The Traveller mopped his perspiring forehead and settled himself comfortably on the grass in the shade of a large tree. He drank thirstily from one of the bottles of water he had purchased in the village and thought over the story the old man had told him. Can’t be much further, he thought. The old man said I’d get there by sunset.
When the Traveller had entered the inn, he had noticed at once the old man sitting alone at one of the small tables near the bar. He looked up, and his rheumy eyes appraised the Traveller who went to join him.
They sat in silence for a few minutes while the old man studied the Traveller’s dusty appearance, his unshaven face, and the small bag that he carried. Presently he spoke.
“Going far?” he enquired, draining his tankard. “I’m not sure,” responded the Traveller. “Just travelling along. I haven’t been here before,” added rather unnecessarily.
The old man sucked on a dilapidated pipe. “thought you might be looking for them jools,” he commentated. “They usually are.”
The Traveller became interested. “What jewels?” he asked.
The old man remained silent. Then “thirsty weather,” he muttered, looking at his empty tankard.
The Traveller took the hint. “Let me get you another beer,” he offered. Walking towards the bar, he missed the wink the old man gave to the smiling bartender!
With the fresh beer before him, the old man again became loquacious. “Big jool robbery long time ago,” he began, “Got away with the jools, they did.”
The Traveller leaned forward, “Never found them, do you mean? But surely the police –.”
“Aye, they caught all three men, but no jools.” The old man took a large gulp of beer and nodded sagely, “Big shootout at the farmhouse and all three men got killed. Police couldn’t find no jools, big search, very big search, but no jools.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “It was a long time ago,” he repeated, “But folks still come looking for them jools.”
“But where do they look? asked the Traveller. “If the police can’t find the jewels, how can anyone else?”
The old man relit his pipe. “They do say that there was an old well where they might be hidden. Somewhere near the farmhouse.” He coughed. “Folks has gone to look,” he went on. “But no one has come back and said they found the well or the jools.”
He guffawed loudly. “Maybe they did and didn’t want anyone to know. Never saw anyone come back anyway, with or without jools.”
The Traveller saw the old man was about to empty his tankard again. He got up hastily. “Which way is the farmhouse?” he enquired.
The old man pointed a gnarled, nicotine-stained finger, “Straight along the road. You can get there by sunset.” he replied.
The Traveller was adventurous and ambitious. He was also avaricious and was intrigued by the idea of finding lost jewellery — which he had no intention of handing over to the police. He stocked up with bread, cheese, olives, fruit and bottled water from the village store, and set off.
After his rest, he continued on his way. Just as the old man had said, it was almost sunset when he came upon a tumbledown farmhouse in the middle of a clearing. Cautiously he pushed open the old door hanging off its hinges, and fighting his way through the thick cobwebs, he ventured inside.
A few empty cans and containers indicated that someone had been there fairly recently, but there was no sign of life now. He decided to camp for the night and get up at dawn to start a search for the well.
But he had company after all! Into the stillness came shuffling sounds – rats! So he ate a light supper, then cleaned a couple of the dusty containers as best he could and jammed the rest of his provisions inside them. Using his bag as a pillow he lay on the dusty floor and attempted to sleep.
He was not afraid of rats, but they kept him awake for a while. He began to wonder about the veracity of the old man’s story. Maybe it’s a tale he tells everyone just to get a free beer, he thought wryly. He decided, however, to look for himself, and soon fell into an uneasy sleep.
He woke as daylight began to appear through the open door and cracks in the roof and walls. After a hasty breakfast, he began his search. Two hours later, he came across a large well, almost totally obscured by high grass and bushes all around. At one side lay a big pile of stones and a large piece of rotting wood attached to a stake. He ignored them and, pulling aside the bushes, he peered down the well.
To his surprise, he saw a series of iron rungs set in one side of the well. A piece of cake, he thought, as he took off his hat and used it to cover the remainder of his provisions. He tipped the rest of the contents of his bag on to the ground beside them, and with an empty bag on his back, began his descent.
The Traveller was an experienced, sure-footed climber and made fast progress until he came to a wide rocky ledge which jutted out from the side of the well. He sat down and looked back up to the opening of the well. It looked far away!
As he shone his torch around the ledge, he thought he saw something glitter farther along. Carefully he made his way towards it, finding more glittering objects scattered on the ledge as he went. It has to be the jewels, he thought, as he feverishly threw them into his bag. It did cross his mind that there was something very strange in the fact that they should all be lying scattered loosely on the ledge with no sign of a container. But he was far too excited to think rationally.
With his bag loaded, he shone his torch around the well below him. What he saw rooted him to the spot.
He was looking at a pile of skeletons not very far below him.
Horrified, he stared at them. No wonder the old man said no one came back, he realised. They are all down here. He shuddered.
But as he stood looking, he thought he detected a movement among the corpses. Then in the silence, he heard a hissing noise.
His torch slipped out of his shaking hand and he sank on to the back of the ledge, petrified with fear. There was now complete darkness; he could see nothing.
How it had happened, he had no idea, but he now knew the fate of earlier treasure seekers. Finally, he found his voice “Help! Help!” he cried feebly.
But even as he called he knew it was hopeless. Who would ever be anywhere near this isolated spot? He daren’t move in the darkness, and the rungs were farther along the ledge – how far he had no idea. He sat there clutching the bag of jewels, at the same time realising they were not much good to him now! He would also die here!
He began to laugh hysterically as the hissing grew louder. After what seemed a very long time, while he made infrequent cries for help, a head suddenly appeared at the mouth of the well.
The Traveller renewed his cries “Help! Can you get me out of here”, he pleaded.
“Certainly I can” replied a reassuring friendly voice. “Hold on, I’m coming down.” A strong light pierced the gloom of the well.
Sobbing with relief, the Traveller watched as the Stranger made a rapid descent to the ledge, and moved around it to where the Traveller sat still shaking with fear.
“Give me your hand and follow me,” the Stranger ordered. “But first you must let go of everything in that bag. You need a free hand for climbing, and you cannot climb with that weight on your back.”
The Traveller was recovering his confidence, “But I must take these jewels – they are the reason I came here,” he expostulated. “I can’t leave them behind.”
The Stranger was kind but firm. “Then I can’t help you,” he said. “You must make your choice.”
As he began to move away and his light with him, the Traveller yielded. He tipped the jewels back on the ledge and fastened the now empty bag across his back.
The Stranger’s hand was warm and firm. He gently led the Traveller along the ledge until they reached the iron rungs, and by his light, they quickly made their ascent.
Panting and exhausted, the Traveller stood once more on firm ground. But he was puzzled.
“How did you happen to come along this lonely isolated area?” he asked.
The Stranger smiled kindly at him. “I pass this way from time to time for the very purpose of rescuing people like you, who ignore the warning and think they will find riches in the well.”
The Traveller looked around perplexed “What warning?” he asked.
To answer the stranger picked up the wooden board the Traveller had ignored, and drove the stake back firmly into the ground. On it, in large letters, was the message. “DANGER BEWARE OF SNAKES”.