Mystery of Chaco Canyon, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Knocked on the Head

Alone for the moment, Dan sat with his legs dangling in space and looking down on the pueblo they called Bonito, Suspended over a precipice summed up his feelings about his quest. The trouble had all started when Topper made a dying appeal that sent him on this years-long quest. Now he’d left behind a trail of dead men, his friends had been wounded and were still in mortal danger and Sebriana . . . But she was a different problem which began when a young woman took him by the hand and led him into the dark away from the baile, to a fandango of a different kind. Or was it different? She was here, her life at risk, and he didn’t feel right about any of it. Maybe it all started with another baile, Topper’s birthday party and what a merry jig the old man had led him.

The frontiersman stood tall with broad shoulders, his hat nearly touching the vigas, blackened roof beams, of the long, low, smoky room. His skin bronzed and his eyes squinted from the sun, he gazed purposefully through the crowd of drinkers and gamblers. A broad leather belt carried a Bowie knife and Colt’s cap and ball revolver. He wasn’t a man to be trifled with. Spotting his quarry, he strode purposefully across the room.

“Professor, come along,”  the frontiersman, Dan Trelawney, said quietly. “We should be going. You know there hasn’t been an honest monte game in Santa Fe since Doña Tules died.” Willowy and beautiful even in middle age, Doña Gertrudis Barcelo, La Tules had treated Dan as a special guest in her sala, gambling parlor, on notorious Burro Alley in sight of Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors.

“Gertrudis was a beautiful lady, Daniel,” said Professor Tristan Ottiwell Pendarvis, known as “Topper” from his initials. “Her body was thin, her skin smooth and unwrinkled, her hair long and black. Her blue eyes were pools a man could drown in. The curve of her naked buttock was round and firm” Topper sighed and closed his eyes. Perhaps he had been one of her lovers. She would have enjoyed his intelligence and wit but not the leathery skin, liver spots, and hunched back of the small man.

Dan wondered if the suggested liaison was possible. It was the last day of March, 1860. Topper had told Dan he could remember the War of Revolution, making him at least 80, maybe 84 since he could “remember.” He was still in good shape, wiry and rugged though suffering from a palpitating heart that left him short of breath in Santa Fe’s high mountain air. Although his hair was white, it was thick and wavy; he didn’t look much over 60. Tonight he was dressed in a long, black coat that had seen better days.

“It’s my birthday, Daniel. I will celebrate.”

Dan glanced around the low ceilinged, smoky sala. The room was filled with the people of the capitol, reveling soldiers back from chasing Utes and Jicarillas, and Mexican women in loose white blouses that left much of their breast exposed as they gambled, drank, and smoked cigaritos, Mingling with them were Mexican men of all classes from the poor farmer with a folded serape across his shoulders to the bold ricos in fine vests decorated in silver and black embroidery. Mountain men in fringed, bead-adorned buckskin rubbed shoulders with merchants from the States in black broadcloth suits. Anglo women, still a rarity in New Mexico, were absent. They were never seen in public drinking, smoking, or gambling, and with blacks and Indians, they were barred from the salas. The thick air was a choking mix of piñon smoke from the horno, tobacco, alcohol, and unwashed bodies.

Dan sensed he and Topper were being watched. Peering through thick smoke that stung the eyes, he saw two men observing him closely. They shied away to a dark corner when they saw Dan looking back at them. He didn’t recognize them. Some rough looking vaqueros, cattle drovers, debouched themselves in the sala. They, too, seemed to be watching. Dan wondered if they were contemplating mayhem. It would not be uncommon on Burro Alley. The professor had been lucky at cards all evening. These nighthawks might be after the elder gentleman’s purse. A group of Texans avoided Dan’s gaze, turning away suddenly and pointedly.

Uncouth, dressed in a mix of buckskin and Mexican clothing, Texans were not admired. They raided caravans on the Santa Fe Trail, giving in explanation the notion that New Mexico as far west as the Rio Grande was part of Texas. The caravans were trespassing. The territorial dispute should have been settled when Congress made New Mexico a territory, but memories were long on both sides. Texas was hard. The land was hard with harder soil, harsh weather, and hard enemies. Mexicans, Indians, and outlaws vied with each over who was most cruel. Thieves and the unscrupulous were drawn to Texas like flies to a dead buffalo. Often, they were drawn directly from political office in the States. It was a land of ne’er-do-wells and scoundrels, both brave and craven.

“Topper,” Dan began, before realizing he’d lost track of the old man. Dan looked for the men in black who hid in the shadows and followed the targets of their gaze. He soon found the professor. He was back in a corner being smothered between the breasts of a very young lady wearing a cheap hair comb. Her rouged nipples showed through and above the neckline of her loose blouse. She was busy blowing in Topper’s ear.

“Professor,” Dan said, “people are watching us…”

“Let them watch,” Topper replied. “No one denies an old man his pleasure.”

“Topper,” Dan continued nervously, “we should go. It isn’t safe here.”

Dan was no coward, but he was alert to danger.

“Nonsense,” Topper replied. “I’m celebrating. It’s after midnight, so it’s my birthday. Senorita Saturnina has volunteered to help me celebrate.” The buxom woman beamed prettily, exposing a gap-toothed smile.

“Happy birthday, Professor,” Dan replied. “We should go. You don’t want to do this.”

“Of course, I do,” Topper smirked. “I may not be able, but I want to. Besides, I’ve already checked, and no one vouched for the girl’s father. I’m pretty sure he’s not a Mason, so I haven’t promised not to violate her chastity.” Topper gave a convincing leer.

“Maybe she’ll come with us to La Fonda or your rooms.” Dan started him toward the door as Saturnina, abandoning the old man for the moment, latched onto Dan.

Saturnina wanted to gamble and drink. She didn’t want to leave the sala just yet and she didn’t want to let the handsome young man go. Dan looked around again as the girl clutched his arm. He’d lost Professor Topper Pendarvis. Rolling his eyes heavenward, Dan viewed the great, smoke-blackened vigas. Not as fine, he recalled, as the herringbone pattern of smooth, peeled wood latillas that was the ceiling in La Tule’s sala. Nor was the Saturnina anywhere near so refined or pretty.

Dan thought he’d captured Topper, but he was intercepted by a small troll, small for a troll anyway, average-sized for a man. Its features were a mass of knobs: high knobby cheeks, prominent knobby, cleft chin, knobby ears, and a knobby brow-ridge covered in great tufts of eyebrow. Its deep-set eyes were merry and sparkling; its face was decorated by a giant handlebar mustache framed by sideburns. Its uniform was impeccable. Its breath was deadly and combustible. Dan had noticed the officer as soon as he’d entered the sala. Captain Henry Sibley of the 1st Dragoons had been sitting with his back to Dan playing monte and drinking aguardiente in company with a large man in fine clothes. Dan didn’t think Sibley had noticed him, but he had.

“Daniel Trelawney,” the captain breathed, “how are you? Does this mean Roque Vigil is somewhere about? I want to talk to you both.”

“Henry,” Dan replied, “I’m fine. How’re you doing? I’m trying to catch Topper. He’s got a couple of young ladies in tow and is headed out for adventures too wild for a man his age.”

“Daniel,” Henry continued despite the plea, “I need to talk to you and Roque. Major Canby is getting up an expedition against the Navajo come spring green-up. I can get you both on as scouts. Good pay.”

“I don’t know,” Dan replied. “We haven’t done any scouting since we worked with Major Carleton against the Jicarilla in ’54 and ’55. I saw things I never want to see again. I don’t like working against families.”

“We’re going out to confront their warriors,” said Sibley, “and recapture the sheep and cattle they’ve stolen. We don’t plan to kill families.”

“Never do,” Dan replied bluntly. “Will the Mexican auxiliary militia be coming along to take slaves?”

“Think it over,” Henry said. “It’s a prime job.”

“I’ll think on it,” Dan said without conviction.

Dan knew the murder of whole families and the slaving wasn’t Captain Sibley’s fault. The Utes, who hated the Navajo, as well as Mexican raiders, would show up to “help out.” They’d murder and take slaves. They’d been doing it for centuries, and the Navajo returned the favor with equal gusto whenever they could. By and large, the Navajo weren’t innocent; they stole more livestock than any other tribe and took more slaves.

Dan studied Sibley’s drinking companion. It took Dan a moment to place the big, well-dressed gentleman. He’d been introduced to Albert Pike by Topper. Pike was a brother Master Mason, but Dan didn’t care for him. Pike was a Southerner who professed strange ideas about slavery and the nature of God.

Searching the room, Dan worried about Topper. Over the last few months he had been revealing secrets to Dan about a vast lost treasure Topper believed was hidden out in the Navajo country. Since coming West in 1849, Dan had heard many tales of mysteries hiding in desert and mountain. He set most of them aside as tall tales, but Topper showed him that many of these had a basis in truth that had been garbled in the telling. Dan had seen lost cities and magic runes carved into the rock.

Topper’s tales seemed less likely than most, but Dan had spent his childhood around sailors who spoke of currents and tides, sea routes, prevailing winds, and strange voyages. Sailors claimed voyages and landfalls no scholar ever put in books. The old man’s tales were possible if very unlikely. The Israeli tribe of Dan might have sailed to the Rio Grande just as the Egyptians had. Warrior monks of the Crusades might have come as well. Dan wanted proof and doubted very much that Topper had it.

His secrets raised the hair on the younger man’s neck. Men would kill for what Professor Pendarvis knew if it contained even one grain of truth or if they believed it did. Nine days before their night on the town, Dan began to notice men trailing them. He had a sixth sense possessed by men who survived on the frontier; things not seen, heard, felt or smelt consciously provided warning. Men in black suits ducked into shadows when Dan looked behind. Texans seemed to be headed in the same direction as Dan and Topper more often than seemed right. Seven nights before a party of Mexicans had attacked Topper before Dan drove them off.

“Daniel,” he had said, “they just wanted to rob me. It happens all the time.”

With his poor clothes, the professor didn’t seem to Dan a likely target for robbery. But wealth was relative, and more than one paisano thought all gavachos rich. Unlike the professor who seemed aloof from worldly cares, these brushes made Dan more vigilant. Alerted, he saw more lurking shadows. Furtive figures flitted and worried him. By the evening of Topper’s revelry, Dan’s skin tingled in anticipation of unseen danger.

Once again, he’d lost sight of Topper. He studied the terrain more carefully with Saturnina still entangled on his arm. Her sweet scent disguised her lack of regular bathing and good hygiene. The stink of tobacco smoke, spilled tequila, and Taos Lightning and the stench of too many unwashed bodies too close together were making Dan nauseous and causing his head to swim. A poorly made horno, beehive-shaped fireplace, in the corner leaked smoke and heat into a room already too warm and smoky.

Dan glimpsed a small, white-haired figure when a young girl moved. He was entwined with her as the two challenged monte. A gloomy Mexican trying hard to look rico dealt out four cards face up using the Spanish deck of forty cards. Topper and his new companion each selected one of the four by placing their coins next to the selected card, thereby betting that its suit would be matched by the fifth card dealt. If the fifth did not match any suit previously dealt or if no one had bet on the suit that came up with the fifth card, the pot went to the house, the sala, giving it a significant advantage. Monte referred to the mountain’ of discards left when all forty cards had been dealt in five-card hands. The Spanish suits were coins, cups, swords, and clubs. The three court cards were Jack, Horse, and King.

Card counting might help at little, and Pendarvis had the mind for it, but monte was mostly luck. In time, the house would win.

The professor chose coins, and his companion took swords. The fifth card was the King of coins, and Topper won. He consoled the girl with a small coin. They bet on the next deal as Dan made his way across the room encumbered by Saturnina. When he finally arrived at the monte table, the professor introduced Dan to his new lady friend.

“Daniel, I want you to meet Apolonia. She’s as lovely as her name implies.”

She was lovely. Dan hoped she wouldn’t smile and ruin the effect. Instead, she farted loudly. She was undoubtedly a refrito epicure.

Encumbered now with two ladies, Dan could only watch in horror as Topper walked across the room and stepped out of the gambling den into the dark streets of the City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis, Santa Fe. Two men in black coats stepped out behind him.

It took Dan some minutes and a few coins to satisfy the ladies’ greed and vanity, convincing them they were perfectly beautiful. He pled an upset stomach that left him unable to pleasure them both, but he promised to return another night. Finally free, Dan stepped into the darkness of Burro Alley.

He heard voices in the dark.

“Tell us what we want to know,” said one voice. It was followed by a slap.

A small man broke free of the dark and hurried past Dan. It was Topper who was quickly corralled by an arm extended from the murky gloom.

“Give us the book that contains the secrets of the Masons,” demanded the voice connected with that arm. The sound of a heavy blow followed. Topper broke free and ran again into the arms of a third villain waiting in the dark. The altercation, thought Dan, sounded like a Masonic initiation.

The second man was unfolding what might have been a hood. Dan realized that they must plan to kidnap Topper. Interrogation required time and privacy. Dan thought Topper safe enough for the moment.

The third man struck Topper with a heavy thud.

“Tell us where it is hidden or die!” the dark man roared.

Dan heard the click of a revolver being cocked. Now he worried. What if they already had most of the information and needed only a simple key, Topper’s journal, to unlock them. Just like the three brothers of Masonic legend, these assailants must themselves be Masons to know this much.

“Never,” Topper said quietly.

Shocked into action Dan drew his pistol cocking it as he did.

“Unhand him,” Dan cried. His words sounded silly in his own ears, but these words were all that came to mind. The entire episode struck him as bizarre.

As his eyes adjusted to the dark, Dan saw Topper grappling with the hand that held his assailant’s gun. Blam! A blinding flash stole Dan’s vision. The assailant pushed Topper away as the old man crumpled to the ground. Dan heard him fall.

Firing at the sounds the third thug made, Dan heard his bullet strike flesh making a sound like a penny dropped on a drum. The man staggered and Dan guessed the dark-coated man was hit in the gut. Dan watched transfixed as the wounded man tried to lift his weapon. Failing to raise it high, he fired hitting Dan in the leg, knocking him to his knees. Still game, Dan fired back. Smoke and flashes of shots blinded him. He heard boots strike cobbles and the sound of a body being dragged.

Leg still numb Dan was unable to stand, and so crawled to Topper and cradled his head.

“Daniel,” he whispered, “listen.”

“You’re all right then. You’ll be okay,” Dan mumbled.

“No, Daniel,” he breathed, “listen because I haven’t got much time, and there is much still to say.” He coughed blood and weakened by the spasm went silent. His chest expanded, and he resumed, “It’s in the ritual. They hid it in the ritual.”

“What do you mean, Topper?” Dan pleaded. “Stay with me.”

“Can’t,” Topper croaked and coughed again. “I’ll soon depart for that undiscovered country. Think. What could be better? Hidden…in the ritual. Not in order. Use what you know. Use your brain.” He gasped again. “Let your brothers help you. Find it for me. Quest…” He was fading. “Swear.”

“Okay, Topper,” Dan sobbed. “I swear. You have my oath, but I need you to help me find it. I’m not ready to go without you.”

Topper smiled faintly and said in a voice barely above a whisper, “You can. You must.” He coughed blood, shuddered, and lay still. Cradled in Dan’s arms, Topper who had been a mentor to Dan was dead. The younger man, a tough frontiersman, sobbed.

“Danito, what has happened?” asked Roque running to his partner. “I hear pistol shots on a dark night in Santa Fe. Naturally, I think of you and come running.” He clutched his pants in one hand holding them up and his pistol in the other at the ready. Roque looked to the blood trail left by the man Dan had gut shot, and then he looked to Topper.

“He’s been murdered, Roque,” Dan replied. “Topper is dead.”

Roque knelt and put his ear to Topper’s chest. “His heart still beats. We must get him to his casa.”

Dan, visibly shaking with grief, agreed. “Roque, we must get to the Professor’s casa immediately! Andale, amigo! We must take Topper.”

Feeling returning to his wounded leg, Dan rose. The two big men, one limping, cradled the old man’s sagging body between them. Dan limped and slowed them. They moved as fast as they were able down streets and alleys to Topper’s home. As they turned the last corner, a light shone from Topper’s open doorway. Three men in dark clothing, the same, Dan thought, as had shot Topper, were emerging from the professor’s casa. The last man cast an oil lamp back into the room clutching his stomach as he did so.

Halto!” ordered Roque, but they fled. Roque drew and fired without effect. Setting Topper gently against a wall, the two turned toward the flames. They found the door stove in, the mattress slashed, trunks turned out, bookshelves turned over, and the books ripped apart. Flames grew, feeding on books and mattress.

Behind them Topper croaked, “The nicho. Behind the nicho.”

Challenging smoke and flame, Dan fought his way to the far side of the room. A nicho, a storage place recessed in the wall, lay open with its door torn free, and its shelves swept clean.

“Roque, tell the professor the nicho is empty.”

“Thank the Great Architect,” Topper replied relaying through Roque. “They didn’t find it. Pull the shelves out. Look behind.”

The thieves hadn’t uncovered the secret compartment. Grasping the shelves Dan pulled, and the back of the nicho came free to reveal a spacious compartment within the wall. From this compartment, the young man extracted a thick parfleche, a protective rawhide bundle, and fled with it through thickening smoke and flame.

He handed the parfleche to Topper who cradled it to his bloody chest. “It’s here. The Master’s secrets are not lost.”

“Time to leave before we face too many questions,” said Roque, helping Dan lift the professor once more. “Fortunately, the viejo, he is not yet feeling pain.”

Together they carried Professor Pendarvis into the shadows and through dark streets to their rooms.

With no civilian doctors around, the military doctor from Fort Marcy was called, and as Roque bound Dan’s bleeding leg, the doctor worked to save Topper.

“If he was a younger man,” said the doctor in time, “I would say he didn’t have much chance and faced a long recovery. But this is an old man, and he is wounded in the abdomen. I don’t think any vital organs are damaged. I have removed the bullet and a bit of his shirt. If the bleeding stops and if there is no infection, he may live.”

In the morning, Kit Carson arrived with a Jicarilla Apache medicine man, Shitaá Piishíí, Father Nighthawk, who looked under Topper’s bandages, made and added a poultice, and brewed a thick tea for the professor to drink. The professor was able to speak in whispers, and the old men chatted amiably in Spanish

Kit explained the shaman’s presence. “We can’t let a valued brother depart early for that undiscovered country from who’s borne no traveler returns.” A simple man whose speech came from the deep backwoods, Kit loved the big words of the Masonic ritual. It had been he who had vouched for Dan and Roque admitting them for the first time to the Lodge.

“Kit, I need to speak to you privately.” Dan led him into the next room. “I thought Topper was dying last night, and I made him a promise.”

“Promise is a promise, Dan.” He rested his hand on Dan’s shoulder.

Dan nodded. “He’s been searching here in New Mexico these last 10 years for something as fantastic as unicorns.”

Kit smiled. “I’ve heard of them.”

Dan went on. “I don’t know how long he was chasing dreams and fantasies before that.”

“Are you sure,” said Kit softly, “that they’re fantasies? I’ve seen some things I hardly believe. You’ve seen some of them, too.”

“When I was a child in Greenport near the ocean, sailors delighted in telling stories to amaze, that made a boy’s eyes large and round. Topper’s stories are that strange. How many years should I devote to chasing shadows? My whole life, like he has?”

“Perhaps.”

Dan’s frustration was obvious. “It’ll be dangerous. There are others that believe Topper’s stories and are willing to kill for information.”

“You haven’t been inclined to much fear before,” said Kit.

“And it’s more than one man can handle alone,” insisted Dan. “I haven’t the right to ask anyone to follow me on my quest. I haven’t the right to risk their lives.”

Kit smiled as strangely as the Mona Lisa. “Wait and see who volunteers. It’ll be their choice, not yours.”

Roque Vigil burst in on them leaving the curandero he had brought at the professor’s side. Both the professor and Father Nighthawk greeted the elder Mexican as an esteemed colleague. Roque was almost as tall as Dan and as broad shouldered. He was dressed Mexican style, wearing moccasins and rawhide leggings tied below the knee. Over these his silver concho adorned pantaloons were open to the thigh, the conchos serving as great buttons to open and close the seam. A red sash at his waist concealed a pistol and very large, sharp knife. A white shirt was partly concealed by a black, felt vest embroidered in black with silver buttons. Thirty-year-old Roque, always on the lookout for pretty girls, was careful of his appearance and of what he rode.

“I have news,” said Dan’s Mexican partner. “A dead man was found by the rillito. The man Dan shot, I think. I have seen the body and pulled back the shirt to see he was gut-shot. He wore a strange garment under his shirt, white and covered in Masonic symbols.”

Both Dan and Kit shook their heads never having heard of a Mason wearing such a garment. From the other room, Topper, whose ears were sharp, called weakly. They went to his side.

“Years ago,” began Topper, “Joseph Smith was made a Mason, and I shared my secrets with him. That’s why Brigham Young took the Mormons West. The man you killed was a Danite, a secret warrior.” Exhausted he fell silent as his two doctors fussed and told the Masonic brothers not to disturb him further.

“Kit, there’s more than just these Danites,” Dan exploded. “Last night, there were Texians watching us and Mexicans, too.”

“Hush and come with me, Dan. You too, Roque.” Leaving the house, Kit led them to the Masonic Lodge, and they entered. “We should be safe from cowens and eavesdroppers here. You’re both Masons, same as me, entered, passed, and raised. You’ve been knocked in the head and so has your friend Rojo.”

Roque sighed. “The Pope, he is so anti-Mason, I thought you would never take a Catholic.”

Kit nodded. “We take all men what fear God, no matter what name they know him by.”

Dan looked at Kit. “I never thought the Lodge would accept Rojo. He’s Jicarilla Apache.”

“He believes in God,” said Kit. “As Masons, you three can share Topper’s secrets among you and with no one else.”

Dan considered this a moment. “What about Albert Pike. Topper has told him things?”

Kit pondered. “I would tell him nothing.” He would say no more.

Back at their rooms, they tended to Topper. Age was against him. He got no worse, but no better either. Father Nighthawk and the curendero, coming to see him often, just shook their heads.

Father Nighthawk said, “He has lost touch with his Power. Somehow he has offended his Power.”

Dan pondered. What was Topper’s Power? The way that Nighthawk used Power, he meant some natural force that assisted Topper’s scholarship. It was hard to imagine what it could be. Dan wondered if Topper knew. He and Father Nighthawk might have discussed it. It must be bound to secret knowledge locked in books, and revealing it to the wrong person might offend such a Power.

“That’s crazy,” thought Dan.

One day when no one else was about, Topper called Dan to his side. “I told Pike too much. Less than you suspect, but enough. I’ve always been able to sense who to trust, and I did not trust Brother Albert.”

Dan feigned surprise. “But he’s a Mason sworn to hold your secrets as his own.”

“None the less,” said Topper weakly and fell silent.

Dan thought about the time he’d spent with Topper. Topper had been coach to Dan, Roque and Rojo, teaching them their Masonic proficiencies, all the things a Mason was required to know and take to heart. But he had done more with Dan, who remembered how easy it was to listen to Topper’s stories. They were exciting, and his puzzles worked the mind. Along with Masonic proficiencies and general information about the Lodge and its long history, Topper had taught deeper lessons, such as logic and a method of choosing between competing explanations. He called this a philosophy of science, and along with it went lessons in logic and fallacy. It was after Dan was “raised,” that is, made a Master Mason, that the real lessons began. Professor Pendarvis, Dan couldn’t think of him as Topper at times like those, called it a secret history and a scientific exploration. The frontiersman from Greenport, Out East, hadn’t taken his stories seriously. They were the stuff of legends. Dan thought back to the stories he’d heard Out East, the eastern end of Long Island, a part of New England. Sailors claimed that in Mexico Indios raised pyramids same as Egyptians to whom they must be related. Who could believe such wonders? Topper’s stories were the same. Now, at least to Dan, it was clear that others besides the professor took his stories to heart. They were willing to kill for the professor’s knowledge and for the treasure buried somewhere out among the canyons, deserts, and mountains. Dark, powerful, ruthless forces were at work.

“Dan,” whispered Topper, “I’m in good hands. It is time for you to begin your quest.”

One Response to Mystery of Chaco Canyon, Chapter 1

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