Even the darkness of the night couldn’t disguise the dust. What had been a lake of mud and dung only a week ago was now a fly infested dust bowl. But most folks in town called it Main Street. He walked straight down the middle of the road carefully avoiding a pair of dogs fighting over a carcass. He didn’t recognize what manner of creature the dead thing had been previously, and he didn’t care. He was thirsty and more than a little annoyed.
The music from the saloon had ceased about an hour ago and the barkeep was attempting to close up when the stranger, dressed in black, walked in. He was so startled by the appearance of the stranger that he almost didn’t catch the silver dollar so casually tossed by the newcomer.
“Whisky!?” The stranger sort of asked, mostly demanded.
The barkeep briefly considered telling the stranger to go to hell but one look at the shiny Bowie knife changed his mind. That and the whisky was only a dime a shot, and the silver dollar was a down payment on a bottle. The money was good, even if the whisky wasn’t.
Of the two remaining drunks, only one had the misfortune of approaching the man with the large knife. The other stumbled out the front door and promptly passed out on the dusty street.
The stranger made no reply.
“I SAID . . . nice knife!” He made two steps toward the stranger.
The speed in which the small throwing knife moved could never be calculated. But the impact on anyone who saw it was said to be legendary. Trouble was, no one saw it. The hat, collected by the deadly steel blade as it flew over the head of the remaining drunk, found a new home on the wall right between the chalk board menu and a wanted poster. The hatless belligerent passed out for the night between two barstools.
“Sorry about that.” The stranger apologized.
“Not a problem. You handled Jed better than I could have. Next one is on me.” The barkeep detected a slight smile under the heavy black hat.
“Just passin through or are ya stayin?”
“Staying, but not for long. I hope. I need a room.”
“What’s the occasion? Business or pleasure?”
“Neither. It’s my birthday.”
The barkeep ducked under the bar for a moment.
“In that case . . . might as well use the good stuff.” He set a fresh bottle of whisky on the counter and opened it.
“Happy Birthday Mr. . . . .?”
The man made no sound.
The man snapped out of a trance.
“Hmm? Oh, uh, you know what? I am so old now I don’t even remember my own name.” He smiled. Then he took off his hat. A cascade of black hair fell around his shoulders. The bartender laughed.
“Old? HAHAHA. That’s a good one. You ain’t a day over 30.”
The stranger’s face changed. His eyes held the barkeep and he froze. Something about the man gave him the impression that he really was looking at a very old person.
“Truly sir, I kid you not. Today is more a memorial for a life long forgotten than a celebration.” He paused and his eyes seemed to change color. They were as black as marble. “Can I bother you with a story? I promise it will be a good one.”
The barkeep was suddenly frightened but a curiosity quickly overshadowed his fear. He had heard many a stranger spin fanciful yarns and he could tell that this stranger was about to tell a story that no one would believe, no doubt. He wasn’t about to miss it.
“I am all ears, sir. Just how old are you, if I might be so rude to ask?”
The stranger gave the room a passing glance as though someone uninvited might hear.
“Today is my 285th Birthday.”
The mist was heavy that morning. A cold snap had settled into the marshes well into spring. The remaining ice made it difficult for the paddlers to advance quietly, and quiet was important. They were on edge. The English settlers had become quiet, inactive. The elders wondered why. A party was sent to investigate. Each paddler was alert, their senses heightened. The lead boat stopped paddling suddenly. A hand rose. All canoes stopped, each man looking, listening, smelling; nothing. Not even smoke from fires. What evil had befallen the whites?
The heavy, cold, mist could hide a war party. Was that what happened? Did the weak members of the small colony succumb to a raid or worse, sickness? That was something everyone feared. Sickness could not be fought, a war party could. But the whites had guns and knew how to use them. Could they have been overcome even with such power?
Silently the canoes beached. Clubs replaced paddles. Footfall regarded no sounds. No shadows in the mist unveiled the slight walls of the compound. If a war party were here, they would have engaged by now. Now the men were more afraid. It must be sickness. But it didn’t smell like sickness. Yes, there was the smell of death hanging in the frigid air, but that smell had always surrounded the white strangers, like a blanket.
Minoa had never seen such people. He hadn’t considered them as people anyway. They were strange. They built homes that could not easily be moved and wore garments of heavy materials he had never seen. The fences didn’t prevent anything from getting in. They were white like Gods. But could they be Gods and yet be so vulnerable and stupid? They didn’t know how to grow crops for food and spent too much time hunting for meat that was scarce rather than set nets for plentiful fish. No, they could not be Gods. He concluded that they must be demons. They must have been sent here as some sort of punishment. They angered the Gods somehow and therefore were forced to suffer. Minoa made a mental note to increase his offerings to the Gods.
Robert knew his wife would not last the night. If he was lucky his newborn son would die as well. No child should have to endure the hardships of which they found themselves. This just wasn’t the plan. The colony wasn’t prepared for the conditions and when the resupply ship didn’t come as planned they knew they were doomed. Even God had abandoned them.
Now, in the early morning hours, the cold seeped into his bones and he began to hope that they might all be spared more suffering. That death would bring comfort was now his only wish. His failure was total. Now he wanted to die because living with the shame of such failure was more than he could bear. It had occurred to him that taking a wife before leaving for the New World was selfish, and indeed it was, but Emily wouldn’t hear it. She would not only marry him, she would take the arduous trip gladly. The adventure excited her. She would be a torch bearer for the women who would follow her there, to Roanoke. They were both thrilled when she learned that she was expecting. Theirs would be the second born of the European families, the first being Virginia Dare. That milestone had already been breached.
Robert considered a final solution. The lives of the innocent should not pay the price for his ambition. If he could only muster the courage needed or the strength. They ran out of food weeks ago. The little they had managed to scavenge went to the weakest, Roberts’s young son included. He wasn’t sure if it was a miracle or a curse that no one had yet perished.
“I’ll sleep on it. Maybe a great shroud will befall us in our slumber. Maybe the Lord has not forsaken us and will call us home. Yes, I will sleep on it.”
Then, just as he closed his eyes, a twig snapped. Something was inside the walls of the compound.
The gate had no locking mechanism or even a rope tied to keep it shut. It was as if no one cared to keep it secure. Minoa and the other men had no trouble walking into the poorly defended encampment. They were shocked by what they found.
The whole area was littered with debris and carcasses of dead animals; mostly small birds and rodents. But there were no bodies. Maybe they buried their dead or perhaps they kept their dead indoors, or worse, they ate each other. The flies weren’t too bad because of the cold but were busy nevertheless. It seems a garden had been planted but hastily and too late in the season to produce. These people were definitely not Gods. There were no fish bones anywhere. The river and marsh had much to provide and yet these people did not or could not take advantage of something so simple.
Most troubling was the lack of smoke. The small huts should have been sufficient to provide adequate shelter, especially with central fire pits for warmth. Minoa feared the worst, that these people had succumbed to a deadly sickness and that they too would become sick and die. But then something surprising happened. A small cry came from one of the huts. It sounded like the cry of a child.
The infant had refused to fall asleep. He had been unnaturally curious about things from the very first day of life. Even now with everyone asleep he was wide awake, listening for any sound, sniffing for any scent, looking for any light. He was hungry but he was used to being hungry. Any amount of crying didn’t seem to help. He stopped trying. But then he heard a new sound, at least one that he had not heard in a while. Someone was stirring outside. He wondered who it was. He let out a sound, just to get the attention of whoever it was. Just a little sound at first. No response came. So he tried again, this time a little louder. Again, no response. So, he mustered up some strength and really wailed.
Minoa heard the cry and hastily made his way to the area of the camp where he thought the sound came from. It was a plea from an innocent and Minoa could not refuse the call. His children had all succumbed to disease and he did not wish to see another young life lost if he could help it; even if it was white.
He opened the door to a small hut; the smell nearly knocked him backwards. The crying was coming from a small bundle in a corner. A woman was lying in a heap on the opposite side of the room. Then he heard a grunting. A man in the middle of the room stirred under a blanket. Minoa unsheathed his knife and prepared for a possible battle. But the battle didn’t come. The man and woman both were seemingly incapable of movement.
It was now clear to Minoa that these people weren’t sick, they were starving. He was relieved for only a moment. Now he and his kinsmen had decisions to make. What were they going to do with these people?
Robert knew they were not alone but he was too weak to do anything about it. He hoped that maybe this was the end he had dared to wish for. He immediately regretted that wish.
“I am a coward.” He mumbled.
Then a strong hand rolled him over and he was staring at the face of a stranger. Was this the face of death? The face was painted and the sounds that came from this being were unintelligible. Maybe this was a demon sent to prepare Robert for the afterlife; an afterlife he believed deserved to be an eternity in Hell.
But then he felt himself lifted, carried, by surprisingly gentle hands of the stranger. He made a plea for mercy.
“Mm. .my. . .my. . boy. . .” Then he passed out.
“These are the words my father and Minoa told me 5 years after the day of my birth.” He took a swig of his whiskey. “They never tired of telling that story.”
He didn’t see any recognition in the eyes of the barkeep. “Yes, the baby was me. If that was unclear. . .”
The dubious bartender refilled the empty glass. “Interesting history lesson, stranger.”
“A lesson is not my intent. I am merely allowing myself a bit of aggrandizement. That and I am sure you do not believe me anyway.”
The bartender said nothing. He sat back in his chair and waited for more of the story.
“No worries my friend. It matters not to me. But I do appreciate your ear. Shall I continue?”
The old man motioned for him to do so.
After a week of care, the English Settlers began to emerge from the huts in the Indian village. Each bleary eyed but no longer consumed by hunger. Robert decided to call a meeting.
“We have been abandoned by England, I’m afraid. Left to our destinies and this dreary land. But it seems divine providence has seen us through. These fine savages have shown a greater Christian charity than they even know exists. As much as we fear each other, today my son, my wife, my colleagues, all live because these strangers saw fit to provide. We owe them many thanks.”
He received many nods in agreement.
“Now we have a decision to make. It seems we have been invited to join our rescuers and abandon our useless hovels and perhaps England herself. We can expect no provisioning nor can we expect our feeble skills to raise us to victory over this land we know nothing about. These fine natives have a need as well. Their numbers are dwindling due to sickness. We seem immune, thank merciful God. We can all find strength in greater numbers. We can learn from each other and prosper together.”
More nods in agreement from everyone. This surprised Robert. He expected some debate or talk of mutiny over the Crown. His merry band of colonists, it seems, had endured enough hardship to place their trust in England now.
Again, the Stranger regarded the old man and the disbelief on his face. He chuckled.
“We are known now as ‘The Lost Colony.’ No one ever came for us and what happened to us remains an official mystery. We like to keep it that way. Not that it matters now. So much time has passed.”
“Coexistence became easy for the people of Europe and our new family of American natives. Intermarriages were blessed and children born of mixed race were accepted by all. A few of the remaining white settlers didn’t fare well in the harsh environment while others seemed to flourish. Robert’s wife, my mother, who had bravely clung to life just a few years before, succumbed to a mysterious illness. My father took on a new wife; a maiden recently widowed when a war party returned a few warriors short. She became my new mother.”
He looked away wistfully.
“Everything was fine, until we were “discovered.”
A new evil had arrived in the wilds of New England. No one knows when it arrived exactly. But more and more evidence, bloodshed, death, grief, and horror followed all who wandered off without care. Entire villages would disappear without any trace.
Hunting parties were dispatched to end the terror but only a small handful of warriors would return. Those that did were no longer warriors. The faces of men whose only goal in life was to be strong and prosperous warriors, men among men, glorified in the hunt, providers of life and glories of war, all drowning in sorrow and unspeakable fear; useless shells of their former selves.
This evil in the woods did not just destroy flesh, it destroyed spirit.
The Stranger paused for some time. The barkeep didn’t dare make a sound. After a spell the Stranger looked up. The barkeep saw nothing on his face to indicate the man’s mood. He was emotionless; empty.
“And that is how it was for several years.” The stranger tossed back another shot. “We never saw what was killing our people. But we did find gruesome remains after every hunting party came home with fewer and fewer of us.”
The barkeep tossed one back too. “Let’s just suppose I believe you, which isn’t too likely, what was it? What was killin’ you folk?”
The stranger turned to face the old man. Their eyes locked.
“What was killing us became my life’s ambition. But not right away.”
As the young man grew, he found that he became more and more isolated. After his father died, he became even more dependent on his adopted mother. They adored each other and were fiercely protective of their small but tight bond.
So many of the original Roanoke Colonists had died, either from disease, tribal warfare, or by whatever it was that was killing them slowly, year by year. Now the remaining people of the tribe were living in terror.
Fear became the norm and that meant little to no patience or toleration amongst the remaining tribe members. Tempers were short, prejudices became pronounced, and arguments sometimes turned violent.
When a group of young hunters returned from a rare successful hunt, the young settler watched their glee with a hint of jealousy.
Their leader, carrying a freshly killed buck, sneered at the young white colonist.
“Look, the white girl wants me. For I am the most desirable hunter in the tribe.”
The others laughed and praised his hubris. The young hunter- in- waiting was so angry his vision blurred. He owned no weapons. He had no skill with a blade or bow. He picked up a rock and reared back to hurl it at an unsuspecting head. Just as he was ready to release the small missile, his adopted mother grabbed his arm.
“This is NOT the way of a warrior! We cannot afford to fight amongst ourselves. Yes, they are stupid and full of themselves, but that is because they are frightened.”
“Frightened? By what? Didn’t you hear them?” His hot tears streamed down his face.
“Yes, I heard them. They fear what we all fear. The unknown. The force in the woods. Each other. You. Me. The creator has abandoned them. They fear death. They act out with cowardice. YOU will not! You are my SON!”
“I forced myself to become stronger, braver, faster; a warrior. No one would help me so I had to do it myself.”
“After a couple of years I was ready. At least I thought I was. Without permission from the elders I took a knife and a spear, both from my adoptive mothers dead husband, and walked into the darkness of the woods. My mother wept.”
“The creature, or creatures, was out there and I was either going to destroy it and therefore make my family’s legacy strong and honored for all time, or I would die without memorial. Either was fine with me. One way or the other the bleeding was going to stop.”
The barkeep was wide awake now and his attention was unwavering. He still couldn’t believe what he was hearing, but it was a good story.
He didn’t get very far when a small band of young warriors intercepted him. “Where do you think you are going?”
He grasped his spear tightly.
“I intend to destroy our enemy.” He chose his words carefully.
“All by yourself?” They chuckled.
He glared and felt the heat of hatred well up in his throat. “I figure I must since none of you have been able to do it.” His eyes never left the leader.
The tension was obvious and the other warriors reddened with anger and a little fear for what they thought might happen next. This show of strength and lack of respect would not go unanswered.
The leader paused a moment and without any attempt to defend his honor laid his spear aside and thrust out a hand, not in challenge.
“We will come with you. You have shown bravery. We die together.”
They shook hands all around and smiled. Their spirits soaring.
End Part One