Copyright © Steve Kittner 2014
He stared into the fire and spoke very deliberately as he thought and recalled the legend.
“The year,… was 1903. My Great-grandfather, Arthur Otis,…he was a good man, but sometimes an ornery man. A mountain man, like me. Most people were afraid of him because he came across as being a bit mean or aggressive. Kids especially didn’t like him. They thought he was a wild man or a caveman or something. Anyway, he was bellied up to the bar at the Cross Roads Tavern one night, with a guy named Franklin. Clyde Franklin. They really had nothing in common other than the whiskey they were drinkin’ but the more they drank, the more they talked and Franklin had some real interesting things to say, apparently.”
“What were they talkin’ about?” Josh asked quietly.
Burl Otis turned the rabbit another quarter turn and then took a long drink of cold well water from a metal cup.
“Ya got to remember that everything I tell ya is according to the legend, OK? It could or couldn’t be fact but this story has been told through the years. There were some witnesses to these conversations back then but they went unnamed. But according to the legend, they were talking about hard times… and gold.” He paused. “A dangerous combination. Hard times make people do desperate things.”
Clyde Franklin worked in the railroad yard way up at the head of Red Creek. He knew ‘most everybody in town and drank with a lot of them after work occasionally. Ya see, all these railroad guys would go wash down all that coal dust with beer after their shifts. Laborers and management, it didn’t matter. They drank in the same bar and the bar owner would run tabs for these miners that they could pay on payday. Well, it started getting harder and harder for these guys to pay because of a reduction in hours up at the mine. That was the first sign of hard times back then; when you couldn’t pay your bar bill.” He grinned slightly. “So anyway, somehow Franklin got wind of a gold shipment that was going to be passing through Red Creek on the C&O. Not just any gold shipment, but a huge pile of old Confederate gold. The stuff that came from foreign countries to fund the South during The War. It was on its way to a museum or something over in D.C. for a temporary show.”
“Clyde Franklin thought he could get away with stealing something that high profile?” Josh asked eagerly.
“He didn’t think he could. He was sure he could. He did get away with it. But here’s the thing; he couldn’t have cared less about the value of it. He didn’t want it for the money. No... Clyde Franklin was an old Confederate soldier. He just wanted the gold out of Union hands. He felt it was stolen and he wanted to steal it back. He was an old man, bitter over the outcome of the war. He called it The War of Northern Aggression. That war had a lot of names, and West Virginia was quite divided on it, too. We were technically a northern state but there were a lot of men who went down to Richmond to fight for the South. Clyde Franklin was one of them.”
Josh and Eddie both sat back in their chairs as Eddie raised his eyebrows and let out a deep breath. “Wow.”
“So he and my great-grandfather sat at the bar that night, and the more they drank the bigger the plan got. The bigger the plan got, the more they drank and by the end of the night, they were best friends, or so Great-grand dad thought.
“Whatta ya mean?” Josh asked.
Otis put his palm up. “I’ll get to it.”
Josh and Eddie exchanged glances.
“Over the next few weeks Clyde managed to find out what day and what train that gold shipment was going to be shipped on. He knew the security guards would be on the train and how many of them there would be.” Burl paused and looked up at the wall, collecting his next thought. He went on, “Now…Clyde also had access to railroad supplies, including dynamite and an official signal lantern. It went out right under his coat one evening and was never missed from the yard until after the robbery. During inventory the following weeks, those things were discovered missing from company stores, but it was too late then.”
Burl Otis’ voice was still low and whispering, as if there may be someone outside his window trying to listen in. The fire began to dwindle a bit, so he reached for the poker to stir up the coals before adding another log. He brushed their dinner again and flipped the potatoes over.
He continued. “That’s how they would have stopped the train, ya know…with just a signal lantern. That’s the legend, anyway. The missing lantern was never found, but in those days that’s the only means they had to signal trains to stop at night. Wave the signal lantern. They wouldn’t stop otherwise.”
“Well… how do you know about all this and the law never did?” Eddie asked.
Otis grinned just a little. “Loose lips sink ships.”
Josh and Eddie looked at him funny.
“It’s an old saying. After the hold up, Franklin hid the gold and just kept enough to live on. He most likely had a guy in Charleston who would buy it and melt it down for a very good price. Franklin could live very well on that. He would go to the Cross Roads and drink the night away and the more he drank the more he talked. Loose lips. He would tell just enough to make people wonder. He would tell one guy that he knew how the robbers stopped the train. And then he would tell another guy, a few nights later, how the robbers managed to kill all five men on the train. Then he would tell another guy something else until people started putting things together and wondering about him and his involvement in the train heist. He quit the railroad job, too, and folks wondered how he had the means to survive with no income. Also, he had no trouble paying his bar tab.” Burl was leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, still speaking low and whispering.
“But the law never knew, really. Or they didn’t know enough to arrest him. Oh, they say he was questioned a few times but without any hard evidence all he had to do was deny it, right? They had to have some kind of evidence, ya know. Proof. There was no smoking gun. The only thing that was left behind at the scene, one single clue, was…” he paused, thought a minute and got up, and walked over to a tall, narrow oak cabinet that held six very old-looking guns. He reached to the bottom of the cabinet, moved one of the gun stocks over just a little and pulled out an old, very worn, leather wallet. He walked back over and sat down by the fire with the boys.
“This. This is the only piece of evidence that was ever found at the scene of the train robbery in 1903.”
“Arthur Otis’ wallet!” Josh said softly. “We read about this at the library. Oh my gosh…it’s like a piece of history.”
Burl handed the old wallet to Josh. Josh handled it and looked at it as if it were the gold itself. He opened it up and, stamped on the inside was the name “ART OTIS” in letters about a half-inch tall and all capitals. Eddie scooted closer to get a better look. Josh looked at Burl as if to get approval to inspect further. Burl Otis gave him a nod and a swish of his hand, as if to say go ahead.
Josh held it to get good light on it and opened up the bill section. Inside the bill area was something oblong and shiny and Josh repositioned the wallet, again to get better light. He squinted a bit and then slowly reached in to pull out what was in there. It was a nickel…flatter than a pancake. Josh looked at it as he held it up in front of his face, giving Eddie a good view of what he was holding.
“No way!” Eddie said.
Burl Otis grinned a bit. “It’s the one you boys couldn’t find.”
Josh smiled and shook his head, putting the coin back in the wallet. He then looked inside the wallet again to further inspect.
“Oh, that’s all that’s in there,” Burl said. “Anything else has been stripped out of there over the years. Most of it probably taken by Franklin that night. He stripped it of anything valuable and left it at the scene to incriminate Art Otis as the sole train robber. Keep the nickel too, it’s yours.”
“So, where did the story about the “Southern Sympathizers” come from? The old newspaper articles that we found said it was a band of old Confederates just trying to get their gold back, or something,” Eddie asked.
“Well, it was an old Confederate trying to get his gold back, that’s for sure. It just wasn’t a band of them. That’s just fabricated by the press. The law had to have somebody to blame and the press had to have something to write about,” Burl said. “The newspaper guys were more right than they thought, actually.” He paused. “But they never really knew. Never had a clue. Art Otis and Clyde Franklin pulled off that train robbery cleaner than a whistle. Everything went their way that night.” He paused and looked back over at the fire the flames flickering in his dark eyes once again. “But it didn’t end up well for my great-granddad. He would have never robbed a train and then just disappeared to go live somewhere else. This was his home. This was his cabin. The Otis homestead and the mountain.” Burl spread his arms with his palms up when he said it. “He raised a family here. It just gets a little hard to pay the taxes when all you do for money is fur trapping. He did put out some ginseng plants late in life but they take years before you can harvest them. Good money in ginseng, but I don’t think he reaped the benefits for too many years. He was just a desperate man trying to keep his family in his family home!”
Josh tilted his head a little and looked at Burl, closing up the wallet and handing it back. “What do you think happened after they got the gold off the train?”
“I’ll tell ya what happened.” He paused and looked up at some old Otis artifacts on the wall. The axe. The buck saw. And then down at the wallet. “Clyde Franklin killed Arthur Otis in cold blood that night.”
A bit of attitude was in his eyes when he said it. It was in his voice, too. He drew a deep breath and walked over to the table and picked up a large, oblong platter. He then stepped over to the fireplace and pulled the skewered rabbit off the fire and placed it on the platter. He slowly walked the platter back over to the table, his heavy footsteps making the boards creak under his feet as he composed himself. He lit a lamp that hung on the wall by the table.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong, they killed five other men that night and I don’t mean to say that was right or anything, but Franklin just absolutely doublecrossed Art Otis the worst way you can,” he said, “and I am convinced… that was his plan all along. Ever since the first night at the Cross Roads Tavern, Franklin planned to have Great-granddad help him steal the gold, and then kill him. Who’s gonna miss an old mountain man, anyway? And then he tossed his wallet on the tracks. It wasn’t found in the weeds or down by the river. No. It was found right in front of the cowcatcher on the train, right between the rails! And…it instantly made Art Otis a guilty man and the source of their manhunt, like I told you.”
The boys were awestruck. There was dead silence in the cabin, except for the crackling of the fire, as they tried to absorb all the information. It was a solemn moment.
“What do you think he did with him? With the body,” Josh asked quietly, not wanting to ask something that was less than appropriate.
Burl shook his head. “I don’t know. These hills are dense. He coulda’ taken him anywhere. I have been walkin’ ‘em for years and have found no clues as to the whereabouts of Art Otis and he was a big man, too. How far could he drag him? And I know these hills like nobody else, ya know.” He thought for a moment. “There was so much gold, too. Easily enough for two people; it was senseless for Franklin to want it all for himself.”
Burl Otis walked back over to the fire with another plate and pulled the huge potatoes out of the hot coals with his calloused bare hands. Josh glanced at Eddie. Eddie's eyebrows went up. Tough dude.
Josh appeared to be in thought for a second and then said, “Mr. Otis, you seem like…well… the Sheriff told us that we should stay away from you and that you were nasty and a….uugh…umm”
“What, a moonshiner?” Otis chuckled a little. “And a nasty old man?”
“Well, that’s what he said. He said your family has been running shine up here for decades, but I mean, it don’t matter, I just...”
“Yeah…I know what Collins says about me and my family. He’s been saying it for years.” Burl Otis spread his hands out wide. “Feel free to look around and…”
“No, no, no, I didn’t mean that I believed him. I just can’t figure why he would say those kinds of things if they weren’t true.”
“It’s true,” Eddie said, thinking. “He’s a Sheriff. He has sort of an obligation to the truth. There are laws against spreading lies about people.”
Burl Otis went over to a cabinet and pulled out a long loaf of unsliced bread and laid it on the table along with a long, sharp knife. He then pulled three clean plates out of another cabinet and placed them on the table with silverware and clean hand towels for napkins. He walked over to the stove and pulled a medium-sized simmering pan off the fire. Fresh green beans with a big hunk of salt pork meat. He sat it on the table on top of a square piece of wood to bear the heat.
“You’re right. He does have an obligation to be truthful.” He paused. “Come and eat, there’s more to the story.”
Burl’s table was a heavy-duty picnic style table with benches down each side of it. It had sat in the same exact spot over the years and was an original “Otis” piece. It had been stained to a dark color and showed the scars of many years of use. Initials of mischievous Otis boys were carved into the seats that dated back a hundred years.
Burl Otis said a simple man’s prayer, poured the remaining glaze over the hare and then dinner was served. Josh pulled a hindquarter off and helped himself to a potato, a huge scoop of beans, and a hunk of crusty bread. Eddie did the same but opted for the tenderloin portion of the rabbit, the most tender and tasty portion of the animal.
They dug in.
Both boys were amazed. It was delicious! The apple jelly and spice glaze was awesome. The real butter that ran over the potato was super sweet. Nothing had ever tasted better to the two hungry adventurers.
The first few bites of the meal were eaten in silence. A sign of good cooking. After a bit, Eddie slowed down enough to ask, “So, why would Sheriff Collins spread rumors like that, Mr. Otis?”
Burl Otis thought for a moment and stared deeply into the fire that was burning tall across the room and then spoke in his deep tone once again, slowly and softly.
“He speaks this way about me and my family because…he knows.”
Josh and Eddie stopped eating and looked at him as he stared off, as if in a trance.
“He knows what?” Josh asked, equally as quiet.
There was a pause and silence once again filled the room.
“Sheriff Collins’ mother…”
The boys listened harder. He looked over from the fire and right into each boy’s eyes.
He said it slowly, “…Elizabeth…Franklin.”
Josh’s fork hit his plate.
Burl continued, “Sheriff Collins knows almost every bit as much as I do about the legend. It has been handed down through his family, too. He knows about the milk can and the scroll. He knows how his great-grandfather and mine conspired and he also knows that Clyde Franklin killed Arthur Otis, although he probably won’t admit it. He knows the answers to the whereabouts of the gold are hidden with the document in the milk can. He has been after it for years…we all have and then, all of the sudden…it just pops up! Thank goodness you boys have it.” Otis took another bite.
Josh and Eddie looked at each other with great concern. Burl Otis picked up on the fact that something was wrong and his eyebrows dropped and his head cocked slightly to one side.
“We had it,” Eddie said as he looked at the floor.
“Somebody took it out of the can in the garage,” Josh added. “We did make a copy, though.”
“Ooohh.” Burl let out a deep breath, blowing it through his pursed lips. “Do you have it with you? The copy?”
“Yeah. In my bag.”
“We’re gonna have to study it and see what we can decipher.” Burl said.
Burl thought for a minute, trying to figure out who would know about the deer hide in the garage. “Who else knows about it?”
Josh replied, counting on his fingers, “Me, Eddie, You, our friend Giselle, and her boss at the Library.”
“What’s his name?”
Burl thought for a moment. “Hmm. Never heard of him. How did he see it?”
“I dropped a copy of the map when we were at the library looking stuff up and he found it later.”
“He didn’t give it back?”
“No, he kept it.”
“That’s strange. Hmm. Nobody else? Is that all the people who know about it? Mom? Dad? Sisters…anyone?”
“No, that’s all. Just five of us,” Josh said, as he went into thought.
“It’s a pretty small circle of people. I mean, we can rule out Me, Josh and you right off the bat. That only leaves Giselle and Mansfield. I am positive that Giselle wouldn’t have taken it and I am sure, also, that she didn’t tell anyone.” While Eddie was talking, Josh was thinking.
Burl Otis thought for a second and then raised his eyebrows a bit. “Well, that just leaves Mansfield, then. He’s the only one who could have broken into the garage and taken it. But the question is; Why? Who is he and why would he do it? After all, he already had a copy of it, right? It doesn’t make any sense even.”
Josh was in a straight-ahead stare, his eyes fixed on nothing in particular, his turn to be in a trance, and he had a facial expression that said I know who took it.
“The garage wasn’t broken into,” he said in monotone. “The person who took it walked right through our garage, saw it and walked right off with it.”
“Who?” Burl asked.
Eddie thought for a second, let out a big sigh and put his head in his hands, for he knew who it was, too. The worst case scenario had occurred. “Oh man!”
Josh said slowly, “Sheriff Collins.”
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