As Cory and I rode along the only sounds that could be heard was the sound of wind rustling through the trees and the familiar squeak of saddle leather. We had just crossed a river- the Mississippi, I was sure- and had crossed over into Virginia. Below me, my horse, a small bay gelding named Jack, was still half wet from our swim.
We were riding through a heavily wooded area, but not so heavy that we couldn't see the suns rays pour through the tree tops. It was beautiful, like nothing I had ever seen before. We come from Arkansas, where it very pleasing to the eye, but nothing like this.
Cory and I had left Arkansas around five months ago, in search of Cory's father. News had come to Fort Smith that he had been spotted somewhere between Tennessee and Virginia. It had been hard for me to leave Arkansas in the first place, for I was forced to leave Ellie behind. She hadn't wanted me to leave, either, but I couldn't let my best friend down by making him go alone. Ellie wasn't alone for her husband, John, was home with her. Still, the thought of our small farm back in Arkansas pulled at my heart strings. Every once in a while I swore that I could still smell the scent of wood burning as the smoke used to pour from our cabin's cobblestone chimney.
Cory rode slightly ahead of me, for he knew that I missed home and I wasn't paying attention to where Jack was walking, so he took it into his own liberty and walked as slow as he could. Cory made a bend in the trail, and halted his dark chestnut stallion, Howie. I rode to his side, and halted Jack.
Cory began scanning the surroundings. The trees began to thin, and open up into an area of tall grass. Cory rode three steps, and immediately halted again when Howie's hooves made a squishy sound.
"Be careful in this area," he warned. "It's a bog. If your not careful these horses will sink down to their knees."
Cory was a smart man, and I always felt safe in his presence, but why did I feel so unsafe at this moment? Cory and I began riding slowly forward and I pushed the thought away. Even though it caused our horse's hooves to make annoying squishy noises, the bog was beautiful. The grass was so tall, and so very green. It looked lush enough for even a hungry human to eat. But that was dumb, what human would ever eat grass? I rather enjoyed the way it blew in the breeze, it reminded me of the plains back in Kansas, where I grew up as a child.
We rode through a small clearing, and the trail narrowed and became muddy. Jack put more force into his strides, causing his hooves to make a suction sound as he yanked them up. Once or twice he almost tripped. He would straighten himself, pull out the stuck hoof, snort, and continue forward. I knew that Jack and I had rode through mud before, but not like this.
On each side of the trail, the ground sank low into a pond-like hold of muddy water. The way the sun rays hit it made it appear green, very pleasing to the eye, but it stank of sour mud.
The smell of mud dragged me back to Arkansas once more. I recalled the time when John's deputy, Roscoe, had taken Cory and I fishing. Roscoe had hooked a huge catfish, and had a hard time pulling it out the water. Roscoe had pulled and pulled, and finally, the darn catfish released the hook when Roscoe was pulling backward. The action had flung Roscoe forward. He had landed over the bank in a huge mud pit beside the river, and I could remember how bad he smelled on the walk home. I had told Ellie and John about the experience, and Ellie had laughed so hard that I had thought that her corset would break off her small figure.
Suddenly, Jack began to jerk, ripping me back from my sweet reverie. At first, I didn't know what was wrong with him. Then I looked down, and I saw mud packed right up to my boots. Why, Jack had sank into the bog up to his belly. He squirmed and tossed his head wildly. He even tried to buck, but the mud restricted him, and all he could do was wriggle his flanks.
"Easy, easy," I cooed, stroking his long, slender neck.
Cory rode to the bank, and halted Howie on the grass. "Hold on, Temp," he said, calling me by the nickname Ellie had given me. It was short for Temperance. Cory collected his lariat from his saddle, and swung it heavily over his head. The rope made a dozen perfect loops, and Cory tossed it. The rope swung over Jack's head, and Cory tightened it.
"Hold tight," Cory warned. "He may try to rear."
As Cory had instructed me to, I grasped my saddle horn, as he slowly began to work Jack from the mud. The first few attempts were fails, but I knew it began working soon because I could feel Jack rising upward. Cory eased Howie backward, step by step, until Jack was free enough that he could push himself out of the pit, and up onto the grass once more.
Jack shook violently, sending mud splattering everywhere.
Cory began to recoil his rope, and while he was busy doing that, I scanned the rest of the bog. Behind me was a huge hole in the ground shaped like a horse where Jack and I had been. I knew from no on that Cory would treat this situation with jocularity, I knew he'd always look back at it and laugh. Even though I was covered half with mud, and I smelled wet, I was amiable toward the whole thing.
As Cory removed his favorite black Stetson from his head, and began to beat it clean, my eye caught something in the bog. A white figure was floating in the bog, about a quarter of a mile down the trail.
"Look, Cory," I pointed. "What is it?" I asked.
Cory placed his hat back on his head and wheeled Howie around so he could look at whatever I was pointing at. He cocked his head to one side. "I don't know what that is," he said lowly. He nodded forward. "But I reckon we'll find out."
I kicked Jack forward, and moved him to the side so Cory could ride ahead. We rode over a few grounded tree roots on our way to the object. When we were about twenty feet from it, Cory halted and dismounted. He drew his sixgun and handed me Howie's reins.
"I'll let you know if it's safe to check it out. It may be a gator," said.
"Gator's ain't white," I replied.
As Cory crossed the bog, the ground granulated under his feet. As he neared it, he crouched a little, as if he was ready to pounce on it. From my saddle, I bit my bottom lip. It was odd that something would be out in a bog in the middle of nowhere.
The next thing I knew, Cory said loudly, "Ah, damn."
"What is it?" I asked from my saddle.
I watched intently as Cory put his sixgun in his gun belt, and bent down. He gingerly reached into the water, and grasped something. He pulled up an arm, along with a hand, coming from the white mass. Why, it was person.
"Ugh, Temp, you ain't never gonna believe this," he said achingly, as he studied the hand he held.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Come here," he said wearily.
I dismounted and tied the horses to a tree. Carefully, I inched across the bog, until I was close enough to tell that the body was female. The woman had dark brown hair, and big, elegantly-defined hands. She was face-down and was in a strange position. She was dressed in a nightgown, similar to the one I kept in my saddle bags in case Cory and I happened to cross a hotel we could stay in. Somehow, I could recognize her.
Cory dropped her hand lightly, and took her by the shoulders. He dragged her up on the bank and flipped her over without ease. The sight then made me shriek with terror.
The woman was Ellie!
I stood, frozen in my place. How could this happen? Who did this? Why was Ellie not home in Arkansas?
Her face made me want to puke.
The last time I had saw Ellie she was beautiful, with soft, brunette hair, and big, shiny hazel eyes. She had the smallest nose and the most perfectly defined lips. She was a rare beauty. And she had a good heart, too. All of that was completed by the sweetest, yet most Southern voice.
And now, there she lay, looking the ugliest I had ever seen her. Her eyes were half-open, her mouth clenched shut. Her skin, once pale and beautiful, was now blue, yellow, and sickly looking. Her face was extremely gaunt and she looked twice her actual age of thirty years. Tiny specks of dirt were visible on her skin.
I stood, and let the tears begin to sting my eyes. Ellie had taken me and Cory in after the Indians had killed our parents in the Austin raid of '59. We were best friends, and now we were basically brother and sister. I had loved her so much, and I still do, although she lay dead before me.
"Temp, I'm so sorry," Cory whispered, setting a sympathetic hand on my head. He sighed deeply. "God, I should have never let you come with me," he admitted. "Maybe if you would have stayed behind she would still be alive. Now I want to know why the hell Elmira is in Virginia." He sighed again, and sniffled. "Come on, we'll take her to town with us so she can be buried."
Without another word, I mounted Jack. Cory carried Ellie's corpse to my side. "Would you like to carry her?" he asked.
I shook my head. The memory of her face was too pleasing to carry her and having to look down at the ugliness the bog bestowed upon her. As Cory hoisted himself and the corpse onto Howie, I rode out of the bog. As town appeared just ahead, and I exited the woods and the bog, and hit an open field with a dirt road, I spurred Jack into a dead gallop.