The old man stood by the crossroads. He seemed at once tall, yet short, strong, yet weak. The traveller, however, was not one to question a friend when he saw one. As the traveller reached the crossroads, the stranger held up a hand in greeting.
“Afternoon, sir,” the traveller said, as he shrugged off his heavy pack.
“Evenin’ to you. Goin’ to Ruxby, eh?” The old man smiled, revealing a perfectly white and straight set of teeth.
“I am indeed. Are you going there too?”
“Ain’t nothing else to go to here but Ruxby, heh. Want to walk together? The old folk are less likely to getcha that way.”
“Old folk? What do you mean?”
The stranger smiled even more broadly at the traveller’s question. “You must be new around here, then. Everybody round here know about the Ruxby old folk. They don’t take too kindly to strangers, see. Nab you right in the woods.”
“Must be an old wives’ tale, huh? I don’t believe in these kinds of things,” the traveller said, pointing to his freshly starched and bright clerical collar.
“Ah, you the new priest then? Father Norris died last week, so’s I heard.”
“Yes, it was quite unfortunate. Imagine, heart attack at that age.”
“Ain’t no heart attack that killed Norris, friend. Was the old folk. They old enough to remember when the cross didn’t mean nothing to nobody.” The old man warned, an accusatory finger pointed at the priest. The priest only smiled in response, patient with this clearly senile old man. He’d take him back to Ruxby, and see if he could get him back to his home.
The traveller stretched for a moment, and then picked his pack up once again. “Shall we be off then?”
The old man nodded as he picked up his cane and began to hum a song.
“I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
Mmm, blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin' me, there's a hellhound on my trail
Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail.”
The road to Ruxby was an older one that threaded through an even older forest. Few people lived in the area, and even fewer had any reason to go to the town. People here were traditional, and set in their ways. No one bothered anyone else, and people went about their business with the languorous air of a sparsely populated rural town.
The two men made their way down the road, the clump clump of the younger man’s shoes punctuated every few moments by the sharp tap tap tap of the old man’s cane. The old man spoke quickly and hummed his old song when he wasn’t talking.
“How big is Ruxby?” the young man asked, to break up the old man’s rambling about memories long forgotten by most.
“Maybe 30 or 40 houses, most. The old folk make up more of ‘em though, but not there.” The old man scratched his chin.
The priest frowned as he walked. Again to the talk of these old folk, whoever they were. He spoke up again.
“Do these old folk not live in the village then?”
“No, sir. They live in the woods. You hear ‘em? Them old folk are all around us, friend.” The old man jabbed his cane around and pointed at the forest, who did not respond to his pointed accusations. At this time of the day, the forest was calm and quiet, a picturesque view of a quiet New England fall. Some of the leaves were beginning to turn their coats, and the thick coverage of the forest was all absorbing. No old folk seemed to be around here.
“Must be some quiet and tough old folk if they can live in the cold forest.” The traveller chuckled. He glanced over at the old man, and paused. The old man’s face was serious, and set in a tight-lipped look.
“Don’t you make fun of the old folk, son. They be everywhere around us, and they don’t take kindly to strangers, like I said.” The old man stared at the priest for another moment before smiling and continuing on while singing.
“Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail…” the man sang jauntily.
As the two of them walked, the day became longer and longer, and the sun began to get lower in the day. The air took on the chilly edge of a crisp autumn afternoon, and the priest shivered slightly as he pulled his coat around him more tightly, and tied his scarf a little higher on his face.
As the sun died down, the forest came alive. The creatures of the evening began their nightly routines, and the sounds became acute in the air of the night. The darkening sky seemed to change the mood of the once picturesque forest into something reminiscent of the old world, with a more pensive and brooding air that infected the priest. The old man, on the other hand, seemed to liven up the more the day waned.
“The old folk are waking up now, son! They gonna be wide awake by the time we get to Ruxby.” He laughed. The priest shook his head.
“Those are just the animals of the forest. See? Did you hear that? That was a deer. And that was an owl.” He pointed out the sounds as they came.
His words were interrupted by a long baying howl, which was quickly answered by a succession of other ones to answer the first. As the calls echoed through the cold air, they seemed to grow in strength and number. The old man and the young one froze in their tracks.
Suddenly, out of the cover of the forest burst a massive silver wolf, nearly as large as a man. It dropped to all fours from its pounce in front of the two travellers. It bent low to the ground and growled, baring a set of viciously sharp teeth. Then, from the forest came another. Then another. And another. One by one, the wolves came, and the pack formed a ring around the two men. The first one dropped to its haunches, and began to growl even more loudly.
Fighting the panic building in his system, the younger man reached into his coat pocket for his matchbox. Slowly, he brought it out as the wolves watched him, curious. He pulled one out, nearly dropping the entire box with his stumbling fingers.
With a quick swipe, the flame burst into life, illuminating the darkening sky. The harsh light cast eerie shadows on the road, and the wolves looked curiously at the fire. The first wolf, clearly the alpha, perked its ears. The young man drew their attention with the match and then with a yell, he threw it into the forest.
The pack of wolves barked and raced toward the fire as the priest burst into a run down the road, leaving the old man behind. He sprinted for his life, knowing that his distraction would not save him a second time should the wolves return. The traveller almost felt bad for the old man that he had left behind, but he knew that turning back would be futile with the stranger as dead weight.
With an oomph, the traveller tripped on a branch and fell to the ground with a loud thump. Grimacing, he staggered to his feet with a gasp of pain. His ankle was twisted. He stumbled on, before he fell to the ground again. He looked around at the forest. All around, him small points of light had appeared, paired together. They burned with an unearthly color, utterly inhuman. Then he realized that the pinpoints of light were directed at him. They weren’t light. They felt like eyes.
These were no human eyes that stared at him. No, they were the eyes of something far older and far more penetrating than anything that could ever be defined as human. They stared into the young man, and they didn’t care for sacraments or morals or personality or what time of the day it was or how the sports team was doing. No, they were looking into his eyes for something else. They were looking for something hungrily.
All around the forest, dry rasping laughs pierced through all the other sounds in the night. They surrounded the young man as he clambered back to his feet and tried to limp on, screaming in fear, and desperately praying with all his might. His heart froze solid as the cold seeped into the area, as if heat itself recoiled at the sound of the laughs.
The young man was gasping, dragging himself along as the laughs of the forest surrounded and engulfed him. The points of light performed a danse macabre, whirling and flying through the air and the woods, still cackling with some unearthly delight.
The traveller fell to the ground one more time, and he could move no farther.
Then, an approaching light came from behind him. It became larger and larger, and the exhausted young man sat up.
It was the old man, carrying a torch and walking onwards with a jaunty air and singing his song. He strode over to the priest, a smile on his face, and a whistle in his voice.
“So! The old folk scared you good, huh? Still don’t believe in ‘em now?”
“I-I do. Thank God you came. How did you get away from the wolves?”
“Oh, those mangy dogs don’t touch me no more, not since I showed them who to be afraid of around here. You hurt?” The old man peered at the young man.
“Yes. I tripped and twisted my ankle back there. I need help walking, I think.” The priest’s face twisted in pain.
“That so? Well, have some of this. It’ll help with the pain. Chew ‘em up and eat ‘em.” The old man probed through his pocket, and then came up with a small wad of leaves. He pushed them into the hands of the priest, who popped them into his mouth gratefully.
“It’s an old man’s cure, heh. The old folk are lively today, and cold, so’s I think.” The old man sat on the ground, torch in hand and cane by side. He pulled a pipe out of his coat pocket and stuffed it with tobacco. He sat on the ground, quietly smoking his pipe for a moment. He glanced up at the priest.
“The old folk should get warm, don’t you think? They deserve some respect. It’s getting harder and harder to find some heat around here with nobody coming around anymore. But I think you’ll do, huh? You look like you could warm them up some.”
The priest did not respond. He sat frozen in the same position that he had been in when he swallowed the leaves the old man had offered. His entire body sat rigidly, unable to move anything but his eyes.
“Used to be that I could get on by through these woods without the old folk troublin’ me, but they been hungry and cold lately. And so’s I said, they don’t take too kindly to strangers. Maybe they’ll like you more.” The old man stood up slowly, a small ember falling from his pipe onto the ground. The old man doffed his hat to the statuesque young man, who could only watch as the stranger tapped out the beat as he walked down the road, still singing his song.
“I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving….hellhound on my trail.”
The sounds and the light of the torch eventually became dimmer and dimmer as the young man still sat in his frozen position, until they dwindled away to nothing. He remained in his position, utterly paralyzed.
The small ember burned away on the ground near the young man’s foot. It carried a small prick of light and bare heat that faintly ebbed with life, until it too went away.
The light started to drain from the young man as he began to feel very, very cold.
He was still there when they came for him.