[Collaborative Project with C. Willison of ImagesByCW]
The deep gongs of the grandfather clock awoke Preston from the haze of nightmares. Was it two or three o’clock? He glanced over at his little tin alarm clock. 2:04. He had wasted half the day in bed. At least he wasn’t chilled anymore; the two down comforters he had piled on bed before collapsing into slumber had kept him warm, and his head cleared as well. Were the weird nightmares related to his illness, or the strange voices from yesterday, or just his imagination? He was still tired, but had to get something done today. He splashed some cold water on his face to clear his head, and proceeded to his father’s study to consult the encyclopedias.
Preston had what should have been a productive afternoon. His head had cleared, and he had studied the encyclopedias diligently. And not just the encyclopedias; books on entomology and biology as well. He may not have been able to understand everything he read, but he was a good reader, and many of the volumes were illustrated anyway. Yet despite his diligence, he hadn’t found the answer he had been looking for – nothing like the odd creature they had seen in any of the books. It was dusk, and his father would soon be home. His train of thought was interrupted by a rapping sound at the window.
It was the window to the study. Sammie, at the window to the study, to be specific.
“Took ya long enough. Were you punished?”
“Not so much. I just wish I could’ve gone out again, and caught me one of those little… things.” Preston’s voice trailed off.
“I’ve got chores again tomorrow, but maybe after that.”
* * *
After three days of gloomy, overcast weather, and missed opportunities, they made plans to venture out at night. It had been dry all afternoon and was supposed to stay that way for a while. Preston’s weird nightmares had become tamer with each consecutive evening, and his illness had faded as well. Sammie had likewise gotten over her cough… two days prior.
Sneaking out after dark really wasn’t Preston’s preference. The sneaking out part was fun enough, but except in full moonlight, it was hard to see. Cities had gas lamps; small towns like theirs didn’t. True, there were a few oil burning lamps around the town square, but that wasn’t the direction they wanted to go. Preston pushed on cautiously towards the shallow water crossing at Milton’s Creek, and set to work sorting out their gear on one of the large flat rocks overlooking the creek. The moonlight there was unobstructed, and they were far enough from town that their lights wouldn’t be spotted. There were typical sounds of a woods at night around him. He knew that dangerous animals like wolves and bears were rare these days, but still, his ears perked up with every snapping he heard. And a crashing sound on the opposite bank of the creek froze him where he sat. He stared into the shadows and held his breath.
* * *
Sammie loved sneaking out at night. There was nothing in the dark that wasn’t there in the day, and she got caught much less often in the dark. Beside; her sister Micah, who was a bit of a priss, snuck out at night, so why shouldn’t she? Even better than that; since no one would see her, she could wear her shortest dress, and carry a knapsack! She had outgrown the yellow polka dot dress several years before, but had kept it – hidden from her mother for just such excursions. Thank heavens she didn’t have any younger sisters who might otherwise inherit it. A bit of cutting and sewing to remove the ridiculous bow, and give her enough room to move around, and it was perfect.
She had dug up a few candle stumps, but didn’t dare take a lantern. True, there were a few of them at her family’s general store, but lanterns were quite expensive and if she “borrowed” one and broke it, there’s no telling the trouble she’d be in. It was almost a full moon and the path out to Milton’s Creek was bathed in a friendly, inviting moonlight; enough light to avoid tripping over the roots that would cross the path here and there, and enough shadows to keep it interesting. Perfect. She rounded the last corner to see the dim glow of candlelight down by the creek. She scampered down the embankment and hopped into the ankle-deep water at the edge. The lights were coming from a couple of candles that Preston had lit on a large boulder on the other side. How nice to have a good friend like Preston you could count on to be prepared and on time.
“Heya Sammie; that you?” came a hushed voice from across the creek; barely audible above the burbling of water.
“Of course its me, you kettlehead, who else would it be?” Shouted Sammie. “And ya don’t need to whisper, nobody else is out here.”
She threw her knapsack to the ground, and undressed in a snap. How much more practical this dress was than the frilly nonsense she was expected to wear during the day. She grabbed the knapsack and dress, hoisted them over her head, and plodded across the creek. She could feel smooth, oval, river washed stones beneath her feet, the crisp, cool water flowing around her legs, and for a moment wanted to plunge into the creek completely. But reason caught her before she could do it. Drying off at night was rather more troublesome than on a nice sunny day, so she begrudgingly fought off the urge. She made it to the other side without getting more than thigh deep in creek water, threw her knapsack and dress on the flat boulder, and climbed up. She fished a couple of old dish rags from her knapsack to dry herself off, popped her dress on, and was ready to go.
“Hey there Preston, ya have a candle for me?”
“Yeah, right here,” came the hushed response, as he handed her a makeshift lantern. He had taken a canning jar, inserted a little wooden base to stabilize the candle at the bottom, added a makeshift tin wind guard, and a handle out of baling wire. Not as bright as a lantern, but not bad. Preston was clever with such things, and certainly handy to have around.
The two of them set out for the woods where they had seen the odd creature. They needn’t have followed the old rail tracks as such, but there was no trail through the woods, and at night they could easily get lost.
It wasn’t long before Preston began hearing the odd humming in his head again. It wasn’t quite as intrusive as the last time, but there seemed to be a pattern; one he could not quite unravel, but he racked his head doubly so trying to make sense of it. Thankfully Sammie wasn’t wont to continually chatter like most girls her age. Together with the humming that would have surely driven him mad.
“Say Preston, haven’t we gone too far?”
He had been lost in thought, trying to make sense of the humming that had been growing more and more complex. He looked around; there was the shallow trench that the old rail bed was in, open fields to both sides; dim shadows further off in the distance to both sides that might have been woods; yet no familiar landmarks. He had no idea how far they had gotten.
“Dunno. Let’s go a little further to be sure.”
The more he concentrated on the humming, the more meaning there seemed to be to find. Yet the only thing it seemed to sound like was the odd groaning of his uncle after a large holiday meal; and that surely didn’t make any sort of sense. Unfortunately the further they went, the louder the sound grew in his head. By now it was giving him a splitting headache. He stumbled on a railroad tie and fell to his knees, barely managing to save his makeshift lantern from smashing against the uneven ballast stones. His head felt like it could explode. How could he manage to go any further?
…to be continued
The Miltonville Mine Mystery is a creative collaborative project (a fictional short story with photo illustrations) 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!