We would visit my Grandfather's property regularly when I was a boy. I had to be just old enough for chin stubble. The land is a few miles outside of a small town that prides itself on staying small. We would go down to the river when the summer days swelled with heat. The mountain water was almost always bone cold. I had come up from below the surface already panicked by the sting of glacial freeze when I noticed a Bearded Man on the shoreline across from us.
"His eyes. They were greyed over with the rot of death, it was like looking into a black hole through fogged glass."
He was crouched down, dampening a handkerchief. I strained to steady my breathing. I felt the beads of water still clinging to my sunburned neck. The man was fascinating because of his attire. I thought maybe he was Amish, but I didn't know much about that. My Mother would have scorned me for staring but she wasn't with us on this particular day. I reached out and slapped my little Brother's pale chest to get his attention. When I pointed at the man across the river my Brother looked but didn't seem to care much. As my Brother turned away the Bearded Man shot me a scowl. His eyes. They were greyed over with the rot of death, it was like looking into a black hole through fogged glass. Smiling. Dry and blackened. Eating my fear. Shadowed, yet exposed.
I felt the world spin out. My feet slipped from the rocks below me and I ended up on my back in the water. My face was hot, hotter than hell. My Brother scooped me up and I puked across his shoulder. He was yelling something, and my Grandfather stepped into the river splashing in his boots and overalls. My Grandfather rushed me to the local hospital where they diagnosed me with heat exhaustion. I tried to forget about the Bearded Man but his eyes haunted me. I dreamt of blackened holes, scraggly bushes of beard, and brow stained copper red by blood. I stayed away from the property as long as I could.
"...I knew the cows creeped me out as well. 'Leave em, those grass-eating heffers can freeze!' She'd proclaim in the dead of winter."
Don't Let The Cows In
My Grandfather turned up half-eaten on his property. We were told that it was coyotes that got him. Why a sixty-eight-year-old man was out wandering his land at two in the morning, we had no clue. My Father packed up our home in the city and we headed to my Grandparent's property to care for my Grandmother, an arthritic old lady whose only hobby was yelling at the cows. She would tell me not to let the cows in. I wasn't sure what that meant, but I knew the cows creeped me out as well. "Leave em, those grass-eating heffers can freeze!" She'd proclaim in the dead of winter. She would have my Brother and I pin blankets up blocking the view of the surrounding mountains from inside the single-wide. She insisted it was for the better, that the cows didn't need to see us, but my Father would take the blankets down once he got home from work. This became our ritual.
The Tale of Another Trespasser
I began doing my research into who the Bearded Man could be. Unfortunately, the history of a small town can be hard to track down. These rural areas tend to be less documented, another form of conservation, I presume. If you ask around enough though, you might find someone who heard a story. If you're fortunate they may let you in on the local secrets, which can be more forthcoming than expected.
Doc had tuberculosis. I'm nearly certain he's dead today, but when I was invited into his home those years ago (I had gone to school with his Great-Niece) he made sure that I feared the wraith to come. He begged me to leave town, which I knew I couldn't, I was just sixteen. Between coughing fits, and cursing he told me of the founders of our town. He spoke of a ritual that took place, one that The Founders had learned from the Natives who welcomed them here, all those years ago. He feared the cows as my Grandmother had. I wanted to make sense of the situation. I hoped to be able to explain the threat to my Father, but he wouldn't hear it. He had given up his job, and wife to come here. It was too hard for him to hear me from sober shores.
I had to recruit my Brother, he was the last person I wanted to get hurt, but I needed someone I could rely on, someone who would listen to this madness. He didn't believe me, not at first. That changed after a childhood friend of ours came to visit. By some freak accident, he drowned in the river. My Brother insisted that he saw him, the mangled grin, sturdy shoulders, and square beard. He was departing the river bank as my Brother rushed in to help our friend. My Brother said that he was drying his hands with a handkerchief. I can only assume that he was wiping the murder from his skin.
"I know now that The Founders were only doing what any of us would do. They were defending their land from trespassers."
We plotted to throw a Halloween party on the property, one that would most definitely aggravate our Father and worry our Grandmother. The barn would be our venue and the path to the river would be lit. We intended to draw him out, and hopefully kill him. I'd seen plenty of horror films and thought that he might be some form of a supernatural entity. I hoped that maybe exposing him to others would vanquish him, or perhaps I needed to simply drive a pitchfork through his chest. We were ill-equipped and under-prepared. The founders came in droves.
Doc's Niece had shown up, and that had me on cloud nine, despite knowing the risk we brought upon the locals that night. I considered ushering Doc's Niece into a corner of the barn and urging her to come with me. "We could leave, go far away. So far away." I'd have said. But I didn't do that, and instead, my Brother offered me a beer. It was warm and didn't settle with my stomach all that well. I know now that The Founders were only doing what any of us would do. They were defending their land from trespassers. Some of us were offered leniency, but that too dwindled in time.
"You wouldn't believe the sounds that danced and mingled in the horrors of that barn."
At first, they surrounded the barn. An undead horde of settlers, and their cows. The other kids inside thought it a meticulous prank, but my brother and I assured them it wasn't. We tried to apologize. We offered to leave, but the Bearded Man did not acknowledge our attempts, it was too late. Before I knew it people were screaming, running... begging. A few football players had made a run for it, dames in hand. I had drawn the pitchfork; my Brother a shovel. We hadn't expected this. Together we tried to ward them off, but it was no use. The founders tore limbs away from bodies, scraped flesh from skulls, and chewed bones like rabid animals. The cows filled the barn acting as obstacles in our struggle. You wouldn't believe the sounds that danced and mingled in the horrors of that barn.
"She had finally let the cows in."
I don't know if Doc's Niece made it out, but from what my Brother and I experienced I don't think anyone did. We stabbed and slashed our way out of the barn, stepping over the corpses of our schoolmates. We raced up the hill to the single-wide, like two kids who just spent all day swimming in the river and were seeking reprieve from the sun. I felt sorry for those who had fallen. They came to the wrong party, the wrong barn, the wrong property.
Beneath The Pines
Cows had smashed their way through the front door. Our Father was lying with a shotgun under his gut and a hayfork in his back. We hadn't known they made it up here. Everything was happening too fast. My Brother checked on our Father, I went for the keys to the pickup. My Grandmother was in her chair in the living room. Three cows were gathered around her. A low moan was either coming from her or the cows, this moan was paired with chomping and slurping. She had finally let the cows in.
"They died because they were not permitted to come here, yet now they're buried beneath the pines."
I had the keys, my Brother confirmed my suspicion of Father being dead, and we were off again out the front door. Other teens were scrabbling to their vehicles in our muddied driveway only to be struck down by variations of hammers and knives, my Brother being one of them. I scooped him up onto my shoulder. I tossed him into the passenger seat and circled to the other side. When I started the truck someone was splayed across the hood, but in the haste to back out and get onto the road they slid off leaving a streak. My Brother was wheezing at that point. I found my Grandfather's handkerchief in the center console and gave it to him to hold onto the wound in his chest. I hadn't made it far before clipping a cow on the passenger side which sent us careening into the river.
You might be confused by my intentions of telling you all of this. You may consider me a monster. You may not even believe me. I'm no murderer, nor am I alone. This is a warning to those who seek to console me. I've been saved. I've found purpose when I needed it most. They died because they were not permitted to come here, yet now they're buried beneath the pines. The Founders have tied themselves to the land, and we too can no longer leave.
My Brother, well he was washed away in the river. I've seen him a time or two since, but he's no trespasser.
If ever you find a river with a Bearded Man across the way wiping his hands clean, you should heed the warning. I can't help you if you ignore me. Think twice before taking a dip this summer. They always come in the summer. I have known him since I was a boy, and I was right to fear him; you would be too... And remember don't let the cows in.