Mountain Man waved to Bob and Kitty. He was about fifty yards away on an old foot path leading around Cottonmill Lake.
“You figured it out!” yelled Mountain Man to Bob.
The couple caught up to the rugged trapper.
“So you’re the legendary Mountain Man?” Kitty looked him over with a grin. “Are you here to claim Walter’s treasure for yourself?”
“No, ma’am. That treasure’s for you folks. That’s how Walter wanted it. I’m just here to help.”
It wasn’t necessary for the three to discuss how they knew that Walter’s treasure was located near Cottonmill Lake. The fact that they were all there made it obvious. The first time Bob met Mountain Man, he thought the man misspoke when he said that each chapter of his life was “a little letter.” He nearly forgot about it until Kitty spurred his memory into action while she talked about the painted cottonwoods being in early chapters of their lives. That prompted Bob to look over the earlier chapters of Walter’s manuscript. All he had to work with were the chapter titles. But each one was a little letter that made up a bigger clue. The first letter of each chapter spelled: C-O-T-T-O-N-M-I-L-L!
“So where do we look, Mountain Man?” said Bob. He was excited, but also overwhelmed by the thought of searching for days through the grass and trees.
“Right here?” said Kitty.
“Right here,” said Mountain Man again. “But first, have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” He handed Bob and Kitty each half a sandwich.
Kitty looked confused. But Bob had grown accustomed the old man’s eccentric behavior.
“It’s good,” said Kitty.
“It’s plum jelly,” said Mountain Man. “And that’s why we’re here. Shortly before Walter passed, he gave me a jar of it. He told me it was made from the finest plum thicket this side of Cottonmill and that one day I’d likely be sharin’ a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a nice lookin’ young couple. I guess that day is today.”
“And then Walter said something about needin’ to help that couple find their riches. So here I am. And here’s where we look . . . in this plum thicket.” Mountain Man pointed into the thick vegetation of short plum trees that were rapidly dropping their leaves this late in the year.
Bob wasted no time. Chewing on his final bite, he went to his hands and knees and entered the thicket. Mountain Man hunched down and let his walking stick lead the way through the scratchy branches. Kitty gave a faint sigh for the fate of her dress and then followed the two men.
After a lot of poking at the ground with his willow walking stick, Mountain Man heard a hollow response.
“Over here, Bob.”
Bob and Kitty crawled over to the hunched-down Mountain Man. They scraped away the leaves and debris to uncover a wood and leather box. It looked similar to the one Bob found under his shop floor.
Bob opened it. His heart beat loudly as he carefully took out a folded letter.
I had no doubt you’d get here. You have so much potential, kid. Don’t be mad at me for making you work at it. Here’s a couple thousand dollars worth of coins. It’s not a fortune, but it should be enough for you and Kitty to get out of the camera shop and take some adventures together with new friends.
Bob, the real treasure is the people standing with you right now . . . and the stories you write with them. Your life is still a blank sheet of paper. You make the titles. You make the stories.
Take care of them, kid.
And that was it. But that’s all that was needed. There was a moment of silence as everyone processed the experience.
“Well,” said Kitty. “Where to next?”
“I’ve got an adventure in mind,” said Mountain Man. “If you’re up for it, that is.”
Bob rubbed his chin and squinted through his glasses. Then he nodded.
“Let’s do it.”