email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Mystery of Everett Ruess
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Later still: “It just doesn’t look like a Navajo burial. They would have put the saddle in the crevice with him.”

Bellson spoke up. “They would have killed the horse too. Hit it with an ax, and left the ax handle in the grave.

“Smell the bones?” Bellson asked.

Maldonado sat up, trowel in hand. “Yeah. You can smell them even when they’re a thousand years old. It gets into the dirt. It’s a smell I can never forget. This guy I used to work with calls it ‘people grease.’”

We took a break to sit in the shade and eat lunch. Maldonado mused: “Look at that crevice. It’s not a likely place to bury somebody. You could make a much better burial right over there, or there.” He pointed to a pair of ample slots in the rimrock cliff just behind us. “He may have been trying to hide the body in a hurry,” Maldonado went on. “Just stuff him in there, then maneuver him around. He had to get him in the ground before sunset.

“It all makes sense. The 1930s were a really volatile time on the reservation. The government had started wholesale livestock reduction, killing thousands of Navajo sheep and cattle. They were hauling the kids off to boarding schools. Here’s a Navajo guy who witnesses a murder. Your grandpa,” Maldonado nodded at Bellson, “doesn’t want the remains just lying out on the ground. In the ’30s, if a white guy gets killed on the rez, they call out the cavalry. Round up a bunch of Navajos, pick a suspect, and lock him in jail. I can see why your grandpa would have tried to hide the guy. And then I can see why he wouldn’t tell anybody about it for 37 years.”

After lunch, Maldonado went back to work. Finally, toward late afternoon, we sat in the shade again. The archaeologist lowered his head and wiped his brow as he pondered, silent for so long that he seemed to be meditating. Finally he spoke: “It just doesn’t look like a Navajo burial. Who else lives in this area?”

“Nobody,” said Bellson.

“Who else could be buried out here?”

Bellson shook his head. He had asked his neighbors. There were no stories of gravesites on this part of the Comb. “Mom and Dad,” Bellson added, “always told us to stay away from here. They never told us why.”

“According to Navajo Nation policy,” Maldonado said, “we’re supposed to protect graves, whether Native American or not. But we’re also supposed to try to find the lineal descendants if there’s an unidentified body.” He turned to me. “Who’s the relative you talked to?”

“Brian Ruess. He’s Everett’s nephew,” I replied.

“Ask him to request a DNA sample.” It was obvious that Maldonado’s decision had not come easily to him. He stood up and hoisted his fanny pack. “Out here,” he said, “Navajo oral tradition is pretty accurate. Based on that tradition, I think there’s a good chance this is Everett Ruess.”

Brian Ruess conferred with his three siblings. They agreed to request the DNA sample. According to Greenspan of Family Tree, Everett’s nieces and nephews (his closest living relatives) were genetically too distant to yield good results for a mitochondrial DNA test. The only useful source was Waldo—but Everett’s older brother had died the previous year. In the end, Brian’s sister Michele carefully wrapped and sent Waldo’s favorite hairbrush, which his widow had kept after his death. Still caught in the bristles were some strands of Waldo’s hair.

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