The Hunting Lodge
A Western Campfire Ghost Story
The cabin in the woods had been abandoned for years, but one night, a candle burned in the window. The sight of its unexpected, soft orange glow had caused June to hesitate whilst she had been approaching the wooden lodge from the surrounding forest. It had been her intention to enter—invited or not—but now, pausing for thought, she began to reconsider. A calloused finger stroked the cold metal of her revolver as she contemplated her next move, her jaw mechanically grinding up a wad of chewing tobacco.
From underneath the brim of her torn Stetson, she could discern that the candlelight was coming from a window right of the front door, peeking out from behind the rail of a porch. The cabin appeared to be larger than most. For June, the size was immaterial. The light was another matter.
The cabin was the home of a former trapper who had abandoned his homestead in favour of joining the throngs of optimistic dreamers searching for their fortune in what was now referred to as the “gold rush” and, ever since, the cabin had lain empty.
At least according to the man on the road.
“Yellow-bellied rat would’ve said anything to save his hide,” said June bitterly, spraying vile brown spittle in the process. Her thoughts further castigated her for her gullibility; you should know better than to trust men. Especially if they were anything like her husband.
Whilst the man on the road didn’t resemble June’s (late) husband in physical appearance, he did share the same pious arrogance that possessed most of the men that June met. She had spotted him from a distance, his filthy straw hat rising up from the blur of a crest in the road, with the musical accompaniment of rickety wood made by the wagon he was sitting on. June meanwhile had been lying in the dirt on the roadside, feigning an injury that she had sustained “from being bucked by my horse.” But upon the sight of a seemingly helpless lady, had the man rushed to her side to offer his assistance? The hell he did! Instead, he gawped down at her from his seat with an irritating, doe-eyed expression that only a country bumpkin like him is able to muster.
“Where’s your horse?” he had said, only just barely stringing his sentence together. This was the typical attitude she had come to expect. They never gave you any credit or took you at face value. You were either stupid, lying or overexaggerating.
Granted, this was all a ruse to steal the next available form of transportation, but upon being accosted, June’s shrinking violet demeanour transformed into the hardened criminal scowl she had perfected for just such an occasion. In one quick motion, she had jumped to her feet and drawn her revolver, aiming it squarely between the yokel’s beady eyes.
Naturally, he crumbled.
She could have anything she wanted but he didn’t have much. The donkey was slightly lame but could be worth a few dollars. Quickly getting tired of this, June had pulled back the hammer. That was when he spilled about the cabin. He must have thought it would spare him, the amount of pointless oversharing he prattled on with.
“It’s been empty all this time, but who knows what might have been left behind?” June had cut him off by this point, telling him to make tracks before she changed her mind. In truth, she had actually been genuine. The wagon was her ticket west and if she could avoid drawing blood, the better. Besides, the last thing she needed was to have an awkward conversation with a local sheriff regarding the conspicuous red stains dried into the wood.
If only the idiot hadn’t forced her hand.
It all happened in the time between June clambering onto the wagon and the sudden flash of the blade the man had hidden under his chair. The gunshot rang out further away than was comfortable. She remembered a dark gathering of crows escaping like a wisp of black smoke from a distant gathering of trees—clearly startled by the commotion—some half a mile away. Absent-mindedly, as the man’s lifeless body slumped forward, she recalled that a group of crows was known as a murder.
On instinct, she had hastily rummaged through the man’s dishevelled pockets, discovering his chewing tobacco in the process and not much of anything else. The wagon had to be abandoned; she couldn’t afford to be linked to a murder and there was every chance that someone had heard the shot.
June had made sure to cut the donkey loose before hurrying away. It was frightened enough and didn’t deserve to suffer any further for its master’s recklessness. As she ran, June had struggled to keep upright in her husband’s oversized boots, but she couldn’t afford to deaden the pace. She had needed to disappear, if only for a short while, and the deserted cabin would do just fine.
Based on the man’s jabbering, it was half a day’s journey. Just enter the first treeline you came across and follow the shadows of the trees. You would reach the cabin by nightfall. Sure enough, as the sun fled beneath the jagged teeth of the mountains and the trees were blackened by the moonless night sky, June had arrived exactly as instructed.
Pity it was already occupied.
Now she had a choice, or so she tried to reason. Indeed, there could very well have been multiple occupants, and it was completely unpredictable how they would receive her. Supposing they too were also on the run…
On the other hand, there really was nowhere else to go. All she had were her husband’s clothes on her back and his revolver with all its ammunition already loaded into it (minus the one now lodged in a dead man’s skull). In the darkness, it would be impossible to construct any form of shelter, and her breath was already condensing into a spectral fog.
Whoever was camped out in the cabin would have to receive her or they would have to go. And if they wouldn’t go willingly…
June braced herself against the bite of the air. She lobbed a quick brown wad of phlegm into the undergrowth. She exhaled. Her fingers reassured one last time that the gun was still there. She marched towards the cabin.
Underneath the impenetrably dark canopy of the forest, June’s shoulders sagged under an invisible force, as if the feeling of being watched had its own weight that had to be carried by the person being observed. It seemed childish but, as June strode towards the cabin, she could swear that it felt as if the encroaching trees were judging her somehow. It was an odd sensation to describe, and June wasn’t at all sure she understood it herself. But if she had to find a word; unwelcome.
As June’s feet crunched up the leaf litter and dried branches, it became startlingly apparent that the sounds of birdsong had just stopped. She tried to remain unrattled by the heavy silence, but it only made her more conscience of the fact that the snapping of twigs underneath her feet were the only noises to be heard. The bottom step leading up to the porch was a relief.
She put her steadiest foot forward and looked up towards the front of the cabin. She nearly fell from the step when she saw the figure in the window dart out of sight. The candleflame flickered wildly from the sudden movement. The figure had been little more than a silhouette, but the fact that the top of the window frame only reached its shoulders made the lower pits of June’s stomach coil.
June’s hand remained fused to the handle of her revolver, waiting for the occupant’s next move. In the seconds of nothingness, June’s ears were deafened by the roaring of her blood.
She cleared her throat.
“Beg pardon my intrusion,” she called out, trying to hide the shakiness in her voice, “but I’m in need of food and shelter for the night. Perhaps I can repay your hospitality with any chores you might need doing. May I enter?”
There was no reply. The quiet lingered on, the seconds prolonged into an unbearable agony. The lack of any movement tensed June’s grip around her revolver. She tried again.
“I said, may I come in please,” she called out a second time with as much diplomacy as her nerves would allow. Once again, she was greeted with an indifferent silence. Despite the icy wind, June felt beads of perspiration underneath the rim of the Stetson. Wiping them away, she drew her revolver. This game had gone on long enough.
“I should warn you, I’m armed,” she said aloud in a raised voice, “I have no desire to shoot. But if I don’t hear any response in the next five seconds, I will enter with or without your discretion, and you better be prepared to stand your ground.” She paused for effect.
Nothing stirred inside. The candle burned on.
Dead leaves skittered across the decking of the porch. June’s mouth began to sore from dryness.
“Th-three…”. For a moment, she considered taking her chances out in the forest. Perhaps if she retraced her steps and found the road again, she might be able to hike to the nearest settlement. Of course, it would mean risking arrest. Someone would have discovered the wagon by now and—no doubt—reported it. A lone stranger wandering into town at night, on foot no less, was suspicious enough, but a lone woman dressed in men’s clothing would have an entire populace dragging her to the cells before she had time to scream.
It would mean a certain hanging or—more than likely given her clothing—an insane asylum. June had known women who had been incarcerated for less. She knew even fewer who were eventually released. Chances are you were there for keeps. And even if June was to ever be released, with no husband waiting for her outside, it would mean being sent back to her family.
In that case, death was preferable.
The wood of the cabin stubbornly creaked its refusal. Picturing herself forever bent over a wash basin scrubbing her father’s and brother’s undergarments, June ignored the pull of her instinct to escape. She tore up the steps of the porch.
“You had your chance!”
The door flung inside from a well-placed kick. June raised her gun to the darkness that had been waiting for her. She entered.
The candescent glow of the candle barely revealed much. As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, the outline of an immense stone fireplace came into focus. Adjacent to it was a set of chairs and a table, presumably made from wood sourced from the forest. Other homemade furniture included a modest bed situated to the far left and its respective bedside table. Towards the back wall, set beneath the sill of a large window, was a sink area with kitchen apparel hung from the wall above, and a stove tucked away in the corner. A coffee pot coated in the rust of decades was sat on top.
Taking a step forward, June squinted behind the iron sights, steadying herself for an ambush. For the first time, she noticed the beartraps. Nearly every inch of wall space was taken up by the open maw of a rusted set of metal teeth that seemed to glow menacingly in the candlelight.
Something moved in June’s peripheral vision. She snapped her gun to the right. She only just stifled a gasp. The candle in the window had been extinguished. The wick was still haunted by a sliver of smoke just visible in the din.
June let out a curse. Somehow, whoever had been here, had managed to slip away unnoticed, which was impossible as the only way out was through the door that June had just came through. She peeled her gun around, but a cursory search of the cabin confirmed her gut feeling:
Everything June could see made up the entirety of the cabin. A small child would’ve been spotted in an instant, let alone a fully grown man the size of a bear standing on its hind legs.
There was nowhere to hide.
It had passed into the early hours of morning, yet the world beyond the window remained trapped in an endless void of darkness. June had relit the candle and placed it on the table. The cold embrace of the evening barely made her sniff. She had slept rougher than this before and besides, searching for firewood was out of the question; whoever the lumbering giant was—and however he was able to elude June—he may have still been skulking around outside waiting for her to drop her guard.
But June would be damned first before that happened. She had positioned her chair with its back to the wall, so she was continually facing the door, her hand resting on her revolver lying on the table. If the fool tried to frighten her again, he’d receive a hornet’s nest of bullets straight through the wood of the door.
But the night had passed by uneventfully. The windows occasionally rattled from time to time in the breeze, and the wooden beams conversed with each other as the cabin had settled down. They were an ambience that June knew all too well, and it was those memories that she ruminated over as she sat reposed in her firing position.
Her husband’s cabin had made the exact same sounds as this one did. All that was missing was his whisky-hardened voice barking orders. June looked towards the sink area. She saw herself in her cornflour blue dress, a stained apron about her waist, shackled to the wash basin from the crack of dawn to the late evening, scrubbing. It had felt like there was no other purpose for her in this world but to scrub.
Floors. Dishes. Clothes. If it wasn’t nailed to the ground, June knew that it would sooner or later end up in her wash basin. And when she wasn’t cleaning or fixing his supper, her husband would find anything that would fit into that damned wash basin “to keep her in practise.” He always presumed that if her time was unoccupied, even for a moment, she was an “idle, no-good wench”, even though he spent most of his day drowning in a bottle of scotch instead of working his own fields.
As June mulled over these scenes, her forehead creased with disdain, she habitually spun the gun around her finger against the grain of the wood, her granite features pulsing with shadows in the candlelight. But as her eyes seethed over the sight of the sink, she noticed an oval frame perched by the windowsill.
June raised the candle in front of her as she crept towards the sight of her curiosity. Once again, there was that feeling of being uninvited that she had felt back outside. She could almost feel the teeth of the mounted traps sinking into the flesh on the back of her neck. Did the cabin not want her to see this?
“Bullshit.” She rested the candle down and held up the frame to the light. It was a man and his wife. They both wore the same emotionless stoicism as was typical of any formal family portrait, yet the man’s face turned June’s stomach. It was hidden amongst a prodigious beard that bloomed like a hedgerow, but the broken nose and sunken, jaundiced eyes that peered out from the tinted photograph intimidated her in a way that she had allowed no man to do. A coarse hand that sprouted grotesque, oily hair gripped the wife’s shoulder, clearly making her visibly uncomfortable despite her blank expression. The woman herself, like June, had once had gentle features (June could see all the signs) that had gradually been chiselled hard over the years. Her hair was pulled tight into a constricting bun, exposing a face scratched with lines. The sad, lost look in her eyes was the only clue to where her younger self had retreated to.
June stroked the glass. She already knew this woman. If what she was told about the cabin was accurate, then the hulking ape behind her had just simply abandoned her for the promised riches of California. At least June’s husband had had the decency to be taken off by consumption. She hoped that the woman had at least been left some resource or a family that may have taken her in. Who knows, maybe she held on by herself out here, carving out her own life without some thuggish brute draining away the last of her years.
On that note of cautious optimism, June turned to replace the picture frame. Instead, it went clattering across the floor as June cried out in shock.
The woman in the portrait looked back at June from the reflection of the window. June stepped back. So did the woman. June raised a hand to her mouth. The reflection did the same.
Without thinking, June lunged for the gun on the table, knocking over chairs in a riot of movement. She whirled the barrel toward the window.
The woman had disappeared.
June refused to lower her weapon. How this illusion was being performed was inexplicable. Needless to say, it was clearly some sort of perverse game being played on her. But she vowed it was one that she wouldn’t lose.
Now weary of the kitchen window, June backed away another step.
She had just placed her boot through the picture frame. June snapped her head down. She twisted her foot to one side. Her breath caught in her throat.
The couple in the photograph had vanished. With an exasperated cry, she kicked the empty frame away as if it was a rattlesnake. She cocked back the hammer of her revolver.
“You listen to me now, whoever you are,” she bellowed, “I don’t know why you’re doing this to me, and I don’t care. But I am leaving this place right now, and if you should try to impede me, you will be met by the business end of my iron! Understand?”
There was a solid whine from the porch, as if someone was placing all of their weight onto their foot. June raised the cold steel in her hand. The latch on the door began to rise.
She opened fire.
Wood fragments showered the cabin’s interior as the door was bombarded. June sliced open the flesh of her palm as she fanned the gun’s hammer, not daring to let up the salvo of bullets. At last, the hammer fell down upon the empty chamber with a deadening click. The cabin stood silent. Even with the relentless ringing in June’s ears, she could detect the unnatural stillness.
Even worse, there had been no thud of a body dropping to the ground. She had spent her last rounds into the areas of wood were a human head and torso would be. Anyone standing directly behind that door should now be dead.
Feeling her heart thumping a drum tattoo in her ribcage, June turned the gun over and gripped the barrel, holding it above her head as a baton in anticipation. She edged forward to the door.
Suddenly there was a high-pitched whistling. June tensed up. An almighty gust of wind had infiltrated the bullet holes she had left in the door. The candlelight winked out of existence as the hanging metal ornaments on the walls clanked in the icy jet of air, and the cabin descended into a terrible gloom.
Overcome with the desire to run, June lunged in the direction of the door. Instead of reaching it, she fell hard upon her knees, dramatically slipping up inside her oversized boots. Breathing through the searing pain in her kneecaps, she kicked off her useless footwear with the alacrity of a tantrum before picking herself back up, scrabbling desperately for the exit.
She threw her weight towards the door. Except it wasn’t there anymore. Her body smashed into a blank wall, with no sign of an entrance ever having been there. It proved to be the final coda to her nerves. June finally wailed in terror. Her arms scratched and clawed the wood like a cornered mountain lion, her cries for help reaching no one in the dark wilderness.
“Anyone, please! Send for the sheriff! Help me, I beg of you!”
Behind her back, she was answered by a startlingly loud snap of colliding metal. She turned instantly towards the commotion. Her back slid down the wall, tears flooding every crevice of her face, as she witnessed the beartraps along the walls suddenly spring to life as if they had all caught invisible prey in their jaws.
June cowered behind her arms. Between her splayed fingers, she saw dozens of rusted iron fangs snap repeatedly like nightmarish piranha fish. The force of their movement knocked some of them to the ground where they flapped their way towards June like hideous wind-up teeth. With a petrified scream, she bolted for the only safe location—the bed. She just about managed to scramble on top as the toes of her left foot narrowly avoided the bite of a nearby trap. June brought her knees up to her chest, huddling for safety at the head of the bed. She was completely surrounded. Reaching for the door now would be suicidal. The deafening snapping of the traps began to reach a crescendo. June covered her ears and closed her eyes for all the good it would do.
There was silence. June let a protracted minute go by before she opened herself up again. The traps were back on the walls where they had always been. The front door had returned with June’s bullet holes still intact. The only sounds were the distant howl of wind coupled with June’s laboured breathing.
She glanced over the inanimate furniture of the cabin. Watching. Waiting. Seconds ticked by. They stayed inanimate. She laughed. Whether it was the strain of her ordeal, or there was genuinely something amusing about the current situation, June found herself laughing uncontrollably.
“God, what I’d give for a jail cell right about now,” she cackled, holding her hands up ready to receive a pair of handcuffs, “I’ll confess to anything you want sheriff, so long as you promise to lock me up and throw away the key!”
Regaining her senses, June eased herself along the length of the bed. If she left now, she might be able to reach the nearest town by daybreak. It could mean prison, the nut house, or being sent home, but none of those locations held the same dread as before. If she could survive this, she could walk through fire and come out whole on the other side. For the first time that day, the thought of civilisation seemed like a welcome respite.
June felt her courage return to her as she stepped off of the bed.
Then she hit the floor face first. Her breath transformed into a wail of despair when she saw the hand that was grasping her ankle. The skin was the colour of decomposition, the wretched nails torn and chipped, the cuticles peeled back to reveal the ugly yellowed flesh beneath.
June struggled to break free, but the hand was clutched around her leg with a force that only the dead could wield. Another hand sprung out from under the bed, gripping June’s other leg, pinning her helplessly to the floor. Her punches bounced harmlessly off of the thing’s tireless arms, her cries for mercy went unimpeded. The rest of its body slithered out from underneath the foot of the bed like a child’s nightmare come alive until its face was eye-to-eye with June.
The woman from the photograph, her head torn open from her scalp to the bridge of her nose, bore down on June with glazed milky eyes. She opened her mouth to speak. Her tongue was missing. But the worst was yet to come.
What sounded like loose rubble falling down a slope caused June to avert her eyes towards the fireplace. A large, all-too-familiar arm had emerged from the dark of the chimney flu, wrapping itself around the mantlepiece. Another arm and a similar sized leg followed, and then another, embracing the masonry of the fireplace, pulling the shadowy leviathan from out of the blackness. The hulking frame stood up fully until its shoulders nearly reached the ceiling. It began to lumber forward.
June tried to swivel out of the dead woman’s cold arms. It was self-evident at this point what the true fate of the wife had been. Now June was next. As her strength weakened, June resorted to feebly pleading for her life as the immense towering figure of the Trapper came down upon her.
He bent low on one knee until June was staring directly into those same sunken, gaunt eyes from the portrait that had frightened her so. The Trapper grinned as he fed his grotesque hands into June’s screaming mouth.
The body of the man on the road, by some miracle, wasn’t discovered until midday, but the sheriff and a deputy from the nearby town of Providence Ravine wasted no time in attending the scene. Taking stock of the available evidence, including a set of boot prints heading towards the forest, they concluded that the culprit must have been heading for the abandoned cabin. The sheriff bet money on the murderer being someone with local knowledge.
When they arrived at the treeline, they hitched their horses and proceeded on foot, hoping to spare their horses from the uneven terrain. As it grew dark, an orange glow in the distance guided them towards the front of the cabin.
“Blow me down, there’s someone in there sheriff!” said the Deputy.
“I’ll be damned. It must be who we’re looking for,” opined the Sheriff. He quickly changed his mind when they were within several feet of the front porch. They could see with surprising clarity a husband and wife glaring out at them from the candlelit window. The husband, a man of biblical proportions in full trapper attire, had his hand clawed around the shoulder of his wife, a sombre looking woman with short brown hair and rough, calloused fingers. It was hard to tell in this light, but her lips appeared to tremble. For a moment, the Sheriff almost mistook her for a man.
“Never mind,” he said to the Deputy, “they must be new residents. Still, we may as well ask if they’ve seen anything.”
“If we’re lucky, the wife will fix us some supper before we leave,” the Deputy suggested.
“Here’s hoping,” said the Sheriff, clapping his belly with excitement, “let’s hope she knows how to make a chicken pot pie.” The lawmen shared a chuckle as they approached the front door, eagerly awaiting their food.
About the author
In the words of Rod Serling; I never chose to write, I succumbed to it. I wrote my first story when I was nine for a school assignment and have never stopped. If you love the macabre, then consider my work submitted for your approval.
Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab