IRON HENRY AND THE HAUNTED HOUSE
This tale “Iron Henry,” tis best told over a campfire, deep in the woods, late at night… flames undulating, rising and falling from the fire… shadows dancing all round… sounds of night breezes blowing the trees and leaves, twigs snapping all round.
I’ll tell ye a story that happened to me when I was a young’un, and not the wrinkled old coot you now see before ye.
It was a dark night… a lot like this’n… darker than a gravedigger’s heart. That’s when we made the pact, back when I was the youngest scallywag in Boy Scout Troop 13, with tougher-n-snot boys, but jest fun-loving y’understand. Sure, I reckon I’ll admit it; we pulled our share of playfully hell-raising pranks now and then, as young boys often do. But there was this kid, a kind of nerdy outsider named Ralphy Kinkaid, who had long wanted to join our troop. Ralphy was always following us around, always wanting to join in our games, always wanting to be our buddy. You know the type. We’d always managed to put him off…but looking back on it, sometimes rather cruelly, as young boys too often do.
That is… until that night.
The moon had pulled behind black, ominously forbidding clouds, kinda like these clouds… streaked with a touch of the evil in them. A dark burnt orange of the dying twilight was melting into them, as we told him, “You can join our group, Ralphy boy. All you have to do is pass one little test! And it must be tonight!”
“And, oh what a test we have for him…” our patrol leader, Jack Pardee had said grinning.
There was this scary old mansion atop a graveled hill, surrounded by a withering ol’ fence of whitewashed planks. Whenever we passed by, even from clean down t’ the bottom of the hill, we could hear the screaming… and the whining… and the moaning… and yes, the shrieking! It was enough to curdle your soul, and boil your blood. Somehow, it always made your breath come heavier, ah reckon. Nobody dared go closer… not in this lifetime.
Oh sure, some said it was just loose shutters grating against rotting clapboard siding in the wind. Could’a been the scratchin’ and whooshin’ sounds wind makes as it pushes through broken windows of the attic, who knows? Or it could’a been them shingles on the roof, tremblin’ and thumpin’. But we knew better. We jus’ knew! The old mansion was haunted. Built by the founder of our town long before any of us were born, the house later had become a boarding house after his long and lingering death. So, most assuredly, it was indeed haunted… haunted by the ghosts of the passing unknowns who had spent lonely nights there, we were told… many of whom had most surely died there. Among them were old sea captains or army sergeants wounded and aggrieved by the Civil War, thieves and robbers, no doubt, or lonely and distraught maidens unhappy with life. Sometimes when the light was just right, you could still see the ladies’ long and flowing gowns trailing behind them as they walked back and forth in front of the windows.
So we knew… oh yes, we knew! And this night, of all nights, we challenged Ralphy to spend the night in the second floor of that haunted house. “You only have to stay there until a half hour past the bewitching hour… midnight,” Jack smiled out the side of his face with that smirking grin of his. “You have to let us know you’re there, if you dare take us up on it. You must light a candle in the window.”
We were all sure as rain positive that Ralphy wouldn’t take any part in it. I mean, nobody in their right mind would dare… but we were mightily surprised when Ralphy simply said, with a heretofore unnoticed firmness to his jaw, “Okay. Let’s go!” Well sir, Ralphy walked right through that gate, nary turning round… and right up that walk. Ralphy slowed a bit as he started inching up the blistered, warped and creaking step boards up onto the porch. He turned around only briefly. With a last parting look he smiled weakly in a feeble attempt to look brave, before we heard the creaking of the heavy front door when he opened and closed it behind him. It was then, that someone started joking that Ralph’s name should be changed to “Iron Henry.” And for some reason, as the hours grew, it stuck… and from then on Ralphy was never mentioned again, for he had become, “Iron Henry.”
A few minutes after Iron Henry had vanished into the old and haunted mansion, a candle was lit in the window. Oh sure, none of us had thought he would last nearly that long, and were even willing to let him into our group for just making it as long as he had. Skreeeeeeeerreek! Again came that fearful, grating sound from the house, that made all of us want to run and hide. But we couldn’t do that. We just couldn’t lose face… we couldn’t look weak in the eyes of the others.
Every few minutes for the first hour, Jack kept saying with that big old slack faced grin of his, “He’ll come running out any minute now, just you watch. You’ll see! He’ll come running.” But he didn’t!
“Iron Henry be a playin’ by all the rules, and he won’t come out till after midnight,” I dared proclaim! And sure enough, that candle burned and flickered until well after midnight. Fact is, it kept on burning after the time we’d set for Iron Henry to come out and be ushered into the group, having passed our little initiation test with flying colors… long after! Too long! In fact, we all started to get a little worried. Jack, being the oldest, and the bravest, said that some of us best go up and check on that boy… but nobody made a move. Finally, after several minutes, he made a show of bravado, sauntering brazenly through the creaking front gate, and up onto the porch. Skreeeeek! Jack turned white, and gulped…” Prob’ly only some old loose shutter somewhere. Iron Henry’s prob’ly up there and fallen asleep… so I’ll jest rouse ‘im up and we’ll be out here shortly.” Then he turned to open the big heavy door… Creeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeek! Just before going inside, he called out, “If I’m not back in ten minutes, better come after me.” His voice was shaky then… all the bravado drained out of it.
Well sir, his ten minutes came… and his ten minutes passed. Not one of us had the gumption to even suggest going up there. But when another ten minutes came and left, and then another… we knew we had to do something. So shoulder-to-shoulder, almost as if we couldn’t bear leaving one another’s touch, we walked up the pathway to the house… We were all deathly quiet and white as ghosts. Skreeeeeeeerreek! Again came that fearful, grating sound. We would have run, but our legs no longer had any strength in them. Maybe too it was more than that. Maybe in our hearts we knew something was terribly wrong, and we had to go in and see about it… we just had to. Say we had a speck of courage, or something… but we just had to go.
Well sir, the first place we looked was up where Iron Henry was to have spent the night. There was his candle, still burning and flickering in the window… but no Iron Henry… and no Jack Pardee. We searched that whole floor… and then went down and searched the main floor… and then up to search the third floor… and nothing! Skreeeeeeeerreek! Again came that fearful, grating sound, but we only shuddered for a second, then resumed the search. All of us together went down into the basement, each of us with a flashlight, about a million candlepower that made that scary old spooky place bearable… but nothing!
We were all on edge, I reckon, least I knowed I was… and from the open-mouthed look of the rest of the boys, we all were. But look as we might, we couldn’t find a thing. Though every now and then we heard the sound, Skreeeeeeeerreek, the terrifying sound that made our blood run cold: the sound that forevermore we would hear even in our sleep.
Then Johnny Hadley spied it. He was looking in a big old closet, when he saw a sliver of light coming from somewhere overhead, he reckoned up in the attic… so he called us all there, whisked away the mass of cobwebs and piled up some old boxes to stand on… “I think I hear something up here,” he said as he lifted the trap door and looked into the attic. We could all hear it then too… thump… thump… thump! The sound was steady, with a hypnotizing rhythm, thump… thump… thump!
He immediately fell back in a swoon, eyes overly round, mouth open, and face white as the touch of death, and gurgling some nonsensical gibberish. We laid him aside, and tried to make him comfortable, but we kept eyeing that trap door. We couldn’t take our eyes off of it, hearing the thump… thump… thump! More insistent now somehow, it was hypnotizing, calling to us, like a magnet drawing us one-by-one closer, closer, thump… thump… thump… closer, closer, thump… thump… thump! As each boy looked, each boy would fall back in a comatose state, eyes big, mouth wide-open, white as a sheet, tongue lolling around in his mouth with a distressing gurgling sound, making some kind of gibberish. Still we all went to look… how could we not… one-by-one, because there wasn’t enough room for more than one at a time to look through the trap-door opening.
Then… it was my turn. I slowly climbed up on the boxes, and looked through the trapdoor. There I could see Iron Henry. It was a horrible sight to behold… more horrible than anything I’d seen in my tender years, or anything I’ve seen since. Iron Henry had gone crazy during the night, and he straddled Jack, whose arm he’d torn bloodily from its socket. Iron Henry was beating Jack with his own arm, thump… thump… thump!
Well sir, I want to tell you now, (voice getting low down deep and eyes penetrating all who now hear the storyteller, and rising tall, hovering above them) that was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen, and the sight of it caused every one of those boys to never meet again. How could they face each other again… one-by-one going crazy, and having to be committed to an asylum. All of them crazy… all but me…
(The loudest scream from your belly) YYOOOWWWWLLLLAAAAAUUUGGHHH!!!!!!!
The most hair-raising part of the whole story is this scream, evoking frightened reactions from listeners…as the storyteller crazily screams with a demented, maniacal, screeching bellow, full with frenzy, screaming and reaching for the listeners, the firelight and shadow distorting his face in a mad bloodlust… to prove he too has gone crazy. How you set your listeners up for it will determine the success of “Iron Henry.”
©Copyright by Gary Jacobson (Date Unknown)