By Aubrey Moore, one of our 2017 Halloween short story contest winners! This spooky tale is perfect for reading as the sun goes down on Halloween night…
Eleanor Evans was well known in town for her odd behavior, but she was known almost as well for the tall palomino horse she rode each day. Toby was a beautiful cream-colored mount with a thick mane and tail. His face always wore an expression of good-natured geniality, and the children in town fawned over him until their parents shooed them away from the woman.
“Eerie Ellie” and Toby could be seen every day on the road to and from town. The two would start out in the high pastures, lit from behind by the bright morning light. They’d ride down the valley and join up with the main road, plodding along as the wagons rolled by, coating them in a fine layer of dust. Eventually they’d make it into town where Ellie would trade her goods for what she needed to get by: flour, cloth, cream.
Ellie was something of a medicine woman. She’d gather and make her wares from the land around the cabin. Berries from along the roadside, mushrooms from deep in the forest. She had salves for burns, creams for rashes, and word was you could get other medicines with a darker purpose if you only had the coin. The townspeople were wary around her; they kept their distance, did their business with her when other means failed. Ellie and the folk mostly left each other alone, an unspoken agreement to live and let live… with the exception of the Burton Boys.
The Burton Boys were the sons of Joshua Burton and his timid wife May. Joshua was the richest man in town, and nothing was done without his say. His boys were raised to think they were untouchable and no one had ever been able to convince them otherwise. They terrorized their teachers, disrupting class and picking on their fellow students. They drank too much at the saloon and ran their horses up and down the streets, driving wagons and people off the road. There had been more than one suspicious fire at a business that would not bend to Joshua’s will, and there was once a little-talked-about death at the saloon late one night, where all the witnesses swore Edward Conway tripped and fell on that knife, twice. They had the run of the town, and even the Sheriff knew it.
And their favorite pastime was taunting Ellie.
It started innocently enough: whispers and giggles as Ellie and Toby rode by each day, the Boys posted up on the fences and porches in town. Then it progressed to cat calls, taunting Ellie about her looks, about living as a single woman alone in the woods. The Burton Boys’ favorite game, however, was to ask Ellie if Toby was broken. “Can’t that horse move any faster, Eerie Ellie?” they’d call at her. “Someday he might need to run, hope he’s ready!” The Boys would break into peals of laughter as Ellie and Toby walked solemnly by, never looking at the group. They’d stare after her with their cruel, sharp eyes.
One night, as is often the case after too much whiskey, the Boys started to get up to no good. The drunken talk eventually turned towards Ellie. “What right does she have to ignore us?” they asked each other. “Who does she think she is? We’re the Burton Boys!”
The eldest Burton drew purposefully on his cigarette, watching the end burn brightly in the dim bar. “I think,” he drawled slowly, “that she is a nuisance to this town.” The other boys looked up at him.
“What do you mean, Brent?” the other boys asked.
“She ain’t right,” he replied. “It ain’t right for a woman to keep to herself. And those… potions she sells. It’s no good.” He pulled on his cigarette.
“He’s right,” replied one of the others. “She’s some sort of witch!” The whiskey flowed faster, and so did the talk.
“I heard she put a curse on Mrs. Andrews after Mrs. Andrews refused to do business with her! Her garden ain’t never been right since,” said a voice from the crowd.
“I heard that too! And that she caused the Wilders to lose that baby in the spring!” The stories began to come one after another, the boys talking themselves into a lather. By the time they were finished, they were convinced Eerie Ellie was responsible for every mishap and tragedy the town had ever endured.
“Well boys, I think it’s time somebody did something about that, right?” said Brent.
He received a chorus of whoops and yells in reply. Another round was poured.
Down the street, Ellie stepped out of the Burke home, closing the door softly behind her. Mrs. Burke had suffered a bit of a cold and asked Ellie for some ointment to help stop her cough, but asked that she come late and night when no one would see her. Ellie walked to where Toby was tied up, waiting patiently for her to finish. He nickered softly as he saw her approach. In a world that rejected Ellie, she still always had her Toby.
“I’m sorry it’s so late, boy, you’ll get extra dinner tonight,” Ellie said as she rubbed Toby’s forehead. She scratched his withers and laughed as he stretched his neck out, flipping his top lip up and down.
“Alright, alright, let’s get a move on and get home. I’m tired. I’m getting too old for late nights.” Ellie untied Toby and mounted lightly and the two set on down the road for their home in the woods. As they passed by the saloon, the door swung open with a bang. Toby looked sideways, but kept his same, even tempo. The Burton Boys began to spill out from inside, tumbling drunkenly into the street.
“Hey!” They recognized Ellie and called after her. “Eeeeerrriieee Ellie! Does your horse run, Ellie?” The men began to walk after her, first at a stumble, then a jog. One by one they piled onto their horses and followed her, roughly pulling them around. Ellie looked behind her and then turned back forward. Her heart beat harder until she could practically see it thumping under her dress. She clicked to Toby and he picked up his pace.
“Ellie! Hey Ellie! Just stop and talk to us! We just want to talk!” the men on the horses carried on behind her. The townsfolk peeked out from behind curtains, hushed whispers behind hands.
Ellie laced her fingers in Toby’s mane and urged him on. He slipped into a canter, and then stretched out into a slow gallop.
“Damn boys! That horse can run! Let’s see if he can run faster than us!” the group yelled, whooping at their horses, kicking the frightened animals into a gallop behind her, kicking up dust as they went. Ellie could hear them gaining and she begged Toby to go faster.
“We can’t stop, boy. We can’t let them catch us.” Toby flicked an ear back and stretched out, tearing up the ground with his large hooves. They reached the end of the main street and galloped on. Ellie’s mind raced. They would never make it to the house at this point, and she didn’t want the group to follow her home. She thought to the path ahead; if she could reach the small wooden bridge over the river, it would slow the boys’ horses down; they couldn’t ride abreast across it. If she made it over she could duck into the woods past the bridge and escape; she and Toby knew every inch of that forest. She rode on, feeling the boys gaining on her even without turning to look.
Brent rode his horse hard, foamy sweat already flicking off of its chest. “Hey!” He gestured to two of his brothers. “She’s running for the bridge. Cross the river at Swell’s Point and cut her off, we’ll follow behind!” The brothers nodded and broke off from the main pack. Ellie was too busy urging Toby on, her hands wrapped tightly in his mane, to notice.
It seemed to her that they galloped all night, never had it taken her so long to reach the small and ancient bridge before. Finally, she crested a hill and saw it, the wooden covered structure, with a flaky layer of faded red paint on the outside. She and Toby ran and ran and entered the bridge, hooves clattering over the wooden boards.
Toby saw them before she did, sliding to a stop on the slick wood, standing tall as he regained his footing.
Two of the boys blocked the end of the bridge. Their horses, used to being ridden hard and fast, had outraced Toby and made it to the other side. Ellie cursed herself for getting stuck. She turned Toby around, only to spot Brent and the others where she had just come from.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” Brent asked. The men chuckled.
“I think it’s a witch!” called out the men at the end. A chorus of “witch! Witch!” followed.
“I do believe you are right, brothers. And what do we do with witches?” asked Brent. The men stared at each other, whiskey fogged brains not providing an easy answer. “We burn them.” The gleam in Brent’s eye looked like madness. The men cheered, and a torch appeared at either end, brilliant fire casting orange shadows into the black night. Toby screamed loudly, and Ellie went cold with dread. Surely the men were still teasing.
The man with the torches rode forward, and with a nod, lit the ends of the bridge. The old, dry wood cracked and creaked as the fire raced to meet in the center. The roof was on fire immediately, and the flames snaked down the sides, crawling along the floor towards the pair. Toby squealed and spun.
“Shhhh boy, shhhh boy, it’s okay! It’s okay!” Ellie gripped Toby tightly as he began to panic. She turned from one end to the next, but both exits were blocked by large bodies. She raced to one side, but the men turned their horses sideways and would not let her through. She and Toby had nowhere to go. They had no friends here.
The bridge was consumed quickly, the ancient wood turning to ash and charcoal and breaking off into pieces. Cinders flew up into the night, and soon the townsfolk could see the orange glow from their houses. They ran from their homes and rode out to the bridge, where the Burton Boys where standing. The bridge had fallen down into the river that coursed beneath it, a white-hot orange pile of embers. The heat made the river sizzle loudly on the rocks below.
“Darnedest thing, Sheriff,” Brent said, laughing loudly. “The bridge seems to have caught on fire! Just the darnedest thing. Hope no one got hurt.” And with that, he and the Burton Boys rode off into the night.
The townsfolk watched the bridge. Once it had cooled, they sifted through the remains, but never found any sign of Eerie Ellie and Toby. Some said the bridge burnt too hot and would not leave a trace, others said Toby carried Ellie safe off into the night, galloping deep into the forest away from the danger. Nothing was ever found out for sure.
In the years that followed, one by one, the Burton Boys began to disappear late at night. They’d leave the saloon in the darkness, riding home to their families, and never make it. Or they’d go missing on the road from the big city, the one that passed through the deepest reaches of the forest. No bodies were ever found.
Brent was the last of the Boys to go missing. He spent his days more drunk than not, sitting in the saloon, his eyes sinking into his face. He didn’t laugh so loudly anymore since his brothers were gone. His wife had taken his kids and moved back to the big city after his drinking got too bad. He told anyone that would listen that his brothers just got lost, or jumped by the highwaymen that were said to patrol the big roads. But he knew what happened to them.
One night, late one autumn when the moon shown down bright as daylight, Brent got in a fight with a few of the men at the saloon. Long-held grudges came out as well as tightly held fists, and the men threw Brent out into the night. Dust flew as he landed on the street, and he stood up and tried to push his way back inside. The townsfolk had barred the door against him. At first, he angrily slammed his fist against the wood, demanding to be let back in. Then anger slowly gave way to desperation, and desperation to fear. He begged to be let in, saying over and over that she would get him. The townsfolk peeked out from behind their curtains at the scene on the street.
Behind Brent, the steady clip-clop-clip-clop of horse hooves sounded faint in the distance. He banged harder, tears streaming down his worn, grizzled face. The sounds got a little louder, he beat the door a little harder. Someone was coming.
Brent realized he was not getting back in the saloon. He stumbled down the street, trying every door handle, but all the doors were locked to him now. The Boys were gone, Joshua Burton and his wife had long passed away, and the town was no longer afraid of their wrath. Curtains rustled and lights dimmed inside, the people turning away from what was happening. Finally, Brent reached the end of the street and looked back.
She and Toby were there, standing quietly in the street, watching his frantic movements. The palomino seemed to glow in the moonlight. He and the pale girl were so still Brent thought his drunk mind was making them up, until he heard the girl click and the tall horse slowly started forward toward him. He turned and began to run, hoping to make it into the thick of the forest where no horse could follow.
Behind him, the horse started to gallop. Brent ran and ran, his breath coming in short bursts.
None of the townsfolk saw what happened after. They heard the noises from outside of town, the hooves and the yells, and the next day they found the body of Brent Burton in the river, face contorted into a scream. The Sheriff ruled it an accidental drowning, said Brent got drunk and slipped off the rebuilt bridge. Handrails were put up not long after to prevent further accidents, but the men who hammered the nails knew what happened. They all knew what happened.
The townsfolk left in the years after, deserting the stores and the homes along main street, moving to the big city for better opportunities. The ghost town slowly rotted and fell apart until there was nothing left but a few old chimneys. But the bridge stayed. And so did the sound of steady hoofbeats on each late autumn night.
Have a spooky Halloween horsey short story of your own to share?
Whether you have an old tale that’s been passed down in your barn family or you conjure up the best spooky story in your mind and put it down on paper, we’re calling for your best horsey Halloween tales for our first annual short story contest. We’ll publish the best around Halloween, and we’ll be reading our favorites on the Halloween episode of Horses in the Morning, the horse world’s first and favorite daily podcast!
How to enter:
- Send your story, either in the body of the email or in an attachment, to [email protected] Include your full name (or penname!)
- Stories should be limited to about 2500 words. If you’re under that limit, that’s fine; if you’re a bit over, we’ll use our discretion. Stories selected for publishing may be edited slightly for length if necessary.
- Multiple entries are welcome!
- “Spooky” suggests a true good old-fashioned goosebump-inducing ghost story, but we’ll also welcome lighthearted spoofs. That means you can write “The Curse of Hunter’s Hill Farm,” or “The Horse Who Was Too Fat For His Girth To Buckle.”
- Entries are due by midnight on Wednesday, October 24!
We’ll publish the best 5-8 stories on October 29-31, and we will read our favorites on the October 31 episode of Horses in the Morning.
Go writing! And go riding.