OLD MAN BONES
By Howard Smead
When we were young and the world was still full of possibilities, we first sought adventure camping along the Appalachian Trail, the old Indian path that follows the crest of South Mountain through the valley in both directions: south past Harper's Ferry towards Georgia, north through Pen Mar on to Maine. The trail was as old as history and as full of wondrous stories as our youthful imaginations.
The Bagtown Trail, as the mile and a half access trail is called, ran starkly uphill through a deep incision in South Mountain's smooth face that reminded me of a scar buried in a full, rich beard. We four – Junior, Weaver, Guptill, and myself – were mites in that scar. Halfway up that step crevice stood the remains of a turn-of-the-century hotel. We agreed we'd if could make it that far we'd decide about continuing on to Black Rock.
Junior's father managed to back his Mercury part way up the trail to give us a head start. Not that it counted for much. The trunk was jammed so full of our stuff the car couldn’t maneuver more than fifty feet. In our long johns, heavy woolen shirts and parkas in the bright crisp Easter vacation weather, we’d packed enough equipment to make Paul Bunyon jealous. Which explained our modest first leg.
As soon as we started walking, Guptill began struggling with his load. He had an older brother who could pass for twenty-one. So he was carrying a case and a half of Country Club malt liquor that he'd stuffed along with his gear into a large green duffel bag which he embraced in a bear hug and sought to carry that way.
The Bagtown Trail wound close to a stream that gave the foliage in the ravine rain forest density. In warm weather it became as lush as any far away place you ever dreamed of,
especially when viewed from the footpath on the side of the hill. Gup made it this far. At the point where the stream, made fat and sassy from the winter thaw, slopped over onto the trail, he said, "I'm tough, I'm tough, I'm tough," he puffed. "I'm gonna sit down."
Weaver said to me, as we watched him. "We’d better settle for the old hotel for tonight."
"By the way, I quit," Gup replied.
“Good idea,” I said. My official Boy Scout model knapsack was cutting into my skin even through several layers of clothing.
"Give me your ax," Junior said to me. I fished it out and handed it to him.
"What're you gonna do, put him out of his misery?" Weaver joked.
Junior's eyes twinkled. Taking a few steps up off the trail he began hacking away at a tree. Junior had inherited his Dad's clever streak. He cut two four foot sections to which he lashed his heavy duty ground cloth, making a litter into which we dumped all of our gear. With each man on a corner, we soon made it to the old hotel. Once upon a time as workmen were building this place they'd also cut stone blocks to shore up the spring. After all these years, the water still flowed even though the spring had gone mossy and the feed pipe had turned to rust.
All that remained of the Black Rock Springs Hotel were remnants of two sandstone walls. Its window spaces still square through the trees grown up inside the foundation.
Sandstone lay scattered everywhere. And no wonder. It was the strangest place in the world to put a hotel. As it at long last came into sight, Weaver dropped his end
and dashed on ahead.
"Did you see?" he gasped. "Did you see it?" His heavy voice cracking. "It was a ghost. I swear to God!" Off he went, our high school's starting quarterback, next year, he hoped.
"No, it wasn't," Junior called after. But he took off after Weaver anyway, leaving Gup and me to keep the gear from spilling out onto the damp ground.
I was right there with them in a flash, fixing on what was probably nothing more than sunlight glinting off the naked winter branches. A vision of a young girl maybe twelve-years-old dressed in a white high-necked ankle-length dress with long sleeves, and high button shoes and long wavy brown hair standing in one of the ruined windows looking down on our struggling little caravan with curiosity and latent menace in her coal black eyes.
Then she was gone.
She wasn't wearing a coat or even a heavy sweater. The sun was warm when it shone through the trees, but I knew better than to judge by the sweat chilling my back from the hike. I was dressed for night. She was dressed for spring.
"There she is again!" Weaver cried. He had a wild gleeful smile on his face. He was the daring one, and he always liked a good thrill. He continued up the small rise past the ruins into
the woods beyond.
I swore I caught a glimpse of white again, but I wasn't sure even allowing for wishful thinking.
"You guys are full of it," Guptill complained, sitting himself down and tilting the canteen at the trees tops. As big and strong as he was, the initial going had blunted his curiosity.
"Who cares anyway?" he added. "I think we should stay here tonight like Weaver said. And go to Black Rock tomorrow. Besides, maybe the ghost'll come back so we all can see it."
"No, I saw her," Weaver insisted, stepping up into the empty stone window. "Right here. She was watching us come up the hill." He pointed behind us. We all turned to look, as though we might see ourselves bearing the litter, and in doing so catch another glimpse of the girl in white.
"A girl, huh?" Guptill said. "I sure wouldn't mind if it was one of your sisters, especially Gwen. She been hanging out up here lately? With the elves maybe?"
Weaver gave him the finger.
Whoever it was – and what she was doing there was a complete mystery. But Weaver and I were both convinced we had seen her. Junior was a steady hand. It would take more than a brief flash of white to convince him. Regardless, we were at no loss for ideas about her as we pitched our tents and set up camp. The flat grassy clearing behind the hotel turned out to be perfect, and big enough for an entire Boy Scout troop.
We stuck our contraband in the spring to keep it cool. As night fell, the campfire blazed in front of us, and the woods on South Mountain began to close in at our backs, our explanations about her grew increasingly lurid.
It got so I didn't want to glance over my shoulder. And heaven forbid one of us should hear nature calling. I resolved to keep my legs crossed and wait for dawn if it happened to me.
Junior produced a transistor and switched on Platter Party and we let Travis Ruppert keep us company.
Not until we decided to risk going to bed did we discover Guptill was missing. Looking for him became our third mistake.
It's the middle of the night and four panicked teenagers are running hell‑bent for leather along the Appalachian Trail carrying their belongs in their arms.
No joke. We'd just seen a ghost. Actually, the damn thing had talked to us, and given us a warning that sent us scrambling for our sleeping bags and nap sacks. We bolted up the trail towards Black Rock leaving the tents and the beer behind. Up felt safer. Besides, the voice was blocking the way down.
As soon as we crested South Mountain and found the side trail out to Black Rock, we dropped our stuff and began foraging for firewood.
Once we had a fire blazing and our confidence came back a little, Guptill unleashed that horrible laugh of his again – a high‑pitched cry that sounded like a myna bird imitating the staccato bark of a hyena. It brought images of the girl in white back to us.
Guptill had always had a peculiar way about him. He came from the South – Atlanta. We chalked it off to that, his accent (a soft curling at the end of his sentences), and his weird devotion to his church despite his foul mouth and nonstop monologues about poontang.
When he'd wandered away from our campfire down by the ruins of the Black Rock Springs Hotel and stirred up this commotion, it shouldn't have come as too great a surprise. If it had to be any of us, it had to be him.
"Where do you think he is?" we'd asked each other when we first noticed him missing. Our glances into the woods around us were like ducks and drakes skimming those dark surfaces. And they revealed nothing.
Reluctantly, Weaver got up to check the tents.
Junior scanned our surroundings with the flashlight, picking up about a thousand sets of cold green animal eyes, all out there, all calmly staring back at us. It fell to me to check the ruins. Just beyond the ring of campfire light, looming so close I could feel the presence as I approached. I don't know why I kept walking. I was by nature neither brave nor foolish. There was no reason for it. Either Gup was dead. Or was injured and soon would be. It was as simple as that.
The chilly air carried sounds of the search behind me as Junior and Weaver worked their separate ways into the woods. The flash's sharp beam came up behind me suddenly and went away, leaving me entirely on my own. The breeze emanating from the hotel's murky recesses carried the scent of damp sandstone. It seemed aware of me as I clambered up into an empty window hole. The rocks were slippery to my grasp. Like they were cringing from me.
Without warning the air died, and I felt a sudden emptiness take over, as though something or someone had been there a moment before and had hastily moved away.
"Gup, is that you?" I said, barely giving voice to it.
I heard a rush of wind followed by a rustling of undergrowth a few feet away.
I leaned towards it. "Gup?"
The rustling grew.
I repeated my plea. For now it had become a plea. "Gup, is that you?"
It took a second for it to dawn on me that the underbrush wasn't rustling. That there wasn't any movement around me at all. That the low susurrus wasn't the wind. It was someone whispering. Maybe not directed at me, but audible nevertheless.
I was out of there before he could reply. I hurried back to the campfire. Both Junior and Weaver were gone. Naturally.
"Hey, you guys!"
Turning a circle as my breath left me, desperate for a sign, I got the sinking feeling the three of them had abandoned me, like it was part of some elaborate plan or joke.
I didn't know what to do. I sure as the devil didn't want to go anywhere near that old hotel again, no matter what. I refused even to look in its direction.
I found myself praying that if only I could survive this nightmare, I would change my entire life. I'd go to church every Sunday, make my bed, clean my plate, do the dishes, help the poor. I'd even be nice to my sister. Anything. Just get me out of here!
Directly in front of me, someone was approaching. Fright had so sharpened my senses I felt the footfalls even before actually hearing them. Crunch, crunch – right towards me.
Weaver – Thank you, Lord – came through the penumbra into the full flickering light and signaled me to join him.
At first I couldn't move. I swear my feet were buried in the dirt. He hooked his arm at me again, this time more insistently. I uncrossed my fingers and took off. At his side I ventured a glance back at the hotel. It was safely covered in darkness again. Maybe I really should be nicer to my sister.
Weaver was laughing at me. He could see being left alone had freaked me out. I started to explain, but he put a finger to his lips.
I followed him into the woods. They were cold and spooky. More so, I reflected with surprise, than at the ruins.
Before I knew it, we were standing beside Junior. He suddenly loomed up before us and directed me to look straight down his arm off into the unknown. Okay, I shrugged, if you say so.
Having my attention, he clicked on the flash. A beam of clear light shot out from us and fell directly on a pair of bare white buttocks.
Gup's. Sitting across a log facing away from us. Had it been otherwise, he would have preserved most of his dignity. As it was, the light came up on him precisely at the most delicate possible moment.
Feeling the illumination, he threw his head back and broke into his peculiar laugh. It made all three of us shiver.
Grabbing a fist full of dead leaves, he completed his task and re‑joined us. "James Louis, put down that flashlight," he said, "You knows you doan know nuthin' bout ma‑cheenry." Then he let go another shrill cry. Like I said, the boy was weird.
At the fire I told them about the whispering. "It's true," I insisted. "I heard it."
"It was probably the blood in your ears," Gup said.
"Was not either."
"You were so scared they were ringing is all."
Junior put the light on the ruins. The twin pillars looked yellower and dirtier than ever before, certainly more than in daylight. He and Weaver headed towards them. Gup followed, and reluctantly myself as well.
The four of us crowded into the window space, holding onto each other so we wouldn't tumble forward into the bracken. Junior played the beam about. And got nothing. Weaver was looking at me again. Guptill started: "James Louis ..!"
Impulsively, I grabbed the flash out of Junior's hand and turned it off.
There it was, the rustling and the wind ‑‑ and a clear if subtle voice that said to us: "You'll be sorry."
It was like electricity passing from one body to the next. And we didn't hang around to find out what she meant.
So there we were waiting for daylight so we could hike back down the Appalachian Trail to retrieve our camping equipment. No way we were going there until the sun was high in the sky and the shadows reduced to smudges at our feet. This much we knew for sure. Three of us had seen a girl dressed in white standing in the ruins of the Black Rock Springs Hotel the day before. And just a few hours ago at midnight all four of us heard a girl whispering to us from those very ruins. Was it the same girl? We figured it was. And her warning had been ghostly enough to set us streaking for the safety of Black Rock, where we were now huddled around a blazing fire. It was the sort of night when ghost stories tell themselves. And morning never comes.
"You'll be sorry," she'd warned us.
"Sorry about what?" Guptill wanted to know. "We haven't done anything wrong."
"Yet," Junior reminded him.
We cooked breakfast well before sunrise, long after Platter Party had ended the day's broadcast with the national anthem, and added a sense of longing to our jitters.
We fried up every last strip of the two pounds of bacon (two breakfasts worth) in our Boy Scout frying pans.
Bacon can be pungent enough at 4:30 in the morning to drive away both fatigue and fear. We added a dozen eggs to the fat, mixing generous amounts of pepper and a little inadvertent dirt to put a meaty curl on the eggs.
By then the sun was up and we headed back down the trail for the remainder of our belongings. We found the tents up and empty. The beer cooling in the rusty spring.
No ghosts, no voices in the ruins. Just the four of us standing in the ruins defying the girl to start whispering again.
"If she does," Guptill threatened, "I'll grab her and I won't let go."
"We'll get around her so she can't fly away," Weaver said.
"How do you know ghosts can fly?" Junior asked him.
"How do you know she's a ghost," Weaver shot back.
But this was boasting. Nothing was there and we knew it. We could feel it. We gathered up our belongings and returned to Black Rock, stopping on the way to wash out our dishes in the small trickle of a stream at the foot of the final rise.
We stashed our case of beer out on Black Rock to chill in the stiff wintry wind.
It was almost as though a powerful gust of wind had blown all the earth away from this part of South Mountain's hip, exposing the bones beneath. And prominent gray bones they were.
They showed sight angles and a stiff bearing.
Annapolis Rock a mile away formed the shoulder of one long imposing sentry keeping watch over the insecure inhabitants below.
We spent the next several hours exploring the sinews of those old bones, crawling into every fissure and shadow we could find, hoping to discover a real tunnel into the mysterious depths. Looking, looking, hoping to pull back a loose rock or to slip around a supple boulder and see the grand path to old man bones' soul that no one since the Indians had seen. We were sure that his aged soul would tell the secret of the ghost girl.
"Down here!" Gup cried. "Maybe she's in this one."
He had descended well below us, just above the fields of boulders that had been chipped out of the rock over the centuries. From above they looked like fragments. Closer – from the valley floor where Gup had discovered another opening, each rock proved bigger than the four of us put together.
Being the skinniest, I was elected to crawl in to scope it out. I pushed the flashlight ahead of me and bellied in on moldy earth that had never known sunlight. I got four maybe five feet before I ran into hard resolute rock where the opening funneled neatly to a close. But the earth was smooth, almost beaten down. And small tuffs of hair lay in clumps in the corners.
Not so long ago a bear had spent a peaceful winter here. Excitedly, I backed out to tell the others.
Junior, Weaver, and Gup weren't even slightly interested. Their necks were stretched, their heads were arched, intent upon something other than hibernating animals. I looked up. At first I thought it was the hawk circling above us that had their attention.
We were directly beneath Black Rock's most salient promontory. At that very point, poised in curiosity, gazing down at us was the ghost girl. Her little face just close enough that we could discern its delicate features. I swear she was smiling. With nothing more than a gasp passing between us, we scrambled up the sides of Black Rock towards her. One hundred feet of tiny paths and tricky climbing. Not especially dangerous, just time consuming.
By the time we got there she was gone.
"Maybe she wasn't really up here?" Weaver suggested, glancing around in disappointment.
Guptill unleashed his shriek of a laugh and helped himself to a beer. We all did. Soon our conversation shifted from pursuit of the ghost girl to the difference between malt liquor and beer. Not that any of us knew. This was our first time. This was the reason for the camping trip in the first place.
We kept at it right through the cans of pork and beans that we opened and stuck in the fire. Right through the one can we didn't open because Junior thought we should conduct a science experiment. Right through the messy explosion.
Right through Platter Party – sitting out on the edge of Black Rock, where Weaver smashed the radio because, "It don't plitter and it don't platter."
Right through Gup tossing his cookies and passing out in it, face down, moaning, "Mommy, Mommy."
Right through until the sun went down and flashlights came up all around us. Men appeared behind the flashlights. Big men, worried men, official men.
"You boy's been drinking?"
Pointing their lights at the prostrate Guptill, "You sure?"
"Yessir, he's just under the weather. You know, camping and all."
"You ain't seen a young girl around here have you?"
"Yes!" we shouted. "Up here and down there – at the old hotel, too. We jumped to our feet, pointing urgently in several directions at once."
Although we tried to explain, we only confused the issue. A short time later, a Park Service jeep pulled up to call off the search. They'd found the girl down at Grambrill State Park, where she'd first been reported missing.
"But we saw her right here!"
"You couldn't have, son. Gambrill's way down Route 40. It's not possible."
"But we saw her."
"Boys," he shake with a world weary shake to his old head, "you be careful what you're about. Lot of hot heats around."
It was a sad story we later learned. A story of a molested child, an indifferent world – until she ran away. Discovered alone and deadWas she our ghost girl? The men said Gambrill's was too far away for her to have covered the distance so quickly. Maybe so. Who then was the dark‑eyed girl dressed in white that had haunted our camping trip? Was she a ghost after all?
I wish I knew.
©2007 Howard Smead