1st Place – February 2018

Promises

By

Alice Marion

 

            “Move in,” the captain said, speaking into his two-way radio.

            Leaves rustled beneath Lorenzo’s feet as he hustled into the woods at dawn on opening day of deer season. Warm breaths condensed in the frigid air, air that also picked at his nose and bit his fingertips. Carefully cradling his shotgun across his chest, he tugged his wool hat down over his ears. His destination, a deer stand on the old Caldwell farm, was virgin territory for his hunting group. While out scouting before opening day, he’d spotted a large buck feeding in the farm’s fields. Excitement built with each step.

            The radio in his pocket crackled. “Polecat to Lorenzo.  Are you situated yet?”

            “Lorenzo here. Almost.” He quickened his pace and smiled. Their code names fooled a group of outsiders who had eavesdropped on their radio frequency the previous year and beat his group to the prime hunting spots.

            “Captain to Lorenzo. The drive is on. Hedgehog spotted a ten-pointer headed your way.”

            “Ten-four.” Anxious to reach his stand, Lorenzo slipped the radio back into his blaze-orange hunting vest and crept along the stone wall edging the field. At the far corner, he cut into the woods and followed a smaller wall for a hundred yards until it disappeared into the underbrush. Positioning himself beside a large red oak, he watched the forest for movement.

            Meanwhile, the captain and half of his hunting group lined the road and began their drive toward the shooters who were now positioned along a well-used deer trail. Keeping their fellow drovers in sight, the men marched toward the river.

            It wasn’t long before a shot rang out from Red Fox’s position south near an old logging road. Within seconds another shot followed. Almost immediately, a radio crackled. “Red Fox to Captain. I bagged a big doe. Four does and a ten-pointer are headed southwest.”

            The drovers adjusted their direction, hoping to turn their quarry back toward Lorenzo, but the maneuver failed. The small deer herd moved steadily away from him toward Grey Fox’s position on the opposite side of the farm.

            Lorenzo remained at his post and waited for the captain’s call. He shuffled his feet and paced to keep warm. When the sun finally peeked through the trees, he leaned his gun against the trunk of the large oak and settled onto a sundrenched stone to absorb its warmth.

            A sunray pierced the canopy of pine branches and licked the hoarfrost from a granite boulder ten yards away. An unnatural collection of flat rocks scattered amongst the leaves fascinated him, but he resisted the urge to investigate. If an approaching deer heard the rustling, it would veer off its familiar path.

            A movement across the glade caught Lorenzo’s eye. Expecting a deer, he was surprised to see an oddly dressed black man trudging along what remained of the opposite wall. The man wore a dark-colored long coat; a tricornered felt hat and no blaze-orange hunter’s vest.

            Where’s his gun? Lorenzo pondered, as the black wraith slipped through the thickets.

            “Good morning. Sure is a cold one,” He said, hoping to get the man’s attention.

            The man never looked his way.

            Not wanting to see the unprepared hunter get mistaken for a deer, Lorenzo spoke up. “You shouldn’t be out here without a hunter’s vest.”

            The man looked at him and then disappeared into the woods.

            “Can’t tell those city slickers anything.” Lorenzo shuddered as he pulled a candy bar from his pocket. He scarfed it down quickly to prevent the chocolate fragrance from drifting on the breeze and spooking a deer.

            As he studied his surroundings, he realized his seat was a cornerstone inside the rhombus-shaped glade edged by fieldstone walls. Over time, nature had reclaimed two sides, now mounds of decayed vegetation and rocks. The area likely served as Caldwell’s cattle pen ages ago on the farm. Strange, the farmer left a small boulder and flat rocks dead center.

            “Captain to Lorenzo. Move to home base. Elvis has left the building.”

            “Ten-four. On my way.” Lorenzo took an uneasy look around then grabbed his gun and headed to the rendezvous point.  The ten-pointer had crossed into posted land and he never got off a shot. Maybe tomorrow.

***

            At sunset the hunting group congregated at Lorenzo’s house to recount the day’s activity.  Each hunter told a bigger tale than the last. When it came to Lorenzo’s turn, he related the story of the strangely dressed black man wandering along the wall without a blaze-orange vest or a gun.

            “He never spoke.” Lorenzo scanned the group of blank faces.

            “Did anyone else see a hunter?” Polecat asked.

            The men shook their heads. No one had seen another hunter.

            Lorenzo shook off a chill running up his spine.

            Once the hunters left, Lorenzo’s wife, Lil, joined him in the kitchen. “I hope you’re up for the historical society meeting tonight,” she said. “You promised your cousin you’d be there.”

            After a shot of Jim Beam, Lorenzo had no desire to leave the warm house, but he knew a promise was a promise, so he disappeared into the bedroom and changed into his wool pants and his favorite Tartan flannel shirt.

            When he arrived at the meeting, Lorenzo discovered that the guest speaker was none other than his least favorite historian, Larry Butterworth. As far as Lorenzo knew, Butterworth rarely ventured into the field, conducting his explorations from the comfort of his office.

            “Thanks for inviting me this evening,” Mr. Butterworth began.

            “Who invited him?” Lorenzo whispered to Lil.

            She put a finger to her lips.

            Lorenzo rolled his eyes.

            “My topic tonight is family cemeteries. Even in our small community, we have three lost burial sites. The most notable is that of Prince Walker.”

            “Who was Prince Walker?” asked Doris Harper, a society member and a regular at the meetings.

            “He was the son of a slave owned by James Caldwell in the 1700s.”

            “We had slaves in our town?” Her eyes widened.

            “Yes.  But Walker was a special case. Caldwell promised him freedom at age twenty-five. Unfortunately, fate intervened. When Prince was ten, Caldwell and Prince’s father died when lightning struck and dropped a tree where they’d sought shelter from a thunderstorm.”

            “That’s terrible.” Doris’s hand flew to her mouth.

            Her friend beside her leaned in. “Don’t interrupt.”

            Butterworth continued. “Shortly after the accident Caldwell’s wife married Nathanial Jennison, a well-to-do farmer. After few years the wife died and Jennison claimed ownership of Prince and soon reneged on the promise of freedom.”

            “He could do that?” Doris couldn’t keep quiet.

            “Jennison’s wealth allowed him liberties. Several years later Prince Walker escaped back to the Caldwell farm, now owned by the sons.”

            “Good for him,” Doris said.

            “Stop interrupting.” Her friend poked her again.

            “Furious, Jennison sent henchmen to Caldwell’s where they viciously beat the slave, abducted him, and chained him inside a sawmill. The Caldwell brothers later rescued Walker and returned with him to their farm.

            Years of court battles ensued. Ultimately, Prince Walker won his freedom. Historians credit the Walker Case decision as the one that abolished slavery in the Bay State.”

            “Halleluiah.” Doris looked around and smiled at the audience.

            “Prince Walker raised his family in the community. But even as a free man, the local white Protestants refused him burial rights in consecrated ground, so the Caldwell brothers provided a plot on their farm for him and his family.”

            Most in the audience bowed their heads.

            Butterworth continued. “I’ve searched, but never found Walker’s burial site.”

            Lorenzo straightened in his chair. He’d visited the farm that morning and recalled his uneasiness—the wraith. Vivid images came to mind—the small glade—the dark flat stones in the leaves—the center boulder.  He realized what he’d seen—black slate headstones and a plot monument.

            He whispered to his wife, “I know where it is.”

            She rolled her eyes and shushed him.

            Butterworth droned on identifying other lost cemeteries, but Lorenzo’s thoughts remained with his new hunting spot and an uneasy feeling.

            “Any questions?” Butterworth asked.

            Lorenzo raised his hand.

            Butterworth glared at him. He’d sparred with Lorenzo at previous meetings and hesitated before jumping into another humiliating moment. “Yes?”

            “Have you ever hiked from the paved road toward the river near the Caldwell farm?” Lorenzo knew the answer.

            Butterworth grimaced. “I’ve driven up a gravel road in that direction. Why?”

            “To Caldwell’s?”

            “To the cellar hole.”

            “Great. I’ll meet you there Monday morning at nine and show you Prince Walker’s family cemetery.”

            “Why not tomorrow?”

            “It’s still hunting season.”

            Butterworth scowled. “What makes you think you found it?”

            “A hunch.” Lorenzo grinned.

***

            Six months later Lorenzo sat reading the morning paper. “If that doesn’t beat all.”

            “What?” Lil stood at the stove frying bacon.

            “The State Senate recognized that fraud Butterworth for finding Prince Walker’s burial site.” Lorenzo scowled and took a sip of his fresh-perked coffee.

            Lil shrugged. “Nobody promised you life would be fair.”

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