April 15, 2013

Tranquility Hill

Tranquility Hill
by Joseph Rubas

Before Route 33 enters the small roadside village of Brandywine , it slides into the greenery of the George Washington National Forest and crosses a dry creek bed with no name. If you look to your left as you slowly pass, you will notice a narrow dirt road twisting up into the tangled wilderness along the north bank. Some of the old timers say it leads up to a little cabin where a man went insane one snowbound winter and killed his wife with an ax before wandering off to a frozen death. They say his ghost walks in the woods at night, trying desperately to get back from some terrible white limbo.

Even though most residents of lower Pendleton County are unaware of the road’s existence or of the fiendish legends surrounding it, nobody is keen on being out after dark. As soon as the sun is low the entire county from Circleville to Lookout Mountain closes up shop, the locals compelled by an organic and inexplicable terror to drop whatever they are doing and rush home to wait out the desolate night. Nights in that part of the state are indeed unsettling, with the towering mountains running like ink into the sky, with the noise of bobcats in the hills and the company sometimes of only a neighbor two or three miles distant, but the natives’ fear boarders of obsession. During day they are as rational as you and I, but as the sun sinks, sucking the light from the sky, they transform into superstitious Salem peasants. Nary can a car be found astir south of Franklin at night; even state patrolmen refuse to police the highways after nightfall.

Some of the old timers are adamant that the fear is an instilled personality trait of a natural valley residents, that generations had passed it down until it became ingrained, the cause forgotten. Either they lie or are honestly ignorant.

The strange road leads up through the primal forested hillside and let’s out after several miles in a grassy meadow which overlooks rolling mountains, rushing rivers and mile upon mile of pastureland. The forest encloses it on three sides, and in the summer and spring it is a very beautiful spot. Though there are no outward signs (the low stones are hidden by the tall grass), this quiet meadow, feared even in obscurity, was one of the largest cemeteries in the county.

The land was taken from its owner in 1859, an Englishman named Billingsly, a slight and sickly fellow described in contemporary reports as gaunt and handsome. He lived on the hill for several years before fleeing under the cover of midnight; his cabin was later found burned, bones fragments within giving testament to his wife’s demise (this is perhaps where the ax murderer legend comes from). He was captured by lawmen near Keyser in late July attempting to flee across the North Branch of the Potomac into Maryland . At his trial the story he told convinced even the no nonsense judicial system of the time that he was mad. It was never officially written down, but was recorded in the diary of a spectator who was in the hot courtroom that August day. Sadly the book was lost in a paddleboat explosion on the Mississippi after the war, but a friend who had seen it claimed that it spoke of the wife dying in childbirth and then returning from her grave under the full moon.

The county was only too happy to have the land, and quickly established a new cemetery, as the older ones were nearing their capacity. The first person to be interred was a flamboyant French Cajun named Jeffers, an old local character known and loved by all from the mightiest landowner to the lowliest slave. He claimed to have fought in the Mexican-American war under General Zachery Taylor, suffering a serious injury to his right leg at Monterrey which left him with a galloping limp.

In the winter of 1860, Jeffers was returning from church when he slipped on the icy road and slid off and down a steep embankment. No one knows if he froze or died in the fall, but either way he was dead when he was found in a swollen river come March.

He was put to rest with great pomp, his funeral supposedly attended by everyone within thirty miles. A fiery sermon was spoken by the Reverend Haskins and a children’s choir serenaded the mournful.

As Jeffers didn’t have a stone befitting a man of his kindness and faith, some of the local ladies took up a collection to have one made for him. But before their plan came to fruition, Fort Sumner was attacked by the Confederacy and the War Between the States began. The money was quickly sent to the Richmond , even though at that time the valley was torn over who to support, as was much of western Virginia . Capitalizing on the wide unionist sentiment in the mountainous districts, Abraham Lincoln relieved Virginia of its furthest counties and created a new state: West Virginia .

Between 1861 and 1865 the sons of the valley left for war, some for blue coats and some for gray, most for the grave. During the struggle many heroic young men returned in boxes, and in Tranquility Hill they went. It was once suggested that the war, or the bodies created by it, was what sparked the events of the next fifty or so years, as though the activity awakened the Hill from an infernal slumber.

Indeed, it wasn’t until January of 1864 that the first manifestation of the supernatural took place. Brandywine’s only business in those days was an old trading post, owned by a man from the Susquehanna region of Pennsylvania; a rabid loyalist who was rumored to have something to do with the Underground Railroad. He wasn’t a popular man with his neighbors, but was never molested in any way until a dirty and scar-studded tramp entered the post during a hard blizzard and shot him in the head with a pistol. It just so happened that the sheriff in those days, a Steadman Harker, was in the store, browsing the barrels of tobacco along the back wall, when the killing occurred. He wasted no time in retaliating.

When the snow let up, he rode fast for help. Soon, the store was crawling with men. The doctor came to examine the bodies, and on turning the vagrant over the man paled and fainted. The collective gasped, struck with horror. They recognized the face as belonging to 18-year-old Donald Himmler, who had returned home the previous summer after being cut down during Pickett’s Charge.

Passing the resemblance uneasily off, the men only discovered the terror the next day, when the killer was to be buried. What happened was never recorded, but a Steven Vandevender told his wife, years later on his death bed, that they had found Donny Himmler’s grave open and vague tracks leading from it right up to the trading post. He claims that the body was then treated as a vampyre.

In 1865, after General Lee’s surrender to General Grant at Appomattox , many battle weary souls began returning to the valley. Among the final stream to cross Mount Shenandoah before it was closed by snow was William Haskins. He was a wholesome young man, the son of Revered Haskins, who had heeded God’s call by joining the Army of the Confederacy. He was a strapping lad when he left, but on his return he was drawn and gaunt, pale and haggard. His mind, however, was stronger than ever, so there is no doubt whatsoever as to the validity of his claim to have seen the late Jeffers sitting on his porch. Haskins said that he happened to look up as he was passing the cabin, and was nearly killed by a hammer of shocked fright when he saw the decayed man in his old rocker. He said that Jeffers treated and spoke to him with uncharacteristic hostility, taunting him about things that only Haskins and God himself had any business knowing.

Terrified, he rushed to the trading post and spilled out his story. The same men who had dealt with Donny Himmler the previous year happened to all be there, and at once organized.

They shortly rode out to Jeffers’s cabin, a small shabby place built of dark logs. They found the old man in a corner near the fireplace, his arms wrapped around his knees, rocking back and forth. His face was hidden in the shadows, but his hands weren’t; they were obviously skeletal and dirty.

He said things to them, things that were true, things that each man hid deep within himself. Hollis Cole, who was there that day and later recorded it in his diary, says only that Jeffers knew of Hollis’s sexual relationship with a neighbor girl…or rather a neighbor’s twelve-year-old slave.

The monster was killed by the lead of the group, identified only as Mr. Puffenbarger, most likely Lawrence “Butch” Puffenbarger, a local plantation owner who, after the war, raised steer and, per Jeffers, pimped out his two teenaged daughters. The men then torched the cabin and vowed to God that they were never speak of the incident again.

The Jeffers affair was impossible to keep under wraps, though, as there were several others in the post when Haskins burst in. Rumors of course began spreading like wildfire, and seemed to be substantiated by a series of gruesome murders and attempted home invasions by gray faced things scratching at nighttime windows. The men who had handled the Himmler and Jeffers incidents pushed for the abandonment of Tranquility Hill at one governmental meeting in 1866, but refused to cite a reason other than the place was “evil.” Their efforts were not in vain, though, for while official interments continued, the vast majority of valley dwellers damned the place, and some even had loved ones removed from the sour ground.

Nevertheless, from this time to about 1888 there were dozens of bizarre and ghastly happenings ascribed to Tranquility Hill. In the winter of 1868 there was a spat of ax murders, the culprit, a ghoul from the Hill, was lynched in Franklin by a posse, presumably the same one from 1864-1865. Following this several children vanished from their homesteads, the last of which escaped from the clutches of something stinking of decomposition in 1874. Two years later a unionist carpetbagger was found in a stand of bushes near the road. It could have been a routine hate-murder, if his face hadn’t been mauled and his throat ripped out.

One of the most grotesque horrors to occur during this time, however, was the murder of the Wimplinger family in 1882. They were a deeply devout and pure group, and one crisp morning when they failed to appear at church the Reverend and several worried townspeople rode out to their isolated homestead on forested Charlotte ’s Ridge, perched above a bend in the Iron River . Inside, the party encountered a savagery to this day not entirely confessed. The father was in front of the door in a pool of his own blood, his eyes gone and his lower jaw sat upon his chest. The mother was near the fireplace, her head bashed in with a stone. The young daughter was found on her bed, playing a happy game of patty cake with her brother Robert, who had died the week before.

The fire that claimed the Wimplinger cabin was explained as an accident, and the girl was packed off to live with relatives in either Baltimore or Boston.

The last official burial in Tranquility Hill was in September of 1891, a horseman who was thrown from his animal in mid-jot. He was killed a second time when he was found strangling a young girl behind the Brandywine schoolhouse. Thereafter the cemetery was forsaken.

Human nature, though, led to sporadic incidents over the years, only a few archived in any detail. In 1898 a grieving father reburied his 11-year-old son there, only to have the boy die again. He returned during a blizzard, and managed in his second life only to drag himself fifty feet from his grave before freezing. In 1914 several brothers, referred to as the “Bonner Boys” put their infant sister in Tranquility Hill hoping to revive their inconsolable mother. The girl came back to life, but wasn’t able to escape her grave. She was found by a hunter drawn by her sickly cries, and was mercifully killed where she lay.

Today Tranquility Hill sits beyond the cusp of memory, seen in modern times by only the occasional sportsman or backpacker. Its pre-1850s history is still an utter mystery, and not many hypotheses have been forthcoming regarding the ground’s inability to retain its dead. A local historian who lived in the twenties theorized that Tranquility Hill was once an Indian village where the natives turned to cannibalism one extreme winter. This, he said, invited a demonic entity known as a Windigo, which feeds on the evil of the place and animates the dead.

Perhaps the dark secrets buried in the ground there will never be known, and most likely wouldn’t be understood if they were. One can only hope that never again will this place be used, and pray that there aren’t any more like it.

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Joseph Rubas is the author of over 150 short stories, many of them in the horror genre. They have been published in a wide array of places, including: The Storyteller (literary magazine); Eschatology Journal (ezine); and Zombie Lockdown (anthology). A collection of his fiction, Pocketful of Fear, was released in 2012. He currently resides in Massachusetts with his fiancé, Brenda, who is also a writer.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
For me, story ideas abound. On a good day, anything and everything inspires me.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Writing to me is what breathing is to others. If I don’t do it, I turn blue and die.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
The most important thing about historical fiction is authenticity; you have to make the reader believe.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
History is fascinating in general. But the real draw of it is emotion. In the text books, guys like Robert E. Lee and J.F.K are dry and one dimensional. We have to remember that they were human too, with hearts, minds, and personalities.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
As one great writer put it: Leave out all the parts readers skip. I suppose that goes for every genre.