Lynn and I decided to spend Halloween at her family’s cabin in the Sierras. It was located in a little hamlet on the Yuba River, and like many of these old settlements, had once been a mining town. Late October was often the last chance to go while the weather was still pleasant.
There weren’t a lot of kids around, and it was a warm afternoon, so we decided to take a sunset walk. About a half mile out of town, we came to a road I hadn’t noticed before. The underbrush had grown halfway across it. The asphalt was broken in places, and weeds had grown in the cracks.
“Where does this go?” I asked Lynn.
She stopped. “I don’t know. When we were kids, my parents always told us not to go down there.” She flashed a grin still visible in the dusk.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They never told us.”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” I said.
She nodded. “Let’s find out.”
We stepped around the bushes. I felt a cool breeze that I hadn’t noticed on the main road. The tree branches formed a canopy, making the road feel like a tunnel that darkened and narrowed with every step. Just the sun going down, I thought.
Lynn snuggled up against me. “My skin is tingling.”
I noticed that mine was as well. “Are you scared?”
She shook her head. “Anticipation.”
I felt it, too, but I said, “There’s probably nothing down here at all.”
She said, “There’s something. My parents didn’t say things like that for nothing.” I felt her snuggle more tightly. “I’m feeling a bit naughty doing this now, actually.”
“I know.” She laughed.
We continued in silence as the light dimmed. And it was silent at first. Then, far ahead of us, a rhythmic sound. When we got a little closer, I recognized it as someone chopping wood.
I said, “Maybe we should go back.”
“No,” Lynn said. “Let’s see who it is.”
“Okay,” I said.
The road led to a clearing next to a creek that must have flowed down and into the river. Straddling the creek were a group of decaying cabins. A couple of rusty old cars, tires flat, had been abandoned next to them. The chopping stopped, and a man, dressed in a flannel shirt, dirty jeans, and a battered felt cowboy hat, stepped from behind one of the cabins. His gray beard extended almost halfway to his waist.
“Who the hell are you?” he said.
We introduced ourselves.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Just out for a walk,” I said.
The man scowled. “Nobody walks down here.”
“It’s hard to find,” I said.
“Damn right it is.”
“We’ll just go back,” Lynn said. “We’re sorry for intruding.”
“Not until I find out what you’re after. Come, we’re going to have a drink together.”
“Thank you for the offer,” I said. “But we’ll just be on our way.”
“The hell you will,” he said. He grabbed a shotgun from behind the shack. “Not until I figure out what you want.”
He waved us toward one of the cabins. I felt Lynn shaking in my arms, until it occurred to me that maybe I was the one shaking. I had never had a gun pointed at me before. The door squeaked when I opened it, and we entered.
The interior surprised me. It was old and dusty, to be sure, but it was set up like a tiny tavern, with a bar and four stools along the side wall. A small table lay in the corner. The man told us to sit, and went behind the bar. He leaned his gun against the wall within reach, and pulled out an unlabeled bottle of whiskey and three shot glasses. Lynn looked at me questioningly as the man put the glasses in front of us.
I looked at the man. “You drink first.”
“Don’t trust me, eh?” he said. “Can’t say I blame you.” He gulped down his whiskey, with an audible sigh at the end, then poured himself another. “Drink.”
I took a sip. Lynn followed my lead. It was strong, burning my throat as I swallowed. I took another to convince the man of my goodwill. Lynn coughed up most of her first sip.
The man laughed. “Good stuff, ain’t it?”
I nodded, not wanting to offend him.
“Now that we’re on a more social basis,” he said, “what are you looking for?”
Lynn spoke. “Just curious. My parents told us not to come here when we were kids.”
“Ah, yes, parents. Should do what they tell you. Why didn’t you?”
“I’m all grown up now,” Lynn said.
“So you are. Not trying to jump our claim, are you?”
“What claim?” I said.
“Have another drink.” He refilled our glasses, even though they weren’t empty.
“Who are you, and what is this place?” I said.
He extended his hand across the bar. “Joe Pitts, the last caretaker of Pitts Creek.” He gulped down his drink, then poured himself another whiskey.
“What do you think, Betsy? They okay?” he said, looking into the corner.
I couldn’t see anyone there. “Who are you talking to?”
“Shush, you’re interrupting,” Joe said. He looked back at the corner. “They look like miners to you?”
Joe paused, as if waiting for a reply. “You sure, Betsy?” he said, then nodded. I had no idea what he thought she said.
About then, I started to feel dizzy. Lynn slumped against me, already passed out. My vision blurred, but I thought I saw Joe smiling at us. Then it seemed that he started laughing, and faded, just faded, into the wall.
I woke up the next morning with a stiff neck and a hangover, my forehead covered in dust. Lynn moaned when I nudged her shoulder, then took my hand. Three shot glasses lay shattered on the floor. Outside, the air was cool. We saw no sign of Joe.
Clinton Lawrence is a high school science teacher. His fiction has appeared in Every Day Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, Galaxy, Reflection’s Edge, The Fortean Bureau, and a number of other print and online publications. For several years, he was a staff writer for Science Fiction Weekly. He lives in Davis, California.