Below is Chapter One. If you would like an exclusive preview of the next 9 chapters for free, click on one of the links to the right under the book cover.
TUESDAY, MAY 25
COTTON MALONE FOCUSED ON THE TREASURE.
The hunt had started three hours ago when he’d left a nearby mountain top lodge and been dropped off twenty miles away, on the northern outskirts of the Ouachita National Forest, amid 1.8 million acres of old growth oak, beech, cedar, and elm. The wilderness was a magnet for nature enthusiasts, but 150 years ago it had been the haunt of outlaws, the hilly terrain and dense forests offering excellent hiding places for both loot and people.
He was assisting the National Museum of American History on an assignment that he’d been glad to accept. Usually his old boss Stephanie Nelle either roped him in or outright hired him, but this time the call had come from the Smithsonian chancellor himself, the chief justice of the United States, who explained the problem and provided enough information to pique his interest. The offered $25,000 fee had also been more than generous. Truth be known he would have done it for free, as he had a soft spot for the Smithsonian.
And who didn’t like searching for buried treasure.
The woods that engulfed him stretched from the rugged plateaus of the Ozarks in the north end of the state to the rolling peaks of the Ouachitas in the south. In between lay valleys, overlooks, ridges, caves, and countless rivers and streams. All in all it was a paradise, one he’d never visited before, which was another reason he’d accepted the assignment.
He’d come equipped with 21st century technology, both a magnetometer and a GPS tracker, along with starting coordinates. Using the GPS locator he was threading his way through the trees, approaching a point that, hopefully, a satellite thousands of miles overhead would signal as X-marked-the-spot.
The whole thing was intriguing.
A reference librarian named Martin Thomas, who worked inside the American history museum, had been studying a cache of old maps, notes, and diaries stored in the Smithsonian’s vast archive. The documents were restricted, detailing a Smithsonian investigation conducted in 1909 that had involved a prior expedition to western Arkansas. Nothing had come of that journey, except that its lead researcher had been killed when a couple of hunters mistook him for a deer. It could have been an accident, but Cotton was not naïve enough to think that a locally elected sheriff never looked after his constituents—and rural Arkansas at the turn of the 20th century seemed the precise definition of local.
Easy for things to be swept under the rug.
The GPS locator continued to flash off numbers.
He adjusted his direction and kept walking, searching through the trees. He’d spent the past three days in DC, shuffling through the same field notes, books, papers, maps, and files that had captured Martin Thomas’ attention. His access, though, had come with the chancellor’s blessing. He’d read at length as to what might be expected here on the ground in Arkansas. More recent notes, provided by Thomas himself, described a specific marker—what had been labeled long ago the map tree—along with its precise coordinates. A cooperative concierge at the lodge had told him even more, including the general vicinity of where to find the stately beech.
The locator beeped.
X marked the spot.
And there it was.
The tree stood at least fifty feet tall. Upon it were carved 65 inscriptions. He knew that because Thomas had been here a month ago and counted them. But there’d been an incident. A headless effigy hung over the trail Thomas had traversed the day before, dangling from a tree, dressed in jeans and a shirt riddled with bullet holes. Nearby tree trunks had been spray-painted with inverted crosses. A stack of spent rifle casings had rested nearby, a line of string leading from the effigy down to them, sending a clear message.
Which had worked.
Thomas had fled.
This time, though, a professional accustomed to trouble had come.
He approached the tree and noticed the carvings in the bark. A cross, a bell, a legless horse, a bird, what looked like a priest, and lots of letters, symbols, and numbers. He’d been told by a botanist at the natural history museum that the bark of a beech replenished externally, producing a smooth surface that acted to preserve any markings—unlike an oak, whose exterior came from within and obliterated the exterior. Many of the carvings were filled with moss, others stretched and distorted from decades of growth. But most were legible. He’d brought along a soft nylon brush in his backpack, which he used to gently clear away the lichens, revealing more details. He wanted to study their possible interpretations, but they weren’t important at the moment. Instead, taking this as the point of beginning, he searched for another tree.
And saw it.
Ten yards away.
It was a tall red oak, its limbs trimmed long ago into an unnatural pattern, now grown tall like goalposts. He sighted a path past that tree and pointed the GPS. He needed to stay on a straight line, using where he stood as one point and the goalposts as another, keeping the longitudinal GPS number constant, and walking northward, shifting only latitude. He marveled at how, decades ago, this all would have been done by dead reckoning.
He stepped ahead, the underbrush sparse, the trees thick. Sunlight sieved through the leafy spring canopy, dappling the ground. Heat and humidity slid across his sticky skin, heavy as a towel, reminding him of boyhood days in middle Georgia.
A bit shy of twenty yards from the map tree he found a clump of rocks, heavily encrusted with more lichens. He’d been told to keep a lookout for just such a feature. He bent down and examined them, using the brush to clean away a green patina. On one, near the ground line, he found the number 7 chipped into the rock.
Faint. But there.
He lifted the softball-sized stone and turned it over. A quick swipe with the brush and he spotted two letters.
He’d learned that many markers had been intentionally placed within these woods. There, but not there, so obvious that no one would ever pay them any attention. This clump of rocks seemed the perfect example. Meaningless, unless you were actually paying attention. Something his grandfather once told him came to mind.
“Why hide loot and not have a way to find it?”
The assumption now became that SE meant southeast. The 7? Who knew? Probably just misdirection. Anyone who saw it would never think to turn the rock over. But for someone in the know, who’d come to retrieve whatever had been hidden, the 7 acted as a billboard to draw their attention. He also knew that for the clandestine group who’d supposedly hidden these caches, 7 was a symbolic number. One that said, “The drawbridge is down, the way ahead clear.” All part of their secret, cryptic language.
He switched on the magnetometer. He’d been holding off using it to preserve battery power. He turned southeast, which would take him back toward the map tree, and readied himself. The 1909 field notes had talked of more hidden markers.
An ingenious security system.
Proof positive of human inventiveness.
He hovered the magnetometer just above the ground. The other hand held the GPS locator and he kept on a straight line to the southeast, sweeping the metal detector back and forth. Sixty feet later the instrument buzzed. He laid everything down and found a collapsible shovel in his backpack. Carefully, on his knees, he worked the ground above the find, the soft loamy soil coming away in moist clumps. Six inches down he located a heavily oxidized iron plow point. He knew not to disturb it. Instead, he must learn from it.
He cleared away the dirt and noted the direction the plow pointed.
He marveled that the object was even here. Information within the 1909 field notes had revealed how horseshoes, mule shoes, picks, axe-heads, and, sure enough, plow points had been buried about four to six inches deep. Enough to remain hidden, but not enough to be undetected by a compass needle, much as a paper clip when near a magnet will start to act like a magnet. Pass a compass over buried iron and the needle reacted. Martin Thomas had tested the theory while here a month ago with a new plow point and had recorded that it worked. Not nearly as good as a magnetometer, but definitely its great-great-grandfather. Only time had not been factored into the equation. Oxidation degraded magnetic abilities, so it was doubtful a compass would be of any use today. Thank goodness for modern technology.
Expectancy clutched his chest.
This was exciting.
His grandfather would have loved it.
But it was also serious, as a man had died here long ago and Martin Thomas had been terrorized just recently.
So he stayed alert, re-gripped his instruments, and started walking southwest. Sixty more feet and he found another buried marker, this time an axe-head, still pointed southwest. He was careful with both his steps and his digging. This was rattlesnake country, and a few might be out enjoying the toasty afternoon. Which was another reason why his holstered Beretta rested within easy reach inside the backpack.
The vector he’d taken had led straight back to the map tree, forming a large triangle. Now he knew where to concentrate his efforts. No longer was the entire Arkansas countryside in play, only the space between the lines he’d just laid out.
He walked toward its center.
The reflective matte-black lenses of his sunglasses muted the harshness of the bright sun. The branches were full of noise from birds, squirrels, and insects. This part of Arkansas seemed a gorgeous gem tucked away in nearly the center of the country. It was remote a century and a half ago, and not much had changed, the biggest difference being that the National Park Service now made sure everything stayed pristine. He wasn’t exactly sure if he was inside the park boundaries but, if not, he was awful close.
Historically, no substantial quantities of gold had ever been mined in Arkansas, but legends persisted of its existence. And not the kind that came from a clear stream or out of a vein. Instead, it had all been placed. The original hypothesis revolved around 16th century Spaniards, who’d hidden hundreds of gold caches across the Midwest and West. But outlaws, too, had used these woods as their hideout. Then there was one other group. From the 19th century.
The Knights of the Golden Circle.
Who’d flourished here.
Ahead, nearly in the center of the triangle, he spotted a large maple with a long, vertical line ingrown in its bark.
He swept the magnetometer over the ground around the tree and it screamed a find. Back to his knees, he dug carefully. Six inches and nothing. He kept going. At eighteen inches he felt something hard. An object placed deep enough that no compass would ever find it.
And he knew what that meant.
The prize, gained only after deciphering the other clues and knowing exactly where to dig.
Yes, definitely, this was the property of the Knights of the Golden Circle.
He cleared the soil away and realized that he’d located a glass jar with a metal lid that had long rusted through. He freed the jar, about the size of a half-gallon milk container. Once it was out in the light he saw that it contained a stash of gold coins, packed tight, time doing nearly nothing to dull them. He tried to estimate how many were inside. He’d been told to photograph anything before physically examining it, so he laid the jar on the ground, located his phone, and activated the camera.
He was about to snap a few images when he heard something.
He reached into his pack, found his Beretta, and pivoted. In a blur of sight and reason, all he caught was a dark figure and the familiar outline of a rifle.
Coming his way.
Then, there was nothing.