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Sins from the Past

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One museum curator with a reputation to reclaim... Plus one stolen Indian Chief’s skeleton... Equals deadly trouble for her and the man who's come to rescue them both. ~~~ As a recent transplant from the big city, Meg Summers is the new Curator for the Barnsford History Museum in small-town Georgia. Only a week into the job, her world turns upside down when Joe Byrd shows up unexpectedly. Representing the Cre-tae tribe, he's looking to repatriate the now illegal and seemingly missing Native American skeletal remains of a 19th century Indian Chief the museum procured decades ago. ~~~ But old mindsets die hard for Barnsford locals as the pair carefully attempt to follow the law, ultimately uncovering an even more sinister development within the tight-knit community. ~~~ Will Meg and Joe be able to solve the mysteries of Barnsford's dark side, correcting the sins of the past, or die trying? * While the concepts within this story are real, the Cre-tae tribe, other institutions, & locations are fiction.

Action / Thriller
Gwen Thames
Age Rating:


“It is most unpleasant work to steal bones from a grave, but what is the use, someone has to do it”

~ Franz Boas, American Cultural Anthropologist in 1888

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August 1923
Cre-tae Tribal Reservation, California

Faust wiped the sweat from his brow, anxiety setting in. He squinted to see better in the dim light emanating from the flickering lantern his assistant held high in the near pitch-black night. This was taking too long and the last thing they needed was someone from the reservation happening upon their midnight foray.

“Faster, you two! We don’t have all night,” the weathered archaeologist growled at two of his three underlings, his words steeped in the deep southern drawl that several generations of Georgia lineage had given him.

Both flung dirt with their shovels in opposite directions as quickly as their arms would allow, propelled by his oversight and the tense atmosphere. The air had cooled considerably in comparison to the dry Californian heat Faust had been inundated with the day before. Yet, his apprehension over being discovered while excavating the sagebrush covered landscape for his newest find had provided him with more than a sufficient layer of nervous warmth. In fact, the only one who suffered from the chill desert air was the lantern-holding seventeen-year-old, Emerson, who now wished he hadn’t begged his older brother Michael to come along.

According to the coveted information the Ph.D.-wielding adventurer had received from his highly trusted contact and his own extensive understanding of geography and human patterns, the Chief’s interred remains should have been right here. But his young laborers hadn’t found anything after over an hour of digging, and his irritation grew with intensity as time kept ticking by.

Surely, Albertson wouldn’t have given me misinformation. He spent four damn years prying it out of these hard-headed Indians. Please let this be the right spot. The archaeologist sent out a silent prayer as he recalled the meeting he’d had a month ago with his long-time friend and scientific colleague.

“I’m telling you Gregory, the remains have to be buried right here.” Anthropologist Ted Albertson had stabbed his finger on the carefully drawn map as the pair sat at a small local diner just off the Cre-tae reservation. “See this small hill? They’re always having ceremonies out there, but no one’s allowed on the south side. Old White Feather slipped up a couple weeks ago when I nonchalantly mentioned it, and said that ‘to go there would disturb a powerful ancestral ghost.’” At this, Albertson shoveled another bite of apple pie into his mouth.

“And you think that that ghost is Red Rock?” Faust returned with skepticism, needing verification that the remains would be more than just some random old Indian. “We’re riskin’ a lot goin’ in if you’re not one hundred percent sure. This is federal land we’re talkin’ about and while generally no one would raise a stink, those Indians won’t take too kindly to the idea.”

Neither man wanted to be caught up in an Antiquities Act dispute with the tribe. Albertson drew in his breath through his teeth, knowing that to make the expedition worth Faust’s while, it needed to be someone important, someone like Chief Red Rock, the last tribal chief to be buried in the traditional way before the tribe began interring members in the reservation cemetery like the good Christians they’d become.

“I’ll eat my hat if he’s not buried there,” Albertson proclaimed, tapping the top of his head, before leaning back over the table, circling a roughly thirty-square-foot expanse to the south of the marked hill with his chewed stub of a pencil. “All you have to do is figure out the precise location within this area. And for you, that should be a piece of cake.” He waved his hand with dismissal. Relaxing his worn wooden chair back and raising the front legs an inch or so off the ground, he eyed Faust, trying to gauge his thoughts on the matter. He knew Faust’s reputation for identifying archaeological sites with minimal information. The man had a gift.

Faust had an equal amount of trust in the anthropologist who’d been documenting the Cre-tae tribe’s cultural and social activities and beliefs with fervency like few others in the field. The secret of the renowned Cre-tae leader’s burial had been kept under wraps with success by the tight-lipped tribal members for nearly forty years. Albertson had taken a handful of those to garner this much information from various tribal sources to determine Red Rock’s gravesite, and it wasn’t exactly specific.

But unlike himself, Faust knew Albertson’s motivation for unearthing the Chief was pure and scientifically righteous. In his heart, the anthropologist believed that such precious historic artifacts would be better off with the museums. They would be preserved, cared for, and appreciated far better than they would be in the hands of the tribe. This mentality had been what kept him persevering in the field for so long. Faust felt the same, but found the fame and fortune involved outweighed the crusade to preserve America’s native past.

Finally, rubbing his neck with resignation, Faust agreed. “A sector of this size is something I can work with. I’ll find him.”

He had every intention of living up to that promise. Wetting his dry lips, then again wiping his brow with the back of his hand, he focused his attention back on the lads still digging below. Unlike him, they had the energy of the twenty-somethings they were, though Rick seemed to be dragging a bit now.

“I don’t think it’s here,” the slender youth muttered with a grimace, standing for a moment to stretch his back and take in the roughly-dug pit around him. This excavation was beyond unorthodox in comparison to the much more formal digs he and Michael had participated in under Dr. Faust over the past year.

As a student under the remarkable and highly reputable archaeologist, Rick never would have dreamed of digging such a hurried and sloppy pit, especially not while being watched like a hawk by his most respected superior. Excavation units were meant to be squared off with precise measurements, lines, and layers, each exhumed with the utmost care to protect anything that might be harmed by a stray blow from the shovel or trowel. Yet, Faust had instructed them to simply dig, tossing out every explicit instruction of precise archaeology he’d bestowed upon them during daytime excavations.

Conducting secret excavations in the dead of the night wasn’t something Rick had ever expected to do either, and at this moment, he wasn’t so sure it had been the best idea. Everything about this night seemed bizarre and dreamlike to the young man who’d been both surprised and elated by the archaeologist’s personal invitation to conduct the covert expedition on Indian reservation land. Having a hand in finding such a prized artifact just might garner him a reputation of his own in the close-knit archaeological community once they were able to publicize their find. Thus, both he and his classmate and best friend had enthusiastically accepted the opportunity without hesitation.

A little daunted by Faust’s annoyed expression and growl in return to his discouraging statement, Rick quickly picked up where he left off, chucking another shovelful of dirt over the edge of the pit, despite his newfound reservations, while Michael persevered on, paying neither of them any mind.

Within a matter of seconds, Rick knew he would have to eat his words as he struck something hard, making the metal of his shovel blade ring in contrast to the muted sounds he’d been producing as he dug through the soft, sandy soil. The pair of student excavators paused with excitement before tossing their shovels aside. Emerson inched closer with apprehension, shining the flickering lamplight further into the hole nearing three-feet deep and almost double that in width.

A breeze from out of the blue rose up and ruffled Faust’s salt-and-pepper hair as he stooped with anticipation, hunching greedily over Michael’s shoulder from the edge of the pit. Running his hand over his mustached face in concentration, he waited impatiently, while Rick grabbed his trowel and a brush from the edge of the pit to further uncover the object in question before dislodging it from its resting place. The young man’s hands shook with flustered energy as he worked, while all four of the archaeological raiders held their breaths in tandem, hearts pounding in their ears at the implications of their potential find.

Breaking the silence, a distant coyote’s yap alerted Faust to his surroundings, causing his nerves to twitch some. One of the reservation’s residents could show up unannounced at any moment. He’d been on edge ever since the old Indian approached him while driving through the area two days ago, trying to discern the specific location of Albertson’s site. When questioned, he’d brushed the suspicious tribesman off with a lie, explaining with ease that he’d gotten lost and didn’t realize he was on the Cre-tae’s tribal reservation. But Faust caught the spry Native American elder eying his rucksack and shovels in the back of the Ford Model T pickup truck. It was apparent that he hadn’t been the first white man to go in pursuit of archaeological treasure on the tribe’s government-obtained land.

As the half-moon appeared from behind the partial clouds where it’d been hiding all night, Michael gasped. The brilliant moonbeams not only enhanced the lamplight on the object Rick had finally extracted from the sand, but cast an atmosphere of magical awe. Faust’s heart raced as he hungrily gaped at the vivid-white artifact, ceremoniously radiating in the now bold moonlight, while two deep black holes seemed to stare back into his eyes, and perhaps, he felt, even into his soul.

“I found him! Chief Red Rock.” The gleam in his eyes nearly pierced the darkness.

Grinning back at the perfect and intact skull Rick held up to him with smugness, pride and ego filled him as he tallied yet another historic discovery in his near twenty-five-year career. Grasping the long-since decomposed head of the late leader of the Cre-tae people, Faust’s mind raced while immense greed fueled him with sensations of power and excitement. The money wrought from selling the remains would allow him the funds to pursue other, even more difficult-to-obtain objects through further excavations across the United States, primarily on Indian land.

Running through a short list of the posh museums who might have scientific interest in his rare find, he couldn’t help but chuckle, smiling towards the night sky, while basking in his success. The Field Museum in Chicago, the Peabody in New Haven, and maybe even the Smithsonian Institute at the nation’s capital. All three were known for their immense hunger for the crowd-pleasing American Indian and all he represented in main-stream society’s eyes. Everything from human remains and priceless sacred relics were sought by these fine institutions to educate the droves of upper-class patrons. They desired nothing more than to feast their eyes on the past possessions of the exotic and dying breed of savages who once populated the land nationwide and were now confined to reservations on land no one else wanted.

These artifacts were becoming more difficult to obtain as the years passed, making their discovery quite essential to his repertoire. If the entire set of skeletal remains were indeed here, he thought, he could easily split the lot up between several museums, making not only a fair amount of money, but an even bigger name for himself in the scientific and museum communities.

But I don’t think I’ll give you up just yet, he silently told the emotionless cranium staring back at him. He had worked hard to make this discovery tonight and the skull would be his to keep, he decided as he cradled it between his palms, gazing upon it for the rare and precious artifact that it was. It would make an excellent addition to his own personal collection of priceless artifacts.

Turning his attention to the burgeoning archaeologists blinking up at him from the pit in revere, he took the moment to impart a bit of wisdom. “The number of chief’s skulls available for the taking is limited, and as I see it, the number of living Indians is sure to continue decreasing until one day there won’t be many left to fill graves for our taking. So, the amount a find like this will bring in will only multiply drastically over time as they become more scarce. When I’m ready to sell, this skull alone could make me quite a bit of scratch. Learn everything you can about archaeology, boys, and maybe one day you’ll have your moments of glory and a bit of money to make it worth your while, too.”

The three young men looked on in fascination, while both of the archaeological students swallowed heavily; the ramifications of their being here and what it could mean for their future careers dawning on them.

“Let’s go boys.” Faust finally stood, slamming his dirty, sweat-soaked Fedora back on his head and grabbing one of the burlap sacks from the ground behind him, carefully wrapping the skull inside. “Dig out the rest of him and let’s get out of here!”

In quick order the duo finished their task, filling in the hole as best as possible in the dark night. It was well after two in the morning by the time the group climbed into Faust’s truck, hefting the bag of decapitated human remains into the bed, nestled comfortably with their gear and a very cold and overwhelmed Emerson. The teen kept a hesitant watch from his seat against the truck’s cab as the vehicle bounced mercilessly over the potholed dirt road. The moon, retreating behind the clouds once more, basked the open desert landscape in darkness yet again, while the grave robbers, under the protection of the United States Government, took their treasure, leaving nothing but dust in their wake.

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