Ginger pushed aside the limb that blocked the path. It was heavier than she thought it would be. Pushing harder, she ducked under it and continued down the overgrown path. The sound of Cody’s footsteps echoed behind her. She picked up her own speed.
“Hey, Gin, wait up!” Cody called.
She wasn’t about to wait for him to catch up. After his inconsiderate actions that morning, he was lucky she allowed him to come along. Maybe the ghost would teach him a lesson.
The truth was that she really didn’t think there was a ghost. It was just a good story told down through the years to scare kids off from the old bridge. There were many such stories around the area. Ginger just called it another story.
“Why do you want to meet the ghost?” Cody panted as he caught up to her. He swatted at the air and frowned.
Ginger narrowed her eyes as she continued to move over the uneven ground. Her blonde ponytail bounced as she moved briskly along. She fought the urge to turn around and shove him to the ground. She would control herself and not give him what he deserved. “Why not?”
Cody raised an eyebrow. “Do you hear yourself?”
Ginger stopped abruptly. She whipped around, her pony tail slapping her face. “Yes, I do. Obviously, you aren’t.”
“Ginger!” He stopped and raised his arm up. “What’s up with you? I mean, what’s eating you?” His face was flushed from the exertion and arguing at the same time.
Her mouth tightened. “I have no idea what you mean.” Men! He had no idea what a jerk he had been. Just didn’t know when to shut up.
With an abrupt move, she continued down the path. Her anger put extra energy into her steps. Behind her, Cody shrugged.
Bill wiped the sweat from his forehead where it dripped into his eyes. The sun was sliding down the sky and would be completely gone in the next couple of hours. He had to stay out of sight until then. Darkness would be his friend.
The summer sun was brutal in August. It was the hottest year he could remember in his twenty-six years. It didn’t help that he has been walking for over week through thick brush and over hard terrain. He had purposely avoided the roads and any game trails. He did not want to be anywhere another person might be. That was one problem he didn’t need to have.
He had found a thicket that offered him plenty of cover. As long as he didn’t move and stayed low to the ground, no one would see his figure. His grey uniform was so soiled that it looked more like dirt which aided in his cover.
His heart had not stopped beating fast since he had snuck out of camp. It had been in the middle of the night, nearly two hours after midnight. The sentries were not very alert. Most of them had had way too much to drink the evening before. That worked to his advantage as the sentry he snuck by had begun to snore deeply. Bill nearly felt bad that he had left on ol’ Johnson’s watch, but it had to be.
Food had been whatever the land offered him. Berries were in plenty. He had to avoid any meat. Making a fire would be like yelling for someone to find him. That would be catastrophic. Two days earlier, his stomach would not let him forget how hungry he was. He took a big risk by creeping close to a camp. While the men around the fire began to imbibe and wander off to relieve themselves, Bill found an opening to snag two strips of rabbit. It was the best tasting food he had ever placed in his mouth. He had quickly left the vicinity in case the food was found missing.
Today was the first time he had taken any time to actually rest. He couldn’t actually call it rest. All his senses were alive at every moment. When he did pause to give his body rest between travels, he found that he only gave his feet and legs rest. The rest of him was taut with fear.
The only sound was their movements down the path. Periodically, the sound of scurrying could be heard as small creatures ran from the intruders. The leaves high in the trees rustled slightly as a gentle breeze moved over them.
They walked for nearly twenty minutes when Ginger stopped at the top of a small hill. Cody huffed as he made his way up beside her.
“What’s up?” His question came out in small huffs from the exertion of the small climb. He was in good shape, but they had been walking for quite some time with most of it in a slight incline.
Ginger glanced at him with a smile and pointed at a spot several feet below them. Cody’s eyes followed the line of sight from her finger. His eyebrows rose.
“The bridge,” Ginger stated.
It was the very bridge they sought.
Cody frowned. “I thought it was going to be some old bridge.”
Ginger’s smile faded. “It is some old bridge, stupid.” She rolled her eyes.
“It doesn’t look that old. I was expecting it to be a covered bridge or something.”
“Not all bridges were covered. Some were just plain old bridges. Are you coming or not?” Ginger didn’t wait for an answer. She began picking her way slowly down the hill.
Cody closed his eyes for a moment and took in a deep breath. It was not always easy dealing with Ginger’s moods. He would do what he always did…just shrug it off.
Watching his step, he followed his girlfriend through the brush. He also expected to find at least a path to follow. There was nothing but woods, and then below a hill there was a large creek with an old stone bridge across it. No one would have found it unless they were looking for it. And only crazy ones like them would.
Ginger had gone on the old Bill Sketoe ghost when she heard about it around a bonfire the previous fall. She scoured the library for references to the tale, but found only a few mentions. Online she was more successful.
There she found the story of the Confederate soldier, Bill Sketoe, and his hanging by his follow Rebs. Her obsession began to find the spot of his death.
Night had fallen, yet Bill still hid in the thicket. He was afraid of moving too soon. He had done that once and nearly got caught. Now he waited. Patience would save his life.
The darkness grew heavy. He estimated it was close to ten o’clock. Bill glanced up at the night sky through the foliage. A sliver of moon was all he could see. The rest of the sky was blanketed by clouds. He gave a nod to himself. Things were working out well for him. All he had to do was get home undetected. Sounded easier than it had proved to be over the last several days.
His chest hurt but not from the exertion he had expended since he had abandoned his post. It was the fear welling up inside that he might not make it in time.
Three weeks earlier, he had received a letter from his sister-in-law. She had written him a few times over the last year and half, mainly to fill in the full story where his own Lela had kept things from him. She had meant well, not wanting him to worry about her alone on the small farm while he was off fighting the damn Yankees. She was expecting their first child and was still early in her time. That one brief visit as the army moved through the area had changed their lives.
In Lela’s letters, she only talked about the new calf or how many vegetables she had harvested. She had pointedly left out how the roof had sprung a leak and the horse had to be put down after breaking a leg. Her sister knew that Lela kept things from him and didn’t agree with her reasoning. She had secretly been corresponding with him about the truth of Lela’s situation including her constant morning sickness that had her in bed most of the day. The last letter said that the doctor feared she would lose the baby and maybe her own life. A fever had racked her body for several days.
For several days, Bill had fretted about not being by his wife’s side. His gut told him that the letter was not just dramatized concern by a sibling. Something was really wrong with his wife. He needed to be by her side. Plus, they had not seen any conflict in several weeks. The Yankees were on the constant move which meant so was the Rebel army.
It was when they were told they were going to just set up camp for a few days and wait on orders. March and wait. That was all they did. As soldiers around him grumbled and sat down to rub their aching feet, Bill made up his mind. He was going to desert. He was going home and be with his wife. For better or for worse was what he had agreed to.
They were halfway down the decline when Ginger lost her footing. Her feet slid out from under her after hitting a soft spot in the dirt. Ginger’s scream was short and barely formed when her back hit the ground and all air left her lungs. There was a gasp and then a thump.
Cody froze as he watched his girlfriend fall. A second later, he was rushing forward to check on her.
“Ging, you okay?”
She batted at his hands that ran over her checking for broken bones. “Yes, I’m okay.” She sat up and paused to rub her backside. “That hurt.”
“My ass, you idiot!” She pushed herself and avoided the help Cody offered her.
He pulled back and watched as she brushed off her jeans. Dirt and old leaves clung to her. “This sucks,” she grumbled.
“No broken bones or blood,” Cody tried to soothe her.
She stopped cleaning herself and glared at Cody. “It still hurt.”
He quickly said, “Of course, but it could have been worse.” Oh, why did he always say the wrong thing?
She continued to grumble under her breath as she continued brushing off her pants. Cody bit his tongue as he nearly pointed out that she had dirt on the back of her T-shirt. That would only make matters worse. If she couldn’t see it…. Misdirection was needed.
“Well, we’re only a few yards from the bridge.” Maybe if he got her focus back on the reason for being the woods.
It worked. Ginger’s eyes lit up. They were about ten yards away. Ginger was so close to her obsession.
“It’s there.” Ginger twirled around with her arms spread wide. “Can you imagine Bill Sketoe as he crept on this bridge? He was on his way to visit his sick wife. That’s so romantic. He was in love with her and no army could stop him.”
“I thought he was fed up with the war and just wanted to go home.”
That appeared to be the wrong thing to say again when Ginger came to an abrupt halt. She turned an angry look at him.
“Why do you have to take the positive spin out of everything? He was going to see his wife because she was dying. It’s romantic!”
With a flounce of her ponytail, Ginger began her descendent once again. Cody took another deep breath. He was beginning to understand the many sighs his father gave every day.
He kept an eye on Ginger in case of another fall happening, but he noticed that her movements were slightly more deliberate. As he followed her, Cody couldn’t help but look around the woods and wonder much the way Ginger did about Bill Sketoe.
How must the man have felt as he deserted his army and fled home? He had left something he believed in and then had to hide from his own people. What fear encompassed him? Did he ever regret that decision even as his life fled from him?
Bill inched out of the thicket. The darkness was thick with very little moonlight to aid him. That gave a very small sense of relief. His ears listened intently to the night around him. It was all quiet.
If his estimates were accurate, he was only about fifteen miles from home. If he moved quickly, he could make most of that journey before daybreak and be home by mid-morning through the deep ravine near his property. He just had to reach the ravine.
Travelling fifty yards took him nearly half an hour. He had to move nearly like a blind man. One hand was held out in front of him, swaying back and forth to find any trees. He used the rifle he had taken with him to scan the ground for anything that would trip him up. All the safety precautions were necessary but extremely time consuming.
He was in Oakrun woods. He could tell by the number of oak trees he encountered. Most of his escape home had been through thickets of pine trees. Only when he was close to home would he find oak trees and so many of them. He paused after skirting one tall oak tree and sniffed the air. Mint. He was in the right place. Only on Oakrun Ridge would find so much mint growing wild. Home was nearby.
Bill crawled up a small hill. At the top, he paused and took a drink from his canteen and scanned the area around him. It was a peaceful and quiet night. Any other time, he would have enjoyed the view and relaxed, but that was not to be on such a night. Letting his guard down would be a death sentence for sure. He doubted they would let him live if he was caught.
After a few more sips of water, he began a slow trek down the hill. At the bottom, he paused again. Thinking hard, he wondered if he was west of the bridge or east of it. He really wanted to avoid the bridge. That would mean traffic. Yes, it was late at night, but someone would be near it.
He could wait until morning to make sure where he was, or he could continue on and risk it. A scan of the area did not alert him to any fires. If he was near the bridge, there would be a camp nearby. He didn’t see anything to indicate a single person. Another day from Lela was too much for him. He had to risk it.
Slinging the canteen back over his shoulder, he picked up his rifle and crept down the hill. Minutes crept by. The sweat continued to roll down his neck and onto his dirty collar. The night hair was not much cooler than the day with the sun beating down on him.
At the bottom of the hill, he stopped again and surveyed the area. If there was anyone around, he couldn’t have heard them from the pounding in his ears from his heart. Waiting another hour wouldn’t change anything. Lela was just a few miles away. He’d hold her in his arms very soon.
He had only gone a few steps when he noticed there were fewer trees around him. Sweeping his arm out, he found nothing. Bill frowned. The only explanation he could come up with was that he was on the trail to the bridge.
His heart stopped. This was the one place he wanted to avoid. It wasn’t a main road that the army would use, but it was traversed regularly by the locals and by military messengers who wanted to avoid the main roads.
Then again, it was in the middle of the night. It would be very odd for anyone to be passing through, and he would hear a horse coming. There were no odd sounds. Only a few frogs from the creek.
There was no solid reason not to cross it. Bill moved forward and froze at the sound of a rifle cocked.
Ginger paused next to the old bridge. It was overgrown and could only be seen where it crossed the expanse of the creek without shrubs to cover it. One had to have been looking for it to get to that point.
She tingled with excitement. This was where it happened. She actually was there.
“It happened here.”
Ginger looked around, searching the ground. She found it two feet from the bridge in the midst of low shrubs. Rushing back to Cody, she grabbed his arm.
“It’s there. The hole!”
She tugged at his arm. Cody followed dutifully.
The bushes were thorny and pulled at their clothing, but Ginger ignored the sting of the sharp thorns. She pointed down to the ground.
Her shaking finger directed Cody’s gaze to a large hole. It was there. Cody had never actually believed it. Ghost stories never really had anything to substantiate them. But he was looking at the evidence for himself. Then he frowned as he began to poke holes into his own belief of what he saw.
“A hole. That doesn’t prove the ghost stories.” Quickly, he realized that he had said the wrong thing again.
Ginger jerked her hand away from him. “The hole is still there. See it?”
“It’s a hole.” He couldn’t help but keep pointing that out. “Holes are all over these words in some form or another.”
“Not one that keeps getting filled up and then the dirt vanishes.” Ginger rolled her eyes. “I swear you don’t know how to use that thing between your ears. This is the legend of Bill Sketoe, the Confederate soldier hung for wanting to see his wife.”
Bill could have cried tears of frustration and defeat as the soiled grey uniforms surrounded him. He hadn’t made it despite all his precautions.
“Well, what do we have here?”
The voice was that of Willie Frazier, a former soldier who had returned to the area to lead a guard unit to patrol the roads for deserters…deserters like Bill.
Bill never did like Willie. The man had a slick look about him with small, beady eyes and thin lips. He always seemed to making sure he came out on the winning side. That included the war. Willie had conveniently gotten shot in the leg and had trouble walking afterwards. Lela’s sister had commented several times that she had seen Willie walking about like a normal man.
As Willie walked up to Bill, he walked like nothing had ever happened to him. Typical of the man.
Willie was with three other men dressed in ragged uniforms. They were vaguely familiar to him, but the region was large. And many men from all walks of life had joined.
“Heard that you had deserted. Are you a coward?”
“Where did you hear such a thing?” Bill tried to laugh it off. “I’m on leave.”
Willie raised an eyebrow. “That’s not what the missive said.”
Bill’s heart sank. So they had not just let his desertion slide. They had sent out notices to the patrols near his home. He had hoped that they would have let it slide like they did for old Seth. Then again, Seth wasn’t much of a fighter. Bill was too good of a shooter to let go.
“Listen, Willie. I plan on going back. I just need to go see Lela. She….” Bill stopped cold as Willie laughed.
“Is that the tale you’re spinnin’, Sketoe? I could have come up with something more creative than that.”
Fury rose up in Bill. “It’s not a tale, Willie. Lela is sick. Her sister said she doesn’t have long if the doctor can’t stop her from losing the baby.”
“You are a deserter, Sketoem,” Willie snarled. “Doesn’t matter why. We have orders to follow.”
“Come on, Willie. Just let me go see her. I’ll spend a few days and then get back to my regiment.”
“Nope. You’re going back to face the music.”
“I will not,” Bill stated before he raised his rifle across his body and pushed forward. Three of the men, including Willie, fell to the ground.
“Stop!” the other man shouted.
Bill didn’t slow down as he shoved toward the direction he hoped was the bridge. He had just stepped onto the stone bridge when the crack of a rifle and the burning in his thigh. Though he stumbled, he pushed forward. But it wasn’t enough. The stumble was his undoing.
A body slammed into him, knocking him over the edge of the bridge and into the waters of the creek. Despite the heat he had traveled through, the waters were chilled. He gasped at the coldness and breathed in water.
The creek was only a couple of feet deep but enough to submerge him for a moment. He came to his knees sputtering and coughing out the water from his lungs. Before he could push up and keep running, he was surrounded.
“Wasn’t it his own comrade in arms who hung him?” Cody tried to deflect the situation. Maybe if he got her back onto the ghostly tale would she forget his transgressions. He knew she’d never forgive them.
Ginger nodded excitedly. His ploy worked. She was on the trail of Bill Sketoe’s ghost once more. Nothing made her happier, except maybe a day at the mall with her father’s credit cards.
“He was very close to home. In fact, we can drive over there where the farm used to be. It’s only fifteen minutes away, if that. To him on foot, he was still a good distance from safety when they caught him here.”
Cody walked back to the bridge. It was about six feet wide and stretched about ten feet over the creek which appeared to have been larger when the bridge had been built. At least two feet on each side of the creek was worn down but hadn’t appeared to be wet in quite a long time.
A section of the right side of the bridge was missing. Cody saw a chunk of it in the creekbed. Time was eating away at it.
He turned and looked back a road had once been. “Why was this site abandoned?”
Ginger joined him and stepped onto the bridge a few inches. “It was haunted. Travelers said they heard the shrieks of someone fighting and the howls of someone in pain. Others swore they saw a ghostly figure trying to cross the bridge but never able to.”
“I still don’t understand why the Rebs hung him.”
“He was a deserter,” she insisted. “That was the same as being a coward. He left without permission to see his wife. It was reported that he had declared he would never return. I don’t think he agreed with the fighting.” She returned to the hole and looked up at empty space. “The tree they hung him from is long gone. I found a report where it fell after a bad storm and has since rotted away to nothing. Some believe it to be a curse on it for hanging a man who only wanted to do good.”
Bill struggled as his arms were held by his side. His rifle had been yanked from him and tossed to the side. Not a lot of good it would do it after being in the creek. He had tried to fight his way free, but the wound in his leg and the fall into the creek and taken too much out of him. It hadn’t helped that he had travelled so long and was exhausted.
Willie moved up to Bill as the rays of dawn began to creep over the horizon. His lips curled into a sneer.
“You think you are so smart. You were going to succeed in getting home and leaving other men to fight battles you should have been in.”
Bill laughed through the blood in his mouth that resulted from the punch in the mouth Willie had given him. “You of all people shouldn’t be saying such things. The man who faked an injury to get out of service.”
Willie punched him again. Only the other two holding him up kept him from falling. The fourth man walked around with his rifle pointed at Bill.
Bill shook his head to clear his vision. The day was already heating up as the sun announced the new day.
“You ain’t worth takin’ in.”
Bill narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean?”
Willie laughed and motioned with his hand toward the prowling man. The man moved off over the bridge and disappeared from sight. The two holding Bill dragged him under a large oak tree.
Bill bit back a scream as pain from the bullet in his leg exploded. His breathing came as panting. Sweat began to form on his forehead.
The fourth man reappeared. In his hand was a rope. Bill knew what was coming. Willie meant what he said. They would not be taking him in unless it was as a corpse. All fight left him.
Oh, Lela, he thought. I tried. I really did. I wanted to be there for you. Please forgive me.
The rope was thrown over the tree while a horse was led to the group. Bill was hoisted up. He didn’t even protest. He knew it was over.
“Not so cocky now, are you?” Willie taunted him.
Bill remained silent. There was no reason to talk. His heart was breaking inside. He had failed as a soldier and as a husband.
The loop of the rope was tugged over his head and tightened. Willie grinned maliciously as he did it. The men taunted Bill, but he tuned them out. His thoughts were solely on Lela.
He didn’t even hear the words or shouts as they smacked the horse on its rump to send it galloping off. The rope around his neck tightened. His eyes widened. But something wasn’t right.
“To think that the idiots couldn’t even hang the man correctly.” Ginger moved around the mysterious hole. Then with enthusiasm, she continued to describe that horrible day. “They put the noose around his neck, and it was too short. He was strangling but not actually dying. They had to dig this hole to finish the job.”
Cody didn’t remember that part of the story. “So was he really hung? How did they dig the hole?”
“Yes, he was hung. They dug…. I don’t know.” She frowned. “The stories only say they had to dig the hole so he’d actually die.”
The pain was excruciating, but he still had enough of his wits about him to feel the ground under his toes. As his legs kicked, he felt the toes of his barely held together boots scrape on the dirt. Could he stretch far enough?
“What the hell?” Willie’s voice shouted through the haze that threatened Bill.
“The rope’s too short,” another voice cut in.
“Do something!” another voice urged.
What appeared to be Wilie’s voice replied, “What do you want me to do? Make the rope suddenly longer?”
“Dig under his feet so there’s nothing under them.”
There were a few more words spoken, but Bill couldn’t decipher them. Colorful spots danced across his eyes that he could vividly see even with his eyes shut.
Bill felt bodies around his feet. He lashed out with his legs. The response was a rifle slammed into his knee. The fight slipped out of him as the pain ricocheted in his body. Everything felt heavy, and blackness hovered around the edges.
Suddenly, there was nothing his feet. The bodies still moved frantically around his legs, but he didn’t care anymore.
Lela. My darling Lela. I hope I don’t see you too soon if I happen to enter the Pearly Gates. Give our baby a kiss for me if you are allowed to. Love you with all my poor heart.
His legs stilled. His arms fell limply to his sides.
Ginger rushed to the area below where she had fallen. She dropped to her knees.
“What are you doing?” Cody called after her.
“Filling the hole.”
Cody frowned. “And why would you do that?”
“To see it unfill itself. That’s what the legend says.”
The legend. He had hoped coming to the bridge would end it, but the girl was obsessed worse than he had imagined. She really did believe all that ghost stuff. Well, he cared for her. So he might as well help end this excruciating adventure as soon as possible.
Cody helped Ginger dig up the loose dirt and cart it over, handful by handful, to the mysterious hole. It took several trips until one could say it was satisfactorily filled.
While they wiped their hands on their pants, both watched the hole intently. After several minutes, Cody coughed.
“How long does it usually take?”
Ginger pursed her lips and turned a slow glare at him. “I don’t know. They say that when the hole is filled, it is suddenly a hole again.”
Cody glanced down. “Like it is now?”
Ginger’s head snapped down, and then she let out a shriek. “It’s empty. All that dirt we put there is gone. Where did it go?” She looked around wildly.
Cody joined in the quick search, but neither one of them found any dirt out of place. In fact, where they had retrieved the dirt to fill the hole looked undisturbed…as though they had never dug there.
Ginger threw herself into Cody’s arms. She jumped up and down.
“It’s true! It’s all true! It’s not a ghost story. We’ve seen it!”
He couldn’t deny it. They had filled the hole. Now the hole was…well, it was a hole again. He had seen it with his own eyes. As he held Ginger in her celebratory hug, his eyes scanned the area. Then his heart stopped.
Cody blinked his eyes twice. It wasn’t the trick of the light…or was it? Standing next to the hole was a transparent figure in a worn out Confederate uniform. The ghost’s eyes bore into Cody.
Tell Lela I’m sorry.
The words sounded like a mouth was right next to Cody’s ear, but he watched as the ghostly mouth moved in sync of the words.
Tell Lela I’m sorry.
“Did you say his home…Bill’s home was not far from here?” Cody asked Ginger while his eyes stayed on the ghost.
She pulled back and nodded. “Yes, and his wife is buried there. If I remember right, she gave birth to a boy and lived on the homestead until she died about twenty years later. Her son stayed there. The farm sold a few years back after the old house burned down.”
“Let’s head over there. Would be cool to see.” He hoped she didn’t hear the shakiness in his voice.
Ginger squealed. “Really?” She tugged at his arm. “Let’s go.”
Cody followed her.
“Can we come here every year and maybe have a picnic?”
At the base of the hill where they began their ascent, Cody turned back toward the hole. The figure still stood there.
“Sure. We can do that?”