The man who greeted Andrew at the door of the guest ranch on Saturday afternoon was a cowboy straight out of Central Casting, from his stained and weathered Stetson to his faded jeans and scuffed boots, and everything Andrew could see looked as if a set decorator brought up on Hollywood westerns had arranged it. If the Flying G Guest Ranch appeared too good to be true, Andrew supposed that was what customers wanted.
Not that he’d see any customers as winter caretaker. He had come for what he thought was just an interview, and been startled when he was told he had the job. “Been sizin’ people up all my life,” Stevens said, “and I think you’re the right one. C ’mon, I’ll give you the dime tour. You’ll see a few folks next weekend, closin’ up for the winter, and then you’ll have the place more or less to yourself.”
Andrew followed the older man inside the main building. It already had the sad, vaguely embarrassed look of a place abandoned: chairs in the dining-room were stacked against the walls, the page-a-day calendar on the reception desk was several days out of date, and a few pieces of furniture in the lounge had been covered with sheets. A huge stone fireplace dominated the room, but it was grey and cold, the woodbox beside it almost empty.
Stevens pointed to the fireplace. “Built it myself,” he said with pride. “All the stones come from here.” He grinned. “No shortage of ’em. One of the reasons I started this place. Seemed easier than ranchin’. Shows what I knew. Still, met a lot of interestin’ people over the years, and gave ’em a few days away from their real lives. Can’t complain.”
“You don’t stay here over the winter?”
“Used to.” Stevens’s grin faded to a wistful smile. “Love this place, even out of season. Place is real pretty in winter, quiet, and I’ve just never had a hankerin’ to leave it. But . . . well, a man gets to a certain point and things get too much for him. By the way, I hope you don’t spook easy.”
“Are you telling me the place is haunted?” asked Andrew, suspecting a joke. Stevens chuckled.
“Oh, there’re all sorts of stories ’bout this place. Some of ’em might even be true. Had a guest once, out on a ride; got split off from everyone else, and said he saw an Indian princess; that’s what he called her, anyway. She tried to get him to go with her, said she had a camp nearby, but he was tryin’ to calm his horse, ’cause it’d gone nervous, and when he turned back to her she’d vanished, just like that. Came back whiter’n a sheet. Said later he wondered what would’ve happened if he’d gone with her.
“Then there was Sandy. She was level-headed, tough as nails, but one day she comes in, packs her stuff, and leaves, not so much as goodbye. Called a few days after, soundin’ sheepish, but spooked all the same. Said she’d seen a bunch of horsemen in the back forty. She didn’t recognise ’em, so she reined in, called to ask who they were, and they just kept comin’ towards her – right through a split-rail fence, clear as day, then they were gone.”
Andrew glanced round at the shrouded furniture and shivered. “Anyone ever see a ghost in here?”
“Well,” said Stevens, considering, “not really seen. Heard, more like. Used to be a stray dog lived round the place; friendly little thing. One of the gals who worked here kind of looked after it, and when she left at the end of the season we figured she’d taken the dog with her, ’cause it weren’t nowhere to be seen. So no one looked for him, and we closed up the rooms, shut the doors tight so we wouldn’t have to heat ’em through the winter. Come spring we found the dog dead in the furthest room; must’ve snuck in and no one saw or heard him. Since then people have said they’ve heard a sound like a dog’s paws paddin’ and clickin’ across the floor, or seen somethin’ out of the corner of their eye, like a dog, when there’s no dogs near the place.”
Andrew shivered again. The day was warm, for late September, but inside the house it felt colder than it should have. Stevens noticed.
“Don’t worry, young fella. Nothin’ round here’ll bother you. I’ll make sure of that.”
Andrew smiled. “Well, thanks for this opportunity, Mr. Stevens. I really appreciate it. I’ve been wanting to move up here for a while, and this job sounds perfect.” He recalled the older man’s last words. “Will I be seeing much of you over the winter?”
Stevens smiled. “You never know,” he said. “Might could be I just can’t keep away from the place. Daresay I’ll be droppin’ in from time to time.”
When Andrew showed up for work the following weekend he was greeted by puzzled looks from the staff who were at the Flying G, closing up for winter. When he explained he was the new caretaker there was even more puzzlement; but when he said he had been hired by Bill Stevens the previous Saturday he was not prepared for the reaction. It was some time before anyone could explain to him that on the previous Saturday the ranch had been closed, while staff attended Bill Stevens’s funeral.