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.


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.


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:


“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.”


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?”


“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.”


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.


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.”


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.”


“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.”