Wildwood Farm was not a working farm in the traditional sense, and by traditional sense I mean it did not grow a bunch of crops, harvest said crops, sell the produce, and barely earn enough money to pay the bills. Years ago it had been converted into the aforementioned bed-and-breakfast, catering to vacationers and tourists from all over.
To the left of the main house was the Inn, a classic Victorian residence that resembled a life-size gingerbread house, complete with all the trimmings (minus the royal icing) and a white picket fence that enclosed the front yard and cobblestone walkway. Guests could enjoy the private swimming pool, hiking trails, and quiet walks along the property. The pond offered fishing, and in the winter months, ice skating and snowshoeing. But the biggest draw was the horse-drawn sleigh rides, especially during the popular Festival of Lights at Christmas time.
Jeff's parents, Ron and Sasha Markham, ran the farm. They still cultivated a huge plot for pumpkins, from which they donated many to the town-wide Halloween Festival, and they grew a slew of fruits and vegetables for their own private consumption, as well as for guests at the Inn. But in terms of farming for a living, those days were long gone.
The Wildwood property seemed to stretch for miles. Of course, it really didn't stretch for miles, but it was pretty big. Acres upon acres of old farmland that hadn't seen a tractor in ages swept north into the mountains. Most of the property's outer rim served as nothing more than a barrier, impassable sections of land that could've stopped Napoleon's army from advancing.
The Wildwood Gang emerged from the patch of trees and gazed out across the vast field of waist-high grass, a ginormous shag carpet of brown with tendrils so large it could snag even the fiercest of beasts and drag it down into the abyss.
However, this runaway cow was immune. It swam across this ocean of farmland with relative ease; its head held high and its nose in air, as if it yelled back at its pursuers, catch me if you can, suckers!
The cow made a beeline for the far end of the property. It climbed out of the grass and took a breather next to the only structure visible on this side of Wildwood Farm. It was an old stone house, weathered and beaten from the foundation to the attic. Every window was boarded up, and both the front and rear doors were padlocked with heavy chains. The metal roof was lathered in rust, while moss, lichen, and ivy smothered the exterior. The place was so dark and foreboding, even in the daylight hours, that Count Dracula himself might've passed on the opportunity to take up residence there.
"What is that place?" Ethan asked as his eyes descended upon the old stone house.
"That's Kent Cottage," Jeff replied. "It's haunted."
"Haunted?" Ethan said.
Jeff nodded. "Big time."
Kent Cottage was the one place on Wildwood Farm that the kids were forbidden from entering. Stay away from it was the word that came down from Ron Markham. Stay away from it; don't go anywhere near it; don't even think about going near it.
Ron was considered an easy-going guy. Calm, pleasant, and understanding. Even Jeff's friends felt the same. So when Ron said stay away from it, he wasn't messing around. And he tasked Mr. Heard, his foreman, with enforcing that rule.
You may have heard of the ol' good cop/bad cop routine? Well, Mr. Heard was the bad cop. He was scary and mean and struck fear into the Wildwood Gang, and most everyone on Wildwood Farm, for that matter. You did not want to get on Mr. Heard's bad side, although the Wildwood Gang had made a habit of it.
"C'mon," Drew said as he walked into the tall grass.
"Where are you going?" Jeff said.
"To the cottage. Let's get your cow."
"You kids stay put," Greg said as he rode up from behind on horseback. He was accompanied by the junior farmhand, Cody Alvarez, a strapping young lad of twenty-three, who was a favorite of the Wildwood Gang. Cody sat upon his own steed carrying a long rope with a noose tied at one end. "We'll handle this," Greg said.
"We can help," Drew said.
Greg shook his head. "I think you kids have done enough." He made a clicking sound with his mouth and guided his horse down a shallow embankment and into the grass. Cody followed and the two men galloped out to Kent Cottage to collect their fugitive. Drew looked back at Jeff and gestured towards the cottage.
"What are you nuts?" Jeff said.
"I want a closer look at that cottage," Drew said.
Jeff sighed heavily. "You know the rules."
"Rules are meant to be broken," Drew said, and then he slipped into the grass and slithered across the field.
"What about ticks?" Jeff called out to him, but Drew did not turn back.
"Should we go after him?" Ethan said.
Jeff sighed again. "I don't think we have much of a choice. Let's go."
"Jeff," Sofie pleaded, "this is not a good idea!"
"The Wildwood Gang sticks together," Jeff said, then he jumped into the grass and scurried after Drew. Ethan wasted no time in joining him, while Sofie spent a few moments deliberating her course of action.
"We are sooooo going to regret this," she muttered to herself, then joined her friends in a very un-Sofie-like move of bad decision-making. But she wasn't the only one.
Perhaps Jeff was right. They didn't have much of a choice. Not when they were part of a gang. They stuck together, adhering to their creed: one for all, all for one. Just like the Musketeers. But it was clear, as of late, that their tunics were getting tangled, considering some members of the group didn't share Drew's preference for living dangerously. Nonetheless, they followed him to Kent Cottage, where they watched Greg and Cody attempt to apprehend this utterly troublesome cow. (See what I did there?)
The two horsemen tried to corner the beast, pressing it close to the cottage. But the animal turned on a dime and darted to open land. Greg and Cody pursued, flanking the cow on either side. Cody readied the noose, twirling it to one side, but as he was about to let it fly, the cow stopped quickly, spun a one-eighty, and retreated back toward the cottage.
The horsemen rerouted and followed just as Drew and the others crawled into a clearing near the spooky stone structure. Jeff franticly scrubbed his hands across his arms and legs.
"What are you doing?" Ethan said.
"Tick check," Jeff replied.
"Oh," Ethan said, and he did the same.
"I think we have bigger problems than ticks," Sofie noted. "They're heading this way!"
Greg and Cody rode hard, holding a tight formation and boxing the cow in. The noose whirled above Cody's head before it flew through the air and lassoed the animal around its thick neck. Cody pulled tightly on the rope, securing the noose, and then he slowed to a trot. Greg directed it into the clearing near the cottage, and the beast finally came to a stop.
"The rope was a nice touch," Drew whispered to Jeff. "Why didn't we think of that?"
"Because we were running around like headless chickens?" Jeff said.
Drew scowled. "I had it under control." Then he walked over to the cottage and gave the place a once-over, studying every possible access point. Greg took notice, and with the cow safely in custody, he dismounted his steed and approached the kids.
"What part of stay put did you kids not understand?" he said.
"We just wanted a closer look at the cottage, that's all," Drew said.
Greg shook his head in frustration. "Do you have any idea of the horrors that took place here?"
"Horrors?" Ethan said, his curiosity piqued. "What kind of horrors?"
Greg slowly walked over to Ethan and leaned in close, putting his bushy mustache millimeters from Ethan's face. "Murder," Greg said. "The most gruesome murder you've ever seen."
"Wh-what happened?" Ethan stuttered.
"We don't talk about it," Greg said. "It's too scary. It'll give you nightmares for weeks. Maybe months. It's the most terrifying--- wait! What's that???"
Ethan jumped back with a start as Greg's eyes zeroed in on the gloomy cottage.
"Did you hear that?" Greg said, slightly above a whisper.
"Hear what?" Sofie said, as she wedged herself between Drew and Jeff.
Greg put his finger to his lips. "It sounded like a laugh. An evil laugh. An evil cackling laugh. I think it came from the cottage."
"I didn't hear anything," Drew said. "But I do smell something. Check your shoes, Greg. I think you stepped in some cow dung."
"Go ahead," Greg said, "make fun. But I have feeling we're being watched. Watched by the ghost of Kent Cottage. We should go."
"I say we take a peek inside," Drew said. "Let's crack open the door."
"We need to bring the cow back," Cody interjected, "before Mr. Heard finds out. If he doesn't know already."
"Oh, Heard knows," Greg said. "He always knows. And just like the ghost, he's always watching."
"Go ahead," Drew said. "We'll be right behind you."
Greg laughed. "That's hysterical, Drew. But sadly, you're all out of credibility right now. You lead the way, and maybe we won't drag your butts into Heard's office."
Jeff took hold of Drew's arm and urged him forward. "Let's go. We're in enough trouble as it is."
Drew pulled his arm free from Jeff's grasp and reluctantly followed his friend across the field. Greg and Cody rode behind with the cow in tow, making sure the Wildwood Gang found its way back to the main house. In the distance, Kent Cottage sat upon a burial ground of secrets, and the haunting darkness that lay trapped within, watched the Wildwood Gang vanish into the woods.
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.