A Strange Evening In Seekonk
Whether or not the following story is true I cannot say for certain, but here is what I heard regarding this curious tale...
It was the autumn of 1880, in a town known as Seekonk, in the southeastern portion of Massachusetts. The local farmers brought their harvest in for sale, and, for the most part, did fairly well at the annual open market. Corn, squash, pumpkins and potatoes, as well as beans and a great haul of yams and turnips. The pricing was good and the product moved fast. The season had been warm, as well as kind to most everyone.
Everyone, that is, except of course the ill-fated farmer, Miles Moulton.
Miles was not a lazy man, nor unintelligent either, but he was cursed with a foul stretch of rotten luck. First his plow horse had taken lame, then the soil grew acidic, and lastly, a well he had dug collapsed most mysteriously, costing him a week's work and a sore back. Indeed, a lesser man might have simply quit and sold his property outright, but Moulton possessed one desirable trait more so than most others: He didn't like to give up on a problem. It was his nature to try and solve whatever predicament came his way.
However, after lightning felled his last good apple tree, even Miles began to openly wonder: Perhaps a hex hovered over his head like a black fog. At least the matter was open to theory and speculation. In any event, this last roadblock had gotten the better of farmer Moulton, and he had sipped once too often on the hard cider jug. Smashing his carriage into a massive oak on his way home from church, he spent a night in the Bristol County jail, muttering to himself. When he was finally released after he had sobered up, his temper was hot and his tongue still dry from grumbling.
He went at once to a pub called The Crossroads, no doubt to drown his endless sorrow in much stronger drink.
He arrived in the late afternoon, on an October day that had suffered a good patch of rain mixed with a bit of thunder. When it passed the air was clear but oh so much colder. A swift wind blew and gave the whole landscape a chattering, quivering chill. The pub was nearly empty, being a Monday, and he took his tankard to a corner, frowning most heavily. The keeper, a good man by the title of Mr. Bodkins, kept an eye on him as he stewed in his beer.
"What say you, Mr. Moulton? Sour weather out there, yes?"
"It's sour weather in here," replied Miles. "Not on your account. Take no offense."
"I'm sorry for your trouble," answered the barkeeper. "I heard about your accident upon the road."
"Stupid," said Mr. Moulton, shaking his head. "I was just stupid...as always."
"I never knew you to be a fool," scolded Bodkins. "You're wrong to knock yourself in such a manner."
"I'm just fed up," lamented Miles. "The stone of misfortune weighs heavily around my neck."
"Well, perhaps Lady Luck will find you, Sir. One never knows which door will open next."
"I fear mine might be a coffin lid, and what's worse, I may welcome that..."
It was clear Miles was in no mood for conversation, so the barkeep gave him distance, allowing time for the steam to dissipate. Mr. Moulton sank down, his eyes growing heavy and dreamlike.
"If only I had $200 dollars in gold..."
The sound of a creaky door opening, echoing in his ears, woke Miles with a start from his fitful slumber. For a moment he was unaware of his surroundings and cast his gaze about wildly, anxious, nervous and uncertain. Yet, once familiarity reentered his mind, the farmer yawned, stretching out his arms. He sighed, sitting up, examining his empty mug. A glance at the window showed that it was now evening, scattered in darkness, a slight breeze calling.
Standing, Mr. Moulton stumbled over to the bar, holding his tankard loosely with one finger. Taking a seat over in the far left corner, he became aware that the setting was not solely his own. Oh, the barkeep Mr. Bodkins was of course present, but a second gentleman was perched just a few seats down. A tall man, with a black frock coat and hat. Both he and his clothing looked out-of-place, as if transported from another time.
Miles gave a stare at the stranger for a moment, the latter not noticing, merely enjoying his beverage in silence. The farmer then swung back toward Mr. Bodkins, dropping his mug upon the bar with a thud.
"Another, please. I'm dry as a bone."
The keeper took the tankard and filled it generously, placing it before Mr. Moulton with genuine care. The farmer grabbed the mug, spilling a few suds, and poured it down in a single gulp.
"Not a good idea," replied Bodkins, hands on hips. "You've exhausted your credit anyway. Why not go home and have a proper rest? I'm sure you need it. Mr. Moulton."
As soon as the surname of Miles had been uttered aloud, the man at the bar stopped short, in mid-quaff. He lowered his beer, turning toward the farmer.
"Excuse me, but did I hear correctly? You are of the family Moulton?"
"Yes," answered Miles plainly. "What of it?"
"If I may please inquire further," smiled the stranger, intrigued. "Are you by chance a relative of Jonathan Moulton? The famous General of the Revolution, hailing from the territory hence called New Hampshire?"
"He is, or was, my great uncle," reported Miles. "Although there is little to suggest that he was great. I inherited no land up there amongst the pines and granite, so I came to this state, to make my fortune."
"And have you?," asked the stranger. "Made your fortune, that is?"
"As I told Mr. Bodkins here," motioned Miles. "The only fortune I've acquired is misfortune..."
A sudden blast of wind tore open a small window, revealing a full moon swirling with clouds snaking swiftly across its surface. Mr. Bodkins sealed the latch, rubbing both arms briskly.
"My word! How cold it has suddenly grown!"
The barkeep added a log to the fire, stoking the flames. An eerie orange glow filled the room, now heaped with troubling shadows. As Bodkins reclaimed his place behind the bar, the stranger brought forth a small book from his coat pocket, placing it down, giving a look at Miles.
"I understand that you are currently $200 dollars in debt. Is that accurate, Mr. Moulton?," prodded the odd visitor.
"It is," answered Miles, quite alarmed. "But how is it you know of my finances?"
"I own the bank in Braintree," informed the stranger. "The one which holds the deed to your farm. Coincidentally enough, I have traveled here to see you. I'm afraid the time has come to settle the matter."
"It would figure," shrugged Miles, slumping in his seat. "I can only assume you mean to evict me from my home. Well...so be it. As you can see, I am utterly destitute, and cannot meet the cost of my many financial obligations."
Mr. Bodkins, eavesdropping on the conversation, gave a glance at the stranger, who merely grinned in the gloom of the firelight. The man tapped a long finger on the bar, then turned, with a countenance bizarre and most peculiar.
"Tell me, Mr. Moulton...do you enjoy games of chance?"
Miles pulled himself up, rubbing his chin. "What do you mean by that?"
"Tests of the mind," smiled the stranger. "Pitting your intellect against another's. Speaking for myself, I simply adore the practice. It's always an elation to conclude that I'm much smarter than all others I encounter."
"If that's the final outcome," replied Mr. Moulton. "Perhaps my own confidence is lacking in that department. I'm not the quickest dog in the race. For me, I've learned that there's always someone more clever than yourself."
"Not for me," argued the stranger. "I've never been fooled or short-changed by anyone."
"Then you are a remarkable man," answered Miles, unimpressed. "But please, come to the point of your discussion, Sir."
A spark jumped from the fire pit, and a dog howled long, somewhere off in a lonely field. The elements quaked the door and rattled the rooftop. The stranger finished his beer, opening the book he had produced from his pocket.
"Here," replied the odd banker, holding up a document. "Here is the deed to your farm, Mr. Moulton." The man then placed it upon the bar and dropped his empty mug atop it.
Miles cocked his head, confused. "What am I to make of this, Mr...may I ask your name?"
"Bargainer," smirked the stranger, tipping his hat. "You may call me Mr. Bargainer."
"Mr. Bargainer," repeated Miles, chuckling at the obvious alias. "Again: What is all this?"
"It's simple," informed the banker. "I will make you a deal: If you can remove the deed from under the mug without touching either it or the cup, then I will sign the property over to you, free and clear. You must accomplish this before the stroke of midnight. If not, then you shall be in my debt...on a deeper scale..."
Mr. Moulton shook his head: "This is a joke...a jest, right?"
"Not so," assured Mr. Bargainer, face stone. "I am deadly serious."
The gaze of the barkeep Bodkins now fell on Miles, who leaned back in his seat, contemplating the offer. The banker merely sat and stared with interest, as if daring the farmer to take the bait.
"I don't understand," spoke Miles after a moment. "Why are you making me this offer? You can already foreclose on the property. Why all this nonsense and tomfoolery?"
Mr. Bargainer folded his hands slowly. "You verified a relation to General Moulton, an individual whom I...or, should I say, an ancestor of mine, once did business with. Needless to say, there was a violation of a contract, which did not sit well in our personal family history. Therefore, it was agreed upon, long ago, that if the opportunity should ever arise in the future, that one of us should seek out one of you, in an effort to collect upon that agreement, once and for all."
Miles laughed nervously. "Are y...are you saying that you...that you are..."
"I am someone with a business proposition," spoke the banker coldly. "Please do not make light of the generous option which I have presented."
Mr. Moulton half-glanced at Mr. Bodkins, who by this time had retreated to the opposite end of the bar. The odd banker kept quiet, awaiting an answer. Miles leaned forward, engaging the stranger.
"Mr. Bargainer," he began. "Everyone in New England knows the story of my famous uncle. His exploits, his multiple wives, and how he allegedly...signed a pact with a certain individual. Now, if you are as familiar with the story as you seem to be, you must recall how it ended for the General. In short, his plot failed, the gold turned to dust, his house burned down and he died penniless soon after. Hence, what revenge do you seek from me? It appears you...I mean, your family...has extracted precisely what you were owed. I cannot be held responsible for the acts of an ancient Moulton. Are the sins of the father to be visited upon the son?"
The visitor shook his head in defiance, waving his finger back and forth.
"No...it did not end as you say, country farmer. The famed General was exceptionally clever, to say the least. He managed to convert the gold into lesser coin, and with it purchased a clipper ship, called The Spectral Sail. On the evening of his so-called death, he slipped out of town and found his way by stealth to a port in Boston. Landing upon a foreign shore, he repented, found god and was forgiven. In short, he got away from us, Miles Moulton..."
The farmer sat, dumbfounded. "I never heard that final portion of the tale."
"Believe it," assured Mr. Bargainer. "Our company records are spotless when it comes to error."
"So now you have returned to settle a score," deduced the farmer: "Answer this: What if I refuse to play your game?"
"Then I will foreclose upon your house and property," informed the banker. "It is my legal right to do so, as a U.S. citizen."
Miles glared at the stranger cautiously, then at the deed resting under the mug. He pondered and contemplated this vexing entanglement. Mr. Bodkins crept over, issuing a warning via whisper.
"Don't be a fool, Mr. Moulton! Nothing is worth risking your immortal soul!"
By this time the wind outside had intensified, and the hiss of the fireplace had grown to a crackling roar. The face of Mr. Bargainer had also taken on an unusual pallor, and when he grinned, the corners of his mouth reached nearly to the bottoms of his ears.
"Sweeten the pot," replied Miles finally, addressing the banker. "Add $200 dollars worth of gold to the bargain."
Without hesitation, Mr. Bargainer pulled a bag of coins seemingly out of nowhere, placing it on the bar next to the deed.
"What are the conditions?," inquired the farmer. "What are the exact conditions you insist upon?"
"So delighted you've decided to play," beamed the banker. "The rules are as follows: You may not touch the tankard, nor the deed itself. Not by hand, or foot, or any part of your person. You may not knock the mug over by rocking the bar, nor shall you use a twist of clothing to tip it over. As well, no object whatsoever will be allowed to interfere. That is, you cannot use a stick or broom to sweep it away. You must also not come within a foot of the item itself. Such an act would be subject to immediate forfeit and nullification. Neither wind, nor water, nor any force of nature can be used to extract the document trapped beneath the iron vessel. Remove the deed from under the beer mug based on these stipulations, Mr. Moulton, and the property and gold is yours..."
Miles bit his nails, sighing heavily. His eyes burned a hole in the beautiful bag of coins. Bodkins could only watch, silent as a grave. The banker smiled, waiting patiently.
"Very well," agreed the farmer, nodding quietly. "But how long do I have to perform this task?"
"As I said, by midnight this evening," answered Mr. Bargainer. "If you have not succeeded by then, time will be up..."
"You are a man of honor?," quizzed Mr. Moulton. "Once agreed, your word is your oath, and unbreakable?"
"That is part of the pact," insisted the stranger. "Even I am bound by its laws."
Miles covered his mouth with his wrist, shuddering at the prospect of being ejected from house and home. At last he stuck out his hand, breathing deeply.
"It's a deal. Let us shake on it..."
The banker, exceedingly pleased, shook on the bargain, nearly crushing the palm of the farmer in the process. The two sat down in their original seats to wait. Mr. Bargainer held up his pocket watch, letting it dangle.
"The hour approaches 11 in the evening. You have little more than 60 minutes, good fellow Moulton..."
Miles choked, panicking for a moment, condemning himself for being so greedy and exceedingly foolish. For failing to check the hour of night before striking the bargain! He had left himself short, and without the benefit of surplus time. Moulton started at Bodkins, as if begging for council, then recoiled in agony, wringing his hair. Mr. Bargainer smiled, ordering another drink.
"Oh, how often we leap before we look!..."
The minutes passed this way, one by the one. The wind kept howling and the door kept shaking. Miles began to realize the terror of what he had done, and how silly his former troubles now seemed in comparison. If only he could be a poor farmer again, deep in debt, plagued by withered crops and lame animals! That life now appeared like a dream, a heavenly paradise, in contrast to the horror and dread that he suspected was fast approaching.
"11:15, Mr. Moulton..."
Miles thought about running away, just for an instant, but in truth that would inevitably solve nothing. He would still be homeless and hunted by the local authorities. Debt would be enough to land him back in jail, this time for good. The farmer wracked his brain, examining every angle.
Every method he could think of to remove the deed from its enigmatic captivity. But try as he might, he could extort no answer. Nothing but a dull haze rippled through his brain.
His ancestor! The illustrious General! How had he managed to fool the fiend?! A trick! Yes, a masterful trick! But how would that apply here, in this current situation?! There must be a way! A definitive answer! Something he hadn't thought of before! There was ALWAYS an exit! Always! But what was it?! What could it be?!
"11:45, country bumpkin..."
Miles tongue began to dry out, sticking in place. He became dizzy, standing, wobbling about. He nearly collapsed, falling back in his chair. He felt ready to faint, knees giving way.
"11:55, and all's not well!..."
In those frantic, chaotic moments, Moulton searched the room, turning over tables, stools, everything. Mr. Bargainer laughed in his seat, giddy with evil delight, his face more foul and demonic than ever. Bounding over to the bar, Miles stared at the mug feverishly, almost ready to smash it, content to end his agony and accept his fate. The banker cackled and slapped his hands together in perverted joy.
"11:58! Only two more minutes to go!..."
The beads of sweat mounted on the temples of Mr. Moulton, and he trembled violently, ready to succumb to an attack of the heart.
"11:59! One minute and I shall have MY revenge!!!..."
Yet, in that moment of complete disaster, Miles found a bizarre calm which overtook him like a sweeping wave of cool water. It was when his vision fell upon the third party, Mr. Bodkins, that his mind cleared abruptly of confusion and murky thought. In a flash of utter glory, the answer came to him all at once, like a dove descending from the clouds high above. With but 30 seconds until doom and oblivion, he motioned the barkeep over, saying quite calmly:
"Mr. Bodkins, would you please, as quickly as you can, remove the mug from atop the deed?"
Mr. Bargainer, who was previously triumphant, suddenly drooped with a look of astonishment and total shock. He watched helplessly as Mr. Bodkins removed the tankard, freeing the deed, only a few clicks before the fateful clock struck midnight. Mr. Moulton turned to the banker, a wry smile on his lips, and asked "What is the time, good Sir?" The stranger stood up, boiling with rage, slamming his watch to the floor, shattering it.
"You cheated! YOU CHEATED! I said YOU had to remove the mug yourself!"
"I did," replied Miles. "But you did not specify that I LITERALLY had to do it myself. You did not say that I couldn't enlist the assistance of another person. Only that I had to get the mug off without touching it. I have done so, as you can see, with the kind help of Mr. Bodkins here. So the deed, and the gold, are mine. Thank you so much for doing business with me, Mr. Bargainer..."
The banker, shaking his fists in spasms, could only grab his book from the bar, grinding his teeth nearly down to the roots. He stomped off clamorously like a herd of stampeding cattle, turning back as he brutally flung open the door with vile authority. As he did his coattails caught the wild rapid wind, and his hat flew off to reveal a pair of crooked, curved horns! The eyes of the stranger burned coal-red in the dark entrance of the pub as the elements behind him shivered and shook the suffering trees in a final act of fanatical frenzy.
"MARK MY WORDS, FARMER MOULTON! WE SHALL RETURN ONE DAY AND EVEN THE SCORE!..."
With that the door slammed shut, the banker was gone, and all was quiet once again. Miles took hold of his deed and the bag of gold coins. He huffed at Bodkins, wagging his head.
"It's strange...how simple it is to ask for help, but how late we come to realize it."
"I didn't think of it myself," admitted Bodkins. "The answer was there all along, in plain sight."
"I owe you more than I can say," laughed Moulton. "Is there anything I can do for you before I go?"
"Yes," smiled Bodkins, holding up a slip of paper. "You can finally pay off the outstanding balance on your bar tab..."
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