Summary: (aka) Halloween!
Word Count: 2114
It was a wild day; the clouds scudded across the sky like the torn wings of ravens. The land was sodden as it had been raining for days, and the trail which Alamo was carefully picking his way along was washed out in parts. Slim allowed his horse to delicately choose his own footing, and was thinking of Gregg Stanton, who only last year had slid into the raging torrent that thundered below, and whose body was found days later when the water had gone down. It was found high and dry on a sand bank and totally unrecognizable as it had been so badly torn apart by the ferocious currents and sharp rocks. What had been left had been ravaged by the foxes, crows and whatever other wild beast had been looking for an easy meal.
His thoughts were wrenched out of his brain as he suddenly saw the horse in front begin to lose its footing, and begin to slide down the steep muddy bank. Slim did not have time to call out; as just as quickly, the bay somehow nimbly and with the agility of a cat scrambled back on to the muddy trail.
“Another life lost,” Slim called out to the rider, his pard Jess, who Slim knew was as agile as his horse. Jess never turned around; he simply raised his arm to acknowledge Slim’s attempt at hangman’s humor.
The two friends continued on until the land opened out and became flatter, the river became wider and slowed down to a benign, gentle drift of yellowish water. The sky was looking lower, and the land was taking on a dull grayish tinge as evening was crowding out the day.
In the distance there was a stand of willows and what Slim knew was the remains of a barn, the only building left of what had once been a small but well established ranch. There were only two walls still standing and the roof had fallen in, but there was still room underneath to provide shelter from the threatening rain, which already could be smelt in the heavy water laden air.
“What’s the story about this hell hole?” Jess questioned Slim, his face grim as he glanced around, looking for anything that could be lying in wait to attack them.
Slim had already dismounted and was unsaddling Alamo when he answered. “Used to be a family lived here. There were four boys and two girls. The mother, Mrs. Elliot, had been a crofter’s daughter back in Ayrshire; she could grow just about anything and kept her family and ours in vegetables. She was also an expert on bottling fruit. I used to play with Dougie, the eldest; we had rare fun.”
“Well what happened to them, Indians, chickenpox or what?” Jess wanted to know.
“The war. Dougie enlisted; like many of us did and he never came back. It destroyed his mother, who could not bear to stay here, and Mr. Elliot said that he missed the sea, so they packed up and moved up Vancouver way. Mother used to hear from them. Seems that they got themselves well established, but that is all I know, except they left their old dog and her pups with us. I think that they must have followed them or came back here. One morning she and her pups were gone.”
“I bet the Arapaho ate them,” Jess said with a laugh.
“Will you stop that?” Slim snorted, riled at Jess’ black joke. “We need a fire and I’ll make some coffee.”
“No you won’t; your coffee is not worth drinking, I’ll make the coffee and you can do the beans and whatever else we have.”
“You’ll still do the fire? And I’ll get to cutting up what’s left of the pork?” Slim answered.
“Okay then, I’ll go and have a look round and see what I can find to burn.” With that, Jess left Slim by the ruined barn. Taking his rifle with him, Jess went around the back of the old building whose gray walls stood out against the skyline like bleached bones of some prehistoric mammoth.
Jess wasn’t gone long, and when he came back, he found that Slim had put the horses under cover. The bed rolls were unshipped and the saddles were ready placed where the fire was going to be. The horses were happily munching their way through their oats. Slim looked up as Jess came and dropped the kindling; he began to get the fire going.
The wind was beginning to shriek around the ruined barn, but they had chosen well. They were in the lee of the walls, and their camp was well out of the wind and the rain that now blew in horizontally; straight from the Northwest on iced wings. The russet leaves swirled around them like so many maddened bluebottle flies which had been disturbed from gorging on dead flesh.
“Well, did you hear them?” Slim murmured.
“What did you say?”
“Did you hear that howling?” Slim repeated with bated breath.
“Don’t you start; I am not going to listen to your rubbish. You love to get me riled. Not this time. We’re nowhere near trees.”
“So there are no hobgoblins here? How about the dead souls who roam the earth tonight? I bet there are a few who’d love to meet up with you. You‘ve sent a lot of them over the hill,” Slim said softly.
“They could be looking for you too; you‘ve got plenty of notches on your iron. We all have — living and fighting through a war and struggling out here on the edge of the world,” Jess rebuked Slim. He felt angry at Slim’s words, as he had hoped that his gunman reputation had been forgotten and laid to rest. He realized that it had not, and it made him uneasy. He was not that sure that one day Slim would not throw his pay at him and clear him off the ranch.
Jess had often trod a fine line between the owl hoot trail and the law, but he always felt that he gave whoever he was fighting an even chance. He could not kill in cold blood; he still had and would never lose that sense of honor and fair play which had been instilled in him by the elders of his family. It had made him feel physically sick when in the Army he had been ordered to shoot from ambush.
Jess felt so bad, so low about what Slim had said, even if he had just being trying to be funny and to try to get him uneasy about it being All Souls Night. Slim had hit a raw nerve; it hurt and cut into his very soul, and it made Jess begin to think about the men who had died by his gun. He sighed and got on with making the coffee.
“Well, what do you think it was?” Slim went on. He was not going to let it alone.
“How the devil would I know? I heard nothing.”
“There you go then. The ones they are after never hear them,” Slim continued.
“Who told you that? I’ve never heard that old wives tale, but then I don’t hang out with old wives like you do.”
“So you are not bothered? You’ll be able to sleep like a baby, with all the shrieking wind and howling wolves?”
“Slim, you know damned fine that there are no wolves around here; I have never seen any. You know that they are all up in the high country, in the forests. They only come down if the snow gets too deep for them to hunt. So just leave it. If the dead ones are after me, they are after you as well.”
By now they were eating, chewing hard through what a coyote would veer away from and which would make a dog sick. At least the coffee was drinkable, even though Slim complained that it was so strong that he would not be able to sleep. Nothing else was said about the dead souls, but it was an uneasy silence which fell between the two friends.
At last they turned in. Jess made sure that the fire would stay burning almost until dawn, or so he hoped. He lay and watched the flickering shadows on the walls. The shadows themselves twisted and swirled like souls in torment, and the smoke itself billowed, surged and wafted, causing the throat to close against its acrid fumes.
Jess lay and watched the changing shapes which brought back the nightmare of war. He drifted and dozed between that dreamlike state, the neverland between waking and sleeping where the mind and imagination wanders in a subconscious fog, where it is difficult to remember what is real and what is the stuff of memories and mind-warping nightmares.
He had lain in such places before. Instead of shrieking winds, it had been the shrieking of shells from cannon fire. He had spent hours hunched up, his head tucked in, drawn into a fetal position trying to survive in the deep ditches filled with blood-stained mud. The mud-clinging horror, which waited to drown the unwary, hid the remains of limbs and bodies which were no longer recognizable as men.
Jess had waited for the barrage to roll over, and his body shook with the tremors which mirrored the quacking earth. His comrades – some were like him, shell-shocked but alive and shaken. The others were blown to bits in front of his eyes, and he would never forget their vacant stares as their faces suddenly reverted to the young boys that they were now the fear that had made them look old before their time had been mercifully washed away by death.
Finally, Jess turned away from the wall and closed his eyes, trying to wipe the memory away. He finally fell into a sleep of sorts and occasionally shuddered as his nightmares came back to haunt him.
Suddenly Jess was aware of a cold wet — he did not know what — at his feet, underneath his blanket, moving over his toes and up his ankles. He froze; he could not move. His mouth felt so dry; he felt his throat close so much that he could not make a sound. His heart began to hammer in his chest, and his breath became labored. The thing then began to move, so very slowly up behind his legs, occasionally it slowly stopped and its wetness was pushed between his legs.
Jess tried to breathe more evenly, but then he gasped as the thing made its way up his back, and he felt another one begin to move up his leg. They were so cold, so wet; he had never felt anything like them. They felt like slime; they slithered, writhed, swarmed and were boneless. Perhaps they were from a grave, a body as it rotted became covered with swarming maggots and then turned to slime. Perhaps they had come for him and they were going to frighten him to death or maybe choke the life out of him.
He tried to scream as he felt another one begin to move up his body, and found that for the first time in his life, he was frozen by fear; he was paralyzed by terror.
The things were on his back now, and he suddenly felt some stabbing in his back which became rhythmical. It was happening now in three different places. It was a strange feeling — like multiple claws being stabbed into his flesh, and beginning to rip and tear it — and he began to shake uncontrollably. He felt as if an iron band was tightening around his chest and he could no longer breathe.
Then there was a sound, a sound that he had heard before. It was as homely as new baked bread or apple pie. It was the song of a cat, singing her purr song.
Jess let out a long breath, and gave a small smile. He felt his body slowly relax and he found that he was wringing with sweat. He heaved a sigh of relief and thought the family had probably left their cats as well. He was just glad that Slim was unaware of the little drama that had just taken place, as he would have had to endure his tormenting laughter for days. He smiled to himself, until out of the dark came Slim’s voice…
“You okay, Jess? Did you hear them?”
Sweet dreams…….make sure you put the cat out. Effie