“Whew!” Hank whipped out a hanky and mopped his glistening brow, squinting hard as the sun blazed overhead. “If this ain’t the hottest darn day…”
He had just finished loading the last sack of provisions into the wagon. Bill Druthers, the General Store owner, was inspecting the mound of goods so he could tally up the bill.
“That’s fer sure.” Bill agreed. “Can’t last too long, though. Way them clouds look we’re in for a squall come nightfall.”
Hank lifted up his Stetson a bit, peering at the deep, dark clouds that were gathering over the distant mountains. “They’re getting ready to hit the war-path, alright. Fine with me! Anything’s better than this inferno.”
Grunting in agreement, Bill turned toward the store. “Well, come on in and we’ll settle yer bill.”
Spurs clinking and chaps swishing, Hank started to follow Bill inside, when movement down the street caught his eye. Pausing in the doorway of the General Store, Hank watched as three men strode out of the bar, evidently having indulged in some mid-day drinking—just enough to make them a little testy and more likely to do something rash.
It was the McBaney brothers, dark hair, dark eyes, and even darker hearts. Hank couldn’t help glaring at them, his blue eyes narrowing as he gnawed on his lower lip.
He had been in several tangles with the McBaneys. He couldn’t stand their bullying, cowardly ways, and somehow, they always managed to light his red-haired temper on fire.
“You comin’ Hank?” Bill called from inside the store.
Stepping inside, Hank kept one eye on the wagon to make sure everything stayed put. Couldn’t be too careful with those skunks around.
Just as Hank was pocketing the receipt for the goods that he had bought he heard a commotion outside. Whirling around, he charged through the shop door, glancing hurriedly around him to see what was going on. Sure enough, it was the McBaneys, back at their bullying.
An old man law sprawled on the ground at their feet. Evidently they had tripped him, and now Jep, the oldest brother, had one large boot planted on the old man’s back.
In a flash Hank’s temper exploded, and he charged down the boardwalk at top speed.
“Hey, you let him be!”
The McBaneys snickered as they watched the lanky red-haired cowboy sprint towards them.
“Take it easy, Hank. It’s no big deal.” Jep sneered.
Jase, the middle brother, chimed in. “Just a little fun.” His lips curled back over his ugly yellow teeth in a sinister smile.
Hank, however, didn’t waste any time talking. He had had enough of their cruelty.
He reached Jep first, and it only took one quick jab to the chin to send the startled man reeling against the nearby wall.
Jase was next in line, and in the blink of an eye Hank had grabbed a nearby chair and smashed it over his head. Joseph, the youngest, squealed as his older brother’s heavy figure crashed into his.
Hank froze. By this time, he had already spun back around towards Jep, and his elbow was halfway to crushing the bully’s face.
“Leave us be!” Jep continued. “We didn’t mean no harm.”
“Yeahhh…” Joe whined from underneath Jase.
Hank was still raging mad, but at the same time he wanted nothing more than to see the backs of the McBaneys. “Fine…” He snarled, “But you better get out of here!”
Too cowardly to fight even with the odds in their favor, the brothers were gone in a moment, and Hank turned his attention to the old man that had been knocked down.
The man, a stranger to Hank, had turned himself over and was sitting on the boarded walkway. For a moment all Hank could do was stare at the man—there was something intriguing about him.
Bushy, snow-white hair cascaded over his forehead, blending in with a thick mustache that draped lazily over his mouth. A blue checkered shirt was shoved into a pair of tawny brown pants—held up as high as they could possibly go by bright red suspenders. In every way he seemed to be just an ordinary old coot who wandered from one town to the next, coming from nowhere in particular and going nowhere in particular.
Yet Hank was startled when, beneath the wild tangle of snowy hair, there sparkled a pair of shocking blue eyes. There was something captivating about them that the cowboy couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Trying to shake of the strange feeling that had overtaken him, Hank knelt down and asked if the man was all right.
“Jest fine!” Crinkling up in a smile, “Thank ye kindly, son. Folks like you are special—you remember that! If you’re kind to others, good will come to you.” Again, the man’s blue eyes twinkled merrily.
Hank blinked. Why did this old geezer give him such a strange feeling? He wasn’t sure if he liked it or not.
“Shucks, it ain’t nothing. You wait here while I fetch my wagon and then I’ll take you wherever you’re wantin’ to go.” And, without giving the man a chance to answer, Hank scurried down the boardwalk to the wagon.
Bill stepped out of the store when he saw Hank through the front window.
“What was all the commotion about? You took off like a wet cat!”
“Just some trouble with the McBaneys.” Hank replied. “They were messin’ with some old fellow—a stranger. I’m getting’ the wagon now to take him wherever he’s goin’.”
Bill peered in the direction that Hank was gesturing towards.
“What old man?”
“Huh?!” Hank whirled around and gazed down the street.
The mysterious old man had disappeared!
“Well, I’ll be hickory smoked. Where’d the old coot get off to?”
Bill shrugged, “Well, wherever he went, he must be okay. I wouldn’t worry too much about him. Tough old goats like that can handle anything.”
As Hank drove out of town, he tried hard to catch a glimpse of the man, but he had vanished. Soon, however, he had put the incident out of his mind completely. He was headed back to the Circle G, where he worked, and once he delivered the supplies there would be plenty of work to do before the coming storm.
Just as he was entering the ranch property, the sunlight hit something on the seat next to him. The glistening object caught his eye, and, keeping a firm hold of the reins with one hand, he picked it up to examine it.
To his surprise, it was a gold locket—slightly tarnished with age, but still beautiful, and very intricately designed.
“How in the world did this get here?” Hank thought, puzzled.
Quickly stopping the horses so he could give his full attention to the discovered trinket, Hank’s fingers worked quickly to open the locket. Within seconds it had sprung open, and the red-haired young man was surprised to see a tiny slip of paper fall to his lap.
Upon further examination, it appeared to be a map of some sort. Having lived in the area his whole life, it didn’t take long for Hank to realize that it represented a certain small canyon up in the nearby mountains. He had been there many times, having discovered the place while searching for a lost calf.
It was a beautiful spot, shaded by lush green trees and carpeted by ferns and flowers. A waterfall, cascading down into the hidden gorge, settled into a gentle stream that flowed on to join a mighty river. The river was well known, as it was the main source of water for the town, but no one besides Hank had ever ventured very deep into the mountains. It was his secret place.
“Well, what do you know…” The cowpoke breathed out in amazement. “Here I thought I was the only one who knew about that spot.”
Suddenly his heart skipped a beat as he peered at the tiny map, worn and faded with age. A tiny X had been drawn on the map, and it appeared to be…under the waterfall? Hank had never explored behind it, so there could very well be something hidden there that he had not yet discovered.
Practically boiling over with excitement, Hank tucked the map back into the locket and fastened the necklace securely in his shirt pocket.
As soon as he could, he was going to find out what was behind that waterfall.
* * *
All of the work had been done for the evening, everything was secure from the coming rain, and the men were headed to the house for supper. Straggling behind the rest, Hank gazed up at the sky, watching the clouds move slowly towards the ranch.
It only took him a moment to calculate how much time he had before the storm broke. He had a plan.
“It might be cutting it close, but I’ll chance it.”
The daring young fellow couldn’t wait to find out what the map led to. If he hurried, he could get to the spot, complete his search, and still make it back to the ranch before the clouds unleashed their full fury.
Although the planned adventure had its appeal, so did supper. It wouldn’t do to set off on an expedition like this without some provisions!
Dashing to the kitchen door, Hank knocked quickly.
In a moment the door was opened by a young girl, small and blonde. Her blue eyes widened when she saw the grinning redhead standing outside the door.
“What’re you doin’ here?” She whispered. “Why aren’t you in getting’ supper with the others?”
“I’ve got somethin’ I need to tend to, Jenny!” Hank whispered back, still grinning. He liked Jenny a whole lot. In fact, he wanted to marry her once he had saved up enough money, if she was willing.
“Would you mind just fetchin’ me a few biscuits or somethin’ to take with me?”
Jenny’s brow puckered up with bewilderment. “Well, alright. Don’t know where you could be goin’ right before a thunderstorm, but it’s not for me to be stoppin’ you.” She moved quickly, worried that the boss’s wife would find her talking with her fellow when she was supposed to be getting supper.
“Here y’ are.” Passing Hank a tied-up handkerchief filled with biscuits and jerky, Jenny shooed him on his way. “You’d best be getting’ out of here before the Missus walks in and finds us talking’.”
“Thanks, Jenny.” Hank flashed one last grin in the girl’s direction before sprinting to the corral.
Several of the horses clustered around the fence as Hank approached them. He was kind to them, and all of the animals trusted him.
He had his eye on one in particular, though.
“Come on Rocket, I need all the speed I can get this evening!”
Hank and Rocket were soon dashing at break-neck speed across the prairie, across the river, and on to the mountains. Hanks’ eyes were fixed on one particular area. He knew that, hidden behind that ridge, was a hidden place—that apparently held more secrets that he had thought.
* * *
Shivering in the cold spray of the waterfall, Hank peered behind the rushing wall of water. Sure enough, a black hole gaped in the side of the natural wall.
“I can’t believe it. If this ain’t the craziest darn thing!” Hank shook his head in disbelief.
A distant crack of lightning reminded him that his time was limited, and he quickly squeezed behind the falls to inspect the dark crevasse.
A match from his pocket supplied a bit of light, but it wasn’t enough to reveal much of the dark tunnel that lay ahead. Although the eerie void caused Hank to shiver a little in apprehension, he continued to creep slowly into the passageway.
Withing a few feet the opening took a slight turn, and Hank was surprised to see a soft glow of light through an opening ahead.
Hank wished his heart would stop beating so wildly in his chest. Something about the place made him feel like an intruder, and he barely dared to breath as he approached the dimly lit cavity beyond.
What met his eyes caused his mouth to fall open in astonishment. A hidden room, lit only by a small stream of light coming through a tiny opening up above, was lined with green moss and ferns. The only sound was the gentle trickling of water that dripped down the walls of the cave, and the muted rumble of the waterfall outside.
In the center of the room, two large, flat stones were laid side by side.
Inching forward, Hank strained to read the words that were chiseled into them.
One read “Mary Pickford, 1807 – 1872”.
The other was inscribed with the words “Moses Pickford, 1804 – 1875”.
Hank gulped, his eyes wide. These were gravestones.
He was tempted to turn and hurry away from the dismal place, but suddenly his eye landed on a small metal box, slightly rusted, that lay between the two stones. Brushing aside a patch of ferns, Hank picked it up. It was intricately designed, like the locket, fastened shut by two clasps.
Hank’s eyes shifted towards the two graves. Should he open the box?
Regardless of the lingering apprehension that he felt, Hank’s curiosity was too great, and soon he had forced open the rusty clasps and lifted the lid of the box.
Inside was an envelope, laying atop of a little burlap sack. Although the envelope was yellowed with age, it had been well preserved in the box. Gently opening it, the young man pulled out a folded piece of paper, along with a smaller square object.
He unfolded the piece of paper first. It was a note, written in a clear but old-fashioned hand.
Although there was barely enough light for him to see, he could just make out the contents of the note.
To the Reader of this Note,
Thanks for everything. You’re a special person. I know you will use the contents of this box wisely.
Just remember this—if you are kind to others, good things will come to you.
Hank fell back in shock, his hands shaking violently. Those were the exact words that the old man had said to him that very morning!
It took a few moments for him to calm down, but his curiosity again got the better of him as his eye fell on the burlap sack that lay in the box. Still trembling slightly, he slowly opened the sack.
To his amazement, the bag was filled to the brim with glimmering stones of gold!
Had the this “Pickford” fellow really left this for someone to find? Hank could scarcely believe it.
Then he remembered the other object that had been in the envelope—the small square piece of cardstock. It had some writing on it, although the handwriting was not the same as in the letter. All it said was:
“Mary and Moses, 1856”
Flipping the card over, Hank realized that it was, in fact, a faded picture of a man and woman. She was a lovely-looking lady of about fifty years old, with dark hair (streaked with gray) and dark eyes. She had a sweet, pleasant expression, one that revealed a tender heart and a kind spirit.
The man, slightly older, had a bushy shock of white hair on top of his face. His clean-shaven face was crinkled up in a smile.
It was that smile that stopped Hank’s heart cold. If he had been stunned before, he was doubly shocked now.
Even in the black-and-white photograph he recognized that grin, and those eyes…twinkling like diamonds.
The events of the day flashed through Hank’s mind. The old man with the startling eyes and crinkly smile…the locket that mysteriously appeared on the wagon seat…those words…
“If you are kind to others, good will come to you.”
That phrase echoed over and over through his brain. Was this a dream? It had to be. But it seemed so real…
The entire cave lit up as lightning flashed through the small opening up above, and Hank jumped, startled. How long had he been there?
As quickly as the cavern lit up, it plunged into deeper darkness as the sky outside blackened. He needed to leave—right away.
Pausing, Hank was unsure what to do. Should he…?
No. It wouldn’t be right.
Lighting another match so he could see what he was doing, he started to tuck the letter and photograph back into their envelope, when he caught one last glimpse of the old man’s face. Those glistening eyes, and kind smile. Again, the man’s words reverberated through Hank’s mind.
“If you are kind to others, good will come to you.”
Suddenly, he felt less afraid.
He slid the envelope and locket back into the box, picked up the sack of gold, and hurried out of the cave.
Soon he and Rocket were racing the storm back across the prairie. Glancing over his shoulder, Hank’s mind swirled with questions…questions that would never be answered.
* * *
Within a year Hank and Jenny were married, and he had started a ranch of his own.
He hadn't told her, or his friend Bill Druthers, about what had happened.
Maybe he would one day, but how could he explain what he himself couldn't understand? For now it would remain his secret…shared only with the mysterious blue-eyed stranger with the crinkly smile.