Grace raised her hands in quiet surrender. Eric’s normally calm features were pulled low into a scowl. His eyes were wild, like she had never seen. His posture was straighter; his movements more confident. The shy, bookish graduate student was gone.
“You’re really too trusting, Doctor Yun,” he said. He was wrong. Grace didn’t trust anybody. It had cost her too much. But she was willing to give people the benefit of the doubt when they seemed to prove no threat — and perhaps she would have to rethink that, too.
“I’ve certainly learned my lesson,” she replied, careful to speak softly so as not to provoke his trigger finger. “That’s the last time I let someone sit in the back of a pickup truck with nothing but the contents of my backpack to occupy them.”
Eric smirked, but it was a smile devoid of any joy. His eyes flashed to the cave entrance. Ingram and Sam had come down the hill into the mouth of the cavern.
“Stop right there!” he barked. Ingram skidded to a halt less gracefully than Sam due to the greater momentum of his weight and muscle. “Hands on your heads!”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Ingram said. He did not raise his hands. “The nerd is holding us up?”
“I said hands on your head,” Eric said in a harsh tone that seemed to scrape the roof of the cave like fingernails. “I’ve heard quite enough from you this trip.”
“Unbelievable,” Ingram muttered, rolling his eyes, as he placed his hands on his head. Grace couldn’t tell if he thought it was unbelievable that Eric had turned on them or if it was unbelievable that he hadn’t been the one to double-cross them.
“This is going to reflect poorly on you in front of the dissertation committee,” Grace said sarcastically. Eric didn’t respond to the taunt. Silently, he held up a gleaming golden coin. The light of Grace’s headlamp illuminated the profile of the king of Spain and the raised Latin words surrounding it.
“Excellent work, Doctor Yun,” Eric said. She couldn’t tell if he was mocking or sincere. “You have found what has eluded generals, treasure hunters and archaeologists for a hundred and seventy years. I could’ve done it alone, of course. I found your slot canyon easily enough. But it was your obsession that got us here in the end.”
The boot prints at the slot canyon had been Eric’s. It was starting to make sense now. Grace glanced around the cave floor. Twenty or so golden coins glinted under a thin layer of red sand all around them.
“The lost treasure of Juan Rivera,” he went on, savoring the way his voice echoed in the cave. “You’re looking at over $50,000 lying on the ground. And you led me right to it.”
Grace was getting tired of this. Nearly a decade of research thrown in her face. She clenched her fists as she waited to hear what he was going to do now. He could kill them to cover his tracks, but if that was his plan, he would’ve done it already. Plus, people would report them missing and Sam’s truck would only take a day or two to locate. Not much of a head start. He could also keep them with him until he was safely away, but they were three people against one and Eric was smart enough to know that the odds of the tables turning grew the longer they were together. That left just one liable option: Leave them in the desert.
“Doctor Yun, if you would do the honors of gathering up my loot,” he said. Grace sighed and reluctantly started to gathering coins one by one. It was even worse to feel the weight of the coins in her hand and know that were about to disappear again. As she was collecting the worn coins from the sand, she caught something out of the corner of her eye. There was another chamber behind Eric. She doubted that he’d had enough time to search that far before she arrived.
“Oil man, I’m going to need your keys. Toss them onto the ground where Doctor Yun can get them for me.”
Sam retrieved his keys from where they hung on a carabiner from his wide leather belt and tossed them underhand to Grace. Eric dropped his backpack on the ground at Grace’s feet. According to his instructions, she placed the coins and the keys in the pack and zipped it up.
“You’re good, kid,” Ingram said. “You look like you’ve done this sorta deal before.”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Eric hissed. Ingram shrugged.
“I’m trying to compliment you. Very well executed. To a tee,” the large man went on. Out of the corner of her eye, Grace could see him reaching for something behind his back. It looked like a hilt of a knife. “Who are you selling to?”
“Be quiet,” Eric growled.
“I’m serious,” Ingram babbled on. The knife was out now and held tight against the small of his back, ready to strike. “Bit of advice: Don’t sell to Ngora. He promises a good price, but he usually ends up having his bodyguards try to kill you once he has the artifact.”
“Drop the knife,” Eric said, raising the gun and sighting down the barrel to Ingram’s head. The smuggler froze. “Loosen your grip and let it drop to the ground or so help me, I will fill you with lead.”
Ingram sighed and let his Bowie knife clatter to the sandstone. It echoed off the walls and ceilings in the silence that followed. Pulled on his back and carefully made his way to the mouth of the cave. Never letting them see his back and instructing them not to turn to face him, he retrieved the knife and stuck it in his belt.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” he said. “If I see one of you following me, I won’t hesitate to kill you. If you just remain here until after I’ve gone, we’ll all get to live long happy lives.”
By this point, Eric’s voice was dropping off behind them. Grace waited until his footsteps had faded before she started breathing normally again. Ingram turned to follow Eric, but Sam stopped him.
“Let him go,” Sam said with a smile. “I never liked that truck anyway. The insurance will cover me.”
“No one’s ever stolen from me,” Ingram said. He looked like defeated. “I can’t believe we let that little weasel escape with the treasure.”
“That wasn’t the treasure,” Grace said. Both men stopped and looked at her quizzically. She had their attention now. “That’s just what they dropped along the way. Shall we get the real treasure?”
She started to walk deeper into the cave, around the bend she spotted earlier, into the bowels of Ragged Mountain. The natural cave ended and the man-made cave began. It was rough hewn from the bedrock and pickaxe marks scored the tunnel from top to bottom. Barely five feet tall, even Grace had to bend down to fit.
“Why do they never design these things with me in mind?” Ingram complained.
The mine continued for thirty feet, sloping ever downward. Finally, it leveled off and widened. Quartz glittered and refracted the light from their headlamps — wide veins spaced every few inches. At their feet lay five large wooden chests. Grace reached in her pack and retrieved a fine brush. Gingerly, she brushed away the centuries of dust and sand. Monsoon rains over successive years had seeped through the porous rock above and dripped onto the chests, leaving gaping holes where rot had eaten away at the wood. The chests were secured with heavy, corroded steel locks.
“Aright, we’ve got to be delicate. These are over a century and a half old, so they’re going to be very brittle,” she said.
Before she had a chance to explain her plan, Ingram was at her side. With a swift downward kick, the lock cracked off, taking much of the wooden plank with it. The gold inside spilled out onto the ground. Yet it was not a rush of coins, but rather a clatter of golden plates and crosses.
“This isn’t Rivera’s gold,” Sam said, kneeling to inspect an intricate crucifix of solid gold.
“This is Rivera’s gold alright,” Grace said, examining a small, delicate chalice with a hand-polished shine that reflected her face like a mirror as she put the puzzle pieces together. “Why else would priests risk their lives to get it out of Santa Fe. Rivera and his son must’ve given all of his gold to the church. Perhaps over many years.”
“And so, when the Army captain found Eduardo Rivera’s home stripped of all its gold…” Sam went on.
“It’s likely that it had been empty for months or years,” Grace finished the thought.
“You think he would just give away his whole inheritance?” Ingram asked incredulously. He would never do a thing like that, Grace was sure.
“Living in your father’s shadow can do strange things to a person,” she replied, handing him the chalice. “Maybe he felt remorse for the way the early colonists had treated Native tribes.”
“Or maybe he was trying to buy influence in the most powerful organization in Spanish America — the church,” Ingram mused.
“We’ll probably never know,” Grace said. “The question is, what should we do with it?”
“We should walk away from it and forget we ever found it,” Sam said, handing the chalice back to her.
“Don’t be crazy, man! This is worth a fortune!” Ingram bellowed.
“The pursuit of this gold has caused enough pain. Today, we almost died for it. I hate to think what more it could do if the world was reminded of its existence. As far as I’m concerned, it’s done enough damage. At the end of the day, gold is just a shiny rock.”
Grace nodded. She could understand that point of view. The blood of generations were on this gold. It was ironic that something so many people had suffered and died to produce was now in the form of sacred objects.
“I can’t let you sell this, Ingram,” Grace finally said. “Not even the portion I promised to you. Sam’s right. It would be immoral to let any of this loose on the black market. More lives would be lost. It has to be studied and then given to a museum so that it can do something positive. What do guys you say?”
“I think I could be okay with that,” Sam said.
Ingram was looking at his reflection in a golden offering plate; no doubt dreaming of the luxuries he was planning to buy with his cut of the treasure. He set it down and folded his arms.
“Do these museums pay a finder’s fee at least?”
“I’ll see what we can do,” Grace said. Ingram screwed up his ruddy face to think about it for a moment and then nodded his ascent. “Which way to the nearest road, Sam?”
“Probably about five miles north,” he said. “Do you think Eric will be waiting for us?”
“If he’s anything like me, he’s in a real hurry to sell and get out of the country,” Ingram said, shaking his head. “I’m sure he’s high-tailing it to Salt Lake as fast as he can go.”
“If we’re lucky, we’ll hitch a ride and be in the nearest town with a pay phone in five or six hours. Probably too late to stop him,” Grace said. “But at least we can safeguard what’s here.”
“We’d better start hiking before it gets too late,” Sam said. He and Ingram turned to leave. Grace lingered for a moment on the lines in the rock left by the miners, on the hinges of the wooden chests built by the mission, on the finely crafted censer that used to be a Spanish coin. She smiled.
“Try to keep up, doctor,” Ingram yelled from farther up the tunnel.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she said. She started up out of the cave. She wasn’t about to fall behind. Already, he mind was racing onward to the next challenge. Who knew what else lay hidden under the earth, just waiting for someone to rediscover it?
— 30 —
Jonny Eberle is a writer in Tacoma, WA. If you liked this story, please share it with a friend. We’ll resume our regularly scheduled blogging later this week. Thanks for reading The Spaniard’s Gold!