Barnaby Withers peered into the endless night from the window of his carriage, where gray and leafless trees stood like silent sentinels. As the carriage flew along the trail, he swore he could see the wooden guardians turning in place to watch him pass. He looked away and shuddered at this thought, then slicked back his greasy black hair with the palm of his hand, a nervous habit of his. He looked over at his shill, a young boy of sixteen named Clark. The boy was sleeping soundly, with his tussled blonde hair pressed against the opposite window and his hole-ridden straw hat sitting in his lap. Under his seat, bottles of Barnaby’s Miraculous Cure-All were clanking against each other, creating a chorus of dissonant bells which accompanied the two charlatans as they travelled to the small town of Swampy Oak.
It had been three weeks since Barnaby started the Southern leg of his sales tour. With the rumors of secession, medical salesmen of questionable morality such as himself were taking advantage of their ability to sell on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. Barnaby had hired Clark in Tennessee so he could have a Southerner helping him make his pitch, since the forty-year old “doctor” hailed from the industrious city of Pittsburgh. Clark had proven to be a gifted shill so far, making a great show of lying about how the tonic had cured a myriad of maladies. With his help, Barnaby had made major profits in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. There were only a few small towns in Texas left, starting with Swampy Oak.
The driver pulled to a stop. Clark opened his eyes and yawned viciously, stretching his lanky arms against the carriage ceiling.
“It looks like this is your stop, my boy.” Barnaby said, “as always, keep out of trouble in those woods, don’t let anyone see you, and check into the hotel in a few hours. Sound good?”
“You got it, Mr. Withers.” Clark replied, pushing his straw hat onto his head. He slid out of out of the carriage door and landed onto the dirt below. “See ya in a coupla’ hours.”
Barnaby watched the boy walk into the woods with his hands stuffed in the pockets of his dusty trousers. No fear in that boy, Barnaby thought as he eyed the guardian trees once more. He closed the carriage door and rapt his knuckles on the ceiling. It lurched forward as the horse clopped its hooves in a mechanical rhythm. The carriage soon pulled to a stop again, and Barnaby grabbed his night bag, crawled out of the carriage, and adjusted his striped coat around his protruding belly. His driver, Willoughby, floated about like a ghost as he prepared the carriage and horses for the night. Barnaby let out a sigh and scoped out the town before him.
Wooden storefronts loomed over the main street, each in a state of obvious disrepair. Some of them had lamps burning in front of them, casting small pools of light to guide the late-night stragglers from the local bar back to the holes they crawled out of. The combination of rotting wood, low lamplight, and humid night air gave the world they moved through a greenish tint.
Barnaby approached the small inn, nearly tripping on the wooden step up to the porch. He pushed open the heavy door with a loud creak and hobbled up to the desk. An old woman with gray hair pulled tightly behind her head stood on the other end of it, reading a small book. She looked up from her foggy spectacles at Barnaby’s entrance.
“Welcome to the Swampy Oak Inn.” She said flatly, “I’m Erina, ya need a room fer the night?”
“Dr. Barnaby Withers, charmed to make your acquaintance” Barnaby said with a showy nod. “I need two rooms please, one for myself and one for my driver.”
“That’ll be three bucks fer both rooms.” Erina replied. Barnaby paid her, and the old woman passed him two keys and pointed down the dim hallway. Willoughby creaked his way into the lobby, and Barnaby passed him one of the keys. The two men shuffled towards their rooms with their night bags in hand.
“Goodnight Willoughby.” Barnaby said. The old driver grunted in return and stepped through the door of his room. He’s a great driver, Barnaby thought, but a dismal conversationalist. Barnaby stepped into his own tiny room and fumbled in the darkness until he found and lit the small oil lamp. The light revealed a torn twin mattress with the horse hairs poking out. There was a small chair by the dirty window, and the smell of a well-used chamber pot burned Barnaby’s nostrils as he shuffled around to the chair. He plopped down in it and unlaced his leather shoes methodically. There were no blankets, so Barnaby laid his jacket in the chair and rolled onto the bed in his shirt and trousers.
The dry horse hairs poked through his clothes like tiny needles, so he spent a while shifting back and forth to get comfortable. When he finally found the perfect spot between the tears in the mattress, he reached over and turned the knob on the lamp until the flame died out. After a few heavy sighs, Barnaby Withers let his weariness wash over him, and drifted off to sleep.
The sharp cry of a hawk pierced the otherwise still night, waking Barnaby with a start. Moonlight poured into the room from the window facing the street, and Barnaby peered through the glass curiously. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was a crowd of people marching their way down the main street. In the darkness of the sleeping town around them, their pale faces glowed like spirits. Barnaby’s eyes widened and traced their path as they walked into the forest. He swiped his now sweaty hair down with his palm. Must be one of those terrifying lynch mobs, he thought. Then he thought of Clark, and his mind started racing.
He threw his shoes on without lacing them and pushed through the door and down the hallway. Barnaby intended to ask Erina if a boy in a straw hat had checked in tonight, but when he reached the lobby there was no one to be found.
“Lord, don’t let it be Clark.” Barnaby prayed as he stepped into the dark main street of Swampy Oak, running with a heavy step to the woods. The spirit marchers were gone, so Barnaby had only a handful of moonlight to guide his frantic search. He neared the woods and the trees threw furious glances at him, as if they were commanding him to turn back. He ignored their angry looks and pushed through their barren branches. They cut his clothes, his face, and seemed to appear from nowhere in front of him. Suddenly, he reached a clearing in the woods.
The pale faces glowed in the moonlight, all of them standing in a small circular group. There was someone was tied up on the ground at the center of the group. It was Clark. All the faces turned to Barnaby, who was dripping with sweat and bleeding from hundreds of tiny cuts. He turned on his heels and tried to run, but he slipped on one of his unlaced shoes and landed hard in the dry dirt. Two faces broke off from the circle and held him down. He strained his neck to look up and his eyes met Clark’s, which were wide open with fear. The boy wriggled against the ropes tied around his arms and legs, but no escape was possible.
A large shadow appeared over the clearing, blocking out the moon above them. Barnaby could only see the outline of the eclipsing figure from where he was, but the little he could see pierced his soul with a bolt of fear. Hundreds of boneless limbs were squirming above the trees, all of them jutting out from a long, pulsating torso, as if it were a rolling cloud of flesh. The figure bent lower in the clearing, and Barnaby shut his eyes at its approach. Clark let out a helpless scream, then there was a noise like a thousand throats swallowing at once. Clark was silent, and Barnaby opened his eyes to see that he was gone. The figure lifted up into the night sky once more, the limbs squirmed slower.
Then the figure made a sound that would haunt Barnaby until his death, which was only a few years after the townspeople of Swampy Oak paid him to keep quiet about the horrifying sacrifice they made of the boy they had found. A sound that haunted him all the way back home to Pittsburgh, where he took his own life by ingesting an entire case of the cure-all he had once sold. The sound, the sound, the sound…
The sound of a deep voice in the woods saying, “Thank You.”
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