Authors: Janet McNulty
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Paranormal - Ghosts - Vermont
Small snowflakes marked the beginning of our journey through the South Dakota wilderness. Jedidiah told me that we were not far from the North Dakota border. Of course to him the entire territory was Dakota Territory. The gray sky loomed over us and the temperature dropped a few degrees as we made our way northward to the Badlands.
To anyone who might have happened to observe us, we would look like three women with five horses. Though we could see Jedidiah and Rachel, no one else would have. Ghosts tend to decide who sees them and who doesn’t. However, if you do not believe in such things then you will see nothing.
Aunt Ethel and Rachel passed the time singing some drinking song. The fact that my Aunt Ethel joined in amazed me. Or that she even knew a drinking song.
“Damn,” said Jackie, “There really are such things as dead zones.”
“Please tell me you did not bring your cell phone,” I said to her.
“Because you never know when you might need to call someone,” said Jackie. A sheepish expression crossed her face when she said it. Jackie put her phone back in her pocket and snapped the reins of her horse.
“Oh, I wish I were a pirate,” sang Rachel.
I gaped at her. “Pirate?”
“Wrong kind of song?” asked Rachel with an innocent expression. “We might as well be pirates since we are looking for buried treasure. But I guess we could sing Home on the Range.”
“No thank you,” I said.
Most of the afternoon passed uneventfully as we rode through the wilderness. Snow flurries continued to plague us threatening to turn into a storm.
“Even in March, it has been known to blizzard,” said Jedidiah when I had voiced my concern about the snow.
I cinched my coat even tighter. I hoped this treasure would be worth it.
“But think of the glory that lies ahead,” said Aunt Ethel.
Leave it to my aunt to try and make an adventure out of something.
We rode until dark, which happened quickly with all of the cloud cover. Jedidiah had us stop near some lonely brush to which we tied our horses. He instructed Jackie on how to build a fire. It wasn’t big, but provided some warmth. Jackie also grabbed the kettle and one of the many cans of beans we had.
“Well if this doesn’t clean out my system, I don’t know what will,” said Aunt Ethel as she chowed down on her serving of beans.
That statement made me lose my appetite a bit. Of all the things to say when people are trying to eat.
Rachel stared at my bowl of beans. “You know, there are times when I am glad that I don’t have to eat.”
“You’re welcome to it,” I said.
“No. No, you need your strength.”
I fiddled with my beans at first, but eventually resigned myself to eating them. I couldn’t very well go hungry on the entire trip.
“How far are we from the Badlands?” I asked.
“Not far at all,” said Jedidiah. “Well you all better get some shut eye. And I suggest you stay near the fire. It’s bound to get a might chilly.”
A few snowflakes settled on my nose after he said that.
The next morning dawned with about an inch of snow on the ground. I shook it off of my sleeping bag just as Jackie and Aunt Ethel sat up.
“Oh my,” said Aunt Ethel, “I do believe that it snowed last night.”
“Never would have figured that one out,” muttered Jackie.
“Everybody up,” said Jedidiah.
I stood up and rolled my sleeping bag. After that, I doused the smoldering coals of the fire, which had mostly been put out by the snow anyway. I looked up at the still cloudy sky rubbing my chilled hands together. It had stopped snowing for the moment, but threatened more.
Skipping breakfast, we decided to get a move on. Within twenty minutes we had everything packed and rode off. Jedidiah kept talking about his days as a living person exploring this area. I tuned most of it out as the gray clouds stole most of my attention.
“Whoa!” Jackie’s exclamation pulled me from my thoughts. Before us, stretched this huge expanse of canyons and ravines. Though not as big as the Grand Canyon, the Badlands was sizeable. From where I sat, it looked to be a vast maze of various ravines that twisted and wound around itself.
“Welcome to the Badlands,” said Jedidiah. “There’s a trail near here that will take us down in.”
The sound of a gunshot echoed across the plains as a poof of dust rose up near my horse.
“Was that a gun shot?” asked Jackie.
In answer to her question another bullet hit nearby us. Whoever it was either was too far away to hit us, or meant to only scare us away.
“Long range rifle,” said Jedidiah. “Probably with a scope.”
Another shot rang out.
“Let’s move!” Jedidiah kicked his horse and sped up with Jackie and Rachel close behind.
“How dare you fire at us you miscreant!” screamed Aunt Ethel.
“This isn’t the time for that,” I said to her as I smacked her horse’s behind and together we chased after the others.
Hooves pounded the earth as each breath our horses took made small vapor clouds before us. I prayed that we wouldn’t slip on any ice or step in any prairie dog holes.
Mirroring Jedidiah, I held on tightly to the reins and leaned forward slightly as I allowed my horse to move freely. A quick glance at my aunt told me she was not having a good time. She bobbed up and down on her horse like a ragdoll with one hand holding onto her outlandish hat and another clinging to the horse.
Jedidiah steered to the right going into the canyon itself. We followed him down the trail pushing our mounts hard as we escaped whomever had taken pot shots at us. As the trail narrowed and turned uneven, our guide slowed down and halted us. We remained still as we glanced behind making sure no one pursued us.
“I think we lost him,” said Jedidiah. “Does anyone else know you have the map?”
“No,” I said. “The only ones who would, would be those we asked about it.”
“Well, someone knows you’ve got it,” said Jedidiah.
“Let me at him!” yelled Rachel. “I’ll kick him from here to the moon.”
Jackie ended up having to hang onto Rachel’s shirt to hold her back as she tried to run off. How that was possible is still beyond me, but it made for a very comical scene.
“Rachel,” I said. “Now isn’t the time. We should concentrate on finding the treasure first.”
Rachel huffed a bit, but settled down. “Well, he just better hope I do not get my hands on him.”
After we managed to get Rachel to calm down, Jedidiah led us into one of the many canyons that make up the Badlands. We ended up walking our horses
the remainder of the way down.
The snow on the path made it slippery and many times one of us lost our balance and slid a bit. My horse snorted in my ear as my foot stepped on some loose pebbl
es and shot out from under me.
“Are you alright, dear,” asked Aunt Ethel.
Nursing my sore butt, I nodded. “I’ll be ok. Just my pride’s hurt.”
By midmorning we reached the bottom of the trail and continued eastward like the map had said. I had no idea how far we were to go. Some of the writing on it was faded a bit and I had to use a magnifying glass to read it. In the end, we decided to just keep going until we found a good spot to camp for the night.
Rolling thunder caught my attention. I looked behind us and noticed a buildup of clouds. An ominous feeling washed over me. Lightning flashed and more thunder reached my ears. By the magnitude of it, I could tell that it moved closer. I glanced around at the snow around us and at the canyon walls. As a sinking feeling came over me, I slowly realized that we were in a flood zone.
“What is it” asked Jackie when she noticed that I had stopped walking.
“Jedidiah,” I called pointing out the cloud buildup. “Is that what I think it is?”
Jedidiah’s brow furrowed as he studied the western sky. “We need to find high ground! Now!”
Thunder roared overhead as lightning lit up the sky. Jedidiah smacked the behind of his horse sending it running off. He urged us to do the same with our mounts.
More lightning. Rain fell from the sky as it opened up drenching us within moments. Instantly, the snow around us melted as puddles formed.
We ran for higher ground struggling to climb upward as the dirt turned into slick mud. I looked back. Aunt Ethel struggled to hold her horse which had panicked from the sudden storm.
“Leave him!” yelled Jedidiah. “The horses will take care of themselves.” He ran to my aunt and lifted her up. I watched as she seemingly kicked and screamed at thin air while floating over to where the rest of us attempted to climb higher. He placed Aunt Ethel on a ledge and heaved her upward.
The ground rumbled as a roar filled my ears. It built in intensity until it reached a deafening pitch. “What’s that?” I asked.
We all glanced to our right as a wall of water headed straight for us. I said headed. More like it charged for us in an attempt to seize us before we had a chance to escape.
“Keep climbing!” shouted Jedidiah at us.
We wasted no time climbing. Rachel and Jedidiah helped Aunt Ethel who struggled against the slippery earth.
My foot slipped in the mud. Instantly, I lunged for a protruding rock. As though to add insult to injury, the rock popped out of the earth and I fell to the raging water below.
A thousand needles stabbed me as I hit the water being instantly carted away. I poked my head through the surface taking a deep breath mixed with gritty water. The resulting series of coughs meant that whatever air I had managed to take in had gone.
I flailed my arms about hoping to be able to grab something. No such luck. More water filled my mo
uth as I attempted to breathe.
Please don’t le
t it end like this, I thought.
Just as I began to believe that I might drown, a hand seized the collar of my shirt and lifted me out of the water. Jedidiah plopped me on the ground as I hacked up a mixture of water and spit.
“Anything broken?” he asked.
I did a quick check and surmised that despite almost drowning, I came out unscathed. “No. Where are the others?”
“Over there.” He pointed to a small enclave where Aunt Ethel and Jackie huddled together. Rachel stood a few feet away from them watching Jedidiah and me.
“Come on.” Jedidiah helped me up and guided me back to Jackie and Aunt Ethel. Despite the trail being o
nly two feet wide, we made it.
“Oh, Mellow darling, I thought we had lost you.” Aunt Ethel wrapped her feather coat around my shoulders; the worry in her voice very evident.
I shivered in response.
Sometime during the night the rain stopped. I slept fitfully as the cold was inescapable and we had all huddled in a small space. I watched as the sun peeked over the horizon. Water still flowed below, but Jedidiah assured us that it would disappear in a day or two now that the rain had ceased.
Something caught my attention. Carefully, I pulled out the map and studied it while looking at a strange rock that looked exactly like a buffalo’s head. I couldn’t believe it.
“What is it?” asked Jackie.
I pointed out the rock to her. “Does that look like the head of a buffalo to you?”
Jackie’s narrowed eyes told me it did as she studied the rock intently.
“I think it does,” said Aunt Ethel with excitement.
I laid the map before them. “Look, this means that we are on the right track. The buffalo head is the first marker. Next we need to travel northwest until we reach the edge of a hidden ravine.”
“Hidden ravine?” asked Rachel.
“That’s what the map says.” I pointed at the markings on the old map. “It is supposed to be marked by the eagle.”
“There are a lot of hidden ravines around here,” said Jedidiah.
“Well, we have to look for it,” I said. “It’s either that or we turn back now.”
“Absolutely not,” said Aunt Ethel.
“But how are we to get to the other side?”
The water below us still flowed freely and
we had no way of crossing it.
Jedidiah got an idea. He took a rope from my aunt’s bag. He tied one end around a tree before hopping to the other side of the small canyon and tying the other end around the boulder from the map. He tugged on it until it pulled tight.
After several moments I noticed the incline in the rope and realized what Jedidiah’s idea involved. “No,” I said. “This is crazy.”
“Use your belts to slide across the rope to the other side,” said Jedidiah.
I eyed the rope warily and the water below. If we lost our grip we’d be lost to the river. Of course, leave it to my Aunt Ethel to embrace a crazy idea like this.
She took off her belt and put it over the rope and hung onto both ends. With a bounce, she jumped off the edge and sailed to the other side where Jedidiah caught her.
Jackie flung her belt over the rope. “See you on the other side.” She sped to the other end and landed safely.
Warily, I approached the rope and put my belt over it still afraid of falling into the water below. I had no desire to almost drown for the third time in my life. My hands turned white as I tightly gripped the belt.
“You going to stand here all day?” asked Rachel.
I never got to finish my thought as Rachel shoved me off the ledge and I careened to the other end. Cold air blasted my face and a series of screams escaped my mouth. Jedidiah’s outstretched arm caught me as I reached the other end.
“You did alright,” he said.
“How are we to get the rope?” asked Jackie.
“Like you need to ask,” said Rachel as she appeared with the other end of the rope and coiled it.
The snorting of a horse caught our attention. I looked up and saw one of our horses standing nearby nibbling on some grass. Another walked up. “How did they survive the rainstorm?”
“Animals know how to take care of themselves. Not sure where the others are, but having two of them here is a good sign.” He checked the packs attached to the saddle. “Looks like most of our supplies are here.”
Jedidiah scanned the badlands. “Well come on,” he said, “Northwest is that way and daylight is burning.” He took the reins of the horses and led them onward with the rest of us trailing behind.
We found a narrow trail that stretched along the top of the canyon. Though we had to walk single file, the trek went fairly smoothly. Idle chatter filled our traveling and for a moment I thought that the worst of our trip was behind us. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Soft stomping stopped us in our tracks as we crested over a hill. The agitation of the horses told me that we had stumbled upon something that didn’t bode well. Then, I saw it: a real live buffalo.
Its wooly, brown fur coated its body and I could tell it was thick. I had never seen a buffalo up close before and had no idea what to do. Nor did Jackie, Rachel, or Aunt Ethel. Jedidiah on the other hand was a different story.
“Nobody move,” he said.
“Why not?” asked Jackie. “I thought buffalo were harmless.”
“In storybooks,” laughed Jedidiah. “This here is a wild buffalo and he’s a bull. Just remain calm and back up slowly.”
“But he’s just a buffalo,” said Rachel.
“Even in the wild they’re dangerous and unpredictable,” said Jedidiah. “And three of us are not ghosts.”
The click of a camera caught our attention. Aunt Ethel had pulled out her brand new digital camera and snapped pictures repeatedly unconcerned that her actions might frighten the animal. Another click sounded as she took another picture.
“Quick, Mellow dear,” said my aunt, “Get closer to it. I’ll take your picture and you can show it to your friends when you get back home.”
“Or post it at her funeral,” muttered Jackie.
The camera took another picture.
“Come on, Mellow darling,” said my aunt waving her arm, “don’t disappoint an old lady.”
“Ma’am,” said Jedidiah, “you really might want to stop that.”
My Aunt took another picture.
The buffalo’s head snapped up as it eyed my aunt. Vapor formed before its nostrils as it snorted in frustration.
I took a step back. Instantly, the buffalo jerked its head toward me forcing me to stop.
“Wow! This thing records video,” said Aunt Ethel as she fiddled with her camera. “Maybe it was a good thing that I allowed that charming young man at the store to talk me into buying one of those SD cards as he called them. 32 GB. Whatever that means.”
Aunt Ethel pointed her camera at all of us and did a scan capturing
the entire situation on video.
“Here we are,” narrated my aunt, “out in the wilds of the Dakotas face to face with a buffalo. Note the sternness of its scowl as it studies three people who clearly do not belong. Friend or foe he is asking himself.”
“Aunt Ethel,” I said, “please put your camera away.” Even I noticed the buffalo becoming increasingly agitated.
Suddenly, the camera made a bunch of weird noises causing my aunt to lose her grip on it. Instinctively, she reached out to catch the camera and ended up juggling it as she tried to ke
ep it from hitting the ground.
“There,” she said as she finally got a firm grip on her new toy, “There are so many little buttons on here. Guess I’ll have to read the instruction manual someday.”
“Aunt Ethel, please,” I hissed.
“Oh look, dear!” Something had caught Aunt Ethel’s attention forcing her to completely forget about the an
gry buffalo standing before us.
Undoubtedly having enough of our presence, the buffalo charged my aunt. It snorted violently as its hooves crashed into the frozen ground heading straight for my oblivious family member.
“Aunt Ethel, look out!” I screamed.
Jackie leapt for my aunt shoving her out of the way just in time. The painful scream she released told me that she had injured herself.
Jedidiah and Rachel leapt into action surrounding the animal and shouting at it. Confused, it tried ramming its horns into one of them but hit only thin air since they were both ghosts. Eventually, the thing became tired and confused and ran off.
“Jackie,” I said as I bent down to examine her right ankle while she hugged it close.
“I think I broke it,” said Jackie.
Carefully, I pulled up her pant leg. Broken or not, her ankle was definitely swollen. “Can you move it?”
Jackie managed to bend her ankle some, but not without excruciating pain.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” said Aunt Ethel as she waved her camera in front of Jackie, “I got the entire thing on here. Everyone will know of your harrowing ordeal and act of bravery.”
Jackie seized Aunt Ethel’s camera and smashed it against a rock. “You crazy—stupid—old—woman—GRRRR!”
Stunned, Aunt Ethel picked up the broken camera and opened it up. “Well, at least I know enough to keep the memory card intact.” She stomped off.
“Jackie,” I said, “Did you have to do that?”
The glare Jackie gave me told me that I should have kept my mouth shut.
“Well, the horses are still with us,” said Jedidiah. “I guess we can turn back and she can ride one of them.”
“We can’t turn back,” said Jackie.
“But your ankle,” I said.
“We can’t,” repeated Jackie.
“We’re this close. And look!”
I watched as Jackie pulled back some weeds revealing a piece of artwork on a boulder protruding from the ground. I rubbed my fingers over it brushing away some of the grit that covered it. Sure enough, it was the marking of an eagle.
“Well give me some war paint and call me a Redskin,” said Jedidiah. “That there is definitely the Indian depiction of an eagle. A mark of strength. And the second marker.”
We all gaped at Jedidiah and his remark.
“What?” he said, confused.
“We don’t say such things anymore,” said Rachel, “as it’s a bit insensitive.”
“Insensitive?” said Jedidiah. “You all need to grow a stronger backbone. Should have heard some of the things people called me when I still breathed. And you—,” he pointed at my aunt, “—what were you thinking with that contraption of yours? Didn’t I tell you no sudden movements? A wild animal is still a wild animal.”
“Hey!” My voice echoed off the canyons walls and effectively managed to shut everyone up. “We can debate 19th century slang versus the 21st century slang later. Jackie’s ankle is starting to resemble a basketball here.”
Jackie’s ankle had increased in size some more. I had my reservations about continuing on, but this was one area where I got out voted. Both Jackie and my aunt agreed that we had to find Josiah Bard’s treasure since we had stumbled upon the second marker.
“And lucky for you that we had the buffalo charge,” said Aunt Ethel, “or we would never have found the second marker.”
Jackie raised her hand to smack my aunt, but I seized it and forced her to put it down. Crazy or not she was still my aunt.
It became apparent that we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon, we set up camp. Jedidiah scooped up some ice from an un-melted snow patch and wrapped it in a scarf; after which he placed it on Jackie’s ankle. After the swelling had gone down some, he carefully
wrapped it and put more ice it.
In an unusual truce, Aunt Ethel placed her coat on the ground to cushion Jackie’s ankle as she elevated it. All the while, my aunt coveted that SD card as though it were some priceless relic while Jackie glowered at her with murderous eyes. Rachel had to play referee. A role that I th
ink she enjoyed a bit too much.
“Jackie,” I tried once more to convince her to turn back, “are you sure about going on? Your ankle—”
“I’ll ride a horse,” said Jackie in a tone that clearly indicated I was to drop the subject.
“What’s the next clue on the map?” asked Rachel.
I pulled out the delicate paper and unfolded it. “According to this we are to head west until thunder roars beneath our feet.”
“What kind of cockamamie instructions are those?” Rachel demanded. “Why can’t they just say, ‘Go here. Don’t blow it all at once’’?
“As a test of our character,” said Aunt Ethel. “Here we are out in the wild—” Aunt Ethel stopped talking when she noticed the look Jackie gave her. “Well,” she continued, sheepishly, “they can’t make it too easy for us to find it.”
“What’s next?” asked Jedidiah.
“After we find the thunder we are to follow the river,” I said as I studied the map.
“Ain’t no rivers around here that I know of,” mused Jedidiah, “Unless it’s underground. Well, you all better get some shut eye. It’s bound to be a long day tomorrow.”