Episode 7: The Crash Site
Our horses opened into a gallop as they charged through the meadow and into the treeline. Al sailed ahead of the rest of us, as usual, seemingly without a care in the world, but probably hoping the unseasonably cool morning air would help sober him up. He looked back and laughed, and for a moment he was that little blonde boy from years back, before the war, before Ma had died. Some things never change, and yet, everything was different now. I suddenly wanted to shout “be careful,” or “slow down,” something reminiscent of a father’s warning.
I ducked as a low branch almost took me off my horse.
“Don’t lose your head head, big brother,” Al said, slowing his horse as we approached the clearing near our old climbing tree.
My horse reared, and I gripped the reins to keep from falling off. I petted his mane and purred words of comfort while I steadied myself on the saddle. “Something’s spooked him.”
As my focus shifted from the nervous beast to the grove encircling us, my jaw slacked. The grass had withered into skeletal weeds in the shape of a circle as if it had been branded into the earth. The young plaything from our childhood had deteriorated beyond recognition. In its stead, ash-colored bark snaked around a gnarled trunk spreading to warped roots and spidery limbs, strangling all other plant life. Branches jutted in all directions, at odd angles, looming like a petrified web. Some reached into the sky, others bent to where they almost scraped the ground. From every reachable offshoot, bottles hung on strings, swaying and clanking in the wind.
I dismounted, carefully checking the placement of my boots.
“What is this place?” Al plopped off his horse and walked irreverently toward the display. He chuckled and pushed one hand through a group of bottles, their frenzied chimes a macabre melody in the still air. “Looks like some sort of shrine. A superstitious waste of good glass if you ask me.”
“Don’t touch them, you fool.” Not that my warning would stop him. His brazen disregard of the strange rumors associated with these woods, and the secret practices to contain, them would get us both cursed.
Al snorted a laugh. “Wait. You don’t believe in all that voodoo hogwash, do you?”
I glared at him and glanced over my shoulder to where Ellie, Lloyd, and the rest of our party stood, their position beyond the burned grass circle a clear indication of their regard for this place.
“I know this place. This is where it happened.” Ellie’s voice trailed off as her gaze followed the tree into the sky. “Innocent lives taken—men, women, and children.”
I remembered tales of an old lynching tree, an unforgiving end for one band of slaves seeking freedom by way of the Underground Railroad. Shivers crawled down my spine as I looked at the tree with new perspective. Pa always said some of the most important and bloodiest battles were fought, not on a battlefield, but in the souls of men. This land, our land, was meant to be safe—and free.
Ellie looked at Al and I, her expression somber. “Some believe the glass bottles hold the ghosts of innocent souls waiting to pass to the next life—and their sounds keep the bad spirits away.” As if prompted by the melody of her words, the winded picked up, causing the bottles to stir again.
Al quietly retreated from the tree and mounted his horse. “Come on. We have to keep moving before we lose the trail.”
We followed Al as he tracked the falling contraption. Along the way, I searched for signs of Pa, James, and the other stolen corpses. Ellie rode silently beside me, the delicate skin of her forehead wrinkled in thought.
“Do you really think that’s where lynchings happened all those years ago?” I finally asked.
She answered with a drawn out sigh.
“I can’t believe something like that would happen here and in my own backyard. Must have been what Pa was trying to keep from us.” Even as a boy, I knew some of Pa’s views were controversial among our community, but he always managed to address conflict with fairness and tact. That’s also why the community loved him. Ellie’s silence pricked my thoughts. “Wait, how do you know about all this? You were just a child back then.”
“Never you mind. Just remember, your Pa was a good man. He never turned his back on anyone who needed help.”
Before I could pry further, Al shouted from up ahead.
We hurried down a path that opened into a large meadow. From a sea of knee-high grass, black smoke poured out of the dying machine. Its metal basket lay on its side, the half-deflated balloon pulsating on the ground like a beating heart.
“Would ya look at that. It’s a flying carriage,” Al said, kicking the frame with his boot.
Noticing an arm amidst the rubble, I jumped off my horse and made my way to the body—a man’s body. His torso was pinned between the caved-in sides of the traveling box, but his chest—covered with controls and mechanisms—was in full view. I placed my fingers on the unnaturally cold skin at his neck, checking for a pulse.
I removed my hat and bowed my head. “He’s a goner.”
Ellie stepped to my side and made the sign of the cross. “What was he doing in that thing?”
A high-pitched whistle sounded, and the man grabbed my wrist with the force of a metal clamp. His head twisted around and around until the neck dislocated from a metal spring, banged against the metal case, and cracked open at the temple, revealing gears and springs.
“Don’t that beat all? He’s a machine!” Al exclaimed.
I wiped my arm across my forehead, removing sweat that had formed in the afternoon sun. “Looks that way.”
“Wait! He ain’t done.”
A long strand of ticker-tape ribbon cascaded from the chest of the clockwork pilot. It snaked down tangling around the controls and unraveled to the ground. I picked up the paper strip and read a series of numbers as I coiled the paper around my finger. “Does it make any sense to you?”
Al shook his head then continued to poked around the contraption. “Hey, I found something.”
I walked around the metal carriage to where he pointed. A series of sharp rods had skewered the metal and stuck in its undercarriage. Al slowly worked one free and rolled it back and forth in his hands. The dark grey barbs were roughly the size of railroad spikes and incredibly strong.
“What do you think they are? Some type of bullet or bolt?”
Al handed the rod to Ellie and kicked against the remaining pieces. “I don’t know, but they can pierce metal. It’s like whatever they came from shot this machine down.”
“Kind of looks like a splinter from a piece of wood, don’t you think?” Ellie wondered.
Al and I looked at Ellie and back at each other. “It’s definitely bigger than any splinter I’ve ever seen,” I said as she passed it back to Al.
He poked the jagged base of the splinter with his pocket knife and green ooze bubbled up from the shaft.
“Don’t touch it! What is it with you messing with things?” I rolled my eyes.
“Mr. Pike, Mr. Al, we gonna be much longer?” Lloyd called from the treeline.
I looked back, only now remembering that Lloyd and his men were still with us. They hung back at the edges of the clearing, whispering among themselves. “Just a little bit longer. Let’s check the area for Pa, Junior, and the others before we go.”
Al removed a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the curious tine. “I’m keeping this until we can figure out what it is.” He carefully carried it to his horse and placed it in the saddle bag.
A rustling resonated from the woods opposite of where Lloyd and his men had fanned to search for our missing bodies. I scanned the brush for signs of life but saw none, though I couldn’t shake the feeling we were being watched. I slid the neatly rolled ticker-tape into the pocket of my trousers and motioned to Ellie to return to the horses.
“We’re not alone,” I said.
A bundle of bricks bounced along the ground and thumped against the airship’s carriage. A flame sizzled down the length of its fuse.
“It’s gonna blow! Everyone get down!”
I threw my arms around Ellie and forced her to the ground as the explosion filled the air with dirt, metal, fire, and smoke.
Stay tuned! Because of the Christmas holiday, Episode 8 will post Friday, January 9, 2015.