I have the misfortune to be named Alejandro del la Mancha. The other children in school used to tease me unmercifully, asking where my donkey was and was Pancho coming to kiss my wounds better. I learned to fight well and willingly those early years in Valencia. I had thirteen summers when these events began.
I was a fair-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde Spaniard, very rare and often cursed. My uncle was a swarthy skinned, curly haired flamboyant drunkard of a man who made his living renting out carts, wagons and mules to visitors who came by ship and wished to buy goods. Unlike some in those years just after the war I never starved and I had a warm, dry place to sleep. However whenever he was in his cups uncle Thomas would take his belt to me, calling me the son of an ungrateful wretch. As if I had anything to do about it! I learned to spend much of my time in the attic as the stairs were too much for him when he was in his cups. One good fall and a broken arm taught him a lesson. I kept that brown-stained cord ready in case he tried to climb his mountain of vengeance once again.
A lawyer dressed all in black robes of the court came one day to deliver a sealed packet to him, all done up in ribbons and wax seals. It was a legacy from some forgotten cousin that had left for South America to out-run the war and to try his luck.
He had died along with his family after a wandering trader left them with black boils and a fever that killed. He wrote of a well-watered valley deep within the mountains where the grapes and vegetables grew well. A large hacienda, made of heavy stone and built long ago, waited for him. A covering letter from a priest described finding the man's body on his deathbed with the letter on a side table, along with the deed to the property.
My uncle was nearly giddy with delight at the thought of being a landed gentleman, despite the holding being so far away. Nevertheless he, his wife and I quickly packed our things and as soon as he sold his business we took ship for Ecuador.
It was a half-sail, half-coal burner packet steamer. The "El Greco" made it across the Atlantic in three weeks, then through the canal and up the coast. Then we traveled up a huge estuary. We came to a large city, Guyaquil. After that I remember seeing jungles for days on end. The easy travel ended at Samborodon, where we changed ship for a little flat-bottomed craft that was built for the local rivers. We proceeded another perhaps ten kilometers upriver until we came to a stone dock near a small town. There we were unceremoniously dumped on the dock to make our own way Most of the houses were up on wood poles.
Uncle Thomas made some inquiries about the plantation and was told that there was a dedicated narrow-gauge railway that was the only way to or from the property. The engine and cars had been sold off years ago, but there was a large track inspection cart available. We found it. It had a hand-pump apparatus. I wasn't going near the damned thing because I knew that my blessed uncle would make me his mule. He wasn't stupid enough to want to pump the thing either, so a mechanic was hired to install a diesel engine, fifty gallon fuel tank and a chain drive onto our transport.
One fine morning we loaded up all of our possessions that had made it across the ocean, filled the diesel fuel tank and secured two five-gallon jerry-cans of diesel to take with us. Then Uncle fired up the engine and we were off on our second great adventure. The jungle was noisy, dense and colorful. Hot too.
It seemed quite perilous in places, as the sleepers that separated the old stone piers from the iron rails had decayed away in places. Still, the comparatively light weight of the load was to our benefit and we proceeded up the grade, deep into the mountains. We had to break out one of our spare containers of fuel before we reached the mountain valley where the tracks ended. I did not consider us marooned without enough fuel to return to the docks as the trip was uphill the entire way. We could get back simply by retarding the wheels with the engine.
We were not deceived in the description of the valley. It was broad, long, fertile and had natural water. The hacienda, though--that was victim to a broad interpretation. A huge black basalt and granite castle with six towers was carved out of the roots of the mountain. It sat high up at the other end of the valley, perhaps fifteen kilometers away. It was backed by a looming mountain. The mists and low clouds which obscured both the castle and the mountain made them seem ominous, a feeling which was not dispelled as we approached.
We had taken a pair of iron-shod barrows from the rail depot to move our possessions. The long, narrow stone-covered roadway was lined with warehouses and little hovels. The local Indians came out en mass to see what all the confusion was about. There was dead silence except for the crashing of the iron wheels of our carts against the stones as we trudged our way up to the castle door.
A once-working drawbridge sat permanently bridging a deep crevasse. Beyond that the main gate sat partially open on one side. I had hopes that wild animals had not moved in.
The inner doorway was shut but answered to a good push. A short gallery left us in the courtyard. It was so wide that I could scarcely throw a stone across it. I could see where an herb garden had grown wild, and some roses. I saw what perhaps was a wild vegetable garden but only closer examination would tell the truth. Thomas set down his barrow, then strode to the next doorway onto the courtyard on the right. Theresa, his wife and my aunt, followed close behind, as did I. Within was a gallery going both left and right as well as a huge circular stairway with a thick central pillar that travelled both up and down into the darkness. The air coming up from below felt damp to my face. I presumed that meant a supply of water lay below. Thomas chose to climb.
The next level resembled the first, but window penetrations brought in sunlight from the courtyard. Both the third and fourth levels were the same. The place was huge. I was pleased to find bedrooms and bunk rooms on the top floor. I would have a place to lay my head that night. The top floor seemed to be split between troop quarters and servants quarters with a few separate rooms for cadre and commissioned officers.
The level below that held larger rooms--bedrooms, retiring rooms, a small library and more. One entire half of the floor was set aside as apartments. A defaced chapel sat sad and alone. One of the towers held a ramp rather than stairs within it which cheered me immensely as I had visions of thumping those barrows up the stairs until my eyes crossed with me wheezing like a ruptured steam chest.
As it was, I was quite happy to find a four-wheeled wagon larger than the barrows yet small enough for me to pull so that I could get our goods under cover for the night. It took me several trips and it was quite dark out before I finished. Aunt Theresa held a lantern for me so that I did not slip and fall as the moon provided little light that night. There were two chests full of clothing, one full of bedding, various kitchen hardware, much grain and other food prepared for travel and a generous assortment of brooms, mops, soap and garden tools. We had forgotten about lanterns and oil but found a supply already at the castle within a store room that also held china, glassware and flatware. Aunt Theresa called it a butler's pantry. It was on the second floor, just off of a large room that held a table for twelve or more. Chairs hung up against the walls. Sideboards for serving dishes, wine bottles, china, glasses and stemware also sat back against the walls, out of the way. Next to it was a small room with a hip-high stone shelf lined with smooth depressions. Aunt Theresa called it a buttery and told me that it was where the beer had been served from.
I claimed a top floor bedroom for my own that must have been a captain's quarters. It had shutters covering windows on opposing sides of the room. When opened, they gave a cool cross-breeze in the night. It held a desk and chair besides a long bed. It was positioned close to a garderobe and a shower room.
I wasn't about to sleep in the filth that had drifted down over the mattress. I heaved it up and into the corridor where I beat the devil out of it, raising a thick choking cloud of dust. Then, after it was covered with a fresh sheet and a light blanket I had a relatively clean place to rest my head. I quickly fell asleep.
My dreams were especially vivid. In them I heard whispering and saw much of the castle as if I were six inches tall or less. My view kept shifting madly and charging from room to room, level to level as if searching for something that either wasn't there or was hidden beyond my senses to discover. I woke tired.
Since we had not found a kitchen yet, Theresa made do and cooked over a corner of the fire place in the big dining room. She prepared bacon sandwiches with flat cakes that she 'baked' in a cast iron fry pan. I did not know that she was so prepared for rough living nor so inventive and complimented her on it. She smiled and explained that as a girl no older than I she had cooked for her brothers daily on a rude clay hearth much worse than the raised, nicely rocked in fireplace that she was currently using. I gained much respect for her that day.
I realized that we needed water, and quickly. I took a lantern down the stairwell where I had smelled water before. I descended an incredible three levels before I came out in a large room with a fairly high ceiling. Within were large tables, baking ovens and my prize--a covered well with a windlass above it. I carefully examined the rope and found it to be almost new. My great uncle or his staff must have replaced it before the disease took them. I pulled away the covering boards and dropped the bucket, unreeling the windlass until I heard a splash. After giving it a moment to fill I cranked it back up, putting my back into it as it was heavy. Once it was at the top I pulled it to once side to rest on the broad stone wall protecting the well. I saw a trench carved into the floor that led to a depression. I thought that it probably was for cleaning the floor or washing clothing. I searched about for a decent bucket yet found none that would hold water as they had undergone several years of drying. By that time my well bucket had leaked over half of its contents back into the cistern. It needed a good soaking as well.
I found a copper pitcher that looked to be in good shape. I rinsed the dust from it and filled it, then covered the well once again and took the icy cold pitcher up to Theresa. I was happy that I had gone to the trouble that I had, as she was delighted. I described the kitchen I had found far below which held the well head. She immediately seized the lantern and went below to inspect this place for herself. I sighed. Firewood. Lantern oil. Larder supplies. All had to be moved. I had my work cut out for me. However, it would wait until she returned like field general to command her troops. I was going to be a very tired captain among the general staff before long.
I escaped into the courtyard to examine the gardens which we had glimpsed the evening before. The herb garden was in fine shape though the paths were overgrown. The vegetable garden could have done with some hoe work and the vines needed training. It was August and some of the crops were ready to be picked. The tomatoes and eggplant were coming ripe, as were radishes and carrots. The beans and peas were on runners that had taken over and nothing short of God's sweet mercy was going to train them to a trellis that year. I saw many potato vines, both sweet and white, which cheered me immensely. We could live on potatoes and little else if we had to, and would be glad for it! Many that we left behind in Valencia would have fallen down on their knees and cried for such a bounty as the war had taken so much. It had taken so many as well. Many families that I knew as a small child were no more.
Theresa was overjoyed at the news. I could see her planning stews and dishes in her mind. Our continued existence was assured.
As boys do, I gradually explored that place from top to bottom, inside to out. I discovered cisterns fed by sluices built into the the roof that in turn fed showers for the troops. They were clogged, though, with fetid growths of green slime that had died and settled over the years to plug the drains. Since it rained nearly every day I was going to take advantage of any water which I didn't have to haul. I bailed out one cistern at a time, then shoveled the muck into buckets which I dumped over the side of the castle. I quickly learned that the garderobes emptied into the deep chasm protecting the front of the castle. Eventually I got the water to flow freely by repeatedly jamming a stick down from the reservoir to the valves in the showers, then dumping fresh water down the hole. We soon had a cold-water shower that was remarkably warm in the heat of the day. Thomas patted my back and congratulated me while Theresa hugged the stuffings out of me and bussed my cheek. Over time I addressed all four cisterns in the same fashion.
In this fashion I learned a life lesson. Never get between a woman and her bath. If you provided the bath then be prepared to be rewarded all out of proportion to your efforts.
Uncle Thomas was taught in the old manner. The man of the house was responsible for the money. That meant he went back to town to buy lantern fuel and to buy for the larder. He always carried a long list written down in Theresa's fine hand. He took empty chests back with him so that he would not have to waste money buying new. He did not tell us, of course, but the condition of the railway so scared him that he hired a team to find another rail cart, cut fresh sleepers and replace those that had rotted away. His business back in Valencia had sold for a very hefty sum--so much that he constantly went armed with a revolver. It was a huge thing, a British Webley with cartridges marked .445 caliber. He carried it in a leather holster at his hip. His initials, TB, were carved into the butt of the pistol and the leather holster. He had been robbed too many times to put his faith in his fellow man. I believed that was why he was so angry when he was in his cups.
I discovered something odd about the kitchen fireplace. There was a small stone staircase to one side which led up into the smoke box. Within it I found rows of hanging hooks. Suddenly some of the kitchen tools made sense--there were long poles with upwards-pointing hooks on the ends. It was a smoke-house for game! I thought that it was ingenious. By selecting different positions a quarter could be hot-smoked or cold-smoked, depending on how close to the center of the flue it was hung. Brilliant. Theresa thought it as cunning as I did.
My sleep was often troubled by visions. I was visited by an old priest that resided in the castle. At first he seemed heroic in size and was dressed in beautiful red robes. He wore a helm and partial armor that covered his left arm and shoulder. He carried an oval shield and wielded a large hammer.
I was asked over and over again if I wished to become a ruler of men. A warrior the likes of which had not been seen since Alexander the Great. Each time I denied him he became more furious until in defense I resorted to what I recalled of a casting out I had once witnessed performed over a small child. "Spiritus Vota! I abjure thee to return to that from whence you came! I command thee to return to that from whence you came! By the power of God I cast thee out! I command you in the name of the Lord! E nomine domini! E nomine domini! E nomine domini!
With a mighty crash I sat up straight in bed, shaking and screaming into the night. I was in the middle of a lightning storm. I doubted if my aunt and uncle had heard my shouts as their bed was on a level below mine and a third of the castle around from me. They had taken over the castle's master suite which had its own garderobe.
I stood naked and sweaty before the window, air drying in the cool breezes left behind from the sudden storm. I took a deep breath and exhaled, calm once again. I returned to my bed and fell into an untroubled sleep.
My cool shower felt good that morning. I roughly towelled off and dressed for the day. I had my tasks to fulfill. I had to carry firewood to the kitchen and draw water. Then I had four rooms to scrub, including the floors. Each day save Sunday it was the same. Only the rooms differed. The huge rooms on the second floor sometimes took an entire day each, as did the long hallways. However, my first room to address was the chapel. Both my aunt and uncle were Catholic, and seeing a chapel in such condition troubled them. I scrubbed the walls with sandstone, picked up and cleaned the altar and nailed a large cross to the rear wall of the sanctuary. My labors were usually done in time for a late lunch, allowing me to do whatever I wished for the balance of the afternoon.
The lower levels fascinated me! I could not help but imagine what secrets they held. After all, it was a castle! What good would it be to design and build a castle without building in a secret way or two? I came upon several alcoves that seemed to stop abruptly. There were also hallways that ended for no obvious reason. I found little pocket rooms that I felt should have been long galleries. It was all very confusing, yet I persevered. This further excited my imagination. I found several store-rooms full of things such as furniture and six granaries half full of bags of wheat that were well past using for anything save fertilizer. The musty smell that remained after I cleared the rooms told me that they could not be used to store grain any time soon. The stored grain would go right off. Perhaps burning sulfur in the rooms would clean them properly, but it would risk all that grain.
On the lowest level I found a smithy. The anvil, tools and clay fire throat were all there and in fine shape, as if banked the previous night and forgotten. The bellows, however, was in very poor shape and had to be rebuilt. All the leathers were cracked and turned to powder at a touch. I spent most of a week sweeping and shovelling out the ash, cinders and soot. Then the room was wiped down. I had no whitewash or I would have painted the walls. Two sleeping pallets, two chairs and a small desk lay at the rear.
I found what had to be the wine storage gallery or galleries but I could not determine the trick to open the doors. At the bottom of the circular ramp I could tell that heavily loaded carts had passed. A little water splashed on the floor gathered in the old wheel ruts which were ground into the stones. The tracks ended abruptly at a wall.
I was visited once again in my sleep. This time, however, the old priest was perhaps five feet tall and wore a threadbare gray robe. He guided me to where the wine cart path stopped at the wall. He produced a broad, flat key. He pressed it between two stones, pushed down then pulled out a bit. Then the stone door easily swung open. Showing me the key, he walked to the first floor beneath the surface and entered another room which had caught my attention as it seemed too shallow. Two stones were pressed which released a door at one side. Within was an office. In the desk's top drawer lay the key. He smiled at me, made as if to pat my shoulder and disappeared into the mists of my dreams.
What a curious thing! As soon as I rose and bathed I took a lantern to the short room and pressed the indicated stones. They slowly depressed several inches, then a doorway popped open as if it were magic. I must have been grinning like a mule eating thistles. My first secret door! Within I found the castle accounting ledgers and a comfortable chair before a large desk bearing a lantern and a scale. A small chest sat on the floor. Within I found many greased palm-sized sacks of coins--silver coins. The dry conditions had preserved them from the black rot over the years. They appeared to be very old. I knew that I should turn it all over to my uncle's care, but I didn't trust his judgment while he was in his cups. I removed half of the bags and stored them in the smithy's desk before I called on my uncle to see what I had found.
Even after taking out a greedy priest's share there were still over nine hundred silvers in that chest. Uncle Thomas was not a truly religious man but I witnessed him fall down on his knees and offer up a heartfelt prayer of thanks.
Thomas and I had to go woodcutting. Theresa said that she needed firewood and that was that. He sharpened our axe with a stone, took up a rope and off we went.
We had not surveyed the grape vines so we used this task as an excuse to see what we had. They had done very well without the interfering hand of man touching them for many years. Of the nearly four hundred vines perhaps a quarter had failed. We grubbed them out to take home as part of our firewood. The valley behind ours was nowhere near as fertile nor as flat as that which we cultivated. However, trees did prosper there. We hauled quite a load of dry, dead timber from there. We spent most of the week rebuilding our wood pile. Thomas was not a stupid man. He left it to me to cut the wood to lengths that Theresa wanted. In a fashion he paid for his cunning. Each time I felt that he did less than his share of the burden I put off showing him the winery.
Theresa had successfully caught a baking yeast. She made sourdough bread boules nearly every day. Still, bringing up the buckets of water became no easier.
I snuck into the winery late one night with a lantern to see what was there. Other than a row of large open-topped vats there were huge aging tuns set against the walls of the deep gallery and a criss-cross rack of bottles down the middle. Everything was covered with filth so I didn't touch much. I gently tapped loose the bungs on each of the tuns and sniffed the contents. Of the thirty-some huge barrels, several were dry. Most had some sort of wine in them and three contained very strong vinegar. I drew a glass of wine to taste and found it quite strong and not at all sweet. I found a pair of dry ten-gallon barrels and took them to the kitchen to fill and temper. The wood had to swell before they would reliably hold vinegar or wine. It was late, so I used a wetted rag to retrace my steps and cleaned up after myself. Then I took a shower and went to bed.
Theresa gave me a strange look when she saw me the next morning. I grinned and held my finger to my lips. I whispered to her, "I found the winery. There is good vinegar in there too but I need something to hold it, so the kegs." She hugged me and kissed my cheek. She had been heartily missing vinegar both for cooking and preservation. Ten gallons would go a long way. I moved the little kegs off to one side and filled them with water. Both she and I refilled them several times a day during the following week until one morning they remained full. We looked at each other and grinned. I took a cart, emptied the barrels, loaded them up and made my way to the winery door. I motioned for her to turn around before I released the door latch. Then I showed Theresa the room. She slowly walked from end to end, exploring everything. She picked up a bottle, wiped away the filth and read the label. She said, "Brandy. If it survived it should be magnificent."
I used one glass siphon to fill a cask full of wine and a different siphon to fill a cask full of vinegar. I gave her a taste. "Oh, so good!" she said. I was happy to give her a reason to celebrate anything. Our adventure had been such a trial for her. I could see it in her face and her rounded shoulders when she thought nobody was looking. We took it all back to the kitchen, including her jug of what might have been excellent brandy.
Somehow she successfully removed the crumbling old cork from the bottle. If it had not been heavily waxed it surely would have failed over the years. Both the wooden cork itself had been coated in wax and when filled, the top of the bottle had been dipped in hot wax and allowed to harden. When the cork was removed a perfume filled the air. We both took an appreciative sniff, then she pushed the cork back in. She mentioned, "I wonder where the distillery is? You don't make brandy without a distillery." I wondered myself. Then I wondered how many secrets the old castle yet held from me.
That night we had sausages and new potatoes with preserved butter. Thomas was amazed at the flavor of the wine. He slowly raised his eyes to meet mine. "You found the winery. You beautiful, cunning boy. How much is there?"
"Of the wine you are tasting now? perhaps three hundred gallons. I don't know how much a tun holds. There are thirty four tuns lining the walls and I doubt that they are all full after all these years. Several are dry. Three contain a very nice vinegar which after having had a taste, had Theresa nearly dancing. The rest of them smelled of wine but I only sampled the one. I have been careful to keep the siphon used for vinegar away from the barrels containing wine."
"Praise God." He looked at me again with a more serious face. "We must prepare perhaps two of the dry tuns for the new fall squeezings. It will mean much work to haul all that water."
I replied, "There are mashing and fermenting tubs that need to be soaked as well. Doesn't the juice need to stand for a while before it is decanted into the barrels?"
He nodded. "A little of the old wine should go into each batch so that the proper cultures ferment the next generation. I hope that after such a long time some of the mat survives."
"Can we afford help?"
"I must think on this. Definitely for the harvest. All those grapes will come ripe at once, and soon! They must be harvested quickly before they rot on the vine or fall. It is too wet here to expect any to dry on the vine and host noble rot. First the fermenting tubs must be prepared as soon as possible. The harvest may start as soon as two to three weeks from now."
Thomas went to bed a very happy, if slightly inebriated man. Theresa benefited from his excitement.
The next day Thomas went to the native village to arrange for help. A silver would buy much at the time. He arranged for a dozen men and women to help cut, wash and cart the grapes to the winery, each taking a silver for three days work. They did not work hard, but they never seemed to stop. They certainly got the job done. Each worker received an extra silver to make them think well of working for us. We would want to use them later to help cut our firewood.
The warehouses near the village provided carts and bushel baskets to collect and move the fruit. The older villagers had done this before and were well practiced.
I drew water, carted it and poured it into the tanks like a madman. The crushing and fermenting tanks were finished weeks before they were needed. I was working on the wine tuns. I began to hear something odd from the windlass. Something was inside of it. The windlass was constructed as a large hollow drum made of stakes like a barrel, but the ends held the stakes in place with a deep chiseled groove cut into either end. The axle was square which jammed against the cut-outs in the barrel ends. Two pegs through the axle held the ends of the drum in place.
I lifted the surprisingly heavy contraption down off of its hooks and placed it over the wood cover to the well. Then I carefully drove out a peg and worked loose the end. I dumped the contents into a dry bucket. Small canvas bags dropped one by one into the bucket followed by a small rain of mixed silver and tiny gold coins. My God in heaven. This was more than what I left in the accounting office, and some of it was gold. I took a deep breath, then resolved what to do. Revealing such wealth was sure to bring down greedy folk on us, some wearing government uniforms and some not. I stacked another bucket on top of the first and slid the whole thing under one of the work tables where it would go unnoticed. I re-assembled the windlass, put it back into place and continued with my task of filling the wine tuns. Surprise--the water was much easier to draw.
I had learned something of surveying in school. I found a measuring chain amidst the gardening tools and constructed a large protractor to measure angles. Then I set about creating a measured set of drawings of the castle. I started from the top floor and worked my way down, hoping to learn from my mistakes as I went. In this fashion I found an unsuspected hidden room adjacent to the master bedroom. The spilled water trick did not reveal where the entrance was but a slot under the wall at floor level revealed something unusual. A careful examination of the wall stones revealed three stones that were smoother than the others. When pressed in a certain order a hidden bar was withdrawn and I was able to push the camouflaged stone door forward into the room. It had a narrow slot window that brought in light from the courtyard and a sink that seemingly was fed from the rain catchments below the roof. When the water was released it flowed dark for a bit, then clear. It was good water. The garderobe seat was mean but it emptied out onto the same place that a soldier's privy did from the top floor. The food cache had long ago decayed and the bedding was useless. Altogether it was a cunning redoubt for the master and his family in case the castle was overrun. A wood closet held arms and several war crossbows, none of which was in usable condition.
The second floor held no surprises, and neither did the first. The thickness of the walls was for structural strength and defense and was not perverted for any other use.
Every other tower of the six held either a ramp or a staircase. A passageway connected each of the rooms and the towers. Below ground the same pattern was repeated however rooms large and small fanned out from both sides of the connecting passageways, depending on the depth of the plinth supporting the castle above. The outer walls were incredibly thick, measuring some seven and a half meters thick but the connecting passageways took up some of that. Within that the bottom two floors above ground had rooms measuring roughly fifteen meters by thirty. These were large dining, presentation and mustering spaces. The rooms and galleries below had been carved out of solid rock, a feat that boggled my mind. Then I realized that it had been done by slave labor commanded by the greedy Europeans of the time. Whether they were secular or pious, they broke men to the collar and used them until they died. Only the passage of centuries somewhat purified the structure. It no longer was cursed with the taint of blood and pain as it once had been.
I sat down with Thomas and Theresa after dinner one day with my partial drawings. I told them of my conclusions of how the place came to be built. Thomas nodded. "I doubt that it was constructed under the hand of Mother Church as the nave, chancel and the sanctuary are small, probably built to ease the minds of the soldiers and provide lip service for what few visiting officials came to such an out-of-the-way outpost. It tastes of a Spanish or Portuguese land grant."
The first floor below ground held two secrets, one of which had already been discovered--that of the accounting office and bursary. A long corridor was discovered as well. It was locked away probably not so much in secrecy as in isolation from the smells. It was a stable. It was located adjacent to the ramp so that the animals could be led out to forage, fodder could more easily be brought in, the crap taken out and the mounted riders given easy access to the courtyard and front gate.
Two more enormous hidden rooms were found on the second floor below ground. There was evidence that they were used to store forage for the animals and firewood for both the kitchen and the fireplaces.
Purely by accident I found that the top floor of the three towers that did not host a stair well or a ramp held rooms. I was cleaning a recess at the end of a hall. I slopped out some mop water to dislodge what might have set between the stones, and found that it ran beneath the wall at the end of the alcove. I shook my head. The geometry of the place should have told me that some sort of chamber was there. I discovered after a long trial that inserting a hook into a space between two stones and lifting freed a hidden bar. Three tall slot windows illuminated the chamber from two directions. Three faced the courtyard while three faced the village and the railway. The chamber was perhaps six meters across, and held nothing but a mean boxed pallet, a chair, a desk, an oil lamp, a book case and a small fireplace. It seemed to be someone's retreat. I immediately adopted it for my own use. It was in an unused part of the castle. I doubted that any feet besides mine had trod that corridor since we moved in. Using the same technique I found two more smaller tower rooms, one atop each of the other two seemingly solid towers. I prepared greased parchment coverings for the windows in preparation for times of inclement weather.
Likewise it was a pure fluke that I found the distillery. At the back right corner of the winery was a dry barrel. I gently used the bung starter to open it up to look inside. I had a flashlight to look within. The bung didn't want to come out for love nor money. I had to resort to drilling it out. Then, when I shined the flashlight inside I found that the barrel was only two feet long. It was a sham! A false barrel! It made no sense to have such a thing there as a decoration. It had to be hiding something.
The floor revealed no scratches or trenches. There was, however, a seam in the stone that followed the edge of the barrel. I pushed. I pulled. I twisted. I jumped up and down, yelled screamed and cursed. Nothing worked. I sat on a chair before it with a glass of wine, looking at the evil thing. How would it open yet leave no trace on the floor. It had to push straight back. I ran a thin but long knife around the seam in the rock wall. I found nothing. That told me that whatever was stopping the thing from moving was at the bottom. I used a bar to push on stone after stone beneath that barrel. There was a false cradle that I had to press through. I found one stone that began to move when I pressed on it. I asked Thomas for help. When I described what I had found he and I fashioned a "T" out of a long iron bar and a shorter bar bolted to the center of it. We positioned the thing above the stone and counted, "One, two, three!" and sat down on the contraption. The center bar pressed against the stone which sank in a quarter meter and clicked, locking into place. Then I put my shoulder to the barrel front and pushed. The entire face smoothly rolled into the room behind the doorway. Thomas entered behind me and held up his lantern. The edge of the opening was tapered. Three large copper tanks sat on top of low hearths that were vented into a chimney. Thomas saw the three piles of more copper to one side. He made the connection that I had missed. "Pot stills! This is where they made their brandy."
I asked, "Why was this separated from the winery?"
"Distilling alcohol can be very dangerous. It can flash over and the vapors can explode." He inspected all the copper work that made up the stills. "Great care went into these. Look here. The copper coils are made to fit inside water jackets. They are designed to suppress the fumes and the chance for explosion."
Thomas either felt I was contributing my share or was coming of age but somehow he justified purchasing firearms for me the next time he went to town for supplies. When he returned he called me down to the dining room table and presented me with a chest. Within were a Webley pistol such as he wore, a shotgun and a used military rifle from the war. It was a Mauser K98 and felt heavy as hell in my hands. I could smell the gun oil on it. Covering the bottom of the chest was a can of oil, rags, jags, brass brushes, cotton patches, cleaning rods and many boxes of ammunition. The rifle shot 7.92 millimeter bullets out of a cartridge that was as long as my hand was broad. I was amazed at it all. He took the rifle from my hands and ran an oiled patch down the barrel, then attached the sling. He gave it back to me. "Keep the barrel and action clean. Cover the muzzle when it rains. If you even think you have water in it, unbolt the action from the stock and clean everything. Clean it after every firing. Use a pick and cloth to clean all the recesses in the bolt, breech and case extractor. the same goes for the pistol and the shotgun. Never touch any bare metal without wiping it with an oiled cloth afterwards or it will discolor and rust from your sweat. These are a great responsibility and require a level of care that you have not seen before, but if cared for regularly and well they will never let you down."
The next day he showed me how to shoot the pistol, then how to clean it. The next day it was rifle practice. He told me about the care which must be taken not to injure the muzzle of the weapons to keep them accurate, how to care for the sights, and what would happen if I carelessly plunged the muzzle of the rifle into mud then tried to fire it. The breech would probably explode and either kill or permanently maim me. Uncle Thomas had been a patriot--a mountain rebel that harassed the Germans, stole their weapons for use against them and destroyed their supplies. He had many stories about how they sabotaged mountain supply convoys and raided supply depots. My old drunkard of an uncle had been a steel eagle in his day.
I went through most of a box of pistol ammunition until I could quickly hit what I wished. It was expensive so I did not foolishly play about.
I began harvesting meat for the smoke house. The little mountain deer were just small enough for me to drag back to the castle after gutting them. Theresa wanted the livers, kidneys and hearts saved for meat pies. We had to keep a low fire going in the kitchen to smoke the meat. Thomas was right. I spent over an hour before bed cleaning my weapons each day that I used them.