As the moon fought through the racing clouds, Sterrett found the trail again. For an hour, he had hugged a juniper, fearing a howling squall would catapult him down the dark and dangerous slope. If he had killed the bull elk with his first shot he wouldn't have to follow a blood trail in this unforeseen gale.
"I'll go as far as the plane wreck, and that's it," Sterrett shouted, so as to hear himself above the storm. The plane had crashed right after World War II and what was left of the fuselage was still strewn over much of the southwest side of the mountain. Everybody called the place "Airplane Ridge" but, no one seemed know much about the accident.
Oh yes, there had been the occasional legend of eerie sightings and strange sounds coming down the draws but, on this Halloween night, Sterrett chastised himself for not bringing an extra flashlight and concentrated on finding the wounded animal and heading for his hunting camp.
Finally, at midnight Sterrett approached the crash site. He was wet, out of breath and felt anxious. Lightning danced around the elk, 50 feet away. He drew closer, threw the beam on it, and watched. Sterrett knew the bull was dead and dressed it out. He'd quartered it and hoisted one quarter onto his back when an unearthly screech came from behind him. Alarmed he bolted down the slope.
Instinct told Sterrett to move out fast. His neck hairs did the hokey pokey with a new crop of goose bumps. It's probably only a cougar, he thought, loping down the ridge. He kept tripping and sliding. The windstorm masked any warning sounds so when something heavy and strong seized his shoulder, Sterrett's heart turned to ice.
He was being dragged up the hill. The hunk of elk ripped off his back. Mud, rain and undulating movement kept him from being able to see his tormentor. Over outcroppings and through thickets he was pulled by a mighty force. His shoulder throbbed and panic was enveloping him.
Suddenly, he was released. Lying still, Sterrett slowly opened his eyes. A pair of vintage aviator boots came into focus. Sterrett blinked away the rain. Near him was a fiery apparition in tattered World War II aviator clothing. Chunks of body pieces dropped off it like melted plastic but the wraith held its ghastly shape.
A high-pitched cacophony blasted him. The bloated reek of a thousand graveyards settled on Sterrett like a shroud. He scrambled backward, flinging mud everywhere. The specter raised a ragged disjoined limb and pointed at two small oval objects glinting on the disturbed ground near Sterrett. Salvaging his nerve, he grabbed them. He rubbed the dirt from one. They were duplicates linked by a metal chain. Stamped on them were the words:
Navy dog tags. His grandfather's. Commander Cole J. Sterrett, pilot of a Hellcat F6F and MIA for 57 years.
Sterrett looked up as the ghostly visage faded away.
Kristy St. Clair lives in Izee with her husband, Phil. There was an actual plane crash somewhere on their ranch in 1945. Upon researching the incident, Kristy said, "I couldn't find out who the pilot was, even though I was going to use a fictitious name anyway. The type of plane, the rank of the pilot, the crash date are all true. It did happen in October during hunting season, although probably not on Halloween. A friend, 13 at the time, was hunting here with his dad and heard it go down during a thunderstorm. Local ranchers got to the site first. I thought it was a fun premise to build on."