This story is by Charles Cooper and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
On a highway somewhat off the beaten track that winds through the Sangre de Cristo range, the traveler passes beautiful mountain vistas where narrow waterfalls cut valleys and ravines out of the rock. The occasional roadside gas station caters to the few truckers and fewer tourists traveling the edge of the Eastern Navajo Agency; but most are lonely, tumble-down rusting memorials to more prosperous days; a far cry from the bustling life of Jack Kingston’s home in Boston. Driving fast, he barely noticed these relics as he pushed north toward the ruined truckstop at Rocky Butte, which marked where the road split: one branch paved, leading up toward Taos; the other, an old dirt road slowly vanishing under brush and weeds that sloped gently into Agency land. He followed that dirt road for a quarter mile to a locked cyclone fence hung with signs warning that this was dangerous private property belonging to the Kingston Mining Company, and to keep out. There were odd, hand-made figures hung on each side of the gate and running down the length of the fence. Kingston thought of the Kachinas he saw in the airport gift shop. Getting out of the car, he cut one down and took a closer look. It was a rough carving of a man with a spear. Smiling, in spite of the almost oppressive silence of the place, he decided to keep it, a souvenir of his adventure. After all, it had been a long time coming. Kingston had waited for years to take this trip. His father had died inspecting the mine property, and now that his mother was gone nothing stood between him and the answers he sought but time and distance.
Distance was the easy part. Kingston made good time in this baking, barren place. Speeding through the curves of the empty winding road to the screaming sound of the Beastie Boys, he reached the Kingston Copper Mine just before five. After staring through the fence for several minutes at the torn, burnt and twisted landscape beyond, taking down the little figure from the fence, and shaking off a feeling of eerie anticipation, he returned to the air conditioned comfort of his rented Porsche and switched on his iPad. There was a man in a little village near Taos who was present when the mine was destroyed. He put the car into drive. It shuddered and died. “Shit! Fucking rental car!” Kingston restarted the engine. It sputtered for a moment, caught, and settled into a throaty hum. He carefully put it into gear and gently accelerated back up the dirt road.
A half-hour later Kingston found White Pines, an eclectic mixture of frame and adobe houses with a small municipal building and a Sinclair gas station that doubled as a general store. He soon found that his name did not open the doors it did back in Boston. Eventually, he found someone to direct him and soon found Jacob Benally’s old frame house. The old man was waiting for him, seated comfortably on a lawn chair. “Mr. Benally?” Kingston asked, holding out his hand. The old man ignored it.
“So,” Benally said, gazing critically at the newcomer, “you the new Kingston. I knew your father. We all did.” His soft, gravelly voice easily carrying across to the car. People stopped to stare. Benally waved them off, but their hostility just hung there. “Steve told me you were coming and what you want.” The old man looked out at the sky. Blue had deepened into violet and several bright stars were visible. “We talk over dinner,” he said, rising and opening the screen door. “I got a guest room you can use. You’ll never find your way after dark.”
Kingston thanked the old man and followed him into the house. A young woman in her late teens, wearing jeans and a faded Black Butler t-shirt saw them to the small dining room. Benally said something to her that Kingston didn’t understand. The girl nodded, favored Kingston with a hateful glare, and vanished into the kitchen. A moment later, she returned with steaming bowls of chili and a plate of breadrolls. “She don’t like you, none of them do,” said Benally after she left. “They know your name, they know what happened. I think you don’t. If I tell you, you drive away. Leave that mine for the years and the mountains to take back. Nothing good is there, no profit for you. Leave the guardians to watch it and go. Promise this.” Kingston already had two solid offers on the property, and he was not giving back that figure; but he agreed anyway, just to humor the old man. Benally stared at him, then slowly nodded. “Your father died there.”
“And mom didn’t want me anywhere near it.”
“She was wise. Maybe you listen to her.” Kingston shook his head. Frowning, Benally began to speak. “A mining engineer, Ben Chapman, opened a new tunnel and broke into a cave. They found a mummy there.”
“A mummy?” asked Kingston. “I didn’t think the Navajo made mummies.”
“We didn’t. Zuni, Apache, no tribes here did. People called it a great find, your father came to take charge of it. Grandfather was one of the tribal elders to go out and see it. You see, Chapman was seeing my aunt, Haseya, so he called Grandfather and he go to see it. The cave had some kind of closed-up well in the middle that had carved signs that no one could read. They also found the mummy in rotting robes, carrying a spear. It was tied to a wooden cross.” Kingston thought of the Kachina he stole. An odd chill ran through him. “Chapman said the place was some kind of tomb.”
“With a presiding mummy?”
“A guardian,” he said. “Go and see it at the college in Santa Fe. They took it there, and your father ordered the men to open the well, I guess hoping for treasure. There was just a hole, an abyss. Chapman called it that.”
Kingston frowned, feeling a prickling of static electricity. “Then…?”
“Ground noises, then missing equipment. Then two men go in and never come out.” As Benally spoke in his oddly quiet voice, Kingston felt a rumbling from the ground. Nothing was shaking, so he remained seated. Benally paused until the sound passed, and then continued. “Grandfather told them to seal the chamber again, that demon spirits, chindi, come from the abyss to take bodies of men. Chapman listened, your father laughed and ordered Grandfather to leave. That night, the men reappeared. Miners and the watchman followed them into the Tomb, and didn’t come back. The State Police come out again, the Tomb was searched again. Nothing was there. Grandfather told Chapman ‘close the cave before it too late,’ except it was too late.” There was another rumble, one he could feel this time. Benally glanced nervously at the door.
“You get earthquakes here?” The old man shook his head.
“Listen! Chapman told Grandfather he and his men prepared to blow it all up, but the missing miners climbed out the well. They killed his men. Chapman escaped and triggered the explosives. A geologist said there were methane pockets underground. I don’t think so, but by morning, nothing was left but ash and ruins and death. Tribal police got there first. I have their photos. They’re terrible.” Benally handed him a stack of photos. Blackened and twisted metal, open pits of fire and ash, and bodies mutilated in indescribable ways. In one, his own father lay in the dirt and ash, his face smeared with blood and filth, his chest and stomach torn open. “They killed each other with nails and teeth.” There was another spark of static and the ground shook. Kingston jumped up.
“Chindi?” Benally nodded. A man rushed in and said something to the old man. Kingston thought he caught the word chindi. Benally got to his feet and pulled Kingston toward the door. Outside, the sky was lit by what looked like flames.
“Take my granddaughter to Taos,” he commanded. “She direct you.” He called her and she argued, but the old man was firm. Everything was shaking, a sparking electric glow played across everything. “Go!” Once out of town, Kingston reached back for his water bottle. “Damn!” he cried, snatching his hand back, blood running down his arm.
“You didn’t listen to Grandfather,” she chuckled. She was silent until they reached her family. “Obey Grandfather,” she said, getting out.
Kingston bypassed the college and went straight to the airport. Waiting for his flight, local news reported that White Pines had burned to the ground, seventy-four dead. There was more to it, but he didn’t want to know. Tuning out the report, he dialed his lawyer: “Bob, sell it all to Diamond Copper. There’s plenty of ore, but they have to take it ‘as is’.”