Listen to this story on the podcast.
Sometimes a place takes on a life—or a death—of its own.
From the distance, the farm looked almost invisible. Just a slightly uneven line of lighter tan against the earth tones of the mountains. Only as I approached it, my rental car bumping and lurching over the rough ground, did the details become apparent, and then I began to feel kind of jumpy. I’d decided earlier to keep as positive a frame of mind as I could, but as I got closer that resolve began to melt away.
Up close, the place looked just about as desolate and Godforsaken as I’d expected. Set at the bottom of a range of mountains, the farm consisted of a grand total of three buildings, all with several gaping spots and the paint nearly flaked off. Up front, near the rusted-out metal gates, stood a small house that looked from the outside like it may have held three bedrooms. A ways back and to the right sat a small shed, no more than twenty by twenty, and even farther back was the largest structure of the whole setup, a barn, looming, paint-flaked and eaten through in parts, that looked, to my city-raised eyes, much larger than most of its kind.
The rest of the farm complex, a miscellany of fences, wells, and antique, rusted-out agricultural implements, didn’t register all that much at the time. I did notice the large tree, standing gigantic and solitary, hovering over a once-red picnic table.
Seeing as how I was a bit earlier than we’d agreed on, I didn’t worry a whole lot about not seeing any other vehicles around. To kill time more than anything else, I walked up to the iron gates and gave them an experimental shove. The one on my left side stayed stationary, but the right-hand one creaked its way inward for about a foot or so before it also ground to a halt.
“What a shithole,” I told the surrounding desert.
My reaction, of course, wasn’t just to the physical demeanor of the place. I was responding as much, if not more, to the history of the area, to what had happened here nearly forty years before. Someone else coming along the site, someone who either had never heard the story or didn’t recognize this as the place, would probably look around and see only a decrepit, abandoned farmstead.
But anyone in the know, who had all the facts and memories, would no doubt recognize the front door to hell.
Standing alone out there, I began to feel a little odd, the skin at my nape crawling and quivering. I’d just about decided to go back and wait in my car, when I saw another vehicle coming down the road.
It was a big, shiny, bright blue Ford F-150, although covered with quite a bit of dust from traveling in the desert. Just what he’d told me to look for, so I took a deep breath and leaned against the gate.
It was about to start.
The Ford came up alongside of my rental and pulled to a halt. A minute later, a gangly old man, complete with the requisite checkered shirt, boots and cowboy hat, climbed out.
“Jessie Perkins?” he called out to me.
“That’s right. You must be Sheriff Locher.”
“Is so.” He stopped to hitch up the waistband of his jeans before coming over to me.
He turned and looked out over the farm site, his hands on his hips as he contemplated the spread.
“Don’t look like much, does it?” he asked.
“No, sir.” I said, wondering if he had the same creeply-crawly sensation as me. Probably not because this was my first time to view the place; whereas, he’d lived in this area most of his life. On the other hand, continued proximity to the site could conceivably make a person’s reaction even worse.
Kind of like living next door to a reminder of the Apocalypse.
“Say again just what is it that you intend doing out here?”
Although his face and demeanor seemed pleasant enough, I caught a slight, and totally understandable, hostility in his tone.
“Basically,” I said, “right now I just need to look the place over. Get a feeling for it, so to speak.”
“Pretty easy to guess what the feeling of this place is,” the sheriff interrupted me. He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck as he spoke. As a city boy my whole life, all sorts of lame jokes about rednecks flashed through my mind.
I decided to keep them to myself.
“I understand what you mean, sir,” I said, “but what I’m after …”
“No, son,” he interrupted again. “I don’t think you do quite understand.”
He turned partially away from me and looked out over the sprawling, broken-down buildings. He lowered his hand from his neck and, even on this fairly cloudy day, shielded his eyes, as if trying to focus in on some distant point that only he could see.
“Sometimes,” he said, “if you’re quiet enough and you place yourself just right, you can almost hear them.”
I knew what he meant, of course. The sheriff may have been a hard-headed realist in his way, but even an old duffer like him couldn’t be entirely immune to the vibes the place gave off.
Hear the victims, he meant. Hear the moans and screams that must have echoed out from this place on that one really bad night forty years back. Outside of the participants, outside of the goddamned “family,” only two people had actually witnessed the sounds and sights emanating from the farm on that night. Two of the victims, who’d somehow managed to survive until rescue arrived. In the years since the trials, they’d done their best to stay undercover and away from the press. They’d had to go public in the days and months immediately after, of course, but all these years later I doubted if more than a handful of people remembered their names.
Even so, imagination is a powerful tool, and most people with any experience at all could somewhat guess what the place must have sounded like back then.
Those who lived in the immediate area could probably gauge it even better.
In fact, for a second there my own imagination went into overdrive, and I could almost hear the “family’s” victims crying out their last just before the end. I blinked rapidly to dispel the vision.
All this without having actually set foot onto the grounds yet.
“So what all is your employer planning to do with this place?” the sheriff asked.
“Not sure yet. Keep in mind I just work for Hodgkins and Crandall, the firm handling the estate work. The actual owner, like I said over the phone, is a distant cousin of the Kendalls. She lives in Boston and honestly has no interest in the place at all. But she’s getting up there in age and just wants to get it off her books.”
“So you’re just out here to look it over and see what use could be made of it? Like how to pitch it to prospective buyers?”
“Something like that. More than anything, though, I’m supposed to do a rough appraisal of the estimated value.”
Without looking at me, staring back at the farm again, Sheriff Locher said, “The Kendalls had nothing to do with it.”
He said the words by rote, in a monotone, as if he’d said that same phrase over and over throughout the years.
“I know,” I said.
The Kendall family had originally founded the small farm back during the turn of the twentieth century. Four generations had lived and worked on it until the mid-sixties, when Charlie Kendall, a widower with no kids, had cashed out his savings and moved to an L.A. retirement home. He kept the deed to the farm, and for a while somewhat desultorily kept an eye on it, until a stroke laid him low and he ended up pretty much vegetative. The farm was, at the time, so far away from any civilized haunts and so unknown that after Charlie’s stroke it was pretty much left to go fallow. Other than a few initial notices of overdue property taxes, delivered to Charlie care of the nursing home and usually trashed by the staff, no one really knew or cared about the farm.
No one, that is, until a few years later when a total psycho wandered in from somewhere out in the desert and discovered the place, all deserted and welcoming.
“So you want to go inside?” the lawman asked me.
I nodded, feeling suddenly queasy at the idea of actually stepping onto the grounds. Standing outside the gate and looking in had been one thing, and that took nearly everything I had, but actually going inside . . .
“Okay,” Locher said, “let’s go.”
He reached out and, old as he was, easily swung open the rusted gates that I’d barely budged. I followed him, and we headed up the unpaved trail that led to the main house.
I had to work at it to keep from grinding my teeth together. As soon as we moved towards the house, the sensations of the place, what the strung-out losers who made it so notorious back in the sixties would call the “vibes,” began really hitting me.
“You wouldn’t think of it to look at the place,” Locher said. “Wouldn’t think all that stuff happened here.”
My skin began crawling, and as I looked around at the flat, dusty spaces between the scattered buildings, I could almost see, like a fuzzy photograph from the old days, the scattered, mutilated bodies lying around the place, motionless in pools of cooling blood seeping into the parched dust.
“You okay, son?”
Only when he called out to me did I realize that Locher had progressed about fifty feet ahead while I’d stayed rooted in place, my head swarming with images of a past I’d never experienced outside of news stories and “tell-all” books.
I began rubbing my forehead, hoping for the sensations to pass, as the sheriff came up alongside. He took me by the elbow and led me over to the picnic table. As we sat down, I began to feel a bit better.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
Locher shook his head.
“Not sure, but don’t feel bad. ‘Most everyone who comes out here the first time goes through it. What’s that phrase? That Oriental word?”
I puzzled it over a minute before I got it.
“You mean Feng Shui?” I asked.
“Yeah, that stuff. Something about the moods and feelings of a place, isn’t it?”
“Not exactly,” I said. “But I think I get your meaning.”
“I’m about as sensible as they come,” the sheriff said, “but even I’ve noticed that this place has a powerful effect on people who come out here. Few years back, a documentary team from some cable channel showed up. They were here for a couple of weeks filming some sort of special, and for practically the first week they couldn’t hardly get any work done. Practically all of them being hit with whatever it is that’s got you right now.”
Even though I’d calmed down a bit, the strange feelings the farm had aroused in me were stronger than ever. Any minute now, I figured I’d start hearing the screams of the victims.
What the hell was happening to me?
“Almost makes sense in its way,” Sheriff Locher continued, “no matter how realistic and practical you look at the world, you can’t quite conceive of that much hell and torment being visited on this small of a place without some sort of leftovers.”
His followers called him John Smith, aka Preacher John. Almost certainly an alias, but afterwards some people thought it showed such a staggering lack of imagination that it almost had to be the man’s real name. Because back in the sixties it was a lot easier for someone to stay under the radar than nowadays, practically nothing was known about the man until law enforcement raided the farm on Monday, the eleventh of August, 1969.
As far as could be told, Smith had been living on the abandoned farm, scratching a living from the surrounding desert, for about six months before, through some method which no one had ever quite figured out, a group of young transients began slowly coalescing around him. At the end of his first year on the farm, about the time old man Kendall had suffered that stroke, Preacher John felt strong enough, in control of his “family” enough, to begin branching out.
All of this, of course, was pieced together much later by law enforcement.
After the name of Preacher John Smith became a household word.
A sudden breeze popped up out of nowhere and lashed across us. Only when I felt the sudden cooling on my face did I realize I’d been sweating.
“Were you here?” I asked Sheriff Locher. “Were you part of the raid?”
For a moment it looked as if he’d taken offense at my question, then his lined face relaxed into a grin.
“Hell, boy. Just how old do you think I am?”
Feeling a sudden flush at how stupid I’d sounded, I croaked out a quick apology, which the old man waved off.
“Knew about it, though,” he said. “I’m one of your actual natives around here. Lived in this area my whole life.”
“Yeah. And heard about it second hand. I was only a kid of course, but my dad was a deputy back in those days.” He tilted his hat back an inch or two on his head. “Guess you could say the law runs in the family. My dad was in the group that made the initial raid out here.”
A distant look came into his eyes for a minute.
“As bad as all the reports?” I asked.
Locher shook his head briefly, then looked back at me.
“He wouldn’t talk about it for some time. Wouldn’t ever go into details. When I got older, I eventually pieced enough together to know that dad had found one of the young women still alive, somehow, and she died in his arms just as the ambulance pulled up.”
I looked down at the stained, flaked-off picnic table.
It was a summer weekend in ’69, one seemingly no more special than any other, when the police departments of the communities surrounding the farm were suddenly besieged with reports of missing people. From late teens to mid-thirties, within a hundred-mile radius it appeared that somewhere around thirty people had vanished between Friday night and Sunday morning. It had been a fairly equal mix of both male and female, but the reports were so scattered among the various small communities that it took until Sunday evening before the various departments involved began to suspect some connection.
It took another day or so before some eagle eye in one of the jurisdictions happened to notice that the area of the disappearances formed a rough circle, with the old Kendall farm smack dab in the middle.
This was back in the sixties, remember, and although the Miranda ruling had come along, out west things were still handled a little less formally than in most places. Within six hours, a coordinated force had formed together and descended on the farm.
According to anecdotal reports, most of the men who took part in that initial raid had to undergo psychological counseling for some time after.
“You seem to want to know a lot about this,” Locher remarked. “More than a lawyer’s rep should need to know.”
I worked to keep my poker face on. No matter what, it wouldn’t do for the lawman to get an inkling of my true intentions.
“You’re right,” I said. “Just idle curiosity, I guess. But you’ve probably got better things to do than hang around here all day holding my hand. Why don’t we get on with it?”
I did my best not to look too closely at Locher as we stood up and began our tour of the farm.
It didn’t take long. As I said, there wasn’t a whole lot to the place. The sheriff mentioned a couple of times that he couldn’t quite see anyone wanting to do anything with this plot of land, and he had a point. Notwithstanding the history of the place, there just wasn’t that much of value there.
Forty years later, the story of Preacher John Smith, his “family” and the weekend of horror in ’69, had become part of pop culture. Over the years, movies, books, songs, and even video games had featured the preacher. And even though all those fictional venues did their best, to one degree or another, to present the truth, there was no way to even really come close.
That afternoon at the farm, I came as close as possible.
Under the guise of looking the property over, I managed to draw Sheriff Locher out some more. First, we went inside the small shed, which took only a minute or two to examine. The shed floor was dirt, dried and cracked, with some of the cracks running several inches deep. Looking closely, I thought I could detect the faint traces of excavation, retamping and excavation again.
Imagination, of course. After four decades there’d surely be no trace left.
“Three of ‘em in here alone,” the sheriff said. He was staring downwards, kicking at the hardened earth with his toe.
“Buried or out in the open?” I asked.
“Two of them fully buried, the other partially so. Probably got tired after all that work and intended to get to it later.”
“Which they never did,” I said.
“Right. They never did.”
He wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t know. Over the years, I’d studied, digested and memorized everything I could find about Preacher John and his followers. Odds were that, at least academically, I knew more even than most of the locals.
I also knew that this was the easy part. I could look in and walk around in this shed without it getting to me too much.
She hadn’t been one of the three found there.
Leaving the shed, we turned and went back to the barn. I made some noise about wanting at least a superficial inspection of the barn structure, to see if it was at all salvageable after the years. Seeing as how the farm buildings had been built nearly a century before, it was probably safe to say that the structures were sound.
But after coming all this way, going to this much trouble, I needed to see the infamous barn for myself. Even though she hadn’t been found in the barn either.
It took both of us to throw open the old, cumbersome doors. When we did so, a couple of birds whirled and rustled around a bit before settling down on the rafters up above.
“Good thing it’s the wrong time of year. In the right season, this place would be chock full of bats.”
I shuddered at the mental picture, but at least that was all there was to shudder at.
The barn was empty, of course, as I’d known it would be. It matched perfectly with the rest of the setup. Old, abandoned, a relic of a past time that had served a purpose once but now stood only as a physical symbol of unholy evil.
All these years later, there remained behind no evidence of the nearly twenty bodies that had been mutilated, then stacked one on top of the other in the rafters above. No signs of the hay stacks stained red. No trace of the overwhelming terror that simply must have resonated between the four wooden walls. No trace, except for that crawling unease, that skin-tightening tension, growing only worse, that I’d felt since first entering the grounds. Then the sheriff’s voice broke in on my thoughts, and I knew that the time had finally come.
“I guess you’ll want to look over the house, huh?”
The exact number of the Preacher’s victims was never known, mainly because while they found a total of thirty-three bodies scattered around the site, a few more than that had been reported missing during that hellish weekend in the desert. The Preacher and his family, a scrawny, scrungy collection of misfits, castoffs and dope heads, never did have anything constructive to say. When questioned by authorities in the weeks after the raid, they merely spouted all kinds of the usual deranged, Apocalyptic nonsense. Stuff about how the Preacher was the Lamb of God, how they’d been doing his bidding in an attempt to cleanse the earth and bring paradise down here, and how everyone who dared defy them was going to get theirs in the end.
A total of thirty-three bodies, with no rhyme or reason as to how they’d been treated. Some clubbed, some strangled, others knifed, with others, mainly the slightly older ones, deliberately tortured. It turned out later that, while Preacher John had dictated the number and type of victims to be taken, he’d let his individual followers decide exactly how to go about finishing them off. So in one orgiastic weekend of bloodletting, over thirty people had been slaughtered at the farm, while the man who directed it all had, according to most accounts, stayed in one of the upstairs bedrooms, gazing out the windows at the ongoing hell he’d set up.
They’d intended the whole thing to send some kind of signal or other about the end of the world coming. None of it made much sense, and after an awkward, months-long trial, Preacher John and his various acolytes had been locked away to rot for the rest of their lives. And that had been about the last heard of them.
Until about a month ago.
The house gave me the biggest problem, as I’d known it would. They’d found her in the cellar, and although I knew the main story, when I was younger no one had ever told me any of the details. It had only been years later, when I’d done all that studying on my own, that I found out exactly what and how many atrocities had been committed on the grandmother I’d never known.
So we went through the two stories, the various rooms now basically empty. Over the years, wandering drifters had looted what furniture had remained, so that we came across barely a stick of furniture in the whole place. The windows, smeared and dirt-laden, admitted only feeble light, and I actually began to think I was going to get through it okay until Locher asked the question.
“You want to see the cellar?”
I froze, suddenly unsure of myself. In a way, the cellar would be the culmination of this trip, the final proof that I’d stuck it out as long as I could. However, there were more practical considerations.
I had, after all, one final step to take on this odyssey, and I had to make sure that I kept up my nerve. I realized that actually seeing the place where they’d found my grandmother would quite possibly do me in.
She hadn’t been my grandmother at the time, of course. But Tammy Reubens, twenty-nine years old in 1969, was the mother of twin boys at the time the Preacher’s people had snatched her up. And one of those sons had grown up to be my father.
I realized at that moment that this entire excursion had, in its way, been a pretty serious folly. I had only one thing to do here at the farm, and taking this magical mystery tour now struck me as completely unnecessary. So it was time to wrap things up.
The sheriff was staring at me, waiting for an answer to his question and probably wondering why I was taking so long.
“Not really,” I said with a shake of my head. “Actually, I think I’ve seen about all I need to make a report back to the office. And this place really does give you the creeps. So if it’s all right with you . . .”
I didn’t need to finish. I could tell by the relief washing over his face that he was as ready to get off the place as I was. Or at least, he probably thought so.
He opened the door and we headed back out into the sunlight. When we reached the gate, I paused for one last look around at the farm.
“Kind of coincidental you’re showing up around now,” the sheriff said.
I nodded, not really having anything to say to that.
A little over three weeks before my visit to the farm, Preacher John Smith passed away in prison. In his late seventies, one day he hadn’t responded to the guards and, when they went into his cell, they discovered that he’d died in his sleep. It caused a big stir in the media for a day or so, but his heyday was long past, and despite the counterculture hero status he’d once held, most people didn’t seem to notice his passing. Forty years is a long time, after all, and it seemed that nobody much cared about what had happened during one really bad weekend back in ’69.
I cared. Seeing the story on the nightly news, I immediately set about making plans. If Preacher John was really dead, then only one last thing remained to erase the stain completely. To my mind, the various helpers and assistants from his “family,” the hangers on who’d done the actual killings, didn’t really count. My entire life, since first learning my grandmother’s story, I’d held Preacher John solely responsible.
Well, almost solely.
It took several phone calls, a few days off from my job at the store, and one last serious study of my books and newspaper articles.
I would have preferred not contacting the law, of course, but there was the chance that they’d be on the alert, waiting to nab any stray souvenir hunters or attention-seekers. So upon arriving from the East Coast, I contacted the sheriff’s office with my carefully-constructed cover story.
And besides, I felt I owed it to myself to examine the place, up close and during the daylight, at least one time.
I shook Locher’s hand and thanked him for his time. He stared at me for a minute, his eyes boring into me, and for a moment I thought he’d somehow managed to figure me out. But after a moment he simply nodded his head, wished me a good day, and climbed into his pickup.
It may have been my imagination, most likely was, but I thought he gave one extra close look at my car before he took off.
If he had any suspicions, I didn’t do anything to aggravate them. I drove away from the farm just a few minutes after he did, not even bothering to look back.
That creepy, sickening feeling I’d had during my tour of the place didn’t go away, but I’d rather figured it wouldn’t. I did, however, have a pretty clear idea of when I would feel better.
Not when I got back to my motel, a short ten miles into town.
Not even a few hours later when I had a nice, leisurely dinner at a local steakhouse.
But later that night, when I returned to the farm and made use of the gasoline, incendiaries and blasting caps currently in the trunk of my car, the feeling, and all the emotions I’d carried around for so many years, should ease away.
Just as soon as I gave a proper cleansing to the farm.
A high school teacher and fiction writer living in central Missouri, Kevin R. Doyle has seen his short stories, mainly in the horror and suspense fields, published in over twenty small press magazines, both print and online. Last year his first e-book, a mainstream novelette titled One Helluva Gig, was released by Vagabondage Press. In January of 2014 Barbarian Books released his first full-length mystery novel, The Group. More information can be found at his website or at Facebook.