I settled myself into the room at the inn uneasily. The new teams had pulled the wagons well enough, and we were on our way north to make our fortunes off the new gold strike by Redding. But something about this place dampened my spirits.
Still, if we’d passed it by, it was likely more than our spirits would be damp. The sky was threatening serious rain, and northern California might be mild, but it would still be uncomfortable. The wagons were full of our trade goods, and I was in no mood for a rude awakening in the middle of the night from water that had found its way from the canvas to my blanket.
“Going to turn in early tonight,” I told my brother George. Maybe I could just sleep through the uneasiness. We’d leave tomorrow morning, rain or shine.
“That’s right, Hal,” he replied. “The sooner we get there, the sooner we start getting rich.”
I nodded. We’d been here for the tail end of the big gold rush, but like most miners, we didn’t get rich at all. We got wet feet and sore backs and lousy food. But the merchants—well, if they weren’t rich, then they just weren’t trying. The prices they got were unbelievable. And this time we’d be one of them.
“Miners pay in gold,” George murmured as he climbed into bed, and I grinned.
“Gold dust, gold coins, gold nuggets…our days of scratching in the dirt for pennies are over.” With this comforting thought, I pulled the blanket up to my chin and closed my eyes.
I woke to what felt like a sharp shock of water down my back. I sat up, outraged at the icy chill, and gasped. Tendrils of fog were coming up through the floorboards.
I reached over and shook my brother. “George, wake up.”
He groaned and then froze. “What is it, Hal?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it.” I sat up, clutching the blanket to my chest. The room was freezing, far too cold for September. And the wisps were coming from the walls now, too.
George sat up next to me, and the fog reached for his head, spreading out like fingers of some ghastly hand. I waved my hand through it, and its touch was clammy. Even as it dissipated, another one formed.
“George, we’re getting out of here.” I threw off the blanket and fumbled for my pants. A tendril touched my arm, and I slapped at it frantically.
“No! Leave me alone!” George shouted, and wisps were now reaching for him from all sides.
I stuffed my feet into my boots, trying to ignore the feeling that I’d just stepped into a bog, and grabbed my shirt and jacket from the foot of the bed. We had to get out of here.
A hollow, grating laugh echoed through the room, and George screamed. “No, I’m going! I don’t have your gold! I hardly ever found any!”
But we did have some gold—all our savings in the world were in our two packs. And I could hardly see them now for the wisps that were writhing over them. I staggered over, tripping over things I couldn’t see. “This is mine, you damn ghost,” I shouted. My legs were swept out from under me, and I fell headfirst into the packs.
My hand groped and found a strap. It’s mine now, a voice echoed in my head.
“Like hell!” I stumbled to my feet, but I tripped forward and landed hard on my hands. The other pack was just to my right, so I grasped the strap and crawled.
I had no hands free to sweep the foggy fingers from my face. I moved my head back and forth, but their icy grip slipped down my collar. It froze me, but I had to keep moving.
“Where’s the door?” I shouted. The wisps were too thick to see through.
“Keep coming,” George called. “You’re headed the right way.”
You’ll never get out. The gold is mine, and you are, too.
I screamed and shoved a hand forward. The wisps now stung, like needle-thin shards of ice piercing my skin. I lurched ahead, and the floor turned to slippery ice. I landed on my face and the mocking laughter rang in the room again.
I felt a tug on the pack, and George said, “Keep moving, Hal.”
We crawled to the door–we had to get out of here. The cold metal doorknob was a promise of freedom beneath my hand. I yanked the door open and pulled on George’s arm, who’d fallen behind me.
We crawled into the hallway and staggered to our feet. George looked shaken, but he slung his pack on. “I wasn’t sure we were going to make it out of that, Hal.”
I forced my pack straps over my shoulders and looked back into the foggy room. “I wasn’t, either.”
A tendril reached through the open doorway.
We screamed and ran, pell-mell down the hallway. My feet were making my decisions for me–I wanted to be anywhere but here.
The floor buckled beneath our feet, and the stairs pitched back and forth crazily as we stumbled down. I fell three times but scrambled back to my feet right away, panic giving me wings. I had to get out of here. I had to go, go, go. I whimpered and hauled George to his feet at the base of the stairs. We staggered toward the incredibly beautiful rectangle of freedom that was the open door. The sky was just lightening in the east.
A man stood to block our path. “You must stay,” he said in a hollow voice, and I grabbed his shoulders and flung him to the side. He crashed into a pile of tables and chairs.
I ran through the open doorway and down the steps. I made it several paces before I bent over, hands on knees, gasping. My panic was ebbing, and with it, my strength. My arms felt as rubbery as noodles, and my legs weren’t much better.
Looking back, I went weak with relief that George was right behind me. Then I raised my eyes to the building behind us.
It was a ruin, with only traces of the inn we’d seen. Peeling paint covered empty window frames on either side of gaping doorway. An oak branch had caved in part of the second story.
I met George’s eyes. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”