Elijah Conkley was forty-two, and still lived alone with his mother. I had heard the rumors about him in town, and about the falling out he had with John Hambly over his relationship with Hambly's eighteen-year-old son. But I didn't waste a lot of time thinking about it. Conkley had always been very helpful to me, and generous to a fault. Even if the rumors were true, they had no affect on my friendship with him.
About eight years ago, the Conkley's lost their house at the base of the mountain in a fire. Halfway up the hill was a second Conkley home, where Ellen Conkley had once lived as child. After the fire, Elijah and his mother had refurbished that house, and now were our closest neighbors.
In late October, Elijah came up the hill in his old pick-up truck to invite the two of us to dinner. He was dressed the same way I had always seen him, in Dickey's work pants and a faded flannel shirt. It was the assigned uniform for his generation of upstate New Yorkers.
He came bearing an apple pie, still warm and cinnamon scented. We accepted it gratefully.
I offered a beer in return, and we sat together in the dining room, beside the wood stove. It was my favorite room in the house. From its wide windows you could look down over the lawn and the orchard, down into the valley below. It was a beautiful view.
"You all settled in?" He asked, tilting back his beer.
I nodded, enjoying the sunset as it spread itself over the hills. "Pretty much. We're all unpacked, at least."
"I have to say I was pretty impressed to see you've mowed the lower fields. Not bad for a city boy."
I smiled. "I had a little trouble getting the tractor started. The thing's got to be at least thirty years old."
"Older, I expect." He turned his eyes towards the view. "I remember riding it around when I was a boy, thinking it was old then."
I finished off my first can. "Another beer?"
"Don't mind if I do."
I excused myself to the kitchen, and rummaged about the refrigerator, returning shortly with two cans of Genesee. "I'm a little worried about the new well. I mean, the house has always gotten water from the reservoir my grandfather built up stream, but we always shut that down for the winter because it froze up. I'm hoping the new well is deep enough to get us through the winter."
"It should be. I don't think you'll have any problems there."
Outside, the edge of the sky had gone from red to purple, and the first stars were beginning to shine. "How about firewood? You got enough to get you through April?"
I nodded. "I think so. Both of the sheds are full. I've been splitting so much wood lately that my arms and shoulders are all built up. It's better than going to the gym."
He smiled, slightly, but in a way that gave me the impression he was thinking about something else. As he sipped his beer, I could hear Denise in her new home office, typing away at the computer. She was now almost two weeks late, and she had an appointment with a gynecologist over in Cobleskill the next day. Neither of us wanted to make too much of it, but we were both hopeful. In many ways that was what this move was all about, finally getting to the business of starting a family.
"Anything else about the place?" Conkley asked quietly. I couldn't read his expression.
"Else? No, not really."
Absent-mindedly, he chewed his thumbnail. "Nothing…strange?"
"Strange? What do you mean by that?"
He said nothing for a few moments, as if sifting through his vocabulary to find the right words. The light had almost completely gone out of the room, leaving only the outlines of objects and his face.
"What exactly are you asking me, Elijah?"
He seemed a little embarrassed. "Nothing, really. Just that no one's spent a winter in this place since just after the first World War. Who knows what you might run into."
I shrugged. "Well, we've got the 4x4, and chains for the tires, so even if no one plows the road for a day or two we should be all right."
Conkley shook his head. "I don't mean the snow. Hell, we know how to deal with snow round here."
"So what do you mean?"
He spread his hands. "Nothing. At least to say, I don't rightly know. My Grandma Ellie always told us to stay off the mountain in the winter. I had to swear to her once I wouldn't come up here past Thanksgiving. She was afraid of it, I think."
I was silent a long while, trying to absorb what he had said. I was thinking of Maria, and a comment she had made once when I asked her why she didn't stay through Christmas. It was a mild year, and there was little snow, but she had been firm about leaving. "The mountain is dangerous in the winter. You should remember that."
I think my silence made him a bit nervous. He forced a laugh to try and lighten the mood. "Then again, that Ellie was a superstitious woman. If you opened an umbrella in the house, or came in the front door and left out the back, she'd box your ears for it. I remember before my sister was christened, Ellie put a horseshoe under her cradle to keep bad luck away. Come Friday the thirteenth, she wouldn't even get out of bed."
I nodded, only half listening to him. I sipped my beer. "Maria once told me the mountain was dangerous in the winter, too. Why do you think they both thought that?"
Conkley paused, looking straight at me. I could feel his gaze even if I couldn't see his eyes. "It's on account of them, I expect."
He turned his head in the direction of the old oak tree. "Them graves. The Schroeders."
"The graves? Okay…now you've lost me."
He sighed. "It's just that they all died up here over that one winter. It was a real bad one, the way my Grandma Ellie told it. They got snowed in up here with no one to help them. When the spring thaw came, the TB had killed them all." The tone of his voice became a little softer, further away. "She made a real horror story of it. Was her dad who found them, all cold in their beds."
He tapped his fingers on the table. "Anyway, no one's spent a winter up here since."
"So what exactly was she afraid of? Ghosts?"
He shook his head. "No, not likely. Like everyone else, I guess she was just afraid of something she couldn't put a name to. Afraid of what happened up here that winter. Maybe, just afraid."
"Afraid of tempting fate."
He nodded. "Exactly."
I took a deep breath. Admittedly, sitting there in the dark, the idea of the Schroeders dying one by one, snowed in, made me feel more than a little uneasy. And it was hard for me to imagine Maria, who had always been as hard-headed and practical as they come, afraid of ghosts. I couldn't help but wonder if there was something else.
But Conkley laughed. "Any way, never mind me. A few beers and I turn into an old woman. To tell you the truth, I've been up here in the winter many times. Used to hunt in the woods all the time. It's just superstition."
I agreed, and we talked a little while longer, about other things, just to clear the air. Then I walked him out to his truck, promising that Denise and I would make it down for dinner the next Sunday.
"Good. I'll tell my mother. She'll be real happy to have more than just me for company."
I smiled. "Okay. Take care, Elijah. Thanks."
He waved, starting his engine. And as I watched his truck roll down the drive, I realized I was holding my breath as he neared the bend. Only as his headlights disappeared around the long curve did I exhale.
I had my own ghosts, I guess.
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