I think you already know about the writers’ group, called the “Siskiyou Writers’ Club.” The club recently did an exercise which turned out to be quite fun, the “Chain Story.” One person started a fictional story with approximately 250 words, then passed it on to the next, who added 250 words, then passed it on, etc, until 10 people ultimately contributed to the story. Here is the complete story
Completed September 29, 2022
The night was chilly when my family gathered at the table in our meager home for dinner. My father gave the blessing for the small amount of food we were about to eat. We passed our plates to mother, who placed various types of food on our plates. Our family consisted of four children born to mother and father. I was the oldest son at 16, a younger brother at 13, and twin sisters of 10 years of age.
Although all of us were extremely hungry, the small amount of food on our plates satisfied us for the time being.
My father was born a few miles away from our home. He had worked for various neighbors and for a man who raised onions on a small farm just a short distance down the road. Father purchased a small plot of land along the road not too far from the onion farm. He was able to construct various types of lumber and some sheets of corrugated tin when a truck carrying building supplies crashed and spilled much of the contents in the road ditch. My father helped the driver reload the truck, and for his help the driver gave him some of the boards and sheets of tin.
Winter was approaching and all of the onions had been harvested and crated. My father, brother and I worked a month in helping the onion farmer to harvest his crop. We were paid a small amount for our labor, and this money, along with our garden provided food for our family.
A few days later, my father proposed to my brother and me that it was time to leave home.
The autumn air was crisp and the smoky scent of burning leaves was drifting with the wind. Father had arranged for my brother and me to spend the winter with a family south of us, about 30 miles or so, in a small farming community near the Snake River in Idaho. Mother packed a meager lunch of an apple and a slice of bread for each of us, and before long a rusty old farm truck pulled up. A farmer and his wife eagerly piled out and greeted us. “We’ll give you food and a place to sleep for the winter months and perhaps spring, in return for help with chores, and schooling.” With a tear in her eye, mother’s gentle hug was comforting, and father and our sisters appeared solemn as we waved goodbye.
The farmer’s name was Hank, he introduced his wife Sally, and as we bounced along in the truck, he said there would be many crops to be planted, and if we proved ourselves, we could stay longer. Farm help would be needed with hops, potatoes, and weeding in the mint fields.
It wasn’t long before we pulled up at the old farm house. A lazy dog flopped down the steps of the porch licking our hands to greet us. Several milk cows lazily grazed in the field, and chickens scratched around in the garden. Sally showed us to our room, which we shared, and hanging on a nail were a pair of clean overalls and shirt for each of us.
They had introduced themselves as Hank and Sally, but I was uncomfortable using their Christian names. They seemed much older than our mom and dad. Brother thought we should just outright ask them to tell us their family name. I thought that that would be awkward considering we had already agreed to work for them and live in their house. They probably thought we knew since no parents would turn their kids over to strangers not knowing their full names.
During dinner the first night I tried different ways to have them tell me their last name: The mashed potatoes are delicious, Mrs. … ? ”Oh, Sally’s just fine;” what time should we get up tomorrow morning Mr.? “No need to call me mister, Hank‘ll do.”
Brother and I went to bed that night still not knowing their last name. This was beginning to really bother me. I had horrible dreams. I was running as fast as I could through some corn field, not knowing which way to go. It was like trying to find a way out of a maze. All the while Hank and Sally were chasing me and getting closer and closer. Hank was waving an ax. Sally had this huge butcher knife and yelling, “Get back here, you didn’t finish the mashed potatoes.” Even their lazy mongrel had roused himself and was snapping and yapping at my heels.
I woke up just in time before the three of them caught up with me when I heard Sally call up the stairs,” Time to get up! Breakfast’s ready.”
We woke in unison and while washing up in the small wash basin shared our stories of the night and our strange dreams, or rather—nightmares!! Our dreams were not exactly the same but had similar threads that wended their way through them. Chases through the fields, excitement and fear as each of us tried to get away from our attackers, and a dog, or dogs, that seemed to get closer and closer with each step we took.
We ate our breakfast, with Sally and Hank, in quiet. It was a sparse affair with a slice of rough bread and jam, a thin strip of fatty bacon and an apple that each of us pared by ourselves. Not much of a way to start a busy day, I said to my brother by my look and frown. He frowned back in agreement.
Hank took us out into the yard and gave us a quick introduction to the farm—the barn, the shed where most of the farm equipment was housed, and the gates in the fences that allowed access to the fields and orchards. My brother and I took it all in, knowing that we needed to quickly understand the layout to be able to efficiently use our time to help the owners. “How about that old building out in the field? What is it used for?” Hank stopped in his tracks, mouth open, and brusquely stated with force, “we don’t use that building anymore.” Then, after a short pause—“We don’t go over there any more—that means you too! Do you understand?” My brother nodded slowly, and so did I after Hank moved his gaze in my direction.
His eyes seemed to be threatening us. Why did he want us to stay away from the dilapidated old shed? What secret was he keeping from us?
My brother Bill and I were soon put to work digging post holes and repairing fences. It was hard work for two growing boys and although we had always worked when at home, we’d never had to work such long grueling hours and with so little to eat. Over the weeks we became work hardened but losing weight. Finally, after another skimpy dinner I confronted our hosts saying. “We can’t keep working this hard if you don’t start feeding us better.”
Hank threw down his fork and glaring at us yelled, “You two softies ain’t here for some damned picnic. You are here to work for your vitals and keep your damned mouths shut! Now get in your room. Work starts tomorrow at six,” which ended the conversation and let us know what our position was at their farm. We talked long into the night about the situation we now found ourselves in and — made a plan. It included finding out what was in the old shed.
After the confrontation the food did get better but was still not enough for two growing boys and the work was still dawn to dark. Our only respite was on Sunday afternoons when Hank and Sally went to town. We were never allowed to go but the time alone was a welcome break from our daily chores.
My brother and I decided to investigate the shed on the upcoming Sunday while Hank and Sally were gone.
After lunch on Sunday, Hank and Sally headed for town. We waited until we could no longer see any dust on the dirt road from their old rusty truck. We howled with our teenager rebellion delight and ran towards the forbidden shed!
We pulled the heavy door open letting the crack of light through as we slipped inside and our eyes adjusted to the dark. At first, we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. There were some old rusty farm tools past their time of use, as well as unused bridles which hung on the wall and a hay and dirt covered floor. We began playing around chasing and wrestling with each other as boys will do, when we saw what looked like a line on the floor. It was underneath the dirt and hay that we had uncovered during our goofing around. Upon further investigation we discovered a trap door. We decided to open it and venture down the rickety ladder.
My brother had matches and lit one. We were in a room of about 12ft by 20ft with a very low ceiling. As our eyes adjusted, we saw what appeared to be a weathered travel trunk, the kind that people used in the old days when traveling on a steamship across the ocean. The lock on it was not strong enough to keep us from prying it open. Inside we found an unusually ornate large golden key and a small book that consisted of what looked like an ancient handwritten Chinese script.
Bill and I looked at each other with questioning eyes. What could this mean? Before either of us could speak I noticed three old jackets hanging on a nail that obscured the handle of an old weathered door behind the chest. Pushing the jackets aside revealed a handle with a lock below. It looked as though it would fit the golden key. Bill looked at me with a bit of skepticism and asked if we should use the key. I replied that we had plenty of time before Hank and Sally returned. Carefully, I lifted the key from the chest and placed it into the keyhole. It was a fit! Both of us were breathless as the key turned to unlock the door. We both hesitated and stared at each other before pulling open the door.
Immediately a strong wind pushed us back with the scent of soil and fresh spring grass, rather than the musty smell one might expect from an old storage shed. Daylight was present at the end of a long passageway with illuminated walls that appeared to be made with the same gold as the key. Our mouths hung wide open and we were speechless. The walls were etched with the beautiful pastoral scene of a countryside filled with woodland creatures of all sorts.
Just then I heard a muffled bang, the backfiring of an old farm truck? “Hurry Bill! We gotta get outta here!” With no time to re-stash a manila envelope in my hand from a trunk we had opened, I hastily tucked it into my pants.
Which way to go? We started back the way we came, but just then heard noises that sounded like they came from the heavy shed door. Bill locked the door, hid the gold key, and closed the door behind him. Quickly we ran past the little room and down into a dirt tunnel shored up by old 4X4’s. I guessed it must lead somewhere – we were still getting a fresh breeze and could see light. Bill ran ahead of me, soon whispered back to me, “Here, up the ladder!” A minute later we were standing in the barn next to an open window in the barn wall, ten feet of piled hay on the other three sides of the window inside the barn. We replaced the floor grating we had risen through, quickly looked through the window, saw no one in sight, and ran to the farmhouse, hoping we hadn’t been spotted. I rushed to our room, slipped the envelope under the mattress to my bed, and ran to the chore I had been assigned. Minutes later Hank was looking at me, but I was already sweating from our recent exertion. He seemed satisfied, didn’t say anything, just turned looking for Bill.
That evening just before turning in, I slipped the manila envelope from under the mattress. In it were papers and newspaper clippings, one headed: “Local couple sought as persons of interest into possible fraud.” Shortly below, it named ‘Ruth Salinger Covey and James Henry Covey’ as “… persons thought to have knowledge concerning questionable dealings involving …” – that’s as far as I got, as just then I heard noises at the door, instantly tucked the envelope back in its hiding place, and lay as if sleeping. The door opened. After a seeming eternity of faked steady breathing, it closed again. Next morning a thought struck me: ‘Salinger’ – Sally? Oh, and ‘Henry’ – Hank? Hmm. Points to ponder.
I barely slept a wink, concerned about our safety and the true identity of Hank and Sally. Not to mention the hidden treasures we had found in the shed and beyond. I wondered if our parents had a clue what kind of riffraff they had placed us with. My brother’s safety was my utmost concern. Our lives may be at stake. I somehow had to get word to them. Maybe I could convince them we would work harder and eat less so they would take us back home.
After another extremely difficult day of slave-labor chores, I was anxious for nightfall so I could get up to bed and peruse more of the envelope contents. Throughout the day, as my brother and I worked, I thought of the Chinese script and golden key and magical secret land. What did this all mean?! After supper we bid Sally and Hank a goodnight and headed upstairs. I anxiously retrieved the envelope of clues, hoping to learn more about the fraud case. And soon I did, indeed! The news clippings told of two fugitive con artists, a man and a woman, who had eluded capture and been on the lam for a number of years. They were accused of printing money in the basement of the notorious counterfeiter Don Janssen, manufacturing and distributing fraudulent bank notes worth over $100 million. The news articles deemed them armed and dangerous.
In early September, 2022, Harold and Mildred Smithers and their teenage sons, Sam, 16, and Billy, 13, were on the last day of their summer vacation trip through Idaho in their RV. They were headed north on Highway 95, along the Snake River, when they saw a series of signs along the highway.
The first said:
10 MILES AHEAD WORLD-FAMOUS COVEY’S FARM. HOME OF THE MYSTERY VORTEX.
Then, another sign:
YOU’RE GETTING CLOSER. VISIT THE FORBIDDEN SHED WHERE LEGENDARY COUNTERFEITERS SALLY AND HANK COVEY KEPT THEIR ANCIENT CHINESE TOME OF DOOM.
Billy said, “That sounds really cool. Can we go to that?”
Sam said, “Sounds really dorky to me. I don’t want to go.”
Mildred said, “I’ve never heard of that before. Do you think it’s like The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, California? What do you think, dear?”
Harold said, “Those things are just tourist rip offs. There’s another one in Oregon; I think it’s called the Oregon Vortex. I don’t know if they’re even open anymore.”
They passed another sign:
LEARN THE TRUTH BEHIND THE LEGEND. WHAT HAPPENED TO MISSING 13-YEAR-OLD BILLY AND HIS 16-YEAR-OLD-BROTHER? THEIR ONLY REMAINS ARE THEIR NAMES IN THE CHINESE TOME OF DOOM.
ONE MILE AHEAD TO COVEY’S FARM. IS YOUR NAME LISTED IN THE CHINESE TOME OF DOOM? OPEN 9-5 EVERY DAY.
Billy prevailed. At the gate was a ticket booth where Harold paid the family rate of $25.00 with his Visa card. They followed a dusty two-track road to a falling-down old building with a sign that said:
FORBIDDEN SHED. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.
They entered the shed but there was no one there. Not a soul. The shed was empty except for an old steamer trunk, covered with dirt and cobwebs. The floor was covered with one-hundred-dollar bills! On top of the trunk was a golden key and a very old book, dusty and falling apart, with Chinese characters on the cover. With trembling hands, Harold opened the book. The first few pages were written in Chinese calligraphy. After that there were pages in English with a list of names, in alphabetical order. Harold skimmed through the English section then ran his finger through the S’s. His whole body shuddered violently when he got to “Smithers: Harold, Mildred, Sam, Billy.”