[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
Sammie marched along the edge of the old rail bed, gazing frequently across the open field at the woods in the distance. The woods were too far to discern any details of the individual trees; they were just a greenish brown mass of foliage swaying gently in the breeze.
The rail bed had been modernized when the horse drawn mine carts were retired many decades ago. But instead of crushed stone, local river-washed stone was used for track ballast. Technically inferior, but much softer under Sammie’s feet. She avoided the splintered old rail ties that Preston was hopping along – even she was not totally immune to splinters. She loved the sensations of summer: Earth and soft stone under her feet, warm breeze through her unkempt blonde locks, sun on her face. Yet somehow she couldn’t enjoy them today; something was off. Why couldn’t Preston sense it? Even with his usual daydreaming he should notice that something was wrong out here.
* * *
The builder of the old rail line had been very inconsiderate. The wooden rail ties that should have formed a perfect path for Preston were spaced exactly incorrectly for his stride. He could either take baby steps and hit every tie, or take two ties at a time at an uncomfortably long stride. So he hopped awkwardly from tie to tie, trying not to trip. Between that and trying to shut out the humming in his head, he could concentrate on nothing else. He needed a break.
“Say Sammie, what’s wrong with the woods?
Sammie gazed across the field at the woods in the distance. She hardly noticed the sea of tiny white wild flowers, and concentrated at the trees in the distance.
“Dunno exactly. The color? The shape? Something just seems wrong for the summer.”
“I suppose we could go back and look in the woods by the ghost town. If you really want.”
They had almost made it to the mine by that point, so it seemed a shame to turn back. But Sammie did want to figure out what was bothering her. She didn’t like giving up too easily – was there another reason not to push on?
“Say Preston, did you even bring any candles?”
“Just the little stump I always have with me.”
“We won’t make it too far into the mine with that. Let’s go to the ghost town. We can gather a few more stumps at home and maybe come back tomorrow.”
That suited Preston just fine – the humming in his head just kept getting louder, and was giving him a headache by now. They backtracked along the rail line to the clearing where the ghost town was. There wasn’t much to see at this time of summer – tall weeds obscured all but the chimneys and few of the heavier timbers that had formed doorways. The crude foundations were practically invisible until you were right on top of one of the old shacks. The ground was uneven, and the foundations didn’t seem to be laid out in any particular pattern; certainly not like the main streets and grid patterns you would expect of a proper town.
They wandered from ruin to ruin; the tall weeds felt sticky on Sammie’s legs, and she kept catching burrs and bits of foliage on her blue gingham dress. The dress was a hand me down from her sister; well-worn from many years of hard work, and had been stained and torn along the hemline. Thank goodness for that, as it gave Sammie an excuse to shorten it to a more practical length; a length which although frowned upon by just about everyone in town, would unfortunately still catch on everything in the tall weeds they were presently traversing.
They paused at the ruins of one of the larger structures. They had surely seen it a dozen times before; hunting for “treasures”, yet finding not but old whiskey bottles and rusty tools. Had they missed anything?
“What’s this one again?” asked Sammie.
“Maybe a workshop,” said Preston, eyeing some unidentifiable rusty machinery lying just inside the foundation. The strange humming had subsided somewhat, thank goodness, so he could concentrate on other problems.
“So what’s eating you, Sammie?”
“Dunno. Nothing here in the ghost town, I guess.”
She gazed at the greenish brown foliage in the distance.
“Let’s have a look over there in the woods.”
They marched the few hundred yards through the green mess of sticky weeds. There were a couple larger trees sticking well out into the field toward the edge of the woods. They drew closer to the first one; it was an old oak, possibly spared the fate of the other trees as a source of shade for the workers? Some of the leaves were green, but others seemed to have a blight on them. Yet they couldn’t get a close enough view from the ground.
“What’s that on the leaves?”
“Dunno. Almost looks they are turning. Like in the fall.”
“Too early for that, ain’t it?”
“Pa says that sometimes the leaves turn early in a drought. But we’ve had rain recently. Ya wanna climb up and get a closer look?”
The lowest branches were a good 10 feet off the ground, and the trunk was smooth enough to prove a challenge to climb. Especially in a dress.
“Let’s take a look at one of the other trees,” said Sammie, motioning toward the edge of the woods.
They found a smaller tree with branches just within reach. The leaves were discolored, and seemed to be covered in something.
“If I jump up and grab the branch, do ya figure you could cut a piece off?” asked Sammie.
“Yup,” answered Preston, taking his most prized possession, a genuine stag-handled jackknife, out of one of the pockets in his overalls. The overalls were a hand me down from an uncle, hemmed to his size a year or so back, although he had since outgrown them. But they had a secure, buttoned pocket for his treasures; the jack knife, a cheap compass, and of course a candle stump or two – you never know when you might need one.
Pockets. How wonderfully useful, thought Sammie. She envied Preston’s overalls. Her mother had refused to allow her to sew some pockets into her dresses; something about ruining the shape. Wearing pants or overalls was likewise refused. Her older sister Micah didn’t seem to mind these ridiculous limitations, and even mentioned something about turning boy’s heads. How silly. The only boy who’s head I want to turn is Preston, thought Sammie, and I can do that by throwing something at him.
Sammie was a few inches taller than Preston, and only had to stand tippie toe to reach one of the lower branches and pull it down for him to slice off a foot-long section of it. Up close they could see that the leaves were covered in tiny tendrils. It was so revolting that Preston almost wanted to drop the branch; the tendrils were a hideous dark red tone, like old blood. They seemed to be sapping the very life out of the leaves, leaving them horribly discolored. Then the tendrils began to wriggle.“What are they?” said Sammie, “Bugs?”
Preston had heard of plagues of insects before – locusts that would devour entire crops, causing famines, or swarms of ants biting and stinging their way through jungles, but this was different. The tendrils, like the tentacles of a tiny octopus would appear to lie dormant for a while, then wriggle furiously when the branch was jostled. He couldn’t tell if it was plant or animal, but it seemed somehow alien. However, like any proper youth, Preston was fascinated with all things gross and wriggly.
“Let’s take it home and put it in a jar!”
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project between David and Claudia Willison. I think you can tell who does what. Although actually we share a little of everything in this story. Stick around and see where the story goes!