Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 18 - Part I

The arrow on the water gauge was dangerously close to the red; Jenny debated whether to stop by the bulldozed ruin on her left and give the Ford a chance to cool down. She decided against stopping; she was already running ridiculously behind schedule. Jenny was fairly familiar with this stretch of the plateau and she knew that if she could just kept the truck moving along at a steady clip on the flat stretch of road, and avoid getting stuck in the sand, the engine would cool down on its own after the long, tough climb.

Jenny hardly glanced at Otis’ hiding place, reacting to the vandalized ruin much in the same way people consciously make an effort not to look at a dead dog lying along the shoulder of a road.

As Jenny steered the big Ford down the two-track road, barely wider than the truck, she could clearly make out the fresh tracks from several vehicles. Two, maybe three, vehicles had very recently come down this same road – and they hadn’t come back out yet. It was probably just Steve Rich, the rancher who had the grazing allotment on the plateau. Who else would be up here?

Jenny managed to avoid all of the sand traps for the next few miles, and as she came into a dwarf forest of ancient pinyon and juniper trees, she stopped at a fork in the road. The right fork was what passed for a main road on the Paria Plateau; it led to her project area at Badger Tank. The left fork was a very sandy trail which meandered into the most isolated region of the Paria, an area known as Pinnacle Ridge.

She stopped the truck and got out. The air was warm and smelled of cedar. There was no wind and it was deathly quiet. The truck tracks followed the Pinnacle Ridge Road and she began to doubt her original assumption that the rancher had made the tracks. Pinnacle was a wide peninsula of water-polished rock crowned by weirdly-shaped sandstone pinnacles. There wasn’t enough forage on that stony ridge to feed more than a handful of cows at the most. No one used Pinnacle Ridge for anything but pothunting, or maybe hiking and exploring. This area, no more than twenty square miles, had once been populated by over ten thousand Anasazi, and many archaeological raiders had tried their luck their over the years. Most of the destruction had taken place near the turn of the Twentieth Century, when several mining and ranching outfits regularly used the plateau. Since the 1950s, no one had lived or worked on the Paria except a single Mormon rancher, and the pothunting had dropped off noticeably.

Jenny knew from past experience that the Pinnacle Ridge Road was treacherously sandy. If she got stuck, she would have to radio back to the District Office for help, and then someone would have to drive out to the plateau and winch her free. And what if the people who left these tire tracks were pothunters? What was she going to do if she ran into them? Write them a ticket? That might work with the locals. But what if this was the red-haired Indian killer?

She reached for the .22 in the glove box of the truck and laid it on the seat. It was her responsibility to investigate any potential incident of pothunting on the Kaibab, but she didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. She pulled out a roll of survey flagging from her jacket; pink was the color designated by the forest archaeologists to mark the boundary of a prehistoric site. Jenny tied a long piece of the pink plastic ribbon to the branch of a misshapen juniper tree near the edge of the left fork in the road to alert her fellow workers which way she had turned.

The Pinnacle Ridge Road was worse than she remembered and she almost buried the Ford on several occasions; but each time she managed to pump the clutch and rock the vehicle out of trouble. She came around a sharp bend in the road and was greeted by a sight that took her breath away. Rising up from the sand, like a reincarnation of a biblical temple, was a colossal Anasazi pueblo. The sun struck the massive structure and made the brown rock walls glow as if illuminated from within. Jenny had seen this pueblo before, but never in this particular light.

The tire tracks went right up to the northern wall of the ruin and stopped, but they also continued straight. The people she was following had evidently stopped here before continuing down the Pinnacle Ridge Road. Jenny noticed fresh piles of dirt outside the walls of the magnificent pueblo. The pothunting pigs had just been digging this site! Jenny scanned the area but saw no signs of life.

Jenny parked the truck and counted the tread marks: three large trucks. The Jumpup Canyon killer used a chopper to get around. Jenny examined the footprints. There were three distinct sets of tracks; each person was driving a vehicle. This looked more like the work of some ignorant locals, and local boys wouldn’t harm her if they got caught.

Jenny considered radioing in to the office to let them know the situation, but what would she tell the dispatcher? That somebody was somewhere up on the Paria Plateau, doing something? No. That wasn’t the way to handle this case. Once she knew what she was dealing with, then she would call into Fredonia with the details. She debated whether to take the pistol with her. Guns made her nervous and the vandals had obviously left the scene of the crime, so what was the point of playing Macho Woman? She slid the Ruger under the seat of the truck, out of sight.

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