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Authors: Deb Donahue

Eyes at the Window (9 page)

BOOK: Eyes at the Window
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Chapter 10

As she drove home, Miranda’s anger grew as she thought about Harlan’s clumsy attempt to make the farm seem like an albatross around her neck. Trying to scare her off with tales of ghosts and rumors was completely ridiculous. If anything, all he’d done was increase her resolve to stay.

Knowing that the property had probably been an important part of America’s history made her even more determined to keep it. If it had once been used as part of the Underground Railroad, it made more sense to have it registered as an historical landmark than to sell it to Harlan.

“That’s what I’ll do,” she told Rufus as she pulled in front of the gate at the head of her lane. She would go to the local library on Monday to research the history of the house and talk to someone about the requirements needed to have the farm’s historical past officially documented. There might even be public funds available that could be used to restore the house to its former glory.

When she got out of the car to open the gate, Rufus hopped out also. When she pushed open the gate, he bounded up the lane toward the house, apparently eager to get home. Miranda pulled inside but then stopped and got out of the car. All week she’d left the gate open to make it easier for the workers she’d hired to get in and out. The entrance was far enough away from the house that she had little fear of Rufus somehow getting onto the road and being hit by a car.

Today, however, Harlan had left her feeling anti-social. So not only did she close the gate, but she also wrapped the chain around the post and clicked the padlock shut. If Harlan wanted to bother her again, he’d have to give her advance notice and ask permission.

When she pulled up in front of the house, though, all thoughts of Harlan Hunter were swept from her mind. Rufus had reached the porch ahead of her and was dancing on his hind legs barking furiously. Hanging over him, swaying slightly in the breeze, was a dead rabbit.

The breath caught in Miranda’s throat and she gripped the steering wheel with whitened knuckles. She looked all around for signs of an intruder, the hairs prickling at the back of her neck. No one was in sight.

Her mind raced. Was this a warning of some kind? A threat? Did someone else want to scare her away? Harlan and his hired hand had both been at the fair when she left. It was impossible that they had somehow made it home ahead of her.

She approached the porch carefully, breath held. The rabbit had been gutted even though the pelt was still attached. There were only a few drops of blood on the floor below. Apparently the carcass had been field dressed elsewhere before being left at her doorstep.

Surely someone wanting to scare her would have left a far more gruesome mess for her to find. The rabbit was hung from its hind legs like a hunter might do with a recent kill. Was that it? Had her mysterious hunter come to visit and left behind this strange housewarming present? If that’s what this was, what kind of man would do such a thing? It made no sense to her.

Miranda looked toward the timber as if she might find someone standing on the edge of the trees again, waiting to wave an arm in greeting. The sun shone bright and warm. A gentle breeze rustled the multi-colored leaves of the maples and oaks but no mysterious stranger stood among them. The loft window in the barn was also empty of any watching figure.

Retrieving a knife from the kitchen, she cut down the “gift” if that’s what it was. She was torn about what to do with the rabbit. The sensible thing to do was toss it, preferably in a way that Rufus would not be able to get to it. But she’d had rabbit stew once that her grandmother had made and it had been delicious.

Unable to make a decision, she procrastinated. Retrieving a plastic storage bag, she wrapped the rabbit up and put it in the refrigerator. She knew she would probably end up tossing it, but wasn’t quite ready to commit to that yet.

Between the argument with Harlan and the mysterious rabbit, Miranda had lost that sense of satisfaction and peacefulness she’d had first thing that morning. The afternoon was still a beautiful one. Rufus chased real and imaginary squirrels, toads, and leaves through the orchard. Miranda felt just as restless as he seemed.

She glanced at her watch. Even with the early sunsets of the season, there was plenty of time for a hike in the woods. That might work off her excess energy. Besides, there was a possibility she might run into the man she’d been seeing. Whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, she didn’t want to think too much about.

She stuck a bottle of water in her backpack and strapped on her shoulder holster, frowning as she remembered Harlan’s objection to guns in general and her carrying one in particular. How dare he try to foist his opinions on her? She knew how to handle a firearm better than most men. Carrying it increased her confidence and courage.

She tried to talk herself into exploring the barn when she reached it, but couldn’t quite gather enough nerve. The huge doors at the side of the barn gaped open and looked like they had not been rolled shut in years. At the rear of the building was a feedlot surrounded by the remnants of a barbed wire fence. A shutter on a side window swayed a little in the breeze, but the window itself remained motionless and empty.

At the edge of the woods, she paused. This was where the man and dog had entered the timber the first time she’d seen them. Searching carefully, she actually found footprints and several paw prints parallel to it. At least she knew she hadn’t been dreaming or imagining anything. Rufus seemed particularly interested in the spot as well, snuffling the ground and marking a clump of grass near the paw prints.

The man and dog had apparently followed a narrow deer trail through the brush, but though Miranda checked carefully as she followed the trail herself, she could find no further evidence of their presence. The trail itself almost disappeared several times, and ended up at a ring of massive oak trees. Within their trunks, the ground lay mostly bare, the soil compacted by generations of fallen leaves. Only a few straggling weeds had managed to find enough sun to snake up through the dirt.

Miranda stood in the middle and looked up at the thick branches that formed a sort of roof over her head. A golden leaf with curled edges broke free of its stem and fluttered gracefully to join its mates on the ground.

She remembered this place now. The fairy circle. That’s what she’d called it. She could almost picture the red and white checked tablecloth she had spread out on the ground. Miniature tea cups and a pot had been carefully laid out. Crumbled leaves on small plates served as elf cookies. Her stuffed toys had joined her for the tea party: a one-eyed bear, a floppy dog, and a Raggedy Ann Doll. And the fairies. Miranda scrunched her forehead as the picture became clearer to her. The fairies had been angel figurines she had snuck out of the house in her backpack, knickknacks from her grandmother’s shelves in the kitchen.

Serenading them while they partied was a music box wound and opened in the center of their “table.” The song it played was the same one from her dreams the nights before.
Let me call you sweetheart, I’m in love with you.

Miranda sat down hard on a fallen log. It didn’t mean anything, didn’t make the dreams real. It simply meant that restoring the figurines to the kitchen had triggered her subconscious memory. Which had led to dreams that incorporated the music box. That was all.

Still, she jumped nervously when Rufus suddenly began snarling and whimpering. He faced the thick brush to the east of the fairy ring and moved a few steps toward the overgrowth as if he wanted to give chase. Hesitating, he ran back to her side, barking even more ferociously. Miranda drew her handgun and stood up.

“Who’s there?” she called. “Come out or I shoot.”

The bushes shook and she clicked the safety off, taking aim. Before she pulled the trigger, however, a quail soared upward in a flutter of wings. Rufus gave chase, his yapping high pitched and excited. Maintaining her ready stance, Miranda moved toward the bushes, not lowering the gun until she was close enough to peer into them. She saw no one, even when she pushed aside the branches to look deeper.

Something did catch her eye, however. Deep in the brush she could see lengths of pitted, worn boards slanted against the ground. Was it a pile of discarded lumber or an old door someone had tossed? The little bit she could see, however, seemed more like a structure of some sort.

Holstering her gun, she pushed aside the branches, glad she had worn her thick jean jacket, and made her way through the bushes. The brush had grown up around the base of a huge pine tree that looked even older than the ones that lined her driveway. Between the gnarled roots of the tree slanted a wooden door almost parallel to the ground. If it had been covered with leaves and debris, it would have been undetectable.

The groundcover, however, had recently been cleared away. The entrance resembled an old fashioned cellar door, except it led to straight into the ground.

Alarm buzzed through Miranda and she looked around, listening carefully. Leaves rustled overhead, disturbed by a warm breeze. A squirrel scolded her from a pine bough overhead and sparrows called to each other off in the distance. Nowhere was there sight or sound that indicated another human was nearby. But clearly someone had been here in the not too distant past. Sod and leaves that had been removed from the doors lay to either side of the entrance and scrapes on the wood itself had been left behind by whatever tool had been used to clear the area—a shovel probably. Someone had deliberately laid the entrance bare and there could only be one reason for that.

Holding her breath, Miranda reached for the rusted handle and gripped it with both hands. As she paused, a voice in her hand said “Don’t open it, don’t open it,” but her reflexes ignored it and tugged hard. The door rattled but remained firmly shut. Miranda tugged several times, but to no avail. There was no keyhole so either the door was latched from the inside or nailed shut.

Rufus was nosing around in the leaves around the tree. At first Miranda thought he had merely caught the scent of a mouse or mole, but then he pulled something out and began eating it.

“Stop,” she commanded. “Rufus, leave it!”

Reluctantly, the dog let go of the remainder of his catch. Instead of finding a mouse carcass, however, the scrap he’d found was actually part of a shriveled apple. Was this the explanation? Did the doors simply lead to an old root cellar? But then why had someone uncovered it recently? And why would a root cellar be located so far from the farm itself?

It was possible there had once been a house or cabin built somewhere nearby and this cellar had belonged to it. Many wooded areas in the county still showed remnants of old homesteads that had failed or cabins that had burned or been abandoned. A creek flowed nearby which would have made the location desirable due to the easy availability of water.

Miranda pushed her way back out of the covering brush and began to search the surrounding area. A house would have been within a few hundred feet of any root cellar. Though Miranda searched fairly thoroughly, she could find no foundation or leftover logs or planks that would suggest a structure had existed. The forest was old growth which made it unlikely there could have been a fire that completely destroyed the property, plus any fire that would raze a cabin so thoroughly would surely also have burned or damaged the root cellar doors.

Miranda stood at the edge of the creek bank and looked across to the other side. It was possible the water had followed a different path years ago when the root cellar was in regular use. That meant the house could be on the other side of the creek. Leaning forward to look down the steep bank below her, though, she had to admit that wasn’t likely. The flowing water at the bottom was now only a few feet wide and inches deep, but years of spring runoff had been intense enough to gouge out a crevice about eight feet high and fourteen feet across. This had been the stream’s location for generations.

Just as she thought that, the clump of grass beneath her feet began to crumble. Miranda tried to step back, waving her arms to keep her balance, but the clump dislodged the dirt around it and before she could escape she was being swept off her feet by a miniature avalanche. She slid down to the creek bed amid a rush of dirt and small stones, skinning her hands as she tried to grab at roots to slow her descent.

At the bottom, she sat dazed for a moment, shaking dirt from her hair and face. At the top, where she had come from, Rufus was yapping in alarm, looking down at her. Finally, he tumbled down the slide to join her, whining and licking her dirty face in concern.

She laughed despite her stinging palms and pushed him away “Stop it. Stop it, boy. I’m okay.” Standing up, she shook black dirt out from under her jacket and dusted off her jeans. She still trembled a bit from the experience, but her landing had been so soft that apart from a few scratches she was unharmed. She definitely needed a shower, however, and lost her adventuring mood.

Climbing back up the steep slope to return home was not going to work. The freshly disturbed earth was too soft and crumbly to hold her weight and would probably just bring more dirt raining down on her. Her best bet was to follow the creek upstream and look for another way out.

Now that Rufus could see his mistress was unharmed, he seemed to love walking along the creek bed. As Miranda headed back toward the farm, Rufus ran ahead digging at animal holes and sticking his nose down them to get a better scent, scaring up a flurry of minnows by taking a few laps of creek water. When his explorations spooked a ground squirrel, he chased after it, disappearing around the bend ahead and yapping playfully.

BOOK: Eyes at the Window
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