Old Man Forester
"Don't hunt in Pamo Valley. That’s Old Man Forester’s ranch, and he would just as soon shoot you on sight as not if he finds you hunting on his place without permission."
Pamo is a remote Southern California valley. Hunting there was a jealously guarded privilege reserved for family members and a few select friends. Trespassers weren’t welcome, but the temptation to hunt was just too much for one avid woodsman to resist.
Lean and fit, Jack was a fisherman by trade and a dedicated sportsman during deer hunting season. He heard the warnings to steer clear of the valley and was willing to take his chances. In the predawn hours of a Saturday morning, he and a couple of buddies parked their jeep at the valley's edge and trekked down onto the ranch.
Mrs. Ellingwood lived in a lovely adobe home mid-way through the valley but had no ownership interest in the ranch or its operations. Just as she sank into her favorite chair to enjoy the morning’s first cup of coffee, she was interrupted by a rap on her front door. Wondering who could be disturbing her at such an early hour, Mrs. Ellingwood put her coffee aside and struggled out of her chair. She strolled across the room, opened the door, and beheld three strangers.
"Pardon us, ma'am," Jack said. "We’re sorry to disturb you, but my buddies here and I have hiked down from the top of the hill. Would it be all right with you if we did a little hunting in the hills around here?"
"Yes, of course, you can," she said. She wished them good luck as they went on their way and returned to the peace of her morning coffee.
Armed with permission to hunt, they hiked off-road the rest of the way across the valley into the surrounding hills and bagged their deer. They loaded their trophy onto their backs and began retracing their steps back to their jeep. As daylight began to wane, they decided to hike over the ranch roads to save time and, by early evening, reached the barn area with five miles left to go. A farmworker pitching hay into a wagon by the barn greeted them.
"Nice buck you have there," he said and stopped his work to admire their hunting success. "You fellas have permission to hunt on the ranch?" In the short conversation that ensued, it became clear they did not.
"Well, be careful going past the ranch house," the worker said, pointing down the road on which they traveled. "That’s Old Man Forester’s truck in the driveway, and he’s gone home for the day.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Jack said.
The worker resumed his pitching, and the trio continued silently down the road, hoping to avoid notice.
Clad in faded blue bib overalls, Old Man Forester was sitting on his front porch enjoying a cigarette before going inside to wash up for dinner. He observed a group of strangers passing by in the dusk, stood up, clapped his battered hat on his head, went to his truck, and drove out to intercept them.
He pulled up beside the hunters. “Looks like you boys have quite a load there,” he drawled. “Can I give you a lift somewhere?”
“Yes, sir,” Jack said. “A ride would be much appreciated,”
“Well then, I guess you better get in.”
They unloaded the deer into the bed of the truck, and all three crowded into the cab.
"Whew!” Jack said as the truck began to rattle down the road. “Thanks! We were afraid for a minute you might be Old Man Forester,"
A long pause followed before there was a reply.
"I am Old Man Forester."
A heavy silence hung over the truck’s cab as the hunters contemplated their predicament. Then, the hint of a smile crept across his face as Old Man Forester reached into the pocket of his bib overalls, withdrew a pack of cigarettes, and said, “You fellas care for a smoke?”
It was an awkward introduction and the start of a long friendship. Jack could hunt on the ranch, but not alone, always check in, and never leave trash behind. As thanks for his hunting privileges, Jack brought lobsters he trapped, oysters, and yellowtail tuna as a gesture of appreciation. He also left the deer’s liver at the ranch house on his way out of the valley.
If there was liver and onions for dinner, Old Man Forester knew Jack got his deer.
Grandma died, and Grandpa mourned. “There goes the center of everything,” he said. Granddaughter Heather wept silent tears. Uncle Jim fell to his knees and cried, "No! No! No!" A prominent townsperson lamented, "She was the last of the perfect little ladies.” It seemed the whole town turned out for Grandma’s funeral, overflowing the church.
For seventy-three years, she had lived with a heart full of love, never dwelling on personal hardships, but finding the silver lining behind life’s clouds. The door to her house was always open, and her table always had room for one more.
She met Grandpa when she came west to visit relatives. He brought her to his ranch as a bride, and she was lady of the house they built on a knoll at the far end of a stream laced valley. Some said it was constructed over the site of an old Indian campground, though no one knew for sure. But, when it was very quiet, and they were alone in the house, they sometimes heard the unmistakable sound of footsteps crossing the upstairs bedrooms.
She created a garden full of beautiful roses and planted trees that grew into magnificent giants that provided shade from summer’s heat. She turned nature’s gifts from her orchard into delicious jams and preserves.
Four children called the house ‘home’ - two boys and two girls. They grew up, married, and moved away to raise their own families, except Uncle Jim, who considered the house his real home. He brought his bride, Aunt Carole, to live there while their home was built a mile down the road.
Granddaughter Heather’s most cherished memories were formed at Grandma’s house. It was a two-story home with a large downstairs living room dominated by a massive granite fireplace. Every Christmas Eve, Heather and her cousins hung their stockings from its mantle and speculated about what Santa might bring.
On cold winter nights, the grandchildren raced upstairs and shivered between the sheets until their bodies warmed their beds. A large lion stared at them from a tapestry hung on one bedroom wall scaring the younger ones before they fell asleep. On warm summer nights, the sounds of hooting owls, rustling leaves, howling coyotes, and other strange noises drifted through open bedroom windows, sounds more intriguing than scary.
In late afternoons, everyone assembled in the breakfast room for coffee and conversation, forging deep ties as the adults told tales from the family's history.
During summer vacations, Heather and her cousins caught polliwogs in the streams, rode horses, and swam in the pool by the house. Sometimes they went on long hikes, but the best walks were early morning ones when tracks of wild animals heard during the night were still fresh.
"I have fun with my friends at home,” Heather told her cousin, Alice, as they were growing up. “But the best times are when we get together at Grandma's."
"I know," Alice said and, after a moment, added, "Sometimes I feel sorry for kids who don't have a place like this to go to."
Gray hair framed a face lined with age in Grandma’s later years, yet she seemed ageless to those who loved her.
And then she died.
Grandpa tried to remain in the house, but he said, “The house! It seems to echo. I can't stay here without her." He moved down the road to live with Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole. But without Grandma, the ranch lost its meaning, and he moved to live with his daughter in the city.
The house was dark, cold, and alone as if waiting for Grandma’s return. Most of its furnishings remained as Grandma had placed them, but her garden gradually faded and died. Only the majestic trees she had planted as saplings maintained their silent guard.
Whenever Heather visited Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole, she was drawn up the road to revisit the house of her childhood memories. Deciding it would be an excellent place to live while going to college, she moved in, swept out the dust, and revived the garden.
School started, and Heather plunged into her studies with zest. Living in Grandma’s house was the perfect plan. But, as she studied in the silence of the house, she sensed an echo in its isolation. She felt restless, even distracted. One afternoon, she heard footsteps crossing an upstairs bedroom and remembered the rumors of an old Indian campground. Were the stories true? Could that be the soul of a lost Indian searching for its camp?
Then one night, Grandma came back while Heather dreamed. She was thrilled to find her grandmother in the kitchen, making her special donuts. They talked happily and agreed her absence had been a terrible mistake.
"You should not have gone," Heather told her. "The family is not the same without you. Please stay."
When Grandma returned the next night, Grandpa came too, followed by all the aunts, uncles, and cousins. It was a family reunion in the best tradition of years past, and the house was bright, cheery, and full of love again.
But when she appeared on the third night, she came alone except for a dark shadowy presence Heather observed in a corner of the room, an apparition neither male nor female. Soon Grandma was back every night, the spectral being always lurking nearby.
The unspoken words invaded Heather’s mind. With a shock, she realized the stalking phantom was Death waiting to reclaim Grandma. Shuddering in horror, she turned to face and challenge the dark menace. She had to deny Death’s claim.
"Stop!" Heather demanded. "Leave her alone. She doesn't belong to you. She’s ours." Every night she fought to save Grandma, inserting herself between Grandma and Death to obstruct Death’s path. It required Heather’s constant vigilance because Death was tenacious and never far away. In desperation, she lunged out and grabbed the dark phantom only to find her hands held nothing. Every morning Grandma was gone, and every night she returned.
The battles exhausted Heather. She managed to keep Death at bay, but she couldn’t defeat it, and the fight drained her. Fatigue set in. She tried napping during the day; the naps were battle-free, but it was not enough. Discussing her desperate situation with Uncle Jim was to no avail. Night after night, Heather struggled to save Grandma. Finally, she fled in exhaustion from the house and its haunted memories.
Once again, the house was silent, alone, and cold. Gradually the family removed Grandma’s items, dividing the various keepsakes. Yet when Heather visited Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole, she was invariably drawn up the road to see the house once more and remember one so dearly loved. At last, she realized the future belonged to her, and the past could never be reborn.
Uncle Jim eventually rented the house to a woman with four children. It completely changed the house. The woman was small, the mother of two boys and two girls, like Grandma, but she had a mean temper and spread hate and ill will. Yet the house still beckoned Uncle Jim, and he regularly visited its new tenant. He sat at her kitchen table and talked as he once had with his mother, conversations now punctuated with vulgarities.
"Imagine," said his sister to Aunt Carole, "that woman up there in my mother's house! What's wrong with my brother?"
The family began avoiding Uncle Jim as resentment of the imposter grew. She was unworthy of living in Grandma's house, and she interfered with their freedom to visit it. She was a trespasser. The house belonged to the family. Outsiders were not welcome.
A breach opened between Uncle Jim and Aunt Carole as he spent more and more time at Grandma's house. Its occupant had become a symbol for his past he could not resist. When Aunt Carole could no longer tolerate the betrayal, she also fled, and the woman left the house to move in with Uncle Jim.
The house no longer called to the family. It had ceased to contain Grandma's spirit. It had been defiled. Over time, a violent storm blew down one of the great trees, ripping large branches from nearby trees and crushing the front porch as it fell. Small animals and birds moved in through the broken windows. A crack widened between the house and granite chimney, and debris blew in with the wind. The chimney finally toppled, littering the ground with granite blocks. Snakes and lizards slithered in to take up residence among the wreckage.
Heather doesn’t visit Grandma's house anymore. Its naked remains stand stark, bleak, and exposed to the battering elements. Uncle Jim still lives down the road, but, like Grandma's house, he too is alone. The other woman left him, perhaps moving on to greener pastures, and no one knows what happened to Aunt Carole. Uncle Jim is quietly living out his years just a mile from a skeleton that haunts his past.
The old Indian campground's spirits are free at last to reclaim their land.