Most of the route home consisted of secondary two-lane highways that cut through farmland, woods, and open fields. Country roads, in other words.
I passed the Sunoco station where I had stopped for oil. I wondered about the clerk. Was he sitting behind the counter now?
And what had he seen, that provoked such anger in him when I asked him about hoofprints, and seeing a horse?
I rolled down the window on the driver’s side. The Bonneville was equipped with an early version of air conditioning; but I didn’t want to overly tax the car’s capacities until I had the oil leak fixed—another worry on my mind that night.
The wind blowing in through the open window was sharp with the smells of cow pastures and tilled fields. I glanced to my left: I saw a field of early corn, still less than knee-high, and behind that the dark hulk of a wooden barn. There was a three-quarters moon tonight, and I could read the words, CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO painted in white against a black background on the side of the barn that faced the road.
This sure was a lonely spot, I thought. I passed a farmhouse. The little white clapboard structure was at the far end of a long gravel driveway. A single light burned in what appeared to be the kitchen window.
But for all practical purposes, I was alone out here.
When I first heard the distant clatter of hoofbeats, I immediately went into denial mode. I told myself that I was hearing nothing more than the echo of the radial tires against the blacktop.
Then the hoofbeats grew louder.
I pushed down on the accelerator pedal. This two-lane country road was narrow, and the narrow berm left little margin for error. But at least I was on a straightaway.
The hoofbeats faded.
And they grew louder again.
I took a quick look at the speedometer. I was driving 60 mph in a 40 mph zone. If a cop happened by, I would be more than deserving of a speeding ticket.
That would be fine with me. Red flashing lights in the rearview mirror would have been a relief.
But when I looked in the rearview mirror, I was looking for a horse.
Which made absolutely no sense. There was simply no logical explanation for my being pursued by a horse along this road, at 11 p.m. on a Saturday night.
The sound of the inrushing wind was so loud that it wouldn’t have been possible for me to converse with a passenger, if I’d had one.
I pushed the accelerator again. 66 mph.
I was almost home. Only a few more miles to go.
I was coming up on the secondary road that led to our neighborhood. A sharp left turn.
I could still hear the clattering hoofbeats behind me.
I released the gas and touched the brake—just a little.
I pulled the steering wheel to the left. Hard. Tires squealed on the pavement.
As the Bonneville made the sharp turn, I overshot the far side of the road by a good foot or more.
One of my tires slid on the gravel that covered the berm.
I had only a split second to correct the car’s trajectory, lest I take it into the ditch.
My only option was to pull the steering wheel to the left again. But that meant the risk of overshooting the road in the opposite direction.
Somehow, I managed to yank the wheel to the right. But not too far to the right.
The car swerved back and forth for a short distance until I was able to stabilize it.
This road was heavily wooded, and curvy. A speed of 65 mph simply wasn’t an option here, no matter what was on the road behind me.
I slowed the car to 25 mph as I neared a sharp curve that sloped upward.
I looked behind me. Nothing in the rearview mirror.
I sighed with relief. I was only a few miles from home now.
And I couldn’t hear the hoofbeats anymore.
Something caught my attention at the side of the road—to my right.
There was movement in the thick underbrush at the front of the tree line.
I saw manlike shapes, bearing long rifles.
At least, that was what I thought I’d seen. But that wasn’t the worst of it.
I thought that I’d seen a flash of the manlike shapes’ faces, five or six feet off the ground.
Their faces were a bony, bleached white.
I remembered what Harry Bailey had written, more or less:
“These soldiers appear as skeletal ghouls, as might be consistent with their undead state…”
This could be a dangerous road at night, even at a slow speed. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to look backward, at the spot where I had seen them.
There was nothing back there now.
I looked straight ahead, gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and continued home.