There’s a trail that leads out of Leadville, Colorado, raised like a railroad on high banks. It leads to what remains of Oro City, a true 1860s-era ghost town from the gold rush days. The elevated nature of the trail allows visitors to look down on dilapidated cabins, storage buildings, stores and saloons, although, without a guide it might be hard to distinguish what was what. But if you’re up for it, there’s another site further up into the hills. So little remains, there are no recent published maps that mark it. You have to leave the trail entirely and trek through the pines for a mile or so. The hills close in on either side for a stretch, but eventually they pull away to reveal an even smaller valley with a little creek bed winding through. The folk who once lived here called the place Shirlytown.
There’s really not much left to look at. Some rough-hewn planks hanging onto one another like old drunks staggering out of a bar. Gray stones lined up that might have supported a structure and others strewn in circles that could have warmed pioneers as well as hikers from the eastlands. But time and the ceaseless assault of nature have long since worn, blown or washed away most patterns so that one could pass by and mistake it for any other high-country valley. Still, there are places where those forces have failed to sweep away the desiccated remains of memory. Wander around this little valley for a bit, and you’ll get the sense that Shirlytown is one such place. Hikers have returned to Leadville reporting a sense of someone else’s despair falling across their shoulders, of someone else’s anger driving them to hostility against comrades or family. Usually a haunted site draws curious visitors that feed the local economy. Shirlytown is pushed away into the closeted woods like a demented shit-soiled grandparent kept in the attic.
Only a very few have explored the vanished town long enough to take note of a certain pile of stones in what must have been the main thoroughfare. If you’ve remained, you may have stumbled upon it by now. Only knee-high and generally unremarkable, the pile is easy to dismiss. But a closer inspection will lead you to think great care and much time was taken in selecting the rocks heaped here. Although they vary in size – anywhere from that of a golf ball to a person’s head – the stones all seem to have one particular thing in common: a side that bears a striking resemblance to a human face. Most curious of all, no matter how detailed and accurate the other facial features are, the eyes are always a pair of x’s. If you’re skeptical you’ll say the stones were some lonely prospector’s hobby, the result of repeated attempts to produce something artistic. But apart from the scratched eyes, there is nothing about the stones to suggest they were sculpted by hand. It would seem they were selected because of their natural shape and brought to this place for some inexplicable reason. And at some point along the way, someone bothered to scratch the “eyes” out.
Back in Leadville, there are those who’ve lived long enough to recall tales once told about Shirlytown. Put the shards together and a cohesive story starts to emerge not found in any of the books of local history or folklore. It’s not exactly a ghost story. Rather, it’s a story of violence that led to such ghosts’ existence. Of events that would leave an evil stain on an obscure scrap of valley still not fully cleansed.
Sit and have a listen.
In the fall of 1863, the Civil War was laying waste to the southeastern states with clashes and sieges that seemed unending. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, the Union forces under Ulysses S. Grant had successfully routed the Confederates and driven them into Georgia. When Grant took a promotion and left General Sherman to embark on his devastating March to the Sea, the ripples within the ranks led a certain lowly surgeon by the name of Jerome Stiles to steal away and desert.
It was a shrewd move for Dr. Stiles. The increasing number of dead and crippled soldiers that tended to leave his surgeon’s tent in worse condition was turning eyes his way. Stiles wasn’t an incompetent doctor at all, but was actually quite brilliant. So it was puzzling that, during the turmoil of a military engagement, when supervision was at its lowest, patients with belly or head wounds were having their limbs removed. Many of them didn’t survive to make it off the doctor’s operating table. There was no lack of screaming in any medical area near a battle, but the screams coming from Stiles’ tent were always longer. The truth was, Stiles took great pleasure in eliciting these screams. It had started out as a fascination for him at the war’s beginning, but his urges – and his skills – had grown to the point where his patients were sure to live long enough to experience every torment he could conceive of without incriminating himself.
Lately though, Stiles had become careless. He’d indulged his dark nature enough to arouse suspicion among his colleagues. And thus, certain of an investigation that would end with a noose or a firing squad, he took the first chance to desert and head in the opposite direction of the army: west.
What followed was two years of constant vagrancy. Fearful of pursuit, Stiles kept low, staying away from people unless absolutely necessary. When he needed food, he’d steal it. When he needed a horse, he’d steal it. He committed robbery four times and committed murder twice. Certain that a sketch of his likeness was posted in every town, he continued to flee westward.
It wasn’t until he reached the mountains of the Colorado Territory that Stiles started to tire of running. There were many hopeful prospectors heading in the same direction seeking gold, and Stiles found it convenient to tag along, earning food and transportation by offering the occasional medical service. It was this exchange that let him up through the mountain passes, higher and higher, until he felt safe enough to stop. Then he disappeared into the hills, having been told of a remote mining community in an area known as California Gulch. There was a town – Oro City – said to have once been host to thousands of gold-seeking settlers. Now it was shrinking daily as young men ran off to fight in the War and miners left after finding most of the gold depleted. There were cabins there left abandoned! This seemed to Stiles like his own personal strike of gold. A perfect opportunity to slip in and make an inconspicuous home for himself.
It was late June, which was a pleasant enough season in high country. As he marched along alone, the pine trees opened up from time to time to give him western views of immense peaks, the likes of which he’d never seen. By the time Stiles reached Oro City with its ramshackle saloons and mostly empty hotels, he was sure he’d found his true haven.
Unfortunately for him, when he stepped into one of the saloons and spotted a paper with his face nailed up on the wall, his hopes were shattered and he scurried back up into the hills. Having come so far, he could only hope that California Gulch was home to more than this one community.
Sure enough, there was another town further up a couple of miles. The residents called it Shirlytown, after some miner’s wife or daughter. Stiles was still spooked by the unexpected appearance of his image on a wanted sign this far west, so he was uneasy about entering the town. He gave it a wide berth, scouting it from above. Soon, the sun began to sink behind the mountains, and he felt no better about making his presence known.
It was only luck that led him to a little hole in the side of a steep section of hill. Lucky, because it was significantly hidden from view by large boulders heaped behind the skirts of a stand of trees. Stiles investigated cautiously, especially when he spotted signs of the hole having been worked by human hands and tools. What he’d discovered was a natural cave that had drawn some intrepid miners into working at it with picks. They’d managed to develop it into a crude lode mine. But that must have proven too much of a project, and the shaft only penetrated ten yards or so before running up against a solid rock face. Looking more closely, Stiles saw they hadn’t given up there because a passage had been dug downward beneath this rock. And there, after crawling through a wagon wheel-size hole with a branch he’d lit on fire, Stiles made a surprising find. For some reason, the miners had dug a deep pit in the very back. Stiles went outside and found a better stick for a torch and then returned to climb down a crude ladder into the pit. He found himself in a chamber the size of a small room. It was empty save for a few pieces of timber and a rusty bucket, but this, he realized with relief, would provide excellent shelter for a fugitive such as himself.
Stiles set about making it his home.
By the time winter arrived, the former surgeon was not only settled. He was prepared. Already a fair hunter, he honed his skill until he was certain he could keep himself fed during the freezing months. His mine shaft was now lined and cordoned off with the skins of his kills, making the recesses quite easy to keep warm. This was perfect. He could finish out his days here in reasonable comfort.
But being so long on the run had distracted Stiles from a deeper need. When one is running away from people, it’s easy to forget that one needs people. As the weeks went by and time drew out, Stiles discovered a growing loneliness. He began to venture out, hoping to catch sight of folk from the nearby mining community. From time to time he would see them shuffling off to their various sites or out hunting for game. He’d grown quite accustomed to hiding over the past two years, so remaining unseen came as easy to him as pissing on a tree.
This confidence was shaken when he first set eyes on Miss Trudy Auclair.
Trudy was the only daughter of the leading man in Shirlytown. He wasn’t a mayor exactly, but James Auclair was as close as such a small community might have in those times. Trudy was seventeen years old, mildly pretty, and where some girls might be described as “thin as a rail,” Trudy was thinner. Emboldened by one streak of her father’s bullish character and another of her mother’s unflinching sense of vanity, she could be quite hard to tolerate. Of course, Shirlytown being somewhat lacking in young women – not to mention beauty – Trudy’s spindly figure and volatility didn’t dissuade the young men from seeing her as a star fallen from heaven. Trudy herself was only mildly skeptical of such a celestial origin.
Dr. Stiles first saw Trudy Auclair when she strayed into the woods hoping to lead a certain young rooster of a miner into thinking a secret kiss might be in his cards. Her intention was to teach the fool a lesson in rejection, but the young man happened to not be watching. The sight of Trudy sulking was simply the loveliest thing Stiles had witnessed in ages, and by the time she returned to the town, Stiles was more than a little taken with her. Obsessiveness was woven deeply into the black strands of his nature. He started lingering more and more often in the vicinity of the town in hopes of catching glimpses of the young woman.
It was only a matter of time before his obsession turned into such fervent desire that he decided he must possess Trudy Auclair. He was sure he could convince her to love him. He was, after all, an accomplished surgeon. So he waited for her to stray again while Shirleytown went about its business unaware that a deranged thief and killer was watching and biding his time.
When Dr. Jerome Stiles abducted Trudy Auclair, it was for him like a glass of cold water after wandering a dry desert. Her vehement struggle invigorated him. When she bit his hand he laughed, not at her, but at how it made him feel alive after being holed away for so long. He gripped her beneath the jaw with one hand and held her mouth shut tight. But for him, this was an act of love. It was for her own good. She would come to appreciate his strength, and she would love him for it.
The deep hole in the back of the mine had been turned into a bedroom of sorts. Stiles didn’t want to cause Trudy discomfort. He just wanted to keep her from running away. He’d dug the hole a little deeper and removed the rickety ladder. The only access in and out of the hole would be a sturdier ladder he’d constructed of scavenged timber from around the town, and which he’d lower into the hole only when he’d need to. Trudy’s “bed” at first was little more than some dirty blankets, her toilet the rusty pail.
Those first weeks of captivity were made of long days for both Trudy and Stiles. She was no meek lamb, that daughter of James Auclair. She dug at the walls of her cell until she reached bare rock and the nails were torn from her fingers. She refused food until she could no longer stand or speak, and these were the times Stiles found it safe enough to come down and get the pail for emptying and replace the filthy wash rag with a somewhat clean one.
When she could speak again, Trudy’s only words were vitriolic and damning. The girl refused to beg.
Such defiance frustrated the demon in Stile’s brain. He’d expected better of her. Still, he could afford to be patient. He heard the shouts of searching townsfolk as they tramped all throughout the woods near his hideout. But he’d taken great pains to camouflage the entrance and his gamble paid off when the searchers gradually left off their searching. After a week, the shouts ceased. Trudy was most likely presumed by the folk to be dead, carried off and devoured by some animal.
Trudy made two almost-successful attempts to escape. In both cases she made it just outside the entrance to the shaft before he caught her. And in each of those cases Stiles amputated one of her hands. He was, after all, a capable surgeon. He’d had plenty of experience removing limbs while serving out east behind the lines of battle. When Trudy got away the first time, Stiles was surprised, but not overly so. No prison is perfect. But when a couple of months later she managed it again, he was shocked that she could accomplish this with only her right hand. It was only after the left hand was gone as well that Trudy Auclair’s spirit seemed to break.
Her vocal defiance fell to mumbling consent. She accepted her food with muted gratitude and spent most of her time in bed rather than poking and digging at the walls. Her stupor was such that Stiles found it safe to spend more time down there with her. She didn’t fight him when he made advances. She didn’t fight him when he went beyond advances. She’d become the doctor’s perfect lover.
In Stiles’ mind Trudy Auclair was his wife. It was confirmed for him when she began to show. The doctor had never seen himself as a family man given his quirks, but knowing his seed was taking shape within Trudy’s belly gave him cause to rethink his prospects. Perhaps he could become a decent man. Maybe even a respectable man. Was it beyond reason to think that one day he could walk Trudy back into town on his arm with a beautiful baby in hers? He figured he could fashion perfect prosthetic hands for her out of the forest wood and thus gain forgiveness for his past sins. They surely must be a good Christian community, capable of the mercy of Christ.
Once the child was born – a boy! – Stiles was dismayed that the beauty of the baby was lost on the captive bride. Trudy could barely be persuaded to suckle it. Stiles went to great lengths to procure food for her, but even though her sun-deprived cheeks seemed to gain a little color, she was often on the opposite side of the little room from the baby. Stiles begged her – gently at first, and then more and more adamantly – that she take responsibility as a mother, but she would take no interest other than to give it minimal nourishment. If Stiles were to do nothing, his recently developed visions of fatherhood and social status would come to nothing. He’d be trapped in this god-forsaken hole for the rest of his life, cursed to forage or steal for his food and having no company other than a broken rag of a woman. His resentment and fear turned to threats. His threats turned to slaps. His slaps turned into all-out beatings, leaving Trudy just alive enough to give milk to the boy. But his rages had no effect as far as he could tell.
What Stiles failed to notice was that the tiniest speck of red light began to glimmer in the half-dead woman’s eyes.
One day, he woke to an almost tangible silence. The child was not a crier. But even so, Stiles could usually sense its presence. He rose and walked to the back of the shaft and peered down into the gloom. Trudy sat upright on the bed, the child cradled in her lap. Her head was bent over the child so he couldn’t see until she looked up at him. The child was asleep. Or at least it appeared to be. Then, for the first time, he saw. He saw the red light burning in her eyes. And he drew back. Trudy lifted the baby up as though to offer it to Stiles.
And she dropped it.
Stiles gasped and reached down toward it, although he was too far to help. But the baby didn’t cry out or move.
Because it was already dead.
The doctor didn’t pause to consider. He grabbed the ladder and thrust it down into the cell. Trudy moved backward until her thin shoulders were up against the far wall. Stiles rushed down the ladder and whirled to face her, preparing to throttle the miserable life out of her. There was no flicker of red now. Her eyes were wide with fear. An old pleasure unexpectedly rose within Stiles’ chest, a reminder of who he really was and who he was meant to be.
God’s blessed monster. He stepped toward her.
Trudy’s handless arms had been behind her back, pressed against the wall. Now she brought them forward and held them up. Stiles’ amputations had gone beyond the wrists, leaving her skinny forearms to narrow to two blunt sticks. He laughed at her when she raised these pathetic limbs. They’d give her no protection at all.
But she hadn’t raised them in defense.
She lunged forward, stumps extended. It was too quick for Stiles to move. The tip of each stump plunged right into one of his eye sockets, driving him backward against the ladder with a crack. Stiles screamed and tore at his face as Trudy stepped back to crouch and watch in horror as her captor continued to writhe and bellow. Apparently she’d underestimated the width of her forearms. The intent had been to plunge them all the way into his brain, but instead, they’d rammed into his sockets and been stopped there. He would never see again, but he was very much alive.
Trudy spun about in desperation. She had almost nothing in the room other than the flimsy bed and her shit-filled waste pail. It was the pail that caught her eye. Instinctively she reached for it but cried out in frustration at her inability to grab. There was nothing left to do. She was never going to be able to kick the man to death. So she turned and faced him. Stiles still covered his face with his hands, but he’d calmed somewhat and was making noises that ground between growls and whimpers. He took his hands from his face long enough to fling curses and spittle across the room at her.
There would never be another chance. Trudy rushed him again and repeated the attack with her forearms. She drove them into his eyes again. They went no deeper than before, but Stiles fell to his knees, swiping the air in front of him. Trudy pulled back in time to avoid his grasp, but she waited, watching for an opening. Then she lunged again. And again. At first she accomplished little more than cause Stiles great pain. He was on his side now, cradling his head. After the first four strikes, the skin of Trudy’s stumps was broken and nearly shredded from the bone. Stripped of skin, they’d become more narrow. And slick.
Trudy kicked Stiles’ arms away from his face and dropped to her knees. With every last bit of strength she could muster, she twisted back and then rammed a single arm into Stiles’ left eye. This time it penetrated. Not far. But it was far enough. Stiles’ body stiffened and then convulsed, and then he was still. The only sign of life was the staccato breaths that still escaped his lips. But as Trudy watched, even these grew less and less until his chest sank for the last time. She remained there for long moments, making sure he wouldn’t rise again like some unkillable demon, but he never did.
Stiles was dead.
The sudden pain of her newly ruined arms struck Trudy as though her hands had been cut off again. She lifted them and screamed her anguish to the deaf walls of stone and dirt.
Finally, she gritted her teeth and forced herself to rise. The ladder – the only means of escape – stood propped against the wall. Stiles had cracked one of the rungs when he’d fallen back against it, but the rest of its structure remained intact. Trudy pushed it with her elbow, testing it. Then she hooked an arm between two rungs and took a tentative step up. The ladder held. Step by step she climbed, gasping at the effort between sobs. She finally reached the top and managed to scramble up onto the dust of the shaft’s floor.
And she fled. She ran as though the monster behind her in the pit still lived.
Trudy Auclair died two days after making her way back to Shirlytown. But not before she’d told a garbled account of the events of her captivity. Her parents and the townsfolk were horrified at the tale and hardly believed it until they’d searched and found the hidden mine shaft and the body of Dr. Jerome Stiles sprawled on the floor of Trudy’s cell. The men who’d found him vomited at the sight and returned weak-kneed to those who waited above.
Trudy’s account, they said, was true.
The Auclair family never recovered from the tragedy. As their leadership declined, so did Shirlytown. People began to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Family by family, they either moved away or died off, leaving the Auclairs to grieve their daughter alone and penniless. Finally, John Auclair buried his wife and then he hung himself from a beam in a warehouse near the center of town. Shirlytown died at the crack of his neck in the noose.
The town was a ghost by the time folks built the town a few miles north. Some of the original settlers lived in Leadville now and often spoke of Trudy Auclair’s story. From time to time someone would report seeing her ghost wandering the hills. Someone else claimed to have seen the blind doctor, two bloody sockets where Trudy had plunged her mutilated arms. In time, it became the substance of a legend, and a peculiar addition had been made.
It was said that many of the stones surrounding the old Shirlytown site – especially near the old shaft – had taken on the likeness of a man with his eyes gouged out. And the ghosts of Jerome Stiles and Trudy Auclair would haunt the hills until every one of them had been removed from the woods and piled up within the town’s perimeter.
But there are ghost stories and then there are the events that shred the walls of life with such brutality that hell can be glimpsed between the torn lines. And something was terribly rent in the woods surrounding Shirlytown, and it screams yet.
There now. You must look at this valley differently (with different eyes?) than you did before. Do the pines seem to lean in and over the place and the tall grass shiver a little too closely? Do the ruins huddle together like dogs afraid of another beating? You may have random, uninvited thoughts like, What did the doctor do with the girl’s hands? Is there still a hole in the ground nearby where the bones of a demon lay at the bottom of a dark pit. You wouldn’t be the first person to have had these thoughts and fled from them.
Laughing at your gullibility, you might kick at the pile and turn to look for the trail out of here. But your eyes can’t help but wander side to side, watching for odd rocks. And sure enough, before you’ve reached the trail, there is one lying in a patch of tall grass off to the side. Picking it up, you turn it over and over in your hand, noting with reluctant dread the sure shape of a face. And the eyes… the eyes.
Numbly, you turn and walk back. You place the rock on the pile. And as you leave, you quicken your pace because you feel in your gut that every stone still out there in the trees has a face and is following you with hateful eyes that are not there.
Credit: Kyle D. Walker
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