The Marshallville Chronicles…
(Vingette from “119,” in remembrance of J. T. ‘Mac’ McElheny, Sr. of Marshallville, GA)
… Past the little branch that runs to the Flint River, the paved highway curves toward Indian Lake and becomes Vinings Road, while the dirt road continues and begins to climb. Tom parked the car a ways beyond the curve, and the two brothers left it to navigate the ditch that separates the pavement from the eastern edge of the escarpment. Colloquially known as “the Bluff at Bryant Hill,” it overlooks an expansive clay canyon etched by the prehistoric, erosive action of the Flint. Its colorfully striated embankments extend all the way to the river swamps.
Climbing down the ridge, 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 along the old highway in 1810 as a stylish carriage roadhouse, the story-and-a-half dwelling, with its front and back lean-tos and rustic timbers, also housed the first ‘bank’ in the state of Georgia. Later, it was used as a private residence, long since abandoned, and eventually destroyed by fire, but during Tom’s youth, it loomed over the escarpment like a wooden mausoleum.
The house, called the “Bryan Place,” always seemed hostile in Tom’s mind, as hostile as the house off Old Perry Road where the angry dogs lived under the porch, yet the bluff, itself, was anything but. The bluff was a sacred portal, a magical transport to endless hours of adventure and exploration, a place where dads were 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 west that a boy could reach on a bike, and the hike to the mill pond below served to extend the journey into the impossible, the place beyond bicycles, still attainable, heretofore, when fathers took sons hunting.
But while the house was never the main attraction for young Tom, it did add atmosphere. Thrill seekers from the 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 school bus in 1960. It was proclaimed on the afternoon Mac told the kids to get into the car, and drove them there 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 way high in the corner and see if you can’t find the hole in the wall where the bullet went after it went clean through that woman’s head.”
Without question, the children carefully navigated the stair steps. The second floor was a large room intersected by the enclosed central stairwell whose walls extended all the way to the ceiling. It served to separate the room into quadrants, each with its own narrow window. The interior seemed almost gallery-like, as Tom, Nancy and their friends circled around it looking for the right high corner. Just as they were inspecting the darkest, there was a “creeeek” on the stairs. No doubt, it was Mac heading up to help with the search, so they resumed their investigation, and had located what they thought was the notorious ‘hole,’ when the “creeeeking” sounded, again. This time they waited, but Mac didn’t appear. After several ominous “squeaks,” Tom alone peered down the stairwell.
“Dad?” he called. There was no answer. Tom turned to relay an expression of puzzlement to the others who were frozen and listening. When he turned to look again, Mac was on the top step peering down at him, his head shrouded in shadow. Tom shrieked and fell backward. Terrified, the children scattered. Mac followed them down the stairs, and did his best to reassure them it was all in fun. Only when they regrouped outside, did they learn that Nancy had bailed out of one of the windows into a brier bush.
On the way home in the car, everyone had a good laugh, and for years to come they laughed. The episode remained in Tom’s memory as one of the funniest, and scariest of those times his father had caught them off guard, as he was apt to do since they were little, playing hide and seek. Mac never told them how he was able to duck behind the wall each time after hitting the bottom step, and bolt up the stairs without a sound, but nobody was in a hurry to explore the house again — the precise outcome Tom’s father had intended. Mac was a skillful guardian.
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Copyright 2015 – 2021, Real Spooks – Cynthia Farr Kinkel
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