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The Devil Colony, Page 2

James Rollins

  Before Billy could comprehend what he was seeing, what was happening, he was struck from the side—not by an arrow or spear, but by an arm. He was knocked to the ground and rolled. The impact also snapped the world back into full focus.

  Shouts filled his ears. Horses screamed. Shadows danced amid torches as scores of men fought and grappled. All around, arrows sang through the air, accompanied by savage whoops.

  An Indian attack.

  Billy struggled, but he was pinned under the Frenchman. Fortescue hissed in his ear. “Stay down, boy.”

  The Frenchman rolled off him and flew to his feet as a half-naked savage, his face painted in a red mask of terror, came flying toward him, a hatchet raised high. Fortescue defended with his only weapon, as meager as it might be—his cane.

  As the length of carved oak swung to point at the attacker, it parted near the handle. A sheath of wood flew from the cane’s tip, revealing a sword hidden at its core. The empty sheath struck the savage in the forehead and caused him to stumble in his attack. Fortescue took advantage and lunged out, skewering the attacker through the chest.

  A guttural scream followed. Fortescue turned the man’s momentum, and dropped the savage beside Billy on the ground.

  The Frenchman yanked his sword free. “To me, boy!”

  Billy obeyed. It was all his mind would allow. He had no time to think. He struggled up, but a hand grabbed his arm. The bloody savage sought to hold him. Billy tugged his arm loose.

  The Indian fell back. Where the hand had clutched his sleeve, a smeared handprint remained. Not blood, Billy realized in a flash.


  He stared down at the dying savage. The palm that had clutched him was as white as a lily, though some of the paint was sticking to creases in the palm.

  Fingers clamped onto his collar and pulled him to his feet.

  Billy turned to Fortescue, who still kept hold of him. “They . . . they’re not Indians,” he sobbed out, struggling to understand.

  “I know,” Fortescue answered with nary a bit of fright.

  All around, chaos continued to reign. The last two torches went dark. Screams, prayers, and pleas for mercy echoed all around.

  Fortescue hauled Billy across the encampment, staying low, stopping only long enough to gather up the loose buffalo hide, which he shoved at Billy. They reached a lone horse hidden deeper in the woods, tethered to a tree, already saddled as if someone had anticipated the attack. The horse stamped and threw its head, panicked by the cries, by the smell of blood.

  The Frenchman pointed. “Up you go. Be ready to fly.”

  As Billy hooked a boot into the stirrup, the Frenchman vanished back into the shadows. With no choice, Billy climbed into the saddle. His weight seemed to calm the horse. He hugged his arms around the mount’s sweaty neck, but his heart continued to pound in his throat. Blood rushed through his ears. He wanted to clamp his hands over those ears, to shut out the bloody screams, but he strained to see any sign of approach by the savages.

  No, not savages, he reminded himself.

  A branch cracked behind him. He twisted around as a shape limped into view. From the cape of his jacket and the glint of his sword, he could see it was the Frenchman. Billy wanted to leap off the horse and clasp tightly to the man, to force him to make some sense of the bloodshed and deceit.

  Fortescue stumbled up to him. The broken shaft of an arrow stuck out of the man’s thigh, just above the knee. As he reached Billy’s side, he shoved two large objects up at him.

  “Take these. Keep them bundled in the hide.”

  Billy accepted the burdens. With a shock, he saw it was the crown of the monster’s cranium, split into two halves, bone on one side, gold on the other. Fortescue must have stolen them off the larger skull.

  But why?

  With no time for answers, he folded the two platters of gold-plated bone into the buffalo hide in his lap.

  “Go,” Fortescue said.

  Billy took the reins but hesitated. “What about you, sir?”

  Fortescue placed a hand on his knee, as if sensing his raw terror, trying to reassure him. His words were firm and fast. “You and your horse have enough of a burden to bear without my weight. You must fly as swiftly as you can. Take it where it will be safe.”

  “Where?” Billy asked, clenching the reins.

  “To the new governor of Virginia.” The Frenchman stepped away. “Take it to Thomas Jefferson.”

  Part I


  Chapter 1

  Present Day

  May 18, 1:32 P.M.

  Rocky Mountains, Utah

  It looked like the entrance to hell.

  The two young men stood on a ridge overlooking a deep, shadowy chasm. It had taken them eight hours to climb from the tiny burg of Roosevelt to this remote spot high in the Rocky Mountains.

  “Are you sure this is the right place?” Trent Wilder asked.

  Charlie Reed took out his cell phone, checked the GPS, then examined the Indian map drawn on a piece of deer hide and sealed in a clear plastic Ziploc bag. “I think so. According to the map, there should be a small stream at the bottom of this ravine. The cave entrance should be where the creek bends around to the north.”

  Trent shivered and brushed snow from his hair. Though a tapestry of wildflowers heralded the arrival of spring in the lowlands, up here winter still held a firm grip. The air remained frigid, and snow frosted the surrounding mountaintops. To make matters worse, the sky had been lowering all day, and a light flurry had begun to blow.

  Trent studied the narrow valley. It seemed to have no bottom. Down below, a black pine forest rose out of a sea of fog. Sheer cliffs surrounded all sides. While he had packed ropes and rappelling harnesses, he hoped he wouldn’t need them.

  But that wasn’t what was truly bothering him.

  “Maybe we shouldn’t be going down there,” he said.

  Charlie cocked an eyebrow at him. “After climbing all day?”

  “What about that curse? What your grandfather—”

  A hand waved dismissively. “The old man’s got one foot in the grave and a head full of peyote.” Charlie slapped him in the shoulder. “So don’t go crapping your pants. The cave probably has a few arrowheads, some broken pots. Maybe even a few bones, if we’re lucky. C’mon.”

  Trent had no choice but to follow Charlie down a thin deer trail they’d discovered earlier. As they picked their way along, he frowned at the back of Charlie’s crimson jacket, emblazoned with the two feathers representing the University of Utah. Trent still wore his high school letterman jacket, bearing the Roosevelt Union cougar. The two of them had been best friends since elementary school, but lately they’d been growing apart. Charlie had just finished his first year at college, while Trent had gone into full-time employment at his dad’s auto-body shop. Even this summer, Charlie would be participating in an internship with the Uintah Reservation’s law group.

  His friend was a rising star, one that Trent would soon need a telescope to watch from the tiny burg of Roosevelt. But what else was new? Charlie had always outshone Trent. Of course, it didn’t help matters that his friend was half Ute, with his people’s perpetual tan and long black hair. Trent’s red crew cut and the war of freckles across his nose and cheeks had forever relegated him to the role of Charlie’s wingman at school parties.

  Though the thought went unvoiced, it was as if they both knew their friendship was about to end as adulthood fell upon their shoulders. So as a rite of passage, the two had agreed to this last adventure, to search for a cave sacred to the Ute tribes.

  According to Charlie, only a handful of his tribal elders even knew about this burial site in the High Uintas Wilderness. Those who did were forbidden to speak of it. The only reason Charlie knew about it was that his grandfather liked his bourbon too much. Charlie doubted his grandfather even remembered showing him that old deer-hide map hidden in a hollowed-out buffalo horn.

  Trent had first heard the tale when he was
in junior high, huddled in a pup tent with Charlie. With a flashlight held to his chin for effect, his friend had shared the story. “My grandfather says the Great Spirit still haunts this cave. Guarding a huge treasure of our people.”

  “What sort of treasure?” Trent had asked doubtfully. At the time he had been more interested in the Playboy he’d sneaked out of his father’s closet. That was treasure enough for him.

  Charlie had shrugged. “Don’t know. But it must be cursed.”

  “What do you mean?”

  His friend had shifted the flashlight closer to his chin, devilishly arching an eyebrow. “Grandfather says whoever trespasses into the Great Spirit’s cave is never allowed to leave.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Because if they do, the world will end.”

  Right then, Trent’s old hound dog had let out an earsplitting wail, making them both jump. Afterward, they had laughed and talked deep into the night. Charlie ended up dismissing his grandfather’s story as superstitious nonsense. As a modern Indian, Charlie went out of his way to reject such foolishness.

  Even so, Charlie had sworn Trent to secrecy and refused to take him to the place marked on the map—until now.

  “It’s getting warmer down here,” Charlie said.

  Trent held out a palm. His friend was right. The snowfall had been growing heavier, the flakes thickening, but as they descended, the air had grown warmer, smelling vaguely of spoiled eggs. At some point, the snowfall had turned to a drizzling rain. He wiped his hand on his pants and realized that the fog he’d spotted earlier along the bottom of the ravine was actually steam.

  The source appeared through the trees below: a small creek bubbling along a rocky channel at the bottom of the ravine.

  “Smell that sulfur,” Charlie said with a sniff. Reaching the creek, he tested the water with a finger. “Hot. Must be fed by a geothermal spring somewhere around here.”

  Trent was unimpressed. The mountains around here were riddled with such baths.

  Charlie stood up. “This must be the right place.”

  “Why’s that?”

  “Hot spots like this are sacred to my people. So it only makes sense that they would pick this place for an important burial site.” Charlie headed out, hopping from rock to rock. “C’mon. We’re close.”

  Together, they followed the creek upstream. With each step, the air grew hotter. The sulfurous smell burned Trent’s eyes and nostrils. No wonder no one had ever found this place.

  With his eyes watering, Trent wanted to turn back, but Charlie suddenly stopped at a sharp bend in the creek. His friend swung in a full circle, holding out his cell phone like a divining rod, then checked the map he’d stolen from his grandfather’s bedroom this morning.

  “We’re here.”

  Trent searched around. He didn’t see any cave. Just trees and more trees. Overhead, snow had begun to frost on the higher elevations, but it continued to fall as a sickly rain down here.

  “The entrance has got to be somewhere nearby,” Charlie mumbled.

  “Or it could just be an old story.”

  Charlie hopped to the other side of the creek and began kicking at some leafy ferns on that side. “We should at least look around.”

  Trent made a half-assed attempt on his side, heading away from the water. “I don’t see anything!” he called back as he reached a wall of granite. “Why don’t we just—”

  Then he saw it out of the corner of his eye as he turned. It looked like another shadow on the cliff face, except a breeze was combing through the valley, setting branches to moving, shadows to shifting.

  Only this shadow didn’t move.

  He stepped closer. The cave entrance was low and wide, like a mouth frozen in a perpetual scowl. It opened four feet up the cliff face, sheltered under a protruding lip of stone.

  A splash and a curse announced the arrival of his friend.

  Trent pointed.

  “It’s really here,” Charlie said, sounding hesitant for the first time.

  They stood for a long moment, staring at the cave entrance, remembering the stories about it. They were both too nervous to move forward, but too full of manly pride to back away.

  “We doing this?” Trent finally asked.

  His words broke the stalemate.

  Charlie’s back stiffened. “Hell yeah, we’re doing this.”

  Before either of them could lose their nerve, they crossed to the cliff and climbed up into the lip of the cave. Charlie freed his flashlight and pointed it down a tunnel. A steep passageway extended deep into the mountainside.

  Charlie ducked his head inside. “Let’s go find that treasure!”

  Bolstered by the bravado in his friend’s voice, Trent followed.

  The passageway narrowed quickly, requiring them to shuffle along single file. The air was even hotter inside, but at least it was dry and didn’t stink as much.

  Squeezing through a particularly tight chute, Trent felt the heat of the granite through his jacket.

  “Man,” he said as he popped free, “it’s like a goddamn sauna down here.”

  Charlie’s face shone brightly. “Or a sweat lodge. Maybe the cave was even used by my people as one. I bet the source of the hot spring is right under our feet.”

  Trent didn’t like the sound of that, but there was no turning back now.

  A few more steep steps and the tunnel dumped into a low-roofed chamber about the size of a basketball court. Directly ahead, a crude pit had been excavated out of the rock, the granite still blackened by ancient flames.

  Charlie reached blindly to grab for Trent’s arm. His friend’s grip was iron, yet it still trembled. And Trent knew why.

  The cavern wasn’t empty.

  Positioned along the walls and spread across the floor was a field of bodies, men and women, some upright and cross-legged, others slumped on their sides. Leathery skin had dried to bone, eyes shriveled to sockets, lips peeled back to bare yellowed teeth. Each was naked to the waist, even the women, their breasts desiccated and lying flat on their chests. A few bodies had been decorated with headdresses of feathers or necklaces of stone and sinew.

  “My people,” Charlie said, his voice croaking with respect as he edged closer to one of the mummies.

  Trent followed. “Are you sure about that?”

  In the bright beam of the flashlight, their skin looked too pale, their hair too light. But Trent was no expert. Maybe the mineral-rich heat that had baked the bodies had also somehow bleached them.

  Charlie examined a man wearing a ringlet of black feathers around his neck. He stretched his flashlight closer. “This one looks red.”

  Charlie wasn’t talking about the man’s skin. In the direct glare of the beam, the tangle of hair around the dried skull was a ruddy auburn.

  Trent noted something else. “Look at his neck.”

  The man’s head had fallen back against the granite wall. The skin under his jaw gaped open, showing bone and dried tissue. The slice was too straight, the cause plain. The man’s shriveled fingers held a shiny metal blade. It still looked polished, reflecting the light.

  Charlie swung his flashlight in a slow circle around the room. Matching blades lay on the stone floor or in other bony grips.

  “Looks like they killed themselves,” Trent said, stunned.

  “But why?”

  Trent pointed to the only other feature in the room. Across the chamber, a dark tunnel continued deeper into the mountain. “Maybe they were hiding something down there, something they didn’t want anyone to know about?”

  They both stared. A shiver traveled up from Trent’s toes and raised goose bumps along his arms. Neither of them moved. Neither of them wanted to cross this room of death. Even the promise of treasure no longer held any appeal.

  Charlie spoke first. “Let’s get out of here.”

  Trent didn’t argue. He’d seen enough horror for one day.

  Charlie swung around and headed toward the exit, taking the only source of

  Trent followed him into the tunnel, but he kept glancing back, fearing that the Great Spirit would possess one of the dead bodies and send it shuffling after them, dagger in hand. Focused as he was behind him, his boot slipped on some loose shale. He fell hard on his belly and slid a few feet down the steep slope back toward the cavern.

  Charlie didn’t wait. In fact, he seemed anxious to escape. By the time Trent was back on his feet and dusting off his knees, Charlie had reached the tunnel’s end and hopped out.

  Trent started to yell a protest at being abandoned—but another shout, harsh and angry, erupted from outside. Someone else was out there. Trent froze in place. More heated words were exchanged, but Trent couldn’t make them out.

  Then a pistol shot cracked.

  Trent jumped and stumbled two steps back into the darkness.

  As the blast echoed away, a heavy silence was left in its wake.

  Charlie . . . ?

  Shaking with fear, Trent retreated down the tunnel, away from the entrance. His eyes had adjusted enough to allow him to reach the chamber of mummies without making a sound. He stopped at the edge of the cavern, trapped between the darkness at his back and whoever was out there.

  Silence stretched and time slowed.

  Then a scraping and huffing echoed down to him.

  Oh no.

  Trent clutched his throat. Someone was climbing into the cave. With his heart hammering, he had no choice but to retreat deeper into the darkness—but he needed a weapon. He stopped long enough to pry the knife from a dead man’s grip, snapping fingers like dried twigs.

  Once armed, he slipped the blade into his belt and picked his way across the field of bodies. He held his arms ahead of him, blindly brushing across brittle feathers, leathery skin, and coarse hair. He pictured bony hands reaching for him, but he refused to stop moving.

  He needed a place to hide.

  There was only one refuge.

  The far tunnel . . .

  But that frightened him.

  At one point, his foot stepped into open air. He came close to screaming—then realized it was only the old fire pit dug into the floor. A quick hop and he was over it. He tried to use the pit’s location to orient himself in the darkness, but it proved unnecessary.