The Haunted Store

The Chronic Loafer cautiously opened the door and peered out into the
black night. A blinding flash of lightning zigzagged across the heavens
and descended to earth in a nearby wheat field, disclosing to his view
the clear outlines of a great oak whose limbs were thrashing wildly in
the wind. There was a sound of splintering wood, a crash of thunder
overhead, then darkness again. The door swung shut with a startled bang.
The rain beat violently against the windows.

“The ole tree’s hit agin,” the Loafer cried. “Did ye see that flash?
Mighty souls, what a night! I wisht I’d gone home ’fore it begin to come
down so heavy. I hevn’t no umbrelly, an’ the Missus’ll never hear me
callin’ in sech a storm.”

The store was a gloomy place, lighted as it was by a solitary oil lamp
which cast weird shadows in the recesses of the dusty ceiling and
over the shelves, laden with their motley collection of crockery and
glassware, boxes and cans. There was no fire in the stove, for it was
late in the spring, so the atmosphere was damp and chilly.

The G. A. R. Man joined the Loafer at the door.

“Bad, ain’t it?” he said. “I guesst I don’t go home be way o’ the
Meth’dis’ buryin’-ground to-night.”

The other laughed and cried, “My sights! ’Fraid o’ the buryin’-ground!”

The pair sauntered back to their places about the cheerless stove. The
Storekeeper leaned his chair against the counter, fixed his feet firmly
on the rungs and clasped both knees tightly with his hands.

“You can laugh an’ say they ain’t no sech things ez spooks,” he said,
“but I notice that you uns an’ most other folks ’hen ye walks be the
buryin’-ground at night, cuts th’oo the fields ez fur ’way from it ez ye
can git.”

The Loafer reddened. For a moment he beat his feet slowly against the
side of the counter on which he had seated himself between the Miller and
the Tinsmith. Then he retorted hotly, “I hain’t sayd they was no sech
things ez spooks.”

“Mebbe they is an’ mebbe they ain’t,” ventured the Miller in a low tone.
“But ef they ain’t, why hesn’t Abe Scissors ben able to git a tenant fer
that leetle place o’ his back on the ridge? They sais it hes a ha’nt, an’
tho’ I’ve never seen it, I knows folks that sais they hes, an’ I’ve no
reasons to doubt their words.”

The G. A. R. Man nodded his head in assent. “I don’t b’lieve in them
ghosts meself, but ’hen it comes to goin’ home be way o’ the Meth’dis’
buryin’-ground at night I allus goes the back road, even ef it is furder.”

There was silence. Outside the rain beat furiously against the windows;
in the garret overhead the wind whistled mournfully; from the cellar
below came the faint clatter of loose boards as the rats scampered to and
fro.

The Storekeeper reached behind him and turned the wick of the lamp up a
little higher.

The Miller slipped from his place on the counter and seated himself on
the box beside the veteran. He filled and lighted his clay pipe, and
began: “My gran’pap used to tell how night after night he heard the churn
splashin’ down in his spring-house; an’ how he stepped out once to find
out what done it. He seen the sperrit of his first wife churnin’ an’
churnin’, an’ she told him how lest some un ’ud break the spell she’d hev
to—-”

The Chronic Loafer had glided off the counter and was rolling a keg close
to the speaker. He fixed himself comfortably on it; then cried, “Turn up
that there light. This dark hurts a felly’s eyes.”

The Tinsmith glanced furtively behind him into the blackness beneath the
counter. He pushed himself from his perch, intending to join the little
knot about the stove. Hardly had he reached the floor and taken one step
when he halted.

“Ssh! What’s that?”

The Miller dropped his pipe. The Storekeeper paled and nervously grasped
the back of his chair. The Chronic Loafer arose to his feet, his upraised
arms trembling visibly. The G. A. R. Man, with eyes and mouth wide open,
sat up rigidly upon his keg.

From the cellar beneath, low, but so distinct as to be heard above the
patter of the rain and the rattle of the windows, came the sound of
footsteps. It lasted but a moment, and then seemed to die away in the
distance.

The Chronic Loafer broke the silence. “Sights! I’m goin’. The Missus’ll
be gittin’ worrit.”

He hurried to the door, but as he opened it there was a blinding flash of
lightning, a crash of thunder, and the whole building trembled. A gust of
wind drove the rain against the windows with redoubled vigor. He slammed
the door shut and returned to his keg.

“Wha–what’s that?” exclaimed the G. A. R. Man.

The Storekeeper shook his head mournfully. “It’s the ha’nt that give my
pap so much trouble.”

“A ha’nt!” cried the Loafer and the Miller, their teeth chattering.

“Yes,” replied the Storekeeper, leaning his chair back on two legs.
“That’s what Pap use to say it was. He seen it. I never did, but ef you
uns draws up closer I’ll tell ye what he sayd about it.”

Nothing loath to get as near as possible to each other the men, seated on
chairs, kegs and boxes, formed a little circle about the Storekeeper, who
began his story in a voice hardly above a whisper.

“My pap, you uns knows, run this here store an’ done a pretty lively
trade tell the year ’fore he died. He bo’t it off o’ ole Ed Harmon, who’d
kep’ it a long while. You uns may remember Ed, or mebbe ye don’t. He was
a mean man ef they ever was one; never hesytatin’ to give short measure
in sellin’ butter an’ takin’ long in buyin’; allus buyin’ eggs be the
baker’s dozen an’ sellin’ ’em the reg’lar way; usin’ a caliker stick an
inch short of the yard. It don’t take many years o’ that kind o’ tradin’
to hurt a man’s repytation in these parts, an’ consequent ’hen he died
he’d the name o’ bein’ ’bout the dishonestest felly in the county, ef you
uns reck’lect.”

“That I do,” the Miller interposed. “An’ the sugar he sold was that wet
ye could ’a’ squeezed a tin o’ wotter outen every pound.”

“My sights!” cried the Loafer.

“Sure,” continued the Storekeeper, “an’ ’cordin’ to Pap, who hed the name
fer tellin’ the truth, them was his footsteps we heard jest now.”

“Sam Hill!” muttered the G. A. R. Man. “His body’s in the Meth’dis’
buryin’-ground.”

The Chronic Loafer cast an anxious glance toward the entrance to the
store-room, from which a stairway wound down into the cellar. The
Tinsmith shifted his chair closer into the circle. There was a roll of
thunder along the mountains, a flash of lightning that seemed to find the
earth somewhere among the distant ridges, but the rain was still pouring
down in torrents.

“True. That’s what Pap sayd,” the Storekeeper continued in a low, awed
tone. “He told me all about it afore he died, an’ I guesst he told me
right, fer we’ve heard his footsteps an’ my sugar hes ben wet lately.”

“So my Missus hes ben complainin’–still–but—-”

The Storekeeper was slightly ruffled by this interruption and glared for
a moment at its author, the Loafer. Then he resumed his narrative.

“It tuk Pap considerable time to build up his trade, but he give square
measure, an’ by an’ by the folks begin comin’ here ’stead o’ goin’ to
Kishikoquillas. Then the trouble started. One day he found a chip stuck
in the scales he used fer buyin’ meat on, so it wouldn’t weigh more’n
fifty pounds. He licked me, that he did, tho’ I never done it. Next day
he found another stick there, an’ he was that mad he licked me agin. Then
I went away fer a week, an’ every mornin’ reg’lar he found that chip. He
begin to feel queer ’bout it ’hen he seen I wasn’t responsible. So every
day he pulled the chip out, tell final it stopped. He thot it was rats.

“Things run ’long all right fer a year, an’ then folks begin to complain
that the sugar was damp, an’ blamed Pap fer wettin’ it to make it weigh.
He sayd he didn’t, an’ he didn’t, fer he wasn’t no man to tell nawthin’
but the truth, let alone to treat his sugar dishonest. But the customers
begin to drop off buyin’ an’ he to be afraid o’ losin’ his trade. What
was more, he seen that sugar he got in the bawrel ez dry ez a chip one
night was damp next mornin’. ’Hen he declared it wasn’t his fault, folks
wouldn’t believe him, an’ they was no denyin’ it, them goods was soakin’.
So he concided he’d find out jest what was wrong. He found out an’ never
hed no more peace. What happened I tell you exactly ez he told me, an’
I ain’t hed no cause to disbelieve what he sayd, fer he wasn’t a man to
waste words.

“One night, jest after he’d got in a bawrel o’ granilated, he went to
the cellar an’ made ’rangements to discover the trouble. He hed his ole
shot-gun along an’ hung an ile lantern to a joist in the middle. Then
he set down on a pile o’ sacks in a corner to watch. He wasn’t a bit
skeered at first, fer the lantern was burnin’ cheery. An hour went by,
an’ he begin to git weary; they was no signs of anything wrong. Then
another, an’ he begin to doze off. How long he slep’ he didn’t know, but
a foot-fall woke him, an’ he set up on the pile o’ sacks an’ looked. The
lantern was flickerin’ low, fer the ile hed most burned out, so they was
only a dim light in the placet. His heart stopped beatin’, an’ his breath
wouldn’t come. Fer a moment they was dead silence. The lantern seemed
like it was a-goin’ to go out.

“Over from the other end of the cellar come a faint sound like the
splashin’ of wotter, drippin’, drippin’, drippin’. Pap raised hisself on
his knees, all a-tremblin’. They was another spell o’ quiet; then the
same sound of a foot-fall; then ’nother an’ ’nother; an’ every time it
made his heart thump like ’twould break an’ jarred him all over. Out o’
the dark, into the light o’ the lantern, come the figur’ of an ole man,
walkin’ slow, step be step, ’crosst the cellar toward the sugar bawrel.
Pap rubbed his eyes in surprise, fer the felly was Ed Harmon, who for
eight year had ben layin’ in the Meth’dis’ buryin’-ground, never missed.
He wore that ole shiny black coat o’ hisn, his broken, patched boots, an’
gray cap; ’bout his neck was wound a blue woolen comforter, an’ in his
hand he kerried a bucket o’ wotter. He’d wrapped a piece o’ paper ’round
the han’le to keep it from cuttin’ his fingers. His face was all white
like it used to be, ’cept his nose, which was red from his drinkin’ too
much hard cider. He walked all doubled up, fer the bucket seemed to blow
him consid’able.

“Pap laid quiet at first, he was so scared, tremblin’ all over, with his
teeth chatterin’ to beat all. Sudden Ed stopped right under the lantern
an’ set the bucket down, the wotter splashin’ over the side an’ goin’
up in a fog ’hen it struck the floor. Then he straightened up like to
stretch his back, an’ raised his hands to his mouth an’ begin to blow on
’em. Pap didn’t hear no sound but he seen the lamp flickerin’; an’ at the
sight o’ Ed standin’ there so nat’ral his courage come back.

“After the ghos’ hed stopped a minute his face twisted like he was
groanin’, an’ he picked up the bucket an’ started on toward the sugar
bawrel. ’Hen Pap seen that, he clean forgot it was a sperrit, it looked
so lifelike. He jumped up an’ run out yellin’, ‘Here you, Ed Harmon,
don’t you dast put that wotter on my sugar!’

“The ghos’ stopped, turned ’round an’ looked at Pap. Pap stopped an’
looked at the ghos’. The appyrition set the bucket down easy an’ blowed
on his hands. That kind o’ cooled the ole man.

“‘You uns ain’t ben treatin’ me right,’ sais Pap, polite like, ‘dampin’
my sugar an’ sp’ilin’ my trade.’

“Ed didn’t say nawthin’, but jest looked at him quiet like an’ give his
comforter another lap ’round the neck.

“‘Now, see here,’ sais Pap, a leetle louder. ‘I’ve found you out, Ed
Harmon, an’ I’ll make it pretty hot fer you ’round these parts ef you
don’t let up.’

“The sperrit turned proud like, blowed on its hands, leaned over an’
picked up the bucket, an’ started trampin’ toward the bawrel agin. Pap
clean forgot hisself. He give a run an’ a kick at the pail, for he’d no
desires to hurt the ole man, but ’tended jest to spill the wotter. He
near dropped dead on the spot, fer his feet went right inter it ’thout
his feelin’ it; the ole thing broke in a dozen pieces, the staves fallin’
in a heap on the floor; the wotter ’rose up in a fog like, an’ fer an
instant he could see nawthin’. It cleared away an’ he noticed one o’ the
hoops rollin’ off inter the dark. He made a run fer it an’ grabbed at it,
but his hand went right up th’oo it. He th’owed his arm out, thinkin’ to
ketch it that ’ay. Ez he looked up he seen the ole hoop revolvin’ there
in the air above him. He give a wild jump at it. His hand struck the
lantern an’ knocked it off the nail. They was a loud crash ez the glass
broke. What happened after that he didn’t know. I found him sleepin’ on
the pile o’ sacks next mornin’.”

“Sights!” cried the Chronic Loafer. He drew his chair closer into
the circle, which by this time had reached the smallest possible
circumference.

The Tinsmith glanced surreptitiously over his shoulder toward the dark
corner where lay the entrance to the store-room.

“It do beat all,” he said.

From the mountains there came the low reverberation of thunder. The storm
had passed the valley and now the rain was falling lightly and the breeze
was dying.

“Was the sugar wet next day?” asked the Miller, nervously biting the end
off the stem of his clay pipe.

“Ssh! Listen!” whispered the Loafer.

There was no sound save the gentle patter of the rain and the swish of
the wind in the maples outside the door.

“It wasn’t,” the Storekeeper answered. “But the trouble began a week
later.”

“It’s a strange story,” said the Tinsmith, “an’ ef any one but your Pap
hed told it I’d hev my suspitchions. But his sugar was damp.”

There was a long silence.

From the cellar came again the weird sound, low but distinct.

The G. A. R. Man arose and seized the lamp from the counter.

“They ain’t no sech things ez ghos’,” he cried. “This is all
foolershness. Ef you fellys comes we’ll find out what that is.”

He shuffled slowly toward the dark end of the store. For a moment his
companions hesitated. Then the Storekeeper joined the leader of the
hazardous enterprise and one by one the others followed. They tiptoed
through the door; they wound their way among the boxes and barrels that
filled the store-room, and reached the head of the stairway that led to
the cellar. Here the G. A. R. Man halted. The lamp in his hand vibrated
to and fro, throwing grotesque shadows on the white ceiling and walls.
The men clustered about him and gazed timidly into the darkness beneath.
He placed one foot on the step, then stopped.

“They ain’t no sech things ez ghos’,” he said.

“Course th-th-they ain’t,” chattered the Miller, who was holding the
Storekeeper by the arm.

“It’s r-r-rats,” the Tinsmith ventured.

“Or a l-l-loose b-b-board,” suggested the veteran.

“Foolershness,” whispered the Loafer, “‘v-v-v-vestig-g-gatin’ ghosts ’hen
they ain’t no sech things. The Missus is settin’ up fer me an’ I’ll hev
to be goin’.”

“Pap allus was superstitchous,” exclaimed the Storekeeper, as he made his
way back through the maze of boxes and barrels to the store in the wake
of the Loafer. The others were hurrying along in the rear.

The rain had ceased. Overhead the black clouds, visible in the bright
starlight, were scurrying away towards the hills. The G. A. R. Man and
the Loafer were parting at the latter’s gate at the end of the village.

“Hev you ben gittin’ any sugar o’ him lately?” asked the veteran,
pointing his thumb over his shoulder in the direction whence they had
come.

“I hev,” replied the Loafer. “An’ I guess ole Ed Harmon is still at it.”

“What do ye think it was?”

“It might ’a’ ben a rat. It might ’a’ ben a loose board. It might ’a’
ben a hundred things like that. I ain’t superstitchous–not a bit
superstitchous.” The speaker paused. “But jest the same I ain’t fer
investigatin’ ghosts,” he added.

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