A simple, gray metal box, sat, waiting in the abandoned cabin in the mountains for Kayla for over sixty years. The box held only two items; a dairy, and a leather pouch filled with gold nuggets. 150 years had passed since gold was first discovered in the Bitterroots. Was there more? Kayla’s journey to find out changes her life, and the life of those around her, more than she could ever imagine.
Lucille made sure she got down to the lobby early enough to get her wheelchair positioned just right between the fireplace and the direct view to the front door. Life in the independent living facility was necessary, almost pleasant; Lucille couldn’t complain. Every Thursday afternoon, after the last high school class let out, Kayla and her little dog Gidget came to visit her in Brookside Landing. Little Gidget, in Lucille’s mind, was the cutest, lovingest, dog in the whole world. Gidget made Thursdays special.
At ten past four the front door opened and a black and white streak dashed across the carpet, made a huge leap into Lucille’s lap, stuck her white tipped front paws on Lucie’s chest and began dispensing dog kisses. Lucille grabbed the miniature Boston Terrier with both hands, laughing uproariously, and began rubbing the little dog’s head and back. Eventually Lucille got Gidget to sit on her lap while she stroked the warm, white chest with one hand and her belly with the other.
“Good afternoon, Lucille,” Kayla said. “How’s Gidget’s very best friend in the whole world doing today?”
Lucille was grinning so broadly she couldn’t answer.
Kayla slipped a couple of doggie treats into the pocket of Lucille’s wheelchair, and then sat on the arm of the overstuffed chair next to it. “I got these treats over at the Frontier Market. Timmy’s decided the folks who buy his wine all have dogs. He’s put in quite a variety. Gidget really likes these.”
“Ah, the Frontier Market,” Lucille sighed. She leaned her head back, relaxed her shoulders and her eyes glazed over, but she never stopped petting Gidget.
Kayla recognized the signs. She knew the very best thing she and Gidget could do was to get the old folks to relax and talk about the old days. She never got tired of hearing the stories, even if she’d heard many of them several times.
Lucille got into full swing. “Right after the war, back when Orofino was just a little logging town, the Frontier Market was the very latest thing. It was the brand new supermarket. I’ll never forget. I had a crush on Joe Henderson. When he came back from overseas, they took him on as assistant manager. Mostly he worked afternoons and evenings. I sure spent a lot of time after school shopping there.
“Joe did okay for a while, but something about the war got in his head somehow. After a year, maybe a little more, he moved out of his place in town. He moved way out, almost to Potlatch corporation headquarters, and up a dirt road into the mountains. Sometimes in the winter his old pick-up couldn’t make it down into town.
“He’d built himself a strange cabin, at least the way he described it to me, it seemed strange. The whole back wall was a sheer rock cliff. Said he’d seen them like that in France. Nice spot though, right on the creek and a meadow. Can’t drive there anymore. They damned up the creek and the lake covered up the road. Too bad. It was a unique place, the way he did it. Then, one day, we didn’t see him anymore.”
Kayla said, “I know that dam and lake. It’s Deer Creek reservoir.”
Lucille’s head nodded forward. Her hands stopped stroking Gidget. Kayla gently picked up her dog, smiled at the sleeping octogenarian, and walked into the dining room where others waited for their turn to pet Gidget.
Spring burst onto the Clearwater River valley that Saturday morning in late April. The sun shone. The sky was a cloudless blue. The temperature soared into the seventies by nine. After months of rain and low clouds, the world suddenly changed to a verdant green.
Kayla sat staring out her living room window glowering at the motionless trees. “What’s the matter, Honey?” her mother asked.
“There’s nothing to do in this stupid, tiny town. I’ve got another year-and-a-half before I get out of here and go to college. Boring. Look, even Gidget’s snoring.”
“C’mon, Kayla, there’s lots to do. Go fishing. Pick wild flowers. Hoe the garden. Clean your room. Why, the possibilities are almost endless.”
“Aw, Mom,” Kayla moaned. Her thoughts wandered, until what Lucille and told her popped into her head.
After a few minutes Kayla went into the kitchen where her mother was busily peeling apples for a pie. “Mom, maybe I will go fishing. Can I take the canoe up to Deer Creek Reservoir? I’ll bet I could bring home some big trout for dinner.”
“Yes. Please do. Get outside. Take the four-wheel drive pick-up in case the road’s muddy.”
By ten Kayla had the truck loaded. By eleven, even after a stop at the Clearwater Sports for bait, she had the canoe poised to launch on the lake’s boat ramp next to the dam. She knew Deer Creek Reservoir well. She and her father had fished it many times. It was where she learned how to canoe and she’d often paddled to the spots where she knew the big ones hung out.
By eleven-thirty she had a fourteen and a sixteen inch trout on her stringer. Fifteen minutes later she’d caught a third, cleaned all three and had them in her ice chest. At noon she had the canoe well above the lake’s water level, and tied to a tree ten yards west of where Deer Creek emptied into the lake. “The old road,” she thought, “Should be around here somewhere.”
Kayla began her search by standing next to the canoe looking for a road, a path, or some flat place where a pick-up could have driven through these trees sixty-five years before. When that failed, she began walking in ever larger concentric circles. Eventually, she found a deer path about thirty feet from the creek. She finally decided, or perhaps imagined, that the trees on one side of the path were older than then trees on the other. Hoping her conclusion that the younger trees had grown between the old tire tracks was correct, she set off up the trail.
After almost a mile of hiking, she spotted a cliff through the trees. A few hundred yards later she entered a grassy meadow with the creek bubbling through it. She could almost see the trout swimming in the clear, sparking water. Between the creek and the cliff were several gnarled fruit trees, all in full bloom. Beyond the fruit trees, at the base of the cliff, sat a worn looking log cabin.
Kayla forged through the knee deep grass until she stood before the cabin’s covered front porch. The porch extended the full thirty feet of the width of the cabin. The roof of the porch was torn and holed. The cabin itself sat underneath the cliff’s overhang. Kayla could almost feel the ancient stream rushing past the cliff, slowly eroding its way into the rock. The overhang protected the undamaged cabin’s tar paper roof.
When she carefully stepped up onto the porch, the boards squeaked. She jumped, but kept going. She tried to look through a window, but the gray covering of dust and dirt kept her from clearly seeing anything inside. She went to the door and tried the knob. It turned. She pulled on it. Nothing happened. When she gave it a sharp tug, it moved a little. Three yanks later it opened with a creak.
Kayla took a deep breath, and took one step inside. The entire cabin was one long, skinny, room. To her left she saw a bed, a dresser, and a pair of overstuffed chairs; to her right, a wooden table, two straight backed chairs, and a sink with a hand operated water pump mounted on its counter. Closed cabinets hung from the wall above the kitchen counter. A kerosene lamp sat in the middle of the table. Everything was dusty, but dry, and somehow familiar.
Kayla peered down at the floor. It was completely covered in faded green linoleum. She looked around at the walls. One was a rock cliff. The other three were debarked logs. All the gaps between the logs were stuffed with mortar. Large logs, anchored into holes in the cliff, spanned the open space and supported the roof. None of the windows were broken, or even cracked. Kayla imagined who ever had lived here simply packed up and left, fully expecting to return after a long vacation.
The one thing that wasn’t pristine was a book case hung on the cliff face. The upper right hand corner looked warped, or somehow twisted. Kayla left a set of footprints in the dust walking over to it. All of the shelves were empty, and just as dusty as everything else. Kayla carefully examined the bookcase. She uttered
“Oh,” when she found a set of hinges on the bookcase’s side opposite the twisted corner.
Kayla rolled her shoulders, took a firm grip on the twisted side of the bookcase, and tugged. The hinges screamed in agony, but they let the bookcase swing away from the cliff. There, dug into the cliff, Kayla found a hole about three feet in diameter and too deep for the available light to reach the far end. Sitting just beyond the hole’s entrance, sat a box. ‘I’ve come this far,” she said aloud. She reached into the hole, picked up the box, carried it to the wooden table, and gently set it down.
The gray metal box measured about eight inches thick, a foot wide, and perhaps sixteen inches long. Rust spots shown through the paint in a couple of places. A hinge ran the length of the lid. Opposite the hinge was a hasp with a brass padlock looped through it. The key was still in the lock. Kayla turned the key. The lock popped open. She removed the lock, took the hasp in her hand, and pulled. The lid swung open. She stared, motionless, at its contents.
Inside, filling the entire space was a leather bound book with the words “Holy Bible’ embossed in gold letters on its cover. Kayla opened the cover. Inside the cover, printed in large, black calligraphy, were the words, ‘In this book lies the truth.’
Kayla turned to the first page. She gasped when she saw that all the pages were hollowed out. In the six by eight inch hole were two things; a leather bound book with the word ‘Diary’ embossed on its cover, and a small leather pouch held shut by a rawhide drawstring. Kayla picked up the pouch. It was surprisingly heavy. She opened it and peered inside. Her eyes grew wide. Even in the dimly lit room she could see the gold glistening.
She hefted the bag in her hand several times before tightening the drawstring, placing the pouch back into the box, and picking up the diary. At the top of the first page, in neat cursive writing, were the words ‘Joe Henderson, May 7, 1946.’ She flipped through the pages. The further into the diary she got, the worse the writing became. All she could read of the last entry was the date, ‘December 25, 1947.’
Kayla rolled a chair over and sat next to him. “Good afternoon, Kayla,” Burt said. “Where’s Gidget today?”
“She’ll be here in a minute, just as soon as Lucille lets her go.”
Kayla paused. “Excuse me for asking, sir, but I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“I’ve been looking up old mining claims, and found one under the name Burt Heuer. Would that happen to be you?”
“Oh yes, that was mine. I must say, it worked out great.”
“You see, it was all Joe Henderson’s idea. Joe was a great guy. A little strange there toward the end, but once he decided he liked you, he’d do anything to help you.
“We’d just gotten back from overseas, Joe was Army, I was Navy. Anyway, he’d gotten this new-fangled map, said it was the greatest thing that ever happened around here. It was a topo map. Didn’t mean too much to me at the time. The ocean’s surface doesn’t change much, you know.”
Gidget jumped of Lucille’s lap, dashed out of the lobby, across the dining room, and leapt into Burt’s arms. “Good girl,” he said softly. “Good girl,” and started gently petting her.
“Anyway, I was trying to get enough money together to buy my own place, when Joe showed me the map and a little pouch of gold. Said he’d show me where it was, but I had to dig it out myself, and, I had to put a claim in somewhere along Canal Gulch or very close to it. In those days, to legally own gold and cash it in, you had to have a claim. So, I picked one from the old days that’d expired, and filed. That’s what you found.”
“Sure. That’s where the first gold was discovered in Idaho. It was easy for folks to believe that there was still more in there.”
“Hey, Burt,” a voice called out from across the room. “You gonna let someone else pet Gidget?”
“In a minute, Gertie,” Burt yelled back. “In a minute.”
Kayla picked up Gidget and carried her to a circle of ladies sitting in the sun by the back window. When she returned, she asked, “What happened then?”
“Well, Joe took me to this spot. It was along a creek, northeast of Pierce, several miles out. I don’t know how Joe’s old pick-up ever made it. It was an abandoned logging road. Ox trail most likely. Probably better today if they went in and recut that area.
“We parked above a sand bar and hiked back in a mile or more, until we got to a rocky outcropping. Joe had tools there and everything. I remember we worked all day in just one hole. I got enough gold from it to make my down payment. We filled the hole and stashed the tools before we left.
“I only went there twice more; it was Joe’s after all. I went once to get the down payment on the stock for my new place, and then once more, about six years later, when things got tight and I needed to get through tough times. Once I took some of his gold to be sold, but he never asked me for anything else.
“I never repaid Joe. By the time my ranch was paying off, he was long gone. Too bad. He was a really special person to me, and to several others around here.”
Kayla asked, “Did Joe ever say anything about a place in France called La Roque-Gageac?”
“Not that I remember. Why?”
“I think he may have had an Army experience there.”
“You know, young lady, most of the guys never said a word to anybody about what happened to them in that war, even if it ate at their insides. We all just put it behind us and moved on.”