Emiline Hutton's House

A Bonanza story for Halloweíen

       Jenny Guttridge  

It was late afternoon, and the two Cartwrights, Benís eldest, and youngest sons were still a long way from home. Adam Cartwright pulled his tall, chestnut horse to a halt at the top of the hill to let him blow. He was a tall, broad chested, solidly built man dressed all in black. The work clothes were sweat-stained, and very dirty, and the chaps he wore on his legs, badly scuffed. His finely chiselled, pleasantly handsome face was darkened with a full dayís growth of stubble. Born to ride, he sat the horse as naturally as if he and the animal were one creature. His lean legs were long in the stirrups and his thighs spread wide to encompass the horseís girth.

Now, as he eased his seat forward in the saddle to take the weight off his butt, he studied the sky with his deeply set, far-seeing, clear, brown eyes, "It looks as if weíre going to get wet, Joe."

Joe Cartwright, a younger man, of lighter frame and smaller build, took off his hat and followed the direction of his brotherís gaze, skywards.

The thunderheads that had been building darkly all afternoon over the foothills of the Sierras were moving in from the Southwest. The sun was already shielded by cloud, and the valley-land below them was filled with early shadows. A sudden ground-wind tossed the tussocky grass into ranked waves that marched across the pastureland like the breakers on the lake when the storm winds blew. The cloud ceiling was lowering even as they watched.

"I think you could be right, older brother." Joe ran his hand through his unruly tangle of brown curls and sighed a hearty sigh. There were a couple of things he didnít want to be that evening, and one of them was wet.

Adam looked round at the surrounding countryside, comparing it with the mental map he carried in his mind. He worked out exactly where they were, and was not comforted by his conclusion. They still had three hours of steady riding ahead of them before they could even start thinking about coffee, and a hot meal, and all the other comforts of home. The rain front was already between them and where they were going. Before long they would be riding right into the teeth of the storm.

"Itís too far to make a run for it," he said, already feeling on his skin the fall in temperature as the rain approached. It made the dark hairs on his muscular, sun- darkened forearms rise up and stand in neat little curls. Adam unrolled his shirtsleeves and buttoned his cuffs. "I think weíd better think about finding some sort of shelter."

"Shelter?" Joe stared at his elder brother. He was appalled at the suggestion, "I have to get home. Iím going to the dance at the Palfreyís place tonight, aní I'm all booked up to take little Mary Saunderson along with me." The other thing Joe didnít want to be that night was late.

Gingerly, Adam settled his weight back into his saddle. His back and buttocks were aching from a long dayís work on horseback, and he knew that by the time he got home his discomfort was going to be acute. Joe didnít seem to be suffering from any such problem. He was anxious to get going and his piebald mare, picking up on his mood, was starting to dance about despite the hard dayís work she had done.

Adam looked again at the sky, considering the possibilities with the wisdom of his longer years and greater experience, "I donít think youíre going to make the dance this time, Joe. That stormís coming in real hard. Itís going to be right on top of us in less than an hour."

Both men knew well the expanse of open grassland they still had to cover, and the two streams, one of them more of a river that they had to cross. With the rain falling in the hills, both watercourses would already be filling up. By any stretch of the imagination, the long ride was not going to be a pleasant one.

Joe scowled at the clouds, and then at his brother, "Hell, Adam, I really did want ta take Mary Saunderson to that party."

"I know you did. But we left it too late leaving the east range. Weíre never going to make it before those rivers flood out." A small smile touched Adamís lips, "Iím sure Mary Saunderson would rather wait until the next dance, than have you drowned in a flash flood."

"I ainít so sure sheís gonna wait at all," Joe fretted, "Thereís lots oí other fellas be only to pleased ta step into my boots."

Adam ran his hand down his horseís neck, "I donít see any help for it Joe. Even if we make it back through the storm, itíll be too late for you to ride all the way to the Palfreyís place."

Joe sighed, accepting the inevitable. He pulled the pintoís head round so that she turned in a tight circle, and he was able to look his taller brother in the face, "So whatíre we gonna do? Thereís no shelter for more than twenty miles around here."

Adam hesitated. It was obvious that his brother had forgotten that not so far from the spot where they sat, there was a smallholding that their father had bought up, and incorporated into the Ponderosa, years ago, when he was first building the ranch out of the wilderness.

It had belonged to a widow woman who, stubbornly, had refused to be defeated by the hardships and deprivations of the early frontier. She had stayed on a long time after the death of her husband, living alone in the house that they had built together at one end of a shallow valley. Adam remembered that it had taken his father a very long time, and a great deal of frustration, loudly voiced, to buy her out. And then, no sooner were the papers signed and the money paid over, in gold-coin, than the woman had simply disappeared. In those early days there had been any number of things that could have happened to her. Ben had spent some time looking, but never found anything. Then the years had got in the way, and the woman, and her fate, had faded from mind.

The house remained, although Adam had not been there for a very long time. It was the only possible shelter that he could think of in this far-flung corner of the ranch.

As if in counterpoint to his thought, lightening flared in front of him, lighting up the nearest thunderhead from the inside.  Seconds later thunder growled over the landscape. Adamís horse laid his ears back, and tossed up his head. Joeís mare fidgeted.

"I think," Adam said, "Weíd better make for Emiline Huttonís house."

"What!" Joeís reaction made his mare jiggle and dance, "Emiline Huttonís house? Adam, have you taken leave of your senses? That olí place canít be no more than a heap oí sticks these days!"

Adam grinned at him. The smile lit up his face and put winsome dimples into his cheeks. He was already turning the chestnut around, "It had walls and a roof on it the last time I was there," he said over his shoulder.

"But, Adam..." Joeís voice raised in a wail, "Emiline Huttonís house is supposed to be..."

The thunder rolled again, closer and louder. Joe was never sure if his elder brother caught the last word or not.

As the lightening lit up the clouds behind him, Adam kicked the chestnut gelding into a ground-covering canter.

Joeís mare danced around in another complete circle before he got her pointed in the right direction and got her started. By then, Adam was a long way ahead and well out of earshot. Joe cursed and leaned low over the pintoís neck, urging her to catch up but well aware that Adamís horse had the longer stride.

The storm came on apace, and the two horsemen ran before it, two tiny figures galloping across the vastness of the grassland. Adam drew in his reins at the mouth of the valley, looking around and trying to get his bearings. Trees that had been bushes the last time heíd been here were now all grown up, and the contours of the land seemed to have changed a bit. The trail that had been here before had completely vanished.

Joe pulled the mare up beside him. She was sweating and fighting the bit. Joe shouted above the rising wind, "Hey, Adam! Are you real sure about this?"

A heavy flurry of raindrops pounded into both menís backs. The rain was cold. Adam cast a glance at the sky, "Iím sure!" He yelled back.

He drove his heels hard into his horseís sides and rode at a gallop into the valley.

Joe fought with the skittish mare, which jounced, and pranced and rolled her eyes before taking off after the chestnut.

The light began to fade as the black, and angry clouds swept down from the hills. Lightening flashed and danced about the sky, sometimes contained entirely with the cloud mass, sometimes zigzagging from cloud to cloud. The roll and rumble of the thunder became almost continuous. The cloud front marched on down the valley in quick pursuit. The rain drops became larger and heavier, dropping with all the weight and noise of lead shot falling into water onto the menís backs and the broad rumps of the horses. It wasnít very long before both men, and horses, were soaked right through to the skin.

At last Adam came to a landmark he recognized. A big, old cottonwood tree stood sentinel beside the vanished trail. Beyond a little group of scrub oak grew above the house, shielding it from the worst of the wind. The trees were starting to toss in the storm-winds.

Adam checked his horse and turned in the saddle, looking for his brother. Joe was coming on behind, still fighting a battle with the pinto mare. Unable to shout above the racket of the storm, Adam waved his arm in the direction of the house. He didnít see the worried and unhappy look on Joeís face.

Emiline Huttonís house was larger than Adam had remembered. Unusually for its period, it had been built on two storeys with a loft space at the top. It was long and flat fronted, and faced with boards that had become grey with weathering. In the fading light of the storm swept evening it had a brooding atmosphere, augmented by the intermittent lightening flashes and the long rolls of thunder. It had square, dark windows upstairs and down, and a wide dark doorway in the centre of the front wall. The grey boards shone with wetness.

Adam Cartwright galloped his horse along the frontage of the house. He was pleased to find that his memory had not played him false. At the far end of the building, tucked away round the corner, was a lean-to shed up against the side of the main house. It had a dark doorway but no door remained.

Adam pulled the chestnut to a skidding stop outside and stepped out of the saddle. The rain was falling around him in driving sheets. Water ran in a cold stream down the channel of his backbone. He looked up to see Joe, equally wet and bedraggled, haul the mare to a halt, and slither out of his own saddle. The flanks of both horses were streaming with rainwater and steam was starting to come up off their hides. Adam and Joe led them inside the lean-to shed. It was a small shed, and two men and two horses were a tight fit. The Cartwrights found their elbows and knees getting in each otherís way as they stripped their gear off the animalís backs. It was also dark. As he worked, rubbing the mare down with handfuls of ancient straw, Joe tried to get a look at his brotherís face.

"Adam, youíre in such a hell-fired hurry to get here, do you know what this place is supposed to be?"

Adam looked at him over his horseís back. There was just enough light from the doorway for Joe to see the gleam of his eyes. "Itís a house Joe," he said, with exaggerated patience "It has walls, and, fortunately for us, it still has a roof on it."

Adam heaved his saddle up onto his shoulder and started for the doorway.

"But, Adam..."

"No buts!" Adam held out his free hand in a gesture for silence, "Until this storm moves on, this is home!" And with that proclamation he stepped out into the rain and headed rapidly for the front door of the house.

Joe muttered a few oaths his parent wouldnít have approved of. He checked that the mare was tied securely, picked up his own saddle, and hurried after his brother, "Hey, Adam!"

Adam kicked the door in with a single, hearty blow of his boot. He stumbled inside when it opened more easily than expected. It was gloomy inside. Light penetrated only with difficulty through the two grimy windows that opened into the room. A little more illumination came through the now open doorway, but not very much. He dumped the heavy saddle on the floor, and then got out of the way so that his brother could get inside out of the rain. Joe dropped his gear beside Adamís.

Outside, the yard lit up as lightening flared overhead. Just enough light glimmered through the doorway for the two brothers to see each other. Both stood with their hands on their hips, soaking wet and dripping.

"Adam," Joe started in again, "Didnít anyone ever tell you, this house is supposed to be haunted!"

Adam gaped at him, and then an incredulous smile spread across his face, "Haunted? Joe, whoeverís been telling you that sort of nonsense?"

"It ainít nonsense! Andy and John Roland told Hoss they seen things in this house..."

"Is that so?" The smile on Adamís face faded a bit, "And what were Andy and John Roland doing out here in the middle of Ponderosa land?"

"Hell, Adam. They werenít doiní no harm," Joe was immediately defensive. He knew that his brother felt as strongly about trespassers as their father, and that he could be equally mule headed, "And Abbey OíNeil and ĎDrew Deakin, they say that they seen something to, and heard..."

Adam heaved a sigh, "I donít have to ask what Abbey and ĎDrew were doing out here, Ďthough itís one hellíve a way to come just to get away from Abbeyís Pa."

"Well, they sure didnít stop long."

The lightening flashed again, and at once the thunder cracked savagely as the first of the storm-heads passed directly overhead. The brothers looked towards the still open door as the rain increased still further to a pounding deluge.

Adam smiled at Joe, a small, gently mocking smile, "Well, I guess youíve got a choice, little brother. You can sleep in here with me and the ghost, or out in the shed with the horses."

Joe gazed round uneasily at the room that was emerging from the shadows as his eyes adjusted gradually to the dark, "You know something, Adam, Iím not so darn sure I wouldnít prefer the horses."

Adam looked 'round the room for himself. It was as if he had stepped some twenty years back in time. The room had been a parlour, furnished in the old-fashioned style of the frontiersman. The furniture had been crudely utilitarian; hand made from local timber, with overstuffed cushions that had long since burst. Everything was in disarray and ruin. Anything that would burn had been broken up for kindling. Small animals had at sometime nested in the cushions. The one or two good Georgian pieces were still just recognizable. A tall case clock, the hands frozen at six fifteen, leaned drunkenly against the far wall. Its elaborate enamelled dial had been used for target practice. The remains of an ornately gilded harpsichord lay in the furthest corner. Obviously once a carefully transported and much loved heirloom, its elegant curved legs had been smashed, and its stringed innards hung out on the floor like those of a gutted steer. Most of the case had been taken for firewood. Over all lay a thick grey blanket of dust. The more Adam saw, the more he began to see the attraction of the horse shed.

"Itís, er, just a little dusty, Joe"

"Dusty?" Joeís expression was one of distaste bordering on disgust, "Yeah, right."

Outside the storm cracked again and hailstones rattled loudly against the front of the house. Some of them bounced in through the open door. It reminded the brothers that they were both very wet. Adam looked down at the puddle he was dripping on to the floor. "You do what you want to do, Joe. But Iím going to light me a fire and get dried off."

Joe looked at the deluge continuing out in the yard and thought about it, but not for too long. "I think Iím with you Adam."

"Then, if I remember rightly," Adam said, " the kitchen is this way."

There were two rooms on the ground floor, the parlour, as Joe thought of it, and an empty box- like room that had probably been a storeroom. Between them, a still sturdy staircase led to the upper floor. At the back of the house, as Adam had recalled, was the kitchen.

The rear of the building had suffered more than the front. There were places where the boarding had come off the walls, and the wind was driving the rain right through.

The kitchen, fortunately for the two Cartwrights, was dry. The single window, though dirty, was intact and still keeping the weather out.

Over the years, the place had been used by a lot of people. The cowhands used it regularly at spring round up time and during the autumn gather. The walls and the roof the house offered were preferable by far to the open range when the rains fell and the wind blew. Casual visitors such as the Deakin brothers had taken their toll, and once Adam and his father had chased a family of squatters out of the place. It had not been treated kindly. Adam cleared a space with his foot among the general debris on the floor and dropped his saddle into it. He could see that although the dust did not lie so thickly here, there was very little that remained intact. Only the huge iron range, bigger even than Hop Singís at home, had proved indestructible. It filled almost one whole wall of the sizeable room.

Adam went over and gave it a cautious kick, and then started fiddling around with the firebox.

Looking round with increasing despondency, Joe decided that they were in for a thoroughly miserable night. The growling thunder from outside distantly echoed his thought. He dropped his saddle beside his brotherís.

"Díyou really think youíre going ta get that old relic going again, Adam?"

"I donít see why not." There being little left to burn, Adam started breaking the remains of the last two chairs into kindling, "Itís been done before. I just hope nothingís nested up in the chimney. Hey Joe..." He paused and looked across at his brother, "Quit gawking, will you, and rig up some torches so that we can at least see each other?"

"Yeah. Right." Realizing how dark it had become, Joe closed his mouth and set about wrapping a couple of the chair legs in rags.

With the help of the matches he always carried in a little tin box amongst his gear, Adam managed to get the fire started in the range. The old stove huffed and puffed, but eventually the chimney started to draw, and the smoke cleared. Almost at once the kitchen, designed and built by a pioneer who knew all about the rigours of Nevadan winters, began to warm.

Adam heaved a sigh of relief and stripped off his clothes. Beyond the walls of the house the thunderstorms were still chasing one-another down out of the hills. Their racket was incessant and there was no indication that they were going to ease up much before midnight. Adam had no intention of sitting all night in his wet pants. Pulling off his boots, he shucked right down to the buff, wrung as much water out of the garments as he could, and draped them close above the fire. His hope was that the rising heat might do something towards drying them.

Reluctantly, Joe followed his brotherís example. Before very long the two men were sitting in front of the hissing, steaming stove, their saddle blankets wrapped around their shoulders and wearing nothing else but their hats.

"Adam," Joe began "What díyou think happened to Emiline Hutton?"

"No one knows, Joe," Adam stretched one heavily muscled arm over his shoulder to rub at a sore spot on his back, "She disappeared twenty years ago. There were all sorts of rumours. Some folks said Paiutes carried her off. Some said she went crazy out here all by herself, and just wandered off into the hills on her own."

"Wasnít there some sort of story about Spanish gold?"

Adam made a short scoffing sound, "That was all nonsense, Joe. The only gold Emiline Hutton ever had was the hundred dollars Pa gave her for this place. No one ever found that, or Emiline Hutton - and you can tell that this place has been fairly well taken apart"

"I wonder what did happen to Emiline Hutton," Joe said, thoughtfully, "You donít reckon that sheís still here some place, do you Adam? Aní itís just that nobodyís ever found her?"

Adam laughed again, "Not a chance, little brother. Not a chance."

Joe stared into the glowing wood-embers and listened to the storm outside. His stomach rumbled in hollow counterpoint to the thunder. "I could sure do with some of Hop Singís apple dumplings right now," he said, wistfully. He could almost taste the sweet, cinnamon flavoured puddings.

"Itís no use wishing, Joe. It looks like weíre going to bed hungry tonight." Adam knew that they didn't have the makings of a pot of coffee between them. He pulled the blanket more closely about his arms.

Joe looked across at him. He remembered abruptly that Adam knew what it was like not just to be hungry, but to be really hungry. As a child, he had trekked across the Great Plains with their father. Even basic necessities such as food had often been in short supply. That brought another thought to Joeís mind.

"Adam, didnít you tell Hoss aní me once how you and Pa spent the night in that old Shoshone burial ground?"

Adam raised a surprised eyebrow at him. His face was clothed in moving shadows by Joeís crudely manufactured torch. "You donít want me to start telling you ghost stories, do you, Joe?"

"Heck, no." Joe looked down at his feet and wriggled his toes, "I donít believe in ghosts. I was just wondering, is all."

"Well, then yes, we did camp out one night in what turned out to be a Shoshone burial ground. Only we didnít know it at the time."

"How come?"

"It was already evening when we got there, aní it was raining, just like it is tonight." Adam stretched his feet out to the fire, remembering. "We were about a week out of Daletown, heading west, just three wagons. The storm came howling down on us out of the northwest. It was so dark and wet we couldnít see ten yards in front of us. Then the trail washed out, and it started to get dark in earnest when the sun set. The mule teams were all tuckered out and we just had to stop right where we were."

"But didnít you see nothiní? Or hear nothiní?"

"Nothing that couldnít be put down to the wind, or the rain."

"Wereít you scared at all, Adam? I mean, with all them dead bodies about..."

"Scared of what, Joe? Youíve seen dead men often enough. They might not look so nice but there"s nothing to be afraid of. Besides," Adam shrugged, "When the sun came up there was nothing really to see. Just a few mounds, mostly washed away." He paused, and then shot his brother a wicked, sidelong glance that Joe missed entirely, "Of course, thatís if you donít pay any account to the old Indian woman."

Joeís head came up, "What old Indian woman? You didnít say nothiní before about no old Indian woman!"

"Thatís because Pa didnít want me to frighten you any when you and Hoss were just little kids," Adam said, improvising quickly "But now that youíre all grown up..."

"Just tell me about the old Indian woman."

"Not that much to tell. She was just an old woman, all done up in furs aní feathers. She looked all sort of - silvery - in amongst the trees, aní you could, sort of, see the branches clean through her," by now, Adam was warming to his subject. His imagination was starting to run riot.

Joe shivered as a chill went through him. It was if he was right there, seeing it all through his brotherís eyes, feeling what his brother felt, "Aní what was she doing, Adam? Tell me what she was doing!"

"Ah, she was, ah, singing Joe. She was singing one of those wailing death chants that the Shoshones sing when a great chief dies. The sort of song that rises and falls like the wind when it sighs through the pines. Of course, it might just have been the wind... The wind and the moonlight when it came out between the clouds" Adam didnít dare look at Joe again. He was afraid heíd start laughing and spoil the whole effect.

Joe felt as if he were about four, instead of twenty-four, deliciously afraid "But you werenít scared, were you Adam. Not with Pa there?"

"Oh, Pa wasnít there right then, heíd gone off to one of the other wagons and..."

But Adam had pushed his luck just that bit too far, and Joe caught on to the fact that he was being ribbed.

"Adam!" Joe leapt up, grabbing his falling blanket just in time to save his blushes, and snatched up a boot to aim at his brotherís head.

Adam curled up on the floor and laughed helplessly until he sobbed, "Joe! Joe, if you could have seen your face!"

"I suppose you think thatís Goddamned funny!" With all the indignation of youth, Joe Cartwright was furious. Outside, the thunder growled agreement and a fresh battery of hailstones rattled against the boarding.

Adam sat up and wiped his eyes, "you just asked for that, Joe. You just plain asked for it!"

"Just so long as you think itís funny..." Joe fed the last of their fuel to the stove and reached up to feel the sleeve of his shirt. It had steamed partly dry in the heat, but was still stickily damp as he put it on. He threw his brother his clothes, and the two men dressed in a companionable silence, broken only occasionally by a chuckle from Adam as he recalled the look of enchantment on his brotherís face. Their pants were still very wet, but they put them on anyway. It was going to be cold in the big kitchen when the fire in the stove died.

The storms were drifting away now, out towards the desert where the last of their fury would be spent. Rain was still falling hard when the last of Joeís torches burned down to a stub and went out. The two men settled down to sleep as best they could, with their heads and shoulders pillowed in their upturned saddles and their saddle blankets wrapped tight around them. Joe closed his eyes to the sound of rumbling. He was uncertain if it was distant thunder that he heard, or his brotherís hungry stomach.

Joe woke up with a start and sat bolt upright, staring into the darkness. The stove had gone out, and the big kitchen was cooling fast. Joe shivered in his still damp clothes. Cold, he wrapped his arms round himself, listening hard. He had the distinct feeling that a sound had awakened him. The storms had moved off now, and the rain seemed to have stopped. All he could hear was the steady drip of water falling from the broken eaves into the puddles behind the house. He guessed it must be somewhere about midnight.

Then the noise came again, from somewhere right over his head. It was a sort of muffled thumping. To Joeís ear it sounded as if someone were walking with a limp across the floor of the room upstairs.

Joe reached out a hand and found his brotherís arm. He shook it hard. "Adam. Hey, Adam!" Joeís voice was an over-loud hiss in the darkness.

Adam stirred and came groggily awake, "What is it, Joe?"

"Listen, will ya? Just listen!"

Adam got his arm under him and propped himself up on his elbow. He squinted into the darkness trying to make out Joeís face, "Whatís the matter Joe? You sick or something?"

"I ainít sick! Listen!"

Adam dutifully listened to the silence.

"I donít hear anything, Joe."

"Thatís Ďcause youíre making too much damn noise! Now just listen!"

The two of them sat in the dark and listened. After a couple of minutes the muffled thump came again. Adam looked at Joe. By now their eyes had adjusted to the dark and they could just about distinguish the outline of each otherís faces, "What is that?" Joe asked in a loud whisper.

"I donít know," Adam listened to another, double thump. It was hard to place, but definitely came from somewhere up above them, "But Iím gonna find out!"

Joe heard him pull on his boots in the dark and then scramble to his feet. Joe was alarmed, "Adam, you donít know what that is up there!"

"And just what do you think it might be, little brother?" Adam was buckling his gunbelt around his hips.

Joe swallowed hard as something thumped, quite solidly, on the ceiling. "Adam, it just might be the..." he couldnít quite bring himself to say the word.

"Ghost?" Adam finished for him, "Joe, I donít believe in ghosts," He jammed his black hat on his head, "Are you coming?" He started for the kitchen door while Joe struggled to stuff his feet back into his boots and snatched his gun from its holster. Above all, Joe wasnít going to be left in the kitchen by himself.

The two of them went up the stairs together, Joe keeping close order behind his elder brother. The stairway was dark and the steps old and dried out. They creaked a bit, here and there, under the menís weight.

There was a small window on the top landing, letting in just enough light for them to see that there were two doors, both closed. Adam sidled up to door that led to the room directly over the kitchen. He put his back to the wall and with his left hand reached for the tarnished brass knob. The butt of his blued pistol slipped smoothly into his hand. Joe stepped into position on the other side of the door, his gun also at the ready. From inside the room came the soft thumping noise.

Adam and Joe met each otherís eyes across the width of the closed door. Adamís hand tightened on the knob. Joe drew a deep breath and held it. Adam slowly opened the door and peered across the threshold.

Something huge and grey-white lifted into the air in a great feathered cloud, squawking. It was all talons, and fluttering wings, and it flew wildly at the intruders. Adam threw up one arm to protect his face and grabbed for the door handle.

"Turtle-doves," He said, closing the door firmly, "Only you, Joe, could get me out of bed in the middle of the night to chase down a flock of turtle-doves."

Joeís heart was only now starting to slow down "Heck, Adam. How was I to know the window was all broke in aní they was roostiní in there?"

"Broken in," Adam corrected automatically. A tall, black clad figure in the gloom of the landing, he slid his gun back into his holster. "I donít know what youíre going to do, Little Joe, but Iím going back to bed."

"But, Adam..." Joe threw the closed door a worried look as his brother started down the stairs. From behind it came the sounds of the birds settling down again. "Adam, you canít leave me up here!"

Adamís voice came up from below, "Come on down then."

Joe looked at the other door, decided it was not something he wanted to investigate on his own and hurried down in his brotherís footsteps. By the time he reached the kitchen Adam had already taken his gunbelt off and was pulling at his second boot.

"Adam, we didnít check out that other room."

Adam settled back into the curve of his saddle and pulled his blanket over him, "No, we didnít. You want to check out the other room, you go right ahead and do it."

Joe thought about it and decided that, perhaps after all, it wasnít worth the bother. He sat down on the floor and started to tug at his own boots.

When Joe woke up again, stiff, cold and very hungry, it must have been about three in the morning. Outside the wind had risen and was making sighing sounds in the oak trees, but that wasnít what had awakened him. Joe sat up, wide-awake and fully alert. He didnít believe his ears. Somewhere in the house, someone was playing the harpsichord.

Beside him, Adam lay on his back in the upturned curve of his saddle. His lips were parted and he was snoring, very softly. Joe reached across and shook him, "Adam! Wake up, Adam!"

Adamís dark eyes opened, "What is it now, Joe?" He asked, wearily.

"Adam, listen!"

"Iím not waking up and listening to anything else, Joe. Go back to sleep." Adam closed his eyes again.

Joe stared round the strange, dark kitchen, his eyes grown wide. He could still hear the music, coming through the wall from the front of the house. He reached over and got a good firm grip of his brotherís shoulder, "Adam! Wake up, will ya!"

Adam threw off his hand and turned over onto his side, "Whatever it is, Joe," he muttered, somewhat crossly, "tell me about it in the morning. Now let me go to sleep." Almost at once his breathing slowed and steadied again as he slipped back into slumber.

Joe listened, his head on one side. The harpsichord still played in the front room of the house, the strains of an intricate, archaic melody that got louder, then softer as he strained to hear it better. Joe looked again at his brother. Adam was deeply asleep, his face more than half concealed by a fold in his blanket and the hat pulled down low over his eyes. To try and wake him up again would be folly. Adamís temper, when roused, was nearly as legendary, and as loud, as their fatherís - and he wouldnít have forgotten about the pigeons yet. Joe reached out a hand for his boots.

The kitchen door creaked when it opened. Joe didnít remember that it had made that noise before. He stepped into the short passage that housed the staircase. The music still played, trilling up and down the scales in a dance tune Joe recalled from somewhere, was called a minuet. With his gun in his hand Joe edged up to the parlour door. The music was definitely coming from somewhere beyond. Joe put his hand on the doorknob. The music stopped. Joe opened the door.

There was nothing inside but the ruins of the furniture and a thick carpet of dust. Joe could see the tracks clearly in the dim, grey light, where he and his brother had ploughed through it earlier. Over by the harpsichord, which lay in shattered ruin, the dust was quite undisturbed. Joe swallowed, hard. Unhappily, the hand that held his gun was starting to shake. He pressed his back to the wall and took a deep, steadying breath. His quick, hazel eyes made a thorough and searching examination of the room, but found nothing to account for the strange music, or for its sudden stopping.

Joe backed out of the room, tucking his gun into the belt of his trousers. Perhaps, after all, he thought, he had been only partly awake and had imagined the whole thing. But as he turned to pull the parlour door closed, he saw something in the corner of the passage wall, beside the staircase. It was another door, one that neither he nor his brother had seen previously. Smaller that the other doors, it fitted flush with the wall, and the panelling matched the staircase perfectly. It had no knob, but was fitted with a simple lift latch.

Joe stepped over to the door and lifted the latch. In an instant, he was teetering on the edge of a black precipice, struggling to regain his equilibrium. A yelp escaped his lips, and he flailed his arms wildly. Just barely, he managed to save himself from the fall.

Breathless and alarmed, he stepped back from the edge, and then jumped violently as a movement caught the corner of his eye. He spun round, the gun back in his hand and swinging through a wide arc.

Someone was standing in the deep shadows beside the kitchen door. Joe saw the form of a man, tall, wide shouldered, dark complexioned, all dressed in black clothes. Joeís breath whistled out through his teeth, "Ah! Gee, Adam! You sure as hell scared me!"

The figure didnít say anything, nor did it make any movement.

"Adam?" Joe stepped forward, reaching out a hand to his brother.

The wind outside blew. A vagrant breeze disturbed the dust. The shadows shifted, and the dark figure became just another shadow in the angle of the wall. Its face, half seen and half imagined, dissolved away into the fitful, emerging moonlight that spilled through the upstairs window and down the stairs.

Sweating, breathless, relieved, Joe Cartwright took a step backwards. He forgot entirely that he stood on the sill of the dark doorway. He went through it butt first, the gun flying out of his hand to go cart-wheeling away into the dark. A hard, sharp edge delivered him a hefty blow across the buttocks and made him yell again, and then he was tumbling head over heels down a flight of very solid steps. He landed on his back on a dirt floor and cracked the back of his head. He knocked himself out cold.

He couldnít have been unconscious for more than a few minutes. When he came groggily to his senses, Joe was winded and sore in two dozen different places, but essentially unhurt. He lay for a moment, spread-eagled, and then tried to get up. The effort made him groan, but eventually he attained a sitting position and looked about him.

He was sitting in some sort of underground room at the bottom of a flight of stone steps. The grey light that filtered down the steps from the gloomy hallway above only diluted the absolute darkness a little, turning it into an inky gloom. Joe put a tentative hand to the back of his head and winced. There was a lump the size of a henís egg already rising underneath his brown curls. He probed it with his fingers and groaned again.

Behind him in the dark, something else groaned as well.

Joeís head turned so fast that he hurt his neck. At first there was nothing to see but the darkness. Then something moved, and, very faintly, he made out the shape of a person standing between him and the old shelving that still clung crookedly to the rear wall. The trouble was, he could see the shelving right through the outline of the figure.

Joe closed his eyes up tight and gave his head a short, sharp shake. When he opened them again, the figure was still there. If anything it was a little more distinct than before. His gaze fixed solidly on the apparition; Joe climbed slowly to his feet. He stepped back, tripped over the bottom step and sat down again, hard. The figure seemed to waver and drifted towards him. He could see now that it had the form, and the face, of a woman, or rather, of a girl. In fact, at first he thought it was Mary Saundersonís pert little face, but that couldnít possibly be right. Mary Sanderson couldnít be a ghost - she wasnít dead! Mary Saunderson was very much alive and quite possibly, at that moment, cuddled up in the arms of someone else. Joe had no illusions that he was Maryís only paramour. Then the face seemed to shift again and became older, sharper, somehow wiser. The grey clothes that covered it took on texture and form. They looked like furs, all embroidered and beaded, and feathers.

The figure bent over him, the face changing all the time. Joe cowered back, his eyes wide open, "What - what díyou want?" He croaked. The figure wavered in front of him and them the long fingered hand came towards him, offering something, pressing something on him. Joe put his hand out and the faint grey fingers dropped something into his palm. Joe looked down at it. It was a twenty-dollar gold piece. Joe ran his finger over the surface. It was solid gold, cold, hard, real. He looked up, open-mouthed. The figure wavered again and started to fade. Joe yelled, "Hey! Wait! Donít go!"

The figure made a gesture half bow - half salute, and then it was faded away into the surrounding shadows. Joe called after it, "Come back here, will you? Come back!" But it was gone and he was alone in chilly darkness.

Joe sat back against the steps and closed his eyes. He felt distinctly groggy. In fact, he felt sick. He thought that if he sat for just a moment, he might be able to gather his wits. And then he really would go upstairs and get Adam. Adam just wasnít going to believe...

Adam woke up stiff and sore from an uncomfortable night following a hard day in the saddle. His clothes had mostly dried on him, although his pants still felt a bit damp here and there. Across his back his shirt had stuck to his skin, and he didnít think he smelled any too sweet. He lay for a moment, remembering where he was, and why.

The storms of the night before had passed over. The light that filtered through the dirty windowpane into the ruined kitchen was bright, early sunlight.

Lifting himself up on his elbows, Adam looked across at his brotherís blanket. It lay in an untidy heap. Joe was nowhere to be seen. Adam sat up further and looked all round the kitchen. He assumed Joe had wakened before him, which was unusual, and had stepped outside to relieve himself. Come to think of it, Adam decided, that wasnít a bad idea. He got up, and strapped on his gun and went to the back door of the house. It was jammed shut. Joe hadnít gone out that way. Adam kicked the door open and stepped outside.

The sunlight was dazzling. All that remained of last nightís rainfall was a freshness in the air and a few puddles. The bright ball of the sun sitting right down on the horizon in the cusp of the valley sent horizontal rays directly into his eyes. Squinting, Adam gazed all round, "Joe?" He listened, his head to one side, and heard nothing but a bird warbling of in the trees. He yelled louder, "Joe!"

Adam strolled along the back of the house and round to the little lean-to shed. The horses were glad to see him, but there was still no sign of his brother. Adam took care of his own, personal business, and then went back inside.

Once he put his mind to it, finding Joe was an easy enough task. The dust lay thick everywhere and Adam was an expert tracker. It was the work of a minute to trace Joeís footsteps to the open door in the passage and to discover Joe himself, half propped up against the bottom of the steps.

Adam crouched down and shook his brother gently by the shoulder, "Wake up, Joe. I thought you gave up sleepwalking when you were a kid."

"Huh!" Joe came to with a start and moved rather too quickly, "Ouch!" Joeís hand went to the back of his head.

Adam was immediately concerned, "Whatíve you done to yourself, Little Joe?" He started probing in Joeís curls and soon found the lump.

"Ouch!" Joe said again, and pushed Adamís hands away. "I fell through that door and landed on my head."

Adam stood up and looked up at the doorway, now an oblong filled with the morning light. He estimated the distance his brother had fallen, "I guess youíre plum lucky you landed on the hard bit. Other wise you might have done some damage." He stood up and offered his brother his hand. Joe clasped it and got lifted onto his feet.

"Ouch!" He said again, with feeling. He put his hands Ďround behind himself and explored the soreness across his buttocks. Then he remembered something. He looked at his own hand. It was empty. He looked at Adamís face, puzzled, "I wasnít sleepwalking. Adam, you ainít never gonna believe what happened last night."

Adam gazed at him speculatively, "Try me."

Joe drew a long breath, "Someone was playing that old harpsichord in the parlour, and when you wouldnít wake up, I went to see. Aní then I saw you, standiní in the hall, only it werenít you at all. Aní then I fell down these stairs aní I saw Mary Saunderson, only she turned into an old Indian woman..." His expression started to become uncertain, "Unless it was Emiline Hutton I saw... Anyway, she gave me this twenty-dollar gold piece that must have been País, only I donít seem to have it any more..." he finished lamely, looking at his empty palm.

Adam leaned back on his heels and folded his arms, "ĎYou know something, Joe? Youíre right. I donít believe it."

"I swear to you, Adam..." Joe looked Ďround the room - just a little too quickly - and found himself clinging to his brotherís arm for support as his head swam, "I thought Iíd found out what happened to Emiline Hutton!"

"All you found, little brother," Adam said dryly, "Was the root cellar." He bent down to pick up Joeís gun and slipped it back into his brotherís holster, "Come on. Weíve still got a three-hour ride home. If we want some breakfast weíd better get there before Hoss eats it all." He started up the steps, "And then perhaps weíd better get the doctor out to look at that bump on your head..."

Joe looked round the dingy little underground room again. It all looked very ordinary now, dusty and grey. He brushed of his hands against his pants leg and followed Adam up into the daylight.

The two men swung into their saddles and turned their horses towards home. They cantered away into the morning sunlight and for a moment all was still and silent in the little sheltered spot where Emiline Huttonís house stood. Then the door swung slowly and silently closed. Half buried in the dirt of the cellar floor something gleamed with the glow of pure gold before fading away, and far off, just for a second, a harpsichord played.


Potters Bar 2000


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