Chapter 64 - Buried Treasure

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The first rays of the morning sun stirred sounds of life within the forest. Birds sang and squirrels scuttled through the branches of the trees near the lake by Hideaway Cove.

Johnny and Stella woke in the reclined front seats of a stolen rental car, the morning light spilling through the windshield. Johnny took a moment to observe the quiet beauty of the woods before daybreak. In the foliage, just past the shore in the direction of a dense patch of bushes, Johnny thought he saw the movement of a deer. The rustling stopped and Johnny turned his attention elsewhere.

“I never thought I’d be sleeping in the front seat of a car at my age,” Stella said between yawns as she stretched her arms. With a chuckle, she added, “But then there are a lot of things I never thought I’d be doing.”

Johnny fumbled with a newspaper that rested on his lap and was propped against the steering wheel. It was yesterday’s edition, the copy he snatched from a gas station at the foot of the mountain the night before.

An article in the local sports section announced the Santa Ramona Middle School girls’ soccer team’s victory over Torrance in the state championship. Sabrina Santana received honors as the best player in her age group for all of Southern California, breaking the state’s season scoring record.

The article included a photo of her at an awards ceremony in Los Angeles. She seemed nervous in the snapshot under the glare of the flash. Her mouth curled in a forced smile as she used both hands to receive a shiny oversized trophy from British superstar David Beckham.

Johnny carefully tore the article and the picture out of the paper, folded them, and put them in his jacket pocket. He wondered whether he’d ever see Sabrina again, whether there would ever be a chance to explain everything that had happened.

“There’s no one out there, Grandma. The coast is clear,” he whispered, peering through the shrubs at the perimeter of the lake.

Stella opened the car door and stepped onto the leaf-covered soil. “Let’s make our play and get out of here.”

Johnny carried an old shovel he had found in the back of Elmer’s RV. They walked together from the edge of the campground through a field of dandelions to the crescent-shaped row of cedar trees. The mounds of dirt in front of the trees were now obscured with a natural camouflage of weeds, leaves, and fallen pine needles. By the time Johnny finished digging up all the bags of cash Stella had buried beneath the cedar trees, the forest was bathed in the hot light of the morning sun.

Johnny packed the ziplock bags of money tightly in his backpack and followed Stella back toward the lake. Then they heard a rustling. The sound stopped them in their tracks. They were not alone.

The movement came from the same location where earlier Johnny thought he might have seen a deer. Stella instinctively spun and flashed her Magnum revolver in the direction of the noise.

A tall man emerged from the bushes with his hands raised high and they realized instantly that it was Frank.

Stella dropped her gun among the dandelions and ran toward Frank, embracing him tightly. Johnny could see tears streaming down the faces of his father and grandmother as they held each other. He ran over and grabbed them both, the first three-way hug they’d shared in as long as he could remember.

“I don’t want to lose you two again,” Frank said. “Wherever we go, we go there together.”

“We can’t go back, Frank,” his mother stated calmly, like it was an immutable fact.

“We don’t have to go back to Santa Ramona, as long as you have what you need.”

Frank led them to a parking area in the main campground. His SUV was gone and in its place was a 1995 Honda minivan. After being released from the hospital, he bought it for one thousand dollars in cash from a man he met in the parking lot. The man was checking out after a trip to the emergency room. He was happy to take the cash from Frank and relinquish the keys without the hassle of going through any paperwork. Frank gave the man a ride home and then took the minivan straight to the mountains.

At the campground, Frank packed the crates of stolen Helixin into the rear of the minivan, covering them with bedsheets from Elmer’s RV. They said their final farewells to Hideaway Cove. In less than an hour, the vehicle was puttering down a winding two-lane road that cut through the back of the mountains, an eastern route that dropped into the desert towns of the Coachella Valley.

In the minivan, they passed by multi-million-dollar estates on Frank Sinatra Drive in the city of Rancho Mirage. They stopped at a red light only a hundred yards from the luxury hotel where Struthers and Jenkins had enjoyed a breakfast of crepes and mimosas after their morning round of golf.

The minivan sailed east on I-10, beyond the last tribal casino, into the no-man’s-land of the desert, past Blythe, across the Arizona state border, and onward. Johnny rolled down the window and savored the sting of the desert wind against his face. His father and grandmother were talking and laughing in the front seats of the van. He couldn’t make out what their conversation was about, but he had never heard them laugh so hard together.

The Valentine family was kicking into high gear now, looking out across a horizon that seemed truly endless in its range of possibilities. They were one of the millions of American families on the grid, moving through an endless network of interstates, shopping malls, fast-food chains, and suburban tracts.

They were starting over, seeking a new destiny on the frontier. It was another variation on the life of a hero that Johnny had always craved. They were pushing into the unknown, with only love and the frame of the minivan holding them together. It would take courage, but they had each other. And they had their health.

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Copyright 2013 Dmitri Ragano

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