“Eeek! It’s a Rattler!”

Within minutes they were airborne. Bandit settled down in one of the captain’s chairs, Ben and Willy took their seats in the cockpit with Jold scrunched down on his knees between them, while Kate and Tali sat next to each other on the sofa in the cabin where they could talk.

“How’s your mom doing?” asked Kate.

“Not so bad I guess, just really worried about keeping the house. No idea where we would live if we lost it.”

“I think Grandpa Jimmy knows something we don’t. This is no wild goose chase!” said Kate.

“I prayed that God would save our home, maybe this is how He’s going to do it,” said Tali.

Not long after takeoff the fog on the windows evaporated. They watched the Rockies pass below. “The compass is reading 220 degrees,” said Willy, “we’re headed southwest, right for Arizona.”

The earth below transitioned from rugged mountains to plateaus and mesas, then to desert. The throttles on the Shirley Ann came back to idle, the flap handle moved to the landing position, and the gear handle to down. Three green lights, the gear was down and locked. There was no runway or even a dirt road in sight, just flat dry desert. The Shirley Ann flared her nose and the wheels gave a little squeak. She bounced a couple of times then settled down and rolled to a stop. The engines let out a belch and the propellers stopped. 

“Well, I guess we’re here,” said Ben.

Kate swung the cabin door open and was immediately greeted with a wave of hot desert air as it rushed into the cabin. “Anyone bring sunscreen?” she asked. As usual, Bandit was the first to jump out. Willy looked at the outside air temp gauge before leaving the cockpit, it read 94 degrees. “Glad we brought lots of water,” he murmured.”

Ben grabbed the binoculars and climbed on the wing of the Shirley Ann. The reflection of the sun off the shiny aluminum skin made it feel like he was standing in a giant oven. He scanned the horizon for any sign of a cabin. The starting point on the map was a crudely drawn cabin. Under it were the words Red Jack. It had to have been one of the gang’s hideouts.

“Hey guys, I can see a cabin that way,” he said as he pointed south. Like a cat desperate to escape the burn of a hot tin roof, Ben jumped from the wing, landing with his trademark ninja roll to absorb the impact. “Let’s load up and get going.”

“How far do we have to walk?” asked Jold.

“According to this map, it’s going be a really, really long walk,” said Tali. “So, load up with energy bars and lots of water, we’re going to need it.

Didn’t take long to reach what was still standing of a century old cabin. No need to open the door, it was hanging sideways from one leather strap. Willy gave it a pull and the door fell to the ground. He walked in first for a look around. Everything was covered with inches of dust. In one corner of the cabin the desert wind had piled waist deep sand up to the level of the missing window. A broken-down bed frame, a dry rotted table with what remained of two chairs laying on their side was all that remained. “The only good thing about this cabin, we know it’s the starting point on the map,” said Willy.

Then Bandit got their attention with his low steady growl. He was on the hunt, flat on his belly trying to squeeze under the collapsed bed frame. A bark, then Tali screamed, “EEK! Get out, it’s a rattlesnake.” Without thinking Jold rushed over to pull Bandit away. When he did, the rattler launched a strike. He missed Bandit but latched on to thick sole of Jold’s hiking boot. He swung his leg violently sending the snake through the air across the room narrowly missing Kate. It fell to the floor and slithered away through a crack in the wall.

The gang scrambled out the tiny doorway and ran about twenty yards, then stopped and looked back. All eyes scanned the ground between them and the cabin for any movement. Bandit barked and struggled to get free, but Jold held him tight to keep him from chasing after the scaly critter.

“Hey everyone, calm down. We’ve all seen snakes, it’s no biggie.  Let’s look at the map and see which way to head out,” said Ben.

Willy pulled the map from his backpack and placed it on a flat boulder. He held is his compass just above it then turned the map until it was aligned with north and south. “Looks like we need to head northwest and follow a dry creek to a giant cactus.”

“What are those tiny letters written next to the cactus?” asked Kate.

Into his backpack once again for the magnifying glass. “That’s really strange… I think it says… a mirror reflection.”

“What in the world does mirror reflection mean?” asked Jold.

“I don’t get it either,” said Ben. “Let’s start walking, we’ll figure it out when we get there.”

Finding the dry riverbed was easy, they were standing in it. They walked for nearly two hours before spotting a huge cactus in the distance. It looked at least fifteen feet tall. “No doubt that is the cactus on the map,” said Willy. “But I still haven’t figure out the mirror reflection thing. Anybody got an idea?”

“Not a clue, nope, nada.”

“Let’s just follow the map to the next marker,” said Jold.

“Sounds good to me,” said Tali.

The next line on the map was straight as an arrow. Next to it was a series of numbers and letters, 11-v11-0. At the end of the straight line was what looked like steps of a ladder up a steep wall. With the map lying on the ground and aligned with the compass it appeared they needed to turn left and head west.

“I think those are Roman Numerals except for the zero. They don’t have a symbol for zero,” said Kate. “If I’m right, the number is 27 and if you attach the 0, it’s 270. Wonder what that could mean?”

“I got it!” said Willy. 270 is a compass heading, it’s due west.”

“Yeah, for sure, that is what it means. Let’s go!” exclaimed Ben.

Nearly an hour into the second leg of their journey they reached an impasse. A shear cliff as far as the eye to see to the left and right. It was several hundred feet to the bottom and straight down. Without climbing equipment, there was no way down.

“Something is wrong,” said Ben. “The map didn’t show this canyon here.”

“I think is has something to do with the words, a mirror reflection,” said Tali. “If we look at the words in a mirror, they would be backwards, but they would read 072, does that make sense?”

“Yeah, but I don’t think that’s what it means. The mirror or reverse of 270 degrees on the compass is 090 degrees.”

“Oh my gosh,” said Tali. “We’ve been going the wrong direction.“

“That’s it, that’s gotta’ be it,” said Ben.

“About face, we’re headed east,” said Willy.

“Great, all that walkin’ for nothin,” said Jold.

An hour later they marched past the cactus for the second time. After yet another hour of blistering heat and rugged terrain they reached an extremely steep plateau. Ben estimated it to be five hundred feet high. “I think we should be looking for some kind of steps, like on the map,” he said.

They continued walking east along the base of the plateau for several hundred yards. Then, there is was, some kind of man-made rock ladder. Each step was carved from the sandstone wall and they appeared to go all the way to the top.

Ben started the climb with the gang close behind. Bandit seemed to be enjoying it all, racing ahead of everyone. Five hundred feet doesn’t sound like much till you’re climbing 30-inch steps up a 60-degree grade in scorching heat. “When we get to the top, we better stop and set up camp, it will be dark soon,” said Kate.

“You’re right, Kate, we’ll camp up top and see what tomorrow brings,” said Ben.

Thankfully, there was plenty of dead dry wood for a fire on the plateau. Once, long ago, there had been living trees there. They started a fire, laid out their sleeping bags and munched down on a few energy bars. They had gone through a lot of water on the long walk and would need to find more sometime the next day.

The sweltering 90-degree day turned into a chilly 50-degree night soon after sun set. Everyone huddled close to the fire. Willy laid out the map for all to see. “Where do we go from here?” asked Tali.

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