Un-buried Treasure

This is a true story. It happened on Violin Island, across the river from me. “Ricardo” is a Costa Rican/gringo living on the Boca Rio Sierpe.

Ricardo took off the backpack and sat on the ground. The hillside faced the low-lying sun and the Western Sea. The sea met the horizon in a flat, blue line, broken only by the blazing reflection of the setting sun.

The dogs barked again. Those lousy dogs! He had followed the dogs all afternoon as they ran through the forest searching for game, but all they managed to find were several families of white-faced monkeys. Ricardo would never harm any monkey; he truly believed they were cousins.

The dogs ran off and their barking faded into the distance. Maybe they had finally found something, but Ricardo was too tired to give chase. He noticed a sudden movement from the corner of his eye, turned, and saw a stream of black creatures leaping into the darkening sky!

They were bats. Ricardo jumped to his feet and watched. They flew out of the hillside thick and fast, their wings clacking in the silence. There must be hundreds, thousands! He leaned over and studied the area below him. Trees and low-lying bushes obscured his view, but he knew there must be a hole in the hillside.

He picked up his backpack and machete and cut a path downward. A few years ago, a landslide had occurred on this hill and the growth was secondary forest – thick and close to the ground. The machete banged against solid rock and he cleared away the vines with his hands until he stood level with the bats. He saw they emerged from a black hole fringed with bushes and small trees.

In another moment, the flow of bats dwindled considerably, and Ricardo moved cautiously toward the dark opening, chopping away the underbrush. The opening was a meter and a half wide and nearly two meters high, formed out of black, ancient bedrock – the bone of the mountain. He moved closer and felt a strong breeze issue from the hole. A soft, steady moan accompanied the breeze, as if this was the opening of a giant musical instrument. The low-octave note made his back teeth vibrate.

He ran his hand softly along the surface of the opening. The stone was weathered and smooth, stained black by age and dead lichen. He felt a series of groves in the rock – smooth, distinct, at regular intervals. He reached into his backpack and pulled out the flashlight.

The side of the opening had been carved! He stepped closer to the rock and inspected it. His finger traced the stylized figure of a monkey. Boruca Indians had settled in this area over five thousand years ago. A shock of excitement shot through his chest and heart.

Ricardo turned and studied the western sky; the daylight faded fast. However, he knew he couldn’t walk away from this tunnel without exploring a little further. A powerful feeling of attraction emanated from this hole, as if the heart of the mountain called out an invitation.

He reached into the backpack and took out a roll of fishing line. He tied one end firmly to a young tree next to the opening and fixed the roll on a stick. This would be his lifeline; one hundred and fifty meters of eighty-pound fishing line. The flashlight carried new batteries, enough for two hours of steady use.

He pushed aside the vegetation and stepped into the opening. His foot sunk into the soft detritus of centuries. The flashlight revealed the tunnel led downwards at a slight incline. Water dripped constantly from everywhere, settled into small pools and trickled down the tunnel. As Ricardo moved closer, he saw the small pools were indentations on the floor. They were steps! The Indians of long ago had carved steps into the bedrock.

He moved slowly on the slippery guano, steadying himself with one hand against the rock wall. In a moment, he had moved below the opening and into total darkness. He pictured the many tons of solid rock surrounding him, and he stopped. He stood still and listened. He heard a different sound, very faint, but distinct – a sort of whooshing noise occurring at regular intervals. He told himself he would not enter any water-filled tunnels. The tide was high at this moment, and maybe seawater flooded the tunnel. Isla Violin was a small island, about three kilometers long and only a kilometer wide. Sandy beaches bordered one side of the island, while the other side presented a solid rock face.

Isla Violin had emerged from the sea millions of years ago in a violent volcanic event, and there were other tunnels on the island. In fact, the presence of these tunnels had stimulated local legends about pirates and hidden treasure.

Ricardo breathed deeply and moved slowly; his rubber boots gave him good traction. He thought about the people who had discovered this tunnel. Up until four hundred years ago, a fairly large Boruca civilization flourished in this area, and had been around for millennia. They grew crops and fished, but they were also master artisans in gold and pottery. He had seen their artifacts on display at the national museum. Disease and greed had killed off the Boruca, like most indigenous peoples in Central America.

Clearly, this tunnel was important to the Indians. Why?

The breeze and the bass note it produced remained steady. The air seemed fresh and smelled of sea. He noticed there was less dripping now, but the whooshing sounded louder and more distinct, accompanied by faint vibrations through the wall and floor.

The sides of the tunnel felt smooth and wavy, and Ricardo assumed this tunnel roared with water during a heavy rain. He checked the fishing line and saw almost half the line had played out – about seventy-five meters. He gave it a slight tug, reassuring himself it was still attached. But he knew he couldn’t get lost; the tunnel ran fairly straight and there had been no side-tunnels.

Suddenly, he saw a light! Quickly, he turned off the flashlight. He stood perfectly still, holding his breath, his heart hammering. He blinked his eyes several times to make sure they were open, but the blackness was complete. He opened his mouth wide and gulped air quietly, listening for footsteps, for a voice.

He waited a minute this way, completely motionless, all his senses alert and on edge, but he detected no movement or living presence anywhere near him. Did he hallucinate? He was sure he had seen a light. Could it have been some animal or plant with luminescent qualities? He had seen such things at night in the forest, but never so brightly.

Ricardo waited another minute, until his breathing became almost normal, then, holding one hand firmly over the lens of the flashlight, he turned it on. A weak glow seeped around the edges of his fingers and illuminated faintly the tunnel wall next to him. Nothing attacked him and he sighed softly. He took his hand away, shined the flashlight out in front of him and again lost his breath.

Off to his left, the tunnel had widened into a cavern the size of his kitchen. The cavern had formed about half a meter above the tunnel floor, while the tunnel continued into the depths of the mountain. The beam of light reflected brightly off several shiny objects covering the cavern floor, and it was these reflections that had scared him. Water bubbled up from a large hole in the stone floor and he recognized the phosphorescent quality of seawater.

Although adrenaline ignited every cell in Ricardo’s body, he very deliberately kept his eyes averted from those shiny objects. He turned away and breathed deeply, telling himself to take it easy, take his time. He inspected the rest of the cavern. It seemed a natural formation, but he saw evidence of Indian occupation; a few places on the walls and ceiling had been scared by fire, and faint figures of animals and people had been carved into the rock. He recognized the artwork as Boruca. Seawater surged up from the hole in the floor with a regular rhythm, reflecting the ocean’s wave-patterns. If it was high tide now, Ricardo thought, this cavern might never get flooded, except during the rainy season.

Finally, he directed the flashlight on the floor of the cavern. Everywhere lay piles of gold objects. The objects appeared arranged in some sort of order; on one side, closest to him, lay neatly stacked rows of gold bars, glistening with a sheen of moisture and their own deep, lustrous hue. The stack measured about a meter high and a meter deep. Next to the stack of gold bars sat rows of gold and silver chalices, all different shapes and sizes, some encrusted with colored stones and gems. Beyond the chalices lay piles of gold and silver statuettes, golden crucifixes, golden candleholders, golden plates and other objects he couldn’t immediately identify.

Ricardo had grown up Catholic and knew these were Christian artifacts. Yet the Indian artwork on the walls was likely created long before Christ walked the earth, certainly before the Spanish ever arrived. How could this be? What had happened here? The heart of the mountain held a treasure and a mystery!

He bent over and inspected the gold bars. They had been crudely made, the molten gold poured into uneven molds, but all were roughly the same size – about twenty-five centimeters long and seven or eight centimeters thick. He wondered who had last touched those bars and when. It must have been hundreds of years ago.

Very slowly and deliberately, Ricardo extended a forefinger and laid it firmly against one gold bar. Again, he felt a bolt of excitement.

His fingertip rubbed against scratches on the bar and he noticed all the bars bore scratches on their upper surface. He bent closer and shined the flashlight at different angles. Finally, he saw the scratches made letters and numbers: “Francis Drake 1579”

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