| Chapter One|
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Pepper was gone. She had gotten up early one morning in April, and I had driven her to the airport in New Orleans. Two hours later she was on a plane to Mexico.
Working at the Maya site of Lubaanah was too great an opportunity to pass up. Working with Eric Blackburn was just an added plus.
Blackburn was married with children, and despite his calculatedly rakish appearance, it was ridiculous to think of anything developing between them.
She and I had worked together for two years, had almost been killed a few times, and had finally become lovers, despite a ten-year difference in our ages. Nothing would change the way she felt, not even an archaeologist her own age with a half-million dollars from National Geographic to study Maya trade relations in the early historic period.
"It's just that we both need some time," she'd explained. "It's only four months, and you can fly down and visit."
I promised I would. And lied.
I'd had a bad experience in Mexico years before, when I'd met a beautiful Mexican archaeologist on a dig in Yucatan. We'd ended up married, but our careers had brought us into conflict. I'd gone round the bend, lost my university position, and come back to Baton Rouge to do contract archaeology. I was just getting my emotions together when I met Pepper. She'd given me something I'd never expected to have again. But I didn't know if I was ready for Mexico and its memories.
And she may have known. There were still things about her I didn't understand, and when she'd announced her intention to go, I sensed that it was our closeness that frightened her as much as her professed desire to jump into a field in which she had no previous experience.
"You don't even read Maya," I said.
She told me she'd learn.
That was a month ago, and I'd gotten one lousy letter before they'd disappeared into the jungle.
Now I felt an emptiness, even a betrayal. I plunged into work. One day our Corps of Engineers contracting officer, Bertha Bomberg, A.K.A. La Bombast, called and told us she was sending us to inventory the archaeological sites along a stretch of Thompson Creek, thirty miles to the north.
The Corps was thinking of building a dam and flooding a few thousand acres of pine forest. The plan was touted as a way to draw tourists for fishing and recreation, but everyone knew it would really benefit the politicians who had bought up most of the land.
I pulled into the tiny community of Jackson at just after nine. It was a warm May morning, with summer hiding in the shadows of the old buildings. In a few weeks the blackberries would be ripe. Idyllic, if you didn't have to beat your way through the berry patches in hundred-degree heat.
The man I'd come to meet was waiting in a pickup next to the bank. He got out as I approached, a round little fellow of fifty in a short-sleeved shirt and cowboy boots, who looked happy with the world.
"Dr. Alan Graham?" He came forward with his hand outthrust. "Gene McNair. I own the eastern half of the tract. I'm also on the board of the Development District."
We shook and he nodded over his shoulder.
"You been to Jackson before, right?"
"Just for pleasure," I said, and he cracked a grin. The state mental hospital is in Jackson.
"Well, it's a nice little town. Been around since the middle of the last century. Used to be a center for cotton shipping. Railroad took the cotton west to the Mississippi for loading onto boats. This was a hopping place back then: Centenary College was the first institution of higher learning in the state. Asphodel Plantation, down the road, was built in the early 1800s. It's on the National Register, you know."
"We're trying to get things started up again. Get known for something besides a mental hospital and a correctional institution.
"You have a lot of local backing?" I asked.
"Everybody except one or two. But that's always the way it is." He folded his arms. "Look, if you found an Indian grave, would that hold things up?"
"Probably. The state has a strong burial law. Any human remains have to be reported to the authorities within twenty-four hours, and then if they're Native American, interested tribes have to be given a chance to comment. So I imagine it would slow things down. But most of what we find isn't burials. Mostly it's Indian artifacts-projectile points and pottery-and old house remains from the last century. If we find something that seems important, then we have to recommend what to do with it."
"That or avoid it completely."
"Sounds interesting," McNair said dubiously.
I nodded. Most people said what I did was interesting, whether they believed it or not.
I left my red Blazer in the lot and climbed into McNair's pickup, and a few seconds later we were heading north on a winding two-lane. To the left was a terrace, with the creek at the bottom. The creek had etched its way into the landscape during the last Ice Age, which ended ten thousand years ago. The hills were made out of loess, a fine clay that the glaciers had ground into a dust a thousand miles to the north and deposited here on the winds. It was a good place to find fossils, with a better than average chance of turning up leavings of the first Americans, who had come here just before the Ice Age ended.
Three miles from town we turned left onto a dirt road, dipping down toward the valley across a pasture. Five minutes later we came to an iron-bar gate, and McNair hopped out with a key and unlocked it.
"I'll give you a key when we finish today," he said. "From here on down to the creek is my land."
We shot through the gate and started winding downward.
"The other half of the tract you need to look at is on the other side of the creek, in West Feliciana. That belongs to the Devlins. To get to my land, you come up Highway 952 on this side of the creek. To get to the Devlin tract, you go up Highway 421, that runs parallel to it on the other side. The creek's the dividing line between the two tracts, and it's the parish line, as well."
A deer leaped out in front of us and then bounded away, its flag high.
"Damn, I wisht it was hunting season," my guide swore.
"Are the Devlins a problem?" I asked.
"Just the one that lives there. Real pain in the ass."
"He's against the project," I said.
"She. Cynthia Jane, but everybody calls her Cyn. She was okay before her husband died. But ever since, well, I think it knocked a screw loose. I don't think she'll shoot at you, though."
"She lives by herself?" I asked.
"Yeah, in a big-ass old house on Highway 421. But her land only goes about halfway back to the north." Gesturing with his head he said, "Across the creek there belongs to her brother-in-law, Buck, but she's against his selling. You'd think it was her own family's land instead of his."
We came to the edge of the terrace. The road ended here, and somebody had thought it was a good vantage point for hunting, because a wooden deer stand had been built onto an oak tree on the right. I looked over the edge of the bluff and down at the creek. It was a shallow, sandy expanse a hundred feet wide, with the water in pools and very little current. A wooden stake with a red ribbon guarded the end of the road, and I pointed.
"Are the perimeters staked?"
"Supposed to be."
"And this Devlin woman let the surveyors onto her land?"
"Raised hell, but what can she do? The state'll expropriate if it has to."
I nodded. I hated these kinds of situations.
"Can we get across here?" I asked.
"If you don't mind getting your feet wet."
I got out of the truck and followed him to the clay bank, then slid down to the sandy beach. We sloshed through the water, came up onto a sandbar, sloshed some more, and emerged on the other side. At least there were no POSTED signs. The pine hills rose up in front of us, but to the left was a narrow jeep track. I made for it, McNair breathing hard behind me.
The aerial photos hadn't shown many clear-cuts, which were hell in the summer because of the thick briars, but I needed to get a feel for the topography and especially the amount of undergrowth so I could put together a cost estimate.
"You're the first archaeologist I heard of who didn't work at a college," McNair said, puffing behind me.
"Actually," I said, reaching the top of the hill, "most archaeologists don't work at universities. Most do just what I do, contract archaeology. It's a new field that developed from the environmental movement of the sixties. When they made laws to protect the wildlife, they decided it would be a good idea to protect historical sites, as well."
The track entered the trees a few yards ahead of me, and I started forward, the pine needles soft under my boots. In the ruts I saw some raccoon prints and then some deer droppings, but there was no sign that humans had been this way in the last few weeks.
"Where does this track go?" I asked.
"To a clearing up ahead with an old camp house. Then it goes south, into the back pasture of the Devlin place."
"Is this camp house very old?" I asked.
McNair gave a little laugh. "Nah. Built in the fifties. But you don't want to go there."
"No?" I was already in the forest, and I saw a patch of sunlight ahead through the trunks. "Why's that?"
"Might stir up the tenant."
"Somebody lives there?" I could see the building now, a wood-frame structure with a tin roof. The windows were broken and the front porch sagged. "They don't keep it up very well, if they do."
"Well, they don't really live there-they just haunt it."
He gave a high-pitched laugh. "That's just the teenagers around here. They call it Lee's Place."
"Lee Harvey Oswald. They say he stayed here just before he killed Kennedy. Some say his ghost is still here and that's why bad things happen to people who come on this land."