The sun shone through the fragile wrinkled paper that appeared to be a map of sorts, Joe rotated the edges counter clockwise, using his index fingers and thumbs ever so gently as if the entire map would disintegrate at any moment.
“I cant make head nor tail outta this old map Sam, it could be anywhere, who knows if this is the site of the old grain mill, or if it is even in this county.”
“Don’t be daft Joe, of course it is in this county, why else would it be in our attic?”
“And that has to be the old grain mill, as it is in the right place if this,” Sam was pointing at what looked like a town, “is indeed San Mara. And, well, it has to be San Mara seeing as the next town this size is about 40 miles away. And why would someone go to the trouble of hiding this in our attic if it wasn’t meant to be this area. I mean it only makes sense, right?”
“What if it’s just a joke, I mean, look at this thing, its like it’s a hundred years old,” Joe floated the paper onto the table, and although he wanted to iron it out, he resisted the movement and awkwardly peered over the contents like a confused rooster, jerking his head trying to get a better angle.
“Most of these landmarks are not even there anymore, but old Walter will know some of them as he is certainly nearing a hundred years himself,” said Sam, winking. “Lets take it over there and see if old Walt can give us some direction. Whadda ya say?”
Joe scratched his thick red hair and returned his faded battered baseball cap to cover the greasy mess.
“I guess that’s as good an idea as any, otherwise we could be sittin’ here till the we grow white beards tryin’ to figure out this mass of lines.”
The two hulking men crammed into the 1957 Chevy pick up, now at least 20 years old and rusted to the degree that defied any semblance of paint but that roared to life like an angry lion just the same. Joe, the elder of the Simpson boys, drove down the pretty shaded tree lined lane toward the gravel road and made a sharp left as they headed out.
They had farmed together for the past 15 years, and although now unpopular, they had small mixed farm, something that went out of farming fashion years ago when industrialized farming became the norm. Most of their neighbors were huge farming enterprises consisting of five farms or more and while Joe and Sam were happy with their self sustaining operation they also felt the ever reaching arms of neighbors trying to buy them out at every opportunity.
The bachelors had been raised on this very farm, and their parents having moved into a retirement community years ago, sold them the farm with the expectation that they keep it going for as long as possible. This was not particularly difficult for the boys, because they had little ambition and rather liked the style of farming that they’d grown up with. Their ideas were similar and they worked well together. They did renovations as they were needed, the shingled roof became metal, the old windows replaced with newer more efficient ones, but the farm in general although well kept did not scream modernism. It looked pleasant enough but remained simple, fences always mended, cattle well fed, chickens free ranged but in a stable coop. If you could look into the past by twenty years, things would look pretty much as they do now.
The dust billowed up behind the old pick up as they entered Walter Macguires driveway, and although the truck didn’t backfire once it stopped, upon attentive listening, you might hear it sigh out of exhaustion.
The Macguire farm was one of the progressive ones, new barns with glistening steel roofs, and a magnificent brick house complete with cedar patio and gentrified deck furniture. The monstrous tractors still in factory red paint lined the driveway dwarfing the Chevy. Despite their different farming techniques the Macguires and the Simpsons got along famously and were long time friends. Walter, the patriarch, despite his age was still in charge of the farm, albeit not physically so much these days and as usual, he was perched on the verandah enjoying his first pipe of the day. There was a definite routine at the Macguire household and Walter believed that the routines were not only necessary, but essential for the farm to be run as well as it should be.
After the friendly greetings, the boys soon got to the reason for their unexpected visit, one which would undoubtedly throw Walt off for the rest of the day.
“We found this in an old box in the attic,” announced Sam, as he gently rolled out the delicate map. “We’re not sure if it is in this area but we figured since it was in our attic it might be. You’re about the oldest person we know in this area and we thought you might know if this is the old mill that was torn down 20 years ago," he indicated a spot on the fragile map.
Walter liked the boys, treated them like family, and offered advise when asked. He admired them for their ideals even if they were not keeping up with the times, but most of all he liked that they worked hard, and that they helped others in need. They were good community boys.
As he peered onto the map through thick glasses he’d pulled from his shirt pocket, his brow furrowed, and he pulled his white whiskers into his mouth with his bottom lip and appeared to be chewing on them. This was his usual habit while concentrating, and one the boys knew well.
“Well now, I think you might be right about this being the old mill up river but you hafta remember that the mill was moved once, nearly seventy years ago, so it might be the site of the first location,” he stated slowly.
“They were not far apart, maybe a few miles but it could be either of those two places." The longer Walt examined the map the more confident he was that it was likely the site of the first mill. The Simpson brothers did not know of a former mill but if anyone would know about it old Walt would.
“Well that throws a bit of a kibosh into this old map. Do you think it might be someone’s idea of a joke?” Joe asked.
“It looks authentic enough remarked Walt. Could be, but I doubt that, farmers back in the day had plenty to keep them busy and jokes were not considered a good use of time,” he lamented while taking another draw on his pipe.
“Seems to me you boys have your work cut out for yourselves, it looks like there is more than one X on this map to check out once you know which site you need to explore, but I would be checking with your dad, surely he may know something about it, since it was up in your attic.”
The boys looked at each other, and realized that Walt didn’t know about their fathers slow demise into dementia since his stroke last winter, and they knew that their mother never entered the attic as it was mouse heaven so they didn’t bother to inform her of their findings, besides they were not even sure this map meant anything.
After another half hour of questioning and deciphering the boys thanked Walter for his help and drove home, this time looking at the landscape and minding every bend in the road as if seeing the scene for the first time. The large mature trees, the patches of woods still left wild, the fields seeded and their perimeters, the creeks, and ponds, the various farms and side roads. It was not changed but to the boys now, it was all more important.
Sam and Joe finished their chores quickly that night and began to make plans for the next days trek toward the place where the first mill might have been. With Walt’s suggestions they became excited and talked late into the night both wondering what they might find in the three places marked with an X.
“Maybe there’s a pot of gold or old relics of sorts saved for a rainy day,” said Sam, stretching out his long limbs he melted into the easy chair.
“Or it might be an old boot and wouldn’t we look foolish,” said Joe, but the map had an authenticity, even Walt thought so.
“You know Joe, if it turns out to be something worth a lot of money, what do you think we should do with it,” Sam wondered aloud. “Mom’s family were well off weren’t they?”
“I didn’t think anyone on either side were especially well off,” Joe replied, sitting near the woodstove, in the rocker, the cocker spaniel dozing near his boots, “as far as I know we didn’t have any rich kin folk.”
“Well, I guess we can have a look at least, you never know what this will amount to but in the meanwhile we can dream can’t we?” Sam winked, his wide grin showed a gap between his front teeth, that made him seem mischievous if not impish.
Early morning dew shimmered as Sam’s boots glistened with moisture as he rounded up the cows for milking, while Joe tended to feeding the hogs and attending the newly born piglets and inspecting the heavy new sows. After morning chores and a quick breakfast they headed out down the half concession to the marshes, parked the truck and headed on foot up the meadow toward the river. They found no reference to a mill, no piece of cement or even a stray wire in the area, but it had to be the site of the first mill, Joe thought as it would have been the perfect location, near a falls that still flowed and at least two miles up this river was the second more substantial water fall, and the site of the second mill that Walt knew of.
The mosquitoes were thick here and although the breeze was gentle Sam didn’t want to attempt to role out the map in case the thing would be dampened let alone blow into the water. They wandered around aimlessly, in hopes of stumbling upon something that might lead to a possible clue but to no avail.
“I think its time to give up on this foolishness Sam. We’ll only get eaten by mosquitoes if we stay much longer, besides there is not one iota that would suggest that a mill once stood here.”
Although Sam was still eager to remain searching he could see that Joe had reached his limit, the repetitive scowling and beet red cheeks meant that he was not in the mood. If they didn’t clear out soon he would get that rash again and he didn’t need to hear about that for the next two weeks.
They started back, this time by a more open route thereby escaping the clouds of mosquitoes. The area rough with tree stumps every few feet had them traveling much slower and they didn’t see the ground hog leap to try to make its way back into its hole and down Joe went with quite a thud as he tripped. Sam might have roared with laughter if Joe hadn’t been in such a foul mood so he restrained himself with only a half smile. The stump filled area was like a minefield, and after several stumbles Sam found himself knee deep in another hole.
“This place must be a haven for ground hogs,” Joe said as he helped his brother out. “What do you make of that?”
“Hmm, not sure. Strange, this area.” Then again almost immediately Sam stepped into another hole, deeper this time to mid thigh.
“We might have to slither outta here,”Joe grimaced.
“Wait a minute,” Sam said, “I felt something under my foot that time.”
Upon closer inspection they saw that there were indeed many holes in the area, almost a network of holes.
“Could this have anything to do with an old mill?” Sam asked, “a pipeline that the critters have exploited somehow?”
Before they could take another step, the ground shifted beneath them, the earth shuddered and within seconds the earth gave way and both men were falling into darkness. It was like being in landslide or avalanche as they tumbled they lost all sense of space and direction. Once the falling stopped, Joe called out for Sam, and after a few seconds he heard him shuffle in the debris.
“Wow, that was quite a drop,” Sam said trying not to sound too worried.
“I thought that was our final call,” Joe confessed. He’d lost his lucky hat in the fall but still standing in this cavernous place he felt lucky to be alive.
With no light they started to use their hands to try to figure out where they’d landed. Eventually their eyes adjusted to the darkness, they could see tiny specks of blue or light grey above them.
“Wow, that’s a ways up there,” said Sam. “Looks to be about fifty feet at least and there’s nothing to grab onto, the walls are smooth and slippery and it looks like this path is leading down instead of up.” Sam’s voice was a tad shakey. The snakelike path was becoming muddy and soon they were walking in mud ankle deep.
“This is not looking good Joe,” Sam said, “my boots are getting sticky in this mud, it feels thicker than mud, feels more like quick sand.”
“We don’t have much choice here Sam, there seems to be only one way out so lets keep going.” Eventually the ground became less wet and the walking was easier, but the walls were becoming narrower. Soon they were squeezing through a space that had them both feeling claustrophobic and panic began to set in.
“I can hardly breathe,” Sam hissed, but he kept pushing himself through, and he was beginning to sweat, he felt caught like a caged animal when finally he broke through to another cavern and sighed in relief. Joe came in right behind him and he half giggled in relief of the pressure.
Sam stepped backward making room for his brother, and upon doing so saw a shocked look on his brother’s face. He slowly turned to see what had stunned his brother and there before him, three inches from his face, was a skeleton, in fact there were many skeletons. There were dozens of skeletons in this cavern, so closely placed, they could barely move without stepping on one.
“What do you figure Sam?” Joe asked after a few moments of silence.
“This looks like a graveyard of sorts.” He noted that the skeletons were strategically placed head to head. Rows of bones of various sizes, some larger some very small. Oddly he felt a peacefulness here, despite the scene, he felt a reverence, a certain holiness.
Sam was looking off into the distance, beyond the multitude of skeletons, something was pulling him to that area. He removed his boots and socks to make sure he didn’t step on any bones as he crept toward the pull. His feet felt the cool earth, and though he felt a sadness, he also felt honored to have been given this gift of walking amongst the dead. Soldiers? Warriors? Or maybe just farmers like Joe and himself. They walked in silence among the long dead and eventually the path escalated and they surfaced.
Once more in the sunshine, late in the day now, they walked back toward their truck and drove home. The cows already gathered at the barn door, awaiting the nightly milking, mooed softly as if to ask why they were delayed.
Later that night as they gathered around the woodstove, Sam looked at his brother Joe, then, looked back toward the warm glow of the fire.
“Indian burial grounds you figure? One of three?”
“Seems like,” said Joe, also starring into the fire.
Both men became quiet, sipping on their tea, drawing warmth from the fire and content in their simple home.