“What on earth were you talking about, Cub?” I asked the big red-faced man who jumped off the seat of his dirt mover. “What did you mean ‘there’s something in the well’?”
The cold January wind did its best to blow my parka’s hood off my head. Shivering, I burrowed my hands deeper into the coat’s pockets. Back in my mother’s warm kitchen, my second cup of coffee was cooling so I had not had my usual quota of caffeine to jump-start the day. Cub had better have a good reason for calling me out here among the wilds of Ventris County on such a miserable morning. He had sounded urgent when he called but I could see no sign of an impending catastrophe.
“Darcy, get out here quick. I want you to look at something I found,” he had said on the phone and then hung up before I could ask questions.
Now as I gazed at the wintry scene, I certainly didn’t see anything to be excited about. Cold and lonely, yes, but nothing was unusual. In spring and summer, this was a lovely, green area but now with the cottonwood and sycamore trees standing bare and white, the ancient graveyard visible in the distance, and the wind moaning among the cedars, the scene was cold and more than a little lonely.
Cub pointed at an irregular hole in the ground. “Take a gander down there, Darcy. I can’t see right well but there’s a package or a box or something and it’s lodged on a rock jutting out on the side. And don’t look so mean. You know I wouldn’t have called you out here for just nothin’ at all.”
I wasn’t so sure about that. Cub was well-known throughout my hometown of Levi as the best heavy equipment operator in two counties but he also had a reputation for being excitable and the world’s worst gossip. For example, when he was digging the water line for the new court house last year, he uncovered some bones and before notifying the sheriff, he called the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and told them he had uncovered a body. His find turned out to be the bones of a cow which had probably died when the area was farmland.
“That hole in the ground is an old dug well,” I said. “It hasn’t been used since my grandparents lived here. Why did you move the covering off it anyway?”
Cub’s face took on a redder hue and he shrugged. “Your mom told me to cover it over with concrete and I will but I shore hate to do that. You know, there might still be right good water in it and I’ve always had a healthy respect for pure, clean water. It’s mighty scarce in this day and time. Doesn’t Miz Flora know that? So I used my grader to scoot that big rock away then I shone my flashlight down there. I saw water at the bottom, sure enough. But something else is in there. I don’t have no way of gettin’ it out so I wanted you to come and see if we could get it out together.”
I shook my head. What did he see and what did he only imagine? My stomach rumbled. I was hungry, I was cold, and I was fast losing my patience with this man.
“Cub, that old well was dug by hand a long time ago. Maybe you see a tin can of Prince Albert tobacco the person who dug the well lost a long time ago. I guess looking down in that hole in the ground didn’t have anything to do with those old tales about bank robbers’ loot or hiding places for money?”
He must have caught the sarcasm in my tone because he dropped his gaze and scuffed the ground with the toe of his work boot. “Oh, well, maybe,” he mumbled.
“Didn’t you try to get it out before you called me?” I prodded.
“I did, I admit it. It’s just out of my reach though. I thought maybe I could hold onto you and you could lower yourself down into the well and bring that package or sack or whatever it is, up.”
“What? I hope I’ve got better sense than that, Cub Dabbins.”
“Now don’t get excited, Darcy. You know I’d hold onto your feet good and tight. Sure wouldn’t want nothin’ to happen to you.”
“And you certainly wouldn’t want something to happen to whatever’s in there,” I said. “OK. You’re not going to be satisfied ‘til I take a look. Let me have the flashlight, Cub.”
I grabbed his MagLite, lay down on the rocky ground on my stomach and peered into the dark opening. The inside of that well hadn’t seen the light of day for decades and everyone knows old hand-dug wells are dangerous. The rim can cave in. I, Darcy Campbell, investigative reporter, must have taken leave of my senses. Here I lay, on my stomach on the cold, hard earth, trying to see something that had disturbed the mental well-being of an imaginative and well-known snoop.
Cub was right. The flashlight’s beam glinted on an object about eight feet down. It was caught on a ledge or a rock in the rough dirt wall.
Without warning, hands grabbed my ankles and pushed. I kicked and squirmed but Cub kept shoving me forward. As my prone body inched over the opening, small rocks fell over the edge in front of me. I heard them splash in the water.
“Stop it, Cub!” I yelled. “What are you doing?”
Cub grunted and kept forcing me forward until my upper body dangled head down in the darkness of the well. The only thing keeping me from plunging into a watery grave were those rough hands of Cub Dabbins. Blood hammered in my ears.
As if from a distance, I heard Cub’s voice. “Don’t worry. I’m hangin’ onto you, Darcy. Just reach down there and see if you can grab it.”
I coughed and gulped a mouthful of stale air. “Pull me back up, you idiot! You’ll drop me!”
“No, I won’t, Darcy. Can you reach it?”
Both my hands flailed the air, not because I was trying to touch the object lodged on a ledge but because I was trying to find something to brace against so I could push myself back into the light of day. My head felt as though it would burst. The smell of damp earth filled my nostrils and sticky spider webs clung to my face.
Once again, Cub called, “Come on, Darcy, try! Can you reach it yet?”
“Get me out of here. Now, Cub!” My voice sounded hollow and echoed in the depths below me.
“Oh, all right,” Cub growled. He tugged me backward, dragging me over the rocks until I was in the open air again. Shaking with fear and anger, I scrambled to my feet. The dingy gray morning had never looked so good. I clawed at the spider webs clogging my nose, mouth and eyes. When I could see again, I lunged toward Cub, swinging at him with his flashlight.
“Of all the dumb, stupid…” I choked.
For a big man, he moved quickly. “Now, calm down, Darcy. You’re out, aren’t you?”
Cub backed away as I advanced. “You are undoubtedly the craziest, most ignorant…” I said between clenched teeth.
Cub held up his hands, palms out. “Well, it was worth a try, Darcy. We’ve just got to get that thing outa that well. Now I’m sorry I scared you but I knew you wouldn’t lean over that far on your own.”
It took several seconds of deep breathing to slow my racing pulse. “Nobody in his right mind would. I should bring charges of attempted murder! I should fire you on the spot!” I spat out more spider webs.
“Hey! Miz Flora hired me to dig the foundation for that new house of you all’s and I reckon she’s the only one that can fire me. Call your mom, Darcy. Tell her to bring a rope. I don’t have one in my truck. I’ve got a wide-mouthed bucket and I figure we can tie a rope onto the bail of the bucket and maybe lever that can or package or whatever into it.”
Cub dropped his eyes as I glared at him. I knew that he would not give up on getting whatever it was out of the well. If I went back to town, he’d probably think of some way to maneuver the object onto the surface and I might never find out what he had found. He was not above keeping it unless it happened to be completely worthless. Whatever it was, old tin can or a cache of diamonds, it was on our land, my mom’s and my land that had belonged to Granny Grace. It was mine, not Cub Dabbins’.
I pivoted and stalked toward my red Ford Escape. “All right, Cub. I’ll phone Mom to bring a rope. I’m going to wait in the car,” I said between clenched teeth.
“I’ve got a thermos of coffee in my truck, Darcy. Want some to sort of warm up?”
I ignored him and climbed into my SUV. My hand shook as I dialed Mom’s home phone from my cell. She picked up on the second ring.
“I’ve been going over these house plans again, Darcy,” she said. “I’ve thought of several changes and can’t wait to see whether you agree. I’ve also been looking at the notes I made about the school.”
Her calm voice had a soothing effect on my jangled nerves. That school for boys was one of Mom’s dreams. Plans for the school as well as the new house were spread over her dining table. She and I had been stirring pancake batter and talking about the type of shingles for the roof of the new house this morning before Cub’s phone call postponed our breakfast. When a house once again sat out here on my grandparents’ old farm, filled with family (actually, just our cat Jethro, my mother and me), the loneliness of Granny Grace’s acres would surely disappear.
“Your school will probably be finished before the house, Mom, because I just might kill the heavy equipment operator.” I said.
“Darcy! What do you mean? Cub Dabbins? Why? What happened?”
I drew a deep breath. No use upsetting her too. She probably would fire Cub, that is, after she had given him a piece of her mind, or had him arrested and I didn’t know who else we could hire for excavation work on the house.
“Nothing, Mom. You know Cub. He is stubborn and insists on doing things his way. I’m glad you are making headway on plans for building.”
Ben Ventris, an old friend of my mother’s had named her in his will as his sole heir. She was in the process of changing Ben’s farm she had inherited into a live-in school for homeless boys. She even had the name picked out, “Ben’s Boys.”
“Yes, they are beginning to take shape in my mind, Darcy, the house and the school too. I’m anxious for you to see what you think about them. But what about Cub?”
“Cub is all excited about something he sees in that old dug well,” I told her. “He needs a rope to try and get the thing out.”
“What kind of thing?” Mom asked.
“Hard to say. Using a flashlight, I can see a whitish-looking oblong something. It’s probably nothing but Cub is in a dither and we won’t have any peace at all until it’s out of the well.”
“Cub always did get excited over nothing,” she said, “but I’ll bring the rope. I suppose I’ll have to.”
“What is that sound?” I asked, hearing some sort of rustling come across the line.
“Jethro! That cat thinks all these papers on the table are his playthings. Get back, Jethro.”
“Good luck, Mom,” I said. “He does have a few bad habits.”
“He’s worth the trouble.” Mom sighed as I heard more sounds. “I guess.”
When the yellow and white tomcat appeared on our doorstep a few weeks ago, badly needing care and attention, we welcomed him in. Isn’t it good luck when cats decide to favor someone with their presence?
“See you soon,” I said. Then I snapped my cell phone shut, turned on the radio to my favorite Easy Listenin’ station, leaned against the seat’s headrest and closed my eyes.
The old love song, Fascination, lulled me to sleep. I dreamed that I was once again in the kitchen of my house in Dallas. The sadness that had haunted me since my husband Jake’s death evaporated and I felt happy and warm. The dream seemed real. Jake’s arms slid around me as he walked up behind me and peered over my shoulder.
“What are you stirring up this time, Darcy?” he asked, his breath warm in my ear.
“Your favorite brownies,” I said, smiling. “What are you doing today?”
“I’m going out to blow those leaves off the lawn,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you I love you, Darcy.”
“Love you too, Jake,” I murmured.
But when I turned around to kiss him, it was not Jake with his arms around me, it was Grant Hendley, sheriff of Ventris County. I felt no shock nor surprise, only comfortably warm to be in Grant’s arms.
The noise of the leaf blower became the sound of my mother’s car as I awoke. Reality as cold as the January day replaced the dream as I realized anew that Jake was gone forever. As for Grant Hendley, well, he might be a part of the past too, but why were the two men, Jake and Grant, the same in my dream?
Mom sprang from her car, a small woman, her short gray hair in loose curls around her face. She moved and spoke like a person who was much younger than her nearly seven decades on this earth. Though my hair was dark and I wore it longer than Mom wore hers, our Cherokee heritage was clearly evident in our shared high cheekbones As I aged, I suspected I would resemble her even more. I slid out of the Escape.
“Hi, Mom,” I said. “Sorry to bring you out in the cold. You’ll have to blame Cub here for taking you away from your kitchen.”
“Just what are you in such a tizzy about, Cub?” Mom asked as she winked at me. We were both well aware that some people in Ventris County still hunted for the money outlaws had hidden in our area in the 1930s. Cub was one of those people.
“Over here, Miss Flora. There’s something stuck down in that old well,” Cub said, pointing.
“Cub Dabbins! Why did you uncover the well? Nobody has used it for a long time. When Darcy and I move out here to live, we’ll use the drilled well over there.” She pointed to a pipe sticking up out of the ground. “I told you to cement that well up, not move off the rock that covered it. What if a person or a cat or a dog fell in?” Mom stomped over to the opening, hands on hips, and looked first at it then at Cub.
“He had to take a look inside, Mom,” I said. “You know how he values fresh pure water and…”
“He does?” I giggled at Mom’s look of amazement.
“Well, he says he does but actually I think he wanted to be sure he wasn’t sealing up gold or diamonds or rubies or, who knows? The treasure of the Lost Dutchman’s Mine.”
Cub snorted. “I know that the Lost Dutchman is out in Arizona, Darcy! Actually, Miss Flora, there’s a box or something lodged on a rock in there and I think we oughta find out what it is before we cover it up forever.”
She handed the coil of rope to Cub. “Go to it,” she said.
Cub took the rope, tied one end around the bail of the bucket he had taken from his truck and started giving instructions.
“OK now Darcy, you hold the flashlight and shine it right on that thing and I’ll take this big ole long limb and see if I can scrape it off the ledge into the bucket.”
Cub knelt down beside the well.
I nudged him with my foot. “If you try any funny stuff again, Cub Dabbins, I swear I’m going to push you in there head first. So don’t get any ideas.”
“What funny stuff?” Mom asked.
Cub looked up, an innocent smile on his face. “Aw, nothin’, Miss Flora. OK, Darcy, shine that MagLite down in this hole.”
I squatted as close to the edge as I dared and beamed the flashlight into the depths of the well. Cub carefully lowered the bucket. It would serve him right if he knocked the object off its resting place and it fell into the water. I had a mental picture of Cub diving in after it.
“Shucks!” he said. “I can’t hold the bucket still. It keeps swingin’. I need two hands on this rope.”
“How about if I drive the Escape up to about 4 feet of the well, then you and I can hook our toes under the bumper and sort of anchor ourselves above ground. You hold the bucket still and I’ll take the limb and try to rake it into the bucket. Mom, would you like to stand back a way and hold the flashlight? I don’t want you to get close to the edge.”
“I’ll do it,” Mom said.
“OK,” Cub muttered, “but for Pete’s sake, Darcy, don’t knock it off into the water.”
After twenty long, uncomfortable minutes, Cub and I still lay stretched precariously over the opening, our toes hooked under the bumper of my Ford. I tried for what felt like the hundredth time to nudge that packet into the bucket. My limb would either miss its mark or merely scoot the packet. Although Cub tried to hold the bucket steady, it insisted on wobbling away from the wall of the well. Mom grasped the flashlight with both hands, but as she shivered from the cold, so did the bright beam.
Propping myself on one elbow to ease the strain on my arms, I said. “I’m ready to say that thing can stay down there. I’m freezing. The wind is coming up and I think I felt some sleet a minute ago.”
“Same here,” Mom said. “My teeth are chattering.”
“One—more—try,” Cub mumbled. “C’mon, Darcy. The bucket’s as close to the ledge as it’s going to get.”
I pushed the limb against the bundle just as Cub maneuvered the wide-mouthed pail under it. With a satisfying plop, the package fell into the bucket.
Cub let out a war whoop that echoed off the hills. Hand over hand, he carefully drew the bucket with its cargo out of the well.
Mom and I crowded around Cub, trying to see what the prize looked like.
Cub had brought up a whitish-tan package that was maybe eighteen inches long and twelve inches wide. The package looked like dirty, worn, tattered paper of some sort and smelled as musty as the well. I poked it with a finger. “It’s hard,” I said. “And kind of crackly.”
“What in the world is it?” Mom asked.
“That’s what I’m going to find out,” Cub said, setting the bucket with its treasure on the ground.
I darted down and grabbed the package from under his hands. “No! That’s what Mom and I are going to find out!”
Cub’s eyes were pleading. “Aw, Darcy, come on now…”
“Sorry,” I said. “I sure thank you, Cub, for being so curious and uncovering this thing. There’s no telling what is in there. Could it be money from Pretty Boy Floyd’s last bank robbery? You know, stories were that he buried some loot somewhere around here.”
“Just let me have a look,” Cub begged, trying to grab the package.
“Nothing doing. Mom and I are going back home and finish that breakfast you interrupted. Have a nice day, Cub.”
The look on Cub’s face as we drove away almost made up for the dirty trick he played on me. Almost.
Surrounded by Mom’s house designs, the long-buried relic from the past looked out of place on her kitchen table. That table was an heirloom, well over a century old, the grain of its wood a mellow sheen under the ceiling light. It had held many a family dinner, heard years of shared conversations, and if it could speak, might reveal a family secret or two. Her old yellow coffee pot filled the room with a wonderful aroma. In this homey, comfortable place, that mysterious, lumpy package looked forbidding, a discordant note to the harmony of the kitchen. On the way back from Granny Grace’s acres, we had decided to wait until we reached home to open it. We wanted to be sure that whatever lay within those tattered and soiled wrappings was not further damaged.
We hung up our coats and sat down, staring at the soiled bundle that had so disrupted our morning.
“I certainly can’t do one thing about house plans or breakfast or anything else until I know what’s in there,” Mom said, nodding toward the packet.
I poured two cups of steaming brew, set one cup in front of her and warmed my hands around the other as I sat down. “I’m not hungry any more and I’m just as curious as you are. It will take a while to remove the paper or we could just use the scissors,” I said. “What is that stuff anyway?” I wondered, running my hand over the brittle surface.
Mom pursed her lips. “You’ll think this is silly, but I’m pretty sure it is an old sheepskin.”
I choked on my coffee. “Sheepskin?”
Mom turned it over. “Years ago, sometimes people wrapped things they wanted to keep in the skin of a sheep. I don’t mean the wooly fleece but the actual skin. It had enough lanolin in it to sort of preserve what was inside. My mother kept her silverware wrapped in a sheepskin.”
“This is absolutely crazy,” I said, touching that wrapping again. “Why would someone take the trouble to wrap up something and then toss it in an abandoned well?”
“Maybe it fell in by accident,” Mom said, gently returning it to the table.
“Do you get the feeling that it is somehow threatening?” she asked quietly.
Could objects, houses or places, retain the flavor of past events? I certainly did not sense a warm, fuzzy feeling emanating from the lumpy object on the table. It was cold and hard. I felt a revulsion when I touched it, almost as if an inner voice were telling me to leave it alone.
Mom picked up the package. “It’s heavy,” she said. “I’d guess maybe 4 or 5 pounds.”
I fingered a loose edge. “I’m going to try to unwrap it, starting here.”
The skin had been folded in one position so long that it had melded together in places. She gently unstuck it but though she was careful, a few brittle bits broke off as she unfurled layer after layer. At last the wrapping mingled with house plans on my mother’s table and the secret lay exposed to the light.
She pressed both hands against her heart and stared at me, her eyes wide and frightened. Mom’s table had held many things but never anything as sinister-looking as what now lay before us. Goose bumps covered my arms. There in front of us, the overhead light glinting off its long dark barrel, lay a gun.
For a moment, neither of us spoke. Then Mom whispered, “I knew we should have left it alone.”
Trying to absorb the fact that Cub had discovered an old-looking firearm in my grandparents’ hand-dug well, I stood mutely staring at it. The only sound was Jethro, crunching the Tender Vittles in his dish next to the stove.
“Is it…do you think that thing is loaded?” Mom asked.
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t even know how to check whether it is or not. It looks ancient,” I said. “It doesn’t look like Dad’s pistol.”
“It sure doesn’t,” Mom agreed.
“I guess it belonged to Granny Grace or Grandpa George,” I offered, “but why would they throw it away?”
“Never in all my life did I know of your Grandpa George owning a pistol,” Mom said. “He had a rifle on pegs over the front door but I don’t think I ever saw him take it down and fire it.” She shook her head. “No, I don’t think this gun belonged to my family.”
I ran my fingers down the barrel. “Maybe it dates back even further than Grandpa and Granny.” I started to pick it up.
Mom slapped my hand. “No, don’t do that, Darcy. We don’t know if the thing is loaded.”
“If it is or not, it looks to me like there’s so much rust on it that it would never fire,” I told her. Nevertheless, I withdrew my hand and absently picked up my coffee cup.
“What should we do with it?” Mom wondered.
I swallowed my coffee and fingered the largest sheet of sheepskin lying on the table. “We could take it to Grant. He might be able to tell us what kind of gun it is and whether it could relate to an unsolved crime in Ventris County.”
Mom sat down as if her legs had buckled. Her hands shook as she reached for her cup. “Unsolved crime? Don’t tell me you think this gun might have been used to kill someone?”
“Now, Mom, don’t get excited. Let me refill your cup.”
“Thanks.” She made a face. “This coffee is cold.”
“Grant is the sheriff, Mom, and this is a weapon. Antique guns are his hobby, or at least, I remember they used to be his hobby years ago, but the question remains, Why would someone wrap it up and then just throw it away?”
She took her full cup and set it, untasted, on the table. Her eyes never left our deadly-looking discovery.
“How about this?” she asked. “Suppose somebody wrapped it up, maybe had it in their coat pocket and while they leaned over the well for a bucket of water, it fell in.”
“Yes, I guess that would be a logical explanation.”
I picked up the brittle parchment. Something about it caught my eye. Dim markings of some sort covered the inside of the skin, the side that had been against the gun.
“What are you looking at?” Mom asked.
I held the skin toward her. “What does that look like to you?”
Mom pulled her reading glasses from her pocket and held the wrapping close to her nose. “Hmm. Sort of looks like an imprint, maybe some words but they are strange words. They’re faded and I can’t make head nor tail of them.”
She handed it back to me.
“Could a message have been written on this?” I asked. “You know, scribes of long ago wrote on animal skins they called parchment.”
“Darcy, I don’t think anybody has used animal skins to record messages for centuries.”
I ran a fingernail across the skin. Flakes of something that looked like paper dropped onto the table.
Mom squinted at it. “What in the world?”
Something had been stuck on this hide of a long ago sheep. Could a paper have imbedded itself into the skin through the years? Was there enough lanolin or oil in the skin to have absorbed it?
“Where’s your magnifying glass, Mom?”
“In the front room, in the drawer of the desk.”
I hurried from the kitchen and came back with the magnifier. Holding it above the sheepskin, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
“I think there’s funny-looking writing on this skin. Maybe a message?” I whispered. I don’t know why I whispered. There was no one to hear but Mom and Jethro.
“My digital camera,” I said. “It shows up things that my naked eye can’t see.”
“It’s probably nothing,” Mom said. “Although I can’t imagine why there’d be lettering on the inside of a skin that somebody used to wrap their silverware.”
“Or in this case, a gun,” I amended.
My camera was within reach, in a pocket of my purse. I carefully unrolled the sheepskin, moved the camera within inches above it and pressed the shutter. A few minutes later, I had plugged my camera into my computer, downloaded the image, hit “Print” and waited for a copy of the faded letters to appear.
Gently, I moved the hide of some long-dead sheep to one side. I spread the printed sheet on the table and studied it through the magnifying glass.
“Mirror writing,” I said.
“What?” Mom looked at me sharply.
“Come with me. Let’s hold this up to the bathroom mirror.”
Mom followed me down the hall to the bathroom. I flipped on the light and leaned in close to the mirror, holding the print-out in front of me.
“I can see a faint outline, like a small page from a book,” Mom murmured.
“Yes, it is an image of a page with faded letters on it. I think that someone put a piece of paper in the sheepskin and through the years, the paper sank into the skin, leaving the ink imprint of the words.”
“That sounds far-fetched,” Mom said. “But I guess anything is possible.”
“And I can see a few letters, faded though they are. ‘Un_t_ed _n H_ _y _a_ _ _mony.’” I grabbed her arm.
“Mom, I believe this says “’United in Holy Matrimony.’”
She nodded. “It’s about the size of a page in the Bible, you know, in Family Records section. Could it be that?”
“Could be. There’s lots more writing. What’s wrong, Mom?”
“I’ve got a headache, Darcy. I don’t know if it’s the cold wind when we were there at the well or if it’s the excitement of finding the gun or what but I’ve got to take an aspirin and lie down.”
She looked pale and her hands, when I touched them, were icy.
“Will you be all right? Can I do anything?”
“No. I haven’t been really warm since being out so long and my feet are freezing. An old remedy for a headache is to warm up the feet so I’m going to heat that little corn bag in the microwave and lie down for a while.”
“Call me if I can help,” I said. “I’m going to keep on trying to decipher whatever this is we found.”
I painstakingly held the parchment to the mirror and wrote down each letter on the notebook page. After an hour, I read and then re-read the amazing message the parchment contained. It was unbelievable and frightening. It didn’t solve anything but it sure opened up a whole lot more questions.
For the rest of the story, please purchase Best Left Buried.