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By Stephan Lang


The Montréal Review, October 2021


We launched our raft onto the serene Klamath River on the Oregon side. We had parked Willy’s car at the takeout on the California side of the river, then taken the hour-plus-long shuttle ride back to the put-in spot.

Willy and I had met while marching over the sands of the Iraqi desert in George the First’s war against Saddam Hussein and had been best of friends ever since.  We did everything together—hiking, crazy travel escapades, bowling, Friday-night poker, skeet shooting; we were inseparable.

Willy and I had traveled on many adventures together since our Army days in Iraq more than two decades earlier. Yet, Willy had to talk me into this trip. We were experienced rafters, but we didn’t know this waterway. I’d heard crazy things about this river, and I was nervous.

The only reason I’d consented to this little excursion was because I’d been down on my luck and needed a change of scenery, time to think things through and figure out what I was going to do with my life.

We paddled by deer grazing on the riverbanks, osprey soaring above the lush forest, and dragonflies buzzing through beams of sunlight at daybreak. We seemed to be the only boaters out that morning. Dew weighed upon the leaves; fresh mountain air filled our lungs. We stopped sculling, kicked back, and enjoyed the gentle float.

“What the hell are we doing on this river without a guide?” I asked.

“Shit, we don’t need a chaperon,” Willy said. “We’ve done this a million times.”

“But there are some class five rapids, and even a class six waterfall, downriver. We’ve haven’t even scoped it out.”

“Since when did you get so skittish?” Willy laughed. “You losing your nerve on me, Johnny Boy?”

“I’d say you’re getting reckless in your old age.”

“Don’t you worry; I’ve got it all mapped out. You just do your job when the time comes.”

 Willy was a headstrong, take-charge man. And once he got something in his head, there was no changing his mind. Those traits had earned Willy his captain bars back in Iraq. Captain Rocco had led our unit into a tiny Iraqi village to capture some strategic computer files detailing enemy attack plans. Willy was second in command. It was middle of the night, and the mission was supposed to be an easy in and out. Flashes from the second story of the targeted building ahead lit up the midnight sky. Rapid machine-gun fire cracked our eardrums; heart rates tripled in an instant. Rocco doubled over and collapsed onto the dirt street; his right hand clutched his rib cage, blood spouted from the side of his neck, and the dread of his pending demise was etched into the lines on his face. We dragged our wounded captain to cover. Rocco ordered us to retreat, but Willy objected.

“Abandon the mission. That’s an order.” Rocco belched blood along with his words.

“Fuck that, Rocco,” Willy countered. “You’re in no shape to give orders. You’re relieved.” Willy left a man with Rocco, and the rest of us took out the gunner and captured the computers. Rocco recovered, but his wounds merited him a ticket home. Willy’s decisive action earned him a promotion.

It got hot as the sun lifted into the sky, and by midday I’d already dived into the water a few times to cool off. But I couldn’t shake that “calm before the storm” sort of feeling.

“I want to see that map of yours,” I said.

Willy grinned and said, “I’ve got a surprise for you, and you’re going to love it. Going to make your life a whole lot better.”

I laughed out loud. “You’re always making stuff up. Whatever it takes to get your way.”

But Willy just kept that impish smile plastered on his face and wiggled his eyebrows. “You ever heard of an old green treasure box?”

I knew Willy had some kind of whopper in store for me. “You’re going to tell me whether I want to hear or not, so go ahead and get it over with.”

The river was wide, the current slow and gentle. Willy laid out flat on the starboard side of the raft and stuffed a backpack under his head for a pillow, like he was settling in and ironing out the final details of the tale he was about to tell. “In the late nineteenth century, Wells Fargo transported company payrolls, gold, silver, and other valuables from place to place by stagecoach. They carried the cache in a locked fortified box under the driver’s seat—the green treasure box.” Willy started out slow and methodical, then started talking faster as he got more excited. “A fellow name of Black Bart kept robbing the coaches, time after time. One day the driver shot Bart as he was making his getaway. Bart limped off, but he was too injured to carry the treasure box. So he buried it.”

“Okay, okay. You swayed me into coming on this little jaunt,” I said. “No need to feed me any more bullshit. I just want to see that map so we don’t kill ourselves going over the waterfall.” I looked right at him, but his head diverted, refusing to look me in the eye. “Oh shit, I should have known. There ain’t no map at all, is there?”

Willy sat up. The goofy smile and the wiggling eyebrows vanished. “They never found that old green treasure box.” The look on his face was dead-ass serious. “But I know right where it is.”

 I waffled between the hype and trusting my instincts. But I had to admit: he’d aroused my curiosity. I had no idea where Willy had gotten his information. But I knew from experience that he did a lot of research, always had great sources, and he was usually right.

“What’s in that green treasure box?” I asked.

“Who knows? Could be anything. But I can guarantee you one thing: the value was a lot in those days, but it’s worth a fortune today.”

“What do you need to be sticking your neck out for something like that? You’ve got enough money to last an eternity.”

“Johnny, Johnny,” Willy said, shaking his head. “You’re always asking too many questions. Why’d you have to go and spoil the surprise? The treasure ain’t for me, silly. It’s for you.” The smile returned to his face. Not the flippant simper that often preceded one of his fabricated yarns but, rather, the genuine beam that foretold truth and sincerity.

I couldn’t believe my ears. I was stunned, speechless, and all I could do was stare at Willy. I suppose my jaw was even hanging low. I started to ask him to repeat himself, just to be sure. But I could tell by looking at his face, observing his demeanor, that there really was a green treasure box somewhere downriver. And it had my name on it. I couldn’t help thinking about all the ways that money could change my life.

We had both retired from the Army five years ago, after completing the twenty years required to earn a monthly pension. Willy succeeded right away. He started a security consulting firm and landed fat contracts with a few Silicon Valley companies. He’d earned gobs of money the past few years, more than enough to last his lifetime and a few more.

With Willy’s tutelage, I started my own security company in Southern California. But a break-in on my watch and an unfortunate shoot-out started by a delusional employee who thought he was surrounded by Saddam’s Royal Guard cost me my only two contracts. I wallowed in debt for several months before calling it quits. Willy offered to bail me out, but I declined. He knew I was too proud to take his money. He’d been trying to put cash in my pocket ever since without dinging my pride and ego. Willy suggested I go to work with him, said we’d be partners. But I hadn’t decided what I was going to do yet.

My wife, Cara, left me about six months ago. She said she loved me, but it was a one-sided relationship living with an introverted man who rarely talked and answered every question with a one syllable grunt, and who was always out cavorting with his buddy. I told her I’d change, but she didn’t believe that was possible. Cara took our five-year-old daughter, Amanda, and moved to Colorado. I think Cara felt left out when Amanda and I huddled around the computer screen playing video games. Perhaps I should have spent more time teaching Cara how to play the games. But she didn’t have much interest, and she really wasn’t very good.

So here I was, unemployed, family gone, my car repossessed, house foreclosed on, and I couldn’t sleep on my best friend’s sofa forever. I was ten dollars short of bankruptcy and a day or two away from spending my foreseeable future in a tattered sleeping bag in front of some massage parlor in Chinatown. That treasure could turn my life around.

“You’re not just stringing me on, are you?” I asked.

“Money’s real. But it’s not going to solve all your problems. You’ve got to strike back and reclaim your family.”

“Cara’s not coming back.” I’d spoken the words, and they were probably true. But I couldn’t help but think that all those riches might somehow make a difference. But that green box had been missing for well over a hundred years. I had to be careful not to get my hopes up too high. It was too soon to stick that gold into my pocket just yet.

Willy glared at me like I was some sort of idiot. “Maybe, maybe not. So, what? You just going to give up on Amanda? She’s the real treasure in your life.”

By early afternoon we’d crossed over to the untamed California side of the river; waves cascaded over boulders, and thundering whitewater eclipsed all other sounds of nature.

We zoomed down the Klamath River, Willy at the helm. The forest whizzed past, and the towering, dangerous waterfall lurked straight ahead. It was late June, and the waters had already toasted to summer temperatures. But it had been a heavy winter and the river was at a high level, rapids still ferocious.

The waterfall roared a hundred meters straight ahead. We’d known about the falls, but the flash of anxiety Willy couldn’t mask announced the arrival of the obstacle a little sooner than he’d expected. Willy stretched over the side of the raft and paddled hard to his right in a frantic endeavor to reach shore, no more than ten meters away. But the current was strong, and the river rocketed us forward. Spit spewed out of his mouth as Willy exhorted me to do my share of the work. But water pellets battered my eyes, and blindness was the price I paid for neglecting to wear goggles.

“I can’t see a damn thing,” I said.

“You don’t need your fuckin’ eyes to paddle, asshole. Pull hard right.”

I thought back to him barking orders in Iraq. Willy had captained our 3rd Armored Cavalry Battery in Desert Storm and demanded that his orders be followed without question. Willy led us on long marches, zigzagging around rocks and hills in a remote section of the Iraqi desert, for no reason other than to remind us that Herr Willy was the man in charge. And he held no empathy for laggards.

I plunged the paddle into the water as far forward as I could reach and pulled toward shore. My left arm was weak from an old war injury. An osprey swooped into the water in front of us and emerged seconds later with a fish in his mouth that was jiggling and fighting for its life. The nose of our raft dipped, and a gush of water washed over my head. I didn’t let up and continued paddling as hard as I could. The rapids snickered at our feeble efforts. My back was to Willy, but I could picture him grumbling, “Fuck you” with his middle finger wagging toward me. I muttered, “Fuck you too, Willy” under my breath. But I don’t think he heard me.

I rubbed my eyes back to sight just in time to witness the falls directly in our path. Willy loved to beat his chest, but his strokes did no more to propel us toward the riverbank than my own. Our paltry production paled in contrast to the river’s strength. Willy groaned and stopped paddling.  “Sorry, bro—I might have miscalculated a bit.”

I pulled in my paddle, bewildered, and looked back at Willy. He forced an apologetic smile, and a resigned expression emanated from his catlike amber eyes. He stared right at me yet seemed to focus elsewhere. In all the years we’d know each other, I’d never detected even a wisp of defeat or acquiescence in Willy. But I saw it in his eyes that day.

I turned forward just as our craft launched over the top of the waterfall into the blue sky ahead, soaring as if in slow motion. “We’re fucked,” I groaned to myself.

In an instant we accelerated to warp speed. The paddle flew out of my hands, and I grabbed the lifelines along each side of the craft. The raft twirled in midair, on a rollercoaster without rails. My backpack whacked me in the head as it sailed out of the raft. Forest, water, the boat floor, and the cloudless sky raced by, in no particular order. I prayed as we flipped through the air, gyrating in every direction. But the words shot out of my mouth garbled, inadequate and confused, collapsing unheard into the pool below. I clutched the rope so tight that I could feel the indentations pressing on the palms of my hands and fingers.

I scrambled for a solution, any little thing that could salvage the outcome. Thoughts of regret and death marched side by side through my mind. No time to think.

Just then, Willy catapulted forward past my head. I instinctively ducked but could feel his arm brush against my shoulder and the warmth of his breath as he screamed in my direction. Torrents of water muddled his words, some crazy drivel I couldn’t make out.

The lifelines jerked from my hands. I tumbled through the air, then plummeted feetfirst into the water, toes pointed and knees slightly bent, just like they trained us to jump out of a helicopter into the Iraqi Sea. I torpedoed toward the bottom at electric speed, trapped in the cage of a billion bubbles.

Water rifled up my nose and into my sinus cavities. Instant sensations of drowning triggered waves of panic and nausea. My left foot and knee banged on the river floor; my ankle twisted in a crevice between rocks. My ears plugged up as if I were in an airplane descending too fast. I managed to hold my breath, but my head felt about to detonate at any moment.

I gathered my bearings and stabilized my feet against a hard surface. I coiled and pushed off the slippery bedrock, propelling myself upward. Water found a way into my throat and displaced whatever air remained in my lungs. My chest imploded. I was desperate for oxygen. Bubbles gushed by, tingling over my skin.

I erupted through the surface, sucking and gasping for air. I gagged and belched, spewing a putrid concoction of vomit and river water. I bobbed up and down, thrilled to be alive, still coughing and convulsing. I looked around for Willy, but spray from the waterfall limited visibility. I glanced up and thanked God for answering the prayer that I thought had fallen unheard. I also vowed to follow my instincts and never again blindly stumble into such a risky endeavor. That asshole almost got me killed. I called out Willy’s name.

No answer.

The water churned, and I dog-paddled away from the plunging waterfall. An eddy swirled along the riverbank to my left. I pinched my nose and popped my ears. Another pool whirled about on the opposite side of the river behind an ancient pine tree that had toppled halfway across the waterway. Beyond that, the river meandered away, placid, in stark contrast to the violence that roared behind me. I saw our raft floating upside down fifty meters downstream. I panicked and took two quick strokes after the raft before coming to my senses. I was never catching that thing and, besides, I had to find Willy. The raft disappeared around a bend in the river. The backpack containing all my essentials was lost.

I scanned the riverbanks from the base of the waterfall down to the river bend, then back again. I couldn’t see him in or out of the water. I called out for Willy. No reply.

I could barely hear my own thoughts.  I powered my way through the eddy that challenged my every stroke, fatigued and fueled by adrenaline alone. I waded toward shore, still looking around for my friend. I dragged myself up the embankment, exhausted.

I stood at river’s edge and surveyed the surroundings. Blood oozed from a gash on my foot. My scraped knee stung. Neither wound warranted a second thought. The left ankle throbbed but wasn’t debilitating. I was far enough away from the falls that my voice could be heard, and I once again called out Willy’s name. Still no response. He could be anywhere. Sitting on the shore a half mile downstream waiting for me. Or drowned at the bottom of the river.

Then I saw him across the waterway.

Willy’s body was splayed over the pine tree collapsed across the water, juxtaposed and somewhat camouflaged by half-dead branches near the top of the tree. His arms draped over the downstream side of the trunk as if hanging on to a lifeboat. His legs and feet drooped in the water, wobbling with the ebb and gentle flow within the pool. His head was hidden atop the tree trunk among the branches.

I hobbled along the riverbank, then dove into the water toward my friend. I kept my head up and eyes focused upon Willy as I swam, frantic, as if the pace of my strokes might ensure a good result.

I grasped onto a branch from the fallen pine and worked my way along the trunk toward Willy. I climbed onto the tree, sat down, and cradled his head on my thigh. Blood trickled out of the left side of his skull and smeared along the side of his face and neck. Rocks had gouged a considerable chunk from his cheek. His eyes were open. I checked for a pulse, but water sloshed up, and the treetop oscillated before I could get a reading.

With one arm I clutched Willy under his armpits, and we eased into the water. He was heavier than I expected him to be. He started slipping from my hold and sinking to the bottom. I tightened my clamp around his chest and managed a few strokes, then discovered the river was shallow enough to walk across. I staggered to my feet, struggling to keep my balance on the mossy stones. Then lugged Willy onto the shore before tripping on a root and falling atop him. I wrenched my knee on a jagged rock and groaned. Willy had no reaction to my body crashing onto him.

I towed him up a slight bluff onto a flat spot. His eyes were rolled back, his face blanched and clammy. His fingers were blue. They felt squashy and malleable, like one of those little black rubber balls you’re supposed to squeeze a hundred times every day to keep your hands strong. I pressed his wrists.

Willy had no pulse. I placed my ear over his heart as a double check. Nothing. I instinctively resorted to my CPR training, pressured his chest and breathed into his mouth, like blowing up a balloon—but different than ever before. I’d given mouth-to-mouth a hundred times during my Army schooling, but never to someone that I knew well or who might actually be dead. My heart rate quickened and battered the walls of my chest. It was hot in the direct sunlight, and sweat rolled off my brow and onto Willy’s face.

No response. I frantically repeated several times. Then finally stopped, out of breath. His arms were limp, his face listless.

I lifted my lips from his and looked into his eyes. Then scanned his head, torso, and limbs. I’d seen plenty of dead bodies in my Desert Storm days. I couldn’t tell if drowning or blunt force trauma had caused his demise. But Willy was gone.

I sat upon my knees on the riverbank, arms draped over Willy’s torso, my face just above his. I welled up and started to cry. But the tears never came. Willy wouldn’t have liked tears; that wasn’t the Army way. Whatever pain our violent journey had inflicted upon him had dissipated in death. I rested his head upon my lap and rocked back and forth for the longest time, lamenting the choices that had delivered us to that moment.  

The sun sank below the horizon, and a cool breeze whipped up over the river. I shivered, running both hands over my arms and legs to erase the goose bumps. It was probably thirty miles to the nearest civilization, and I couldn’t tell you in which direction that would be. I had no raft, no food, no phone, no compass, no dry clothes, and no shoes. Just the wet shorts and T-shirt I started the day with.

Willy was dead. He had died trying to help me, but, in a way, Willy proved to be my savior. We all had complained about those long desert marches, but Willy taught us to survive in conditions and situations much harsher than my current dilemma. He directed us how to find shelter when exposed to the elements and taught us how to use nearby resources to keep warm on freezing nights. Most important, he trained us to erase panic and fixate on the positive. “Ignore what you’ve lost. Focus on what you have.”

I placed my hand upon Willy’s arm and calmed myself. I didn’t need a phone, a compass, or shoes to survive. I had strength, good health, and a swift-running river. I placed Willy’s head on a soft bed of leaves and set off into the forest in search of asylum.

It didn’t take long to find a large protruding boulder that would defend me from the wind. And there were plenty of pine needles I could pile onto myself to keep warm enough to sleep and survive.

I returned and dragged Willy to a nearby embankment of rocks, earth, and small fir trees. I laid him by the base of the crag and stacked branches, pinecones, leaves, and whatever else I could find onto him to keep away predators. Just as I got him settled, the corner of a piece of paper in his hip pocket caught my eye.

I rolled Willy a quarter turn and removed the leaflet. It was like a long, thin pamphlet, or a program they might give you at the theatre. It was encased in one of those clear plastic sleeves, like a kid might use to protect his most valuable baseball card, hoping it would last a lifetime. The single sheet of paper was dry and had been folded many times. I opened the pouch and unfurled the document with great care, then spread it out atop a nearby flat rock.

The writing was in ballpoint pen, and some of the words were smudged. There was no doubt, however, that this was a handwritten map of some sort.

The Klamath River weaved its way from the upper left to the bottom right corner of the map. About a third of the way down, the river dropped vertically, about three inches straight down the page before continuing its winding and bending path. Above the vertical drop were written the words “CAUTION – WATERFALL.” I stopped reading, stared at the map, and reread the capital letters. Willy was no bumpkin. He may have been a thrill-seeker, but he was also a detailed, meticulous planner. In our Army days, he might have made us march in a half-mile circle ten times, but he would have calculated a safe excursion around the waterfall.

Willy had, however, become more and more reckless since leaving the Army. I remember the first time we went deep-sea diving. I’d been diving for years, but Willy took up the sport to pursue his interest in wreck diving, especially ships and planes sunk during World War II.

We traveled to the freezing waters of the Barents Sea inside the Arctic Circle off the northern coast of Siberia. Willy had only been diving for three months but thought he was more expert than he really was. He ignored my pleas and those of our Russian guide and plunged deeper than advisable to investigate the inside of an Allied ship of the Arctic Fleet. I accompanied him; the guide refused. Willy got stuck in an interior window of the vessel. After a while, the cold permeated our thermal dry suits, hypothermia set in, and our oxygen was running out. I waffled between trying to extricate Willy and surfacing for help. I kept tugging and finally budged the window frame a few inches. Willy broke free. After an abbreviated stop halfway, he ran out of air on the way to the surface. Fortunately, I had enough to get us both to safety.

Willy rested an hour and then went right back down. When the guide and I protested, he said, “I didn’t come this far to leave part of that ship unexplored. Who knows what treasures I might be able to salvage?”

A month later we were trekking off the established trails in Nepal in search of one of the original woodblock printers from the Tang Dynasty, over 1,200 years old. Willy slipped on the glacier and tumbled into a crevasse. He broke his leg, but the guides were able to pull him out. He was lucky the crevasse wasn’t deeper.

Willy seemed to be on a quest to match the adrenaline rush of bullets whizzing past his head or being knocked off his feet by exploding land mines. I grew leery of his crazy adventures, yet I never mustered up the nerve to say no to Willy.

I studied the map. There was a large red X circled on the map, about two miles downstream and a mile or so east of the river. Much like the big “X marks the spot” you might envision on the nineteenth-century treasure map to Edmond Dantes’s jewels in The Count of Monte Cristo. Beside the red X was a tightly written paragraph, which laid out clear instructions on how to travel from the banks of the river to the spot marked on the map. This was Willy’s treasure map, and X marked the burial place of Black Bart’s old green treasure box. I had no doubt.

I went back to the shelter to get some shut-eye. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Willy. He could be autocratic and callous. But he was also a kind man. There was nobody I would want more as my advocate than Willy. After being blown apart by a land mine in Iraq, I had lain in a makeshift hospital tent. When I awoke after three days in a coma, Willy was by my side. One of the nurses told me later that the doctors wanted to amputate my left arm but Willy wouldn’t let them. He not only never left my side, he posted an armed guard outside the tent to make sure they left my arm intact until I could decide for myself. By the third day, even the doctors saw enough progress to give it a 50/50 chance of recovering. Willy never mentioned that episode again. I never forgot it.

By the bank of the river, I was comfortable enough, but I couldn’t sleep. My mind bounced back and forth between hunger, cold, treasure, and survival. I wondered if I would ever see my daughter, Amanda, again. If there was any chance that Cara might take me back. Was the green treasure box really sitting under that big red X on Willy’s map? Perhaps I should sign up for a Dale Carnegie class and learn some better social skills. That’d show Cara how sincere I was.

Something flitted around and around my head. It sounded like a cricket but buzzed more like an annoying fly. I swatted left and right with both arms at the tiny tormentors until the noise went away. I thought about insects crawling all over Willy’s open wounds. Then the bugs started creeping up my legs and my chest and onto my face. I leapt up, shook my legs, and brushed my body as fast as I could, my face first. But there was nothing there. No bugs, no insects, no crickets, nothing. I climbed atop the boulder and huddled, shivering the rest of the night.  

I jumped up with the sun, tired, weary, and anxious to be on my way. I ran straight to the river and dove in. Didn’t give a shit how cold it was—I had to wash off all those bugs, imagined or not. Then I walked over to take one last look at Willy and piled rocks and leaves around his body. It was the best I could do for now. Hopefully I could get back to retrieve him soon.

I stuffed the map into the waterproof plastic sleeve and stashed it into the zippered pocket of my swim trunks. I’d memorized everything on Willy’s treasure map, down to the tiniest detail. I set off to claim my fortune.

I trudged back into the river. The water was chilly but not near so cold as being hunched up on that rock and quivering all night. The river would soon be warm enough. I rolled onto my back and let the current carry me downstream feetfirst. The float was gentle and peaceful, nothing like the calamity of the prior day. I gazed at the trees and blue sky passing by, dreaming about the riches that would soon be mine.

About a half hour into the tour, I recognized a landmark from Willy’s map: a large dead pine tree on a sandbar, charred and split from an old fire. The only scorched tree around according to the notes on Willy’s map. Then I saw our raft washed up on the sand and gravel shoal, just a few meters from the blackened tree. I instinctively let out a hoot. Had I been on land, I would’ve jumped for joy. I now had a ride back to safety. After all the misfortune of yesterday, fate was finally shining kindly upon me.

I swam straight for the spit and charged toward the boat. There was no paddle, but Willy’s backpack had been tied to the craft, another bit of good luck. I rifled through the knapsack and found shoes, a flashlight, a waterlogged iPhone, a fold-up camp shovel, a wallet, a compass, long pants, a hatchet, a bag of protein bars, eating utensils and plates, a Swiss Army knife, a sweatshirt I sure could have used last night, and, best of all, Willy’s car keys. With the hatchet and knife I knew I could carve a makeshift paddle out of some branch or driftwood. All I had to do was snatch the green box and paddle down to Willy’s car.

I grabbed a few protein bars and sat on a large Douglas fir fallen across part of the river. I scarfed down two bars, dangled my feet in the water, and pulled out the map.

The ground with the red X on the map was less than a mile away. Willy had expected to find that old green treasure box there, and he said it was all mine. I conjured up visions of chest-loads of jewels, rubies, pearls, and sapphires. Or long rows of gold bars stacked to the ceiling of some cave. Perhaps a trunk filled with uncut diamonds.

All the strange and smeared markings on the map popped to life as the terrain had unveiled itself over the past twenty-four hours. I looked left and spotted a boulder with a small sapling growing out of it, indicating the trailhead. The treasure box was no more than a twenty-minute walk from there.

The map to the treasure rested upon my lap, which would be mine for the taking. I started whittling a paddle out of a piece of driftwood. I thought about the old green treasure box and the surprise Willy had promised. Then I started thinking about how alone I felt.

My grief over Willy’s death made me realize just how much I needed to change my life, and not just the economics. Cara and Amanda were the only friends I had left, and I hadn’t seen them in six months. I had to find a way to get them back.

But Cara probably wouldn’t care about the green treasure box and whatever was in it. She was never too dazzled with money. She’d probably be more impressed if I came out of the Dale Carnegie course a little more social. She always blamed my aloofness on my addiction to video games. But I could swear off the games if that would help convince her to give me a second chance. Amanda probably wouldn’t be too thrilled with that choice. But there were plenty of things we could do together, things we could all three do together.

My thoughts circled back to Willy. He had survived all those battles, bombs, snipers, and mortars in Iraq. He endured diving in Arctic seas and falling off a glacier in Nepal, only to be done in by his quest for some treasure that may or may not even exist. What a waste, what a fucking waste of a good life.

I gazed back at the trailhead boulder, then down at the treasure map. I stared at it for the longest moment, then very calmly I tore the map in half. The thought of doing so had not even crossed my mind seconds before. But now it felt like the perfectly correct thing to do. That silly map had already brought enough grief.

I ripped the map in half again, and again, and then again.

I stood up on the fallen tree trunk and crumpled the fragments into the shape of a paper baseball. I wound up like Sandy Koufax, hesitated for just a second at the top of the windup, and then chucked it into the rapids.

I doubt if Willy would have approved of destroying the treasure map. But I didn’t care. I had his car keys and credit cards to get me to Colorado. I suspected that I might come to regret the impulsive decision someday. But, at that moment, for some mysterious reason, I was quite pleased with myself. That treasure would have felt like some sort of trade-off or compensation for Willy’s life. I don’t think I could have spent a nickel of that money with such a thought in my mind. I didn’t need all those riches. The Army had taught me plenty of skills. I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a job.

I didn’t wait around for second thoughts to creep into my mind. I dragged the raft to the water’s edge and launched myself downstream. The paddle I’d carved out of an old piece of driftwood was ugly and crooked, but it steered me just fine. Good enough to get me back on track in search of the real treasure that I was meant to find.


Stephan Lang retired in November, 2018, and has been writing full time ever since.
He has had fiction stories published in Kairos Literary Magazine, Decomp Journal, BlazeVOX, New Plains Review, Gloom Cupboard and Sixers Review. He is currently working on his first novel, a WWI historical fiction work. In addition, three other short story projects are near completion.


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