The Third and final Chapter
The Yellow Guardians
The secret hiding place was all anyone talked about. Could they find it? Were the coins still there? I almost felt like it was Christmas. You know, the anticipation you felt until you could finally open your presents. Miss Hannah was firm, work came first. There’d be no galavanting around looking for treasure during working hours.
Paul and I had to share a bed. An old bed that squeaked every time one of us shifted. He was also a bed hog. I got about a quarter of the mattress, and almost none of the covers. But every morning I got my revenge. At 6 o’clock sharp, Miss Hannah or Miss Anna stood at the bottom of the stairwell and banged on the bottom of a saucepan with a metal spoon.
I got up without a problem. So did my sisters next door. For Paul it was different. It was as if he were part of the bed, a Siamese twin that could only be separated by surgery. I loved to watch him. First his head left the pillow and he opened his eyes just a slit. He quickly shut them like it was a bad dream. When he opened them again he groaned. After that, resignation must have set in and he threw off the covers.
“Come on, its time to get up,” I always tried to sound cheerful because I knew it pi**ed him off. I also think not being able to have that first smoke of the day made it tough on him. “Hurry up and put on your overalls. Miss Hannah doesn’t like it when we’re late.”
I’m not sure if they ever slept, Miss Hannah and Miss Anna. Sam went to his room around 9 o’clock, but the sisters were awake when we went to bed, and awake when we got up. Plus, there was always a big breakfast waiting for us. Some days even fresh doughnuts. Paul didn’t walk into the kitchen, he more like stumbled looking mad at the world. We’d eat breakfast, then he and I would follow Sam outside and he’d line us out on our work for the day. This went on from early morning until dinner at noon, and then again until supper at 7 o’clock, everyday of the week, except Sunday.
We always went to church, Mom saw to that. Even dressed in my church clothes I felt out of place with the sisters and Sam. Miss Hannah and Miss Anna weren’t dressed in cotton print dresses today. Instead they both wore dresses like you’d see in the old movies they’d play on Saturday afternoons. They also wore pearls, white gloves and these little white doily-like things on their head.
Sam didn’t look anything like himself either. His black suit, white shirt and tie looked like something a shorter, fatter Humphrey Bogart might wear, and we took Papa’s car. I think they only drove it on Sundays, a gray 1947 Chrysler New Yorker. When Sam backed it out of it’s shed, the look of almost perpetual disinterest vanished from my brother’s face. I could tell it was love at first sight.
Sam drove with Paul and I in the front seat. Miss Hannah, Miss Anna, Mary and Ruth in the back. Paul even opened the backwards-opening rear doors like a chauffeur to let the ladies out at the church. I snuck a glance at him during Mass and couldn’t tell if he was having a religious experience, or thinking about the ride home. Anyway, after church was the first chance we had to look for Great Uncle Alphonse’s secret compartment.
Great Uncle Alphonse had never moved out of the family home. The fall from the horse had seen to that. Luckily, it was only a few miles away. Sam offered to drive us, but Paul said no. He’d decided since he was oldest, he was in charge. I think he just wanted to be able to smoke.
The lunch the sisters made for us took three people to carry. Mary packed the bag with the leftover roastbeef sandwiches. Ruth carried the cookies, cake and fruit for dessert , and I packed an old plastic bleach bottle full of water. Paul didn’t carry anything, but said he’d spell us if we got tired.
Grasshoppers crackled in the dry yellow grass of the roadside, and the air smelled of ripe grain. It was a beautiful day, blue sky and billowy white clouds. We walked on a gravel road, some of the gravel might have come from the old rock pit. All the while discussing the best place to look for the secret compartment. We were just starting up a shallow hill when we smelled them, flowers. When we crested the rise, we saw the old family home’s gray weathered boards and split cedar shakes almost entirely surrounded in green leaves and yellow blossoms. Roses, climbing yellow roses.
We walked up to where the front gate used to hang, and looked over the ramshackle wood and wire fence at the briar patch of thorns and flowers.
“It doesn’t look like we can get in this way.”said Paul. “I guess we should try walking around it and see if there’s anyplace we can get through.” We walked down the driveway and circled the old fence, but the rose vines were impassable. When we got back to where we’d started, all we had to show for our trouble was cheatgrass pokies in our socks.
“Even if we could get through those thorns, there’s no way we could get past the bees.” decided Paul. Bees hovered over almost every bloom, and the sound of their buzzing made us raise our voices when we spoke.
“I’m sure we could borrow loppers from Sam. I know he has them.” I said.
“Could we?” asked the twins.
“Bees,” Paul reminded.
“Oh yeah, bees,” the twins replied. They walked over and sat in the shade of a gnarled tree and were pulling off their socks. “At least we can eat our lunch,” Mary suggested.
“Yeah, we can have a picnic,” added Ruth.
I was hungry, but still disappointed. “Hey, Beekeepers use smoke to calm their bees. What if we built this big fire and made it real smoky ? Yeah, that might work.” I untied my shoe and took off my sock.
Paul grabbed a sandwich with mustard. “What about the wind? Oh, and the house is made of wood.”
“Yeah, that might be a problem…Wait a minute. We could come back in the Winter. Yeah, there are no bees in the Winter.”
Paul nodded, and looked at the rose covered building. “Well, that would work, but we’re only here for another week. I suppose if I had my drivers license I could come back in November.”
“November,” exclaimed Mary and Ruth.
We ate the food we’d brought and walked back to Sam and the Sisters.
Miss Anna heard us walk in and called out, “Did you find it?”
“No,” answered the twins.
I walked into the living room and found both Miss Hannah and Miss Anna dressed in their print dresses, sitting with their shoes off reading the Sunday paper. A gentle breeze wafted through the screen door, and it was silent except for the ticking of the mantel clock. Mary, Ruth and I sat down across from them on the sofa, while Paul settled on the hassock near their feet.
“Oh, that’s too bad,” she replied.
“We couldn’t even get near the house,” explained Paul. “It was surrounded by rose bushes and bees”
“Rose bushes and bees?” repeated Miss Hannah.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “There was no way we could get through them. Even if we cut the vines, there’s still the bees.”
She squinted her eyes and looked down at the newspaper. “The roses might actually be a good thing. If you couldn’t get in, probably nobody else could either.”
Paul nodded,”Yeah, I never thought about it that way.”
We spent the rest of Sunday afternoon goofing around. Mary, Ruth and I walked out to the rock pit and I think Paul took a nap.
The saucepan gong woke us as usual on Monday. This week we started picking the rest of the corn, digging potatoes and harvesting the remaining crookneck squash. Everything went as usual until we woke up on Saturday. This was our last full day at Pommerville, Mom and Dad were going to come and get us the next day. When we arrived down for breakfast, Miss Hannah, Miss Anna and Sam were all sitting around the table, something they didn’t normally do.
“What?” I asked.
Sam took a sip of coffee and replied. “We’ll wait to talk about it until everyone’s here.”
When Paul stumbled in a few minutes later he knew something was different because we were all staring at him.
“What?” He looked down at himself self-consciously.
Miss Hannah stood up from the table. She reminded me of my teacher Mrs. Rowland. “Children, you’re not going to work outside today because it’s raining.” I looked out the window. It was.
She had the same look on her face Mrs. Rowland had when she was going to tell us something important. “There’s something about rainy days you might not know.”
I felt my eyes narrow, and I wondered what I didn’t know about rainy days.
Miss Hannah looked at us silently for a few seconds and said. “Bees usually don’t fly in the rain.”
“They don’t?” we all answered.
Sam smiled. “I loaded the loppers, hedge trimmers, a garden rake and the pitchfork in the back of the pickup. After we eat, I’ll drive you over so you can look for Alphonse’s secret hiding place.”
We all thanked Miss Hannah and Sam for their help and quickly ate our breakfast. When we finished, Miss Anna cut holes for the twin’s heads and arms in large plastic garbage bags. She dressed them in their coats and slipped the bags over their heads. Paul and I dressed in her and Miss Hannah’s old gardening coats, gloves and wide brim straw hats. “Well you don’t look pretty,” acknowledged Miss Anna. “But at least you’ll be dry.”
Five people in the seat of the old red International pickup was a tight fit. Sam scrunched as close as he could to the door, and Mary and Ruth sat on Paul and my laps.
It was lucky we didn’t have to go very far. When we got there, Sam pulled into the rose covered house’s drive way and we all got out.
“Boy, I can sure see what you mean. It looks darn near impenetrable.” Sam unloaded the loppers and hedge trimmers and handed them to Paul and I. There were no bees just like Miss Hannah had said, so we went to where the old gate had hung and started cutting through the thorny branches. Mary and Ruth stood out of the rain under the same tree where we had eaten our lunch and watched. Paul and I cut away the vines until we couldn’t go forward any farther. Then Sam would use the pitchfork and clear away our cuttings so we could move forward again. We did this ten or eleven times until there was a clear path to the old house’s front door. As soon as Sam had scooped up the last of our clippings, Paul and I rushed forward.
“Whoa there fellows,” Sam called. “You better let me look inside before you go barging in there.” He walked to the dilapidated porch and tentatively put his weight on the bottom step. It sagged a bit but held. “Ok,” he said. “I don’t want to risk putting my weight on anything else. I don’t think the old wood can stand it.” He turned to Paul and I. “I think you two have the best chance to get in and out without falling through the floor.”
“Now,” he looked at us with a surprisingly stern expression. “Stay away from the centers of the rooms and around the windows. Their glass was broken out years ago and the floors under them are most likely rotten. Walk around the edges of the rooms and don’t walk in the middle of the stairway. Keep your weight near it’s edges, that’s probably where they’re the strongest.” He shook his head. “And please be careful.”
“We will,” Paul and I assured him.
As we took our first steps onto the sagging porch, the rain quit and sunlight shined down through a gap in the clouds. Was this some kind of sign? The door latch had been broken long ago, and the door just pushed open, dragging along the floor. Inside, water dripped from the ceiling, and plaster lay in clumps on the floor. While empty cans , food wrappers, cigarette packages and beer bottles looked like they’d just been tossed to the side once they were empty. There were also roses.
The rose vines had grown in through the broken windows. They snaked across the floor, and clung to the wood lath exposed by the rotting plaster, adding bursts of color to the moldy wood and decrepit interior.
“This is like one of those ruins you see in jungle movies.”
“Kind of,” Paul replied. “But I think we should hurry. The bees will probably come back now that the sun’s out.” He looked around the room. “I’m pretty sure Alphonse’s room would have been upstairs.”
“I think so too.”
We walked around the perimeter of the room and I immediately realized Sam had been right. The floor felt spongy enough at the edges, I couldn’t imagine what it was like in the middle. The stairway was easy to find, so we climbed it keeping our feet near the edges. There was trash upstairs too, just like in the room below, but the packages, cans and bottles looked old. Alphonse’s was the first room we entered. We could tell because his wallpaper patch was hanging halfway off its lath and plaster backing.
“I don’t think anyone’s ever opened it.” I said, “At least not recently.”
“Yeah, he probably had his nightstand in front of it.”
“Kind of like where you hide your cigarettes.”
Paul gave me a snotty look and tried to pry the cover loose by its edges, but it just fell apart in his fingers. He lifted the bits of plaster and wood out of the cavity revealing a rusty tin lined chamber. “They’re still here.” He brushed the soggy plaster aside and picked out the five silver dollar size gold coins and set them in the palm of his hand. The five Double Eagles.
“They look perfect,” Paul said, turning to me. “It seems almost unbelievable he slept next to these for years and never remembered they were there. I feel sad for him.”
“I do too.” We stared at the coins in silence.
“Are you boys alright?” Sam called from outside.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” I called back. “We’ll be out in a minute.”
Paul reached in and pulled out two barely recognizable magazines. One was Colliers the other National Geographic. “That Mr. Elliott was sure nice to give him those cows.”
“Steers,” I replied. “It’s too bad he never got to make that trip he dreamed of.”
“Yeah,” Paul agreed. “It doesn’t seem fair.” He handed me the rotted magazines. The Colliers Weekly was dated July 6th, 1912, and had a blue eagle with its wings spread over a light green box on its cover. It said something about a convention, I couldn’t read anything else. The National Geographic was totally mildewed and ruined. I tossed them both in the corner.
I thought we’d all be more excited that we found the coins, but even Mary and Ruth seemed quiet. Paul seemed especially reserved, and didn’t say a word all the way back to the house. Sam was the only one who spoke. “Aren’t you happy you found the secret hiding place, kids?” He took his eyes off the road and glanced down the seat at us. “I’m not sure what those coins are worth, but they must be worth something?”
Nobody answered until Mary said quietly.”I feel funny. Like we took something that doesn’t belong to us.”
Sam nodded his head. “You have a point there, Mary. Is that how you all feel?”
We all nodded.
“Ok then, as soon as I get back to the house I’m going to call Sophie.”
“Why are you going to call Aunt Sophie, Sam?” I asked.
“She’s Alphonse’s oldest living relative. We’ll tell her about the diary and the coins and see what she says.”
Aunt Sophie and Uncle Matt arrived in their old gray Chevrolet Impala. Aunt Sophie was a tall thin woman with glasses and a hair net. Uncle Matt was short, bald, always dressed in gray Dickies work clothes and smoked cigars. Mary, Ruth and I ran out to meet them.
“Hi Paul, hi Mary and Ruth.” Aunt Sophie put a rectangular baking pan with a warm unfrosted cake in my arms. She handed Mary a plastic tub of vanilla ice cream, and directed Ruth to guide Uncle Matt, who’d gone blind from Diabetes, into the house. She got a box tied with string from the backseat and walked with us.
Once everyone had said hello, and the cake and ice cream had been served, we showed Aunt Sophie Alphonse’s diary and the five Double Eagles.
“Oh my goodness. I never knew any of this about him.” She looked at the diary’s last entry again. “I never would have guessed, he was always just a quiet simple man when I knew him. Uncle George and Uncle Willie watched out for him.” She stared over our heads. “ He died when he was only 35. I have a picture of him if you’d like to see it?” She untied the string holding the box, and shifted through it until she pulled out an old black and white photo.
Three men sat on the top rail of a wooden fence. They were all dressed in work shirts, black trousers and straw hats. The two on the outside looked straight into the camera, but the one in the center was smiling. “That’s Uncle Alphonse,” she said. “The one in the middle. I think he died the year after that picture was taken.” Aunt Sophie handed it to Paul, he studied it for about thirty seconds and passed it to me.
So that’s what he looked like. Alphonse was shorter than his brothers and seemed to have lighter colored hair. He reminded me of the pictures I’d seen of my great-grandfather on his wedding day. I shook my head and passed the photo. Once everyone had a chance to see what he’d looked like, Aunt Sophie cleared her throat.
“Sam said you had something to tell me.”
Paul’s eyes shifted from Aunt Sophie’s face to ours. We all know what he was saying even though he never spoke. He piled the coins into a stack and slid them across the table like poker chips. “I think these belong to you.”
Aunt Sophie looked down at the stack of gold coins. “Why do you say that, Paul?”
“You’re Great Uncle Alphonse’s oldest living relative.”
She smiled and put her hand on the coins. She stroked them with her fingers like she’d rub the back of someone’s hand. I saw her eyes move to the diary and linger on it for a few seconds. Her head nodded, she sat up straight in the chair and she turned to us. She lifted a Double Eagle off the little pile and set it in front of Paul. Then she set one in front of me and each of my sisters. “Until you showed me his diary, I didn’t know my uncle dreamed of traveling the world.” Her expression changed, and she looked down at the lone Double Eagle in front of her. “He never realized his dreams, so now I’m giving them to you.” A tear ran down her cheek. “I don’t know if your dreams involve seeing Paris, or traveling the world. But whatever they are, please think of Alphonse when you finally realize them.
I wiped my eyes and noticed Mary and Ruth rubbing theirs. Even Paul’s eyes were watery. When I looked back at the coin I saw it differently than I had before, and knew I could never spend it.
“Aunt Sophie,” Paul asked. “What was Mr. Elliott’s first name?”
She crinkled her eyes, “I believe it was Clarence.”
“Is he buried in the Cemetery?”
“Not in the Catholic Cemetery, but he is in the one across the road from it. Why?”
Paul looked down at the gold coin. “I’d ahh, like to put some flowers on his and Great Uncle Alphonse’s graves. Roses, yellow roses from the house.”
Miss Hannah reached over and touched Paul’s arm, “I think that’s a wonderful idea Paul.” She turned to her brother. “Sam, do you think we can all fit in Papa’s car?
Sam looked around the table. “Well, it’ll be tight, but I think we can just manage it.”