This Old Man

The ghost town of Milnet looked deserted but Mark knew the old codger was around. Old Stan would endure forever living alone with the bears and dead residents in the long forgotten graveyard.
Mark parked his Dodge, half-ton truck before the twisted metal gates, wary of his tires on rusty nails and barbed wire. Stepping out of the cab, he hesitated. A heavy stillness hung in the air. The dreary daylight combined with an unnatural quiet sent eerie fingers tapping up and down his spine.
Smoke seeped from every crevice of the cracked chimney before it billowed out the leaning rain cap of the only habitable camp. He glanced at the two other decrepit shacks. No shelter there for hunters or fishermen.
When the hot stench of fresh blood and gore wafted toward him on the spring breeze he frowned and peered around once more. Taking shallow breaths he picked up the rusty smell of old blood still lingering in the leaden air. He shook off his unnerving thoughts, turned and strode toward the cemented pelt shed.
Mark shook his head, resigned to the old man’s lifestyle. Before the lumber town’s gradual demise in the 1940’s, it had boasted 200 busy inhabitants, dwindling in the 1950’s to one person—his reclusive Uncle Stanley.
“Hey, Stan. You here?”
The old fellow shuffled out of the shed, rubbing a bloody, wet hand over his scraggly, grey beard, leaving bits of flesh and fur stuck in the grizzled hair. He grumbled. “Where in tarnation ya think I be?”
“Frozen in the bush after that harsh winter. You’re nuts living out here alone.”
“I keep busy. I finished scooping out the guts of my last muskrat.”
Mark grimaced, then shrugged. “Anyway, snow’s gone and spring promises rain and fresh air, usually.” He covered his nose. “Driving here I inhaled earth and pine smells, then I tried to stop breathing. This place reeks worse than a morgue without disinfectant.”
The old man waved Mark into the shed. “Sure and the dead wife’s native ancestors be some proud. Look here.” Burlap bags littered the floor while others hung on ropes along the walls. “Got my winter quota: martin, muskrat, otter, weasel, mink, even couple lynx. Lots of beavers and rabbits.” The old man spat on the dirt floor. “Skimmed off all the fat and gristle fore I stretched and tacked the pelts.”
Mark wrinkled his nose. “Phew! Guess you had enough to eat.”
“Bugger that. You only eat rabbit, beaver and muskrat cause they don’t taste so fishy.” Stan glared. “I sell the furs. Extra cash adds to that bitsy railroad pension.”
How do you dispose of the leftover carrion? The animals will tear down your shed to feast on the entrails.”
“Bah, I built this here shed. It be sturdier than my cabin.” He patted a greasy, blood-stained hand on the walls with pride. “Still, I don’t tempt nature. No, I pile the skinned bodies on a flat sleigh and drag the remains up past the graveyard, dump them for the scavengers. Makes for a good excuse to visit the wife. Just say a quick prayer and bugger off home.”
He rubbed a grimy sleeve under his dripping nose. “Not that I’m leery of her ghost but I swear sometimes in the thick mist I sure fancy other forms hovering over those tilting tombstones. Like reminding me that I be coming soon to join them.” Stan shrugged, resigned to his end. “I got to live a lot more years than those others in that graveyard.”
“Besides,” he added, “It ain’t smart to linger. The rotting odour attracts animals. I seen wolf and coyote tracks in the snow. Crows and hawks rip up the leftovers before I’m three steps gone.”
“Surprised they don’t attack you on such pleasant deliveries.” Mark backed out of the shed, its smell overpowering. “You must be glad summer’s coming, warm weather—and mosquitos.”
Stanley snorted. “Sure and the damn bugs suck out my life blood.”
“Well I brought you the jacket and head netting you ordered. Even got you some marigolds.”
“Flowers?” he sputtered. “ Pretty—smelling—flowers?” The old man’s grizzled jaw wagged. “That crap takes up garden space.”
“Their smell repels insects, read it in the news. Put a patch near your dingy shack.” Mark handed him the bags. “I also brought you a marine calendar to spot the best fishing days.”
“I’m over eighty years old and lived most of that in this here bush by water. Why in hell I need scientific nonsense to fish?” He muttered. “Next you’ll be bringing me a schedule to piss.”
Mark laughed and glanced at the tall weeds pushing up through broken concrete slabs and odd chimney rubble. In the distance the burnt and crumbling ruins of the old lumber mill cast a gloomy shadow over the forlorn, dead town. He grinned at his cranky uncle. “Where are your bears, Stan? No blueberries yet for them to gorge on and you’re too tough to chew.”
“They eat grass first, then fish and grubs after hibernating.” The old man smiled, showing very few teeth left in his mouth. He liked the bears. “The females be shy with their cubs. The males guard their territory.”
“Well, let’s load your smelly pelts and breeze the town. I’ll buy you some beer and get you drunk. You must be out of supplies?”
“Ran out of oatmeal and flour late winter, couldn’t make bannock. One sunny day I snow shoed the seven miles to town.” His uncle licked dry lips. “Guzzled a couple beers to keep warm, but should have brought the sled. I was doubled over with that packsack the entire way home.”
They dragged the sled of animal pelts past rusting railway cars long abandoned on broken sidings, startling coiled snakes that basked in the weak sun trying to absorb any heat from the warm metal rails.
Once loaded Mark drove the truck in low gear to wend their way down the rutted grassy road. “I need to crawl over this rotten one lane bridge and balance the truck’s weight. The cold and wet must have shifted it.”
The old man guffawed. “Hope you don’t meet all my friends and relatives driving over it to visit me.”
“You don’t have other relatives, you old coot. That’s why I check on you. You don’t have any friends either.”
“The ghosts be enough company, I’m thinking.”
In town they packed the pelts to ship out by train. Mark loaded beer cases along with fresh fruits, vegetables and other staples. Uncle Stan bought vegetable seeds and some garden supplies. He frowned at Mark. “Marigolds! Bah!”
On the last warm June day, Mark, returning for a planned fishing trip, climbed out of his truck at the broken gate and crammed on his cap. The pressing stillness made him pause and scan the bushes. He spotted a large black bear, standing at full height, just staring at him from the long forest grass. He jumped back in his truck and shattered the quiet with a blast of the horn. The huge animal turned, dropped down, and disappeared into the dense pine bush.
Mark stretched over the fishing tackle, pulled out his rifle and loaded it. He tramped down to the isolated shacks, while keeping a close watch, but no more bears—no uncle either.
“Maybe the old man’s at the river?” Mark spoke aloud to break the eerie silence. Stan had to pull up his minnow traps and drag out the canoe, or he could be visiting his Ojibwa wife’s grave.
Keeping a wary eye on his surroundings, he trudged by underbrush and trees on the well-trodden trail toward the town’s abandoned cemetery. One bright spot of yellow colour caught his eye—a thick patch of flowers, the marigolds. On seeing a dubious bundle next to the flowers, he halted before edging forward to the clearing. His uncle’s body, looking stiff and cold, lay curled on his side by his wife’s grave. He bent to touch the shrunken remains of a beloved but cantankerous relative, glad his uncle looked peaceful and not dead by an animal attack. Mark gazed around at the overgrown weeds and brush covering the few desolate, sunken graves of people long gone. Had they been waiting for his uncle?
Mark shook himself, cancelling the bizarre thoughts. “Couldn’t the sentimental coot just die in bed like a normal person? No, he had to come and lie down beside the flowers, beside his wife.” Mark stood and felt the hot sunrays beat through his light shirt. He accepted this old man’s departure with a mixture of sadness and relief. It was a good ending for Uncle Stan.
His eyes swept the dense, dark forest before gazing up at the surrounding harsh, scrubby hills. He tensed. When a shadow of movement flickered on the hill, his hand jerked to the rifle’s safety. A black bear, on all fours, posed there watching him—quiet as a sentinel. Maybe, the bear guarded his uncle’s body. “I won’t harm him, Mr. Bear,” he whispered. “But, I’ll shoot if you come any closer.” He sure didn’t share his uncle’s affinity for these wild, unpredictable animals. The bear didn’t move, just stared back at him. He would have to return with help to lay Uncle Stan to rest beside his beloved wife.
In the ominous quiet Mark glanced around once more at the bushes and old forsaken graves, desolate compared to the patch of the bright yellow shroud. He still managed to keep a keen watch on the motionless bear.
He took a steadying breath and eased sideways back down the trail, both hands clamped on his rifle. He could no longer see his uncle’s body or the graves or the bear. As he left the trodden path he sighed in relief and hurried toward his truck in the open field. Without warning the hot sun receded behind a dark cluster of clouds and a weird current of air stirred the hairs along his arms. The enveloping breeze increased in volume to shriek past his ears and swirl in a frenzy around the treetops. When Mark halted and swung back around he saw that the eerie blast of wind had bent the bushes inward and obliterated the entrance to the pathway.