THE OCCURRENCE AT DEVIL’S DEN

Updated: Jun 4

A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories. The sky exhaled a sad greyness so that the building merged with the gloom and filled the peripheries of my vision. This made me feel as if I were enclosed in an impressionist painting. It was early March and cold and I couldn’t figure out why one of the richest men in America would run his business from such an ugly place. The building lacked any sense of distinction and didn’t so much jut out of the city’s skyline as loom over it. I made my way up the broad granite steps to the main door where a humourless man asked for my name.


‘Ford,’ I said, ‘I’m here to see Mr. Walker.’


‘This way,’ said the man.

We rode the elevator in virtual silence. I tried to engage the man in small talk, but he ignored me and stared implacably at the elevator door. After the awkward minutes to the 17th floor were done, the man told me to go to room 179 which was down the hall to the left, and knock once on the door.

‘Once, Mr. Ford, no more.’


I nodded and exited the elevator. As I walked the narrow corridor, a powerful sense of isolation struck me, as if I’d travelled in time to a strange future. I didn’t think much about it and the feeling lifted. I arrived at 179 and reached up to knock on the door. For a moment I hesitated, but after a second curled my fingers into my palm and rapped once on the door. I heard footsteps within and soon after the door opened, and Mr. Walker invited me in. He was tall with an angular face that gave him a stern demeanour. His complexion matched the pallor of the day and I reasoned he spent much of his time indoors. He invited me to sit in one of the two plush chairs in front of an imposing mahogany desk. I chose the one nearest and sat down, finding myself surprised to sink into it. I had to make an effort to sit up straight. Walker noticed and a wry smile flickered on his face.


‘Did you have a pleasant journey, Mr. Ford?’

I’d flown from New York that morning, there had been strong crosswinds during take-off and landing.

‘Yes, it was fine.’


Walker’s desk was spartan. There was a telephone, two pens in an upright stand, a photo frame whose subject I could not see and a bronze statuette of what I suspected was a Union cavalryman.

‘Do you like it?’ said Walker, his voice conversational, inviting a response.


He stood up and pushed the statuette towards me. I picked it up and examined it perfunctorily. It was heavier than I expected, and its marble base seemed colder than it ought to be.

‘Very nice,’ I said, returning it to the desk.

‘That is Brigadier General John Henry Hobart Ward.’

My expression must have conveyed a lack of interest as the previous friendliness in Walker’s voice disappeared. There was something about the way he spoke I couldn’t figure out. His words were slow and deliberate and seemed out of place in a modern world.

‘You’re not familiar with Civil War history, are you Mr. Ford?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I haven’t looked at a history book since high school.’

Walker’s eyes met mine and remained there. I held his stare long enough to get a measure of the man and to let him measure me. I was used to dealing with powerful men and was not intimidated. In the years of doing their various tasks, I had become accustomed to how they worked. They were all the same. They wanted you to be deferential and acknowledge their superiority.


‘Is it important that I do?’ I asked.

‘It’s not essential,’ said Walker, ‘but some education in our nation’s history would be no harm.’

I bristled slightly at the word harm, there was no weight in how Walker expressed the word, but the earlier feeling of isolation returned. Walker proceeded to tell me about Ward who, with relatively few men and no reserves, held the ground between the Wheatfield Road and the Devil’s Den at Gettysburg. The story as he told it was entertaining and he spoke enthusiastically.

‘They say Plum Run ran red with the blood of the dead for days.’

I nodded.

‘Are you a superstitious man Mr. Ford?’

I smirked.


‘No.’

I didn’t elaborate even though Walker’s eyes returned to fix their gaze on me. I waited for him to talk.

‘You see, many people say Devil’s Den is haunted, cursed even.’

‘My grandfather told stories about the Civil War when I was a kid,’ I said, ‘I think he was trying to scare us for his own amusement.’


‘Your family is from the Boston area Mr. Ford?’ Walker’s tone had the sombre quality of a prosecutor.

I’d expected this. Walker had a reputation for meticulous research.


‘Yes, Somerville.’

‘My family is from New York, but I no longer care for the city. I find it too raucous for my tastes. I prefer the quietude of somewhere more rural.’


Walker looked away as if his eyes had caught sight of something in the distance. A look of stillness descended upon him. He remained this way for a few seconds before breaking from his trance and reaching into a desk drawer. He took out a leather-bound case, opened it, and placed a wrinkled piece of brown paper about the size of a placemat. He pushed it across the desk with his index finger and without saying anything invited me to look at it. I leaned forward and my eyes moved over the markings on the paper. It was a map. A map of the Devil’s Den and environs.

‘It is rumoured,’ began Walker, ‘that a few years or so after the battle Ward buried the gold he had plundered during the war in the Devil’s Den. Perhaps he believed the ghosts would protect it or maybe his conscience troubled him for war profiteering?’


‘He sounds like quite a character,’ I said.


Walker ignored my comment.


‘I have recently acquired this map and I would like you to see if there is any truth to the rumour.’

‘You want me to look for buried treasure?’ I said somewhat underwhelmed.


‘I appreciate it is not your usual line of work, but you come highly recommended, and with the right price a man can be persuaded to do almost anything.’

I enjoyed the irony. My work mostly involved burying things, be they secrets or people.

‘How much?’ I said.


‘Fifty percent of any gold you find.’


I chuckled.


‘And if I find nothing?’


‘I will cover your expenses and pay double your daily rate for time incurred.’

I didn’t much care for poking around rural Pennsylvania on what was probably a fool's errand, but it was easy money, and besides, I didn’t have another job lined up until the end of the month.

‘I’ll give it two days,’ I said.

‘You’ll probably only need one. Though it’d be best to do any digging discreetly, maybe wait until after dark. There will be visitors during the day and you’d likely be prosecuted for defacing a national monument.’

Walker’s geniality returned. He stood up and came round to my side of the desk. He then went through the map with me pointing out the various landmarks and where the treasure would likely be. Once he was satisfied that I understood his instructions we shook hands and he motioned me towards the door.

‘Why me?’ I asked on the way out. The question had been burning in my mind since Walker had first made his proposition. He could have paid anyone to do this job.


‘Because you have a reputation for getting things done and done with complete discretion. I don’t want this getting back to me, especially if it proves to be a fruitless undertaking.’

It made sense, but it also seemed eccentric, and if there was one thing about Walker he was not given to whimsy. I decided not to think about it.

‘Mr. Winesap who you met earlier will drive you to the airport. He will also issue you with a check for two thousand dollars for your time today.’

I nodded and left.

*

The next day, after a restless night in Harrisburg, I drove the short distance to Gettysburg. I followed Walker’s directions and soon found the Devil’s Den. Walker was right, about a dozen tourists were sauntering around like cattle, but as it was getting dark, I knew they’d be leaving shortly. I’d parked away from the tourist car park and was confident that I could evade detection by any rangers doing their rounds. On my drive to the site, I had imagined I’d be roaming a grassy field with hillocks and fences. What I encountered was entirely different. Walker was right, I should have paid more attention to history. The place was dominated by imposing boulders that reminded me of the building where I’d met him. It looked as if they’d fallen out of the sky, dropped by some careless giant. There was an unsettling strangeness to them and their incongruity with the rest of the landscape. A stiff breeze whistled through the rocks and in my imagination, I heard the far-off voices of the Union and Confederate dead. The prevailing sense of desolate isolation I’d experienced the day before reclaimed its place in my soul and despite believing myself to be a rational and unflappable man, I was overcome by a sense of something otherworldly.

As I moved through the corridors and crannies of the boulders, I thought of what Walker had told me about the battle, how Confederate sharpshooters from the cover of the rocks had picked off Union soldiers on Little Round Top to the North-East. The wind screeched through the natural hollows cutting at me. Rising claustrophobia threatened to seize me and I had to take deep breaths before emerging from the rocks to the grassy scrub at the foot of Little Round Top. I took out the map and looked for the two discernible markers. They were easy to find and within a matter of minutes, I was standing at the X mark on the map. I looked around and saw no one else in the gathering dusk. Shadows lengthened through the boulders in the Devil’s Den and for a brief chilling instant, I thought I saw something moving. I shook my head, planted my electronic marker, and stole away to where my car was parked about a mile distant.

I returned when total darkness had consumed the land and nothing was familiar. I thought I’d be able to see Little Round Top rising from the land, but it was too dark. I followed the signal of the electronic locator I’d left earlier on my phone. The wind flailed more sharply than before and the undulating ground beneath my feet gave me the unsteady impression I was on a boat. It was a much longer journey than I anticipated and twice I stumbled. The spade I was carrying felt heavy on my shoulder and when I stumbled a third time it jarred into the ground and caught me painfully in the chest. I lay on the ground gasping for a moment before gathering myself and carrying on.

Once I got to my marker, I dropped my torch to the ground. It threw a yellow light into the thick darkness. I pushed the spade head into the earth and leaned on it with my instep. The ground began to yield and I started digging. After twenty minutes I’d reached about two, maybe three feet when I struck something solid. My heart jumped. I quickly knelt down and began to work around the edges of what was a box of some kind. I was starting to feel giddy. I had doubted Walker’s claim, but here was physical proof. I dug eagerly but soon realized to my dismay that the box was longer than I had initially thought, and I’d need to dig a longer hole. Half an hour later I had dug out enough earth to open the box. The wind continued to lick around the darkness and a low howl followed by rasping gusts rattled me. I pressed on. The box was maybe four feet long and as I tried to pry its edges, I found it stuck fast. I grabbed my torch and looked at it more closely. It was nailed shut and for the first time, I understood it wasn’t a box filled with gold, but more likely a coffin. I recoiled and scrambled to my feet. At that point, I heard a sound I knew only too well from behind me. It was the click of a revolver.


‘Do not turn around, Mr. Ford.’

It was Walker.

‘What are you doing?’ I said.

‘Repaying a debt,’ said Walker in his slow deliberate voice.

I thought about the hits I’d done and couldn’t connect Walker to any of them.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said.

‘I asked you back in my office if you knew any Civil War history. I also said it was a pity you didn't know any.’

‘You said it would do me no harm,’ I said reflexively, my heart beating so hard I could feel blood pounding through my ears.


‘You see,’ continued Walker, ‘the map was a ruse to get you here. There’s no gold, the box is empty, though it won't be for long.’

‘What did I do?’ I shouted into the wind and the dark and the isolation.

‘You did nothing Mr. Ford, but during the battle at Devil’s Den your great-great-great-grandfather, Hyram Ford a corporal in Ward’s brigade shot my great-great-great-grandfather Winslow Walker in the back of the head in cold blood. It’s only recently that the truth of this event came to my attention. Apparently, there was a feud of some kind.’


‘You’re crazy,’ I said.

Walker didn’t reply and I decided to run, preferring to be shot trying to escape than resigning myself to death. I sped off into the pitch black. A gunshot whistled by me, followed by another. I surged forward as fast as my legs would carry me and before I knew it, I was in the labyrinth of boulders. The screams of the dead bounced off the rocks and echoed into the starless sky. I tumbled into nothingness; I had no idea where I was going. I ran through one turn after another, making headway, maybe going in circles. I kept running. South-south-west, south, south-east, east ...


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