In the elation and excitement produced by Héctor’s interview with the curandera, he and Jesús “Eddie” could barely resist the impulse to start at once for Ladron Peak. A late-winter storm of unusual force for central New Mexico restored them to their senses, blanketing the peak and the mountains to the southwest and east in snow and immobilizing the city of Belen for thirty-six hours. Each time Héctor’s eyes were drawn—as happened at least a dozen times a day now—to the whited silhouette of Ladron, he thanked the Lord Jesus that he and Jesús “Eddie” had not been caught out on its slopes, with nothing to protect them from the elements but Jesús’s pickup truck and a nylon tent. After consulting the Farmer’s Almanac, they set a tentative date for sometime in late April, when the threat of serious cold had passed and before the summer heat set in, for the start of the expedition.
Hermana Carmen Cortez (as the business card taped beside the doorbell read) had fulfilled Héctor’s worst misgivings. Whether or not she was actually aged a hundred, as Jesús “Eddie” had claimed, she was, without doubt, the ugliest human being Héctor had ever beheld. As a small child, he’d been taken to visit a museum in Mexico where the family had been shown an exhibit of mummified babies in a glass case. Carmen Cortez looked like that only bigger, except for a fall of hair dyed a hideous purplish color with highlights added to it. The darkened room was lined with hanging sheaves of dried herbs and shelves on which bottles, vials, and canisters were arranged in rows. A fire of piñon pine logs burned in the fireplace, perfuming the close atmosphere, and a ponderous table built of age-darkened wood occupied the center space. On the walls between the shelves hung portraits of various Catholic saints. Behind the table Carmen Cortez herself sat in a high-backed chair, mercifully difficult to distinguish at first glance, owing to the dim light thrown by a dozen votive candles and the dropped rattan blinds at the windows. Héctor was speechless, but the curandera lost no time getting to the point.
“Beatriz tells me you are not here to be cured, that you wish for something else from me. What is it that you want, then? You don’t look very well to me.” The voice, coming from so fragile a figure, was astonishingly strong.
Spotting a vague shape in the gloom that had the general aspect of a chair, Héctor lowered himself upon it and found that he had surmised correctly.
“I am told you have the power of sight, Señora Cortez,” he began. “I am looking for something terribly important.”
“Hermana Carmen . . . And just what is it that you seek? Beatriz Juárez assured me you are not a Catholic.”
“No, Hermana. First Assembly of God.”
Héctor recounted for her the legend of the buried treasure, aware for the first time in the telling how improbable, even silly, the entire business sounded. Hermana Carmen, however, appeared to take him seriously.
“We will see what we will see,” she told him. “You have brought a map of the treasure mountain with you?”
Héctor drew the folded 7.5-minute quadrangle map, prepared by the National Geological Survey and including Ladron Peak and vicinity, from his coat pocket and passed it across the table to the curandera, offering as he did so silent thanks to Jesús “Eddie” for his foresightedness. Héctor on his own would never have thought to bring a topographic map, with Ladron Peak conveniently marked on it with an X, along with him to the appointment.
The curandera took the map and studied it. In the half-dark, Héctor was unable to observe her expression as she did this.
“Ladron Peak is a place of bad magic,” she said at last. “Many evil spirits are about there. They are certain to be guarding the treasure.”
“Yes, but—where exactly is the treasure?” Héctor asked impatiently.
Hermana Carmen refolded the map carefully on the table. She drew a rosary from the bosom of her dress and placed her hands on top of the map, clasping the string of shocking-pink plastic beads. She closed her eyes and sat that way, moving her lips silently as she told her beads, for what seemed to Héctor a very long time, until he was certain she had dozed off and was talking now in her sleep. He was on the point of knocking the edge of the desk to awaken her when suddenly she set aside the rosary, unfolded the map again, and spread it wide on the desktop. Finally the curandera jabbed the map violently with her right forefinger and opened her eyes wide. Héctor watched this performance in dismay. His mother had employed the same trick, using her Bible, whenever she had an important decision to make. But this was supposed to be magic!
Carmen Cortez removed her finger from the map and marked the spot with a red crayon. Then she pushed the map across the table to Héctor for his inspection. However, as he had no experience in reading topographic maps, the indicated site told him nothing.
“There you will find the treasure,” the curandera asserted, “hidden long ago by the Apache. You must search for a boulder split in two by a bolt of lightning and smelling of sulphur, and dig ten feet underneath it on the downhill side. Two hundred and fifty dollars, please.”
“But—Beatriz said it would be more like twenty-five! And my wife has the checkbook.”
“I take the card,” Hermana Carmen assured him.
On his way out, Héctor brushed against a man going past him into the adobe house. In the darkness of the unlit street he failed to see the face clearly, but even so he didn’t like the little he saw. The man looked like a treasure hunter to him.
The winter, which had been an exceptionally cold one, hung on a good deal later than usual that year. It was already the second week in May when the treasure hunters, encouraged at first by a burst of warm weather and finally overjoyed when it appeared that summer had arrived to stay, decided on the following weekend to launch their assault upon Ladron Peak. According to Jesús “Eddie,” the curandera’s X mark was placed high on the mountain at the head of a dry canyon running southeast for many miles into the desert, and Héctor, having no alternative, was willing to take his word for it. As a younger man, in his teens and twenties when he was still in shape, Jesús “Eddie” had spent much time exploring the peak, circumnavigating its extensive base by four-wheel-drive and climbing on foot as high on its precipitous slopes as he and his friends had dared to go. The treasure location, Jesús had assured his friend, was indeed a perilous one, ensuring that an attempt upon it would be fraught with many dangers, including sheer drops of hundreds of feet, gravel and talus slides, falling boulders, bad footing, rotten rock, and lightning strikes. Though Jesús “Eddie” was cavalier about these dangers, they gave Héctor pause. However, partly from pride, but mainly from treasure-lust, he tried not to show his discomfiture and determined to stick his courage in the screwing-place, as he’d heard somewhere of someone having once done. In fact, the prospect of his impending encounter with Ladron Peak was considerably less daunting than that of informing AveMaría of the planned adventure. If only, Héctor reflected, women had been blessed with more imagination!
Although he had already met his responsibilities by discovering the precise location of the treasure, Héctor was more than happy to aid Jesús “Eddie” in acquiring the gear they needed for the expedition. Jesús had made a list back in March, but, as new items of an indispensable nature continued to occur to the two of them, the list was now extensive. Beginning with Jesús “Eddie’s” Dodge pickup and his igloo tent, it included one set of tire chains and a sheepherder jack, one pickaxe, two shovels, and a handsaw, one hatchet, a Leatherman multitool, one kerosene and one electric lantern, 500 feet of nylon rope, two sets of rain gear, two sleeping bags, blankets, one 10×16 canvas tarp and two pillows, two hunting knives, a .44 Magnum and a .45-caliber revolver, a .270-caliber hunting rifle equipped with an adjustable 2×9-power scope, a Dutch oven, two cigarette lighters for starting fires and a box of Blue Diamond wooden matches, two picnic coolers, four cases of beer, and three bottles of blended Scotch. At Héctor’s suggestion, Jesús “Eddie” added two antivenin kits, though he insisted that rattlesnakes did not venture to such high elevations as the two of them would be exploring.
Ten days before the expedition was to set out, Héctor did whatever it is one is supposed to do with one’s courage and informed AveMaría of the treasure quest. He chose for the occasion an intimate steak dinner at the Golden Corral, his wife’s favorite restaurant, after the two of them had left Contracepción and Dubya at home to fend for themselves with a box of microwaveable beef burritos and a quart of chocolate ice cream. Whether owing to wifely gratitude or to the romantic atmosphere, AveMaría, greatly to Héctor’s surprise, offered no objection whatever to his adventure, which seemed rather to appeal to her imagination. As a fervent admirer of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, she had no difficulty imagining her husband as Humphrey Bogart, “lusting for the treasure that cursed them all the more he yearned for a woman’s arms” (as AveMaría remembered the line went). So far from considering the affair a wild-goose chase, she appeared even more confident than he of both the existence of the treasure and the likelihood that Héctor and Jesús “Eddie” would discover it in the end. People, she insisted, don’t believe for hundreds and hundreds of years in something that never existed in the first place. Moreover, she had heard of this Carmen Cortez, who was said to be a very powerful curandera who had healed many people of cancer and was supposed to have special powers when it came to curing erectile dysfunction. If the curandera confirmed that the Spanish treasure was buried on Ladron Peak and foretold the location where it would be dug up, then these things must be so. And wasn’t Héctor glad now to have lost his race for Congress two years ago, since, if he were a politician, he’d never have the time to go on a treasure hunt? The Villas could use the money, and now they’d be able to buy Bro. Billy Joe the church roof he wanted and never feel the pinch. Anyhow, it was better to be rich than famous or powerful, AveMaría concluded. And, after all, where was a person more likely to stumble on a fabulous legendary treasure trove than in El Norte, Land of Opportunity?
The expedition to Ladron Peak departed early in the morning of a soft spring day in late May, before the young clouds had begun to form above the wilderness of the upper Gila River country west of the Rio Grande and the Manzano Mountains lying east of the great river. The party was seen off from the Villa residence, where Beatriz Juárez had joined AveMaría and the children beneath a banner depicting Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. In the interests of security, neither Dubya nor Contracepción had been entrusted with the secret of their father’s quest. Instead, they’d been told that he and Jesús “Eddie” were making a camping trip to the Gila River to go fishing. At almost the last moment, Dubya cried out that they’d forgot their fishing rods, and disaster was averted only by Jesús, who quick-wittedly assured the kid that their rods were collapsible and packed safely in the bed of the pickup underneath all the gear. As the truck drew away down the street, Héctor, watching in the tow mirror as his family diminished behind the swirling, plunging folds of Our Lady’s banner, felt his eyes grow wet and his throat close up. Perhaps he would be bitten by a rattlesnake and die in the desert without ever seeing them again!
Though Ladron Peak rose only 20 miles southwest of Belen by line of sight, the journey to the broad circular base of the mountain was much farther, since that much of the approach was by winding and tortuous four-wheel-drive track across deep canyons and steep arroyos in which the Dodge toiled, rolling, pitching, and careening like a small boat in an ocean storm for five hours. Now Ladron Peak reared nearly above them, a massif of warped, twisted, and decaying rock blazing out against a high blue sky beneath the white sun of noonday, but the treasure seekers had yet to begin the steep ascent to the top of the wide pedestal where they’d planned to make base camp that evening.
In spite of the bright sharp light, the vivid colors of the rocks rearing overhead, and the comforting touch of a light spring wind, Héctor gazed upon the mountain with apprehension amounting almost to dread. Had not the curandera mentioned that Ladron Peak was a place of bad magic, alive with evil spirits? He’d forgotten her warning, until now. And now was too late to turn back. AveMaría would never believe that her husband was anything but a craven worm, a cobarde.
“You want another beer, compadre?” he asked Jesús “Eddie” in a brave voice.