Men sat around the kitchen table, a rough hewn surface littered with half glasses of rum and sturdy mugs of tea. The blue tinged air swirled on eddies of laughter and currents of disbelief.
Mick Devine was the next to speak. His story was that of a man dead this 6 months, a man who was always the first to lend a hand to a neighbour, pour a ‘drop’ for the unexpected visitor, and usually the first to laugh at himself if the opportunity arose.
The story begins.
Tom 'Fox' Hynes had gotten a ride as far as Riverhead after a long shift on the highroad, and sure it would only be a short hour jaunt 'round the harbour now. He pulled his jacket closer around his neck, it was a fine fall evening, but the wind had that bite to it. The houses were pockets of light where wood smoke unfurled over sturdy salt box houses. A full moon shone just out of reach, and leaf bare branches left gnarled shadow fingers reaching out for unwary passersby.
Fox drew a deep breath, cold aching in his throat, and thought about the best way to travel. Old Man Barnes's small bridge was out - not a consideration during the day but the sharp rocks and deep pool were not to be dared at that time of night. Going past Rogers' meant a slight chance of a wetting up to the ankles, but the tide was low, the way was flatter than a flounder, and he'd be home in jigs time by cutting straight across that way.
Fox scrambled down the bank. During the daylight this place was a fine sight, and with the moon so high it was nearly as bright, even with a slight orange cast now visible over her face. Fox wound his way through the estuary, sometimes leaping from rock to rock and occasionally walking through tough seaside grass that tugged at his boots. He was just past Turr Island when he heard faint footsteps behind him. He turned, a greeting tugging at his lips, but there was no one there.
Wisps of clouds began to gather in the sky, playing hide and seek with a red tinged moon. Fox looked at the way he had come. The sound could have been an echo from around the harbor, or perhaps his ears were playing tricks on him. Funny how the oh so familiar now had a sinister cast; creaking branches from the trees, an owl call, the whisper of dead leaves, all inviting a creeping dread.
Fox turned to his path home once more, he hadn't taken more than ten steps when he heard it again – the footsteps, now louder, now closer. He spun on his feet. The moonlight showed nothing but an empty, echoing path. Thoughts of stories, and long forgotten childhood fears began to arise. He needed to get home, he needed to get to safety. He took longer strides, more chances, and still there were the following footsteps, even faster, now even closer. So close.
Heart clenching, breath heaving, Fox jumped the last few feet of the beach path. His left boot stuck slightly, or was it something grabbing at his heels? Like the scalded cat Fox took off for home, fear driven, knowing that just one look behind him would be the last.
Was it the long dead Masterless Men, pressed into service by the British Navy, looking to add to their eternal crew? Or the ghostly shades of the three children, lost as they jumped the ice pans, wanting the comfort of a warm soul?
Beside the woodstove the men waited with anticipation. What had happened to Fox? Did he make it? Was he found in a cold junk in the morning, leaving behind nothing but questions as to his fate?
From the corner came Devine’s dry voice "Sure ya knows that it was just his own imagination that got to him in the end of it all. 'Twas nuttin but his own bootlaces slapping again’ his heels!”
Roars of laughter rang out and glasses raised. “To Fox! says Mick. “And his boots!” from the quick-witted young man sitting on the edge of the wood box.
All hands checked the state of their laces before heading home. Just in case.
Reposted from Brain Droppings