This story deals with a gay teenage romantic theme with occasional melodramatic and sexual situations. The usual restrictions apply: please read no further if this type of story isn't to your tastes, or if you're under legal age. This story may not be reprinted anywhere without permission. The contents are ©2007 by John Francis; all rights reserved. Comments to the author are welcomed at


Chapter 3

Just as I was about to answer him, there was a violent clap of thunder in the distance. I looked up just in time to see an enormous lightning bolt strike the other side of the hill in an explosion of sparks, along with a roar so thunderous, I felt the ground tremble in response.

The hillside was faintly glowing blue!

“Uh, listen guys,” I said, my heart pounding, “I don’t want any trouble. I left something of mine inside that cave. I just need to get in there and get it back. Is that a problem?”

Jesse eyed me warily for a moment, then turned back to the other boy. “If’n he wants to get into our cave, he’s gonna have to pay us a tax.”

“A what?”

“Fifty cents,” he sneered. “Cash money.”

“You got it,” I replied. Without batting an eye, I reached in my pocket, peeled off a dollar bill, and handed it to him. Vintage 1864 cash, I thought with some amusement. About as good as Monopoly money.

“Oh, and you can keep the change,” I said, trying not to grin.

They seemed too startled to respond.

“We got a deal?” I said, extending my hand. We shook on it.

The boys immediately started back down the hill.

“Hey!” I called, racing after them. “What about getting me inside the cave?”

“You’ll never get in that way,” Jesse called over his shoulder. “Follow me.”

I stumbled down the sloped hill after him, nearly slipping in the mud, but catching myself before I fell. “What happened to the tunnel back there?” I called. “It was fine yesterday.”

“Rained like the devil himself durin’ the night. Mudslides happen ‘round these parts all the time.”

I ran up alongside Jesse and his brother, while the smaller boy tagged behind us. The faint trickle of rain was getting stronger now, and there was another low rumble in the distance.

“Could be dangerous,” he continued. As if to echo his response, we had to do a hop-skip around a pile of oozing mud in order to keep a steady pace.

“That’s what killed that Desmond boy last spring,” said Frank, as he forearmed the raindropsoff his face. “They found his body right ‘round here. Suffocated in the mud.”

“Sure did,” added the smaller boy. “I saw his body when they done dug him out. Stone-cold dead he was.”

“Who are you?” I asked, moving past him.

“Johnny Younger,” he replied. “Me, Frank and Jesse are gonna start our own gang. Now that William Quantrill’s on the run, we’re gonna—”

“You talk too damn much, Johnny,” snapped Frank. “Keep your damn fool mouth shut.”

The rain was coming down more steadily, and my T-shirt was soaked. I was walking so fast, I was starting to pant.

“C’mon, guys,” I protested. “Is this gonna take—”

“We’re here,” Jesse interrupted, as he abruptly stopped and pointed to a large clump of small trees and bushes by a steep hillside. There was a large tree stump in front, with a letter “Q” neatly carved in the bark. But there was no cave visible at all.

“Where?” I asked.

Jesse waded through the bushes and disappeared. “You comin’, or what?” His voice sounded echoey and distant.

I took a few tentative steps forward and leaned over. Behind the thick shrubbery I could just make out a shadowy crevice, roughly three feet across. Jesse’s face suddenly appeared out of the darkness. “This is another way to get inside the cave. It’s what you wanted, ain’t it?”

I looked past his face to the blackness behind him, and caught a flicker of a blue glow in the distance. My eyes widened. It’s gotta be the same thing I saw yesterday afternoon, I thought, my heart racing. The doorway that’ll get me back home!

I squirmed through the opening and pushed past him into a dirt tunnel that led downwards on a gradual slope. The other two boys pressed behind me, as we groped through the narrow passageway.

“Hold it,” I said, and our group came to a halt. I reached in my backpack, felt for my flashlight, then pulled it out and hit the switch. I widened out the beam, which revealed two different adjoining tunnels.

“How in God’s green earth didja do that?” Frank asked in disbelief.

I grinned. “It’s sorta like a miniature kerosene lamp, only without the kerosene.” I turned to Jesse. “Which way?”

He tapped his foot on a brown stone rock, which was embedded on the floor of the tunnel on the right. “This way. Anybody who goes left ain’t gonna come out alive.”

I stopped for a moment and let the light flicker up to his face. “You weren’t going to lead me that way, were you?”

Jesse was indignant. “My daddy done raised me to be a gentleman,” he snapped. “I ain’t no liar. Besides, that was our deal, fair an’ square.”

“Good to know that. Let’s go.”

A narrow path slowly widened to reveal a large cavern. It seemed much more vast than I remembered it from the day before. The floor was littered with trash and debris, and the cave roof was covered with shadows and stalactites. I was puzzled. Was this the same cave, I thought, or just a similar cave in the area? There was a terrible stench of urine, along with a sharp aroma I couldn’t quite identify.

“Pee-yooo!” cried Johnny, as he stepped past me. His voice echoed around the rocky walls, reverberating into the distance. “Them bats are shittin’ up a storm today. Smells like a dead skunk crawled outta another dead skunk’s ass.”

“Bats?” I asked, widening out the flashlight beam to reveal the distant walls.

Frank and Jesse laughed uproariously, while the other boy made a gesture toward the cave ceiling. I swiveled the flashlight and cringed. What I had previously thought were stalactites were mostly small rat-like creatures, clinging upside down to the dirt and rocks above our heads. The bats were bathed in an eerie blue glow, and some of their eyes reflected a dull gleam. I looked back down towards the source of the light, which radiated from the wall on the far right. My mouth fell open when I saw an irregular circle of energy about ten feet wide, the light pulsing in a steady rhythm from bright to dark.

Alright! I thought. This is my cue to leave.

“It’s been fun, guys,” I said, clapping Jesse on the shoulder. “But I gotta run.”

“Run where?” he said, looking around. “Ain’t nowhere to go. That tunnel behind us is the only way out.”

Just as I started to explain, there was an enormous clap of thunder outside. The cavern trembled slightly, as if the hill above us had been directly struck again. The bats fluttered slightly as the thunder reverberated against the rocks around us.

“Back where I came from,” I called over my shoulder, as I started quickly walking towards the glowing wall.

“Where in tarnation is that infernal light comin’ from?” asked Johnny.

“Some kinda gas or somethin’,” said Frank with a shrug. “I seen that happen a few times before. Those rocks start glowin’ any time a pow’rful lightnin’ storm comes in.”

“What if it explodes or somethin’?” asked Jesse, sounding a little fearful. “Might be dangerous.”

I ignored the boys, who were now about 15 feet behind me, and took a tentative step closer to the blue light. The walls didn’t simply glow; it was as if an illuminated funhouse mirror was superimposed over the rocks, blurring and distorting the jagged surface beneath it. The waves of blue swirled and rippled like sunlight in a pool of water, and the smell of ozone was almost overpowering. As I grew closer, I felt a strong static charge that made all the little hairs on my arm stand up.

“This might not even work,” I muttered to myself, my heart hammering furiously. “I might not even wind up back in 2006. I might land in ancient Rome, or somewhere in the distant future.” I turned back to look at the boys behind me, who stared at me curiously.

“You want us to help ya look for somethin’ down here?” called Jesse. “Cost ya another fifty cents.”

“Make it a dollar,” suggested his brother.

Before I could answer, John took a step forward and turned to the left. “What the heck is that?” he cried. “Looks like a dead body!”

I inched towards the blue light, trying to gather my courage. Ignore those guys, I told myself. It’s now or never.

But before I could move, Jesse darted over to the stone wall on the far left and dropped down his knees, then let out a cry.

“Lord have mercy!” he yelled. “Why, if it ain’t a man’s arm! Stickin’ right out of solid rock!” The other boys rushed over to examine the wall.

I stopped. A man’s what?

I darted over to where the boys were kneeling. There, bathed in the pale light of the nearby glowing wall, was a human arm sticking out of solid rock, the hand permanently bent in a claw-like gesture. The body wasn’t just buried in rock: it was as if the arm and the rock were cast from a single seamless piece, like some kind of bizarre avant-garde sculpture.

“Holy shit,” I whispered.

“What’s that on his wrist?” said Frank.

Jesse reached out and pulled up the man’s dark blue sleeve to reveal an expensive-looking chrome wristwatch. He slipped the strap off the body’s fingers, and examined it. “Some kinda fancy clock, I think,” he said, turning it over in the light. “Looks maybe like it’s from France or somethin’.”

“Let me take a look,” I said, peering closer. It was a Rolex Oyster Perpetual model, similar to one my father used to wear. I looked at the back and read an engraved inscription: “Happy 15th Anniversary, Steven — Love, Jessica. June 11, 1971.”


I felt slightly dizzy.

Jesse snatched the watch out of my hand. “I found it,” he snapped. “My prize. Anybody tries to take it from me gets the business end o’ my knife.”

“That man surely ain’t gonna have no use for it no more,” said Johnny, still a little shaken.

I stared back at the disembodied arm, impaled in stone, as the blue light danced around and cast sharply-etched shadows against the cave wall. I touched the arm’s spider-like fingers, which seemed to be frozen in a permanent state of agony, then I turned around and looked back at the circle of blue light, which seemed a little smaller than it had been seconds before.

My mind was racing. Whatever strange force had brought me here had also brought this man from 1971 to the same place — only in his case, he hadn’t been as lucky as I’d been. The hand was pale and lifeless, cold to the touch. I examined his blue nylon jacket sleeve, its molecular fibers blending precisely into the limestone wall. Without even looking, I knew the rest of the man’s body was entombed inside the wall. There was no way to say how long he’d been there — days, weeks, maybe even years. Or maybe it just happened a few moments ago.

“I just hope it didn’t hurt too much when it happened,” I said softly, trying not to think about what it’d be like to materialize inside solid rock.

“What?” asked Jesse. “You worried about that godforsaken fool?” The boy made a dismissive gesture, then lit a nearby torch. “He got buried in the cave. Happens all the time ‘round these parts. Lotta mudslides this time o’ year.” The boys continued to scrutinize the wristwatch, as if it was a priceless heirloom from a pirate’s treasure.

I backed away from the lifeless arm, then turned around to gaze at the blue light, which was beginning to diminish in intensity. I clicked off my flashlight, plunging my side of the cave into darkness. There was another rumble of distant thunder, and I could hear the rain outside pouring down, as rivulets of water trickled down the dirt floor that led to the tunnel. I gathered my courage, secured my backpack on my shoulder, and began to walk steadily towards the glowing wall.

“Where’s he goin’?” said Frank, looking up.

“He’s gone plumb crazy!” shouted one of the others.

I began to walk faster, my heart pounding in my ears. Just as I got within ten feet of the wall, the light began to flicker and fade.

“NO!” I cried.

I pumped my legs faster and leaped into the light with all my strength. I immediately bounced off the solid rock wall and sprawled into the dirt. I looked up just in time to see the blue glow disappear with a slight ‘pop,’ and the room plunged into near-darkness. I shook my head and rolled over, then noticed I could just make out a trace of afternoon light from the tunnel opening.

“Why’d ya do a dang fool thing like that?” called Jesse.

I sat up woozily and rubbed my shoulder. This time, I’d bruised the hell out of my right arm. Well, at least now I have a matched set, I thought, wincing as I rubbed my aching shoulder.

“Let’s get outta here,” said Frank. “We gotta git home afor’ dark. Johnny’s mother tole me she’d skin us alive if’n we didn’t bring him home in time for supper.”

Jesse shuffled over to me and leaned over, holding his torch. “Ya find what you’re lookin’ for?” he asked.

I shook my head. “I think I’m stuck here forever,” I moaned.

“In the cave?”

“No, I mean, in—”

“What in blazes is goin’ on down there?” yelled out a loud voice.

The four of us looked up to see Mr. Colt and Travis, standing just inside the cave entrance. Both were soaked to the skin. Mr. Colt held a lantern, and his face was red and angry. There was another clap of thunder outside. Jesse momentarily glared in my direction, then turned away.

“Jason!” the man cried. “You git your fanny outta this cave this instant and come back home with us right now.”

“But I—”

“No buts,” he said, walking briskly down the path and over to where I lay on the floor. “I got me a piece of paper in my pocket that says I’m legally responsible for you for the next ninety days.”

I felt a wave of desperation wash over me as I looked back where the glowing blue light had been, then over to where the dead man’s arm stuck out of the rock. It was as if the arm was giving me a silent warning: Don’t try this, or you’ll end up like me.

Mr. Colt held out his hand to me and glared. I finally sighed and let him help me up.

There was a sudden rumble from outside.

“Quickly, now!” Colt barked. “You boys get the hell outta here, now! ‘Lest you want this to be your goddamned grave!”

We scrambled up the narrow dirt tunnel that led outside, into the torrential rain. Just as we exited through the brush, a nearby burst of thunder caused us all to jump. The top of the hill exploded in a shower of sparks, and we stepped backwards just as several large boulders and a massive wave of dirt and mud slid down the hill. We stood together from a safe distance and watched as the side of the hill was engulfed in a cloud of dust. In less than thirty seconds, the cave entrance had completely disappeared, submerged in a mass of muddy rocks and debris.

§ § § § §

Travis didn’t say a word to me on the way back to the farmhouse, but his angry glances told me enough. His father harangued us both, chastising me for my “durn silly tomfoolery,” then blasted his stepson for my attempt at running away earlier in the afternoon.

By the time we reached the family’s front porch, Mrs. Colt let out a cry, telling me she’d been worried sick for the entire afternoon, and insisted that I take a hot bath. She boiled some water on the woodstove in the kitchen, and prepared a large metal bucket, about a third the size of my family’s real bathtub back home. After admonishing me to be sure to wash behind my ears, she left the room, telling me I had ten minutes to scrape all the mud off. I sheepishly removed my dirty clothes and laid them on a kitchen chair, then stepped into the steaming water, which was hotter than I usually liked it, and slowly immersed myself.

Despite the soothing heat of the water, I felt utterly lost and numb. I had initially thought this entire experience was some kind of a mad dream, or at least something temporary. If only the blue light had stayed on for a second longer, I thought, reliving the events of the cave over and over again. If only I had just run to the wall a little faster. And now that the tunnel was obliterated, there was no chance I could ever get back inside.

I felt completely numb. Now I was really stuck in 1864, I thought, with no possible way back. My friends, my family, everyone and everything I ever knew... all utterly beyond my reach. The thought was like a nightmare, some impossible fantasy from which I couldn’t possibly escape.

I sat there, soaking for several minutes, splashing my chest and arms, and nursing my injured shoulder. I thought of my friends and family back in Seattle. Up until the last 24 hours, I’d had my life completely mapped out: I was supposed to attend a three-week music camp on Vashon Island in July, after I came home from visiting my aunt. School was supposed to start back in Seattle in September, and my mom had promised to let me take some vocal training classes, to help me prepare for my musical career — maybe even audition for American Idol, once I turned 16. My best friend, J.D., was going to try to find me a boyfriend, helping me move past a disastrous relationship I’d had last spring. And I was a shoo-in for getting the lead in our fall production of High School Musical.

I thought I knew exactly where I was going to be for the next year, I thought, letting my hands soak through the warm water. And instead, I’m stuck here in Misery, living with the Beverly Hillbillies.

I felt tears trickling down the left side of my face. “No,” I muttered to myself. “I’m not gonna cry about this. I can survive this. I can survive anything.”

Just as I reached out to grab a towel, I heard several loud voices arguing in the living room down the hallway. I stepped out of the tub onto the hardwood kitchen floor, hopping on one foot, grabbed a towel and wrapped it around my waist, then tip-toed down the hallway and peered around the doorway.

Mr. Colt was shaking his finger in Travis’ face. “You’ll do what I say, boy,” he bellowed. “As long as I’m the man of this house, your job is to mind yer elders!”

“You ain’t my father,” said Travis quietly.

Colt slapped him — hard in the face. Travis head reeled, but he didn’t make a sound. He slowly turned his head back and glared at the man.

Lem sniffled, trying to choke back his tears. “But poppa —” he started.

“Don’t give me no lip, son,” Mr. Colt snarled. “Go outside and fetch me a switch. And if you’re not back in five seconds, you’ll get a whippin’ too, ‘long with your brother.”

The younger boy took off through the front door in a blur.

Travis stood, unblinking. “I didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” he insisted.

“I won’t have any member of this family dishonor us by insultin’ our guests,” Colt said. “From now on, you best treat that Thomas boy with respect!”

What? I was taken aback. This was about me?

“Uh, excuse me,” I said, clearing my throat.

Travis and his parents turned to look at me, just as Lem reappeared with a gnarly branch in his hand.

“Mr. Colt, Travis had nothing to do with me leaving,” I explained as I stepped into the room, adjusting my towel. “I didn’t want to cause any trouble around here. I’m not planning to stay here for long.”

The man reached in his pocket, then produced a piece of paper and waved it at me. “I got me a document here that says you’re my legal responsibility,” he said. “And I aim to live up to that.” He took the branch from Lem and turned to his older son as he began plucking off some of the leaves, letting them flutter to the floor. “Like I told ya before, boy, Jason is livin’ with us now. And the sooner you accept that, the better.”

Travis’ eyes flared, but he said nothing.

Colt held up the stick and gestured with it. “You know what to do, boy.”

Travis nodded, then turned away and dropped his overalls to reveal his naked backside. Like the rest of him, it was beautiful, but I felt no sexual attraction at the moment — only the fear of what was about to happen.

Travis leaned over and gripped a nearby chair for support. His stepfather raised the branch and began whipping him, over and over again. I stood transfixed, wincing with each blow. Lem began blubbering, but his mother shushed him to silence. Travis didn’t make a sound, but I could see him trembling, his hands squeezing the chair so tight they turned white, his back muscles straining with the effort. Red welts began to appear on his white flesh.

Finally, after the man had administered half a dozen strokes, I had about enough.

“Stop, please,” I begged, taking another step forward. “Mr. Colt... sir. Please don’t hit him again. This was all my fault.”

He paused in mid-stroke and gave me a steely glare. “Go read your Bible,” he replied. “Proverbs 13:24 — ‘He that spareth the rod hates his son; but he that loves him chastens him.’ Git back to the kitchen, Jason. You and I’ll have a conversation later.”

I started to respond, but Travis’ eyes darted towards me and he subtly shook his head. I meekly stepped back around the door, then returned to the kitchen and sat down on one of the chairs. In the next room, I heard the sounds of the branch whipping through the air and cracking against bare flesh, and I flinched at what Travis must be going through. I felt nauseous.

“Don’t judge my husband too harshly,” said Mrs. Colt, as she entered the kitchen and softly closed the door behind me. “Travis has been a mite contrary over the last few months. Just a young man growin’ up. This’ll all work out for the best.”

“Yeah,” I said, looking away. I knew if I said anything more, it would only make more trouble. “Uh... yes, ma’am,” I said, correcting myself, remembering the language of the period.

“We should change that bandage on your head,” she said soothingly. “I think it’s startin’ to bleed again.” She inspected it carefully, tsk’d-tsk’d, and then removed it. She quickly made up a new one, and wrapped it around my head. “This should hold you ‘til tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll stop by Dr. Wells’ place in the mornin’. Maybe he can do somethin’ for those bruises, too.”

I thought about making a remark about Travis needing a doctor more than I did, but I thought better of it.

She handed me a pale blue long-sleeved shirt, some wool socks, and some jeans, then set a pair of work boots on the floor. “You’re not near as tall as my oldest son James,” she said, “but you can wear his things for the time bein’, until we can get you some proper clothes from the general store.”

I nodded. In the distance, the whipping sounds finally ceased. There was a small sob, but I wasn’t sure if it was Travis or Lem.

“My husband and I think it’d be best for you to sleep out in the big barn for the time bein’,” she said, nodding towards the door. “It’s still plenty warm out there, and you can stay up in the hayloft, away from the animals. My son James used to sleep out there most nights. Gave him some privacy.”

I nodded, then stopped her as she turned to leave. “Is Travis gonna be alright?” I asked.

She sighed. “That boy takes after my first husband, Micah. Travis and his brother James are two of a kind. They’re both as stubborn as mules, but they’ve got good hearts.”

“So Lem’s father is Mr. Colt,” I said, as I pulled on the shirt and buttoned up the front. It was about two sizes too large for me, but I rolled up the cuffs around my wrists.

“That’s right. Seth was a widower, and we knew each other from church.” She gave me a sad look. “Don’t judge my husband too harshly. He means well. That’s just his way, is all.”

I made a wry face. “Where I come from, that’s child abuse,” I said.

“You’re not in Canada any more, Jason,” she said firmly. “Best you start acceptin’ how we do things here in Missouri. Good or bad, it’s our way.”

With that, she left the kitchen, closing the door. I let my towel drop, stepped into the overalls and rolled up the cuffs, then slipped on the socks and boots, which fit me perfectly. I made a mental note to pick up some underwear — if such a thing existed in this crazy world — then grabbed my backpack and headed out the door and into the night air.

There was a light drizzle, but the worst of the storm had passed, and the temperature was cool but not chilly. I looked to the north, in the direction of the hillside, but saw no lightning. I felt exhausted from the events of the day, and trudged wearily through the mud to the front of the barn.

Lem was waiting by the door. As he opened the gate for me, I noticed his eyes were red and watery. The inside of the barn glowed with the yellow warmth of his lantern, and the smell didn’t seem as overpowering as it did the previous morning. I followed him wordlessly past the four or five horse stalls to the very back of the barn. We climbed a rickety gray ladder that led up to the hayloft, and I stepped off the landing and saw that Mrs. Colt had already set up a makeshift bed on top of the straw. She’d thoughtfully provided two blankets and a multicolored quilt, along with a patterned sheet and a pillow.

I laid down my backpack and looked around. There was a small wooden shelf on the far right, along with a box of matches, some writing paper, a pen, an inkwell, and three or four dusty leather-bound volumes. I picked one up: it was a copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, a second edition, published in 1863. This would be worth a fortune on eBay, I mused.

“Those belonged to my stepbrother James,” Lem explained. “Startin’ ‘bout a year ago, he spent all his time up here. Before he enlisted, James and my poppa used to argue somethin’ fierce.”

“I can imagine.”

The boy hung his kerosene lantern on a nearby hook. “Don’t leave this on when you ain’t up here,” he warned. “Winds might come up and knock it clean off the hook, an’ that might start a pow’rful fire.”

I nodded, remembering the charred remains of Olivia’s farmhouse. Lem turned away to step back down the ladder but I stopped him. “You sure there’s no room back in the house?” I asked, nodding towards the Colt home.

He shook his head. “Poppa says you’re a guest. No need for you ta stick your nose into Colt family business.”

I thought about the terrible beating I had just witnessed and shuddered. “I won’t. Hey, does it get cold out here?”

Lem shrugged. “Ain’t much different up here than inside the farmhouse. Maybe a little warmer, ‘long as you stay on this side, away from the winds.”

That made sense. I knew better than to look for a thermostat. What I would give for an electric blanket, I thought.

“Lemuel!” called a voice. “You up there, boy?”

“Comin’, poppa!” he said. He stepped off the landing onto the ladder, leaping down two rungs at a time.

I peered over the ledge and saw Mr. Colt, who gave me a glance. “Need to talk to you for a moment, Jason,” he said. It was a command, not a request for a conversation.

I nodded and made my way down the ladder. Lem scampered out the barn door and into the night. Colt turned to me.

“Sheriff Baxter tells me you got two choices: find a family who’ll take you in until you’re of age, or you can sit on yer ass in the country orphanage for the next three years.”

Well, he doesn’t waste any time. “I’ll take door number one,” I said dryly.

“I don’t catch yer meanin’.” His lips were tight, his expression severe.

“I’ll stay here — for the time being. Sir.”

The man took a step closer and leaned down to me. His breath was foul, and I saw for the first time that his teeth were yellow, with a black gap on the right side where two teeth were decayed and partly missing. “You will if ya know what’s right. One wrong move...” — he snapped his fingers — “...and you’ll be at the mercy of St. Louis County, with all them other lost children.”

I returned his glare. “Three dollars a week, right?” I said, reaching into my backpack. I counted out three bills and pressed them into his hand. “I assume that’ll cover room and board for a week.”

His face brightened. “I knew ya would see it my way,” he said, glancing at the cash. “You feelin’ hungry, boy?” His face almost looked friendly.

I nodded.

“Sarah will bring you up a meal in a few minutes.”

He turned to leave, but I stopped him. “Mr. Colt... look, I meant what I said before. I’m not here to cause any trouble. Travis had nothing to do with me leaving.”

“I know that,” he said matter-of-factly. “Normally, you’d be on the other end of the switch instead of Travis.”

I winced.

“You jes’ be mindful of that,” he continued, “next time you think about runnin’ away.”

“One more thing,” I said. “How’d you find me?”

Colt shrugged. “Once Sarah found your note, I went by the schoolhouse and fetched Travis. He ‘membered you talkin’ about the cave before,” he said. “Everybody ‘round these parts knows about Marsen’s Cavern. Kids been playin’ in there for generations.”

Marsen’s Cavern, I thought. At least I have a name for that place now.

“But don’t you be thinkin’ ‘bout goin’ back, now,” he continued. “Much too dangerous for anybody to be ‘round there. ‘Specially this time o’ year, with all them mudslides and rain. People’ve died in those caves, now and again. There ain’t nothin’ but death down there.”

I flashed back to the grim vision of the time-traveler’s arm imbedded in the cave wall, then nodded.

Mr. Colt leaned down. “And we wouldn’t want anythin’ to happen to ya,” he said. His expression looked almost kindly, but there was a cruel look in his eyes.

Realization dawned on me. “At least, not before the hearing in a couple of months,” I said slowly. “When I inherit my Aunt Olivia’s estate.”

Colt’s eyes momentarily flickered. “Now that ya mention it, I reckon the Sheriff did say somethin’ about a court date,” he said, spitting to the side. “He surely did.”

I followed him out the barn door and paused in the doorway. There was a half-moon at the horizon, bathing the area in a pale-blue wash. Colt stopped and stared at the empty fields, then gestured towards a distant fence. “See that marker out yonder?”

I nodded.

“That’s where my property ends and Olivia’s begins,” he said, with growing excitement. “Why, what with the 1500 acres I have now, we’d have pret’ near 3500 acres and then some — just right for plantin’ in the spring. We’d be able to double, maybe even triple our harvest for next year. I only got five sharecroppers now; maybe we can get a few more, or take on some extra workers if we haveta.”

Colt paused for a moment. “But there’s time to talk about that later,” he said. “We can be partners, you and me. Be part of our family... son.”

He gripped my shoulder in what was supposed to be a friendly manner, but I still shuddered slightly. I didn’t respond.

“Well, you think about it, anyway, Jason,” he said, then spat again off to one side. “I’ll see you bright ‘n early at breakfast. Got a big day tomorrow.”

He left me standing there by the barn. I stared up at the night sky, feeling a slight chill in the air. I looked down the dirt road, then back at the barn. I could just grab my stuff and make a run for it. But where would I go? How far would I get? And what’s the point? I’d still be stuck in 1864, no matter where I wound up.

As if to answer me, my late father’s words came back to me: “Don’t ever make an important decision on an empty stomach or without sleeping on it overnight,” he said. “If you still feel strongly about something the next morning, after a good meal, chances are, that’s the right way to go.”

A dog howled in the distance, and the wind rustled through the trees. I sighed, then wearily turned around and trudged back into the barn, closing the door behind me.




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