The Marshallville Chronicles…
(Vingette from “119,” in remembrance of J. T. ‘Mac’ McElheny, Sr. of Marshallville, GA)
Across the little branch that ran to the river past the turn-off to Indian Lake at Vinings Road, the pavement ended and the dirt road began to climb. The brothers slowed. They parked the car just beyond the curve, and left it to navigate the ditch that separated the pavement from the edge of an escarpment, colloquially known as “the Bluff at Bryant Hill.” It overlooked an expansive clay canyon etched by the prehistoric, erosive actions of the Flint, and its colorfully striated embankments trailed down into the river swamps.
A few paces down the ridge on the left, they reached the site where the dilapidated structure formerly known as the Stage Coach Inn had stood for years amid dying oaks. Built by a man named Nathan Bryan in 1810, as a stylish carriage roadhouse along the old highway, the story-and-a-half dwelling, with its front and back lean-tos and rustic timbers, was said to have also housed the first ‘bank’ in the state of Georgia. After later use as a private residence, long since abandoned, it was eventually destroyed by fire, but during Tom’s youth, it loomed over the escarpment like a wooden mausoleum.
While the “Bryan Place” had always seemed hostile in Tom’s mind, as hostile as the house off Old Perry Road where the angry dogs had lived under the porch, the bluff was anything but. The bluff was a sacred portal, a magical transport to endless hours of adventure and exploration, a place where the dads were the guardians. No mothers ever went there. The canyon’s gentle slopes up from the swamps were for climbing, and jumping, and expending boundless amounts of energy, imagination, freedom. It was the farthest point in that direction that one could reach on a bike, and the short hike to the mill pond below extended the journey into the impossible, the place beyond bicycles, a place attainable, heretofore, when fathers took sons hunting.
Though the Bryan house was never the main attraction at the bluff for young Tom, it did add to the atmosphere. Thrill seekers from three surrounding counties ventured there amid rumors that the once-elegant inn was haunted. Indeed, a bullet hole in the large upstairs room remained as evidence that a murder had taken place.
Subsequently, every child in Marshallville knew it as the quintessential haunted house. Proof of the haunting, “House on Haunted Hill ain’t got nothing on Bryant Hill!” was proclaimed on the schoolbus in 1960. It was proclaimed on the afternoon Mac told all the kids to get into the car, and drove them to the bluff on an expedition. When someone suggested they explore the house, Mac led the way inside to the central staircase.
“Now, when you get up there,” he instructed, “look up high in the corner and see if you can’t find the hole in the wall where the bullet came clean through that woman’s head.”
Without question, the children had carefully navigated the steps to the door of the second floor. It opened into a single large room in which the extension of the enclosed stairwell continued upward to the ceiling, creating four distinct areas, each with its own window. The surrounding interior walls of the room and the stairwell gave it a gallery-like appearance, as Tom, Nancy and their friends crept around the sections searching the high corners. Just as they were inspecting the darkest, there was a “creeeek” on the stairs. Mac was heading up to help with the search, they thought. When he didn’t appear, they walked back to check the stairwell, but no one was there.
They continued to search, and were excited to think they had located the ominous hole, when again, the “creeeeking” sounded. Again, they looked, to find no one. Several more ominous stair-squeaks, and Tom alone peered down the steps while the others stood frozen and listening, but there was nothing.
Where was Mac? Tom wasn’t sure, but when he turned to look again, Mac was standing on the top step at the doorway, his head shrouded in shadow. Tom shrieked and fell backward. With terrified screams, the others scattered.
When they regrouped outside, they learned that Nancy had bailed out of a second-story side window into a briar bush. Mac followed their flight down the stairs trying to reassure them, trying to explain, and they laughed about it all the way home that day, and for years to come. The episode remained in Tom’s memory as one of the funniest, but scariest of those remarkable times his father had caught them off guard, as he was apt to to do, from the time they were small children playing hide and seek. The way he ducked behind the door each time he hit the bottom step, yet somehow bolted up the stairs without a sound, nobody was in a hurry to explore the house again, and certainly not with him — the precise result Tom’s father had intended.
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Copyright 2015, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel
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