Welcome to The Book of Bones a (mostly) weekly adventure serial.
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If you haven’t been reading along, start here with Chapter 1.
Bones and Jessie hunched down behind the wall. Bones focused, listening for the sound of approaching footsteps. Above the sound of the heavy wind that blew across the mountaintop, he could just make out the occasional scuff of sole meeting stone.
He quickly determined that only one person approached. He laid a hand on Jessie’s shoulder and then dared a peek over the edge of the wall.
A stout man of late middle years stood about twenty paces away, thumbs tucked in his belt, turning in a slow circle. His facial features identified him as a member of one of the local Native American pueblos, and his weathered skin, faded jeans, cowboy boots, and oversized belt buckle suggested a rancher. He carried no weapon that Bones could see.
He relaxed. Just a local checking things out. Probably wondering to whom the pickup truck parked on the road belonged.
As the man turned away from the wall, Bones stood.
“How’s it going?”
The man snapped his head around, his annoyed frown giving way to a smirk as his eyes fell on Bones.
“You caught me by surprise. For a second there I thought it was because I was getting old, but you’re one of us. Sort of.”
“Cherokee.” Bones rounded the broken wall and approached the man, an easy smile on his face. “I’m Bonebrake, but everyone calls me Bones.”
The man scowled, then reached out and took Bones’ proffered hand in a powerful, heavily calloused grip.
“Nick Padilla.” The man’s frown returned. “I didn’t know there were Cherokee in Florida.”
Bones shrugged. “Originally from North Carolina. What can I say? I love the beach.”
“You also love trespassing, I see.”
“Bones frowned. “I thought this was public land. We got our permit from the…”
Padilla waved away the explanation. “Freaking government. This is right in the middle of Isleta land. You know why the hold on to it? Water rights, and because people like you are willing to drop twenty bucks just to see a forgery.”
“Twenty-five, actually.” Bones had not, in fact, secured a permit, but he had looked it up online and remembered the cost.
If it was a test, he apparently passed, because Padilla nodded. “I don’t suppose they told you that a courtesy call was in order before you crossed tribal land?”
Bones shook his head. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
Padilla cleared his throat, spat on the ground, and kicked sand over the fat glob of phlegm. “You know this is all a bunch of crap, don’t you? The stone is a prank played by UNM students back before I was born, and the rest of this is just graffiti.”
“Aren’t some of the images genuine?” Jessie asked.
“A few, but nothing you can’t see other places. Take him over to the Petroglyph Monument. You won’t have to trespass in order to see it.”
“I like unusual places,” Bones said. “Just thought we’d check it out.”
“If you’re done, I’ll walk you back to your truck.” Padilla folded his arms and locked eyes with Bones. The man was determined.
Bones stared back. When pushed, his natural inclination was to push back even harder, but he didn’t want a confrontation with Padilla. The man was just looking out for his people, and as a Native American, Bones had some idea of how the man felt about outsiders.
“You seem in a hurry to get us out of here,” Bones said. “Is there some big secret we haven’t discovered yet.”
That elicited a chuckle from Padilla. “Maybe you should be trying to discover the identity of the white dudes surveilling your truck. The blue pickup with Florida plates?”
“Seriously?” Bones kept his voice calm though his insides were ice.
“Parked behind a stand of juniper. They had just gotten out of their car and were walking toward the gate when I rolled up. They saw me and jumped back in. Whatever they’re up to, I guess they don’t want witnesses.” Padilla hesitated. “I hope you can understand why I feel like you’ve brought unwanted trouble onto the pueblo.”
“I stuck my nose into a situation, a guy putting his hands on his girlfriend. The dude said I could expect a visit from his friends.” The lie rolled smoothly off his tongue, the shreds of truth lending it a touch of authenticity. At least, he hoped that was the case.
“It’s true,” Jessie said. “I know the girl.”
“Seems like a strange place to do it,” Padilla said, “but like I said, I guess they don’t want witnesses.” He looked Bones up and down. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you could handle them both, but why borrow trouble?” He considered the situation for a few moments, and then nodded. “Tell you what. I’ll take you the back way to the ranch house. In a few hours, I’ll send somebody for your truck.”
“I hate to get you involved,” Bones said.
“Don’t mention it. Life on the ranch is boring. I almost hope they try something.”
Bones laughed. “Mister Padilla, you are a man after my own heart.”
The main house of Padilla’s ranch was a single-story adobe structure. The central house had been added on to over the years, giving it a cobbled-together appearance. The enticing aroma of roast chile greeted them at the door, and Bones’ stomach let out a low rumble.
“You got that right,” Padilla said. “Mama can cook, and you’re just in time for lunch.”
Padilla’s wife, a round woman with silver-streaked black hair and a friendly smile, greeted them warmly. Soon they were gorging themselves on homemade tortillas stuffed with a concoction of beef, green chile, and pinto beans, and washed it down with ice cold Tecate Beer.
It was some of the best food Bones had ever tasted. As they drank and chatted, Padilla’s tongue loosened, and he began regaling them with stories and legends he’d heard in his youth. Tales of ghosts, vanished persons, and lost treasure.
“What about aliens?” Bones asked. “I know about Roswell, but are there any others?”
Padilla replied immediately. “Archuleta Mesa. That’s the place you want to check out. Well, don’t actually check it out, or else you’ll wind up in federal prison. At least, if the rumors are true.”
“What rumors are would those be?” Jessie asked.
“Supposedly, there’s an underground base there—a base where the military works jointly with aliens.”
Jessie cocked her head to the side. “Working jointly to do what?”
“Biological stuff. Genetic experiments on animals, maybe even humans.” He took a swig of beer. “Back in the late seventies a researcher started intercepting signals that he believed came from alien spacecraft. His search led him to Dulce, up by the Colorado border. Strange things going on up there: missing or mutilated livestock, missing people, weird electro-whatever that messes with TV and cell phone reception, snatches of strange speech occasionally bleeding into radio coverage.”
“Are they just rumors, or do you think there’s something to it?” Jessie pressed.
“I think ninety-nine percent of UFO rumors are bigger crap than what my cattle leave behind, but there’s something to this one. I’ve witnessed some of the phenomena firsthand when I was visiting a friend up there on the Jicarilla reservation.”
“Wouldn’t something like that be difficult to hide?” Bones asked.
“Not if it’s under the mesa. And that’s the only place it could be.” Padilla sat his beer down and laced his fingers together. “Look, Dulce is a nothing town in the middle of a wide open stretch of even more nothing. That interference and those communications are coming from somewhere, and the closer you get to the mesa, the stronger they get. Compasses don’t work there.” His eyes took on a faraway cast and he fell silent for a few seconds, lost in thought. Then he shook his head. “It’s some X-Files stuff to be sure.”
“If it’s so wide open, wouldn’t people see UFOs coming and going?” Bones asked.
“There are the occasional sightings, mostly strange lights and noises, but I suspect those are terrestrial in origin. Military craft.” Now Padilla leaned forward and lowered his voice. “But I think the aliens live underground.”