"Placido Benavides - not the Paul Revere of Mexico, but his lesser known nephew - founded Benavides, Texas in the 1870's. This ranch is part of the scattered bits and pieces left behind." His name was Daniel, and as he spoke, corrected his step to avoid stepping on a seashell. “I thought I told you this already?”
Arty – taller, thinner, and blonde – finished his last bite from a breakfast burrito, wadded the foil and stashed it in his pocket. “You brought me in right before the team split and we stopped coming, so I never heard the story.”
“Well, he had an affair with a woman and took good care of her - provided the home, gave her money and jewels which she never wore nor spent, all that. The story differs and fades from there; some say the affair led to a kid who died of fever, while others say her and her kid lived to old age. But one thing they all have in common: she never spent anything and she didn't trust banks. Shell has been drilling for oil here since 1946 and nobody's said anything about finding any buried treasure."
They arrived at a concrete slab that always served as a congregation area for these exhibitions – their truck already parked there along with a large tent. Daniel put his hands in his pockets and paced. “So, Arty, you mentioned this person had something we hadn’t tried yet. Who is he and what is it?”
“Funny you should say that, buddy,” Arty backhanded Daniel on the shoulder and nodded to the distance at a silver car that approached. He waved his finger in its direction, “Here she comes right now.”
The car came to a halt, the door opened, and out stepped a petit, five-foot-four, fiery red-headed woman in jeans, a tank-top, and sunglasses. Daniel didn’t look at Arty but he surely wasn’t speaking to the girl when he gritted, “You sonofabitch.”
When she was in hearing range, the girl lifted her sunglasses and rested them on top of her head, “Hi, Daniel.” She stepped close to Daniel who, at first, avoided looking at her.
“Hi, Bernadette.” He finally looked at her when he spoke her name.
“You never give up, do you?” She said with a smile.
“Not, me, Bernie. It wasn’t me.”
Bernadette’s smile faded, she slapped him across the cheek, and then pushed passed him in the direction of a dry creek.
Arty scratched his head as he stepped in front of Daniel, “Don’t piss-off the help, man.”
Arty stayed behind and set up camp. Bernadette held two parallel rods in front of her. They pointed forward but occasionally swayed back and forth as she stepped along the uneven ground. Daniel walked beside her. While the air was no longer muggy, it was always humid - but the sun was beginning to peek through the clouds and color began to win over the blue and grey of the cloudy morning.
One particular place had always held interest in their search. Bernadette saw the shell on the ground and realized where exactly they were looking, “Still following the trail of seashells?” After walking the perimeter of the camp, they had returned and began following the trail, and had been on it for about a quarter-mile.
Daniel had his hands in his pockets, always glancing between the ground and the creek ahead, but never at Bernadette, “It’s gotta be in the creek.”
Bernadette cracked a smile as she stared at her dousing rods, “So what made you cave-in and let me help,” she glanced at Daniel, “like this I mean?”
Daniel rolled his eyes and turned to look away as if to toy with the subject, but his words were more direct, “Oh, Bernie, I – I still think,” he waved his hands at the rods, “all this – it’s a waste of time. This was Arty’s idea. I didn’t even know you were coming.”
“You unbelievable asshole! I really thought you were over it – or, or, or,” she stammered as she pondered the implication of reopening the old wound, “or at least had been willing to give me a fair shot yourself!”
“Fair shot!” Daniel retorted. He pointed to the distance as though pointing to the past, “Bernie, you gave up on us. Where was your fair shot then?”
“Goddamn you Daniel. You are so oblivious,” Bernadette stopped walking, “This!” She looked around, “all this, this is what mattered to you. I gave up my career so we could be together and you sure as hell were not going to give up on this. And like a good little girlfriend changed myself to be a part of your life and you shut me out because you think my spirituality is an inconvenience! I was always an inconvenience! Every time I talked about faith or, or, or kids, you--”
Daniel had stopped as well and was looking down, “Bernie –“
“Don’t ‘Bernie’ me, Daniel! I only wanted to help, but anyone willing to help had to do it your way! Where’s you’re crew, Daniel?! Where are they now? They’re gone! They saw it, too, and now --”
“-- it’s just you and Arty, and one fine day Arty is gonna to see what I saw and then you’re going to be all alone, Daniel!”
Daniel pointed down and interrupted again, “Bernie.”
Daniel waved his finger at the rods, “What does that mean?”
Bernadette looked down at the rods and her face jolted with amazement. The rods were crossed. Jaw still dangling, she took a slow step back, and then another. On the third, the rods uncrossed. She walked forward again and the rods crossed once more. A great smile spread across her face. She looked up at Daniel, “I think we found it.”
Daniel looked up from the rods into Bernadette’s astonished face, “You’re shitting me.”
Daniel, Arty, and Bernadette dug through the soft, iron-rich, clay dirt. The first few chunks were solid and took some serious force when they started hours before, but once through the solid crust, a moist, red soil made for an easier dig. Daniel and Bernadette stood on opposite ends of the giant hole they’d created. It was twelve-feet across and had now reached five-feet deep. The afternoon sun cared little for the humidity and showed no mercy. All three sweat with a fierceness that launched nearly as many water droplets from their faces as dirt clods from their shovels.
Daniel broke the silence, “Why did I listen to you, Bernie? There’s nothing here.”
Bernadette didn’t stop digging, “Don’t be so negative, Daniel. Sometimes faith is a group activity.”
Daniel dug his shovel in the ground and rested on the hilt. “Faith? Bernie, this thing is almost six-feet deep, I’m beat, and I’m not even convinced--“
“Don’t go there, Daniel, don’t you start.”
Arty dug his shovel into the ground and stared, “Guys?”
Daniel pointed at Bernadette, “I didn’t invite you here, Bernie, I don’t even know why Arty thought this was a good idea in the first place!”
Bernadette argued over him, “I’m here because I never gave up on you!" She grew red and stabbed him with the words, "Kids, Daniel!"
Daniel rolled his eyes, "Oh, here it comes."
"Every time I brought them up you acted so inconvenienced, like you weren’t ready to commit. But I respected your dream, even when you didn't respect mine. When Arty called me, I thought you’d finally--”
Arty looked up, “Guys.”
Bernadette continued, “--come you your goddamn senses and opened yourself to the possibility of a higher power, or a more meaningful relationship, or at least one that existed beyond your ego!”
Daniel also continued over Bernadette, “Why don’t you just give up and run to wherever it was you ran to before, because I’m tired of hearing the same old shit from you? I still don't understand why you were always so damn pushy about kids!”
Arty interceded with a shout, “GUYS!”
Bernadette and Daniel shouted back in unison, “WHAT?!”
Arty moved his shovel back and forth revealing a small piece of wood – about one-by-four inches in width and depth, and about four-inches long. It looked dingy, wet, rotted, and about any other adjective usable for a piece of wood that is barely a piece of wood and not clay grains holding hands. Daniel knelt by the piece and attempted to pick it up, but it crumbled to wet particles. Daniel smiled with a slight chuckle and looked up at Arty, then Bernadette, “I hope I was wrong, Bernie.” He lept up, grabbed the sides of Bernadette’s head and kissed her on the forehead. He turned to Arty and made a circle motion with his finger, “Arty, forget the rest of the hole. Find the sides to this thing. – Bernie, ready to get your hands dirty?”
Bernadette and Daniel dug with their hands in the center searching for more wood; and there was. Bit after bit, wooden chunks came out as soft as the clay around them. Daniel’s hand caught on something. It was yellow – maybe white – and was stained red by the clay around it. It looked like a root, “Bernie, I got something here.” Bernadette crawled to Daniel and together they cleared the dirt around it. “It’s probably just a root or something, but--“
They cleared dirt by the chunks revealing another root, and another. Bernadette scratched and closely eyed the objects. “Daniel, scratch your nail on these. They don’t score or shave. These aren’t roots,” She looked up at him, “They’re bones.”
Daniel barely caught Bernadette’s revelation, but it mattered little. Containers are always good when it comes to treasure and he had found a circular rusty object: a lid – not unlike that of a mason jar. “I have something else here. It’s rusty.” Daniel poked through the rust revealing the inside of a glass jar. He carefully cleared the rest of the rust and reached into it. His hand rattled around something inside – several somethings. When he retrieved them, he found in his hand three gold rings – two bands and a diamond ring – and a piece of paper. He unfolded the piece of paper, but could only make out a few faint red stains that may have been writing.
Arty had his arm deep in a hole just big enough to fit up to his shoulder. He grunted, and removed his arm from the hole. “Whatcha got there?”
Daniel handed the paper to Arty, “Take this to the computer and run it through imaging. See if we can find out what it says. In the meantime, check this out.” He carefully placed the rings in Arty’s other palm.
Arty held the rings to the light, “Christ, Daniel, these are real – and what a rock! – What else is in there?”
Daniel shook his head, “That’s it. – I don’t know.” He stood up, “Bernie, start clearing more of this,” He looked back at the tent, “I’m gonna –“ Daniel saw a truck approaching. It pulled next to their vehicles back at camp. “Arty, come with me. Bernie, stay here and dig, ok, baby?” He used the term baby as a reflex and not as a term of endearment. He winced when he realized his mistake and hoped she wouldn’t make a big deal about it. Not right now at least.
“Baby?” She stood up, “You never – Oh shit.“
Arty glanced at Bernadette and then back at the truck, “What do you mean, 'Shit?’ Who is it?”
Daniel headed to the edge of the pit and Arty followed. Daniel stopped Arty, “Just don’t say a word. You’re there in case things get hairy, ok?”
“Hairy? What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you later.” With that, Daniel climbed out of the pit through some makeshift stairs that were dug out.
As they approached the vehicles, a man stepped out of the truck holding a double-barrel shotgun.
“Shit, Daniel, that’s a big fucking gun.”
“Don’t worry about him. Let me handle this.”
“What am I supposed to do if shit gets,” he made some quotation marks with his fingers in the air, “hairy?”
They were now very close. Daniel rose his hand backward to slow Arty down, “I’m sure you’ll think of something, just shut up.”
The man, Mexican with a thick salt and pepper mustache and a straw cowboy hat, rose the gun to chest level, “Que chingado, puto. Vete.”
A very nervous Arty chuckled and said, “Sorry, man, we don’t speak Spanish I --”
Both the man and Daniel shouted at Arty, “Shut up!”
“Shutting up,” Arty put his hands up at the sight of the shotgun yelling at him.
The gun bounced on the man’s belly as he spoke, “You don’t belong here, Daniel.” He spoke Daniel’s name with a heavy Spanish accent, “Ya te dije que te voy a meter unas balas si regresas.”
“Paulo, my Spanish is rusty, it’s been years, man.”
He raised the shotgun to his shoulder and aimed, “I said I’d shoot you if you came back!”
Arty flinched, “Oh, Jesus!”
Daniel put his hands in front of him in a pushing or guarding position, “Paulo, listen to reason, man! You don’t belong here either. You can’t legally shoot us!”
“All I say is I shot you while you were on my rancho.” His finger began to squeeze the trigger.
A click resonated, but it did not come from Paulo’s shotgun. Standing by Arty was Bernadette and she was holding a snub-nose thirty eight. She had cocked the hammer, “Paulo, that’s a double-barrel shotgun. I’m sure you can take two of us but guaran-fucking-tee it that the last person will put one in you while you reload.”
Paulo didn’t take his eyes off of Daniel. “You brought your ruca.” He lowered his shotgun, “I’m calling the chotas, puto. You better be gone when they get here.” He carefully walked backwards to his truck and tossed the shotgun in. He hopped in and drove off.
Daniel turned back to the dig site and briskly began to walk. “He’s calling the police.” Bernadette and Arty caught up, but Daniel kept his distance until the thirty-eight was safely back in Bernadette’s purse, “When did you start carrying?”
It took Bernadette a second to realize what he was asking about, “Oh, this? Dad insisted when I started college. -- Well, kind of.”
“What do you mean, ‘kind of?’”
She glanced at him as they walked, “He actually really pushed the issue when you and I started dating.”
Daniel stopped dead in his tracks. Bernadette smiled and continued to the dig site.
“What was that, dude?” Arty was working on that small hole again, just next to the crate.
Daniel continued to clear the skeleton with Bernadette, “What?”
“Quit screwin’ around. The guy with the gun. What was that?”
“Arty,” He stopped digging, “Arty, I gotta tell you something.”
Arty stopped digging as well and nodded his head, “Ya think?”
Bernadette didn’t turn from her digging, “Arty, sweety, shut up and listen.”
Daniel stood, “Arty, the property belongs to my family, but the deed’s been missing for generations. That’s why Shell drills here without having to pay anybody. We’re here illegally.”
Arty motioned to the camp, “And him?”
“This property is landlocked by his. There’s no access except by crossing his land. Without the deed, we can’t get easement rights to be here. The only reason it hasn't come up before is because he never had an issue until he found out why we'd been coming.”
Arty put his hands to his face and then threw them down, “FUCK! And now the police are coming and he knows where we’re digging!”
Daniel nodded and said matter-of-factly, “Yeah, so we gotta hurry.”
Bernadette stopped her digging, “Daniel?”
Bernadette stood and starred at what she uncovered.
Daniel looked down, “What?”
Bernadette’s eyes began to tear, “Daniel this is a kid. – This is a child, Danny.” She sniffled.
Daniel reached for her, but she waved him off and walked away. She climbed out of the pit.
Daniel glanced back and forth between her and Arty. He hopped on his heels anxious what to do, and then motioned to Arty, “Arty, keep digging. I’ll be right back.” He ran after Bernadette.
“Bernie!” Daniel shouted. Bernadette stopped but didn’t turn around. The tears turned to a full sob. “Bernie, what’s wrong?”
“Forget it, Danny.”
“Really. What’s wrong?”
She searched her mind for answers but her emotions made it a torrent of random thoughts, “What do you care, Danny? I shouldn’t have come here,” She turned to Daniel, “You found your treasure. It’s just a couple of rings. Danny, leave that poor kid alone!”
“Daniel!” Arty shouted from a distance as he approached.
Bernadette grabbed Daniel’s hand and pleaded, “Danny, please.” Her mouth was wet with sob which made the “-pl-ease” sound so much more sincere.
Arty was out of breath and squeezed his words between gasps, “Daniel… under… the coffin… under… I found… another jar… at least two,” He swallowed and caught his breath, “There’s gotta be a cache of them under there. Look,” he raised his hand from his pocket and in it were glimmering gold bits of jewelry and gems. Not much, but enough to scream at Daniel’s psyche, treasure!
Daniel stared in amazement, “Holy mother of – how many jars?”
Arty shook his head, “I have no idea.”
They both smiled and started to bounce and chuckle. The bouncing became full-on jubilation as Arty and Daniel screamed and shouted in celebration.
Bernadette wiped the tears from her face and sob from her mouth, “Arty?”
Daniel threw his fist in the air, “You sonofabitch, yeah!”
Bernadette called louder, “Arty!”
Arty, again, out of breath squeezed in one word, “Yeah?”
Bernadette stared at the ground as she spoke, “The,” she chewed on the word as it left her mouth, “the coffin.”
Arty panted again, “Yeah?”
“Did the sides feel like the top? All mushy? Fell apart?”
Arty began to catch his breath, “Yeah.”
Bernadette looked at the sky and relaxed her shoulders and back in defeat.
Daniel grasped Bernadette’s hand, “There’s no time for a proper excavation. The police are gonna be here soon so we gotta be quick. But, baby, you’re rich!”
With a force that stung Daniel to his soul, Bernadette slapped the ever-living hell out of him. Daniel saw stars and his ear rung. Bernadette had hit him so hard she hurt her wrist and held it in her other hand. She glanced at Arty, “Leave us, sweety,” she grimaced at the pain and then shook it off, “I need to talk to Daniel.”
Arty glanced between them, “Yeah.” He turned away, squeezed the jewelry in his hand and leaped in the air as he walked away.
“What the hell, Bernie?” Daniel rubbed his face. He was barely snapping back to reality and could see and hear again.
She put a hand on her belly and a finger in Daniel’s face. “Think hard, Danny. Why do you think kids were so important to me?”
Daniel sobered up and looked down to the ground, left and right as he searched his thoughts – nothing.
“I was,” the word stopped in her throat and she tried again, “I was p—” her chest convulsed as the tears won the battle. The finger she pointed at Daniel now covered her nose and mouth.
Daniel’s eyes widened as the gravity of her message nearly pulled him to his knees. “Oh, Bernie. What happened?”
She couldn’t look at Daniel. All these years she wondered how to tell him and now it was out. For much of the time she blamed herself, and thought Daniel would do so as well, “My body fought it. I’m Rh-negative and your blood type's positive.” She sniffled once more and then adopted a façade of seriousness. She looked him in the eye. “To hell with spirituality. Even chemically we’re incompatible.”
Daniel seemed about to speak, but she walked away leaving him staring at the ground. He looked at the rings in his hand. Rage filled him and he threw the rings as hard as he could.
Arty watched from the concrete foundation of the old home.
Shadows grew long as the sun neared the South Texas hills and Daniel and Arty began to pack the camp. Arty looked to the west and saw Bernadette sitting at the edge of the digsite. It was only a quarter mile, but still far enough for her small frame to look childlike, diminutive, and isolated. He turned to Daniel and grabbed his shoulder, “Hey,” He motioned over to Bernadette, “Go talk to her.”
Daniel looked at her and back to Arty, “And say what?”
“Say anything. Just don’t try to be right.”
Bernadette stared at the skeletal child, eyes red after crying all the tears her eyes could cry. Daniel sat next to her. She scooted away to make some room for him, as though there wasn’t room enough in a twelve foot hole. Daniel broke the awkwardness of silence with the awkwardness of directionless speech, “Hey.”
Bernadette sniffled, “Hey.”
“Listen, I --”
“I’m ok, you know?”
“No, Bernie. Really--”
“Listen, Daniel. I’m okay. This,” She motioned to her face, “This. This is just years of waiting to tell you all this. Now that it’s out it’s like a – well – I feel so deflated. I have nothing else.” Her eyes never left the skeleton, “Now that I’ve said all I have to say, it’s like,” she continued to stare at the skeleton but her face twitched with words on her lips, “like,” the word left with a sharp “k” from the sob in the back of her tongue – probably because her sinuses were so filled with sorrow. “It’s like I’m not angry at you anymore.”
Daniel rested his gaze on the coffin as well and spoke without wandering his stare, “You were right. I was caught up in myself - the center of it all! I had a crew, a goal, and we were gonna be rich! Funny thing is: I found everything I wanted in you and that’s what drove me to find this treasure. I wanted a good foundation for," he choked on the word. It was the first time the thought crossed his lips, “a family.”
Bernadette smiled, sniffled, and scooted closer to Daniel. She rested her head on his shoulder, put her hand over his lap, and he took it.
Daniel leaned his head on hers, “What were you gonna name him?”
She chuckled and snorted.
“Did you just snort?”
She nodded. “I wanted to name her Astrid.”
“Her? No room for boys?”
“Nope. Has to be a girl. - and she was going to do everything. She was going to be girlie enough to be in dance, but tomboy enough to do what we do: dig.” They both relaxed and their faces drew blank, “Daniel?”
“What are you gonna do?”
Daniel hadn’t considered the question. Until that moment, it had been assumed that the plan was still to rip that box out of the ground and loot everything under it, but the hunt was over. He felt Bernadette’s dirty hand in his and knew if he decided anything different it would never again be there. “I think I’m gonna leave it.”
Something moved in the darkness. A shadow? The wind? The sun had just hit the horizon and darkness grew stronger by the second. Twilight had turned the vista into a silhouette of black against an azure evening sky. It was then that they realized the movement in front of them was lights from behind – red and blue. They turned to see three police cars, lights ablaze.
Bernadette and Daniel approach the police officers and were immediately led to the cruisers where they were frisked and cuffed. Heads on the hoods, Bernadette and Daniel stared at each other and smiled, content in their decision. The hum of the vehicles and buzz of the lights was interrupted by Arty shouting in the distance. Daniel’s heart sunk, “Oh, no! Arty!”
“Stay down,” the officer said as he applied pressure on the cuffs.
Daniel winced, “Ow-ow-ow!”
Arty shouted, “Guys!”
Officers shouted and raised their hands for him to stop, “Hold it right there! Stand down!”
Arty was out of breath yet again, “Your honor!”
An officer responded, “Officer.”
Arty gasped for air, “Sorry, officer. It’s okay. They’re here legally. It’s his property.”
The officer took his hand off his holster but kept his other hand up, “You have proof of that, son?”
Arty produced the old yellow piece of paper from the dig, “This. It’s hard to read, but the proof is in there. The imaging software just finished with it.” He looked at Daniel, “Daniel, it’s the missing deed. This is your family's property. – Danny, with the right attorney, a percentage of all profits earned by Shell over the past fifty-eight years goes to your family. That’s just you, your mom, and,” He looked at Bernadette, “Well, after fifty some-odd years, Daniel... that's gotta be a ton-a-dough!”
One police cruiser remained: lights off and its inner dome light aglow as the officer took notes. Arty tossed the last tent bundle into the bed of the pickup and climbed into the passenger side. Daniel pulled the tent bundle back out and leaned into the driver-side window. His face was lit by the dome light of the pickup which contrasted against the pitch black behind him.
“Arty,” he tossed the keys to him, "They have a detective coming to verify the remains are archaeological. We should be alright. Bernie and I are gonna camp here for a few days.” He was about to leave when Arty stopped him.
“Hey,” Arty reached into his pocket and pulled something out, tossing it to Daniel – it was a small zip bag with the three rings Daniel had thrown.
Daniel stared at them a good, long while before smiling and closing his hand.