We knew there was something odd about the fire when the flames from the kindling ignited the treasure-box log and we both started seeing visions.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Shhh.” You were staring at the images. I turned back to watch.
I thought at first the fireplace might just be mischievous and had decided to play tricks with the light. The chimney was old after all, as old as the one-room cabin itself, which had been built near the lake almost two hundred years ago and was now used as a way station for hikers and forestry workers.
By the time we had arrived and unloaded our backpacks that day, the afternoon wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping, sending a chill through the drafty room.
“How about a fire?” I suggested.
You looked around. “There’s not a stick of wood in this place.”
“Let’s check out back. Maybe there’s a woodpile.”
No woodpile. And the ground had been cleared of fallen branches by previous visitors, though we did find some twigs to use as kindling. We started walking farther into the trees, pulling our coats tight against the wind.
“What’s that?” You pointed to the base of a large pine, where the corner of something metal was poking up through the blanket of dry needles.
“Looks like the roots have pushed it up. Probably been buried a long time.”
I ran back to get our collapsible pack shovel and we dug up what turned out to be a long metal box, rusted in spots, but not secured by a lock.
We paused a moment before opening it, both wondering at its contents. I imagined it filled with keepsakes, some coins or jewelry, and maybe a journal or two written by pioneers long ago.
“It has to be valuable,” I said. “Otherwise, why hide it like this?”
You pried up the lid. Inside was a log about two feet long, smooth and evenly round, deep yellow in color, not gray with age like old dried wood.
“Well,” I said, “the good news is it’s a log, which is what we’re looking for. The bad news is it’s a log, which is not exactly the kind of buried treasure we’d expect to find.”
You ran your hand inside the box and under the piece of wood, then sat back on your heels. “Nothing else there. Let’s bring it in. I don’t feel like hunting for firewood, and I have a hunch about this.”
Back in the cabin, I layered some paper and kindling on the grate and you lifted the log and set it in place. “It’s heavier than I thought it would be.”
“I’m worried it might not burn too well.”
It didn’t. The paper and kindling burned quickly enough, then as the flames licked up around the log they burst into a sheet of dull light that filled the fireplace. Impressive, yet we felt no heat.
I tried holding a stick in the flame-sheet but it didn’t even get charred. You put your hand in, with no injury. It seemed we wouldn’t get to enjoy a hot, crackling fire, so we sat back to frown at the fireplace.
That’s when the images appeared.
The log had begun slowly turning on its axis, like one of those recording cylinders Thomas Edison invented, though this one silently spun out its tale in moving pictures projected in the glow of the fire.
Of course, the visions-in-flames thing is a common trope in certain types of stories, since it’s a convenient way to relate vital information. A pool of water can serve as well. Crystals are unfailingly effective in this plot device.
But these weren’t visions of romantic fantasy. Instead, we were treated to a rather prosaic history of the people who settled here and built the cabin.
They came, as did many pioneers, to find their fortune in this part of northern California. That placed the opening scenes sometime after 1849. Prospectors of the Gold Rush era. Go ’Niners. Not just men, though. We saw families arrive at this lake, set up camp, then eventually build a few cabins, of which only one was left.
“Subtitles would be handy,” I said.
“Can’t you read lips?”
“No. Neither can you.”
One guy with a thick red beard built a sluice box to let the water wash over the riffles along the bottom and trap metal particles that flowed by. I liked him — he seemed the most ambitious and competent. The others just panned for gold in the river that fed the lake. They all looked grizzly, tired, and full of expectation.
Then we had to slog through a lot of domestic scenes, dinners, family quarrels, group meetings, fights, a killing. Seasons came and went, years went by, life was lived.
I suppose it would be fascinating to historians, but I was falling asleep. “If this is a magic log, it sure isn’t much of a magical story.”
“But why is it here? Why did we find it?” You shook my shoulder. “Keep watching.” I shifted my position and tried to stay awake.
We almost missed the crucial clue.
In one scene, off in the background and hardly noticeable, the bearded guy who had toiled away at the sluice for years was walking up the slope above the cabin carrying a canvas bag about the size of a boot. The way he held it suggested it was heavy. He also had a shovel.
He kept looking around, as if worried about being followed, until he came to a rock outcropping, where he crouched down for a bit, somewhat obscured by trees. When he came back, he no longer had the bag. The image quickly shifted to the family inside the cabin.
“Wait,” you said. “Did you catch that? What was he doing?”
“I’m not sure, it looked like— Wait a second, let me try this.” I reached in and grabbed the log at each end, then rotated it back a fraction of a turn. The image restarted at an earlier point and we were able to pay closer attention to each step the man took as he climbed the hill with his bag.
“Think it’s still there?”
“I think we can look.”
The story moved on to show people leaving, empty cabins, a roof collapsing under snow, the last old miner packing up his mule. No one was left.
The log stopped turning, the vision faded, the flames died down. There were no closing credits.
“Fin,” I said, like at the end of French films. But you were gazing at the west wall, in the direction of the slope where we thought the rock outcropping must be.
The next morning, we headed up the hill with our shovel. It’s chance finds like these that help fund our adventures.