Digging In The Dirt
Ringarde staggered down the face of the dune, a barely controlled slide to the bottom. It was not yet noon, but the sky already seemed filled with sun, its heat beating down on him, chastising him for his folly. Though weak from thirst, he held tight to an edge of the map that he had followed this far into the deep desert.
He cursed the map silently with every step, feeling a mix of hatred and lust for it at the same time. It promised riches but seemed to be delivering him instead to his death. What a fool he had been to even credit tales of a treasure map. Such cons were for the suckers straight off the train from the East. But when he had overheard the drunken boasts about it in a dive on the edge of the Thousand Mesas, his instincts told him the boasts rang true.
Ringarde and his gang had followed the boaster back to his camp and won the map in a bloody, moonlit raid. He should’ve known it wasn’t worth it then, when he lost the rest of his gang in the process. Well, Old Thom had made it out alive, but Ringarde had decided that one whole share of treasure was better than one half-share. That same night, he held a horse blanket over Old Thom’s mouth and nose until the old coot had stopped kicking.
Weeks later and far out West, Ringarde was out of food and water and his horse was dead on the trail some hours behind him. The map had promised not only treasure, but an oasis of sorts, at the Giants’ Graveyard on the far edge of the Dreaming Desert. Of course, the map had not been to scale, and Ringarde, uneducated and in a rush to claim the treasure, had ill prepared for an expedition so far into the dry desert wastes.
Should never have gone after the map, he thought, disgusted with himself. Killed me just as sure as it did the rest. It’s taking longer, is all. Such were his thoughts as he climbed another in an endless chain of towering dunes, only to find that the map had actually led him true; he had reached the Giants’ Graveyard.
He dropped to his stomach on the crest of the dune and peered at the sight before him, a flat valley littered with giant stone formations that had been scoured by the wind over millennia. Amidst the rocks and not that far away from him a camp was set up, with one large tent, several smaller ones and something (children?) scurrying back and forth like ants.
Ringarde slid back until he was out of sight of the camp. He carefully spread out his map, squinting at it in the glare of the sun, to double-check it. It showed a crude circle of thirteen rock formations that looked like a clock with an extra hour in it. The treasure was buried between the twelfth and thirteenth hours. An illustrated dragon — not the ornery, all-too-real kind, but the mythical, winged kind — curled around those formations, peering at the “X” that lay between them.
He shimmied up the dune face again and studied the camp. There were the thirteen great rock sculptures making up the clock, with the big tent near six o’clock. The ground inside the circle was dug up to hell and back, and the kids or whoever they were seemed to be digging more holes and moving dirt around.
The map hadn’t lied and by skill or fortune he had followed it true. The treasure, his treasure now, was within reach. But someone else was after it, too, and they weren’t messing around.
Ringarde wasn’t about to let that stand.
He didn’t bother being stealthy — didn’t have the strength for it– just walked up to the camp in plain sight, gun in hand. As he approached, he realized that it hadn’t been children he had seen scurrying about. They were little boxy steam-driven contraptions, running on two treads and with a broad, curved blade in the front, that were pushing dirt across the camp to a large mound. A dozen of them went back and forth in the time it took Ringarde to walk up to the large, square tent and open its flap with the barrel of his pistol.
Squinting into the shade of the tent, Ringarde found it empty of human inhabitants but full of bones, really big bones, covering several tables and even a small camp bed. Not sure what to make of that, Ringarde took it in turn to explore the other tents in the area: more bones, supplies, crates of explosives, broken steam shovel-things.
Whoever was digging here was in it for the long haul. They were really tearing the place up to find the treasure.
That’s because they don’t have the map, Ringarde smiled, beginning to feel good about his prospects. He felt even better when one of the tents opened up to reveal nothing less than a well, here in the middle of the desert. The oasis the map promised! Setting caution aside, Ringarde holstered his pistol and drew up the bucket, nearly upending it over his face as he gulped thirstily at the cool water.
Sated, he set about following the shovelers along their track, gun in hand again. The emptiness of the place was eerie. No humans except himself, only these wheezing, clanking steam devices for company. Ringarde shivered despite the midday heat. Someone stepped on my grave.
The shovelers unwittingly led him to the base of one of the large stone “hours” of the clock on his map. At the base of the wind-carved obelisk, a man in tan robes lay prone in its shade, using a tiny metal tool to carefully scrape around a protruding bone the size of Ringarde’s leg. The shovelers were rolling into a nearby pit and then back out again pushing a load of reddish sand and gravel.
No one else was around, best as Ringarde could tell, and the robed man was so intent on his task, he didn’t notice Ringarde’s approach. For a moment, Ringarde just stood there watching the man work, weighing his options. This was no treasure-hunter, Ringarde was sure. Treasure-hunters didn’t care about old bones. But would he make trouble for Ringarde if left alive? Maybe. And Ringarde didn’t like possible trouble. Just ask Old Thom.
Ringarde lifted his revolver, aimed and put his thumb on the hammer. He looked around at the steam shovelers who would be the only witness to his deed. Wondered how they worked. They sure seemed good at digging. Mighty useful to someone looking to dig up buried treasure, if you knew how to use them. The Doc there on the ground knew how to use them. Which meant Ringarde needed to use the Doc. For now.
He re-holstered his piece and cleared his throat, “Hey there, Doc. Ya got a minute?”
After his initial surprise at having a visitor in this desolate stretch of rock and sand, the Doc seemed quite eager to have someone to share his work with. He insisted on giving Ringarde the Ten-Bit tour.
“I’m no doctor, my friend. Professor Dao Bathyngtonne at your service.”
“Sure, Doc,” Ringarde replied, eyeing the camp. Where the earth wasn’t torn up, piles of bones littered the ground, as if a giant dog had been digging up his inventory.
Bathyngtonne would stop at each set of bones and talk about them, but Ringarde barely paid him any attention. His only thought was that the Doc had dug up so much of the landscape, it was a wonder he hadn’t found the treasure already himself. Or had he?
Ringarde turned in place until he was facing the formations that were the twelfth and thirteenth hours of the clock. He walked toward them, and Doc tagged along.
“Ah, you noticed the Bridge,” Doc named it, for obvious reasons. A large natural arch connected the two stone towers,. The ground underneath the arch was undisturbed, much to Ringarde’s relief. “This is particularly interesting. See this skull protruding from the rock face?”
Ringarde could hardly credit how large and narrow the skull was, with a set of sharp stubby teeth each the size of his hand. It angled down from the rock, its two empty eye sockets staring at nothing. Or not. According to the map, those eyes pointed to the treasure.
Doc was calling him on, however, to the other side of the massive rock, and Ringarde let himself be led along to a spot where a tall wooden ladder leaned against the stone.
“Now look up there, see that?”
Above the ladder, a wide, flat bone stuck out of the rock face. Doc laughed and beamed at Ringarde. “Do you see how big the creature was? From tip to tail he must have been 300 fists!”
Ringarde whistled, impressed despite himself, and recalled the illustration on the map. “Was this a dragon, Doc?”
“Of a sort,” Bathyngtonne explained. “But of course you’re thinking of the legendary winged dragons –” He pronounced it Wing-Ed, which Ringarde found pretentious and annoying. “ — of which today’s dragons are said to be descended. In point of fact,” he continued, gesturing animatedly, “I contend that these are not the bones of creatures that flew through the air, but rather ones that swam in the water.”
Ringarde looked around them at the near-infinite expanse of flat desert, recalled the fine sand dunes he had traveled over for weeks, felt the biting desert heat, and shook his head. Why is it that the smart ones are always so damned stupid, he thought.
“Yeah, I can see why they died, then,” Ringarde drawled.
Bathyngtonne caught his meaning and laughed. “Just so. But you see, I theorize that this all used to be a vast ocean. When the water level dropped, millions of fossils were left behind. These massive ones are a treasure though. Once I put together a complete set and bring it back East, I’m sure to secure funding for future expeditions. My name will be made.”
“Doc, no offense, but you got a screw loose.”
“A sceptic! Okay then, further evidence is required. Follow me!”
Ringarde was tiring of the Doc’s theorizing, but he needed him around a little longer, so he followed the crazy old man to one of the many bone piles strewn about the camp.
Doc handed Ringarde a bone about six fists long, and heavy. He nodded and looked at Ringarde expectantly.
“Well? Don’t you see?”
Ringarde played along, turned the bone over, looked it up and down. “See what?”
“That bone is entirely too heavy for a creature who supposedly flew threw the skies. If these were the bones of the dragons of myth, they would be light and hollow like birds. This bone didn’t come from a wing, it came from a fin!”
The Doc was a fool, a harmless one, but Ringarde had no more time for fools, so he ended the conversation by drawing his gun on the lunatic professor.
“Doc, I don’t care about dragons, unicorns, or dried-up oceans. But I need some help digging something up, and I think you’re the man to help me.”
Under Ringarde’s command, Doc set the shovelers to digging a new hole, under the gaze of the ancient sky-dragon, or water-dragon, or whatever it was. Doc programmed them and they went about their task, and the hole grew and grew, but still no treasure.
Ringarde held his gun on the Doc and held the map in his other hand, studying it.
“Doc, you sure you didn’t dig here already?”
“No, no digging. I only focused on the bones sticking out of the rocks here.”
“Bones? Were there any more skulls?”
“Not here, but on the other side of the bridge.” Doc pointed to the thirteenth-hour stone.
“Maiden’s tits, Doc! You mean we might’ve been digging in the wrong place this whole time?”
“Sir, I have no idea what you are looking for or where it might be buried,” the Doc protested.
Ringarde shoved the map at him and held the barrel of his revolver to his temple at the same time.
“Look at this map real close, Doc. Pretend your life depends on it. Where would you dig if you were me?”
Bathyngtonne studied the map, which shook in his hands.
“If you presume that the dragon on the map is staring at the spot you want to dig at, I think, there,” he pointed. “I uncovered this skull here only recently, so it can’t be the one the map refers to. But there was another skull protruding there, which I removed.”
“Then you’ve been wasting my time!” Ringarde snarled.
“I had no idea what you were after,” Bathyngtonne protested.
Ringarde answered that with a pistol butt to Bathyngtonne’s forehead, sending the old man sprawling with blood pouring down his face.
“Make them dig there, then,” Ringarde commanded.
The Doc got to his feet shakily, dabbing at his forehead with the loose cloth of his sleeve. He programmed the shovelers to work at the new location, and the long process of digging began again.
An hour passed and the sun began to lower in the sky. One by one, the shovelers began to move slowly, until they all had shuddered to a stop.
“What’s wrong with them?”
“Out of charge,” Bathyngtonne explained warily. “They need to be cleaned, refueled and refilled with water.”
Ringarde eyed the substantial pit that had already been dug and checked the height of the sun. He didn’t relish the thought of waiting until tomorrow to continue, having to guard the old man the entire time.
“Then let’s do this the old-fashioned way, Doc. Your turn.”
As the sun dipped lower in the sky, Ringarde had Bathyngtonne take over for the shovelers. After an hour of this, the old man was shoulder-deep in the ground, exhaustedly scooping shovelful after shovelful out of the hole. And then — thunk.
“I think,” he wheezed. “I think I found. Something.” He held up a dirt-encrusted gold Talon and dropped it by Ringarde’s feet.
“Out of the hole,” Ringarde ordered, waving his gun. “And don’t even think of trying anything.”
Bathyngtonne could barely pull himself out. He collapsed on the ground nearby, his chest bellowing in and out rapidly as he sought to regain his breath. Ringarde circled the pit so that he could keep an eye on the old man as he lowered himself in.
Glancing up frequently—the old man continued to lay there panting— Ringarde kicked around the floor of the pit with his boot. He felt something solid underfoot and heard loose coins clinking together. Light-headed from excitement and hunger, he decided to risk setting his gun down so that he could finish the job himself.
He fell to his knees and scrabbled at the loose coins and what felt like a hard case beneath them. But for a case, it was awfully long and narrow….
“Shit, old man, this is just another one of your fossils,” Ringarde said, standing up. As his head cleared the top of the pit, he saw the Doc standing above him, swinging a length of bone. It connected, and Ringarde’s world went dark.
It was full night when Ringarde came to. Bathyngtonne stood above him, his face lit by a lantern resting on the ground. He had a broken bone in one hand and an open saddle bag in the other. Inside the bag, gold Talons glistened. Ringarde struggled but found himself in the iron grip of packed dirt from his shoulder down. As he fought against the earth, a shoveler wheeled up to the pit and scraped another load of dirt in, which hit Ringarde in the face and fell about him. The old man had got some of them up and running again, it seemed.
“You made me ruin the bone,” Bathyngtonne complained, throwing the broken fossil aside. “But I think this is what you were looking for, hmmm? This and twelve other bags quite as full. I came across them early in my dig. A lucky find. Not the treasure I was looking for, but it will pay for my next expedition just as well as a set of sea-dragon bones.”
He dropped the bag to the ground and one Talon fell out and rolled into the pit by Ringarde’s head, right before his eyes. As he talked, shovelers continued to go about their work, pushing more dirt into the hole around Ringarde’s head and leaving to pick up another load.
“I covered up the hole where I found the bags, just in case someone came looking for them. Someone like you. I knew you wouldn’t just take the gold and let me go on with my work. Your kind doesn’t appreciate applied science.”
“Doc, you can have the gold, for Maiden’s sake, just let me go!”
Bathyngtonne rubbed his forehead where Ringarde’s pistol had broken the skin. “The desert is a fascinating place,” he went on, ignoring Ringarde’s pleas.
More shovelers came and went, performing their assigned task, indifferent to Ringarde’s screams. The dirt covered his mouth now, and he snorted great gasps of air through his nostrils, eyes wide and pleading.
“You never know what you’ll dig up. Who knows, maybe in a thousand years, someone will find you again.”
The shovelers continued along their programmed task until there was no sign of Ringarde’s final resting place except for an “X” on a map that had led him right to it.
About The Author
Andy Goldman is a long-time gamer and amateur writer and, most recently, proud father to twin girls.
This vignette was crafted by a FAR WEST fan — one of our Kickstarter backers, and serves as a preview of the fan participation in the FAR WEST setting that will be coming soon.