It is said that there are more things in this world that are unseen than there is seen. Bumps in the night and shadows that move without sound, soul or purpose. And if you see something in the dark as you lay comfortable in your bed, or if you hear a piercing screeching noise outside your window, do you dare get up and investigate? Will you be brave enough to ask ‘What is it and what do they want?’ I never imagined a guy like me… a simple country boy from mudsuck West Virginia would ever be the type of brave soul that would dare to ask those questions. But I did…
To begin my strange tale, I think I should give you an understanding of where I live. Mudsuck is an old hollow, or as my Grandmother pronounced it ‘holler’, is not found on any map. My Grandmother is a descendant of the English pioneers who settled here right before the civil war. She rarely speaks of the past and unfortunately she is one of the last elders in our hollow that knows the full story of the pioneers. There isn’t much to mudsuck, we have a Sheriff and a deputy with a one cell jail house. We have a post office just big enough for three people to fit in, we have four main roads and they all circle back around to the city hall. The rest of the other roads are all dirt roads that twist and turn so bad that it would break a snakes back or maybe break your neck if you wreck looking off at the wrong time. I guess I should mention we have one gas station and a drive in restaurant. The drive in is where all the teenagers hang out, it’s either the drive in or the swimming hole in the summer time. The drive in always plays the latest music and has the best hamburgers in the world. On occasion we get a few teenagers from the rich side of town, we call them the hillers. They are the rich kids that live in the hills of Charleston in their rich neighborhoods driving their daddy’s Mercedes. They come here to make fun of us. Anywhere from the hand-me- down clothes, to the ability to even be able to afford a hamburger from the drive in. Oh… and did I mention that once a month the whole town disappears? One night out the month, the night that falls on the full moon, all the towns people and their children hide for an entire night in the cellars of their homes. Praying and waiting anxiously for the sun rise to return and for the quaking ground to stop shaking. As far back as I can remember, this has been my life and so many times I have tried to ask Grandma to tell me what that noise is outside and I asked her to tell me why the ground shakes. Grandma with her kind and soft voice would tell me to just close my eyes and keep praying. After everyone would fall asleep I would lay awake and try to imagine what could be making the ground shake. My best friend John told me to stop trying to make trouble for our families and to just shut up and go to sleep. But if he really knew me, he would know that I am the type of guy where ‘shut up and pray’ just doesn’t work. I have to see it for myself. What could possibly have the town so scared? The next full moon I’m going to find out what the secret is even if it kills me.
Grandma was on her front porch snapping beans for dinner. Her timeless weathered hands sure knew how to make food that would melt in your mouth. I sat at her feet on the hard wood floor with the evening sun beating down on my face. Grandma’s soft voice humming a tune I have never heard before. I felt my body relaxing. I love these moments with her. She is the closest thing I have ever had to a mother. My mother died in child birth and my dad had disappeared before I was born. So she took me in and raised me. I feel lucky for that.
“Humm?” I said with a sleepy tone.
“What are you thinking about over there? I can hear the wheels turning.” She said as she smiled and tossed another snapped bean into her bowl.
“I was just thinking about the full moon.”
Grandma stiffened in her rocking chair. She always hated it when I mentioned the nights with the full moon. “What do you want to know about it this time Richard? You know how I feel about that.”
“I just want to know what the thunder is and why it happens to us.”
Grandma stopped rocking in her chair and gently put her bowl of beans down on the porch. She laid her hands gently in her lap and stared intently into the setting sun as if she was trying to make up her mind about something. “Richard, you know I am an old woman. I don’t plan on living forever. There are stories that were passed down to me when I was a little girl. Stories that my Grandmother told me and her mother before her. Kind of a tradition. I have always viewed it a blessing and a curse to know these stories of old. Your mother was the one that I was supposed to pass the stories down to and… well you know the rest.” Grandma took the edge of her apron and dabbed at the corner of her eye. “I sure miss her.”
“I know Grandma.” I said as I patiently waited for her to begin again.
“When I was a little girl growing up here in the holler, I remember being so afraid when I heard the running of the horses.” Grandma looked at me from the corner of her eye and smiled before looking back into the sun. “Oh yes… they are horses. I was told that there are exactly two hundred of them. They come for the people that have died in these hollers.”
“But…why? I mean…” I stuttered as I wiped the sweat from my brow and searched my mind for possible reasons why ghost horses would be running through our little hole in the wall town.
“I know it’s hard to believe. But it is true. I remember one night when I was ten years old. I was sleep walking. Somehow I let myself out of the cellar and as I started to open the front door to go outside, my mother grabbed me by the back of my night gown, waking me from my sleeping walk. I awoke just as she was closing the door and that’s when I saw them.”
“You actually saw the horses?”
“Yes, I saw them alright. But only for a second. They were horses alright. After that I was too scared to even sleep. I was so scared I was going to sleep walk. I never wanted to see those creatures again.”
Grandma said no more but you can believe it, I was going to go look. I had too. The next full moon is tomorrow. Before Grandma finished her story I already had a plan worked up in my mind.
“Hey Grandma, I’m going to Johns house tomorrow night. He’s having a sleep over with a couple of friends. His mom said they had room for me in their cellar.”
“Well… I guess that would be ok. Make sure you call me when the sun comes up. I want to make sure your ok.”
And that was how it came to be that I am out here in the woods, half a mile from my grandmother’s house. I lit up a cigarette and squat down beside the fattest tree I could find. I wanted to be able to hide well from these ghost horses. I can’t believe I’m doing this. What if they kill me? Can they kill me? I squeezed the tiny button on my watch. The green glow said it was eleven fifty nine, October thirty first. Great… it’s a full moon on Halloween. I sure can pick them. I sucked down the last of my cigarette as the green glow of my watch turned its self off. My heart was pounding so hard that I thought it may burst out from under my flannel shirt. I rubbed my chest thinking it would help, but it just beat that much harder. The blood seemed to drain out of my whole body as I started to feel the first tremors beneath my feet. I stood behind the tree, rest my hand up against the bark and I gently leaned around the tree just enough to peer around to see the dirt road in front of me. The thunder was getting louder by the second. I could tell they were close; just inches from making their appearance. I dug my nails into the bark of the tree in anticipation. Then it happened… as if in slow motion, a mysterious fog rolled in sticking closely to the ground as if it was making a new road just for the horses. And then I saw it, transparent hooves rounding the corner. My frozen and frightened eyes followed the massive steeds body’s all the way up to the heads. There were too many to count. Their ghostly body’s glistened with what appeared to be sweat. Their flesh seemed to be in a constant state of decay with bone protruding in various places. The eyes were the palest white that I have ever seen. I could even see their breath as if it were the coldest night in winter. Grandma left out one detail or maybe she just didn’t see them all those years ago. There were riders on those horses. They almost looked half man half animal with their faces painted in intricate patterns. They screamed unnatural screams as they twirled sticks with strange things hanging from the ends. It almost looked like decayed feathers and animal shells. As they flowed past me I noticed it smelled ancient, old and musky with a hint of burning wood. It gently burned my nose and my eyes but I dared not blink. I watched as all the horses and their riders flowed past me, hooves pounding the earth but leaving no sign of any disturbance. My heart sank as I realized the last horse had just filed past me. It couldn’t end here, not now… not like this! I had to follow! I slithered out from behind my tree and ran behind the ghost riders and their faithful steeds. I was breathing loud and hard but the thunder of the horses hooves drowned me out. They rode all the way down to creeker’s pond and out into the field toward a massive oak tree. The town had named it Lonesome Oak field. I stopped and watched as the horses ran effortlessly over the pond water without making a ripple. The ghost riders kept their endless screaming going as if they would never run out of breath. Then as the last one crossed the pond, the rest headed for the lonesome oak. I ran through the open field behind them no longer caring that my presence could be detected at any moment. I ran so hard and so fast that I thought for a moment I may catch up to them, but I stopped once again in my tracks as I witnessed an unexpected sight. The ghost riders ran straight for the lonesome oak. They didn’t just run toward the oak, they ran through the oak tree. They never came out the other side. My heart pounded and my mind raced with a thousand questions. I almost turned to leave when one of the ghost riders broke rank and turned to face me. My knees locked into place. I knew at that moment my presence was known and I was dead. Would this end up like sleepy hollow and I lose my head? For some odd reason I didn’t care. I just needed to find out what the ghost rider had in mind for me. My heart pounded what probably was my last heart beats, my legs were shaking as if they knew I should leave. My legs were telling me to run, but I just couldn’t do it. The ghost rider kicked the sides of the rotting horse breathe his body and he leaned forward with the horse to urge him to go faster. I couldn’t blink… I couldn’t even cry…
The horse’s nostrils flaring, breathing out puffs of cold air as its mane flew in the breezeless night. The ghost rider shouted and twirled his rotten stick as he charged at me. I had no way to defend myself. So I decided to do like they did in old movies. I threw up my hands in surrender and screamed out as loud as I could. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I expected that at any moment I would feel the explosion of pain on my head or body so I closed my eyes and kept my hands in the air. But that moment of pain never happened and it was deadly quiet. My breathing was silent but labored. I decided to take a chance and open my eyes. When I opened my eyes I was nose to nose with the ghost horse. The decaying horse blew its cold breath in my face. I raised my eyes up to the ghost rider and I said it again but not as loud. “I’m sorry.”
I don’t know why but my eyes picked this moment to well up with tears. The ghost rider stared at me with soulless eyes. He dismounted from his horse and walked up to me. He had long flowing raven black hair, a necklace made of bone around his neck. His clothing was rotting but it looked like brown leather. I risked a look at his feet and they were bare. I kept my hands in the air as he walked a full circle around me. I felt his cold hand brush my hair. He came around to the front and he stepped closer to me. His breath was cold on my skin. I jumped as he began to speak to me. His language was one I had never heard before. He stopped in mid sentence and stared at me. Then he tried again.
“Your language is English. Yes?” He voice was surprisingly soft and deep.
“Yes sir.” I said with a shaking voice.
“Why do you follow us this night?”
“I was tired of being afraid of the thunder.”
“Yes sir. Very afraid sir.” I felt like I sounded like a kid being tormented by a bully.
“Did I hear you correctly when you said ‘I am sorry’?”
The ghost rider nodded his head. “Then it is finished.”
The ghost rider turned and mounted his horse and looked down to me.
“Thank you.” He said as he pulled on the horse’s mane and turned around and headed to the lonesome oak and disappeared.
I sat there for I don’t even know how long like an idiot with my hands in the air. At least until my knees finally gave way and I crumpled to the ground. The cold grass with its wet dew soaked through my pants and woke me from my trance. I looked around me and I realized that the sun was rising. I had somehow lived through the night. I had seen the ghost horses and their riders but yet, I still had questions that needed to be answered. Questions only my Grandmother could answer. She held out on me and now it was time for her to fess up.
I ran as hard as I could through the field and past the pond, my lungs burning from strain and effort as I was running through the woods to the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house. As I stumbled into her front yard the sun was already peaking over the mountainside. Her front door burst open as she came screaming and crying, running to me with her arms open. She grabbed me and pulled me into a bear hug. I could barely breathe.
“Richard! Oh my Richard! I called over to John’s house! He said he had no idea what I was talking about when I mentioned the sleep over! Oh Richard why? Why would you do this to me?” She sobbed like a child on my shoulder. In all my eighteen years of living as her child, I had never witnessed tears such as this flow from her eyes.
“I’m sorry Grandma, I’m sorry. Really I am. Come on now don’t cry. I had to see the horses.”
Grandma suddenly stopped crying and she looked up at me with horror. “You did what?”
“I had to see the horses Grandma. It was… it was… amazing!” I said as I searched her tear streaked face for a reaction. Instead she grabbed my hand and led me to the porch. I helped her sit her shaking frail frame into her rocking chair and then I sat on the step at her feet.
“Please Grandma. Tell me the truth. You left out that there were riders on the horses.”
Grandma wiped her eyes with a tissue she had retrieved from the inside of her shirt.
“Yes… I did leave out something. I’m sorry. I could have gotten you killed. I had no idea you would go looking for them.” She said as she sniffed and wiped her nose.“
Well the story goes like this… It was just before the civil war, the Indians were all over these lands. Well, before this was West Virginia this was the home of the Kanawha Indians. Our ancestors had just come over from England and they fell in love with this area. They went to the government and one horrible action after another, one horrific choice after another was made and… oh Richard… the whole village here in the holler was wiped out by the men of the village . Women, children and yes… infants all perished. The mighty warriors fought for three blood filled days and nights, just to fall one by one till their leader stood alone. On the third night the full moon was shinning bright right here where my house sits. The warrior threw his arms up and yelled that they would come back some day and take their land back. And he yelled up to the moon and asked the Great Spirit to guide him in his quest. The soldiers shot him dead.” She sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “The worst is still yet to be said. The whole village was burned to the ground and the settlers actually whistled and sang merry tunes as if it was a holiday. Then they gathered up all the bodies and took them out to Lonesome Oak field. They dug a massive grave and threw them all in there as if they were worth nothing. They didn’t want it written in the history books about what they had done so they just planted an oak tree over the grave site to mark the spot. They thought the story would end there, but it didn’t. My great-great Grandmother was there and she witnessed these events and she knew it was wrong. She made herself a vow to pass the story along and well… there you have it. The curse of creeker hollow started on the next full moon. The settlers were so afraid that the Kanawha Indians would avenge their dead, that they built cellars and started the tradition of hiding at every full moon. I know they regretted what they did but it was too late to take it back and no one knew how to make it right.”
“Wow. It all makes sense now.”
I proceeded to tell Grandma of what happened that night. We both decided that my gesture of surrender and my apology was what saved my life. And as the months went by and as we all huddled in our cellars to pray, the thunder never came again. Grandma and I guessed that I had somehow made peace with the Kanawha. But how do you explain that to a bunch of frightened town’s folk? How do you tell them the nightmare is over? You just can’t, so Grandma and I decided to keep it to ourselves. I can say now that I am a true believer in the unseen and now I actually wonder what else is out there. If ghost are real, what does that mean about the other things that go bump in the night? Do I dare ask those questions again and actually look for answers? Maybe not…