Regardless of the Consequences
She was dead, but her last words still haunted him, “You walk the line between white and Apache, and only you can choose your path.”
Sheriff Lance Tallbear ducked low forcing his tall, muscular frame past the sweat lodge door. He stepped through the sweetgrass smudge exiting. Drained and coughing, his mind confused by the past few months and the events leading to the burial of his mother.
A bitter silence had enveloped Tallbear and his grandfather after they’d quarreled over his police responsibilities. He was reminded of the spiritual duties he owed the Apache people who believed him to become their future shaman. He was here at the cleansing ceremony of Tommy Hawk for that very reason. Today, his grandfather, Gray Eagle, as the elder shaman, performed the ceremony. Tallbear was present to honor young Tommy Hawk and show respect for his elder’s beliefs.
After hours in the sweltering heat of the lodge ceremony, his grandfather, Hawk, the chanters, and other elders exited the lodge to march up the hill to Grandfather’s cooling. Each seeking to refresh themselves in the cold spring waters.
Hawk jerked up sharply, dodging a screech owl that shot out from a nearby mesquite tree, shrieking its displeasure as it disappeared over the volcanic ridge. Tallbear saw Hawk’s eyes fill with dread at the omen, and patted his shoulder to reassure him.
Gray Eagle lived in a remote part of Black Mesa, wild and rough, located on the black lava remains of an extinct volcano, a fit place for a medicine man to live. The old shaman led the way, shaking his gray shoulder-length hair to release some of the lingering sweetgrass smoke from the ceremony.
Tallbear grudgingly admired the boy going through the purification ceremony to protect himself during his job as shepherd of Mr. Barne’s merino sheep flock in the Superstition Mountains. Tallbear had taken six months personal leave after his mother’s funeral to sort out his life and during that time had avoided contact with his grandfather. He felt sure the absence had been because both had needed space to sort out the differences in their lives and futures.
In the tower build to elevate the water tank released the spring water in a thunderous roar as it tumbled down on top of them. Jolting cold, the entire group let out a collective gasp. Tallbear shivered remembering the experience from other ceremonies over the years. The water cascaded from overhead deluging the well house.
Tallbear laughed, watching the old singers point at each other’s shrunken manhood, questioning each other’s virility. He’d participated in many ceremonies like this one, meant to cleanse the young man’s soul and protect him during his journey in the sacred Arizona Superstition Mountains.
Slowly, after cooling off in the spring waters, cleaned up and dressed, the men paid their final respects and left. Tallbear walked out, shaking water from his shoulder-length hair. His eyes locked with his grandfather’s.
“I’m still thinking about it. It’s too soon after mother’s death. You need to give me more time.”
“Life is but a measure of time, cub,” Gray Eagle nodded. “It walks at its own pace, my grandson.”
Tommy Hawk came out, and blushed as he pushed by his shaman. Gray Eagle placed a hand on Hawk’s shoulder. “Tommy, don’t listen to Tall Oak. He’s just jealous he couldn’t measure up to you when he was your age.”
All three men burst into laughter.
Gray Eagle’s voice became more serious. “You walk with Mother Earth now, Mr. Hawk. Enter the sacred mountains, but follow your path with caution.”
Hawk smiled, climbed aboard his motorcycle, and raced toward home.
Tallbear had ducked his grandfather, even evading him at his mother’s hospital to avoid the discussion of his career choice or family duty again. Gray Eagle had trained him since his father, and the rightful shaman heir had died in a mining accident. The older man still dreamed of him replacing his father as shaman healer. Maybe it was the cleansing smoke but watching Hawk after what he’d just endured, he couldn’t help but feel proud. His presence one of support for both Hawk and his grandfather.
Remembering other encounters with the Hawk family in his police role, made him question just how safe the young man would be, even at home. Unlike his, the kid’s heritage was never really in question. The boy’s father was a full-blooded Chiricahua Apache, his mother a Navaho. Hawk’s Native American appearance, his burnished skin, and manner hid his real ancestral past.
Researching Hawk’s departmental records, Tallbear had discovered the boy lost his mother at eight, about the same age Tallbear was when his father died in the uranium mines. It had proved to be a shattering experience, and one that still had repercussions. Unlike him, Hawk had suffered through the murder trial of his father for his mother’s death. The man had eventually been acquitted death. Maybe each one’s loss at so young an age proved to be something that bound them spiritually and drove his desire to help the young man succeed.
Gray Eagle tugged on his shoulder. “You see yourself in this boy, I think, Tallbear. You could become his spirit guide?”
His grandfather never gave up hope that Tallbear would answer his teachings and become shaman for the tribe after his passing. His father had turned from his tribal beliefs to provide a life for his wife and half-breed son in the White man’s world. He’d taken the family into modern society, turning from Indian culture and traditions, deciding to work in the uranium mines on the reservation to provide a living for his family. After his father’s loss, Tallbear found himself raised in the white world of his mother. Now, trapped between two worlds, he was not fully accepted by either.
“Maybe more than you think Grandfather.” Tallbear said. “He’s a little wild and headstrong. But he has something I don’t have.”
“And what’s that?”
“He doesn’t have a nagging old man standing naked on the porch preaching at him.” Tallbear stepped off the porch and headed for his truck. “By the way, Grandfather, don’t you think it’s time you put on some pants? I’m still a cop, and indecent exposure is against the law in Arizona. I’ll see you soon.”
“You walk in the way of the white man,” Gray Eagle called out, waving. “But remember, the shadow you cast will always be of The People.”
Tallbear paused as he reached the truck, “I wonder if all The People would be happier if I were a full blood and not half Apache and son to a white Roman Catholic woman.” Behind his back, there were whispers, but he’d had to live with the unspoken truth of it all his life.
The morning dawned muggy and oppressive as Hawk rode silently in his father’s truck with Rip, his Rottweiler, lying in the back. The scarlet sky reflected the tension both men felt inside the vehicle. His father never said goodbye or asked him when he’d be back as he stepped from the truck at the trailhead. Looking up, the Superstition Mountains cast a spell over all who entered them. Hawk still felt wary approaching them, even after going through the cleansing ceremony.
He walked up the slope shortly after dawn with Rip, leading the way. His long hair tied back with a calico bandana. Stepping cautiously around a large boulder, he ducked under the umbrella of a mesquite tree. His father’s words from last night still rang in his ears as he touched the bloodied lips his father gave him that morning. “You forget, you’re just another worthless reservation brat. Hell, you’re only half that.”
A large owl bolted past Hawk’s face, its wing brushing his shoulder. He steadied himself, remembering the owl from the afternoon before and was unsure which part of him was more frightened. His Indian half feared the owl for the danger of death it foretold. His white half shuddered, believing in the ghosts and haunts his grandfather had warned him about living in these mountains. Few, if any, other than Tallbear, knew of Hawk’s white heritage. Red Elk, his mother, carefully covered up her rape by the white soldier. But his father couldn’t forget the stain that marked his true beginnings. He brushed his lip, last night had been another painful reminder.
Hawk knew well the long hot days that marked the southern Arizona desert in June. He’d spent his last three summer vacations there, minding Mr. Barne’s flock as they grazed in the high pastures of the Superstition Mountains. His and Rip’s job was to protect the flock from eagles, coyotes, and the occasional mountain lion that roamed the region.
Rip became a valuable friend helping to pass the lonely nights. He also afforded a source of protection from any dangerous two-legged things found wandering in the mountains. People still whispered of the headless corpses found locally. They were believed to be the unlucky people that got too close to ‘The Dutchman’s’ lost mine.
Hawk was saving his money to help pay for a college education so he could escape both the reservation life and his father. He’d show his father. He’d show them all.
The shepherd job also gave him peace away from the reservation. Under the starlit night sky, he could be anything and anyone. On the reservation, he didn’t always feel welcome, and there he saw no future. A half-breed, part-white, and part-Navajo living with an Apache father, he never felt accepted by anyone. Especially his father.
Hawk reached the tinaja in the great cave and knelt to drink and wash the grit of the journey from his body. When done, he didn’t feel any cleaner. The water’s reflection didn’t change the angular nose, the high cheek bones, or the burnished skin that marked his heritage.
He broke out the still-warm tortillas his grandmother had made earlier this morning and ate some of the fresh cheese she brought over the night before. Rip watched him with interest, drooling profusely. Hawk tossed him a share of the cheese and tortilla, watching it disappear in a few quick bites. Reaching into his knapsack, he drew out a tattered, chewed, softball, Rip’s favorite chase toy.
“I suppose this is what you want now?”
Rip stood rigid, his every muscle tensed and ready. Hawk turned quickly, pitching the ball hard. It careened off the sandstone wall, disappearing over the precipice of the canyon. Rip scrambled after it.
Hawk shook his head. Everywhere they went the game was always the same, only this time, he suspected it would be some time before Rip returned. He shuddered as he looked down the slope, its depth hidden because of the pinion pine and cottonwoods blocking his view.
Few trees remained on many parts of the reservation, most having been logged off long ago for lumber or firewood. Here, in the Superstitions, his people feared the magic of the place and all that existed here. The ancients lived underground and were known to do horrible things to trespassers regardless of their skin color or heritage. Downslope he saw no sign of Rip and picked a shady corner to rest his back against and eat the rest of his lunch.
The moist muzzle of a lamb startled Hawk out of his sleepy stupor. He stood and stretched. The movement of the cave’s shadows showed it was well past noon. Outside, the bleating of the flock had faded as they moved away from the cave to seek fresher graze. He walked to the cave opening, reoriented himself, and looked for Rip. A few lambs crept inside the cave to find shelter from the heat.
Hawk stepped out and looked into the canyon. Where was Rip? A thump drew his attention, and he spotted Rip gnawing on his prize under a nearby rock overhang.
“Come on, Rip. If Mr. Barnes found out we were sleeping on the job, we’d both get the ax.”
He quickly repacked the leftovers into his backpack, “Let’s go, boy. Unless you want to carry that ball the rest of the way to the river-camp, you’d better get it over here.”
Rip lowered his big head submissively and brought his prize over. Hawk looked at it more carefully, reaching for it. Instead of the tacky, chewed softball, Rip’s mouth held something large, smooth, gray, and round. Hawk gingerly took it into his hand. Only when he turned it over and caught the glint of a gold tooth and other teeth did he realize he was looking at the top part of a human skull. His eyes locked onto the piercing empty eye sockets peering back at him accusingly. Casting it down, he jumped back, and Rip jumped, eager to continue the game. “No, Rip, stay.”
The skull lay where it had fallen, Hawk’s gaze fixed on it. He leaned forward, his stare intensified, not believing what he saw. Where had Rip found it? He’d heard stories that many people had died in these mountains, either by choice, circumstance, or accident. The Superstitions kept their secrets well hidden. Gingerly, Hawk picked up the skull and turned it in his hands. The polished gray bone sent a chill through him as he ran a finger over it. Every instinct told him to get rid of it, to get away from this thing of death.
Still, he stood transfixed, staring at the shiny teeth. It didn’t belong to some old desert rat or prospector. Judging by the number of gold teeth, the person had been someone of wealth. Who had this person been? His grandfather’s stories of the dead rising to seek justice for their untimely death suddenly overwhelmed him. He needed to return the skull to its owner or suffer being haunted by the man’s ghost.
Rip knew where he’d found it, but could he lead Hawk there?
Hawk knelt and took Rip’s head into his hands, searching deep into his chestnut eyes. He needed to convey the importance of what he asked. Stroking Rip’s ear, he saw Rip only waited for him to ask.
Hawk held up the grisly prize, “Okay, boy, take me to where you got this.”
Rip ran from the cave mouth and stopped by the canyon’s rim, hesitating. He looked back and wagged his stubby tail before bolting over the edge and disappearing into the brush.
Storing the skull in his backpack, Hawk chased after his noisy guide, carefully picking his way through the ocotillo and scrub brush. Slower, he moved cautiously to keep his footing on the treacherous slope. A half-hour slipped by, the stifling heat sending rivulets of sweat down his face racing to catch Rip. Calling out, he could hear Rip’s muffled bark off in the distance. Then only silence.
The wind carried the sound and scent of water nearby as Hawk dropped further into the canyon. Creosote and bunch grass gave way to pinion pine, alder, and sycamore trees. The increasing breeze brought relief from the suffocating heat.
A set of boulders and some young sycamores blocked his path, and he had to weave his way through them. Hawk stepped between two towering pines at attention like sentinels. He entered a large meadow and froze.
Before him, the tail section of a large plane loomed up overshadowing him like a finger pointing skyward. Pieces of the wings and landing gears lay torn and twisted at crazy angles, stretched out in every direction.
Silently he approached the wreck. A wing pointed at the crumpled fuselage accusingly. Hawk found himself weakened and realized he hadn’t drawn breath since he entered the meadow. The body of the plane lay thirty feet away, crumpled, and useless. The frame bore ragged streamers of material covering the shape of the aircraft, with a stub where the wing had been. The protruding wing stub was made of metal and flaked into his hand when he touched it.
Hawk circled the plane, not believing what lay before him. He jumped over some deadfall, picked up a large piece of rubber, cracked and gray from prolonged exposure to the Arizona sun, and figured it to be a piece of tire. Most of the decals and writing on the plane hull and tail were faded, unreadable, or missing entirely. Even the window glass was yellowed and pitted with age. If this was where the skull came from, that person had died long ago.
At the planes front, he found the partially open cabin door hidden behind a mesquite bush and used his knife to remove it and enter. Another place Rip enjoyed an advantage, being agile and flexible. Hawk pushed his way into the plane’s body. Inside, a confusion of seats, old cushions, baggage, and various clothing remnants lay strewn helter-skelter. He worked his way to the cockpit and forced his way through the hatch. Inside, the seats and controls were tipped, rent, and torn. Most of the gauges shattered and only the control yokes still stood upright, ready for duty.
A pile of shredded clothing and other material lay on the pilot’s seat, and an old leather jacket hung tied to and dangled from the control yoke. He picked it up, a cloud of dust issued forth choking him. On the floor next to the rudder pedals, a pile of bones that included a lower jawbone lay scattered. Hawk froze, shivering. He saw another skull on the adjacent floor peering up at him . . . at least two people had died here.
The wreck was old, very old, and since the remains were present, he reasoned its’ fate to be unreported. Considering all the debris, it had been a pretty big plane, much larger than the Piper Cubs or Sky Chiefs he watched take off and land near the town at Brighton Airfield.
Hawk wondered how long it had been hidden here in the canyon depths. Stepping out of the plane, he tugged at the wing-piece again, and it tore like a piece of paper. What could make metal so brittle?
Rip had lain patiently at the edge of the meadow, content to let his two-legged friend play with his discovery. Impatient, when Hawk emerged, he jumped up and barked.
“All right,” Hawk’s cried, raising his hands. “We found it, now what do we do?”
Rip cocked his head, puzzled.
The darkening sky, Hawk remembered the omen of the owl. But now he had a more pressing problem. A storm building above, and the flock entrusted to him was at least an hour’s hard climb up the slope.
“Guess we’ll make our way over to Maybrey’s place tomorrow, Rip, and have him call this in to the sheriff.” Hawk knew old Maybrey prized his solitude, but maybe under the circumstances, he’d forgive Hawk this time.
He rolled the skull over in his hands and stared once more at those teeth. They’d be worth at least sixty . . . maybe even a hundred dollars. A sudden gust of wind blasted through the canyon, stirring up a cloud of dust in the clearing and rattling the plane’s wing. An eerie moan filled the meadow. Hawk quickly placed the skull on the wing stub, ashamed of his thoughts.
“Come on, Rip,” he said quickly looking around. “I think someone’s trying to tell us we’ve overstayed our welcome.”
Rip never looked back for his master, eagerly scampering up the mountainside.
After wandering through the plane once more, Hawk started his climb and paused on the slope to view the plane one last time. He thought about the two people who perished in the crash, thinking of how sad their loved ones must have felt, never being able to say goodbye. Had the owl meant to lead him here, if so . . . why?