MOUNTAIN RAILS OF OLD
ELAINE L. ORR
Third in the Family History Mystery Series
EARLY SPRING IN THE mountains of Western Maryland meant sunshine, the smell of soil, and buds that promised dazzling flowers. Most of all, it signaled air someone could breathe without chilling their lungs, and Digger Browning relished it.
Pleasant temperatures also meant outdoor activities, so on Saturday, Digger and Marty Hofstedder hiked up Meadow Mountain. They had almost reached their destination, a huge boulder that sat atop a ridge. She nudged his elbow with her own. “Fifty cents says you can’t climb on top of The Knob.”
He grunted. “Ten cents says I’m smart enough not to try to scale the darn thing.”
They continued in companionable silence as Bitsy, Digger’s German Shepherd, raced past them on the narrow path.
Digger shrugged out of her coat and slung it over her shoulders. “Too early for rabbits.”
“I’ve never known your dog to need an excuse to run around.”
They reached the seven-foot boulder and leaned their backs into it. Marty grabbed Digger’s hand. “You’re more out of breath than I am.”
She laughed. “Says who?”
“Anyone within ten feet of us.” He squeezed her hand and let go. “I’m glad you showed me this place.”
“Sometimes I forget you didn’t grow up here. For a while this was kind of a lover’s lane, albeit on foot, but the parks department removed the stones that were comfortable enough to sit on.”
Marty raised his eyebrows. “Lover’s lane, huh. Now I know why you brought me here.”
Digger was enough shorter that she had to stand on her toes to reach him for a quick kiss. She didn’t say “dream on,” because she wanted to spend time, maybe a few hours or weeks, getting to know him better. But when could they be together privately?
When Digger inherited the Ancestral Sanctuary from Uncle Benjamin, it didn’t initially come with his ghost as a permanent resident. As he explained it, when the last shovel of dirt fell on his coffin in the family plot, he found himself sitting atop his and Aunt Clara’s large headstone.
She loved the ornery – and no longer aging – octogenarian, but the thought of making love to Marty in the house where he roamed through the walls did not appeal to her. He respected her privacy, but he was simply…there.
How could she explain Uncle Benjamin? A few months ago, she’d taken Marty to the small cemetery behind the house and they’d stood before Aunt Clara’s and Uncle Benjamin’s headstone. She’d asked Marty what he thought would happen if the sole person who could see a ghost told others about the apparition’s existence.
He had to know who she meant. But he also thought she was overwhelmed because of Uncle Benjamin’s death and the sudden responsibility for a four-acre property and nearly 100-year-old house. They didn’t discuss it more.
Bitsy bounded toward them, tongue hanging out and a bunch of leaves and small sticks on his coat. Marty bent over to brush him off. “What have you been rolling in?”
“Careful. Sometimes dogs roll in gifts left by other dogs.”
Marty snatched his hand back and studied it. “Not this time.” He grinned and pushed his glasses further up his nose. “It’s cold just standing here and it’s what, half a mile to the car?”
“Closer to three-quarters, I think.” She swung her coat back over her shoulders. “It is getting chilly.”
As they walked, Marty spotted a small structure behind a grouping of trees. “I didn’t notice that on the way up here.”
Digger stopped. “It’s a cottage, long since boarded up. If you could see about a quarter-mile farther, you’d see a large frame house with a huge brick chimney. I think the daughter of the people who own that used to live in the cottage.”
Marty stepped a couple feet off the path. “Wish I’d brought my camera.”
“I don’t think the place is going anywhere.”
Digger turned. “What is it, Boy?”
Bitsy stared, rigid, ahead of him. Ten feet away, just off the trail, sat a fat raccoon. It hissed. Bitsy barked.
“They aren’t usually out in the daytime, are they?” Marty asked.
“Night scavengers. Maybe Bitsy woke him up.”
“Not rabid, is it?”
“Doubt it.” Digger stooped and snapped her fingers. “Come here, Boy.”
Bitsy backed up, slowly.
“Rabid ones usually stumble around, and maybe drool. This guy looks as if he has all his faculties. He just feels threatened.”
Bitsy sidled up to Marty, who leaned down to pet him.
“Hey, who feeds you?”
Marty stood. “We men have to stick together. Let’s keep walking.”
Bitsy looked back several times, and finally seemed persuaded the raccoon would not join their hiking party. He bounded ahead, barking at some likely imaginary movement just off the path.
Marty bent over, picked up a stone, and tossed it at an abandoned bird’s nest above them. “I want to come back with my camera.”
“Won’t be easy to get good shots with all the trees around the cottage.”
“How did anyone get to that place, or the larger house?”
“We’re above the east side of Maple Grove. If you leave town from the west, an old state road comes up to the house.” Digger paused. “I think there used to be an unpaved driveway that came back to the cottage. You can see the trees aren’t as tall toward the front of the cottage.”
“What happened to the daughter who lived there?”
“Supposedly she ran off with some guy she just met.”
“Never came back?”
Digger shook her head. “I don’t know all the details. It was maybe twelve years ago or more. I was about twelve or thirteen. You could…” She stopped herself before she said, “Ask Uncle Benjamin.”
“I could what?”
“There must be some old articles in the Maple Grove News.”
“Maybe I’ll go down to the historical society to read them.”
“Didn’t you say the paper is close to digitizing all the back issues? You can read them at your desk.”
He nodded. “Yep. But when you search for a topic, it brings up only those articles. I like the microfilm at the society. You get the whole page.”
“What difference does it make?”
He shrugged. “I like to see what else was going on at the time. Like when I was looking for articles on the Underground Railroad in the area. You know, to try to help Holly. If a paper mentioned the hunt for someone fleeing slavery, the same page might have a piece on the literal railroad being used for Union supplies, or who was visiting whom in town.”
Digger kicked the skin of a large snake from the path into the brush. It had been on Marty’s side of the path on the way up, and he hadn’t seemed to notice it.
“What are you…gross.”
Digger grinned. “City boy. Holly asked me to help find her Western Maryland ancestors, but I’m glad to know she enlisted you, too.”
“Huh. Thought she would have told you.”
Digger thought her business partner would have let her know that, too, but Holly had talked to a lot of people about her quest. Marty and Digger seemed to be the only two actually working on it.
She changed the subject. “How do those social announcements relate to the Underground Railroad?”
“My theory is that those local visits could have been a good way to transport an escaped slave from one house to another.”
“Did you find anything that said those visits really did help transport people?”
“Not really, but Holly wants me to keep hunting, in general. Maybe I’ll come up with some connections to her Barton family or people who married into it.”
“I feel almost guilty, sometimes. My white grandparents are easy to trace back for several generations. Holly’s slave ancestors were numbers on a census, not names.”
“I’ve never gotten into that stuff. When was the first Garrett County Census done?”
“First federal census was 1790, but Garrett County was part of Allegany then. It had 4,800 people and 258 were Black slaves, but probably only a few hundred people, if that, lived in what’s now Garrett County.”
“Aren’t you the walking encyclopedia.”
Digger tapped the side of her head. “History major, remember? Anyway, have you had much luck?”
“Not yet. She wants to know who that second great grandmother was, her great grandmother’s mother on her mom’s side. I honestly don’t see how we’ll find out.” Marty shot her a sideways glance. “Not like we can question her ghost.”
Digger’s heart beat faster. “I wonder if ghosts remember everything about their pasts?”
“Maybe you can find out.”
That comment marked the first time Marty had acknowledged even the possibility that Digger might be the medium for an ornery ghost. She wasn’t sure she wanted to continue the topic. At least, not now. “There’s a book about ghost towns of the Upper Potomac River. We could visit a couple and see if we meet any.”
Marty’s tone was flat. “We could.”
He had given her an opening and she hadn’t taken it. Why not?
They walked to the trailhead where Digger had parked her Jeep. Usually, Digger would say it was as easy to be quiet with Marty as it was to talk. Not this time.
AT THE ANCESTRAL SANCTUARY, Bitsy bounded out of the Jeep and headed for the porch. Digger got out more slowly. “You coming in for supper? Saturday night’s leftovers, and I have lasagna and pulled pork.”
Marty leaned on the hood of the car and tossed her keys back to her. “I think I’m going to work on a story.”
When Digger looked surprised, he added, “I want to hike back up there with a camera tomorrow, so I need to do some work tonight. Want to come?”
From the front porch, behind her, Uncle Benjamin called, “Make him come in. You won’t warm up the pork if he doesn’t, and I want to practice smelling it.”
Digger started, but held Marty’s gaze. “If it isn’t any colder. I’m stiff from hiking in forty-five degree weather.”
He grinned. “Wimp. I’ll call you before I go to bed.”
She waved as he pulled away in his Toyota, and started for the porch. “No surprises, remember?”
Uncle Benjamin made a palms-up shrug. “Sorry. I thought you saw me on the porch. Got bored waiting for you.”
Digger knew how hard it was for Uncle Benjamin to be limited to either the Ancestral Sanctuary property or wherever she went. True that his pale version of himself could float through walls, but he couldn’t make anything move. The one time he’d summoned the strength, or whatever you called it, to push her out of danger, he could barely stand for ages.
She grinned. His ability to transform into any clothes he once wore or anything he saw elsewhere led to some interesting apparel combinations. Today he wore the baseball uniform of a Baltimore Oriole. “I thought you liked the Pittsburgh Pirates best.”
“The season’s about to start. I feel like I should support a Maryland team.” He pounded one hand into a mitt. “Too bad you can’t play catch with me.”
“Spring training underway?”
“Yeah, and this is the Orioles’ old uniform.” He switched to his favorite red sweater vest over a yellow oxford shirt that had frayed cuffs. His khaki trousers had a tear near the bottom of one leg. He once told Digger that it ripped during a battle with a hedge trimmer, but she’d never asked him what one was doing at his ankle.
Digger pointed to the front door. “Let’s head inside.”
“Sure. Sorry I startled you.” He floated through the door while she unlocked it.
“It’s okay. Where’s Ragdoll?” The very furry cat rarely left his side. She seemed to sense his presence.
“We were in my son’s rooms in the attic. I like to look out that round window.”
Digger entered the front hallway. “Watching for me from Franklin’s apartment, were you?”
“What are we doing tomorrow?”
Digger had promised Uncle Benjamin she would spend time with him on the Internet on their joint hobby, family history research. “How would you like to take a hike with us?”
“You’re going out again?”
“Marty had never been up to The Knob, and he was intrigued by that boarded-up cottage just off the trail.” She hung her jacket on the hall coat tree. “He wants to go back with his camera.”
Uncle Benjamin floated ahead of her. “I would have thought that place fell apart by now.”
“It’s boarded up pretty tight, and the roof looks intact.”
“Old Man Halloway thought his daughter and granddaughter would come back. She supposedly left because he wouldn’t increase her monthly allowance.”
“Where’d they go?”
“Don’t know. You remember it, don’t you?”
“I think it was my last year of middle school. I don’t remember people talking about it a lot.”
“They sent postcards for a while, then nothing. Guess Halloway’s daughter found somebody to shack up with.”
Digger smiled to herself as she walked past the large living room on her right and the dining room just past it, into the kitchen. Uncle Benjamin’s language was becoming more like a teenager’s. “What happened to the granddaughter? Was she young?”
“About eight or nine. That was the really sad part. Have to hope she had a happy life.”
She opened the fridge and took out the leftover lasagna. “Anyway, you can come if you behave yourself. You can’t butt into our conversations.”
“I never butt in. I add fascinating details.”
DIGGER SPENT MUCH OF SATURDAY evening poring over books about Garrett County history and searching articles on the Internet. She had promised Holly she’d help her figure out who her great, great grandmother was, but didn’t see how she could.
Uncle Benjamin had worked on the Browning family history for decades, and even he had a couple evasive ancestors, mostly women whose maiden names weren’t known.
“You know what you need to do? You should write an article about the Underground Railroad in this area.”
Digger looked at Uncle Benjamin. “There isn’t a lot on that, is there? Supposedly only a few houses were stations on the railway.”
“That’s kind of my point.”
She considered the suggestion. “It’s a good idea, but I want to focus on Holly’s family first.”
“There were a number of free Black families in the 1860 Census. And, of course, 1870 and after. That’s the timeframe she thinks she’s looking at, right?”
“Yes, but she doesn’t know whether her great, great grandmother was a free person or slave.”
“You know you have to look back from what she knows for sure. When can she first find her ancestors on the census?”
“Mmm. In 1870, for some of them. Before that, it would only have the owners’ names, and then ages and sex of the slaves.”
“Right, but if you look at the 1850 and 1860 Censuses, write down the names of the owners. Sometimes freed slaves adopted those names. Allegany County, of course. Garrett wasn’t formed until 1872.”
Digger sighed. “I guess I find it all so deplorable I haven’t worked on it as much as I should.”
“But Holly’s your friend, so you’ll do it. Even if it does lead you to her ornery grandmother.”
Digger smiled. “You just crossed swords with Audrey Washington because she argued with you sometimes at the historical society.”
“That woman wanted to conduct historical society meetings even if I was in charge.” His eyebrows went up and he grinned. “And that brings me back to the Underground Railroad.”
“How so? Oh, conduct, conductors, railroad.”
“Right. It wasn’t just white people who helped slaves escape to Pennsylvania. You should look for names of Black folks.”
“Because maybe her ancestors helped other slaves escape?”
“Or provided help to travelers. At least worth looking at. Maybe some of the Western Maryland historical libraries have letters or diaries -- enough that you could piece things together.”
“Sounds like a job for a man with a lot of time on his hands.”
“Could be, but somebody’d have to take him to those libraries, or bring home some material.”
“I see your ulterior motive now.”
“I could stay here some days and work on it. If I had the right books to dive into.”
Digger smiled. He couldn’t turn pages, but somehow he could plunge into books and look around. “A lot of the material is online, or at least indexed online. I can’t check out old reference items, but I’ll look for some and make copies for you.”
“An efficient young woman could get on that by Monday, when she goes into town to work.”
“Okay. The efficient woman hears you. I want to get back to the census data.”
Though all of the census data was on Ancestry, Digger had paper copies of the 1850-1870 Allegany County and the 1880 Garrett County Censuses. In 1850, Maple Grove had a smattering of families in the area.
Digger knew from local history accounts that the town had grown around a grain mill and a blacksmith shop, two essential businesses on the frontier. In rapid succession a dry good store, two churches, and a lumber mill followed.
Small farms surrounded the growing town. The rocky terrain and short growing season meant agriculture had never produced much more than food needed for people in the area. Until the twentieth century, anyway.
Digger looked for White families named Washington in 1850 and 1860 and found two, each of which had very few slaves. By current roads, the two families were roughly three miles apart, and there was no indication that they were blood relations.
By 1870, there were also three Black families with the Washington name in the same area. Digger didn’t like to jump to conclusions, but the ages of the children and adults in the three new families correlated to those of the slaves in the 1860 Census – plus some new children under ten years of age.
She’d never heard Holly say where she thought the Washington name came from. She likely didn’t know, but Digger would ask her on Monday.
MARTY CALLED SUNDAY MORNING to say he would head back to The Knob about eleven. “The sun should give at least a little more warmth mid-day. You coming?”
Digger had made the trek many times, but she was less interested in the hike and cottage than who she’d be walking with. “Sure. Meet in that small parking lot at the trailhead?”
“I could swing by and get you.”
Digger thought for a few seconds. “No, I need to stop in town to get groceries afterwards. I’ll meet you in the lot.”
“I thought this guy you know might take you to the Coffee Engine after the hike.”
She laughed. “Work’s been so busy I have three loads of laundry and a bunch of branches to stack near the burn barrel.”
The first spring rainstorm had littered the Ancestral Sanctuary’s lawn and vegetable garden with all the dead limbs the trees had held onto over the winter.
“I should be insulted.”
“How about grabbing a bite after work Monday?”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll see you in the lot at eleven.”
Digger glanced at the clock on the counter microwave. Nine AM. Plenty of time to throw in some laundry and grab at least one batch of sticks and branches before she left.
She turned to find Uncle Benjamin sitting cross-legged on the red, Formica-topped kitchen table, his favorite spot. “I’d say I didn’t hear you come in, but I never do.”
“If you’re taking your own car, it’ll be easier for me to come on the hike.”
“Will you walk ahead or behind us, and not offer commentary?”
He adopted an expression of feigned affront. “Anyone else would value my skills as a tour guide.”
“Anyone else would know not to interrupt other people’s conversations.”
Ragdoll hopped onto the table and settled in next to him. Digger felt certain the cat strongly sensed his presence. Bitsy was sometimes confused if Uncle Benjamin passed near him, but Ragdoll followed him around just as she did when he was alive.
He petted her, which the cat never acknowledged. Digger wasn’t sure if it was typical feline aloofness or if she couldn’t tell he touched her.
Uncle Benjamin looked to Digger. “I heard you and Holly talking about remodeling Aunt Clara’s kitchen.”
She took in the cabinets and worn countertops, installed when the kitchen was ‘modernized’ in the 1940s. “It’s dated, and I’d like a dishwasher…”
He waved a hand. “I meant to do it the last few years. Lots of unused space, and the floor’s worn.”
Digger waited. She knew he had a point. Old farm-style kitchens generally served as a family’s main eating space, and had a lot of open area, meant to hold a large table and chairs. She wanted to put counters on an additional wall and install an island.
“Any chance you’ll leave my table?”
She smiled. “You don’t want me to donate it to the historical society?”
He grunted. “Audrey wouldn’t let you bring it through the door.”
“I’m kidding. I’ll take out the leaf and probably have the metal trim refinished.” She pointed toward the wall that abutted the dining room. “It’ll go right there. New chairs, though.”
Uncle Benjamin stroked Ragdoll again. “Hear that? We aren’t being evicted.”
DIGGER WAVED AS SHE got out of her Jeep in the parking lot below The Knob.
Uncle Benjamin – sporting hiking boots, shorts, and a battered hat and fishing vest – floated ahead as she moved toward Marty. “I’ll give him a smooch as I go by.”
Without moving her lips, she said, “Don’t you dare.” She wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face. It was hard enough not to laugh at Uncle Benjamin’s skinny legs in high-end hiking boots.
Marty leaned into his car and took his camera off the front seat. As he locked the door, he called, “Where’s Bitsy?”
“I took her out right before I left. She’s good for a few hours.” She fell into step beside him as they started toward the wide trail. “She’d be a distraction if you wanted to take some serious pictures.”
“Good point.” Marty took her hand. “How come you didn’t bring your camera?”
“Probably not something Holly and I would use in any promotional ads we design. Not a good example of the housing stock if the Chamber of Commerce is trying to attract new businesses.”
“I see your point. The historical society wasn’t open, so I went into the newspaper’s archives last night.”
“You went to your office?”
He shook his head. “We reporters have secret codes to get into the computer system remotely.”
“Funny. You read about the cottage?”
“More specifically, the disappearance of the woman and her child twelve years ago.”
“I remembered the family name. Halloway, I think.”
From ahead, Uncle Benjamin’s voice floated to them. “You should give me credit.”
“Yep. Hamil Halloway. Odd name.”
“What was the daughter’s name?”
“She was, or I suppose still could be, Samantha, and the child was Cherry.”
“Was her name still Halloway?”
“It seems so. She and the little girl lived alone in the cottage. None of the articles mentioned a husband or boyfriend.”
Digger let go of his hand to snap a branch that hung over the edge of the path. “If you really get into it, I could check some of the genealogy websites for marriages or anything else that relates to her.”
“I thought they only had information on dead people.”
“You could tell him about dead people you know.”
“Some public records are there, like marriages.”
“That’d be good. What relatively little I found made it sound like they didn’t do a real thorough search for her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her father made appeals, the sheriff had signs and they posted them throughout the county. Local TV picked up on it. But there was no big canvass of the woods or any large, general search.”
“They thought she ran away?” Digger asked.
“I picked up that idea. People who talked about seeing her the last day she was around said she seemed cheerful, happier than usual. None of the traditional signs of foul play, as the cops say.”
“So they think she left on her own.”
“Yep. She didn’t take a lot with her, but enough that it seemed she packed an overnight bag, or something similar. For herself and her daughter.”
“That poor family.”
“Yeah, her father offered a reward and put ads in our paper and some others.”
Digger thought for a moment. “So, your interest in the cottage isn’t solely architectural?”
He grinned. “You never know, she could turn up. I’ll have good photos of the cottage before they take the boards off the windows.”
They concentrated on the uphill climb for a minute.
Uncle Benjamin came back toward them. “Slowpokes. I’ll beat you up there by a longshot.”
Digger ignored him and jutted her chin forward. “The cottage is just ahead, in the trees on the left.”
“Huh. Now I get why I didn’t see it on the way up last time. When you’re walking up, those fallen logs kind of draw your attention.” Marty took his camera strap off his shoulder.
Digger glanced at the two logs, which sat across one another, like a giant X. “Tic tac toe.”
“Yep.” Marty stopped and looked down through his camera’s screen. “Better lighting out here, but I guess the cottage won’t move onto the path.”
A laugh came from behind them, and a man’s voice said, “I’ve been trying to get my wife to let me peer into that cottage. She says there’s probably poison ivy.”
They turned. A couple of perhaps thirty approached, with a baby forward facing in a harness on the man’s chest. The woman’s bright red, floppy hat, would be a beacon for bird droppings.
Marty grinned. “My wife has given me permission to take pictures.”
Uncle Benjamin peered from behind Marty’s shoulder. “That’s a good one.”
Digger forced a smile. “Actually, he tends to ask forgiveness rather than permission.”
The two people stopped a few feet from them. Digger thought she recognized the curly-haired man, and he cocked his head at her. “Do you work with Holly Barton?”
She smiled. “I do. Digger Browning.” In the post-COVID tradition, she did a four-fingered wave.
“And I’m Marty Hofstedder.” He bent down and scrunched his nose at the baby.
“Oh, sure,” the woman said. “We haven’t met, but I know your faces from around town. I’m Regina and this is Tyler. We just bought the laundromat downtown.”
Marty stood. “Duds ‘n Suds. I saw you bought an ad about taking over the place. I plan to come by next week to talk to you guys.”
Tyler grinned and nodded to Digger. “Great. We changed the name to that because of the ad campaign Holly designed for the last owners, just before they sold to us.”
She’d have to remember to tell Holly. They’d both worked on the ads, but the fun tagline had come from her partner. “How’s business?”
“Good. We’re closed Monday and Tuesday,” Regina said. “Then we can have a grand reopening on Wednesday.”
Tyler grinned. “We’re having the place painted Monday and bringing in a bunch of rolling laundry carts customers can use. Then we can raise the prices a little.”
Regina slapped him playfully on the arm. “You aren’t supposed to say stuff like that.”
“I promise not to mention your Machiavellian tendencies in an article,” Marty said.
The baby fidgeted and whimpered. Regina ruffled his hair. “We have to keep our little guy moving.”
Digger and Marty stood to one side of the path so they could pass.
“What’s the baby’s name?” she asked.
“Doogie,” Regina said.
“Douglas,” Tyler added. “Doogie could get you a punch on the playground.”
They laughed and walked past, heading for The Knob.
“It’ll be all over town that you two eloped.” Uncle Benjamin turned to follow the couple.
They let Regina and Tyler get out of earshot.
Digger pretended to scowl deeply. “Your wife?”
Marty grinned. “It isn’t a formal proposal.”
She rolled her eyes. “Come on. Let’s get your pictures.”
For the next ten minutes, Marty took photos of the cottage from several angles and distances. Getting an image of the entire cottage was tough because of trees and the variegated lighting that poked through them.
Digger kept moving around and finally found a good spot. “Come over here. If I hold back this branch you can get a better shot.”
Marty tromped over. “My feet are turning into ice clods.”
From the path, Uncle Benjamin called, “Wimp.”
Digger grinned. “You’re almost done, aren’t you?” She put her foot on a log to steady herself while she reached above her head.
Marty’s back was to her. “Yeah, I want to get a couple more of…”
A hissing noise told them they had passed too close to the raccoon. Digger looked behind her as she pulled back the branch. “Hello, Mr. Bandit. We’ll be gone soon.”
Marty kept peering through his lens.
The raccoon stood on his hind legs and hissed again, more gutturally this time.
“Oh my God!” Uncle Benjamin rushed toward them.
“What?” She almost let go of the branch and Marty ducked.
“Is it rabid? Are you hurt?”
She tried not to show she was breathing harder. “Sorry. It moved and startled me, that’s all.”
“Okay. I like my eyesight.” He brought the camera into position again.
Digger’s eyes traveled down the path, following Uncle Benjamin as he ran toward her car. He appeared to be cradling something in his arms, and it looked a lot bigger than a solid raccoon..