The Skeleton Canyon Treasure
When Camille Dagneau surprises a strange man in the college machine shop she runs, she is ready for battle. Ryan MacAllister seems equally suspicious of her, but he insists he’s merely looking for his missing uncle, who has disappeared while hunting for a lost treasure. He believes Camie is the key to finding the treasure, and his uncle. But Camie – beautiful, brilliant, and prickly – isn’t about to trust this oversized geologist, or the attraction she feels.
Following the clues in the missing man’s journal will take Camie, Ryan, and the cat Tiger on a trail through New Mexico and Arizona. They’ll visit the Tombstone graveyard at night, uncover clues in museums, and ultimately wind up in Skeleton Canyon, where rumor says nineteenth-century cowboy bandits secreted their treasure in a cave. To rescue Ryan’s uncle, they’ll face steep cliffs, twisty tunnels, and worse dangers in human form, but trusting each other may be the biggest challenge. And they’re running out of time ….
If you love suspense and romance, don’t miss this gripping adventure! The Southwest Treasure Hunters novels include The Mad Monk’s Treasure and The Dead Man’s Treasure. Each novel stands alone in this series mixing action and adventure with light romance.
Scroll down to read Chapter 1
Publisher: Pig River Press
Publication Date: July 17, 2016
Camie let herself into the darkened building, reveling in the silence. At 10 PM on a Friday, the engineering department was abandoned, exactly the way she liked it. A few hours of work without distractions and she’d get her invention running.
A faint light shone in the darkened hallway. The glow spilled through the small square of glass in her door, a warning beacon coming from inside her machine shop. She hesitated. Had she forgotten to turn off the light when she left for dinner? Plausible but unlikely. Slapping the light switch on the way out was habit, and she’d been extra careful since the break-in a few nights earlier.
A few other people had keys to the college machine shop, but the cleaning staff would be long gone, and her student interns spent Friday nights at the bar. Camie returned after hours to work on her own projects because inspiration required solitude. So why was her light on?
She crept forward, as silent as the sleeping building around her. The ten-inch window was cloudy with age and threaded with wire mesh, but it didn’t completely hide the sight within. A large man stood on the far side of the room, hunched over one of her workbenches. She didn’t recognize him. Easily several inches over six feet and a good 220 pounds of mostly muscle, he would stand out in any crowd. Among the young geniuses of a science and engineering college, he was a mountain lion among prairie dogs.
Her eyes narrowed and she gave a low growl. What was he doing here, in her machine shop, messing with her equipment? He had to be connected to the earlier theft. Why would he come back when he already had her invention? He couldn’t know she’d already started rebuilding it. Maybe he wanted to steal her notes and the provisional patent application forms. Without them, she’d have a much harder time proving she’d been the original inventor.
She considered her options, calling campus security or the police being the most obvious. Campus security would be faster, but the police would have guns. Problem was, she’d left her phone inside the machine shop. She’d have to leave to find another phone, and he might escape in the meantime, with her notes, and the new version of her device. She didn’t trust the authorities to track him down once he got out of the building. More likely they’d take a report and do nothing. And she did not want to start over from scratch yet again.
And then the man actually reached out and picked up her baby, her new version of the invention, only partway rebuilt. All thought of options and smart choices vanished.
She barreled through the door.
The man spun around, still holding her machine. At least he didn’t drop it, and his hands were occupied so he couldn’t easily go for a weapon. But if he tried to get past her, she’d have to risk damaging her invention in order to stop him.
He gaped at her, several expressions flitting across his face as if unsure which one belonged. Finally he settled into a cocky grin. It didn’t make him good looking. But despite his size and her own keyed-up nerves, she didn’t get a sense of threat. She was usually good at reading people that way.
Still, she didn’t relax. “Well?”
He looked momentarily startled. What kind of greeting had he expected, a warm welcome?
He gave her a careful once over and then something like recognition lit in his eyes. He said cautiously, “You wouldn’t happen to be C. Dagneau?”
That was how she was listed on her nameplate outside the door. Ah, of course. He’d assumed that anyone who ran a machine shop had to be a man. Jerk.
She nodded once.
He turned and put her machine on the long table. She shifted so she could see enough of his hands to make sure they stayed empty. He wore jeans and a T-shirt, fitting closely enough she didn’t think he had anything in his pockets besides a wallet. She shot a glance at her filing cabinet, closed, and as far she could tell, still locked. Her notes appeared to be safe.
“What are you doing here?” she snarled.
“I was looking for you, actually.”
She raised one eyebrow. She’d spent weeks perfecting that particular move when she was fifteen, and it still came in handy when she needed to express skeptical disdain. “You expected to find me in the shop on a Friday night?”
He shrugged. “You’re here, aren’t you?”
Couldn’t argue with that logic. She tried again. “How did you get in?”
He hesitated a fraction too long. “The door was unlocked.”
She studied him, but the cocky grin was back, covering up any lies with attitude. He had the face of an Irish boxer. Not ugly, exactly, but definitely not handsome. Not that it mattered either way.
She knew she’d locked the door behind her. She remembered reaching back to twist the handle, testing it. The lock was loose since it had been damaged during the previous break-in and not yet replaced. Someone could have popped the lock with a credit card or a little force, but she doubted he could have gotten through without knowing he was breaking in. One chance in twenty maybe.
And she wasn’t ready to give up the offensive. “So you found me. Now what?” She crossed her arms under her breasts. His gaze flicked down for a moment but returned to her face before the perusal could get rude.
“It’s a bit complicated. How about a cup of coffee or something?”
“How about you tell me why you’re in my office in the middle of the night?”
“You must keep early hours. It’s barely past ten.”
She rolled her eyes. “Get to the point.”
“All right.” He leaned back against the workbench and crossed his arms, but where her stance was intentionally aggressive, his at least pretended to be relaxed. Still he studied her without speaking, trying to decide how to handle her.
She didn’t like being handled. She grabbed her cell phone from where it was plugged in near the door and started tapping the screen.
That got him moving. He took a step toward her. “OK, I’m looking for someone.”
“A minute ago you were looking for me.”
He blew out a breath. “My uncle. He’s missing and I’m worried something happened to him. The trail led me here. I wasn’t sure at first which side you were on, and that’s why I wanted to look around before talking to you. But now that I see you, I can tell you wouldn’t have had anything to do with his disappearance.” His blue eyes twinkled, and the confident smile gave him a certain appeal. But if he thought she’d fall for shallow flattery, he was much mistaken. Even assuming one could consider it flattering to be told, “You’re probably too harmless to have kidnapped my uncle.”
She was sure he was lying about something, and probably about everything. His appearance shortly after the theft of her invention, a machine that might be worth millions, could not be a coincidence. One chance in 10,000 maybe. He, or his uncle if he really had an uncle, had to be connected somehow.
If she could figure out how, she might get her invention back. Let him keep underestimating her, as most men did. Camie turned on her own charm. She flashed a smile that had him blinking as if the light were too bright. “Let’s get that cup of coffee, and you can tell me about it.” That would get him out of her shop, and into a public place where it would be easier to get help if needed.
He nodded. “Lead the way.”
Except there wasn’t any place to get coffee on campus on a Friday night. The disadvantage of a small town with a small school. She wasn’t about to get in a car with him, or let him out of her sight if they took separate vehicles. Since “coffee” was nothing more than an excuse, she led the way to the student center. No food or drink service at that time, but at least a few students would be hanging around, watching the big-screen TV in the lounge or playing pool in the game room down the hall.
Camie dropped into one of the soft chairs clustered near the main doors. No one else was in the foyer, but the glass windows meant anyone outside could see them, including campus security when they made their rounds. The spot provided plenty of privacy without the isolation of her building. She gestured to the man as he sat across from her. “Explain. You might start with your name.”
“Ah, didn’t we get to that? I’m Ryan MacAllister.” He grinned. “Age 32. Occupation, mining geologist. Currently between contract jobs. References available upon request.”
She almost asked to see a driver’s license and those references. But that could wait. Better to let him think she trusted everything he said for the moment. “Tell me about your uncle, Ryan.”
He hesitated, but this time she didn’t get the impression he was stalling or making up lies. Rather, he didn’t seem to know how to start. Finally he said, “He’s brilliant. A genius. But, well, he doesn’t quite fit in with normal society.”
Camie nodded. A few of her geek friends fit that profile. Some people would say she did as well. She didn’t consider it a bad thing, since “normal society” tended to suck.
“His hobby is treasure hunting.”
Camie tensed slightly, but she thought she hid her reaction well enough. Things were beginning to make sense.
“He’s always chasing after some treasure or another, trying to put together clues from old manuscripts, sort out rumors from facts, and so on. Once in a while, rarely, he’s actually found something.”
“What has he been working on lately?”
“The Skeleton Canyon treasure.” He snapped the phrase and stared at her, as if expecting to surprise her into some kind of admission. When she simply gazed back, he added, “Heard of it?”
She shook her head. Her friend Erin was the expert when it came to history and legend. Camie was in charge of the technology, and she had wilderness experience that came in handy. Together they’d found one long-lost treasure several years before and gotten some fame for their success, but since then they’d done no more than offer occasional advice on treasure hunting. It wasn’t a vocation, or even a serious hobby.
He watched her for several more seconds, eyes narrowed in suspicion, before he went on. “Skeleton Canyon isn’t too far from here. Southeastern Arizona, near the New Mexico border. But no one knows where exactly the treasure is, of course. My uncle was trying to piece together some clues. He kept a journal. A few days ago, I received the journal in the mail. No explanation except for a note that said to hold onto it for him.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t that the plot of the third Indiana Jones movie?”
Ryan shrugged. “Maybe that’s where he got the idea. Anyway, in the normal course of things, I might only hear from my uncle once or twice a year. I wouldn’t worry, or even notice, if I hadn’t heard from him. But this got me wondering. I tried to track him down. Not easy for someone with no permanent address. But he does have a cell phone. My mother, his sister, insisted on it. The deal is that he’s supposed to check his messages twice a week, no matter what, and respond within a day. I left a message three days ago.”
“That’s not so long.”
He shook his head, looking honestly worried. “A day late, I could understand. Maybe he’s somewhere in the wilderness where he didn’t have reception. Maybe he forgot what day it was. But it’s been too long. Yesterday I started reading through his journal, trying to make sense of things. Today I followed the trail this far, but now I need help.”
She studied him. He’d dropped the cocky charm that had grated on her nerves, leaving something appealing. But the puzzle was still missing a lot of pieces. “What makes you think your uncle came here?”
“He said as much.” His eyes narrowed and he leaned forward, as if he’d caught her in a lie and was going in for the kill. “One of the last entries in the journal said ‘New Mexico Science and Engineering College – Dagneau has what I need.’”
He glared at her, as if waiting for her to break down and confess everything, whatever crimes he thought she’d committed. She studied him with a slight smile to show she wouldn’t be disconcerted so easily. She said almost casually, “Earlier this week someone broke into the machine shop. They stole something of mine. Your uncle part of that?”
He drew back. “Uncle Donnie isn’t a thief.”
“Ah. I suppose I’ll have to take your word for it.”
He frowned. “What was stolen?”
“A machine that can see under the ground.”
“You mean like Ground Penetrating Radar?”
“This doesn’t use radar. It’s better.”
He shrugged. “My uncle isn’t a thief. If he thought this wondrous machine could be useful, he’d try to buy or rent one.”
“There only is one – mine.” She leaned forward, glaring. “And I want it back.”
“You have the only one in existence?” He gave her a skeptical look. “What makes this one machine in all the world so special?”
“It’s a lot cheaper and more portable than GPR. One person can carry it. And it picks up on different things than radar. It’s more like an ultrasound for the ground.”
Ryan frowned. “I haven’t heard of anything like that on the market, or even in development. Nothing small and cheap, anyway, nothing an amateur working alone could afford and use.”
“Of course not. I just built it.”
He studied her, and she could almost see the wheels turning in his brain. He seemed surprised by her claims, but that didn’t prove he hadn’t known about her invention. Maybe he was merely surprised that a pretty, young, blond woman had invented it.
Finally he said, “If you have something like that, I can see why my uncle wanted to find you. The Skeleton Canyon treasure is supposed to be hidden in a cave, possibly with a collapsed entrance.”
“Yes, my machine would work for that. If you were in the right area, you could identify empty spaces underground.” No point in hiding that fact now, with the horse long gone from the barn.
“But is it really small enough? Portable even over rough ground?”
“Absolutely. One person can carry it easily enough, all day, if they’re fit. The question is, who carried it away from here that night?”
Ryan slumped back. “I’m sure my uncle wouldn’t have stolen your machine. He’s a fanatic, but he’s not a thief. He would have tried to buy or borrow it.”
Her eyes hardened. “He wouldn’t have succeeded. But he didn’t even ask.”
“Then it wasn’t him. Has anyone else shown interest in it lately?”
“Not many people know about it. The patent lawyer in DC is making his fortune by charging me for the legal stuff. A few friends know what I’ve been working on, but I trust them. They know not to talk about it too much.”
She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she thought through the possibilities. “A couple of months ago, I made some comments on a discussion board. Nothing too specific. I was trying to do some market research, asking questions about what people needed to make my machine useful. Wait a minute, your Uncle Donnie wouldn’t have been Donald Johnson?”
He sat up straighter. “Yes. So you do know him!” He gave her a triumphant look, as if he’d finally tricked her into confessing to a major crime.
She shrugged. “We’ve never met in person, but he was active on the discussion board. Asked some questions. Sent me a private e-mail. Wanted to know if I really had such a machine. I didn’t give him a straight answer, but I can see why he might have wanted to follow-up.”
Ryan sat back and nodded, a bit begrudgingly it seemed. “All right, that makes sense. If he couldn’t pin you down by e-mail, he might have come in person. Only to ask questions, not to steal anything.”
Camie wasn’t sure whether she believed any of this, but at least they were making progress. “This is getting complicated. It’s time to call in reinforcements. Give me a number where you can be reached. While you’re at it, hand over some ID.” She gave him a smile a lot sweeter than her words. “Just to make sure you really are who you say you are.”
He handed over his driver’s license and a business card with a cell phone number. She studied the license, him, and the card, before handing the license back. “You staying here in town?”
She gave a quick nod and rose. “I’ll give you a call in the morning. We’ll meet with a few of my friends. I’d like to get a couple more opinions on all this.”
He rose as well and took a step toward her. He stood close and looked down into her face, a position that could be considered looming. She lifted her chin and gazed back. Something sprang between them that might have been attraction or might have been a challenge.
He nodded. “I’ll be waiting for your call.”
Camie smiled. Yeah, this was going to get interesting.