Chapter 8

“What is that man going to do?” asked Mabel, as she and her father made toast in the kitchen of the little brick house. “Are you sure the Halfslips aren’t in trouble?”

It was Friday morning, the start of a weekend trip Mabel had very much been looking forward to, but concern about the previous night’s events was clouding her enthusiasm. Mr. Crockett poured coffee into a stainless steel travel mug and shook his head.
“I don’t know what kind of report the DIS might have gotten,” he said, “but I’m certain it was a mistake. The Halfslips aren’t growing anything illegal. This kind of thing is a nuisance, but it’ll get straightened out.”

Mabel stepped out the front door and winced as a raindrop splashed onto her nose. “I hope the weather is better at Cochiti Spring,” she said, zipping her jacket a little higher.

“Depends on what you mean by ‘better,’” responded Mr. Crockett. “If you want hot and dry, you’ll be in luck.”

They took the alley around the press office to River Street and met Mrs. Crockett who had loaded the Jeep with the necessary duffel bags.

“Well look at that,” said Mrs. Crockett, gazing across the street. “Boris Fairweather must have decided he didn’t like that tin roof.”

Through the partially constructed front wall of the Fairweathers’ house, Mabel could see a collection of colorful umbrellas. Mrs. Fairweather was reading the comics under a blue one. Ricky and Amanda sat under green and yellow ones as they ate cereal. In the living room, Mikey and Lulu Fairweather were swinging red umbrellas at each other and ignoring the cartoon on television. Mr. Fairweather was on the mostly skeletal roof installing terra-cotta tile on a single sheet of plywood.

“Good morning, Boris!” called Mrs. Crockett. Mr. Fairweather waved his hammer in reply.

Rocky Creek Road was a bumpy ride under the best conditions and on a rainy day mud splashed the Jeep’s windows with each jolt. Mrs. Crockett parked alongside the Shooting Star, and got out to toss duffels up to Mr. Crockett who had climbed onto the wing.

Inside the airplane’s hold, two passenger seats had been fitted side by side behind the cockpit. Mabel climbed in beside her mother, and buckled up as Mr. Crockett taxied across the airfield. As the Star ascended Mabel watched the rain fall on Logjam, but low clouds quickly obscured her view. The last object she could positively identify was a green van, parked behind Franklin’s Guest House, its windshield crudely patched with duct tape.

Thirty minutes west of Logjam the dense clouds began to thin. Patches of blue appeared in the white fluff outside Mabel’s window, and soon, if she looked down, she could see a green and beige patchwork quilt of farms. Mabel heard a click, followed by the familiar hum of the computer which had replaced Clemmy on the Shooting Star.

“Good morning, Peter,” said a voice more patient than Clemmy’s. “May I help you navigate?”

“Hi Bailey,” responded Mr. Crockett. “Yes, thanks. We’re about ninety miles west of Logjam, heading for a private airport south of Artesia, New Mexico.”

Bailey¸ hummed for a few seconds and responded. “Peter, orient yourself three degrees north and set the autopilot.”

The green areas of landscape had nearly disappeared when the Star began to descend. The surface they approached appeared to be little more than rough rocky cliffs set in sandy soil, with an occasional patch of green scrub. The Star whined and whirred, descending slowly until its wheels connected with the ground, bumping and rattling the plane and its passengers. Mr. Crockett taxied, and slowed to a stop alongside a cluster of several small planes.

Mabel could feel the intense change in climate even before her father raised the hatch. There was something stimulating about the dry heat which helped Mabel shake off the drowsiness she often felt after a lengthy flight. Mr. Crockett secured the Star’s hatch after they’d all climbed out.

“There’s our ride,” said Mrs. Crockett, motioning toward a silver Land Rover approaching from across the airfield. The old but well-maintained vehicle stopped alongside the Crocketts.

“Clara and Peter Crockett?” asked a voice, as the Rover’s door opened. Mabel had an inexplicable sensation that pure sunlight was pouring out of the car as a woman stepped out. Short and slightly round, she appeared to be about fifty years old. Her hair, half gray and half sandy-brown, was pulled into a thick, loose braid, and she wore a light-blue India-print cotton dress.

“Yes,” said Mrs. Crockett, “and this is our daughter Mabel.”

The woman smiled at Mabel. Mabel liked her more instantly than almost anyone she’d met before.

“I’m Margie Haycraft,” said the woman, as she opened the rear hatch of the Rover for their duffels. “You’ll find that most of us at Cochiti are jack or jill-of-all-trades, but my special niche is herbs. And sometimes, like today, shuttling guests.” Margie opened the Land Rover’s side door and flashed a deeply lined smile that illumined her face like a star. “It’s about forty minutes to the Spring.”

The terrain between the airfield and their destination became, if anything, increasingly more barren. The emptiness was broken by an occasional lonely homestead, but signs of life were few. The hills around them became steeper, and the cliffs sharper.

“It’s not as dead as it looks here,” said Margie. “You have to look closely for signs of life in the desert.”

“A lizard,” called Mrs. Crockett, pointing out her window.

Mabel looked, and also spotted the dark silhouette of a bird of prey overhead.

“Cochiti Spring,” explained Margie, “was inhabited by native Americans one to two-thousand years ago. We use the cliffside dwellings they abandoned, and enjoy the healing properties of the original mineral spring.”

“Sounds great,” said Mr. Crockett. “I think a nice soak might be the first thing on my to-do list.”

A lengthy drive later, the Land Rover approached what appeared to be the driest, and most desolate bit of landscape they’d seen yet. The road narrowed, and became almost indistinguishable from the desert sand. Ahead, on the left, a cliff jutted out toward the road, obscuring what lay beyond it.

Just at the cliff, Margie threw on her left turn signal, and Mabel could see that the road, as they turned, threaded through a narrow passage between the first cliff and a second outcropping behind it. Except for a crevice above them, where the two rock walls didn’t quite touch, it was like driving under a bridge, in momentary darkness.

“Welcome to Cochiti Spring,” said Margie, as the Rover emerged from under the rocks.

The change in scenery was startling. Mabel felt as if she had entered a salad bowl, where desert cliffs formed a ring around groves of trees, and lush gardens. Most striking were the cliff walls to their right. The face of the cliff was mostly rough rock displaying layered bands of varying color. Several stairways, carved directly into the cliffside, rose from the canyon floor to a series of apartments, also carved out of cliffside rock. The apartments bore the same colorful striations of the cliff around them, but were distinguished by the smoothness of their walls, and their multi-level pattern, as if a child had created them by stacking building blocks.

“Pretty cool, isn’t it?” asked Margie, as she pulled the Land Rover to a stop in front of a large, more recently constructed wooden building at the base of the cliff. “There’s a site-map at the stairway. Look for ‘Zuni.’ That’s the name of your room. If you’d like to leave your bags here on the porch, someone will bring them up.”

Margie smiled at Mabel, who was gazing at the cliff face and shielding her eyes from the bright desert sun. “Dinner is at 6:30, right here in the dining room, and on the other side of this building you’ll find a walkway to the spring. My office is up the far stairway. I’d be thrilled if you come up and see me.”

“Let’s just haul’em up,” said Mrs. Crockett, slinging a duffel over her shoulder and heading toward the site-map at the foot of the nearest stairway. Mabel and her father followed Mrs. Crockett’s lead and grabbed the remaining two duffels.

“There’s Zuni!” said Mabel pointing out a square on the diagram, indicating a cliffside chamber near the top left of the dwelling cluster.

The hike up might have been arduous given the desert heat and bright sun, but the Crocketts found that being in the direct shade of the cool cliff made it tolerable. After climbing what amounted to five flights of stairs, Mabel ran ahead onto a small terrace with a door labeled “Zuni.”

Opening the door, she entered a room which was rather dark, having only one window onto the terrace. But it was immediately apparent that the limited sunlight paid off in comfort. In an environment where daytime temperatures often reached 100 degrees, the room they stood in was naturally cool. The room was furnished simply, with a wood-framed double bed and two matching twins, all of which were outfitted with colorful quilts. A wardrobe, a dresser, two chairs, and a mirror completed the room’s furnishings, and adjacent to the bedroom was a basic, but cheerful bathroom.

“You know, Clara,” said Mr. Crockett, plopping himself onto the larger bed. “I’ve changed my to-do list. Item one is a short nap.”

“How surprising,” said Mrs. Crockett, seeming not at all surprised. “Tell you what, you do that, and I’ll go get some history from the folks in the lodge. Why don’t we meet at the spring in an hour? Mabel do you want to come with me?”

“I think,” said Mabel walking onto the terrace, where the view of the complex below reinforced her salad-bowl sensation, “that I will take a walk around the gardens and meet you at the spring.”

Mabel quickly changed into shorts and grabbed a denim baseball cap. Running back down the steps seemed to take no time at all, and she quickly skirted the lodge’s porch and found a path toward an especially dense and fruity gardened area. In the moister air of the garden, fragrances became stronger and more tantalizing. A gravel path snaked in seemingly random fashion through clusters of colorful blossoms, set among green plants with leaves the size of dinner plates. Ahead, Mabel heard a trickle of water, and the scent of orange blossoms wafted from a stand of taller trees at the center of the garden. The gravel path widened, then opened at the edge of a small grassy clearing. Mabel paused for only seconds before running across the grass to the opposite side of the clearing.

A marble fountain, set on a pedestal, gurgled next to the unusually tall and woody orange trees which surrounded the clearing. The heat made the urge to take a drink irresistible, and it was only after drinking from the water jetting up at the center of the fountain that Mabel noticed a small brass plate on the edge of the fountain’s bowl which said “safe to drink.” Feeling simultaneously foolish and relieved, she leaned toward the water to drink some more, then turned to see who else had entered the clearing.

There was no-one, but Mabel felt as if she were no longer alone. She scanned the trees at the edge of the clearing, but saw only a yellow and brown bird. After quaffing another sizable portion of water from the fountain, Mabel headed out of the garden on a path across from where she’d entered the clearing.

Wooden benches waited at intervals along the path, which meandered right and left. At each turn Mabel hesitated, feeling that she would encounter someone around the bend. Several more yellow and brown birds cocked their heads at her, and she rounded the next corner smiling at a particularly beguiling blue bird, when she was startled to see that the next bench was occupied. Her second fleeting thought was that she’d been mistaken, it was a tree shaped remarkably like a person. No, that was silly. How could she have mistaken a person for a tree? The person on the bench looked at Mabel expectantly, but with an air of timidity, and still the thought that she was perceiving a tree, not a person, flickered in Mabel’s mind.

“I’m Dun,” said the person, in a sweet tenor voice.

“Excuse me?” asked Mabel, regarding the person on the bench. She first supposed it was a boyish woman, then revised her guess to girlish young man. But maybe he wasn’t so young. Finely textured, golden-brown hair, just the color of the dried up leaves falling off the orange trees, grew to his shoulders. His tan skin almost matched his hair, and he wore simple khaki shorts and a safari jacket. “Done with what?” she asked.

His giggling laughter sounded like jingle-bells. “My name is Dun,” he said. “Dun is my name.”

Mabel giggled too, and the apprehension in Dun’s expression temporarily melted. What a peculiar but sort of delightful looking individual, Mabel thought. He appeared both fine-boned and sturdy, with high cheek-bones, a sloping, pointed nose, and eyes that seemed almost canine, like Sparkle’s.

“I’m Mabel,” said Mabel.

“Yes,” replied Dun, as if he already knew that.

“Are you a guest?” asked Mabel.

Dun burst into a fit of laughter, that caused a pendant around his neck to swing. “No, no, I’m not the guest here. Everyone else is the guest.” Noticing Mabel’s gaze he fingered the pendant which hung from a leather cord. “I made it,” he said, looking fondly at the object which appeared to be a crescent moon made from tree bark. “And it’s a good one.”

Mabel had the strong feeling that Dun wouldn’t take kindly to a straightforward question like, who are you and what are you doing here, so she thought carefully for a minute about what she would say next. Finally, she settled on, “You must live here, then.”

“Always,” he replied. “Over there is my…” Suddenly Dun stopped and tilted his head as if listening. Then Mabel heard the crunch of gravel coming toward them from the center of the garden. She glanced behind her, and in her peripheral vision Dun again looked tree-like. A young couple, probably honeymooners, strolled hand-in-hand from the direction of the fountain. She looked back at Dun, but saw neither Dun nor a tree. Just an empty bench.

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