Ellen Carter stopped rocking. She tilted her head toward the window and asked, "Jack, what’s that noise?"
"What noise?" Jack mumbled, keeping his eyes glued to the television.
Ellen frowned at her husband. All stretched out with his legs crossed at the ankles, his only movement was an occasional downward wiggle of one big toe stuck out of a hole in his rockford sock.
"Sh! That noise -- listen!" Ellen hissed, walking to the window. "Something’s banging outside." Cupping her hands around her face to shut out the ceiling light’s glare, she leaned against the pane. Looking beneath a row of sparkling icicles on the house eve, she strained to see through the darkness beyond the back yard to the barn.
"See anything?" Jack tried to divide his concentration between Perry Mason and Ellen.
"Nothing. It’s pitch black out there." Ellen backed away from the drafty window and
settled back into her rocker.
"The wind’s strong tonight. Probably a loose barn board flapping. Or one of us forgot to hook a barn door at chore time." Jack gave Ellen an accusatory look. "I’ll look around while I’m checking the sheep. It’s my turn, isn’t it?"
"You know very well it’s your turn." Ellen chose to ignore the twinkle in Jack’s eyes.
Bundled up in his winter garb, Jack reached for the flashlight on the shelf above the coat pegs, then braced himself for a blast of cold air when he opened the door.
Ellen rushed back to the window and cupped her hands around her eyes. She pressed her nose against the glass. Holding her breath to keep from fogging up the pane, she waited for a signal from Jack. He always flicked the light switch twice if he needed help penning up a ewe.
In a few minutes, the barn lights went off. Jack projected his flashlight’s beam over the front of the barn. As he crossed the back yard, lacy snowflakes floated through the bobbing shaft of light.
"That was quick. It’s snowing, huh? Weren’t any new lambs? What was banging?" Ellen took the flashlight and placed it on the shelf.
Slipping free of his parka, Jack hung it on the empty peg. "In answer to your 40 questions, no new lambs. Yes, it’s beginning to snow, and no I didn’t find anything wrong. The noise stopped when I got to the barn."
The rhythmic noises continued all night. Ellen couldn’t sleep for listening to the disturbing sounds. Slipping from under the quilts, she wrinkled her nose when her toes touched the cold floor.
Tiptoeing to the window, she scanned the back yard. Everything seemed to be all right. She shivered from the cold radiating off the window and decided to go back to bed. Whatever
was making that noises would still be there in the morning. No sense losing sleep over it.
However, January turned into February, and the banging remained undetected. One evening unable to concentrate, Ellen slammed her book shut, and dropped it onto her lap. "I wish that incessant racket would stop."
Jack tried to suppress a grin. "We’ll find out what that banging is one of these days. Who knows," he teased, "maybe it’s a ghost repairing the barn. Gosh dang, I hope he’s doing a good job, putting in such long hours and working in the dark besides."
"Very funny," snapped Ellen. Why did Jack have to bring up ghosts? Leaning her head back against her rocker, she closed her eyes and pictured a transparent spirit with a hammer in his hand, striking a nail until it sank into a board.
That night Ellen dreaded taking her turn to check the sheep. Since Jack mentioned a ghost, she couldn’t shake the feeling someone was hiding in the barn.
Suddenly, springs of hay flitted down in front of her face. A prickly sensation crept across Ellen’s scalp. She aimed the flashlight beam at a small crack in the loft floor. It reflected off two glaring eyes.
"Who’s there?" Ellen called.
She backed away. The unblinking eyes continued to stare at her.
Darting to the hallway, Ellen flipped on the hayloft light and climbed the ladder. Walking to the edge of the stack, Ellen looked down at the fingers of light, filtering through the loose hay
from the room below She pointed the flashlight at the floor, but the small beam created too many shadows. She slipped over the side to take a look.
Finding toeholds between the bales, she climbed down. When her toes touched the floor, Ellen felt a soft lump under her foot. She let her weight down, thinking the lump was hay. A piercing squall shattered the quiet, and needle sharp pains stabbed through Ellen’s ankle. Frightened, she screamed, lost her grip on the flashlight and scrambled back up the bales. Behind her, loose dry hay rustled as a cat skittered in the opposite direction. Ashen faced, Ellen sat down to catch her breath. Sighing deeply, she made her way to the ladder.
"What you doing up in the loft this time of night?"
"Jack, don’t sneak up on me!" Ellen snapped, missing the last step and staggering when her feet touched the floor.
Jack leaned against the doorway, waiting for her explanation.
"If you must know, I saw eyes watching me through a crack in the loft floor. I wanted to find out who it was," snapped Ellen.
The corners of Jack’s mouth twitched. "Who was it?"
"Just a cat," Ellen replied curtly, looking at the floor to avoid Jack’s twinkling eyes and trying to ignore the pain in her ankle. It wouldn’t do to tell Jack she stepped on the cat, looking for his ghost.
One sleepless night in May, Ellen finally slipped out of bed. Maybe a cup of warm milk would help her sleep. When she passed the open, living room window, a blast of air bellowed
the curtains out in front of her. She stopped, gathered the panels in her hands and parted them to look outside. It dawned on her that she hadn’t heard the banging all day.
The barn yard glowed, lit by a full moon. Suddenly a movement in front of the barn caught Ellen’s attention. She knelt in front of the window to study the scene. Sitting on the ground, a small boy dressed in a blue, chambray shirt and faded, blue overalls had his left leg twisted under him in an awkward way. Beside him lay a straw hat with the crown flattened and a claw hammer. As if drawn together like a magnet to metal their eyes met. The pained
expression on his face tugged at Ellen’s heart. His lips moved wordlessly, begging her for help.
Overwhelmed by the painful look on the boy’s face, Ellen felt the distance close between them. Turning the curtains loose, she reached out a hand to him, and felt the cold, unyielding window screen bite into her fingertips. A breeze struck suddenly with whirlwind force swirling the curtains around Ellen’s face, blocking her view. Quickly, she rose to her feet.
"Wake up, Jack! Come to the barn yard quick," she shouted, running to the door.
Beneath the flutter of her nightgown, her bare feet flew over the lawn. When the barn yard came into view, she stopped abruptly. The boy was gone.
"Where’s the fire?" Jack puffed, rushing around the house. He hopped on one bare foot then the other, zipping his jeans as he hobbled along.
"There’s no fire. I saw a little boy sitting in front of the barn," said Ellen.
"A boy? Did you recognize him? What’d he be doing out here this time of night?" Jack combed his fingers through his hair, trying to clear his sleep muddled mind.
"I don’t know why he was out here, but he was hurt. I didn’t know him. He was dressed funny like people dressed years ago, and he had a smashed straw hat and a claw hammer beside him."
"A smashed hat -- a claw hammer -- a boy dressed funny? You saw all this out here in the dark from the house? Are you sure you weren’t sleepwalking and dreamed all that?" Jack sounded concerned.
Ellen shrugged her shoulders. That surely isn’t how it happened, she thought, walking through the gate to inspect the spot.
"Here’s his hammer." Ellen handed it to Jack. "Look at that old, scarred, wooden handle." Now she was convinced that she had seen the boy. "Maybe we should look around for
him. He couldn’t have gotten far with a broken leg."
Jack glanced at the hammer. "This was in the barn when we moved here. You must have used it and didn’t put it back. You’re always leaving my tools lay around."
He’s right about me using his tools and forgetting to put them back sometimes, conceded Ellen to herself, but I’ve never used this hammer. Clearly, Jack hadn’t appreciated being woke up abruptly in the middle of the night to go on her wild ghost chase.
"Let’s go back to bed," declared Ellen, feeling foolish. Not talking about it might be easier than trying to convince Jack. The best she could hope for was that he would forget this night ever happened, and just maybe since the banging had stopped, she might be able to forget, too.
Two weeks later, Ellen was down on her knees pulling weeds from the marigolds when she heard gravel crunch under a slow moving car.
"Hello," called a lady, in a sleek, black pantsuit. She rushed around the car to help her passenger, a frail lady, supported by a cane. With the driver holding a protective hand on her elbow, they walked toward Ellen.
"Would you mind if we looked around?" The younger woman asked. "This farm used to be Mom’s home years ago."
"No I don’t mind," said Ellen. She led the way behind the house to give the ladies a full view of the farm.
"How things have changed." Astonishment filled the older lady’s voice as she recalled the way the farm looked in her youth. "The small outbuildings are gone that were over that way. " The old lady pointed at the barn, "My brother, Jacob, fell off that barn and died."
"How did that happen?" asked Ellen.
"He was helping roof the barn and lost his balance. Slid off and broke his leg when he hit the ground right over there," she said. "A bone poked through the skin, and caused gangrene." She pointed a crooked finger at the maple trees along the far edge of the pasture. "We buried him out yonder somewhere."
A couple years before, Ellen buried her border collie under those trees. She vowed she wasn’t going to dig there anymore now that she knew a human being was buried there. Then an image of the boy in pain flashed through her mind. "What time of year did that accident happen?"
"Early May." The old woman’s eyes clouded over at long ago, put away memories, coming to the surface.
"Mom, how old was Jacob?" asked her daughter.
"He turned eleven in January and thought he was growed. He needled Pa about helping roof the barn until Pa gave in."
Ellen digested that information, then asked, "Which leg did Jacob break?"
"The left one. Daughter, we better go. Thanks for letting me look around." Barely able to contain her excitement, Ellen ran to the feed shed to tell Jack what she heard. "Guess what happened?" she panted.
"The hogs got out again while I was gone after the feed," Jack said, concentrating on unloading the sacks from the pickup.
"No, I had visitors."
"What did they want?" Jack lifted a sack onto his shoulder and returned to the shed.
"The older lady told me an amazing story."
"That right." Jack reached for another sack.
"Years ago, she said her brother, Jacob, got killed when he fell off the barn roof," explained Ellen.
"Really?" Jack, hearing excitement in Ellen’s voice, stopped to look at her.
"Really, and get this. He turned eleven in January and fell off the barn in May."
"Don’t you see? The banging started in January and ended in May. The lady said Jacob broke his left leg. Remember the boy I saw that night. His left leg was twisted under him. Don’t you think that’s quite a coincidence?"
"I might if you hadn’t been sleepwalking. I don’t believe that some spook named Jacob lives in our barn." Jack threw another sack on his shoulder.
"He doesn’t live in our barn exactly. Don’t you see, he just wants to finish the roofing job he didn’t get done before he fell and died," Ellen said, exasperated by Jack’s attitude.
"Well, I happen to think Jacob could have returned. You haven’t found out any other reason for the banging, have you?"
"Nope. Want to help me unload feed?"
"No way! I have to start lunch." Jack wasn’t going to believe her. She might as well drop the subject and retreat to the house before he put her to work.
That evening, the Carters had just settled down in the living room when the banging started up again.
"Oh no, Jacob’s back," Ellen blurted out.
"I don’t know about that overactive imagination of yours. I’m going to find out what that banging is right now." Exasperated by what he thought was Ellen’s twisted logic,
Jack said, "I’m going to prove you wrong before you tell the neighbors our barn’s haunted.
"Go ahead. I’ll let you meet Jacob this time," said Ellen, smugly.
Not long after Jack left, the hammering sounded faster and louder. Growing apprehensive, Ellen couldn’t stand the suspense. She went to find her husband.
When she went into the barn, she couldn’t believe her eyes. Jack, on his knees, was nailing a piece of tin over a hole with the old hammer. "You’re doing the hammering?"
"That rat hole has been the problem all along," declared Jack.
"The rats made the banging noise?" squeaked Ellen.
"No, silly, the sheep," declared Jack.
"Sure it was the sheep," bristled Ellen.
"See that hole I patched? It went into the corn bin on the other side of this wall," Jack explained. "The sheep tapped the wall with their hooves, and corn fell out of the hole. Each time they heard us enter the barn, they stopped and waited for us to feed them."
"Okay, you win," said Ellen. "Let’s go back to the house?"
Feeling defeated, Ellen trailed behind Jack. She paused a minute and turned to study the barn’s roof, then looked at the spot where she saw Jacob. How could she have imagination him?
Jack needed a logical explanation for the banging. Wouldn’t he groan if she suggested that Jacob might return every year from January to May to work on the barn roof? Then again maybe she better keep that notion to herself before Jack decided to have her committed.
"Come on, slow poke. What’s that imagination of yours cooking up now?" Jack taunted.
Wanting the last word, Ellen past him, then replied, "Now that we know Jacob’s resting in the pasture, I wondered which tree I should plant flowers by for him. Oh, you’ll need to buy hog panels to keep the sheep out so they won’t eat the flowers. Maybe you should fix one panel so we can open it to mow the grass."
Ellen smiled at the soft groan she heard behind her.