By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
Illustrated by C. Nelson White
“What was it?” Janet held her back to the door and pushed with all her might. “I am frightened to death.” Her teeth were chattering until she could scarcely form the words.
“I haven’t the faintest idea what it was. It may have been our imagination,” her cousin answered.
“Do – do you suppose it was the ghost?”
“Ghost? Who’s ghost?”
“Bill Gasper’s. Who else would haunt this place?”
“Let’s be sensible. Ghosts do not rustle the branches of trees, nor scream.” Laura suddenly relaxed. “There is no need of us pushing against the door this way. The lock will hold it.”
Reluctantly Janet moved away from the door. The slide bolt was strong enough to hold anything more material than ghosts. At Laura’s suggestion they took the goods boxes from beneath the shelf table and moved them under the small window. Anyone or anything looking through the dirty pane would be unable to see them from there. When they spoke it was in whispers with their lips close to each other’s ear. But the time passed and their legs became stiff and cramped.
“I am going to put some wood in the stove,” Laura declared at length. The fire was nearly out and the room was beginning to take on a chill. In a few minutes after the wood was put in the glow from the open grate brightened.
“I do hope Father did not come back,” Laura said again. “He would be so worried.”
“I wish Jack could know where we are,” Janet forgot herself in a chuckle of triumph. “Won’t he turn green with envy when he learns about it.”
On their uncomfortable boxes they dozed and dozed again. Once Janet woke to find Laura fixing the fire. With the firelight playing on her she was plainly visible from the window. As she sat back down Janet asked, “Laura, what makes you so brave tonight?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Think where we are, and everything.”
Laura looked about slowly. “I think we are very comfortable. And we are lucky. if we had had to sleep under the trees in this storm we should have been in real danger. In here we are safe. Nothing can hurt us but our imagination.”
“But you were afraid on the Lowman hill today.”
“That was different.”
Janet closed her eyes. Laura thought she was asleep but presently she said:
“Then you couldn’t say anyone was really a coward nor that anyone was entirely fearless?”
“I suppose not.”
Again they dozed. The fire went out. Darkness crept up and blanketed the coals. Laura slept and dreamed. In her dreams the ghost of old Bill Gasper stalked the room demanding to know why she was burning his wood and using his cabin. She woke in a panic. The ghost was gone but the footsteps – surely she could feel them. So softly they were like the passing of the wind they paced before the house, down to the corner, back to the door, then paused by the window. She held her breath, her heart smothering her with its pounding, then the silence was split by a sudden piercing scream. Janet woke and threw herself into Laura’s arms.
As the terrifying sound died away Laura relaxed. she even tried to laugh as she held her trembling cousin close.
“Cougar,” she whispered. “I have heard them before.”
“I don’t believe it,” Janet sobbed. “It’s old bill Gasper. Let’s leave this place right now.”
“Don’t be silly, Janet. We are only guessing that this is Bill Gasper’s place. It doesn’t stand to reason that it is. And if it were he would not be here.”
“How do you know?” Janet demanded. “No one knows for certain that he was killed. He might have been alive all this time.”
“It was a cougar,” Laura said sternly. “He has been attracted by our scent or by the light. I am glad Old Bill put a good fastener on this door. I have never heard of an unmolested cougar hurting anyone but I shouldn’t care to give him a chance. Shall I fix the fire?”
“No. No.” Janet clung to her. “Don’t move. Do you think that is what we heard when we went outside for wood?”
“I know I shan’t sleep another wink.” Janet’s intentions were good. She really did not intend to go to sleep, but they had had a strenuous day. Even fear was conquered by the demands of the body. Soon they were both asleep and did not awaken until morning was far advanced. Then Janet woke with a start.
“Laura. Laura,” she whispered, shaking the girl by her side.
Laura sat upright. “What is it? What is wrong?”
“Nothing, except that it is morning and I am hungry. Let’s go right now. Will I be glad to get out of here where I feel safe once again.”
“What about the symbols,” Laura asked as she rose and stretched herself. “I don’t suppose they meant anything.”
“Oh,” Janet cried. “I had forgotten about them. We must hunt for the treasure. Where shall we start?”
“I’m freezing,” Laura drew her sweater more closely about her. “There are two or three sticks of wood left. I am going to build a fire and warm up a bit. We can eat our sandwiches while those few sticks burn.”
She built the fire with their last match and while she was doing it Janet poked and probed about the small room without finding the slightest evidence of anything unusual. Their sandwiches were cold, and unpalatable but to the hungry girls they left nothing to be desired except the quantity. Laura from her box seat by the window kept turning her eyes about. There was a wrong note in the room but she could not decide what. Then suddenly it came to her.
“It’s the upright on the bunk. The post away from the wall I mean. Look at it, Janet. It must be a six by eight plank. I never saw one before that was larger than two by four. And it is almost square.”
Before the excited words were well out of her mouth both girls were on their knees by the plank. Their eyes and fingers went over every inch of it carefully. A bunk is really a shelf built in one corner of a room. One end and side were fastened to the walls. The free corner is usually upheld by a timber reaching from the floor to the roof. Sometimes it is short like the leg of a bed. This one reached from the roof to the floor and was unusually large. The bunk itself was about three and a half feet from the floor. Janet stooped and examined the upright from underneath. Then she gave a cry of delight.
“Laura, hand me the flashlight, please. This part is in shadow and there is something loose here.”
Laura went for the flashlight. She ran the light beam over the place Janet indicated. Sure enough, there were faint lines showing a break in the large timber. The old knife they had found was brought and after much prying a square of thin wood fell to the floor. Before them, in the wood was a dark hollow.
“We’ve found it. We’ve found it,’ Janet cried excitedly dancing about. “Just think of all that gold.”
Laura’s hand shook until she could hardly hold the flashlight. But there was nothing to be seen except that patch of blackness. Turn the light as she might she could not see what was in the cavity.
“Put your hand in,” Janet told her, then added as an afterthought, “if you dare.”
“There probably isn’t anything worse than spiders or mice in it, so here goes.” Very gingerly Laura inserted her hand and felt about. “There isn’t anything here but a hole. No, wait. Here is something. I can’t tell just what.”
“Does it feel like gold dust?” Janet could not wait. She tried to thrust in her hand, too. “Pull it out. it must be the gold dust.”
“It won’t pull.”
“Move and let me do it.”
Laura withdrew her hand and Janet thrust hers in.
“I can’t feel anything. Yes, I do, too. It is not gold. It feels like a knob.” She brought her hand out and carefully wiped the dust from it. But Laura was not easily defeated. Into it her hand went again.
“They did not have a place like this for nothing. If I can’t push that – I mean if I cannot pull it out I might be able to push it – Oh,” she screamed suddenly; “it moved. It is going down.”
“Don’t push it clear there. There must be a hole under there.”
“It is as far as it will go now. My, that was hard and what good did it do? What shall I do? I can’t hold it this way very long.”
“Let it go,” Janet was disgusted. “I wish robbers would use reason with their –”
She did not finish her sentence. Laura withdrew her hand. Both girls jumped to their feet as a shot fired behind them. They faced about in terror. There was nothing to be seen but a haze of dust in the corner back of them.
But Laura was at the opening again. “Watch,” she cried, pushing with all her might. Janet watched. She was too frightened to do anything else. A small trap door on the floor opposite the bunk rose slowly. Janet rushed to it and peered down.
“It is a secret passage – or the door to the cellar.”
“Take the flashlight and look down it while I hold this knob.”
Janet took the light and flashed it about the opening.
“I can see nothing but steps. They are cut in the dirt. It is a passage, but where does it lead?”
Laura rose to look at the door. Immediately it dropped.
“I will hold it for you.” Janet passed the flashlight to Laura and thrust her own hand into the opening. As she pushed the door slowly rose. The floor was made of rough boards and the opening when closed was not particularly noticeable. It might have been, she reasoned, that when men were living here they had something stacked in that corner that hid it completely.
“That seam where the door rises might be the first symbol!” she reasoned aloud. “It is shorter one way than the other. It could be what the L stands for.” She went to her knees and looked closely. The opening was narrow with steep steps leading down.
“It goes down awfully fast. Shall we try it?”
“I should say not. Go down into that dark smelly cellar. Not me.”
“There must be some way to make the door stay open,” Laura said as calmly as if Janet had agreed with her. “We can get a stick of wood and prop it open.”
“I suppose if there is any treasure it will be down there,” Janet conceded, “but who wants to go in such a place? There is no telling what we would get into.”
“I believe more than ever this was Bill Gasper’s cabin,” Laura was still looking down into the void. “He was trapped in a cabin but got away. Remember? Perhaps he just went to the cellar.”
Janet’s interest flared again. “That must be the way he got away. It would be a thrill if we went down there – and got back.” She added the last doubtfully. The door banged.
Reluctantly Laura went back to the table. She picked up their pail and felt in her pocket to make sure the note was safe. “Come on. Let’s go.”
“What if the cougar, if there was one, is still out there?” Janet hung back as the other slipped the bolt back.
“It won’t be and we cannot stay here anyway. We must go out the door sometime. That is, unless we go through the cellar.”
“I much prefer the door.”
Laura opened the door ever so slightly and looked anxiously about. The morning was so bright and beautiful it swept away all their fears. The storm had passed leaving the sky cloudless and a warm repentant sun was trying to dry the moisture from the dripping leaves and plants. she flung the door wide.
“Throw the other chicken out and let us be on our way.” Just outside she stopped. “Now is when we need guidance. We know men have gotten lost in these mountains and never found their way out. Our own judgment is not enough.” She felt very prayerful and her feeling communicated itself to Janet. They closed the door carefully and looked on their world with hopeful eyes. Their world was small. A bare four feet in front of the cabin the ground fell away abruptly. Janet went to the edge of the clearing and looked over.
“Come here,” she cried excitedly. “We are on top a cliff. See how the ground drops. The cabin is hidden by these trees and undergrowth. How in the world do you suppose we got here?”
“Not over this cliff at least.” Laura turned and looked back toward the cabin. “There is only one way we could have come. Through that brush to the right.”
They went back to investigate. There was really no trail, only an opening in the brush. It led upward for a few rods and then ran along the side of the mountain. In the daytime they would not have noticed it. Running blindly as they had been last night their feet had sought easier footing.
“If we could wait an hour the woods wouldn’t be so wet,” Laura said as she received a shower from an overhanging bough. Janet stopped.
“You don’t want to go, do you? Well, I don’t either. We started this adventure. Now we must finish it. I could never face Jack if we ran out on it. I dare you to go back and go into that cellar.”
“You needn’t dare me. There is only one reason I would rather go on. That is Father.”
“If he went to Rocky Bar he isn’t back yet, and if he didn’t he has been worried so long another hour will not make a great deal of difference.”
Without a word Laura turned back into the cabin. Janet had kept hold her gun and flashlight while Laura held the pail in one hand. She put down the pail while she thrust her hand in the bunk-post and lifted the trap door. Janet brought a stick of wood and propped it open. But when it came to actually going down into the dark Janet hesitated and Laura went first. She picked up the pail to take with her. There was no reason for it except that it belonged to them and it did not occur to her to leave it behind. She took the flashlight from Janet and let herself down on to the first step. Janet stood with her gun ready to follow.
Very, very cautiously Laura went to the next step and the next. three. Four. Janet was on the steps now. Five. Six. The light picked up more of them. Seven. Eight. The girls were as close together as they could get. Then the steps ahead ended and all they could see was a low narrow opening resembling a straight-away tunnel. Laura whispered, “There is no cellar, Janet. That hole goes somewhere and there is no telling how far.”
“Who cares?’ Janet put her foot on the last step. Ahead was blackness. They turned to look at the spot of light above.
“Maybe we should go back while we have a chance,” Laura suggested. Janet stared at the light above a little longingly and in that instant the stick of wood holding the plank upward toppled toward them. It came bounding down as the door and a shower of dust closed in on them.
Janet screamed and her voice came bounding back at them from out the stygian darkness.
“Let’s go back.” It was Laura suggested it.
Feeling their way along they crept back up the stone steps. Laura kept her hand above her head and when it came in contact with the rough boards she breathed a sigh of relief. But her relief changed quickly to fear. Push as hard as they could the girls’ combined strength would not budge the trap door above them. Weak and trembling they sat down on the step and clung to each other.
“We’re trapped,” Janet whispered and her voice sounded muffled and eerie. “We’re trapped in this dark hole and there is no way out.”