by Tony Peluso

Though Archangel of Sedona is a work of fiction, most of the episodes and vignettes described in the story, including Tony’s experiences on September 2, 1966, and the mystery of the missing Christ figure, are absolutely true and accurate in every detail. He’s changed names, merged characters, and adjusted small details to protect privacy. One thing is certain: There is no serendipity.

Fall Solstice, 1086 A.D. Upper Verde River Valley
Two miles southeast of Oak Creek Canyon
Sinagua Sacred Ritual Site

ADORNED IN THE ceremonial robe of the Antelope Clan, the old shaman struggled to lead his kinsmen along the rocky footpath to the forbidden site. The Toltec artisans who had fashioned the robe had woven multi-colored parrot feathers and bright cotton threads into the doeskin poncho, creating a mystical effect. While the priest often negotiated the long hike from the river with ease, the beautiful robe — so useful for the secret rites in the kivas along Beaver Creek — proved heavy and unwieldy on the trail.

The priest ignored his growing fatigue. In light of his important task, he bore the weight of the robe as a sign of respect, obedience, and devotion to the blessed Spirit.

Trips to the Sinagua ritual place were rare, and always marked an important celebration: an intertribal wedding, a noble birth, or a sacrifice for divine assistance in hunting, gathering, or harvesting. Time at the holy site was a sacred privilege.

The ritual place lay nestled in a spectacular basin surrounded by a high escarpment to the north and east covered in stunted green pines, needle-leaf junipers, and red-barked manzanitas. To the south and west, water and wind erosion had formed towering buttes of ancient sandstone — stained crimson by the mineral rust of 20,000 millennia. These magnificent pinnacles captured the scarlet, lavender, jade, and gold of the setting sun, focusing the celestial prism on the Sinaqua pilgrims.

Tonight the ceremony would vary from normal practice, as evidenced by the shaman’s robe and the presence of the unconscious northern Sinaqua maiden, carried on a litter by four of the stoutest Antelope clansmen. The shaman had a grim duty. As a result of recent celestial reprisals, many Sinaqua tribesmen had perished. The Spirit demanded a reckoning from the sinners be- fore the Verde Valley could regain its fragile balance.

For ten summers, members of the tribe had ignored the taboos imposed by the servants. They’d left the safety of the upper valley and the pine forest’s camouflage to dwell in the canyon’s cool shadows near the creek that flowed from the escarpment. The servants, who had travelled to the Verde Valley in fiery canoes, had warned against this sacrilege. They’d prophesized that the Spirit would unleash a dreadful devastation, if the Sinaqua failed to heed their omens.

Six moons earlier, a force of unimaginable power had erupted from the earth a day’s run from the great rim. The Spirit created a new mountain that belched fire, molten rock, hot ash, noxious gases, and untold numbers of tiny glass stones that rained down on the Sinaqua settlements all the way to where the Verde and Salt Rivers joined.

The eruption devastated the northern Sinaqua. The villages, cornfields, and every member of the once-mighty Bear Clan van- ished without a trace. The land’s elk, deer, antelope, bear, wolves, cougars, and javelina disappeared. Trout and bass died in the streams and lakes. The people north of the rim could find no ed- ible plants to gather. In desperation, surviving members of the other northern clans descended into the upper Verde Valley to seek sanctuary with their cousins.

No rain had fallen on any Sinagua land since the eruption. All of the creeks, except the sacred stream in the narrow oak valley, had dried up. The Verde River generated a trickle. If they didn’t make amends with the Spirit, the surviving tribesmen would leave the safety of their lands and take their chances in the east, where their fierce enemies could destroy them. They could not go west, where an uninhabitable desert stretched to the shores of a limitless, salty, and undrinkable ocean.

The Sinagua had distilled their religious beliefs from the tra- ditions, rituals, and practices of their trading partners: the Mogollon, Anasazi, Hohokam, and Mesoamerican tribes. They did not practice human sacrifice, like the Toltecs from Mesoam- erica. Yet they knew that they had to do something radical to per- form penance for their sins and to win back the Spirit’s favor.

As restitution, the elders selected the most beautiful maiden in all of their polity, a northern refugee of 15 summers. They would offer her to assuage the Spirit’s anger.

Unable to engage in the bloodletting of the Mesoamericans, the tribal elders drugged the maiden with mushrooms after numbing her with beer, brewed from the harvested corn. The shaman planned to lower the drugged girl to the bottom of the sacred sinkhole, adjacent to the ceremonial site, leaving her fate to the servants.

Fearing retribution, once they arrived at the site the clansmen hurried to lower the girl into the sinkhole, using a rope that their women had woven from strands of wild cotton plants. They tied the rope to a tall pine and allowed her to remain suspended ten feet above the floor of the sinkhole.

They begged the Spirit to accept the maiden as reparation. After the ceremony, they left, promising to honor the taboos and return to the holy site to preform those customs required by the servants of the Spirit.

All would have been well, but the maiden’s clan was northern Sinagua. After sunset, her father and two brothers, who had shad- owed the procession, stole into the narrow draw that surrounded the sinkhole.

The father and brothers located the cotton rope tied to the pine tree. When they touched the rope, they knew something dreadful had occurred. The cotton line felt slack and weightless. No body hung from it. Pulling it up, they inspected the end by the light of a small torch that the brother held.

Something sharp had severed the line. The father had never seen a cleaner cut. No edged stone weapon could have made it. The cut end looked blackened and charred. It bore the odor of burned cloth.

The maiden’s father cursed the Spirit. Before the men could search the sinkhole, a shooting star shot across the sky from the north to the south — an evil omen. A moment later, the star stopped cold and turned from the south, sped north, then west, and then east at unimaginable speeds.

Nothing in the hunter-gatherer’s experience had prepared him. He and his sons froze in place like stalked deer. They watched in horror as the star turned toward them. It slowed down and stopped over the sinkhole. The star grew as it descended, casting a pale, white light on the three northern clansmen.

The father regretted his foolishness. To avoid the wrath of the servants, he and his sons ran from the ceremonial site. They fled southeast on a long slog toward the village.

The next day, the Spirit signaled His satisfaction. The rains began.

The shaman declared that the offering had brought the life-giving moisture to the valley once again. Over the next several years, steady rains and fertile ash from the new volcano turned the upper Verde Valley into a garden. The rains persisted for two generations.

The above was excerpted from Tony Peluso’s second novel, Archangel of Sedona.

Tony Peluso is a retired Army Airborne Lieutenant Colonel, who — over 23 years — worked his way up from buck private. During the great adventure that has been his life, he attended a Jesuit Prep in Phoenix, ASU in Tempe, proudly served with the fighting 173rd Airborne in Vietnam, and then earned two separate law degrees. He’s practiced law for 40 years, including long stints as a Judge Advocate in the Army, Assistant United States Attorney, and Chief Counsel for the local Sheriff. He retired as an HCSO Major and is currently in private practice.