by Brian C. Petroziello
part 1 of 3
“So, why we doin’ this, again, Master Chief?” asked Seaman Josh Murdock, as the RV driven by Master Chief Petty Officer Mark Morgen slowly made its way down the ancient gravel road. Branches from the foreboding trees whipped the side of the box like vehicle, which, in places, barely made it through the spaces between the trees.
“Family history, Murdock, family history,” replied the Master Chief. Members of my family were among the first settlers in the Taylor river valley — came here from Germany — even had a town named after them — Morburg. The town was flooded when the Kentucky Electric Authority damned up the Taylor River to make a thirty-mile-long lake. I want to dive on the old town, and see what’s left.”
“Well Master Chief, this place is way past spooky.”
“That’s okay, Murdock, wait’ll we get camp set up and break out the beer and the burgers, and I’ll tell you some family stories that’ll curl your hair. You might want to sleep with your weapon close at hand tonight. And, by the way, we’re on leave Murdock. You can drop the rank crap. We’re all just good ol’ boys this weekend,” replied the Master Chief.
The camper continued its slow journey through the woods. Morgen had to slam on the brakes more than a few times as forest animals traversed the road. Morgen checked the GPS box on the dash frequently, trying to gauge their position against the hand-drawn map his grandfather had given him. Finally he announced that they were getting close to their final destination.
“It should be just around the bend, Josh,” he said smugly. “Better go wake up Ralston. Otherwise he’ll be worthless when we unload.” Murdock went to the rear of the camper to rouse their other companion.
Morgen drove the camper around a sharp curve, and the road ended in a clearing beyond the deep woods. The vehicle’s headlights illuminated a decrepit house. It was leaning to one side, and the roofline had a definite bow, as time had taken its toll on the aging edifice. At one time it was a grand house, plantation like in its design with a large wrap around porch and great second floor veranda. All of the glass seemed to be missing from the windows.
There was a large front yard where Morgen decided to park the RV. Fortunately, the ground was firm and hard. The three navy seals went about setting up camp. In no time, they had constructed a fire ring from loose stones near the house and had a blazing fire burning. Morgen passed out bottles of beer as Ralston turned burgers on a grate.
“Your family really lived here?” asked Seaman Roger Ralston.
“Yep. I understand that this was kind of a summer place. The family’s main house was in the town proper — which they owned a good chunk of. Then in the thirties, the WPA decided on a project to dam up the Taylor River and make Sawtooth Lake. The TVA had worked so well in Tennessee, they figgered it would provide badly needed jobs, as well as provide electricity for the Taylor River Valley. They flooded a total of four tiny villages — Morburg was one.
“The family lived up here for a while, then my great uncle, who was the patriarch of the family hereabouts, disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and the rest of the family abandoned the area. I don’t suppose any one’s been here in fifty years,” said Morgen.
“What kind of circumstances?” asked Ralston.
“Not really sure. My grandfather had been here only once. He and his mother and father spent only a few nights here. He said something wasn’t right. He said something about the woods getting really quiet at night, and that they found strange footprints around the house in the dewy grass each morning. My grandfather said he could hear his uncle talking to something in the woods — in some language he had never heard before.
“He said when he heard my uncle speak it, it set the hairs on his neck on end. How did he describe it? Oh yeah, mankind was never meant to utter that foul tongue. They made some lame excuse about having to see some other sights, and left after a few days. They never went back, and never had anything to do with this branch of the family after that.”
“What’s the skinny on him goin’ AWOL?” asked Murdock, looking around at the woods that were encroaching everywhere on the aging homestead.
“No one knows. There weren’t any signs of foul play, but they did mention something about those damned strange footprints,” replied Morgen.
“Maybe a blood feud,” broke in Ralston. “That’s not unknown in these parts.”
“The family was the five-hundred pound gorilla in these parts, and they weren’t well liked, not just because they were wealthy. I understand there were a lot of other stories like the ones my grandfather told. There was also some bizarre physical aspect to this branch of the family — a kinda flattened shape to the head. When he disappeared no one really looked into it very closely,” said Morgen.
It was nearly midnight when they put out the fire and headed to the RV. Ralston was the last to arrive at the RV door. He stopped at the door to the camper. The sounds of the forest that had been so evident earlier were completely absent. There was not a single tweet of a bird or the buzzing of a cicada — not even the chirp of a cricket. He shivered involuntarily and locked the door of the camper behind him. He slept fitfully that evening.
Early the next morning, Ralston started the fire and began breakfast. The sun was shining brightly, and the forest was once more full of chatter. He felt better when he noticed raccoon tracks around the RV. Maybe his unease from the night before was misplaced.
As he cooked eggs in bacon grease over the fire, Morgen reconnoitered the area around his ancestral home. The damage to the structure was even more severe than he thought. He could not understand how the house was still standing.
He had thought about venturing into the house to see what remained but thought better of it. He also had an unnatural feeling the closer he got. This feeling, in part, stemmed from the overpowering charnel smell, mingled with an odor of dead fish that emanated from the house and got more powerful the closer he got. As a navy diver, he was familiar with the smells of the ocean but had never in all of his travels smelled anything so foul. He was glad they were parked upwind.
After breakfast, they went down to the water’s edge. The moldering remains of an old dock were present but would be completely useless; but there was a stout old tree near the water that could be used to moor the boat.
As they surveyed the scene, Murdock was shaking his head. “We really gonna dive in this soup? This is about the murkiest lake I’ve ever seen. Are the lights even going to help at that depth? We will need to stick close under there. Especially if there are buildings still standing,” he said.
Morgen did not pay any attention to his comments. “We can get the RV down here — no problem; it’s a straight shot, and we can tie up to the oak. Let’s get the boat in the water and go over to the Walker Marina and pick up some supplies,” said Morgen. It wasn’t long before they had backed the RV down to the lakefront and had the boat in the water.
When they arrived back at the ruins of the mansion, they found a sheriff’s cruiser parked in the yard. Two men in sheriff’s uniforms were standing on either side of the car, shotguns in hand.
Ralston was about to reach into a storage compartment for his side arm. “Stand down!” yelled Morgen. “We’ve got no beef with the local law, and showing a gun isn’t what we need to do.” He threw the gearshift lever into park and exited the vehicle.
“We got reports of a campfire out here last night. We needed to check things out. Thought maybe it was some kids out here on a dare. It happens from time to time,” said the sheriff. “And while we’re at it, just who are you, and why are you here?” demanded the sheriff.
“I’m Master Chief Mark Morgen, United States Navy. The guys in the camper are Murdock and Ralston, two members of my Seal team. We’re here on leave to do a little relaxing and diving.” He held out his hand, but the sheriff made no effort to shake it. In fact, Morgen noticed that his deputy did not move his finger from the trigger of his shotgun. He had no wish to start trouble with local law enforcement that he knew would end badly — for the officers. His men were highly trained and were no strangers to violence.
“Morgen, huh,” replied the sheriff. “You related to the Morgens that used to live hereabouts?” he asked.
“Distant relatives. We planned on diving around Morburg to see what was left of the town.”
“Trust me, there’s nothin’ left to see,” said the Sheriff, more than a hint of menace in his voice. “Your family ain’t plannin’ on movin’ back here are they? A lot o’ folks around here have long memories and wouldn’t take too kindly to opening things back up around here. It could be kinda dangerous. I suggest you boys do what you came here to do quick like, and then I really don’t think you oughta come back. Know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean, sheriff,” said Morgen. “A couple of days tops, and we’ll be on our way. And I don’t think we’ll be back any time soon.”
“And I suggest you boys be real careful at night. There have been strange things happenin’ around here lately. People disappearin’ an’ such. If you have any guns with you, you might keep ’em handy at night.” At that, the sheriff and his deputy got back in their cruiser and left, tires squealing, gravel and dirt flying.
Ralston and Murdock had gotten out of the camper in time to catch the tail end of the conversation. “Not really friendly are they? Sure sounds like your family pissed off a whole lot of people in these parts,” said Ralston.
“I imagine so. Let’s secure the RV and go get those supplies,” said Morgen.
They boarded the boat and headed up the lake. Ralston was the wheel man and handled the boat with ease. The water that they cut through was the color of strong tea.
“This isn’t like any lake water I’ve ever seen, Mark. Look at the color,” he said. “We’re probably gonna have to paint the boat when we get back to civilization.”
“The color is probably just silt,” replied Morgen. “Or minerals. This is about the same color as the Rio Negro, and there’s nothing wrong with the river water there.”
“That’s just it. I’ve been studying the shoreline. And I haven’t seen a single stream that opens into the lake around here. It’s not natural, Mark. I didn’t even see any fish at the shoreline, not even a minnow. This whole trip just keeps getting stranger and stranger. Maybe we ought to abort this here mission — while we still can!”
Morgen offered no reply. He had a nagging that ate at him. He, too, had studied the shore and had come to the same conclusion as Ralston. He busied himself with the maps of the region that he had obtained and checked the coordinates on the global GPS unit against the maps and the landmarks on the dwindling shoreline. He estimated that they had now passed the village limits of the vanished town of Morburg.
In a few minutes, they noticed a huge change in the water quality. It was now nearly crystal clear. Morgen looked back in the direction of Morburg, and it was obvious that there was a well-defined demarcation between the foul waters that surrounded Morburg, and the rest of the lake. Looking at the GPS unit, the boundary coincided almost exactly with the village boundaries. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
It took nearly an hour to reach the Walker Marina. The Taylor River valley was narrow at the bottom and closed in by steep mountains that reminded one of interlaced fingers. Sawtooth Lake was deep at its center and had flooded the hollers in the area, creating wide inlets and coves, some as wide as the main channel. Even with the GPS unit and the maps, they had made several false turns and had to backtrack.
The Walker Marina lay in one of these wide hollers. Larger pleasure and party boats were moored at the entrance. Next were anchored house floats at out near the main channel, which were only reachable by boat. Past these was the marina complex, consisting of docks populated by party boats and jet skis for rent, a store, and floating gas docks. The hillsides around the marina were covered with luxury vacation homes and rentals. A small town had grown up on the shoreline.
Copyright © 2008 by Brian C. Petroziello