This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. In their first adventure, Gabe and Violetta faced the Blackwood Witch, and have moved on from Virginia homestead to the tall forests of Tennessee. Now the travelers find themselves in the midst of the hunt for a strange creature called the Tall Man.
Violetta steadied her hand against the revolver. She raised it to her eye level and followed its sight. She breathed out slowly and fired.
It missed the can entirely, shooting the tree a few feet to its left. She rolled her head back and returned the gun to its sleeve. Gabe watched her from a distance back, shaking his head.
“You’re a terrible shot,” he said.
She threw her hands up. “I did all the things you said.”
“Your hands shake too much.” He removed his own revolver, folding both hands over it. “You’ll get steadier.”
He fired it, and the can flew off. She rubbed her ears as she returned to her pack. The horses were tethered to a tree branch and were a touch jumpy from the noise, but she patted down her own horse and removed the canteen.
“The knife’s a fine alternative,” she said.
“You have to get close to people to knife ‘em.”
“It makes me a hell of a lot less jumpy.”
They’d left the trail some time ago, choosing instead to follow the roughhewn lines tracing through Tennessee. Tall skinny trees waved high above their heads, and thick underbrush made travelling rougher. They had a map and were trying to follow it to the nearest settlement, but there was little by way of landmarks to let them know they were on the right path. Gabe removed it now, smoothing it out on the horse’s rump.
“We should keep heading west,” Violetta said.
His eyes followed the lines. “I think the nearest town is east of here.”
She made a whining noise in her throat. “I hate the mountains. It’s so exhausting.”
“I think we could get there by nightfall. Sleep in a real bed for once.”
“How much money do we have left?”
He showed her the wad of banknotes, clipped together and tucked away. They hadn’t spent too much of it on their travels so far, but they hadn’t seen much either. It’d be fine to be in a bed again, but dusk was already settling in. The tall trees touched the fading sky, and the moon had already risen over the horizon. It’d most likely be another night of sleeping on dirt around a campfire, a means she preferred. Gabe would wax poetic about the beauty of a mattress, but for some reason when she slept outside it kept her dreams away.
“It won’t take us too long to get to a town if we keep going east,” she said. “Night’s about to hit us. We could settle up here.”
He made a face at her. “You just want to get your way.”
“You’re the one who hates travelling at night.”
“Fair enough.” He unhooked a bed roll and tossed it at her. “You’re making the fire though.”
Violetta did indeed, even if it was a poor one. The night was warm anyway, and the light cast flickering shadows. They had a little dried food left, and Gabe taught her cowboy songs as they unpacked the horses. By the time the moon was overhead and the stars were shining, they had already settled into the dirt as they let the fire die.
It was Gabe who woke before the sun had risen. The fire was only embers among ash, and Violetta was stretched out, her long hair picking up dirt and twigs. He looked up at the treetops, the moon shining through, but the forest around them was dark and stifled with shadows. He closed his eyes and imagined the desert plains he was used to. It was easy to see the slope of hard dirt reflecting moonlight, and hear the whisper of snakes as they searched for prey. Every now and then would be the howl of a coyote, and the chill at night was almost as bad as the heat during the day. It was hard to explain why he missed it. The forest now was too dark, too loud. Trees rang with bird song, and a thousand instincts buzzed around, and the whole forest shook with the creatures running beneath its brush.
He heard the horses whinny and move, and he opened his eyes once more and glanced around. Shadow layered on shadow, and he couldn’t tell tree from tree. But the horses were nervous. They pulled at their leads, shaking their manes. Gabe knew his gun was a few feet away from him, and he couldn’t see the threat.
His eyes slowly adjusted, and he could make out shapes among the trees. As he sat up, he could start to distinguish shapes and patterns. There was something there, something he couldn’t quite see. For a startling moment he thought it might be a bear, but it only stood. There was the slope of shoulders, and perhaps arms that touched the dirt, and two dark eyes staring at them. It almost looked like a man, but it was too large, too long, and hair covered it from head to toe. He waited to see if it would move, if his imagination was playing tricks on him. He’d learned several times over just seeing something didn’t make it real. But the vision remained, and slowly he reached for his pack. The creature seemed to shift, and he could see the full shape of it, huge and heavy shouldered, arms like a monkey’s. Its dark eyes followed his hand as he reached for his pistol.
The night exploded with noise as a shotgun blast sounded from not far away. Birds screeched through the trees, and the horses screamed as they tried to free themselves. Gabe grabbed his belt and pulled free the pistol, but when he turned back around the creature was gone. Violetta pulled herself from her slumber and saw him, gun in hand.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
He shook his head. “Someone else is out there.”
Another shot fired off, and they both were on their feet. Running off into the dark woods towards gunfire wasn’t a solid plan, so they remained there. Feet stampeded in the distance, and they heard shouting.
“They might pass us by,” Violetta said.
“They’re hunting something.” Gabe looked out for the creature, but there were only trees.
It was too hard to follow the sound in the dense forest. It echoed off every tree. Another few rifle shots sounded off. Gruff men shouted to each other. Movement in the trees to the east, and light glimmered between the branches. Large men made up a hunting party of seven or so, each carrying rifles. They were all large and ruddy faced with thick beards. They were watching the trees. Gabe shifted lower, and Violetta followed suit.
The hunting party didn’t move quietly. They were shouting about something. Something had escaped from them, and they were having trouble tracking it. One man seemed to lead the group, but the men were starting to scatter. The leader of the group was walking towards them, rifle raised.
“I see your fire,” the man called. “You might as well come out.”
Gabe cursed under his breath, but they raised their hands and stood. The man was heavy with a jacket pulled over his girth. His beard covered most of his face, making his face hard to read. Three other men were right behind him, their guns pointed up.
“It’s just people,” the man said. “Put the damn guns down.”
The other three reluctantly did so. Gabe and Violetta lowered their hands.
“Travelers,” one of the men sneered.
“Travelers don’t harm anything,” the big man said. He nodded at Gabe and Violetta. “You sleeping out here?”
“We’re just passing through,” Gabe said.
“You ain’t on any path,” another of the men said.
“We don’t, generally.” Violetta offered them her prettiest smile. “We’re travelers by trade.”
The man shook his head. “Damn stupid. It stays away from the roads.”
Gabe and Violetta glanced at each other.
“You’re hunting something,” Violetta said. “Anything dangerous?”
“Why’d you say that?” one of the men said.
“It’s the middle of the night,” Gabe said. “And you’re waving around guns.”
The big man scrutinized them beneath his heavy brow. “My name’s Charlie. These here are Sal, Victor, and Wick.”
“Violetta. That’s Gabe.”
He nodded. “It’s dangerous in the trees at night. You’re close to the logging camp too, lots of holes in the ground there. You ought to come back with us.”
“Aw, Charlie,” the one named Sal said.
He gave him a sharp look. “You wanna leave them out here alone?”
“Where’re they gonna hole up?” Victor asked.
“We’ll put ‘em up with me,” Charlie said. “We got the room.”
“If it’s all the same,” Violetta said. “We can find somewhere else to sleep.”
“Y’all don’t understand, it–” He grit his teeth. “The forest isn’t safe. We’ve got room in my home. No one’ll bother you there.”
Violetta looked to Gabe. He gave an annoyed look but shrugged.
“Only if you’ll tell us what’s got you so scared,” she said.
“Fair enough.” He cupped his hands to his mouth and bellowed, “Come on back, boys!”
The travelers took their horses by the reigns and followed the men. Few seemed worried by their presence and instead they kept their rifles trained on the forest around them. The night offered little light to pierce the forest’s darkness, and the lanterns that swung at their sides only sent out more shadows. The men were jumpy, and every noise caused alarm in the group.
“What’re you chasing?” Violetta asked as she watched a few men go to investigate something that’d made them shout.
Charlie glanced at them and pulled a hand through his beard. “A creature. It’s been bothering us a past few months.”
“Creature’s not the sort of word you use to describe a normal animal,” Gabe said.
“Suppose it’s not.”
Violetta pushed forward. “What is it then?”
“Call it the Tall Man,” a man beside them said.
Charlie gave him a sharp look. “That’s a bit of superstition, Tom.”
The man grimaced. “Only if it ain’t true. We’ve all seen it.”
“We’ve seen nothing. Lots of noises in the night.”
“You’re pretty nervous for a lot of noises in the night,” Violetta said.
“It ain’t nothing.” Tom turned to them, shaking his rifle. “The Tall Man’s been coming closer and closer to the town. He used to just watch the log men as they worked. Last few nights he’s been following people home. He attacked that girl.”
“Mary Beth makes up stories every other week,” Charlie said.
“It ain’t stories.”
“What’s the Tall Man supposed to do?” Gabe asked.
Charlie gave a pained look, but Tom eagerly held his rifle.
“Tall Man isn’t supposed to do anything,” he said, eying the trees as though every shadow would jump at him. “The loggers say he’ll steal their tools sometimes, make off with their lunch if they aren’t looking. Sometimes it comes close to the town and peeks in windows, but it never harmed no one before. Now we can’t escape it. It came right into town and attacked Mary Beth.”
“We blame everything on the Tall Man,” Charlie said firmly, staring straight ahead through the trees. “Your axe goes missing, the Tall Man took it. You need the kids to go to bed, you tell ‘em the Tall Man’s waiting for ‘em. Loggers see all sorts in the forest. Tall Man ain’t true. It’s a trick of the mind.”
Gabe glanced through the trees, remembering the hulking form of the thing that had watched them. Had that been his dreams? So many nights were spent in dark corners waiting for something spooky to happen, and he’d had tricks played on himself before. Violetta caught his expression, but he shook his head. The boys were already in hysterics. No reason to give them reason.
Eventually they came onto thin wooden buildings nestled between trees, and the path they followed converged to a well in the center. People were watching the path, and a few people waited to greet the men. Some attention was taken to the strangers. Charlie directed them to his own house. His wife was an aged woman named Rebecca. She offered them no odd glances, choosing instead to dote over her husband. Gabe and Violetta watched the men light torches and stand with rifles.
“Seems like an awful lot for nothing,” Gabe said.
Charlie glanced at them as he folded his coat onto the hook. Rebecca fussed some before turning her attention to the guests.
“The workers used to bring back stories of the Tall Man,” Rebecca said. “Some kind of creature that watched them from the trees.”
“He wasn’t anything.” Charlie stabbed his fork into the corn. “He’s the color of the trees and half as tall. Men get scared looking out into nothing.”
His wife looked uncertain. “It was a story until a short time ago. The creature attacked some workers.”
“Attacked?” Violetta leaned forward.
“They came back shouting.” She glanced at her husband. “One of the men, August, had a scratch on his back. He was torn up so bad, and he got this terrible fever. He’s still sickly. After that people were seeing him every night, even close to the town.”
Gabe watched Charlie’s expression. “You were nervous enough to let us into your home.”
“There is something out there, sure.” Charlie pushed aside his plate. “A bear, maybe a wolf got hungry. But the Tall Man? We used to tell our sons if they wandered out into the woods he’d snatch them up. Great for getting them to bed on time.”
Rebecca smiled. “Maybe that’s why we’re so quick to believe.”
“It’s all nonsense,” Charlie said, a little more firmly. “But there’s also a lot of nervous men wanting to shoot something. It’s safer inside at night.”
Rebecca explained they’d had two sons, one moved west looking for his fortune, the other attending school up north. She was relieved to give them both separate rooms. Violetta snuck over to Gabe’s room anyway and sat on his bed as he washed his face.
“You don’t like it,” she said.
He dried his face with a towel and then set it aside. “I’m allowed to be nervous about a bunch of jumpy white men with guns.”
“Do you think there’s something out there?”
“It’s a forest. There’s millions of things out there. Many of them dangerous.”
She put her head in her hands. “I think it’s interesting.”
“You would happily run into the dark woods at night in front of trigger happy men.”
“We’re leaving in the morning,” he said, pushing her off the bed. “I’m happy to have a mattress under me, but I’m not getting comfortable.”
She stuck her tongue at him as she closed his door. She laid down on her own bed. The sheets hadn’t been slept in since their sons left, and the pillow smelled like mold. It was still better than the dirt floor outside, though no window offered her a view of the night sky. Eventually she managed to doze off.
If the beast came in the night, they didn’t hear it. The travelers awoke in the late morning to find Rebecca sliding bacon and eggs onto a plate. Charlie was already gone, she said. At the crack of dawn the boys had gone out with the log men to continue the search for the beast. Gabe ducked his head when her back turned and whispered to Violetta what he’d seen the night before.
“It may be real then,” she said.
“No.” He chewed on the bacon. “It could’ve been anything. How many times do you wake up and see things?”
She buried her fork in her eggs, not willing to answer. “It is very isolating out here.”
“I figure it’s more likely a bear than a Tall Man.”
Rebecca returned, laying out things for when her husband returned. Violetta turned to her, smiling bright.
“Did you see the man?” she asked. “The one who got attacked? Or poor Mary Beth?”
Rebecca smoothed down her skirt. “Charlie’s right on most counts. The loggers always see things out in the trees. But the attack… I’ve seen bears and wolves. We had a pack of them get close a winter back. August didn’t look like he’d met a wild animal. I helped them stitch him up, and there was only a clean scratch. I always thought the Tall Man must be smart, in an animal sort of way. He knows not to be seen and takes tools. I’ve never thought of him as wild.”
“And Mary Beth?”
Her face twisted. “She makes up stories sometimes, sure, but her face when I spoke with her. Charlie won’t admit it, but she saw something out there. Close enough she could smell it. The poor dear won’t come out at night.”
They helped Rebecca clean the dishes, and the travelers stepped into the town. The loggers were starting to come back, armed men walking with them. The women who were washing clothes out front raised their hands in greeting, and their children sat at their feet instead of running freely. Even in the light the woods were an oppressive presence, leaning into the town, and shadows crossed every path. They saw Charlie standing among some men and shaking his head.
“I imagine we could help,” Violetta said, looking to her partner.
Gabe frowned. “You could search every inch of this forest and find nothing. The men are calling out too, and if there is a beast they’re driving it away.”
“You’ve hunted things before.”
“They’re not going to listen to me. Or either of us. We’re outsiders here, more than usual.”
“So we’re not going to stay.” Her voice bled disappointment.
“You’re the one who wanted to go to that town in Mississippi.”
“True.” There were other tales to chase, other ghosts to follow. “Fine. We’ll move on.”
They gathered up their horses and thanked Charlie for his hospitality. Some of the men did look pleased to have them on their way, but a worried expression crossed Charlie’s face. Even if the Tall Man didn’t haunt these trees, something else did. They would be unlucky to find out what. But by noon they had their horses packed, and Rebecca even gave them a little more food and refilled their water. They headed west, following the path to please the folk behind them.
They rode for nearly an hour, past the logger’s camp and past the scattered shrubs men had kicked up in frenzy. Gabe did not sing, and he held his pistol close. Violetta leaned forward on edge, but she couldn’t see anything in the trees. Birds followed them, and she frowned.
For another half hour Gabe rode out front. Then he suddenly slowed, and Violetta pulled on the reigns. His horse shook its head madly, weaving its feet back and forth. He raised a hand, and she reached for her pistol, forgetting she’d left it on the belt strapped to the horse’s side. She leaned down low, eyes on the trees.
Something howled in the trees. No human made that noise, and no creature either. It was low and deep and rose up like a siren, rattling the trees and shaking their cores. The horses went mad, screaming as they took off. Violetta could barely hang on to hers as it burst through the trees, sending branches to swipe at her. Gabe had more control over his, holding the reign back, but the horse made to buck and he held tight, trying not to be thrown. A tree smacked against Violetta’s arm, and another scratched her face. The howl followed them, and she couldn’t be sure if it echoed or if the Tall Man was chasing them. She saw blurs among the trees, perhaps movement, but her eyes watered as the horse leapt over brush and log. They were back in the logger’s camp, where the ground was cleared, and Gabe twisted his horse around, getting it to calm. He reached for hers as well, and eventually they were stopped in the center of the clearing. She breathed heavily, blood trailing from her cheek. Gabe kept his back straight, and his gun was free of its holster. His eyes were on the trees.
The howl had disappeared. The woods were empty now. The loggers had returned home, and the men with the guns were guarding their town. It was just them and the beast.
“Maybe it’s gone,” Violetta whispered, and Gabe put a finger to his lips. He pointed straight ahead with his gun.
Gabe’s eyes were better at discerning patterns. He’d lived in the desert plains, and he’d had to see rock from armadillo and dirt from poisonous snake. It took Violetta a minute longer to see the individual trees, and within those trees the shadow that fell. It could almost be a man if men grew as tall as trees. The shag of its fur mimicked the pattern of the sun in the leaves around it. She could almost discern the impossibly long arm that almost touched the ground, and the wide flat feet like tree trunks. Black eyes stared at them, but the creature remained unmoved. In the night in the haze of the fire, they could convince themselves it was only a trick of the light, shadows converging in odd ways, but here in the daytime the creature was clearer. The Tall Man was staring them down.
Gabe shot. The bullet pinged off the tree beside the Tall Man, and the creature gave a strangled bark as it tore away from the trees. Violetta raised her reign to go after it, but he waved her down. It was stupid to chase the thing through the trees, and the trunks had been rooted up around here, leaving lots of holes for them to fall into chasing wild after some monster. But they’d seen him. It wasn’t a bear or a wolf. It was the Tall Man. He’d nearly driven them all the way back. Gabe and Violetta looked to each other before turning their horses towards town.
The men greeted them as they returned to town, and they told them what they’d seen. Charlie radiated disapproval as he listened, but the men were convinced. They gathered their arms.
Rebecca cleaned Violetta’s face while the men set out to defend their town. Charlie touched his wife’s shoulder, and she smiled up at him.
“You’ll survive,” she said to Violetta. “If this is the worst the Tall Man’s done to you, I think you’ll be alright.”
He patted Rebecca. “You should stay in. I don’t want some fool shooting thinking he’s seen the Tall Man, and it turns out to be my wife.”
She shook her head. “I don’t know if there’s much more to do. The boys were panicking before, but now they’ve been whipped into a frenzy. They want to flush it out of the trees.”
“And they’ll tear apart the whole forest looking for it.”
“You’re in luck, Mr. Charlie,” Violetta said. “We happen to be professional monster hunters.”
Charlie’s eyes narrowed. “What’d you say?”
“My associate and I are intimately familiar with the strange and unusual. We’ve been contracted by a number of people for similar problems. We help people.”
“For a price,” Gabe murmured.
She nudged him. “We can negotiate that later. My point is, we’re willing to help.”
Charlie’s brow knit together and he pressed a hand to his forehead. “What–Listen, this isn’t some sideshow for folks to marvel out. My people are scared, and scared people get stupid. I don’t need a bunch of hotshot charlatans causing a panic.”
“We’re not charlatans,” Violetta said.
“And we’re not interested in causing a panic,” Gabe added. “If what we’ve seen is real, then we can find it.”
“We’re very good at our jobs.”
He looked at the travelers and shook his head. Without another word he pushed a rifle into Gabe’s hand and gestured for them to follow him.
Groups of men gathered up and went out into the trees, but Charlie and the travelers went alone. The noise from the town died away as they headed into the forest. The path was heavy from foot traffic last night. Gabe paused and gestured to the side. A tree had lost a streak of moss, and the brush beneath it was torn up and dragged away.
“We still don’t know if the thing wanted to attack us,” Gabe said.
Violetta recalled the small dark eyes watching them. “It didn’t seem friendly.”
“Hm.” Charlie held his gun out front of him. “Wolves watch their prey, you know? We had a nasty winter last year, and the year before that, and wolves started watching the log men. They wouldn’t attack, they’d just watch, and then one day a boy was drawing water and they dragged him into the forest.”
They walked a while longer in silence and stepped off the path and into the forest proper. The trees were tall overhead, and the sun shone through skinny branches. Birds filled the day with sound, and rabbits scurried away as they passed. Another party was up ahead, and Charlie hailed them. It was more of the men from yesterday, carrying hunting equipment and dogs. Gabe and Violetta kept back.
Charlie turned away from his men and returned to the travelers. “They’re checking some of the caves to the north. We’re looking west.”
“What’s west?” Gabe asked.
“That’s where the loggers do their work.”
They followed behind Charlie. Groups of men shouted from the distance, kicking up dirt and shaking trees. They moved away from the town, further and further into the trees, and the noise died away. They soon came to the place where men worked wood for a living. The trees became brothers to stumps, and dirt was ripped away into holes where they’d pulled even that. Dirty rags and the odd piece of clothing occasionally littered the ground. The soil was trampled, and the area much quieter.
“Doesn’t seem like we’ll find much here,” Gabe said.
“It’s the loggers who see him.” Charlie wiped his brow. “If there is a Tall Man, he’s always stayed close to here.”
“Why’s that?” Violetta asked.
He shrugged his massive shoulders. “Lots of people tell different stories ‘bout the Tall Man. Warren, man who’s boss of the log men, he always said it must be some wild Indian man, mad at us settlers and coming to take revenge. My own mother told me he’s a helpful spirit who likes messing with folk. Story seems to change, whether they want you to be scared or no.”
He looked at them. “And what about you folk? Professional monster hunters. What kind of stories do you hear?”
“All kinds,” Violetta said. “Ghosts mostly.”
“Lots of people think they got ghosts,” Gabe said. “It’s usually just the wind.”
She passed him a glare. “We’ve seen real stuff too. We were in New York a few months ago, and this woman was being tortured by imps. When a priest came to exorcise her, the whole house burned.”
“It rained toads.”
She nodded. “Three weeks this place on the coast had frogs coming from the sky. That man was there, the one who debunks seances and things like that, and he told us it was an unnatural weather phenomenon.”
Gabe rolled his eyes. “He was a prick wasn’t he.”
“I certainly didn’t mind leaving him behind.” She turned back to Charlie. “I don’t know anything quite like the Tall Man. Odd things in the woods, sure. We saw this thing in New Jersey–”
“It wasn’t anything,” Gabe said.
“It was! It had great big wings and walked on goat feet!”
“You had a fever at the time and I saw nothing.”
Charlie raised a hand. “This is all you do, ride town to town hoping to find something strange.”
Violetta shrugged. “It’s a new frontier. Anything could be out there.”
“Suppose you’re right about that.”
“Violetta’s got a thing for the weird,” Gabe said. “I only got dragged into it out of boredom.”
“He says that, but he’s had a year to lose interest and here we are.”
They searched for hours, following trails from the trees and tracking where they’d been before. They ran across more hunting parties, but they came away with nothing. As the sun started to fall beneath the trees, they went back. Those who’d remained in the town had built bonfires around the houses to chase away the encroaching night. All the townspeople were armed, and they watched the trees nervously. Night fell like a blanket, smothering the noise from the trees. Everyone without a gun stayed close to home.
Violetta and Gabe stayed up in Charlie’s home again. Violetta helped Rebecca finish washing the dishes and then she went to wash the crusted blood that remained. The only mirror in the house was a small silver disk, and she sighed as she touched the scratches on her face. Eventually the day dragged down her bones, and she lay in the musty bed and closed her eyes. She dreamed the same way she always did, on that muddy plain, with the birds watching, and a dark lightning streaked across the sky.
A noise tore her from her dream. An inhuman howl carried through the forest, reaching the isolated town. She pulled herself up, disoriented. The howl died, and immediately after the sounds of guns going off. That rose her more quickly. A scream jerked her from the room. Charlie and Rebecca were already downstairs, Gabe not far behind them. Another shot sounded close to the house.
Charlie burst into the town, and the travelers followed him outside. Everything was chaos. The fires were still burning, and a group of men had gathered with their guns and were running into the forest. Another howl. It was impossible to track the sound of it. It bounced off every tree and every rock and every home. Movement in the forest garnered more screams, but only a man emerged, shouting wildly.
“Stop your fool shooting!” Charlie shouted as he stormed across the town center. He caught the man by the shoulder and shook him. “What is it?”
“The Tall Man!” the man shouted, near incoherent. “He came at us! He attacked Paul!”
“Where is he?”
He held a shaking hand towards the forest. Panic had broken out behind them. Every house was lighting fires, bathing the town in flickering light. Men were grabbing guns, mothers were dragging their children back into the house, everyone was shrieking and shouting. Another howl rose up, and the noise died away. The animal sound resounded off every tree and house and shaking man. No other night time sound interrupted. No crickets, no mice, not even a bird. The howl lingered in the air, as if the whole wood was waiting to take a breath.
Paul raised his rifle as he stepped free from the forest. His face was bloodied, but he looked triumphant. People flocked to him.
“He shot it!” someone shouted. “He shot the Tall Man!”
People scrambled closer to hear his mythic retelling. He shouted that the beast was wounded. Nearly every man shook their guns and readied to chase after it. The creature was close and shot, and they all wanted to be the one to take the Tall Man down. Any boy trained to hold a gun was running to his father’s side to hunt the Tall Man. Charlie tried to keep order, but he bellowed all he could and the excitement wouldn’t die down.
A group of ten men finally gathered, Charlie included, and Violetta and Gabe followed behind. They wouldn’t search far, Charlie insisted. If the Tall Man hadn’t gotten away, they could end this tonight, but if he was gone there was no point in chasing shadows all night.
They were each handed a lantern of their own, strapped to their hips. The light was low, casting long shadows against tall trees. They walked the path to the same patch of torn down trees. Some of the men were loggers and knew the area well. A man named Brandon was boss of the log men and led them, carrying his axe at his side. The moon was a thin sliver in the sky, and the woods were filled with shadows. Small animals made constant noise, and the birds sang louder. A particularly noisy group burrowed into Violetta’s ears, and she picked up a rock and tossed it into the trees, scattering them. A man named Harold grabbed her arm as she did so.
“Hell’s wrong with you, girlie,” he said.
Gabe removed his grip. “She hates birds. Don’t bother about it.”
“What kind of girl hates birds?”
She shrugged at him.
Harold walked ahead of them, muttering under his breath. The others were distancing themselves from them by just enough. Gabe shoved her forward, and she sneered at him before turning to Brandon.
“Have you seen the Tall Man?” she asked.
Brandon looked down at her. He was the biggest man of the bunch, and his beard exceeded all others. “Every log man’s seen the Tall Man.”
They all affirmed it to her. Few had thought of him as sinister until the attacks started, and they all knew the Tall Man’s haunting grounds. They headed towards the logging camp, where the ground was treacherous. Every noise caused the men to turn, guns out, and the forest was a constant symphony of sounds. Even Violetta jumped as a rabbit ran past her feet. She had not seen razor sharp claws or huge tusks protruding from the mandibles of the Tall Man, but there was something menacing about the figure and the way it watched them. She shuddered to think what would happen if they actually caught up to it.
Gabe found the lantern more infuriating in the clustered together trees. It cast mostly shadow, making it difficult to parse out the forest. The men around him carrying guns kept him from blowing it out. He held his lantern away from him and tried to adjust to the darkness. He was used to the desert plain, and even passing through mountains and ridges they were mostly without feature. Finding the thing that was hunting you there became easier when there was little to hide behind. He was used to the way that shapes blurred together through tired eyes. So long a fellow could see just desert sand that it all started to look the same, and he wouldn’t notice that snake he was stepping towards.
They spread a little further as they continued on. Now they were only distant points of lights in the trees, mixing shadows together. No one shouted. Violetta stood among the dark of the wood, holding her lantern like an anchor. Birds tweeted above her head, and dizziness overtook her. She sat on her knees, hands in wet dirt as a river passed over her. Her breath was short and filled her chest with desperation to get out. A hand touched her shoulder, and she was returned to the world. Gabe offered her a hand with a concerned look on his face.
“You alright?” he asked.
She wiped the dirt from her palms. “Sorry. I must be more tired than I thought.”
His expression remained, but he pressed no more. They followed the line of men in front of them, now stretched out like constellations.
“It’s no good like this,” he said. “It’s too dark.”
“We can’t turn back.”
“It’d be better.”
She gestured around them with her lantern. “I don’t know which way we’d go.”
He looked around them. The trees were all the same in the dark and offered a different type of blankness. It was impossible to tell one patch of dirt from another. The trail was no longer behind them. The moon was high and offered little direction.
“They’d know–” Gabe started, but he was interrupted by a shot in the distance. Suddenly all the lights were converging on the same spot, and a roar filled the night air. They ran quickly to catch up and heard more shots. A man landed at their feet, knocking his lantern over and extinguishing the light. Others tried and were cast aside. The Tall Man was a blur in the shadows, already moving too swiftly for them to see. Gabe dragged up his lantern and he caught a glimpse of the creature. Its fur was matted on its arm, blood from a bullet wound. Just as quickly it disappeared, again destroying the fauna in its wake.
Brandon stood slowly, gathering his lost gun and lantern.
“We’re going after it,” he growled.
The other men were scrambling up as well.
“Hold on,” Gabe said. “You’re going to get yourselves killed.”
They weren’t listening. The men charged forward, and the light died away with them. Violetta took the lantern from Gabe, allowing him to hold the rifle. They followed behind, a little more slowly. The forest was even more dangerous at night, and there were more places where workers had pulled up dirt while dragging away stumps. The other lanterns quickly became spots in the distance, and the night air offered the scent of gunpowder.
Charlie remained close, shotgun trained on the trees. Something was moving close to them, and he inched forward. Gabe reached forward to grab him, and the Tall Man burst from the trees, swinging wide arms. One clocked Charlie dead on, just as he fired his shot, and the beast roared. It staggered back and then raised its sloping shoulders. Charlie fired again, and the beast tore through them. Violetta was shoved to the ground, and Gabe let off three shots. He was sure each one hit, but the Tall Man vaulted forward.
They regathered quickly. Gabe and Violetta chased after the Tall Man, but it was too fast, and the other men had turned and started fire. Gabe threw out an arm to stop Violetta from running into the fray, and his feet slid on the ground. He slammed into the hole a trunk had left. His arm took the brunt of the fall, and his rifle skittered away. Violetta skidded to a stop above him and reached down a hand.
“You okay?” she asked as she tried to heave him up.
“Sure.” His shoulder hurt like hell, but he dug a foot into the dirt and pulled himself up. Already the sounds of the Tall Man were becoming distant. “Where the hell’d they go?”
Violetta looked around. Charlie had disappeared as well. “That thing was fast.”
“Definitely real.” He pressed a hand into his shoulder and hissed.
“You’re alright?” Violetta touched his shoulder.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. “Come on.”
They saw the distant lantern light of the other men chasing the creature unseen. Gabe and Violetta trekked back to where they’d left Charlie, but he was gone. Violetta cupped her hands over her mouth and called his name, but there was no response.
“He’s run after it,” Gabe said.
She looked at him. “I didn’t see him.”
“I can’t see anything.” He readjusted his rifle. “Stay close, alright?’
She nodded and stepped close as they traipsed the dangerous land. They’d lost the others, and in the darkness, in an unfamiliar forest, and there were people firing wildly at nothing. If they didn’t find the others, they might not be able to make it back before morning, if at all, and if they did there was a good chance they’d be shot for their troubles.
Violetta gripped his arm suddenly and lowered the lantern. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the shadows of the darkened trees. More brush disturbed, branches of trees knocked away. The trees proved a more treacherous adversary than any demon they’d faced. The direct line they’d thought they’d followed started to curve and twist. Every noise bounded off a hundred trees, making it impossible to tell where it’d come from. Occasionally the lantern shone light on dark splotches of blood. It was unclear if it was from the creature or its victims. The forest was tall all around her, and the moon was not enough to chase away shadows.
The birds remained in the trees, but their song was gone. Violetta looked at them. They sat, watching her, just like her dreams. One sat low on a branch, and she saw the feathers had worn away on its neck, leaving a skeletal spine between its head and its body. Its dark eyes did not move from her. The silence of the woods was like a vacuum around her. Breath was being pulled from her lungs. She could feel the muddy plain rising up, the dense water that filled her stomach, the eyes of all those birds, the gentle tug of the current that carried her limp body down. Her ears rang with hoofbeats of a frantic rider, and her vision clouded as she was pulled down.
Gabe placed a hand on her shoulder. Air rushed into her lungs, and she collapsed onto the ground. She thought she might drown right there, but the feeling passed.
“It can’t be those dreams,” he said.
She didn’t look at him. Every night since she was thirteen she’d seen that muddy plain in a land she would not visit for seven more years. “It’s nothing.”
He looked ahead. “One of the other boys had the same dream every night for a year. He said he stood in a plain filled with cattle bones and snakes would start crawling out. Jumpiest man I knew.”
He shrugged. “Some kind of disease hit the cattle, and we had to put down most of them. I used to think it was just superstition and bad luck, but these days I’m not so sure.”
“What about the snakes?”
“You ever see a man die of a snake bite, you’d be nervous too.” He smiled at her, though it was lost to the shadows. “I don’t think you have much to worry about.”
“It’s this forest,” she said. “I feel so disoriented. And these birds.”
He glanced up at the trees. “They aren’t what I’d be concerned about right now.”
“No, now we’ve got a monster to think about.” She watched as Gabe adjusted the rifle onto his good arm. “We should’ve waited until morning.”
“Wouldn’t make much of a difference. The Tall Man’d be long gone by then.”
“And we’re well on our way to being lost.” She lifted the light to better see another hole where a stump had been removed. “Or dead. How’s your arm?”
“Fine. Hold on.”
They lowered the lantern, and the shadows of the forest swam around them. There was movement ahead. A figure lurked through the brush, shoulders hunched and head low. It stood among the trees and waited. Violetta reached for her pistol, but Gabe shook his head. They stepped forward, and the light exposed Charlie, face covered in dirt, shirt torn, blood still pouring from his arm. He nearly keeled forward as they saw him, and they caught him, resting him against a tree. He muttered to himself as he sat. She removed her waterskin and poured it over his wounds.
“Evening, Charlie,” Gabe said, patting his face. “You with us?”
The man groaned as he sat up. “What’re you two doing still here?”
“We told you.” Violetta passed the rest of the skin to him. “We’re professionals.”
“The Tall Man…”
Gabe noted his gun was gone, but in his state he’d probably be no better with it. “I thought he was supposed to be friendly, Charlie.”
Charlie gave a coughing laugh. “I didn’t even think it was real, son.”
Violetta helped him onto his feet. “It didn’t kill you, at least. We’ve got to get him back.”
“If we can find the way.” Gabe looked at the forest around them. “What about you, Charlie? You know the way back?”
The man shook his head. “I’m feeling a little disoriented. Head east now, see if we can find a path.”
East led them away from the shooting men, and into more darkness. Gabe almost wished they’d followed the other way. If Charlie was hurt too badly, he might lose sight of what was familiar, and neither he nor Violetta could tell the way back. They walked for a long time, and the ring of bullets let loose followed their steps. They hoped it meant the Tall Man was far away.
“Where are we, Charlie?” Gabe asked. The forest was a yawning chasm of shadow. The longer it took them to get to a path, the more nervous he was.
“Not sure.” He was limping, which made their travel slow. “Hold on a moment.”
They let him rest against a tree. Violetta pulled a handkerchief from her pockets and tried to clean his wound some more, but there was too much blood. A shot rang closer, and Gabe gripped his rifle. He raised it slowly and waited. For a few short breaths, there was absolute silence.
“Gabe,” Violetta whispered as she stepped forward, and then she stopped. She saw what he could see.
The Tall Man stared at them through the trees. He’d come close enough that the lantern cast light across the brown speckled hair that covered his body. She could almost make out his gorilla-like face, the dark eyes, the small nose, the chinless jaw. His wide mouth was pulled back in a mask of jolly terror, and his arm was matted with dark blood that dripped onto the leaves below.
Gabe pulled back the firing pin on the rifle, and the beast jerked back. It raised its huge arms and roared, driving right at them. Violetta shoved Gabe out of the way as the Tall Man landed a swing at her belly. Charlie made to reach for his gun before remembering it was lost. He was knocked aside easily by the creature, and struggled to his feet, but his arm could barely take his weight.The creature stood over Gabe and grabbed the rifle from his hand. It reached up, and Violetta threw herself onto its arm. The Tall Man was solidly built, and he barely seemed to notice. She removed her knife and jammed it into his thick fur. The skin underneath was like old leather, the hair wiry and thick, but she forced the blade into its side and twisted. It screamed and knocked her into the ground.
In the moment, Gabe had retrieved the rifle. He braced it to his shoulder, gritting his teeth at the pain. His left hand fumbled at the trigger, and the shot pulled too wide. The Tall Man grabbed him, and Violetta thought it might crush him between its fingers. She rose up, pulling her gun from its sleeve. She whipped it to the base of the Tall Man’s skull and fired. It staggered and dropped Gabe. Violetta fired again and twice more, until the chambers were empty. The beast was not quite dead. It stumbled a few more steps, and then it was a shadow again, limping among the trees.
Violetta helped Gabe to his feet, and together they raised Charlie. They were all hurt and bruised, and it took them nearly an hour to find any kind of path. The other men had tired of chasing shadows, and they saw more lanterns peeking through the darkness. Charlie called out to them, and most of the group was gathered again. The travelers were not the only ones to be bloodied by the beast. They marched back in silence.
When they returned, Charlie declared the Tall Man dead.
By the morning, the whole night had felt like a bad dream. Gabe’s whole arm ached, and his sides had bruised where the Tall Man had grabbed him. Violetta looked just as bad as he felt, and she lamented the loss of her knife as Rebecca cooked a breakfast. Charlie remained in bed, his wound too much for him to move around. She’d spent much of the night stitching folks back together, and at first light a group had retrieved who they’d left behind in the forest. After they helped her clean the dishes, she went to stitch them up as well. A little while later, Charlie hobbled out. He lit a pipe as he relaxed in a chair. An ugly bruise spread across his face, and a scar was still dark red at his cheek. The chaos of the past few days had died down, and for the first time since the travelers met him, he seemed at peace.
“That was professional, huh?” he said as he sucked in the dark colored smoke. “Hate to see what the amateur monster hunters get up to.”
“You really think it’s dead?” Violetta asked.
He shrugged. “I hope so. Though the nightmares’ll keep me up for the next few weeks.”
“You think that was the only Tall Man out there?” Gabe asked.
Charlie looked unsettled for a brief moment as he blew out the smoke. “Suppose all creatures have brothers. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
With the excitement over, there wasn’t too much left for the travelers to do. They said goodbye to Charlie and Rebecca and gathered their horses. The trail was clearer in the light of day. The ride was rough on their bruised bones, but Gabe was pleased to be far away from the little village. They did not sing as they rode away, or talk, and even Violetta was quiet, and they glanced behind them until the forest started to fade away.