ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2011
It took more than an hour to go back the ten dusty miles of red dirt road to the highway toward Coyote. It was about 2pm. It felt like the sun was burning a hole in the roof of my truck. I was sticky and hot and very uncomfortable. I don’t belong in this kind of climate. I kept imagining myself as a turkey all basted up on Thanksgiving and roasting in the oven.
As soon as I hit the asphalt, life got better. First thing I did was roll down the windows and push the accelerator to the floor to move some air around in the cab. This is a northern truck. Good mileage but no air conditioning.
Then things began to go downhill again. Second thing I did was slow way down when I looked in my rear view and saw blue and white flashing lights about twenty feet off my rear bumper. Where on earth did he come from? No trees. No side roads. No buildings to hide behind. “Maybe he’s Apache” I thought to myself. I rolled to a stop. Pulled onto the far right shoulder. Shut the engine down and reached into my back pocket for my wallet.
“Stay in the vehicle! Put your hands on top of the steering wheel and do not move!” A voice yelled from behind my truck. I did what he told me to do. I could see him in my side view. He was big and dressed like a cop. He had taken a regulation, two handed shooting position with his handgun pointed at where he figured my head should be in the truck. He side stepped to his right out of my view and over to the other side of my truck so he could approach me from the passenger side of the GMC. I wondered if he had called this in yet. I also wondered if the county cops around here made all their traffic stops like this. Tough neighborhood!
I didn’t move. I didn’t get smart mouthed. I sat with my hands on the wheel and my eyes forward while he checked me out.
“Any weapons in the vehicle?” he shouted.
As he came around to the passenger window he leveled the weapon through the window at my upper torso. He knew enough not to touch the vehicle or put his weapon in through the window. Then he started giving me directions.
“Put your left hand behind your head and hold it there. Do it slow and easy”
I followed his instructions, slow and easy.
When my hand landed behind my head he gave me the next instruction.
“Slowly move your right hand down to the ignition. Pull the key out and toss the key through your window to the ground.”
I did as he instructed but now my right hand was dangling in the air in front of my chest. I was certain he would want it somewhere else.
“Move your right hand to behind your head just like the left.”
I did as he instructed. He moved closer to the passenger window so he could check out the space next to me for weapons.
“What’s that on the floor next to you.”
I knew what he was talking about and I wondered if it was going to be a source of contention.
“Its my ice axe.”
Just then I heard the second cop running up to my side of the vehicle. The first cop must have called it in.
For a moment they stood at opposite doors. Two guns pointed at my torso and also at one another like one of those Police Academy movies. But I wasn’t laughing.
The cop on my side repositioned himself a little forward so any slug from the first cop’s gun that went through me and the door would miss him. Then the first cop left his position and reappeared on my side with his weapon holstered.
“Is your door unlocked?”
The first cop looked at the second cop. They nodded at one another. My door jerked open and the first cop hauled me out by my elbow, pushed me to the ground and told me to “Get down and stay down!” In my peripheral vision I could see that the second cop had moved toward me and was now holding his weapon about three feet from my head. Then a cadence of instructions and questions.
“Spread your legs. Lock your fingers behind your head. If you move you’re a dead man. What’s your name?”
With my hands behind my head, my face was in the red dirt. I wondered if anyone had stopped here to pee. I hoped not. It felt like my keys were pinned under my right thigh. With my mouth in the dirt I said my name. I felt a knee hit the small of my back with quite a bit of weight. My left arm was wrenched from behind my head and a plastic cuff was locked around my left wrist. Then my right arm was hauled down to meet my left and cuffed to it.
The first cop was now feeling up my backside, torso and legs for anything unusual. He was not being nice about it. I figured these guys were very concerned about weapons but I had no idea why. He pulled my wallet out of my right back pocket. He stood over me and said, “Repeat your name!”
I turned my head to one side and repeated my name.
“Spell it!” he said.
I spelled it trying not to breath in the dirt that was coating my nostrils and mouth.
The big cop looked up from my license. “What kind of name is that?”, he asked.
“Its German.” I said.
I could hear some relief in his voice. Something had happened. I was not who he expected and he was relieved to find that out.
“What are you doing here?” he yelled.
I was afraid of this question. I knew it was coming and I was trying to think of a better answer than the truth. An answer that would not cause any trouble. But I couldn’t come up with one.
“Looking for hidden treasure.” I said.
I felt the knee push hard into the small of my back. The first cop didn’t like that answer. I didn’t think he would.
“I’m going to ask that again!”, he said. “I’m going to pretend that you didn’t say what I think you just said. Don’t be a smart-ass it won’t help you right now. Just tell us the truth. What are you doing here?”
“That is the truth.” I said. I’m looking for hidden treasure. I can prove it.”
There was a pause while the cops considered what I had just said.
I decided to try to get into a more comfortable position.
“Look, can I get up?” I asked. I’m suffocating down here. I don’t have any weapons on me and I’ll answer any questions you want.”
More silence. Not a single car drove by. The highway out here was definately underused.
“I don’t know what you guys are looking for but I’m pretty sure I’m not it. I’m a damn tourist.”
Cop number one grabbed my belt and hoisted me up one handed while I tried to get my legs under me. As soon as I was on my feet he yanked my shirt up to make sure there wasn’t a concealed weapon in my waist. “Got any needles or sharp objects in your pockets?”, he asked.
“Cash and a folding pocket knife is all.” I said.
He put his hands in my pockets, emptied them and turned them inside out. I had about $6 in my left pocket and my pocket knife in my right. He put my things on the hood of the truck and turned back toward me. I spread my legs and he patted me down from the front this time. The second cop holstered his weapon, crossed his arms over his chest and watched. He was smaller than the first cop. About my size but thinner. Maybe 35 years old. His tan uniform had sharp creases. His hair was neatly trimmed and his face was clean shaven. I could smell All Spice after shave on one of them. Their shoulder patches said Rio Arriba County.
The big cop stood up and looked me hard in the face. He was probably over 6 feet tall and must have weighed 250lbs. He was younger. Maybe early twenties. Played football at some high school out here a few years ago. He looked like he worked out. His uniform was just as squared away as the other cop’s except his knees were now stained from the red dirt.
“I’m going to look inside your truck.” he said. “You got a problem with that?”
“Not me.” I said
“Good.” he said as he picked the keys up off the ground and headed to the back doors of my van.
The small cop just stared at me. He didn’t say anything. Just looked at me like I was an infant with a dirty diaper. The All Spice was definitely coming from him.
I found a point on the bridge of his nose and stared right back. I can be just as manly as the next guy.
I could hear the big cop rummaging around in the truck. Nothing back there was going to get me in trouble.
After about two minutes the big cop came back around the front of the truck. He had my ice axe in one hand and something small in his other hand along with my keys. I couldn’t see what it was.
“What did you say this was?” he said as he held up my ice axe.
“Thats an ice axe. Climbers use them when they are traveling on ice. Its an assist and safety tool.”
“Uh-huh.” he said to me and then turned to the other cop. “There’s nothing in there. I think we should uncuff him.”
The smaller cop came toward me. I turned my back to him and raised my hands a little so he could get at the cuffs.
While the smaller cop was fooling with the cuffs the big cop said “So why do you need an ice axe in New Mexico in August?” He was hefting the axe for balance and trying it out while he asked.
“I use it when I’m hiking around.” I said. “I can poke at places I’d rather not put my fingers.?
“Emm hmm. Where do you get something like this?”
“I don’t know about around here but in Washington you can get them at practically any climbing gear shop.
The smaller cop finally spoke up. His name tag said Vargas. “Where were you coming from when officer Bear pulled you over?”
“Bear! Thats his name…Bear? Officer Bear laughed.
“Call me Griz for short.” he said. “I like your axe.”
“So where were you coming from?” Vargas asked.
“I was coming back from that old trading post about 10 miles back from where I pulled out.” I said
Bear nodded his big head and said “And what were you doing back there?”
“Exactly what I told you before. I was looking for hidden treasure. I thought it might be back there.”
“What do you mean hidden treasure?”
“I can show you. Okay if I get a book out of my truck?”
I popped the door open and reached into my computer bag between the seats, pulled out Forrest’s book and handed it to Vargas.
“Fellow in Santa Fe decided to hide about a million in gold…”
“A million dollars in gold?..” Bear almost dropped the axe.
“Yeah, about a million and anybody is welcome to go look for it. That’s what I was doing.”
“So its buried around here someplace?” asked Vargas. He started thumbing through the pages as he listened and talked.
“I don’t know where it is. I’ve been looking in a bunch of places including out here. Could be anywhere.”
“But you have good reason to believe its out here, right? You aren’t just flipping a coin to see where you’ll look are you?”
“No I was following some clues that led me out here.”
“What’s this?” Bear asked. He was holding a small stone carving of an animal.
“Can I see it?” I asked while holding out my hand.
I examined it. I had never seen it before. About three inches long. It looked like a dog. It was expertly carved out of a green colored stone. The creature had something that looked a great deal like my ice axe carved out of reddish stone and held onto its midsection with a leather thong. Looked old. Rounded like it had been rubbed a lot. The leather was dark with age. Beautiful marbled stone.
“I guess its a carving of a dog. But I’ve never seen it before. Where did you find it?” I handed it back to him.
“In your van. It was laying on the passenger seat.”
Vargas had stopped thumbing the pages. He found the poem and was studying it closely.
“Well I don’t know where it came from.” I said.
Bear held it up between his thumb and forefinger so Vargas could see it.
“Look at this.” he said to Vargas.
Vargas looked up from the poem, took the sculpture and studied it for a few seconds. “That’s your ice axe.” he said to me and pointed at the object tied to the dog. “Did you give a ride to an old indian?” he asked.
“Not exactly.” I said. “But, yes there was an old indian by the name of Yellow Hat that was in the truck about an hour ago.”
“Yellow Hat!” boomed Bear. That’s a good one.
“Okay.” I said. “What’s going on?”
“You tell him.” said Bear.
“Well we’ve all been suckered.” said Vargas. That old indian that was in your truck. He’s an Apache trickster. His name is Coyote. This is not a dog. This is a Coyote. You must have been around him for awhile if he carved your ice axe and tied it on.”
“No. Not very long at all. Maybe 20 minutes is all.”
“I don’t think he could have carved your little ice axe in 20 minutes with all that detail.” Vargas said.
I rubbed my eyes. They were suddenly dry and itchy. “No, 20 minutes is all.”
“Well if we ever catch this guy he’s going to be in a world of hurt. This time he called 911 and told the dispatcher that a white van with Washington plates was headed out from the Capa Amarilla road with four bales of Marijuana. Driver’s name was supposed to be Jones. I just got the call from dispatch when you came lurching out of there onto the asphalt and started driving like your butt was on fire.”
Bear added, “He lives back in there somewhere. They’ve been looking for this guy for about 40 years…I kid you not.”
He handed me the sculpture.
Vargas said, “Its an Apache fetish. Its his calling card. First time I’ve ever seen one personalized like that. Its good luck. Carry it with you all the time. You’ll be safe…and…do you know the name of that trading post back there?”
“Nope.” I said.
“Its called Capa Amarilla.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Yellow Hat.” said Vargas.