Tag Archives: short story

ILL WISHES

The Lore:

DeLap Cemetery, LaFollette, Tennessee

DeLap Cemetery holds the graves of a small band of Confederate soldiers belonging to North Carolina’s 58th Regiment. The recruits traveled from Cumberland Gap to Jacksboro, Tennessee in 1862 where they were soon assigned to guard Big Creek Gap. The harsh winter, lack of medical supplies and rampant disease, including measles and “brain fever” sealed the fate of over 52 men.

During the 1960’s, the burial ground fell into disrepair and knowledge of its military history was soon forgotten, along with the sprinkling of civilian graves dotting the hilltop. Since Campbell County was pro-Union during the Civil War, no one realized the unkempt cemetery contained Confederate remains until a North Carolina woman tracing her genealogy produced documents verifying her ancestor’s death. Teaming up with a local historian, they soon determined DeLap Cemetery as his final resting place, along with many other unfortunate men.

In the center of the graveyard stands a sprawling Beech tree. The trunk contains 52 slashes for each of the bodies buried there, marks still visible today. Several sets of initials and the word “Boothill” are also carved into the trunk, although no one can confirm when or who created those particular marks.

A restoration committee was formed after the discovery and the land was cleared of debris. Sunken earth served as indicators for several of the graves. Others were marked by a plain field stone without inscription. Since it was impossible to identify the exact location of each gravesite, fifty military tombstones were placed in even rows across the grounds inscribed with each soldier’s name and rank. Some speculate the small plot of land contains more than the 50 names listed on the military roster.

DeLap Cemetery was rededicated as a memorial Civil War cemetery in 2005.

The Story:

ILL WISHES

She wasn’t sure when the idea first arrived. Events leading up to that decisive moment were random and therefore could not be classified as synchronicity, coincidence or even predestination. And yet, when Anna Lynn Bell looked back at the subtle connectivity between incidents, she realized an unseen force must have guided her. Why else would a lonely spinster with little regard for the afterlife throw caution to the wind and become a Paranormal Investigator?

The fact Anna was inexperienced and ill-prepared for such a career was of little consequence. She would learn. Everyone was a novice at some point. Besides, she knew the perfect place to look for ghosts and that gave her an edge.

Removing an old shoebox from her closet, Anna carefully lifted the cardboard lid and stared at the newspaper clippings stacked neatly inside. Most referenced a small, once forgotten burial ground near LaFollette, Tennessee. She poured over each slip of paper as if it were her first time reading the printed words. It wasn’t. Anna knew the history of Delap Cemetery by heart.

A woman tracing her genealogy arrived in LaFollette hoping to find the resting place of her ancestor, a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. With the help of a local, self-proclaimed historian, they discovered a hillside cemetery containing remains of infantrymen who died during the harsh winter of 1862-1863.

After a brief media blitz, a preservation committee formed to clean up the overgrown grounds and erect a monument honoring the forgotten men who had succumbed to cold and illness. Although the deceased were thought to have numbered over a hundred, historical records could only confirm the names of fifty-two. Memorial stones were placed in even rows across the rolling hillside. No one knew the exact location of the bodies but that didn’t matter. The headstones made the grounds look pretty and neat, befitting a veteran’s cemetery.

Upon learning about the re-dedication ceremony at Delap Cemetery, Anna drove all the way from Knoxville to attend the event. Only a handful of good hearted people congregated to pay tribute but Anna took her place beside them and stood proud, as if celebrating her own family. She didn’t know why she was drawn to the burial ground but she was, lingering after the pomp and circumstance to sit under a massive Beech tree shading the grassy knoll. Her fingers traced the lines carved into the smooth bark, notches made by the survivors to honor the men who succumbed to disease and freezing temperatures. Her fascination grew as she stared at the primitive marks, amazed they had endured one hundred and fifty years.

A strange melancholy swept over Anna as she sat on the curved concrete bench that day, aching for those ill-fated soldiers cut off from home with limited food and supplies. She continued to think about them all the way home – where a basket of laundry and the realization she had no clean work uniforms replaced her compassion.

Anna worked as a Certified Nurse’s Aide at Green Valley Extended Care Facility. Her paycheck was meager at best – just enough to cover rent and groceries. For years, she tried to save enough for tuition at the nursing school in town but something always came up to deplete her savings. New tires for her car. Dental work. Medical bills from a sprained wrist. Then one day, reality sank in. She would never be a nurse. This was her life.

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t good. It just was.

Anna gradually settled into a routine consisting of work, microwave dinners and watching old movies on television. As her youth faded, so did hopes of meeting Mr. Right. She became a voracious reader of romance novels, living vicariously through the printed word where she was always assured of a happy-ever-after ending. Anna knew the stories were fictional but a part of her still longed to experience love.

By morning, she was back in the real world, bundling her brown hair into a ponytail and going to work devoid of makeup. The elderly residents at the nursing home didn’t care what she looked like, and most days, neither did she.

It wasn’t until Mr. Beasley passed away of pneumonia that Anna’s thoughts returned to Delap Cemetery. She’d cared for the elderly man to the end, watching him grow weaker each day. At least his life ended in a climate controlled building with a soft bed and medicine to ease his pain, unlike those poor soldiers lying on the cold ground with only a pile of embers to shield them from the bitter cold.

A few days later, she stopped by the bookstore on Maple Street in search of something to read. Anna browsed the aisles of used paperbacks, suddenly finding herself face to face with a display of Civil War themed books. The blue and grey clad figures reminded her of the Confederate burial ground. She spent the next two days in a moody funk, wondering how the men’s ancestors could just forget about them. If it hadn’t been for that one woman tracing her genealogy, they might have been lost forever.

A week passed. Anna stopped by a thrift store in search of a new lamp. As soon as she walked through the door, her gaze fell to a poster taped on the front of the sales counter advertising a Civil War re-enactment event.

The number of incidents drawing her attention to the cemetery seemed odd but had nothing to do with Anna’s decision to become a paranormal investigator. That twist of fate was triggered by something completely different – a promise from one of her dying patients.

When Anna began her shift on a warm September day, she made a point to stop by Room 323 and greet a new arrival. So few of the staff cared about the patients – really cared – that she made it her duty to compensate for their apathy. A quick appraisal of the frail figure in the wheelchair suggested his time at the facility would be short.

“Hello, Mr. Andrew, I’m Anna. How are you feeling today?” She reached for the bony wrist to check his pulse.

“I’m dying, young woman. How the hell do you think I feel?” His harsh tone surprised her, carried by a strong voice that belied his feeble body.

“Well, look on the bright side. You’re not dead yet.” Anna’s eyes widened as the words slipped out before she could stop them. What’s wrong with me? It was totally unlike her to be flippant and callous.

The old man jerked his arm away as a sour expression settled across his features. Seconds later, he snorted and narrowed his eyes, “Sharp as a tack, aren’t ya?”

Anna calmed her nerves before retrieving her patient’s arm again, surprised to find him compliant. Placing her fingers over the paper thin skin, she attempted to move past her earlier indiscretion.

“Why do you think you’re dying? You look pretty healthy to me.” It was a lie and they both knew it.

“The doc says I got six weeks to live but he don’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. I’ve only got three. Norman told me.”

“Who’s Norman?”

The man looked away. “A friend.”

“And is your friend a doctor?”

“Nope.”

“Then why would you believe him over your physician?”

“Because he knows more than those idiots at the hospital.”

Anna dropped the man’s wrist and made a note on the chart in her pocket. “Norman sounds like a sourpuss. Is he trying to scare you?”

Faded eyes locked onto her gaze. The grey head came closer as he lowered his voice. “Norman is my best friend. He died last year from a heart attack. A couple of days ago, he showed up at the foot of my bed. Told me he had a hot poker game set up with a few of the guys. They’re waitin’ for me on the other side. He said I’d be shufflin’ the deck and dealin’ cards in three weeks.”

The news took Anna by surprise. She’d heard of elderly people seeing loved ones prior to dying but nothing like this. “So you think Norman’s . . . ghost . . . appeared to you?”

“I don’t think. I know.”

“And he told you when you would  . . . pass?” She hated using the word “die”.

The old man nodded. “He wouldn’t lie. Norman always told the truth.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?”

He shook his head. “I was wide awake.”

Anna sank onto the side of the bed next to his wheelchair, curiosity overcoming fear that her supervisor might catch her loitering. “Did he just, well, you know, appear out of thin air?”

“Not exactly,” the man murmured thoughtfully, as if trying to recall the details. “I looked up and there he was. He did kinda fade away when he left, though.”

“This is fascinating. I’ve never met anyone who saw a ghost.”

“Patooey . . . I’ve seen ‘em all my life.”

“Really?”

“Yep. Had my first experience when I was knee high to a grasshopper. A woman used to come to my room every night after I went to bed. She’d just stand there and smile at me. My ma showed me a photo of my great grandmother a few years later and I realized it was the same person.”

“Oh, my! That’s incredible. I wish I could see a ghost.”

A droopy eyelid came down in a mischievous wink. “I’ll make you a deal. As soon as I kick the bucket, I’ll come back and pay ya a visit.”

Anna laughed, pushing to her feet just as her supervisor appeared in the doorway, arching a brow in silent warning. Anna pretended to straighten Mr. Andrew’s pillow until the older woman left. “I should finish my rounds or Mrs. Tate will have my head.”

“She’s a bitch. Don’t like her. You come back and we’ll talk some more. I got a lot of good stories.”

Anna did just that for the next nineteen days, arriving a half hour early to visit Mr. Andrew before her shift started. Unfortunately, he died in his sleep on the twentieth day – just as Norman had predicted.

Anna waited two weeks for the old man to contact her with proof of the afterlife, or in the very least, a playful boast about his prowess at poker. It didn’t happen.

By that time, she was obsessed with the idea of communicating with spirits. Anna explored paranormal topics online and at the library. The more she read, the more she wanted to know. It was the first time she’d been excited about anything in years.

After ordering a tape recorder, EMF meter and LED flashlight from an online retailer, Anna waited like a child on Christmas Eve for them to arrive. She read the instructions front to back, practicing with the equipment so there would be no room for failure. Satisfied with her progress, she sat down with paper and pen to create a list of places where unhappy spirits might linger. The first location on her list was Delap Cemetery.

Anna planned the trip for her next day off. After loading the equipment into a big satchel and gassing up her car, she headed to LaFollette. Parking at the base of the rounded hill, Anna climbed the overgrown path to the top. A line formed between her brows as she surveyed the grounds. The cemetery wasn’t as well manicured as it had been on her last visit. Why go to all the trouble to create a memorial if you weren’t planning to keep it up?

Picking her way through the headstones, she took a seat on the curved concrete bench beneath the Beech tree and set up the recorder. Clearing her throat, she began to speak.

“If there’s a ghost of a Confederate soldier who died here, I’d sure like to talk to you.” After several seconds, she tried again. “My name’s Anna Bell. What’s yours?”

Nothing.

A sudden wave of embarrassment washed over her. This is silly. Whatever was I thinking? She picked up her satchel and began shoving the equipment into the cloth bag.

“It sure is pretty here, isn’t it?”

Anna jumped and whirled around, blinking at the man standing beside her. “I . . . I didn’t realize anyone else was here.”

He grinned from beneath a shock of unruly hair. “I live over yonder.” His hand waved toward a small apartment complex visible above a row of markers. “I like to sit up here sometimes. It’s real peaceful. I guess that makes me a bit odd, doesn’t it?” He peered at her through a pair of twinkling blue eyes.

“Not any stranger than what I’m doing.”

The man eased closer. Anna judged him to be in his late twenties, good looking with country boy charm. An inexplicable flush crept over her cheeks.

He glanced down at her recorder. “So what are you doing?”

“I’m trying to record an EVP.”

“An E . . . V . . . what?”

“Electronic Voice Phenomena. It’s when you record a ghost’s voice on a tape recorder.”

“Oh.” His brows raised. “Never heard of that. Are you some kind of a . . .”

“. . . Paranromal Investigator?” She nodded and smiled. “I’m in training.”

“I see.”

Anna licked her lips before quickly pocketing the device. She was certain he didn’t “see” at all. Me and my big mouth. All I’ve done is make a fool of myself. The man was most likely wondering how to make a quick exit at this very minute.

To her amazement, he lowered his lanky frame next to her on the bench. “I reckon if someone wanted to talk to a ghost, this would be the place.”

Encouraged by his kindness, Anna plunged on. “I thought so, too. How long have you lived around here? Have you ever seen anything unusual? Felt any cold spots? I . . .”

“Whoa, little lady. Slow down a bit,” he laughed, a mischievous gleam darkening his gaze as he saw her squirm. “I’ve lived here a long time. As I recall, there are some other graves in that corner belonging to civilians. Have you tried to talk to them?”

She shook her head. “I figured the soldiers would have more reason to haunt this place, given they died away from home under such horrific conditions.”

He nodded. “It was real bad from what I hear.”

Anna stuck out her hand but he didn’t take it. “My name’s . . .”

“Annabelle. I know. I heard you talkin’ into that black box.”

“Anna is my first name. Bell is my last.”

His head cocked to one side as he issued an unabashed visual examination. “I think you look like an Annabelle. Suits you.” His hand smoothed back a wave of sandy hair. “Everyone calls me Jesse.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Jesse.  What else do you know about the cemetery?”

“Well, I reckon you already heard about the marks on this here tree.” He pointed to a group of slashes carved into the trunk. She nodded. “I hear tell some of those initials are from soldiers who guarded this place. I guess there’s no way of really knowin’, though.”

“Hmm . . . I suppose I could see if they match any of the headstones.”

“Or maybe you could ask them.”

Anna squirmed. She couldn’t tell if he was teasing or serious. “This is my first time recording EVPs, as you might have guessed. I suppose it was presumptuous to think I might get a response right away.”

“Why don’t you give it another try? I’ll just sit here and listen. If you don’t mind, that is.”

Anna grinned. “I’d like that.” Clearing her throat, she began. “If there are any spirits who would like to speak with me, please give a sign.” A breeze wafted by, picking up the end of her ponytail and flipping it across her shoulder.

Jesse’s eyes widened. “That’s odd. Weren’t no wind a second ago.”

“I . . . I’m sure it was just a coincidence.”

“If you say so.”

A giggle floated across the air between them. Anna almost didn’t recognize her own voice. It sounded young, girlish . . . flirty. “Why don’t you ask a question? Maybe the spirits would prefer to talk to a man.”

“I wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Ask if there’s anyone here. I’ll hold the recorder while you speak.”

“Alrighty, then.” He seemed hesitant, glancing around as if fearful someone might see him. “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

Anna’s eyes danced as she caught a hint of red creeping up Jesse’s neck. She waited a few seconds then shut off the recorder. “I guess they don’t want to talk to you, either. That makes me feel a little better.”

He chuckled, a rich throaty sound that warmed her insides. “Guess they must be sleepin’ today.” Jesse stared at her, a strange expression darting across his features. “You gonna come back and try again?”

His question caught Anna off guard. She hadn’t planned a second visit but suddenly it seemed like an excellent idea. “I could return next week . . . on my day off.”

“Would you mind if I came back, too? I’d sure like to learn more about those EVP’s.”

Her face brightened. “I think that’s a wonderful idea. Will you be available next Friday? I . . . can try to switch my day off if you have something to do.”

“I ain’t got nothin’ more important than bein’ here with you, Annabelle.”

She ducked her head before he could see the blush spill across her cheeks. “Then it’s a plan.”

Anna gathered her belongings and headed toward the entrance. Jesse waved goodbye, watching from the hill as she picked her way over the gravel path to her car. By the time she slid behind the wheel and looked up, he was gone.

The next week seemed to drag on forever but when Friday came, Anna was ready. She smoothed freshly curled locks over a shoulder, donned a pale yellow jacket to ward off the late October chill and filled a picnic basket with an assortment of snacks she’d prepared the night before.

The sky was overcast when she arrived at DeLap Cemetery. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon, threatening to dampen the day. Anna hurried up the walk, stopping to catch her breath at the top as she searched the grounds. No sign of Jesse.

She fought against disappointment as she took a seat on the concrete bench. Taking out her recorder, she began. “If there are any spirits in the area who would like to speak with me, please make yourself known.”

Silence. Anna glanced down at the device, frowning as the power light flickered and went off. That’s odd. She’d only used the device once and it was already broken. Sliding the cover from the back, she stared at the batteries. Perhaps they were bad. She quickly inserted two new ones and tried again. The recorder turned on immediately. Seconds later, it clicked several times and stopped.

“Hey, Miss Annabelle.” She jumped as Jesse strolled up and took a seat beside her. “Havin’ problems?”

“My recorder isn’t working for some reason.” She warmed under his intense gaze.

“You sure look nice today.”

“Thank you.”

He continued to stare at her. “I’m sorry. I just can’t stop lookin’ at you. I think you’re the purtiest girl I ever did see.”

Anna fidgeted and dropped her gaze. “I’m sure that’s not true.”

“I’m sure it is,” he countered. Jesse’s hand raised, as if he wanted to touch her hair. Instead, it fell back across his lap.

A gust of wind sent a shiver racing down Anna’s spine. She tugged her jacket tighter and smiled. “I think we might have an early winter. The weather seems cold for this time of year.”

He glanced up at the sky with a faraway expression. “I hate winter. Everything dies.”

“Not everything,” she murmured in a husky voice. “The pine trees and holly bushes stay green.” Anna cleared her throat. It felt a bit scratchy, probably from the chilly air. “I brought a picnic lunch. Would you like to share?”

“That’s awful kind of you, Annabelle but I just ate not more ‘n hour ago. I sure do appreciate the offer, though.”

Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “That’s okay. It wasn’t anything special – just some chicken salad and chips.” Things weren’t going well at all. She wanted to learn more about Jesse but since he wasn’t hungry and her recorder was on the blink, there was no reason to stay. “I suppose I’d better go, then.”

“Already? You just got here.”

Her spirits lifted at his protest. “I can’t record any EVPs . . .”

“Well, I guess you’ll just have to listen to my voice – although I’m sure it’s not as interesting as a ghost.”

Anna laughed. “What shall we talk about?”

“You. Tell me about yourself. Where do you live? Do you have a boyfriend?”

“No boyfriend.” As the words rushed from her mouth, she caught a gleam in his blue eyes. “I live in Knoxville and work as a CNA for an elder care facility.”

“You’re a nurse?”

She shook her head. “Nothing that important. Mostly I make the patients comfortable and help with their care. Since everyone is old, they usually don’t stay around long.”

“Where do they go?”

Anna eyed him curiously. “They die.”

“Oh . . .” Jesse swallowed and looked away. “I thought they came to your hospital because they were sick.”

“Many are sick but some get admitted because their families can’t care for them. It’s sad. A few like Gladys Barnes and Joe Cook never have visitors. I try to spend more time with them so they don’t feel alone. It must be awful to grow old and be forgotten.”

“You have a big heart, Annabelle. I think God put you in the right place to do the most good.”

A comfortable silence fell between them as Anna considered his statement. She’d felt trapped in a dead end job for years but what if Jesse was right? What if she was exactly where she was supposed to be and just didn’t realize it?

“Perhaps that’s why my recorder stopped working. I’m supposed to be a nurse’s aide, not a paranormal investigator.”

“Maybe you could do both.”

She liked Jesse. His outlook on life was simple. He had a way of adding clarity to her confusion. Anna shifted on the bench so she could see his face better. Her gaze darted past Jesse’s shoulder to a row of trees at the back of the cemetery. A dark figure hovered in the shadows, watching them.

“What’s wrong?”

“There’s a man back there by the trees,” she whispered. “He’s staring at us.”

He twisted to follow her line of sight. “I don’t see anyone.”

“Right there, by that big Oak.” The words had no sooner left her mouth than the figure melted into the thick trunks. “Oh . . . dear.” Her complexion paled.

“What did you see, Annabelle?”

“The man. He’s . . . he’s gone.”

“Gone?”

She nodded

Jesse scratched his head and glanced down. “Looky there. Your recorder is working again.”

She looked at the device, surprised to see the red “record” light beaming from the side. “That’s odd. I thought the batteries were dead.”

“Guess not.”

Anna took a deep breath and let it out. “I feel a little shaken, Jesse. Perhaps I’d better go now.”

“Will you come back?”

Her hand reached out and touched his arm. “Would you like me to come back?”

“Yes, ma’am. I surely would.”

“Then I’ll return next week. What’s your cell number? I’ll text you when I’m on my way.”

Jesse ducked his head, digging his hands into his pockets. “I don’t have a phone.”

“Well, no matter. I can stop by your apartment and let you know when I’ve arrived.”

“That wouldn’t be proper, Annabelle . . . a single woman coming to a man’s room. I don’t want people talkin’ about you. I’ll keep a watch. As soon as I see you, I’ll come runnin’.”

“Very well,” she cooed, amazed there were still men like Jesse who cared about a woman’s reputation. “I should be here around the same time.”

“I look forward to it.”

On the drive home, Anna turned up the heater in the car, unable to shake the cold tightening her muscles. By the time she parked her vehicle in front of her apartment, her teeth were chattering. She hurried inside and ran a hot bath. It eased the ache for a while but within an hour, she was shivering again.

“I must have caught a cold,” she muttered, adding an extra blanket on top of her bed before jumping in and covering up to her neck.

Anna stayed that way the rest of the day, rising long enough to use the bathroom and refill her water glass. By evening, she felt a little better so she heated a can of chicken soup, eating it with crackers before returning to bed

The night brought on a strange restlessness filled with fitful dreams, none of which Anna remembered the next morning. She dressed and hurried to work, arriving ten minutes late. Mrs. Tate, her supervisor, monitored the entrance, rushing out of her office when Anna walked in.

“You’re late.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was sick yesterday and forgot to set my alarm.”

The older woman eyed her suspiciously. “You do look a little pale. Try not to breathe on any residents today. We certainly don’t need you infecting anyone.”

“I’ll be careful. Would you like me to wear a mask?”

“Of course not! Don’t advertise the fact you’re ill.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Anna breathed a sigh of relief as Mrs. Tate stalked back to her office. She was an unpleasant woman who obviously hated her job. Anna knew it. The patients knew it. And deep down inside, she was pretty sure Mrs. Tate knew it, too.

By the end of her shift, Anna had rallied to her old, perky self. “A twenty-four hour bug,” she told her associates who commended her for coming to work while she was still sick.

Anna spent the rest of the week daydreaming about Jesse – imagining them on long walks together, curled up on the sofa watching television, kissing, and more. She appreciated his concern for her reputation but they were both consenting adults. He had to ease up on the gallantry if they were going to take their relationship to the next level.

By the time Friday rolled around, Anna could barely contain her excitement. Something told her the day would be special.  The temperature had dropped to freezing the night before and the mid-morning sun struggled to warm the frosty air but she barely noticed.

To her surprise, Jesse was already seated on the bench when she arrived. She raised her hand in greeting and hurried to his side. “Hi! You beat me here.” Little puffs of vapor formed in front of her mouth as she spoke.

“I’ve been waitin’ for a bit. I didn’t want to miss you.”

She scooted closer. “I came down with a cold after our last visit. I hope I didn’t give it to you.”

His expression mirrored concern. “Are you feelin’ alright?”

“Of course. It only lasted a day.”

“I’m glad you’re better. You look pretty as a picture.”

“You always say the sweetest things, Jesse. How is it you’re still single?”

He stared at his boots. “I had a gal once.”

Anna hesitated. “Do you still talk to her?”

“Oh, gosh, no. She up and moved away. I reckon she wasn’t as fond of me as I thought she was.” He gave a short laugh.

“I’m sorry. It was her loss. I’m sure she regrets her decision.”

He shot her a sidelong glance. “Why do you think that?”

“Because I can’t imagine any woman leaving you.” Anna’s hand flew to her mouth but it was too late. The words were out before she could stop them.

“I reckon that might be the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”

Their gazes locked. His expression seemed to draw her in, beckoning with a strange light. Her body leaned forward of its own volition. The next thing she knew, her lips pressed against Jesse’s cheek.

“Annabelle . . .”

“Sssh. Don’t say a word. I know that was bold but I’m not going to apologize.”

His mouth lifted in a lopsided grin. “I didn’t want an apology. I was going to ask if you would do it again.”

Her arms slipped around his neck as their lips found each other. A cold wind whipped her hair across Jesse’s cheek but neither seemed to mind. When she pulled back, his eyes were still closed as if he didn’t want to break the spell.

Anna swallowed the lump in her throat. Was it possible to fall in love so quickly? She glanced away, panicked by the thought. A movement in the tree line caught her attention. The same man who watched them the week before was back – and this time he had a friend.

“Jesse!” Her urgent whisper sent his eyes flying open. “That man is standing in the trees again.”

Jesse turned his head, searching the perimeter. “Where?”

“Right there!” Her hand raised as she pointed at the strangers. “Can’t you see them?”

A line formed between his brows. “No . . .”

Anna flew to her feet, angered the voyeurs had ruined the intimate moment. As she marched toward the men, they faded into nothingness right before her eyes. Anna stopped, blinked, then ran to the trees. No one was there.

Jesse came up behind her. “Where are they?”

“They vanished.”

He drew his lower lip between his teeth. “Vanished?”

“Yes.” Her eyes widened. “I think I . . . I saw a ghost.” She braced herself for ridicule.

Jesse grew silent, contemplating her announcement. “Were you scared?”

Anna thought about it for a second. “No.”

“Then you’re gonna make a good paranormal investigator.”

The amusement in his voice brought a smile to her lips. “Yes, I am.”

They spent the next half hour talking and holding hands. Anna told him about growing up in a series of foster homes, her love of medicine and how she’d always wanted to become a nurse. When her teeth began to chatter between sentences, Jesse put an arm around her shoulder and escorted Anna to the cemetery entrance.

“It’s too cold for you. Perhaps you should go.”

“We should plan another place to meet. Somewhere indoors.”

“Hmmm. I reckon that would be the smart thing to do.”

She grinned. “I could come to your apartment . . . or you could come to mine.”

“I might just do that.”

Her hopes soared. “Really? I’m a pretty good cook. I could make supper.”

His lips brushed lightly over her mouth. “Does this mean you’re my girl?”

“Yes.” She nodded for emphasis. “I’d like that.”

“Me, too.”

He stepped back, a wistful expression slipping over his features. “You best be going, darlin’. It’s gettin’ real cold.”

“I’ll see you next week?”

“If not before.”

Anna didn’t remember driving home. She replayed Jesse’s words over and over in her head – he’d called her darling. Happiness swelled inside her, squeezing out an infectious giggle every few minutes.

As she prepared for bed that evening, Anna realized the scratchiness in her throat had returned. Rummaging through the medicine cabinet, she located a thermometer and stuck in under her tongue. The results confirmed a low degree temperature. Mrs. Tate would be livid if she was late again so she gargled with salt water, took two aspirin and went to bed.

When morning arrived, her worst fears materialized. The fever was higher and she could barely swallow leaving only one option – call in sick. Luckily, her supervisor didn’t answer so she left a voice message, detailing her symptoms in a hoarse whisper. She prayed Mrs. Tate would understand but knew the woman was devoid of concern for anyone but herself.

Anna turned off her phone and slept most of the day, rallying in the evening to eat a slice of toast. She tried to read but the words formed fuzzy lines in front of her eyes. She finally turned out the light and went back to bed.

On the second day, her fever still raged. Anna knew she should see a doctor but money was tight and she didn’t have insurance. I can tough it out, she told herself. Once again, she called in. This time Mrs. Tate answered.

“We’re already shorthanded. You simply must come in. I need another body on the floor.”

“I’m contagious. My fever is one hundred and three.”

“I’ll give you a choice, Miss Bell. Either be at work within the hour or don’t come back at all.”

“Mrs. Tate . . .”

“Goodbye, Anna. I’ll send your final check by mail.” Click.

Anna stared at the cell phone for a full minute before tossing it across the room. A tear rolled down her cheek as she fell back across the pillow. After ten years, this is how I’m treated? She closed her eyes, losing her despair in a deep sleep.

A few hours later, Anna woke to a fit of coughing. Grabbing a tissue from the box by her bed, she held it over her mouth. When she pulled it back, it was splattered with blood.

“Oh great, my throat is so raw it’s bleeding.”  Perhaps she had strep throat. Fear shot through her as she thought about kissing Jesse. A quick glance at the clock confirmed it was too late to see a doctor. She’d go tomorrow. If it was strep, she planned to stop by Mrs. Tate’s office on the way home. Maybe the old battle axe would catch it.

Anna tried to take a deep breath. The effort left her wheezing and coughing. She snuggled under the covers, shivering as her fever spiked. It was the last thing she remembered until waking up at midnight, hair caked to her head by a sticky sweat.

Tossing the blankets to the side, she attempted to sit up. The room spun violently. She eased back against the mattress, too weak to move. Her throat felt like it was on fire. Anna reached for the glass of water on her bedside table, dropping it before she could raise it to her lips. As she lay there contemplating how much effort it would take to walk to the kitchen for another glass, sleep once again robbed her of consciousness.

She roused at three a.m. determined to sit up. Admittedly, it was more of an effort to prove she wasn’t as sick as she feared. After several attempts, Anna reached the overstuffed chair next to the sofa, resting there several minutes from the exertion. It was as if someone had clamped a band around her chest. Her lungs didn’t seem big enough no matter how hard she tried to fill them.

She wished Jesse were there to hold her. He’d make her feel better. She was sure of it.

Glancing at the side table, Anna spied the recorder. She rewound the tape and pushed the “play” button. Static filled the air. Then she heard Jesse’s voice, “If there be any spirits of Confederate soldiers who want to talk, you best show some respect for the little lady here and speak up.”

More static . . . then something else. Anna reversed the tape and replayed the sequence.

“It’s her. She’s the one.”

“Anna . . . Anna . . .”

“I want to see her . . .”

The words were low, barely audible, like a whisper on the wind. Who was speaking? She replayed the section several times before continuing with the rest of the tape.

A few seconds later, she heard several male voices. It sounded as if they were talking . . . about her.

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, yes. It’s her.”

“She sees us . . .”

It must have been the two men in the trees. Anna’s head throbbed. She squeezed her eyes together, willing away the pain.

“Annabelle.”

Looking up, she saw Jesse standing at the door. Relief shot through her. Then confusion. “How . . . did you find . . . me?” She could barely speak. The effort left her wheezing.

“I know you feel bad, darlin’. I’m real sorry.”

Her brow crinkled as she closed her eyes. I’m hallucinating. It made sense. She was sick and alone. Of course she would conjure up the one person who meant more to her than life itself.

She heard the voices again – but she’d turned off the recorder. How could it still be playing? Forcing her lids open, she was relieved to find Jesse still there. He moved closer, kneeling beside her. Smiling. The murmur grew louder. Anna peered over his shoulder. Shadowy figures hovered in the corners of the room, staring at her, pointing, whispering.

“Will she come?”

“She’s the one.”

“Are you sure? Are you sure she’ll come?”

“She’ll take care of us.”

Anna heaved with another bout of coughing. She held her arm in front of her mouth to prevent spewing germs over Jesse. When she pulled it back, her sleeve was bright red.

“I’m real sick, Jesse. You shouldn’t be here.”

He stood. “It’s time, Annabelle. Come with me.”

“I can’t go anywhere. I’m too ill.”

“You’ll feel better soon.” He held out his hand.

The light in the room dimmed as Anna pushed back in the chair, trying to distance herself from the man in front of her. Something wasn’t right. Jesse wasn’t . . . right. Why was he wearing a military uniform? She stared at the dark pants and grey woolen coat, encrusted with gold buttons.

The figures behind him moved closer, peeking at her from the shadows. Some appeared injured, sporting bandages around their heads and limbs. “Who are those men?”

“I’m a Lieutenant in the 58th Confederate Regiment from North Carolina. These soldiers are under my command.”

The words evoked a memory but she was too tired to remember the details.

“Come, darlin’. I’ve waited a long time for you.” He stretched out his hand again.

Anna’s eyes grew wide. Jesse was a ghost. They were all ghosts. “You’re the soldiers from DeLap.”

“We’re the forgotten ones. No one notified our families. We didn’t even get a notch on the tree. We never had no one care about us. Not until you came along, Annabelle. You were there when they put up the flags and headstones and stayed after everyone left. You cared.” She stared at his outstretched hand. “Come with me.”

“No . . . no. I don’t want to die.” She tried to pull back as he took a step toward her.

Jesse’s fingers stroked her cheek, cupping the side of her face. A jolt of electricity shot through her. In a matter of seconds, Anna saw all that had happened and all that could be.

Images flashed before her eyes. Sick and dying soldiers, crying out for help. Bodies piled on the hillside waiting for someone to break frozen ground to bury them.

The brutal winter had kept supplies and medicine from reaching the company. Most were young men under the age of thirty. Some as young as eighteen. They died alone in that pitiful camp, thrown together into a mass grave.

Then she saw her own life. A tear trickled down her cheek as she realized her own despair and misery mimicked that of the doomed soldiers. Their situations were different but the hopelessness was the same. A thick fog clouded her vision but through the haze, she watched a pastoral scene emerge. Jesse held her hand as they strolled across a green meadow filled with wildflowers. The men camped next to a creek, trickling over moss laden rocks as it meandered through the trees. They appeared healthy, calling out to the couple with a warm greeting. She paused to adjust the bandage on a young man’s head, enjoying the radiance on his face.

Anna blinked and the vision faded away. “I . . . I don’t understand.”

Jesse knelt beside her, his gaze filled with tenderness . . . and a hint of sorrow. “We’ve been lost for so long,” came his soft voice. “Caught up in our pain. We needed someone to care. Lead us from that dark hillside filled with horrible memories. You did that for us, Annabelle. We can move on now. So can you – if you want to come with us.”

A feeling of weightlessness came over her, as though her body were filled with light and energy. She understood now. All she’d ever wished for was waiting on the other side. She could finally be a nurse. Finally know love.

Jesse’s hand extended again. This time she reached for it and held on. The men parted into two rows as he led her toward the door. Anna paused, turning back for one last look.

Her body slumped to the side of the chair, withered and pale. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth and dripped onto the armrest, soiling the fabric. It would take a lot of scrubbing to clean the upholstery . . . but that no longer mattered.

Jesse lovingly stroked her shiny locks falling in loose curls about her shoulders. “Ready, Annabelle?”

She nodded, smiling up at him. “I’m ready.”

Short Story Time Again!

Gather ’round. This little horror story puts a different twist on “roadside shrines”.

The Lore

ROADSIDE SHRINES

Roadside shrines can be seen on almost any major highway in the world. In the United States, they are common throughout the Southwest, especially on Highway 86 between Tucson and Why, Arizona. This two lane road cuts through the lands of Tohono O’odham nation.

Shrines on the reservation serve multiple purposes. Many are placed as memorials to loved ones who died while walking or driving at a specific location. Others are to honor a vow or prayer. And still more offer tribute to the Virgin Mary. The shrines for highway deaths are also referred to as “descansos”.

On some unpaved roads through the reservation, you might see an elaborate grotto or altar built into a mountainside. These are usually family or special group shrines that feature statues of the Holy Mother or a saint. Often, during a religious feast or celebration, a ramada is set up nearby to serve food to attendees.

Not all shrines look alike. Some are simple white crosses etched with a name and date. Others are elaborate stone or brick grottos filled with religious figurines, candles and offerings. They might be located a few feet from the highway shoulder, or elevated high on a hillside. It’s not uncommon to see shrines and grottos in residential yards.

The unwritten etiquette for viewing shrines is If the front  faces toward the road, visitors are allowed to pay their respect. If it faces away from the road, especially on private property, it is intended for that family’s personal use and not mean for public visitations.

The Story

ROAD KILL

by Debra S. Sanders

I’m a thief. Big deal.

I never stole from the poor – just from those who have more than they need. There’s a point where these rich bastards got so much money, they stop counting. Then when they die, their families put on a show with a big funeral, dressing up the dead with things they can’t use when they’re six feet under.

My mama used to say “waste not, want not” so I decided to help myself to a few trinkets just so they don’t go to waste. I guess that makes me a grave robber. At least, I was until Shorty Long spilled his guts to the feds about a gold necklace I showed him.

Some partner he turned out to be. Now I’m on the lam and I got nobody to fence my goods.

So I was thinkin’ . . . if I gotta lay low anyway, I might as well be someplace warm. Who wants to huddle around a fire with a bunch of homeless guys on the banks of the Mississippi? Everyone thinks Memphis is great until they spend a winter here. The wind blowing off the river is cold enough to freeze a gargoyle’s ass.

It took three days of hitchhiking but I finally made it to southern Arizona. It ain’t exactly the tropical paradise I imagined but at least it’s warmer than Memphis. I left Tucson yesterday. Figured I’d put my thumb out on the two lane highway that heads west through the Indian reservation . . . Tohono oooooodham, or however the hell you say it.  The back roads are safer but man, there ain’t nothin’ out here except cactus, coyotes and border patrol.

Nobody’s offered me a ride, not even the tourists driving their big motorhomes. Damn Feds got people scared to death. They think every hitchhiker is a freakin’ illegal from Mexico. Well, take a look, assholes . . . I got blonde hair and blue eyes.

I may be a thief but at least I’m legal . . . hahahaha!

Last night I slept in a wash under an Ironwood tree. Kept a small fire goin’ to chase away the chill. I had no idea the desert could get so cold at night. I’m so hungry, my ribs are beginning to rub against my backbone. I ain’t had nothin’ to eat since yesterday when I snatched a loaf of bread out of some chick’s cart in a Walmart parking lot. My mouth tastes like I swallowed a handful of dust. If I don’t get some money soon, I could die out here.

Geez, it’s hot. I need some water. Hey, ask and you shall receive! What’s this up ahead? A pump house?

Hang on, nope it’s a . . . shrine? You gotta be kiddin’ me.  Look at this cross and religious shit. And . . . oh, my. Ain’t this sweet? Somebody put a silver bracelet next to these flowers.

I bet I can pawn it for a few bucks. Dumbasses. Who would leave a perfectly good bracelet like that out in the open? Whoa, check out this photo. Cute chick. Isabelle Sa . . . . whatever. Some kind of Indian name, I guess.

I reckon your family musta built this little memorial thingy after you died. I heard about people doin’ stuff like that. You don’t mind sharin’ the wealth, do you, darlin’? It’s not like you can use it on the other side. Let me take a look at this picture again. Damn, baby, you ain’t bad lookin’, at all. If’n you was alive, I might just show ya a good time.

Oops, there’s a car comin’. Gotta scoot. See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya. Hahahaha…..

Phew, that was a close call. I barely had enough time to hide behind those bushes before the driver saw me. No matter, I scored good on that shrine. Candles to keep me warm. A silver bracelet to pawn. And a photo of a pretty girl to look at when I jack off. Not bad.

*****

Okay, this is gettin’ old. I’ve been walking for over an hour. Found two more of those little shrines. Didn’t get nothin’ from the first one. Pissed me off, too, cuz I had to climb over a bunch of damn rocks to reach it. But I got a jar of coins at the last one – came to just over five bucks and some change. I figure that will buy me a burger and beer.

Man, this sun is brutal. I’m roastin’ like a chicken on a spit. I had to tear off the tail of my shirt to use as a head band. Damn sweat kept drippin’ in my eyes. At least I got this bottle of water somebody tossed out. It was half full. God, I hope nobody slobbered in the damn thing. <sniff, sniff> Smells okay. Tastes okay. Alrighty, then, guess I can keep goin’.

What the hell? Another frickin’ shrine? Ain’t these Indians got nothin’ better to do than build shit for dead people? I hope to God there’s somethin’ good inside. I mean, hell, I’m usin’ my time and energy to check these damn things so somebody better make it worth my while. The jerk who died was probably a drunk, anyway. There’s broken whiskey and beer bottles everywhere you look. I guess when these folks aren’t building shrines, they’re drinking. Can’t say I blame them. This place has gotta be the ass crack of the nation.

Okay, what have we got? Flowers. Check. They all got plastic flowers. Ain’t worth nothin’. Crucifix. Don’t need no religion today, thank you very much. Some kind of bird feathers. Yuck. Hmmm . . . and this. A little box. Jewelry box?

Well, hell yeah! Looks like a silver charm. Maybe I can put it on the bracelet and sell ‘em together. At this rate, I’m gonna be a millionaire before I reach the other side of the reservation. Hahahaha…..

I gotta eat somethin’ soon. All this shrine robbin’ worked up a fierce appetite. I ain’t passed a town or nothin’. Wait a sec . . . is that a light? I think there’s a house way back there. Maybe I can talk ‘em into giving me some food. I bet they get lost travelers all the time.

“Hey, old man!” Dang, he looks like he’s been knockin’ on death’s door for about ten years. <snicker> I crack me up some times. “Hey, mister. Can you spare something to eat?” Well talk, you old fart. Don’t just stand there and stare. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I’ve been walking for most of the day. I’m hot, hungry and thirsty. Think you could help out a stranger in need?”

Aw, hell. This guy ain’t got no teeth and his face looks like boot leather. He’s one ugly SOB. “I don’t have any money but what if I give you this bracelet? It’s gotta be worth a sandwich and soda.”

That’s right. Take it. Okay, you can stare at it as much as you want . . . after you get me somethin’ to eat. Wait . . . come back here. “Hey, don’t take that unless you aim to give me some food!”

Oh, good, he’s coming back. What the hell is he carrying? It don’t look like food. And it smells like . . . somethin’ dead. Stupid old fart is putting his hand in there. FUCK!!!

“Whaddya blow that crap on me? It’s in my eyes . . . and nose. What the hell is this? Dust? Ash? You son of a bitch!”

I can’t see. My eyes are burning like crazy. Where is the old cuss? If I get my hands on you . . .

“Hey . . . dude . . . get up. I didn’t mean to punch you so hard. Dude. Old man . . . get up . . .”

Aw, hell. That’s blood. He must have hit his head on a rock when he fell. Okay . . . okay. Breathe. Go inside. Grab some food and water and get out of here before someone shows up.

*****

It’s not as cold tonight. Or maybe I’m not feelin’ it ‘cause I got a full belly. The old man had some decent food, I’ll give him that. I don’t even feel bad about him dyin’. He was ancient. If it’d been me, I’d rather go quick like that than linger around fighting off cancer or some old people’s disease. Guess that makes me the angel of death. <snicker>

Ahhhh, now this is a good. I got a warm fire, a thick blanket and a sack of grub. Look at them stars. Damn! You never see stars like that in Memphis.

Huh? What’s that? “Somebody out there?”

Somethin’ moved by that cactus. There it is again. Friggin’ illegals are tryin’ to steal my food. I ain’t got no gun. Nothin’ to defend myself. Geezus!

“Okay, amigos . . . you can have my food. I’m just gonna back away. No harm. No foul.”

What the hell is that? “W . . . who are you?”

Fuckin’ shadows are moving. Everything is moving. How many of these fuckers are there? Huh? It can’t be . . . my eyes are playin’ tricks. But it sure as hell looks like . . . “Isabelle?” Who’s that behind her?

Go, go, go. Need to get out of here – shit’s goin’ down.  What the hell? “Hey . . . old man . . . I thought you was dead. I thought . . .”

Oh . . . God . . . that hurts. Feels like someone ripped open my chest. What the hell is he laughing about? “This ain’t funny, assholes!” I can’t move. Can’t breathe. They’re circling me. All I can see are their painted Day of the Dead faces, laughing . . . at my heart in the old man’s hand.

Aw, fuck . . .

*****

Three weeks later.

“Look, Daddy. There’s another shrine. That’s the sixth one we’ve passed since we left Tucson. Can we stop?”

“Okay, kiddo, but just this once or we’ll never reach Organ Pipe National Monument.”

The little girl bolted from the car as soon as her father stopped and ran to the arched shrine. Her eyes widened with awe.  “Why do they build these, Daddy?”

“I think it marks the place where someone died. But other people can visit and light candles, or pray for their souls. Would you like to do that, honey?”

“Yes, please.” The little girl put her hands together and bowed her head. After a few seconds, she swiveled to meet her father’s bemused expression. “The man who died here said I could have the silver bracelet and coins. Is it okay, Daddy?”

“No, you must never take anything from the shrines. The mementos were left for those who passed on. They contain a little piece of their soul. If you take it, you might bring them home with you.”

“Oh . . . okay.” She turned back around, lowering her voice to a whisper. “I’m sorry, mister. You have to stay here – with your friends.”

 

ONCE UPON A TIME

The Lore

Edgewood Plantation, Virginia

Edgewood Plantation

Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rowland fell in love with a young man from a nearby estate. As soon as she heard the distinctive gait of her suitor’s horse, Lizzie would run to the window, watching for her true love’s approach. The couple hoped to marry but the onset of the Civil War put their pending nuptials on hold..To Lizzie’s dismay, her fiancé joined the Confederate Army and was called to battle before they could be married. She waited patiently, dreaming of the day he would return and restore normalcy to her life. Each day, Lizzie gazed from her window on the third floor. Listening. Yearning. Praying for the young man’s safety. At one point, she etched her name into the bedroom window glass, some say with a diamond ring. Sadly, the two lovers were never reunited.

Lizzie remained a spinster, dying at the age of forty-seven. Legend suggests she succumbed to grief brought on by a broken heart after never reconciling with the unknown fate of her fiancé.

Today Edgewood Plantation functions as a bed and breakfast. Frequent sightings of Lizzie’s forlorn ghost have made the B&B a favorite destination for paranormal enthusiasts. The current owners embrace the ghostly presence and encourage visitors to seek their own supernatural experiences. Reported encounters include seeing mists on the stairs and hearing footsteps in the corridor. But a lucky few have glimpsed Lizzie in the upstairs window – still waiting for her lover’s return.

The Story

ONCE UPON A TIME

by Debra S. Sanders

Farley is a small town on the south end of nowhere, tucked between what was and what could have been. Most folks find amusement in the form of fishing, an occasional movie at The Orpheum, or special events like the Fourth of July Parade. But kids on summer break don’t always think the way their parents do and prefer mischief to amusement. Such was the case when Fred Walker brought his prize Hereford bull, Solomon, to town.

Fred was on his way to the Double M Ranch so the bull could conduct his annual “servicing” of heifers when he decided to stop at the Lazy Susan Café. After filling a pail with sweet corn, he left Solomon in the livestock trailer and sauntered across the street. It took less than a minute for Lucy Johnson to arrive at his booth with coffee and a slice of apple pie – and even less time for Fred to forget all about Solomon.

Since his wife had passed two years earlier, Lucy made sure the handsome widower ate properly by frequently taking leftovers from the restaurant to his house. Of course, the town gossips claimed Fred’s appetite wasn’t the only thing Lucy satisfied.

Fred liked apple pie almost as much as he liked the cute little waitress who served it. He didn’t see no harm in taking a half hour to indulge his hankerin’ for something sweet. It wasn’t as if Solomon got paid by the hour. On this particular day, Fred asked for a scoop of ice cream to go with his pie. The weather was hot for the end of June. Looking at Lucy Johnson made it seem even hotter.

While ice cream melted across Fred’s pie, a group of local kids were examining their fireworks for the upcoming Fourth of July celebration. It was the biggest event of the year which meant testing the Black Cats beforehand to make sure they popped. No one wanted duds on the Fourth.

When Billy Simmons spied Solomon lounging in the back of the livestock trailer, he double-dog dared the Connor boys to stage a Spanish bullfight. using Solomon as “el Toro”. They drew straws to see who would be the lookout, who would open the trailer gate and chase Solomon out with a lit firecracker, and who would be the matador.

The plan would have gone flawlessly if Miss Beasley hadn’t come crawling up Main Street in her ’59 Oldsmobile. She slowed down when she saw the bull in the middle of the street. He was madder than a wet hornet because Billy threw a whole string of Black Cats through the window instead of just one. When they started poppin’ around Solomon’s hooves, he charged out of the trailer bellowing like a locomotive and almost trampled Joey Conner in the process.

It was no secret Miss Beasley had passed the day when she should be driving a vehicle but the old spinster brandished such a despicable disposition, no one had the nerve to tell her. So when she saw Solomon pawing the ground, the fight was on. Her hand came down on the horn about the same time her foot hit the accelerator.

Solomon wasn’t anxious to tangle with the front end of a ’59 Oldsmobile so he headed for the first thing that looked like a barn . . . the open door at Red’s Hardware. Now, there’s no way a twelve-hundred-pound bull is going to fit through a thirty-six-inch entrance. Solomon took the path of least resistance and lunged right through the front glass window. Ignoring the screams from customers, he disappeared down the tool aisle, huffing and panting like a demon from Hell.

It was about that time Fred Walker came outside to see what was causin’ all the ruckus. His eyes got real big as he looked at the empty trailer and then at Red’s broken window. Fred took off down the street, disappearing into the feed store. After scooping up sweet grain in an empty coffee can, he headed back to the scene of Solomon’s escape.

By this time, a crowd had gathered outside Red’s establishment. Fred pushed through the door and began shakin’ the can, calling Solomon’s name soft and low. Sounded almost like a lullaby. Hearing a snort a few aisles over, Fred moved in that direction. Sure ‘nuff, Solomon was in the middle of the garden department with a piece of hose coiled around his back hoof.

Fred poured a little sweet grain into his hand and extended it toward the bull. A long, gooey tongue lapped it up as Solomon nudged his owner affectionately. They exited through the back loading dock with the bull following Fred like a duckling after it’s mama.

It was an exciting day, alright. People talked about Solomon’s antics for over a year. Not much happened after that and life returned to the slow, routine pace folks around Farley seem to favor – until someone rented the Elkin’s place. The rundown house on the outskirts of town had been vacant for years, and over time had become the object of several ghost stories.

Old timers said a woman died there while waiting for her husband to return from the Civil War. She simply lost her will to live. Minutes before she passed, her husband stumbled through the door, still wearing bandages on his wounds. She was too far gone to escape death’s clutches but with her last breath, vowed they’d meet again. Distraught with grief and half dead himself, the poor fellow disappeared into the night and was never seen again.

No one wanted to live in the Elkins house after that. Folks said they heard things. Furniture moved by itself. One day a peddler was passing through town and mentioned seeing a woman staring out the window. Well, that started the rumors flyin’ and the next thing you know, people claimed the ghost of the Elkins woman was lookin’ for her husband. Parents used that story to make their children behave. The Elkins ghost will get you if you don’t go to bed. Those same children are now parents. They still believe the house is haunted.

When a community lives with a ghost story as long as Farley, it becomes part of their culture. They’re not eager to give it up. And if folks have to give up a myth, you can bet they’ll replace it with another.

Which is exactly what happened when a stranger bought the Elkins place.

A few weeks after curtains appeared in the windows, people claimed a witch had taken residence in the dilapidated structure. It wasn’t long until young men began knocking on the evil creature’s door, challenged by those less valiant.

Such was the case on a Saturday night when Bobby Greene eased past the rickety gate and made his way up the walk. It was late. His friends hid in the bushes, watching as he approached the porch. Bobby was determined to prove his manhood by peeking in the window where a single candle burned. With heart pounding against his ribs, he tiptoed toward the dusty window.

A voice slithered from the shadows with all the menace of a coiled snake. “I wondered how long it’d take for people to start pestering me.”

Bobby wanted to turn and run right then but his legs wouldn’t move. Mustering the last of his courage, he swiveled his head enough to make out the faint outline of an old woman rocking in a chair. He prayed she didn’t hex him with a magical incantation.

“I’m . . . I’m sorry to bother you, ma’am. We . . . I . . . just wondered who lived here.”

“What’s it to you? I don’t recall issuing an invitation to tea. It’s pretty late for Welcome Wagon.” The old woman rose to her feet, stepping into a pool of moonlight. Her wrinkled face and narrowed eyes left no doubt that his fears were valid . . . she was definitely a witch. “Why don’t you admit it? You’re here because your friends put you up to it.”

Bobby’s face turned ashen. “You’re right. It was a stupid thing to do. I apologize.” His feet finally responded to the command to move. Easing forward, he winced as the skirt of her long, black dress brushed against his leg. “I’ll be on my way now.”

“Not so fast, young man. Anyone who ventures out here in the dead of night must be a damn fool or have something to prove. Now if you’re a fool, Bobby Greene, I’m gonna make you sorry you ever stepped foot on my property but if you’re as strong on the outside as you appear on the inside, I might have a way to sweeten that pittance you earn at McCrory’s Dry Goods. Do you know how to use a hammer and nail?”

Bobby mouth opened and closed. How did the old woman know his name? Or where he worked? “I reckon I’m pretty good with tools,” he muttered at last. “I helped my dad build a barn last year.”

“I don’t need a barn. I need this fence repaired so it doesn’t fall down.” Her eyes seemed to bore right through him. “Be here at one o’clock tomorrow. The sooner you get started the better.”

With those final words, she slinked into the shadows. A sudden chill followed her departure. The next sound he heard was the quiet swish of the front door as it closed.

Bobby sprinted down the walk, scaling the short gate with a leap instead of pausing to open it. There was no sign of the other boys when he reached the clump of bushes where they’d hidden. He walked home alone, angry his friends abandoned him in the face of death. The old woman could have killed him. Cut out his heart. Boiled him alive. Or even worse, turned him into a toad.

Instead, she offered him a job.

Climbing into bed that night, Bobby vowed never to return to the Elkins house. By morning however, he changed his mind.

Bobby wanted a truck in the worst way. It would take him a year working as a stocker to earn enough for a down payment. McCrory’s paid minimum wage and only offered twelve to fifteen hours a week. Perhaps working for the witch wasn’t such a bad thing.

When he arrived at the Elkins house, Bobby found a large rock anchoring an envelope to the front porch. Inside was a handwritten note instructing him to use the tools in the shed to repair the picket fence. The woman wrote that she expected the job to last a few weeks. He was to come and go without bothering her.

Bobby pulled out another sheet of paper. Wrapped inside were several large bills.

Few words were spoken between Bobby and the woman during his visits. Occasionally when he rummaged through the shed for more nails or lumber, a tall glass of lemonade and cookies would be on the porch when he returned. He figured it was her way of showing approval for his work.

One day, as he nailed a board in place, the front door opened. The woman’s withered figure hovered behind a dirty screen door.

“Bobby, come here.” He dutifully approached, pausing to wipe the sweat from his neck with a faded bandanna. “I need help washing the windows and planting flowers.”

“Yes, ma’am. Can it wait until I’m done with the fence?”

“I don’t want your help,” she snapped. “Men don’t know nothin’ about such chores. Next time you come, bring that girl who works at the ice cream shop.”

“Which one?” He hoped it wasn’t Rachel Stoddard. She was the most popular girl in school and the mayor’s only daughter. There was no way she would dig in the dirt with manicured nails.

“The quiet one who works in back.” When he frowned, the old woman added, “The girl with long brown hair. She doesn’t talk much.”

“You mean Laurie Evers? I barely know her. She keeps to herself.”

“Then get to know her and make sure she comes with you next time.”

“But . . .”

“Don’t argue, young man.” The door slammed before he could say another word.

On the way home that night, Bobby struggled with how to convince a girl he barely knew to work for the town’s witch. The task proved easier than he imagined.

Bobby’s part time job at the Elkin’s place had elevated him to a local celebrity. He was the only person in town allowed on the property. A group of women from the local church decided to invite the witch to bible study. She refused to open the door when they arrived and supposedly chased them off the porch with a broom when they persisted.

Laurie Evers discovered Bobby lurking at the back door of the Ice Cream Parlor when she was locking up for the night. She didn’t think Bobby Greene even knew her name much less where she worked so it was a surprise to find him waiting for her.

Bobby stammered through a quick explanation of why he was there. The more he talked, the more he realized Laurie would never agree to such an outrageous proposition. And who could blame her? He sounded like an idiot. A bewitched idiot.

To his surprise, Laurie accepted the job.

After Bobby left, she pondered her decision, still not certain why she agreed to such an odd proposal. Perhaps because Bobby looked so cute as he pleaded for her cooperation. Or maybe it was curiosity. Laurie had heard the rumors about a witch living in the Elkins house. She didn’t believe such nonsense but it would be fun to do something no one else had done besides Bobby . . . actually meet the woman.

On the other hand, such an encounter would undoubtedly attract lots of attention, just like it had for Bobby. She shunned the limelight, preferring to stay in the background, observing rather than being seen. This was one time when Laurie felt compelled to risk the consequences. She couldn’t shake the feeling that if she said no, regret would haunt her the rest of her life.

The next afternoon, Bobby met Laurie at the Elkins house. She wasn’t sure what to expect but it wasn’t even close to what she found when they arrived. A note had been left under a bag of potting soil detailing what plants to repot and where they were to be placed, as well as instructions for weeding the exterior gardens, a task that would take several weeks.

The days passed quickly after that. Lemonade and cookies appeared magically on the porch from time to time with Laurie and Bobby chatting over the refreshments. Bobby liked the way the sun glinted on Laurie’s soft brown hair, bringing out golden highlights that crowned her head in a halo. And the way her smile went all the way to her eyes each time he spoke. He liked it so much he found himself thinking about her even when they weren’t together.

One day, as he reached for a cookie, Bobby’s arm bumped Laurie’s head. The next thing he knew, they were kissing and neither seemed eager to stop. He’d kissed other girls but never felt like this . . . like he’d been waiting his whole life for this one moment. When he opened his eyes and saw the glow on Laurie’s face, he knew she felt the same.

The next day, as they marched up the crumbling walk hand in hand, Bobby noticed the screen door blowing back and forth. “That’s odd. She usually keeps it latched.” He hopped onto the porch with Laurie close behind. The front door was open, too, but the old woman was nowhere in sight. Bobby called through the opening.  “Ma’am? Ma’am, are you home?”

Laurie pushed past him, peering into the shadows. “What if she’s ill? Or sick?”

“She’ll be mad if we go inside without permission.”

“She’ll be madder if we stand on this porch all day and she needs our help. She might have fallen.”

Bobby hesitated, then pulled open the screen door and stepped inside. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. “Laurie . . . come here.”

She eased through the entrance and stopped. The foyer was in complete disarray. A thick layer of dust covered the floor, marred only by their footprints. Cobwebs hung from the chandelier, stretching to a dark corner.

“It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here in years.”

Bobby inched into the parlor, followed closely by Laurie. An envelope perched against a tall vase on the mantel. It wasn’t yellow and dusty like everything else so he retrieved it.

A single sheet of paper was inside. He unfolded it, reading the words aloud. “For everything there is a time.”

“I don’t understand.” Laurie took the note and read it.

“The rest of our money is in here, too.” He met Laurie’s gaze. “I guess she’s gone.”

Laurie wandered to an old desk near a window and picked up a photograph. She stared at it for several seconds before motioning Bobby to join her. “She’s right. For everything there is a time.”

He didn’t understand until she handed him the picture. Bobby looked at the image then back at Laurie. Then at the photograph. The man in the Civil War uniform looked just like him – and the woman standing next to him bore an uncanny resemblance to Laurie.

Turning it over, he read the faded scrawl across the back. “Robert and Laurel Elkins, Wedding Day, 1864”.

Now, I don’t know if that story is true. Bobby Greene told it to me right before he and his pretty little bride moved to Louisville, and he’s never been one to lie. The Elkins house burned down shortly after they left, which put a stop to the stories of ghosts and witches.  But I hear tell when the moon is bright and the sky is clear, a young Civil War soldier and his bride can be seen walking hand in hand past the old homestead ruins . . . but then again, it could be the shadows of days gone by.

copyright 2017 – Debra S. Sanders

Unmarked Graves

The Lore

Old Mortimer Cemetery, Mortimer, NC

Mortimer, North Carolina was a thriving logging town in the early 1900’s. Close to 800 families settled there to work at the Ritter Sawmill but  over-harvesting of trees followed by a 20” rainfall in one day created the perfect conditions for a flood that wiped out the community. It was touted as one of the worst in Caldwell County history. The Ritter Company decided not to rebuild and left.

United Mills Company opened a cotton mill in 1922, which briefly resurrected the town’s former prosperity. The Civilian Conservation Corps built Camp F-5 at Mortimer during the Great Depression, and by 1933, the hard working crews had repaired and rebuilt most of the damaged buildings from the 1916 flood.

On August 13, 1940, however, Wilson Creek once again emerged from its banks as a result of a coastal hurricane. The creek quickly rose to a flood stage of 94 feet and decimated the town. Oddly, one of the only structures left standing was the CCC building. Two major floods in a 24 year span was enough to drive remaining families from the area.

Today, much of the mountain property in the northwestern part of Caldwell County is public land held by the U.S. Forest Service.

Thorpe’s Creek Falls is a short hike from the Mortimer Campground which sits adjacent to the CCC building and deteriorating hillside cemetery. There are allegedly 20 unmarked graves, and many more rounded stone markers with no inscription. Grave sites date back to the 1800’s.

The memorial stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls remains a mystery. No one is certain of who put it there or why. Upon personal inspection, it appeared more modern, perhaps from a poured concrete mold. A camper who frequents the area mentioned the purple Iris and violets growing across the creek from the marker. He cites that this is the only place within miles where the flowers can be found growing wild.

The Story

Unmarked Graves

by Debra S. Sanders

It was a brisk afternoon in late March – a day when the air was still cold enough to form vapor clouds with each breath. Lucy Bennet buried her chin beneath the knitted scarf circling her neck and hopped across strategically placed stones in the middle of Thorpe’s Creek. After landing on the opposite side of the sloping bank, she paused to soak up the scene. It reminded her of an English countryside – not that she’d ever visited such a place – but the photos from tourism books at Morganton library looked just like this.

Lucy liked to read about far-off, exotic locations. They fueled daydreams of an adventurous life filled with travel and friends of a more “elevated” societal standing. Sometimes, she imagined herself a personal assistant to a famous movie star. Or a wealthy tycoon’s secretary. On rare occasions, when she dared to dream big, Lucy closed her eyes and pretended to be the wife of an international diplomat.

On this particular day, however, Lucy was immersed in a different sort of daydream. Something more suited to her lot in life. She and fiancé, James Marmott, planned to elope.

James was a good man, older than her twenty-two years, and a skilled mechanic. He earned a decent wage at the garage in Colletsville, and marriage would allow her to relocate from the small, rural community where she’d lived all her life.

At one time Mortimer, North Carolina had been a bustling logging town but over-harvesting of the trees, devastating forest fires and two particularly nasty floods destroyed the area. The town’s residents were too discouraged to start over so they fled down the mountain in search a better life. Mortimer became a ghost town overnight.

After a few years, people began to venture back along the eight miles of dusty, dirt road but only to frequent a small National Forest campground or frolic and fish in Wilson Creek. They were seasonal visitors. It was too isolated for most folk to live there full time. The hardy souls who remained managed to carve out a life on the mountain and call themselves locals.

The remote area offered few options for a young woman of marrying age so Lucy considered herself darned lucky when James came courting. They dated off and on for over a year. Her pappy wasn’t too keen on the young man at first and Lucy knew why. Pappy didn’t want to lose his cook and housekeeper. After her mother died when Lucy was twelve, she took over caring for her father and two younger brothers.

Lucy didn’t mind so much at first. She liked feeling all “growed up”. But when she told Pappy about her plans to attend the community college in Morganton, he was quick to remind her that her first duty was to God and second to family. Even though she was crushed, Lucy dutifully obeyed and stayed at home, working summers at the small market near Wilson Creek Visitor Center to help pay for her younger brother’s school supplies and clothes.

That was four years ago. The boys were now in high school with part time jobs of their own. Jeb would graduate this year and Bruce the year after – which gave Lucy a sense of purpose. It was time to shed the familial shackles. Time to live her own life . . . past time.

She followed Thorpe’s Creek through Mortimer Campground to where a trail cut through the dense foliage. The camp sites were still closed for the winter so she didn’t have to share the path with summer visitors. It was a popular hike for campers and tourists in the spring and early summer. Rhododendron lined the well-worn trail leading to Thorpe’s Falls where the water spilled in gentle layers over a solid rock face. A shallow pool gathered at the base, offering cool respite from the heat of the day before tumbling over scattered stones and mossy slopes as it frolicked through the campground.

By the time Lucy reached the falls, her heart pounded with excitement. She picked her way over the wet, slippery stones and took a narrow path to the left of the falling water. Once she reached the top of the hill, she turned right, scampering over a fallen log and following the trail to the creek. James was already there, a big smile on his face.

“Hi, honey! C’mon over here.”

He held out a hand, helping her down a short drop. Lucy immediately fell into his embrace, warmed by the circle of his arms. “I can’t believe we’re getting married tonight. I’m so happy.”

His embrace tightened as James kissed the top of her head. “Me, too, but there’s been a slight change in plans.”

“What?” Lucy pulled back just enough so she could tip her head and meet his gaze.

“I have to work for George tonight. I promised to cover his shift a few weeks ago and plumb forgot until he mentioned it today.” When James saw the disappointment on Lucy’s face, he rushed to add, “It’s just one day. We’ll drive to Charlotte tomorrow and get married. I promise. Besides, the extra money means we can rent a motel room for the weekend. Won’t that be fun?”

She nodded, trying not to cry.

James pulled her down beside him on a moss covered log and slipped an arm around her shoulders. “I love you, Lucy. Nothing will ever change that.”

“I love you, too.” It was true. She did love James but the fact he promised to take her away from Mortimer added a sort of desperation to her feelings. She glanced forlornly at the tiny clearing next to the creek, then back at James, trying not to let her emotions get away from her. “It’s so pretty here. It just needs a little English Ivy and violets.”

“There you go again,” James grinned, “daydreaming about England. I’ll take you there someday. I surely will.”

She nestled her head against his shoulder. “That would be wonderful.”

“There’s nothing I won’t do for you, darlin’. I wouldn’t want to go on livin’ if anything happened to you.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that.”

His hands cupped her face as his gaze pinned her with an earnest expression. “I mean it, Lucy. You’re my whole world. I will never love another woman the way I love you.”

Lucy sighed and submitted to his passionate kiss. James would take care of her. Love and cherish her. Her dreams would finally come true.

A half-hour later, Lucy bid James farewell. He offered to walk her to the road but she told him to go ahead. She wanted to sit and enjoy the quiet serenity of the falls for a little longer.

After he left, Lucy meandered to a narrow, leaf strewn ledge overlooking the waterfall. She’d waited eight years to escape what felt like indentured servitude to her family. I suppose one more day won’t kill me. She inhaled deeply of the crisp mountain air and straightened her shoulders, slipping back into her role of homemaker. If she left now, there’d be enough time to bake a pan of cornbread for supper. Pappy always liked hot cornbread with his ham and beans.

Lucy strode purposefully down the trail and across the deserted camp sites. She’d just reached the white Forest Service building when a faint glow emanated from the wooded hill behind it. That’s odd, she frowned. Are the woods on fire?

The only thing up there was an old cemetery. Everyone said it was haunted. Last year, a group of paranormal investigators filmed an episode for a television show about the alleged spirits from unmarked graves that frequented the rundown, forgotten burial ground. It had created quite a stir in the small community.

Lucy’s eyes brightened.  Perhaps they were back. The glow was probably from the lights used by the camera crew. They could be filming right now!

She darted up the overgrown road running parallel to the wooden building. Maybe they’ll hire me as an extra. Thoughts of a budding acting career quickened her pace. By the time Lucy reached the top of the rutted dirt lane and darted into the clearing of trees, she was out of breath.

She stood at the entrance to the decaying cemetery, gasping for air as she surveyed the rusted, broken fence around two older graves. One gate was missing. The other barely attached by a single hinge. Her gaze swept to the left, focusing on a scattering of broken granite stones. Some still retained the familiar rectangular shape of a headstone while others were not much more than a medium sized river rock. Inscriptions had long since disappeared beneath the ravages of wind and rain.

Lucy frowned. There were no camera crews so what had created the strange light?

Glancing around, a bewildered expression crinkling her brow, Lucy picked her way between the unkempt headstones. A mist formed along the tree line at the back of the clearing, next to the oldest section of the cemetery. Lucy eased closer to a row of broken, falling down markers, surprised to find an old woman kneeling next to one, head bowed.

Grey hair peeked from beneath a black veil covering her face and shoulders. It matched the long dress covering most of her legs and booted feet.

“Ma’am? Are you alright?” Lucy hated to disturb the grieving woman but thought it odd someone her age would be in the cemetery alone.

The bent figure stiffened. After a few seconds, her head nodded but she kept her gaze downward. “I’m fine, dear. Just saying goodbye to an old friend.”

Lucy took a step closer, a twinge of compassion shooting through her. It must be awful to reach the age where you outlived acquaintances and family. “I know how hard it is to lose someone. My mama died eight years ago. She’s not here, though. Pappy buried over by Edgemont.”

This time the elderly woman looked up. Lucy was surprised by the twinkle in the bright blue eyes as she smiled and struggled to her feet. “Are you from Mortimer?”

“Yes, ma’am. Lived here all my life. Pappy owns a farm just down from Betsey’s Ole Country Store. My name is Lucy Bennet.”

“Bennet? I don’t recall any Bennets in Mortimer. You must be new to the area.”

“Goodness, no. Grandpappy bought land by the old railroad trestle back when he worked at Ritter Sawmill. Of course, that was before the flood. My family has lived on that same plot for almost a hundred years.”

“Hmmm, that makes you third generation.” A strange expression came over her wrinkled features. “Are you planning on staying here? Raising your family in Mortimer?”

Lucy shook her head. “No way. I got two younger brothers. I’m sure one of them will keep the farm going. They ain’t got as much ambition as me. I’m moving to Colletsville as soon as I get married tomorrow,” she boasted proudly.

“That’s a shame. Mortimer keeps losing its residents. Soon there won’t be anybody left.”

“No offense, ma’am, but there ain’t many left now.”

“I know – that’s why we have to keep people here. My daddy was one of the founding families. He was probably the one who hired your grandfather at the lumber mill.”

Lucy’s mouth curved upward. “That was a long time ago.” She glanced up at the sky, surprised to see the translucent glow growing brighter. It was larger now, too, forming a dome over the cemetery. “I do declare, that is the oddest sight I’ve ever seen.”

“What, dear?”

“The sky. It’s strange. Kinda like the Northern Lights.”

The woman turned her wrinkled face upward. For the first time, Lucy noticed the grey pallor to her skin. The flesh crinkled like dry newspaper. A large, gaping wound covered one side of her cheek, and next to the blackened edge, Lucy thought she saw something move under the skin.

A shiver ran down her back. “It’s . . . gettin’ late. I gotta go.” Apprehension tightened around her chest, making it hard to breathe as she swiveled on her heel and prepared to run.

Bony fingers clamped around her arm with a strength that belied the feeble woman’s age. “Not so fast, my dear. We still have things to discuss.”

Lucy’s eyes riveted to the skeletal hand, shocked to find thick, deformed nails biting into her flesh – so deeply, a tiny rivulet of blood trailed past her wrist. “Let . . . let me go.”

The woman ignored her plea. She pulled Lucy to a small mound next to the decaying fence. “Do you know what this is?” she said, pointing with her other hand to the barren earth.

“N. . . no.”

“It’s an unmarked grave.” She met Lucy’s gaze with an icy stare. The prominent twinkle from earlier was gone, replaced by an unmistakable glitter of malice. “There’s more over there.” Her head bobbed to the right. “Forgotten souls, some too poor for a proper burial. No one cared about anything but that damned old sawmill back in the day. Not even my daddy. He was too cheap to pitch in for a headstone so he just dumped me here, like insignificant trash.”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am. I’m sure that wouldn’t happen today.” Lucy struggled to free herself from the vice-like grip.

“You think not?” The wind picked up, howling through the tall pines surrounding the cemetery , and evoking a dust devil next to the old woman’s feet as leaves and dirt rose in a plume. “Ever wonder why the CCC building and this hillside were the only things to survive the flood? We weren’t about to let those bastards get away so easy. The 800 . . . that’s what we call ‘em . . . the original families who formed this town . . . cast us aside. Every once in a while, one comes back – and we keep them here. Make ‘em pay for what they did.”

Lucy gave a final tug and freed herself from the bony grasp. “You’re crazy. I’m getting out of here.”

She could barely hear her own words above the roar of the wind. Except now, it seemed to be blowing against her with gale force strength. Each step met a growing resistance until finally she could not move at all. And then she heard them. Voices. They were all around her. Inside her. Evil, vicious words ripping through her head.

One glance over her shoulder confirmed Lucy’s worst fear. The old woman laughed. A mad, horrible sound that spewed past yellowed teeth and a gaping mouth. Tendrils of dust wrapped around Lucy’s ankles, tugging at her until she was prone on the ground. Her fingers clawed in the dirt as an unseen force dragged her backward.

It was impossible to stand; rocks and brush dug into her soft flesh. As Lucy’s unwilling body moved closer to the old woman’s outstretched arms, her insides tightened. Blue eyes glowed like burning embers . . . emitting tiny sparks that embedded into Lucy’s skin, scorching the delicate surface. She screamed in agony. Screamed in fear. And continued screaming long past the point she could hear anything but the gush of her own blood.

***

James Marmott placed a bouquet of violets and dark green ivy at the base of the marker, then read the words again out loud.

No farewell words were spoken.

No time to say goodbye.

You were gone before we knew it.

And only God knows why.

He’d left the small engraved stone at the top of Thorpe’s Falls almost two years ago, planting wild Iris bulbs, violets and English Ivy along the banks of the meandering creek. The ivy didn’t survive the winter but the flowers did and sprang to life each spring, a reminder of the love he’d shared with Lucy Bennet. He liked to think her spirit still lingered at their final meeting place, which was why he attempted to create an English garden for her to gaze upon.

“I miss you, Lucy, darlin’. I surely do.” James wiped a tear at the corner of his eye. “I don’t know where you went but I reckon you wouldn’t have left me of your own free will.” He sat down next to the marker and wrapped long arms around his knees, staring at the carpet of purple blooms across the stream. “I tried to make this pretty for you – like that English countryside you always talked about. I hope you like it.”

James sat there for a long time, recalling how he and Lucy planned their future at this very spot. Guilt riddled his thoughts. He’d never been able to shed the “what-ifs” – what if he’d not agreed to work for George that night? What if Lucy had accompanied him to the shop, and waited in his car until his shift ended. What if they’d driven to Charlotte and got married the next morning? What if he’d just said, “. . . to Hell with responsibility . . .” and claimed her as his own – six months before he felt financially stable enough to propose?

The last haunting option spurred him to ask Sadie Ritter to be his wife after only a few months of courtship. She was much younger, only eighteen on her recent birthday in February, but they’d “clicked” immediately. A fiery, passionate click that rivaled the feelings he shared with Lucy. The petite redhead was nothing like his first love. She hailed from Mortimer’s W. M. Ritter family who built the sawmill. It was her ancestors who created the once bustling community.

Sadie embraced her heritage with pride. No escaping to Colletsville for this one. She insisted they settle in Mortimer and work toward restoring the area to its former glory.

“I wish you were here, Lucy, but you’re not. I’m lonely . . . and Sadie, well, she’s a heckuva woman. I think you’d like her.” He paused a moment before rising to his feet. “I still love you, darlin’. Reckon I always will but life goes on. I need a son to carry on my name.” James cleared his throat. “I hope you understand. I surely do.”

The chill of an early April wind chased James down the path as he made a hasty retreat, slipping past the falls and half running, half walking to the trailhead. It was not until he emerged into the deserted campground that his uneasiness subsided.

It was just the aftermath of saying goodbye, he told himself as narrowed eyes searched the horizon. A storm brewed over the mountains, one that would bring a good amount of rainfall before morning. He quickened his pace. As he reached the entrance to the campground, James noticed an odd glow over the hill behind the Forest Service building.

That’s strange. I wonder if someone left a campfire unattended.

He walked along the road, then for some inexplicable reason, turned back toward the overgrown trail that led past the trees to the old cemetery.

James didn’t know what made him approach the road or why his pace quickened as he neared the small, forested hillside. All he knew was that he had to go. When he finally breached the clearing that opened into the rundown graveyard, he understood.

Standing there, in a faint mist, was his beloved Lucy, motioning him to join her at the back of the cemetery. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes. His pulse raced. He began walking, then running to greet her. It was as if no time had passed. She looked exactly as she had the last time he saw her.

“Lucy! Is that really you . . .?” James paused to catch his breath, still blinking at her smiling face. “I don’t understand.”

“I know, my love. It’s crazy, isn’t it?” Her face beamed with an inner glow that rivaled the strange light above their heads. “I’ve waited so long for you to find me.”

Forgotten love, spurred by memories of passionate nights, drew him closer until at last his arms wrapped around her trembling body. “Lucy . . . darlin’ . . . I can’t believe you’re here. I’ve missed you so much.”

“I’ve missed you, too, James.”

“Where have you been?” He pulled back, a line forming between his brows. “I . . . thought you were . . . why did you leave me?”

“I didn’t want to go away. It was necessary.”

“Why?” Each time he dismissed a question, two more formed in his head.

“I needed to learn why it was wrong for me to move to Colletsville. My place is in Mortimer. You’ll stay with me, won’t you, James?”

He bit his lip as arm dropped to his sides. “It’s been a long time since you and I . . . since we planned to get married.”

“I know. The flowers are lovely. Thank you for planting them.”

“You . . . you saw them?”

“Of course. I know everything you do.”

He scratched the back of his head. “So, I reckon you know about Sadie Ritter?”

“Yes. I admit I was disappointed when you proposed to her. After all, you did say you would love me forever.”

“I do love you. I always will . . . but I didn’t think you were coming back. I . . .”

“It’s alright, James. I understand. Truly, I do.”

His eyes sought Lucy’s face, softened by her forgiveness. “You’re one of a kind, darlin’.” He kissed her cheek, surprised by the coolness of her skin. “Shall I give you a ride to your Pappy’s house?”

“That’s not necessary. I live here now.”

“Where?” James glanced around, anxiety settling in his belly like a lead weight. As his gaze circled to Lucy, he tried to hide his uneasiness. “Well, then, I best be headin’ home. It was real good seeing you.”

“Wait.” Lucy took his hand, pulling him closer. “I want to show you something. See this mound?” She pointed at a bare spot on the ground. “It’s an unmarked grave.”

“O . . . okay . . .”

James licked his dry lips. There was something not right about Lucy. Her skin looked grey. Her eyes . . . He attempted to pry her fingers from his hand but her grip was too strong. “Let me go!”

“I can’t do that.” The words seemed to swirl around him as the wind picked up, howling through the pine trees. “You and I were meant to be together. It’s destiny.”

“Noooo. . .” James planted his feet in the hard soil but it was no use. His body slid forward, toward the gaping hole opening up in the ground.

“Don’t feel bad. We’re just the means to an end. It’s not us they want – it’s Sadie Ritter. And you’re going to bring her here. We’ll get them all eventually . . . one by one.”

James opened his mouth to scream but nothing came out. It was as if the old woman standing behind Lucy had snatched the sound right from his throat. And then he heard them . . . the voices. . .

***

They say there are twenty unmarked graves in the Old Mortimer Cemetery. But the number of bodies occupying those graves is anybody’s guess.

War Pony

The Lore:

Ghost Horses of Palo Duro Canyon, TX

Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas exhibits breathtaking views of colorful rock formations, deep sloping walls and an abundance of native trees and grasses. It’s the second largest canyon in the United States, right behind the Grand Canyon. Much of the gorge encompasses a 29,000-acre state park which offers a variety of activities for visitors, as well as a seasonal outdoor musical.

Amidst all the grandeur, one might overlook the historical significance of the area. This is where the turning point in the Red River Indian Wars took place over one hundred and forty years ago. Sadly, that final skirmish resulted in the massacre of 1,400 Comanche horses.

In September, 1874, several Native tribes – Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche – gathered in the canyon’s vast lands to hunt buffalo and stockpile supplies for the upcoming winter. The Comanche were great equestrians, perhaps the best of all American Indian tribes. They were fearless when mounted atop their horses and considered the animals to be an extension of their own spirit.

Col. Ranald McKenzie of the 4th U.S. Calvary was determined to track down the renegade Indians and relocate them to contained reservations. Using Tonkawa scouts, he located the Native camps on the canyon floor. From his high vantage point at the rim, he plotted an attack. His position, however, also created a disadvantage. There was no way to reach the bottom of the canyon without being seen. Finally, one of the scouts discovered a narrow path leading through cracks and crevices which ended at the canyon floor.

As McKenzie’s troops carefully maneuvered the steep trail, a Comanche night watch spotted the soldiers and fired a warning shot. The Indians rushed from their camps, surprised and ill-prepared for battle. Hopelessness of their situation led to a frenzied reaction. Many escaped up the canyon walls, saving their lives but forfeiting their supplies. McKenzie and his men confiscated the Native’s food, as well as two thousand horses.

Col. McKenzie feared the Comanche would regroup and steal back their horses, thereby eluding his troops again. After giving some of the horses to the Tonkawa scouts in payment for their help, he ordered his men to shoot and kill the herd. Blood flowed freely as the ponies lay dead or dying in the brutal massacre.

The army left the carcasses where they fell. After the meat was consumed by predators and vultures, the sun bleached bones littered the canyon for years . . . but the spirits of the horses live on.

Today, many campers have reported hearing the thunderous echo of stampeding horses late at night – a ghostly herd destined to run for eternity.

The Story:

War Pony

by Debra S. Sanders

Nocoma stuck close to his father’s side as the Comanche men prepared for the season’s final hunt. He was sure Big Elk would include him this time. After all, he was ten years old – almost a man. But then his mother gently pulled him away, signaling it was not to be. He turned his back when Big Elk rode by, refusing to say goodbye.

Nocoma was a stubborn, willful child who often challenged authority. Big Elk knew how badly his son wanted to join the hunt but the boy was small for his age and had yet to master the horsemanship skills for which Comanche were known. He could barely straddle a mount, much less control it.

Or so Big Elk thought.

Nocoma had secretly prepared for weeks, determined to win his father’s respect. While searching the herd for a suitable mount, he spied a small black and white pony barely visible through the mass of larger animals. Even though the horse was shorter than the rest, Nocoma liked the way he tossed his head, refusing to let his size contain his spirit.

The pony’s head shot up as Nocoma weaved a path to his side. A long swath of black mane draped over his forehead, covering half the white face. He snorted and dug at the earth, as if throwing down a challenge. Nocoma smiled. This would be his mount. He showed courage. The horse was too small for most Comanche which gave them something in common – they were both outcasts. And both underestimated.

Each morning, Nocoma led the pony to a remote box canyon away from his village. It was dangerous to stray so far from camp since the white soldiers frequented the area in search of “renegade” Plains Indians. If caught, he’d be sent to a reservation or worse, the white man’s school, never to see his family again.

The prospects were dire but proving to his father that he was a skilled horseman was worth the risk.

Nocoma spent the first few days wooing the pony with grass and berries, gradually reaching the point where he could slide across its back. Even though the animal delighted in unseating the boy, he never ran away after Nocoma picked himself up from the dirt.

Over the next two weeks, Nocoma earned the horse’s trust. They spent hours riding through the canyon. The boy marveled at the pony’s speed and agility as well as a fearlessness that matched his own. He named the horse Spirit.

Nocoma kept his newly learned skills to himself even though he was sure his insides would burst from excitement. His plan was to display his riding abilities on the day before the hunt. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance. Big Elk and the warriors left two days early at daybreak, taking extra horses with them. He pleaded with his father but the man was too busy gathering weapons to hear the boy’s words.

After the men left, Nocoma waited until his mother was busy then grabbed his bow and arrows and took off on foot, tracking the riders as they made their way deeper into the canyon. If nothing else, he would claim Spirit as his own and ride back to their village.

It came as little surprise when Big Elk noticed Nocoma huddled near the horses. He told the other warriors and older youth to ignore his son, hoping it would convince the boy to return to camp. It didn’t.

That night, when it became apparent he would not be fed with the rest of the hunters, Nocoma fashioned a snare and caught a rabbit. He then roasted it on a spit. Big Elk smiled, secretly proud of his son’s resourcefulness yet still worried the boy could not keep up during for the rigorous hunt.

He stood in the shadows watching Nocoma make a bed from dried leaves and twigs, placing it behind a boulder near the horses. After Nocoma fell asleep, Big Elk crept to his son’s side and covered him with a blanket. A soft whinny echoed from the darkness. Big Elk glanced up and saw the pony.

“You know this boy?” The horse snorted. “I see. Well, he needs a brave horse to protect him. A wise horse who knows what to do when his inexperience gets him in trouble. Is that you?”

Another whinny. The animal inched forward, nuzzling Nocoma’s hand with a velvet nose.

Big Elk raised a brow, eyeing the black and white pony with a disbelieving scowl. “You are both too small. I doubt either of you could stop a strong gust of wind.” His voice softened. “But perhaps together, your valor will surpass us all. I hope that is the case.”

The next morning, Nocoma mounted Spirit and rode along side the hunting party. He ignored the snickers and snide remarks from the men, determined to prove them wrong. That afternoon, they located a herd of buffalo grazing in a wide open field. Craggy rock walls towered on either side as the men argued over who would start a stampede to drive the bison into the box canyon. It was a treacherous task. A rider could easily fall from his mount and become trampled by the massive beasts.

While the warriors engaged in debate, Nocoma jumped onto Spirit’s back. Leaning forward, he whispered in the pony’s ear. “The buffalo are not as fast and sure-footed as you, my friend. We can do this. It will bring great honor to us both.”

Digging his heels into the horse’s side, Nocoma held on as Spirit galloped toward the herd. Pounding hooves drowned out the cries from Big Elk as the boy and his horse circled the grazing buffalo, startling them into action. The enormous animals charged toward the back of the canyon, engulfing Nocoma and Spirit in a thick, brown cloud.

Trembling fingers grabbed a handful of the pony’s mane as he fought to hold on. “We must reach the canyon wall, Spirit. They’re going to trample us.” Fear echoed in Nocoma’s voice but it was directed more toward the brave animal than himself.

Spirit ran alongside the stampeding buffalo, gradually easing his way to the outside. Spying a niche between two boulders, the boy guided his horse toward it. They both gasped for air as the bison rumbled by.

Before the dust settled, Nocoma heard gunfire and knew the hunting party had followed them. It was short lived glory. Looking up, he saw Big Elk riding toward him, an angry scowl on his face. Certain he would be sent home in disgrace, Nocoma slid to the ground and hugged the pony’s neck for what he assumed would be the last time.

“You were brave today, Spirit. As brave as any horse I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget you.”

Big Elk dismounted and approached his son before stopping a few inches in front of him. Nocoma bowed his head, ready to take his punishment. To his surprise, his father pulled him into a tight embrace. “You rode like a Comanche today. I don’t know who taught you such skills but you learned well.”

“It . . . it wasn’t me. Spirit did it all.”

Big Elk looked down at his son and smiled. “If that is the case, your pony risked his life for you. This horse will never belong to another warrior. He shares your heart. Your soul. He will always be yours.” The older Comanche ruffled his son’s hair. “Now, come. We must prepare the buffalo meat to take back to the village.”

There was great celebration when the Comanche returned to camp. Nocoma joined the men around the campfire, welcomed as an equal. They had no way of knowing what lurked in the darkness.

Colonel Ranald MacKenzie of the U.S. Calvary pointed to a narrow trail descending into the canyon. This was the break he’d been waiting for – a chance to finally gather up the remaining Plains Indians and relocate them to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

“We’ll follow this path and surprise them. Our scouts have already sighted the Comanche’s camp.”

During the pre-dawn hours, soldiers surrounded the vast village and opened fire.

Big Elk jumped to his feet, ordering his wife and son to climb the upper walls of the canyon. He and the rest of the men fought off the attacking army to allow their families a chance to escape.

When it became obvious they were surrounded, the Comanche along with Kiowa and Cheyenne, scurried up the cliffs. It would give them a better vantage point to launch a gun and arrow assault on the soldiers.

Nocoma found his father a short time later loading his rifle behind a large boulder. “I’ll stay and help fight the white eyes.”

Big Elk shook his head. “There are too many.”

“We have to do something! We can’t just let them destroy our village.” He peeked around the edge of the boulder, lips thinning as the soldiers and Tonkawa scouts tore down teepees and set them ablaze.

Big Elk’s body sagged against the rock. “The white demons have taken everything. Our food and shelter, our horses, our land . . .”

“We’ll fight them, father. We’ll get it back.”

Big Elk stared at the rifle in his hands. “We are Comanche. Without our horses, we are nothing.”

A shot rang out. Nocoma eased around the boulder for a better view. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The soldiers were killing the horses. Frantically scanning the herd, he spied Spirit. The small black and white pony stomped the ground, whinnying as another horse fell next to him.

“They’re shooting them! Father . . . we have to stop this!”

Big Elk swallowed and looked away. “How? We must go to their reservation. There is nothing we can do but live out our days under the white man’s rule.”

“No! I hate the white man! I won’t go . . .and I won’t let them shoot Spirit.”

Nocoma darted away before his father could stop him. He scampered down the canyon wall then slipped into a grove of trees. For once, his small size was an asset. No one noticed the boy crouched in the thick undergrowth. He stayed there for a few minutes, cringing each time a rifle shot rang out.

Horses cried out in fear and pain. He blinked away the tears and crawled to the edge of the clearing. Comanche ponies littered the ground, some withering as they took their last breath but most already dead. The rest were wide eyed, panicked as the soldiers sat on wagons, laughing and taking aim.

Nocoma spotted Spirit toward the back. He was shorter so the larger animals shielded him from bullets – for now. The soldiers were shooting the horses in front and not paying attention to the outer perimeter. Taking a deep breath, Nocoma belly crawled into the herd, stealthily moving between the horses until he reached Spirit.

“I won’t let them shoot you,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around the pony’s neck.

Spirit nuzzled him and whinnied but it was low, as if defeated. The horse knew. He sensed death around him and realized his fate was sealed.

Nocoma wiped a tear from his cheek. “We don’t have to die like this. We can meet the great spirit as warriors.” He glanced at the soldiers lined up on the other side of the herd. “Are you ready for one last ride, War Pony?”

Spirit tossed his head and reared up, snorting and pawing the ground. Nocoma spit onto the dirt, then wiped large stripes of red earth across his face. He repeated the marking down Spirit’s nose. It wasn’t black paint like most Comanche wore in battle but it would have to do.

Swinging himself onto the pony’s back, Nocoma let out a loud whoop and gripped Spirit’s mane. They took off in a gallop. He heard yelling and gunfire but didn’t care. Closing his eyes, Nocoma thrust his arms into the air and threw back his head. He matched his breathing to the rise and fall of Spirit’s pace. They were one.  One heart. One soul.

Nocoma and Spirit raced toward the soldiers. Oddly, the herd of horses ran next to them in a line on either side, as if guarding the boy and his mount from the barrage of bullets. As they neared the wagons. a sharp pain pierced Nocoma’s chest.

He leaned forward, resting his head on Spirit’s neck. “I love you. We’ll always be together.” Spirit took a final leap into the air.

*****

Some say, late at night, you can hear the thundering hooves of ghost horses racing through the Palo Duro Canyon, snorting and whinnying as though running from the devil himself. A few who have witnessed this phenomenon swear they’ve seen a proud Comanche boy astride a small black and white pony, leading the herd.

At least, that’s what they say.

SHORT TALES

Great Balls of Fire

The Lore:

The Hornet Spook Light, Near Joplin, Missouri

I was raised in Northeastern Oklahoma and knew about the Hornet Spook Light long before investigating the area for my book. As a child, we referred to the mysterious phenomena as the Joplin Spook Light because sightings occurred along a rural county road just 12 miles southwest of Joplin, Missouri. Those who viewed the light describe it as a ball of fire the size of a basketball. Others say it is a blue orb that hovers in mid-air with the ability to divide or separate. While descriptions vary, one thing most people agree on is the spook light’s capacity to frighten unsuspecting travelers.

Explanations for sightings typically lean toward the paranormal – the ghost of two young Quapaw Indians with a Romeo and Juliet type ending. A decapitated Osage Chief looking for his head. A miner with a lantern destined to search for his missing children through eternity. But skeptics will tell you it’s nothing more than swamp gas or headlights from a passing car.

Most local residents believe the light has been around since the late 1800’s. Others say it was first documented in the mid 1930’s. As with most legends, origins are murky and details vary. During the 1940’s, the Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study on the Spook Light, hoping to curb the intense public interest. Their final determination only created more questions when they cited it as “a mysterious light of unknown origin.”

If you’re ever in northeast Oklahoma near sundown, wander over to East 50 Road, four miles south of the tristate junction. Stop and sit a spell. Chances are you won’t be in the dark long.

The Story:

Great Balls of Fire

by Debra S. Sanders

Henry Tuttle peered through heat radiating off the road in a scintillating haze. It was hot. What Okies call the “dog days of summer”. He dropped his chin so the bill of his faded John Deere cap blocked the afternoon sun from his eyes then watched a white Prius slow and turn into the long drive leading to his farmhouse. Dust formed in a thick, brown cloud behind the vehicle as it crept over potholes and ruts on a road more suited for high clearance vehicles. The right side of Henry’s mouth lifted. Settling into a corner of the wooden porch swing, he began to rock back and forth in a slow, steady rhythm.

The Prius stopped in a wide gravel area next to the house. A young man emerged, running his finger across a layer of dust coating the shiny paint. Seconds later, the passenger door opened and a girl with puffy red lips and large sunglasses stepped out.

“City folk,” Henry muttered with a quick assessment of the man’s baggy pants and loose t-shirt. The woman wore skinny jeans over even skinnier legs. Massachusetts plates confirmed his suspicion.

The man looked up, spotted Henry on the porch and waved. “Hello,” he called in a distinct Bostonian accent. “Fine day, isn’t it?”

“Almost over,” Henry grunted.

“Yuh, it is.” His chuckle sounded forced. “You lived here long?”

“All my life.”

“Ah, that’s great. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions.” The man glanced at his companion. “We’re journalists, researching a bit of local lore.”

Henry took a deep breath then let it out with a whoosh. He knew the minute they pulled into his drive what they wanted – information about the spook light. It wasn’t as if they were the first out-of-towners who fancied themselves ghost hunters.

“I reckon I got a few minutes.”

“Super! Do you mind if we join you on the porch?”

“Suit yourself. Supper’s in an hour. You need to be gone by then.”

The woman giggled. “Yuh, suh. We promise.”

They brushed dried leaves from two wicker chairs before settling onto the worn seats. The man leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “My name’s Peter. This is Emily. We’re writing an article for our travel blog about Devil’s Promenade . . .”

“The spook light,” Henry corrected. “Figured that was it.”

“Yuh, well, we’re researching paranormal activity in the heartland and this particular myth kept popping up so we thought we’d look into it.”

“Have you seen it?” Emily chimed.

Henry pursed his lips, staring at a spot above her head as if conjuring up a memory. “I’ve had my share of run-ins with the damn thing. Most everyone around these parts has seen it at one time or ‘nother.”

Peter licked his lips. His pupils turned to pinpoint as he shifted in his seat. “We’ve read several theories about the light but since you live right here on the road where it is seen most often, we hoped you would have the inside scoop.” His laugh faded into silence. “What is it? Swamp gas? Light refraction? Some sort of geophysical anomaly?”

Henry kept a straight face as he met the young man’s gaze. “Ain’t none of those things.”

“Well, what is it . . . exactly?”

“Riley Crow’s ghost.”

Silence greeted Henry’s announcement. Emily was first to respond, keeping her voice low and pleasant. “We’ve actually heard a few of those myths. I think one source said it might be the spirits of an ill-fated Native American couple. Another suggested it could be a Civil War soldier. However, I don’t think anyone mentioned the name Riley Crow.

“Riley passed on about ten years ago.”

Peter cleared his throat. “But people first reported seeing the light during the 1800’s.”

“Oh, I’m sure it was around back then. Some say this area is cursed so I figure it holds a lot of souls who won’t move on, just like the Quapaw lovers you heard about. Legend goes they wanted to get married but her pappy didn’t think the young brave had enough dowry. He refused to let them join up so they eloped. Pappy sent a hunting party after ‘em. Rather than be separated, they ran to a cliff and jumped off. Died right away.”

Peter cast a condescending smile. “Part of our paranormal research involves debunking stories like that. I mean, there’s really no factual evidence to back up the myth. Is it true the Corps of Engineers investigated the light?”

“Yep, back in the thirties or forties. They ran a bunch of tests and came up empty handed. Look, son, if you talk to ten people around here, you’ll probably get ten different stories about the spook light but one thing’s for sure – anyone who has seen it, don’t want to see it again.”

“Why do you think that is?” Emily inquired. “What makes it so frightening?”

“The unknown, I reckon. I’ve had the damn thing run right in front of my truck. Then in a matter of seconds, it was behind me. One time, it floated towards me, broke into four different orbs and then went and sat in a tree. It’s a crazy sight to see.”

“Have you ever touched it?”

“Nah, but George Stoddard tried to shoot it. He can’t hit the broad side of a barn in daylight so I don’t know why he thought he could hit a moving fireball in the dark.”

Peter chuckled. “Tell me about this Riley Crow. Why do you think the light is his ghost?”

Henry pushed his cap back, scratched the top of his head then reset the hat to its original position. “I have a theory. I think this area is a sort of purgatory for souls who can’t rest.”

“That’s an interesting concept. Why do you think Riley is not at peace?”

“He’s searching for his balls.”

Emily’s eyes widened. “His . . . balls?”

“Yep. Old Riley was missing his testicles when he died.”

Once again, Emily and Peter exchanged looks. “I don’t suppose you’d care to expand on that?” Peter said.

“It’s a pretty gruesome story. Sure you want to hear it?” They both nodded. “Well, okay, then. Riley was a bit of a womanizer. Everyone around here knew he had a strong appreciation for the ladies – everyone except his wife, Lulabelle. She was a big, full figured gal. Good looking in her own right but real jealous. Needless to say, she watched Riley like a hawk.”

“One night, he came home after cozying up with Nancy Brown. Lulabelle took one sniff of the perfume on his collar and knew it wasn’t hers. After an all-night brawl, Riley finally confessed to his indiscretion. He promised never to see Nancy again. ‘Course, Lulabelle’s green eyed monster was all riled up by then. She just couldn’t find it in her to trust him.”

Henry paused to catch his breath. Peter instantly encouraged him to continue.

“About a month went by before Riley got the itch and started tom-cattin’ around. One night, he told Lulabelle he had to go back to the office for a late meeting. She decided to follow him and sure ‘nuff, Riley met up with Nancy at the No Tell Motel up in Joplin.  Lulabelle was fit to be tied. She hid in the backseat of Riley’s car and waited. When Riley came out and started the engine, she popped up and scared the poor man half to death. He listened to her rant all the way home. There was no denying his tomfoolery. She’d caught him red handed.

After they got home, Lulabelle kept readin’ the riot act to him, not even pausing to take a breath. Riley finally told her to shut up. He’d had enough. Vowed to file for divorce the next day . . . which sent Lulabelle right over the edge.

From what I heard, the first thing she did was knock the poor man unconscious with a cast iron frying pan. When Riley woke up, Lulabelle had duct taped him to a kitchen chair. He was nekkid as a jay bird and scared half to death. He tried to reason with her but she didn’t want to hear it. Taped the poor man’s mouth closed. All he could do was sit there and listen. She’d cry, then curse, then cry some more, accusing him of all sorts of things. I’m sure he was guilty of most of ‘em but that weren’t no reason to do what she did next.”

Peter leaned in even further, eyes wide. “What did she do?”

Henry shook his head, staring at the toe of his boot for a full minute before conitinuing. “It was awful, just flat out mean. Lulabelle ran down a list of names of every woman she could think of in a fifty-mile radius, asking Riley if he’d slept with them. I suppose he said yes to just about all of them. He probably thought if she got mad ‘nuff, she might get so disgusted she’d let him go. But there ain’t no one more vindictive than a woman with a broken heart.”

Emily’s hand flew to her mouth. “Oh, dear. What happened?”

“She castrated the man. Cut off his balls with a kitchen knife right where he sat.”

Peter’s complexion paled. For a minute, Henry thought the kid might vomit but then he swallowed and urged Henry to continue.

“Riley passed out, of course. I think any man would. He was bleeding real bad. While he was unconscious, Lulabelle took his testicles, pounded ‘em out flat with a mallet, rolled ‘em in a little cornmeal and flour and fried ‘em up in lard– just like calf fries. I think she intended to feed them to Riley.”

“Nuh . . .” Peter ran to the far end of the porch, leaned over the railing and heaved. When he returned, his shirt tail was wet and stained. “Sorry, man. That was more than I could handle.”

“No problem. I had the same reaction when I first heard it.”

“What happened to Riley?” Emily’s voice was barely more than a whisper.

“He bled out right there in the kitchen while Lulabelle was cookin’.”

“Was she arrested?”

“Nope, and that’s the curious part. She really loved the old scallywag. Once she realized Riley was dead, she slit her wrists and died on the kitchen floor next to him.”

“That’s an . . . interesting story but what makes you think the spook light is Riley Crow?”

“I hear Lulabelle wailing some nights, usually when the spook light is out there bobbin’ around. I think she’s chasin’ Riley, trying to beg forgiveness. Ain’t gonna happen, not for a while. He’s still pretty mad. I reckon they’re stuck in purgatory for the time being.”

Peter sucked in a deep breath and glanced at Emily. “I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.”

“But you don’t believe me.”

“It’s not that I don’t believe you. The legend of Devil’s Promenade has been around for over a hundred and forty years. Logically, it doesn’t make sense it would be Riley Crow’s ghost.”

“Son, nothin’ about that spook light is logical. You kids believe what you want. That’s all I got.”

Emily was first to stand. “It’s getting late. If we’re going to film the light, we should be going.”

“Don’t keep anything sharp in your vehicle. Lulabelle has been known to throw knives and scissors through the air. Wouldn’t want y’all to get hurt.”

Peter swallowed, joining Emily at the top of the steps. “Perhaps we should discuss our research at the motel. We can return in a few days.” His suggestion met no resistance.

Henry waved as the Prius drove away, travelling down the lane much faster than when it arrived. He lingered on the porch after it disappeared, staring off into the distance. The front door opened and a grey haired woman emerged, wiping her hands on a dishtowel.

“Supper’s almost ready. Better wash up.”

“Sure thing, Mama.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “Who were those people?”

Henry shrugged. “Just some city folk wanting to know about the spook light.”

“Have you been making up stories again, Henry Tuttle?”

“Now, Mama . . . I was just havin’ a little fun. No harm done.”

Her eyes rolled upward. “I swear, old man. Some days I don’t know what to do with you.”

“I was tryin’ to keep the peace. I don’t think those kids will be back,” he chuckled, “but if they do park down the road, I’ll get out my big spotlight and really give ‘em something to write about.”

His mirth was met with a warning scowl from his wife. She turned on her heel and marched inside, slamming the door behind her.

Henry waited a few minutes longer, enjoying the quiet of the early evening. As he turned, a hazy blue orb bobbed near the far end of the porch. Henry paused, arched a brow, then shooed it away with his hand. “Go on, now git, Riley. I ain’t got time for you and Lulabelle tonight.” He watched the orb float into a tree followed by a low wail in the distance. “I don’t reckon you two will ever get along.”

Shaking his head, Henry shuffled inside and closed the door.