This year’s Tales of Backcountry Terror guest writer is Missouri Howell, a long time Missouri resident, and avid backpacker and hiker. Or as he says, “a guy who likes to hike, and then talk about it”. You can find him online at his website, on Twitter, or on Facebook. His story is about an experience he had in the Ozark region of Missouri – a place that is shrouded in many myths, uncertainty, rich history, and more than a little hill magic. I hope you enjoy it, and be sure to check out his trail reports and musings at his site as well!
When The Last Adventurer asked me to write a guest post about something creepy that happened to me on the trail, I was intrigued. I immediately knew what my subject matter would be. However, since the event occurred when I was young, I was hesitant to write about it. Plus, it was more of a camping trip than a hike. And when you have a night like I did, you have a tendency to force it from your memory over time. It becomes difficult to recall the details, to separate the reality from the nightmare. This is what I remember…
Going to the Ozarks
My story takes place in the Ozark Mountains, which stretch from central Missouri down into northern Arkansas. When I was a kid, “going to the Ozarks” meant going to the family farm. In order to get to the farm, we had to drive four hours south on the Interstate, then take a rural route exit. I can’t remember the name of the exit, but I’d still recognize it today if I saw it. We’d cross Old Route 66 at an old ghost town where most of the buildings had been abandoned and the only real activity was the railroad that ran nearby. From there it was another 30 minutes of curvy, two-lane road that repeatedly crested hilltops then bottomed out as it ran deeper into the Ozark hills.
The land in those parts is hilly and full of creek beds, ravines and patches of forest too thick to cut down. The mist hangs in the low valleys at dusk and dawn. You can see the smoke from your neighbor’s chimney three ridges over. Every acre of forest looks the same; which makes it very easy to get turned around and lost. The farmable land had been turned into pasture. Land that couldn’t turn a profit was left to grow. My grandparent’s church stood at an old dusty crossroads right after a good sized river. When I was a boy, seeing that church meant that we were getting close. Just a few more gravel roads and river fords to go.
My mother grew up down there. She left the Ozarks behind to attend college, got married, and never moved back. But we still drove back down there a lot when I was a kid, especially during the holidays. Although we were from the city, we were never considered outsiders.
When I became restless pre-teen, my parents started sending me down to the farm for a week or two during the summer. Maybe they hoped some of the farmer work ethic would rub off on me, but it’s more likely they just wanted me out of the house for awhile.
My cousin Pete would usually be there at the same time as me. Our moms worked it out that way so we wouldn’t be too bored down there. He was two years younger than me and a lot more “country.” Having him there made it a lot more enjoyable. Of course, it was always more fun to go exploring with a partner and we managed to find our share of trouble. One summer we hiked down to the Jake Branch in the morning. From there we followed it…all day. We were never really lost as we knew it would eventually go under the paved road bridge down by the church. But we underestimated the time it would take us to get there. We got out of the water pretty late in the day and started to walk home. My oldest sister drove by and picked us up. She said they’d been looking for us all day and that grandma was furious. And furious she was. That was as mad as grandma ever got at me. She carried on and on about us getting bitten by snakes and so on. I didn’t say it because I didn’t want to risk a whipping for sassing, but we didn’t even see a snake that day. The worst of it occurred over the next few days as we recovered from second degree sunburns. I learned my lesson - tell grandma where we were going.
So it was with that in mind that Petey and I made sure she knew that we were headed down by the branch for an overnight camping trip. The branch was a good half-mile down the road and we’d camped there before. The branch had a number of good gravel bars to camp on, and since it was summer, they were all exposed because the water was low. The water was way down that summer, so we hiked on up the branch a bit further than we normally did.
Four miles or so of walking on the gravel (with some swimming mixed in), was all we could take. We looked around for a nice level area in the gravel for us to put our bedrolls. I wandered over to the opposite bank while Petey searched upstream. After not much searching, I heard Pete holler from up the branch so I went after him. When I got there he was looking at the old Bates place which was beyond a barbed wire fence and not too far from the river.
The Bates place was an old 19th century homestead on about three acres of land that fronted the branch on one side. It was surrounded by barbed wire on all sides, including the river. The fence was old and in disrepair. The homestead backed up to a 30-foot bluff on two sides, with huge oaks, hickories, and walnuts hanging their branches out over the cliff. Trees crowded along the base of the bluffs as well. A modern gate had been put in place in front of the house where an old dual-track led away from the house in one direction, and up to the barn in the other. There was a hand pump in the yard that still delivered clean well water. The pump stood about a foot over the tall grasses and weeds that covered the acre. A gigantic burr oak stood almost exactly in the middle of the yard (or what was once the yard). Some thorny brush had begun to grow here and there. Out beyond the barn, the red cedars had started to take over. They grew like weeds out here if left to themselves.
There were two remaining structures on the property: a barn and an old house (I assume there was an outhouse at one time). The barn was old and was maroon red long ago, but it had lost most of its paint over the years. The planks had degraded to the point that they were splintered and you could see between them in places. But the inside seemed study. The livestock areas were still standing and someone had stored a bunch of hay bales in the loft…probably my grandfather, since the Bates place was surrounded by his land.
The old house was in similar shape. It was a two-story house with a planked front porch and a fruit cellar under it. A few of the porch planks were missing, probably more than the last time we’d come by. We didn’t go into the house that evening, but we had before with our older cousins. It was a pretty simple house with the bedrooms upstairs, and a kitchen and sitting room below. Most of the wall covering were peeling off, revealing the wood slats beneath. Of course, it was filthy inside and there was a lot of assorted trash on the floor. The last time we were there, not a single jar was unbroken in the fruit cellar. They’d all been shattered on the concrete floor and glass shards now covered the cellar from corner to corner.
We’d never approached the Bates place from the branch before. We had always walked down the dual-track. At first, I didn’t give the place a second thought. Then little Petey actually had a pretty good idea. Instead of sleeping on the rocks along the branch, why don’t we climb up in the loft and sleep on those hay bales? We didn’t have sleeping pads like they make today to throw on the river rocks. Although we’d done it quite often, sleeping on the gravel bar with only a couple of blankets wasn’t really that comfortable. I told him that was good thinking, but I wanted to check the barn first to make sure there was room for us up there. Plus, we needed to flush out any snakes and other critters before we moved in for the night. Uninvited guests were usually a wintertime problem, but we didn’t want to run into any momma raccoons that night at 3:00 a.m.
We stooped through the barbed wire and walked over to the barn. The ladders to the loft we in good shape and we climbed on up. There were a lot of bails in there, and the roof was high enough that they were stacked five or six tall in places. We shimmied through the bails on our bellies in some sections, but once we got on top, we were able to hop over to a nice flat spot where there was plenty of space for us to sleep. We went out to the branch, retrieved our gear and moved into the barn, to a nice flat bed of hay next to the hole where the loft’s window had once been.
As the sun started to go down we went back to the Jake Branch to take a swim and catch crawdads. We ate our food down there, and wisely started a small campfire there instead of in the old hay-filled barn. Once the sun had been down for awhile, the owls started hooting and we gathered our stuff and headed to the barn for the night. We stopped for water at the old pump. The clouds were building.
We had one flashlight between the two of us so we had to share. At first we had a little trouble finding our way back to where we had left our gear in the loft. Portions of the hay loft were like a labyrinth, especially to two little kids who couldn’t see above the bails. Finally, I remembered that we had put our stuff near the old window, and after a little backtracking and bail climbing, we found our bedrolls right where we left them - about ten feet apart from one another. We laid there and talked for awhile, I’m sure. I can’t remember what it was about. But I do remember looking out that broken window and seeing the old Bates house, and that enormous oak tree as its branches moved in the wind.
I didn’t have a watch, and it was way before cell phones, so I had no way of knowing what time it was when I woke up. I had to pee and only had two choices. I could shimmy my way through the bails and down from the loft and walk outside. Or, I could simply relieve myself through the broken window. I choose the latter, mostly because I was a kid and there was no one there to stop me. There wasn’t any glass in the window anymore, so that wasn’t an issue. As I did my business I noticed the moon was about to sink below the level of the bluffs. The roof of the house had been swallowed by the darkness. Only the top of the oak tree remained in the moonlight. I could see the old rope swing dangling from the upper branches. Shadows prevailed everywhere else. I finished what I started and laid back down. I didn’t pay any attention to Petey. He might have been there, but I’m not sure.
The second time, the whispers woke me up. Or maybe it was the wind. No, I was certain I heard a whisper. It was so hushed that I couldn’t understand it nor figure out where it was coming from. At once, it seemed to be coming from the yard, the ground floor of the barn, and from Petey’s bedroll ten feet away. Suddenly, I was frightened out of my wits. What a stupid decision we had made to sleep in this old barn. Near this old house. Under a spooky-ass tree. Everything was now dark as the moon had fallen below the horizon. I could make some shapes out in the yard through the window - the cedars, the hand pump, the cellar doors, the oak. My mind raced, and I immediately turned to get Petey, wondering if he could hear it too.
We left the flashlight right between us when we went to bed, just in case one of us needed it to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. I searched and searched but I couldn’t find it. The low whispers persisted. When we fell asleep, plenty of moonlight was filtering through the sides of the barn. But now, it was pitch black in there. It might have been twice as dark in the barn as in was outside. I figured I might have been looking for the light in the wrong place. I couldn’t see Petey’s bedroll. Godammit! Where was it? I never did find the flashlight, but after groping around the bails with my hands, I finally found the foot-end of his blankets. I was pretty pissed that the flashlight was gone. Then I noticed…no Petey either.
Now I was scared and alone. Maybe he just went down to relieve himself and hadn’t come back yet. The whispers seemed to have stopped. Was Petey screwing with me? Was he the source of the whispers? Nah, he was younger than me. Wherever he was, I bet he was more scared than me. I looked out the window and there was light moving across the wall through one of the windows in the second floor of the Bates house. It seemed dimmer than our old flashlight, but my young brain was determined that it was Petey in there. It had to be him. But why was he in the house? Is he hearing the whispered voices? And why didn’t he wake me up? The more questions I asked, the more scared I became, and the further away the house seemed to be.
I knew I would have to go and get him out of that house. I was two years older than him, and running back to grandma’s farmhouse without him wasn’t an option. I could leave our gear behind, but not my little cousin. Below me, the tall grasses in the yard swayed back and forth in the wind. The oak’s branches creaked noisily.
I left the bedrolls behind and started to grope my way through the loft. We could always come back for our stuff in the daylight, and I didn’t have the mind to carry them once I started running for home. I couldn’t see a foot in front of my face. I had to navigate by feel and memory. By the time I found the hole used by the tractor to load the bails in the loft the whispers had started again. They made my skin crawl. It was almost a chant. I made it to the ladder and down to the ground without much problem. There was more light down there and I could see the shadows of the stables.
I went to where I remembered the door to be. Strangely, it was closed. Petey must’ve closed it on his way out. I pulled on the rusty handle but it wouldn’t budge. It was either locked or stuck, and the only other way out of the barn that I knew of was the loft window. That 25-foot drop was out of the question. So I started searching the back of the barn for a livestock door. It was darker in this part of the barn and the mice scattered around my feet with every step. I finally found an old door in the stables, and it opened without issue.
I stepped out of the barn into the tall grass, which whipped every which way in the wind. On either side, tall brambles grew that were impassable to a 13-year old kid. I had nowhere to go but straight ahead. As the whisper chants continued, the tall grass in front of me seemed to part, giving me easier passage. It almost seemed to create a path for me to follow, which I did since it was the only way to go.
I started to run, and the moving grass continued to split in front of me even quicker. I could now make out my name in the whispers. When I stopped to get my bearings, the path stopped as well. And the blowing wind would soon determine the grass’ direction. Behind me, the path back to the barn had disappeared. I started walking, and the grass allowed me to pass. I needed to walk to keep my wits about me. I needed all my senses.
I was getting closer to the house. The light was still visible on the second floor. The grass created my path. To my left was a thick stand of red cedars. Off to my right, the huge burr oak creaked and moaned in the wind. Some of its branches could have been big trees in their own right. Its rustling leaves made a horrific noise that waned as the whispers increased. I realized I was cold.
I tripped over something. I was busy watching the oak tree instead of the grass. I could feel a stone at my feet, which I supposed was what I fell over. My arm hurt where I landed on it. I opened my eyes and realized I was in an open area. The grass was a few feet away and I immediately knew where I was. I had tripped over the stones that surround the family burial plot, and had landed right between the graves of Nathaniel and Rebecca Bates. I couldn’t read the names, but I remembered seeing them before. The headstones were old and worn, which is expected of 100-plus year old sandstone grave markers. I scrambled out of the plot backwards into the grass, which seemed to swallow me up and cut me off from the graves.
My arm was bleeding, and beginning to throb. I could move it though so I knew it wasn’t broken. Once again, the grass parted in front of me and this time it began leading me closer to the house. The voices were now saying my name clearly. Under the moaning oak I quickened my pace. The tree was extraordinarily creepy and I didn’t want any branches to fall on me. Some were swaying violently. The leaves, the moaning of the tree, and the voice created an eerie symphony. As I crossed under the tree, I looked up and saw the ropes of an old swing swaying in the wind. The seat of the swing was gone, but the ropes still swung in unison from a branch well out of my reach.
I was pretty close to the house, and my grassy path finally dumped me on the front porch. The voice said my name distinctly, and then continued to mumble. I went inside and could see the light still emanating front up the stairs. I yelled for Petey as I gently headed up. The stairs creaked and I was worried they would give out under my weight. I didn’t hear anything from the upstairs rooms. I traveled past the 90-degree turn in the stairs and called for my cousin again. My eyes were adjusting to the light source and as soon as I stepped onto the second floor, the light went out. For a split-second, I was blind. This time, I asked for Petey. I still didn’t get a response, except for more whispering. I stood still. I didn’t want to go in either upstairs bedroom. I was frozen in fear. For a minute on that second floor landing, my brain seemed to stop working. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could make out the shapes on the tattered wall coverings. I yelled as loud as I could for that kid.
But for the loud incoherent whispering, silence was my answer. In an instant, the light reappeared. This time it was below me, so I turned on my heels pleased that I didn’t have to go into those bedrooms. I eased my way back down the stairs and as I turned at the 90-degree landing I could see that the light was shining through the slat boards of the first floor. The light was in the cellar.
I went back onto the front porch. As soon as I crossed the threshold the whispers stopped. As a matter of fact, it was completely silent out. The wind was had stopped. So the leaves weren’t rustling. The oak wasn’t creaking. The grass wasn’t moving. No crickets. No frogs. No nothing. It was complete silence except for the noises I made: the creaking of the front porch, my footsteps in the yard, and the cellar doors.
From the porch I hollered again for Petey. No answer. Now I was even more determined to find him. The grasses didn’t create a path for me anymore. I had to find my own way to the storm cellar doors, which I’d walked to a few times before. The light shone through the cracks in the doors.
As soon as I began to lift them the light dimmed, but didn’t extinguish. I opened the other door and rested it on the ground. I called down for my cousin. Then I started down with the light guiding my steps. At 13, I was already almost too tall for the stairs.
I could see in the light that the floor of the cellar was still littered with glass shards. In the middle of the floor two identical circles had been cleared of sharp debris. In one circle was an old wooden doll or marionette-style puppet lying on its side. In the other circle was Petey, sitting Indian-style with his back to me.
I told him we had to go, but it was like he didn’t hear me. I couldn’t reach him. I had to walk across the glass and hope not to cut my feet. As I moved my foot to the floor to clear the glass away, it began to part in front of me, just as the grass had outside. Another step, and more glass moved. And another. And another. And finally I reached out for Petey.
He looked up at me but didn’t say anything. He was smiling a weird smile. I couldn’t understand why he was smiling when I was scared shitless. He never got up. So I had to physically lift him up and walk him out. Luckily the glass-free walkway was still there. As we got to the cellar steps, the light began to go out behind us. I turned at the last minute to see the puppet was sitting up, smiling the same soulless smile as Petey.
I didn’t hear any more whispers. I headed for the gate and the dual-track with Petey in tow. As soon as we got to the gate, it was like a spell was broken. He came to, as though he had been in a trance. We hustled over the gate. The hickories, black oaks, and walnuts swayed in the wind above us, and the undergrowth was thick along the dual-track, but we were running full speed. In a half mile, we caught our breath at the gravel road that ran uphill to the farm. It was a three-mile walk…at least.
We walked back to the farm. It was still dark when we started, but the width of the gravel road seemed to provide us security. It helped to be walking along pasture land instead of forest. Dawn broke as the farm came into view. My arm had stopped bleeding, but it was a mess. We were both dirty to the core. I was itchy. Grandpa was out in the garage getting ready to take morning hay to the cows. We told him everything. Rather, I told him everything, since Petey didn’t really remember anything after he went to sleep in the loft. Grandpa was unimpressed with my story, and he sent us inside where breakfast was waiting. He also suggested a bath. He seemed more perturbed that someone had put hay bales in that barn, and that we had left all of his old camping gear in it.
Grandma got us fed and listened to me tell the story again for the second time in thirty minutes. Surprisingly, she believed me. Well…not totally. But she did tell us the story of the Bates family. According to her, unlike most young men in the area, Nathaniel Bates didn’t want to join the confederate army. He was pro-Union, and since the draft didn’t reach this part of Missouri, he stayed home during the Civil War and farmed the fields along the branch. Back in those days, confederates on furlough or in patrols would bushwhack those they thought to be union sympathizers, and that’s what happened to the Bates’. One afternoon, two confederates rode up to the house. They tied Nathaniel up to the oak tree, then violated Rebecca. Eventually, the confederates hanged them both on long ropes from the burr oak in the yard. They found the daughter hiding upstairs under a bed. They eventually left her to die in the cellar. Only one other family claimed the farm after their deaths, and that was around the turn of the century.
Having retrieved his gear, my grandfather returned for lunch around noon. Petey and I were asleep at that time and he was back in the fields again when we woke up. Grandma said our bedrolls were in the loft by the window, just like we’d told him. She showed us where he had left everything on a picnic table in the backyard. He found everything…the bedrolls, grandma’s good pillows, our water jugs, and the flashlight. He even brought back the smiling puppet.