I spent the first 18 years of my life living in a small Kansas town. Although there was little reason to stay, it was a great place to grow up and I have many fond memories of exploring the nearby woods and rivers.
A lot of strange things happened in and around that town, but I will only tell of one for now.
This short story is about the Burns Ranch.
The Burns Ranch was located about five miles west of town, situated at the base of a gently sloping hill literally out in the middle of nowhere. A curving, gravel road was the only way to get there and beyond the house this same road soon petered out into dirty ruts that faded into miles and miles of unused pasture land.
The house itself was a two story Victorian that had to have been built in the early 1900´s. It was old, but wonderfully remodeled and a beauty to behold.
A smaller, more modern guest house stood behind it and an ancient barn nearby completed things.
All of this had been in the Burns family for generations; handed down from one son to the other till finally Richard Burns inherited it.
At the time of this story, Mr. and Mrs. Burns had a newborn baby girl and a son who was about 4 years younger than me. I was a family friend and while in my high school years, would house sit while they were all away on business trips or vacations. This was a great gig for any teenager and I always jumped at the chance to get away from it all and spend some time alone out there.
One summer they asked me to stay at their place for a few weeks. The first week I was to be alone as usual, but the second week, their son Robert was going to be there. Although not much younger than me, they for some reason wanted me to keep an eye on him. We got along well enough so this was all fine with me.
I left for the ranch one late afternoon just as the shadows of the day were starting to bend longer toward the east. Weaving through the curves of the road and over old low- water bridges, I finally crested a hill, made my way down to the last of the bridges, passed through a small forest, and then came out into the wide, open spaces of prairie land. About 100 yards further down the road was the house. No matter how many times I went out to the ranch, I could never fully get over the creepy feeling that would wash over me the minute the house came into view. It always seemed foreboding and spooky. The place looked haunted. One corner of the house formed a rotunda in which Robert’s room was located on the second floor. As I neared the house, I could see someone standing in the shadows of his room; holding the curtain back and watching me arrive. Pulling into the driveway I saw the curtain fall back into place, swinging slightly. It seemed that someone was home and I wouldn’t be alone that first week after all.
The driveway led around the house to the back door, which everyone used when entering or exiting the house. The only time I ever saw the front door used was after dinners when we would go out to sit on the porch and watch the sun set. I locked up the car, went through the gate of the fenced in yard, and knocked on the door, waiting for whoever was inside to answer. When no one did, I went across the yard, past a three foot statue of the Virgin Mary, and toward what amounted to a cement room that had been built into the side of the hill. It was some sort of storm shelter and near the door I found the keys to the house which were always hidden there behind an old painting. As I let myself into the foyer and sat my bags on a bench, I kept calling out to let my presence be known. Dead silence was my only welcome. On the right side of the entranceway were the stairs that led up to the bedrooms. Under the stairs and next to the bench upon which my bags sat was the door that led to the basement. Beyond that door and in front of me was the dining room, the kitchen being to its left. To the right of the dining room were the rest of the downstairs; a few sitting rooms, the library, and an entertainment room. Sure I saw someone at the window, I began a search of the house; starting with the first floor before working my way upstairs. The stairs ascended to an L shaped hall. Just to the left were the master bedroom and bath. To the right and down the hall, past another bathroom, were the baby room and a spiral staircase that led to one of the sitting rooms below. The guest room I used as well as Robert’s bedroom was around the corner, at the end of the L. I searched these rooms then went down to the basement, which had been renovated into a modern living room complete with bar. I found nothing.
Perplexed but kind of used to how weird the house could be, I went back upstairs to unpack and start to enjoy my stay. I set up my guitar and amp in the entertainment room where I planned on creating rock songs I was sure millions would jam to in years to come. The fridge was stocked so that was no problem and I had brought along a ton of movies to watch on the VCR in the basement. It seemed the only thing I had to worry about was the occasional phone call and feeding the dog, which was in a pen out near the old cement shelter. No problem as far as I was concerned. I had been house sitting here many times before so knew how eerie things would feel when evening came. Like I said, it just had that look of a haunted house.
Not much happened that first night and the next day I got up, fed and watered the dog, then watched a few movies before taking a short walk around the property. That evening the phone rang and it was Mr. Burns. He wanted to know how much it had rained the night before. I knew he was out of state so told him it didn’t rain at all but he insisted I check his rain counter, a measuring device that he had attached to a post near his mailbox. I went out and sure enough, although it had been completely dry the last few days, there was about ¼ inches of water at the bottom of the thing. I went back to the phone, where he was waiting on the other line, and told him. He didn’t seem surprised and said it would probably rain that night. He told me to take care, make sure to keep the doors locked, and to not let anyone in when evening came. I liked Mr. Burns and he was a decent guy, but sometimes he talked like that; making little sense at all. So I agreed to do as he said and hung up the phone.
About three hours later evening crept up on the ranch and with it came the first storm of the summer. This wasn’t just a small shower, this was a torrent. It came down heavy for about thirty minutes then calmed to a steady downpour. Suddenly the phone started ringing. I would answer but no one would be on the other end of the line. It rang like that all night, about three times an hour, and each time I picked up the receiver I would be greeted with silence; no voice, no signals, nothing. Just silence. As the rain came down, I looked out the window, down toward the road that led back to town. I saw a flicker of light through the nearby forest and went to stand on the front porch to get a better look. Sure enough, there was someone down there. It seemed a vehicle had stopped just inside the forest at the low water bridge. Whoever it was had most likely been coming out to the ranch, so to make sure there was no trouble, I reluctantly slid on my bad weather clothes, went out to the shelter where I hung up the key, then made my way through the rain and mud down the road toward the light. The wind was howling and the rain pouring down in sheets, but I could still see the light shining whenever I raised my head to see where I was going. I finally got to the curve that led into the woods and toward the low water bridge but when I made the turn, there was nothing there. By now I was really freaked out. The bridge was flooded over and there were no tire marks on either side of it. I could clearly see the other side of the bridge and no one had been down it since well before the rain started…probably not since I came down the day before.
I checked around a few more minutes just to make sure no one happened to be there needing help, and then made my way back to the ranch. The phone was ringing again as I entered but I didn’t bother picking it up this time. Let it ring. I had wet clothes to get out of and weird lights to think about. I was warming up in the kitchen a few hours later when I heard a car horn go off. A steady drizzle was coming down now and looking out the window again, I noticed the lights near the bridge were back; this time dancing around through the trees before turning up the road and coming toward the house. It was a car and every few seconds the driver would toot the horn a few times. I got on my clothes, wrapped the still-damp coat around me, and went out the back door; this time armed with a rifle. I could see nothing past the light of the porch so went out into the storm carrying the rifle and a small flash light. I went toward the barn and down the soggy driveway. The horn was still honking, but I could no longer see the road due to tall brush in the fields so the car was invisible to me but getting louder and louder by the moment. Everything suddenly seemed to build up; the car horn got louder, I could now see the glare of the lights growing through the brush. I found myself getting tense; pointing the now cocked rifle in the general direction of whoever was coming down that road. The horn rang out one more time. The light shined just a little brighter. I finally got to the end of the drive and went out onto the road. There was nothing there to greet me; just a dark, wet, stormy night and a muddy road that lead to a very flooded bridge. Even the rain seemed to have eased up a bit. After a few minutes of trying to figure all this out, I gave up; covering the rifle so as to keep the water off it. I trudged back toward the house for the last time that night, deciding it was safer inside than out there in the open.
Nothing much happened for the rest of the evening until about 4 a.m., when I was awakened by someone pounding on the front door. This was odd. Everyone always used the back door. Nonetheless, I got out of bed, put my clothes on, and went downstairs to find out what was going on. My body ached from being out in the storm the night before. I tried to hurry down the stairs and through the house as fast as possible, listening as the banging becoming more and more persistent. I had an idea that no one was going to be waiting for me on the porch when I opened the door and I was right. Unable to sleep, I looked around a bit then brewed a large, strong pot of coffee and sat reading till the sun poked up over the horizon.
The day was bright, hot, and humid and after a short nap, I decided to take a walk around the property. I hung the keys back inside the shelter so as not to lose them and as I did, I got a strong urge to go into the little room and explore a bit. I have no idea why I would suddenly want to do this since there was really nothing in there and to be honest it was not a place I wished to be in. Still, it took a little effort to walk away from the shelter. Something told me not to enter all the way, so I just stuck my hand in, quickly placed the keys behind the painting, and then I shut the heavy door. I took a long walk. Before going back to the low water bridge, I shut the barn door which had come open during the previous evening’s storm, then made my way to the top of the hill behind the house. From here I got a great view of everything for miles and miles. I sat up there for some time then went to the river. The bridge was still flooded out but not as bad as before. There were no tire marks and no evidence whatsoever of anyone being there before except for what tracks I had made. I still had no idea as to what had happened the night before. I would have thought it was all a prank but the storm was a bad one and besides, the bridge had been out. I went back to the ranch and the first thing I noticed was that the barn door was open again. Already on edge, I peered inside then closed the door; placing a large rock in front of it.
Later that afternoon while working out a few songs on my guitar, I kept getting a very strong feeling of someone standing right behind me. No matter where I would sit the feeling was always there. Growing tired of it, I stopped what I was doing and said aloud, " Stop it! I’m trying to do something here!". No sooner had I said this than the feeling stopped. It came back whenever I would start to practice my music, but went away when I told it to.
The next day I was upstairs going through some things when I heard, very loudly, someone downstairs yell out, "Hey!". It startled me at first, but then I thought it might be the family coming home early so I put up what I was doing and went down to find an empty house.
The rest of my time there alone was uneventful with the exception of a lot of weird feelings. The library for some reason spooked me as did the shelter and I refused to use the spiral staircase located next to the baby room. I was somewhat nervous the whole time and took many long walks. Once while sitting at the top of the hill, I saw a car coming toward the ranch. It passed through the forest and made it over the bridge. I was actually a little relieved. Robert had finally showed up. Robert’s grandmother had brought him back from a summer camp he had attended and after we finally said our goodbyes, I sat on the porch with him listening to the various stories he had to tell and looking through the photos he’d brought back. I was reluctant to mention my own tales but it didn’t matter; Robert had grown up in that house. He knew something weird had happened to me while alone there.
We spent the next few days enjoying the good weather. We hiked, explored the valleys and forests along the road, and went on drives that took us to places we’d never been to before. One night, just as the sun was setting, Robert finally asked me how my stay had been. I didn’t hesitate in telling him some of the odd things that had happened and he reaffirmed some of them with his own stories. It seems he too was drawn toward the cement shelter where the keys were hidden. The only difference was that he had gone inside; the heavy door slamming shut, locking him in. It was some time before he was able to push the thing open and get out. He said that the Virgin Mary statue had been moved so it was facing the doorway, as if watching his struggle. He was as confused as I concerning the lights at the bridge and the mystery car, but he did mentioned seeing a lady come down the spiral staircase I was so afraid of. She came down, glared at him for a moment, and then walked back up. Robert never found out who she was but felt that she was not nice. He also told me of dreams he had about the library. They were vivid and scary and involved the closet. He had just recently discovered that a relative had been born in that room years ago and had died there as well. Above each bedroom door was a small window and Robert said one early morning he woke up seeing the shadow of someone come down the hall and stand in front of his slightly open door. The person stood there for some time before Robert called out, thinking it was his father. When he got no reply, Robert screamed for his parents and as they turned the corner in the hall, the shadow disappeared. That explained why I always felt watched whenever I tried to sleep in the guest room across the hall.
As for Robert’s room, I only went in there to get a CD now and then. I never felt comfortable in there ever since I saw someone looking out the window at me as I came up to the house that first day.
Toward the end of my stay, Robert and I settled down one evening in the basement. We had movies to watch and were set for the night. There was a small bathroom between the foyer and the kitchen and in it was an old fashioned toilet that had a string you pulled when you wanted to flush it. The thing was loud and as we sat downstairs watching our second movie we could hear it flushing. We inspected it before finally turning off the water and returning to our movies. Around one or two o’clock in the morning we were in that zombie state just before sleep actually comes. Suddenly, we heard the back door slam shut. Wide awake now, we grabbed a few rifles that we had brought down to the basement with us and listened. From right above us we heard the unmistakable sound of boots shuffling across the foyer floor. They slowly came toward the basement door and stopped. Then we heard the door creak open. I admit I finally came to understand the term "shaking like a leaf" but Robert wasn’t much braver. We were too scared to even try and pretend to be cool. For a moment there was nothing, and then whoever was above us came walking down the stairs. We could hear someone brush against the coats that hung on pegs along the wall. We could hear the firm, deliberate sound of boots making contact with the warped boards that were the steps. The stairway going down into the basement was hidden behind a wall so that anyone who came down could not be seen until they reached the bottom. The third stair from the bottom always made a horrible squeaking noise and when we heard that we raised our rifles and waited. And waited. Finally, when no one came into view, I told whoever was there that we were armed and to leave. There was no sound at all. Eventually we gained a little courage and slowly peeked around the wall and up the stairway. No one was there. The door was shut. I was beyond scared at this point and after going throughout the house and checking the doors and windows, we spent the rest of the night in the dining room talking about what had happened.
To this day I am unsure what to think. We heard, without a doubt, the back door open up and slam shut. But when we checked it, the key was still in the lock and the door was still bolted from the inside. Robert left the next day to go spend a few days at a friend’s home. He wasn’t surprised when I told him I was asking another friend of mine to come out and stay with me on my final night there.
That night was quiet except for the usual strange feelings. Even my friend mentioned it and left early the next morning. Rather than spend another day there alone waiting for Mr. and Mrs. Burns to return, I wrote a note telling them I had to leave early to run a few errands, placing it on the kitchen table. I packed up all my things, made sure the house was cleaned up, and then locked the door. A sudden sense of urgency overcame me as I walked to the shelter to put up the extra key. I came close to just tossing it into the room in my struggle to hurry, but managed somehow to put it back in its proper place on the hook.
As I walked to the car I noticed the barn door was open again and although I tried to ignore it, I ended up going over and shutting it. The big rock I had put in front of it earlier was gone.
No one ever said anything about me leaving early or asked me how my stay was. Mrs. Burns would often laugh at the idea that her house could ever be haunted, but sometimes I think that laughter was a little forced.
As for Mr. Burns, when I asked him how he knew it would rain the evening I checked the level of water in his gauge, he looked at me puzzled and swore he never even called me during that trip.
I still don’t know what to make of that place. Like I said, lots of strange things happened in and around the small town I grew up in. And that was just one of them.