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Grace was sunburned before midday. She could feel the heat coursing over her skin, from her scalp to her shins. She was dressed for the desert in a long-sleeved white shirt that breathed and loose khaki pants, but the sun seemed to penetrate her weaknesses. A hat would’ve been an excellent idea, she thought.
Ingram was sweating profusely through his dark clothes and was draining more than his share of their water rations. It seemed to flow straight from his mouth to his pores. The skin of his face broke out in freckles.
Eric was the only one who seemed unfazed. In shorts, a t-shirt, and a hat that was far too wide for his head, he kept his steady pace without complaining. Grace was impressed. She had taken the grad student for a bookish type who was unprepared for the rigors of the wilderness, but he was holding up well. Even Ingram stopped berating him for slowing them down.
“I was in Syria last year,” Ingram said as they trudged on through the sand and brush. “I thought I was going to die of heat exhaustion. But that was nothing.”
“At least Rivera had horses,” Eric chimed in. “They didn’t have to walk.”
“Be thankful I didn’t make you take the kayaks with us,” Grace said. She understood their discomfort, but it was better to travel on foot, off the grid. Especially if someone else was after the gold that was surely hidden nearby. “What were you doing in Syria, Ingram?”
The big man chuckled at the naivete of the question.
“There are a lot of rare antiquities caught in the fighting there,” he said. “Whole ancient cities under threat of destruction. I went to help preserve valuable artifacts.”
“And I’m guessing it wasn’t for the benefit of a museum,” Grace said. She shouldn’t have been surprised. It was his skill as a smuggler that got him referred to her by an acquaintance. He laughed again.
“A museum couldn’t afford my fee,” he said.
“But a professor at a small liberal arts college can?” Eric asked. He stopped at the crest of a large rock outcropping. “How does that work.”
“We made an arrangement,” Ingram said.
“You’re letting him have some of the gold, aren’t you?” Eric said, eyes narrowed.
“Eric, please,” Grace said. She could tell where he was going with this.
“That is so blatantly unethical!” he went on. “It isn’t yours to give away.”
“You’re right. It isn’t,” she conceded. She placed her hands on her hips. “But sometimes the process of discovery is messy. And sometimes you have to compromise your ideals to keep an artifact from falling into the wrong hands.”
“I can’t believe it,” Eric said. “I can’t believe you’d just use it as a bargaining tool to get some thug —”
“Watch it, kid,” Ingram growled. His hand was on the hilt of the bowie knife.
“I’m sorry,” Grace said. “That’s the way it is. Now, we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. We need to keep moving. Alright?”
Eric didn’t say anything. He just hefted his pack a little higher and started to walk after them. Grace was sorry to let him down, but she of all people didn’t belong on a pedestal. It was better to tear that image down.
The fell into a silent march. After an hour or so, they came across a wash. It was early summer and there was no water in it, but the signs of water were all around. Thicker, greener brush clung to the gravelly floor of the wash, awaiting the promised return of the rain like a messiah. Grace surmised that Rivera would follow the path of water and so should they. She was hot and her throat begged for water, but she pressed on. The two men kept up as best they could.
By late afternoon, black clouds were forming on the southern horizon and advancing toward them.
“I thought this place was supposed to be a desert,” Ingram said, breaking the silence. Grace turned to look.
“It’s a little early for the monsoons,” she said. The clouds spanned nearly the entire width of the southern sky. Fast winds at high altitude propelled them forward. She could smell moisture on the wind — it was sweet with the scent of wet sand. “Anyway, we should probably find some shelter before it gets here.”
She consulted her maps. The place she had circled with faded pencil was close. Within a mile or two. She hated to abandon the search, but even she had to bow to the power of nature.
“Let’s follow the wash for a while more,” she said. “I’m sure there’s a place to wait out the storm up ahead.”
Neither Ingram nor Eric had the strength to argue. They fell in step behind her, even as the first rain drops began to dot the sand.
To Be Continued.
— 30 —