The Twins of Shaler
Halloween Fiction By Cris Paravicini 1999
(Printed first in the SUBLETTE COUNTY JOURNAL)
As the jeep fell off the end of the pavement and onto the county road,
Lyle wondered if the clerk at Stanley's Junction had given him the right
directions. She'd seemed confused when he asked where the old Shaler
place was, but when he'd said, "It's on the Horse Creek Road," she pointed
across the highway toward the West.
It was well past dark when he'd started up
the road, but he'd figured even though he wasn't from Sublette County,
how much trouble could he find on a paved road? Surely, the local
ranchers could tell him where to find the old homestead. He was anxious
to complete his research and get on to his next assignment. Just
my luck, he'd thought. I'm always stuck with the way-in-the-hell,
out-in-the-boondocks research stuff.
Now as he rattled up the narrow road, it had
begun to snow, heavier with each quarter-mile he covered. He remembered
his recent conversation with Daniel historian, Pat Walker, asking for the
State's cooperation in a book project celebrating Daniel's centennial year.
Seems the locals are having trouble coming up with accurate information
on one, particularly mysterious homestead - the Shaler Place.
All that was known in the small town of Daniel,
or that was being talked about openly, was that a man named Henry Shaler
had had the place for only a short time when some kind of tragedy struck,
and the one-hundred sixty-acre plot was abandoned. A neighboring
rancher then bought the property for the pasture, but because of its isolated
proximity, no one ever lived there again.
This is where I come into the picture, Lyle
thought, proudly. He was good at solving mysteries.
Lyle slowed his jeep to match the rate of mounting
snowfall as it spun in dizzying wind-whipped whirls before his travel-weary
eyes. His wipers droned a Chunk, Chunk rhythm, laboring to
help him see into the white night. He was nervous now, as the snowflakes
licked and taunted. Between breaths he could dimly make out the raw
edge of the country road. Then, he ran over something.
"Whoa! What the he--?" His split-second
reflect sent him veering off the road to avoid a sickening impact with.
. . a child! But, what had he run over? He'd missed the child.
He'd seen it run off the shoulder of the road. Was there someone
else? Another child?
Lyle pushed the door open, grabbed his flashlight,
and pointing its flat, useless beam into the snowfall, yelled, "Is anyone
there? Are you hurt?"
No answer, so he picked his way up the slippery
banks of the borrow-pit, and once again called into the swirling, silent
night. "I say, is anyone out there? Can I help you?"
This time, to his left, Lyle heard a dragging
sound followed by the whining sound of a barbed-wire fence. Someone
must be crawling through the wires, he thought. As Lyle followed
the sound, now trembling from the cold, autumn storm, and the shock of
the accident, his flashlight beam fell across a piece of wood - the end
of a handle from an ax or a shovel.
Lyle followed the drag marks - smooth and
about eight inches wide - to the point where they went under the fence.
Strange, he thought, there are no footprints. Just then he heard
a little girl sobbing and a little boy's voice trying to calm her.
"That's all right, Sara, don't cry.
It will still work. He didn't break much of it."
Lyle called out to them as he climbed over
the fence, holding the little children steady in the faint light of the
flashlight. They were scantily dressed, the girl in a dress, the
little boy in breeches and suspenders.
"I won't hurt you," Lyle called out his promise.
"Where's your parents? Please let me help you; it's very cold out
here, and you have no coats."
What happened next chilled Lyle far more than
a thousand snowstorms. Upon hearing Lyle's voice, the little boy
turned his thin, pale, body squarely toward Lyle, and lifted the broken
shovel, defiantly, as if to wave him off. The waif's eyes shone in
the dim light as only animal eyes can in the night, and stared with coldness
as icy as the storm. Then, in an instant, the snow and the blackness
swallowed them. Lyle followed the short distance to where they had
hovered together. Still no footprints!
The low rumble of an approaching vehicle coaxed
Lyle back to the road where he waved his flashlight in an effort to stop
When local rancher, Joe Boroff, had pulled
the jeep back onto the road, Lyle told him about his strange encounter
and questioned whom the kids belonged to.
"No one around these parts has kids matching
that description," Joe informed Lyle. "You must've mistaken it for
something else; someone's dog, or an antelope just leavin' the area late."
Joe threw his towrope into the back of his
pickup and said, "Well, there you go. Good as new and pointed
in the right direction to take you back to civilization."
Lyle thanked Joe, then inquired. "I'm looking
for the old Shaler Place. I'd like to take some pictures and look
around the ruins tomorrow, do some documenting, if I can. Can you
give me directions?"
Joe ripped off a piece of paper from an empty
feed sack and drew Lyle a rough map. "You can get to it easier from
the Ryegrass side, south of Daniel, than you can any other way. I'll
tell my neighbor you'll be in there tomorrow, so he doesn't shoot at you,"
Joe joked, adding, "My wife, Dianne, is helping with the book, too, so
she'll be glad to have you helpin' out."
Later, after renting a room at the Striebe's
Cabins, Lyle walked across the street to the Green River Bar hoping to
turn up something about the Shaler Place - and the little kids.
Carrie poured Lyle a drink as she listened
to what had happened. A voice from the end of the bar rasped through
the smoky haze. "Young feller. Hey there, young man. Bring
me a shot of whiskey and I'll tell you all about the Shaler Place."
The old man motioned with a thin, twisted
hand for Lyle to sit next to him. He shuddered as a local cowboy
pushed the jukebox buttons and "Stairway to Heaven" began to play.
"So whatcha know, sir?" Lyle asked, unsure
if he could believe any of the tales he'd be hearing from an old barfly
who looked to be in his nineties.
"I knowed sooner or later someone would be
snoopin' around, askin' damned fool questions about that place. Now,
here you are, bigger than life, so we might just as well git this out in
the open. I was part of the sheriff's posse on that fall day long
ago when we rode into Henry Shaler's place. He was outta his head,
down on his knees digging through the dirt, and the whole time, mumbling
something about "Clara, where's my Clara? There was a little grave
on a sage knoll above the house."
The old man threw down the shot of whiskey,
grimaced, then wiped his tobacco-stained mouth on his wool coat sleeve.
Lyle motioned for Greg to give him another round.
"We'd heard from one of his neighbors that
he and Clara had lost their two, little toddlers of the flu or whooping
cough during the winter. It was 1918, you know. Seeings how it was
the dead of winter when they lost 'em, them poor folks had to wrap those
little twins in blankets and lay 'em under the bedroom floorboards till
they could dig a grave come spring. Now, don't look at me that a
way, Sonny; that's the way it was done around here.
"Anyway, we'd heard Clara wasn't getting along
so well, what with the children's deaths, and wanted to leave the place
and all its bad memories behind. Said she'd go back home to her folks
The old man hesitated as if trying to remember
what to say next, or trying to understand the past, but Lyle urged him
"One day when Henry was skidding firewood
up Cottonwood with his neighbor, Clara disappeared. Least that's
what Henry's story was. He'd got to drinkin' his own moonshine pretty
heavy, and when he did that, you didn't want to be around him. Everyone
knew he didn't want her to leave, so we all figured she'd waited her chance,
then took off for Kansas when he wasn't around to stop her. Her folks
denied it, though, when Henry wrote 'em about it. But, we all knew,
desperate as she was to leave, she'd got 'er done.
"Well, Henry was a proud man, too proud to
let Clara win, so he stayed there on Horse Creek the rest of that summer
and into the fall. We don't know what happened to snap his mind and
make him crazy like that. It's still a mystery to this day."
"You're not the first one to see 'em.
Cowboys at roundup time have had similar experiences. They all say
it's as if they see flashes of them through the willows, and then nothing.
And they weren't wearin' no coats or gloves or hats during rainstorms,
and there weren't no footprints where they'd seen 'em standing along the
muddy creek banks."
"And no footprints in the snow. . ." Lyle
added. "Well, sir, I thank you kindly. But, I'd better turn
in. Big day tomorrow digging through the ruins."
Before sunup the next morning, Lyle followed
Joe's map and easily traced the route to the edge of the property.
He left his jeep at the top of the hill and walked the 300 yards to the
valley floor. The cabin lay in a rotting mass of logs.
Lyle snapped some pictures of the outside
of the cabin, then went inside to rummage through its only two rooms.
In the bedroom, he pulled the boards from the west corner and peered into
the musty, old temporary tomb, hoping to find some reason for Henry's dementia.
While Lyle still had his head in the bowels
of the house, he heard the same dragging sound as he'd heard the night
before, but this time it was very close. While still lying on his
belly, his heart drumming on the rotting boards, he pulled his head from
the hole and looked over his shoulder.
There in the doorway, stood both children
with the broken shovel raised toward him. Lyle jumped to his feet
and backed away, then cursed himself at being afraid of toddlers.
But the hollow look in their coal-black eyes and the expressionless look,
which lay across their gaunt, yellowed faces, tortured Lyle until he cringed
into the corner.
When the little girl began to cry, the boy's
face changed to that same defiant look. Still dragging the shovel, he grabbed
up her hand and turned to lead his sister away from Lyle.
Lyle begged the return of his senses, then
followed them, snapping two photos before they disappeared around the corner
of the cabin. When he reached the edge and looked beyond its dove-tailed
logs, no one was there!
Lyle raced to his jeep and drove break-neck
speed to Office Outlet where Trudy, at his begging, dropped everything
and developed the film. When she'd finished, she laughingly told
him, "Great old cabin! Great scenery! Great shovel! I
can certainly see your rush for these!"
"My God!" Lyle shouted as he snatched the
prints from Trudy. "Everything was perfect out there - the lighting,
the settings. . . But where are the children?"
The sun was settling low in the west as Lyle
stumbled to his jeep and laid his head on the steering wheel. Then
in a flash of curiosity and intuition, he yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Yes! That's it! It's gotta be! I'm going back and nothing
is going to stop me!" People coming out of The Parts House stared
as Lyle shouted to them, "I'm not afraid! I am not afraid!"
Lyle could still make out the silhouette of
the cabin as he plugged the spotlight he'd bought at Falers' Store into
his cigarette lighter and illuminated the face of the hillside behind the
cabin. He was determined to make his final notes on the place and
check all the caches and nooks that homesteaders were known to have; and
he was sure if his hunch was right, he'd find something else.
"All right, now, Lyle," he addressed himself
as he poked along the crest of the hillside with an old crowbar he'd found
near the cabin. "Everything's cool, Lyle, everything's cool.
Stay calm. No help from the brats, yet."
Ker-chunk, went the bar as it hit something hollow
and wooden, then slipped from his hands into the black hole. He pulled
the rotting boards away from the entrance of a root cellar and shined his
flashlight into its hollowness. A tunnel led back about fifteen paces
then descended several steps. The damp, musty odor pulled at Lyle's
lungs; the cobwebs hung like thick ropes from many years of breathless
accumulation. Moonshine paraphernalia lay scattered and broken about
the cellar floor.
"Boy, old man Shaler sure kept a secret in
here," Lyle said, aloud. Satisfied that he'd seen everything, Lyle
started to leave the hillside cellar, but changed his mind. What
lie at the bottom of the stairway, he wondered?
Then, not wanting the twins to get the jump
on him again, Lyle glanced uneasily over his shoulder as his foot pawed
the air searching for the second step. In a clumsy effort to regain
his balance, he clawed futilely at the air, dropping his flashlight.
It clattered to the bottom just ahead of him.
"Jiminy cripes, Lyle, what an oaf you are,"
he said, as he sat on the bottom step wiping cobwebs from his face.
The flashlight lay at his feet still burning the darkness, still unveiling
the secrets of the valley and its past.
Lyle gasped in horror, a scream frozen in
his throat. There, not two feet from him sat the decayed, shrunken
form of a woman. She sat in a small rocking chair and her head, still
covered with wisps of brown hair, leaned against the wall of the dirt cellar;
her face was twisted in anguish, and in her arms she held close a teddy
"Oh, Ohhh, NO!" was all that Lyle could utter.
Then, from somewhere in the tunnel came the familiar dragging sound of
the shovel. He stood up as the twins appeared on the top step.
Again, the little boy held the shovel toward Lyle. This time he knew
what they wanted of him, so he carefully lifted the mummified, skeletal
form of their mother from the rocking chair and carried her out of the
cave, following them to their hilltop grave. The twins sat by the
remains while Lyle began to dig. When the grave was deep enough,
he turned toward the body. The children were gone.
Afterwards, no one ever saw the twins again.
Lyle had finished his assignment and left the valley. The book project
continues. And, sometimes, if you listen closely when the wind blows
along Horse Creek, you can hear a woman singing lullabies.