Gordo, Alabama, USA.
October 31st, 1933.
Charlie Wannemaker and Eddie Brackett spent the afternoon making the exemplary scarecrow. First they’d dragged the ragged old scarecrow off its stake down on ol’ Henderson’s corn field. They folded its straw-filled limbs up nice and tight and toted him in a red wagon all the way to Charlie’s barn. Henderson’s scarecrow was okay, but it wouldn’t do for the great stunt they had in mind for the night. Not without a touch of restoration.
“If we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it right,” Charlie instructed.
“We should’ve just stole that mannequin up in Ms. Manor’s dress shop,” Eddie said, stooped over the scarecrow. “Then we wouldn’t have to be spendin’ all day tryin’ to make this thing look right.”
“Nah,” said Charlie, taking a draw from a jug. “Mannequins ain’t scary enough.”
“Sure they is,” Eddie said. “You put a mannequin up on Henderson’s stake, I bet them crows wouldn’t know no difference and be just as scared.”
Eddie ripped off the dirty burlap sack of its head and tossed it aside. He reached under his shirt and pulled out his little sister’s white pillow case. He began stuffing it full of straw from the nearby stable. A white-spotted appaloosa blinked at him, watching with curiosity.
Charlie swayed, nearly dropping the brown jug. Eddie glanced at him nervously.
“Where’d you get that bottle?” asked Eddie.
“If I say, you can’t say to no one else,” Charlie replied, squinting his eyes in suspicion.
“Yeah, yeah, I won’t tell.”
“Lifted it off my old man,” Charlie said, proudly. “He’s into bootleggin’. Didn’t ya know?”
“Nope,” said Eddie, bringing back the straw-filled pillow case. He propped the headless scarecrow against a beam beneath the rafter, brought out a needle and a bit of twine from his overall pocket, and began to sow the plump white head onto its neck.
“That’s against the eighteenth amendment, ya know,” Eddie said.
“Not for long it ain’t,” Charlie replied, taking another drink.
“Ya mean they’s gonna make it legal?” asked Eddie.
“That’s what they say,” Charlie shrugged. “Rumor is Roosevelt’s gonna change the law.”
“Yup. Then my old man won’t get the lock-up if he’s caught.”
“There’s still time,” Eddie said.
“Just keep workin’ on that head,” Charlie said, gruffly. “Make it look human, Eddie, just as human as you can!”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Eddie worked the needle and thread, seaming the white head into the fabric of the plaid undershirt. When he was done, he took a step back to appreciate his handy work. He nodded and smiled. Charlie offered him the jug. He pushed it away.
Eddie Bracket, at age 14, was a whole two years younger than Charlie and already had a lot more sense. Charlie set the bottle aside. He tilted his head, studying the scarecrow.
“The white of the fabric makes it look humaner. But it ain’t got no eyes, no mouth, no nose. Got to fix that, man.”
The boys stood there, pondering the next artistic decision. Then Charlie’s eyes lit up with inspiration. “Be right back!” he said, and sped off out of the barn and into the back door of his house.
Eddie stood alone in the barn, looking out the open double-doors. The sun began to set, coloring the landscape with hues of pink and orange. Some distance away, the sound of the train passing over its tracks. The sound made Eddie shudder. He stared at the blank face of the scarecrow and thought, maybe just for a second, he’s seen it twitch.
“Here we are!” said Charlie, carrying in a handful of buttons. “Gimme that needle and thread.”
Eddie handed him his mother’s sowing materials, then sat in the corner to watch. Charlie attached two eyes, a nose, and a dozen buttons arranged into a smile. By the time he was finished, all the buttons were used up. Then he reached into the front pocket of his jacket and pulled out a stick of charcoal, using it to draw on some upward-pointing eyebrows.
“There!” said Charlie. “Whatchya think?”
Eddie cocked his head and studied the new face. Thing looks ridiculous, Eddie thought. Look at it! Eyes too far apart, the grin kinda makes ’em look like a retarded fella, its nose is off-center, and the eyebrows make him look funny, not scary.
“Looks okay, I guess,” Eddie shrugged.
“You guess?!” Charlie exclaimed. “Man, this is the most human lookin’ scarecrow I’ve ever seen! You ain’t never seen no one make a scarecrow with a perfectly clean pillow case, has you?”
“Nope. Can’t say I have.”
“Exactly! It’s perfect, except for one thing.”
“What’s that?” asked Eddie.
“Top of the head has corners stickin’ up. Kinda looks like little cat ears. Can’t have that. He needs a hat.”
“Right,” Eddie said. “Where we gonna get one? I don’t have a hat.”
“I don’t either,” said Charlie, chewing on his bottom lip. After a minute of contemplation, he picked up the jug and titled back his head, letting the liquor burn his throat and warm his stomach. He wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his shirt and said, “Hey! I know where we can get a hat.”
“Yeah?” Eddie said, hopefully.
“We’ll take it from Ms. Manor’s dress shop.”
“You wanna steal it?”
“Nah,” Charlie said. “I just wanna borrow it, then give it right back. Of course we’s gonna steal it!”
“We can’t just walk in there and take it off the rack,” Eddie said.
“Sure we can,” Charlie said. “It’s Halloween, for Chrissakes! This is the one night a year we can get away with stuff. I say, let’s take advantage!”
Eddie scuffed the dirt floor with his boot and said, “I don’t know…”
“Oh, don’t be a scaredy cat,” Eddie said.
“I ain’t no scaredy cat!”
“You sure looks like one to me.”
“Well, I ain’t, Charlie, so shut up!”
Charlie put his arm around Eddie’s shoulder, and leaned on him. His breath stinks mighty awful, Eddie thought.
“All right, then, scaredy cat,” said Charlie. “You don’t wanna steal, you don’t gotta. I’ll steal it myself and you can just walk in and talk to ‘er, all right? You just have a nice conversation with ol’ Ms. Manor and I’ll get the hat and then you meet me outside after I done it. How’s that?”
Eddie, reluctantly, nodded in agreement. “Fine,” he sighed. “Let’s get to it then. Only got two hours.”
Charlie laughed, then mocked him in a high, mousy voice, “Only got two hours!”
Eddie slugged him one on the shoulder and said, “Bet a scaredy cat can beat you all the way the dress shop!” And took off running, out the barn and down the hill.
“You rascal!” Charlie laughed, chasing after him and falling down once, then twice, before catching up. The boys were neck and neck down the road, running into town with the sun shedding a darkened gold upon their backs. They ran past yellow corn fields and the simple houses.
They sped past the Morton place where a bunch of kids kneeled around a feed bucket, bobbing for apples. Then they waved to Eddie’s momma, whom was assisting little Suzie with carving a jack o’ lantern. “Don’t you two cause too much mischief now!” Mrs. Brackett said.
“We won’t, momma!” Eddie said, as they ran past. The crisp autumn breeze blew back the boys’ hair.
“And Charlie Wannemaker, you leave my gates on their hinges this year, you hear?!” she shouted, cupping her hands around her mouth. They were already too far away to reply.
They paused for a breather upon turning the corner onto Main Street. Eddie slapped him on the back. “Told ya, ya can’t beat me!”
“Wasn’t fair! You got a head start,” Charlie said, wildly out of breath. “Boy…if your momma….thinks her gate is gonna stay on its hinges…she’s crazy.”
“Don’t you touch our gate,” Eddie said, eyeing him sternly.
“I ain’t gonna touch your damned gate!” Charlie said. “But that don’t mean other kids won’t. Hell, Halloween night is Gate Night! Or don’t y’all know?”
“Hey, remember last year?” Eddie laughed. “When we took the gate off of ol’ Henderson’s sheep pen?”
“How could I forget?” Charlie grinned.
“I’s never gonna forget that for as long as I live,” Eddie smiled. “All them sheep crowdin’ roads, walkin’ up and down this very street, makin’ grown-ups all mad and such. That was too funny!”
“Yeah, it was,” Charlie said. “But this year, ol’ Eddie my friend, is gonna top last year completely. This Halloween of nineteen ‘n thirty-three is gonna be the one we remember for the rest of our lives. Mark my words, buddy.”
“We really gonna go through with this?” Eddie asked, his smile fading slightly.
“The hell if we ain’t,” Charlie replied. “What you think we raced all the way here for? Look, the dress shop’s open! Won’t be for long though. Let’s go.”
The boys walked down the street, past Smithy’s barbershop with the Happy Hallowe’en! sign in the window, the bank, the Pinewood Tavern, the Candy Store, then directly into Ms. Manor’s Boutique.
“Well, that was easier than I thought it’d be,” Eddie said.
“Told ya it wouldn’t bad,” said Charlie, spinning the brown felt hat round his index finger.
“That’s a mighty fine hat, too,” Eddie said.
“Yup. Ain’t for you or me, though. It’s for Greg.”
“Scarecrow, dum-dum! That’s what I’m namin’ him.”
“You namin’ him after ol’ farmer Henderson, huh?” asked Eddie.
Charlie ceased spinning the hat for a moment, stopping in his tracks. “Huh!” he said. “Ain’t that funny…”
“To be honest witchya,” Charlie said. “I forgot about Henderson’s name bein’ Greg. Ha! Well, I guess I did name our guy after him then.”
A cold wind nipped at their noses now, burning their cheeks into a ruddy complexion. They returned under a line of barren trees, kicking through the dry, dead leaves and smooshing fallen crabapples underfoot as they went. It was as if the earth were covered with a blanket of orange, brown, yellow, and red. On some of the trees, leaves could still be found upon the branches, with only the tips turned bright red, as if they’d been dipped in blood. The sun had sunk down o’er the rolling prairie by the time they’d made it back to the Wannemaker’s barn. The stars were out, and the moon was rising.
It was dark inside the barn. Eddie stood at the entrance, crossing his arms against the cold. Charlie went inside his house, then returned a minute later with a lantern shedding its bright, warm glow. When they entered the barn, Eddie jumped back and let out a scream. Charlie nearly dropped the lantern, which would’ve set a fire quick and in a hurry.
It was sitting upright in the wagon, all ready to go.
“Ch-charlie!” Eddie cried. “Didn’t we set him up against the rafter beam? We didn’t put him in the wagon before we left, did we?”
“Sure as heck didn’t,” Charlie said. “But don’t worry, scaredy cat. Probably some kid came through here to mess with the stable gate, saw our scarecrow and decided to have a bit of fun.”
Eddie nodded. It made perfect sense. He took a deep breath, exhaled. Charlie looked at him and chuckled. “Boy, you need some relax-juice, Eddie.” Then he turned to the lone appaloosa in the far stall and said, “You think Eddie ought to relax too, don’t ya, Missy?” The horse grunted.
Charlie picked up the brown jug from the floor where he’d left it and handed it to him. Eddie didn’t push it away this time. He brought the jug to his lips, tilted his head, and drank.
“Whoa,” Eddie said, coughing. “That stuff’s….strong!”
“Ain’t it, though?” Charlie grinned, then took back the jug and took a drink himself. Then he put the brown felt hat on the scarecrow’s head and said, “There ya are, Greg! Like a whole new fella now.”
Greg the scarecrow’s face beamed beneath the lantern light. The button-smile seemed oddly appropriate with the hat. And the button-eyes . . . were just the right distance apart.
“The eyes seem like they’s closer to you?” Eddie asked, frowning.
“Closer? Whatddya mean closer?”
“Well, you had ’em far apart when you first sowed ’em on,” Eddie explained. “Now they’re close, like eyes should be.”
“Ahh, that’s just the whiskey talkin’!” Charlie laughed. “That’ll happen when you don’t drink much. That’s why ya ought to drink every time I offer it. I keep tellin’ ya.”
“No, no,” said Eddie. “I ain’t drunk. Them eyes were farther apart before! Now they’s close together like real eyes!”
Charlie scoffed. “Look, the eyes are just as they was when I put ’em on. It’s Halloween is all and your ‘true nature’, as the fortune tellers say it, is comin’ on full force, that’s all.”
“My true nature?” Eddie asked, furrowing his brow.
“Yeah,” Charlie nodded. “The nature of the scare-dy cat!”
Then he doubled-over in laughter.
“Yeah, yeah, that’s real funny of ya, ya big idiot,” said Eddie.
“Oh, come on! Lighten up!”
Eddie pulled out his pocket watch. They had twenty-five minutes to do the deed. He stomped on Charlie’s right foot and said, “Look!”
Charlie behaved as if he hadn’t even felt the blow to his toes. “Guess we ought to hit the road, then.”
He grabbed the handle of the wagon in one hand and held out the lantern in the other. “You carry the whiskey,” he instructed. Eddie picked up the jug, now half-empty, and brought it with. They closed the barn doors behind them and made their way to Chestnut Road, then down the ditch, onto a trail in the woods which served as a short-cut.
The woods were not nearly as dark as the inside of the barn. They didn’t really even need the lantern, though Charlie kept it burning. The waxing gibbous moon shone high in the sky, shedding its pale luminescence down upon the trees, the trail and all the little clearings throughout the old, spooky woods.
Eddie jumped. “Who was it said ‘boo’!?” he cried.
Charlie turned around, his features all light and shadow above the lantern. “Wasn’t no one said ‘boo’, stupid. Was an owl!”
The owl sounded again.
Eddie’s shoulders slumped in simultaneous embarrassment and relief. “Let’s keep goin’,” he muttered. Charlie shook his head. They kept moving down the narrow trail, wheeling Greg the scarecrow along with.
Within a few minutes, they made it into the clearing, then climbed the steep ditch up to the moonlit railroad tracks. The tracks gleamed silver and seemed to stretch on and on into an eternity of night. Charlie snuffed out their lantern, trying to remain inconspicuous.
“What time ya got on that watch of yours?” Charlie asked.
Eddie pulled out his pocket watch, held it under the lantern light, and said, “Eight-o-two.”
“Eight more minutes and she’ll be pullin’ in,” Charlie said. “Help me sit ’em up right, will ya?”
Together they lifted the scarecrow off the wagon and onto the tracks. Charlie fluffed its sides like an old pillow, until its stomach wanted to lean forward. It was a perfect pose — like an old drunk sitting on the tracks, leaning forward slightly, as if he might be sick. Eddie tipped back its hat a few degrees to reveal more of its face.
The pale, grinning face gleamed in the moonlight. The black buttons threw off pretty lunar sparks when one looked at them. The scarecrow did not appear so frightening anymore. In fact, it looked rather happy, as if the train tracks were its rightful place to be, and bathing in moonlight was its favored occupation.
“Wait a minute, he’s missin’ something,” Eddie noted.
“What’s he missin’?” asked Charlie.
“Hands,” Eddie replied. “They ain’t nothin’ but bundles of straw. Gimme your gloves.”
He’d expected Charlie to balk, but he handed the two black cotton gloves over easily. “Got another pair at home, anyways,” Charlie said.
Eddie stuck the gloves over the bundled straw, tucking in the cuffs beneath the old, moldy brown jacket. Then he lifted up the collar, hiding away all signs of scarecrow beneath.
“Bout as real as he’s gonna get,” Eddie said, proudly.
“We done real good,” Charlie nodded.
Charlie put his hand to the cold tracks. Eddie, too. They looked up at each other and smiled. “Feel that? Be here any minute now,” Eddie said.
“See ya later, Greg!” said Charlie.
The boys skidded on their bottoms down the steep incline and hid themselves and the wagon behind the trees. The sound of the train approached, its rumbling growing steadily louder. A strong wind blew, swaying the branches of the trees, chilling them to the bone. Eddie looked up at the scarecrow. He thought the wind would knock it onto its back, and the conductor would never see it; yet it remained upright, not even swaying to the wind that blew their hair, stirred the leaves upon the ground and moaned between the trees.
Suddenly a great, bright orb shone upon the tracks, bringing ol’ Greg into the locomotive spotlight. The engineer pulled the horn and it sounded loudly in the boys’ ears. Eddie felt sick to his stomach, about to vomit. Charlie nudged his elbow.
“Here it comes, Eddie, my boy! The eight-ten freight!”
The train flared its obnoxious horn again and again. Steam rose from out of its smokestack as the boxcars rumbled over the tracks. It was nearly on the scarecrow now, the horn blowing frantically. Charlie snickered madly behind the coverage of a bush, peering out with wide eyes. Then, the sound of the breaks being engaged. The train was going to stop!
The spotlight was closing in on the scarecrow, now only twenty feet away. The train was closing in. A cold chill flew up Eddie’s spine as he watched the scarecrow, at the very last moment, turn its head and wave. Its eyebrows were pointing down at extreme angles and its button-lips writhed in a grimace. Charlie saw it too, and gasped. Its horrid, croaking laughter echoed down from the tracks, grating on Eddie’s ears.
The engineer laid in on the horn and the thing sounded like a dying dinosaur. Then an all-too-human, fleshy thud sounded from atop the tracks as the train pummeled it. Charlie covered his eyes, laying flat on his stomach.
Eddie crouched behind a tree, shivering. After nearly two-hundred feet, the train came to screeching hault. A dark silhouette could be seen, sprawled across the tracks. A minute later, the engineer, wearing a brown coat and navy blue cap ran down the side of the train.
It was the same train that’d been coming through Gordo three times a day for the past thirty-two years, running several hoppers of trap-rock through to local businesses. The engineer leaned over the sprawled figure, touching it with a gloved hand, then pulling away in disgust. The man wiped away tears with his sleeve. Then the conductor, a short, stout looking fellow with a big mustache, came around the caboose.
The men turned about left and right in the moonlight, as if looking for witnesses. Eddie and Charlie stayed silent in the shadows.
“A damned shame,” said the Conductor. “Must’ve been drunk as a skunk to’ve been sittin’ in these tracks like that.”
“I tried to warn him,” said the Engineer. “I blew the horn, didn’t I? And I tried to stop the train. I tried. You saw that, didn’t you?”
“I saw all right, Sir,” he nodded. “There wasn’t nothin’ you could do. We’ll get back into town after we unload product, notify the sheriff what’s happened. Nothin’ we can do now, ‘cept carry the poor fella outta here.”
The engineer grabbed the shoulders while the conductor grabbed hold of the legs, and together they carried the body down the tracks. The moon shone upon the bloodied, mangled corpse and the face — Oh Lord, thought Eddie. That face! I know that face!
Charlie’s jaw dropped as the men carried him to the front of the train. He turned to Eddie, mouthing the worlds, “Ain’t that ol’ Greg Henderson?”
Eddie nodded — Yes. Yes it was.
Soon the train was moving, picking up speed, disappearing around the bend in the tracks. They gathered the wagon, the lantern, the old jug and walked the old trail back to Chestnut Road. The boys, emotionally exhausted, had not spoken one word on their walk back. They neglected to light the lantern, and the wagon rattled emptily over the dirt trail.
Standing in front of the Wannemaker farm just before nine o’clock, the boys decided to spend the rest of their Halloween night at home, in the safety of their beds. But sleep proved difficult for them both, as their consciences turned their bodies incessantly beneath the sheets.
November 1st, 1933.
The sheriff of Pickens County didn’t spend the day investigating why ol’ Greg Henderson might’ve been out on the tracks. Instead he and his men were occupied capturing numerous horses, cows, and sheep that’d been let out of their pens by mischievous children on Halloween night. A fire, too, had been set at Gordo City Hall. It had burned up much of the roof, but the rest of the building, thankfully, was still intact.
Eddie scarfed down a breakfast of two eggs, kissed his momma on the forehead, told his little sister, “Nope, don’t know where your pillow case is, but I’ll look for it!” and went out. Now he sat out on the Wannemaker’s front porch, talking with Charlie and his mother. Charlie’s father was out doing what Eddie’s father did – looking for an odd job. The search always proved elusive to them both.
“This Halloween has been just awful!” said Mrs. Wannemaker. “There ain’t no way all them livestock is going to be recovered. And to think of the nerve these kids have to set a fire! To City Hall no less!”
She squinted her eyes now, glaring at Charlie. “You didn’t have nothin’ to do with these stunts, did you Charlie?”
“No, mam.” he said. “Eddie and I, we were good this year. We just had ourselves a nice night out walkin’ in the woods, tellin’ ghost stories. Ain’t that right, Eddie?”
Eddie nodded, frowning, studying the cracks in the Wannemaker’s porch steps.
“I believe you, son,” she said, smiling. “You’re a good boy. You both are.”
Eddie looked up from the steps. “Mrs. Wannemaker?” he said. “May I ask ya a question?”
“Of course, Eddie,” she said. “You may ask me anythin’. Unless it’s to borrow a cup of sugar, ’cause we ain’t got any, at the moment.”
“No, mam,” Eddie replied. “I was just wonderin’ if…..if you thought it possible that…”
“Yes, yes, go on,” she prompted.
“If you thought it possible a scarecrow, say, could be turned into a human being on Halloween night?”
The woman ceased fiddling with her needle and thread, letting the socks drop to her lap. Charlie shook his head slowly, staring at Eddie as if he were unbalanced, mouthing the words, “Shouldn’t have said that!“
After a moment, Mrs. Wannemaker giggled. “Heaven’s no, I don’t believe in such a thing!” she said. “I ain’t as superstitious as other folks ‘round here. Eddie, mind me when I say that scarecrows is scarecrows and folks is folks. Neither one can trade places with the other. If my Charlie here’s been tellin’ you stories, remember they’re just that, dear — stories, and nuthin’ more.”
Then she giggled to herself again, shook her head and continued mending the socks.
“I know that, Mrs. Wannemaker,” Eddie said. “It’s just that it was Halloween and all and I wanted get a little scare out of you…I suppose.”
Tylor James is a twenty-five year old writer from New Richmond, Wisconsin. He writes horror/dark/strange fiction and has had stories, poems, and essays published in such anthology books as: “America’s Emerging Horror Writers: Midwest Region”, “Willow River Writers Anthology” and the upcoming, “ACCURSED” courtesy of Jolly Horror Press.