A Ghost Story (by Star)

Summary:
Category:  The Big Valley
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  4100


A coyote’s lonesome howl reverberated through the darkness. The screech of an owl, integrated with the rustling of pine needles, all of which gave the campsite an eerie sensation. Nick and Heath Barkley edged closer to the fire as a cool breeze stirred the branches above.  It was late September and the time of year when the hands at the Barkley ranch would bring the herds grazing in the high country down to lower pasture lands.  The two cowboys had stayed back to round up any stragglers that may have been separated from the main herd.

Using his bandana to grab the handle, Nick Barkley drained the last of the evening coffee into his empty cup.  With a flick of the wrist, Heath tossed the last remnant of the lukewarm brew in his cup into the iridescent flames.  The liquid sizzled and smoked as Heath’s groping hand instinctively pulled the small tobacco pouch out of the pocket of his leather vest.

“Can I talk you into a smoke, big brother?”

“You know me better than that, Heath.  Now, if you happen to have a good cigar in that pouch of yours, I’ll take you up on your offer.”

Heath pushed his hat farther back on his head and attempted to roll a cigarette while leaning on one elbow.

“You know Nick, I’ve been through here quite a bit during the daylight, but it sure feels a whole lot different at night.”

“That’s for sure.  In fact, you’re not the first person who’s made that comment.  I can remember when I was a boy, Father and I used to camp out here occasionally.”

Heath took a long drag on his cigarette and cocked a questioning eyebrow at his older brother.

“Sounds like you’re about to start tellin’ me one of your ghost stories.”

“Well, maybe it’s a story and maybe it ain’t, but all the old timers in these parts swear it’s the gospel truth.”

“I reckon I’ve heard my fair share of ghost stories, Nick, and a lot of them from you.  Now, let’s hear if you can make this one any better than some of those others.”

“This is the way Father told it to me, and he heard it from some old hermit that used to live here in the woods.  Hey, what’re you grinning about?”

“Nothing, Nick.  Nothing at all.  Now, as you were saying?”

“Well, the way the story goes is, there was this old miner named Zeke.  He pretty much lived out here all alone, but every so often he’d make his way into town to get in on some action.  On one particular night, there was a singer who came in all the way from Chicago to entertain at the local club.  Her name was Miss Lily Duvall.  The townsfolk had all been looking forward to her appearance for two months.  After the show, old Zeke went back stage to try and meet Miss Lily.  The stage manager told him that she wasn’t taking any callers at that late hour, but if he came back in the morning, maybe she would see him then.  Well, that wasn’t good enough for old Zeke.  No sir.  He waited out in the alley and when she came out the back door, POW!  Right on the back on the head.”

“Did he kill her?”

“I’m getting to that, just hold your horses there, little brother.”  Nick leaned back and downed the last swig of his coffee.  “He knocked her out cold and brought her up here to his cabin….somewhere in these parts.  Wanted her for his wife, I guess.”

“Would she have him?”

“No, she didn’t want any part of him.  Said she would run away first chance she got.  So the next day when he went off to work his claim, he left her in the cabin, with the door barred from the outside.”

Heath took the last drag off his smoke and tossed the butt into the fire, his gaze fixed on his brother as he harkened to every word.

“Well, he had it all worked out in his mind, what he was goin’ to say to her and all, to make her want to stay.  But when he got to the cabin, all he found was a pile of ashes.  Some sort of freak accident had burned the place to the ground.  Lily was locked inside and had no way to escape.  When the posse came up the next day in search of Miss Lily, old Zeke was nowhere to be seen.”

“Did they ever find him?”

“No.  Father said that they never saw him again, ever.  But there’s talk from folks who live in these woods, that the ghost of Miss Lily roams at night.  Some have even heard her screams and cries.”

“Now you don’t think I’m buyin’ a word of this, do you?  ‘Cause if you do, then I think when we get back to Stockton, we need to get you in to see Doc Merar.  And right away.”

Nick’s eyes scanned the woods around them, and then focused back on his younger brother.

“You know old man Thorton over near Huxby, don’t you?”

“Sure do.  We buy poulty off of them every now and then.  Boy, his wife sure can bake.”

Nick nodded his affirmation,

“Best apple pie in the state if you ask me.  Well, anyway, old man Thorton was up here in these woods a couple of years ago doing some deer huntin’.  They had made camp and were just gettin’ ready to bed down for the night, when they heard it.  A scream that would turn your blood as cold as ice.  Thorton said that he’s heard lots of things when he’s been campin’ out over the past forty years, but never anything like that.”

“What makes ya think that he’s not just passin’ a story that’s been around over ‘n over again?”

“I don’t know, maybe we’ll just find out for ourselves tonight.”  Nick smiled and slid down into his blankets.  “Sweet dreams, little brother.”

Nick’s eye lids cracked open.  The moon was a small sliver and the fire had just about gone out.  Heath was snoring so loud that he figured the rest of the family could probably hear him back at the ranch.  Jarrod had always likened a sleeping Heath to ‘one of those old fashioned buffalo stampedes’.  Suddenly a shrieking howl split through the pitch black night. Nick jumped up with a start and looked over at Heath who was still out cold.  He was dreaming of a lovely little senorita that he had met during his last visit to Rio Blanco.  The scream came again, and this time ‘sleeping beauty’ was sitting straight up in his bedroll.  Nick was already standing on top of the blankets he had just been under.  He held his gun in his hand with the hammer pulled back, aimed out towards an imaginary intruder.

“You hear that, Heath?”

“Boy Howdy, Nick, what in thunder was it?”

“I don’t know”, answered Nick, “don’t have a clue.”

“Sure don’t sound like no cougar.  That’s way and beyond anything I’ve ever heard.”

Both men were standing now, peering around through the darkness.  Everything was still except for the whispering breeze through the pine trees.

“Maybe it was just a dream”, ventured Heath, feeling a bit slighted for being rudely awakened out of his Latin fantasy.

“Sure, Heath, sure.  We both had the same dream at the same time.”

“Well, whatever it was, it seems to be gone now.”

Heath settled back down into his bedroll.  Nick followed suit, and soon both brothers were snoring loud enough to keep the vermin away.

Heath had been floating through the depths of his subconscious, and now was in his second dream.  This time he was at the Thorton’s ranch eating apple pie.  Mrs. Thorton had just served him a second piece, and the old man was telling some wild story of a beast that had tried to devour him last time he was out in the woods.  What had started out as a very pleasant nocturnal experience, was now causing a great disturbance as Heath envisioned unknown creatures prowling the perimeter of his campsite.  Tossing and turning, he soon managed to worm his way out of the blankets when the ear-piercing cry woke him out of his nightmare.  This time both Nick and Heath shot up like a couple of geysers.  Back to back, with guns drawn they searched the darkness for an invisible intruder.  Before either man could speak, the shrill, chilling sound echoed through the night again.

“Stay close, little brother”, Nick warned, “I don’t know what it is, and I’m not sure I want to find out.”

“Don’t worry ’bout me, Nick.  Don’t reckon I really want to know what’s makin’ that noise, either.”

Nick could hear movement and snorting coming from the direction of the horses.  They sounded unsettled and needed calming before they broke free of their picket lines.

“Heath, I better go settle down those horses or we’ll both be walkin’ home.”

Still scanning the tree-outlined camp, Heath barely heard what his brother was saying.

“Sure, Nick.  I’ll hold the fort.  Or maybe I should take a walk and see what I can scare up.”

“Not ’til I get back”, Nick warned.  “We’ll go together and watch each other’s backs.  Why don’t you get this fire stoked.  I’ll be right back.”

Nick headed over to the restless horses.  First he tightened down Coco, then Charger.  Coco gave a low snort and Nick turned around to give his friend a reassuring pat on the neck.  Suddenly, the shriek came again.  This time it seemed to be coming not too far from where Nick stood.  Pulling his gun, he stumbled through the dark thicket forgetting his plan to meet Heath back at the camp.

“I’ll just take a quick look”, he thought to himself.  “It seems to be coming from over here.”

Back at the camp, Heath had managed to scrounge a few pieces of fallen branch, and now had a roaring blaze.  The woods seemed quiet now.  He listened for the tones of Nick’s voice comforting the horses, or the sound of someone walking through the brush.  Nothing.  His vision was now accustomed to the brightness of the fire, and the night seemed darker than ever.

“Nick?”, he called out, “Nick, are you there?”

Still no answer.  Heath could hear the rhythmic beating of his own heart.  He thought to himself that the silence was almost worse than the horrid screams.  Gun in hand, he made his way over to where the horses were tied.  He checked the lines and found them tightly secured.  Nick seemed to have been here all right, but where was he now?  Heath reached an arm up around Charger and allowed the stallion’s warm neck to soothe his troubled spirit.  The towheaded cowboy contemplated his next move.  Nick wouldn’t have just gone wandering off, but yet it seemed evident that he had.  With no moon and no lantern, Heath didn’t stand much of a chance of finding him in the pitch black, but could he go back to camp and simply do nothing?

“Now just stay calm, Heath”, the solitary young man thought to himself.  “Let me think here….the last scream came from over in that direction.  I wonder if whatever made it has moved away or is circling back around.  Nick, where are you!?”

Releasing his grip on Charger, Heath called a few more times, but still could not summon a response.

“Hell, if whatever that is thinks that it can send me cowerin’, it has another thing comin’ “, he mused to himself; and then audiably, “Charger, I’m going to have to take off for a short while.  You keep an ear on things, boy.”

The young man gave his steed an affectionate slap on the shoulder.  Then, mustering up his courage, Heath took a deep breath and started his venture through the black of night.  Heath stumbled through the thick brush, calling softly and stopping at short intervals to listen.  Nick seemed to have simply vanished.

“Gotta be careful”, Heath thought, “Don’t wanna lose my way back to camp.”

He trudged on for several more minutes, when all of a sudden he felt the ground give way under his feet.  Heath tried to scramble for safety, but before he could react, dirt walls seemed to close in on him and he was falling through the dark.  Suddenly he landed with a thud.  It took him a moment to gather his senses as he sat on the hard earth.  Reaching into his shirt pocket, he pulled out a wooden match.  Striking it against his leather holster, he had a dim view of the cavern surrounding him.  Would the ground have just opened it’s mouth and swallowed him up?  The match was just about spent when Heath heard a movement from within the shadows.  Wherever he was, he was not alone.  Thank God he still had his gun.  Somehow he had managed to hang on to it during his fall.  He felt for another match, struck it, and there standing directly in front of him was his brother, Nick.

“Nick!  Where in blazes are we?”

“We’ve fallen into some sort of a hole.  From what I have been able to tell, it’s an old, abondoned mine shaft.  Maybe it’s old Zeke’s.”

Nick paused and seemed to be looking around the enclosure.

“Heath, hold that match over here, would ya?”  Heath wandered over to where his brother stood.  “There they are!”

“There’s what?”

“Candles, you melon head, didn’t you see them when you struck your match?”

“No, guess I didn’t.”

“There are just a few, so I’ve been conserving them.  I found several different tunnels snaking off into various directions,  so I’m not sure exactly which would be the best route to take.”

“I wonder what our chances are of getting out the same way we got in?”

“Well, I thought of that too, but it’s way to high for me to reach by myself.  Here…let me give you a boost and you tell me what you think.”

Wedging the candle between some rocks, and leaning against the dirt walls, Nick crouched down while his brother clambered up on his back.  Carefully planting a foot on each shoulder, and using the wall for support, Heath steadied himself into a standing position.

“Okay, Nick, now ease on up to this opening.”

Heath could easily reach the bottom of the shaft.  With both he and Nick standing tall, his shoulders where enlosed by the earthen chute.

“Can you see anything?”  Nick was positioning his brothers weight, trying to get him shifted to a more comfortable position on his broad shoulders.

“It’s too dark, you’ll have to hold on a minute.”

Heath removed another match from his shirt and clumsily reached down to give it a quick strike.  The shaft seemed plenty long, but it wasn’t that wide.  He stood up on his tiptoes to try and get a better look.

“Hey, that was my eye you just about put out with the toe of your boot!”

“Sorry Nick.  I’m just trying to figure out what the chances are of bracing myself against these dirt walls, and crab walking myself up.”

Nick was getting ready to fire back with a sarcastic remark, but instead held his tongue.  Maybe there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel after all.  He couldn’t be so lucky.  His thoughts were interrupted by a light shower of loose dirt and gravel.  Heath crouched back down and was ready to dismount.

“What’s the matter?  No go?”

“Maybe as a last resort we could give it a try, but the earth seems awfully dry and weak.  I think our best bet would be to try and follow one of these tunnels.”

Nick grunted his approval.  The idea of groping his way through an unexplored, underground passageway wasn’t exactly appealing, but he knew what his alternatives were.  Heath, on the other hand, had grown up working in mines.  If anybody could direct them out of this place, it would be he.

“Okay, Columbus”, Nick agreed, “you lead.”

Heath retrieved the shrinking candle from it’s perch in the stone wall.  Stooping to gather the remaining candles, he walked over to one of the entrances and shot his brother a crooked grin.

“Believe me, big brother, I have no intention of following you”, he affectionately badgered.  “That’s what got me into this mess in the first place.”

Holding his candle up to the various openings, Heath kept a careful watch on the flame.

“We’ll take this one”, he finally said.

“Why that one?”

“You can usually detect if there’s any kind of air current by the way a burning candle will flicker or the intensity of the flame.  If the air is moving instead of stagnent, that would indicate a possible opening at the other end.”

“All right then, let’s get going.”

The two men trudged along solemnly.  Neither one had a watch, but they guessed it had to be getting close to dawn.  The flapping wings of a low flying bat caught both brothers by surprise.

“That’s a good sign”, observed Heath.  “Bats will usually leave an enclosed area to go out and feed at night.”

Nick, who had used his hat to swat at the bat, planted it firmly back on his head.

“Reminds me of another story Father told me about bats with long fangs.  They sneak up on you whiles you’re asleep and suck the blood right out’ve you.”

“I don’t even want to hear it, Nick.  I listened to your last story and am still feeling the after affects.  Kinda like the heartburn that follows a big meal.”

“Are you likenin’ my stories to heartburn?”

“No, Nick, I’m likenin’ them to the big meal.  After a while it gets kinda hard to swallow.”

“Well if you have such a hard time believin’ my stories, how do you account for all that screechin’ we heard?  And another thing, for someone who thought it was all a bunch of hocus pocus, your gun sure cleared leather awfully fast.”

“Maybe I was just having a bad dream.  That’s what your cookin’ usually does to me.”

“Now hold on a minute here.  Maybe next I’ll let you be in charge of the grub.  Lord only knows that you certainly can’t afford to be missin’ any of your beauty sleep.”

“Just simmer down, Nick.  I reckon your cookin’ ain’t any worse than that cabbage soup Audra made last week.”

“You mean that stuff she served for lunch when Mother was at the Ladies Aid meetin’?  That stuff was strong enough to remove warts.”

“Boy howdy, I thought the wall paper in the dining room was gonna peel right off.  Just the aroma of it was enough to make a hungry man lose his appetite.”

“I sure love our sister, Heath, but I cringe every time Mother goes off and leaves her in charge of the house.  If I ever get married, I want a woman who can cook.”

“Well in that case, Nick, don’t ever even consider courtin’ Katie Stevens.  Boy Howdy, I’ll tell you what.  Do you remember that beef we took over to her folks last winter when her pa was laid up?”

“Yeah, what’d she do?  Cook some of it up for you?”

“Worse than that, Nick, worse than that.”

“I’m listenin’ .”

“Okay.  I stopped over by their place a couple of weeks ago to see how they were all doin’, and Katie baked me up a batch of her biscuits.  You know, as kind’ve a thank you for helpin’ her folks out.  I tried one on the way home and thought maybe she had slipped a rock in by mistake.  I pulled another one out and this time took a good, long whiff before bitin’ into the thing.  It smelled like a freshly fired pistol.  You know….kinda sulphery.  Well, me and those biscuits, we took a slight detour on the way home.”

“Where’d ya go?  Someplace to bury them?”

“No, went down by Dillard’s pond.  I was able to skip those babies clean to the middle before they sunk like the stones they were.”

“Uh huh.  And you say I’m the one that tells tall tales.”

At this point the two men came to a bend in the tunnel.  Heath’s candle, by now,  was not much more than a stub, flickering precariously.  Nick was a few feet ahead of his brother.  About the time he rounded the corner, the flame gave it’s last little sputter and slowly died out.  Nick stopped and turned as he waited for Heath to fish out another candle.  He was getting a little antsy standing there in total dark.  As much as Nick Barkley would hate to admit it, complete darkness had always frightened him a bit, and mines made him feel claustraphobic.  Where was Heath with that candle?  He stepped back and felt something brush against his body.  Now how did Heath manage to slip up behind him so quietly?  Not wanting his brother to sense his uncertainty, Nick moved aside and shot off with a saucy comment to mask his fright.

“With this whole mine to ourselves, Heath, you’d think you could find some place to walk other than the backs of my heels.”

“What are you talkin’ about, Nick.  I’m clean over here.”  Heath’s voice echoed from several yards back.

Nick felt as though his heart would stop.  He gasped and jumped back, bumping into the cavern’s wall.  Just then, the tunnel brightened as Heath came around the bend with a freshly lit candle.  He held it out so his brother could see and then stopped short in his tracks.  There hanging in the passageway, directly in front of them, was the clothed skeletal remains of a man.  Both men bolted, but only managed to trip over each other.  Heath lost his grip on the candle as they lay on the cool ground in one entangled heap.

“Easy, Nick.  Let’s get a hold of ourselves here.”,  Heath’s level head was quick to counter the sudden scare.  “It’s just a corpse.  It can’t hurt us.”

Nick stood up, feeling a bit foolish.  He reached down and gave his brother, who had regained posession of the candle, a hand up.  The dark headed cowboy ran a hand through the stray locks of hair that hung over his sweat beaded brow.  He took a deep breath as he managed to regain his composure.

“Well”, he said gruffly, “let’s go check it out.”

The two cautiously approached the hanging cadaver.  It was fully garbed in men’s work clothes.  A yellowed piece of paper showed it’s edge from the pocket off the tattered, old jacket.  Carefully Nick reached out and removed the fragile sheet.  Heath held the candle close as they both read the faded print.  It was a flyer, advertising Chicago’s very own Miss Lily DuVall, appearing at The Hampton House,  August 9, 1845.

“Well what do ya know”, Nick had trouble hiding the smugness in his voice.  “I do believe that we’ve found old Zeke.”

Heath panned his candle along the surrounding walls, but came to a halt when he spotted an old whiskey crate.

“Nick, looky what’s over here.”

Both men stood over the wooden box.  Inside there were a couple of torches and several bottles of whiskey.  Most of the bottles were empty, but a couple were still partially filled.  Heath bent down and uncorked one of the bottles.  He dipped the end of his finger in the liquer and touched it to the tip of his tongue.

“Still got enough bite to keep the cold out.  I’ll use it to douse the ends of these here torches.  They’re old, but with a little help I think they’ll light up just fine.”

“What about the old man?”, Nick mused, “Do you suppose we should cut him down for a proper burial?”

“I guess that would be the civilized thing to do.  Here…let’s use this whiskey crate as a step stool.”

Nick picked up the wooden box and placed it upside down next to the dangling remains.

“Heath, you hold on to his legs while I climb up here and cut the rope.  We don’t want him to fall and shatter in a billion pieces.”

Heath complied with his brother’s request as Nick began to saw through the half rotted hemp.  The last strand gave away and the limp figure dropped down, draping itself across Heath’s shoulders.

“Thanks, Nick.  I suppose you’re wantin’ me to give him a piggy-back ride outta here, too.”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary, Heath.”

Nick jumped down and helped his brother remove the fallen carcass.  Gently they laid the bones down on the dirt floor.

“Guess he just couldn’t live with the fact that he had been the one responsible for the death of Miss Lily”, Nick ventured.  “We’ll have to leave him here for now.  We can report the find to the local sheriff and he can come back to retrieve the body.”

“I guess even a man like old Zeke needs to be buried”, murmered Heath, “Come on, let’s get outta here.”

The torches made travel through the tunnel much faster.  Nick and Heath weren’t constantly tripping over fallen rocks that had dislodged from the top of the cavern.  One thing was certain.  With the discovery of Zeke and the supplies, the end of the tunnel was sure to be near.

“He must’ve been hangin’ there for over twenty years”, Heath commented.

“Yeah, no wonder they never found him.  But that still leaves one unanswered question.  Who was that screamin’ out in the woods.  I half thought it might have been old Zeke himself.”

As their journey progressed, they could feel a bracing breeze cooling their weary faces.  The air was much fresher now.

“Nick, look!”  Heath exclaimed.

Up ahead they could see the light of a new dawn beaming it’s rays through the fallen timbers.  The opening had narrowed over the years as the earth had filled in around the entrance.

“This don’t look so bad, Nick.  I’ve seen a lot worse back in Strawberry.  Heck, we should be able to dig through this in a jiffy.”

Dirt and rock flew as the two men pawed through the rotted wood and tangled debris with their bare hands.  The walls were loose and the soil would fill back in as they worked on clearing the entrance, but gradually the hole was widened enough for each one to squeeze his way to freedom.  Once outside in the brightness of morning, the two men collapsed on the ground for a quick breather.  Both were covered with dirt from head to toe.

“Guess I just wasn’t cut out to be a burrowing sort of critter”, commented Heath, “I never did care much for those over sized gopher holes.”

“How far do you figure our camp is from here?”, Nick asked as he stood and stretched his aching muscles.

“Let’s see here…the way the sun is I’m guessing a couple of miles due north.”

The exhausted young men stalwartly pressed onward, backtracking over what had been their previous underground route that night.

“Over there, Heath.  Hear ’em?”

Coco and Charger were not too timid to annouce their need for water to the approaching men.  The brothers hiked up a steep incline and found the two horses still secured where Nick had left them the preceeding night.

“Let’s saddle these horses and get them some water.”  Nick’s first concern was always for the well-being of his mount.

Soon they were at the campsite packing up gear and bedrolls.  What had been the fire, was now just an ashen spot on the ground.  The cowboys had just swung into the saddle when the morning stillness was shattered by another ear piercing cry.

“From what I’ve heard about ghosts, Nick, they usually don’t venture out in the broad daylight.  Let’s go find out what it is.”

The two spurred their mounts through the thick, overgrown forest.  Again, the shrill scream echoed through the mountains.  This time it seemed to be right overhead.

“Hold up there, Nick, it seems to be comin’ from right behind you.”

Turning their torsos around in the saddles, both brothers peered through the dense foliage.  Sitting high in one of the branches, was a big, beautiful, blue and green majestic bird, it’s long, colorful tail feathers gleaming in a shaft of sunlight.  The elegant creature blinked it’s eyes at the two observers and with an outstretched neck, screeched with all it’s might.

“Now what the devil do you suppose that is?”, queried Nick.

“Boy howdy, Nick, that there’s a peacock.”

“I guess that’s all in the way a person wants to translate it, Heath.  To a lot of people, I figure you could just call it the ghost of Miss Lily.”

“Come on, let’s get these horses to water and find a town where we can get some decent grub for a change.”

“You mean you don’t want me cookin’ breakfast for you, Heath.  It should be well worn off by the time you’re ready for bed again.”

“That’s awfully kind of you to offer, Nick, but I think I’ll pass.  I hear tell the cooks down in Brassas are much better lookin’ .”

“Why you….”

Nick reached over and gave his brother a friendly cuff, and then added,

“You know, Heath, I’ve been thinkin’.  If the family were to ever find out about our night in the woods, we’d never hear the end of it.  Maybe it’s just as well if it never happened.”

“Gotcha, big brother”, Heath chuckled, “and I don’t even know what your talkin’ about.”

***The End***

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