Grace awoke early. In the grey twilight, she knelt by he carved cross and traced its lines with her fingers. She tried to imagine the Spanish explorers carving this with chisels and hammers in this remote corner of the desert canyons. Why take the time? What was important about this spot? She had spent five years asking that question and was no closer to an answer.
“Do you think it’ll talk if you stare at it long enough, doctor?” Ingram said. Grace didn’t know he had been watching. She turned to face him, her thin fingers still resting on the sandstone.
“I was here five years ago,” she said. “We were exploring the side canyons of Lake Powell, looking for signs of ancient Native American settlements, when I spotted the cross in murky water. The water level was twelve feet higher then. We were in full scuba gear and didn’t have the time to investigate further. I’ve waited a long time to touch it with my bare hands.”
“So, does it mean they buried the treasure here?” Ingram asked. “Should we start digging?”
“No, we aren’t quite there yet,” she replied. She wandered over to her kayak and pulled a granola bar from a dry bag. “This is a symbol of the Rivera Expedition and the Franciscan missionaries who went.”
“Rivera?” he asked. Grace took another bite of her granola bar. She had hired him with the stipulation that he couldn’t ask about what they were after. With the expedition underway, it was time to take him into her confidence, even though her gut told her not to trust him. She decided to give him the bullet points as opposed to the full lecture.
“Juan Maria Antonia Rivera was a Spanish trapper living in New Spain in the 18th century. In 1765, the Spanish Empire was desperate to solidify its hold on North America. To do that, it needed precious metals. So, the governor of Santa Fe sent Rivera and a small party of Spaniards and Navajo slaves on a mission to map southern Utah and Colorado — and to search for gold and silver.”
“Did he find any?” he asked. She had his attention now. He always seemed to pay more attention when riches entered the discussion. This didn’t surprise her, given his reputation.
“Officially, no,” she said. “He is remembered as the first European to see the Colorado River, but accounts say that he never found any silver or gold. But when he returned from his second expedition, he received a special commendation from the governor and homesteaded a huge ranch north of Santa Fe. His descendants were massively wealthy.”
“So…the gold is in New Mexico,” Ingram said.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “You see, in 1847, during the Mexican-American War, a young Texan colonel was sent into Santa Fe to raid the old Spanish pueblos. The Rivera Family House was emptied of its gold; stripped from floor to rafters. The fortune disappeared.”
“Where did it go?” Ingram asked, after he’d digested the story.
“That’s the fun part,” she said with a smirk. “That’s where we become a part of history. Because we’re going to find it. Starting here.”
“It’s a long shot,” he said.
“You’re getting paid either way, Ingram. But if you’re not willing to take the risk…”
He furrowed his deep brow. She munched her granola bar. The sun was rising now and Eric was stirring in his sleeping bag. A beam of light crept over the lip of the opening to the cave above their heads.
“How much gold are we talking about?” he asked.
“More than you’ve ever seen,” she said. “I promise you.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said. “I’ve seen a whole lot.”
Calmly, she unrolled her dry bag and started to transfer its contents to a back country pack: a folding shovel for digs, a brush, a notebook for observations, a pair of binoculars, a set of maps, a homemade first aid kit, food and water, and finally a small handgun. She quickly wrapped the gun in a jacket, but not before Ingram had caught sight of the weapon. She liked to be prepared and she had her reasons.
She crossed to Eric and nudged him awake. He yawned and fumbled around for his glasses, which were resting on a small rock nearby.
“Time to get going,” Grace said. “We have a lot of ground to cover today.”
“Wait, we’re going on foot?” Eric asked. He found his glasses and was dusting them off with his faded amusement park t-shirt.
“The nearest road is forty miles away,” she said as she hefted her pack on her back. “A car wouldn’t be able to navigate this territory. Besides, this is how the Spanish did it.”
She started to climb a small cascade of rocks from an earlier slide up into the opening that lead out of the cave. Ingram checked his knife and grabbed his pack before following.
“We’re not even going to stop for breakfast?” Eric said as he got untangled from his sleeping bag and began to rush around gathering his supplies.
Grace was in no mood to slow down. They were on the trail of one of America’s oldest lost treasures. She hadn’t felt this optimistic in years. The trail was hot; just waiting for someone to who could follow it.
“Almost there,” she grunted as she reached for a hand hold. The sandstone was smooth from years of monsoon rain gushing down this channel into the cave. Erosion had left her with very little to hang onto. Finally, she managed to haul herself up and out of the hole onto the desert floor.
She sat on the edge, panting for a few moments. The sun was barely up and already she could feel its heat simmering in the air. Ingram climbed out and stood to survey the land around them. All red rocks, sand and sagebrush as far as you could see. Grace turned to offer her hand to help Eric up when she saw it.
There was a clear boot print in the sand next to the entrance to the secluded cave. It was fresh. A wind storm had swept through here two weeks ago, so someone had been here recently. Grace’s mind reeled. No one else knew about this place.
“We should hurry,” she said. “We’re not alone.”
To Be Continued.
— 30 —