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People of the River
"Hell, I don't know," old man Mac Jameson grumbled as he steered the John Deere tractor onto the dirt road that led through the center of his barley field. The warm breeze fanned the stalks until they waved like a blanket of gold. Illinois was mighty pretty at this time of year, but hot. Hotter than Hades today. Sweat had matted his faded red shirt and well-worn jeans to his arms and legs. At the age of seventy-five, he still had a whip-thin body, though his muscles had mostly evaporated over the years. He wiped the back of a dusty hand over his sweating forehead to push the wisps of gray hair back from his deep-set brown eyes."Bunch of goddamn government people called me up to talk about something they call a National Register of Historic Places district. That don't mean nothing to me. Does it mean something to you? You're the one who's always going out hunting arrowheads and posts." He twisted around to peer at his son-in-law.
Jimmy clung to the seat of the tractor as it bounced over thedeeply rutted road. About forty, he had a face like a Pekingese, squashed and ugly, with a mop of red hair that hung over his ears. He cocked his head. "No, I ain't never heard of no National Register, but if it's historic sites they're after, they must be coming to see that mound you got at the southeastern corner of the farm."
"What for?" Mac demanded, irritated. He didn't have time for any government bullshit. The harvesters would be coming in tonight to start cutting his barley. God Almighty, he had things to do!
"Who knows?" Jimmy shouted over the growl of the tractor. "Maybe some archaeologist wants to dig it up or something."
"Dig it up? Why?"
"Jesus Christ, Pa! You live damn near on top of Cahokia mounds, that's why."
Mac said gruffly, "What the hell is a Cahokia?"
Jimmy shook his head, which rankled Mac. The damn boy had been in trouble for practically his whole life--stealing, or smacking folks with tire irons--and now he could shake his head like that at his father-in-law? He damn well ought to knock Jimmy off this old John Deere and go on about his business.
"Pa, Cahokia's the biggest mound site in America ... maybe in the world. They call it a 'World Heritage Site,' I guess it probably is the biggest in the world. A hell of a lot of Indians lived there maybe a thousand years ago."
"Indians!" Mac scoffed. "What have they got to do with this?"
"I don't know, but the tribes have been raising seven kinds of hell in recent years. I heard they even forced a bunch of museums to give back some broken-up bones 'cause they said the bones was from their ancestors." Jimmy chuckled disdainfully. "Can you believe that? They fought for a bunch of bones?"
Mac's eyes darted over the rolling swells of land while hementally cataloged all of the graves that dotted this quarter section. Up on the rise stood two lonely crosses, tilted sideways now after a hundred years of rain and wind, marking grandparents who had passed on from smallpox. And scattered irregularly along the edges of the fields lay tiny mounds of earth--the resting places of babies who had died for no good reason at all. Every year Mac and his wife Marjorie went out and set the border stones straight again to prevent some field hand from running over them with his plow.
He peered hostilely at Jimmy. "You think those government people want something out of that mound? I won't have no painted-up buck on my land. Good white folks had enough trouble with them over fishing rights up north. Hell, the Indians think they own the whole world. Well, they don't own my farm! My family's been plowing this hundred and sixty acres for two hundred years!"
"Now, don't get pissed off, Pa. Not yet." Jimmy tried to smooth him down. "Them government people probably just want to ask you some questions. You know, stuff like what kind of arrowheads you been pulling up under your disk, or if you've ever hit any human bones or the like."
Had he ever hit bones? Mac's chest tightened. Why, every time he evened up the border at the base of that mound, he hit bones. He figured they were deer bones, but they might have been human. How would he know?
"You know how it is, Pa," Jimmy continued in that annoying voice meant to comfort. "Some archaeologist probably got a bunch of taxpayer dollars and decided your mound might be important or something. Don't worry about it. This is America. If you want to tell 'em to go shit themselves blue, you can do it, 'cause this is your land."
Mac nodded sternly, but as he fought the wheel to guide the tractor up the last hill, his guts started to roil. What right did these government bureaucrats have to come and tell him what to do with his land? Well, Jimmy wasn't right about much, but he was right about this being America. By God,there were laws against trespassing, and if Mac didn't like what the bureaucrats had to say, he'd damn well throw 'em off his property.
By the time the tractor crested the hill, Mac had a knot in his stomach the size of that damned mound. They topped the crest, and the tractor launched down the other side toward the mound and the county road that skirted his farm. His eyes narrowed when he saw the State of Illinois Bronco sitting at the bottom next to what looked like ... hell, a federal truck? He scowled at the lettering on the side: Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Shit.
Mac jerked the wheel so hard in front of the mound that he nearly tipped the tractor over. It lunged sideways, and Jimmy yelled before it righted itself next to the state vehicle. Tan dust billowed around the two as they climbed off the tractor.
Mac tramped across the soft earth toward the Broncos, glaring out of the corners of his eyes at the mound that stood like a small mountain beside the road. Trees covered the top of the mound, their red, gold, and green leaves fluttering in the breeze. His family had been climbing that mound for years to have picnics. He'd watched his daughters roam the top in the springtime, gathering handfuls of flowers for their mother. Why, his own grandfather, Samuel Jenkins Jameson, had proposed to his Grandmother Lily up under the spreading limbs of that tallest poplar. And, yes, Mac had even buried a child up there. A girl of twenty. Killed in a damned car accident. Pain constricted around his old heart, and he wondered how that loss could still grieve him after thirty-five years. This mound represented his family history, not some damn Indian's who lived a thousand miles away.
Mac rounded the nose of the state Bronco, his hair prickling, and stopped dead in his tracks when a blond woman opened the door and jumped out. She carried a brown box under her left arm. "Mr. Jameson?" she called. "I'm Karen Steiger, archaeologist for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. You spoke to my colleague, Rick Williams, on the phone."
She walked forward with a warm smile that set Mac back some. And she was a pretty little thing, which made it worse. Thirty, maybe. She wore a lavender-and-tan plaid shirt with jeans and hiking boots. A mass of blond curls framed her oval face, highlighting her tanned complexion and turquoise-colored eyes. When Jimmy came up behind him, he could hear a low whistle escape his son-in-law's lips.
"Goddamn, Pa," Jimmy whispered eagerly. "Let me talk to this one. You take the Indian."
"What Ind--" Mac saw the tall man coming around the side of the federal Bronco. Indian all right. Tall and thin, but he had the moony red face of most of the tribes that loafed around these parts. He wore one of those off-green uniforms that federal employees loved as symbols of their authority.
Steiger strode up with her hand extended. "Thank you, Mr. Jameson, for agreeing to come out and talk to us." She nodded toward the Indian. "This is Dr. John Thecoel, chief archaeologist for the Office of the National Register of Historic Places. It's part of the Park Service."
Mac shook Steiger's slender fingers and nodded in the most courteous manner he could manage, then silently shook the Indian's hand.
"Mr. Jameson," the Indian said in a deep, cultured voice that sounded like he'd come from Boston or some other hole for liberal asses back east. "Thank you. You have a very important site here that we'd like to help you protect."
"Help me?" Mac squinted at the Indian. "I always get real nervous when people from the government say that to me, so why don't you hurry it up and tell me what you want? I've got harvesters coming in at dusk. I'd appreciate it if you'd be taking up as little of my time as possible."
Steiger nodded apologetically. "Yes, I'm sorry about the timing, Mr. Jameson. We know this is a busy month for farmers. Could you come over here, please?"
She stepped out, the Indian at her side, and headed for the southern edge of Mac's mound. He'd have to be squaring that up again. He hadn't been out here for a while, and a half-tonof dirt had sloughed off into a pile at the base. Odd, though. It must have happened recently, because the rich soil hadn't sprouted any grass yet.
Steiger knelt by the pile and rummaged in it for a moment before she came up with a fragment of shell that gleamed like molten ivory in the afternoon sun. She rose and handed it to Mac. He turned the small object over and over in his hand, studying the beautiful designs that had been carved into it. Looked like some kind of stylized spider, he thought.
"That's part of a gorget, Mr. Jameson. A necklace," Steiger explained. "The Mississippian people who lived here in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries imported that shell all the way from the Gulf Coast so they could engrave it and wear it as jewelry."
Mac shrugged. "Mississippian? Is that Indian?"
"Yes, sir," the Indian responded matter-of-factly. "Classic Mississippian culture flourished in the American Bottom area from approximately A.D. 900 to A.D. 1350. It was an extremely advanced culture, with trade routes that spanned the country. We think--"
"Well, that's mighty fine," Mac interrupted, "but what are you interested in my mound for?"
Jimmy sneaked up behind him to eye the shell, and Mac noticed Steiger's brow lift in what he assumed to be a mixture of speculation and disdain. The Indian just looked on stoically.
"Let me see that, Pa." Jimmy grabbed the bit of shell to eyeball it carefully.
Steiger's blond curls flipped around her shoulders as she turned to point at the pile of dirt. "We came to know about your mound, Mr. Jameson, when we caught a thief stealing artifacts from another site on state land. He had an entire array of looted arrow points, celts, pots, and other artifacts at the time we apprehended him. In the process of the investigation, he admitted to plundering a number of sites on private land in this vicinity. He pinpointed yours on a map."
Mac straightened indignantly. "Are you telling me thatsome sonofabitch came out here to dig up my mound without my permission? Why, that's robbery!"
"What was his name?" Jimmy inquired with a practiced nonchalance. But his eyes had taken on a gleam. "The thief's name. What was it?"
Steiger responded, "Franklin Jessaby. Why? Do you know him?"
"Ah ..." Jimmy backpedaled, acting as guilty as Judas. "No. No, ma'am. I was just wondering, that was all."
The Indian's mouth pursed as he scrutinized the fresh pile of back dirt. "Yes, Mr. Jameson, it was robbery. America is one of the few countries in the world where antiquities can belong to individuals. Usually countries consider archaeological and historical sites to be national treasures, not private property to be destroyed or saved as the landowner sees fit. This mound does belong to you, and that's why we're here. We'd like to enlist your cooperation in protecting it." His voice had a hint of pleading, as though he took he damage done to the mound as a personal matter.
"What tribe are you?" Jimmy asked haughtily. "I bet you're Cherokee or something, ain't you?"
"No." The Indian shook his head. "My heritage is Natchez. That's one of the reasons I'm so interested in protecting sites like this one. The Natchez are probably the descendants of the Cahokians."
"Probably?" Jimmy taunted, and from the corner of his mouth he whispered to Mac, "Archaeologists. They can't decide about nothing."
Mac shoved Jimmy away so he could get some breathing room before he turned back to the archaeologists. "Well, I don't understand all this 'protection' talk. You mean you'd punish people for digging up my land?"
Steiger nodded. "Among other things ..."
She paused when a sixty-eight Chevy truck rattled by on the county road, honking, its occupants waving. Mac waved back, not knowing who they were, but in these parts, people did that--waved to you just because you were human. In thedistance, a curl of smoke rose from one of the plants in St. Louis. Mac studied it briefly, watching the gray spiral across the expanse of blue sky. Damn pollution got worse every year. Pretty soon there wouldn't be any farmland, and not just because farmers hung on the edge of starvation. All of the land would be taken up by industries and condominiums. He wondered what would happen to the mounds then.
Steiger began again. "Yes, if you allowed us to list your archaeological site as part of the National Register district that Dr. Thecoel is proposing for this region, we could prosecute anyone who vandalized this site--and do it under both state and federal laws for the preservation of antiquities."
"Mr. Jameson." The Indian squared his shoulders and straightened up to his full height. He towered over Mac and Jimmy. "We've selected a number of important mound sites that we would like to help protect. Right now we're attempting to gain landowner permission to include the sites in our district nomination--that's the paperwork we have to fill out. We can't list your site without your permission, sir."
Jimmy fidgeted like a toad leg frying in hot oil. "Wait a minute," he said. "What's my pa have to agree to if he goes for this nomination crap?"
Steiger bristled at the last word. She fixed Jimmy with a look that would have liquefied metal. Mac squelched his amusement when his son-in-law unconsciously took a step backward. That little woman might look frail, but Mac suspected that she could take on a grizzly and come out about even.
"I don't think we've been introduced," Steiger said stiffly to Jimmy as she extended her hand.
Jimmy shook it once and quickly withdrew, moving to stand halfway behind Mac. "I'm James Andrew Ortner. I work this farm with Mac."
Work? You mean you lay around on your fat ass while I work this farm! Mac scowled unpleasantly at his son-in-law. "What do I have to agree to, Miss Steiger?"
"Just keep doing what your family has been doing for generations. Don't plow up the mound. Don't build on it. Don't disturb it in any way. Just leave it as it is. That's all you have to agree to, and there might be some tax breaks in it for you if you do. Congress is debating the issue." Half under her breath, she hissed, "Like they do every year."
Steiger and the Indian seemed to be waiting breathlessly for Mac's answer. He fingered the gray stubble on his chin while he watched a gust of wind sweep over the mound and rustle through the trees. The sweet scent of ripe barley pervaded the air. "That's it?"
"Yes," the Indian said, and almost as a goodwill token, he turned to Steiger. "Karen, could I have that box, please?" She took it from beneath her arm and handed it over. The Indian opened it gently and lifted out a beautiful black pot bearing spiral designs around the shoulder. "This is yours, Mr. Jameson. We confiscated it from the thief who robbed your mound." He handed the artifact to Mac. "Please let us help you protect this site."
"Well, I ... I don't know," Mac hedged, not sure that he really understood all the government jargon. It sounded like they were offering to pay him, through a cut in taxes, for doing what his kin had been doing for centuries. And he knew for a fact that the government only took, it never gave. Some people might have accepted subsidies, but he never had. He knew that somewhere down the line, the conniving bureaucrats would figure out a way of getting it back fourfold. That was just the way the government worked. "Why don't you send me all the information and I'll talk to my wife and kids about it. This land'll be theirs one day, so they ought to have something to say in the decision."
The Indian nodded before extending his hand again. "Thank you for considering it seriously. We know you're busy, and we'll be going now. If you don't mind, could I call you next week?"
Mac nodded as he shook the agent's hand. "I guess thatwould be all right. Most of the crop should be in by then." For an Indian, Thecoel seemed all right.
"Thank you again, sir." The Indian nodded with extreme politeness to Jimmy before he walked away, back to his Bronco.
Steiger took Mac's hand in a strong grip, but her eyes went to Jimmy, sharp, alert, though she spoke casually. "Mr. Jameson, just so you'll know, Jessaby implicated a number of other people in his crimes. We've no evidence against them yet, but if we get any, we'll certainly inform you. We believe that you have a right to know the names of the people who have stolen your property and plundered part of the heritage of all Americans." Her eyes tightened when Jimmy gave her a broad, macho grin. She said, "We'll be in touch, Mr. Jameson. Good day to you," before she walked back to her Bronco.
"Hey!" Jimmy shouted as he half-ran after her. "Wait a minute. What kind of pot is that? The one you gave my pa."
Steiger propped her hands on her hips as though reluctant to say. "We call it Ramey incised ware."
Jimmy's mouth gaped, but he quickly closed it. He waited until the two government vehicles rolled out onto the county road, plumes of dust following in their wake, before he reached out and ripped the pot from Mac's hands.
"Good God Almighty, Pa," he breathed as he stared unblinking at the black pot. "A Ramey pot! They made these special at Cahokia. Traded 'em all over kingdom come. We can get forty thousand dollars apiece for these in Japan! Holy Christ." He rubbed a hand over his sunburned face. Sweat had matted red hair to his temples in greasy strands. "I can't believe it. Your ain't never gonna have to face no more hard times on the farm, Pa. Why, next week we'll bring the disk out and start taking that mound down inch by inch until we've found every one of these! We could be millionaires!"
Mac shifted uneasily. "But what about protecting our American heritage and all that?"
Jimmy's mouth puckered as though his father-in-law werestupid. "Come on, Pa! Don't you want to leave anything to your kids? This piece of sod ain't gonna be worth nothing in five or ten years. You know that! Why, what's a 'heritage' compared to a pretty dress for your daughter Janie? And how about a college education for little Matthew? Huh? James Junior could use a red Porsche, for God's sakes! He's almost sixteen. Come on, think!"
Jimmy slapped Mac on the shoulder so familiarly that it made the old man rear up like a mad bear. Mac jerked the pot back. "Boy, when I need your advice, I'll ask for it. And I don't! Get back to the north forty and wait for the harvesters to come in." When Jimmy stood there with his jaw clenched, staring at the pot like he was about to make a dive for it, Mac shoved him so hard that they both stumbled sideways. "Get moving, goddamn it! I'll fire you right now, boy, even if you are my daughter's husband!"
Jimmy backed away, then spun and started stalking up the dirt road, but Mac could tell from the expression on his mad-dog face that the boy's thoughts had gone rough.
Mac sucked in a deep breath to steady himself as he watched Jimmy disappear over the crest of the hill. Little sonofabitch. I ought to disinherit him just because.
He quietly ambled over to the pile of dirt where the thieves had been digging. Carefully he made his way down into the hole they had carved out of the mound. "Forty thousand?" he murmured, giving the pot he cradled in one arm a quick glance. That's almost unbelievable. For an old Indian pot? Why would the Japanese care about old pots?
Laying the artifact aside, Mac sank down against the slope of the hole. He could see bits of shell and fragments of pots scattered everywhere in the back-dirt pile. He let his hand sink into the rich soil that his family had damned near worked itself to death over during the long years when prices soared and then plummeted. Mostly plummeted. He gripped the dirt in a tight fist and brought it up to his lips, kissing it gently. My farm. Mine and Marjorie's. Something poked out of the dirt, jabbing into his thumb.
Mac slowly uncurled his hand and squinted down at the tiny black wolf that gleamed in the sunlight. Made of polished stone, the shape had been smoothed over the centuries. It might have been a raven, but it looked more like a wolf. Then he glanced down at the place where he'd found the wolf, and his eyes narrowed. A rib marred the soil in a rounded arc. He rubbed his fingers over the area, revealing two more ribs, and a skull with a round hole in one side. Perfectly round. As if the hole had been deliberately drilled for some kind of brain surgery. He looked again at the stone wolf, still in his hand. It would have been resting just about over the heart--like the pendant of a necklace.
"Did you wear this, honey?" he asked softly, not knowing why he thought the skeleton belonged to a woman. Maybe it was just the delicacy of the bones, and maybe it was because he knew that this mound held his own daughter's body. A tingle shot out of the wolf and played over his fingertips. Mac tilted his head when the wind started to sound odd, like flutes lilting high and sweet, as if calling to him from a great distance.
He shook his head. Strange, the way sounds echoed down here close to the road. Gently, he put the stone wolf back in place between those narrow bars of ribs, then brushed the dirt over the skeleton, leaving her as she was before somebody tried to rob her grave.
Grave robbing. His jaw tightened.
He got to his feet, picked up the Ramey pot, and trudged up out of the hole, where he stood in the lengthening shadows cast by the trees on top of the mound. He let his eyes drift over the grassy contours of the slope, noting each bush and rock. Beautiful. It always had been. For as long as he could remember, that mound had provided the only shade for miles. And Jimmy boy wants to disk you down, old gal. Well ...
Mac tipped the Ramey pot sideways to get a good look at it. It almost glowed beneath the sun. He wondered how the Indians got it so black. Had it belonged to that dead woman?Might have. The robbers had taken it from pretty close to her grave.
His faded eyes drifted to the top of the mound, where his daughter lay. He tried to imagine how he would have felt if the thief had started digging at the top of the mound instead of at the bottom. Far back in his mind he could hear Marjorie crying--just as she had cried on that terrible day thirty-five years ago when they'd lain their Katherine Jean in that dark hole. Anger mixed with hatred, stinging his veins. Why, he'd have found the bastard that dug up his girl's grave, and he'd have been carrying his old thirty-thirty when he did. He turned and glanced uncomfortably at the Indian woman's grave.
"How'd you get that hole in your head, honey?" he found himself murmuring. "Didn't you have any folks to protect you? Where was your daddy when you needed him?"
Mac patted the John Deere affectionately before he fired her up and started lugging down the road for the house, the black pot snugged under his left arm. Hell, Jimmy could handle the harvesters. Mac wanted to go home. His old body felt suddenly too tired to work. And he knew that Marjorie would be waiting for him, waiting to welcome him home like she had for fifty-two years.
"Forty thousand dollars," he whispered as he shifted into third gear. The memory of those delicate ribs had imprinted itself on his very soul. Good Lord. That's two years' worth of work on this old farm. Well, hell ... maybe we could just disk down part of that mound. You know, just enough to find two or three more of these pots ...
Copyright © 1992 by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O'Neal Gear