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, but 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, itself, they 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 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.
Though the 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 school bus 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 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 steps to the door of the second floor. It opened into a single large room, but the enclosed stairwell continued to the ceiling, creating four distinct areas, each with its own window. The interior walls of the room surrounding the stairwell gave it a gallery-like appearance, as Tom, Nancy and their friends crept around searching the high corners. 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. Back to investigating the corners, they were excited to locate what they thought was the notorious ‘hole,’ when again, the “creeeeking” sounded. This time they waited, but Mac didn’t appear. Several more ominous squeaks, and Tom alone peered down the stairs.
“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 quickly tried to reassure them and he followed them down the stairs. Only when they regrouped outside, did they learn that Nancy had bailed out of the south gable window into a brier bush.
Back in the car on the way home 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 small, playing hide and seek. Mac never explained how he was able to duck behind the wall each time after hitting the bottom step, and bolt up the stairs without a sound. Of course, nobody was in a hurry to explore the house again, and certainly not with him — the precise consequence 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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