The size of the parking lot reflected the grandiosity of the town’s hopes, or perhaps the depth of its despair. “Build a parking lot and they will come,” the mayor had insisted to a skeptical council. So he got it built. “In record time,” he bragged later. During his many decades in the town old Joe had almost always gotten his way. But even before the parking lot was constructed, businessmen, both the local and the international kind, were anticipating the coming crowds. Half a dozen motels and just about every fast food eatery anyone could name were lined up along the brand new divided four-lane highway leading two miles from the interstate to the driveway. Unlike the cave itself, the freeway exit had a huge new sign proclaiming, “CAVETOWN CAVERNS The Southwest’s Underground World of Mystery.”
Just yesterday the mayor had told the Town Council, “Go see what’s out there now and remember what it was like only two years ago. It was nothing. Nothing at all. Just a scrubby pasture burnt by the sun with a dozen cows and horses. The owner had an agricultural tax exemption. He didn’t even fork over enough taxes to pay for the upkeep of the gravel road that ran beside his grass and cows. Nothing but brown grass and stinging weeds and prickly bushes. And now,” he spread his hands in a gesture that combined praise for what he had achieved with ownership of what had come to pass, “and now it’s the beginning of our new future.”
Because the Texas bus was the first—the first of what everybody was sure would be many—they had all showed up to greet it: the mayor, the five members of the town council, the newspaper publisher, the managers of the motels, the president of the chamber of commerce, even the governor, which surprised everybody. This was the kind of town Gov. Sarah Davidson made strenuous efforts to avoid visiting—efforts so successful that she had gotten re-elected to her now-expiring second term without so much as setting foot in the town. But now she, too, was there. Like the experienced politician she was, she stationed herself between the ticket window and the cave entrance. There was no way anybody was going to get into that cave without shaking her right hand and taking a flyer from her left hand.
Hoping to get a few pointers on how the pros did it, the mayor was watching her with an eagle eye. “Why do you suppose the governor of New Mexico is giving campaign literature to a bunch of Texans?” he mused out loud.
“Didn’t you read the gossip in the Standard?” the Frank replied. “She’s trying to get the vice presidential slot on the national ticket. The governor of Texas is chair of the committee screening candidates.”
“Hey, Bob, are you getting this?” the mayor suddenly yelled at the top of his voice. He’d spotted Bob Picotone shooting pictures for the Standard. A woman was handing up her little boy to be hugged by the mayor, who, for good measure, added a kiss on the child’s cheek. “OK, that’s enough of that one,” the mayor told Bob as the little boy, alarmed at the vigor of the kiss, started crying.
Beside the ticket gate, vendors had pulled up wagons and were selling hot dogs, soft drinks, souvenir post cards and pamphlets describing the history of the cavern. Somebody was selling country music CDs and selections from the disks blared from speakers. Somebody else had thought to assemble a whole library of books and pamphlets about ghosts of the southwest. Another vendor was specializing in tales of unsolved murders. Then four rap dancers appeared and started competing with each other for tips. But they didn’t do nearly as well as the two little girls who did cartwheels and handstands.
“God, it’s just like a circus,” Dennis Anaya whispered to the mayor, but he wasn’t complaining. Before he got this job welcoming cavern tours, he had been an unemployed truck driver.
The mayor was a stickler for punctuality and the walking part of the tour started promptly at noon, as advertised. Joe led the riders and Frank the walkers. The two groups met up at the bottom near where the body had been found. “Maybe we should keep the body for last,” Frank had suggested. “You know, as kind of a tour de force.”
“These tourists speak Texan, not French,” the mayor snarled dismissively. “Anyway, the body plays second fiddle to the ghosts.”
The body was laid out where it had been found in a nook surrounded by boulders that appeared to have fallen from the shelf high above, perhaps in an avalanche or an earthquake. The region experienced hundreds of small quakes each year, but had not seen a large one in living memory. Who knew when the last big one occurred? The body was only a skeleton, but remarkably intact. You could see clearly where the bones had been broken, the head bashed in. “It must have been terrible to be there,” Sally Newcomb, one of the younger members of the tourist group, said sadly. “Maybe he had camped there,” she imagined, “and the rocks just poured down on him. Or her. It must’ve been awful.” She was crying now.
Frank moved next to her and put an arm around her shoulder to comfort her. “That was a long time ago,” he reminded her. He wondered if they would have time for a cup of coffee together before the tour bus left for the long drive to the Grand Canyon.
Her sobs subsided. “How old is the body?” she asked.
“We don’t know,” Frank replied. His arm still rested on her shoulder. “But until this cavern was discovered last year, nobody had been down there in decades, maybe centuries. At least so far as we know. I guess kids could have snuck down the shaft, but there was no evidence of that. The only entrance was covered up with 10 feet of rocks and dirt.”
“Haven’t you tried to date the body?”
“Yeah, we’ve arranged for DNA tests and carbon dating, but we don’t have any conclusive information yet. You know, we only discovered the body last month. We’ve been pretty busy organizing tours like the one you’re on. But I promise you that’s one of the next things we plan to get to,” Frank said. He added, “He could be thousands of years old, older than Clovis man, which was found south of here and has been dated at 12,000 years. Maybe we here in our little cavern will make world history and prove man lived in the western hemisphere before everyone says it was even possible.”
Eloise, who had been studying the site intensely, approached the mayor. “Are they both from the same family?” she asked. “One of them looks different from the other.”
“There’s only one.”
“I beg to differ,” she said stiffly, as if resenting his air of assumed authority. “I clearly saw two.”
“Maybe one of them is the ghost,” Frank joked. She stared angrily at him and he backed off a bit. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be flippant about corpses, but seriously there’s only one. Let’s move on to the real ghosts.”
Next week, Part 4
Leota started working for The Independent in 2006, working her way up through the ranks. An employee buyout in 2010 led to her ownership of the newspaper. Leota has served on the board of the N.M. Press Association, and is currently its First Vice President. She is passionate about health and wellness, especially mental health, and loves making art. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.