By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Illustrated by C. Nelson White
As Janet cried out Laura sprang into instant action. With one leap she grasped the other’s arm to force her backward. That fraction of time saved her for in that instant the tree fell. A small branch struck Janet but its force was broken. In less than a minute she opened her eyes and sat up gingerly. Laura was bending over her.
“I am all right,” she gasped, frightened by the look on her cousin’s face. And to prove it she got to her feet. As she did so the storm burst upon them with all its fury. Trees, bent with the force of it, lashed each other savagely. Lightning, with frightening vividness, cut through the fast gathering gloom. From below them came the roar of waters. Laura looked about in desperation. She must do something. It was then she noticed the way the water ran past their feet.
“Come. This looks like an opening in the underbrush. It may lead to a cliff or something.”
The water that by now was sweeping down the mountainside in hundreds of little rivulets, seemed, just ahead of them, to form a storm of stream that came from above and zig-zagged past. Even as she spoke Laura was running along it. Janet, head bent to protect her face, hurried with her.
The storm grew worse. Laura, seeking better footing, led them both along. it was so dark they could scarcely see. Over them and above them the elements raged. Stumbling, staggering, scratching themselves they fought their way. They might have dropped the things they were carrying. It would have made the going easier but neither thought to do it. They labored through a thicket of underbrush that switched their faces and added to their already wet condition.
“There – seems to be – a trail –” Laura stopped and gasped. Then she cried out. “It’s a cabin. A cabin.”
Nothing in the world could have been more welcome to the tired, wet girls than the sight of that tiny cabin whose outlines they could just distinguish through the sheet of rain. Back of it rose a precipitous cliff whose presence could be felt rather than seen. They called but there was no answer.
“It looks deserted,” Janet whispered.
“It looks it,” Laura said, “but suppose it isn’t?” She felt about her feet and picking up a stone threw it at the door. It struck with a dull thud but still there was no response from within.
“Come on,” Laura said. “We’ll risk it.”
They hurled themselves against the door and under their united weight long unused hinges creaked and the door opened slowly. They were too thankful for the shelter to be frightened by the dark musty interior. For a moment they simply stood, then Janet thrust her hand into her pocket and with a short laugh flashed a beam of light about them. The inside walls were unfinished except for mud chinking between the logs. They turned the light up. The ceiling was of saplings laid over each other. Between them could be seen patches of the mud that covered them. In one corner was a rude bunk on which lay the remnants of a blanket. It had been chewed to shreds and mixed with years accumulation of rats and mice. On the wall above it was what was left of an old blue coat. A plank, nailed shelf-like to the wall had two goods boxes on the floor beside it.
“A table,” Laura said tersely.
The beam flashed to the corner nearest the door and both girls shrieked with delight. There, with a scrap iron still in a lid, was a sheet iron stove. Filling the corner by it was a pile of cut wood.
“Are we lucky.” Laura sprang to the stove and lifted the lid as Janet closed the door. “We shall have a fire in no time.”
With Janet holding the flashlight she scraped ashes from the small grate.
“Someone,” she said as she selected small pieces of wood, “left this place in a hurry. I need some paper.”
Again the light traveled over the room. It came to rest on a goods box nailed to the wall above the wood.
“This has been a cupboard,” Laura exclaimed, as she touched cans. “This has had lard. Poohy. How dirty. I’ll declare, here is one that has had sugar in it.”
“There is one with a paper on it. It’s tomatoes.” Janet snatched at the paper with its faded red tomato. It slipped through her fingers to the floor.
“That came off easily, didn’t it?” Laura stooped to pick it up.
“Yes, but don’t stop to examine it. Let’s have a fire.”
Laura had been examining it. “Imagine a can of tomatoes standing there all these years.”
“What do you mean all these years?”
“You can tell by the looks of the room it hasn’t been disturbed for years. Look at the blanket and the coat.”
“I should rather look at a fire.”
Laura still hesitated. “I dislike burning this after it has been here so long, Janet. Turn the light.”
Rather crossly Janet turned the light on the paper her cousin held.
“See, Janet. there is writing on it as sure as you live.”
At the other’s half-frightened words Janet leaned near. On the back of the paper were lines made by a pencil.
“Someone surely had written on it,” Janet answered, “but make a fire with it before I freeze.”
Laura attacked the wood. She peeled some bark from a stick or two and laid small pieces of wood over it. At the third attempt the spark leaped to a blaze. Trembling with excitement the girls removed their sweaters and jodhpurs and hung them on nails that were plentiful in the wall about the stove.
“Now we shall see what it is.” Laura looked about for a place to spread the paper.
Laura went to the crude table and laid the precious paper on the board. It was dry and brittle and cracked under their fingers.
“It’s nothing but marks,” Janet cried in disappointment.
“Rats.” Laura too was disappointed. She stood staring at the crude marks. Then suddenly she bent over it again.
“Look. You can see it was made by a pencil so it must mean something. No one would write on the back of a tomato can wrapper and then put it back in place unless he had a purpose in doing it.”
“That’s right.” Janet glowed with the idea. “It must have been a secret, too. or it wouldn’t have been done this way.”
Laura turned the paper back and forth.
“The first is just two straight marks meeting each other,” Janet puzzled that out. “And the last is just like it but with a third mark where they meet. The center one looks as if it were meant for an O.”
Laura turned the paper one way, studied it closely. Turned it again. Then she smiled with radiant joy.
‘I’ve got it. now watch as I trace it with my finger.” She moved her finger with the lines. They took this shape.
“What does the first look like?” She turned the paper up.
Janet looked closely. “it looks like an L.”
“Exactly. Now the last one. What does it resemble?”
“It’s, it’s a K.”
“Now the middle one.”
“As I said before, it is a square O. what does l-o-k spell?”
“It may have been misspelled purposely.”
Janet gazed in expectation at her cousin. The glow from the fire lighted the room so they could see each other’s face. They were both breathing hard. Janet’s eyes were snapping with excitement.
“But if he meant l-o-o-k why did he not leave a note on the table instead of going to that bother?”
“I am not sure. Perhaps he was afraid to for fear some one else would find it.”
“But they wouldn’t know where to look any more than we do. Unless – unless he DID know where to look. I suppose he, the man that left it here, knew his pal would be hungry and pick up the tomato can.”
“Maybe. But –” Laura turned back to the cupboard and picked up the can the paper had been around. “See this can? There is nothing in it and wasn’t when the paper was put there.”
“Then why didn’t it fall when I snatched the paper?”
“It was – look, a piece of ore inside it to give it weight. Now we know this was their usual way of leaving word for each other. No one else would think of looking on the back of a tomato can wrapper.”
“We have stumbled on a secret, sure enough. Do you have any idea who left it here?”
“Whom do you think it was?”
“It might have been Bill Gasper. Won’t old Jack be green with envy when he finds it out. We have done the impossible. We are having an adventure. Let’s look for it.”
“Look for what?”
“Why, for the secret. Something is hidden or they wouldn’t have put it in code.”
“I haven’t the slightest idea what is hidden or where. Perhaps we shall never know. I am hungry.”
“So am I. Shall we eat our sandwiches? it is a good thing we had a tight lid on that pail.”
“Wait.” Laura went to the door and peered out. The rain was still driving in sheets. “We shan’t be able to leave here tonight,” she said, coming back to the fire. “We had better save them for morning.”
“I’m starved.” Janet pouted. “I don’t want to stay in this dirty place all night.”
“I think it will be the most fun we have had.”
Janet looked at her cousin closely to see if she were trying to bluff. Laura’s face fairly shone with anticipation.
“Perhaps it will at that; but I am still hungry. Laura,” she came to life suddenly. “Where are those chickens I shot?”
Laura looked around the small room with a puzzled look. “What did we do with them? I remember having them as we came along the mountain. I had one and you had the other. We must have dropped them when we dashed for the door. Let us see if we can find them.”
From the door they cast the beam of light about. there a little to one side of the door and out a few feet lay the wet, bedraggled fowls. Dashing out Janet snatched them and as she came back through the door Laura swung it with a bang. She thought if they were going to be here all night it might be a good thing to fasten the door. That was not hard. They discovered a slide catch that slipped protestingly in place. After that they felt safer.
“I do hope Father hasn’t come back and found us gone.” Laura’s voice caught as she watched the still falling rain from the small window pane.
“If they went to Rocky Bar,” Janet consoled her, “you may be sure they will not come back through this storm. I hope they do stay. I shouldn’t want Uncle Charles worrying all night about us.”
“There is no help for it now.” Laura turned to the grouse. “What shall we do with our chickens?”
“Cook them, of course.”
They laughed a good deal before they finally had a fowl skinned. They probably could not have done it at all if they had not found, among the tins on the table, an old steel knife. It was rusty and dull but better than nothing at all.
“How did people roast meat on a spit?” Laura wanted to know.
“I haven’t the faintest idea but we shall manage some way. There might be something in the oven.”
There wasn’t, so they improvised a spit. When they had the largest grouse ready they ran a long slender stick through it. They found that, too, in the dooryard. Then removing the lids from the stove they held it over the flame and at the same time turned it slowly. It began with a great deal of giggling and talking but long before it was done the girls were tired and discouraged. The warm fire after their exertion in the open air made them sleepy. Their stomachs felt as if they hadn’t eaten for days.
“It will never be fit to eat,” Janet kept repeating. The smoke from the wood while thin and resinous was smarting their eyes. To keep up their spirits Laura dwelt at length on the note they had found.
“So you think this was Bill Gasper’s cabin?”
“I certainly do. don’t you?”
“I am not sure. Bill Gasper was not the only highwayman that lived around these parts. And this is a long way from the South Payette where he staged the holdup.”
“We might be nearer the canyon than we think. We should be somewhere, the miles we have walked today.”
“I hope,” said Laura emphatically, “that we are nowhere near the south fork of the Payette. I want to get back to Quartzburg.”
Janet ignored that but presently she asked, “Do you think old Bill’s ghost ever comes back?” She looked half fearfully at the darkness hovering on every side.
Laura laughed. “Certainly not, Goose. There aren’t such things.” But her laugh had a hollow ring.
“I am not so sure,” Janet began, “Dora Turner told me –”
“Never mind what Dora Turner told you,” the other interrupted sharply. “There is no use getting ourselves nervous.”
Time dragged. the meat was getting smokier and smokier.
“Will it ever get done?” Janet cried pettishly. “Do you suppose it ever shall?”
“Oh, yes,” Laura answered airily. “It is nearly done now. What do you think he meant by l-o-o-k?”
“I could never guess unless he meant look.”
“There must have been a special reason for it.”
“Let’s search the cabin now.” Janet was for immediate action but Laura held her to her post.
“Finish the chicken first. I do believe it is almost done. Empty the pail, Janet, and we will lay it in there.”
Janet cleared a place on the rough table and put the things from their lunch pail on it. She spread a napkin first that nothing would touch the board. Then they laid the chicken in the pail for it was the only clean thing in the room. They used their fingers to pick the meat from the bones. It smelled and tasted like smoke and was undone in spots but was much more satisfying than going without.
“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink,” Janet chanted. “So let’s find the treasure.”
“I would rather wait until morning.”
“Laura Carter, do you mean to tell me you are willing to be right in a room with a priceless treasure and still wait until morning to look for it?”
“Who told you it was priceless or that there is one here? And I would rather save the flashlight. We might need it.”
“There is something in that. Shall we keep up the fire?”
“Why not? It lights up the room and makes things less lonely.”
“I am afraid we shall not have enough wood. Men in such places usually had a supply, didn’t they? We might find some outside.”
“Do we want to go outside?” Janet looked at the small window and shuddered. “Besides, if there is any it will be wet.”
“I will look anyway.” Laura slipped on her sweater. “If I could find a few pieces it would burn with the dry.”
“You shall not go alone.” Reluctantly Janet donned her sweater. Then holding to Laura with one hand and clutching the flashlight with the other she followed as her cousin stepped into the night.
Carefully out into the storm they stepped. Fearfully they tiptoed to one end of the house. They could not pass back of the cabin for it rested against the mountain. Back to the other side. There they found the remains of a woodpile. A heavy blanket of chips lay spread about in the center of which lay a chopping log. But there was no wood.
“This thing,” Janet pushed the chopping log with her foot, “is nearly in two. Perhaps we – what’s that?”
They stopped electrified by a sound from the trees beyond. A suspended breath, listening, then the sound was repeated and with a wild shriek the girls bolted back through the door and locked it behind them.