No matter what speed, the washboard surface kept the truck skittering from side to side, the rear end breaking loose first when the road curved. Taking his foot off the accelerator, he let the truck slow to a teeth-rattling stop, powder-like dust enveloping the thirty-year old wreck. When it finally settled, dust slid down the windshield like talcum powder, stray eddies of air swirling it across the hood.
He turned the key off and sat and listened to the sounds of metal changing temperature, sweat running from forehead into eyes, grateful he could still hear after two hours of enervating rattling. He made a wry face and wiped his eyes with a sweat-stained handkerchief, then mopped his forehead again. Heat waves rising from the hood's rusted metal made the horizon blur in a shifting curtain of wavy lines.
The man rolled down the window. He'd left it closed only to keep out the dust but even that didn't work. The entire interior of the cab was coated with a fine layer of Mexican desert. It was just as hot with the window open as it had been with it closed. When he spit he noted the tan color before it even hit the ground and when he moved his teeth from side to side it felt like he was chewing grit.
"Jesus," he sighed, opened the door and got out…unbuttoned his fly so he could piss, wondering if it would be yellow or tan.
He stood in the sun, hatless and squinting, watching urine disappear into the sand without even making a puddle. He shook twice and buttoned-up, sighed again and reached for the muddy water bag hanging from the rack, a bag almost half-empty. He'd filled it twice today from the five-gallon can in the back of the truck, but swore most of it had gone up in evaporation. As he took a sip, the bag felt cool to his hands and lips. He rinsed his mouth, spit, then drank again, drinking as satisfying as pissing. After he screwed the cap back on the water bag, he hung it on the rack and wiped the mud from his hands on his pant-legs.
"Jesus," he said again, scratching the back of his neck and sweaty chest at the same time, then smoothing thinning dark hair back from damp brow. It wasn't a prayer.
He reasoned it was after noon by the way his stomach was growling. At the back of the truck he opened the lid of the battered once-white ice-chest, moved the dozen tortillas and block of cheese, the dozen hard-boiled eggs, the Chile Verde and salsa. There was the uneaten half of his ham and cheese sandwich, and he ate with slow deliberation, chewing until bread and filling was almost liquid before swallowing. The apple in the bottom of the chest was still cold. The twenty-five pound block of ice he bought two days before hadn't completely melted.
After tossing the apple up and catching it on the fall, he closed and latched the old chest. He looked at the apple before taking a bite, at its smooth glossy deep-red skin, the way sunlight reflected from facets on its surface like small golden mirrors. There was a popping sound when he bit into it, sudden tang and crisp sweetness completely alien to the space where he stood. Chewing without urgency, he walked back to the cab and picked up his beat-up fishing hat from the floor, wiped face and forehead with the now dry handkerchief and put his hat on. He ate the whole apple, even the seeds.
His eyes followed the black dot high in the air, watched it wheel and glide for some time. He knew it was a raven hunting. He thought about flying, about the feeling of being free in the sky, then thought about the crash, wondered if he could find that dry lake-bed again and the cave. Ten years sitting in jail may have dulled me some, but not the memory of what got me there.
When he wiped his hands on them again, even his pant legs felt hot. Before getting back in the cab, he reached for the water bag and took another long swig, went to the water can and refilled the bag, then hung it back on the rack. The can was more than half-empty, but he planned to fill it again when he got to Esmeralda.
The temperature of the seat made him wince as he sat, but what worried him more was the length of time it took for the old motor to start. If I'd had the money or time, I would-a bought a newer one before taking this trip
, he thought, turning the key at least seven times before the repetitiously-grinding starter-motor convinced the engine to run.
"Jesus," he said again, without emotion. Clutch in, foot on the pedal, he put the truck in low gear. The truck lurched once…and stopped. Silence was deafening. He put the clutch in again and turned the key. The engine started on the first try. He let out the breath he'd been holding. "Jesus."
He tipped the brim of his hat back and rubbed sweat out of his eyes. This time the truck rolled forward, bouncing from washboard to washboard as he went through the gears, noisy chassis and body rattling so, it almost hurt his ears.
He'd filled the tank and four gas cans in Ciudad Camargo and had taken the road south toward Jimenez, but turned off highway 49 into the high desert ridges toward Esmerelda and the site of that 1969 plane crash.
I waited too long
, he thought. I should-a done this sooner.
Though it was mid-August, he'd made the decision not to wait another day, was sure someone else was already ahead of him.
He hadn't been in that high country since the U.S. extradited him in '69 to face charges of draft evasion and conspiracy, but everything still looked the same. Memories danced like heat-waves on the hood of the truck, especially ones related to getting arrested by the Mexican government and taken to Sierra Mojada seven days after that accident.
He'd been sure that for all those years, no one but his partner, Ron, knew what they'd found in those rugged high-desert canyons some ninety-eight kilometers from Laguna del Rey.
That damn fool
, he thought, facing the fact that Ron, for some God-only-known reason, had told his nephew the whole story; then died.
In time for the funeral just three days earlier, he'd discovered that the kid had taken off like a bat out of hell before he'd arrived. Probably without a map
, he thought, trying to convince himself that the kid wouldn't beat him to the cave.
As soon as the funeral was over, he'd bought and stocked supplies, filled the gas tank and packed a few appropriate clothes for the trip. He knew he had no time to waste on wishful thinking.
Riverbeds were dry and crossings trouble-free, but the banks of most arroyos were nearly impossible to negotiate in the old truck. He'd found fresh tire tracks the first day off the main road but those had disappeared after a two-hour sandstorm. For two days he hadn't averaged more than twenty miles an hour because of the condition of the terrain. And when he'd found the old dirt road, it was in even worse plight.
He knew where he was now even though there were no signs to mark borders. The sun was setting and ridges behind him began casting long low shadows across desert sand. He turned toward the north after rounding a rugged row of ridges and entered a horizon-to-horizon wide expanse of even lighter desert colors.
Windshield pointing north, he slowed to a stop and turned off the engine for the third time that day. Late afternoon stillness was accompanied by clicking and pinging sounds from under the hood. He climbed out of the truck and stretched arms out at each side. A jackrabbit bolted from cover and ran from a small clump of brittle-brush, each hop covering amazing ground as it zigzagged for the security of a nearby wash.
Once again the man took a leak, scanning the far horizon from right to left, squinting as the setting sun forced him to look away or go blind. There wasn't a single piece of evidence to show that humans had ever been there. He knew they had. After another long drink at the water bag, he rolled out his blankets and took off his clothes, shook dust from his shirt and hung it over the steering wheel. Using a front fender's curved surface, he beat the dried dirt from his pants, swinging them over his head and swatting the fender until his arms tired of the ineffectual task.
Squatting on the blankets, he ate two large tortillas stuffed with Chile Verde and salsa, then sat back and watched the sky turn apple-green. Closer to the site, he thought about the day he and Ron had found the cave, how they'd landed on the dry lakebed to check out a problem with aileron cables. He remembered following the wash up to the strange rocky outcropping to investigate what he'd thought at first was an ancient mine-site. He thought about the three boxes of coins and gold bars, how he and Ron had yelled and danced like fools. We screamed and laughed and tried to guess how much was there, and where it had come from. Not one silver coin was newer than 1910. Most bore the mark of a U.S. mint. Those small gold bars were around twenty ounces each...there were at least three hundred of the beautiful little buggers.
They'd loaded the plane with plans to first stash the treasure close to the border, then return on foot to bring back the money a little at a time. That plan crashed only minutes later when the damaged cable broke, the two lucky to escape with their lives. It took them a couple of days to hide most of the loot where they'd found it before a Mexican military patrol discovered their plane.
They'd been arrested for lack of proper papers, and the police confiscated some three hundred dollars in silver coins. They'd given the Mexican police a story about finding the coins in a partially-buried box outside of General Cepda when they were fueling the plane. A week later they were in jail in Monterrey. Three weeks after, they were loaded into a bus and driven to Nuevo Laredo where they were handed over to the U.S. Feds. Mexico kept the plane. They each did ten years for draft evasion.
Ten years. We couldn't have earned that much in ten years if we'd tried
The plan was to go back to Mexico together in the fall of 1980. That didn't happen. After getting out of jail, his partner became ill and lingered in poor health. They'd put-off the trip hoping things would get better. Things didn't. A few days before he died, Ron had called and told him he'd confessed to his nephew; the whole thing, about the crash, the silver coins and the gold bars.
, he thought, the only questions remaining are: is it still there, and how much does that nephew know? Could that kid really find the place first?
Only eighty some kilometers away from the site, he hoped those questions would be answered the next day. He lay back on the blankets and watched stars appear, a warm night with no moon. A man with few bad habits, he didn't smoke, drank alcohol only occasionally, and had no use for illegal drugs. He did like the female of the species, and at thirty-three, looked forward to a pleasant non-celibate future without plans of marriage to tie him down.
The thought of living well without working fingers to the bone had its definite up-side, and just the thought of all that gold actually caused a sudden physical condition that made him grin. He felt somehow foolish about doing what he was about to do, but did it, even though he'd been with a cute little thing only ten days earlier in Del Rio, Texas, a saucy young dark-eyed senorita who liked to do all the things he liked to do in bed. Sometime before the moon came up, he was dreaming about her, and others like her, and snoring, sounds like someone trying to start the old truck.
Using water sparingly, he washed his face before sun-up and dressed again, ate two hard-boiled eggs and Chile Verde with cheese wrapped in tortillas. He rinsed his mouth and drank again at the water bag, then checked the motor oil in the truck. He added a quart, topped off the radiator, packed his goods and got in the cab. Instead of grinding, the truck started like a pony ready to run. He put it in gear and followed the low-lying desert scrub swale to the north.
At just before noon, he turned right and crossed a low-lying ridge and headed south of where he guessed El Oro could be found. The sun was making its journey again, but a high layer of thin stratus clouds in the pale-blue sky suggested possible relief from the heat.
Maybe an hour later, he recognized that black rock outcropping, and within a few more minutes, he parked at the base of the wash. From where he sat in the cab, he couldn't see the small dark shadow he knew should be there, the mouth of the tiny cave.
Ears ringing in the immense silence, he got out and climbed up on top of the truck and took time to survey the landscape. For as far as his eye could see, not a single living thing was in sight, no evidence of man's industry or dwelling, no matter where he looked. He looked down at the dry lakebed, looked for tracks from the plane but saw none, nor the fact that one had ever landed there.
In a strange reverie, a nearly detached state of mind, he turned and looked at the rock outcropping. The almost imperceptible shadow of the cave was hiding behind creosote bushes at the upper right side of the wash. Air was still and somewhat muggy. A small bird flew from the rock and hid in a tangle of creosote bush, its soft high-pitched song like someone nervously whistling. He climbed down from on top of the truck and walked up the wash, heart beating so loudly he was sure the bird could have heard it.
The cave looked the same, small and dark. Fallen stones made the entrance even smaller. There were no footprints in the sand of the wash. He crouched down and looked in the opening. The boxes were right where they'd left them, now covered with a light dusting of sand like the inside of the old truck.
The man smiled. He hadn't smiled like that since 1969. He had to move a number of large stones to get at the boxes, and it took him an hour to clear everything away. Because of the weight, it took the rest of the day to load the treasure in to the back of his truck.
He'd thought the plan through so many times he could have done it in his sleep. He would bury the gold and coins in small quantities near Ciudad Acuna. Then he'd take regular fishing trips on the Rio Grande; go ashore, pocket as much as he could carry and bring it home at Del Rio, Texas. It was a simple plan. Just a Texas fisherman having a good time on the river no matter I catch anything or not.
He'd gone there earlier and had rented a trailer, had fished and drank beer and talked fishing. Texans were a good-natured bunch and loved men who loved the out-of-doors. After a week he fit right in and everyone went out of their way to make him feel at home. So did the little dark-eyed girl who loved to sit on my lap in the truck.
When he got to San Carlos just south of the border, he crossed a small river but couldn't remember it's name, a slow-running stream that fed into the Rio Grande. At the other side of the bridge he turned off the road and followed the river until he was less than a mile from the border. There, he drove down a steep sandy bank and close to the slow-moving water, rabbits and birds scattering at the sound of the truck. He could see the Rio Grande and the little town of Jimenez. He turned off the motor, got out of the truck and sat down by the water's edge, a sandy, green grassy area with dragonflies and wasps. It was around mid-day, and sounds of Jimenez floated through warm August air, cars, a speedboat on the river, sounds of new life. The man was so happy he almost cried.
When he got back in and started the truck, he accidentally put the transmission in second gear instead of reverse. The hill was steep, and the truck lurched forward, then slid, wheels quickly sinking in soft algae-green sand. He tried to correct his mistake, got the transmission in to reverse, but the truck was on a journey of its own, the sandy area patient in its afternoon meal, the soggy bog taking its time to devour the steel treasure-loaded machine.
Bent on salvaging something, he stepped out of the truck, but found himself knee-deep in what felt like quicksand. In a state of near panic he struggled to climb into the bed of the truck, grabbed and stuffed gold bars two at a time into pants pockets, inside his shirt, and even began throwing bars at the place where he'd just parked on the grassy bank.
He must have thrown at least a dozen or more bars before the truck made a major slide forward, front fenders, hood and cab sinking fast into green muck, sandy water pouring into the cab through open windows. Wildly struggling with one box of gold, the man tried to pull it to the rear. The truck was sinking even faster. Abandoning the effort when all seemed lost, he stepped into the surrounding muck from the back of the bed, and quickly sank in the soft hungry sand up to his armpits.
"Jesus," he said, the first word he'd spoken in three days. "Jesus." Still sinking, he tried to find something to stand on; something to hold on to, but the only thing close enough was the old truck. Yellow jackets buzzed near his face. He tried to wave them away, but each motion made him sink a little deeper into the muck. A smell like decaying organic waste filled his nostrils. It wasn't his, although the man messed his pants.
"Jesus," he repeated, water just under his chin, hands working franticly to empty pockets of gold bars. The bed of the truck was joining the front, only the cab-top above water. He tried to stand on the back of the truck but it slowly slipped away below his feet. Only ten feet from shore, the last thing he said before thick sandy water filled his mouth was, "Jesus."
A red lace-winged dragonfly some five inches long landed on the small tangled wisp of dark hair, a temporary island in a noisy bubbling pond of mossy-green algae. When the hair-island sank below the surface, the dragonfly took wing and circled bubbling eddies, darting here and there, swooping in to snag small insects.
The next day, three dark-brown laughing children were the joy of their family when they showed their mother three twenty-ounce gold bars they'd found by the slow-running river.
"¡Gracias a Dios!" cried the excited woman, on knees at the edge of the river, hands clasped in prayer, kneeling in a patch of green grass and small gold bars. "¡Gracias a Dios! ¡Gracias a Dios!"
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