Summary: Jess and Slim spend the night in a haunted cabin.
Word Count: 2918
Slim tried to turn over as quietly as he could, as his pard, Jess, was lying alongside him gently snoring. Slim smiled to himself and thought how his pard claimed that he slept with one eye open and could hear a footfall at fifty yards. Load of rubbish that had turned out to be, Slim thought as he had lain wide awake for what had seemed hours listening to the sound of silence that was roaring outside.
They had been caught out by the mountain weather and had been forced to shelter in the old Cameron cabin. It was now derelict and had been since it had become the tomb of the family that had been found huddled together in their rags and filthy straw. Their bodies had been badly mauled and decomposed, killed by a combination of disease and vile weather.
“You ain’t planning on staying here all-night?” Jess had for some unknown reason whispered.
“Yeah, pard, you got a problem with that?” Slim had replied.
“Sure have; been told it’s haunted. The souls of the dead come howling and calling for each other. Nobody in their right mind comes up here,” Jess said and he gave a little shiver.
“Well, it’s either here or digging a snow hole somewhere and that is a backache, trying to keep a fire going,” the tall rancher went on as he began to unsaddle Alamo.
“You made your mind up already; I don’t get a say as usual,” Jess grumbled and his eyes flashed in anger.
“Of course you do. You can camp where you like; I’m for here. I ain’t afraid of the dead. It’s the living I’m scared of.”
“O.K. then, but I ain’t going up near them trees. I’ve been trapped in trees. My Gran told me of the ghouls and trogs, trolls and craw boggles that live in the trees, and only come out at night. Evil places, woods; full of murdering skunks out to get a body.”
“Never thought you were a so skittish. You all fast draw in the sunlight?” Slim tormented Jess.
“Yeah, go on laugh…..it has kept me alive. Hope you will be in the morning,” Jess earnestly replied.
“You not gonna watch me back?”
“If I do, who will watch mine?” said Jess with a smirk. With that, the two friends settled the horses for the night in what was left of the barn. It let in a little rain, but made a good shelter for them out of the wind that occasionally reminded them of its death-bringing power by its icy breath.
They made a fire, then cooked and ate the crackling pork, which Jess complained was becoming rancid, and downed the beans with some crusts they had saved. Jess complained that the bread was green and Slim told him a little mould was good for them. He also pointed out that it was Jess’s fault that they had to eat such vile food. He had promised to hunt for the pot, but had not downed anything for days.
“I can’t down nothing if there is nothing about. Haven’t seen a jack rabbit, a deer, anything to shoot at since we came up this neck of the woods. Maybes the critters know of the dead that haunt these woods and keep well clear of them,” Jess surmised, making Slim grin at the nonsense he was talking. Slim found it hard to believe that his pard, who he’d seen fight like there was no bullet that would ever take him and who laughed at Slim for diving for cover, was scared of some old trail hands’ campfire stories. He laughed to himself, as he daren’t let Jess think he was laughing at him. He thought his friend, who most men walked softly around, was frightened of going into the dark, forbidding woods alone at night, and he smiled.
At last they turned in. The snow had now settled and its glowing whiteness under a full moon flattened out the landscape and hid all the hollows and the trail, but increased the darkness between the trees to an almost tangible solidness. Jess had peered out of the window before he had turned in.
“You looking for something out there, pard?” Slim had asked.
“Just having a final look see. Did you see anything over there against the tree line?” Jess said, his eye brows almost disappearing into his hair line with anxiety.
“No and neither did you. Get settled; I want to be asleep before you start snoring,” Slim replied with a grin.
“I don’t snore; you damned well know I don’t,” Jess spat back at him.
“O K, then it must be your twin who hangs about, the one who drinks coffee by the gallon and who does all the work,” Slim continued with the playful banter.
“I’m going to sleep if you are going to talk rubbish all night. Watch the ghosties don’t get you, hard rock.” With that, Jess turned over and hunkered down into his blankets and Traveler’s saddle. He shifted about once as he lay on top of his horse’s bit, which he kept warm, and he smiled to himself as the only good thing about this camp was the horses were safe, secure and well-sheltered.
Soon all Slim could hear was the sound of his pard’s soft breathing as he slid into a deep sleep. He was amazed at the speed at which Jess could fall asleep; he didn’t seem to worry about anything over which he had no control. Whereas Slim never seemed happy if he didn’t have something to make his guts churn. Tonight was no exception. He had laughed at Jess’ seeming fear of the dark woods and tales of ghosts and long dead spirits hunting and moaning for their own. He realized that he had never thought about such things; when he had, he had scoffed, calling them old wives tales and dismissing them as such. Tonight, for some reason, it was different. The awesome white world, which enhanced the shadows and sucked the sound out of the very air, had suddenly become darkly threatening in some way. It smothered everything it touched and it left Slim wide awake, almost unable to breathe as he listened and listened to the mind shattering sound of nothing. He thought he heard a strange nuzzling noise from somewhere in the ruined cabin, or was it outside? He felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise, and thought about sliding his hand out of his blankets to get his colt. He found that he couldn’t move — if he did, he’d not be able to listen — so he lay there trying to hold his breath so all his senses were concentrated on the strange, noise.
Was that a faint cry? Like a child’s voice suddenly being smothered. Slim listened, but it had stopped before almost it had begun. He lay there wondering if he should wake Jess, who had now started to softly snore. He knew he was being led astray by his pard’s unusual sign of fear that he had never seen or expected of him, and not only was he surprised, but also he felt some of that fear himself. Jess always seemed so sure of himself, was always so confident, always made things sound easy and doable. Now this new glimpse into the mystery that was Jess Harper unnerved Slim. He felt that the man he regarded as his rock — unmovable, always at his back and glued to his side — was not perhaps as solid as he had thought. The night and the hours slowly passed and Slim lay straining now to hear any sound after the first weird nuzzling noise that had caused his insides to quake as it was like nothing that he had ever heard before. He lashed himself for being such an idiot and for allowing his imagination to get the better of him, and then he started to choke as a smell as putrid as an open grave filled the cabin. He had had enough, and acted without thinking of the possible consequences of waking Jess from such a deep sleep, for he knew that unless he sat on his head, Jess could dive into action and tear into whatever threat he thought there might be.
Slim stretched out his arm and shook Jess’ shoulder. Even as he said his name Jess exploded into action and erupted from his blankets, eyes wide , his head swiftly turning, scanning for danger, his gun up, cocked and ready in his hand.
“Where did it go?” Jess whispered.
“Where did what go?” Slim softly answered back, his eyes staring into the gloom of the now dark shelter. He got up and put some more dried out logs on the almost dead fire. The flames leapt up and suddenly it was almost daylight in the cabin.
“Can you not smell it?” Slim whispered, as he fearfully looked around the now brightly lit cabin whose walls were patterned and danced with the flickering of the flames from the bone dry wood.
“Well, that was a dumb thing to do,” said Jess. “When I go out there, I’ll be blind. It’ll take time to see properly again, just enough time for what’s ever out there to get me. Yeah, and what smell? I can’t smell anything.”
“You’re not going out there?” Slim asked anxiously, “Could be anything waiting for us. I can still smell it.”
“If we don’t go, we’ll never know. And what does IT smell like?” Jess said seriously, now spinning the chamber of his gun, checking its load. He looked up and grinned at his pard.
“Death,” was all Slim murmured quietly.
“You can make me some coffee first then. I wish we had some of Jones’ medication left, wish we hadn’t drunk it all the other night. So you think you can smell death? Well that’s o.k.; I can handle that as long as it is still alive before it gets dead.”
“You must be crazy to think I am gonna start making you coffee in the middle of the night when we are surrounded by only the devil knows what,” Slim spluttered out in frustration. “I thought that you were afraid of the woods and ghosts and such.”
“I am. I’d be mad after what I’ve been through not to be, but it won’t stop me going,” Jess murmured and, cocking his head to one side, gave Slim one of his boyish grins that had seen him get away with almost murder in the past, certainly a stolen warm pie. “Remember, I’m the mad one, with no imagination, that folks say smiles and ignores fear and laughs at danger. That’s not true. It may look as if I do, but I take danger very, very seriously; it has what has kept me alive.”
“So why are you going out there? We’d be better waiting until dawn. I do not want to put my head outside; I need to know what is there first,” Slim tried to explain his fears to Jess without actually telling him he was scared.
“Courage is a funny thing. It is something buried deep in you, and it is a lonely place to be, and each time, it does not get any easier. Going out there is something that must be done. Slim, I cannot let you go; I need you to take me home if the worst happens, and you are a big brother with all the responsibilities which would make me run a million miles. This is nothing, pard; don’t fret. You said there is nothing to fear from the dead, and I ain’t feared of the living.
“Well, let’s wait. I’ll make us some coffee and we’ll see what happens. It could have been nothing, just me getting stupid believing all that nonsense you were spouting before.”
“Slim, so help me, if you have got me all riled up and out of the best sleep I have had in days, as God is my witness I’ll kill you. I’ll teach you to keep your wobbly fears to yourself,” Jess quietly raged as he warmed his hands at the fire.
“Stop talking horse shit. You’d never do that; you’d end up with all the aggravation I have. I just hope there’ll be your double to drive you nuts.”
At that point there was a blood curdling scream from seeming far off which tore at the guts and caused sickness to well at the back of the throat. Jess could feel his hair stand on end and he tried to speak, but his mouth seemed to have dried up. He just stared at Slim, whose eyes seemed to have doubled in size and were trying to break out of there containing sockets.
‘What was that?” Slim finally managed to whisper.
“It’s the banshees coming to collect the dead. I heard ‘em call over the battle fields during the war.” Jess shivered and began to readjust his gun belt.
“Your gun will do you no good against them,” Slim whispered.
“No, but it will make me feel better, and at least I’ll not feel naked,” was Jess’ whispered reply. Even as he spoke, a gust of wind blasted against the walls of the cabin and caused the fire to flare up and splutter. Suddenly the wind began to shriek and moan as only the wind does in the high lonely places. It had a hundred voices that howled and wept, filling the head with a mind-numbing emptiness which made for a fertile imagination to cause the body to stiffen with fear.
Jess moved over and took down his sheepskin jacket from a wooden peg, the last evidence of human creature comfort in a rotting tomb. He began to put it on and then he dragged a woolen scarf from the pocket to tie his Stetson on with.
“Wait, Jess, I’ll come with you,” said Slim hurriedly.
‘No, Pard, I’ve got enough to worry about… You take care of things here. When the sun comes as high as that dead pine, you can come looking for me. I’ll see you when I see you; don’t follow me, you hear now?” was all Jess said as he picked up his Henry rifle and opened the door. After a quick glance to his left and to his right, he was gone.
Slim was shaken at how fast it had all happened. He’d just stood here and listened to Jess, and had never said a word. How long he stood there, numb with the shock at Jess disappearing so quickly, with no handshake or goodbye, he’d never know. He just felt so very terribly alone. It was as if he had been struck by lightning; he could not move, he didn’t know what to do. He did not realize how much he had come to rely on Jess, and now Jess had confidently gone out to face whatever was out there. He felt suddenly like a ship without a rudder.
Slim finally decided to make some more coffee and to stoke up the cabin and get it warm for Jess whenever he came back. He did not once allow himself to think that his pard would not return.
He sighed as he worked and he wondered how Jess always seemed to get his own way in such situations. It finally dawned on him his pard was taking care of his new adopted family. It was Slim who had offered friendship, but it was Jess who was protecting that friendship and close family ties that the two brothers had. No matter what it cost him, it seemed that Jess would ignore fear and would gladly take on any danger to protect Slim and his family and home.
At that point, the door was flung aside, the wind swirled driving snow around the cabin. It was Jess.
“Come on Slim I’ve found our banshees, hurry up.” And he had turned away.
Slim quickly followed and stood beside him as Jess pointed out towards the tree line. Out there in the grayness of the dawn was an old she bear with off-spring from last year; they were busy tearing the carcass of what looked like an old mature doe apart. They were now some distance away, but the snarling and wet, slapping noises could still be heard, as well as the occasional guttural deep complaints of the old mother as she tried to discipline her youngsters.
“There you go Slim. Told you there was nothing out here to be frightened of.” Jess put his head back and laughed.
“Why you no good lump of… You’ve been tormenting me with your ghosts and banshees, making out to be terrified, making me as frightened as you. I should have known when you went off to sleep like a baby,” Slim began to fume.
“Yeah, easy to get you going. You’d think I am mad enough to go out there if I thought that all the hounds of hell were waiting for me? I might be brave but I ain’t stupid, and I don’t listen to old wives tales.” As Jess was speaking, he was watching Slim, and he saw the signal and made a dive for the door, as Slim made a dive for him