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Murder at Malpais

An Archaeological Mystery
By Cody Grant

Archaeologist Cassie Mitchell has found two more skeletons, this time in El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico. She didn't dig them up, they melted out of the ice in a lava tube, a quarter of mile underground, in a labyrinth of sharp, volcanic rock and tortuous paths. The man has a smashed skull, a bullet in his back and papers in his pockets indicating he lived in 1886. The other set of bones? Well, that's why she decides to call Jerri Crowne, even more of a forensic expert than her old pal Rory Saint. Because even Rory wouldn't know what to do with the other body.

Amy Cowen wasn't sure exactly where she was headed when she left Grants, New Mexico in June 1886, but she knew she had to leave town and quickly. Not even her broken ribs could keep her off the horse and in the house she, until last night, had called home. The old Navajo woman said if she made it across the Malpais, she would find a well-made road and a spring. The Mormons in Ramah might take her in, or the Navajo on the reservation. Maybe. No matter what happened, Amy knew she could no longer stay in Grants.

Travis Jackson silently cursed his Beligani father and his Navajo mother equally. Never comfortable in either world, he was forced to live off by himself where neither Whites nor Navajos could judge the way he chose to make peace with himself. Most of the time he succeeded. Until the woman with the sunny hair came to his box canyon, alone, needing his care, trusting him, and giving him something no one had ever thought to give before: respect.  With the chance of a child growing in her womb, what could he do, but swear to protect her and whatever children came to them? Especially when she began to love him, despite all odds?

How will Cassie and Jerri piece together the story of Amy and Travis? And how can the daughter of a railroad clerk and the half-breed son of an Indian scout find happiness in 1880's New Mexico?





“You found a body!”

Jerri Crowne said this like she was hoping I’d just uncovered the first of Coronado’s mythical seven cities of gold. For the World Famous Drs. Rory Saint and Jerri Crowne, the only really good archaeology is a skeleton that has been in the ground for at least, say, oh, three or four years. The longer the better, but they’ll take on just about any human body for a modest fee, and tell the person who dug up the cadaver whatever they want to know about it. Or whatever is possible for them to figure out from whatever’s left in the ground.

“Nope,” I replied, somewhat smugly. I enjoy tripping up the experts.

“No body? So why’d you call?” she asked, obviously disappointed.

“I don’t have a body. I have two bodies,” I gloated.

I heard the not-so-dignified squeal over the telephone.

“Do I get this one, instead of my main squeeze?” she asked. I could tell she really, really wanted it.

“What? You want it?” I couldn’t believe my ears. Usually Jerri was so busy I couldn’t touch her for three years. I’d have to make an appointment that far in advance, and no one finds bodies and keeps them on ice that long. “I don’t get it. You pregnant or something? Can’t go overseas? Why are you suddenly available?”

“Of course I want it. Rory’s always getting the fun ones. No, I’m not pregnant, Zoe is.” Oh yeah. Their daughter. “We promised her one of us would stay in the states until the grandkid comes. Rory’s off in some third world country I’m not free to divulge right now. He’s proving that the previous dictator was genocidal. The CIA promised me he’d come back alive. I need to be doing something to keep my mind off the permutations.”

Rory Saint and Jerri Crowne are the best forensic anthropologists in the whole world, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve collaborated with Rory on three other projects, but I’ve known Jerri like forever. Rory works for the National Park Service out of an archaeological center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Jerri’s a professor for a local university in Lincoln. They’re both so good at what they do that foreign governments pay royal fortunes to get them to identify the victims of their enemy’s regimes. The U. S. pockets the proceeds and Rory takes home his regular, modest civil servant’s pay, and Jerri takes her low bid fee. They both put one more tic on their list of places they’ve been that no one else has ever heard of. Besides Iraq, Kuwait, Rwanda, Vietnam and Bosnia, that is.

“Ah, shit, Jerri. You shouldn’t have told me. Now they know!” I groaned.

“No they don’t. The phone’s encrypted. So’s yours. You’re always finding bodies. As soon as he left the states, we had them fix your phone, too.”

I stared at my telephone. Cool. Scary, but cool. “Can they do that on Daisy’s phone, too? I mean, can I spy on her? Get tapes and everything?” Daisy is my teenaged daughter.

“Cassie. Tell me about these bodies. You always have great bodies. I demand to do them.”

“Okay, okay, okay.” I took a deep breath, trying to figure out where to start. Organized is not my middle name.

“You been to El Malpais National Monument?” I asked.

“Nuh-uh.” I could hear Jerri shaking that head full of blondish curls.

“Think the big island in Hawaii, only out here in New Mexico. Nothing but a huge, flat plain of black lava. Killer stuff to walk on. Archaeological crews looking for Native American sites have to buy new boots every two weeks, the stuff is so sharp.”

“Sounds dismal.”

“It’s gorgeous. When the lava was hot, about  a million years ago, it would sometimes run underground through these tunnels and drain out the other end, leaving a long tube. There’s several of these lava tubes scattered around the park.”

“I’ll bet folks love to explore them,” Jerri offered.

“They do. They’re dangerous. People get killed in them all the time. These places are dark, full of incredibly sharp rock falling off the ceilings, stuff to stumble over, hit your head on. You wander into one, explore a while, come out of an opening further long, emerge onto a flat, featureless lava desert hours later, don’t have the foggiest notion where you are, the sun has changed position, you probably have no water with you, well, you’re dead within a couple of days. No one knows where to look for you. You don’t leave footprints on lava.”

“So you have a couple of bodies in a lava tube?” Jerri asked.

“How’d you guess?” I thought I’d been building up the mystery pretty well.

“Cassie. What sort of scenario did you just paint for me?”


“Sounds boring. Guy and friend walks into lava tube. Dies of thirst. End of story. What do you want to know?”

“You’re going to like this one, Jerri,” I hinted.

“Go on,” she urged. She knew I’d had some doozies for Rory, all murder victims. She wanted one, too.

“Bodies are about a quarter of a mile inside the tube, a long, long walk through one that’s full of lots of rock fall and sharp stone.”

“Persistent guys. They were curious what was in there.”

“One guy has his skull smashed in.”


“Bullet hole in the left shoulder.”

“Yeah?” Her voice had climbed up a few notes.

“Canteen nearby. Water in it.”

“No kidding?”

“Newspaper clipping folded up in his breast pocket. Dated August 19, 1886.”

Big silence on the other end. I waited.

“Sounding pretty interesting. Any coins, other dateable objects?”

“Yep. Consistent with the newspaper.”

“Okay, so what does the other guy look like?”

I let her wait, sort of built up the suspense. This would do it, I just knew, but I had to drag it out for her.

“Come on Cassie. What about the other body?”

“Not human.”

“What? What is it?”

“A horse.”









The air grew cool as the horse came to a shuffling halt. Amy felt far too weary to open her eyes and see where Fanny had brought them. It simply felt good to be out of the sun and not moving. The lack of motion gave her respite from the constant throbbing in her side. She moaned at the surcease of the constant hurt. She didn’t dare try to dismount. If she did, she’d never get back up in Fanny’s saddle again, so she’d just have to stay and enjoy the fact that the horse was standing still.

It took some moments before Amy realized what the odd sound was. Fanny drank water, great, deep gulps of it, making little heaving motions with her back each time she sucked in the refreshing liquid. Water. Even the thought of it gave Amy the strength to open her eyes.

The horse had brought her to the base of a tall, white cliff, one that curved around her to the east, south and west, creating a cool cul-de-sac in the balk of a towering mesa. Looking off to her left, Amy could see that a vast piñon and juniper forest fell away from the cliff base towards the north and east. In the distance she could make out the roiling jumble of the black, sterile lava lands she had just crossed. She had made it. She had escaped El Malpais, the Bad Lands, and come to El Morro, the legendary campsite on the old trail between the pueblos of Acoma and Zuñi. To the men trying to find her, she was as good as gone forever. To the people who lived in this land, she was something out of place, something to be noticed right away. If they did not kill her immediately, someone might help her, and she might have a chance of living. But at least they would find her, for she was right in the middle of their most important trail.

Drawing a deep breath to steel herself to the pain that would come, Amy forced her right leg over the back of the horse, and she dropped to the ground. The pain shot through her body as she expected it to, from both the deep breath and from the jarring when she set her feet down. She clung to the saddle for a few moments, blessing the placid mare for being so tolerant. She knew the animal had to be tired. She would take the saddle off and brush her down in a little while, after she’d rested a little.

Dropping the reins to the ground, Amy pulled the canteen off the pommel and stumbled to the edge of the pool. The water lay a deep turquoise color, unruffled by the breeze that blew overhead. It felt warm to her touch. Rain water, then, not from a spring, probably collected from the top of the mesa and funneled here into a deep pool at the base of the cliff. The old Navajo woman had told her water could always be found here at El Morro, that if she made it this far, she would not die, but her whole life would change.

Amy dipped a tin cup into the pool, not able to sink to her knees and drink straight from the pool like she wanted to. Despite the water’s warmth, the moisture felt wonderful in her throat. She finished that cup and took another, and then another, thinking that water had never tasted so good.

As her stomach filled and her lips felt less parched, she began to realize that the water, while not cool to the touch, could become that way if sprinkled on her clothing. Impetuously, she began unbuttoning her blouse. Pulling the long tails from her short skirt, she balled it up and doused it in the pool, planning to put it back on, soaking wet, an instant cooler in a land where no one could see the outline of her chemise under her wet blouse.

At that moment, she heard Fanny scream. She rose to her feet, gasping at the pain in her ribs at the sudden motion, still not having learned what would hurt and what wouldn’t. She turned to see the horse rearing and striking at something on the ground. Then the animal pivoted and thundered away from the spring.

Amy cried out the horse’s name, watching as all of her supplies, everything that would keep her alive disappeared into the forest on the back of the badly frightened horse. She took five steps after the animal, knowing she’d never be able to follow her, not with her pain and her weariness.

Amy felt the twist of the snake under her boot. She would have known what had frightened Fanny had she been in her normal state of rest, without pain, on a normal outing near Grants with her sisters. She would have been there with a pistol ready to shoot the thing, not stepping on it like a stupid little child. Instead, here she had crossed the malpais, alone, in the summer, only to step on a rattlesnake when no one else was near the spring at El Morro.

Amy glanced down to see that she had stepped on the tail of the snake. She could only watch in horror as it reared back and struck, sinking its fangs into her calf just above her boot. The reptile twisted under her foot. Instinctively, she brought the other boot forward and stamped down hard on its head. Grabbing up the knife at her waist, she hacked at the heaving coils, succeeding in chopping the animal into three slithering segments. She stepped back to watch them thrash about without purpose, protesting an end it couldn’t avoid.

As I can’t avoid this one, she thought, pulling up her skirt to examine the two small puncture wounds in the side of her right calf above her boot. She wondered briefly if was better to leave the boot on or strip it off. Off it came. She gritted her teeth and slashed across the two puncture wounds, knowing as she did so that she’d never be able to lean over and start sucking out the poison. She grabbed the hem on her petticoat and began to tear it. Already she could feel the pain spreading through her leg, and the numbness in her toes. An odd numbness tingled on her lips and forehead. No. The poison had begun to invade her entire system. She was too late.

Still she worked at securing the strip of petticoat to her thigh, just above the knee, tying it as tightly as she could. Maybe, if the poison stayed in the leg, she would live until… Until what? Until she died slowly of gangrene, instead of quickly from the venom of the snake.

Amy pushed herself into the shade of a nearby juniper, willing herself to keep living. She took a breath, steeling herself against the pain that would come, and leaned forward in an attempt to reach her leg with her mouth, knowing she had to suck the venom from the wound. The last thing she felt was the searing pain from her broken ribs as she tumbled into blessed unconsciousness.

* * *

            Travis Jackson looked to the east when he heard the scream of the horse. It didn’t sound like Koty, the paint he’d been riding all these years. No, it wasn’t. He caught a glimpse of his horse off to the left before he heard the answering whicker. A new animal in the area, not one of the two extras he kept, either. They were over on the south side of the mesa, with the cattle.

Travis let the axe head thunk into the trunk of the juniper he’d been working on, and left it where it stuck. He whistled for Koty and swung up into the saddle in one easy move as the horse sidled up beside him. The two had developed that move years ago, while working for his father. A cowboy and his horse worked together, a team. They had to anticipate what the other one was gonna’ do at any given moment. Koty had known what Travis had wanted to do as soon as he whistled at him.

Koty understood right where to go. It wasn’t too far off. Travis wasn’t too surprised to see it was the pool. That’s where most folks were headed when they came by. If Travis was the avaricious kind, he would set up a fence and a gate and charge folks good money for drinking at the pool. He’d be rich by now. That or dead.

Probably dead.

The bay mare with the white blaze on her forehead tried to run them down, swerving off to the side only at the last minute. Travis grabbed up his lasso the moment he caught a glimpse of her careening through the P-J. By nudging Koty in the left ribs and leaning that general direction, he let the paint know that they should take out after the gal. Koty was wise to the ways of all four-legged beasts, especially those unlearned kinds that didn’t seem to know much about dodging away from a cowboy’s rope. It didn’t take Travis long to figure out that this young lady hadn’t spent much time around a cow horse, much less a cow. He and Koty had her roped and stopped in less than thirty seconds.

Travis eyed the little lady speculatively. Saddle and tack dusty, but not worn. Just reinforced his opinion that this was neither a cow horse, nor an animal that belonged to anyone from these parts. Bedroll and full saddlebags. Someone traveling through, then. Now that she’d stopped, he noticed the mare stood with legs spread a little too wide, trembling some, sweat and lather staining her withers and flanks. Whoever had written this girl wasn’t far away, indeed, hadn’t dismounted more than a few minutes before.

“Come on, little lady,” Travis clucked to her, nudging Koty back towards the spring. “Let’s get you back to your owner.”

Travis hallooed from down the trail aways, not wanting to get shot at. Too many of the strangers who used this trail had some odd ideas about the folks that had always lived around here. He was surprised not to hear a return shout. But when he came within sight of the pool, his blood ran cold.

He thought it was just a pile of old clothing, something blue and voluminous with a wad of white at one end. Then he saw the pink skin, lots of pink skin, and the fall of sun-streaked hair, and his mouth fell open.

“God damn,” he swore. Travis Jackson often had reason to swear but he didn’t like to. His mother’s people really didn’t have the words for it, and his father had done so much of it that he didn’t see much purpose in repeating what had already been said so often. In this particular case, though, he just couldn’t quite come up with anything else that seemed to cover the circumstances.

A woman. Just about the last thing he expected to see around El Morro. And a white woman at that, with pink skin and sun-lightened hair. What was he going to do with a woman?

So taken up with this mystery had Travis become that it took him a good deal more than a minute to realize that she was just laying there, rolled over on her side and clutching her right leg. The reason he saw so much pink skin was because she’d hiked up her skirt and was showing him most of her bare leg. And she wore no blouse, just a chemise, with no corset.

Mesmerized, Travis finally brought enough of his senses together in one place to think that maybe he should get a closer look. Things just didn’t seem right somehow. He wrapped his reins around his saddle horn, where he’d already secured the mare. Tired and now calmed, she’d already dropped her head and nibbled at some grass that edged up near the pool.

It wasn’t until he walked around the two horses that Travis saw the dead snake, and he understood what had happened. In two strides, he fell to his knees next to the woman, searching for the fang marks. When he saw the tourniquet and the bleeding gash above her calf, he knew the marks had been obliterated.

“Well, I see you know what you’re doing, anyway,” he observed. He bent his mouth to her leg and began to suck at the wound, trying to finish the job that the woman had started, and, for whatever reason, had been unable to finish.


An hour later, Travis Jackson figured he’d done everything he was going to be able to for this half-dressed white woman. He figured he’d sucked a good half pint of blood out of her, and hoped some of it had some venom in it. He’d bandaged the wound, found her blouse, let it dry, and gotten her decent again, not without a few appreciative glances at her curvy shoulders, smooth neck, slender arms, and rounded breasts. He knew he shouldn’t be thinking such things about a woman who was unconscious and totally dependent on him, but he hadn’t been in the presence of any woman, much less a white one in so long that, well, he just couldn’t remember. He didn’t know why a pink-skinned, light-haired woman should be affecting him in any way at all. He had long ago decided that when he was ready to settle down with a family, he would go to his mother and chose someone from among the Diné, his own people, people who knew how to live in this land.

“What am I going to do with you now?” he asked, knowing she couldn’t hear. He spoke in Navajo, and she wouldn’t have understood him anyway. He liked to hear his mother’s language, and when he was alone, he practiced it, feeling like it belonged to this place more than English did.

“You shouldn’t have passed out, not so quickly,” he muttered. He feared why she stayed unconscious. The venom had started to work and may have invaded her brain. He could either stay with her here and wait for her to die, or he could take her home with him, and let her die in his hogan. Neither prospect pleased him. Most Navajos would leave her here, not wanting her chinde, her spirit, anywhere near his home.

But then, Travis was not most Navajo. He realized that with a sudden misgiving, almost like it was a fault of his. He shook his head. “No, I guess I’m not really Navajo after all,” he growled, bitterly. He stood, and then crouched so that he could scoop her into his arms. She moaned as he raised her up, and he felt the firm padding around her rib cage. It was then that he realized that her torso was bound with bandages.

“Oh,” he breathed. So that’s what had kept her from tending to her snake bite. What the hell was a white woman with broken ribs doing on the Zuñi trail at the El Morro pool?

Having no answers to his questions, he shoved her onto Koty’s back, mounted behind her, adjusted her into what he hoped would be something passably comfortable for her, thankful that she was unconscious, and began the two-mile trek back to his hogan in the box canyon.

Travis Jackson knew everyone who lived within fifty miles of El Morro. While a handful of white men ran cattle south of the malpais, none of them had wives or daughters. The nearest white woman lived in Grants, sixty three miles away, a two day journey for even the fittest man. How had this half-dressed, broken ribbed, pink-skinned, sunny-haired lady come into his world? And whatever was he going to do with her now that he had her?

Travis shivered. He didn’t like it one little bit, but he knew that his life had suddenly changed forever, and there was absolutely nothing he could do to put it back on its previous course.

Nor did he want to.




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