If you're like me, you might be wondering what exactly a McGuffin is. According to Wikipedia it is "a plot element that catches the viewers' attention or drives the plot of a work of fiction". The defining aspect of a MacGuffin is that the major players in the story are (at least initially) willing to do and sacrifice almost anything to obtain it, regardless of what the MacGuffin actually is. In fact, the specific nature of the MacGuffin may be ambiguous, undefined, generic, left open to interpretation or otherwise completely unimportant to the plot. (Examples might include money, victory/glory, survival, a source of power, a potential threat, etc....or something entirely unexplained.)
Jakob awoke to the smell of coffee and biscuits. He stretched his arms and pressed his toes into the footboard of the bed. He sat up and waited for his vision to focus in enough to see his work clothes in a nicely folded pile on the wooden chair next to the bed. As he pulled them on, he listened for the familiar sounds of his wife, Ada, going about her morning tasks. He walked into the main room of the two room cabin just as she was pouring the boiling water over the iron skillet, washing away the remains of her cooking. Jakob admired the red hair running down her back, stopping where her hips curved out to make a smooth, round shape beneath her cotton dress. He sat at the head of the old oak table and waited for his breakfast to be served. Ada was right on cue. She quietly sat the tin of coffee and plate of biscuits smothered in cream and blackberry jam before her husband. He began to eat. Ada heard the cries of her youngest daughter. She hurried to the bedroom, bent over the cradle, and scooped her one-year-old daughter, Beatrice, into her arms. Ada shuffled back into the main room, settled into the rocking chair next to the fireplace, and began to feed the child. Jakob finished off his coffee, rose from the table, and crossed the space between the table and the fireplace. He bent over his wife and daughter and planted two small kisses on each of their foreheads. Ada smiled and Beatrice cooed, her mouth wet with milk.
“Kiss Clara goodbye for me when she wakes,” Jakob said.
“Will do, hun. Careful out there.”
“Should be home by sunset.”
Jakob closed the heavy door and walked across the steaming ground to the mine. He thought it odd that it was so hot this early in the day, but attributed it to an especially hot summer. After all, the Almanac had forecasted that June of ‘87 would be one of the hottest on record. In one hand he held his cloth mining cap and in the other swung his lunch pail. The sun had yet to rise and he heard voices in the dark as he approached the mine. Two men were having a hushed conversation at the mine entrance.
“So the men don’t know?”
“How could they?”
“How’s about you ‘splain it to me one more time?”
“I can’t put it any simpler. The mine’s called Elkhorn Silver Mine and that’s just what all these suckers are minin’ fer. Boss Moody tells me, and just me mind ya, that there’s a bigger treasure deep in these hills. He’s been searchin’ fer it for years and he got a bead on it last month. Suppose to be right here in Elkhorn. Under our very feet. Coulda walked right over it and wouldn’t a known it.”
“What’s the treasure, Pete? If Boss Moody’s lookin’ it’s gotta be big, huh?”
“I tell you what, Tommy, it’s bigger ‘en anything you ever seen. And don’t you go breathin’ a word of this to none other soul. Boss tole me an’ I’m a gonna find it.”
“What is it, Pete?”
“Boss wouldn’t tell me. It’s that big. He says I’ll know it when I sees it. I’m jus tellin’ you in case you run ‘cross it first. We can split the gold. Boss Moody says bring him the treasure and I’ll be the richest man in Elkhorn. Hell, I’ll be the richest man in Montana.”
“Someone’s comin’, Pete.”
“Mind ya, keep yer mouth shut an’ yer eyes open.”
Jakob had heard enough of the nonsense. He walked toward the mine entrance.
“Mornin’ Jakob,” Pete said.
Jakob put his hat on, tipped it at the men, and climbed onto the ore bucket. He tipped his head once again and the pair began to lower Jakob down the shaft. When the bucket came to a jerking halt at the floor of the mine, Jakob struck a match and lit his candle. He looped the hook into his hat, grabbed a pick, and made his way through the darkness of the mine. Jakob was usually the first to enter the mine each morning and he enjoyed the dark quiet of the place. He followed the hewn path through the mine, returning to the vein he was working before heading home just before sunset yesterday. When he reached the spot, he stood back and inspected the wall of rock. He could see the light vein running through the dark rock and began to chip away at the wall. The only noise in the cavern was the knocking of his pick against the unyielding stone.
As Jakob worked, the grinding of the other miners’ axes began to float through the cave. He listened as the echoes bounced from tunnel to tunnel. As he continued his work, he noticed the thick knocking of his pick had changed. The sound of his pick was no longer the sound of metal on a solid rock wall. Jakob stopped pounding and put his ear to the wall. He tapped the pick against the wall. There was a distinct hollow sound. He tapped the pick again. Still hollow. Jakob pulled his head back from the wall, reared back with his right arm, and slammed the pick into the wall. A thin layer of rock gave way as the pick went clear through. Jakob pulled the pick back, sending more rock crumbling to the ground at his feet. Jakob kept at the thin wall until he was able to make a hole big enough to see through. He bent down so that his candle would shine through, and a gust of wind blew through the small hole dousing his light. Jakob stepped back from the hole and fumbled through his pockets for a match. After relighting the candle, he went back to work on opening up the wall. He worked for hours, undisturbed. When Jakob finally heard the faint sound of the lunch whistle, he took a short break to inspect his work. The hole started about knee high and extended up to Jakob’s waist. It was a little wider than his shoulders and Jakob thought that he could probably squeeze his muscular frame through it. Eager to see what was on the other side, he left his lunch pail untouched and began to climb through the opening.
Another blast of wind gusted though the opening and into Jakob’s face, snuffing his light again. He knew it would be of little use to relight the candle now, so he felt his way along the edge of the hole and stuck his head into the dark. He put his hands out in front and set them down among the debris on the cave floor. He had to work a bit to get his torso through, but once past his hips, getting his legs and boot-clad feet through was an easy task. Jakob stood up in the new chamber and fished a match from his pocket. Before lighting it, he noticed a soft, blue glow in the darkness ahead of him. He held the match and slowly began to walk toward the glow. His feet shuffled on the floor of the cavern and he heard a faint whispering. Jakob spun around. He could see no lights in the darkness behind him, not even the outline of the hole through which he had come. He was sure that he was still alone.
Jakob’s mind strayed to the conversation he had overheard as he was entering the mine that morning. The two men had spoken of a treasure. He wondered if this could be the mysterious item the pair had been whispering about. He continued across the unsteady ground toward the blue light. As he approached the source of the light, the whispering grew to a dull roar. Jakob was close enough now to see that the light was radiating from a small box set atop an ancient pedestal. Jakob’s hands shook as he reached for the box. He was mesmerized by it’s haunting glow. He could not resist the urge to lift the square stone lid, compelled by an unseen force, by his own curiosity.
Jakob placed one hand on either side of the box and began to pry the lid from its resting place. He lifted it slowly, the sound of stone scraping against stone sending a chill down his back and making the hair on his arms stand on end. A massive gust of wind came from the opened box, knocking Jakob back a few steps. He struggled to keep his balance and gripped the stone lid tightly between his hands. The soft blue grew to a bright white, first lighting up the wide cavern, then blotting out all sight with it’s harsh glow. Jakob squeezed his eyes closed, but the whiteness surrounded him. It seemed to permeate his entire body.
Ada Matthieson waited. The sun had set an hour ago and still her husband had not returned. She sat in her rocking chair, balancing her two daughters on her lap. Beatrice was fast asleep with her curl-covered head resting on her mother’s shoulder. Clara was close to falling asleep herself. The fiesty three-year-old was fighting it, trying desperately to hold her tired eyes open. Every few minutes Clara’s head would topple onto her mother’s shoulder and then pop back up again. Ada was avoiding putting the two down for the night. She was loathe to be left alone in the empty main room of the cabin with only her worries and a dying fire. Instead, Ada rocked her daughters and kept an eye trained on the cabin door.