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The Lost Cipher
By Michael Oechsle
ALBERT WHITMAN & CompanyCopyright © 2016 Michael Oechsle
All rights reserved.
Lucas was down on the rocks by the creek that flowed out of their mountain when the two soldiers came up the road. That's what he remembered now. His grandma had interrupted his schoolwork and sent him out to the garden to see if any rhubarb was worth picking, but he'd been drawn to the creek again — down to where a soft carpet of moss and hemlock needles covered every rock and the sound of water tumbling down through the trees drowned out all the busy sounds of his family's presence in the little hollow under their mountain. Thinking back now, it was almost like he knew that the worst kind of news was coming up their road that morning, like he went down to the creek to keep from hearing it with his own ears.
The creek was the last place Lucas had talked with his pa before he'd gone off to fight again — off to some place so far away and so different from their mountain, from all of West Virginia even, that Lucas couldn't even dream of what it was like, no matter how many letters his pa wrote or how often the TV showed the treeless, dust-colored country where even the people, scowling men with dark beards and ladies covered head to toe in black, seemed only partly alive.
His pa had taken them up to the head of the hollow, where Lucas's grandma and grandpa lived in their trailer and where Lucas was supposed to stay for the next nine months, maybe more. They'd gone down to the creek that last time, and for a while they hadn't even talked. Just listened to the water and let the sadness hang there, until his pa had tried to explain one more time why going off to be a soldier again was for the best, at least in the long run.
Then his pa had told him to watch over everything for the next nine months. It had been years since his grandpa could get around like normal, ever since the accident in the mine. Now with his pa gone, it would be up to Lucas to help his grandma tend to the garden and keep the truck running or patch up whatever needed fixing around the old trailer, because something always needed fixing. And in April, his father told him, Lucas could go up the mountain on his own for the first time and bring back a spring turkey for the table. He should have felt proud about that, but since there was nothing he loved more in the world than hunting up on the mountain with his pa, he'd mostly just been sad.
And on their way back to the trailer, when they'd cleared the music of the water and heard the dull and far-off rumble of another green mountain crumbling for coal, his pa had told him, only half joking, to take care of their mountain too.
He was remembering those words when he'd come up out of the creek that terrible day and heard the dogs barking like they only did when strangers came up into Indian Hole. By the time Lucas rounded the trailer, the two soldiers were already back at their truck.
But Lucas knew.
One of the soldiers saw him, must have seen the life flowing out of him there at the edge of the woods, because he stopped getting into the truck and said something. Lucas couldn't actually hear the soldier's words over the racket of the dogs and his grandma's sobbing from up on the porch, but they were pretty clear just the same.
"I'm sorry, son."
Except right there and then, Lucas knew he wasn't anyone's son anymore.CHAPTER 2
"You got your toothpaste?"
The question shook the memory from Lucas's head.
"Huh?" He turned to look at his grandma behind the wheel. For days after the soldiers came, he'd often found her sitting on the porch, just staring up into the green mountainside above the trailer. Lucas never saw her cry much, but her red eyes told him she did it plenty when she was off by herself. But now, two months later, the light had returned to those eyes, and she was back to poking fun at him when he deserved it.
"Toothpaste," she repeated. "If I know you, it's the one thing you forgot."
Lucas hated to admit she was right. "I'll just borrow some at the camp."
"Maybe there ain't any," his grandma joked. "It ain't exactly some fancy motel you're off to."
Lucas only shrugged. He didn't need to be reminded that his home for the next week was about to be a camp filled with a bunch of strangers, most of them rich city kids that probably wouldn't give two farts about him and his kind.
His grandma had gotten the invitation about a month before school let out. Camp Kawani. Some kind of summer camp up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. A camp for kids like him. Or at least kids with a dead ma or pa. Somehow they'd known about his pa, about how he died, and just the thought that someone up here knew something like that about his life still gave him the jitters. After three days of hollering at his grandma and the school counselor who came all the way up into Indian Hole to tell him all the wonderful things she'd heard about Camp Kawani, he'd finally given up. But ever since they'd pulled onto the pavement that morning and headed east, the reality of spending a week away from everyone and everything he'd ever known had his stomach churning.
They'd followed the county road to Highway 16, alongside stretches of creeks turned black and rusty from being downstream of the sludge leftover from mountaintopping. Once, where they had a long-distance view, Lucas saw a ragged and massive slash of gray among the rolling blanket of green. Even from miles away, it looked like the surface of the moon brought down to Earth.
Almost three hours from Indian Hole, they finally crossed into Virginia not once but twice, following the narrow two-lane over ridge after ridge of hazy, blue-green mountains lined up like the waves of an ancient, frozen sea. At the western foot of the Blue Ridge, they crossed the James River into a town that was the busiest they'd seen the whole trip. The street was lined with neat, brick-fronted buildings that were a mix of businesses for the locals with a few art galleries and gift stores thrown in for the tourists.
"We oughta be able to find you some toothpaste here, don't you think?" his grandma said, eyeing the signs on the buildings. "Maybe a decent lunch too. Could be the last one you get for a week." Lucas didn't find the humor in that, but he also wasn't going to argue about eating in a restaurant, an experience he could probably number on two hands. His grandma spied a little market and found a space for the truck on the next block.
Lucas followed his grandma to the market and went in through a screen door tucked between crates of vegetables for sale on the sidewalk. A man standing behind the front counter greeted them. "Can I help you two find something?" he said.
"Toothpaste?" asked Lucas's grandma.
"Three aisles down, near the end." The clerk looked at Lucas. "You're headed up to that camp today, aren't you?
The question caught Lucas off guard. Did everybody in this part of Virginia know about him? Without meeting the clerk's eyes, he replied with a quick nod and headed off to find the toothpaste. The man spoke to Lucas's grandmother in a low voice that he could still hear from the back of the little store.
"Sorry. I just know Sunday's usually the first day up at Camp Kawani. Already had a couple kids about his age stopping in. Last-minute supplies, you know."
"Don't worry yourself," answered Lucas's grandmother quietly. "He's just a little nervous about bein' away from home. That and a lot of bad news lately."
Lucas returned quickly with a box of toothpaste. He had just reached the counter when a shadow crossed the window. The clerk turned toward the door with a smile, ready to greet his next customer. But just as suddenly, the smile vanished, and Lucas heard him whisper, "Oh, Lord ..." under his breath.
The man who walked in was older than Lucas's grandmother, but he walked quickly, without a stoop, and his bright blue eyes gave him an electric kind of energy. His bare arms looked as if they were carved out of a knotty old tree, and the skin of his face and neck was baked into brown leather, like he'd spent a lifetime working hard in the sun. He wasn't big, but something about the way he walked or the cords of muscle in his arms made him seem much younger than the years on his face. His snow-white beard was untrimmed and stained with a streak of brown that looked like tobacco spit, and the knife and sheath on his belt looked like something out of the pioneer days.
The man brushed past him, and Lucas caught an odor of pipe smoke mixed with sweat. His grandmother tried to greet the man with a nod, but he ignored her.
The clerk spoke cautiously to him, "Afternoon, Mr. Creech," but the old man headed for the back of the market without replying.
Grimacing at Lucas's grandmother, the clerk threw up his hands. "Sorry," he whispered. "Most folks around here are a lot friendlier. Not that one."
The man rummaged around in the last aisle, cursing under his breath in a low, angry growl. When he came back to the counter, he carried a heavy sack of sugar, gripping it with the fingers of one hand as if it weighed nothing. The other hand clutched four pouches of pipe tobacco. He spoke to the clerk as if Lucas and his grandmother weren't even there.
"When you gonna get some real tobacco in here?" His growling voice sounded like two rough slabs of stone scraping together. "This stuff smokes like it came out the back end of a horse."
"Mr. Creech, sir," the clerk said timidly, "there's women and children here."
The old man glanced down at Lucas as if noticing him for the first time. "So there are. You think that boy don't hear a lot worse in school these days?" The clerk began to speak again, but the old man's eyes flashed angrily. "Just sell me these and don't be lecturin' me about my language."
He tossed the sack of sugar onto the counter with a solid thump. The tremor from the heavy bag knocked over a small stand of key chains, scattering a few of them onto the floor at the man's feet. Instinctively, Lucas bent down to help gather them up. But as he started to place them back on the stand, the old man snatched them out of his hand as quick as a striking snake.
"Do I look feeble, boy?" he snarled, glaring down at Lucas with his ice-blue eyes.
Lucas started to stammer something in response, but before he could, his grandmother spoke up sharply. "Sir, I don't know you from Adam, but I do know that ain't no way to treat a boy showin' good manners."
The man's eyes left Lucas, and he turned his wrath on Lucas's grandmother. "You're right about one thing, woman," he growled, "you don't know me from Adam. And I don't expect you want to."
Any other time, Lucas would have kept his mouth shut, especially with his grandma hovering near. But the stranger's harsh words for her bottled up with the idea of being stuck up in the camp for a week had him ready for a scrap. Even with a crazy old stranger. He caught the man's stare and gave it right back.
"Maybe you are feeble," he answered, "if that's how you talk to ladies and kids."
"Lucas!" his grandmother exclaimed, but her reaction didn't distract the old man. His fearsome eyes were back on Lucas now, and a wicked smile curled across his lips, as if he were already enjoying the thought of the whipping the boy had just invited on himself.
The look raised the hairs on Lucas's neck, but he wasn't about to apologize.
The old man put a hand on the butt of his knife. "You need a lesson in respectin' your elders, boy?"
But the clerk raised a trembling hand to calm him. "Now, Mr. Creech, the boy was just trying to be h ... h ... helpful," he stuttered. "You ask me, it's too bad there aren't more youngsters like that."
The old man met the clerk's eyes with a deadly glare, and his words came out like the long blade of a knife scraping slowly across a sharpening stone.
"You can take that hand out of my face," he snarled, unsnapping the sheath on his belt, "or you'll be learnin' to work that cash register with just one."
The clerk's hand dropped quickly, and the color drained from his face. Lucas's grandmother put her finger to his lips, signaling Lucas to keep quiet. By now, he didn't need the signal. It was obvious the old man was a dangerous mix of mean and crazy.
The old man's glare dropped to a stack of pamphlets piled in a box on the counter. The words "Beale Treasure Codes — 50 cents" were scrawled on the front of the box. He picked one up and turned it over in his hand. Lucas noticed a crude drawing of a treasure chest, coins and jewels spilling out, on the front of the pamphlet.
"Still sellin' this sorry old story too," said the old man. He crumpled the pamphlet in his hand and bounced it off the clerk's chest. "I ever find one of those on someone up on my land, I'll come for you soon as I'm done with them."
The clerk rang up the man's purchase quickly, without another word. While he did, the old man kept his eyes on Lucas, letting him know the challenge wasn't forgotten.
When the screen door finally slammed behind the old man, the clerk let out a long breath and some of the color seeped back into his face. Lucas realized he'd been holding his own breath too.
Lucas's grandmother laughed nervously. "He always that angry?" she asked, motioning her grandson to pick up the fallen key chains now that the coast was clear.
"Well, insane's more like it, I hate to say. He lives way up Moccasin Hollow, all by his lonesome. Other side of the ridge from that camp you're going to, in fact. He's like some kind of leftover from the old days. Lives mostly on whatever he can kill. No phone, no car. Still uses an outhouse even." He scrunched up his face as if nothing could be more backward than an outdoor toilet, and Lucas couldn't help thinking about the old one they still used back in Indian Hole when the trailer's was occupied or busted.
"Fortunately he only comes down here every few months. Buys a few things from me, usually curses me out or threatens me in the process, and spends the rest of his time over in the library across the street. After that, he just walks back out of town, sometimes way after dark."
"Why doesn't someone just take him down a notch?" asked Lucas's grandmother.
"Well, what with his reputation and all, no one's willing to try. Folks say one time he caught a couple of treasure hunters digging up his orchard. Ol' Giddy — that's what folks call him around here — he claimed they swung a shovel on him. All I know is one ended up with both arms busted, and the other had to have a load of bird shot taken out of his behind. Sheriff took six deputies with him when they brought Ol' Giddy in for that one. Should've gone to jail for a spell, but the judge bought his self-defense story." He snickered. "Ol' Giddy was just lucky that particular judge hadn't been around long enough to know his reputation."
"Why were they diggin' on his land?" asked Lucas's grandmother. "The treasure hunters, I mean."
The clerk brightened, clearly relieved to change the subject. "Oh, I guess you haven't heard about our local legend? Supposed to be millions in gold and silver buried up in these mountains — or so the legend goes." He pointed to the stack of brochures on the counter. "Usually, I try to hide these when Ol' Giddy comes around. Didn't get the chance today." He took one of the pamphlets and handed it to Lucas. "Take it, son. It's the least I can do for you standing up to my ugliest customer."
Lucas held the brochure but didn't open it.
"There's some lists of numbers in there. They're codes. The first one's supposed to tell you where the treasure is. Of course, folks have been trying to figure 'em out for around a hundred fifty years, so good luck. Personally, I think the whole thing is just an old hoax, but it helps me sell a metal detector now and then."
They paid for the toothpaste and walked back down the block to the truck. Lucas tossed the treasure codes onto the seat next to him. He wasn't feeling all that lucky.
His grandmother noticed and dropped the pamphlet into the bag with the toothpaste. "Hey now," she said, glancing across the seat at him, "you might need that. Maybe you'll get a chance to do some treasure hunting up there at the camp." She started up the truck and gazed out the windshield, the smile leaving her voice. "Sure could use some right about now, couldn't we?"
Lucas didn't answer. He just looked at the mountains looming ahead.
Excerpted from The Lost Cipher by Michael Oechsle. Copyright © 2016 Michael Oechsle. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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