They called it Dead Fall Back.
A single straight strip of West Virginia blacktop with steeply forested sides that appeared shaded and gloomy in the late afternoon of this overcast fall day. There was an ominous threat of rain approaching over the treetops and as the dark nimbus clouds boiled they gathered momentum along with a stiff breeze that pushed its way in amongst the forest trees. On the hillcrests, the sugar maples were turning the picturesque multicolored shades of crimson and gold that creates a magical quilt of brilliance across the Mountain State at this time of year. Their beauty though was making a lie of everything that was happening beneath them on the dark slopes of the country road.
But long ago, even before the terrible event that was in progress it had been a sad place.
Way back in July of 1863, the Confederates stacked their dead there. Barefoot boys in shabby butternut and whatever hand-me-downs they could find. They laid them up against the rough split pole fence that skirted the dusty track during the Battle of Gettysburg. Sat them down in long rows, like old men taking their ease in the sun. General Longstreet decided it would fool the Federal troops, like there was a whole mess of reserves casually resting there in a fall back position, waiting ready to come into the fight. The old photos show them sagging sleepily against each other or laid back, arms spread wide over the fence poles, mouths agape and bellies swelling up in the heat with the spilled blood from their wounds turning dark on their skin.
In all, a sorry place that people avoided. The dogwood and hickory on each side had been left to go wild and their crooked branches were overhung with soft foliage that draped like seaweed and moved as if underwater in an unseen current. It had a lost air about it. That highway. A coldness, even in the height of summer. It was as if a hundred and forty one years later in this fall of 2004 it still carried a silent memory of that earlier abattoir scene. As if the remembrance were recorded in every shadowy leaf and twisted root of the solitary place.
Low lying mists came here too, trapped by the high-sided banks. Gentle vapors that seeped up from the moist undergrowth and took long hours to dissipate in the cool under the trees. The more superstitious locals believed the ground itself was tainted, that ghosts still walked.
And that's where they found her. Amongst the lost ghosts of a lost war.
Lying all a-tangle head down on the sloping side. Legs crooked one under the other and her hands up beside her face as if asleep. But she was dead. The little black shepherdess. Her white petticoat dress and hand-stitched pinafore a pristine splash of brightness on the gloomy forest floor. She still wore the pale blonde dress-up wig, askew now but coiled in a shining pile of luminous curlicues and to one side lay her be-ribboned shepherd's crook lovingly hand carved from a branch of hornbeam.
The death brought the haunted place back to life for a while.
With their harsh beacon lights flashing Chelan County law enforcement vehicles blocked the road in a haphazard fashion and yellow crime scene ribbons flickered like neon in the breeze amongst the pooled shadows. Men in khaki uniforms moved purposefully through the trees, hunting unsuccessfully in the brambles and undergrowth for some sign of the perpetrator. The twisting plastic strips below them fencing in the small crumpled human form, isolating and setting it apart from the activity.
Chief of Police, Paul Stoeffel, a burly man in his early fifties, wore a somber expression on his face that had become an almost permanent feature. He leaned back against his vehicle, brawny arms folded across his chest while he waited patiently for the coroner to arrive. His radio beeped in the background, babbling disregarded messages of traffic control and the delayed ambulance.
It was rush hour in Lodrun, so said the police report. Rush hour. A five-car hold up in a one-horse town. It defeated Stoeffel. He took off his round brimmed hat and scratched at the short stubble of white hair that crested his skull. He was worried. He knew this death meant problems. The colored folks would not take kindly to this. Especially not a child.
And then there was the toy lamb. What on God's earth was an almost beheaded fluffy lamb doing laid out beside the body? Something sacrificial about it. Throat cut and all. Just like the little girl. Almost Biblical. Stoeffel pondered on the possibility of some Pentecostal lunatic going Old Testament out here in the woods. Could happen. He had known worse. Thirteen years in the DC police had taught him that. It had given him more. A face like a boxer. Busted nose and thickened forehead with ears that were crinkled at the edges. His eyes were his saving grace. A deep aquamarine blue when he felt contented but they could change, as they had now, to the palest of washed out blue when he was troubled.
He turned and unlatched the mike from the dashboard.