A Stranger Lurks
Memories fluttered around Margaret’s mind like the butterflies hovering over the buddleia bush. She remembered that it was her mother’s favorite flower. Those were long gone, but the fragrant sweet peas survived, covering the slope below the old house. Black eyes Susan’s, Queen Anne’s lace and other wildflowers also occupied the formerly well-kept lawn. Trees had encroached here, as well. Nature threatened to swallow up what remained of her parent’s life.
Her girlhood home had vanished in a cloud of smoke and fire. Its charred remnants remained, littering the blackened stone foundation. She turned to face the other structure that remained. The round barn built by her great grandfather remained in good shape over a century later. Its stone walls and wooden shingled roof had withstood the storms, rains and snow which nature had thrown at it.
She glanced at the watch on her wrist. He would be here soon. Their appointment was at ten o’clock and it was now five minutes before the hour. She walked down the overgrown sidewalk to her car, parked at the base of the hill below the neglected home site. The July sun was starting to beat down, promising a scorcher of a day.
The southern Indiana forested hills surrounded the old farm. It was a beautiful spot. Additionally the property was close to town and on a good road, not too far off the main highway. It should bring a good price. In some ways, she wished she could sell some of the memories with it. Some of those memories she would like to shuck off and bid farewell.
Selling this place was not something that came easy. It had been in the family for generations. Another glance at the unkempt lawn and fields told the story, though. It was time to let go. She could not keep it up anymore and since the death of her mother, she had lost interest.
The crunch of rubber tires on the gravel driveway announced the arrival of the realtor. He was on time, anyway. She watched as his car bounced down the driveway and pull up beside hers. His arrival marked the end of another chapter of her life. Another would soon open.
Reuben Steen slowed down as he approached the driveway and turned in. He saw that the seller was there awaiting him. Behind her, he could see the old round barn. It was an imposing structure that dominated the scene before him.
He slowed still more as his car bounced. The neglected driveway had grown a good crop of potholes and muddy water splashed over his newly washed car.
Damn, he would have to have it washed again.
His mood brightened as he drew up beside the other car and saw the attractive brunette who awaited him. He had seen her before in the diner he frequented and also at the library. He had not known her name, but now he did.
He opened the door and smiled as he extended his hand.
“Margaret Dreu? My name is Reuben Steen,” he said as he shook the smooth, firm hand she extended to him.
“Yes, I am Margaret Drue,” she replied. “But my friends all call me Peggy.”
“Nice to meet you, Peggy,” Reuben said. “I think I have seen you working in the library.”
“Yes, I handle the kid’s reading programs so I mostly work afternoons and evenings. However, through the summer we switch to a daytime program. I think I have seen you in the library at times in the evening.”
“Yes, I sometimes go in there for research. The courthouse closes at four o’clock. Sometimes I can find the information I need for a property in the old town records in the library. I think I have also seen you in Benny’s Diner.”
“I like to eat breakfast in there. He has some divine Danish rolls. Wanda recommended you to me when I told her I wanted to sell the old farm. She said you sold her brother’s house and he liked you.”
“I will have to give Wanda a bigger tip the next time I go in there.”
“Yes, you will. I am sorry about the driveway but I haven’t been maintaining it. A few months back someone set fire to the house. I thought if the driveway was in bad shape it might deter other trespassers.”
Reuben glanced up the slope at the burned out farmhouse.
“Darn shame,” he said. “It was probably just kids out on a lark.”
“The house was pretty well shot, anyway. No one lived in it for years. I took an apartment in town when Mom moved out and to the nursing home. I needed to be near her. This was too big a place for me to rattle around in anyway. It has become a party place for the local kids. I guess I will have to put up a locked gate to keep them out.”
“At least they didn’t burn this barn. This is a great building. You don’t see many round barns around anymore. I love the windmill on top.”
“My great-grandfather built this barn around 1900. Purdue University was touting it at the time as a great time saver. Grandfather added the windmill later on. He laid a pipe from the well by the house. The windmill pumped water into some big water tanks on the third level. A pipe fed water back to the house. We had great water pressure.”
“Ingenious,” said Reuben. “Does the windmill still work?”
“As far as I know it does. I don’t know about the pump. The water company laid water lines past here a few years back, so there is city water available making the well unnecessary. It is still up by the house, though.”
Reuben pulled a notepad from his pocket and jotted it down, saying, “I will take notes as we go.”
Peggy opened the door and Reuben followed her inside.
“It is wonderful in here. The stone foundation keeps it nice and cool,” said Reuben.
“They built the first level into the side of the hill which rises behind the barn. It is always cool in here in the summer, and warm in the winter.”
Reuben turned in a slow circle, taking it all in.
“It is like a huge, circular tunnel.”
“This lower level was where we kept the livestock. This outer circle goes all the way around the stable area. You can see the openings for the stalls. They pulled wagons in here to load manure on. You could run the cattle around from one stall to another without going out into the weather. You could also run a team of horses around it without having to back up. Of course, my dad had a tractor. It wasn’t on of the big ones you see now. It was small enough to navigate around in here.”
“This was one efficient barn.”
“Yes it was. But the one reason my great grandfather built it he wouldn’t talk about much.”
“What was that?”
“It was an old superstition. The old timers said that in a round barn there weren’t any corners for evil spirits to hide in.”
Reuben laughed and said, “That would be true. There are no corners in here.”
As they walked, one stall door was open. Reuben glanced inside.
“This is the one my father died in. He was forking manure out into the spreader when he died. Mom found him when he didn’t come in for lunch.”
Reuben glanced at a pitchfork that stood against the one wall.
“He left it right there. He had a heart attack. None of us felt like moving that fork, so it is right there where he left it. Mom sold the cows after he died.”
“This place holds some bad memories for you, then?”
“It does. However, it holds many good ones too. One of our cats had kittens in that manger. I wouldn’t let Dad use it until they were big enough to move.”
She smiled, her voice deep in memory, “It was my favorite cat. She was a big calico I named Butterboot, because she was white and black with huge yellow splotches and white boots.”
“It does sound like there were good ones then, too.”
“We were happy here when I was a girl. It is the later ones that are bad. Dad died. Then Mom took sick and I had to take care of her. An aunt moved in to help when I went to college. I moved back after college. Then my aunt got sick and died after that. Mom had a bad stroke and had to go to the nursing home. I moved into town to be near her. That was three years ago and Mom has since passed on. It has set empty ever since. And as you can see, it is too much for me to take care of. So I decided to sell it.”
“I will try my best,” said Reuben. “But it is a slow market right now. It may take some time.”
“I understand,” said Peggy.
They walked down a passageway to the center of the barn.
“This was the feeding area,” Peggy said. There are chutes which they dumped the grain and feed down here, and hay and they lowered the straw using a winch fastened on the roof.”
They climbed a spiral staircase that rose to the second level.
“This floor has a ground level door. They brought the wagons in here for unloading. They raised the hay to the haymow with a winch. They stored grain in the second level.”
“It sounds like an efficient way to farm.”
“It was. Dad still used it. But now, with the larger equipment and different way of housing the animals, it is obsolete.”
Reuben again turned in a circle, studying the barn.
“It looks like the structure is still good. It seems to be the old mortis and tendon construction.”
“It is all native timber.”
Reuben wrote some more in his notepad, musing “I can see this having commercial applications. It would make a great winery. This second level could be a restaurant, tasting room and gift shop.”
“I had the same thought.” Peggy replied with a smile. “It looks like we are on the same page.”
“I think we are,” said Reuben. “I bet there is a great view from up there?”
“There is,” said Peggy as she began ascending the stair. Soon they were looking out one of the windows at the hilly landscape that surrounded the barn.
“This is a great piece of property,” said Reuben. “I would like to get it on the market as soon as possible.”
He looked at the center of the barn. There is where the water tank was. There was a large enclosure near the tank. A door, fastened with a latch, faced him.
“What’s in there?”
“That is where the pump was, as well as tools and other things they needed up here. It still has everything in it, as far as I know.”
Reuben pulled on the latch. The door would not budge. “
“It must be stuck,” he said.
“It shouldn’t be.”
Peggy tugged on the door, but it remained jammed.
“H’mm. It seems to be stuck pretty well,” she said.
“I will have to come back later,” said Reuben. “I forgot my camera. I think I left it by my computer at home. I will bring a few tools along and see if I can get it open. I would like to see that pump.”
The two moved back to the window.
“I will draw up the contract this afternoon,” said Reuben. “Can you stop by the office tomorrow morning to look it over and sign it?”
“I don’t go to work until one o’clock. I can stop by in the morning.”
“Great. Let’s say around 10:30, is that okay?”
Peggy nodded. “I will stop on the way to work.”
“Good. I will get the photos later tonight, and if we can get the paperwork done in the morning I can have it listed by afternoon.”
“That sounds great. The sooner the better,” said Peggy. “It may sound crazy, but the last time I came in here a few days ago, I was alone. It seemed that I felt an evil presence here. I haven’t come back until now.” She shuddered visibly.
The two walked back down the staircase and back to their cars. They stood talking for a while, as Peggy indicated the property lines and told him more things about the property.
After a bit more conversation, they got in their cars and both bounced out the driveway and into town.
In the enclosure in the haymow, the reason the door wouldn’t open waited. As he heard the car doors close, he opened the door and walked to the outer edge of the barn. He watched as the cars drove out the driveway.
It was she. His Margaret. She looked just the same as she looked many years before. That man would be coming back. He would be waiting.
Evil does not always need a corner in which to hide.
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