“Yes sir,” said the innkeeper. “This was an old Spanish settlement, and some of the buildings in this here town go back a hundred years or more. Why this inn is nearly that old – but don’t you worry. We’ve got all the conveniences. This place is solid built.”
Kid Curry put his hand out to receive their room key, while Hannibal Heyes looked quickly around the lobby, ever cautious. “Very interesting,” Heyes said, while his partner nodded his thanks. “Didn’t realize the Spanish had settlements this far north.”
“Not many, that’s for certain,” said the clerk. “Guess there’s an exception to every rule.”
As they were settling into their room – which, much to the delight of both men, had two beds – Curry mused, “Not a bad location for Christmastime. Not someplace where we’re likely to get snowed in, like those winters in Devil’s Hole, but a lot more Christmassy than last year in New Mexico.”
Heyes shook his head. “Christmas in Devil’s Hole – now those were some times. February in Devil’s Hole, that first time we got snowed in on Christmas Eve and never got out again, that was a different story.”
“At least we finally taught Kyle about the importance of bathing regularly,” said his partner, with a twinkle in his blue yes.
“It was either that or the whole gang was going to mutiny. Some of them weren’t exactly fussy about their personal hygiene, themselves, but . . . . Anyway, there was plenty of snow to melt down for bathwater.”
“I could use a bath myself, come to think of it.”
“I’m goin’ downstairs, see if I can find a drink and a newspaper. I’ll have them send one up. I’ll have mine later, after dinner.”
A short time later, Heyes found himself ensconced in a quiet parlor, drink at his side and a selection of newspapers ready at hand. But instead of reading, he found himself staring into the flames of a large stone fireplace. The room was paneled in dark wood, but the moon reflected off the snow outside. He was lost in thought – planning three steps ahead, as usual – when he noticed a woman had entered the room.
“Evening, ma’am,” he said, politely.
Her face was in shadow, and her dress was dark and somehow old-fashioned looking. She nodded in return, but did not speak.
He opened up the top newspaper on the stack, and was soon caught up in his reading. When he looked up again, she was gone.
Later, over dinner, Heyes looked around the dining room to see if the mysterious lady was there. “There was something about her, Kid. We didn’t even speak, but somehow I can’t get her out of my mind.”
“I know how it is. We’ve been out on the road a lot, and sometimes seeing a pretty woman can just set your imagination going. And,” Curry said with a mischievous smile, “the last few times we’ve run into a lady like that, they’ve been interested in me. Guess you’re figuring it’s your turn, now.”
Heyes frowned, his heavy dark brows drawing together. “It wasn’t like that. I didn’t even notice whether she was pretty or not, to tell you the truth. What I did notice was that she moved silently, that her dress seemed like something out of an old picture book, and that she left me with an unsettled feeling. I just kinda want to see her in this dining room, flirting with her husband or trying to keep her children in line. Just see her doing something regular, you know?”
But she never appeared.
It was in the small hours of the night that Heyes found himself lying wide awake, half a dozen ideas running through his mind, all at the same time. Across the room, Kid Curry was sleeping the sleep of the innocent, snoring a little every now and again. The dark-haired man looked at his friend with fond envy at his restful slumbers.
And then, with a start, he realized that the woman from earlier that evening was in the room, standing just inside the doorway. But . . . the door hadn’t opened . . . had it?
“Well, ‘scuse me ma’am, this is flattering and all, but maybe just a little . . . well. We haven’t been properly introduced or anything.”
But the woman raised a finger to her lips. Although it was dark, he could see now that she was very lovely, indeed. She almost . . . glowed from within, if such a thing were possible. With a gesture, she beckoned him to follow.
Since Heyes was sleeping in his longjohns, he grabbed a pair of trousers and quickly dressed. Then he pulled on his boots. When he looked up again, he saw that the woman was gone . . . but the door had never opened. He could swear to that.
There was a stirring from across the room. Kid Curry might sleep well, but he was always on the alert, too. “Heyes!” came an urgent whisper from his partner. “What are you doing?”
“It was that woman . . . oh, Kid, I don’t know what I thought I saw, but . . . .” For a moment he hesitated. “I could have sworn . . . well, come along, then.”
A moment later, both outlaws were in the hallway.
“Heyes!” This time the Kid was even more urgent. “I asked . . . what are you doing?”
And now Heyes was able to gesture again at the mysterious woman, who was preceding them down the hallway.
They followed her down the stairs, and through a series of rooms until they came to something that seemed to be a storeroom, dusty and mostly abandoned. Curry coughed a little. The woman in the dark, old-fashioned dress stood by an oak box, darkened with age. There was a heavy padlock on it, which the woman gestured towards.
The two men looked at one another, and began softly chuckling. “Guess she hadn’t heard we’ve gone straight, Heyes,” said Kid Curry.
His partner shushed him, and slid a lockpick out of his boot. A few moments of concentration, and he slid the rusty-looking old padlock open.
The woman stood back, so Heyes opened the box himself. Inside was only one thing: a gold locket with a painted miniature of a child. The woman reached out her hand, which, Heyes noticed without much surprise, seemed oddly unsubstantial, but she picked the locket up and fastened it around her neck. She nodded her thanks, and then . . . simply . . . vanished.
“So you saw Maria Isabella, did you?” The innkeeper smiled. “It’s rare that she shows herself to strangers.”
“Pretty lady in a dark, old-fashioned dress?” Kid Curry asked.
“That’s her. Never could figure out why she haunts this inn, though. She died of old age on her husband’s ranch, a couple of hours south and west of here. Thirty years ago she died, but comes back to this place regular, lookin’ like she did in her prime. It’s as though she’s still searchin’ for something.”
“Well now,” said Hannibal Heyes, “maybe she’s found it.” He thought about telling the innkeeper about the locked box, but then he’d have to explain why he picked the lock so easily. Perhaps Maria Isabella had known exactly who he was, when she decided to show herself to this particular stranger.
“That’d be right nice. My ma always said what a kind lady she was.” The innkeeper thought for a moment. “Tomorrow night’s Christmas Eve. If you boys ain’t in a hurry to get somewhere, you oughta think about stayin’ around here for a few days. My missus does a real nice Christmas dinner and all.”
“Might just do that,” Curry said. “’Course, now we know we’re stayin’ in a haunted inn . . . .”
“Suits us fine,” said Heyes.
And it did.
The Victorians told ghost stories at Christmas. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the remnant of that tradition that modern folks are most familiar with, but if you think about the fact that Christmas falls around the longest nights of the year, and that ghost stories are best told as friends and family gather around the fire, it makes sense. And, after all, although Heyes and Curry may be across an ocean, Victoria is firmly upon her throne when this story takes place.