"Oh no! Oh no you don't, Rafael!" I shouted. I shook my head from side to side so hard my hair stung my face. "You are not going to Gato's Canyon to search for hidden treasure or anything else!" Rafael just stared at me. He had his mind set.
"What will Mama and Papa say?" I tried to reason with him, but I knew better. Rafael doesn't think like me. The kids at school say it's because he's mentally handicapped, but I know the kids at school and I know Rafael, and sometimes he seems a whole lot more focused than he acts. Just like now--one thought just takes over his whole brain and he doesn't think of anything else. He wants to run off after some crazy legend or something when it would just take a phone call to Papa at the hospital to solve it all, and I told him so.
I straightened my back, real big sister-like, and turned to pick up the phone. I felt smug as any victorious big sister would until I turned around with the phone in my hand. Rafael was gone!
Out the door and across our back yard, which, it just so happens, doubles as a huge desert for the great state we live in, he had bolted. Now I got really mad, I mean, do you know how ticked my parents would be if he got stung by a scorpion or ate by a snake or something? As I struggled to find my boots and get them on, I could picture my parents tear-stained faces as they begged strangers for information about me and Rafael, the unsolved mysteries.
My anger turned to panic. I stood up, boots half on, and sped out the screen door after my inspired baby brother. Rafael was nowhere in sight--he was fast and he had a head start. My mind raced. What if he got lost or died? What if I did trying to find him? Even if he made it over the plateau, which was a zillion feet high, he would be right in the middle of Gato's Canyon--the most dangerous and forbidden place for miles around.
Mama often told us both of the treasure buried there by bandits. She would sing songs to us at bedtime, especially Rafael, and they told the legends of people who tried to find the hidden treasure and failed.
"They lost everything, including their lives," Mama warned us. Then shed sing about the map to the treasure. We figured out it had something to do with the giant plateau behind our house, but the rest was a mystery.
I shuddered thinking about Rafael alone in the desert. Of course, with my mind all tangled up, my feet soon followed and I tripped down the front steps. I stumbled across the front yard and fell on my face. I almost landed right on Hobi-Dog, our big something mixed with something watch dog. "Why didn't you follow him, Hobi-Dog?" I asked, out of breath. He wagged his big tail at me and licked my face. Hobi is a great dog, but all he really watches is food. I patted his head as I stood up and headed across the desert, shirt flapping, and hair whipping in my face.
The faster I moved the more I felt like I was standing still. I hurried toward what I thought was the plateau, but soon everything started to look the same. I stopped, out of breath again, and turned in a wide circle. Our house was nowhere in sight. Nothing was in sight except sand--mounds and mounds of golden sand. I dropped to my knees to think, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in my stomach.
Rafael and I were in trouble and the problem was, I knew it. Rafael was lost in the middle of the desert, too, but he was on a mission and he probably hadn't thought twice about the danger around him. People assume that because we're born and raised near the desert, we can survive in it like a cactus or something. They think we can hunt, track, and live on tarantulas and iguana dung if we have to. Well, I am not the great desert guide people believe. My parents taught us respect for the nature, but they were saving survival skills camp for when Rafael got older. Oh, I know enough to save my neck if I get bit by something, or to worry myself into a frenzy now that I was lost and alone in the Shurbi Desert.
Suddenly, my anxious thoughts were interrupted by a loud scream. It echoed off the ridge of high sandy mounds I had blundered into and cut straight through my heart. I thought, "Oh no, that's Rafael!" and then I thought, "OH NO, THAT'S RAFAEL!" I stood up so fast that I almost fell down again. "Rafael! Rafael!" I screamed. I searched for the source of the noise, but saw only empty desert and steep, almost hidden sandy walls. How I wished I could ride the echo of my voice up the side of those walls, especially when I thought I heard another muffled scream.
I scurried to the nearest wall in front of me and dug my fingers into the hardened sand. I climbed and climbed and climbed, forever it seemed like, until I was about a foot from the top. I paused for a minute, and looked down, which is as big a mistake in real life as it is in the movies. I prepared myself for a fall, took a deep breath, and then...I took another one. I'm no hero, that's for sure, and I didn't want to see Raffi hurt. Finally, I pushed my fear down and hoisted myself up to just above the edge of the wall.
I froze with a tiny scream in my throat, which almost choked me, as I stared at the back end of the hugest rattlesnake I've ever seen, and he was rattling for all he was worth. I just held myself there looking stupidly at the butt end of an unhappy viper, terrified and helpless.
Then I heard something I wasn't sure I'd ever hear again--Rafael's voice! From behind the snake, I heard a tiny whimper. Its a snake, Serina, Rafael whispered in a terrified little voice as the continuous rattling began to vibrate in my spine.
Thats when it struck me! A thought, not the rattler. If snake wasnt looking at me, maybe I could climb up beside it, and then I could, well, I didnt know what I would do, but it beat hanging in the middle of the Shurbi with ill-tempered snake holding us hostage. I struggled as I inched quietly to the left. The snakes annoying vibrations became faster. It must have sensed my movement, so I stopped where I was and peeked cautiously over the edge of the wall again. The rattler was poised to strike, and Raffi was its target. Panicked, I scrambled to pull myself up enough to get a grip on one of my boots, which slipped right off of my foot, fell out of my hand, and plunged, as I watched in horror, to the desert floor below, hitting it with a resounding Thwop!
I looked up quickly, expecting to see the worst, but I all I saw was the snakes icy glare now directed at me. My arms were starting to ache and burn, and I could barely reach for my other boot. My grip was slipping, and I was in a bad position.
Suddenly I lost my grip completely and started to fall. I threw my other boot wildly. The rattler struck out at it as I grabbed the edge of the wall with my newly freed hand. The snakes fangs caught my boot in mid-air, sticking in the leather just long enough to throw it off balance. It tumbled downward, its twisting body grazed the wall just inches from me.
Out of nowhere, Rafael grabbed for my hands, which were slipping against the sand while my feet dangled wildly in the air. We both looked down when we heard the snake hit the ground, and to my surprise, it slithered away okay. I wasn't going to be so lucky if I didn't do something soon--the wall was crumbling from my weight.
Finally, Rafael pulled just as I pushed, and I tumbled over the top of the mound and into his arms. "Im sorry, I'm sorry," he repeated over and over again. Rafaels big brown eyes brimmed with tears as he choked out something about losing me like we had lost Mama. He sobbed as he gasped out his words, "Mama's dead, Serina!"
I just stared at him, shocked. I shook my head. "No, Rafael, she went to have a baby, that's all," I comforted him, hoping he wouldn't ask where babies come from.
He didn't, but after some coaxing, convincing, and tear-drying, Rafael told me why he thought Mama was dead. Ralph and Dori at school told him that people only go to the hospital to die, and called Mama a liar. They said she would never come back to us again. That is why he wanted to find the treasure, to prove Mama never lies.
"But there is no treasure, Serina, because once you're on the playdoh you're supposed to see a big round rock," Rafael sucked his tears back in as he spoke, and there is no rock, no canyon, no treasure, no nothin. So Mama did lie and now she's dead." I shook my head again, but I could tell his mind was set again. I knew he wouldn't believe anything I said, so I had to show him or we'd never even begin to get home.
I looked around. From the top of the mound, I could see everything, including our house, in the distance. Then I turned around, and right behind me I saw it--the playdoh, er, plateau that was the first stop on the way to Gato's Canyon.
"There it is!" I exclaimed over my shoulder, The plateau is there in front of us." Rafael didnt say anything. Rafael? I said as a thought popped into my head. If that was the real plateau in front us, and what we were standing on was not, what were we standing on? Something that wasnt there when the bandits hid the treasure, something probably formed later, Id guess, probably made of sand, which is incredibly crumbly and would explain why it started to fall apart under my weight.
I was afraid to turn around, but I did. Behind me, Rafael, too terrified to talk, sank into the ground. I made a grab for him, but I was too late. A huge, gaping hole swallowed him and me, and we were suddenly plunged into darkness, our screams echoing against the once hidden underground cave walls around us. We bumped and crashed against dirt, sand, and each other until our bodies landed with a splash into cold, rushing water. I gulped and thrashed as the raging river that caught us carried us along its path.
Both of us can swim (I know, I know--we live by a desert which we cant get out of but we can swim--ironic isnt it?), but the river had complete control over us. It tossed and bounced us for what seemed like forever. The current couldnt have been too strong because Rafael and I managed to keep hold of each other. I was beginning to feel a little better about the situation, because just ahead I saw sunlight. And where there is sunlight there is an opening, followed by a river bed with sandy banks, and a way out of the freezing cold water just on the other side.
But my relief didn't last long. I felt Rafaels grip tighten as the current picked up again closer to the sunlight. He has an instinct about things that I tend to miss, and he had probably added up the facts in his head--fast current plus opening in cave plus bright sunlight minus any visible river after the opening equals waterfall!
I clutched Rafael closer to my aching body as the river dragged us forward. I pictured the long drop that waited for us as I closed my eyes, and I tightened my grip on Rafael before we hit the opening.
The force of the river shot us out into nothingness, and my grip on Rafael loosened uncontrollably. I felt a scream I couldnt hear erupt from my throat. Then, thwump! I hit water again, way too soon for the waterfall to have been very high.
Rafael was floating on his back just in front of me, and he looked down his torso with a grin that told me he was okay. He pointed behind us at the "long drop" we were so afraid of--it was actually about twenty feet high. I vowed to call the map people and offer to draw them a revised map of the Shurbi as we crawled out of the icy water, breathless, and fell onto the warm desert floor.
After about a minute of gasping for air, I realized it wasnt very warm anymore--the sun was setting fast. I sat straight up. Theres no rest for the weary, especially not in the desert. Come on, Raffi, itll be night soon and well be freezing. Lets find shelter, I said to him. But he was busy pointing in front of us.
Serina, whats that there? he asked. I stood up and dusted myself off as I stared at the sun setting behind a huge plateau.
I smiled. That, Raffi, is a playdoh, I told him. He started dancing around and shouting about how we found the treasure and it was just around the corner and that Mama would live now, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
How was I supposed to tell him that we were going to die soon, just like the other fortune hunters, if we didnt do something fast, or maybe even if we did? I sat down hard on the ground and put my head in my hands. Rafael grabbed my arms and tried to get me to dance with him, but I jerked away.
Come on, Rafael, we have to find shelter, I insisted. Rafael hung his head and looked hurt. I tried to explain about the trouble we were in, but he shook his head. Hobi-Dog will find us, he said, and proudly displayed one of Hobis favorite treats, which he had stuck in his belt. The look on my face must have been priceless. The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping and my brother, soaked to the bone, was holding a dried up piece of salmon that he thought was going to bring our faithful Hobi-Dog to save us. What a nut!
But, you know, the nut was sort of right, as it turned out. Suddenly, just when I was ready to jump back into the river and let it sweep me into the next county to see if someone might notice my body drifting along by the highway, I realized that this forbidden, dangerous place looked awfully familiar. I had been here before! I couldnt remember exactly when or why, but I did remember there was a path back through the canyons sandy mounds.
I jumped up and grabbed Raffis hand, pulling him through the evening dimness toward the path. We got halfway there when I heard the loud bark, and Rafael started dancing around again. I heard more barking and mens voices. Then I saw flashlights and somebody grabbed me up in their arms. It was Papa! I hugged and hugged him. Rafael was patting Hobi on the head while feeding him dried up salmon and telling him what a good tracker he was. Two other men wrapped us up in blankets and helped us get into the trucks to head home.
On the way back, Papa told me about how Ralph and Dori's dad had stopped by the hospital to apologize for what theyd said to Raffi. When Mama heard, she tried to call home, but there was no answer. Mama and Papa have good instincts about things, just like Rafael, so Papa headed straight home.
He knew exactly what had happened when he found our house empty and Hobi-Dog jumping around, because I had done the same thing when Raffi was born! I told them I was trying to find a nice necklace from the treasure for Mama when they found me. Papa knew where to look for us because of the legends and, of course, Hobi-Dogs advanced dried salmon smelling abilities. We had been pretty close to Gato's Canyon all along--it was just over that "play-doh".
Papa must have read my mind, because he looked at me slyly and nodded. "Yes, Serina, there is treasure in Gato's Canyon," he whispered. He patted my hand and looked at Rafael, who was now sound asleep beside me, covered in Hobi-Dog. All I could see above Hobi's fur were Raffi's eyes and the top of his head. I understood what Papa meant: we were his and Mama's treasures.
"Next time they'll be two of you to watch Maria," Papa grinned, "Unless you decide to go treasure-hunting again." I snickered, but then I saw a flicker on Raffi's face.
I saw one big brown eye open and the corner of Raffi's mouth turn up into a smile. You know, I think this instinct thing is genetic or contagious. I have a strong feeling I may be back in the desert soon, dodging snakes, fighting raging waters, and freezing my terrified toes off. Oh well, at least next time I'll remember the salmon treats and be a little better prepared.
A language and science teacher for many years, Sharene Martin has been writing educational materials for children since 1989. Her first trade picture book, THIS MOMMA, THAT MOMMA will be available in 2005.