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"It were there, John, there where you see that slide. I swear it! You can even see Breaker's hip prints and saddle marks in the dirt. Do you think the coyotes could've dragged it off?"
We searched up and down the wash and in the bushes and the like, only turnin' up rocks and sand and more bushes. Old John weren't sayin' a word while I followed him up the side on the remainder of that game trail where I run into the buck the day before. Dirt and rocks was loose from landslide, but Old John went up like a man with a purpose. There at the top sat the craziest thing I ever seen in my life.
Not two feet from the bank of that high desert wash laid what looked like a fresh dug grave. That's right ... a grave with three big juniper posts makin' a triangle over the mound of new turned earth. That's not all, neither. Spread across the middle post hung a brand spankin' new buckskin shirt with leather fringe on the sleeves and collar, and with half-moons and suns and stars painted all over it.
Now you tell me that ain't the strangest thing you ever seen ... out there a thousand miles from no place, in the middle of the Arizona Strip, where there's not half-a-dozen people between that place and the Utah state line, and you walk up on a thing like that!
"What is it, John?" I asked, completely dumbfounded.
Old John walked around it two or three times, checkin' things over careful and not sayin' a word. He'd squat and look under the poles then get up and stare far away toward Mount Trumble. He'd walk around some more and check things again, then scratch his head and shake it and spit a little. All this time henever touched no part of it even once.
"Do you know what it is?" I was almost afraid to ask.
He started to speak, but it seemed like everything caught in his throat. "Ghost shirt," he said again. This time it came loud and clear: "Ghost shirt!"
"Ghost shirt?" I asked, puzzled. "What in heck is that?"
He removed his hat and rubbed his hands through his nearly white hair. "Not good ... for sure, or somebody playin' bad trick on us."
"Where'd it come from? Who put it here? It weren't here yesterday. I rode right by this spot lookin' for that stock."
Old John didn't answer my questions. Instead, he had a few of his own. "Boy, you playin' some trick on me?" he said with burnin' eyes. "'Cause if it so, be low down and dirty; I don't take to it."
"Honest, John. I don't know nothing about this, other than what I told you. What do you mean, trick?"
"Grave ... shirt ... stuff?"
"I swear it, John. This weren't here yesterday. I mean it!" I couldn't believe Old John'd think I put somethin' like that out there just to fool with him. "Besides, where'd I get a fancy shirt like that?"
"Not right," he kept sayin' as he walked around scratchin' his head, stoppin' and examinin' things, then walkin' some more. "Well, somebody put it here ... or some thing!"
"What do you mean, some thing?" I thought about the buck and the dust devil and the old skull.
Old John didn't answer. He kept studyin' the grave.
Finally, he stopped, looked straight in my eyes, not two feet from me, just like he done back at the corral. "Boy, I want some truth. You messin' over here. Did you pick up skull, take it home or pick up anything?"
"I told you what happened, John. I'd not lie to you."
"You sure? From slide? Now tell me, boy, if you did. I mean it!"
"Positive. The old skull were all I seen anyway."
"No time to keep secrets. Tell truth."
"It's the truth, John!" I said it kinda mad and all. He started gettin' on my nerves, not believin' me. I don't always tell the truth, but when I do, I want people to know it.
"Believe you." Then he walked around the poles, studyin' some more, rubbin' his chin, and lookin' that far off look I seen him do out by the corral earlier.
"What does it all mean, John? Who did this ... and why?" Before, it'd been kinda funny like a joke, but by that time the grave and the ghost shirt and all, well, I weren't scared or nothing, but, you know, I felt a little worried.
"Goes back long time, boy, long, long time. Can't figure it all, but certain ... a Navajo grave, a Paiute ghost shirt ... they not go together."
About that time, the wind began whippin' in little circles close to the ground. Baby dust wheels spun across the fresh turned earth beneath the juniper poles, spinnin' on over the bank, down into the wash toward the horses. By the time them tiny funnels reached the other side of the wash, they'd grown into small dust devils. Then they mixed into one that picked up leaves and branches and dirt, thrashin' the mesquite, creosote, and sagebrush like a giant fan. You could almost see somethin' alive in it, but then again, you couldn't. Finally, it zigzagged its way out across the valley, sendin' a funnel higher and higher up into the blue.
"Thinkin' what we have, boy, is loose Stchindii. Nothin' to play with. Come on, we go." John started back down the game trail toward the horses.
"A what?" I followed him.
"Stchindii." It sounded Indian to me. "Stchindii, Chindii." Old John went from speakin' Indian to more like you'd say it in English.
"A loose Chindii? What in heck is a Chindii?" I'd never heard talk about a Chindii.
"Chindii's evil spirit ... Navajo ... a devil. Called up by medicine man for curses and evil things." Old John mounted Cinco.
"You're kiddin' me. You don't believe that stuff no more'n I do. You told me yourself, John. Most Indian beliefs is just crazy old superstitions. I'll bet Ben Carpenter and some of the boys rode over here and did this for a joke," but as I said it, I knowed that didn't make sense.
"Yeah, have told you, boy, but this not the same. May have lived like white man for long time, but Indian ... seen strange things in life. No, not to be taken light. You keep head straight next few days; watch what happenin'. Need to study some."
He spurred Cinco into a canter headin' toward the pickup and trailer. I mounted up and flanked Breaker down into and across the big wash where all this strangeness'd started. When I topped out, I pulled up and took one quick look back toward the grave and ghost shirt. The wind whipped the dust some, and I could see the fringe on the sleeves and collar jumpin' and dancin'.
When I caught Old John, he gave me a glance that showed worry like I don't think I'd saw on his face before.
We rode side by side, not talkin' for a while, but somethin had been pickin' at my mind since we left the wash. "Just one thing, John. What happened to the skull?"
He didn't answer right away.
"Well?" I asked him. I could see the red of the old Ford and trailer through the high desert thickets.
"Chindii put back where belongs!" Cinco bolted to a lope and Breaker followed.
Away to the east, some of them giant white clouds was movin' in over the big mountain; the wind were still playin' slap-tag with the trees and bushes; and Breaker and Cinco was gettin' excited because they knowed they'd soon be loaded and headin' home for some good hay and oats. As for me, I had a lot of questions in my mind that I couldn't quite put answers to--them slings and arrows type questions--and one were whether Old John knowed what he talked about or whether he were puttin' me on, but I never ever knowed Old John to play jokes.