Library of Congress Control Number 2016948900 Distributed by SCB Distributors, (800) 729-6423
Ghosts of the San Juan. Copyright © 2016 by Donald Willerton All rights reserved
Ghosts of the San Juan. Copyright © 2016 by Donald Willerton All rights reserved
The San Juan River, Navajo Country, Southern Utah, April 1934
Not long after dawn, as the sunlight crept down the imposing rock faces of the deep, narrow canyon, four men in two homemade boats were swept along in the muddy current of the San Juan River. Within a short time, three of them would be dead and the fourth would be surprised by how easy it was to let them die.
But that would be later.
On this day, the leader of the expedition sat in the front boat watching the canyon ahead with images flooding back into his mind. Somewhere ahead of him was a solid sandstone mesa hundreds of feet tall—flat-topped, steep-sided, and surrounded by nothing but a rugged canyon of rocks, cactus, and sagebrush. Disconnected from the regular wall of cliffs lining the river’s corridor, the mesa sat isolated, an ultimately lonely mile-long piece of rock.
Hours passed until the man finally glimpsed it and smiled. His many years as a geologist, more years than he liked to remember, had until now provided only enough living to get by. Within a few days, if everything went the way he had been dreaming for the last year, he’d never have to worry about money again.
When the boats reached the foot of the towering piece of sandstone, the men pulled them to the bank and tied them to a tree.
* * *
A rope cinched around his body, Gordon Kattrick pulled himself up by his elbows, swung his waist and legs up and over the edge, and rolled onto the flat of the rock step, streams of sweat running from his eyebrows into his eyes. He squinted from the burn. Rubbing his eyes to ease the pain only ground in the grit and sweat from his hands, making them burn even more.
Disgusted and blinded, he shucked his pack, pulled out his shirttail, and wiped his face.
Southern Utah was an immense, confusing land of twisted canyons and tilted mesas. It was as if thick, cream-colored cake frosting had been smeared in layers over hundreds of square miles of earth, then sculpted with a butter knife to make swirls, dips, and slices. But it was solid rock instead of cake frosting, and the swirls, dips and slices made up a vast empire of mountains, winding valleys, gullies, canyons, and tall, isolated buttes.
This part of the canyon of the San Juan River was even more extreme than the rest of the countryside. Cutting through up to two thousand feet of layered rock, the river had created a steep-sided channel that twisted and turned for almost a hundred miles. Water erosion over millions of years had made ledges in the canyon walls as pieces of rock sheared off and fell into the river below. A series of large steps from the bottom halfway up each side made the walls resemble a multi-layered wedding cake, each layer made up of a flat rock shelf bumping up against a vertical piece of sandstone behind it.
The sides of the isolated mesa were no different. Tying the rope to a large boulder half-buried in the sand and dirt, Kattrick looked around him. They had struggled up four of the ledges; he now stood on the fifth. He had to be getting close to what he was searching for. Hurried by that thought, he kicked at the sagebrush and sand along the bottom of the ledge wall in front of him until, a few yards later, he found what he was looking for.
Behind him, grumbling at him for not lending a hand to help, the three other men fought to pull themselves up by the rope onto the ledge, brushing themselves off as they stood. Then they stepped through the loose rocks, gravel, and sand to see why their esteemed leader was whooping and shouting. Not sharing his enthusiasm for rocks nor his obvious passion for hard work, they watched him quietly.
Kattrick was greedily pulling at a bush covering an opening at the bottom of the ledge wall. The opening was maybe two feet across, maybe two and a half feet tall. Perhaps it had once been an isolated split in the rock, or a hole left by a chunk of sandstone that had fallen out, or even a small animal’s hole made large by water. Whatever its beginning, his efforts revealed that the opening led to a tunnel disappearing into the cliff.
Kattrick stood up and turned to the men. With his eyes on the youngest and smallest, he nodded toward the hole.
“Get inside there and see what you find.”
“Hey, wait a minute—why me? There’re probably snakes in there! I’m not going in that hole, no way!” J.D. gave Little Jake a swat on the head and pushed him toward the opening. “The way you smell, you’ll scare ’em off. Now quit bellyaching and do as he says.” J.D. figured that if Jake refused to do it, he’d be the next pick, and there was no way he was going into that hole first. There might be snakes.
Waiting for the bickering to end, Kattrick looked over the edge and down the mesa wall that they had just climbed. A smoothly carved path at his feet showed the years of wear by water flowing out from the tunnel, cascading onto each ledge below until it poured into a big pool in the canyon floor. It was in the pool that he had found the stones.
A year ago, an oil company had hired him to map the geology of this section of the San Juan canyon. Sweating in the miserable heat, drawing diagrams of the mesa’s different sandstone layers, he had stopped to sift through a catch basin where rain poured off in huge waterfalls from the ledges above. Fingering a handful of gravel, he immediately recognized several stones whose deep, translucent reds and glassy greens made them stand out against the motley mixture of browns, blacks, yellows, and grays.
Kattrick’s face flushed red, and his throat went dry. Stones like these were only found close to lava eruptions, and the chances of finding other, more valuable, stones like diamonds, rubies, and sapphires were high. He had obviously run across some kind of eruption site hidden under the sandstone layers of the mesa.
Going through several more handfuls in the pool, Kattrick bagged the best of the stones and slipped them into his back pocket. They needed to be analyzed. If an eruption site could be found, it would be worth more than all the oil anyone would ever pump out of this godforsaken canyon. And since he was unlikely to ever get a cut of any oil profits, he’d keep the discovery of the stones to himself.
Kattrick had been dreaming of his return trip ever since.
Grudgingly defeated, Little Jake lit his lantern, got down on his knees, and squirmed headfirst into the tunnel, pushing the light ahead of him, cursing all the way. “I didn’t sign up for this,” he shouted back, slithering on his stomach, scraping his elbows and knees on what felt like coarse sandpaper.
In a few feet, the tunnel grew large enough for him to move to a kneeling position, and then to stand stooped over. The passage snaked back and forth, growing taller and wider. The smell of his sweat mixed with the stink of the lantern made him feel like puking.
The tunnel turned sharply upward. In the lantern’s dim light, running his hands across the rock floor as it arched up in front of him, he had trouble believing what he saw.
Jake twisted around and moved back in a hurry, yelling back through the hole. “Hey, you gotta see this! Come on in, it’s a lot bigger once you get past the entrance.”
Kattrick, J.D., and Bob lit their lanterns and started their own grunting and squirming. If Jake had hated the cramped space, Navajo Bob was terrified. Snakes do holes, not people. This tunnel might be a trap set by Coyote, the Navajo trickster. Bob had agreed to get Kattrick to the remote mesa, since he was Navajo and might be handy if they got into a scrape on the reservation. And Bob also knew how to handle the boats.
But crawling into a hole wasn’t part of the deal.
Sweat dripping onto the floor as he squirmed through the opening, Navajo Bob tried to think of himself entering his family’s hogan south of Mexican Hat. Feeling this image, breathing deeply and whispering a chant against evil spirits, he inched forward behind the others.
Finding Little Jake, Kattrick moved to the upsweep in the passageway, knelt, and ran his hands inside the depressions. Even in the flickering light of the lanterns, it was obvious.
“These are steps! It's a damn stairway!”
About half a dozen chipped-out depressions a foot or so apart ran up the curving rock. The steps were old and worn by the water through the years, but the regularity couldn’t be missed. It was no work of nature.
The geologist, his eyes wild with discovery, crowded Little Jake aside and jammed his boots into the depressions, rashly hurrying up into the darkness. The strangeness of the tunnel was bewildering—the swirling patterns in the surrounding rock, the footholds, the darkness, and the thick, wet air. A moment later, he felt a whisper of breeze on his ear. He turned his lantern’s wick up and watched the smoke it made move up the passageway. A breeze in the tunnel meant another opening was ahead.
Rounding a bend, a gray haze shone in the tunnel, a light of some sort. Coming up the last footholds, Kattrick climbed into a large chamber that was evenly lit by light from above.
The room was more than a hundred feet high and had to be forty or fifty feet wide. Above him were other levels of stone, the walls sweeping in and out like frozen waves, sometimes making the projecting rock narrow, sometimes wide, each seeming to be a separate floor surrounding the center of the cavern. From where Kattrick stood, it looked like a huge hole had been poked through the center of a multi-floored building, leaving each floor with a ragged hole in its center.
Far above, sunlight came through a long, narrow slit in the chamber’s ceiling, filling the room with a soft, even glow. At his feet, crystal-clear and perfectly still, was a pool of water.
The others went up the last steps and stood without saying a word. Even J.D., who usually kept up a constant string of swear words, jokes, insults, and useless talk, was stunned into silence.
Finally, walking around the pool, looking up at the slit in the ceiling, turning in a circle to see what stood around him, Kattrick thought out loud trying to make sense of what he saw: “There must have been cracks on top of the mesa, cracks that went down into the center of the formation. A few thousand years of rain hollowed out the mesa from the inside, creating one floor, wearing through it, creating another floor, wearing through that, and so on for centuries.”
He turned and pointed to the tunnel through which they had come. “Finding a crack that led to the outside, the water carved it out like a drain pipe.”
The others only stared, half listening to his theory, not much interested in the whats and whys. They had been brought along as labor, not big thinkers.
J.D. and Navajo Bob had been leading a preferred life of loafing around the trading post back in Mexican Hat, doing odd jobs whenever their money ran out. But Kattrick, a fancy oil company geologist, had offered good money to anyone who could get the supplies, equip the boats, and take him down the river. The trip sounded like too much work, but the geologist offered to hire somebody else to do the hard stuff.
That sealed the deal, and J.D. and Bob had a good laugh on the way back from recruiting Little Jake. It would be a real adventure, they had told him. We’ll help you with everything, they said.
Still amazed by the cavern, Kattrick found another set of steps that led upward from the rock floor where they had come out of the tunnel. Barely keeping his big boots in the rounded holes, he worked his way up ten or twelve feet and stepped out onto a level of rock much like the one below it. This level held another pool of water and led to another set of steps. He continued to climb to the next level and then the next. It confirmed his theory that cascading rain had carved out each of the levels as each burst of water sought out the drain.
It was remarkable, Kattrick thought. Remarkable!
Getting close to the slit in the ceiling, he continued up footholds that led to a shelf of rock circling the entire chamber. Leaning over and using his hands for balance, Kattrick stepped out of the last foothold and stood up.
His jaw dropped.
Along the back of the top shelf of rock, tucked between the floor and the ceiling above, was a roughly flat wall covered with petroglyphs. Perhaps as high as eight feet in places, it must have been several hundred feet or so around. But in four distinct, continuous panels, each about fifty feet in length, Kattrick was looking at a vast array of symbols etched into the sandstone surface: corn, deer, antelope, men, hands, spirals, circles, arrows, rain, sun, snakes, spiders, scorpions. He had seen symbols like these at archeological sites but never so many and never in any one place.
The space did not appear as if anyone had lived there, Kattrick thought, but that was no surprise. The Anasazi preferred open places for their homes, like the ruins built into the sides of cliffs. This place must have been special, maybe a holy place reserved for particular occasions, or a repository for historical stories. Whatever their purpose, the panels of symbols were the largest he had ever seen or heard of.
Coming up behind him, J.D. whistled long and low. “Man, would you look at this! Who would have thought the Anasazi would have ever found this place? Beats anything I ever saw.” He walked over and ran his hands across the wall. Maybe seven hundred or eight hundred years had passed since someone scraped and chipped away at the figures, telling whatever story the symbols conveyed.
Moving along the panel, he glanced back. Little Jake had come up the steps and was behind him, but Bob had not moved an inch from the last foothold. J.D. looked close and saw sweat covering his face. Bob was a Navajo; his people were historic enemies of the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones. If there was a story told by the rock figures, it was not told for him to hear. The quiver in Bob's cheeks betrayed his feelings: Enemy spirits might be here right here, now, watching them. The chindi of the Ancient Ones, their spirits after death, might be guarding the rooms. It was not a place to be.
J.D. laughed at him and called him a coward.
Bob looked back at J.D., fully spooked and far too scared to be insulted or even angered. He didn’t want to be here, didn’t belong. He was an intruder. They were all intruders.
“You don’t mess with the dead,” Bob said under his breath.
As Bob refused to budge and the Boss Man seemed absorbed in what he was looking at, J.D. and Little Jake made a slow tour around the rock shelf. The slightly rounded wall carved out by the swirling waters coming through the slit was over their heads in most places, shorter in others, its surface smooth and even, and the four distinct panels of petroglyphs covered their areas with a dense assortment of pictures. J. D. noticed that pots on woven mats stood in several places under the panels. Stones for grinding corn leaned against the wall with other artifacts.
J.D. relit his lantern to look at the pots more closely. Not great in number, they were palm-sized to maybe two feet tall and a foot or more in diameter, some with lids. They would have been used to store small items—corn, beans, seeds—or perhaps different colored sands, or maybe tools. Some of the pots had cracks, but most were as fine as the day they’d been made.
J.D. understood the significance immediately: He was looking at big money! If he could get these back to town, maybe haul a truckload to Flagstaff, he'd make a fortune selling them to collectors. Original and undisturbed? Hardly even dirty? Maybe filled with the original grains? He could name his price.
I'll be back later for them, he said to himself, whether it was part of the Boss Man's plans or not.
The rest of the day was spent moving equipment from the camp they’d made at the river into the chamber—hard, sweaty trips hauling gear up the different ledges of the cliff and through the tunnel to reestablish their camp around the bottom pool.
Kattrick ordered all traces of the previous night’s camp wiped away, and their tracks brushed out. He had the boats lifted out of the water and carried several yards until they were hidden by the brush. He didn’t think anyone else was on the river, but what he had found had to be guarded and protected. He didn’t want his find discovered, and he certainly didn’t intend to share.
The following day, Kattrick created diagrams: the different levels of floors, the pools, the major rock structures, the layers of sandstone, even the placement of the wall drawings. Though driven by the dream of the riches ahead, he was still a good geologist. Drawing what he could see let him imagine what he could not see, and that was incredibly important. The colored stones from the previous summer came from somewhere, and if it was inside this chamber, the drawings would show him where the sandstone layers had been rammed together or squashed or shifted.
As Kattrick worked on his drawings, J.D. and Little Jake searched out more of the objects on the floor, finding other pots, a dozen or so flint arrowheads, piles of old corn cobs, some grinding stones, and more mats of woven yucca leaves.
Navajo Bob wasn’t looking at all. He wanted nothing to do with their exploring and still refused to even step on the top floor, no matter how many insults J.D. hurled at him.
In the afternoon, the light dimmed in the chamber as dark bottoms of clouds passed over the slit in the ceiling. Distant thunder could be heard. After a few minutes, drops of water made rings on the surface of the pools. With little warning, the drops became larger, and a solid cloud of spray and mist filled the air as rain funneled through the slit above them, past the top floor, and into the pools below.
The four men hunkered down and watched, their hands pressed over their ears as the sound grew and echoed around them. When the fury quit and a little sun shone again, a rainbow appeared in the cavern’s mist, draping the full length of the slit and filling the inside of the chamber with a glow of brilliant colors.
Another remarkable thing, Kattrick thought.
On the morning of the third day, Little Jake came to the bottom pool and brought Kattrick a medium-sized pottery jar he had found inside a larger storage pot, then went to look for more. Pouring the contents out on a blanket, Kattrick stared at what he saw.
Five or six large, green, glassy-looking stones, about thirty smaller red rocks, and several large chunks of polished blue stone laced with delicate streaks of what looked like gold. Mixed with the bigger pieces, a small crystal lay loose against the weave of the blanket.
Kattrick stared at it. His heart was pumping in his ears, and his throat was dry enough to crack as he carefully picked it up. He knew it was a diamond but opened his pocketknife and scraped the side to make sure. The blade left no mark.
His face ashen, he kept his composure even as his stomach turned somersaults. He hoped that the others hadn’t noticed.
Carefully scooping the crystal and other stones back into the jar, Kattrick took a moment to calm himself. Forget the drawings—there had to be an opening. He struggled out a command.
“Jake! This is too many stones to just be from trading; they must have come from inside here someplace. Get J.D. There’s gotta be an opening to a lava vent pipe. Everything we’ve seen so far is the result of time and water over sandstone, but these babies came out of a blow-hole, and somebody had to dig them out.”
With Bob still not budging from his sitting place next to the tunnel they’d come through, the other three worked from the entrance tunnel in a clockwise direction, bottom to top, each man searching a section of the chamber.
As they covered every part of the cave, it wasn’t long before a number of hidden openings were found. Some were just hollows in the wall; others went farther, leading down and under the main chamber.
There was a sudden shout. Following the voice to a narrow sliver of a crack, Kattrick dropped to his hands and knees and crawled through. Squeezing sideways past Little Jake, he slid into a smaller, much darker chamber. The flickering light of his lantern refused to reflect from the dull, black walls. His eyes as big as quarters, he saw the sandstone of the passageway give way to a coarse, dense, dark rock.
Kattrick scoured the small chamber as well as he could by the light of all the lanterns. Instead of erupting through the layers of sand and rock in the vast valley through which the San Juan River was destined to run, the gasses must have leaked off enough that the lava squeezed up but lost its momentum, then was too weak to break the surface.
Probably that was what had crushed the sandstone to make it wear away so easily from the center of the mesa, Kattrick thought—and probably the reason the river had circled this mesa in the first place, a random hard bump in the otherwise-uniform layers of rock.
Stymied by not making it to the surface, the boiling hot lava from miles below had slowed, stopped, and cooled in place, forming a long bubble of the dark rock, full of debris scraped from the sides along the way. The deeper the source of the lava, the greater the pressure and heat, and the more likely that even more valuable gemstones had been carried along with the lava.
In the uneven light of the lanterns, Kattrick turned to Little Jake: “The Anasazi must have chipped away big chunks of this stuff and carried them up to the pools, where they broke them into smaller pieces. They kept the large stones for trading and jewelry-making and left the scrap. When it rained and the pools overflowed, all the throwaway rock washed out the tunnel and over the ledge.”
Soon, the smoke from the lanterns and the stuffiness of the small cave became too much, and everyone returned to the entrance pool. The clouds were back overhead and the chamber was dark again. The thunder rumbled, and an occasional flash of lightning threw a momentary glow around them, warning of the storm brewing outside.
As the four sat around a blanket rolled out for their lunch, a loud crackle bounced across the walls. The chamber lit up with a flash, followed by a huge boom echoing from every direction. The four men cursed and shouted, covering their ears.
Struggling back to their knees, they froze in place as the sounds of the thunder were replaced by the rumbling of rocks. As fear twisted their stomachs, the crashing sounds slowly stopped.
Quickly on their feet, three men scrambled for the tunnel.
Everyone but Bob. Bob had rolled back into his sitting position, wide-eyed in terror. He had heard Coyote's laughter in the thunder and wouldn’t move an inch.
You don’t mess with the dead.
Kattrick made it to the tunnel first, dropped down, and shot through the narrow passageway. Within half a minute, he barreled back out, shoving the others out of the way and choking on the billowing, dust-laden air that followed him.
Lightning had hit the side of the mesa, shattering the massive rock bluffs into a landslide of broken rock and dirt, covering the outside entrance of the tunnel.
His body jerked back and forth as Kattrick struggled to breathe through the dust. Hacking, his lungs screaming, he rushed to the pool and submerged his head, then lifted it out and drank deep—anything to wash away the billowing dust.
More puffs belched out of the tunnel opening, and then all was silent. Panic slowly gave way to despair as the men looked into each other’s eyes.
They were trapped.
Mexican Hat, Utah, Today
Reaching with the broom as far as he could under the large platforms, Mogi Franklin pulled piles of sand, dirt, dried mud, and dust to the center of the aisle. Frank Tsosie used the grain shovel as a dustpan, and the piles were swept up and dumped into the big trashcan next to the door. It was hard enough work, and Mogi wasn’t enthused that he and Frank were the only ones sweeping the floor of a building the size of a small aircraft hangar.
It wasn’t what he liked to do with his Saturdays, but today was different.
Mogi was fourteen and tall for his age, but his muscles had not yet caught up with his bones and so was gangly and spindly and a little awkward, which is to say, normal for where he was in life. He took after his mom’s side of the family in what he looked like and his shyness but seemed to be a sum of both families on the brain side: He was smart, quick minded, mentally disciplined, and orderly, and had natural talents for solving problems. Because of this, he was a year ahead at Bluff High School and had been invited to help with the work.
Pushing the broom along the back wall, he glanced up to the ceiling. Suspended from the curving rafters twenty or so feet above hung a strange-looking wooden boat. Instead of curving sides that met underneath to form a keel, like an ordinary rowboat, the sides were almost straight up and down, with overlapping boards like the sides of a house. Meeting the bottom of the sides all around in sweeping curves, a flat floor made the inside of the boat two or maybe even three feet deep. Across the top, the boat had been enclosed by a curved deck on each end, with latching doors that must have led to storage compartments. An opening in the center must have held the person rowing the boat.
Something bad had happened to it. The floor was smashed and broken close to the front, and a large hole poked through the wooden slats running from the bottom up to a splintered rim.
“Mr. Bottington,” Mogi called up front to a large man directing other teenagers. “What’s that?”
Burl Bottington was the owner of San Juan River Expeditions, a wilderness rafting company in the village of Mexican Hat, about twenty miles west of where Mogi lived in Bluff. A big, burly man with huge arms, chest, and neck, matched by a sizable stomach which confirmed that he never let the word “diet” into his lifestyle, he was always laughing and joking, and had a story for every occasion. Everyone was his friend, and he was a special favorite of Bluff students.
Burl looked up at the boat and smiled. “Well, now, that there’s a real San Juan River mystery. Let’s get some of the cleanin’ started and I’ll tell you about some disappearing people and ghosts. You don’t mind hearin’ about disappearing people and ghosts, do ya?”
“No, sir, I’d like that,” Mogi answered.
“We haven’t already started cleaning?” Frank asked Mogi as Mr. Bottington rejoined the teenagers outside.
“He must be talking about the stuff outside,” Mogi replied. “But this is my first time. Jennifer’s been through this before. She said the building had to be cleaned before any of the outside stuff can be put back in, and handed me the broom.”
"How does this work, again?" Frank asked.
"It's a deal with the high school," Mogi answered. "Mr. Bottington’ll take a hundred groups of people or so down the San Juan on rafts this summer. At the end of the season in the fall, he throws everything in here and takes a vacation. The last weekend of March the next year—which is today—the school sends over a bunch of volunteers to get everything out of the building, clean things up, repair anything that needs repairing, and put it all back in, nice and neat.
"In return, Mr. Bottington gives the school a free raft trip for students who want to go down the river during the April school break. When we get back, we'll clean what we used, and then he's ready for the paying customers. Have you ever been rafting before?"
"Are there even rivers where you live?"
Frank smiled. "There's not even water where I live. Our grandparents’ hogan is about ten miles from the highway in the Lukachuckai Mountains, maybe a hundred miles southeast of here. Running water to us is the stuff in the bottom of a gulley during a rainstorm. We even have to haul our drinking water in steel drums in the back of our pickup."
Mogi couldn't quite imagine it. Frank and his twin sister, Becky, were Navajo Indians from the reservation. They and their dad had come to Bluff from Arizona after Christmas, living in Bluff while he worked on a drilling crew out of Aneth, a tiny town surrounded by gas wells thirty minutes east of Bluff.
"You miss home?" Mogi asked.
"Not really. My mom stayed to help my grandparents, so we go back on weekends to help with the sheep. We live in a trailer house on the same property.
“My dad is a jeweler, a really good one, but the price of turquoise is really high, and he can't sell enough jewelry to cover the cost, so he took a job off the reservation. Everybody we know is in the same shape—leaving their homes to find work. It's bad times. It's hard for jewelers to even find good turquoise, much less all they need to make a good business."
"Isn't turquoise kind of important in your culture?"
"Yeah. Turquoise means a lot to the Navajo people. It’s wrapped up in our spirit. It's one of the things that makes our jewelry special and helps make the ceremonies right.”
"You guys finished yet?" Jennifer asked, coming in from outside with Becky. Jennifer was seventeen, three years older than Mogi. Frank and Becky, who were in some of his classes, were fifteen.
“Jennifer!” Mr. Bottington called. “Show your brother how to wash the rescue ropes.”
Jennifer definitely took after her father. Shorter than Mogi by a half a foot, with thick, brown hair cut short, she was strong, athletic, and graceful. Whereas her brother was the obsessive analytical, adventurous problem-solver, Jennifer was mature beyond her years, a cautious, emotionally centered people-person. He pushed her to do more than she thought she ought to; she pulled him back into what was reasonable.
Both of them had great Franklin family smiles.
Jennifer led Mogi, Frank, and Becky to an inside wall with a large array of pegs. She took gallon-sized canvas bags off the pegs until her arms were full, and dumped them into a pile at a utility sink next to the door. She pulled a rope out of one of the bags, turned on the faucet, and fed the rope into the sink under the running water as she ran her hands over the alternating red and white threads.
"The idea is to get enough of the mud and yuck off that you can see the color," she said.
Frank and Becky each grabbed a bag and did the best they could to follow Jennifer’s example.
"You wash and I'll lay them out to dry," Mogi said as he gathered the first pile of wet ropes and went outside. Deciding against stringing them across the parking lot where students were milling about, he laid each rope out in a spiral. Carefully playing it through his fingers, he tried to make each new loop a half-inch from the previous one, sometimes using a fingertip to get the spacing just right.
"What are you doing?" Becky had brought another rope and was watching Mogi.
"Well, hey, you know. Don’t want it to look bad while it’s drying."
"You gotta watch out for dork-boy here," Jennifer said as she came up to join them. "He has strange and mysterious ways.”
Earlier that morning, the students had pulled all the equipment out of the storage building and spread it over the parking lot. There were piles of river bags, tents, rafts, raft frames, oars, paddles, pumps, hundreds of nylon straps, rainsuits, PFDs, stoves, pots and pans, grills, rain flies, air pumps, folding chairs, folding tables, more ropes, and some things Mogi didn't recognize.
Mr. Bottington ran hoses from the outside faucets to the different piles, making jokes as students sprayed the equipment and themselves. Once washed, everything was strewn around the parking lot to dry. Stuff not to be cleaned with water, like stoves, lanterns, and pumps, were moved to a couple of tables to be wiped off, lubricated when needed, and set aside.
Everyone was busy, and the Bottington House of Rafting took on the appearance of a beehive. The San Juan Expeditions’ building and parking lot sat a hundred feet off the main (and only) street through Mexican Hat, about a half-mile from the raft launch point on the San Juan River.
Starting in the high mountains of southern Colorado, then flowing south and west across the top of New Mexico, the San Juan River passed within a couple of miles of where the corners of the two states met the corners of Arizona, and Utah, aptly called the “Four Corners,” then continued straight west until it ran into Lake Powell. One of the premier wilderness rivers in the Southwest, it was famous for its deep, narrow, twisting canyons.
As Mogi finished laying out the last of the rescue ropes, Mr. Bottington called everyone over to a cooler of drinks just inside the door. Teenagers streamed in with some of the folding chairs, grabbed cans of soda, and spread out around the large man.
Smiling as he looked up at the damaged boat hanging from ceiling, Burl drew up a small folding chair and maneuvered his large body into it, making the teenagers fear for its survival.
“Well, now, if all of you will die-rect your eyes to the ceilin’ in the back, there’s an old boat hangin’ from the ceilin’ that’s been banged up a little. Right up there is a gen-u-wine San Juan River mystery.”
Burl pulled another chair around, propped his feet against the leg bar, pushed his glasses up on his nose, and leaned back with his hands behind his head.
“That boat belonged to ol’ Norm Nevills hisself. It got smashed up a long time ago, long time before I ever showed up. Norm built that boat from raw lumber to take people on river trips before there were any commercial outfits around here. He worked on the design for a long time to get it where it would carry the people and all the equipment and handle all the rapids, way before they started using these fancy inflatable jobbies. Ol’ Norm’s the guy who started the expedition business on the San Juan, back in ’36.”
Burl looked over the young faces listening to him. “Y’all ever heard of the ghosts of the San Juan?”
No one answered back, but several grinned at each other. It was going to be another tall tale from Burl the Storyteller.
Mr. Bottington shifted his bottom in the chair and scratched his mostly bald head. “Well, it was back in 1934 that one of the locals paid ol’ Norm fifty buckaroos to borrow a couple of his boats. Norm hadn’t started any kind of business yet and didn’t have much equipment, but fifty bucks was a goodly sum in those days, and he let ’im have the best two boats he had. It was in April and had been one of those real rainy springs like we don’t have but every hundred years or so, so the river was running real high.
“Anyway, two days later, four men were seen loading the two boats with all sorts of stuff. Piles of tarps, blankets, food, shovels, picks, campin’ equipment, water pouches, and a bunch of other stuff had been laid out on the bank of the river and then stuffed into the boat’s compartments.
“They left in the two boats about noon, and were never seen again.”
Burl shifted in his chair and pointed to the hulk of a boat in the air. “That boat was found about a week after they left, stuck on a sandbar on the other side of Steer Gulch. Some Indian kids found it, and the word finally got back to Norm. He took another boat and went down the river, lookin’ all around as he went.
“When he found that boat there, battered and broken up, completely empty, with no equipment in it, he stretched a big tarp over the whole bottom of the boat, makin’ it so it would float in the water again, and towed it down to Clay Hills Crossin’ where Doris picked ’im up.
“Doris was his wife, ya know, and the two of ’em started offering regular trips down the river two years later, the very first commercial trips in this part of the country, even before anybody was doing the Colorado through the Grand Canyon. Well, anyway, Norm said that he never saw anythin’ along the river, no camp or anythin’. No signs along the bank, no fire rings, no disturbed camping spots—nothin’. Those four guys just up and vanished.”
“Why did they go down the river in the first place?” one of the teenagers asked.
“Well, nobody knew for sure, you understand, but one of the men turned out to be a geologist who had been on the river the year before, doin’ surveys for some oil company. This trip, though, didn’t have anythin’ to do with the oil company, ’cause nobody at any of the oil companies knew anythin’ about it. A rumor got started that the geologist had discovered gold the year before and was tryin’ to get back to it. I kind of doubt it, though, ’cause nobody’s ever found enough gold worth sweatin’ over on this whole river.”
Burl stopped to take a breath.
“They didn’t find any bodies?” Mogi asked.
“Not a one. No skin, no bones, no clothes, no nothin’. Never found the other boat, either. They couldn’t even find signs along the banks where they might have camped. Some people thought the men must have hiked out south through the reservation, but no Indian ever saw ’em, which would typically have been the case. They might have floated way down the river in the other boat, but nobody in the settlements downstream ever saw anybody either.
“It was decided that they up and died along the river, the devil buryin’ their bodies someplace and their ghosts just floatin’ around the canyon walls unto this very day. It was them ghosts that took the boats on down the river, leavin’ one of them behind just to make fun of us.
“It’s been many a time on the river that I’ve heard whisperin’ voices and cryin’ in the night when there’s been nobody there, and I’m pretty sure it’s them ghosts who can’t find their eternal rest, and I’m not lyin’ to ya!” Burl added, grinning in an I-just-lied-to-you way.
With a grunt, he finished off his drink with a long slurp, stood up, called for the others to get to it, and went for an extension cord to run the air pump.
Four men, two boats, outfitted for a trip, Mogi said to himself. And not one comes back. No bodies, no camp, no equipment, no tracks, and one of them was even a geologist who had been on the river before.
Still thinking about it, he headed over to the other teens as the big, sixteen-foot, whitewater rafts were starting to balloon up under the force of the air pump. It took almost an hour to inflate all the rafts and then an hour more to go over them with soapy water. Any leaks in a raft made the soap bubble and were circled with a marker; Mr. Bottington would add a patch later.
As the rafts dried, the flow of equipment started back into the building, which actually had been an aircraft hangar before it was taken down and moved to Mexican Hat. Around twenty feet tall, it was made of half-circles of metal struts covered with wavy tin panels for the roof, with two tall, rectangular doors hung on a long rail across the front opening.
In the center, the big, wooden platforms Mogi had swept under held the deflated rafts off the floor and kept the cold cement from damaging the fabric.
Next to a small office on the left, shelves made out of two-by-fours and plywood reached to the ceiling and held the camping equipment. Along the right side, latticework shelving held the large air pumps, tents, poles, paddles, and other long equipment.
The rafting frames were made of aluminum pipe and put together so they sat across the rafts. Each set was propped up along the back wall. The ten foot oars were stacked in a corner and large racks next to them held the two hundred or so straps used to tie everything to the rafts.
Mogi and Frank lowered long poles from the ceiling to skewer the PFDs and then pulled them back up so they were suspended above the other equipment. The rainsuits were put on hangers, hung on a pole, and lofted up next to the PFDs. Beneath translucent panels in the roof, the different blues, greens, reds, yellows and oranges formed a carpet of color against the drab ceiling.
Tents were rolled up, stored in their bags, and stacked neatly in the latticework. Ropes were hung from pegs; the large dry bags where passengers stored their personal gear were laid into wooden bins (grouped by color, thanks to Mogi); the camping equipment was gathered and sorted into the shelves; and chairs folded and stored. As a last gasp of organization, anything that was left over was hung from pegs next to the door.
In the fading light of dusk, most of the teenagers waved their goodbyes and headed for their cars. Mogi continued counting everything and making a list of the equipment for Mr. Bottington.
"The boy's in heaven," Jennifer said to Frank and Becky as they sat around a table with Mr. Bottington, waiting. "If we don't do something, he'll be counting the cracks in the cement. I suspect one of my parents accidentally dropped him on his head as a child, but they’ve never confessed. I just hope he doesn't notice the filing cabinet in your office."
Burl Bottington laughed and grinned. "The boy's special, ain't he? I do appreciate ’im, though. I'm not sure I've ever had a count of the stuff I have. As for the filin’ cabinet, it might take the whole summer, even for somebody with a gift.
“Yo! Hey, son!” the jovial man called, interrupting Mogi as he stopped to sort the water jugs by size, large on the left. “I was happenin’ to remember how good the ice cream is up at the Dairy Queen. Why don’t you and your friends meet me up yonder and we’ll do a quality check?” He roared with laughter.
Mogi smiled. It must have dropped thirty degrees when the sun went down, but Mr. Bottington was not one to pass on an opportunity to have a little dessert before supper.