"I don't really know why you're interviewing me," chuckled Corville. "I'm pretty small beans, even for a town newspaper."
"A very political town, the state capital," the eager young man pointed out, as he absently skritched the purring cat on the couch beside him. "I bet you've got some interesting inside views of many events which have taken place here, Mr. Lamb."
"A few, yes," Corville admitted. "But most of the really interesting stuff doesn't have anything to do with politics. And some of it was a lot scarier."
"Oh, come on," Gary laughed. "What could be more frightening than politics?"
Corville considered for a moment. Gary Murray was in his early twenties, not long out of college and into professional journalism. Unlike all too many of his modern peers, though, he seemed open-minded and naturally pleasant, his humor and manners unforced. Besides, the cats liked him. The older man also felt a certain amount of sympathy, due to the names inflicted on both of them by their parents.
"I'm going to tell you a story," said Corville. "It's strictly off the record; if you ever use any of it I'll deny I told you. Think of it as background. I'm hoping it will also show you that there are scarier, more interesting and weirder things in the real world than politics could ever dream of."
"Okay," said Gary, shrugging.
He reached out to resume petting Underwood, while the older man settled himself, gathering his thoughts.
"It started with a phone call from a woman I know," Corville began...
* * *
Corville sighed as he put down the phone. As a parent himself he'd sometimes been in similar situations, so sympathized with his caller. That didn't mean he enjoyed bailing someone else's son out of jail. Corville checked his watch, and sighed again. He just had time to get there, get the kid out, and get home before supper.
The desk sergeant knew him, and gave a smile and a casual wave as he approached.
"What can I do for you, Corville?"
"You're holding a young man named Mihos Dawnwind," said the reporter. "Picked up for vagrancy last night. I've been asked to bail him out."
"How did you even know he was here?"
"His mother is an acquaintance of mine, lives in Louisville," said Corville. "He called her; she called me."
"That would have been a long distance call," said the desk sergeant, frowning, a bit puzzled. "We don't normally allow those."
"Well, maybe he reversed the charges," said Corville, shrugging. "All I know is that his mother called me and asked me to vouch for him."
"You know that normally we don't make much fuss over vagrants," said the desk sergeant. "But the kid had no ID, and with all the vandalism we've been having at the construction site..."
"Yeah, I understand," said Corville, nodding. "His mother swore he just came back to Kentucky last week, after living with his grandmother in New Mexico for most of the previous year."
"All right," said the sergeant, reaching for the keyboard. "If you'll vouch for him, and keep him out of trouble while he's in town, you can have him."
"We're not going to charge him," said the sergeant. "We're holding all vagrants for a while so we can check them out, then letting them go."
"You just picked him up last night," Corville pointed out.
"Yeah, but you've given him a good enough alibi," sighed the sergeant. "Besides, with the crackdown we're full-up. Give me a few minutes to do the paperwork and you can have him. Oh, and tell him it's not safe to sleep under park bushes, would you? Kids these days..."
Corville was cooling his heels, sprawled in an uncomfortable chair, when he heard someone call his name. He looked up and saw a uniform escorting an Indian boy, about 18. Corville could see some of his mother in him; he had the same strong nose, piercing eyes and feral brow. His manner was different, though. Where she would have been maintaining a carefully aloof, neutral expression, the boy was smiling and looking curiously around. Corville rose and stepped forward.
"Oh, yeah," the boy exclaimed, grinning excitedly as he extended his hand towards the reporter before Corville could introduce himself. "I recognize you from your photo! Mother likes you."
The reporter was a bit startled, not only at boy's direct and simplistic manner of speech but at the size of his pointed canines. He wondered if the boy were mildly autistic.
"That's right," said Corville. "That I'm Lamb, I mean."
"Sorry to cause you trouble. Mother told me I needed to learn about the area so I was just bumming around."
Corville guided the boy towards the exit, listening to him chatter. No, not autistic. Just younger than he looked and excited about being in a new place. English might not even be his first language. Corville was vaguely aware that some tribes had a custom of sending boys in their early or middle teens out on some sort of rite of passage. His mother didn't seem the type to follow such practices, but she may have been influenced by others in the family. Especially if Mihos had, indeed, just come home after spending time with them.
The whole drive to Corville's modest suburban home Mihos peered around at the scenery, asking questions and making comments. Besides the clothes he wore he had only a small knapsack; all his possessions appeared well-worn but also well-tended. And clean; even after sleeping part of the night on the ground and several hours in jail, he looked well-groomed.
As the door opened Corville saw Remington - senior tom of his current two cats - run to greet him, as he usually did. Except that this time he stopped, hissed at Mihos, spun around and made a feline for the kitchen. Corville was baffled. He'd never seen the old tom act that way.
"Remington! Behave yourself!" he called after the fleeing cat.
"Ah, he's just upset because there's a strange male in his territory."
"He doesn't do that with anyone else," muttered Corville. He peered through the doorway into the kitchen and shrugged. "Well, he'll come out when I feed him and Royal."
Strangely, neither cat showed, even after Corville repeatedly called them.
"That's weird..." he muttered.
"They'll probably eat after I leave," said Mihos.
"Where are you going?" Corville pointedly asked.
"Well, I'm not gonna impose. I'll find a better spot, maybe back up in the woods on Fort Hill."
"No, you won't," Corville stated firmly. "I told your mother I'd take care of you while you were in town, and that includes providing you with a place to stay."
"I'm not going to be here long," said Mihos, shrugging.
Good, Corville thought, but didn't say.
"Well, as long as you're in Frankfort, you stay here. I have a spare bedroom."
"Oh. Okay. Thank you." He grinned. "But your cats may go hungry."
"So, can you cook?" Corville asked, moving towards the stove.
"Not anything edible," said Mihos, with another shrug. "I can wash dishes pretty well, though."
"Okay, that's your chore while you're here," said Corville, as he pulled out a skillet. "I'm no great chef, but I can cook some things reasonably well. Hope you like red meat, though."
"The redder the better," said Mihos, grinning broadly enough to again show those startling canines.
* * *
Later that evening Corville was working in his study, Beethoven's "Sonata No. 8" playing on the stereo, when Mihos entered and announced he was finished with the dishes. The boy watched him for a while, then moved closer, to examine the clippings and notes.
"Mother said you were retired," Mihos supplied, looking puzzled.
"Semi-retired," Corville corrected. "I write guest editorials and occasionally sell stories on local color."
"Ooh, can I help? People tell me I'm very colorful."
"Yes, you can help," laughed Corville, beginning to enjoy the boy's innocent enthusiasm. "I'm planning to take photos of some graves which were uncovered at a construction site downtown."
"That's the one at the foot of the cliff," said Mihos, nodding. "I saw that from above when I was on Fort Hill."
"Yes," said Corville, nodding in turn. "You can be my assistant. Carry stuff for me."
"People tell me I'm good at that, too." He looked over the articles. "They found old graves?"
"Not surprising," Corville observed. "Frankfort is one of the oldest towns between the Appalachian Mountains and the Spanish settlements out west. Almost anywhere you dig downtown you'll find signs of previous residents. And sometimes the previous residents themselves."
* * *
"Sorry, sir, no-one is allowed in here who isn't an employee or one of the state archeologists," said the foreman, as they stood at the gate in the rain.
"I called and got permission," Corville repeated, pulling his collar up.
The weather was dreary, grey and wet. Perfect for examining old graves. Only it was looking like they weren't going to.
"Well, since this last vandalism the policy is changed. Also, the archeologists won't even let us near the graves ‘till they're finished. So, nobody from the public in."
Corville thought about asking to see the man's manager, but decided the small chance of success wasn't worth it. There certainly weren't any other reporters here.
"Thank you," said Corville, nodding to the guard.
Always be polite, even when you don't get what you want, he thought. It might help you get the next thing you want.
He turned and walked back towards his car, Mihos trailing behind. The boy didn't speak until they were seated inside, out of the rain.
"We take what photos we can from outside the fence. See if we can catch one of the archeologists for an interview. Then I check with the paper and see if they have any shots in the files I can use."
"You can get a good view from on top of Fort Hill."
"You want me to hike up there, in the rain, on a muddy path."
"It's not that bad. And once you get up there the paths have wood chips."
Corville chuckled and shook his head.
"You're young and healthy. I'm old and worn out. What you consider easy would put me in bed for two days, recovering."
"I could carry you," the boy offered.
"You probably could, but I still have enough of my dignity left not to let you." He was silent for a while, thinking. "You know, there's a road up there. I think it's closed to the public, this time of year, but if we can drive even part-way up, walking the rest of the way wouldn't be too difficult."
He started the engine, and carefully backed out of the parking lot.
* * *
"Tell me again why I'm doing this?" Corville asked, sourly.
"You love your work?" asked Mihos, innocently.
Corville chuckled, then coughed a bit. Just what his allergies needed; a walk in damp, moldy woods. At least the trip from where they had parked was mostly over level ground. Soon they were on the lookout platform, spying on the unknowing workers below. The rain had even slacked off some.
They watched, Mihos through Corville's binoculars and Corville through his tripod-mounted camera. The reporter occasionally snapped photos, of both the archeologists' efforts and the construction work. He was glad he'd brought a long lens, though he wasn't sure how well the photos would turn out, with all the mist in the air. Even a UV/Haze filter could only help so much. A bulldozer went past the pit with the coffins and remains, the men and women working on the graves hardly noticing, and began scooping earth from a spot nearby. The blade dug in and began building up a pile in front of the dozer. Suddenly, the right track of the dozer sank a bit, and the blade dug in too deep. The dozer bogged down, and stopped.
So did everything else. Including the traffic light on the corner and the vehicles on the road, and all the construction equipment. There was an odd shimmering in the air around the dozer's tread, something not clearly seen. Corville reflexively tripped the shutter. Then it was gone. Engines re-started, the traffic light came back on and people shook their heads and resumed what they had been doing.
"Did you see that?" gasped Mihos, whipping his head back forth between the construction site and Corville.
"I think I got a photo of it. Look, what are they doing now?"
As the dozer moved off some of the archeologists went to take a look at the sunken spot in the ground. And began calling their colleagues over. They dug frantically at the loose dirt, with hands and small tools. Soon they had uncovered a dull, grey slab.
"What the Hell..." muttered the reporter.
* * *
Corville stepped inside, closed the door and hung his damp coat on a hook in the hallway to dry. He also sneezed. He and the boy had stayed for hours after the strange events, taking more photos and interviewing witnesses. He'd left the exposed rolls of film for processing on the way home. They ate supper, and while Mihos washed dishes the reporter went back for the prints.
"Found out what that was the bulldozer ran over," said Corville, holding up the package. "Asked at the paper while dropping off their copies. It was an old, lead coffin, with a man's skeleton inside. From papers and coins found on the body it was apparently buried there in the early Nineteenth Century."
"Let's go see!" said Mihos, bounding to his feet.
"Whoa, tiger!" said Corville, who couldn't help but grin at the youngster's eagerness. "In the first place, it's almost night out..."
"I'm not afraid of the dark."
"...and in the second place the body is at the coroner's, which is already closed."
"Oh. Anything else?"
Corville's smile faded, as he sighed and opened the packet of photos. He sorted through, pulling one out and handing it over.
"That looks like..."
"I know it does. Just mist, I guess. Seeing faces in clouds."
"He looks angry." Mihos shivered a bit. "So, did your editor like your photos?"
"Yeah. Now he wants me to do an article on the lead coffin and its occupant. Says it would be good local color, provide some sensationalist history for the Derby or something."
"Do I get any credit on this?" Mihos asked, grinning in anticipation.
"How about Special Assistant?" was Corville's response. "I'll check at the paper and see if I can get you on officially as a temporary assistant. Low pay, but that's better than no pay. If you don't mind turning pro."
From the boy's reaction, that suited him just fine.
"I'm going to visit the coroner after lunch, tomorrow, alone. He's an old acquaintance of mine, so I can probably get some information from him, but he won't open up if there's a stranger around."
"Okay," said Mihos, with a casual shrug. "While you're doing that, there's something I read about in the paper this morning I'd like to check on. A project of my own."
"Sure," said Corville, grinning.
Typical, he thought. Show a kid with a bit of natural curiosity the research side of newspaper work and he'd want to try his hand, too.
* * *
Corville returned home beaming and holding a large accordion folder as if it were a treasure.
"Had a stroke of luck. Turns out the coroner took photos in situ of the box. Managed to wheedle copies of those, some photos he took of the contents, and the preliminary report out of him."
He spread his photos on the work table, noting as he did so that the boy's cleaning compulsion had left the room neat but spared anything which he actually wanted left in place. Corville couldn't help but be impressed with Mihos' intelligence and diligence. In less than three days the boy had the old house cleaner than it had been in years, without actually trying to change anything which didn't desperately need it.
"They had to load the whole coffin on a flatbed and open it in a workshop," Corville explained, as they came to the set of photos taken at the coroner's. "Turns out it was soldiered shut. Though the bulldozer did pop one of the seams."
"Uhm," said Mihos, thoughtfully stroking his chin as he looked at the photos. "Why would anyone be buried in a sealed lead coffin?"
"That's odd, yeah, but I've heard of similar things," said Corville. "Lead coffins and sealed burial vaults weren't uncommon through much of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Lot of people were worried about grave robbers and such. Some just wanted to preserve their bodies."
"So how did he die?" Mihos asked, staring at a photo of the skeleton still in its box.
"They don't know, yet," said Corville. "I've got some folks at the paper going through records from that period. There's a surprising amount of them, but they're patchy. During previous searches I've seen dozens of pages of property descriptions from tax records, and bills of lading. Some police records remain, but back then the police weren't organized the same way they are now, didn't even do quite the same job. My contact at the History Center says there's several people with private collections he'll ask for help. Until then I have other sources for us to check. Oh; how's that special project of yours coming along?"
Mihos moved over to the large map of Frankfort which Corville kept pinned to the wall. He glanced at a piece of paper already mounted nearby, then plucked a pushpin from the box, looked around for a moment and plunged the pin through the paper and into the corkboard behind it. He glanced back at his notes, then repeated the process.
"What's that?" Corville asked, moving over to join the boy.
"Reports of pets or livestock missing or found mutilated last night and this morning," Mihos responded.
"I read about that, too," said Corville, nodding. "No known motive. No reason known for any of the animal killings. But they're too numerous just to be kids acting up."
"No mysterious lights?" asked Mihos, half joking. "No vandalized graves? No strange, ghostly noises around the area at night?"
"The only thing which comes close to any of those was an odd event at the old quarry on Taylor Avenue; a big section of the hillside above it - actually up in Devil's Hollow - collapsed. Surprised a lot of people. That quarry has been idle for years, and everyone thought the place was stable. Well, except for an occasional weathered piece of rock falling off the face. But this was a big section of the face and the hill above and behind it. Guess they're lucky it didn't actually affect the road."
"The first animal killed was a family dog, right here." Mihos touched a pin. "At the next place a couple of dogs in their back yard and a horse in a field. Last one was a cat."
"The single dog is this pin? That's right in the upper end of Devil's Hollow. The other dogs are a little outside. The horse a bit farther away. The cat nearer again."
"Yeah. Like something went out, looked around, and came back. Killing as it went."
Corville shrugged. Kids tended to sensationalize things. Most likely the cause was either some feral dogs or feral people. Maybe even coyotes; a few had been seen in the area.
"Well, I'm ready to settle down and watch TV for a while. Any preferences?"
"Not really," said Mihos.
The old reporter grinned. The boy was certainly easy to live with.
"Then let's finish in here and head for the den."
* * *
"Damn," sighed Corville, as he read the morning paper.
"What's the problem?"
"Somebody walking home late last night got killed. Murdered, and in a very brutal, grisly way." Corville smacked the paper with the flat of his hand and turned to look at the youngster. "That's near Second Street Grade School, almost within sight of the Capital building!"
The boy's reaction was not quite what Corville expected. For once and suddenly he was all business.
"There were more animals killed in that area last night, too. I heard it on the radio news."
"Looks like we've got a psychopath on our hands," sighed Corville.
"So we go look for him."
"No, we don't," said Corville, firmly. "We do our jobs, which doesn't include chasing killers. You can plot the killings and research them, if you want to; we could easily get an article out of that, maybe even provide important information to the police. But don't go playing detective! We have good police, here. Let them do their job."
"Yes, sir," sighed Mihos, his manner just a bit surly.
* * *
The next day opened much as the previous one had, including news in the paper of another grizzly murder, and more animal killings.
"This time they're 'way out north of Devil's Hollow proper, but still along the road named for it," said Corville, sourly. "Several cattle were killed, and when a farmer and his dog went out to see what was causing the disturbance they were killed too."
"Targets of opportunity," guessed Mihos.
"I think I'm finished with breakfast," was the reporter's sour comment, as he looked down at his remaining eggs and hashbrowns. "Lost my appetite. Let's go do some work in the den."
"I'm with you," said Mihos.
They quickly dumped the remaining food and put the dishes in the sink, then headed for the study.
"The first murder was found on Taylor Avenue near where the old mill was, right beside the lower end of Devil's Hollow, by the river," said Corville, as he seated himself in front of the map. "Not actually as close to the Second Street School as the initial reports indicated, but close enough for parents to worry. And very close to the rock slide."
"Yeah. It looks like all of these weird killings are clustered around one end or the other." Mihos was silent for a moment as he tipped his head quizzically to one side. "How did Devil's Hollow get its name?"
"Nobody knows," said Corville, with a wry chuckle. "I tried to find out, a few years ago, for an article on Frankfort place names. I did learn that it was named before Frankfort was, back when it let out at a river crossing later known as Frank's Ford. Named after a guy killed there by an Indian attack."
"You sure it was Indians?"
Corville wondered for a moment if the boy intended to defend his ethnicity, but the question also sparked a memory.
"You know, it may not have been," he mused. "I remember, now, that while later accounts stated the attack was by Indians, the older ones weren't specific. I do remember it was in 1780. Stephen Frank was part of a group camped at the foot of the Hollow. There was a ford, there, and they were waiting for morning to cross."
Mihos looked at the map, chewing his lower lip.
"Yes?" prompted Corville, when he didn't continue.
"I think we really need to find out what happened there. Not just the killing of Frank. The history of the place."
Corville stared at the boy, an eerie feeling rising from the base of his spine. He'd been thinking along the same lines, but to hear someone else state that so flatly and firmly...
"No, this is ridiculous," he declared, shaking his head. "We're dealing with either a madman or a rogue predator of some sort."
"Maybe," said Mihos, "but there's still that face in the cloud from the coffin, and the rock slide at just that moment, and the killings which began that night…"
Corville shook his head.
"You can chase myths if you want, but I have real work to do. My contact at the History Center says he found a set of journals which give the earliest known account of how Devil's Hollow got its name," said Corville. He opened a folder and pulled out some large photographic prints. "It has been passed down in the family from the time of the author. The current caretaker is allowing the Center to make microfilm copies of the volumes as funds permit."
"And you think this is significant?" Mihos queried, looking excited.
"One of the main gathering spots at that time was the Love House tavern," said Corville, thumbing through the photocopied pages. "A group of locals liked to meet there in the evenings and chat. One of those was a man named Josiah Wolf, the writer of the journals. Another was Arturus Blount, the man from the lead coffin. The particular entry I want to read you is from early Fall, 1774.
"'Blount was here tonight, posturing as usual. Something he said, however, stuck in my mind. He mentioned something about some places being "cradled in the hollow of the Devil's hand." He then went on to explain - quite without prompting from anyone else there - that certain marked places seemed favorable to entertaining certain types of spirits. Some glens or glades favor innocuous sprites and such, while other areas nurture darker things. Abner queried "You mean like thet holler, 'crost th' river?" "Yes," Blount replied. Never one to miss a chance to commit a play on words he continued "Exactly like that. That is a Devil's Hollow if ever I saw one."'"
"That's interesting," said the boy, "but is that all of it?"
Corville thumbed through his notes.
"This was just one volume in a numbered sequence. The books are kept by a descendant of Wolf's, who lives in rural Franklin County."
He looked up at Mihos, who was deep in thought.
"Yeah. We definitely need to read more about that."
* * *
"Are you sure this is the place?" said Mihos, looking at the run-down farmhouse.
"Pretty sure," Corville replied, opening his door and climbing out.
As the pair approached the house an old, thin man in coveralls and flannel shirt came out on the porch to greet them.
"You Mr. Lamb? I'm Summers Graw. Pleased to meet you, sir."
Corville shook hands with the man, confirmed who he was and introduced his young assistant. Inside the house was in better shape. Though the furnishings were old and well used they were free of dust or dirt or major flaws.
"The wife's off visitin' our youngest this week," Graw explained. "Kin I git you anything?"
Corville could tell that Mihos was impatient, but he knew that the amenities had to be observed. After all three men had been supplied with soft drinks, they sat down around an antique walnut coffee table. Graw, smiling, opened a drawer in the table and pulled out an old, bound journal.
"If you need to know 'bout somethin' in partic'lar, let me know," said Graw, carefully handing it over to Corville. "I've read the thing at least a hunnert' times. Th' other volumes are all in a fireproof safe downstairs. I brought this 'un up, 'cause it seemed to be the one written during the period you ast about."
Corville paged carefully through the old , surprisingly intact, book, squinting at the faded ink. The archaic script and phrasing didn't make things any easier. Then he spotted something.
"What's this about people and livestock being killed?
The reporter was looking at Graw, but couldn't help noticing Mihos suddenly sitting up and leaning forward, his expression strangely intense.
"Yeah, thet were th' thing in Devil's Holler," Graw replied, nodding sagely. "Kill't a lot o' people and animals afore folks learned to avoid th' place at night."
"Okay, did your ancestor ever say just what it was in the Hollow that attacked people?" asked Mihos.
"Oh, yeah; hit were a wild man."
"I've heard stories about those," said Corville, looking up. "Weren't they small, man-shaped, covered in hair?"
"From what I recall, yep," Graw acknowledged, nodding.
"So what happened?" Mihos eagerly asked.
"After one partic'lar bit o' trouble hit caused - th' attack on the party where Stephen Frank were kill't - a bunch of men got together t' track hit down," Graw related. "Mr. Blount, he claimed that if'n the others could find hit and holt hit, he could pin it. And thet's jest whut they did, and jest whut he did."
"Yeah, I found that part," Corville stated, reading quickly. "Not much in the way of how they did all this; just statements of the basic facts."
"Whelp, he weren't tryin' t' write history," chuckled Graw. "Jest take notes to remind hisself of things. Oh; they's some stuff about Blount an' his coffin in there, too. Hit's towards th' end of that very book, as I remember."
Graw turned the volume around on the table and flipped through it for a few seconds, then stabbed his finger on a passage with a triumphant grin.
"Got hit! Here's where Josiah writes ‘bout Blount layin' dyin' a few years later and wantin' to make sure his body weren't messed with. He warned folks that he had the key, and if'n his rest were disturbed hit would be used t' open th' lock. Most people figured he was delirious and didn't pay much heed, but Great-Great-Grandfather Wolfe decided t' make sure Blount's wishes were carried out. He owned and ran an undertaker's business, y'see, and knew how Blount wanted his coffin."
"That's it," said Mihos, nodding. "It took nearly two hundred years, but the key turned and the thing locked up in the ground in Devil's Hollow got out."
Corville grimaced, and started to tell Mihos to knock it off, but then noticed the way the old man looked at the boy. And then nodded back at him. The reporter decided to keep quiet.
The investigative pair spent over two more hours at the farmhouse, querying Graw, going through the book and making notes. The boy and the old man both spoke of the "devil from the hollow" as if it had been - and maybe still was - real. Corville had trouble not following their lead. Finally, the pair had all the information they could pry from the journal and the old man's memory. They thanked Graw for his time and began gathering their things.
"No problem. I'm jest glad for the comp'ny," Graw assured them.
"You seem to like talking about these things," said Mihos. "And you know stuff about them that's not in the journal. I'm sure the people at the History Center would love to talk with you, besides just making a copy of those books."
"Somethin' t' think about," the old man acknowledged.
* * *
"Having second thoughts?" Mihos asked, as they got out of the car, back at Corville's house.
"This is just so... I mean, you're not just leaping to conclusions, here, you're bungee jumping without a cord!"
"That's pretty good," chuckled the youth. He shrugged. "I've seen things like that. Out west. Monsters are rare, but they're real. And dangerous."
"Well, I'm not going to tell the police they should be chasing a monster! You aren't, either. They'd laugh both of us out of the building."
"Then we'll just have to go after it ourselves."
"No, we don't!" said Corville, exasperated. "I think you have seen too many movies."
Mihos just shrugged and went inside.
* * *
Corville woke without knowing why. The clock showed the time to be just before Midnight. Uneasy for no reason he could find, he rose, put on his housecoat and prowled his room. That wasn't enough. Growing more agitated, he left his bedroom. He paused outside the other bedroom door, hand raised to knock. Instead, he eased the door open.
At first glance everything appeared fine. But Corville could tell that the figure in the bed was actually carefully arranged bedclothes. His own son had pulled that trick, many times.
And then he had it. Mihos had prepared the bed and snuck out, in the process making some noise which had disturbed Corville's sleep, reminding him of his own son's teenage nocturnal adventures. And Corville knew, with a sinking feeling, just where Mihos had gone. He hurried back to his room.
Minutes later, Corville parked his Volvo at the quarry office building, long used for other things. He knew that simply driving up Devil's Hollow Road wouldn't work; Mihos would see and hear the car coming and hide. He'd have to walk. Uphill, in the dark, in the damp. Corville sighed and checked his flashlight, and started off.
The way was steep and very curvy. Even with the pavement the going was rough. He couldn't imagine what it had been like back in the old days, when men worked teams of horses and mules up and down a rough track through this deep, narrow ravine.
"Of course," Corville muttered, "they were sane enough to do that during the day."
His beam swept across something brown. Something which moved. Startled, frightened, Corville quickly turned the flashlight back. And fear turned to bafflement.
This was no "wild man." It looked like a normal, healthy, though very large, cat. The cougar turned and stared at Corville for a moment. It had enormous fangs, hanging down below the bottom of its jaw, like a throwback to sabertoothed times. Then it cat-blinked, and began purring, sounding like an idling outboard.
He should have been frightened. But Corville knew cats, and this was just a big, friendly, yellow tom... though with considerable emphasis on "big." Somebody's exotic pet, on the loose? Whatever, he could tell the animal didn't mean him any harm... but could it be responsible for the livestock killings?
A snap made both man and cat jump. Corville turned to look in the direction, but the cat bounded off towards the sound. Down into the creek it jumped, then up the current it ran, making surprisingly little noise. Corville's first impulse was to follow, but he remembered he had a duty here beyond satisfying his own curiosity.
"Mi..." he tried, his voice dying in a squeak. He cleared his throat and tried again. In a stage whisper, he called "Mihos!"
No answer. He tried again, a little louder. Still nothing. He was about to try still louder, when something swept down off the wall of the ravine to his left, rushing past him too quickly to see. Corville swept his light desperately around, trying to find whatever it was. He was genuinely frightened, now, but Corville was the type who felt it was better to know than to not know...
It was crouched on the shoulder, almost within reach. Not just old, but ancient, and primitive. And reeking of an evil straight out of some primal myth, its scent the essence of rot and decay. It grinned maliciously at him, showing too many pointed, blood-dripping teeth. Covered in sparse hair, it's coat matted with leaves, twigs and clotted blood, it seemed designed to spark some deep, instinctive fear. Corville froze, holding the light on the thing, waiting for it to kill him.
A tawny blur leapt onto the thing from behind the reporter. Together the cougar and the horror rolled under the guardrail and down the steep, short slope to the creek. The spell broken, Corville staggered back, down the road, but still pointing his light towards where the pair had disappeared. There was a flurry of combative sounds, the air filled with inhuman shrieks and yowls. Then it was over. After a moment of silence, Corville heard something moving away, into the heavy growth of trees and brush deeper on the far side of the ravine.
Corville shook himself, moved forward to the edge of the road, and directed his light down into the creek, onto the "wild man." It was definitely dead, and currently didn't even look like an actual creature. Just a figure made of detritus. It fell apart, slowly, over a matter of minutes, turning into a pile of rotted leaves and sticks being washed away by the water. The odor coming from the thing now was almost pleasant...
* * *
"Mihos and his things were gone when I got back home," said Corville. "He left a note, thanking me for my hospitality and stating he'd done what he came to do and was moving on."
Gary sat quietly for a moment, just staring at Corville. The older man was also quiet, petting Royal, who had been senior cat since Remington passed, three years earlier.
"That can't..." the young man ran out of words.
"I did some checking, afterwards," Corville stated. "Did you know that many Indian tribes see cougars as protectors of the land and its inhabitants?"
"And you never saw him again."
"Oh, I've seen him many times. He stops by, occasionally, to ask for help researching something or tell me a tale or just say hello," said Corville, smiling at the memories his words brought. "You remind me of him, a bit. Young, eager, open-minded. Not that I'm accusing you of being anything more than a young reporter. Just that talking with you recalled that episode."
"I remember the construction," Gary stated, slowly. "I was in high school then, and we were taught about it in class. And the graves. And the weird killings. And how they just stopped, and nobody ever knew why. But..."
"How good is your Shakespeare?" asked Corville, smiling.
He needed a moment, but he got it.
"'There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio...'"
"Close enough," Corville chuckled. "I went my whole life thinking the supernatural was just old wives' tales. Then this dropped in my lap. The story of the century. Only, nobody would believe it. Well, nobody I wanted to."
Gary eyed Corville in sudden suspicion.
"You just made that up on the spur of the moment, didn't you?" Gary tried to sound irate, but his protest lacked conviction. "Combined an old mystery with some unrelated facts and added a large dose of fiction. Why?"
"I told you," said Corville. "Background, so maybe you can understand my viewpoint a little better. And to make the point that a reporter needs to keep an open mind, to be alert for a story which isn't the one he's after."
"Okay, point taken," said Gary, with a grin. "Now, can we get back to the interview? I don't want to take up your whole day with my questions."
* * *
As Gary walked out to his car, interview successfully completed, he looked
around. The lesson Corville had taught him was indeed sticking; he was more alert to possibilities, now. Which is why he noticed for the first time the odd marks on the tree in the middle of the front yard. They were vertical scars, many cutting through the bark and into the living wood. Some of the bark had even been peeled away. The tree looked very much as if it had been used as a scratching post, but the marks were huge and ran higher than Gary's head. As he examined the tree, moving around the bole, he found other sets of scars, some of them appearing younger than the first, one set looking older. And one set which looked quite fresh, indeed. He stopped, and stared, a chill running up his back. After a few seconds he continued on to his car. Now, though, he moved more quickly, was much less cheerful... and much more wary.
This story is Copyright 2006 by Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing permission to reprint this must get permission from the author, who can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.