Vicky squirmed on the sedan’s cloth covered seat. “Hey, can we take a break?” she asked her companion.
“Do you see any place that looks like we can pull over?” Deb responded keeping her eyes glued to the narrow road stretched out in front of them.
Vicky shifted and peered out the windshield. The sedan was cruising around a long sweeping turn as it worked its way to the top of a steep grade. There was nothing but vertical mountain slope on one side of the road and a precipitous drop-off on the other. “Maybe once we get over this pass,” she suggested.
“I thought you wanted to get home before dark.”
“I do but my legs are cramping.”
“Try stretching them out.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing for the last hour?” Vicky snapped.
“Geez, I was just trying to help.”
Vicky sighed. “Sorry,” she apologized. “But, I’m serious… we’ve been in this car since before dawn and the only stop we’ve made was to get gas. I really need to get out and walk a bit.”
“Alright,” Deb consented, “first place we see, we’ll stop. I could use a break myself.”
Vicky shifted about in her seat to sit closer to her life partner. “Thank you,” she said resting her head on Deb’s shoulder. “Oh, crap,” she muttered when the sedan crested the pass and the grade changed from uphill to downhill but the terrain remained basically unaltered.
“We’ll find a place,” Deb assured her dejected lover. “It looks like it flattens out down there,” she added looking a mile or so down the road. “See those trees.”
Vicky straightened in her seat to get a better look. “At least, it looks like there might be a wide spot to get off the highway.
Deb nodded. “It won’t take long to find out.” She watched the copse of trees grow nearer and was interested to observe wood planked walls emerging in the trees’ shadows. “It looks like there might be some sort of building there,” she said curiously. “Maybe there’s a town.”
“Hmmm.” Vicky looked at the screen in the center of the console. “The GPS doesn’t indicate anything is around here.”
Deb chuckled. “That doesn’t surprise me considering how often this GPS is wrong. Let’s just get up there and see what we find. If nothing else, we can get out and walk around. I think we still have some snacks in the cooler, if you’re hungry.”
“Starving. That sounds wonderful to me.”
Deb slowed the sedan’s speed. “Boy, those trees are huge,” she commented guiding the car off the pavement just before the road turned sharply to the right.
“They have to be over a hundred years old to be this big,” Vicky said noting the thick trunks and solid branches. “Hey, look,” she exclaimed, “there’s a sign in front of that building.”
Deb eased the sedan in the direction Vicky was pointing. “Looks like part of an old fence, too,” she said stopping the car near a large two story structure. She set the parking brake then opened the door and climbed out.
The sign consisted of a tilting wooden post stuck into the ground with a board nailed to it. At one time, the board had been painted white with crisp black lettering but, now, the paint was faded almost to being non-existent.
“Cottonwood,” Deb read aloud as Vicky stood beside the car performing various stretching moves. “In 1878, gold was discovered in the nearby hills. Miners flocked to the area to make their fortunes and merchants quickly followed. By 1880, the town of Cottonwood was a booming community with stores, hotels, restaurants, saloons, brothels, churches, a school, and a brewery. Unfortunately, by 1887, the gold had run out and the miners moved on to the next strike. The townsfolk soon followed leaving behind their beloved Cottonwood.
Built in 1879, the building directly behind this sign was Cottonwood’s stage station. The ground floor served as stage office, barn, and livery; while upstairs a kitchen and dining hall feed hungry stage passengers as they waited for the stage’s horse teams to be changed.”
“Wonder if they still serve food,” Vicky said. Done with her stretching, she was walking toward the fence. “I could use a big, juicy hamburger right now.”
Deb tilted her head back to look up at an upstairs window’s dirt encrusted panes. “Doesn’t look too promising,” she replied. She turned back to the sign to continue reading.
“Behind the fence is what remains of Cottonwood. Spend some time exploring this once thriving town.”
“All I see are a few collapsed cabins,” Vicky commented standing on her tip toes, her hands holding onto the top of the fence.
Deb observed Vicky’s precarious position with apprehension. “I wouldn’t lean too hard on that thing… it looks like its ready to fall down.”
Vicky backed away from the unstable barrier. “Bummer,” she grumbled slapping her hands together to free them of dirt. “I was hoping there’d be something of the town left. It would have been fun to walk around and see what life was like back then.”
Deb pulled open one of the barn’s heavy doors to peek inside before cautiously stepping into the structure.
“Anything in there?” Vicky asked following Deb. “Wow!” she exclaimed after entering the barn. Expecting to find nothing but a large empty room, she was amazed to discover the barn’s floor and walls were crowded with all sorts of strange implements and equipment. “I can’t believe no one has stolen all this stuff.”
“No kidding. You would think some antique dealer would have cleaned this place out by now,” Deb agreed examining the abandoned tools on a workbench. “Swinging this all day would sure build your muscles up,” she commented lifting a hammer.
“Don’t hurt yourself,” Vicky warned watching her lover taking a few practice swings at an anvil.
Deb set the hammer down then wandered toward the back of the building.
“Did you say something?” Vicky called.
Deb walked out of one of the horse stalls. “No,” she said moving back into the main room. “There’s an old horse drawn hearse back there; looks to be in good enough condition to be used today.”
“Really?” Vicky murmured walking over to peer out through a window at the side of the room. “I swear I hear something.”
“Maybe someone is outside… I’ll go look.” Stepping out of the dark barn, Deb was forced to raise an arm to shade her eyes from the afternoon sun. “I don’t see anybody,” she told Vicky when she rejoined her. “Wait a minute… now I hear something. But it’s not talking… What is that?”
“Call me crazy but it sounds like piano music,” Vicky replied skeptically.
Deb nodded. “Where would it be coming from? There aren’t any pianos in here.”
Vicky walked to the door then along the front of the structure. “Holy cow… come here,” she yelled back.
Deb quickly covered the distance to where Vicky stood at the far side of the barn. “Geez, the sign could have said the town was over on this side. Those buildings look in pretty good shape compared to the ones on the other side of the barn.”
“And easier to see,” Vicky added having little trouble seeing over a sturdy fence that was no more than four feet tall. In front of her, a dirt street ran alongside the barn then continued straight back to and over a small rise. About a hundred feet from where she stood, another street crossed the first; both lined with wooden structures of various sizes and shapes. “This is more like it,” she said enthusiastically. “Come on, let’s go do some exploring,” she urged.
“Wait a minute,” Deb said. “Let me lock the car up.”
“Okay. I’ll look for a gate so we don’t have to climb over this fence.”
Deb returned to the sedan and opened the door. She retrieved two water bottles from the console’s cup holders then shut the door and locked the car.
“Found a gate,” Vicky told her partner who was walking toward her holding out one of the bottles. “Thanks,” she said with a smile.
“The music stopped,” Deb observed.
“I noticed.” Vicky unlatched the gate then swung it open. “Let’s go.”
“Just wondering who might be in there,” Deb said motioning to the collection of buildings.
“What do you mean?”
“Honey, someone had to be playing that piano.” Deb glanced around them then back at Vicky. “No cars.”
“Oh… okay, I see your point. Maybe somebody lives here… like a caretaker.”
“Ah… I never thought of that,” Deb said, her concern placated for the moment. She stepped though the opening then shut the gate and re-latched it before following Vicky up the street.
Behind the barn was a corral and behind that a log cabin. Ducking her head through the doorway, Vicky saw that the small rectangular room was furnished with a roughly made wood frame bed covered by a straw-stuffed mattress, and blanket, and an equally poorly constructed table and chair. In the corner of the cabin was a rock fireplace and chimney. “Talk about sparsely furnished,” she commented.
“Probably where the blacksmith lived,” Deb suggested. “Or maybe the cook for the stage station.”
“Yicks!” Deb and Vicky screamed in unison at the voice coming from so close behind them. They quickly retreated from the cabin and spun around to face a man smiling at them, a hint of wariness in his eyes.
“Sorry,” he said touching the rim of his Stetson with his index finger, “didn’t mean to startle you. Are you looking for Smithy?”
“Who?” Deb managed to choke the word out as she struggled to slow her racing heart.
The man pointed at the cabin. “Smithy. This time of day, you’re more likely to find him in the barn.”
“Oh… um, no. We were just at the barn,” Deb stammered.
“Come in on the stage, did you?” the man asked.
“You ladies having a problem of some kind?”
“No, we’re fine,” Deb responded trying to sound more confident than she felt. “We’re just looking around… that’s all.”
“The sign said we could,” Vicky added. “Is that a problem?” she asked a little more bluntly than she intended.
“Depends on where you do your looking,” the man answered. “Folks don’t take too kindly to strangers busting through their doors. I suggest you keep that in mind,” he told them then turned and walked away.
“Now, that guy was weird,” Deb muttered. “Did you notice how he was dressed? He looked like a character out of a western movie.”
“I noticed,” Vicky said watching the man disappear into one of the buildings further up the street past the intersection. “Do you think he’s the caretaker?”
“Who knows? But if he was, he sure didn’t act like one.”
“Maybe he’s one of those re-enactors… you know, the ones that dress up and act like they’re living in the period so tourists can see what life was really like.”
“Seems like this would be a strange place to have a re-enactor; I bet they don’t get a lot of tourists stopping here.”
“Maybe he’s a caretaker and re-enactor.”
“Maybe he’s just some creepy guy who likes to scare people.”
Vicky smiled. “I don’t think he was creepy. But he sure scared the pooters out of us.”
“I don’t like this place. We’ve stretched our legs… let’s get back to the car,” Deb said backtracking toward the gate.
“Come on, scaredy cat,” Vicky said grabbing Deb’s hand and tugging her in the opposite direction. “I want to see what’s here.”
“We need to get home by dark… remember?”
“I know… but how long can it take to walk down a couple of streets,” Vicky countered.
Reluctantly, Deb allowed herself to be pulled further into the town. “Okay, but I’m not opening any more doors.
Arriving at the junction, the women considered their options.
“I say we go that way,” Deb said pointing to their left. “That way we won’t run into the creepy guy again.”
Vicky chuckled. “You hope,” she said as they walked along a wide boardwalk. “Look, a general store,” she exclaimed peering through the bay window at the front of a building.
“What are you doing?” Deb asked when Vicky stepped up to the door.
“We’re going inside,” Vicky informed her. “There’s a guy in there and he’s dressed up just like an old time store clerk. Maybe he’ll be friendlier than your cowboy was.”
“No, we are definitely not going in there.”
“It’ll be okay,” Vicky assured Deb.
“I don’t feel good about this,” Deb muttered stepping up from the boardwalk. “And he wasn’t my cowboy.”
Sitting on a stool behind the counter, the clerk jumped up when the bell above the door jingled. “Afternoon, ladies,” he greeted with a smile. “You must be the ones from the stage that Edgar was talking about.”
“How could he have talked to that guy?” Deb muttered. “And who ever heard of a cowboy named Edgar?”
“Hush,” Vicky whispered. “Be nice.”
“Looking for something special?” the clerk asked eyeing them warily.
“No,” Vicky replied smiling broadly in an attempt to lessen the man’s reservations. “We’re just browsing.”
The clerk’s eyebrow raised. “Browsing? Don’t think I know what you mean.”
“Um,” Vicky stammered trying to think of the correct terminology for the 1880s. “We’re just stretching out our legs. It’s been a long drive and we still have a ways to go before we get home tonight. So we’re just walking around town.”
“Ride,” Vicky corrected. “Long stage ride.”
“Oh, brother,” Deb groaned.
“Ah, yes, I heard you came in on the stage,” the clerk said guardedly, his eyebrow dropping back to its normal position.
Deb briskly walked up to the counter to stand opposite the clerk, causing him to back up a step. “Okay, I know you are supposed to talk the talk and walk the walk… but we don’t know that much about the eighteen hundreds so could you cut us some slack. First, your friend Edgar sneaks up on us and now you’re trying my patience.”
Perplexed, the clerk stared at Deb. “Just where are you ladies from?” he finally asked. “I ain’t never heard talking like that.”
Vicky laughed uneasily. “Now you know how we feel.”
Deb sighed. “You re-enactors aren’t real friendly, are you?”
“Look,” Deb snapped, “we’re tired. We’re stretching our legs. And we’re hungry. Do you have any food… grub… whatever you call it?”
“I’ve got flour, salt, some canned goods, and beans.”
“Yummy,” Deb said unenthusiastically.
“Is there a restaurant in town,” Vicky asked hopefully.
Seeing a chance to be rid of the odd women, the clerk’s mood perked up. “Oh, yes… there’s a café at the end of the street,” he said shuffling around the end of the counter to usher his visitors out the door. “Nellie puts out a good meal.”
Vicky smiled at the clerk. “Thank you,” she told him before following Deb outside.
“I think these re-enactors need a good refresher course on how to treat people,” Deb grumbled stomping down the boardwalk.
Vicky hurried to catch up to her partner. “Honey, slow down would you. And will you chill out. I quite enjoy this place… and the re-enactors.”
“They give me the creeps,” Deb proclaimed. Spotting the café on the opposite side of the street, she stepped off the boardwalk.
“Watch yerself lady!”
Deb jumped back just as a horse and buggy raced by splashing her with mud. “What the hell,” she barked in surprise. “Where in the heck did he come from? And where did this mud come from?” she asked looking down at the goo seeping into her jeans. “The street is dry as a bone.”
“He came from around the corner… but the mud… that is odd,” Vicky agreed seeing nothing but hard packed earth on the street.”
Deb scratched her head. “This place is getting more bizarre by the minute.”
“Let’s go over to the café. Maybe our brains just aren’t working right because we’re so hungry.”
“Maybe we should look for a saloon instead because I could sure use a drink.”
“They probably only serve Sarsaparilla,” Vicky told her. “Remember, this is not really eighteen eighty.”
Deb grunted. “Try telling that to these yahoos.” She checked the street before stepping off the boardwalk. “Mud,” she muttered leading Vicky across to the café. “Not as big as I thought it would be,” she said after pulling open the door and moving inside.
“Be with you in a moment, ladies.”
Vicky looked around for the source of the female voice. “She must be in the kitchen. Looks like we have the pick of tables,” she said seeing no other diners in the space.
“Let’s take the one by the window,” Deb suggested, “we can watch the street and see if any other weird things happen.”
“Sounds good to me,” Vicky said walking toward the chosen table.
“Menus are already here,” Deb observed settling on one of the chairs. “Let’s see what they get for a hamburger.”
Vicky frowned. “I don’t see hamburgers listed.”
“This has to be a joke,” Deb groused. “Squirrel stew,” she read aloud. “Rattlesnake steak. Rocky Mountain oysters.”
“Damn, I’m not eating any of this,” Deb declared slamming the menu down forcefully.
“Ugh. I need some food,” Vicky whined. “I think my brain has gone bonkos.”
They looked to the back of the room when a door swung open as a woman rushed out of the kitchen. “My apologies, ladies. I was taking a pie out of the oven, didn’t want it to burn.”
Vicky looked at Deb and mouthed pie.
Deb nodded. “What kind of pie?” she asked.
“Apple. Made from nice juicy ones I picked off my own tree.”
“Never get any complaints,” the woman said proudly.
“Do you have coffee?” Vicky asked.
“Just made a fresh pot.”
Vicky sighed in anticipation of being served recognizable food. “Great,” she said happily. “We’ll have two coffees and two pieces of your pie.”
“And don’t cut them too small,” Deb said.
“We’re really hungry,” Vicky explained.
“I’ve got a nice pot of squirrel stew,” the woman offered cheerfully.
“Oh, gee, that sounds good… but we had that for breakfast,” Deb said mockingly.
Vicky glared at Deb. “Just the coffee and pie, please,” she told the cook.
“All right,” the woman said gathering up the menus. “I’ll be right back.”
“Do you think it has real squirrels in it?” Vicky asked after the woman returned to her kitchen.
Deb shivered in disgust. “I sure hope not,” she said turning to gaze out the window. “Where’d all those people come from?” she asked seeing the street alive with activity.
“I don’t know,” Vicky replied pushing aside the curtain for a better look. “Hey, there’s light inside all the businesses now and smoke coming out of the chimneys. I don’t remember that when we were walking by them.”
The table shook as a freight wagon with a team of six draft horses rumbled down the street.
“Been asking the mayor to stop them wagons from using this street.”
Deb and Vicky were surprised that the cook had returned without them hearing her steps on the wood planked floor.
“Are you playing Nellie?” Vicky asked.
“Don’t know what you be meaning by playing… but, yes, I’m Nellie,” the woman said placing two cups of steaming coffee and two generous servings of steaming pie on the table. “Sugar is in the bowl… will you be needing cream?”
“No,” Deb answered picking up her fork.
“Can you tell us what’s going on here?” Vicky continued her questioning.
“Going on? I’m not sure what you be meaning,” Nellie answered.
“Are you practicing your re-enactments for something?”
Nellie looked genuinely confused. “I’m sorry.”
“This is good pie,” Deb said after swallowing a bite.
Nellie’s befuddled look quickly changed into one of pride. “Told you it was. Enjoy the pie, ladies,” she said placing their bill on the table. “I best get back to the kitchen and check on my stew.” She scurried across the room and disappeared behind the door before they could question her any further.
“Why did you do that?” Vicky asked crossly.
“Butt in. I was trying to find out why the re-enactors are acting so strange. Don’t you want to know, too?”
Deb swallowed a second bite of pie. “What I want is to eat this pie then get the heck out of this town,” she said stirring a spoonful of sugar into her cup. “Got a problem with that?”
Shaking her head, Vicky lifted a forkful of pie to her lips.
“I guess we’ll just leave the money on the table,” Deb said when it was obvious Nellie was not going to reappear even though they had called out her name several times.
“We could go look for her.”
Deb shook her head. “I don’t want to see what kind of furry animals she’s butchering for her next stew.” She pulled her wallet from her pocket then turned over the check.
“Ugh… you’ve got a point. How much is it?”
“Seventy five cents each,” Deb said in disbelieve.
“No, I’m not,” Deb replied holding up the check for her to see.
“Can we afford that?” Vicky asked grinning.
Deb chuckled. “I think I can squeeze enough out of my wallet to cover it… unless you’d rather work it off by washing dishes.”
Vicky reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a rumbled five dollar bill. “No way am I washing dishes in this place,” she declared snatching the check from her Deb’s hand then placing it and the money on the table. She set her empty coffee cup on top of them and stood up. “Let’s go.”
Glancing out the window, Deb lifted her cup to her lips and drank the last of the coffee. “There’s even more people out there now.”
“Where are they coming from?” Vicky asked bending over to look out the window.
“At this point,” Deb said standing up, “I really don’t care. Race you to the car,” she challenged.
“You’re on,” Vicky said scrambling to be the first one through to the door.
Barely out of the door, Deb skidded to an abrupt stop to avoid charging into Vicky. “Why’d you stop so fast?” she asked.
“Where’d they go?” Vicky asked in almost a whisper, her head rotating from side to side.
Changing her focus off Vicky, Deb scanned the length of the town to her right then scanned it to her left. The street, only seconds before full of people, horses, and wagons, was now deserted. “Where’d they go?” she repeated in a tone so low her question was barely audible.
Slowly, Deb and Vicky turned toward the sound of heavy boot steps on the boardwalk to find a man walking in their direction; a shiny silver star prominently displayed on his shirt.
Dismayed by the man’s sudden appearance, Deb whispered, “Where did he come from?”
“I don’t know,” Vicky replied uneasily.
“Ah, you must be the strangers I was called about.”
“Good afternoon, Sheriff… or is it Marshall?” Vicky asked, trying to sound calm.
“Sheriff,” the man answered stopping to stand a few feet from the women. “You’re a long way from your car.”
“We were just heading back there,” Vicky said stepping off the boardwalk. “Come on, Deb.”
“I’ll just walk along with you,” the sheriff said falling into step with them. “Mind if I ask how you got past the fence?”
“We came through the gate,” Deb answered.
Vicky shook her head. “It wasn’t,” she said nervously.
“It is. I just checked. This is private property… the owners don’t take kindly too trespassers.”
“Whoa,” Deb stopped and turned to face the sheriff. “We aren’t trying to cause any trouble. I assure you, the gate was not locked.”
“And the sign said we could explore what was left of the town,” Vicky quickly added.
“The one in front of the barn,” Deb explained.
“The stage station,” Vicki clarified.
The sheriff laughed. “Ladies, the paint on that sign wore off decades ago.”
“No, I read it,” Deb protested. “It was faded but I read it,” she insisted.
“And nobody told us we weren’t supposed to be here,” Vicky said.
“There’s nobody here but the two of you,” the sheriff informed her.
“What about the cowboy?” Deb asked.
“And the store clerk?” Vicky asked. “And Nellie.”
“Yeah, Nellie,” Deb said excitedly. “She’s inside the café. You can go see for yourself.”
The sheriff studied the pair for several moments. Then he returned to the café. “It’s locked,” he told them after trying to turn the knob. “And by the grime on it, it hasn’t been touched in a very long time,” he added holding up his dirty hand for them to see.
“What?” Deb and Vicky asked at the same time looking at their own hands and finding them clean.
“Come on,” the sheriff said walking back to them. “It doesn’t appear you did any damage so let’s call it an honest mistake. We’ll get you back to your car and you can be on your way.” He waited for them to start walking then followed.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Vicky muttered turning to Deb. “We just opened that door… and I can still taste that pie,” she whispered.
Arriving at the gate, Deb reached down to unlatch it only to find it secured by a chain and padlock. “That was not there,” she said emphatically.
“Yeah, I know,” the sheriff said unbelieving. He fished a key out of his pocket, unlocked the padlock then removed the chain. He unlatched the gate and pulled it open. “Ladies,” he said indicating they should walk through the opening. “I hope you don’t have too much farther to travel,” he said while escorting them to their car. “I think you both could do with a good night’s sleep.”
Deb unlocked the car then dropped into the driver’s seat. She waited until Vicky was settled before starting the engine.
The sheriff had returned to the gate and, standing on the outside of the fence, was slipping the chain into place.
“Look at the sign,” Vicky demanded in a hushed tone.
Deb looked through the windshield. The post was broken in half and the sign she had read not more than an hour earlier was leaning against the front of the barn. Her eyes strained to detect what little flecks of paint remained. “This… is… not… happening,” she stated shifting the car into gear then steering toward the road. She brought the car to a stop when they came even with the gate. “Where’d he go?” she asked of the sheriff.
Cautiously, Vicky pushed her door open and stood up beside the car to look over the fence and into the town. “I think that’s him going into the same building the cowboy went into earlier.” Confused, she sat back down and turned to Deb. “He locked the gate from this side… how did he get through the fence?”
“He said he was the sheriff… right?” Deb asked.
“He said he was called… right?”
“He said nobody lived in town… right?”
“So, where is his car?”
Vicky twisted in her seat to look behind them. Slowly, she twisted back around, her eyes looking straight ahead. “Let’s go.”
Deb lifted her foot off the brake and stomped on the accelerator leaving a rooster tail of gravel behind them as she fish-tailed onto the road.
Unable to stop herself, Vicky took one last glance at the town.
Sitting on a horse at the end of the street near the café was the cowboy. He lifted his hand to his Stetson and touched the brim. Then he smiled.
“Sweetheart,” Vicky said shifting in her seat and slipping her arm around Deb’s. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Deb increased the pressure on the accelerator. “I do now,” she said as the car sped down the highway. “Honey.”
“Remind me never to take this road again.”
“You’ve got it.”
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