Writers offered some remarkable conclusions to the Ghostly Outlaw scary story -- from the revenge of the little-known cashier killed in the James-Younger Northfield robbery, to the whole story being a school prank, to the mysterious disappearance of $26.70. You can read all the unedited Chapter 4 submissions here. But the official Chapter 4 by Star Tribune reader Mark Merrell gives us a long-awaited showdown. Merrell, a father of two from Mounds View, penned Chapter 3 of last year's Haunted Muskie story as well. Thank you to all of the writers who submitted their ideas for this ghostly story. I hope you all had fun. I did. And now, the complete Ghostly Outlaw ...
THE GHOSTLY OUTLAW
The last of the cars drove off from Sechler Park, leaving Andy in the growing darkness with only his soccer ball and an empty water bottle for company.
Andy never liked to ask for help or a ride. It was embarrassing for an 11-year-old. “My mom is coming!” he’d say confidently, though he knew she wasn’t. Some meeting in St. Paul always made her late. Or some three-car pileup slowed her drive home to Northfield.
But now it was 7. Practice was long over. A north October wind chilled Andy’s body. His teeth chattered.
“Forget this!” he shouted to the world, and ran back to the field.
It was so dark that the neon yellow ball was barely visible. His juggling record was 22, and he was going to beat it.
“One-two-three,” he said, as he tapped the ball off one knee, then another, and then a foot. His excitement grew as he kept going and going.
“18-19-20!” he yelled, stretching to get to the ball. It flew high into the breeze. Andy gave chase, just sliding his foot under the ball before it hit the ground.
“21!” he yelled, but then watched the ball squirt away toward the woods that buffered the Cannon River.
“Shoot,” he yelled, and chased blindly after the ball.
And that’s when he saw it. Deep in the trees, there was a faint blue glow. Andy stepped into the woods, hoping for a better look. The gusting wind paused, and Andy could hear something too.
“Schick … schick … schick.”
Andy tried to walk quietly through the underbrush. The blue glow was near the river. It wasn’t at all like the house lights he could see twinkling far off on the other side.
“Schick … schick … schick.”
It was close. Andy had been too curious to be scared at first, but not anymore. The glow had a shape – a man! He was crouched to the ground, digging with – is that a gun?
“Schick … schick … schick.”
Andy took one more step forward, not seeing his long-forgotten soccer ball. His foot slipped on the ball and sent Andy tumbling face-first into the clearing. The blue form twisted and suddenly it was upon him. It had steely eyes underneath – a cowboy hat?
The ghostly form sneered. Andy knew who it was. Didn’t everyone?
And then it spoke: “Name’s Jesse … Jesse James.”
CHAPTER 2, by Phil Moen
Andy felt the question’s awkwardness as it escaped his quivering lips, “THE Jesse James?”
Everyone in Northfield knew the James-Younger gang. Not only was it a part of school curriculum, but every year, just after Labor Day, the entire town celebrated the defeat of James and his band of ruthless men by reenacting their fateful bank raid. In this historic town, where James' gang met its downfall, Jesse now stood, glowing blue.
“Not sure what ya mean by THE, but sure as S is Ulysses’ middle name, I’m Jesse.”
Andy stood in a bizarre combination of awe and terror. A notorious outlaw from the 1800’s stood in front of him. The desperado was impressive: strong, good looking, intense. But with a Peacemaker in his hand, Jesse looked like Casper’s unfriendly cousin. And he was blue.
“Don’t just stand there gawkin’ boy. Grab something and dig. Because if ya ain’t with me, yer against me.”
Like a January breeze, Jesse’s order triggered powerful goose bumps. Andy jumped into action. He wasn’t about to have it all end here, just minutes after soccer with his mom on her way to pick him up. Wait, he thought. Mom? Oh no! She can’t come here now. Surely she would suffer the same fate as he.
Fighting the nerves inside, Andy forced out a question, “Mr. James, what are we digging for?”
Jesse seemed annoyed by the question, “The money!”
Andy found a healthy piece of newly fallen oak to use as a shovel. He anxiously scratched the soft woodland top soil, not so much to find the cash, but rather to look active and thereby avoid a perilous outcome. As he dug, he knew he needed to get Jesse away from here – away from his mom. And he had to think quickly.
“Jesse,” Andy uttered, this time with more resolve, “perhaps we should look downstream in case the river carried the money away.”
Without pause, and showing the quickness of an old gunman, the cold barrel of the Colt suddenly appeared under Andy’s chin. The stench of 130 year old breath pronounced, “Boy, don’t cross me. Don’t try to take me off my track. Do that again, and you’ll be buried in them there holes we’re diggin’.”
Both went back to their moonlit excavation. Andy was shaking with the fear of what would happen if the treasure was revealed when there was a loud THUD. Jesse’s gun had hit something in the dirt. Frantic hands pushed back more and more of the rich, black earth uncovering the prize. Jesse stood and slowed his speech, “Well, well, well. This changes everything.”
It’s unlikely their discovery would have been visible without the ghostly blue light. As he stared, Andy’s fear descended deeper. At their feet lay a pine coffin box with an ominous inscription: Here Lies Frank James. May He Never Come Back.
Simultaneously there was both a murmur from within the box and a voice from across the field, searching, “Andy?”
Chapter 3, by Jill Ness
"Uh, that's my mom,” Andy said. “She'll call the police if I don't show up..." Andy stopped mid-sentence and let out a stifled scream. Whatever was in the coffin pounded against his knees.
Jesse guffawed. "If you ain't the most yella-bellied kid I ever seen!" Andy could see Jesse's yellowed teeth, which combined with the unearthly blue glow made a sickly green.
"Andy!" called his mother, her voice panicked now, and closer.
Jessie's face darkened and the grin disappeared. "Yer ma can wait, and so can the sheriff. Now git goin' and let my brother out. It's time for the James brothers to ride again."
Andy’s hands shook as much as his voice. "Mr. James, this coffin's nailed shut, and I can't open it with my bare hands. Besides ..."
"'Sides what?!" the outlaw yelled.
More thuds reverberated from the casket, stronger, and more insistent.
"Sir, I don't know who or what is in this coffin, but it can't be your brother. He went back to Missouri and turned himself in to the governor."
"Frank would never turn himself in!" Jesse protested. But the sideways look of his eyes revealed doubt, as if Jesse wondered if Andy was speaking the truth.
The closeness of his mother's voice terrified Andy; Jesse could shoot her, too! This realization gave Andy the courage to tell Jesse more of the facts he had learned in school. He knew Jesse James was killed in 1882, so his ghost might not be aware of anything after that date.
"It's true, I swear! He waited in jail for a year to be tried, and a former Confederate General testified on his behalf. He was never sent back here and he was never convicted of any of the charges against him!" Andy was amazed at how the history all came back to him. It had to be the adrenaline. He hadn’t paid that much attention in class.
Jesse stared at Andy, and growled through his gritted teeth. "How do you know all this, huh? Tell me that!"
The wood moved beneath Jesse as whatever was inside pounded on the lid. It was sure to escape at any time.
"Let me outta here!" shouted a muffled voice, seemingly venting a hundred years of pent-up rage. Andy scrambled off the coffin’s lid and stood next to Jesse. As scared as he was of Jesse James, the real terror was beneath that lid.
"Well?" Jesse demanded. "Speak, boy!"
Sirens wailed in the distance.
"I...I learned it all in school! You and your brother are famous now! Everybody knows about the James brothers!"
Chapter 4, by Mark Merrell
As Jesse pondered Andy's words, the pine coffin splintered. Wood flew like shrapnel. Andy covered his head.
“Robert Ford?” Jesse exclaimed. “What are you doin’ in my brother’s casket?”
Before Andy could think, he blurted out, “Bob Ford killed you Jesse. He shot you in the back of the head when you went to clean that painting on the wall.”
Jesse stared with his hollow eyes at Andy. He was starting to believe him.
Bob spoke then, his voice raspy and deep, “He’s right. I’d had ‘nuff of you bossin’ us around, makin’ us put you up in our place. So I cut a deal. Shot you dead and got a pardon the next day.” He laughed a guttural, wheezy laugh, coughing out 130 years of decay.
“Is that true, boy?” Jesse asked, turning to Andy.
“Yes,” Andy said, “He shot you twice in the back of the head and got a pardon from the governor for the murder, the very NEXT DAY!”
“You coward,” Jesse said, aiming the Colt at Bob. “I treated you like my own brother!”
A hand grabbed Andy’s arm. “Aaaaaaaahh!” the boy screamed. His mom gripped him and stared, terrified, at the two blue apparitions in front of them.
Andy thought his heart had exploded, but he looked from his mom to Jesse to see smoke coming from the Colt. Bob flipped over backwards and disappeared into the hole they had just dug. Andy thought he might be dead, so he leaned forward for a closer look. Whooosh, the blue body flew out, blowing a cold, putrid wind into Andy that would have knocked him over if his mom hadn’t been there to steady him. Bob slammed into Jesse, and they seemed to roll through the air, wrestling.
Andy’s mom pulled his arm. “Let’s get out of here!” They turned to leave when Andy saw a shiny gold box on the ground. “Robert Ford” was engraved on the top. Andy couldn’t resist picking it up. It was ice cold.
“Drop it,” his mom shouted, “and let’s go!”
Just then the blue figures flew back toward them, punching and kicking each other wildly. Bob looked at Andy and the box.
“Give me that boy! Give me that, RIGHT NOW!”
“No,” Jesse yelled, “open it, OPEN IT!”
Andy felt his hand move to the box cover and pull.
“Nooooo,” screamed Bob, as his blue form turned slowly into a misty cloud, and was sucked into the box.
“Close it!” yelled Jesse. Andy slammed the box shut.
Jesse holstered his gun and held out his hand. Andy put the box in it. Jesse then put it back in the coffin and began scooping dirt back into the hole. Andy went over to help. Wordlessly they worked in the dark of the woods to cover the casket.
“Thank you, Andy,” Jesse said. “Now I know how it happened. I can finally rest in peace.”
His blue form began to fade. Jesse let out a sigh, smiled at Andy, and was gone.