The rushing flood waters threatened to tear Grace from the branch. She glanced upstream and saw Ingram coming toward her, propelled by the current. She reached out one hand and caught his before he was swept father down the canyon. Barely, she caught his wrist and dug her nails into the fabric of his plaid shirt.
She looked back to the mysterious man at the top of the ravine. He was Native American, with black hair that was swept into a long ponytail, a grey button-down and dusty blue jeans. He was straining to hold them both. He gritted his teeth and leaned back to counter their combined weight.
Ingram wasn’t going to wait. He swung an arm up to grip the branch above Grace’s grip. He shook off her grasp of his other arm and pulled himself straight up, hand over hand, until he could reach a scraggly bush at the top, about five five feet above the water. With a grunt that she could hear over the thunderous crash of water around her, Ingram scrambled up to dry ground. He rested on his hands and knees and coughed.
“Can you climb up?!” the man with her life in his hands called down. He couldn’t hold much longer and Ingram wasn’t offering to help. Grace nodded. She was tired from fighting the current, but a wave of adrenaline was starting to boil in her blood.
“Wait!” she yelled. “Where’s Eric?” She had almost forgotten about her grad student. But he was here because of her. She was responsible for him. She scanned the furious torrent of rust and foam colored water that rushed down the canyon. He was nowhere to be seen.
She was about to start climbing up when she caught sight of a figure downstream. He was perfectly still, letting the current take him away without a fight. Without a second thought, she let go of the branch and started to swim toward Eric.
“Leave him! Leave him!” Ingram yelled. But she was gone, plunging headlong into the flood. Soon, she reached him and managed to hook his arm through one of the straps in her pack. With the other strap in her hand, she towed him diagonally downstream to the shore.
The walls of the wash dropped there where previous floods had whittled them down. The stranger and Ingram were waiting there to drag them out. Back on solid ground, the strange man tended to Eric while Grace leaned against a rock to catch her breath.
“That was stupid, Dr. Yun,” Ingram whispered to her. “We almost lost your treasure forever. I can’t find it alone and we definitely don’t need the kid slowing us down.”
“That’s not how I work,” Grace said between labored breaths. “It isn’t worth finding that badly.”
“That’s where you’re wrong,” Ingram said. “In my business, the successful diggers are the ones who are willing to leave men behind. Sacrificed in the service of history, you might say. Surely you can appreciate that.”
Grace didn’t have time to respond.The man was standing over her with a look of concern on his face.
“We’ve got to get you out of the rain,” he said simply. He helped her to her feet and guided them up to higher ground, where a pale blue pickup truck was parked. They crammed into the cab and he started to drive over the expanse of sage brush and creosote. It was miles of silent driving before they hit a primitive dirt road — two tire tracks that cut shallow depressions into the desert sand.
“Hell of a place for a day hike,” the man said.
“Yes, well, the guidebook didn’t say anything about flash floods,” Grace said. She didn’t want to give away too much information. Ingram was right about one thing. A man in pursuit of gold was a dangerous thing.
“You’re lucky I came along,” he replied. They were. Grace wondered if that was a coincidence or…
“What were you doing out here?” Ingram asked. He exchange a glance with Grace. Maybe he was the man who was following them.
“Geological survey,” he said. “I’m working for an oil company that owns the drilling rights to this area. Sam Greyeyes.”
“Dr. Grace Yun,” Grace answered. It seemed rude not to at least do the courtesy of telling the man who’d just saved their lives her name. Ingram did not respond. Eric was still staring, wide-eyed out the passenger window.
“What are you a doctor of, Dr. Yun?” Sam asked. Was this starting to feel like an interrogation or was it just her own paranoia?
“Archaeology,” she replied. Ingram scowled at her, but she couldn’t see how lying about her profession would help them.
“Ah, so you’re stealing all the broken pottery my ancestors threw away,” Sam said. She caught a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Something like that. Are you a member of the local tribe, then?”
“Southern Ute,” he said proudly. “For as long as anyone can remember. I grew up around here. I can assure you that all the pottery has already been found.”
“We think there might be more,” Grace said. She didn’t mind telling him that they were looking, but she decided against informing him about the treasure they were after. “Maybe some in good condition that were hidden away when European settlers came through.”
“You cannot hide anything from a white man if he has set his mind on taking it,” Sam said. Grace thought she saw him steal a glance toward Ingram and Eric. Eric seemed to be coming out his shock, drawn out by the conversation. They were all quiet for a while until Eric spoke up.
“The oil company is no better than the homesteaders or the Spanish before them,” he said. His ethical mind was gathering steam. “Don’t you think you have a conflict of interest working with them?”
Sam shrugged and kept his eyes on the road.
“We’ve all got to make a living somehow,” he said. The storm had passed. Its black clouds were off to the north, beyond the high mesas. Lightning crackled, but it was too far away for the sound of thunder to reach them. Sam made a left turn down another narrow desert road. It wasn’t long before they reached a solitary Airstream trailer. Late afternoon sunlight glinted off its aluminum exterior.
“You can stay with me tonight and then we’ll get you back to your car…or wherever you want to go tomorrow,” Sam said. There was no room for argument. Grace was glad for the break, although she was anxious to get back on the trail.
Sam said very little for the rest of the evening. He made a quick dish of sausage and potatoes and they ate while exchanging pleasantries about the beauty of the desert and the history of the Southern Ute tribe in this corner of Utah. As night fell, Sam rolled a sleeping bag out for himself in the sand outside the trailer and offered them the trailer for the night. Ingram refused and instead opted to sleep in the bed of the pickup, squeezed among Sam’s surveying equipment.
Grace laid awake in the back of the trailer while Eric slept sprawled on the bench seat in the galley. She laid awake working on a puzzle in her mind. Fleeing the advancing American Army, where would a band of farmers and priests hide their gold? California was an obvious destination, except that the U.S. Navy had already blockaded every city along the coast. Hemmed in on the west from California and on the east from Texas, their only option would be to head north, into the forbidding American interior. Even after three hundred years, much of the lands of Utah and Colorado were untamed wilderness. With those odds, Grace suspected they would go somewhere they knew — perhaps back to the original mine to wait out the war.
Her mind was racing. She needed some fresh air to clear her head so she could rest and be ready to resume the search. As she cracked open the door, she saw Sam resting on an elbow, lit by moonlight. He was looking at something in the palm of his hand. Something small and round that glimmered like gold.
To Be Continued.
— 30 —
Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer, and history buff living in Tacoma, WA. You can follow him on Twitter. Thanks for reading!