A Luke Jackson Thriller

The Ridge
      Based on the novel by Peter H. Eichstaedt
      Copyright 2023 Peter H. Eichstaedt
      LOGLINE: When a journalist visits a camp in northern New Mexico where radicalized and heavily armed Hispanic activists are demanding the return of lost historical grazing lands, he becomes so deeply involved that it nearly costs him his life.
      ACT I
      Village of Los Ojos, northern New Mexico:
      A young Hispanic boy, Manuelito, leaps from the open doors of a school bus, and in two steps, pushes through the door of an aging store front. Above him is a sign: WOOL, Local Hand Made.
      Inside, he passes racks and shelves of woolen goods. He dashes through the rear office then waves at his mother, Antonia, the store’s owner, who is on the phone. He exits the back door.
      Sheep scatter as Manuelito scampers up a grassy hillside then suddenly stops near the crest. Manuelito’s eyes freeze on a body with dried blood surrounding a bullet hole in the back. He cries out as he picks up a large, long-barreled pistol. He lets it fall as he kneels beside the body.
      Three days later:
      Village of Los Ojos, northern New Mexico:
      Journalist Luke Jackson, middle-aged and with a thick mustache and shaggy hair, stands at the door of the same wool shop. He eyes a sign in the door: CLOSED. He turns to the sound of a drum and sees pall bearers with a casket on their shoulders moving slowly up the dirt street.
      An elderly Hispanic woman next to him peers from below a ragged scarf.
      “What is this?” Jackson asks.
      “El Viejo,” she says.
      “Who’s that?” he asks.
      “Ovejero. Our shepherd,” the old woman says. “Someone killed him. Talk to Antonia. This is her store. She knows.”
      Jackson returns the next day to find the store open. He makes his way through the store to the back office. There Antonia, eyes flashing, sits somberly at her desk. Jackson explains that he wants to write a feature story about the pastoral lifestyle of northern New Mexico. Antonia nods, saying the community needs to expose the unjust and illegal loss of their historic grazing lands.
      Jackson says he’s aware that when the American Southwest was annexed by the United States, most Spanish and Mexican land grants were ignored. The land was then taken by railroad companies and land speculators.
      Antonia agrees to let Jackson visit the protest camp and spend a couple of nights there.
      Jackson returns to Santa Fe to meet with the state historian who tells him the historic land claims are valid.
      ACT II
      Jackson is diverted from the protest story to write about the pending annual pilgrimage to the historic santuario, an adobe church in the small mountain village of Chimayo north of Santa Fe.
      At the Chimayo santuario, Jackson interviews the parish priest about the highly-prized holy dirt found in a hole in a corner of the chapel’s floor. It is eagerly collected by devout visitors who take vials home with them, believing it has healing powers.
      The next day Jackson returns to the wool shop in Tierra Amarilla.
      He finds Antonia angry and distraught over the death of El Viejo, the old shepherd who she claims was murdered. She tells Jackson that he must talk to El Cuchillo, the leader of the on-going land grant protest, whose name means “the knife.”
      At the camp, El Cuchillo emerges from his Airstream-like trailer. He tells Jackson that state Gov. Jack Carrow has warned the protesters to vacate the land and their camp because they’re trespassing on state property currently leased to out-of-staters.
      Jackson believes his warning means the governor is taking the protest seriously and police action is eminent. El Cuchillo tells Jackson any state action against the protesters would be “stupid.”
      While the situation smolders, Jackson learns his girlfriend Ariel has been attacked in the middle of the night by an unknown assailant. She was able to fight the attacker off, but was beaten.
      Jackson takes Ariel to the Santa Fe hospital where she’s examined and then back to her trailer, where she insists she’ll be all right if left alone. Jackson drives north to attend a press conference with Gov. Carrow at the sprawling Rio Chama Ranch.
      The governor and the ranch’s owner, Carl Hanson, talk about how vital the ranch, with its prime elk hunting lodge and operation, is to the state’s economy and hunting industry. Jackson asks about allegations that the shooting death of El Viejo was the result of conflict between hunters and the land grant activists. Carrow scoffs and dismisses the question.
      With the press trailing, Carrow travels to the Los Ojos village where he meets privately with Antonia about the protest and occupation, hoping to end it. He soon storms out, having failed.
      When Jackson returns to Santa Fe to meet with his editor, he gets a panicked call from Antonia. The state police have arrested Manuelito and charged him with the murder of El Viejo.
      The next day Jackson is at the Santa Fe County Courthouse for Manuelito’s arraignment. Manuelito appears wearing handcuffs and is kept in jail.
      Jackson returns north to talk to El Cuchillo. State officials are preparing to assert their authority regarding the land. El Cuchillo is dismissive about the pending confrontation.
      Back in Santa Fe, Jackson looks into state appropriations records. He finds that one of the state representatives from the region sponsored a bill pushed by a powerful lobbyist. It became law and paid for a “protective” fence to be built around the wildlife area where El Viejo was killed.
      Jackson realizes political and economic entities are conspiring to push the protesters off the land.
      ACT III
      The next day Jackson rushes to Espańola for a press conference at the county jail. Officials say during the night masked gunmen broke into the jail, threatened deputies, and forced them to release Manuelito. The masked men took him back to the camp.
      When Jackson and the state press corps arrive at the camp’s entrance, they find state police prepared for an armed assault. El Cuchillo demands to talk to Jackson, who reluctantly becomes an intermediary. El Cuchillo gives him a hand-written statement that he’ll continue the standoff until the group’s demands are met.
      Jackson reads the statement to the press corps. Suspecting the standoff could continue indefinitely, he learns that El Cuchillo wants to make a deal for Manuelito’s release from jail and into his mother’s custody.
      Jackson returns to Los Ojos village where the body of El Viejo is disinterred. Manuelito’s defense attorney believes the old man was killed by a rifle bullet, not the pistol with Manuelito’s fingerprints, which would prove Manuelito’s innocence. But to prove this requires an autopsy.
      Jackson returns to the camp to meet with El Cuchillo. He takes his sleeping bag so he can spend several nights there and write an in-depth story about the looming crisis. El Cuchillo says he is prepared for an armed assault by authorities.
      Protest supporters at the camp slaughter a sheep and roast the meat on the open fire. The mood of the camp is festive. At dinner, one of the protesters plays an accordion while others begin to dance. Then a protester falls as a distant, high-powered rifle shot kills him. Members of the camp scramble for cover.
      In the early morning, Jackson rides on horseback with one of the older protesters to the spot from where they believe the shot was fired. They realize they’re on Hanson’s ranch. They’re immediately confronted by several of Hanson’s men, also on horseback, and are taken at gunpoint to Hanson’s ranch office. Jackson is forced to interview Hanson in exchange for his freedom. Hanson espouses expectedly radical right-wing views.
      Jackson calls his editor to file his story, pleading the newspaper must print it if he is to be released. The newspaper does and Jackson returns to the camp, where he learns that El Cuchillo has taken a sheriff’s deputy hostage who arrived to investigate the shooting of El Viejo.
      ACT IV
      Authorities at the roadside entrance to El Cuchillo’s camp now include the county sheriff, the state police, and a special unit of the National Guard.
      The state police spokesman informs Jackson that El Cuchillo demands he serve as a go-between. El Cuchillo tells Jackson that he will give up his protest only if he is provided safe passage to the regional airport and flown to Mexico.
      The governor and state officials agree to El Cuchillo’s demands. After Jackson delivers the acceptance message to El Cuchillo, he, El Cuchillo, and the sheriff’s deputy slowly walk toward the road where the authorities and a helicopter await.
      Suddenly El Cuchillo wraps his left arm around Jackson’s neck and holds a gun to his head. He says Jackson is his hostage and insurance for safe passage.
      A shot rings out. Jackson crumples the ground, his leg bloody and shattered by a police marksman. El Cuchillo is left exposed and is immediately killed by a volley of bullets.
      Jackson slowly recovers from his leg wound. When finally able to get around on crutches, he visits Antonia in her store in Los Ojos. She notes that while the sheepherders have been given a couple of hundred acres of grazing land, it is scant compensation for their historic loses.
      She notes the killer of El Viejo still has not been found. “It never ends,” Jackson says.
      AUTHOR’S NOTE: Opening credits, Visual:
      In 1848, the U.S. government’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with Mexico ceded what is now the American southwest, including California, to the United States. The treaty guaranteed that existing land rights, including communal grazing properties, would be respected.