Terry Provost grew up on the fourth floor of the Coach & Hellhorse Inn. His room was shared by none and because of its small size that was a good thing indeed. His mother Laurie had been a barmaid/server downstairs in the pub for as long as he could remember and he’d heard all the stories growing up. The pub was a popular meeting place where all the local news and lore was shared. He was allowed to bring his shine box into the main room on weekends and made a pretty fair living for a youngster. He was a likable lad and had more than his share of “Uncles” that were also very fond of mum. He’d never known his Da; the man was stabbed to death, right in this very room by a drunken sailor a month before he was born.There was a huge soot-smeared fireplace in the main hall where the patrons would gather on cold nights when the mist poured in off the moor to share a drink and a song and more often than not tell the old haunting tales of the burgh’s macabre history. This is where Terry would be sure to arrive early to secure a place for himself and his shine box so he would be able to listen in while providing a comforting rhythm with the rappa-rappa-snap of his polishing cloth while bending one attentive ear to the tales told by rum-soaked patrons.
On this night it was Harland MacFadden that had the floor and rapt attention of all gathered around. Harland raised border collies and had once been saved from a gruesome death at the jaws of a wolf by his pack of charges and would often tell the tale of that harrowing night. Depending on how far into his cups the old gent was, would determine how much embellishment bubbled fourth so even though the locals had heard the tale often, they would let him go on and then snigger at the audacious lies long after old Harland had retired. Tonight was no different…and yet it was.
When old man MacFadden reached the end of his tale to a round of appreciative applause, he rose and staggered to the bar, mug in hand and old Toddy, his favorite collie, by his side. Half way to the bar he turned and stared into the blazing hearth and did something odd. He continued his tale beyond the ending that all had become accustomed to. “This is something I’ve kept to myself all these many years. A man has no idea how to tell such a thing”. He handed his mug to Laurie, who was right there to accept it saying, “The same lassie, if ya please”, and then shuffled back to his seat by the warmth of the hearth. Sitting, he continued, “Strange this. I’ll not mince me words an’ I’ll tell it straight out. There was something out there on the moor at the edge o’ th’ wood that night. I know what yer thinkin’, ‘the old man’s in ‘is cups’. Well that’s as may be, but I know what I know and I’ll keep it n’ more”.
As Laurie returned with a fresh mug she handed it over to a grateful nod and the old man continued, “I know all these years I’ve said ‘twas the dogs that saved me from the wolf but, God help me, ‘twasn’t so. Them dogs, God love ‘em, run off quick as ya please same as the wolf when what was in them woods approached. I’d been skrtin’ the wood as ya know for some time callin’ me lost collie, Nan. This ya already know. What ye don’t know is I’d seen the night-shine of a pair o’ eyes off an’ on for a while and was scared as a man could be as they were off the ground by pert near seven foot. No animal that. I’ve told ye that the wolf came out o’ the wood but the truth is it came at me from off the moor while I stood transfixed stock-still by them awful eyes.” The old man took a deep pull on his mug and continued, “Golden they were. But a sickly yellow gold. And the face that held those eyes…I see it every time I close me own.” He held his mug aloft. “Don’t sleep much without the remedy”. There was nervous laughter throughout the group.
“The wolf was on me and me dogs were on it. Lasted the briefest of moments before they all run off with the fear o’ the approachin’ bogle drivin’ ‘em on. Me, I was curled up on the ground like a newborn with the fear on me like a stink. Paralyzed, I was. Couldn’t move a muscle. But shake? Oh, how I shook. Pried me eyes open just enough to see it glide in a snake-like pattern o’er th’ moor but getting’ ever closer.” He paused, drew a deep breath and turned to gaze out the smoke-stained window of the pub. Terry had forgotten his shine job as had his patron and the rest of the gathering who waited patiently with expectant eyes and baited breaths. No one knew whether to believe what they were hearing or to laugh out loud.
“As you all know, I go nowhere without at least one o’ me trusty dogs, but I wager none o’ you know I pack this along as well”. He reached into his vest and withdrew a rusty old Schofield break-action pistol and began waving it about. Paddy O’toole reached quickly over Harland’s shoulder and snatched the antique from his grip. Paddy was the pub owner and also the town constable. “I’ll be keepin’ this little trinket behind the bar ‘til you’re ready t’ leave, Mac.” Harland waved an acquiescent hand at the burley man and continued his tale. “Anyway, I take that along with me as well ever since that night on the moor. As I lay shakin’ on the loam, I pried one eye open and the thing was on me. Screwed me eyes tight shut and didn’t open them again after that. Just laid there, awaiting whatever fate had in store for me. But I could hear it and worse…I could smell the rot of death. Like I’d dug open a cairn. That’s how it smelled”. One more long pull drained the deep tankard and he handed it over to Laurie saying, “Keep ‘em comin’, Lassie. I’ve me reasons”.
“The thing ran it’s cold paws over me body an’ head like it was strokin’ a favored pet, all the while makin’ a low guttural purrin’ sound deep in the back of its throat. That’s when it came to me in a blow of shock that I was hearin’ language. The beast was speakin’ to me”. Here he paused, removed his spectacles and withdrew a handkerchief from his vest pocket and began to wipe his glasses which did not need cleaning. He finished this task and proceeded to the real reason for the delay. He wiped his eyes and quickly ran the cloth over his nose and returned it to his pocket. By this time Laurie was at his elbow with a fresh tankard foaming over. “Mac?” He turned and she handed it over.
“Language…can you imagine my horror? The last thing I expected or indeed wanted was commerce with this monster. Nor did I want the knowledge it yearned to impart. I don’t know why I tell this tonight for this is the night of me own death. That is what it gloated to tell. Licked me with it’s tongue just then, it did and I’ve carried the horror of that touch in my dreams and waking moments e’er since”.
Scotty Granger, the local smith interrupted at that moment. “Whoa, just a minute, Mac. Are you saying that this…this creature, demon, whatever, told you that you are going to die tonight? Is that what you’re telling us?”
Harland stuck out his chin in a posture of indignation and replied, “Why, Scotty, did I stutter? Yes, that’s what I’m sayin”.
Scotty snorted a rude laugh, swallowed the last of his ale and set his mug on the hearth while wiping his mouth on his sooty sleeve. “And you believed it?”
Harland echoed Scotty’s rude laugh and retorted, “Let me see if I get this right, Master Granger; you have no problem believing in the existence of my creature but you have a problem with its message?”
The smith brushed past Harland and the gathered patrons saying, “What I have a problem with, Mac, is wasting my time in here listening to the ravings of a deluded old dog herder who’s clearly had too much of Paddy’s ale. I got work awaitin’ and I’m off for it. ‘Night all”. He grabbed up his coat, clapped Harland on the shoulder and was out the door with a slam. Harland uttered an audible “Hrumph!” It was young Terry who spoke up next. “I’d like to hear the rest of your tale if you please, Mr. MacFadden”. Harland smiled and winked at the young shoeshine and continued.
“Well, lad, needless to say, that specter did me no physical harm but the mark it left with me has been a pox just the same. I don’t know to this moment whether what I was experiencing that moonlit night on the moor was my ears hearing or a specter’s evil voice within my very brain but the message was crystal clear. It said, ‘Harland Thadeus MacFadden, ‘twill be at eleven o’ the evening clock, Walpurgis night six years hence that I will visit upon you the end of your mortal stay here in this life. I will come to dance you into whatever hereafter you merit.’ As God and Saint Michael judge me, that’s what it said. Everyone has to die. No one get’s out of this life alive, I understand that and it has never caused me undue stress. What terrified me was how painfully aware I was that this ghoul thrilled in its business”. Here Harland took a short pull and scanned the audience gazing deep into each pair of eyes in their turn and continued. “I did indeed feel in a way that I was being emotionally raped and felt accordingly…dirty because of it”. The room fell completely silent. Harland arose with the aid of his stout cane and shuffled off to the bar leaving the gathering to scratch their heads and exchange questioning glances.
“I’ll be leaving, Paddy”, said the old man. “My tam an’ scarf if ya please”. Paddy handed over the prescribed items and added the old pistol to the mix. “Oh, ya can be keepin’ that, Paddy. Might want to give it a good cleanin’. Don’t think I’ll be seein’ much need of it after tonight.” Here he turned and caught Terry’s eye and signaled him over to the bar where he stood. “Laddie”, he said wrapping his scarf about his neck, “I wonder if ye might be doin’ me and old Toddy here, a great favor”. Terry nodded and waited expectantly. “I’d like ya t’ take in old Toddy and give ‘im a good home, if ya wouldn’t mind.” Terry looked hopefully up at Laurie. “Oh, can I, mum?” Laurie nodded but looked questioningly at Harland who only winked and nodded. As he turned and walked through the door tipping his tam to the patrons, the clanging from the smithy across the street could be clearly heard. The door closed and he was gone into the night.
- * * * * * ** * *
At around 1: 00 in the morning, Scotty Granger banked the fire in his forge and cleaned his tools, straightened the work area and locked up the smithy for the evening. Turning to the street he inhaled the crisp Autumn air and lit his pipe. He’d always appreciated this time of the evening when everyone else was abed and the world was quiet. The full Autumn moon had nearly set for the evening casting a ghostly glow over the rooftops of the town. He turned and started off for home when his foot caught something in the road sending him sprawling headlong onto the cobbles and scuffing his knee painfully. He picked up his pipe and dug in his vest pocket for his matches. Striking a match on the cobbles he held it aloft to discern the cause of his fall. There lying face up, was the stiff body of Harland MacFadden. There was no blood or evident signs of violence of any sort. He simply laid there…dead.
As Scotty cast his gaze across the street and into the alleyway between the Coach & Hellhorse and Widow McMurray’s bakery, he thought he saw something strange. He rose to his feet and took a few steps closer until he could clearly make out two sickly yellow orbs. He stopped short and sucked in his breath and finally exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned”.
A garbled and guttural voice from the darkness responded…”Indeed!”