River of Stars and Caroline
Devil's Canyon is the name of a valley where, at its lowest point, a river flows when it rains. This happened most of all in wintertime and springtime. In summertime, the dry riverbed revealed burning hot sand sprinkled with pebbles. In some places, tree trunks littered the riverbed. In others, there had been small landslides. Throughout there were cavities called tanks filled with stagnant water, waiting for the next rainfall.
Higher up, on the mountain, lived River of Stars who was ten years old and often accompanied by her three little sisters. They all had beautiful names like her. Nicole-Chelly was eight-years-old, Buttercup, six, and Goldfish was three.
River of Stars. You could often find her wearing her blue denim overalls. Her jet black hair was divided into two long charming braids framing her face. She lived with her family and her people in the high wooded hills. The only way to get there was by a dirt road that at times seemed to disappear if you didn't know the route.
To get to school, she first had to follow a narrow path for ten orfifteen minutes. It went down between the pines and ended up on the bed of sand and rocks of what was, most often, the dry riverbed. Then she walked about thirty minutes through and over the obstacles in the river's path. At that point, she reached the main road. From there, she got onto a bus that drove the children to Blanding. That left another thirty minutes of travel with her friends.
Nearly an hour and a half to get to class in the morning, and the same in the evening to return. An hour of that was walking with her two biggest little sisters.
Caroline was also ten and had three little brothers. Timothy was eight, Geoffrey, six and Patrick three. She lived with her parents, also on the mountain. You could see her in jeans in the winter and shorts and a T-shirt in summer, a jacket if it was cold. And her runners. She wore boy's clothes because then they could be handed down to her little brothers afterwards. On the other hand, she had a long ponytail that attached her brown hair and reached the small of her back.
They lived in a little wooden house along a dirt road. There were many cabins and many cottages, all surrounding their house. These were for their clients. Her father dreamed of making it into a proper hotel but, unfortunately, for now his customers were scarce. The dirt road discouraged the people who took it. Later, this road would surely become a much bigger road. Once that happened, business should follow...
There were more children than wealth in Caroline's life, but she didn't consider herself unfortunate. Not at all. She felt rich in terms of the nature that surrounded her. And she lived a happy life and was close to her parents. Their love made up for anything else that was missing. There was no electricity in the house, so no television. They ate their meals outside in the summer. Mother cooked on a wood stove... Our friend loved her adventurous life.
Each morning, Caroline went to school, taking her two little brothers, Timothy and Geoffrey, by the hand. Patrick was still too small. She led them, for ten or fifteen minutes, along a narrow path between the rocks and the wild blackberry bushes. She met River of Stars on the dry bed of the river. They each waited for the other.
They walked together with their little brothers and sisters, laughing and chatting as they walked over the sand and pebbles on the dry riverbed. As they went, they would jump from stone to stone, step over tree trunks and, sometimes, have to make their way around great puddles of water that reflected the sky and the sun.
Finally, they'd all arrive at the big road. After a few minutes, they would step up onto the yellow school bus. After school, they'd do it all in the reverse order.
After a storm, a torrent of water would wash through and fill their way to school with water and mud. It only took a few minutes. Returning to River of Stars' village or towards the future hotel of Caroline's parents became impossible.
On those days, Aunt Esther, an elderly and authoritative woman, would host all six of them in Blanding, near the school. She made them work hard, tidying the cold room in the basement or the attic, cleaning the house, polishing the wooden floor, cutting the hedges or the lawn. It depended on the weather and her mood. She always found them something to do. She would say that the girls had to learn to keep house. She was strict and had no pity for the children. They would have to learn to manage a household, she would say, to justify her treatment of them.
Our friends would avoid staying with Aunt Esther when they could ... better to get home soaking wet from the rain.
One Friday, as they were getting out of school, the six children looked at the sky with worry. There was a storm coming. Yes, but it was the beginning of the weekend. The older children certainly didn't want to spend the evening listening to Aunt Esther and then cleaning for her the whole next day. They got on the bus despite the worried looks of their younger siblings who had no choice but to follow their big sisters.
When the bus dropped them off at the valley entrance, they made their way along the still-dry riverbed. They all walked at a good pace with their book bags on their backs. Now they were not far from where the two families went their own ways and each climbed the hill in the direction of their own homes. The passage was well concealed and from there they could see, a good fifteen yards higher, a dirt road that overlooked the valley.
A car had spun out of control and slid several yards. It was now hanging off the side of the cliff, the hood crumpled against a tree. The tree was the only thing stopping it from slipping further down.
The children saw the head of a man pressed up against the cracked windshield.
Without a moment's hesitation, our friends knew what they had to do. First of all, they told their little siblings to stay put. They said this because they themselves knew they needed to go to the rescue. At just that moment, the first drops of rain started to fall. A storm was coming. These were the big drops that fell and exploded on the ground leaving wet patches here and there, on rocks, on the sand, on dead leaves.
Traversing the length of this cliff wall was not easy. It rose nearly straight up. Here they had to hang onto a rock, there they could only grab onto some tree roots, then a branch, all the while avoiding poison ivy, stinging nettles, and thorn bushes. The two girls made slow progress, testing the solidity of each root and each rock before committing their weight so they didn't make a misstep and fall. Their little brothers and sisters watched them, admiring their courage, agility and nerve.
Finally, they reached the car. The man seemed to be unconscious. They called to him. He opened his eyes. The drops of rain were falling now with less and less space between them, and the storm was opening up, showing its rage and its violence.
"Hey mister, come on. You need to get out of your car. We'll take you to the hospital. You can't stay there. Your car could slip and fall over the edge with the storm."
The driver had one or two broken ribs. With some difficulty, he got out of his car. The smallest movement made him cry out in pain. All the while, every move risked destabilizing the vehicle.
The girls waited until they could call the little ones so they could all carry the injured man to the road. It naturally led to Caroline's house but it wound through the valley, following every curve and climbing every hill. They had still over eight and a half miles to walk, under the storm that was getting more and more violent...
After discussing for a minute, they decided to take the fastest route. This meant taking the injured man down to the riverbed. They knew it would soon become impassable with the mud that was forming little by little under the downpour. Turning quickly to the right, they remembered that they could follow the path that led them to Old Chesler's house.
Old Chesler's place was a log cabin with a large barn right next to it. Now it was some twenty years since he'd abandoned it. It seemed, though, that a family had occupied it for a few months before continuing westwards.
By the time the girls and the boys arrived at Old Chesler's with their charge, they were all quite drenched. Rain was falling violently now, drumming on their heads and their shoulders, running through the length of their hair. Their clothes were heavy and stuck to their skin. Thunder and lightning provoked the storm into coming down harder on its little victims who were already shivering from the cold.
They found a way into the shelter. River of Stars along with Nicole-Chelly and Buttercup, Caroline with Timothy and Geoffrey. And the injured man, of course. Right away, the man slid the length of the wall of the room and sat down on the dirty floor of the empty, abandoned cabin.
The rain fell in drum rolls on the roof of the old cabin. Every so often, lightning lit up the room and showed the children its every nook and cranny. It was filled with cobwebs. The cracks of thunder rang in their ears, each of them surprised by its force.
Several times, the girls worried if the structure would hold out one more night or if their shelter risked falling down around their ears.
The dust, the cobwebs, the musty smell all took over the room, between the walls and the wooden floorboards. To get to the adjoining barn, there was a narrow French door. It was open. The barn was empty.
River of Stars' little sisters asked if there'd be any dinner. Caroline's little brothers wanted to know too. The two older girls were also hungry. Caroline took Timothy and Geoffrey by the hand and explained to them that there wouldn't be anything to eat that evening. They should be happy to be out of the rain. "We'll sleep here on the floor and tomorrow morning we'll get back home to father and mother, little Patrick and a nice breakfast."
"He's lucky," Geoffrey murmured. "He doesn't have to go to school. He doesn't have to walk every morning and evening. And he gets his bottles of milk."
"You're much too big for a bottle, Geoffrey," his big sister said, smiling.
"I might be too big for a bottle but I'd drink it if someone gave me one. And it's your fault we're cold and hungry. We'd be better off with Aunt Esther."
Caroline did not respond.
River of Stars and her little sisters were also hungry. Our Amerindian friend addressed them in her own style. She explained that they had to be brave and told them not to complain about being hungry or tired. The little sisters should show the dignity of their courageous ancestors.
Caroline looked at her friend and they both smiled at each other proudly. Each returned the gaze of the other. The man listened to them but he had apparently been suffering too much to participate in their conversation.
"We escaped Aunt Esther," said Caroline with satisfaction. "And our parents won't be worried. They'll think we're safely in Blanding."
The littlest ones slept on the ground, without blankets or mattresses, without anything. They went to sleep quickly.
The two oldest, Caroline and River of Stars, got to know the man they'd rescued a bit better. He explained his work as a prospector to them. He looked for places where they might find oil. He described his lengthy crisscrossing of the roads throughout the West.
The girls talked about their lives, their school, their dreams, what they wanted to do one day, the trips, and the cities they dreamed of seeing.
Then they went to sleep next to their younger siblings. These children had had a hard life and sleeping on the wooden floor didn't bother them. They didn't know comfort and they were quite unfussy. The two friends closed their eyes and fell asleep in turn.
After a little, the rain died down a bit but the wind kept blowing as strong as ever, bending the branches of the trees. They could hear the whistling through the pines.
Suddenly, in the middle of the night, Caroline woke up with a start. She had heard the branches rattling against the building, the sounds of the creaking trunks. More than that, the rain had returned in force and beat a rhythm on the roof. The gusts of wind were continuous and violent.
Just then, there was a terrible crack. River of Stars' eyes snapped open. She looked towards the door that separated the two rooms of Old Chesler's house. The barn adjoining the cabin had collapsed. A few planks of the cabin floor lifted.
In the moonlight that now showed between the clouds, the little girls could see something shining under the planks.
They got up and looked at the injured man. He seemed to be asleep. The four little ones, Timothy, Geoffrey, Nicole-Chelly and Buttercup, all continued sleeping.
The two friends squeezed through the narrow opening and managed to get into the next room through the gap. There, under the lifted planks, they could see some kind of little wooden box. They took it and brought it back to the other room where the others were sleeping.
Caroline took a penknife from the pocket of her jeans. The sharp blade reflected the moonlight. She slid it between the slits of the box and had no trouble opening it. It contained a very cute little doll and a letter addressed to a girl named Alice.
-Dear Alice, We are leaving for California, my parents, my brother and me. I don't have time to go by your place. I'm leaving your doll in the box with this message. You know the hiding place under the floorboards and I'm sure you'll come with news. As to our secret, go to Butlewash and go into the kiva. There were four. I'm leaving you two. Ben and I are taking the two others. I hope to see you again one day... Hugs and kisses, your friend Mary (and Ruben).
Caroline looked at River of Stars and River of Stars looked at Caroline.
"What does Mary mean when she says: 'as to our secret'? And Butlewash? What does that word mean?"
"I don't know the name," whispered River of Stars.
"And a kiva?" asked Caroline.
"A kiva is a hole that my people used to dig in the floor of the caves they lived in. It is a kind of cellar. They stored food and water in them."
"'There were four,' our friend said, thinking out loud. "'There are two left.' Could it be a treasure?
The injured man shifted a little.
In fact, he hadn't been sleeping. He had been listening to the girls. He saw them put the doll in the box, as well as the letter. They kept the box close to them and went to sleep.
The man had only been dozing, because of the pain in his ribs. He crawled over towards the two friends and read Mary's letter for himself. Then he seemed to be thinking.
"These two kids have discovered something. Where is Butlewash? 'There were four ... there are two left...' Something gold? A native treasure? If I could get a hold of it... I can't keep spending my time chasing after finds that may not exist, risking my life on these dangerous roads. I need to keep an eye on these two girls. Just need to gain their trust. They'll lead me to the treasure without realizing it."
The next day, the sun shone brightly. The day would quickly become hot. The six children got up, as did the injured man. He seemed able to walk. On empty stomachs, they started to descend the little path to the bottom of the valley. The only evidence of the storm was the larger-than-normal pools of water.
Caroline suggested to the prospector to come with them to her parents. She explained that they had a little hotel and that he could stay there for a few days and get some medical attention. Or else her father could take him in his van to the little hospital in Blanding. The injured prospector took her up on her offer with no hesitation, thinking that this fit perfectly into his plan.
They all walked on the bed of the river until they arrived at the point where the two paths diverged. River of Stars promised her friend to send news when she had some. She took Mary's letter for Alice and Ruben as well as the little doll.
Caroline took her little brothers by the hand. Followed by their visitor, they headed for the house. Their parents were surprised to see them arrive. They had expected that they'd stayed with Aunt Esther.
The man remained with them for a week in one of the little cottages of the future hotel and paid cash in full. He stayed on his back most of the time to let his injuries heal but he kept a lookout for Caroline when she brought him his meals. He seemed friendly, even quite nice. For the moment...
The next Saturday, the oil prospector overheard an interesting conversation when River of Stars came to say hello to her friend. Sitting under a tree, Caroline learned that her friend's grandfather, an old leader of his people, knew the Butlewash place.
It was a vast cave system dug into the side of the cliff, where her people once built their homes and their system of defence. At the time, they lived in these caves, some ten to twelve yards above a dizzying sheer drop halfway up the cliff side.
"My people often created shelters in this kind of place," River of Stars explained. They reached them by ladder. If their enemies were coming to attack them, they would retract the ladders. Their assailants would try to climb the steep cliff face by using cracks in the rock, even the smallest gap. But it was easy enough to pick them off.
Her people would also dig kivas — a kind of cold room— where they would store corn or water. In this way, they could withstand a siege for a long time. Butlewash was a half a day's walk from Blanding. The two girls decided to go the next weekend. They would leave at dawn, to avoid walking under the heat of the midday sun.
The next Friday night, River of Stars came to stay at Caroline's. They had decided not to bring the little ones. The trip promised to be long. And, above all, they'd be going to the foot of a rocky crevice and the ruins of River of Stars' ancestors’ homes. Such a climb would be risky for the young ones.
They walked for longer than they'd expected. They didn't get to the bottom of the cliff face till early afternoon. It rose straight up. But they knew the caves and the ruins were above them. They left their backpacks with their water flasks and their picnic at ground level after they'd had a few bites.
"I suggest taking off your shoes," said River of Stars. "My people have learned to rock-climb barefoot. You can get a better grip."
Caroline took the advice with a smile and slipped off her shoes. The two girls started to climb the cliff face. It was not easy. Several times, they had to climb down and find a new way up, a new footing or a new grip.
Finally, they reached the ledge that opened to the great cave entrance. Now they were face-to-face with the ruins of the ancient buildings. A few rock walls without roofs, a few beams. Two kivas. One of them had a ladder. The two friends went down into it.
You can well imagine that a kiva is much like a cold room or cellar but we do not go into it by a staircase. We enter it by means of a hole, square or round, located in the middle of the ceiling and sometimes sealed by a slab of stone. This was where the ladder was placed. Outside light did not enter except by this opening. It was impossible to get out of a kiva without a ladder. How would you like to jump all the way up to the ceiling? Even if two people were helping each other, getting out of a kiva without a ladder was pretty unimaginable.
They looked around the kiva quickly. Empty. Where could they find this famous treasure? "There were four; two remain..." Behind one of the rocks that lined the wall? They felt around on their hands and knees in the dust, patting down each brick in turn and running their hands from one to the other.
Suddenly, they heard a little sound behind them and turned around. The ladder had vanished. The man, the prospector, was standing above at the edge of the hole in the ceiling of the kiva. He had followed them from a distance, without letting them catch sight of him. Now he had removed the ladder, trapping the two girls at the bottom of the cold room.
"Find the treasure," he cried. "Once you've found it, call me. Then and only then, I'll trade it for your food, return your ladder to you, and you can return home." "Mister," shouted Caroline, "don't do this to us. We saved you! We could have passed on by and left you in your car in the storm. It would have slowly slipped down and plunged over the edge of the cliff. You owe us your life and look at what you're doing."
River of Stars said nothing. She pursed her lips. The man had shown his true face: nasty, greedy, merciless.
"It won't do any good, Caroline. He's not even listening to you. Come on. Let's look for this treasure."
The girls groped around a long time among the rocks. Now night fell. They noticed a rock about a foot across and quite heavy. It came out easily. They removed it. Behind it, they found a small, dark hiding place. There, they discovered two strange stones. They were grey underneath and white and smooth on top. The white surface was scored with many fine lines. On one of them, the lines were wavy and made up a pattern with the others, like waves on the sea. On the other stone, the lines were very straight, either vertical or horizontal, forming a grid. The stones fit neatly in the palm of the girls' hands. Could this be the treasure?
Seeing as though they hadn't found anything else and night was falling, they called up to the man and asked for their backpacks. The man answered to keep looking if they wanted anything to eat or drink.
Once again, the girls felt around the inner wall of the room, tapping and knocking with their knuckles. In vain. They found absolutely nothing. Tired, they rested against the wall. The scoundrel threw them one of their water flasks. The physical fatigue and the emotional drain of the day had wiped them out. They slept solidly on the bare stone floor of the kiva.
When they woke the next morning, the ladder was back in place. The man had surely climbed down into the cavern while they had been sleeping! They shivered at the thought. He must have felt around near them, without them hearing. Could he have found some treasure? No, probably not.
Caroline and River of Stars quickly climbed up the ladder, carrying the two line-covered stones with them. They found their backpacks at the foot of the cliff. They drank and ate and then left for home.
When Caroline returned home, she told her parents all about her adventures. She told them about the prospector who threatened them and trapped them in the kiva. The girls never saw him again. The fathers of the girls reported the man to the sheriff's office. But the wanted man had disappeared. The two friends didn't even know his full name. He'd run off to the east ... or to the west.
The next weekend, Caroline went to visit River of Stars at her home. Her grandfather, the old leader, welcomed them and listened to what they had to say. The girls showed him the two stones.
He examined them with care, then explained to the two friends that the stones were bona fide treasures. They had belonged to his people's shamans. The shamans used them to know the personality of the people who came to consult them.
The old man proposed that the two girls each chose which of them they preferred. Caroline picked the one that had straight lines with the other lines at right angles to the first, the grid. River of Stars opted for the stone with the wavy lines.
"You are very logical and deliberate, Caroline," said the old man. "You prefer it when situations are neat and tidy. Your character is all-or-nothing and you can be quick-tempered. Things work or that's it for you."
Our friend smiled, because it was true.
"River of Stars is more of a poetic soul, more of a dreamer. She might seem gentler but that doesn't mean she's less courageous. She likes drawing, colours, music, the little things in life. For example, she's learning to play the flute."
Our friends kept the stones for the rest of their lives. Each had their preference, the image of their characters. It was their first adventure. They would have others that I will tell you soon.
Read on, if you'd like hear the continuation to this story in the second episode: The Coyote.
Translation : Andrew Gordon Middleton