“...and from that moment on, no one, but no one, was able to sleep again due to the ghost howl of the demon dog.”
The five young campers were sitting around the campfire which was now dwindling. Their eyes were wide, filled with wonderment and fear. Their storyteller sat across from them, his deep brown eyes locked onto the kids, stroking his beard with one hand while the other stoked the fire.
“Is that true, Uncle Bill?” the youngest camper asked, his voice trembling.
Bill Fowler nodded solemnly.
“I swear that it's true. Would I tell you a story if it wasn't true?”
Four of the boys shook their heads while the eldest boy gave a cynical snort of laughter. Bill looked over at his only son, twelve years of age and already a cynic.
“They're just campfire stories, Dad,” he said. “Just tall tales. Nothing more.” Bill arched an eyebrow. His son was becoming more like his mother every day.
He was about to argue with him when his son continued by asking if he could tell another story. “Tall tales or not, they're fun,” he concluded.
Bill shook his head. “Nah, it's getting late and we have a long hike ahead of us tomorrow.” For added measure, Bill yawned.
There was a bit of grumbling, but eventually the boys agreed and climbed into their tents. They had spent nearly two hours hiking up the mountain to a remote campsite. They had spent another two hours unpacking and setting up the tents while Bill had built a fire and gathered firewood.
They loved being on their annual wilderness retreat, but they were dead tired. Also, they knew that they would be spending the next evening sitting around the fire while Uncle Bill told them more ghost stories. Three nights of campfire stories was something every boy longed for.
“Night, boys,” Bill said as his son zipped the tent. Within minutes, he could hear the soft snoring coming from within the tent.
Bill stood up, stretched and scratched the back of his head. “Damn mosquitoes,” he said, feeling the bite mark. He picked up a pail of water that sat beside him and poured it over the fire, extinguishing the remaining flames.
He began to think about the next morning and all the fun activities he had in store for the boys. Swimming, hiking, canoeing. He smiled. They boys were going to love it. Much more fun than sitting home with their Xbox and Wii or whatever it was they were playing these days.
Suddenly, a mysterious sight captured his attention. Bill rubbed his eyes. A shooting star? He wondered, and squinted into the distance. But when he caught sight of it again he knew it wasn't. It was a tiny ball of light. Yellow, like the daisies. It bobbed slowly around the perimeter of the low, rugged mountains that bordered the opposite shore of the lake.
Bill rubbed his tired eyes again and took a deep breath. When he looked up, the light had vanished. Before there was even time to breath a sigh of relief, the light was back and it had company. Two minutes later, the glowing orbs bounced unevenly around the side of the mountain. Bill forgot about crawling into his sleeping bag. He suddenly wasn't tired. Instead he reached for his binoculars in order to take a better look.
Less than an hour later, there were six orbs bouncing along the rugged mountain range, and Bill was scared. Not worried or concerned, but truly terrified. Shit scared. So scared that he rouse the boys from their deep sleeps.
“Come on,” he said softly. “Everybody up. There's a change of plans.”
The boys grumbled and argued but got up anyway. They hugged their bodies for warmth as they stood in front of what was once a roaring fire. “What is it, Dad?” Bill's son asked.
Bill, who was busy dismantling the tents, didn't reply at first. Once the first tent was down, and packed he nodded to the sky. “There's a storm coming,” he said gruffly. “So we have to head back to the lodge.”
All the boys looked to the sky which was clear and full of stars. “Dad, there's no clouds,” Bill's son complained. “It took us two hours to get up here, and it'll take two hours to get back. Maybe even longer seeing as we're walking in the middle of the night.”
Bill frowned. Everything his son said was true. “If we move now, I'll tell you another story,” he said, hoping against all hope that bribing the boys would get them to move. He knew they were tired. He was too. But they had to leave now.
It was the nudge they needed because fifteen minutes later, the boys were dressed and were loading up their packs. Five minutes later they began their dangerous trip back to the lodge. Bill and the two eldest boys held the flashlights and lead the way, holding the hands of the younger boys.
“Tell us the story now, Uncle Bill,” said the youngest boy, eager to hear the story.
Bill cleared his throat. “It all happened about four hundred years ago,” he began, “to a party of settlers who were travelling through here on their way to the west coast. There were two families, they say, who had banded together to make the hard journey. Unfortunately, not one of these people knew the area or a good path to take through these mountains. They eventually decided to pass through here, on the north side of the lake.”
“But that's dangerous!” one of the boys said. “Didn't they know how steep and rocky that path is?”
Bill smiled. His repeated lectures about never wandering around to the north side of the lake had not landed on deaf ears after all.
“No, they didn't know,” he said. “They had no one to tell them that. So, there they were, trying to negotiate goats and donkeys on a slippery and narrow path. The goats wanted nothing to do with it and the horses on which some settlers were riding, got so skittish that they had to blindfold them and lead them along the trail. Step by step, their situation was already bad, but it was going to get worse.
“It was late in the fall and the weather was growing colder by the minute. The settlers had wrapped themselves in a few layers of clothing and blankets in order to stay warm. Reality is, they weren't really prepared for the winter conditions. After all, they were sure that they would be happily set up beside the Pacific Ocean before the first snow arrived. But that was another thing they didn't know about these mountains. The weather can change so quickly up here. And as they were inching their way along the path, trying not to fall into the freezing lake below, the weather did just that. It changed and a storm of epic proportions blew in.
“It was one of those blizzards that happens once every hundred years or so. The kind where the wind whips tiny icicles at your face and you can't see the person that's standing directly in front of you. They didn't know it until it was too late. They were halfway around the mountain by the time it struck. The sky was so dark and the wind began to gust. They couldn't stay where they were because there wasn't any room on the ledge to sit or to make a fire. They sure as hell couldn't set up a tent or a bed for the night. So they just kept going they prayed that the weather would let up.
“But it didn't. In fact, it went on for hours. The snow was blowing so furiously that they were blinded by it. They were literally feeling their way along the path. Eventually, they grew so afraid of taking a wrong step on the trail that they slowed down to a dead stop. They clung to the mountain side, feeling their hands and faces go numb from the blistering cold, while the ice and snow found its way down their collars and up their sleeves. The men and women who were leading the group knew that everyone was going to freeze to death if they didn't do something. So they did the only thing they could do. They took their lanterns out. Now, that may not sound brave or daring but it was. Just standing still was precarious enough at that point; digging though the saddlebags on skittery horses was like walking a tightrope between two planes thirty thousand feet in the air. The other problem was they had very little kerosene. They had been conserving it for weeks. Matches were also in short supply, but still they unpacked them too.
“The wind was howling and the snow was blowing so hard that it took a few tries to light one lantern wick. But they did it, and then they lit another and another and another until the path was lit by little yellow orbs of light. Once the lanterns were spread out, each of them could see a little better. Plus they had something to follow. They could tell when there was a dip or a bend coming up. The terrain was just as dangerous, but it couldn't surprise them much.
“But maybe that was the problem. You see, everyone was almost hypnotically following the lamp that was in front of them. Because the group came to this little slope that had gotten real slick because of the ice. The fellow that was leading, he started edging down the path, real slow and easy, but then he lost his footing and slipped, falling straight down into the lake, taking his lantern with him. His family watched in horror as that light disappeared over the side of the mountain. Some people even say that others leaned over with their lanterns, to keep the fallen light in their sights and they lost their balance. They fell screaming into the black waters of the icy lake below.
“By the time the storm had passed and the group had made it through the treacherous mountain pass, they were missing more than half their number. And they say that the ones who died along the pass are doomed to relive their terrifying final hours for all eternity. Doomed to follow the leading lantern. People know this because they've seen the eerie glow of the lanterns, bouncing over the rocky terrain of the mountain side. They call them the 'lost lanterns' because they are the lost souls of the settlers who never made it through the storm.”
There was a few moments of silence as each of the boys looked at one another. Bill's son tugged on his fathers sleeve. “Did that really happen?” he asked his father. Bill nodded and told them all that they could look it up once they got back to the lodge. Bill's son tugged his sleeve again. “Have you ever seen them?” he asked, his voice soft, his eyes wide with fear.
“Just once,” was all Bill said.
As they approached the lodge, Bill could see a helicopter on standby. “What's going on?” he called out.
Bill's wife, Jody, rushed to her husband's side, wrapping her arms around him, kissing him tenderly. Bill, unsure of how to react, returned her kiss. “Maybe I should go camping more often,” he joked. Jody swatted her husband playful on the arm. “There's a big storm brewing,” she told him, ushering him and the children towards the lodge. “They say it's the worst one they've seen in nearly two hundred years. I told everyone that you and the boys were up on the mountain, so the rangers were going to launch a rescue operation.”
Bill looked into his wife's eyes. Tears were beginning to form. He touched her cheek before kissing her. “How did you find your way in the dark?” she asked. “More importantly, how did you know you had to come back?”
Bill sat down on the lodge step. “I saw the 'lost lanterns',” he told her.
Jody went pale. She knew the legend too. She knew the part that Bill hadn't seen fit to tell the boys. It had long been believed that the 'lost lanterns' had served as a dire warning. Those souls who had perished in the mountain lake more than four centuries before showed their lanterns for only one reason: to signal that a vicious and deadly storm was approaching.
“How many?” she asked. Bill held up his left hand plus the index finger on his right hand. Jody's eyes grew wide with fear. “All of you,” she whispered and Bill nodded.
Bill's hands began to shake as the fear of what just happened set in. For it was true what the legend said about how the spirits personalise the omen.
They did it by showing one lantern.....for every person who was about to die.