THE MYSTERY OF THE MESA
NO ONE KNOWS WHAT BECAME OF THE CLIFFDWELLERS OF THE GREEN TABLE
MAIA impatiently cut the threads of the little loom her brown, grim, silent father had made for her, and tore from it a small square of dull-red cloth which her busy fingers had loosely woven during the hot afternoon. It had been hard work. The thread had become sadly tangled a dozen times; the last time it had taken a full half-hour to straighten out.
But the cloth was fairly well made. The color, chosen from her mother's choicest stock, was warm and pretty, and the pattern, in corn yellow, was pleasing. The pattern ran from side to side across the square and, to Maia and her people, meant running water. It was Maia's favorite pattern because it suggested what she loved best, the streams that poured down the Mesa's sides in the spring.
It was not spring now, but midsummer, and the streams had long since dried up and disappearedall but the river miles away in the great canyon where Maia's patient brothers sometimes caught small fish which they dried in the sun for winter use. Even the river had shrunk to shallows now and the fish were few and hard to catch.
It was very hot under the low pines on the Mesa's top, and the women and most of the children had long since retired to the cool shadows of the great community house hidden under the overhanging edge of the cliffs. Only Maia, absorbed in her weaving, had remained above under the big tree, moving her loom from time to time as the shadows moved.
"Oh Sun!" she had said devoutly once when the heat seemed unbearable, "Oh, great and mighty Sun! Have mercy upon me!"
For Maia and her people worshipped the sun, which to them was God, the source of life.
Maia, her cloth square in hand, flitted across a sunny open to a straggling clump of low pine near by. Here she knelt and parted the dry grass, disclosing a red pottery doll lying upon a mattress of woven grasses. It was a crude little doll with rudely modelled features and square shoulders, reminding one of the Egyptian mummy-cases in museums. Staring eyes were rudely painted upon its square flat face. Its legs and arms were unshaped. One foot was missing. But Maia's face was full of adoring admiration as she gazed long at it and then tenderly lifted it and pressed it to her.
"Dolly, dear dolly," she whispered. "At last you shall have your new dress."
The sun was nearing the horizon when Maia completed the task of fitting and stitching the cloth square into the semblance of a dress for dolly. It was no such dress as clothes the doll of to-day, but it was picturesque and graceful. Maia gazed long and lovingly upon her doll. Then, with bounding heart, she started home.
As she neared the edge of the deep canyon under whose precipitous cliff was concealed, in an immense cavity in the sheer wall of rock, the city of ambitious architecture which we now call Cliff Palace, an old man wrapped in a blue rug marked with strange figures stood before her. She stopped, trembled, and dropped to the ground. But her eyes were fixed on his. Slowly he lifted his long thin bare arm and pointed his finger at her.
"Daughter of Maius, maker of arrows, have you done your daily penance to our god the sun?"
Maia threw herself upon the ground and cried silently.
"Oh!" he said. "I thought not. Long have I watched you, evil child. Alone, I think, of all the children of our community you are careless, flippant, and irreverent. You play when you should work. Your loud laughter descends even into the kiva when our priests meet in solemn ceremony. Yesterday, absorbed in your doll, you failed to bow your head to me, the High Priest of the Almighty Sun."
"It was not my doll," said Maia tremblingly. "I was grinding the midday meal in mother's new mortar."
"You were playing," declared the High Priest. "Yes, and even this morning, playing with a bird, you saw me not."
"Its poor wing was broken," sobbed Maia. "I was trying to______"
"Silence!" said the High Priest. "What is a bird to the sunexcept for sacrifice! Look across the canyon."
Maia lifted frightened eyes to a structure of new masonry which was rising above the stunted pines.
"Here, on this solemn spot, under the rays of the setting sun, within sight of that holy temple building to its honor and glory, I say to you, Daughter of Maius, that you shall do sad penance for your levity. Daily for thirty risings and settings of the sun shall you, at midday, descend even to the depths of this canyon, cross it on your knees, climb the other side, and on your knees creep to the Holy Picture which is embedded in its wall; and there shall you lie upon your face for the space of one hour, confessing your sins and begging for forgiveness and mercy."
The priest vanished and presently Maia, forgetting even dolly in her distress, moved slowly to the great rock alongside of which the trail descended to the series of ladders by which the community house and the top of the Mesa were connected.
But further adventure was in store for her on this eventful day. As she grasped firmly a small pine and lowered her foot to the first rung of the top ladder she glanced upward and saw a strange face peering at her over a low bush.
Maia stopped and gazed, but the face was gone. For a moment she thought herself mistaken. But she could not have been mistaken; the face surely had been there. Maia remained for some time, listening. Her heart beat wildly, for this was not the face of any of her own people, and strangers came rarely and for no peaceful purpose. It was not even the face of any of the peoples of the innumerable smaller communities that dotted for many miles the canyon cliffs of the Green Tableland. It was a lighter-colored face with thick hooked nose and fierce eyes. It was daubed with streaks of brilliant paint. Yes, and it was surmounted by long eagle feathers. She felt quite sure about the feathers.
Maia was sadly frightened and began to descend the ladder rapidly. Then she missed dolly.
Now where was dolly? Yes, she remembered. Maia paused. Directly below her the cliff fell abruptly a thousand feet, but she thought nothing of that. What would that strange, fierce man do to dolly if he found her? That was what made Maia tremble.
It certainly was a trying question, but in the end the mother instinct triumphed. The little girl slowly ascended the ladder and crept silently up the trail. The sun had set, but the glory of painted clouds still dimly lighted the thin forest. She peered through the trees. No one was in sight. Then, in an agony of fear, she flitted silently to the spot where she had knelt before the High Priest. She felt among the dried grasses.
Ah! Here was dolly. Maia pressed her to her breast. Then she swiftly ran back to the big rock. As she reached it a dim figure leaning over the trail drew back suddenly and vanished. Maia fell headlong in sudden terror. One hand, holding dolly, sprawled over the great precipice, now gaping black as midnight. The other hand instinctively grasped and held a smooth round stick. There was a slight rustle in the bushes.
How Maia found the trail she never knew. Moving by instinct rather than conscious memory, she passed it swiftly and began to descend the ladders. She had thrust dolly into a loose fold of her dress. Unconsciously she still held the stick in one hand. It impeded her descent, but she clung to it.
Feeling her way down several ladders, she came to the first resting-place, a mere ledge foothold. Here she paused and here first noticed the stick.
Yes, but what an arrow! Maia had never seen any arrow like it before. It was longer than those her father made and differently modelled. The wood was different. She could scarcely see it in the darkness, but she felt sure that such feathers grew on no birds of that neighborhood. And the arrow-head! That was shaped far differently from any her father had ever made.
Maia was puzzled and frightened. Who was that strange man with painted face who had been peering down their trail? She had heard many stories of the savage enemies who had driven her forefathers centuries before to build their cities in the safe clefts of these mighty precipices. Could there be others with him? Could they mean to creep down the ladders under cover of night and capture their community?
Maia shivered at the thought. A slight sound made her listen intently. Surely there was somebody above her. A minute later she distinctly heard the slight rattle of a ladder. Yes, some one was coming down.
Then followed other sounds. More than one was coming. Yes, many were coming.
Maia's instinct was to scream, but she stifled it. She would get home first, anyway, and alarm the community. But another thought checked her. She would find the community scattered and unprepared. The women would be making ready the evening meal. The men would be down in the deep circular kivas at devotion or council. Before she could alarm them, before the men could emerge for defense, all would be over. Their enemies would have arrived. They would be waiting at each kiva door to strike down the men one by one as they ascended.
What should she do? Surely no little girl of ten sun cycles ever was confronted by such an emergency!
The stealthy noises grew louder.
Then Maia had her inspiration.
A few months before her father had told her that the ladders upon the rest ledges were not fastened to the rocks. They were cunningly set in movable stones so they could be taken away quickly in time of need. He had showed her how the key stone could be pushed aside, causing the ladder to drop into the canyon leaving a gap which none could climb who did not know the finger-holes and foot-holes in the perpendicular rock. These strange enemies could not know these finger-holes and foot-holes, Maia reflected, and they could not see them in the dark.
She felt the ladder in front of her. She felt the stones at its base. But which was the key stone? Maia pushed and pulled one after another. Not one of them moved. Perhaps she was not strong enough to move the stone.
She had tried them all but one when she felt the ladder in front of her move slightly. A foot must be feeling for its top rung. Maia in her terror could restrain herself no longer. She sobbed aloud.
There was a quick movement above and low whispered words. What could she do?
The last stone! Would it never move!
Yes, it did, slowly. Maia screamed aloud as she bent all her strength to the task. Slowly the stone slipped from its place and disappeared into the black depths below. A few moments' silence and the echoes of its fall split the still night.
And then as Maia shrunk back, her strength expended, the ladder glided from its foundation and hurtled into space, and with it passed downward a dark, struggling figure. A scream came from below, followed by crashing echoes.
Revived by sheer terror, Maia seized the arrow and felt her way swiftly down the remaining ladders. Near the bottom she was met by ascending men who bore her quickly down to the stately city where an excited throng surrounded her.
"The child of evil!" exclaimed the High Priest, advancing with lifted hands.
But Maia held up the arrow, and then they knew.
And while the alarm-fires were blazing under the overhanging cliffs Maia's mother comforted Maia, and Maia comforted dolly, who, of course, must have been sadly frightened.
"Is that a true story?" Margaret demanded. "You must say it is a true story. It's just got to be true. This must be the place right here where Maia comforted dolly. I know it's true."
"And right out there on that rock," said Jack, "is where they lit the alarm-firejust where all those other people down the canyon could see it. Say, is it true?"
"I'm not sure," said the story-teller, laughing, "but it might be true. I heard something like it, perhaps a tradition, several years ago when I first visited the Mesa Verde National Park, and when I heard you children ask so many interested questions about the mysterious people who used to live in this wonderful Cliff Palace six hundred or a thousand years ago, I could not help telling it to you. But I'm afraid I have added a good deal to it out of my own imagination. I'm not even sure that the Mancos children had dolls."
"True or not," said Mrs. Jefferson, "you have made this spot very real to my children, and I thank you."
The Jeffersons had found the Mesa Verde so different from the Rocky Mountain National Park that every day was filled with delightful surprises. There were no lofty mountains, no snow, no glaciers. Instead, they found a dry, flat, warm country indented with picturesque canyons and carpeted with asters and thin forests of small, apparently stunted, pines. It was strangely and wonderfully beautiful.
Once, as Uncle Tom told them, it was a flat plain, but the melting snows and heavy rains of centuries of springtimes had washed most of the loose soil away until there were left only occasional elevations a thousand or two feet in height.
These elevations are called mesas, which is Spanish for tables, because they are flat on top. Most of them are quite arid, but the mesa which is the national park is called the Mesa Verde because it has forests on it. Verde is Spanish for green.
The canyons or valleys which the rains have washed in the sides of the Mesa Verde became the homes of Pueblo Indians many hundreds of years ago. They built these homes high up in cavities in the cliffs, hard to reach either from above or below. That is why they were called Cliff Dwellers. There are many cliff dwellings in the southwestern part of the United States, but none so highly developed as those in the Mesa Verde. That is why it was made a national park.
"But, Uncle Tom," said Jack after a minute examination of the wonderful community dwelling known as Cliff Palace, "where did these people go? Why did they leave this nice home?"
"No one knows, Jack," said Uncle Tom. "They may have lived here for hundreds of years. They knew how to build well, as you see. They made good pottery and decorated their pots and plates with beautiful designs in rare colors. They fished in the river and raised corn on the mesas, which they cleared and irrigated. They hunted deer and other game. They became much more civilized than the Indians who lived in the east or, in fact, in any other part of the United States. Then, about six hundred years ago, they just disappeared."
"Suddenly?" asked Jack.
"No one knows that, either," said Uncle Tom. "But probably so, because the last great building they put up was left unfinished. That building was Sun Temple. We shall see that to-morrow."
"Maybe," said Margaret, "those painted men who scared poor Maia and her dolly killed them."
"Perhaps," said Uncle Tom. "It is one of the theories about their disappearance that they were attacked by Indians from the plains and either destroyed or driven away.
"Oh, I hope," said Margaret, "that it wasn't while Maia was still alive."
"It is all a great mystery," said Uncle Tom.
After exploring Spruce Tree House, Balcony House, and several other ruins, the Jeffersons visited Sun Temple, just across a deep canyon from Cliff Palace. This great temple was never finished. They all were especially interested in a fossil palm-leaf, in a rock embedded in the foundations.
"Many thousands of years ago," said Uncle Tom, "all this southwest country was very hot, and large palms grew in the swamps."
"How do you know?" demanded Tom.
"Because some of the leaves were pressed in the mud. The mud turned into stone, and we find stones with the impress of the palm-leaves. That is one there. Now, the scientific men who study these ruins suspect that the people who built this temple thought that that fossil palm-leaf was a picture of the sun. So they probably worshipped this fossil."
"Oh, it must be the Holy Picture!" cried Margaret, clapping her hands.
"Yes," said Uncle Tom, "I think it must be the Holy Picture."
"And right here where we stand must be where the High Priest wanted to make Maia lie on her face an hour every day."
"Probably right here," said Uncle Tom, smiling.
"Oh!" said Margaret. "I do wish we could find dolly."
Last Updated: 30-Oct-2009