One Man’s Treasure

This was my first published fiction. It was written as part of Jeff Marks’s collection Magnolias and Mayhem; I’m rather pleased with it.

* * *

My friend had this treasure map, see, and we were going to help him dig for gold.

It wasn’t actually a map. It was instructions to follow. And technically he didn’t even have that. What Alex really had was a sheet full of numbers and an inclination that it was a coded map to a treasure. That’s what you get when you have a crazy relative.

Friday

Kara and I were headed down I-75 towards Louisville. An empty highway, in part because we were, as far as I could tell, in the middle of nowhere, and in part because it was six in the morning on a Saturday. “Virtuous people are up and about,” my uncle used to say, waking us up at — well, at around this time on the weekend. Then and now, I’d rather be malevolent and asleep. The virtuous have bags under their eyes.

My friend Alex and his wife, Casey (Cassandra, but no one I ever knew called her that), had moved into his family’s farmhouse, about twenty minutes outside the city, a couple of months ago. (If you could call Louisville a city. Being from New York — the City, with a capital ‘C’ thank you — if anyplace smaller than Chicago was a large town with airs.) But here we were, tooling toward farm country because Alex and Casey might be rich. Besides, we hadn’t seen them in half a year and this was as good an excuse as any to take a week off. Better, if there really was treasure to be had.

“Rest area, five miles ahead,” Kara said, glancing up from the map she had cradled since we left the hotel in Cincinnati that morning.

“A comment or a hint?” I asked.

“Just a comment. I usually don’t hint if I need a rest stop.”

“Good point.”

“This is a big one, though,” she added. “It’s got a circle around it.”

“A fancy rest stop,” I replied. “Maybe even a Burger King.”

“The circle doesn’t lie.”

When we traveled, Kara was navigator — sometimes her sense of timing (or direction, or both) was good enough that she’d steer us through local roads without looking up from the map. On highways, where the only way to go was forward, she’d amuse herself by saying things like, “Rest stop, six miles,” a minute before the “Rest Stop: 5 mi.” sign appeared.

She kept the map in her lap, and Casey’s instructions in the car-door pocket; Kara said she’s trust a fellow woman’s directions better. We passed the circled-so-it’s-fancy rest stop, and kept going — eventually exiting the highway, down a state road, turning on smaller and smaller roads until we came to Alex and Casey’s. The house was a half-mile down, a well-kept, recently painted Victorian with Alex’s Acura in the driveway, a porch swing (“How cliché,” chuckled Kara), and our friends coming out the front door.

One thing Victorian houses have above every other kind is that they look like houses. Homes nowadays — what the real estate agent calls “contemporary”– look like boxes with windows and maybe a garage. Victorians, like Alex’s, have style. There were things sticking out all over — cupolas and balconies and rooms and chimneys. It clearly wasn’t a cookie-cutter kind of place; few homes from the 1800s are. Houses like Alex’s have a personality.

His looked to be in great shape, too. A lot of old homes seemed to be owned by old people — the people who have lived there forever and don’t see the slow deterioration of the shingles or the sagging of the porch. But his was clearly well kept, and I recalled Alex mentioning something about caretakers. Maybe they were the ones who kept the place ship-shape.

* * *

Before he was officially our friend, we knew Alex as the younger brother of a college friend — my news editor when I worked on the Student Press. So I had a couple of years on Alex, although home ownership would soon age him, I knew. Kara and I joked that when we were in our 80s, Alex would still be the kid brother. He was in his early thirties now, thin to the point of lankiness, with brown hair that, like his brother’s, always seemed in need of a haircut.

Like Alex, Casey was also in her early thirties, her hair still short and dark like it had been when Kara and I first met them. She was a head shorter than Alex’s five-ten, and just as energetic –”perky” we called it back then. Evidently she had snapped into hostess mode, and was wearing khakis and a dark blue top, both looking washed and pressed. Alex, evidently trying for the native look — or, more likely, what he thought other people would expect the native look to be — was in a red flannel shirt, blue jeans (not worn enough yet, I bet he thought), work boots, and baseball cap. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that any caps worn by the natives wouldn’t be the 100-percent wool, Major League Baseball-approved variety. If you want to blend, try the “given away by John Deere” style. But Alex was always the guy who wanted to be on the cutting edge, whatever that was.

Still, he made me feel a bit less scruffy in my worn jeans and “Newton State” sweatshirt, although I reminded myself that I had the drive as an excuse. Kara always looked good, long drive or not. She’s one of those people whose pants are always creased and whose sweater always matches her top. At least from a husband’s point of view.

We got out of the car. Greetings were exchanged. Hugs were had. The drive was described. Directions were praised. The neighborhood was admired. You know how this goes.

“This is a great house,” Kara said as we walked in the front door. “How old?”

“Built in 1852,” Alex said. “We’ve got this plaque. Big brass thing, I think from the Historical Society. We have to put it — or we’re supposed to put it — on the front of the house. One of those ‘historical homes’ things. Just haven’t gotten around to it.” Alex always sounded like he had ten things he wanted to say and only time for nine. You could almost feel the words bouncing around in his head before some of them shot out.

The requisite nickel tour took a good hour. That’s the beauty of older houses, especially Victorians: There always seems to be another room, or an almost-forgotten corner with something interesting in it. They’re made for people to live in a long time, so stuff accumulates. Just like the outside of today’s houses is boring, the insides usually are, too-mass-produced blocks that require the people who live there to give them every drop of personality. An old Victorian, though, comes with at least a small, pre-packaged soul built in.

Alex’s house had been in his family a long time, so it was infused with…well, with something. It was a home, not a house. We saw rooms that were bedrooms, and bedrooms that were offices, or a library, or a sewing room. Family heirlooms (that is, stuff that no one else wanted, but no one else wanted to throw out, either) were everywhere. One room at the back of the house had three old telescopes. One had drawers full of maps of the state, county, and town. One was decorated (if you could call it that) with carefully labeled insects from the area, some of which I hoped had become extinct since 1852. And it kept going up — three floors of living space, plus an attic with a roof high enough to stand under.

But the place didn’t feel old, just well-used. It wasn’t worn out, wasn’t dusty or musty or creaking…much.

“This place is 150 years old?” I asked. It was in great condition — freshly painted, polished wood floors, a beautiful rug in the living room, all the windows clean and unbroken. “Where do you find the time?”

“Not the time,” said Casey, “the money. And not ours.”

“My great-grandfather built it,” Alex explained. “Built the house, left money in his will. For a caretaker. So even when someone wasn’t living here, there was somebody taking care of it — keeping it up.”

“Must have been a lot of money,” I said. “A hundred and fifty years? That’s a lot of polishing and dusting.”

“Before vacuums and Pledge, even,” Kara said.

Alex nodded, smirking. “Great-granddad was rich. On the wealthy side.”

“Rolling in it,” added Casey.

“Rolling, jumping, dancing,” said Alex. “At least until he died.” He waved his arm, ‘follow-me’ style. “Come. I’ll tell you the tale of great-granddad Webster. And his money.”

“And his treasure map,” said Kara.

“Yes. Quite possibly.”

* * *

We headed down to and through the kitchen, into the family room behind it. “Watch your step,” Casey said, pointing down. The family room was a good inch and a half lower than the kitchen — enough to trip, but not enough to be a true step. “Old houses,” she said with a shrug.

The family room was warm and cozy. Again, a well-polished wood floor, darker than the living room, but also rug covered — this one was a braided oval with lots of browns and greens. A wood stove sat in one corner, and Alex and Casey had arranged the sofas and chairs (none matching, but that’s they way it was supposed to be) around it, with a large, well-worn coffee table (oak or cherry, I guessed) in front. On the wall opposite the stove were two bookshelves filled with a mix of old and new. Some old-fashioned kitchenware sat on top; now it was art.

We arranged ourselves, Kara and me on the sofa, Casey and Alex each in a chair. Alex leaned back in what I assumed was his best Alistair Cooke pose. “Let me tell you a story,” he said, “before I show you anything.”

“Tell and show,” quipped Kara.

Alex nodded. “My great-grandfather was born down in — that is, over in Tennessee and moved to Kentucky when he was little. He made a pile of money by making supplies for the Army — I mean the U.S. Army. And I think some state militias. But then he started giving them — well, selling them to — the Confederate Army. When the war started.”

“A patriot through and through,” I said.

“A patriot for someone,” Kara agreed.

“He was a big believer in the South. In the Confederacy,” Alex said. “The kind of guy who hated anyone named Abraham. You know, Lincoln. On sight. Slavery, Dixie, Robert E. Lee — the whole nine yards. That was great-grandpa.”

“Or so we thought,” Casey interjected.

“Or so we thought,” Alex agreed. “Wait a sec. Back to that in a minute. Clarence — great-grandpa — was rich. Really rich, for the time. But he was also a bit of a loon.”

“Not that those ever go together,” I said.

“Granted. In his case, they did. He was the crazy guy in the attic. The guy the family would keep there, anyway. If he didn’t own the house, that is. He used to sit around with maps — maps of his property — making strange marks, writing things on the edge that no one understood. He was into astronomy and beekeeping and guns and all sorts of stuff.”

“And codes,” Casey said.

“And codes,” Alex said. “We found notes. Little ones on scraps of paper, some whole pages. All of it in weird codes. Bunches of letters on a page. Symbols, sometimes. Sometimes numbers, or a mix.”

“So you had a crazy, rich great-grandfather,” I said. “Always nice.”

“He used to give lots of money to the Confederacy. Other things, too,” Alex went on. “But then the war dragged on. And Clarence’s son — my grandfather, Jeffrey — left. He left the farm and moved to Cincinnati.”

“Up north,” said Casey.

“Technically,” said Alex. “And that’s what counted. Counted for Clarence, anyway. Grandpa Jeffrey abandoned the cause. He was a traitor — you get the idea. From his letters, it looked like Clarence spent the rest of his life spending money and grumbling about Jeffrey.”

“Sounds normal,” I said. “For back then.”

“For now, even,” Kara agreed. “So then what?”

“Well, that went on for a while — a good 10 or 15 years. But in his later letters it looked like he had begun to forgive my grandfather. The war was over, things weren’t bad for him. He made some comments in his letters about who would get what when he died.”

“And he stopped bad-mouthing Jeffrey?” I said.

“Pretty much. But when Clarence finally did die, and everyone gets together back at the farm, guess who’s hardly in the will.”

“Grandpa,” Kara and I said together.

“Bingo,” said Alex. “So much for time healing all wounds. But his other kids didn’t either. Didn’t get any money, I mean. He left money — Clarence left money for the care of the house, and gave some to his two daughters, but not a lot.”

“Not the family fortune,” said Casey. “Not all the money he probably had.”

“So where,” asked Kara, “Is the fortune?”

“Maybe he lost it,” I suggested. “Supporting the losing side of a war isn’t always the best investment.”

“That’s what we thought,” said Alex. “That he lost it all. Or that he gave it away. Maybe to some ‘the South will rise again’ cause. Maybe the Klan. But he didn’t.”

“And you know this how?” I asked.

“There were a lot of hints,” Casey said. “Kind of a gestalt about it — you got the feeling that he still had his money, somewhere.”

“But not for any of his offspring,” I said.

“Right,” Alex agreed. “Well, almost. I think. I didn’t tell you what he did leave my grandfather.” He paused for effect. “One small iron box and the contents within.”

Another pause. Then Kara: “And they were?”

Alex grinned. “Paper. A single piece. Written in –”

“Code,” I said. “Of course.”

“Score one for Andrew. It’s a sheet of code — it’s been sitting for over a hundred years. In that box. Or somewhere. People saw it — they must have. But no one bothered to try to decode it.”

The obvious question: “Why not?” asked Kara.

“I wondered. I wondered the same thing,” Alex said. “Maybe no one…maybe everyone figured it was a waste. Of time, money, whatever. Maybe it was a will. Maybe not, and maybe they figured that if Clarence left anything it was just junk. Worthless, and no one figured to work it — no one had the mindset to bother. So it sat in my dad’s attic forever. Until I inherited it. Then I got this house, and started thinking about that.”

“And how did you get this place, anyway?” I asked. “Being on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line and all.”

“I actually inherited it from my Aunt Sophie, who got it from her father. Sophie didn’t have kids, and she and I were always close. I guess she figured the war was over, and she could give it to someone who lived up yonder.”

Kara was chomping at the bit. “So do you have any clue what’s on this paper? Is it directions to the treasure? What’s the deal?”

“The answers,” said Alex, “are ‘No,’ ‘Probably,’ and ‘We have to find out’. Sophie left me a whole pile of Clarence’s letters. She was the family genealogy buff, at least for a while. And I started to go through them — the letters, I mean. To cut to the chase, it looks like Clarence didn’t hate my grandpa after all.”

He reached over and slid open the drawer of the coffee table, pulling out a manila envelope that he opened. He handed Kara what looked like an old letter. “Read the last paragraph.”

Kara scanned it, then read aloud. “‘Don’t worry. When I finally leave this earth I’ll make sure to take care of all of you, including Jeffrey — ‘”

“Jeffrey was my grandfather,” Alex reminded us.

“–but it may be a while before he figures it out. God preserve the South.'”

“There are other things,” he said. “Things like that. Comments in letters. Like about Jeffrey deserving more. Mixed in with other stuff — commentary about things changing after the war, about things being different. Always some comment about God preserving the Confederacy. Something like that. But you could feel that he was thinking of things differently.”

“I think I’m getting it,” I said. “Clarence is rich. He doesn’t hate your grandfather, but he only leaves him this coded message. And he doesn’t leave much money to anyone.”

“I like to think,” Alex said, “that he figured if my grandfather was smart — smart enough to figure out where his inheritance is — he deserved it. We think he left a good chunk to him. My grandfather. Maybe all of it.”

“So where is this stash?” Kara asked.

“We think the instructions are in this message,” Casey said.

“He had to be difficult about it,” said Alex. “And that’s the problem.”

“And that’s why we’re here,” said Kara.

Alex nodded with a smile. “In part. We wanted you to visit, though. We wanted you here. A code-deciphering treasure hunt — potential treasure hunt — sounded like fun. Or not. We could just sip lemonade and sit on the porch for a week.”

“I like the money idea better,” I said. “And we would split this how?”

“Sixty-forty,” said Alex.

“Fifty-fifty,” said Casey, at the same time. She glared at her husband.

“Fifty-fifty,” Alex agreed. “But –” Another glare.

“Fifty-fifty,” he repeated. “But I can’t promise anything. I mean, there may not be any.”

“Blood, toil, tears, and sweat will be fine,” I said. “And half of whatever we find sounds fair. Let’s see this path to riches.”

Resigned to his fate, Alex grinned at the chance to show off whatever it was he had. He reached back into his envelope to pull out a sheaf of papers. At first I thought this was a long letter, but they were copies — he gave one to each of us.

427718718271 31116217 4213195217345 421279031116 42795 31127 116902420895217208 42110537131662 421721731
2724 31116217 421105208217 274 31116217 4213195217345 101662 31116217 1017183416212 134718249031 3195217217 6622790718718 410524208 34 718349592217 95279024208 421312724217
4213134242081052492 2724 31116217 421312724217 11621734208 2724217 116902420895217208 42110537131662 410510217 2082179295217217421 101662 31116217 162753634421421 42795 3111695217217 116902420895217208 2171059211631 410510217 421721731 111621795217 6622790 1105718718 410524208 3424 105952724 1013495 10524 31116217 9295279024208
495275 31116217 1013495 11621734208 4105431662 2082179295217217421 3424208 9227 2724217 116902420895217208 421721731 3127 34 1671821734951052492
162724242171631 31116217 2082731421
20810592 20810592 20810592
11163431 6622790 410524208 105421 662279095421
9227208 36952174212179510217 31116217 421279031116

“I’m guessing that ‘1′ isn’t ‘A,’ I said after a moment.

“Nope,” Alex agreed. “It looks like a mess. I mean, we can figure that 34 is ‘A’ or ‘I,’ but that’s about it. Unless 3 is ‘I’ and 4 is ‘T’ or something.”

“Are you sure this mess means anything at all?” I asked. “Could it be a hoax?” Sometimes I’ve seen code that looks like code, but this was just a sheet of numbers. No punctuation, no apostrophes, no nothing. At least there were spaces and line breaks.

“What I figure,” Alex said, “is that it might be nonsense. Garbage. Maybe Clarence went through a little trouble to screw around — to create a lot of trouble for my grandfather. But then I figure, what’s the point? My granddad wasn’t obsessive — he wasn’t the sort of guy who would run around — who would spend the rest of his life trying to decode this. You figure — at least I figure — that if he was going try to drive my grandfather up a wall, he’d do something a bit better. More inventive.”

“Sometimes simple is best,” Kara said.

“Ask a fashion model,” I agreed. I held up the paper. “You want us to spend the next few days trying to decode this?” I said.

“I have faith.”

“That we can decode this?”

“That at least one of us can.”

So we sat around the family room, staring at the sheet of numbers. There didn’t seem to be any pattern or anything recognizable. I noticed that Alex and Casey didn’t stare at the sheet nearly as much as we did. “Believe me, I’ve stared at it forever,” Alex said. “I want some fresh sets of eyes.”

Those fresh sets of eyes were becoming less and less fresh after an hour of staring and scribbling. We broke for dinner; Alex grilled us some well-done (but medium-rare) sirloins and we talked to them about future plans for the house.

“I’d like to add a greenhouse someday,” Alex said. “Behind the family room, or maybe even upstairs.”

“My understanding of greenhouses is that they require a lot of windows. Like a glass roof,” I said. “Upstairs has the traditional opaque kind.”

“Ah, but you notice the third floor, it doesn’t cover the com — the entire — the whole second floor,” Alex explained. “We can take the baby’s room and convert it by taking out the ceiling. That is, the roof. We cut the joists on the top, then extend the –”

“Stop,” I said. “You’re wading into homeowner-speak.”

Alex look confused. “But don’t — I mean, you own your house.”

“But I’ve never used the word ‘joist’ in conversation,” I pointed out. That’s the difference.”

Kara, able (as usual) to focus like The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing, said, “Baby’s room? Is there something we should know?”

“Baby’s room, not baby,” Casey told her. You saw it — the one with the yellow paint and the cute wooden crib. It’s only pine,” she lamented. “But that yellow paint shouldn’t be too hard to cover. Actually, it’s more of an ochre.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Make that into a greenhouse. Hmm. I guess I can see it.”

“Crib,” said Kara suddenly. She was staring, but not at any of us. Not at anything in the room, either. Her eyes started to glaze with that one-moment-while-I-try-to-remember-something look.

“Crib,” Alex agreed.

“Small wooden box that holds baby,” I added. “Has blankie.”

“Crib,” Kara said again, starting to smile. “Sonofabitch.”

I stared at her blankly, like someone who just heard what was supposed to be a complete sentence, but wasn’t. “A crib,” I repeated. “We need a verb.”

“Come on, you know — a crib. Not a baby crib, a… a crib crib.” She gave me a half glare. “You’re smart, but not that smart. You must have used cribs in college. Crib sheets.”

“Ah,” I said, finally understanding. “I was just more honest about it. We called them ‘cheat sheets.’ Your point is?”

Kara was now back on Earth, and I could see the pieces of whatever puzzle she was working on falling into place. I just had to wait her out so it could go from her brain to her mouth to us.

She spoke slowly, making sure to get the idea right. “If you want to break a code, you might be able to use a crib. If you know what some of the words are, you can use that to decipher the rest of the message.”

“Like hitting the Hint button,” Casey said. “Sneaky.”

“Smart,” I added. “You think there’s a crib to be had?”

“Can I see some of your great-grandfather’s other letters — the ones Sophie had?” Kara asked.

Alex shrugged. “Sure.” He disappeared up the stairs.

“What kind of crib do you think you’ll find?” Casey asked.

“Alex said something about the letters all saying something about God preserving the Confederacy,” Kara said. “Or maybe it’s just a ‘Dear Sophie’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern’.” But if there’s anything consistent about his writing, that might be the way to crack it.”

“This just… came to you?” I asked. “Like lightning?”

“The voice in my head,” she replied. “The one that keeps telling me to undercook your chicken.” She winked. “Actually, it’s from doing word puzzles.”

“And when do you have time for those?” I asked. “During your copious free time?”

“At work. Online. At lunch. There are lots of sites with puzzles, and you can work ’em with your mouse while you eat with your other hand.” She grinned. “I’ve got it down to a science. Anyway, there’s one where you have to decipher a scrambled quote. If you can guess some of the words, you can solve it pretty easily. So if the quote’s from, say, a philosopher, you can guess that a big word might be ‘philosophy’.”

“A crib,” said Casey.

“Right.”

Alex returned, letters in hand. “Careful. They’re old.”

We spread them on the floor and coffee table, each of us with a few in front. Then we started reading them. “Concentrate on the first few words or the last few,” Kara suggested. “Look for a turn of phrase — the bigger the words the better.”

It took us less than five minutes, and Kara had her crib. Alex and I didn’t find much, because he had the oldest letters — the pre-Civil War ones — and I had the later ones, long after the war. But Kara and Casey had the middle ground, during and just after the war. That’s when, as Alex had said, he ended every letter the same way: “God Preserve the South.”

Kara picked up her copy of the coded message. “See the last line? It’s pretty short. Let’s assume that it stands for ‘God Preserve the South’.”

“It’s still a bunch of gibberish,” Alex said.

“But look — the number 217 is in there, four times,” she said. “Three Es in ‘preserve’ and one in ‘the’. Four. I bet 217 is ‘E’.”

“We’re on our way,” said Casey.

* * *

As anyone who’s driven with kids knows, being on your way and being there are two entirely different things. But we had at least a feeling that we were headed in the right direction. We had Es, Ss, Rs, Ts, and a few other letters. Of course, figuring out which combination of numbers corresponded to a particular letter wasn’t easy. Was ‘427718718271′ broken up as 427-718-718-271 or 42-77-187-182-71? Or something else?

Turns out Clarence didn’t use a simple cipher like 217 was E, 218 was F, and so on. No, he had to mix ’em up, sometimes using a two-digit number, sometimes using a three-digit number, and for all we knew, sometimes using a one-digit number. I say ‘for all we knew,’ because after about two hours of playing with the thing, my eyes glazed over and I was ready for something else. Kara, on the other hand, is the pit bull of puzzles, and barely looked up as one by one Alex, Casey, and I headed for the kitchen for a snack, then into the living room to talk.

Every now and then I’d check on Kara, and was rewarded with a “Hmm?” and an occasional “Could you bring me some more paper?”

Conversation, time, and paper came and went, and it was well past one in the morning when we were all too tired to be polite anymore. Alex and Casey went to bed, and I stopped in to see how Kara was doing before turning in.

“Good luck,” I said. “I’m off to sleep. See you, er, later.”

“Luck is not a factor,” Kara replied, not looking up. “If you were going to give someone some kind of directions, how would you start them?”

“With ‘Start’ or ‘Begin’ I guess.”

“That’s what I figured, and I think figured right. That gives me T, and that’s the second most common letter in English.” Now she looked up. “I’m getting there. I can do this.”

“I have no doubt,” I replied. “I can do sleep. I’m going to do that now.”

“Hmm? Oh, okay. See you later.” Back she went to the paper, and up I went to bed.

* * *

Bed, yes. Sleep no. Well, not much. It seemed like thirty seconds after I shut the light (leaving a Casey — provided night light on) I was woken by a frantic blonde shaking me.

“IdiditIdiditIdidit!” Kara was shouting. Well, saying, but in the dark in the middle of the night it certainly felt like shouting. And she was definitely shaking. Me, that is.

“You did it,” I managed, trying to make sure it sounded like a statement instead of a question, lest she feel the need to explain it.

“I did! I got the whole thing, from start to finish.” She furrowed her brow. “Well, from ‘Start’ to ‘South,’ actually. But I got it. I’m getting Alex and Casey. Let’s go treasure hunting.”

I grabbed her arm before she could ruin two good friendships. “First of all,” I said, now wide awake, “It’s –” I looked at the clock “– three twelve in the morning. My guess is that Alex and Casey have other things on their minds.”

“At three in the morning?”

“I meant sleep. And second, even if I let my sanity take a break and woke them, are you sure you’ve got it right?”

“Ha!” said Kara. “Damn straight — don’t doubt me, sleepy boy. I mean, it makes complete sense, and all the letters work out, and the chances of there being some other combination of letters and words that fits those numbers is zero. Z-E-R-O.”

“Lemme see.”

She handed me a sheet of paper where she had written out the whole message in neat block letters:

START BY FACING OUT FROM THE BACK DOOR OF THE HOUSE
WALK STRAIGHT TWO HUNDRED EIGHTY FIVE FEET INTO THE WOODS TO THE BLACK OAK TREE
HEAD WHERE THE LOWEST LIMB IS POINTING FOR ONE HUNDRED SIXTY FIVE FEET TO AN ARROW ON THE GROUND
FOLLOW THE ARROW ABOUT EIGHTY FEET TILL YOU HIT THE STREAM
FOLLOW THE STREAM SOUTH FOR TWO HUNDRED SIXTY FEET
ON THE SIDE OF THE STREAM BY THE BLACK WALNUT TREE YOU'LL FIND A LARGE ROUND STONE
STANDING ON THE STONE HEAD ONE HUNDRED SIXTY FIVE DEGREES BY THE COMPASS FOR THREE HUNDRED EIGHTY FIVE FEET WHERE YOU WILL FIND AN IRON BAR IN THE GROUND
FROM THE BAR HEAD FIFTY DEGREES AND GO ONE HUNDRED FEET TO A CLEARING
CONNECT THE DOTS
DIG DIG DIG
WHAT YOU FIND IS YOURS
GOD PRESERVE THE SOUTH

“You got all this from that crib?” I asked.

Kara nodded. “From that, from guessing that ‘start’ might be the first word, and from staring at the thing till my eyes turned red.” They were back to being green now.

“This is amazing,” I said. “You amaze me. Incredible.” And I meant it.

“We have to find it,” Kara said.

“Well, yeah. But not at 3:00 AM. How about, say, eight? I’ll set the alarm.”

“Make it seven thirty.” She crawled into bed, still grinning, and only the weight of the blanket keeping her from bouncing onto the floor. “Jeez, how am I supposed to sleep?”

I reached over and unplugged the night light. “Put your head down. Close your eyes. Think happy thoughts.”

A moment passed. “I’m not going to be able to sleep,” Kara pronounced in the dark.

I was pretty awake myself, and now in possession of all my faculties. “Well, I have one idea.”

Saturday

Tempting as it is, I won’t bore you with the details of waking, waking Alex and Casey, showering, dressing, and having breakfast. And you can imagine their reaction to Kara’s work.

“I’ve got some kick-ass compasses in my camping equipment,” Alex said — or, more accurately, exuded. “And I think I know where my rangefinder is.” He jumped from his seat.

“Rangefinder?” I said.

“Compasses?” Kara said. “Plural?”

Alex stopped in mid bolt-for-the-other-room and looked back and forth between us. “Compasses plural because what if we got separated.”

“In your yard?”

“Out hiking,” he retorted. “Actually, one’s for working with maps — it’s designed to be used flat — and one’s for being outside in the field where you have to sight on something in the…you know, far away.”

“Uh-huh,” I offered. “And this rangefinder?”

“Geez, you never hearda one? You use it to measure the distance across a room,” he explained. “It’s good for calculating, you know, the dimensions.”

“Like a tape measure,” I said.

Alex ‘hmphed.’ “Yeah, yeah, but it’s a lot more accurate. It uses a laser. We can send someone out in the right direction holding up, I dunno, like a big, white piece of wood. We point the rangefinder at that, and we can measure the distance exactly.”

“Then whoever’s holding the wood moves closer or further until you say ‘Stop’,” I finished.

“Yeah, yeah. Exactly.”

Kara pondered this a moment. “Assuming your great-grandfather didn’t have one of these –”

“A good assumption,” I agreed.

“– then what’s the point of being laser-accurate if he wasn’t?”

Alex and I exchanged glances. “Um,” he said. “Well, y’know…”

“Um,” I concurred. “Sweetie, it’s not about using the best technology. It’s about using the most technology.”

“Oh.” She turned to Casey for support, but Alex’s wife was in the kitchen, probably baking trail food or preparing sandwiches. Kara nodded and smiled slightly — the kind of smile, I suspected, she would give an escaped mental patient. No sudden moves here. With Alex, that was often the best policy.

We agreed to return to our respective rooms and get ready to start hunting, meeting around the kitchen table a few minutes later. Kara and I were in jeans and sneakers, but Alex had on something designed for a trek into the mountains of Tanzania. Khakis with enough pockets to hold a Craftsman 200-piece tool set, and big enough to hold any small children that wouldn’t fit in the crib in the ochre room. He also wore what I thought was a photographer’s vest, but now knew to be a treasure-hunter’s. More pockets, some already with things in them — extra compasses, I assumed. And here I was, wondering if a walking stick would be too much.

“I don’t need to ask if you’re ready,” I said.

“You betcha,” Alex replied, patting his pockets. I didn’t ask. Casey joined us a minute later, without the pockets but with four Ziploc bags with what appeared to be granola bars. Condensation was forming inside the bag indicating they were still warm — indicating these were homemade granola bars. I wasn’t surprised, for some reason.

“Granola bars,” Casey confirmed. I have Kool-Aid, too.” She indicated her backpack. “Grape.”

“Er…” I started, but Kara shot me a look. “Great,” I said instead. “Although we’re probably only going a few hundred yards.”

Casey shrugged. “I know, but it’s fun to have an excuse to bake.”

Pausing a moment, then nodding at each other, the four of us headed out the back door from the family room into the yard, Kara clutching her newly deciphered cipher. As we stood on the back porch, she read: “Start by facing out from the back door of the house. Walk straight 285 feet into the woods to the black oak tree.”

Alex reached into a pocket and produced a small black box that had a display on it, then reached into another pocket and pulled out a small piece of white cardboard that he proceeded to make into a large piece of cardboard by unfolding it. I could see that he had taped it together to make it foldable. He handed it to me and pointed into the woods. “Go out there and hold this up. I’ll sight on it.” He held up what must have been his laser rangefinder. “Kara and Casey can make sure you’re going straight.” He pointed. “That way.”

I took the cardboard and (quietly counting paces) walked out about 90 steps, which I figured to be about 30 yards. The woods weren’t dense yet, so I was able to keep a straight line. That changed soon, though: Not too far in front of me the trees started to get thicker. If the instructions called for a 350-foot walk, I’d have been in trouble. I looked towards the house. The others stood by the back door, with Alex pointing his black box at me, Star Trek style.

I saw Casey cup her hands to her mouth. “Come! Closer!” she shouted. I took a couple of steps in while Alex looked at the rangefinder. “A! Little! More!” she yelled. Two more steps. “One! Step! Back!”

I did that, then shouted, “This is close enough! Get! Over! Here!” I waved my arms, figuring that anywhere from 275 to 295 feet would be close enough for treasure-hunting work. I saw them discussing something — I assumed Kara was reminding Alex that his great-grandfather didn’t have a laser rangefinder — and then start walking towards me. I started looking for that black oak tree.

Even though I had passed a couple of dark-looking trees, I didn’t see anything that looked like a black oak where I was. Or even nearby. And if I continued walking away from the house for another dozen feet or so, I’d bump into a large rock.

“We did something wrong,” I said as Alex, Casey, and Kara arrived. “There’s no black oak here.” I pointed behind me. “There’s a rock, though. Are you sure we walked straight from the back of the house?”

They all nodded. “You bet,” said Kara. “And you’re standing right at 285 feet.”

“Two hundred eighty-six,” grumbled Alex.

“This is a highland oak,” said Casey, patting one tree. “Highland live oak, actually.”

“Not a black oak,” Kara said.

“Nope. I think we passed a couple of black oaks back there, though. I didn’t look carefully.”

“Not fair,” Alex said. “I figured if we were gonna be stuck, it’d be later. Not right away. First instruction. Sheesh.”

Kara repeated the instruction: “Start by facing out from the back door of the house. Walk straight 285 feet into the woods to the black oak tree.” We all looked around again. No black oak had appeared, Ivanhoe style.

“That was the back door, right?” I said. They all looked at me. “Right?”

“Can I use sarcasm in my answer?” Kara said.

“Well maybe it’s the back door now, but was it the front door back then?” I countered. “Who knows where the road was in 1865?”

“Same place,” said Alex.

“So there’s no side door now that could have been the back door then?”

“Nope.”

“And I supposed it’s pointless to ask if the rangefinder is accurate.”

“Pointless,” agreed Casey, before Alex could say a word.

“Maybe someone took down the tree,” said Kara. “Is there a stump around?”

We all looked, but the trees around us seemed intact. Kara, I noticed, was staring at the house, her brow crinkled. I knew a thought was coming, and waited it out. I didn’t wait long.

“What if the door moved?” she said.

“Moved?” said Alex. He shook his head. “Didn’t move. Not a lot of room on that wall for it to move.”

“I was thinking,” she went on, “that maybe the back of the house now wasn’t the back of the house then.”

There was a pause as we processed and absorbed that, then Casey started nodding. “The family room floor,” she said.

Kara was grinning. “Exactly.”

“Exactly?” I said. “Exactly what?”

“Exactly not aligned with the kitchen floor,” she replied. “I bet the family room was added later. That’s why we had to step down.”

“Different kinds of floor, too,” said Casey. “The kitchen and living room has two-inch maple boards on the floor. The family room is two-and-a-quarter-inch pine. And it’s polyurethaned. The rest of the house is varnished.”

“I thought varnish and polyurethane were the same thing,” I said.

“Polyurethane is a kind of varnish, but varnish isn’t polyurethane,” Casey explained.

“Different floors, different times,” Kara said to me.

“Different floors, different doors,” I said. “The door to the family room was the back door. How wide is the family room?”

“Twenty feet,” said Alex. So the family room added twenty feet to the house, and we had to subtract 20 feet from where we looked for the black oak. As the glow from this new light bulb washed over him, Alex pulled out his rangefinder.

But I was already pacing off twenty feet towards the house, without a laser. “About here,” I said when I had removed the width of the family room from the calculations. And right next to me was a tree with dark gray bark, leaning slightly into the path I had just walked. It looked like it had a bad case of whatever passes for acne in the tree world — the bark was pretty gnarled and scaly — and a quick look at a leaf told me it was an oak.

Casey confirmed it a moment later. “Looks like a black oak. Probably a California black oak. Quercus velutina or *kelloggii.” *We all stared at her. “So I took Latin!”

“So this is the right place,” I said, getting away from Casey’s high-school days. “From the door of the kitchen, 285 feet.”

“Give or take,” grumbled Alex.

Kara looked at her instructions. “Now we ‘Head where the lowest limb is pointing for 165 feet to an arrow on the ground‘,” she recited. We all looked up at the tree. The lowest limb wasn’t low-it was a good thirty feet in the air, and pointed at an angle to the right. “That way,” said Kara, and started walking.

“Not so fast,” I said. “Look closely.” They all did.

“Ah,” said Alex.

“Ah,” repeated Casey, then Kara. About ten feet below Kara’s lowest branch was a close-cut stump of a branch, painted with that stuff to keep cut limbs from infecting the rest of the tree. It was a dark gray like the tree, so you could miss it easily, especially if you had treasure on the brain.

“Now what,” said Casey. “We can’t tell if it was pointing straight or at an angle or what.”

“Not easy,” said Alex. “Not gonna be easy at all. This whole thing.”

“What, you don’t want to work for your treasure?” Kara said. “Let’s just try a best guess.” She pointed in the direction the tree limb might well have pointed. “What was it, 165 feet? Alex, get your rangefinder out.”

The woods were getting more dense here, so it wasn’t a straight shot. We had trees to get around, so the 165 feet took about ten shorter trips so we could work our way around trees and through the underbrush. Eventually, though, Alex announced that we were in the spot.

We all looked at the ground, expecting, I expect, to see a glowing-green arrow in the dirt. No such luck; it was just dirt, with a few stones and leaves thrown in for good measure.

“And then,” I said, “depression set in.”

“You wanted what, a burning bush?” Kara asked.

“A flaming arrow would have been nice,” I said.

“I vote,” said Alex, “that we clear things. That we clear some of this brush away. Look on the ground. Maybe we’ll see something.”

We cleared, discovering all manner of things the crawled, stung, pricked, or — I had a feeling we would realize later — itched. Casey ran back to the house at one point, returning with several kinds of gloves and pruning shears, which were gratefully accepted.

It was, in fact, Casey who had the a-ha moment. “A-ha,” she said. “Lookee here. Obsidian.”

“Is that important?” asked Kara.

I walked over to where she was standing. “It is when it’s in the shape of an arrow,” I reported. And it was: eight pieces of shiny, black obsidian arranged in the shape of an arrow, under a wild rose bush that Casey had pruned back. “I bet Clarence did that on purpose,” I said. “Planted that rose bush over the arrow.”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Alex. “Or poison ivy.”

The arrow pointed us further away from the house, deeper into the woods.

“Next we ‘Follow the arrow about 80 feet till you hit the stream‘,” Kara instructed. Alex had the rangefinder out, and — feeling bad about pacing off the 20 feet without his help a few minutes ago — I decided to play along. I got out the white card and started walking.

We moved in stages again, 15 or 20 feet at a time, with Casey and Kara making sure we were still headed in the right direction. When we reached 80 feet, we collected again. The woods still weren’t very thick, but more importantly, there wasn’t any water — stream, brook, river, or otherwise.

“We should have done this a long time ago,” I said.

“Like a hundred years ago,” Kara agreed. “Before things changed.”

I nodded. “The good ol’ days.”

“Yeah? Think about those good ol’ days next time you’re at the dentist.”

But Alex summed things up well. “Now what?” The ground didn’t look any different where we were standing, or even a few feet in either direction. There wasn’t any hint of a stream. There were paths through the trees that said stream could go, but nothing in the here and now. After 100 years, trees grow and streams, apparently, disappear.

“All right,” I said, after the four of us stood around feeling and looking dumbfounded. “Let’s assume we went in the right direction and for the right distance.”

“We did,” Alex said.

“That’s the point,” I replied. “So let’s assume we’re standing in a stream bed, or what was once a stream bed.”

“OK,” Kara said.

I went on. “The next instruction is…”

Kara glanced down at the paper. “Follow the stream south for 260 feet.”

Alex was shaking his head. “But the stream probably wasn’t straight. We can’t just go south. We can’t just guess. That’ll throw it off.”

“Agreed,” I agreed. “But we know that from this spot –” I pointed at my feet, “– we have to at least start heading south. So we have a crib here, basically.”

Kara was nodding. “Got it. We know that the stream must at least start going south. Figure at least ten, maybe twenty feet before it really begins to turn a lot.”

“Right. Alex, get out one of your compasses. Tell me which way is south.”

He reached into a pocket, pulled out a compass, and after a moment said, “That way. Pretty much.”

I pointed ‘that way’ and said to Kara, “Walk over there, like ten feet or so.” She did, stepping around or over the brush. “OK. We can assume the stream flowed from where I am to where Kara is. So let’s see if we can find something that says, ‘Once there was a stream here’.”

Kara and Casey started looking up and around, maybe trying to decide if there were different trees growing where the streambed had been. Alex and I were looking down and around, hoping to see, I don’t know, fish skeletons or something.

Alex found the something. “I think I’ve got it,” he said. “Catch.” What I caught was a small rock.

“So?” I said. “There are rocks everywhere.” I tossed it to Kara.

She tossed it back. “But not smooth ones,” she said. “Smooth rocks mean water.”

“That was my point,” said Alex. “Follow the rocks. The smooth rocks.”

“A-ha.”

Easier said than done. Casey made another trip to the house, this time for trowels to help us dig down a couple of inches, where most of Alex’s smooth rocks were buried. After about an hour of digging and following the remains of the streambed, we broke for lunch.

Casey, I wasn’t surprised to see, had already prepared a monster cold-cuts plate (probably slicing the stuff herself, if not actually slaughtering the salami). We dug in, keeping the conversation to something other than the fact that we had to follow 260 feet of stream essentially a few feet at a time.

Eventually the desire to find the treasure overcame our lunchtime inertia and we headed back to the woods. And that’s where we spent the next four hours: digging, scraping, and following the course of a stream that hadn’t seen water since who knew when.

We worked in five- or six-foot jumps, uncovering smooth rocks. When we found enough to be sure we were still in the stream bed, we moved further. If we lost the trail, we would dig to either side until we found more of the right kind of rock. Occasionally, in a bout of frustration, Kara or Alex would take a guess about the course and dig twenty or thirty feet downstream. More often than not, they lost the trail; the stream wound around quite a bit. But the few times they struck gold — or, rather, struck ‘smooth’ — it saved us a bunch of time.

On we went. When it started to get dark, we decided to check our progress. Alex got out his rangefinder and we did the ten-foot hop trick from where we started, moving along the uncovered stream bed, around curves, avoiding trees, stepping over underbrush. We got to our last digging point, and Alex started counting on his fingers. Then he said, “Oops.”

“Oops what.”

“Where you’re standing,” he said. “Right there. It’s 286 feet.”

“You’re kidding,” said Kara. “We went 26 feet further than we had to?”

Alex shrugged. “No one was keeping track.”

“Wasn’t that your job?”

“My job was figuring out how far we got.”

“That’s the same thing!”

“I’d say that’s enough,” Casey cut in. “Let’s mark the 260-foot spot and head home. I have to start cooking.”

We paced back 26 feet, and — just to be sure — Alex, the rangefinder, and I paced off the distance to the starting point. When we were comfortable with the spot, he pulled a small can of orange spray paint from a pocket and sprayed a dot in the former streambed. “Until tomorrow.” We headed back.

Sunday

It’s amazing what a good dinner and a good breakfast can do for your spirits. And a hot shower helps, too. By nine Sunday morning, we were ready to roll again. By a quarter after, we were standing over Alex’s orange dot.

“Here we are,” said Kara. We all agreed. “All right, then. ‘On the side of the stream, by the black walnut tree, you’ll find a large round stone.’ That’s what we need to find next.”

“The black walnut tree,” I said. “He’s got a thing for black trees.”

“They both live a long time,” Casey said. “Black oaks and black walnuts. Also easy to find, I guess.”

“Just look for walnuts,” Kara suggested.

But Casey shook her head. “Not this time of year. Late summer, fall. It’s too early for walnuts.”

“But there should be some on the ground from last year, right?” I asked.

“You underestimate the power of squirrels,” Kara said. “But we might find some shells.”

“What does a black walnut tree look like?” I asked, as we started to scour the ground — this time for walnut shells. My back was beginning to have second thoughts about treasure hunting.

“It looks like this,” Casey said a moment later. She was standing about five feet from Alex’s dot, her hand resting on a tree. I looked up. It looked like a tree. I looked down. Scattered around the tree were what looked like golf-ball-sized rocks, that turned out to be walnuts, or parts of them. Black walnuts, I assumed.

“That was easy,” I said.

“So’s this,” Kara said, pointing to a large, round stone a foot from the tree.

“Small favors,” Casey agreed. “You think this is the right one?”

Just in case, we searched around the tree some more, but — although we found plenty of rocks, stones, and pebbles, none was as obviously large and round as Kara’s.

“This is it,” Alex pronounced. “Gotta be. What’s next — the next instruction?”

Kara removed the paper from her pocket. “Standing on the stone, head 165 degrees by the compass for 385 feet where you will find an iron bar in the ground.”

Alex was already pulling out his compass. This one was significantly more complicated looking than the one he used yesterday to determine “south.” I assumed he preferred a “kick-ass” model for figuring exact direction. He flipped open a cover on the thing, using the metal flap as a sight. Then, standing on the stone, he rotated his body, all the while sighting along the compass lid.

“Andrew,” he said, not taking his eye off the compass, “Go out. That way. Till I tell you to stop. Then I’ll tell you to move left or right.”

“Right.” I headed out in what was roughly 165 degrees, already pulling out my white card for use with the laser rangefinder I knew would soon be making its appearance. When I was a good distance away but still visible to Alex, I held up the white card to make it easier for him to see me through the trees.

“A few steps left!” he shouted. I moved to my left. “Other left!” I moved to *Alex’s *left. “Keep going!” A few more steps. “Hold it! That’s it! Don’t move!” I saw him disappear a moment as he bent down, then reappear with the rangefinder, which he pointed at me. “92 feet!” he shouted. “Remember that!” Then he, Kara, and Casey made their way over to me.

We repeated the process: I walked away at roughly 185 degrees, Alex moved me left or right, then he figured the distance. After five such legs, he announced we were at 385 feet from the black oak and the stone. No iron bar was jutting out, so we began to search, making our way out from the 385-foot point (which Alex sprayed with another dot — blue this time).

We continued to search. And continued. After what seemed like an hour, no luck, and my back was getting stiff.

“There’s got to be an easier way,” Kara grumbled off to my left.

“There must be a technological way,” I agreed, moving what I hoped wasn’t poison-anything out of the way.

“Oh!” shouted Alex.

We stood and turned. “Got it?” I asked, glad this was over.

“No,” he said, as we all met by the blue dot. “But you’re right. There’s technology. I mean, there’s a technological solution. Wait here.” And he scampered — no joke — back towards the house.

“He worries me sometimes,” Kara said. Casey only nodded.

Alex returned a few minutes later with a…a thing. It looked like two oval loops of steel joined by a five-foot rod with a box in the middle. The box had a bunch of switches and dials on it, as well as a handle of some sort.

“Planning to contact the mother ship?” Kara asked.

“Funny,” said Alex. “This is the Tokahama TM9000 Metal Detector.”

That’s a metal detector?” I said. “I thought those had a round disk, like a frisbee.”

“And a beach,” added Kara.

“Those are the cheesy models,” Alex replied. “This is a professional one.”

“There are professional, er, metal-detector users?” I asked.

“Detectorers,” Kara suggested. “Metal detectives.”

“All I know,” Alex replied, somewhat indignantly, “is that this thing will chirp if you even think about metal near it. An iron bar in the ground will set off bells.” He started flipping switches.

“If my watch stops, you owe me,” I said, backing away from Alex and the TM9000.

He moved one of the two ovals a couple of inches above the ground by the blue dot, and began moving it back and forth slowly, in widening circles, working in between trees and pushing aside undergrowth. The three of us watched with a mix of awe and fascination. Mostly fascination.

Every now and then the detector would bleep, chirp, or beep, and one of us — usually me — would dig around the spot. Unfortunately, all that got us was a few bottle caps and six cents. (Although that included a buffalo nickel, which I thought might be worth something.)

After a while, we let Alex alone, digging only once when the TM9000 gave a slightly longer beep. It turned out to be a chunk of rusty metal, but after a brief discussion we decided it wasn’t an “iron bar” and Alex continued.

As exciting as it was, after an hour of watching Alex sweep the ground, we began to get restless. Also, it was getting past noon. “My inclination,” I finally said, “is to break for lunch. There’s really no rush.”

“You never studied compound interest,” said Kara.

“We’ve got all week,” Casey said. “Banks are closed today anyway.”

I could see Alex look up and nod in reluctant agreement. “I’d never decline one of your lunches, anyway.”

“Cranky people are no fun to treasure-hunt with,” Kara finished. “I can put this off for an hour. The anticipation will keep me company.”

“Done,” I said. “Lunch it is.”

* * *

Like all Casey’s meals, lunch was terrific: chicken and pasta salads with fresh rolls-homemade ones. I still had no clue when she had the time, but I wasn’t about to ask. Deals with the devil are the dealmaker’s problem.

“I don’t get it,” said Alex, as we sat around the table. Casey was back in the kitchen, presumably cleaning lunch and preparing dinner at the same time; she refused assistance. Se we tried to figure out what we had done wrong. “We know we’re in the right place,” Alex continued. “We found the black walnut tree. And we found the round stone. And I know we went the right way and the right distance.”

“Maybe the iron bar moved,” Kara said. “Weren’t there earthquakes?”

“I think that was before his time,” I replied. “Early 1800s, if I remember. But I don’t think that would move an iron bar. Bury it, at worst.”

“The TM9000 would find it, then,” said Alex. “Unless it’s way, way deep. And even then.”

“Let’s work this through step by step,” I said. “First, we’re assuming the black walnut we found is the black walnut. Then we’re assuming the round stone is the round stone. Then we’re assuming we headed in the right direction for the right distance. Right?”

“Right, right, and right,” agreed Kara. “Is there any reason to think that the tree was wrong? Was there another black walnut around?”

Casey walked in from the kitchen. “I didn’t see one, no. And I looked. I can use the walnuts for cooking and dye-making.” There was a pause as we absorbed that.

Then Kara: “All right, then. So that has to be the right stone.”

“And even if it’s not, the right one has to be close,” Alex said. “It wouldn’t make that much of a difference. If we started out a bit off, I mean. We’d still be there — in the right place. Or at least the right area.”

“I want to ask this next question without getting anyone into a huff,” I said. “But Alex, are you sure you used that compass right?”

Alex nodded. “Yep.”

“I mean, just an observation, but it looked new.”

“It is. Well, not used. I mean it’s new, but not used yet,” he said. “But I know how to use it. Line the needle with the ‘N.’ Turn till you’re facing 165 degrees — you sight with this wire here. I lined you up with the wire.”

“There’s no point asking if the compass is accurate, is there?”

Alex looked insulted. “The Director 15-A compass is accurate within 1/10th of a degree,” he said. “As long as the North Pole hasn’t moved, that was 165 degrees.”

“Hmm,” said Kara.

“And the distance was right, too,” I said.

“Yep,” Alex agreed. “And even if we were off a bit — which we weren’t — but even if we were, I searched all over.”

“Hmm,” said Kara.

“I’m guessing here,” I said to Kara, “that something’s on your mind.”

“Yessss,” she replied. “I think the North Pole does move.”

“Reindeer accidents?”

“Funny. Just a natural process.” She held out her hand to Alex. “Lemme see that compass.” He dug around and handed it over; Kara popped open the cover and stared at the dial. She started to grin. “See there?” She was pointing to the face. “That dial — it’s for correcting for magnetic north.”

“What do you mean, correcting for magnetic north?” Alex asked. “Isn’t north, north?”

“Not quite,” Kara said. “Some norths are more north than other norths. You have to correct for magnetic north depending on where in the country you are.” She looked at me. “Don’t you remember that orienteering class we took?”

“Vaguely,” I replied. “I remember being distracted by you.”

“Hmph. Anyway, there should be a guide that came with the compass to tell you what the correction is for Louisville. I bet it’s a few degrees off.”

“And that would move the search area by at least a few feet,” I said.

Alex bolted upstairs, and returned a few minutes later with the instruction book. “Bingo,” he said. “Right here. Magnetic declination. We have to correct for it.”

“What’s it say for here?” asked Kara.

“It’s a small map, but this area looks like about three degrees. We have to correct three degrees West.” He looked up. “I never knew that. This is great!”

Kara was smiling. “College wasn’t a waste of time. Let’s go.”

“Once more into the breach,” I said as we got up. Alex grabbed Casey, and soon enough the four of us were standing back at the black walnut tree and the associated round stone. Alex and I repeated the compass/walking/rangefinder process, this time ending up several yards from where we had been searching.

Alex turned on the TM9000, we all backed away, and the search continued. I expected it to last ten minutes, tops.

* * *

Two hours later, we were back in the house, grumbling. We had crawled, dug, and scanned. No iron bar. Alex must have recalibrated the TM9000 a dozen times, but the best he ever got was a couple of Civil-War bullets six inches underground.

We went through the same process as last time, reviewing each step and trying to figure out where there could be a mistake. Nothing jumped out at us. The angles were right, the distance was right (Alex assured us of both), but the iron bar wasn’t.

After arguing, sketching, considering, and rethinking the whole thing, we decided to get out of the house for a bit, heading for one of the local malls where we spent a good couple of hours browsing, shopping, and forgetting about treasure. We grabbed dinner at a local Mexican place and headed home. By mutual agreement we put the hunt aside till the next day, instead playing Scrabble and watching the History Channel. We finally turned in near eleven.

A little after midnight, as I teetered on the edge of sleep, Kara jolted me awake. “Oh, duh!” she said from the dark.

“Mmph?” was all I could manage.

“I know where the iron bar is,” she announced.

“You do?”

I heard her shuffle around, probably propping herself up on the pillows. “I’m pretty sure. Follow this. We assume Clarence put that iron bar at 165 degrees from the stone. Meaning, 165 degrees true.”

“I’m following you so far, but I have doubts about the future,” I said. “You mean ‘true,’ not, er, ‘compass,’ right?”

“It’s called ‘magnetic’,” she said. “We looked at 165 degrees magnetic, but that’s not the same as true 165 degrees. That’s because the magnetic pole moves, but the true north pole doesn’t. Otherwise Santa would have to move every few years.”

“Of course. So we were off by three degrees. But we corrected that the second time around,” I pointed out. “Then we were looking at 165 degrees true.”

“I know. But what if Clarence didn’t? Didn’t correct the magnetic and the true.”

I thought about this. “Then the bar would be in the first place we looked, right? It has to be one or the other, right?”

“No, it doesn’t.” She turned on the bedside light. “You’re assuming that Clarence either corrected for magnetic north by three degrees, or didn’t correct at all. But what if magnetic north wasn’t off by three degrees back then? What if it was off by more or less?”

I gave her the incredulous look that four years of marriage had perfected. “Are you kidding? Are you saying that not only is magnetic north not the same as true north, but that it changes every year? How do people keep their compasses straight? How does Santa get home every year?”

“It doesn’t change much, I bet, but after 100 years it may be different enough. Clarence’s compass may have put him at an entirely different 165 degrees.”

“How the heck are we supposed to find out where magnetic north was in 1890-something?” I asked.

“Alex’s office. He’s got a whole Internet in there,” she grinned. “If anyone can find it, you can.”

“Do you do all your best thinking at night?”

“Among other things.”

* * *

After the frustration of the day, Alex and Casey weren’t as upset as normal people would have been when we woke them to explain Kara’s idea. We went to Alex’s office — equipped with enough electronics to keep the Japanese economy stable for years — and he connected to the Net. “You have the conn,” he said, getting out of the chair.

“Go get some coffee or something,” I told them. “This might take a bit.”

They took my suggestion, leaving me alone with all I needed: A Web browser and a search engine. I started typing in keywords like “compass,” “declination,” “magnetic north,” and “correction.” Slowly but surely I found my way to the information I needed. And wouldn’t you know it: It was from the government.

“Any luck?” Kara asked, making me jump from my seat.

“Yep,” I said, taking the coffee mug she offered. “Courtesy of the National Geophysical Data Center.” I pointed to the screen. We can look up changes to magnetic north going back to 1900.”

“That’s close enough,” Alex said.

I nodded as I filled out the form with latitude and longitude (I looked those up) and selected January 1, 1900. In a moment, it spit back the answer. We all leaned in. Kara made the official announcement.

“Two degrees, eleven minutes east,” she said.

“And we were looking at three degrees west,” Casey said. “We were almost six degrees off the first time.”

“But only two degrees off the second,” Alex said. “We should have found it.”

“After 385 feet, that two degrees probably means 15 or 20 feet, and that’s assuming Clarence was really careful,” Kara said. “We might have been 30 feet away.”

“I’ll break out the flashlights,” Alex said.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Casey shot back. “It’s almost two. This can wait till morning.”

Monday

We didn’t need any encouragement to get out of bed on Monday. By 7:30 we were all dressed and breakfasted, and Alex had checked the nuclear reactor on the TM9000. We headed out.

Once again, Alex and I started at the black walnut tree and headed out, this time at 165 degrees the way we hoped Clarence had calculated it. I marked the 385-foot mark, and Alex came over with the metal detector.

It turned out that Clarence wasn’t quite as good with a compass as we would have hoped. Luckily, technology was on our side. Ten feet from where we started, the TM9000 gave a long beep. We cut back the brush and found a thick, rusty, metal rod sticking about an inch out of the ground. Casey tried digging it up, but it was clearly buried deep. It didn’t matter. It was the right rod. We were almost there and, as Kara pointed out, banks were open today.

“Next,” she read, “From the bar, head 50 degrees and go one hundred feet to a clearing.”

Compass out. Rangefinder out. Andrew walking away, white reflector card in hand. Alex calling directions. Casey and Kara watching with amusement. This time, we corrected for Clarence from the get-go. When I reached what Alex determined was the 100-foot mark, he called out “Stop!” and the four of us gathered there. Alex marked the ground with a green dot.

Unfortunately, we weren’t standing in a clearing. We were still, as far as I could see, in the middle of the woods.

“Spread out from here,” Kara suggested. “In case Clarence was off. Look for a clearing.” We did, but the woods were pretty dense and never opened up into any space wider than a half-dozen feet across.

“Maybe Clarence was a really small guy,” I suggested back at the green dot. “Maybe he had a different idea about what a clearing was.” This wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm.

“We need to find the clearing and the dots to connect,” Kara said. “That’s the next part: Connect the dots. And I don’t think it means Alex’s paint spots.”

“That would be too easy,” I agreed. “So how do we find a 150-year-old clearing?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Casey. “Size does matter.”

“Huh?”

“Big trees and little trees,” she explained. “Old ones and young ones.” There was a long silence. “OK,” she continued. “If there was a clearing here 150 years ago, there were trees around it, right? So the trees that popped up in the clearing are new. They’re younger.”

“And smaller,” I said.

“Right. Look around you,” Casey said.

“We missed the forest for the trees,” quipped Kara.

Once we knew what to look for, it was obvious. All around Alex’s green dot, the trees were significantly smaller than the ones a few yards away. Some were bigger than others, but you could even tell by the condition of the bark: Newer trees had smoother surfaces.

Alex, green spray paint in hand, started marking the approximate edge of the clearing. In a few minutes, we had a rough circle around us, about 25 or 30 yards across.

“All right,” Alex said, “The dots. Anyone want to take a guess what he meant?”

“The sun and the moon?” Casey suggested. “Maybe at a certain time of year.”

“Tree stumps?” I offered. “But they’d be rotted away by now.”

“Fruit trees,” said Kara. “Maybe that’s what he means by dots.” We all looked up and walked around, but didn’t see anything bearing gifts. “Casey, are any of these apple trees that haven’t sprouted or fruited or whatever?”

Casey shook her head as she walked around. “I don’t see any. They should have at least flowered by now.”

We stood by the dot — Alex’s, not Clarence’s — in thought, trying to figure out what connect the dots might mean. Nothing came to mind.

Then Alex said, “Oh, forget this.” He picked up the TM9000 and flicked it on. “There is no problem so large it cannot be solved by enough technology.”

“But you don’t know where to look,” I said.

“The way I see it — the way I figure it — is that is has to be here. Inside the circle. This clearing. Or else why bother sending us here? So it’s just a matter of finding the right place. And digging.” He started from the center and started waving the loop over the ground.

Kara nodded. “Makes sense. Without a metal detector this would be tough. You’d dig for months. But we can look underground with that thing. We don’t need to connect the dots.” Neither Casey nor I disagreed. We all stepped back to give Alex — and the TM9000 — room to work.

It was clearly tough going. When this was a clearing, it would have been simple, but with all the trees and brush, he had to make his way between trunks, branches, and leaves.

Every now and then the TM9000 beeped. “Anything?” I asked each time.

“Nothing major,” said Alex, continuing to sweep the detector’s loop over the ground. Forty-five minutes had passed.

“I’m have doubts about this,” I said.

The TM9000 screamed.

* * *

It didn’t take Casey more than five minutes to run back to the house and return with two shovels and two trowels. This was good, because Alex looked ready to dig with his hands. Instead, he and I started in with the shovels.

“That thing tell you how deep it is?” I asked.

He looked surprised. “Well, yeah.” He dropped his shovel and turned the TM9000 back on, waving it over the spot again, this time with the volume turned down. He consulted whatever readout the thing had and adjusted a few settings before announcing, “Fifty-four inches.”

We dug. At exactly 54 inches — due credit to the Tokahama Corporation — I hit something solid. A moment later, so did Alex.

It took us over an hour to clear away the rusty metal box, Alex and me with the shovels and Kara and Casey with the trowels for the close-in work. It wasn’t huge: I figured it to be about 24 by 18 inches and a foot deep. We cleared a hole several feet around it — and a few inches underneath on either side — so we could reach in and get a grip. It was heavy, but not too heavy. With a “One, two, THREE,” Alex and I lifted it out and put it on the ground next to the hole we had dug.

It was a big metal box, dirty and rusty, with some hinges on one side and a mud-clogged lock on the other. “Your choice,” I said to Alex. “Open it here or drag it back to the house?”

“Here,” all three of them said at once. To confirm the decision, Alex took one swing at the lock with a trowel and smashed it open. He pulled out the pieces of the lock and lifted the cover.

Whatever was inside the box was wrapped in a waxy cloth. “Waxed cotton,” Casey explained. “Waterproofing.” We carefully unfolded it, revealing a sheet of yellowed paper on top of more waxed cotton.

Wiping his hands on his jeans, Alex carefully lifted the paper out. A moment later, he snorted. I leaned over to read it.

Traitors like you ruined my country, so you can
inherit the spoils. I hope you and your Yankee
brothers choke on it.

I repeated it aloud. Casey reached over and unfolded the top of the second layer of cloth. “Shee-it,” said Alex. Or me. Or one of us.

Underneath the second layer of waxed cotton was, neatly stacked, what appeared to be piles and piles of money. “I don’t believe it,” Alex said, leaning away from the box.

It was Confederate money. Stacks and stacks of worthless Confederate cash. Clarence had the last laugh.

While Alex shook his head in disbelief, Kara and I carefully looked through. “It’s worse than that,” I said. “It’s mostly fives and tens. There’s probably only a few thousand dollars here, tops.”

Kara didn’t say a word.

“I guess he didn’t forgive your granddad after all,” said Casey.

“Shit,” said Alex.

* * *

We carried the box, the shovels, and the metal detector back to the house, stowing the gear and putting the box on the floor in the family room on top of some old newspaper to protect the rug. Casey started taking out the stacks of bills and counting them, while Alex and I sat there in disbelief, sipping beers. Kara disappeared upstairs.

“About twelve thousand,” Casey announced a few minutes later. “Give or take a few hundred. It’s mostly fives, with a few stacks of tens.”

“And absolutely worthless,” Alex grumbled. “Except to a museum.”

“That’s not quite true,” said Kara, coming back into the room. “Before you decide to burn the money or give it away, have either of you thought about how much Confederate cash is worth?”

“Not a lot,” I said. “They lost the war. It’s like rubles.”

“Er,” she said. “Not quite. You oughta go online and check out what this stuff is worth.”

“You think it’s worth something?” said Alex, perking up.

“I know it is. I checked.”

“How much?” we asked in unison.

“I don’t know, exactly — it depends which bills those are, when they were printed, and all,” she said.

“Give. Us. The. Ballpark. Figure,” I said.

She smiled. “Those bills are in good shape. Each one is worth at least 20 to 50 bucks. And that’s assuming there aren’t any really special ones — some might worth over a grand.”

The wheels of math were churning in my head. “Twelve grand in fives would mean about 2,400 bills.”

“Some are tens,” Casey pointed out.

“So let’s say 2,200 bills. Fives and tens are worth the same?” I asked Kara.

“Roughly. I mean, it depends on the individual bill, but most are worth at least 20 or 25 bucks. Even the fifties and hundreds, if you had those.”

“Twenty-two hundred bills at 20 bucks a pop,” I said.

“Forty-four thousand bucks,” said Alex. “Minimum.”

Kara was looking at the money. “Better. These are all from 1861. I think that makes them worth more. I think it’s time to get a safe-deposit box and look up some collectors.”

We looked at one another, and started to smile. I raised my glass, and Alex ‘clinked’ it.

“God preserve the South,” I said.

Next month

Not being sure which bills were worth what, we split the piles evenly, agreeing to let everyone know if any were particularly valuable. Alex and Casey went to a collector down there, and Kara and I found one at home. In the end, the find was worth about $58,000. Not life-changing, but still very, very worthwhile.

Alex and Casey decided to keep most of their Confederate money as an investment, getting some advice on preserving it from a local collector which they passed on to us; we planned on keeping all ours…for the moment. They did sell some — enough to pay for the greenhouse they had been talking about.

On a Saturday, we were sitting around the kitchen table having yet another ‘Maybe we should buy such-and-such’ discussions when the phone rang. It was my friend Tom, who just bought a house up in Danbury, Connecticut with his wife Kelly. “What’s up?” I asked.

“Wanna come out here for a visit?” he asked.

“Maybe. Why-for?”

“There’s something you and Kara might be into.”

“What’s that?”

“Well,” he said, “You’ll never guess what we found at the bottom of the well.”