Uncle Joe and the Secret of Chalk Bluff

© James J. Doyle 2012

 

 

 

“Did you see that flash?” Uncle Joe shielded his eyes with a hand. Late afternoon sunlight danced across the rippled surface of the river.

“Huh?” Charles, Joe’s brother, reeled in his line, jerking it free from snags.

“On the island there, where you were casting.” Uncle Joe pointed. “I saw a reflection.”

Charles stretched his neck toward the strip of sand and brush separated from the mainland by a narrow channel. “Don’t see anything.” He set his pole down and put a hand on the steering handle of the outboard motor. “Want to check?”

“Yeah, bring it around.”

Charles twisted the throttle, swung the fishing boat in a wide circle and nudged the prow onto the sandy shore. Jumping out, Joe secured the tie rope to a bent Mesquite tree. Charles turned the motor off, moved forward and stepped onto the island.

“Brazos is running slow after the flooding.” Scanning the river, Charles slid one foot back and forth over the packed surface of the sand. “A month ago this island would have been completely submerged.”

“Washed clean,” Joe commented. “This way.” Joe dipped his head and moved quickly over the hard surface. “Where it’s higher,” he called, “in the middle, that’s where I saw the burst of light.”

Charles smiled and followed his younger brother.

 

Joe squatted and ran his fingers along a smooth line. He pushed sand aside.

“It looks like part of a wall, Charles.”

“I’ve never known of any buildings out here.” Charles watched Joe’s hands search through the sand.

“Here’s something.” Uncle Joe held up a small elongated shape. Light reflected off the surface of the object. “It’s what, about two and half inches from end to end and an inch and half at the widest? Pretty thing. It certainly catches the light. This could have caused the flash.”

“Is it rock, Joe? Quartz and mica will do that with light.”

“I don’t know, Charles. It’s smooth and polished.”

Uncle Joe stood and handed the find to his brother.

“A fossil?” Charles rotated the sphere in his hand. “It’s egg shaped, Joe. The size of a chicken egg. I guess it could be a fossilized egg. But, the color? It has yellow and white parts, and the yellow sections reflect the light.”

“Could it have taken the yellow color later? You know, minerals leaching in and replacing the original shell. That sort of thing”

“Sure. I read it can happen. They call it a substitution fossil. Original material is replaced by rock.”

“Where’d you take that tooth we found?” Uncle Joe interrupted Charles as he studied the egg.

“Professor of Paleontology, over at Baylor, remember? He said it was from a saber-toothed cat. Smilodon, he called it.”

“Oh, right. Druther? Drather? Can’t remember his name. Do you think he’d be willing to take a look at this one?”

“I’m sure he would.” Charles voice was low as he squinted closer. “I’m going over to Waco tomorrow. I’ll drop it by his office.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“Put your hands together like this.” Uncle Joe’s mother, Ms. Christine, clasped her hands together in front of her body and interlocked the fingers. “Now, pull your palms apart so your hands form a cup.”

Uncle Joe followed her directions. They were preparing lunch. He and Charles had been telling Mom about the egg. Charles had dropped the discovery at Baylor the day before.

“I’m putting this egg in your palms.” Christine held up the egg and positioned it lengthwise in the cup formed by Joe’s hands. The egg was longest from one palm to the other. She carefully closed the hands to prevent the egg from falling out. “Now push your palms together. I dare you to break the egg. Squeeze as hard as you can.”

“Mom,” Charles interjected. “He’ll make a mess all over your kitchen.”

“Think so? Go ahead, Joe. Squeeze.”

Charles moved back.

Uncle Joe focused on his hands and applied pressure. “It’s not breaking,” he said between clenched teeth.

“Squeeze harder,” his mother encouraged.

The muscles on Joe’s forearms stood out. He lifted his face in a grimace.

“You can stop,” Ms. Christine said with a laugh.

Relaxing, Joe set the egg on the island between two plates and rubbed his hands.

The cell phone in Charles’ shirt pocket rang. Lifting it out, Charles walked into the living room to be out of earshot.

“Was that a trick egg?” Uncle Joe asked.

“That was a fresh egg. You gathered it this morning.”

“Why couldn’t I break it?”

“The shape. The double curve shape of the egg distributes pressure evenly throughout the shell. I watched a demonstration on the science channel that explained what happens. The elongated sphere shape transfers the force from one palm to the other without breaking the shell. Bet you never thought an egg could be that strong?”

“You got me there.” Uncle Joe was still rubbing his hands, but now he was smiling at his mom. “I suppose there’s a lesson for me somewhere in this little exercise?”

“Of course. One you should already know: ‘Things may not always be as they appear at first glance.’”

Charles stuck his head through the kitchen door. “Joe, we have to go. That was Professor Driese over at Baylor. He wants to meet with us right away.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Behind the professor, a large plate glass window revealed the covered Mammoth Site Exhibit.

Uncle Joe and Charles sat on chairs in front of the teacher’s desk.

“It’s hard to date these things exactly,” Professor Driese glanced over his shoulder toward the exhibit. “Around 70,000 years ago, there was a flood of the Bosque and Brazos Rivers. As you know, the two streams are very close at this point. The Bosque joins the Brazos just south of here. The mammoth herd was caught by the rising waters of the two rivers. Lifting the juveniles with their tusks, the adult mammoths fought to save the young ones. That’s when the riverbank gave way and trapped them all in the mud and water. The fossils here are well preserved. Very well preserved.”

“So, what kind of fossil is the one we found?” Charles changed the subject from the mammoth fossils back to the egg they’d been discussing before the professor wandered off into his lecture.

“Yes, the egg. Tell me again how you found that egg?” The professor leaned forward in his chair.

“We were fishing upstream on the Brazos,” Uncle Joe answered, “near Gholson. There’s a large island on the bend. It’s not far from here. I saw something reflecting in the sand. We found it next to a wall-like structure.”

“A building?” Professor Driese asked.

“Could be. It was definitely stones mortared together somehow.” Joe glanced at Charles. “We’ve never heard of buildings on that island, and parts of the family have farmed in that area for a long time.”

“A long time,” the professor spoke, his eyes starting to drift away, “but not too long. . . .”

“Do you have a date for the fossil?” Charles quickly asked, anticipating that the professor was about to slip off into another digression.

“It’s not a fossil,” Driese said abruptly and sat back in his chair.

A disappointed expression crossed Charles face.

“It’s an egg, a duck egg.” The academic’s brow creased in thought. “I showed it to one of our ornithologists. He identified it as an egg of the black-bellied whistling duck. An unusual species among North American waterfowl, more goose than duck, they still nest in the area. Where the Bosque and Brazos converge is apparently at the extreme northern edge of their range.” Lifting the sphere in his hands, Professor Driese studied the object. “Dried with time and amazingly strong. On the way to becoming a fossil, but still an egg, a very old egg.”

“How old?” Uncle Joe asked.

“I’d say in the range of 300 to 400 years old. Back to the Spanish. Perhaps around the time of the Marquis of San Miguel de Aguayo. He was the Spanish Governor of Texas between 1719 and 1722. His expedition led the first large cattle drive into Texas and his forces reconquered Texas from the French without firing a shot. Prospectors came along with the marquis.”

“Prospectors?” Uncle Joe interjected.

“Yes, prospectors. The Spanish were always on the look-out for precious metals. Your egg would have attracted their attention. I sent it out for a metallurgical evaluation. I hope that was alright?”

“Sure,” Charles answered. “What did they find?”

“The report says.” The Professor set the egg down and opened a folder on his desk. “Here it is.” He moved a finger across the page. “‘The thick outer covering of the egg is a matrix of shell pieces interlocked with small plates of a soft metal.’’’

“A soft metal?” Uncle Joe asked.

“Gold.” The teacher gazed off over the brothers’ heads and then down at the egg. “A very high content of pure gold.”

Professor Driese closed the folder.

“Gentleman, this is a very valuable egg and a very attractive find.” He reached the egg across the desk to Charles. “Guard it closely.”

The professor rubbed his hands together, stopping in thought.

“I’ve already asked the state for permission to conduct a dig on the island. I’d like to learn more about the duck that laid the golden egg.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“It’s just ahead,” Uncle Joe pointed the spotlight at the tip of the island. The sliver of moon overhead provided little reflection on the dark water.

“We shouldn’t be here,” Charles said as he guided the boat onto the sand.

“Don’t worry. No one will be here at night.” Uncle Joe stepped out. “The professor is okay, but I want to see for myself what they’ve been doing.”

“It’s not our dig, Joe.”

“Last I checked the river and this island are public lands.” Joe tied the boat up. “And, who found the egg?”

“We did,” Charles whispered as he followed Joe, who was already moving toward the middle of the island. “But someone may be patrolling. Besides, what can we do to help?”

“Won’t know until we look, will we?”

“Joe. . . .” Charles started to say something and was interrupted by his brother.

“What do you make of this, Charles?”

The beam of the spotlight swung across low stone walls.

“I don’t know, Joe. It’s a long thin structure. Probably doors there and here.” Charles waved to one end and then back closer to where they were standing. “A walkway down the middle, I think. We just have what’s left of the bottom portions of the walls, but that’s what it looks like to me.”

Uncle Joe focused the light on one side of the small building.

“See the dividers, Charles?”

“Yeah, I see.” Charles’ words were thoughtful. “They’re on the other side too. They break up the two halves of the structure into smaller areas.”

“Like. . . .” Uncle Joe prompted.

Charles turned to his brother. In the dark, Uncle Joe couldn’t see, but Charles’ eyes widened in understanding.

“Pens. Holding pens, Joe. This is a feeding facility. Like some farmers use for chickens.”

“Except, my guess is that this one was for ducks,” Uncle Joe said.

“They’ve excavated duck pens,” Charles said.

Uncle Joe ran his fingers along the floor of one small enclosure and picked up something. In the light, he examined the piece of bone.

“I think these ducks didn’t care much for their quarters.” Joe put the broken bone into his pocket.

“They’re wild animals, Joe. They don’t like being caged.”

Uncle Joe walked down the central corridor of the structure to the far end where a larger portion of the wall was still standing. Shining his light at the surface, he brought his head closer to inspect what appeared to be drawings.

“What is it, Joe?”

“See the two wavy lines coming together?” Joe traced the lines with a finger tip. “And, here, this could be a hill. These symbols are next to the hill.”

“A map. It could be a map.” Charles puzzled. “But where and why?”

Joe stepped inside the nearest pen. With the light, he scanned the floor and halted on a spot. Reaching down, he picked up a handful of colored stones ranging in size from a very small pebble to one cobble the size of quarter.

“I think I know where the map is showing, Charles, but I don’t know why . . . yet.”

 

 

* * *

 

 

Shielding his eyes from the sun, Uncle Joe studied the limestone bluff.

High above, he could just pick out the fenced overlook of Lover’s Leap, the most spectacular vista in Waco, Texas.

The ledge was there, below the leap and inaccessible from above. He saw the faint outline of rock and remembered.

Joe pushed on through the undergrowth, searching for the way he knew was there.

As he stopped to scan the rocks, he reflected that most visitors approached the overlook in Cameron Park from the road in the park, not from the base of the cliff.

As a boy, he’d heard tales of Indian treasure in the cliffs and gone in search. He still loved to explore, but his joints were not as limber as before.

The trail was hidden and difficult, more a climb than a trail. Here, where the route began, the trees grew tall along the face of the bluff.

Sighting up again, Uncle Joe leaned into the limestone and started to climb.

 

Catching his breath, above the trees, he watched the ducks soar and swoop. There were fewer than he remembered. Their unique waa-chooo calls whistled through the tree tops and along the face of the bluff. As a boy, they were just ducks. Now, he wondered. Had he been looking in the right place . . . for the right thing?

Taking a drink from the water bottle, Joe started to climb again.

Searching for a handhold to pull himself up, his fingers touched an Indian sign carved deeply into the rock.

It was one of the symbols on the wall map at the duck pens.

He was on the right path.

He kept climbing.

 

Sitting, his legs dangling out and over the edge, Uncle Joe took a deep breath and enjoyed the view he hadn’t seen since he was a boy. He was high above the river, the trees far below.

Rested, he stood on the narrow ledge, lowered his back and squeezed beneath the rock overhang. On his knees, he lifted a hand and ran it along the rainbow-colored bands of chalk brightening the wall of the small cave.

These were the sacred colored sands of the Indians, so prized by the early Americans and so important to their rituals. This was, he thought, the Indian treasure of Chalk Bluff.

He’d sought the treasure as a boy and been disappointed to find that it was colored rocks and sand. Now, he wasn’t sure that this was all that the old tales contained. Maybe, things were not as they appeared at first glance. He smiled, remembering his mom’s lesson with the egg.

Sliding one hand along the floor of the recess, he picked up several rough colored rocks. Uncle Joe put his other hand into his pants pocket and pulled out some of the small polished rocks from the duck pens. Holding his hands together, he compared the stones. The colors were the same. They were both from this isolated and almost inaccessible ledge along Chalk Bluff overlooking the Bosque River.

The polished stones were called “gastroliths.” He’d done the research on the Internet. Many animals, birds and ducks swallow small stones to aid in the digestion of seeds and rough foods. The small rocks turn over and over in the bird’s stomach to help crush and break seeds and other foods. When smoothed from use and not effective in breaking the rough food, the polished stones pass through the bird’s digestive system and are left behind. The ducks in the pens had been to this cave.

Was there something he had missed?

Something here, or very close?

Uncle Joe moved out onto the open ledge. The breeze along the bluff brushed his face. A duck swooshed past, oblivious to him, and dove beneath the lip of rock. Uncle Joe waited to see the big bird lift and fly off, but the duck did not appear again.

Curious, Joe stepped to the edge of the drop and peered over.

He couldn’t see anything but limestone rock, but he heard a low whistling waa-chooo.

Dropping to his hands and knees, Uncle Joe extended his neck out and down, searching to see if something was below. His hands gripped the rim. He twisted to see where the sound was coming from, moving his body farther out and over open space.

The rock his right hand held broke free and plummeted away.

That hand reached and found air, the right shoulder followed and dipped over the brink, pulling Joe’s body down and around, the weight and momentum slamming him hard against the limestone face of the bluff, his left hand grasping, the fingers slipping, trying to hold the dangling figure, losing their grip and sliding free, as Uncle Joe fell. . . .

His left hand found a branch and grasped. The right hand felt a crack in the rock, forced the fingers in and clasped the stone. His feet scrambled frantically for support and found a solid strip of rock.

Senses heightened by the adrenaline rush of the fall, his feet set on a smooth floor, Uncle Joe moved his hands down along the overhang and gazed into a shallow cavity in the cliff face, smaller than the cave above and well hidden from sight.

Relieved, Joe sank down, took a deep breath and pushed back into the cave.

To his right, something moved.

With the distinctive white eye-rings, the duck appeared to be examining him from behind a pair of glasses. Shrugging up, the bird dipped its red bill, waddled to the cliff edge on long pink legs, spread it wide wings displaying the unique white wing bars and launched into space.

Uncle Joe laughed.

“So, this is where you were hiding,” he said aloud.

Examining his surroundings, Uncle Joe counted a number of natural cavities in the floor. The duck had been sitting on one. He moved to the hollow depression in the limestone. Extending a hand into the nest, he touched one of the eggs. The cavity was deeper than he had thought and it contained quite a few eggs. He counted twenty, with more below. Broken shells were interspersed with the intact spheres.

Holding a shell piece up to the light, he blinked at the reflected flash of gold.

The eggs and pieces all had the yellow-white coloring of the egg from the duck pens.

“So, the treasure is more than colored rocks and sand.”

Uncle Joe picked out a few golden pieces and put them into his shirt pocket.

“I should have listened to Mom more when I was younger,” he mused with a grin. “Since I fell in here at first glance and can’t possibly climb out that way, where will the exit now appear?”

Crawling to the far end of the covered space and out onto the narrow ledge, Uncle Joe carefully stood and spied the trail to the sand cave above. The first handhold was marked with one of the Indian symbols. He could see others incised in the stone, showing the way back up to the rainbow wall.

“I would not have found you from above.” Joe said to the rock wall as he touched the pictograph. “Very clever and very well disguised.”

Lowering his head to see back into the cave, he pondered the natural nesting cavities in the rock.

“I wonder which the native Americans valued more, the colored sands above or the bright eggs they found here? Did they know the eggs contained real gold, and the colored rocks were the reason for that gold? Did they even care about the metal encased in those shells, or did they simply delight in the beauty of the golden egg?”

Shaking his head, Uncle Joe reached for the first hold and began the now easy climb up to the old world of rainbow chalk and then the more arduous descent back down to the new world that cared too much for the golden metal.

 

 

* * *

 

 

Charles touched the golden egg shells on the kitchen table. “You never told me about the colored sands.” The corners of his mouth turned down in a sad frown as he glanced at his brother who sat at the end of the table.

“You were in college,” Uncle Joe answered. “I was young. We didn’t talk that much.”

“I’d like to see that cave and the rainbow wall, but the climb up Chalk Bluff is more than I can do . . . now.” A small smile of regret crossed Charles’ face. Then, his eyes snapped wide and the smile broadened. “But, the secret is in the feed. It just took a smart farmer to figure it out. I’m proud of you, little brother.”

“Don’t know that I figured it all out. Probably some interesting chemistry involved. There’s little doubt in my mind, though, that the colored stones are related to the golden eggs. A duck swallows some rainbow rocks and somehow its metabolism is affected by the chemicals in the rock. When the egg reaches the nest, the shell is infused with sections of pure gold.”

“Do you think the Spanish who built the duck pens figured it out?”

Joe reached for the cell phone ringing on the table.

“Joe here. . . . Yes. . . . Too much? . . . Right. . . . Thanks.”

“What was that, Joe?”

“Part of the answer to your question.”

“Really?” Charles leaned across toward his brother.

“That was Doc Stewart. You know he’s a member of Ducks Unlimited, and how he’s always working on projects to protect the wild ducks and increase their populations. Well, it turns out our vet has become something of an expert in duck anatomy and Anatidae metabolism.”

“’A-net-a’ what?”

“Anatidae. I got the word from Doc. It’s the biological family of swimming birds that includes ducks, geese and swans. He can figure out if something is wrong based on an examination of the duck and its parts.”

“Parts, which part?”

“A bone. I gave him the broken bone I picked up at the duck pens.”

“Was something wrong?”

“Too big. I told him it was from a whistling duck. He said it was too big.”

“Why too big?”

“Doc says the duck ate too much, that’s why the bone was so big. I bet our Spanish prospectors fed the duck too much feed. The bird overate and died.”

“Wasn’t there an old fable about something like that?” Charles propped an elbow on the table and leaned his forehead against the open hand.

“Something like that,” Uncle Joe answered. “The Goose and the Golden Egg. A farmer and his wife find a goose who can lay golden eggs. They become rich by selling the eggs and want more to become even richer. So, they kill the goose to get to the eggs inside the goose.”

“Wasn’t very smart,” Charles observed.

“Exactly. The farmer and his wife didn’t understand goose metabolism. There were no more eggs inside the goose. Geese don’t work that way. Greed and ignorance killed the source of their riches.”

“And, that’s what happened on the island?” Charles asked.

“I suspect,” Joe began, “our Spanish miners did something similar. Somehow, probably from the Indians, they learned that the ducks could produce golden eggs. From the map, they knew about Chalk Bluff and the colored sands, but I doubt they discovered the hidden nesting cave. The prospectors captured some ducks in that vicinity, caged them and harvested a few golden eggs.”

Uncle Joe stopped to take a breath before he continued.

“However, since the caged ducks weren’t ingesting any more colored rocks, the birds were probably producing fewer gold eggs. Wanting more and not understanding what was happening, the miners force-fed the ducks. The ducks couldn’t eat more and died. Like the fable, human greed and ignorance killed the duck that laid the golden egg.”

“So,” Charles was assimilating the information and thinking forward, “if the Spanish didn’t know the real source of the gold, it’s unlikely the professor will discover it from the ruins on the island.”

“That’s where I come out, Charles.”

“But, you know. . . .” Charles left the question hanging in the air between them. “Joe, are you going to tell the Professor?”

Uncle Joe sat back in his chair and looked hard at his brother.

“Let’s talk about that, Charles. What do you think we should do?”

 

 

* * *

 

 

“It’s good to see you both.” Professor Driese motioned to seats around the table in the corner of his office. “Did you bring the egg?”

Charles opened the brief case in his lap and placed the golden egg in the center of the table.

“May I?” the professor asked, waving one hand toward the egg.

“Go ahead,” Uncle Joe answered.

Professor Driese lifted the egg and rotated it carefully in the light. “Magnificent,” he said in a low voice.

“Did you find any more on the island?” Charles asked.

“Not a one,” the professor answered, his eyes still fixed on the sphere in his hands.

“What happened there, Professor?” Uncle Joe asked.

“They were raising ducks.” Focusing over the egg, Driese gave Joe a long considered look. “We found bones from that species of whistling duck that still spends part of the year in this area.”

“Why were they raising ducks?” Charles asked.

“We don’t know for sure, but they weren’t doing a good job of it. Our experts say the birds were likely overfed and died from too much attention. Wild ducks apparently don’t do well in a forced-feeding operation.”

“Was it a Spanish operation?” Joe asked.

“Yes, we found some text in Spanish and a date, 1720. As I recall, that would place it in the range I mentioned when we talked last. Curiously, the Spanish words indicate it was a mining operation. Imagine that.” Professor Driese focused on Uncle Joe. “It looks like the Spanish were prospecting with ducks. What do you think they were after?” It was clear the question was directed to Uncle Joe.

A smile grew across Uncle Joe’s face.

“Professor, have you been watching us?” Joe asked.

“We’ve been keeping track of you both. Especially. . . .” Here, Driese glanced over at Charles. “Since your late-night expedition to the island.” The Professor turned back to Joe. “What was the reason for that knowing expression on your face when you found the map?”

“Pretty good video,” Joe observed.

“Too isolated a location for security personnel but perfect for high-tech video surveillance.” He grinned at the brothers. “It is a golden egg, you know.”

“We do,” Uncle Joe answered, the manner of his response indicating to the professor that they knew more.

“I suspected as much.” Driese set the egg carefully in the middle of the table. “What’s the deal, gentlemen?”

“You surprise me, Professor.” Uncle Joe paused, choosing his words carefully. “Is it greed or ignorance that drives your question?”

The professor stretched backed and laughed heartily.

“Touché.” A pleased expression was on the teacher’s face. “You surprise me, again. The Goose and the Gander. Exactly, what are my motives and my motivations? Am I willing to learn, or do I just want more for myself? Will the poor animals be the worse for my knowing their secret?”

Professor Driese took a deep breath, exhaled slowly and fixed his eyes on Uncle Joe.

“I am an absent-minded academic. I admit it, and I play the role for my colleagues and students. But, I am devoted to learning and to the students I serve. I know greed would cloud my sight and ability to help them and others. And, ignorance, it’s what I have spent my life fighting against. Knowledge and its proper use are what drive me and my question to you.”

The Professor turned from Uncle Joe to Charles and back.

“I am willing to negotiate. More importantly, and I suspect this is more important to both of you, I will do everything I can to protect those ducks and distribute fairly to the University, its students and the community any treasure that results from the knowledge you share. What more do you need from me?”

Uncle Joe glanced at Charles who nodded.

“Your word, Professor, that you will do as you have promised to protect the ducks and distribute fairly any gain from learning the secret of Chalk Bluff.” Uncle Joe stood and extended his hand. “Your word and the pledge of your hand are all we need.”

Professor Driese stood. “You have both.” He grasped Uncle Joe’s hand in a firm handshake. Turning and reaching over the table, he shook Charles’ hand and sealed the bargain.

“Now. . . .” Uncle Joe began.

He moved his hands widely for Professor Driese and Charles to take their seats.

“Now, let me tell you the story of a young boy, his search for Indian treasure and the secret of Chalk Bluff. It all began with a dare. . . .”

 

The Beginning of Another Adventure