01 Feb I Work as a Shepherd: The Things I Herd are Ghosts
He sat on a mound. Bearing semblance of a character wreathed by some strange type of vagabond regality. He was proud, that was plain to see. Stringy gray hair lifted and fell upon the light breeze. The branches of pin oak and dogwood chattered around him in a language long forgotten. His eyes were closed and his state was trance like. Eerie, but in a way comical. A thin lipped and age drawn mouth was contorted into a lopsided grin. A staff of gnarled drift wood rested across his lap. His old gray jacket was faded, threadbare and full of moth holes with pieces of dead and broken leaves and twigs stuck to it. As if he’d saw fit to roll around on the forest floor like a dog before taking residence upon his earthen throne. The throne from which he presided over a kingdom that he and he alone could see. Around his gaunt waist was a chain in place of a belt, and I was sure that if he stood it would only be the tops of protruding hip bones that would keep it from sliding down his legs to gather in a rusty pile at his feet. He was either oblivious to our presence or simply couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge us. Either one was fine with us as we kept moving down the obscure trail. My companion and fishing buddy Eric looked at me with a smirk as we rounded a bend and were certain to be out of sight and earshot of the odd man. “Dude..did we just see a wizard?”
It was late summer in the Ozarks. We had enough time in the year for one last hurrah before autumn fell across the land and our obligations with work and family would keep us off of the water for the next seven or so months. We made it a point at least once a summer to break free of civilizations grasp and delve as deeply as we could into nature. To find fish, we told everyone, but deep down we both knew we just wanted to get away from the concrete, cars, streetlights, and sirens that never seemed to stop. Away from people. We chose fly fishing as our outlet. Not because of any moral objection to any other form of aquatic pursuit, but simply because the gear was light, packable, and we could keep a weeks worth of tackle in little more than a vest pocket. We skirted the Fourche LaFave River, scaling boulders and rock slides, slipping through mud and gravel. We felt like children again as we explored with gusto. Our windings took us all the deeper into what could loosely pass as wilderness in this day and age. We checked the still pools below riffles, scouting for one that could possibly be home to a school of fat rainbows that the area was known for. All of the comforts of Colorado trout fishing without a twenty hour drive and half freezing in the Rockies to do it, we joked.
Camp was simple and elegant. We strung up hammocks with mosquito netting and rain tarps. Backpacking quilts kept us warm in our nylon nests. We readied a fire ring and set about the task of gathering firewood. Gather your firewood up at the beginning, and your trip will be more enjoyable was the mantra preached by my father when he took me on my first camping trip twenty years previous. It was late enough that we weren’t going to get any fishing done on the first day, but that was alright. Eric had taken off down stream in his quest for firewood and I’d gone inland, away from the waters edge. I picked at dead fall, broke off dry branches, and used a folding pocket saw to hew the largest of the branches down into manageable pieces to drag back to camp. Arms full with my burnable payload I turned to make the first trip back to camp. Likely it would take several to secure enough firewood for the duration of the trip. I stepped around a boulder, peering through the fingers of wood that did their best to obscure my view when I let out a shout and jumped backwards, dropping everything I carried.
“The Hell?!” My words came as a reflex more than a thought out construct.
“Y’all boys ought to be careful out here when the water’s up. It’s a lonesome place.” The man from the mound said in a scratchy voice that dripped with a deep HillJack accent. His eyes were two different colors, one light brown, the other a milky blue. He didn’t seem to have a malicious look, but I still felt my heart pound in my chest from the sudden surprise.
“What’re you doing sneaking up on me like that?” I said to no one. He was gone. One instant there, the next vanished. As if the trees had reached out and snatched him away in the time it took me to blink. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I kept one eye roving as I gathered up the dropped firewood and bounded quickly back to camp. Eric was there with a comparable pile he’d gathered as well. He was looking at the river as he fidgeted with the knife he normally used to whittle wood shavings to start the fire. I dropped the wood next to him.
“Damn wizard snuck up on me.” He said before I could say a word. “Said to watch out for the water because it’s lonesome, or something.”
“Seriously? He must be quick for an old man because he said the same thing to me.” I replied.
We stared at each other for a moment before we both shrugged and attempted to laugh it off. The tension broke and we tended to our respective camps chores, building the fire and preparing the freeze dried meal that was customary on our first night, hoping that as the week rolled on we’d be able to heavily supplement our meals with fresh fish. We decided that the old man probably a local. One of the hill folk that wasn’t used to people this far in and decided to have a little fun at our expense. Everywhere in the Ozarks there were stories and legends of the hill folk. A clanish and xenophobic people who didn’t approve of outsiders in their ancestral land. That had to have been it. We weren’t going to give him the satisfaction of seeing us frightened by something so minuscule. We passed a small bottle of whiskey back and forth between us as we sat, enjoying the fire, and watched the sun sink beyond the mountains.
“How early you wanna start in the morning?” Eric asked me.
“Oh, I guess whoever wakes up first wakes the other one up like usual. Wouldn’t mind getting after it while there’s still a fog on the water.”
“Fair enough. I think I’ll turn in, then.”
Eric rocked up to his feet with an excessively dramatic yawn and meandered towards his hammock, pulling back the mosquito netting to crawl inside. I poked at the fire with a stick and listened to the chorus of groans, curses, coughs, and sighs that emanated from the hammock as he settled into place. I chuckled quietly, knowing I would be doing the same before long. It was always a fight in the beginning with a hammock to find the sweet spot and get comfortable. Worth it, however. The blue flames licked at the dry oak log, and I tapped it with a stick, watching the orange sparks fly up and into the night like a hundred little fairies. Frogs and crickets called from the high grass across the river, and a distant whippoorwill serenaded his own little personal corner of the forest. I smiled with content behind the rim of the whiskey bottle, enjoying the falling of night as the fire burned down to dim coals, and I finally crawled into my hammock.
The scraping caused me to stir. So soft at first I couldn’t tell if that’s what had awakened me. My eyes opened and I blinked against the dark as my vision adjusted to the starlight. The scraping grew louder. I immediately recognized it as the cook pot we’d left by the fire. Raccoons and possums were shameless about raiding leftovers from carelessly ignored dirty dishes regardless if you were sleeping a few feet away or not. I tried to ignore it, but the sound grew. Metallic and aggressive, like a fork being hauled across the bottom of the pot. With a hint of annoyance I called out.
“Eric, you being a fat kid or what? You’re not gonna miracle more food out of the pot by scraping it like that.”
“Huh?” Came the simple, sleepy reply from his hammock.
I felt the drowsiness leave my body as I tilted my head up, eyes straining against the night as I looked for the source of the sound. I clicked on my headlamp and illuminated the area. There was nothing. The cook pot was there as we’d left it. I’d expected to catch a glimpse of a possum scurrying into the forest, but there simply wasn’t anything. I swung my light slowly over the area when I felt a stiff bump against the outside of my hammock and I started swinging. The impact caused me to flail involuntarily, which only made the swinging worse.
“Something just hit me.” I said aloud, with a little more panic in my voice than I intended.
“The realization that you’re a dick for waking me up?”
“No, asshole, seriously, something was just in camp.”
“It was probably a coon, maybe a hog. They got them out here.” Eric said with groggy irritation.
I started to protest his indifference, but ultimately decided to leave it alone. I focused my attention on a single cricket that was sawing a tune somewhere in the underbrush. My eyelids grew heavy a few times, but noises in the woods either real or imagined continually jolted me back awake. My body grew tired, but my mind wouldn’t allow me to sleep. I listened to Eric rustle in his hammock. He wasn’t sleeping either. I speculated on the reasons, but neither of us spoke again until the sun threatened to crest the eastern hilltops. The night sounds were fading, but there was a lull before the sounds of early morning fell into their place. It occurred suddenly. It wasn’t close, but neither was it quite far enough away when it happened. A shrill, ear splitting screech echoed through the trees and caused a jagged ripple to form on the surface of the water. Eric and I both came up out of our hammocks which swung erratically, fighting via physics to hold us in as we struggled to get out, both essentially being puked out into heaps on the ground.
“So, I take it you heard it to?” Eric said as he looked at me with a feeble attempt at humor.
“The Hell you think it was?” I asked as I scanned the trees that ringed our camp.
“No idea. Hog fighting a black bear maybe? Sow with babies?”
“Could be. Never heard a sow make that kind of noise.”
“You ever heard a sow make any type of noise?” Eric accusatorily stared at me.
“No.” I admitted. Truthfully I had no idea what the vocal range of a feral hog consisted of. I wasn’t a hardened, seasoned pioneer born of the same vein as Daniel Boone. I liked hiking, fishing, and camping on weekends, and that was about it. Although Eric tried to play himself off as a rough and tumble frontiersman, I knew he was the same way. “What do you wanna do?” I asked.
“We’re up, might as well fish. That’s what we’re here for.”
He wasn’t wrong. The light had started by then to penetrate into the forest, and a thin beam of yellow ray was spilling across the river bank. I had the urge to go stand in it. Bask in the warmth and let it purge the figurative and literal chill from my body. To disinfect and flush out the gnawing feeling of unease that had crept into my bones. I slipped on my boots, stood, and strode directly out into the light. I felt better almost immediately. Jay was pecking at the fire ring with a stick, rousing the coals as he spoke.
“Hey, child of light, you want breakfast or are we getting right to it?”
“Let’s do it.”
We waded the river. The water was breathtakingly cold at first, but as the sun climbed so did the heat and humidity. After an adjustment period it felt nice to dunk into the clear water to wash away the sweat and deer flies that circled our faces like tiny vultures. We waded for miles, casting our lines, cracking jokes, reminiscing about past adventures and telling good natured lies. A flycast, when done correctly, is a thing of beauty. It’s a sport that borders on art. Rather than athletically depositing your fly where you wish it to be by force, you paint the actions in long, smooth strokes, trusting in the final product. Throughout the day I thought I saw glimpses of things. Things that came to the corner of my eye, lingering on the fringes of my vision until I tried to look directly at them. Every flick of my gaze or turn of my head was met with emptiness for the effort. A flash of color, a clandestine movement, the flitting of a shape. It was unnerving, but I was also tired. The brain does funny things when running on a very real lack of sleep. I’d catch Eric from time to time focusing on the treeline above the river. When I questioned him about it he’d shake his head. As the day wore on the feeling of unease came back. I didn’t just think we were being watched, I knew we were. Eric felt it to. Our jokes and laughter tapered off more and more with every passing hour. Our flycasting had grown stiff and mechanical. Somewhere there were eyes boring into us and the movements in the shadows maintained their surreptitious presence just out of sight. We had fish in the creel basket, and rather than continue downstream we subconsciously worked back up river towards the camp. That was uncharacteristic of us, but neither of us said a word until we could see the hammocks swaying gently as we’d left them.
“Home sweet home.” Eric said as he slogged ashore, me right behind him toting the creel basket housing the day’s catch. The minimalist diet of trail mix and cereal bars that had sustained us while wading had us working at a deficit that was audible in the form of rumbling stomachs. The thoughts of fresh fire cooked fish and potatoes completely bulldozed, for a time, the eerie vibes that pulsed through the valley all around us. I gutted the trout, peeling the bloodlines off of the backbone with my thumb and rinsing them in the flowing river water. Eric was the designated fire master and he coaxed the flames into life and added wood. Butter, garlic, rosemary, and aluminum foil, a dash of seasoned salt and white pepper. The simple things that put a Michelin rated restaurant to shame when you’re on the river bank. We wrapped up the fish and potatoes in foil packets and covered them in coals that were glowing as the sun once more started to dip from sight. The whiskey bottle made the usual rounds as we waited for the meal to cook.
“Isn’t it funny how a fifty cent bologna sandwich in the woods tastes better than a hundred dollar steak in the city?”
“Nah. In town you’re just focused on the food itself. Out here it’s the environment. Makes the whole experience more enjoyable.” I replied as I listened to the butter sizzling and smelled the sweet scent of the herbs entwined with woodsmoke. “Plus hunger is the best sauce you can pour on anything. I think it was Edward Abbey that said that, wasn’t it?”
Eric shrugged. “Don’t know, but they’re wise words.”
The glow of the sunlight was all but gone, the rays it cast had been retracted, pulled back through the tree tops and reeled in the way we reeled our fishing lines. I felt half blind as the evening light was dim enough to obscure shapes but not yet dark enough to let my eyes adjust. I yawned while Eric flipped the packets, giving them just a little more time before we were to pull them from the coals and eagerly sate our hunger. I was reaching out to hand him the whiskey bottle when something caught my eye. I refocused my gaze past him to the blurry outline of a figure in the trees. I quickly grabbed my headlamp and switched it on, shining towards the figure. There was nothing. A shiver ran down my back as Eric turned towards me, but he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking past me as I had been with him. His eyes widened and mouth fell open, but no words came out. I rolled forward and swung my light around in the direction he was looking. Again, nothing.
“I swear there was someone standing behind you just now.” Eric said as he grabbed his own headlamp and switched it on, putting it on his head.
“Man, there was someone behind you too.”
“This is getting really weird out here, dude.
“Yeah. You wanna bail?”
He was quiet. We both were. I knew we were both thinking the same thing in that instant, but neither wanted to be the one to say it. Even in the face of peril there was still a certain measure of pride that could very possibly mean the downfall of both of us. We stared at each other like two dogs sizing each other up, seeing who would crack. The jingle of steel in the night broke off our dueling gazes and in unison both of our headlight beams swung outward towards the sound. It was just beyond sight. A jingle, then a tapping. We both stood. Eric dug into his pack that hung from a branch of the tree that held one end of his hammock up. He unfurled a waterproof bag and slipped a small revolver from it, quickly flicking the cylinder open to check rounds and snapping it back shut. I took into hand my camp machete and as if connected by a single thought we eased forward into the woods towards the source of the sound.
Jingle, tap. Jingle. First it was ahead of us, then to the side. It moved in a circle and we chased it, determined to find out the cause. Eric had the pistol half raised and my fingers flexed around the handle of the machete when our lights hit the old man. He didn’t seem disturbed as we yelled at him, demanding to know what was going on, and why he was harassing us. At least that’s what we thought we were saying. The words flowed out in an incoherent, jumbled mess. The old man gave a kind smile that was strangely relaxing. I fortified myself, and spoke again clearly, cutting off Eric who was still flinging insults like fist fulls of gravel.
“What are you doing out here? Why are you bothering us?”
“Oh, don’t mind me, boys. Just gatherin’ up my flock a’fore the sorceress comes through and tries to put hooks in’em.”
“What are you talking about?” Eric finally settled enough to add. “What do you mean by any of that?”
The old man leaned against his staff, and the chain around his middle jingled as he shifted his feet. “Takes a lonesome place to grow a good crop o’ ghosts. This valley here been ripe fer a hunnerd and fiddy years now give or take. The sorceress’s plot has done went barren, she cain’t grow nothin’ no more so she has riz up from the river to take what ain’t rightly hers. Best ye boys move along a’fore she takes a shine to ye.” His eyes glinted then as he added. “Or ye can stay.”
We stood in stunned silence attempting to process what we’d just heard and determine the language in which it was spoken. The old man unceremoniously shuffled off into the night tapping trees with his staff, whistling lowly with his chain jingling at every step. We walked back to camp angry and exhausted. The fish we’d so excitedly been looking forward to was little more than charcoal. Disgusted, Eric flung the half melted foil packets towards the river. “I’ll pick it up in the morning..” He mumbled. We were generally religious about packing our trash out, but I let him have his tantrum. Truthfully I wanted to do it as well.
“I’m not liking this spot anymore.” I broke the silence after a time.
“Yeah, getting accosted by a crazy mountain hermit kinda takes the fun out of the whole deal.” Eric replied.
“Well..” I thought about how to choose my words and still maintain my dignity. “If he’s not going to let us sleep then the rest of the trip is going to be miserable. Why don’t we pack out first thing in the morning? There’s enough time left, we can still drive up and hit the White River for a few days before we have to be back.”
“I don’t like the idea of getting chased off of public land.”
“I don’t either, but this is supposed to be a vacation. Vacations aren’t supposed to suck.”
“Fine.” Eric said after a period of deliberation. He wasn’t happy, but begrudgingly agreed. I suspected that he was secretly delighted, but he’d never admit it. He always had to be the tough one. I knew there would be jokes about revocation of my man card coming in the future, but at that point I didn’t care.
“Might as well try to get some sleep.”
I felt ill with exhaustion as I stretched out in my hammock. We hadn’t slept in almost three days. The exertion of the hike in, wading the river, the missed meals, and of course the mental strain all heaped together made my body feel ready to give out. It wasn’t just a normal tired. It was a deep tired. A depletion that made you feel like you were wearing a suit made out of lead. Every little movement seemed to take a concentrated effort and twice the energy that it should have. I desperately needed sleep. I tried to sleep. When I closed my eyes I saw vaguely humanoid figures gyrating in my mind’s eye. When I opened my eyes they were gone. I shifted beneath the wrapping of my quilt and faced to the side, squeezing my eyes closed. The characters were still there, more defined. Eye sockets were hollow and void, maws opened where mouths should have been, stretching inhumanly far. I rolled over again, fighting to keep my eyes shut, thinking that if I could just power through the hallucinations then I could find sleep. More gathered, circling around me. My brain yelled at them to go away, but they merely stared, maws agape, twisted over and over in soundless screams.
I couldn’t take it anymore and opened my eyes. I looked upwards towards the moonless sky, rubbing my face. I felt defeated and angry. The fatigue that bored through my body was uncompromising. The night was completely silent. There were no sounds of crickets or frogs. The whippoorwill was gone. An eerie stillness blanketed the forest. Until the footsteps. They weren’t defined. I can’t even really say that one could hear them so much as feel them. Light and ginger against the rocky soil. One pair, then two pairs. I squinted into the blackness and could see nothing. For the first time I began then to feel fear. I could hear feet dragging and stomping, the numbers growing and milling just beyond sight, like they were waiting. The earth began pulsating. Like a heart beat. A single resounding clap came from the edge of my consciousness, still concealed behind an opaque veil. I could feel a drum beat. A great, savage drum. Then came the marching. In rhythm with the drum they marched. Whatever they were. It grew louder and louder. I could feel it reverberating in my chest. My hammock moved as I felt something hit it. I tried to sit up but couldn’t. The hammock was jostled back and forth as the legions marched around it, bouncing and swinging harshly. It felt like hands were pushing and pulling me and I was thrashed against the ropes that held me to the trees.
I saw a light. Eric had turned his headlamp on and I could see his hammock pitching and yawing just as mine was. The beam of his light illuminated nothing, but flickered with the appearance of people walking in front of it, blocking the light in bursts. The drum beat was deafening. Eric and I yelled, but our words were lost in the chaos. Rocks and branches tipped over, the under growth parted, and at the edge of the beyond we could hear brutal cries. The coals in the fire pit were dim, but the pieces of charred wood still held ember. Something caused the remaining wood to shift and sparks flew up, framing a menacing figure with eyes that absorbed the sparks. It held them, molded them. It leered at us and the very real shriek that burst forth was terrifying. We fought against the pummeled hammocks that undulated within the ocean of the unseen. I drew a pocket knife and began cutting my way out. The ripping of nylon was a beacon of freedom as I fell to the ground and scrambled to my feet, running barefoot into the woods. I glanced back only long enough to see Eric being drug up from the ground where he’d fallen. He was held aloft, a consuming blackness seeming to prop him up as he thrashed against it. His headlamp fell to the ground and aimed upward to shine on his writhing body. I could see the depthless and formless tendrils of black wrapping around him. I was able to see him look at me, horror and disbelief in his eyes. His face wasn’t pleading in that split second. It was strangely accepting, even relieved. I saw him nod and mouth the word: “Go.”
The rocks and branches of the forest floor tore at my feet. I staggered, bouncing like a pinball off of trees and that which I couldn’t see. I felt hands on my, pushing me this way and that. Some felt soft, others were stiff, as if I was being shoved out of annoyance. At that moment I didn’t care what was happening, I just knew I needed to get out of there. I needed to figure out how to regroup and go back for Eric. The drums were still pounding, I realized they’d never stopped. When I closed my eyes I saw columns of ghostly figures, in line, marching. Columns of them, stepping in time with the drumbeat. I thought I could even hear the haunting melody of a flute somewhere in the depths of the commotion. Everything seemed like a drunken memory. I couldn’t focus directly on anything, only saw flashes when I closed my eyes. Felt it all instead of seeing. I was losing my mind. I pressed forward until I tripped over a rotten log. I felt my head bounce off of a stone and I laid there while blood began pooling around the side of my face. My chest heaved and I gasped for breath, trying to pull it into my lungs so that I could get up and keep going. I tried to rise and my arms quit me. I rolled over onto my back and laid there, defeated. My body was done. I was ducking in and out of consciousness. I’d tried.
The jingle of a chain was very real. The clearest sensation I’d experienced since the whole thing began. I turned my throbbing head towards it, and to be honest, I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or shut. The old man was there. He’d changed. He didn’t appear to be the frail old hillbilly from earlier. His long whispy hair was brushed and tucked back behind his ears. A wide brimmed hat banded with a golden rope and crossed sword insignia pinned it all in place. He wore a spotless gray coat secured by two rows of brass buttons that clinked against a bugle hanging from a strap. I felt my breath catch in my throat as the giant undead skeleton of the horse he was mounted on began to paw at the ground. He didn’t look at me, he looked forward, over what I realized was the battlefield before him. His steely eyed gaze was fixed and temperament was absolute. He lifted his staff into the air he left burst from his mouth a deafening rebel yell. Thousands of resounding cries could be heard on the edge of reality, and I felt the ground tremble as his army surged forward. Trees swayed and branches whipped and parted. I could hear the clattering of sabers on the cool night air.
I faded as the battle grew distant, laying there alone. At one point I thought I felt several sets of hands picking me up and I had the sensation of floating before merciful sleep claimed me. It was a sterile and dreamless sleep that didn’t last long. I felt myself being jostled against a hard surface as I opened my eyes. I was in the back of an old buckboard wagon. The ancient planks were stained and worn smooth. I sat up with a groan, lightly touching my head where I’d bumped it when I fell. I winced in pain as I looked around. Dawn was coming. The old man sat on the seat looking again like the disheveled wizard he’d previously appeared to be. He clutched a set of old leather reins in his hands, clucking at the undead team of horses that pulled the wagon down an abandoned logging road. I pressed myself back against the sideboard.
“What’s going on? What happened? Where are you taking me?” I stammered, words falling out of my mouth.
“Now don’t worry, boy, we’re gettin’ ye took care of. Ain’t no place to be, out here.”
I felt only slightly better before I asked “Where’s Eric? Did you find him?”
The old man laughed. “Ah, yessir, he’s found. He be jus’ fine. Y’all drawed up the sorceress right nice fer us. We got her beat back up river thanks ta’ y’all. Eric’ll be jus’ fine. Yessir. He’ll harvest up right nice.”
Once I’d overcome the shock of realization that we’d been used for bait, I felt dread shoot through me. I flopped against the railing and began clawing my way over the side. I had to go back to find Eric before anything else could happen. The hands that fell upon me were cold but strong. Dozens of sets holding me tightly, dragging me back into the wagon, clamping invisible shackles on my hands and ankles binding me in place. I realized that I wasn’t alone in that wagon. The ghosts of fallen soldiers sat all around me. I could feel them there though I couldn’t see them except for the glimpses I caught from the corner of my eye when the shadows laid just right. There was another figure as well. Wrapped in moldy burlap and hemp rope. It rocked gently with the creak of the wagon wheels, lifeless. I knew instantly that it was Eric. I knew he’d be joining the ghosts. I knew there was nothing I could do about it. It was the last thing I saw before a cotton sack was jammed over my head and secured with thin strings. I was too shocked and fatigued at that point to put up much of a fight.
The old man pulled up the team of horses within minutes of my restraint. Even through the cotton fabric I could see the sun trying to shine. I felt the wagon sway as weight shifted and heard the back board of the wagon fall open, bouncing on old iron hinges. I felt a harsh tugging at the invisible shackles. I was drug from the back of the wagon like a prisoner of war. I staggered to my feet after hitting the ground. A sharp shove in the middle of my back pushed me forward, I could almost hear the chill chime of iron chains that clacked with every step I took. I didn’t know if I was being led by the old man or his troops. It didn’t matter much, I thought. I stumbled over an obstacle, jamming the still bare toes of my foot and was jerked back upright. The ground beneath my feet had changed. From soil and dirt to what felt to be smooth stone. The air changed. It was musty. I heard hinges squeak and fell beneath the force of another shove. A door slammed behind me and a lock jiggled. I lifted both of my hands to my face as I rolled onto my side, peeling the cotton sack off of my head and throwing it across what became evident to be a cell. I looked around, blinking. I was alone. I felt alone as well. The presence of ghosts had faded away. I assumed it due to the light that was seeping through the warped planks that made up my cell. I was thirsty, beyond hungry, and didn’t feel as though I had the strength to do anything but absently watch the dusty haze that lifted into the beams of light, swirling lazily whenever I waved a restrained hand through it.
I watched through the gaps that time had widened between the rough hand hewn planks that made up the walls of the ramshackle cabin. I saw the old man striding about with purpose. His shoulders and back were hunched, but he moved with the speed of someone young and fit. His chain jingled and he whistled merrily. I felt sick to my stomach as I saw him drag Eric’s corpse from the back of the wagon. It hit the ground with an emphatic thud and he wretched it one side step at a time towards a pile of freshly excavated dirt. He giggled and danced a jig after sliding Eric head first into a narrow hole. It looked like the ground had swallowed my friend, head down and feet up so that he came to rest vertical and upside down. The sound of a shovel cutting into the dirt caused me to shudder. I felt a pang of sorrow with every shovel full of dirt the old man scooped into the grave. He sang a tune to himself as he worked, carrying on like he was planting a garden. When the hole was full he took the remainder of the dirt and shaped it into a mound. The shovel was discarded and he took into hand his staff again. He scratched at the mound with the tip of it in small circles before admiring his handy work with a satisfied nod. He turned then, shifted himself, and sat upon the mound. Bearing semblance of a character wreathed by some strange type of vagabond regality. My eyes widened and my heart leapt into my throat as he closed his eyes and entered a trance like state. A thin lipped and age drawn mouth contorted into a lopsided grin. I sat back against the wall, my hands dropping into my lap with the rustle of iron from another plane. My head lolled to the side and I just sat there. There was nothing else to do.
The day wore on. At one point there was a brief rain shower. I crawled around my cell, lapping like an animal at each drop of water that streamed in and fell from the leaky roof, relishing the fact that the sweltering heat had lessened. There was no airflow in my cell, and until the rain came I’d been fairly certain that I’d die of a heat stroke. Maybe that was the plan. To simply let me expire so that I may be planted upside down just as Eric was. The dryness had left my mouth by the time the rain shower moved away. The old man hadn’t moved the entire time but still looked to be bone dry. I began tracing the edges of the boards with my finger, looking for any weakness I could exploit. I thought escape could be a possibility as long as I managed to do it before the sun set. I pressed my forehead against the wall and squinted through a gap towards the sky. I didn’t have long. I worked a small flat stone loose from the floor where the mortar had cracked decades before. With it I began digging at a rotten section of planking. I didn’t need to bore completely through the wall, I thought, I just needed to loosen it enough to expose the nail heads. If I could break them off, I could remove the whole plank and squeeze out. That would be the plan. With one eye on the task at hand the other other on the old man on the mound I began work.
It was much harder than I thought it was going to be. Much more time consuming. The sun was threatening to drop from view and I was becoming desperate. I pulled at the plank, bashed on the nail heads with the rock, and dug at the mortar of the stone footing. The supernatural chains still somehow bound my wrists and ankles, though I wasn’t sure how. Some magic I didn’t understand, I supposed. The shadows were stretching and it was becoming dark in my cell rapidly. I wouldn’t have much time and I was beginning to feel the restless stirring of the old man’s flock. He must have felt it too because he’d jumped up from the mound he’d sat on all day, and meandered off, tapping his staff against tree trunks and rocks, whistling lowly and humming. I saw that as my opportunity to go. With both feet I kicked at the plank. It didn’t budge and pain shot through my heels. I ignored it and kicked again and again, clenching my jaw. I was about to give up when the plank fell away seemingly on it’s own. I stared at the gap momentarily before I hurled myself at it. I exhaled every bit of breath I could and squeezed through the narrow slot, tattering my shirt and ripping skin from my shoulders and chest. I’d made it outside. And I ran. I didn’t know where I was nor the direction I was going, but I didn’t care. The adrenaline kept me from noticing my shredded feet and the jagged strips of flesh on my chest. My lungs burned I ran so far, and I finally felt a glimmer of hope. I was going to make it out of the woods.
I collapsed in a heap as I felt the impact in the pit of my stomach. I curled up and dry heaved. The force of the blow was sudden and powerful. My shackles were snatched upwards and I rolled over onto my back as I was pulled across the forest floor. When I closed my eyes I could see the blurry figures that flanked me to either side, see the two that were dragging me, marching in matching steps. I felt delirious as I was hoisted up and thrown into the saddle that sat atop a massive undead horse that tossed it’s head anxiously. The head looked like little more than dry and sunken strips of hide hugging a bleached skull. I felt the rope placed around my neck and tightened until the knot was snug. The whispers on the breeze came to my ears. Voices faintly shouting “Deserter! Deserter!” In my mind I could see angry soldiers wielding torches, could see them throwing the rope over a tree branch, pulling it taught, and tieing it off at the base of the tree. My body stretched upward as they pulled. Behind closed eyes I could see one of them smack the horse on the rump and sent it loping forward. I felt myself being jerked from the saddle, swinging like a gurgling, kicking puppet on a string. I couldn’t breath and though I tried to claw at the rope my fingers could find nothing to grasp. I tried to scream but no sound came out. My eyes rolled back in my head as I struggled for breath.
I hit the ground. I could still feel the noose dangling from my neck but the pressure was gone. My shackles were being pulled again. I half scrambled and was half hauled through the woods until I collapsed. I couldn’t go any farther. All of the sudden I felt like I was floating. Drifting between the trees and over the boulders. I realized I could see then. I must have been near enough to death to lift the veil for a fleeting moment. I was being carried across the shoulders of a man covered in dirt. The soldiers gathered in a pack that followed but stayed back, commanded by some unseen force. I heard a jingle and a tapping. I saw the old man herding them like livestock. His eyes glowed in the dark and his voice was saturating.
“Th’ men feel betrayed. They don’t know no better. T’ain’t their fault, all they un’erstand is what they used ta’ be. This is a lonesome place. Best ye git on now, a’fore I take a shine to ye.”
I felt myself being gently lowered as the shackles dropped from my hands and legs. The rope around my neck disappeared. I rubbed my wrists as the veil descended again. I still couldn’t speak, my throat felt torn. The face of the old man was filled with rancor. It was blatantly clear that I wasn’t going to get another offer. There was a subtle pulling at my shirt and I limped off into the woods, away from the old man, and away from his flock of spirits. Little by little I gained ground as the night trudged on. I picked my way, feeling as if I was being guided. The feeling was tenuous, but it was there. The sun was just beginning to peek over the mountain, letting heavenly rays of light brighten the dark woods, causing the secrets of the valley to slide back into their holes. The birds began their hearty morning songs. I could see the trailhead that had marked the beginning of the trip. I could hear the highway in the distance. I was almost there. I ventured a single glance over my shoulder. I saw the blurry figure. It loomed on the edge of my vision, hugging tight to the last shards of dissipating darkness. It waved at me as it faded away like lifting fog from the surface of the water, burned away by the warmth of the daylight I was already starting to feel in seep into me. I whispered. “Thanks, Eric.” And walked the rest of the way on my own.