(A story by Rick Baldwin for the 2016 Life In A Kilt Podcast “Kilt of Horrors” episode.)
I come from a very rural part of East Tennessee. It ain’t exactly what you’d call the “sticks” ’cause there is a large city about 20 minutes away but you could still get lost on the winding country roads surrounding the house I grew up in and it would take someone familiar with the area to help you get out and back on your way to civilization.
Behind my house was a steep incline and at the bottom of that incline was an old sawmill run by Elmer Nicely. The train tracks ran right along side Elmer’s sawmill and when a train would come through about once an hour all the windows in our house would tremble for about 10 minutes. Elmer also slaughtered hogs at his place so it was awfully nice when the train came by and masked the horrible squeals we’d sometimes hear from his small wood slaughterhouse.
There was a one-lane gravel road that cut between our house and the sawmill. I’d see cars pass through there at all hours of the day and night but when I was a kid I’d never been far down that old road. It just looked scary down there to me. The trees and kudzu was overgrown and the road looked like a path into a dark tunnel of leaves, vines, sticks and dust. I knew some people lived down that gravel road but I didn’t know anyone personally. They were mostly reclusive country people who liked to keep to themselves and I wasn’t one to go messing with them.
When I got older my parents would let me walk down the old gravel road by myself. I remember the first time I went down past the sawmill, past the slaughterhouse, and found where the old road bent to the left and crossed the railroad track. At that point I couldn’t recognize any surroundings. It was like I was in some small backwood village. There were old, broken down, rusted trailers that people still lived in, nestled back in the brush. There were so many old houses I’d never seen before and they looked like they’d been pieced together with scrap wood and plastic and cardboard. There was an old creek that ran behind the houses I had no idea existed. Every other house it seemed had an old, mangy dog tied up to a tree or a rotting dog house. Something about the whole atmosphere made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.
Just past the shacks there was an old cornfield overgrown with weeds and brush. Hanging on a wood post was a pitiful looking scarecrow with only one arm raised. Like he was trying to hitchhike his way out of that place. For some unknown reason, the scarecrow’s owner had dressed it in a burlap kilt with an old piece of corn cob stuck on it as a kilt pin. Next to the corn field, sitting way back off the road was a decrepit, white, three-story wood house. All of the windows on the house were broken out and you would need a machete to get to the front door, but it was still a pretty impressive house among the dilapidated shacks. The old house looked like it had been quite something in its time and it made me want to do some research on it to find out its history.
The next day, after seeing the old house, I was telling some of my school friends about it. One of my friends said, “That’s the old Lockhart house.” Then he said with a smile, “I’ve heard it’s haunted.” Neither of us believed in ghosts or haunted houses but we’d both seen how creepy the place looked. I wanted to find out more information about it but I wasn’t sure where to go for it. I’d seen some of the Lockharts at the school and I knew they couldn’t live in that house. Or could they?
A few weeks later I was discussing the house again with school friends when I heard someone laughing at me. It was Chris Mullins. Chris was was a muscular, good-looking guy with more than a little Native American blood in him. He was one of the stars of the football team and a pretty nice guy and one of the few jocks who would actually spend any amount of time talking to someone like me. “That’s a great make-out place,” he said. “Get you a girl down there, she gets all scared, you tell her you’ll protect her… she’ll do pretty much anything you want.” Personally, I don’t think Chris Mullins ever needed a scary house to get a girl to do whatever he wanted but it was a nice tip anyway. “I’m taking Jenny Quarles down there Friday after the game,” he said. “The only scary thing she needs to worry about is in my pants!” he said. We all laughed.
The football game that Friday night was on the night before Halloween and it was against one of our biggest rivals from the next county over. We won the game easily and the celebrations went on way into the night. But I decided to head on home a bit early. It was dark and blustery outside. There was a full moon’s light that would appear and disappear behind fast moving dark clouds. I thought about what Chris Mullins said about taking Jenny Quarles to the old Lockhart house. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I thought maybe I could just drive right by the place and look over and see if I could see them there. I wondered if he really had the guts to go there or if he was just all talk. So I decided I’d drive past the Lockhart house and then circle around and come back home.
I hit the old gravel road right about the time I heard a train horn sounding in the distance. By the time I got to the part where the road curved around and crossed the track, the train was coming fast so I sat and waited for it to pass. When it was gone I listened to the silence for a few seconds. There’s nothing like the deep, dead silence of the country after a train passes through. I drove on past the trailers and shacks and up to the corn field when I noticed something very strange. That old scarecrow was gone. I could see his weathered old post still standing there in the field but the scarecrow was nowhere to be seen. Maybe it had fallen down I thought. Or maybe Chris was using it as part of his plan to get Jenny all scared and clingy. Up ahead I could see a car parked off the road in front of the house. But no one was in it. I drove past it slow and looked inside and the front and back seats were empty. Surely Chris Mullins wasn’t brave enough to take her inside the house. Or stupid enough. I pulled my car off over to the side of the road and turned off the engine and the lights. I rolled down the window to see if I could hear any voices. The air smelled like dead leaves and dirt and dogs and old engine oil. The light from the moon was starting to spend more time behind the clouds leaving everything in a deep indigo darkness.
If you’ve never heard the death scream of a hog at midnight it’ll send shivers over every inch of your body. And it’s worse when you’re far away from anything you recognize. It’s even more terrifying when you realize that the scream you just heard wasn’t a hog at all but its human and it’s coming right toward you. Jenny Quarles tried to open the passenger door while she screamed but it was locked. She jumped onto the hood of my car and pounded on the windshield like she intended to go right through it. It took me several seconds to recognize it was her and when I did I jumped out of the car. In one leap she jumped on me and her legs gave out from under her, all the while she still screaming. I tried to calm her down best I could and ask her what was going on. She couldn’t speak but she grabbed my hand and pointed toward the Lockhart house. She could only say “Chris” and pull me toward the house.
A small path had been trampled into the weeds and brush in front of the house and Jenny pulled me along the path. It was all happening too quick to think about it but now days I can’t even believe I went into all that jungle. We tripped and stumbled our way to to the side of the old house where there was a clearing under some tall, twisted trees. Jenny pointed to one of the trees and again let out a shrill scream. On the dirt, under the tree, was a scattering of straw covered in blood. Hanging from one of the trees was Chris Mullins. His throat cut from earlobe to earlobe. Stuck right in the middle of his neck, was a corn cob kilt pin.
I grabbed Jenny’s arm and ran back toward the car as faster than I’d ever run before. It was a good thing Jenny was a small girl because when we hit that tangled path of vines, I drug her along behind me even after she tripped and fell several times. We got into the car and sped off to my house where we called the police and Jenny’s parents.
It was several months before Jenny Quarles was able to fully relay the events of that night to anyone. She and Chris Mullins had left the school after the football game and drove to a convenience store where Chris’ brother was the manager and would sell them some beer. Chris told Jenny he wanted to take her to his house and then he drove to the old Lockhart house, jokingly telling her it was where he lived. They parked the car, sat on the hood and drank a couple of beers under the moonlight. After they made out for awhile, Chris suggested they walk up to the house. Well Jenny didn’t think that was such a good idea so Chris made a bet with her. Jenny had to agree that she would go up to the house if Chris could hit the old scarecrow with all four of their empty beer bottles. Even in the darkness Chris proved to be quite the athlete as each bottle landed squarely on target, the last one almost taking off the old scarecrow’s head. Jenny reluctantly went up to the dark old house with Chris and after they got up under the trees Chris began trying to scare her by pretending to run into the old weedy cornfield and then running back out. At one point he didn’t come back out and Jenny thought he may have snuck back to the car just to spook her. She wandered her way back to the car through the maze of the thicket and, not finding Chris, she sat on the hood of the car and drank another beer. When the light of the train cut through the blackness, she once again made her way to the side of the house and it was at that point she found Chris Mullins hanging from a tree.
On Halloween night, few people let their kids go out Trick or Treating and no one was in a Halloween party mood. Everyone was terrified there was a murderer on the loose so people stayed home and locked their doors. It was the first time in 18 years I’d seen my parents turn the locks on their own doors. Around 9 o’clock Halloween night one of my friends called to tell me that several guys from the football team had plans to drive to the old Lockhart house around midnight and burn it down. So a little bit after 12, I drove down the gravel road and I could see the sky glowing orange far in front of me. I crossed the railroad tracks and I could smell the smoke and I could see flames flickering high into the sky. I passed by the shack houses and rusty trailers and I could see the old wood Lockhart house was fully engulfed in flames. There were no cars and people to be seen anywhere around. And to my surprise, there, silhouetted against the bright orange light of the fire, hung that old scarecrow; kilt around its waist, arm stretched out and head held high.
© Rick Baldwin. All rights reserved.