Shuddersome Shorts

Tales of Eerie Terror

#72



Now, folks, let's mossey on down southern ways, back almost a hundred years ago. Down where the nights are sleepy and men like to lounge on their porches, sipping cool lemonade, and listening to the sultry night...particularly to the things that go thump in the dark woods where back country witches and conjurers work their dark spells. And that's when folks like to call on ol' John Bass...

 
 

The Wicked Wood

 

By Josh Reynolds
About the author


TO ACT HER EARTHLY AND ABHORRED commands, refusing her grand hests, she did confine thee, by help of her more potent ministers, and in her most unmitigable rage into a cloven pine within which rift imprisoned thou didst painfully remain a dozen years…where thou didst vent thy groans as fast as mill wheels strike…
  ~  The Tempest
     William Shakespeare

“Pos Morley died alone in his little shack, which sat just yonder beneath that scrabble-skinned oak tree.” Lou Slope said as he took a swig of apple whiskey from his battered flask and handed it off to John Bass. Bass took it in his big hand and gulped down the sweet tasting liquor. “Course, you can’t see it now, fallen into ruin as it has, really only the foundations are left -- but that old oak tree is still there to mark the spot. Like Satan’s hand clawing up at Heaven, that’s what Preacher Wilkes used to say.”

“Elm he grieve, oak he hate, willow he walk if you stay out late…” Bass muttered as he capped the flask and handed it back to Slope. Slope eyed him curiously.

“What was that?”

“A folk rhyme from Somerset. Learned it from an old granny when my unit stopped in England back ‘17. Before we went into the trenches in frog-country. Why’d you send for me Lou?” Bass grunted as he leapt down off the relatively new red tractor the two men had been perched on. Above them the summer sun burned hot down on the acre clearing where Lou Slope had set up his field behind his brick home. Slope, big bellied like most of his kin in Jackapo County, hitched up his sagging belt as he slid down beside Bass, who, though older, towered over the farmer by a good two feet.

“Don’t waste no time do you John Bass?” Slope spat into the dirt beside a giant tractor wheel. Bass simply shaded his dark eyes from the sun and stared into Slope’s muddy brown ones. “Alright alright. I got some trouble with this here plot of land, Bass.” In the thick of the woods that bound the small field on all sides, something unseen crashed through the underbrush. Slope started at the noise, sweat popping on his wrinkled forehead. “Your kind of trouble if’n you understand me.”

“I understand.” Bass said, his eyes scanning the edges of the forest. Bass had come home from the Great War a poor sergeant, the highest rank he had achieved over the course of two wars. He had become a poor farmer at the age of forty-five, trying to coax dead soil to bloom into economically viable life to no avail. Then people began to approach him, wanting him to solve problems of a less than natural nature. All because of the rumors that followed him home from the war. Troopers in Bass’ company told stories of his encounter in a necropolis in the French countryside with some dead thing that walked and hunted the trench lines. Others spoke of the ruined church in Averiogne where Bass had supposedly spit in the Devil’s very eye. Stories Bass never denied nor encouraged. But for the past several years, Bass had grown into a name to conjure with in the Low Country, especially after he had been asked by King Slope, the high-sheriff, to investigate a supposedly possessed house in Jack-Town. Slope’s sons, excepting Lou who had been too young for the war, had been troopers under Bass and had told the stories to their father. That began John Bass’ reputation as a ghost-breaker. A reputation he kept maintained quite nicely.

Bass peered into the dark recesses of the forest. A soldier's instincts never fade. That twitch between your shoulder blades when a sniper has you in his scopes. Or when you know the whistle will sound and men will come running down at you over a trench lip behind a wall of sharpened bayonets. Bass felt that twitch now. Eyes were on him. Mean eyes. With mean thoughts and mean deeds to do. He looked at the sweating Slope. “Let’s go inside and have us some of that good lemonade you got chilling in the icebox while you tell me all about it, huh?”

After making their way through the field, they sat on the enclosed back porch of Slope’s home that looked out over his field. Cheap glasses filled to the brim with sweet lemonade, Slope began his story.

“Like I said before, Pos Morley died alone in his little shack out there under that devil-blasted oak. He was a possum faced little wood-rat, but despite that he was a name to conjure with on this side of the county. Morley was a witch man. He could snitch food out of an icebox with a few words, kill your cotton crop by spitting or dry up your cow’s milk by walking widdershins around them. Sixty if he was a day and skinny as a split post, he was a scary looking little man with a twitchy long nose and jaw and beady eyes. Some people say it was Morley what taught Duke Meshach how to curse a man’s tongue black and Doc Crow the secret roots what can be found in a killer’s grave. Me, I don’t believe a word of it.”

“Then why’d you call me?” Bass interrupted quietly, taking a gulp of lemonade. Slope glared at him before continuing.

“I’m getting to that. Anyway, so’s everybody knew Morley was a witch-man on this side of the rail road line, but what nobody could figure out was who finally killed him. One night about twelve years back, in 1910 somebody snuck up on his little shack and put a wad of silver buckshot through his window and on into his shriveled little heart. Daddy and Merle responded to the report about an hour later and found him dead out back behind his shack, right up under that tree, like he’d done crawled there.” Bass grimaced as Slope paused to take a lengthy swallow from his glass. Lou’s father, King Slope, the high-sheriff of Jackapo County was as crooked as a bent nail. Merle Slope and Big John Slope, Lou’s cousins were deputies. Normally it took a good long while for that little trio to respond to shootings. King liked to wait until all the gunplay had died down before he made his big entrance. An hour was a bit short. Too, who had reported the shooting? Lou’s closest neighbor was a good two miles off, not to mention that folks down here past the track didn’t pay much attention to that what didn’t concern them directly. As Lou took up his story again, Bass shook the thoughts away and sat back to listen again.

“So well, Daddy convinced me to buy up the property rights to old Morley’s hank of land. Said it was a shame the old buzzard had never planted anything in perfectly good soil y’see. Said it’d be a crime for it to go to waste.”

Or for it to belong to someone other than a Slope, Bass thought to himself.

“So I bought it and bought it legal. Built me a house, and cleared me this patch yonder. But, well in the last few weeks…”

“Go on.”

“It’s the forest. Or the trees rather. They move John. Or one of them does. I don’t know. It’s that big ugly oak back there. I know it.”

“The one behind the foundations of Pos Morley’s shack?”

“Yeah. Two days ago it ate my tractor.”

“What?” Bass grunted in alarm. Slope nodded his head and knocked back the rest of his drink.

“Yep. I had parked it on the foundations of Pos’ shack. Heard a crash in the night. Came out and my old tractor, that blue one Donny Carlyle sold me? Well it looked like something big had stepped on it. Tore it up good and that’s a fact. Daddy said it looked like a tree fell on it.” Slope said meaningfully. Bass stood up and walked to the edge of the porch, his eyes seeking out the oak amidst the forest edge.

“Trees don’t move Lou.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Slope spat a glob of phlegm onto the floor of the porch. “But something smashed my tractor. And something’s been moving in that forest out there. Something that groans.”

“Groans?” Bass asked, raising an eyebrow as he turned back to Slope. Slope nodded sourly.

“Yes. Groans. Gonna have a big chuckle I expect, aren’t you? Knew I shouldn‘t have called you despite what daddy said.”

“Now I wouldn’t do that to you, Lou Slope. This all happens come nightfall I expect, yeah?”

“Around dusk, yeah.”

“Then I guess you got yourself a guest tonight, Lou Slope. I’ll bed down right out here on this porch and we’ll see what we can see, hunh?” Bass sat back down. “Oh and one last thing…did King find anything strange around Pos’ body? Anything at all?”

“Well come to mention it, daddy said there was some odd tracks around Pos. He and Merle figured it was possums or some such trying to scavenge off’n the body. You know them things as like to eat a dead man as look at him.” Slope said. Bass sighed.

“Yep. Yep I do know that indeed.”

After a dinner of beans and franks with a side of good greens, Slope retired for the evening, locking his bedroom door behind himself. Bass unrolled a quilt on the porch and stretched out, his eyes counting the whorls in the wood of the ceiling until he fell into a light doze. He awoke in a puddle of moonlight which spilled through the screens of the porch and illuminated most of the cleared plot of ground outside. All but the very edge of the wood where the remnants of Pos Morley’s house squatted in thick shadow and thicker weeds to be exact. Bass rubbed his lined face tiredly. But he suddenly came fully awake as the noise rolled over him and settled deep in his bones.

It wasn’t quite a groan. Not in the sense of a groan of pain, or even of pleasure. More the groan of intense pressure being put on something not meant to bear such. Bass came to his feet, stifling a groan of his own as his muscles protested such quick activity, and dug in his pocket for the old clasp knife he kept on his person. He opened it up and exited the porch, his booted feet making little noise as he strode into the field, long arms hanging limply at his sides.

The groan came again, washing over him and echoing in the pit of his stomach as he drew nearer to his destination. He thought again of Slope’s story. Of Pos Morley crawling out of his house to the old fire scarred oak behind it. He could almost see it in his mind’s eye, bug eyed Pos hugging his buckshot pierced gut as he left a trail of blood and pain across those long, hellish few feet of dirt and scrub bush. And of something low slung and red eyed following in his trail, black as sin and evil as hell. Something that couldn’t stand to be left behind.

Bass drew close to the foundations, the scarred oak hulking behind them. And in the deep purple of the warm night, things moved, stiffly, with a soft clattering and rustling. Keen eyes squinted with only the moonlight to aid them. Again, the groaning. And suddenly Bass knew what the sound had put him in mind of.

It was the sound of a tree falling in the forest, its roots popping free of the imprisoning black soil. Some twinge of instinct sent Bass leaping to the side as a long heavy black branch tattooed the earth where he had been standing like the club of a giant out of Grimm. Bass got to his feet and bit back a hiss of amazement as he saw the battered oak writhe in the inky darkness like a drunk trying to maintain balance. It’s bare branches thrashed heavily, slowly. Every move it made was punctuated by the same sound, the same ancient groan of bark rippling and roots uprooting. The sound of something moving what shouldn’t. Bass cursed mean and low in his throat and rubbed the back of his sun-roughened neck as he watched the nightmare dance.

“He went and left you didn’t he? Bet neither one of you figured on that.” he called out into the night. The rustling of branches paused briefly, before starting up again. Bass continued, more confident now. “Bet you didn’t figure on him sealing you up in that tree neither. Bet you wondered why.” The branches closest to him where he stood on the edge of the concrete foundations of the old shack seemed to stretch, like the fingers of a drowning man reaching for land. Or the fingers of a killer reaching for the throat of his victim. “Was Pos praying to Jesus in those last few minutes? Or to Satan? Was he trying to redeem himself by locking you away where you couldn’t do no mischief, or was he trying to ensure you’d be here to take his vengeance? Not knowing the man, I can’t rightly hazard a guess. But I’d bet he knew who shot him. And I bet he knew why.” Bass pulled his lighter from his pocket and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes from out of the breast pocket of his flannel shirt. Lighting one, he blew a plume of smoke into the night and chuckled. “Whatever the reason, I bet he figured you’d be a surprise sure as hell. And now you‘re trying to get shed of yourself, to get free and play a little to make up for these twelve lost years. I almost feel sorry for you, trapped in the dead wood like that. Almost.”

The ground before his booted feet suddenly churned and something strong gripped his ankles tight. Bass snarled and leaned to slash with his clasp-knife. Deep brown roots, worm-like and shaggy, snaked up around his pants leg, coiling towards his face. Bass slashed at them, the heavy work blade cutting through the fleshy lengths and spattering clear fluid all over. He backed away, cutting at the roots that dug into his boot soles and scraped his flesh, warding them off with the blade. He stopped out of reach, squinting at the brown tendrils writhing all around the little concrete island. Twelve years grew a lot of roots.

“Touched a nerve did I? Surprise, yes indeed you are. Sure as hell.” Bass breathed heavily. He folded the knife and put it back in his pocket and turned towards the field, wiping sap off of his face. The knife was all well and good for hacking at roots, but he needed something bigger to handle a tree. Something heavier. His eyes lit on Slope’s new tractor sitting red as a cherry in the moonlight. Bass smiled and ran a hand through his white hair.

Starting up the heavy machine, Bass reached around the back to flip open the gas cap. Stuffing a handkerchief from his back pocket into the gas tank, he gunned the engine and the tractor rumbled forward towards the hell-sent oak.

Roots erupted from the earth as he drew close, scattering dirt and sod into the air and the groaning echoed throughout the forest as the tree continued to attempt to uproot itself. The massive tires of the tractor rolled right over the roots that sought to snare them and Bass protected his head as branches swept down, whether seeking to ensnare him or knock him from his perch he could not tell, nor really cared. As the front of the machine bumped up against the body of the squirming tree, one finally did catch him, sending the man sprawling onto the ground. Bass struggled to his feet, shaking his head to clear it as the tractor, still in gear, began to inadvertently aid the tree in its struggles to free itself of the packed earth. Bass roared wordlessly and yanked his lighter out of his pocket, charging forward as he did so. Lengths of wood that whip-lashed like the convulsions of a dying rattlesnake tried to bar his path, but Bass bulled through them, his heavy body bursting through the screen of bark and vine and one scarred hand stretching to touch lighter flame to handkerchief in gas tank.

As the flame caught, a moan rose up, deep and hollow sounding from the tree. Bass laughed and threw himself backwards, beating an ungraceful retreat towards the center of the field as the fingers of fire crawled down cloth and met gasoline.

The explosion picked up Bass and sent him rolling a few feet through the churned dirt of the field. Wood and metal rained down as the tree toppled at last onto the place where Pos Morley’s shack had sat. The oak burned fast, as dead wood was wont, crackling and spitting. Bass rolled into a sitting position in the field and watched in satisfaction as the tree collapsed in on itself. A thin squealing seemed to float like spider webs on the clouds of oily smoke rising into the night sky. A squealing like that which would be made by a small animal. An animal low slung and red eyed, black as sin and evil as hell.

“She did confine thee into a cloven pine within which rift imprisoned thou didst painfully remain a dozen years…” Bass murmured as he watched the fire lick at the moon above.

“What in the name of Jesus you babbling about, Bass? And what the hell have you done?” Slope shrieked as he waddled towards the seated man, trying vainly to keep his night clothes from flapping around and exposing his vulnerable bits. “My tractor! Oh Jesus, Jesus, Jesus!”

“Shakespeare. Company commander named Fitch back in the Great War learned me on how to understand such fancy wordplay. Not much else to do in the trenches but read or drink. And I don’t like to drink that much. Took you long enough to get out here by the by.” Bass grunted as he stood, wiping off the seat of his pants. Slope whirled, his fat face red with rage.

“Vandal! You destroyed my property!”

“But I fixed your problem. Which, I might add, was fixing to get a sight worse. Not that you didn’t deserve it.”

“What?”

“Like you said, Pos was wasting prime farming land. So you made sure to fix that right off. An you knew just the way, cause you weren‘t one for believing in no hoodoo were you? Leastways not before lately…” the light of the fire made Bass’ face seem like a skull of brass as he drew closer to the other man. Slope swallowed thickly.

“I-that’s…it ain’t-”

“I ain’t done, Lou Slope. You crept up here, an you a young man, and maybe you didn’t mean to kill Pos. Maybe you just tried to scare him. Run him off. But instead you blew his belly out his back with buckshot. And then you ran off and left him to die real slow like. I seen men get gut shot on two continents. It ain’t a nice way to die.” Bass spat a glob of spittle onto the ground. “What you know about witches, Slope? Ever heard tell of a familiar?”

“I-no. No.” Slope bit his lip.

“Familiars are a witch’s emissary to the devil. Leastways that’s what I was told. Saw one once in a little town in France. Looked like a monkey it did. But evil pure as could be. Every witch has one they say. Pos wasn’t no different. That’s why your daddy found him where he did. He had to do something with the thing before he went to meet whoever was waiting on him over the river. Couldn’t leave it running free. Or maybe he just wanted to make sure revenge was a sure thing down the road.”

“W-what are you trying to say, Bass? W-what’s any of this got to do with my tractor? With m-my problem?” Slope babbled as Bass shoved past him.

“Pos had a familiar. And he sealed it up in that old oak. And it woke up. Maybe his spell wasn’t quite as strong as he thought. Maybe you plowing up this field woke it up. For whatever reason, it was aiming to come after you. But it takes a while to uproot a tree, especially one of them old oaks.” Bass said without turning. “If I was you, I’d wait for that fire to burn down and search around the ashes. If you find some little tiny bones, and I expect you will, I’d get them blessed by Preacher Wilkes down in Rails End. Sometimes these buggers don’t know when they beat. And I’ll be expecting my money come Monday, Lou Slope. Don’t you forget hear?”

With that John Bass left Lou Slope standing in the fire light and walked back towards the house.


The End.


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This story is copyright by Joshua Reynolds. It may not be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want to read it!)