The Spirit Keepers: Chapter One

the-spirit-keepersSan Anselmo Pueblo, New Mexico — August, 2000

A sudden gust of wind raised dust. Ben Rush halted his hike atop Rainbow Mesa to wipe grit from his eyes. He ran his tongue over cracked lips as dry as the desert floor. With his backpack open on a flat rock, he made a scrabbling search for water.

When he glanced back up at the wind-scoured plain, a tall funnel of dust caught his attention. He shaded his eyes with the back of a hand and squinted into the distance, a dry sea of clay soil dotted with green brush and the occasional crimson butte. A small line of people approached the mesa.

Strange. He rarely ran into anyone this far from the pueblo.

Through raised binoculars Ben watched the procession of men in white shirts and dark pants come closer. The gleam of sun on silver reflected from squash-blossom necklaces. The flash of red on foreheads indicated headbands. One member of the group stood out. Although the same height as the others, that individual was a boy, one of Ben’s senior students, Virgil Chavez. Others carried an object wrapped in a blanket. A body. No mistaking it. In the last month a handful of people had come down with what was described as the flu; two children had died from it. One was the Chavez child. A pity she had died so young, his heart hurt for Virgil and his family.

The group had reached a site directly below him when a maroon pickup truck careened toward them. It stopped nearby and a short, heavy-set man jumped out. Virgil’s dad, Albert, peeled away from the procession and strode up to the newcomer, striking a belligerent stance. The wind picked up murmurs, but even with voices amplified in anger, Ben couldn’t make out what was said. Albert Chavez’s scowl quickly turned into an expression of rage. He vehemently shook his head, then raised his fists. The other man lifted his arms in front of his face and, for a moment, it looked as if Albert would punch him.

Slowly Albert relaxed his fists, and the other man lowered his arms. Ben watched while the two men conversed, then released a long-held breath, relieved the confrontation was winding down. About to turn back to his hike, he saw Albert step forward and poke a finger into the other man’s chest, causing him to stumble. Before the man could recover, Albert shoved him. The stranger staggered, lost his balance, and fell. He slowly rose while the others watched. Ben fully expected him to return the attack. Instead, he dusted himself off and turned to leave, head down.

Ben’s stomach cramped. Disturbed by what he had witnessed, he waited until the stranger had trudged back to his truck before lowering the binoculars. What the hell was going on? People on the pueblo were typically cordial. Even upset or unhappy, they rarely said anything to your face. He didn’t, for one second, like what he saw. He had come to the pueblo to get away from trouble. He hoped it hadn’t followed him here.

A long ribbon of highway stretched as far as Sandy Jacobs could see. Low-lying scrub speckled sandy soil. Barren hills rose all around. She raced her Tercel along the highway, windows rolled down. The wind twisted and knotted long strands of her hair, blew them across her face. She repeatedly wiped them away with the back of her hand, along with the moisture that beaded her brow. She was heading into a vast empty unknown. Of landscape. Of life.

Anxiety and anticipation had become her twin companions the moment she crossed the state line into New Mexico. Unsure of how to locate her destination, which didn’t exactly put her at ease, she couldn’t imagine what she’d find when she arrived. Menacing dark cumulonimbus clouds accumulated on the horizon. Black sheets of rain fell on faraway hills.

Awesome, she thought at the unexpected sight. As quickly as that thought came, a second followed. Would her dreams, like the rain, always be off in the distance? Far beyond her reach.
She closed her windows and drove straight into the downpour. Lightening etched the sky; sizzled in the air. Her wipers failed to keep apace of the water sheeting down the windshield and forced her to slow to a crawl. She inched her way toward her destination, the pueblo of San Anselmo.

When Ben lifted his binoculars again the maroon pickup truck was turning onto the main road. The group had moved to the side of a granite outcropping and was placing the wrapped body in a rocky crevice, pointed to the east in San Anselmo Indian fashion. Weather-worn rocks came together in a womb-like trough where they laid the body. Fitting. It was being returned to its source.

“Ha nah, ha nah, ha nah, ha nah,” rose the chant along sandstone walls. One by one, the men went over to the blanketed body, sprinkled it with what had to be cornmeal, cupped their empty hands over their lips and breathed deeply into them.

After each man had completed his turn, they scattered out along the edge of the mesa, picking up rocks and returning to place them over the wrapped body. When the body could no longer be seen, they chanted one last time and shuffled with heavy, measured steps, single file, back toward the pueblo.

Ben immediately scooped up his daypack and started down the mesa. On his way home he would stop by to visit his friend and mentor, Kwinsi. He wanted to find out all he could about what happened to that child. There had to be a reason for all the commotion today.

At the truck, he noticed rain clouds gathering on the horizon. A downpour would soon follow. While he hadn’t been raised on the reservation, or the southwest for that matter, he knew the area as well as anyone around. With his native instinct unaltered by a childhood far from his people, his ability to strike out and survive on his own had become both his strength and his weakness. It illuminated his independence, and the loneliness that gouged canyons in his soul.

Unable to put the funeral out of his mind, and wanting to get out of the storm, Ben turned his truck toward the village.

By the time Sandy saw the sign, San Anselmo, thirty miles, the rain had lightened. Sun streamed out from behind thick dark clouds. Shadows stole across the desert floor, but she could still make out the silhouette of distant hills. At the exit sign for the pueblo she eased her car off the main highway and followed the arrow past a small outcropping of old adobe buildings.

She continued on the one paved road for what seemed an inordinately long time. She had yet to meet another car. She wondered if she was even heading in the right direction. To double-check her bearings, she pulled over and consulted the map spread across the passenger’s seat. It showed a number of side roads heading west. Taking any of them appeared to lead into the hills.

She decided to take a well-deserved break before turning back to the cluster of dilapidated buildings for directions. Exiting the car, she made her way toward the trunk for refreshments, but lost her footing on the terra cotta soil that had turned to orange slime during the rain storm, and slid to her knees.

Mud seeped over her shoes, into her socks, under her jeans. She rose to find pants, socks, shoes and skin stained a bright red-orange. Damn, she was a mess. After retrieving a towel from the trunk and wiping herself down, she hoisted herself onto the hood and yanked off her shoes and socks to dry.

The sun blazed off something white at the base of a distant hill. She shielded her eyes and focused on the object, a small herd of sheep grazing on shrubs. Behind them, the hills rose jagged and worn. With her free arm levered against the sun-warmed hood, she leaned back to enjoy the bucolic scene.

A man emerged from behind a large boulder. Assuming he must be a shepherd because he carried a long stick, it didn’t surprise her when he raised the stick and pointed it at the sheep. Then, to her horror, she heard gunfire and saw animal after animal topple. Shocked, she squelched the urge to scream, because she didn’t want to become the marksman’s next target.

Into her peripheral vision, a truck hurtled toward the flock. The gunman in the field must have noticed the truck too, because he dove behind a large boulder.

The truck stopped near the dropped sheep and the driver jumped out. He bent over the fallen animals, looked around, then took off in the direction from which he came.

Sandy was too stunned to move. She couldn’t believe what she had just witnessed. Why would anyone shoot sheep?

Rather than sitting there slack-jawed, she had better find her way into town to report what she saw, or she might be next. She beat out the worst of the caked mud from her clothes, which had dried quickly in the New Mexico sun, and was about to climb into the car when a Crayola red pickup truck rounded a bend in the road. Relieved, she waved her arms to flag it down.

Ben maneuvered his Ranger across from the Toyota stationed at the side of the road. A woman, with long, ebony hair that framed one of the sweetest faces he had ever seen, stood at its side. Her bright, blue eyes looked distressed. Why was she waving him down? Had she run out of gas? If she was in trouble, he might be her only hope of help for hours out here.

She started toward him with a slight limp. Nothing obvious, but a small drag on her left leg that caused a hesitation when she walked. Was this something she had inherited, or had she been injured in an accident? Too bad she was just one of the many tourists who passed through the pueblo all summer long, because he’d sure like to find out more about her.

The roar of the red pickup pulling up across from Sandy’s Tercel sounded like salvation to her. A rough-hewn man with long legs in denims and cowboy boots unfurled from the driver’s seat, took a couple of strides and came up alongside her.

Sandy shielded her eyes and gazed up at the Native American with his copper-colored complexion, easy smile, and long, poker-straight, chestnut-colored hair.

“Something wrong, Miss?”

“Wrong? That’s an understatement.” She tried to calm the rising tide of panic so she could remain coherent.

“You run out of gas?”

All at once she realized this stranger might not be any safer than the man with the gun. What had she been thinking when she stopped him? She hadn’t been thinking at all.

He narrowed his eyes. “What is it?”

Too late, she was in too deep. “I just saw a terrible thing. A man shot a bunch of sheep over there.” She pointed in the direction of the hill. “I can’t believe anyone would shoot such beautiful and helpless creatures. It seems brutal, and unnecessary.”

A startled expression blanketed his features. “What?”

Pleased that he was as shocked as she was, she continued, “It’s horrible, isn’t it?”
“It’s hard to believe.”

“I know. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t believe it either.”

He nodded. “I’m sorry you had to see something like that, but at least you’re a good enough citizen to want to do something about it.”

“But I don’t know my way around here. Where do I go to report the incident?”

He squinted into the sun. “It’s not your problem. I’ll check it out and let the authorities know.”
“Actually, I’m a witness. I really should go with you.”

He lifted a hand. “Not in this case. You’re an outsider. It would be better if I take care of this myself.”

No use debating him. “There was someone else who witnessed the result of the shooting. A man in a pickup came upon the dead sheep. I hope they weren’t his sheep, but they belong to someone. What a thing to have to deal with.”

“What color was his pickup?”

“Maroon.”

“Interesting.”

“Why’s that?”

“Something I saw earlier. Nothing to do with you.”

He deliberately looked her over from head to toe until she flushed. “Looks like the mud had its way with you.” He pulled a bandana from his pocket and handed it to her.

When his hand grazed hers, their eyes met. She quickly turned away and scrubbed at her jeans. “Thanks.”

“First time here?”

“You must have seen my Pennsylvania plates.”

“That, and any local knows not to pull off the road and risk being stuck in the mud.”

“I see your point. This stuff is like glue.” She studied the reddish-brown splatter. “I’m trying to find San Anselmo? Could you point the way?”

“Sure. I’ve had to do it for a dozen other visitors this summer. It’s become a popular destination. Must have been that June article in New Mexico magazine. It’s around sixteen miles south.”

She could set him straight, but since she was still unsure about him, she decided against it. She must have passed the turn-off miles back. If she didn’t move on she might not find the pueblo before dark. “Are you sure I can’t be of help? Do anything more?”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. I’m as bothered by this as you are, so I’m not taking it lightly. I promise it will be reported. You did enough letting me know and I appreciate it.”

Grateful she had encountered a man with values similar to her, she saluted him. “Okay. Great chatting with you, but I guess I better be going.” With a wave, she ducked back into the car and made a U-turn.

A glance in the rearview mirror showed the stranger watching her. His age was difficult to determine. The creases in his face deepened into crevasses when he smiled, as if his face, like the terrain beyond, had been etched by the elemental forces of sun, rain and wind. While his high cheekbones and square jaw held onto the linear planes of youth, he wore the ravages of a hard life. He didn’t in any way resemble the polished city men she had known.

“Thanks for taking care of this,” she called out the window.

“No problema.” He waved.

She braked. “Don’t forget your bandana.”

He shook his head. “Keep it. You may need it again.”

“Are you sure you won’t need it?”

“All I need is another of those beautiful smiles of yours to think about until we meet again.”

Would they meet again? Probably not, but it was too bad

She pulled away but heard him shout, “If you intend to do any hiking, watch out for rattlesnakes.”

Another glance in the rearview mirror caught him smiling after her.

“And be careful if you pull off the road.”

“I think I’ve learned my lesson this time. Bye.” She drove off with the tall, mysterious stranger on her mind. From what he had said, he must be from around here, but with distances as they were in the southwest, he could be from anywhere, even the town on his license plate holder, Grants, forty miles west of the pueblo. Better he not be a local, he was too darn attractive.
And she was definitely not available.

When Ben arrived back at his haunt, a fresh gathering of rain clouds hid the sun. He threw his daypack onto a chair and a sage leaf slipped out. He rubbed it between thumb and forefinger. The leaf, rough yet velvety against his calloused hand, gave off a pungent scent. During his climb to the top of Rainbow Mesa, he had collected juniper berries and Indian paintbrush (used by the locals for dye), evening primrose (prized for its medicinal qualities), and sagebrush.

He removed leaves and flowers from the pack and placed them in glass containers. With a bag of evening primrose in hand, he headed across the arroyo to a small, partially-melting adobe brick hut. A grizzled old man answered his knock. “Clancy” to the white traders with whom his daughter did business, the old man was known to his friends by his tribal name, Kwinsi. Ben stood in the doorway and looked in at the old Indian whose wrinkled face told of ninety years of hard work and struggle.

“Kyimme, I am surprised to see you again today,” the old man said.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Kwinsi, but I have a question.”

He handed Kwinsi the bag.

“Come in, Nephew, and ask.” Kwinsi motioned Ben into the two-room adobe. Ben had to stoop to pass through the squat doorway. He took a seat on a sofa in the low-ceilinged, dimly lit room, adeptly avoiding a spring popping its way through worn plaid.

“I was just over at Rainbow Mesa and spotted a procession burying the Chavez child. I was wondering if you knew anything more about it.”

Kwinsi bobbed his head and Ben waited respectfully for his reply. Over the two years Ben had lived in San Anselmo he had developed a close friendship with Kwinsi, freeing him to reveal information rarely leaked to outsiders.

“It is sad, Kyimme. The little Chavez girl only saw six harvests in her life. Such a small time to live.” Kwinsi hesitated a long minute. His eyes brimmed with sadness. “She was even too young to be initiated into a clan.”

Ben frowned. “I’ve never seen a child buried here before. Why did they place her body in a crevice rather than a grave?”

Kwinsi cleared his throat, making Ben wonder if he had overstepped his bounds. He was about to change the subject when Kwinsi answered, “An uninitiated child’s body is always placed in a crevice, in hopes it will return home.”

“People are saying she came down with the flu, but this isn’t flu season. Do they know what happened?”

Kwinsi pondered a long moment. “No one knows for certain.”

“Maybe it’s a different virus.”

“Perhaps…” He stared at the floor for several seconds before he looked up at Ben. “Some people think she was witched.”

Ben raised an eyebrow. “I hadn’t heard that. Is that the best explanation they can come up with? Who do they think witched her?”

“Rumors walk through the village. I try not to hear them. They start trouble. You will know all rumors before long, if you listen.”

“I will listen, but I won’t swallow rumors. I’m more concerned that she might have had a contagious disease.”

“We will know in time.”

“I wonder if these rumors have anything to do with an argument I saw between Albert Chavez and another man at the funeral today.”

“More than likely, Nephew, but you should forget this whole thing. No use plowing another man’s field.” Kwinisi’s firm voice and stern advice surprised Ben.

He wanted to tell Kwinsi about the sheep shooting, which he had already reported to the tribal police on his way home, but could see the old man wasn’t up to it. Another time. Ben rose and approached Kwinsi. “It’s late to be bothering you. We’ll talk again soon.” He shook Kwinsi’s age-roughened hand and left, closing the loosely-hinged screen door behind him.

Rain was falling again. With head lowered to avoid the drops, Ben crossed the arroyo and entered his apartment. A damp pall greeted him. The only sound came from a solitary clock on the top bookshelf. He had the same nagging sense of emptiness he’d been feeling more often of late.
He flicked on the television to shut out the feelings, but the only three channels he received showed inane sitcoms at this time of day. A Tale of Two Cities, plucked from among the many books on the cinder-block shelves, held no appeal for him, nor did the CDs on the lower shelf. He had listened to each one until he could hear them in his head without playing them.
The day’s events had left him ill at ease. Wistful. Like that body among the rocks at the foot of the mesa, he had been left behind for time and the elements to modify. Unlike that body, a dynamic force had begun to stir within him, creating a sense of restlessness, compounded by his chance meeting with that tourist today.

Much like the sun’s shadow across the face of the mesa, his emotions had recently shifted. The light had not totally burned out in his heart; his hormones played their familiar bluesy tune. A desire to move on had recently replaced his lingering grief. He had moved to San Anselmo to heal his wounds. It appeared the treatment was working.

Long after dark, he sat with his feet propped up on the walnut coffee table, a cup of coffee in hand, thinking over the events of the day. What really happened to the Chavez girl? Kwinsi’s version left too many unanswered questions. Even more distressing was the implication that a tribal member had a role in her death.

Lost in thought, he almost missed a figure flashing past his window until he heard the splashing footsteps. Whoever it was had covered half the distance between his apartment and the adjacent school building before Ben reached his door and stared at their retreating back. What was the hurry at that time of night?

“Can I help you?” he called. The figure quickly disappeared behind a building.
He turned to see if anyone was in pursuit. Seeing no one, he scratched his head in confusion. This kind of incident was uncommon for San Anselmo, especially on such a strange day.

And he had to wonder: Where might all this lead?