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Ark Page 3

by David Wood

  “He won’t be alone.” Crazy Charlie spoke for the first time. “I’ll take him to my house and have my security men on guard twenty-four/seven.” As the wealthiest man in the community, and a person who didn’t mind skating around the gray areas of the law, he had a myriad of resources at his disposal.

  “And he’ll have me.” Angel reached out and took her grandfather’s hand. “I hope they come back. I’d love a shot at those assclowns.” Her lovely face was suddenly filled with the dark ferocity usually reserved for her opponents in the cage.

  “Easy there,” Maddock said. “We’ll just have to hope it doesn’t come to that.” He sat up straight. “It’s settled, then. I say we send a copy of this to Jimmy and see what he can come up with.” Jimmy Letson was an old friend and an accomplished hacker who had helped them on many treasure hunts in the past. If anyone could piece these clues together and come up with something useful, it was him.

  Bones stood, cracked his knuckles, and smiled.

  “Let’s do it.”

  Chapter 5

  “This looks like the place.” Bones pointed at the weathered sign. Despite the faded letters, he could make out the words National Park Service, Black Break, Georgia. Jimmy’s research had provided quick results. He’d entered all the details from the document and matched them up to survivor accounts of a modest-sized Civil War skirmish just south of Lookout Mountain. It didn’t appear on any map, nor in any history book, but it existed nonetheless.

  He guided the car up the cracked asphalt drive and parked in front of a shabby-looking office building. The brown paint was peeling off in patches the size of swim fins and seedling pines peeked over the edge of the gutter that ran along the front of the single-story building.

  “Not too impressed, I have to say.” Maddock shook his head as he took in the sight. “Definitely not ship-shape.”

  “It's not an episode of Cribs, and it sure as hell isn’t the Navy,” Bones said. “We just need directions to the battlefield.” He cut the engine and pocketed the keys.

  “What did you do that for? Springsteen’s on.”

  “That’s exactly why I did it. See you in a minute.”

  He bypassed the sagging stairs and stepped directly up onto the covered porch. A solitary rocking chair sat by the screen door. A discarded newspaper lay alongside it underneath a rusted JFG coffee can that had obviously been put to use as a spittoon at some point in the last century. Bones wrinkled his nose and the dried, brown gunk stuck to the inside of the can, and drew the door open. The hinges, much in need of oil, announced his arrival before he could step inside.

  A wrinkled woman stood behind the counter, watching The Price is Right on a tiny color television. She wore a crisp tan uniform, with a tag that named her Betty Tull. She initially spared him only a glance as he entered, then snapped her head around and gaped up at him. “My goodness.”

  “I know,” Bones said with a grin. “I'm the tallest Indian you've ever seen.” A six-foot-five Cherokee was not a common sight in any neck of the woods.

  “You've heard that before, I reckon?” She kept staring at him, not the least bit embarrassed by her reaction of a moment before.

  “A time or two. I was wondering if you could give me directions...” The sudden change in Betty’s expression made him pause. Her eyes narrowed to slits, her lips pursed, and she directed her full attention to the door behind him. He spun around, his hand instinctively going to his hip where he had worn a sidearm for so many years in the service, and still wore it on occasion, but no one was there.

  “Did you sit in that rocking chair, young man?” She sounded like a teacher scolding her pupil. He shook his head. “It’s moving. Did you push it? Brush up against it? You look like you might be clumsy.”

  “I don’t think so. Why? Is it an antique?”

  “A bad omen,” she muttered in a voice almost too soft to be heard. She bit her lip, and then returned her attention to him. “Anyhow, you were saying?”

  “I was hoping you could give me directions. I understand there’s a Civil War battlefield in this area. Is there a park map that might show it?”

  “The battlefield.” It was as if a shade had been drawn down across her face, all previous emotion gone. “You want to go there?”

  “Yes,” Bones said. “One of my ancestors fought in a battle somewhere near here back during the war. I was hoping to visit the site, maybe take a few pictures. Just have a look around.” He gave her a congenial smile and leaned casually against the counter, trying to put her at ease.

  “It’s not technically part of the park.”

  “That’s fine. Could you give me directions?”

  “I'll help the gentleman, Betty.” A keg of a man almost bursting out of his park ranger uniform stepped out from an office in the back. “Why don’t you go on and take your lunch break?” Betty fixed Bones with an unreadable look and then headed into the office. When she was gone, the man smiled at Bones and offered his hand. “I'm Earl Eddings, the man who passes for ranger in these parts.”

  “Bones.” He shook the ranger's strong, calloused hand. Clearly this Eddings fellow did more than sit behind a desk all day. “That's what they call me, anyway. My mother stuck me with a weird name I don’t cop to if I can help it.”

  “Understood.” Eddings grinned. “So, you say you're looking for Dark Entry?”

  “I'm looking for the site of the Battle of Black Break. Is that the same place?”

  “We don’t call it that around here. Black Break’s the Yankee name for it, you see.”

  “Oh, right. The North named battles after the closest town, and the South usually named them after landmarks, right?”

  Eddings nodded. “A lot of the times that was the case. Anyhow, they won the war, so...” He threw out hands in a gesture of futility. “Dark Entry is the name of the stream that feeds the lake at the site of the battle. Of course, you can't properly call it a battlefield, since it was more of a skirmish in a mountain valley, but it's all we've got around here.”

  Bones' heart beat faster. A stream-fed lake in a mountain valley at the site of a Civil War skirmish. So, at least that part of the story was accurate, and if that part was true, why not the rest? Perhaps Esau really had hidden a treasure there.

  “So what is it you say you’re looking for up there?” Eddings’ tone, a bit too casual, didn’t match the suspicion in his eyes.

  “Nothing. I was researching my family tree and this place came up as a likely spot for the battle my ancestor took part in. I figured if I was ever in the neighborhood I’d check it out. I’ve got business in Atlanta so I took a little spontaneous detour. Beats working.”

  Eddings smiled. “You don’t have to tell me twice. I just have to warn off the people who go up there looking for artifacts, you understand. It’s not government land but it’s part of our history, and it’s protected by county ordinance.”

  “Do you get many visitors up the battlefield?”

  “Almost none. It’s not very well-known. Locals might go up there for a picnic.” Eddings paused and fixed Bones with an appraising look. “Which side did your ancestor fight for?”

  “The Confederacy,” Bones lied. He was in the heart of Dixie and figured he needed all the goodwill he could get. Eddings’ smile told him that was the right answer.

  “Good man. I used to be a reenactor.”

  “Really?” Bones didn’t want to waste time with small talk but he supposed he wasn’t truly in a hurry. “Me too. I’ve scalped General Custer, like, a thousand times.”

  Eddings gaped at him and then guffawed. “Good one.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “I don’t get many laughs around here. Betty’s no Larry the Cable Guy.”

  “And you’re no Red Skelton.” Betty said, leaning through the doorway. “If you’re planning on sending him up to the battlefield, are you going to tell him about the curse? All the disappearances? It's only right. You can’t let him go up there and have Lord knows what happen to him.”

sp; “I will tell him. Thank you, Betty.” Eddings kept his voice pleasant, though his eyes had gone flinty. “Sorry about that. It's a remote location, and the site has had its share of tragedies: drownings, fatal falls, hikers gone missing. Plus, there’s a long-standing belief that the site is haunted. Kids go up there to party sometimes. They start drinking and smoking the marijuana and have fun scaring each other. Anyway, you can see why some people,” he rolled his eyes toward the open office door, “let their superstitious beliefs get the better of them. There's no reason for concern as long as you use caution. Just watch your step, and keep an eye out for the bears and the snakes.”

  “Thank you for the warning. I'll be careful. Do you have a map that shows how to get there?”

  “No, but I'll draw you one. It's not too difficult.” Eddings took out a legal pad, tore off the faded top page, and sketched out a map. He jotted a few notes about landmarks along the way and emphasized what he said were the more confusing turns. When he finished, he passed the paper to Bones.

  “You taking anyone up there with you?”

  There was something about the way in which the Ranger asked the question that put Bones on his guard. “Nope. Just me. Like I said, I’m traveling for business and I made a side trip on a whim.” For an instant, he feared the ranger was about to offer to accompany him, which would be entirely out of the question considering what Bones and Maddock planned to do. “It’s kind of a personal journey for me. Trying to get in touch with the spirit of my ancestor, you know.”

  Eddings’ smile did not reach his eyes, but he nodded and assured Bones that he understood completely. That was one of the advantages to being an Indian. You could heap a big, steaming pile of spiritual crap onto white people and they'd believe it every time.

  “Just curious,” Eddings said. “If you got in trouble up there I’d want the sheriff to know how many people to look for.”

  Bones shook Eddings' hand, called a thank-you to Betty, and slipped out the door. This time, he was extra careful to not touch the rocking chair.

  Eddings watched the big Indian step down off the porch and disappear from sight. He listened as an engine roared to life and then receded as the man drove away. Only then did he head to the office.

  “Betty, can I have the office for a minute? I need to make a personal call.”

  “All right.” Betty pushed back from the desk and wobbled to her feet. “It must be your mama because I know you don’t have a girlfriend.”

  “Thanks so awful much, Betty.” He closed the door behind her, moved to his desk, and sank heavily into the chair. Pushing aside Betty’s tomato sandwich and bottle of water, he rested his elbows on the desk and buried his face in his hands. He hated what he was about to do, but he had no choice. He took out his cell phone and punched up the number.

  “It’s me,” he said as soon as the party at the other end picked up. “We got a live one heading for the hills.”

  “You think we can do it clean?” the voice said.

  “Should be all right. He said he was headed to Atlanta and came here on a lark. You can check his phone and see if he might have called someone to tell them where he was going, but even if he did, he wouldn’t be the first to get lost in the woods.”

  “That’s true. How about the other thing?”

  Eddings bit his lip. The “other thing” was a mystery he hadn’t yet been let in on, and it stuck in his craw that he wasn’t in the know. “I can’t say for sure, but it’s doubtful. I tried to trip him up. He says he’s just up here for ancestry research.”

  “He had an ancestor in the battle?”

  “Yeah, but on our side.”

  “We’ll interrogate him just to be sure. Anything else I should know?”

  “He’s big fellow. Looks like he can handle himself.”

  “That just makes it more fun.”

  The call ended and Eddings sat, staring at his phone. He didn’t envy what was about to happen to that Indian.

  Chapter 6

  “So you think this is it?” Maddock took in the narrow valley. Mountain peaks cast long shadows, and the tall, dark pines that covered their slopes leaned in on all sides, as if daring anyone to try and climb out. A stream cascaded down moss-covered rocks into a tiny lake of deep green. In the distance, the open field that must have been the site of the battle gave way to a dense forest.

  “It fits the description.” Bones gazed out across the water. “If the story is true, the hidden cave should be somewhere in the area of that waterfall.” He pointed to the falls.

  “By the way, how did your great, great granduncle or whatever he was, come to be fighting for the Union in the first place? I would have thought the Indian Removal Act would have given your family ample reason to hate the federal government.”

  “They did,” Bones said. “When Jackson sent the soldiers in, my family hid in the mountains. They hated living like refugees in land that was rightfully their own. But, like my grandfather said, my uncle was an odd sort of fellow, so fighting for the North was probably his way of messing with people.” He flashed a bright smile. “Or, maybe he just hated rednecks as much as I do.”

  “Let’s go over things one more time,” Maddock said. “If I’ve got the story straight, by the time he came to this battle, he'd been carrying this family heirloom all throughout the war. And then, when he saw the battle was lost, he stashed it here, knowing he’d have a hard time making it back to Union lines.”

  “Yep. He dove into the lake, thinking he could swim away and find a place to hide.” Bones moved closer to the water, his eyes locked on the far shore as if he could see right through the mountainside. “He had almost made it to the far shore when the Confederates spotted him and started shooting. He dove down as deep as he could and came across the entrance to the underwater cavern. I don't know what possessed him to swim into it, not knowing if there would be air pockets, but he did.”

  “I’ve noticed a certain recklessness in the generations of Bonebrakes.”

  “We call it ‘balls.’ You should consider growing some.”

  Maddock chuckled. “So, we’re looking for an underwater cave, and then we have to make our way back into it until it’s too narrow to go any farther, and that’s where it will be hidden?”

  Bones nodded. “That’s the plan. Of course, I have no idea how big a dude he was. No telling how far back he was able to make it before the cave got too tight for him.”

  “We’ll just have to take our chances.” Maddock fished a quarter from his pocket. “Flip you to see who has to stay topside?”

  “No need.” Bones waved the coin away. “I told the ranger I'd be coming up here alone. I don't know why, but I just had a bad feeling about him. It wouldn't surprise me if he showed up to check on us, and if he sees you here with our car, he's going to want to know where I am and why I lied to him.”

  “We can't have that now, can we?” Maddock grinned. In general, he didn't care for fresh water dives, but if the choice was between a dive and standing around doing nothing for an hour, he'd take the fresh water.

  “Besides,” Bones said, “a shrimp like you will be able to push farther into the cave than I could. I guess there are advantages to being a dwarf.”

  Maddock could think of a dozen witty comebacks but he was eager to get out of the Georgia heat and into the cool water. In a matter of minutes, he was suited up and ready to dive.

  “Don’t fart around down there,” Bones said. “I'll stick near the shore, look like a tourist, and keep an eye out for you. And try not to get tangled in anything. I really don't want to come in after you. Mountain lakes are cold.”

  “I'm definitely not looking forward to the shrinkage factor.” Maddock grimaced.

  “How can you tell the difference?” Bones took a quick step back. “Just kidding, bro. Have a good dive.” He fished a small camera from his pocket and strolled away. “Oh, by the way!” he called as Maddock stepped into the water. “Watch out for snapping turtles! One of those gets you in
the wrong place and no nieces or nephews for me.”

  Laughing, Maddock turned and gritted his teeth as he waded into the chilly lake. This was a far cry from the warm waters of Key West. His full suit would keep him fairly warm, but just knowing he was surrounded by all that cold water was enough to raise goosebumps all over his body. He was a Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico kind of guy, not a mountain man. He slipped beneath the dark water, wishing for sun, sea, and a Dos Equis with lime.

  The sun's rays did not penetrate more than a few meters below the surface of the lake, but the beam of the dive light affixed to his forehead revealed boulders and sunken logs, all coated with slimy mud and decayed vegetation. He swam with care, not wanting to limit visibility by stirring up a cloud of debris. A few small fish darted past, but otherwise he saw few signs of life in this place.

  Once he neared the waterfall there was no need to be concerned about stirring up silt. Water roiled and churned, bringing visibility down to a few feet. He had worried that the cave, if it truly existed, might have already been discovered. Now, seeing the murky cloud someone would have to penetrate in order to stumble across it, he felt hope rising. He dove down as far as he could, careful to watch for potential snares, and swam hard against the force of the surging water. He kicked harder, creeping inexorably toward his goal.

  His hands met stone an instant before his face would have. He found an uneven rock edge and held on tight, his body buffeted by the force of the waterfall. Slowly and methodically, he searched the area below the waterfall. His gloved hands probed each crevice and recess, but to no avail.

  Doubts arose anew. What if they were in the wrong place? What if Esau had gotten confused in the retelling, and conflated the memory of the battle with the memory of hiding his treasure in a cave somewhere else entirely? What if there was no treasure at all?

  Too many questions. He was here to do a job, and he would do it thoroughly. No way would he go back and tell Bones he had failed unless he had first given it his full effort. Determined to do this right, he resumed the search.


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