployed.  My shoulder snapped and my ribs broke against the force of the impact.  Then the world was still.

“Ramey,” I whispered.  “You okay?”

I craned my neck to look at him, but his head was slumped, his body limp.

I fumbled for my seatbelt, intending to free myself in order to tend to him, when something moving in the snowstorm caught my eye.  Looking up, I squinted through the howling wind and raging snow.  There, in the distance, a faint outline of a too-large moose passed along the roadside.  At the edge of the trees it craned its head toward the truck and vanished into the forest.

The storm passed a while later.  I dug Ramey’s phone out of his pocket and called for emergency services, but there was little they could do for old Ramey Shepherd.  He was pronounced dead at the scene, and I the only witness to what I saw and what we were doing out there that day.

“Just a fishing trip gone wrong,” I say when people ask, not knowing how to explain the truth.  “The brook trout and cusk are great this time of year.”