The Gray Man

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2014 by Howard Faxon

Fantasy Story: A retirement story with a twist. Harry discovers an old abandoned farm house and moves in. He didn't count on the place still being occupied.

Caution: This Fantasy Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa   Consensual   Fiction   Paranormal   .

I've always been one of those gray people that you see everyday on your way to work, at the laundry, in the grocery store, at the gas station. Those people whose live barely interact with yours with a few fleeting photons then they turn away and go--somewhere else. You don't care, though. It's nothing to do with you, now is it?

Oh, I've done a few things in my life to bring life and color into my existence and that of others, but's always been temporary--short lived and immaterial. The horrible part of my existence was I could feel it all slipping away like my blood draining out of a shunt, wasted--discarded on the ground to mix with the earth like that of millions of other faceless people, simply waiting for their ends.

I was in my fifties; tired, onften drunk and dissolute--knowing better than to expect anything better to come my way. I was in one of those jobs where if you did well then nobody noticed you, but if anything went wrong all hell broke loose and it was ALL YOUR FAULT. A real ulcer generator, you know? I felt more than a little vengeful that weekend. I pulled all the money I had out of my checking account and used one of those "balance transfer" checks that my credit card company kept sending out to max out my credit card. Then I made a cheerful little fire outside my apartment where all that plastic contributed to the national hydrocarbon debt.

While stepping off the curb I was side-swiped by a garbage truck. The son-of-a-bitch broke my collar bone, whacked my ead into the concrete curb and ignored me, now lying in the foetid liquor streaming out of the restaurant dumpster into the gutter. When I woke up I shivered, wept and wiped the snot from my nose. That was the last fucking straw. I was coldly bitter. No more "Beautiful Loser".

I was a backpacker for ages before my body and my lack of control got me into the fat man's death spiral of hypertension, bad joints, diabetes and atrial arrhythmia. I loaded up everything that I wanted to live with into my old external frame backpack, ordered a U. S. military litter and a half dozen olive drab wool blankets and got everything loaded into my next-to-an-antique jeep. I had two big 38 quart plastic containers in the back that would hold up my bed, several big white canvas painter's tarps and four full twenty-pound LP gas tanks in that thing. Next I bought a couple ten foot long, one foot wide by one inch thick straight grain hickory planks. I used my power saw and drill to turn them into two nice two-board recliners, packed my folding table and loaded up a few cases of canned food into the passenger's foot well. The jeep wouldn't do over 45 miles and hour without overheating so there I was, cruising the back roads of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Once I was out of Illinois I traded a couple of lousy but nearly new .22 magnum Marlin rifles for a good Savage bolt-operated .22 mag rifle with a much better action and locking mechanism than Marlin ever dreamed of putting on the market. Ammunition was a little hard to get hold of but I bought what I could when I could.

I'd been writing stories for ages and ages that I just threw out there, kind of like a note in a bottle. Once in a while I'd get a message back from some kind soul but my voice usually was lost in the wind. I kept a little laptop computer to record my thoughts and the progress on my stories.

I supposed that I smelled pretty bad as I hadn't bathed in a couple of months. November was coming up and I needed a place to pull my head in for the winter. I started paying more attention to the abandoned farms that I passed as I slowly, mindlessly ate up the road miles.

I found an old deserted farm in south-west Missouri near a huge lake. The barn had collapsed sideways, probably from a wind storm some time ago. The farmhouse was still standing, a heavy, low two story structure that had a slate roof and looked like it could withstand the second coming. The windows were all covered with shutters and the front door was nailed shut. Behind the house, however, was a broad porch that led to a latched door. I carefully opened it, watching for feral animals or bats. Instead I found a place that looked like I had just stepped into the 1880's. Everything was covered in dust though. I decided that I'd just found my final destination.

I had to run a new bucket and rope down the well to get water but the old cast iron boiling kettle was still there next to the leached ashes of the old fire pit. I unloaded my jeep onto the back porch, then cruised around looking for firewood. Not far away was an old copse with squaw wood just waiting to be picked up or knocked off the trees. I filled the jeep and headed back. I emptied my load, grabbed a tree saw, axe and a rope then went back for more. I attacked the dead standing wood, filling the back of my jeep until nothing fit any more. I knew that I'd be there the next week or so until the woods were cleared. Standing firewood like that was a gift that I wasn't about to look askance at.

The old mattresses were mouse-beds writ large. I hauled them outside, swept down the ceiling, walls and floors then washed the windows. The place looked a hundred percent better.

After all that work I cooked up a little can of beans for dinner and made my bed in the master bedroom. The old bed's box frame held my sleeping pad, blankets above and blankets below. I easily fell asleep.

I dreamed of holding a woman with dark curly hair as we slept. I held her breast as she wound around me with her leg between mine. Her hair smelled of Lillies of the Valley. I woke to tears, never having realized that I so severely missed the simple human contact which I'd denied myself for so many years.

The next few days were bright and warm. I dove into stripping the old coppice of the dead and dry wood. I quickly filled most of the back porch with ready firewood. I needed somewhere else to store dry wood out of the weather so I started exploring the remains of the old barn. I did it carefully as rattlesnakes loved to sun themselves in dry lumber and had no compunction against sinking their fangs into anyone that disturbed them.

I managed to "snake" out a few nice 4x4 beams and plenty of sawn board lumber to construct a lean-to beside the house. There I stacked more and more firewood, first from the coppice and later, as the weather began to pack in, from the barn wood.

The house was amazingly warm and dry. A small fire in the kitchen stove kept the house in shirtsleeves.

As I ran out of food I drove into town to buy big bags of rice, flour, salt and sugar. I bought a few gallons of corn oil and some yeast as well. My meat budget was taken care of with the rifle. I was certain sure that the sheriff wouldn't approve but I shot more than a few critters that all went into the cook pot if they weren't cats.

Each night I felt ghostly arms and legs cradle me and a sweet breath on my neck. I wept each morning at my loss of a woman's caring touch.

It was deep in the winter, some time in February that I finally ran out of funds. I had enough gasoline in the tank to get to town and back a couple of times but nothing to buy food with anymore. I had hardened myself to knowing that this time would come. I figured that soonest begun meant soonest ended. I stripped, took a drench in cold water and sat down nude on a bench on the back porch, ready for the cold to take me. I shivered severely for a while, then it seemed to lessen. The cold bothered me less and I felt myself falling asleep. I smiled, realizing that it wasn't such a bad way to go...

She struck me! I felt her palm across my face! Then she did it again, and again! I felt myself dragged inside and to the bed while someone stoked the stove until it glowed. I was not allowed to go back to sleep as I was stuck by blows every time my eyelids fell. From somewhere I heard such a screeching as I had never heard before.

I woke beneath an amorous woman, her dark curly hair smelling of sweet herbs. I felt her tears wetting my shoulder and chest. There was nothing I could do but to wrap her in my arms and give her what pitiful love that I had.

"Why did you try to leave me? Have I not suffered alone long enough?" I petted her hair and neck. "I would not leave a lovely woman unless fate conspired against me. I am out of funds. I have no more food or way of getting more. I'm afraid that your heroic attempt at bringing me back to life have been futile as I must die soon from lack of sustenance. I'm sorry, my dear, but fate has called up my number."

She pushed against my shoulders, sitting up. I nearly fell into her deep blue eyes. "That is no reason to die. Buried beneath the hay barn are several chests holding many dollar bills. They have been there since before the turn of the century. You must rest and regain your strength before you go to claim them as it will take some shovel work to reach them." She laid back down in my arms. I whispered, "What are you? You hold me like a lover yet you are no more than a tendril of a whisper."

She nuzzled her face into my neck. "We are the gray folk. We never made our mark while alive. We did nothing but support others, always in the background. We are the mothers, the fathers, the brothers and sisters that died for our kin selflessly and barely noticed. Now, I found that I have fallen in love with you, Harry. All the others have, in their own way, cheered us on and offered their assistance."

I hugged her, feeling safe within her arms. "And what is your name, Gray lady?" "I am Jennifer, dear man." I smiled. "Then Jennifer Gray, light of my life, I take you to be my wife this day." I heard, "I can think of no better words to come from your mouth, husband." I somehow felt her sink through my skin and into my very bones. "I suppose that this makes us one, indeed." I relaxed into sleep.

I awoke ravenous. However there was nothing in the larder. I went out to the old hay barn and scratched through the frost to find the freshest clover and sour weed hibernating in the lee of the foundation. I packed it into a pot, filled it with water and brewed it all into a nourishing tea. After consuming it I took up my shovel and axe then went to work to uncover the chests which may yet preserve my life.

The first chest had a domed top and held twine-wrapped bundles of silver and gold certificates. I struggled for most of an hour to get that chest into my jeep, then drove to town. I spent a twenty dollar silver certificate on a dinner that filled me quite profoundly. Then I was off to the bank to deposit my new-found wealth.

The bank manager refused to take the bills, calling them counterfeit. I reached across his desk, took his telephone in hand and called the operator to get the number for the Secret Service. I asked that an agent come to verify the value of sliver and gold certificates. I hung up and sat there, staring at the branch manager with my arms crossed. He began to copiously sweat. I was certain that he knew what I had were valid bills but wanted to steal them. Well, I'd called his bluff. I closed my eyes and called to my wife. "Jennifer, dear one, can your folk put my name on the property documents in the court house? I'm afraid that these people will try to use the law to steal the money. I need proof of ownership."

I heard, "Consider it done, husband. The others know where all the bodies are buried, what is in all the deposit boxes and who pulled the triggers. None of the living can hide from us. None."

Before lunch two men walked into the bank. The first produced his identification as a member of the U. S. Secret Service. He examined the bills and berated the branch manager for taking his time. The bills were good and, according to him, "Had damned well better be respected for their face value or he'd be spending some time making new friends--in prison." These were very early notes that had printed on them "redeemable for xx ounces of gold/silver" instead of redeemable for face value. They were worth one hell of a lot more than the ten to one thousand dollars that was printed on them.

The man who accompanied him represented our next hurdle. He came from the IRS. He wore a smart suit and carried a flashy brief case. His claim was that the money was found on the property hence was taxable at a rate of fifty percent. I called him a fool and an ass, claiming that the money had been withdrawn from the banks by the family due to distrust in the banks at the time, all taxes having been paid. I received a whisper in the back of my mind that felt like a practical joke had been carried out. I reached into the lid of the chest and fished out a bank withdrawal note dated March 7,1877. The IRS agent showed a most unpleasant face and stormed out of the bank. I turned to the branch manager. "Well? I would like my change in ounces of silver and gold, please--as is promised on the notes." He looked rather sickly to me, but the secret service agent looked positively wolf-like.

I--I'll have to send away for the gold and silver for this transaction." I replied, "Fine. I'd like an advance of five thousand dollars in modern currency drawn against these bills, please. NOW.

I hadn't checked the number of bills involved or the percentage of gold certificates to silver, but I had the idea that I'd just become a millionaire. I spent the next hour and a half speaking with the secret service agent while the bills were tallied and the values adjusted for the current prices of gold and silver. When given my bank book I opened it to check exactly what the balance was. I'm certain that my eyebrows raised and I gave at least half a smile because the agent looked curious. I slid the open bank book open to him to let him in on the joke. He looked impressed. "thirty-seven million is nothing to sneeze at." He spun the book back over to me. "If you've been out of town for a while I suggest that you check the payment history on the property tax. You've cheesed off enough bureaucrats today that I'm sure you're going to be investigated to within an inch of your life."

I slowly nodded. "Yep. Better get my ducks in a row. I think I ought to start digging up the dirt on the local politicians too. Nothing beats a big hammer."

He handed me his business card. "Let me know if things get dicey. Small town politics in places like this are known for long-term corruption." We shook hands and parted.

I realized that I really didn't have a use for all that metal. I knocked on the branch manager's door and made his life simpler by canceling my order for the gold and silver. He smiled and relaxed, wiping the fug from his forehead and cleaning his glasses. I realized that he probably wasn't such a bad sort. He simply was tied to a small bank with a board populated by small minds. We discussed the matter. He became my personal banker and I agreed not to take him to task unless something egregious occured.

I found the county assessor's office without too much trouble. There, with the aid of a plat book I got the parcel number I needed along with its legal description. They had it all computerized so all I had to do was to ask and hand over thirty five bucks to get a notarized printout of the description.

From there I dropped in on the county clerk's office. I swear if those people had a lower gear they'd be going in reverse. Still, they eventually looked up the parcel number to check the property tax history. I was told that it was currently up to date and the taxes had been paid on the first of the year for the last seventy years. I requested, paid for and received a notarized listing of that history. I didn't want anybody to diddle the records and not leave a trace behind.

Next I found a lawyer to do a title search for me and request a duplicate title. That seemed to cover all the avenues from which the farm could be attacked.

I thought about that old farm house and shivered just thinking about how cold it could get during the winter. Forsyth, in the next county over, had an LP gas vendor. I took a little trip over there and arranged for a big filled LP gas tank to be put in next to the house. I sat in the jeep feeling for Jennifer's presence. When I found it I asked her if she would mind a bit of renovation done to the house, such as electricity, a gas heater and a gas stove. Neither she nor the other, more tenuous Gray ones had any objection. I nodded. "I'm going to visit with a contractor. Speak up if you object to anything, all right?"

"Yes, dear. Just leave our bed intact please."

That was a simple enough request. I believe I made that man's Christmas. We planned for gas inserts in the fireplaces with circulation tubes, a gas stove, wiring the downstairs for electricity, installing electrical kitchen appliances including a washer and dryer, pounding a new up-to-code well and running taps to the kitchen and new bathroom, digging and installing a septic system, installing thermo-pane windows and after patching the walls after the wires were run, a new paint job inside. One fireplace downstairs was left without an insert because I liked to sit before a burning fire. Besides, while clearing out all that deadwood I saw plenty of evidence of ice storm damage. I figured on losing power during the winter at least once a year--when I could least afford it.

I arranged for an electrical service to be installed and got a postal delivery address. I then went back to the contractor to let him know I needed a postal delivery box installed as soon as possible and what to put on it.

Whew! What a day! My last stop was a grocery where I filled the jeep.

Back at the farmhouse I stoked the stove then sat in an over-stuffed chair where Jennifer took form in my lap. I hugged her to me which delighted her. "Well, dear, I'm afraid that I've moved the farm into the twentieth century. The only thing I've neglected is the telephone because I hate the demanding things. What about you? Is there anything else you can think of that you miss?"

She thought for a while. "Music. We always had a radio playing from wake until sleep."

I nodded. "Good. I'll find a decent stereo as soon as the electricity goes in." I sat back, watching the flames through the firebox door. I drowsed there, wondering what I had forgotten. There's always something. I fell asleep in the chair.

I woke to Jennifer tugging on my collar, calling me to bed. It had become chilly in the house so I built up the fire once again. I had to make a call in the outhouse before retiring. I forgot that we'd have to get the outhouse filled in and the current well capped once the new services went in! Well, that was easy enough to remember in the morning.

I had a sweet roll and tea for breakfast while talking with some of the older residents. I was curious about the size of the farm and its history. It seems that Sergeant Whitcomb of the 20th Illinois volunteers exchanged his federal warrant for a land patent in the railroad grant land of southern Missouri in 1875. The man was a thief, always keeping an eye open for anything to appropriate and hide, either in his rolling stock wagon or in caches that he developed along the railroad lines as the company moved. And move they did! They were involved in battles from Shiloh to the March to the Sea. After the war Mr. Whitcomb returned to recover what remained of his various stockpiles, always trading for gold or silver certificates of the highest value. Since he was intimately familiar with the rail system of the time he was able to double his land grant by requesting a property within the land granted to the railroad. The rolling hills of the Ozarks were rather unforgiving to the rail engines and tracks of the time so he didn't receive much argument on requesting land adjacent on one side to the White River.

Perhaps twelve acres were lost due to the damming by the corps of engineers because of the locally severe folding of the land. Whitcomb married soon after the farmhouse was built to a young Silvia Morris. They had a daughter, Amy, not long after. Silvia died of pneumonia one wet winter day some seven years later. Whitcomb died on the land in 1900, an old man for the times. The hired hands stayed on until Amy inexplicably disappeared during a trip to town. Without pay they left, taking the stock with them.

Amy was kidnapped and held on a train until Boston, where she was beaten until she accepted the life of a whore in one of the notorious seafront cribs of the day.

The land had laid fallow ever since she was kidnapped in 1912.

I decided to go exploring. I had figurative ants in my pants but I couldn't explore the fields as the ground was yet too muddy from the spring thaw and associated rains. I took up a big flashlight and looked for the access to the root cellar in the basement. I found two access-ways to it--an outside covered brick ramp and double door out the back of the house as well as a hatch in the kitchen floor with a rickety stairway leading down. It was quite deep but dry, thank God, or the foundations would have probably rotted away during all that time. I saw several good candidates for locations to mount a light fixture. A good coat of white paint would do the place no end of good as well. Ah well, more notes for the contractor.

It was a huge room with short walls breaking it up here and there, for bearing the load of the building above I surmised. I used the maze technique, keeping my left hand in contact with the wall as I explored. It seemed to be inescapably logical that I'd come back to where I started that way.

Boy, was I wrong.

The house and foundation were built on top of a limestone cave that wandered seemingly for miles underground. Strong, sharp breezes blew erratically which would have quickly snuffed a kerosene lantern. When my flashlight flickered I reversed course and ran like hell to get out of there before it quit entirely. I'd never had a good head for direction. In the dark I figured that I'd become hopelessly lost within the first two minutes and compound my errors thereafter, leaving my bones for some future archeologist to find one day--perhaps.

I sat on the steps leading up to the kitchen, panting and shaking. My flashlight had turned into a stick quite a ways back and only by keeping a firm right hand on the wall did I make my way out. I'd scared the shit out of myself. I pulled myself upright and made it up the stairs. I slammed the trap shut and spit on it. Ptah! I beat you!

Jennifer asked, "Dear, why are you spitting on the kitchen floor?"

I fell into a chair and laughed my way out of hysteria. "Dear, I came a bare smidgeon from becoming lost in a cave system that connects to the larder. My flashlight cut out and scared the bejesus out of me!" I saw a couple of the older Gray men that perennially sat around the kitchen. I heard, "Yup! That would do 'er!"

My wife, the more rational of the two of us, simply said, "Well, the next time you attempt to explore it, you need a better light and you should pay out a line behind you, firmly attached at the base end to the stairs."

I explained how I had used the hedge maze solution to get out, but it broke down when confronted with the little pockets of the cavern. I resolved to run a string of 12-volt lights down there and hammer them up as I went, after the electricity was installed. I also vowed to purchase a couple long-life LED flashlights to keep in my pockets in case I drew the short end of the stick again.

Well! I knew that I had at least a partial answer to what was below. I supposed that next I should tackle the attic. After all, what could go wrong?

I noted that the doorway up was wide and heavy. Likewise were the stairs in their walled chute leading up. They were extremely well built. Another locked door lay at the top. On opening it I was surprised to see a high ceiling, with the peak perhaps fourteen feet above my head. I didn't see any daylight through the roof which I considered to be a near-miracle. The attic didn't hold much. There was a vertical steamer trunk near one window alongside a small desk and chair. When I sat in the chair I found that I could see down the lane to the main road. The trunk was conveniently placed so that I could turn to one side and swing it open on its casters. Within I found a sort of a rolling office. Slotted across the top were a series of journals. In various niches I found a pair of lamps, ink wells, steel nibbed pens, paper and pounce for drying a freshly inked page.

The other side of the trunk was closed off by a fiberboard door held fast by a powdery, dried-out leather clasp. I got a shock when I opened it. Within stood a long, heavy rifle with an octagonal barrel and a long tang sight. On the floor next to the rifle lay a box of linen-wrapped bullets in lead foil and a round brass box of caps. I hefted the rifle and read what was stamped on the barrel. It said, "Sharps cal .52 Hartford Conn." Yep, any port in a storm, any tool in a fight. This guy had no compunction against plugging someone at a distance. I'd bet good money that he'd had range markers out there during the day to set his sight by. I gave a little smile when I saw "Creedmore" stamped on the brass tang. The man knew quality. I wondered how many anonymous or unmarked graves there were in the family plot.

I found his cleaning rod, a small stack of patches and an empty brown glass bottle that probably held solvent. You don't see ground glass tops like that anymore. I wiped my prints and hand oils off the rifle and put everything back. I examined the walls of the attic and found what I expected for a redoubt--the wall boards were extraordinarily thick and lapped over so as not to leave a weak joint where a bullet might find a passage through. I shook my head and made my way back downstairs, leaving the house sniper's nest the way I found it. I was no longer surprised that the place had stood the test of time so well. It was built like a fort!

The next day I took the trip to Forsyth where a man had a big sporting goods store. He carried LED flashlights with long-life lithium cells. I bought a couple from him as well as a generous handful of Cyalume snap sticks that light up for eight hours or so after you break the glass capsule inside the plastic tube. I silently noted that he had a few civil war era rifles on the wall in a glass case with lots of alarm wires on it. I'd have to remember this guy if I came across anything that the old sergeant stashed.

The hardware store still had some Christmas stuff out that he'd rather sell than warehouse for the next year. I bought five strings of indoor/outdoor clear white lights that wouldn't kill the whole chain if one died. Those, a hammer and a box of insulated cable hold-fasts took care of me. I remembered Jennifer's request for music. I looked around to find a nice little Bose speaker setup with an optional tuner. That, an extension cord and a couple drop cord lights took care of me.

On the way out of town I spotted a Citibank branch. "Shit! I blew off my credit card and now I've got a mailing address under my own name! Dammit!" Well, I figured that I may as well face the music. I parked and walked in, checkbook in hand. I went through all the meet-and-greet crap, then sat down with a banker. I gave 'em my name and social, then asked for a final balance. I started getting shit for late fees, this and that. "Can the bullshit. Give me a goddamned final number or find me someone that can." I could see his ears turn red as he bit his tongue. He printed it out and skated it across the desk to me. I looked it over, then skated it back. "Write on it, 'Customer's final balance. No further fees are due' then sign and date it." He complained, "But I can't DO that!" I smiled sweetly and asked, "Then who can, dumpkopf?" He got up and knocked on the doorframe of the corner office, then went in. Soon a woman in what looked like an expensive dress came out. "Are there any difficulties?" Jesus, lady. If there wasn't a problem you wouldn't be called out of your lair. We went through the runaround all over again. She was on the phone for twenty minutes, typed something out and signed it. I read it over. It was a contractual dissolution on payment of stated fees. I had the chump sign and date it as a witness then made out a check and left, document in hand. I did NOT thank them.

I stopped off at the grocery to pick up a note book and a pack of pens. Then I found a little day pack that fit me. I figured that If I decided to go wandering around where I didn't belong I'd best take along a few things. At the local Target store I bought an old-style leatherman pocket tool, a Garmin GPS, two boxes of double-A batteries, a box of plumber's candles, a couple lighters, a pay-as-you-go cell phone and a card worth 120 minutes. I looked around in their men's wear department and found a what I call a barn coat made out of some sort of canvas and had a sewn in blanket liner. Their camping goods department had a tube-shaped canteen, a poncho and some Esbit fire starter cubes. I stopped at a carpet store on the way back home for a couple 18 inch by 24 inch nylon carpet samples. I paid a few bucks for them but didn't mind. I wanted to use a hot poker to burn a couple holes inside the edges of them and string them to the back of the day pack where they'd ride well and provide a little cushion. All I needed then was an empty tin can to use as a water boiler, a baggie with some tea bags in it and a screw-top container of sugar. I had all the goods I'd need to spend an over-night in relative comfort be it in a cave or out in the woods. I already had a little Gerber hatchet that was sharp as hell and a big handkerchief. I supposed that I should carry a baggie of folded up paper towels for toilet paper as well. That pretty well stuffed the day pack. I might be able to get a can of pork & beans in there and a compass, but that was it. I knew better than to trust a GPS when the chips were down. That's just when they decide to run out of juice.

Jennifer laughed when I came home and spread out all my goodies on the kitchen table. "Have you joined the boy scouts, husband?" "No, dear. I've a method to my madness. If I get lost in the caves I can be comfortable if hungry for a couple days. These flashlights are good for over a hundred hours each. That's over four days of constant running and I wouldn't use them while asleep. The carpet samples would keep my bony ass and shoulder off the ground and I can make a bit of tea or bouillon in the can with either a candle or the little fire starters. I'll take some cordage out of my big pack and a compass to keep from wandering in circles. There's roads in virtually all directions around the property so if I manage to stay walking in a straight line I'm bound to find one."

She smiled and stroked my cheek. "You should carry a cap to keep the hood away from your face in the rain, as the farmers do that work in the fields."

I hugged her. "Thank you for believing in me. I feel that I need to know all about this place. Did you know that the old man built the attic strong as a redoubt and put a sniper's nest up there? I learn something new about this place almost every day."

I went downstairs with a brim-full kerosene lantern and put it on the floor. My idea about the sergeant using a wagon down there was correct. I found wear marks in the floor coming down the ramp from outside, turning back into the basement and ending in one particular bricked-in alcove. I marked it by chipping the rock at the entrance with another rock, then went in with the lantern to see what might be there.

It broadened out into a "tee" at the back, probably so that the cart could turn around. I found a pair of locked wood doors, one on either end, secured with large padlocks. I shrugged, unconcerned. A cheap angle grinder cost about thirty-five bucks and a pack of cutting wheels about six. I'd take care of that problem as soon as the power went in, and that was due any day. Hell, I'd just have the contractor do it since he'd be around to wire the breaker box and run the circuits anyway.

I'd hired a country-style contractor that knew enough plumbing, heating, electrical, carpentry, concrete and plastering to get most any job done so that an inspector coming through would never know. I respected a jack-of-all trades like that. He'd probably been learning since he'd been able to walk around and watch his daddy or uncle do the same thing.

That reminded me--I needed to clear off the old barn foundation and call another contractor alltogether, as I wanted a pole barn out there as a machine shed. Since I had all this land I'd be damned if I wasn't going to start a vegetable garden. I wanted to buy a little thirty-horsepower tractor, a cultivator to chew up the soil and a rake to weed between the rows. Of course, anybody with a tractor's going to end up with a box trailer to haul behind it sooner or later. If the thing was big enough I'd get a hydraulic mount and a bucket for the front as well. I'd need a place to keep and maintain all that, so the machine shed was the way to go.

I had an idea on how to get rid of the snakes nesting under the ground where the barn was. All I needed was some visqueen, poles and a section of heat-proof flex-vent pipe. I wanted to cover the ground with visqueen, seal up the edges pretty well with tree trunks--firewood that I hadn't cut yet, run the hose under the visqueen and put a concrete block on either side of where the hose went under. The jam the jeep's tailpipe into the hose with a rag, start the engine and let it idle for half a tank of gas. If it breathed then that would do for it. First though, I had to clear the site. For that I bought a roll of one inch chain and bolted a hook around each end. It was easy enough to use the jeep to pull the beams out to one side. Then I used a long-handled hay-hook to hook out the boards, one by one without getting my hands near any nests. It was slow, steady work but by the time I was done I had a couple big piles of good lumber and a decent stack of busted up boards for firewood. I used the phone book to find a lumber yard that had a market for old barn wood. I knew that I'd get nothing near what the end user would pay as there would probably be two or three middle-men in the deal, but I got rid of all of it and made enough to pay for the new water heater and its installation. Jennifer reminded me to dig up the other two chests from under the barn before I did something stupid like concrete over them and REALLY feel dumb. I loaded them into the back of the jeep to keep them locked up and out of the way until the contractor and his crew were out of the picture.

The electric went in. The well got pounded. The house got wired. The propane pipes got plumbed in. The wood stove got moved out to the back porch while the gas stove moved in. The fireplace inserts were installed and tested. The chimneys were swept out and tested by a pro. They got tuck-pointed since a liner couldn't be slipped in. The kitchen appliances came in. The bathroom got framed in, the tub/shower installed then the toilet and vanity went in. After we got approval, the septic field went in. Then THAT got approval. The walls got torn to hell, wiring was run, electrical outlets and switches installed and the plaster was patched. All the windows were replaced. I insisted on having a big strip window installed in the kitchen that could open like an accordion yet still have a screen on it to keep out the bugs. That gave us plenty of cross-ventilation with the breezes coming up the valley most days. The pole barn went up and it got a half-sand, half-concrete floor. It got both 120 and 230 volts run to it. The inside of the house got two coats of white paint, as did the cellar.

By that time it was too late to start a garden, but we spent a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table going through seed catalogs planning one for the next year.

I had some concerns over whether to put insulated steel siding on the house because I didn't want to inconvenience the Gray folk. Jennifer laughed and let me know that nothing would stop them, slow them down or make them feel uncomfortable. That took a big load off my mind. I let her know that I considered the Gray folk to be my family and I'd be damned if I'd put them out in any way. I did get an odd request though--cards. Decks of playing cards. Back in the day before television or even before radio people would play cards for entertainment and they missed it. Simple requests like that had simple answers. I ordered various card decks, some checker and chess sets, some Chinese checker boards and a few cribbage boards. I had a few long tables set up in the big living room with bench seats. You should have seen it on Friday and Saturday nights! Cards flying every which way! I set up the stereo and found plenty of guitar, fiddle and big band music. I bought a 100-CD disk changer and loaded that sucker up.

I got those two padlocked doors opened up in the larder. It was an armory. I was damned careful getting those barrels of black powder out of there, let me tell YOU! I found cases of rifles down there--the good stuff. All of them were rifled. There were only a couple pistols. I guessed that the old sergeant didn't trust 'em. Oh, and shotguns? Holy hell he collected shotguns. I saved out the flinters and packaged up all the rest to take to the gun shop in Forsyth. He wanted to know where they all came from. I sat him down with a cold sixpack. "Let me tell you about Sergeant Whitcomb, a dirtier scoundrel I don't think you'll find outside of political office..."

When I finished my tale he was flabbergasted. He wanted all of them, including the barrels of powder. I got him good and frothing at the mouth before I asked for a price. He about cried when he tallied it all up, but then got the bright idea of bringing in some friends on the deal. I asked him to set me up with a few rifles and such for the farm. He turned me loose on his inventory, telling me to see what felt right, how it felt to cycle the actions and how easy I could get a sight picture. I settled on two break-open shotguns, one nickel-plated pump shotgun, a twenty-two and four other rifles. They all turned out to be Savages! We got scopes on the heavier caliber rifles and lasers on the shotguns. I told him about the Sharps '52 with the Creedmore sight up in the attic. He got this odd look and headed off into the back room. He motioned for me to follow him.

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