[Collaborative Project with ImagesByCW]
– Find part 1 of the Miltonville Mine Mystery here –
The mine was a good hour’s hike outside of town, so despite the fact that the days were still long, they didn’t have time to dawdle. With the creek at this level there was no way across without getting wet, but since they were already wet it was just a question of ferrying their clothes across at a shallow spot, and getting dressed.
The embankment on the other side of the creek was a twisted tangle of roots, offering them a myriad of hand and footholds. The two of them scampered up; Preston a bit more cautiously, Sammie seemingly immune to the dangers of sharp thickets and poison ivy. They had to beat a path to the old rail line that led to the mine. Milton’s Creek separated the mine from the town, and the small rail trestle that connected the two had been washed out in a nor’easter half a dozen years ago.
“Say, Preston, why’d they mine close anyway?”
“Pa says iron mining moved to Pennsylvania after the war, and it were’nt no sense in keeping a small one like this open.”
Sammie forcefully shoved a long thorny branch aside, which, like clockwork, snapped back, nearly hitting Preston full in the face. He knew her enough by now to be wary of such things. He ducked the last branch, and stepped out onto the overgrown rail bed. Sammie was already a dozen paces ahead of him as he gazed down the tunnel of late summer foliage carved by the abandoned rail line.
“C’mmon ya slow poke!”
He dashed towards her, eager not to give her an excuse for a further taunting. The rail bed was a mix of stone and cinder, and Preston had to glance frequently at his feet to make sure he didn’t tear the sole off his shoe on a jagged rock, or splintery tie. He had caught hell not six months ago damaging a prior pair – enough to dampen his youthful exuberance just a hair. Sammie, of course, didn’t have to worry about ruining her shoes, as they were safely stored in her wardrobe at home.
“How long’s it been since we were last out here, Preston?”
“This spring, I reckon. Remember when that storm hit us, and we had to go back?”
“We didn’t have to go back, it was just water.”
Just water? Drenching rain and bone-chilling temperatures was more like it. ‘Come in out of the rain, or you’ll catch your death.’ Preston’s father’s words echoed in his head. He even heeded them occasionally, as it avoided a switching from time to time. Sammie seemed to be immune to both cold and punishment.
“Maybe it was last summer, then.”
“Do the trees look any different to you?”
Two questions in a row. Not like her – she was usually barking orders. Preston had been daydreaming, and not paying attention to the woods.
That was more like her. Not that he didn’t deserve it; even he had to admit he daydreamed far too often.
He gazed at the greenish brown canopy overhead. The leaves rustled in the fresh breeze. The foliage seemed a little thin for late summer, and the trill of cicadas was absent.
“Nope. What’s to see?”
“Dunno. Just seems different.”
Something was bothering Sammie, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Pride prevented her from urging more caution. And Preston, as usual, wasn’t paying attention.
“Let’s go or we’ll never make it.”
Preston didn’t mean it of course, it just felt good for him to egg her on for once.
They passed a clearing on the right of the tracks – a shanty town that had been hastily put up in the mine’s heyday; during the war, when the union desperately needed more iron. There wasn’t enough room in town to house the surge of migrant mine workers, so a couple hundred yards square had been cleared for the few dozen shacks, mess hall, and other ramshackle structures.
“Preston, ya wanna explore the ghost town?”
“Naah. Ever since the fire, there’s not much to see.”
The ghost town had been a magnet for children from all around. What could be more fun than an abandoned shantytown? A couple hermits had stayed to eke out a living after the mine closed, and rumors that one of them was practicing sorcery had only fueled local curiosity. But a fire two summers ago had swept through the camp, leaving only charred timbers and rough stone chimneys sticking out of the now barren landscape.
At this stretch of the rail bed, there was a clear view to both sides: The woods had been pushed back in all directions when the mine workers scoured the local countryside for firewood. The warm, humid breeze that crossed Preston’s face as the two of them trudged past the skeletal remains of the ghost town should have relaxed him. Yet something was now eating him as well. An odd sound – a low uneven humming. He was used to the sounds of the woods. From crickets to cicadas, toads to whippoorwills, the woods were a source of constant din. Yet this was different. Even more unnerving was that he couldn’t seem to make out where it was coming from – it was the same no matter which way he craned his neck, or cupped his ears. It almost seemed to be in his own head – and he dare not say that to Sammie.
…to be continued