Welcome to The Book of Bones a (mostly) weekly adventure serial.
If you haven’t been reading along, start here with Chapter 1.
Bones pressed forward, Padilla close behind him. The way grew narrower and he felt his chest constrict under the pressure of squeezing his bulk between the tightly-spaced walls. The cold of the rock surface seemed to seep into his body as he inched forward.
“Are we going to be able to get through?” he called to Jessie.
“I think so.”
“It will be tight in the middle, but it opens back up pretty quickly after that.”
“I think there’s a ‘that’s what she said’ joke in there somewhere,” Bones called back.
Over the sound of Padilla chuckling, he heard Jessie swear.
“Just get your butts in here.”
Bones sucked in his gut and, with supreme effort, forced himself into the narrowest part of the passageway. A slight flash of anxiety, the overwhelming feeling of suffocating, and that he was through. He turned, took Padilla’s hand, and hauled the bulky rancher through behind him.
Just as Jessie had said, the passage opened up and they found themselves in a large chamber. Stalactites dangled high above their head, peeking out from the midst of a mass of dark, furry creatures. Bats.
“Man, it stinks down here,” Padilla said.
“Guano. Lots of it.” Bones crinkled his nose and looked around at the bat droppings that coated virtually every inch of the cave. “This is what you were in such a hurry for us to see?” he asked Jessie. “A carpet of bat crap?”
“First of all, way to go me for not freaking out when I saw all these bats.” Jessie pointed at the ceiling. “But no, that’s not what I wanted you to see.” She cast a meaningful glance down toward her feet.
It took Bones a moment to realize what he was looking at. A grinning, human skull peeked out from beneath a pile of bat droppings. He trailed the beam of his headlamp across the floor and saw bits of a rib cage sticking up and, nearby, a skeletal hand clutching a pitted sword.
“Who was this guy?” Padilla asked, moving closer to the skeletal remains. He kicked at what looked like a guano-covered rock. The object tipped over, revealing a concave underside. “it’s an old helmet. Spanish, maybe?”
Bones nodded. “The shape is right, and that would be the most logical guess for this part of the country. And check out his leg. That’s a bad break.” He pointed to the remains of a shattered tibia sticking up above the crust of dried excrement.
“I wonder if he was alone, or if his buddies left him behind?” Padilla mused.
“Look, if you are trying to guilt trip me into hauling you out of here on my back, give it up. You can limp your way out of here.”
“Padilla let out a hearty laugh. “Boy, I like you. A man after my own heart.”
Bones looked to Jessie. “So you found an old dead dude. Anything else?”
Jessie let out a deep, tired sigh. “Oh my God. Open your eyes.” She turned and directed the beam of her headlamp toward the far wall, where stalagmites and stalactites framed an arched entrance into another cavern.
Bones grinned. “Let’s check it out.”
He led the way into the adjacent cave, and what he saw there brought a smile to his face. Despite the refuse left by the colony of bats, he could make out three rows of broken down benches. Beyond them stood a simple stone altar, and carved into the far wall was a large cross. Covered in filth, bats dangling from the crossbar, the symbol of Christianity carried a sense of foreboding about it.
“The legends are true!” Padilla said. “The Spaniards really did build a church down here.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Jessie said. “I mean, why put a church deep inside a cave in the middle of a lava field that, frankly, looks like the pathway to hell?”
“Because it’s not that kind of church.” Bones had realized what was so wrong about this place. “Take another look at that cross.”
The others followed his line of sight and the beam of his headlamp back to the cross on the wall. This time they too saw it immediately
“It’s upside down!” Jessie said.
“They were Satan worshipers?” Padilla asked.
Bones shrugged. “Something of an occult nature was going on down here. No wonder they hid so far away from prying eyes.”
“This is all so wrong. It’s like something out of a horror movie,” Jessie said
“Or an adventure movie,” Padilla said. “I wonder where Glade hid the treasure.”
“My money is on the altar,” Jessie said.
“I don’t know,” Bones kidded. “Kind of obvious, don’t you think?”
She turned and flashed Bones a sly smile. “Tell you what, if I’m wrong, we’ll get that room together. Deal?”
Bones suddenly felt guilty for having flirted with the young woman. He liked her, which was why he knew he should keep his distance. A nice girl like her deserved a better guy than him. He forced a smile. “An old guy like me? I’m sure I’d only disappoint you.” He tried to play it off as a joke, but a curtain of crimson drew across Jessie’s face and she turned and hurried toward the altar.
“She’s a smart, pretty girl. A good girl,” Padilla whispered. “What’s the problem?”
“That’s exactly the problem,” Bones replied. “She’s a good girl, but I’m not a good guy.”
Smiling, Padilla clapped Bones on the back. “You just proved that you are a good guy. Trust me on this.” The old man followed Jessie toward the altar, leaving Bones with his thoughts.
Jessie squatted down behind the altar and frowned. “I don’t see anything. It’s just a solid block. Where do you think it could be?” Bones noticed that she didn’t quite meet his eye.
He looked all around, scanning the floor and the walls of the chamber for any indication of where the treasure might be hidden. And he was certain the treasure was here. This was an ideal place for someone like Gregory Glade to hide it. But where could it be?
As his beam swept across the back wall, the light fell upon an unnaturally even patch. He drew his knife and moved closer until he stood directly beneath the inverted cross. He scraped the surface with the edge of his blade. The crusty layer of bat droppings fell away, revealing a smooth patch of stone about the size of a breadbox.
“Looks like you found something.” Padilla moved to Bones’ side. “Yes, I think you’re onto something.” He ran his calloused hand across the surface. “It’s rough, like adobe.”
“Stand back.” Bones reversed his knife and slammed the hilt into the center of the patch. It shattered under the force of his blow. He quickly cleared away a large opening and Jessie, her upset seemingly forgotten, shouldered past him and peered into the dark space. “There’s a chest in there!”
Bones reached inside and took out a brass bound wooden chest. “This thing’s heavy.”
“That’s a good sign,” Padilla said.
“Set it over here.” Jessie pointed to the altar.
Bones placed the treasure chest atop the stone block and stepped back. The three of them stood there in silence, relishing the moment of discovery.
“I can’t believe it,” Padilla said. “All my life I fancied myself a treasure hunter but this is the first time I’ve actually found anything. Thanks for including me.”
Jessie reached out and gave the old rancher’s hand a squeeze. “We couldn’t have found it without you.”
“So,” Bones began, “who wants to do the honors?” He turned and looked at Jessie, who stuck out her lower lip.
“Is that how you’re going to try to get back into my good graces?”
“Look, chick if you don’t want to open it, I will.” Bones took a step toward the chest but Jessie reached out and grabbed him by the arm.
“Okay fine I’ll do it.” She took a long look at the chest. “There doesn’t seem to be any lock. I wonder why?”
“No need,” Padilla said. “Glade is giving the treasure away, so why lock it up?”
Jessie nodded. “Makes sense.” She stared at the chest for another long moment, and then reached out and grabbed the lid. She pulled, but it didn’t budge. She took a breath and pulled again. Still nothing. “It’s stuck.” She mumbled.
“What was that?” Bones asked.
“You heard me.”
“Are you saying you want help? Because you seemed pretty sure that you wanted to do it by yourself.”
“Just get over here and help me,” Jessie snapped.
“All right. All right. Never say I don’t follow orders.” Bones wedged his knife under the edge of the trunk lid and worked at it until it broke free. Then he stepped back and once again Jessie tried it. This time it opened.
“Oh my God.” Jessie’s amazement was understandable. The chest brimmed with gold. Bones saw Spanish doubloons, small gold bars, and modern coins, including Krugerrands and pesos. Jewels glinted red, blue, and green under the triple lights of their headlamps.
“I can’t imagine how much this is worth!” Jessie said.
“I know somebody who won’t be taking out any student loans next year.” Padilla laughed.
Jessie frowned and then the blood drained from her face. “What do you mean?”
“Finders keepers,” Bones said. “The three of us found it together so…”
Jessie wobbled and would have fallen had he not grabbed hold of her. “Easy there. Do you need to sit down?”
“In the middle of all that crap? No thanks. I’m just…”
“In shock?” Padilla offered. “I just hope my old lady doesn’t have a heart attack when I tell her.”
“I imagine the various artifacts will have to be returned to wherever they came from,” Bones said, holding up an Egyptian scarab. “And speaking of artifacts, let’s not forget what we came here for.” He opened his backpack and began transferring items from the chest into the pack. Jessie and Padilla did the same with their own packs. It didn’t take long to empty the small chest, and when they reached the bottom, Jessie let out a cry of delight.
“That’s it! It’s got to be!”
Bones picked up a leatherbound object roughly the size of a paperback book. Slowly, he drew back the cover, exposing the contents.
“The Book of Bones.”