Chapter 1: Rotten Luck
The score was tied and Felix and his friends were looking to claim the winning goal.
"Open!" Hector gasped, making a breakaway. "Pass it to me!"
Felix planted his foot in the grass and kicked the green and blue sphere toward his teammate. The ball went airborne and all the players stood still, holding their breaths.
Felix could only watch as the ball seemed to grow wings and fly through the air. It sailed right over Hector, over the goal and even over the tall fence that towered behind the soccer field.
"Great shot," his teammates growled sarcastically. Everyone headed off the field. They all knew the wall rule: Anything hit, kicked or thrown over the 6-foot wooden wall is lost forever.
Felix found himself all alone, still kneeling in the same spot where he had launched the ball.
"It's not fair, abuelita," Felix later told his grandmother. "Why do I always have such rotten luck?"
"Now, nieto," she began, sliding a plate of fresh corn tortillas across the table. "You know about the curse of our family."
Felix was always interested in Grandma's stories. He was even willing to put up with helping her cook, because cooking time usually meant story time.
"Yes," Felix answered, adding beans and rice to the tortillas and rolling them into burritos. "But Grandma, why does the curse always have to fall on me? Nobody else in our family has bad luck."
"Felix, have I told you the story about where that cursed thing came from?" she asked, reaching out and touching the small brass bell Felix wore on a string.
"Tell me again!" Felix begged.
"Many years ago, my great-great-grandparents went through some rough times. They had no money or food, just a skinny goat. One evening, a mysterious old woman came to their home and tied that brass bell around the neck of their goat. She said the bell must stay on the goat, or bad things would come to the family. Afterward, the goat produced enough milk that they were able to feed themselves and sell the extra.
"But late one night, my greedy uncle snuck into the barn and took the bell from the goat. He tied it around the neck of the goose, hoping to get more eggs," Grandma continued.
"When he went out to check on the goose the next morning, he found the goat had died. He told his parents what he had done and begged their forgiveness. Ever since, our family has had to pay for his mistake!"
Felix had heard the goat story for years, but had a hard time believing that this little trinket had cursed their family for generations.
"Felix! You've only rolled one burrito! No more stories for you," Grandma teased.
"Sorry," Felix said. "I just haven't had such a great day. I'm going to the attic until dinner."
The attic was Felix's quiet place. In a house full of brothers, sisters and cousins, he had very little privacy. He spotted an old, dusty box of books in the corner and selected a leather-bound one called "Coronado and the Golden Cities." Felix loved books about conquistadors. He immediately cracked open the cover to start reading.
The next day at school, Felix was still thinking about what he had read.
"One of these days, I'm going exploring!" he told his friend, Karol. Karol usually kept quiet in class, but Felix didn't have anyone else to talk to because most of the soccer team was still mad at him.
"Where would you go?" Karol asked.
"I've been reading a story about an explorer named Coronado," Felix said. "Did you know that Coronado explored the land right around here?"
"Hey, that's freaky!" Hector joined the conversation, uninvited as usual. "I wonder if our town, Corona, is named after him?"
"Anyway," Felix continued, "Coronado was looking for the seven lost cities of gold."
"I know of a mysterious golden city not too far away," Hector said, trying to sound serious. "Not many know of its secret treasure, but this knowledge has been passed down for generations in my family. I suppose I could be persuaded to share this information, with two fellow explorers."
Hector glanced over to see if Karol and Felix were listening. They both just looked at each other.
"All right, then, it's settled!" Hector announced, after the pair continued to stand in silence. "We'll meet here at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning!"
Chapter Two: The Expedition Begins
"Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was a Spanish conquistador who explored the southwestern United States [in] 1540-1542, in search of the Seven Cities of Gold. He had with him hundreds of Spaniards, natives, monks and slaves."
- Coronado and the Golden Cities
The next morning, Felix jumped out of bed and quickly got dressed.
"I'm going over to Hector's house for the day," he told Grandma. "I might just stay the night, too," he added, with his mouth full of cinnamon churros.
"All right, Felix, but be careful," Grandma said. Felix wondered if she had noticed his overstuffed backpack sitting by the door. "Here are a few snacks ... just in case," she said with a wink. Yes, she was definitely on to him!
He walked out the door, searching through his goodie bag. There were several sandwiches, fruit snacks and Felix's favorite: licorice.
Karol was waiting on the steps of the school with an equally full backpack. "Hey Felix, are you ready?"
"Hey, you two!" Hector startled them both as he jumped onto the concrete wall beside the steps.
Unfurling his map, Hector excitedly showed them places where they would stop to eat and rest. A big X marked the spot of the treasure, located in the nearby town of Gallinas.
"OK - which way, then?" Felix asked anxiously.
"My cousins live in Gallinas and we always drive down Highway 54 to visit them," Karol suggested.
"That's the long way!" Hector interrupted. "Let's just go down Main Street to where it meets the county road. The county road is a straight shot to Gallinas and we'll save hours of time!" Both Hector and Karol looked over at Felix to make the decision.
"Saving time does sound good," Felix considered, not completely sure he should listen to Hector. The three explorers began walking through town, passing the few shops that lined Main Street. When they reached the intersection of Main Street and the county road, they all hesitated.
"Here we are - the point of no return." Felix said softly.
"Quit being such a baby," Hector said, giving Felix a shove.
Felix lunged forward onto the county road. He felt a surge of excitement as he imagined himself traveling through the untamed wilderness that Coronado had explored. Karol and Hector immediately joined him on the rough, unpaved road.
After several quiet miles, Karol finally broke the silence. "I brought beef jerky and some trail mix with chocolate pieces!"
"I have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, licorice and fruit snacks," Felix said proudly. But anyone who knew Felix would have guessed there would be licorice in his bag, because of his long obsession with the twisted treat.
"And I brought a frozen pizza!" Hector reached in his bag to show the partially thawed box.
"Exactly where do you plan on finding an oven out here, Hector?" Felix laughed.
"Laugh now, Felix, but you'll be asking me for a slice soon enough!" Hector said, putting his soggy snack away as they continued walking.
Suddenly, the dirt road ended: no stop sign, no turn, no intersection. The three stood at the edge of rocks, sand and grass.
"Oh, great - now we're lost!" Karol tried to sound more angry than scared.
"Hey, no worries!" Hector said, pointing west. "If we just head across here, we'll eventually run into Highway 54."
"Fine, let's go," Felix mumbled, walking across the rocky surface. "It's starting to get hot out here."
"Let's aim for those big rocks and take a lunch break there," Hector suggested.
"Some of those rocks look a little dangerous," Karol started to say, but she only got out part of her sentence before Felix slipped.
"Hey, you OK?" Hector stumbled over to Felix, who was now flat on his back.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Felix winced. But he wasn't fine. His ankle hurt and immediately began to swell.
"Wh ... what's that?" Hector started to sway back and forth.
"Sit down, Hector, before you faint." Karol ordered. "I've got a bandage in my first-aid kit. Let me wrap that up for you, Felix."
"Thanks, Karol. I think we should go ahead and eat lunch right here," Felix said, sharing his rations with his friends.
After they inhaled lunch, Hector was ready to get going. They picked up their trash and prepared to continue their hike.
"Should we take a siesta?" Karol asked.
"Nope, explorers must push through the pain, vámanos!" Felix stood up to show he was strong enough to walk.
Chapter Three: Campfire Pizza
"Coronado's scout, Marcos de Niza, told of a wealthy, golden city, called Cibola. So, that would become one of their first destinations."
- Coronado and the Golden Cities
"We've been walking forever!" Felix moaned. "Are we almost there?"
"Quit whining," Hector said. "We're making good time."
"Why don't you tell us more about the gold?" Karol suggested, stopping to rest on a large tree stump.
"Yeah, let's hear it," Felix agreed, carefully sitting on the ground.
"All I'll tell you is that I think the gold came from a king, a long time ago," Hector began.
"What king?" Karol jumped in.
"And where is it buried?" Felix quickly asked.
"Whoa," Hector said. "Nobody said it's buried. And remember, the treasure is in the journey."
"What in the world is that supposed to mean?" Felix snickered.
"That's all I'm saying for now," Hector answered mysteriously.
"Well, maybe we should get going on that journey," Felix said, standing a little too quickly on his injured foot. "I'll be happy once we get there."
"How's the ankle doing?" Hector asked.
"I'm fine," Felix tapped his backpack. "Coronado and his men endured crazy stuff during their expedition. My biggest fear is running out of licorice before we get to Gallinas!"
A short time later, Hector stopped. He put one hand on his hip and pointed west with the other. "Hah! What's that?" he barked.
Karol and Felix looked at the large orange-red glow over the approaching horizon. The color reminded Felix of his grandma's very spicy salsa. Suddenly, he felt hungry.
"The sun is going down!" Karol said. "Not good!"
"No. Look, just beyond those trees. That's Highway 54." Hector said proudly, maintaining his hero stance.
The three explorers quickly headed toward the highway with renewed enthusiasm. They only paused for a moment in front of a giant sign that read ENTRADA DE CIBOLA NATIONAL FOREST.
"I hate to say it," Karol said, "but we should start looking for a place to camp tonight."
"She's right," Felix agreed.
"How about here?" Hector suggested a spot. There were a couple of large fallen trees to sit on and even some small pieces of wood for starting a fire.
"Oh man, did anyone think to bring matches?" Felix began to worry.
"I think there are some special waterproof matches in my camping pack," Karol offered.
"Gracias," Felix said, relieved. "OK, you two start a fire. I'll go look for some rocks to put around the fire pit."
Felix had been gone for only a few minutes when the most unusual smell caught his attention. It wafted through the air and made its way across the rocks and trees. It was not a smell you'd expect at the edge of a forest. It smelled like ... pizza!
"Hey, you guys, save some for me!" Felix yelled, limping towards his two friends, who were now roasting slices of pizza over the open fire.
"Felix, what is that bell you've been wearing around your neck?" Karol asked.
"Well, it's kind of cursed. At least that's what my grandma thinks," Felix began, as they all sat enjoying their warm, smoky pizza. "She tells me some pretty crazy stories sometimes."
"Let's hear one!" Hector coaxed, licking melted cheese from his sleeve.
"I'm not sure if you'd be interested," Felix said, suddenly embarrassed about his family history.
"Come on, Felix, we really want to hear one," Karol said sincerely.
"My great-great-grandfather Eduardo fought bravely in the Mexican Revolution," Felix began. "Late one night, he fell asleep a little too close to a campfire. His weapon got hot and a bullet shot right into his chest. It probably would have killed him, but he just happened to be wearing this brass bell." Felix took off the bell, letting each of them feel the dent in the side.
"OK, then," Hector said. "I think it's time to move away from the fire."
"So is it cursed, or lucky?" Karol asked. All three considered her question, looking at each other's faces glowing in the firelight.
While they were still deep in thought, they heard the sound of approaching footsteps.
Chapter Four: The Ninja in the Forest
"The Coronado expedition set up their winter camp of 1540-41 in Tiguex, which is near present-day Albuquerque, New Mexico. A brutal war broke out between Coronado's men and the native Americans."
- Coronado and the Golden Cities
Sounds of footsteps and breaking branches scared the friends, and all three froze. Their silhouettes looked like a trio of oddly-shaped cactus plants.
"Who, or what, is that?" Karol whispered.
"I don't know, but it sounds big!" Hector whispered back loudly, grabbing a thick stick sitting nearby.
The sounds came closer and closer. Karol slid over by Felix and they all peered into the darkness, straining to see what was about to invade their camp.
"Hey, I smell pizza!" a loud voice said as three strange boys jumped out from behind a large tree. "How did you get them to deliver all the way out here?"
"Nobody delivered it. We just stuck the thawed slices onto our roasting sticks, see?" Hector said proudly, holding up a cheesy piece of evidence.
"Well, I've never heard of roasting a pizza over an open fire," one of the other invaders said. And when Felix looked at him, he could see the reflection of the campfire in his eyes. Felix thought it looked like pure evil.
"Hola! Would you like some pizza?" Karol tried to be friendly.
"And we also have licorice!" Felix offered.
"Well, the way I see it, we'll just take whatever we want," Evil Eyes said. "And I don't think there's anything you can do to stop us."
"Perhaps I should warn you," Hector said, trying to copy a ninja pose he saw in a movie. "I am a black belt."
"Oh, really?" the bullies challenged Hector. "Why don't you show us your best move?"
Hector swallowed hard and tried to remember some ninja moves, but the three visitors didn't seem all that impressed. They squinted their eyes, clenched their fists and moved toward the three explorers.
Right then, a Jeep pulled up and a woman wearing a green uniform jumped out. She had a clipboard and a long, metal flashlight, which brightly lit the whole campsite.
"What are you niños up to?" she asked. "You know you can't build a fire out in the open like that. This is a national park!"
"Sorry, ma'am," Felix said, throwing dirt over the fire. "We were just hungry and a little cold."
"That's OK. Just make sure you follow park rules," she said, handing a typed list to Felix.
"And is that you, Max?" she asked the evil-eyed boy. "Your mom is gonna have your hide. Does she know where you are? Get in the Jeep - I'm taking you three home!"
"Yes, Tia Maria," the boy said sheepishly. Before whisking away the bullies in her all-terrain vehicle, the ranger jotted down the names of the three young explorers, promising to let their parents know where they were camping.
"Wow, that was close!" Karol said, after the uninvited guests disappeared over a hill. "I was scared."
"Not me!" Hector said. "I was just about to release some ninja terror on them!"
"Yeah, thankfully you didn't have to hurt them!" Felix winked at Karol. They both knew that Hector was just as scared, but he'd never in a million years admit it. They decided to let the ninja keep his pride.
Soon after, they all settled into their sleeping bags, trying to get close to the remnants of the fire for warmth. But Felix kept thinking about Eduardo and his little "accident," so he kept his distance from the fire. He fell asleep with his hand clasped around the bell.
The next morning, the three friends packed up their bags, buried the last remaining embers of the fire and set off toward Gallinas. They had trail mix and licorice for breakfast.
"So, where is this gold you speak of?" Felix asked, in his best conquistador voice.
"I told you, it's in Gallinas, and we're almost there," Hector said, walking ahead of Felix and Karol. He rubbed the gold coin he had hidden in his pocket for luck.
As they walked into Gallinas, Felix's excitement grew. "Now we'll find a golden treasure, just like Coronado!"
"What did he find on his expedition?" Karol asked Felix.
"Um, I don't know. I haven't actually gotten that far in the book yet," Felix said, a little embarrassed. Little did the three explorers know, Coronado never found any gold. In fact, he was sometimes referred to as the "cursed" conquistador.
Chapter Five: Arriving in Gallinas
"Coronado and his men visited many villages in search of the seven cities of gold. Starving and tired, they would sometimes force their way into the villages and take what they needed."
- Coronado and the Golden Cities
Karol, Hector and Felix walked side by side into the town of Gallinas. Tired and hungry, the trio marched on, determined to find the treasure.
"All right, navigator," Karol teased. "Which way?"
"Um, well, let me think," Hector searched their surroundings. A row of businesses lined Main Street, very much like Corona. But this town was bigger.
"Look!" Felix pointed down the street. "They have a theater!"
"And a bowling alley!" Karol added.
"Shhh ... listen!" Hector said, tilting his head. "Do you hear that?"
It took a minute for Felix and Karol to hear it.
"Ah, it's the merengue!" Karol announced, with a little bit of a dance motion.
"What's that supposed to be? You feeling OK?" Hector laughed.
"Shut up, Hector," Karol's cheeks turned a dark shade of red.
"I was just playing with you," Hector apologized. "You're actually pretty good."
"Let's go see where the music is coming from," Felix said, heading toward the center of town.
"Over there, at the park!" Hector was the first to spot the crowd. "It looks like a party!"
They walked until they were at the edge of the park. The smell of burritos, enchiladas, beans and salsa made its way to the hungry trio. They could see decorations and a large piñata hanging from a tree branch.
"I'd give my right arm for a burrito about now," Hector said, licking his lips.
"I'd give my giant, purple, swollen ankle for just one taco!" Felix joined in.
"I'd give both of you away for one single tortilla chip!" Karol laughed. And before they knew what had happened, she was in the middle of the party. She was laughing and talking and pointing back to the two dirty, tired and slightly starving boys.
"What do you think she's doing?" Felix whispered.
"Well, I think she's earning her tortilla chip!" Hector quickly answered as Karol returned.
"OK, you two, let's go!" She motioned toward the party.
"I knew it! You sold us, didn't you!" Hector said, pointing an accusing finger in her face.
"No, genius! That's my Aunt Rosa and my cousins. They invited us to come and eat."
"Thanks, Karol!" both boys said over their shoulder, heading to the picnic tables.
"So, Felix," Tia Rosa began, "Karol said you've been reading about the explorer, Coronado."
"Yes ma'am, that's right," Felix could barely speak, with both cheeks full of food. He tried to reach into his backpack to show her the book and spilled his plate. "Thanks again, unlucky bell," he said under his breath.
"Here, Felix, use this," Karol handed him a napkin.
"You should meet Demetri - he's kind of an explorer," Rosa said. "He's originally from Russia and has been in the United States for about a year. He's a taxi driver."
Rosa walked Felix over to an unusual-looking man. He wore a brightly colored shirt, leather sandals and had a long, gray ponytail.
"How in the world can you make any money as a taxi driver out here in the middle of nowhere?" Felix asked, trying not to sound rude.
"Ah, young man!" Demetri said in a loud, strong Russian voice. "That's what makes it exciting! I never know who I'll meet or where I'll go. Every day is a new adventure for me and my companion, Misha!" His voice echoed across the park and his arms swung around the whole time he spoke.
"It was nice meeting you, Demetri," Felix said, slowly backing away from the loud man. "But my friends and I have a treasure to find."
"Good luck on your adventure," Demetri bellowed.
"Same to you!" Felix said, shaking Demetri's big, sweaty hand.
"Thank you very much for the amazing food!" Felix told Rosa.
"You're welcome. But promise me that next time you're coming to Gallinas, you'll give me a call. I'd be happy to pick you up," Rosa said, hugging Karol goodbye.
And they were once again walking down Main Street, with full bellies and renewed excitement.
"Are we almost there?" Karol asked, when it seemed as if they were approaching the other end of town.
"No, we're not almost there," Hector said. "We are there!" He stopped in front of a large brick building. They stood looking up at the big sign hanging on the front, and they all knew that they had finally arrived.
Chapter Six: The End of the Journey
"While it would seem to many that Coronado's expedition was a failure, he actually discovered many new areas of the southwest United States, and claimed ownership of them for Spain. While they never found gold, their treasures were the amazing places they visited, including the Grand Canyon."
- Coronado and the Golden Cities
Karol, Felix and Hector stood on the sidewalk looking up at a sign that read TREASURE ROOM. There was a big golden crown under the words. Instantly, they knew they had been fooled.
"Is this supposed to be some kind of a joke?" Felix yelled.
"Yeah, Hector," Karol also was angry. "This isn't funny!"
"I had no idea that this was the treasure," Hector said, apologetically. "You've got to believe me!
"When I was little, my dad gave me this," Hector said, pulling a gold coin from his pocket. "He told me that it came from Gallinas. I tried to get him to tell me more, but he wouldn't. He would only say, ‘Just remember, the treasure is in the journey.' "
Hector held out the hand with the gold coin. It had the same crown as the sign and a few symbols, but no words. "Honestly, I had no idea that the coin came from here. I would never have made you two go through everything we did, for a dumb old game token!"
The dejected explorers all sat on the edge of the curb. It was hard for Karol and Felix to stay mad at Hector, because he looked just as disappointed as they felt. And Felix still remembered how he felt just a few days ago, when his soccer friends all shunned him.
"It's OK, amigo," Felix told his friend.
"Thanks, but now we still have to get back home and we're all out of food!" Hector sniffed.
"Hey, we're three pretty smart explorers. We'll figure something out!" Felix gave Hector a friendly punch in the arm.
"What's wrong?" Demetri yelled from his rolled-down window. They hadn't noticed his taxi pull up, and his loud voice startled them.
"Well, there wasn't a treasure after all," Karol told Demetri.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Demetri said. "Would you kids like to meet my travel partner?"
The friends leaned into the taxi and received a shock. Sitting in the front seat, wearing a wool-beaded vest and buckled into a safety belt, was a small brown goat.
"I've got an idea," Felix said, untying the string from around his neck. "This is for Misha!" He hooked the old brass bell onto the goat's collar.
When he stepped back, Felix could see that Demetri had tears in his eyes.
"When I left Russia for a new life here in America, I had to leave behind many things," he began. "And one of them was a small bell that would hang from the doorway of our home. I will forever keep this bell on Misha, and it will bring me good luck. Thank you!"
Felix felt like he had removed a heavy weight from around his neck. "You're welcome," he said softly.
"Well, I don't know where you three are heading," Demetri offered, "but I'm on my way to Corona, if you want a ride."
As soon as they heard him say "Corona," they were climbing into the back of his taxi.
"Buckle up, you three, and we'll be on our way!" he directed.
They all did as he asked, then took turns telling Demetri tales of their overnight adventure.
"So ... ‘the treasure is in the journey.' What do you think it means?" Demetri pretended to wonder.
"Well, I know I've made a couple of really great friends," Karol said. And suddenly it all made sense.
"Thanks, Demetri," Felix said. "I think you helped us find our treasure!"
"It was nice meeting you all. Here's your stop!" Demetri announced.
The taxi pulled up in front of the Corona School. The explorers grabbed their backpacks and thanked Demetri for the ride.
"Hold on a minute, chicos," he said, walking to the back of the car. He opened the trunk and pulled out a well-used, blue and green, very familiar-looking soccer ball. He tossed it to Felix and climbed back into the driver's seat without another word.
"I think my luck is starting to change already. Adios, see you at school tomorrow!" Felix said to his friends. He was eager to tell his grandma about his adventure. And as he walked home, he wondered if the curse had finally been lifted.