Authors: James Rollins
Tags: #Mystery, #Thriller, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Science Fiction, #Adventure, #Historical
Billy shifted closer as his father unearthed the object, wrapped in what appeared to be a thick hide of skin, the black coarse fur still intact. A musky scent—a heavy mix of loam and beast—welled up, overpowering even the smell of venison stew from the neighboring cook fires.
“Buffalo hide,” his father determined, glancing over to Fortescue.
The Frenchman nodded for him to continue.
Using both hands, his father gently peeled away a flap of the hide to reveal what had lain hidden for ages.
Billy held his breath.
Since the founding of these lands, many Indian mounds had been dug up and looted. All that had been found were the buried bones of the dead, along with a few arrowheads, hide shields, and shards of Indian pottery.
So why was this particular site so important?
After two months of meticulously surveying, mapping, and digging, Billy was still none the wiser as to
they had been directed to come here. Like the looters of other barrows, all his father’s team had to show for their meticulous work was a collection of Indian tokens and artifacts: bows, quivers, lances, a massive cooking pot, a pair of beaded moccasins, an elaborate headdress. And, of course, they found bones. Thousands and thousands of them. Skulls, ribs, leg bones, pelvises. He’d overheard Fortescue estimate at least a hundred men, women, and children must have been buried here.
It was a daunting endeavor to collect and catalog everything. It had taken them all the way to the edge of winter to work from one end of the winding mound to the other, painstakingly stripping down the Indian burial mound layer by layer, sifting through dirt and rock—until, as the Frenchman said, they’d reached the head of the serpent.
His father unfolded the buffalo skin. Gasps spread among those gathered here. Even Fortescue took a sharp intake of breath through his pinched nose.
Across the inner surface of the preserved hide, a riotous battle had been drawn. Stylized figures of men on horseback raced across the hide, many bearing shields. Spears stabbed with splashes of crimson dyes. Arrows flew. Billy swore he could hear the whoops and war cries of the savages.
Fortescue spoke as he knelt down. A hand hovered over the display. “I’ve witnessed such handiwork before. The natives would tan the buffalo skin with a mash of the beast’s own brains, then apply their pigment with a hollowed-out piece of its own bone. But,
I’ve never seen such a masterpiece as this. Look how each horse is different from another, how each warrior’s garb is painted in such detail.”
The Frenchman’s hand shifted next to hover over what the hide had protected all these years. “And I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The skull of the monster was laid bare. Earlier, they had excavated the broken tusks of the beast, poking out of the hide-wrapped package. The cranium, exposed now to the light of day, was as large as a church bell. And like the buffalo hide, the bone of the skull had also been adorned, become a canvas for some prehistoric artist.
Across its surface, figures and shapes had been carved into the bone and painted so brightly they looked wet to the touch.
Billy’s uncle spoke, full of awe. “The skull. It’s a mammoth, isn’t it? Like those found over at Big Salt Lick.”
“No. It’s not a
” Fortescue said, and pointed with the tip of his cane. “See the curve and length of the tusks, the giant size of its masticating teeth. The anatomy and conformation of the skull are different from the mammoth specimens of the Old World. Remains such as these—unique to the Americas—have been reclassified as a
species, a beast called a
“I don’t care what it’s called,” his father commented forcefully. “Is this the
skull or not? That’s what I want to know.”
“There is only one way to find out.”
Fortescue reached and ran his index finger along the bony crest of the skull. The tip of his finger sank into a hole near the back. Over the years, Billy had dressed enough deer and rabbit carcasses to know the hole looked too clean to be natural. The Frenchman used that purchase and pulled up.
Another round of gasps spread outward. Several of the slaves fell back in horror. Billy’s eyes widened as the top of the monster’s skull split into two halves, opening like the doors of a cabinet. With his father’s help, Fortescue gently pushed back the two pieces of the cranium—each two inches thick and as large as dinner platters.
Even in the meager sunlight, what lay inside the skull glinted brightly.
“Gold,” his uncle choked out, shocked.
The entire inside of the skull had been plated in the precious metal. Fortescue ran a finger along the inner surface of one of the bony halves. Only now did Billy notice the bumps and grooves across the gold surface. It looked to be a crude map, with stylized trees, sculpted mountains, and snaking rivers. The surface was also inscribed with hen scratches that might be writing.
Leaning closer, he heard Fortescue mumble one word, full of awe and a flicker of fear. “Hebrew.”
After the initial shock wore off, his father spoke at Billy’s elbow: “But the skull is empty.”
Fortescue turned his attention to the open cavity of the gold-lined cranium. The space was large enough to cradle a newborn baby inside, but as his father had noted, it was empty.
Fortescue studied the cavity, his face unreadable, but behind his eyes, Billy saw his mind churning on unfathomable calculations and speculations.
What had they expected to find?
Fortescue stood up. “Close it back up. Keep it wrapped in the hide. We need it ready for transport to Virginia within the hour.”
No one argued. If word spread of gold here, the place would surely be ransacked. Over the next hour, as the sun sank below the horizon and torches were lit, men worked quickly to free the massive skull. A wagon was prepared, horses readied. Billy’s father, his uncle, and the Frenchman spent much of that time with their heads bent together.
Billy crept close enough with his broom to eavesdrop on their conversation, pretending to be busy. Still, their voices were too low to pick out more than a few words.
“It may be enough,” Fortescue said, “. . . a place to start. If the enemy finds it before us, your young union will be doomed before it has even begun.”
His father shook his head. “Then maybe it best be destroyed now. Set a bonfire here. Burn the bone to ash, melt the gold to slag.”
“It may come to that, but we’ll leave such a decision to the governor.”
His father looked ready to argue with the Frenchman, but then caught Billy hovering nearby. He turned and lifted an arm to shoo Billy off and opened his mouth to speak.
Those words never came.
Before his father could speak, his throat exploded in a spray of blood. He fell to his knees, clutching at his neck. An arrowhead poked from under his jaw. Blood poured between his fingers, bubbled from his lips.
Billy ran toward his father, regressing from young man to child in a dark instant. “Papa!”
In shock, his ears went deaf. The world shrank to include only his father, who stared back at him, full of pain and regret. Then his father’s body jerked, again and again, and toppled forward. Feathers peppered his back. Behind the body, Billy saw his uncle kneeling, head hanging. A spear had cleaved clean through his chest from behind, its point buried in the dirt, its shaft propping the dead body up.
Before Billy could comprehend what he was seeing, what was happening, he was struck from the side—not by an arrow or spear, but by an arm. He was knocked to the ground and rolled. The impact also snapped the world back into full focus.
Shouts filled his ears. Horses screamed. Shadows danced amid torches as scores of men fought and grappled. All around, arrows sang through the air, accompanied by savage whoops.
An Indian attack.
Billy struggled, but he was pinned under the Frenchman. Fortescue hissed in his ear. “Stay down, boy.”
The Frenchman rolled off him and flew to his feet as a half-naked savage, his face painted in a red mask of terror, came flying toward him, a hatchet raised high. Fortescue defended with his only weapon, as meager as it might be—his cane.
As the length of carved oak swung to point at the attacker, it parted near the handle. A sheath of wood flew from the cane’s tip, revealing a sword hidden at its core. The empty sheath struck the savage in the forehead and caused him to stumble in his attack. Fortescue took advantage and lunged out, skewering the attacker through the chest.
A guttural scream followed. Fortescue turned the man’s momentum, and dropped the savage beside Billy on the ground.
The Frenchman yanked his sword free. “To me, boy!”
Billy obeyed. It was all his mind would allow. He had no time to think. He struggled up, but a hand grabbed his arm. The bloody savage sought to hold him. Billy tugged his arm loose.
The Indian fell back. Where the hand had clutched his sleeve, a smeared handprint remained. Not blood, Billy realized in a flash.
He stared down at the dying savage. The palm that had clutched him was as white as a lily, though some of the paint was sticking to creases in the palm.
Fingers clamped onto his collar and pulled him to his feet.
Billy turned to Fortescue, who still kept hold of him. “They . . . they’re not Indians,” he sobbed out, struggling to understand.
“I know,” Fortescue answered with nary a bit of fright.
All around, chaos continued to reign. The last two torches went dark. Screams, prayers, and pleas for mercy echoed all around.
Fortescue hauled Billy across the encampment, staying low, stopping only long enough to gather up the loose buffalo hide, which he shoved at Billy. They reached a lone horse hidden deeper in the woods, tethered to a tree, already saddled as if someone had anticipated the attack. The horse stamped and threw its head, panicked by the cries, by the smell of blood.
The Frenchman pointed. “Up you go. Be ready to fly.”
As Billy hooked a boot into the stirrup, the Frenchman vanished back into the shadows. With no choice, Billy climbed into the saddle. His weight seemed to calm the horse. He hugged his arms around the mount’s sweaty neck, but his heart continued to pound in his throat. Blood rushed through his ears. He wanted to clamp his hands over those ears, to shut out the bloody screams, but he strained to see any sign of approach by the savages.
No, not savages,
he reminded himself.
A branch cracked behind him. He twisted around as a shape limped into view. From the cape of his jacket and the glint of his sword, he could see it was the Frenchman. Billy wanted to leap off the horse and clasp tightly to the man, to force him to make some sense of the bloodshed and deceit.
Fortescue stumbled up to him. The broken shaft of an arrow stuck out of the man’s thigh, just above the knee. As he reached Billy’s side, he shoved two large objects up at him.
“Take these. Keep them bundled in the hide.”
Billy accepted the burdens. With a shock, he saw it was the crown of the monster’s cranium, split into two halves, bone on one side, gold on the other. Fortescue must have stolen them off the larger skull.
With no time for answers, he folded the two platters of gold-plated bone into the buffalo hide in his lap.
“Go,” Fortescue said.
Billy took the reins but hesitated. “What about you, sir?”
Fortescue placed a hand on his knee, as if sensing his raw terror, trying to reassure him. His words were firm and fast. “You and your horse have enough of a burden to bear without my weight. You must fly as swiftly as you can. Take it where it will be safe.”
“Where?” Billy asked, clenching the reins.
“To the new governor of Virginia.” The Frenchman stepped away. “Take it to Thomas Jefferson.”
May 18, 1:32
Rocky Mountains, Utah
It looked like the entrance to hell.
The two young men stood on a ridge overlooking a deep, shadowy chasm. It had taken them eight hours to climb from the tiny burg of Roosevelt to this remote spot high in the Rocky Mountains.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” Trent Wilder asked.
Charlie Reed took out his cell phone, checked the GPS, then examined the Indian map drawn on a piece of deer hide and sealed in a clear plastic Ziploc bag. “I think so. According to the map, there should be a small stream at the bottom of this ravine. The cave entrance should be where the creek bends around to the north.”
Trent shivered and brushed snow from his hair. Though a tapestry of wildflowers heralded the arrival of spring in the lowlands, up here winter still held a firm grip. The air remained frigid, and snow frosted the surrounding mountaintops. To make matters worse, the sky had been lowering all day, and a light flurry had begun to blow.