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A Sneak Peek at PALO DURO: A THRILLER

PROLOGUE


RACHEL HERNANDEZ KNEW she was in trouble. As the sun sank just below the horizon line, the night air cooling to the point that she had to zip up her orange down jacket to keep warm, she needed to head back to her vehicle as soon as possible. The last thing she wanted was to be out here on the trails after it got dark. In fact, if her brother found out she was out here alone—much less alone at this hour—he would tell her how stupid she was, probably loud enough for the entire campus to hear.

Rachel and Ricardo (Ricky, he preferred, though their mother always called him by his full name Ricardo Joseph Hernandez when he was in trouble) were twins, sophomores at West Texas A&M University, and like a lot of twins, they couldn’t be more different from one another. One was pragmatic and calculated, while the other was free-spirited with a head in the clouds and a penchant for imagination and exploration. With one of them alone in the canyon at dusk, searching for Native American artifacts, you can probably guess which was which.

Rachel, an anthropological student at the university was both fascinated by, and curious about, the ancient Native American civilizations that once inhabited the valley of Palo Duro Canyon, long before Francisco Coronado and the conquistadors traipsed all through the Texas panhandle in the 1500’s. In fact, it was her love of all things Native American that drove her to attend West Texas A&M in the first place. With Palo Duro Canyon just twenty miles from the campus, she spent most of her free time down here, usually with her roommate Jordan and a few other students in the anthropology program, searching for signs of ancient encampments and a civilization that was wiped out when the Europeans infiltrated the land.

The canyon carved into the otherwise flat Texas panhandle a hole nearly twenty miles wide at some points and almost a thousand feet deep. The elements had formed, over thousands of years, various formations that struck Rachel in wonder. From the sandstone hoodoos to the sheer cliffs cut by millions of years of weather and change, the whole thing fascinated her. And while she loved to spend time down here in “the Grand Canyon of Texas,” her brother spent most of his time in the computer lab.

It never ceased to amaze Rachel—two kids from the same parents, same genes, who couldn’t be more identical, were complete opposites. In fact, she had found him in the I.T. lab before she drove to the canyon earlier that morning. He was working on some piece of equipment that she had no idea what it did, and with his hands in the guts of this machine, she had told him, voice full of wonder and eyes wide with imagination, what she was going to look for.

“Somewhere in the caves there are ancient dwellings,” she had said. “From when the Kiowa lived in the canyon, before Coronado arrived. They were driven out by other tribes later, but allegedly, there’s still some dwellings where the paintings and carvings haven’t been altered. I was down there last week and I found a new entrance to the cave system. I think that’s where they are.”

Ricky had kind of hhhhmph’ed as he soldered together the components of the strange device.

“Are you even listening?” she asked him, perturbed.

“Mmmhmm,” he said, preoccupied, his eyes never coming up from the device. Strands of his long hair coming loose from behind his ear fell into his line of sight and he pushed it back. “Cave dwellings.”

“Right! Does that not excite you? Can you imagine what kind of history is there, just waiting to be discovered? Dr. Errington said she’s been looking for them for twenty years,” she said, her voice quickening as she paced the laboratory floor. “And, look,” Rachel produced a map, photocopied from a handwritten original that looked like it was several centuries old. “According to this, those caves are close to an ancient landslide, hidden by some boulders. Hard to access, easy to defend from attackers. I overlaid a present-day map over this, and it’s on some private land, near the boulder garden trail.”

“That’s great, but do you know what excites me, Rach?” he said as he clapped his hands together and stood back from his device. “This.” He pushed a button on the thing and it hummed to life. Suddenly, the sounds of the band Snow Patrol came from multiple speakers mounted on the workbench in the room.

“Music?” she asked, confused.

“Not just music, Rach. Check it out. This Linux server can stream the same source to multiple speakers. Whole-dorm audio,” Ricky said. On a control panel on the front of the computer’s casing, he flipped a dial and the song changed to another.

“You already have Bluetooth speakers,” Rachel said, rolling her eyes. This electronic tinkering, spending countless hours surrounded by countless pieces of technology, was not anything new. Rachel would go absolutely stir-crazy being indoors as much as Ricky was as he worked on these various projects. There was too much beauty and wonder and majesty outside for her to be cooped up all day in some electronic laboratory.

“This isn’t just regular Bluetooth. Pull out your phone,” Ricky said, and she obliged. “Now, open up your music. You should see an icon at the bottom of the screen for Bluetooth play. Click it.”

Rachel selected a song and then selected this new icon at the bottom of her screen. “It’s not doing anything,” she said. “Your machine doesn’t work.” The last two words were succinct and almost sarcastic.

“That’s what you don’t get,” Ricky said. “It’s a multi-device jukebox. We can put this in the dorm and anyone can attach their own speakers to the network and then play whatever they want, and it all goes into a queue. It’s open-source radio! Everyone gets to create a never-ending playlist and you can attach your phone and your own speaker to the mesh.”

“Oh wow,” Rachel said. “That is kind of...cool.”

“See? I can be cool sometimes,” he said with a smile.

Rachel laughed. “No, I said this,” she pointed at the device, “is cool. You still have a long way to go.”

“So is your roommate—what’s her name?”

Jordan,” Rachel cut him off. He didn’t have to pretend to be ignorant; he knew exactly what her name was. Rachel had caught her brother staring at her roommate multiple times. She knew—but wouldn’t admit that she knew—her brother had a crush on Jordan. She also knew that it had been love at first sight for him.

“Right. Jordan. Is she going with you?” On the workbench, Ricky pulled a monitor that hung on a wall-mounted arm in front of him and started typing. Lines of code, none of it intelli­gible to Rachel, blurred on the screen.

“Um, yeah,” she lied.

“Good. You know mom doesn’t like it when you go down there by yourself,” Ricky said.

“Well, I’m not. And even if I was, Mom doesn’t have to know. Besides, I won’t be gone long.” She looked at her wristwatch, a Timex Expedition she’d received as a birthday gift from their mother a few years ago. The back had an inscription, etched into the stainless steel. Not all who wander are lost it read. The luminescent hands on the dial, glowing in the low light of the tech lab, read a quarter past three. “I’m going to take a few pictures once I get to the caves and come right back.”

“Alright,” he said warily. “Be careful. There’s Sasquatches down there.”

“Oh my god, Ricky,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a damn Sasquatch.”

And with that she had left the lab, went to her car, and drove down to the canyon. Now, nearly five hours later, she found herself off the main trails, the sun quickly going down. She knew Ricky would throw a fit. He’d probably even tell their mother that she was down there, if he hadn’t already. Despite being nineteen years old, she still felt like a little girl in her mother’s eyes.

Now she whacked her way through the brush, trying to find the trail that would take her back to the trailhead parking lot. She had just been on it, the little dirt path that cut through the mesquite brush. How had she wandered off of it? Despite her hurry, she felt an immense satisfaction with the day trip. She’d found the caves. Hundreds of paintings, depictions of ancient Native life, adorned the walls. She thought they’d be worn over time, of course, but, no. They were still there in all their black and gold glory and as if they’d been etched that very day. She had taken several pictures and written down the coordinates of the cave in her black Moleskine notebook. Doctor Errington, the head of the anthropology department, would be so excited when she’d show her what she’d found. Who even knew when the last time it was that a human actually laid eyes on these cave paintings?

Turning around a large bush, something caught her attention. As the bushes rustled ahead of her, she turned on her light and saw the hulking figure in the brush. It was a bison, no more than forty yards ahead of her. She couldn’t believe it. Taking out her phone, she snapped a couple of pictures of the creature as it grazed on some grass, seemingly paying the girl no mind. Rachel couldn’t wait to show Dr. Errington and Jordan all the pictures from this day trip. Even still, she couldn’t wait to bring them back down and show them, in person, all that she’d found.

Off in the distance, past the grazing bison, smoke softly billowed above the mesquite brush from an encampment a few hundred yards ahead of her. She realized that it was now almost completely dark. The sun had set faster than she’d anticipated and the encampment was lit by fires, a soft orange glow illuminating the encampment. From here, she could make out four tents poking above the canyon floor, cutting into the quickly-darkening sky.

Rachel knew there were backpacking and primitive campsites in the canyon, but they were generally further down the river that ran through the canyon, on the south side of the state park. This didn’t look like a primitive campsite, however. In fact, as she observed the encampment through the brush, she saw several more tents a little further back, their tops peeking through the brush.

She took out her phone and began taking photographs, zooming in on the encampment. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen, but also so familiar. Rachel realized what she was seeing—they weren’t tents, but teepees. She’d never seen historically-authentic teepees in person before out in the wilderness. She wondered if there was a historical reenactment event going on.

Before she had time to react, a sound, the crunching of branches on dirt, from behind startled her. In her fascination, Rachel never saw the person come up behind her. She felt a pair of strong hands wrap around her mouth and she tried to scream, tried to kick, but multiple arms were around her now as she was dragged off the trail and into the night.


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