Chapter 2- Present Day
“Five! That’s not good enough!” Eddie shook his head.
“Let me try again,” Josh said while searching the sand bar for the perfect flat river rock. “Here we go.”
Josh Baker reared back and let loose with a swinging, sidearm throw—flinging the rock perfectly flat across the surface of the calm river.
Skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skip, skplooosh. “Yeah!” Josh said, throwing both arms up into the air and proclaiming himself King of the Elk River Stone Skippers. “Eight!”
“No,” protested Eddie. “That was seven! That last one wasn’t a skip.”
“That was clearly eight skips,” said Josh.
“Maybe, but it’s nowhere near the record anyhow—and we know who holds that,” Eddie said, grinning and pushing his chest out a little.
Josh acknowledged with a grin from one side of his mouth and flung another rock across the still waters of the Elk River. The boys were quiet for a moment, leaving only the bugs and frogs along the river banks to disturb the silence.
“I guess throwing rocks in the river probably does nothing for attracting fish, does it?” Eddie said, laughing a little.
“They’re not biting anyway,” Josh mumbled, shaking his head. “Sometimes I think there’s about ten fish in this whole river.” He paused and tightened his line again, studying it carefully. “Then there are people who will tell ya there are catfish up by the dam that could swallow your leg.”
Eddie grinned. “I don’t believe that or half the stories on this river. I would have to see those fish for myself.” He paused for a moment, looking across the tranquil waters on that warm summer Saturday morning. ”It’s like the Wills Creek Monster story your aunt tells, or the Braxton County Monster or those UFOs they saw up near Flatwoods—just a bunch of tall-tales.” He picked up another stone and gave it a fling across the river. “Same thing with the leg-swallowing fish. Show me one, and then I’ll believe it!”
Josh nodded in agreement. “But my aunt swears by that story.”
“Maybe we should go up to the dam and find out about those fish then!” Eddie smiled and lifted his eyebrows.
Josh and Eddie returned to their fishing poles, reeling in and repositioning their bait, hoping for a bite.
Josh Baker and Eddie Debord were best friends and had been since first grade. Josh was a couple of inches shorter than Eddie, with sandy blond hair that flowed straight to the bottom of his ears and touched the collar on his T-shirt in the back. Eddie wore his light brown hair short on the sides and off his collar in the back and, like his friend, always sported a T-shirt and Levi jeans.
They had grown up in the same area of Blue Creek together and shared the same interests. They were both good students and they both liked being outdoors in Kanawha County, West Virginia. It was great place to grow up and be a boy, or a girl for that matter. They had rivers to fish and swim in on hot summer days. They had hills with endless trails made by the whitetail deer, and the hunters who search them out, that could lead you into the next county if you could hike that far.
The riverbanks that flank the mighty Elk River are a blend of sand and mud and decayed leaves and trees that have fallen, and create a slippery mix on the steep banks that lead down to the river. If you don’t watch your footing, it will send you down the bank on your fanny in a hurry. The mix also has its own scent that stays with you even if you go away for many years and come back. If you grow up on the Elk River, the river never leaves you. Not the scents nor the culture nor the life lessons learned along these muddy banks. It’s in you for your whole life. You are an Elk River Boy.
And Eddie and Josh liked it all! They loved to fish and hunt and run up and down the riverbanks on their bikes. They loved to take their backpacks with only a tent, sleeping bag and a little canned food and head up into the hills to rough it for a weekend, to sit around a campfire and talk about whatever: fishing, sports, school, girls, anything. That’s what country boys did.
Their resourcefulness was also something to be admired. There was the one time they took all their gear, all their food and enough water for a one-night campout but forgot to take any type of eating utensils. No forks or spoons. They had plenty of food but nothing to eat it with, so, being the young improvisers that they were, they simply found themselves a couple of sticks about an inch in diameter and about 8 inches long and carved themselves a fork to eat their canned stew with. It may have been a problem for some other kids, but not these two young country boys. They were, at 14 years old, true adventurers!
The two boys stood over their poles quietly for a few minutes, patiently waiting for a nibble, when Josh Baker’s pole suddenly bent nearly double.
“Look at that!” Josh yelled out. “OH YEAH!!!”
“Man, Josh, whatta ya got?” Eddie said calmly, running over to his friend.
Josh had grabbed his pole from the forked stick that acted as a rod holder and gave a yank to the line. It didn’t give an inch as the drag on his old Zebco 33 whizzed out the line to give the fish the running room he wanted.
“Don’t lose him, Josh!” Eddie yelled “Give him some line, give him some line!”
“He’s taking it…..I don’t have to give it to him! He’s taking it!” Josh exclaimed, wide-eyed.
“Loosen your drag!” Eddie yelled.
The fish took Josh’s line down the river in front of the sand bar and then back up the river over and over again, pulling and tugging all the while as Josh struggled to get a yard of his line back. After a couple of minutes, Josh’s forearms and biceps began to tire.
“Just hope he don’t wrap you around a log,” Eddie said as Josh gave a big pull on his 10-pound test line.
This fish was big, maybe the biggest he had ever hooked here at the sandbar, and it was a fighter. Josh couldn’t help but think that maybe an upgrade to his reel would be a good idea for Christmas this year…and maybe a line upgrade as well. Back and forth, up and down the river the fish took his line, looking for a rock or tree trunk to wrap around and break the fisherman’s line. This clever old fish had not gotten so big and old by being brainless. Josh fought back with all he had, waiting to see who would make the first mistake.
“Man, Eddie….this sucker is bi--”….SNNNAAPP!
Josh’s line fell limp on the water as a look of disbelief immediately fell onto Josh’s face.
“OOOH NO, NO, NO, NO !!!” Josh screamed out in defeat. “I can’t believe it…I can’t believe it!!! How BIG could that fish have been? I can’t believe it!!!”
“Wow,” Eddie said, shaking his head, “that fish was huge!”
They paused, Josh catching his breath with his hands on his knees and his rod still in his right hand.
Eddie laughed. “Hey…. Maybe that was one of those leg-swallowing catfish from up at the dam, Josh.”
Josh looked at Eddie and they both laughed as the defeated fisherman just shook his head.
“Ya never know. The spring floods stirred the fish up a little, that’s for sure. Maybe some big ones washed downstream.” Josh paused, looking up and down the river, just waiting for Mr. Fish to pop his head up and say “nice fight…see ya next time!” He looked at the banks of their river and the warm sun that cast its glow onto it and figured it was a good day anyway. “Sure washed a lot of garbage downstream, I know that,” Josh said regrettably. “Washing machines. How do washing machines end up going down river? Do people have them on their boat docks?” Josh asked, while reeling in his limp line and shaking his head. “Wash clothes while you fish,” he mumbled, still feeling bitterly defeated.
Eddie just grinned and gave Josh a few quiet seconds then said, “I think it was a big bass, Josh.”
“I’m ready to go.” Josh surrendered. “It was a musky.”
The two freshman friends collected their fishing gear and headed across the sand and rock bar that arced out into the water. To the left of the sand bar was the old limestone train trestle that was built long ago to cross over a stream that flowed out of the hills. The trestle replaced an even older wooden bridge that carried the train over the stream prior to 1902. During the construction of the trestle, the engineers figured out a way to keep the tracks open and the trains rolling while they replaced the old wooden structure with the new permanent stone trestle. The stream, over the years, had washed sand and rock down out of the hills and deposited them into the Elk River, eventually creating the sandbar (more of a rock bar but they called it a sand bar) that the boys spent many hours on every spring and summer. On the right side of the sand bar was a steep path that led up to the railroad tracks of the C&O Railway about fifty feet above the river.
Josh and Eddie had just started to pack up their boat to head back across the river when they heard the whistle of the train.
Eddie looked at Josh, grinned and asked, “Got any change?”
The two boys dropped their poles and ran up the bank via the path. At the top Josh fumbled through his pockets and pulled out a nickel and two pennies. Eddie took the nickel and he and Josh carefully placed the coins on the center of a rail. They could hear the train but not see it, so it was still over a mile away, up past the curve. The two boys scurried back down the bank and waited by their fishing gear for the train to go by. As the coal-hauling beast bore down on them they could feel the ground rumble under their feet for about a minute as nearly a mile of steel and coal roared past them. When the caboose brought up the rear, the two boys ran back up the bank to search for their newly-pressed coins.
“Where’d they go?” asked Josh.
“It’s always a game of hide and seek,” Eddie replied, beginning the search.
“Oh, here’s a penny…wow, flat as a pancake. Look.”
“Yeah….here’s the other one over here. Do you see the nickel anywhere? Oh wow, that is flat.”
“I want to find the nickel,” Josh said.
The two boys searched the perimeter for the remaining coin. Sometimes the large steel wheels of a train would flip a coin quite a few yards. As the boys continued looking for their illusive prize, they spread out further and further from each other until they were encompassing an area of about fifty feet of railroad track.
“I think it probably flipped over the bank” Josh conceded.
“Yeah…yeah, I don’t see it anywhere. It had to have flipped into the weeds somewhere. Oh well…” Eddie agreed while still looking down and around.
“We put it on the rail about here, so let’s look down over the bank a little before we give up,” said Josh.
“Alright,” Eddie agreed. “Then I’m gonna go get some lunch.”
Josh and Eddie stepped off the rock foundation that lay under the railroad ties and proceeded to look for the coin where the rocks ended and the weeds began.
“Oh, look Eddie, one of those glass things.”
Josh leaned over and picked up the mushroom-shaped glass insulator that was used long ago on the high line poles to insulate the wires from the wood cross members that they were mounted to. They were abundant along railroad tracks and roadways where old electric and phone lines used to run high overhead. Years later they became abundant at flea markets.
The boys searched but to no avail.
“We’re not gonna find that nickel, Josh,” Eddie said, half laughing and shaking his head.
Eddie was plenty ready to give up and go home to eat lunch.
The two boys stood and scanned the riverbank from their perspective up by the railroad tracks. Down and to the right was the sand bar. To the left a little bit was the river side of the trestle that ran under the tracks and let the small stream that ran out of the hills, split the sand bar and flow into the Elk River. Straight down from where they were was the river. One slip down the sandy, muddy mixture and you were wet.
Josh’s eyes caught something in the weeds close to the river’s edge near the sand bar.
“Eddie what’s that?”
“In the mud, down there just to the right of that small patch of milkweed. Looks like it’s sort of orange or red on top.”
“Ah, I see it,” said Eddie. “I don’t know.”
“Let’s go check it out.”
The two boys traversed the bank down the path and then walked the sand bar along the water’s edge until it met the muddy riverbank. There they once again spotted what they saw from up on the tracks.
“I know what that is,” said Eddie. “My uncle has one of those painted silver and sitting on his porch for decoration. It’s an old five-gallon can that was used for transporting milk. Uncle G said they would fill’em with fresh milk and deliver them by truck to stores or homes or whatever. I guess they’re pretty old.”
“Let’s pull it out of there,” Josh suggested.
“It’s a muddy old can, Josh.”
Josh looked at Eddie. Adventure races through the minds of young boys when they find treasures like this. They paused, looking at each other for a second. They had nothing else to do!
“O.K, let’s pull it out of there,” said Eddie.
The two boys carefully walked along the steep riverbank, doing their best not to slip on the sandy, muddy mix until they reached the old milk can.
“This must have washed down river this spring, too.” Josh said, while positioning himself on the bank so as not to slip.
“It still has the lid on it.” said Eddie.
Josh and Eddie grabbed a handle on each side of the can and pulled. The mud easily gave up the old container. They carefully retraced their steps back over to the sand bar, each boy still holding onto one handle of the milk can. They sat it down with a clank on the flat river stones of the sand bar.
“Let’s take it over there and wash it off,” Josh said.
The two friends dunked the can in the river and wiped the sandy mud off the old treasure they had found.
“You could give this to your uncle G and he could have a matching set,” Josh teased.
“Actually, he would like that!” laughed Eddie. “He really likes to collect old stuff. You’ve seen his basement.”
“Look how tight the lid is,” said Josh. “It’s like, clamped on,” he continued.
Eddie nonchalantly gave the can a little shake back and forth and both boys looked at each other, puzzled, as they heard a soft flump, flump, flump from within the can, as it was shaken.
“What the heck’s in it?” Josh asked curiously.
Eddie shook the can once more. Flump, flump, flump. They paused
“Let’s open it!” they said together.
Eddie grabbed a large rock and commenced to beating on the old rusty clamp that held the lid on tight. Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Over and over he pounded until the clamp started to give a little.
“Give me a whack at it,” said Josh.
Bam, bam, bam, bam, CLANK. The clamp finally let loose and snapped apart. The boys pulled it off and then thought about how to get the lid loose from the can, since years of oxidation had sealed the two together tightly.
“OK, I got it,” Josh said. “Eddie, you’re bigger than me. You hold the can as tight as you can in a bear hug, and I will put this long stick over here through the lid handle for leverage, and twist. But you’re going to have to hold it tight!”
Eddie looked at Josh.
“OK, I’ll bear hug this wet, muddy, sandy, stinking can so you can take the lid off, Hero,” Eddie shot back, not so enthusiastically.
“It’s the only way to get it off, Ed. Down here, anyway. Don’t ya want to see what’s inside?” Josh asked, raising his eyebrows and cocking his head a bit.
Eddie didn’t say anything. He grabbed the can and sat himself down on the sand bar. He then sat crossed legged and put the can between his legs where he could not only bear hug it with his arms, but squeeze it with his legs, giving him a double lock on the can.
Josh brought the long stick over and ran it through the lid handle as planned and walked forward until the stick was firmly leveraged.
“Ready?” Josh asked.
Josh tightened the tension on the stick by pushing on it with his leg, being careful to increase tension, but to not twist the container out of his friend’s vice-like hold. Josh pushed more and more and Eddie’s face began to get red and that big vein in his neck started to pop out.
“Hang onto it, Eddie. You’re doin’ good.” Josh encouraged.
Josh increased the pressure on the long stick ever so slightly and both boys noticed the lid begin to twist. Eddie looked at his friend without saying anything while still clenching the can with all his might, nodding to say “Keep going…don’t let up.” Josh Baker did just that and the lid continued to twist, little by little. As it did, Josh lifted on the long stick as he pushed it to try to pry up and get the lid to come off.
“It’s working, Eddie….hold on to it.”
A couple of seconds later with a fooop, the lid popped off and fell to the sand bar with the clank.
Eddie fell over in exhaustion and Josh fell forward with the sudden release of the lid and both boys rolled on the rocks and sand, but their efforts were not in vain—the lid was off.
Josh picked himself up and stepped back over to where his friend was lying, still bear-hugging the milk can. Eddie sat up and both boys examined the top of the can. Josh Baker wrinkled his nose a little and said, “What is this stuff around the rim?”
Eddie, still catching his breath, touched the gooey stuff with his finger and sniffed it. He took his thumb and rubbed it against the other finger to test how slippery it was.
“It’s like wax,” Eddie said.
“Wax?” Josh questioned, as he performed his own viscosity test. “Why would this lid be waxed?”
“To seal it….so water can’t get in.” Eddie figured.
No one spoke for a moment. Both boys were thinking the same thing as they looked at each other and then at the top of the can. The only reason a person would water seal and lock a container is because there was something in the container that needed to be protected. Something important. Something vital. Legal documents or papers or maybe a keepsake for generations to pass down. A will, possibly, or some kind of a personal diary. Things that would be kept in a safe at home nowadays. Birth certificates or death certificates or insurance papers.
The two boys’ hearts pounded as they slowly stood up and peered over the rim and down into the can.
“Pull it out of there, Josh,” Eddie said, as if he were a little spooked to put his arm down into the dark hole.
Josh shook the can back and forth again as before and again, flump, flump, flump. Josh took a deep breath and slowly lowered his arm down into the old milk container. He went down to about his elbow and looked at his friend as he grasped the soft, cylindrical-shaped object inside.
He pulled it out slowly and the two boys again looked at each other as their hearts pounded faster.
Josh had in his hand a rolled up piece of animal skin type material with a single piece of leather bootlace wrapped around it and tied in a simple knot.
“What in the world could this be?” Eddie asked, as both boys looked at it in amazement.
Josh, still holding onto the unknown treasure, lifted his other hand up to the bootlace and pulled on the loose end. As he did so, the knot fell loose and the rolled up animal skin was untied for the first time in many, many years.
As Eddie took one end of it, Josh held the other and the two friends slowly unrolled the mysterious scroll.
“What is this thing? It’s like deerskin or something,” Eddie said. “Or part of one.”
Eddie knew a deer hide when he saw one, as his father was an avid hunter and always managed to bag his limit every November. Eddie had joined his father the past few years as they headed north to the high country in search of white-tailed deer but had yet to shoot his first buck. Still, he would always be there to help his dad skin their trophy and quarter the meat.
Josh remained speechless as they continued to unveil their treasure. As they unrolled it, an inch at a time, their eyes got wider and wider. They couldn’t believe what they had found along the muddy banks of the Elk River, right in their back yard.