Louisiana’s past is as layered as an onion, with American, French, and Spanish history all resting atop the myriad tribes who have spent millennia on the Mississippi. Alan Graham knows how to peel back the layers. A contract archaeologist in Baton Rouge, he scrapes out a living one dig at a time. Hired by a wealthy landowner to search his property for a cache of long-lost Tunica Indian relics, he expects to find only dirt. But when the client is murdered for his curiosity, Alan knows he is close to the discovery of a lifetime.
To find the artifacts and sniff out the murderer, he must work alongside his competition: the overeducated Yankee Pepper Courtney. As the two dig into the dead man’s past, they find it may be safer to leave some things buried.
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An Alan Graham Mystery
By Malcolm K. Shuman
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 Malcolm K. Shuman
All rights reserved.
"Dr. Graham, you've heard about the Tunica Treasure?"
I was seated at a hole-in-the-wall café in downtown Baton Rouge when T-Joe asked the question. It was a Friday morning in June, and from just over the levee came the heavy, mud smell of the river.
"Every archaeologist's heard about it," I said, trying to keep my voice steady. It had been one of the finds of the century in Southeastern archaeology.
T-Joe Dupont nodded and stirred his coffee, a few bits of powdered sugar from the beignets sprinkling down off his fingers to fall onto the surface of the hot drink.
"I hear the Indians sued everybody and got it back," he said.
It was midmorning and we were the only customers in the place. Most of the tourists were busy at the two gambling boats, two streets down on the river, and the legislature was finishing another turgid session at the state capitol where Huey Long was shot. But the rest of the old downtown section was as still as an abandoned movie set and just as quiet.
"Well, it was a little more complicated than that," I said, pushing my glasses back on my nose, "but, yes, that's essentially what happened."
He nodded again. Late forties with a friendly round face and brown eyes, he wore an open-necked sport shirt with stripes and faded slacks. Not many people's image of a millionaire, I thought.
"Nobody knew about the treasure until somebody dug it up and then everybody jumped in," he went on.
I wondered where this was going. He'd called me yesterday because he said he might have a job for a contract archaeologist and I'd been recommended, but he hadn't mentioned the Tunica discovery.
"Again, more or less true," I said, sipping my hot chocolate. "It was a trove of burial artifacts for the historic Tunica Indians, the greatest that's ever been found for any tribe in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Hundreds of iron and copper pots, European ceramics, native Indian pottery, muskets, and hundreds of thousands of glass beads." I shook my head, remembering the years of litigation involved. "It wasn't worth all that much as far as money goes—maybe ten or twenty thousand dollars on the artifact market—but it was the circumstances of where and how it was found. It was the sort of thing people get killed over. Fortunately, it just ended up in court."
"And it could end up in court again," he said.
"If it was found on your land and the Indians laid claim. Then what?"
"They can't take away private land," I said and then felt foolish, because I knew what he was going to say next:
"Do it all the time for pipelines. Anyway, all they've got to do is tie it up in court." He shrugged. "Still, it'd be a hell of a story to be able to tell people you had something like that on your place."
I waited. T-Joe lifted his cup and squinted at me like he was making a decision.
"Look, Dr. Graham, I won't lie: I called another archaeologist first. Fellow named St. Ambrose. I got his name out of the phone book. But it didn't take five minutes for me to decide there was something I didn't like about him. Then I remembered a friend of mine who'd had to hire an archaeologist once. I called Fuzzy LaBordes and he said you did a good job for him at Bunkie."
"I'm glad. There wasn't much to it. Most of the area had already been used for a municipal garbage dump years ago."
"Still, he trusts you."
It was my turn to nod.
"And I trust you, too," he said finally, like he'd made up his mind. "It's something you learn in business. Especially oil. Lots of things done handshake only. Or used to be, when we had an oil industry. Well, the job changes but people don't."
I exhaled slightly. "Just what is it you trust me to do, Mr. Dupont?"
"T-Joe. Everybody calls me T-Joe." He set down his cup. "I want you to look at a piece of land."
"Where?" I asked, but I already knew.
"A few years ago when oil prices were higher I bought twelve hundred acres in West Feliciana Parish, on the river. Used to be part of Greenbriar Plantation, but the owner was selling it off. It's part pasture, part swamp." He reached under the table and brought out a plastic tube. He extracted a rolled-up map and moved our cups and plates to the adjacent table. Then he spread out the map in front of us. I saw that it was a schematic prepared by a landscape architecture firm in Lafayette.
"My idea was a vacation place for the family," T-Joe explained. "Original landowner kept the plantation house but I took everything up to this fence line." He tapped the center of the map with his pencil. "Here's where I plan to put the house. And we're gonna make a small lake right behind it. There'll be some nature trails, and this part back here, the island, will be left alone, for hunting." I followed his finger across the map to a bulge that extended into the Mississippi.
He folded up the drawing and slipped it back into the tube.
"'Course, it may all have to wait till oil hits thirty dollars a barrel again."
I didn't tell him he might have a long wait. He seemed like a nice man, the kind who'd made it by hard work and a little luck, and it wasn't for me to pour cold water on his dreams.
"Sounds first-class," I said.
"I think so." He put his hands together, interlocking the fingers, as if he were struggling with what he was about to say. "Alan, I'm from St. Martin Parish. I grew up without anything, and I reckon I've done pretty good for myself. Put myself through LSU in engineering and did a good business selling drilling equipment during the boom days. There were lots of overnight millionaires then, but while they were spending their money, I saved mine. I wanted to have something in a few years, and now I do. So when we bought this land, my wife and me, we got books out of the library and we read everything we could find, about the first explorers, and how LaSalle came down the river with Tonti the Iron Hand and then how, a few years later, in 1699, Iberville and his brother sailed up it. Iberville founded Baton Rouge and his brother founded New Orleans."
I knew the story well. The voyage up the river by Iberville and Bienville had been recorded in Iberville's journal, and it was just as exciting to remember now as the first time I'd read it, years ago.
"They found a lot of Indian tribes. Houma and Bayogoula and Tensa," T-Joe went on. "That's where you come in."
"You want an archaeological survey of your property."
T-Joe leaned over the table until his head was close to mine.
"You know the story of the Tunica tribe?" he asked.
"Reasonably well," I said. "DeSoto found them in northwestern Mississippi in 1541. By the time Iberville came upriver, in 1699, they were in the Yazoo Basin, and by the 1700s they were living in West Feliciana Parish, at what's now Angola Prison."
T-Joe nodded approvingly.
"Right. And by 1731, after a fight with the Natchez, they went a few miles south of Angola, to Trudeau Plantation, and stayed there until 1764. That's where the treasure was found."
"Is your acreage near Trudeau?" I asked, the hairs of my neck prickling.
He ignored the question. "According to Dr. Brain, at Harvard, they left Trudeau because they ambushed some Englishmen and were afraid of revenge. So they ran away to the Gulf Coast and lived in Mobile for about a year, but then they got tired and decided to come home."
"Brain's the world authority," I said, waiting.
"When they came back here, they found a spot about ten miles south of Trudeau and stayed there until 1803, when they moved up the Red River to Marksville. That's where the reservation is today."
He paused for my reaction.
"You've done your homework," I said. "You think you've got a historic Tunica site on your property?"
He nodded. "You remember what Dr. Brain wrote about that last Tunica village, the one they left in 1803?"
"I think he said it was in the river."
"What if I was to tell you Dr. Brain was wrong? What if I was to tell you there was a second Tunica Treasure, as big as the first, and it was somewhere on my land? What if I was to tell you the second Tunica village was twenty miles from Trudeau instead of ten, and that's why nobody found it?"
I was about to change my impression of him as a man with common sense, but before I could answer he was reaching under the table again. This time he came up with a paper bag, from which he removed several objects wrapped in tissue. With a glance around him to ensure that we were still alone, he reverently laid the paper-wrapped objects on the table.
"Go ahead," he said. "Open them up."
The tingling was reaching all the way to my belly now, as I reached with a trembling hand.
When I'd finished unwrapping the little parcels, I knew that T-Joe Dupont was as sane as I was. Because there, in front of me, under the fluorescent lights, were three glass trade beads, a tarnished copper bell, the rusted action of a flintlock pistol, and a marine shell that could only have been part of a necklace.
The last time I'd seen artifacts like these had been at the museum on the Tunica Reservation where the Tunica Treasure was displayed.
"And that's only part of it," he whispered. "I've got more at the house."
I exhaled, to keep down the butterflies. I'd heard a rumor that the second Tunica village was still out there somewhere, but until now I'd merely shrugged it off as the gossip of locals.
I handed him back the artifacts. "How do you know these are from your land?"
He gave me a faint smile. "I got them from an old black man named Absalom Moon. Absalom's hunted that land for sixty years. When he showed them to me, I asked him to take me to where they came from, but he pretended not to understand. Just said the woods. See, Alan, that's the whole problem."
T-Joe shook his head. "Absalom's got a mind like flypaper. He can tell you where a certain tree was growing fifty-two years ago, or how big a buck he killed in the winter of '55. He knows every blade of grass on that land, every trail, and how high the water got in '27. He collects arrow points, used to sell them at one of the stores. He knows where to go after it rains to find them. But when it comes to this stuff, his mind suddenly goes blank."
"Interesting," I said. "But it may not be the worst problem. The worst problem is if we find it."
T-Joe made a face. "Yeah, I know. Wife and me talked about it. Poor bastard that found the first Tunica Treasure ended up with everybody mad at him."
"It wasn't because he found the treasure," I reminded him. "It was because he dug on land that wasn't his and destroyed the better part of a hundred Indian graves just to get the burial goods out of the ground."
"Yeah, but you can't tell me the whole tribe wouldn't descend on me if we found something. I heard they've got a new law ..."
"That's right. You can't disturb an unmarked burial or the burial goods with it without getting a special permit from the state."
"Which nobody is going to issue." He gave a tight smile. "Well, that's okay. You see, Alan, I don't want to disturb it. I just want to know where it is."
He began to rewrap the little objects and replace them in the bag. My eyes lingered on them like I was losing old friends.
"I don't give a damn about treasure. I've got all the money I need. I just think this is interesting. If there's something like that on my land, I think it's great. It's something for my kids and their kids to be proud of. I don't aim to tear up anybody's graves, any more than I'd want my family's graves tore up. I just want to know if it's there, and I want to make sure it's preserved. And afterward I don't want every bastard in the state with a metal detector walking all over my lawn. I'd have to hire a private guard force to keep people away."
"I understand. But you have to realize once we determined it was there, we'd be obligated to report it. That's the law. But the records would be confidential, under the State Archaeologist ..."
"Hell, there's no such thing as confidential when you get the government into the act." He looked forlorn, like I'd snatched away something he loved.
"Of course," I said, "there's another possibility: This may just be an isolated find. Maybe a trail crossed your property. The Tunica were great traders. This may have been a rendezvous point or something."
"I've thought about that," T-Joe said. "But it might not be, either. This land is about twenty river miles south of the first spot, at Trudeau, on the east bank of the river." He sighed. "And the hell of it is, I'll never know unless I get somebody out there to search for it."
"I guess not," I said. "Well, maybe you'd like some time to think about it."
He sighed and nodded, suddenly looking glum.
"Yeah, I guess I do."
We shook hands and I watched him walk away with his treasures. When he was gone I went over to the levee and climbed up the grassy bank to where I could look out at the river. A mile wide here, it had formed both a barrier and a highway in ancient days, connecting tribes as far apart as Louisiana and Illinois. It had seen the Spaniard DeSoto come in 1541, with his rag-tag party of conquistadors, and it had swallowed his body when he'd died of a fever on its banks. It had seen the French explorers after him, and had witnessed the founding of a new country. But most of all, it had seen the first Americans, the Natchez, Bayogoula, Houma, and Tunica. They had depended on it for the fertility of their crops and had traveled on its waters. And through the centuries it had whipsawed its way back and forth across the land like a great snake, wiping out all that had been.
What the hell was I thinking? The second Tunica village was in the river now. Or someone would have found it years ago.
I drove back to our office, an old frame house in Tigertown, just outside the north gates of the university. Not exactly an upscale location, but convenient for research at the library and the university collections. We'd found drunks asleep on our front yard more than once in the ten years we'd been here, but we had a state-of-the-art alarm system, and the location made it easy for us to hire students.
As I walked in Marilyn, my tiny office manager, handed me a message slip.
"Bertha just called, and she sounded hot."
I sighed. Bertha Bomberg, whom we all called Bombast, was our contract officer at the New Orleans District of the Corps of Engineers. A call from her was usually a trial by fire as she inflicted some new theory or demand. I nodded to the pair of students sorting artifacts at the two big tables in what used to be a living room and went straight to my office at the back. Even with the air conditioning the room felt warm, but I knew that when I spoke to Bertha it would get warmer. I leaned back in my chair and propped my feet on the oak desk I'd rescued at a yard sale. I was thinking about T-Joe Dupont and wondering if I ought to get involved. He wanted silence, but there was no way to ensure that. News traveled. So, in all, the work had the potential of getting us some publicity, but I wasn't sure it was the kind of publicity we needed. Contract archaeology isn't like academic archaeology: It's a business where discretion is valued.
I wondered if Bombast would be at her desk now. Today was Friday and she wasn't known for her long hours. Maybe she'd gone home early. Or maybe I could manage to call while she was down the hall at the candy machine, and thus avoid her until Monday. It was eleven o'clock. If she left for lunch at eleven-thirty and didn't return ...
The phone rang and my spirits sagged.
I lifted the receiver like a man under water and told myself to keep my cool.
"Moundmasters," I said.
"Christ, when are you going to change that goofy name?" a male voice whined. It wasn't Bertha.
"Hello, Freddie," I said. "How did I luck out? First a call from Bombast and now the president of Pyramid Consultants."
"Bombast?" he snorted. "What did you do, fuck up your last delivery order? I told them they should've given us that contract. You can't run a business with part-timers and students."
"Is that what you told them when you protested the award?"
"None of your business what we put in our protest. But I didn't call to argue with you. I called because we've got a mutual interest. We need to work together."
Excerpted from Burial Ground by Malcolm K. Shuman. Copyright © 1998 Malcolm K. Shuman. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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