"The Ox-Cart Man"
Until we were twelve years old, Billy Wilson and I searched for the Ox-Cart Man during our summer vacations in New Hampshire. Our searches grew over the years, adding new technology and techniques to find the worn path where that phantom supposedly trekked home from the Portsmouth market.
That last summer was very special—we both knew it would be our last chance to find the old road and maybe catch a glimpse of the Ox-Cart Man together. Billy’s dad was being transferred to California, and I would have to reconnoiter the Piscataqua River valley alone, climbing over rock and stone, through old forests, and near quietly murmuring streams for a hint of the legend. We pledged to find him that year.
Billy collected anything to do with the Ox-Cart Man—scraps of stories in old newspapers, books of regional ghost stories, pictures of lost throughways, bridges, and foundations of homes that time pushed aside. He constructed a map of the region, complete with every reported sighting.
I snuck out of my house on that last night. Both of us traveled by bicycle, dangerous in the dark, but stealthy too.
“I’ve learned some new stuff,” he said, eyes glowing like silver embers under the moon. “Mom drove me to the library in Portsmouth today. They have a whole new local folklore section.”
We slid off our bikes near an old crossroads.
“All the stories corroborate, he was shot by some highwaymen. He was on his way home from the market after bartering all his family’s goods, even the ox and cart.” Billy snapped on a flashlight and ducked under a sycamore branch.
“Okay, we know that bit,” I said, tromping after him.
Billy stopped, turned, and smiled. “There’s a part of the legend I’d never heard before. His son left looking for him after the Ox-Cart Man didn’t return. The son never came home, either.”
A chill breeze danced through the trees.
“They say his son is still looking for him,” Billy whispered. “He was our age.” He nudged me with a knobby elbow. “His name was William.”
We found a spot where the old path dipped low beside a dying stream. Billy’s notes indicated this might have been the location the Ox-Cart Man met his fate. I felt a little childish when fear crept in my chest; Billy needed some closure on his own childhood—he needed some verification of his beliefs.
The moon shifted back toward the morning horizon, filtering long streams of pale light through the forest. The night smelled black: the rich smell of mud and old moss. Billy and I kept the vigil in silence. Then he arrived, shimmering like a morning fog.
The Ox Cart Man looked more solid than I’d expected. He loped with a steady gait, a pole over his shoulder holding a black kettle. His face was drawn, long and rimmed with a reddish beard, just like the legends said. The man wore a rough cotton shirt and black coat. His feet struck the ground with no sound but the light brush of breeze.
Billy stood up. I remember the burning in my arms and legs—the tingling nerves. I wanted to stop him, but all I could do was watch as my friend walked toward the Ox Cart Man.
The man stopped, regarding Billy. He knelt after a moment, smiling. I heard a voice—not from the specter but in my head.
The Ox Cart Man reached inside his black kettle and pulled out a small candy, wintergreen so the stories told, and offered it to Billy.
They stood for a few minutes in silence until finally without a look back, Billy walked away with the Ox Cart Man. I could do nothing but sit with a throbbing heart as the father and son vanished into the trees, fading like the mist.
Originally Published in Northern Haunts (Shroud Publishing, 2009)