Thursday, October 13, 2005

Chapter 4

-4-

October, 1515

Thunder. Damned thunder. But it wasn’t the rain that Thomas was listening to. There were thousands of the beasts coming. Thousands. Black, shaggy, beasts with horns. Huge, weighing more than two of their horses. Damned thunder.
The cloud of dust that they had seen coming was off in the distance. They had no idea. Christopher, who had seen some warfare in his time, had thought it looked like an army coming, on horseback, yet they had seen no signs of horses during their trip. The plains were flat enough below the low hills that they were on that they could see the cloud of dust for a day before the beasts came into view.
They stood on the tallest part of those hills, surrounded by the beasts. Thomas was mesmerized watching them, as they would bunch up, then disperse, almost if there were a greater force at work, guiding them. Patterns. They flowed around the hill like water. It seemed as there would be no end to them.
After a few hours’ time, the mass of animals had passed. There were packs of wolves at the outskirts of the herd, attempting to pick off the weaker members.
The horses had been spooked, but they were well tethered, so there was little chance that they would get away. Several of the younger members of the group, Thomas included, took time watching them, and calming them as best they could while the herd passed. Even now they were a bit jittery.
Food for the horses wasn’t difficult, since the land around them was rich with sweet grass. But other things were considerably more difficult. They had been at this journey for nearly seven months, and things as simple as horseshoes had to be constantly checked and the horse’s hooves cared for. The shoes had been forged in England, and they had brought quite a supply, but even that was dwindling. While the shoes wore well, they would fall off the horse from time to time. They had spotted many of the shoes they had dropped, but many more were lost. Without the horseshoe, the horse was very limited in what it would and could carry without damaging itself. Thomas’ father had told him early on, “A horse is only as good as the shoe, without the shoe, there is no horse.” The horses were what had allowed this fast journey, and caring for them was imperative. One of the knights, Joshua, was versed in smithing, but one had to have iron to smith.
Other supplies were also vital, and they varied so much in importance: salt (running low, and necessary, especially in curing the meat that they carried for when hunting was bad), needles and thread (likewise running low), hatchets (invaluable in making the raft that they had taken down the massive river a month ago), whetstones (so much to sharpen), compass needle (a most curious device, which allowed the group to know north even when the sky was overcast for days) along with other items, such as forks, ropes, whole cloth, blankets, knives, and arrows, along with countless other things. It had taken a fortune to provide for this mission, and Christopher had just laughed when Thomas had asked him about it. “There’s plenty of money, if you just know where to look, son. We’ll never run out.”
Christopher never seemed to be close to running out. Many of the coins that he had were stamped with dates three hundred years in the past, but, they were made out of that most universal human currency, gold, which didn’t tarnish with age. Christopher hinted that the treasury of the Brotherhood was vast, and well able to afford the incredible expenditure that he had seen.
Prepared though they were, even as they had crossed the great sea, they had run out of beer and wine. That had been a sad day, and they had not been in one place long enough afterwards to make more beer. Wine was out of the question.
Much of what they needed, they got for themselves on the trip. Long ago their supplies of salted meats had run out, so every third day or so they hunted, and preserved a bit of what they got for a time and place when game would not be so plentiful. Christopher was adamant that they not run low on food. They used what tallow they could find from the game they had taken to use as oil for lamps, or for protecting steel from rust.
They had thirty horses at this point, and eighteen riders. Thomas shook his head. They had no shortage of horseflesh; they had lost more men than horses. He turned his back on the great herd of beasts, and back toward the supplies. Thomas didn’t hear the arrow until after it hit him.


June, 2001


After their harrowing escape into the desert Jim’s first concern was for supplies, water and blankets in particular. Without those items they might as well return to Frank’s house and take their chances with those gun-toting cretins. Then he remembered that the house actually belonged to Frank’s parents and he began to worry about what might happen to them if they returned home to find the battered tan van and the angry men inside it. As the group coasted to a stop beside a shallow arroyo, Jim voiced his concerns to Frank.
“No need to worry about my folks,” Frank snorted, “They’re in Minnesota. My sister lives up there and they spend about four weeks a year at her house driving her crazy and spoiling the grandkids. They won’t even think about coming back for another two weeks or so. As for the supplies…” Frank’s voice trailed off as he jumped into the arroyo. Jim and Marji both hustled to the edge to find Frank pulling a pair of large trash bags from behind a boulder. “This stuff should pretty much take care of us while we’re out here.”
Jim scuttled down the embankment and began rifling through one of the garbage bags. Inside he found two ratty blankets, a meal of dehydrated spaghetti and a camelback full of water. The contents of Frank’s bag were similar and included a flask, assorted metal dishes and another unidentifiable metal object.
“You guys pack well,” commented Jim.
“Yeah, well, I like to spend at least one night a week out here when I’m home,” Frank shrugged. “I mean, it’s nice to see my folks and all, but sometimes they drive me crazy. It’s nice to get away sometimes, that’s all.” It was really the first time Jim had ever seen the young graduate student at a loss for words. He smiled at Frank and cuffed him playfully on the shoulder.
“No need to explain,” replied Jim and quickly changed the subject. “So how long has this stuff been out here, anyway?”
“Well,” said Frank, quickly regaining his composure, “It’s probably been a few weeks. The water’s probably a little skunky but we can boil it and it will be all right. I figure we can just camp here in the arroyo for tonight.”
“I hate to be a naysayer,” Marji chimed in as she slid cautiously down the embankment, “But don’t we run the risk of drowning in a flash flood if we sleep in the arroyo? And how are we going to start a fire anyway? Do we have matches?”
“Relax, Miss Carroll,” Frank flashed her a winning smile. “I am a Navajo, after all. This sort of thing is in my blood. Have a little faith, sister.” At that, Marji flinched and Frank noticed. “Umm, did I just say something wrong?”
“What? Oh, no, not at all,” she stammered. “It’s just getting a little chilly out here with the sun going down and all. How are you going to make a fire? I sense you have a plan.”
Frank studied her for a moment before continuing.
“Of course I have a plan,” he picked up the small unidentifiable object and pulled it apart. Then, pounding on his chest in Tarzan fashion he said, “Unh! I make fire!”
“Hey, watch the hands, Tarzan,” said Jim, stepping toward the gesticulating Frank. “What exactly is that thing?”
“It’s flint. An instant fire starter kit. All you need is some wood and a bit of kindling, then you strike this end on the other and you get an instant spark.” He handed it to Jim. “Be careful with it though. My friends Robbie and Jack were doing shots in Jack’s barn one night and got to playing around with this thing. Before they knew it whoosh! no more barn. Man, was Jack’s wife pissed. She kicked him out of the house for like a week and the poor guy had to sleep in the front yard because his barn had burned down. Talk about bad luck.”
“What about the flooding?”
“Flooding? That only happens in the spring.” Frank waved his hand dismissively. “I can’t even remember the last time it rained in June. Now let’s go get some firewood before it gets dark and we freeze to death.”
“It’s eighty degrees.”
“I’m delicate, man.”
Behind them, watching like a silent sentry, the ageless form of Shiprock loomed in the darkness.

---
They sat huddled around a small fire late into the night, all of them too charged with adrenaline after the evenings activities to even think about sleeping. After boiling a bit of water and sharing a couple of dehydrated meals, the trio sat wrapped in musty blankets, chatting about whatever crossed their minds. Eventually the topic came around to Shiprock, the archaeological finds and the bizarre events that had befallen both Jim and Frank since they had met a few days before.
“I was shocked about what happened to Dr. Jackson,” Frank was saying, “but I can’t really say I was surprised. I mean, I figured he just ran into the wrong person, nailed the wrong guy’s wife, groped the grad student daughter of some hot-headed dad, that sort of thing.” At that, Jim glanced at him with arched eyebrows. “Hey, it was common knowledge around the department. The dude was a dog. You were his friend. I figured you knew.”
Actually, Jim did know and he had been thinking the same thing until just a few hours ago. He was only surprised that Frank knew and that Bob had been so indiscreet about his behavior.
“Anyway,” Frank continued, “that’s what I was thinking, but now I’m not so sure. You said yourself it looked like the same van that was at the hotel when Dr. Jackson was killed.”
Jim shook his head and poked at the embers of the fire with a stick.
“It could have been the same van, but I really didn’t get that close of a look at it either time.” He sighed and threw the stick into the flames. “Maybe it’s just a coincidence.”
“Seems like a whale of a coincidence,” commented Marji. “I mean, a guy dressed all in black driving a tan van with black tinted windows shows up in both places. Maybe its some sort of cult.”
“Dark tinted windows in hot New Mexico sun? No, I can’t see a reason for that other than to hide the doings of a nefarious cult of religious zombies,” said Frank with a smile. Marji socked him in the shoulder.
“Funny. But seriously, maybe it’s about the items you found at Shiprock. You were about to show—“ She stopped in mid-sentence and sat up, her eyes widening. “What about the artifacts?”
“They’re fine,” said Jim.
“But how do you know that? Those guys could have ransacked Frank’s house and taken them, if that was what they were after.”
“No, they’re fine,” Jim said again.
“But how do you know? Frank—“
“Doesn’t have them,” Jim finished for her. “They’re in my office at the school, locked safely away.” Marji turned so she could look squarely at Frank.
“So what were you going to show me besides arrowheads and pottery shards?” She stared hard at him. Frank returned her gaze for moment, glanced at Jim and then proceeded to study his boots uncomfortably.
“I don’t have them all, do I Frank?” Frank continued to study his boots. The light from the fire flickered in a gust of wind and the shadows played across his face making the young graduate student look older than his twenty-five years. Finally he spoke.
“He gave it to me right before he died. Told me it was very important and that I was to give it to no one under any circumstances. He didn’t even want me to tell anyone I had it. Not even you , Jim.”
“The stone tablet.”
“Yeah. He said that it was the most valuable of all of the pieces we’d found. The other stuff was important and could authenticate it, but it was the stone that was the real find.”
“Did he say why?” asked Marji.
“Not really. He was very mysterious about it but I kind of guessed that it was some sort of map.”
“A map?” Jim snorted incredulously. “What did he think he was going to do? Go treasure hunting?”
“I don’t know, but…I think he was looking for it. When we started digging near Shiprock, I mean.”
“Why? What would make him think that he might find something like that out here?” Jim pressed. “What did he tell you?”
Frank sighed and shifted uncomfortably.
“You know, my parents told me when I started working with Bob to be careful. I should’ve listened.” He stood up and paced around the fire. “This is kind of a long story. How much time do you have?” Both Marji and Jim gave him disapproving looks. “Oh, right. All night. Okay, here’s what I know. I’ve been Dr. Jackson’s number one guy since about this time last year, so we’d been working pretty closely for several months when around Thanksgiving, he undergoes this religious transformation. But, the strange part of it was, he doesn’t really pick a religion.”
“What do you mean?” asked Marji.
“Well, first he starts reading Christian stuff, you know, the life of Christ, the apostles and the beginnings of the early Catholic Church. But then, his interests switched to Judaism. He was particularly interested in a group of Christ’s contemporaries who called themselves the Essenes. I mean, he really submersed himself in it, even though he never went to church or anything. Anyway, semester break rolls around and I had planned to stick around on campus and help out on a paper the two of us had been working on together on early Navajo artifacts. But, when I showed up at his office after New Year’s, there’s a note on his door that says ‘Frank, I think I’m onto something big. I’m taking a little trip to France. Finish without me.”
“France?” said Jim. “Religious fulfillment through a good merlot?”
“I guess. When he got back, though, it was like his fixation with the Essenes had disappeared and he was onto something else.”
“Let me guess,” said Marji, “The Cathars.”
“Exactly. But he also started tracking down a group called the Knights Templar. I really kind of thought he was cracking up and then by Valentine’s Day it was over. He just stopped talking about and asked me to see if I could get tribal permission to come out and poke around Shiprock. Said we needed to get back to work on the Navajos. I thought everything was back to normal until,” he gestured at his surroundings, “all this.”
“Weird,” breathed Jim, leaning back and scratching the beginnings of a scruffy beard. “Any idea what it all means?”
“Not a clue,” replied Frank, “but it has to be connected. I mean, first the nutty research then the trip and now this find. And, of course, the demise of Dr. Jackson and our own bullet-riddled encounter. I had no idea archeology was so dangerous.”
“I think I might be able to shed a little light on all of this.” Said Marji. “I don’t know that I mentioned this earlier, but the reason that I’m here in Farmington in that I’m on sabbatical, studying early Native American religion. I’m a professor of religious studies at a small private school on the east coast and I thought I’d increase my worth to the school as it were. Frank, you mentioned that Dr. Jackson was interested in the Essenes, the Cathars and the Templars, right? How much do you guys know about those groups?”
Frank shrugged and shook his head while Jim merely sat in stunned happiness that the woman of his dreams also shared his profession, more or less. Marji continued.
“Well, then, let’s start with the Essenes. Like Frank said they were contemporaries of Christ and, like the Pharisees and Sadducees mentioned in the Bible, they were a Jewish mystery cult. They were a very small group and tended to live in isolated communities out in the desert. I’m sure you’re both familiar with the Dead Sea scrolls that were discovered in 1947 near Qumran. Evidence suggests that the groups that hid those scrolls were Essenes and that they likely hid them in order to keep them from being destroyed. However, they’re most unique belief was that the End Times and the Messiah were both close at hand.”
“Sort of a ‘Jews for Jesus’ group in other words?” said Jim.
“Something like that. Given that the Romans razed Jerusalem in the year 66, you might say they were correct on both counts. The Templars and the Cathars came along about a thousand years later, near the beginning of the second millennium. The Cathars were a heretical religious group living in France around 1200. They made the mistake of practicing their own brand of Christianity a little too openly. They were essentially wiped out in 1243 except for a small band of survivors holed up in a mountaintop fortress called Montsegur. They managed to hold off the invaders for ten months until they were overrun, marched down the mountain and given the choice of relinquishing their heretical beliefs or being burned alive. There were no converts. However, two days before, in the dead of night, two of their members escaped by making a perilous descent down the back of the mountain taking the so-called Cathar treasure with them.”
“I’m a little more familiar with the Templars,” said Jim. “I did a little research based on some of the things Bob told me before he died. The Templars were a group of knights originally chartered to protect Christian pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. They eventually got a little too full of themselves and were declared heretics. I believe most of them were burned at the stake.”
“And those that weren’t rotted in prison for a very long time, at least in France. Some just changed their names and moved on, like those in Spain. Some managed to bug out of France just after the arrests began. There is mention that a sizable Templar fleet left Marseilles just after the arrests started, and that their primary treasury in France was empty when the King arrived to plunder it.
“But I’ll bet there are a few other things about the Templars that you don’t know. For instance, legend has it that while stationed in Jerusalem, they began excavating under the Temple of Solomon, where they found…” she paused for emphasis, “something. Some say it was the Holy Grail, or the Lost Ark. Whatever it was, the rumors always suggested something on that scale”
Jim let out a long, low whistle.
“That’s the stuff that legends are made of, quite literally,” he said.
“So, I’m guessing that whatever the Cathars sneaked out of that castle was the Holy Grail,” Frank filled in. “You think that’s what Dr. Jackson was tracking? The Holy Grail?”
“From what you’ve told me, it certainly seems possible. There are lots of legends and rumors from that time period, many of which mention the Grail. However,” at this she leaned closer and lowered her voice, “some say it was something bigger. I mean Revelations, end of the world type big. I mean the Grail would be an incredible find but what if,” she hesitated, “what if it was something that could bring about the end times, you know, the Second Coming. I know it sounds crazy, but there are lots of people who believe that’s where we are right now. What if they’re right?” The three of them sat for a moment, listening to the crackle of the fire and the howl of the wind through the rocks, pondering the possibilities. Finally, Frank spoke.
“I’m sorry, but this all just seems a little crazy to me. This is like something out of a movie and the last time I checked, Bob Jackson wasn’t Harrison Ford. Besides, even if that was the case and Dr. Jackson actually thought he was hunting the Holy Grail or the Seven Cities of Cibola or the Shankara Stones or whatever, it still doesn’t explain the connection to the archaeological site or any of the other crap that’s taken place during the past few days.”
“Remember the French inscription on the dagger that was found? ‘La milice du Christ’? It refers to the Templars,” replied Jim. “And the inscription on the breastplate indicated it was British. Also, it was Sean Connery who was actually chasing the Grail.”
“Movies aside, there are many legends which associate the Templars with the New World long before Columbus even thought of sailing west,” Marji chimed in. “Some suggest that as early as the 11th or 12th centuries, the Templars spoke of a mythical land to the west that they called Lamerika. Supposedly, after many of the Templars were rounded up in France in 1307, some of them escaped and sailed west from England with their treasure.”
“That’s a pretty intriguing legend,” remarked Frank. “Why don’t more people know about this?”
Marji shrugged and kicked idly at rock with the toe of her shoe.
“The evidence is all pretty circumstantial. There’s really no hard evidence anywhere that can prove that a shred of it actually happened.” She paused. “But you have to admit, it does make for a juicy story.”
“Well,” said Jim, as he spread out his blanket near the fire, “Juicy as it may be, it’s getting late and this cowboy could sure use some sleep.” The other murmured their agreement and began preparing their own sleeping arrangements, equidistant from the fire and from each other.


---
Frank, Jim and Marji awoke bleary-eyed with the morning sun. None had slept very well or very long for that matter, but they all agreed that it was probably safe to return to Frank’s house. They rode wearily across the desert Frank in the lead with Marji on the back of his bike. Frank had made the case that that was a safer way to travel given the relative condition of the two motorbikes. Jim enjoyed the continuous view of Marji’s backside yet missed the comfortable warmth of her arms around his waist. He also did not enjoy eating the large amount of sand that Frank’s bike rained behind him that always seemed to hang in the air regardless of where Jim rode.
Jim remembered the previous evening’s firefight had been intense but he was not fully prepared for the extent of the damage that greeted the group as they pulled to a stop near the small house. By the time Jim parked and dismounted Frank was already poking at some of the debris with his shoe.
“Shit!” he said in disgust as Jim approached. “Would you look at this mess? Man, are my folks gonna kill me.” He looked with dismay at all of the broken windows along the front of the cottage, and then threw the stick onto the porch roof in disgust. “Well, I guess I can make some breakfast for you guys if you’d like to stick around for awhile. Besides,” he winked playfully at Marji, “it’s been awhile since I made breakfast for a pretty lady after spending the night with her.”
“I’ll take some breakfast and ignore the remark,” she replied rolling her eyes. “You staying Jim?”
“Sure, why not?” he shrugged as they started towards the house. “Hey, Marji, I meant to ask you last night, what college did you say you taught at?”
“Oh, it’s just a small private school near Boston by the name of St. Bernard’s. You’ve probably never heard of it.”
“St. Bernard’s? Actually, a good friend of mine is in the biological anthropology department there. You must know her, Kate Martinez-Goodwin?”
“Hmmm, no, it doesn’t sound familiar. But, then again, I don’t get around campus much.” Marji smiled nervously.
“Well, if you don’t know Kate then you must know Orpha MacGuire over in Statistics.”
Marji shook her head.
“What about Richard Wellborn in the English department?” Jim pressed.
“Oh, yes, I do know Richard. We met once at a faculty party. Nice guy,” Marji peered at the clock on the wall and seemed surprised. “Oh, gosh, I’m going to have to take a rain check on breakfast, Frank. I just remembered that I need to get home to take care of my cat. He gets angry when I’m away too long. Piddles in my shoes.”
“Well, perhaps I’ll have the opportunity again soon,” said Frank, kissing the back of her hand in an exaggerated gesture. “Despite the condition of my home, it’s been a pleasure.”
“Frank, you’re incorrigible,” she started for her car waving as she got in. “See you around Dr. O’Neal.” With that she gunned the black Saturn and drove away. Frank and Jim watched from the porch.
“Man, she’s hot,” commented Frank. “No doubt about that. But do you think we can trust her? I thought so when I was going to show her the stone tablet, but now I’m not so sure. What do you think, Jim?”
“Yes, she’s quite a looker, my horny young friend,” laughed Jim. Then his face darkened. “But you’re also right about trusting her. There’s something about the attractive Miss Carroll that doesn’t quite gel.”
“Yeah, it was a little strange how she only knew one of those people you asked her about.”
Jim squinted in the morning sunlight as he watched Marji’s car pull onto the highway and accelerate.
“Except she didn’t know him either,” said Jim. “Richard Wellborn was my fifth grade teacher.”
“Maybe that’s just a coincidence. Or maybe she’s just gotten too much sun. That would explain why someone like her is hanging out with those aging hausfraus at the Historical Society,” replied Frank.
“Could be, except that she’s not with the New Mexico Historical Society, either,”
“Why the hell would she be lying to us about all of this? It’s not like it really matters, does it?”
“Whatever it is, it obviously has something to do with the stuff you found at Shiprock,” said Jim, his eyes following her car as it disappeared in the distance. “She definitely knows more about this than she’s telling us. In any case, I think we should keep tabs on her until we have a better idea of what she’s up to.”
“Gee, there’s a tough choice,” laughed Frank. “Hanging out with you and babysitting a bunch of sweaty undergrads, or hanging out with you and an intelligent hottie. Hmmm.”
Jim didn’t bother to respond to Frank’s comment, primarily because he was having similar thoughts himself. He just wished he could find out what the mysterious Miss Carroll was hiding.

---
Marji took one last look in her rearview mirror as she pulled out onto the main road and headed toward Farmington. She saw Jim and Frank talking and then watched as they both turned and went into the house. That was a close one, she thought. She hadn’t planned on spending nearly as much time with either man as she had and, therefore, had not bothered to fill in some of the larger holes in her story. She berated herself silently for her sloppiness and pulled a cell phone out from behind her visor. As she dialed the phone she hoped Jim and Frank had bought her story.
“Yes,” came the deep voice on the other end of the line.”
“It’s me. I would have checked in sooner but something came up.”
“What did you find out?”
“The young one has what we’re looking for, but he and the older one have gotten to be friends so I think I’m going to have to deal with both of them, eventually.”
“Why not just get close to the young one and get it from him?”
“Won’t work,” Marji spoke in a guarded voice even though there was no one else to hear. “He trusts the older one and I don’t think he’ll make that decision without him.” The only response was silence. “Are you still there?”
“Yes, yes. If the older one is the key, then work on him. Do they trust you?”
“I think so, but there’s something else you should know. We’re not the only one’s looking for the last piece of the puzzle. The reason I’m late checking in is due to a run-in with the Others. They want it just as much as we do from their actions.”
“Do They know you’re involved?”
“It’s possible, but if they do, I’m certain they They don’t know whose interests I represent.”
“Regardless, the fact that They know what we know makes it all the more important that you get the information first. Do whatever you must, Marjorie. Nothing is out of bounds, do you hear me? Nothing. We must have that stone tablet first.”
“Understood.”

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

White on black - that's a novel novel.

5:03 AM  
Anonymous peter said...

Line 30 ish of the prologue:-

"the other rides turned and rode hard"

I think it should be "the other riders....."

5:10 AM  

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