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  • October 19th, 2018

THE GHOSTLY RIDGE

By Joel M. Vance

Everybody thought of Harry Jenkins as “sensible” and they said it as if it were a handicap, as if Harry had suffered an accident and lost a vital part of himself. Harry plodded through life with the resolute steadfastness of a coon hound never baying a fancy, nor tracking a whim.

“He’s the most no-nonsense guy I know,” said his boss.

“Harry?” Said his wife, with a hard laugh verging on bitter (she was a romantic who’d thought to marry a prince and instead had gotten a bean counter). “He’s practical.”

“Imagination of a buffalo in a herd,” said his best friend. So, when Harry found himself in the middle of an abandoned cemetery at the time of night they call the hour of dying, he didn’t succumb to childish fears, nor even feel a prickle of apprehension. He merely grunted and backed away from the tall monument he had run into in the dark, slipped on his tiny flashlight and read the inscription: “Cpl. Andrew Parker, killed in action April 25, 1863. Here lies a good Union soldier.”

“R.I.P, Andy,” Harry said. “Sorry to disturb you.” Harry was turkey hunting and had no time for romanticizing Civil War cemeteries, at night or at any other time. He needed to get himself set up before roosted gobblers roused enough to be alerted by movement through the woods. He wanted to be in place long before the first sleepy morning yelps came from the trees.

The night silence gathered around him as he moved along the ridge, away from the cemetery. He heard the murmur of the river below as it worried at a snag. A whippoorwill began its endless repetition, sharply trying to shout away the night. The moon floated ahead in and out of thick clouds. Harry was far from the road, far beyond the granola bar wrappers and other detritus of the fair weather hunters.

He began to look for a place to wait for sunrise. He found an ideal setup: a broad tree slanting to make a comfortable back rest, soft mossy earth at its base. Like a television recliner he thought. Have to concentrate not to go to sleep. Moonlight filtered through the scattered clouds showing him a sparse stand of big trees, with little underbrush, a natural arena. The bluff dropped steeply to the river to his left, which reduced the possible directions from which a gobbler could approach him.

He settled back against the tree and felt something prodding him. He dug beneath his seat pad and removed a sharp bit of flint, flipping it into the dark and heard it strike with a muffled sound. He rearranged the seat and leaned against the tree. Perfect. He dug his heels into the leaf mold, creating rests for his feet. The old Model 12 pump lay across his knees, loaded with three Super-X double X shot shells.

The number six shot would drop a gobbler in its tracks at 20 yards. There should be no need for a second or third shot (and certainly not for the fourth and fifth the gun would hold if he fully loaded it). “If you can’t kill ‘em with one shot, you shouldn’t be hunting ‘em,” Harry often said. Besides, a practical man doesn’t waste expensive ammunition.

Harry waited for first light, first activity. Usually he never worried about falling asleep and missing anything. He didn’t do that. Falling asleep on stand was impractical. But there were sounds in the night that distracted him. Maybe they weren’t even sounds. They were like the feeling you get when another person is breathing in a dark room. You don’t know if you really hear the breathing or just feel the presence of someone. But Harry wasted no time on imagining things in the night. He knew what should be in the woods and that was good enough for him.

Except he was experiencing a feeling he never had before, an uneasiness as if another hunter were slipping up on him, just stealthily enough to be noticed. But there were no other hunters. Not that far back and not this early. He’d bet the farm on that. So what was it? Who gives a rats? Harry thought. Get a grip.

Maybe he fell asleep. After all, it was comfortable and it was plenty early. People do fall asleep and anything can happen in dreams. But sometime later—he didn’t know how long— he heard a strange muffled jingling sound, like bits of chain gently disturbed.

He saw the shadowy figures of horsemen making their way across the night shrouded clearing in the moonlight. There were perhaps a dozen of them, silent save for the creak of their saddles and the muted whisper of their horses’ breathing. Despite himself, Harry felt a skitter of goose bumps chill his legs and back. “The hell?” he muttered. The riders passed 20 feet in front of him. The leader was caped and a couple of the riders wore dusters. Their caps were distinctively short billed with flat tops crushed forward. He’d seen such uniforms all his life, but only in the grim gray photographs of Matthew Brady.

They were dressed as soldiers from the Civil War. His first thought, being a practical person, was that it was a group of history buffs en route to a recreation of some forgotten skirmish. That perception lasted only an instant. It was not likely, in the middle of the night! Get serious!

The riders passed, almost close enough to touch, though by now he would not have reached out to touch one for any amount of money. Dread was a stranger to Harry— he had never awakened in the night with a panic attack, nor spent his waking hours worrying about cancer or tax audits. Harry worried about what he could see and feel, not conjures in the night. Although he could see this— but not, under any circumstances, feel it.

This was something he could see and he was suddenly afraid that if he touched it, there would be a result he didn’t want to think about— or know how to think about. So, Harry’s heart thudded and his mouth turned dry. It is unpleasant for unimaginative people when they are confronted with creatures that must be of their imagination.

Harry deeply wanted daylight, though he knew sunrise still was some minutes away. Inexplicable things wash out in the strong light of day. The slight sound of the riders vanished in the night, leaving only the demanding call of the whippoorwill. Harry tried to make sense of what he’d seen. Finally, he could only conclude that he had drifted off for a moment and had experienced an unsettling dream. He rarely dreamed of anything, but never had concocted a dream as vivid and disturbing as this one. But a dream it had to be.

Why Civil War riders in the night? That damn cemetery he thought. Hanging around in my subconscious. Just a dream, that’s all. Fell asleep there for a minute. Should have had more coffee. Acting like a damn scared kid in the night. It was a rational explanation and Harry gratefully accepted it.

Relieved, he put the incident out of his mind and thought it had to the turkey hunt, not imaginary fancies. Turkey hunting was real; ghost riders in the night were so much imaginative smoke, time wasters. More sleep and fewer cemeteries, Harry thought.

Thick darkness was draining from the night. He now could see his feet and hands and the silhouettes of the trees were sharper toward the east. The tentative hoot of a great horned owl sounded behind him, and as if in sharp challenge, a barred owl defied the stillness with its strident interrogation. A tree gobble rattled through the forest and Harry’s breath came quicker. This was a brassy old ridge boss challenging any other critter’s right to signify. It was, it announced, the most virile animal in the spring woods.

With exquisite caution, as if the bird could hear his very pulse beating, Harry withdrew a little container from his breast pocket and carefully fished out a mouth caller, which he installed against his palate. He liked to soak and soften the calls before using them. The faint taste of Scope brightened his sour early morning mouth. He always soaked callers in the mouthwash to freshen them. Harry felt in another pocket for a headnet and carefully slipped it on and adjusted the eye frames. He pulled on mesh camouflage gloves and shifted the model 12 slightly in his lap.

He was ready.

The turkey began to gobble every several minutes, a harsh, single-minded petition. Harry took a deep breath, let out half as if he were target shooting and clucked softly just one time. Instantly, the gobbler answered, its attention captured, its keen hearing fixing Harry’s location as accurately as an electronic rangefinder.

This seduction lasted nearly an hour. At first Harry answered each gobble with a sleepy cluck or two. Then he mixed a few soft tree yelps, as if a hen were rousing from sleep to find herself sexually aroused and receptive. The gobbler paced impatiently along a lofty branch with much of its innate caution seared away by passion. It no longer was a creature that no predator could approach by guile. It was addled by lust.

The turkey double gobbled and Harry interrupted with answering yelps, further inciting the bird. There was nearly full light now. A cardinal whickered and distant crows called. Small, drab birds flitted through the undergrowth and a gray squirrel pounced through the dry leaves with muted rustling. Harry heard the bird fly down—the sound of someone beating a carpet, then a thump and silence. Harry was taut, with the focused attention of the predator.

His eyes caught a flicker of motion through the trees and he saw the dark shape of the bird. The gobbler with the slow majesty of a schooner under full sail, wings dragging, tail fanned, head tucked tight to its puffed chest. Harry couldn’t resist a trio of yelps, even though it probably wasn’t necessary. The bird’s head shot forward and it gobbled, as loud as thunder.

There is noble ceremony in the measured approach of a gobbler. Everything seemed slowed, including time. Harry heard nothing but the spitting and drumming of the great bird. It seemed to take a lifetime for the gobbler to cross the fifty yards between them.

The morning sunlight reflected from the back of the gobbler, revealing a coppery sheen. The bird’s sharp eye seemed to cut through the camouflage to the hunter beneath. They looked, one into the other, the hunter and the undaunted prey. It was as if the turkey could see right down into his soul and take its measure. Harry had killed turkeys before, without a thought and with no flights of fancy about soul measuring, but this one was different.

The bird was 30 yards away and Harry leaned slightly forward, sighting along the barrel of the Model 12 propped on his knee. He moved his leg just slightly and the bead of the shotgun settled on the turkey’s head. Harry’s finger tightened on the trigger.

And then the gobbler wavered and shimmered as if it were a mirror image just at the instant before the mirror would shatter. The image blurred and became vaporous. In place of the gobbler there was a strange fog. The vapor flowed into the ground, then materialized as a second gobbler, wavering but distinct. The hazy apparition gobbled but there was no sound. It fanned and strutted, colorless in the morning light, a gray specter that paraded the ridge and drained the life from it.

Harry sensed motion to his right, but could not move. He was paralyzed, locked in time suspended. The motion resolved as a man, crawling with infinite caution toward a nearby log. The man’s clothing was wrinkled and torn and the man himself unshaven and haggard. The clothing was the uniform of a Union soldier. The soldier cradled a battered musket as he inched forward on his elbows. The soldier reached the log and cautiously peered over it. The ghost turkey fanned once again and as it pirouetted away, the soldier lifted the gun and aimed.

The turkey spun back toward the soldier, saw the gun, instantly dropped its fan and feathers and raised his head as if to flee. There was no sound but the soldier jerked with the recoil of his gun and there was a belch of silent fire and smoke from the muzzle. The turkey tumbled backward, flopping.

The soldier struggled to his feet and Harry saw how emaciated and weary he was, eyes dark with fatigue. But his shoulder straightened and he ran awkwardly to the thrashing bird and grabbed it by the neck, hoisted it shoulder high. His ghost patrol would dine well that night.

Then the soldier lurched backward as if hit by an invisible hammer, dropped the turkey and clutched at his breast. Slowly he crumpled to the ground, rolled onto his back and was still. The dead turkey lay beside him. A second military phantasm walked soundlessly to the fallen Union soldier, his bayoneted gun at the ready. His uniform was a ragtag assortment, but the butternut britches identified him. He, too, was tattered and worn and obviously felt no satisfaction in what he had done. He prodded the body with the tip of the bayonet, then, sure that his foe was dead….again, picked up the turkey and shambled toward the morning light. He blurred and then vanished.

The soldier on the ground faded slowly until he could’ve been nothing more than lingering ground fog. Time returned to the clearing. The real gobbler in front of Harry tensed, aware that something was wrong with his world.

The gobbler’s keen eye fixed on Harry and the bird poised to bolt. It would spook in the next instant and be lost if he didn’t squeeze the trigger. Instead, Harry exhaled explosively and sat up straight. The gobbler leaped into the air with powerful wing beats and flew straight up through the trees and into the sunlight.

Harry Jenkins, the man with no imagination, laid his model 12 on the ground and got to his feet, feeling 1000 years old. He walked to where the gobbler had been and found a single wing feather on the ground. He picked it up and went back to retrieve his gun. He paused a moment to rub his bristly face and dig at gritty eyes. He had never been more tired.

Harry passed through the old cemetery on his way back to the car. He stopped at the monument to Cpl. Parker and laid the feather on the weed choked grave in front of the marker. “Was that you, Andy?” He said aloud. “Do you have to come back and play it out again and again?”

Harry stood before the marker, feeling the heat of the spring sun. A squirrel barked at him from a nearby white oak. A blue jay shouted. A bumblebee landed on a spray of honeysuckle and swayed there. “Is this your Hell or your Heaven?” Harry asked the silent marker. There was no answer and there never would be one.

Harry’s wife was stunned when he came home not with a nice gobbler but instead with a spray of roses. “Let’s make today memorable,” he said. “We might have to relive it.” She stared at him with her mouth open. Had someone stolen her husband?

“Is that you, Harry?” She said. Perhaps he had caught some kind of virus. She watched as he moved through the house, touching old possessions as if he’d never seen them before— as if they gave him great pleasure and were not just old things. “Are you all right?” She asked half in fear, half in hope. He nodded.

She met her best friend the next day for coffee and fiddled with the cup while the brew cooled. “Well,” she said slowly, “whatever it is, I hope it lasts a long time.” She shook her head.

“Something weird happened to him out there in those woods,” she said. “I can’t imagine what— and I thought I was the one in the family with all the imagination.”

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