Her leather coin purse was hanging on a nail by the door. Tom opened it and found two one-dollar bills and loose change amounting to forty-one cents. The change was pennies, nickels and one dime. Most of the pennies were shiny.
Charley spoke up shaking his head from side to side, “As for me, I never believed any of those so-called treasure stories of mysterious money being brought up from Chicago.”
Tom replied, “Me neither Charley.”
The requested portrait of Joseph—a handsome man, the same man that was in the wedding portrait was hanging above the bed. The large gold-leaf oval frame was elegant. “Somebody must have paid a pretty penny for that,” Charley said. “I would have been proud to own that myself.”
The sheriff had done his duty and made the collect call to Ludvik that evening. Tom was reminded that he was called Louis now, and although he wouldn’t be able to make it for the funeral, asked that the sheriff let him know if there was anything he needed to do. He wasn’t interested in the old pictures or any other stuff.
* * *
The sheriff and Charley returned to Mrs. Szotchka’s place the next morning. The nannies would need to be milked. The chickens most likely left a few eggs to be gathered. Tom generously offered to share his jelly donuts with Charley. Charley remembered Doc observing Tom’s swollen middle and cautioning him to make an appointment. Charley hadn’t gained more than five pounds since he was discharged twenty years ago. He took one.
“What are you going to do with those goats and chickens?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know. I suppose she had no way of knowing I sold that farm last spring.”
Tom steered the squad car up the rough path to the barn. “There weren’t any tracks in this path last night, were there Charley?”
“No, I didn’t remember seeing any.”
“Look over there.” Tom pointed toward the well. “Somebody’s been digging up here.” There were eight holes around the well, eleven more in the garden, two behind the outhouse and five more by the little barn. Most of the beans and peas were trampled and half the corn was bent and broken. Tom entered the house to find the kitchen stove partly dismantled, the stovepipe disconnected leaving piles of soot on the floor, and floorboards pulled up. The neatly piled stacks of magazines had been scattered. The bed had been torn up and holes ripped in the mattress. Everything that had been left in the trunk was strewn on the floor. The stew pot was empty and a quick look in the cellar revealed that the jars of sauerkraut and preserves were gone.
Tom shook his head, “Those damn Baker boys! Besides you, Doc, Bruce and Me, they’re the only ones that knew she died last night. I knew Jesse had been drinking when he called, but I didn’t say anything. I should have. I’ve heard them talk about the treasure everybody thought she had. They must have gone straight home and got their shovels.” Tom paused, “I’ll have a little talk with them. I don’t care what flimsy excuses they come up with. I’ll get Joey alone—he’ll spill. I’ll get them to come back up here and fill in all these holes and put those floorboards back. I know they’d rather do that than have the judge throw the book at them and get locked up for the rest of the summer. I’ll have them taking care of the goats too—at least until we can figure out what you’re going to do with them.”
Charley nodded his approval and went out to the barn and milked the goats and collected two eggs from the hens. Tom took down the portrait of Joseph and put it in the back seat of his squad car for delivery to Bruce at the funeral home.
* * *
It seemed a simple request.
“We’ve done it before,” boasted Bruce. “Sometimes people are buried with some of their jewelry, Bible, favorite books, even a deck of cards, so the portrait of her husband is easy. A lot of the ladies like to be buried with their rosary. One time this old guy wanted a map of the stars.” Bruce grinned. “I suppose he thought it would help him find his way around up there.”
Father Francis came and said a few kind and inspirational words, but besides Bruce and his wife, there was only the sheriff, Charley and Mrs. Miller there to hear them. Bruce whispered to Charley that when he removed her shoes there was a bunch of old newspapers stuffed in them because they were too large for her.
In accordance with her last requests of simplicity, Bruce arranged for a pauper’s funeral. Her tiny stature allowed for her to be placed in the smallest of the adult pine coffins Bruce had in his stockroom. Mrs. Miller and Mrs. Carole chatted with Father Francis about how sad it was that she had no family, no friends, no money and how she lived such a shabby existence. They all nodded in sad agreement. Their discussion then shifted to the Father’s plans for his youth center. Donations were going nicely but a lot more was needed. It will have a small working farm—already a cow and three chickens had been donated. The ladies promised to help with some bake sales and any other collection efforts they could devise—maybe even a rummage sale.
When the women and Father Francis left the room, Bruce carefully placed the portrait of Joseph in the coffin with Mrs. Szotchka—but the lid wouldn’t close. The portrait with that elegant frame was too large for the tiny coffin.
After a brief discussion with Tom and Charley, Bruce dialed the operator and made a person-to-person collect call to Louis. They all agreed he should be the one to decide what to do about this dilemma.
It didn’t matter to Louis. He suggested that they take the picture out of the frame. Throw it away if they wanted to. What difference could it make? He would call someone when he got the chance and would arrange to sell the property. He was very busy.
Bruce looked at Charley and said, “Charley, you want this frame?” He knew Charley liked the frame.
“Take it Charley,” Tom said. “You earned it. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it. We already know Louis doesn’t want it.”
“I’d be glad to have it but I still don’t know what I’m going to do with those goats and chickens,” Charley said.
Bruce carefully laid the portrait of Joseph on his work table face side down. The paper backing on the frame was old and brittle and had loosened over the years. Tom and Charley watched intently as if Bruce were performing a delicate operation. Charley said jokingly, “Be careful with my frame.” Bruce cautiously began to separate the backing from the frame and uncovered the corner of a fifty-dollar bill. Not just any fifty-dollar bill—it was a gold certificate with a 1913 date.
He nearly choked when he found more neatly pressed bills; fives, tens, twenties and more fifties dating as far back as the 1880’s. Most were common silver certificates, but there were more gold certificates, some red seals and a two-dollar Union Note from 1862.
Charley couldn’t believe what he was witnessing after her unabashed negotiations with him all these years [two cents for an old can of beans—a penny for a dented can of peaches!].
Charley suggested to Bruce that they call an old army buddy of his—a numismatist in Milwaukee. They sorted through the treasure and gave Charley’s friend a detailed inventory of the find. It didn’t take him long; he was familiar with most of these bills. He speculated that they could easily bring forty to fifty thousand dollars at an auction.
Bruce could only shake his head, “Don’t that beat all? That old lady lived like a beggar and thought she was going to take it all with her when she died. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Father Francis looked in to say his goodbyes and saw the shocked faces, “Is there anything I can do?”
Charley looked at Tom, Tom looked at Bruce, and Bruce looked at Charley. They all looked at Father Francis. Finally, Charley said, “We should call Louis again.”
It must have rung a dozen times. The operator finally said, “I’m sorry sir, but your party does not wish to accept the charges.”
AUTHOR’S NOTE: This story is not entirely fiction. The town and names are fictitious and some of the characters are a compilation of actual people from the area. Many years ago, I had often seen this old woman along the highway. She did live alone with her goats in a simple four-room shack. I was in it a few years after she died. She did frequent the nearby town dump, she raked up the hay along the highway, and she bargained with local shop owners much as described. When she died, she did want the portrait of her husband to be buried with her. Yes, there was a lot of old money stuffed behind the picture. It was found accidentally because it wouldn’t fit in her coffin. Some of the locals that did not know about the findings behind the portrait, did if fact, ravage her property in search of a suspected treasure. I may have taken some liberties with the son, Louis purely for dramatic effect.