Ghosts of Ross Bridge: Ch 1

PART 1

The near explosion of gunpowder may affect the eye in four different ways:—1st. By the concussion it produces when exploded in close contiguity to the eye. 2nd. From the burning or scorching of the surface of the eye and the lining membrane of the lids. 3rd. From depositing in the external tissues of the eye specks of unexploded powder. 4th. From grains of powder being driven with sufficient force to penetrate the globe. The most frequent accidents from gunpowder in civil practice occur from the explosion of fireworks, and the ignition of small trains or masses of powder by young people for amusement….

George Lawson, F.R.C.S, Eng.
Injuries of the Eye, Orbit, and Eyelids; Their Immediate and Remote Effects
Copyright 1867

Chapter 1: The Valley and the Mountain

In Alabama, there is a peaceful little stream, which flows through a lush, densely wooded valley, which is guarded by the steep face of a cuesta mountain. The stream, the valley, and the mountain have always shared the same name, although these names have changed over time.

Settlers used the name ‘Shades of Death’. Nobody knows for certain where that name came from; some say the name ‘Shades of Death’ was given by the native indians and, after being translated into English, continued to be used by the settlers. Others believe the valley earned its name because of the many early settlers who died there, having been stricken with fever. Some people had a more extreme belief: that it was none other than the Valley of the Shadow of Death—the one spoken of in the book of Psalms.

Over time, the place came to be known simply as ‘Shades Valley’. It is here that our story begins, with two young men named Jackson Spencer and Billy Brock.

The boys are at a special age—too old to be called boys precisely, yet too young to be called men. They are at an age when boyhood enthusiasm remains intact, having yet to be weathered by the trials and tribulations of life. Their eyes see an outside world teeming with possibilities waiting to be found.

In the 1850s, not long before the Civil War, Shades Valley provided the perfect wilderness for two boys seeking adventure. Jackson and Billy would spend their days hunting, fishing, and exploring. The friends knew the location of every old indian cave in the entire valley, which is saying something, because in Shades Valley, old indian caves are in good supply.

After they’d catch a mess of fish, they’d go to Jackson’s house up on the mountain to eat. Jackson’s mother, Mrs. Violet, would fry the fish and serve them with cornbread and a big pot of greens taken fresh out of their garden. Billy liked eating with the Spencers because they would sit at the dining room table and have a proper dinner.

Jackson’s father, Mr. Octavious, would say grace and pray, “Thank you, Lord, for blessing these young men, Jackson and Billy, with the skills to catch these fish, and for their generosity in sharing this bounty. Through Your grace, they have put food on our table, and are providing nourishment for our family. We are thankful for these and the many blessings we have received on this day. In His name we pray, Amen.”

Mr. Octavious’s prayer would make Billy swell up and feel warm inside, like he’d accomplished something important. Jackson’s younger sisters would look at him across the table, thank him, and say polite things to him in conversation. It was altogether different from the way his own family had dinner, and he enjoyed being a part of it.

It’s a good thing he enjoyed it, too, otherwise he wouldn’t have tolerated the way Mrs. Violet pestered him about holding his fork the right way. She had strong notions about the proper way things should be done. For example, she would not cook squirrels.

“Why won’t your mother cook squirrels?” Billy asked Jackson one day.

“Because up in Boston one time, she heard a lady call them ‘tree rats’,” the boy explained.

“‘Tree rats’ is just a name. I don’t see how the name makes ‘em taste any different.”

“It don’t have nothin’ to do with how they taste, Billy. It’s about being a lady. Mom don’t aim to be outdone in the ladying business by some Boston Yankee.”

“I still don’t see what some woman in Boston has to do with good eatin’.”

“Womenfolk put a lot of stock in being proper ladies. They have all kinds of complicated rules they have to pay attention to.”

“What kind of rules?” Billy’s mom had passed a long time since, and seeing how he lived with his daddy and brothers, the ways of womenfolk were a complete mystery to him.

“Oh, I don’t know, Billy. Like staying clean, and practicing what to say when making nice conversations, and having fine manners at all times—”

“And combing their hair all pretty. Just like you do yours, huh Jackson?” Billy liked to tease Jackson about his head of thick, golden hair. Jackson kept it combed just so, while none of the Brock brothers paid much attention to such things. “Mrs. Violet is good at raising them ladies. She’s making a fine one out of you, ain’t she?”

Jackson hit Billy in the arm. “You asked for it, Billy. And don’t say you didn’t, neither!” The boys had a laugh at this, because Billy had roasted him good.

When they’d kill a bag of tree rats, they’d have dinner at the Brocks’ home in the valley. Billy lived with his dad, Pinkey Brock, and his four brothers. Jackson loved eating at the Brock’s because it was altogether different than his house. Jackson’s parents were all the time fussing about his sisters acting like proper ladies, and there were always disagreements. More times than not at the dinner table Jackson would just sit there whilst his father mediated petty disputes between the women.

The Brocks were nothing like that. Mr. Pinkey would cook outside in a firepit they’d made out of stones. While Mr. Pinkey was cooking, the boys would throw horseshoes and josh with each other about this and that. They’d eat squirrel with grits and gravy and buttermilk biscuits. My mother would die if she saw the way these boys eat with their hands, and use their biscuits to shovel food, thought Jackson. It was nice to be able to enjoy the food in peace without having his every bite critiqued.

Mrs. Violet would always send a dessert with Jackson to share with the Brocks. She’d tried sending cakes and pies, but they never seemed to make it from the Spencer house to the Brock house intact. Asking a boy to climb down a mountain with a cake was a tall order, a fact that Mrs. Violet refused to accept. But those Brock boys loved Mrs. Violet’s desserts, no matter how squished or crumbled they were. Blackberry cobbler was the best. Billy could envision Jackson’s sisters outside holding baskets, wearing sundresses, picking the very blackberries that were the main ingredient of the cobbler. Desserts tasted a little sweeter when Billy had thoughts like that.

After dinner, they would drink coffee, smoke pipes, and enjoy relaxing by the fire. If Mr. Pinkey was feeling generous, he’d pass his bottle around and let the boys have a snort of whiskey, if they dared. Once, when the bottle came around, Jackson took a swig that just about caused his cobbler to come back up.

He reckoned he could swallow hot coal from the fire and it would be about as pleasant as that whiskey. He let the bottle pass by after that. As did the middle brothers, William, George, and Benjamin. Horatio, the eldest, kept drinking, even though his face would turn green after every sip. Edward, the youngest, who always looked up to Horatio, would put the bottle up to his closed lips and pretend he was drinking like his big brother. Everybody knew he was faking, but nobody said a word.

In these moments, Jackson didn’t need the aid of whiskey to feel warm inside; the camaraderie alone was more than sufficient.

~

One spring, Jackson and Billy got the notion that every time they found something new and exciting, they’d be pressed for time to get home before dark. It stood to reason that if they camped out, they’d spend less time walking to and fro, and have more time to make interesting discoveries.

They set up camp in a nice cave they’d found on a previous trip. The cave was high on the mountain, overlooking the valley. That evening, the sun set in such a way that sunlight shone straight into the cave, allowing the boys to get a better view inside than they’d had before.

In the back of the cave, down in the lower left corner by the floor, was a large crack in the back wall. It had not looked unusual to the boys previously, as pockets, cracks, and indentations like this are common all around the rocks of the mountain, both inside and outside of the caves. But now, as the sun shone on this crack, the boys could see it went much deeper than they’d assumed. Looking into the opening, the boys could see that it formed a tunnel of sorts. Where it ended, the boys could not tell.

Had they found an entrance to a cave inside of a cave?

The boys had seen tunnels like this from the outside before. Occasionally, they’d find one that opened up into a cave. Finding a cave within a cave would be a major discovery. Especially intriguing, the crack that could be an entrance was located in the shadows of the cave, so that no one could see the entrance unless they happened to catch the sun just right—as they’d just been fortunate enough to do.

The sun only spotlighted the tunnel for a disappointingly short time before the light changed positions on the wall and the entrance was hidden in the shadows again.

“I wish we had a lantern,” Jackson said, thinking of how his mother had tried to send one with him. He’d refused, knowing it would’ve taken a wagon with a pack of mules to bring all the supplies she tried to send.

“We’ll have to use torches,” Billy said.

The boys set to stoking up their fire and making torches. In stories, people conveniently find torches whenever they need them. Well, the boys were about to learn that in real life, out in the wilderness, making a good torch is more complicated than picking up a stick and setting it on fire.

They tried everything they could think of. Some sticks wouldn’t hold a flame by themselves; other sticks smoked heavy but tossed hardly any light. Others would hold a light, but burned too fast. It was an aggravating conundrum. They were so close to a thrilling discovery, and something as simple as a torch was holding them back.

After ruminating on the conundrum, Jackson reasoned that to make a proper torch, they’d need to cut straps of wool cloth off their bedrolls, wrap them tight around a green branch, and douse them in grease or oil. But they hadn’t any grease, and in the time it took them to hunt an animal, skin it, and cook it to get grease, they might just as well go home for a lantern and return the next day. “Besides, there’s no use in us ruining a good blanket for a make-do torch, when we have perfect lanterns at home.”

“To Hell with that!” Billy snapped. So anxious was he to enter the cave that he became highly agitated, and was being short in temperament with Jackson, as if Jackson didn’t have equal cause to be frustrated. Impulsively, Billy whipped out his knife, cut a strap of wool cloth from his bedroll, then wrapped and tied it to the end of the stick. He sprinkled a shot’s worth of gunpowder on the wool.

“Billy! No!” Jackson yelled, but it was no use. Once Billy’s mind was made, there was no changing it. Billy put his new torch into the fire, and boof! With a flash, the gunpowder did its job by igniting instantly.

Smoke now filled the cave; the distinctive smell of black gunpowder greeted Jackson’s nostrils. Through the smoke Jackson could vaguely make out his friend, slowly stumbling around, blinking his eyes and rubbing them as if he couldn’t see.

Jackson ran to his friend. “Billy! Are you hurt?”

Billy looked in his direction. “Is it lit?”

“Good God, man! Who cares about the torch! Are you hurt? Is something wrong with your eyes?”

“Is-it-lit?” Billy demanded.

“Of course it isn’t lit! That didn’t have a prayer of working, Billy. What were you thinking?”

“Argh!” Billy slammed the useless torch to the floor.

~

In a dark cave, miles away from the nearest home, Jackson didn’t have many treatment options for Billy’s eyes. He feared the worst—that Billy might have permanently blinded himself with his stupid and rash decision. Thankfully, though, Billy was only temporarily blinded by the sudden flash. He used his canteen to flush out his eyes with water, which seemed to improve his condition tremendously.

As for the pain, Jackson guessed unexpended gunpowder had gotten in his eyes, which is why he insisted on flushing them with water. Billy never complained about pain, but judging from the redness of his eyes, Jackson figured he had to be hurting.

Billy sat there now, staring towards the hidden tunnel entrance in the corner. He was brooding, as if he held a grudge against it. This was a side of Billy that Jackson had never seen.

“Can I use your knife, please?” Billy asked as if it were a question, but asked in a way that made Jackson uncomfortable to say no.

Jackson handed Billy his prized possession: a large Bowie knife. “Take better care of it than your eyes, or your blanket.”

Billy replied with a strong look that said I’m not in a joking mood. Even in the dark, Jackson could read it.

Billy exited the cave into the night. Shortly thereafter, Jackson was none-too-pleased to hear a whacking sound from not far away. He knew Billy was using his large Bowie knife as a crude ax. In his mind Jackson could picture the knife dulling with every whack, but dared not voice any protest given Billy’s sour mood.

The boy returned to the cave with pine limbs from a recently fallen tree. The needles were brown but still connected to the branches. Jackson would have been happy to help him carry the wood, but something about Billy’s look of determination gave Jackson the notion that he should just stay clear.

After a while, Billy had a respectable pile of wood staged down by the hidden cave’s entrance. Some of the branches he’d staged were long—8 feet or more. Others were ordinary campfire limbs. Billy said, “Get ready, Jackson. I’m going to want you to feed me wood to the other side.”

“What are you doing this time, Billy?”

Intent on his task, Billy ignored the question. He picked up one of the long pine limbs he’d cut and put an end into the campfire, igniting the brown needles. They were dead enough to ignite quickly, but not so dead that they burned instantly. Billy swiftly crossed the cave to the hidden entrance.

Towards the ceiling, the crack started small, with hardly any gap between the sides. As it approached the floor, the crack gradually widened so that it was maybe three feet wide at the bottom. There was room enough for a small man or boy to crawl.

Pushing his flaming branch into the tunnel, Billy followed close behind it. He moved quickly, not wanting to get caught on the other side with no light from his burning branch. As he pushed through, his nose was assaulted by the smell of animal feces; some varmint has used this tunnel as a roost.

Billy exited on the other side, thankful that indeed there was a second cave. He didn’t take the time to survey the new discovery, for keeping the fire going was his primary concern, but, based on the brief glimpse he stole, this cave looked like a smaller cousin of the front one. It was dark, though. Even in a cave at night, having an entrance to the outside provides more light than one would guess. Billy could tell that if his light went out in the inside cave, it would be darker than a coffin.

“Jackson, feed me some wood.” Billy figured, since they didn’t have a proper torch, he would build a second campfire in the hidden cave so it could throw light like the one in the front cave.

Thank God there is something on the other side, thought Jackson. He couldn’t imagine the prospects of Billy’s temperament improving any if he’d met a dead end.

As requested, Jackson grabbed a good piece of firewood, pushed it in the tunnel, and followed after it. Now that there was light in the inner cave, he could barely see through to the other side. Jackson continued to push the log forward until his entire torso was inside the tunnel. His right arm reached through the tunnel as far as he could go, pushing the log to the other side. “Can you grab it?”

Billy did the same on the other side, but the log was slightly beyond his reach. “Just a little bit further. Hurry!”

“Crap!” Jackson said.

“I know. I need that wood in a hurry!”

“No, I mean crap!” Jackson had tried to pull himself a little deeper with his left hand, but when he pulled, his hand slipped right through something that felt like clay. But it didn’t smell like clay.

Billy grabbed the log to pull it through. “Dammit, Jackson!”

“What?”

“This log is huge. I can’t build a fire with this; it will never catch. I need smaller stuff, man. Kindling!”

Jackson passed some of the longer, thinner pieces through, which had smaller branches attached that Billy should be able to use for kindling.

Billy held his breath as he tried to build a fire. He had very little flame left from his rickety ‘torch’, and it was not providing much light in the cave. If this flame went out, he’d never be able to start a fire with a flint stone.

Thankfully, the smaller twigs caught, and before long he had enough of a flame to see inside the cave. “Jackson, pass me some more limbs with pine needles still on the end.”

As Jackson passed the branch over, he asked, “Did you find any treasure yet?”

“No, I ain’t found any treasure yet, you fool. I can barely see in front of my face.”

Billy lit the pine straw of the branch and examined the cave. He immediately saw something of interest. Well, at least this ain’t been for naught.

In the corner were the remains of an indian.

Billy had read a picture book one time where some boys had found a skeleton in a cave. Finding a skeleton in real life wasn’t anything like that story. For one thing, the bones were not bright white like the picture book had it. They blended in with the color of the cave, so if you didn’t look at them just right, they would be easy to miss.

For another, skeletons don’t just lie there untouched, waiting for somebody to come along later and find them. At least this guy didn’t go untouched. It seemed like his bones had been chewed on, and some had even been carried off.

Billy was tired of these ‘torches’ going out so quickly. He decided to build up a full-fledged fire that might actually make some light in the cave. He hollered down the tunnel, “Jackson, go find me some pinecones or anything that burns bright.”

“What you find?” Jackson asked.

“An injun skeleton.”

“Really? What’s he look like?”

“I don’t know yet because it’s too dark, that’s why I need you to fetch me some pinecones—so I can see!”

Billy put all the remaining wood on the fire, even the big logs. It took Jackson longer than expected to return, but when he did he passed up his game bag, full of pinecones. He’d even found some of the big pinecones of a longleaf pine. Billy tossed several in the fire. Now he had a hissing fire, complete with bright burning pinecones.

He inspected the indian skeleton once again. Billy assumed he’d been an indian due to the buckskins, moccasins, and beaded ornamentation. To the skeleton’s right, an old musket lay on the floor. It looked rusted, and of no practical use anymore. There was a flintlock pistol to the left, also appearing to have weathered badly with the years. The indian had a necklace around his neck with blue, black, and green beads. He still wore a leather haversack.

In the front cave, Jackson waited anxiously for Billy to call out some type of report. Now that there was a bigger fire in the hidden cave, when Jackson looked in the tunnel he could easily see the other side, so he figured Billy should be able to see well on his end.

Jackson happened to look up and notice thick smoke coming out of the top of the crack. In fact, due to smoke pouring out of the crack into the outside cave, the ceiling on Jackson’s end was filling up with smoke. He could only imagine how smoky it was getting on Billy’s end.

He looked at the crack again. The line where the smoke escaping the inner cave met the clean air had dropped at least two feet in that short time. This could be trouble. “Billy! Hey, Billy! You need to get out of there!”

“Hey, Jackson, come look at this indian skeleton. He had some loot!”

“Forget the loot, Billy, you need to get out of there before the smoke gets you!”

Billy looked up and noticed heavy smoke just above his head. Oh no! Quickly, he grabbed the indian’s haversack and put it on. He tried to pull the beaded necklace over the skull, but he inadvertently knocked the indian’s skull off and it rolled between Billy’s legs. He shoved the beads in the haversack and grabbed the pistol to boot, turned and ran.

Billy coughed as he headed for the exit. He got on his knees to shimmy through the tunnel, which was a blessing, as he was able to take one last breath of clean air before the smoke dropped down on him. He couldn’t believe how fast this cave had filled up with smoke. He held his breath and pushed through. When he got mostly to the other side, he made the mistake of taking a breath. His lungs filled with thick smoke. He body coughed three times, then instinctively searched for air and inhaled again. His lungs filled with smoke once more, and Billy blacked out.

The boy lay motionless inside the smoky tunnel.

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