The year is 1905. It is autumn in the village of Aztec in New Mexico territory. Amanda Dale is burdened with the responsibility of caring for her widowed sister—an invalid----and Ella’s two children—one a premature infant. But Amanda wants a husband and children of her own and despairs that God does not care about her plight. Schoolteacher Gil Gladney is handsome, intelligent, and God-fearing. He is drawn to Amanda, but feels he cannot propose marriage until he is able to purchase the ranch he has been saving for.
When Gil and his pupils discover the relics of an ancient culture among the ruins outside the village, Gil contacts an old college friend. The possibility of an archaeologist excavation excites the community of cash-strapped farmers, eager to earn extra money working on the site.
Gil is delighted when Nate Phillips comes to Aztec to take up the challenge. When a rabid skunk reels through the excavation site, threatening the lives of Amanda and her nephew Rex, Gil realizes that life is short and the possibility of true happiness can be fleeting. In the end, Amanda learns to trust God to provide the happily-ever-after ending she’s been praying for.
Read the First Chapter
by Shirley Raye Redmond
Village of Aztec,
New Mexico Territory--1905
The baby was nestled snugly inside the large roasting pan. Wrapped in a bit of blue flannel blanket, she reminded Amanda Dale of an oversized tamale. The pan had been set upon the open door of the hot oven so that the premature infant could absorb the life-saving heat. She is so little, Amanda thought with a clutch of fear. She bent over the pan to peer into her niece’s tiny face—a face not much larger than a silver dollar.
“Do you think she’ll die?” 10-year-old Rex asked. Bonita, the large red dog, stood beside him, her long tongue hanging out of her open mouth.
Amanda noted the anxiety in her nephew’s voice. She didn’t answer at first. Born almost two months early, the baby had been quite small and barely strong enough to suckle. Tufts of dark hair now sprang from the top of her little head like scraggly sprouts. Her tiny limbs appeared so fragile that Amanda was reluctant to carry the infant without first placing her on a pillow. Ella hadn’t even bothered to name the child yet. When Rex started calling the baby Minnie, Amanda did too. After all, the tiny girl was no bigger than a minute, Gil Gladney had declared the first time he’d seen her.
With a heavy sigh, Amanda shoved thoughts of the handsome schoolteacher, out of her mind and filled the medicine dropper with warm milk. She couldn’t afford to indulge in romantic daydreams. Not this busy September morning. Perhaps not ever.
“Aunt Mandy, is she going to die?” Rex repeated.
“Not if I can help it,” Amanda replied. She gently pressed the tip of the medicine dropper into the baby’s small rosebud mouth. Minnie puckered a bit, trying to suck. Small and feeble, the infant made frail, pitiful sounds like a mewling kitten.
“How is Mama this morning?” Rex asked.
“As well as can be expected,” Amanda replied, shrugging. Glancing at him, she noted the anxiety etched on his young face. Her heart ached for him. He’d endured a lot of grief for one so young. “Your mother is sick in her heart and in her mind. It takes a lot of time to heal in those places.”
She did wish Ella would make more of an effort though. Sometimes she had to resist the urge to go in there and shake some sense into her younger sister. Of course, she’d never tell Rex that. Changing the subject, she asked, “Did you feed the chickens?”
“That’s all I ever do--take care of those stupid chickens!” he snapped.
“Watch your tone with me, young man!” Amanda warned.
Rex sighed. “Yes, ma’am. I didn’t mean nothing by it. I fed the chickens and filled the pans with fresh water too.”
“Anything, you didn’t mean anything by it,” she said, correcting his grammar.
He shrugged a shoulder. “ I spend so much time out there, I should move my cot into the chicken house.” With another shrug, he added, “Ozzie Lancaster calls me Chicken Boy.”
Amanda bit her lip and tried not to laugh. She loved her nephew. With his sandy colored hair and freckles, he looked a lot like Ella. Her sister would never be able to disown the boy. He was her spitting image. “Well, now, eat your breakfast and don’t worry about Ozzie Lancaster. He’s not the brightest spool of thread in the sewing basket, that’s for certain,” she told him. He wasn’t. “Your mama is proud of you and how you’ve pitched in around here since your daddy died. It hasn’t been easy, I know.”
When Rex raised one pale eyebrow and looked at her doubtfully, Amanda added, “Your mama knows more about what’s going on around here than you realize. I’m proud of you too, Rex. You’ve taken on the responsibilities of a grown man. Now eat.” She shoved the plate of fresh biscuits toward him.
She watched the boy’s face flush with pleasure and felt a little ashamed of herself for not praising him more often. He was a good boy. He really was. But Amanda rarely received
compliments these days, and so she seldom felt inclined to hand them out to others. She was a spinster who’d spent most of her adult life caring for one ailing parent after another. And now she was taking care of her newly widowed sister and two fatherless children—one who might die any day. She was twenty-seven years old, going on twenty-eight. Some days she felt twice that age. She feared the best part of her life was over. She’d survived one disappointment after another. It was all she could do not to nurse her bitter feelings. She tried to count her blessings each night before going to bed, but it was getting harder to do.
Watching Rex tackle his scrambled eggs, Amanda wished there was fresh milk for him to
drink, but he’d have to settle for watered down coffee. At least it was hot. She poured some into
his cup. There was no money for fresh milk now—not since Rex’s father had died after
accidentally falling from Joe Ulibarri’s barn roof. There was just enough to buy the tinned kind
for Minnie. She saw him take a swallow and grimace. On Sundays, they drank the weak coffee
with sugar. But today was not Sunday. It was Saturday. But it was a special day-- sort of.
“Go ahead and add some sugar, if you want,” Amanda encouraged him.
Rex’s freckled face lit up as he quickly reached for the sugar tin. “It’s going to be an
exciting day, isn’t it, Aunt Mandy?” he declared. “Almost as exciting as the rodeo or county
“No more dawdling. Eat,” Amanda replied crisply. She tried not to think of the
adventure ahead. Exciting? She couldn’t say, but it was certainly going to be out of the
ordinary. So why was she looking forward to the outing and yet dreading it too?
“I read this book called The Conquest of Mexico,” Rex went on. “Mr. Gladney loaned it to me. It’s all about the Aztecs and their King Montezuma and Captain Cortez and a beautiful lady named Marina. Mr. Gladney says the Aztecs didn’t build the old ruins, but he says the first settlers thought so and that’s why they named the place after them. Mr. Gladney knows a lot about archeology. His best friend is an archeologist.”
When Amanda raised her eyebrows, Rex explained. “He says archeology is the scientific study of old artifacts and stuff from ancient cultures. That means pottery and skeletons and such.”
“Eat,” she said. “He’ll be here soon and you haven’t finished your breakfast yet.” She
picked up the baby—roasting pan and all—and swished into the other room to change Minnie’s
diaper. She knew Rex had been looking forward to this particular Saturday for weeks, ever since
Mr. Gladney had announced that he would be willing to take interested boys and girls to explore
the old Indian ruins along the Animas River. A field trip, he called it.
Like most of the other people living in the small New Mexico town, Amanda knew the
ruins existed, but she didn’t think about them much. After all, there was laundry to wash and her
ailing sister to look after and little Minnie to care for and eggs to collect and sell and the small
garden to tend. Why should she concern herself with old deserted dwellings, home now to
nothing but lizards and spiders?
When Rex told her about his teacher’s eager fascination with the old Indian settlement,
Amanda had imagined all too well how Gil Gladney’s blue eyes must have lit up. Eyes as
blue as the New Mexico sky. Rex adored Mr. Gladney, she knew. Her nephew wanted to be a
teacher too when he grew up. He loved school and reading books. While most other boys his age
would rather go hunting or fishing, Rex loved studying history and geography. He hoped to go to
college one day. He even prayed about it. Amanda didn’t see how it would be possible, but she
wasn’t going to say so and ruin his dreams. Rex was a good boy. So when he asked her to come
along, to be a chaperone for the girl students, she’d said yes.
Her cheeks flamed now, reflecting upon her foolishness. Then she heard Bonita
bark, and her cheeks grew even hotter. He was here! Her fingers fumbled with Minnie’s small
diaper—squares of white flannel no bigger than a woman’s handkerchief. Amanda heard voices
in the kitchen—Rex’s and a woman’s. She relaxed a little and gently returned the baby to her
roasting pan, tucking the blankets around her small body. Smoothing her own skirt and wavy
dark hair, Amanda picked up the pan and returned to the kitchen.
“Good morning, Senora Martinez. Thank you for coming,” she said, noting with pleasure
the basket of fresh sopapillas on the kitchen table and a jar of honey.
“I am happy to help,” the older woman replied. Short, plump and middle aged,
Dolores Martinez was the mother of six grown children and more than a dozen grandchildren.
She had proven to be a good neighbor many times in the past several months. “Let me have the
baby,” she insisted, taking the roasting pan. “Pobrecita, poor little thing,” she cooed, looking
down at Minnie. “She is small, but muy bonita, no?”
“Yes, she’s a pretty little thing,” Amanda agreed.
“Hmmm, the sopapillas are still warm!” Rex exclaimed. He helped himself to one of the pillowy triangles of fried dough and drizzled it with a spoonful of honey.
“Mind your manners and be sure to water the senora’s horse,” Amanda reminded him, peering out the window at the horse tied to the porch railing.
“Thanks, Mrs. Martinez,” Rex mumbled, his mouth full. He darted out the door to do as he’d been told.
Amanda whisked his plate from the table and placed it on the floor. As usual, Rex had left a bit of egg and some biscuit crumbs for the dog. “Here, girl,” she said, patting Bonita’s dark velvety head. The animal was looking healthier every day, despite the broken tail and the sore patch on her back where someone had scalded her with something hot. Miserable and apparently homeless, the pitiful creature had shown up one day on the farm. Rex had adopted her with fierce affection. Amanda dreaded the day that someone would turn up to claim the dog. She feared Rex wouldn’t be able to handle the loss so soon after the death of his father.
“How is the mamacita today?” Dolores Martinez asked.
Amanda feigned a cheerful smile. “Much the same,” she replied. She led the way to the bedroom and quietly pushed open the door. Standing in the doorway, she glanced in at her sister lying in the bed. Ella’s long pale braids looked like skinny lengths of rope draped over each shoulder. Her dark eyes were open, but she didn’t appear to see anything, nor did she look in their direction as they entered the room. While Dolores made a tsk-tsk sound and muttered something in Spanish, Amanda made her way to her sister’s bed and sat down on the edge. She picked up one of Ella’s pale limp hands and held it between her own strong, rosy ones. She felt a surge of conflicting emotion—both pity and impatience.
“Ella, Senora Martinez has come to sit with you,” she announced. “Remember, I told you I’d be going on a school trip with Rex this morning. The teacher is taking some of the pupils out to explore the old Indian ruins down by the river.”
Amanda looked for any sign of understanding on her sister’s blank face. There wasn’t one.
“It is a puzzle, this illness of your sister’s,” Dolores said.
Amanda nodded. She didn’t understand it at all. When Doctor Morgan had come to help deliver the premature baby, Ella had neither spoken nor cried out in pain. She moaned a little and whimpered. That’s all. Afterwards, she wouldn’t talk or even eat. She wouldn’t even hold her newborn daughter.
“Doc Morgan says there’s nothing wrong with her--nothing physical anyhow,” Amanda said. “She’s as healthy as a horse, but she’s lost the will to live. She didn’t have much time to get over her husband’s death, and then the baby came too early. I guess she’s got a broken heart, and the doctor has no cure for that.”
“Es una vergüenza—it is a shame,” Dolores admitted. “You must be strong enough for
the both of you for a little while longer.”
But how much longer, Amanda wondered? She didn’t really understand her sister’s behavior at all. Ella was alive. She had two children and a home of her own and a sizable chicken farm. Wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t that enough motivation to quit feeling sorry for herself and get up out of bed? Amanda recalled the doctor’s hard words now as she looked down upon the pale face and gently touched one of the long braids. Ella’s eyes were so dull and lifeless.
Just then Bonita padded into the room. The dog hoisted her paws up on the bed and wagged her tail. Amanda grinned. “See, Ella, even Bonita wishes you were well.” She stroked the dog’s silky, lopsided ears. She knew Rex was probably hovering outside the door and keeping an eye out for Gil Gladney’s buckboard. Usually, she made the boy come in first thing to say good morning to his mother. But she knew it was hard for him to see her this way. He was always eager to leave the dark, disheartening room that smelled of medicine and despair.
“Amanda, you go get ready for your outing,” Dolores said, placing a hand on her shoulder. “I will take care of your sister and her bebe. You are not to worry. Enjoy yourself.”
“Thank you,” Amanda said, rising from the bed. “I appreciate your kindness.”
The older woman shrugged a plump shoulder. “It is nothing. I want you to have a good
time—a picnic with the so-charming schoolteacher.” She rolled her dark eyes suggestively
and arched her thick eyebrows. “Alto moreno y muy guapo—tall, dark and very handsome!”
Amanda chuckled. “Don’t forget we’ll have Rex and a dozen other school
children to keep us company.”
Dolores laughed too and shooed her out of the room. Feeling more lighthearted than she
had earlier that morning, Amanda hurried to her own room and studied her features in the mirror.
Her cheeks were flushed with anticipation. Her brown eyes glowed. She examined the Spanish
curls she’d flattened against her temples earlier that morning. Recalling that some women
dubbed them beau catchers, she reached for her brush and swept them away with a few impatient
strokes. She wouldn’t want Dolores Martinez or anyone else to think she’d set her cap—and her
heart--on winning Gil Gladney.
She had just finish pinning a brooch to her crisp shirtwaist blouse and smoothing her
gored skirt when she heard Rex call out, “Aunt Mandy, he’s here!”
Her heart lurched. She chastised herself severely for such foolishness and risked
one last look in the mirror as she donned her best straw hat—one with a wide brim to keep the
sun out of her eyes. Trimmed with blue and green plaid ribbon, the hat looked rather festive, she
thought as she secured the hat pin with fingers that trembled ever so slightly.
She made her way to the kitchen, where Bonita barked a welcome at the newcomer
standing on the front porch. Rex had apparently left the dog inside in his eagerness to run out the
door to greet Gil Gladney. Amanda felt a tug of guilt when she heard Minnie’s feeble cry from
the other room, but Dolores bustled in then and picked up the bowl of hardboiled eggs Amanda
had prepared the night before.
“Go,” the older woman urged, thrusting the bowl toward her. “And do not worry.”
Amanda nodded, taking the bowl and swiping a small Mason jar filled with salt from the
kitchen table too. As she opened the door, the dog swept past her with an eager swish of her tail.
Gil Gladney stood on the porch talking with Rex. He’d removed his hat, and his black hair
glinted in the sunlight like a raven’s wing. Even in scuffed boots and worn trousers, Gil
Gladney was the most attractive man she’d ever met. Dolores was right—he was tall, dark and
handsome. Very handsome.
She looked past him to the four youngsters already sitting in the back of the buckboard—
little Sammy Cordova, who grinned, revealing missing front teeth; the Schwarzkopf twins,
Gertrude and Greta, with their long twiggy braids, the color of old straw, and Jerry Snow, a boy
flecked with freckles and red hair nearly as dark as Bonita’s coat. Jerry was Rex’s best friend.
She smiled and nodded at him before returning her attention to the good-looking schoolteacher.
“Miss Dale, you’re as pretty as a picture this morning,” Gil greeted her. He smiled then,
revealing fine white teeth. The deep lines around his eyes crinkled—such blue, blue eyes,
Amanda noted. The look of unfeigned admiration she saw there both pleased and flustered her.
“Good morning to you, Mr. Gladney. A fine day for a school outing,” she observed.
“Yes, the weather’s fine,” was all he could reply before Rex began pleading to take the
“Please, Mr. Gladney, can Bonita come too? She won’t be any trouble. She’s a good
Hearing the hopefulness in her nephew’s voice, Amanda said a silent prayer—and not for the first time--that whoever originally owned the dog would never show up to claim her.
Gil Gladney didn’t hesitate. “Sure, why not? Have her climb up into the back of the wagon.” Turning to Amanda, he took the bowl of eggs from her and the jar of salt and handed them over to Gertrude place in the back of the wagon. Then he offered Amanda his hand to assist her into the front seat of the buckboard.
“I’ve always liked dogs,” he told her. “They have a peculiar sense of humor all their own. And most of them are more pleasant to be around than lots of people I know,” he said with a chuckle.
Amanda’s lips twitched. She thought he had a peculiar sense of humor himself. “Rex loves that dog,” she told him after he’d settled Rex and Bonita in the back and joined her on the seat. “She wasn’t much to look at when he first found her, homeless and miserable. She was thin and rickety looking, and as you can see, her tail is broken and sticks out to one side. The sore patch on her back is finally beginning to heal. I think someone might have scalded her with something hot.”
“Who named her Bonita? That means pretty one in Spanish, doesn’t it?” Gil asked,
reaching for the reins.
“Rex did,” she replied.
Gil’s eyebrows shot up. He grinned slowly. “That boy’s quite an optimist.”
Amanda laughed. It was going to be a lovely day, and now that she was away from the house and her responsibilities there, she planned to enjoy it. September was one of her favorite months of the year. The sun was just warm enough to be pleasant. Wild purple asters and golden chamisa dotted the landscape reminding her of a yellow and lavender quilt she’d had as a child. Rex and the other youngsters chattered happily in the back of the wagon, with Bonita the center of good-natured attention.
“How’s your sister,” Gil asked then. “And the baby?”
At first, Amanda didn’t reply. She could feel her cheeks flush with resentment. She didn’t want to talk about Ella and Minnie. Not today. Not with Gil Gladney. Reluctantly, she replied, “As well as can be expected.” Before he could pursue the topic further, she changed the subject. “Any new students in the school this year?”
“Yes, a few. Most of them boys Rex’s age or older,” Gil replied, giving her a sidelong glance. “There’s a new little girl too. Just barely six. Her name is Brunhilde Bergschneider. Her father just bought the livery in town.”
“What a big name for a little girl!” Amanda exclaimed.
“The kids call her Bunny,” he told her, with a grin.
“You love it, don’t you? Teaching I mean?”
He nodded. “I do.”
“Did you always want to be a teacher?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s an honorable calling. Helping to form the mind and manners of child is about one of the most important jobs there is. Introducing them to literature, history, science and the Bible so that one day they will be good and useful citizens—it’s a big responsibility, don’t you agree?”
“I do,” Amanda replied, moved by his obvious dedication.
“Mr. Noah Webster—he wrote the dictionary-- defines education as that which furnishes a child with principles, knowledge, training and discipline,” he went on. “But most teaching positions don’t pay much, so I’ve moved around a lot. I’d like to settle here though—in Aztec or Farmington. I hope to raise horses one day too, as well as teach, ” Gil replied. “I’m saving up to buy a place of my own—a ranch. One of these days,” he added, with a self-conscience shrug.
Amanda swallowed hard and nodded. She knew what it was like to have those sort of dreams—the one-of-these-days kind. She knew he lived in two small rooms attached to the back of the schoolhouse. She also knew that the teacher’s salary wasn’t much. Doc Morgan had told her, and he was on the school board. But Gil Gladney did earn twice as much as Miss Weston and Miss Platz, who had been the town’s two previous schoolteachers. Amanda was happy for him, of course, but it didn’t seem right somehow that the female teachers hadn’t earned as much. How long, she wondered, would it take Gil to save up enough money to buy a ranch?
* * * * *
On the brief journey to the ruins of the old Indian settlement, barely four miles away on
the banks of the Animas River, Gil quickly noticed when Amanda fell into a distracted silence. He asked her if the chickens were thriving, and her only reply was a brief nod. He wondered if her sister and the premature infant were not doing as well as she’d let on. Perhaps she was really more worried about the state of their health than she cared to admit. He silently chastised himself for bringing her along as a chaperone for the female pupils. He’d assumed—more fool he!—that Amanda Dale had offered to come along. He realized now that Rex had probably volunteered her services. She’d felt obligated to come, no doubt. But she had looked willing, even eager, when she’d stepped out onto the porch, wearing that fetching straw hat and holding the bowl of hardboiled eggs.
His heart had jolted at the sight of her. He wasn’t quite sure if that reaction was caused by nervous tension or delight. He couldn’t afford to think about it for too long. He studied Amanda from the corner of his eye. She sat straight and rigid on the hard seat beside him. Her dark eyes, with those impossibly thick lashes, were fixed on something in the distance. Her cheeks were a deep pink color—from the heat of the day or embarrassment, he couldn’t say. Maybe that was it. He’d embarrassed her talking so frankly about his passion for teaching and his plans to breed horses one day. Perhaps he’d been too bold, too open. Gil clenched his jaw and berated himself for being more than one kind of fool.
The awkward silence between them was fortunately interrupted by a flood of questions from Jerry Snow in the back of the buckboard. “Do you think we’ll find gold or silver, Mr. Gladney? What about Spanish treasure? Or maybe some dead bodies wrapped up like mummies?”
The Schwarzkopf sisters made a disgusted, “Eeeewwwwweeeee!” sound.
As Gil turned slightly to answer his student’s excited inquiry, he noticed Amanda looking at him with an amused expression on her face. Her brown eyes danced with laughter. He knew she was enjoying his predicament. He grinned at her. She smiled back.
“Jerry, I’ve told you before that this settlement is not an ancient Aztec city. I doubt there will be any gold or silver, and I’m certain there won’t be any mummies,” he called back over his shoulder. The boys in his class had gone crazy over mummies ever since he’d shared with them a newspaper article about archeologist Wallis Budge and the excavations he’d been doing in Egypt on behalf of the British Museum.
“But what about S…Spanish treasure?” Sammy Cordova asked, his missing front teeth causing him to lisp.
“No Spanish treasure either,” Gil replied.
“But my father, he tell me that Jesuit priests had gold mines all over New Mexico,” the boy insisted.
“Yeah, and they didn’t tell the Spanish king about the mines because they wanted to keep the gold and silver for themselves,” Jerry added.
“Perhaps the treasure is all gone now,” Greta spoke up.
“Not if the Black Robes didn’t return for it,” Rex said.
“I’ve told you already that this isn’t an Aztec city nor the remains of a Jesuit mission,” Gil repeated firmly. “I realize that you have all grown up with the legends of Cibola—the Seven Cities of Gold—and the long lost mines found by the conquistadors, but these ruins are far more ancient than all of those stories.”
At that moment, the ruins themselves came into view. Located on the western lip of the river, the old settlement, with its the sandstone masonry walls—some several stories high—was an intriguing sight against the pale, bleached sand hills, sparsely covered with sage and saltbush.
Although he wouldn’t have admitted it to his students, Gil thought ruins were romantic—like the old stories of knights and dragons he’d so enjoyed as a boy.
“It’s an old ghost town,” Amanda observed. “Sad and forlorn.”
“Haven’t you been here before?” Gil asked her.
She shook her head. He noted how the blue bead on the head of her hat pin glinted in the sun.
“Folks from town come out here all the time for picnics and to explore the ruins, just like we’re doing today,” he said.
“Mr. Gladney, do you think it’s haunted?” Gertrude asked.
“No “ he replied promptly.
“Miss Dale, do you think it is?” the girl pressed.
Gil looked at Amanda. Her lips were slightly pursed. She was trying not to laugh. He watched as she turned around to look at the children in the back of the wagon. She answered calmly, “No, of course not.”
He thanked her with a wink, which caused her to blush prettily and look away toward the lazy, trickling river. Four his other students—all boys—had already arrived and tethered their horses. They waved. Gil waved back.
“I hope there aren’t any bats or rats,” Greta spoke up as Gil maneuvered the wagon toward the nearest shade tree.
“Or snakes,” her sister added.
“I’ll bet there are lots of rattlesnakes,” Jerry piped up. Gil couldn’t help noting the enthusiasm in his voice. “One might bite you on the ankle, Greta, and then your tongue will swell up so big that it won’t fit in your mouth, and your face will turn purple and black and you’ll die!”
The sisters squealed with terror, while the boys laughed raucously.
“That’s enough, boys,” Gil warned. As he reined in the horse and climbed down from the buckboard, he was thankful--more than ever--that Amanda had agreed to come along to watch over the girls.
The youngsters scrambled out of the back of the wagon and raced toward the rubble to greet their classmates, Bonita dogging Rex’s heels. Gil helped Amanda alight and asked matter-of-factly, “Are you ready for an adventure?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be, I reckon,” she replied. Her dazzling smile nearly took his breath away. Gil glanced over at his students and forced himself to think about archeology. He was here today to instruct his pupils in the scientific study of artifacts and other material evidence of ancient culture, not to allow himself to be smitten—any further--by Amanda Dale.
“Ozzie, Jerry, Rex—help me with the equipment,” he ordered. As the boys hastened forward to lend a hand, Gil retrieved spades, a hatchet and a few other assorted tools for the small group of young explorers to use. After giving them a brief history lesson and digging instructions, Gil turned them lose to poke about in the dirt and debris near the jagged masonry walls.
No doubt a professional archeologist would be horrified by his disregard for the old Indian site. But many of the structures had already been damaged from years of rain and snow pooling on the roofs, slowly rotting the wooden slats and beams, which had crashed, carrying chunks of the wall masonry with them. Peering down into the collapsed chambers choked with centuries of rubble, Gil figured his students couldn’t do any serious damage with their spades and trowels.
He noticed that Rex had moved away from the other students, selecting a section near a collapsed wall to explore on his own. The boy was down on his knees, scraping at the hardened earth with the tip of the spade. Bonita sat in the shade, watching the boy’s every move.
“Want some help?” Gil asked.
“Sure!” Rex replied, moving over to make room for him.
Gil liked Rex Stewart. He was a bright pupil, always eager to learn. It was a shame that his father had died, leaving the boy to shoulder the responsibility of a sick mother and ailing baby sister. Sometimes Gil didn’t know who he felt sorry for most—Rex or his pretty aunt.
The two worked together in companionable silence. Occasionally, Gil glanced over at Amanda. She efficiently supervised Greta and Gertrude, who seemed more interested in picking wild flowers in the rubble than exploring the ruins. When he and Rex had dug nearly four feet down, they uncovered a row of pine log roof beams that seemed to make up a ceiling of some sort. Using the hatchet to chop through the brittle mass, Gil made an opening large enough to peer through.
“Look, Rex! There’s a chamber below.” He sat back on his heels and looked around.
“We’re on the roof, I think.”
“We’ve found something!” Rex hollered out. The other boys, abandoning their own efforts, dashed over to join them. Amanda came too, gently herding the blonde sisters in front of her like pinafored sheep.
“Is it a dungeon?” the Hurtado boy asked hopefully.
“Any bats or rattlers down there?” Jerry asked. He grinned wickedly at the Schwarzkopf sisters.
Gil fell to his hands and knees. “I can’t see anything,” he told them. “It’s too dark.
I’m going down. Give me that rope and a candle,” he ordered. Making a few more chops and slashes to enlarge the hole, Gil secured one end of the robe to a nearby scrub oak and shoved a candle into his jacket pocket. He then lowered himself down into the black cavity.
“I’m coming with you, Mr. Gladney,” Rex declared.
“All right, but bring a candle down with you,” Gil called up to him. He heard the boy order the whimpering dog to “stay” and watched as Rex inched his way over the side of the hole into the chamber before inching his way over the side and down into the hole.
“It smells down here,” Rex said, wrinkling his nose.
“It is pretty musty,” Gil agreed, striking a match on the bottom of boot. He lit his candle and then Rex’s.
“Can we come down too, Mr. Gladney?” one of the other boys called down.
“Me too?” Jerry hollered.
Wiping his hands on the seat of his britches, Gil looked through the hole at the ring of boyish faces peering down at him. “Okay, you can all come if you want to, but one at a time down the rope.” The descent was only about eight or nine feet. Each boy took their time down the rope and then lit their candle from Rex’s already flickering one. When the last boy had made his descent, Gil looked up and saw Amanda and the two girls peering down at them.
“Greta, Gertrude, you can come next, if you want,” Gil said.
“Do we have to, Mr. Gladney?” Greta whined.
“I’ll stay up here with them,” Amanda offered.
“Are you sure?” he asked, wondering if she was really longing to come down into the chamber too.
“Aunt Mandy, there’s no treasure or gold or anything down here,” Rex called up to her. The boy’s voice was heavy with disappointment.
“And no old bones either,” Jerry lamented.
Gil ignored their disappointment and began prying stones from the wall to allow them access to what he hoped was an adjacent chamber. Rex and Jerry lent a helping hand. Soon the other boys were pulling at stones too, until there was a clear entrance into the next chamber. One by one, following his lead, the boys stepped inside. Their candles flickered wildly. Then they blinked out. Young Michael squeaked with distress. The heavy darkness hung around them like thick curtains.
“There’s not enough oxygen in this interior chamber to keep our candles lit, that’s all,” Gil explained matter-of-factly. “There’s nothing to worry about.” Taking one or two slow steps backwards, he returned to the first chamber, took another match from the box in his pocket and relit his candle. The boys pushed forward, eager to relight their own. Once all the candles were burning again, Gil led his young explorers back into the second chamber. This time, there was enough air coming in through the breach in the wall to keep the flames burning.
“Looks like a pile of rubbish to me,” Jerry remarked as he held his candle high and peered into one gloomy corner.
As Gil glanced upwards toward the ceiling, Rex and Jerry took tentative steps in the direction of the farthest corner. Behind them, Michael shrieked with fright and Jerry, gasping, dropped his candle.
“J...j...jumping Jehosophat!” Rex stammered. “Look at that!”
Gil stared at the seated skeleton in the corner. “Boys, just look!” he exclaimed, thrilled with the discovery.
“Is everybody okay?” he heard Amanda calling down to them.
“We’re fine!” he called back. “The boys have found some remains.”
Gil ventured forward to study the skeleton. His heart pounded with excitement. This was more than he had hoped for. The body’s flesh had disappeared long ago, but the bones and dried
ligaments held the skeleton in its seated position. The empty eye sockets seemed particularly gruesome. Out of the corner of his eye, he noted Michael crossing himself and then ducking out of the chamber.
“I’m getting out,” the boy declared, making for the rope.
“Anyone who wants to leave, can leave,” Gil told them. He didn’t care if all the youngsters scampered back up the rope. Amanda would keep an eye on them, he knew. Rex, however, remained close to his side. He could hear the boy’s heavy breathing. He knew Rex was as thrilled as he was.
“Mr. Gladney, over here. Look!” His voice was hoarse with excitement.
Gil turned, holding his candle high. “Another skeleton!” he exclaimed. This one was lying on the floor with its knees drawn up to its chest and tied with some sort of fiber matting. Several fine pottery vessels and an amulet made of turquoise and abalone shell had been placed next to the corpse.
“I’ll bet he was a warrior...or a chief, maybe,” Rex conjectured.
Looking up, Gil noticed Jerry standing at the chamber’s rough entrance. The red-haired boy was gaping with disbelief. So, all of the students hadn’t abandoned him and Rex after all.
“What do you think, Jerry?” he asked. “Do you think Rex is right, that these might be the remains of a great chief?”
When Jerry only shrugged and shook his head, Gil glanced down at the second skeleton and declared, “I’ve got to write Phillips.” Turning to Rex, he explained, “He’s my friend, the archaeologist, the one I told you about. He’ll want to see this for himself.”
From somewhere above the half-buried chamber, Gil could hear Rex’s dog barking and the faint laughter of the other students.
“Your friend, Mr. Phillips, will he come here to dig for relics?” Rex asked.
“Oh, yes, I’m sure he’ll come,” Gil replied, rising to his feet and brushing the dirt off his trousers. Still clutching his candle in one hand, he clapped the other upon the boy’s shoulder. “Phillips may even bring in an excavation crew. What do you think about that?”
“That’s good, right?” Rex asked uncertainly.
Gil laughed. “Yes, it’s good.” Even if Nate Phillips did bring a crew to excavate the ruins, he’d still hire local men to do some of the heavier digging and hauling of debris. Gil could work on the site after school was dismissed for the day and make some extra money to put toward that ranch he’d told Amanda Dale about. He laughed again, for no particular reason. Picking up one of the pots and the amulet, Gil handed them to Jerry and Rex. “We’ll take these with us,” he told them.
“Are we going to take HIM too?” Rex asked, pointing to the skeleton.
Gil shook his head. “No, just what you’ve got there and this,” he added, indicating a basket he’d discovered in the corner. “We’ll put them on display in the classroom, along with the other artifacts that have been discovered today. Now, c’mon, boys! I’m hungry. Let’s eat.”