The Old Stage Stop by Randall E. Morris

It started as so many things did at the Hub. Dog days, Sunday afternoon quiet had settled over Atlanta, Idaho and a turpentine haze from the hot pines softened the edges of the mountains and forests. Abbie’s 1924 Roadster was low on gas again, so she and Mollie walked down from Quartz Gulch to talk to Alice. They found her half-asleep on a stool behind the bar, treating Saturday night’s hangover from a coffee cup half full of pale moonshine and in no mood to talk. Harvey and Bert were sitting at a table nursing fortified lemonade with a few other people. Abbie and Mollie sat with them because, well, Harvey and Bert could make you shake your head in total disbelief at the human condition, but they were never boring. Harvey had the day off from the stamp mill and Bert had driven the long road up the canyon from Boise on Friday night.

“I tell you the old place is haunted!” That is where the women picked up the story, so Bert told it again from the beginning, only more dramatically this time because ladies had joined the table. He was about seventeen miles below Atlanta in his old touring car when the storm hit him. “It commenced to lightning so heavy I didn’t hardly need my headlights to see. The bolts come so fast you’d of thought there was a terrible war going on up in the sky.”

Mollie allowed that it had been a bad storm.

“Well, when the rain started, it came down so hard I couldn’t see where I was going and it got so slick I couldn’t keep the wheels on the road. I was afraid of going in the river or driving right into a washout. That’s how bad it was. I was about to pull over and sit it out. I was thinking: this is a miserable turn of events. The rain was coming in the sides and I didn’t have a thing to block it except this jacket.” He pointed with his thumb to the thin thing thrown over the back of his chair.

Abbie hooted. “Your old ragtop is not much good either!”

Bert did not deny the obvious and continued with his story. “Then I remembered the old stage stop was just up the road and I made for it and pulled around out of the wind. But my old touring car was still filling up with water and it was just terrible cold sitting there. I decided it must be better somewhere inside. I grabbed my lantern and ran around to the front and opened the door and it was pretty pleasant inside out of the wind and it was dry. Most of the shingles are still on the place, you know, and there was no water at all coming in downstairs. I’d never been inside before, but there is a big ol’ lobby room and I could see the steps going to the rooms upstairs, but that old stair looked pretty creaky. The stove is long gone, of course, and I didn’t dare build a fire on the floor.

“I was about out of kerosene so I found a good spot against the wall in the lobby and blew out the lantern. I settled in to sit out the night in the dark. It seemed powerful lonely in that old stage stop—a way worse sort of lonely than up on a mountain somewhere–but at least it was dry.

“I was just about asleep when I heard somebody coming down the stairs. I mean it just made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. I called out: ‘Who’s there?’ But nobody said a thing. It was quiet as death. Then I said, ‘You sitting out the storm, too, partner, or you livin’ here, now?’ Nothing. I mean, I knew whoever it was had come halfway down the stairs, ‘cause I heard each footstep. I commenced to get real nervous because I figured it was someone hiding out. Maybe a bank robber or murderer, or something.”

Abbie snorted.

“Coudda been!” Bert said. “So I got my lantern lit quick because I was going to take that sucker!  But there was nobody. Nobody at all.  And I’d heard him on the steps.  Now, I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I tell you, that old stage stop is haunted. I told myself ‘To Hell with it!’ and ran out to the car and just crept along soaking wet through the rain all the way to Atlanta.”

“Oh, Pshaw!” Abbie exclaimed. “I’ve seen some scary things, but I’ve never seen a ghost. Nor heard one either!” She gave Bert a look that all but challenged his manhood.

“I’ll bet you ten bucks you wouldn’t stay the night there!” Bert exclaimed.

Abbie slapped her hand on the table. “I’ll take that bet! And so will Mollie!” She fluttered her eyelashes. “Well, I am a delicate lady after all.”

Bert snorted.

Mollie gave Abbie a “count-me-out look.”

“That’s a week’s pay!” Bert sputtered.

“You made the bet.” Abbie turned disdainfully away from him in her chair, allowing the judgment of the hall to fall heavily upon his shoulders. All other eyes fell upon Bert.

“Well,” he said, “I bet you. I didn’t bet Mollie.”

Abbie turned to stare down Harvey. “What do you say, Harvey? Mollie is more delicate than I.”

The younger woman’s vulnerability relative to Abbie was beyond question. Harvey squirmed beneath the assembly’s assessment. “Ten dollars says Mollie won’t stay the night.”

Mollie might have mumbled a quick Hail Mary first, but she lifted her chin. “Bet I can,” she said weekly.

Somebody hooted, “Go Mollie.” Several peopled chuckled support.

Bert ignored the house. “How do we know you will stay inside all night?”

“Well, you can sit out front all night if you want!” Abbie said.

“No, that won’t do it,” Bert said. “How scary would it be with a couple of men there to protect you?”

“From a ghost?” Abbie exclaimed.

“Tell you what,” Bert said. “We’ll nail the door shut and you have to give your word you won’t try to sneak outside.”

“Okay, but I’m taking my rifle,” Abbie said, “and you find a gun for Mollie.”  The other patrons had taken a strong interest in the conversation, and Abbie could imagine some side bets would be made within the hour all over town. “Just in case some of you hooligans decide to try and scare us out!” She said loudly. She set her jaw and swept a warning stare over the other men in the bar.

It took them a couple of hours to firm up details, borrow an old pistol for Mollie, pack up bedrolls, find a broom to sweep the critter crap off the floor, make up some sandwiches, get a lantern, hammer, nails, and so forth.  By the time they passed the Hub on the way out of town in Bert’s old touring car, a score of people were on the veranda hooting and cheering them on.

A pack of younger men broke from the railing and churned across the porch boards toward the steps, bent on mischief–Abbie’s warning notwithstanding. A rocking chair stopped abruptly. “You fellas hold up, now. Let’s just see what those women are made of.” The old man had not worn a star since before the anarchist assassinated President McKinley, but he’d worn a succession of side arms on his hip for over sixty years–all through Territorial days–and a holstered firearm rested naturally atop his thigh, now, like a forgotten appendage. He did not need to stand. Though the wisps at his hat brim were chalk-white, his cast iron-brown eyes had seen uncountable premature deaths, beginning with the Struggle to Preserve the Union. They now froze the boys cold. Some low murmuring followed, but the charge was broken.

Bert took his time driving downriver. They passed around several half-pints of moonshine whiskey and Bert and Harvey tried their hands at fishing the summer-low river. They tried to scandalize the gals by brazenly stripping to their drawers before dragging on gum waders, but the gals ignored them. When the boys were gone round the first bend–fly lines falling lazily but precisely as they slipped stealthily upstream–the gals stripped off their own shoes and stockings and soaked their feet in bracing waters fresh from the high country.

Both boys caught a few native trout, and upon returning, demonstrated the fish laid out on wet grass in Bert’s creel, and spoke in glowing terms of how great they would taste that evening cooked in butter at Harvey’s cabin, while the gals sat in the cold, dark, haunted, old stage stop.

Bert planned it so they reached the old stage stop well after the sun had sunk below the mountain ridge and the color was draining from the eastern sky. It did look spooky. Most of the old front porch had fallen down and been carried off, and the old stage stop sat all alone in a big open meadow silhouetted against the dusky red light.

They poked around outside for a while, looking over crumbling rock foundations–the wooden structures long since fallen or carted off–until they found a few boards that were not too rotten, before going inside and sweeping out a spot on the floor against the front wall. Bert and Harvey allowed that although most of the glass panes were broken or stolen, no one could go out through the windows without breaking the mullions and rails. Bert put a tentative foot on the stairs, but the post was gone from under the landing and the whole structure creaked from his beefy weight. He allowed that the girls might take it all right, but they would have to jump from an upstairs window.

“And we didn’t bring a rope!” He said, grinning maliciously.

“I wasn’t born yesterday,” Abbie huffed. Rifle in hand, she clutched the railing with her other hand and hardly winced as the mid-landing sagged and creaked. Abbie’s inspection was quick. The guest rooms had been stripped save for a few water-warped dressers; moldy, striped ticks; and some rusty bedsprings. “Not a boogeyman in sight,” she declared from the upper landing.

Twilight was fading fast and it was dark and creepy inside when Bert and Harvey nailed the boards over the door. They drove off hooting and waving goodbyes to the girls standing behind one of the forlorn, pane-less windows.

“Been good knowing you!” Bert shouted, grinning evilly at Abbie and Mollie.

“We should have brought a jug,” Mollie said when the quiet had settled over them. But they lit the lantern and had another sandwich and settled in.  It was not half bad with both of them there and they talked for quite a while until fatigue and the whisky they had shared that afternoon finally overcame them. They took a last look at the stairs, adjusted their firearms within easy reach, and Abbey put out the lantern.

They lay in darkness and silence for a while. Mollie finally said, “This is the easiest ten dollars I ever made with my skirt on!” They both giggled and soon drifted off, more or less.

It started suddenly: “Abbie!” Mollie whispered urgently.

Abbie heard it too, the unmistakable sound of footsteps coming down the stairs, one slow footfall after the other. “We’re armed, Mister!” Abbie cried out into the darkness.

The footsteps paused. Abbie and Mollie held their breath, feeling the hair springing up on their necks and arms. Then the footsteps began descending more quickly.

That was all it took. Suddenly the blackness was filled with flashes and the old stage stop reverberated with booms as Abbie rapidly emptied her 30-30 rifle and Mollie fired all six rounds from the .22 revolver.

It would have been a most curious sight for the night creatures outside: the bright flashes from the windows, the booms from the guns, and the hysterical shrieking of the two young women.

Silence descended around them.

“You hear anything, Mollie?”

“Only my ringing ears.”

They sat for a while breathing hard, and shaking, and listening for more footsteps. But it was quiet.

Abbie suddenly had a gruesome vision of a bloody, dead hobo at the foot of the stairs and that raised a whole new terror.  She lit the lantern and held it high and cast it about the room, fearing what she might see.  But there was nothing.

“Go take a look, Mollie.”

“You go take a look, Annie Oakley!”

That stopped conversation. They sat for quite a while, hearing nothing. Finally, Abbie reloaded the rifle, stood up, and crept halfway to the stairs. There was nothing there, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. She cast the lantern up the stairs toward the rooms above. Silence. She fairly flew back to her bedroll, covered up, and shivered, feeling like a ninny. Worse still, Mollie was beginning to shudder and Abbie could tell that tears were welling up in her eyes because Mollie wiped at them.

“It’s for twenty dollars.” Abbie said. She held Mollie for a long time until the girl calmed down.

“Aunt Colli used to tell me scary stories about the unsettled spirits back in Ireland,” Mollie recounted, “but I don’t remember they ever hurt you directly. They just led you out into the bogs until you were lost and died.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere,” Abbie declared.

So, they sat in the lantern light until the sun came through the windows and chased away the evil. When it was fully light, they stirred and eventually went over to the stairs. There was a lot of bullet-splintered wood on the steps and in the wall behind– a lot of splintered wood! There was neither ghost nor hobo, but there was something behind the stairs. It was torn apart, but the granddaddy wood rat was as big as a small dog, and its long tail was bigger than the base of their thumbs.

They started to laugh. Suddenly, they could imagine the long tail hanging above as the wood rat descended the stairs.  Then the tail would slip off and crash down onto the step below, sounding all the world like a footstep.

“Let’s go upstairs and look around.” Abbie suggested. “Maybe we can find his nest.”

Everybody knew packrats stored treasures.

Abbie cautiously climbed the creaky stairway. “Step lightly,” she called down to Mollie.

“I’ll only put my weight on one foot at a time,” Mollie chuckled.

It turned out they had plenty of time to look around before Bert and Harvey returned. They found the packrat nest in a corner of one of the rooms behind an old iron bedspring that no one had yet carted off. The nest was massive but the sunshine coming through the window cast a golden glint from within the sticks. They dug through the smelly limbs, the moldering newspaper pages, the bottle caps, and whisky corks.

“Nothing’s stinky as an old wood rat nest,” Mollie said.

But from down in the rat’s treasure trove, Mollie snatched up a gold watch. She dusted it on her skirt. “U. P.” and “1901” were engraved on the cover.

“It’s a Union Pacific Railroad watch,” Mollie said, showing Abbie. Mollie shook the watch and held it against her ear.

“I don’t think the rat could wind it.”  Abbie laughed.

But when Mollie wound it a bit, it began to tick; and when she raised the lid, the second hand was sweeping over the face. That encouraged Abbie to dig farther and she found a $20 gold piece against the floor. She looked at the coin in her hand and looked at Mollie’s watch.

“Fair?” she asked.

“Fair!” Mollie replied.

And that was all the treasure they found.

Bert and Harvey finally showed up and pried the boards off the door.

“Well?”  They asked when the ladies stepped outside.

“That is the booringest ol’ stage stop in the whole world!”  Mollie told them.

“I haven’t slept so well in years!” Abbie said, looking smugly at Bert. “Want to go double or nothing for two nights?”

 

Randall E. Morris is an inveterate collector of tales, an intemperate storyteller, and scrivener of myths about the modern and historical Western USA. He also writes stories set in Central America where he lived for many years, and science fiction future-histories. A populist, pioneer family history, his own backcountry experiences, and fringe-of-society people he has met on the journey influence his stories.

 

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