Episode 5: The Living and the Dead
I rode hard up to the house, not daring to look back. Farmhands scattered around the yard, and the dogs were barking like they’d treed a coon. At least I hoped it was a coon and not anything remotely close to what I thought I saw in the field. All I could think about was the image of Red wandering through the field, toting that doll, with the blood of Lord-knows-what staining his mouth. Something was not right at the farm.
I pulled my horse to a stop at the front porch and drew my hatchet, expecting the worse. My legs were heavy with whiskey as I stumbled up the stairs and onto the porch. I made all efforts to shake it off and focus on what was going on around me. The front door flew open. Pike and Ellie burst from the house, and Mae trailed behind them.
I stumbled on the top step and fell, dropping my hatchet along the way. Before I could push myself upright, Pike pulled me to my feet. Lloyd and a couple farmhands ran around the side of the house carrying torches and rifles.
Pike brushed me off gruffly. “What the devil is going on?”
“In the meadow. Red is walking around in the meadow,” I said. “And he’s got Maddie—”
“You’re crooked drunk,” Pike said, his voice tinged with both amusement and disgust.
“I know what I saw.” I stood as straight as I could muster and pointed in the direction of the field. “Red was walking around in that field, carrying the doll we got Maddie.”
Pike’s eyebrows furrowed as he glanced at Mae. “Maddie’s doll?”
I nodded. “That’s right. Ain’t that why everyone’s running around like there’s a fire to put out?”
“Maddie’s upstairs, asleep. At least she was fifteen minutes ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if she woke up with all your racket.”
“All my racket? Why I could hear the dogs howling from the meadow.”
“He’s right,” Ellie said. “The dogs started barkin’ before Al rode in.”
Pike turned to Lloyd. “What’s got the dogs all worked up?”
“I’m not sure, Mr. Pike. Mos’ of them are still in the barn.” He pointed behind him. “We’s on our way to check it out when Mr. Al rode up.”
Mae stepped forward. “Get on with it then. Quiet the dogs so we can all get to bed.”
The men whispered among themselves, apprehension showing on what I could see of their faces in the waning torch light. None of them made efforts to move.
“Well what is it?” Pike asked.
Mae spoke again. “They fear it’s the devil’s spirits.”
“I bet those taste like the Admiral’s whisk-key.” I hiccuped before I could finish and grinned at the sound it made; it wasn’t far from a donkey’s bray.
Pike rolled his eyes as he grabbed a torch from one of the men. “Oh, I’ll go. We need to put this to rest once and for all—and then let Al sleep one off.”
Ellie placed her hand on his arm. “Don’t go. It can wait ‘til morning.”
“What’s got you spooked tonight? I haven’t seen you act this way in a long time…” Pike turned toward her as if to keep their words private. “Not since—”
“This is nonsense.” I drew my pistol and sideways-marched to the barn. “There ain’t no spirits. But if the dead ain’t dead, I’ll put ‘em in the ground.”
I didn’t make it far before Pike was at my side. “Put your gun away. Last thing we need is you shooting at shadows.”
I did as I was told, an old habit from the war. Pike threw open the door, and the dogs quieted at once. He held the lantern high, and we peered inside. The air smelled like a putrid mixture of soured milk and fresh hay. I jerked to the side as the stench stung my throat, threatening to expel the contents of my stomach. A waste of good whiskey. Lloyd and the farmhands watched me from where they’d stopped, a stones throw away from the barn.
I covered my nose with my arm. “Lord a mighty, Pike. Smells worse than a week-old battlefield.”
“Perfume of the dead,” Ellie said as she lifted her apron to cover her face.
As the eerie halo of light passed from one side to the other we surveyed the room, looking for signs of life—and death. The pine boxes, once perched on sawhorses in a straight line, now piled in dishevel, the lids pried off. Not a single body left. Six caskets and a horse blanket—emptied.
Pike rushed into the barn and started rummaging through the pile, lifting and pushing the cases around. “What happened here?”
Ellie and I joined him inside. “Maybe they got up and walked off.” When the words passed from my lips, I realized how crazy I sounded. Crazy…or drunk. Either way, I wished I would have held my tongue.
“Why don’t you go back to town and have a couple more drinks. You sound completely insane.” Pike looked like he might take me outside and knock me sober, but instead he waved me off. “Just go to bed. You’ll be more helpful in the morning.”
“You have a better story? I may not be at my best, but I’ll swear on Ma’s grave, I saw Red, as real as you and me standing here, walking around in that field.”
“You leave her out of this.” Pike’s voice grated like a grizzly bear growl.
Ellie gasped and leaned into Pike. “Look!”
Drag marks lead from the caskets to the door at the back of the barn.
I knelt down and ran my fingers along the tracks. “Someone has taken the bodies.”
Pike slammed his boot into the box closest to him. “Who would have done this?”
“The forest claimed them,” said a voice behind us.
The three of us turned around in unison.
Lloyd stood in the barn doorway, wringing his hat in his hands. “There’s somethin’ bad out there…in the woods. These ain’t the first people to go missin’ like this.”
Pike’s eyes narrowed into a stern glare. I didn’t have to ask to know what he was thinking. We knew some of the farmhands believed in spirits and hexes—voodoo and devils—and the like. Long before the war, we’d heard rumors of runaway slaves and lynchings. Ma never allowed talk of the ugliness in the house, and Pa snuffed out stories of curses and the dead returning for vengeance that spread amongst the help.
Pike pushed passed us. We followed him along the drag marks stretching out the back door, beyond the dirt and gravel, and toward the long, dew-covered grass at the back of the property. He stopped just before the thicket and stooped down to pick something up.
“I’ll be damned.” He turned and held up an army-issued boot. “They went this way.” He tossed the shoe at me and marched off toward the treeline.
Ellie caught up and threw herself in front of him. “You can’t go now. The chances of finding them in the darkness are slim to none. We’ll organize a search in the morning, just please don’t go tonight.” She’d never admit it, but the look in her eyes showed she believed he was tracking more than soldiers.
“She’s right, Pike,” I said. “Let’s head back to the house, and we’ll search at first light.”
Pike stared deep into the trees as if weighing his options, then he turned to Ellie. “Alright. We’ll start at dawn.”
As we walked back to the house, wispy clouds crept over the moon, veiling the night in a web of hushed light. A silence fell over the farm, deafening, unnatural. The night was void of life, except for the howl of the wind.
I looked toward the house, and a figure in the upstairs window caught my eye. Maddie. In the absence of moonlight, her pale, porcelain skin and milk-white nightgown glowed like a spirit trapped in the world beyond. I waved to her. But she didn’t wave back. She drifted from the window and disappeared into the shadows of the house.
Stay tuned! Episode 6 posts Friday, November 14, 2014.