Authors: Janet McNulty
Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Paranormal - Ghosts - Vermont
“Mel,” said Jackie while the others slept, “Look at that sky.”
I glanced at the star filled night sky having never seen so many of them before. The sky was littered with them and if I concentrated hard enough I could actually make out the Milky Way. It was definitely a beautiful sight.
“You don’t get that in the city,” said Jackie.
“No, you don’t.”
As I laid there on my back staring at the speckled sky, I realized why some people chose to live out here; why Jedidiah traveled here in the first place. The lack of people and city lights made it where you could appreciate nature, but live independently. The air was crisper and fresher and I didn’t miss the smog of the city.
I wasn’t sure if I could ever live in this vast open space, but kept it in mind in case my Aunt Ethel ever dropped by for another unannounced visit.
“How’s the ankle?” I asked.
“Hurts,” mumbled Jackie. “Seriously, don’t worry about it. The swelling isn’t so bad anymore. I’ll just stay on the horse and you can do all the heavy lifting.”
“What are friends for?” I joked.
“Can you two keep it down?” hissed Rachel, “How is a ghost to sleep?”
“Ghosts sleep?” said Jackie.
I shrugged and rolled over on my side where I promptly nodded off.
Morning came sooner than I wanted. Groggily, I sat up moaning from the aches and pains that racked my body from sleeping on a hard surface. I was starting to miss my bed. Or at least a soft mattress.
We ate a meager breakfast consisting of a few roots that Jedidiah had found and some of the dried stuff we had brought with us. My stomach growled wanting to eat more.
“Shut up,” I told it.
With great effort, we managed to get Jackie on one of the horses. Three of us lifted her up carefully while trying to not touch her damaged ankle. A series of “Ows” told us that we were less than successful. Rachel stood on the other side of the horse to make certain that Jackie didn’t fall off the other side. Twenty minutes later, we finally got her situated in the saddle.
“We need to move fast,” said Jedidiah.
“Why’s that?” asked Aunt Ethel.
“I think we’re being tracked,” replied Jedidiah.
“Tracked?” asked Aunt Ethel.
“Well who do you think was shooting at you a couple days ago? My guess is it wasn’t target practice. Anyway, thought I heard someone or someone scrambling around while you all slept. Didn’t find anything, but we ought to be careful just the same.”
I had forgotten about the man that had taken pot shots at us when we first started out. Looking around, I could tell the others had too.
“How far until the next marker?” asked Jackie.
“The map doesn’t give a distance,” I replied. “It just says until we hear thunder beneath our feet.”
“So we could easily be walking for the next two days,” said Rachel.
“Could, but I doubt it,” Jedidiah said, “Whoever made the map would not have wanted to be wandering these parts for long. He would have died of exposure. Or gotten lost himself.”
I thought back to all the various canyons and trails that wove a maze in the earth. Getting lost out here was never far from my mind.
With the map in hand, and with Jedidiah’s help, I led everyone onward. Aunt Ethel kept narrating our experience. For whose benefit was anyone’s guess.
“Foraging our way through undiscovered country,” continued my aunt.
Jackie snatched something and raised it with the intention of smacking my aunt on the head. She stopped when I gave her a reproachful glare. Slowly, she put it down and released a sigh.
Sporadic snow flurries marked our trek downward into another ravine. The bitter wind chilled me as we moved. Repeatedly, I blew on my hands to warm them up. March was turning into a very cold month.
I had no idea how much time passed, but had the feeling that we were getting close to something. An object caught my attention. I grabbed it. The feel of the fabric told me that it was modern and therefore had been left there recently. Nope, we were not the only ones looking for the lost treasure of the Dakotas.
I showed the fabric chunk to the others.
“Someone’s been through here before us,” said Jackie. “But who?”
“Gil and Stark,” I replied. “Remember they were gathering all of those digging tools and disappeared the morning we did. They were also the only other people to ask about the map and treasure besides us and Michael Evans.”
“So you think they killed that Evans guy?” asked Jackie.
“Who else knows about the treasure? And how else would they get the map?” I asked.
It made sense, but at the same time it didn’t. Those two didn’t strike me as much for brains, but sometimes people get very good at putting on an act.
“I have my doubts about those two being murderous thieves,” said Aunt Ethel.
“Hate to say it,” added Jackie, “but I agree with your aunt on this one.”
I let the scrap of fabric drop and be carted away by the wind. Perhaps they were right. I decided to forget about the murder and focus on the map and the gold.
The sun moved across the sky and more clouds rolled in with more flurries. It was one of those days where the sun could never make up its mind if wanted to stay out and the clouds kept trying to block it. Dreary and cold, we kept moving just to keep warm.
Aunt Ethel had grown tired of narrating our experiences and resorted to humming to herself. I had no idea what song she sang, but it sounded like a cheery tune. After a while, she decided to belt out some lyrics We all cringed as her voice carried over the landscape.
“HOME, HOME ON THE RANGE—” sang my aunt.
“Will you cut it out,” scolded Rachel who had grown tired of Aunt Ethel’s talking and singing. She voiced what we had all been thinking.
“I was just trying to lighten the mood,” quipped Aunt Ethel.
I heard something. It sounded a bit faint, but it also sounded familiar. “Hush,” I said.
“Mellow darling,” said my aunt, “it is not polite to hush people.”
“Shut up!” Immediately, I regretted saying that to Aunt Ethel. She pursed her lips and a scowl took over her face. “I’m sorry,” I apologized, “but can you all hear that?”
Silence ensued as everyone paused trying to make out what I thought I heard.
I walked a bit farther with everyone close behind. The noise grew louder. Straining my ears, I blocked out all other sounds as I listened intently. Sure enough, it sounded like thunder; thunder under my feet. The map had been right.
“It’s here!” I shouted. “Listen.”
The others listened and by their expressions I knew they heard it too.
“Thunder underground,” breathed Aunt Ethel. “By golly there probably is an underground river. But, how do we find it?”
As though in answer to her question, I fell right through the ground as I took a step forward. Dust and dirt rained down upon me as I crashed onto a hard, rocky surface.
“Mel! Mel!” screamed Jackie.
“I’m fine,” I called back rubbing my sore butt. I knew a few bruises were going to form. ”I need a flashlight.”
One landed beside me. I picked it up and scanned the area allowing the narrow beam to illuminate everything. It turned out that I stood upon a sort of riverbank and right next to me was the river. I found a stick and used it to test the depth of the water. Only about five inches disappeared beneath the surface so I surmised that the river was not very deep.
Another swoop with the flashlight revealed a small waterfall. I walked over to it. Carefully, I focused the light on it trying to see if there was some kind of opening above it. Nothing. I had no idea where the source of the water was, but in the end it didn’t matter.
I ran back to the hole I had fallen through. “I’m alright. There is an underground river and I believe it is the one the map meant for us to follow. But I cannot find another way down.”
“Don’t worry about it,” said Jedidiah.
He lowered a rope and assisted Aunt Ethel as she clambered down to where I stood. Rachel appeared beside me with a smug expression.
“What about Jackie?” I said. “There’s no way she can walk.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Jackie. She had climbed off the horse and limped over to the hole in the ground. “I’ll stay with the horses and make sure they don’t run off.”
A part of me hated this plan. What if something happened?
“I guess Jedidiah can stay with you,” I said.
“No,” replied Jackie. “You’re the one that tends to find trouble. I’ll be fine on my own.”
Reluctantly, I agreed to her wishes. We walked downriver as the map had instructed. For all of us to move together, we ended up walking in the river itself which wasn’t difficult since the water only came up to our ankles. The river resembled a creek more than anything else and the water was more lukewarm than col
d; something I hadn’t expected.
We walked as quietly as we could unsure of what we would find. This also meant that Aunt Ethel ceased her narrating and singing, much to our relief. That old woman could drive anyone crazy. Sometimes I considered shipping her off to Congress. They’d probably do their job just to be rid of her. If anything, it would get her out of my hair for a while. Okay, maybe it sounds mean, but I dare anyone to spend a week with her.
Voices echoing ahead of us snapped our attention. From a distance, I easily deciphered that they belonged to Gil and Stark. Something metal clattered on the ground.
“Not that way you idiot,” scolded Stark. “Now hand me the shovel.”
Gil handed him the pick.
“No, that’s the shovel, this is a pick.” Stark threw the pick to the ground.
Gil walked over to get the shovel, but tripped over his own two feet and crashed into the dirt.
“If they killed that Evans fella,” said Rachel, “then I’m your Aunt Ethel.”
Gil and Stark finally noticed us and stopped cold. “What are you doing here?” they demanded.
“I could ask the same of you,” I said. “Did you kill Michael Evans?” So, not the most tactful way of putting it, but it’s to the point.
“No,” said Stark. “We never knew him.”
“Besides, we’re too stupid to do something like that,” added Gil. I don’t think what he said registered in his brain.
Rachel busted up laughing. “You got that part right!”
“Then why did you come to the ranch?” I demanded, ignoring Rachel’s guffawing. “You two don’t strike me as country people.”
“We heard about the legend of Josiah Bard. Found it by accident during a web search. So we decided to come out here and look for it.”
“How did you come upon the map?” asked Aunt Ethel.
“We found it,” said Gil, “Honest. We happened to find it on the stairwell of the lodge. But we never killed anyone to get it.”
“That means someone else killed Michael Evans and is after the treasure,” muttered Rachel.
“Give us the gold and we’ll be on our way,” I said.
“Are you crazy?” said Gil. “We found it first.”
“Perhaps it escaped your notice, but someone killed that Evans guy for the map. That means he will probably kill whomever has the treasure,” I said.
Gil and Stark looked at each other before looking at me.
I hadn’t noticed Rachel moving to the side where a bunch of bags were. She, like myself, must have guessed that the gold was in them. Suddenly, Rachel snatched a bag and took off down the tunnel. “Run! I got it! I got it!”
Gil and Stark rushed to the other bags while Aunt Ethel and I turned and ran with Jedidiah close behind. Of course, all the two idiots saw was a bag careening down the cavern with a disembodied voice screaming. In all the mayhem I never noticed that they hadn’t followed us.
“Rachel, stop,” I said. “Stop!”
“What?” asked Rachel as she slowed to a halt.
I took the bag from her and opened it. Nothing but packages of jerky and bottles of water were in it. “Congratulations. You just stole a bag of food.”
Rachel jerked the bag out of my hands. “Unbelievable. Those two tricked me.”
“I’m going to get them.” Rachel disappeared.
“That certainly explains why they weren’t following us,” said Aunt Ethel.
A series of frightened screams echoed around us as they bounced off the walls. I turned around. Gil and Stark both ran toward us with a couple of bulging sacks and a shovel chasing after them.
“I’ll beat you both to a pulp,” shouted Rachel.
“Get it away from us,” yelled Stark.
“Help us,” shouted Gil.
They dropped their bags by our feet and both hid behind me.
“Rachel, please,” I said.
She stopped chasing the two men but remained nearby with the shovel in her hands.