The archaeologists appeared on the hill. They day grew hot and the land took on a fried, yellow hue. South, over Mexico, a massive thunderhead was forming. Its white fluffy top stuck up into the blue sky, reflecting the silver rays of the sun and making it impossible to look at. The underside was purple, heavy with rain and enticing to the men. They both stared at it, hoping it would come their way. Neither spoke. The northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert roasted under their feet and each could feel it through his boots. They stomped down a mesquite bush and moved off the hill into the small green playa.
“It looks like this guy just plowed through the site. There’s manos and matates everywhere. But no concentration of anything.” Each sentence was punctuated by a moment of thought.
“And they’re all pretty busted up.”
The small, flat dip in the hilly desert had collected water for thousands of years and turned green. The dried yellow grasses and flat white stones had become clusters of tiny purple and yellow flowers. The cooler air inside completed a feeling of otherworldliness. The two men walked a straight line pas a small group of trees and the lushest spot in the playa without seeming to notice. Both were focused on the ground in front of them.
“Yup. Here’s a broken plow blade,” one said.
“He just went through it and tossed all the crap off to the side,” said the other, pointing to a large pile of stones surrounded by dried up mesquite and acacia.
They left their invisible straight line that had led them for miles across the desert and stumbled toward the pile. The one, head shaded by a cowboy hat and neck covered by dark, long hair, drank off half a quart of water without breathing.
“Yup. Check it out. Manos, matates, ceramics….Jornanda looks like. Lots of groundstone.”
“I’m not recording this shit.” He looked back at the ground. “Burned caliche…burned caliche…”
“Yeah. But none of it is in situ.”
“He just had at it, didn’t he?” Cowboy Hat tossed the artifact he held off into the bush and turned toward the green. Suddenly he took in its perfectly squared shape that had escaped him in his directed, forward plod. He walked toward it. “Hey…these are fruit trees!” he said. His voice cracked and he downed the rest of his quart.
“Yeah?” The other didn’t look up.
“Yeah. I don’t know what…well, this looks like some sort of cherry or…I don’t know. They’re six of ‘em. His hands stroked the leaves as his eyes scanned the ground for fruit. “They’re not producing anything.”
“Not enough H2O.”
“And hey, this one is some sort of nut tree.”
“I don’t know.” The whole picture had been missed in the focused search they had been on. And now, as Cowboy Hat took his eyes off the ground and the trees, he took in the whole scene. The other was still lost in the pile of destroyed prehistoric artifacts and kicked up stone.
“Hey. These are grapes!” His voice was excited. He realized he was four or five rows deep in struggling grape vines. They all surrounded the square, green pasture in straight lines on all sides – one square within another. The other man finally lost his interest in the rocks and came over.
“This was a little homestead.”
“Yup. Ol’ Manuel come up lookin’ to grow some grapes.”
“Rioja. Its not a bad climate for wine.”
“Yup.” He tugged off his baseball cap, wiped his forehead and pulled a Pepsi from his pack. “He sure tore up the site for whatever else he was growing.”
“It’s just a bunch of rocks. We’ve got five sites already today. Let’s not waste our time on this shit.”
“Well, Ol’ Manuel didn’t last that long either.”
Cowboy Hat pushed through the struggling grapes and into the tiny pasture. The minute amound of water underfoot was enough to take the heat off. The thunderheads began caressing them with cool, wet air. He sighed. “I’m eatin’ lunch here.”
“It’s not even twelve!”
“Hell it ain’t. It’s almost one!”
“Fucking piece of shit Wal-Mart watch.” The other tore off the watch and launched it into the desert. “Said eleven fifteen. That thing is a piece of shit.” He tossed the empty Pepsi can out behind it.
Cowboy Hat made straight for the nut tree – the tallest of the six. Its base was surrounded by dried-up cowpies. “I haven’t seen a cow for days,” he thought. He kicked them aside and slid his back down against the trunk. The other say in the grass a few feet away but still in the shade of the tree. He threw down his pack, took out another Pepsi and a store-bought sandwich wrapped in plastic and Styrofoam.
“Check out the bark. Just above your head.” Cowboy Hat turned and looked up. “Cows worn it smooth by rubbin’.”
“That’s cool.” He reached up and felt it. “This is paradise.”
“Is that oil line comin’ through here?”
“Yup. Just over outside the grapes. But they got a hundred foot right-of-way so they’ll probably bust out this half of the square.”
“Shit.” Cowboy Hat cut vegetables from his bag into a tortilla and ate it. Then he pulled his legs up into his arms. He was deeply tanned. Almost red. His arms were long and muscled and he felt good. Healthy, sleek and clean in spite of the dirt caked in with his sweat. He friend played with his compass. They fell into silence.
The other was overweight, his body strangely proportioned. Hot mayonnaise from hi sandwich was smeared in hid beard. He was drinking a third Pepsi. He fared and lay back in the grass pulling his cap over his eyes.
“So, do you live with your girlfriend?”
“No. Not yet. I want to, but I’m not sure she wants to.”
“Why is that?”
“Oh…I just think that I’m much more serious on this thing than she is.”
“Yeah.” They fell quiet again and listened to a bird. It stood out as the only one in the playa.
“That’s a cool song.” Cowboy hat laughed.
“Sounds like a kid’s toy. One of the ones you pull the string on and it cuts from one animal to the next, ya know?”
“The cloudbank had grown and moved northward but the sun still baked the world around where the men had taken refuge.
“I hope it rains soon.”
Cowboy Hat had nothing to say.
“When do they start this thing?”
“And they’re gonna wreck this thing.”
The other pushed himself up and put on his pack. He crushed his tow cans and stuffed them into his back pocket. “You got any sunscreen?”
“Yeah.” Cowboy Hat tossed him a bottle and stood up. They’d have to go around it if we recorded it as a site.”
“If you want to stick around and do the paperwork it’s all yours. But not me.” They both lubed up with sunscreen and moved out from under the tree.
“What’s that line of rocks?” Cowboy Hat pointed to the other side of the square and crossed it onto a small hill leading back up into the desert.
“Another pipeline the map says. Old one. 1950s. There should be another one the other side of it…three hundred feet I guess. 1970s.
“No wonder that old guy moved.”
“He moved out of here before that.”
“Look. There’s burned caliche up here too.”
“But ya know? There is no foundation here. I don’t think he lived here.”
“Yeah. He did. Look at the rock covered up the pipe. They took down his whole house to cover it up. It goes off for miles.” He blew air through his teeth and pointed east.
“Yup. Guess so,” the other said. He licked his lips, squinted, and moved his hand over his beard. Cowboy Hat breathed deeply.
“How far we gotta go back?”
“Six miles….a little less.” A large, black crow appeared over the hill, circled low over the two men and made for the nut tree.
“That’s a big bastard,” the other said watching the bird. “I’ll bet he gets enough dead things to eat in this roasting pit.” He watched for the bird but it had hidden itself in the green.
“Let’s go,” Cowboy Hat said and walked up and out of the playa. The other followed, stumbling over rocks as he watched his compass. “Sounded just like a helicopter warming up,” Cowboy Hat said. He voice did little to mask his amazement.
This story first appeared in Conceptions Southwest, Volume XX, Number II, University of New Mexico, 1997.