THE ANCIENT DEAD
An Amanda Doucette mystery
The rains of ages have laid bare
The ancient dead once buried there,
Far, far below in limestone vault.”
—Charles H. Sternberg, 1911
Beneath the dry, cracked soil, the tufts of sage and prairie wool, lay the graveyard of the ancient dead. Even after weeks of exploring the wide-open range, Todd Ellison still shivered at the thought, as if ghosts were walking at his side. The sun blazed in the cloudless blue sky and a fitful wind billowed in from the west, swirling dust in its path. After a relentlessly dry summer, the land was parched.
The weather was still hot in late August, but Todd had packed a pullover and windbreaker in his backpack. This was Alberta, after all. Full of surprises.
He tilted his cowboy hat back and turned in place to take stock. The rolling grassland seemed to stretch on forever, broken only by a scattering of Hereford cattle, occasional clumps of trees and farms, and an oil derrick bobbing lazily against the distant horizon. His backpack stuck to his sweaty back as he pulled it around to get at his water bottle and binoculars. He needed shade and rest. According to his GPS, he was not far from a coulee, which carved a deep crevice through the ancient sandstone.
Coulees promised the shade of bushes and outcrops, but more importantly, they were where some of the best secrets lay.
He trained his binoculars toward the eastern horizon, where a smudge of grey humps suggested the edge of the coulee. Nearer still was the slumping shape of an old outbuilding. Exactly what he’d been looking for! After a quick swig of water, he looped his camera around his neck and slipped his pack back into place. With a fresh burst of energy, he started forward, picking his way through the sage and keeping an eye open for the vicious spikes of cactuses.
The wind blew in gusts against his back, tugging at the dry grass and driving fine sand into his eyes. His hiking boot struck something hard. He parted the grass to reveal a smooth stone partially buried in the soil. A quick search revealed other stones arranged in a circle about twelve feet across. Excited, he photographed them, taking care to capture the iridescent oranges and greens of the lichen and the sharp shadows of the sage. Once, the Blackfoot had roamed unhindered across this prairie, hunting buffalo, but now these occasional stone circles were all that remained of their camps and tepees. The stones would make a spectacular photograph for his book.
Closer to the outbuilding, a pair of craggy grey posts poked up out of the grass, and soon he could distinguish bits of rusty barbed wire still clinging to their sides, remnants of a long abandoned fence put up by a farmer or rancher in earlier times. Todd poked his boot into the soil, which was too dry and sandy even for grazing here. Like the stone circles, the fence posts were testament to long-dead dreams. A title for his photographic history book was beginning to take shape: Ghosts of the Ancient Dead.
Snapping photos, he walked around the posts and adjusted settings and filters as he knelt to highlight them against the sun. Subtle hues of lichen glistened in the light. He studied the effects on the screen and smiled. This was going to be good.
As he drew nearer, details of the outbuilding took shape. Barely fifteen feet square, it listed badly as if weary of its battle against the relentless wind. Its sun-bleached walls still propped one another up, but its roof had long since fallen inside. The door hung open, creaking in the wind, its wooden hinges and bolt splintered as if someone had tried to break it down. Holes gaped where the two small windows had been. Todd peered inside. All but a few primitive furnishings had been scavenged, but a willow sapling was flourishing in the relative cool of the shade.
After taking dozens of photos outside, Todd bent his head to squeeze his six-foot frame through the door and adjusted his camera to capture the gloom. He noted now the scorch pattern on the wall where the woodstove must have been, the nails in the walls where the few clothes and implements would have hung, and the single shelf on which sat some chipped cups and an empty whiskey bottle caked in dust and oddly out of place. A message had been carved into the wall next to the window. He leaned in to photograph it. It was barely legible, and he blew the sand out of the cracks. A horizontal line, and next to it Snow, March 1907.
More ghosts. Todd smiled as he photographed it, documenting history. In March 1907, some poor beleaguered pioneer must have been nearly buried in a spring blizzard that had blown in from the Rockies. He had probably been forced to crawl out through the window. Todd wondered whether he’d been alone or whether he’d had to rescue his entire family from the storm. A trip to the local archives or land registry should tell him the identity and fate of the settler who’d once tried to survive on this land.
He retreated back outside to look for more clues about their early life. There was almost nothing left except a nail keg and a broken sleigh runner. He dictated his impressions into his phone. First impressions and a dose of imagination made for powerful reading.
Afterward, he checked his watch, mindful that he had to retrace his steps to the range road before nightfall. In August, the days were already getting shorter and the nights cooler. But it was just past two o’clock, still plenty of time to reach the coulee. The best pictures would be there, amid the old cottonwoods, the ripples of eroded, multilayered rock, and the curving shadows of light. With any luck, maybe even a dinosaur bone or two.
He came upon the coulee quite unexpectedly as the prairie floor fell into a yawning crevice of barren hills and steep slopes down to the ancient riverbed. In the spring, snow melt would tumble down through the gully into the Red Deer River farther east, washing silt and debris with it, but in late August, the riverbed was dry. Willows and gnarled cottonwood trees clustered along the shoreline to sap the last drops of water from the parched soil. The v-shaped valley snaked ahead into the distance, forming an eerie moonscape of colours and shapes.
The wind picked up as it swept through the gully, racing over the barren hills and tearing at the bushes nestled in the crevices. Tufts of sagebrush and prairie grass clung to the desolate southern slopes, but hardy green and gold bushes grew in the lee of the north-facing hills. Todd picked his descent carefully down a crevice through sandstone and popcorn rock that crumbled underfoot, dislodging cascades of debris. Amid the debris, rocks and pebbles glinted in the sunlight. He bent to pick them up, looking for bits of ancient shellfish, seeds, and bones, imprints of leaves and flowers, the ancient dead from a time millions of years ago when this had been a swampy, inland sea teeming with life.
As he walked along the sandy riverbed, he scoured the banks for larger fossils. Dinosaurs had walked these marshy shores seventy million years ago, and these Alberta plains had one of the richest collections of dinosaur bones in the world. Fossil hunters had been excavating bones for over a century, but new finds were still being made. A well-preserved dinosaur bone would be the highlight of his book, and if it were a new species, it might even be named after him. Ellisonsaurus!
He photographed as he walked, focussing first on the expansive vista of sunlight playing over the striated hills and on the comical silhouettes of hoodoos. Nature’s sandstone sculptures loomed like caped sentinels over the valley, their stone caps perched precariously on their heads. Then he switched lenses to capture the tiny fossil fragments that had washed down from the valley walls. The afternoon sun baked the stone, turning the valley into an oven. The wind evaporated the sweat from his face as soon as it formed, and before he noticed, he was parched. A wave of dizziness swept over him. Quickly, he pulled out his thermos and headed for the shade of an ironstone overhang.
He sat on the sand below the overhang, took off his hat, and drank a deep, grateful gulp of water. Then he rubbed his wet hands over his face and poured a little water over his head. The dizziness had passed, but he decided to wait awhile before venturing out into the sun again. He ran his hands through the rough sand and shale, letting it trickle through his fingers.
His fingers struck a hard stone. Curious, he brushed the sand away to uncover a polished round knob bleached grey with time. He tried to pry it loose, thinking it was a rock, but it wouldn’t budge. He dug more sand away, revealing a thin grey shaft.
He sucked in his breath. He traced his hands along the hard, pitted shaft, and his heart beat faster. Could it be? The answer to his wildest hope?
Amanda Doucette peered out the side window of the rented Ford SUV. Grey and amber fields stretched to the distant horizon. “Man, it’s empty!”
Chris Tymko smiled as he accelerated past a lumbering transport truck. Their SUV was more than two thousand kilograms of steel, muscle, and high-tech gadgetry. Compared to her nimble Kawasaki motorcycle, it was a behemoth, and she had nicknamed it the Hulk. But Chris loved it. He drove it with the casual confidence of a cop, one hand on the wheel and the other propped on the open windowsill. His leather cowboy hat was tilted low against the sun, and behind his large sunglasses, his expression was serene. He’d had that look ever since they’d embarked on their prairie odyssey.
“This is home,” he’d simply said.
They were driving west on the TransCanada Highway, a divided four-lane highway that angled northwest across the Alberta prairie toward the Rockies. Once they’d left the outskirts of Medicine Hat, the highway was almost empty as it passed through acres and acres of open range. There was nothing to see but cattle and a scattering of oil derricks and grain bins. Amanda chafed.
“Let’s get off this highway.” She peered at the faint lines on her phone map. “Let’s take some back country roads up to Drumheller through some of these little towns so we can see what real rural Alberta looks like.”
He chuckled. “This is it. At this time of year, with the grain ripening, there’s also a patchwork of golds and greens. But it’s all fields.”
“Still …” They caught up with another transport truck, and Amanda peered inside at the cattle in the trailer. “Headed toward the slaughter house?”
He shrugged. “Welcome to real rural Alberta.”
“Okay,” she muttered, humbled. “But we aren’t meeting the people from the Royal Tyrell Museum until tomorrow, so we’ve got lots of time to poke around the back roads and see what Alberta’s famous farm and ranch country looks like.”
He lowered the Hulk’s visor against the glare of the late afternoon sun before glancing at her. “Pretty much like the Saskatchewan farm country we drove through earlier. Fifteen minutes is all you’ll need.”
“I’ll take it. Maybe we can find a place to stretch our legs. Kaylee could use a walk.”
The dog had been fast asleep on the console between them, her head resting on her paws as if even she was bored with the monotony. At the word walk, her head shot up.
Chris laughed. “Okay, I give up.”
“Oh, so you won’t listen to me, but you listen to her!”
He shifted his hand to caress her thigh. “I’m just in a hurry to find a place to stay in Drumheller. Four days in the spare bedroom of my parents’ tiny condo sure put a damper on our sex life.”
She caught his roving hand. “Eyes on the road, Corporal. Behave. Who knows, maybe we can find an old-fashioned roadside motel in one of these little villages.”
She turned her attention to her phone GPS and directed him to take the next side road north. After a few hundred metres, the paved road gave way to a flat, straight arrow of gravel flanked on one side by wheat fields that rippled in the afternoon breeze. She studied the rolling vista. Far into the distance, the land shone amber in the sinking sun. Huge sprinkler systems stretched across the fields like giant centipedes, and round bales of hay lay ready for collection. Some homesteads were a cluster of abandoned buildings surrounded by overgrown brush, but most were modern and prosperous, with sheltering clumps of trees, shiny grain bins, and expensive farm equipment.
On the other side of the road, however, the stubby grass and weeds were withered to brown and grey, and only a few dozen head of cattle ranged in the distance.
“Wow, what a difference!” she said.
He nodded. “One side is just used as pasture and maybe some dryland farming. The other side is irrigated. By this time of year, sometimes there hasn’t been any rain in three months. Before irrigation, farmers lived on the edge of bankruptcy half the time.”
“Where does the water come from?”
“From the Bow River, through a system of canals and pipes.”
“What a lot of water they must use to irrigate all this!”
His brow furrowed in faint irritation. “Easy for you to say, coming from Ontario. You have endless lakes and rivers, and it’s green everywhere. This is a very different reality, but this prairie feeds a lot of our country.”
She fell silent. He was right. Who was she to judge? She was here to explore, to learn, to understand, and ultimately to finalize her next Fun for Families tour: an educational adventure for high school students from a couple of remote Northern Alberta towns. Their area had been hard hit the previous summer by wildfires that had ravaged their lands and wreaked havoc with their livelihood. With the catchy title Time Travel, she hoped the weeklong adventure would give the students a glimpse into life in Southern Alberta through the ages, from the dinosaurs to the First Nations to the early ranchers and settlers. But in order to instil some love of this bleak, big sky landscape in their hearts, she first had to find it in hers.
Although Chris had been posted in the north and more recently in Newfoundland, he had grown up on a Southern Saskatchewan farm. This past week had shown her that he loved the vast blue sky and the golden seas of wheat as much as she loved the sparkling lakes and rolling green hills of her own Ontario home. Canada was a jewel with many facets, and every one deserved its share of light.
At the end of a long lane up ahead, she spotted a cluster of gnarled old trees surrounding a small homestead. As they approached, she saw the little saltbox house was long abandoned. The steep roof had lost half its shingles and the porch across the front had faded to flaking grey. It sat amid dust and dried weeds that passed for a yard. To one side was a collection of equally decrepit sheds and barns, a corral, and a field of rusting tractors, ploughs, and trucks of 1970s vintage. Adjacent to the barn were two round, rusty grain bins.
Behind those, the remnants of a rutted track led out into an empty field.
“This place looks deserted. Maybe we can park in here and take Kaylee for a walk out across that field.”
He nodded as he pulled into the lane. A faded For Sale sign lay blown over at the entrance. Amanda wondered how long it had been there, forlorn and forgotten like the house.
Chris jackknifed his tall frame out of the Hulk and stretched his back with a groan before tipping his hat back and strolling over to peer through the only window that wasn’t boarded up. As she watched him, an old memory stirred. Where had she seen that image before? In a picture frame somewhere. An old orange-tinged photo of a farm like this, set against a barren field as grey and flat as an ocean. The sunlight had cast sharp shadows across the figure of a young man leaning against a fencepost, his cowboy hat tipped back at a saucy angle.
She riffled though her memory. She’d seen the photo in the Laurentian cottage she rented from her Aunt Jean. When her aunt was home from assignment, she used it as her touchstone in Canada, and the tiny, rustic place was stuffed with mementoes from her sojourns in remote lands. The photo had been in a wooden frame on the wall above her bed, among pictures of the Great Wall of China and of candles floating on the Ganges. Amanda had assumed it was taken on some plain she’d passed through, perhaps in Mongolia or Russia. One dry plain could look much like another.
But now she wondered at the similarities. The windswept field, the saltbox cabin, the outbuildings, grain bins, and corral. Even the cowboy hat. Where had that photo been taken? And more important, why had her Aunt Jean kept it framed on her wall among iconic world-class scenes for all these years?