A Dark Night's Tale
The Tahoe Ladies

    The road rose dark and steep into the mountain night. The sky overhead would soon glitter with a hundred million stars but for now, there were only the  shadows of trees and rocks to guide his way. The night seemed to swallow even the bright white patches of his horse's coat and as the evening breeze freshened and cooled, Joe Cartwright snuggled deeper into his jacket and tugged down his hat with a gloved hand.

    Off to one side, something skittered away and Joe felt more than saw that Cochise turned to look in that direction but then the pinto stiffened and Joe instinctively pulled the horse to a stop there in the center of the road. Straining to hear, all Joe picked up on was the normal sounds of night in the mountains. He reached over and patted Cochise's neck.

    He chuckled for he could feel the quivering muscles beneath his hand. "You scared of whatever it is for both of us, huh?"

    He was about to gig the horse back into motion when he heard an odd sound for the nighttime woods: three hollow-sounding knocks. It was almost as though someone was knocking slowly on a door but Joe knew this stretch of road well. There was no cabin close by and the dense woods to either side of the road would not yield enough space for a wagon to camp for the night. Joe shifted in the saddle then told himself he was imagining things. But uncharacteristically, Cochise sidestepped and tossed his head as if to tell Joe that he wanted to be gone from there.

    "Easy, boy," Joe crooned and again patted the black neck before him. "Let's just amble on-"

    Again there came the three hollow knocks. This time the sound was plain enough that Joe turned his head to the right, sure that was where the noise had come from. Cochise also turned his head in that direction and snorted once.

    More curious now than afraid, Joe tugged the reins in the direction of the sound and a reluctant Cochise obeyed. Once off the road, the trees seemed to swallow any semblance of light yet Joe went by the instinct of a man accustomed to life in the country away from city lights: at a slow walk and with ears pricked for any sound whatsoever. Just about the time Joe decided he was being foolish and that the best place for him to be that night was home in front of the fire, he heard the knocking, the taps, again. Three, just like before but this time they were closer. He nudged Cochise towards the sound but the pinto out and out balked and refused to take another step.

    "It's probably just a limb hitting a hollow log or something," Joe chided himself and the horse. If that was the case, he thought, why did he feel like he had to investigate? With no answer to his own question but plenty of questions concerning the sound, Joe swung down from the saddle and dropped the reins into the leaf mold at his feet.

    Again, the three knocks: one, two, three. But now they sounded sharper and cleared and somehow, more insistent. With the goose bumps racing up Joe's spine to seek shelter under his hat, Joe stepped towards the sound.

    "Anybody out there?" he called and even to himself, his voice sounded weak and tremulous so he cleared his throat and called out again.

    Once, twice, thrice, the knock, the sound like someone was rapping on the door wanting inside. Joe didn't doubt for a moment that whoever they were, they would want out of the night's darkness and chill. He certainly did! Joe thought more than once about getting right back up on his horse and riding out as far as he dared, or maybe a little faster! But then again, he was curious. And, he told himself sternly; it could be someone hurt out there! What sort of a man would he be if he turned and ran out on them when they needed help? So he stepped further into the woods and the stygian darkness.

    He was about to turn back when he stumbled, literally. His hands and knees broke his fall and he cursed his clumsiness roundly. In rising, his hand brushed something that wasn't leaf litter, or dirt. No, and just to make sure, he ran his hand over it again. It was a wooden chest, half-rotten from the spongy feel to it and half-buried in the dirt from the feel of it

    "What the -?" Joe sputtered then promptly sat down beside the chest. He looked around to orient himself. In years gone by, he had discovered lots of things dropped along the trails by emigrants lightening their wagonloads as they pushed for the mountain summits. Most weren't worth more than a casual glance but this chest was too far from the road to be a cast off. The wild thought popped into Joe's mind that it might be a robber's buried treasure. For a brief instant, he imagined opening the chest to find gold doubloons or the like but then the adult in him rose up and chastised his childish side.

    Just then again came the three knocks. Right under his hand. Joe would have jumped and run off from pure fright if he could have gotten his feet and body all working together for the same purpose and headed in the same direction at the same time. Instead he did a nosedive right beside the chest, his chin gouging a furrow in the sandy soil.

    "This is ridiculous Joseph Cartwright! You are a grown man! What in blazes are you afraid of? Just open the chest and you'll probably find…" his voice, strong at first petered down to a whisper. He was having trouble imagining what he would find in the chest but he knew he had to look. Fishing into his pockets, he found several matches. Using the taut fabric of his pants, he tried to light it but it wouldn't spark. He carefully tucked it into his glove for later.

    When the three raps came again, Joe dropped the match he had managed to light. The noise had come from under his own feet since he was standing now on the chest. Or had been until the noise had scared him off it!

    Finally Joe got the third match lit and kneeling quickly, found the half-rusted hasp holding the chest closed. There was no lock on it and Joe, holding his breath, pulled at the iron, willing it to open. It did. But then the match went out and Joe had to find another in his pocket and light it.

    When the three raps came again, Joe threw open the lid to the chest as though he were letting loose the demons of Hell. But nothing arose from the chest so carefully easing his nose over the edge, he looked in.

    Now what do you suppose he saw?

    Yep, you guessed it. Wrapping paper.

The end
Okay, so you have been had by the Tahoe Ladies…………
November 2002


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