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Authors: Peter Bowen

Bitter Creek

BOOK: Bitter Creek
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Praise for
Bitter Creek

“Peter Bowen is an American original. His mysteries are quirky and satisfying, while his diamond-cut prose slices clean to the bone.”

—Maryanne Vollers, author of
Ghosts of Mississippi
Lone Wolf

Bitter Creek
, Peter Bowen's new Gabriel Du Pré mystery, a long-hidden treachery is unearthed and, by the skin of some teeth, put to rest. Hooray for Bowen's irascible and humane detective! Hooray for storytelling that is astringent, syncopated, comic, and utterly its own.”

—Deirdre McNamer, author of
Red Rover

“In Gabriel Du Pré, Peter Bowen has given the Métis a worthy hero in contemporary literature. Now, with
Bitter Creek
, we have a borderlands
of fourteen tales that collectively make their stand along the Montana Medicine Line (and in American letters) like a bison herd turned into a storm—fixed on the landscape of our imagination.”

—Nicholas Vrooman, PhD, Métis historian
and author of
“The Whole Country was … ‘One Robe'”: The Little Shell Tribe's America

Praise for Peter Bowen

“Peter Bowen writes mysteries that are truly mysterious—informed by Western­ legend, steeped in Indian superstition.… Riding with Du Pré is some kind of enchantment.”

The New York Times Book Review

“Bowen plays his language the way Du Pré plays violin: plaintive, humorous, wild, the sounds of the sentences as meaningful as the story.”

The Washington Post Book World

“In detective Du Pré, Peter Bowen gives readers all they can hope for: a hero as odd and surprising as the mystery he is called upon to solve.”

—Walter Kirn, author of
Blood Will Out

“One of the most unusual characters working the fictional homicide beat … powerfully poetic but unsentimental.”


“Bowen's writing is lean and full of mordant observations. His hardy characters … come to life, and his wry humor provides relief from the haunting, wind-bitten cattle-ranch landscape.”

Publishers Weekly

Bitter Creek

A Montana Mystery Featuring Gabriel Du Pré


For Phil Aaberg

Chapter 1

he heard bacon sizzling in a pan, he rolled to Madelaine and found her gone. The bedclothes were thrown back and her scent of musk and sage rose from where she had lain.

Du Pré yawned, blinked, sat up. He swung his feet over the side of the bed, reached for his shirt, underwear, socks, pants, boots.

He went to the kitchen, scratching the nape of his neck to spur his waking.

“Good morning,” said Madelaine, half turning from the stove. “You were snoring. You never snore.”

“Sometimes I do, yes,” said Du Pré.

Madelaine put bacon and eggs scrambled with sharp cheddar cheese and chunks of green chilies on a plate, stuck a slab of buttered homemade bread on the edge, and handed it to him. He ate, staring at the food. “Not waking up,” he said.

“Good night to sleep,” said Madelaine, “the rain, that sound …” Du Pré nodded. A thick scent of lilacs wafted through the window.

“There is a car outside,” said Madelaine. “Don't belong here.” Du Pré nodded.

“Somebody is sitting in it,” she said. Du Pré nodded. Madelaine poured two cups of strong coffee. She brought them and she set them down. “What I think is it is someone looking for Chappie, they maybe want some breakfast. We don't got a restaurant here …” said Madelaine.

“Chappie,” said Du Pré.

“He is in a uniform,” said Madelaine.

Du Pré sucked down the coffee, hot enough to make him cough. He nodded, got up, walked through the house and out the front door. The tortoiseshell cat looked up at him as he passed. He had a gopher that was almost dead but not quite.

The tan sedan was parked across the street. A man sat in it, bareheaded, looking at some papers.

Du Pré walked up to the car. The driver's window was down. “Madelaine wanted to know if you are hungry,” he said. The soldier turned, startled. His left ear was deformed. When he raised his left hand, Du Pré saw that it was plastic.

“Oh,” he said. He was young, in his early twenties perhaps, and he had lieutenant's bars on his dress uniform. Marine.

“She is happy to feed you,” said Du Pré. “You are looking for Chappie?”

The man nodded. He reached across with his right hand to open the car door, swung his legs out, stood up. He reached for his hat and he put it on.

“Yes,” he said, “I'm Patchen, John Patchen. I was Chappie's commanding officer.”

Du Pré nodded.

“Come, eat,” he said. “We go find Chappie then.”

… who was drinking much last night and will still be passed out. Chappie cannot sleep but he can pass out …

“Kind of you,” said Patchen.

Du Pré led him to the front steps, went up, opened the door.

Patchen went in and waited.

Du Pré led him to the kitchen.

“You are that Patchen,” said Madelaine, smiling. She held out both her hands and Patchen offered his right and then reluctantly his false left.

Madelaine looked at him levelly for a moment.

“Chappie, him love you,” she said. “You are here for him why?”

Patchen nodded.

“He … has been awarded a medal,” said Patchen, “I thought he might not … come to the ceremony, so I came to ask him to do so as a personal favor. …”

“Medal,” said Madelaine. She shook her head. She turned and heaped a plate with food and she pointed to the table. Patchen sat, and she set the plate in front of him. Du Pré brought him coffee.

“Chappie don't talk about Iraq,” she said.

Patchen nodded. He began to eat, carefully, but he swallowed quickly and he began to eat a bit faster.

“This is very good,” said Patchen. “I didn't eat in Billings and …”

“You been sitting out there since I got up at four,” said Madelaine. “So, you come here, why you don't knock?”

“I didn't wish to disturb you,” said Patchen.

Madelaine reached out and she patted his cheek.

“Chappie got very drunk last night,” she said. “He did not say, he had a medal. …”

“I wrote him,” said Patchen. “I … thought he wouldn't want it. But … his … friends are going back there in a week. …”

Madelaine nodded. “Find those weapons of mass destruction this time,” she said.

Patchen looked stricken.

“I am sorry,” said Madelaine. “You eat now, then we go and get that Chappie. …”

He began to eat again, but his eyes were wet.

“It is not you I am mad at,” said Madelaine.

Patchen laughed.

“From what Chappie told me of you,” he said, “I am surely glad of that.”

Du Pré nodded, went out and rolled a smoke, looked up at the sky. A clear day. The golden eagles that lived on the cliff that rose yellow-gray halfway up the first mountain in the Wolfs were riding the high air. They flew lazily.

Then one folded its wings and tumbled down through the air and the other dove after.

Du Pré smoked, standing. Honeybees were gathering nectar and pollen from the lilacs. He glanced back at the house. A blob of color caught his eye.

A tiger swallowtail butterfly had just emerged from its chrysalis and was pumping up its wings. Du Pré bent close. The frail creature tensed a little, the wings filled a little more.

Du Pré split his smoke open, scattered the tobacco on the ground, put the little ball of paper in his shirt pocket.

“Good luck, you,” he said.

He backed away slowly.

Patchen laughed, a rich laugh.

Du Pré could see the trailer Chappie lived in, back of the Toussaint Saloon, behind the ones that were rented as rooms. Chappie's blue heeler pup was running around, nose to ground.

… won't find no heel there to nip, Du Pré thought.

He went back in.

Patchen stood up.

“Have you a bathroom I might use?” he said.

Du Pré pointed down the hall. Patchen walked swiftly that way. “Chappie said he was a good man,” said Madelaine. “I think he is.” Du Pré nodded.

When Patchen came back, he got his hat from the counter and he put it on.

“Thank, you, ma'am,” he said, and bowed a little.

“I let you and Du Pré do this,” said Madelaine. “I don't think Chappie, him want to see his mother right now. …” And Madelaine laughed. So did Patchen.

“No,” said Patchen, “me either.”

Du Pré went out and Patchen came after him. Du Pré got in his old cruiser and Patchen into his sedan and Du Pré led him along the street to the turn that went back to Chappie's trailer. Du Pré stopped and he got out. Patchen did, too, and he put his hat on and he walked to the front door of the trailer and he rapped on it loudly. Nothing.

Du Pré sat on the hood of his cruiser and he rolled a smoke. Patchen banged again.

Du Pré looked at a pile of old lumber that sat a hundred or so feet away from the trailer. Something had moved in it or on the other side, a quick flash and then nothing.

Patchen banged on the door again. Nothing.

Du Pré whistled, soft and low, and Patchen turned. Du Pré pointed to the woodpile. Patchen nodded. He walked toward it.

When he got there, he stood very straight. Chappie rose up, shakily, filthy, his hair awry.

Then he changed. He snapped to attention, in his uniform of rumpled clothes and puke. He saluted. So did Patchen.

Chappie staggered out of his hiding place and he fell into Patchen's arms and the men held each other, shaking.

Du Pré nodded, got into his cruiser, and drove off.

Madelaine had dressed and she was sitting on the front steps, holding a mug.

“Find him?” she said.

Du Pré nodded.

“I maybe borrow your big new gun, go to Texas,” she said.

“Talk to the guy was president,” said Du Pré.

“No,” said Madelaine. “Me, I do not want, talk, him.”

Chapter 2

and he stank of stale booze and old sweat. He was holding his head as they rode along, moaning. Patchen sat in the back with him. He held a plastic bucket ready in case Chappie needed it. Du Pré roared up the rise to the benchland and he turned left toward the west. He accelerated and the heavy car flew when it crested the first low hill.

“Uhhhh,” said Chappie, “ohhhh.” He retched. Du Pré slowed by Benetsee's drive, turned, went slowly up the rutted track, stopped. Woodsmoke.

The cabin door was open. So the old man was back.

… I never know where he goes … this is good, maybe the stones are hot … Du Pré thought. He got out and helped Chappie, and Patchen got out and they walked Chappie past the cabin and down the little grade to the flat by the creek where Benetsee's sweat lodge stood.

There was a fire in the trench and the stones had fallen through the ricked wood as it burned fast and hot.

They could feel the heat radiating ten feet away. “Benetsee!” yelled Du Pré. No answer.

Du Pré and Patchen pulled Chappie's dirty clothes off him. The fake leg fit over the stump of his right leg and it was held on by a fabric collar that closed with Velcro.

“You get in, too,” said Du Pré. He tossed down the big beach towel he had carried from the car. “I hang your uniform up.”

Patchen looked at him and then he nodded.

He stripped and handed his uniform to Du Pré, then removed the artificial arm and hand from the stump of his left arm.

Chappie wiggled backward into the sweat lodge. Patchen followed on his one hand and knees.

Du Pré looked for the steel-handled shovel that worked best to move the stones. He saw the rusty shaft leaning against the woodpile. When he grabbed it, he heard laughter, old and thin.

Benetsee was standing near the lodge, wearing only a pair of dirty jockey shorts.

“Eight stones,” said the old man. He held the small brass bucket and dipper, full of water to the brim.

Benetsee watched as Du Pré carried the stones one by one from the fire trench to the sweat lodge, where he dropped them into the small pit to the right of the door.

When all eight had been set, Benetsee crawled in with the bucket and Du Pré flipped down the heavy canvas-and-wool blanket that covered the door.

Hissing, white tendrils of steam curled out from small gaps. Benetsee began to sing. More hissing.

Du Pré heard Madelaine's car pull in close to the sunken meadow. A door opened, closed, Du Pré looked up at her. She came down quickly.

“Du Pré,” said Madelaine, behind him, “I brought fresh things, I think I go, not be here.” She set down a black nylon duffel bag and she offered Du Pré a steel thermos. He took it, then she kissed him and went back up the little rise to her small station wagon.

Du Pré sat on a round of wood in the shade of the willows. He opened the thermos, unscrewed the cap, and laughed. Whiskey and water with one little chip of ice.

Du Pré rolled a smoke and he looked north toward the Wolf Mountains, rising high and blue and dark green and gray, snow up high, still thick.

… how many times I see this in June … it is June when the snow on the mountains is thick up high and gone the rest

Du Pré heard Benetsee singing and then he heard the drumming coming from the sweat lodge where there was no drum; he felt the drum in the earth beneath his feet … heart of the people … More voices joined Benetsee's. The sound was not loud but it was everywhere. Du Pré swung his head round; there was no one place it seemed to be coming from now. Water hissed on the hot stones again. Steam white and curling came from the blanket edges. Du Pré drank more of the whiskey and water. He looked at the fancy watch Bart had given him. “You get in trouble you can always hock it,” Bart had said. “It's platinum.”

… rag-ass Métis retired brand inspector got a watch on my wrist worth as much as most people's houses … Jesus …

Du Pré finished the whiskey and water and the voices were still.

He had another smoke and then he had to piss, so he walked away toward the willows and brush downstream, took his leak on bare ground, and then he walked back to the round of wood he had been sitting on.

The blanket flipped up and fell back down. Du Pré went to the sweat lodge and he lifted the heavy wet cloth up and folded it back over the top.

Benetsee came out on his hands and knees, stood up, and walked swiftly to the edge of the deep pool nearby, where he stepped off the grassy verge into the cold water.

Chappie came next, his eyes blinking at the bright light, and he went on hands and knees to the water and he slid over the lip of the bank on his belly.

Patchen was last. He stood up as soon as he was clear of the doorway, his right hand over his eyes. Du Pré took his elbow.

“Over here,” he said. “You jump in the water, I help you out.” Patchen nodded. Du Pré led him to the pool and Patchen dove in, his right arm stuck out and the stump of his left held as though the limb was still intact.

He slid under the water and he kicked his legs and pulled with his one arm and hand.

When he came up for air, he went

Du Pré nodded.

… that water was snow yesterday … not so far from ice now

Chappie was down at the tail of the pool. He was able to get up on the bank on his hands and knees. Du Pré took his leg and fresh clothes over to him, and a towel.

Chappie nodded, but his face was very far away. Du Pré went back to the deeper part of the pool. Patchen was swimming down deep, his head and back arching as he moved through the water, snakelike.

He came up for air. He blew water out of his mouth.

“One more dive,” he said. His voice was weak.

He went down again. When he had reached the bottom, he turned like an otter and he rippled up to the bank and stuck out his right hand. Du Pré hauled him up. He handed him a towel and his folded clothes. The plastic and metal and cloth arm sat on top of the uniform jacket. Patchen picked it up and attached it with one swift set of movements, slung the harness around his back, and buckled it in front.

Patchen tested the hand once, fiddled with some adjustment, and then he dressed very swiftly.

Chappie had found a log to sit on while he put on his leg and then his pants, a shoe and sock matching the one on his artificial limb.

Chappie stood up, tucked in his shirt; he slid his belt round the loops, set the hook in the hole. His stained old hat was last.

They looked round.

“Benetsee?” said Chappie.

Du Pré shrugged and rolled his eyes.

“Old bastard is out there fucking muskrats,” said Du Pré. “Him got to have his joke.”

“I did see a muskrat,” said Patchen.

A kingfisher flew downstream.

it said.

They walked back up to Du Pré's old cruiser.

The cabin door was shut now.

Chappie yawned.

“I am hungry,” he said.

“Good,” said Du Pré. “Your mother, she will feed you.”

Patchen and Chappie got in the backseat. Du Pré fished a flask out from the glove box and he had some whiskey. He rolled a smoke for the road, started the old car, backed and turned.

Benetsee was on the porch of his cabin; the kingfisher was perched on a peg on one of the posts that held up the little rain roof.

He did not look at them.

Du Pré drove away, down the rutted drive to the county road. He sped up on the graded gravel.

It took ten minutes to get to Madelaine's house.

Du Pré stopped and he shut the car off.

Patchen got out and he walked toward his sedan.

He turned just before he got to the car.

“See you tomorrow night in Helena?” he said, looking at Chappie.

“Yes,” said Chappie.

Patchen walked back across the street. “Where is Bitter Creek?” he said.

“I don' know,” said Chappie, looking at Du Pré.

Du Pré shrugged. “Don't know, Bitter Creek,” he said.

“There is much here I do not understand,” said Patchen. “Voices and drums close by and far away all at once. And a deep voice, a black voice, saying ‘Bitter Creek' and that I hear and you do not. …”

“He is talking to you then,” said Du Pré.

Chappie grinned at Patchen. “It means that voice wants you to do something that the living can do but the dead cannot—they want your help …” he said.

“You can just walk away,” said Du Pré. “They will not bother you again.”

“No,” said Patchen, “I can't walk away. …”

“They know that too,” said Du Pré. “Why they ask you. …”

“But we will help,” said Chappie.

Patchen nodded. He nodded again to Du Pré and Chappie and then he walked to his car. He stopped.

“I am honored,” he said, and then he got in his car and started the engine.

Du Pré and Chappie went into Madelaine's house.

There were good food smells.

… Chappie is cold sober … Du Pré thought.

He went back out to his car.

Patchen's sedan was gone.

BOOK: Bitter Creek
9.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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