There was nothing but air under Jose and nothing he could do to alter his situation. There was nothing to do but fall and take it all in. The air brushing past his hair, his stomach riding a roller coaster, the knot in his gut pulling straight down. Unlike the others, though, that last sensation didn’t let up. The tugging feeling kept yanking at his intestines. He wondered if everyone felt that sensation as they fell or if that was just Asia being hauled behind him. He thought he had almost figured out the reason for that tugging when he felt the sudden impact he knew was coming, a solid thud against the back of his head. It didn’t hurt nearly as much as he expected.
He opened his eyes, wondering what heaven looked like. He saw a brilliant sunrise and a sky painted in autumn. A large object moved in front of him, a face, maybe, and a familiar one at that. Jose always guessed he would recognize God when he reached the hereafter. Despite the sudden regret for all the masses he missed, peace overcame him. Heaven had opened its gates to him, and an eternity of bliss awaited him. Then God spoke to him.
“That’s what you get for climbing faster than me.”
Jose didn’t know that God was climbing that particular mountain, or that he had passed Him. He was confused, and he was getting a bit dizzy.
“Come on, buddy, let’s help you get back on your feet.”
“On my feet?” Jose asked, looking down at them. Beyond, he saw more sky. He blinked and saw the rope still attached to him, stretching off into a blur. He rubbed his eyes and looked one more time. As he stared, a figure came into focus.
A dark figure.
It looked, at first, as though she had fallen and hit bottom the same as he had. As he took in the image, however, he noticed that Asia was not lying prone on the ground but rather gripping it as hard as she could. Her left arm was plunged up to her elbow into a larger crevasse, and her right arm was wrapped around a larger outcropping. She was still holding on. She never fell, and that meant Jose never fell, at least not all the way down. He had tried to save her life, and she wound up saving him. He looked up… well, down. Whichever way he was looking, he was staring directly into the mocking eyes of Latakia Billows.
“Come on, buddy, let’s try to get you upright.”
Latakia wrapped his arm awkwardly around Jose’s neck and started to pull. Jose was upside down with his back to the mountain, a great vantage point to find new ways to view the world but a terrible position if your goal is to reach the top. It was also a decent way to make it to the ground really fast, so he gratefully took Chris’s help as they struggled together to turn him around.
Asia’s eyes hadn’t opened since her panic set in, not even when the rope pulled tight around her waste and lifted her feet from the rock. If her arm hadn’t been wedged into the wall, she might not have been able to hold on, but as it was, the mountain held her. She was too preoccupied with making sure her hands still hadn’t let go to notice the rope was no longer dragging her body downward. She shuddered when something touched her shoulder.
“Easy now, girl,” Jose said, climbing up beside her to the left. “You saved me. No worries. Now I’ll try to save you. Again.”
The Aztec warrior at the top of the mountain, having been forced out of Jose’s mind by the near-death experience, sprang back into his thoughts. He pointed to Latakia, who was on Asia’s right, pointed to his eyes, and then pointed to the summit. Chris nodded, and they pulled themselves up as silently as possible. Jose slid his fingers over the crest of the mountain and lifted himself slowly. Latakia grabbed hard and launched himself onto the ledge. Both of them saw the same thing.
“Well, that was pointless,” Latakia said, pushing himself to his feet. “Give me your hand so we can get on to the next adventure.”
Jose topped the cliff on his stomach and stayed there, spinning around to grip the rope still connecting him with Asia. Chris knelt to grab the rope as well.
“Asia, you have to let go of the rock,” Jose yelled down to her.
“Grab the rope,” Chris shouted.
It was a small miracle when Asia tilted her face skyward and opened her eyes. Chris and Jose smiled down at her. Tears glistened on her cheeks. The boys coaxed and prodded her to move her hands to the rope. They promised they would lift her to safety. They swore she’d be fine. She believed them, but she couldn’t move her hands, her fingers that were cemented into place on a rock that could take her life as easily as it had spared it.
The rock moved against her, sliding down along her chest that heaved with every panting breath she took. After a slow second, the movement stopped. Then it began again.
“Better grab the rope, Asia,” Latakia yelled, “or your arms will stay in those cracks. We’re pulling you up either way.”
Panic pulled her arms from the rocks, but anger made them climb again. Jose continued to tug on the rope, but Latakia saw the fire in her eyes and took his opportunity to back away from the ledge.
Asia was fuming when Jose pulled her to the mountain’s even peak, and she lunged immediately for Chris. The cowboy was briefly tempted to play the matador. A quick "¡Olé Olé Olé!"and he could have sent her right off the cliff and off his back at the same time, but logic won out against emotion, not without a fight, and he decided to let her tackle him. They were both safer if she wasn’t running around violently above a 3,000-foot drop. They hit the ground hard. And then she punched him hard. And he laughed the whole time. And she punched him harder.
“Come on up, guys!” Jose shouted to the soldiers on the ground. “And bring my hat!”
He checked through all his pockets, making sure his hat was the only thing that had fallen loose during his climb. Two small “plinks” echoed off the rock near Jose’s feet. He looked to see two small hooks dragging along the rock, following a steel-looking string. They caught on a crack and somehow burrowed themselves in. The whine of small motors preceded Rose and Gylden to the top. Each was grasping a handle that, by the time Jose realized what they were, contained the entire length of the line. Gylden also held Jose’s hat.
“Hey, Latakia, these guys have been holding out on us,” Jose shouted. “They have these rope thingies like Batman!”
“That’s cheating!” Latakia yelled through a feminine, but strong, stranglehold.
Rose shrugged, and Gylden smirked. Their voices remained restrained, back to silence, but there was mockery in the speechless grins of the soldiers.
“So you saw that whole mess on the side of the mountain,” Latakia pressed. “That was all the result of serious training that you wouldn’t want to ever try yourselves.”
The smirks continued.
“On to the next feat of amazing… uh, ness,” said Jose, taking the mapstone from Latakia. “So are we here?”
The question stumped them. In the center of the Mesa was a small bulge, like the center of a sundial, and a square rock shrine, at least by the looks of it, stood nearby.
Latakia snatched the map. “It says the small bird and the big bird takes a dump on the entrance,” he said, “so keep your eyes open for anything with wings.”
“Give me that,” Asia said, swiping the stone from Latakia. “You’re so full of crap, you see it everywhere.”
Latakia stuck out his tongue at her as she read the markings on the stone map.
“When the eagles lay their eggs, the dove will open the door at sunset,” Asia read. “It’s not really very clear.”
“There’s a dove!”
Jose’s shout made the small white bird flutter uncomfortably on its perch. Its seat was a rather odd looking stone that looked more like a needle’s eye. The sun had set, but the sky was still dimly lit.
“You mean we missed it,” Latakia whined. “Do we really have to spend the whole night here just to see what happens in the morning?”
“What if we do?” Jose chimed in, “Is it even eagle egg-laying season?”
Asia was pointing at the sky and ground and mountains, mumbling and muttering to herself.
“So during the season when the eagles lay their eggs, the sun would set right over… there.” She was pointing at the dove and its perch. “And the sun would shine through there and hit this mountain,” she traced a line from the bird to the shrine, “here.”
“Wait a damn minute here,” Latakia fumed. “Are we in the damn Hobbit or something? When people finally hear our story, they’re going to feel ripped off.”
“Well,” Jose offered, “at least Tolkien was a pipe smoker.”
“He was?” Latakia took no time in unwrapping his compromised tin. “Well then this just seems right, doesn’t it.”
The soldiers smirked at the disorganization of the adventurers, but Latakia was lit and puffing.
“This is much better now,” he said. “Must have something to do with it being dried out a little.”
“So now put that pipe to good use,” Asia said, cringing and crinkling her nose in disgust. “Play a little Sherlock Holmes for us.”
“Wrong story,” Lataia said, “and wrong pipe, but if we look at this through…”
“Enough of this!” The shout from Rose froze them all, except for Gylden, who was rooting around in his bag. The box he removed had a handle and, even in the growing darkness, seemed to glow just a little bit. Then Gylden pushed a button on the box and blinded them all.
Flashlight seemed an inadequate term, as the device shown with the glory of a small sun. The cowboys and Asia shielded their eyes and tried to blink away the spots.
“We are tired of waiting,” Gylden said, holding the light to the shrine and adjusting the beam. It looked like the light was changing colors, but it could have just as easily been the assaulted eyes playing tricks. With the sound of a tree trunk snapping in two, a section of rock separated from the sundial and opened a passageway. Though his vision was still compromised, Latakia ventured inside first, followed by Asia and Jose.
“I can’t see a thing,” Latakia said, beckoning Gylden to bring the flashlight, and Rose tagged along.
“There’s nothing else on the mapstone, so the treasure should be here,” Asia said. “Do you think this was a vault? Someone must have gotten here first.”
Latakia was disappointed. Angry even. And he was about to break into a string of profanities to prove it. All five of them were squeezed into the vault, searching the walls for clues, but they should have been looking at the door. Without warning, it snapped shut, forced closed, it seemed, by some mighty, invisible arm. A high-pitched scream echoed off the rock walls. It wasn’t Asia’s. She started to tell whoever was screaming to shut up, when the floor fell out from under them. All five of them screamed as they plummeted downward into the deepest darkness they had ever seen.
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