FRIEDENBURG, Ohio, sleeps between the muddy waters of the Miami River and the rusty track of a little-used spur of the Big Four. It suddenly became important to us because of its strategic position. It bisected a road which we were to surface with tar. The materials were to come by way of the spur and to be unloaded at the tiny yard.
We began work on a Monday morning. I was watching the tar distributer while it pumped tar from the car, when I felt a tap upon my back. I turned about, and when I beheld the individual who had tapped me, I actually jumped.
I have never, before or since, encountered such a singular figure. He was at least seven feet tall, and he seemed even taller than that because of the uncommon slenderness of his frame. He looked as if he had never been warmed by the rays of the sun, but confined all his life in a dank and dismal cellar. I concluded that he had been the prey of some insidious, etiolating disease. Certainly, I thought, nothing else could account for his ashen complexion. It seemed that not blood, but shadows passed through his veins.
“Do you want to see me?” I asked.
“Are you the road feller?”
“I want a job. My mother’s sick. I have her to keep. Won’t you please give me a job?”
We really didn’t need another man, but I was interested in this pallid giant with his staring, gray eyes. I called to Juggy, my foreman.
“Do you think we can find a place for this fellow?” I asked.
Juggy stared incredulously. “He looks like he’d break in two.”
“I’m stronger’n anyone,” said the youth.
He looked about, and his eyes fell on the Mack, which had just been loaded with six tons of gravel. He walked over to it, reached down and seized the hub of a front wheel. To our utter amazement, the wheel was slowly lifted from the ground. When it was raised to a height of eight or nine inches, the youth looked inquiringly in our direction. We must have appeared sufficiently awed, for he dropped the wheel with an abruptness that evoked a yell from the driver, who thought his tire would blow out.
“We can certainly use this fellow,” I said, and Juggy agreed.
“What’s your name, Shadow?” he demanded.
“Karl Rand,” said the boy, but “Shadow” stuck to him, as far as the crew was concerned.
We put him to work at once, and he slaved all morning, accomplishing tasks that we ordinarily assigned two or three men to do.
We were on the road at lunchtime, some miles from Friedenburg. I recalled that Shadow had not brought his lunch.
“You can take mine,” I said. “I’ll drive in to the village and eat.”
“I never eat none,” was Shadow’s astonishing remark.
“You never eat!” The crew had heard his assertion, and there was an amused crowd about him at once. I fancied that he was pleased to have an audience.
“No, I never eat,” he repeated. “You see”—he lowered his voice—“you see, I’m a ghost!”
We exchanged glances. So Shadow was psychopathic. We shrugged our shoulders.
“Whose ghost are you?” gibed Juggy. “Napoleon’s?”
“Oh, no. I’m my own ghost. You see, I’m dead.”
“Ah!” This was all Juggy could say. For once, the arch-kidder was nonplussed.
“That’s why I’m so strong,” added Shadow.
“How long have you been dead?” I asked.
“Six years. I was fifteen years old then.”
“Tell us how it happened. Did you die a natural death, or were you killed trying to lift a fast freight off the track?” This question was asked by Juggy, who was slowly recovering.
“It was in the cave,” answered Shadow solemnly. “I slipped and fell over a bank. I cracked my head on the floor. I’ve been a ghost ever since.”
“Then why do you walk by day instead of by night?”
“I got to keep my mother.”
Shadow looked so sincere, so pathetic when he made this answer, that we left off teasing him. I tried to make him eat my lunch, but he would have none of it. I expected to see him collapse that afternoon, but he worked steadily and showed no sign of tiring. We didn’t know what to make of him. I confess that I was a little afraid in his presence. After all, a madman with almost superhuman strength is a dangerous character. But Shadow seemed perfectly harmless and docile.
WHEN we had returned to our boarding-house that night, we plied our landlord with questions about Karl Rand. He drew himself up authoritatively, and lectured for some minutes upon Shadow’s idiosyncrasies.
“The boy first started telling that story about six years ago,” he said. “He never was right in his head, and nobody paid much attention to him at first. He said he’d fallen and busted his head in a cave, but everybody knows they ain’t no caves hereabouts. I don’t know what put that idea in his head. But Karl’s stuck to it ever since, and I ’spect they’s lots of folks round Friedenburg that’s growed to believe him—more’n admits they do.”
That evening, I patronized the village barber shop, and was careful to introduce Karl’s name into the conversation. “All I can say is,” said the barber solemnly, “that his hair ain’t growed any in the last six years, and they was nary a whisker on his chin. No, sir, nary a whisker on his chin.”
This did not strike me as so tremendously odd, for I had previously heard of cases of such arrested growth. However, I went to sleep that night thinking about Shadow.
The next morning, the strange youth appeared on time and rode with the crew to the job.
“Did you eat well?” Juggy asked him.
Shadow shook his head. “I never eat none.”
The crew half believed him.
Early in the morning, Steve Bradshaw, the nozzle man on the tar distributer, burned his hand badly. I hurried him in to see the village doctor. When he had dressed Steve’s hand, I took advantage of my opportunity and made inquiries about Shadow.
“Karl’s got me stumped,” said the country practitioner. “I confess I can’t understand it. Of course, he won’t let me get close enough to him to look at him, but it don’t take an examination to tell there’s something abnormal about him.”
“I wonder what could have given him the idea that he’s his own ghost,” I said.
“I’m not sure, but I think what put it in his head was the things people used to say to him when he was a kid. He always looked like a ghost, and everybody kidded him about it. I kind of think that’s what gave him the notion.”
“Has he changed at all in the last six years?”
“Not a bit. He was as tall six years ago as he is today. I think that his abnormal growth might have had something to do with the stunting of his mind. But I don’t know for sure.”
I had to take Steve’s place on the tar distributer during the next four days, and I watched Shadow pretty closely. He never ate any lunch, but he would sit with us while we devoured ours. Juggy could not resist the temptation to joke at his expense.
“There was a ghost back in my home town,” Juggy once told him. “Mary Jenkens was an awful pretty woman when she was living, and when she was a girl, every fellow in town wanted to marry her. Jim Jenkens finally led her down the aisle, and we was all jealous—especially Joe Garver. He was broke up awful. Mary hadn’t no more’n come back from the Falls when Joe was trying to make up to her. She wouldn’t have nothing to do with him. Joe was hurt bad.
“A year after she was married, Mary took sick and died. Jim Jenkens was awful put out about it. He didn’t act right from then on. He got to imagining things. He got suspicious of Joe.
“ 'What you got to worry about?’ people would ask him. 'Mary’s dead. There can’t no harm come to her now.’
“But Jim didn’t feel that way. Joe heard about it, and he got to teasing Jim.
“ 'I was out with Mary’s ghost last night,’ he would say. And Jim got to believing him. One night, he lays low for Joe and shoots him with both barrels. 'He was goin’ to meet my wife!’ Jim told the judge.”
“Did they give him the chair?” I asked.
“No, they gave him life in the state hospital.”
Shadow remained impervious to Juggy’s yarns, which were told for his special benefit. During this time, I noticed something decidedly strange about the boy, but I kept my own counsel. After all, a contractor can not keep the respect of his men if he appears too credulous.
One day Juggy voiced my suspicions for me. “You know,” he said, “I never saw that kid sweat. It’s uncanny. It’s ninety in the shade today, and Shadow ain’t got a drop of perspiration on his face. Look at his shirt. Dry as if he’d just put it on.”
Everyone in the crew noticed this. I think we all became uneasy in Shadow’s presence.
ONE morning he didn’t show up for work. We waited a few minutes and left without him. When the trucks came in with their second load of gravel, the drivers told us that Shadow’s mother had died during the night. This news cast a gloom over the crew. We all sympathized with the youth.
“I wish I hadn’t kidded him,” said Juggy.
We all put in an appearance that evening at Shadow’s little cottage, and I think he was tremendously gratified. “I won’t be working no more,” he told me. “There ain’t no need for me now.”
I couldn’t afford to lay off the crew for the funeral, but I did go myself. I even accompanied Shadow to the cemetery.
We watched while the grave was being filled. There were many others there, for one of the chief delights in a rural community is to see how the mourners “take on” at a funeral. Moreover, their interest in Karl Rand was deeper. He had said he was going back to his cave, that he would never again walk by day. The villagers, as well as myself, wanted to see what would happen.
When the grave was filled, Shadow turned to me, eyed me pathetically a moment, then walked from the grave. Silently, we watched him set out across the field. Two mischievous boys disobeyed the entreaties of their parents, and set out after him.
They returned to the village an hour later with a strange and incredible story. They had seen Karl disappear into the ground. The earth had literally swallowed him up. The youngsters were terribly frightened. It was thought that Karl had done something to scare them, and their imaginations had got the better of them.
But the next day they were asked to lead a group of the more curious to the spot where Karl had vanished. He had not returned, and they were worried.
In a ravine two miles from the village, the party discovered a small but penetrable entrance to a cave. Its existence had never been dreamed of by the farmer who owned the land. (He has since then opened it up for tourists, and it is known as Ghost Cave.)
SOMEONE in the party had thoughtfully brought an electric searchlight, and the party squeezed its way into the cave. Exploration revealed a labyrinth of caverns of exquisite beauty. But the explorers were oblivious to the esthetics of the cave; they thought only of Karl and his weird story.
After circuitous ramblings, they came to a sudden drop in the floor. At the base of this precipice they beheld a skeleton.
The coroner and the sheriff were duly summoned. The sheriff invited me to accompany him.
I regret that I can not describe the gruesome, awesome feeling that came over me as I made my way through those caverns. Within their chambers the human voice is given a peculiar, sepulchral sound. But perhaps it was the knowledge of Karl’s bizarre story, his unaccountable disappearance that inspired me with such awe, such thoughts.
The skeleton gave me a shock, for it was a skeleton of a man seven feet tall! There was no mistake about this; the coroner was positive.
The skull had been fractured, apparently by a fall over the bank. It was I who discovered the hat near by. It was rotted with decay, but in the leather band were plainly discernible the crudely penned initials, “K. R.”
I felt suddenly weak. The sheriff noticed my nervousness. “What’s the matter, have you seen a ghost?”
I laughed nervously and affected nonchalance. With the best off-hand manner I could command, I told him of Karl Rand. He was not impressed.
“You don’t——?” He did not wish to insult my intelligence by finishing his question.
At this moment, the coroner looked up and commented: “This skeleton has been here about six years, I’d say.”
I was not courageous enough to acknowledge my suspicions, but the villagers were outspoken. The skeleton, they declared, was that of Karl Rand. The coroner and the sheriff were incredulous, but, politicians both, they displayed some sympathy with this view.
My friend, the sheriff, discussed the matter privately with me some days later. His theory was that Karl had discovered the cave, wandered inside and come upon
the corpse of some unfortunate who had preceded him. He had been so excited by his discovery that his hat had fallen down beside the body. Later, aided by the remarks of the villagers about his ghostliness, he had fashioned his own legend.
This, of course, may be true. But the people of Friedenburg are not convinced by this explanation, and neither am I. For the identity of the skeleton has never been determined, and Karl Rand has never since been seen to walk by day.
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