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WIDOWS WERE SCARCE IN Lobelia Falls, Ontario. Mrs. Zilla Trott might therefore have been regarded as something of a rarity, not that she couldn't have made it into the rarity class on her own merits. Tonight, sensibly dressed for a brisk October evening in leather scuffs, heavy wool socks, a long red flannel nightgown, a pink crocheted bed jacket, and a matching cap that sat jauntily on her abundant, close-cropped gray hair, she had added an old blue sweater of her late husband's to her ensemble and stepped out into the back yard to salute the harvest moon. Her cat, Nemea, had followed dutifully at Zilla's well-protected heels. Their brief moonwalk completed, Nemea had followed Zilla back into the kitchen without demur, hiss, spit, or catly cuss. At the moment, Nemea was sitting on the drain-board watching Zilla put her soybeans to sprout, and Zilla was worried.
"What's got into you tonight, Nemea? Why didn't you stay out awhile and go helling around with the rest of the cats, eh? I hope you're not coming down with something."
Nemea certainly didn't look to be ailing. She'd been named, not inappropriately, for the Nemean Lion. A fine strapping figure of a feline, she was bigger than most cats unless you counted lynxes and pumas, which even the most ardent cat lovers are often reluctant to do. Nemea's eyes were huge and green, they bore an inscrutable glint that had cowed many dogs and not a few humans. Her fur was a rich copper-gold color with streaks of strawberry roan. Thanks to all the wheat germ and yogurt with which Zilla supplemented Nemea's carefully balanced diet, and possibly also to the odd mouse or chipmunk she added on her own hook, the magnificent animal's pelt fairly glistened.
She was gleaming now in the lamplight. Her eyes were bright as emeralds, her pink nose was moist, her fine stand of whiskers showed not the barest hint of a droop. Yet Nemea couldn't fool her keen-eyed mistress. She was not a happy cat.
"I guess likely what I'd better do is make us both a nice cup of camomile tea."
Zilla put a lot of faith in camomile; she grew her own, of course. She filled the kettle, little recking what a handsome picture she made with the lamplight picking out coppery reflections on the high-bridged nose that revealed her part Cree heritage. She put another stick in the wood stove, for the night was chill and she wanted the fire to hold over till morning. She was just setting the kettle on the front lid when she heard from behind her a rather tentative "Boo!"
People didn't lock their doors much in Lobelia Falls, Zilla naturally assumed this must be one of the neighbor's kids practicing up for Halloween. She whirled around, all set to fling up her hands and exclaim, "My stars and garters!" as protocol demanded. However, her ensuing amazement was totally unfeigned.
There on her well-scrubbed linoleum stood an elderly man whom Zilla had never laid eyes on before in all her born days and could have done nicely without now. His gray mustache was even more striking than Nemea's, but that was the only impressive thing about him. His attire could best be described as rough: his baggy dark-gray trouser legs were stuffed into scuffed old boots with dirt caked on them, his gray flannel shirt had about as much class as a worn-out mop. The dark rag tied around his neck wouldn't have been fit to wipe out a coal bin with, and the billycock felt hat on his grizzled head was an out-and-out disgrace. Zilla's hand snaked out and grabbed the poker from beside the stove.
"Boo yourself, you dirty old goat! What's the big idea, barging in here unasked and scaring the daylights out of a defenseless widow? Not to mention her cat." Nemea had her back up and her tail bushed out, she was spitting a blue streak and Zilla didn't blame her. "You just turn around and waltz yourself out of my kitchen before I lam you one with this poker."
"That's a hell of a way to talk to company," grunted the interloper. "Ain't you even wonderin' who I am?"
"Not particularly. You don't look like any relative I'd care to own, that's for sure. Unless you're that no-good bum Aunt Jessamine got herself tied to back in nineteen forty-two. I thought you'd died of hobnail liver ages ago. I can't remember your name."
"Don't make no never mind. I ain't him an' never was. I'd o' known better than to get myself roped in by any she-devil of a woman."
"Huh! What makes you think any woman in her right mind would want you? What are you here for anyway? There's nothing in the house worth stealing except my family Bible and I expect that's the last thing you'd want. If you're after a handout, I'll give you some fricassee of tofu and a tumbler of buttermilk but you'll have to eat it out in the woodshed. And you'd darn well better not smoke, or I'll turn the hose on you."
"Cripes, you're a mean one, you an' that redheaded mountain lion you got there. I been nose to nose with a chargin' grizzly bear, an' that bugger was some ugly! But it couldn't hold a candle to you two."
Even so, the man stepped forward. Zilla raised the poker. "You come one step closer, mister, and I'll lay you out flat as a barn door."
The gray whiskers swept upward. The old goat was grinning at her. "Go ahead, sister, hit me. I dare you." He took the forbidden step.
Healthful diet, hard work, ample exercise, and lots of practice at the archery butts as a member of the Grub-and-Stake Gardening and Roving Club had kept Zilla Trott in the finest of fettle. Her strength was as the strength of ten on account of all those bean sprouts, she whanged with will and purpose. Great, then, was Zilla's astonishment when the stranger just stood there and took the blow. Greater still was her dismay when the poker encountered no obstacle except her own right shin.
"Ouch! You moved, you coward."
"Do it again," the man offered magnanimously. "Thrash away as much as you've a mind to. How 'bout tryin' a backhander this time? Take a good holt on my chin whiskers so's I can't turn my head away."
Exasperated, Zilla made a grab for the ratty gray beard. Her hand encountered nothing. She swung the poker sideways and again hit nothing.
"Well, I'll be gum-swizzled! What is this, anyway? Am I having a nightmare?"
"Nope. Take a look at your cat. She knows."
Yes, Nemea knew. Suddenly, so did Zilla. "Well, dip me for a sheep! I thought ghosts were supposed to be gray and fuzzy."
"I'm gray an' fuzzy, ain't I?"
"Come to think of it, you are. Wait till I tell Minerva! How long have you been haunting me?"
"Oh, I dunno. Us ghosts don't pay no mind to time. I been out in the woodshed mostly, just kind o' moochin' around an' gettin' the feel of bein' a haunt. I forgot where I was before that. Moulderin' away in some lonesome graveyard, I s'pose. How do I look?"
"Not too bad, considering." Zilla wasn't exactly warming up to her unexpected visitant, but she was beginning to feel a bit embarrassed about the poker. A hostess did have certain responsibilities, after all. "I don't suppose there's any use offering you a cup of camomile tea?"
"Well, I s'pose you might try, though I'm not sure I got any place to put it. Go ahead an' have yours, I'll just hang around an' watch. Cat gets a snort too, does she?"
"Oh, yes. Nemea likes a little cream in hers, though. There you are, puss, don't slop it all over the counter. And for goodness' sake unfuzz your tail. He's all right, whoever he is. Do you happen to remember your name, mister?"
"Seems to me it might o' been Hector or Harvey. No, by gorry, it was Hiram! Hiram Jellyby, that was it. Funny how your memory improves once you get off the astral plane. Yup, that was me, Hiram Jellyby. I was a wagon driver by profession. Mules was my specialty. You got any openin's for a disembodied mule skinner around here nowadays?"
"Not in Lobelia Falls, no. Offhand I can't think where I last saw a mule team. I'm sorry, Mr. Jellyby, times change, you know. It's mostly trucks and tractors these days, though in my humble opinion we'd do a darn sight less polluting of the environment with more animals and fewer machines. Here, sit down and make yourself comfortable. If you can sit, that is."
"I'll give 'er a go an' see how she works. I ain't too up on this manifestin' wrinkle yet."
Zilla watched with almost motherly interest while her strange visitor endeavored to accommodate himself to the chair. At first Hiram showed a tendency to ooze down through the seat, but he gradually got the hang of it and looked quite natural sitting there with a cup of camomile tea steaming on the table in front of him. He couldn't raise the cup, of course, but he seemed somehow able to absorb the steam. Zilla was fascinated to see the level of tea in the cup begin to subside, millimeter by millimeter.
As a former mule-team driver, Hiram Jellyby would probably have preferred strong coffee, she thought. Maybe with a plate of beans. Or a doughnut. Zilla herself wouldn't touch a doughnut with a ten-foot pole, unless it happened to be one of Minerva Oakes's. Minerva made the best doughnuts in town, perhaps she'd be willing to donate one or two in the interests of psychical research.
Zilla wondered why she didn't feel more peculiar sitting here drinking tea with a ghost, particularly with the ectoplasm of somebody she'd never met in the flesh, and more particularly in her nightgown. Not that she wasn't decently covered, though she did hope none of her neighbors would notice the light still on in her kitchen and take a notion to drop by for a chat.
Then there was the Peeping Tom whom some of the people who lived over near the inn had complained about lately. Strange things had been happening around there ever since Andy McNaster, the former innkeeper, had dashed off to become a movie star. In Zilla's opinion, that new manager, Hedrick Snarf, was no more up to scratch than a cat in mittens. It was a rotten shame Lemuel Pilchard, Andy's former right-hand man, had had that terrible fall so soon after his boss left town. Lemuel was a crackerjack at innkeeping, but it wasn't a job that a person could do well all wrapped up in plaster.
Hiram Jellyby must have noticed, or perhaps divined by extrasensory perception, that his hostess's mind was wandering. He broke into her reverie with a quite reasonable question. "Speakin' of names, missus, you mind tellin' me yours?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. My name is Zilla Trott. Mrs. Michael Trott, to be precise, though I've been a widow for thirty years. My husband was lost at sea."
In point of fact, the late Mr. Trott had met his demise trying to run the rapids on Big Pussytoes in a borrowed kayak while under the influence of some mysterious potion that he and a few friends had cooked up in a borrowed washtub one Victoria Day weekend, but Zilla saw no reason why she couldn't gild the lily a bit, as Mike himself would have done. She was something of a romantic at heart though a person might not think so to look at her, particularly when she was on the warpath about one thing or another, as she frequently was.
It occurred to Zilla that Michael Trott might have taken the trouble to manifest himself in place of this mangy old coot. Perhaps he would, when he got around to it. Punctuality had never been Mike's obsession; Zilla had often told him he'd be late for his own funeral. In a way, her prediction had come true. Mike's body hadn't come ashore till more than a week after he'd been drowned, although his would-be rescuers had salvaged the kayak right away. They never did find the paddle; it was thought to have been claimed as salvage by a family of rather tough and rowdy beavers who lived downstream. Nobody had wanted to tackle a beaver on the question of prior rights, so the matter had been allowed to drop.
Well, that was all water over the rapids now. Unlike her friend Minerva, Zilla wasn't one to keep open house for every wayfaring stranger who wandered along. She was emphatically not keen on having an unkempt specter oozing through her furniture for any extended length of time. A person could hardly come straight out and say so, but she supposed it wouldn't hurt to hint around a little.
"Are you here on business, Mr. Jellyby, or just passing through?"
"Hell, Miz Trott, just call me Hiram. Damned if I know what I'm here for. Wait a minute, maybe I do. Yep, it's comin'! Bones, that's it. Bones."
"Any bones in particular, or just bones in general?"
"My bones, dad-gum it. They got to be buried decent so's I can rest in peace like it says on the tombstones. An' furthermore, they got to be avenged."
"That so? How were you planning to avenge them?"
"Cussed if I know, but I'll think of somethin'. First off the bat, somebody's got to locate 'em for me."
Zilla snorted. "Isn't that just like a man? Leave things around and don't remember where you put 'em. Why can't you find the bones yourself, for Pete's sake?"
"You're kind of a cantankerous old besom, ain't you, Zilla? Meanin' no offense, you understand. Don't ask me why I can't find 'em. All I know is what I read in the Akashic Record. It says there I was murdered."
"Well, that must have been a surprise. Who do you suppose murdered you?"
"Some ornery sidewinder in a black frock coat an' purple gaiters, to the best o' my recollection."
"Are you sure about the purple gaiters?"
It was Hiram's turn to snort. "How do you expect me to be sure of anything, with a wad o' gray fuzz where my brains used to be? Assumin' they ever was, which I ain't sure of neither. But it does strike me them gaiters was purple. Or maybe kind of purply blue."
"Or blue with purple polka dots?" Zilla didn't mean to be sarcastic but purple gaiters on a murderer were a bit hard to swallow coming from a mule driver's ghost in the dead of night. "Was the killer a man or a woman?"
"Man, I think. Could o' been a woman, now that you mention it. Some o' them dance hall girls was pretty tough babies."
"I can imagine. They'd also be more apt than a man to wear purple gaiters, wouldn't you think? How did you die? Were you shot, stabbed, poisoned, strangled, or hit over the head with something heavy?"
"You left out drowned, smothered, an' blown up with dynamite."
"If you'd been blown up with dynamite," Zilla pointed out reasonably, "I shouldn't think there'd have been any bones left to find. Didn't the Akashic Record let on what happened, for Pete's sake?"
"Could of, I s'pose. I was so cussed mad I plumb forgot to look. All I could think of was gettin' my mitts on that bugger who done me in."
"But Hiram, didn't it occur to you that your murderer must also be dead by now? I don't know when they stopped driving mule teams around here but it must have been quite a while back. I'll have to ask Grandsire Coskoff. He's our oldest inhabitant in Lobelia Falls. Oldest living inhabitant, anyway," Zilla amended out of politeness. "Grandsire will know if anybody does. He was born in 1894, if my memory serves me."
"Huh. Just a kid, next to me."
"What year were you born?"
"I dunno, maybe it'll come to me. Who's out there?"
"Out where?" Zilla glanced nervously at the door that led to the woodshed. "I don't hear anything. Maybe I'd better go look."
"Maybe you better not, it's prob'ly a skunk. Anyways, as I started to say, the reason this bugger in the purple gaiters killed me was so that he, or she, or maybe it for all I know, could steal my treasure."
"What treasure, Hiram? Your Sunday teeth?"
"Don't get funny, woman. This was a real treasure, dad-burn it. Gold pieces, a whole trunk chock-full of 'em. I dug it up, me an' the mules. They was thirsty, see, an' they could smell water close under the sod, so they started diggin' with their hooves. Mules are a dern sight smarter than they're given credit for. People don't appreciate mules. Nor mule drivers neither."
The ghost lapsed into moody silence, Zilla wasn't standing for that. "Never mind the mules, get on to the treasure. How did you find it?"
"Well, like I was sayin', the mules found water but it was just sort o' seepin' up an' not collectin'. So I got a shovel out o' the wagon. Us mule drivers never traveled without a shovel 'cause we never knew when we'd have to dig ourselves out of a hole or bury a pardner that had died o' lead poisonin'. Or rotgut whiskey, as the case might o' been. Anyways, I begun scoopin' out a good, big water hole so's me an' the mules could all drink together."
"That was sociable of you."
Excerpted from The Grub-And-Stakers House A Haunt by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1993 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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