As the copse finally came into view over the brow of the hill, it looked dark, forbidding. David now felt unable to enter it. His progress slowed. Then he stopped, and sat down on the damp grass with the copse behind him. He no longer wanted to see it. A skylark piped somewhere above him in the fading light of an October afternoon. He lay down on his back and looked up into the pale autumn blue, searching for the source of the song until spots formed before his eyes. But the copse still waited for him, a brooding darkness, and he knew he could put it off no longer. He stood, thrust his hands deep into his slate-blue fleece, and resumed his walk towards the trees. Why, he wondered, did the copse so intrigue, so enthral, yet so appal him?
He had often seen this copse – one of many that seemed to sprout at random at the edge of Salisbury Plain – from the road when he drove to work, and had resolved to visit it. When he found on one of his maps that this was the infamous Halter Copse, about which he had read so much, a visit became imperative.
David had only moved to Dereham recently. It was a small town that flowed around the downs and hangings of Salisbury Plain. Whenever he arrived in a new town – which he perhaps did too often, he had always been restless – he read books on the local folklore. David knew such tales were mixtures of legends and myths, exaggerations and untruths. But he couldn’t help being intrigued by them, couldn’t help wanting to believe them. Halter Copse had once been the site of the Dereham gibbet, and was also home to the kinds of supernatural phenomena that always intrigued him. The copse was said to have an elf-tree, from which the elves spilled at night to dance and gambol and beguile unwary travellers on the old Dereham Road. Not that travellers slowed to pass through the copse, anyway, as they hurried on to avoid a meeting with the Black Dog of Halter Copse, as big as a foal, that was said to trot through the trees with its fangs bared and its eyes burning like hot coals. And then, of course, there was Laughing Jack, the ghost of a shepherd who once lived in a mud house — a hut really, long since fallen down — at the edge of the copse. Jack had cursed the farmer who had thrown him out of the house for drinking and letting the sheep run away, saying he would come back haunt the farmer for ever, although the current farmer was brave enough to leave his sheep in the care of the drunken ghost shepherd.
Folk tales being what they were, Laughing Jack shared his time between the copse and Red Post Farm, two miles back down Lavington Road track, for it was there had lived the farmer who had evicted him. David wondered why Laughing Jack would still haunt the farm when that farmer had long since died. Indeed, why would he continue to haunt this copse, when his mud house could no longer be seen? Yet there must be something to these tales of haunting. After all, the books insisted that no other shepherd had dared live in Jack’s hut, believing his laugh would drive them mad. Once you hear Jack laugh, one book had said, your life will never again be the same.
David at last, and not without some trepidation, walked between the grey trunks and into the centre of the copse. He was relieved to find it not as dark as he’d feared. A murky light filtered through the curling, cracking, yellow and brown leaves. He looked for evidence of the old Dereham gibbet, even though he knew it would have long since rotted away. He found nothing but trees and weeds. Grass, gorse and brambles tangled together, snagged his trousers and snared his feet. He was, he knew, nervous and fanciful by nature, saw things when others didn’t, heard noises others couldn’t. Yet this had never stopped him exploring these places. And this copse wasn’t really so bad now he was here. Why was I so frightened?
David walked out of the copse, and almost tripped over something hidden among the vines and briars. He kicked the tangled weeds apart with the toe of his baseball boot, ready to believe he had found the stump of the gibbet. Instead, he found a platform of red clay raised an inch or two above the ground. Laughing Jack had lived in a mud hut, cob David supposed, and he knew that untended cob not so much fell as melted away, leaving only the line of a wall, and perhaps a floor, raised above the ground, a memory trace that would in time also be erased, leaving nothing except legends and the name of Laughing Jack.
Twilight was falling across the fields. David had no desire to be here when darkness fell, but the walk had taken longer than expected. His nerves thrilled. He walked away from the copse and sat atop the grassy bank at the side of the path. Laughing Jack’s crime – if crime it had been – of being drunk in charge of sheep hardly warranted eviction, David thought. He tried to remember the name of the farmer who had thrown Jack out of the house. The name was on the tip of his tongue.
“Daniel Black,” a countryman’s voice said. “Danny Boy Black, Black Danny, Daniel Death.”
David started. A chill ran down his back. He looked towards the copse. A figure slowly materialised from between the trees, taking shape from the shadows as if coalescing from leaves and mist and twilight. How did he know – for it was a man, old, with a white beard, David noticed – what I was thinking?
The man laughed. “How do you suppose?”
David wanted to run, but his legs were too weak to do so. “Because,” David said, his voice breaking, “You’re Laughing Jack. And,” he continued with a nervous giggle, “you’re a ghost.”
At that, Laughing Jack unleashed a long peal of laughter. The hairs on the back of David’s neck and on his arms stood up. But he couldn’t run, nor could he scream. He felt that, if he tried to scream, the result would be like one of the dreams he sometimes had where dark things happened, but instead of a scream erupting only a thin, frustrated whimper was caught forever in his throat. He remained trapped on his grassy bank, talking to a ghost.
“It seems you know of me,” Jack said.
“I’ve heard the stories about your drinking, and how you were thrown out of your home by the farmer who employed you–”
“And that after you died you returned to haunt him.”
“I was a drinker, I cannot deny that. That’s why I laughed so much. I was a dancer too! I was also known as Dancing Jack.” He shimmied across the grass at the edge of the copse, fluid in the twilight, and laughed. “What do you think of that?”
“Very graceful,” David said.
“That I am, lad, that I am. Now tell me – what do you know about Danny Boy Black?”
“Nothing. The stories only name him as the farmer you returned to haunt.”
“Ah, Black Danny. Queer that he should be forgotten, and I should be remembered.” Jack was quiet for a moment, and then laughed again. “Do you wonder why I call him Black Danny, Danny Death?”
“Yes, I do,” David said. He also wondered how he could see and hear Jack at all.
“I suppose the tales of my hauntings are much more interesting than stories about Black Danny. But I could tell you tales of Danny, oh yes. He liked to beat everybody. Did you know that? With a rod, a hammer, a spade… Whatever he could find. And if there was nothing to hand, why, he would use his fists. He beat his workers, his children, his wife.” Jack looked at me. “What do you think about that, lad?”
“The books say little about Dan Black.”
“Do you think he threw me off the land simply because I was a drunk? I’d always been drunk. We were all drunk. You couldn’t drink the water in those days.”
“So why did he evict you?”
“Because I saw him beating his wife and tried to stop him. Because I loved Annie, too. And I did stop him. But then he came to the house…” Jack looked down at his feet “To this mud hovel, with two of his farm-hands, and beat me. Then he threw me off his land. He spread stories about me, about my drinking, that would have stopped me ever working in these parts again.”
“So that’s why you returned to haunt him?”
“No lad, no.” Jack wasn’t laughing anymore, not even smiling. “The world was wider in those days. I could have walked across the border into Somerset, walked down to Wells or Glastonbury, found myself a job there. Danny Black’s words didn’t travel that far.”
“The books say you drank yourself to death.”
“I wish.” Jack gave a bitter laugh. “I drank myself to stupidity. Then I began the walk back to Danny’s farm to give him a good thrashing. But as I passed… here…” He looked down again, spread his arms wide. “Yes, here… I found Danny Boy smashing the few possessions I’d left behind. I came in to stop him, and we started fighting. I may have bested him once, when I was protecting Annie, but now I was drunk, and tired…”
“So he thrashed you instead.”
The sun had dipped below the Plain, and the sky was silver behind the copse. The light was failing. Laughing Jack was a dark figure, standing at the edge of the copse where the one room of his hut would have been. His voice was sombre now. “Who was the last person to die on the gibbet here? Do your books tell you that?”
“Yes. William Bartlett. Hung for stealing a sheep.”
“Hung for a sheep.” Jack laughed, but even in the twilight, David could see that Jack was shaking his head. “Ah, well. I knew Bill. He’d been hungry the week he stole that sheep, with no work on the land available.’ Jack shook his head. ‘However, poor Bill was not the last to be hung here.” He paused. “I was the last hung here.”
No book David read had ever mentioned this. “What had you done?”
“Nothing, laddie. Except cross Dark Danny. Danny Boy bested me, of course he did. I was a drunken old fool. And I’d made Danny angry that day. He decided he wanted rid of me for good. There was rope and twine aplenty in my hut. He hog-tied me and dragged me to the gibbet. Danny was strong… He was very strong.” Jack’s voice was fading. “I should have walked on to Glaston that day, instead of drinking that flagon of ale.”
David could hardly speak. “Yes, perhaps you should.”
“Danny hauled me up the gibbet, then watched me swing, and swing, watched the life leaving me. He knew my other nickname, and called out to me, ‘How do you like dancing now, Jack?’ Aye, Black Danny was dark all right.”
Life then had been hard, David knew that. You could be hung for a sheep, the water was undrinkable, children worked the fields. But, it seemed, Danny Boy Black had been very dark, even in those dark times.
“That’s why I haunted Danny Black,” Laughing Jack said.
His form was becoming less solid, transparent in places, so that the silver trace of twilight at the western horizon showed through him.
“I’ll be leaving you soon,” Jack said. “But one more thing. Danny Boy buried me here, deep in the ground. Can you find my bones and place them in a churchyard for me?”
David wasn’t sure how he would do that, but a lump had formed in his throat, and there tears at the edges of his eyes, and he knew he would try, that he had to try.
“Where are your bones?” David asked quietly.
“Beneath my feet, of course.” And Jack was laughing again.
The next day, David returned to the copse with a spade, cleared away briars and vines, and began to dig into the red clay floor between the old cob walls. He dug down three or four feet, but never found any bones. The following day, he returned and dug outside the fallen walls and again found nothing. David returned many times. He dug the floor again and again, dug all over and around the copse, always battling the vines and briars, the heat and rain, the sticky red clay and the thick tree roots. When he had first started on his mission, friends had sometimes accompanied him. But now, five years later, he had no friends. He came to the copse alone. To those who passed him as they walked the path from Dereham towards the Plain, David was something of an eccentric. To the farmer – who David had once chased with a spade, shouting ‘Away with you, Danny Black’ – he was a nuisance to be tolerated.
Sometimes, David would want to give up. But then he would see a dark shape dancing through the trees, and hear Jack’s voice saying, “Find my bones, David. Find my bones,” in an exaggeratedly pitiful, cracked old voice. And then Jack would laugh, and laugh, and laugh.