A single bone—or even a bone shard—wouldn’t just slow work down. It would stop everything.
The snort and belch of the backhoe rattling along the mountain made Merculief feel less isolated than he actually was.
There were thirty-seven men working at this mine, including the guy driving the backhoe and the laborer leaning on a shovel next to Merculief. That was way too many witnesses for anything sketchy to happen—other than having to endure a few elbows and junior high-level taunts in the chow trailer. They wouldn’t have hired him if they didn’t want him around. Would they?
Merculief turned up the volume on his phone, letting “No One Knows” by Queens of the Stone Age pour through his earbuds. He tried to forget about the hatred, reminded himself that he could be working in an office, and kept his eyes peeled for bones.
Remote didn’t begin to describe the Valkyrie mine. He wasn’t just at the end of some dirt road or at the top of a mountain.
Roughly thirty miles south of Juneau by boat, the excavation project leading to the mine adit known as Valkyrie #3 cut along the side of the mossy-green mountain, tucked deep in a glacial valley inside Port Snettisham, a T-shaped inlet of pristine waters off Stephens Passage.
Everything here looked near vertical to Merculief, or at the very least, too steep for a road. But there had been a road, once upon a time, back in the glory days after Auke Chief Kowee guided Joe Juneau and Richard Harris to gold at Quartz Gulch. Avalanche chutes had washed a good portion of it away. Berry bushes bristled between the remaining timbers, hidden beneath the muck. The narrow ledge was rarely much wider than the backhoe tracks at any point, and much of that had been sheared off by heavy snow. Persistent rain turned the rock and freshly dug earth into soup, forcing the Native archeologist and the skinny laborer slouching next to him to be constantly on the move or risk sliding down the hillside into the raging creek that rushed along the valley floor. The mountain on the far side of the narrow valley rose steeply, absent the ugly excavation scar. Snowfields still perched higher up, shielded from the rays of the sun by the perpetual shadow of steep angles. Towering cedar and spruce, jagged boulders—it all felt close enough to touch.
Rain pattered on the hood of Merculief’s Helly Hansen jacket. He would have heard the pop, pop, pop of the droplets but for Queens of the Stone Age blaring in his earbuds. A steady wind blew
down from the icefields above, making the raindrops sting his face if he looked in the wrong direction. Alaskans knew that cotton killed in the cold and damp. Merculief preferred layered wool and a waterproof rain suit. Southeast weather scoffed at “water resistant.” An oilcloth ball cap and tall rubber XTRATUF boots—often called “Juneau sneakers”—kept him relatively dry during the long hours he spent standing over the dig.
The big 953 Caterpillar track crawler belched and clanked, working steadily along the mountain. Its massive steel bucket swung back and forth overhead, chewing steadily through blueberry brush, moss, and a layer of deep brown earth. Almost black with age and tannin from the surrounding vegetation, a series of logs were arranged side by side on the ground, close together, like the walls of an old fort that had fallen over.
It was sad, in a way, to see the old corduroy road torn up. A piece of history—gone. But it was not a piece of that history Merculief was paid to care about. He breathed in the chilly, ionized scent of wet dirt and decaying wood. The rough-cut logs had been laid down over a century before, during the heyday of gold mining in the region. They formed a road to keep the wagons and ore carts out of the ever-present muck. Had there been no old road, the bosses would never have gotten the permits to build a new one.
The Tongass National Forest was designated roadless. Period. Fortunately for old man Grimsson, the Valkyrie’s owner, he’d located this easement to the old mine adit. That meant he wasn’t building a new road. He was merely improving one that had been constructed in 1904 to carry ore out of the mine a half mile farther up the valley. Those miners had tunneled in two hundred yards and quit, not knowing they were a scant eleven feet from a rich vein of gold bearing quartz. Harold Grimsson had found it, and now he wanted to punch a hole through to the vein—but first he had to rebuild the road.
Core samples projected an ounce of gold for every six barrels of ore they hauled out of the mountain. In the mining world, that was a whole lot of gold. They were almost there. It had been the natural place to build a road in the early nineteen hundreds, when few cared about rolling roughshod over sacred Native sites. Unfortunately for Valkyrie #3, these last three hundred yards folded back and forth in a series of cliffs and crags, the perfect spot for a burial ground.
The twenty-eight-year-old archeologist focused on bones—and his music—when he should have been worried about the heavy backhoe bucket swinging back and forth on the boom over his head. Dean Schimmel, a laborer in tattered Frogg Toggs raingear that looked like he’d found them wadded up in the trunk of an abandoned car, perched on a crumbling hummock of mossy earth a few feet up the valley. As ever, he leaned on a shovel, looking as spindly as the shovel’s handle, and extremely glum. He was supposed to act as safety. To keep an eye on Merculief, make sure he didn’t get himself brained by the swinging backhoe bucket, but Dean Schimmel was just as likely to stare at a passing raven or puff on his cigarette and watch a shuffling porcupine. He was probably a decent enough guy, though he put far too much stock in what Dallas Childers had to say.
That guy was bad news. Merculief could feel it.
Childers, the scowling dude behind the controls of the bright yellow beast, was supposed to stay to the existing road. Instead, he used it as a vague guideline, taking bites of moist earth and rock the size of La-Z-Boy recliners out of the mountain at every other turn. Merculief didn’t try to stop him. Violations of US Forest Service regulations weren’t his problem—unless they involved old bones or Native settlements.
The mine had a strict no-gun policy, but Childers said he’d seen a brown bear a couple of weeks back, so the foreman let him carry his big Glock on a chest rig over his Carhartt overalls. He practiced with it too, every day, out on the old tailings by the ocean. He used oil cans for targets and always made sure someone else was watching so they could see how good he was. He was fast, which was part of being good, Merculief thought. There were no more bear sightings, but Childers just kept right on carrying his Glock. No one ever told him not to. Had it been anybody else, Merculief might have felt safer, but when he thought it over, he was a lot more concerned about Childers and his Glock than any brown bear.
The bulk of the crew was working down at the main operation, through the thick forest, a quarter of a mile away, most of them deep underground. It would be all too easy for Childers to murder him and bury him with the backhoe. Forget finding any bones. Childers just flat hated Indians.
A mixture of Tlingit, Portuguese, and Russian, Isaac Merculief had grown up in Petersburg, a hundred and sixty miles to the south. He knew how to dress for Southeast Alaska weather—mist, rain, fog, snow, wind, or any combination thereof. Extra layers could be shed on the rare but spectacularly beautiful sunny days— but cold and wet was always just around the corner, waiting to slap you in the face. Merculief didn’t mind. The endless rain kept everything an unimaginable green.
The archeologist pulled the collar of the fleece jacket inside his raincoat tighter around his neck, eyes moving from the teeth of the heavy bucket to Dallas Childers’s sheep-killing-dog look. It was in Merculief’s nature to try to say something friendly, a joke to cut the tension, but the backhoe’s engine isolated the three men and left them each cloistered away in their own world, free to despise or pity the other.
Merculief had just looked away, resting his eyes for a moment from the monotonous back-and-forth movement of the backhoe’s boom, when he heard the telltale rattle of the diesel engine revving a little more than usual. Childers had uncovered something and was attempting to swing the bucket back over the top of it.
It was too late. Merculief leaped forward, scrambling in the soupy dirt, nearly falling in front of the backhoe. He shouted, frantically waving his arms, for Childers to stop. A strong hand grabbed the collar of his raincoat and yanked him backward. He heard spewed curses, muffled, but angry, as Schimmel dragged him away.
Childers killed the engine, letting the silence creep in to join the raging hiss of the river below. Everyone at the mine knew he’d been a sniper in the Marine Corps. Isaac thought he still looked at everyone like he was seeing them through the crosshairs of a scope. He slumped in his seat without leaving the cab for almost half a minute, eyes locked forward as if he was trying to figure out his next move.
Isaac hardly noticed the man’s gloom. The miners might not be happy, but this was a real find. He could tell that at first glance. The backhoe had stripped away a large table of stone above the ledge, exposing long, cream-colored leg bones. Human leg bones. The remaining earth had fallen free quickly as the bucket had swung sideways, revealing most of an entire skeleton, situated on a decaying wooden frame. Protected for decades by rock and thick vegetation, the grave was now suddenly exposed to wind and rain. Isaac found himself giddy by the time he climbed down in the roadbed and leaned in to get a better look. Three copper bracelets encircled the wrist bones of the left arm. The remnants of a leather apron lay across the skeleton’s lap, adorned with deer hooves and bits of shell. A rattle about the size of a drinking gourd lay next to the tiny bones that had once been the dead person’s hand, as if he or she had been holding it at the time of burial. It looked to be made of bone and boiled horn—like nothing Merculief had ever seen.
Schimmel moved into the dig, shoulder to shoulder with Merculief, shovel still clutched in his hand. He backpedaled when he saw the skull, mumbling a hasty prayer. Merculief would have laughed had he not been so excited. Schimmel was always talking about haunted mines and Tommy knockers, the ghosts of dead miners who tapped on the adit walls.
Childers remained behind the controls of the backhoe, slouching, talking on his radio.
Merculief threw back the hood of his raincoat and squatted down to get a closer look at the gravesite without touching anything.
“Deer-hoof apron, bracelets, Raven rattle . . . I bet you this was a shaman.”
“Like a witch doctor?” Schimmel whispered.
Probably more like the guy who hunted witches,” Merculief said.
“A witch hunter?” Schimmel stammered. “That would be a good guy, right?”
“I’d say so.”
Schimmel’s slack-jawed gaze was glued to the bones. “No shit? The Indians around here really had witches and witch hunters?”
“The oral traditions say so,” Merculief said. “The way I understand it. The people who lived here believed witches wielded a force that made people sick. Shamans like this guy would have figured out who was the witch and then healed the sick person.”
“There’s witches in the Bible,” Schimmel muttered, always trying to remain relevant. “Did you know that?”
“I did,” Merculief said, giving this goofy dude a side-eye, then leaning forward to take a photo of the rattle with his phone.
Merculief could hear Dallas Childers talking on the radio but couldn’t make out the words over the sound of the river. The bosses had to be pissed. They were probably trying to figure out a way around this. There wasn’t one.
This find was beyond incredible.
“This rattle is different,” Merculief said, grabbing a jutting stone in the muck to support himself so he could lean in and get a closer look.
The rattle was roughly a foot long and five or six inches at its widest point. The image of a human figure in a raven mask was faintly visible on the horn body.
“All the rattles I’ve seen have been carved from cedar or other kinds of wood—and newer, otherwise they’d have rotted away. This one looks to be very old. I think it’s made of Dall sheep horn, boiled so they could form it.”
Schimmel grunted. “So?”
“Dall sheep were sacred to the Tlingit,” Merculief said. “Lots of taboos surrounded their hunting.” He put a hand on Schimmel’s shoulder, squeezing him in excitement. “I’ve got so much work to
do, so many questions. I’m not even sure they had Dall sheep in this area at the time this was made. This grave could help identify ancient trade routes between coastal and inland peoples—”
“Is it worth anything?”
Schimmel nodded, chin on his hands, hands on his shovel. “Yeah.”
“I’d say it is,” Merculief said, hovering over the bones like a mother bird protecting her nest. “A wooden Raven rattle about this same size sold for over half a million bucks last year.”
Schimmel stood up now. “Half a million? Dollars?”
“Yep.” Merculief stood. He was unwilling to molest the site anymore. He had Tlingit blood in his veins, but not the cultural expertise to know what needed to be done to take care of the site. “I need to make a call.”
Childers was still busy on the radio, but he looked up to listen to what Merculief was saying now.
“Sorry to stop you, guys,” the archeologist said. “We need to get someone in here who can tell us if special ceremonies are needed.”
“What do you mean, ceremonies?” Schimmel asked.
Merculief gave an emphatic nod. “If I’m right and these bones belong to an actual Tlingit shaman, there will need to be some prayers, that sort of thing.” Childers relayed everything over the radio, stopping short when Merculief said, “We may have to reroute the road.”
Childers lowered the radio a hair and glared. “We can’t reroute the road.”
Merculief, enthralled in his new find, failed to notice the darker mood shift.
From Bone Rattle by Marc Cameron. Used with the permission of the publisher, Kensington. Copyright © 2021 by Marc Cameron.