Something about the old man seemed unpredictable—motives hidden behind the vacuous glimmer in his eyes, the way he stroked his long gray beard, his thunderous laugh—and he had told the same story for years. His only son, Lukas, when he was a senior in high school had survived a car accident that killed three people. The other driver was drunk, and he and his wife died instantly. Her nephew died two days later. But young Luke walked away with cuts and a few fractured ribs.
The old man always said, “My boy was born just plain lucky.”
Many years later after his father died of lymphoma, Luke thought it prudent to get a thorough medical examination, and everything seemed fine until the doctor telephoned to discuss the lab reports. He didn’t go into specifics but advised Luke to make an appointment as soon as possible. The doctor wanted to run more tests, do more blood work. Luke didn’t think much about it at the time.
Seven days later, the doctor closed the office door. His gaze floated about the room and he scratched his cheek, and then he donned a professional expression—a seasoned look that was at once concerned yet self-contained—and after a brief preamble, he informed Luke that an aggressive and life-threatening cancer had invaded his body.
“I would, of course, hope for the best, Luke,” the doctor said. “We have several treatment options. However, I would also prepare for the worst. If you see my point. . . .”
A second specialist confirmed the diagnosis. Later that same week Luke saw a priest and made confession for the first time in twenty-five years.
Shortly after that, he quit his job and told close friends and family he planned to get the most out of life before crossing over to the other side. He started smoking cigars again and drinking wine. Why the hell not?
Donna and Luke had grown close during the first several months of their relationship, so when he asked if she’d like to go to Baja California, it seemed a positive step in what she hoped would be a long-term relationship. Sure, it reeked of denial, but she kept thoughts about his condition at bay and believed he would somehow beat the odds. She prayed for a miracle every Sunday at church, trusting God would intervene.
Mexico, to Donna, was a country that seemed both intimidating and alluring. She’d heard unsettling stories, but when Luke mentioned that they were going in search of lost Spanish treasure, the trip seemed suddenly audacious. Donna had secretly yearned for adventure much of her life, yet the gumption to pursue this yearning always eluded her.
They drove most of the day and spent the night in a motel in San Diego. Early the next morning they crossed the border into Tijuana and took the toll road south toward Rosarito. The first rays of sunlight lit the peaks of the steep ridge east of the highway, creating auras of amber and rose above the shadowy faces of the cliffs. As the sun rose higher, light caught the misty edge of the sea.
Farther south, little shanties and ramshackle houses dotted the rolling hills, and wherever the land was yielding and rich, row upon row of lush green corn pushed skyward. In backyards and fenced fields, amongst assorted junk, rusted cars and broken appliances, they saw chickens and makeshift corrals. In one yard, young goats amused themselves climbing atop an old refrigerator lying sideways on the ground.
Just after seven-thirty, Donna and Luke stopped for breakfast at a restaurant above the ocean near the village of La Misíon. The center of town was a kilometer inland overlooking the delta and muddy tidal flats of the La Misíon Valley. Donna asked Luke how he’d heard about the lost treasure. Did he really believe it existed? “Isn’t it just somebody’s crazy dream or an old myth?” she asked.
He patiently explained that his grandfather had been an amateur treasure hunter, and among a collection of old documents and papers, Luke’s father had found a weathered old treasure map. No one took it seriously until Luke’s tragic news; then, as he put it, the map took on an odd significance. It offered the hope of something extraordinary.
Luke believed there was a good chance the map was genuine. He had read at least a half-dozen books at the library, conducted extensive research on the Internet and discovered historical evidence confirming the treasure. Monks at the Mission San Marcelo had guarded the gold in the late 1700s, in a territory that would later be part of Arizona. After an Apache raid, the monks spirited the treasure two hundred miles to the town of La Misíon, where they hid the ingots in the Mission San Tomás. The gold stayed there until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War. Then it disappeared—or so the legend claimed.
Luke walked outside to the Land Rover and returned with a brown briefcase. Donna watched as he removed the fragile document from between sheets of plastic. As he lifted the top sheet, she felt an odd fluttering in her chest. The map had an unusual scent, like dried mildew and old leather. She wondered how it kept the odors so long, as if it should have somehow shed all traces of its past.
The sea breeze kicked up and brought the scent of ocean into the restaurant, blowing through the open French-style doors. Beyond the rolling swells and white breakers, dolphins were swimming south. Donna watched them. The waiter filled their coffee cups. Luke handed him money.
“Where do we go from here?” Donna wanted to know.
Luke looked at her for a moment but said nothing and then ran the tips of his fingers along his lower lip. A large bluebottle fly landed on the old map. He swiped at it. The insect flew at Donna’s face and then into the windowpane, buzzing up and down as if believing it could somehow escape the invisible barrier.
Luke said, “We drive about six miles into the valley to where the river forks. According to the highway map, the road dead-ends there and so we’ll have to walk a mile or two until we find a landmark.” His eyes were bright with anticipation.
“What sort of landmark?”
“An old oak tree with a large trunk, probably six or seven feet in diameter, maybe more.”
“But that was almost a hundred and fifty years ago,” she insisted.
“Oak trees can live for three or four hundred years. There’s a chance it’s still there, or if it’s dead we should be able to find the remains of the stump.”
“That seems awfully unlikely, Luke.”
“Not necessarily,” he cautioned. “I was in the California gold country a few years ago on a fishing trip, and I saw a historical marker, a bronze plaque commemorating an old oak tree outside a little town called Groveland. All that remained was a half-rotten stump, which was close to ten feet tall and five feet wide. But it had been alive during the gold rush, and legend has it the local people used it as a hanging tree.”
She sipped her coffee and glanced out the window. The sun was bright and made the breakers seem silvery and pure as they rolled in over the blue waters. Another pod of dolphins headed south and darted across the face of a large ocean swell. Donna was happy. Seeing the dolphins helped her believe that everything was right and good in the world, and life was vibrant and flowing all around her.
“Have faith,” Luke said. “The old oak tree will be there. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out the symbols on the treasure map and doing a little basic surveying. I know we’ll find it . . . I have a good feeling.”
Luke and Donna spent an hour shopping for supplies before visiting the site of the Mission San Tomás. There wasn’t much left, nothing more than old straw-mixed adobe bricks, a wall with an empty wooden doorframe, and another wall eroded and crumbling. Donna said it was sacrilegious to let the historical landmark deteriorate.
“This was the last place they kept the treasure before the padre and the monks buried it in the cave,” Luke said in a low, reverent voice.
Across the road swarms of flies had gathered on the carcass of a dead dog. The breeze carried the scent of bloated remains. When a car passed, the flies flew wildly and for a moment it seemed that a dark cloud hovered over the dead animal.
Donna grimaced and complained, “Don’t these people ever remove dead animals?”
Luke watched the flies but didn’t say anything.
Later, after bumping their way along the dusty road that followed the riverbank, they reached the fork in the river. Luke maneuvered the Rover up a rutted side road and parked. They made their way through a large stand of oak trees to an open field of buckwheat and sage, and from there they walked to the mouth of a ravine.
Looking up the narrow ravine, Luke wondered what his chances really were. How long would he last? He felt a gnawing emptiness inside, an emptiness that following the onset of his illness, had replaced the vibrant warmth he had always felt toward himself and life.
He glanced over his shoulder. Donna was swiping at flies and gnats with one hand and steadying herself as she climbed a steep incline with the other. Luke stared at a rocky outcropping jutting from the side of the ravine and tried to recall whether he had seen the same formation on the old map.
Suddenly, in a misstep, Donna dislodged a slab of exfoliated granite and uncovered a nest of three diamondbacks. The buzzing of rattlers filled the humid air. An instant later one of the snakes struck and its fangs stabbed into Donna’s bare leg just above her sock. She let out a terrible scream, her eyes wide, her expression etched in terror. She stumbled backward and slipped. Her fingers clutched at the dry earth and another snake struck at her. The fangs hooked her skin and the rattler dangled from her arm.
“Luke!” she shrieked. “Luke! Oh my God help me please!” She jerked the snake loose and flung it spinning like a piece of black rope into the ravine.
Luke watched; his eyes fixed on Donna. But he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak. Sweat dripped from his forehead and he felt the hot sunlight on his face. Dust hovered in the air. The air was still and muggy, and time seemed to pass in slow motion, unforgiving, relentless. His mind drifted to a place where cool breezes stirred amongst green trees. Where a sandy beach stretched out like white carpet to an aqua-blue sea beneath pearlescent clouds—in a land of rainbows and miracles, where everything is good and right.
Where nightmares fade away like mist in the morning sunlight.
It was late afternoon when Luke’s Rover roared into the dusty town of La Misíon. Donna’s leg and forearm had swollen twice their normal size, stained purplish-blue like a massive bruise, and underneath the skin, black tendrils radiated from bloody bite marks. Her breath came in shallow gasps. She went in and out of consciousness and the smell of vomit permeated her clothing, and her tongue was beet red and swollen in her mouth.
Luke ran from the Rover to the small medical-aid building where a young nurse tried to understand his garbled Spanish. He pounded his fist on the countertop. “She’s been bitten by rattlesnakes! Can you get a doctor?”
The young woman seemed confused.
“El doctor—hay un doctor?” he said.
His flushed face and wild eyes frightened the nurse. He pointed toward the Rover and grabbed her wrist and dragged her outside. Seeing Donna, the nurse’s cheeks blanched, and she cried, “Dios mio!” Now she understood. “El doctor no está aqui, señor. El está en La Salina,” she said, helplessly.
Luke knew he had to make a run for the border. He couldn’t waste time looking for help that might not be found; and even if it were, the local doctor might not have enough medical expertise or the anti-venom to save Donna’s life. Her pupils had dilated, glassy and unfocused; her breath labored, tainted by a strange odor. Acidic and yet sickly sweet. Luke started the engine and headed to the northbound toll road, the rear tires screeching on the pavement. He spotted a police car parked beside the onramp. Maybe the officer could help, maybe he’d act as an escort and roar up the highway with his lights flashing. Maybe he would take Donna in his car and get her to a Mexican hospital.
But what if he doesn’t speak English? “No, no,” Luke mumbled, “can’t risk it, can’t waste time. Mexican cops are all crooks anyway. He’ll probably want money.”
Luke would have to handle this himself and take Donna back to California to a good hospital. There weren’t any bargains to make—no way to undo what was already done.
It was a month after Donna’s funeral when the doctor informed Luke that his latest X-rays showed complete remission of the illness. None of the experts had an explanation. Some remained skeptical until an additional battery of tests confirmed the astounding turnaround. The lead pathologist set the X-rays down and shook his head.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like this,” he said. “I guess you could say it’s a miracle. If you believe in that sort of thing.”
“I do now,” Luke said, smiling. He drove for home, but he was in no great hurry and took a leisurely drive along the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean. The winding highway made its way through the warm weather, golden sunlight reflecting from the rippled sea, pleasant breezes blowing from the west. He glanced in the rearview mirror and wondered if the color of his eyes had changed—or was that even possible?—for they seemed a lighter shade of green.
At home that evening he took the old treasure map from the desk drawer. He uncorked a bottle of vintage wine and poured himself a generous glass.
He lit a fine cigar and blew a thick smoke ring that rolled from his lips and then grew larger until it dissipated in the dim light. He turned off the lamp and lit white candles, raising his wine glass as if offering a toast to something mysterious and breathtaking in the shadows beyond the glow of candlelight.
He looked one last time at the map and held it to a flame. The old parchment flared and burned quickly into ashes. Luke’s face shone in the flickery light and a contented smile made its way to his lips. Or perhaps it was a look of smug delight underscored by a predatory grin. Like a gambler showing his winning hand and then snatching a pile of chips from the center of the table to add to his winnings; while across the table, on the far side, the anguished look of the other gambler, the one holding the losing hand.
“Luke was born lucky. Just plain lucky by God.” That is what his father had always said.
“Who needs a lost treasure?” Luke blew another smoke ring, and his eyes glimmered like cold starlight from the dark reaches of space. And the candlelight made shadows dance and move across the walls.
G.D. McFetridge writes from his wilderness home in Montana’s majestic Sapphire Mountains. His essays and fiction are published in academic reviews and journals, as well as commercial magazines, across the US, in Canada, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, India and China. This is his first publication with The Fictional Café.