Episode 3: An Evening at the Admiral’s Keg
A carefree tune rolled off the keys of the wind-up player piano. Each note faded under a sultry voice—one that held the attention of a dozen dreamy onlookers. As the final chords resonated through the smokey saloon, a wave of applause rained from the crowd, and a chorus of empty shot glasses clicked the tabletops. I shifted in my seat and leaned on the mahogany countertop, flagging the bartender.
A gray-haired gentleman finished drying a glass and nodded in acknowledgement. “What can I get ya, Albright?”
“Another whiskey, Will. One for Pa and one for Junior.”
Williams filled my glass. A portion of the amber liquid cascaded over the rim and splashed onto the bar. I could tell by the way he avoided my eyes and focused on wiping the spill that he wanted to say something, but probably didn’t know what. That might have been a first for him. Talk of the dead had a way of quieting even the loosest of tongues.
“Sorry to hear about your kin.” He wrung the towel and held it to his chest, over his heart. “Your Pa was a good, honest man, and your brother…well, he would have turned out just like him.”
“Yea, he would have.” I dug in my jacket for my wallet. “Pike and I have our work cut out for us.”
Williams waved off my efforts. “This drink’s on the house.”
“Put it on our account, and leave the bottle. The war may be over, but there’s still tough times ahead. Years of southern tradition won’t be erased overnight by handshakes and politics. Hell, if it was that easy, we could have avoided the war altogether.” I threw back the shot and poured another. “The way I see it, most differences can be settled with an open bottle and a game of cards.”
“Now, I can drink to that,” came the sweet timbre of a familiar female voice.
A hand moved up my back, and I turned to see wide blue eyes staring me down. “Why Miss Lucy! It’s been too long. And if I may say so, you’re still prettier than an oleander blossom in the moonlight, and only about half as poisonous.”
“You still using that line on the ladies?” She winked as she ran a finger around my collar.
Her touch sent fire over my skin. She might have been a few years older than me, but she was the finest woman this side of the Mississippi. I wasn’t any better at resisting her than any other man, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it. “You still stealin’ kisses and breakin’ hearts?”
Lucy flipped her blond curls and placed the tray on the counter for Williams to load it with another round of drinks. She leaned into me with her shoulder and a fresh breeze of rose petals rolled over me. “A girl’s got to make a living. It’s not like I can wait around for a fine, young soldier to whisk me out of this rundown town.”
My head spun briefly, maybe from the whiskey, maybe from the way Lucy eyed me. I pulled her close and inhaled; I could almost taste her. “You keep talking like that, and I might have a mind to make it happen.”
She let my lips graze her neck, before she spun away, balancing the tray and giggling. “Don’t flatter yourself. It’s not like I’m proposing to you, Mr. Albright. There are plenty of boys back from the war who are dandy to see me.”
“No doubt about that, Miss Lucy. No doubt about that.” I raised my glass in her direction and winked. As I finished the shot, a hand hit me on the shoulder. When I turned, a uniformed man stood beside me. “Evening, Sir.”
He saluted me, even though I was in plain clothes, the motion stiff and trained, like a typical greenhorn. I saluted him back with as much effort as it took to shoo a fly, then shook his outstretched hand. “Al Albright.”
“I know who you are, Captain. I’m Jesse Paulson.”
I rubbed my chin. “Paulson, Paulson. Why does that sound familiar?”
“My pa’s J.P. of the J.P. Cattle Company. Your pa sold hardware to my pa. Mechanisms, gizmos, and the like. Set us up with some fancy contraption for pullin’ irrigation water in from the creek. Haven’t run out of hay since.”
“Sounds about right.” I nodded, recalling the summer my brothers and I helped Pa haul wagonloads of metal parts to their ranch. We had built them a steam-powered windmill just like the one at Albright Acres but smaller.
“Why don’t you join us?” He motioned to a group of soldiers crowded around the table closest to the piano. One of the men patted Lucy on her backside as she scurried by. She turned and slapped his hand. That’s my girl. I smirked to myself as I grabbed my whiskey from the counter.
As we approached the table, the piano started playing again, making it too loud to catch most of the introductions. Somebody Dobson, John or Joseph What’sHisFace, Earl BetterNotTouchLucyAgainIfHeKnowsWhat’sGoodForHim.
“So what’s with the uniforms? Haven’t you heard the war’s over?” It had been almost two months since the end, and while it took time to notify camps further south, it seemed a little odd to run across a detachment such as this.
“We’re on scout patrol.” Jesse yelled over the piano. “We’re looking for a small brigade that went missing somewhere in the woods between here and Goose Creek. Eight men gone, vanished into thin air.”
“Maybe they heard about the surrender. Excused themselves from duty.” I chuckled and raised my glass in the air before sitting in an empty chair.
They didn’t laugh. As a matter of fact, as the piano music crescendoed, Dobson stood like he was going to clean my clockworks. Before he could make a move, Jesse pushed him back down into his seat. “Stand down, soldier. Captain Albright didn’t mean any disrespect.”
The song quieted as it ended, but Earl raised his voice to be heard over music that never came. “Rumor is, the forest ate them.”
As his words echoed through the bar, the clapping stopped and conversations quieted.
Again, Jesse intervened. “You’re drunk, Earl. Now sit down and shut up.”
“No, let him talk.” The voice came from the far corner of the room.
A man stepped away from where he’d been leaning against the wall and headed in our direction. He wove around the tables, the tails from his buckskin duster following each careful motion. Straight, jet-black hair fell from under a top hat decorated with goggles at the band and a strange eyepiece attached to the brim. “You say the forest ate your comrades?” He spoke to the soldiers, his broken English laced with a Texan drawl, but never broke eye contact with me. He motioned to Williams to send another round for the table. As drinks were delivered, the rowdy buzz returned to the saloon.
With more whiskey in front of him, Earl was even more eager to talk. “They were transporting supplies through the wood and never made it to the other side.”
“Food’s scarce in some parts.” The stranger paused to light a small, skinny pipe. “Maybe they stole the supplies and ran off.”
“That’s the strange thing.” Jesse chimed in as Earl downed his drink and set his sight on mine. “The horses found their way into town. The cart was still full of supplies, but no soldiers in sight.”
“The wood backs up to Albright Acres, I’ll ask if a caravan stopped by over the last few weeks.” It wasn’t the first time stories had circulated about people disappearing in the forest. Come to think of it, those particular woods had bred tales of disappearances and strange sightings ever since I was a boy.
“Interesting.” The stranger took a deep drag from the pipe and exhaled in my direction. “So your farm is in the area where they went missing?”
“That’s right.” I snorted and fanned the smoke away, the unusual grassy odor irritating my nose. The motion almost cost me my whiskey, but I claimed my shot before Earl could swipe it.
“Would you mind if I came out and looked around?”
My eye twitched and narrowed at his request. If there was one thing that burned me more than soldiers groping Miss Lucy, it was strangers poking their noses where they didn’t belong. “I’m sorry, and you are?”
“The name’s Baku.” He didn’t offer his hand, and neither did I.
“What business do you have that leads you to searching my farm?”
He adjusted his hat, a tell for stallin’ or lyin’. In his case, probably both. “I’m following up on a disappearance of my own.”
“Is that so? Well, you’ll need permission from my pa for somethin’ like that.”
“I’m happy to oblige, if you’ll introduce us.”
“He’s dead.” A sly smile spread over my face as I got up and walked out the door.
When I jumped on my horse, the town spun as the whiskey traveled from my gut to my head. I tugged on the reins, and the Buckskin’s strength almost lost me as he shot into a full gallop. The moon cut through the night, lighting the path, as we jumped from the road into the treeline.
In my drunken haze, I envisioned the woods coming to life. The trunks became gnarled torsos of horrid blood-thirsty monsters, their slender branches skeletal bones reaching up and wringing the spirits from the clouds as they glided in front of the moon.
A branch cracked, spooking the horse enough that he jerked to one side.
“We’re almost clear,” I whispered, to calm my nerves just as much as his. We broke through the other side of the forest and slowed to a trot in the field welcoming us home. The clouds released the moon, and light flooded the meadow.
A hunched figure wandered into our path.
“You there, what are you doing out here?”
The figure cocked his head toward my voice and moonlight spilled across his face, disappearing into hollowed eyes. A sling held one arm to his side, and in his other hand dangled Maddie’s new porcelain doll. Crimson liquid leaked from the man’s mouth and smeared across his jaw.
I nearly choked as I spoke. “Red?”
Stay tuned! Episode 4 posts Friday, October 17, 2014.