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Rated: E · Short Story · Fantasy · #1921856
One man's junk is another man's treasure
Number 25
Bertie Williams


There is a road that runs along the river.  It is the only road that is not paved in all of Deer Hollow.  In summer months the dust from the road fogs over the river's edge.  In winter, muddy ruts make the road almost impassible.  At the end of the road sat Number 25.  I saw it many times when I was kid.  My dad and I would take the row boat out for fishing and pass Number 25 on the way up-river to our favorite fishing spot.  Most of the time, the house was shielded from sight by derelict weeds and ancient myrtles. 

Now, the house was as faded as the past it had come from.  I stood on the dirt road and looked hard at the structure.  Every stick of wood was washed gray by years of wind and rain.  The door hung crazily inward held there by one hinge.  Someone had tried to add a second storey which lurched tipsy-wise to the left.  The whole house looked as though it would suddenly fall to the west, giving up its ghosts to the setting sun.

We brought a CAT with us, it rumbled up the dirt road spewing black smoke and raising dust.  The driver stopped about forty feet away, waiting for the order to crush the structure.

"I wanna go inside and see if there's anything in there worth salvaging."

Salvage was my business.  Demolishing houses and taking pipes, fixtures, old furniture and anything else that may be of value was my stock in trade. 

I entered the creaking door, pushing it back so that it met flush with the wall behind.  The place smelled of dust and rank water.  The floor beneath my feet was half rotted away, but it was flush with the ground, so there was no danger of falling through.  I looked up.  The ceiling was cracked and falling in.  Huge water stains showed that the floor above, which should have been covered by the roof, leaked all the way through to the bottom floor.  The room was pretty wide for the hovel that it was.  I walked through to the kitchen.  A wash sink, a couple of cupboards without doors and tattered burlap sacks on the glassless windows made up all that was left behind.  The pipes beneath the wash sink had long ago been pilfered; no value there.

I searched the cupboards, and the many cracks and crevices left by age.  Nothing.  I went back through the main room and to a small side door which was a closet.  Once more my examinations failed to find any valuable item. 

To the right of the kitchen entrance a rickety stair case led to the top floor.  I stepped onto the first stair and it waved uncomfortably with my weight.  I stood still for a moment and when the staircase steadied I stepped up slowly until I reached the sagging second floor.

More dust than I had ever seen in any house rose as I passed slowly from room to room.  A beam of light shot through the miasma.  It was the sun coming through an ancient glass pane on the opposite wall.  The beam landed just above a slightly cleaner spot on the wall, just above the baseboard molding.  With great care I skirted a large hole that led to the first floor in a shear drop.  The rotted wood creaked and groaned beneath my feet, and splinters of wood fell down onto the main floor.

There was a strip of solid flooring about a foot wide in front of the discolored wall.  I knelt down and pushed on the wall.  It was more solid than the rest of the wood that surrounded the discoloration.  I took my hammer from my tool belt and began to knock the wall in.  I thought I heard my name called.

"I'll be down in a minute.  Hold your horses."

Once again I slammed the hammer into the wall.  Whoever had done this had used mortar to seal up the hole.  The space was about seven inches wide and ten inches high.  Big enough for a nice little cache, I thought.

The wind whistled through the separated boards and opened windows and once again I heard my name called.

"I've found something.  Just a minute I'll be down"

I cracked through the rest of the wall and found two small boxes about four by six inches wide and about four inches deep.  They were sealed shut.  I took them out of the hole and lay them next to me.  One of them was silver, turned black by tarnish.  The other  was a battered metal box painted dark green.  I studied the boxes trying to open them.  They were soldered shut.  I shook the green one and heard the rattle of items inside.  I shook the silver box and heard nothing, although it felt rather heavy.

I heard the stairs creak under someone's weight and thought that one of the crew, anxious to begin the demolition was coming up looking for me.  I waited for someone to speak and when they did not, I turned toward the door. 

The roof over the doorway had partially fallen in.  Roof beams almost clogged the entrance making it tricky to climb over.  A figure stood before the beams. 

"What-er-ya doin' in my place?"

The person stepped forward and stood in the sunlight.  He was about thirty-five and lean as a pole.  He wore a pair of coveralls that had seen better days.  One strap was torn away  so that the man had attached the remaining strap across his very bony chest.  His long arms and face were pale, the skin drawn tight, a look of starvation in his deep set dark eyes.

"I, uh, well this place is being taken down.  What do you mean 'your place?'  Nobody's lived in this hovel for forty years."

"I live here.  My daddy lived her and my granddaddy lived here."

"Not any longer, pal.  This place is being demolished today.  Soon as I get downstairs."

The man's eyes held a threat, his movements toward me sudden.  I moved back and away from him.  I had no fear of an emaciated, bare footed man that suddenly decided that his flop was his own place.

"Look.  There's no way in hell that this is your house.  You need to get your butt into town and stay at one of them homeless shelters.  This ain't no place to set up camp."

I started to move along the wall, holding the two boxes and the man came in front of me.

"This is my place.  Those are my pretties and you ain't takin' 'em no-wheres."

The man lunged forward and grabbed my arm.  His grasp was strong; his hands cold as ice.

"Let go of me!  I'll have the sheriff out here after you."

He held on but I kicked him.  He let go and I hurried toward the door with my finds.

The stairs wobbled mercilessly as I hurried as fast as I dared down to the first level.  I looked up, thinking the man would follow, but he did not.

I reached the main floor and looked up the stairs.  Wherever the man had vanished to, we had to get him out.  Once the CAT began to knock this old pile to the floor, it wouldn't stand for more than two minutes.

"Hey Stanley!"

The driver of the CAT was calling me.  I walked over, the boxes under my arm.

"Okay if I start 'er up?"

"No.  There's a guy in there.  Says it's his place.  Some nut.  We can't knock it down until we get him out."

"What guy?" My foreman, Jeff asked.

"I don't know, some guy.  Didn't you see him comin' in?"

The foreman shook his head.  The other guys that were on the clean-up crew denied seeing a guy go in too.  I removed my baseball cap and scratched my head.

"Well, there was a guy inside. Maybe he was inside all along."

The CAT driver slapped his hands at his sides.  Most days we had time to take down these old houses, but today, the county was on our asses to take down this building.  It had stood like a sentinel at the end of this road; a giant eyesore.  The county was having trouble selling the farm land because the superstitious folk called the plot "haunted."

"Alright, alright, I 'll go back inside and try to find him."

I lay the boxes down by an old tree stump and crossed back over the threshold. 

"Hey!  Mister!  Where are you?  You'd better get out . . . if they start that CAT up you're gonna get hurt when this place comes down."

There was no answer except for the dust that sifted down from the rotted ceiling.  I took the steps warily up to the second floor and looked around.  The rooms were empty.  I returned to the ground floor and looked through the rooms.  None of the rooms held any person.  I walked outside and waved a hand at the CAT driver.

"Okay, get 'er up."

The motor on the beast revved, the noise scaring birds in the fields into flight.  Clanking and thrumming the machine rumbled forward toward the side of the derelict dwelling.

"Stop!  What are ye doin?  This is my place!"

The same skin and bones guy stood in front of the CAT. 

"Hey!  Get outta the way, you."

Jeff stepped forward and took hold of the man's arm.  He pulled back his hand and looked at it.

"This guy's stone cold . . ."

With wary eyes he surveyed the man.  Collar bones protruded from his neck close to the pale covering of skin.  His dark eyes sunken into his head made a death's head mask of his face.

"Say," Jeff queried, "when was the last time you ate anything."

The man turned to Jeff and then back toward the CAT.

"I et a squirrel a couple days back."

Jeff turned to look at me and the CAT driver revved the engine.  He grabbed the man's arm once more and pulled him away.

"Get him into one of the trucks," I said.  "We'll take him into town and let the Sheriff handle him."

Jeff tried to move the man but he squatted down in front of the bulldozer. 

"Come on now, you can't stay here."

"But this is my place . . ." the man argued.  His voice caught in his throat filled with emotion.  "I was born here.  Lived here.  My mam and daddy lived and died here.  Two hundred years we grew here . . ."

"Look fella, I don't know who you are or where you belong, but this ain't it.  Now, come on and get in the truck.  We'll take you into town, have a doc look at you and feed you.  Come on."

The man pushed off Jeff's hand and remained squatted before the CAT.

The driver was getting angrier than a trapped hog.  He blared the horn several times, thinking to scare the man off the path.  Then, he backed up, swerved around the man and headed dead straight for the front of the old shack.

"Noooo . . ." the man yelled as the blade of the dozer smashed into the front porch.  The left wall tumbled inward and the upper floor collapsed in on itself.  A huge plume of grey-white dust billowed outward. 

We waved away the dusty cloud and stood silent for a moment looking at the wreckage.  Heaps of gray weathered wood lay cracked and broken.  A dump truck pulled up on the road and Jeff motioned for the truck to pull in closer.  The broken house would be loaded into the truck and dumped somewhere far away.

"Hey . . . where'd that guy get to?"

We searched for him for more than twenty minutes, but we never found him.

***


It was the end of the day.  Sunlight shed it's waning rays in through my shop window.  I had the two boxes on my desk.  I rubbed my hands together anxious to open them and reveal the contents.  One of my workers had freed the soldered bonds and now the boxes opened easily.  In the green steel box were two pairs of gold earrings.  They were small, not worth much at all.  Next to the earrings were a tiny set of old fashioned baby shoes, well worn as if they had been used by many more than one child.  I shook the box upside down, rattled it and checked for hidden springs and compartments, nothing.  The silver box was my last hope at making something off this venture.  I opened it slowly.  Inside were papers.  One was a land deed for the house and thirteen acres going back from the river to the adjacent fields.  The second paper was a marriage certificate, the third a birth certificate and the last a newspaper article.

HERBERT JOHNSON FOUND DEAD IN THE CHATAHOOCHIE
The body of Herbert Johnson, youngest son of Elmer Johnson a local share cropper, was found late yesterday afternoon in the Chatahoochie River.  It is thought that he slipped crossing the footbridge and fell into the turbulent water.  He drowned as a result.  He was thirty-two years of age.


The story went on to tell how the family had lived on the land for more than one-hundred years.  They were originally Irish immigrants who had settled the land when the Indians still roamed wild.  In the bottom corner of the article was a small picture of Herbert.  I felt a cold sweat break out on my forehead.  It was the guy that had tried to stop us from knocking down the house.

***


Two days later I went back to the spot where number 25 had stood.  There was nothing there now, except for a vague outline of the ground floor.  I took off my hat and wiped away sweat.  The summer sun was rising high and the heat would build quickly.  I stood there for a few more moments.

"Herbert Johnson," I said aloud.  "I hope you found your rest.  We never meant nothing coming down here and taking Number 25 down.  We had to do it.  Rest easy."

I thought I heard a sigh, but maybe it was the wind.  I looked at the river, the way it went on without thought for our mortal woes.  I looked up at some birds that wheeled and dove in the sky.

"Life goes on." I said.  "It always goes on."

Word Count 2442

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