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THE IRON BOX

by

Michael Gates




Claggett's disappearance has something to do with the iron box--I just bet it does--though there's no way I can prove it. I can't help thinking, though, that if I hadn't been so chickenshit when we finally found that rusty old trunk, the loony bum might still be swilling beer at the Green Man today.

I guess I should tell you how I met Claggett, or "Crazy Bill" as some people referred to him. (I don't remember anyone just calling him "Bill.") He was one of the regulars at The Green Man Lounge, my favorite bar in Pineville, up in the Adirondacks. I hung out there while I was unemployed last summer, and anyone who spent time in that dive eventually got to know Claggett--whether they wanted to or not.

I'd go in there just about every night around nine o'clock, more out of boredom than any desire to drink. I was staying in my parents' summer cabin just outside of town while I tried to sort my life out--a process that involved staying up till all hours, sleeping till late in the afternoon, walking in the woods and writing a lot of self-pitying crap in my "journal." By that time of night I was bored and feeling frisky. I wanted some company.

There were other engaging (and annoying) people at The Green Man, but Claggett was, by far, the most memorable. He was always there when I arrived, always sitting on the farthest bar stool from the door, and always drinking the same frothy mug of Pabst Blue Ribbon. At first glance, you might think he was just another seedy local, since he had the look down pat: blue jeans, logo tee-shirt stretched tight over a beer gut and a Yankees baseball cap with a fringe of sandy-colored hair spilling out from under it.

But he was actually from "the City"--New York--though it seemed his life had been equally shaped by his travails in, as he called it, "Nam." After the war, he'd worked in advertising in the City for decades as some sort of copywriter at a small, no-name agency. Then he'd retired to Pineville about five years previously. He had no family left, but he and his parents had spent summers in the town when he was a kid, and he felt it was his "spiritual home." I say he was retired, but that wasn't exactly it. After I'd known him for a while, he told me that he had lost his job and was living on a disability pension, related, I gathered, to a mental problem--he seemed to be physically okay. There was something wrong with his face, though. He had a large purple blotch on his forehead, apparently a birthmark. I've seen them on other people--remember Mikhail Gorbachev?--and I think they're called port wine stains. And that wasn't his only mark of distinction. He also had the words "Sergeant Rock" tattooed on his right forearm.

I never knew what kind of mood Claggett would be in when I saw him. Sometimes he'd greet me--and anybody else he knew who walked through the Green Man's door--like a long lost sidekick. He'd say "Yo, Phil, my man, how they hangin'?'" and utter other inanities while patting the empty barstool next to him. Or he'd purse his lips and imitate the sound of a trumpet, playing some military fanfare, as if General Somebody had just walked into the room. Other times, though, he'd be hunched over his beer like a hedgehog drowning in sorrows and ignore me--or say "piss off" or something equally charming if I so much as said hello. Sometimes he'd be in some transitional mood and just nod or give me a little smirk.

Eventually, I caught on that the bartender, Carl, had a system worked out for alerting patrons to Claggett's moods. Carl would glance at him, smile and nod to you if your presence was welcome. Or he'd frown and roll his eyes if Claggett wasn't holding court that day. And if Carl raised his eyebrows while shaking his head, it meant there was no telling how you'd be received.

Generally, though, Claggett greeted me warmly. I'd told him about losing my job as a copy editor down in the City recently, and that I really didn't want to pursue that line of work anymore--but wasn't sure what the hell I did want to do. And he identified with that. "Take your time, kid," he'd said. "It's dirt cheap to live in this podunk. Don't be in a hurry to go back to New York." Employers in the media biz were like "evil turds swimming in a toilet bowl," a "toilet that doesn't flush properly," and I was well out of "that shit pot," he said. He was full of such fatherly advice.

Sometimes, when he was feeling especially talkative and confessional, Claggett would have me sit in a booth with him. He'd turn sideways in the booth, leaning his head against the bar's greasy paneling and letting his sneaker-clad feet hang over the outer edge of the vinyl seat, sometimes almost tripping the bar maid. The Green Man was dimly lit, and his face would fade into the shadows as he confided all sorts of craziness. He told me about his "buddies" getting their arms and legs blown off in Vietnam, about sinister clients who'd ripped him off when he was in advertising, and about Ruby and Peaches--two gals at a whorehouse out on Route 30 that he wanted to take me to sometime. A lot of it sounded apocryphal, or maybe not--it was hard to tell--but I didn't mind listening for the entertainment value.

Sometimes he'd tell me about his childhood escapades in Pineville and the surrounding wilderness. He'd seen all sorts of spooky things out in the woods, he claimed--bones that looked human, abandoned cars full of bullet holes, the remains of bonfires around which bizarre rituals had "obviously" taken place.

So I wasn't too surprised when he started telling me about the iron box one night. He was in one of his nostalgic moods, blathering on and on about the kids he once knew, back in the Pineville of the oh-so-innocent 1950s. He'd been on a hike with his buds Timmy and Will when they'd found a big metal box, shaped like a coffin but about three times as big, in a cave up on Indian Peak.

Claggett paused for quite a while after telling me this, either for dramatic effect or because he thought he'd told me something goddamned amazing, but my only thought was "so what?" I couldn't say that, though, since any kind of teasing or dismissive attitude on my part always seemed to tick him off--me being just a "kid" in his mind.

"Did you open it?" I asked.

Silence, then a sigh. "No. No, we didn't open it," he said. "I wanted to try, but the other two got scared. There was something about that box, and that part of the woods. It was silent there--not a bird or any other sound--and dark, dark 'cuz the leaves were thick as a blanket over our heads. And the box was ugly. It looked like a coffin with huge hinges and a handle that was just a metal bar. It spooked them, too, because…." He stopped.

"Because why?" I murmured.

"I don't know why exactly. It's…a weird place, a weird box. They ran away, and I followed them."

"Uh-huh." I didn't know what else I could say, other than to ask what had brought this yarn on. He didn't take kindly to those kinds of questions, though.

"I've been thinking a lot about that box lately," he said, "and doing research."

"What do you think it was?" I asked, in what I hoped sounded like an interested tone. "A box of what?"

"Well, that's something I've been thinking about for many years," he said. "And I think I may have figured out the answer. What do you know about local history?"

"Not much," I said. I knew the Iroquois Indians once lived around Pineville, but that was about it.

"There was a camp up on Indian Peak in the twenties," he said. "A big one. A bootleggers' camp. Do you know what that is?"

"Un-uh," I said.

"Back in the nineteen-twenties, during Prohibition--you do know what that was?"

"Yeah. It was illegal to make or sell liquor."

"Right. But there were a lot of people--gangsters--who made a lot of money doing just that. They brought in liquor from Canada and made their own, too. There were rumors that they had a base around here, a camp where they stored their whiskey and kept their money and stuff. The feds closed it down and they all went to prison."

He paused. "It was supposed to be up on Indian Peak," he said softly.

Apparently, I was supposed to be shocked by this revelation. It was kind of interesting--mildly interesting. "Wow," I said, hoping I sounded sufficiently shocked and amazed. "So you think this big metal box had something to do with this hootch camp?"

"Yep," he said. "I figure."

"And what would they need a big ol' metal box for?"

He paused again. "Money," he whispered.

"Money?"

"Shhh. I just suspect," he said, suddenly sitting up straight. "It was like their piggy bank in the woods. If it's still there, I want to keep it under my hat." He slowly closed one eye.

"So why are you telling me?" I asked in a melodramatic whisper.

"I figure I can trust you," he hissed. "And I want somebody to help me find it."

"Find it? I thought you'd been there. Don't you know where it is?"

"Well, no, not exactly," he murmured. "I don't remember exactly where it is. Me and my friends could never find it again, and then we sorta forgot about it. But if we hike up there, I think we might find it."

Indian Peak wasn't exactly a hiking hot spot, I knew. I'd never heard of any scenic trails on that mountain, or of any trails period. "Are you sure it was Indian Peak?" I asked. "Nobody goes up there that I ever heard about."

"Positive," he said. "And that's why they chose it for their camp. It's almost inaccessible."

"Great," I said. "Sounds like nice place for a walk in the woods."

"Money," he said. "Maybe tens of thousands."

Oh, what the hell, I thought. I didn't have anything better to do, even if Claggett was getting all hot and bothered over what was probably just some abandoned junk. "Yeah, OK," I said. "I'll help you find it--if it's still there."

*

The next day we drove as far as we could along a little dead-end road that goes part-way up Indian Peak. I call it a road, but it was really just some tire tracks. We abandoned Claggett's pick-up truck as the "road" faded away into some low bushes and weeds that looked suspiciously like poison ivy. I was glad I was wearing long pants. Claggett pointed to a narrow foot path that meandered into the woods in the general direction of the mountaintop. We hitched on our backpacks and started tramping along the trail, me following close behind him.

Except for a few birds twittering, it was quiet in the woods as we worked our way up the trail. We didn't do much talking, and when we did, we were almost whispering--neither of us wanted to disturb those taciturn trees and hushed thickets, I guess. And anyway, it was too hot to talk. Despite the dense pine shade, I was sweating like a porker, and my tee shirt felt like it was glued to me.

At least it wasn't tough hiking. The path sloped upward very gently, and I wondered if it spiraled around the whole mountain. Claggett said he didn't know, but that he thought it was the same one that he and his friends had followed as kids, and that he remembered it going on "forever." Oh great, I thought.

After about an hour, we stumbled across a ravine that had a small cave in its rock wall. No iron box, but at least we knew there were caves on this mountain, caves that could theoretically contain rusty boxes full of liquor loot. Yeah, right, I thought. And I'm Long John Silver.

After about two more hours of hiking, we still hadn't found anything more interesting than a couple more vacant caves. The canteen I'd brought along was nearly empty, and I was beginning to feel a little dizzy and dehydrated. Claggett, who wasn't in nearly as good shape as me, must have been feeling worse, I thought. When we came to a convenient rock, I suggested we sit on it, and he didn't protest.

"Well, say it," he said, panting a little. "Say it. You think I'm insane."

"No," I said. "Not insane. Just slightly pitiful. Assuming we ever find this thing, it's just gonna be a big fuckin' box. Probably with nothing inside it but junk."

I had never talked to him that way before, and he gave me a dirty look. I thought he'd be truly pissed, but all he said was "OK, OK, let's start back toward the truck."

We decided to take a short cut through a relatively brush-free area, and that's when we found the first evidence that other humans had been on the mountain in recorded history: the remains of what looked like old camp-fire enclosures. We also began to find what looked like obsolete kitchen gear, half buried in the dirt and pine needles: spoons and forks, antique pots and the rusty remains of bed springs. It didn't seem like the type of gear that someone would bring on a casual camping trip, we decided--more like the remains of some permanent encampment. Maybe even a twenties-vintage bootlegger camp.

Claggett was getting excited, and he wandered off in search of more "evidence," while I poked around through the bushes in the opposite direction.

I emerged into a little clearing, and almost bumped into what I took to be a shack. It was a cube about ten feet wide and seven feet tall, constructed of what looked like cast-off pieces of lumber, all fitted together like an oversized, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. There was a lot of fresh-looking garbage around it--booze bottles, candy wrappers, cigarette butts--which suggested to me that it was somebody's home. It also suggested that there could very well be somebody home. Somebody who might not want company.

I backed off through the bushes and began to look around for Claggett. He was nowhere in sight. I didn't want to call him, because whoever lived in that hovel would surely hear me. After wandering around for a few minutes and still not seeing him, though, I decided to chance it. I yelled "Claggett!" and instantly the forest birds stopped their twittering. There was no reply.

I began to have a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I'd just made a big mistake that there was no undoing.

Maybe Claggett is lost, I thought. Or maybe he's been slaughtered by whoever lives in that ramshackle outhouse.

But then I heard Claggett calling me, off in the distance, and I began to breathe again. When I caught up to him, I told him about the shack, and we both agreed it was time to go before somebody asked us to leave.

We began to walk down toward the trail again. I kept looking over my shoulder, because I couldn't shake the feeling that someone was watching us. I have an odd sensitivity to those sorts of things, and that woozy feeling was in my stomach again.

"What the hell's the matter?" Claggett hissed. "You forget your asshole up there?"

"Shhhh," I said. "I see something moving in the trees."

"A deer, maybe," Claggett mumbled nervously.

It was no deer. There was definitely a human figure about 25 feet away, staring at us through the leaves. Then the figure stepped out into a patch of sunlight, and we could see it--her--clearly.

Not that we would ever have wanted to. The woman was about my height--five foot ten--and fat, with long, stringy gray hair. She was dressed in raggedy gray slacks, which might have been blue at one time, and she had a black plastic trash bag for a shirt, though which she had poked holes for her head and flabby arms. She had another trash bag full of something in one hand, and her swollen feet were stuffed into dirty pink bedroom slippers. Her face was piggish and filthy, as if it had been caked with mud for years. She grinned at us.

"Here she comes, Miss America," Claggett whispered.

The woman couldn't have heard him, but she began to giggle as if she had.

"That…lady…is nuts," I whispered.

She stopped sniggering, as if she had heard me, and continued to stare. "Let's go," I said.

"What'cha want boys?" the woman said in a sultry, Mae West-type voice. "Nobody comes up here. This is my queendom. So what'cha want?" As she spoke she lifted up her trash-bag shirt, revealing two enormous breasts that sagged like sacks of flour. I turned away in disgust. "Not you, baby," Claggett said. "Gotta go."

We found the trail and started heading back down, much faster than we'd hiked up. After a while, we realized that the woman was following us, at a distance of about thirty feet. "What'cha want?" she said every few minutes. I couldn't believe that such a heavy woman was keeping up with us but, judging from the sound of her voice, she wasn't even breathing hard.

"What'cha want? What'cha want?"

We didn't answer. We were nearly to the place where the truck was parked and I wondered what she would do when we got in and drove away.

Then she suddenly changed tactics. "Boys, boys, I've got a gun," she said. That stopped us. We turned around slowly. Sure enough, she had some kind of revolver in her hand. I'm not an expert on guns, but it looked authentic enough, though dirty and maybe rusty. I wondered if it really worked or if she even had any bullets in it. Claggett did know something about guns, I knew--he'd told me all about the ones he'd used in "Nam"--and he looked even more scared than I felt, so I knew we'd better start taking her seriously.

"What'cha want?"

"We're looking for something," Claggett said slowly. "Something that was left up here on the mountain a long time ago. Something in a cave."

"Wha? The metal box?" she said, opening her rummy eyes wide.

I thought Claggett was going to have a heart attack. He looked at me quickly, his Adam's apple bobbing up and down. I raised my eyebrows.

He turned back to her, eyeing the gun, and cleared his throat. "Yes, we're looking for the metal box," he said softly.

She giggled, but the gun never wavered. "Wha' for? It's just a box."

"Do you know where it is? Have you opened it?" He asked nervously.

She starred at him for a few seconds before replying, her grin fading. "Nah," she said, finally. "It's locked. Why? Somethin' in there?"

"We don't know," Claggett said, speaking carefully. "It was something I saw as a kid. We were out for a hike, and I thought it might be fun to see if it's still there."

She pursed her lips, wrinkled her nose, and squinted, which I took to be signs that she was thinking. "Tell ya what," she said. "I'll show ya where that box is. You and your boyfriend march back up the trail ahead of me and I'll tell ya where to go."

She still held the gun steady. "OK," Claggett said. "But how 'bout puttin' the piece away?"

She snorted. "I'll carry it in my purse here," she said, swinging the trash bag she carried, "once you're about thirty feet ahead of me. But don't try anything silly. I'm a quick draw."

Somehow I didn't doubt it, despite her mental state, or inebriation, or both.

We started back up the trail, her following us at a distance, presumably ready to shoot us in the back if the whim struck her. Despite the heat, I felt cold, scared. None of us spoke for a while.

Then the crazy old hag told us to stop. She pointed to some tangled brush and pricker bushes at the side of the trail and said, "It's that way."

"You gotta be kiddin'," Claggett said. How can we walk through all that?"

"You want to find it or not?" she hissed. "Move!"

We did as she said, getting pricked and tripping over roots as we went along. Amazingly, she seemed to have no trouble keeping up with us. Obviously, she knew every inch of this forest. "Think she's taking us to the cave?" I whispered to Claggett, after we'd walked for what felt like a mile, "or just someplace where she can hide our bodies?" Claggett glanced at me and whispered, "or both."

He stopped suddenly and turned around to face her. She reached into her bag as if going for the pistol, and Claggett held his hands in the air. I did the same.

"We need water," Claggett said. "Let us get some water out of our backpacks."

She raised the gun and giggled. "OK, honey. Just do it slow. We're almost there anyway."

We sat down on a rock and drank the rest of our water while she watched us. "Do you think it's loaded?" I whispered.

"Shut up!" the woman screamed. "Shut up and drink. Then get off your asses and keep going. We're almost there."

About a hundred feet further on, we came to what looked like the base of a cliff. We stopped and turned around. "Well?" Claggett said. I was sure she was about to shoot us.

The woman pointed to what appeared to be a crack in the rocks. I moved over to it and saw that it was just big enough for a human to squeeze through. I put my arm through the crack, then my head. It felt cool in there, but it was too dark to see much. "I think it's big enough," I said to Claggett. "Is this what you remember?"

"Yeah, I guess so," he said. "It seemed bigger when I was a kid, but I guess so."

"Well, go on in," the woman said.

We hesitated. "Let me get a flashlight out of my backpack, OK?" Claggett said.

She laughed. "Yeah, yeah, just pull it out slow. A boy scout is always prepared."

Claggett fished his flashlight out, no doubt wishing he had a gun in his backpack, too. He turned it on and squeezed through the crack. I looked at the woman and she nodded to me with a little shit-eating grin on her face. She seemed too fat to fit through the crack herself, and I wondered why she hadn't just shot us--if that was what she planned to do--when we got to the cliff. Or maybe she was going to try to trap us in the cave somehow. "Go on in with your boyfriend," she said. "I'll follow ya."

I squeezed through the crack and found myself in a cave about the size of a large living room. Claggett was standing over what looked like a giant coffin. It was about twelve feet long, three feet wide and four feet deep. And it appeared to be made of iron. About halfway down the length of the thing was some kind of latch, and it had a brand new shiny padlock hanging from it.

"Shit," I said. "It's real. How the hell did they get it in here?" My voice bounced off the stone walls. Claggett just stared at the box, as if hypnotized. I reached out and touched the cold, damp metal. When I pulled my hand back, my palm was dark red. For a second, I thought I was bleeding. "It's rusty," I said. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I could see that the box had been bolted together from twenty or thirty metal panels. It had been built inside the cave.

The woman groaned as she jammed herself through the crack. I half expected her to get stuck, but she made it. She giggled and said, "Well, this what you wanted to see?" She had the gun in her hand, but she wasn't pointing it at us.

"Yeah," Claggett said. "Yeah. So, did you put this on it?" He was fingering the new-looking padlock.

"No," she said, suddenly speaking in a girlish voice. "My husband did. My poor husband."

"Where is he now?" I asked, thinking about the shack I'd seen in the woods. "Is he around?"

"No," she said. "I haven't seen him in a long time. He--just took off one day. Disappeared. Good riddance." She giggled again. "He was a bad man, and I wasn't so nice either. People didn't want us around, so we came up here. This is our mountain. I thought he'd be better to me up here on Mount Olympus, that we'd live like nature gods or something. I was Aphrodite, but he was still Mars. Or Hades? Anyway, I became this. And he got real mad at me and then disappeared. Course part of him disappeared a long time before that. He only had one arm, ya know. Always bothered him--the imperfection."

"Well," Claggett said. I could see he was trying to figure out the proper response. Finally he gave up and asked, "Do you know how to open this? Got a key?"

She looked at him, her eyes narrowing, and her grip on the gun seemed to tighten a bit. "What for? Why for open it? What's in there?"

"Don't you know?" Claggett asked.

"My husband only had one arm," she said. "The other one got cut off. I guess he knew what was in there. He locked it up, told me not to be so nosy. Maybe you shouldn't be so nosy either."

"There could be money in there," Claggett said. "Maybe your husband wanted to keep it safe. But now he's gone, you say. Don't you want to know what's in there?"

She shrugged and put her finger in her mouth, like a little girl. "Do you have the key?" Claggett asked.

She was silent for a while, and I could see that there were a lot of wheels spinning in her head. "I'll go get it," she said. "It's at home." She turned and squeezed through the crack again, as if she was made of foam rubber.

Claggett let out a long, deep sigh. Then he quickly opened his backpack and pulled out a crowbar. In a couple of minutes he had broken the rusty latch on the box. The padlock dropped to the dirt floor with a thud. "Help me get the lid up quick," he said. "Before she comes back."

The lid looked like it weighed a ton. But apparently it was on some kind of spring mechanism, because it opened fairly easily--though it made a groaning noise, like some ancient monster, as we heaved it up against the rock wall.

A weird, powerful stink came out of the box, like a dead animal. It made me want to puke, but the odor was nothing compared to what we saw when Claggett shined his flashlight in there.

The first thing I noticed was a lot of money--lots of little piles of strange-looking money tied up with string. They seemed to be mostly twenty- and fifty-dollar bills, though they looked bigger than regular bills. There was some other stuff in there, too: dusty whisky bottles and what looked like old ledgers. But I didn't pay much attention to that stuff because lying on top of the money was a mummy--a dried-out corpse, literally skin and bones, dressed in ragged jeans and a T-shirt. And it only had one arm.

I felt like I was going to faint, or hurl. "Let's get out of here," I said. "Let's get out of here quick, before she comes back."

Claggett grabbed my arm and shook me. "Keep your head on. We'll fill up our backpacks. We can come back later for the rest."

"Are you nuts?" I said. But of course he was. I'd known that for a long time. And I realized I was psychotic, too, for coming along on this fool's errand. I was sure now that that demented bitch planned to kill us.

Claggett loaded up his backpack with bills, then loaded mine, too, since I was too sick and paralyzed to do it myself. "OK, let's go," he said. He sounded like a drill sergeant as he said it, and I suddenly realized that this is how he must have been in Vietnam--fearless, gung ho, a "real man" walking through the flaming jungles of hell.

We squeezed ourselves through the crack, dragging our bulging backpacks, and started hiking back down. But just before we came to where we thought the trail should be, we came face to face with that giggling, daffy bitch. Only this time she had a shotgun in her hands. She moved it back and forth, aiming at one of us, then the other. "Onie one bullet in ta other gun," she said, giggling. "Enough for both of ya in this one."

"Why'd ya kill him?" Claggett said, stalling for time.

She looked surprised, then furious. "What do you care?" she rasped.

"How'd ya do it?" he asked.

"Stabbed him," she said, suddenly speaking in her little girl voice again. "He was mean. Oh, he was mean." She was crying now. "Wouldn't let me leave. Said he'd kill me. Find me an' kill me."

"Bastard!" Claggett said. "To do that to you."

Her face softened for a second and she lowered the gun a couple of inches. Claggett saw his chance and kicked some dirt in her face, then kicked her hard in her fat gut. She fell over backward, screeching like a wounded animal.

For a second, I was frozen. "Move, asshole!" Claggett screamed, and we were off, running and falling and tumbling and crawling through the brush. A couple of bullets whizzed by. Somehow we found the trail and started running down the mountain, as fast as we could with all the roots and rocks in the way. We heard more gunshots, but they were off in the distance. We'd lost her.

We found the truck and jumped in. Claggett started it and threw it into reverse. We backed out of there at about 50 miles an hour till we found a place to turn around, and pretty soon we were back on the highway, laughing our goddamned heads off.

"Open it up, open it up!" Claggett yelled over the sound of the roaring engine.

"Huh?" I said, stupidly.

"Your backpack, idiot. The money."

I unzipped my backpack and pulled out a wad of bills. They were mildewed but didn't look as old as they must have been. They were bigger in size than the bills I was used to seeing. "Are you sure we can use these?" I asked.

"Hell, yes," he said. "See what it says there? Legal tender."

"Yeah. Yeah, whatever," I said, not quite sure he knew what he was talking about. But I was still grinning. The smile felt frozen on my face.

We stopped at my cabin to clean up--we both had scrapes and bruises--and to count the cash. We sat on the floor and dumped it out of the backpacks, then spread it out. We had over twenty thousand dollars, mostly in twenty-dollar bills.

"And there's a shitload more where that came from," Claggett said, ecstatically. "Oh, man," he said, fanning a wad of bills and smelling them. "Better than pussy."

"Yeah, but…." I said. "If we try to use this money….It looks old. Can we use it? Is it still good?"

"Legal tender for all debts public and private," Claggett said, pointing to the words on one of the bills. "Doesn't matter how old it is. And it's not stolen money. People paid for their booze with it. And prohibition is over, man!"

"But doesn't it belong to somebody?"

"Yeah, bootleggers who've been dead for fifty years," he said. "And they abandoned it. Maybe they thought they'd go back for it later, but they never did."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," I said, smiling. The whole situation still didn't feel real to me, though.

Claggett and I decided that we'd split the money evenly. Then we decided to meet at the Green Man at nine o'clock that night, after we'd had a chance to rest up. And then we'd "plot our next move," he said. "We need to get all that money out of there somehow. And I don't need to tell you not to blab this to anybody, do I? That money won't be there when we get back if you do."

"Hell no," I said.

That night, Claggett and I talked in whispers--loud whispers, because of the Green Man's jukebox, but nobody could hear us as we bent over our beers in the back booth. "Got to go back up as soon as possible," he said. "Before she does something. It's going to take us a while to get all that dough out of there. We can't truck it out, obviously. We'll have to make lots of trips. That's why I need somebody young and strong like you. I can trust you not to blab about it, can't I?"

"Yeah, but what about that crazy bitch?" I said. "You know, the bag that almost killed us?"

"You really are a negative thinker," Claggett said. He took a long swig of beer. "I got a gun," he said, frowning. "Next time, I'll take it. If she gives us any trouble, pow. It's self defense on public land."

"Oh, shit," I said. "I don't know about that."

"Don't worry so much."

"I don't know, Claggett," I said. "I don't know. Maybe ten thousand is enough for me."

"Are you seriously going to pussy out on me?" he hissed. "Do you know how much money is up there?"

I swigged some beer. Finally I said, "You go. This is all too wild and crazy for me. If she doesn't give you any trouble, maybe I'll help you later on."

Claggett put his head down on the table and said, "shit." Then he sat up and shook his head a little. His birthmark stood out on his forehead like the mark of Cain. "Yeah, OK, OK," he said after a minute, staring down at his tattooed arm. He sighed. "Guys today. Why did they ever end the draft?"

I stood up and threw a ten-dollar-bill onto the table. Then I walked out.

That was the last time I saw Claggett. I was a little surprised when I didn't see him the next night, but I thought maybe he was still mad at me, avoiding me. By the night after that, people were mumbling about him--"Hey, where's Claggett?"--and I was starting to get nervous. A couple of days later, I went and filed a missing persons with the sheriff.

I helped the sheriff and the park rangers look for Claggett, for days and days. I think we walked over every inch of Indian Peak. We didn't find any sign of him, and we were never able to find the cave again. We looked at a lot of cliff faces that sort of looked like the right one, but not exactly, and none of them had a big crack that led to a cave. I wondered if maybe it had been sealed up somehow. Maybe the police would have thought I was making the whole thing up, if I didn't have the money to show them. Yeah, I turned it all in to them. I might get it back eventually, if there's no claim on it.

We did find the shack, or what was left of it. It looked like there had been a fire or a bomb had gone off. The walls had fallen down and parts of them were burnt black. There was a lot of junk and tattered clothes in the middle of the mess, and some more of the old money. We found her handgun, but not the shotgun. Otherwise, there was no trace of the crazy lady. None at all.

After that, I came back to New York. I'd had enough of hiding out from the world, thank you.

Poor Claggett. Sometimes I daydream about him, hoping that somehow he did get all that money--and that he's off on a tropical island somewhere, enjoying himself. But it's just a fantasy. I'm sort of glad we never found the cave again.

I'm sure someday someone will find it, though. In my mind's eye, I see a sandy-haired boy and his friends finding the iron box--Pandora's box, as I think of it now. And they'll be curious, and maybe they'll look inside. But I try not to think about what they'll see.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Gates, a freelance business writer and editor by trade, also writes short fiction, poetry and personal essays. His work has appeared in The 13th Story, Twilight Times, The Story Exchange, Cenotaph, Poems Niederngasse, Biff's Boards, Top Write Corner, Think: A Newspaper of Literary and Visual Art, and Red River Review. Gates grew up in the wilds of upstate New York, then lived in New York City for several years. He currently resides in Weird, New Jersey, with his wife and son. Visit his website at http://www.panix.com/~mgates/index.htm









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