Summary: Robbed and left for dead at the roadside, Adam and Joe are forced to take shelter from a storm in an abandoned house. Injured himself, Adam struggles to keep his brother alive. But the house has a past, and it returns to haunt them…
Written in response to an”Apple Pie” challenge.
Rated: T WC 9500
The Girl With The Red Hair
Last night I saw the girl again. She was alone in the street, staring at me through the bars of the cell window.
I can get no sense out of Joe. His fever is still running too high. But before? Well, before, I now concede that he was rational, even if I tried to persuade myself otherwise. But the way he was behaving, the things he was saying, they needed some other explanation. Only now am I beginning to understand.
The sun is rising at last over this god-forsaken town in the middle of nowhere. There isn’t even a doctor here. Not that we could pay a doctor if there was one. The bandits who attacked us left us with nothing. All the money from the cattle sale – five thousand dollars – gone! Even that wasn’t enough to satisfy them. They took our horses and our guns as well. I guess we were lucky to be left with our lives.
Lucky? It didn’t feel lucky when it happened.
‘Joe, get a move on, will you? I want to make Stockton before the weather breaks. We’re a day behind as it is.’
The words snapped out of my mouth more sharply than was strictly necessary. It wasn’t Joe’s fault, after all. It was a lame horse brought us into this tumbledown town in the middle of nowhere, necessitating an overnight stop in a bug-ridden hotel where the color of the sheets matched the road outside the window. It wasn’t his fault we were here, but now he was busy peering down the dilapidated street when he should have been saddling his horse and preparing to ride out. Overhead, the sky was heavy and threatening, like my mood.
Joe grinned at me. Last night’s less than average accommodation had done nothing to mar my brother’s rest. I swear that boy could fall asleep in the middle of a busy city street. But his unquenchable cheerfulness only irked me that morning.
‘Did you see her, Adam?’
‘That girl. The one I said to you about yesterday evening. With the red hair. Sure is pretty!’
‘How about you just concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing? I’d like to get away from here sometime today, if that’s all right with you.’
He got the implied sarcasm and pulled a face at me. ‘Got out of bed on the wrong side, did we, big brother?’
‘There was no right side to that bed. And if there was, the bugs got there first.’
Hoss should have been making this trip with me. He would have been a whole lot less trying than Joe. I’m not an old man, but sometimes the company of my seventeen–year-old brother makes me feel as if I am. When Hoss broke his wrist, Pa suggested I take Joe instead, and Joe was so eager I hadn’t the heart to argue. I was beginning to regret that now. A prolonged and concentrated dose of Joe’s natural ebullience was fraying my trail-worn nerves. That and the close eye I’d had to keep on him whenever we entered a town. It seemed – to Joe anyway – this trip was little more than an escape from Pa’s watchful eye. Twice already I’d had to wheel him out of trouble, rescuing him from an overheated poker game four nights back, and last night, prising him away from the ample assets of a well endowed and very determined saloon girl. Yet nothing seemed to dampen his spirits.
Five or six miles out of that dreary town, Joe was whistling contentedly to himself, and I was looking anxiously at the heavy clouds overhead, when without warning, the world exploded. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Joe lift slightly in his saddle before tumbling sideways, then pain, hot and hard, erupted in my left arm, and the ground hit me with a jarring thud.
Dust mingled in my mouth with the sharp, metallic taste of blood. A man’s voice barked terse commands and feet thudded past me. Hitting the ground had knocked all the breath out of me and the hot pain in my arm made me suck in air in a deep gasp so that I choked on the dirt. I lifted my head.
There were four men; two of them were tugging at the ties of our saddlebags. My fingers groped for my gun and a boot slammed hard into the side of my head. Bright colors burst behind my eyelids as I heard my own loud grunt of pain. Forcing my eyes open again, I saw Joe, to my left, roll over and go for his gun too. One of the men brought a rifle butt down on his head with a sickening crack and Joe crumpled again and lay still.
The world was spinning lopsidedly. I pressed my face into the dirt in an attempt to steady my reeling senses. The men were laughing.
‘Five thousand dollars!’ There was no mistaking the delight in the man’s voice. I thought of Pa and of all the work that five thousand dollars represented, and I felt a surge of indignant anger rush through me. In the same instant I recognized the man who had hit Joe. He had been there last night, in the hotel bar. Damn that stinking little town! I made one more attempt to rise, but the same boot slammed a second time into my head. The men’s gleeful laughter receded into roaring darkness.
Confusion and then pain. A pulsing like red hot iron in my left arm while my right ear pounded as if someone had stuffed it with gunpowder and set a match there. And a strange tapping sound. As my eyes found their focus, the dirt in front of my nose bounced upward, and something cold and wet smacked my cheek.
Groaning I lifted my head. No men. No horses. The ground dipped away from me. My fingers clawed instinctively at the dirt. Several more big raindrops plashed onto my head.
Joe? Where was Joe? Cold panic gripped my middle. Forcing my knees underneath me, I winced as fire shot through my arm. Gingerly I prodded the sticky wetness a few inches above my left elbow. A large chunk of flesh was missing from my arm. Clutching at the wound, I staggered the few paces to Joe’s prone body.
He was lying where they’d struck him down earlier, face in the dust. I fell on my knees beside him.
‘Joe?’ My voice emerged in a dry croak. How long had we been lying here unconscious?
He didn’t move. His face was turned sideways on the ground. There was an ugly lump on his temple in a lurid shade of purple. The rest of his face was as colorless as chalk. Blood was soaking through his coat and darkening the dirt beneath his belly. Too much blood. Leaning my face down to his, I caught the soft warmth of his breath on my cheek and relief flooded through me. I tugged his shirt free of his belt.
The rain fell harder. Big heavy drops that meant business. Each one left a dark smear where it hit the dry earth and the sun-baked rocks that lined the roadside.
There was a hole right through Joe’s side. The bullet had entered his back, just below his ribs. My probing fingers found the exit wound, slightly lower, at the front. Carefully I turned him over. He didn’t stir or open his eyes.
At least neither of us had a lump of lead embedded inside us. That was lucky, I told myself as I leaned back against a rock to steady my heaving brain.
Sometimes luck manifests itself in the strangest ways.
My head was thudding. I battled to think clearly. Our horses were gone; our guns were gone. All we had was what wore on our backs. First things first; I had to try and stop Joe’s life leaking away into the ground.
Wincing, I dragged off my coat and fumbled the buttons of my shirt undone with blood-smeared fingers. The raindrops smacked hard and cold against my back and shoulders as I peeled it off. Hastily, I shrugged my jacket back over me.
I struggled to rip the fabric. My head was reeling wildly and my fingers felt thick and unresponsive. I tried to be gentle as I wrapped a makeshift dressing around Joe’s middle, but my clumsiness made him whimper. His eyes opened and I saw the same confusion in his face that I had felt only minutes before.
‘We were attacked,’ I reminded him. Moving my jaw to speak caused bolts of pain to ricochet around my swirling brain. ‘You were shot, Joe. So was I. They took our horses, and all the money.’
I made a poor job of tying off the bandage. Joe flinched and pushed my hand away.
‘We have to get out of this rain,’ I told him. There was blood all around him. I wondered whether he was going to be able even to walk. His lips were as pale as his face. But he was a strong kid; I told myself that. He wouldn’t give in easily. I held out my good arm to help him rise.
He leaned heavily against me as we walked, gasping with every step. The fresh scent of the rain was in my nostrils as it soaked into the dust and the rocks around us but all I could think was that we had at least five miles to cover on foot before we got back to that miserable excuse for a town. Five long miles. Joe’s rasping breaths caught in his throat. The burning wound in my arm screamed at me and waves of nausea threatened to drown me. And then, for no reason I could see, Joe was pulling back. It was the last thing I needed. I could barely support him as it was.
‘Stop!’ he panted. ‘We’re going the wrong way.’
‘We’re going back the way we came.’ I tried to tug him forwards. ‘It’s the nearest town.’
He resisted. ‘No. We need to go that way.’ He pointed off to the right.
‘The town’s back that way!’
‘There’s a house. That way.’
‘A house!’ I stared at him, and then in the direction he was pointing. There was nothing but a scrubby incline and a wall of rain. ‘What are you talking about? Where’s a house.’
Dropping his arm, he groaned and sagged heavily against me. The thudding in my head was so ferocious, I couldn’t hold him up and he folded on the wet ground. My insides twisted in a knot of dread. His eyes were still open, but he was deathly pale. So pale it frightened me to look at him.
‘Sorry, Adam. I’m kinda dizzy.’
‘Yeah.’ I tried to keep my voice matter of fact. ‘Me too. Come on, Joe. You can’t stop here. We have to get out of this rain.’
He shook his head, wincing. ‘Too far to town. Head for the house.’
Rain was running in rivulets out of my hair and down my face. Why hadn’t I thought to retrieve our hats before we started walking? Thunder rumbled ominously, somewhere in the distance.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Joe! What house?’
‘Over there. She told me.’
‘Who told you?’
‘The girl. In town.’
Joe’s eyes closed. The conversation had gone on long enough. I had no idea when he’d managed to contrive a chat with a girl in town, but right there and then, with the blood from our wounds mingling with the rain, was not the time to be discussing details.
‘Can you smell it, Adam?’
‘Smell it? Smell what?’ I didn’t mean to sound bad-tempered but the rain was trickling down inside my collar, cold and unpleasant, and my stomach was churning. I could smell nothing but wetness.
‘Baking. Somebody’s baking.’
‘On your feet!’ With my good arm I haul him up again. ‘Come on.’
He resisted. My temper was fraying. ‘Joe, just walk, dammit!’
‘Not that way! Over there.’
Boy, my brother can be stubborn! Even half dead on his feet, he wouldn’t give in. And I didn’t have the strength left to argue with him.
‘Smell it, Adam. It’s pie! Apple pie!’
The ground was pitching beneath me like the deck of a storm-tossed boat. Seasickness washed over me in huge waves. What the hell did it matter which way we walked? We were as likely to find a clump of trees, or an overhang of rocks, or even a cave, walking in that direction as attempting the long five or six miles back into the town. And Joe wasn’t likely to make it that far anyway. I didn’t want to think about it, but it was true. All that blood and that angry swelling on his head. He was in a bad way.
The rain was coming down with such force the dry earth beneath our feet couldn’t swallow it fast enough. Water swirled like a shallow river around our boots. An insidious dampness was seeping through the wool of my coat. Every time I lifted my head, the rain drove into my face like tiny blades and my vision swam. Thunder rumbled nearer and then receded again, like an angry animal circling in the distance. Joe’s breath still came in hard, rasping gasps. He was trembling in violent spasms. I thought of all that blood on the ground beneath him. He wouldn’t be able to fight off the cold if we didn’t find somewhere warm and dry soon.
We were at the top of the incline. In front of us the ground sloped away in a gentle sweep, and where it leveled out, lower down, I could make out the angular shapes of buildings, clustered together beneath the grey shadow of the storm. I could hardly believe our luck.
Joe was swaying in my arms, his hair stuck to his head, water dripping from his nose and chin, pale lips quivering with cold.
‘Pie,’ he muttered. ‘Smell it, Adam. Apple pie!’ He tried to give me a weak grin but his gaze was unfocused and glassy. He staggered forward, as though the sight of the buildings had given him fresh momentum, but his legs buckled beneath him and he sprawled full length on the rain-soaked ground.
‘Joe!’ I fumbled frantically, on my knees in the wet beside him. I didn’t care about the rain and the cold any more. I was almost weeping with relief when I found a pulse. Too fast, but at least it was there. But he didn’t wake up, even though I shouted his name over and over.
‘Joe, come on kid! We’re almost there. I can see the house!’
His lips and his eyelids looked grey. His face swam in and out of focus. ‘Don’t you dare die, Little Joe!’ I told him as I struggled to control the panic. With an effort, I hauled him up, hoisting him clumsily over my shoulder, swearing out loud as my left arm shouted a protest. As I started down the hill towards the house, my head was reeling and I was staggering like a man who’d drunk too much whiskey.
The yard was empty but the sheer volume of rain, as well as my spinning brain, distorted the buildings. I was just about on my knees but if I put Joe down, I knew I wouldn’t have the strength to lift him again. I stumbled up the steps to the porch and hammered desperately on the door. The planks beneath my feet might as well have been the planks of a rolling deck. No one answered. I knocked again and called out, ‘Hello? Anybody home?’ as I slumped against the wall.
Still no one came, and it was only then that I noted how dark and silent the place was. Apart from the rain drumming on the roofs and the packed dirt of the yard, there was no other sound or movement. A few moments more and I made a decision. Lifting the latch, I pushed open the door and called out into the gloom beyond.
‘Hello the house!’
Empty silence greeted my shout, but for the insistent rhythm of the rain. An odor of mustiness stole out to greet me. I had no idea how long Joe and I had lain unconscious on that road, and the day was prematurely dark with the storm, but surely it could be no later than mid-afternoon. Yet the house was already enveloped in dusk.
Relief from the deluge was instantaneous. We were in a dim square room, furnished with a faded green sofa and battered armchair, small table, dresser and rugs. I called out again but the same emptiness answered my shout. I hesitated, uncertain what to do. I was about ready to drop; Joe was a limp deadweight over my shoulder. My stomach knotted to think he might already be dead. The rainwater puddling around my feet was tinted pink with our blood, yet the common courtesy drummed into me by Pa my whole life, held me back. Almost, it would have been ludicrous if I had had any strength left to laugh.
Slowly my thick brain registered what my nose had already told me. This place was empty. There was dust everywhere. Cobwebs stretched from the rafters. No one to help us then. I swallowed back another swelling tide of nausea. For the first time I realized how hard I was shivering.
Still, it was dry. I tried to think practically. I had to keep focused or Joe would die. Pushing my trembling legs to take a few more steps to the sofa, I lowered him as gently as I could onto the faded blue upholstery. But the seat was small; I couldn’t lie him down properly.
I had to hold on to the back of the chair for about a minute then to let my head and stomach settle enough to move again. The room pitched like a storm-tossed cabin as I straightened up and gazed blearily around me. I wanted nothing more than to lie down and close my eyes, but I couldn’t let go of the fact that my brother was in a more desperate state than I was. He needed me. I had to get him warm and dry or he would die, for certain.
My own coat was completely soaked through, cold and heavy around my shoulders. I shrugged it off and took a few deep breaths.
There was a fireplace. The grate was full of grey ash, long dead, but there was wood stacked at the side, kindling, even matches. I groped and fumbled with cold, clumsy fingers, but I was rewarded with a small orange flame that licked obligingly around the dry wood. The sight of it filled me with such overwhelming relief, foolish tears sprang in my eyes. That’s when I knew how far gone I truly was.
Three doors opened off this room. I opened one at random and I was in a bedroom. Vaguely I took in the rose-patterned curtains at the window, a shaving brush and razor on the washstand, a hairbrush in front of the mirror, but I didn’t have the energy left to wonder at any of it. I concentrated simply on the large iron bedstead made up with a faded patchwork quilt.
Dragging the bedclothes from the bed was almost more than I had strength for, and I had to pause again, leaning on the dresser to recover myself before bearing my prize back to the other room. Outside, thunder vibrated menacingly, rattling the glass in the windows.
I was startled to see Joe watching me out of sunken eyes, from his semi-recumbent position on the sofa. He looked like a pale ghost in the gloom, except that he was shivering violently. The flames were still jumping in the hearth; the kindling was well alight already. I added a couple of logs and spread the patchwork quilt on the floor in front of the fire.
‘Joe,’ I said, fighting to stay upright on my feet. ‘We need to get out of these wet clothes.’ I was alarmed to see that his lips and fingernails were a deepening shade of blue. If I didn’t get him warm and dry soon, he wouldn’t make it through the night. His eyes struggled to focus on me when I spoke to him. They were open but they weren’t seeing. I sat down beside him and pulled him towards me. For a moment I wasn’t sure who was supporting who.
‘Help me, kid,’ I whispered. ‘We have to get you out of these wet things.’
Reality was slipping. I didn’t know how much longer I could hang on. Somehow I got him undressed and made a fresh dressing for his side from a strip of bed sheet. At least the bleeding had stopped. He didn’t make a whimper, just shook with cold. His silence worried me almost as much as his corpse-like appearance.
When I’d got him securely bandaged, I wrapped a blanket around him. Then, with difficulty, I tied a rough strip of sheet around my own arm. The wound was an ugly mess, but I could no longer think clearly enough to do anything more with it. I got my shoulder under Joe’s and heaved him to his feet and like two drunken men on a dance floor, we staggered the few steps to the quilt laid out in front of the fire. There I tried to settle him comfortably, but the blood was whooshing in my head, and my ears were full of a loud buzzing, as if the room had filled with angry hornets. I tucked Joe’s blanket carefully around his shoulders before stripping off my remaining wet clothes. I pulled another blanket over both of us and pressed my body close to his in an effort to warm him, wrapping my injured arm around his still shivering torso. I could already feel the welcome heat radiating from the fire
‘Soon get you warm,’ I muttered.
He said something in return but his words were slurred and my ears were full of angry hornets. It sounded to me like, ‘That pie sure smells good,’ but I couldn’t be certain, so I let it ride.
‘Yeah,’ I said as I let my eyes finally close. ‘You’re right. It smells real good!’
I can hear the sound of children’s voices, raised in laughter, out in the yard. The rain has stopped and the sun slants in through the window. A girl crosses the room. She has red hair and a red dress and she wipes flour from her hands with a towel. I can smell the mouth watering scent of apple pie, fruity and spicy, fresh from the oven.
The girl calls out two names. ‘Daniel! Izzy!’
I awoke from my dream with a jump, certain that something had just trailed across my face. Shuddering, I sat up. The rain was still drumming on the roof, but there was another sound too, close by. A sound I recognized, but my brain was still foggy. It took me a moment to identify it.
Mice. I could hear them scrabbling. Maybe it had been a mouse that ran over my face. The idea wasn’t pleasant but it wasn’t as disturbing as the other possibility that had crossed my waking mind. I pushed the thought away.
Night enveloped the house. Only the red glow of the dying fire alleviated the clinging blackness. I looked down at Joe beside me. He was still asleep. But his face was so drained of blood, I was seized with a momentary panic. Bending over him swiftly, I checked he was still breathing. Either he was asleep or he was unconscious, but at any rate, he was alive.
What time was it? I had no idea. I groaned as I moved. When I touched the right side of my face, I could feel the unmistakable swelling, bruised and tender, but at least the pounding in my head had subsided to a steady ache. Thunder growled menacingly in the distance. However long we’d slept, the storm was still hovering.
The fire was dying. I had to get up to put more wood in the embers. The unfamiliar darkness pressed in. All around me I could hear the small creaks and groans of a wooden house shifting. A flicker of lightning threw the room into brief white starkness and I noticed a lamp on the dresser. Roused back to life by the new logs, the fire spat and jumped, edging the shadows back several inches.
I took up my pants. They were still damp but I decided they were wearable. My coat was still soaked though so I turned it over and left it by the hearth before crossing the room to the dresser.
I couldn’t see how much oil was left in the lamp but it didn’t sound like much when I swilled it around. I lit the wick anyway, and adjusted it so that a pale circle of reassuring light expanded outwards, banishing the shadows to the farthest corners. Then I made my way to one of the two doors I hadn’t yet investigated.
Choosing the door closest to the one I’d opened earlier, it was no surprise to discover a second bedroom beyond, furnished with two iron bedsteads. On the farthest bed lay a stuffed doll with one arm missing. Strewn untidily around a blue painted toy box beneath the blackened window was a set of carved wooden horses, while upturned beside the other bed was a pair of child’s boots. A girl’s straw bonnet dangled from a bedpost, faded pink ribbons trailing. In the corner of the room stood a crib. I could just see the knitted lace shawl crumpled inside. A heavy sense of desolation hung in the musty air, and even though the rain still pattered above me, the silence was oppressive. I backed out quickly.
The third door was in the back wall of the main living room and opened into a square kitchen. An army of beetles scuttled for cover as I entered. There was an iron stove and beneath the window, a wide stone sink with a pump. Next to the sink was a door to the outside. A bowl of shriveled, moldy apples sat on a dresser. A stack of plates and a pie dish, dark with some congealed mess waited on a scrubbed pine table scattered liberally with mouse droppings. I opened a cabinet and came instantly face to face with a large, surprised rat. I slammed the door quickly shut again. There was a coffee pot on the stove. Lifting the lid I saw the grey film that had settled on top of the black liquid inside. The room smelled stale and sour. For the first time I wondered why this house was empty, why whoever had lived here had abandoned it without even clearing away the dirty dishes and the coffee pot. For some reason this question unsettled me. Maybe it was my weakened condition making me sensitive, but I found I didn’t want to hang around in that room either.
As I stepped back from the stove, I leapt violently, my stomach lurching into my throat. A startled oath erupted unbidden from my mouth, and I all but dropped the lamp. At the window, there was a face, staring in at me. A woman’s face. The girl with the red hair. The girl from my dream. I swear she even had a smudge of flour on her chin.
I blinked, and in that instant, realized there was nothing there after all. The black rectangle of the window was a dark blank again, but my heart was still pounding. Had it been a trick of the light reflecting in the window? I told myself it was. A trick of the light and the effects of a heavy boot to the head. My senses were scattered. It was no wonder I was seeing things.
Taking a deep breath to steady my shattered nerves, I turned to the door and careered back so wildly, the edge of the stove thudded hard into my back. I let out a strangled yelp. The figure in the doorway stood motionless, blank eyes gazing unseeingly from sunken sockets.
‘Dammit, Joe! What are you trying to do? Scare me half to death?’
The blanket I had wrapped around him earlier hung loose from his shoulders. A spreading crimson stain blotted the bandage around his middle.
‘You should be resting, not walking around,’ I told him, trying to disguise the shakiness in my voice.
Joe’s lips were whiter even than his pale face. The kitchen was cold; he was shivering again. I put the lamp down on the table, and hurried across the room to draw the blanket more closely around him.
At my touch, he flinched and looked anxious. Vague recognition flickered in his eyes. ‘Adam?’ he whispered, uncertainly before his gaze clouded again. ‘The pie’s cooked. Call the children.’ His voice slurred around the edges, as if he were drunk.
I made an effort to keep my voice calm. ‘There aren’t any children, Joe.’
He frowned when I said that, and pushed past me, heading unsteadily for the far door. Realizing what he was about to do, I was filled with a sudden, irrational panic and I had to grab him and haul him back.
‘No, Joe! Don’t open the door!’
I hadn’t meant to be so rough. My manhandling pulled him completely off balance and he staggered sideways into the table. I managed to grab him before he fell. Embarrassed by my ridiculous over reaction, I mumbled an apology and some excuse about how he would only get wet and cold if he went outside, but it was clear he was not listening to me.
‘Izzy, Daniel!’ he called out sluggishly.
The back of my neck prickled, my stomach went cold. I stared at him in alarm. And then logic stepped in and I realized I must have spoken in my sleep, called out the names I’d heard in my dream. Now they were lodged in Joe’s scrambled brain too.
‘Come on, little brother, you need to lie down before you fall down.’ I attempted to make him look at me, but his gaze was held by something unseen. His body swayed uncertainly. I kept a hand on his arm to steady him.
‘It’s fresh out of the oven. That’s the way they like it,’ he insisted, his voice dull and thick
‘That’s how we all like it.’ I was trying hard to keep my own strained voice light to hide the growing panic inside me. The way his eyes were so intently fixed on nothing was somehow deeply disturbing. ‘Joe, you need to lie down.’
‘Izzy? Daniel?’ he repeated, more persistently. He tried again to move me out of his way, but he was too weak. I’d had enough. I grabbed the lamp with my injured arm and Joe with the other.
‘Back to bed, Joe.’
He hadn’t the strength to resist, and when I got him back to the fire and once more lying down on the quilt, he seemed to give in, closing his eyes again obligingly as I wrapped the blankets close about him once more. But he kept murmuring about the pie and the children. Then, without warning, he called out, in a loud, clear voice, ‘Don’t hurt them! Please don’t hurt them!’
I lay down beside him. I am not a man prone to flights of imagination. I reminded myself of that fact now and determined that I would not take any more silly frights. But I couldn’t shake off my troubling sense of unease. So I concentrated on trying to soothe Joe’s agitated mumblings, listening to the rhythm of the rain outside and the intermittent growls of far off thunder.
Just go to sleep, I told myself, sternly, but somehow, every little creak and groan of the house made me tense up like a scared kid. In desperation, I tried an old trick I’ve used since I was a child. I began to recite poetry in my head.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
I had worked my way steadily through three Shakespeare sonnets and my concentration was slipping as sleep stole over me when I was jerked wide awake again by a sudden noise.
Footsteps. Clattering on the wooden porch. And voices. Surely I had heard voices. Children laughing.
The room was silent. I forced myself to relax. I had been on the verge of falling asleep. It was the edge of a dream, that was all. Take a deep breath, I told myself. Think of another poem.
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for you
As yet but knocke…
No mistake this time. I had definitely heard the sound of a child’s laughter outside the door. My heart raced uncomfortably. Beside me, Joe stirred. I must have disturbed him when I jumped up. ‘Izzy, Daniel,’ he muttered, and my stomach tightened into a cold knot.
‘Sssh,’ I whispered. ‘It’s nothing, Joe. Go back to sleep.’
He fumbled to drag the blanket from his shoulders. ‘It’s the children. They want some pie.’
‘There’re no children, Joe. Just lie still.’
‘No!’ He fidgeted restlessly, struggling to sit up, but I pushed him back down. ‘Don’t!’ he said, his voice filled with a sudden urgency. ‘Don’t hurt them!’
I heard another high-pitched laugh in the yard. My skin grew cold. I swallowed hard.
‘No one’s going to hurt anyone, Joe. Just lie still.’
He was fighting me. Where he was getting his strength from, I didn’t know, but he was determined to get up. I knew without being told what he wanted to do. He wanted to open the door and let in the children. My belly contracted with fear when I thought of it.
‘Daniel!’ he called out, battling me. ‘Izzy!’
He’d rolled over and was up on his knees. I’d left the lamp turned down low on the table and its light rendered the waxen pallor of his face a sickly yellow. I was on my knees too, gripping him by both arms. Then, in the mirror of his eyes, I caught a movement behind me. I spun around but there was no one there. But the distraction gave him the break he needed. He twisted free of my grip, inadvertently catching my injured arm a sharp blow as he did so.
Pain took me by surprise. I fell away from him, swearing. He was up and staggering clumsily for the door. I was too slow to stop him. He was already fumbling with the latch. The door opened and he vanished out into the darkness.
I had to go after him. Everything in me resisted but I forced my feet to carry me the short distance to the yawning void of the dark night outside, my heart hammering somewhere just below my throat.
The rain was still falling steadily and the night was inky black. It was not just the cold dampness that made my skin crawl. The darkness itself seemed to press clammy, creeping fingers around me. I could see and hear nothing except the rain. Hovering uncertainly on the edge of the porch, my eyes strained for any sign of my brother. And then I saw the smudge of paler darkness, just below me, a heap on the waterlogged ground.
‘Joe!’ The blackness as so complete I had to grope with my hands to identify his head, his shoulders, his back. He was very still. The darkness pressed its unfeeling palms against my eyeballs. I leaned my head down to where I judged his heart to be, but all I could hear was the rain. Panic welled up inside me and a wild ,sound like a choked sob, escaped my throat. I tried to gather up his unconscious form but I was hindered by the darkness and my own weak state. My chest was heaving, my breathing labored as I finally rose unsteadily to my feet, Joe bundled limply in my arms.
A bright flash of blue white lightning streaked across the sky, freezing the world in its blinding glare. The yard and the barn in front of me were thrown into startling relief, an image of dazzling clarity, imprinted on my brain for a brief fragment of a second. But in that instant, I saw something else. Standing in front of the barn door, hands clasped loosely in front of her, was the red-haired girl. And her eyes, patient and sad, were looking straight at me.
Even here in the sheriff’s office, with the sun slanting through the bars of the cell window, I shudder to remember. It’s as if the lightning flash branded that moment into my brain forever.
The sheriff’s wife is here again, her basket on her arm, a tureen of hot beef broth inside. She’s been good to us. When I finally staggered back into this town and the sheriff heard my story, he let us bunk in this cell while he set out to track down the villains who had attacked us. We had no money to pay for a room anywhere else, or to buy a meal. And even if there had been a doctor in this god-forsaken place, we could not have engaged his services with no means of reimbursing him. But this prison cell is a whole lot cleaner than the hotel. And the sheriff’s wife gave us one look and instantly took pity.
She pours broth into a bowl and hands me a spoon and bread out of her basket. I thank her with genuine heartfelt gratitude, and move to Joe’s side. Getting food into him is difficult but it’s essential if he’s going to recover all that blood he lost. The sheriff’s wife waves me back to my own bunk.
‘I’ll do it,’ she says, smiling. ‘You eat something yourself, Mr. Cartwright.’
I smile back and thank her. She has a kind face. Her husband has a kind face too, although his is wearier, more resigned to disappointment than hers. I’d put them at about the same age as Pa. She spoons small amounts of the broth carefully into Joe’s mouth, and much to my relief, he swallows it.
‘His fever doesn’t seem any worse.’ She looks at me reassuringly. ‘I’ll make a fresh poultice for his side when he’s eaten this.’
‘You’re very kind, Mrs. Briggs,’ I tell her. ‘As soon as we make contact with my father, I’ll be able to repay you for all you’ve done.’
She smiles again and shakes her head. ‘Don’t trouble yourself. It’s more important right now that you focus on looking after your brother. The deputy’s going to wire a message to your father as soon as he reaches Stockton, but it’ll be at least a few days before you hear anything.’
I watch her feed Joe as I eat. So far I have not told anyone about what happened at the house. I’m still not convinced I wasn’t temporarily insane. When I told the sheriff where we had taken shelter, he gave me an odd look, but said nothing. Now I decide I might try asking Mrs. Briggs a few questions.
‘The house we camped in, after we were attacked, about five miles east of town, who owns it?’
She gives me an appraising glance then goes back to spooning broth into Joe.
‘The Fileys,’ she says.
I wonder if she might elaborate. When she doesn’t, I push on. ‘What happened to them?’
For a moment she says nothing, then she gives a little sigh. ‘It was all very sad. A real tragedy. Sam Filey’s wife died giving birth to their third child. Poor man took it very hard. He found a nurse for the baby but she couldn’t look after his children long term because she had five of her own. One of my neighbors had recently had her niece come to live with her; a girl of seventeen. A bit of a wild thing to tell you the truth! Since she needed a way to earn her keep, Sam took her on to mind the children. She’d ride out there every day and come home after dinner. Her aunt didn’t hold out much hope that she’d stick with the job, but she seemed to settle into it well enough. Surprised us all.’
Mrs. Briggs sets down the bowl and spoon and wipes gently at Joe’s mouth with a clean cloth. ‘Then something dreadful happened. About a year ago now. One evening Meg didn’t come back to town, and then Sam Filey rode in, in a terrible way. Blood all over him. Hysterical. Said he’d come home to find Meg gone and the children all murdered. She took a kitchen knife to them, Mr. Cartwright. Even the baby. It was a terrible, terrible thing.’
I stare at her in horror. ‘The girl – Meg, did you say her name was – what did she look like?’
Mrs. Briggs frowns as if she wonders why I’m asking. ‘She was pretty enough in her own way. Green eyes, fiery red hair. Went with her temper, her aunt said. We should have taken that as an omen. Are you all right, Mr. Cartwright? You look very pale.’
‘I’m fine,’ I say, although my heart is racing uncomfortably. ‘What happened to her?’
‘She took a horse, and money from the house, and disappeared. No one’s heard from her from that day to this, although my husband sent out word to every town in the territory. Like I said, she always was a wild one, but none of us ever dreamed she was capable of something like that. Those poor children. The little girl can’t have been more than six and her brother younger than that.’
‘And Sam Filey? What happened to him?’
Mrs. Briggs shakes her head. ‘I don’t rightly know. Right after it happened, he just upped and left. Couldn’t bear to be near the place after everything that had gone on there. Can’t say I blame him.’
‘No.’ I sit in silence for a few moments. Mrs. Briggs picks up her basket, then she hesitates and looks at me with a touch of awkwardness. ‘When my husband told me you and your brother had taken shelter there overnight…’ She stops and shakes her head.
‘Yes?’ I say.
‘Well, it’s only that… you see, no one goes near that place, Mr. Cartwright. It’s had something of a reputation about it since…since the children’s deaths. Strange stories.’
She can tell that I’m troubled. I can see it in her face. ‘Mrs. Briggs, what were the children called?’
Again she gives me that quizzical look and I notice another hesitation before she answers me. ‘The baby was called Joshua. The little girl was Isabel, and the middle boy Daniel. Why do you ask, Mr. Cartwright?’
I shake my head. There’s a cold hand clutching at my insides. ‘Before I answer you, Mrs. Briggs, can I ask you one more question?’
There’s a touch of wariness in the nod she gives then.
‘Presumably it was your husband who had to go out to the house and deal with… with what had happened?’
‘Yes, that was Robert.’
‘Did he ever mention whether… well, did he ever say anything about – about an apple pie?’
Now she is giving me the oddest look, and I can understand why. But she answers all the same. ‘I don’t know, Mr. Cartwright. I wasn’t there, you understand. You’d have to ask Robert about that.’
Darkness snapped back, denser than ever. Although I could see nothing, I could feel the girl’s imperturbable gaze still boring into me. Cold horror seized my heart and it was all I could do to prevent a childish whimper of terror escaping my throat. Clumsily, I stumbled up the steps to the door. Just as I reached it, I sniffed. It was unmistakable. Drifting across the wet yard was the smell of freshly baked apple pie. I could even detect an underlying hint of cinnamon.
I kicked the door shut behind me, my heart beating so hard and so fast, my chest hurt from the pounding. I could hear my own breath erupting in loud, strangled sobs. By the side of the hearth, I collapsed in an untidy heap with my brother, and hunched still and trembling for several moments, my frightened eyes fastened on the front door, as I recovered my breath and my wits.
The fire was burning brightly at my back, crackling with a reassuring cheerfulness. A shudder of relief ran through my body.
Was I going mad? Had I really heard what I’d thought I’d heard, seen what I’d imagined I’d seen? Had the boot that collided with my head earlier completely scattered my wits?
I still had hold of Joe. He was slumped across me, pale as a ghost and unmoving. The bandage round his middle was soaked with bright red blood. I shuffled my back against the stone of the hearth, keeping my arm tightly around my brother and my eyes fixed firmly on the door. In my imagination, the girl was crossing the yard. I could see her taking slow, purposeful steps towards the house, reaching the door, raising the latch…
I took up the poker from the fireside, then I reached out to drag the quilt and Joe’s abandoned blanket towards me. With clumsy, shaking hands, I bundled both around him, and settled him next to me, his head resting on my lap.
‘I’m sorry, kid, I’m sorry,’ I whispered at his unresponsive face, hearing the tremor in my own voice. ‘Just don’t die on me, do you hear?’ I lifted my eyes back to the door and laid my right hand on the poker again.
The house was quiet now. Only the hiss and crackle of the logs burning, the familiar creaks and groans of wood breathing and the rhythmic tapping of the rain disturbed the stillness. I was bone-tired. My jaw was sore and swollen, my head still ached and my wounded arm burned like I’d been stung by a scorpion, but fear drove sleep from me; skin-crawling, heart pounding fear that kept my eyes darting nervously from window to door, and a deeper, soul-wrenching fear for my wounded brother, like a hard lump in my belly.
Fear can make you crazy, and dawn was a long time coming. All through the remainder of that interminable night, I trembled and sweated, like a man in a fever. Every small noise caused my muscles to convulse; every flash of lightning set my heart racing anew. Twice the latch rattled on the front door and I imagined cold fingers lifting it and pushing the door wide, but it was only the wind. Once I turned my eyes to the dark rectangle of the window and thought for one sickening instant that I saw a white face peering in through the glass, but it was a trick of the firelight only. I thought I heard footsteps again – this time in the bedroom – a soft bump, and once the cry of a baby. Once I swear I heard a child shriek, and terror turned my insides to water – although maybe it was no more than the screech of an owl.
All night long Joe hovered on the edge of consciousness, muttering strange names and rambling about children and apple pie. Several times, to my alarm, he jerked upright, eyes wide, crying out in anguished protest and I had to wrestle him back down and calm him with soothing words, while my own heart raced, and panic welled like nausea in my throat.
‘No! Don’t! No! Leave them alone! Don’t do that!’ he cried out, over and over, his voice cracking into desperate sobs as he fought against my restraining arms, seemingly oblivious to my words of comfort, and my pleas for him to hear me, insensible even to his own name. His restless tossing and turning and his bouts of wild terror rubbed my frayed nerves to jangling point. And when he did occasionally subside into unmoving silence, my heart would beat harder and my stomach contract tighter because I feared he was slipping away beyond even the madness that seemed to possess him.
To hang onto my sanity, I tried to think of home; of Pa and Hoss, the ranch; all the jobs that needed doing before the winter set in. But then I thought about breaking the news about the five thousand dollars and our stolen horses. And into my head sprang the terrible scenario of telling Pa and Hoss that Joe hadn’t made it…
I think of Joe now as I ride with the sheriff back to the house. The sun is shining today. There’s not a sign of a cloud in the sky, although there’s a coolness in the air that speaks of winter. Yet even in the sunshine, the house and the yard carry that same bleak sense of abandonment that I felt before. I never thought I would return here.
The sheriff halts the buckboard at the head of the incline that leads down to the house. We exchange a look with each other, and each of us can read the reluctance in the other’s eyes.
Only the two of us have come. Two is more than enough for what we have to do.
I like Sheriff Briggs. There is something stoical and imperturbable about this man, but there’s also a gentleness beneath the surface. I imagine Pa would like him too. He’s solid and sensible and he doesn’t waste words.
‘Shall we?’ he says. I hesitate only for a fraction of a second and then I nod. He urges the horses downwards. They toss their heads and fidget nervously. They aren’t keen to go either.
We climb down outside the barn. The sheriff raises his eyebrows at me. I walk round to the rear of the buckboard and lift out a shovel and toss it at him. My left arm is still bandaged, but it’s healing well. I am fit enough to help him, so I lift out the second shovel and a broom, and then I cross to the barn door.
I know what will happen when I open this door. Now that I’m here, I’m not scared any more. I am standing in the exact same spot I saw her standing, five nights ago. I look back at the house, at the front window. For an instant I think I see movement behind the drapes. I stare hard, but I can’t be certain.
‘You sure about this?’ asks the sheriff. He’s looking uncomfortable.
I nod, and I open the barn door.
I’m aware of it before I even walk through the door. As I step inside and the sheriff follows me, I look closely at him to see if he has noticed it too.
‘Can you smell it?’ I ask him.
He gives me a puzzled look. ‘Smell what?’
He looks at me strangely. He’s reserving judgment, I think. He can’t decide whether I really am insane or not. When I questioned him yesterday evening, he gave me that same apprehensive look.
‘When you went out to the Fileys’ farm – after the murder – can you tell me, was there an apple pie on the kitchen table?’
‘An apple pie?’ He sounded completely flummoxed by the question. I could even detect a hint of suspicion in his eyes, as if he thought I might be trying to make a fool of him somehow. Then he furrowed his brow and looked at me long and hard. ‘How did you know about that?’
His brow is furrowed again now as he stares around the empty barn. The abandoned stalls are full of rotting straw; tools rust on the walls.
‘Are you sure?’ he asks again
And I am. I cross to a stall in the corner. It should smell of moldy straw but instead it smells of sweet fruit and pastry crust, and a faint hint of cinnamon. I know before I even begin to sweep what I will find here.
He crosses to my shoulder and looks down at the ground by my feet. There’s no mistake. The hard earth is packed less tightly here. In fact, a section of it, maybe five foot long by three foot wide, has sunk very slightly. With the loose dirt and straw swept away, it’s plainly visible.
‘She’s here,’ I tell him.
With infinite care, and in silence, we do what we came here to do. Only the sound of the shovels hitting the hard earth breaks the quietness of the barn. I know what we will find and yet, oddly enough, I feel no dread, no fear now, only a sense of vindication; an elation almost that we are about to put right a very great wrong.
She has been in the ground a year, but the sheriff knows her instantly. Her dress is still identifiable, and the red hair still frames the ruined face.
The sheriff leans on his shovel and whistles softly through his teeth. ‘Sheesh!’ he mutters. ‘Poor girl! How wrong can you be?’
Carefully we lift her out of the earth and wrap her in the linen shroud we brought for this very purpose. My elation has passed. As we lay her gently on the buckboard, I feel only a heavy sadness.
‘She was only seventeen,’ I say. ‘The same age as my brother.’
The sheriff’s face is grave. He casts his eye over the lonely house, the derelict yard. ‘We’ve done her a grave injustice, Mr. Cartwright. If it hadn’t been for you and your brother…’ He shakes his head. ‘Wherever Sam Filey is, I’m going to track him down and make sure he pays for what he did here.’ He turns curious eyes on me. ‘How did you know she didn’t do it?’
I look back at the house. I picture the empty kitchen, the forgotten fruit bowl, the abandoned dishes.
‘It just didn’t seem right somehow,’ I tell him. ‘If she had been about to kill those children, why would she go to the trouble of baking an apple pie for them? It was there on the table, ready and waiting. It just makes no sense.’
Back at the jail, Joe is awake at last. Mrs. Briggs, who has waited with him while we were gone, looks up at me, both pleased and anxious at the same time.
‘Joe?’ I say hopefully.
He turns bruised eyes in my direction. ‘Adam,’ he says, and gives me a weak grin. I am overjoyed that he knows me again at last.
‘How are you doing, younger brother?’
Mrs. Briggs answers for him. ‘He’s doing much better. His temperature’s down and that wound is a lot less angry. What about you? How did you get on? Did you find her?’
‘Find who?’ Joe wrinkles his brow.
I sit down beside him on the bunk and lay my hand on his arm. ‘The girl, Joe, remember? The girl with red hair?’
He gazes at me blankly. ‘Why did you need to find her? She was just here.’
‘Here?’ Puzzled, I look up at Mrs. Briggs. She shakes her head.
‘No one’s been by, dear,’ she says gentIy, watching Joe out of troubled eyes.
I look back at my brother. There’s a little dint in his forehead. ‘What do you mean, Joe?’
Joe sighs at my apparent slowness. ‘I mean,’ he says carefully, ‘that she was just here.’
Now Mrs. Briggs exchanges an uncomfortable look with her husband.
‘So,’ I say to Joe, ‘did she… uh…did she say anything?’
Mrs. Briggs gives me a look that is halfway between concern and alarm. Joe frowns as he thinks. The effort clearly exhausts him.
‘Not much. She…she smiled at me. And then she said she had to go.’ He looks very tired. He speaks only with an effort. ‘She said the children were waiting for her. She had flour all over her arms. She’d been baking.’
The sheriff drops his gaze. ‘Apple pie,’ he says quietly.
Joe gives a soft smile. ‘That’s right,’ he says, nodding sleepily. ‘It’s their favorite. Apple pie.’
Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this story, please consider leaving a review, however short. I’m always pleased to receive comments via PM too.
Other Stories by this Author
- Last Christmas (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Somebody else’s dog (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Unto Us a Son (by Inca / aka Tye)
- The Youngest (by Inca / aka Tye)
- Mrs. Hardwicke’s Parlor (by Inca / aka Tye)