Welcome to The Book of Bones a (mostly) weekly adventure serial.
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If you haven’t been reading along, start here with Chapter 1.
“This is like walking on hot asphalt.” Jessie mopped her sodden brow and looked out over the lava fields of El Malpais National Monument. Located one hundred miles west of Albuquerque, the forbidding yet beautiful landscape included lava flows, sandstone bluffs, cinder cones, craters, and caves. And heat. Lots of it.
“So what, exactly, does El Malpais mean?” Bones asked.
“The Badlands,” Padilla said. The old rancher had insisted on joining them on their search, much to his wife’s chagrin. Despite her protests, he’d helped Bones recover his pickup, and the three of them had set off along Interstate 25 and into the parched lands that lay between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, Arizona.
“That’s a good name for it.” Bones sidestepped a spiny cactus that had somehow taken root in a fissure in the hard, black surface. “I wonder what the natives made of this place?”
“Most considered it a place of evil for obvious reasons. Mostly they kept to the sand bluffs and came no closer. It’s not like there’s game or water out here on the lava flow.”
“Yeah, you’d have to be an idiot to cross this thing.” Bones grinned at his two companions. Padilla chuckled, but Jessie ignored him. Bones worried that the heat was getting to the young woman was too stubborn to tell him if she was overheating, but she dismissed his concerns with curt reminders that she was the native New Mexican, and not he.
“Not many people come here, that’s for sure. Tourists and hikers mostly. Every once in a while someone dumps a body out here, but that’s about it. Used to be treasure hunters out here. Until the murders, that is.”
Bones frowned at Padilla. “Wait a minute. Were they looking for Glade’s treasure? And what murders?”
Padilla chuckled. “This was a long time ago. There are all kinds of legends of treasure hidden out here: bandits hiding stolen loot, miners holing up in a cave or lava tube and dying, even Spaniards searching for gold came here. At least, that’s what the stories say.”
“What about the murders?” Jessie’s eyes darted to and fro, as if danger lurked somewhere on the obsidian landscape.
“A local fellow, nicknamed Old Man Gray, used to patrol the area, trying to chase off treasure hunters. He was quite a character— rode with Teddy Roosevelt and the Roughriders, came back and worked as a lawman for a while. Anyway, he hated the treasure hunters. Said they trespassed on his land and even dug up a family grave once. Locals knew to steer clear of him and outsiders figured it out pretty quick. Except for two fellows who must have seen a withered old man, he was near a hundred years old at the time, and thought they had nothing to worry about. Old Man Gray killed them, but he died before he could stand trial.”
“So he won’t be shooting us today,” Jessie said. “That’s a relief.”
“Mister Padilla,” Bones said, “when this is over, I want to spend a few days drinking beer and listening to your stories.”
Padilla threw back his head and laughed. “You’re the only one, son. The only one.”
Bones stole a glance over his shoulder but saw only scorched blackness. They’d left La Ventana, the prominent sandstone arch, far in the distance. Padilla had recognized its name, as well as those of several other nearby landmarks, as belonging to this area. Their final destination lay somewhere up ahead.
“I hope it’s cooler in the cave than it is out here,” Jessie said.
“Believe me, once we get down in there, you’ll freeze your backside off,” Padilla said. “Being out here in this heat is only going to make it seem even colder in there. We should take our time making our way down.”
“Don’t you think it’s kind of weird that Gregory Glade hid his treasure in a place that’s so popular with treasure hunters?” Jessie asked.
Padilla made a noncommittal gesture. “I don’t know. Not many folks took the treasure stories seriously. The Old Man Gray incident sealed it. What better place to hide a treasure than a place that’s been combed over for a century and nothing found?”
“What if someone’s already combed over the cave?” Jessie’s normal, upbeat personality seemed to be wilting in the intense heat.
“The treasure hasn’t been found,” Bones said.
“Not many people know about this cave,” Padilla added. “It’s only accessed throw a narrow cleft in the rock, followed by a tight squeeze through a lava tube. The rangers don’t list it on any park maps because they don’t want the bats disturbed. They’ve had problems with White-Nose Syndrome, and…”
“Hold on. Bats?” Jessie stopped in her tracks and gaped at Padilla. “Down in the cave where we’re going?’
“Yes, a whole colony of them. We’ll have to disinfect all our gear before we go inside. Bones being from back East, there’s a chance he could be carrying the fungus on his boots.”
“Am I on a different planet than the two of you? Why would we go into a cave filled with bats?”
“Bats are cool,” Bones said. “They’re basically just flying mice. Sort of.”
Jessie’s jaw dropped even further. “I… forget it. Let’s just go. But if those things suck my blood, I’m coming back to haunt both of you.”
Bones decided not to correct Jessie’s misconceptions about the tiny mammals, at least not just yet. Perhaps fretting over vampire bats would distract her from the heat.
“You forgot the bright spot,” he said. “If we’re going into the bat cave, there’s a chance we’ll run into Catwoman.”
Jessie turned and walked away, her upraised middle finger her only reply.