This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. Gabe and Violetta discover the Sunset House, a lonely manor on top of the hill, whose halls are filled witch secrets.
The night was cool. The moon hung low, full, and fat, and a serene wind passed through the tall grass on the wide plain. The house sat on the top of a hill, its white walls spread out like a sprawling beast. No lights were on its swept head windows, and darkness filled it like water does a cup. A white fence surrounded the estate, a gravel path leading from the front hall to the main road. The two storied house stared out, sleeping.
A scream filled the night like a siren, and then, a gunshot.
Silence descended back on the house like the hand of God. It stood, empty and alone, darkness surrounding it.
Nevada offered nothing but vast open deserts and mountains. Gabe and Violetta had grown bored of it by the time they reached the town at a cross section of roads.. They paid for rooms, housed their horses, and collapsed onto dusty beds until their stomachs demanded food, and then they walked down to find the inn filled. People were drinking and playing poker, stories were being shared, dust covered travelers were spending their hard earned money.
Violetta and Gabe sat with their beers and some food and listened to the talk. They were both too tired to do any talking themselves. At their shared table, three men were arguing, and they listened in an idle way.
“It’s nothing but a hoax,” one of the men said, sloshing his drinks at the others angrily.
“Myra and Malcolm ain’t the type to makeup stories,” another said.
“I’d make up all types of stories if I was cheated out of a perfectly good house.” The drunk shook his head. “They ain’t even lived in it a few months.”
“She said it was too much,” the third man said somberly. “They don’t even want to sell the land.”
“Shoulda known. When you get land like that at that price. Bound to be trouble.”
“Ain’t bound to be cursed!” the second man said.
Violetta looked at Gabe. He shook his head no. She then turned and said, “Excuse me, gentlemen. I can’t help but overhearing. What’s this about a cursed house?”
They looked at the pair of them. The drunk seemed ramping up to rant again, but the third man gave them a sober sigh.
“It’s the Sunset House,” he said. “Everyone round here knows about it.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“Haunted, apparently,” the second man said. “Myra and Malcolm Warner bought the house six months ago and were waken every night by a man all in black standing over their bed.”
“Or they bought it on the cheap and realized they didn’t want it.” The drunk shook his head. “I don’t blame ‘em. But ghost stories ain’t the likeliest of problems.”
“They ain’t the only ones!” the second man said. “They paid a couple men to bring some things from the house, and they said they heard things. Thumping on the walls. One said blood appeared on the stairs.”
“You know why they call it the Sunset House?” The third man leaned in conspiratorially. “No one can stay past sunset.”
“Do you think you could point out the Warners for me?” Violetta asked sweetly.
They barely needed their help. A couple sat together, hands shaking as they curled around their mugs, a few people stopping to talk to them, but they kept their heads down. Violetta dragged Gabe towards them.
“One night of relaxation is all I ask,” Gabe said.
“We won’t ride out tonight.” She looked up at him. “It’s a haunted house, Gabe. I’ve always wanted to see a haunted house.”
“We’ve seen haunted houses.”
“We’ve seen haunted people. Nothing tied so close to the land.”
She put on a consoling face and sat across from the couple. They might’ve been younger than they look, but something about them was harrowed. White flecks touched the brown locks of Myra Warner, her cheeks sunken in despite her full figure, and dark circles beneath her eyes. Her husband was worse. Malcolm Warner might’ve been a handsome man once, before his hairline pulled back, and the lines of his face creased together into an expression of permanent worry. They wore clothes of fine cloth, but Violetta suspected a lot of money was sunk into the house they could no longer stand to live in.
Violetta introduced herself and Gabe and shared with them their work. The couple seemed relieved to have someone believe them.
“Can you tell us what you’ve seen?” Gabe asked.
Myra looked to her husband, who sucked in a breath. “Every night we were visited by a man in black. He stared at us with such hatred. The first night I thought he was an intruder and fired my pistol at him, but when we raised the lights, he was nowhere.”
“I would not be alone in the house,” Myra whispered. “I felt him all the time behind me.”
He placed his hand on hers. “And then after a few weeks, the screaming started. Late in the night. It woke us every time, and our servants. They left one by one, until it was only us.”
“They said at night, they heard something. It thudded against the floors. They’d find trails of blood.”
She let out a little sob and was comforted by her husband.
“We bought the house for half of what it’s worth,” he said. “The previous owners hid the horrors from us, but I don’t think it started with them. The people here tell me it’s gone through a few owners.”
“It just looked so lonely,” Myra said in a quiet, shaking voice. “We wanted to make a home.”
Violetta looked at Gabe, and he sighed.
“There’s a possibility we can help,” he said.
It was how, the next day, they set out towards the Sunset House. The sky overhead was overcast, a humidity making the air thick, and Gabe commented a storm was likely to follow. They followed the trails out of the town towards a large hill that overlooked this town and others. They could see the house from a distance, standing atop its plateau, large eye windows gazing out, its white walls standing tall. The first floor stretched out over the land, and the second floor occupied half of its space, a sloped roof shining in the late date. A stable for horses and carriages, a servant’s quarters, and several acres that had been sent aside for many thing. The house had been built. The rest was still waiting to be made into something.
“It looks rather lonely,” Violetta said.
Gabe nodded. “And no one around for miles. How old do you think it is?”
She shrugged. “It seems one day it was built. Whoever the original owners were, they are long gone.”
“A good sign,” he mumbled.
Only as they got close could they see how large the estate truly was. A large parlor had open windows to look out onto what would one day be a garden. The stables were in ruin, the roof caving in, and rain had washed out the clean white to a more natural color. More land was fenced off behind it as part of the estate, the remnants of a building project long gone. They left their horses tied up, took their bags, and walked to the curved front door. Gabe knocked, and they waited a full minute. Nothing happened.
“It’d be fun though,” he said as he pushed the door open, “if it just opened on its own.”
She smiled. “It’d certainly be eerie.”
Arched doorways emulated Grecian columns in the front hall, but the baseboard was moldy and in need of work. Furniture remained: small dark wood tables grown dusty and off color; flowers that had long since died kept in shining blue and white vases; paintings whose canvas was torn; wood floors that creaked and groaned beneath their feet. In front of them was a long quarter turning staircase, and on each side archways to new rooms. A small bowl had been set aside for calling cards, empty and dusty.
“There’s not much here,” Gabe said.
“It looks like no one ever got settled.” She looked over the dusty furniture.
“And left in a hurry.”
She rapped her knuckles against the walls. They waited a moment, but no response sounded. “It sounds very textbook, doesn’t it? Pipes stop working, objects moving on their own, knocks on the walls. Apparitions. Screaming.”
“Walls dripping blood,” he reminded her. “Is the sun down?”
She pulled back the heavy curtain, sending dust flying into the room. The sky was ruby red. “Not yet.”
“Then we’ve got some time. What do you normally do about a haunted house?”
She considered as she sat down on the couch and then waved a hand in front of her face to send away the dust. “Call a priest, I’d think. If you’d like, we can toss around a little holy water.”
“You have holy water?”
She shrugged. “I try to be prepared.”
There was much house to explore. The kitchen was open and wide, meant to be the workplace of many people. Silver knives remained in their blocks, and the pantry still full of items that could keep. Gabe noticed a stain on the white walls by the basement door, but it only looked like mold. They stepped into the dining room, where chairs had been knocked aside, and porcelain and glass littered the ground. In a cabinet, each glass had been burst, leaving only the stems. Flowers were wilted in their vases, ants taking over their duty to remove them. Spiders had made a home of the parlor. A teapot had been spilled, leaving an ugly brown stain across the table and onto the floor.
The sun set without a sound. The sky turned a velvet color, and the moon appeared amid storm clouds, muting the light in the sky. Violetta had been sorting through her bag as Gabe explored the upstairs. She stood over the parlor, hands on her hips, imagining this place as it’d meant to be. Alone, on the hill, it felt so empty, removed of anything that made a house a home and not just a setting stage for someone’s life. She tapped her knuckles again on the table, and this time a sudden tap responded. She stood straight up
“Gabe?” she called.
“On the stairs!” he shouted from the other room. “Come look at this!”
She hesitated a moment. Reaching out, she knocked one more time. After a minute, she was rewarded with a thud against the wall.
“It’s happening,” she said as she returned to the front hall, where the tall skinny staircase went to the second floor. Gabe stood halfway between, testing something on the boards. “I heard a knocking.”
“There’s something here,” he said, gesturing her up. “I thought it was the carpet, but I don’t know.”
The stairs were carpeted, and a part of it had been frayed. She could see where his foot pressed down there was an indent. He tested is weight on it again, and then they both jumped away as a sticky red liquid squeezed up from it. He gave her a glance, and then he leaned down to it. He reached out a hand, Violetta watching closely, and then the air filled with the sound of a woman screaming.
There was a shock in the air as the scream rang out and fell away. Gabe’s head jerked up, and Violetta rocked back on her heels. The scream echoed from above them, the sudden silence spilling down from the stairs. Violetta didn’t wait. She hopped over the strange step and ran up the stairs. Gabe tried to grab her arm, shouting behind her. Violetta didn’t listen. Upstairs, there was one long hallway that branched off into bedrooms, studies, and small chambers. She followed the reverb of the scream in the air and shoved open the master bedroom door.
It was empty but for furniture. No paintings were hung on the walls, but the shadows where they’d been remained. The sheets were pulled over the bed as though it’d never been touched. Very little sleeping was done here. Like the rest of the house, dust covered everything, and the blue curtains fluttered gently as though touched by a breeze. She walked forward, heard Gabe behind her, and when she turned to him, the door slammed shut.
She stared, suddenly frozen. The curtains were moving more. Slowly she stepped forward, squeezing her hand around the doorknob. A careful tug didn’t pull it open. A hand slammed against the door, and she jumped back, breathing out a sigh of relief when she heard Gabe’s voice.
“It won’t open!” he shouted, muffled by the distance between them.
“I think there’s something in here,” she said, her voice calm.
“Hold on,” he said. “I’m going to find something break it down.”
“Wait,” she breathed out, pressing her palms to the door.
No reply came from the other side. Violetta wasn’t used to feeling scared. She ran headfirst into danger every day, had battled boogeymen and monsters, had met witches and creatures of all kinds. But the emptiness of the house emptied her out as well. The only thing that filled it was wind. It was hollowing her out, and right now she really wanted her friend at her side.
She sucked in a breath and moved to the center of the room. Holding her arms out, she lifted her chin, and swallowed her fear.
“If there are any spirits here,” she said in a shaky voice, “make yourself known to me.”
For a while there was nothing. No sound at all. The empty house remained. At the door, she heard a knock.
“Gabe?” she called again, returning to the door.
And then stopped.
She could feel a presence behind her. It was suffocating. The air was drawn from the room, and she gasped in response before turning around, where she saw the figure all in black.
Gabe searched desperately for anything in the house: a hammer, an axe, a particularly strong letter opener. No one had lived here long enough to fill it with useful items. He pulled open the drawers of the desk in a study and let them clatter to the ground. Nothing.
He went downstairs to retrieve their backs. His hands found the small bottle of holy water Violetta had brought and he pocketed it. He half considered shooting out the door but feared where that put Violetta if it misfired, and then considered the cleavers on the knife block. Above him there was a heavy thump, and his gaze went up. He couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on what was here with violetta upstairs. There were stables and surely a shed outside with materials. He grabbed the doorknob for the front door, and it did not move in his hand. He examined the door carefully and then threw his shoulder into it. The door didn’t budge.
He heard the thump right behind him and turned quickly, holding the bottle in his hands. The stairs were empty, but he heard it again. A dragging noise, like a bag of laundry being tossed down the stairs. Thump. Thump. Rhythmic. The step he’d found squeezed more thick, viscous dark red liquid. Blood didn’t come out like that, he told himself. Not new blood anyway. It was not a reassurance.
Another heavy sound hit the floor above his head. There was nothing to break the door down with except himself,a and he had a suspicion that wouldn’t be enough. There had to be tools around here somewhere. A hammer, an axe, a crowbar, something.
Kitchen drawers were empty. He grabbed a knife from the block, and stepped back. On the wall in front o fhim he saw a line of red appear. Like the stairs, the liquid was scarlet red, thick and slow. A bead slowly made its way down the white wall of the kitchen, and then more followed. A sheet of red was pouring out from the ceiling, painting the walls red. Behind him was the sound of a door opening. A drafted lifted up the stuffy room, and he turned slowly. The basement door had opened on its own, and behind the door was empty darkness. No light came through, and a well of black waited him on the other side. Blood continued to pour down the walls, and above he heard floorboards creaking.
The breeze came from the doorway, and with it a whisper. Gabe stood at the threshold and looked at the stairs that led down into darkness. The air was ancient, dank and musty, and a suggestion of rotted meat or food gone bad filled his nostrils. He covered his nose with his hand. Leaving the knife on the counter, he glanced back at the wall of red, the hurried sounds playing an uneven symphony above him, and he took a breath and started down the stairs.
Violetta started back and hit a wall. The man in black stood there, perfectly still, a hat over his eyes and a heavy coat on his shoulders. His face was hidden beneath the hat and hair, but she could feel his eyes on her, so filled with hate and malice that it took her breath from her. She’d met many ghosts in her day, but few had been as menacing by doing half as little. She straightened up.
“Are you the spirit that haunted Myra and Malcolm Warner?” she asked, keeping her voice steady.
The figure didn’t move. Its dark shape reminded her of being a child, where dark shadows moved just out of her line of sight, and she could only cure herself by burying her face beneath her covers. His face was one of some men she’d known, the cruel ones, who talked down to their wives and belittled their children. Little moonlight could make it through the windows, but it revealed his shape to be less than solid. Rain started pattering against the window.
“Is this your house?” She grappled for a line of questioning that would get a response. He only stared. “Why did you drive out the families that lived here?”
Outside the room, she heard what sounded to be a person slumping against the wall. She hesitated to look away, but she glanced back, shouting a tentative, “Gabe?”
No response came. The heavy, drawn out footsteps continued down the hall. She whirled back around, and now the figure was closer, only a foot from her, and anger etched into his iridescent features. The bed began to rattle, as did the dresser, and the other furniture in the room. The standing mirror tipped forward, shattering glass across the carpeted floor, and she jumped back. Her hand desperately grabbed for the doorknob, and the door banged at her back. She was knocked forward, and the figure was just in front of her. An arm shot out, grabbing her by the neck, and she cried out as he dragged her up, the heavy hands squeezing tighter and tighter around her throat. Gasping, she tried to hit back, but her arm only slid through him, sending an ice chill through her. He disappeared, as though he realized he was not a physical thing, and she collapsed to her knees, sucking in a breath.
Don’t be afraid, she told herself. React carefully. She’d left everything downstairs, out of reach, and she wished she had any of her items, even her journals. Gabe hadn’t returned. Had the spirit locked him away as well? Focus, that was what she needed. Why is this spirit here? What has trapped him in this place?
“Did you live here?” she shouted at the empty room. “Did you die here? Why do you keep us here?”
As if by answer, the door behind her clicked open, just slightly, enough to see the hall outside. A shadow passed over it, and she quickly pulled it open, giving a cry when her hand came away slick. Blood coated her palm, stick and dark in color. The whole room smelled rotted now, and the furniture began to shake again a though it would lift up and fly at her. She ran into the hallway, slamming the door behind her, and hit the wall, slumping against it to catch her breath.
A scream cut through the air, so sudden and violent, it caused her to fall back as though slapped. The woman’s scream died out with a worrisome finality, and in its empty place silence sucked back in like air filling a vacuum. Violetta held her breath, afraid to break that silence, and then…
Her hands shook as she raised herself up, smearing blood on the wall when she pushed herself away. The sound was coming from the stairs. She saw, at the end of the hallway, the figure all in black, staring at her as he stood over the staircase. He disappeared. She stopped halfway down the hall, the corner wall obscuring her view of the staircase.
She’d faced a thousand horrors. The amount of times she’d nearly died would never fit on her tombstone. There were no nightmares left for her in this world. Violetta straightened her back, and she turned the corner.
Immediately her hands drew to her mouth, and she took a staggering step back. There was a–a thing on the staircase. It was the only work to describe it. The mass stuttered forward, one arm raised to drag itself forward, a head rising from what may have been a torso. Like a mummy, it was wrapped in an old cloth that bound its limbs, the skin yellow and cracked, no eyes, no mouth, no ears, its features wrapped behind what looked to be a bedsheet. Blood smeared everything it touched. If it were a man, it was not recognizable, and if it were a creature, it proximity to humanity made it unsettling. A rotted smell rose from it like a long dead garden, so horrible it made her eyes water. Clumps of hair were wispy strands matted to its skin, and it used its arm to guide it, lifting its torso as it navigated the stairs. For a moment, Violetta could see the red smeared across its chest, pouring from a hole in its center, and then its body slammed down, making that terrible thudding noise. It repeated again, climbing the stairs towards her.
Violetta couldn’t look at the horrible thing. It thumped towards her, slowly, like a mournful drumbeat, and in its face was an unending loneliness, a desolation that came only from deprivation. It raised its hand towards her, grabbing her by the boot, and dragged her down.
The darkness was an ocean around Gabe, who wished desperately for a light of some kind. His eyes adjusted, but never enough. It wasn’t like the open desert, where the moon and stars softened shadows, or the forest, where the trees made patterns all their own. The basement’s darkness was full, unforgiving, and he had to hold a hand in front of him to keep from banging his head against pipes. His feet kicked long forgotten items that would skitter out of reach, never to be found again. The air stank of something long dead, and the sound of scurrying rats were everywhere. His vision was still full of the blood dripping from the walls, and he shook his head and grappled for anything at all. He was rewarded, against the far wall, when he found a wooden handle, the weight of a hammer on its end. He hefted it up, and then the screaming started.
It was everywhere in the basement, shrieking and sobbing, a desperate cry from someone in pain. He swung around, hammer raised, but nothing came at him. The basement remained empty, the sound of dripping gently hitting something metal, no movement, nothing at all. The screaming continued, and for a fearful moment he thought it might be Violetta, but it was here in the room with him. Then a sound he recognized: a gunshot. The silence that followed was deafening. Water dripped. The air was heavy. He pressed his hand against the brick wall of the basement and pulled away when he found something sticky. Like the kitchen above, or the floorboards of the stairs, something dripped from the bricks, turning the mortar a red clay color. The stones seemed to sink as the liquid seeped out, but only on a small part of the wall. The rest remained untouched.
He raised the hammer over his head and dropped it down. It struck the bricks, splattering blood, and the wall cracked. He slammed it down again, and now part of the wall fell away. The smell of rot grew stronger, and he could barely see within the wall a small space. A form was curled up, bent slightly so it was hard to see, wrapped in some kind of cloth, hair stringing down in ugly bunches, one hand reaching out as though waiting for him. He peered in and became aware of a presence behind him.
It was a figure all in black. The man stood there, hat pulled down, coat pulled up, eyes soulless. The room grew cold, cold as the expression on the apparition. Gabe could say for certainty what evil laid in the hearts of men, because he’d seen it, and the ripples it left behind, and he had not felt something like this before. Darkness etched around the ghost, making its shape hard to see. The smell of blood and rot was so thick in the air, he couldn’t breathe.
“Alright.” He breathed out. “You probably don’t want me to see what’s behind this wall.”
The figure shuddered slightly as it moved forward, one arm stretched out to him.
“Yeah, I figured,” he muttered and raised the hammer again, bringing it down on the brick wall.
The screaming started again as soon as the brick shattered away, a howl of pain and anger, and the body within the wall began to move. Its thin fingers squeezed the air, slumping itself forward, and its wrapped jaw moved as though trying to speak. The apparition halted, staring at the horror in front of GAve. Its face became a mask of anger, and the man in black flew at him, grabbing his throat so tight and sudden that the hammer dropped to teh floor. The apparition gave a roar through its black teeth and gaping maw, dragging Gabe into the darkness. Gabe reached desperately for anything and found the small bottle of holy water. Slicing like a knife, he brought it up, splattering water onto the apparition. It let go, screaming and stumbling back into the darkness. The horror behind him let out a dry, gasping laugh.
Gabe didn’t hesitate. He ran forward, clumsily finding his way to the stairs. He slammed open the door and found the kitchen now completely painted red, and the floors slick with blood. He burst into the front hallway, and there was Violetta, kicking wildly as the horror dug its one hand into her face, its deformed body on top of her. Blood was pouring from every wall and the stairs, running like a river. From the bullet hole in the center of its chest, more blood stained. He dropped the last of the holy water onto the horror, and it gave a strangled scream. Like the apparition, it disappeared.
He pulled Violetta off the floor. She was shaking, and he was sure he was too. They were both covered in blood. Bruises formed on both their necks, and she held onto his jacket like she was going to fall over.
“Are you alright?” she asked, looking at him.
“Peachy.” He grimaced. “That thing–it’s a body in the basement. Buried in the wall.”
Her fingers moved in a flurry as her mind raced. “It’s a shadow play of some kind. The man, the woman, a scream, a gunshot, and then all the blood. It’s seeped into the house somehow. There’s two spirits, each remembering what was done.”
“It won’t let us leave,” Gabe said, and cursed when he remembered the hammer in the basement. “We could make an exit, but I left our only tool downstairs.”
“Where the thing is.” She grabbed for her bag and searched desperately through it. “We’ll be quick. Maybe we’ve scared them off for a while.”
“I doubt it.” He removed matches from his own supplies. “I’ll get it.”
“No.” She grabbed his arm. “No, let’s not split up again.”
They hurried through the kitchen and down the stairs. The match light wasn’t much, but it offered a new view at the basement, the red stone and clutter of broken items. The gaping hole remained, with the creature inside. Violetta took over the matches as he picked up the hammer. She stared within at the poor, broken thing, and then struck another match, dropping it into the small space.
Gabe grabbed her arm. “What are you doing?”
“Spirits are tied to their bodies,” she murmured. “And this one has no proper burial.”
The match caught, and the body lay still as the fire began to consume it. It glowed out into the room, and for a moment the travelers could look within, and felt for a moment, release. A slight breeze filled the basement, and then another presence was felt. The man in black stood between them, and then his hand raised up, slapping Violetta to the ground. Gabe reacted quickest, bringing the hammer up, but it passed through the apparition. It growled in anger, a swath of darkness with black teeth, and it raised its arm to Gabe as well, when the body within began to moan and move. A burning arm reached out, shedding light into the dark space, and grabbed the apparition by the coat. It howled and tried desperately to pull away, but the horror held tight, dragging its burning body from the furnace they’d created it. Fire spread with it, catching onto the wood flooring and the various items. Violetta staggered up, reaching for Gabe, and they backed away as the horror grabbed onto the apparition.
They seemed to shift. His details became clearer, the sharp cheekbones, the set of his jaw, his dark eyes opening in horror, and she did as well. The bedsheet flared out around her like a Roman dress, flames devouring everything they touched, her face lifting into the light. Her lips opened in a horrifying scream, her fingers digging into his neck, her eyes as bright and brutal as the fire around her, and she held him close. He screamed and screamed and screamed, until the only thing that was left of the two of them were ashes.
The fire continued to consume. The travelers ran. The blood on the walls and floor had turned to fire as well, and the wallpaper peeled away into ash, the furniture charred remnants of what it once was. The door remained shut, and Gabe lifted his hammer, striking it once, and then again, and then again, until the hinges gave out, the wood splintered, and the door fell back, letting in the nighttime air. The storm was now in full force, rain splattering the hard dirt, and lightning striking in the distance. They ran. They did not look behind them to see the house blaze, or if the ghosts survived, only felt the ash against their necks and the rain on their faces. Violetta shouted as lightning struck out of the sky, hitting the house directly, and wood splintered, sending fire and debris everywhere. They stared at each other before grabbing their horses and riding away.
They didn’t stop until they returned to town, didn’t breathe until they felt they were safe again. By the time they returned, the sun was starting to rise.
It was impossible to explain to anyone what had happened. After cleaning themselves up, washing away any traces of blood and smoke, and sitting alone without the fear of the walls tapping back at them, they went to Myra and Malcolm Warner and told them everything.
“The house’ll be burnt down,” Violetta apologized.
“But it’s empty,” Malcolm said. “There’s nothing left.”
“As far as we can tell,” Gabe said.
That relief seemed to be enough. Husband and wife held hands and, for the first time, seemed to relax.
They rode back a few days later with a few men from town to look at the damage. There was nothing left of the house except rubble and burnt land. They stayed a while, exploring what was left, which was not very much. There was some discussion of rebuilding it, but as the sun grew low, they all got on their horses and left. The sun set behind them, leaving nothing on the lonely land but shadows.