The Miller Place - a short story
The Miller Place
“Well now, ain’t that the prettiest sight you ever seen?”
The speaker was a big blond man who went by the name of Jud Hatfield, and they were on a rise overlooking a long green valley with a wooded hillside across the way, A silver stream ran down the middle, and there was a small but neat house, a large barn, and several outbuildings on the top of the northern slope. A few cattle were visible, grazing placidly on the lush grass.
Dave Fair nodded. “Let’s see if we can work out a meal. Maybe he needs some wood cut for winter.”
Jud Hatfield snorted his disdain at the suggestion of work. Dave said nothing and nudged his horse forward. He and Hatfield met yesterday on the road and were headed the same way, so they rode together. Dave had already taken a dislike for the man and was ready to part ways.
The barnyard was neat and trim, for the most part, which was what gave Dave the first inkling that something was not right. There was a fenced hog house with an open gate on the side of the hill, and the hogs were now rooting up around the yard and making a mess. He sat his horse and hailed the house. When there was no answer, he dismounted and took the steps to the porch. When no one answered his knock, he tried the door. It was unlocked and opened into the kitchen. Jud Hatfield stepped up behind him, and they entered the house.
The kitchen and parlor were one room and they were neat and clean. The curtains on the windows spoke of a woman’s influence. There was a bed in the loft and another bedroom opening off the parlor. There was no one around, but there was a folded paper on the kitchen table with a coffee mug holding it down. Dave called out one more time, and when no one answered, crossed to the table, picked up the paper, and began to read it aloud:
“My name is Harold Miller.
The laudanum don’t work no more, and the pain is more than a body can bear. The doc said it’s a cancer. I held out as long as I could, but now, I have to end it.
You’ll find me in the old tool shed on account of I don’t want to foul the house or the other good buildings. I dug a grave beside of Ellie’s up on the knoll by the big oak. I’d take it kindly if you would carry me up there and put me in it. There’s a blanket in the tool shed to cover my face. I don’t care about no casket box, but I just can’t abide the thought of dirt in my face. Or, if you don’t want to tend to me, someone will come along who’s willing.
My sons will be along soon to take possession of the ranch. Help yourself to any food you find. I turned the critters loose to fend for their ownselves.”
They found him in the tool shed.
“He ain’t been dead long. That blood ain’t even dried up yet.”
Dave nodded and bent down to retrieve the revolver. Harold Miller’s body lay on a stone boat, and there was a hole in his temple. A neatly folded blanket lay at his feet.
“Well, I’ll hitch up a horse to the stone boat, and we’ll take him up the hill.” Dave stepped out the door, followed by Jud Hatfield.
“Hell, there ain’t nothin’ in it for us.” Jud spat on the ground. “Leave him be, and let’s see what we can find in the house. Maybe he cached some cash in there somewhere. Let somebody else bury him.”
“He said you could have some food. He never said you could loot his house, so just get some food and ride on out of here.” Dave watched as Jud halted and slowly turned around, his eyes narrowed.
“You’ll find that I don’t take orders from nobody, especially from the likes of you.” Jud’s hand swept down to his revolver, but he froze when he heard the crisp, double click of a hammer being drawn back to full cock, and he found himself looking into the cold, black eye of a Colt .44. For a moment, nothing moved, and then Jud swallowed hard and allowed his half drawn gun to slip back into its holster. He moved his hand slowly away from his weapon and stared at Dave, who calmly watched him over the barrel of his revolver.
“I never seen no one get a gun out that fast. Who the hell are you?”
“I’m a man who does not tolerate a damn thief. Now get on your horse and get out.”
Jud grinned disarmingly. “I’ll just grab me some food and be on my way.”
“You had that chance, but now you’ll leave empty handed. Any man who pulls a gun on me is lucky to be alive, so count yourself that way and head on out. And if I ever see you again, I’ll kill you without hesitation, so you had better stay far away from me.”
Dave watched as Jud rode away. Then he walked to his own horse and retrieved his Winchester, just in case. Sure enough, when he knew he was out of pistol range, Jud drew his own Winchester from its scabbard, and wheeled his horse, looking back at the barnyard. Dave put a round in a rock under the horse’s belly, which began to buck viciously as the chips hit him. Jud dropped his rifle and hung on desperately as his horse spun around and ran off. He was still trying to control him as they disappeared over the brow of the hill. Dave chuckled and walked out to pick up Jud’s rifle.
It took Dave a couple of hours to hitch a horse to the stone boat, haul the body to the knoll, and lower it gently into the grave. He placed the blanket over Harold Miller’s face, and spoke a few words from a Bible he carried. He began to fill in the grave from the pile stacked beside it and was almost done when his shovel struck something metallic.
It was a thin, brass box. Inside was a sheet of paper and a sealed envelope. He read the paper:
“The man what finds this is a decent sort, because he buried me for no reason other than it was the right thing to do. I thank you for that and since you must also be an honest man, I ask one more thing from you. Deliver the envelope you found to Hiram Walters in town. He’s a lawyer and an honest one. I want him to settle up my final affairs.”
The townsfolk were friendly, and directed him to Hiram Walters’ upstairs law office over the Emporium. Walters was an older man with mutton chop sideburns and an easy smile. His office smelled of cigar smoke and aftershave.
Walters listened intently as Dave Fair related the events of yesterday, handing him the letter from the kitchen table. Then Dave stood and walked out the door as Walters slit open the envelope with a pocketknife. He was halfway down the stairs when the door flew open and Walters ran out.
“Sir? Would you kindly step back into my office? This letter concerns you.”
Dave stared up at him. “You must be mistaken. I never met the man.”
“Nonetheless, this letter concerns you and only you.” He gestured to the door with a wave of his arm. “Please?”
Dave seated himself facing the lawyer and waited, as the lawyer reread the letter. Satisfied that he had it right, he smiled at Dave, stood and held out his hand. “Will you shake it sir? I’d be honored!”
Bewildered, Dave shook his hand and they both took their seats. The lawyer cleared his throat and began to read the letter:
If this letter is delivered still sealed, as I expect it will be, the bearer will probably walk out of your office after he delivers it. Please go stop him, as this concerns him.
First, let me confess to a falsehood. The letter I left on the table said I have sons coming to take over the ranch. As you know, Ellie and I never had any children or any other heirs. I said that because I wanted a man who would do the right thing, thinking there was nothing in it for him. Then I hid the brass box under the grave’s dirt pile knowing that only the man who buried me would find it. I knew that if he brought the letter to you unopened, he was both decent and honest.
Now there are lots of good, decent folks around, and it might be a neighbor, but I figure it will probably be a wandering stranger, and that’s what I wanted. Whoever it is, the bearer of this letter is now my sole heir, and he owns the H bar M, lock, stock, and barrel, including bank accounts, livestock, equipment, deeded lands, and range. You see to it, Hiram, and there’s a right smart fee that’s waiting for you when you are done.
Harold Miller, Esquire.”
Hiram Walters gazed over his spectacles at the young man seated across from him.
“Harold Miller shipped most of his cattle last month, so his bank account is fat. You, sir, are a wealthy man, and you own one of the finest ranches around, all because you did the right thing. We have work to do, transferring everything to you, so we had best get at it. May I ask your name?”
The paperwork took the better part of the morning, and then Hiram introduced Dave to some of the townsfolk’s leading citizens. There were some raised eyebrows, but no one seemed inclined to protest his ownership. Dave mentioned it to Hiram.
“The Miller place has a bit of a reputation, Dave. It’s just superstition if you ask me.” He took a sip of his beer. “Harold Miller was the Indian agent in these parts for years, and he treated them fair, which riled some of the folks who hated Indians. They burned Harold’s barn once and shot his dog. Then the Indians sent a shaman and some braves over one night, and they performed some sort of ceremony. After that, it seemed that anyone who bothered Harold ran on hard times. Several got sick, and one died. Then one man tried to torch the barn again and damn near cut his head off when he rode under Ellie’s wire clothesline in the dark. After he got killed, the raids stopped, and so did the misfortunes to Harold’s enemies. But folks still fight shy of the H bar M, just in case.”
Dave nodded. “Well, I don’t cotton to that sort of thing, so it won’t bother me any.”
For the next month, Dave made himself familiar with the layout of the ranch. The hogs were back in their pen, and the yard was cleaned up. He made several trips into town, and bought some young stock. Two or three of the town’s eligible young ladies were batting their eyes at him, and one mentioned a barn dance coming up.
He made himself a supper of bacon and fresh eggs from the henhouse. He could hear the first drops of rain on the roof, and the mutter of distant thunder from the late summer thunderstorm. He lit a lantern and ate.
After washing the dishes, he stepped out on the front porch, enjoying the coolness brought by the storm. It was raining in earnest now, and the lightning was putting on quite a show. Then a particularly brilliant stroke revealed a grinning figure in the yard with a rifle aimed at him. It was Jud Hatfield, and there was madness in his eyes.
“Nobody bucks Jud Hatfield and lives a long life! This time you ain’t even armed!”
There was another brilliant flash, and an instant clap of thunder. Jud Hatfield seemed frozen in place, and Dave ducked inside the house. He grabbed his revolver and blew out the lantern, but no shot was fired. Another flash of lightning revealed Hatfield sprawled in the barnyard on his back, his unseeing eyes wide open in shock. The barrel of his rifle was smoking where the wood touched the hot metal.
The morning dawned clear, and Dave hitched up a wagon to take the body to town. Jud’s hands were badly burned, and one boot was split wide open. Death from the stroke of lightning had been instant. His rifle was also ruined.
He delivered the body to the undertaker, with instructions to place him in an unmarked grave. Then he went to see Hiram Walters.
“There will be an inquest, but it is obvious how he died. You are in the clear, Dave. No one will blame you.”
Dave pursed his lips. “There’s one more thing, Hiram.”
The older man studied Dave for a moment. “Let me guess. You found some strange foot prints?”
Dave looked up in surprise and nodded.
“Were they moccasin prints?”
Dave nodded again. Then he stood and walked to the door. He paused and looked back. “Maybe it isn’t just a story after all, Hiram. Maybe not.”