The man hunkered near his small fire, trying to keep warm. Though it was June in Oklahoma a thunderstorm had blown in; between the sheets of water sluicing down the rocks above him and the gusty wind that sometimes blew the rain into his face this would not be a comfortable night. He was camped near the top of an almost perfectly conical hill in an odd natural formation that consisted of one large slab of granite standing upright with the end of another slab resting atop the first, while its opposite edge was buried in the rocks forming the hill. From a distance he knew it looked like some giant doorway of the gods sticking out of the hill.
This hadn't been his first choice of campsite, but a badly twisted ankle kept him from continuing his journey. It might be broken, but he didn't think so. His damn fool horse had gotten spooked by a rattler and he'd been lucky he hadn't been dragged for miles with his foot caught in the stirrup. It was embarrassing, that's what it was. He was a better horseman than that; if he hadn't had his mind on what kind of reception he might receive at the end of his trip he'd have never taken a spill like that. He'd made a makeshift brace from a couple of crooked blackjack oak branches and his other shirt, but riding on had been out of the question. He'd crawled up here where he was at least out of the worst of the weather. The horse had eventually followed, though it came and went as it pleased in order to forage. It stood now at the back of the overhang, happy to be out of the rain but acting skittish at each successive jagged bolt of lightning with its following bang of thunder. He himself was glad to see the rain as he'd run out of water that afternoon. He'd already drunk two hat-fulls and filled up his canteen.
The horse nickered softly and he twisted around to look at it. The rain had let up a bit so it should be calming down. But the horse was on alert, its head turned to watch the path up to their shelter. He slipped his gun out of the holster he'd kept within easy reach.
"What is it, boy? What do you hear?" he asked quietly. "The only critters that'd be out in this weather are two-legged, so you don't need to worry none about snakes or mountain lions."
From outside the sheltering rocks he heard a voice call out. "Jesse James? That you in there? Don't shoot - it's Frank!"
Jesse relaxed, but didn't put the gun down. "Yeah, it's me."
A moment later his brother appeared out of the rain, leading his own horse. He stepped inside the overhang and took his hat off, shaking the water from it. "I brung you some food, it if ain't soaked through by now. Guess you're a-doin' all right for water." There was no mirth in his voice.
"I 'preciate it," Jesse said. "How'd you know it was me up here?" He unwrapped the package Frank handed him and wolfed down a cold biscuit.
"Lots of rumors going 'round these parts the last couple days," Frank said. "Folks has seen a fire up here on Buzzard's Roost for three nights running. Some say it's those Hardesty boys up here with a gallon o' moonshine. I didn't see no reason to say it might be otherwise. I read about that latest train you robbed, figgered you might be a-lookin' for some place to hole up."
"Wasn't sure I'd be welcome," Jesse said laconically. "What with you bein' a farmer now and all. But I hurt my ankle, and couldn't make it to your place."
Frank looked uncomfortable at that. "And since we'd hid up here before you thought I might add things up and come to help."
Jesse shrugged. "Mebbe, mebbe not. Didn't have much other choice. Figgered I'd be able to move about in a few days, shoot me a rabbit for dinner." He pulled aside the folds of a rag to discover several pieces of fried chicken. "Thank yore woman for me, Frank; this here's much better than rabbit." He dug in with relish.
Frank sat down by the fire, reached over and took a chicken leg. "You kin thank her yerself, but you cain't stay, Jesse."
"Just a few days, 'til this here ankle gets a mite better," Jesse said. Then I promise I'll leave you be. Though I was hopin' I could leave somethin' with you." He gestured to a large and heavy-looking metal box at the back of the shelter.
Frank's eyes got big at the sight of it. "No!" he said firmly. "I got a family now, I ain't havin' no part of that gold."
"You got a big place, brother," Jesse said with just an edge of pleading in his voice. "Nobody has to know. I kin bury it way away from your house, and I wouldn't say nothin' if'n you was to take a coin or two now and then. That'd be fair enough."
Frank's demeanor suddenly turned icy cold. "I said no, and I mean no, Jesse. I'm your brother; the law's bound to think I'd hide it for you. And I don't want no railroad de-tectives botherin' me and mine."
Jesse held up both hands palms outward in a sign of capitulation. "Okay, okay. I unnerstand. But I cain't take it with me right now on account of I gotta get somewheres safe."
Frank studied his brother, looking back and forth between the splinted leg and the strongbox. Finally he heaved a sigh. "All right then, I'll help you bury it up here tomorrow morning. You kin spend a few days at the farm but then you gotta ride on out. You kin come back for the gold later."
"Thanks, Frank. I 'preciate that. But I wanna bury it further down the hill; this here outcrop is too easy to spot, and I cain't take the chance that a couple of half-grown kids might come up here explorin' and find the gold."
Frank chuckled at that. "Like those no-good Hardesty boys? They'd just piss it away on liquor!"
"Jesse? Hey, it's Frank. Sorry to call you so late, but Mom just called with news about Grandma Sally."
"No problemo, Frank, I was still up. So the grand old lady finally kicked the bucket," Jesse responded, though a yawn belied his previous statement.
"How'd you know?" Frank asked. Then he laughed and said, "Oh, of course; I'd have waited until tomorrow if it'd been good news. Yeah, just a couple more years and she could've celebrated her 100th birthday."
"She'd have liked that," Jesse replied. "Though for a woman who never touched a drop of liquor in her life she certainly led a full one. She was passionate about all the arts, read everything she could get her hands on, and still found time to volunteer for a bunch of charities."
"Don't forget about all her wacky hobbies, too," Frank said. "Cars, airplanes, motorcycles, mountain climbing, spelunking. You name it, I think she must've tried it."
"Grandma Sally was one of the original women's libbers; she always said that wasn't any reason not to do a thing just because she was a woman," Jesse agreed. "But for all that she was such a fun woman. She never had a bad word for anyone, and a positively wicked sense of humor. I can't believe she's really gone. When's the funeral?"
"Me either," Frank said sadly. "Funeral's on Saturday. Mom's pretty broken up about it, not that I can blame her. Your Mom will be, too, I expect. I think you and I need to head up to Chicago and take over the preparations, see to all the legal things that'll need to be done. What do you say?"
"Well, I hate that it takes a death to do it, but the James Gang rides again, right?" Jesse said.
"Even if we are cousins instead of brothers," Frank qualified. "And your name's Wojohowitz and mine's Gutierrez."
"You know what a kick Grandma got out of calling us that," Jesse said with a laugh.
"That's because she started it," Frank said. "Anytime anybody asked her where she got her money she'd say 'I found Jesse James' lost treasure'. Then she'd give a broad wink and laugh like a maniac."
"So naturally her daughters named their boys Jesse and Frank. I don't suppose we'll ever learn where she did get the dough," Jesse said.
"It doesn't matter now, Jesse. The real treasure was knowing her."
In spite of the brisk early-spring Oklahoma weather, 7-year-old Sally Sparlin had spent all day Saturday playing outside with her friends. None of the kids stayed in the house if they could help it; her brothers were all off getting into some kind of mischief as well, except maybe the oldest one, William Jr. He was 12 now, and Papa had started making him work with him down at the garage. Her Aunt Lizzie had told her once that Papa couldn't make a go of farming but he could fix any engine made, be it in automobile or tractor. Aunt Lizzie had added that though there was a living to be made that way it was a pity Papa drank up all the profits.
The girls didn't need a clock to know when it was time to go home for supper. Even at their tender age they knew how to read the sun and allow for the change of seasons. They parted ways, promising to see one another in church the next morning. Sally made her way home, though she didn't hurry. Another age would call her 'dirt-poor' but she knew only that the one-room shack was crowded with seven people in it, and the single bare light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling didn't put out enough light to read by, if she'd even had a book to read. Papa didn't believe in wasting education on girls since all they were good for was cookin' and cleanin' and makin' babies, and he sure didn't believe in reading for fun. After dinner she'd be sent off to bed and if she didn't fall asleep fast enough she'd hear Papa yelling at Mama again, or Mama's whimpers as Papa hit her.
Coming in out of the fresh air made Sally realize how bad it stunk inside the shack. Rancid sweat and cooking odors predominated, while the smoke curling up from Papa's cigarette added a sharp overtone. One of the boys had climbed on a chair to plug the second-hand radio into the socket above the light bulb; lively strains of music from the Grand Old Opry filled the room making conversation difficult, which was just fine with Sally. Papa's 'conversation' tended to consist of cursing his wife and children, and even little Teddy knew better than to back-talk him.
Mama stood at the wood-burning stove stirring a large pot of beans, while cornbread baked in the oven. Saturday was cleaning day; a rope stretched across one end of the room held drying clothes and a big galvanized tin tub took up much of the floor space next to the stove. Cleaning included their weekly bath. Even though the boys cut wood for free on their relatives' farms they couldn't afford to waste any; thus this wood did triple duty. Beans took all day to cook so Mama let them simmer while she heated the water for the laundry and then the bathtub.
Sally helped her brothers move mismatched chairs around the tub, and then hang quilts over their backs to give a little privacy to the area. Papa went first, turning the steaming water dark with a weeks' accumulated dirt and grease. Mama got the second bath and then the boys in order of age: William Jr., Thomas, George, and finally little Theodore. By the time Sally got into the tub the water was black and cool. As she hurriedly scrubbed she made a promise to herself that one day she'd have clean and warm bathwater. Her stomach rumbled at the smell of the cornbread coming out of the oven and she hastily added that she'd have enough to eat, too.
Jesse was photographing various knick-knacks so they could be cataloged for the estate sale when Frank yelled at him to come into the library. Grandma's house couldn't be considered a mansion in any sense of the word, but it was a large house and filled with a lifetime's collection of objects. It would be a big job just to pick out the ones they wanted to keep.
Jesse put the camera in his pocket and ran into the library. "Find something cool?" he asked his cousin. They were both acting like little kids at Christmastime, thrilled at each new discovery. He peered over his cousin's shoulder to see an old Bible on the desk.
Frank edged to the side of the big wooden chair to give Jesse a better view. The Bible was opened to a genealogy page, the printed blanks penciled in with a clumsy script. "Who are the Sparlins?" Jesse asked.
"Good question," Frank replied. "Grandma's name was Smith, as you well know." He read off some of the information. "William Sparlin and his wife Mattie, nee Wilson; both born in the 1890's and died in the 1940's. This says they lived in Chickasha, Oklahoma. But take a closer look at their children."
Jesse read off the list. "William James Jr., Thomas Andrew, Sally Ann, George Jefferson, and Theodore Aaron. Geez, this guy must've thought one of his sons would grow up to be President!"
"Sally Ann Sparlin," Frank reiterated. "Sally Ann Smith? Born in 1913. Is that Grandma?"
Jesse studied the page for a minute. "Says here Sally married Robert Hardesty in 1930 and had two daughters – Viola Mabel in 1931 and Colleen Sue in 1932." He locked eyes with his cousin. "It can't be coincidence; those are our mother's names."
Frank pointed to the right edge of the page. "Looks to me like these dates of death were written in later, in ink rather than pencil."
"Like Grandma kept it current for awhile," Jesse agreed. "But she must've forgotten about it because we're not listed."
"I found it at the bottom of that deep drawer, almost like she'd deliberately buried it," Frank said. "And here's another thing. Grandma always told us her husband had died young, but I don't ever remember her mentioning his name. This Robert Hardesty died in 1933, that fits the bill."
"So did Grandma marry a second time to some man named Smith?" Jesse asked.
"And did this Mr. Smith have money?" Frank asked. "Is that where she got the loot?"
"Divorce was unheard of back then," Jesse said. "But a widow – especially a young widow – could re-marry with no social stigma. And Mr. Smith would've raised her daughters as his own, so that accounts for them growing up as Smith instead of Hardesty."
"But if that was the case, then what happened to him? And why didn't she ever say anything about him?" Frank asked reasonably.
Jesse thought about it for a minute. "You know, it wouldn't surprise me if Grandma had changed her name after her husband died. Maybe this Chickasha held too many memories for her and she left town. Started a new life with a new name."
Frank nodded his head in agreement. "But remember, 1933 was the middle of the Depression – she'd have to have had money to start that new life. How'd she get it?"
Sally Hardesty put the biscuits in the oven and walked over to the bed to pick up baby Colleen. Viola, little more than a year old, was thankfully still asleep. She could be fed yesterday's biscuits soaked in coffee to soften them, but Colleen needed to nurse.
As the baby nursed Sally thought about her life and realized it mirrored her mother's completely. Mama had tried to warn her away from the Hardesty boys, telling her tales of that family that went back to her grandparents' day. But Bobby had seemed different, not like the rest of his family; he'd said sweet and gentle things to her and promised her a better life. So at 17 years old she'd married, thinking to escape the poverty and anger of her father's house.
Sally heaved a heartfelt sigh. She should've listened to Mama, should've realized that Bobby worked at the garage with her father and drank with him and was just like him in every other way. Now she was 19 and had not one but two babies, and she was worn out trying to take care of them. Her grocery list lying on the kitchen counter looked just like Mama's: lard, flour, baking powder, sugar, oatmeal, syrup, beans and coffee. No matter how hard she tried to juggle the money $5 only went so far, and she could never manage to squeeze in even a tiny bit of meat.
She'd planted a garden this past spring; potatoes, onions, carrots, and string beans. But the wind had been worse than ever this year, blowing steadily across the ground and drying it out so that few of the seedlings had survived and the dust covered everything. The few vegetables that had been produced were long gone, with none saved back for the coming winter. Tomorrow's beans would have to last a full week. She could stretch that with biscuits and gravy, though there was no milk nor meat drippings so 'gravy' was just flour and water.
If Bobby felt generous tomorrow when he took her to the store he'd buy a cheap cut of meat for Sunday supper. She'd have to leave it cooking all morning while they went to church so it would be tender enough to chew. Nevertheless her mouth watered at the possibility. She was worried that Colleen didn't seem to be gaining much weight, and knew that she wasn't getting enough food to produce the milk the baby needed.
She burped the baby and put her back down on the bed to sleep again. She desperately wanted a nap herself; Bobby had kept her up late last night angrily detailing her shortcomings as a wife. Thankfully he hadn't hit her, but he'd be home for supper soon and maybe she could clean the place up a bit before he got there. She would do anything she could to put her husband in a good mood.
Jesse pulled a book down from the library shelf, thinking it might be a first edition. Grandma had lots of those, some of which were worth quite a bit of money these days. This one wasn't, nor was it something he wanted to keep for himself. Idly he flipped through the pages before tossing into the 'sell' pile. He'd found out by accidentally dropping a book that Grandma sometimes stuck money between the pages. It struck him as odd that a financially well-off woman would do that, though he figured it was a legacy of living through the Depression.
Instead of old bills, three yellowed newspaper clippings fell out of the book. He glanced over them and yelled for Frank who came running, holding a silver teapot in his hand.
"These clippings solve at least part of the mystery," he told his cousin.
Frank picked them up carefully so they wouldn't fall apart. "Hardesty Brothers Die in Fall," he read off the title of the first. "Robert and Thomas Hardesty were found dead Saturday evening after apparently falling down the hill known locally as Buzzard's Roost. Sally Hardesty, Robert's wife, said the men had been exploring. Mrs. Hardesty's cousin Ralph Blalock discovered the bodies when the men failed to return for supper. The county coroner told this reporter that there were no signs of foul play, and ascribes their deaths to an accident."
"It's apparently a weekly paper from the town of Apache," Jesse pointed out. "Dated September 16th, 1933. From what we saw in that Bible this is the story of Grandma's husband's death."
"They sure have funny town names in Oklahoma," Frank said jocularly. "The article makes it sound like a tragic accident, but look at what's written in the margin. 'No honor among drunken thieves.'"
"That sounds interesting, doesn't it?" Jesse asked rhetorically. "The implication is that the brothers found something valuable and got into a fight over it and in the process both of them fell to their death."
"She doesn't sound too broken up about it, either," Frank remarked. "And that was her husband. She'd have been 21 years old and left with two babies."
"Do you suppose she got whatever they'd been fighting over?" Jesse asked. "That would've allowed her to leave town and never look back, even without a husband."
Frank considered that for a moment. "Well, yeah. But either it was an amazing amount of money for those days, or she invested it well."
"In the middle of the Depression?" Jesse asked incredulously.
Frank looked over the next clipping. "Here's one about her mother's death. 'She apparently lost her footing and fell down the cellar steps.' Grandma wrote in 'I begged her to come with me, but looks like Papa got the last word.' That sounds suspiciously like she thinks her father pushed her mother down those steps; or more likely, hit her and she fell."
"It sure does. And back then that kind of thing would've been ignored; the local police may well have known he abused his wife but couldn't – or wouldn't – do anything about it. I guess they didn't have enough evidence to prove her death was his fault so he got away with it." Jesse shook his head sadly.
"Then here's the one about her father's death," Frank continued. "Pretty standard stuff, death by natural causes. Though it does say that Mr. Sparlin's daughter Sally had left town upon the death of her husband and hasn't been seen since. So we got part of the mystery solved, anyway."
"The handwritten comment on this one pretty much says it all. 'Drank himself to death.'", Jesse said. "Apparently Grandma had good reason to get away from her family."
"We've figured this much out, maybe we'll run across something else that will help fill in the holes," Frank said.
September 16, 1933
Sally rushed to get the two toddlers ready as well as pack something to eat. Bobby was in a hurry to leave and, for once, in a good mood; she didn't want to do anything to change that. She loved any chance to get out of the house, but this trip sounded downright silly to her.
Bobby and his younger brother Tom were always talking about digging up Jesse James' treasure but this time they were actually going to try. Folks in these parts claimed the outlaws had holed up on top of Buzzard's Roost but nobody'd ever found the gold. Sally thought it was because there wasn't any to be found. Why go to all the trouble of robbing banks and trains and then bury the loot?
Still, the day had possibilities for her. The worst part was that Bobby was 'borrowing' a car from the garage, and she was afraid they'd be seen driving it out of town. But if they didn't get caught with someone else's car the day would be fun. It was a lovely Autumn day, warm sunshine and just enough wind to keep you from sweating. Bobby would stop to pick up her cousin Sarah, and they'd spend the day picking up pecans to sell later. If they got enough they could make a few dollars apiece. She was looking forward to spending the day with Sarah and her little boy, and away from Bobby. She'd packed gunny sacks for the nuts; he'd packed a shovel, pick-axe, and a fifth of whiskey.
Once they got out on the highway she enjoyed the ride. It was too early for the leaves to turn yet, but nice to see something besides the view from her house. She'd written Sarah about the plan, so her cousin was ready and they didn't stay long at the house. The little car was crowded with four adults and three toddlers, but it didn't take long to reach their destination. Bobby let the women and children out at a likely spot along the road and drove off. She could see Buzzard's Roost nearby; the sides didn't look as smooth as from a distance, but that funny square hole was really clear. It would make a good place to camp, sheltered from the weather.
Sally and Sarah found a grove of pecan trees and spread an old blanket on the ground for the babies to sleep on. There weren't as many nuts as might be, but they both began enthusiastically picking them up. It wasn't hard work, and they talked and laughed while they worked. After they'd picked that spot clean they moved further toward the hill. There'd been a little creek through here, and though it was dry now the sides were crowded with pecan trees and the ground littered with nuts. They laughed about how much money they'd make and how they'd spend it.
The sun wasn't quite overhead when Colleen and Sarah's boy squalled to be nursed so they sat in the shade and fed the babies. Afterwards they unpacked their lunch and began eating. Sally looked up at the hill, wondering where the menfolk were. They must be on the other side as she couldn't see them from here. Suddenly she realized that she'd forgotten to give Bobby the bag with his portion of their meager fare. Sarah seemed to think that it served them right to go hungry, but Sally feared that her error would be repaid with slaps and punches – and Bobby would probably take any money she got for the pecans, too.
So she left the girls with Sarah and set off for the hill with lunch for her husband and brother-in-law. She returned more than an hour later, dusty and tired, but nevertheless she set to work with a will. She didn't say much, as if whatever had happened on the hill had been unpleasant. When Sarah assumed a darkening bruise on her arm was evidence of Bobby's physical anger Sally insisted she'd fallen and that Bobby and Tom were in high spirits. They were sure the treasure would be found under the next rock and working hard to uncover it. She did make a point of mentioning the low level in the whiskey bottle and remarking that she needed to make this outing as profitable as she could. Sarah saw nothing surprising in either comment.
Nor was it particularly surprising that supper-time came and went with no Bobby to take them back to Apache. They made their way back to the road and eventually Sarah's husband Ralph came to pick them up. They stopped several times to see if they could see the men on the hill, but there was no sign of them. Ralph took them home and then went to the sheriff's office to get up a search party.
It was near midnight when Ralph returned with the news that both Bobby and Tom were dead. The sheriff had found where they'd been digging, but the bodies had been found lower on the hill as if they'd fallen. He suggested as delicately as he could that the empty whiskey bottle had contributed to the fall. Sally sat on the bed, holding her two daughters tightly in her arms while she cried, seemingly inconsolable. Not even Sarah realized they were tears of utter relief.
A week later Sally sold up Bobby's tools and the shack (which netted her little after the mortgage was paid off) and left town on the train for Oklahoma City. She played the part of the grieving widow, telling her family that she just couldn't stay there with all those memories. Well, that part at least was true; she didn't feel the need to mention that the memories were all bad. She told them she'd find some kind of work, though with only a 5th grade education they couldn't imagine how she'd get by. She'd really wanted Mama to come away with her; but when she refused Sally knew she couldn't even tell Mama her secret.
The next day an exceedingly tall and thin man presented himself to the train station master in Chickasha. His clothes were poor quality, much patched and ill-fitting; but the bills he tendered were good and the station master asked no further questions. He did wonder what the stranger's exceedingly large and heavy wooden crate contained, and why in the world he wanted to take it to New York City with him and what he might do with it there. He shrugged his shoulders, muttering about foreigners. At least this foreigner tipped well.
Frank shut the door as Grandma's accountant walked to his car. His head was swimming with the pile of papers he and his cousin had had to sign; but more than that, with the balance in Grandma's bank accounts and investments.
Jesse was in the process of organizing all the papers left spread out on the dining room table. He picked up one at random, looked at the bottom line, and shook his head in disbelief. "$650,000 in this one alone," he muttered as Frank walked in.
Frank's laugh was a bit uncomfortable. "I just thought Grandma was 'comfortable'," he said. "Who knew she had millions stashed away?"
"She sure never acted like she had that kind of money," Jesse said.
"Do you think she even realized how much she actually had?" Frank asked.
"Oh yes, I think she knew down to the penny," Jesse replied with certainly. "The accountant said she'd invested extremely shrewdly."
"He also told us she'd often insisted on buying certain stocks that looked lousy on paper and then suddenly went up in value. And that she seemed to know when to sell before they took a dive, too," Frank reiterated. "Like she had a crystal ball or something. She never made a bad decision."
"I guess we have to give Grandma credit," Jesse said. "She was a whiz at the stock market. Let's put all these files away and go back down to the basement. Once we're finished going through the stuff down there we can start setting up the estate sale."
An hour later both men were tired and sweaty from moving large boxes around and trying to determine their contents. They'd cleared a path to the area under the stairs to find thankfully little stashed underneath them. Jesse lugged a heavy metal box out into the light. It appeared utilitarian yet there was an aura of age about it.
Jesse scratched his head; both men were covered in dust and he kept feeling little tickles like there were spiders in his hair and clothes. "Too heavy to be a suitcase of any kind," he commented.
"Dented up pretty bad, too," Frank mused. He bent down to open the lid. Both were dismayed to discover there was nothing inside the box. He shut the lid and peered more closely at it.
Frank pulled a flashlight from his pocket and turned its light on the lid. "Looks like there were words here once, but someone's slapped a coat of housepaint over 'em."
Jesse took out a pocket knife and scratched at the paint. Big flakes flew off until they could read the first few letters.
"Looks like 'property'," Frank said. "As in property of someone, maybe. Which would explain why it was painted over, if it no longer belonged to that someone. What do you think it is?"
"Not someone," Jesse said. "Something. A business…or a bank…"
"Or a train?" Frank asked almost softly.
They stared at each other for a few minutes, each afraid to say aloud what both were thinking.
Finally Jesse broke the silence. "Do you think Grandma Sally killed her husband for the gold in this box?"
"Well, it would certainly explain a lot," Frank agreed. "Let's put it back under the stairs and we can come down here later with some paint remover. Maybe we're letting our imaginations run wild. I could do with a beer right about now, how about you?"
"Sounds good," Jesse said. "But I want to poke at that loose brick we found earlier. I still think it's a hidey-hole. Maybe I can work it out with my knife."
As they started for the stairs Frank laughingly said, "We've already found what was hidden down here."
But Jesse insisted, prying at the brick and finally going upstairs for a hammer and screwdriver. Frank was curious enough to postpone his beer, though he kept up a running commentary about the futility of his cousin's effort. As usually happens with this sort of thing the brick came loose suddenly, falling on Frank's foot.
"Ow! Hey, watch it," Frank groused good-naturedly.
Jesse stuck his hand in the resultant hole. "There is a space back here," he said excitedly. He felt around and when he pulled his hand out he held an object. "What the heck is this?" he asked in puzzlement.
Frank took it from him and inspected it. It looked like a slim metallic cylinder about 8 inches long, though he couldn't identify the metal. There were several small buttons on one side; he pushed one but nothing happened.
Jesse took it back and pushed another button. A pale beam of purple light shot from the end of the cylinder illuminating Frank's arm; then it shut off.
Frank jumped in surprise. "That hurt!" he cried. "Well, not exactly hurt, but it felt really funny, like it gave me an electric shock or something." He shook his arm and began going through an exaggerated routine of making sure arm, hand, and shoulder still worked properly.
"Wow, uh, sorry, Frank," Jesse stammered. "I didn't know it would do that."
Frank raised an eyebrow. "Well next time, don't point it at me. I want that beer now, and we can see what else this gizmo does."
Jesse slipped it in his pocket while they made their way to the kitchen and popped open the beers. They drank in silence for a few minutes, and then Jesse took the cylinder out and studied it in the light coming in from the window. "There's no writing on it that I can see," he said. "Just these six buttons."
"Try the other three, but be careful," Frank suggested.
Jesse pointed the cylinder at a wall and pressed the buttons in turn. Exactly nothing appeared to happen until he pressed the last one. The bottom half of the cylinder became clear and they could see writing on some sort of a screen; apparently some kind of hologram because it shimmered in the air several inches beyond the edges of the cylinder. A little experimentation showed that a touch of the finger moved the text backwards and forwards.
"Looks like some kind of computer gadget," Frank said, getting up for another beer. "Maybe it's got a short or something and that's why it zapped me."
Jesse was reading the screen intently. "Seems to be a history book or something," he muttered. He looked up at Frank. "Grandma always liked to keep up with new technology, but why in the world would she hide this?" He pushed the button again and the hologram disappeared.
"I've had enough mysteries for one day," Frank said. "Let's go get something to eat and then turn in. Don't forget we have to meet the appraiser tomorrow."
Sally Smith walked from room to room of her new house marveling at the size and beauty of its many rooms. Viola and Colleen had rooms of their own, and she had her very own bathtub. No more sharing a bath! She was pleased with her choice of Chicago; it had all the cultural niceties as well as a tendency to ignore the eccentricities of the wealthy. She'd considered Los Angeles but didn't care for all those film people; it wasn't hard to predict that their vanities and foibles would give the place a bad name. Bostonians were too interested in lineage and she feared her new identity wouldn't stand the test. Washington D.C. was too concerned with politics for her taste, and the big southern cities weren't likely to accept an independent woman. New York City had been a possibility but there were a great many Men of Science nearby and although she really thought the man was dead he would undoubtedly seek their services if he'd somehow survived. She couldn't take that risk.
It had taken her three years to re-invent herself. She'd started in Oklahoma City by buying a new wardrobe and moving into a ladies' only rooming house. She'd intended to return to school but found that one of her fellow boarders was a retired school teacher only too happy to make a few extra dollars. Fortunately she was old-school and insisted that a lady's education must include instruction in great literature, art, and music. She received an altogether different kind of education from the land-lady's 15-year-old daughter; how much fun it had been to read the fashion magazines together and experiment with make-up and hairstyles.
The next year, when it was obvious that her investments were indeed doing well, she'd moved to Houston. That had been an education of yet another kind, trying to take her place in the social circles. But she'd learned her lessons well and left Houston for Atlanta. That had effectively been a finishing school in the art of manners. She'd changed her story with each town, until she'd come up with a false background that was believable as well as explaining her wealth. The biggest falsehood had been the size of her bank account; she'd been very careful to understate that. She'd used her secret well and was ready to begin a new life of doing whatever she damned well pleased with no man to say she couldn't. And of course helping others less fortunate; she hadn't forgotten her childhood.
The next few days were busy as Frank and Jesse got everything ready for the estate sale. The appraiser had valued the big-ticket items, but the cousins were left to price a myriad less-valuable pieces as well as packing the things they or their mothers wanted to keep. To make matters worse they were constantly being interrupted by people interested in buying things before the sale, or just wanting to get a heads-up on what would be available. They knew they could've hired someone to take care of all this, but both felt that Grandma Sally would rather they did it themselves.
So when the doorbell rang on Thursday afternoon they both had some choice – and not very polite – words to say. Jesse opened the door to find an odd-looking man standing there. Impeccably dressed in a 3-piece suit, the man was tall and almost skeletally thin with a slightly grayish cast to his skin.
"Whatever it is, we don't want any," Jesse snapped.
"I beg your pardon, Mr. Wojohowitz," the man said. "Allow me to present myself. I am Mr. Winchester."
Frank walked into the hall and called out, "Who is it?"
"Another antiques dealer, from the looks of him," Jesse said over his shoulder.
"Ah, that would be Mr. Gutierrez," Mr. Winchester said smoothly, apparently ignoring his cold reception.
"The sale's Saturday," Frank said firmly. "Come back then."
"I do beg your pardon," Mr. Winchester said. "I know you must be terribly busy with Sally's estate, but I only wish a few moments of your time." He produced a smile from a mouth that looked like it took up half of his face.
"Look, Buddy," Jesse said. "I'm on to your tricks. You heard about the estate sale and looked us up on the web; that's how you know our names."
Frank stepped up to glare at the interloper. "And I really don't appreciate you calling her Sally, trying to make us think you knew her."
Mr. Winchester looked nonplussed. "But I did know your grandmother," he protested with apparent sincerity. "Except her name was Hardesty then. I've been trying to find her again for years."
Frank and Jesse looked at each other in consternation. That piece of information couldn't possibly be on the web; they'd only learned about it a week ago themselves.
Jesse sighed, loudly. "All right, you can come in. For a few minutes." He stepped back to allow the man to come inside.
"And you'd best explain yourself," Frank warned.
Mr. Winchester doffed his fedora and smiled that oily smile again. Frank noticed that his ears were incredibly small. The trio walked to the parlor and seated themselves on chairs with pricetags hanging from the arms. Neither cousin offered refreshments.
"It's quite simple, gentlemen," Mr. Winchester said. "I met your grandmother briefly in 1933. I must admit the circumstances were quite unusual, but I was able to assist her in a rather unconventional way."
"You look younger than me," Jesse said.
That smile again. "Nevertheless, I assure you my tale is true. Unfortunately she happened to acquire something of mine, something very valuable to me. Oh, she didn't steal it, if that's what you're thinking!"
"And I suppose you're here to get it back," Frank said.
"Yes, indeed!" Mr. Winchester agreed heartily. "And I am prepared to pay a large sum of money. You see, I'm not trying to take advantage of you."
"Just exactly what is this item?" Frank inquired.
"And why do you think Grandma would still have it after all that time?" Jesse asked reasonably.
Mr. Winchester didn't smile this time. "It's a small metallic cylinder," he said. "And it's been used quite a bit recently."
"Perhaps you would be good enough to explain to us just how our grandmother came to acquire this cylinder," Frank suggested.
"It's quite simple. I was showing it to Sally and her husband took violent exception; in point of fact, he shot me! The momentum of the projectile caused me to fall from the hill and my body must have rolled quite a distance as I came to in a stand of dry brush. Sally understandably thought I was dead and naturally assumed the device was hers to keep. I bear her no ill will because of it."
"You fell off a hill?" Jesse asked with sudden interest. "Would that have been September 16, 1933 by any chance?"
"And would that button on the cylinder that makes the zap-ray have anything to do with this?" Frank asked.
Both he and Jesse directed the full force of their attention toward Mr. Winchester, and the looks on their faces were not pleasant.
Mr. Winchester looked back and forth between the two men and ducked his head in some embarrassment. "I can see that I shall have to tell you the whole story."
"I think that would be best," Frank said in a harsh voice.
"You have the correct date, sir," Mr. Winchester said, inclining his head toward Jesse. "I suppose I should start at the beginning, though I fear you will think I am not telling you the truth. I can assure you that I am."
"We'll let you know when you're finished," Frank said coldly.
"I am not from your country," Mr. Winchester began. "Actually, I'm not from your planet, nor from your time period."
"OK, you're a time-traveling alien," Jesse said rather facetiously. "Tell us the rest."
"That's it exactly!" Mr. Winchester seemed relieved that they'd accepted his statement so well. "I'm an historian specializing in Earth history, with an emphasis on your Old West period."
"Hence the name Winchester," Frank said, laughing a little despite himself.
"Oh, I do so enjoy it when someone gets my little joke!" Winchester said with that smile. "The device contains a complete history of that era, and I used that to proceed with on-site research."
"So you've been here since the mid-1800s?" Jesse asked.
"Not exactly," Winchester said. "I've moved around in time, sampling some of the most important events. A colleague had requested that I pop in to Oklahoma in 1933 to gather data on both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. I was already on the planet you see, so it was simpler that way. It also gave me a chance to check on something that I'd been marginally interested in – the undiscovered treasure reputedly buried by the James Gang. Knowing what I do, I think I can safely assume that you two gentlemen weren't named Frank and Jesse by accident!"
"Did your machine history tell you where it was buried?" Frank asked, without addressing the last comment.
"Ah, I am afraid not," Winchester replied. "As a matter of fact it said the gold had never been found. But you see, I had spent a little time watching your namesakes and had an idea where at least some of it might be. My colleague's request had given me some extra time on Earth so I decided to test my theory before returning home."
"If you can travel through time then you'd have all the time in the world," Jesse said, clearly feeling he'd found a weak spot in the tale.
"That's not quite true. Although I could travel to infinite places and times, my personal time was limited," Winchester said.
"So you went to where you thought the loot was buried and ran into my Grandmother?" Jesse asked, shaking his head as though the question didn't make sense even as he asked it.
"Essentially, yes," Winchester replied. "As you would expect from watching your television shows and films, I had a small vessel; in addition to the mechanics of moving through space and time it also had stealth capabilities."
"You mean it was invisible," Frank stated dryly.
"You could call it that," Winchester agreed. "I had located an anomalous quantity of gold on the hill referred to as Buzzard's Roost and set the vessel down nearby. I was quite startled to see two young men assiduously digging at the very spot in question." He laughed faintly. "I suppose my sudden appearance rather surprised them as well."
"Was it just the two men or was Grandma, uh Sally, there too?" Jesse asked. He was starting to enjoy this story, maybe even believe some of it.
"I will come to that presently," Winchester sniffed. "The older of the men immediately threatened me, using a great deal of foul language and then pointing a pistol at me." He smiled again. "That is where the 'zap-ray' as you call it came into play. I used it to dissuade him. In his surprise he tripped on a rock and fell, knocked unconscious. At this point his partner tried the same action with nearly the same result; he fell off the hill."
"So you're telling us that neither man was dead, they were just unconscious," Frank said.
"I'm afraid the second man had indeed fallen to his death," Winchester replied. "But I didn't know that until a few minutes later when Sally climbed up to my location. She had seen the events from a hidden spot below and checked on the man before coming to confront me."
"I can see her doing that!" Jesse remarked. "She always did have spunk."
"I explained myself to her, grateful that she seemed willing to listen instead of attempting to shoot me," Winchester continued. "The dead man was her brother-in-law while the unconscious one was her husband. She satisfied herself that he was still alive, and seemed quite understanding of the necessity to defend myself as well as the unfortunate outcome for her husband's brother."
"You're saying it was all just an accident," Frank growled.
Mr. Winchester looked at him intently. "You need but ask yourself what you might do in similar circumstances," he said mildly.
Frank made a wry face to indicate acceptance of the remark.
"I showed Sally that the men had indeed found the buried treasure; undoubtedly that was why they were so belligerent." Winchester paused, then added, "Although the fact that they had obviously imbibed a large quantity of alcohol could also explain their actions. At any rate, Sally was excited about the gold as well as myself."
Winchester sighed deeply. "I shouldn't have told her anything, of course. It's against the rules. But she was so curious and believing and unafraid. It was really quite nice to be able to tell the truth." Here he stopped to look up at the cousins. "Just as it is to speak to you gentlemen."
"Let me guess," Jesse said. "Bobby – her husband – woke up and shot you while you were talking to Sally."
"Not quite," Winchester said. "I was showing Sally the device and how to use the historical function when Bobby woke up. She was an apt pupil and I was enjoying myself so neither of us realized it. She had moved his pistol from his reach but failed to consider the pickaxe as a weapon. Bobby ran towards us swinging the axe wildly but of course he couldn't see my vessel."
Frank laughed. "It must've come as quite a surprise when the axe clanged against your ship!"
"Indeed it did," Winchester agreed. "It also angered him. Though he was unable to see the vessel he continued to strike it until the strength of his blows caused it to tumble over the edge." Seeing that the cousins were about to interrupt with more questions, he held up a finger, cautioning them to wait. "Bobby staggered back in reaction, and saw the pistol on the ground. He grabbed it up and pointed it at me once again."
Frank couldn't wait any longer. "And that's when you zapped him again, and he fell off the hill and died."
"Except that he did get a shot off and you fell off the other side of the hill," Jesse added.
Winchester nodded. "When I came to Sally was gone along with both the device and the gold."
"Sally pushed the strongbox over the edge, and came back for it later," Frank said. "That would account for the dents all over the box."
"And used your historical information to know how to invest it," Jesse added.
"It would seem so," Winchester said. "Please understand, I am not interested in the gold. Clearly it was not recorded as being found because Sally never told anyone. I merely want my device back."
"You said you'd been looking for her ever since," Frank mused. "But you couldn't find her because she left town and changed her name."
"She told me how despicably her husband had treated her, so that is not surprising. I know it may sound cold, but I do feel that I did her a favor by killing the man. And I am glad that she was able to make good use of the gold."
"From what we've learned in the past couple of weeks, it was a favor," Jesse said. "But what's the big deal with the cylinder? Couldn't you just phone home and get a new one?"
Winchester's too-wide smile looked wistful. "Unfortunately, I could not. You see, my vessel was damaged during its fall. The level of technology being what it was, it has taken me these many years to repair it to the point of 'flying' as it were. But certain circuits remain inoperable unless I have the cylinder."
"It's the remote control!" Frank said, laughing at his own cleverness.
"That analogy will suffice," Winchester said as he stood up. He stuck his long-fingered hand into a pocket and appeared to work some mechanism hidden there. He gave a brief nod of his head and strode out of the room.
Frank and Jesse jumped up to follow, yelling questions at him. But he had enough of a lead that they had to split up in order to find him. Having peered into several rooms, Jesse walked through the kitchen door to see Frank facing Winchester across the table; Winchester had the cylinder in his hand.
"You can't have it!" Frank cried.
Jesse moved into the room far enough to see a large knife in Frank's hand. "Frank, don't be stupid. He'll just zap you and take it anyway; and besides, it really does belong to him. We're not the James Gang, we don't take what isn't rightfully ours."
Frank lowered the knife and Jesse moved aside to give Winchester clear access to the door.
Winchester slipped the cylinder into a pocket. "Thank you," he said simply. He began to walk out, then stopped and turned his head to look at them. "Your grandmother was a remarkable woman. I am truly sorry that I did not get the chance to see her once again."
He walked out of the kitchen and moments later they heard the front door open and then close again.
Frank looked at Jesse almost angrily. "Don't you get it? That thing didn't just have history of the old west, it must've had way more than that or Grandma couldn't have invested so well. Current history, future history – you know what I mean!"
Jesse picked up the camera that had been lying on the table beside the cylinder. "Yes, I do, Frank. And I've got it all right here. At least for the next couple hundred years."
Author's Note: Buzzard's Roost is a real location reputed to be a possible site of the James' Gang's buried gold, none of which has ever been found. Sally's early life is a conglomeration of various family stories; in reality they didn't turn out quite so well, so I used a little imagination to hopefully create an interesting tale.