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In the United States of America, in the state of Ohio, about forty-five minutes North West of Cincinnati, there is a large, but sparsely populated farming community known as Oregonia. Some of you who have an interest in motorcycles may have heard of it before, as the community is famous for its hills. So famous, it holds the annual “Devils Staircase Hill Climb,” where motorcyclists ride their bikes up a very steep hill. It's a lot more fun than it sounds, and it brings in a lot of money and excitement to what is normally a very boring area.
These hills are steep, and they are many. Within these valleys you will find abandoned houses, mines, caves, and a lot of wild game. Every child who grows up in Oregonia will become familiar with these hills, as they will have nothing better to do than walk them and explore. But as every child in Oregonia knows, these valleys are dangerous. And if there's something you should never, never do in Oregonia, it isn't walk the waterfront with a fat wallet, or badmouth Ralph J. Stolle. It's that you never walk the valleys during a purple sky.
Purple skies mean different things. Usually it means a storm is coming, or it's just an odd quirk of the sun setting, but some people believe it has a different, more spiritual meaning. Some people think it means death is close, or that a lot of people somewhere died. But for the Shawnee, who used to live in the valleys, it was an omen favoring war. Me, I just know to stay inside when it happens. Because I didn't, once, and almost never made it back home. My story begins as most of my childhood stories begin. I was walking the valleys of Oregonia.
It was a warm winter day, and I was alone, scouting the hills a few miles away from my house, looking for dens of deer to hunt the next season. I was thirteen. We didn't have cell phones back then, nor did I have a GPS, but I always knew where I was.
Some locals may claim the hills are hard to navigate, but in reality, it's pretty easy; just follow the water if ever you get lost. Almost every valley has a creek at the bottom, and you can follow it all the way to the river, where you can find the bike trail and the waterfront district of Oregonia, and the highway isn't far from there. Getting lost in the valleys may be easy, but staying that way is hard.
I had discovered a new valley, as I had strayed further from home than I ever had before. It may sound boring, but for a bored country kid, pretending to be an explorer in unknown territory is more fun than any video game. I was so absorbed, I lost track of time.
I came to my senses when I heard the drums. Ten beats, echoing loudly through the hills. I shrugged it off as an echoing gun, or a car backfiring. Coming to my senses, I finally checked my watch. It was eight o' clock, but the sun sat on the edge of the sky. I chalked it up to a bad battery, and, having my fill of exploring for the day, I made my way back home.
I began climbing the hill behind me, following my own tracks to get back to a place I recognized. When I got to the top of the hill, I found myself in an odd situation. I didn't recognize where I was. I was high up enough to see anything I wanted. I could have seen my house on the top of the hill three miles away to the north. I could have seen Mr. Carol's ranch to the east. I could have seen the highway to the west. I could have been able to see the river at the bottom of the valley.
But I didn't. None of it was there. I turned around, thinking maybe I was simply disoriented, but at the top of each hill, I just saw trees and bushes.
Except for one hill. Just in front of the setting sun to the east, I saw a smoke stack, silhouetted against the beautiful purple sky. Campfires aren't uncommon in Oregonia. I didn't think anything of it.
I heard the drums again. This time it was nine beats, all in a row, echoing throughout the valleys. I shrugged it off again as a gun firing. They're common in Oregonia.
Using the sun as reference point, I found my way. I needed to head west, the way the river flowed. I would run into a creek eventually, and get my bearings. It took me half an hour to descend the hill and walk in the valley, looking for evidence of a creek bed. I checked my watch as the ground leveled out. It was almost nine. The sun hung on the edge of the eastern sky. It hadn't moved.
I remember telling myself it was a simple illusion. I worried more about how angry my parents would be with me for coming home after dark, because at the rate I was going, it would be another hour or so before I would find my way home. If only.
I walked the flat of the valley until it ended. I knew I had to be close to the river, and the hill I was at was high, so I figured I would probably see something if I climbed it. While I climbed, I heard the drums again. Eight beats. I still ignored it.
I got on top of the hill, and to my dismay, found I recognized nothing yet again. I chuckled to myself. My dad was never going to let me live down getting lost in Oregonia. When we hunted, I was often his navigator. I could tell my way just by seeing individual trees.
I looked in all directions. Nothing north, nothing south, nothing west. But to the east was the still setting sun. I looked at my watch.
It was ten o'clock. The sun hadn't moved.
I took off my watch. I knew the sun was setting. Nothing stops the sun from setting. I still ignored the signs, save for one. The smoke stack. While my back was turned, it had grown. It was a valley closer to me.
Seven beats echoed throughout the hills.
That's when I noticed the drums. They were louder, this time. I began to get a little panicked. I enjoyed the solitude of Oregonia more than most, but even I had my limits. I tried to ignore the drums, and I even wondered if they were real or my imagination.
I did what I had been told to do if ever I was lost. I pulled out my knife and marked the nearest tree with an “X”. Then I moved west, my back to the sun and the smoke stack.
I made my way down the hill, marking each tree I passed with an “X”. Like a roller coaster, walking in Oregonia only takes you down for so long. Before I knew it, I was climbing a hill again.
Six beats. I turned around to face the smoke stack. It was closer still. The sun hadn't moved.
I grabbed a long stick and sharpened the end with my knife. I told myself it was for coyotes and wild dogs. But I knew. Something primal in my kicked in, and I knew. I was being hunted.
I began to hurry down the hill, quickly marking my “X”'s, and keeping my stick handy. I hurried so quickly, I tripped on a rock. I rolled and rolled, trying to stop myself by grabbing onto anything, but the hill was too steep, and the ground too hard. I caught a hold of a root for a moment, but I pulled it straight out of the ground. I tucked in and rolled to the bottom, hitting my head on a rock when I finally stopped.
Five beats. Something moved in the woods in front of me, but I couldn't tell what It was. On the way down, I dropped my knife and my stick. I got up and turned around.
I was in a clearing. Surrounded on all sides was a thick forest of trees.
All of them had “X”'s on them.
I turned east, and to my horror, the smoke stack was only a valley away. The sun hadn't moved.
I grabbed a few rocks and sticks and moved up a hill. All the trees had “X”s on them. I couldn't tell if I had been there before. Some of the X's looked like they were cut with metal into bark, while others looked wider, less clean, like it had been carved with stone. I didn't care anymore. I wasn't going home. I was finding shelter.
Just before the top of the hill, I found exactly what I was looking for. A cave, as several dot the landscape of Oregonia. It faced east, towards the smoke stack and the sun.
I set up a fire pit and began hurriedly making a fire. It hadn't snowed or rained in days, so making a fire, even without any flint, wasn't that difficult.
I got a few sparks going against the dry leaves. As I leaned into blow into the flames, I felt something fall into my back, and I plummeted face first into the fire pit.
I got up and had a stick handy. Someone had kicked me into the fire.
I grabbed a rock and sharped a stick as best I could, and then I backed slowly into the cave. The smoke stack was in my valley now. All the birds and bats in the trees flew away, and all the rats inside the cave ran outside.
Someone tapped me twice on the shoulder.
I turned around to see nothing but cave. And a shadow on the wall. Two shadows.
I sprinted forward, into the cave, screaming. I heard the final beat, and before I knew it, the smoke wasn't in the valley anymore, but in the cave with me. I was being smoked out.
Hardly able to breath, I kept pressing west, deeper into the cave. In the brief flashes of light I was allowed, I swear I saw drawings inside the cave. Drawings of men slaying animals.
I ran into a rock wall, but I noticed a ray of light from above me. I clawed into the wall and began climbing towards the light. The hole was big enough for my head, but I used my stick as a make shift shovel to beat away some of the dirt and rocks. It got big enough for me to climb through; I put my right arm first and tried to pull myself up, but it wasn't quite large enough.
Something grabbed a hold of my leg. I pulled, and so did it, and it was winning. I screamed for help, and I tried grabbing anything to pull myself out of the cave. I got a hold of a root and began pulling.
I kicked whatever had hold of my leg, and pulled myself up. I was almost all the way through when something grabbed my left leg and pulled. I had leverage this time, and I pulled harder than I ever had before.
I felt my shoe and sock come off as I pulled myself out of the ground. I rolled away from the hole and onto a paved road. I lay on the road for a few moments, watching the moon. It was a hunter's moon. It was the most beautiful moon I had ever seen.
I sat up and saw my leg. Whatever had hold of me didn't just take my shoe and sock. It had taken all the skin below the knee. It had been flayed off with a knife.
I checked my watch. It was one o'clock. A group of kids out late passed me on the road, and got me to a hospital. My leg healed, with time. I told my parents I was simply lost.
I lived to walk the valleys again. But after that day, I never went out when there was a purple sky.