David Alan Webb

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1. The Sighting

The priest had just finished the funeral for their stillborn when Hans heard the gunshots. All three heads turned west—down toward the valley and his millpond.

They couldn’t see it from up here—not now that the leaves were out, but across the old dirt road lay a weedy, rocky field, where travelers sometimes camped. There were wagons there last night, probably getting underway now in the cold and dreary, early morning mist.

His young wife Ava stood to his left, their hands clasped, side by side in their silent, stony grief. He turned towards her and saw the questions in her blue eyes—a new worry added to weariness and grief. At least this was a problem Hans could do something about.

He drew her hand to his lips, kissed it, squeezed once, then hurried off—down the winding, mountain path to the house to get his gun and gather news. But for the moment his mind stayed behind.


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Author’s Sketch of the Story Location

(This is based on a real place.)

[Image from MapQuest.com. Identifying place names have been blurred out.]




2. Accident

Behind the house, beyond a few shade trees, and across the millstream, the mountain rose abruptly from the valley floor. Downstream to the right, eastward toward the main road, an impassable wall rose almost vertically for a hundred yards. Soon the deep streambed turned and joined the mountain wall, like a castle moat, barring the way.

But here the straight course of the mountain broke into great, ragged edges. Here behind the house, Hans crossed back over the millstream on the narrow wooden footbridge and slipped into the tall, dark mass of rhododendrons that hid the only trail up.

Winding between the broken faces of the rock, the secluded path climbed up between the evergreen branches of laurel, rhododendron, and pine. At times they touched him, marking him with the dew, so narrow was the way. Only one at a time could travel this path.


The child had been very small and came much too soon. The labor itself had not been too difficult. That was a week ago now—only a week. It seemed like a month. So much had changed.

In body, Ava was much better, though of course not fully recovered. In heart and mind?

A few days ago, after midnight, Hans found her in the other bedroom, sitting in the dark, rocking back and forth, holding something. She had bundled up the quilt they were going to use for the baby and held it gently to her breast. “I was just saying goodbye,” she had told him as he helped her back to bed.


After the first, short meandering climb through the rocks and roots, the trail had room to spread out on the mountainside into a lop-sided zigzag. Hans knew the way well—the first gentle ascent around to the right, then the sharp turn and steeper hike to the left, then the second gentle ascent to the right again.

It was harder on Ava, of course. The bond between mother and child begins almost immediately. Ava had experienced the child’s brief life directly, he only indirectly. He knew her sense of loss must cut deeper.

If life is a journey, then what of the lives of his two children? Their entire lifetimes spanned only months within Ava’s womb. Normally, this nesting time in the dark would be barely a beginning, unremembered by all but she who bore them—a memory pushed aside by the practical struggles of caring for a newborn, working out new routines, ordering a new family life together. But these two brief journeys had soon—all too soon—taken sharp and sudden turns elsewhere.


During the last few steps, before the trail emptied into the meadow, Hans began looking for Ava’s blonde head through the trees. He expected to find her easily by the gravesite, but it was vacant.

He stopped to listen.

After the damp weight of winter snow, the old leaves told him little. He called out to her.

“Here,” came the answer from the woods to the right, and then he heard her swishing toward him through the forest litter. He strode toward her along the path, wondering what she had been up to.

As they got closer, he knew she could see the rifle barrel over his shoulder. “So what’s going on, Hans?” As always, they spoke German in private.

“Jittery travelers. Gone now,” he called back. “Just going to have a look around.”

And then they embraced. He had noticed a look in her eye that he was happy to see again. She spoke quietly, but earnestly in his ear. “Hans, I want to plant a little flower garden up here, around the graves. It’ll almost take care of itself. I’ll move some daffodils up from the yard, and I know I can get some peonies from Mrs. Smith, the midwife. I’m sure I can find some tiger lilies somewhere.”

“That sounds grand, Maus,” he managed to whisper back through his tightening throat.

She released the hug, grabbed his hands, and looked up into his face. “I want to begin today, to do something today,” she said. “I found a good, large flat stone that I want to use as a seat. I’ve rolled it upside down to get a good look at it, but I knew I shouldn’t try to move it, even roll it further until,” she hesitated, “until I’m stronger. Could you move it for me? Right now. Please, Bärchen.”

Of course, he did, and gladly, helping her get it settled. Then he told her about the caravan. Neither of them expected anything to come of it.


As he hiked toward the top, the dim whiteness moved down to meet him. In the fog and the complete stillness, the woods had that indoor, closed-in feeling.

The deed in the courthouse recorded that he owned all this land. Much of it, he knew well. Some he had never seen. He had walked the ridge trail often enough and knew that the wild things used it as their own—a clear road that avoided the humans, who lived and worked in the cultivated valleys.

He reached the high ground, but could see only the trunks of the nearest trees, the largest hosting mosses and lichens—vivid greens and greys, awakened by the wetness. But he didn’t need to see far. To the left, the land sloped down into Millers Valley. To the right, it fell into the narrow fold of Briar Lick. He need only keep to the ridgetop.

His only choices lay just ahead, where the land fell into a great hollow, shaped much like the bowl of spoon. The ridge trail approached it from the east side and there it divided, left and right—to the right, out toward the bowl’s wide end, and to the left, a slow descent toward the bowl’s narrow neck. Down there it opened into and joined Millers Valley just behind the millpond at Millers Gap. Maps gave that secluded valley no name, but the locals called it Giants Hollow.


He took the left trail and began the descent along the ridge. As he departed the summit, he hoped that he would escape the fog. But that was not to be. He could not see far, and the familiar trail seemed strange to him. He came unexpectedly to the end of the trees—to the rougher, rocky ground near the trail’s end.

Hans knew that beyond the trees, the trail veered to the right, away from the ridgetop, and began a gentle zigzag down into the narrow neck of Giants Hollow. To the left lay an ancient mass of grey rock, broken and weatherworn, rounded slabs and irregular stones.

Emerging from the cover of the trees, the bare path widened enough for two, but Hans kept to the right. On the left edge, a few short, rounded rocks jutted upward into the path, like the topmost towers of a buried castle. Altogether, it was nothing dangerous really, even in this weather, not for the alert and careful.

On the path, only a thin layer of sandy pebbles and hard dirt had been darkened by the falling dampness. Beneath this, the hard ground remained dry. This came as no surprise to Hans. What did surprise him were the regularly-spaced skid marks that exposed the lighter earth beneath. Someone had been running up the path from Giants Hollow—and recently.

He soon found where the runner had tripped, then scanned the terrain for further news. Down and to the left, at the bottom of the formation, on a wide ledge of rock about twenty feet away, a body lay, unmoving. As quickly as he could, Hans worked his way down—eyes on the maze of protruding rocks and deep rifts, selecting each step with care.

It was an Indian, or so he thought at first, since he was dressed in fur and leather, rough moccasins tied around his feet. He lay on his back, one arm at his side, the other across his chest, as if he had been holding shut the fur cloak, his only upper garment.

He was breathing. Dark blood had run from a ragged gash in his forehead. Not enough to be alarming. Mostly thickening now, some had smeared across his head and face. Other injuries: A large, swollen bump on the side of his head. Some scrapes, particularly on the hand and arms. No bones broken.

It appeared he had partly skidded and mostly rolled down over the rock, trying to catch himself in a panic, hit his head twice before stopping here. Then turned on his back, wrapped his cloak around him, and passed out.

Hans unslung his rifle and removed his brown, flannel jacket. This he folded neatly. Carefully lifting the man’s head, he slid the jacket onto the rough, grey rock, and gently laid his head upon it. His dark brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail, tied with length of dried vine.

Next he used his hunting knife to cut a strip of cloth from the tail of his cotton shirt and wrapped this carefully around the man’s head over the open wound. The man was clearly too warm. Hans didn’t see how this could be related to the fall—not so soon, but he thought it was a bad sign.

He didn’t look like an Indian—his complexion pale, his features heavy and thick, especially the brow. He certainly had no prominent cheekbones. The man was five feet tall at least, yet had no beard whatsoever—perhaps very young, despite his size.

There was something unusual about the face overall. The eyes seemed too large, the features not quite right. But the face was not unpleasant to look upon. Indeed, as he lay there unconscious he had an almost childlike appearance.


Hans stood up and considered his next move. This last slab of rock rose a few feet above the forest floor. Just a few steps away, a trail of sorts, little used, wound around to the bottom. Hard work, but he thought he could carry him that far—to the edge of the wheat field. After that he would need the horse and wagon or something. He would hurry back to the barn first, working out details on the way.

He would want Ava’s help soon, but she might still be at the gravesite. If he returned the way he came, he would pass through the meadow, but even if he ran, that way would probably take longer, and she might not be there, wasting time.

Hans decided to just head down from here to the valley floor. Once he got close enough, he would call out. Wherever she was, she would start towards him. He shouldered his rifle, took one last look at his patient, and started off.


(Any thoughts you are comfortable sharing below are very welcome.)

Read Chapter 3, “Rescue”

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3. Rescue

What were Indians doing here? How many were there? Could he find them and return their fallen man? Would there be problems because he had taken him?

But was he an Indian at all? And if not, what was he?

Such questions would have to wait. He jogged along as fast as he dare, eyes on the trail. He hadn’t used this shortcut since early winter. Things change in the woods, so he had to watch every step for something that might trip him up. Hurrying too fast bring delays.

Meanwhile he pondered the problem of the haul to the barn. The wounded man would fit comfortably into the large wagon, but before the return journey Hans would have to turn it around by driving over the soft, wet ground of the field. He didn’t want to risk the delay of getting stuck.

The small cart would be easier to manage. He could unhitch it and turn it around by himself, keeping to the hard ground of the back path. But would the man be too big? He would have to lay him on his side and curl up his arms and legs. And even that may not be enough. He would bring the small ladder just in case. He could lash it to the top and use it like a stretcher if he had to.


From the millpond to the mill, the base of the mountain curved away from the road in a wide arc. All along the first rising of the mountain ran the millrace—a narrow, manmade watercourse that carried a quick stream of water to the mill. Between the millrace and the road lay a field, now filled with winter wheat, row after row of short, grassy bundles.

The trail brought Hans to the wheat field, about halfway along the arc between pond and mill, and onto a broad, low hillock jutting out from the base of the mountain. The millrace cut through its top, making for an easy crossing. He thought it would not be so easy after carrying a man all the way down here.

Now for a flat run along the back edge to the lot by the mill where the farmers parked their wagons, then over the bridge, and up to the barn with the house behind. About halfway there, he called out to Ava. If she were still up in the meadow, she would hear him and begin down.

He kept up a brisk pace, listening for some response, but heard nothing.

Just before the mill bridge, he knew he would normally be able to see the house beyond the barn. He shouted her name again. This time he heard her call back from somewhere in the direction of the house. “Here.”

He stopped for just a moment, so the barn did not block their exchange. “Meet me, barn,” he bellowed slowly.

“Yes,” came her answer, so he hurried on.


They met on the side of the barn away from the house, where the doors opened towards the mill and the deep channel of the millstream. Hans explained in short bursts, while he caught his breath. “Man down.” He pointed back to the site of the accident. “Fell.” Hans bent over and rested his hands on his knees. “Alive. Hurt. Out cold.”

He got in a few deep breaths, while his wife waited. “Taking Friede…cart…to haul him…here.” After that, he gestured for her to follow. He saw she understood: He could talk better in a few moments, and those were best spent doing something.

While he prepared the horse and cart, he told her what little he knew, and they hastily made arrangements. Hans would get the man back here as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Ava would gather whatever she thought they needed and wait for them in the barn.

Hans dropped a horse blanket into the cart and also a coil of rope, one end of which he used to quickly secure the ladder, so it wouldn’t fall off. He left his rifle in the barn and brought the hatchet just in case, then drove back the way he had come.


He thought perhaps the man might be gone—recovered or rescued, but he lay as he left him. Now it was time to do what had to be done.

The table of rock made it easier. Hans rolled the body to the edge, unto its side, facing the forest, and carefully positioned the limbs. He thought the legs seemed unusually long. He hopped off, squatted down, and placed his back against the stone. Then he maneuvered the body across his shoulders—like a shepherd carrying a lost lamb.

He grabbed the rough, irregular rock as best he could, took a few deep breaths, then stood up, pushing with both hands and feet. Anything to make this easier. He had a long way to go.

Hans shuffled toward the left and stepped forward. Swaying with his burden, his body soon settled into a slow rhythm—breathing, plodding—as he labored down, bearing the warm weight.

Unneeded here, his mind wandered elsewhere.


He was thirteen. It was late afternoon, the Saturday before Advent began. His family was at Aunt Gerta’s in town, so they could all visit the Christmas Market. They had walked a few blocks through a little fresh snow. His sister had left her mittens in the wagon. His father asked him to run back and fetch them. He took the short cut—a hidden, narrow street, more like an alley.

He slowed to a walk. Something lay in the street ahead. It looked like a man—the fresh snow all around him trodden in a wide circle. Now he could see red in the snow here and there.

“Mister?” he called out. “You OK, Mister?” No response. He stepped closer.

He didn’t recognize him at first, his face bloody and swollen. Of course, he didn’t know his face very well anyway. Hans always avoided him. He didn’t approve of their friendship. That’s why they met in secret.

It was Christoff’s father.


The next day, Hans waited in their secret place in the woods, hoping Christoff would come at the usual time. He was late. “I can’t stay long,” he said curtly.

After all these years, snatches of what was said remained vivid:

Dad was doing so much better, too, trying to change.

He told me he didn’t do anything this time. They just jumped him.

And now they’ve arrested HIM instead!

Maybe it’s like Dad used to always say—you’re not like us.

They were taking him today to stay with a cousin. He didn’t know when he’d be back.


A month later, Hans’ father broke the news that Mr. Schneider had been sentenced to jail time. Hans didn’t know details, but his father believed it was a great injustice.

Hans was troubled. They talked.

“They’re not like us. No,” his father said. “They’re not—in some ways. But in other ways they are. What you will have to determine is which are more important.”

And, “Yes, sometimes it’s worth fighting. But have a clear purpose, so you know when to stop. No matter who wields it, brute force usually does more harm than good—just like what we see here.”

They never saw Christoff again.


Weary now, Hans saw his resting place. Just a few more, he told his shoulders, back, legs. Just a few more. Then you can stop, but not yet. Then you can stop.

Now the final effort. He stood beside the cart and began to bend down. First the legs. Get the feet in. Now bend the knees. Don’t drop him. There.

The weight gone, Hans stopped to rest. He now had the body sitting in the back of the cart, the head and arm still draped over his left shoulder as be bent over, supporting the torso.

Then he felt it—a slight turning of the head, and he heard a soft moan, a few mumbled words. The voice in his ear was higher than he had expected—not strangely so, but clearly not the voice of man or even of a young man.

It was a boy then.


(Any thoughts you are comfortable sharing below are very welcome.)

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Next: Chapter 4, “What He is”

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