By Tom Clark
226…227…228. The man in a crumpled herringbone suit hesitated in the middle of a pasture. He searched his pocket and withdrew a brass instrument. Balancing it carefully in his right hand it read: 165 degrees east, north-east. He appeared satisfied.
“A little bit further. Be patient. Work through the pain.” he told himself.
He picked up his materials and continued walking.
236…237… 238 …239
Without pausing, he knew blisters were forming on his toes, raw, ugly pustules that were likely oozing blood onto his $3.00 socks. Despite the aching and discomfort he couldn’t risk removing old man Burton’s boots. He reminded himself that even if he couldn’t walk for a month, this would be worthwhile.
The late afternoon sky finally cleared leaving behind a muddy field that made his already difficult undertaking even more so.
When he arrived he wondered why Burton chose this spot; no cairns, no fence posts, no buildings , no nothing marked the location. But perhaps this was by clever design, not calling attention to the fortune that rested below the surface.
One thing, perhaps the only positive thing about Hodson Burton was he did everything with intent, even if it seemed irrational to others.
The man paused and thought he could make out a slight mound to his right about a foot high and three feet in diameter. “This had to be it,” although experience had taught him to temper his enthusiasm.
The man dropped everything alongside but used a rusty spade to etch a crude “X” on the mound. He then wiggled his hands inside a pair of large work gloves and thrust the tool downward. Despite the soil’s cornmeal consistency, the spade made only a slight indentation.
‘This is going to be harder than I thought.“
For a half hour he worked and all he had to show was a depression about 20 inches wide and a foot deep. Despite the late fall chill, he was perspiring through his collared shirt .
Fifteen minutes passed before what he dreaded most was walking toward him.
“Howdy.” said the stranger.
“Afternoon.” the man replied in a dismissive, low tone.
“So can I ask, what are you doing out in the middle of the old man’s farm?”
“You just asked,” he replied.
“Oh, I’m just honoring his passing by planting a tree.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes, you see I have it right here.”
“Yea, looks like a sapling alright. Not much to it though.”
“Well, that was all I could find given the time of year.”
“Well if I wanted to remember the old man, I would have planted it at the front of the house or in the town square. Not here, for sure. Besides you seem to be rather particular as to where you want to plant it.”
“Yes, I want the tree to have maximum sunshine.”
“That so? So right here is the spot of maximum sun, you say? You some kind of botanist?
“No but this seems to be right”
“Peculiar. Earlier it looked like you were marking off steps. Could that be right?
“Oh, that’s so I can tell friends exactly where the memorial tree was planted.”
“Really, you feel it is important to count off the exact spot of this here tree? You think folks around here are so dumb that can’t find the only tree that sits on Burton’s thirty odd acre of cleared pasture? Odd, I say, really odd. But I guess that’s your business.”
“Yes, it is my business. Well it’s getting late so I bid you a good evening”
“You also.” Before the stranger shambled away he noticed how the man’s shoes didn’t seem to match his dress.
The man now continued to dig with new vigor and though his sweat attracted masses of flies it only intensified his efforts. He was single-minded. He had to find what Hudson Burton had panned on the American River a half century ago.
When the pit was three feet deep and almost six feet wide, he realized there was nothing to be found. He mentally went over his preparation. He had counted his steps carefully, followed the exact compass setting. What could he have missed?
It was getting late, so it wasn’t worth any more effort. Besides, the manual labor was exhausting. He filled the hole halfway placing the oak sapling in the middle and headed back to his vehicle.
For a few days he went over and over what he could have done wrong. He played the recording several times. Everything was consistent with his actions.
And then it came to him. Hudson Burton was dyslexic. Perhaps 258 steps should have been 285. It was worth a shot.
He returned a week later at dawn. This time he walked to the sapling, once again changed into Hudson’s shoes, eyed his compass and started to count again, this time out loud.
He stopped at 285 and once again marked it with an X and started to dig. The ground was firmer than his last efforts, but it wasn’t long before his spade struck something firm: a long piece of gray slate, lying parallel to the ground. Odd he thought, I didn’t think slate was native to the county. He worked his shovel to the edges and was able to pry the inch thick piece from the ground.
And there it was.
“I agree Sam, there may be nothing in this for us. Could be another cruel joke by the old man. No one would be surprised if he had just another laugh at us even five years after he passed. But you have to give him some credit, he wasn’t nothing until he went out west with just enough money to buy a tinpan and sit down in a creek for ten hours a day. They said he gambled and flophoused half his money away before he came back home, never worked again unless you count his full time tormenting of kin a kind of labor.”
“Yes he was ornery, no wonder he never married and didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. That’s why it was surprising to find he left everything to anyone who wasn’t kin. The man was spiteful even after he went to his grave. Now that’s taking things to an extreme, don’t you think?”
The dozen or so that assembled in the room had waited patiently for today. It was exactly five years since the passing of Hodson Burton and in conformity with his wishes he required his attorney, Clinton Hornblower, gather the neighbors and play his last wishes from a phonograph record -an eerie voice from the dead. Who knew what insults Burton would spew, what vengeance he would exact ? But the record would also identify the location where his wealth was buried and how it would be proportionally shared with his neighbors. The dozen names were listed by the descendant and Hornblower sent proper notice to them via certified mail to ensure they had received it.
No one knew the wealth they were about to inherit and they didn’t know their proportional share, all they knew is that there was something of value coming their way.
With everyone gathered in the office, Hornblower stood and waved his hand for silence.
“Dear friends. I hold in my hand the last will and testament of Hodson Burton. It was his wish that this record should be reproduced in your presence and now if you will give me your undivided attention this I shall proceed to do with you. “
With these words the attorney took a step toward the phonograph, tripped over a rug, fell and smashed the record into about 4,000 small pieces.
“ Gee, broke the will alright, didn’t I. “