The two little girls, playing in the meadow by the stream, were the ones who saw it first: a pale form moving along the edge of the wood, just inside the tree line. They saw it at a distance, moving slowly; appearing, disappearing, reappearing amongst the foliage, a chalk-white stick-man with no face and two dark holes where his eyes should be.
It turned to gaze at them for a moment, swaying slightly as it studied them intensely across the stream surging with recent snow-melt from the peaks above and the tail end of a hard winter.
This was more than enough for the two girls. They turned and ran. As they stumbled up the incline of the meadow towards the edge of town, they thought they heard the thing scream after them - a sound both frightening and pitiful.
They ran across the small town, down the closest thing to a main street, busy with the mid-morning, mid-week trade, to their home, whimpering in broken, garbled sentences, each talking over the other, that they had seen a skeleton walking in the woods.
The skeleton was next seen by Jeffrey Pohenz a short while later. Jeffrey, a willowy teen, was outside by the back door of the trader’s store, enjoying a crafty ten-minute reprise from hefting bags of cornmeal, leaning against the wall and savouring the unseasonably early warmth of sunshine on his face.
His mind was elsewhere . . . on a particular promise made to him by a certain young lady last night. Anticipation of that was making the day at work drag interminably; his concentration was shot to hell.
Of course, when he saw the skeleton suddenly emerge from a cluster of trees and thick tufts of untamed briar just across the yard, littered with broken and being-mended chassis and wheel spindles, the thought of this evening’s exciting promise was instantly dismissed. Like some creature from Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of hell, it shambled towards him with a lurching clumsiness, bony arms and hands glistening brightly in the sunlight, reaching out to him.
Jeff decided not to dive through the back door into the store and run the risk of getting entangled with the clutter of goods within. Instead he ran around the back of the low wooden building towards the busier thoroughfare at the front, stumbling out into the dusty open space and tripping over hard-baked wheel ruts that only a few days ago had been mud, churned into grooves and ridges by large steel-rimmed wheels.
‘Jesus, help me!’ he screamed as he scrambled to his feet again. ‘There’s a . . . there’s a . . . there’s a skeleton man round the back!’
The nearest people to Jeffrey were bemused at the sight of the mop-haired, lanky teenager stumbling over his own clumsy feet and bellowing with fear.
Jeff turned to look back at the side of the wooden fencing around which he’d just sprinted, expecting to see that shuffling bone-white creature emerge.
‘Oh, Jesus, it’s . . . it’s . . .’
Gordon Palmer, a loader who worked out the front, shook his head at Jeff’s delinquent craziness. The boy was prone to goosing around at work - a practical joker rather than a real grafter.
‘What’ve you seen, lad?’
Jeff looked up at him. ‘A skeleton! It just charged out of the woods at me!’
Gordon straightened up, sensing that maybe this time the boy might not be playing the fool. It could be some goddamned Nez Perce. He’d heard that tribe sometimes wore chalk-white body paint on raiding parties.
‘What exactly did you see?’
Jeff pointed to the wooden wall leading round to the rear of the compound. His finger