Why? Well, to meet this fascinating young man, Thomas Murphy. He’s barely alive at the end of Julie Barnson’s story “Go Gentle.” His granddaughter talks with him in his sickbed. But I, or rather my character, met him way back in the year 1969. Thomas Murphy just bought a farm outside of the tiny little town where I live. I am playing the journalist grand-daughter of an established local family. As a member of the media, I know that the town has a dark history. In fact, I know everything about this town; but I love to dig up scandalous new stories and put them into print.
Today’s walk happened on Mr. Murphy’s property. I traveled there to investigate a popular ghost story, but I had good reason to suspect that the ghost was no rumor. Watch what happened when I tried to tease him out of Thomas Murphy’s barn.
I arrived at the Murphy farm in the afternoon. Straightening my glasses, I walked directly to the house and knocked on the door. A lovely young woman greeted me, and showed me around to the side, into a place she called “the shop.” I had no questions to ask her, so I thanked her and picked my way across the dirt, careful not to let my spiked heels sink too far into the ground. I found the man I sought when I poked my extra-long nose into his work space. “Mr Thomas Murphy?” I peered at him over my glasses. “Your wife showed me this way. I’ve come to see if you have a moment to chat.” Thomas smiled at me in some surprise and brushed sawdust off of his flannel shirt. “Carol sent you out here? Well. This is an honor, Ma’am. Come on in, but mind the mess.”
I eyed some cobwebs in the corner with mild disgust, but then I nodded politely, flashing my teeth at him. “I am Ginger C. Mann. The C in the middle is important, thank you for remembering it. I work at a local paper, perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s called The Wrap-Up. My column has a loyal following in town, and I have heard some interesting stories about your place out here.”
“I’m happy to tell any stories you’d like to hear, I suppose.” Thomas led me into a workroom cluttered with projects in various stages of completion. Most prominent were the violins, some just starting in molds and clamps, some waiting to be varnished, some complete and stored. “You might be more comfortable back in the house in a sitting room, but if you want to start here, what questions can I answer for you?
“Well Mr. Murphy,” I took in the sight of all of his unfinished violins, “I just happened to wonder if you are you a violinist yourself?” Thomas smiled, “Violin is my first instrument, but I can also play the guitar and the mandolin, other instruments not so well.” I picked up one instrument that looked rather old and shabby, frowning at it. “Is this one here for repairs?” Thomas gently took it back from my hands, “No ma’am. It’s an old family heirloom. You wouldn’t think so to look at it, but the stories say that once long ago, the gypsies stole the crosspiece of Christ’s cross, and made it into a very special instrument that had magical powers. My grandfather claimed that ultimately it was made into a violin, and that perhaps this old thing is the same violin.” he smiled, “That’s the story they tell, anyway.” He put the violin back in the battered case and closed it up, “Maybe we should make our way back out to the house.” He went to the door and held it open for me.
I knew what he was thinking, but I wasn’t about to let him lead me back to the house. I had a ghost to catch and a column to write, after all. “Well, as it happens,” I said, “Magic is why I am calling on you now, Mr. Murphy. Tell me, how long have you and your wife lived here?” He smiled back at me, “Well, now, we were married about five years ago, and my father helped us put some money down on this place two years ago. It’s small, but I’d like to expand, if we can keep the farm producing. Why do you ask?”
I gave him my knowing grin –the one where I peer down from the top of my spectacles. “Oh well, Mr. Murphy, because I think there are some stories about our little town that you haven’t yet heard.” I broadened my smile, “Seeing as you are so new here, perhaps you don’t know what you just moved into. Has anyone told you about the hardened criminal that was hanged in that barn of yours?” I enjoyed the baffled look on his face. Thomas gestured with one hand as he scratched his head, thinking. “Well the barn and the house were already here, but hardened…? Oh, are you asking about Richard Doolan? Oh yes, I know about him. He was a drifter. He spent his days going from farm to farm picking up work where it was to be found. He got hired on here, back when it was forty acres and not split up and sold. One night, a girl from town goes to the sheriff with her dress torn, and blood on her lip, crying and saying that Doolan had raped her. The sheriff started up an investigation, but the way things were back then, the men in town were angry and took matters into their own hands. They hanged Doolan out there in the barn without waiting for the law to do its work. Come to find out, the girl made up the story. They found out later that Doolan had been at the farm all night playing cards with the boys. He couldn’t have been the one to do it.”
I was on to something, but I struggled with a flash of anger. “That woman you mentioned in your story? She’s (ahem) well, I know some things about her, and she was not— ” I composed myself, defusing my temper. I started again, “There are those who say the woman told the truth, and that the hanged man got what he deserved. Have you heard her side of the story?” Thomas shifted uncomfortably, “Funny thing about stories, Ma’am,” he said, “is that every time they get repeated, the story changes. I’ve heard many versions of the story now, and all I can say is that in each one, Richard Doolan was innocent. Some versions say that it was the girl’s boyfriend that did her wrong, and she was covering for him.” I gasped at that suggestion, hoping he didn’t hear. He continued, “Some versions say it was the farmer’s daughter and she never even went to the sheriff. Either way, yes, there was a death in that barn. I’m wondering at your motives here.” His voice rose in pitch, “What kind of story are you wanting to tell again?”
Clearly, I had upset him, but I forged ahead. “Rumor has it, Mr. Murphy — oh, wouldn’t you prefer that I call you Thomas? — Rumor has it, Thomas, that this little place of yours is actually haunted by a criminal. You know, that dead rapist who– Rumor has it that the ghost is here. Have you noticed anything strange?” He still looked perturbed, but at least he smiled when I mentioned a ghost, “You think he’s still here? You’re right, that is the rumor. I haven’t seen him myself, but I have felt it get really cold in there, even on the warmest days, and felt like I was being watched, even when I was there alone. If you’d like, you can go in and look.”
This was too easy. I did not want to give myself away by looking eager, so I played it cool. “To be honest, Mr. Murphy, I don’t think much of the ghost stories.” I put my notebook away and followed him to the barn. “I love to tell them, but off the record, I’ve never seen a thing in this town that’s haunted.” I stopped at the doorway, catching his eyes, “Now Thomas, let’s be honest with each other. You say you notice strange things in the barn, but do other people say the same?” Murphy eyed me suspiciously, “Doolan is a fellow who keeps to himself. I’ve had a few men who have worked with me say that they’ve seen him. They say that he hides in the shadows and he holds a noose in his hands. A few of my men won’t go in there, at least not alone, and I had one man quit. You can believe, or disbelieve all you want, but I think the stories are true, and that this barn is haunted.”
The barn felt clammy to me, and I tingled with anticipation. I wondered if I might spy a real ghost this time. I chose to look the part of the unbeliever, but then my tongue slipped. “All I know is that a man attacked my grandmother . . . .” I froze. “Well anyway, at least Doolan got what he deserved. Her friends saw that through.” Thomas frowned at me. “Ma’am? Are you really with some kind of paper? Writing about ghost stories? If this is something personal, I don’t mind talking to you about it, but I want you to be honest with me.” I stood up tall, raising my face to the level of his. With my nose only inches from his, I said, “my credentials are sound, Mr. Murphy. My readers follow my every word. Even though some call me words like ‘gossip,’ they still read me.” Standing my ground, I raised an arm to point, “Is that the beam where they strung him up?” Thomas frowned up at the beam. Something rustled behind us, and he turned around, distracted. It was then that a bale of hay tumbled from the top of a neat stack. It landed right in the middle of the barn floor, just inches from my pointed toes.
I screamed out loud, “What was that? The hay bale tried to kill me!” Murphy’s spoke slowly, with melodious tones. “Ma’am, there’s nothing to worry about. We just need to move on out, and leave the barn in peace.” He continued his soothing words, moving me toward the door. It did not work. Halfway to the entrance something pulled me down hard. Murphy caught me, but my right forearm throbbed with a clear white hand print. I gaped at it, looking around for the hand that assaulted me, but there was no one but the two of us. “What was that?” I screeched, “Something grabbed my arm! Mr. Murphy, do something!”
Thomas frowned, and looked about him, “Come with me.” his voice sounded like a direct order. He literally dragged me over to one of the stalls. He pulled out something that looked like a small, rusty scythe. I screamed again, and he clapped a hand over my mouth. That scythe looked like it could have been decades old, judging from its spot on the wall. I hit the floor when began to swing the crank hook at the air. He swung it and called out sternly, “Whatever it is you think you’re doing, Doolan, this is not the person you are looking for.”
From my crouched position on the floor, I saw a man appear in front of us. He was dressed in clothes from a bygone era, his eyes hollow and hateful. He held a piece of twisted rope in his hands. In response, Thomas swung the hook again, and it passed straight through the man in front of us. I let out one more shriek as he vanished into thin air. “He won’t be gone long, ma’am. Iron will send them away for a moment, but they can always come back. Let’s get out of the barn.” I did not need convincing. Thomas Murphy took my hand and shooed me out of that terrible barn, running behind me. Outside, he closed the door behind him, then looks at me with narrowed eyes, “Ma’am, I’m going to suggest kindly that you take your notebook, and go. I don’t know what you were hoping to accomplish, but you need to let the past be. There are some things you don’t want waking up.”
Well, I must admit that I won’t go back there again. Doolan doesn’t take kindly to me at all. But, what a scoop! Not only did I find my ghost, but I found a new man in town who was protecting this hardened criminal. I picked up my notebook, adjusting my glasses again before I walked out. I brush the hay off of my cheap high heels and my lime green skirt. I gave Thomas Murphy a wave and a polite smile as I left his property, but turning my back, I grinned like a Cheshire Cat. I climbed into my car and shut the door, laughing like a drunk hyena. My column was about to start buzzing for weeks. I rushed away to find a photographer before that crystal-clear handprint faded from my arm.
Julie Barnson has been a professional storyteller in Utah for over ten years. Many authors call themselves storytellers, but in this case, she means the oral tradition, not the written one. She is a member of the Utah Storytelling Guild, and performs to audiences all over the state. Her favorite stories are ghost stories. Her Octobers are filled with jobs telling stories for ghost tours, cemetery tours, Halloween parties, and other spooky events. She has a huge ghost story collection, and studies ghost folklore over the summers to prepare for her Halloween obsession. It is only natural that her first published story be a ghost story. She is married to Jay Barnson, who also has a story in this anthology. Spooky is a family affair.