The ghost train story had been passed down several generations. (2nd Pl Twisted Tales)
|“At night, you can still hear the whistle,” Rich said grinning.
“That story isn’t true.” Lisa crossed her arms and glanced his way, shaking her head.
“Oh, no. The ghost train is real. It happened just like I said.”
“Come on. Bandits robbing a train? Disappearing into a chasm with all the gold? Never to be seen or heard from again? That’s got to be the corniest ghost story I’ve ever heard.”
“Like it or not, it’s true.”
“Ha! Now let’s get some sleep. Come on boys. Off to your tent.”
“Now that’s something we can agree on.” Rich’s eyes sparkled with a tingle of mischievous banter.
“I said sleep,” she whispered, “The boys can hear everything.”
“Can’t we stay up?” Jake, the oldest, protested. “It’s only ten-thirty. The stars are great tonight.”
“Yeah, Mom. Please.” Caleb rested his chin on his mother’s lap and looked up at her.
“Maybe Dad can tell us another story. That last one was silly.”
“Hey, I’ll have you know my grandfather told me that one. He swore it was true to the day he died.”
“Yeah, right.” Jake rolled his eyes. “Even I’m not that gullible.”
Rich chuckled. “I didn’t believe him either.”
Caleb climbed into his mother’s lap and curled up. “Look at the stars, Mom. This canyon is awesome. The sky is so clear here.”
A howl in the distance echoed off the canyon walls. A small animal scooted through some underbrush ten feet away and slipped across the sandy ground. Caleb squeezed his mother’s neck tight, and swallowed hard.
“It’s ok. Sounds like a coyote. He’s a long way from here.” Rich reached over and patted Caleb’s back a few times.
The distinct sound of footfalls plodding through the thicket filled the night air. Rich arose and grabbed his backpack, retrieving his .38 revolver. Lisa put her finger to her lips and shooed the boys into their tent. She grabbed a knife and hid between the two pitched tents.
“Who goes there?” Rich bellowed. His voice reverberated through the small canyon.
“It’s me. Don’t be alarmed. You folks ok out here?”
“Who are you? I have a weapon. What do you want?”
“Name’s Shorty. I live up the creek about a half mile. Seen your campfire and decided to investigate. It’s me who should be upset. There’s no camping in the park -- Only at the three designated camping areas. You just were awful close to my cabin.”
“What are you trying to pull mister? This is public land. You scared us. We have a permit to camp, and I didn’t see any signs. We’re going up to Deer Creek tomorrow.”
“Yes, the park owns most of Aravaipa Canyon, but my cabin is close by. Sorry to have bothered you.”
“Wait. You say your name is Shorty?”
“Yeah. Lived here for just neigh of forty years.”
Rich studied the man, lowered the pistol, and holstered it. Shorty was an old codger with white hair, a beard, and hunched as he walked. His right eye squinted as he spoke, and even in the flickering fire light he could tell Shorty was missing a couple of teeth. He donned a beat up blue engineer’s hat, suspenders, a vest, and worn, dusty trousers.
“You ain’t suppose to have fires here. It attracts wildlife and can cause a brush fire when it’s dry.” Shorty eyed Rich suspiciously.
“Sorry. I know there’s a no fire policy. The boys were cold. We’ve had a good bit of rain, and as you can see we built it a far distance from the brush. I’m a pretty experienced hiker.”
“I’m no snitch. Enjoy the rest of your hike. Deer Creek is nice. Just don’t go poking around where you aren’t suppose to.” Shorty turned and took a few steps back the way he came.
“Gotcha. Thanks. Any chance you could show us around?” Rich called out.
“I don’t think so.” He kept walking.
Lisa crept from between the tents, and the boys peered out from their retreat.
“That guy was spooky,” Caleb said.
“Weirdo.” Jake chimed in.
“He was an odd fellow.” Lisa stated.
Rich rubbed his stubbled beard, and glanced Lisa’s way. “I wonder.”
“What’s that?” She replied.
“Bed down boys. We’re getting up early for a day of adventure.” Rich looked at Lisa and lipped, “I’ll tell you later.”
She nodded. The boys disappeared back into the tent. The faint rustling of their camp mats being unfurled could be heard. Lisa and Rich sat in the shallow camp chairs and stirred the fire. They sat in silence for about fifteen minutes. Rich enjoyed the heat and finally nodded to Lisa and threw dirt on the coals until it was extinguished.
They both crawled into the tent where their sleeping mats lay along with a blanket.
“What was that all about?” Lisa asked in a hush.
“I know this sounds crazy, but that guy is exactly the way my grandfather described the engineer in that story I just told. Plus, his name is Shorty. That was his name too.”
“What?” Lisa tried to hold back a laugh. “That’s crazy all right. Come on. That’s nonsense. It’s just an old story. You’re not still trying to convince me it’s true are you?”
Rich paused. “I don’t know. I guess not. It just crossed my mind. I guess it just weirded me out that he looked so much like how my grandpa described. Then I tell the story and he just appears with the same name.”
Lisa kissed him on the cheek. “Just a coincidence. Go to sleep.”
Rich lay awake thinking, and finally drifted off to sleep. He dreamed of Shorty driving an old-fashioned steam locomotive. His squinty eyes peering down the tracks and pulling the whistle chord, the chugging sounds bouncing off the canyon’s walls. He laughed maniacally as the train plunged full speed off the cliff. Steel smashing against the rock floor thundered throughout, while the smell of burnt wreckage and hot metal drifted on the wind. Rich shot upright in a cold sweat.
“Honey? You ok?” Lisa placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Just a… dream,” Rich panted. “It’s ok. Just a dream.”
“Don’t tell me it’s that ghost story that’s still bothering you?”
“No. I’m just having trouble sleeping.”
Lisa snuggled up beside him and kissed him more passionately. Rich returned the kiss. The warmth of their bodies next to each other in the still of the night took his mind off the story. They lay there in each others’ arms, and fell asleep.
A lizard scurried across the blanket and stared at Rich nose to nose as he opened his eyes. He sucked in a gasp and flipped the lizard near the tent opening and it escaped. The early morning sun had not reached the canyon floor and the dim light still kept the campsite cool and damp. Rich emerged from his canvas quarters and stretched.
He walked to the stream to fill his coffee percolator, poured the coffee into the filter, and started a fire. He breathed in the crisp air, and spied a hawk swirling in the high winds looking for his morning catch. The smell of fresh coffee floated into the tents, and he heard the boys moving about. Lisa still hadn’t stirred.
The boys unzipped their tent door and pushed it open. They squinted in the sun which had just pushed back the shadows enough that it encroached upon their threshold. Like hungry raccoons they opened their packs and retrieved some blueberry mini-muffins and began scarfing them down as Rich quietly poured some coffee in three tin cups. He placed one in front of each of them and kept the other for himself.
“Good morning boys.”
“Good morning, Dad.” Caleb replied. Jake’s mouth still filled with muffins, he only nodded. They sat Indian style near the fire. Caleb added a couple packets of sugar to his brew.
“Looks like a fine day. We only have eleven miles to hike to Deer Creek.”
Lisa flipped open the tent canvas and groggily flopped down in the empty camp chair. She grabbed the last tin cup and poured some coffee. She wrapped both hands around the hot cup and inhaled the wonderful aroma. Rich slid a couple of beef jerky sticks out of his pack and tossed one to his wife.
“See. I told you this was a nice canyon to visit.” Lisa broke the quiet of everyone chewing.
“Yeah. You picked a good spot.”
“How do you boys like it?”
“It’s nice. Really cool. Look at that hawk up there.” Jake pointed at the circling bird.
“Neat!” Caleb’s eyes widened.
“We should hike out tomorrow, and then we can celebrate Jake’s seventeenth birthday three days from now. I made the arrangements at that laser tag place.”
Rich grimaced and looked at Lisa.
“Thanks, Mom. I love that game. Billy was bummed he couldn’t come. Maybe he could stay the night next week to make it up to him?”
“We’ll see.” She sipped some coffee and gnawed another chunk off the jerky.
“Why don’t I get to have friends over?” Caleb asked.
“Well, you’ll be thirteen later this summer. I suppose we should allow it. Jake had a few boys over at that age.”
“That would be all right with me.” Rich leaned over to Lisa and whispered, “I thought we weren’t going to rent that laser tag place. It’s too expensive.”
“It’s ok. I had a coupon. Besides it’s his birthday.” She murmured out of the side of her mouth.
Rich sighed. He scanned his family and saw they had finished their meager breakfast. “Well, it’s time to pack up and get going. Deer Creek here we come.”
With military efficiency, they broke the tents down and packed it all away. They stowed their trash in a large plastic bag and Rich stuffed it into his backpack. He strode along the stream and motioned for them to follow. Like ducklings they all fell in line. Several startled lizards darted for cover at their approach, and the babbling creek became their constant companion.
Lisa scanned the sheer rock faces, and seemed particularly curious at the vegetation and scenery off to the left, across the creek. She stopped and shielded her eyes from the bright sunshine. She pointed.
“What’s that?” She asked.
Rich took a few steps further and mimicked her eye shielding technique. “I’m not seeing anything. What do you see?”
“Looks like a roof. Maybe to an old cabin.”
“Ah. I see what might be a piece of a roof. You got good eyes. Might be that old hermit’s place.”
“Yeah.” He shot her a glance.
“Should we check it out?”
“Yeah. Let’s see if he’s home.” Jake said.
“We shouldn’t bother him. He seemed a bit grouchy.” Rich kept his hand over his eyes.
“Come on, Dad. We got all day.” Caleb insisted.
“I don’t know. What do you think, Honey?”
“Sure. Why not? We have time.”
They waded across a shallow place in the stream and within a few minutes stood before an old log cabin with the front left corner collapsed. The roof had an opening in it the size of a compact car. No front door, just an opening and a dirt floor greeted their wandering eyes.
“Just an old broken down cabin. Guess it wasn’t the hermit’s place. But…” Rich turned around as they had walked up hill for the last few hundred yards and they stood atop a knoll, and scanned the canyon. “I don’t see any other cabin, or building.”
“Odd.” Lisa said. She took a few steps toward the doorway, stopped, placed her pack on the ground, and pulled out a small flashlight.
“Not sure we should go in there.”
“I’m just going to shine some light in there, and see what’s inside.”
She stood, centered in the door frame and began shining the light all around the inside. She leaned forward and then took a step inside.
“Lisa? You see something?” Rich came up behind her.
“Well. I thought I did over there. Near those missing floorboards.” She handed him the flashlight.
He swung it in that direction and took a few steps toward it. He carefully stepped about the rotted planks and peeled back a few. He steadied himself on a few creaking boards and bent down to retrieve a small chest. He flipped back the latches and opened the lid. One of the hinges broke away and the lid dangled precariously. Rich’s eyes grew wide, and he lifted out a leather bound book. He dropped the chest back into the hole. He untied the leather strap and opened the front cover. He glanced back at Lisa several times, then tip-toed through the half-busted, half-rotten boards to the doorway again.
The boys tried to peek around their mother, but could not see anything.
“This is incredible. We…”
“Rich!” Lisa interrupted.
“What? I want to tell the boys.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“But why?” He persisted.
“Just send them over to those boulders to play or look around and we’ll discuss it.”
“Yeah?” They said in anticipation.
“Go on over to those boulders and see what you can find. We’ll yell for you to come back.”
“Awww come on, Dad. You found something, didn’t you?”
“No. Just go on over there please. I need to discuss something with your mother.”
The boys eyed their father and glanced at each other. “Come on. What did you find, Dad?”
“No. Just go on over there. Please.”
“All right. Do we get to see it afterwards?”
“Maybe. Just do as I say.”
The boys inched over to some large boulders off to the left of the cabin and started climbing amongst them.
“What is going on?” Rich asked as they drifted out of earshot.
“This book. It’s a journal right?” She slid her finger across the title – Daily Journal. “Who does it belong to?
“Daniel “Shorty” McClung. That’s the engineer’s name in my grandpa’s story.” Rich held the book with both hands securely around it.
“You mean. That story might be true after all?”
“Let’s just keep this between you and me.”
“Why? The boys…”
“Because Rich. Think about it. If this journal is real, and belongs to Shorty it might lead us to the gold.”
“So, they are teenage boys. What’s the chances they keep something like this quiet?”
“I guess not likely.”
“Exactly. They’d be so excited they’d blab to their friends who would tell their parents. This is public land. If there is gold and we take it, it belongs to the government. If the authorities catch wind that we took it from here. Bye bye gold. Just read some of it. If it tells us something, fine. If not, we show it to the boys. Otherwise. This book doesn’t exist.”
“You have a point. Let me read some of it. Go over and occupy the boys. This could change our lives if this journal reveals what I think it might.”
“The gold.” A smile crept across his face. “And a way out of our financial mess.”
Lisa returned the smile, and walked toward the boys. Rich lay the book on a rock and began reading. His eyes seemingly growing wider with each turn of a page.
The boys would sideways a glance over to their father on occasion, but Lisa corraled them. They couldn’t make out what their father was doing. Finally, he motioned them to come back over.
The boys ran toward him. “So, what did you find, Dad?”
“Nothing. Just an old chest. It had a broken hinge so I pitched it back inside.”
“Awwww. We would have liked to have seen that. Can we go get it again?”
“All right. I’ll go get it.” Rich clicked on the flashlight and in a minute emerged with the old chest. He raised the lid to demonstrate the broken hinge. The boys were impressed, but quickly lost interest. The chest was ancient with broken steel bands, and rotted sides and bottom.
“A shame there wasn’t something in it.” Caleb piped.
“Yeah.” Lisa winked at Rich. “That is a shame.”
The four set out from the cabin and followed the trail that hugged the creek path. Deer Creek canyon lay ahead. The parents remained silent, except for the occasional pointing out of unusual natural phenomenon and rock formations. The boys had settled into hiking mode. They rest only twice when they arrived at a small swimming hole at the end of the canyon. Lisa flipped out a camera and they all splashed around in the cool pool. A spring flowed down the rock face and trickled into the pool.
After a pause for a large lunch of two sandwiches, cans of baked beans, and swiss cake rolls, they lounged about the small pool and soaked their tired feet. Rich stole away behind a crop of bushes and read some more of the journal. He eyed the end of the canyon, and followed a crude map with a horseshoe as a marker approximately halfway back to the old cabin. Lisa approached, making certain the boys did not see where she disappeared to.
“What did you find out?”
“This journal does belong to Shorty. He was the engineer of the train. I’m sure there was a few add-ons to that story over the years, but many legends have some truth to them. Any way, the train plunged into this canyon about 140 years ago. The authorities took more than five days to get down here, but when they searched the wreckage, the gold was gone. They figured at least one of the robbers survived and stashed it somewhere or packed it out on mules.”
“Well, where is the train wreckage?”
“As my grandpa told it, the locals didn’t want the wreckage to ugly up the canyon, so they got a team of welders to cut it up and they carted it out piece by piece.”
“What was a train doing coming to the canyon?” Lisa said with raised eyebrows.
“A mining company had found silver here. They paid the railroad to come over. But the mine went bust and they collapsed the mine. I found that out from the journal.” Rich flipped a few pages and pointed at a passage describing how the mining company intended to mine here.
“But where is the gold from the robbery?”
“That’s the best part! It’s still here. It’s just hidden in an old mine. The details are a bit sketchy in the journal, but they stashed it in an older mine and erased it from the mining maps. Only Shorty and Jack, the survivors of the crash, knew where.
“I found a map in the back of this thing. According to it, the old mine shaft is at this mark.”
“A horseshoe? I wonder what that means?”
“I don’t know, but we’ve got to convince the boys to hike back the trail about five or six miles to camp, and we’ll search that area in the morning.”
“Sounds good. This is exciting.”
“I know. Treasure hunting. I still can’t believe we found this old book.”
“Maybe things are finally turning around for us.”
“I sure hope so. According to the journal, that gold was worth nearly fifty grand back then. If I’ve done the math right, that’s about 2.2 million today.”
Lisa’s eyes grew in surprise. “I can’t believe it.”
“Let’s get the boys going.”
They left the bush and rounded up the boys.
“Can’t we just camp here?” Caleb whined.
“No. I’d like to knock off a few miles off tomorrow’s hike out. Trust me. You’ll thank me by the end of day tomorrow.” Rich looked sternly at his son.
“Fine.” Caleb stuffed a t-shirt, a canteen, and his spare water wading shoes in his pack.
Within minutes the troop trekked down the trail. They passed several flowering bushes, scrub trees, and a weeping willow. In the heat of the sun, the cool of bathing in the pool didn’t take long to wear off. Six miles in, Lisa nudged Rich and pointed.
An odd shaped stone outcrop jutted from the canyon wall. A large boulder stood at its base. “Could that be what the map shows?”
Rich peeked inside his pack and opened the book to the map. A odd squiggle roughly in the shape of the outcrop and a circle underneath lead from the trail next to the creek. He nodded.
“Hey, boys. Why don’t you rest here. Mom and I are going to check out this boulder.”
“Ok. See ya.” Jake had no energy to go exploring. He took off his shoes and dipped them in the creek. Caleb did the same.
Lisa and Rich searched around the large stone, but found nothing of real interest. Rich pulled out the map. “This has to be it. Nothing else looks exactly like this. You see anything horseshoe shaped?”
“No.” Lisa sat beneath a withered sycamore tree. “Maybe it’s not the place. The map is too vague.”
Rich shook his head and laid down next to Lisa. “I’m glad it’s getting evening time. Too hot for me. We should set up camp before dark.” He looked straight up into the clear blue sky where a hawk circled again. “I wish we could ask him.” Pointing to the hawk. “He’d know for sure. How many stone ledges like that with a boulder… Hey wait. Look Lisa. When you lay down here and look straight up at that thing, what does it look like?”
“A horseshoe! Of course! The gold was hidden up there. They had pulleys back then and could have hoisted it up there. Then erased it from the maps.”
“We have no ropes or climbing gear, and that’s about two hundred fifty feet straight up. We’ll think about it tomorrow.”
They retrieved the boys and set up camp under the sycamore. After slurping down their canteens of water, and eating they all relaxed at the opening of each of their tents. They all felt tired from the hike and were happy to collapse on their mats early. Soon they fell into a peaceful slumber.
Rich aroused in the middle of the night to the distinct sound of an engine releasing steam. A slow chug-chug-chug like a train starting off began. “Lisa?”
“Yeah. I hear it. What in the world?”
The chugging became faster and faster and finally a loud train whistle echoed through the canyon. And just as quickly as it came, it stopped.
The boys tumbled out of their tent. “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah. We heard it.”
“It’s just like that story you told. The train whistle.”
“Nah. That’s just an old ghost story. Let’s listen.”
The still of the night encompassed them and a wisp of a cloud sailed across the face of the moon. “I don’t hear anything, just the stream water trickling.” Lisa’s face showed of worry. “Boys get on back to bed. I think we’re so exhausted we’re hearing things.”
“All at the same time?” Jake protested.
“Just go back to bed. It’s nothing.”
They all retired back to their mats.
“Lisa, we all heard that. That was a train whistle. No doubt.”
“That means one of two things. Either there is a ghost named Shorty and he doesn’t like that we’re this close, or its someone who knows about the gold and is trying to scare us away. We need to get that gold right away.”
“Yeah. Just one bar would make us rich.”
They both turned and twisted in a restless sleep the entire night. Rich and Lisa both arose early.
“I’m climbing up there.” Rich stated.
“Up there? With no rope? Are you nuts?”
“Look. We have to know. Someone is trying to scare us away, and just one bar solves our problems. I used to rock climb. I’ll be fine. I’m going.”
“Rich. I don’t think that’s wise.” Lisa lay her hand on his arm, but she could tell he was determined.
Lisa sucked in several breaths as Rich began to ascend. “I’ll be fine.”
As far as rock walls go, this one seemed moderate. Most foot and hand holds were easy, but not spaced well causing Rich to strain or use smaller holds to get to easier ones. He’d climbed about 200 feet up and neared the outcrop. The holds were becoming easier, even showing signs of recent use when he stumbled. He reached for an easy hand hold, but that hand slipped also. He panicked. He grasped anything, but to no avail. As if in slow motion he fell, his limbs and head smashing into the rock face as he tumbled.
“Aaaaaaaaahhhhh!” He screamed.
Lisa watched in horror as his body struck the boulder with a heart-wrenching thud.
“Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” Lisa repeated.
The boys scrambled from their tent, saw their Dad’s shattered and broken body laying on the rock, and began yelling. “What happened? What happened? Oh, Dad. No. No.”
“Boys run and get help. Here’s the map. The ranger station is about twelve miles that way. Get your cell phones and keep an eye on any coverage. If you get high enough, you might be able to make a call. I’ll stay here with him. Tell them to send a helicopter, but stay together. Go!”
The boys shot down the trail at full speed. They ran out of sight in mere seconds.
Lisa smoothed Rich’s hair. Blood spilled from his mouth and he looked into her eyes. He gasped for air. “Too slippery. Couldn’t hold on.”
“It’s all right, Rich. Everything’s going to be ok now.”
He wretched and heaved a few times. His breathing became erratic and he expelled his last breath. Blood dripped upon the sandy ground.
Lisa rinsed her hands in the stream to wash off the blood. She fished the book from his pack, bound it to a large rock, and tossed it into the deepest part she could find. Returning to the body, she pulled out some wipes and washed his feet and hands thoroughly. She kicked some dust on the limbs once she cleaned them. Once she complete those tasks she found some shade and pulled out a can of beans to wait for the boys to return.
Three hours later she heard the loud chopping of helicopter blades. The boys must’ve reached the ranger station or gotten through on their cells.
The next few hours seemed surreal. They air-lifted the body out of the canyon, while the boys came by ATV with the rangers to take them all back to the city. Rich was pronounced DOA.
(Four months later)
Lisa cruised down the lonesome highway en route to a biker bar that stood like an unwanted blemish on the vast expanse of desert. She pulled in and sauntered through the swinging doors. The place mostly empty except for a couple heavy set bikers playing pool, the bartender wiping down the bar, and a white-haired man in the corner, missing a few teeth. He smiled at her when she entered.
Lisa, dressed in dark clothes and wearing shades stepped over and slid into a chair across from the stranger.
“Things have finally quieted down.”
“Yeah. Where’s my money? I don’t give a shit what’s happened. You should’ve come a month ago.”
“It wasn’t a good time yet. I had to collect the insurance money first.” She slid a fat envelope across the table. “Fifty thousand. It’s all there.”
“Ten thousand more than we agreed. Guess the extra month was worth it.”
“Thanks again. My boys and I are doing great. You acting like Shorty, copying that stuff into that old journal word for word like I wrote it, and playing those train sounds pushed him over the edge.”
“Pouring vegetable oil on those hand holds was pure genius.”
“Just disappear. I don’t want to ever see you again. Oh, and if you try to blackmail me. Remember. I know how to get rid of people.”
“Nice doing business with ya.”
Lisa stood up and slipped out the door.
2nd Place Twisted Tales Contest 2010