“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.