Along the shores of Walgren Lake State Park in Nebraska, little whirlpools are starting to form, like something is pushing the water around…something deep down in the lake...something far too big...
Along the shores of Walgren Lake State Park in Nebraska, the wind is chilly and something seems off in the water. Little whirlpools are starting to form, like something is pushing the water around…something deep down in the lake...something far too big...
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What is that in the water?
Right out there, right where the shadows of the shoreline ripple into the reflection of the clouds-- just where the bottom of the lake drops off into the murk. Did you see that? Something moving, something pulling back into deeper water? Big and broad… a catfish, maybe. Or a big toad. Step a little closer. Step into the shallows. Feel the mud and sand under your feet. Squint down into the water.
Yes! Look-- look there must be something down there, just out of sight-- see how the water moves? Like a little… a little whirlpool, like something is pushing the water around down there… something large… look! There’s another eddy in the water, and another one!
And… wait… what’s going on here? Up and down the lonely shoreline of the lake on this blustery day, the water is moving. Swirling, rippling… and out a little further, that old dead stump… is it moving too? Rising out of the water?
You stumble backwards a step or two, toward the shore-- but it won’t do any good to run. Because what’s rising out of the lake in front of you is… just… too big…
This is the Camp Monsters podcast.
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Welcome to the sand hills of northwestern Nebraska. You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t notice the hills. Oh, they’re around-- but they’re so gradual that you might mistake them for the horizon.
This part of the country has a whole lot of that-- horizon. And out here, you can be greedy with it. Sheridan County, where we are, only has about two people per square mile, making this one of the most sparsely populated parts of the whole state of Nebraska-- and that’s saying something. It’s no wonder that strange stories have made their way out of these hills since long before people started writing them down. Out here, there may be more strange stories than there are people.
Tonight’s story is strange, to say the least. I’m not quite sure what to make of it-- you’ll have to judge for yourselves. It all happened-- if it happened at all-- right here where we’re camping tonight, along the shores of rustic little Walgren Lake State Park. Part of it happened before the lake was ever called “Walgren”-- back when people used to call it “Alkali Lake,” if they called it anything. Scootch in a little closer to the fire-- the wind gets chilly this time of year.
The wind was chilly the day our story starts, too. And the sun that had been shining in the morning was hiding behind bright gray clouds that whipped across this great big sky. Morgan was sitting astride an old gray log that had fallen in the long grass along the shore, a little ways off the beaten path on the south end of the lake. She was pretending the log was a horse. She was only nine years old when all this happened-- younger than our usual contributors. But her story is so out of the ordinary that it has to be told.
Morgan was sitting there on her horse-- which was actually a log-- imagining what it would be like if nobody was around. Not like if her school group that had brought them out there for a picnic all disappeared at once, not like that-- but like if it was the old days, and there were no roads or gravel paths or picnic tables out here at all: just the grass and the water and the sky.
It was just the sort of day and just the sort of weather to imagine that kind of thing. The wind pushed Morgan’s hair around, same as the grass, and the light through the clouds was bright in the sky but dimming on the land, banishing shadows by putting the whole world under one big shadow. It was the kind of day that filled the waving grass with blinking eyes and the rippling lake with snaky shapes.
But the first thing that got Morgan’s attention was a sound. Lonely and sharp on the air, standing out above the rushing breath of wind through the grass. A metal-on-metal sound, like a road-sign, loose, blowing against its rusty metal post… but as Morgan listened it seemed to her to be moving. The sound seemed to be moving, blowing reluctantly along with the wind behind her.
Morgan turned to look, and was surprised to see a cow back there. Just behind her-- not far. A cow, with a big black bell on its neck-- and other cows around it, milling, chewing cud. Huh… surprising that they should have gotten into the park here, and come up on her so fast. She’d have thought she would have seen or heard them sooner. And where had they wandered in from? Strange.
And– but– hadn’t there been some trees behind her? There are trees planted all around Walgren Lake State Park– and Morgan was sure that there had been one or two behind her when she sat down, but now… She didn’t even see the road that bordered the park in that direction… It couldn’t be that far away– she remembered seeing a tanker truck driving along it just a few minutes before. But now… nothing but cows and prairie grass. Waving in the wind, all the way out to the horizon. Long grass… taller than she remembered.
And she was taller, too. Sitting up much higher off the grass then she had been a moment before. And when something shifted beneath her, she only just managed to catch her balance before realizing that the log she was pretending was a horse… actually was a horse.
The day grew paler and the clouds swirled fast above. The wind blew a gust across Morgan’s face as she turned back toward the lake and noticed that all of the trees were gone– the path by the water was gone-- the picnic tables, the park roads were gone. The lake seemed… smaller. There was nothing around but grass, and water, and sky.
All of this-- transformation-- all of it happened to Morgan in the space of just a few seconds– but she wasn’t as surprised as she should have been. Because something else had changed, too– something… inside of her. In her brain. Thoughts– knowledge that didn’t belong to her– streamed through as if she was sharing another’s mind. She remembered things, just like she’d lived them…
She remembered… she was… she was part of a big cattle drive, back in the old, old days– going down to where the railroad was burning its first brands toward the Pacific coast. Steam locomotives, spewing smoke– gangs laying ragged tracks across the prairie– rough cow towns hammered up along the way– that’s where they were headed.
But first… these cows. These were strays, broken off and lost from the main herd. Morgan– or whoever she was in this reality– had tracked them down here. But now that she’d found them… she could see that something was wrong. With the cows, lowing and milling around her. They were tight-skinned, but they weren’t grazing much. Skinny. Sunken, dull eyes. Dying of thirst, by the look of them. The cows were staring at the lake, but… none of them would get close enough to drink.
Then Morgan heard a heavy voice that wasn’t hers issue from her own throat: “Whatcha think, Billy?” And she saw a dark rider rein up beside her. A small man: dark-skinned, lean, in a shapeless gray hat and a gray jacket, neatly mended. Everything about him seemed dusty and worn, except the man himself. His bright eyes shone with more light than the restless sky contained. And his horse-- a sharp little tan sorrel-horse with white feet and a look of mischief in its eye. And though Morgan had never seen this other rider before in her life… somehow she knew this was Billy. Somehow she knew all about him. And she was glad he was here.
Because Billy was the best. The best cow-puncher, tracker, trader– everything. Billy wasn’t his real name. Or– anyway, it was what they called him on the trail. It was as real as all the other names he had. Guillermo south of the border, where people figured he was from. Just “Bill” when he went to town-- no last name. A whole host of other names and nicknames in the tongues of the tribes and trappers and vaqueros that he roamed with. There were a lot of languages colliding in Nebraska back then, and Billy spoke most of them– nobody was really sure how many languages he knew, because he was a man of few words who seemed to understand everything. But he could sing in at least six different tongues-- somehow Morgan knew that.
Billy was humming a strange tune now, and he didn’t stop to answer the question that Morgan’s rough new voice had asked. He just gave her a half-smiling, non-committal look-- like he had ideas, but wasn’t ready to share them yet. Then he moved his horse down closer to the lake. Or maybe the horse moved, and Billy just went along-- the two always seemed to share a mind. Billy was looking hard at something, down there along the shoreline.
“S’the water bad?” Morgan heard her own unfamiliar voice call as Billy slid off his horse and squatted down by the lake, looking at something. Still inspecting the ground, Billy absent-mindedly dipped a hand into the water and tasted it-- something that made Morgan’s modern mind recoil, but seemed perfectly natural in this scene.
Billy shook his head and flashed a sliver of his bright white smile. “OK,” he said. “Look!”
Morgan moved her horse down through the grass to the muddy bank where Billy was squatting. The movement seemed to excite the cows, who stirred and lowed behind her, gossiping about it. Like they knew something Morgan didn’t. And the distant gray horizon swirled with clouds like swiftly-blown smoke.
“Look,” Billy said, pointing at… at the lake? No, at the verge-- at the very edge of the lake, where the shore fell off steeply into the water. Strange… looking up and down the water’s edge, the shore along the rest of the lake seemed fairly gradual. But here-- just here, it dropped away suddenly. Like the bank had collapsed, or… like something had ripped it away.
Still squatting, Billy ran his hands along the edge where the shore fell off. He muttered something that Morgan didn’t quite catch-- must have been talking to himself in one of his other languages. It sounded like he said, “Teeth,” but that didn’t make any sense.
Then both their horses, at the same moment, gave a start and a shy and began to prance, and though Morgan didn’t have much experience with real-life horses of the non-log variety, she found herself expertly calming and correcting her mount.
Billy leapt into his own saddle so quick and smooth that Morgan hardly noticed him do it. Now Billy was talking to his horse in a voice too quiet for Morgan to hear, while looking out across the gray waters of the lake. The wind was blowing in their faces, rippling the surface and driving little waves against the jagged shore at their feet. Morgan looked out across the waters and thought there was something strange about them… something strange about the way the ripples ran… the waves seemed too big, even for that strong north wind that roared down all the way from Canada just to sting their eyes.
Billy was rummaging around in a pouch that hung from his saddle, and after another few words to his horse he drew his arm back and threw something-- looked about the size of an old musket ball, Morgan found herself thinking-- Billy threw that old musket ball, or whatever it was, far out into the lake. Morgan watched it fly through the teeth of the wind, saw the little splash it made in the troubled waters. Billy’s horse gave a whinny and eased back onto its two hind legs in a rear that only lasted a moment. For some reason that Morgan couldn’t put her finger on, she felt suddenly sick– like her stomach was tugging her away from this strange past. And then… then something began to happen to the lake.
It started right at their feet. All along the edge of the shore, not ten feet out-- little whirlpools. Hundreds of them, as far as Morgan could see, all along the lake shore. Twisting and spinning in the shallow water. Further out, the water seemed suddenly to grow still, and reflect the gray sky unbroken by the chopping shadows of a moment before. But there were waves slapping the bank at their feet-- waves growing larger all the time, waves that seemed to start from nowhere and charge through the whirlpools onto the shore.
Morgan heard the cattle behind her begin to low and stir and run. She felt her horse start to rear, then change its mind and try to turn, stumbling back. But she kept her saddle expertly, and hardly noticed these things. Because her eyes were fixed on the lake.
A few yards from shore there was an old snag-- the rotted trunk of a flooded-out tree that jutted from the water like the horn of some fairy-tale dragon. The top of the snag was sun-bleached white as a tooth from an old grave, but the base was dark where the water wet it. And that dark, wet base was… was rising. At first Morgan thought the waves were just slapping higher against it, but… no, the trunk itself was rising higher and higher out of the lake.
And then something appeared out of the stillness that had taken hold of the depths of the lake. The gray reflection of the sky began to break, here and there, into streaks of darkness as… as something rose above the surface. Something… massive… almost as big as the lake itself. Slowly… slowly at first but then only seeming slow because of the enormous size of the movement. The ground… the ground under their horses’ hooves shook with a sudden snap of energy, like something giving way, like a heavy chain parting deep under the earth. The little eddying whirlpools at the water’s edge disappeared– and all the water did the same: rushing back to fill the void that was opened as… as something massive from the bed of the lake rose into the air.
The roar of falling water. A thudding pound as huge chunks of earth and rock and clay and mud fell back into the mucky pit that a moment before had been a lake. The dim grayness of daylight darkening… darkening as the mass in front of them rose to blot it out. Rose… and kept rising. To a towering height-- to scrape the clouds above them. Something so large, so close, it was impossible to see what it was-- what it looked like. The rising dark mass of it filled Morgan’s whole vision and froze her in her own insignificance. It didn’t seem to matter what she did, in a world that contained something like this.
But-- whether it mattered or not-- what Morgan did was run. More precisely: her horse began to run, and Morgan hung on. Which wasn’t easy. She lost her hat-- mud and water was raining down on her and everything-- cows were stampeding and stumbling in every direction, whites all around their terrified eyes-- a slab of muddy lake-bed fell from the sky and thundered down just in front of her-- her horse managed to leap over most of it and stumble through the rest. Morgan was nearly thrown forward and off but grabbed the pommel and hauled herself back. Her horse was dodging this way and that at the top of its speed, unpredictable in the chaos all around, no way to prepare for which way it would lurch next.
But she almost-- almost-- felt like they had run out of danger, when a yearling cow in a blind panic ran slam into the front legs of Morgan’s horse and knocked it sideways onto its shoulder. Whether the horse rolled or not Morgan never knew-- but she certainly did, and by the time she stopped rolling the horse was over there, struggling up, taking off… and she was left to scramble to her feet and look back in awe at the thing that had risen from the lake.
It was a hellbender. That’s the name that occurred in Morgan’s mind, though she’d never heard of that before. A hellbender, a mud dog, a snot otter: what you or I might call a salamander. Like that, but… enormous beyond imagining. She could see its tiny eyes glinting black in their muddy pits-- its shovel-shaped head hinged open at a wide jaw lined with jagged bone too primitive to be teeth. It’s wrinkled, slimy, leathery skin the color of mud under the mud that caked it. And sprouting from the tip of its nose was a horn, a pale horn-- what she had first mistaken for that bleached tree snag.
The monster reared up, so high that even as far as Morgan had managed to gallop she knew that-- if the thing came down this way… thundered down on her with all its huge bulk… she wasn’t safe. But the monster wasn’t looking toward her. It seemed… it seemed like something had distracted it. Something in the other direction… an animal running… an animal so small compared to the creature that it took Morgan a moment to realize that it was Billy’s horse. Billy’s horse without a rider, dashing dangerously close to the creature’s bulk.
The monster worked its ponderous jaws and turned its enormous head, fixing one beady eye on the horse below it… and then with shocking quickness it stabbed its head downward and snapped its jaws closed with a sound that came to Morgan an instant later, like a clap of thunder. “No!” Morgan heard herself shout-- but as the creature reared back up Morgan saw Billy’s horse again, running in the opposite direction. Running… but still too close to the monster.
Down came the huge muddy head, down came the blank, unblinking eyes. The jaws snapped again, Morgan waited as their thunder rippled past her. The beast rose… and the horse stood up from where it had stumbled or been thrown and dashed on. But it must have been stunned or disoriented… it was running the wrong way… it was running back toward the towering creature.
“No!” Morgan shouted again, and through the suspense of this game of massive cat and mouse the worry cut deep into her: where was Billy? What had become of him?
The monster threw itself down again, down and forward in a sudden lunge-- and this time Morgan watched in horror as it caught Billy’s horse in its toothless jaws, lifted it screaming and writhing, high up into the air!… and swallowed it whole.
Morgan was reeling from that horrible sight when she noticed something about the monster that she hadn’t seen before. A thin tan line that ran all around the creature’s head-- that looped under its jaw and up to where it disappeared from view atop the monster’s skull. The line seemed to press into the creature’s flesh, like something it was caught in-- like a fish bulging between the strands of a net. And then Morgan saw Billy. And she realized why she hadn’t noticed that tan line before— it wasn’t a part of the creature at all. It was a rope. A rope that Billy must have thrown around the beast while it was busy with his horse. A rope that Billy now held tightly onto, up there, where he perched on top of the creature’s head.
The monster seemed to notice the rope at the same time Morgan did. Its eyes didn’t widen or change at all-- eyes like that never can. But it began to twist spasmodically, and rear higher, and higher. Morgan saw Billy way up there, rope in one hand, grimly holding his seat. And she imagined that he spotted her, way down here in the grass, and locked eyes with her-- and then she knew it wasn’t her imagination, when with his free hand Billy raised his hat, and waved it slowly like a sad farewell.
And then the earth itself bucked and groaned in protest as the huge wrinkled monster hurled itself forward quick as a striking snake, slamming its whole bulk into the ground before rearing back again into the sky with amazing speed and force. Morgan only saw this first undulation– the mud and spray kicked up by the creature turned her whole world darker than the heart of a tornado, and she closed her eyes and bent her head, covering it with the crook of her arm and trying to cling to the earth as it bounced up and down. The sound and the violence were incredible, and every moment she expected something-- the body of the creature or a massive wave of mud-- to slam down and cover and crush and suffocate her. This went on for a very long time.
When it ended… she wasn’t sure when it ended. She just became aware that she was lying there, covered in filth and lake-bottom muck, shielding her head with her arm… and the only sound left was her own voice-- even stranger to her now than when this dream began-- crying out an endless, wordless plea for mercy.
When she finally managed to silence that-- her own ragged cry-- she heard another lonely sound fill the stillness, and she looked toward it. But when she opened her eyes she found herself looking directly into the staring eye of the creature. The muddy eye that had seemed so small and beady compared to the rest of the monster was as big as a wagon wheel up close, and Morgan gasped and crawled backward. And as she scrambled away the source of the sound came into view.
Not just a sound. A song. Not a song that Morgan ever wanted to hear again. It was in a language she didn’t understand, if those sounds were a language at all. It was words and music not intended for humanity-- it was something that spoke to the things we can’t normally see. It sounded sad and slow, but dangerous-- like a threatening lullaby. And singing it… was Billy. Still on the creature’s head, both hands pouring blood where they grasped the rough rope, hatless head leaning down beside the pit that must have been the monster’s ear.
And as Morgan watched-- feeling as entranced as the creature must have been-- Billy slowly climbed down from atop the thing, and took up the loose end of the rope like a leash. And to Morgan’s amazement he walked all around the head of the great slimy monster, which followed him with one of its eyes… eyes that looked as glazed and sleepy as an amphibian’s ever can. It was… it was unbelievable. Billy had it… Billy had won. Billy was leading that monster like a pet on a string.
Morgan smiled a crooked smile through the mud and the shock on her face. She let out a cry of joy, half laugh and half crow, and said something encouraging like, “You got it! You got it, Billy!” As soon as she said it she knew what a mistake it was. Something changed in the air-- something fell, like a bird dying mid-flight. Something broke, the song ceased, and Billy shot her a look mixed of equal parts disappointment and sadness. For a moment Morgan couldn’t see the harm-- the monster seemed as glazed and docile as before. But then, almost faster than she could see it, with one snap of its head and jaws Billy was gone-- lost in the creature’s bony mouth, gone the same way as his horse: swallowed whole. Gone before he could make a sound.
Morgan fully expected to be next. In her scramble backward she’d stumbled over a muddy log, and now sat astride it, staring into the soulless eye of the monster. And it moved… but not toward her. No, it slid… backward… away from her… and she watched in mingled relief and disbelief and heartbreak for Billy as the great beast slipped back into the great chasm in the muck from which it had emerged, and the muddy waters of the lake surged back up around it and filled a basin that was somewhat larger than it had been before Billy’s wild ride had gouged a wider depression in the earth. And as Morgan sat there-- happy to still be breathing the air of the living-- the churning, foaming waters slowly stilled.
… until out there, in the very middle of the lake, something floated up. Bobbed to the surface. A log, or something. A small log… shaped like the head of a horse. With little waves lapping against it… little waves… like the ones kicked up by a horses’ front hooves as it swims. And behind all that… something round, like… like the head of a rider clinging to the horses’ floating mane… and as it came closer Morgan saw that lean, brown, familiar face.
Morgan stood up on legs that trembled with… with everything. But stand was all she could do-- she couldn’t walk a step as Billy’s horse scrambled out of the lake, with Billy himself beside it. He shook muddy water from his black hair and made a clucking sound about the saddle and gear missing from the back of his naked horse, which stood there looking indignant about everything as Billy checked it over carefully for harm.
There must not have been any, because as he pulled himself onto the horse’s bare back Billy flashed Morgan a big smile that was all the brighter for the mud and wet that soaked his clothes. He motioned back toward the water of the lake and winked. “Little burp,” he said, by way of explaining his escape. Then he waved toward the lake again and put a finger to his lips. “Asleep,” he said, humming a few bars from that strange and terrible song that he’d used on the creature. Morgan sat back down again, heavily, feeling suddenly numb and tired. Then, without a word or a motion from Billy, his horse set out at a brisk trot for the plains over Morgan’s shoulder. Morgan closed her eyes for a moment…
“Morgan!” a different voice called to her, from over by the lake. She looked, and the first thing she noticed was that the trees were back. All around the lake… the trees, and the roads cut in the pale earth. And the picnic tables…
“Morgan! Come on! We’re leaving!” one of the teachers shouted to her across the grassy distance of the park. She looked around, and… she was nine years old again. And she was sitting on a log that was not a horse, and Walgren lake was a peaceful green expanse rippling with the gray of the blustery Nebraska sky.
And it was all just a dream, you say, right? Maybe. Maybe. A vivid dream, sure-- Morgan’s daydreams had never been anything like that. As she walked back toward the bus, puzzling over it, the path took her right along the shoreline. She was waving a little stick in her hand as she walked, thinking about… whatever had just happened to her. As she got near the bus she was about to throw it in the water… but when she saw an old, bleached-white tree trunk rising out of the lake just there, she decided not to.
Just a dream, you say. The dream of an imaginative kid. Ok. I’m inclined to agree with you. Morgan was too, just then. But as she was climbing on the bus, one of the teachers stopped her. “Who was that you were talking to down there?”
Morgan blinked a few times in confusion, then managed to mutter: “...talking to?”
“Yeah, who were you talking to? That rider? Who was riding down there?”
Morgan felt… all kinds of things, all in a rush. But eventually she said: “That was... Billy.”
“Does Billy have a last name?”
Morgan shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said, and went on up the steps into the bus.
And I think it’s time we went up to our tents. The night’s getting dark and the fire’s getting low. Sleep tight tonight, and remember that we’ve got to pack out any garbage that we brought in, because there’s no trash service out here. And do not throw anything into the lake. First of all we don’t want to litter, and secondly we… well I’d sure hate to wake anything up.
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Camp Monsters is part of the REI podcast network. Having been through the desert on a horse with no name, our Engineer Nick Patri was well-qualified to create the sound effects for this episode. Our Executive Producers Paolo “Hoss” Mottolla and Joe “Seabiscuit” Crosby actually got their first break performing as a singing cowboy duo in the Poconos. And they still wear those rhinestone suits. Drifting along like a tumbling tumbleweed is our Senior Producer, Chelsea Davis, while our Associate Producer Jenny Barber is just trying to keep them dogies rollin’. As for yours truly, Weston Davis, the writer and host of Camp Monsters: my heroes have always been cowboys. And they still are, it seems…
Next week we’ll need all the heroes we can get. Because as we’re driving alone late at night on an empty rural road, deep in the Scape Ore Swamp of Lee County, South Carolina… we’re going to begin to suspect that we aren’t… quite… as alone as we thought. See you next week.
Of course the stories we tell here on Camp Monsters are just stories. Some of them are based on things people claim to have seen and experienced, but it’s up to you to decide what you believe… and how to explain away what you don’t. Please, please subscribe if you haven’t already-- and like, share, and review the Camp Monsters podcast. It’s your support that keeps us recording. Thank you. Can’t wait to see you next time, around the campfire.