Them Thar Hills

He didn’t remember closing his eyes to sleep, but when he opened them it was day; the fire’s glowing embers now smouldered in the morning light. He unwrapped his knee, mulch peeling away to reveal a hardened scab that didn’t weep when he stood. Remarkable. Julian’s mountain remedy was better than tiger balm. “Good as new,” the boy said; stunned, he could only agree.

The boy’s other promise also held true – it was but an easy half hour stroll on to the treasure site. He was admiring the scenery with fresh eyes once more when they halted abruptly before a small ravine that split the path. Julian pointed down. “Here it is,” he said.

He crouched and peered into the narrow slit in the rock. Only shadow and boulders were illuminated by the strip of sun filtering down. “Here?” he said, although instantly remembered such incredulity was naive when the boy was always right. Did he really expect an ancient totem shining atop a mountain peak, or buried under a rock cyst?

“Here,” came the reply, but not from Julian. He started up, shocked, whirling round to see Hector and Arturo advancing towards him. The boy was gone. Malevolence wrought by revenge, avarice and insomnia crossed their faces, with determination to finish what yesterday had started.

Instinctively he backed away, only to find his boots scuffing the ravine edge with no purchase beyond; as narrow as it was, the gap was still too wide for an escape leap. He held his hands up. “Look guys,” he said. “Maybe we should reach an understanding…”

A rock landed at their feet. Hector and Arturo looked down at it, then at each other, then turned slowly around. Julian screamed, suddenly he was inches from their faces, howling full pitch so spittle splashed their noses, face a mask of purest rage. Where had he come from?

With a Wilhelm shriek of terror, Arturo leapt back in shock, away from the demonic boy, brushing past the gringo hiker, arms flailing wildly. Instinctively, he reached out to catch him, but too slow for anything save briefly touch fingertips, as the bulky robber fell straight down the rocky gash.

AS THOUGH ABSOLVING RESPONSIBILITY WAS ANYTHING BUT COWARDICE SHOULD HE LEAVE A MAN TO DIE

“Please… please help me.” As shock subsided, Arturo’s cries carried up from the ravine. His partner-in-crime Hector was fast disappearing to a speck, fleeing down the path, leaving only their intended victims to fill the role of rescuer.

“Should we help him?” he said, as though absolving responsibility was anything but cowardice should he leave a man to die. He knew the answer before the boy told him.

“Yes,” said Julian. “You should. What you came to see is down there anyway.”

He drew a deep breath, in dive preparation mode, sighed and gingerly lowered himself over the ledge. Placing foot and hand on well placed boulders he scrambled down the tight gully. He didn’t have far to go, not being much deeper than shadows cast from the top.

Arturo’s skull was split open, half his face a pulpy grue leaking over the rock. The bandit was not screaming, death must have been instantaneous. He looked away from the hopeless body and saw further remains.

There were skeletons in the ravine. Bones littered the dusty floor, flesh rotted or picked clean by wind and animal. He could not tell how many there were, but could clearly see one still held the tatters of a blue-striped poncho with a dusty poacher bag slung across. 

It was Julian.

THEY GREW INSIDE TO GIVE STRENGTH, COMFORT AND FIGHT FOR ANOTHER DAY

The totem of condor, puma and snake entwined atop each other was only 20 centimetres tall, cast in black resin and available on every market stall across the land, but this one was special. Elena handed it to him and clasped her hands over his when he took it. She was a small, wiry woman, dressed in black, whose pride made her walk taller than mere height. 

“Thank you,” she said, words rehearsed to learn an alien tongue. “Thank you for bringing my son back to me.”

Hector confessed all. The terror propelling him back to town also poured out his guilt. The two brothers-in-crime had lured a group of tourists along the trail, robbing them for passport, money and trinkets and left them for dead. 

Julian had tried to stop them, lone bravery rewarded only with a rock to the head and a shove down a ravine. However, they kept seeing the boy after; he was forever thwarting each attempt to similarly embezzle other passing wanderers in search of beautiful scenery masquerading as adventure. 

“He wouldn’t leave us be,” Hector said, plaintive wailing finding little sympathy. “We were cursed to continue fighting until the end.” With confession, he was now free from the prison of that curse, to find solace in a gaol cell for the rest of his days.

Waiting for the ride to the next village, the hiker stared at the black totem and felt warmth in the hard contours. When the dusty coach arrived, he placed it into his backpack and climbed onboard. The treasure may not have been golden and didn’t come with a story he could repeat, lest he desired ridicule, rolling eye emojis and his own padded cell, but it didn’t matter – he found something better; stories weren’t meant to be boastful, they grew inside to give strength, comfort and fight for another day. 

With the ache of rickety parts, the bus coughed away from the village. He knew he would carry the totem on future travels – a friend whose eyes desired fresh sights. Eventually, the mountain disappeared behind them, but as he closed his eyes for a long road ahead, the wind carried a whisper of gratitude that brought a smile to sleep.

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