A scary vacation, p.1
A Scary Vacation
by Jack Haller
Copyright © 2004 Jack Pawlikowski
“YOU MEANT TO ditch us back there,” George accused.
He sat beside me in the cab of the U-haul, Charlie by the door. I felt his hands tighten around my throat, rendering me helpless as Charlie yanked the steering wheel from my grip. The truck went into a skid and rolled over and over and over.
“Ahhhhhhhhg,” I screamed myself awake.
My name's Tom Stillwell. When I was a kid I had nice dreams. I dreamed of being famous and winning a pile of gold and silver medals. My natural ability for running long distances earned me those medals in high school, as well as a scholarship to Penn State. That's where I met George Larkin. He was a runner, too. But it wasn't his first love. With him, golf came first. We became friends and ran track together for four years.
George moved to San Diego after college to pursue his golfing career. I got a job in Manhattan writing technical manuals for a large corporation. We've stayed pretty close and even vacationed together last summer. This year we decided to try fishing, hiking, and canoeing in the Targhee National Forest in eastern Idaho.
Vacation time finally arrived and Saturday afternoon, George met me at the airport in Idaho Falls. He got some extra time off and drove up from California. As I de-boarded the plane shouldering my laptop, I spotted him waiting at the gate.
“Hey, Buddy. How have you been,” I said slapping him on the back.
“Tom, you old rascal. Is that a computer in there?” He tapped my bag.
“Yeah. I thought all this nature might inspire me to write a Pulitzer Prize winner. Heh heh.”
We picked up my baggage and headed toward Targhee National Forest. The neon sign of the Angus Steakhouse on Highway 20 beckoned to us, and we stopped for dinner. The tantalizing aroma from the grill wafted into the parking lot. My stomach was growling by the time the food arrived, and my rib-eye tasted as good as it smelled.
“So, you still hoping to write that best-seller?” George asked.
“Uh huh. And how about you? Your game improving?”
“Not much. I'm beginning to lose interest. I really thought I'd be on the Tour by now.”
The waitress smiled and said, “Anything else, Honey?” as she served us thick wedges of homemade blackberry pie and fresh steaming coffee. After kidding each other over who she called Honey, we left there with a good feeling, the kind you get when vacation has just begun and your stomach is full.
It was still light when we arrived at the campground. We each pitched a tent and stowed our gear before building a campfire. After the hustle and bustle of New York, the quiet almost hurt my ears.
“I booked a room for Friday back in Idaho Falls. The Littletree Inn,” George broke the silence as we sat around the campfire. “We can get cleaned up and do a little celebrating before heading back to reality.”
The fire crackled.
“What is it?”
“It..It's my job. I'm in a rut. I don't have fun anymore. Just go to work, eat, and sleep.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Yeah. Instead of getting to play PGA golf, I give lessons to duffers who will never get any better.”
“I guess we both need this vacation.”
The fire burned down and we said goodnight.
* * *
Morning shined early through my tent. Sleeping in the fresh air left me well rested and feeling great. George and I spent a few days close to the camp. We did some small hikes, but mostly we just fished and loafed. The fourth day found us in the canoe exploring the river. George turned back to face me and pointed at his stomach. I looked at my watch, almost 12:30. I nodded. We paddled to a small sand beach and pulled the canoe ashore. It looked like a pleasant spot to have some lunch.
A loud bellow gave us a start. We didn't expect to find anyone here. This area is rather remote. Yet, on the beach stood a scruffy fellow who introduced himself as Musket Charlie. He looked to be around fifty and five foot eight or nine. His long shaggy hair seemed to go with his full beard and buckskin clothes.
“You guys want to be rich?” he asked.
“Uh huh,” George answered.
“I came across a hidden cave and you're not going to believe what I found in there. So, I'll just have to show you. C'mon. Follow me.”
“Whoa. We'll believe you,” I said. “What did you find?”
“No. No. Y..You have to come. It's even hard for me to believe. Sometimes I think I dreamed up the whole thing. Bring your packs. It's not too far.”
George and I looked at one another and shrugged our shoulders in why-not fashion. A path through the tall brush seemed to open up in front of Musket Charlie, and we followed in his wake. And followed and followed. I was just about to complain to him, when we came to a road and a luncheonette.
“I thought you mentioned a cave,” I said.
“Could we eat first? I'm awfully hungry.”
Inside, we found a booth and ordered sandwiches and iced tea. Charlie began talking about California and a law practice he had left some eighteen years before.
“A man came to my office with a story of Indians slaughtering a small wagon train in 1880.”
He stopped talking when the waitress brought the food.
“Hmm. Looks good. I'm hungry, too,” George said.
Charlie continued as soon as the waitress was out of earshot.
“The man said the wagons carried two million dollars in gold bars. He had a yellowed newspaper clipping that described the ambush, and he also had a leather map marking the spot where the Indians had hidden the gold. He wanted me to tell him if the government could still claim rights to the gold.”
I suspected Charlie often used this story to get a free lunch. I wanted to get away from him, but George seemed engrossed.
“Well, thanks for showing us where to eat. Lunch is on me,” I said standing up. “We're going back to the river now. Come on, George,” I urged.
He didn't answer. He just sat there with a faraway look in his eyes.
“You don't believe it. Do you?” Charlie looked at me.
“No. I don't. And we don't have any money to invest. So, why don't you try it on someone else?”
His knapsack sounded a thud as he plopped it on the table and pushed it toward me saying, “Well now, Sonny. Maybe you think I made this up.”
I sat back down and unfastened the buckle on the pack, expecting to find maybe a fake newspaper article or a treasure map he drew to make his story convincing. I saw neither of those things. What I did see made my eyes open wide. It appeared to be a gold bar.
“Don't take it out in here,” Charlie cautioned.
I nudged George and slid the bag to him. He whistled low when he saw what was inside.
Charlie handed me a folded piece of paper and said, “I made a copy of the news clipping and told the man I would have an answer for him in a few days. The following day I saw his picture in the newspaper. He had been killed when a car ran him down in a crosswalk. I talked with his wife on the phone. I told her that he wanted me to check on a map for him. She said she didn't know anything about a map.”
“She's lying,” George blurted out.
“Maybe. Or maybe somebody ran him down to get it. I got only a brief glimpse when he opened it up on my desk, but it was definitely a map of this area.”
I finished reading the clipping and passed it to George.
“I closed my law practice and came to Idaho to look for the gold. All these years, I've searched the countryside and just recently found it. There are two hundred gold bars in all. I counted them four times. You know what that's worth today?”
“Must be fifty million,” George suggested.
“Yeah,” Charlie said, but he thought to himself, more like a hundred and fifty million. “Anyway, I need help moving the gold to my cabin, and you two look pretty healthy. Besides, I can't use locals. Even if they kept quiet, town folks would wonder where all the money they were spending came from.”
“The money you are going to earn helping me move the gold, a cool two million apiece. Tax free.”
“Does it belong to the government or not?”
“Not if they don't know about it,” Charlie said. “You want the job?”
“Exactly what is it we have to do?”
“The gold is in a cave not far from here. Close as we can get with your car, is about a forty-minute hike, a little longer coming out. My cabin is in Montana, almost an hour's drive. That's where we'll take it. At the rate of two bars each and two trips a day, it will take seventeen days to empty the cave. That's the job.”
It sounded easy enough. I looked at George.
“What do you think, old buddy? Could you use a couple-a-million bucks?”
“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to ME? I am so tired of coddling those rich old duffers at the country club. You bet I can use two million. Let's go!”
We followed Musket Charlie to the river, and the three of us canoed back to our campsite to get the car. Musket sat up front and gave directions as George drove.
“Slow down,” he said. “The turnout is just ahead on the left.”
George pulled off the road and looked at me. I wondered if my eyes were that big. They must have been because we both laughed and grabbed our packs. We were still
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