Summary: When the stage route from Placerville becomes blocked by a rock slide, Adam and Joe decide to ride home. While crossing the old gold fields, a storm approaches, forcing the brothers to take refuge in an old mining cabin. During the night, they become ensnared in a legend that is beyond their worst nightmares, but will morning be any better for them?
Rating: PG-13 for horror. Nothing too graphic, more implied.
Word Count: 3103
Terror at Old Dry Diggins
“Sorry folks, there’ll be no stage outta Placerville for a couple of days at least. Been a rockslide up the road ‘cause of the rains.”
Moans, and few choice words from one passenger, filled the small stage office. Two passengers threw hard looks at each other, reaching a silent agreement that they needed to change their plans. As a family of three gathered their bags and prepared to slog their way through mist and mud across the street to the hotel, the two men, being more practical, grabbed their valises and headed to the saloon a couple of doors down on the same side of the street as the stage office.
“Can you believe this? What are we going to do? We gotta get these papers to Pa and Hiram.”
Adam picked up his beer and moseyed over to a lone table. Dropping his damp hat on the table as he slid into the chair, he watched his youngest brother spin his own chair around backward, plop down, and take a long draw on his beer. Adam took up his mug and sipped his frothy drink as his mind wandered over their options.
“I only see one choice, Joe. We get a couple of horses and ride home.”
Joe pushed his hat back, revealing his wet curly hair. He took another long drink before throwing a disgusted look toward his brother. “You know, I’m really not liking the way Pa parcels out jobs these days.”
A smirk slid across Adam’s dark face. “Yeah, but you know as well as I, we were the only two who could make this deal work.”
“Guess so.” Joe snorted. “But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
A quiet chuckle and a weak giggle crept out before the brothers focused on finishing their beers.
One hour and two more beers later the next conversation wasn’t so pleasant.
“You know I’m glad to supply the mounts, but I have to say you boys are plum loco if you think you can get around that rockslide.”
“Ready Joe?” Adam brought the stirrup down after tightening the cinch and glanced over the saddle at his brother.
Sauntering over to the livery owner, Adam held out some bills. “Thanks for the horses and gear. This should cover it all.”
“Yeah sure. But what about the rockslide?”
Walking their horses out of the barn Joe called back. “We’re not following the road. We’re riding overland toward the lake.”
The man swallowed hard and grabbed the desk to keep himself upright, then ran after the two cowboys. “Now I know you’re crazy. You best not go anywhere near them old gold fields. They say they’re haunted. Been murders there too, an’ hangin’s, ya know.”
Adam froze with his foot in the stirrup. “Recent murders?”
“Don’t reckon. Some say it’s jest stories. ‘Course, ain’t nobody up there no more. Gold’s all played out at Old Dry Diggins. But it was a murderous, thievin’ place along the river back in the ‘50’s, during the gold rush, ya know.”
Adam completed his mount as Joe swung into his saddle. He tipped his hat to the man. “Thanks for the warning. We’ll be careful. Let’s ride, Joe.”
Receiving kicks to the flanks, the horses took off. The man pulled a ragged bandana from his rear pocket and wiped his face. “Crazy, plum loco, them two are. I sure hope they get through there alive.”
The brothers plodded along the trail out of town before taking off across rock-strewn meadows heading for the mountains. Adam was enjoying the silent ride, despite being a bit concerned over his brother’s missing banter. Starting their climb through the hills, Joe finally decided to reveal his thoughts.
“Do you believe what that man said back there, Adam?”
“It sounds like you do.”
“Look Joe, when the gold rush hit here Old Dry Diggins was lawless and full of vigilante justice over jumped claims and stolen gold. Why do you think it became known as Hangtown?”
“I-I didn’t know that’s what it was called.”
“It was because of so many lynchings. But once the law was established the citizens chose a new name.”
“Placerville.” Joe took a long hard look around the weathered hills. “Well, I still think we’d do better to bypass the area.”
Adam’s face darkened. “We could if we had time but judging from those clouds we’ll be lucky to find shelter to avoid another soaking.”
“Great! I just got dried out from that last rain in town.” He scanned the hills before them and pointed. “I think I see a shack up near that ridge. Guess we better head there.”
The brothers gave their horses their heads and made it to the old cabin and lean-to before the deluge hit. They bedded down the horses with water, some oats they had brought along, and some grass they found nearby. Inside the shack, the old cot they found had long since fallen apart so they used the wood for the fireplace. The mattress they took out to the shed and used to seal gaps in the planks to keep the horses warmer. Finally, as the storm rolled in, the brothers sat by the fire eating stew and biscuits. Neither wanted to speak concerning the odd stains they saw in the cabin and lean-to. They simply agreed to sleep till sunup and get the heck out of there as fast as they could. After cleaning up their dishes both turned in for what they hoped would be a peaceful night, despite the rain hammering down on the tin roof.
A blood curdling scream jolted the brothers to their feet, guns drawn and cocked. Frozen to their spots they waited for more while their imaginations ran wild. It came, in the form of pounding on the door and a fear-filled voice pleading for help. Eyes made contact and Adam pointed for Joe to move to a dark corner to cover him as he moved behind the door. The voice outside grew more panicked as Adam positioned his body and his gun then slowly released the door latch. That was all it took for the door to swing back slamming Adam against the wall. Shaking his head to clear it he shoved the door closed and pointed his gun at the young girl cowering and whimpering in the corner where the cot used to be. He locked the door and gave a quick nod to Joe indicating he was fine.
Waiting a few moments longer to confirm no one else was outside, the brothers lowered their guns and moved closer to the girl. She squeezed tighter into the corner, her dark eyes growing wider with fear. Her mouth opened to release a scream but the brothers quickly backed off to squat by the door. After a few moments the girl relaxed a little but her eyes darted from one man to the other.
Joe started to speak when he noticed Adam creeping closer to the girl, then stopping in the middle of the room.
“Don’t be afraid. My brother and I won’t hurt you. I’m Adam. He’s Joe. Can you tell me your name?”
“Hello, Abby. How old are you?”
“Was someone chasing you?”
She nodded and cast a terrified look at the door.
Joe took the cue and stood up, ready to act.
Adam tried to move closer but the girl shrank back so he moved instead to the fire to build it up. He noticed that despite the bruises and abrasions on her milky white face and arms her skin appeared almost translucent. Her condition made him fear for what else she had endured. Abby refused to talk anymore and began rocking herself and humming.
At a loss of how to help her further, the brothers returned to their bedrolls as Abby drifted off to sleep. As the fire warmed the cabin the brothers talked in hushed tones, hoping not to disturb their sleeping guest.
Joe’s eyes were wide and he kept glancing at the door. “Adam, I don’t like this. While you were talking to the girl, I kept hearing scraping noises outside. I can’t hear anything now, though.”
“I know, I heard them too. She’s badly bruised. If it’s what I think it could be we all are in a lot of danger.” Adam slipped his pocket watch out and held it toward the fire. “Sunup is in a few hours. I’ll keep watch and you get some sleep. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours.”
Joe shook his head. “Don’t think I can sleep. I’ll just sit over here and keep company with my rifle.”
Adam nodded, fully understanding his brother’s concerns. He took his own rifle and settled by the fire, keeping a firm eye on the front door.
Shivering deeply, Joe cracked his eyes open. There was a gray light filling the small room which told him morning was coming. He also realized the fire had died which accounted for the cold cabin. When he moved, he realized he’d fallen over and was laying on his side. Feeling around for his rifle he saw it near the door, pointing in Adam’s direction. He crawled over to it but when he reached for it he saw that his knuckles were bruised and bloodied as if he’d been in a fight.
Joe snapped his hand back and rubbed it, but felt no pain. Scrambling over to his brother his hand landed in a pool of liquid behind Adam’s back. “Adam? Adam, wake up!”
With a moan, the older Cartwright rolled over and opened his eyes, craning his head to find Joe staring at him wide-eyed. “What’s happened. You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Joe moved to his brother’s side. “That’s not funny. Are you alright? You’re lying in a puddle of something.”
Adam pushed himself up and groaned louder. “I feel like I’ve been pummeled.”
“A minute ago my hand looked like a bloody mess but now it’s fine. Wait Adam, don’t move. Look at your shirt.”
Glancing down, Adam’s eyes grew wide as he ripped his shirt open. “What’s happened? My shirt is soaked in blood but there’s no wound.” Adam looked back at his brother, scrutinizing him more closely in the dull light. He reached up to touch Joe’s cheek but his brother pulled away.
“Does it hurt?”
“What, my cheek? No, why?”
“It looks raw, like someone hit you, hard.”
Joe touched his cheek but felt smooth skin, then squinted his eyes at Adam. “It feels fine, but you look like you tangled with a bear. Adam, what’s going on here?”
Adam began to scan the cabin. To any observer it looked like a horrific fight had taken place and somebody didn’t come out too well in the end as he followed dark marks that led to the door, and beyond.
Just then Adam’s eyes flicked around the room again. “Wait. Where’s Abby?”
Both brothers’ heads spun around to discover the corner where she fell asleep was empty. Well, almost empty.
“Uh, Adam, is that what I think it is?”
Being closer, Adam rolled to his knees and crawled over to the corner. Slowly stretching out his fingers he touched the edge of the puddle, then sprung back as if it had burned him. “It’s fresh blood. Joe get your gear. We need to get out of here.”
For once in his life Joe didn’t argue and scrambled to get everything packed up. Adam did the same then they flew out to get the horses saddled in record time. Leading them out of the lean-to toward the trail just as the sun broke over the mountains, Joe looked back to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything in their haste. He wished he hadn’t.
Turning a terror-stricken face toward Adam he swung onto his horse and cried out. “Don’t look back, just ride!!”
Adam complied, but his innate sense to protect his brother got the better of him and he looked back to see what had scared his brother so badly. He stopped breathing and grabbed at his belly, then kicked his horse into an all out run.
Neither brother stopped riding till their horses nearly collapsed beneath them. By then they were miles away from the cabin.
The next two days, and nights, were spent pushing as hard as they dared to get home. Once arriving there, they quickly sold the horses, turned the contracts over to Hiram, and settled into their routines at home. Neither spoke of what they had seen at the cabin, or at least what they thought they had seen.
A week later, on a quiet morning after breakfast, Ben and Hoss cornered Adam and Joe, determined to find out what had them so rattled, especially at night. The brothers only said they’d gotten spooked by some stories the livery man had told them about the haunted gold fields near Placerville.
“We were going to go around them but a bad storm was coming so we took refuge in an old mining cabin.”
Adam’s voice trailed off as he saw Joe shake his head, warning him not to say more.
Hoss chuckled. “You two got scared silly by some ghost stories?”
“Not just ‘some ghost stories’, Hoss.”
Hearing the ominously quiet voice, all three brothers glanced at their father.
Ben rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers. “Tell me what really happened.”
The brothers did as requested, leaving out what they had seen when they left.
Hoss was dumbstruck but Ben remained transfixed by his sons’ tales.
“And you saw your bodies when you left?”
Adam’s head snapped up. “How–?”
Ben’s eyes seemed to focus inward while he responded, “The legend says that something horrible happened to a young girl there just after the gold was discovered, and on the same night each year an opening or rift of some kind happens. Anyone who stays there overnight on that same date relives the event. But….” He turned his black eyes back to each of his sons, “it also says, those who remained past daybreak –”
Adam and Joe exchanged wide-eyed looks. Adam quietly voiced their thoughts which completed Ben’s sentence. “ — were found hanging from the rafters of the lean-to.”
A coldness filled the great room that even the roaring fire couldn’t chase away.
Ben rose from his chair, patted Hoss on his knee, then maneuvered around the low table to rest a hand firmly on the shoulder of each of his other two sons. Making eye contact with each one, no words were needed. All four men knew how fortunate the two sons were to be there.
Adam stared across the flickering flames of the campfire to watch his father pour himself a cup of coffee. Being back in the woods near Old Dry Diggins set his nerves on fire. The conspicuous absence of woodland sounds, no morning birdsong or scampering critters, only fueled his edginess. Returning to his thoughts, he reflected on the past week. Despite having told the complete and horrific story to Hoss and Ben, he and Joe still suffered from nightmares of their close brush with the netherworld. It was because of those sleepless nights, that he, Joe and their father had made the trip to Placerville. Well, to be more precise, the old mining cabin.
Joe, unable to relax since they arrived the evening before, had been cleaning up the camp but finally sat by his brother and poured his own coffee.
More deafening silence ensued until Adam could no longer take it. Once more, he glanced over the fire at his father seeking an answer to the one question still bothering him. “I know why we’re here but what has never been said is how you know so much about this place.”
Ben sniffed quietly and set his cup down. “I was waiting for you to ask about that, as I didn’t really wish to discuss it. But I owe you both the whole truth.”
Anxious eyes flicked between the brothers as Ben’s deep voice filled the misty air. “I was returning from San Francisco and the new stage line had a stop in Placerville. This was in the late 50’s, before all the gold had played out. When we arrived, many in the town were agitated about something that had happened in the gold camps. It seemed to begin with a story from a couple of years before. A girl’s father had been killed by a claim jumper, then the miner went after the girl. She was eventually killed, and the man was hanged for his crimes against her and her father. I was told that a few days before I came through, three businessmen had gone up to the camps and never returned. The day I was there, two of the men had been found at the cabin, hanging from the rafters in the lean-to. The third man who had been with them and had run away during the night, told of their terrifying experiences. Your tale matched his almost word for word.”
“So why are we here now, Pa?” Ben didn’t miss Joe’s nervousness as he sipped his coffee.
“To make sure no one else falls prey to that cabin, son. Adam are you ready?”
Adam nodded and rose, heading to retrieve three bows and arrows, a can of coal oil, and rags. Within a half hour, just as the sky began to brighten behind the ridge, the three men shot their flaming arrows into the cabin and lean-to. It took only seconds for the dry, aging wood to catch fire. Tall flames leapt skyward as unnatural screams and moans surrounded them. Ben and his sons were unnerved by the sounds and the fact that no other timber caught fire. When the sun broke over the mountain and cast its light across the smoldering remains, the brothers felt a weight lift from within them. It was as if life had been returned to them.
Once they were sure the fire was completely out, the Cartwrights mounted their horses and turned for home. Unbeknownst to them as they left the woods for the main road, the trees around the cabin quaked from a chilled wind while a green mist formed over the ashes then faded into oblivion. All was still in the woods until chirping and chattering from the woodland creatures finally filled the morning air. The riders rode on in peace, laughing at an old family joke.
A/N – Written for a Halloween challenge on Bonanza Trailriders. The story must take place at a real place with a spooky history. I chose Old Dry Diggins, a California gold field that became known as Hangtown (for vigilante hangings), and finally renamed Placerville.
Other Stories by this Author
- Angel of Love (by AC1830)
- Colors (by AC1830)
- The Long Night (by AC1830)
- A Man for Breakfast (by AC1830)
- Spirit Child (by AC1830)