Mastodon The Battle of Skinner Butte, a short story by Ray Jicha

The Battle of Skinner Butte

Moving north from San Francisco I slept on the beach near Arcata then made my way to Eugene where I got dropped off around 10:00 p.m. I found a little downtown bar, ordered a draft to pay for the stool and washed down the last of my speed. I had work to do. I started with the bartender.

“I just hitchhiked up from San Francisco the last couple of days.”

“No kidding. How’d it go?”

“Pretty good. I slept on the beach last night.”

“What brings you to Eugene?”

“I don’t know. I heard good things about it. I heard Ken Kesey lives here. I loved The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”I see now that I lost him right there, though his reaction, returning his attention to his glassware, was more subtle than my approach.

“Yes, he’s got a farm outside of town.”

I waited until it became clear no more information was forthcoming. “Oh, yeah? Huh.”

I let it drop. What was I going to do, ask for a ride up there?

I spent the next couple of hours trying to convince everyone I was a funky fellow traveler deserving of their shelter—it had worked before—but tonight I tapped a dry well. The best I could get were directions to an all-night diner and a park to sleep in called Skinner Butte. It came time to go.

From Darkness to Light photograph Kym Ghee
From Darkness to Light, photograph by Kym Ghee

Out on the street everything went quiet as I slow-walked it toward the diner but I kept my ears open just in case. I paused at some park benches to cinch up my bootlaces and get a long-sleeved shirt out of my backpack. A man strumming an acoustic guitar rounded the far corner. Sensing opportunity I fished out my harmonica and honked to call him over. He spoke first.

“Do you want to play?”

Uh-oh. “I don’t know too much.” That’s putting a smiley face on it.

“That’s all right. We’ll find something.”

“This harmonica’s in G. If that helps.” It didn’t help me any. I didn’t know what “in G” meant.

“Well, how about if I just do a little blues shuffle,” he started to strum, “and you jump in anywhere. Don’t worry about the notes. Just play what you feel.”

“Right.” Play what you feel. Play what you feel. I repeated it over to myself as I tried to get psyched up. I tried swaying to the rhythm like Ray Charles, put the harmonica to my mouth, play what you feel, and blew. What I felt was humiliation and remorse because I did not know how to play. That’s pretty much how it sounded too. He wilted visibly in the corner of my eye, and stopped strumming.

“Can I see that for a minute?”

I handed it over.

“Maybe I can show you what I’m talking about.”

He then played a lovely blues, pulling and bending notes, seemingly without effort. I gave up on the harmonica.

“Can I try the guitar?”

“Sure.” He crossed it to my lap.

“I know a couple of chords.” Why do I keep talking? As he played I carefully bent my fingers to form an E chord, then an A. I played one for a few seconds, then the other. After a couple of laps I was able to make the transition rhythmically. He fell in playing a melody against my chords. After a few bars I got brave and tried to play a D. I stumbled and lost the beat, but laughed at myself as he smiled and nodded, indicating I was on the right track. We went back around for another pass. Eventually I was able to incorporate the D into the song and he began to play with more force. Look at me. I’m jamming!

The simple riff grew tiresome after a few minutes and we let it drift away. We smoked a cigarette and I asked if he knew any good places to stay.

“They’re not too friendly to street people around here, but there’s a park up the hill about a half mile, Skinner Butte. Nobody will mess with you in there.”

Street people? “Yeah, I heard about that. I heard there was an all-night diner nearby too.”

“That’s on the way to the park.”

We lingered for a few minutes, not saying much, then wished each other luck and parted ways. I walked as far as the diner, not yet resigned to the park. I thought I might meet someone or at least pick up some information. Maybe I could stay up all night. The speed still held.

The over-lit restaurant made me squint at first but I found my way to a booth, set my pack upright on the seat across from me as if it were my dinner companion, and took a look around. There were signs everywhere. “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to ANYONE,” “Restrooms for CUSTOMERS ONLY,” and affixed to the wall in every booth, “NO SLEEPING!”

“You can’t keep that here.”

It was the waitress. She meant my pack. I looked confused so she pointed to a sign near the front that I had missed: “NO Backpacks Allowed in Seating Area.”

“Where am I supposed to put it?”

“You can sit it on one of the chairs by the door.”

“Can I get stuff out of it?”

She said yes and I complied with the regulation. I took out my reading and writing materials and went back to my seat more puzzled than put off.

My good behavior had earned me a glass of water and a menu from the waitress. I ordered a cup of coffee and a side of fries. I couldn’t figure out what was with the gestapo tactics. I noticed the rules seemed to have been designed specifically to thwart me.

You’re being paranoid.

I looked at the clock above the door.

One-fifty. It’ll get light around six o’clock. It looked like a mile or two back to I-5. I could start walking around five o’clock. Three hours? I can do that, if this speed holds up. I figured I could sleep in the car that picked me up if I didn’t figure something better first.

“One refill on the coffee.” The waitress again, as she poured.

I would have to stall. I nursed my second cup, ate my fries one at a time, asked for more water. I read and wrote and consulted my maps.

“No sleeping.” My head snapped up. “If you put your head down again I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

I looked at the clock: three-ten. I looked around. There were only two couples in the restaurant, sitting far away. I looked at the empty cup on the table in front of me.

This hurts. “Can I please have another cup of coffee? And some water?”

I went to the bathroom and washed my face. I felt like a wrung washcloth. When I returned to my table the coffee and water were there but they did not help. When it became clear that I would not last I saved myself the humiliation of getting asked to leave and inquired at the register about the park.

“Skinner Butte, right up the hill.”

“And it’s OK to sleep there?”

“People do it all the time.”

All the time? Really?

As I lifted my pack from its seat by the door I looked at the signs again.

A lot of people like me must have come through here. I wish I could find some.

See, in the sleepy southern town I came from I was a freak, a hippy, almost alone. I thought if I could just get out West I’d find something, be welcomed into some fold, but there wasn’t any fold: it was 1985; the only hippies were thirty-five years old and either hopelessly burnt out or starting organic juice companies. To the people in this town I was a tired cliché—a cliché without money, and in the eighties money talked and bullshit walked to Skinner Butte.

Outside I started up the street towards the park. Beyond the restaurant the street grew dark and empty. A small pickup drove by and disappeared around the next bend. The hill got steeper. I could see the lights of the park a couple hundred yards ahead. A set of headlights came down the street towards me. It looked like the same truck that just passed me.

I’m not sure. Adrenalin.

Less than a minute passed before I heard a vehicle coming up behind me. Its engine had a familiar pitch. I went taut. It passed me.

Same truck. No mistake now.

I quickened my pace. The park was still a hundred yards away; the hill got steeper. I don’t know what’s happening but it’s not good. Don’t run. Not yet. I only saw one silhouette in the truck the last time it passed me, even odds unless he has a gun. He probably has a gun. If I can get to the park I can get away from the road so he can’t drive up on me. Don’t run. Don’t look scared.

I was about twenty yards from the park when I heard the revving of the engine as it built from around the bend ahead. The headlights pinned me when they came back by and I tried to avoid direct eye contact until I passed into their penumbra. The truck passed by at only a few feet away but did not slow down. I saw the face of my pursuer at this time. Hideous thing, bloated and white, with eyes the color of piss, the tendrils of its wet moustache obscuring a lipless, croaking gorge. It looked at me, malignantly.

That’s it. This motherfucker is after me. Here’s the park. Run!

War drums pounded through me as I took off like The Naked Prey down the slope, across the parking lot, grass, and a pathway lit by orange lights, toward a line of trees and the dark shadows beyond. I had cinched my pack as tight as it would go so it would not toss and break my stride. I saw an opening in the trees and ran through it. The path dropped quickly and once down a few feet I threw myself to the ground and crawled back up to see.

Though I had stopped, my sweat, acrid as a race riot, kept running into my eyes. My heart skittered like a chicken with its head cut off. My exhalations sounded like storms at sea.

Get ahold of yourself. He probably won’t follow you in here. Jesus Christ, he’s right there! The monster had driven into the parking lot from an entrance further on and cruised down close to the edge of the grass while he scanned the tree line.

He’s fucking looking right at me! Those orange lights are shining right on my face!

I crouched back down and tried to listen. I can’t hear anything but my own breath! I looked again, keeping as low as I could, terrified that the truck would stop, and saw it turn out of the parking lot where I had entered and drive away toward town. He’s probably going to get help.

I turned and slid down the path another fifteen feet to the point where it flattened out and stopped. I was hemmed in by a river, which I could see here and there in the moonlight.

He probably knows I’m trapped.

Another path ran at right angles to the one I’d come down and paralleled the river. I turned right and trotted gingerly as my eyes adjusted to the dark.

This should take me below the park entrance. Then he can only come from one direction. Unless this is how they planned it. He’s probably got the park mapped out. They probably knew I’d run this way. It might be an ambush. With me crashing around down there they could hear me coming but I couldn’t hear them. Find a place to hide where they can’t sneak up on you.

I moved along more carefully for another few yards until I found a bare spot under some bushes and wedged myself into it with my back to the river. I tried not to move. I tried not to breathe. As I strained to inhale only through my nose, my chest jerked and seized. The heat I had generated while running now built up around me into a fetid, invisible chrysalis. I could have swum through my own sweat.

But I had bigger problems. The men were back. I heard at least one car engine, maybe two. They’re pulling into the parking lot. I heard car doors and voices. How many? I can’t tell. More than one.

I reached around, unzipped my pack and slipped my hand inside. I groped with my fingertips until I felt the leather of the hunting knife sheath.

Keep an eye out for movement.

I stopped to take a few breaths. I opened my mouth wide to exhale without sound.

There! I think that’s a flashlight. Oh shit. Oh shit!

I pulled out the knife, a six-inch, carbon-steel, full-tang straight blade that I carried, at some legal risk, against just this eventuality. It felt reassuringly stout. I held it in front of me with both hands with my elbows resting on my knees. I sat on my pack with my weight forward over the balls of my feet. I looked up and down the trail in front of me. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in either direction.

I saw the beam of a flashlight swinging back and forth along the treeline at the top of the trail. The men talked quietly to each other so that I would not hear.

Maybe they’ll go the wrong way. If they come this way, use the knife. Stab someone? No, as a threat. What if they have guns? Then it won’t matter. They probably have guns. They know exactly what they’re doing.

I looked back the other way only to see another flashlight beam at the top of what must have been the other trail they knew about. I could hear them stepping on the leaves and twigs.

How many are there? Too many to fight. They’re not taking any chances. They’re walking right to me. They must have known I’d try to hide right here. It’s like they’re herding goats to slaughter. I heard them whispering signals. I saw their lights and shadows moving. I heard their footsteps falling all around me. Here they come . . .

An hour passed, maybe more. The flashlights came no closer, the voices got no louder. My heartbeat and breathing slowed down. I stopped sweating. I began to reevaluate my situation.

If they were there wouldn’t they have got here by now, or moved or something? Now it looked like the flashlights might just have been the orange lights of the park. The movement came from the tree branches in front of them, swayed by the breeze that rustled the leaves to sound like voices and footfalls to me. That guy was definitely following me, though. I didn’t make that up. Jesus, did I imagine all the rest? All those mushrooms and the first hallucination I have is of some guy trying to kill me. That speed is making me crazy. I suddenly felt very tired. I guess I have been up for a long time. I gave up the fight soon after and fell asleep on the bare ground with my knife still in my hand.

-Ray Jicha


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