No need to fret, dear reader. There were no whoopins to be handed out. Ron didn't subscribe to that archaic practice. But the Wildwood Gang's blatant disregard for the rules forced him to take drastic action, and the following morning he brought out the demolition crew to raze Kent Cottage to the ground.
To be fair, this was not a knee-jerk reaction. Ron had been contemplating this since the break-in over the summer. It was just a matter of pulling the trigger, and now, with his son involved, it seemed like the appropriate time.
The demolition crew consisted of Ron, Greg, Cody, and, of course, Mr. Heard. In fact, if there was anyone best suited to destroying something that brought so much joy and wonder to children, it was Mr. Heard. So it was only appropriate that he swing the wrecking ball. Then again, he was the only one with training to operate a crane.
In addition to the crane, Ron brought in a pair of backhoes with large yellow buckets, more than capable of handling the massive amount of stone and rubble the cottage was about to produce. And as far as hauling this debris off the property, Ron called in a favor with his buddy's construction company, but you really don't need to know the details of that arrangement.
The demolition was scheduled to commence at nine o'clock in the morning, but Jeff was able to buy the cottage a brief stay of execution once his father agreed to let him bring his friends over to witness the event. Sofie and Ethan were onsite within the hour, but Drew had declined the invitation. Perhaps he was still sullen over their inability to find the treasure, or perhaps he was not quite ready to rejoin the Wildwood Gang on a full-time basis. Either way, he decided to sit this one out.
As part of the agreement with his father, Jeff and his friends had to watch from a distance, so they set up shop along the tree line, just shy of the ocean of tall grass. Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan gazed out at Kent Cottage, the noose tightened around its neck, and waited for the executioner to take his position.
From their private viewing area, which didn't require a Fast-Pass or offer twelve-dollar cupcakes, they watched Mr. Heard climb into the crane and take his seat at the controls, while Ron, Greg, and Cody stood beside the backhoes on the far side of the clearing, safely out of range of the wrecking ball. Jeff saw his father give Mr. Heard the all-clear, and then the crane's engine sprung to life.
The kids stood there mesmerized. None of them had ever seen a wrecking ball in action, and coupled with the fact that the intended target was a place oozing with history, they simply couldn't afford the luxury of blinking. So when Drew exploded onto the scene hollering for Jeff to stop the proceedings, he shattered their trance like a preschooler launching a thermos through a plate glass window.
"We have to go back to the cottage!" Drew shouted.
"We can't go back," Jeff said. "They're about to demolish it."
"But I know where the treasure is!"
"Wait, what?" Ethan said.
"I know where the treasure is!" Drew repeated. "We have to get back inside!"
Jeff shook his head. "That's impossible."
"C'mon, Jeff!" Drew pleaded. "This is serious!"
"Are you certain you know where it is?" Sofie asked.
"Yeah," he said unconvincingly. "Pretty certain." He shifted in his shoes, suddenly aware that he was being probed by three sets of suspicious eyes. "Okay, I'm not a hundred percent certain, but I have a good idea."
"That's not good enough," Jeff said. "My dad let me off easy last night. I lost technology for a few days, but that's it. I'm not gonna make it worse because of a hunch."
Drew walked over to Jeff and put his hand on his shoulder. "I need you to trust me on this one." It was a maneuver he had used in the past: a brotherly hand on the shoulder, an emphasis on trust, and a plea to sacrifice for the greater good. Of course, the greater good usually benefitted Drew in some way, but the tactic had a favorable success rate.
"Where is it?" Jeff asked, not yet willing to take the bait.
"But there's nothing in the attic," Jeff said.
"Nothing that we could see. But I think I know where he hid it."
"Where who hid it?" Ethan asked.
"What do you mean, who?" Drew growled. "Charles Nichols!"
"Oh, right," Ethan said. "What did he hide? Money? Jewels?"
Drew hesitated. "I won't know till I see it." His response was followed by a collective groan from the others.
"Forget it, Drew," Jeff said. "I'm not running out there to stop this." And then he turned his back and looked away, unwilling to subject himself to the charm and influence of his friend.
Drew looked at the ground and nodded. "Okay, fine. I'll do it myself." And like a firefly with a busted tail light, he was off.
He was a good twenty feet away before the others realized what was happening, and when Jeff saw him running through the tall grass toward his father and Kent Cottage, he knew he had no choice but to pursue.
It was a futile effort, really. There wasn't a body in school that could outrun Drew, teachers included. Well, Ms. DeLarosa might've been the exception. She ran track in college and still had her youth, but I think I'd still put my money on Drew.
Anyway, Jeff, Sofie, and Ethan chased after him, but Drew had already reached the clearing before they were halfway.
"Mr. Markham! Mr. Markham!" Drew called out as he entered the clearing.
Ron turned around and saw Drew running his way. "What's wrong, Drew?"
"You have to stop the demo!"
"Stop the demo? What for?"
Drew came to a screeching halt about five feet from Ron. "I think there's something valuable in the cottage!"
Ron stared at Drew while a string of thoughts like Really? and Not this again! and You've gotta be kidding me! filled his mind like super expansive foam sealant. Then his eyes moved from Drew to his son as Jeff arrived on the scene. Fortunately for Jeff, his father was really good at decoding facial expressions, and he could tell by the mashed-up look of panic, frustration, and discombobulation on his son's face that this was not his idea.
"Something valuable, huh?" Ron said, directing his remark at Drew. "Whereabouts?"
"In the attic," Drew replied.
Ron glanced at Jeff briefly and then turned back to Drew. "Are you sure?"
"No," Drew said. "But I have a hunch. Can you give us ten minutes?"
Ron appeared as if he wanted to say no, but after a solid fifteen seconds of hemming and hawing with his inner self, he turned away from the kids and walked toward the crane. He made eye contact with Mr. Heard and swiped his hand beneath his chin, signaling Mr. Heard to kill the engine. Heard did so, albeit reluctantly, and the crane quickly fell silent.
The Wildwood Gang watched with bated breath as Ron and Mr. Heard exchanged a few words. After what felt like forever, Ron walked toward the cottage and waved the kids over.
"Okay," Ron said. "Ten minutes. But you follow my lead. Understand?"
The kids nodded in agreement and followed Ron around to the back of the cottage and entered via the kitchen. The cottage was still dark, despite the bright morning sun, as the boarded windows kept out much of the light. In some spots, slivers of sunlight tried to wedge themselves between the tiny gaps in the boards, but it wasn't enough to light the way.
Ron reached into his shirt pocket and took out his penlight, illuminating the space with a soft, warm glow. Drew extracted his mini-flashlight from his back pocket and activated the super bright setting, pretty much snuffing out all of Ron's illuminative contributions.
"Way to steal my thunder," Ron said with a half-smile. He led them through the house and up the stairs to the master bedroom, and then one at a time they climbed up into the attic.
Drew shined his light around the empty room, scrubbing the floor and the baseboards.
"You want to tell us what we're looking for?" Jeff asked.
"Loose floorboards. Holes in the wall," Drew said. "Anything that looks like it might be hiding something."
Jeff borrowed his father's penlight and climbed through the small door into the crawl space, while Sofie and Ethan checked the floorboards with Drew. Ron stood by and watched as they went board by board, canvasing the entire room from front to back. They had finished their sweep just as Jeff was emerging from the crawl space.
"I don't see anything in there," he said. "There's a hole in the floor but I don't see any treasure. But you still haven't told us what we're looking for."
Drew shined his light along the lower half of the back wall. "You told me that Charles Nichols said 'mantel,' and everyone assumed he meant the fireplace mantel. And that seemed like the obvious location." He turned his focus to the wall on the right, and studied every line and defect. "But then I remembered his baseball cards."
The spot from his flashlight traced the top of the baseboard, gliding past the attic door, and locking on the vent grate about halfway along the wall. His face lit up like the Rockefeller Christmas Tree, and then he did his best Sugar Ray Leonard, ducking and weaving beneath a blanket of cobwebs hanging overhead. He crouched down beside the vent, and noticed one side was missing a screw.
"Here, hold this," he said, handing his flashlight to Sofie. "Point it here."
Sofie directed the light at the vent while Drew lifted the detached side of the grate away from wall and rotated it a hundred-and-eighty degrees to the right, exposing the vent duct. He stuck his hand inside, feeling around for any sign of a foreign object.
"Careful," Ron said, hoping to prevent any impromptu visits to the emergency room. But Drew was so focused on his task, it was unlikely he had heard the warning. His arm had disappeared up to his shoulder as he reached left and right and anywhere else his fingers would take him. And then suddenly he stopped.
Four sets of eyeballs were glued to the vent as Drew carefully extracted his arm from the duct. When he had recovered his limb, his friends noticed he was clutching a metal box, roughly a foot in length, five inches wide, and four inches deep. When he was clear of the vent, he scrambled beneath the cobwebs and placed the box on the floor for all to see.
After reacquiring his flashlight, he slowly opened the lid of the box and peered inside. From the look on his face, one might have assumed he had finally laid eyes upon the ghost of Kent Cottage. In hindsight, one could argue he just had.
"It wasn't the fireplace mantel," Drew said as he reached inside the box. He removed a baseball card and held it under the light. "It was Mickey Mantle."
The others stared at the card in wonder. Except for Ethan.
"Who's Mickey Mantle?" he asked.
Drew gave him the stink eye. "Dude, don't even."
"Mickey Mantle was a baseball legend," Jeff said. "He played a long time ago."
"Fifties and Sixties," Ron said. "Can I see that a minute?"
Ron took the card from Drew, and with the aid of his penlight, examined the statistics on the back. A few moments later, he flipped the card to the front, and then flipped it to the back again, and then he nodded and chuckled to himself.
"This is a Mickey Mantle rookie card," he said. "This thing's worth a fortune. Looks like you found your treasure, kids. Congratulations."
The Wildwood Gang looked around at one another with smiles so wide they would have needed dental implants to fill the empty space. Indeed, they had found the hidden treasure of Kent Cottage, and they gave Drew a hearty pat on the back.
"What else is in there?" Ron asked as he handed the card back to Drew.
Drew shuffled through the collection of loose cards and shared them with the group. He discovered some other classics that might have fetched a few hundred bucks on the secondary market, but the Mantle rookie card was the jackpot.
"That's an awful lot of coin you have in your hand," Ron said, coating his words in his best 'Dad' voice. "What are you going to do with it?"
Drew stared at the Mantle card in his hand. It seemed as if the taste of victory had left a permanent smile on his face, but as he debated the future of the card, the smile gradually faded. He looked at Jeff, and then Sofie, and then Ethan, and then down at the Mantle rookie card.
"It doesn't belong to us," Drew said. "It should go back to its rightful owner."
"I think that's a wise choice," Ron said. "Is that your decision?"
"It's not my decision," Drew said. "It's a Wildwood Gang decision. We need to vote."
And vote they did.
And I'm pleased to inform you that the vote was unanimous to return the card, along with the rest of the collection, to Charles Nichols.
© Copyright 2021 Mark D. Gallant. All rights reserved.