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120 pages
Mar 2006
Herald Press

Treasure Hunt: A Shenandoah Valley Mystery

by Eunice Geil Smith

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The Unforgivable

I admit it probably happened because I was bored. Being snowed in for three days can do that to an eleven-year-old. After wandering into the parlor, I stood watching my dad take an after-lunch nap, and the bright idea to drop snow down his neck came to me. I packed a small snowball from off the porch rail and returned inside. Images of us laughing together popped into my head. But my strategy was not well thought out, because I forgot Family Rule Number One: When Dad is taking a nap, let him.

Our stone-and-brick farmhouse was isolated, and that winter of 1959 had been an especially hard one in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I was stuck in the middle of two hundred acres with chickens, cows, sheep, and two younger sisters. Unplowed farm lanes and narrow backcountry roads hadn’t offered access to the outside world after ten inches of snow fell during the last week in March.

Dad’s ruddy, wind-tanned face looked strong even in sleep. Shifting his broad shoulders, he unconsciously moved a rough, calloused hand into a more comfortable position. I froze. The steady rise and fall of his chest reassured me.

“Maggie, this isn’t a good idea,” my Goodie Two- Shoes voice suggested.

“Think how funny it’ll be. Go ahead. Do it,” my Double-Dare side said.

“Stop and think. You’ll be sorry!” Goodie warned.

“You’re not going to get into trouble,” Double argued.

My darker side won, and I did the deed. With a roar, Dad bounded up, and I instantly understood I had made a huge mistake. I was off in an instant. He was after me in a flash.

I ran for my life. Using the advantage of surprise, I darted from room to room, one step ahead of him. In a panicked voice, I shrieked loudly, “Help! Help!” I had no idea who might answer my appeal, and my fate appeared to be sealed.

“Just you wait, young lady. Come back here!” Dad’s voice pursued me. Circling through the house, the sound of his heavy footsteps played a rhythm inside my head. Out of his sight, I skidded around the corner on a scatter rug. I raced up the back parlor staircase two and three steps at a time, through the bedrooms, and down the front stairs that led back to the kitchen. Our moves took on the matching steps of a dance.

Of course, everyone in the family became aware of the uproar. I vaguely sensed that a trail of people followed the chase. My mother, with Baby Sarah balanced expertly on one hip, attempted to grab my arm but missed. Eluding her, I made a wide turn through the dining room. The circle started again.

I passed my sister Elizabeth heading the opposite way up the back stairs. My heart was beating madly. As I ignored wildly waving arms and half-heard questions, various strategies played Ping-Pong inside my head. They bounced off the walls of my brain to smash and ricochet in unpredicted directions.

It was no secret that Dad had a temper. It flashed like a thunderstorm full of sound and fury. Sparks of lightning and thunderously rolling bellows heralded its advent. But it ended quickly. I just needed to hold out for the “ended quickly” stage.

“Don’t say it,” my Double-Dare voice snapped.

“Don’t say what? That waking your dad from a dead sleep by putting snow down his shirt wasn’t smart? You’re going to be lucky to survive,” my Goodie side responded.

“It’ll be all right. He won’t do anything drastic,” Double-Dare said with hope.

“Well, you better think fast,” Goodie Two-Shoes concluded. I heard the sound of my dad’s voice behind me. Snow was the only word I could understand clearly.

Adrenaline helped, and strategy evolved. A sigh of relief escaped me as the perfect idea occurred to me. The commotion created by my dad’s voice grew faint as he stopped to check if I was hiding under a bed upstairs, and I executed my plan with a burst of speed to allow me the luxury of unobserved maneuvers. Changing direction in the kitchen, I quietly opened the cellar door. Carefully I pulled it closed behind me. Down the steep, wooden stairs I crept toward the gravel-covered floor.

Unfinished dirt walls confronted me, except for the outer stone wall of the house, where a sagging cellar door hung beside a high window. Leaving by the wooden door wasn’t an option because overgrown lilac bushes and climbing ivy vines blocked the outside stone steps that led up to the backyard. Standing against one of the dirt walls was a two-hole wooden bin used for storing apples and potatoes. Disappearing into the depths beneath the stairs, a crawl space ran under the entire length of the house. Dirty cobwebs and unknown pitfalls awaited me.

Splitting the crawl space stood the brick chimney. In front of the chimney, light from the dirty-paned window revealed tall pine shelves. The shelves were lined with old newspapers, and the canning jars of peaches, green beans, and watery, red tomato juice wore a thin coat of dust. Damp, earthy smells filled my nose, and uneven gravel shifted under my feet. Previous generations living in the house had used the crawl space as a dumping ground for broken glass, emptied tin cans, and smashed pottery. If it was unwanted, unusable, or unfixable, someone pitched it back under the house. Gingerly I worked my way as far out of sight behind the chimney and shelves as I could get.

Loud thumps of overhead footsteps and calling voices echoed. Mystified parents called fruitlessly, “Maggie, come out. Where are you?”

“Where is she?” I heard the worry in Mother’s voice.

Straining to lift my body and move forward, I found myself frozen in place. Weakly I called, “Here. Here.” My unused voice sounded far removed. Again I tried to make myself heard.

“I’m down in the cellar.” This time my effort was just loud enough for Mother’s ear.

A bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling switched on. By its meager light, I watched my entire family assemble in front of my hiding place. No one spoke. Slowly I worked my way out of the minefield into which I had crawled and surrendered to my fate and faced my family.

Dad took one look at me. Cobwebs dripped off my hair. Filth covered me from head to toe. Holding my breath, I waited. As he threw back his head, his whole body shook as a laugh rolled out and reached the corners of the cellar. Almost instantly, the whole family was laughing. From anger to laughter, we had run the gamut of emotions.

The laughter discovered that snowy day when the unforgivable became a family legend rang through the house. How was I to know that an even greater discovery awaited me the very next day because of that adventure?