Almost a decade into this writing experiment, I might be ending it. I am going to post some of my WIP stories for you.
Over the years, many other parties disappeared in the same mysterious manner as the first Indian women and children. The portion of the forest surrounding the cave became known as haunted by the tribes that lived in and around the valley and left to the wildlife. The hole in the ceiling of the cavern periodically emitted a smoke column and the local inhabitants of the area came to know the region as the Devil’s Kitchen. For over a thousand years, the little valley kept its secret. The Mayans would emerge from time to time, seeking out food or wood or captives, always careful to not be seen or heard. They became ghosts in the forests; gliding along on padded feet, taking what they desired and leaving nothing behind to identify their presence. They existed in a world no one knew about.
Sometime in the early to mid-1800’s white people began to filter into the area. Trade began with the Indians trading food and furs for trinkets and blankets. One white trader noticed a chief of the Seneca wearing a strange medallion seemingly made out of gold. Using a few mutual words and signs he indicated he desired the medallion. The old chief flatly refused and set out to tell a story of a mighty battle many, many years before where an intruding army of strangely clad warriors had been dispatched by his tribe after many days and miles of furious battle. The old man told of the running battle, of the enemy being dispatched and this being one of the spoils of that war. The trader continued upping the offer until the old chief could not refuse. Clutching his trophy, the trader made to leave the village.
However, once the trader left the chief had second thoughts and sent a handful of warriors to return the gifts and regain the medallion. The trader refused and made a fuss over the gifts, even offering more. The warriors took exception to the offer and killed the trader, leaving him lying in the forest and taking the medallion and all of the trade goods back to the tribe. The medallion passed into oblivion, kept hidden by the tribe and only brought out for special occasions. Over time, it too disappeared from both view and knowledge, lost as the tales of the strange tribe became myths and legends, stories told by the old to entertain the young.
In the 1890’s a new type of person arrived on the scene. A rough, tough type of man known as a miner. These men had traveled around the country looking for the next big strike. In ’49, it had been the gold strike in California; in the ‘50’s it had been the Comstock find. Miners everywhere knew another strike was overdue, but where would it take place? A rumor arrived in the States of a possible find way up north, in a place called Alaska. But that was a long, long way for some to travel. Florida was another possibility, but people had searched for years and years for that and had found nothing. The fabled city of Cibola was another place many had searched for but never found. It was said to be in Arizona, or New Mexico, or someplace like that. For a thousand years, there had been the legends, and for five hundred years beginning with Coronado people had searched and died and left their bones across the harsh landscape.
Sven Gunter was a Swede who had crossed the country twice in search of gold. Once as a teenager seeking fame and fortune in ’49; then he had headed back East in ’57 to try his luck in the Colorado fields. He had found some color, enough to let him know what gold looked like and how to find it, but the big strike remained out of his reach. For the past forty years, he had wandered the country, looking, searching for the next great strike.
One day, he had wandered into a portion of the country near what was becoming known as Arkansas which was just beginning to reap a zinc find. Little towns had sprung up in several valleys in the area. He had walked from southern Missouri where a major lead and zinc find had recently occurred, and he had struggled to find some color in that area. He had found nothing to speak of and the ruffians of the towns had been more than he wanted to deal with at his age, so he had left for greener pastures. As he wandered about the hills and creek bottoms of Arkansas, he kept his eyes on the creeks, looking for something he had yet to find.
He had heard rumors about a valley known as the Devil’s Kitchen. Some casual investigation led him to the knowledge that this was known as a haunted valley; one that people did not return from. Smoke was sometimes seen to be issuing from a hole in the ground and the locals had steered clear of the area for years. Legend had it that for hundreds of years the local Indians had done their best to not walk alone in the valley, as their women and children would periodically disappear without a trace. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that this would be the place where gold could be found. There had to be a reason people stayed away from it, and it wasn’t because of ghosts. He had never believed in ghosts, and he was too damn old to start now. So he carefully asked around about how to find the area and took off in search of his dream.
He wandered the hills of the area for some time, searching and searching for any nuggets of gold. Nothing. He searched the bottoms; he searched the hilltops to no avail. One sunny afternoon, he had stopped to pan in one of the myriad of creeks in the area when he spied a wisp of smoke rising against the blue sky. Quickly grabbing his meager belongings, he started out in the general direction of the smoke. Two ridges later, he was looking down over a valley which had several creeks flowing into it from some side branches. Directly across from him was the smoke. Making his decision, he set to work panning each of the creeks in turn.
One day, along a nameless creek flowing through the beautiful mountains there, he found it: a single nugget about an ounce in weight. Stepping in to the creek, he kneeled in the cold clear water and scooped it up in the palm of his hand. He held it there, staring at it in disbelief. His hand shaking, he brought it to his mouth and gingerly bit down on it. The nugget gave a bit, enough to let him know it was the real thing. He gave a loud whoop, then immediately silenced himself; he didn’t want anybody hearing him, for that might lead to a claim jumper before he even had a chance to file his claim.
Sven searched the creek downstream to where it joined with the Buffalo River, looking for more nuggets brought downstream by the creek’s flow. He found a bit here and there, but nothing much. Turning around, he moved back upstream, stopping to pan in likely looking places, searching the pockets of still water for yet another nugget. He found a few, and the farther upstream he went, the more he found. After about a week, he figured he had perhaps $500.00 in gold in his knapsack, but he still had not found the vein of gold itself. He began to look to the area where he had found the majority of the nuggets. Turning around and around, he allowed his eyes to scan the hillsides surrounding him for something; anything that might be the clue he needed. Eventually, his eyes fell on a tiny rivulet tumbling down the side of the mountain. Struggling to maintain his footing, he began to climb up.
He paused at the first small pocket of water he came to. Driving his pan into the small rocks and pebbles in the bottom of it, he brought it back to the surface and began to swirl it around and around, occasionally allowing some of the water to escape, then filling it back up with clear water until he was looking at what remained. Gold! Several nuggets ranging in size from pea sized up to nearly as large as a silver dollar! He placed these into his small bag, and scooped up another pan full of rocks and continued swirling and panning. He found several more nuggets to keep in his ever growing bag of gold.
Standing upright once more, he looked farther up the slope towards the next small pocket of water. When he reached this one, he did not have to scoop up rocks and pan: he could see the color of gold glinting and shining beneath the surface of the water. Driving his hand into the cold water, he pulled it back out and opened it to reveal more gold. He knew he was on the trail of a major find. Moving upwards once more to see if he could find what he was looking for. He found it.
A small cave, not more than a cubbyhole really lay just above him. A small spring sprang from within its dark depths, creating a small oasis in the side of the mountain with ferns and moss all around it. The pool was not more than four feet in diameter and a couple of feet deep. The near side created the small set of falls that dropped from one level to the next until it landed in the pool he stood in. Clambering up to stand next to the pool, he stood in amazement at what he saw. Gold lay everywhere in the pool and inside the mouth of the small cave. Every nook and cranny held the shine and sparkle of gold. He let go a loud whoop and started to dance a jig there on the side of the mountain. He was rich! He had done it where nobody else had taken the chance to succeed. His creaking joints squeaked and his voice cracked as he danced and sang his victory song. In his excitement, he never saw the Mayan hunter creeping closer to him through the underbrush; he never heard the small arrow flying through the air to strike him in the center of his chest. But he did feel the point as it drove through his heart. Within seconds, his heart had shredded itself on the arrow point, and had ceased to function. He slumped to the ground with a wheeze of a last breath. The hunter eased up to the dead man and watched as the life left his eyes. To Sven, the warrior standing above him as his eyes failed seemed to be something out of a nightmare. He struggled to draw one last breath as the man watched him die. The darkness overtook him, and he closed his eyes for the final time.
The Mayan knelt beside the body of the dead man and went through the pockets and bags. When he found the gold, he stood and looked at it for a moment. He instinctively knew that this was what the man was seeking. If one came, more might follow. It had been some time since a white man had stumbled into the valley, but they usually came one after another when they came. With a heavy sigh, the warrior tossed the gold back into the water and hefted the body up onto his shoulder. He set out to the mouth of the home cave, to deliver the unwelcome news: men were returning to the valley. He must let the Priest know that gold was what the white men were searching for. Gold was precious to the Mayans as well; but not to the extent the white’s desired it. This could be trouble for the remnant of his tribe.
In the spring of 1904, Vernon Barton made his way into the hidden valley. He had heard the tales of lost men in the area, but his faith was strong in his God. He believed that Satan strode the earth daily, searching for lost souls to pull down to purgatory for all eternity, but he did not believe in the tales of a Devil’s Kitchen. He had traveled somewhat, was a learned man and had read of the steaming springs in the western portion of the country. He felt sure this was what the tales here were rooted in: a hidden geyser of some sort that gave truth to the tales of steam and smoke deep in the Arkansas hills.
He was on the search for any mineral he could make his fortune on. He had worked the pits of hell on earth in Missouri and Oklahoma for lead and jack, also known as zinc. He had read and studied the stories of gold fever in California and Alaska territory, and felt confident he could find another such strike as these in the old mountains of Arkansas. Traveling alone, as he was wont to do, he hiked the hilltops and valleys, through the forests and along the streams, ever searching for his fortune.
One day in late April, Vernon entered the little valley. He had worked his way upstream along the Buffalo River from the White River. He had caught a ride on a riverboat traveling downstream and gotten off at Buffalo City. There was a bustling mining town upriver on the Buffalo at the junction of a small creek known locally as Clabber Creek. The town of Rush, Arkansas was a growing town approaching a thousand people now. The mines in the surrounding valleys were producing some modest amounts of lead, with enough jack thrown in to forge some profits for those who owned the land. Vernon proposed to move farther up Clabber Creek, searching for something, anything he could make money on.
He bought some supplies in Rush before setting out. Walking downriver for about an hour, he came to the small creek. Turning up it, he walked another hour or so before he stopped to rest. Setting down his pack, he sat down and took his boots off. He stood up and eased his way into the cold clear water of the creek, sighing with relief at the ice cold water bathing his tired feet. After a bit, he sat down on a rock in the middle of the creek, and looked around. The woods surrounding him were quiet, but he put that off on the mining town and the fact that surely someone had hunted nearby recently. Glancing down at his feet, he saw a glimmer of yellow beneath the gravel of the creek bottom. Leaning over, he plunged his hand into the cold water and grabbed a handful of rocks and gravel. When he pulled his hand out, water streaming between his clenched fingers before he opened them to the sun streaming through the trees with their newly formed leaves, he caught his breath. There in his hand lay a nugget of gold the size of a cat’s eye marble. Picking it up, he let the rest of the gravel fall into the stream. His eyes could not believe what they were seeing. Gold! Beautiful and seemingly pure gold!
Vernon knew that gold in a river or creek was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. This was just what had spilled over from some deposit and had fallen into the stream, being tumbled along for who knows how far. To file a claim here would lead to nothing; one must find the source of the gold if one wanted to be rich. So he splashed his way to the bank and put his boots back on. Hefting his pack into place, he slowly made his way upstream, eyes searching the surrounding banks for clues as to where the horde of gold was to be found.
After another hour or so, he saw a small rivulet feeding the larger creek. In the pool above the merger, he saw another small nugget of gold hiding. Reaching into his pack, he drew out the pan and plunged it into the gravel. After swirling it around for a few moments, he was rewarded with more small pieces and some flakes of gold. He instinctively knew that up this tiny waterway lay his fame and fortune. Splashing through the water, he made his way up the spring to a pool filled with more riches than a man could spend in ten lifetimes. Caution forced him to stay silent, lest some hunter or other prospector were within hearing. He knelt down and filled his pack with the beautiful, heavy nuggets. The smile never left his face as he hefted the bag onto his shoulder and struggled to stand erect. Once upright, he allowed his eyes to search the surrounding area for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. He was alone.
Vernon looked up at the sun and realized it was getting late, too late to make his way back to Rush today. He made his way up the hill, trying to find a level setting to spend the night. After a few minutes, he came upon a small level location. With a grunt of surprise, he saw a small cave opening at the far side of the area. Easing his way into it, he allowed his eyes to become acclimated to the darkness before walking into it.
He found a decent location he could spend the night there. Fairly level and clear of rocks, he felt comfortable with this as not only a spot to spend the night, but a location he could create a basecamp in for future time spent here working his claim. Shrugging off the pack, he breathed a sigh of relief at the weight off his shoulders. Even the few minutes he had the pack on his shoulders had shown him the wealth of the gold he had found. Pure gold weighed much more than gold found in rocks; pure gold was dense and heavy. The amount he had inside his pack was small in size, but it was pure as the driven snow. Taking his knife and a small piece of flint, he quickly and efficiently made a small fire near one wall of the cave in order to make a pot of coffee. Once settled in, he sipped the coffee from an old battered tin cup and relaxed. Leaning there against the wall, he slipped into a peaceful slumber filled with dreams of walking with the giants of industry, of spending time with those whose wealth equaled his. A smile played upon his gruff, bearded face as he slept.
Sometime in the night, he awoke with a start. He heard, or thought he heard something in the dark. The fire had burned low, only embers remaining. Little to no light was given off by the dying coals and he could not see beyond his hands. Struggling to erase the sleep from his eyes and brain, he strained to see what his ears had heard. Nothing was evident, and after a few anxious moments, he settled back against the wall. Closing his eyes once more, he prepared to drift off to sleep again.
Strong hands grabbed his hair and pulled upwards, exposing his now wide open eyes to a nightmare. Hideously painted faces looked down at him from above. They seemed to erupt from the wall itself, backlit by a glow of a torch. More hands grabbed his head and shoulders and pulled upwards, towards them in the wall. He kicked and flung his arms about as screams tried to find their way around the fingers clamped on his mouth and jaws. He felt the rock dig into his back as they pulled him erect then bent him backwards over the rock wall. Gashes in his back streamed blood, leaving their mark on the wall of the cave. The hands continued to pull at him, forcing him to be bent backwards as he left the cave and into another chamber. Once there, he swung his head left and right, each direction being met with another nightmare in the flesh. Hands and bodies jumped on him screaming unintelligible words as they beat him with their fists. As he lost consciousness, his last thought was that he was dead and in Hell.
Sometime later, he awoke. Struggling to open his swollen eyes, he painfully turned his head to take stock of where he was. As he looked the nightmare from last night began to form in his bleary mind until he started, completely awake now. He had been in his camp in the small cave when they came and took him to wherever he was now. Strangely painted faces shouting words and phrases he could not understand as they beat him and drug him down a passage in the cave. He was now bound upright against a rock inside a massive cavern. Firelight lit up a portion of it, and what he could see was enough to let him know the room was massive. He was unable to make out another wall in any direction, and every direction led his eyes to more and more of the strange people who had captured him. One at a nearby fire noticed he was awake and shouted something to another somewhere further in the cave. As he looked, he saw another of the people stand up and look at him across the distance. Vernon shuddered as the man made his way towards him.
His fear did not leave once the man stood in front of him. Shorter than him by a few inches, the strangely attired man was nonetheless powerfully built with wide shoulders and muscular arms. His face was painted or tattooed in a hideous manner which made the scowling countenance even more terrifying. Feathers adorned his hair which was long, but not as long as other Indians he had seen while out West. The man wore a short skirt-like garment of a material he did not recognize. With a start, Vernon reacted to the man barking something at him as he shook his clenched fist at Vernon demanding an answer to what he assumed was a question. Vernon could only shake his head in what he hoped was a universally understood gesture of “I don’t know”. Obviously frustrated, the scowling man stalked off, moving back to where he had been before.
For what he thought were several days, Vernon remained a captive. He was fed once a day, watered twice. The food was bland but filling, while the water was cool and clear. No one else attempted to converse with him and his repeated attempts were ignored completely. Finally he grew quiet and grew more desperate at his situation.
After perhaps a week or so, the man came back to see him. He flicked his hand at him, indicating the warriors with him were to pick Vernon up and carry him. Lifting him easily, they walked across the cavern and into a small passageway, finally entering another smaller room. Vernon struggled to make out what was in the center of the room over his shoulder. Some kind of a raised platform or rock or something stood dead in the middle. The room seemed filled with others dressed like the man and the warriors, and as Vernon looked around, he realized where he was. This was a sacrificial room; that was a sacrificial stone; and he was the sacrifice. Screaming incoherently and struggling wildly, he did everything he could to break free. If he were to break free, he had no chance for an escape but his mind ignored that. All he could think of was getting free. But he could not break free of the bonds that held him.
As easily as lifting a child, the warriors placed him on the raised stone and bound him to the sides. The first man who Vernon now realized was a priest of some sort stood beside him, arms raised as he chanted to some unseen deity. After a few seconds, the priest turned his attention to Vernon, pulled a large golden knife from a golden scabbard at his waist, raised it high with both hands, and brought it swiftly and surely down to his chest. Vernon felt a tearing in his chest as the knife sawed back and forth, ripping him wide open. The priest thrust his hand into Vernon’s open chest, grasped his heart while slashing at the arteries and veins attached to it and yanked it free to hold aloft for the others to see. Miraculously, Vernon held onto both his sanity and his consciousness long enough to witness the priest holding his heart above him before the darkness thankfully overtook him.
Walking along the banks of the Buffalo River in Arkansas, Billy Hensley kept his eyes glued on the gravel and rocks of the river bed. Periodically, he would find arrowheads, or other artifacts from some bygone era of his country. Something caught his eye and he paused, looking closely at a stone on the ground. He cocked his head, trying to drag something from his memory, something he had read or seen sometime before. Kneeling down he picked up the small stone and turned it over in his hand. It was about four inches by two inches, and was no more than a half an inch thick. But what was pulling at his memory was what he saw on one side. For all the world it looked like a face in profile. A large round eye, a squashed nose, and thick lips completed the carving. It appeared to be carved out of limestone. But he still couldn’t drag the memory forward to tell him what this was. That it was manmade he was certain, but made by who and when?
Billy stood up and looked around. There was nothing to indicate where this carving came from. He placed it gently into his backpack, swaddling it with some cloth to protect it. He shouldered the pack and continued walking up the riverbed. After a few minutes, he noticed a small rivulet coming in from the side. He made his way over to where the small waterfall dropped into the river where he looked closely and saw what he was looking for. An arrowhead. Digging into the soft earth, he uncovered and removed a perfect arrowhead, about four inches in length. Brushing it clear of the dirt that remained, he admired the workmanship someone had taken the time and effort to create. He added this find to his backpack, and looked closely at where the small creek entered the river. He saw more pieces and chips of arrowheads and scrapers, and set to work digging in the dirt. After about an hour’s worth of work Billy had a small treasure chest of primitive artifacts. He stood up and wiped his sweaty forehead before he walked a little farther from the river. In a few minutes, he arrived at a beautiful clearing, completely secluded by trees. Kicking and poking in the dirt, he quickly uncovered what must have once been a small village.
“Man, this is something! I wonder how old this site will end up being?” he murmured to himself as he imagined who had lived here and how long ago. While Billy considered himself to be an amateur archeologist, he knew a site like this one needed someone far more capable then he was. And he knew just who to call. Flipping open his cellphone he was somewhat surprised to see he had coverage. He searched through his contacts and found his college professor. He punched the number and called. Three rings later and he was speaking with Professor Stanley Wilkins.
“Hey Professor, this is Billy Hensley, remember me?”
“Billy Hensley, Billy. Hmmm oh Billy! From my Intro to Archeology last semester! The young man with all the questions, correct?”
Sheepishly, Billy admitted that yes, he was the one with all of the questions. “Yes, that’s me, Professor. I don’t mean to bother, with it being summer and all, but are you anywhere in the area right now? I found something and I would really like for you to take a look at it.”
At the other end of the connection, the Professor smiled. Billy was one of those students a university professor loved to get, one who was enthusiastic, who asked questions, who got the rest of the class involved. Then after the class was over he stayed in contact, , who asked questions, who got the rest of the class involved. Then after the class was overved to get, ohe called to talk about what he had learned and sometimes, what he had found. Occasionally, these student finds turned out to be something.
“Well Billy, I was planning on leaving Monday for a dig near Spring River in southwest Missouri. I have received permission to excavate a village on Conservation land several miles southeast of a little town called Carthage. Evidently it is, or rather was a village of some size, covering roughly five or six acres right next to the river. A former student of mine was turkey hunting this spring in the river bottoms and came across the field just after a local farmer had plowed it. Arrowheads were everywhere along with chips and flakes galore. He even found some grinding stones and a couple of fair sized spear points and believe it or not one beautiful Delaware war club! It’s really a very exciting find. But I guess I could take a look at what you found. What is it, anyway?
Billy was excited, yet hesitant to tell the professor. Finally, he just said it. “Professor, I think I found evidence that Mayans were here in northern Arkansas.”
Silence reigned over the phone. One, then almost two minutes went by before Billy broke it with “Doc? Are you there?”
Finally, Professor Wilkins responded. “Mayans? Billy, there are legends of Mayans coming to our area but no one has ever found any proof that they actually did.” With a quiver of hope in his voice he asked “Billy, what have you found?”
Now that it was out in the open he felt better but was still fearful of his Professor’s rejection of his find. “Doc, I was walking along the Buffalo River and found some stuff. It looks for all the world like a carving or something like that. I also found some arrowheads and other relics in the bank of the river. Doc, do you think it could actually be something from the Mayans?”
Professor Wilkins hedged by saying “Bill, I don’t know without seeing the carving. Tell you what: tell me where I can rustle up a room and I’ll meet you in the morning to talk about it.”
Billy gave him the phone number of a small motel in Yellville and hung up. “Tomorrow, we’ll know.” He said to himself. Inside he was battling with himself; was it or wasn’t it?
Back in his office at ATU in Russellville, Professor Wilkins was sitting in his chair, fingers tented and mind racing. Could it be? Was it possible that Billy had found evidence of a lost Mayan expedition in their state? Making a decision, he stood and moved across the room to a bookcase. As his fingers flitted across the books his eyes took in the titles until he hit upon the one he was searching for. “Ghost Stories and Other Tall Tales of the Ozarks” was the title. He had found this book many years ago in the university library and after reading it had purchased a copy for himself. His entire reason for this was a single chapter no more than ten pages long in which slim evidence had been given to show the possibility of Mayans making their way into North central Arkansas. For several years he had held onto a hope that someday he would make a discovery of mammoth proportions which would redefine history as we know it regarding the Mayan people.