As they neared the top of the hill they came out from under the forest and stood before a great rock face that arched back into the hillside like the end of some huge stadium. Rachel stood now in the snow above her boots and took advantage of the moment’s rest. Her feet ached from the ski boots and her legs ached from the morning’s arduous trek. She drank from a canteen, then backed down to the treeline and leaned against the trunk of a beech while the two men who led the group spoke to each other and motioned to one spot and another in the rock face.
When she settled herself, Rachel thought again about the outrageous improbability of all that had happened in these last days. It was beyond belief that she now stood five thousand miles from her home, on a snow-covered hillside, perhaps looking at the outside of a cave where one of the greatest lost treasures of antiquity might be hidden. It was beyond belief that some chance or blind force had put her, a small town girl from the United States, in a position to claim fantastic wealth and status in such a find.
And so in her fatigue from the day’s work and the dizzy rush of the thousands of miles she had come in the past week she began to see that it was all surely for naught. That this would come to nothing. That she would leave here without treasure, wealth or newfound status and that she would never find herself on an economic plane with Jacob and thus never be able to accept and encourage his attentions. She sagged against the tree and hung her head while the two leaders walked toward an opening, no bigger than a washtub, at the very base of the rock face, at the very depth of its bite into the hillside.
The two men shed their rucksacks and fished out from them strap-on headlamps and, one by one, went prone on the snow and wiggled through the opening. They were out of sight for what seemed like a long time but when they reappeared they nodded enthusiastically and spoke loudly to John Cavendish who explained to the group that this was indeed the cave they were seeking.
Now emotion rose in Rachel again. How could she have doubted? This trip she was on was surely nothing of her own effort, nothing of her own desire or imagining. Some force was at work here. Something that she did not earn or merit but was working for her nonetheless. This must be grace. This was the tide of life that Jacob had set himself sailing on so many years ago. This was just one more chapter in the life he had inherited when he had given up his own will and opened his heart and mind to what life had to offer him. This flood of fortune was now coming to her.
The two men scraped away ice and snow above the low opening and exposed a joint between two great boulders that lay against the stone face of the outcropping and atop the crawl-hole they had just come through. The seam between the two great stones was even and straight, like it was the work of a mason. They took handfuls of plastic explosive from their packs and stashed it in yellow gobs here and there along the seams between the two boulders and the hillside behind. The entire group then headed back into the woods and down the hillside until the opening was long out of sight. Then the leader’s friend touched the screen of his phone three times and they heard the explosion and then the echo in the valley below and then the rain of shattered stone dropping through the brittle branches on the hilltop above.
They returned to the hilltop and the two leaders entered through the blown-open passageway that was now large enough for them to go through standing up. They disappeared into the dark opening and in moments emerged and motioned to the group to come ahead.
They retrieved their rucksacks and gave each of the four a headlamp and they strapped their rucksacks again to their backs led the way back to the opening.
The six of them walked wordlessly in single file, turning left and right along the narrow passage, their headlights casting beams at random angles along the walls of the cave. They crossed through inch-deep water and into a wide, high-ceilinged room where their footsteps echoed. The two leaders took lanterns from their rucksacks and set them on the floor of the cave and lit them and then took them up and walked the perimeter of the great room, looking for treasure or some passageway into a deeper chamber. Rachel stood still near the entrance to this chamber and followed the light of the two men who rounded the room. She was outside of the glow of the lantern and thus able to see more clearly than he who carried it what the light revealed. She saw the black shadow of the ancient cart before he did. Its straight lines, vertical and horizontal, were in unmistakable contrast to the contours of the cave walls. She thought that the leader might actually run into the cart and, forgetting the language barrier, called out “Stop.” The leader turned toward her, startled, and then John Cavendish, who had also made out the lines of the cart, spoke to the leader in German and the leader set his lantern on the floor of the cave and turned the beam of his headlamp onto the cart and surveyed the medieval conveyance and ran his hand along its empty bed. He then set the lantern onto the bed of the ancient, wooden vehicle so that all could see what had been hidden from the world for half a millennium.
Four waist-high,wood-spoked wheels and a flat, wooden bed maybe six feet long and four feet wide and completely devoid of any evidence of cargo, any evidence of packing crates or cases. Nothing but wood.
They found eighteen in all; all of them identical in size and condition and all of them identically barren. They went to their knees and searched the damp floor of the room and found not a single dropped coin, no lost diamond or sapphire or silver bracelet or ring or sword, no artifact that had escaped the scavenging of generations of spelunking locals. All had been taken. All was lost.
Rachel fought back tears and could not bring herself to look at Jacob. The carts would have some historical significance, he and John Cavendish agreed, but they would have no value on the private market and almost no value to the remaining Habsburgs. Their trip back to the car was almost wordless. They shushed back down the hollows like so many mimes and at the end shed their skis and boots and arranged themselves in the Range Rover the same as before and drove back to the house, this time in no hurry.
But they did not stop at the house. They drove on a few miles into a little town where they found service for their cell phones. John Cavendish called his office to begin the process of notifying the proper authorities about finding the carts. Rachel took out her own phone and found a message from Brad Dawson. She clicked it open and listened:
“Hey, Rachel. I’m sorry to bother you like this but you need to know this right now. When I pulled that metal plate off the wall in the basement I found an abnormality in the wall. What it looks to me like is that whole wall – almost the whole side there under the stairs – has been rebuilt. And whoever rebuilt it didn’t know what they were doing or they were in hurry or something. Bottom line: this is a load-bearing wall and it’s weak. It’s already bowed out so bad you can see it. It can’t be left alone. I’ve got it stanchioned up right now all along the girders and the joists but it can’t be left that way. This is going to be major. Might almost double the cost. I wish I could make this sound better, but this place is going to crumble if we don’t rebuild that wall. I can’t carry the cost of doing it, either. You’re going to have to find a way.”