The first two chapters from The Pot Thief Who Studied Billy the Kid (Pot Thief #6)
“I would rather write another book than be rich.” - Lew Wallace
“Amen.” – J. Michael Orenduff
I was on a ledge three hundred feet above the Rio Doloroso violating two federal laws, one on purpose and the other by accident.
I felt like Indiana Jones. Except I was afraid to approach the precipice. But my acrophobia didn’t stop me from digging. I’d been told there were ancient pots here, and I knew they would be back in the ruins, not out on the rim.
I’m not a professional archaeologist and I didn’t have a permit to excavate, so the first law I was breaking was the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA).
Because of the American Bar Association, it would be impossible today for Abe Lincoln to be a lawyer.
Because of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, it would be impossible today for Thomas Edison to be an electrical engineer.
And thanks to the Archaeological Institute of America, it’s also impossible for me to hunt for artifacts legally. Which was why I was digging under cover of darkness.
Every association of ‘professionals’ wants to exclude amateurs. So Congress caved in to the wishes of professional archaeologists back in the eighties and passed ARPA.
My name is Hubert Schuze, and I’m a treasure hunter. Congress redefined me as a pot thief, but it also passed a health care program with a price tag of 940 billion dollars and called it the ‘Affordable Health Care Act’. They aren’t exactly experts when it comes to truth in labeling.
Here’s a message for my representatives in Washington — Health care is not affordable and most archaeological resources do not need protecting.
If they’re resources, we should exploit them. That’s what I do, and I’m positive that’s what the people who created them would want.
I’m a potter myself. After I’m long dead, I don’t want the pots I made mouldering in the ground like John Brown’s body. I want some enterprising lad like myself to dig them up, appreciate them, and make a few bucks in the process. Maybe he can earn enough to see a doctor.
I do feel bad about the second law I was breaking, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Who other than a ghoul would violate that one?
But it wasn’t my fault. I was digging in a ruin of residences. Prehistoric tribes didn’t bury their dead in their living quarters. So you can imagine my surprise when I stuck my hand into the hole I’d dug and grasped another hand.
I’d been hoping for an artifact, not a handshake.
It gets worse.
One of the tools I use is a piece of rebar. Knowing this would make professional archaeologists bite the bristles off their little bitty brushes. But the success rate is low in treasure hunting. I can’t afford to waste time digging in dry holes. So I use the rebar to probe through soft soil and discover whether there is anything solid below the surface.
When I feel the slightest resistance, I set the rebar aside and dig with my hands. I don’t want to damage any potential merchandise. Usually what I find is a rock or a root.
The rebar had bumped a pot shard in the first area I dug. It wasn’t big enough to be marketable. But it had an unusual design I’d never seen and a long graceful curve I wanted to see if I could duplicate. I pocketed it.
As I was about to start a second hole, some sand pelted me from the overhang above. I yelled up to Geronimo to stay away from the edge, but he never listens to me. And it could just as easily have been a crow or a chipmunk.
Too bad I didn’t move after the sand hit me. For it was in the second location that my rebar’s advance through the soil was impeded by the aforementioned hand. I had accidentally desecrated human remains.
I felt woozy. The chorizo I’d wolfed down for energy gurgled up my esophagus. I swallowed hard to keep it down.
Then I heard an even louder gurgling.
It wasn’t my tummy rumbling. It was the familiar rurrer-rurrer-rurrer of the starter motor on my Bronco. Most people don’t know what a starter motor sounds like. They turn the key and hear only the reassuring roar of the engine coming to life. They have shiny new cars.
But a thirty-two-year-old Ford Bronco doesn’t jump to life. Like its forty-something-year-old owner, it takes more time getting started than it used to.
I had left Geronimo with the Bronco. And while he sometimes displays a certain canine cunning, I didn’t think he was capable of starting the thing. But couldn’t he at least have barked at the car thief?
It wasn’t that I minded much about losing the vehicle. But the rope that had lowered me down to the ruin – and by means of which I planned to ascend back to the surface – was attached to the winch.
I was stranded in a prehistoric cliff dwelling three hundred feet above the river below and thirty feet below the ground above.
Thirty feet is not that far. If it isn’t too steep, you could just walk up it. But then your enemies could come down it just as easily, which would defeat the purpose of a cliff dwelling.
Even if it were a perfectly vertical cliff, you could perhaps work your way up using little rock fissures as hand and toe holds. But when the cliff is past vertical, when it slants away from the direction you want to go, the only way up is by rope.
Like the one I had just watched disappear.
Of course there was another way out. There would be a path cut into the cliff that would take me to a point where the terrain allowed a narrow switchback climb up to the surface. Ancient cliff dwellers sought places with an overhang for protection and a narrow entrance path that could be easily guarded. One man can hold off an entire raiding party if they have to approach single file. He just stands behind a big rock next to the narrowest part of the path and pushes them over the edge as they creep along.
Just the thought of that narrowest part of the path made me break out in a cold sweat.
Unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a cliff dwelling, I had to find that path and follow it.
But I wasn’t going to risk it at night. And I wasn’t going to sleep next to a partially open grave. So I filled the hole and gently packed down the soil. I don’t know any prayers for reinterment, but I said what came to mind and meant every word of it.
I had my first aid kit, water, matches, a flashlight and a warm jacket with a pocket full of chorizo. It wasn’t everything you’d take on a wilderness camping trip, but it was enough.
I also had a large gunny sack. I didn’t get to carry a pot or two home in it as I had hoped, but it did come in handy in several ways. My final piece of equipment was the rebar, one end of which had recently poked a human hand.
I thought about tossing it over the ledge into the Rio Doloroso. But the way my luck was running, it would probably impale some wilderness trekker asleep in his tent. I didn’t need that on my conscience, so I just stuck the thing in the ground, evil end first.
I rolled the jacket up for a pillow and bedded down behind what remained of a rock and mud wall. Maybe the prayer had cleansed my mind because I dropped off to sleep almost immediately.
The first time I woke up, it was because of the cold. I put the jacket on. The gunny sack was not substantial enough to make much of a pillow, but at least it saved me from having to sleep with my head directly on the ground.
The second time I woke up, it was because of the rustling sound.
There was no wind. Something was moving through the brush. And getting nearer. I pulled the rebar out of the ground. Let it be a skunk, I thought, although it was making way too much noise to be one.
A skunk would be okay. Even a bobcat. They seldom attack humans. Just not a mountain lion. Or worse, a badger. A badger would probably bite through the rebar before bulldozing me off the cliff.
It was just a few feet away. I could hear it panting. I raised the rebar above my head just as it broke into the clearing and lept at me.
It would’ve served him right if I’d brained him with the piece of iron. He didn’t bark to scare away the car thief, and he didn’t bark to let me know he was approaching.
He’s probably a mix of Irish setter and border collie. I suspect he’s also part anteater. I don’t think they bark. It would also explain the long neck that sags down and sways to and fro as he walks.
Despite the start he gave me, I was glad to see him. His feathery wagging tail and big sad eyes were part of it. But the main reason was that Geronimo’s arrival confirmed the path was still there and passable. He may be part anteater, but he is certainly not part mountain goat. If he could make it down the path, I could make it back up.
He inhaled the chorizo I gave him then started digging at the soft dirt I had tamped down. My explanation about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act fell on deaf ears. See what I mean about him never listening to me?
So I put a heavy rock on top of the grave.
I guess I’ve seen too many old westerns because the sight of the rock put me in mind to construct a crude cross from two limbs and push it into the soft ground behind the rock. Then it occurred to me that someone born here five hundred years before Columbus was unlikely to have been a Christian.
I fell asleep thinking about what object or symbol might be appropriate for the grave.
And awoke for the third time to the sound of another critter coming down the trail. I have only one dog, so the same thoughts as before ran through my head except for the bear my overwrought imagination added to the mountain lion and the badger.
It was noisy and moving slowly.
And dragging a chain.
On a cliff over the Rio Doloroso in the middle of nowhere?
I tried to imagine what it could be. The ghost of grave robbers past? The angry spirit of the corpse I had impaled?
Geronimo whined and scooted back against the cliff. I joined him. For all I know, I was also whining. I was giving serious consideration to taking a running leap into the Rio Doloroso if a bear or mountain lion appeared.
I figured there were two possibilities. The river would be dry, as it frequently is in late summer, and I would go splat on its rocky bed. Or I might land in water deep enough to survive the fall. Since I can’t swim, I would drown. Both options seemed preferable to being eaten alive by a bear or mountain lion.
And what more appropriate place to die than one named doloroso?
But it was neither a bear nor a mountain line. It was a young coyote dragging a chain attached to a trap clamped on his left front foot. I suppose he was young enough that his bones were still supple. The trap had not broken his leg. But it had done major damage. There was a lot of blood on his leg and quite a bit on his muzzle.
Stories of coyotes chewing off a foot to escape a trap are pure myth. He had blood on his muzzle because he had licked the wound, not because he had attempted self-amputation. How he managed to pull the stake out of the ground I don’t know. Maybe the idiot who set the trap didn’t anchor it properly.
I tossed a chorizo to him. He sniffed at it. He looked up at me with what looked to be a quizzical expression. Then he ate the chorizo.
He looked down at his leg then up at me. It’s tempting to say he wanted help, but I don’t believe coyotes see humans as helpers. The Wildlife Service kills over six thousand coyotes in New Mexico every year by trapping, snaring, shooting, poisoning and aerial gunning.
Yes, aerial gunning. They shoot them from helicopters and small planes. Keep that in mind the next time you see one of those highway signs that read, “speeding enforced by aircraft.”One moment you’re motoring down the interstate. The next you’re taken out by an air-to-surface missile.