THE BLUE GHOST MYSTERY
BY JOHN BLAINE
A RICK BRANT SCIENCE-ADVENTURE STORY, NO. 15
A SHIMMERING GHOST walks by night with his spectral henchmen in the shadow of an old deserted lead mine. Is it the phantom ghost of a Union captain killed so long ago in the days of the Civil War - or is it a fraud?
At the urgent request of his sister Barby, Rick Brant and his sidekick Scotty fly down to the sleepy Virginia town from the Spindrift Scientific Foundation to see for themselves the eerie apparition at Old Mine Campground.
The clues to the baffling mystery are few. Discovery of a carefully hidden radioactive cement bag, the strange death of a "mob" of microscopic creatures, and the suspicious actions of the Frostola man are all the leads that Rick and Scotty have to go on. Yet each clue to the true identity of the Blue Ghost draws Rick and Scotty inevitably closer to the hidden secrets of the old deserted mine shaft.
A microscope, a hastily rigged radio set, and Rick's pocket lens help Rick and Scotty to solve the riddle of the reappearing phantom - but not before the two young scientists more than once meet danger at the hands of the Blue Ghost of Old Mine Campground. The Rick Brant Science-Adventure Stories by John Blaine GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS
CHAPTER I A SPOOKY INVITATION RICK BRANT moved with infinite care. With one hand he adjusted the focus of his microscope, while with the other he brought the sharp glass tip of the pipette into view. He released his thumb for a fraction of a second and let a drop of blue fluid flow into the field of view.
The microscopic monster shot out its defensive weapons, shuddered, and was still. For a moment Rick inspected his work, then sat back with a sigh. Staining microscopic animals was delicate work, but this specimen had turned out perfectly. At the instant the stain hit the animal, it had shot out its trichocysts, or stinging hairs. Rick hoped they would photograph. He needed a good picture for the science project on which he was working.
To rest his eyes he turned in his chair and looked out over the broad horizon of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a calm day, and the calmness was reflected in the leisurely pace of life on Spindrift Island. The famous island off the New Jersey coast, home of the Spindrift Scientific Foundation, had not always been so peaceful, Rick thought. Many scientific experiments of world importance had taken place, or had begun, in the long, low, gray laboratory buildings on the southeast corner of the island.
Most recently, Rick Brant and his pal Donald Scott, nicknamed Scotty, had taken part in an expedition to the Sulu Sea. The quiet, scientific survey of human and animal Me in the area had begun on Spindrift Island, but had ended in a bloody fight on another island, in a far corner of the globe, as told in The Pirates of Shan.
Now, though, all was serene. The scientists were at work on reports, or teaching summer sessions at universities. No major experiments were in progress, and no expeditions were being planned.
Rick grinned. If he came right down to it, one reason for the peace and quiet was the absence of his sister Barbara. Barby, a year his junior, was visiting with the Millers, one of the island's scientific families, at their ancestral home in Virginia. Barby and Jan Miller had a way of making life somewhat frenzied, or at least less quiet than at present.
The sound of a fast-moving motorboat intruded on the quiet and Rick cocked an ear. It was one of the Spindrift boats, judging by the sound. That meant Scotty was returning from the mainland with the groceries and the mail.
Rick stood up and stretched luxuriously. He decided to walk down to the cove and meet Scotty. He could help carry the groceries. Besides, he hoped that Scotty would have a package for him from a biological supply house.
Rick's interest in microscopy had begun with Barby's present of a complete microscope set. It was a beauty, with magnifications up to three hundred times. It had its own light source, a substage illuminator, and even an "atomic energy" stage, which was actually a device for viewing the scintillations caused when radioactivity hit a sulfide screen.
Barby's gift was far more than a toy, and Rick promptly put it to work on a science project, in which he planned to compare the life cycles of two common microscopic animals, the paramecium and the rotifer. His laboratory was a table on the front porch of the big Brant house on Spindrift Island, because the ocean breeze made it a comfortable place to work, and because Barby's absence meant the porch wasn't cluttered with half the female population of Whiteside High School.
As Rick came within sight of the cove, Scotty was already docking. The husky ex-Marine threw a hitch over the dock cleat and jumped to the pier, waving excitedly as he saw Rick.
"Hey! Wait until you see what I have!"
Rick let his long legs carry him swiftly to meet the other boy. When Scotty got excited, something unusual was up. He called, "What is it?"
Scotty yelled, "We're going ghost hunting!"
Rick stopped in his tracks. He waited until Scotty was within normal voice range. "Come on into the house," he invited. "We'll get you some aspirin and put a wet towel on your head. The sun's got you, that's all."
The dark-haired boy shook his head vehemently. "Don't jump at conclusions in this heat, brother Brant. You'll get overheated. Just listen to what's in this letter."
Rick squinted against the glare. "Who's it from?"
"Barby and Jan."
Back groaned. "Don't you know Barby's been gone on ghosts ever since she started watching that TV program on Sunday nights?"
"This is different," Scotty insisted. "But since you're such a skeptic, you can wait until we've hauled in the food. Come on, scientist. And unless you keep an open mind until you hear the evidence, we'll take your Junior Experimenter badge away."
Rick had to grin. There was justice in his pal's comment. "Okay, we'll play it your way. But the evidence had better be good!"
Mrs. Brant was in the kitchen when the boys arrived with the bags of groceries Scotty had brought. She recognized her daughter's handwriting immediately and pointed to the letter sticking out of Scotty's shirt pocket. "What's the news in Virginia?"
"Barby found a haunted house," Rick said with a grin. "Scotty's all excited."
"He's handing out bum dope, as usual," Scotty added. "He hasn't even read the letter." He grinned widely. "But I have. And he'll eat his words before we're through."
Rick fielded a can of tomatoes Scotty tossed at him and put it on the canned-goods shelf. "Never had indigestion from eating my words yet."
"This time," Scotty said happily, "we'll paint them on an oak plank before you start eating."
Mrs. Brant smiled. "Hurry up and get those bundles unpacked, you two. I want to hear about this mysterious business."
In a short time the three of them had stowed the week's supply of food, and Mrs. Brant produced fresh doughnuts and cold milk.
"Now," she said, "suppose you read the letter, Scotty."
Dr. Hartson Brant, Rick's dad and head of the island scientific foundation, came into the kitchen in time to hear the last remark. "Can I listen too?" he asked. "With milk and doughnuts to help, of course."
Rick personally poured the milk for his father and added doughnuts to the plate, just to save time. He couldn't admit it to Scotty, of course, but he was plenty curious in spite of his skepticism. He knew Scotty, and his pal wouldn't get excited over some silly business that Barby might write about.
"Go on," Rick said impatiently, and had to bear Scotty's knowing grin. Scotty knew that Rick's bump of curiosity was the largest thing he owned.
"Okay. It starts with 'Dear Rick and Scotty.'"
"Interesting," Rick said. "Unusual."
"Uh-uh. Quiet, please. It goes on, 'You must come at once, both of you, because we have a ghost here. I know Rick will think I'm silly, but it's true." And Jan put in a sentence in her own handwriting at this point that says, 'Barby is right. It's not only true, it's unbelievable.'"
Scotty continued. " 'We heard about the ghost first thing we arrived, from Mr. Belsely, the Millers' tenant farmer. Of course we didn't believe it, but last night we went to a picnic at the Old Mine Campground, and we saw it tool Honestly, we're still both lumpy with goose pimples. It was just ghastly, but it was kind of romantic, too. If Dr. and Mrs. Miller hadn't been along, I don't think we'd have believed we had really experienced such a thing. But they saw it, too, and Dr. Miller says he has never heard of anything like it!"
Rick waited for more, scarcely breathing for fear of missing a word.
"'So you had better come right away,'" Scotty read on. " 'You can fly down and land right at the Millers'. We have shown on the map where to land, and we will put out white towels to make a panel so you can see us from the air. Please hurry. Barby and Jan."
"Sounds pretty urgent," Hartson Brant said with interest. "Anything else?"
"Yes, sir. There's a postscript from Dr. Miller. He says, 'The girls were pretty excited when they wrote the above, and with excellent reason. Apparently this apparition appears fairly often. A number of town-folk have seen it. I don't know what you can do, unless your ingenuity can produce a super spook catcher, but you will enjoy tackling this problem. It is worthy of your best effort. Mrs. Miller and I heartily endorse the girls' invitation."
Rick took a deep breath. 'Til eat my words," he agreed. "Even if you inscribe them in deathless bronze, as the poet says. How about that, Dad? Dr. Miller isn't the excitable type, but he was pretty strong in his statements."
The scientist, who looked like an older version of his tall son, nodded agreement and stoked his pipe thoughtfully. "The letter was obviously written in haste, because neither the girls nor Walter took time for a description. What about it? Think you'll go?"
Scotty spoke emphatically. "I'm going. But I'm not sure Rick can get his nose out of that microscope."
"No need," Rick said, grinning. "I'll just take it with me. Besides, I might pick up a new species or two in Virginia."
Scotty sighed. "Ever since you got that mike from Barby we've seen practically nothing of you but the top of your head."
Rick's mother spoke up. "I agree with Scotty, Rick. I know how anxious you are to do a good job on your project, but you've been at it for weeks now. Your eyes need a rest even if the rest of you doesn't."
"Don't worry, Mom," Rick said. "After that endorsement from Dr. Miller, chains couldn't keep me from going to Virginia. After all, what's a collection of microscopic animals compared to a genuine, one hundred per cent dyed-in-the-ectoplasm spook?"
CHAPTER II DEATH AT COSTIN'S CREEK SCOTTY checked the map and examined the terrain below. "That's Manassas," he confirmed. "Swing to the south now, on a bearing of 183 degrees."
Rick banked the Sky Wagon onto a new course, then settled down to locate the landmarks Barby and Jan had noted on the road map enclosed with their letter.
The Sky Wagon had, until recently, been equipped with pontoons for water landing. Rick had outfitted it originally for a skin-diving trip to the Virgin Islands, an adventure now known as The Wailing Octopus. The pontoons were so useful that he had left them on, until his new science project had made it necessary to go back and forth between Newark and the island for consultation with a laboratory in the city. He was glad now that he had changed back to wheels. It had made it possible for him and Scotty to leave the morning after Barby's urgent letter arrived.
The four-seater plane was actually Rick's second. The first, his beloved Cub, had been bought and paid for by his own efforts, serving as taxi for the scientists and as the island's shopping service. When the Cub was wrecked, as described in Stairway to Danger, the reward for capture of a criminal and his loot had made it possible to buy a larger and more powerful plane.
Rick consulted his watch. "We must be pretty nearly there."
"We are," Scotty confirmed. He consulted the map again, "There's the cluster of buildings on top of the mountain Barby circled. It's either a weather station or a radar installation. Start losing altitude after we go over it. The town of Lansdale should be in sight by then."
Scotty's navigation proved excellent as usual. Shortly after passing the mountaintop Rick saw the town, obviously a very small one, and immediately swung slightly north again. The glint of water caught his eye and he said excitedly, "There's Costin's Creek. It has to be. No other water in sight."
He lost altitude rapidly, finally leveling off a thousand feet above the creek. Scotty, peering ahead, saw the ground signal first. "There's the panel of white towels, ahead and to the right, on my side. Swing and you'll see it."
Rick did so. He spotted the panel at once, with four figures standing next to it. In a moment they were in plain sight, waving as the plane passed overhead. Rick did a wing over that took the plane back over the area. This time he watched the terrain carefully, while Scotty did the same.
"Looks good," Rick said. "See any rough spots?"
"Nope. It's a hayfield, fresh cut, from the looks of it. Should be okay. The leaves on the trees across the creek aren't moving, so wind shouldn't be a problem."
"Okay. Here we go.*' Rick turned into his landing pattern, losing altitude rapidly. The field was a big one, so he had plenty of room. In a moment the Sky Wagon touched down, bumping only a little as it rolled across the field. He taxied to where the girls and the Millers were waiting, and killed the engine.
Barby and Jan were up on the wing before the boys had a chance even to unbuckle seat belts. Both girls were obviously excited, and both started to talk the moment Rick opened the cabin door.
He looked from one to the other trying to make sense out of the stream of words. Barby's blue eyes sparkled, as did Jan's brown ones. Both were intent on having their say, and as a result, the boys understood neither.
Not until hands had been shaken all around did the excited chatter of the girls begin to make sense. Apparently the very field where the boys had just landed was haunted. The ghost had walked this ground on more than one occasion, the latest being last night, with dogs howling and men running from the ghostly sight.
Dr. Miller finally quieted the two down. "Let's tell our tale in good order, or we'll simply confuse our visiting detectives. Come on, boys. Let's go to the house. We have some lunch waiting."
The boys collected their bags, then set up the plane's alarm system. It consisted of an electrified fence that would set off a loud klaxon horn if touched. The plane itself would also trigger the alarm if touched. The alarm could be stopped only by inserting the key in the locked door.
As the group walked from the plane to the Miller house, Rick checked his impressions with the view from the air. The house, and the field on which he had landed, were on the north side of the creek. A half mile below the house, the dirt road leading to the Miller farm crossed the creek on an old military Bailey bridge. Across the creek the road vanished into a forest that came right down to the creek's edge.
Rick knew from his overhead view that the forest was only a hundred yards wide along the creek. Beyond it were more fields, interspersed with patches of trees and a few uncultivated areas that were too rocky for farming.
It was a lovely countryside, and Rick enjoyed it. The Miller house was in an orchard on which a bumper crop of Virginia apples already was in evidence.
The house itself had once been a large farmhouse. The Millers had remodeled it, keeping the charm of the old while adding the convenience of the new. Rick felt at home right away, and he saw that Scotty did, too.
Over an excellent lunch of charcoal-broiled hamburgers, salad, and iced tea, Dr. Miller asked, "Who's going to tell the tale?"
Both girls started talking at once. Mrs. Miller, an attractive, stylish woman, raised her hands. "Please! Jan, suppose you start with the history of the ghost. Then, Barby, you take over and tell what we saw the other night."
"All right, Mother," Jan began. "The ghost isn't new, you see. We've had a blue ghost here for centuries!”
Back's eyebrows went up. "A blue ghost?"
"Yes. You'll see why in a moment. Anyway, we all knew about the ghost, sort of, and some people were supposed to have seen it. Only it was the kind of story where you never met anyone who had actually seen the ghost. There were only people who knew people who knew people who had seen the ghost. If you follow me?"
Rick grinned. "We do."
Jan's dark eyes sparkled. "Then, just before we came down from Spindrift, over a hundred people saw the ghost, and it was just as the legend tells."
Scotty asked, "So this isn't just any old ghost, it's a legendary one?"
Jan nodded. "We even know its name. It's Seth Costin. He's the one that the creek was named for. But I'm getting ahead of myself. You see, this region was a battleground in the Civil War. Mosby's Baiders spent a lot of time around here. Well, when the war turned against the South, a squadron of Union cavalry came down under Captain Seth Costin, and they got into a battle with some of Jeb Stuart's men right in our orchard and field. They fought up and down the creek, with the South trying to keep the Union from crossing. Finally, Captain Costin crossed, but the creek was red with blood, the story goes."
"A real gory legend," Scotty murmured.
Both Jan and Barby glared at him. "Sorry," he muttered contritely.
"It's a very romantic story," Barby said tartly.
Back and the Millers suppressed smiles.
"Anyway," Jan went on, "the creek has been known as Costin's Creek ever since. Well, Captain Costin quartered his men in the town. You know how it was. He stayed at the home of Squire Lansdale, who was by then a Confederate general. The squire had a daughter, whose name was Ellen, and she was perfectly beautiful. The squire also had two sons, who were a little too young for joining the Army, but not too young to cause trouble."
Rick could see where the story led. He asked, "Was Captain Costin a handsome young man, by any chance?"
"He most certainly was," Jan said emphatically. "He was terribly romantic. Wait until you see him."
Rick could hardly wait, but he didn't comment.
"Of course the captain and Ellen fell in love."
Rick could imagine.
"But along came Jeb Stuart's whole cavalry and they pushed Captain Costin's squadron all the way back to Manassas, and then they occupied the area. But Captain Costin couldn't stand not seeing his Ellen, so he somehow got a message to her, to meet him at the mine."
It was the first Rick had heard of a mine. He asked, "Can I ask a question? Where is this mine and what kind is it?"
"The mine is right across the creek, just beyond the bridge," Jan explained. "We could see it from here if the trees weren't there. Anyway, it's where the town picnic ground is located now, on our property, partly. It used to be a lead mine, and during the Civil War a lot of Southern bullets came from there."
From Jan's tone of voice, Rick suspected that her sympathies were with the lost Southern cause, which was natural enough, since her ancestry was pure Virginian for several generations.
"The mine wasn't worked on Sunday, in those days, and Captain Costin asked Ellen to meet him on a Sunday night at nine o'clock. Well, the Lansdale boys somehow found out where their sister was going, and they went, too. And they shot down Captain Costin in cold blood, right at the mine entrance. Just when he was holding out his arms to greet his sweetheart!"
"So that's how the ghost began," Jan concluded. "After making his way through practically the whole Confederate cavalry, he was shot down at our mine before he could even say hello to her! No wonder he haunts the place!"
"How about all the soldiers killed in the fighting?" Scotty asked, straight-faced, "Don't they haunt the place, too?"
"We've heard that some people have seen more than one ghost," Jan said, "but we don't credit secondhand stories much. We only saw the captain."
Rick must have looked pretty incredulous, he suspected, because Barby gave him an accusing glance and stated flatly, "And we did see the captain, Rick Brant! Didn't we?"
The Millers all nodded. "Tell them," Mrs. Miller suggested.
Barby picked up the tale. "We were all invited to a cook-out the other night. It was given by the Lansdale Garden Club and Mrs. Miller is a member. I guess it's planned long in advance, so they couldn't call it off or go somewhere else, so it was held. There must have been at least fifty people there."
Rick made a mental note to ask for elaboration of Barby's statement about canceling the event or holding it somewhere else.
"The barbecue pits are close to the old mine entrance, where the ghost always appears because that's where the captain was shot. Anyway, everything went well until nearly nine, and that was when we all began to get nervous."
Shot at nine, reappears at nine, Rick guessed. Strange ghost. Usually apparitions are supposed to appear at midnight.
"I didn't really expect anything," Barby went on, "because who believes in ghosts anyway?" She shuddered. "At least I didn't then. But at nine someone let out a scream, and we looked, and there was a white mist rising above the mine, and then the Blue Ghost appeared right in the mist, and it was awful." She ran out of breath and paused.
"It really was," Mrs. Miller said quietly. "Go on, Barby."
"Well, the ghost was a handsome young officer in a blue uniform, the Civil War kind. And he held out his hands, and he looked so ... so appealing. And then he suddenly put his hands on his chest, and when he pulled them away they were all ... all bloody."
Barby gulped. Rick shot a quick glance at the Millers. They were nodding. So all had seen the same thing, then.
"Anyway, he faded away then, and only the white mist was left. But honestly, it was ... well, it was so real! And the whole thing was blue, sort of, except for the ... the blood. That was red." Barby finished whitely, "It kind of broke up the picnic."
Rick could imagine. Great galloping ghouls! What had happened? He couldn't believe the ghost was real, but Barby and the Millers were obviously convinced.
"Incredible," Scotty muttered. "That's some yarn!”
Rick agreed. "I want to see this Blue Ghost," he stated.
Dr. Miller smiled. "You both look rather doubting. I must admit that I don't believe in ghosts. My entire scientific training rejects the explanation. But let me assure you, we saw a genuine apparition just as Barby described it, and I can offer no reasonable hypothesis. I have thoroughly inspected the area, and there is no physical evidence I have been able to see."
Rick digested this statement. His first thought, of course, had been that the ghost was somehow man-made. He still didn't reject the idea, but Dr. Miller's comments made it clear that the source of the ghost at least wasn't obvious.
"When do we see this ghost?" Rick asked.
Dr. Miller replied, "How about tonight?'
A sudden chill of premonition wormed its icy way up Rick's spine. "That will be fine," he said shakily.