The Whiskey Bottle in the Wall: Volume 3 is now available for Kindle. The final four stories in my Secrets of Marienstadt series include The Legend of Father Cuneo's Grave, The Reluctant Belsnickel of Opelt's Wood, Wapiti, and A Long Day's Journey into Light. Each of the stories is complete unto itself but read together and with the stories in the previous Volumes 1 and Volume 2 they create a novel with an exciting climax.
This excerpt is from Wapiti, the 10th story in the series. In it Oliver Eberstark has stopped to visit Blaise Hanes, a local taxidermist and authority on Native American lore. Oliver has been taken to task by Judge Hamilton Buerk for refusing to let hunters into Opelt's Wood during elk season. In this section Oliver tells Blaise why he is so protective of elk.
Blaise took a stool on the other side of the table. “It's good to see you. It must be ten years. I was sorry to hear about your grandfather passing. He was a great man.”
Oliver signed the check and nodded as he passed it across the table. “That he was. He lived a good, full life but it was still sad to see him go.”
“Those are the kind that leave the biggest hole when they pass on. They take a serious chunk of life with them.” He glanced at the check and widened his eyes. “Are you sure about this?”
Oliver laughed. “I charged him an arm and a leg and even that was cheap for what he got. Plus I tacked on an aggravation charge because he's been trying to talk me into letting his buddies hunt elk on my land and I won't do it.”
“Good for you. Your grandfather would like that.”
Oliver let his eyes wander around the room. “It's a strange thing. I've been a hunter all my life but, other than wounded animals that needed to be put down, I've never killed one unless I planned to eat it. But where elk are concerned, I don't know... I'd have to be awfully damn hungry.” He sat silent for a minute and then said, “Grandpop always said elk were mystical beings.”
“Your grandpop had a good reason for thinking that.”
Oliver looked up at him, his pale blue eyes meeting Blaise's dark ones. “I wondered if he ever told you his story.”
Blaise nodded. “Some of it. A long time ago.”
“What did you think about it?” Oliver felt a chill, a familiar chill that he knew came from talking about things that made him uncomfortable.
“I believe every word of it. Not just because your grandfather was a man whose word I'd trust without reservation but because I've heard stories like his before. I always suspected he told me because he knew I wouldn't be surprised.”
Oliver let out a slow breath. “I've never talked about it with anyone but him. I always thought people would think either he was a liar or that I was.”
“Why don't you tell me the story the way he told it to you?”
Oliver cleared his throat.
Thaddeus Eberstark was seven years old when it happened. He was the youngest child in his family and his father, for whom Oliver was named, founded the Eberstark Sawmill. Young Thad grew up in Opelt's Wood and, from the time he could walk, he had the run of the woods. It was nothing, he told Oliver, for him to take off early in the morning with a bucket to gather berries and nuts, or with a fishing pole, and not come back until the sun was going down. He said his parents never worried about him. He wondered sometimes if they even noticed he was missing.
It was mid-November and the weather had been mild when he decided to go in search of chestnuts and wild mushrooms. He knew where there were oak trees that had hens-of-the-woods growing along their base and he took it into his head to gather some for his mother. Maybe she would fix them with some chestnuts for dinner that night. Thad loved wild mushrooms and knew more about foraging for them than most adults did. He learned how to cook them and, to his dying day, he thought there was nothing more delicious than wild mushrooms fried in butter with garlic and leeks. That morning he put on a warm sweater, grabbed his bucket, and set off through the woods. Back then most people were fair at predicting the weather but when a cold front came out of nowhere it took everyone by surprise.
He was having a good afternoon foraging. He'd found some large hens and was filling the rest of his bucket with chestnuts as it started getting dark. He knew that it was also getting colder but he was a kid and, like most kids, he could ignore the cold when he was busy having fun. Then the snow started. He said it came so hard and so fast that he was nearly blinded by it. He was a good little woodsman but he was not prepared for the storm that was bearing down on him. In the cold and the dark he was soon confused, and terrified, and a very long way from home.
He knew he was in big trouble. He was slipping and falling. He lost his bucket and all its contents. He knew that the only hope he had of staying alive was to find some place safe, out of the wind, to try to weather out the night. He crawled under a hemlock tree and huddled up against its trunk. The wind wasn't as bad there, and the snow wasn't stinging his face, but it was a lot of hours until it would be light again. He was freezing and certain he was going to die.
Then he heard something coming through the woods. He knew enough to know the sounds of a woodland creature from those of the storm and he began to tremble in genuine fear. The only thing worse, he thought, than freezing to death, would be to be eaten alive. He was quite convinced that any bear or coyote, who happened to be out wandering around, would be happy to find a nice, juicy boy – even a small, skinny one – to feast on. For the first time since the storm blew in, he began to cry. He buried his head in his arms so he didn't have to see what was coming for him and wept. He heard the animal drawing closer, snuffling through the branches of the trees. He knew they had found him when he felt the heat of a body – two bodies – one on either side of him. But nothing happened. No claws raked him, no teeth bit him, just two large, furry, and rather unpleasant smelling bodies pressed gently against his. He lifted his head and, though he could see little more than the shape of them, he recognized two female elk. They settled down quietly, sheltering him between their warm bodies.
At first he could not stop shaking as he waited for them to notice him. He waited for them to turn and take a bite out of him. He'd never heard of an elk eating a human but he was by no means sure they wouldn't. Slowly, as he nestled there in the warmth of them, he began to relax. He could feel their soft breathing and it comforted him. They stayed still and he found himself growing so limp and tired that he dropped off to sleep. He said it was one of the most peaceful nights of his life.
It was barely light when he was jostled awake by their movements as they stood up. The wind had stopped and he watched in astonishment as the two cows rose, ducked out from under the branches, and plodded off into the woods. He quickly scrambled out of the nest and got his bearings. He had not gone more than a few yards when he heard his oldest brother calling his name.
“Here,” he called, running toward the sound. “I'm up here.”
His entire family had been out hunting for him since the first light. When his brother saw him he fired a shot into the air – a signal that he was found – and then hugged him so hard he lifted him off the ground. Thad said he never knew his brother cared that much about him.
“You're in for a whipping,” his brother told him. “I can't believe you're alive.”
Thad told his brother the story of how he made it through the night. As he was telling it, his father and older sister came out of the trees.
“Come on,” he said grabbing his father's hand and pulling him toward the hemlock tree. “You'll see.”
He said that they didn't believe his story. When they got to the hemlock tree he pulled the branches aside. There in the snow were the unmistakable imprints of a boy's boots and bottom between the enormous hollows created by a pair of five hundred pound creatures resting in the snow.
He didn't get a whipping. In fact his entire family was so dumb-struck by what had happened that they treated him with a kind of religious awe. His mother cautioned him not to tell anyone or they would think he was mad and haul him off to the looney bin. Until the day he died Thad's brother called him “Elk Boy.”
Years later, when his parents were gone and Thad took over his father's sawmill, he mortgaged the mill in order to buy Opelt's Wood from old Wenzy Opelt. For the rest of his life Thad did everything he could do to protect the lives of any elk that lived on his land.
Blaise nodded slowly as Oliver finished his story. “That's pretty much the way Thad told it to me, too.”
“And you didn't doubt it?”
“Not for a second. Native Americans tell lots of stories about children and babies being saved by wild animals. A lot of animals know things we never give them credit for. They recognize the helplessness of young ones. The maternal instinct isn't prejudiced by species.”
Oliver took a deep breath. “It's such a strange story. I always wanted it to be true but...”
“But you were afraid people would laugh?”
“If it was my grandfather's story,” Blaise said quietly, “I'd tell it to everyone who'd listen. It's something to be proud of. It's like an honor bestowed on your family.” Read the rest of the story....