The wash twisted and dug deeper into the surrounding desert rock. Grace had increased the pace. Her feet pounded the fine sand, causing a shower of dust to billow up with each step. She could feel raindrops seep through her light clothing. Gathering winds started to blow.
“What are we looking for?” Ingram yelled. “Doctor Yun?”
“A cave!” she yelled back. “A priest with the Rivera expedition later wrote that they found a small cave north of Glen Canyon where they struck gold.”
“Did he say how far north? Any landmarks?”
“No, he wasn’t more specific. He clearly didn’t want anyone else to find it.” Grace was scanning the crumbling sides of the wash. Her dark brown eyes darted up and down each side, searching for a place where a landslide might’ve sealed off a small gold mine.”
She stopped suddenly and knelt in the sand. Gingerly, she lifted a small crystalline rock no bigger than a golf ball. It was translucent white.
“Quartz,” Eric said, having caught up. “It’s often found near veins of gold.”
Grace met the young man’s gaze. He his arms were crossed, a sure sign that he was still upset with her for allowing part of the treasure to be funneled into the black market. But his eyes suggested that he was still curious. That was good. They would need his help. As a student of archaeology, he specialized in the American Southwest and was more versed into the literature of this area than she was. She hoped his curiosity would keep him from abandoning the search.
“Got any theories you’d like to share, Eric?” Grace prodded. He looked away for a moment.
“We’re probably looking for a natural cave rather than a mine,” he finally said. “Rivera would’ve been traveling in a small band with perhaps a dozen Ute slaves. They wouldn’t have had the manpower to dig anything extensive, even if it is only sandstone. Most likely, they were led to a cave that the Utes already knew about from collecting quartz.”
“So, we’re looking for someplace where a lot of running water would cut into the stone,” Grace said, nodding as she placed the piece of quartz in her backpack. “Let’s keep going this way.”
“Don’t you think we ought to get to higher ground?” Ingram said. He eyed the black clouds that had overtaken them and were now stretching all the way to the flat-topped mesas to several miles north. The rain was light, but in the distance they could see huge curtains of water stretching down from the sky. Lightning flashed on the tower of an oil rig on the horizon. A cloudburst could hit them at any moment. “We’re just as likely to run across a flash flood as a cave if we keep heading this way.”
“We’ll be quick about it,” Grace said. She started to hike up the wash again. Eric followed. Ingram knelt to take a handful of fine sand. It was at least a foot deep here, indicating that floods had been pulverizing rocks here for hundreds of thousands of years. Shaking his head, he started after them.
The wash narrowed as they continued. It twisted around a bend and there they saw a small opening in the rocks; little more than a large crack. Grace turned to the men. Her eyes flashed with excitement.
“Alright, gentlemen,” she said. “In and out. It’s probably not very deep, so we’ll get as much info as we can in five minutes and then we hightail it out of here. Got it?”
They nodded. Grace retrieved a flashlight from her pack and squeezed inside. The opening was only about two feet across and the ceiling was only about five feet. She only had to duck an inch to get inside, but Eric and Ingram had a progressively harder time fitting through the low, tight entrance.
The inside of the cave was cool and dry. The beam of the flashlight played over the far wall, where several almost perfectly straight lines of white quartz cut through the red rock. They were thin like strands of hair, except for one, which was three inches across.
Grace took a step forward. She scanned the ceiling, which was littered with fractures.
“Ice could be forming in these cracks, making them wider over millions of years,” Eric said. His voice was soft, but the cave reflected his words so he sounded like he was speaking from all directions at once. “Dissolved mineral would be deposited every winter and every monsoon season, laying down thin sheets of quartz.”
“And gold?” Ingram asked. His skepticism reverberated.
“And gold,” Eric confirmed. He fuddled with his glasses. Grace stepped closer to the back wall of the cave. It was only about ten feet back from the entrance. From that distance, it looked undisturbed. Until she stepped closer.
“We’re not the first ones to find this,” she said. Her fingers alighted on the rock. Eric and Ingram came close to see what she was talking about. There, in the rock, were short parallel lines. Hundreds of them, scoring the rock from top to bottom, but mostly concentrated around the vein of quartz.
“I’ll be damned,” Ingram said. He, too reached out to touch the indentations. “Could this be modern?”
“I don’t think so,” Grace said. She was inches away from the rock wall, examining it with the practiced eye of a scientist. “They’re too irregular for modern machinery. This was carved out with by hand, with pickaxes.”
“It could still be from 19th century gold miners,” Eric said. “Some prospectors made it this far during the Colorado Gold Rush.”
“It’s possible,” she conceded. Any evidence of who was mining here was long since washed away. She scratched the surface of the exposed quartz vein and shone the flashlight onto her fingernails. They glittered with tiny flecks of gold dust.
“Doctor,” Ingram said. His tone was not one of awe, which surprised her. She would’ve thought that he of all people would be thrilled by the discovery of gold. She turned to see what the problem was.
Ingram, too tall to make it all the way to the back of the cave, was standing about four feet closer to the entrance. Water was beginning to pool around his feet. It was time to leave. She stashed her flashlight in a pocket and nodded to him. Ingram turned on his heel and bent low to get out.
Ingram got caught several times while squeezing through the entrance. The dark water was rising quickly inside.
“Come on!” Eric yelled.
“Give me a second,” Ingram growled. His pack had shifted across his back, making him two wide to push through. They were going to be trapped. Grace grabbed Ingram’s backpack and tried to pull it off him, but the top of the frame was wedged against the ceiling and wouldn’t budge. So, instead, she rammed her shoulder into his side.
“Watch it!” he said. “I’d like to keep my organs, thank you!”
She ignored his protest and threw her shoulder under his ribcage a second time. This time, there was a scraping sound. A small cloud of sand fell from the ceiling as the pack came free. Ingram tumbled out. Grace motioned for Eric to climb out next. By the time she got outside, the water was over her ankles and rushing fast downstream.
Eric tried to climb the steep wall of the wash, but the brittle rock wouldn’t support his weight. Chunks of stone came free and he dropped back into the water.
“Back the way we came!” Grace yelled. She took one last look at the cave before she started to run. The water continued to rise. Ingram’s foot came down on a slick rock and he slipped, plunging headfirst into the building torrent. Grace hauled him to his feet.
“No time for a swim,” she said. The dark brown water was up to her calves now, then her knees. It was rushing quickly, coming down off the mesa. Each time her foot landed, she could feel the tug of the current.
The swift water swept Eric off his feet. He crashed into Grace and she lost her footing. Ingram tried to grab them but lost his balance in the process. All three were at the mercy of the flood waters. The water tossed them against rocks and resisted their attempts to grab onto anything. It occurred to Grace as she struggled to keep her face above the churning water that they were going to die here. No one would ever know.
“Grab the branch!” a voice yelled. “Grab the branch!”
Maybe it was a desperate illusion concocted by her panicking brain, but Grace thought she saw a branch dangling into the water ahead of her. Mirage or not, it was worth the chance. She reached out and grabbed it. She coughed and blinked the water out her eyes. A man was standing above her with the opposite end of the branch firmly grasped in his hands.
To Be Continued.
— 30 —
Jonny Eberle is a writer and former desert dweller living in Tacoma, WA. You can find him on Twitter.