Good and bad things often come into our lives without warning, and that's how it was with Ben Whitehead. A simple impulsive notion to alter his homeward travels just so he could spend a short time dwelling on a place and time from his childhood. All so innocent and understandable. Something that many might consider doing, especially on an impulse. Who would ever think that something so innocuous could ever lead to a whole string of life altering events? Events that ranged from entertaining, to adventurous, and on to very frightening and even deadly.
The old man was the quintessential farmer. His face was like tough and very tanned leather, and tufts of sun bleached and windblown hair bristled from under his old weathered cap. His coveralls were worn and faded, and his shoes, that were the color of dust, looked old and heavy and had laces running zigzag up the front.
He stopped his tractor at his rusty barbed wire fence, and leaning on the fender he said, "Looks like you got everything under control."
"Pretty much. I saw that board in the road with the huge nail sticking up, but not in time to avoid it, so I stopped so I'd have this wide spot to change my tire that I knew would be flat in minutes. I have to say, this road is a tough one."
"Ain't it though. I've tried to talk to the county about it a couple of times, but it was about as productive as milkin' a dry cow." He watched me for another second and then told me, "Don't see a lot of unfamiliar cars out this way. You ain't lost are ya?"
I stopped what I was doing and straightened the kink in my back for a second, and then looked up at him before I said, "Now that's a good question. You ever heard of the Palmer place?"
The old man studied me like I'd just crawled out from under a rock before he said, "Palmer you say?"
"Yeah. They were...or are, or whatever, relatives of mine. I'm not even sure I'd know them if I saw them, but I found something in my parent's junk that mentioned the old place here on Yancy Road. I found myself fairly close, so decided to see if I could find them."
"You said your parent's junk?"
"Right, they died in a car crash a couple of years ago."
"Well sorry to hear that. Finish with what you're doin' and come to the house. I'll take a short spell from what I'm doin' and we can sit on the porch and talk about the Palmer place."
"I don't want to take you away from your labors."
"Son, I'm seventy four and I've been laborin' hard all my life, so half an hour taken out of my day now won't put me in the poor house."
"Then thanks, and I'll be up there directly." As he hooked a short turn with his tractor, I thought about what I had just said. Did I really just say, up there directly? Where the hell did that come from? Changing the tire next to the old sagging fence wire was about as close to the country or a farm as I'd been in a lot of years.
He was standing on his porch waiting for me as I pulled up and got out of the car. I made my way up the short and narrow sidewalk and up the two weathered steps onto the porch. I extended my hand and told him, "I'm Ben Whitehead."
"Nice to meet ya Ben, I'm Noah Sarat. Take a seat," and he dropped onto an old dark wood rocker and leaned back. The nearest thing to him was the squeaky swing, so I eased down and tried to hold still as he said, "So about the Palmer place. Tell me what you know or remember about it."
"Well, when I was pretty young, we'd come out here to visit relatives. I remember very little actually, except for being curious about the farm animals. It wasn't much as farms go. A subsistence farm really."
"That would be about right."
"So you do know where it is then."
"I do," he said, but then asked me, "What do you remember about your relatives that lived there?"
"Nothing much at all. Well there was an aunt Nessie or Nettie, or something like that, but I'm sure she's long since dead by now."
"Now I'm not saying I believe what I'm gonna tell ya. You know how stories can get started. Before ya know it, those stories have been repeated so often they take on a life of their own and are treated like gospel."
"Especially in small towns."
"That's true. Well anyway, the house is empty now. Up for sale for back taxes or something like that. The bank owns it I think, or the county does, I don't know. I was there some time back. The fields caught fire late in the fall. What with all the weeds that had been allowed to grow unchecked, and the long dry spell, well...it was a fire in the making. I used my tractor to help contain it along one side. Anyway, the old house and the outbuildings looked pretty solid. Nothin' fancy, but nice."
"And those stories?"
"I hate to be guilty of even repeatin' them, but I will, at least what little I have heard and can remember. I will say this as fact because I talked to them a few times. They were a strange and standoffish lot. On occasion I saw other cars there, so I guess they had friends come in from someplace, but none that were local that I ever saw or heard about."
"Not very sociable then I guess."
Old Noah almost snorted when I said that and then he added, "Not very sociable is right. Cold as a witches heart." Then he laughed and said, "That's funny because one of the stories is they practiced witchcraft there."
"I wonder what was heard or seen that would start that story."
"I don't deal in gossip, so I don't know. I heard that sometimes, well into the night, and maybe all night, lights would be on in one of those outbuildings. Well there hasn't been livestock there in many years so they weren't tending to animals."
"Who owns the property surrounding the place?"
"Well I own the property on this side, and that farm is maybe sixty acres, and I think Stanley Cooper owns the other side and behind it. So you say you just want to satisfy your curiosity?"
"That's about it. Like I said, I have nice memories of the old place. I was maybe twelve or so and I'd play in the hay or swing on the big rope that hung down from that big upper door where the hay would go up and into the loft. Things like that. Things that a lot of kids did that lived in the country back then I suppose." I looked at him then and asked, "Noah, would I get into trouble if I wandered around out there just to see if I can rustle up some of those memories?"
"Well I can't imagine why you would, but I'll call Sheriff Ensley and tell him you ain't there to steal anything."
"I'd appreciate that, but if it's empty, I don't imagine there's much to steal anyway."
"It's all furnished, right down to some dishes still on the kitchen table and food in the cupboard. They just up and left late one night and never came back. They just disappeared is what I heard."
"That's weird. How long ago was that?"
"Oh, I guess three...maybe closer to four years ago."
"And the place is still empty?"
"Nobody wants anything to do with it."
I started to make a comment about bad karma, but decided he probably wouldn't understand what I was trying to say. Then he went on with, "Besides, any local that would take that place on might be looked upon as being as weird or crazy, or even dangerous as the people that snuck off in the night, like bad spirits or something." Maybe Noah didn't believe the stories, but he looked like he wasn't about to risk something evil befalling him. "Give me a minute to call Ennis Ensley," he added and then got up and disappeared inside. I could hear the sound of his voice coming from somewhere toward the back of the house, and then he came back out letting the screen door bang shut behind him. "Go on down the road maybe a mile. It'll be on your left, but you'll have to look close for the driveway cause it's all grown up around there."
I eased off of the swing and shook Noah's hand and told him, "Thanks a lot Noah, and it's good to meet you."
"My pleasure. Don't be surprised if Ennis stops by. He's good at his job, but he's nosy too." I smiled and walked to my car, and then waved before I backed out, and headed down the rough road, to find what I wasn't certain, and for reasons that I really couldn't grasp.
I saw the old place less than a minute later, but just as Noah had warned me, I had to go slow and look for the driveway. The weeds were tall and healthy looking, but those weeds in the driveway couldn't quite conquer the old and hard gravel surface. I pulled up to the garage and sat there with the motor running and the air conditioning humming. The house was no more than fifty feet back from the road and, except for some ugly graffiti, the white painted siding looked in pretty decent condition. The long covered porch with the six simple posts, and three wide steps looked familiar to me. But what was the story about my distant relatives? Why would they just slip away into the night like thieves running from the law, and never to be heard from again?
I abandoned my temperature controlled environment, stepping out into the very warm late summer air and looked around again. Nothing was moving and the still air smelled dusty and stale. Stepping up onto the porch I moved to my left and looked through the front window, shielding my eyes from the brightness of the day. "This is creepy," I told myself aloud, and almost startled myself with the sound of my voice. Just as Noah had described, it looked like somebody was still living there. I went over to the window to my right and looked in on the dining room, and again, except for the heavy coating of dust on the furniture, everything seemed orderly and in place. An hour of sweeping and dusting and the old place would be a simple turnkey operation. Move in your personal effects and you'd be home. Weird. That word would keep revisiting me in the coming days and weeks.
I stood on the porch and looked around at the surrounding countryside as I pulled my phone out and checked. Not a great signal, but very adequate, so I called my younger brother Ted. "Hey it's Ben. Remember that old farmhouse south of Sparta?"
"Sort of, out in the middle of nowhere that belonged to one of our kinfolk?"
"Kinfolk, that's funny, but that would be the one. Well I'm standing on the front porch, and you won't believe the wild story I'll have for you."
"So when do I hear this story?"
"Soon I guess, like tonight if you can get to my place by about seven."
"No sweat, Dee and I'll be there."
"Great. I'll see if I can get more information before I head home."
"That's a good two hours from here right?"
"Maybe ninety minutes. Nice area. Hilly and pretty green and pleasant except for where the lack of rain has turned things a little brown. Okay, see you two tonight." I closed my phone and wandered around to the east side of the house, but the tall weeds made exploring in my Dockers a little less than pleasant.
I heard the car door slam shut, so I moved back to the front and saw who had to be Sheriff Ensley walking toward me from his cruiser. "Sheriff Ensley I presume," I said smiling.
"That would be me, and you're Ben Whitehead."
"Correct, nice to meet you," and I offered my hand. I received a weak handshake and then the sheriff looked toward the house. "Pretty much as it was the day we learned the family had run off one night. So they were your relatives I hear."
"About twice removed, but yes, that's right. Did Noah tell you how I came to be here?"
"About the flat tire and curiosity as I understand it."
"I was looking in the windows, but of course in light it's hard to see a lot, but what I did see sure makes this whole story bizarre."
"That's one of many words that have been used many times regarding this house and your relatives."
"Now I hate to think of them as my relatives for fear that I'll be tainted by their strange and irresponsible actions."
The good sheriff moved up onto the porch, and just as I had done, he peered in through a window. "Either me or one of my deputies has done this dozens if not hundreds of times since they left. We've tried to keep the place intact to protect the county's investment."
"So the county does own it then."
"Yep, every acre and every dish."
"What's with the hex signs and other graffiti all over the front of the house?"
"Well as I understand it, Noah told you a little about that family, so you heard the evilness that people swear took place here. Everybody in our nice county is God fearing, so the thought of there even being a chance of evilness being here is enough to scare some of them into doing things. Things like those superstitious hex signs, protection from the bad forces and all of that."
"Too bad that they ruined what appears to be a good paint job on county property."
"True, but if that's all it takes to keep things in balance and peaceful, I'm okay with that mess for now. Better that than having some well meaning religious zealot burn the whole place down, or at least the sheriff part of me thinks that way at the moment."
"Of course. The outbuildings seem okay."
"We check them when we come out here, but they're empty, so it's just a quick glance around, but yeah, they seem to be solid. It seems that they just don't build barns like that anymore. Big and tall with that gambrel roof to make room for the hay. It would cost a bundle of money to replace it now I'm sure."
"I'd hate to even guess. It seems funny to be standing here again. I can remember standing out here with..." and I smiled and said, "well that's just it, I can't remember who was around here back then. Anyway, we'd stand out here when it was raining. The more I'm here, the more little thoughts like that come back to me."
"The mind is a curious thing. Does it remember what was, or what maybe somebody said when you were young and impressionable?"
"Good question Sheriff."
"Just call me Ennis unless my deputies are around."
Ennis seemed very willing to spend time talking to me. The policeman in him showed by the way he was asking me questions, but none of them were about anything I considered too personal. Then he asked me, "Wanna see what it's like inside?"
"You have a key?"
"Since it's county property and I'm charged with protecting it, I keep a key to the front door handy. After Noah called I grabbed it on my way out."
"You and Noah go back a long way?"
"Just a few years, but we keep in touch with each other. He reminds me of my father."
Ennis didn't elaborate on how Noah was like his father, but that conversation was forgotten as he unlocked the door and I led the way inside. I didn't go more than six feet before I stopped and looked around. "It's pretty fuzzy, but I do remember all of this. Straight down the hallway there is a bathroom on the left and straight ahead is the large farm kitchen, the utility room and an open back porch."
"As I remember it, you're right." Ennis led the way down the hall and into the kitchen and there were the dishes still on the table just as Noah had described.
"Dust everywhere, but otherwise, we could sit down and eat. The living room carpet seemed just fine, and the hardwood floor in the dining room was in good shape too."
"That's right, and there are still canned goods and dry goods in the cupboard. Somebody was supposed to come out and dispose of the food, but other than empty the refrigerator, that never happened. The electricity is turned off of course, so that also means no water."
"I'm sure the county isn't about to keep paying for the electric connection just to have this house sit here."
"I imagine that the day will come where they'll have to come in and just flatten the place and see if they can sell the land."
"What a waste that would be."
"Going back to the marketability of this place, with two bedrooms down and two up, and with a new upstairs bathroom added not all that long before they left, it's a big house that has to be heated and air conditioned. I guess I'll always wonder why they suddenly couldn't pay their taxes and ran off."
"Plus the bank loses I'm sure," I tossed out as a feeler for more information.
"Oh it was owned free and clear, and that adds more to the mystery. There's really no reason to live out here unless you're a farmer, and nobody can make any money with just this however many acres. So with the runaway witch fears that the locals have about this place, and it's inconvenient location, it's just a burden on the taxpayers of White County."
"So no buyers have ever come forward I assume."
"We had a public auction two different times, but the only people to show up the first time were the spectators."
"How long has it been since it was foreclosed on?"
"Oh, a couple of years I'm guessing. At the end of the first year we had that first auction and then about...oh, maybe five months ago we tried again. One buyer showed up but tried to pick it up for less than is owed on the taxes, which amount to about eight grand more or less."
"Not much money for a house."
"Well I can't say the property could be bought for taxes owed, but whatever the amount, it would be small dollars. But that's a bargain only if you can do something with it. My office has even received anonymous letters indicating that if anybody does live here, the new occupants can expect to experience unpleasant things. We haven't been able to trace those notes back to anybody."
"You have a real situation on your hands."
"It puts more of a burden on our office than it's worth as far as I'm concerned. I've told the mayor that it's time to get rid of this place and then I can get on with life."
I'm surprised that Noah or...the other neighbor here, I can't remember the name Noah gave me. Anyway, why wouldn't they buy it for the land and increase their farming acreage?"
"Fair question, but as you saw, Noah is getting on in years and old Stanley is even older."
"Then the last thing they need is more work to do. So what...I'm not sure what question to ask. Okay, so let's say Joe Blow buys this place and he's harassed by a party or parties unknown. Can you realistically protect anybody out here?"
"I'll answer that by saying, it's often ten minutes, give or take, before we could have a car here."
"A lot can happen in ten minutes."
"A whole lot. Now you're not thinking of buying this place just for the memories are you?"
"You know, I'd do it in a heartbeat. I like it here, I like the house and I like being in the country, but like you say, what would anybody do with this place?"
"What were they hoping to get out of this place?"
"I'm not privy to that information."
"It amazes me that people could still get caught up in the old concept of witches, spells and evil doing, and especially when everybody seems to be caught up in that craziness."
"I hear what you're saying. What do you do Ben?"
"Computers. I've spent a couple of years in Anchorage, or rather in the outlying areas, and I made damn good money, but that isn't someplace I could call home. Then the home office sent me to Central America for a year and then I was back again. Anyway, that's how my life has been for some time. I'm single so I was okay with all of that. I didn't take vacations because I've seen so much and been so many places that there has been no point in spending big bucks just so I can travel even more. Right now I'm in a more stable position, and to tell the truth, I can do a lot of what I do from home."
"Friends that are women, but what woman in her right mind would hook up with me when she'd never know where I'd go next or when I'd be back?"
"Sounds pretty lonely to me."
"It can be." I'd been looking around as we talked, but then I shook Ennis' hand and said, "Thanks for your time Sheriff, and if I was to slip off the deep end and buy this place you'd be among the first to know so you can try to keep me safe."