(If you're just joining us, as they say, you can read the novel from the beginning, here.)
And now, it's time to continue with the next installment of
In Search of Tom Purdue.
Like most in the village, Prentiss' was a smaller version of Belcher's house, a simple Cape Cod house, a single chimney, built against the rough winters they experienced in the woods of Inland Maine; still, a vast improvement, almost luxurious, compared to the original cabins and encampments thrown together when settlers arrived fifty years earlier. The one thing standing out with this particular house was how run-down it looked compared to the others, ramshackle and unlived-in, unlike all the rest, each neat and well-cared-for, the invading brush cleared away. It had only been a few years since Bill Prentiss died, Sup said, but most of the tannery had washed away, another victim of the big flood that hit the town earlier in May. Neither Junior nor Junior's brother had the money or the skill to rebuild, and the woods were slowly claiming it back.
The road, he continued, was called Prentiss Lane though the Old Prentiss Place was the only house back here, so far: no one “in their best wits” wanting to live downwind from a tannery.
“Let me guess,” I said, looking up at the large tree standing before the house, “they call this the Prentiss Elm?”
Sup looked at me like I was daft, as if “why would anyone name a tree that stood on someone's property?” Instead, he said, “can't you tell even in the dark that's an oak?”
All these years later, there still hung about the place the stench I'd read about (but couldn't imagine) associated with tannerie, from the killing and gutting of animals, dumping their remains along the river, to all the various chemicals they used in the process of cleaning and curing the skin that turned it into leather. We could also hear several sounds I associated with the forest at night, made spookier in the absence of a flashlight, but it was the snap of a twig that caught my attention – Indians?
There was enough moonlight to see the house, the yard overgrown with weeds, the clapboard worn and in need of paint, with one shutter hanging loose that must bang terribly in a strong wind. But there was a path we could see, worn through weeds and brambles: somebody lives here, someone heavier than Prentiss' ghost.
“Sup, you just said something about Junior's brother,” I reminded him, wondering if that would explain the presence of this path. “What if he's living here, but people just assume it's a ghost instead?”
“Oh, Junior's Brother may sometimes stay here, sir, but he's not the ghost. Even he's told tales about his daddy's ghost.”
The Kapellmeister seemed more concerned we were about to break into a house where someone might be living, ghost or not. “If he's Junior's brother, is he likely to give us the Commandments willingly?”
Sup wasn't sure Junior's Brother would be here; in fact, no one was sure where he lived, even during the winter. The story was they're twins – identical – and Old Bill Prentiss named both William.
“It's difficult to tell the brothers apart since they're both not quite right, so everyone calls them Junior and Junior's Brother.”
“That's right, boy,” a disembodied voice growled, nearly scaring the crap out of me as it stepped out from the bushes. I could barely see the figure standing there but the smell was self-evident. As the man stepped closer and my eyes adjusted, returning to their sockets, I could tell he was pointing a rifle.
“I heered the alarm and thought t'investigate thangs, so would ye mind telling me what exactly ye'r doing on my proppity?”
“So, I take it you're Bill Prentiss, then?”
“No, ya idjitt – I'm Will!”
We explained our situation with Sup's help (but mostly with his eager corroboration), how we were travelers visiting in town when the militia approached and how, being travelers, we had been mistaken for spies. The swirl of details and general confusion that ensued was presumably more than Will's mind could comprehend, looking to the boy.
“It's true, every word, sir,” Sup nodded, looking confidently at the shadowy figure whom we could then see lower his rifle. “I led them out here thinking the place was abandoned, safe to hide...”
“Ye'r that Carnelius Norton's son, ain't ye, boy?” Will cut him off, raising the rifle again. “Me and him's got 'issues.' Ain't I chased you and ye'r friends outta here before – last month, mebbe?”
“N-n-no, sir,” Sup replied, hoping Will had forgotten, “that was my cousin Ichabod.” Clearly, he'd forgotten about the Kapellmeister and me.
“Waall, then, what is it ye'r doin' back here, botherin' me and my place ag'in,” putting his rifle down and coughing. “Ye lose a bet, now ye spend a night in a 'haunted house'?”
Wasn't that where we, the Kapellmeister and I, were now planning if not hoping to spend the night, evading the militia?
“An' ye two who say ye'r not spies, what is it brings ye to the humble abode of Ol' Bill Prentiss?”
“Aside from avoiding wrongful arrest,” the Kapellmeister said, “rumors about some musical commandments.”
“Rumors, eh?” I couldn't see him smile, but one would have to be deaf not to hear it in his tone. “And what rumors have ye heard that bring ye lookin' fer Pa's 'Commandments'?”
“Precisely that,” the Kapellmeister said, “ink written on leather your father had possessed, the same as once belonged to William Billings.”
There was a pause and in the interim, Will's smile became a snarl. “Ye knows a lot 'bout my Pa's commandments...”
“We are traveling musicians having arrived from Boston where old legends still persist.”
There was a shift as the man stood a bit taller, smiling proudly. “The people o' Boston talk 'bout my pa?”
I was about to say that information was given us by Squire Belcher.
“Alas, it seems there's talk your father had stolen them from Mr Billings.”
“'Tis a lie,” Will spat, “a bleedin' lie!”
He had once again raised his rifle – musket, really – his tone bitter, accusatory, telling us it was all Ply Belcher's fault (at least that's what Bill always told him) always spreading these “e-vile rumors.”
Will raised the musket upwards and left off a shot that sent some animals scurrying into the woods, myself nearly included.
“If Belcher would've bought that damned piece o' leather when Pa asked him, we'da got our money and kept the tannery. The likes of ye comin' here, sayin' that, make me sick – damn sick!”
A second shot exploded into the air over our heads, hitting the tree, which brought down a branch landing behind us. If this was an old double-loader musket, was Will now out of ammunition?
“When Ol' Man Billings died,” he explained, “they was goin' t'throw 'em out. Pa took 'em – thinkin' they'd be worth somethin'...”
As it turned out, nobody was particularly interested in them, whatever Prentiss thought. “Thing looked real old, not real purty, though. Pa said they're these rules 'bout writin' music, really old rules, like 'God-given.' Full o' Thou shalts an' Thou shalt nots, all kinds o' musical jargon – don't know, neither Bill nor me can read.
“Then Pa moved us to this God-forsaken hell-hole, found Supply Belcher livin' here, figgered he's a composer, mebbe he'd buy 'em. He knew Billings, right? But he warn't inter'sted – he just laughed at Pa!”
It wasn't long, as Will went on about it, still aiming the musket at us, till his father apparently went insane and between all the drinking and gambling gave up on maintaining the tannery. Then one night, maybe chasing some “forest creat'ur,” he fell into a lime pit, “dead an' dried-up” when they found him.
“Thar's them 'at say he killed himself, threw himself into that lime pit, but that wasn't like Pa, not my pa. We buried him yonder up the hillside, there, undisturbed by the spring freshets.”
Soon, people in town started saying how the Old Prentiss Place was haunted, Dead Bill's ghost seen walking on the land and how weird noises could be heard inside the house late at night. But Junior was living in a shack on the edge of the village while Will stayed in the hills above town.
The Kapellmeister began smoothly, modulating his tone to comfort Will in his sadness. “I would gladly pay you a handsome-enough sum to purchase your father's commandments if you still had that 'piece of leather.' Is it possible he might have left it behind here in the house, for instance, maybe hidden somewhere safe – and dry?”
“A 'handsome' sum? How much...? In fed'ral dollars?” Again, without seeing his face, you could hear his expression in the voice.
“I have a very wealthy friend in New York who's interested in this.”
“Now, I know Pa didn't tack the damn thing up on the wall, since he came to hate it so much. It wouldn't s'prise me he'd tried burnin' it, 'specially on some winter's night.”
“Perhaps we could go inside and maybe all start looking around for it?”
“Don't know how you'll see – got no lantern.”
But the idea of the Kapellmeister's very rich friend living in New York must have quickly worked its magic on him, for soon Will led the way into the house; me, stumbling on behind. Sup, as if his eyes had long adjusted themselves to this night-time world, guided me forward like one leading the blind.
“Perhaps it'll be 'nough money I'd move to Boston and make a life? Anything,” Will mumbled, “to get away from this...!”
The house inside was pitch black and stifling, the ceiling low and oppressive.
It would take me years to adjust to the kind of darkness here, so used to street lights illuminating the city, or the urban glow on the countryside's horizon; seeing those little glowing pinpoints from appliances and devices scattered throughout my house, needing a flashlight to get around during power outages to protect my shins. While outside, courtesy of the stars and a weak moon, the vault of heaven far above us made the woods navigable; the blackness inside was intense, a void without having the distinction of shadows.
Junior's Brother threw open one of the windows looking out onto the clearing that left in a pale shaft of dimness, giving some sense of contrast to what was air and what was solid.
“Pa had a lantern 'round by the door, not sure 'bout any candles. Any you gents got a flint, by chance?”
Sup announced with some pride he, in fact, did, but as I didn't smoke, I had no cigarette lighter with me, not sure what effect having a flame in a small container might have. While Will scratched around what appeared to be a table, looking for something, I fingered through the things in my pockets.
“Needing a flashlight,” I remembered thinking, “to protect my shins: of course! D'oh!” My fingers tried not to jangle my keys. One had a tiny flashlight fob to find a keyhole in the dark.
By the time I'd safely pulled my house keys out of my pocket, Junior's Brother had already managed a feeble flame to light a stub of a candle which he placed in the lantern. It was enough to light up a circle of a few feet's diameter, giving us our first glimpse of our host.
He was indeed Junior's twin, perhaps more scruffy and his hair more stringy, a few more teeth missing, one eye bruised.
“Waall, ain't ye a strange lot,” Will scoffed, “what kind o' costume's that?”
Without further comment, he trundled over toward a corner and yanked up a dusty trapdoor, announcing he'd check the cellar first. “Pa stored most o' his stuff down here. Now, don't ye go nowheres.”
The light disappeared behind him but there were glimpses caught between some floorboards. The glow from beneath us was unsettling enough.
“And where would we go,” the Kapellmeister whispered, “having come all this way?” He watched as I moved toward the window. “But then you, I suspect, Mr – Crayon, you have found something, haven't you?”
Holding up my ring of keys, glinting in the dimness from the window, I finally managed to extricate my light-fob. “Ta-daa!”
A faint beam of bluish light cut through the darkness, cutting a barely helpful saber across the room to the table.
“Sweet Jesus,” Sup yelped and jumped back, “what manner of magic is this?”
That's when the noise began, quietly at first, some distant moaning from above. But wasn't Junior's Brother below, in the cellar?
Someone pounded on the wall behind us.
BANG! – again, but further away.
“Haunted, you said? That's why no one would come look for us here?”
BANG! BANG! – now from the wall opposite us.
I took my light-fob and scanned it around the room but, since the beam was too weak, could barely see anything, certainly nothing that could cause any noise at that volume against the walls. The moaning continued – “it's coming from the roof” – but the pounding momentarily stopped. “That must have been coming from the outside.”
The faint glow from Will's lantern reached the far side of the cellar.
BANG! – but only a half-hearted one this time.
“Wait – that's on this end of the house: Will's lantern's on the other...”
Perhaps the militia had sneaked up on the house and trapped us inside, banging on the walls pretending to be ghosts? Anyone down the road would've heard Will's two gunshots and alerted other neighbors. By now, I'm sure, they could have gotten here without our knowing it. Glancing out the window, I saw no shadows.
Suddenly, two greenish beams of light, whirling about at odd angles to each other, broke forth from where the Kapellmeister stood and I suspected our ghost must have somehow attacked him on the spot.
These two beams rapidly fused as if originating from the Kapellmeister's left lapel, where I immediately flashed my comparatively weaker light, his beam focusing first on me, then on Sup who could barely breathe.
“Jesus,” I said, “what the fuck is that?” Sup muttered words probably approximating the same thing. “It looks like a lizard.”
“What manner of magic is that?” Sup drew closer, in awe of the Kapellmeister's light, realizing neither of us seemed afraid.
“More like, 'what kind of technology is that,' from a slightly different perspective.”
Sup peered intently at the lizardly thing now crawling onto the Kapellmeister's shoulder. “What kind of knowledge-y thing is that, sir?”
The Kapellmeister explained he had not yet wanted to rely on his 'assistant,' but he might prove helpful under the circumstances.
“Allow me to introduce V7,” my companion announced.
“Where are you men from...?”
The Kapellmeister pronounced it “Vee-seven,” unlike any student of music, seeing a Roman numeral, who would say “Five-seven” or “Dominant 7th.” None of these alternatives would be worth explaining to our stupefied young friend.
“He's a robotic chameleon, basically – a bionic lizard programmed with some artificial intelligence.” Like that would help Sup understand it better...
There was no time left for further explanations as the moaning from above us quickly turned into a child's delighted laughter. V7's beam tried locating the noise, heavy footprints pressing down from the ceiling.
Once the laughter turned predictably darker, more mocking, slow heavy breathing sounds came from the walls, buckling inward with each inhalation. The lizard cast its beams around the walls where dark stains began spreading.
It's like the house was breathing, even bleeding.
The pounding started again.
The door blasted wide open!
I should scream...
“Waall, lookit here!” The silhouette of someone barely discernible spoke from the doorway, a man, definitely human, judging from the shape, but who sounded a lot like Junior's brother – or Junior's Brother's brother, Junior. “Ye mebbe 'spectin' a ghost or somethin' like? That'd prolly be my Pa.” He walked in and held up a lantern.
When the door appeared likely to implode, both V7 and I instinctively turned off our lights, leaving the inside in darkness. Presumably, whatever was about to enter might therefore have more trouble finding us.
The light from the lantern fell first on poor Sup who looked as if he might need a change of pants and had yet to recover from strange lights seen emanating from stranger places.
“Hmmmph,” the man grunted, “that 'splains how ye made setch a fast get-away from Ol' Belcher's place, after kid-nappin' the boy.”
There was quite a hue-and-cry once the spies disappeared and Sup's cousins returned what with Young Sup nowhere to be found, till one admitted the strangers took off with him, headed for the river.
“An' since Mrs. Norton – yer ma, boy – said ye'r asking 'bout them comman'ments, I figgered ye'd come here lookin' fer 'em.”
“Very astute, Mr Prentiss – I assume we're addressing the man known as 'Junior'?” The Kapellmeister maneuvered us around toward the window.
“You git away from that window, ye'll not escape so easy this time.”
The man nodded, drawing a pistol on us, admitted to being Junior Prentiss as he set the lantern on the table, though how on earth could anyone mistake him for his ugly little brother?
“We were told you were twins,” I said, “by somebody at the Squire's.”
“They was talkin' 'bout me? – can't be good...”
“Only in that your father had these Commandments given him by William Billings,” the Kapellmeister said, “which he'd tried to sell.”
“We thought you'd know their whereabouts,” I added.
“Ain't no whereabouts t'know, now.”
“You mean your father hasn't hidden them away, here?” the Kapellmeister said. “Pity...”
“Ain't no pity, nyther, since I sold 'em.”
An ugly face peered quietly over the trapdoor: Junior's Brother was not pleased.
“Sold 'em to some travelin' musician like yerselves, down in Boston – German fella...” The name reminded him of his son, Henry.
When the brother's face disappeared behind the trapdoor, I had to get Junior to say something that would so anger Will, it would distract them both so we could overpower them, but with what? I doubted it would be both brothers together against the three of us but would Will automatically be on our side?
“Henry,” Sup said, speaking up for the first time since Junior showed up, “didn't he run off a couple years ago?”
“He warn't no run-away, Mr Smarty-Pants,” Junior bellowed, “the injuns got 'im, sure.”
I was afraid to get off-topic with Junior, since his attention span was undoubtedly less than a gnat's, his brother's shorter.
“What did you sell them for, these Commandments?” I'm sure Will was listening.
“Ha! Ten dollars, fed'ral – includin' some other music stuff Pa stole from Billings.”
“Pity – we could easily have paid you fifty...”
“Heinrich,” the Kapellmeister said, slapping his palm on the table, nearly rattling the lantern to the floor, “was that his name?”
I was sure I'd heard a muffled curse from behind the trapdoor.
Anton Philip Heinrich, I explained, was a wealthy merchant and composer from Bohemia. Junior agreed that sounded about right to him.
“Too bad,” the Kapellmeister sighed, “I'll probably have to pay him twice that to get him to sell them to me...”
“Ye'r worth more'n that when I turns ye over to Col. Oliver Bailey.”
Junior immediately started telling us how the state militias would pay him ten federal dollars a head for each spy arrested.
“But isn't there something you've overlooked: don't you have to catch us first?”
“Case you ain't already figgered it out, looks like I gone done that.”
“Maybe, but turned us in to be paid?”
The militia, he assured us, would be here soon, taking us into custody: all he had to do was hold us. He didn't seem to wonder who might have fired those shots he'd heard.
“One spy gits me ten dollars an' two spies at ten dollars apiece” – we could see the creaking in Junior's brain as he tried calculating this – “why, sweet Jesus, thet'd be a hunnert dollars!” He laughed at the idea how we were going to cheat him by buying the commandments for a mere fifty dollars.
He swung the pistol back in our faces and motioned us further back toward the empty fireplace, away from the window. The door, however, was still open with Will's rifle propped up against it. But he also hadn't noticed the ugly face scowling from behind the trapdoor. And what about the banging on the walls?
The Kapellmeister, distracted but unfazed by our circumstances, rummaged through his pockets again. “Damn, I must have dropped that decoder wand...” Meanwhile, I noticed V7 peeking out from under the brim of his hat.
Junior smiled and held up the Kapellmeister's screwdriver, glinting in the faint lantern-light. “Dee-coder wand, ye call it? How's it work?”
“That's it, thank you,” the Kapellmeister said, reaching out. “Where'd you find it?”
“I saw ye appear,” – he stepped back – "one minute, nothin'; next, ye'r thar. An' yer holdin' this thing: what's it do?”
“Ah, but you want to be careful with it, though: it's also designed to self-destruct if you hit the wrong button.”
Junior held it out as if it might explode right in his hand.
“Plus it wouldn't look good if the Colonel found it on you, Junior, secrets you could be delivering to the Brits?”
“Turnin' you in'll keep 'em off o' me, they don't suspec' a thing.”
“But it'll be easier if they find that on us. Wait – suspect what?”
“Why, my little gunpowder-runnin' business, of course.”
Instead of the walls beginning to shake from the pounding we'd experienced earlier, now it was from the trapdoor dropping shut as the face behind it materialized into the full form of Junior's Brother. The anger on his face – especially his eyes – only made him uglier still and Junior's surprise didn't help him any, either.
“Ye damned traitor,” Will bellowed,"what're ye storin' gunpowder in Pa's cellar for?”
What had Junior's Brother done with his lantern?
“What infernal region did you blow in from?” Junior turned, re-aiming the pistol.
“What're ye gonna do with all that gunpowder an' the lime from the tannery down thar – sell it to the Brits?”
“Don't matter none to you, now, does it?”
“It's Pa's house – half's mine!”
“And don't forget,” I added,"he didn't bother sharing the money he made from selling those Commandments your father once owned.”
“I caught these spies, even warned the militia, I'll turn 'em in an' takes the money – everyone'll think I'm a hero.”
“Half that money's yours, Will,” but Junior only pointed his pistol at me.
“And I caught 'em before ye,” Will said."I'll turn you all in! Bet thar's a ree-ward fer that gunpowder, too!”
“Wouldn't matter, Junior, the British Army would seize your gunpowder as 'war-time contraband' and more likely arrest you for illegal possession. How will they react if they hear you've betrayed two of their agents?”
Laughter erupted from the ceiling, rippling down in waves over the flickering lantern, almost extinguishing the flame in its chilling breath. The air grew cold as the childlike laughter turned into old women's cackling. Sup drew closer behind me, not sure I'd be able to protect him but less inclined to rely on the brothers.
“Give me the wand thing, Junior,” the Kapellmeister said, reaching out his hand. "It will only implicate you as a spy.”
I heard the laughter turn into distant shouts, but still Junior didn't budge.
The glow from beneath the floorboards indicated what happened to Junior's Brother's lantern: the entire cellar was being engulfed in flames.
“What the hell, ya idjit! We gotta run!”
“Ye'r not goin' nowhere, Billy-Boy!”
“Sup, hurry! Run fast and warn the militia – keep everyone away from here!”
“Stop, boy!” Junior raised his pistol and aimed.
Will tackled his brother and threw him up against the door jamb – BANG! – so the shot went wild, missing the boy who ran off yelling into the woods, the commotion of voices drawing nearer. But Junior still held the screwdriver in his hand and wouldn't let go. "No, ye don't, little brother – this thing's mine!”
Somehow we had to get that back and escape before the militia arrived or, more importantly, before the place blew up. The Kapellmeister stood there, tall and motionless, waiting. Flames began licking the walls.
V7's beams sliced through the dimness, hitting the struggling brothers squarely who, seeing the sudden and inexplicable light, jumped back, terrified. The light appeared to come directly from the top of the Kapellmeister's forehead.
Then even more amazingly, a long arcing filament shot forth through the beam. Junior screamed, falling to the floor in shock.
Snatching the screwdriver from Junior's hand some ten feet away was astounding enough, though V7 was clearly not your ordinary chameleon satisfied with snagging flies a mere foot away with its incredibly well-designed tongue.
The smell of burning wood and chemicals became stronger, I imagine like brimstone, flames below and around us increasing in intensity.
The militia captain appeared in the doorway, barring our path – Junior screaming, “Demons!” – as the Kapellmeister yelled, grabbing my elbow.
But was the flash the result of our disappearance, the gunpowder – or both?
= = = = = = =
to be continued... [with the next installment to be posted on Friday, October 5th]
The usual disclaimer: In Search of Tom Purdue is, if you haven't figured it out, a work of fiction and as such all the characters (especially their names) and incidents in its story are more or less the product of the author's so-called imagination, sometimes inspired by elements of parody. While many locations may be real (or real-ish), they are not always "realistically used” and are intended solely to be fictional. Any similarity between people and places, living or dead, real or otherwise, is entirely coincidental.
©2018 by Richard Alan Strawser for Thoughts on a Train.