The men talking around the front of Marburger’s general store went silent as Big Bill walked up to them from his parked Ford. Normally, he would be pleased. He liked knowing he made an impression on people, preferably a scary one, but right now he needed help.
“Gentlemen,” he said, in a voice that sounded like thunder trying to whisper, “I’m a stranger around here. I need directions to,” he thought of how to phrase it, “to some old family property. I’ll pay for it.” Bill normally wouldn’t make such a generous offer. The easy money days of Prohibition were over. But he could afford to be generous here. Let everything go the way it ought, and he’d be rich as Lucky Luciano this time tomorrow.
The men, local farmers, peered closer. It was only late afternoon, but things were already getting dark here in the shadow of Hawk Mountain. Bill puffed his chest out, showing off his well-made pinstripe suit and pants. He made sure they could see how broad his shoulders were, how tall he stood. He did keep the pistol in his shoulder holster hidden. Bill smiled just enough to stretch the scar on his cheek, pulling his lips up to expose his teeth in a smile, or maybe a snarl. He’d once been Waxey Gordon’s best enforcer. He could afford vanity.
Until, that is, the IRS caught Waxey, and the New York mob caught his boys. But that would all be over after tonight. Big Bill needed cash, a lot of it, to try and fight back, and this backwoods village of Drehersville was the place to get it. Tomorrow he’d be the man with the money, and then he’d go back to Philly and show everyone just how well he could run a gang.
“Mister,” one of the men gathered before the store said, “what did you say your name was? And where’s this family property of yours at, anyhow?”
“Name’s Wilcox, William Wilcox,” Bill said, not his real name, “and the property I’m looking for is old Schaumboch’s tavern, atop your mountain there.” He jerked his head towards the mountain, rising like a granite wall. He smiled, reached into his pocket and rattled a handful of coins. “Now who wants some easy money?”
The men before Bill all paled, like he’d asked them to dig up someone’s grave. They turned away from him, back towards the gray and weather-beaten wooden slats of the store. Bill scowled.
“Fellows,” Bill said, speaking very slowly, as to children, “I said, who wants to make some money showing me the way to Schaumboch’s tavern?”
A boy at the rear of the small group opened his mouth to speak. The farmer who’d spoken glared at him. The boy fell back sullenly. The man turned to Bill and said, “Mister, there ain’t no good in going up by Schaumboch’s, now or ever. Just leave it all be and head back home. You’ll be doing yourself a better favor that way.”
“I’ll decide for myself what’s good for me,” Bill snapped. “You don’t help me, maybe I’ll be deciding it for you too.” The farmers all glared at those words. Bill reminded himself he was outnumbered here. The cops didn’t need any more reasons to come looking for him, either. A trifle more calmly, Bill said, “Now, I’ve come a long way, and I’d like to look at the place. Tonight. If it’s not too much to ask.”
“What’s so important about seeing Schaumboch’s place tonight?” The kid at the back of these yokels said. The other men scowled at him, like he’d done something wrong.
“It’s got to be tonight because I’ve got a business trip coming up soon,” Bill said. True enough words, if you called arranging a gang war business. He gave his most convincing smile and said, “Besides, it’s the old family home. It’s sentimental. Now, who’s going to give me directions?”
“Only the devil could get sentimental about Schaumboch or any of his get,” the first speaker said, his Adam’s apple bobbing prominently. Everyone aside from the kid nodded solemnly. He just looked scornful, his lip curling, as the man added, “That’s no place for any natural man, especially at night. Even if you had Old Lang’s help to see the gold,” and it seemed to Bill that the man glared at the boy, “no one here hates his own life enough to lead you up to Schaumboch’s.”
“Why?” Bill snapped, his temper fraying. “What’s wrong with the place? You all act like the devil himself lives there.”
“They think he does,” the kid called out. He stepped forward, and Bill got a better look at him. His pants and shirt were well patched, and he looked lean as rawhide. “Schaumboch’s is supposed to be haunted.”
The men shot the boy truly venomous looks then, but Bill could recognize the fear that went with it. He fought down a laugh. Trust hayseeds like this to believe in some kiddy story about spooks!
“Haunted!” Bill snorted and rolled his eyes. “Hah! You guys don’t mean to say that kid’s right? You’re all scared of ghosts?”
“Old Schaumboch’s more’n a ghost,” The older farmer said. “He wanders the mountain at night, a-killing men. Sometimes you can hear…”
As if summoned by those words, a long shuddering scream drifted down from the mountaintop. The men started and fell silent. Even the kid looked scared. Big Bill looked up at the forested slopes as the echoes of the scream slowly died out. No one dared say a word until it ended.
“Old Schaumboch got another one!” someone said in a voice barely more than a whisper. Bill looked at the faces before him and swore quietly. He was no college egghead, but he knew fear. And these men were too scared to even think of helping him now.
“It was just some bobcat, making you all act like little kids,” Bill said, not bothering to hide his contempt. Failing to keep a hint of desperation from his voice, he added, “I said I’ll pay. Twenty, thirty dollars, to the man who shows me the way to the Schaumboch tavern…”
The men simply turned around and headed back into Marburger’s store. Big Bill let his voice trail off. These men wouldn’t help him now, not if he held a gun to their heads. Maybe he ought to go it alone. He cast the thought aside with a curse. He didn’t know Hawk Mountain well enough to find the place without some local help. And it would be dark soon. Go traipsing over that blasted rockpile in the dark and he’d be lucky not to break his neck.
Seething, Bill turned and walked back to his car. Maybe if he just got in and started driving, he could make the Midwest before the New York mob could find him.
“Mister? Hey, mister!” Bill heard feet slap against the ground behind him. “Hold on, will you? Let me catch you!”
Those words brought Big Bill wheeling around, reflexively grabbing at his gun. He saw the kid running up behind him, his feet kicking up the gravel and dirt of the street. Bill didn’t relax. Trustful gangsters didn’t live to regret it.
“Okay, kid,” he said in a surly tone, “what do you want?”
“My name’s Daniel,” he said, though Bill couldn’t have cared less. “You still want to find Schaumboch’s place?”
“Yeah, I do,” Bill said. A wary hope rekindled in his greedy heart. “What’s it to you?”
“I know the way there, and I’ll show you,” the kid said, casting a look at the pocket where Bill’s wallet rested, “if you pay me like you promised them?”
“Hah! What’s a punk like you need thirty bucks for?” Bill said, rejoicing deep down as he did. He could recognize the look in the kid’s eyes, that combination of need and fear. He’d seen it lots of times before this, when he’d started out as a loan shark.
“Things are hard around here,” the kid said, “and my parents are dead, all I’ve got is my grandpappy. Besides, what do you need to find Schaumboch’s tavern for?” the kid shot back. “There’s nothing there now but cobwebs and mice…”
“And Schaumboch’s ghost,” Bill said, laughing. “You yokels really believe that nonsense?”
The boy spoke on heedlessly, “… and old Schaumboch’s gold, or so grandpappy says.”
“What!” Big Bill grabbed a handful of the kid’s shirtfront, saying in what he called ‘his voice’, the softly dangerous one he used on deadbeats and rivals, “You miserable brat, what do you know about that?” Deep down, Bill was sweating. What if someone else already got the gold?
“I know enough,” Daniel said, calmly enough. “I know old Schaumboch didn’t spend all the gold he got from killing people, and no one around here was ever bold or greedy enough to go looking for it. At least, not around the old tavern, though they dug up plenty of other places around the mountain looking for it.” The boy pulled free of Bill’s grip. “Now, what’s it worth to you to find that gold?”
Bill ran over his options. The kid knew the area, and Bill didn’t. He also looked to be the only guy around here not scared to death of some stupid ghost story. Bill thought some about the gold, some more about what if he went back to Philly without it. He’d be lucky if Luciano’s guys just killed him.
“Well?” the kid asked again. “You want that money or not?”
“Okay,” Bill said, nodding. “I’ll pay you to guide me there, but I better find that gold. ‘Cause if I don’t…” Bill didn’t make any openly threatening gesture. Using that tone, he didn’t have to. He could see the kid’s eyes widening.
“We want the gold,” Daniel said, “there’s something we need to get from my grandpappy. Let’s get in that car of yours.” He started towards it.
“Hey, wait a minute!” Bill grabbed the kid by the shoulder. He squeezed hard, harder then he needed to. Better let this punk know who the boss would be. “What’s your old man got to do with this, anyway? He got a map or something?”
“Not a map, a candle,” Daniel said, looking at Bill evenly. “You want to find Schaumboch’s gold, we need my grandpappy’s help. No help, no gold, mister. It’s that simple.” The kid headed around the Ford for the passenger side. He looked back at Bill and said, “My grandpappy lives outside of town. It’s a long ways there.”
Grumbling, Bill got into the car and drove off, following the kid’s directions. The trees alongside the road cast long shadows, their bare branches like curving claws. Bill drove with the windows down, and he smelled the sharp clean scent of pine over the oil and gas of the car. From somewhere on the mountain, he could hear a distant eagle’s scream. The trip was indeed a long ways, and it lead down several roads Bill figured weren’t even marked on his map. The shadows were lengthening and Bill could feel the start of evening’s chill before the kid finally said, “Here it is.”
Bill stopped and looked. He could see an old and tumbledown house, its shutters hanging loosely. The wooden boards looked like they’d needed a new coat of paint since before Prohibition. The windows were dark and bare of glass. Bill turned on his guide with a scowl.
“Kid, if you lied to me about finding someone here, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
“I don’t lie, mister. My folks raised me right.” Daniel turned and gave Bill a cold look. The kid got out and walked up to the house. The floorboards of the porch creaked under his feet. “My grandpappy is here, and he’ll help, if you pay.”
Bill followed him, keeping one hand near his gun. This place looked like Dracula’s summer cottage. Daniel knocked solidly on the door. Bill heard slow, halting footsteps inside, the step and drag of someone with a bad leg. Bill recognized the sound easily. He’d often been responsible for it.
The door slowly creaked open. A whiskered, wrinkled face looked out at them. Long hair combined with a dirty gray beard and mustache to hide almost everything of that face aside from the eyes. They showed bright and sharp as a snake’s.
“Yes?” spoke a creaky voice from somewhere in that tangle of beard. The eyes moved slowly from the kid to Big Bill. “Hello, grandson. Who is this stranger man you’ve brought here?”
“I’m named Big Bill, pops, Big Bill Wilcox.” Bill puffed his chest out as he said it. “I got a business proposition for you.”
“Mister!” Daniel hissed at him. Turning back to the old guy, he said, “Pappy Lang, I brought this man here because he wants to find Schaumboch’s gold. I know if he wants that, we need the corpse-candle from you.”
“Schaumboch’s gold? Well, then,” Lang opened the door wider, adding in a creaking voice, “Come in and sit for a bit, grandson, while I talk business with this man.”
Daniel nodded and headed for a corner of what Bill guessed must be the living room. Just what might be living in it, he didn’t care to know. Daniel sat in a wooden chair that looked almost as old as the house. A low-built table sat beside it, with some kind of thick, leather-bound book on it. Maybe a family bible, though somehow it looked too sneaky to be a bible. Not that Bill cared. He didn’t bother with books. Racetracks and redheads were his idea of entertainment.
“Come along with me, sir, and let’s see if I can help you, yes?”
Old Lang reached down to a table beside him and picked up a lamp. It looked to be made of cast iron and lit by coal oil, judging from the strong smell. The stink cut through the dust that tickled Bill’s nose. Bill followed the old guy down a long dark hallway, lined with open doors. Bill glanced into them as he passed, saw an old featherbed in one room, a spinning wheel in another. A pair of lamps lit the hallway, using oil like the one the old man carried. Bill couldn’t remember seeing antiques like these outside a museum.
Or the antique leading the way, for that matter. Big Bill followed him silently to the room at the end of the hall. It proved to be a kitchen, complete with an iron pot-bellied stove. There was a table beside it, and just behind the table was an old bookshelf, sagging under the weight of several ancient-looking leather-bound books. Bill squinted and tried to read the titles, but he couldn’t make heads or tails of them. The Long Lost Friend? Something or other by Agrippa, whoever he was? The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses? Was the old guy a preacher or something? Bill shrugged and ignored them. They sounded boring as hell.
“That grandkid of yours said you know something about how to get at Schaumboch’s money,” Bill said as old Lang sank down on a chair not much more than a stool. “So did the people in town. They said you know how to make a candle that will ‘light the way’. Well, here I am, and I want it.”
“I can make such a candle, that I can,” the old man said. “But before I do anything for you, I must ask two questions. What makes you so sure there’s anything left of Schaumboch’s money, and more importantly,” Lang broke off and leaned close, his eyes seeming to pierce through Big Bill, “what do you want it for?”
“The second one is easy,” Bill said. “I want that money to keep myself alive. I need it to pay off some guys who’d just as soon kill me as look at me, if I came back without it. Why? What’s it to you?”
Old Lang gave Bill a measuring look. Bill might have wondered if the old man knew he lied, if he cared one way or another. Only after seeming to satisfy himself did the old man speak.
“The gold was gotten by wicked means,” he said, “and it brought no joy to Schaumboch. I don’t know how much of his story you know, but…”
“He came here from no one knows where, back after the Civil War,” Bill broke in, none too politely, “and took up ownership of the tavern atop your mountain there. He and his wife stayed there for over twenty years, offering room and board to anyone who stopped by. A lot of folks did stop by, peddlers and travelers and the like. But not all of them left.” Bill said the last with a smug smile.
“Schaumboch did everything you said he did,” old Mister Lang responded, his voice creaky as the chair he sat in, “and more too. He murdered men for their gold and goods when he could, a dozen, two dozen, no one knows how many. Their bodies he hid in the woods until beasts stripped the flesh from their bones, then he buried them around the tavern or stuck them down his well. Anything valuable they had, he gave to his wife’s brother. He ran the local ferry, and took it all down to Philadelphia, and he sold it there. No one ever suspected the either of them.”
“Old Schaumboch was a clever guy, then,” Bill said. His chest puffed up a bit with family pride as he added, “Him and his brother in law both, for getting away with it for so long. It takes a smart man to hide all that from the law.”
“A smart man, or a lucky one,” Lang said, “but neither did Schaumboch any good in the end. He confessed his sins to a preacher as he lay dying, told all about what he and his brother in law had been doing, but the preacher man didn’t believe him. He told Schaumboch he lied. So Schaumboch told the preacher to go out and look in the well, The preacher did, and when he looked, he found a pile of skulls. He ran back to the house, but by the time he got to the bedside, Schaumboch was dead.” Lang sighed deeply, sat back and shook his head. “Schaumboch never got forgiveness for his sins, even though he died sorrowing over them. And so he never got any peace.”
“I’ve heard that tonight,” Bill said, interrupting again. He laughed, short and nasty. “Do you hayseeds really mean to tell me you think old Schaumboch’s spook is walking around that mountain, axe and all?”
“Why shouldn’t we believe?” Lang answered him back. “Lots of folks have seen him. And he’d not be the only strangeness on this mountain. The old Indians thought this mountain was the center of the world, said their gods would come down and speak to men while they were on it. I’ve seen the fire of the dragon that lairs atop the Pinnacle as it flew out over the valley, and heard the heard the cries of voices that belong to neither man nor beast from atop it. This mountain, mountains all around the world, are places where strange things happen.”
“I’ve heard stories myself,” Bill said, racking his memory. “Like the Brocken specter in Germany, or the Gray Man of Scotland who’s supposed to chase men over the sides of cliffs. But how can anyone believe that nonsense anymore?” Bill jeered the words out.
“We do,” Old Lang responded. “This world of ours is stranger than most men will ever know. And some of those that see that strangeness, die sorry they did.” Lang bent over the table beside him. “But we’re not here to talk of this. You were honest about why you want that gold?” Big Bill nodded his head. A wary look came into Lang’s eyes as he said, “But how did you learn of it? Only Schaumboch and his kin would know where to go and look for that gold. And his wife never bore him any children, that I ever heard.”
Bill wondered a moment what he ought to say, and then just opened his mouth and let it come out. “I know because Schaumboch’s brother in law was my grandfather. He ran off to New York and lived there quite a few years. Then, after he had kids, he moved back to Philadelphia and stayed there. And he told his daughter, my mother, about the gold, and she told me. I always thought it was a lie until I heard the story three years ago from some of the guys working the still at the ruins of the old tavern. I didn’t see much need in chasing after it then, but I do now. So now I’m here, and I said the reason why. Need to know anything else?”
“I understand. I only asked because Schaumboch died sorry about the killing he did to get that gold, sorry but unable to be forgiven.” Lang reached under the table as he spoke. He brought up an old iron pot, blackened and stained. “Schaumboch’s gold has to be spent for good reason. He wants it that way.” Lang slowly got up and hobbled to the stove. He lit a fire in it with old newspaper, and set the pot atop it. Lang went back to the table, reached down and picked up a long, thick block of yellow wax.
Bill waited for the old man to finish. This spook house routine was getting tired. When it became obvious the old man was waiting to be asked, Bill said in no friendly tone, “Well, what if it ain’t for ‘a good reason’?”
“Then?” Old Lang looked at him so intently Bill started fidgeting before saying, “Then whoever tries taking it for a bad reason will make Schaumboch angry.” He set the wax block aside, picked up several more packets and small bundles, all carefully wrapped. Then he broke them open, one after another, and dropped them into the pot on the stove. All the while he whispered words under his breath. Bill listened, but the words made no sense to him. They sounded like some mish-mash of German and church Latin.
“What’ll he do,” Bill jeered back, “rattle his chains?” His laugh broke off as Lang turned cold eyes on him.
“He’d do worse than rattle his chains. And you’d be wise to remember that.” Lang picked up the wax block and bent back over the iron pot, saying, “Now be quiet as I finish here.” He set it in and then reached down, kneading something like working bread.
Scowling, Bill fell silent. He wondered to himself if the old guy was trying to scare him, maybe even send someone up to the place after Bill. Try and scare him off with a pumpkin in one hand and wearing a white sheet, or something. Bill patted his revolver. He’d yet to see anything that could stand up to that and he doubted he would tonight. Let the old goat try something and Bill would blow a hole through him big enough for a beer truck. Though how this old relic thought he could scare a guy Bill’s size was beyond him. Bill could break Lang in half with one hand.
Sparks shot up from Lang’s pot, green, yellow, and red, like fireworks. Lang grunted in satisfaction, nodded. He reached into the pot and withdrew a long, dirty yellow candle. The wick was thick and black, like yarn. He then walked over to Bill and handed it to him.
“And here is your corpse-candle,” Lang said. “Take it up to the ruins of Schaumboch’s tavern, and light it there. After that, just follow the light. It’ll show you where to go.”
“I hope so,” Bill looked at the thing skeptically before putting it in the pocket of his overcoat. The thing better be useful. He looked back at Lang and said, “What d’you want for it, Pops?”
“Well,” Lang said, running the fingers of one hand along his beard, “the law says I can’t ask for anything, but I could suggest you drop ten dollars on the table. And don’t tell me you can’t afford it,” Lang added, scowling at Bill. “I seen that car you drove up in. I see those clothes you wear. And you mean to dig up Schaumboch’s gold. You can afford ten dollars.”
Bill stood up and slowly took his wallet out of a hip pocket, moving like it pained him. He counted out a five and five ones and set them on the table. Old Lang made them disappear, snatching them up. Bill watched him coldly. This didn’t work, he’d be back and make old Lang disappear. The old guy’s joints would really be paining him once Bill finished with him. Bill then turned and headed to the door, wanting nothing so much as to get this night over with and find Schaumboch’s gold.
The kid, Daniel, still sat in his chair in the front room. Bill motioned towards the door. The boy got up, looking at the candle Bill held. Something like awe showed in his eyes.
“Grandpa gave you the corpse-candle, then?” Daniel nodded towards it, his eyes wide. “It’s the first time I ever seen one.”
“I hope it’s the last time I ever see one,” Bill muttered. These hillbillies and their superstitions were getting to him. Bill walked towards the door, saying, “Now come on. I want to get this over with, and soon. I got to do some traveling yet, you know.”
“Sure, mister,” Dan said, following Bill to the car. Once outside, Bill found that night had fallen, and it looked to have hit pretty hard. A crescent moon rode low by the horizon, just barely clearing the trees. He could barely see his car. It took a lit match just to find the lock. After that, he and the kid got in. Bill started it up, glad to be leaving this hole. Turning on the headlights, he pulled out on the road and started to drive away. Bill glanced over his shoulder at the old dump. It looked gloomier than ever, porch sunken and those empty windows like eyeholes in a skull. Bill almost jumped out of his skin when a greenish light flared up behind a window. Something ghostly pale passed behind it a moment later. He shivered and then kicked himself. Just that old coot Lang lighting a candle. Candles made green light sometimes, didn't they?
“You better hope you never see me again, pal,” Bill muttered as he floored the accelerator. The trip back to Drehersville took less time than the drive to old Lang’s, the way most return trips seemed to. Bill pulled up by the turn-off leading up Hawk Mountain. The darkness made it look like the mouth of a tunnel. The branches of trees met overhead for a roof. Leading to wealth, Bill told himself. He looked at the kid and smiled thinly. Leading to an early grave for you, punk. No way are you telling anyone about tonight.
“It’s up this way, right?”
Daniel nodded. Bill drove off up the road. It wasn’t an easy trip. Driving along an old dirt road at night, feeling the car bounce and bang its undercarriage against rocks, Bill knew why he preferred living in cities. He told himself to just remember the money. This time tomorrow, he’d have the cash to buy something fancy, some rich man’s car like what all the mob big shots drove. And this kid beside him would be past ever telling anyone what sort of nonsense Bill had gone through to get the money.
"You better know how to find the tavern from here, kid," Bill growled as he started driving up the dirt road. He hissed when he felt the wheels slip on some leaves before catching. "You won't like what'll happen to you if I get lost up here."
"We get lost up here, I might not have to worry about what you'll be doing," the boy answered him. He gazed out into the increasing darkness, his voice small as he said, "There's more than Schaumboch on this mountain."
"Like what?" Bill asked as he drove over a dip that bounced him hard enough to wonder if he'd go through the roof. He strained his eyes to see beyond the headlights. This road was dark, dark and steep, steep. He briefly wondered how people managed this back when they used horse-drawn wagons. "What else do people say they see up here."
"Oh, lots of things," the boy said. "Ghosts from the old Indians, and settlers they murdered back before there`ever was a United States. Stranger things, too," he broke off and pointed ahead, "You'll see a turn-off ahead to the right, going up. Take it when we get to it."
"Like what else?" Bill asked, looking sourly at what he could see of the turnoff. Dark and tight and not even two ruts in the dirt, it made the main road look like a highway by comparison. The money, he told himself. Women and your own gang and everyone calling me boss. "This turn here?" At the boy's nod, Bill drove up it. He could feel more than hear the rocks and branches smacking the underside of the car as he went along it as fast as he dared, which wasn't much.
"Not too fast," the boy warned, "else you'll go right over the side. As for what else, well," he tapped the window on his side. It looked like a sea of ink lay outside, lit palely and intermittently by the rising moon, "my grandfather told you some things. Like the Spitzbarrick dragon that people see flying over the valley. Or the ghosts of people Schaumboch killed, with blood on their faces and crying for company. And he once told me, that there's other things, maybe not human things..."
And with those words the car skidded sideways towards`the edge. Bill swore and sobbed and wrenched the wheel while he stomped on the brake. Then, when the car stopped, he switched it off and got out for a look.
"Wait here!" he told the boy, and got out without waiting for the little hayseed to to say anything. Outside, it was dark and chilly. Bill felt the skin on his arms crawl from it. IT wasn't because he was scared. He told himself that and maybe half believed it. He looked the car over, worried about damage that might make it recognizable, and froze when he got to his door.
A broad and deep dent showed in it where something had forced the metal inwards. Bill wondered why he'd failed to see it before. Granted, looking for dents hadn't been his main concern at the time, but this looked hard to forget. He bent down for a closer look and froze. Then he stood back up and got in the car.
"Ain't nothing wrong," he spat as he started the car up. Working neither as slowly nor as carefully as he might, he got the car going back up the trail again. "Just a knock in the side, so don't ask me no more about it," though his passenger said nothing. Which was good, because Bill didn't feel like talking about what looked to be a punch or kick in the side of the car's door. The boy just looked at him as they started up the road, and then spoke again.
"Granddad and other folks also told me about a glowing giant that used to throw riders down the side of the mountain..."
Bill said nothing. He just gave the boy a hard look, and he fell silent.
Bill found the rest of the trip quiet. Not easy, but quiet. He kept one eye on the surrounding woods the entire way. The kid kept his eyes on the road the entire way, quietly giving directions. This road got trickier all the while, especially in the dark. There was more, too. Bill didn’t like the way the trees bent down over the road, like cops in an interrogation room. Or more like how Bill remembered bending over people, deadbeats who owed money to his bosses, in small dark rooms with thick walls and bloodstains on the floor. The wind whispered through those trees, and Bill didn’t care for what it said. The trees were everywhere, tossing their branches an awful lot for so little wind.
It felt like hours passed before the kid finally told him to pull up.
Bill took a good long look around before getting out of the car. They were in a broad field. Trees surrounded it, leaving a clear area in the middle. The road or trail lead up to what looked like a tumbledown ruin, worse than Lang’s shanty. Behind it, run up against the side of the mountain, stood an even bigger structure. That would be the barn, Bill thought, where Schaumboch killed and butchered men before hiding their bones.
“Well, then?” Moving slowly, Bill got out of the car. He shivered. It might be spring but the air felt cool and chill up here. He scowled back at the kid. “This is the place, right?”
“It is,” Daniel said back to him. A pale light played over his face. Above, the crescent moon dipped in and out among the clouds, looking sharp as a sickle. The kid moved around the car near Bill, saying, “This is where Schaumboch is supposed to be. But we’ll be safe, long as we’ve got granddad’s corpse-candle. Give me those matches, and I’ll light it up.”
Bill handed the matches over. He heard the kid strike one, smelled sulfur. The kid lit the candle and held it up. Its tip glowed blue. Bill could smell a stink like rotting meat.
“Phew!” Bill waved one hand under his nose, pointing at the sputtering candle. “That thing stinks to high heaven! That dotty old man ought to sell that bogy light as bug repellent. No self respecting fly’d go near it!”
“That ‘dotty old man’ and his ‘bogy light’ are going to make you rich,” Dan snapped back, “and maybe save your life. And be glad it smells like that. That means the gold’s nearby.” He started off towards the nearer of the two buildings, adding, “Just remember, that gold’s got to be used right.”
“Don’t worry,” Bill called after him, forcing sincerity into his voice, “I’ll make sure all that gold gets used for good causes.” Like rum, redheads, and racehorses. The size of the stash grew in his mind as he followed the boy to the smaller building. He recognized it as the ruins of the tavern, from what he’d read and been told.
As he got closer, the skin between his shoulder blades started crawling. The last time he’d felt like this, someone was creeping up behind him with a knife. He looked at the boy and scowled. He felt sure that the kid’s creepy grandpa was laying for him up here. Bill slapped his gun. Let them try. He’d show them.
“So this is where Sham-bock killed all those folks, right?” Big Bill said, speaking more loudly then he usually did. It felt plenty creepy up here. “Hung ‘em up and bled ‘em like hogs, huh?”
“No,” the kid answered, “he killed them in the barn, usually. Only a few got killed here, or so I heard. And be careful how loud you talk. He probably knows we’re here.”
“Let him,” Bill said back, a sneer in his voice. “I’ve heard just about enough of ghosts, anyway. That door open?” They now stood before the front of the old tavern. It looked unoccupied, with the windows broken, but somehow not empty. The door looked solid enough, though.
“Must have been put in by those bootleggers.” Daniel tugged on it, put his shoulder against it, but nothing happened. “It’s stuck.”
“Stuck?” Bill pushed the boy aside. “Well, you stand there and see the glory of its coming unstuck.”
He raised his foot, kicked solidly. The door bounced open, cracked resoundingly against the wall.
“There,” he said, looking back at the kid. Smirking, he said, “If old Schaumboch didn’t hear that, he really must be dead.”
The boy looked at him as though he wanted to say something, but didn’t. Instead he just walked inside the tavern, holding the corpse-candle out before him. Bill followed, shouldering him aside to get a better look at the place. Inside he saw nothing beyond an old wooden floor and four walls made of wood and mortar. Nothing to show where any treasure should be. Bill turned on the boy, his face cold and angry.
“Kid, if you and that old witch doctor been lying to me about knowing where the gold is, you’ll wish you hadn’t!”
“For the last time, I’m not a liar, and neither is my grandfather!” Daniel snapped back. He held the candle up higher and pointed towards the rear of the room. “There. You see it? That light coming up the old cellar stairs? That’s where we ought to go look.”
Big Bill looked and his anger choked in his throat. A fiery light came up the stairs he could only now see, faint and dim as the embers of a dying blaze, but recognizable for all of that. The kid quite nonchalantly walked over to it. He stopped by it, looked back at Bill as though to say, you coming or not?
Bill almost ran. Gold, he told himself. Lots and lots of money, enough to make you rich. After this, you’ll be the big boss, and everybody else will be scared of you. Fancy clubs and big cars and all them politicians and gangsters bowing and scraping before you. How’s that sound?
“Hey, mister, you want to do this or what?” Bill scowled at the boy, his words banishing dreams of wealth and glory. “You want to leave?”
“I’ll tell you when we leave, and no mistake,” Bill snapped back. “How are we gonna dig it up?”
“That won’t be a problem,” Daniel responded. “The candle will show us, or so grandpa always said.” He started down the stairs. “I just want my and grandpa’s rightful share, is all.”
“I’ll make sure of that,” Bill muttered under his breath. He followed the kid down into the cellar. The reddish light slowly got brighter, like walking into Hades. Bill half expected to find Lucifer waiting at the bottom, but the kid stood there, looking into the center of the room. The crimson light played over his eyes and face. Bill looked and saw its source.
The interior looked like most old cellars, dirt floor and stone walls and wooden support beams here and there. But in its center was something else. A flame like the light of a torch burned a brilliant crimson, shedding its light everywhere. Bill almost jumped when he heard something scratching at the dirt floor. He relaxed a second later to see a rat come out into the light. It looked at him, cleaning its whiskers, and then scampered back into a hole in the wall.
“There’s your ghosts,” Bill sneered, “rats.”
“It’s a good sign,” Daniel said, ignoring Bill. Pointing at the burning flame, he added, “That’s the devil light, showing us where the gold is buried. That’s Schaumboch showing us he wants someone to take the gold and set him free
"Well, where is it then?" Bill said, squinting against the light.
"Try looking down."
Bill swore under his breath. Then he looked and gave a yell. He wondered how he could have missed that pit dug there. It looked to take up half the floor. Within it, something glittered golden against the light of candle and torch. The light from the devil torch, or whatever that brat called it, seemed to be getting weaker.
“That’s the gold!” Bill almost ran up to the hole, but stopped and stared at the devil light. It seemed shrunken down to little more than a match's glow now. “Hey, what about that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” the kid responded, sounding calmer than Bill felt. “It’s served its purpose. See? It’s already going out.” And indeed the flame seemed to be dying down. Bill wondered how that could be, dismissed it. His concern was the gold.
Big Bill looked into the hole. Only a few coins were visible, not nearly as much as should be there. He wondered if the kid and the old man had already robbed him, but then he saw the old brass-bound wooden chest. It must have cost a pretty penny, once, but Bill cared nothing for it. He dropped down on his knees beside the hole and worked at the lock. It sprang open, and the candlelight played over a glittering mass. Bill reached down and ran his hands through it. It was cold and hard and smooth against his fingers. He picked one up, peered close at it and let out a victorious whoop.
“That’s it! The gold!” Bill yelled at Daniel, “Hey, you, drop that candle and help me here! Right now, you hear me!” He made a grab at the boy. The youngster jumped back with a yell, shielding the corpse-candle as he did.
“I got to hold on to the candle! It goes out, what’ll happen then?”
“Curse you and that fool candle!” Bill bent down, raised a double handful of his gold and let it pour down over his head. He jumped and laughed wildly, clapping his hands together. “Look at that! I’m rich, by damn, rich!”
“Okay then,” Daniel said. Bill looked up to see a somewhat disgusted look on the kid’s face, but even he sounded hushed as he said, “Let’s take it out of here, back down to my granddad’s place. We can count it there. You can give us our share from that.”
“Your share?” Big Bill looked at Dan and smiled a slow and mean smile with a lot of teeth behind it. “Your share?” he repeated himself as he got out of the hole, making sure he stood between the boy and the stairs. Still smiling, Bill reached under his shirt and took his pistol out. He pointed it at the boy, saying, “Here’s your share, you stupid brat. And I’ll be glad to give it to you.”
No fear showed on Dan’s face. He just glanced at the pistol and then locked eyes with Bill.
“What about your promise? You break your word here, Schaumboch will know. He won’t be happy that you lied to get here, to steal what he regretted stealing.”
Big Bill just stared. Then he threw his head back and laughed uproariously.
“By God, you really believe all that, don’t you, you little yokel!” Bill wiped a tear from his eye, making sure he kept the gun leveled on the little punk, that stupid corpse-candle still burning in his hands. “I’d have said I was Saint Peter if it got me to this gold! I ain’t scared of Schaumboch, or your ghosts, or any of the hobgoblins you white trash believe in!” He jerked a thumb at the hole. “Now get down in there beside that gold, and make yourself comfortable. You like talking about spooks so much, now you’re gonna be one yourself. How you like that?”
Daniel sighed and began to set the corpse-candle to one side. Big Bill relaxed, just for a second, and when he did the kid hurled the candle full at his eyes. Bill yelled and knocked it away. As he did it went out, plunging the entire cellar into darkness. Bill heard the kid’s feet beating against the dirt floor and then racing up the wooden stairs. He fired wildly but must have missed, for in the next second he could hear the tavern’s old door slam and bounce back open upstairs. Outside came the sounds of Daniel running away.
Bill cursed in fury. He headed for the wall behind him, remembering the stairs as being in that direction. But when he got to the wall, he found no sign of any stairs. In too much of a hurry to even use his lighter, Big Bill worked his way along the stone wall. Those stairs were here somewhere. He reached the corner, kept moving down a third wall. Not until he completed an entire circuit of the cellar did he stop. Not once did he touch the stairwell.
Big Bill stepped back, starting to feel a cold sweat. He must have gotten turned around somehow in the middle. Then he heard something like the opening of the door above. He heard the click and slam of it closing, and then the thud of boots against the floorboards.
The kid or that old man, Bill decided, coming for the gold. He moved back towards the center of the room, reminding himself to make sure and not fall in that hole. He moved slowly and carefully. No use in giving his location away. Bill thought about his lighter. He took it out of his pocket, held it. He’d light it just long enough to see and then shoot. He’d be taking a big chance, but he hoped the sudden light in this dark basement would blind the other fellow for just a moment.
The footsteps reached the stairs. They started down it, the boards creaking under their tread even louder than they had for Bill. From in front of him and how had he missed finding them? Must be the grandfather then. Sounded way too heavy for the kid.
Big Bill felt his foot strike against something. Keeping his gun ready, he reached down and felt something that made his blood run cold. He picked it up. He could see just well enough to see that stupid corpse-candle. Wait, didn’t that mean the open pit lay here? Bill looked down frantically. He even stomped to make sure. Nothing, no sign of either the hole or the gold. But how could that be?
The footsteps reached the bottom of the stairs, began slowly crossing the room. Bill looked, could make out a tall and broad figure. He flicked his lighter, raised his pistol and fired.
The lighter showed him the other man. Tall, solid, wearing clothes almost a century out of date. Hair thick and wild, and eyes as cold as death. Killer’s eyes. Schaumboch’s eyes.
The useless pistol dropped from Big Bill’s hands to thud softly against the floor.
Schaumboch closed in, his axe glinting.