pecial Investigator Ella Clah could feel the promise of rain in the cool breeze coming in her open driver’s side window. The wind had a fresh and clean scent, as if it had just passed through a cloud.
It was September and New Mexico’s rainy season was tapering off. A three-year drought had plagued the land and most of the storms had amounted to nothing more than howling
wind, blowing dust, and darkened skies. Mother Earth was parched, and animals had gone hungry as they’d searched for something other than cheat grass and snakeweed to graze on. Some kinds of snakeweed could poison livestock, and cheat grass would cut their mouths. But in a drought year, pickings were slim and their choices few.
Yet, today, there was a good change in the air. Dark gray clouds
had formed over the mountains and the slanted streaks in the sky above Ute Mountain were more than just virga, or what her mother called false rain, that evaporated before it reached the ground. With luck, they’d have a downpour that would fill the smaller arroyos.
At thirty-four, Ella had seen droughts come and go many times, but she couldn’t remember it ever being this bad. She could feel
the hopelessness of the older Navajos who sometimes stood by their barren fields, wondering when the rains would return.
At one time, the People had used ceremonies to ease a drought, but most of the
these days didn’t know the right Sings. Not that it mattered now. Truth was, when crops failed and food was scarce, no one had the money to pay for ceremonies anyway. Still, many prayed
on their own for relief.
These were hard times even for the long-suffering Dineh, the People, but Ella was glad to be here on the reservation with her family. She’d faced death in an abandoned uranium mine shaft after a cave-in several months ago and, as a result of that experience, was grateful for each day, for the chance to see her daughter, Dawn, grow up, and for work that allowed her to
help restore the balance between good and evil.
For Ella, it was a daily struggle to walk in beauty—to be in harmony with everything that surrounded her. Police work could be demanding and, at times, overwhelming. For years it had dominated everything she’d done. She’d been the servant, and her career the master. But things would be different now. Although she still loved her chosen profession,
serving as a special investigator for the Navajo tribal police, she wouldn’t let it rule her life anymore.
At least that was her new goal. One thing that deadly experience at the mine had taught her was that it didn’t pay to plan things too carefully. Life always had the final say, and it seemed to take almost perverse pleasure in muddling everything up.
Ella thought of her daughter, Dawn. After
the accident, aware of how quickly time passed, Ella had been determined to become an even greater part of her daughter’s life. She’d wanted to start spending more quality time with her daughter, who was now nearly six and a half and in the second grade, but Dawn, an independent kid with a mind of her own, hadn’t been interested in that prospect.
Undaunted at first, and knowing how much Dawn
loved riding her pony, Ella had bought a horse so they could ride together. She’d envisioned long, heartwarming talks during trail rides that would become nothing less than bonding sessions. But the reality had turned out differently. Her daughter invariably spent the time they were out together chattering nonstop about her plans to compete in barrel racing someday.
Ella had made it clear that
it wasn’t a matter of age or size exclusively. She’d never give her permission to race on a horse until Dawn could demonstrate the required coordination and control needed, because it was dangerous. Yet Dawn still took every available opportunity to lobby for it, and Ella had to remind her to remain patient and continue building her skills.
Ella was just five minutes from the police station when
a call came over the radio. She focused on the message, grateful for the interruption. Police work was infinitely easier to deal with than raising a child—she’d been trained in the former, after all. Parenting seemed more like trial-and-error learning these days.
“We have a probable burglary in progress,” Dispatch told her, giving her an address on the south side of Shiprock across the bridge
in the opposite direction. “May John, the neighbor, made the call. She says the home owner, Herbert Tapaha, is inside the residence. Tapaha’s bedridden.”
Ella recognized the name. The man had to be at least ninety by now. “I know the neighborhood. I’m ten minutes away—make that five.”
“Backup should arrive in eight. Ten-four?”
Ella switched on the emergency lights, checked for
traffic, then pulled over to her left, making a one-eighty across the median into the west-bound lanes.
They’d had problems with gangs again lately. Maybe it was just another kid searching for something to steal. But the elderly man would be easy prey and young gang-bangers, by and large, didn’t care much about mercy or compassion.
Knowing sirens would warn the perps and set up a possible hostage
situation, she opted for a silent approach. As she headed across the narrow steel trestle bridge fording the San Juan River, experience told her that this was the type of call that could end up going sour in an instant, particularly if the thief encountered the owner.
Ella switched off her emergency lights as she approached the residential area, which was just to the right of old Highway 666,
now renamed Highway 491 thanks to pressure from those who feared its old nickname, the Devil’s Highway. Most of the houses in the low-income neighborhood were small wood-framed stucco and had been constructed forty or more years ago. Vehicles in various states of repair, mostly pickups or inexpensive sedans, were scattered along the street.
Her vehicle was unmarked but well-known in the community,
so, watching the numbers on the street side mailboxes, Ella parked three houses down from Tapaha’s home. The lack of curbs in the poorly developed area allowed residents to park almost anywhere and Ella spotted an old white compact sedan twenty feet from the front door of the pale green house. Farther back, along the side of the house, a weathered blue van with gray primer showing through was
adjacent to an open window. No doubt this was the perp’s vehicle.
Ella called the information in, then slipped out of her unit. She’d barely taken a step when a Navajo woman came rushing up to her. The neighbor was dressed in jeans and a maroon and gray football jersey, the local team’s current colors. Her dark hair was peppered liberally with silver and her eyes were round and wide with excitement.
Her arms were in constant motion as her words came tumbling out in a rush.
“I’m May John. You’re Officer Clah, right? Herbert, the owner, is in that house, I’m sure of it because his car’s there. I watched from my house while that kid parked his van by the side window and crawled inside. Well, the window was already open so maybe he didn’t really break in. But he wasn’t invited into the house,
that’s for sure.”
“Did you recognize the kid?” Ella asked. She knew which gang members were likely to present major trouble, and an ID would let her know roughly what to expect.
“No, I don’t know who it was, but I did catch a glimpse of him,” May said, her eyes narrowing as she tried to remember the details. “He’s Navajo, or at least Indian, and tall and thin, wearing a dark T-shirt and tan,
That was the general “uniform” of several reservation gangs these days. Once she saw the kid up close, identified the exact colors, plus any tattoos, she’d know for sure. “Was he carrying a weapon?”
“I don’t know … .” Her eyes widened even more. “Do you think he had one?”
Ella raised her eyebrows. “I have no idea.
the one who saw him.”
“Yeah, right. This whole thing just
got me so upset! In my day, we never had this kind of problem on the reservation.”
Ella grabbed her handheld radio and updated Dispatch. “I’m going to check out the residence.”
Ella unsnapped the safety strap that kept her pistol in place and started toward the house. She angled toward the side so she could see between the van and the building in case the perp came back out through the window
She’d expected May to hang back, but hearing footsteps, she turned her head and saw that the woman was following along behind her. Ella glared at her. “Please go back inside your house and shut the door.”
“Oh, okay Yeah.” May turned and ran back across the street.
By the time Ella reached the front corner of Tapaha’s house, the woman had already disappeared. Ella stepped along the wall, watching
the front door, van, and side window by glancing back and forth. Stopping beside the van’s driver’s side door, she peered into the unoccupied vehicle. The keys were still in the ignition, so she reached inside through the rolled-down window and pulled them out.
Ella placed them into her jacket pocket and continued around
the house with her back against the house wall, listening as she moved.
The faint opening of drawers and light footsteps indicated someone was inside but had already gone past the room adjacent to the window as he worked the interior of the home.
Moving with the practiced grace of a hunter, she crept lightly to the back door and tried the handle. It wasn’t locked. Times had changed, but people hadn’t. The older ones seldom locked their doors. If the kid had tried
this entry, he would have probably gotten in undetected, providing he’d parked around the back.
Ella slipped inside the small kitchen, grateful that the hinges didn’t creak. The house smelled of bacon grease and cigarettes, but was otherwise clean and cozy. Two old-style dinette chairs were pushed against a matching shiny chrome table with a white top. Several cigarette burns suggested the old
man was careless with his smokes and lucky so far not to have burned down his house. Through the next doorway Ella could see what looked like the living room, then a short hall that led farther back into the interior.
Someone inside one of the bedrooms cursed, then something heavy crashed to the floor. Ella heard the sound of hurried footsteps and, gripping her pistol tightly, crouched and pressed
against the side of the refrigerator, watching as she made herself as small a target as possible. Suddenly a Navajo boy nearly her height came racing down the hall. His hair was cut short and styled in multicolored spikes, and his ears and nose were pierced with small gold rings. He seemed to be in a panic and going so fast that he failed to make the turn into the living room. He skidded, and
bounced off the trim of the doorway.
As he recaptured his balance, he saw her standing there. “Stay away from me!” he yelled, raising a small, shiny pistol. His finger jerked the trigger and there was a loud pop and a thud in the living room wall. He’d missed her by at least ten feet.
Obviously, he hadn’t meant to hit her. No one was
bad a shot. Knowing that, she gambled and chose not to
“Police officer! Put down the gun and drop to the floor, kid. You’re trapped.”
“Keep the gun, but I’m getting out of here
back, tossing the pistol toward a worn-looking green sofa. In a flash, he dove to the left and out of her line of sight, scrambling, she supposed, either toward a window or the front door.
Ella moved out from behind cover cautiously and saw
him crawling out the window into his van. Knowing he was in for a big surprise, she chuckled softly. She had his keys. Turning, she ran through the kitchen and out the back door. As she went around the corner, she heard him cursing and knew he’d just realized that he wasn’t going anywhere in his vehicle.
Ella ran up to the van and, as he poked his head out the driver’s window, raised her hand
and showed him the keys. “Give it up,” she ordered.
In a flash, he jumped across the front seat and leaped out the passenger’s door. The burglar sprinted out of the yard and onto the street as if his shoes were on fire. As the boy ran away, Ella followed, jamming her pistol back into the pancake holster at her belt, then picking up the pace as the teen raced up the street. She wasn’t a sprinter,
but she could go for miles across country, so unless he was a long-distance runner, or managed to hide somehow, she’d catch up to him sooner or later.
The kid took a right at the intersection, heading west down a dirt road that paralleled Highway 64. Hopefully he wasn’t really trying to make it to Arizona, but he was moving as though he had a pit bull at his heels. And, in a way, he did. Ella
knew she’d never quit until the punk ran out of gas.
There were a few houses to the right, but cutting across yards and dodging cars and clotheslines would make the going slow, and the kid apparently realized that. Ella stayed with him, not losing any more ground, and, before long, about a half mile past the old farm training turnoff, he left the road and began to angle across an alfalfa field
toward the distant river. It was then that she pressed herself for more speed and quickly closed in.
Finally, a hundred yards before reaching an arroyo, she caught up to him and dove, tackling him to the ground. She rolled him over, ready to punch his lights out, but he held out his arms and lay flat on his back, gasping for air.