Whoever wrote the map on the stone had been very forgiving. It could have led from mountaintop to mountaintop, mercilessly hammering the treasure hunters with unrelenting obstacles. After that first peak, where they could basically see the path they would be taking, they went on parade down the middle of the canyons, and all the hawks and snake and whatever else hanging out on the mountain could throw confetti, wave flags and blow noisemakers if they wanted.
It was just as well. After her harrowing ordeal on the mountaintop, Asia was walking slower, taking smaller steps, and hugging the walls a little more tightly every time she found herself more than a few yards above the valleys. A few times, she had already turned sideways to inch past a cliff to which no one else had given a second thought.
Chris, meanwhile, was preoccupied with keeping his Peterson lit. He’d stop every few steps, cup his hands around the bowl, and try to get a lasting light, but he’d only have to repeat a few steps further on.
“You’re sure living up to that nickname, Latakia,” Jose said, and if Chris hadn’t been concentrating on his lighter, he would have noticed a slight but unusual tremble in Jose’s voice.
It was hard to tell where the solders were looking, their eyes hidden behind stereotypically mirrored aviator glasses, but if they had seen what Jose had seen, they weren’t doing anything that might give it away.
What Jose had seen was a shadow that didn’t belong where it was, poking out from a grouping of shrubs. From the shape, it was either a large animal or a person, but he didn’t have long to examine it, because his blinking eyes wiped it from existence. He might have written it off as coincidence or just a trick of the eyes, but he saw it again a few minutes later, only this time on the other side of the canyon, poking out from behind a rock outcropping. He still couldn’t see what was making the shadow.
Chris paused from his pipe long enough to say, “Are we there yet?” It wasn’t the first time he’d said it. It wasn’t even the first time he’d said it on that side of that particular mountain. He had said it at least a dozen times, but they all had zoned out for at least a few of them.
But this one was going to be the last time, and Asia, feeling safely on the ground at the moment, took a hard swing, landing her fist on his arm. “Ow!” he cried, bending over in mock pain.
An arrow swished through the space Chris had occupied just moments before, bouncing off the rocks with a wooden snap. Jose, spinning quickly toward the shooter, saw only that same shadow. Dell Cornell’s two grunts, who still hadn’t said a word since that first mountain, silently drew a Glock handgun each and less than silently emptied a clip each into the rocks behind the shadow.
“You idiots!” screamed Asia in a panicked voice, as she ran out into the exposed valley.
Small rocks bounced off Latakia’s hat, and he knew the bigger ones were coming. He didn’t dare to see what the two soldiers were grunting about, streaking into the open, not far behind his former girlfriend. Jose was shouting somewhere behind him, but the pitter-patter of falling rocks drowned out his voice. The soldiers found their feet and charged off toward the arrow shooter, but the rocks were already falling on that side of the canyon too.
Chris reached Asia and turned to look for the rest of his companions. The two brutes were backing toward them with their guns still drawn, but he couldn’t spot Jose. Chris asked Asia where he was.
“I thought he was with you,” she said.
Chris ventured back toward where he and Jose had been standing, far enough to spot a cowboy hat on the ground. He lunged for the hat and found Jose not far from it. Jose was trying to pull his foot from a crevice, where it was pinned down by a large rock.
With four hands, the rock started moving quickly, but a stone softball landed on Jose’s stomach, and a toaster-sized rock fell near Chris’s hand. He shouted and jerked away.
“Asia,” Jose yelled, “we need a real man over here!”
Chris grabbed the rock and shoved as hard as he could. “Quit your whining and get the hell out of here,” he said as the rock gave way.
He pulled Jose up enough for the Mexican to regain his feet, and they ran together until all five of them were out of the rockslide’s way and on the look out for another arrow flying from a shadow. The bald soldier lowered his gun and stood at attention.
“Sir, the shooter did not emerge from the rockslide,” he reported. “He is certainly buried under the rocks.”
Chris took a step back and looked the soldier up and down. “You know, it always surprises me when you talk,” he said.
“Always?” asked Jose. “This is only the second time they’ve opened their mouths.”
Asia pushed the cowboys aside. “You know, boys, we don’t even know your names yet,” she said.
“Ma’am, Private T.J. Rose,” the bald one said. “Ma’am, Private Jefferson Gylden,” the other said.
“Well, that was official,” Chris said.
“Alright,” Jose said, “Private…”
“Yes, sir,” they both answered.
“This will be interesting,” Jose said, “but let’s get moving before anyone crawls out of the walls again, and this time, let’s keep the guns holstered.”
With a renewed focus, the quintet walked along their path a little slower, and it was only partially because Jose was limping. “Seriously, Jose, we can stop and tape that ankle up for you,” Chris said. “At least let us find you a walking stick,” Asia added. The privates, as usual, said nothing. “I can make it until we find shelter,” Jose said. “Don’t forget we have dead Indians following us.”
Some subjects can turn a conversation rather quickly, and nonliving Native Americans are a natural example.
“What do you mean by ‘dead?’” Chris asked with a hesitant chuckle, hoping on his own coffin that it was just a joke.
At the word “dead”, the soldiers held their weapons a little straighter, a little more ready, so that nothing was needed but the pull of a finger. Asia put a hand firmly but tenderly on their shoulders.
“You know, guys,” she said, “if they really are dead, your guns won’t be much help.”
They looked at each other, at their guns, and back to each other, and in the end, found a way to hold their weapons with even more purpose and an even greater sense of immediacy.
In his best campfire voice, Jose began telling of the shadows living among the stones. It wasn’t that Jose didn’t take the threat seriously, but he still didn’t know what he had seen, and while he wanted his friends to be more cautious, he didn’t want to inspire panic until he knew there was nothing left to do. Although Jose’s best scary voice was amusing, it did still inject some creepiness into the tale, but the groan that crept into his inflection with every other step he took, as he put weight on that ankle he had yet to wrap, was ice down the spines of very nervous treasure hunters.
Chris and Jose, even with their backgrounds in finance, were adventurers at heart, and nothing precluded them from buying into things that were categorically impossible. Soldiers, of course, have a long history with superstition and the supernatural, going back to Bernardo and Francisco speaking with the dead king of Denmark, and something was definitely rotten in the State of Arizona. But even as a student of the linguistic sciences, Asia was an anthropologist and a scientist and not one to be taken so easily by fear and a lack of better explanations.
“So now it’s a haunted treasure?” she asked with a flare of Hollywood storytelling. “The ghouls and the goblins will rise and protect what is theirs. Beware to the heroes. Beware to the strong of heart. Beware all who would seek the Dutchman’s Mine.”
She laughed at them all, laughed for the way their steps had grown more and more careful, laughed at their suspicious glances at every shadow, laughed at the way their fingers nervously worked the grips of their weapons. But she laughed hardest of all at Chris still clenching his pipe despite his inability to light it.
“I haven’t let go of this, either,” Chris said, holding out the arrow. “Laugh at it!”
She did laugh. “One silly arrow and you go all week kneed. Maybe I should carry it, just in case your arm is too weak.”
“Just don’t carry it too high above the ground,” Chris retorted.
Asia started with a comeback, but her throat tightened and held back the words. Her eyes welled and she turned her face from him. As well as he could without losing his balance, Jose shoved his elbow into Chris’s ribs. Chris returned the assault with a queer look, featuring one eyebrow raised as high as possible. He gave Jose a friendly shove, but it was too much for the hobbled Mexican, who stumbled to one knee. He tried to push himself back up, but a soft hand gently held him down.
“It’s time we taped that ankle,” Asia said in her softest voice. “And you won’t talk me out of it this time.”
Layer after layer of thick white tape wrapped around the slightly swollen joint, from his toes to his calf until it wouldn’t bend. The solution was imperfect, but it allowed Jose to keep using his ankle, which was especially important, because he knew the journey was going to get harder, and he had no intention of backing down now.
“Thanks,” he said with an embarrassed grin.
She returned his expression. “You’re welcome.
Chris looked at them quizzically until all three forgot where they were.
The soldiers, however, did not.
“Incoming!” the two shouted, lowering their weapons and running for cover. Chris, Asia and a still-shoeless Jose looked up to see a sea of wooden arrows falling out of the sky.
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