Thursday, 29 October 2020

F Fic, Non-fic

Best of 2016!

Brown Tobe

by Sharon R. Hill

browntobe

"What the heck are ya' doing over here?" growled the stock-hand working in the mule barn at the Fort Worth Stock Yards.

Andy Hill tipped the brim of his sweat-stained felt hat to the stranger. Then he mustered a slight smile, with pursed lips, that belied his uncertainty and answered, "Well I'm just lookin' around to see what ya have before the auction starts. I confess I'm a tryin' to find some cool shade, too. Been another hot one so far today and it ain't quite summer yet. Heard the newspapers say 1908 could set a record for hot weather."

"Well you can do your waitin' with the others out front by the gate. Ain't my fault about the weather."

Without another word, Andy obliged and left by the same way he'd come into the barn. As befitted his reason for being there, and to take the edge off, he began to whistle a variation of an old fiddle tune "The Big Mule". Just outside of the barn door Andy heard one of the mules whinny and then finish the effort with a raucous hee-haw and the stomp of a front hoof. He grinned and considered that the mule enjoyed the tune and had paid him the only compliment he could rouse.

"Dang cowtown ain't fit for man or beast," said an old cowpoke standing next to him and struggling with a pinch of snuff from a small tin.

Outside the stockyard by the gate was a section in Fort Worth known as Hell's Half Acre. Early cattle-drovers on the Chisolm Trail came through the area, creating a demand for bawdy behavior. The supply wasn't far behind as the likes of professional gamblers William J. Kain and Dick Nelms ran illegal gaming tables at the Union Stockyard Saloon.

"If there's any dissatisfaction you can all go to hell!" were the hair-trigger words of Kain as he threw the cards for the next game of Keno, always with a dealer's advantage.

The outlaw-queen Belle Starr carried her Winchester rifle and two 45-calibre revolvers riding and robbing with the Younger-James gang near The Acre. The Fort Worth Democrat claimed "it was a slow night which did not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens or a morphine experiment by some of its frisky females."

Hefty folklore about The Acre and Fort Worth made Andy, a small-time share-tenant farmer, feel like a stranger in some foreign place who'd lost his way. He sought anything of the familiar and the known, whether a landmark or a recognizable face.

"Cash buyers only! No gawkers, just buyers!" shouted the burly stock-hand sent to open the gate for entry to the Saturday morning livestock auctions.

Andy checked the pocket of his dungarees for the fifty-dollars he'd managed to save to buy a mule for the farm. His big hand with oversized fingers, perfect for a farmer and farming, rubbed nervously around the roll of dollars. A good mule would take the burden off his two horses and could mean all the difference in the size of his summer crops. As a tenant farmer, it'd become harder and harder to get to survival and there was never much excess.

The auctioneers didn't miss a beat as they got right to it. It was lucky for Andy that he'd already figured out where the mule auction would be held. His invisible companion named anxiety, not to mention the heat of a warm spring and the crowded surroundings, caused Andy to sweat profusely.

The bidding began with frenzy as one after another, the mules were placed on the auction block and shown for sale.

"Here's a mule that's gonna get plenty big!" shouted the auctioneer as he swiftly called the first auction for a mule that sold for three-hundred-dollars. The next sale began with, "Lots of potential in this mule cus' you're buyin' something that's still growin'. He's gonna get big as a mountain." The auction-pace continued with bid prices of between one-hundred-fifty-dollars and three-hundred-dollars. But Andy had just fifty-dollars to buy a mule and he needed one that would be both strong and adaptable.

As the last mule was put up for sale, Andy succumbed to a feeling of defeat that seemed to descend into the thick, parched air. He was one of the last to leave the mule barn when the auction ended; his stride defaulted to a lumbering pace as he viewed the empty stalls. Almost to the exit, Andy heard the same exaggerated whinny with a hee-haw and the stomp of a hoof that he'd heard earlier in the day. He cocked his head toward the sound and then turned around to see a lone, medium-sized, dark-brown mule in a far stall at the rear of the barn. A stall-mucker nearby was getting ready to clean up after the auction. Andy cautiously gravitated to the stall that held the mule.

"Blind in one eye. Can't fetch a price with one eye and ten-years-old," mumbled the stall-mucker as Andy approached.

"Well whadya' think they'd take for him?" Andy questioned.

"I'm told to get rid a him. Whatcha got in money?" responded the mucker.

Without an ounce of hesitation Andy said, "I got a roll of fifty dollars and that's it."

"I recon I can take that off your hands nicely," the mucker said brusquely.

"Mister, you got yourself a deal!" and that is exactly how Andy Hill got the mule he called Brown Tobe.

Andy proudly hitched Brown Tobe to the rear of his rustic, horse-drawn buckboard. He'd used a makeshift halter made from two single ropes he'd brought for just such a purpose. Looking altogether like a visiting country-cousin, Andy meandered his way home to the farm at Rock Creek. Along the way he often looked back to check on Tobe while he spoke aloud about the beauty of the landscape, Texas being God's country n' all. Tobe had a few missteps as they traversed the ruts and rolling dips along the trail, but Andy considered the fact that Tobe hadn't been out to stretch his legs in a good while.

"O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,

O they tell me of a home far away;

O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,

O they tell me of an unclouded day"

Andy's voice was a rich, unfettered baritone as he sang his favorite hymn "The Unclouded Day". Immediately Brown Tobe responded with a series of whinnies always ending in a hee-haw as his head bobbed from side to side as though keeping beat to the soothing rhythm of the voice and the hymn. Together the unassuming country-yokel and his new companion, Brown Tobe, continued their unlikely harmony until they reached the farm at Rock Creek.

"You've gone an' done it now, Dad. You found the sorriest, blind-eyed mule in all of Texas," said Andy's oldest son Jarrell, with a particular dead-pan delivery of his words, as he chawed on a spit of tobacco. Teen-age sisters Beulah and Sarah looked on with the wonder of having witnessed an oddly fashioned carnival side-show.

Of course, they'd all seen similar before as they watched their father engage in trades where the other guy always got the upper hand in the deal. Including the time their dad traded for a retired race horse.

"I knew he was retired cus he died three days later," Andy joked whenever one of the kids brought up the subject.

There was a naiveté in Andy but his children cherished him, and his good-natured humor, in spite of many obstacles that opposed his best efforts.

"Name's Brown Tobe an' he's the best blind-eyed mule in all of Texas and don't bother yourself to forget that. That mule's got another fifteen or twenty years of work left in him. Put him in the barn and feed him a feast fit for a king-now git to it b'fore I set him after you," Andy said, chuckling as the family shared the joke with heavy laughter.

***

"Ya know, Tobe, my wife Clemmie's been gone eight years come July. It ain't been an easy time without her. No one knows the loss of a good wife and mother unless you've had the sad experience. Her and the baby dyin' left a hole in me the size of Texas. And she left me alone with three babes." Andy reminisced as he labored behind the walking-plow and Tobe favored his good eye as he pulled in front. The iron tooth of the plow worked the reluctant soil as it steadily threw the furrow to the right, setting up the rows to plant cotton seed.

"Wished I coulda been here when it happened, but I was ginning the cotton crop over in Palo Pinto. The landlord McKinley was hot for the rent money on the house and acreage. The crop was bad that year and the two-three years following. Not much to show for the effort but we'd always got by." He stopped to take a drink from a water canteen, affixed to a shoulder strap, which bounced against his torso in rhythm to the movement of the plow. As he drank, drops of salty-sweat ran down Andy's face and mixed with the water from the canteen.

"Didn't feel welcome at the family cotton gin in Mineral Wells. Bad-blood and a heap of hard feelings between me an' my brothers for a long while." Andy stared blankly down at the tilled soil in the fresh row he and Tobe had turned with the plow. All thought escaped him for several minutes as he trembled in an oasis of sadness. "Said I was sorry about a million times til I realized there was just no way to heal it between us. We were fightin' about our own cotton gin and it needed fixin'. It was my job but I wouldn't go so my brother Elmer got to tryin'. Ended up getting his right-hand caught in the gin saws. Lacerated his arm up to the shoulder and he almost died."

Catching himself, Andy leaned up against Tobe and pulled a harmonica from the breast pocket of his dingy, sweat-stained work shirt. The coverplate and reedplates of the harmonica were well-worn from constant polishing and use. It was a slow and mournful tune that followed as he took a break from plowing.

Studying the weather is a specialty of the farmer. Andy surveyed the sky and the clouds and believed a hard rain was coming. Weather, hard work, crop prices, and the Boll Weevil were the faithful companions of every cotton farmer, like it or not.

"I'll get Jarrell to come back through the rows tomorrow with the harrow plow to bust up the clods an' smooth the soil for the plantin'. He'll give me some grief about it cus he hates plowing. I might just have to chase him with a switch if he gets to daydreaming." Andy chuckled as he thought about watching Jarrell behind the plow with Tobe.

There was simplicity in the relationship between man and beast as Andy and Brown Tobe fell into a daily routine. As soon as Andy came from the house toward the barn he'd begin to whistle "The Big Mule" just as he had on the day he bought Brown Tobe. By the time he reached the barn Brown Tobe was ready-to-go in his stall. He greeted Andy with the whinny and hee-haw that made Andy feel happy and content. The effort of working the fields was lightened by this whimsical pairing.

***

Reverend Clough preached a week's worth of fire and brimstone every Sunday at the Rock Creek Baptist Church. Andy led the music for the service and played the hymns on a flat-top pump organ. He'd once been asked to move to Fort Worth as the paid organist for an established Baptist church.

"Life in that town's been the ruin of many a man and his family," was the instant reply to the offer.

Andy was almost forty-years-old when he met Leeoner, a thirty-year-old spinster. With her parents long dead, Leeoner lived with an aunt and uncle near Salesville. Both families attended the Sunday service at Rock Creek.

Innocent teasing and expressive glances preceded an infatuation that quickly pointed to love, endowed by humor and well-suited characters. As they courted, Brown Tobe pulled the wagon. Leeoner covered her mouth to hide a pronounced overbite while she grinned at the farce of watching the mule and the man performing their musical act. Brown Tobe tolerated Leeoner as Andy helped her step up into the seat of the buckboard on Tobe's right side with his opaque, blind eye.

Andy knew he wasn't a great catch by any standard, since he was a poor man with a small share-tenant farm and three teenage children. He'd avoided the notion of finding a new wife and mother for his three children because he had no tangible net worth. Yet he felt a particular kinship with Loney based on their combined deficits and the equal measure of the pattern of their lives. As a pair, their simple expectations of life were merited by struggles, the knowledge of both sorrow and happiness, and faith that they believed could move their mountains.

My Dear Old Girl,

It is a pleasure to me to answer your letter. Tell me how to get to the south side of the farm. Tell me also who you prefer to get to tie the knot, or to say the words that will make us one. Bro. N.G.B. suits me fine if it does you. I will try to come in a buggie if I can get one so we can come on home if you like. I will see that Elie and Virgie is invited if you wish. I will not invite anyone myself. My dear I know that you fully understand that I am a very poor man. I have not made any attempt to deceive you in any way. I know no reason why we should not get along fine. I'll not write any more until I hear from you. I am going to Whitt this eve and mail this letter. No one can know it but us. I am anxiously awaiting your reply. I remain

Lovingly your own,

Andy Hill

Rock Creek, Texas

R.R. 2, Box 23

There was soon a proposal, but Leeoner, her name reduced to Loney by Andy, didn't want a fuss. She wanted the engagement hushed until after the elopement and marriage. She felt shy because she knew she was no beauty. Small brown eyes with a thin-skin fold on the upper eyelid focused from behind her gold wire-rimmed eyeglasses. Her facial features were sharp and angular with an aquiline nose and oval face shape. She was not a tall woman, but her arms were long in relation to her height and torso. In a different social setting, the word homely would have been used to describe Loney's physical appearance.

Mr. Andy Hill, My Dearest Friend,

I was glad to no that you rec my letter all right. Yes, you can tell Bro. B if you want to it will be all right with me. Be sure and tell him not to tell no one of it until it is over. And don't get iny lisonce until a day or so before we are marryed for they will come out in the Mineral Wells Index sure. Bring Brown Tobe and come around by Olla Cars and come in at the gate at Mr. Saul and keep the road on around until you come to the lane. I must say this that Il marry you for love pure love. And not for money. I wish I was talking with you now. Oh how happy I am to night sitting hear riting to you. So Il close.

From your true Leeoner.

Before long, Loney was expecting their first child; another mouth to feed and things always so very sparse.

Long, nimble fingers were busy sewing a plain, dull-colored loose coat for Andy that was cut straight around and fitted down to the hipbones. As she sewed, she plucked the basting and hemming pins that held the fabric pieces together and stabbed them into a homemade pin cushion for safe-keeping. She cast the coat lengthwise across her pregnant belly and turned it as she deftly sewed the sections together. Loney was determined to finish the coat before the birth of the baby. She leaned back in a hand-crafted fence post rocker, held together with mortise and tenon joints, as she worked quickly by the light of the chimney fire.

"When my time comes I'm goin' to the barn so's not to disturb the family," said Loney firmly as though she wouldn't be challenged on the point.

Andy eased in with, "We'll call the doctor from Mineral Wells."

"Ain't no money for a doctor. What happens is God's will and there's no goin' gainst that. Can't be nothin' close to Jesus dyin' on the cross anyway."

Soon enough Loney walked the nearly fifty-yard distance to the barn, embraced by Sarah for support. She would make the same walk to the barn three more times in the next eight years for the birth of three boys named Wilmer, Eli, Victor and a girl she named Nannie.

The aisle between the stalls of the barn was prepared with a makeshift pallet-bed and clean rags set on a crudely built shelf, in anticipation of the birth.

Sharp labor pains, and grunts followed a moan and temporary relief as the pain subsided. Brown Tobe seemed restless, feeding off the emotion as he shook his head then blew-out heavily from his nostrils. The hours passed until a baby boy was born. Brown Tobe let out a whinny and a thunderous hee-haw seemingly in support for the newborn.

***

An epidemic of whooping cough tore through the country in 1917 when the baby, Victor, was just eight months old. Beulah married a local man, Henry Graves, and left home at seventeen. Sarah, now a young woman dreaming of her own home and family had gone to visit some cousins around Keller, Texas. A stalwart and an ever-faithful caretaker, Sarah's absence was a hardship as the virus spread quickly to each family member, including the baby. Not much got done around the farm. Andy wrote a letter to Sarah with news of the deteriorating conditions at home. He pleaded with her, penning his usual simple speech, to quickly return home. The words and flow of the letter lacked pretense since Andy had no experience with a deliberate exaggeration of the facts. The words were crafted as though he was speaking directly with Sarah, not distanced by mere physical space.

Dear Sarah,

How are you getting along by this time? We have put off writing so long until I don't know where you will be at but I will send this to Keller and risk it. We are still having a time with the old whooping cough. The baby is just as bad as he has ever been. Nanie still coughs and Eli and Wilmer still barking. I have coughed worse than I ever did in my life. Loney is coughing mighty bad so is Jarrell. When are you coming home? I would like to know. You have been gone thirty days today seems like one year to me. Well I can't think of no news to write so I had better close. It is hot here today we can't hardly live. Lots of grippe in the country.

From your dad, A. Hill.

"She'd want Brown Tobe to carry her to the cemetery," said Andy as he led Brown Tobe from the barn and hitched him to the wagon. Then Jarrell and Andy lifted the light-weight, primitive coffin into the open buckboard wagon. Loney'd been a slightly-built woman but the successive illnesses of whooping cough and then tuberculosis had reduced her frame to almost nothing. Andy and Beulah sat together on the wagon seat while Jarrell rode alongside horseback. Sarah stayed at the farm to look after the four young children that Loney'd left behind in death. The nearly nineteen-year-old Brown Tobe plodded along carefully as the sad entourage carried the precious cargo to the Rock Creek Church cemetery.

With two wives dead and buried, Andy concentrated his efforts into building the farm and expanding his crops. Eli, Wilmer, and Victor were old enough to make an impact helping plant and harvest. Brown Tobe was kept busy with the farming chores and he worked hard for Andy and his family.

Andy's spirit buoyed when he had his first really good crop in 1922. He bought a fifteen-year-old Ford Model T and a used Fitch 4-Drive tractor for the farm. Brown Tobe wouldn't tolerate the tractor within twenty-feet of him without turning away and kicking out his back hooves.

By 1926 the car and the tractor had been sold off to make ends meet because the recent crop yields were poor or the market price had bottomed out. Brown Tobe was older now, but was again harnessed to the plough to till the fields. So Andy and Brown Tobe were together again in the business of farming.

"See over yonder, Tobe. That's where the old stagecoach stop used to be. It's overgrown now with bush and bramble, but as a young man I used to like to watch the people come and go. Some fancy ladies and gents came to take the sulfur water at Mineral Wells." Andy had a never-ending repertoire of stories, some factual and some inflated, but each one a distraction from the loneliness of old-age and widowhood.

Yesterday had been tremendously hot and arid, but the now sixty-two-year-old Andy hitched Brown Tobe to the buckboard and traveled the five miles to Mineral Wells.

"Ya know, I ate a whole block of cheese. Some old boys sittin' outside Sharpe's Grocery bet me I couldn't do it so I had to prove them wrong." At home by early evening, he was taken sick with a kind of paralysis, developed a high fever, and quickly lost consciousness. Everything that could be done, with meager medical supplies consisting of liniment and hot water, was done. With no money for a doctor, Andy Hill soon passed into the embrace of death. With closed eyes, he appeared to be merely resting in a refreshing sleep.

The morning had turned to mid-day when Wilmer came to the barn to check on the horses and Brown Tobe. His eyes were wet as he walked over to Brown Tobe and whispered, "He's gone, Tobe. God called him home."

And so Brown Tobe was soon enlisted to carry his master to the final resting place at the Rock Creek Church cemetery. But in this journey he seemed skittish and aware, though nearly forty-years-old, as he carried his head low and his stride was slow and heavy. There'd be no welcomed music or singing today and no stories about the famous Texas landscape. Brown Tobe stumbled along the path he knew so well.

***

Outside in front of the house stood sixteen-year-old Wilmer ready to back up his older brother Eli in the confrontation, with a determined stance anchored in the ground beneath his feet. He gripped an aged, straight-tapered ring baseball bat with two thin rings at the middle of the barrel and a small knob handle

"Ya gonna have to pack up and get on outta here. Sorry about your dad and I know he was a God-fearin' man alright. But he weren't much on farmin' and years since he made a decent harvest," declared McKinley with a callous tone of false sympathy. He and his brawny son sat astride their sorrel mares with decent saddles.

"Y'all ain't nothin' to be concerned about," jawed McKinley's half-witted son.

The elder McKinley threw a copy of the folded, long-form lease toward Eli and it landed close to his feet. Eli made no effort to pick up the piece of paper since he considered it worthless like McKinley.

"We'll need four days to clear out and we want no trouble or fight with you. This no-good land broke our father and we won't let it break us. You'll be paid what you're due and you can rent the place to the next fish"

"Better be so or I'll force an eviction." McKinley and son turned and rode off satisfied with the strength of the interchange.

Sarah and Nannie went to live with Beulah and her husband. The boys collected the few scant possessions belonging to their father. Three timeworn bibles, a pocket knife, a smoking pipe with a shell-rugged sandblast finish bowl, and the harmonica. All fit into a faded turquoise cardboard trinket box, with an ornate flower motif, that'd belonged to Loney.

In the days that followed the beleaguered farm equipment, a careworn horse, and Brown Tobe were collected by a local farmer to pay off the debt as McKinley stood by for the handout.

Eli, Wilmer, and Victor set out walking toward the dirt road that led into the town of Mineral Wells and the Bankhead Highway. They expected to hitch a ride to Weatherford or Fort Work seeking work and a measure of hope. The trio stopped in their tracks and turned to watch as Tobe was hitched to the farmer's wagon and led away.

Brown Tobe pricked his ears for the soothing, baritone voice. Evermore with his opaque, blind eye, Tobe kept pace with the wagon treading along the rough trail toward the farmer's barn.


Sharon R Hill spent almost twenty-five years in the transportation industry before realizing her childhood dream of becoming a published writer. She lives near Nashville, Tennessee and enjoys the many historical sightseeing opportunities in the state.

 

 Sharon has been published in The Wilderness House Literary Review, Indiana Voice Journal, Creativity Webzine, and several transportation industry publications.

 It is important to Sharon to write historical short fiction that explores the lives of humble people that never became famous, but who contributed to the world in subtle and important ways. With a deep devotion to God, many people have acted courageously and stood by their Christian beliefs and convictions. They often acted anonymously and never bragged about their accomplishments or heroic actions.



 

Trail of Terror

by Erin Smith

TrailTerror

Melinda sat in the crowded living room in a metal folding chair tugging on the fringe of her sash and studying the costumes of the kids around her. There were colorful clowns, glittering fairies, a panda, a kitten. Andrea Shade was dressed as a bag of M&Ms for the third year in a row. The sheer plastic bag that covered her body from neck to waist was no real protection for the balloons stuffed inside. Last year, the jarring pop of the balloons filled the church auditorium at intervals and even had the adults jumping.

This year, the Central Oklahoma Church of Christ's Halloween Bash had been moved to the new Youth Director's home—a small rambler built on several acres of fallow farmland—and expanded to rival even the haunted houses and festivals of Oklahoma City.

"They're calling it the Trail of Terror," Paxton said.

He sat next to her, caramel apple in hand.

Melinda watched in disgust as he bit into the apple, the strands of caramel stretching between Paxton's upper and lower lips. The two had been church friends forever. They'd played Good Samaritan in kindergarten; Jonah and the Whale in third grade; and they'd always been on the same softball team at Kiddie Camp.

Last year, in sixth grade, all Paxton could talk about was moving up to the Youth Group. The only difference between sixth grade and Youth Group was that they were one year older—and Melinda now had to be in the same Sunday school class as her older brother Colin—but that single year seemed enough for Paxton.

"They're taking us through the Trail in groups of four, I heard," Paxton said, taking his final bite of apple and dropping the core into a nearby trashcan.

"Do you want to be in my group?" Melinda asked, knowing the answer would be yes.

But Paxton shrugged and looked around the room. Melinda followed his gaze.

Clumps of adults and kids stood with Cokes and mugs of hot apple cider in their hands. The adults looked like they did at Sunday night Bible Study—no skirts or suits, just casual jeans and button down T-shirts. They were a sharp contrast to the kids around them, who were splashes of fantasy with wigs, clown noses and eye patches.

"I heard it's real scary," Melinda said to the side of Paxton's head. "I heard they got…" She stopped. Paxton wasn't listening.

What she'd heard was one of their classmates, Karen (whose dad was an optometrist), say that her dad had ordered glow-in-the-dark contacts. But it didn't seem worth saying when Melinda followed Paxton's gaze. It was focused on a table at the back of the room where her older brother Colin and his friends gathered, laughing and scooping handfuls of Chex Mix into their mouths. Her brother hadn't acted human since he'd started high school. Her dad said it was just a phase all boys went through, but Colin was a senior this year and, from what Melinda could see, he'd only gotten worse.

"Andrea is the M&M bag again," Melinda said into her mug of hot apple cider, thinking of last year, when they were just in sixth grade. When she'd come to the Halloween Bash as a clown and Paxton had been a pirate. They'd laughed for months about him answering every question that night with "Arrgh!" At the end of the night, Paxton's mother had looked like she wanted to pull him out the door by his ear.

"It's a baby costume," Paxton said.

When Melinda looked at him, his penetrating gaze was directed right at her. She noticed for the first time since she'd arrived that Paxton was not wearing a costume.

"And what are you supposed to be?" Paxton spat with a chuckle.

Melinda's cheeks flushed.

The answer was obvious—she wore a broomstick skirt, fringed sash, peasant top with puffy sleeves, sandals, and her hair was pulled back in a fringed bandana.

"I'm a gypsy," she said, her voice near cracking. She swallowed the lump that had crept into her throat. "What are you supposed to be?"

But his costume was just as obvious. He wore the same tennis shoes he wore to school, the same jeans, the same long sleeved T-shirt.

"An adult." Paxton laughed. It was a short laugh, almost like a hiccup. It reminded her of Colin.

Paxton left her and went to the snack table. He stood close to Colin and his friends and laughed at whatever joke one of them had just told. Colin wore jeans, too.

Colin had systematically ruined everything about growing up for Melinda. She'd never had a chance to believe in Santa Claus. She'd never had a Barbie doll with hair that wasn't chopped off. She'd never had a diary without a busted lock, her secrets spilled and trampled on. It looked like the Youth Group wasn't going to be any different.

"All right y'all, listen up," the Youth Director called from the middle of the room. Everyone turned to him. "We've got the best Halloween Bash ever for y'all tonight. We've got the Trail of Terror, and we've got more apple cider and s'mores waiting at the bonfire, if you make it out on the other side."

The adults in the room made ghost sounds and snickered. At the snack table, Colin and his friends crossed their arms across their chests and tried to look tough. Melinda looked at her sandals. Maybe not the best footwear for traversing a Trail of Terror, but gypsies don't wear sneakers.

"All right now," the Youth Director said. "Before we begin, let us give thanks to the Lord. Lord…" All heads bowed. "Help us to have a safe night. Bless this food for our nourishment. And bless the new members of the Youth Group and their coming school year. In Jesus' name…"

"Amen."

Melinda's mouth moved, but nothing would come out.

~~***~~

Melinda walked close to Paxton across the backyard toward the dilapidated barn. Their group included Andrea—the human M&M bag—and a kid named Richard, who was a grade younger than them. Richard was dressed in a white sheet and said he was a ghost. Paxton laughed at him and went to say something, but one of Andrea's balloons popped before he had a chance.

Death himself was their guide, and he led them, scythe in hand, down the path toward the barn. His black robe dragged in the crackling leaves. Overhead, gray wisps of clouds covered the moon and the wind picked up.

Death paused dramatically at the door of the barn and turned to them. His face was painted white with black circles around each eye. In the dim light it was hard for Melinda to tell who he might be under all that paint. With a wink, he swung the door wide. After a heartbeat of hesitation, Paxton led the group in.

Heavy black drapes hung from the ceiling, creating paths from the small door through the barn. Hay crunched under foot, and the tarps swayed with a breeze coming from some open door out of sight. The breeze brought with it the smell of fresh-carved pumpkins and smoke from the distant bonfire waiting for them at the end of the Trail.

With the dark came a biting cold, and even in the shelter of the barn Melinda regretted her thin gypsy skirt. Richard in his white sheet noticeably shivered.

At the end of the draped hallway, glow-in-the-dark letters spelled out "Witch's Lair" on an interior door. Death paused once more, then slowly opened the door.

The "witch" was Mrs. Edwards, but if Melinda hadn't known it from all the Halloween Bashes of the past, she wouldn't have guessed it. Melinda had been afraid of Mrs. Edwards since the first Bash she could remember. That was back when they had the treats in the auditorium of the church and the kids went Trick or Treating at the doors of the Sunday school rooms. Mrs. Edwards's cackle could be heard down the long hallway and Melinda lived in fear she'd be eaten if she entered the auditorium.

Mrs. Edwards cackled, now, as they entered the dim room and Melinda's heart quickened. This was no longer Mrs. Edwards. This was a witch. In the center of the room a cauldron sat, white smoke wafting over its sides and a green glow emanating from deep within.

Paxton stood in the doorway for just a moment longer than Melinda. He'd probably been just as scared of the witch when they were kids but had never admitted it. He certainly wouldn't admit it now. Not in seventh grade.

The witch cackled again. "Welcome! Welcome to my lair!"

Melinda shivered, but this time it wasn't from the cold.

The witch invited them to sit around the pot as she described her various potions and their ingredients, some sounding like the R-rated movies Melinda's mom and dad wouldn't let her see.

"Bile of rat gallbladder! Blood of fox!"

Melinda, Andrea, and Richard gasped with each new ingredient, which the witch threw into the cauldron and stirred. Melinda glanced at Paxton. His arms were crossed over his chest, but he wasn't looking away.

"And noooow," the witch bellowed, "I will share with you my magic potions."

The witch took a large metal bowl off the floor beside her and passed it to Andrea. Andrea struggled to reach her arms around the balloons lodged in her armpits. Melinda listened to the creaking of the balloons and the sharp breath Andrea drew when she plunged her hand into the bowl.

"Here… here are the eyeballs!"

Andrea passed the bowl into Melinda's clumsy hands. Her tentative fingers touched something round and slimy and she withdrew her hand quickly.

Paxton took the bowl from her and, without reaching in, passed it to Richard.

"Here are the intestines… " the witch cried, lifting a second bowl from the floor.

Melinda plunged her hand into the cold, slimy bowl and felt—or imagined she felt—the contents wriggling.

Paxton grabbed the bowl and had just turned to Richard when the door behind them burst open and slapped against the wall with a bang.

Andrea shrieked. The metal bowl hit the concrete floor with a clatter. As they scrambled to their feet, a balloon popped.

A figure in black tumbled into the room and flung himself onto the floor near the spilt bowl. He held a flashlight under his chin, the bright light casting weird shadows on his eye sockets and forehead, and he shoved a handful of intestines into his mouth with a high-pitched screech.

Melinda inched closer to Paxton—as close as she ever wanted to be to a boy—and swallowed a scream. Andrea whimpered behind them, pinned against the wall. Another balloon popped.

The overhead light clicked on and the horror was gone. In front of them Colin sprawled, wet noodles hanging from his mouth. From the door, three of his friends stood pointing and laughing.

Melinda let out the breath she'd been holding.

"Look at the babies!"

"Scared to death!"

"All right now," Mrs. Edwards said. "You boys behave." She had a slight smirk playing at the corner of her mouth.

Melinda's fright was gone, replaced by annoyance. Colin had managed to ruin Halloween.

Melinda looked around the room and everything had changed. It wasn't a witch's lair. It was a filthy stall in an old barn. Richard, his face as white as the ghost he was pretending to be, held a big bowl of peeled grapes. Cold spaghetti noodles littered the floor. The overhead light was a hanging work light, strung up from the ceiling by a hook, the orange cord threading down the back wall. In the center of the room, the cauldron was plastic, the price tag still visible on its side. A chunk of dry ice sat in a shallow pool of water within it. The magic was gone.

Beside her, Paxton laughed. Melinda took a step away toward the door and looked at Paxton from head to toe. His sneakers, his jeans, his jacket—all looked the same. Underneath, she knew he'd changed, too.

~~***~~

"This was once a family farm," Death said with gusto as they walked away from the barn, his voice rising above the wind. In the breaks of his sentences, Melinda heard the screams of the children in the groups ahead of them. She hugged herself and stared ahead, where dark outlines of what looked like miniature buildings rose out of the earth.

"The dead are buried right here, on this property." Death led them into the dark with only his weak flashlight beam to follow.

As they neared the outlines, Melinda saw they were tombstones, rising up against the blue and blackening sky.

Death shone his light on the first gravestone and the group stopped short.

"Here lies Courtney, age fifteen," Death said. "She went out when her parents told her to stay in. 'As I am now, soon you will be.'"

With a jerky motion, he aimed the beam of light to the next tombstone.

"Here lies Timmy, age seventeen. 'If this stone you stop to read, the corpse below on you will feed'…" Death's voice was lost to the wind as he turned. Andrea and Richard followed, leaving Melinda and Paxton alone.

Melinda wanted to say something to him, for them to joke around again. She wanted to say how she was scared and cold and how s'mores were her favorite campfire food, but all she could taste was the disappointment in her mouth when she thought of Paxton laughing along with her mean brother and his mean friends.

"Are you having fun?" she asked lamely.

"Cheap foam tombstones," Paxton said. In the dark, his face looked like a black blob. "I'm surprised they haven't blown away."

Melinda was glad that she couldn't see the expression on his face. She was almost positive that the perpetual smirk he'd worn since they started seventh grade was still there—would be there from now on—and she was angry for it.

"Why did you even come?" Melinda asked.

Ahead of them, Death pointed his flashlight on more graves. Pieces of his words drifted toward them.

"I thought you were looking forward to this?" Melinda said.

"I thought it would be scarier," Paxton scoffed.

Melinda's mouth hung open in disbelief. "This is scary."

"Oh come on! Cold pasta? Stupid foam graves," he said, kicking the nearest headstone. "Only a little kid would think this is scary."

His words felt like a slap. Tears stung her eyes.

"Little kid?" Melinda said, barely above a whisper.

"Sorry, a gypsy." Paxton laughed, the short laugh again that sounded like Colin.

But Melinda didn't want to see the price tag on the plastic cauldron.

"You were a pirate," she said.

Paxton continued to laugh.

"Argh!" she whispered.

Paxton stopped laughing, confusion washing over his face.

"ARRRGH!" she growled from the bottom of her stomach.

"What?" Paxton began.

"ARRRGH!" she howled.

A dark figure appeared beside them. When Melinda turned, she was blinded by Death's beam of light until he aimed it at the ground. In the light, looking down at the tombstone of Timmy, Melinda could see that Paxton was right. It was nothing more than a piece of foam, spray-painted gray and pasted to a rock hidden in the leaves.

"Hey, are you two coming or not?" Even Death didn't sound like Death anymore. It was Andrew O'Brien. How had she not seen it before?

~~***~~

"Many years ago," Andrew O'Brien dressed as Death said, "a young boy lived on this very farm."

Melinda thought of Andrew trying to read the Bible verses out loud in Youth Group and how fake it sounded. He sounded that way now.

"The young boy was sent into this field in the fog to look for lost cattle. He took the keys to his father's Ford truck and was never seen again."

Melinda used the flimsy sleeve of her gypsy costume to wipe the drying tears from her eyes as they walked across a large open field. In the distance, she could see the bonfire glowing yellow and red.

"I leave you now," Andrew said dramatically. The four stopped in their tracks. "And I wish you luck on your journey…" With that, he clicked off his flashlight and Melinda watched him stumble off into the dark.

The four stood and looked across the dark field.

"I'm scared," Andrea mumbled.

"Babies," Paxton said, but didn't move from where he stood.

Melinda could almost hear the bonfire's crackle, could almost taste the gooey s'mores. She walked forward, thinking only of marshmallows and cider. The others followed closely behind. She could hear their feet rustling in the leaves in quick, panicked patterns. Above the noise, a coyote howled. Loudly. Hungrily.

Suddenly, the field lit with the headlights of a truck. Its engine revved and there was a horrible scream from within. Melinda's breath caught in her throat. Andrea ran past her, tripping once and falling to the ground in a series of balloon pops. She screamed, scrambled to her feet and took off across the field. Melinda and the others followed.

Melinda's shadow cast long and dark in front of her, obscuring any path. She listened to her breathing and to the sound of the truck as it advanced on them. In front of her, Paxton and Richard ran, arms flailing. Too scared to think, unsure of which way the bonfire even was, Melinda veered off the path of the moving vehicle and ran into a barbed wire fence, one hand going up to her face for protection and the other grasping the barbs on her painful way down to the hard ground.

She touched her face and found no cuts, no blood—only a few painful imprints on her chest and the feeling that she was going to find a bruise on her hip in the morning.

From where she lay on the ground, Melinda turned stiffly and saw the side of the truck as it came to a halt. It was not an old farm truck, and the occupants were definitely not lost ghosts looking for cattle in the fog. It was Josh Harden's Chevy and he and Colin jumped out of it, whooping and laughing it up. In front of the truck, Paxton's crumpled body lay shaking and quivering with sobs and pleas to spare his life.

He must have heard the laughs because he stopped and sat up slowly. In the bright white light from the truck's headlights, Melinda could see his hollow eyes and tear-streaked face.

"We gotcha big-time, boy," Josh said, taking off his cowboy hat and swiping it heroically across his knee. "Now get on out of here. We got another group of kiddies to scare."

Colin laughed. He knelt by Paxton and touched his arm gently. "Hey, don't feel bad. In a few years, you'll be the one scaring the pants off the little kids."

Tenderly, Josh and Colin pulled Paxton up and shooed him off toward the bonfire. As Melinda got to her feet, unnoticed by the pair, they climbed in the truck and reversed it back into their position, ready for the next unsuspecting group.

Paxton walked so slowly that even Melinda, with her fresh limp and sore bottom, caught up with him. The look on his face said he'd hoped that she had run off with the others. Melinda didn't look at him again and soon they were at the bonfire. The Youth Minister's wife handed them steaming mugs of mulled apple cider and gave each of them a stick with a white marshmallow already stuck on the end.

Melinda plopped on one of the wooden benches and stuck her marshmallow in the fire, only half paying attention to where it fell.

Let it burn, she thought, watching Paxton, two benches over, talking to the Youth Minister.

"Was the Trail of Terror scary, man?" he was asking Paxton.

Paxton shrugged.

"It was kinda scary…" he stopped short when his eyes met Melinda's. She had not realized she was staring so intently at him.

She looked back at her marshmallow and pulled it from the depths of the fire.

"Yeah," she heard Paxton say. "It was scary."

She held the marshmallow a few inches from the hot coals, her hand shaking. She wanted to stand up and shout. "He was crying. He just thinks everyone else is baby, but he's the biggest baby of all."

Wait until they hear, Monday at school, what a baby Paxton was at the Trail of Terror. Melinda smiled at the thought.

"Oops!" Richard cried out with a laugh. "No s'mores for you!"

He was sitting next to Paxton on the bench. He pointed into the fire where Paxton's charred marshmallow had fallen off his stick.

Melinda laughed, too, looking down at her beautifully browned marshmallow. Her mouth watered as she moved to pick up the chocolate and graham crackers that sat beside her on the bench.

But she stopped when she thought of Paxton in a ball on the ground in front of the truck, whimpering. Hadn't she been just as scared?

Melinda stood and went to Paxton. She held the stick out toward him, the marshmallow dangling between them. He looked up at her and their eyes met for a brief moment before Melinda smiled.

Placing his graham cracker and chocolate on either side of the marshmallow, squeezing together and pulling off the perfect s'mores, Paxton smiled, too.


 

Erin Smith is a writer, funeral director, and shiatsu therapist living in the Twin Cities. A transplant from the South, she's seen her O's lengthen in her fourteen years in Minnesota and has learned to love All Wheel Drive. When she's not writing, she can be found with her cat, Chloe, on her lap. Erin has been published in Liars' League NYC, Mount Hope Magazine, Strange Mysteries, Anotherealm, and Mortuary Management Magazine.

Find her at www.erinsmithwrites.com.



Trapped?

by Ian Wilson

TrappedPic

 

The beginning

 

I had nearly finished my six day assignment, leading a group of gap-year students over a mountain ridge trail to join up with their parents at Lake Suki. I had been forced to retire after 20 years as a Park Ranger there, and I enjoyed these occasional opportunities to teach youngsters more about the forest ecosystem. It was terrain that I knew and loved and, although I still had a limp from the fall that had injured my back, keeping up with those couch potatoes was a breeze.

The "survival guide" title the marketers gave it was more for dramatic purposes than anything --these days one was hardly ever out of mobile phone range, should something go wrong. Huh, I thought to myself, this generation just had too many distractions to appreciate nature anyway! We had one last night left out here. By the next week they'd have filed most of what I showed them at the back of their minds under "Useless but Interesting Information."

I had been at the back of the string helping "big" Dave when the leaders saw the carcass. The poor animal must have suffered a horribly slow death, I thought -- the sight of the rotting skeleton wrenching my gut. The small buck's skin was still relatively intact, but the worms and insects had done a pretty good job of the rest of its body. So the rumours had been true -- there were still trappers and poachers active in this forest. One of their crude wire snares had done its ugly job right here not that long ago.

We were misty-eyed with lumps in all of our throats, and tears washed dust off a few faces, but there was nothing we could do. I covered my mouth and nose with my bandana and moved closer. After a few quick twists and clicks with my army knife later, I could at least lower the animal's head to the ground and give it some dignity. I looped the snare itself and put it inside my rucksack to hand over to the Rangers at the lake.

"Right, team -- there's nothing more we can do here, let's get moving!" I said, taking the lead and making good time to get their minds off what they had just witnessed. It wasn't long before their cries of "Slow down, Mr H," started up again. I let them suffer a bit longer, knowing that the clearing I planned to stop in for lunch was only a few hundred yards away. Once there, I laid my backpack down and took out my wrapped lunch. Kezra, my designated back marker, soon came and confirmed that the group were all safely there. Thanking her, I took a swig from my water bottle and moved to the forward end of the rocky outcrop that bounded the far end of the clearing.

"That is an antenna at Lake Suki, people -- the end of your journey of discovery. Between now and tomorrow lunch time; we will have to cross the road to the campsite three times. I don't want anyone getting clever ideas about hiving off down it as a shortcut, because it's not. It zigzags its way down, whereas we're going straight." There were a few dramatic groans about ruining their fun, but this group had been one of the better ones, generally speaking. A few may even try camping again, even if only with their own children one day.

"Right, five more minutes and we're heading out," I said, reaching for my energy snack -- a lovely ripe banana. "Please check that you've left nothing behind. I'll be checking for wrappers and aluminium foil as usual." Once they were all strapped upsecurely, I called Kezra aside and told her to lead off at a steady pace. "Don't wait up, keep going to the camp -- I want to backtrack to check something."

 

The Trap

 

I had caught a faint whiff of smoke from the edge of the rock and wanted to investigate. Big Dave may have sneaked off to have a smoke again and not extinguished it properly; he could be careless with most things. I hope he never gets himself stuck in a forest, I thought to myself as I paced back the way we had come. About fifty yards in, I caught the same smell again briefly and at the same time, heard the unmistakeable sound of a shotgun chambering a cartridge.

"Don't turn around, old man," a voice behind me barked. "All I want is my trap back and you walk away free."But I knew that voice, so I instinctively turned around anyway and found myself looking at Ranger Steve, the same one who had taken over my post when I retired. He had seemed an odd sort at the time; a bit of a loner in a profession where brotherhood was the norm. We hadn't thought much of it at the time. He had grown up on a farm in the back lands after all; and this was his first assignment after graduating, so we thought he would soon warm to the social part of the work. His knowledge of the woods and ability to track any living thing were better than any we had seen and that was most important after all. But here he was now, in uniform, pointing a shotgun at me with his other trademark that seemed odd in our profession -- a cigarette dangled from the edge of his mouth.

"Come on, Steve," I said. "You're not going to shoot me over a piece of wire, are you?" He moved fast and struck me under the rib cage with the wooden butt of his weapon. A shockwave of pain, surprise and breathlessness hit me, and I first dropped to my knees and then toppled over onto my back. Agony! Excruciating pain seared though my left side and I gasped for air.

"You stupid, STUPID old man!" Steve spat at me. "Now you've gone and made a martyr of yourself. The guys at camp would've recognized that wire as mine. I could have let you go without it, but you had to turn around. You had to! What now, what now? What do I do with you now?"

"I reckon we take him back to the clearing and let him fail a flying lesson," said another, slightly slurred voice I heard over my own agonised moaning.

"If we let him live, our entire operation will cave in," said a third, female voice. "You guys stop squawking and let me think!" were the last words Steve said, before my consciousness faded.

I awoke in darkness -- pain still knifing through my side; exacerbated by the fact that my hands were now tied together under my knees, my back against what felt like a tree. Silence surrounded me like a blanket, except for the sounds of the forest at night -- crickets, owls and the wind high in the trees. I could still smell smoke, but this time it was from a fire. As I glanced around, I saw it faintly reflecting off foliage to my left and to my rear.

I tested the ropes holding me and found no slack, so any form of escape seemed useless for now. I decided that I should rather try to get more sleep and allow my injuries to heal before even trying to hatch a plan. I prayed silently, asking that I would experience the peace of God and be able to sleep. "Lord, the Bible promises that you never leave or forsake those You love. This would be a great time to keep that one. I know that somehow you have persuaded these people to not kill me straight away. Thank you for that. I pray that you help that group of kids get to a safe place and that you keep them from coming back and being endangered themselves. Thank You, Lord," I mumbled as I leaned back and blacked out once more.

A rough kick on the ankle woke me and the female voice said, "Hey Mister, you still alive?"

I grimaced as I opened my eyes and they adjusted to the light. She was standing silhouetted by the early morning sun, but I could make out that she was young and had fuzzy, unkempt blonde hair. A short denim skirt with a bib and a pair of ankle high leather boots completed the outfit with the shotgun as an accessory. That heavily accented drawl said she came from Steve's home country -- sister, wife, lover? "Yes, I'm still alive. No thanks to your boyfriend!" I replied.

"He ain't my boyfriend, he's family -- and that would be just wrong now, wouldn't it? To your type, anyways," she added. "Why did you come back, huh? I said you must have smelt that fire, but Steve and Josh will have none of it -- they're convinced you were snooping around for the Man. FBI? The IRS maybe? So which is it, Mister Nosey Parker?"

They had clearly worked out by now that I would be missed and that a search party would be sent to look for me; so they would have to move me -- and a dead man would be a lot more work to move than one who could still walk. I had a glimmer of hopebecause, no matter what condition I was in, I knew this terrain better than they did. My mind started thinking of options, even taking account of which trail they chose to follow. They had better not give me an inch.

"The boys are cleaning around the hidey, so no fancy ranger or his dog will find our stash. Then we gonna go throw you off a cliff, Mister Ranger. You ready to meet your maker today?"

I stayed silent, partially to taunt her into giving me more clues and also to pray -- thanking God for saving me this far and asking for His wisdom as the situation unfolded.

I heard the second male voice from last night coming closer, calling out "Hey honey pie, you all ok down there? Old man awake yet?" A bearded giant lumbered into sight, baseball cap jammed on his head backwards. The toothless grin explained the lack of enunciation, but it was his red blanket shirt and filthy bib and brace jeans that gave him away as a mountain man.

 

The Way Out

 

"Better get him up," said Steve as he joined us. "And make sure you check that he hasn't left any marker to show the search party that he was here. This old coot knows too many tricks for my liking."

As Josh the Beard lifted me roughly up, I managed to scoop up the knife that I had left partially hidden under some leaves. It had been a tough choice to leave behind anyway -- it could still be very useful. I straightened up slowly, testing my side.Battered and bruised, sure, but nothing like the stabbing pain that a broken rib would have brought. OK, I thought, I had hiked out in worse shape than this after my fall. I can do this easily.

Josh came up behind me and tied a rope onto my hands.

"Direct west to the Canyon exit, Mr H," said Steve. "You lead the way and don't worry about falling, Bubba is your hand brake -- hand break, get it? He's tied to your hands and he'll break them if you try run or anything."

I ignored him and started walking, making sure I set a pace that would challenge their fitness. First strategy, wear them down. It wasn't long before I heard Steve say, "C'mon Irene, you gotta keep up here."

"I know, I know," she whined. "Slow him down, Josh. These boots weren't made for this!"

"No way," said Steve."Those kids could've reached the lake by now -- so the rescue team could be here within an hour. Keep moving!"

Good, let them start moaning amongst each other, it could be a vital distraction later.

The trail they had chosen was the shortest but also the trickiest, I thought. There was one particular spot where I thought I could make a break for it and this lot would never have the guts to do what I planned to do, injury and all. So I kept pushing the pace, especially on the short uphill stretches. Even Steve was moaning now, and Josh was gasping for air with gums exposed. Just for fun, I stopped dead at one point and, because he was looking down at the ground, he walked slap bang into my waiting elbow. He staggered back on the uneven ground with blood trickling from his nose. He started back at me with rage in his eyes, but I just apologised and started moving again. Steve moved up and took over my rope at that, keeping the distance between us short.

After about an hour he felt we had covered enough ground to take a short break. "Don't try anything smart, Mr H," he said as he tied the rope to a sapling, "You know what that shotgun can do and Josh is looking for a reason to use it after that little stunt you pulled." Irene was fussing over his nose, cleaning the blood off as best she could, but the anger still smouldered in his eyes. My next move had better be good enough to put him out of action properly.

Irene came over and held a water bottle up for me to take a swig. "Lucky for you, Steve says we may need you as a hostage, Mister Ranger -- else I'd hang you from this here tree and leave you to the varmints." I hung my head to hide my smile. I'd won this round, but there was another hour to go till the edge of the canyon where I planned to break free. Let them think that I was intimidated rather.

When they were ready to move on, I made a show of clutching my side as if I was ingreat pain. "I'm sure you broke a rib, Steve -- it's stiffening up and I'm starting to battle for breath now," I said.

"Good," he smirked back. "Then keep the pace at three miles an hour -- we'll all make it through this easier that way."

I started off slowly, just like he said. And for the first long downhill stretch I held back. As we walked, I noticed a couple more of their traps on the animal trails leading off the main paths. This trail was seldom used by tourists because of the rocky inclines, so they had clearly been poaching with impunity here. "Steve, what's your main aim with the poaching? You got an outlet for bush meat somewhere?" I asked. He jerked hard on my rope at that and came face to face with me.

"You're too clever by half, Mr H. The folk back home pay well for their deer, and you're not going to be around to ruin my little retirement fund for me."

Asked and answered, I thought -- he had easy access to a hillbilly delicacy and was probably earning double his salary through his illegal twisting of the system. I moved forward without comment, keeping up the pretence of pain by easing the pace still further as we began descending a rocky slope.

As we moved I heard Irene muttering as her fancy boots kept slipping. I could make out that Josh had dropped back a bit to help her and smiled inwardly. "Lord," I said silently, "Your plan has helped me so far, thank You that the next bit will go as well." I knew that there was a tricky little river crossing at the bottom where the boulders were less slippery a bit to the left. At the first boulders I stayed on course and obediently waited at each one for Steve to cross the one before. In the middle I made my move -- I stepped left and pretended to lose my balance, going down on one knee. The result was perfect -- the sudden tension in the rope took him unawares, so he stepped hastily forward to the rock in front of him and skidded straight down.

It was quite sight, Steve sitting waist high in the water, cursing. He had done the sensible thing by keeping the shotgun clear of the water as he went down. But as he rose slowly his torn shirt and bloodied elbows showed that he had done so at a cost. Irene scampered forward to help him, but Josh stood to one side sniggering, saying that the incident should be on the local TV station's "Funny Video" show. One glare and a snapped command from Steve soon stopped his mirth and he moved forward to take my rope and lead me across to dry land. Round two had been mine again, but Steve knew it too.

He brushed up close to me and said through clenched teeth, "That was your last move Mister. Next time I'll finish you off and take my chances at being caught. The last one, get it?"

I did.

The next few miles were smooth going, but I upped the pace slowly just to wear them down again. They were quiet now, each with their own personal concerns to keep them so. Irene's feet were blistering badly now, Josh's nose still ached, and Steve was chafing from his wet trousers. They were set up and my time was nearly ripe.

"Let the path be blocked, Lord," I whispered as we climbed up the short but steep woody incline. We were nearly there, but I still needed something else to distract them; the chance of me getting shot decreased dramatically if only I could get across the first ten yards of open grass. I went down on one knee and fussed over my bootlace as we reached the top, wanting to get them bunched up. As I did, and they all collected behind me, we suddenly heard the sound of a helicopter in the distance.

"Everybody get down!" hissed Steve as we all craned our necks to try and see from which side it was approaching. Suddenly it appeared, swinging into the valley to the left and directly ahead of us. This was the chance I had been waiting for.

 

Escape?

 

I pushed Steve as hard as I could into Irene and the two of them sprawled over Josh. I jerked on the rope with all my strength and the end came free as Steve tried to get upright. Luckily for me, their limbs were tangled awkwardly and he couldn't get himself upright. With no idea where the shotgun was in the pile I turned and took off down the path. Five yards later I turned the tight bend that hid me from view briefly and I launched myself sideways down the grassy slope. I hit the ground with both feet but, as I had expected, the slope was too steep and I had to drop and roll. My injured ribs screamed at me each time I rolled, but there was no going back now -- I had committed myself to making this move. As I hit the bottom and sprang up to head for the underbrush, I heard a boom from above and felt the sting of pellets hitting me in my left side.

The initial impact knocked me down, but again my momentum fortunately kept me rolling and I managed to scramble the last foot to cover. The gun boomed again, but this time all I heard was the pellets peppering the branches above my head. "Made it!" I thought, as I tried to briefly assess my new wounds. Spots of blood appeared in the area from just above the knee to just under my ribcage. I could feel blood oozing through my shirt. How many wounds there were was hard to judge, but I was more concerned with how much blood I would lose. I hadn't managed to get hold of the water bottle before making my move like I'd planned -- the fortunate opportunity that the helicopter had presented, had also excluded that as an option. I had taken the opportunity presented, so I would just have to keep moving as best I could and hope that the pellets themselves would staunch the bleeding. How long I could last without water to top up my system was in the Lord's hands.

Without a backward glance, I started crabbing my way up the slope as fast as I could. I knew that there was another path about halfway up this side of the valley, but the undergrowth here was thick and I had to really work hard to push my way through.

As I moved, I heard Steve shout out, "I'm coming to get you, Old Man! You're wounded now, you won't get far!"

At the same time, I heard the helicopter circling round again, so I knew he wouldn't dare expose himself until it had cleared off. I made it to the small game path and lay there for a minute, exhausted, gathering my thoughts and my breath. I would need to double back in the opposite direction because this path linked with the one they were on about a mile further west. Steve would know that, so I would rather start putting distance between us while I still had some strength. Sometimes walking as fast as I could, at others crawling below low-growing bush, I set about painfully but determinedly doing that.

After fifteen minutes or so, I realised that the chopper sound had disappeared. I managed to find an opening in the branches and looked back to the spot across the valley where I had made my move. I could see Josh and Irene sitting there, showing no concern as to what may happen next. Steve must have told them to wait there while he set off after me. That shook me; I had really thought his threat was an empty one and that they would keep heading for the exit. I had clearly underestimated his anger and desire for revenge.

I had better keep moving as fast as I could. The path I was on crossed the main trail about two miles on, and with the road another two. If I could make it that far I was sure I would be home free. Even Steve would have to see that there was more risk than reward in pushing any further.

It had taken me almost four hours, but I eventually reached the road just before sunset. Beyond exhausted, I stumbled across it to a sign posted "Hiker's Pick-up" point. My eyes were ready to close, but before I could sit down on the bench provided, I needed water. There was a tap here, so I moved across to it and drank as much as I could. Surely now I was safe at last? This road was in regular hourly use for patrol and replenishment purposes, besides the tourists that used it. Relief coursed through me as I sat down heavily and leaned back carefully to take the strain off my wounds.

 

The Answer

 

"What took you so long old man?" Steve's voice drifted from the bush behind me, laden with spite. My blood went cold. If he had made it this far ahead of me, he was in better physical condition than I had hoped, but in worse condition mentally. I heard the bushes part and he stepped into sight to my right, just far enough away that no amount of effort I put into any sort of desperate lunge would save me from the shotgun he held casually under his arm. I was trapped, this was it. The look on his face confirmed my suspicions; he had lost all semblance of sanity. The sneer on his face was more of a grimace -- his clothing was not just damaged from the fall at the river, there were new tears all over it. He had bullocked his way through some dense undergrowth to get here, that much I could tell.

"Get down on your knees, Mr H. Any last words for that God you're always rambling on about?" he asked spitefully. He was enjoying the power he held now and continued, "I guess a photo of the famous Ranger on his knees would look good too. I could always send it to that crew of halfwits that worshipped you at camp. Nothing I ever did or said was good enough for them -- it was always Mr H this, Ranger Harris that. They made my life a misery. No -- YOU made my life a misery! You don't even realise, do you? You haven't put it together yet, big hero that you are. I quit this job about six months after you left. I knew I would never get anywhere with them unless I become just another cog in the machine like them -- like YOU."

That was the longest speech I had ever heard Steve give. With the fear gone, he was now opening up and showing his true colours. So I played for time -- even a few more seconds could bring a vehicle around the bend and God could intervene for me. "So you came back here to steal from them, hey Steve? Even kept your uniform to do it in, smart move that. So even if they saw you from a distance, nobody would think anything was out of place. Very clever."

The words seemed to light something inside him and he stepped forward and aimed the shotgun at the bridge of my nose from a foot away. "Say them prayers, Mr Hero Harris -- coz your time has come."

"Think this through Steve," I pleaded. "The sound of that shot will bring every officer straight here within minutes. You'll never get away."

"I know that," he said with a crooked grin. "I don't care anymore. I can't go home having been beaten by you, not again. I would be the laughing stock of the county, so what's to live for anyway? I have two shells left, and the next one is for myself."

"Lord, what now?" I said out loud."How can we help this tortured young man? Help him see that even if he kills me, there's no use in killing himself too? Lord, don't let that happen -- please Lord, let Him know this instant just how much You love him, how much his life is worth, that this world is his place. That Jesus really did die to make his heart clean and new, to carry all his guilt and sin for him. Please Father, this is my last prayer and it's for Steve -- help him Lord."

I opened my eyes slowly at the sound of sobbing. Steve was still focussed on me, but his eyes looked different, less anguished. "Nice try, Mr H. For a moment there I thought that you really meant that."

"I did, Steve. You know I did. I would be happy to die right now if I knew that you would accept the Lord and let Him bring you peace."

A confused look came over his face, but he stepped back a pace and steeled himself anyway. I saw his trigger finger whiten. Then I heard a click. Nothing happened. He looked at the shotgun then back at me, then back at the gun again. "Now I've only got the one shell, Mr H. I only have one left and it's right here in the chamber now."

I heard the sound of a vehicle coming -- from the sound of the tread on the gravel, it was less than a hundred yards away.

 

True Peace

 

"Go ahead and shoot me, Steve," I said. "I'll be happy that you can't kill yourself now anyway." A calm look came over his face and he smiled and said to me, "Lead me in that Sinner's Prayer I've heard about Mr H, but make it the short version"

"Lord, forgive me for doubting you," I said. As he echoed, I continued. "I'm sorry for all I've done wrong. I accept the sacrifice of Your son Jesus as the only way to be set free from all my sin and to get to heaven to live for Eternity with You." I heard him finish and say amen. Then I heard the boom of the gun and saw him fall.

The van pulled to a halt right in front of me, blinding me for a moment. Then more vehicles arrived and there were people everywhere. "Mr H, are you ok?" I heard Kezra's voice above the male voices. The scene was filled with people -- rangers, parents and my student group all seemed to have arrived at once. A Ranger I didn't recognise put a blanket around me and led me to one side, while others put barrier tape around the prone figure of Steve and his fallen weapon.

I gave the Ranger my statement and a group of the others that were huddled around me heard the account. Soon afterwards an ambulance arrived and my wife Jenny jumped out with the paramedics. "Are you OK, honey?" she asked."I've been so worried about you since Ranger H.Q. let me know that the kids reported to the Lake without you. I've been praying nonstop."

As we left the scene, I watched through the back doors as the lights and the crowd disappeared. As the medic secured an I.V. drip and started cleaning my wounds, I squeezed Jenny's hand and said to her quietly, "I love you so much, sweetheart. The whole time this was going on, the thought of not spending my last days with you kept me going. I want us to move back from town and settle here again. This is our place in God's world."

The red lights reflected briefly off the tears of joy that were running down her cheeks.


 

Ian Wilson writes out of the southern tip of Africa, which gives his work a slant on the world that makes it different. He's a commentator on what most readers are experiencing day-to-day. Ian writes mostly short stories with a Christian worldview, but has also written-to-spec.



Street Ball and Joe's Red Bike

by Don Tassone

StreetBallPic

On summer evenings, I used to watch my older brother Joe play football with his buddies in the street. I watched through our bedroom window on the second floor of our house. I was only five, and I wasn’t allowed to play football with the older boys, especially in the street.

Theoretically, it was touch football. But it was rough, and someone would always get hurt. Guys would knock heads and skid across the pavement. Someone would trip up the curb or run into a telephone pole or a parked car. Once, Tom Clark tripped over a dog and broke his arm. It was not uncommon for some parent in our neighborhood to take his or her son to the emergency room because of injuries suffered during those games. One night, Joe broke his collar bone by running into a mailbox.

Inevitably, when someone got hurt badly, the moms would insist the boys move their game to the backyards. They would play back there, on the grass, for a night or two, then find their way back into the street, where injuries would continue to run rampant.

I once asked Joe why they just didn’t stay in the backyards.

Too easy, kid,” he said. “Too easy.”

I idolized Joe. He was five years older than me. I admired so many things about him. He was smart. He was tall and handsome, with wavy blond hair and blue eyes. He played football, basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey and was a standout in every sport.

But the thing I admired most about Joe is that he was fearless. Nothing seemed to rattle him. I never saw him shrink from a challenge. He was the bravest person I’ve ever known.

Life is risk,” he would say, then plunge his bike down a hill so steep that the rest of us wouldn't even try to walk down it. Until, of course, we saw Joe tear down it on his red Schwinn Phantom, down a thin dirt trail, swerving to avoid rocks, bouncing over roots and ruts and narrowly missing trees, then slamming on his brake at the bottom, pumping his fists in the air and yelling, “Come on down, you cowards!” Then, one by one, the rest of us would follow.

All I did was imitate my big brother. At first, it wasn’t easy. Taking risks didn’t come naturally to me. I was OK playing football on the grass.

But the more I watched Joe and the more things I tried, the more I realized what I could do. When Joe became a teenager and pursued new interests, I even took his place leading the pack of footballers in the street.

~~~

I was 13 when Joe enlisted in the Marines. It was 1968.

Dad knew he couldn’t talk Joe out of signing up. He tried to convince him to join the Air Force, but that was like asking Joe to play football on the grass.

I like the Marines, Dad,” he said. “They’re brave, and they take good care of each other.”

He enlisted in March. Ten days later, he left for basic training. Joe and I said goodbye in the kitchen. Dad was taking him to the train station and, for some reason I can’t remember, I didn’t go with them.

Goodbye, kid,” he said, hugging me tightly. We were not a family that hugged a lot, and it felt strange to feel Joe’s body so close to mine. But I loved it. I could feel how strong he had become.

Will you write?” I asked.

Oh, yeah,” he said. “And you better write back.”

I will, Joe. I will.”

Then he was gone. I remember my mom leaving the kitchen and going upstairs. I heard her bedroom door close, then heard her sobbing. I had never heard my mother cry. She did not stop crying or come out of her room until my father came home.

~~~

I got my first letter from Joe about two weeks later. He said basic training was the hardest thing he had ever done but he was “getting tough and ready for action.”

He wrote me again a couple of times after that. He sounded so confident. It made me imagine him on his bike at the top of that hill, smiling and ready to take the plunge.

I wrote him back, proudly telling him I had made the Orioles in Babe Ruth League, the same team he had played on, and that I would be starting at second base, just like him.

In May, he shipped out to a place called Khe Sahn. Fierce battles had been raging there for months. For a while, the Americans were winning, but then the momentum shifted.

This was a strategic base, and the President ordered the military to hold it “at all costs.” All branches stepped up, but the Marines were in the vanguard.

On his second day of combat, in a place known as Foxtrot Ridge, Joe’s company was ambushed as it moved to support other Marines under fire. Joe was in the front line. He was killed as he was leading the way.

~~~

Joe was my only sibling. As the war raged on, my mother became terrified that I might be drafted. Then, just before I turned 18, the war came to an end.

I was attending an all-boys Catholic high school. On the day the peace accords were signed, Father Lorean asked for volunteers to ring the bell in the church steeple. I was the first to raise my hand.

He recruited 12 of us. He told us to line up, single file, up the narrow steps to the belfry, where each of us would pull on the rope for one minute. Twelve minutes for 12 years of U.S. involvement in the war. I made sure I was seventh in line. I wanted to mark the seventh year of the war, 1968, the deadliest year of the war, the year my brother was taken away.

When my turn came, I grabbed the rope and pulled it hard, with all my strength. All I could think of was Joe. I pulled and I pulled and I pulled until Father Lorean grabbed my arm and told me it was time. I gave up the rope and fell to my knees, sobbing, my head at Father Lorean’s feet, as the bell continued to toll.

~~~

When I got home that afternoon, I changed clothes, opened the garage door, pulled out Joe’s bike and took off down the street.

I rode to the edge of town, to the place where Joe used to take his bike down the big hill. I stopped and stood up, straddling the bike, and looked over the edge. It looked even steeper than I remembered it.

I drew a breath, squeezed the hand grips tight and pushed off over the edge. The bike bounced violently on the rocky trail. About 25 yards down, I flew off and landed in some tall grass. Fortunately, I was OK and the bike was too.

I got back on and kept going. Another 50 yards down, the front tire hit a big root. I popped off and landed on my back.

Lying there, with the wind knocked out of me, I thought about giving up. But then I heard a voice. “Too easy, kid.” I got back on.

Another 50 yards down, I hit a big rut and was tossed off again, this time flying over the handlebars. I hit the ground hard but rolled. I was OK.

Joe’s bike was not so lucky. The front rim was bent. I rocked the bike back and forth to test it. It wobbled. But at this point, I was close to the bottom. So I got back on and rode the brake the rest of the way. The bike shook badly, but it held up.

I made it. I remembered Joe being in this very spot, pumping his fists in the air. Now I looked up and raised my arms toward heaven.

Then I got off Joe’s bike, walked it over to a patch of grass, laid it down and knelt beside it.

Goodbye, Joe,” I said, touching the sturdy frame one last time.


 

Don Tassone lives in Loveland, Ohio. He teaches public relations at Xavier University in Cincinnati. His stories have appeared in a range of literary magazines.



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