Skeleton Picnic: A J. D. Books Mystery #2

Skeleton Picnic: A J. D. Books Mystery #2

Third generation Kanab residents Rolly and Abigail Rogers come from a long line of dedicated pot hunters who scour the desert southwest in search of valuable antiquities.  When the Utah ...

About The Author

Michael Norman

MICHAEL NORMAN is a writer and retired journalism professor who lives in an absolutely unhaunted house near the Twin Cities ...

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Chapter One

Friday Afternoon—Day 1

Irritated, Roland Rogers glanced at his watch. The retired Kanab High School teacher was anxious to get under way. Abby, his wife of thirty-seven years, was late. He dialed her cell number at the supermarket.

“Hi, Rolly—can’t talk now. We’re busy.”

“You promised you’d get off early today. We need to get going.”

“I tried. They won’t let me off.”

“If we don’t get moving soon, it’ll be dark before we find the site.”

“I’m too busy to talk, gotta go,” said Abby. “I’ll get there as soon as I can.”

He started to argue, but she disconnected before he could say anything else. He closed the flip phone muttering to himself.

Rolly Rogers hooked the small pop-top trailer to the back of his Ford F-350 pickup. The massive 4 x 4 had almost unlimited towing capacity and had always gotten him through, no matter how difficult the terrain. The Silver Beast, as he liked to call it, looked just the same as when he’d driven it off the showroom floor six years earlier—better in fact. Shiny new chrome wheel covers decorated the tires. Rogers was a man who took good care of his things. Everything neat and tidy and everything in its place was a standard he lived by and had instilled in each of his children.

He had already loaded the off-road vehicle into the truck bed. Now, he only needed to add groceries and several tools for digging, and, of course, wait for Abby to get home.

A third-generation Kane County resident and a lifelong  pot hunter, Rogers grew up in a family that collected ancient artifacts from anyplace it could find them—usually that meant public or tribal lands. It was illegal, sure, but everybody did it. As a kid growing up in the fifties and sixties, he recalled outings with family and friends where everybody collected whatever they could find—pot shards, arrowheads, ceremonial blankets, beads, clay pots, baskets, even human bones. His grandfather referred to these weekend adventures as “skeleton picnics.” Collecting ancient artifacts was a family tradition in the Rogers household, one that he passed along to his own children as they grew, and an activity that had united the close-knit Mormon community of Kanab during good times and bad.

His personal collection of Fremont and Anasazi antiquities rivaled that of anyone in southern Utah. While he would never admit it, selling valuable artifacts not only raised his standard of living, but also helped pay the cost of sending his children to Brigham Young University.

This trip was the first of the year. Like most serious collectors, Rogers confined his artifacts hunting activities to the spring and fall months to avoid the blistering summer temperatures that turned the arid Colorado Plateau into a high altitude inferno of parched clay, sandstone, and granite.

They left Kanab a couple of hours before dark heading south along State Highway 89A until they crossed the Arizona State line near Fredonia. At Fredonia, they turned west on Highway 389 and followed it to the Paiute Reservation, then further west, deeper into the reservation, until they saw road signs for the Pipe Spring National Monument.

Instead of entering the monument, Rogers turned south on a narrow, washboard dirt road that ran along the banks of the Colorado River until it eventually dead-ended at a recreation area called Toroweap. Rogers had no intention of going that far south, so he turned east into a remote, sparsely populated area where he and Abby had stumbled upon an Anasazi site the previous fall. In less than a mile, the road disappeared and Rogers found himself slowly picking his way around and through granite boulders, salt and sagebrush, cheat grass, and misshapen sandstone pinnacles and buttes. A large-eared piñon mouse darted in front of the truck, disappearing into a stand of isolated junipers.

“Think anybody discovered our little treasure?”

His wife looked genuinely bored. “I doubt it. It’s a pretty remote site, and we’re so early in the season that most people haven’t started hunting in earnest.”

“I hope you’re right.”

When Rogers felt he could go no further without risking damage to the truck and trailer, he stopped and set up camp not far from where he believed the site was located. He disconnected the trailer and unloaded the off-road vehicle while Abby busied herself unpacking. A cool desert breeze blew vermilion specks of sand into his eyes causing them to tear. In the distance he could see a small cluster of large cottonwood trees and willows, an indication of a creek or other water source nearby.

A whip-tailed lizard scampered through camp disappearing into a rock formation just as Abby emerged from the trailer. The creature startled her and she cried out. “Gosh, I never get used to those little guys.”

“What?” he said, glancing up from his GPS. “Nothing, just a lizard.”

Abby studied Rolly as he read coordinates on his GPS while reviewing a detailed map of the area. She loved the man to death, always had. She considered him her own version of Indiana Jones. It was silly, she knew. The thought made her smile.

Abby zipped her fleece vest tight around her neck and shivered involuntarily in the cool evening breeze. She looked skyward and noticed an accumulation of puffy white clouds on the western horizon above jagged rock formations cast in hues of orange and pink in the evening twilight.

“Did you check the weather before we left?” she asked. What worried her was the possibility of rain. The soil was composed of sand and clay. When it rained, the clay adhered to tires, rendering roads impassable. If you had the misfortune of choosing a campsite near a dry wash bed, a sudden downpour could turn an otherwise dry wash into a torrent of raging muddy water, sweeping away anything in its path.

“I did. The forecast calls for clouds, wind, but no rain. We should be fine.”

They met while attending Brigham Young University. Rolly had fallen for her almost immediately. The attraction was mutual, and they married at the beginning of his junior year. After graduation, Rolly accepted a teaching job at his high-school alma mater in Kanab, Utah. With a newborn son and Abby at his side, they moved to Kane County and never left.

“You’re not thinking of trying to find the site tonight, are you?” she asked.

He didn’t look up from the topo map. “Why not?” “Because it’s getting dark, and you know how these   places give me the creeps at night.”

He looked over at her and shrugged. “Oh, come on, Abby. There’s still a few minutes of daylight left, if we get a move on it. Besides, we’re supposed to have a full moon tonight, and that’ll help us see—might even be a little romantic.”

“Romantic, I don’t think so—just you, me, and a bunch of dead Indians. No, thanks. I’m tired, and I’d rather wait until morning.”

That was his Abby, he thought. In their thirty-seven years together, she always spoke her mind. He admired that quality about her, but he wasn’t about to give up.

“Look, I know where we are, and the gravesite can’t be more than a few hundred yards from here. Let’s just go take a quick look. We  won’t do any digging until tomorrow morning. I’m anxious to see whether anyone else has disturbed our little find or whether we’ll be the first to turn soil.”

Abby had learned long ago that Rolly was tenacious when it came to hunting artifacts. Once on the trail of a possible site, he became almost obsessive. “I don’t feel like walking,” she said.

“I don’t either. We’ll take the ORV.” Reluctantly, she agreed.

Abby paced nervously while Rolly searched for the keys to the ORV. Scanning the horizon in every direction, she observed giant rock sculptures of every size and dimension. As the evening sky with its fiery orange hues surrendered its final moments of daylight, the setting sun cast the cliff faces and rock walls in awe-inspiring colors of pink, yellow, red-rust, and creamy beige.

Rolly had been right. They discovered the ruin not more than a quarter-mile from camp. Almost immediately they realized the site held great potential. It was an undisturbed surface ruin with a small alcove in one corner. Because they were protected from the elements, alcoves frequently contained a wide array of pristine artifacts.

Rogers could hardly contain himself. He wanted to begin digging immediately. Increasingly nervous, Abby wanted to return to camp and begin excavation the next morning. Twilight had now given way to complete darkness. Large, misshapen granite slabs surrounding the ruin created eerie shapes and shadows that frightened her when cast against the moonlit sky.

“Rolly, I want to get out of here now. Let’s go,”

“Patience, my dear, give me another minute. I think I just found a corner wall.” He was on his knees, digging straight down using a trowel to scoop away loose sand and dirt.

Abby glanced into the darkness. “What was that?”

Rogers looked up, momentarily interrupting his digging. “What was what?”

“Shh. I heard something, I’m sure of it. It sounded like a wail or maybe a chant of some kind.”

“You’re hearing things.” He was about to resume digging when he heard something as well, a high-pitched guttural sound coming out of the darkness to the east. Was it animal or human? He wasn’t sure. He had never heard anything like it before. Instinctively he reached to his side, cursing when he realized he’d left the nine-millimeter Glock in the truck.

They stood together in the cold darkness feeling vulnerable and afraid, hearing nothing save their own labored breathing and the rustling wind, hoping that whatever they thought they heard they hadn’t. Abby was shaking and muttering something incomprehensible, a prayer, he thought.

“What should we do, Rolly? I’m really frightened.”

Rogers stood transfixed, watching for any sign of movement from the direction of the sound. “What is that smell?” he said.

“I think it’s sage or maybe burning incense.”

And then they came out of the darkness, several large black figures running directly at them spread out in a ragged skirmish line. They hardly looked human.

Abby screamed.

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