‘This is it. The old Gideon place.’
The Kid screwed up his eyes as though glowering into the sun as he drank in the blistered clapboard. Greying windows and overpowering weeds defeating any efforts to make the front yard look even vaguely cultivated.
‘Looks just plain creepy to me,’ he snorted as a loose fascia creaked in the breeze.
Heyes grunted impatiently and cursed under his breath. ‘Damn it. Why did I ever tell you that it was supposed to be haunted? It’s an old lady’s house. She ain’t fit enough to keep the place up and she needs some handymen; and we need the money. You scared of an old lady now? I met her, she’s real sweet.’
‘I don’t like it.’
‘Thaddeus, we’re not even sleeping here. We work during the day and go the hotel at night. We get paid, we get fed; all we need to pay for is the room. It’s a sweet deal.’
‘I s’pose... but...’
‘But what? You don’t even have to go in. I’ll do any inside work if you want.’
‘I’ll hold you to that, Joshua.’
‘You don’t have to. I’m not going to listen to that old fool in town. In my experience the living are far more dangerous than the dead. Besides, she’s a real good cook, her pie just melted in my mouth.’
‘I knew I should have come with you yesterday. All I got was to chop logs in the blazin’ sun while you got pie. I swear, if you fell in a river you’d come out dry with a salmon in your pocket,’ the Kid declared bitterly as he dismounted with a sour look spreading over his face.
He put his hands on his lean hips and eyed the daunting undergrowth.
‘What’s the first job then, Heyes? Find the lost tribe or the house?’
‘Is this the friend you told me about?’
Mrs. Gideon stood at the door, resting heavily on the ebony canes she held in each hand. She was a plump little woman, her full skirts and bust bulging over her tight waistband giving her the appearance of a two tiered doughnut; the theme continuing in the tight, grey bun nestled on the top of her head.
The Kid smiled charmingly at her, but couldn’t help darting an uneasy glance over her shoulder to the shadowy hallway behind as he held out a welcoming hand.
‘Thaddeus. Thaddeus Jones.’
‘Is something wrong, son?’ she asked tentatively, twitching her head round to see what he was looking at.
‘You look worried,’ her face broke into a beaming smile, her cornflower blue eyes dancing with amusement. ‘Have you been listening to those stories? Has old Sid been talking?’
The Kid shook his head furiously. ‘I never met him... Heyes... he told me.’
‘Well, I’m glad to hear it. He’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that this place is haunted.’
‘And that doesn’t bother you, ma’am?’ asked Heyes.
‘Why would it? I told him that.’ She looked at their shocked faces with open amusement. ‘Don’t you believe in ghosts, Mr. Smith?’
‘Can’t say I do, ma’am,’ he replied, a dry smile playing around his lips.
She smiled wryly at them. ‘Me neither.’
‘But why? Why would you tell him that?’ demanded the Kid.
‘Because he’s the biggest blabbermouth in town and he hangs out with any drifter who’ll buy him a drink. I’m an old lady who lives on the outskirts of town and I could easily be a target for any thieves passing through,’ the smile fell from her face before she rapidly added, ‘not that I have anything worth stealing though, it’s just a kind of extra insurance, you understand.’
Heyes nodded sagely as his dark eyes glittered strangely. ‘I guess it doesn’t hurt, ma’am,’ he darted an amused look at the Kid. ‘There are always some who’d be put off by it.’
‘Well, I don’t have anything to worry about with you two. You both have such lovely eyes. They’re the window to the soul you know.’
The Kid tipped his hat. “Thank you, ma’am. Where do you want us to start?”
The Kid paused, sweat trickling down his the back of his neck before he gave the tangled, snagging mass of prickly tendrils a final tug, slipping backwards onto his backside with a loud curse.
‘Whoaa!’ he exclaimed, jumping in surprise at finding a long, pale-blue gingham skirt standing right beside his head.
‘Where did you spring from?’ He followed the folds of fabric upwards to drink in the young woman who stood next to him before his face broke into a smile at the tender young woman gazing softly down at him.
Her eyebrows flicked up in an open welcome. ‘I’m sorry, did I frighten you? I expect you were too engrossed in those bushes.’
She gave him a simple frank smile which lit up her pretty face from within.
‘I’m Hannah Gideon. Just leave those bushes. They don’t need to be disturbed. There are plenty of things you can do which will make the place look tidy quickly without going to all that trouble. The roots must be at least three feet deep.’
The Kid drew a grubby hand across his face, backhanding away his gleaming beads of sweat as he examined her. Her hazel eyes had tiny flecks of gold in them which caught the light, burning like jewels above a pert little nose and a full sensuous mouth.
There was an innate serenity and lightness about her which radiated a genuinely cheerful welcome and he suddenly felt happier to be here than he had since he had ridden up to the front gate.
‘I didn’t know there was any one else here except Mrs. Gideon,’ he climbed rapidly to his feet.
‘I don’t suppose there is,’ she gave a tinkling little laugh. ‘I’m Mrs. Gideon too. I married her son.’
‘Oh,’ the Kid fought to keep the disappointment from his voice. ‘Her son? I didn’t realise she had a son. I’m Thaddeus. Thaddeus Jones.’
Her remarkable eyes narrowed, before she shook her head. She had pale brown hair with rich, burning undertones which caught the bright sunlight like pulled caramel.
‘It’s good to meet you, Thaddeus. He’s not around anymore. He’s gone. That’s why the place is such a state. I stay to make sure that she’s safe and well. She’s such a lovely woman. Very kind. She’s like a mother to me.’
‘I’m sorry.’ The Kid didn’t really know what else to say. It was clear that her husband had deserted her , but from the way she spoke of him he was unable to see this as anything other than pretty good news all round.
She gave an indifferent shrug and gave him a sideways glance as she fingered the elaborate enamelled pendant at her neck. ‘Don’t be. I‘m just fine with things the way they are.’
His interest was piqued. So, she didn’t miss him and she was truly very lovely. His time here could be much better than he had expected.
He glanced around the garden, putting his hands casually on his hips as patches of sweat darkened his blue shirt. ‘Where would you like me to start next then, ma’am?’
‘You look warm. Why don’t you get your friend and go and take a break? Mother Gideon has put out some lemonade,’ she pointed over towards an area where some washing hung in breezeless sunshine, ‘then you can start over there.’ As she put out a delicate, pale arm to point out towards the shrubbery at the front of the building the Kid sucked in a breath at the scars on her arm, revealed beneath the three quarter length sleeve as it drew back against her flesh.
‘You hurt yourself, ma’am?’
She dropped her eyes, along with her arm, trying to conceal the wounds along with any truth her gaze might expose. ‘It was a long time ago. It’s fine now. Nothing hurts me anymore.’
She turned and strode off towards the house, turning only at the Kid’s voice. ‘Ma’am, I know a flat iron burn when I see it. One can be an accident, but three in a row up your arm like that? Someone did that to you.’
She stiffened and turned with a quiet smile. ‘I’m fine, honestly. Go and get your lemonade.’
‘I tell you, Joshua. I hope he comes back here while we’re still here. It’s gotta be him! It had to have been done by her husband; she didn’t say much but it was the way she spoke about him, the tone of her voice as though he was completely dead to her. I’ve seen deserted wives before and they’re usually real angry. She ain’t! She’s, well.... almost relieved. Kind of content, like.’
Heyes nodded. ‘I guess you would feel like that if you’ve been systematically terrified for a long time. She must be pleased it’s all over and she can live a free life. The old woman never mentioned her though, but then she never said she lived alone either now I come to think of it. I just assumed.’
‘Got me wonderin’ what she meant, stayin’ here to make sure the old lady’s well. You think he used to hit his Ma too and she’s makin’ sure that he don’t get her if he comes back?’
Black eyes burned into the Kid’s deep blue pools. ‘There are men low enough for that, that’s for sure, but she probably just helps her out. The old lady is kinda crippled.’
‘Let’s hope so, Joshua,’ the Kid shook his tousled head. ‘I got the feelin’ it was way more than just cookin’ and cleanin’. It just sounded like some sort of safekeepin’; like she was waitin’ for somethin’ to happen? ’
Heyes drained the last of his lemonade and peered pensively into thick bottom of the glass. ‘Well, back to work I guess, but they’re safe while we’re here, that’s for sure. Makes you want to do a real good job for them, eh?’
‘Food boys! As I promised, an evening meal,’ the elder Mrs. Gideon yelled from the kitchen window. ‘it’ll be ready in about half an hour.’
‘Thanks, ma’am. We’ll make sure we’re washed up and ready for then. Cut down most of the overgrown shrubs. Just got one more patch to sort and we’re done for the day,’ called Heyes.
‘I can’t believe how much you’ve done in a day. You’ve done a great job.’
And indeed they had. All the large bushes had been cut back and huge weeds pulled up and stacked in an unruly pile in the centre of the yard. The rough work had been done and bit more delicate trimming and tidying would soon make this look more like a garden than a wild copse. The bramble patch was the only area left and they advanced on it determinedly.
‘What are you doing?’
They swung round to see Hannah Gideon standing behind them
‘Call me Hannah! Please just leave that area.’
Heyes drank in the delicate frame of the woman who had moved so determinedly in front of them.
‘Ma’am, we’ve cleared down everywhere else. It won’t look right if we leave a huge patch of brambles and thorns in the corner.’
‘I don’ care. I don’t want that area disturbed.’
‘Ma’am , it’s easy. We just pull up the plants and then dig up the roots. Won’t take above twenty minutes or so with two of us.’
Her eyes widened in alarm. ‘Dig? No, you can’t dig there.’
The two men shot a glance at one another. Why was she so worried about this corner being excavated?
‘We just want to do a good job for you, ma’am,’ the Kid spoke calmly as though he were addressing a particularly skittish horse.
There was an edge of panic to her voice which cut straight to their hearts as she nervously fingered her enamelled pendant. ‘No, please. I buried... a cat there. I couldn’t cope with it being dug up.’
Heyes cast appraising eyes over the long mound under the prickly patch. It looked long and thin; in fact it looked to be about the size of a human. The hackles started to rise on the back of his neck as an acid chill cut right through him.
He suddenly had no desire to excavate that spot; in fact you couldn’t pay him enough.
‘You’re the boss, ma’am.’
He tossed down his shovel and gestured with his head towards the Kid. ‘ Let’s get washed up for dinner.’
They strode over to the well, the Kid muttering uneasily under his breath. ‘I’ve lost my appetite, Heyes. Let’s get outta here. That corner gives me the creeps.’
‘Me too. What the hell do you think is down there?’
‘Whatever it is I’ll stake my life on it bein’ a whole lot bigger than a cat.’
‘Heyes, you don’t think it’s him do you?’
Heyes turned and stared deeply into his partner’s eyes as a dark eyebrow flicked up in question. ‘I really don’t want to find out. You up for just hot tailin’ it out of here?’
A high pitched scream cut through the air as their blood curdled at the dreadful screech which echoed through their heads like nails on a blackboard.
‘What the hell? What now?’ demanded the Kid.
‘A good job you were here boys,’ the doctor stood in the kitchen and rummaged around in his bag. ‘She could have lain there for long enough in agony. Don’t look good though. Ain’t many her age can survive this.’
‘A broken hip?’ asked the Kid.
‘Yup, usually turns into pneumonia. I’ll get women from the church to look after her. She’s on her own.’
‘But the woman? Hannah.’ The Kid shrugged. 'She just disappeared. We couldn’t waste time lookin’ for her. I went for you while my partner stayed with Mrs. Gideon.’
The doctor snorted. ‘Hannah? She disappeared with that rat of a husband of hers about five years ago. Ain’t nobody seen either of them since.’
‘But we spoke to her,’ pressed the Kid.
‘You got it wrong boys. This is a small town and we’d know if she was here. George Gideon was a nasty piece of work. Went bad when his father died young. I treated poor Hannah and her mother after many a beating. Good riddance to him I say.’
‘But, I saw her.’
Heyes darted a warning look at the Kid urging him to be silent. If Hannah had been hiding out here after some kind of tragedy followed a spirited defence, who were they to turn her in?
The doctor snorted. ‘Well, that’s easy sorted. Let’s look around the place. If she’s been living around here there’ll be signs.’
He strode across the hall and thrust open the door to the only other bedroom in the house before the cry of alarm pounded into their consciousness. ‘OH, my good god in heaven! I’ve never seen anything like this in all my born days.’
Heyes and Curry sat nervously at the kitchen table as lawmen swarmed over the house. They were not suspected, but they were no more comfortable at being at the heart of an investigation than they would have been sitting in Mrs. Gideon’s spare bedroom. They had seen the body of George Gideon in the chair in the bedroom, the rictus grin of the leather covered skeleton grinning horrifically from beneath the empty black globes. His body had clearly been concealed by his mother for years, but where was Hannah? They certainly hadn’t run off together.
Arsenic, the doctor had said. Small doses over a long period can lead to mummification. Maybe it had been the only way that Mrs. Gideon could control her violent son; to weaken him systematically. Perhaps it had been deliberate, maybe it had been an accident. Who would ever know for sure?
The Kid began to brood, his hair-trigger instincts had been alerted to something. But what?
‘Where are you going?’ Heyes demanded as the Kid stood and stormed out of the kitchen.
‘The garden; that patch in the garden. I gotta see what’s under it.’
‘No, just leave it. We’ll be out of here soon.’
He rounded on Heyes, his blue eyes a swirling maelstrom of emotion. ‘She was determined to stop us diggin’ that up. I want to know why.’
Heyes watched helplessly as the Kid started yanking furiously at the prickly jungle with gloved hands before he gave in and helped. By the time it was cleared of shrubbery, men from the house had gathered round to watch curiously at first, then deeply intrigued, when they had heard just how hard Hannah had tried to prevent any work in that area. The Kid pulled back a rock and hissed a warning to Heyes who was just about to thrust his shovel into the earth once again.
‘It’s bones. A foot.’
‘Human?’ demanded one of the men.
‘Yes,’ the Kid reluctantly confirmed, horror eating into the pit of his stomach.
Heyes delicately worked at the earth with his hands before he sucked in a breath and stared at his cousin with eyes like polished jet. ‘Thaddeus,’ he pronounced the name carefully and deliberately as a skull came into view. ‘Have you seen the necklace?’
The Kid looked down at the dirty grey brown loam, the ivory bones protruding starkly through the earth; but something glittered just below the skull. Gold, pink, blue and purple enamelled flowers on a gold chain, the same one they had both seen fingered by the long delicate fingers at times of anxiety.
The same trepidation which had been especially provoked by any attempt to disturb this sad little resting place.
The Kid saw her amazing hazel and gold eyes in his mind’s eye as he heard her words play through his mind as though they had been breathed secretly into his ear.
‘I stay to make sure that she’s safe and well. Nothing hurts me anymore.’