Francie Cavanaugh lay flat on her stomach on the top of the old Sequoia stump. A slight breeze billowed her skirt out around her legs and the toes of her old high-buttoned shoes pointed straight into the wood. She kept her finger firmly pressed against the two thousand five hundredth ring while she lay her head down, resting her neck. She could feel the heat of the rough sun-warmed wood against her cheek and smell the tangy-sweet scent of resin. “Twenty-five hundred years,” she whispered. And she wasn’t to the center yet--there were probably at least five hundred rings left to count.
That meant the tree had been growing for three thousand years when Connor and his men had cut it down six years ago. She sat up, but kept her finger on the tree ring. “What was happening three thousand years ago?” she asked a robin who had come to perch on the upright pole of the ladder leaning against the giant stump. He seemed totally unafraid of her; he cocked his head and examined her with one bright black eye as if to say, “Well, out with it!”
She answered slowly, thinking it out as if she were in school. “This is the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Ninety-four. It was almost two thousand years ago that Jesus was born.” She sucked in her breath. The tree had been over a thousand years old at the time of Christ! Maybe it had sprouted around the time Moses was leading the Hebrews through the wilderness. It was almost too much to imagine. With her free hand she stroked the wood gently as if the stump could feel her touch. But she knew it couldn’t feel her. She closed her eyes. It was dead now. Like Carrie. She shook that thought away before the lump could form in her throat and leaned down to resume counting.
“Francie!” It was her mother’s voice. She was coming up the path. Francie looked around, realizing too late that the sun was close to setting. She’d lost track of the time again! She grabbed the sharp stone near her hand and scratched two lines across the two thousand five hundredth ring to mark her place. Then she stood and looked down, past the swelling buttresses around the bottom of the stump, to the ground. The loggers had started their cut about twenty feet up where the trunk was thinner so she was way too high up to jump. She sighed and swung herself onto the ladder.
She had to place her feet carefully to avoid the broken rungs as she climbed down. “No wonder the loggers left it here when they moved,” she grumbled, hoping her mother wouldn’t notice how rickety it was.
Even if a rung looked solid, she tested it before she stepped on it. She took another step, and just as she’d decided it was safe to put her whole weight on the rung, it snapped with a loud cracking sound. The ladder started to teeter, but Francie’s fingers found a hole in the bark of the old stump. She gripped hard at the hole and kept the ladder upright.
Blessing the animal who’d made the hole, Francie shifted her weight until the ladder leaned solidly against the stump once again. “Maybe it was an owl,” she said, slowly uncurling her fingers, ready to grab again if the ladder moved.
The ladder held firm, but as Francie let go of the edge of the hole she felt something brush her fingertips. She fought the urge to jerk her hand away. Maybe it was a baby bird, she thought. A baby owl. Slowly she took a step up so she could get a glimpse into the hole.
Sunlight shone obligingly into the blackness, but what Francie saw was not an animal, but a small cloth bag.
Francie could hear her mother’s voice getting louder. In a moment she would reach the clearing. Quickly Francie drew the bag out of the hole. It was made of oiled cloth to make it waterproof and was so light, Francie thought there couldn’t be anything inside. She wiggled her fingers into the opening and pulled it wide.
There was something inside after all, a folded piece of paper. She hooked her arm around the ladder, took the paper out of the bag, and unfolded it.
Meet me at Turkey Fork
Half past four on Sunday
Don’t tell anyone--the only safety is in secrecy.
The handwriting was almost illegible. Francie’s heart gave an unexpected lurch that made her momentarily dizzy. She didn’t understand the meaning of the words, but she knew very well who had written the message. The barely readable handwriting had to be her sister Carrie’s.