At the edge of a pasture, where the grass was golden and where it stood high enough to stroke the tips of her fingers, Eugenia Potter heard and felt something crunch under her boots.
"Wait," she asked her companion.
She bent down to part the silky blond grass with her hands, prompting a memory of combing her daughters' long straight hair for them when they were young. In the narrow part she had opened up, down on the ground, something darker than dirt caught her eye. She picked up the object she had broken by inadvertently stepping on it.
"My word, it's pottery."
She glanced up at the rancher standing beside her.
He was seventy years old, tall as a door lintel and broad as the door that fit into it, with a face as lined, brown, and cracked as the bit of ceramic she cradled in her hands. From top to bottom he sported a cowboy hat made of tightly woven and polished straw, an indulgent smile, a white cotton shirt frayed at the collar, a monogrammed leather belt with a silver buckle as big as her hand, thick work jeans, and cowboy boots so worn, they looked as if he had put them on when he came of age and never took them off. A bit shabby around the edges from hard work and long bachelorhood, he didn't look much like the millions of dollars his neighboring ranch would sell for if he ever sold it--which he always swore he would not. He wanted more land, in fact, and specifically hers--Las Palomas ("The Doves"), which abutted his spread in the high Sonoran desert south of Tucson, Arizona. She knew that. And judging from the expression on his weathered face, he was not about to be deterred by a handful of shattered red and buff pottery.
"Why should you keep workin' so hard, Genia?"
His single-minded query completely overlooked the startled expression of joy in her blue eyes. Not that he wasn't aware of the eyes; at sixty-four, the widow now rising to her feet there in the clear hot September morning cut a fine figure in his estimation. He'd known her late husband, too, and in his opinion Lew Potter had been a fool to up and die on this lovely lady eleven years ago; if it had been him
married to her, instead, he'd of stuck around, that was sure, no early heart attack for him. He approved of the natural look of her, the graying blond hair caught up so prettily in a bun at the top of her head, and the softly tanned complexion with only a touch of lipstick and a bit of some sort of delicate gray color there at the eyelids. She was attired much as he was--boots, slacks, long-sleeved shirt, wide-brimmed hat--and he approved of that, too. In fact, he approved of nearly everything about Genia Potter except for her unaccountable inattention to the important things he had to say. He even approved of the mysterious way she didn't sweat. It was a puzzle to him how she managed to look so crisp and fresh in the middle of a dusty pasture of native grass and cactus, on a morning hot enough to stagger a cow.
Raising his voice, he pressed his case.
"You can lease the whole dang thing to me--land, cattle, and all--and then you can sit up there in your house and needlepoint some pretty little things and play with your grand babies. I'll do all the work, and you just count the money I hand you ever' month. I'll give you top dollar, Genia, you know I will--"
She interrupted him as if she weren't listening to a word he said.
"Ever since we bought this ranch, I have hoped to find something like this on my property. You can't imagine how much I have longed to find an arrowhead. A piece of an old pot. Some
thing to suggest that prehistoric Indians lived here." The blue eyes that he admired so much were sparkling with an eagerness that all of his fine talk of leases had not inspired. "Just think how ancient this pottery might be!"
"Aw, Genia, it's just an itty bit of old clay pot. Probably not even Indian. Something some settler cooked in, mebbe." He grinned, waggled his bushy white eyebrows. "You're just trying to raise the rent on me now."
She laughed, a most pleasant sound to his ears on a morning that seemed otherwise so quiet, he would have sworn he could hear the cactus grow thorns. Genia's laughter sounded almost as sweet to him as the sound of money on the hoof banging through a chute on its way to a feedlot. He took off his hat for as long as it took to wipe a handkerchief across his brow, and he squinted into the distance behind her. There were black-shrouded Mexican mountains in that direction, and mesquite thickets between here and there. A colony of white-winged doves must have been nesting close by, because every now and then he heard them call, repeatedly, as if they really wanted to know, "Who cooks for you?" The tall old rancher wished this woman cooked for him. He could testify she made a damn fine chili con carne out of more damn ingredients than he had teeth to eat it with. He wished she cooked and washed and cleaned for him and kept him sweet company in the bedroom, too. The day held a faint scent of flowers. Since there weren't any roses around, he had to assume the scent came from her. But dammit, now she was bending down again, scrabbling at the dirt with her fingers.
"Genia, about this lease--"
"Maybe there's more pottery here." She glanced up at him again. "I'm so sorry I stepped on it. Maybe it's part of a--oh! Look at this!" She held up another object for him to see. He feigned interest, then laughed. "A seashell?" His tone was derisive. "What's a seashell doing out here in the desert? Genia, that's some dang souvenir somebody brought back from California. Probably one of your kids. Doesn't your boy live in San Francisco?"
"But look at this." Her fingers, with their nails so nicely trimmed, traced what appeared to be some kind of grooved design in the upper surface of the curved shell. A faint reddish color was visible. "There's something about this that looks very old to me, not modern at all."
He offered a hand to help her to her feet, but she appeared not to notice and got up again by herself.
"It's a seashell, Genia, like you'd buy on a beach at Malibu."
"I don't think so." Her tone was polite but stubborn.
He began to see his lease agreement slipping through his calloused fingers like the reins of a runaway horse.
Genia now held the bits of red and buff pottery in her left hand and the seashell fragment in her right. Slowly she revolved herself in a circle, acting as if she were seeing her own pasture with new eyes, for the first time.
"Why," she said, wonderingly, "I'd never noticed. Look how we're standing in a slightly sunken area. It's almost invisible because of the grass. But it's round, isn't it? And I do believe there's another round place over there, and over there--"
She appeared, to his eyes, to be in the grip of an astonishment. She also appeared to be mightily more impressed by her damnfool discoveries than she was by his business proposition, which he had actually dared hope might eventually lead to something more personal.
"Hell, I don't mind," he said, trying to sound jocular. "They ain't deep enough to lose a cow in."
She turned to face him, looking excited and as determined as a heifer who didn't want to get roped. "We'll have to talk of leases another day, I'm afraid. I'm not rejecting your proposal, but this"--she lifted her finds, like offerings to the sun--"this may change things. I need some time to ask a few questions and to educate myself. I want to think some more about this, before I decide whether or not I want to let this pasture go for grazing again."
"Besides, I'm going away for a while."
"You are?" This was news to him, and mighty unwelcome to hear.
It was news to Genia Potter, too, because she had only that moment decided to go.
"Something I have to do" was all she would say and the only thing she could say since she didn't really know what that "something" was. It seemed to Genia that mysterious forces were at work in the pasture that morning, revealing long-hidden treasures and pulling her in a direction she hadn't even known she needed to go.
Twenty minutes later, her neighbor found himself waving a frustrated good-bye to her from the rolled-down window of his pickup truck, while she stood in the foyer of her ranch house, firmly closing her front door with her hip, because she was still hanging on to those damn bits of pot and shell. He'd had to open the truck door for her and help her up into the cab and then even take her key from her to unlock her own front door, just so she wouldn't drop any of the tiny pieces. Not that he wouldn't have gladly opened doors for her anyway, and not that he wasn't mighty pleased to finally feel her elbow in the palm of his hand, but hell's bells, she held those little mites of dirt and dust as tenderly as if they were babies.
As he drove away, he wasn't at all sure exactly what had just transpired, but he did suspect that Genia had better not discover any more of those damn pieces of Coney Island seashell on her property, or he might not get the leases he wanted so badly. If she was going to be gone for a week . . . his foot eased on the gas pedal as he realized, Well, now, that opens up some possibilities.
After a few miles of thinking things through, the old rancher was smiling again when he turned into his own front gate. Sometimes he just needed to give a stubborn heifer a little push in the right direction at the same time he blocked off her route to the way she mistakenly thought she wanted to go. Yes, sir, he knew a thing or two about cows. And women.
Once her front door clicked shut, Genia put her acquisitive neighbor out of her mind so quickly, he would have rocked back on his boots if he'd known it. With history on her mind, she hurried past her living room with its fine view of mountains and pastures, its grand piano topped with family photographs, and its walls hung with her own original needlepoint creations, which Lew once upon a thoughtful time had proudly framed for her. ("Pretty little things, my eye!" she thought in passing.) On down the long hallway she hurried, toward the bedrooms and her home office.
Most ranchers she knew, herself included, conducted most of their business around kitchen tables, but a person did also need a file cabinet and a computer. For that she had an office. Kitchens--Genia had found out the hard way--were not nourishing places for computers, not unless you wanted your mouse pad to double as an absorbent sponge, or your backup disks to be employed as trivets. ("Sweetheart, set your glass of milk on a coaster, please." "Okay, Grandma. Is this a coaster?") She was still very new to the personal computer age, and she felt as if she was learning a lot
of things the hard way. For such a "labor-saving" device, it consumed tremendous blocks of time, especially now, when she was tediously entering calf weights into a program for cattle ranchers. "Mom," her son had promised her, "it will pay off. You'll begin to chart patterns and trends over periods of years." To which she had retorted, "I should live so long."
The first thing Genia did in her office was to gently lower her treasures onto a piece of paper on top of her desk. Then she rummaged through her wastebasket, looking for a certain colorful brochure. If she remembered correctly, it had been mailed to her from something called the Medicine Wheel Archaeological Camp, and it listed a number of interesting-sounding programs for tourists.
"Yes!" she cried triumphantly, surfacing with it.
She slowly sank down in her swivel chair to examine the brochure more carefully this time. Yes, it was indeed called the Medicine Wheel Archaeological Camp. With the tip of a forefinger, she touched its location on a small map: near Cortez, Colorado. Just west of Mesa Verde. In the so-called Four Corners area, where Colorado meets Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. That was one of her favorite parts of the country, because it was a land of such dramatic contrasts and scenery.
She opened the brochure to peruse its generous listing of programs that were open to the public. Her glance landed on one that now seemed prophetically clear to her.
"Women's Hike into History," it advertised. "We invite you to join us at Medicine Wheel Archaeological Camp for an exciting program of exploration into the magnificent landscapes and the mysterious and fascinating cultures of the Ancient Peoples."
Genia smiled to herself. Somehow, the first time she read that she had been able to resist "magnificent," "mysterious," and even "fascinating."
She read on: "Join staff archaeologist Dr. Susan Van Sant and other members of our scientific community for five days of hiking into ancient ruins." There, that was what she was looking for--the mention of a real archaeologist. In a program that long, she could surely ask a saddlebag-full of questions, possibly learn a lot about the archaeological pedigree of her ranch. Besides, now that she had a reason for going, it sounded like a lot of fun.But am I up to the physical demands?
she asked herself.
Farther down in the brochure, she found the reassurance she sought: "Some of our hikes are in rugged country with no trails and at altitudes over 6,000 feet. A reasonable level of hiking skill and stamina is required, but our pace will be leisurely."
That sounded all right to a sixty-four-year-old woman who spent at least part of every week on horseback and who regularly swam laps in her own pool. She peered closely at the smiling men and women shown in pictures that had been taken amid archaeological digs and ruins, and counted several who looked about her own age.
"While we take every precaution to assure the safety of our guests," the brochure warned, "we assume no responsibility in the event of accident, illness, or injury. Visitors participate at their own risk."That's all right, too,
Genia decided. Life is risk.
"For fall hikes, we recommend you bring at least one pair of comfortable hiking boots, sweatshirt, down jacket, long underwear, warm sleepwear and robe, several layers of outerwear including jeans and T-shirts, hat, warm gloves, and rain gear. (Snow is not impossible at this time of year.) Bring also: flashlight, water bottle, backpack, travel alarm. Don't forget camera and film. Bring sleeping bag and rubber mat for one night's camp-out."
Genia mentally reviewed her belongings, checking off the items. Yes, she could pull it all together, if they would accept her reservation into the program. According to the schedule, the next one started . . . she ran her finger across a calendar . . .
Only two days from now. Could she do it? From her bookcase, she pulled out a road atlas and measured the distance from Tucson to Cortez. Almost five hundred miles, two thirds of it on the interstate. With stops along the way, she was looking at a ten- to twelve-hour drive.Too much for one day,
she decided regretfully.
But what if she started as soon as tomorrow, thereby slicing the drive in half?
It would still be a long haul by herself, and she'd be tired when she arrived, but she thought she could manage it and still enjoy the ride . . . up through the red rock country north of Phoenix, across the desert into Gallup, and then up through the Navajo Reservation, past famous Shiprock and on through Montezuma, into Cortez.
Years before she had gotten over most of her fears of traveling alone. Yes, there were stretches of busy or isolated roads that she'd just as soon avoid, but she'd learned that if she wanted to get from here to there, sometimes she had to grit her teeth and barrel through. Often no friend was available to go with her. But she didn't let that stop her. She had decided, after Lew died, that she wasn't going to become one of those widows who never left home without a man to do the driving or a woman friend to share it. ("Heavens," she warned her own daughters, "you don't want to get to the end of your life and still be waiting for somebody else to do the driving!") Her courage and independence had grown, as a consequence of her daring, and she was glad of her choices. It didn't mean she never worried about flat tires, it just meant she carried an automobile club card and, these days, a cell phone. God bless the twentieth century.
Still, she didn't pick up the telephone receiver to make the call. She forced herself instead to lay down the brochure, sit back in her chair, swivel around to stare out at the mountains to the south, and then argue with herself.
"You're being awfully impulsive," she informed herself, speaking from the more conservative side of her nature. "Are you sure this is a good idea? Can you afford it?" Yes,
a knowlegeable-sounding voice in her head assured her. "All right, but can you afford the time?" Uh-huh.
The voice sounded amused, which only prompted her conservative side to speak more sternly. "But what do you really know about this Medicine Wheel place?" Well, dear, it says it's a well-known, reputable, and respected center for southwestern archaeology and scholarship.
"And you believe everything you read?" she demanded of the inner voice. "What do you think it's going to say, that it's a place of ill
repute? And look here, my dear, according to that brochure, you'll have to share living quarters with three other women, and there are no private baths, only communal showers! You'll hate that!" I can stand it for a week. Less than a week. Sunday night till Saturday morning.
The inner voice was patient, understanding, self-confident. "But why can't you be satisfied with just contacting the archaeology department of a local university? Why do you have to go hiking for a week with a bunch of strangers to find out what you want to know?"Because, because . . .
Genia let her glance fall once more on the provocative, persuasive brochure. And there it was, the clincher, the final argument against which no other logic could prevail:
"Our renowned chef," it bragged, "prepares great meals."
"Oh! Well!" said her conservative side, totally capitulating. "Why didn't you say so in the first place?"
Excerpted from The Blue Corn Murders by Nancy Pickard and Virginia Rich. Copyright © 1998 by Pickard/Rich. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.