Benny starts the day off by reminding Grandfather that he PROMISED that they could go mountain climbing one time and then they didn’t. Apparently Joe and Alice saw that they were about to be saddled with chaperone duty so they went abroad ASAP, probably for some important “science” (read: black market sales of priceless artifacts), and I’m guessing that they’re still there since we haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since The Yellow House Mystery. I wouldn’t be anxious to come home, either, if I knew that I’d be spending all of my time taking the world’s most boring kids on elaborate vacations so that Grandfather can have some alone time for his benders. Anyway, apparently Benny is still peeved that he missed the opportunity. Grandfather chuckles indulgently at the little tyke and says that OF COURSE he hasn’t forgotten how they were all going mountain climbing in the Rockies until Joe and Alice ruined everything by going to Europe. How could he forget? Benny has probably been bringing it up on a regular basis since the day his trip got canceled. He’s a persistent little bugger.
Grandfather suggests that they go to Old Flat Top the next day instead. Benny doesn’t notice that he’s getting shafted on his mountain climbing expedition when he’s offered a brisk walk two hours away instead of a Rocky Mountain adventure. He’s probably too busy appreciating the name “Old Flat Top” – Benny loves a dull and descriptive name (Potato Camp) – and then Grandfather distracts him with a pop quiz about whether he knows one Dr. Percy Osgood. While Benny is puzzling over who this person is and why he isn’t named Professor Professorson so that it’s immediately obvious to the more simple-minded who he is, Henry pipes up that he knows Dr. Osgood because he read the good doctor’s book last year in college. Showoff. The Aldens give their rent-a-friends the next day off, and they get up at the crack of dawn to go to Old Flat Top. They don’t bother packing a lunch because it’s more fun to throw money around in the village store so that everyone knows that they are fantastically wealthy and will know better than to step out of line. It’s subtler than having Grandfather wear his TYCOON, BITCHES button. The guy at the store sells them so much lunch that all five of them have to carry a backpack up the mountain. He can see that they’re serious about food.
When they reach the top, Henry pulls out a brown sweater. BROWN. HOW DOES HE KNOW THAT IT’S HIS? We all know that Henry’s color is green. Is he allowed to have brown clothes? I am totally flummoxed by this development. Fortunately, Gertie anticipates my distress, and she follows it up quickly by revealing that the lunch that they’ve been hauling up the hill is raw hamburger that they’ll make into patties and cook on top of the mountain, and suddenly my gag reflex comes front and center, pushing the color code problem aside as I imagine how unappetizing their lunch is. Not only has it been baking in their backpacks for at least three hours while they’ve been trudging up the hill, but Jessie and Violet make it into patties there, and Henry did not mention Purell as he reeled off the list of supplies he was bringing along for this day hike like a good little Boy Scout. Perhaps he should start reading up on e.coli and throw a box of baby butt wipes in with the flashlights and binoculars. (Yes, I realize that I may be overreacting. It’s possible that I have been scarred for life by my high school Health Occupations class’s unit on food poisoning. And while I can believe that Henry may have lugged a cooler up the side of this hill, I do not see how they washed their hands. I’m feeling a bit ill just thinking about the germiness of it all. Don’t even get me started on the unwashed frying pan that stays on top of the mountain all the time for the hikers.)
They’re lucky that they make it through this meal e.coli-free because as Benny starts down the mountain, the top step crumbles under his feet and he almost plummets to his death. Fortunately, Henry was helping him down the step, and there is a dramatic rescue as they all haul him back to safety on the flat top of Old Flat Top. Suddenly they find themselves stranded! They’ll have to spend ALL NIGHT on Old Flat Top. Unsurprisingly, Grandfather has prepared for just such an emergency, and Jessie’s crush John Carter shows up in a helicopter to drop some sleeping bags down for them. Unfortunately, Carter doesn’t provide food, too, so they spend a hungry night on top of the mountain. I’m not sure what Grandfather was thinking. Why would you arrange for a helicopter and sleeping bags but neglect to throw some trail mix on board? Benny cries when he’s hungry, and all of the Aldens are constantly worrying about Violet’s delicate, special snowflake-ness, so it seems reasonable to toss in a box of granola bars. Or more e. coli-laced raw meat for that matter. They have a dirty pan and a fire pit, and they’re not afraid to use it. Lighthouse Mystery taught us that Benny loves cooking a frankfurter over a campfire and that Gertie likes repeating “frankfurter” so many times in one paragraph that it loses all meaning, so it’s surprising that she’d pass up this opportunity to do it again. I guess it’s fortunate that none of them are prone to getting the hanger. Or unfortunate since a good argument would really liven this bit up. They skip dinner and make do for breakfast with a delicious meal of half-eaten hamburgers left over from yesterday’s lunch. One of them should really take a class about the importance of refrigeration so that I don’t gag every time they cook something outside. Don’t laugh. You know that it’s something they’d do. Think how many opportunities they’d have to force unsolicited advice on strangers. Grandfather drinks the rest of his coffee, which they’ve been storing in a Coke bottle. He must realllly need a fix if he’s drinking old coffee with Coke residue mixed in.
While they wait for the helicopter, Benny tells them that he saw a cave open up as he was dangling off the side of the mountain, which Grandfather confirms as they are choppered down. When they land, there is a crowd of reporters waiting for them. It seems that this rockslide is BIG NEWS. Naturally, Benny is chatting up the paps like a pro and telling them more than is strictly necessary until Grandfather cuts him off. For some reason, he does not want the media to know that they saw a light in the woods last night. I’m really unclear about why this is a big secret, but Grandfather hustles Benny away for some lunch with a quickness when he starts talking about it. Fortunately, Benny is very food-motivated, and he goes right along with it. I like to think that Grandfather uses the carrot-on-a-stick technique on a regular basis, except with a canned whole chicken to really catch Benny’s attention. When the paparazzi has cleared out, Henry asks the ranger about the secret light in the woods and he finds out that an old Indian lives there. “Just wants to live alone and be let alone” (direct quote), so naturally the Aldens immediately set out to meet this person. They haven’t gotten to smother an Indian with their stereotype-driven friendship since The Yellow House Mystery.
When they arrive at the cabin in the woods, they are shocked to find an Indian woman instead of the Indian man they were expecting. I’m not sure why they are so surprised. The ranger told them that he gets sweetgrass baskets in trade for food every month, and we know that the Boxcar Children observe strict gender roles. Basketweaving is obviously women’s work, ergo they should have expected a woman to answer the door. While they all stand there goldfish-mouthed, the woman politely invites her unexpected guests inside. They all go in and sit down in silence, which has to be awkward. John Carter must have been the world’s worst FBI agent if something as insignificant as this renders him speechless. I can’t imagine how he handled actual crimes. After a few minutes of sitting in a stranger’s living room in total silence, Benny decides that it’s time to break the ice, and he introduces himself and the others. The woman introduces herself as Lovan Dixon and announces that she is ninety years old, which is kind of odd, but considering that she’s hosting a roomful of silent strangers, it might be nervous chatter.
An awkward conversation ensues where the Aldens try unsuccessfully to understand why this woman wants to live alone and be left in peace and demand to know what is bothering her. My guess would be that she’s bothered by the pack of uninvited visitors in her living room since she’s already said how much she likes her alone time, but this doesn’t occur to the Aldens – they demand lifelong friendship from every Tom, Dick, and Harry that they meet. Finally she confesses that she’s heard rumors that someone is going to take her land and use it for timber. Naturally the Aldens are outraged at this abuse of their new best friend. “Not to worry,” Grandfather says. “I know a WEALTHY BUSINESS TYCOON who will buy all of your land up and protect it from the clutches of those sketchy government types. John Carter, make it happen.” He snaps his fingers, and Carter hops to it. No one bothers to ask Lovan if she wants to sell her land to the mysterious and wealthy business tycoon. She’s an old lady, and obviously she doesn’t know what is best. That land has only been in her tribe’s possession since time immemorial. I’m also not sure that the Aldens have entirely forgiven her for not being the man they expected to meet.
Benny, who we all know likes to be the center of attention, makes sure that Lovan knows that he almost plunged to his death thanks to the rockslide that she heard yesterday, but that he was still in possession of his faculties enough to notice the cave that opened up behind the stone steps after they went tumbling down the mountain. Lovan sees the opportunity to distract her guests with a story, possibly hoping to lull them into a stupor, knock them out, and bodily remove them from her house. She’s probably also plotting to poison the ranger who brought this down on her with some special Indian medicines. Lovan makes a poor story choice, though. If she thought that these kids would be bored by history, that idea totally backfires on her. Instead of drowsing off to boboland because they’re bored to tears by educational stories like regular kids, they get all fired up because there is a MYSTERY TO SOLVE, and they can help their new BFF Lovan reclaim some treasure that her grandfather lost when an earthquake reshaped the mountain and closed up the original cave and also made Old Flat Top flat. The reason that her grandfather left riches given to him by a wealthy dying Frenchman in a cave is a little fuzzy, but by now we all know that the facts aren’t important to the Aldens. Fortunately, this quest gets the kids all gung-ho about treasure-hunting, and they charge off to right this ancient wrong, finally leaving the poor woman in peace. “Don’t worry, Lovan! We’ll make that mountain give up your treasure, geology be damned. YOU CAN COUNT ON US. WE WIN AT EVERYTHING.”
I wish I could say that they go careening back to the motel (“all of our rooms are just alike!”), but since Henry is driving, you know that they poke along at a safe and sedate pace. Henry is not a rule-breaker. Meanwhile John Carter is in the other car, drumming his former FBI agent fingers on the steering wheel and thinking “Pedal to the metal, Henry. We have every cop in the state on our payroll. Speeding tickets are not a problem. STATION WAGON HO.” You know he’s grateful to escape when Grandfather sends him off to buy Lovan’s land.
Since Carter is gone Grandfather finds himself without a lackey. Not to worry, though. He enlists a ranger to call around and find out where Dr. Percy Osgood is. JH is way too important to make his own inquiries. It also cuts into his alone time, and he has got to be craving a kid-free moment at this point. A riveting and detailed description of the order in which everyone showers and naps follows. And if that wasn’t scintillating enough, next we find out what everyone eats for dinner at the restaurant. Benny had decided what he wanted for dinner in the car on the way to the motel, but Grandfather convinced him to keep it to himself. “It’s so much more fun if you SURPRISE us all!” If he thought that would shut Benny up, though, he was mistaken. Instead, Benny just keeps prattling on about how excited he is about the secret meal he’s selected until Henry rains on his parade by pointing out that the restaurant may not even have it, which only switches the chatter to rambling on about that terrible possibility. I’ve never been so thankful to hear that people are going to take a nap in my life.
I wish that I could tell you that we’re done with lengthy meal descriptions, but the next chapter opens with a detailed overview of breakfast. John Carter is back, and they greet him like it’s been years since they last saw him instead of just yesterday. John has a table for seven, and they all eagerly anticipate the arrival of Dr. Percy Osgood at breakfast. Not that they wait for him to order their food, but they’re excited about meeting him. Grandfather, who never tires of making his grandchildren feel foolish and stupid, springs another Dr. Percy Osgood pop quiz, this one about what they think that Dr. Osgood will look like. Everyone decides that he must be a big, strong, tall man since he spends all of his time climbing mountains, so of course Dr. Osgood turns out to be a tiny little whitehaired fellow. One day the kids will notice when they’re being set up to fail, but today is not that day. Either that, or they try to hide the fact that they’re crying inside from shame by making polite conversation about what will happen next cave-exploration-wise.
Dr. Osgood also likes to do things quick like a fox, and he’s up the mountain in T minus five. He doesn’t bother waiting for the Aldens, which seems fair since they ate without him just a couple of hours ago. Grandfather declares that he and Violet will go first to slow everyone else down, which has to be good for Violet’s self-esteem. He actually needs her close by since she always has a thermos of his special coffee on hand. While Henry and Jessie are waiting for their slower family members to negotiate the rocks, they have a secret conference about how they saw an Indian boy in the crowd around the store this morning and how this is SUSPICIOUS because the rangers told them that Lovan was the only Indian around there. Also, he hid when Jessie looked at him. He might have sensed that she’d want to help him since he is obviously a less-fortunate non-white non-rich person. Or he found it creepy that some random girl was staring. Either way, Henry and Jessie will not stand for strangers avoiding them, and they vow to get to the bottom of this “mystery.”
Oddly enough, Grandfather is the only Alden who has thought about lunch. He’s assigned John Carter to pack mule duty today, and he’s following them up the mountain with food for all of the Aldens and the workmen. I’m starting to think that he’s being punished by Grandfather for some sort of misdeed – he usually gets much more glamorous work befitting a former FBI agent. John points out that he saw but couldn’t talk to the Indian boy in the crowd because he had to order the lunch. I doubt that the kids pick up on passive-aggressive since nuance often escapes them, but Grandfather surely does. It’s a battle of wits! Hopefully Grandfather will stay sober enough to play.
Sadly, the workmen choose not to blast the top off of the cave, and Benny will not get to blow valuable geological evidence to smithereens yet again. Dr. Osgood won’t even let him climb in the hole until they get the staging built. It RANKLES, but Benny wants to go in the cave, so he holds his rage inside. Meanwhile, Violet is worrying that the random kid from the morning crowd will go and bother Lovan. It totally makes sense that the Aldens would assume that when an Indian boy comes to town he will seek out the only other Indian in the vicinity and victimize her. 1) They aren’t known for their colorblindness, and 2) he hid from Jessie, so he’s obviously a shady character.
Over lunch, Henry quizzes Dr. Osgood about what could be in the bag that the Frenchman gave to Lovan’s grandfather. I don’t know why he thinks that Percy will be such an expert. His expertise is in fossils, as Henry should know if he really did read that book for his college class. I’m starting to suspect that he bought the book and skimmed the jacket copy. Of course, it’s also feasible that Henry is so dull that he thinks that being an expert in one kind of old stuff equates being an expert in all kinds of old stuff. Fossils and French antiques are pretty much the same, right? A PhD is a PhD. Grandfather finally steps in before Henry can make even more of a fool of himself in front of his buddy Percy by pointing out that the good doctor doesn’t care about the treasure. He’s not opposed to finding it, of course, but a preserved Jurassic fern would be more his style.
When the Aldens get back to the ranger station, they immediately question the rangers to be sure that they also noticed the non-white, non-rich interloper. The rangers didn’t get to talk to him, either, though! They claim to be concerned that he’s lost and needs help, but I think that if he needed help, he’d have come up to a ranger and asked. This is a Boxcar Children novel, after all. The Aldens live in a special after-school-special world populated with friendly police officers eager to help lost children. No, this kid must be using his super special Indian skillz to elude them all. The Aldens make it their mission to unravel this mystery. They love a mystery, and they are not afraid of adding another one to their to-solve list, and let’s face it – they don’t actually have a mystery on their hands yet, just a treasure hunt.
They head off to Lovan’s house to head this stranger off. Since all Indians band together, the mystery kid will show up here sooner or later. (They also never miss an opportunity to cruise around in the STATION WAGON.) They’ll either rescue Lovan from the interloper if he’s already there or guard her house in case he shows up, in which case they’ll break his spirit with their intense and unrelenting friendliness. The strange boy doesn’t show up, but they do manage to make Lovan relive painful memories about being ostracized by her family for wanting to learn how to read and write while they wait for him, so the trip isn’t a total loss.
Violet has picked flowers at Lovan’s and now she’s lost interest in the mystery boy, Lovan, and the treasure in favor of arranging flowers all afternoon, so they drop her at the motel to rifle through things until she comes up with a vase (why WOULDN’T they want her to have a vase?), and everyone else cruises back to the store to “help.” At this point, I get the feeling that they are anxious to show off that station wagon all over town because they are always driving somewhere. Grandfather has probably gotten TYCOON, BITCHES engraved in the wood paneling so that people will be able to prepare for his arrival. I like to think that everyone’s seat assignment is also engraved on the side of the car so that they don’t forget where they’re supposed to go. (You KNOW that they have assigned seats.) Otherwise, I’m going to go with each seat being upholstered in everyone’s personal color, giving the inside a cheery rainbow scheme. Maybe it’s BOTH. With their names embroidered on the seats for good measure.
Lucky for them, the rangers have found Mysterious Indian Boy and they bring him back to the store for questioning so that the Aldens can watch and interject their opinions. Jessie jumps right in by patting MIB’s shoulder as he comes in out of the rain and announcing that they want to help him, which is unlikely to improve his impression of her as a creepy stalkery girl who he can’t escape. “Now listen here, son,” a friendly ranger begins, “you’d better fess up to why you’re in town ’cause I’m going to find out one way or another. And don’t try any of that Indian hoodoo on me, either. It won’t help your trustworthyability in these parts.” Considering how much the ranger already knows about him (where he came from, when he arrived, why he’s here), the hostility seems a wee bit misplaced, but I am not a Law Enforcement Specialist, so what do I know? The ranger hasn’t bothered to ask the kid’s name yet, but he gets right on it after his amiable opening line. “David Walker.” “Liar! You are an INDIAN, and that is most certainly NOT an Indian name. You can’t pull one over on me, boy.” You get the idea. Eventually David goes back to the motel with the Aldens where they dress him in Henry’s clothes and Benny’s shoes so that he looks like a hobo, although Violet thinks he’s attractive, so maybe he’s one of those lucky ducks who can rock oversized clothing. He’ll bunk with Carter so that someone can keep an eye on him, although no one actually comes right out and says that.
Come to find out, David is Lovan’s long lost nephew. She thought he was dead, and he thought she was dead, but SURPRISE! Both alive and kicking. Naturally they take to each other immediately. In a refreshing turn of events, the Aldens actually leave the two of them alone together to get to know one another. The unintrusiveness of this is astounding and totally counter to all of our previous experience with the family, and I can only conclude that Lovan has hypnotized them into submission. Fortunately, now that they’ve found her treasure (that happened, too. P.S.) and reunited her with her estranged sister’s spawn, they can head back home to annoy their regular friends.