This fictional account of the sealing of the large treasure caches purported to be in the Caballo Mountains of present-day New Mexico plays off of the name of the man on the first recorded mining claim in the region. His name is deeply chiseled to this day in one of the main passes in that very range.
Silence, and the horizon stretch out in all directions. Here and there on the floor of the parched earth far below, hills and mountains and ranges rise from the flats as if islands in an inverted sea of brown. Many are dusted with snow at about the level where timber begins, and though far, they seem almost within reach, so crisp and unobscured the intervening air. No sign of the works of man break the mosaic of rugged natural beauty, not even along the thin strip of green winding along the lone river valley visible from the lofty perch high up among the scrub junipers, yucca, cacti, and occasional stunted pine clinging tenaciously to the sheer cliffs of grey-yellow limestone.
A forlorn party of weary souls trudges up over the final rise on the only approachable side of the long, thin mountain range and halts at the edge of the precipice. Barking commands, one of the armor-clad soldiers immediately sets about directing the group of chained slaves in the unloading of the long atajo of sturdy burros. The Captain of the group, Eduardo de la Silva de Avalos, is clad in somewhat more ornate armor than the others, his solid breastplate, finned helmet, greaves and leg plates decorated with engraved scrollwork and a few highlights of gold gilding. Beneath the armor, de Avalos’ clothes, however, are just as worn and tattered as the three other soldiers’, having been away from civilization for so very long, and their main supply carretas so long ago sacked and burned.
In the rear of the group, two black-robed priests confer quietly to the side of the activity. Each rests against his staff, thankfull for the color of their clothing and for the warmth of the sun in the cold air high on top of the mountain. No command from them was necessary to spur the group to action, as the carefully-surveyed marker high on the top of the mountain was spotted hours ago, and the procedure associated with the emplacement of this final cache is by now almost automatic to what is left of the decimated group.
So close to the fulfillment of their holy duty, the priests thank God again for their survival and the honor of carrying it out. Among the group, they best know the scope and extent of the ancient cycle they are on the verge of completing. Information is provided that aids in the recovery of that which they seek, but the cost of the bargain is a portion of that which is so obtained. Unlike the last, this cycle has produced no emeralds or masterfully ornate Gold ornaments crafted by techniques lost in the destruction of an ancient civilization. But, significant Gold was produced, as well as Silver (so much Silver!) and even some surprises like the locally-venerated sky-blue gemstone, Turquois. Where the critical information to make all of this possible comes from is not known to any but a select few, and how the bargain originally came to be is unlikely to be known by any person yet alive. However, the sanctity and necessity of their duty is incontrovertible to any faithful to the Order. The families of the Order will be rewarded for generations to come, and will hold even more responsibility for fulfillment of the bargain into the future. Of course, they must return and provide proof of the success of their mission for any such special benefits to accrue.
Chains clanking, the rasp of thin sandals on pebbly ground, measured breathing, and the creak and rustle of the hemp rigging are almost the only sound for hours, as the slaves attend to their heavy loads under the direction of the second in command, Lieutenant Alvarado de Aguilar. One other soldier stands guard over the top-side work crew, while another manages the smaller group of on the ledge far below. Concurrently, the Captain writes in his journal and considers the logistics of the return trip, which once seemed impossibly far in the future. The priests set first several smaller signs and markings, located using precise measurements and mathematical relationships, and then begin to prepare for the final Ritual of Sealing.
The penultimate load delivered to the ledge below, it is removed from the over one-hundred foot long hemp rigging. The most precious portion of this final planned cache site has already been secured deep in the twisting natural cave system that opens on the ledge, itself part of secret knowledge somehow passed down from generation to generation, civilization to civilization, and seemingly across the millennia. Another crude rigging is also used inside the natural cavern to drag the deposit as far into the mountain as can be managed given the extent of the already-deposited horde, and the relatively shallow depth of this final major site. Over an hour later, the slaves emerge, squinting, into the stark winter sun, and the lone soldier on the ledge signals to his companion watcher above that the workers were now ready for the final load. The soldiers are the sole keepers of the load count, and now know that the time has arrived to consolidate their forces for the final act. Securing himself in the rigging, the lean, helmeted soldier is hoisted back up the cliff face, with his companions keeping careful watch for any treachery from the unfortunate and doomed slave crew.
The final load is smaller and less uniform than the previous ones, containing odd-lot dore’ bar counts and sizes, and the all-important seal stones and proof of identify of the keepers of the ancient bargain. Into this package has been placed the Captain’s family dagger, as well as a carefully-crafted silver-lead cross on a red velvet cloth handed over by the observing priests. Satisfied that the load is secure, the brutish Lieutenant, tattered striped cloth protruding from beneath his dented and polished armor half-plate, again fills the still silence of the remote mountaintop with his demanding staccato commands. The final load is received below as before, the package separated from the rigging and one of the several slaves on the ledge begin to disassemble it for transport and ritual placement in the cave.
At this point, the priests approach the edge of the cliff, and began to chant and gesticulate, falling to their knees. Ever alert, the four soldiers each take a single knee, eyeing the chained, but still mobile, group of weary slaves. As the chanting reaches a crescendo, eclipsing even the second-in-command’s prior haranguing in sheer volume and eerie incongruity with nature, a sharp murmur arises among the native slaves. A half-moment later, before even the battle-hardened, elite soldiers have a chance to so much as rise, the full press of the chained and now-livid slaves are upon them. Their whoops, piercing and unambiguous in intent and miraculously full of vigor after so much labor and abuse, are added to the cacophonous sounds of the still-chanting priests and now-startled soldiers. The long-sought opportunity for a good death, full of revenge and justice, may now finally be within the slaves’ reach. For the fullness of the situation is not unknown to them. The main work now done, they know that they represent only a liability to the ruthlessness and efficient captors. The only human souls for miles around now scrabble in a tangle of confusion, hate, desperation, and contest of wills on the rim of the foreboding mountain.
After only a few brief moments, the tangled mass lurches over the edge, cries changing from those of religious fervor and a struggle for dominance, to those of fear. The Commander, short sword already plunged into and now removed from the heart of one of the suicidal slaves, manages to grab the rigging on the way down the cliff face, while the rest of the party falls more or less directly to the small ledge, and bursts apart in a groaning, cracked mass of ejected bodies. Though heavy and relatively implacable, much of the final load resting on the lip of the ledge is also scattered, and cascades down the face of the mountain along with the contorted bodies. Two of the three slaves assigned the duty of securing the cave are left on the ledge, having sucked up close to the cliff face as the party above descended, as well as a single wheezing and prone priest, his fall broken somewhat by the bodies of the others. Hands burning from the coarse rope, the Captain does his best to maintain some control over his inevitable descent, and lands with a thud on top of one of the two remaining slaves. While the Captain struggles with the slaves, the stunned, but desperate, priest produces a small, poisoned dagger from beneath his black robes. Once within reach, the crawling priest plunges the dagger into the leg of the nearest slave, and turns the tide of the two-on-one struggle almost before it has begun in earnest.
For close to a half hour, the Captain and the dying priest occupy the ledge in relative silence, taking in the view of the river valley far below. The cries of hawks and crows riding the mountain’s thermal pattern occasionally pierce the sky around the lofty perch, but the only other sounds are those of pain, and a faint gurgling noise emanating from the priest. Recovering from the draining aftermath of the adrenal rush precipitated by the recent struggle, the Captain finally crawls over to the priest to assess what’s left of the near-catastrophic situation. Despite serious injuries, the priest is intense and unrelenting when he demands that the Captain help him finish the ritual of sealing. For the sake of the Order, their families, and their companions lost today and across the preceding months of terror, toil, and travail: they must not fail in their quest!
Apparently forgotten, the sole remaining slave catches himself before rushing headlong out of the cave into the sunlight. Something is wrong. His companions are not there beside the partial stack of items from the final load transferred to the cave entrance, and he sees something wet and shiny which is not rain outside on the rocks. Before he calls out, he catches himself. Could the others have gone through with their plan? Surely they would not deprive him of the honor. Though the youngest, his pain has been equal to theirs at the hands of their captors. The massive mission had seen 150 slaves dwindle to less than 10, and now even fewer. Before being conscripted into this latest indignity, the soldiers had ravaged his village, stealing him in the process. The memory of his village now seems a dim, faint whisper from the lips of another person telling him of the only happy time in a short, brutal life. Hearing faint voices, the slave startles back to reality. His enemies are there, and he has a choice to make: revenge or life. Or, perhaps, just perhaps, both revenge and life? What is more honorable, a short, immediate revenge of limited scope, or a continuing lifetime dedicated to inflicting maximum pain on the powerful, but ignorant invaders? After spending so much time with them, he knows their weaknesses, motivations, and blind spots. Still not quite decided, the slave slips back into the cave, packing his thin form for now into a small, unused side cavern.
It is hours of work for the Captain and the priest to take the final items to their resting place in the cave, set the traps, and perform the Ritual. With the priest’s health fading, the Captain decides to ascend the cliff on what remains of the rigging, modify the rigging to form a litter, and use the power of the burros to haul up the priest. Then, there is only the small matter of surviving. Surviving the masses of hostile tribes and the unforgiving desert terrain in a desperate bid for final freedom from the God-forsaken land which has so far claimed almost their entire party, despite their massive technological advantages and immense level of preparation.
Near the entrance of the cave just inside the waning shade of the late-day sun, the priest slips in and out of consciousness. He feels like his chances are fading, and sleep is almost upon him. Softly, someone lifts his head and offers a disc of water. Slurping greedily, the priest feels a little energy return, and wonders how the Captain made it back so quickly – the strength and tenacity of that man were why the Order selected him in the first place, and he has proven the choice a wise one countless times throughout their quest. Eyes clearing, the priest stares up into the gleaming white teeth of a dark face rimed with unkempt, coarse black hair. Leering, the slave spits forth in broken Spanish: “No me entierres aqui, porque tu vas a guarder tu Tesoro precioso”: you will not bury me here, because you will guard your precious treasure instead! Dragging the priest to the back of the cave right outside the now-sealed chamber, the slave, having removed the priest’s dagger, strings him up with chains and shackles left over from the last set of departed slaves that widened and improved the cave long, long ago. In such a weakened condition, the slave does not think that he would gain much entertainment from torturing the priest, so he decides to leave him to as slow a death as possible in the depths of the cursed cave. Ignoring the alternating admonitions and pleas of the priest, the slave takes with him the feeble torch made of pitch, bark, and brambles and returns to the cave’s entrance. There, he prepares to trigger the mechanism he helped build earlier in the year which will collapse a mass of rock back over the cave entrance, sealing the priest in with the souls of the murdered natives and the precious trove, forever.
At the cave entrance, the Captain is at first pleased to see the form emerging from the darkness, thinking it to be the priest, somehow miraculously recovered and ready to travel. Instead, the sharp light of the brilliant vermillion and blue sunset filtering through the few far, thin clouds to the West lands upon the visage of a slave boy, thought to have already perished. “What have you done with the priest?”, demands the Captain, as he drops from the modified rigging to confront the unexpected denizen. Eyes wide, and fully aware of the lethality of the Captain, the boy freezes, then backs slowly into the cave, reaching for the mechanism that will collapse the entrance.
Seeing this, the Captain draws his sword, and lunges forward, bringing the weapon down in a swift arc meant to remove the offending left arm of the boy before he can doom the priest. As the Captain swings, the slave pivots, turning to run and hopefully hide in the darkness of the cavern as he had done before. Not fast enough, however, for the sharpened sword of the Captain grazes the boy’s face, and deflects just enough to slice the rope portion of the very mechanism he was hoping to keep the boy from activating.
With a rumble, the counter-weights fall inside the carefully stacked cone of rocks, triggering a rush of stone and dirt that at once forces the boy back into the cave while separately routing the Captain back to the ledge, which is now all the smaller for the outflow of debris from the cave.
Choking on dust, the boy ignores his new bruises and scrapes, and lets his eyes adjust to the darkness of the cave lit by the feeble torch as his ears reach out and pick up the faint cries of the still-yowling priest. Once again, the boy puts immediate vengeance behind his long-term prospects, and desperately ponders how to escape his fate. It took many slaves, with tools, weeks to stack and form all of the rock now blocking the cave entrance, so digging out seems an unlikely option given the lack of food and water in the cave, even if the priest is counted as a source for the former. What else can be done? The only other features of the cave that the boy knows of are the sealed-up adobe walls in some of the branching side tunnels leading off from where he and his group had done all of their work on this trip. The tunnel that they had sealed had no exit, of that the boy was sure.
Digging deep into his mental reserves, and choosing to slow down and try and remain calm, the slave boy thinks of all he has been told about caves and their environment. Noticing that his feeble torch, though running low, still flickers, he considers how the air might be getting into and out of the cave. Perhaps he could use the same route? He recalls many minor side passages, unsuitable for the large loads that they were charged with caching, and not yet explored. Returning to the priest, who foolishly and momentarily hopes beyond hope that the slave has had a change of heart as he is removed from the chains, the boy punches him squarely in the gut and kicks him a few times before roughly stripping him of his robes. Grunting with the effort, the slave returns the priest to the chains, and goes about ripping the robes into strips suitable for application as torch fuel. Thus equipped, the boy leaves the sobbing, gibbering priest once again, and sets out to follow the path of the air.
Outside the cave, Captain Avalos goes through the same thought process regarding the now-blocked cave entrance; there is no way that a single man can remove all of the rubble in time to save the trapped occupants, whether to accomplish a rescue or to mete out justice. With resignation, the Captain says a lengthy prayer for all who just perished, and for the still-successful completion of the mission. He refrains from erecting any sort of marker or chiseling out a petroglyph in the durable limestone, because the priests have at least shared that aspect of their ancient process, and Avalos recalls that one never directly marks the site of a cache of this importance. Teeth gritted, Avalos ascends the rigging, removes it, and ponders how he will parley his meager string of burros for safe passage back to a meaningful outpost of civilization.