Short Story Fiction
The Final Clue

One clue per year. The tenth and final clue to a long buried treasure had just been released. Now the race was on.

Hotel Meade imageJDBlack/Pixabay

Lucas Mayfield, owner and sole reporter for the Haleyville Gazette, sat at a small table next to the sunlit window. His second pencil was already beginning to dull as he feverishly wrote without stopping. The woman sitting across the table from him gazed out the window, lost in the past as she recounted her story to the reporter. It was almost unbelievable, yet true to the very last word.

Her name was Molly Perkins. She was an older woman, well into her nineties, but still carried herself with the classic grace borne of a privileged life. The years had been kind to her, and she knew it. Her story was direct and to the point, and her memory was sharp and unfailing as she recounted dates and details of occurrences from decades past.

She had recounted many intriguing stories to Lucas over the past ten years. All had been published in the Haleyville Gazette. Unfortunately, some of the people in town did not always appreciate the beauty of her stories. Their interest was of a self-serving nature as they searched each one for 'The Clue'. Lucas Mayfield listened as intently as he wrote, his writing interrupted only occasionally with a mumbled adjective or two.

As was her custom over the past ten years, toward the end of December, Molly had contacted Lucas with an invitation to write down one of her stories. Her instructions were always simple and always the same: "I'll talk, you write. I won't repeat myself and you will ask me no questions. The story I'm about to tell you has never been told before, nor will I ever repeat it." She then concluded her instructions with a final statement, "Consider yourself a lucky man."

Since the death of her husband, Jedaiah, Molly had resided at the Hotel Meade, an exclusive boarding house that catered to the community's aging social elite. Lucas had arrived early as per instructions. They sat in the front parlor at a small table close to a window where Molly could look out towards the street. A sparse crowd of curious onlookers began to gather near the front porch as she recounted her story to Lucas. The two were served tea, but it had grown cold long ago. Neither one of them had taken even a moment from their main objective to take a sip.

Thirty minutes into the story, just as Lucas’ hand seemed as if it were about to cramp, Molly abruptly stopped talking. Lucas looked up to see her gazing intently out the window. "The crowd is already gathering,” she mused. “Hungry for the next clue I suppose."

She turned to face Lucas, and with an air of deep concern in her voice, she confided in him. "I’m in my nineties, Lucas. Did you know that? I don’t expect to live another year. Ever since my husband passed away, I’ve been recounting a story per year to you. Ten stories…ten clues. All leading to the treasure my late husband buried many years ago. It’s worth a small fortune, but I don’t need it. Jedaiah left me well cared for. But I’m old and I’m tired. So this will be my final story and the final clue for those who have been paying attention. To the one who unravels the mystery, this clue will lead to the very spot where my husband hid his treasure."

She turned and looked back out the window. The crowd had grown larger. "Be careful Lucas. They will try to get this story from you before you have a chance to print it." She continued on. For the next thirty minutes, Molly recounted her youth and her time spent traveling along the Oregon Trail as her family moved west from Kansas.

With each statistic mentioned, with each town named and with each memory recalled, Lucas couldn't help but wonder if that was the final clue. He wrote it all down. Every sentence and every word. Until finally, one full hour after she started, Molly had finished her story. Sitting quietly at the table, she took a sip of her cold tea and watched Lucas finish up his writing. When he was done, she thanked him for his time. "I’ve had a very enjoyable morning, but now I need to rest. This old body isn’t what it used to be. I hope someone finds the treasure this year. It’s been hidden away for much too long."

"You could just tell someone where it’s at," remarked Lucas.

"But what fun would that be?" she replied with a youthful smile and a playful wink as she stood to leave. "Your paper comes out on Saturday and today is Thursday, correct?"

"Yes ma’am, that’s correct," answered Lucas.

Molly took one last look out the window towards the gathering crowd. She slowly turned away and headed off to her room. Lucas closed his notebook and slipped it into his coat pocket. By the time he stepped out the front door, a couple of the bolder men had stepped up onto the front porch. They began asking questions and demanding answers. "Tell us what she said. Did she tell you what the clue was? "Did she tell you where the treasure is buried? What do you know?"

Lucas pushed past the men and began to make his way through the crowd, where several others tried to grab for his notebook. He pushed them aside and crossed the street. His walk was brisk as the crowd followed close behind. "You'll have your story on Saturday and not before," he cried out as he stepped up to his office door.

He quickly entered and slammed it behind him, locking it for his own protection. The crowd began to disperse and Lucas began to work on Saturday's big story. He pulled the notebook out of his coat pocket and started to read over what he had written down.

The story was mostly about Molly as a young child and the places she had seen as she grew up in Kansas, and her trip along the Oregon Trail. For the next two days, until the Haleyville Gazette published the final story on Saturday, he was the only person who had access to all ten stories and all ten clues. Nobody but him.

In the first five stories, the clue could be found after a significant event in the life of Molly's family and was always hidden in a personal observation made about the event. After that, the clues were more personal and related to Molly in particular. Would this story follow along this same line or would this final clue be much more difficult to decipher? Lucas took advantage of his unique situation as he sat at his desk. He studied this latest story with an intense and personal interest.

Hours later, under the cover of early morning darkness, Lucas saddled up his horse and headed out of town. He traveled just inside the tree line until he came to a place called Haystack Rock. This was the spot of last year's clue.

From here, the final clue began. If Lucas was correct in his assumptions, he had figured it out. As the day began to break, he recalled the passage from memory. It was an observation by Molly buried within her story. "Follow your trail along the river of life and when confusion confronts you, you will know which way is the right way to go, and when to make your last stop." Turning south, he followed the river until he came to a spot referred to as the Triple Trail.

Here, the trail split in three directions. 'When confusion confronts you,' he thought. Lucas took the trail to the right, or the "right way to go" as the clue directed.

It was no coincidence that this trail was also known by a few of the old-timers in the area as the Wright trail. Lucas, being a newspaper reporter, knew local history and that included the history of this trail. Oliver Wright was a landowner who cut the trees along this section as a shortcut to a small mill owned by a man named Jed Perkins, Molly's late husband. The mill closed after his death.

He recalled a little-known fact that the mill's office had an adjacent room where the men would gather for a drink after work before heading home for the day. The room was unofficially called "The Last Stop."

Lucas soon reached the old abandoned mill. Over the years, it had fallen into disrepair, but the building that held the office was still visible through the overgrown weeds and underbrush. He worked his way up to the front entrance.

The old door was off to one side, having fallen from its hinges years ago. Stepping into the room, Lucas noticed a small safe still standing in the far corner of the rotting building. Its door had been long rusted open and it was empty.

Lucas' first thought was that he was too late. Then he remembered that Molly had always led him to believe that the treasure was a buried treasure. But where to dig? That was the big question.

Lucas thought for a moment, "The last stop, of course." Lucas went into the room next to the office where he found several old whiskey bottles laying on the floor in a corner closet. On a hunch, he moved the bottles and pulled up a few of the rotted floorboards and sure enough, there it was, a small metal box. "Eureka!" he cried out. "I've found it!"

Just as he pulled the box from beneath the floorboards, a voice from behind startled him. "I'll take that box." Lucas quickly spun around to see a masked stranger standing in the doorway with his gun drawn.

"Drop the box and keep your hands where I can see them," he demanded. "Did you really think no one would be keeping an eye on you? You were the only one with the final clue and you tried to take advantage of it like I thought you might. Now that you've done all the work, I'll take the prize. Turn around or I'll shoot you where you stand."

As Lucas turned around, the stranger pistol-whipped him and he fell to the ground unconscious. When he came to he was alone and the box was gone. He mounted his horse and returned to town. He was extremely disappointed. Even so, he still had a story to write.

The stranger rode into the trees and out of sight before he stopped to open the box. The lock was rusted and easy to break with one strike of a large rock. He opened it with the anticipation of finding precious gems or gold coins. What he found was a box of rocks and a note. It was carefully wrapped in a cloth of deep purple velvet trimmed with golden thread. The note read, "To whoever finds this box. I can only guess that my loving wife, Molly, has outlived me by many years. She was my treasure, and I was hers. I'm sure the stories she must have been telling over the years have entertained many and even enlightened a few to the history of both our families. I'm sure this is what has kept her going. Please return this box with its contents to Molly. She will know what to do with it." The note was signed, Jedaiah Perkins.

The stranger was indignant. "This is it! This is all of it! I've followed this story for ten years and this is the buried treasure!"

That evening, as Lucas was setting type for Saturday's story, he heard a knock at the door. Forgetting he had locked it, he called out, "Door's open, come on in." No one entered, so he got up from his work, went to the door, and opened it. The entry was vacant. At his feet was the metal box that had been taken from him that morning. Lucas looked up and down the street, hoping to spot the stranger who had taken it from him. There was no one in sight.

Surprised to see that the box had been returned, he picked it up and carried it over to his desk where he opened it only to find a piece of cloth and a note. "What is this, some kind of cruel joke?" He thought. Lucas read the note and realized Molly's husband and not the stranger who had taken the box had written it. "The stranger must have had a heart," he thought. "But not big enough to return it along with the treasure." Even though the box was empty of any treasure, Lucas decided to honor the last request of Jed Perkins.

The Saturday paper, along with the story, came out right on schedule. It substantiated the rumor that this year's clue would be the final one.

Once the rumor became fact, the town was abuzz. People were either scratching their heads, trying to make sense of the final clue, or scrambling to get out of town because they thought they had it all figured out.

The following day, Lucas carried the box over to the boarding house to turn it over to Molly, as the note had instructed. She was absolutely delighted to see it. As she read the note, it brought tears to her eyes.

"After all these years, finally. Thank you, Lucas, for bringing this to me. And now I have something for you." She disappeared into her room and returned a few moments later with an old, yellowed envelope.

"My husband asked me to give this to the person who was kind enough to return the box to me." She never questioned how it was that Lucas had found the box. With a mischievous smile, she handed the envelope to Lucas. He graciously accepted it and slid it into his pocket. After thanking Molly, he walked back over to his office and sat down at his desk. He pulled the envelope from his pocket, opened it, and removed a single sheet of paper. He unfolded it and stared at it with amazement.

It was a map, to the real buried treasure.

Copyright 2023 by Scott A. Gese. All rights reserved.

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