“Yet it isn’t the gold that I’m wanting
So much as just finding the gold.”
Casey glared at the stuffed moose head and it stared right back at her, its one broken antler leering.
“What are you looking at? You think this is easy? Who piles this many friggin’ rocks over their treasure, anyway? Yeah, yeah, I know—someone trying to hide it.”
She took a deep breath, adjusted her white and blue striped canvas work gloves and inserted the heavy red-tipped crowbar under the final stone slab. Air hissed out of her mouth and nose as she exerted her back and thigh muscles to the task, straining to pry it loose.
She sniffed loudly, her nose dripping. The damn soot-covered rocks had been in use as a fire pit. Give it to Hefty, though—clever ruse.
Ignoring the black soot, she leaned against the huge pile of stones and wiped her nose on her hoodie sleeve before shining her flashlight onto Hefty McGee’s journal. She thumbed through the tattered pages, still confident that the university wouldn’t miss the dusty old thing for one weekend.
“Hmm, says here Hefty won a moose head from a saloon keeper in a card game right here in Dawson City. Furthermore, that you lost that antler in the ensuring fistfight when it turned out that the gambler was a poor loser. Know anything about that?”
She tucked the journal back into her hoodie then reinserted the crowbar.
“Okay, here goes!” She attacked the slab with all her might. A loud squeal of protest as rock ground against rock. Ah, it moved. Just another few inches. Grunting, she pushed harder until the heavy cover slid off enough that she could shine her flashlight inside the hole pickaxed into the cave floor.
The sight of a large rotted pile of leather securely wrapped and tied with a cord quickened her breath. On top, weighing the package down, was a small smooth rock, and underneath it a torn piece of brown butcher paper. She pulled it out and shone the light on it.
She read the faded handwritten words aloud, figuring the moose had a right to know, as well. “‘Abandon hope all ye who steals Soapy’s Gold. It be cursed. Gave me the pox. Hefty McGee.’” Casey chuckled, despite the discomfort of the past few hours of digging in the tight, damp quarters, and gave the moose head a glance. “Just proves, old man, I’m in the right place!”
She thrust her arm inside the large hole in the cave floor and tugged on the heavy parcel. Damn, not enough room to lift it out. The blasted stone needed to be moved farther over. She glanced back at the doorway of the cave. Only a short while and the spring waters of the rising Yukon River would flood the low-lying cave.
“Be nice if you could lend a hand, buster.” She directed her comments at the moose head. It was beginning to creep her out, staring down at her with glassy, lifeless eyes. Okay, so perhaps coming alone had not been so smart, but she needed to know if all her research was going to pay off. And, just maybe, it was about to. Big-time.
The pry bar slipped as the rock jerked under the extreme pressure. It swung in an upward arc toward the moose head, pitching her forward as it did so. It also hit the beast a solid blow on its huge bulbous nose, knocking it loose from its perch on the rock wall and right down onto her head.
The last thought as pain drilled into her brain was that the old miner who had gone to the trouble to hide his stolen gold in the wilds of Northern Canada might have gotten it right. The curse was effective—if one was a klutz.
Casey woke with a start, shivering uncontrollably. Her head pounded from a possible concussion and her clothes were soaking wet. She blinked hard, gingerly touching the top of her skull, and felt a lump as large as a goose egg under her platinum braid of hair. Damn. If she had a mirror she could tell her if her eyes were dilated. But at least there was no blood. She rummaged in her pocket for her cell phone and checked the time. Double damn. She’d been out for more than an hour!
As her vision cleared, she focused on the cave’s entrance. Waves slapping around the opening made her heart race. Swallowing hard against the shock and the pain, she struggled to pull herself to a sitting position. Her brain swam with the effort and she punched the downed moose right in its over-sized moth-eaten nose.
“It’s all your fault! If you weren’t already dead…” Casey threatened. She managed to get to her feet by holding on to the clammy moss-covered stone wall. Trickles of moisture created darkened trails down the ancient walls, dampening her palms.
A flash of something sliding by the doorway drew her attention. Her boat! Left tied to a tree on shore, with the rising waters it’d somehow managed to work itself free. Headache forgotten, she splashed through the frigid water, lunging to snatch hold of it before it drifted away in the current. Swaying dizzily, she managed to tug it inside the cave’s broad mouth. Thank goodness the cave floor sloped down toward the river, otherwise her transport might have floated away while she was knocked out.
She held hard to the canoe’s frayed rope, maneuvering the sixteen-foot boat closer to the treasure. Once she tied it securely to an outcropping of rock, she hauled the offending moose head off to the side, grateful the one good antler hadn’t pierced her skull. She relaunched her efforts to retrieve the booty. Thank God her flashlight was still intact and working.
“No fucking way I’m leaving here without my gold!” she muttered. “God damn it—move, won’t you!” she exclaimed in frustration, pushing as hard as she could manage. It was now or never. At least the weight training was paying off. She put everything behind the effort, every muscle in her body struggling and screaming at her to give it up already.
With an ominous creak like a banshee screaming in the wind, she inched the stone lid off bit by bit, the pit reluctant to give up its treasure. Finally, against the clock, Casey jolted the stone lid far enough off to allow her full access to what lay beneath. With a tug at the rotted string that bound the package, she thrust it out of the way and pushed her hand inside to pull apart the decayed leather.
She froze and took a deep breath, heart hammering. Was this the moment? Would all her intensive research now pay off? Or was it an elaborate hoax set up by an ornery old conman with a wicked sense of humor?
She touched it reverently, a laying-on-of-hands. Took a deep breath.
This was it. The moment of truth.
And yet, she hesitated, her hands trembling. So much rode on this. Finding the treasure would fund another adventure, her life’s blood. Give her the freedom she needed. Craved.
Open it already!
Okay. Stop shouting at me.
The war within quieted as she slowly peeled back the edges of the musty old covering. Was that a choir of angels singing? No, just her imagination working overtime. Whispers from the past upping the roaring clamor in her head as the color revealed itself.
Shiny yellow nuggets. Gold! Soapy’s stolen hoard!
The nuggets gleamed brightly under the flashlight’s beam. Nestled between the lumps of gold, someone had packed old leather pouches filled with gold dust. She’d found it! She swallowed hard. Glanced back at the cave’s entrance.
Crap. The water was rising. Faster.
Hurriedly, she scooped up the heavy nuggets and packets, flinging them into her backpack and glancing back at the cave’s entrance every few seconds to make sure she could still free herself. Running out of room in the pack, she pulled another black carryall from the canoe’s bottom and loaded it. At the last possible second, she threw in the moose head, knowing she was being loopy. The damn thing must weigh twenty-five pounds, broken antler or not, but he’d helped point the way.
After wading through the rising flood waters that lapped and sucked at her jean-clad knees, she leaped into the boat as she got near the entrance, grabbing one of the paddles to maneuver the canoe through the doorway. Head throbbing and eyes aching, she ducked under the rough edge of the opening and worked the canoe onto the open water of the Yukon River. The river was narrower at Dawson City, a half mile down the river from the cave, making the expanse that much more difficult to cross. She needed to find a safer place to be on this side of the river soon as possible.
The waves were rough. Far rougher than before. Dismay filled her. Heart racing as adrenaline pumped through her depleted system, she focused on keeping the front of the canoe centered with the tailwind at her back, her muscles aching brutally from the strain. She wasn’t scot-free yet, but she was going to do her damnedest to make it happen.
Of course, as she fought the current of the swollen river, the heavens opened up, releasing their bounty, a driving rain that stung her eyes and blurred her vision. The buckets of cold water drenching her head made her teeth chatter nosily. Really. You had to send rain…
“It’s all your damn fault!” she exclaimed, ranting at the moose to keep her mounting fears at bay. He rested in the bow, his one antler pointing jauntily skyward, completely oblivious to the freezing rain, covered snugly by his thick brown hide. The sound of the rain endlessly pelting the water, her oar splashing rhythmically into the river, all combined into a marching drone pushing her onward.
Spying a low-lying area, she awkwardly steered the rented craft toward it, fighting the river’s intense current, which was magnified tenfold by the rising water. She needed to build a fire to dry out her drenched clothing. The comforting vision of a roaring blaze kept her going and she gave it all she had left. The high, angry waves fought her every step of the way, battering the canoe bow, threatening to overturn the craft, her depleted muscles screaming for relief and leaving only her fighting spirit to push her body onward. A lifetime passed until she felt the canoe touch bottom.
Shaking with relief, knees turned to jelly, she climbed out and pulled the boat the rest of the way onto the shoreline. Behind the small alcove, seventy-foot fir and birch trees thickly carpeted the high hillside, marching right out of sight. How far to bring the boat up? How high would the water rise? Shivering with bone-chilling exhaustion, she dragged it an extra few meters for good measure. Rummaged around in her bag for supplies. Her frozen hands were almost useless and wouldn’t follow a simple direction, making it seem an eternity until she found her life-pack of emergency supplies. Life and death lurked menacingly in the shadows. Her mind shutting down, her bruised brain screaming for relief, she wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep.
No. Focus. Even now hypothermia’s lethargy crept into her veins, leaving no room for error.
Just. Keep. Moving.
Finding a drier spot under a thick canopy of trees, she used her hands to scoop out a depression in the soil, adding a few dry twigs and moss from her pack. Brown Owl, her Girl Guide troop leader from days long past, had harped on being prepared. Maybe she hadn’t been referring to rustling someone’s gold, but still. Casey gave a snort of hysterical laughter at the very idea of rustling gold in modern times. The sound echoed eerily in the dense forest, which seemed devoid of human life. Tall trees stood guard, frowning their disapproval.
Her hands shook uncontrollably as she struggled with her lighter to kindle a flame in the uncooperative moss. Wearily, she gathered sticks of wood strewn about, pinpoints of white light in her vision making her sway drunkenly. Hours, not minutes, passed until the life-giving heat blazing into the sullen gray sky mimicked her vision in the boat of building a fire to warm her. Life-giving warmth.
“Ah, that’s better, eh,” she remarked to the moose head she’d propped against the trunk of a tree. She rubbed her hands together as near to the dancing flames as she could without sustaining burns. Rummaging around in her pack again produced a protein bar, a large bottle of water and a small one of aspirin. Between bites of the bar, she drank water and chewed on aspirin. Other than the thumping headache, she was better.
She wrinkled her nose against the sharp stench of polyethylene as she shook out a blue plastic tarp stiff with newness and hung it between four trees as shelter. Once a second tarp was unfolded and spread on the ground, she laid rocks at the corners to flatten and secure it. The familiar fragrance of smoke burning off the damp wood filled her nostrils. Pine needles added to the potpourri, giving off their own sharp scent as she lurched about, crunching them under her boots and releasing their fragrance. Casey sneezed three times in a row, shivering in her wet clothes.
After pulling off her wet hiking boots and turning them upside down, she impaled them on sticks, setting them close to the fire to dry. She added her socks, pants and jacket. Quickly donning her one change of dry clothing, she wrapped the distinctive red and black Hudson Bay blanket around her freezing body, the scratchy wool tucked up around her chin.
She sat on the tarp and smiled at the moose head. “Let that be a lesson to you. You can never be too prepared.”
A twig snapped.
She turned her head toward the sound. Another twig. A longer crackling noise. She held her breath, her mind spinning.
Man or beast?
She rummaged blindly at her side, reaching for her bear spray, while she scanned the bush line. Her fingers closed around the black plastic trigger of the colorful metal canister with the brown bear’s photo in proud display, sharp incisors and all. Not a comforting sight—for a human intruder.
She braced it in both hands, moving stealthily toward the forest. Working her way across the ground, careful to step softly, all senses alert. A slight movement on the perimeter drew her attention. Wait for it…
Sighting a bit of yellow fabric attached to a leg from behind a tree, she stopped in her tracks. Human.
“Stop or I’ll shoot,” she shouted the warning.
“Don’t shoot!” a voice called out.
“Show yourself then.”
The full figure emerged from behind the thick tree trunk. An unkempt man wearing a dirty yellow rainslicker locked gazes with her. He stopped ten feet away.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded keeping the bear spray pointed at him.
“Whatcha doing with Hefty’s moose?” he asked, ignoring her question. He pointed at the offending object lazing against the tree trunk, demanding answers with his belligerent stance, hands braced on hips.
“What’s it to you?” she shot right back.
“You been messing around in his cave?”
“It’s on public land—no law against it.” She lowered the bear spray to her side but kept her finger on the trigger.
“Ain’t right to disturb a man’s things when he ain’t here to defend them,” he muttered.
“Just took a liking to this guy.” She gestured at the moose with her free hand. “He fell on my head and knocked me clear out.”
His slate-blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You look okay now.”
“Throbbing headache, but it’ll pass. Anything else I can do for you, Mr…?”
He hesitated for a moment. Alzheimer’s setting in?
“Duncan MacLean.” He pursed his lips, scratching at his thick beard intertwined with threads of gray and red. A dirty cap that might have been red at one time was pulled down over his ears, grizzled hair sticking out the sides like that of a mad professor.
“I’m Casey.” She didn’t offer her hand. Her finger tightened on the trigger of the can, alert for any sudden movements.
“You know the legend of Soapy’s Stolen Gold, lass?”
Casey shook her head. No point in telling him she knew all about it—it would only bring more suspicion her way that she might have gone after the treasure. Best he thought it was just the moose she had taken a shine to.
“Fer the price of a hot coffee and a wee nip of the spirits, I’d share it with ya. Hell of a tale.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, I have neither. Just water and protein bars.”
He screwed up his wrinkled face, grimacing. “Wouldn’t give ye two cents for that shite.”
“Sorry, all I’ve got.” She kept her tone neutral, wishing he’d leave. “I’m not feeling up to company, anyway. Been a long day.”
“Ah, sorry to bother ye, lass. Another time.”
“Ye staying in Dawson City?”
She nodded, wondering where this was going.
“Water’s too rough to cross tonight. Best watch yer back. And keep that bear spray handy. It’s the four-legged creatures ye need to watch out fer most, lassie.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“Yer welcome.” He turned on his heel and strode back to the bush line, vanishing into the forest.
She let out a sigh of relief, hoping she’d seen and smelt the last of him. Even though she was ten feet away, a strong, stomach-turning odor rose from his unwashed clothing. Meeting a virile mountain man in the bush appeared vastly overrated. Or at least that particular one. Now, having one of the studs from her friend Rebecca’s hot and steamy books drop into her lap… That would be awesome.
Sleep would be awesome, as well, but she needed to stay on guard. Going to be a long friggin’ night. She threw off the blanket, glancing into the bottom of the canoe as she went by it, selecting more firewood from the ground to add to the growing pile. Though the treasure was well concealed, she knew her visitor had most likely headed off to check the cave she’d abandoned, if he wasn’t still watching her. Her one consolation? He wouldn’t be able to enter to see the destruction of McGee’s fire pit until the water receded. When would that be? Sometime tonight? She scanned the river. Choppy waters. Effective barrier to keep him out for a while. And her pinned down. Some impasse.
A screech owl hooted as it flew silently overhead, joined by a few wolves sounding the ancient call a few minutes later, making the nerves in her neck tingle. She checked her phone for bars. Thank God. She called the hotel to let them know to keep her room. They were obliging, then it was back to waiting. Endlessly waiting. At least the rain had stopped.
She sucked back more bottled water, wiping her mouth with her hand. Wait. Were the waves lessening? She got up, scooped a large red plastic bucket from the canoe and hurried to the shore. Dipping the edge of the pail in the river, she let the cold water rush in. Lugged the heavy pail back to camp and set it by the crackling flames. All set.
The minutes ticked by.
She let out a deep breath, blowing it through her teeth. Bed. Tonight. Please let that be part of my memory of Dawson. Sweet, the gods must be listening. The sun glimmered enticingly, slipping out from behind the cloud bank. She doused the fire and stripped the campsite, throwing everything into the canoe.
Once she’d shoved the boat into the water, she took up the wooden paddle and headed the bow straight across the river. A sudden thought. Wouldn’t it be great to have her rowing team from the university help out at this precise moment? Of course, she wasn’t willing to share the booty quite that far, so solo it was going to have to stay. Besides, they’d shared enough glory winning a ton of meets together. She laughed out loud, the exuberance of the moment overcoming her.
Muscles straining, she paddled like she had never paddled before, racing an internal clock. The wind further tousled her disheveled hair, sending strands flying into her face and making her wish she’d dealt with it in camp. She swiped the perspiration from her forehead with the back of her hand, her sweatshirt clinging to her skin. Scanning the horizon, she grimaced at the renewed throbbing in her head. Leaning into the wind, she doubled her efforts, quickly rewarded with the tantalizing view of the shoreline inching closer.
The canoe struck bottom suddenly, squealing in protest. Arms deadened, she stumbled out, tripping over her own feet. Landed on her ass. She got up, rubbing at her posterior, and pulled the boat the final few feet to safety before sinking back down onto the ground. Took a few deep breaths. The air tasted sweet, tinged with the fragrance of freedom.
Hide the gold. The mantra kept her moving. She followed the pre-existing plan to the letter. Bore the heavy weight of the treasure one full backpack at a time to the hole she’d dug last night inside an old hollowed-out tree trunk. Covered it over with soil and leaves. Pulled the phone from her jacket pocket to mark the spot with a photo.
Somehow, she made it the quarter mile back in the canoe. She docked the boat in its rental spot ready for its next adventure, doubting the craft would ever again see what it had just gotten her through. Hefting her backpack, she picked up the moose head and wearily trudged back to the hotel. Slipped through the side entrance. Each stair felt a mile high as she forced her feet to move. Inside the room, door closed, she fell face-first on the bed. She just needed five minutes…
Her cell phone chirped. She groaned. Rolled over. Checked the number. Aha. She should have known. This would take more than mere talking.
Casey crawled over to the side of the bed and grabbed her laptop, quickly opening it. She leaned back against a nest of pillows, exhaustion forgotten for the moment. With a few quick clicks of her mouse, she set it up.
A few seconds later and the video conference screen dinged and opened, a montage of happy female faces filling the twelve-inch screen. She savored the moment, quashing down her secret, which was bursting to escape.
“So, did you find it?” Rebecca asked, her honey-blonde waves of hair swaying around her animated face.
“Find what?” Casey teased.
“You know! We’ve got heavy action on this. ’Fess up!” Lacey demanded, her red curls sparking with megawatt voltage, an all-too-true indication of her wild-child character. Her green eyes shone. Her identical twin’s face crowded in from one side, nearly interchangeable with Lacey’s, and Miranda, the sweetest pixie in the whole world, huddled too, her short dark hair gleaming under the overhead light. Casey could barely see Ava’s thick golden-brown bangs perched above black-framed glasses in the background, next to uber-blonde Elin who towered above her. Oh, and there was the top of Tessa’s curly head. All the Ringers accounted for.
“Okay. Oh, yeah, we’re in business!” She couldn’t hold out as long as she would have liked, enjoying the immediate whoops of satisfaction from her friends more than relishing the secret another second.
“So, what time did you find it?” Lily asked, biting her bottom lip in concentration.
“About four o’clock this afternoon. Who wins?”
“Damn. I had this morning between ten and eleven-thirty,” Lacey grumbled.
“I had three to four-thirty,” Ava said, pushing in between Miranda and Lacey to look right at Casey. “Right smack-dab in the middle. I win!” Her usual solemn lawyerly expression had gone, replaced by full-on exuberance.
“All yours, Ava. You get the forfeits. Sweet, now we get to watch Lacey do a pole dance for Will and won’t he be surprised,” Rebecca confirmed, grinning. William James Thornton Ш, the twin’s BFF, could use the distraction, having recently returned from his tour of duty in Afghanistan.
“Not much of a stretch,” Lily deadpanned, rolling her eyes. The forfeitures were chosen by others in the group—not the one who had to pay it. Kind of unfair, but a whole lot more fun. Some good-natured grumbling filled the airwaves.
“How did it go? Any problems?” Rebecca asked, pushing in closer.
“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Casey said, dismissing their concerns.
“Tell me. I can sense something popped up.”
“Pretty uneventful, really.” She shrugged. “Just one visitor. No biggie. Name of Duncan MacLean.”
“You can’t be too careful. I’ll check him out.”
Casey yawned, exhaustion crowding in. “Okay, up to you. I gotta get some sleep, guys. Congrats, Ava. See you all soon.”
She closed her laptop lid. Lay in the dark, grinning ear-to-ear. She’d done it…
* * * *
Casey woke with a lurch, disorientated, muscles stiff and aching. She checked her phone. Five o’clock. Just enough time for a hot shower. Humming under the hot flow of water, she soaped and scrubbed the night away.
“So, what shall I call you?” she asked the cocky moose, drying her hair briskly with the fluffy white hotel towel. “Howard. Fits you to a tee, I think. You know, you’ve got a lot more going for you than that last guy I went to dinner with. He didn’t see the point of my adventures. Would have seriously objected to this trip. And, hell, thought the safest place for a woman was staying in one spot and most likely catering to just his needs. Sooo not going to happen! Well, since you’re not objecting, I’ll take that as a yes.”