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The Philosopher's Stone

The Philosopher's Stone by E. Ervin Tibbs
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When Aztec gold is stolen and the archeologist who discovered it is found murdered, Kyle Brinhaven and his Apache stepfather, Joe Tincup work together to find the killer.
SynergEbooks; May 2003
115 pages; ISBN 9780744306767
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Title: The Philosopher's Stone
Author: E. Ervin Tibbs
ONE Dense sunlight pounded the Sanoran Desert with the relentless, driving power of a forge hammer, superheating the sun-cooked, flinty soil already baked dust-dry right down to bedrock. The distant Gila Mountains shimmered in a formless haze and wherever the ground leveled out, great sheets of mirage water made empty promises of refuge from the ferocious heat. From somewhere nearby came an alien rhythm, the quick slapping beat of helicopter rotors and the annoying whine of its stabilizer. Kyle Brinhaven stopped halfway up the shale incline and eased the straps on his pack. He couldn’t imagine why anyone would be flying into this stretch of desert unless it was an emergency. Sounds from the helicopter came closer now, moving toward him from the west. He shrugged his pack into place and started on up the slope. The helicopter wasn’t looking for him; no one knew he was here, not even Joe Tincup his adoptive father. At the top of the incline, he stopped under the shade of an old Pinõn. The blistering sun had already chased the rock squirrels back into their cool lairs and even lizards were beginning to look for shelter. They're smarter than I am, he thought. With an ear-slapping roar, the helicopter appeared over the bluffs behind him, arrowed straight overhead and disappeared behind hills to the East. It was a small two-seater painted bright red and black. Going in a straight line at high speed, thought Kyle. He’s not searching for anyone, he’s on his way somewhere and he’s in a hurry. Casually he checked his bearings. To the East a splintered stone monolith crowned a barren hill of gray shale and to the north a sandy ridge, capped with ocotillo, shimmered in the heat. A dry, brush filled canyon wound between them and disappeared into the hills. Although there was no distinct trail, for Kyle this parched land was filled with markers, easier to read and follow than the centerline of a freeway. The markers told him that he was now in the San Carlos Indian Reservation and only a few miles from his father's cabin. He unhooked a canteen from his belt and took a small sip of water. Although he had plenty, he'd grown up in these high, parched Arizona mountains where water was scarce, and conserving it a habit too strong to break. Joe had taught him well. Actually, Joe had taught him almost everything he knew that was of any value. And that thought gave Kyle a twinge of guilt. Almost six months had passed since his last visit to the old man's remote cabin. But he knew Joe wouldn't complain about the lack of attention. Even when his beloved Jenna died, the old man hadn't protested, although he'd cried many nights when he thought Kyle was asleep. The prospect of seeing his adoptive father drove him back out into the sun and down onto the canyon trail. He'd be home by noon, maybe sooner if he pushed. He looked forward to this visit with Joe, yet he admitted to himself that the quiet and isolation of his father's home provided an equally strong attraction. Solitude was another reason for taking this little known and seldom used trail into the reservation. Here, where the Sonoran desert nudged up against the Mogollon rim, quiet became more than a mere lack of sound, but rather an intense, pervading stillness that allowed him to hear gentle zephyrs whispering secrets to the Earth Mother. He stretched his legs and breathed in huge gulps of the dry, clean air; luxuries he'd almost forgotten existed. Although not a tall man, Kyle possessed a long, mile-eating stride and before the sun reached its zenith he came upon a small stream. Ahead, the streambed curved around a tiny park filled with big spreading mesquite. In the center sat his father's cabin, built of thin sapling pines and roofed with hand split shingles, everything sun-bleached to the hue of weathered silver. He stopped, sudden dread squeezing his heart. In the clearing behind the cabin he could see a small helicopter-bright red and black. Joe could not be persuaded or forced to board any vehicle capable of flight. Something was wrong, and it occurred to him that Joe was an old man and not immortal. Kyle walked faster now - almost running. For a few minutes, a bend in the stream hid the cabin, but when it came back into view he slowed his rapid pace. At a rickety table in the front yard, Joe leaned on his elbows, talking to a man that sat with his back to Kyle. Relief flooded him, almost sapping his strength. Joe wasn’t just his father; he was Kyle’s best friend. The stranger raised a tin can and gulped down its contents. Something about the man seemed familiar. Joe turned and spotted Kyle, and the old Apache's grin was a wonder to behold. Brushing back his shoulder length gray hair, Joe scrambled up from the table. Standing, he still looked willow straight, but thinner than Kyle remembered. The old man stepped quickly across the clearing toward Kyle, his ageless face beaming. With a whoop, Joe grabbed Kyle in a bear hug, and squeezed until Kyle could hardly breathe. When the old man stepped back, he held the younger man's arms. "Just like a white man, come in the back way and sneak up on an old Indian." "It was a raggedy-assed old Indian that taught me that trick." "You look thin and pale." Joe's mock gravity didn't match the sparkle of humor in his black eyes. "The white man's life isn't good for you." "Maybe some of your jackrabbit and rattlesnake chili will restore my health." Joe laughed. "Come, meet my guest." The stranger stood up as they approached, and turned toward them. A thin man of average height, he had gray hair cut short and brushed smooth. Although dressed in rough flannel and faded blue jeans, he managed to maintain a look of cool elegance. His face broke into an ironic, almost mocking smile that Kyle remembered well. "Nathan Hersholt," said Kyle. "What are you doing here?" Nathan's expression turned to astonishment. "I might ask you the same question." "I didn't know you and my son were acquainted," said Joe. Nathan gave Joe a puzzled look. "Kyle was one of my top students at the university. His curiosity was like dry sand soaking up rain." "He's kinda dumb with women," said Joe. "But other than that, he's a pretty smart boy." Kyle noticed Nathan's gaze switching between him and Joe. "Don't let the blue eyes confuse you. I'm Joe's adopted son. My first father was a big Norwegian." Nathan's expression cleared. "You never mentioned you were adopted." "Never considered it important," said Kyle. "Of course. It isn't really. I'm sorry that I intruded on your homecoming." "Don't worry," said Joe. "We got lots of time and neither one of us are big talkers." He produced a battered iron teapot and poured dark fluid into a small can with the bean label still attached. He passed it to Kyle. "Made some tea with lots of sugar, just the way you like it." Kyle took the tea and drank deeply. Joe considered it the epitome of white men's silliness that they bought fragile glass vessels to drink from, when a good, rugged container of steel came free with every can of beans. Nathan brushed a foraging ant off the table. "I haven't heard from you since graduation. Fill me in." The word graduation filled Kyle's heart with pain. Jenna had lived just long enough to see Kyle take his diploma. The next morning she'd succumbed to the cancer, raging through her body. "I joined the army right after graduation." Actually it had been the day after Jenna's funeral. "He fought in the Gulf War," said Joe. "Got a Distinguished Service Medal." Nathan gave Kyle a look of new respect. "For what?" "It was no big-" "For sneakin' around in the Iraqi desert," Joe interrupted. "He spent three months inside Iraq before the ground war started. Lived by stealing food and water from the Republican Guard. Geronimo couldn't have done any better." Kyle decided to change the subject. "After the army discharged me, I did my student teaching in Phoenix and accepted a full time position. Tried to call you a couple of times, but you were away. Didn't figure there was anything to worry about. You're famous for your extended leaves of absence." Nathan watched a vulture circling overhead. His expression soured. "I'll have to tell you about those trips some day. But I didn't come here to burden you with my personal problems. To make it short, I tried to convince your father to do a job for me. I've been informed that no one knows the Tonto Forest like Joe Tin-Cup." "I told him I don't guide anymore," said Joe. "I made him a good offer," said Nathan. "But he's a stubborn man." Kyle nodded. "He can out-stubborn a rock pile." "Why don't you hire my son?" said Joe. "He's almost as good as I am." "You know the area southwest of the rim?" asked Nathan. "Like he knows the way to the outhouse." Joe's expression betrayed his pride. "He was only sixteen when he found the Lost Jackass Claim." "That was you?" Nathan was obviously impressed. "Quite an accomplishment, finding a claim lost for nearly eighty years." "Turned out to be a dud." Kyle took out his key ring with a small bottle full of bright metallic crystals attached, and held it up. "Just a big outcrop of iron pyrite - fool's gold. Tom Kirkendahl, the prospector, was a tenderfoot and thought he'd hit a bonanza." "Still, it was a feat of considerable skill," said Nathan. "How did you find it?" "He thought like a jackass." Joe snickered. "Did what?" Nathan looked shocked. "Let me explain," said Kyle. "Joe taught me that if you want to find an animal, you have to learn to think like one." "Kirkendahl didn't find the claim," said Joe. "A Jackass did. His old pack burro wandered off and when Kirkendahl caught up - there was the outcrop." "I followed a route I thought a burro would take," said Kyle. "Took a couple of weeks but eventually I found a rock with a name chipped in the face, Tom Kirkendahl, April seventh, nineteen thirteen." "Amazing," said Nathan. "Sounds like you're the man I need." "Sorry, Nathan. I'm not looking for work. I intend to relax and do a little fishing." Nathan grinned. "It took me three days to find someone who even knew where your father lived. At least hear me out." "That's just good manners." Joe nudged Kyle with his elbow. "Okay," said Kyle. "Tell me about it." Nathan sipped from his can. "If you've read the papers lately you know part of the reason I'm here - Aztec gold." "I've heard," said Kyle. "It's the biggest story in Arizona right now, a cache of gold artifacts but no clue as to the location." Nathan gave him a sour look. "We hope to keep the site's whereabouts secret. If it gets out, we'll have treasure hunters crawling out from underneath every rock." "Some of the locals are saying it's just a cover story," said Joe. "They think someone's found the Dutchman's mine." Nathan laughed. "I assure you, the Lost Dutchman Mine is still lost. In any case, this is a far more important find." "Who found it?" asked Kyle. "Originally I did. But let me start from the beginning. I'm now the head of the cultural anthropology department and last summer I did some exploring on my own. I found the ruin of what appeared to be a late Salado settlement, fairly well preserved. I collected one clay bowl, a magnificent specimen of Salado pottery." "Lucky man," said Joe. "Not really. I surveyed the area and made some preliminary excavations but found nothing else of importance. The site is on private land and I did manage to get the owner to sell it to the University. But I've been involved in other projects and just didn't have time to explore further. A few weeks ago, the University sent some people in there to begin a major excavation. Otis Pincott, a colleague of mine, headed the team." "I don't remember him," said Kyle. A stiff breeze blew up and mussed Nathan's thin gray hair. With an irritated motion he brushed it down. "He's a transfer from Tucson. Joined our staff in April." "A good move for him," said Joe. Nathan looked embarrassed. "It certainly was. The find of the century. His team uncovered a pit lined with red shale. It was filled with artifacts, most of them pure gold. Otis deduced that it was part of an ancient warehouse - a way station along a prehistoric trade route that leads north." In spite of his reluctance, Kyle felt a surge of interest. "Aztec relics this far north could tell us a lot about ancient cultures." "Yes they could have." "Could have?" "Otis has been murdered and the gold stolen." Joe whistled in surprise. "You don't need a guide, you need police." "The police are investigating the murder," said Nathan. "But they aren't all that interested in recovering the gold." "What makes you think it can be recovered?" asked Kyle. "The thief was caught." "He didn't have the gold?" "Not on him. And he didn't have enough time to get it out of the area." "You're sure of that?" "There's only one passable road in, and the entrance is a narrow canyon with a locked gate." "Gates can be opened," said Kyle. "After Pincott found the gold," said Nathan, "the university put a twenty four hour guard on that gate. The gold didn't go out that way. Everyone believes the thief hid it somewhere, intending to pick it up later." Kyle leaned forward. "And that somewhere is . . ." "Salt River Canyon." "Damn," said Joe. "You could hide an army of mad skunks in that place and never find em." "That's why we need someone with experience," said Nathan. "Eventually the location will get out and every shady treasure hunter in the southwest will converge on the area. If there's enough of them, eventually one might stumble on the gold." Abruptly Nathan stopped talking and his eyes fixed on the ground. His face paled. Kyle followed the direction of his gaze. A big rattlesnake slid out of a nearby saltbush and slithered toward them, each sinuous movement controlled and deadly. It moved with deceptive speed, covering six feet of open ground in a heartbeat. Almost to the table, it stopped, raised its head and stared at Kyle, forked tongue darting nervously. For a moment they locked eyes. Then the snake turned its head toward Nathan. The man gasped and the snake drew back. In that instant of distraction, Kyle reached out, trapping the snake's head firmly but gently between his forefinger and thumb. With a heave, he tossed it back into the brush, where it slithered deeper into the shadows and disappeared. "Need to teach that snake some table manners, Joe." "He's kinda slow up here." Joe tapped his temple with his finger. "You'd think by now he'd know that anything around here fit to eat, I've already et." A rueful grin was all Nathan could manage. "You let a rattlesnake live in your yard? Aren't you afraid you'll get bit?" "Me and that snake have shared this patch of ground for ten years," said Joe. "He's never bit me and I've never bit him." He draped his arm across his son's shoulder. "This job sounds interesting. Why don't you take it, boy? We got plenty of time for fishing later." "Why are you so anxious to get rid of me?" Joe squeezed his arm. "Cause I want you to bring me some grandchildren and you ain't going to find a girl up in these mountains." "It's more than just gold," said Nathan softly. He gave Kyle a look that was almost pleading. "These are irreplaceable artifacts. But if looters get their hands on them, they'll be melted down." "See," said Joe. "You'll be helping preserve some of those old things you're always fretting about." "There's also a bonus," said Nathan. "The APCA will pay whoever returns the treasure, ten thousand dollars." "What's the APCA?" asked Kyle. "If they got ten thousand dollars, who cares?" said Joe. Nathan held out a card. "The Association for Preservation of Cultural Antiquities." Joe whistled softly. "That's definitely a ten thousand dollar name." Kyle took the card. The money would keep him and Joe in beer and beans for at least a year with a little left over for a decent car. "Could you give me a few details?" "I don't know any more than I've already told you," said Nathan. "I just returned home yesterday. I've been doing an aerial survey of Chaco Canyon." "You still do your own flying," asked Kyle. "Yes. I don't fly fixed wing much anymore, but I try keep up my hours in helicopters." He leaned forward intently. "Will you do it?" "My car is in Globe," said Kyle. "I'll send my personal driver to pick you up. Esther Camerino, one of Otis's graduate students, is temporarily in charge of the site. I'll let her know you're coming and why." "Is she married?" asked Joe. Nathan gave him a distracted look and turned his attention back to Kyle. "Time is important. When can you leave?" "Can your driver pick me up in the morning?" "I'll see that he's here at dawn." "Better give him a map so he can find his way," said Joe. "He's an Apache," said Nathan. "I don't think he'll get lost." "Better give him a map anyway. A lost Indian's the worst kind." Kyle walked with Nathan to the helicopter, then stepped back as the rotors began to turn. Nathan waved. "I'll be in touch with you, Kyle. We'll have a few beers and catch up." When the helicopter disappeared over the nearest ridge, Joe stared after it moodily. "That's a worried man." "He's got good reason," said Kyle. "The newspapers claim that cache of gold weighed over one hundred and fifty pounds. That works out to about a million dollars worth, even if it's melted down." "Seems a shame to let that happen." "It's not going to." Kyle was surprised at the anger in his own voice. Joe grinned. "I knew it wasn't the money that tempted you. You always was touchy about protecting old stuff." "It's not the stuff. It's the knowledge and the history that would be lost." Rising, Joe stretched and scratched his belly. "Got a pot of beans and some cornbread. You hungry?" "Damn sure am." "There's a six pack of beer in the creek. Been there three days. Should be cold by now." "I'll get it," said Kyle. Joe took his arm and the old man's expression lost its humor. "I talked you into this job, but you be careful. I'd rather kick a pack of hungry wolves off a deer-kill than get between a white man and his gold." "I'll be careful." "Smart is better." "As clever as Coyote." Joe released his arm and stepped back. "Damn, Jenna would have been proud of you."
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