by: Kaye Lynne Booth1
Presented here in its entirety, a work of fiction that highlights the pitfalls of greed and the potency of purity…
Cassie paused, leaning against a tall Aspen tree to catch her breath. After climbing one last incline, she found the rapid rise in altitude affected her more than she’d imagined after being away for so long. She took breaths of pine and juniper in deep gulps at first, then slowly steadying her breathing as it returned to a more normal rhythm.
Tony came to a halt beside her, pushing his bangs back out of his eyes and repositioning his baseball cap. “When you said we had to hike in, you weren’t kidding,” he said. “That last hill was a doozy.”
“The cabin is just up ahead, big boy,” Cassie replied. At six-three, weighing two hundred and twenty pounds, Tony was in top physical shape, but the altitude was bound to get you when you weren’t used to it, regardless of how fit you were. “We used to use bikes and ATVs to get here, but then Clinton passed the Wilderness Act in ’93. Motorized vehicles are now prohibited this side of the Rainbow Trail. Burt Hineman, the man who runs the general store, delivers supplies and mail on horseback, once a month, as weather allows. In the winter, he sends them with Todd Landers in his helicopter.”
“That’s why the old Yamaha and the four wheeler in the garage down below both had a couple inches of dust on them,” Tony said. Cassie had seen him looking them over as she parked the Jeep before they’d headed up the mountain.
“Yeah, they’re nearly antiques,” Cassie replied, laughing. “Come on, we’re almost there.”
They resumed their trek up the mountain, quickly reaching the top of the hill. As they came up over the summit, a bowl opened up before them, the bottom filled with water, forming a sparkling clear lake.
“Man, look at that!” Tony said, placing his hands on his hips, breathing in the fresh mountain air. “This is fantastic.”
“This area used to be open meadow about a hundred years ago,” Cassie said, pulling a water bottle from her pack.
“How did the lake get here?”
“There was a landslide back in the nineteen thirties, dammed up the river that runs through the valley, backing up the water to make the lake,” Cassie said, pointing out the cabin, silent and alone on the hill, almost hidden in the pines. “The cabin was here then. My great, great grandfather built it in 1890. My tribe owned the land, even before that.”
“Must be nice to own all of this,” Tony said, his gaze panning the hills on every side. “How much land did you say you had?”
“It belongs to my family,” Cassie said, replacing her water bottle and zipping the pocket closed. Her gaze came to rest on Tony’s tall, muscular frame, as he adjusted the bill of his cap, pushing the loose bangs back out of his eyes. She was glad she could share this part of herself with this gentle giant of a man. And why shouldn’t she? She wanted to share the rest of her life with him. “One hundred and twenty acres total. All part of the damned family legacy.”
Mentioning the legacy made her think of why she’d decided to come up here. This trip might not end up being a happy family reunion after Gram heard what she had to say. But there was plenty of time to think about that.
“Let’s hit the cabin and get something to eat, then you can explore all you want,” she said, changing the subject before Tony could question her about it. She’d deal with the inevitable questions when the time came. “Gram will have a hot meal waiting, guaranteed.”
A loud splash drew their attention back to the water. A series of very large rings radiated from the center of the lake, disturbing the calm, pristine surface. Tony looked at Cassie with raised brows. “You got some big granddaddy trout in that lake?” he asked.
“I haven’t been up here in years. My grandpa used to tell some whopper fish stories though,” Cassie said with a shrug, heading across the hill toward the cabin. She didn’t want to dwell on the lake. Too many bad memories. “There’s lots of stuff to do up here besides fishing. We can explore all these hills, and I’ll show you all my secret places from when I was growing up.”
“I don’t know how your grandparents manage up here all alone,” Tony said, winded as he hurried to catch up. “How old and frail are they?”
“They may be old, but they’re anything but frail,” Cassie said over her shoulder, laughing. “My family are Ute. They roamed these hills before the white man ever set foot here. It’s national forest on all sides now, wilderness area. The government wants to buy us out, but my family will never sell.”
Cassie came to a sudden halt when she caught a glimpse of a dark figure on the sun-dappled hill above the cabin. Tony placed an arm around her waist, drawing her attention just as a cloud crossed the sky above them, shrouding the hillside in shadows.
“What’s up, babe?” Tony asked.
When the cloud cleared from above, the setting sun shone through the trees once more, but the figure was gone. It had been so dark and strange, Cassie wasn’t sure it had ever really been there. “Did you see someone?”
Tony let his gaze follow hers, but shook his head. “You?”
“I guess not,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “The light probably played a trick on me.”
Cassie’s grandmother came out on the faded wooden porch, with sleeves rolled up, wiping her hands off on her apron. Her graying braids poked out from beneath the rim of a floppy denim sun hat, made even floppier by the weight of several plastic figures which were pinned on to it: a lime green frog, a large sunflower with a big brown center, a blue and black butterfly, and a large bumblebee.
Gram looked older than Cassie had remembered. Of course, she knew Gram was older. But Cassie had a feeling it also had something to do with the fact that her memories were those of a sixteen year old who looked at her grandmother with the adoring eyes of youth. Then, Cassie saw the same smile she knew as a little girl peering out from under the silly, but in a weird way adorable, sunhat Gram always wore.
Gram waved them in. “Come on you two,” she called to them. “Supper’s ready. It’s going to be dark soon.”
Cassie ran to greet her grandmother, wrapping her arms around her. It had been eight years since she’d been up to the cabin. It was good to feel her grandmother’s embrace.
“Don’t worry, Gram,” Cassie said. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”
“Maybe you should be here,” Gram said with a scolding tone. “You know the lake and its history.”
“Now, Gram, don’t start with those old stories,” Cassie said, as Tony finally caught up. “This is Tony. You don’t want to scare him away before I have a chance to work my way into his heart, do you?”
“All right, child,” Gram replied, chuckling loudly. “But you know it’s going to fall to you to carry on our history.”
“I won’t forget, Gram,” Cassie said, kissing her grandmother on the cheek. “I promise.” She sighed a secret sigh of relief when her grandmother didn’t press the issue further. She’d decided to make the trek to the cabin this year in order to talk to Gram about that very thing, but she didn’t want to do it here. Not yet. Cassie loved her grandmother. She wasn’t ready to drop a bomb that might drive a big wedge into their relationship.
“Glad to meet you,” said Gram, turning to give Tony the once over. Cassie took note of the slight nod Gram gave him, a sign of approval, before directing her speech toward Cassie once more. “Now, you and Tony get on in the house and get washed up for supper. Miranda and Jake are already inside.”
Gram turned, heading back inside. Cassie rolled her eyes up at the mention of her cousin. She should have guessed Miranda would be here. Her cousin wouldn’t miss the opportunity to suck up to their grandparents, and making the yearly trek was a ritual for her. Miranda had the idea that if she could find the gold, she’d inherit the family legacy by default.
The screen door banged shut behind Gram, leaving Cassie and Tony alone on the porch.
“What was that about?” Tony asked, cocking his head to one side.
“Nothing,” said Cassie, brushing his inquiry off casually. “Just some silly old family legends. Gram likes to drag all the skeletons out of the closet whenever she has company. It gives her something to talk about.”
“Oooh! Sounds intriguing,” said Tony with exaggerated surprise. “Tell me more.”
Cassie slugged him on the shoulder. “Come on, silly,” she said, heading inside. “Let’s go get washed up.”
Cassie bent to peck her grandfather on the cheek as she and Tony walked around the table to take the two empty seats across from her cousin Miranda and her latest guy.
Miranda wore too much make-up camouflaging the natural beauty of her dark complexion and making her look like a cheap whore. Her choice in apparel only added to the hussy impression, with a white bikini top and jean cut-offs that barely covered her hips, leaving little to the imagination. Cassie had never known her cousin to not have a guy on her arm. Her cousin lived up to the image that she went to such great efforts to create. Only a year younger, Miranda had always been jealous of Cassie and treated her as though there existed a rivalry between them over the gold and the family legacy.
“It’s good to see you, Cassie,” Miranda said. “We were all wondering if you’d ever return.”
For a moment Cassie’s muscles contracted. “Miranda,” Cassie said, gritting her teeth and giving her cousin a slight nod. Cassie took a breath, willing her body to relax.
“Well, aren’t you going to introduce us to your latest boy toy?”
“This is my boyfriend, Tony,” Cassie said, addressing the entire table. “He’s not used to this family, so try not to be too shocking in your behavior.” She locked eyes with Miranda. “In other words, don’t scare him away.”
“Cassie must be giving you some amazing nookie to have enticed you to come up here clueless,” Miranda said, looking at Tony.
Tony stared at Miranda, speechless. In Cassie’s family people spoke their minds, but there were some who didn’t know when to keep their mouths shut.
“You mean she brought you up here without giving up nookie?” Miranda said in response to Tony’s dumbfounded expression. “At least Jake and I have an honest arrangement. He graces me with his gorgeous presence and I put out. I really think I’m getting the better end of the deal.”
Cassie opened her mouth to tell her cousin that what nookie she did or didn’t give up was none of her cousin’s business, but Gram beat her to it.
“Miranda!” Gram said, placing a serving spoon forcfully into the bowl of mashed potatoes. “That’s hardly appropriate table talk.”
“Sorry Gram,” Miranda said, looking duly chastised. She then turned back to Tony. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tony. Forgive my bad manners.”
Miranda turned to the hunk of a man sitting next to her in a Gatorade tee shirt, with sleeves rolled up as far as they would go to reveal large, firm biceps. His straw-blonde hair and light complexion, combined with his muscular build, made him appear to be the all-star date. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Jake.”
Seated, they set to the task of heaping their plates with the feast Gram had set for them: fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, and of course, Gram’s biscuits topped with creamy homemade butter.
“The food is delicious, Ma’am,” Jake said to Gram as he piled a second helping of potatoes onto his plate. “Best meal I’ve had in a long time.”
“Eat up then,” Gram said. “There’s plenty more. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a big family meal together.” She looked to her husband at the other end of the table. “Don’t you think it’s nice, Hank?”
Cassie’s grandfather grunted, giving a nod of his head as he took another bite of biscuit.
“Do you have a lot of fish in the lake out there, Sir?” Tony asked. “I thought I heard a big one jump from the top of the hill.”
“Ain’t no fish worth eating,” Grandpa Hank said with a harrumph. “Only a fool wastes his time fishing in that lake.”
“Grandpa, you used to fish in the lake,” Cassie said.
She could recall her grandfather fishing when she was younger, but then, Fish and Wildlife stopped stocking the lake, when two women in their twenties had come up for a day hike and were never seen again. “You used to tell us stories. Sometimes they were unbelievable, but I remember them.”
“No more,” Grandpa Hank said. “Lake tainted everything in it. It’s the damned curse.”
“Oh, I see,” Tony replied, looking a bit confused, but trying to appear as if it made perfect sense. “I guess the attraction of it is in the swimming?”
“If you plan on going for a swim, you’d better don a wetsuit and scuba gear,” Miranda said. “The water is ice cold. You can’t explore its depths unprotected. Didn’t Cassie fill you in?” Although her words were directed toward Tony, her gaze caught and held Cassie’s eyes.
“We’re not going to explore the lake, for heaven’s sake,” said Cassie. “That’s the last thing I want to do.”
“Actually, it sounds like fun,” said Tony. “I’ve never been scuba diving before.”
“Great, you can come with us,” Miranda said, batting her eyes at Tony. Jake seemed oblivious, ripping a piece of meat off a chicken leg like a caveman. “I’ll be happy to teach you.”
“Nobody’s going to explore that lake,” Grandpa Hank said. “Thanks to your dimwit cousin, Harold and his infernal book, there’s been too many people up here looking for that damned gold. Fish and Game warned ‘em away, but they come anyway. They’ve got the lake riled up. Once they go down, they don’t come back.”
“Hank!” said Gram, giving him a warning look. “Enough.”
“Grandpa, please,” said Miranda. “We don’t need to dredge up that old legend. Nobody in this day and age believes in ghosts.”
“Ain’t legend. It’s fact,” Grandpa Hank said sharply, rising from his chair and pounding his fist angrily down on the table. “You’re talking about your ancestors! I may have only been eight, but I remember when your great-great-grandfather…”
“Now Hank,” Gram said. “All you’re doing is getting yourself and these young ones all worked up. They’ve come up here for a good time, and you sure don’t need to get all riled at your age.”
“Fine, fine. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to upset anyone by telling them their playing with fire,” Grandpa Hank said, grumbling under his breath as he sat back down. “What kind of pie we got tonight, mother?”
“Fresh-baked apple,” Gram said, rising to go to the cooling rack, where steam rose from a pie with a golden brown crust. “It should be just about ready to serve.”
“Miranda, you didn’t mention this lake of yours had such a mysterious past,” said Jake, stuffing a piece of biscuit in his mouth.
“It’s all in my cousin’s book,” said Miranda, giving Jake a chastising glare. “You didn’t read it, did you?” She smacked the side of his head. “You bungle-head!”
“That dag-nabbed book stirred everything up. It should be burned,” Grandpa Hank said.
“Bringing all kinds of folks traipsing up here looking for treasure…”
“That book explains about the gold and the legend surrounding it,” Miranda said, glaring again at Jake. “It’s all superstitious nonsense, but the more you know, the better our chances of finding the gold.”
Cassie watched this exchange with growing horror. As far as she was concerned, no one should go out on that lake. “You can’t be serious,” she said in disbelief. “How can anyone want to go into that lake? Have you all lost your minds?”
“What?” Miranda said with a questioning look. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of the lake, because of your parents’ deaths? You believe in the curse now?”
“Wait, what?” said Tony, looking confused. “You’re parents died in the lake? Cassie?”
“I can’t talk about this now,” Cassie said, tossing her napkin into her plate. She rose from the table and rushed out of the room.
“Cassie!” Tony said, rising to go after her.
“Sit, Tony. Have some dessert,” Gram said, setting the steaming apple pie down on the table. “Let the child have some space. Losing her parents has been difficult for her.”
Tony hesitated, then sat back down as instructed. “I’m sorry. I guess I just don’t understand what’s going on here.”
“She really didn’t fill you in, did she?” Miranda said. “I’ll let you read Harold’s book on the way out tomorrow. It’s just a short little thing, more of a pamphlet really.”
“That girl’s the only one among you with a lick of sense,” Grandpa Hank said through a mouthful of pie, shaking his fork at them. “Cassie knows the lake is cursed. She does.”
That night, as Tony climbed in between the crisp, cool sheets in the cabin’s guest bedroom he whispered, “You asleep?”
Cassie rolled over to face him, her cheeks wet with tears. “No. Sorry about that scene out there.”
Tony bent his head down, kissing her on the forehead. “Nothing to apologize for,” he said. “You’ve got a lot to deal with. Your reaction was perfectly understandable.”
Cassie smiled. “So, did they fill you in on the family curse?”
“Not really,” he said, “But Gram did filled me in on how your parents died. It’s no wonder you don’t want to go scuba diving tomorrow. Miranda invited me to go with them, but if you don’t want me to go, just say the word.”
Cassie shook her head. “No. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t go have a good time just because of my irrational fears,” she said. “But, I’ll never go in the water again.” Cassie leaned up on one elbow and pecked Tony on the cheek. “Just be careful, ok?”
“So, what is this gold Miranda was talking about?” Tony asked.
“They really didn’t tell you?” Cassie said, surprised. Miranda was always chomping at the bit to talk about the gold. She’d been looking for it for years.
Tony shook his head in response.
“Oh, what the hell?” Cassie said with a sigh. “The story goes that there’s ancient Ute gold somewhere in the lake’s depths. My ancestors hid it in a cave to keep the white man from discovering it a couple hundred years ago. My great, great grandmother used it to buy up this whole area and build this cabin. The location of the cave has been passed down from mother to eldest daughter through every generation since.”
“I don’t get it,” Tony said. “What does gold in a cave have to do with the lake being cursed?”
“When the landslide down below flooded the area, the cave was submerged under water along with the rest of the rock formations that lined the north shore,” Cassie said. “Gram’s mother found it again. She became the Keeper of the great family secret, only removing a small amount of gold at a time, using it to take care of our tribe. She passed the legacy on to Gram, and now, because my mother died before it could be passed to her, Gram wants to pass it to me. I’m the eldest daughter of the eldest daughter.”
Tony stared into her eyes with a serious expression. “Do you believe it?”
“I don’t know,” Cassie said with a shrug. “I suppose I do. The family wealth has to come from somewhere. My family never seems to be in need of anything, but I don’t think Gram or Grandpa have ever worked for money a day in their lives. But there’s more. Supposedly the gold was cursed by the Ute women, my ancestors, because the white man was killing their braves for it. Their spirits watch over the gold and protect it, only allowing the Keeper to come near it.”
“So, you’re to be the next Keeper?” Tony asked, ruffling her hair.
“Yeah, but I don’t want anything to do with it,” Cassie said, pausing, wondering how much she should tell him. But then it would all come out eventually, and she’d rather it come from her than from Miranda. “My parents weren’t the only ones to have mysterious circumstances surrounding their deaths.”
“You think the curse had something to do with what happened to your parents?” Tony asked.
Cassie thought hard about how to answer Tony’s question. Finally, she said, “Yeah, maybe. My parents were both experienced scuba divers, but my dad came up too fast and got the bends. When he surfaced, he tipped the boat over, knocking my mother out. They both drowned.” Cassie paused a moment, gathering her will to go on. “At least, that’s the official story. But, I think my dad must have seen something, something that scared him so bad that he abandoned all his training, resurfacing too fast, or something. He knew what he was doing in the water and so did my mom. My great grandfather died in that lake, as well, and then there are those who have just disappeared without a trace. From what Grandpa said at the table tonight, there have been more disappearances recently.”
Tony was silent for several minutes. Cassie began to wonder if she’d said too much. She’d never told anyone any of this before. Tony probably thought she was crazy after such an admission.
“I won’t go tomorrow,” Tony said, breaking the silence.
Cassie shook her head. “No. Nonsense,” she said. “You go if you want. I just can’t bring myself to go with you. But, it’s okay. I have a few things I need to talk to Gram about. I’ll help her with the baking while you’re gone.”
“Are you sure?” Tony said, brushing the hair that had dropped down over Cassie’s eyes back to meet her gaze.
“I’m sure,” Cassie said, nodding. “Just do me a favor. If you happen to find a cave with a bunch of gold in it, get the hell out as fast as you can. I kind of like you alive.”
Tony gave her a small mock salute. “Aye-aye, Captain,” he said. “Your wish is my command.”
The next morning, Cassie kissed Tony long and hard before he departed for the dock. She hadn’t realized just how much she didn’t want to lose him, especially now. She watched from the kitchen window as he helped Miranda and Jake load the gear into the motorboat and they shoved off. Gram rolled out biscuit dough on the table behind Cassie, watching her silently. When they were out of sight, Cassie turned around, facing her grandmother.
“Gram, I need to talk to you. I don’t want to be the Keeper,” she said. “Miranda wants to carry the legacy. You can pass it on to her.”
Gram shook her head. “No child. That one isn’t the rightful Keeper. It’s your place,” she said. “Miranda is out there right now, hoping that this year she’ll find the gold. All she sees is what it can give her, not how she can benefit others with it. You’re the one that has the head to become the Keeper.”
“Miranda wouldn’t be that bad,” Cassie said. “The family is already so well off, she could squander all that’s left and we’d all survive.”
“No. I won’t hear of it,” Gram said, brushing her hair back from her face with the back of her floury hand, smearing a streak of white across her forehead. “There’s more to the legacy than you know. Every blessing comes with a curse. We fear for our menfolk. It’s the price our women pay for the good fortune of being the Keeper.”
“What do you mean?” Cassie asked. “What’s good about it?”
“My great-grandmother didn’t just happen upon that gold. Our sacred mothers vowed the gold would only benefit the tribe, and placed a curse on it to protect it from outsiders. The women of our family are blessed as Keepers,” Gram said. “It’s the menfolk who are cursed. The Keeper disperses the gold for the benefit of all. The lake knows who the rightful Keeper is. It will be your job to keep secret the location and the rituals which must be followed before harvesting the gold.”
“You want me to believe my great-grandfather got his foot tangled in algae and drowned in that lake because of some curse? That doesn’t explain what happened with my parents,” Cassie said in disbelief. “My mother died right along with my father. How does that fit in with your stupid curse?”
“Your father was with your mother when they found the sunken cave where the gold is hidden,” Gram said, shaking her head sadly. “Your mother’s death was truly an accident. She wasn’t meant to die.”
“I don’t want to be the Keeper. I don’t want the damned gold,” Cassie said, shaking her head. Then, a look of dawning recognition spread over Cassie’s face as her grandmother’s words sunk in. “Wait. You’re telling me Tony might be in real trouble out there?”
“No, I wouldn’t have allowed them to go out if I thought they had anything to fear,” Gram said. “Miranda’s been looking for years. Not a lick of sense, that one. The family’s treasure won’t be found by one as reckless as she is.”
Cassie’s grandmother’s words did nothing to dispel the uneasy feeling which had come over her. In fact, her anxiety rose a couple of notches just thinking about what Gram had said. Gram couldn’t be certain they wouldn’t get close to the treasure, assuming the curse was real, as Gram seemed to believe.
“I’ve got to stop Tony,” Cassie said, rushing out the door.
Cassie ran down the hill and out onto the dock. Tony, Jake and her cousin were already out in the middle of the lake where they would never hear her, but she had to try. She hollered their names from the dock, but the wind drowned out her voice. It looked like the only way she’d be able to stop Tony from going down was to go out on the water after them.
She ran to the boathouse to grab a wet suit from the pegs inside the door and slip into it, but the dank, musty aroma made her stomach churn. Cassie was forced to go back outside to put it on. When she went back in to hoist a tank and a regulator from the row of tanks lined up against the wall, she had to hold her breath, doing a quick in and out. Maybe the smell was because the boathouse had been closed up for so long Cassie thought.
She eyed the little rowboat tied to the dock, bobbing gently with each wave, wary at the thought of going out on the lake. Just last night Cassie had proclaimed her oath to Tony to never go out on this lake again. Now here she was, contemplating doing just that, but she didn’t know if she could make herself climb down into the tiny boat. Her face was covered in a sweaty sheen as she struggled with her dilemma. Cassie told herself to pull it together but she wasn’t sure she could actually make herself do it.
A movement caught Cassie’s eye on the hill across the cove. The dark figure, the same one she’d seen yesterday, was standing in the trees, staring down at the motorboat as it approached the far side. A chill ran down her spine as her gaze went to their craft. When she looked back up, the figure was gone, but the uneasy feeling lingered.
The thought of losing Tony gave her the determination she needed to step down into the small, primitive watercraft. She gathered all her courage, took a deep breath and stepped off the dock into the rowboat, fighting back nausea as the craft rocked gently from side to side with every wave.
Cassie picked up an oar from the bottom of the boat and began slowly moving the craft forward. As she moved across the water without incident, she gained confidence, putting her weight into each stroke, and making the small boat move faster.
Soon, Cassie spied the motorboat at rest at the far side of the cove, but no one was in it. I’m too late, they’ve already made the dive, Cassie thought. She felt the panic rise within her, knowing she must get Tony out of the water, but also knowing the only way now was for her to make a dive herself.
Cassie dropped anchor near the jutting rock formations at the edge of the cove, slipping the tank over her shoulders. She hadn’t been scuba diving for more than eight years, but it all came back to her as if it were yesterday. Cassie slid the mask down over her eyes and adjusted her mouth piece, preparing to slip over the side of the rowboat. As she stared down into the depths, her fear overwhelmed her, nearly paralyzing her. Cassie was unable to make her limbs do as her brain commanded.
Cassie spit out her mouthpiece and lifted the mask from her face. “This is silly,” she said. “The curse isn’t real. It’s just an old legend.”
A voice in the back of her mind asked – If you believe that, then why are you out here in this rowboat? Why do you have that nagging feeling that Tony’s in real danger?
Cassie stood there, undecided, for what seemed an eternity. If something happened to Tony, she’d never forgive herself. This lake took her dad, who was an experienced scuba diver. Tony was just a beginner. What had she been thinking letting him come out here with someone as irresponsible as Miranda? Curse or no curse, she had to go down and get him. Cassie replaced the mask on her face, adjusting her mouthpiece once more. She lifted her legs over and slipped down into the icy water of the lake fast, before she could change her mind.
Cassie adjusted her headlamp to penetrate the darkness as she sank lower into the murky water. The only things the lamp’s light illuminated for her was a school of rainbow trout that happened by. She gave a few kicks to move further down, the headlamp lighting her way until its beam alighted on a sheer vertical rock formation rising up from the lake’s depths, and extending the entire length of the northern shoreline. This was the cliff base with all the caverns in it, which Grandpa had told her about when she was a little girl, the one that had become submerged when the dam flooded the valley.
The caverns would most likely be at the base of the rocks, further down from the surface Cassie thought. She propelled herself deeper, taking care to stay where she could see the jutting formation which marked the edge of the cove. The last thing she wanted was to lose her bearings down here. Cassie thought of all those who had disappeared looking for the gold. She could see how any number of things could happen down here. The urge to return to the surface was strong, but she fought it. Willing herself not to let her fear get the best of her, Cassie pushed herself even deeper into the darkness of the lake’s chasm.
Up ahead Cassie spotted something even darker than the depths around it. As she approached, it became clear that it was indeed a cave, set back in the steep rock formation. She swam down to investigate. She saw no sign of Tony or the others. From her grandparents’ stories, she knew that many of the caves were interconnected. This was as good a place to start looking as any.
The inside of the cavern was pitch black, her headlamp illuminating only a couple of feet in front of her. Cassie repeatedly bumped into jutting protrusions of rock that she hadn’t seen in the darkness. She swam into the cave with her hands outstretched before her, half-feeling her way along.
The cavern was deep, going back a lot further than she’d imagined. As she moved forward, she realized if the caves really were connected, this cavern might go on for a very long time. Cassie had decided to turn around and go back, rather than risk being lost within the caverns, when she saw a glimpse of movement in her light. Thinking perhaps she’d found the diving party, she swam further into the cave’s depths.
But, when she rounded the next corner, all that her headlamp revealed was a school of graylings, small silver fish with large, sail-like dorsal fins, making their way through the cavern. She followed the graylings, keeping her headlamp trained on them. After all, this was their territory. They wouldn’t get lost.
The graylings lead her into a second cave, and then a third. Cassie followed their silvery path, somehow feeling that this was the right way to go. This feeling was reinforced by the icy current that flowed near the floor of the connecting tunnel, pushing her along in the direction of the graylings’ travel.
When she came to a fourth cavern, Cassie was caught up in a whirlpool, which suddenly shot up from the floor of the cave, scattering the graylings in a dazzling silver display in her headlamp, like a spotlight reflecting off a disco ball. Cassie was carried up and up, propelled by the water’s force. The whirlpool acted like a water spout, pushing her up through the roof of the cavern, shooting her, along with dozens of graylings, out on the surface of another lake, resting in the massive cavern above.
Cassie found herself looking at a cavern that was not submerged beneath the surface of the lake. The body of water she was in now was bordered by shore on all sides. She swam toward the shore, until she emerged onto the sand and collapsed.
The massive cavern beyond the shore was completely enclosed except for a large hole at the top, which provided fresh air and let in the sun’s rays. The reflection off the water provided enough light for her to see without the headlamp.
Moisture originated from the hole, running down the cavern walls on all sides, but it didn’t smell musty and damp, like the boathouse had. Here the smell was fresh, like a rain forest. Cassie spit out her mouth piece and removed her mask to breathe in deeply as she took in her surroundings. The rain admitted by the hole fostered the growth of mosses and vining foliage which covered the cavern walls and hung down from above, creating a misty, self-contained tropical paradise.
A glint of brightness from a reflection near the water caused Cassie to squint from the momentary glare. The bright light lead her to the water’s edge, where a shiny object stuck out from beneath the sand.
Cassie moved to take a closer look. She reached down to scoop up the object, but couldn’t. It was heavy, requiring both hands to lift what turned out to be a small, obsidian box, the stone chipped away by hand in the fashion of her ancestors. Cassie slid the lid off to peer inside. What she saw took her breath away. The box was filled with gold dust.
She glanced around the cavern, noticing other boxes made of chipped stone on the cavern floor and on shelves and ledges carved into the cavern walls, larger boxes which would hold much more than the one she held in her hands. If they were full of gold, they had to be worth a fortune.
Cassie went to first one, then another, checking the contents of each. They were all filled with gold. There was more gold here than Cassie had ever imagined existed in the whole world.
The story of the lake’s sunken treasure had been true, Cassie thought, but she had been allowed to find it. She was now the Keeper of the secret, whether she wanted to be or not. It wasn’t up to Gram any more. The lake had chosen her.
Miranda and Tony came rushing into the kitchen as Gram pulled a loaf of bread out of the oven.
“What’s your hurry?” Gram asked, looking up as Tony stumbled over a stool by the table. Both Tony and her granddaughter looked rather pale. “Where is Jake?”
“Oh, Gram, you won’t believe it,” Miranda said. “Hell, I don’t believe it. Something in the lake snatched Jake up and swept him away.”
“We’d better call someone, organize a search party or something,” Tony said.
“Call who?” Gram said, sliding the loaf out of the pan onto a cooling rack on the counter. “Look around you, young man. Who would you call? Even if we had a phone, there’s no one who’s going to come traipsing up here this late in the afternoon. Maybe you better slow down, take a seat and tell me what happened.”
They all took seats around the table.
“We were exploring the caves and something pulled Jake back into the tunnels,” Miranda cried.
“He was there one minute, gone the next,” said Tony, nodding. “He just disappeared.”
“He was caught up in a current and swept away,” Miranda said. “We couldn’t get him back.”
“Whatever it was, it took Jake,” Tony said. “Now what are we going to do about it?”
“Miranda, get your grandfather,” Gram said, going to the oven. “He can take you back out to look for the boy.”
“Cassie was right. There is something very wrong out there,” Tony said, looking around the kitchen. “Where is Cassie, anyway? Are you two finished baking?”
Gram slid another loaf onto the cooling rack. “You mean she didn’t find you?” Gram asked with a concerned look. “She set out after you this morning. When she didn’t come back, I assumed she was with you.”
“We didn’t see her,” said Tony with a worried look.
“Why couldn’t she just stay in the kitchen where she belongs and leave the lake to me?” Miranda said. “Now there’s two idiots missing.”
“Cassie said she wouldn’t go out on the lake,” Tony said with a furrowed brow. “Why would she come after us?”
“She went after you,” Gram said, pointing an arthritic finger at Tony. “She was afraid for you to go out on the lake.”
“She didn’t find us and she hasn’t come back,” Tony said. “I’m going back out with your husband.”
“Count me out. I’m not blundering around on the lake in the dark for either of those two. Jake’s an idiot, albeit a gorgeous idiot,” said Miranda, rather wistfully. “And Cassie grew up here. She’ll find her way back.” Miranda continued speaking as she headed into the living room to find her grandfather. “If the two of you don’t come back, I’ll hike out tomorrow and send a search party.”
“I was hoping maybe since you know the lake…” Tony’s words trailed off as Miranda disappeared around the corner.
“You men shouldn’t be out on that lake alone,” Gram said, turning to call back her niece. “Miranda!”
Grandpa came into the kitchen. “What in tarnation is going on now?” he asked. “I told you youngsters not to be going out on that danged lake. I warned you.”
“Come on,” Tony said, rising from his seat. “I’m going with you. I’ll explain what happened on the way.”
“You think I’m going out there on the lake at this time of day?” Grandpa Hank said, shaking his head. “It’s nearly dusk.”
“Now, Hank, of course you’re going to go look for the boy,” Gram said. “We can’t just leave him out there.”
“You know we ain’t going to find him,” Grandpa Hank said. “What the lake takes, it doesn’t give up. You know that.”
“We have to try. Cassie is out there somewhere, too,” Tony said. “Are you going, or do I have to go by myself?”
“Cassie knows the lake,” Grandpa Hank said. “She’ll show up when she’s good and ready.”
Gram’s forehead creased with worry. “I’ll take you out to look for her,” she said, hastily untying her apron strings. “Just let me turn this oven off and cover my loaves.”
“You don’t have to do that, ma’am,” Tony said, turning to head back out the door. “I can manage.”
Gram whipped her head back, her hand shooting out to grasp Tony’s wrist. “You don’t know this lake,” she said, with a look that implied she wouldn’t take no for an answer. Then, just as fast, a smile came over her face and she patted his wrist lightly. “You just wait here now. I’ll only be a minute.”
“Oh, tarnation,” Grandpa Hank said. “I guess I’m going, too. If I don’t, I’ll never get a moment’s peace around here.”
Gram smiled as she placed a towel over the loaves. “I knew you’d come around.”
Although Cassie had worried about how she’d get back, the whirlpool had been mysteriously absent when she’d been ready to leave the cavern and return to the surface. She’d simply swam down to the hole in the cave floor and slipped through it into the cavern below, following her trail back. But it felt to her like the whole excursion couldn’t have taken more than a half an hour, yet here it was dark as she resurfaced.
Cassie turned her head, shining her headlamp in an arc around her until she spotted the rowboat in its beam. As she approached, she heard voices calling her name and she spotted the motorboat. Then, Grandpa Hank shined the spotlight on her.
“Oh, thank heavens,” Gram said as Tony pulled her in. “You don’t know how worried we were when we found the empty rowboat. What were you thinking staying out here so late?”
“Sorry, I guess the time just got away from me,” Cassie said, drying her hair with the towel Tony handed her. “I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”
The fishy smell of the lake assailed Cassie’s nostrils, causing her stomach to do flip-flops as the boat swayed on the water.
“Are you sure you’re okay, dear,” Gram asked. “You look a little peaked. You’re white as a ghost.”
Cassie nodded, struggling to hold back the heave that suddenly wanted to come up. “I’m okay,” she said as the urge passed. “I think maybe I came up a little too fast.”
“What were you doing out here?” Tony asked, pulling her close to him. “Last night you swore to me you’d never go out on the water.”
“I just…changed my mind, okay?” Cassie said, holding Tony back at arm’s length and staring into his eyes.
“Okay,” Tony replied with a puzzled look. “I was just worried about you, that’s all.”
“We were all worried,” said Gram. “Let’s get back to the cabin. It’s getting late. I’m sure we’ll all be ready for supper.”
“What about Jake?” Tony said.
Cassie looked from Tony to Gram, whose expression said she’d just swallowed a toad that stuck half-way down, then back to Tony.
“What about Jake?” she said. “Isn’t he back at the cabin with Miranda?”
“Are you sure about what you saw down there today, Tony?” Gram asked.
“Yeah, I’m sure,” Tony said. “Something pulled Jake back down into the caves.”
“What?” asked Cassie. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “What are you two talking about?”
“Then, Grandpa Hank’s right. We won’t find him,” said Gram. “He belongs to the lake now.” She turned to look at her husband. “Hank, take us in. Time to serve up some vittles for these young ‘uns.”
Grandpa started up the motor, heading back to shore.
Cassie grabbed Tony by the shoulder, turning him to face her. “Are you telling me something happened to Jake down there?”
“Nothing we can do. It’s all a part of the curse, child,” Gram said. “Like I said, it’s the menfolk we need to fear for.”
That night Cassie dreamed that her parents were struggling with one another beneath the lake’s surface. In it, she saw her mother smash her father in the head with a heavy object. Cassie knew somehow that the object in her mother’s hand was the same obsidian box that she had carried with her to the surface earlier that evening.
The water turned red around her father’s head, as her mother turned, swimming for the surface. Her father swam after her, in spite of the gash in his head. As she tried to climb back into the boat, he grasped her ankle, pulling her down. She kicked at him, struggling to get in the boat, but she ended up pulling the boat over on top of them instead.
Cassie watched, horrified, as her parents struggled in the water. The dream would not allow her to look away. Her mother held the obsidian box in her hand. She slammed it into her father’s head again and again. In desperation, Cassie’s father reached out, grabbing the only thing he could get a hold of, yanking the mouthpiece away from her mother’s face. Neither of her parents made it to the surface. Cassie watched as each died. First her mother, then her father. The dream held her, forced her to see even though she willed herself awake.
But, the bodies of her parents refused to stay dead. They both turned their faces to her, revealing bone-white skulls with black empty sockets for eyes. Cassie let out a scream which broke the dream’s hold on her. She awoke with a start, the scream stuck in her throat. Tony was next to her in the bed. He wrapped his arms around her, softly telling her, over and over, that everything was okay.
Cassie took comfort in his arms until her heart rate had slowed, then she gently parted from him. “Thank you for being here, Tony,” she said, giving him a light kiss. “I’m okay now. It was just a bad dream.”
“You want to talk about it?” he asked.
Cassie shook her head, but gave no words in response. She didn’t even want to think about it.
“You sure you’re okay?” Tony said, returning her light kiss, just barely brushing her lips with his. “You want to sit up a while? Or, do you think you can sleep?”
Cassie smiled at him. “It’s silly for either of us to lose sleep over a dream,” she said. “I think I can sleep if you’ll just hold me.”
“You got it,” Tony said, slipping his arms around her once more as they lay back onto the pillows. Cassie lay her head against his chest, reveling in the comfort and safety she felt in his arms. But, even after Tony’s breathing steadied into the breath of the sleeping, Cassie lay awake for a long time, concentrating on pleasant memories to keep the images from the dream at bay.
The next morning, Tony was still fast asleep when Cassie gently removed his arm from around her and climbed out of bed. She slipped on a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt, running a comb through her short black hair before heading into the kitchen to talk to Gram. After what happened yesterday and last night’s dream, she wanted some answers. Gram was the only one who could provide them.
The smell of bacon cooking wafted through the kitchen. As Cassie expected, Gram was already up, making breakfast. She swallowed a lump in her throat, fighting back the urge of her flip-flopping stomach to bring up whatever contents were left over from last night. “Need a hand?” Cassie asked with a forced smile.
Gram looked up from the skillet she was tending on the stove, nodding. “You can set the table, if you would.”
Cassie went to the drawer and grabbed a handful of silverware, placing them in neat arrangement on the table. “Gram, I need to know what really happened with my parents,” she said, not turning to look at her grandmother.
“Why, you know as much as anybody, child,” Gram replied.
At that, Cassie did turn to face Gram but she was met by an expression of curiosity, which soon turned to recognition.
“You found it, didn’t you?” Gram said, taking Cassie’s hand. “I can see it in your eyes. The lake led you there. You know the secrets.”
“I don’t know what I know,” Cassie said in frustration. “If my dream last night was true, I don’t think I want to know. I dreamed my mother attacked my father out there on the lake and they died in the struggle. I dreamed they killed each other. That can’t be, can it?”
“When you become the Keeper, you also gain vision,” Gram said. “You must judge for yourself what is true.”
“I don’t want to believe what I saw in my dream,” Cassie said. “Why would my mother attack my father like that? She loved him.”
“Because your father was with her,” said Gram, patting Cassie’s hand as if comforting a small child. “He got too close, witnessed too much.”
Cassie snatched her hand away from Gram. “Well, I did find the stupid gold, but I don’t want to be the Keeper,” she said raising her voice. “Let someone else do it.”
“Did I hear you say you found the gold?” Miranda said, coming into the kitchen with a sly grin. “Is that what you were up to yesterday?”
Cassie gave Gram a silent glance. “I would think you’d be too worried about Jake to concern yourself with the mythical gold,” she said, willing her stomach to settle. The smell of the bacon was not agreeing with her this morning. “I know if it were Tony, he would be all I could think about.”
“Jake isn’t coming back. And don’t look at me like that,” Miranda said in response to Cassie’s raised brow. “You weren’t down there yesterday. You didn’t see. Jake was pulled back into the tunnels connecting the caverns, swept up in a current that took him so fast neither of us had time to stop it. Whoosh! He was gone.” She pulled out a chair, taking a seat at the table. “Besides, you don’t think I’m foolish enough to bring someone up here that I really cared about, do you? Jake was just a good looking accessory.”
“So you’re telling me he was swept away by the current?” Cassie said, thinking of how the whirlpool appeared out of nowhere, sweeping her up into the cavern above, then was conveniently absent when she was ready to leave. “The lake really took him?”
“I don’t expect you to believe it,” Miranda said. “You never believed in the curse or the gold. But if you found the gold, maybe your opinion on the other has changed?”
“I did find it, but I don’t want anything to do with it,” Cassie said. “You take it. You’ve always wanted it.”
“Really?” Miranda said. Her eyes lit up at the Cassie’s words.
“Cassie,” Gram said, cautioning her.
“Really. You’ve looked for it for a long time,” Cassie said to Miranda, ignoring her grandmother as if she hadn’t heard. “I’ll show you where the gold is and you be the Keeper.”
“Cassie, you can’t do that,” Gram said. “The lake chose you.”
“Well, I don’t choose it!” Cassie said, raising her voice in spite of her efforts to stay calm. “That’s what I came up here to tell you. I’m not going to let this stupid curse ruin my future with Tony. You can’t make me accept it. The sooner this is over with, the better.” She turned, storming out of the kitchen. “Come on, Miranda.”
Miranda jumped up, following her out the door. “Hey, wait up!”
Cassie marched across the dock, wet suit and tank in hand, and jumped down into the motorboat. There was no hesitation this time, her anger smothered any fear she may have had. She refused to let some stupid curse control her life. Miranda jumped down behind, pulling up the anchor as Cassie started the engine.
Cassie drove them out to the spot where she had anchored the rowboat the day before, arriving in a matter of minutes with the motorboat. They donned their wetsuits, slung tanks on their backs, and set their masks and mouthpieces, preparing to dive.
“Are you sure this is the spot?” Miranda asked.
“Do you see that jutting rock there?” Cassie asked, pointing to the precipice which marked the outermost edge of the cove. Miranda nodded. “That’s where I went down. Right there.”
“Okay then,” Miranda said, but she still didn’t sound too sure. “Are you going to tell me why you’re so willing to turn the legacy over to me?”
“I never wanted it in the first place. I make a decent living with my artwork. My future with Tony is in the city,” Cassie replied. “All that talk about legacies, and secrets, and curses. You can have it all.”
“Okay by me,” Miranda said with a shrug. “I tried to tell Gram that gold should have been mine all along. I have to admit, you’ve got more sense than I thought you did.”
“Gee, thanks,” Cassie said, turning her head so her cousin wouldn’t see the roll of her eyes. After setting her mouthpiece, she plunged into the water, not waiting for Miranda to follow.
As she descended into the depths, she heard the splash of Miranda penetrating the surface and knew she needn’t worry. Miranda was so greedy, she would follow her all the way to the bottom, if that’s where Cassie said the gold was.
Gram was right in saying Miranda would exhaust the family fortune. But her fear of losing Tony outweighed any concern she had about her family. They were all well off. Even if Miranda blew it all, they’d be fine. Cassie wanted to be rid of the legacy, and all the silly superstitions surrounding it.
As they descended, Cassie shined her headlamp on the rock cliff face, but the cave entrance she’d swam into yesterday seemed to elude her. She began to wonder if her memory was playing tricks on her.
Finally, she spotted a large dark hole in the rock. But, when her headlamp shone into the depths of the cave, instead of the murky depths of yesterday, a large, dark figure appeared, blocking her beam. She squinted into the headlamp’s light. The dark figure seemed to raise an arm, pointing a finger at her. At the same time, the figure’s features swam into focus for just an instant, and then it dispersed into the water.
Cassie hadn’t gotten a good look. The figure had disappeared too quickly, but she knew what she saw. The shadowy figure was an old Indian woman, with long gray braids and a face with more wrinkles than Cassie had imagined possible for a person.
The sudden appearance and disappearance of the woman had startled her, causing her to jump back. Now Miranda’s touch on her shoulder sent a jolt through her, causing her to jump again.
Miranda pointed to the cave entrance, giving a questioning look with her eyes.
Cassie shook her head, no. For reasons Cassie couldn’t explain, she didn’t want Miranda to go in there. Suddenly, this felt all wrong. Somehow, she knew Miranda wouldn’t be allowed to reach the gold.
Miranda shone her headlamp within the cavern, illuminating the murky darkness. She started to move forward and Cassie grabbed her arm, pulling her back away from the entrance, shaking her head. Miranda pushed Cassie’s hand off with her other hand, scowling, and started into the cave once more.
Cassie found herself moving forward to stop her cousin, although she hadn’t willed herself to do so. Although her cousin was going exactly where Cassie had intended, she was flooded by an irresistible urge to stop her.
Cassie knew the reason, but she didn’t want to admit it. Miranda was not meant to be this close to the gold. Cassie was the Keeper, no matter how badly she wanted to push the responsibility off on her cousin. The lake had chosen her and the lake wouldn’t take no for an answer. In spite of their rivalry, Cassie couldn’t lead her cousin to her death.
She grabbed Miranda’s arm once more, with a grip like a vice, yanking her cousin backwards, shaking her head to indicate she was not allowed to go further, but Miranda jerked her arm away. She shoved Cassie back and turned, heading into the cave once more. Cassie lunged for her cousin, landing on her back, knocking her to the cave floor.
Her headlamp illuminated a large rock on the cave floor and she snatched it up without knowing why she was doing it. An urge to smash it down on Miranda’s skull swept through her. She willed herself to drop the rock, to get off Miranda and put a stop to all this, but to her horror her hand held fast to the stone. As if her arm had a mind of its own, she raised the rock above her head, preparing to thrust downward with all of her strength, in spite of her efforts to resist.
Suddenly, a hand grasped her wrist from behind just as she began her downward stroke. She turned and a wave of relief flowed through her when she saw that it was Tony. The relief was short lived, for her hand did not release the rock, but instead she pulled her wrist from his grip, swinging the stone at him and catching him across his brow. She watched in horror as Tony released her, falling back against the cavern wall. His blood stained the water crimson above him.
As suddenly as the urge had come upon her, it was gone, and she was just Cassie again. She rushed to Tony’s side. He was conscious, but bleeding badly. She turned to Miranda for assistance, but her cousin was nowhere in sight. Cassie couldn’t leave Tony like this. Miranda would have to fend for herself.
Cassie hoisted Tony over her shoulder and began their ascent to the surface, taking care not to rise too fast.
As they pulled into the dock, with the rowboat once again in tow, Gram and Grandpa Hank were waiting to meet them.
“Tony found you, thank goodness,” Gram said, placing a kiss on her cheek. “I sent him out after you. I was worried something awful might happen. I thank my stars that you’re alright.” Gram scanned the boat behind her, perhaps only now realizing they were short one. “Where’s Miranda?”
“I couldn’t go after her,” Cassie said shaking her head. “I had to get Tony back to the boat. You should never have sent someone so inexperienced out there alone to find me.” She gently brushed the purplish lump on Tony’s forehead with her fingertips. “That bump to the noggin could have been disastrous.”
“You didn’t see it?” Tony asked, coming up behind her. Instead of his usual arm around her waist, he kept his distance as he spoke.
“See it?” Cassie said, looking at him with a furrowed brow. “See what?”
“The same thing that grabbed Jake took Miranda,” Tony said, shifting to his other foot, and looking a bit uncomfortable. “Of course, it was all behind you…”
“Tony, I am so sorry,” Cassie said, blurting out what she hadn’t dared in the silent tension of the boat ride back. “All I can say is I was out of control. That wasn’t me.”
“What the hell was that all about, Cass?” Tony asked, staring into her eyes. “One minute you’re a vicious crazed woman, ready to smash my skull to a pulp, and the next you’re the same sweet girl I fell in love with.”
“I don’t know what it was about,” Cassie said, gnawing on her upper lip. But that wasn’t quite true, was it? Deep down she thought she knew exactly what it had been about.
Gram gave her a stern look. “Come on inside. We’ll see if we can’t sort all this out,” she said, motioning them to follow her. “I’ve got some hot cocoa on the stove that will warm us all up. Come in now, before you catch your death of cold.”
Cassie felt a lump form in her throat at Gram’s words. She had an idea that Gram could go a long way to straightening things out, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to hear what Gram had to say.
In the kitchen, Gram poured four cups of cocoa, bringing them to the table as they took seats. “Cassie, maybe you’d better tell me what happened down below,” she said, taking a seat of her own.
Cassie looked at each of them, their gazes turned to her, expecting an explanation she didn’t have. “I don’t know what happened down there,” she said. “Something took control of my body. I had no control. It was me, but it wasn’t.”
Gram nodded, a knowing look on her face. “You are the physical form of the Keeper, but you are not the essence of the Keeper,” she said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Cassie said, slamming her fist down on the table. She’d had enough guessing games. She wanted answers. “Why does everything that has to do with this family have to be in riddles or shrouded with mysteriousness?”
“Quiet, child. Listen,” Gram said. “You are the Keeper of the gold, but you are not the Keeper of the curse. The curse used your physical form to protect the gold, just like it used your mother.”
“So, you’re telling me I’ve been chosen to be a pawn in this…whatever it is, and I can do absolutely nothing about it?” Cassie said with amazement. “I have nothing to say about it?”
“The lake chose you as the next in line,” Gram said nodding her head. “It was your destiny before you were even born.”
“Well, I don’t want it!” Cassie said, rising from her seat. “I almost killed Tony down there! The man I love. I don’t accept it. I don’t!”
“Hhhrrmph! You think your grandmother wanted it any more than you do?” said Grandpa Hank. “You think your mother didn’t fight it? Your mother died fighting it!”
“Hank!” Gram said, placing a hand over her mouth.
Tony had been sitting silent up until now trying to make sense of their conversation. Now, he cleared his throat. “Wait. You love me?” he asked.
“Of course I love you, you dope,” Cassie said, with tears welling in her eyes. “I think that’s the only thing that saved you today.”
It was hopeless. How could she live with herself? How would Tony ever be able to love her? She turned back to Gram, her eyes pleading. “There has to be a way to break the curse, or something.”
Gram stared into Cassie’s eyes long and hard. “I don’t know, child,” she said at last. “All the years I’ve been the Keeper, I never tried to fight it. If your mother did try to fight it, she didn’t succeed.”
“But you really don’t know, do you?” Cassie asked, her mind already working on possible ways to get out from under the legacy. “It might be possible.”
“Look, I know you two have to work this deal out between you, but might I remind you that Jake and Miranda are both missing?” Tony said, interrupting the two women.
Cassie turned to look at Tony. Before she could figure a way to battle this thing, she had to get him out of danger. “You’re right,” she said. “Obviously the four of us are not going to find them. You hike back down to the Jeep and get help. Have the authorities gather a search party.”
“Won’t do no good,” Grandpa Hank said. “Every time another one disappears they comb the woods and drag the lake for days. They never find anything.”
“Just the same, we have to try,” Cassie said, giving her grandfather a warning look.
“Why me?” Tony asked. “Why don’t you come with me Cass?”
“Because I’ve got to figure out a way to either end the curse or beat the legacy,” she replied. “If I can’t, I’m going to spend the rest of my life up here playing sentinel to the damn gold. I can kiss any hope of a life together with you good-bye.”
“She’s right, Tony,” Gram said. “It’s not safe here for you. Cassie needs to come to grips with her role in the legacy.”
“All right, I’ll go because somebody has to,” Tony said, leaning to brush Cassie’s lips with his own. “I’m not sure what is going on here, but Cassie, I love you, whether you’re the Keeper or not. We have a future together, either way. Never doubt that.”
“Thanks,” Cassie said, giving Tony the sweetest smile she could muster. “But, I’d rather it be a future where I don’t have to worry that I might try to kill you at any time.”
“You won’t do anything foolish, like going back down alone?” Tony asked.
“I can’t make any promises,” Cassie said shaking her head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just know there has to be some way out of this.” Cassie wouldn’t lie to him, but she wasn’t going to take no for an answer either. She kissed him softly on the lips. “If you get going now, you can make it to the Jeep before dark.”
Once Tony was on his way down the mountain for a search party, Cassie gave a sigh of relief and turned to her grandmother. “Gram, you have to help me find a way out of this damn legacy.”
“The lake chose you,” Gram said, shaking her head. “You must accept…”
“No, you don’t understand,” Cassie said, placing a hand on her grandmother’s shoulder. “It’s not just about me, or even about me and Tony anymore.” Cassie’s hand absently went to her abdomen, resting there. “If I carry the legacy, it will be passed to my daughter. I will not bring a child into this world and send her down that path. People I love have died because of the legacy, and I won’t let it continue.”
Gram stood silent, smiling at Cassie, but saying nothing.
“What?” Cassie said with a puzzled expression. “Did I say something humorous?”
“I should have known,” Gram said, re-taking her seat. “You want to shed the legacy because you are with child. Why didn’t I see it?”
“You didn’t see anything, because there’s barely anything to see. I’m only five weeks along. I found out last week,” Cassie said, admitting her secret. “Tony doesn’t even know yet, and he can’t find out until this legacy thing is settled. I need you to think back. There must be a way to hand off the legacy, or a way to break the curse…something.”
“As long as the gold remains hidden in the cave, our ancestors will protect it from all but the Keeper,” Gram said. “Somehow, the lake became a part of the curse. You’ve seen how it protects the gold. How can you possibly argue with a force such as that?”
“Then, that’s it,” Cassie said, snapping her fingers. “If I destroy the hidden cavern, so no one can ever find the gold, the protection of the curse won’t be needed.”
“Cassie, no! You can’t!” Gram said, but it was too late. Cassie was up and out the door. Still she called out after her granddaughter. “The lake will know! The lake will stop you!”
Cassie ran to the boathouse, slipping into a wet suit, and grabbing a tank and gear, then hurriedly assessed the rest of the items stored there. She was looking for the dynamite Grandpa Hank used to use when the Fish and Wildlife was stocking the lake every year. It was his way of showing contempt for the government’s claim to the lake and their insistence on stocking it, bringing folks up here to fish. One spring he had shown her how to set the blasting caps and let her flip the switch to set off the charge. If he had any of it left it would be in here.
Cassie walked around the small boathouse, flipping up tarps to see what lay beneath them and peeking behind stacked boxes. The boathouse’s musty smell roiled her stomach, but she refused to give in to it. It shouldn’t take too long to find what she was looking for. She found the trigger and the blasting caps in a drawer, setting them aside with the scuba gear.
Cassie craned her neck to see the contents of the top shelf above the workbench, and that’s when she spotted it – two bundles of dynamite and a small roll of fuse. She climbed up onto the workbench, stretching her arm high to get it.
“This stuff has probably been sitting up here for at least ten years,” she said, blowing the top layers of dust off and setting them down gently on the bench. She climbed down, adding the dynamite and fuse to her assortment of equipment. Grabbing two waterproof dive bags, she headed for the motorboat.
As Cassie stuffed the dynamite and blasting gear into the dive bags, Gram came hobbling down the path to the dock. “Cassandra! You come back here this instant,” Gram yelled, eying the bundle of dynamite Cassie was stuffing into the second bag. “What you’re thinking is insane. The lake willnever let you do it.”
“I guess we’ll see Gram,” Cassie said. “I have to try.” She tossed the dive bags down into the motorboat and jumped in after them.
“Cassie, where did you get those things?” Gram asked, looking down at her granddaughter from the dock. “That’s not your grandfather’s dynamite is it? Do you have any idea how old it is?”
“It’s all I’ve got, Gram,” Cassie said, starting the boat’s motor and pulling up the anchor. “I’ll just have to work with it.”
“Don’t try and use it,” Gram said in warning. “It may be unstable. You could blow yourself sky high.”
Gram’s words were lost in the roar of the motor as Cassie pulled the boat away from the dock, opening it up full throttle as she headed out across the lake.
Cassie made it to the edge of the cove in a matter of minutes. Even if Gram tried to come after her, Cassie would be well concealed beneath the water’s surface before she could reach this point in the remaining rowboat. Although Gram had once been an expert scuba diver, Cassie couldn’t imagine her trying to follow her below the surface at her age and she felt pretty confident that nothing would stop her. Now, if she could just make her plan work.
Cassie positioned the tank on her back, setting her mouthpiece and mask. Then, she grabbed the diving bags and stepped off the side of the motorboat, hitting the water with a giant splash. She sank down and down, letting the weight of her body pull her through the murky water until she felt like she was at about the depth of the cavern entrance. She propelled her body in the direction she knew the rock formations to be.
This time, she found the entrance easily. In fact, she swam almost directly to it. She swam into the first cave, her headlamp lighting the way before her. A large turtle appeared out of the murk, startling her, causing her to back away until she realized what it was. Even then, she gave it a wide berth. A snapping turtle could take a finger off.
She followed the tunnel into the second cave, and then the third, but as she entered the tunnel that lead to the fourth cave, a strong current materialized, sweeping her back the way she had come. Like raging rapids on a large river, the current swept her along its own course, without regard for its unwilling passenger.
Just before she reached the second cave, the current’s force increased suddenly, spewing her out through the cave entrance. Then it dispersed just as quickly as it had materialized, leaving her free floating in the center of the cavern. She had just time enough to think, ‘What the hell?,’ before the figure of the old Indian woman appeared once more. She floated in the tunnel entrance, spotlighted in her headlamp this time, so her features could be seen more clearly.
Her long gray hair was braided neatly into two braids, framing a face that was old and wrinkled, the skin leathery, like the buckskin dress and headband she wore, heavily embroidered with turquoise beadwork. The old woman hunched over a walking stick, smiling with broken teeth as she pointed a crooked finger at Cassie, shaking her head. Inside Cassie’s mind, a voice boomed.
Cassie swam forward, determined to end the curse. She wasn’t about to let some ancestral spirit scare her off. But a current of water forced her backward once again and she heard the old woman’s words blasted into her brain, loud enough to ring her ears.
Cassie turned and swam in the opposite direction, toward the first cave and the lake beyond as fast as she could, all the while fighting to keep her panic at bay. As she propelled herself back into the open waters of the lake with haste, she swam right into another diver, who was heading for the entrance to the first cave.
As soon as she made physical contact with the diver, she felt a part of her brain switch over and another force take charge. Cassie could feel a latent anger rising within her, but she knew it wasn’t her own. It was the anger of the thing inside her. She tried to fight against it, to prevent the force from gaining control, but it was like the gate had been closed and locked behind her, and once again, all she could do was play the spectator to what her physical body would do.
Anger rose within Cassie, although she knew it wasn’t her anger, and she could do nothing to stop it. Her hand released the dynamite in the diving bags, letting them sink into the murky depths of the lake and she swam swiftly back to the cave entrance. Whoever, or whatever was controlling her now, didn’t notice or didn’t care about the despair that Cassie felt as she watched her plan to beat the curse float away. Like the anger, Cassie could do nothing about it.
Moving back into the first cave, she grabbed the other diver by the shoulder and spun him around to face her. The face behind the mask was one she knew well.
It was Tony. She’d sent him away, but here he was. Now she watched in horror as she punched the man she loved in the gut, causing him to expel his mouthpiece. Flailing his arms and legs, Tony struggled not to breathe in water as he moved toward the surface.
In her mind a vision rose of her dream, her mother slamming the obsidian box against her father’s skull, over and over. The image transformed into one of herself, doing the same thing. A silent scream rose in her head. No! Tony!
She exerted every ounce of energy she could muster to evict the force, or the presence, or whatever it was that inhabited her physical body. At first, she didn’t think it had any effect. Grandpa Hank’s words ran through her mind, “Your mother died fighting it.”
This thought only increased her determination not to give in to this force. She sent a mental shove back against it. All of the sudden, she felt the force go out of her with a huge mental “Pop!”
Then, she was Cassie once more. Swimming to Tony’s side, she placed the mouthpiece back between his lips, hoping that he would be able to do the rest. As his breathing picked up, Cassie led him to the surface.
Once she got him in the boat, Tony started to come around. Cassie left him lying on the floor of the motorboat while she started the motor up and took the wheel. She had to get Tony off this lake. She didn’t know if or when whatever had taken over her physical self would return, but she didn’t want Tony to be anywhere near the treasure if it did.
“Cassie?” he said from behind her. Then, he was at her side. “Cassie, what the hell is going on with you?”
“What the hell are you doing out here?” she said, steering the boat toward the dock. “You’re supposed to be on your way down the mountain.”
“I couldn’t leave you,” he replied. “I waited in the woods and followed you. With two people already missing, I was worried I’d lose you. I didn’t expect you to slug me for it. What were you trying to do?”
“I’ll explain later,” she said, pushing forward on the throttle. “Right now, we have to get you off this lake.”
As they pulled up to the dock, Cassie cut the motor, tying the boat off. As she held out her hand to help him debark, an explosive boom shook the earth, knocking her on her butt on the hard wood of the dock and sending Tony splaying onto his back once again, on the floor of the boat.
The massive roar of water caused Cassie to look up to see the contents of the lake rushing out the opening where the dam had been only moments ago, with a force strong enough to rip out ancient pines that had stood on the banks for hundreds of years by the roots, leaving only destruction in its wake.
“What the hell…?” Tony said, looking dazed.
Gram and Grandpa Hank hurried down the slope to the dock, as the waters swept past, tossing the motorboat like a raging storm, and threatening to tear the dock itself away.
Cassie reached out to grasp Tony’s hand once more, but the water tossed the motorboat in every direction, assaulting and nearly toppling her.
“Hurry,” she said, raising her voice to be heard over the roar of the water. “We need to get inside.”
Tony tried to gain his feet, but the boat tossed him back down again. He lunged for her hand. Her hand clasped around his wrist, but his didn’t find purchase. She let out a scream as his hand slipped through her fingers when the boat was tossed back the other way.
“You’re going to have to jump!” Cassie yelled to him as she held out her hand again, leaning out off the dock as far as she dared.
Tony rose to all fours. As another wave tossed the motorboat toward the dock, he sprang toward Cassie again. Their hands connected and their grip held, just as the boat was thrown in yet a different direction, ripping the tie-off rope from the dock, and sweeping it away along with everything else in the lake. Cassie summoned all the strength she could muster, yanking him up onto the flooded dock and out of harm’s way.
“Are you alright?” she asked, gathering him into her arms and hugging him to her.
“I warned you that dynamite wasn’t stable,” said Gram, splashing her way onto the dock behind them.
“Never mind that right now,” said Grandpa Hank. “Let’s get inside before we’re swept away like that boat.” As if to emphasize his point, the end of the dock sank into the raging water, disappearing into the torrents.
“Come on. Hurry!” Cassie said, raising her voice to be heard above the roar of the water, pushing them all forward toward the safety of the cabin. She hustled them all inside ahead of her, slamming the door on the flooding chaos.
The porch swing gently swayed with their combined weight as they looked out upon the still marshy meadow and the recently rediscovered rock formations, the morning sun barely showing its rays over the top of them. Cassie lay her head on Tony’s shoulder, still sleepy-eyed, clutching her sleeping baby girl to her in the crook of her arm.
“You going out again today?” Tony asked.
“Mmm-hmm,” Cassie replied, not opening her eyes. “Have to if I’m going to rediscover the location of the gold before it’s time to pass it on to Isabella.”
Tony placed a finger under her chin, turning it up to look at him. “I thought you didn’t want her to carry on the legacy?” he said with a puzzled look.
Cassie smiled at him. Sometimes she thought she loved him even more now than when she’d tried to save him from the curse last spring. It was the times when she saw him gently rocking their little Isabella, or playing “This Little Piggy” with her, making her laugh, or times like now, when he struggled so hard to understand, that made her adore him all the more.
“Things are different now,” Cassie said. “Since the lake drained, the natural landscape has reappeared. Fish and Wildlife have no reason for jurisdiction here. No more tourists traipsing up here looking for the gold from my cousin’s book. And if anyone does come looking, we can legally chase them off now. When it’s time to pass it down to Isy, it will be okay because there’s no need to protect it. All she’ll have to do is keep the lucky guy she marries from poking around in the hills.”
“So, now you’re okay with being the Keeper?” Tony asked.
“Now I am the Keeper,” Cassie said. “Whether I’m okay with it or not.”
“Because the lake chose you?” Tony said.
“No,” Cassie said, shaking her head. “Because it is my place. It’s the way my ancestors wanted it. I know I’ll find where the gold is hidden in this new landscape, because my ancestors want me to find it.”
“One thing I can’t figure out,” Tony said. “Why does the curse affect only the men? Why would your female ancestors do that? The men were a part of the tribe.”
“The men in the tribe were greedy,” Cassie said. “Many of them were corrupted by the white man’s whiskey and sought after the gold to trade for the liquid fire. The women took charge, keeping the gold hidden from them as well. If a male had a need for financing, enough gold was made available to meet their needs, but only the Keeper was allowed to know the location of the cavern, even before the landslide submerged it all.”
“Well, I’m content to let you keep all the secrets you want. Just don’t beat me up anymore,” Tony said with a chuckle. “That’s all I ask.”
Cassie sat up straight, stopping the motion of the porch swing with her foot and handing Isabella to him. “I’m not making any promises,” Cassie said, laughing. “You just be a good boy and take good care of our Isabella while I search.”
“You’re going out now?” he said. “It’s barely sunrise.”
“Isabella knows her destiny already,” Cassie said, rising to her feet. “That’s why she woke me up so early.”
“Really?” Tony said with a smirk. “And I thought it was because she was hungry.”
“All right, smart guy,” Cassie said, slugging him in the shoulder. “Gram’s cooking breakfast. Go on in and eat. I want to cover this end of the slope today, but I’ll be back before supper, I promise.”
Cassie kissed her husband on the cheek, and bent to peck her daughter on the forehead. Then, she set out across the marshy terrain of the meadow, catching a glimpse of a dark figure on the hill across the meadow, still and watching. Maybe today would be the day that she will find the gold.
For Kaye Lynne Booth, writing is her passion. Kaye has been a freelance writer for six years, with published work both online and in print. Kaye holds a dual M.F.A. degree in Creative Writing with emphasis in genre fiction and screenwriting. It is a very strange time indeed when Kaye does not have at least three WIPs going in addition to her schooling and writing for hire. Kaye also maintains a writing blog, “Writing to be Read,” where she publishes things of interest in the literary and screenwriting worlds.
- Header art is by the incredibly talented Elise Chisholm. [↩]