Once fully emerged from the opening, he stood as tall as lanky Dr. McKean, but carried a weight advantage of about two-to-one. He greeted us with a wide, even-toothed grin and a twinkle in his blue, bespectacled eyes.
Peyton McKean! They shook hands, and then the man turned and clasped my hand in a warm, strong grip. Phineus Morton, right?
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Peyton told me he had a driver. Welcome to my mud bath, Curtis said with a grin. Everything about him was streaked with muck, including some traces in his curly blond beard. Sure, Curtis replied. His wire-rimmed, slightly fogged glasses had their own smudges of mud. I tried to get Pete Whitehall to move the slab— He pointed toward the bulldozer, where I now noticed a small man wrapped in an army-green hooded poncho standing beside it.
The man stared at us without moving, with no expression on his face. Acting kind of weird. Not making too much sense. He says Gordon Steel warned him the spirits of the dead would escape if he left this place uncovered. Told him to bulldoze over the hole and go home. An old Makah buzzard who claims to be a shaman. Hangs around here constantly. He stood stalk-still, as if waiting for someone or something to set him in motion.
McKean was more interested in the crypt opening. Where are we in relation to the rest of the fort?
Near the center, I think, Curtis replied. Under the floor of a storehouse, judging by some traces of wood foundations I found.
McKean leaned his long frame over the stone slab and peered at it down his long, shepherd-dog nose. From the looks of that lid, he said, someone wanted to keep this place sealed tight. It appears rather hastily hand carved into a slab that might weigh half a ton.
Sufficiently massive to keep anyone from getting in. And it was sealed and forgotten for more than two centuries. You know the rest. McKean nodded. Controversy over whether the burial is Native American or European. Jurisdictional fights between the tribe and the land owner. Congress in And makes life difficult for archaeologists, Curtis added. Although it has its bright side—fines and imprisonment for illegal collectors and grave robbers.
Shall we proceed?
Curtis turned and began to descend the staircase, motioning for us to follow. He wriggled his big body past the stone block as he had done on his way up but when he was about chest deep, an angry shout came from the woods beyond Pete Whitehall. You there! Keep out of that place. The man who made the outcry emerged from an animal trail and brushed past Whitehall, who remained frozen in place, and came at us. He was a frail old man who hobbled, steadying himself with a tall walking stick.
His body was wrapped in a black bearskin cloak that he clasped at the front with his free hand. His forehead was bound by a red felt scarf, tied headband style, and his long gray hair flew wildly on the breeze. Below the cloak his scrawny bowed legs were bare. He was barefoot too, despite the cold and mud. Meet Gordon Steel, Curtis said to us under his breath as the old man approached. The strange old bird stopped a few paces away, wheezing like he had smoked too much over a long lifetime. He let out a guttural, disapproving grunt. A harsh scowl drew his bushy gray eyebrows together. His eyes shone intelligently, but there was no hint of friendliness in his wizened Native American face.
His upper lip and chin bristled with wiry gray whiskers.
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His mouth turned down at the corners pugnaciously. He pointed an arthritic finger at Curtis. You can get some of those old fools to agree to anything. Gesturing at McKean and me with his cane, which was topped with the carved head of a raven, he demanded, Who are these guys? Steel fixed his beady eyes on McKean and glared. As I watched them staring each other down, it dawned on me that McKean had once again sweet-talked me into the path of trouble. Steel flinched first and glanced away. More babalthuds from Seattle, he muttered angrily to Curtis. You know who, Curtis replied.
The Neah Virus
None of them speak for all Makahs, growled Steel. Not even the Tribal Council. None of them keep the old ways like I do.
They use babalthud electricity, babalthud cell phones, babalthud garbage trucks and sewers. They eat and drink babalthud poisons. Babalthud, I interjected with my tongue stumbling on the pronunciation, in which Steel had voiced lth as a single consonant with air escaping out the sides of his mouth. The old man looked at me with disdain equal to that he had shown Curtis and McKean. All you newcomers. All you Americans.
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All the outsiders and Johnny-come-latelys. Curtis gestured at McKean. My friend here is a careful investigator.
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