A dented old four-wheel-drive Chevy lumbered along the dusty parallel tracks in the desert, slowly weaving through sandstone boulders, scrubby trees and gnarled cacti. The wheel ruts disappeared at times when the road traversed dry creek beds and slight, rocky slopes, faintly reappearing again in a broken canyon that meandered always upward toward the limestone cliffs and ultimately the Ponderosa pine forests far above.
Old Bob Rogers leaned his left arm out the truck’s open window as he rode the bumpy trail leading to the pottery site that was his destination. Rogers whistled along with the country and western tune on his AM radio. He was happy, excited, anxious to get to this particular site, one he had first explored decades ago when he lived in nearby Camp Verde. Now he spent most of his days tending the counter of a rock shop in Sun Valley. Only occasionally could he return to Anasazi Country or the Navajo Nation to pursue his multiple passions of rock hunting, pottery stealing and amateur archeology. Rogers had been on the road two days, traveling many hundreds of miles to reach this site, now just a few turns up these nondescript etchings in the earth.
Old Bob’s journey allowed his mind to soar and liberated the prisoner of a complex and disheartening time. Old Bob escaped to a day when he believed men ruled their own destinies and knew more of adventure than drudgery. His driving took Bob Rogers past a unique rock formation that yielded many types of crystals and occasional evidence of turquoise; it would end, for him, near an old Indian campsite, its declining pottery shrouds still protected by a sandstone face and grove of cottonwood trees. Old Rogers allowed himself to drift away, to be carried as if by the dry wind to a feeling. He was more alive than ever when he left his very loving and quite nagging Mormon wife in Idaho, smoked more than he should, drink far too often and too much, and generally lived as he had for the first four decades of his life. The fact he had survived gave notice to his general abstinence from the more evil and unhealthy aspects of life. But once in a while…
And this was such a time.
Old Bob Rogers took another swig from the beer tucked between his legs as he drove. He took another drag off his cigarette and told himself again how good those vices felt. If he died today, he would be happy. He had a slight beer buzz that brought on a feeling of euphoria as he drove along the rough jeep trail.
He four-wheeled up one slightly ascending shelf but did not notice the razor edge of a recently broken outcrop. His balding right front tire blew out and Rogers was so suddenly thrown back into the immediate present that he swerved—too late—and his usually trusty vehicle high centered on a pile of rough rubble along the sandstone shelf. Rogers lurched forward and to his left on impact and nearly fell out when the door opened prematurely.
He was going only a few miles an hour, but the sudden stop jarred the old man’s back and fired his temper. Rogers stumbled out of the Chevy, regained his chubby balance on shaking legs and threw his comfortable old Stetson triple-X beaver sombrero into the dusty earth.
“Damnit all to hell!” He kicked the cowboy hat with his favorite snake skin boots. That helped cool his anger, mainly because it put a crick in his knee. He pulled out the cellphone his wife insisted he carry on his backcountry jaunts and turned it on: No bars, no signal.
Old Rogers was hot headed but he was also a realist. He scratched a scrubby white beard and replaced his hat atop a balding dome, tightened an old leather belt around his baggy trousers and scoured around in the truck until he found his knapsack. Old Rogers emptied out his scavenging tools and replaced them with a half-gallon canteen, a .38 revolver, a half-carton of cigarettes and his flask of scotch. He started trudging back down the path he had just driven.
Maybe it was four miles back to the main dirt road and another dozen or more to the first pavement.
Luckily, it was early October, in between seasons at Sun Valley. That meant the desert sun probably wouldn’t kill him. Still, he sweated under heat that warmed shady spots beside the short scrub oak to a dry 85.
Old Rogers was a senior member of the human race, aged over six and one-half decades. Even though his large arms and thick legs still held plenty of strength, he grew weary during the long walk, resting often. He was hearty and knew the value of preserving his water. He remembered two live streams ahead but he was afraid of the water in these parts. He had suffered the affects of giardia twice in his youth, once drinking just such desert liquid as he remembered up along the dirt road.
Rogers hoped he would simply cross somebody else’s path, especially since sundown was not many hours away. He was physically tired from his journeying and not in the mood for a moonlit stroll, even though it was the harvest moon. He just hoped to get back to the dirt road before darkness set in: He was not so sure if those cataracts he called his eyes could follow the trail in the dark. So he trudged on as long as his energy lasted.
But Old Rogers was just too old.
After about three miles, his legs began to whimper, his lungs burst out in search of high-elevation air and his heartbeat soared under a good fifty pounds of obesity. He stopped, panting, as the sun crept down toward the horizon’s silhouette of magnificent red rock formations. He saw a gnarled, scraggly old tree trying to turn a shelf of rock into a sliver of shade and he limped on until he reached its cool, inviting presence.
Rogers rested in the shade and looked at the land surrounding him. It seemed to possess no life other than the nearly dead tree: No water, no motion, no noise. Not even a breeze added sound to replace the ringing in his ears. The stillness mesmerized him until he realized it was hypnotizing him. He struggled to his feet, worked at replacing the pack on his back and trudged on. But he did not get much further. His mind was buzzing and even in the relative cool of the autumn, he was sweating profusely under a merciless sun. He rested another time and scanned the horizon before him. He observed, in a crevasse before him, what appeared to be the first signs of life he’d seen since the flat tire. It looked like a coiled snake at first, but his discredited eyes tricked him. He limped to the crack in the sandstone and found a decaying leather-bound book, its pages written in the cursive of an obviously earlier time. Its place was marked with a silver cross bordered in tiny stones of dulled turquoise.
The discovery piqued Old Rogers’ interest. After all, he was a scavenger by nature and anything in the desert country excited him. He hoped it was the journal of some uranium miner from 80 years past. Such a discovery would be worth maybe a thousand dollars and literally pay for his vacation and rock-hunting venture south. It would mean he could return next year and possibly the next also!
But the journal was much older, he soon realized. The hand which penned the words worked in a nearly foreign cursive. The mind that wrote the words was obviously not of the 20th century, Old Rogers soon realized.
Feverishly, strangely so in the chill of a waning desert sunset, Old Rogers opened the book to the page marked in silver and stone. It was the last journal entry, dated Sept. 20, no year:
“…we folloed the base of the volcano all day, turning south only when our Navaho guide found a dry gulch and proceeded to follo it upstream, or uphill, since no water ran, altho the entire country is hemed in with timber. Clement killed four deer, they are so small, when we reached the shores of a small lake. Our Navaho guide tells us we are one day from the Spanish mines…”
Old Rogers looked up from his shady refuge to the northwest and realized the journal was probably talking about Lake Mary or one of the other water bodies in that area, the volcano being the San Francisco Peaks. The Spanish mines had to be a reference to the first workings in the Jerome area. Rogers’ hand, trembling from fatigue and age, tried to be gentle with the pages but he realized each one was destroying itself as he did his best to set it down on its opposite side. The pages were extremely old — only the constant dry climate of the desert offered them refuge to this point in time. He knew historical evidence was being destroyed, but for his own knowledge he had to know the dates, the years! He leafed through the priceless document until a full date could be found, in the middle of a page as if time had little meaning to the author, Old Rogers eyes rested upon the number.
Faded ink revealed a strong hand had penned the day: April 21, ’29. At first it brought disappointment. He had believed the document to be much older. The silver and turquoise page marker possessed a mystical quality he had interpreted as age. The journal’s leather cover was ripped, rotted, gnawed and stained in manners that made Rogers think it had seen at least one hundred summers. Suddenly the information he had first thought of as priceless seemed trivial. Back to the concept of uranium miners and maybe a couple hundred dollars. Back to the reality of being broke down in the middle of nowhere, and nobody in sight.
His excitement gave way to fatigue, so Old Rogers sat against the cool sandstone and kept leafing through the journal, trying to make some rhyme or reason out of the scratchings on the pages. Each time he turned a page, much of it disintegrated, cracking and breaking away in the slight evening breeze. There was one entry that stopped his old eyes as if he had been struck from behind. It was dated June 29, ’27. It read simply:
“We camped for the night with the Competition’s able captain, prayin Dia Smith who says he returns from California.”
Once again, fatigue was consumed by excitement. Praying ‘Dia Smith was the consummate mountain man, Jedediah Smith! The journal was nearly 200 years old! He cursed himself for handling the pages so poorly. This would be worth a fortune! He closed it and carefully stowed it in his knapsack. He knew he must continue now. This was the discovery of a lifetime. To hell with his truck! To hell with his vacation plans of looking for pottery shrouds and arrow heads! To hell with his Mormon wife in Idaho!
Old Rogers resumed his march with new-found vigor. He thought as he walked: What had the journal said about its author? He wanted desperately to read on, but he knew each minute spent reading could diminish the value of his find. He could wait until some college professor found a way to record and preserve it. But it was killing him! He had read a few mentions of guns, of dressing out a rifle, and repair tools. His mind drew a picture of a gunsmith roaming the Rockies with mountain men during the fur trading era. Overwhelming excitement and anticipation built within him as Rogers realized the discovery could actually possess historical significance.
Old Rogers was unconscious of the sun’s decline until the air chilled in its absence. He walked on until it became so dark that he could not see anymore. He decided to give up the prospect of reaching pavement that day. He looked around until he found an area with enough dead mesquite and juniper to keep him warm through the night’s chill and settled down with his scotch and the battered journal. He stared at the book until he could stand it no more. He opened it. He was as careful as he could be. But Old Rogers had to know more.
He drank the flask of scotch and smoked heavily on his stash of Marlboros as he read. Something about the journal spoke of timelessness, made the old man feel as if he were timeless, as if the mountain men were still with him, solemnly staring into the flames as he read their life stories.
His mind raced while his body slumped exhausted upon the cooling sand. At times, after reading a particularly thought-provoking passage, he would stare for long moments into the flames, trying to imagine what it would have been like…
Old Rogers hardly noticed the passage, from one realm to another. One moment he was staring into the fire, his mind working as fast as it had ever gone, seeing, dreaming, imagining, recollecting. He was alive and he loved the sensation! At the next, he was standing in a circle of shadowy figures, their clothes blackened by grease and sweat, their sturdy arms leaning casually on the barrels of their flintlock rifles. He felt as if he was freed forever of any worries associated with rock shops, or Mormons, or high-centered four-wheel-drives.
Mike Darden could not help but see the man slumped before his dead fire just off the trail. It was near the path he always took to a location that had long been special to him, a holy spot, if you will. Darden brought his Harley Davidson motorcycle to an idling stop near the ashes of the man’s fire pit. A chill morning breeze threw up sandy dust devils in the empty desert around them. Darden climbed off his bike, removed his sunglasses and pushed his long black hair away from his eyes. He crouched down and touched the white-bearded old man. His fingers at the man’s jugular vein proved his suspicion.
Darden was filled with immense sadness, even though the body was one of a stranger, even though Darden had seen more than his share of death in Vietnam as a wire talker; those Navajo signal corpsmen who radioed back artillery and air support spotting information in their unique native tongue. Still, the body before him brought tears to his sad brown eyes. Maybe Southeast Asia was why the dead so disturbed him now, Darden thought as he closed the man’s wide, haunting blue eyes. Sight of the dead, he muttered in English, then began one of the many Navajo songs he had been taught by his grandmother. It was a prayer for the stranger’s spirit to return to its own realm.
Mike Darden had no shovel and there was not enough wood in the entire area to elevate the body above the reach of desert scavengers. There were a few rocks nearby and Darden began to gather them in a pile he would later use to cover the body, what protection he could offer in the harsh environment. After several hours’ work, the old man had been concealed beneath a thin layer of sandstone boulders, the body protected from the rough surfaces by its own clothes and an old wool blanket found in one of Darden’s motorcycle bags. Darden sang sad Navajo songs as he worked, songs that would both help the man on his way and also songs that dealt with Darden’s own uneasy and unstable mind frame.
Darden thought of the body he just buried as he delicately held in his left hand the slightly corroded silver and turquoise cross found in the ancient book this dead man’s hand had so unwillingly given up. He was obviously a thief, come to rob the reservation of more of its heritage, Darden thought. Enough had already been taken. Men and women of this whitebeard’s ilk had spent too many years roaming freely over the bones of his ancestors and those of his respected ancient enemy, the Anasazi. Even the Navajo had respected their enemies enough to preserve some of their holy places. But not the white man.
Tattered pages of the old manuscript had been flung about by the early morning winds. Darden picked up a nearly complete page and looked at its scratchings. He had learned English at a Catholic School, and he learned it well. When his Navajo mother died, Darden had been given to the missionary school. Until the age of thirteen, he had spoken only Navajo, even though he was one-quarter Shoshoni and another Swede. From then on, he spoke almost exclusively English. The sisters made sure of it: When he talked in his native tongue, they would hammer his fingers with bricks.
But he had overcome the school. He was free. Free, like the old pages before him. He did not care for English. He did not appreciate its harsh tone and superficiality. Mike Darden spoke mostly his own language these days, its utterances coming deep from within him, every syllable filled with rich meaning. Mike Darden released the old page and it was taken away by a wind gust that began its journey back to the earth. He watched the breeze carry the pages that remained. He found the full journal and released each page, one at a time, into the wind. He sang a special song for travelers as he did so, a song he had learned as a small child.
When the task was completed, Mike Darden fingered again the cross. It was the work of a fine craftsman, he knew. He wanted to believe it was of a Navajo hand, but he could not be certain. Finally, he yanked it free of the rotting leather cover and put it in his pocket.
Too much of the Navajo had been taken, he told himself. This old man and the book, they could begin the repayment. And the cross. He felt that somehow it contained a special significance, a special power. He would keep it for himself, he reckoned, as he threw a stout leg over his Harley.
The hot afternoon winds felt soothing to Mike Darden as he kick-started the motorcycle’s engine. Already, a part of the burden he sought to lose had soared before him, like the pages of the old book. In each of their twisted maneuverings across the sandstone landscape, the pages took with them a part of Darden he wished to escape and made room for the man he hoped to become, the Navajo.
Life and death are intermixed, he thought, and the awesomeness of the concept, the awareness of joy within the loss, overwhelmed him, and he wept with happiness, and yet with fear also.