Weekend Wind Down – StoneGallows Hill

Min, Jenny and Linda had been walking their dogs through the woods every morning since summer began to bake the land. It was cool under the trees and the dark leaf-mould was soft underfoot, meaning the canines could run to their hearts’ content while the three women ambled through the green-scented shade, chatting as they went.
About halfway round, the path emerged from the woodland to the edge of a bright green meadow with a pebbly-bottomed stream – and peaty grass that was boggy underfoot for most of the year. The women would emerge blinking into the sunlight while the dogs charged into the sparkling water drinking noisily and wallowing like furry hippos.
It was a day so hot that even the woodland felt a bit airless, which meant that the canines had taken even longer than usual in the cool water. The women were just about to call them out when one of Min’s German Shepherds lifted his head and woofed gently. Before the ‘pack’ could be brought to heel there came a sound of crashing in the undergrowth and two teenage girls emerged from the woodland at a gallop. They ran up to Min.
“Aunt Min. Aunt Min.”
“Tiffany. Chardonnay. Whatever is the matter?”
The smaller of the two made a prim mouth. “There’s a man up by the stone gallows. And he’s got his thing out hasn’t he Tiff?”
“Was he having a piss?”
Tiff shook her head.“No. He was just stood there waving his todger at us.”
Min looked at the two faces and saw little sign of upset. No. If truth were to be told the girls looked more excited than worried.
“You two okay?”
“Yeah. We are. We were just surprised.”
“Do you want us to walk you home?”
“No. Thanks. We’re okay. We can cross the next field and get back onto the road. But what are you going to do?”
“We’ll take the dogs up StoneGallows Hill and have a word with whatever they find up there. You tell your dads I’m on it and I’ll pop by and see them later.”
“But will you be all right?” Tiff sounded genuinely concerned.
“Course we will, love. Three women and five dogs should be enough to scare even the most determined flasher.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I am. Now get along home.”
The teenagers hugged her briefly, before crossing the water meadow and climbing the gate to the next field.
Linda eyed Min narrowly. “We going up StoneGallows then?”
“I am. It’s up to you whether you come or not.”
Jenny elbowed Linda. “Of course we’re coming. I haven’t seen a willie in years.”
Linda snuffled out a laugh. “I still see one occasionally, though I wish I didn’t.”
“At least whatever he’s waving isn’t going to come as any surprise.”
With which comfortable thought they whistled up the dogs and plunged back into the semi-darkness of the wood. For a while they followed their accustomed path, but then they deviated over a granite stile – which involved lifting Linda’s bad-tempered spaniel, Susan – and out of the woods onto springy upland turf. It was a stiffish climb and even when they reached the top of the hill there was little breeze and the brazen sun seemed to be turning the whole sky yellow. The dogs flopped down on the grass and the women looked about them. The stone gallows themselves stood on a rough rocky mound which was currently starred with white fairy flax flowers.
“Doesn’t seem to be anybody here now.”
Linda’s rather pointed nose was twitching as she peered shortsightedly about her, and, not for the first time, Min thought how much like a rat she looked.
“Doesn’t mean there wasn’t,” Jenny snapped her fingers and her two Doberman Pinschers came to heel. “Hans. Klaus. Seek.”
They began quartering the ground and Min’s sleek golden shepherds joined in the game. It was Apollo who found something first. He stood stock still pointing at a spot in the grass. His brother Phoenix joined him, as did Klaus and Hans. They stood like statues, and Susan heaved herself up off her fat backside to go and see what they had found. When the fifth member of the pack joined the circle Phoenix lifted his head and howled. The other four joined in, and for a moment the sultry air was filled with spine-tingling howls.
“Our flasher must smell deeply disturbing,” Linda marched over to where the dogs were surrounding a damp patch in the arid earth. “I sincerely hope that isn’t what I think it is.”
“Probably is.” Jenny came and looked down. “Very probably is. Euwww.”
Min snorted.“Whoever he is. He’s gone now. Let’s go home. I have brownies in the larder.”
The mention of food was enough to make Susan lose interest in the damp spot, and once she moved the other dogs abandoned their vigil.
It was a subdued crew that made its way back down into the valley and the cluster of grey stone houses they called home.
But strong tea and rather more brownies than were strictly necessary lifted the mood, with the group breaking up cheerfully enough and promising to meet as usual on the morrow. Min went to see the fathers of Tiffany and Chardonnay, with the upshot of that being Facebook and Twitter posts warning of a possible flasher in the area of the stone gallows.
It was quiet enough for a week or two, but then more people began seeing a black-dressed figure who emanated frustrated sexuality and waved his manhood at passing females. But whoever he was, he was quick on his feet, because two or three of the younger men went out a time or two, and they never caught even a whiff of anybody, which was odd.
Odder still, One-Eyed George, the one remaining career poacher in the vicinity, was actually heard to say that his dogs wouldn’t go up over StoneGallows Hill no matter how he shouted at them.
Min frowned and started to carry her phone with her at all times. She was fairly certain that three old women – with a pack of dogs – really weren’t going to attract the attentions of whoever was frightening young girls. But, as Linda said, fairly certain butters no parsnips.
There was an aura of mounting unease about the village, and the local law enforcement could be seen driving up and down the sunken road that meandered through the valley at random hours of the day and night. Although how they thought that was going to help anyone to apprehend a flasher in the woods…
Matters came to a head on the longest day, when the flasher waved his equipment at a young woman who was out photographing birds. As he leapt from the bushes she lifted her camera and kept a finger on the shutter. The figure hid his eyes from the powerful flash and shambled back into the trees. She lit out at a run. Arriving in the village puffed out but triumphant.
“I’ve got his picture,” she yelled. “Here.”
Walking into the shade of the pub porch she thumbed a control on her camera. The screen showed a burst of shots of the wood. But no flasher.
The birdwatcher stared at her camera.
“But he was there. Right in front of me. Waving his…”
“Willy?”
Min had arrived unobtrusively at the edge of the crowd. She listened with half an ear to the increasingly improbable ‘explanations’ that were being put forward for the flasher-less pictures, before turning round and going home deep in thought.
By lunchtime she had made her decision, and she phoned Linda and Jenny who both agreed to be at her house for a late solstice supper.
It was midnight and a fat moon hung in the sky like a childish drawing. The three women had finished their meal and they now sat around the table in a room lit only by that moon.
Jenny broke the silence. “Are you sure about this Min?”
“No. I’m not sure. But I don’t have any better ideas.”
Linda looked at her own hands where they lay on the table. “I thought we agreed never to do this again.”
Min grimaced. “We did. But I refer you to my previous answer.”
“Okay. I’m in.”
“Me too.”
Min reached behind her and picked up a bundle from the window seat. She unrolled it to disclose a deck of cards, and a silver bell. Jenny put the bell in the centre of the table and the three women laid their hands palm down on the polished wood. The hands made a circle and as the last little finger touched its neighbour the bell on the table rang. Linda closed her eyes.
“We ask that whatever is haunting StoneGallows Hill be returned to the light.”
“We ask in humble gratitude.”
“We ask in sisterhood.”
The air in the room thickened making it hard to breathe. While each of the women felt sweat stand on her forehead. And each felt a compulsion to move her hands. But they resisted and the bell rang again.
On StoneGallows Hill the moonlight fractured and there came the sound of a creaking rope. The body that hung from the gallows swung from side to side in a nonexistent wind, and the empty holes that were once his eyes shed tears of blood. On the arm of the gallows a raven sat preening its feathers.
“Caw,” it said harshly as the light stuttered again before the body and the big black bird disappeared.
In Min’s sitting room, Linda slumped onto the table.
“It’s done,” she whispered as the pack of cards cut itself and the hanged man lay face-up on the polished mahogany in the moonlight.
It’s a matter of record that the StoneGallows Hill flasher was never seen again.

© jane jago 2020

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