Summary: A journey home turns into a nightmare that will never be forgotten.
Word Count: 3,618
A chill wind slithered through the cornfield, sighing amid the plants and rattling the ears of Indian corn together like dead men’s bones. With icy fingers it plucked at a pile of fallen leaves that lay discarded in one of the rows between the stalks, sending them spinning in a whirlwind along with the heavy scent of mildew. They revolved for only a moment before the breeze lost interest and moved on, letting them drift slowly back to earth.
A crow circled the field, its sable body blotted out the crimson ball of the sinking sun for an instant as it continued its rotation. A pair of intelligent, black eyes scanned the area, searching for the perfect place to perch. Finding it, the bird sank lazily through the air only to alight upon the shoulder of a sad looking scarecrow that hung limply from a pole in the very middle of the field. It stood taller than the encompassing maize, giving the crow a clear view of its surroundings. The corvus opened its beak and from its throat came a single, clarion call which the nearby mountains caught and reflected back again.
Soon the hour would strike. Soon the victim would be chosen. Soon the curse would work its magic again as it always did, as it had for nearly a century. Soon. Soon. Soon –
The sharp click of a hoof on stone brought the scarecrow out of his reverie. Peering across the field, he spied a lone figure on horseback. Soon had come. With another croaking cry, the bird launched itself from its perch and took to the skies once more.
The scarecrow could feel a tingle of magic running through his body and twitched a long, stick-like finger.
It was time.
Ben Cartwright gazed out of the window, watching the sun as it set in all its fiery glory. It was a perfect end to a perfect day. Sighing in contentment, he lifted his glass and took a sip of brandy – savoring the warm, amber liquid as it burned a trail down his throat.
It was his favorite time of year. Summer had finally released its stranglehold on the earth and was giving way to the beauty of autumn – the leaves evolving from rich green, to the reds, oranges, and golds of fall. Soon the first frost would come, covering all beneath it in a glittering, icy blanket. Soon it would be time for telling stories of ghouls, goblins, and witches by firelight. Soon the fall dances would begin. Soon Hop Sing would bake a slew of autumn goodies, making the entire house smell of pumpkin, apple, and cinnamon. Just thinking about it made his mouth water. He’d been craving a dried apple pie for the past few weeks, and finally the season for it had arrived.
Turning from the casement, he wandered across the room and sank down into his comfortable, red leather chair. Life was good. God had supplied all his needs, and for the moment, Ben just let himself rest and enjoy them. He had a wonderful home, food on the table, a town full of friends, and three fine sons.
Thoughts of his sons drew his gaze to the grandfather clock nestled against one wall. A frown wrinkled his brow as he read the time: eight twenty-six. A quick glance at the window revealed a now pitch black sky.
Adam was late. He’d gone out to inspect the logging camp where Hoss and Joe had been helping out for the past few days, and had promised that he would be home by dark.
Maybe he decided to spend the night up there with his brothers? It was possible…but unlikely. His eldest son took his word seriously. When he made a promise he kept it or had a very good reason as to why he didn’t. And he had given Ben his word.
Perhaps he left the camp later than expected? That thought brought him a sliver of comfort. It was easy enough to lose track of time – the days were shorter this time of year – and it was a long ride home from the camp.
Crossing one leg over the other, Ben Cartwright leaned back in his chair and took another sip of his brandy. He’d give Adam another hour before he let himself worry. After all, it was Adam, his firstborn, the level headed one, what sort of trouble could he possibly get himself into?
Adam Cartwright swore. He wasn’t much of a swearing man, but his foul language could be forgiven him given the situation he now found himself in.
He should be at home, eating a hearty meal and spending some time with his father. Instead, he was lost. And Adam Cartwright did not get lost. He’d lived in this country for twenty years; he knew every trail, every valley, every mountainside, practically every rock and tree, yet still he was lost. It didn’t matter which way he turned, he always seemed to return to the same place: the cornfield.
He sat in his saddle on the edge of the field, eyeing the waving stalks uneasily. He’d never been here before, or if he had, this field had not been planted yet. There was something odd about it, something not right, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that bothered him so about it. It was corn. There was nothing spooky about corn. And yet he couldn’t shake the feeling of dread pooling in his stomach.
The full moon shone yellow through the bare branches of a black walnut tree that stood looming over him– always the last to get their leaves and the first to drop them –, casting weird shadows across the unfamiliar ground. There was no landmark, no strangely formed boulder, no whispering creek, nothing to let him know just where he was. And it was frustrating. Small animals could be heard scurrying about in the rows of corn. Sport’s ears flicked backwards and forwards, picking up all the nightly noises.
If only horses could talk, Adam thought. If there was anyone who knew this land better than him it was his horse. The sorrel gelding had been born and bred in this land, sired by a thoroughbred imported all the way from Kentucky, but he had the horse-sense of his mustang dam. Sport knew the way home sure enough, however, he wasn’t talking.
“Talking horses,” Adam muttered under his breath, “what a fool notion.” Clicking his tongue, he urged his mount back away from the field. The sorrel reluctantly turned around and then stopped, refusing to budge. “Of all the ornery, pigheaded—”
“Help,” the single word was faint, but Adam heard it. He looked this way and that, trying to find the speaker, but there was no one there. Shaking his head, he tapped his heels against Sport’s sides.
“Help,” the voice came again, louder this time and from behind. Sliding from the saddle, he let Sport’s reins trail on the ground as he looked at the cornfield. Unless he was wrong, the voice had come from somewhere inside of it. He couldn’t just stand by if someone asked for help, his pa had raised him better, but the last thing he wanted to do was go in there. He wavered, knowing in his heart what he should do and at the same time not wanting to do it.
“Help,” the voice said a third time and Adam made up his mind.
“I have a feeling I’m going to regret this,” he muttered, and with as much courage as he could muster, he strode forward through the stalks until the cornfield swallowed him whole.
“Help,” the shadowy figure cried, knowing he must play his part well as he watched from his hiding spot as the lone rider stepped into the cornfield. Everything was going according to plan just like it always did. Soon the stranger would be in his place. Soon he would be free, if only for one night.
He hefted the tree branch in his hands, testing its weight. It would do. The stranger wouldn’t know what hit him.
Bong! Bong! Bong!
The brandy glass slipped from Ben’s fingers and shattered on the floor as the grandfather clock woke him out of a sound sleep.
Ten o’clock! Did I really sleep that long? Wiping the drowse out of his eyes, he sat up, wincing as his back twinged. He wasn’t as young as he once was and no matter how comfortable his red chair was, it wasn’t a good place to fall asleep. As he tried to get the kinks out of his body, he glanced at the sideboard, expecting to see Adam’s hat and gun belt.
They weren’t there.
Suddenly, he was wide awake. Adam still hadn’t returned. Deep in his heart he knew something was wrong. Getting up, he snatched up his coat, gun belt, and hat and strode out the door towards the barn. He had to find Adam right now!
A crew of angry miners were chipping away at his brain when Adam returned to consciousness. With a groan, he tried to reach up and touch the tender, throbbing place on the back of his skull only to discover that his arms were tied to something. So were his legs. And he was trussed in an upright position.
Odd. With a tug, he tested the knots holding him in place.
“I wouldn’t struggle if I were you, you’ll only make the transformation more painful,” a voice said.
His vision grayed as he shifted his head, but eventually he managed to look up into the speaker’s face. There in front of him was a man. He was of average height and build with stringy, blond hair and a pair of piercing, blue eyes. He wore no shirt, but on his chest was a large tattoo of a crow. His pants were ragged, and he wore no shoes.
“Whaa?” Adam slurred drunkenly, wishing that he could clear the fog from his aching brain so he could think.
“Ah, sorry about the head,” the stranger replied, “it’s been a while since I was back in my original form and I didn’t know my own strength.”
Adam’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“And I can see that you’re not following,” the stranger said. “Allow me to introduce myself. The name’s Bran Rambert. As to why you’re here, well, I’ll have to make it brief. The curse has always worked quickly and you’ll probably start to feel it soon.”
Bran ran a hand through his hair. “Every year on All Hallows’ Eve I return to my true form, but only for that night. By morning I turn back into a scarecrow and guard this, this damn cornfield! I can’t do anything about it. It’s my curse…and my gift.”
A trickle of something tingled in Adam’s feet and he shifted, trying to escape it, but the feeling persisted. Bran didn’t seem to notice. He was pacing to and fro in front of Adam.
“You see, “he went on, “I met this old Washoe shaman, Black Crow, who told me he held the secret to everlasting life, and like a fool I believed him. Instead, I found myself a slave to him for all eternity, bound to him with a curse. Eternal life? Yes, well, I’ve been alive for a hundred years, but I would give anything not to turn back into a scarecrow, to leave this accursed cornfield behind me forever!” he shook his fist at the rows of corn. A sudden gust of wind struck the stalks, filling the field with an ominous hissing noise.
The tingling was getting stronger now, Adam’s feet and lower legs felt like they were on fire, and the fire was spreading ever upwards. “W-what’s happening…to ME!” he cried out as a particularly nasty shock struck his knees, seemingly fusing the joints together. No longer could he bend them at all. The iron taste of terror coated the inside of his mouth.
I can’t move!
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” Bran said, slapping a palm to his forehead. “You’re taking my place. For me to have a night as a human once more, a sacrifice must be given to Black Crow,” he stated calmly. “Another must take my spot as the guardian of the cornfield.”
The fire was now burning in his thighs, creeping towards his hips. “A-and after tonight I’ll go back to being human?” Adam asked, not at all liking the thought of being a scarecrow, even if it did allow the poor man to be himself if only for one night.
“Er…well, no. Black Crow demands new blood every year for his field to grow larger. So, after my night is through, you die.”
Horror crept up Adam’s spine along with the fiery pain. With a howl, he thrashed this way and that, trying with all his might to escape his bonds, but his struggle was in vain for all of the ropes held fast. When he expended all of his energy, he sagged against cords. Looking down, he noted that his lower body was now made of straw. Even if he was able to break free of the ropes, he wouldn’t be able to walk much less run on a pair of straw legs.
The magic seeped up his spine, melting his vertebrae so that now he couldn’t even bend forward.
Click! The sound of a rifle being cocked shattered the silence, drawing Adam’s attention away from his pain. He glanced up into a familiar face.
“Let my son go.”
Ben Cartwright fought the urge to rub his eyes. He’d seen many things in his life, but he couldn’t believe what was happening. His son’s body was slowly transforming into straw. His feet, legs, and lower torso had already changed, and still the…magic – Ben could hardly call it anything else – seemed to be working its way up his son’s trunk.
He aimed his rifle at the figure standing at the base of the stake.
“Let my son go,” he said, his voice filled with a calm authority, even though inwardly he was panicking.
Bran turned around and looked at him with his bright, blue eyes. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. The curse has already taken hold. It’s too late. Only Black Crow can undo it.”
“Then get this Black Crow person to change him back!” Ben barked.
“I-I, he….” Bran spluttered, but Ben had had enough.
“Where is he, I’ll ask him myself.”
“H-he’s here,” Bran made a sweeping motion with his hand.
Ben glanced around, not seeing anyone. “I said where is he?”
“Look I told you, he’s here.”
Ben took a step forward and Bran flinched. “Where!”
“He’s here! He’s alwarys here! He’s been here the whole time! He never leaves this place!”
“Because he can’t!”
“Because he is the cornfield!” Bran blurted.
Ben blinked. “He’s, he’s…what?”
“When he placed his curse on me, he became this cornfield and I became a scarecrow. I protect him. I can’t leave him even if I wanted to, which I do, you don’t know how much I do! He’s evil!”
An angry hissing noise issued from the rows, and the stalks rattled together ominously. Ben took a step back, but there was no place for him to go, the corn was all around him, looming over him. Perhaps it was his imagination and perhaps not, but he fancied he saw a pair of malevolent, red eyes glaring at him from the depths of the cornfield. He blinked and they were gone, but the feeling that he was being watched, that he was in danger here did not disappear.
“Let him go!” he shouted.
A low, rumbling cackle shook the very ground beneath his feet, echoing through the stalks. The sound caused the hair on the nape of his neck to stand on end.
Glancing up, Ben watched with horror as the curse worked its way up his son’s throat, inching towards his mouth as he helplessly looked on. His worst nightmare was coming to pass right before his eyes.
Adam was going to die.
A sharp pain shot through his heart, stealing the breath from his lungs. He’d lost three wives, three women he had loved with every fiber of his being, and yet the agony he was now experiencing was even worse than that. To lose a child, his flesh and blood….
He couldn’t. It would kill him. Dropping his shotgun into the dirt, he felt around in his pockets, looking for something, anything that might stop this nightmare from happening. His fingers brushed a small packet in his front vest pocket and he froze.
Yanking it out, he flipped the cover off of the little box, grabbed one of the matches and struck it.
The cornfield hissed, the stalks bent back away from him as he held the impossibly tiny flame out in front of him. “Let. My. Son. Go,” he said.
The curse slowed, but it didn’t stop; it reached Adam’s jaw, his upper lip…his nose.
Whispering a desperate prayer, Ben Cartwright dropped the match into the nearest plant.
Instantly, the small flame licked up the stalk greedily as if it were made of paper. Soon, the entire plant was afire.
An unearthly shriek of anger and pain filled the air as another stalk and another and another burst into flame. Soon there was a ring of fire surrounding the three men.
“Yes!” Bran laughed wildly, dancing about like a madman amid the burning cornstalks, “Yes! Yes, burn, damn you! Burn!”
Suddenly, the fire caught in his blond hair, but Bran continued dancing, heedless of the danger. He jerked about wildly as the flames ate at his skin, melting it like candle wax to reveal the blackening bone beneath it. With one last exultant, “Yes!” he turned and ran further into the field, spreading the fire as he went.
This is the end, Ben thought as he stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Adam’s legs, clinging to him. Closing his eyes, he waited for death to come.
With a choked cry, Adam woke. Sweat glistened on his forehead, his chest heaved for breath as his eyes darted this way and that.
Am I alive? His fingers slid down his torso, feeling skin instead of straw. He was human again. He took a deep, cleansing breath. The acrid stench of burning filled his nostrils, but he didn’t care. He was free! A laugh bubbled up inside of him, and burst forth from his lips.
He was alive! He didn’t know how or why, but he was alive!
Something groaned nearby and he turned to see his father lying on the ash strewn ground beside him.
“Pa?” he croaked, his throat raw.
Ben stirred, opening his eyes. “Adam?”
Adam grinned down at his father. “Yeah, Pa, I’m here.”
All of a sudden, he found himself in a crushing embrace as his father held him close to his chest. Ben chanted his son’s name over and over again as if he couldn’t believe that Adam was there healthy and whole. Eventually, when he let go, Adam glanced around. The gray light of dawn was just bright enough for him to see the carnage that pa’s single match had wrought. The cornfield was nothing more than blackened stumps. Ashes fluttered about like black butterflies in the chilly morning breeze. Bran’s body was nowhere to be seen.
Turning his head to the left, Adam saw the horses standing huddled together at the edge of what had once been the cornfield.
Ben struggled to his feet, and reached down to help Adam up. His son reeled and would have fallen if not for Ben’s steadying grip.
“I guess I’ll have to get used to having real feet again,” Adam murmured, shuddering as the too fresh memory of what had happened flashed before his mind’s eye. For as long as he lived he would never be able to look at another scarecrow – or a cornfield for that matter – without remembering the horrors he’d lived through this night.
“Easy does it, just one foot in front of the other,” Ben said, helping his son as they wove their way through the remains of the cornfield toward their mounts. It took them longer than expected, but eventually they made it and swung up into the safety of their respective saddles.
Adam smiled. It was good to be back aboard a horse again. He glanced over at his father just as the sun raised her fiery head over the horizon. “Let’s go home, pa.”
Ben grinned at him. Setting his spurs to Buck’s sides, he shot out of there, letting out a wild whoop of joy. Adam shook his head and chuckled. It was good to be alive.
As he reached the edge of the knoll, something made him glance back. Down below lay the burned out remains of the cornfield. It didn’t look so terrifying in the light of the morning. Squinting, he could just make out the stalk of a lone corn plant, the only one to survive the conflagration. A harsh caw startled him and he glanced up to see a crow flying overhead. It floated through the hazy air, circling lower and lower until it landed on that single, solitary cornstalk.
“Adam?” Ben’s voice caught his attention, and he looked ahead to see his father waiting for him at the base of the hill.
“Coming, Pa!” he called. With one last glance back, he dug his heels into Sport’s sides, and lit a shuck* for home.
Written for this year’s Ponderosa Nightmare challenge on Bonanza Boomers. The words I was given:
Hero: Ben Cartwright
Villain: Scarecrow (although the scarecrow wasn’t the true villain, maybe a possessed cornfield will do? 😉 )
Plot Element: a Curse
*The saying “light a shuck” or “lit a shuck” means to leave quickly, usually at night. It’s an Appalachian saying that is derived from the actual use of corn husks as torches as a cheap and easy way to light the way home. I thought the saying was rather appropriate due to the content of my story. 😀
Tags: Adam, Ben, Scarecrow, horror, PAM, SAS, Halloween
Other Stories by this Author
- Epilogue: The Quality of Mercy (by Annie K Cowgirl)
- Of Knights and Cowboys (by Annie K Cowgirl)
- I Will Remember You (by Annie K Cowgirl)
- The Man in Black (by Annie K Cowgirl)
- Like Father Like Son (by Annie K Cowgirl)