Olen Jennings stood from his recliner in front of the television and twisted on the lamp. He walked into the kitchen with his dirty plate and placed it on the counter beside of Essie Lou. She did not acknowledge him. He turned to leave the room.
“The ghost is out again,” Essie Lou said.
Essie Lou moved from the window and Olen took her place. A big white figure hovered through the grass. He squinted through the evening light but distance the details. He ran into the living room and grabbed his hunting rifle from the gun cabinet. The thirty aught six with a high-powered scope fixed to the top.
“What are you doing?” Essie Lou asked.
“I just want to get a better look at it,” Olen said.
Olen opened the window and peered through the scope across the back pasture and over the floodplain they called Shadow Lake that flooded once every few years, turning the bottom land into a slough. The thing leered back. It appeared to hover through the high weeds on the other side of the creek. It was tall. Its sunken eyes appeared hollow, and he felt the thing looking down the barrel at him. He lined up the crosshairs and thought about pulling the bolt and filling the chamber. He watched it wander around Shadow Lake for several minutes and then it disappeared into the pines at the edge of his property.
“Well, I believe you now,” Olen said.
“Momma said the Smiths seen it on their land. Said it went clear through a fence like it wasn’t there,” Essie Lou whispered. “Momma thinks it’s an omen. It’s trying to warn us. We have to figure out what it wants.”
“There ain’t no such thing as ghosts,” Olen said. “The only monsters in this world are other people. It’s most likely an ignorant young man from somewhere down the holler,”.
“It’s more than that. I found a box of old documents in the attic. It had detailed maps of the property and had a slave cemetery marked on the map. The cemetery is down in the same place where that ghost keeps appearing.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m going down there to have a look around.”
“Don’t. It’s best to leave it alone. I don’t want it to follow you back into the house.”
“It’ll be fine.”
Olen pulled the flashlight from the catchall kitchen drawer and started across the pasture. He picked his way over the creek on half-submerged rocks and across the marsh between the creek and the mountainside. He explored the soggy soil for half an hour until his part of the world completed its turn into darkness and all he found was a string of footprints pressed two inches deep into the soft ground.
Olen spent the next day at work in a daze. One thing he liked about driving a logging truck was being alone with his thoughts, but the previous night’s encounter had been on his mind all day and the loneliness of the truck cab kept it on repeat. He squinted his eyes against the low angle of the fall sun on his way home. The narrow gravel road that wound through the valley to his farm was unusually crowded. Cars crept down the road. Drivers swiveled their heads around searching for something up in the mountains. He was forced to pass one car with the tires of his truck running off the edge of the road only to get behind another going even slower. He wanted to get home and relax with a beer on the porch after work. Maybe they were leaf peepers from out of town. It was mid-October, and the trees were ablaze with maroon and orange. When he finally made it home, a strange car sat parked in the driveway. A tall man in a brown suit stood below the front porch talking to Essie Lou. The unknown man met Olen in the middle of the front yard and extended his right hand.
“Mr. Jennings. Al Stapleton with the Southwest Virginia Times.”
Olen shook the reporter’s hand and glanced up at Essie Lou. She looked away.
“I’m sorry to disturb you on a Friday after work. Your wife has been telling me about the ghost sightings,” the reporter said.
“She has, has she?”
“Yes, sir. It is quite a story. Several of your neighbors have seen it over the past month. She also told me about the history of this farm. How long has this property been in your family?”
“I think my wife has said more than enough.”
The reporter snapped his notebook closed, slid the pencil into the black pouch clipped into his breast pocket, and put his phone into his front britches pocket.
“Mrs. Jennings. It was a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks for your time.”
The reporter got in his car and left a cloud of gray dust wafting around the bend.
“What did you tell him?” Olen asked.
“I just told him what we’ve seen. I told him the truth,” Essie Lou.
“This whole end of the state is going to think we are crazy. I don’t want you talking to no more reporters. You hear me?”
She flashed her eyes in anger, turned her back and went inside. Three more cars ambled down the road.
Olen started working on the fence early the next morning. He had asked William Mitchell to help re-string the old fence that stretched from his house down the hill to Shadow Lake. William was experienced enough that most of the time he told Olen what do, and he worked for low wages. Olen enjoyed the calming presence of William. He always seemed to work better when William was around. They would get into a rhythm and could keep it going with friendly banter and easy silence.
“Y’all seen that ghost?” William asked.
Olen ignored the question.
“My two boys are getting a kick out of it. They read all of the newspaper stories about it and even cut out the stories and save the clippings.”
William continued hammering the U-shaped staples into the old fence posts. His dark hands were rough and weathered. Olen unrolled the wire out to the next one and pulled it tight and William nailed the shiny new wire to the next post.
“The roads are getting clogged with gawkers, and we’ve had reporters snooping around, asking questions. Essie told a reporter the whole story yesterday before I got home from work.”
Olen told him with disdain.
“You know when it’ll be published?”
“I didn’t ask.”
Olen peered up the long fencerow that hugged the slope. It was prime farmland at the bottom of the valley. He couldn’t bring himself to believe it had once been operated using slave labor. This wasn’t some cotton plantation in the deep south. He had always been told that they didn’t use slaves in his part of the country. He always figured that his ancestors had worked the land honestly, barely eking out a life below the Blue Ridge.
“How long have your people lived in this area?” Olen asked.
“As long as I can remember.”
“But where were they before. Where did they come from?”
“I reckon we’ve always been here. My Granddaddy used to tell stories about his Granddaddy working the fields all along this valley.”
“Were your ancestors’ slaves?”
William snorted and looked down at Olen with an incredulous glare.
“We’ve always lived in these mountains.”
They kept working in silence. Olen’s hopes of stringing up the new fence in the same day were fading. His stomach rumbled. It was passed noon and Essie Lou hadn’t brought out their lunch.
“Let’s take a break. I’ll go up to the house and bring lunch down.”
He didn’t see Essie Lou when he got to the house. The kitchen was still a mess from breakfast. He called out and waited for a response. Silence. He went into the living room and then up the stairs. Essie Lou was staring out of their bedroom window.
“Essie. Are you alright?” Olen asked. “William and I were expecting some lunch.”
“Look there on the dresser,” Essie Lou pointed.
A bunch of old papers were sitting on top of their dresser. He flipped through the stiff yellow papers. One was a large hand drawn map that had been folded into quarters. It was an old map of the farm dated 1804. He tossed it back onto the dresser.
“I don’t have time to look at these right now.”
“That map has a slave cemetery marked right where the ghost keeps appearing.”
“This map has nothing to do with whatever keeps walking around down there. That don’t even look like our property. Can you make us some sandwiches and tea?”
She turned away and gazed back across Shadow Lake.
It was midnight and Olen thought his wife was going mad. The moon was behind him. Essie Lou was ahead of him, her nightgown fluttering in the crisp night air. She moved deliberately down the pasture. He scanned out past her, over the creek and across Shadow Lake. The ghost was in the same spot as before. He rushed back into the living room, took his rifle out of the gun cabinet, and ran down through the field. He stopped and propped the rifle up on the side of an oak tree. He spotted it through the scope. The top half of the thing wobbled like it would topple over at any moment. He thought about how this thing had disrupted his life, the lines of cars clogging up their little mountain road, the embarrassing newspaper stories and his distant wife ignoring him. Essie Lou approached the floodplain. The ghost stopped and turned toward her as it hovered near the edge of the woods. His heart started pounding. He had to protect his wife. He took a deep breath to steady himself and pulled the trigger. The shot echoed across the quiet valley and the ghost broke in half. The white half lay on the ground. The dark half stood and ran toward the woods. Olen tracked it in his scope and fired again. It fell at the tree line. Olen sprinted across the pasture, splashed through the creek, and slogged across Shadow Lake. Essie Lou was standing over it when he got there. He grabbed her hand to pull her away. She shook him off. He crouched down beside of the white sheet with a growing red stain in the middle. Olen pulled off the sheet and revealed a young man underneath.
“That’s William’s boy,” Essie Lou said.
“You sure?” Olen asked.
“I’ve seen them in town with their Momma.”
It was hard to tell in the soft moonlight but there was a resemblance to William and the boy had the same brown skin as his father. Essie Lou knelt down and checked for the boy’s pulse. Olen moved up towards the edge of the woods to where the other boy lay.
“Go back up to the house. I’ll take care of this,” Olen said.
“We need to call the sheriff,” Essie Lou said.
“No. This has to go away right now.”
Olen grabbed Essie Lou by the arm and led her across the creek and back up to the house. He said he would be back before daylight and went to the barn and started up the little gray Ferguson, attached the backhoe, and drove back down the hill. He dragged the boy down from the tree line to where the other boy lay. Backed up the tractor and started digging their grave. It started to rain and the brake lights of the tractor illuminated the boy’s bodies with a dim, red glow. He dug deep and stopped when he spotted something round in the mound of fresh dirt. At first glance, he thought it was a rock, but it had a familiar round shape. He jumped off the tractor for a closer look. He pried the object out of the dirt and the hollow eyes of a skull stared back. Half dozen other bones were protruding from the broken ground. He turned off the tractor and looked back up toward the house. The back porch light beckoned. It said go home and do the right thing. Then a shadowy figure blocked the light between him and the house. Someone was walking through the field. He waited for her to get within earshot.
“Essie,” Olen called out. “I told you to stay in the house.”
A man called out from across the creek, “It’s the sheriff.”
The sheriff was dressed in his official brown uniform, badge gleaming in the tractor light. The sheriff drew his pistol.
“You stay on that tractor until I check things out,” the sheriff ordered.
The sheriff went over to the bodies and knelt beside of them.
“I panicked, John. I didn’t know what else to do. I just wanted it to go away.”
“Hell, looks like you did the whole community a favor. They were trespassing and terrorizing the community.”
“Get off the tractor,” the sheriff said, pointing a flashlight at Olen.
They both stood on the edge of the hole. The sheriff’s flashlight pierced the night and hovered over the old bones. A stream of blood from the dead boys mixed with the rain and trickled down into the hole. The blood mingled with the bones in the unmarked grave like a fresh kill had been stripped of meat and cast aside.
“Those are William Mitchell’s boys,” Olen said.
“Those boys had it coming. Sneaking around acting like a ghost. If you didn’t shoot them then someone else was going to. This whole community has been on edge, and they just kept at it. Kept showing up in the same places. Leave their bodies out. Throw that bloody sheet into the hole and cover it up. They were trespassing on private property, trying to steal whatever they could get their hands on. It’s better if we just bury this ghost right here and now.”
“There’s more bones. We’re overtop an old cemetery,” Olen said.
“Nothing we can do but cover it back up,” the sheriff said.
Olen climbed back onto the tractor and filled the large bucket with the dirt he had just excavated. The sheriff stood to the side with his arms folded while Olen filled the hole.
“Hold up,” the sheriff yelled.
The sheriff walked over the disturbed dirt and picked up a small rock.
“An old Indian arrowhead. These things are all over around here. I’ve got a whole box full in my basement. You know, the Cherokee used to hunt all up and down this valley.”
Olen nodded in acknowledgement and kept running the backhoe. He didn’t care about the atrocities hidden underneath rich soil.
Five weeks later, that reporter was back again. Olen was finishing up the fence up near the backyard by himself. He watched as the reporter slid his lanky body out of the car.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Jennings. Your wife’s interview in our paper was quite popular. I’d like to write a follow up piece. Is your wife here?”
“She ain’t talking to you again.”
“The ghost seems to have vanished. Hasn’t been seen in a month.”
“Sounds about right.”
“What happened on your property with the two Mitchell boys?”
“You can ask the sheriff about what happened here.”
“Sheriff Jennings is your cousin, correct?”
“Yes, he is.”
“And he was the first one to arrive on the scene after the shooting?”
Stapleton nodded and walked to his car. Olen waited for the sound of Stapleton’s car crunching gravel. After a minute of silence Olen looked up and Stapleton was standing by his car with the door open, his arms resting on top of the roof.
“One more question,” Stapleton yelled. “Do you believe that this valley is haunted?”
Olen looked down the pasture and across Shadow Lake to the bare spot that wouldn’t heal until springtime.
“I do now.”
Brett Lovell lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Southwest Virginia with his wife and two young children. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech, where he received a bachelor’s degree in History and a master’s degree in Public Administration. When he is not chasing kids around the house you can find him watching college football, reading southern fiction, and sipping bourbon. This is his debut publication. Follow him on twitter @author_brett.