A Step Into the Past



Mickey Minner



Copyrighted 2015



This story continues the adventures of Pat Calvin and Sherry Gallagher (Slam Dunk, Fast Break, Footsteps) as they retrace the steps of Jesse and Jennifer Branson (Sweetwater Saga). No reason to read those stories to enjoy this one but, heck, you might enjoy them, too. <G>



“Dang, I’m tired,” Sherry Gallagher moaned slipping her hand down between the seat and pickup door reaching for the seat controls. “I never knew watching players could be so exhausting,” she muttered.

“It’s because scouting is more mental than physical,” Pat Calvin replied glancing at her squirming lover. As coaches for the Missoula Cougars, their duties included checking on potential players for try-out camp and they were headed home after a week long trip around the mid-west doing just that. “If you want, we can make it an early night and stop in Great Falls instead of driving all the way back to Missoula.”

“How far to Great Falls?”

“Hour… maybe a bit less.”

“Ugh,” Sherry grumbled shifting the seat as far back as she could to gain a few more precious inches of leg room. “I don’t suppose there’s any place we could stop and walk around… I feel like my kinks have kinks.”

“Sure,” Pat readily agreed. “Fort Benton is a few minutes from here. There’s a nice park along the river.”

“Sounds perfect.”

Guiding the pickup toward the turn-off, Pat lifted her foot off the accelerator to slow their speed.

As they left the busier highway behind, Sherry looked out the side window at the dry, scrub brush covered ground dropping over the edge of a steep escarpment. “Pretty river,” she commented on the wide, blue ribbon gently sweeping around a bend at the base of the steep slope.

“That’s the Missouri. You could jump into it and float all the way to the Mississippi then to the Gulf.”

“Hmm,” Sherry murmured, her brow wrinkling up as she tried to dredge up a forgotten memory. “Fort Benton?” she thought aloud. “Why do I feel like I should know that name?”

“You should,” Pat replied. “We read about it in the diary. It’s where—”

“Bette Mae met Lizzie,” Sherry said excitedly. “Now, I remember. Wow… Bette Mae and Lizzie. I hope the town hasn’t changed too much.”

“It probably hasn’t,” Pat assured, smiling. “Actually, Fort Benton’s history goes back a long ways before Bette Mae and Lizzie; and there are many interesting places to see.”

Her tiredness forgotten, Sherry eagerly watched the sparsely covered hills give way to a sea of tall cottonwood trees towering over the historical town’s buildings clustered beside the river. “I can’t wait,” she declared when Pat pulled the pickup into a parking spot. “It’s so pretty here. And peaceful.”

“Probably wasn’t when Bette Mae lived here,” Pat pondered turning off the engine. “Back then, steamboats and barges would have been lined up over there,” she said pointing across a grassy park to the river’s sloping bank. “And this area would have been pretty busy as men moved freight from the boats to the wagon trains heading for the mining camps and towns further west. Most likely, it would have been crowded, noisy, and smelly,” she speculated wrinkling her nose in protest at the thought.

“Well, it isn’t now,” Sherry said pushing her door open. “And I like it,” she added before hopping out to stand on the pavement. “Where do we begin? I want to see it all.”

“How about where the town started,” Pat suggested after walking around the pickup to join her partner. She gestured toward the far end of the park. “The old Fort Benton trading post… down there.”

“Lead the way, sweetheart.”


Built in 1847 of wood and adobe, the impressive square structure had first served as combination fort and trading post to the mountain men who roamed throughout the northern Rockies. Two story bastions offered protection for the fort and a thick wooden gate, located in the center of the river-facing wall, protected the only access into the old post.

“This place is neat,” Sherry said as she wandered around the large room restored to resemble the original trading post. “You can almost imagine mountain men standing here bartering with the traders,” she said running her hand over the top of the scarred, uneven counter.

“Sure can,” Pat agreed perusing the various objects representing the goods that would have been available for trade or purchase. Adorning the plain pine slab shelves and log walls were furs of various animals, barrels of whiskey, knives and axes, rifles and gunpowder, boots, shoes, flannel shirts, wool coats, tobacco, carved pipes, bags of sugar and flour, snowshoes, a canoe, and even a round, buffalo hide boat. “Looks like you could have found just about anything you needed here.”

“If you don’t see what you need, ma’am, I’ll gladly send a request to my supplier in St. Louis. He’ll have it on the first riverboat next season. That’s the fastest delivery you’ll get anywhere on the river.”

Pat glanced across the counter at a man dressed in buckskin pants, shirt, and moccasins with a large hunting knife tucked into a scabbard attached to his leg. She smiled at the re-enactor. “Still seems like a long time to wait,” she commented calculating the months until spring.

“Honey,” Sherry interjected after walking over to stand next to her lover, “I’m pretty sure they didn’t have over-night express back then.”

Slipping her arm around Sherry’s waist, Pat asked the trader, “How often was the fort attacked?” Pat asked the trader.

“If you’re asking about trouble with the Natives,” the re-enactor said staying in character, “we don’t have much. Most trouble being caused by the gamblers and no-goods arriving on the river boats; and the Canada Mounties coming in search of whiskey smugglers… they’re not much for selling the drink to the Natives.”

“They’d come all the way down here?” Pat asked surprised by the man’s declaration.

“Yes, ma’am,” the trader answered. “Border isn’t too rigid these days. We’re hoping things will change soon as the folks in the east recognize the importance of this territory.”

“Come on,” Sherry said tugging Pat toward a door at the back of the room. “I want to see more.”

“Thanks for the information,” Pat told the trader as she followed her impatient partner outside to the large open grounds in back of the post.


“Penny for your thoughts,” Pat said.

Enjoying a pair of milkshakes purchased from a café, the women were relaxing on a bench watching the Missouri River float lazily past the town. After leaving the old fort and trading post, they had strolled along a stretch of the original commercial district; pausing to read historical signs describing the buildings’ uses throughout the past hundred and fifty years.

“I’m just thinking what Fort Benton would have been like when Bette Mae and Lizzie were living here. It’s hard to imagine all that activity in this quiet place.”

“I know.”

“I wonder if anyone ever kept track of how many people came through Fort Benton back then.”

“Considering it was the main access point to the Northwest for a time, probably thousands.”

“Tens of thousands.”

Pat laughed. “It was sure a heck of a lot,” she agreed standing then offering a hand to Sherry. “It’s getting late,” she observed as the sun hung low in the west; its fading rays coloring the sky with streaks of red, gold, and orange.”

“I guess we should head for Great Falls,” Sherry said unenthusiastically. “You’re not still thinking of driving all the way home tonight.”

“No… I was thinking that you might want to spend the night here.”

Sherry considered the offer. “At one of the guest houses we saw?”

“Nope… at the old hotel.”

“You mean that big brick hotel at the end of the park?”


“But that place is over a hundred years old. Are you telling me it’s still operating?”

Placing a hand on Sherry’s back, Pat gently guided her across the grass. “It sure is. And, inside, it looks a lot like it did when it was built. It will give us some idea what it would have been like to spend a night in Fort Benton back when Bette Mae and Lizzie lived here.”

“Sounds like fun,” Sherry said with a smile. A moment later, she abruptly stopped and turned to face her lover. “Is there indoor plumbing?” she demanded. “Because, I am not going outside in the middle of the night to pee.”

Pat laughed. “I’m sure they have chamber pots under the beds,” she teased.

“No way,” Sherry snapped shaking her head vigorously. “Let’s just drive to Great Falls and find a hotel there.”

“You are so spoiled,” Pat declared in mock dismay. “Come on, you big baby… electricity and indoor plumbing were added years ago.” She let her hand slip down Sherry’s arm, entwining their fingers.

“Are you sure?”


With a sigh of relief, Sherry started walking toward the building. “I hope they have a room for us.”

Pat smiled smugly. “They will.”

“How do you know that?”

“I made a reservation when you were trying to get the trader to sell you that buffalo hide boat.”

“Sheesh, it wasn’t like it was an antique. You think he could have sold it and had another made.”

“And just what did you plan to do with it?”

“I thought it would make a nice addition to our hot tub.”

“It’s bigger than our hot tub,” Pat squawked.

“So we get a bigger hot tub.”


“Why not?” We could have hot tub parties,” Sherry joked.

“Absolutely, no.”

“You’re no fun.”

“That’s not what you said last night,” Pat reminded with a saucy smile.

Sherry laughed. “You are so full of yourself.”

Pat pulled her lover into a sideways hug as they walked. “Come on… you’re going to love this hotel.”

Sherry looked through the canopy formed by the park’s cottonwood trees to where a three story red brick building stood. “Is this really a good idea?” she asked looking at the old structure.

“It’s said that it was the grandest hotel between the Mississippi and San Francisco.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“You don’t want to even take a look?” Pat asked, disappointed with her lover’s reluctance.

“I guess if it’s been updated, it can’t be too bad,” Sherry allowed gazing up at the hotel’s façade. “And we can always go on to Great Falls if we don’t like the accommodations.”

“Great… I’ll get our stuff.” Pat hurried to their pickup to retrieve their overnight bags. Carrying the bags across the gravel parking area, she stepped up to the hotel’s double wood and etched glass front doors and pulled them open. “After you, m’lady.”

Sherry smiled. “You’re so damn cute,” she giggled scooting past Pat and into the building.


Entering the hotel’s lobby, the women were astounded by their surroundings. Leather chairs and sofas, arranged in small groups, offered comfortable sitting possibilities if a guest wasn’t in a hurry to climb the wide central staircase with its carpeted risers leading up to the second floor. Starting near the window to the right of the front doors, a counter crafted from dark cherry wood curved to run parallel to the mahogany paneled wall behind it. The luminously polished counter ended at an eight foot tall ornately carved cage where a clerk could stand behind thick glass, if they so desired, while conducting business.

Pat headed for the middle of the counter that was only waist high. She was immediately acknowledged by a smiling clerk.

“Welcome,” the older man greeted.

“Good afternoon… we have a reservation.”

“Miss Calvin and Miss Gallagher, I presume.”

Pat nodded. “Lucky guess?”

The man chuckled. “No… you’re the only reservation yet to arrive. You asked for a river view?”

“If you have one.”

“Sure do,” the clerk replied. “Top of the stairs, all the way to the end of the hallway,” he instructed. “You have a good view of the river,” he added handing Pat an old fashion brass key on a metal ring.

Sherry snatched the key out her partner’s hand. “You’re kidding… right?” she asked looking quizzically at the large key.

The clerk laughed. “Rooms still have the original locks on them. Most of our guests find it one of our more charming features.”

“I can see why,” Pat noted trying to snatch the key back but was unable as Sherry held it tightly.

“Dining room is across the lobby,” the clerk informed the women. “It’s open for breakfast at six; and dinner until ten.”

“What’s back there?” Sherry asked pointing to a door at the far end of the lobby tucked behind the staircase.

“Originally, it was the hotel’s saloon. We use it for office space now.”

Sherry frowned. “Too bad… it would have been fun to have a drink in an old saloon.”

“You’re not the first to think that,” the clerk replied pleasantly. “We’ve had so many requests that the owners are looking into changing it back.”

“Think we could come back and see it, Pat?”

“I’m sure you will insist on it,” Pat replied drolly then leaned down to pick up their overnight bags. “Shall we?” she asked Sherry.

“You bet,” Sherry agreed twirling the key ring around her finger. “I can’t wait to see the room this goes to.”

“You won’t be disappointed,” the clerk said. “The rooms are set up just like they would have been when the hotel opened except the beds are bigger and they now have bathrooms.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Sherry said heading for the stairs.

Pat smiled at the helpful clerk then turned to follow her lover.


“Well this is cozy,” Sherry said after unlocking the door and pushing it open.

“Yes, it is,” Pat replied stepping inside the room.

Immediately to the left of the room’s door, a narrow dresser with three drawers was shoved into the corner. Pushed against the wall to the right, a queen size bed occupied most of the small room. Less than two feet from the foot of the bed, a tall double wide open cabinet stood against the opposing wall; the left half had a single shelf holding a television while the right half was equipped with a wooden rod and a half dozen misshapen wire hangers.

As Pat pushed the room’s door shut, she noticed a second door. “Here’s your indoor plumbing,” she commented poking her head into the bathroom.

“He did say we had a river view… right?” Sherry asked standing at the side of the big cabinet in front of a window no more than three feet square.

“Yes,” Pat replied placing their bags on top of the dresser.

“Well, it’s not much of a view and there’s a huge cottonwood tree blocking most of it.”

“What about the other window?” Pat asked.

Sherry moved to an identical portal on the opposite side of the cabinet. “I guess you could consider this a river view,” she said laughing. “If you stand way to the side and twist you head just so,” she added demonstrating the contortion necessary to see the flowing water.

“River views probably weren’t in high demand back in the day,” Pat surmised as she stood behind her lover to gaze over her shoulder at the limited scene beyond the window. “We can always go outside and sit in the park… if you want.”

“No, thanks,” Sherry said light-heartedly. “What I want is dinner; then you in that bed.”


By the time, the women finished dinner and returned to their room, the long week of traveling had caught up with them and they fell asleep almost as soon as they crawled between the sheets.


Slowly, Pat became aware of unusual noises coming from outside their room and she forced herself awake; her sleep-muddled brain taking a few moments to shake loose the cobwebs. Thinking the noise might have come from the hallway, she rolled her head toward the door. Concerned with the safety of the old locking mechanism, she had shifted the dresser to block the entry when they had returned to the room after dinner. She was surprised to discover the room was too dark to verify that the dresser was still in place. When they had gone to bed, the glow of a security light on the outside of the hotel had provided a low but sufficient light for them to move about the room without depending on the room’s lamps.

Curious at the lack of light and the cause of the odd noises, Pat carefully slipped out from under the covers not wanting to awaken her lover. As she stood, she recognized what sounded like a man shouting angrily. “Probably some drunk heading home,” she muttered padding toward the window. Peering through the glass, she gasped. “What the—?”

Her view unobstructed, Pat stared through the window at the river where a dozen steamboats and barges were tied off alongside the muddy bank. Multiple torches burned providing light for the multitude of men unloaded the boats and stacking boxes and crates into haphazard piles on the shore.

Pat blinked several times then reached up, forcing knuckles into her eyes and rubbing them furiously. “Holy shit,” she said after reopening them only to see the same unbelievable scene below her. “Sherry… wake up.”

“Huh?” Sherry mumbled turning onto her side.

“Wake up!” Pat demanded louder.

“What?” Sherry grumbled forcing one eye open.

“Would you get up… please,” Pat insisted.

Rolling toward the side of the bed, Sherry poked her legs out from under the blankets. “Pat, it’s cold,” she protested. “Why’d you turn off the heat?”

“I didn’t. Come here… hurry!”

Hearing the trepidation in her lover’s voice, Sherry yanked a blanket free and wrapped it around her shivering body. “Jeez, honey, it’s freezing in here,” she said padding around the end of the bed. “What is so important you had to wake me out of a really good dream?”

“You think you were dreaming before… look outside.”

Sighing, Sherry did as she was asked. At first, she only saw her breath reflected back at her from the cold window panes. “What happened to that tree?”

“Good question. Check out the street and park.”

It took a few moments before Sherry’s mind registered the torch light and people moving about. She leaned closer to the window. “Are those steamboats?” she asked puzzled by what she was seeing.


Sherry backed away from the window before turning to her partner. “Is this some kind of practical joke?” she asked tensely.

“Sherry, it’s the middle of the night,” Pat said logically even though she had had the same thought.

“I’ve got to pee,” Sherry mumbled setting off across the dark room. “Ouch,” she screamed a few moments later after thumping into something hard. “Dammit, Pat… did you shut the bathroom door?”

“No.” Pat strained to see across the small room. Even with all the torches burning outside, little of their light reached the second floor room. “Hang on while I get the lights on.”

“Could have thought about that before,” Sherry grumbled, her hands moving around the wall as she attempted to find the elusive bathroom door.

Pat’s outstretched hand found the dresser then slid up the wall to the light switch she knew was directly above it. “Damn, where’d it go?” she muttered when she could not feel the switch.

“Where’d what go?”

“The switch… it’s not here.”

Sherry turned around. “Dammit, this isn’t funny anymore, Pat. Turn on the damn light.”

“I’m telling you… there’s no switch.”

“What the hell are you doing?” Sherry snapped hearing Pat fumbling about the room.

“Looking for my cell phone… I’ve got a flashlight app on it.”

A moment later, a bright beam of light shot across the room illuminating a very angry woman wrapped in a blanket with her legs tightly pressed together.

“It’s about freakin’ time,” Sherry growled spinning around only to discover she was standing in front of a solid wall. “Pat? The bathroom is gone.”

“I’m going to get dressed and go find that desk clerk. He’s going to damn well tell me what the heck is going on,” Pat said.

“You are not going anywhere until you figure out a way for me to pee,” Sherry cried out.

Kneeling beside the bed, Pat reached under it.

“What the hell are you doing?” Sherry questioned with more than a little desperation in her voice.

“Playing a hunch… here, you can use this,” Pat said pulling a chamber pot from under the bed.

“Are you kidding me?” Sherry asked staring suspiciously at the object being held out to her.

“Do you have to pee or not?”

“I cannot believe I’m doing this,” Sherry hissed between clenched teeth. She grabbed the chamber pot then set it on the only chair in the room.

“I think you’re supposed to put it on the floor,” Pat said.

“Too damn bad,” Sherry muttered easing down onto the pot. “Shit, this thing is cold,” she snapped.

Pat dropped her phone on the mattress, its bright beam illuminating the bed. “Holy crap… did I grow or has this bed shrunk?” she asked looking down at the narrow, metal spring frame covered by a thin, feather filled mattress.

“This can’t be the same room,” Sherry said looking around the space. “The TV is gone. So is the cabinet. Pat, this is really getting weird.”

“You’re telling me,” Pat said staring quizzically at their clothes. Hung on hangers the night before, their jeans and shirts were now laid out on top of a bulky travel trunk. “Let me get dressed and I’ll find out what the hell is going on.”

“Wait for me… I’m not staying here alone,” Sherry said. She stood up then placed the used chamber pot on the floor in the corner where no one would accidentally kick it over. “Hope the clerk likes having to come up and empty that thing,” she muttered.

“Serves him right if this is some elaborate prank,” Pat said irritably, handing Sherry a pair of jeans.


Though they could see lots of activity taking place on the street in front of the hotel, Pat and Sherry were surprised to find the lobby quiet. Two table lamps, their colored shades washed out by time to a murky yellowish color, cast eerie shadows around the empty room. Walking directly to the counter, Pat repeatedly tapped the top of a service bell while Sherry walked to the front of the lobby and peered outside.

“Honey, do you think any of them will come in here?” Sherry asked. “That will freak me out beyond belief,” she said testing the door knobs. “This is so damn bizarre,” she murmured after ensuring the doors securely locked.

“You can say that again,” Pat replied shaking her head as if she could make the strange happenings outside cease then disappear from her memory. It was too hard to believe everything they were witnessing was real. “Where’s the night clerk?” she wondered turning back to the counter. “Come on… come on,” she muttered impatiently.

“Ya got the look.”

Both women spun about at the unexpected voice. A stocky, older man was standing in the doorway of the hotel’s dining room. Dressed in dirt covered boots, a well-worn pair of Levis, and a faded muslin shirt, he appeared to be no stranger to hard work. When he moved into the lobby, he limped heavily on a leg that was inches shorter than the other.

“What look?” Pat asked cautiously.

“Look of them that see it.”

“See what?” Sherry asked.

“The phantoms,” the man answered tilting his head toward the lobby windows. “Every year on Hollow’s Eve, they come.”

“That’s crazy,” Pat scoffed.

“Pat, there is something going on out there,” Sherry said nervously.

“Probably just a costume party,” Pat offered.

“A party doesn’t explain the steamboats,” Sherry said of the large floating crafts lining the riverbank.

“It’s the night,” the old man interjected in a whisper. “Hollow’s Eve. It draws ‘em out. Best you keep back from those windows, ma’am,” he told Sherry.

“Hollow’s Eve?” Pat quizzed. “You mean Halloween?”

The man nodded.

“Oh, crud,” Sherry exclaimed. “We’ve been so busy this past week, I completely forgot about Halloween. I guess you were right, Pat… it is just some stupid prank. Probably trying to scare the tourists… aren’t you?” she furiously accused the man.

“No ma’am. It ain’t no prank… they’s real.”

“That’s not possible,” Pat stated bluntly.

“You see ‘em… it’s possible,” the man insisted.

“I’m seeing a bunch of people dressed up for Halloween,” Pat countered. “Come on, honey, let’s go back to the room. Maybe we can get a few hours sleep before morning.”

“Room changed… didn’t it?” the man said confidently as the women headed for the staircase.

Sherry stopped to study the man. “How’d you know that?” She kept her eyes glued to his face, seeking any sign of deceit. “Is that just another trick you pull on unsuspecting guests?”

The man nervously shook his head. “Always does,” he told them. “Just like the phantoms… room goes back to the way it was, too.” He glanced around the lobby uneasily. “But just that one room… not the others… never the others. Strange, huh?”

Pat sneered. “How convenient. Of course, only our room changes.”

“How did you do that?” Sherry asked rubbing her shoulder which still hurt from being jammed into an unexpected solid wall where the bathroom should have been. “You can change it back now.”

“Not my doing, ma’am,” the man insisted.

Pat tried to reconcile the night’s events against her brain’s assurances that it was not logically possible. She gave up. “I’m going back to bed… are you coming?” she asked Sherry.

“Crap, Pat… there is no way I’ll get any sleep in that little bed,” Sherry stated firmly.

“You stickin’ around?” the man asked in surprise. “Most folks leave after they seen ‘em.”

Sherry visualized people in various stages of dress running hysterically down the stairs and out the front door into the cold night. “I can’t imagine why,” she said wryly then frowned. “There’s no way I’m going outside right now. And there’s no way I’m going back to that room,” she repeated, not being anxious to return to their transformed room.

“Doesn’t leave us many choices,” Pat grumbled. “I guess we can sit down here and wait for morning. How long does this gag last?”

“They be gone by dawn,” the man told them. “Always gone by dawn.”

“Ah, yes… the ghouls always disappear as the sun rises,” Pat noted sarcastically leaning back against the counter. “Probably go home to change so they can get to work on time,” she mocked.

Sherry grinned at her partner and nodded. “Just like the movies,” she said before refocusing her attention on the man. “Well, if we’re going to share the lobby the rest of the night, we might as well know each others’ names,” she said reaching her hand out. “I’m Sherry. And this is my partner, Pat.”

“Toby,” he told them as he hesitantly backed away from the offered hand. “Folks call me Ol’ Toby cuz I been around Fort Benton since forever,” he said gazing uneasily toward the lobby windows. “Best you not stay in here,” he warned, “you might attract them.”

Pat’s eyes followed his gaze and she spotted a pair of men, dressed in nineteenth century business style suits, standing in the street talking animatedly. “I hope they do come in here… then I can force the truth out of them,” she threatened.

“Don’t want no trouble, ma’am,” Toby declared quickly.

“Neither do we,” Sherry assured him. “But then we’re not the ones putting on this show. I don’t suppose we could get some coffee?” she asked.

“Coffee sounds good,” Pat agreed. “My brain is spinning so fast I don’t know what to make of all this. Maybe some food, too,” she suggested.

“So… can we get coffee and something to eat?” Sherry asked when Toby failed to provide any sign of responding to their requests.

“Cook don’t like me messin’ in her vittles,” Toby started still looking toward the windows. “She’ll be serving first meal soon as they leave,” he said backing rapidly into the dining room. “I need to be gettin’ back to my chores.”

“Wait a minute,” Sherry called after the retreating man who refused to stop. “Guess that means no to coffee,” she commented after Toby disappeared into the kitchen.

“Let’s see where he goes,” Pat said walking across the lobby.

“You don’t really want to go after him?”

“Why not?”

“He’s creepy, for starters.”

Pat reached for Sherry’s hand. “What else do we have to do until dawn?” she asked nonchalantly.

“Pat, aren’t you even a little bit afraid of what’s going on?”

“Afraid? No. But I’ll admit I’m confused. On the other hand, I’m sure there’s a logical explanation and I’d like to figure it out. So, let’s follow Toby.”

“I don’t know,” Sherry protested when Pat urged her into the dining room. “I’m really kinda freaked out by all of this. I don’t want to go outside while it’s still dark.”

“Let’s start with the kitchen then. Maybe the cook is in there and we can talk to him… or her.”

“Okay,” Sherry tentatively agreed. “But only the kitchen.”

Pat nodded then led the way through the dining room. “Don’t worry… If all of this will stop at dawn, we probably don’t have time to do much more. The sky is already starting to get light,” she explained.

Just as they reached the swinging doors separating the dining room from the kitchen, they heard an unfamiliar female voice. “Mornin’, Toby,” the loud greeting rumbled through the room on the other side of the doors.

“Mornin’ Bette Mae. Just passin’ through to get to my chores.”

“Ya runnin’ late… it’s almost mornin’.”

The women stared at each other.

“Did he…?” Pat asked.

“It sure sounded like it,” Sherry answered.

“What are the chances?”

“I’m not sure I want to think about that.”

Pat paused for a moment more; then she shoved the doors inward. “Toby!” she called out as she charged into the kitchen with Sherry on her heels.

The women froze. The room was empty.

Pat tossed a perplexed look at Sherry who wore an identical look on her face. “We did hear what we heard… didn’t we?”

Sherry nodded, her head bopping slowly up and down.

Pat walked to the rear door of the kitchen. “It’s locked.”

“It’s quieting down outside,” Sherry observed.

Pat pulled back a curtain to peek outside. “Street’s clear… so is the river,” she added letting the curtain fall back into place.

“Was this all just a Halloween prank?” Sherry asked hesitantly after several uneasy minutes of stunned silence.

Pat’s shoulders lifted then dropped. “Damn good prank, if it was.”

“Uh, Pat… what say we go get our stuff and get the hell out of here?”

“Yeah,” Pat agreed. She slowly walked across the kitchen, tossing an occasional glance back over her shoulder. “Damn good prank.”


After the night’s peculiar events, Pat and Sherry were not too surprised to find their room just as it was when they had checked in the day before. They quickly gathered up their personal items and packed them into their overnight bags. Carrying their bags downstairs, they walked directly to the counter where a young woman waited with a bright smile on her face.

“I hope you enjoyed your stay,” the clerk said as she ran Pat’s credit card through the reader.

“It was a rather unique experience,” Pat replied coolly looking for any sign in the woman’s reaction that she was in on the joke.

“I’m so glad you enjoyed it,” the woman said handing Pat her receipt.

Sherry sidled up to the counter. “Would you mind telling Toby good-bye for us?” she said off-handedly. “We didn’t get a chance this morning.”

“T… T… Toby?” the woman stuttered as the color drained from her face. “Y… you… saw him?”

“Yes,” Pat told the befuddled clerk. “Is there a problem?”

“Ah… no…… no,” the clerk said tensely. “Have a nice day,” she quickly added before turning away.

“Oh, no,” Sherry said to stop the clerk. “I’ve had more than enough unexplained things happen to us in the past few hours,” she said forcefully. “I’m not leaving until you tell me who Toby is. And what the hell was going on last night.”

The clerk nervously chewed her lower lip for several moments as she tried to stare down the determined women standing on the opposite side of the counter.

“Well?” Pat demanded.

The clerk sighed. “Darn… I was hoping we could get through one Halloween without this.”

This being…?” Sherry asked.

“Toby’s appearance.”

“You’re going to need to explain that.”

“Um… Toby was—”

Was?” Sherry interrupted.

The clerk nodded. “Was,” she repeated. “He was part of the crew on one of the first riverboats to arrive in Fort Benton. Shortly after, he was injured when he lost his footing on the street… it was spring and the ground was muddy. A freight wagon ran over his leg. He couldn’t crew any more so he hung around town doing odd jobs when he could.”

“And…” Sherry prodded the clerk to provide more information.

“Not much else to tell.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure there is,” Pat contested the short explanation.

“Really, there isn’t. Except that he’s buried in the town’s cemetery.”

“You’re telling us that Toby lived… and died… in Fort Benton a hundred years ago,” Sherry said.

“Over a hundred,” the clerk corrected.

“Tell me,” Pat said leaning on the counter, “if that’s the truth… Why the hell is it that we saw him last night?”

“And talked to him,” Sherry added.


“Um is not an answer,” Sherry snapped.

“He, ah… he seems to… um… he seems to reappear around Halloween,” the clerk warily informed them.

“Along with the riverboats, wagons, horses, and people out there last night,” Sherry noted.

“Oh, sheesh,” the clerk groaned. “You saw all of them?”

Pat and Sherry nodded.

“It’s that damn room. Normally, we don’t put anyone in there on Halloween. But we have a new clerk on the evening shift and he probably didn’t know that it’s… cursed.”

“Cursed?!” both women exclaimed.

“After his accident, Toby stayed in that room until his leg healed,” the clerk explained. “The story is that he wasn’t very happy about the injury and having to give up working on the riverboats. But over the years, he came to love Fort Benton so he comes back to visit occasionally.”

“And he brings back everyone else when he does?” Pat asked doubtfully.

“You buying this?” Sherry skeptically asked Pat.

“I don’t know. If I believe her, then we spent the night with a town full of ghosts because we slept in a room once occupied by an injured boatman. If I don’t believe her, then I’m going crazy because I think we spent the night with a town full of ghosts. What do you think?”

“I don’t want to think about it any more,” Sherry said leaning down to retrieve her bag. “Let’s hit the road. I’m hungry and I’m sure not sticking around here for breakfast.”

“Right,” Pat agreed. Retrieving her own bag, she followed Sherry across the lobby to the front doors.

Sherry pulled open the door then paused. “What Bette Mae?” she asked.

A puzzled look flashed across the clerk’s face as her eyes widened in surprise. “You saw her, too?”

“Who was she?” Sherry persisted even though Pat was nudging her to move past the doorway.

“Just another of the girls who worked in town… mostly in the saloons. She moved on to the mining camps at some point.”

“Still not buying it?” Sherry asked Pat.

Pat shook her head then firmly pushed her lover out the door.


“Hey, watch out,” Sherry suddenly shouted the warning as they walked to their pickup.

Pat looked down to see a fresh pile of horse manure where she was about to step. “Don’t say it,” she hissed pulling the cab’s door open and tossing her bag inside. She slammed the door then opened the driver’s door.

Sherry climbed into the cab and settled on the passenger seat. “Yeah, some local farmer probably rode his horse to town this morning,” she suggested cynically. “And last night was probably just some stupid Halloween prank the town pulls every year to see who they can scare.”

“That’s right.”

“You have to admit,” Sherry contemplated thoughtfully as Pat backed the pickup out of the parking slot, “it was some trick to know that the name Bette Mae would mean something to us.” Glancing out the window toward the river, she noticed a young woman dressed in period clothing.

Just as the pickup veered onto the town’s main road, and away from the river, the girl waved then threw back her head and laughed. Then she disappeared.

“Hey, sweetheart?”

“I didn’t see anything. Absolutely, positively, nothing,” Pat insisted pressing on the accelerator.