Summary: A simple trip to town to pick up supplies turns into something unexpected for Joe and Hoss.
Rated:G Word Count: 3930
A BOOnanza Tall Tale
On a cool, October morning, Pa decides to send Hoss and me to pick up the mail and supplies, a weekly job I didn’t consider a chore but more of an escape from the doldrums of running a ranch. Adam would’ve been happy to trade places rather than sit behind a desk and decipher Pa’s ledgers, and Hoss and I do our best to gloat as we walk out the front door.
When Hoss steers the team up the final grade, I circle my waist with both arms to ward off the chill of a late autumn wind that grabs at our hats and makes the team jittery and hard to control. The hill got its name when a man named Silas Anderson bought the land and built a home for his family.
But an eerie feeling runs through me every time we climb the Anderson hill and pass the old, abandoned place. It’s a grand house; like something you read about in storybooks but would never expect to see on the outskirts of Virginia City. With its four large turrets and heavy, stone walls, the timeworn structure looks more like a European castle than a home for a family of four.
When we were kids, Hoss loved to tease, and he referred to the mansion as the house on haunted hill. He’d see the fright in my eyes and laugh when I rode as fast as I could before the hypnotic rumors of ghosts and goblins ate me alive. Nightmares followed like clockwork on those long, tedious nights.
Rumors have always plagued the old mansion. The most incredible tale claims that Anderson’s ghostly spirit swoops down from the knotted hill every autumn and snags another poor victim who will feed his lust for a new, healthy body and add to his collection of lost souls.
Torment and torture and death. As a kid on some of my first cattle drives, I’d sit between Hoss and Adam while gruesome campfire stories were told and grown men trembled over the exaggerated tales. “Who’d be the next victim? Who’d be captured and killed and left to rot in the house on Anderson hill?”
“Somethin’ wrong, little brother?”
“Yeah, something’s wrong. I’m freezing to death.” Hoss has enough meat on his bones to ward off the cold, but I’m too slight and the brute-force wind never sits well with me. A beautiful, sunny day offset by wind so strong that by the time we arrive in town, my mood won’t be as pleasant as it should.
“It ain’t that cold, Joseph. Maybe them Anderson ghosts is after your body and soul.”
“Cut that out,” I snap then add a simple reply. “You’re the one who believes in ghosts.”
“Not me, little brother.”
“No? What about all those campfire stories? They’re still rambling around inside that big old head of yours, aren’t they?”
“Don’t be silly, Joseph. Them’s just tall tales. They don’t mean nothin’.”
I try to shake the stories of my youth, but they stay with me as though they’d been told only yesterday. Every time a new victim disappears, especially a young woman, the rumors around town lead straight back to the Anderson mansion and the spirits that roam inside the walls of the great house.
When Hoss pulls up in front of the mercantile, I jump down from the wagon and decide I’ll go get the mail while he hands Hop Sing’s list to Jake and loads the supplies. “Meet you at the Silver Dollar,” I say as I start down the boardwalk. “I’ll let you buy me a beer.”
“Two beers, Cosmo,” Hoss says when we meet at the saloon. “You get the next round, Little Brother.”
“We’ll need a couple if we plan to stop by the castle on the way home.”
Hoss gulps half his beer. “I ain’t goin’ nowhere near that place.”
“Why? Scared, Big Brother?”
“I ain’t scared.”
“No? Then let’s check it out.”
“Aw, don’t be silly.”
To hide my own fears, I have a little fun with Hoss and when I turn back to the bar, Cosmo leans in close to my face. “You ain’t heard, have you?”
I glance at my brother. “Heard what?”
“Lucy Mae Jennings disappeared two days ago.”
“Really? The banker’s daughter?”
“That’s the one. Some say,”—Cosmo signals Hoss closer—”she’s been took by them Anderson ghosts.”
“That’s pure rubbish, Cosmo. You know better than to spread rumors like that.”
“Do I? Where is she then?”
Hoss bumps my shoulder when he leans in closer to the gossiping bartender. “Little Joe’d be glad to check out the house and make sure she ain’t there. He ain’t scared of nothin’, are you, Joe?”
I roll my eyes at the comment. “What does Roy Coffee think happened?”
“He don’t know what to think. You know what they say. Every year a pretty girl from Storey County vanishes and she’s never found. It’s always the same time of year … like when them Anderson daughters went missin’. It was before your time, Little Joe, but it’s kind of spooky, ain’t it?”
“Don’t tell me you believe in ghosts and such.”
“It’s got the sheriff spooked.”
Hoss and I both chuckle but Hoss takes the lead. “Ain’t no spirits livin’ in that old house, Cosmo. Them’s just silly old stories.”
“Think what you want, Hoss. You too, Little Joe, but you wouldn’t catch me going near that old place.”
Life can be amusing and this is one of those times. Cosmo and Roy are spooked over a castle that’s sat empty for twenty-three years; in fact, Pa said the two daughters disappeared the day I was born. That in itself gives me the willies, but it piques my interest just the same.
Adam was just a kid at the time. He doesn’t remember much … just that two little girls used to play in the yard and then one day they were gone. No rhyme or reason for their disappearance. Some say they died of the fever and some say old man Anderson killed them and buried them in a crypt inside the mansion.
I feel bad about Lucy Mae, though. She isn’t the prettiest girl in town but she isn’t a dogface either. She’s close to thirty years old, too old for courting, but too young to die—if she’s already dead.
“Let’s go talk to Roy,” I say.
“Let’s see what he knows about Lucy Mae.”
“Why you gotta know that for?”
I grip my brother’s vest and turn him toward the batwing doors. “Just come on.”
I’m curious by nature and since I have an uncanny connection to the old place, I want to hear more details about Miss Jennings. A woman like her doesn’t go missing for no reason. Since her father is one of the city’s leading citizens, maybe she was kidnapped and is being held for ransom. That makes more sense than hearing wild rumors of spirits holding her captive in that creepy old house.
Roy stands from behind his desk when Hoss and I walk into his office. “Afternoon, Sheriff,” I say.
“Howdy, Boys. I was just about to make my rounds. What brings you by?”
“We heard about Lucy Mae Jennings.” Roy’s face pales at the mention of her name. “Did you find her yet?”
He dips his chin to his chest. “Guess you heard the rumors flyin’ around town.”
“Yeah, Cosmo filled us in.”
“Half the town thinks she’s up at that mansion and they’s all over me to search the place.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Serious as all get out, Little Joe.”
Hoss nudges my left arm. “We gotta get movin’, Joseph, or Pa’s gonna have our hide.”
“Want us to ride up there with you, Roy? It’s on our way home.”
“We ain’t got time for foolishness, Joe. We gotta get home.”
“Hang on, Hoss. If Roy needs our help.”
The sheriff perks up at my suggestion. “If you two are willin’, I’d be grateful for the company.”
“Time’s a wastin’. Let’s go.”
“I ain’t so sure about this, Little Brother. Hop Sing’ll be boilin’ mad if we don’t get them bags of flour and sugar straight home.”
While Roy slips on his gunbelt and grabs his hat, I lean in close to my brother. “You ain’t scared, are you?”
“No, but … it just ain’t right to go prowlin’ around someone else’s home.”
“No one’s there, remember? They’re all dead.”
Hoss swallows hard. He’s scared shitless.
“Gotta get my horse, Boys. You start on up and I’ll meet you in front of the house.”
Hoss chucks the reins, and I can tell he’s mad. His jovial sense of humor has vanished under a layer of fear and frustration. By the time Roy catches up with us, we’d just turned into the long winding drive leading up to the mansion. As an unexpected chill slithers through me like snakes in tall grass, I pull my jacket tight across my chest and take in the picturesque sight of Virginia City’s only European-style castle.
Strong and fortified, fit for a lord or nobleman, Anderson was neither of the two. No one knew the family. Pa said they kept to themselves and were never part of the growing community, which left people guessing where they might’ve come from or how they’d obtained such wealth. A governess watched over the children and they were taught their lessons at home. They weren’t churchgoers and had monthly supplies delivered to their doorstep rather than be seen in one of the neighboring towns.
Heavy, dark clouds gather over the abandoned house, and an eerie mist spreads across ornate statues that are dispersed throughout the front lawn like a cemetery of aboveground crypts. No names. No dates and one can only imagine why old man Anderson thought that was attractive but to each his own. It looks like a graveyard to me.
“I don’t like this none, Joseph.”
“Oh, come on,” I say, elbowing my big, strong brother. “Don’t let your imagination get the best of you.”
Hoss looks at Roy who rides alongside the wagon. “You sure we ain’t trespassin’?”
“Trespassin’? Just who do you think’s gonna run us off, Son?”
“I ain’t sure but just for the record, I don’t like it none.”
“I’ll put that in my report.”
The winding drive up the hill eventually flattens and circles in front of the great house. I hop out of the wagon and look up. “Damn. This is really something, isn’t it, Brother?”
“It’s somethin’ all right, but I don’t see nothin’ out of the ordinary so we best get on home.”
I don’t hear Roy come up behind me, and I nearly jump out of my skin when I catch a glimpse of him standing next to me. “Dang it, Roy. You scared me to death.”
“Sorry, Son. Guess we should check the front door.”
“Yeah. Guess so.” I turn to my brother. “You coming?”
“Maybe I should wait here with the supplies.”
“Oh, no you don’t. You’re coming too.”
Hoss secures the reins and climbs down. Though his heart isn’t in it, he follows the sheriff and me up to the grand entrance. Roy reaches for the latch and jiggles it some before it gives way. “It’s open,” he says. With a surprised look, he takes a step back rather than forward.
“We going in or not, Sheriff?” I turn to my brother. “Maybe Hoss will lead the way.”
“Not me, Little Brother. I got no intention of goin’ inside. Why don’t I keep a lookout while you and Roy … you know … look for that gal.”
I grab Hoss’ vest with fisted hands and stare straight into his blue eyes. “You’d really let me go in there alone? What are you gonna tell Pa if I don’t come out alive?”
As Hoss makes a sour face at my question, a turkey vulture swoops so low; I think he might crash right through my brother’s hat. I pull Hoss close to the ground then nearly lift him up through the front door.
“This just ain’t right, Joseph. We shouldn’t be snoopin’ where we don’t belong.”
“Are you saying our letter-of-the-law sheriff is snooping where he don’t belong?”
“That ain’t what I said and you know it.”
The three of us stand just inside the mansion huddled like gossiping women at a church social when the door behind us slams shut. Roy and I both grab one of my big brother’s arms, but Hoss stands as still as a statue until he eventually shrugs us off.
“Just the wind,” he says. I can’t see his face, but I have a feeling it’s as pale as the sheriff’s and mine.
“Let’s get this over with,” Roy says. With one hand, he thumbs his hat farther back on his head while his other clutches tightly to the butt of his gun. “Can you boys find some lamps? I can’t see a dang thing.”
Shadowed by the lack of light, the mansion takes on a sinister look. I try to put on a brave front, but no one in his right mind would live in a place like this. It reeks of mildew and dust and of ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night.
“Come on, Hoss.”
“We need to find lamps.”
Dragging Hoss with me proves to be a smart move. Several sconces hang high on the walls well beyond my reach. Hoss digs in his pocket and pulls out three or four matchsticks. He lights every candle he can find.
The fun and games are over. This is serious business. A girl has gone missing and we came to the spook-ridden mansion to end any crazy rumors that some kind of evil being swept her up off the street of Virginia City and brought her here to kill her off.
Candlelight flickers as a chilling breeze drifts through the drab open space that didn’t count for much of anything. No chairs or tables. No comfortable sofa or writing desk. Nothing but four stone walls that rise at least fifteen feet high. We stand in silence, all of us taking in the imagery that is like no other home on the Comstock. It reminds me of an English manor in one of Adam’s storybooks where dragons breathe fire and brave young men battle their way to a happy ending.
I stand behind Hoss and peer around his shoulder. The brave front I put on earlier for Roy and my brother has vanished, but I won’t show fear. I can’t let on that the house or its myths are of any concern to me or to our wellbeing. We are here to do a job. That’s all. Find the girl and get out.
While Hoss and I stand frozen in place, Roy ventures forward. He runs his left hand along one of the stone walls and his right still clutches his gun. Though Hoss and I haven’t moved, we each unfasten the leather loop that holds our pistols in place.
“I’ll follow you,” I say.
Hoss seizes my arm and shoves me forward. “That ain’t how it works, Little Brother. This was your idea, not mine.”
“Fine. Let’s go.”
We start toward one of the many doors on the opposite side of the room from the sheriff. He takes the left side and we take the right. Without a good source of light shining through the first door Roy opens, he asks Hoss to find more candles.
“You stay here, Joseph. I’ll grab a couple from them sconces.”
Turning toward the door in front of me, I lift the cast-iron latch, but I don’t let Hoss or Roy witness the urgency I feel to escape the castle, settle in for another beer at the Silver Dollar, and listen to Cosmo add his rendition of current events to the rumor mill. The need for Hoss to follow inside is absolute, and the feeling of abandonment makes me swallow my growing fear that things aren’t as they should be, and that I should’ve listened to my brother instead of playing the big, brave cowboy in front of the sheriff.
The heavy door creaks open, and I don’t chance looking at Roy for confirmation to peek inside. Fear has a way of crushing the bravest of men and right now, I don’t feel so brave. I want the sheriff to think that evil beings never enter my thoughts and that we can make a clean sweep of the house in minutes. I let them all believe I’m fearless and can’t be spooked by creepy old mansions that were vacated nearly a quarter of a century ago.
Hoss has yet to return with the candles, but I step into the room and into a haze of gauzy webs that catch me by surprise. Each silvery strand makes my spine tingle and initiates a disturbing expectation that death is nearby. As I brush the annoying interference from my face, the door behind me slams shut. When I reach for the latch, I find it frozen, no movement at all and I’m trapped inside a ghoulish room of webs and what felt like a gravel floor that shifts beneath my feet.
Time stands still when lightning flashes outside the only window, an opening too high for me to reach or consider escape, but the unexpected glow brings much-needed light to the stone walled room veiled in shadow. A violent deluge of rain beats against the roof and a mysterious drop in temperature adds credence to those long-ago tales and widespread rumors.
An odd, chanting sound reverberates throughout. The low moan of voices pulls me farther into the cave-like atmosphere that’s dew-like and damp but electrified by a sense of foreboding. The clamor grows in volume and forces beads of sweat at the nape of my neck.
I want to run, but some misguided notion sends me closer to the sound of women chanting, churning, groaning, and crying out for a savior, but I have nothing to offer. The stench of rotting flesh assaults my senses, and I turn my eyes from the ghoulish presence before me. The floor shimmies like gooseflesh under my feet, unsteady and wavering, and I want to call out for help but my throat is dry and my whispered voice can’t be heard outside the thick, stark walls of the dungeon-like room.
Another snake of lightning and a loud crash of thunder alert my senses to the storm overhead but in that fragment of time and with that brief stream of light, I’m forced to acknowledge my surroundings. My heart strains to beat when my eyes rest on several emaciated, some nearly skeletal, bodies lined one after another along the edge of a wall.
Similar to a row of wooden fence posts, their slack-jaw appearance and their wolf-like eyes, golden and glowing, burn straight through to my soul. Each statue-like vision comes alive when their arms begin to move upward as if reaching for unknown objects only they can see.
Though I rub my face with both hands, the image of death is intense, so real that I want to scream to anyone who will listen. Hoss! Roy! Where are they and why did they let me wander off alone in the castle of horrors? Irrational thoughts gather in my head like pinpricks of insanity. Rumors of missing girls. I tremble as their voices cry out in vain, and I return their resounding laments with one of my own keening cries.
Hell is only a notion in a vast array of stories I’ve been told over the years. The preacher acknowledges God’s wrath. His tale of savagery and burning fires holds his congregation’s attention and makes everyone think he might be right. There are no burning fires but savagery exists, a sight so powerful and intense that no one could conceive of such a gruesome sight.
Feeling lost in time and space, I question my sanity. Minutes pass as their wailing becomes more intense. I turn and beat on the door that leads to the unfurnished cavity of the main room where sconces hang as high as unreachable windows, but bony fingers scrape at my back and pull on my jacket, and when I find my voice, I cry out. But the voice I hear isn’t my own. It’s stricken with desperation and achingly inhuman.
Sharp, jagged fingernails scratch the nape of my neck and droplets of blood begin to trickle. The voices grow louder and more frenzied as they hover like vultures over their unsuspecting prey, but I’m not their savior, and I can do nothing to ease their pain. My need to escape grows stronger.
The heavy wooden door swings open and my brother stands at the threshold of sanity. I throw myself through the opening and flatten my back against the cold, unforgiving stone. Breathing in sweet, clean air and regaining clarity over the morbid existence of death, my body begins to relax.
Hoss holds a candle at eye level and looks inside. Nothing. The room is empty, void of anything I’d seen or heard. I could never explain the unthinkable. Instead, I take in Hoss’ form and half-smile. “The door jammed shut,” I say.
“Seems fine from this end, Little Brother. You been gone for nearly two hours. Me and Roy was startin’ to worry.”
“Two hours?” It seemed like only minutes.
“Yeah. Find anything worthwhile?”
“Um … no. You?”
Did I let the old mansion get the best of me? Did I let myself become tormented by visions of fragmented corpses that for obvious reasons can’t cry out or touch? Only a warped but rich imagination can conjure up the mayhem of gruesome deaths and bodies in various forms of decay.
My heart still hasn’t calmed, but I’ll never let on about the sights and sounds my mind twisted into a lavish nightmare of hell on earth. I’ll leave those stories for the preachers who want to scare the flesh off their parishioners.
“I guess we better head home before Pa comes looking for his two wayward sons.”
“Guess you’re right, Joseph.”
Hoss licks his finger and thumb. He douses the candles he lit earlier, and we all walk outside together. The violent storm has passed; in fact, there are no signs that rain ever touched the earth. No harm has come to our supplies. No puddles are left on the ground.
I lean against the back of the wagon seat and close my eyes. Hoss would get us home in one piece and life would go on as usual. A slight breeze catches the tip of my hat and I pull it lower on my forehead. I saw nothing and I know nothing. I don’t want anyone to think I’ve gone mad, and I vow never to speak of the house again. I’ll never give in to the rumors that float around town, and I’ll never spread rumors of my own.
My lips and my mind are sealed, and I remind my reckless imagination that I’m too old for things that go bump in the night. But when I feel for the scratches on the back of my neck and my fingertips reveal my worst nightmare—the truth behind those missing hours—what am I to think?
Disclaimer: All recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No copyright infringement is intended.
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