Saltonstall Farm was not a regular haunted house, and yet outwardly it possessed all of the traits necessary to be classed as one. Its location was isolated, set back from a seldom-used road in the southern English countryside. Its entrance was hidden by an army of overgrown pine and beech trees. And it enjoyed local notoriety, people in the area aware of its macabre recent history and, as a result, preferring to pretend Saltonstall didn’t exist. Only local school kids mentioned the place, scaring each other with torchlit faces that boomed tall tales of ghosts in the barn, zombies in the kitchen, corpses in the wood. But few knew the precise location of the farm’s entrance, denoted by a beech tree with a thick, white horizontal line daubed across its trunk. Even fewer knew that if you fought your way through the overgrown undergrowth you’d stumble across a crooked wooden, five-foot-high sign featuring the farm’s name in a dark red that legend insisted was blood. Truth or not, even in the scarce light that pierced through the confusion of intertwined stems and twigs, the lettering possessed a strange glow, and the sign pointed inaccurately up a narrow lane made claustrophobic by branches whose neglect had allowed them to grow unchallenged for so long they were ready to finger and scratch and claw at the faces arms legs of anyone who walked that way, and scrape and slash and grab at the roofs windows wing mirrors of any vehicles that drove that way.
At the end of the lane, the overgrowth ended suddenly, giving way to a patch of unkempt grass half the size of a football field. To its right, the gravelly drive fell away, separating the grass from the two-storey farmhouse, which was set at a curious angle to the lane, making it look like it was leering at new arrivals.
The house had fallen into major disrepair. The front door hung from its one remaining hinge in the crumbling portico, its thick, once-varnished oakwood rotting, the doorstep and frame overgrown with an unsightly and unwelcoming combination of spear thistle, chickweed and ragwort.
But Saltonstall Farm had plenty more wrong with it than these cosmetic shortcomings. As those who worked the surrounding land were at pains to point out, ‘a decrepit barn, an even more decrepit shepherd’s hut, a couple of fields and a ring of dense woodland do not a farm make.’ Saltonstall was, more accurately, a smallholding.
It had been built in 1786 by two brothers. Its haunting, however, like the wooden patio decking between the rear of the farmhouse and its adjacent barn, was a more recent addition. The fact that all was not well at Saltonstall was announced innocently enough, a crow’s squawk disturbing the uneasy silence of a late summer’s afternoon in 2002, the flap of its wings fanning the dust that hung in the still, humid air as it launched itself from a broken upstairs window like a suicidal, leaving behind a rotting oak framed window ledge splattered with the white paint of its own dung.
The squawk was followed by a scream that was not immediately recognisable as coming from either human or beast. Not that the hundred birds that instantly fled the treetops en masse like rising flour dust cared. They were out of there, those that stayed soon witnesses to three gunshots that rang out in quick succession.
A wild boar, fattened by the thickness of its own unkempt coat, scampered from the cedarwood barn behind the farmhouse, its head down, eyes startled. It was followed out by Lucas Berner, a sixty-year-old with skin as grey as his ponytailed hair, squinting along the barrel of his smoking Country Hunter .50 calibre flintlock rifle. He took aim at the boar running for its life up the mud track that led away from the farmhouse in between its two fields to the woodland at its distant end. His forefinger flicked the trigger but there was no give. He pulled the gun away, cursing its age and unreliability, briefly examining the jammed trigger before taking aim again. He flicked the rifle first left then right. But the boar was gone.
Lucas lowered the weapon and turned his attention back to the barn, a crooked structure that leant away from Saltonstall farmhouse as though afraid of it, almost to the point of collapse. Gripping the rifle, he trudged across the mud and peered through a gap in its uneven slats.
‘I’m sorry, bro’ he shouted into the barn, his breath laboured, his frequent gulping betraying just how scared he was. ‘I had to do something.’ He poked the rifle’s bore through the crack, squinting, finger hovering over the trigger.
‘You’ve been sick awhile and slowly getting worse,’ he continued. ‘I was scared. You proper scared me bro. I dunno if you’re hit. But if you come on out slowly, I won’t fire. I’ll take you in.’
A thud from the far corner caused Lucas to swing from his waist like he was tracking pheasant. His ears fancied they’d heard something heavy falling on damp wood, but in the failing light, exacerbated by his failing eyesight, he couldn’t be sure. The subsequent silence was broken by a low snort, then a snap of brittle bone.
‘What’s going on in there?’ Lucas shouted, his blood pressure higher than his doctor would have recommended, had he been brave enough to see one in the last twenty years. ‘C’mon bro. I can get you help.’
More thuds were followed by a rustle of hay. Then a black boot, its toecaps scuffed and leather creased, slid into view.
‘Get up,’ Lucas shouted, still squinting through the crosshatch. The heel of the boot thudded against the barn floor in the farthest stall.
‘I’m going to fire again,’ Lucas shouted, shifting slightly to his left to get a better angle, looking past the cartwheel that hung pointlessly from the barn wall, beyond the rusty pig’s trough and metallic confusion of the red and yellow thresher that stood lop-sided on one punctured wheel, blackening the hay underneath as it leaked oil like blood from a wound, drip by slow drip.
This new angle brought into play another boot, laying at an unnatural angle to the first. Above it, an ill-fitting navy blue trouser leg, shapeless and speckled with dusty brown stains. Lucas tracked up and gasped. In an instant, he felt bitter bile force its way up from his stomach into the back of his throat. Gagging, he turned away, dropping the rifle as his hands covered his mouth.
He spat out the bile and recovered his composure with deep breaths. Picking up the gun, he peered back into the barn.
His eyes returned to the leg, stained red, blood soaking into the strands of hay beneath it like mercury rising up a thermometer’s stem. He tracked the blue trousered lower leg up to the knee, pausing, not wanting to look higher, because he knew… he knew he had to see it again. There was nothing above the knee. Nothing but hay drowning in blood.
A sudden squeal rocked Lucas back, the shock almost proving too much for his heart. He lurched forward, fumbling the rifle until it pointed into the barn. Another wild boar was sniffing the wounded legs, its snout bloodied, red saliva dripping from its mouth as it chewed, chomped on flesh.
Lucas struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. He knew he and his brother hadn’t fed any of Saltonstall’s animals for weeks. But this? The nature of the boar’s desperate meal sent chills pulsing down his spine.
He steered the rifle toward the boar, splitting wood as he sought out a clear shot, a chance to spare his brother this indignity. He took aim, and fired, the boar’s flank bursting open as if it had swallowed a stick of lit dynamite. Flesh and blood rained against the barn’s walls. Strange circular sparks floated out of the exposed wound. Lucas turned away, not wishing to bear witness to the beast’s last kicks and thrashes. He clenched his eyes shut and waited for the sound of hooves scraping, flailing along wood and through hay to cease.
When the dying was done, he took a deep breath, enjoying the total silence of the countryside, a serenity that was quickly invaded by thoughts of what to do with his brother’s corpse. There were plenty of places to bury a body out here and few people who’d miss Casper. Neither brother had left Saltonstall for over a year, and no one had paid a visit in that time.
Lucas decided he would bag-up his brother’s corpse and bury it amid one of the many bramble bushes that grew unchallenged up in the woods. He rested his rifle against the wall and walked toward the house to get binbags from the kitchen. As he stepped through the patio doors he stopped and cocked his head. That was definitely a scraping sound coming from the barn. An unexpected last twitch from the pig? He slowly opened the door. The boar lay at the far end exactly where it had fallen, its midriff an exploded mess.
Another scrape. Definitely not the boar.
Lucas edged further into the barn, his boots thudding against the hardwood floor as he moved closer to his brother’s corpse which lay in the third and final stall on the left.
Another scrape. Coming from that direction. A rat, quick to scent the feast that awaited? Saltonstall had a major rodent problem. Lucas lost count of the number of times he’d told Casper they needed a cat, but his brother had always refused. ‘Just another mouth to feed,’ he reasoned.
He edged closer until his brother’s shock of grey hair was visible over the top of the fence that divided the final two stalls. Fine hairs were dancing on his scalp, catching the breeze that sneaked through the gaps in the barn wall.
Casper was slumped in the corner of the stall, leaning slightly forward, leaking blood from two gunshot wounds in his chest, with a third wound just above the knee. The hay around his corpse was slowly turning from an oily yellow to a brilliant red. Lucas’ thoughts reverted to how he was going to get the body out and clean up the mess. He turned away, looking for the wheelbarrow (there was definitely one somewhere).
When he turned back, Lucas froze. His brother’s head was gradually rising. His brother was slowly sitting up. His brother was trying to stand up. Lucas backed away, trying to shake this horrific vision out of his head. Casper leant against the stall fence and pulled himself up then looked down, disgusted by the wounds in his chest, dismayed that half of his leg remained on the barn floor, separated from the rest of his body, a chunk bitten out of its calf by the bloodthirsty boar whose carcass lay on the floor in front of him.
Casper leered at Lucas then grabbed the pitchfork that protruded from the haystack in the corner of the stall. Lucas backed away, fearing Casper was about to launch it at him. But his brother needed it as a makeshift walking stick.
After hobbling a few steps, he stopped and looked down into the hay. The amputated section of his leg twitched, then spun three hundred and sixty degrees, taking on a life of its own. Lucas looked at it aghast. Casper eyed Lucas and smiled, then raised the pitchfork above his head and mercilessly plunged it into the quivering flesh, twisting the tines until the leg was still.
Lucas backed away, shaking his head, as he tried to convince himself none of this was happening while searching for a weapon he could defend himself with in case it really was. He tried to rip the cartwheel from the wall, but it had hung there for a generation and planned on staying another. He skirted the thresher and backed into the pigs’ trough, its lightweight tin making a thin, hollow clang as it scraped along the barn floor.
‘You are not my brother,’ Lucas shouted at his brother.
Casper tried to speak, but succeeded only in producing a rasping gargle. His eyeballs rolled up into his head as if he were experiencing an intense pain beyond anything he’d endured before.
Lucas retreated to the entrance of the barn, never once taking his eyes off his slowly advancing brother.
‘There’s a gun out here, bro,’ he warned. ‘And I won’t hesitate to use it and separate your head from your shoulders.’
Casper continued to hobble forward, the three tines of the pitchfork thudding against the floor, splitting the moist wood as they dug in. When he reached the barn door he stopped, the harsh shafts of daylight stealing in through the open door causing his head to roll and duck and shake like his neck was made of putty. He lurched from side to side then his head swung round and round as his mouth was forced open, like he was letting out a piercing, bone-shaking shriek.
Only he made no noise.
Outside on the decking, Lucas glanced furtively to his left and was greeted by the reassuring sight of his rifle. In a flash his hands were on it and it was in front of his head and he was squinting and fumbling for the trigger, but nothing was happening. He was pressing the trigger but he wasn’t blowing his brother away. His brother was filling the barn doorway, squinting in the brightness, mocking his brother’s inability.
‘Bastard thing,’ Lucas shouted. He shaped to throw the weapon to the ground but checked himself. If his brother got hold of it, the consequences would be catastrophic.
Confused, repelled and scared, Lucas ran, away from the barn, up the track toward the woods, slashing at invisible assailants with the rifle, yelling incoherence as he stumbled into the right-hand field, running as fast as his sixty-year-old lungs and legs would let him, through patches of bare ground and areas of lush grass where the few remaining sheep and goats hadn’t yet grazed. As he ran up the field toward the shepherd’s hut, he held the rifle at arm’s length in front of him, and looked over his shoulder to see if his brother was gaining.
The sheep saw Lucas approaching with the gun and fled en mass up a gently undulating bank of sun-yellowed grass peppered with molehills of dung in various stages of decay.
Lucas didn’t know where he was going, only that he wanted to get there fast. He had to be hallucinating, had to be. This was down to lack of food. He hadn’t eaten well for days. Longer. Weeks. Neither of them had. He turned again and saw his brother staggering up the track, one arm leaning on the pitchfork, the other extended straight in front of his face, like a, like a… Lucas couldn’t bring himself to think it, let alone say it.
As the gloom of evening took its rapid hold on the fast-fading light of day, Lucas quickened his pace and plunged into the woods. Casper gave up the chase and stood guard outside Saltonstall farmhouse, waiting for his brother’s inevitable return.