Kian and Aidan set a quick pace over the ridge, she with Lucky on her back and Aidan with a small duffle over his shoulder. What had once been a Jeep trail was now overgrown with bushes and small saplings. They kept the trail in sight, but hiked through the old-growth forest where the sun had not encouraged as much lush foliage. It was easier going, and they could make better time.
Twenty minutes later they climbed out of a low ravine and found the road to the cave entrance. It would not be far now, Kian thought as she reached back to give Lucky a reassuring pat. He was still–too still. Frightened, she lowered the pack and untied it. When she reached in, he jumped out and ran into the forest. “Aidan,” she screeched.
“Wait, I’ll get him. You stay behind that boulder,” he said as he pointed to one just down the road.
“He won’t come to you,” she replied and hurried after him into the forest. Aidan set an even quicker pace, suddenly more on edge.
“Kian, I don’t like this. I feel someone coming.” He was about to grab her arm and pull her back up to the road when they spotted Lucky ten feet farther down the hill. Together, they ran down. Lucky waited until they were inches away and then turned to sprint between two tall craggy rocks. Fortunately, Kian was able to scoop him up. She shoved him back in her pack, but not before Lucky swiped at her, scratching her arm.
Aidan reached over and pushed Kian down. “Someone’s coming,” he repeated.
They watched as two people hurried toward the cave, arguing as they went. “I told you they wouldn’t be at the house. Kian left last night. I heard it in town. Come on before Raven finds we’re gone. That treasure they talk about, I’m sure it is in that cave somewhere.” The two passed around the bend.
Kian looked at Aidan. “Now what?”
“Is there another way in?”
“Not that I know of.”
Lucky let out a loud growl, pushed his way out of the backpack again, and swiped at Kian’s legs. When she bent down to grab him, he disappeared between the two craggy rocks.
“Looks like an adequate hiding place,” Aidan offered as he peered into the darkness beyond the opening. “See if you can get in there.”
Kian was able to squeeze herself through the narrow slit in the rocks, but Aidan had to get down on his belly and slithered in like a snake.
They found themselves in a tunnel. Barely high enough for Kian, Aidan had to stoop slightly to make his way through.
They used their outstretched hands to follow the cave walls until they were well away from the narrow entrance. Aidan switched on his flashlight. Lucky was sitting six inches in front of them. He allowed himself to be placed back in the pack, but this time rode with his head sticking out.
“You think that cat knew where he was going?”
“Maybe,” Kian replied, more as a reassurance to herself than to Aidan. “He did come out of these woods.”
Two minutes further along, a shaft of light broke through the darkness. There was a small hole that opened to the sky, allowing the sun to flood in. Aidan switched off the flashlight, and they followed the tunnel to a large room. Aidan, now able to stand, arched his sore back.
On the far side of the room, seven steps led down to another tunnel. “So far only one way in, so only one way out. We can’t get lost. Let’s give it a try.” Aidan switched on the flashlight again.
Several hundred feet in, the tunnel ended at a large boulder.
Aidan carefully moved his fingers along the edge, looking for handholds. He could find none.
“Let me try.” Kian handed Lucky, now crouched down in the backpack, to Aidan. She took the flashlight and started shining it along the edge of the rock. “Nothing. Let me try the other end,” she said as she moved to the other side of the boulder. She moved the light all along the edge before saying, “I think I got it.”
After carefully placing the flashlight on the ground, she moved her fingers into the chipped ridges and pulled back. The rock tilted slightly.
“Here, take Lucky. I may be able to do it.” Aidan grabbed the rock and pulled back. It tilted again. As Aidan maintained the force he was exerting, Kian walked around and, shoving her back into the side, she added her strength to his. The rock rolled out of the way. They peered into the darkness. Aidan picked up the flashlight and aimed it. Someone darted around a corner, disappearing down a side tunnel.
“Damn, Kian, who else knows about this place?”
To turn and leave would expose their backs to the shadow. Safer to move forward, Aidan figured. He motioned Kian back a couple of steps as he pulled his Sig Sauer from his waist. “Keep low,” he whispered before easing his way down the tunnel. Kian crouched and held the flashlight so it was shining in front of him as he moved. Aidan turned to her and mouthed, “No, keep it behind me.”
With his back to the cave wall, weapon pointing down in front of him, Aidan eased along taking his time. When he got to the side tunnel where the shadow had disappeared, he paused. He then mentally counted down, “Three, two, one.”
As if out of nowhere the shadow exploded from the tunnel and, with a swift kick to the gut, knocked Aidan to the ground. He managed to hold onto his weapon and was raising it to take aim when that, too, was kicked away.
Kian screamed just as the shadowy figure wrapped a garrote around Aidan’s neck. Aidan hunched his shoulders upward and tightened his neck muscles as he felt the garrote jerk, just enough to cut off some but not all his air. It was enough to prove the skill of the person who had attacked him.
Aidan relaxed his neck and elongated it, making just enough room to slip his fingers under the garrote. Then he feigned rolling to the right. When he felt the shadow pull to the left, he quickly jerked his entire body in that direction, sending his opponent off balance. In one swift motion he was on top. The figure bucked.
Aidan looked up to see Kian now inches from them staring at the woman he held down. “Kian,” he shouted, “I could use some help here.”
But Kian just stood there looking bewildered. “Mom,” she finally said.
“Litu, who is this man?”
Aidan looked at Kian. “Litu? That’s Apache for ‘red’.”
“She’s my mom,” Kian told Aidan. “Please, let her up.”
“I’m sure, now let her up.”
“We are not called Apache,” Kian’s mother informed him as he loosened his grip. “That’s the Zuni word for enemy. That is not who we are.”
“Tineh,” Aidan corrected himself, “‘Litu’ is Tineh for ‘red.'” He stood and, shaking himself off, he offered the woman his hand. “You must be Cat Buchanan.” She took it and stood. Graceful was Aidan’s assessment. Just like her daughter.
Cat took her daughter by the shoulders. As she looked at Kian, a slow smile spread across her face. Kian stared back, both women now with tears in their eyes. Cat took her daughter into her arms and held her for several long minutes. Aidan could see Kian was crying, and Cat was trembling as well. Neither woman said a word. Aidan supposed neither knew quite what to say.
When finally Cat broke the embrace, she looked over at Aidan. “You are?”
Kian stepped forward. “Mom, this is Aidan, Aidan Scott. Aidan’s been helping me.”
“He’s cute,” Aidan heard Cat whisper in Kian’s ear as she turned and motioned them to follow her down the tunnel.
Dressed in doeskins with shells dangling from the hem of her dress, Cat made a pleasant clacking sound as she walked. Around her neck was a necklace of turquoise and amber. On her feet she wore soft moccasins.
Her mother was shorter than Kian remembered, and older now, with graying hair still worn in her customary three braids. There was a commanding grace about the woman, one Kian recognized as belonging to her mother. Kian wanted to walk arm and arm with her mother. But, that was not Cat’s way. Indeed, she had been surprised at her mother’s earlier embrace. Cat held her distance in front of strangers, and Aidan was a stranger to her. So was she, Kian realized. Eighteen years was a long time. And it would take a while before they knew each other again.
After traveling several minutes, they rounded a corner, rolled another boulder out of the way, and entered the familiar cave. Kian blinked twice to focus. An older man sat at the rickety table.
The man stood. “Is this my Kian? My, my, but you have grown into a beautiful woman.” Kian rushed to her father as he limped toward her. She hugged him as tightly as she could. “Been practicing that bear hug since we left, huh?” He gave her another hug then drew back slightly and kissed her forehead. It was good to see him.
“Dad, what happened to your foot?”
Red Buchanan lifted his tattered trouser leg. His ankle was twisted and scarred. “Got it crushed,” he said.
“What he is not telling you is that someone crushed it for him,” Cat clarified putting her arm around her husband.
“That’s how we got stuck in those infernal tunnels,” Red added. “I couldn’t walk. Kian, I’m so sorry. If I’d been more careful all those years ago, we might have made it back home to you.” He looked at her, tears welling up his eyes.
By Usamasaad (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons