The Haunting of Wildwood Farm
© 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.
Chapter Seventeen: All's Well That Ends Well?
After the most recent events concerning Damien and Ben, a cry for help from either of them might have triggered the response, who cares? Jeff and his friends were certainly entitled to that, especially Sofie and Ethan. But the Wildwood Gang was not in the business of letting others suffer, even for a pain-in-the-rump like Damien Cartwright, or his cousin.
And furthermore, when one is in the process of conducting a covert operation with the objective of not alerting one's father, or his enforcer, to one's presence at a location one is not supposed to be present at, it becomes a necessary course of action to silence these piercing cries for help before they succeed in undoing what one had originally set out to do.
Therefore, it was no surprise to see Jeff, Drew, Sofie, and Ethan run down the stairs to Ben's rescue. Although it would not be a stretch to say this was done not so much out of charity, but rather to shut him up. He was making a racket, essentially baiting Ron Markham, so the Wildwood Gang sprinted across the dining room and family room, past the old brick fireplace minus the mantel, through the kitchen and out the back door into the night.
The rain had changed to drizzle as their flashlights swept the grounds of Kent Cottage looking for signs of Ben and Damien, but they were not to be found. They called out to Ben, hoping he could provide his location, but he could only respond with further pleas for help. Fortunately, Drew was able to zero in on his coordinates and led the others around the front of the cottage to the opposite side, not far from the decaying remnants of the old access road.
There was still no visual confirmation of Ben or Damien, so the Wildwood Gang fanned out to cover more ground. This tactic most likely saved them a world of pain, because what they couldn't see until it was upon them, was a large hole in the ground, perhaps five feet across. And emanating from this hole in the ground were Ben's cries for help.
The four friends walked to the edge of the hole and shined their flashlights into it, revealing the most startling sight. It was Ben, and he was sitting in a pool of water about ten feet down.
"How did you get down there?" Drew said, barely able to contain a chuckle.
"I don't know," Ben answered. "I was just running and the ground caved in. You gotta get me out of here!"
"Are you hurt?" Sofie asked.
"I don't think so," Ben said. "Maybe a little, I don't know. Please, Sofie! "
"That's a pretty nasty fall," Drew said. "I don't think it's safe to move you. We should wait for the paramedics. They should be here in a few days or so."
Sofie slapped Drew in the shoulder and scolded him.
"I don't think I broke anything," Ben said, giving himself a quick health check. "Maybe some scrapes and stuff. I think I'm good. Please get me out of here!"
"Well, how exactly do you expect us to do that?" Drew asked.
"I don't care how! Just do it!"
"Sure, no problem," Drew said. "I'll just use the Force. Sit tight."
"Drew, be serious!" Sofie pleaded. "We have to help him."
"Anyone have a rope?" Jeff asked. "We could throw one down to him."
"There's one in the cottage," Ben said. "It's near the fireplace. Hurry!"
"See! I knew it would come in handy!" Ethan said, and he ran back to the cottage to retrieve it.
"Hey, anyone seen Damien?" Drew said, shining his flashlight at the tall grass. "He seems to have gone missing. Not that I care."
"He was ahead of me," Ben said. "Call out to him. He'll come back."
Drew laughed. "He's probably halfway home by now. I'm sure he doesn't even remember your name."
"Of course he does," Sofie said in a tone lacking any humor. "They're cousins."
Drew looked at Jeff and smiled his best I-told-you-so smile, but quickly wiped it from his face when he spied Sofie looking his way. Seconds later, she turned back to the hole and let out a short gasp.
"I think I know what this is!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, it's called karma," Drew snickered.
"No," Sofie huffed. "I'm talking about the sinkhole! I think this is the well! The one that Charles Nichols fell into!"
"You really think so?" Jeff said.
"It has to be," she replied. "I bet they tried to fill it in at some point."
"I have the rope!" Ethan said as he came running back to the group. He handed it to Drew, who proceeded to uncoil it, and when Drew was satisfied it would do the job, he handed one end to Ethan.
"Tie this around your waist," Drew said.
Ethan's head tilted back and he scrunched his forehead. "Are you sure you want me holding this?"
"You're the only one I trust not to let me fall in," Drew replied.
Ethan nodded. "Okay, I can live with that."
Ethan tied one end of the rope around his waist, Drew tied the other around his own, then he inspected Ethan's knot to make sure it was secure. Ethan took a few steps back from the hole, allowing room on the rope for Jeff and Sofie, and then Drew positioned himself at the edge of the hole and looked at his friends.
"Good luck," Sofie said.
Drew nodded, and then he placed his left foot inside the hole and dug it into the sidewall. When he had locked it in place, he placed his other foot inside, and then began to slowly rappel down into the hole. Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan gripped the rope tightly, pulling up the slack, and carefully lowered Drew further into the blackened pit.
"Sofie, I think you're right," Drew called out from the sinkhole. "The walls are made of stone. It must be the well."
"That's kind of poetic, don't you think?" Ethan said.
"Sure," Sofie said as she gritted her teeth and wrestled with the tension in the rope. "A regular Shakespearian sonnet."
A few seconds later, the rope slackened, indicating Drew had reached the bottom of the well. He called up to his friends and confirmed as much, and then shined his flashlight down at his feet. He noticed he was standing in murky, ankle-deep water, and the ground beneath his feet felt soft and slippery. The circular stonewall that imprisoned him was cold and filthy, and after wiping some of its slimy grime from his hand to his pants, he knew it was going to be a challenge getting out of there.
"I'm gonna need a bath after this one," he muttered to himself, then instructed Ben to grab hold of him. "Put one arm over this shoulder and the other under this shoulder, and don't let go." Ben did so, and then Drew tugged on the rope and yelled up to the others to pull them up.
Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan dug their heels in and began to hoist them up, but with double the weight, it proved difficult. The rain-slicked grass weakened their traction, and even with Ethan's hulking frame as the anchor, they found themselves being pulled closer to the hole.
Drew was wary of their lack of progress, and knew something must be wrong. He tried to scale the wall in classic Adam West fashion, but he slid back each time, taking more of the rope with him.
"We're running out of oxygen!" Ben cried. "I can't breathe!"
"Stop your whining!" Drew scolded him. "There's plenty of oxygen. We need to stay focused."
"The grass is too wet!" Jeff called down to his friend. "We keep slipping."
Drew paused for a moment and pondered their situation. Then he untied the rope from his waist and proceeded to tie it around Ben's.
"What are you doing?" Ben asked.
"We'll go one at a time," Drew said, and then he relayed his plan to his friends above.
Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan dug in again, and this time found better success with only a single human dangling at the other end. They fought with all their strength to lift Ben up the side of the well, and with Drew's coaching, Ben was able to contribute to his own liberation by pressing the tops of his shoes between the mortar gaps in the stones.
Ethan channeled his inner Charles Atlas, and with the combined efforts of Jeff and Sofie, won the tug-of-war against Ben. His hands were the first to emerge from the hole, followed by his head, and then the rest of him, and when the others had pulled him clear of any danger, he collapsed on his chest and kissed the earth.
Jeff quickly untied him and tossed the rope down to Drew, and the Wildwood kids returned to their battle stations. Drew was out of the well in an instant, and after untying the rope, tried to wipe the dirt from his clothes. But the dirt had turned to mud, and there was nothing more he could do until he got home.
"We should get out of here," Drew said.
The others voiced no opposition. Jeff and Ethan hurried back to the cottage to retrieve the tablet and the rest of the supplies, while Drew hovered between Sofie and Ben. He tried to string some syllables together and eject them from his mouth, but his brain reeled them back in and lectured him on his weak choice of words.
Sofie stood there with her arms wrapped around herself. She swayed back and forth, refusing to look at Drew or Ben. Then she quietly drifted away to be left alone with her thoughts. But her isolation was short-lived, as Drew saw an opportune moment to speak his mind, and he took advantage of it. He walked over and stood beside her, then looked down at the ground and scuffed the earth with his shoe.
"Sorry," he mumbled. It was his best attempt at an apology, and despite his low register on the decibel meter, she heard him clearly.
"For what?" she asked.
He hesitated. "For being a jerk."
Sofie looked at him for a moment, then turned away and nodded. "I accept your apology. Thank you."
Drew nodded in return, and the two of them stood there quietly. Ten seconds later, he broke the silence.
"You were wrong about me."
Sofie gave him a funny look. "What do you mean?"
"I do have a heart," he said. His comment was matter-of-fact. It lacked any sense of snideness or humor, and Sofie could tell he was quite serious.
She studied his profile as he stared out into the vast field shrouded in darkness, and then she smiled and leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. The kiss caught him by surprise, but he was only startled for a second, and then his heels sunk back into the ground and he cracked a smile of his own.
"We have the stuff," Jeff said as he and Ethan rejoined the group. "Let's go."
Ben was on his feet and ready to accompany them home, but Ethan stepped in his way and held out the sledgehammer, showing no remorse for saddling him with this burden. But Drew snatched it out of his hands before Ben could take possession of it.
"Never give a weapon to the enemy," Drew said. He felt a nudge in his side from Sofie, but this one was a little softer and gentler, and a friendly reminder to not be so cruel. Drew said nothing more on the matter and carried the hammer on Ben's behalf, and the Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, bid farewell to Kent Cottage and the treasure that wasn't really there.
"Why would Charles point us to the mantel?" Ethan asked, lumbering across the clearing with the others. "Did we miss something?"
"Who knows," Jeff said. "We just assumed it was the fireplace. Maybe there's another mantel somewhere."
"Maybe we should take another look," Ethan suggested.
Jeff shook his head. "Nope. You win some, you lose some. We're done here."
Hmm. If only that were true.
In a perfect world, they would have made it home with the grownups none the wiser of their escapade. Actually, in a perfect world, they would've found the treasure and been rich beyond their wildest dreams. But I can assure you, departing Kent Cottage undetected by senior management was a handsome consolation prize.
However, there would be no consolation prizes handed out on this evening. Instead the Wildwood Gang, plus Ben, would be forced to confront a fear that had gnawed at them since this whole Kent Cottage business began. And it wasn't any ghost, or sinkhole, or injury. It was getting busted. By Mr. Heard.
The kids looked up at Mr. Heard sitting upon his horse at the edge of the clearing, glowering down at them with fiery eyes and a clenched jaw, as if he had just spent the last forty-five minutes standing in the rain looking at flowers with his elderly mother. He barely moved and said not a word, but his stalwart appearance on his powerful stallion spoke volumes.
The lone positive from this encounter, if one could call it a positive, was that Jeff did not have to worry about Mr. Heard telling his father. That's because Ron Markham sat upon his own horse right beside Mr. Heard. He, too, looked like a stalwart, but his eyes were not as fiery, and his jaw was not as clenched, and he had spent the last forty-five minutes in the comfort of his own home. And when it came time to speak, it was Ron who did the talking.
"Ambrose, take the kids back to the house," he said, his voice steady and controlled. "I'd like a private word with my son."
Mr. Heard steered his horse away from Ron's and circled around to herd the kids. He had yet to utter a word, but never really had to, as the kids fell in line behind Drew and marched across the field toward the main house.
Jeff stood alone in front of his father, and once Ron had determined that the others were out of earshot, he directed the horse toward his son, and without dismounting, reached down and extended his hand. Jeff grabbed hold, and Ron lifted him onto the back of the horse. Jeff put his arms around his dad's waist, and then Ron angled the horse so that both he and Jeff had an unobstructed view of Kent Cottage.
"You know, I used to play out here a lot when I was your age," Ron said. "Me and my friends, we had our own little gang."
"Yep. Me, Paul, Tommy, Danny, and Chuck. We were a lot like you guys. Had our own adventures. Did some pretty crazy things." He paused and glanced over his shoulder at Jeff. "We weren't supposed to be out here either."
Jeff opened his mouth to say something, but decided it was better to refrain.
"But we played here anyway," Ron continued. "And Grandpa, he got mad. And in those days, you didn't mess around with the boss, or else you'd get a whoopin'."
"Grandpa hit you?" Jeff said, sounding somewhat distressed.
Ron paused. "It was different then. Kids stepped out of line. Dads put 'em back in. But even a whoopin' couldn't keep us away from Kent Cottage. This was our fortress. Our home base. And we had to be sneaky about it. Kinda like you and your friends."
Jeff felt a bit of shame, but he kept his thoughts and feelings to himself.
"One winter it snowed like crazy," Ron said. "Just one storm after the next. The snowdrifts got so high, they covered the front door of Kent Cottage. So me and my friends thought it would be fun to go up to the second floor and jump out the window into the snow. It was a pretty stupid thing to do, but we all did it. And then Danny says he's gonna jump from the third floor, and we told him he was crazy, and we all laughed about it. But sure enough, he goes up to the third floor, opens the attic window, and jumps into the snow."
"Was he okay?" Jeff asked.
Ron shook his head. "He shattered both legs and his pelvis. Never walked again."
Jeff felt his heart sink, and then his dad steered the horse back toward the main house. Ron let his tale marinate with his son, and it wasn't until midway through their journey that Jeff spoke up.
"What did Grandpa say about it?"
"Say about it?" Ron laughed. "He didn't say anything about it. But he did give me the whoopin' to end all whoopins. And I never went near Kent Cottage again. But I honestly don't think it was from fear of Grandpa. I think it was the guilt I felt from seeing Danny in his wheelchair."
They rode a little further before Jeff asked the inevitable.
"So what happens now?"
"Well," Ron said, leaving a healthy gap between the 'Well' and his next word. "I've been telling you for a while to stay away from Kent Cottage, but you haven't respected my wishes. And while I understand the pressures you face from friends and peers, it doesn't change the fact that you defied me."
Ron held his tongue for a lengthy pause, and Jeff cringed, waiting for the hammer to fall.
"So the way I see it," Ron said. "There's only one thing left to do."
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.