The Treasure Hunt
I met Patrick at the Granger place on Saturday night. I had brought some digging tools as he suggested, and although I’m embarrassed to admit it, I was kind of excited. Sure, it was a silly goose chase and nothing would come of it. But what if something did?
Nevertheless, I pretended to be annoyed when Patrick stepped out of the shadows.
“I knew you’d come,” he said.
“Only to keep an eye on you, so you don’t do something stupid and get hurt."
He approached my horse, looked at the packs and smiled. “That’s why you brought a shovel, right?”
Who did I think I was kidding, trying to fool a child prodigy? I got down off my horse. “Just show me where this trap door is, okay?”
He led me and Flecha across an overgrown field, past the blackened ruins of the house. The skittering of rats among the ruins sent a chill down my back and made Flecha twitch her ears and shake her head. The jingle of her bridle rings sounded loud—even louder than the rustle of our footsteps in the weeds.
“You know where we’re going in the dark?” I whispered.
Patrick nodded and pointed, but I was more concerned with the sensation that something behind the empty eyes of the house’s broken windows was watching us. A sudden sound like the tumbling of a piece of wood, made me jump and stifle a shriek. My heart pounding in my ears, I grabbed my gun and looked all around.
“It’s just the house,” Patrick said. “Stuff falls all the time.”
I drew a shaking breath, ashamed of myself. If a thirteen year old boy wasn’t scared, neither was I. I settled the gun back in its holster and started walking again.
When we got to the overgrown garden and broken wall, Patrick led me to the spot and started scrabbling at the weeds. I gave him a trowel out of one of my packs, then took the shovel and together we cleared the rocks and dirt away from the door. When it was finally clear, he grabbed hold of the iron ring and pulled.
He pulled again, harder, but still no luck. I pushed him aside and tried it myself, but the door wouldn’t budge. I took my lantern and looked for a lock, but saw nothing to indicate a problem. “I bet it’s just rusted,” I said.
We took our knives and scraped dirt out of the grooves around the edges of the trap door, then I got a crowbar from my packs and we tried again. This time, with a grinding and metallic shriek that was probably heard as far away as Louisville, the door prized open.
We propped it with a metal bar and stood for a moment, staring in wonderment at the black hole in the ground. “Well?” Patrick finally said. “We go in, right?”
I was about to comment on his bravery when I noticed he was pale, his eyes worried. In spite of the cold, a sheen of sweat lined his upper lip. “We could come back in daylight,” I offered.
He shook his head.
We strung a lantern on a length of rope and lowered it into the hole. It illuminated spiders and insects, some rickety stairs, and a cracked concrete floor.
Patrick got on his belly for a closer look. “There’s stuff down there."
“What kind of stuff?”
“Can’t tell. It’s in boxes and plastic tubs.”
I stood up straight and looked around. The moon had come out and we were alone. Flecha seemed calm, and as long as I didn’t look at that creepy burnt house, there was nothing about the landscape that suggested danger. Why not go into the hole?
So we went down. The air was musty and thick with dust. But it was warm and still down there, and oddly peaceful. I went to a stack of boxes along one wall and opened one. It was full of shiny silver pouches stamped with a date from more than sixty years ago.
“It's just old food,” I said. “What did you find?”
Patrick had opened a box on the other side of the room. He reached inside and started to pull something out, but the material fell to pieces in his hands. He read the fading label on the side of the box. “Something called an air mattress.”
The rest of what we found was similar. We found mosquito netting that disintegrated at our touch, moth-eaten winter coats and rotted bicycle tires. Bins that once held grain had holes gnawed in them and were empty but for a few mouse droppings. Drums of water were only half-full and the liquid that remained was murky and smelled bad. We found a few useful tools, though, and some cast iron cookware that I thought I might be able to scrub the rust spots off.
We gathered these things in the center of the room and debated the best way to get them home without having to explain where they had come from. We were feeling relaxed by now, our earlier fears dissolved in the banality of finding ourselves surrounded by nothing more frightening or exciting than rotten emergency stores. So neither of us was at all prepared for the sudden sound behind us as a shadow leaped into the room and lunged for us.
Someone screamed. It could’ve been Patrick, it could’ve been me, it was quite likely both of us. Patrick panicked and knocked over our lantern. I grabbed my gun and fired into the darkness, stopping only when I heard a heavy body fall to the floor.
“Where’s the light?” I wasn’t even trying keep my voice from shaking. “Goddammit, Patrick, where’s the light?”
I heard him fumbling in the dark, heard him strike his flint over and over.
Finally he got the lantern lit and held it aloft, his hands trembling so badly the light flickered and shadows lurched around the room. I looked at the stranger, lying in a pool of spreading blood.
But it was no stranger. It was Sven.
We did what we could. I swear we did! But he had been at close range and two of my shots hit true. It’s likely he didn’t even know what hit him. I can only hope so.
“What do we do now?” Patrick asked.
How the hell was I supposed to know? “It was self-defense."
“We don’t know he would’ve hurt us.”
“But we don’t know he wouldn’t have. He did say he wanted to find the gold. Besides, he was trespassing.”
“So were we.”
“Well, no one but us knows about this place.”
I could tell from the look in his eyes that Patrick knew what I was getting at. “And if we cover the door back up, no one else will ever know.”
So that’s what we did. But before we left, I checked Sven's pockets and found a wallet with several New Dollars in large denominations. It wasn’t the Granger gold, but it was better than nothing, and he would have no need of money in either Heaven or Hell.
After we covered the trapdoor, we had to make a decision about Sven’s horse, which was tethered to an old fencepost near the house. The saddlebag held a change of clothes and a few valuables—a silver vase and a bit of jewelry—but I didn’t dare take them, for fear someone might identify them. We ended up turning the horse loose near the pond where we went fishing and swimming last summer. I doubted anyone would think Sven had gone for a swim, but it was all I could think of under the circumstances.
“We’ll never mention this to anyone,” I said as we stood at the edge of the pond, watching the play of moonlight on its shimmering surface. “And if anyone ever suspects me, I’ll say I was alone.”
Patrick nodded. “Same here. I was alone and you were at home, asleep.”
We shook hands on it.
“And no more of these crazy ideas,” I said. “Okay?”
“Nothing but studying,” he agreed. “If I want adventure, I’ll read Treasure Island again.”
I wasn’t sure what Treasure Island was, but any book was better than shooting our neighbors. “Good. Then let’s try to forget tonight ever happened.”
Since then, things have been oddly quiet. I say odd, because the only speculation about Sven is that he’s off on a drinking and gambling binge in Frankfort, which is a common enough occurrence to merit only a bit of head-shaking. And I don’t know where the horse has wandered off to, but no one has found it yet.
The mail run is tomorrow and I’m going to give Sam the money I found in Sven’s pocket. It’s not enough to buy off McElhinney, but it might be enough to buy us a little time. It’ll feel good to get rid of that money, because having it here makes me uncomfortable. It’s like having my guilty conscience made visible.
When I give it to Sam tomorrow, I just hope my guilt at how I got it doesn’t show in my eyes.