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Authors: Sandi Ault

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34
The Attorney

Friday, 1100 Hours

I pulled up in front of Grampa Ned's house and saw the yellow crime scene tape across the porch entrance and the front door. Although the crime had occurred elsewhere, Agent Crane evidently believed that there might be evidence inside the home that would help him solve the mystery of who murdered Grampa Ned. I did, too.

I pulled down the road a few hundred yards and parked my Jeep under an old cottonwood. I walked back to the house and headed for the covered patio in the back that Alto Lefthand had built for Ned. Two strands of yellow tape crossed in an X over the sliding glass doors. I reached between the top and bottom strands of tape on the left side and tried the handle on the patio door. As Lefthand had indicated, it wasn't locked. I pushed it to the side and stepped gingerly through the opening between the upper and lower legs of the X, being careful not to catch the bottom one with my heavy boots.

“Hello?” I called, just in case.

There was no answer.

I stood in the kitchen and took in the massive piles of clutter. I thought for a moment.
If you were Ned Spotted Cloud, where would you hide some of your more important things?
I walked carefully through the hallway to the front entry. I looked to the dining room—piled with stacks of papers and cartons of receipts—to the living room, also choked with mounds of things. “Where's the bedroom?” I said aloud.

I found several plastic containers stuffed under the bed. But the room was so massed with boxes, bags, and stacks of papers that I took one of the squat plastic tubs outside to go through it, since there was no place to set it down in the house. I sat at the little table on the covered back patio, sifting through papers, pictures, newspaper clippings, and small objects. “This is nuts, Jamaica,” I muttered to myself, “you don't even know what it is that you're looking for.” I pulled on the end of a bit of white cloth and found myself holding up a woman's bra.

“That looks like those cross-your-heart things women wore decades ago,” I said, still talking to myself. “And it's white. Nobody wears white anymore.” I dropped it on the table beside several piles of papers and photos I'd already gone through.

I continued to dig deeper into the box. Under some rodeo programs and a few utility bills, I discovered a packet of letters, tied with a string. The one on top was addressed to Ned Spotted Cloud, but no return address showed on the face of the envelope. The postmark read
Dolores, CO,
but the date was illegible.

Just then, I heard a car pull in the drive. I quickly jumped up and—again being careful of the tape—stepped through the open glass door and into the kitchen, dashed down the hallway and into the living room, where I could see out the big window. Edgar “Jimmy” Johns got out of a truck and slammed the door. He was wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and he had a toothpick in the corner of his mouth. Instead of coming to the front door, he made straight for the side of the house to go around to the back. I rushed back down the hall, through the kitchen, and out onto the covered patio. I started putting the things I'd set out on the table back into the plastic tub.

“I'll bet you haven't got a search warrant,” he said.

I straightened. “I'm afraid not.”

“See?” he said, pulling the toothpick from his mouth. “I could have won money if I actually would have placed that bet.”

“I'm sorry,” I said. “It's just that…”

“If you're trying to figure out who killed Grampa Ned, my money's on Gary Nagual, but you didn't hear me say that.”

I stopped trying to cover my tracks and looked at the attorney's face. “The renter? Why do you think it's him?”

“He's under a lot of pressure for gambling debts. You know what Ned did to his things?”

“I heard. But Mr. Nagual just seems a little…out of it to me. I don't make him for a murderer.”

Jimmy Johns pulled a chair out from the table, returned his toothpick to the corner of his mouth, and sat down. “You find anything good in that box?” he asked.

“I didn't get that far.”

“Well, I'd prefer you didn't go any farther.”

“Yes, sir, I'll just put these things back…”

He put a brown hand on top of mine to stop me. “Just leave it there. I'll take care of it. Where'd you get this from?”

“Under his bed.”

He nodded his head several times. “Good thought, good thought.”

I sat down in the chair next to him. “It seems like everybody who knew him had a reason to hate Grampa Ned.”

“That's about right.”

“So why do you represent him?”

He took the toothpick out of his mouth again, and waved it for emphasis. “I'm an attorney for the tribe. He's a member of the tribe.”

“And do
you
have a reason to hate Grampa Ned?”

“Not that I know of.”

“What can you tell me about him?”

“I already told you all about him.”

“What?”

“Remember ‘Coyote Takes the Desert's Blanket'?”

“Oh, the story. Yes. Oh, I see.”

“Did you ever go to some of these places around here where the man of the house is a hunter and he's got a lot of trophies mounted on his wall—the stuffed heads of the animals, the racks of antlers, rugs made out of bear hides?”

“Yes, there are plenty of places like that all over the West.”

“Well, Ned was like that about women.”

“The desert's blanket?”

“Yeah. But it was more like the hunter. He liked to take a woman down, then take something for a trophy.”

“You mean literally take something? Like something she owned?”

“Maybe that, too. But I was thinking more like a part of her.”

Just then, a man's voice interrupted us. It startled me so much that I jumped up from my chair. “Is this a private party, or can anyone sit in?” Ron Crane holstered his automatic, having determined after watching us that Jimmy Johns and I posed no threat to the FBI.

I dropped my head.
Busted!
“Grampa Ned's attorney and I were just…”

“Breaking and entering?” Crane said. He waved two fingers at me. “I'll walk you to your car.” Then he looked at the attorney. “Mr. Johns, I'll be right back.”

At my Jeep, Crane said, “As long as you're meddling around in my case, could you go see Clara White Deer?”

“Meddling? You asked for my help.”

“You call that help? I don't need you to break into Ned Spotted Cloud's house. I'm allowed to go in there if I want something. I'm the FBI.”

“I didn't break in. The door was unlocked.”

“You know, I think it would help me more if you worked
with
me. Last time I checked, I was the one in charge of this case.”

“I'm sorry.”

“So, what were you looking for in there?”

“I don't know.”

“You don't know.”

“No, I don't know. I'll know it when I see it.”

“Sort of investigation by intuition? A little dash of trial and error?”

“Okay, Mr. FBI. You win. Clearly I'm no match for your superior powers of detection. So if you'll permit me, I have to get back to Fire Camp.”

His face opened into a huge smile. He started to chuckle, then broke into a laugh. And kept laughing.

The sound of it was infectious. I tried to hold on to my indignation, to keep a straight face, but my lips wouldn't comply. I began to smirk, then a smile broke through, and finally I was laughing, too.

“‘Mr. FBI.'” He guffawed. “That was pretty good.”

“You liked that?” I giggled.

He hooted and slapped his thigh. “Yeah, but the ‘superior powers of detection' was the best.”

“Oh, yeah?” I chuckled. “How about that ‘investigation by intuition, with a little dash of trial and error'?”

We both roared with laughter, and Crane even gave a little shriek, which caused us to advance into further hysterics. I laughed so hard my eyes were wet, and I found myself holding my hand over my stomach, trying to catch my breath.

“So,” Crane cackled, “who's your partner?” He pointed at Ursula the stuffed bear, who was slumped over halfway into my seat.

“Oh, that's Ursula,” I sputtered. “I better buckle her seat belt or I'm liable to get arrested.” I went around to the passenger side and belted the bear in.

Finally, the hilarity subsided, and Crane looked at me with a grin. “So will you go pay a visit to Clara White Deer?”

“I could do that. But I wouldn't know what to say.”

“Get her to talk about Grampa Ned.”

I shook my head. “I don't think that's going to happen.”

“Just see what you can do, Miss Intuition.” He smiled as he shoved the driver's-side door shut and went back up the road toward Ned Spotted Cloud's house and Edgar “Jimmy” Johns.

35
The Long, Long Story

Friday, 1200 Hours

Information had asked me to drop some letters at the post office while I was in Ignacio. I drove through the short strip of downtown and saw Mary Takes Horse standing in the doorway of a small corner shop called Dancing Bear Trading Post. I turned onto the side street, found a place to park, and went to see the storyteller.

“You buying something or you wanting something for free?” Mary Takes Horse said when she saw me approach on foot.

“I'll buy you a glass of iced tea or a cup of coffee,” I said, smiling.

“Not necessary,” Mary said. “I got some coffee inside.”

She handed me a steaming mug. The day was already blistering hot, and the coffee smelled burned, but I thanked her graciously.

“Your medicine teacher tells me you are a keeper of stories.”

“I write a little, if that's what you mean.”

“That's what I mean,” she said, pulling a tall wooden stool out from under the cash register and sitting down behind the counter.

“I loved your story about the brothers,” I said. “And the one Jimmy Johns told, too.”

“Our culture is full of bear and coyote stories.”

“Do you think Ned Spotted Cloud was a coyote, a trickster?” I asked.

She got off the stool and went to one of the nearby jewelry cases. “He stole a lot of blankets.” She pointed to a silver bear paw inside the case. It was inlaid with green-veined turquoise. “You got a lot of bear medicine. I can see that about you. You should buy this.”

I looked down into the case. “Why do you say I have a lot of bear medicine?”

“You remember I talked about that tenderness? You got that.” She took the amulet out of the case and handed it to me. “But you're fierce, too, when you got something to protect.”

“So how much is that?” I asked, studying the piece.

“Maybe if you get that fire put out, I'll make you a special deal,” she said, smiling as she returned the silver piece to the case. “Pull up that chair over there.”

Later, after we'd finished our coffee, I got up to leave. “You know, Clara White Deer told me that if she spoke harshly about Ned Spotted Cloud, you would do worse. But you seem very cautious when you speak about him.”

She started wiping off the glass top of the jewelry case with a little rag. “He's dead. We can't give him a worse judgment than that.”

“Well, thanks for the coffee.” I made for the door.

“I watched that story unfold,” she said, still rubbing the glass. “I watched it kind of like you watch on TV when the same show goes on for a whole week, night after night, and the people on that show start to grow older and maybe their kids grow up and get old, too.”

“A miniseries?”

“Yes. Like that. This was a long story. A long, long story.”

I held my hand on the door, waiting.

“It would take a lot of nights at the storyteller ceremonies to tell this one.”

I hesitated. “Maybe they all start out as long stories, and we learn to choose the important things to tell.”

“It all started when Clara White Deer was Bear Dance Queen…”

I turned and went back to my chair in front of the counter.

“She was a beautiful girl. So beautiful. She was beautiful even when she was a baby. By the time she was fourteen, she already had offers for marriage. But she was also smart, and she did real good in school. She wanted to be a teacher. She studied real hard, and her last year in high school, she got a scholarship to go to Fort Lewis A&M—that was a while after it moved from the old Indian school to Durango. And that summer, she worked in a little café here in Ignacio to make money for college.

“That café is not open anymore, but it was right next door, right there.” She pointed at the wall. “Back then, Grampa Ned was in there all the time. He went in every day for his breakfast because he didn't have anyone to cook for him. Of course, we didn't call him Grampa Ned back then—he was still a young man. Oh, he was good-looking, too. He was the best-looking man I ever saw.

“I was a couple of years behind Clara in school, but she was my best friend. I loved her like a sister. Her mother had taken sick when she was a little girl, and after a few years over there in Arizona, she died of the TB. Clara had to take care of her dad, and he drank. She couldn't wait to get out of here.”

“You mean the reservation?”

“Yes. Lot of young people couldn't wait to leave, even back then. We were poor then, and there was nothing to stay here for—no jobs, no future. It's different now, we got the tribal growth fund and lots of economic opportunities for young people managing the tribe's interests. Anyway, back then, Clara couldn't wait to leave. She knew if she became a teacher, she'd always have a job and she could take care of herself.

“And that year, she got voted the Bear Dance Queen. She was the prettiest girl and real good, too. Everybody loved her.”

“Did Ned Spotted Cloud love her?”

Mary Takes Horse threw her dust rag in a box behind the counter and rubbed her palms together rapidly, as if trying to remove something unpleasent. She stared at the floor, her lips pursed. Finally, she looked at me. “I don't think he ever loved anybody his whole life.”

“What about Nuni?”

She spit air. “Another young woman, desperately needing to be loved. He just used her like he used everybody else.”

“So Clara…she went away to school, pregnant?”

“When she came back to the reservation, she had two things: a baby and a teaching certificate. She never said one word about who the father was, and nobody ever asked.”

“Still, people must have guessed.”

“They could guess all they wanted, but she went away right when it happened, so they couldn't say for sure.”

“Why do you think she fell for him?”

“Oh, he was handsome and he had more money than most of the men around here. And he didn't drink, that was one thing. He didn't drink, and he always had a good job.”

“What did he do?”

“Oh, he always found something to do for the US government. Back then, those were the only jobs there were around here. He worked for them on the oil and gas reserves, as some sort of tribal representative or something. They got used to hiring him anytime they wanted something from our tribe—they'd call him up, and he'd go between and get the government whatever they wanted. They paid him pretty good.

“And he got himself on the tribal council and got involved with some land deals, too. He was on the council for a long time, but we finally had enough of him when the whole thing happened with Oscar Good. I found a way to get Ned out of there after that.”

“And in the meantime, he fathered a lot of children? That's what Clara implied.”

“Oh, we're pretty sure of that, yes. There was a lot of poverty for a long time and also we still have a problem with alcohol here. And a lot of young girls saw Ned's good looks and his fat wallet and they were ready to do anything to try to get in good with him. I watched this a long time, long time. Many girls, many women. I watched, and I never said nothing about it. I finally said something after Oscar Good's dogs died, something about that nasty old man and his character. But I only got him off the council. I didn't change anything for all the young girls before.” She tidied a stack of papers next to the cash register, humming softly to herself.

I got up and tugged at my wildland pants to straighten them. “Thank you for telling me the story.” I gave a respectful nod and started for the door.

“Could have been you, too,” she said to my back.

“What?” I turned to look at her.

“All the girls wanted to be with Ned. He was handsome, and funny, and he just had a way with the women. Even as an old man, still.”

I was trying to think of an answer when a crack of gunfire and the distinctive tinkle of shattering glass startled us both. Instinctively I dropped to a crouch. I glanced at Mary Takes Horse to be sure she was all right. Slowly, she lowered herself to a squat behind the display case, her wide eyes peering above the top glass at me. I held my hand up to pantomime using the phone. “Call 911,” I whispered, and I checked the windows in the front of the shop for broken glass, but found none.

While Mary used the telephone to summon help, I pulled the door open several inches and strained to look down the street. After a few moments, I opened the door a little wider. Finally, I stood up and slowly slid through the door, edged to the corner of the brick building, and peeked around. I saw nothing out of the ordinary. I rapidly scanned the side street as far as I could see. And then I homed in on my Jeep.

The front passenger window bore a pattern in the shape of a spiderweb with a perfect round puncture in the center. And where Ursula the stuffed bear's helmeted head had been, a nebula of fluff, foam, and fake fur floated in front of the vacant headrest.

I drew back from the corner and took in a breath. The only sounds were the normal hum of traffic coming from down the street. I stood there for a moment, unsure what to do. I gingerly edged to the corner and looked around it again: the side street was empty, except for my Jeep—its window still shattered, Ursula's head blown apart. And no sign of who might have done it. I leaned against the building while I tried to think what to do next, but the bricks exuded so much heat that it reminded me of the burning man. I pulled away and walked back the few steps to the door of the trading post. Mary Takes Horse stood inside, her mouth open, her face alert. She held the phone in one hand, ready to punch the keys with the other. She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw me. “Tribal police are on their way.”

“I hope I have something stronger than bear medicine,” I said, “because the bear just got blown away.”

BOOK: Wild Inferno
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