Tennessee cat-and-mouse tale of a man versus a creature from an old legend. But there’s nothing to worry about…is there? Written by Bill Arbuckle.
“Don’t you be crossing the holler tonight, Jefferson Boone,” Orville Minton said to the scruffy man standing on the other side of the bar. “You know what they say about that thing what lives there.”
“Don’t scare me none,” Jefferson Boone replied.
“I heard tell from the Preacher that it’s an evil something what rips your liver out and eats it in front of you,” Junior Wofford chimed in.
“Since when did you start listening t’ preachers?” Orville Minton stared at his friend, then took a swig of cheap beer from his glass. “But I’m in agreement. It’s an awful creature been known t’ attack the lone traveler who crosses Egypt Holler on dark, moonless nights.”
“Hogwash,” Jefferson Boone said.
“‘Tis your life, Jeff Boone. But if’n I was you, I’d go ask Old Widow Doyle if ya could sleep on the straw in her barn. Maybe offer t’ do some chores in exchange.”
“Now that’s a clever idea, friend,” Junior Wofford said. “And I concur. The Widow lives on the edge of the Holler’n she knows the stories. Won’t be no shame in askin’ for help. Besides, she’s knowed you since you was a young ‘un. Knowed most of us since we was young enough t’ walk an’ talk. She’ll let you stay safe in her barn tonight.”
Jefferson Boone shrugged his shoulders. “Don’t need no protection from old wives tales.” He bent down to check that the laces of his brogans were tied tight, then stood up, buttoned his coat and headed to the door. “Hogwash.” He gripped the door handle, turned it, and tugged the door open. “Ain’t nothin’ but hogwash and old wives tales.” He stepped across the threshold of Orville Minton’s establishment and into the chilly Tennessee night. “Ain’t no spooks but the ones runnin’ round in your empty heads.” He pulled the door closed, leaving the two men inside to wonder over his fate.
“That’s a strange man, for sure.” Junior Wofford spoke up. “I’d a told him more about that creature. Heard tell many times that Spearfinger’s its name. Old Cherokee legend. Hunts like an animal an’ feeds on the bodies of th’ living. Says she lulls folks into believin’ she’s somethin’ she ain’t, and once they let their guard down, she uses her long fingernail t’ skewer ’em. That’s how she gets her name.”
“You talk too much, you know that?” Orville Minton shook his head. “Besides, it’s closin’ time, so get outta here an’ go home.”
“How ’bout one more for the road?”
The bar owner raised an eyebrow. “You said that two beers ago.”
Junior Wofford was undeterred. “Then hows about one for Jeff Boone?”
Orville Minton thought for a moment. “Guess I’ll drink to that.” He filled two glasses from the tap – one for himself and one for his customer. “Here’s to Jefferson Boone and his crossin’ the holler tonight.”
Jefferson Boone picked his way through the underbrush until he came to the small footpath that led through the hollow. The sky was dark and moonless. Only the faint starlight guided his cautious steps, but even that faded away as the forest grew dense. In just a few short steps, it would be near impossible to see the trail. Certainly the long walk home could wait until morning. And what if there was something running loose in these woods? For a moment he considered turning back and seeking shelter in the Widow Doyle’s barn. No one would blame him for exercising caution. Besides, there was no one waiting for him at home. No sense risking unnecessary danger. He hesitated and felt afraid. But the realization angered him. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. He stared into the darkness. He knew the trail. Over Butcher Creek. Up a few steps to the hilltop where he could see the roof of the Layne’s house, where it stood in the valley. Down into the deep forest. He’d walked this path a thousand times before with never a worry. But all those excursions had happened during the day. Here on the unlit trail with Minton’s and Wofford’s tall tales ringing in his ears, the fears seemed all too real. But not real enough to stop a man like Jefferson Boone. “Hogwash!” He said aloud. Then stepped on to the path and began his journey.
The man settled into a steady pace as he walked. The only sound was the thud of his shoes against the hard dirt. Jefferson Boone traveled nearly a half mile before he realized something was amiss. He stopped to listen to the forest and then realized what it was that was bothering him. No crickets were chirping. No owls hooting. Not even the sound of tree branches swaying and creaking. Just nothing. The silence unnerved him, but he had come too far down the trail to give in to fear, so he tugged his coat tighter, squared his shoulders, and resumed his walk.
Jefferson Boone had gone only a few steps before a heavy gust of wind sent branches swaying and leaves rustling. Here and there, twigs snapped and fell to the ground. The wind nearly knocked the man over, but he managed to lean against a large tree until the fury blew itself out. He stayed there for quite some time, listening as the trees creaked and groaned. From time to time, Jefferson Boone could hear a soft thud as an acorn or pine cone hit the ground. And then he heard a new sound – a sharp crack – as if someone or something had stepped on a fallen twig. Then all was quiet.
Jefferson Boone stiffened against the tree. He wasn’t alone in these woods. Every dark story he’d ever heard about the forest and the hollow flashed through his mind. Tales of dark creatures. Old Indian spirits looking to share their sorrows. Headless soldiers from the War Between the States looking for vengeance. Stories of being followed by an invisible something. Men hunted by the Devil himself. And he had been foolish enough to think that by sheer stubbornness he would be the exception to the rule. He shuddered, then forced himself to stand still and listen to the forest. The trees had ceased their swaying and no longer dropped branches and pine cones. The woods had dropped back into the silence Jefferson Boone had encountered when he first stepped on the trail. But the man was not convinced all was well. Whatever – or whoever – had stepped on the twig was still somewhere nearby. Like the forest, it too was silent.
Boone considered his options. Following the trail home meant a two-mile trek through the dense woods. A two-mile trek with something following him. The other alternative was to head back to the tiny mountain town and seek shelter until daybreak. It was a half mile to the trailhead. A far shorter distance to travel. Of course, heading back to town meant swallowing his pride. The other fellas – Junior Wofford and Orville Minton – would never let him forget that he had turned back out of fear. They’d bring it up every time he stopped in for a drink. “Seen any monsters tonight, Jeff Boone?” That’d be the joke that never died. No one in their right mind would want to face that kind of ridicule. That settled the question. The man-made up his mind in an instant. “Hogwash,” he said. “I’m going home.”
He stepped away from the tree and back out on the trail. But Jefferson Boone had no sooner taken a single step when he heard a slight rustle – as if someone nearby was walking through the underbrush. The sound shook him to the core. There was no longer any doubt. Something in the forest was stalking him. The man wanted to run back to the safety of his friends in the small mountain village, but again, he forced himself to stand still. Jefferson Boone knew better than to run. Running might turn the whole thing into a cat and mouse type of contest. The mouse gets scared and starts to run back to its nest, but the cat’s been waiting for that moment, because there’s nothing a cat likes better than chasing and playing with the mouse before finishing it off.
At this very moment, Jefferson Boone felt very much like a mouse cornered by a very big cat. And there were cats in these woods. Mountain folk talked often about losing chickens and smaller animals to bobcats. Every now and then someone would catch sight of one and out came the hunting rifles. Not every bobcat wound up stuffed and hung above the fireplace, but there were enough stories to lend credence of predators hiding in the thick forest. And maybe, just maybe, Jefferson Boone thought, that’s what was following him on this chilly, moonless night. He almost laughed at himself as he realized he had been scared out of his wits by a cat. Sure, bobcats were no laughing matter. They could kill a man. But Jeff Boone knew that the best way to chase a big cat away was to make enough noise to scare it.
“Hey!” He called out into they night. “I ain’t afraid of you! Shoo, cat! Shoo!” He knelt down, grabbed a stick, and threw it against a tree. “Can’t scare me none! Run away! Run away!” Boone stomped the ground and kicked at the dirt. “You ain’t nothin’! Get away now! You’re just a great big kitty cat…not some old wives’ tale! Now, get! Be gone! You ain’t nothin’ but hogwash, y’ hear me? Hogwash…hogwash…hogwash!” He stamped the ground for good measure, then leaned back against the tree to catch his breath. “Reckon that ought to scare away any big cats.” He said aloud. The man chuckled at his own cleverness. “If’n I’d thought of that half a mile ago, I’d almost be halfway home instead a’ being here shiverin’ at nothin’.” He started for the trail once again, but couldn’t resist looking over his shoulder and laughing at whatever animal had followed him in the darkness. “Spooked you good, didn’t I?”
He turned back to the trail, but before he even set foot on the packed dirt, a hoarse whisper came from behind the tree he’d leaned on. “Hogwashhhhhh…” The voice said. Then came a cracking and snapping sound as if something large was stepping on twigs and fallen branches. The footsteps were coming towards Jefferson Boone.
The man’s feet were already moving before he even had time to get his bearings. Boone guessed at the trail’s location and followed what looked like a narrow footpath. Once on the path, Jefferson Boone ran for his life. Behind him ran a dark shape. It hissed and snarled. The sounds seemed to be gaining on him…each was one step closer than the last. The man ran faster, but no matter his pace, the creature kept at his heels.
Jefferson Boone could barely see the path. The forest seemed to grow darker the faster he ran. He stumbled on a tree root that crossed the trail, but quickly recovered. In that split second, however, the predator gained enough ground that the man felt the creature just a few steps behind. Jefferson Boone pushed himself to run faster, but his strength was fading. He would have to find another way to escape his pursuer. Boone strained his eyes, hoping to see the edge of the forest. There was nothing but more trees. While looking out into the forest, he failed to see a rock in the middle of the path. His foot caught the rock, causing his ankle to twist and snap. Boone fell face down on to the hard ground. He lay stunned and gasping for breath, but his mind told him to get up and move. He rolled over to get back to his feet. A sharp pain shot up his leg. Boone looked down to see his left foot twisted backwards. He tried to straighten it, but it hurt too badly. He cried out and pounded his fists into the dirt until the pain subsided.
It was a full minute before Jefferson Boone caught his breath. He tried to remember why he was running through the forest in the dark of night. Before he could piece it all together, he heard a slight rustle in the pine needles and fallen leaves that lined the sides of the trail. The noise – ever so faint – was enough to cut through the shock and pain. He recalled the chase. The terror that comes from being the hunted, not the hunter. His body trembled with fear and a new wave of pain washed over him. “Who’s there?” He called.
Another rustling noise.
“Who’s out there?” He said again.
A footstep on the trail. Not more than ten feet away. Now nine. Eight. Seven. The footsteps stopped.
Boone trembled. “Who are you? Why are you following me?”
One step. Another.
“What do you want?” Boone stared into the darkness.
A figure came into view. Five feet tall, give or take an inch. Thin, but with rounded hips and shoulders. The figure circled the fallen man, then knelt down beside him.
Jefferson Boone stared into the soft features and breathed a sigh of relief. “You’re a girl,” he said. “I got scared and chased by a girl.” He tried to laugh. A fresh wave of pain washed over him and his laugh turned into a moan.
The girl reached over and clasped his hand. She stroked his arm as Boone struggled to control the pain. When at last his body stopped shaking, he looked at the girl. “I broke my leg. It’s pretty bad. All twisted ’round. Ain’t no way I’m walkin’ out of here. You’ll have to go and get me some help. The folks in the village’ll know what t’ do. You go get ’em now, OK?”
The girl shifted to a sitting position and gently lifted the man’s head into her lap. She stroked his forehead and ran her fingers through his hair. Boone was puzzled by her actions.
“You go now, y’ hear?” He said. “It’s gettin’ colder out here an’ I’m shiverin’ bad.”
The girl continued stroking his face. “Please, girl,” Jefferson Boone pleaded. “Go an’ get a doctor for me.” The girl said nothing. The man grew agitated. “Can you hear me, girl? I’m hurt bad an’ I need some help.”
The girl sat still. Boone breathed a sigh of relief. She was listening. “Go an’ tell ’em I was in th’ woods and tripped. Just don’t tell ’em that I was runnin’ from a girl. They’ll mock me for the rest of my days an’ they’ll always say somethin’ like, ‘Didja think she was that Spearfinger creature we was telling you about?’ I think they was making up tales – Orville ‘n Junior – they do that. Even said that the Spearfinger disguises itself so’s it can stab ya in the side an’ pull out your liver. Eats it, they said. Some friends, huh? Whatcha think about that?”
The girl was quiet for a moment, then leaned her head down so that she could whisper an answer in his ear. Her answer was a single word that set Jefferson Boone shaking with fear. “Hogwashhh…”
“No…” he whimpered. “No…you’re not real. You can’t be. Please don’t…” He looked up at the girl just in time to watch her face transform into the face of an old, haggard crone. “No…” His body tensed as he felt a sharp stabbing pain in his side followed by a hard tug like someone was pulling his insides out. “No…You’re not real…” He said again. Then his world went dark.
Riley Layne removed his hat as he entered the bar. He walked slowly to a stool and sat down. Orville Minton had never seen him look so pale. “Evenin’, Sheriff.”
The man nodded. “Whiskey. Just a shot before I head home.”
The bartender filled a shot glass and slid it over to the lawman. Sheriff Layne grimaced as he downed the liquid. “It never gets any easier.” He said after a moment.
“You OK?” Orville Minton asked. “You look a little shook up.”
“Couple a’ college boys from down the way came t’ the station this morning. Pretty shook up. Said they’s hiking here along the Egypt Holler trail ‘n found a body. Took me an’ Tommy White down t’ see it. Y’know Tommy? Been on the force ’bout six weeks. Rock-solid deputy. He like t’ passed out when we seen it. It musta been there a good two weeks, judging from the decay. Animals got to it too, so it was pretty mangled up. But…uh…” He paused. When he spoke again, he sounded like his mind was far away, trying to forget the scene. “Pretty sure we made an identification.”
Junior Wofford was seated two stools away. He leaned over and asked, “Anybody we know?”
Sheriff Layne nodded. “Yeah. ‘Fraid so. We’re about ninety-nine percent certain it’s Jefferson Boone.”
Orville Minton choked up. “Jeff Boone?”
“Best we could tell he’d fallen and broke his leg. Pretty bad. He’d a probably died from exposure, falling in the woods with nobody to help him out…but that ain’t what killed him. When the coroner came up, he noticed right away that it looked like Boone had been stabbed in the side. Deep. Killer musta been a real sicko too, cause th’ coroner got to looking and discovered that the same knife was used t’ cut out Boone’s liver. What kind a’ person does that?” He stood up to leave. “I hate to do it, but I’m gonna have to call the state investigators from Nashville t’ drive down ‘n look into this.” He walked to the door and pulled it open. “Might want t’ be extra careful leavin’ to tonight.” He stepped outside and closed the door, leaving Junior Wofford and Orville Minton alone in the empty bar.
Junior Wofford looked at his friend. “Spearfinger. We warned him. Jeff Boone’s as stubborn as a mule. Wouldn’t listen.”
Orville Minton filled two glasses with beer and slid one over to Wofford. “I’m gonna miss that hard-headed old cuss.”
Junior Wofford raised his glass. “To Jefferson Boone.”
Orville Minton nodded. “To Jefferson Boone.”
Outside the bar, a gentle fall breeze flung a pile of dried leaves across the parking lot. Not content with its petty vandalism, the wind picked up strength until it battered the building and shook branches off of nearby trees. Then as suddenly as it blew in, it stopped, leaving everything still and quiet. Too quiet. Not even the crickets were chirping.
From the Author: I grew up in southeast Tennessee, and imagined it near that area. The name “Egypt Holler” is an actual location in Sequatchie Valley, TN, and it was reportedly haunted. At least my friends told me “The Booger Man” lived there…
Thanks again. I had fun writing this! My dad was a minister, and we traveled all over southeast Tennessee, so I got to hear a lot of weird stories as I grew up. Some of them were even true!
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