ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 2011
© 2011 dal neitzel
The arid landscape smelled a little like sage and a lot like sand. The heat was oppressive. The sun was relentless. The vista was endless. Red sand hills with scattered outcroppings of collapsing gray and pink cliff rock. Sage everywhere. The twisting road had deteriorated into a two rut jeep trail and was working its way toward becoming a single rut up ahead. The engine was running strong but my truck was moving slow albeit a little faster than I wanted to go on this beat-up, washed out trail. If I stopped I’d be stuck. Keep moving forward was the only plan I had.
I had to duck my head to keep from smacking it on the roof. Tough on the ball joints. I was being cautious. I kept the speed up. In the past two minutes I had determined that this was not a likely road for Forrest to have driven when he hid his fortune. All I needed was a place wide enough to turn around so I could head back north, 10 miles to the town of Coyote. Grab a cold diet Pepsi and look somewhere else.
Up ahead I could make out one semi-standing building. Roof caved in. The remains of a ranch perhaps. Who would try ranching in this hard country? I remember thinking that I could probably turn around up there. That thought was interrupted when I felt my left rear wheel start to spin freely and the front swerve to the right out of the ruts. I was in a shallow, sandy wash. A little gas. Not too much. The truck was bogging down in the sand. One of those times I wished I had four wheel drive. But I don’t. I shouldn’t be here. But I was.
The truck slowed to its inevitable stop ignoring the fact that its wheels were spinning, It was now a no wheel drive vehicle. Stuck fast. Here I was. I could have turned around a mile back where there was a rusting, burned out hulk of a Dodge truck sitting in a wide spot in the road. But I had instead decided to go forward. I was, once again, nowhere. Buyers remorse. Good going!
I shut the truck down. Took my hands off the wheel and stared at the harsh, bright landscape. I could feel the intense sunlight pounding down on my left ear, left shoulder, left arm. A fly buzzed in the right window and exited the left. It was quiet. I was alone. I took a sip from my water bottle and slowly twisted the cap back onto the bottle while staring through the windshield at nothing really. Other than the dilapidated building about 200 meters ahead there was nothing to look at except undulating hills and multi-colored rock terraces.
Heat was building up in the unmoving air. Dust coated sweat covered my exposed skin. My jeans and t-shirt were soaked. It wasn’t cooling me down. Even my hands were sweating.
I took a deep breath and grabbed my hat and camera. I lifted the door handle, leaned against the door frame with my left shoulder and grabbed my ice axe from between the seats with my right hand. The door opened and I let the momentum carry me outside to the soft red wash. There was no breeze, only heat. I was in sand right up to the tops of my shoes.
Both rear wheels were trapped in the red stuff clear to the rims. Even the differential was down in the sand. The right front wheel was set against rock just high enough to halt the movement of my old truck. Only the left front was clear. It would take some work with a shovel and some rocks or boards to get the GMC moving again. 12 feet back and I’d be on the uneven hardpan. Not badly stuck. Just stuck. I reached inside and grabbed my water bottle, took a gulp, screwed the top back on and tossed the bottle onto the damp driver’s seat as I turned and headed up the hill toward the building.
As I approached I could see that the crumbling structure was built into the side of a hill. Probably for the extra insulation. My guess was that this baked landscape was hotter than today for much of the summer and just as cold as Moscow in winter. What a challenging place to make a living. The roof was mostly caved in. The adobe was falling away revealing the red bricks and rough wood framing. Solidly built. Darkened and fractured by exposure. At least 100 years old. Maybe much older. Newer additions and repairs. But it wasn’t a house or a barn. It was a store. It had wide multi-paned windows on each side of the center door.
Scattered around the front were boards. Possibly from a once inviting porch or wooden sidewalk. I poked at a couple of them with my axe and flipped them over to see what might be underneath. Nothing.
“Whatcha lookin for?” A deep voice behind me inquired.
“Jeese!” I nearly jumped out of my skin. The last thing I expected to hear was a voice. I turned quickly and found myself staring directly into the very weathered, very old face of an indian. He was wearing a red and brown striped, long sleeve shirt, quite faded from the sun. A red scarf was wrapped around his neck. His belt buckle was a large bear claw carved in turquoise and laid in a big silver oval. His black pants were a little baggy and he was wearing scuffed black motorcycle boots with large silver side buckles. Patchouli oil scented the air around him. His loose white hair spilled down to his shoulders. In spite of the heat he looked cool and unaffected.
“Its okay friend. I don’t mean ta give ya a heart attack.” he said as he grabbed my free left hand and shook it. “Scared the bejeezus out of me.” I said.
“Old indian trick.” he said, “Sorry.”
I could tell that he was trying to keep from laughing.
“My name is David Yellow Hat” His voice was like a loud whisper. “Your not wearing a hat” I said
“You white guys are damn quick” he said and then moved a little bit to the right so I wouldn’t have to squint into the sun while looking at him. His face was the color of old cordovan leather. He was a bit stooped but otherwise seemed fit. I could see no flab at all on his frame.
“Okay.” I said. “My name is Dal Neitzel.”
“What?” His voice was soft and airy...reassuring.
“Dal Neitzel” I repeated.
“What the heck kinda name is that?” He seemed surprised at my name. Was he expecting someone else? Black eyes searched my own looking for lord knows what.
“What’s it mean” he asked
“I don’t know” I said.
“You white guys!” he said. “So what are ya lookin for with your fancy walkin stick?”
“Snakes I said”
“Snakes? Aint no snakes over here. Then he pointed over my shoulder toward an outcropping about a hundred meters behind me. “Snakes over there where they got places ta hide.”
“This your place?” I asked, pointing with my axe at the old store.
“Sorta.” He said. “Used to be a trading post for the tribe that lived out here. It still belongs to the government I suppose. So I guess I own some of it.”
Yellow Hat turned toward the building and said, “Let me show you something. Come here.” and he carefully walked in through the open front door to the debris filled cavity that was once the interior of the trading post.
I followed him in. We went to the back of the room where two walls and an interior door still stood. As I followed I could see old coffee cans, powdered milk containers, some rotting remnants of flour sacks, a can of nails and other items it would be fun to dig around in. When I caught up to him he pointed at the door jam where there were some marks carved with names and dates.
“See this one down here?” he asked while pointing to a mark barely three feet up the jamb. “Thats Franklin Gower’s height from when he was 2 years old. That mark is from 1853. I knew this guy. He worked here when I was a kid. Pretty old then but I knew him when I was 7 in 1931. He was 80. He used to take his wagon in to Taos to get food for the indians out here in the middle of winter and let me tell ya that was no easy trip.”
“Did you work here?” I asked.
“No but my family lived bout 5 miles west and the kids used to come out here and hang around til old man Gower would give us a penny candy and tell us about our ancestors. He was okay.”
I bent down to examine the names written in red pencil on the frame. Next to the entry for “Frank” I could see it also said March 14, 1853.
“They did that for all the Gower kids right up til there weren’t no more.”
The last date I could see on the jamb was about my height and had the name Frank and 1938 next to it. I rubbed my fingers across the jamb to feel the notches in the wood.
“That one was the last Gower. Another Frank. He was killed landing on the beach at Guadalcanal in ’42. I remember him too.”
“Are you Navajo?” I asked
“You white guys!” he said. “Apache! This is all Apache country round here. Beautiful ain’t it? If you know how, you can live back here pretty good.”
He turned and walked back out the way we came. Bent down and picked up a rusted metal fork. looked it over, dropped it and continued out the door. When we were out he grabbed my left hand again and started pumping it. “Im headed toward town so I better get goin.” He pointed again toward the red rock outcropping. “Snakes over there. If ya see me on the road when yer headed back, gimme a lift will ya?”
“Sure.” I said. “Hey, you want to go over and look at snakes? Then you can ride back with me.”
“No. I seen them snakes before.” He said. “But you be careful. Gotta head out.” And then he turned up the rut and headed out in the direction of my truck.
“Take care David.”
I watched him for a bit. You can always tell a guy who spent life walking rather than driving or riding. Yellow Hat, at nearly 90, had a slow but comfortable pace. His balance was good. He looked fit with only a slight limp as he favored his left foot a bit. I guessed he didn’t even have a drivers license.
It took me about five minutes to walk up to the outcropping. I approached it carefully. Ever watchful for snakes. Although I wanted to see a couple I did not want to be surprised by any. I carefully walked among the broken stone that had peeled off the face of the outcropping. No snakes. I stopped and considered the heat. Probably too hot for them. Probably down in the cool cracks and small caves.
Then I saw them. About a hundred of them. Petroglyphs. Covering the entire flat front of the outcropping. Dozens were snakes but there were also horses and arrows and deer and things I couldn’t identify. Some were beautifully detailed. Many were simple as can be.
There were a few dates. One was a drawing of a man in a cowboy hat. Next to it was etched “Frank, 1876”. There were a couple of women in dresses, covered wagons and something that looked like fire coming from the sky on a village. There were stories here. These things always fascinate me. I ran my finger through the deep lines of a warrior on his horse. How old? Some of the carvings had the same dark coloration as the uncarved rock face. Others were lighter...newer? Some could be conquistadors in armor. Some could be spacemen. They were all fantastical and exciting. This place clearly had been used for hundreds of years as some sort of gathering place. Meetings? Hunting? A village?
Then I heard it...or rather became conscience of it. My truck. I heard the engine race. I turned to look but the hills and outcroppings prevented me from seeing it in the wash. I grabbed my ice axe and ran toward the noise. The engine stopped and I heard a door slam shut just before I crested the hill by the trading post. A tad further and I could see it ahead. “That sneaky indian!” I said aloud to only myself. “Good thing it was stuck or I’d be the one walking to town”, I thought.
I couldn’t see anyone around the truck but it had changed positions. It was now facing the way it had come. Not the way I left it with the nose pointed toward the trading post. As I got closer I could see that it was out of the wash. It was back up on the hardpan pointed toward Coyote and ready to go.
I looked for signs of someone. I could see my own footprints in the rut up from the wash. No footprints headed down into it and no footprints around the van. No tire marks where someone might have made a 28 point turn to get the truck turned around. “How did he do that?” I walked around the van. No prints but the ones I had just made. I opened the door and looked inside. There was a stick of cellophane wrapped hard candy in my cup holder. I haven’t bought stick candy in twenty years. I did not put it there. My water bottle was still in the driver’s seat where I tossed it. Keys in the ignition where I left them. How was this possible? It would have been an hours worth of work to extricate the van from that wash. I was a tad unnerved. I stood up on the running board. I could see for about a quarter mile in every direction except for the outcropping. No one was around. No boards were laying around. No rocks. I tossed my axe inside, climbed in, put my camera on the floor between the seats and turned the key. Started right up. I pondered the whole thing one more time. No solution. Then I smelled it. Patchouli oil lightly scented the air in the van....but how...and while we’re at it...why?
It took more than an hour to go back the ten dusty miles of red dirt road to the highway toward Coyote. It was about 2pm. It felt like the sun was burning a hole in the roof of my truck. I was sticky and hot and very uncomfortable. I don’t belong in this kind of climate. I kept imagining myself as a turkey all basted up on Thanksgiving and roasting in the oven.
As soon as I hit the asphalt, life got better. First thing I did was roll down the windows and push the accelerator to the floor to move some air around in the cab. This is a northern truck. Good mileage but no air conditioning.
Then things began to go downhill again. Second thing I did was slow way down when I looked in my rear view and saw blue and white flashing lights about twenty feet off my rear bumper. Where on earth did he come from? No trees. No side roads. No buildings to hide behind. “Maybe he’s Apache” I thought to myself. I rolled to a stop. Pulled onto the far right shoulder. Shut the engine down and reached into my back pocket for my wallet.
“Stay in the vehicle! Put your hands on top of the steering wheel and do not move!” A voice yelled from behind my truck. I did what he told me to do. I could see him in my side view. He was big and dressed like a cop. He had taken a regulation, two handed shooting position with his handgun pointed at where he figured my head should be in the truck. He side stepped to his right out of my view and over to the other side of my truck so he could approach me from the passenger side of the GMC. I wondered if he had called this in yet. I also wondered if the county cops around here made all their traffic stops like this. Tough neighborhood!
I didn’t move. I didn’t get smart mouthed. I sat with my hands on the wheel and my eyes forward while he checked me out.
“Any weapons in the vehicle?” he shouted. “None.”
As he came around to the passenger window he leveled the weapon through the window at my upper torso. He knew enough not to touch the vehicle or put his weapon in through the window. Then he started giving me directions.
“Listen to me and do what I say. Okay?”
“Put your left hand behind your head and hold it there. Do it slow and easy”
I followed his instructions, slow and easy.
When my hand landed behind my head he gave me the next instruction.
“Slowly move your right hand down to the ignition. Pull the key out and toss the key through your window to the ground.”
I did as he instructed but now my right hand was dangling in the air in front of my chest. I was certain he would want it somewhere else.
“Move your right hand to behind your head just like the left.”
I did as he instructed. He moved closer to the passenger window so he could check out the space next to me for weapons.
“What’s that on the floor next to you.”
I knew what he was talking about and I wondered if it was going to be a source of contention.
“Its my ice axe.”
Just then I heard the second cop running up to my side of the vehicle. The first cop must have called it in.
For a moment they stood at opposite doors. Two guns pointed at my torso and also at one another like one of those Police Academy movies. But I wasn’t laughing.
The cop on my side repositioned himself a little forward so any slug from the first cop’s gun that went through me and the door would miss him. Then the first cop left his position and reappeared on my side with his weapon holstered.
“I’m going to open your door now and when I do you will not move until I tell you too. Okay?”
“Is your door unlocked?” “Yep.”
The first cop looked at the second cop. They nodded at one another. My door jerked open and the first cop hauled me out by my elbow, pushed me to the ground and told me to “Get down and stay down!” In my peripheral vision I could see that the second cop had moved toward me and was now holding his weapon about three feet from my head. Then a cadence of instructions and questions.
“Spread your legs. Lock your fingers behind your head. If you move you’re a dead man. What’s your name?”
With my hands behind my head, my face was in the red dirt. I wondered if anyone had stopped here to pee. I hoped not. It felt like my keys were pinned under my right thigh. With my mouth in the dirt I said my name. I felt a knee hit the small of my back with quite a bit of weight. My left arm was wrenched from behind my head and a plastic cuff was locked around my left wrist. Then my right arm was hauled down to meet my left and cuffed to it.
The first cop was now feeling up my backside, torso and legs for anything unusual. He was not being nice about it. I figured these guys were very concerned about weapons but I had no idea why. He pulled my wallet out of my right back pocket. He stood over me and said, “Repeat your name!”
I turned my head to one side and repeated my name.
“Spell it!” he said.
I spelled it trying not to breath in the dirt that was coating my nostrils and mouth.
The big cop looked up from my license. “What kind of name is that?”, he asked.
“Its German.” I said.
I could hear some relief in his voice. Something had happened. I was not who he expected and he was relieved to find that out.
“What are you doing here?” he yelled.
I was afraid of this question. I knew it was coming and I was trying to think of a better answer than the truth. An answer that would not cause any trouble. But I couldn’t come up with one.
“Looking for hidden treasure.” I said.
I felt the knee push hard into the small of my back. The first cop didn’t like that answer. I didn’t think he would.
“I’m going to ask that again!”, he said. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t say what I think you just said. Don’t be a smart-ass it won’t help you right now. Just tell us the truth. What are you doing here?”
“That is the truth.” I said. I’m looking for hidden treasure. I can prove it.”
There was a pause while the cops considered what I had just said.
I decided to try to get into a more comfortable position.
“Look, can I get up?” I asked. I’m suffocating down here. I don’t have any weapons on me and I’ll answer any questions you want.”
More silence. Not a single car drove by. The highway out here was definately underused.
“I don’t know what you guys are looking for but I’m pretty sure I’m not it. I’m a damn tourist.”
Cop number one grabbed my belt and hoisted me up one handed while I tried to get my legs under me. As soon as I was on my feet he yanked my shirt up to make sure there wasn’t a concealed weapon in my waist. “Got any needles or sharp objects in your pockets?”, he asked.
“Cash and a folding pocket knife is all.” I said.
He put his hands in my pockets, emptied them and turned them inside out. I had about $6 in my left pocket and my pocket knife in my right. He put my things on the hood of the truck and turned back toward me. I spread my legs and he patted me down from the front this time. The second cop holstered his weapon, crossed his arms over his chest and watched. He was smaller than the first cop. About my size but thinner. Maybe 35 years old. His tan uniform had sharp creases. His hair was neatly trimmed and his face was clean shaven. I could smell All Spice after shave on one of them. Their shoulder patches said Rio Arriba County.
The big cop stood up and looked me hard in the face. He was probably over 6 feet tall and must have weighed 250lbs. He was younger. Maybe early twenties. Played football at some high school out here a few years ago. He looked like he worked out. His uniform was just as squared away as the other cop’s except his knees were now stained from the red dirt.
“I’m going to look inside your truck.” he said. “You got a problem with that?”
“Not me.” I said
“Good.” he said as he picked the keys up off the ground and headed to the back doors of my van.
The small cop just stared at me. He didn’t say anything. Just looked at me like I was an infant with a dirty diaper. The All Spice was definitely coming from him.
I found a point on the bridge of his nose and stared right back. I can be just as manly as the next guy.
I could hear the big cop rummaging around in the truck. Nothing back there was going to get me in trouble.
After about two minutes the big cop came back around the front of the truck. He had my ice axe in one hand and something small in his other hand along with my keys. I couldn’t see what it was.
“What did you say this was?” he said as he held up my ice axe.
“Thats an ice axe. Climbers use them when they are traveling on ice. Its an assist and safety tool.”
“Uh-huh.” he said to me and then turned to the other cop. “There’s nothing in there. I think we should uncuff him.”
The smaller cop came toward me. I turned my back to him and raised my hands a little so he could get at the cuffs.
While the smaller cop was fooling with the cuffs the big cop said “So why do you need an ice axe in New Mexico in August?” He was hefting the axe for balance and trying it out while he asked.
“I use it when I’m hiking around.” I said. “I can poke at places I’d rather not put my fingers.?
“Emm hmm. Where do you get something like this?”
“I don’t know about around here but in Washington you can get them at practically any climbing gear shop.
The smaller cop finally spoke up. His name tag said Vargas. “Where were you coming from when officer Bear pulled you over?”
“Bear! Thats his name...Bear? Officer Bear laughed.
“Call me Griz for short.” he said. “I like your axe.”
“So where were you coming from?” Vargas asked.
“I was coming back from that old trading post about 10 miles back from where I pulled out.” I said Bear nodded his big head and said “And what were you doing back there?”
“Exactly what I told you before. I was looking for hidden treasure. I thought it might be back there.” “What do you mean hidden treasure?”
“I can show you. Okay if I get a book out of my truck?”
I popped the door open and reached into my computer bag between the seats, pulled out Forrest’s book and handed it to Vargas.
“Fellow in Santa Fe decided to hide about a million in gold...”
“A million dollars in gold?..” Bear almost dropped the axe.
“Yeah, about a million and anybody is welcome to go look for it. That’s what I was doing.”
“So its buried around here someplace?” asked Vargas. He started thumbing through the pages as he listened and talked.
“I don’t know where it is. I’ve been looking in a bunch of places including out here. Could be anywhere.”
“But you have good reason to believe its out here, right? You aren’t just flipping a coin to see where you’ll look are you?”
“No I was following some clues that led me out here.”
“What’s this?” Bear asked. He was holding a small stone carving of an animal. “Can I see it?” I asked while holding out my hand.
I examined it. I had never seen it before. About three inches long. It looked like a dog. It was expertly carved out of a green colored stone. The creature had something that looked a great deal like my ice axe carved out of reddish stone and held onto its midsection with a leather thong. Looked old. Rounded like it had been rubbed a lot. The leather was dark with age. Beautiful marbled stone.
“I guess its a carving of a dog. But I’ve never seen it before. Where did you find it?” I handed it back to him.
“In your van. It was laying on the passenger seat.”
Vargas had stopped thumbing the pages. He found the poem and was studying it closely.
“Well I don’t know where it came from.” I said.
Bear held it up between his thumb and forefinger so Vargas could see it.
“Look at this.” he said to Vargas.
Vargas looked up from the poem, took the sculpture and studied it for a few seconds. “That’s your ice axe.” he said to me and pointed at the object tied to the dog. “Did you give a ride to an old indian?” he asked.
“Not exactly.” I said. “But, yes there was an old indian by the name of Yellow Hat that was in the truck about an hour ago.”
“Yellow Hat!” boomed Bear. That’s a good one. “Okay.” I said. “What’s going on?”
“You tell him.” said Bear.
“Well we’ve all been suckered.” said Vargas. That old indian that was in your truck. He’s an Apache trickster. His name is Coyote. This is not a dog. This is a Coyote. You must have been around him for awhile if he carved your ice axe and tied it on.”
“No. Not very long at all. Maybe 20 minutes is all.”
“I don’t think he could have carved your little ice axe in 20 minutes with all that detail.” Vargas said. I rubbed my eyes. They were suddenly dry and itchy. “No, 20 minutes is all.”
“Well if we ever catch this guy he’s going to be in a world of hurt. This time he called 911 and told the dispatcher that a white van with Washington plates was headed out from the Capa Amarilla road with four bales of Marijuana. Driver’s name was supposed to be Jones. I just got the call from dispatch when you came lurching out of there onto the asphalt and started driving like your butt was on fire.”
Bear added, “He lives back in there somewhere. They’ve been looking for this guy for about 40 years...I kid you not.”
He handed me the sculpture.
Vargas said, “Its an Apache fetish. It’s his calling card. First time I’ve ever seen one personalized like that. It’s good luck. Carry it with you all the time. You’ll be safe...and...do you know the name of that trading post back there?”
“Nope.” I said.
“Its called Capa Amarilla.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. “Yellow Hat.” said Vargas.
You can ask me why I was looking for Forrest’s treasure in Coyote, New Mexico, but I won’t tell you. I will say that I was there. Midsummer. Hot. Dry. Dusty.