The truck rumbled up neglected dirt roads into the remote Henry Mountains of southern Utah. It was the kind of place easily overlooked. Bullet holes pierced the dated, weathered road signs that only listed the town of Hanksville, over 35 miles away. Twisted juniper trees clung to the loose dirt of the mountains, where they waited for the rains to come. They came over a ridge and beheld three peaks: Mt. Pennell, the Horn, and Ragged Mountain.
“The Navajo call these the mountains whose name is missing,” Eric said. He was still in the bed of the truck, but more alert now. One arm leaned in through the open window and he leaned over between Ingram and Grace. He seemed to be chatting more to make up for lost time. “They were the last mountain range in the contiguous U.S. to be mapped. No Europeans made it this far until John Wesley Powell in the 1870s.”
“I liked it better when you weren’t talking,” Ingram said, rolling his eyes. But Eric was in full scholar mode. Grace understood the young man’s excitement. For most of an archaeologist’s career, they dug in the library; combing through archives and records. It wasn’t everyday that your esoteric field became useful in the real world. Eric’s encyclopedic knowledge of early Southwest history and cultures was finally of use.
“Possibly the first Europeans,” Grace corrected. “Nineteenth century explorers had a penchant for adding flourish to their tales. All of these places were known to Native peoples long before Powell. And I’m willing to bet this region was well documented by Spanish colonists. They were here for over three hundred years before the United States came on the scene. We just rediscover what was once common knowledge and is now lost. That’s all archaeology is.”
Sam veered off the road. Over bumps and dips, he steered laser-fixed to the north, until they reached the foothills of the southernmost peak. Finally, he jammed the brakes and the truck ground to a halt.
“I came here a few years ago looking for my great-grandfather’s mysterious white men,” Sam explained as they all climbed out and looked around at the vast, high desert. He paused and pointed. A bison was standing downhill from them, less than 20 yards away. It was chewing on a mouthful of dry wild grass and watching them with large black eyes. Others were scatted down the hill into a shallow depression of land where enough water collected to support the grass.
“My family was here to hunt them at the time,” Sam continued. “So, it makes sense that he would’ve encountered the priests here. They would also have known that the Americans didn’t know about these mountains.”
“A perfect hiding place — one your enemy doesn’t know exists,” Ingram observed. Grace nodded.
“Okay, so if you were Juan Rivera and you were charged with bringing gold back to your empire, where would you look first?” Grace asked somewhat rhetorically.
They surveyed the mountain range before them. Sparse and rocky and unspoiled. Grace squinted into the afternoon sunlight, which was rapidly fading as a new wave of monsoon storms marched northward toward them. Then, Grace noticed something. A pockmarked ridge at the base of the furthest peak, a few miles northeast of them.
“What about there?” she asked. Sam went back to his truck and returned with a pair of binoculars. He looked through them and handed them over to her. Under magnification, she saw what looked like a number of small, shallow caves in the rock face. No roads led there. They would have to off-road and hike a ways to reach it.
“Fortune favors the bold, gentlemen,” she said. “Let’s see if we can beat the storm.”
“What’s the rush?” Sam asked. “Your track record with thunderstorms doesn’t inspire confidence.”
“We may not be the only ones after Juan Rivera’s gold,” Grace said. “I, for one, don’t want to get there second.”
* * *
It was early evening when they arrived at the ridge at the base of Ragged Mountain. Grace broke out the headlamps and handed them out. They spread out to cover more ground. Each one was assigned a handful of caves and was to report back every fifteen minutes.
Grace went off on her own. The first two caves she checked were dead-ends. They were short and ended after just a few feet. She came back to the group, empty-handed. Ingram was there, having already surveyed his section. Sam was walking back. But Eric was missing.
“Eric?!” Grace called. “Are you alright?!”
There was no answer. Remembering the flash flood that had nearly swept the young man away, she worried that he must be in danger. A number of scenarios rolled through her head as she ran in the direction she’d sent him fifteen minutes earlier. A cave-in. A mountain lion. A fall. A snake bite.
Sam and Ingram were in pursuit, but she was faster, and quickly left them behind. She scrambled down an embankment that led toward a cave. A real cave that looked from the outside to have significant depth. It was shielding on three sides, so you would have to approach it from just the right angle to even see it.
She did not notice the pickaxe marks on the walls as her headlamp swept from side to side over the mouth of the cave.
“Eric!” she yelled. The echo took several seconds to find the back of the cave and reverberate back. “Are you in there?!”
“Don’t come in,” came his response. It was low and calm; very unlike the grad student’s usual voice. It was close and cloaked in the darkness of the cave. “You won’t like what you find.”
Ignoring his warning, Grace stepped inside. Her headlamp found Eric standing ten feet inside the shadowy cave, at a boundary between what looked like a natural rock formation and a deliberately carved tunnel that extended farther back. The lanky, bespectacled grad student was uninjured.
But he was holding Grace’s gun and its barrel was pointed directly at her…
To Be Concluded.
— 30 —
Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. If you liked this installment, tell me all about it on Twitter. The Spaniard’s Gold will conclude with Part 8 later this week. In the meantime, you can get caught up here: