(Mystery adventure. The brothers continue their search in the face of growing dangers)
Two hours later, they found relatively solid ground again. Half crawling and half swimming through the muck and slop of the swamp proved a test of endurance. They felt as though every insect in the area had descended upon them with fury. The smell was almost beyond suffering. On several occasions, one or other needed help to avoid getting trapped in the soupy ground that threatened to drag them under; and they both knew a bog could make them disappear for good. Inky darkness, broken up only by rare moments of moonlight through the clouds, made everything just a little bit worse. Neither of them thought about gold. It was all a matter for surviving to reach firmer ground.
They agreed to take a more prolonged halt.
Leo sipped at his canteen, trying to ignore the worse of the mosquitoes. “I hope you are ready for some constructive criticism,” he said, “because I am going to give it to you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Charles said, already getting his GPS out for another look.
Leo capped his canteen and tried his best to stretch his tired joints. He had not stood up straight for nearly two hours. “Let me be entirely reasonable, here,” he began. “There is no way we can go back this way. A little bit of body surfing through some shit is one thing, and two hours is another. We are not athletes. Point two: there is no way we can haul fifty pounds, let alone a hundred, of anything through here. Not feasible. You getting this?”
Charles was distracted with the GPS, not overly concerned with his brother’s gripes. He knew, though, that keeping Leo’s head in the game mattered.
“Leo,” Charles said, after fully processing both the GPS information and Leo’s words, “this will all work. This stretch of swamp was worse than I expected, point taken. It is not the end of the world. Yes, it is going to be tough, so we just have to work through it.”
“Work through it?” Leo interrupted. “What’s to work through? Did you even listen to me? I’ve lost a quart of blood to mosquitoes and feel like it’s been two hours of wind sprints. And if you didn’t notice, we both had some close calls back there. You think adding fifty pounds of gold to that is something we just work through?”
“All we need to do is get some flotation devices,” Charles said, finally taking some liquids for himself. “Something in foam would be safer than an inflatable, too many pointy branches out here. It doesn’t matter. This is only path we have to get us through without being seen, so it has to work. Anyway, the good news is that we are almost exactly on course. It’s only about twenty minutes to where we can start looking.”
Leo was slightly calmed. The idea of bring floats to help them through the swamp had not occurred to him, and the proximity to their goal refocused him.
“Fair enough,” Leo said. “I am taking another ten minutes of down time, though.”
“No problem,” Charles agreed. “We have to pace ourselves. There is more to do.”
“You know,” Leo said, swatting at the latest swarm of insects, “all I want to do is drain this fucking place and pave it. The bugs are killing me.”
Once rested, they continued toward their goal. The ground continued to firm up until it was just wet and muddy. The reeds grew higher than their heads as they approached the search area. Charles consulted the GPS several times before calling a quick halt.
“This is it,” Charles said, pulling two, odd lights from his pack. They looked like square cell phone with straps on the back. “The Gibson house is that way. It’s just close enough that we would see it, except for the reeds, but we will be getting closer as we search. That means they could see us, too. So watch out for breaks in the cover, especially if the clouds thin out; there’s a lot of moonlight coming through. These lights are red and dim, but enough to see with. Strap it to your palm, like this. Just use it in short bursts. No need to attract attention if anyone happens to look this way.”
“And we are looking for open areas, maybe with recent growth, right?” Leo asked, testing his light.
“That, or anything unusual,” Charles said. “Watch out for trails, especially as we get closer to the house. The Gibsons like their skidoos and quads. If we are lucky, they are using the same paths from years before. Whatever the case, keep an eye out for anything. Stay behind me. I will focus on the right side of our path. You watch left. All good?”
“We have a few hours to do this, so we don’t have to rush,” Charles said. “It would be a costly miss.”
They set out slowly, moving along in as close to a zigzag pattern as they could. Charles kept their GPS checks to a minimum, though even he admitted there was some guess work involved. It was not long before they came across the first trail. It was also that same time they noticed a thin mist was beginning to form, catching wisps of it with their dull, red lights.
“This is good,” Charles whispered excitedly, going straight to his GPS. “This is really good.”
“What’s good?” Leo asked. “The trail or the mist?”
“Both,” Charles said. “The mist will mean added cover, especially if it thickens up. This trail is pretty far from the house, and it doesn’t look like it is used much. I need to mark this point before we split up.”
“Whoa now,” Leo exclaimed. “When was splitting up ever part of the plan? I don’t have a GPS to work with. How the hell do I find my way around with you elsewhere?”
“Listen, chickenshit,” Charles chided, “if it makes you feel all safe and snug, you can hang onto the GPS. I’m not suggesting you go trailblazing blindly into the Gibson’s back yard. We each follow this path in a different direction and then return.”
“The trail could be awfully long. What about that?”
Charles sighed, repacking the GPS. “Simple. You follow the path until it ends, starts splitting up too much to follow, or brings you out into the open. If you check one of those boxes you can scamper back to your stronger, braver brother for safety.”
“You’re such an asshole, sometimes,” Leo said.
“Soon to be a sometimes wealthy asshole,” Charles shot back. “Just stay on the trail. When you head back, text me; that way I know you’re coming. You keep an eye on your phone, too.”
There was not much to disagree with, to Leo’s chagrin; still, he had no love for the plan. Splitting up had not even been mentioned when they were planning. Charles set off in what he thought was a northward direction, leaving the other way to Leo.
Leo could feel his fatigue nibbling at his energy reserve. It was more than just the physical trial of the swamp or late hour; it was that plus the long week of short, irregular sleep and nearly constant work. The trail was, as Charles had suggested, not recently used. The mist continued to rise, steadily thickening and swirling, moving higher and higher, until it was nearly at Leo’s chin. He was not far before he noticed the insects had thinned out in the cool, damp air.
“When the hell did it get so misty in the dead of night?” he half whispered to himself.
The hand light was growing less effective, doing little more than turn the mist into a creepy, red blur. The trail felt like it was growing closer, tighter; and Leo found it impossible to notice anything unusual. His path twisted and turned more times than he could count. The experience felt vaguely surreal and dreamlike, in a spooky way. It was at that point he noticed two things: he had moved the shotgun to a ready carry; and he had lost the trail.