Death at La Osa

(Death at La Osa Copyright (c) 2020 John Francis Matthews)

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Believe the wind.  –Charles Aranda, Dichos: Proverbs and Sayings from the Spanish (1977)

It is believed that certain Indian tribes of the Southwest still obtain stones from localities known only to themselves.  –Matilda Cox Stephenson, Dress and Adornment of the Pueblo Indians (ca.1900)

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This is a work of fiction and all characters are imaginary.  Anthropological material used in this book is not intended to meet scholarly standards.  This story is based on my field notes and relevant histories of northern New Mexico and the American Southwest, but it is not a work of scholarly history.  Most of the places in this story are real, but to respect the dignity of tribes, communities, and sacred spaces, I have fictionalized some locations.  The overall landscape, however, in this story is real:  the “very high and very cold” country of northern New Mexico as described by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Alvarado in the sixteenth century.  I have neither sought nor used Indigenous informants in interpreting ceremonies that I consider living systems of spirituality.  Furthermore, no Indigenous person has given me information, either freely or for payment.  My Indigenous friends and I respect boundaries.  I have written Death at La Osa by standards of Article 31, United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, 2007.

I wish acknowledge information derived from the work of E. C. Parsons, Washington Matthews, Vera Laski, Leland Wyman, Alfonso Ortiz, John Collier, Monty Roberts, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Sylvia Rodriquez.  I have also relied on the advice and information from a pastora, horsewomen, horsemen, law enforcement personnel, and my friends among Puebloan, Hispano, and Anglo communities of northern New Mexico.

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Thursday, July 7, Day of Blessed Emmanuel Ruiz, Month of Sun House Moon

Since midmorning, two men hiked and searched terrain in the high altitude of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico.  High mountain altitude diluted July summer temperatures to a chill.  Direct sunlight heated the body like an oven, and if exposed too much, skin burned, despite the cold.  As much as possible, they trekked in shade of aspens and spruce and conifers for the sky was dazzlingly clear, the sun hot.  Shade was winter, clear spaces the summer.  Their reconnaissance focused on two objectives:  finding locations for deer hunting in late October and, second, unearth pots and projectile points at archaeological sites.  Finding deer signs came first; pot hunting second.  Their searching was military in style, though neither had served their country.

The older of the two broke trails.  The younger followed behind and lateral to the older man’s path.  They called out, “deer pellets,” to each other when they came across sign.  They were on the southside of the mountain, crossing arroyos and small streams of water that fulfilled their need for fresh water at deer camp.  As the older man crossed an arroyo, he noticed a blue-green rock that had washed down from higher up.  He knew across the border in southern Colorado, the King’s Manassa mine had yielded turquoise for decades, but it had played out like all mines eventually do.  The earliest digging at King’s Manassa and the Cerrillos district south of Santa Fe had occurred before the Spanish conquest.  Natives had mined sites for centuries.  There was turquoise in New Mexico.  “Are these the blue tears of heaven?” the older man gasped.

He pulled a geology hammer out of his backpack and struck a large conglomerate of rock with matrix like the smaller blue-green rock.  The younger man stopped at the sound of rock breaking.  The older man picked up the fragments of the stone, licked his fingers, and rubbed vigorously until dirt and debris disappeared from the surface.  Brilliant blue-green turquoise reflected back into his widened eyes.  A lapidary’s sander and polishing would bring out the colors more vividly.  His heart quickened and he grasped the arm of his younger friend.

“This is turquoise!  Forget pot hunting!  This is more valuable than any old arrowheads and pots!  There must be more up the arroyo from this float!”

The two ascended the arroyo into the granite sides of a narrowing cleft.  As they walked single file up the arroyo, they found three more matrixes that upon polishing with their sweaty bandannas showed bluish-green turquoise.  As they squeezed between two boulders, the passageway widened, the air cooled.  They gazed upward into a hot sky.  The sun’s rays began to shine down into the crevice passageway.  They suddenly stopped when they saw what lay on the ground.

Stone mauls, dozens of them, littered the ground with chipped debris.  Several decaying wooden chisels and levers were stuck in crevices above the runoff of water.  The work site looked like it had centuries ago.  Whoever mined the cleft and cave had laid down their mauls and wooden chisels and walked away forever. 

Over centuries, rain and snow had fallen, and the sun had shone down on exposed rock, providing the perfect chemistry for forming turquoise.  The walls, wherever they looked, had large flecks of blue turquoise, from the floor of the passageway to as far as they could see up the wall.

“Have you ever heard of the Blue Lady story, amigo?” the older man said to the younger. 

“No, I never have.”

“Well, we have found her.” 

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Two years later…  Friday, August 31, Day of Saint Nicodemus, Month of Lake Moon

 In late summer, the Month of Lake Moon, the Tulona sang to Earth Cloud Lake.  The Tulona, people of the Cottonwood Pueblo, danced and sang around evening fires.  Sparks flew upward when fire tenders pitched wood they had gathered in nearby forests and along the pack trail from the pueblo.  In the high altitude of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the chill of late August enveloped the dancers.  They moved closer to the fires, forcing cold away.  Long had it been—decades ago—that the Tulona had demolished the US Forest cabin nearby and thrown its timbers on Earth Cloud fires. 

Nearby, picketed horses whinnied to the singing and dancing, and even to the silences between songs.  Dancing expressed life.  That was enough, but there was another urge—a duty.  They sang to kachinas in the worlds below Earth Cloud Lake and to the worlds and lakes the ancient ones left behind.  Prayers and songs reverberated in the sacred space as cold air flowed down the slope of Tulona Mountain to Earth Cloud Lake.  The ancient ones that came up to the new world long ago found open places of light.  Even so, pain resided in the new world.  And, so did evil.

Ben Lovato Medicine Wind looked down upon Earth Cloud Lake and the dancers from a distance, not hiding, but not participating.  He had sympathy with traditional ways and with his aged father and mother who shuffled to the drumbeat, but he was not in the mood to dance, not even to please his mother, Snow Deer.  Ben had ridden with Snow Deer and his father, Anton, to Earth Cloud Lake on tobiano paint horses of good stock several days before, and he was impatient to return to the pueblo. 

“Ho-o,” he blew in frustration and impatience. 

He heard horses whinny.  The sixteenth-century Spaniards had brought the kowena—the horse—almost overriding their import of cruelty and religion.  The kowena remained when the Spaniards fled in the Pueblo Revolt.  Ben clenched his teeth, nodding affirmatively at the Spaniards being driven to Santa Fe, then to El Paso, over three-centuries ago.  But they returned; they reconquered.  Ben shivered from the cold and the Legends of Black and White:  Spanish cruelty, Spanish gifts of metal and horse.

Standing up and pulling his blanket more tightly around his body, Ben decided before dawn the next morning he would ride his gelding, Star, and Jess, his packhorse, down the Rio Tulona trail to the pueblo.  He would be criticized for leaving lake ceremonies prematurely, but he could handle that and make amends later in the Month of Corn Ripe Moon.  He might have to toil additional hours of mending fence lines or repairing gates along the Arroyo Luz Road.  It was toil for the common good, and a slight punishment for leaving early.

For now, however, Ben imagined, “I am like Magpie.  I want to go back to the cottonwoods, the shelter of home, following the river downward to my village of tree-leaves-that-rattle-with-wind.”

Magpie and Yellow Corn woman lived among cottonwoods.  They had a child and when she went for water at the stream, the witches wanted her to become their lover.  She refused and the witches killed her.  Magpie mourned Yellow Corn woman and planned to throw the witches out of the cottonwoods.  His child came under the care of Yellow Corn Woman’s mother.

Early the next morning, before the sun rose, Ben saddled Star and loaded Jess to begin the trail ride of twenty-seven miles downhill to tree-leaves-that-rattle-with-wind Pueblo.  “Yes,” he thought, “my wife is pregnant, but she is careful in drawing water from the stream and will not be seduced by witches.”  He did not believe in witches.  As he rode carefully on the pack trail, Ben saw the river flowing beside him.  Ben clucked to his paint horse, Star, into a gentle pace away from Earth Cloud Lake.  Jess followed dutifully behind in halter and lead rope.

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Quail Looks Away had not gone with her husband to Earth Cloud Lake.  She stayed close to her village and mother.  Pregnant or not, she drew water from the stream that divided the Tulona Winter House from Summer House.  She was strong in body and attractive.  Her unbraided hair, dark and shiny, fell gracefully below her shoulders.  She did not like her weight gain with pregnancy, but that would go away.  Quail Looks Away took her empty Behrens pail and battered lard bucket to Rio Tulona and dipped the pails in fast-flowing water.  Even in August, the water was clear and cold.  Neither cattle nor horses roamed upstream to pollute the water with urine and manure.  The Tulona people kept their horses in a common ciénega pasture with corrals to the south of the pueblo on the road to the town of Ojo Verde.  The cattle and buffalo were tended in a pasture far away from the stream.  Water flowing from the mountains stayed pure and clear.  No sickness had ever come from Rio Tulona; the acequias were a different matter.  You watered corn crops with acequias, not drink from them.

The buckets, tilted on their side, filled quickly with water.  She lifted them out, set them on the ground to steady her grip, and walked back to her house near the Blue Stone People kiva on the south side of Rio Tulona, the Summer House side.  As she strode by the kiva near her home, Quail Looks Away heard drum beat and singing from inside the kiva.  The drum’s sound was deep and resonating, and the singer sang high in a warble that only an elder knew how to modulate.

Hay yo–hay yo–hay yo— en-e-e-ya-a-a-a….  En-e-e-ya-a-a-a.

Quail Looks Away set her pails down and attended the words as best she could understand.  A sudden wind blew dust across the plaza and stirred the cottonwood trees along the river, the leaves rattling softly when green and luscious and filled with moisture.  Yellowed leaves fell with the wind.  Soon all cottonwood leaves would turn yellow, falling in the stream and collecting along the banks.  Quail would swish away the leaves with her hand to get un-leaved water for her kitchen.  Rio Tulona was also called Rio Cottonwood, for along its banks, leaves carpeted the ground.

She stood there until the elder’s singing stopped.  Quail Looks Away thought that by clock time, a quarter of an hour must have gone by.  By any estimation, clock time, Tulona time, it mattered not.  Her traditional teachers had taught her that a person’s attention in the moment was all that anyone ever had.

The present moment, “This! Now!” they had emphasized, “is all we have.”  Yet, incongruently, her teachers said, “The past is not gone, it relives again in our stories, our songs, the sacred places.  The past relives in us.” 

Quail Looks Away had doubts about the past “reliving again,” but she kept them to herself.  One day, she would ask Bustamente, the cacique of the Tulona, to explain this circularity again, but she knew he would say, “Quail!  You think too much and not feel enough!”  And, to that, she would disagree.

“I’m thinking too much now,” she chuckled, as she hefted the water pails back to her house.

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Ben Lovato rode through the morning.  In the afternoon, the sun bore down on him and his horses.  The upslope wind had become warm, a natural occurrence, offset by the night’s downslope of cold wind.  He hoped for a thundershower to cool them off.  The ride down the trail along the Rio Tulona had gone swiftly and without passing people.  He felt lonely.  Ben rested his horses, allowing them to blow and rest and drink from side streams that crossed his trail and fed into the river.  He drank from his canteen.  Soon, it was time to move on.   

“Okay, let’s go, vamos, kowena,” he said.“Vamos,” was a much for himself as for his horses.  He cinched up his packhorse, Jess, adjusted the bundles of gear under the packer’s canvas manties, and started down the trail.  Rio Tulona flowed on his left side as he rode slowly to keep his horses from overheating in the afternoon sun.  He allowed Star to determine his own pace.  Jess followed obediently with the lead rope secure, but untied from Star’s saddle horn, so that Ben could throw off the lead rope in case they came between a mother bear and her cubs. 

Ben was descending from Earth Cloud Lake, a journey of twenty-seven miles.  A family could walk the trail or ride horses.  The horse, the kowena, a gift from the Spanish, was the preferred method of travel.   The current topographical maps had been altered to delete pack trails to Earth Cloud Lake and all other hiking or horse trails into the Tulona reservation from the national forest.  Tulona pathways and trails existed in the minds of the Tulona, not on hardcopy maps.  Traditional knowledge remained oral.  And, those that wrote down the knowledge had their manuscripts destroyed.  Or worse, banished from the pueblo.

Non-Native men and women were not allowed to travel the ceremonial trail and all fishing and hunting on reservation land had to be supervised by Tulona guides.  At one point in the 1920s, a federal government official, widely respected by the Tulona people, had initially been permitted to go with the people to the Earth Cloud Lake ceremony in the Month of Lake Moon.  So much opposition was raised, however, against his accompanying the people that after witnessing the overnight dancing at the first rest spot, he was forced to turn around and not permitted to complete the journey.  The government official understood their reaction and wrote favorably of what he did witness at the first campground to Earth Cloud Lake.  When he was a boy, Ben Lovato had heard stories of Wally Covington being turned around from his great-grandfather who had been one of the Tulona that protested. 

By midafternoon Ben had ridden to the first rest stop, only ten-miles away from Quail Looks Away.  As he guided his horses onto a dirt road to the pueblo, he saw an old, grey pickup under the trees just off the road.  What caught his attention was the pickup appeared to have become stuck in a washed-out rut off the road. 

“The Tulona tribal police can handle this,” he thought. 

As he passed by, Ben thought he heard a cry of, “Help me!”  He stopped his horse, saddled off, and ran up the slope to the pickup.  Did an elder with a heart attack or stroke go off the trail?  The pickup had license plates from New Mexico, the new turquoise-colored plates, and black diamond stickers from the ski valley on the rear window.  Whoever owned the pickup skied in the valley and was skilled enough to cheat death on black-diamond slopes. 

“No elders I know of ski,” he said.  Walking around to the driver’s side, he saw a white man, a fansaine or snow-looks-like, prone on the ground, peering under the truck, looking at the underside. 

“Hey, there, are you in trouble?”  Ben said.  He would confront him later on being up the road to Earth Cloud Lake during ceremonial time.  Ben looked around to see if the Anglo was alone.  He saw no one else, just the snow-looks-like under the truck.

“I’m not in trouble, my pickup is.  I tried to turn around and got stuck in this rut.”  Odd response, Ben thought.

The fansaine scooted out from under the truck and stood up, dusting his blue jeans off.  Ben saw he was young, probably in his twenties, fit like an athlete, average height, blue eyes, and brownish-red hair.  He appeared embarrassed.  He held out his hand to shake Ben’s hand.

“My name is Jason and I live in Ranchos, south of Ojo Verde.”

Ben shook his hand and gave his name, “Ben Lovato, Tulona Pueblo, and you are trespassing, Jason.  This is the Earth Cloud Lake ceremonial period and you are in big trouble up here on the road to the lake!”  Ben thought this would define the situation and maybe turn the guy around and get him off the reservation quickly and without incident. 

“Jeez!  I really am in trouble,” Jason quavered.  “I had absolutely no idea this was a ceremonial period.  It’s beautiful here.”  He paused and looked around.  “I was just out for a drive.  Help me get out of the rut and I’ll get back to Ranchos.  Okay?”

“What were you really up here about, Jason?”  Ben said sternly.  Suddenly, they heard distant thunder rolling from the north.  Ben looked towards the sound, seeing swaying trees at high altitude.  A large thunderhead was building to the northwest, over the Chama-Tierra Amarilla region in the direction of the Jicarilla Apache reservation.

“What were you doing up here?”  Ben repeated.  The horses grew nervous from the wind and sound of thunder.

“I was driving down from the ski valley and took a road near the Chanson Restaurant.  I followed the road till it narrowed and I got nervous being this far up in the mountains.  I was on the reservation before I realized it,” Jason said apologetically.  He reached over into his pickup bed and got a shovel to move some rocks from the back wheel where the truck had become stuck.

Innocent young man, Ben thought to himself.  Yet, Jason had not answered his question.  Ben wanted to get back on the trail to Quail Looks Away.  He let his question drop for this was not an interrogation.  Ben gave orders.

“Jason, you get in the truck and put it into forward, then reverse.  Rock it back and forth with gear changing, and I’ll see if I can give leverage with my body to push it out.  You try and reverse your direction as I push from the front.  Understood?  Don’t run over me!”

After a couple of rocking forwards and then reverses, the pickup came unstuck and rolled back on level ground.  Ben threw Jason’s shovel back in the bed and walked to the driver’s side.  He looked carefully in the pickup bed and saw only tools, odds and ends, nothing suspicious.  Ben was thinking pot hunter or vandal.  Jason was not a vandal.

“I recommend you leave quickly and if you are stopped by the tribal police, you apologize and go with them quietly to their office.  You may be able to get off the reservation without getting stopped.”  Ben figured it was a fifty-fifty chance that Jason could get off the reservation without incident. 

“Many thanks, amigo,” Jason said, “Drop by the Tablita Restaurant at the Ojo Verde Inn and I’ll complement your lunch for you helping me.  I wait tables there and spend my wages skiing in the winter, up in the valley.  Guess that’s why I love mountains and got lost up here!”

Ben was put off by the “amigo,” but let it go. 

“Good, then.  Be careful,” Ben cautioned. 

Ben waved him off, mounted Star, and proceeded down the road as the first raindrops fell.  He saw grey sheets of rain falling down on ponderosa pines farther up Tulona Mountain to his right.  To the north, low-hanging clouds and rain completely obscured Gallina, Lobo, and Flag Mountains.  This rain would be heavy and hard on him and his horses.

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Quail Looks Away stashed her water pails in the corner of the room inside her house alongside the Blue Stone People kiva.  The drumming and singing had stopped, but the mood lingered.  She went back outside her home to look at the changing weather that was turning stormy and falling upon Ben in the mountains. 

Quail’s Summer House-side home was hers, different from most assumed ownerships that were male-dominated in the pueblo.  The council had approved of her ownership.  They traced back ownership of the house to the generation of her great-great-grandparents, and she was the only surviving child of her parents.  Ben had moved in with her from his father’s and mother’s house on the Winter House side of the pueblo, across Rio Cottonwood.  Ben’s parents had given him to Old Bow kiva when he was a boy.  As a man, he returned to the Old Bow kiva on the Winter House side for ceremonial duties.  Quail’s parents had given her to the Blue Stone People’s kiva on the Summer House side.  Her ceremonial duties with the Blue Stone People kiva was not as extensive as Ben’s with Old Bow.  Nonetheless, she had privileges to enter the Blue Stone People kiva and assist when needed. 

Quail Looks Away flinched at a streak of lightning and heard thunder from the black clouds to the northwest, towards Chama and Colorado.  This was the day that Ben would return.  She grew concerned about his safety and the horses, although she knew Star was sure-footed because she had ridden him on muddy trails when she collected herbs in the forest.  Still, she was anxious.  Quail Looks Away uttered a prayer—two prayers really—one prayer in Catholic sentiment, the other in the world of the Tulona people.  Both prayers she believed were powerful and served Ben’s safe return although she wondered if they would be heard—and by whom or what.  Again, another question for Bustamente.

Lightning struck and hovered between cloud and trees.  The afterimage of the lightning bolt stayed with Quail Looks Away for a few seconds.  Then, came thunder, the cold air of downdraft, and in the distance spruce and fir trees wavered back and forth in the storm.  Nearby, in the cottonwoods along the river, the contrasting black and white feathers of magpies came sharp into focus.  The birds held tightly on lower branches, chattering and griping about clouds obscuring the sun.  Quail went inside her house and lit her propane stove to brew coffee.  Because of the approaching storm, her mother would return soon from visiting her sister.  She turned on gas lanterns that gave light to the room.  Quail made coffee and got fry bread out of the breadbox.  She spread butter and honey on the fry bread and poured herself fresh coffee, leaving enough for her mother if she returned hungry and thirsty.  That would sustain her into the evening until Ben arrived.

As the rain began to fall, she looked out through her turquoise-framed screen door and saw two Tulona tribal police cars speed around the Winter House ash pit and go up the road towards Earth Cloud Lake.  Quail gasped, and uttered loudly, “Mi Dios!”  The magpies abandoned the cottonwoods and flew across the plaza and disappeared behind the old adobe church steeple and cemetery.  White burial crosses stood out against the dark clouds.  The magpies took refuge from the storm under the collapsed roof of the old church.  Quail Looks Away closed the door firmly against the wind and rain after her mother entered, wet and shaking from the cold.  At the kitchen table, covered by red-checkered oilcloth, she served her mother warm coffee and fry bread with honey and butter.

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North of the Tulona Reservation near San Miguel, on the way to Questa, Forest Service Biology Specialist Janet Rael saw the sorrel horse entangled in barbed wire off Forest Road 493.  She stopped her green Suburban forest service vehicle and ran to the trapped horse.  The horse lay still and had ceased kicking and thrashing the fence.  Janet saw that there were no open gashes in its flesh—which was a miracle—and she ran back to the vehicle and retrieved a halter and lead rope from her field bag.  Out of the forest service toolbox, she grabbed wire cutters.

Talking in a calming voice and not showing rapid movements, Janet slipped the halter and lead rope around the horse’s head.  Stroking the neck and working her way down to the gelding’s hind leg that was caught in the wire, she cut the wire and carefully set the wire aside while continuing to talk softly, “Good horse, fine horse, a war horse you are. Good fella.” 

After unwrapping the wire and freeing the hind leg, she coaxed the sorrel gelding to stand, holding firmly on to the lead rope.  The sorrel stood free.  She led him away from the fence, halted, and began to stroke his neck and withers.  The sorrel looked back at her and nuzzled her shoulder in appreciation. 

Up the road came a pickup and horse trailer.  Luis Ortega from San Miguel stopped the pickup and ran to Janet and the sorrel.  “Buck, how did you get this far away from the corral?  You can’t have opened the gate by yourself!”  Janet continued to calm Buck as Luis switched halter and lead rope to his own tack.  He loaded Buck into his trailer.

“He was a good horse to lay there and let me cut him loose,” Janet said.

“How can I ever thank you, Ms. Rael?” Luis said.

“It’s okay, no problem, Mr. Ortega.  I’ll stop by San Miguel someday and maybe you’ll let me ride Buck?  And, have coffee with you and your family?”

“Of course, Ms. Rael.  And, if ever the forest service needs me and Buck in search and rescue, call us, and Buck and I will be there.”

Forest Service Biology Specialist Janet Rael stepped up on a fender of the trailer and reaching between the panels, gave Buck a quick rub on his forehead.  Softly, he neighed.

[End of CHAPTER 1]

(Death at La Osa Copyright (c) 2020 John Francis Matthews. All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.  No part of this book may be distributed or transmitted in any form, or stored in a database or retrieval system without prior permission.)