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"Wind Like Dry Bones"
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved
© 2010 by Wayne Faust
It was god-forsaken land. The howling December wind raced down from the mountains and swept the desert sand before it like an icy broom, scraping the raw rocks clean and opening fresh wounds in the barren ground. Nothing much grew here except stubborn sagebrush, a few shriveled pinion trees, and a legend of lost Indian gold, which was what had brought Travis here in the first place.
"Senor Travis, I think we have searched this place many times already since you first came here."
Travis gritted his teeth. "I can't quit now, Alberto. I simply have to find that gold. There could be enough to bring your people out of poverty. You’ve been oppressed for centuries and you deserve to have it."
Alberto pulled his poncho tighter and looked at the sky. Clouds of sand swirled above their heads and partially obscured the sinking sun. It was late in the year, almost time for the Holy Festival of the Savior's Birth. This should be a time of rest, of great joy. Instead, he was following around this Anglo, earning a few shiny coins to take into the city when the new year came.
"Have some water, Senior. You look thirsty." Alberto offered his canteen and Travis took a tentative swallow. The water was warm and slightly bitter, but he didn't want to insult Alberto so he took a long drink.
"I've run the simulation a hundred times," muttered Travis. "These are the original notes from the first Spanish expedition to stumble on this place. And when I overlay their surveys with the topographical maps of the area, the result is always the same. The Aztec temple was on this plateau, with that mountain in the background to the north. The temple was here - I can feel it in my bones." Travis studied the laptop in his hands and shook his head.
"Maybe the computer is wrong, Senor. I have told you many times that the Aztec relics have all been found closer to the canyon."
"I know that," answered Travis softly. "Everyone knows that. But the Spanish wrote of a temple on this plateau. That's where the gold would have been. All the evidence points to right here." He scraped the heel of his boot into the hardscrabble ground.
"But still, your computer must be wrong. My family has lived here for many generations. I believe we would have known if there was gold here."
"I'm sure that is true. And the whites would have stolen it from you if you had found it. But you didn't find it because you didn't know the right place to dig. That's why I came here - to find it for you.” Travis muttered to himself and punched a few more buttons on his laptop.
"Your computer must be a very fine machine for you to put so much faith in it," remarked Alberto, as he glanced out across the forlorn plateau. Suddenly he frowned and stuck a ruddy hand up into the air. His eyes grew wide. "We must go back to the village now."
"Why? We've still got a least an hour left of daylight."
"Senor, the wind is changing. We must go now."
Travis looked up. Alberto was right. The wind clearly had shifted. It felt much warmer now, like a blast of air from a furnace. Small, whirling tornadoes formed around his feet where cold and hot air met. Hot air burrowed beneath his leather jacket and took a few bone-dry nibbles on the skin of his arms. It was an eerie feeling after being chilled all day.
"Senor, you must come to the village now. You do not want to be out here after dark." Alberto tugged on Travis' sleeve.
"Please, Senor. It is not safe now. You must come with me to the Mission."
"The Mission? Why the Mission?"
"Because it is where we go. You will be safe there."
Travis allowed Alberto to guide him down off the plateau. He glanced back over his shoulder, trying to resist, but the sudden, drastic change in temperature, the eerie wind, and the failing light had left him disoriented.
Below the two men, at the base of the plateau, stood a row of ramshackle dwellings, the stucco of their walls melting into the rocky ground in the amber light of sunset. At the edge of the little settlement stood the Mission - a whitewashed, stucco church, standing lonely guard on a small hill in the distance. Its walls were pocked and blasted by sand, and they had been recently patched. A low wall of flat rocks circled the church, except for a small gap in the front, which was closed off with a white, picket fence gate. The steeple of the church was squat and rounded in the Spanish style and the wooden cross on top was silhouetted against the sinking sun. A gnarled cottonwood tree, stripped of its leaves, scraped its branches against the row of plain windows, as if trying to get inside the church and out of the hot wind.
A small parade of villagers moved towards the church from their houses - babies, children, adults, and old people. They strolled along casually, as if going to a picnic.
"What's going on?" asked Travis from his vantage point on the hill.
"It is the Hueso Seco, Senor - Wind Like Dry Bones. The pits of hell have opened, and the hot air carries with it demons, hungry for a sacrifice – a human sacrifice to carry across the arroyo and down into the pits. But do not be frightened. Spanish priests built the Mission long ago to protect us. It is where we go." Alberto said this as if he were talking to a child, and his brown face seemed to light up from the inside like a jack-o-lantern.
"What a rich tradition," said Travis. "I'm surprised I didn't come across that one before."
"It is a fact of life, Senior."
Travis stared into Alberto's brown eyes and saw rock-solid faith there. This was very interesting, yet another example of how European imperialism had twisted native beliefs into something bizarre. He'd have to do a paper about this.
"You go ahead," he said. "I've got some research to do. I think I'll go back to my tent. I'll pick you up in the morning."
Travis had never heard Alberto shout before. He stopped in his tracks.
"You must come with me to the Mission, Senor Travis."
A fierce gust of wind howled around the two men. Travis sheltered his laptop under his coat, trying to protect it from the swirling sand. He supposed it would be better if he could witness this thing firsthand. "Okay," he said. "I'll go with you. I wouldn't be surprised if this wind blew my tent down anyhow." He said the words, but they sounded far away, as if they were coming from someone else's mouth. The wind really was getting to him.
They picked their way carefully down the rocky slope until they reached the rutted street of the little town. As they passed by the houses, Travis had to quicken his pace to keep up with Alberto. They followed the last of the villagers into the old Mission. The wind blew the wooden double-doors shut behind them with loud echo.
As soon as the doors slammed shut it was eerily quiet, as if someone had suddenly muted the shrieking wind. The Mission smelled of candles, cedar, and unwashed bodies. Crude statues perched on each windowsill - squat, plaster renderings of the Virgin Mary and Child, about two feet high. Candles flickered in front of each statue, turning the molded faces into shadowy chameleons - smiling Virgins one moment, glaring panthers the next.
"You will be safe now, Senor Travis," said Alberto, who then strolled forward to join his wife Rosa and three small children, who had gathered with the others in the central part of the room. The villagers congregated around the pews, talking and laughing. Their mood was festive, but Travis remained just inside the closed doors, clutching his laptop. He finally took a seat in one of the back pews. He supposed he was a little uncomfortable. When you put a bunch of villagers together like this in a small room, the smell could wrinkle your nose. Besides that, their rapid-fire Spanish was too fast for Travis to follow. He shook his head. He was thinking like an American white male again.
Travis popped the lid on his laptop and the computer screen flashed on with a familiar glow. He loaded up some reference files and began searching for information about Hueso Seco.
The light dimmed as Travis pored over his laptop. Soon it was fully dark outside, and the only light inside came from flickering candlelight and the steady, bluish light from Travis' computer. The villagers snacked on bread and wine as the wind whistled through the windowpanes.
Something scratched the outside of the window nearest to Travis. He looked up, startled, until he remembered the gnarled cottonwood tree he had seen in the churchyard. The sound had only been branches against the window.
The scratching came again, this time a little bit louder. Travis cocked his head. It hadn't sounded like a tree branch; it was a clear, scraping sound, like a glass cutter might make. Travis set his laptop aside and went to the window. He tried to see out into the dark night but the statue and candle were in the way. He moved the candle and grabbed the top of the statue, intending to set it aside. It was heavy.
"Senor Travis, you must move away from the window."
Travis nearly jumped out of his skin. "You scared the hell out of me," he said to Alberto, who had approached him unnoticed.
Alberto gently grabbed Travis' hand and pulled it back from the statue. The villagers had stopped talking and watched the two men closely.
"I am sorry, Senor. Please sit back down and you will be safe."
"But I heard something at the window."
"You will hear many more things before the night is through. The best thing that you can do is to stay away from the window."
All week Travis had been giving Alberto orders, but now Alberto was giving orders to him. Travis had to admit to himself that he didn't like it much. But then he remembered the first law of field work, the one about respecting other cultures.
"Okay," he said. "No problem. It's just that you should have someone check on those coyotes out there. They might break a window or something." He smiled. Alberto didn't smile back.
Travis stood still for a long, uncomfortable moment. He looked over at his laptop, lying in the pew and blinking cheerfully, a life raft. "Well," he muttered finally. "I guess I'll get some more work done."
Travis sat back down in the pew, put the computer on his lap, and instinctively slid a little farther away from the window. Alberto replaced the candle and went back to the other villagers, who resumed talking and laughing as if nothing had happened.
Suddenly a terrible, high-pitched wail came from just outside the window. It was unlike anything Travis had ever heard, not quite animal, not quite human - a piercing sound that reached inside of Travis' neck and poured ice-water down his spinal column. Travis clutched his laptop tightly and looked towards the window, his mouth open. He saw something outside - something like branches but more substantial, like claws - twisted claws coming out of the dark night to scrape against the glass.
The wailing spread to another window, and then another. Soon the sound swirled all around the church - high, screeching, terrible. Travis covered his ears with his fists and glanced frantically around the room. The sound was like a fire alarm, the kind of piercing siren that made you desperate to run outside to safety. Travis looked toward the villagers. He could no longer hear them talking but he could see their mouths moving calmly, still carrying on conversations and laughing as if nothing was wrong. He put his laptop aside and raced over to Alberto.
"Don't you hear that?" he shouted over the din. "What is that?"
"I already told you what it is, Senor. Please sit down and you will be safe. We will all be safe."
Travis knew all about respecting other cultures' beliefs, but this was something else again. How could these people just sit there like that? He wanted to throttle Alberto, to grab him by the neck, to shake him. Couldn't he see the danger they were in?
A noise came from overhead. Something was crawling around on the roof, something ponderous and heavy. Travis looked up and saw tiny cracks begin to form in the plaster ceiling. They ran like slow rivers, causing bits of plaster to float down to the floor. Whatever was on the roof began to pound on it with what sounded like a huge fist. Travis felt a claustrophobic panic grab his gut. The ceiling seemed to descend, to sag inward towards his upturned face.
Travis grabbed Alberto's sleeve. "We have to do something!" he shouted.
"But we are doing something, Senor. We are taking shelter in the Holy Mission. It will protect us."
"This flimsy little place? You ignorant little..." Travis could feel himself losing control, but it was as if he was watching from a distance. What could be making noises like that? Nothing he could imagine. Actually, by now he was imagining all kinds of things. Whatever was out there would soon crack open the Mission like a dog scratching open a can of beans. And when that happened...
The shrieking eased up for a moment. Travis cocked his head. The wind continued outside, blowing through the eaves and sending its hot, foul breath through every crack in the stucco. It hissed through the gaps in the putty around the windows, sounding like a harsh whisper.
Travis spun around in tight circles, covering his ears and trying to block out the noise. The statues in the windowsills wobbled in place. The pounding on the roof intensified. The double doors at the front of the church began to rattle as if something was shaking them from the outside. It seemed as if the whole building would collapse any second. Sound came from everywhere - everywhere except...
Travis faced the back door. It was a simple, single wooden door. There was no rattling going on there - no sounds came from that part of the churchyard at all. The back door looked like a beacon, a sign that said 'Escape,' a door that would get him away from this death trap. He could run away unseen in the darkness. He could climb the hill and make it back to his tent and his rifle. He could fire the gun if he had to, to keep whatever was out there at bay for a moment - just long enough for him to get into his jeep and get the hell out of there - to drive as fast as he could to the highway.
Travis ran back to the pew and retrieved his precious laptop from where it waited, cursor blinking. He closed the lid, tucked the device under his arm, and turned. Alberto blocked his way.
"Do not go outside, Senor," he pleaded.
"Get out of my way, you idiot." shouted Travis. "If you want to die here that's fine. But I'm leaving."
"But they will take you if you go outside, Senor. They will drag you away to torture you forever." Alberto tried to grab onto his arm, but Travis kicked out and sent him sprawling.
Other villagers tried to block him as well, but Travis ran the gauntlet, kicking and screaming until he made it to the back door. He turned the knob and stood for a moment, gazing into the inky blackness. He charged into the night and the howling wind blew the door shut behind him like a closing mouth.
Once outside, Travis circled around the back of the church, running like a hunchback. The wind blew sand into his face. Something brushed the back of his neck as he raced past the cottonwood tree. He tripped over a tree root and sprawled on his face in the gravelly dirt. The laptop rattled across the ground and into the darkness.
Travis jumped to his feet again. He had lost track of which way the hill was. He spun around in complete darkness. He couldn't see the church anymore, even though he knew he should be right beside it. Something sharp pricked his neck. Travis reached up and felt warm blood trickling down onto his shoulder. He screamed. Lightning flashed and Travis saw the hill in front of him, silhouetted against the churning sky. At the top was his tent, and, better yet, his jeep. Something bit into his neck again and he jerked forward, nearly falling on his face, but he regained his balance and began to run to the hill, faster than he had ever run in his life.
His feet slipped on the loose rocks, but he began to climb, scraping his knuckles and trashing his knees. He was whimpering now, but still he kept moving. Finally he reached the jeep and flung open the door. He reached into the pocket of his khakis for his keys. They weren't there. Of course, they weren't there. The damned keys. Another shriek from the hill behind him nearly split his head in two. He wrestled the glove compartment open and took out his pistol and fired through the open window over and over until the chamber clicked.
Travis looked down at the steering column. The keys were there. Improbably, they hung from the ignition, reflecting the lightning flashes. He never left his keys in the jeep, but there they were. He almost laughed.
He started the motor - it caught on the first try. He jammed it into gear, just as something reached through the window and grabbed him by the shoulder. Claws dug into his neck and his body jerked like a rag doll. He was pulled out of the jeep and dragged across the sand, far, far away into the darkness.
No one spoke inside the Mission. Everyone had heard the shots from outside. Alberto slowly picked himself up and sat in a pew. He muttered, "He was not as bad as some of the others. He said he wanted to share the gold with us, maybe even give it all to the village."
"He was still a pain in the ass," someone said. Someone else laughed.
The villagers took pieces of bread and nibbled on them. Alberto's wife, Rosa, made the sign of the cross and said, "My prayer is that he got away."
"They never get away," answered Alberto.
Plaster from the ceiling drifted down like snow as the shrieking wind outside stopped abruptly and the night became quiet.
"What should we do with this?" asked Rosa. The morning sun shone brightly and a brisk December breeze blew down from the mountains. Rosa held the laptop computer out to her husband, the computer she had found lying in the dust by the cottonwood tree. It was still in one piece.
"I don't know," answered Alberto. "Maybe we can sell it in town."
"There are those who say that a machine like this can work miracles," said Rosa. "Maybe we should keep it, and learn how to use it."
Alberto chuckled. "I believe we have miracles enough already."
He carried the laptop into the Mission and set it down before the altar. He began to clean up the mess from the night before. He swept up the plaster and the bread crumbs and took each statue down out of the window. The statues were very heavy, and Alberto had to strain to lift them. When he lifted the last one, a piece of plaster fell off the back of it, revealing shiny, yellow metal underneath. Alberto made a mental note to fix that before any more Anglos showed up. It wouldn't do to have them find the sacred gold.
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