Read an Excerpt
At Ease with the Dead
By Walter Satterthwait
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1990 Walter Satterthwait
All rights reserved.
I left the next day, Thursday, at nine in the morning.
There are two ways to reach Lake Asayi on the Navajo Reservation by car from Santa Fe. You can go the fast way, zip down I-25 southwest to Albuquerque, grab I-40 there and scoot west through Grants, then swing north at Gallup and head for Chinle. It's a drive where the scenery, for the most part, encourages coma.
Or you can go the slow way. I slipped "River Deep, Mountain High" into the tape deck and aimed the Subaru north. Hooked a left at Espanola and cruised along the lazy brown sweep of the Chama River, past orchards and pastures and tiny farmhouses snoozing in the lavender shade beneath the cottonwoods. Glided up through the tawny bluffs at Abiqui, Georgia O'Keeffe country, and into the sun-swept green pines of Carson National Forest. Along the way, Ms. Turner asked me if I ever had a puppy that always followed me around, and assured me that she'd be just as faithful as the animal in question. Ah, Tina, would that it were so.
I stopped for lunch at the Jicarilla Inn at Dulcle, on the Jicarilla Reservation, which serves what is arguably the best green chili stew in northern New Mexico. My stomach pleasantly swollen, I sailed along west, through Bloomfield and Farmington, and picked up 666 at the town of Shiprock and dropped south. Shiprock itself, the immense stone galleon in the desert that had baffled the conquistadors, rose straight up to my right, towering above the parched brown plains.
Then I was running along the flanks of the Chuska Mountains, and then I was in them, pine forest on either side of me, silent and still. I stopped at the general store in Crystal and bought some Navajo fry bread and a Navajo fishing license, good for three days.
When I reached Asayi, at two-thirty that afternoon, I was pleased to see that it was deserted. I parked the Subaru under the ponderosas at a campsite toward the eastern end of the lake, maybe forty feet from the flat blue water. I got out, kicked brown pine needles around until they looked like they'd provide some cushioning, wrestled with shock-corded fiberglass poles until the tent looked fairly habitable, then plopped it down. Dug the fishing rod, tackle box, and insect repellent out of the station wagon, lugged everything down to lakeside, located a tree to serve as a backrest. Slapped repellent all over me, vile-smelling stuff, then popped a couple of salmon eggs onto the fish hook, cast them out there, and sat down and waited for dinner to make its appearance.
Two hours later, I was still waiting. I hadn't gotten even a nibble.
The only dinner had been provided by myself. I was sitting within a dense gray cloud of mosquitoes and kamikaze deerflies, all of whom were searching patiently for a chink in my armor of repellent.
The stuff seemed to have only a limited life span. About half an hour after I splashed it on, it began to wear off. The deerflies, nastier than the mosquitoes, buzzing like miniature chainsaws, would dive closer and closer to exposed flesh. Finally one of them, braver than others, or maybe suffering from a sinus condition, would shoot through the invisible screen and get to me. They didn't just sting, didn't just draw blood; they ripped out chunks of meat, slung them over their shoulders, and carted them home. I was supplying flank steaks to their extended families.
It was four-thirty, and I was beginning to think about quitting for the day, or for the rest of my life, when I saw the old man. He was ambling toward me along the shore to the west, right hand in the pocket of his jeans, left hand using a dark wood cane. He moved slowly, favoring his left leg as though it were wounded or rheumatic. Slender and short, his skin creased and burnt to the color of terra-cotta, he was in his late fifties or early sixties. His shirt was a red cotton plaid, buttoned to the neck. His steel gray hair, threaded with white, was pulled back over his ears and tied in a traditional bun below the brim of his Navajo hat. A pipe jutted from the corner of his mouth, and pale blue smoke streamed from the bowl, drifted lazily up around the hat, and disappeared against the pale blue sky.
He walked as though he hadn't seen me, which I doubted. Slowly, thoughtfully, he looked this way and that, up into the trees, out across the lake.
My fishing line lay across the path; to pass me, he'd need to step over it or circle around me and my borrowed tree. I reeled in the line and examined the salmon eggs. Like all the others, they hadn't been touched. Disgusted, I tugged them off the hook and tossed them into the water.
The old man stopped about eight feet away, took the pipe from his mouth, rested both hands atop the knob of his cane, and nodded to me. Noncommittal, neither pleased nor disappointed. "Catch anything?" he asked, without sounding especially interested. His voice was low and raspy. Zorba the Navajo.
"Nothing," I said.
He looked off to his left and studied the lake for a moment.
A deerfly strafed my neck. I picked up the plastic bottle of goop, squirted some into my palm, slapped it onto my skin.
Still studying the lake, he asked, "Been here long?"
He nodded again, the same way, then bobbed his head toward the bottle of repellent. "Bugs don't like that stuff?"
"No. I'm not real fond of it myself."
He nodded again, put his pipe back in his mouth, his hand back into his pocket, and started walking again along the path, the cane swinging slowly, lightly, before it tapped softly against the packed brown earth. Just as he was about to pass me, he turned. His smile was so faint, a tiny upward movement of the thin lips against the pipe stem, that maybe I imagined it. He said, "Fish like it, you think?" and then he walked on.
For a few minutes I watched his back grow smaller. Then I clambered back up the slope to the campsite. I burrowed through the gear in the back of the Subaru until I found the water bottle and the soap. I washed my hands like Dr. Kildare prepping for a triple bypass, rinsed them, dried them, climbed back down to the fishing rod. Opened the jar of salmon eggs, scooped out two, impaled them on the hook, cast them out into the lake.
Within three minutes I had a strike. I lost the fish, whatever it was, but I baited the line again, and within two minutes I had myself a rainbow. A keeper, about twelve inches long.
A half an hour later, when I had two more, both bigger than the first, I saw the old man again. On the far side of the lake, a hundred and fifty yards away. Walking along, slowly, thoughtfully.
I held up the fish to show him, and maybe he saw it, maybe he didn't. Once again, it could've been my imagination—hard to tell at that distance—but I thought he nodded.
I heard the gunshots at seven o'clock.
I had cleaned and cooked the fish, scarfed them down with the fry bread, washed up everything, and returned to the lakeside to watch the sun set. Now that I wasn't worried about contaminating the bait, I splattered repellent all over me like a sophomore laying on cologne before the prom. The deerflies had retired for the night, but the mosquitoes were ravenous.
The light was fading as it slanted through the pine trees. The lake was as flat as a mirror. Here and there along the surface small clouds of midges whirled and twirled. The swallows came at them from the sky, skimmed along the water, snapped them up, soared away. The occasional trout came at them from the lake, leaping up in a muscular metallic roll, snatching at them, splashing back to leave slow concentric silver ripples. It's not easy, being a midge.
Then I heard the shots. Abrupt and peremptory, from off to my left, beyond the bend on the lake shore. Even before the sound of the blasts began to roll out across the lake, the swallows had vanished: a flutter of wings, a sudden upward swoop, and they were gone.
It might have been only someone plinking at tin cans—although it'd sounded like at least a .38, and that meant fairly expensive plinking.
In any event, it was none of my business.
But the shots had come from the same direction that the old man had gone.
And I was used to sticking my nose into things that were none of my business. That is, after all, exactly what my business is.
My own gun was back in Santa Fe, in a shoebox on the floor of my closet. Which made a frontal approach a fairly dumb idea. I scrambled up the bank into the ponderosas and, keeping low, scooted along between the tree trunks.
About fifty yards in, the trees began to thin and I was peering through the lacing of branches down a gentle slope at a wide grassy knoll by lakeside. To the right, an old pale blue Ford pickup with a battered camper shell was parked a few feet from the water. The old man stood about ten feet away, leaning on his cane, his face impassive. He might have been alone, calmly studying the movement of light and shade.
But he wasn't. To the left, closer to me and just off the dirt road that led to the lake, stood a run-down Winnebago, its white sides grimy with grease and dust. Two men leaned against it. One was short, thin, balding, and wore a white T-shirt above his faded jeans. The other was big, as tall as I was, and thick. He was wearing a cut-off Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, and his pale meaty arms were folded above a loose roll of belly. Both men held cans of beer and both seemed enormously entertained.
The third man, his back to me, was the one doing the entertaining. He was the one with the gun.
Tall and lanky, his blue denim shirt draped outside his jeans, he laughed once now, a whoop, hard and nasal, as he aimed the pistol at the old man. "C'mon, Chief. Do us a rain dance."
There's something about a forest that can bring out the worst in people. Maybe it's the unlimited freedom, the absolute lack of restraints. No litter bags, no stop signs, no cops. Or maybe it's merely the indifference of wild country, its disregard for their puny little lives. They resent it—they feel compelled to mark it with the stamp of their own individual stupidity.
Whatever the reason, people who might seem perfectly normal, perfectly respectable, back home in Rockford or Toledo or Scarsdale become slobs and oafs and occasionally worse.
And when you've got two or three morons who've learned their social graces from Johnny Mack Brown movies, idiots who live and often die by some sorry set of cowboy clichés, then the forest can become a truly dangerous place.
The man with the pistol pulled the trigger and the gun boomed. The barrel kicked back and a spout of black dirt shot up a yard to the left of the old man's foot.
The pistol was a revolver, a big one, gun-metal blue. Probably a .357, probably a Ruger. He had fired three shots now. If he were cautious enough to keep an empty chamber beneath the hammer, he had two shots left. If he weren't, he had three shots.
Figure three shots.
I wheeled around to the right and went padding down the slope, keeping the trees between me and them. The ground was soft, blanketed with pine needles, and I was able to move without making too much noise. We mountain men can do that.
At the bottom of the hill, I found what I'd been looking for. A big stick, an old branch, approximately five feet long and a couple of inches thick. The wood seemed solid, neither rotten nor riddled with insects. If I'd had time, I could've shaved it clean and whittled myself a nifty staff, just like Jim Bridger's. I didn't have time.
The closest I could get to the man with the gun, without being seen, was about fifteen feet. Beyond that, I'd be out in the open.
He was still standing there with the pistol aimed at the old man. "Hey, Chief. You ain't cooperatin' at all."
Fifteen feet. A rush, a swing, smash away the gun, smash away the shooter, get to the gun before the other two bozos got to me.
Piece of cake.
"C'mon, now," grinned the man with the gun. "Just a teensy-weensy dance. You don't really got to make it rain. Jest make it cloud over a little, huh?"
Over by the Winnebago, the big man laughed.
The old man merely stood there, leaning on his cane.
The man with the gun pulled the trigger.
The gun exploded and the old man's body jerked slightly to the right. Expressionless, he looked down at his leg. The slug had ripped a hole in his jeans, just above his knee. He looked up at the shooter and gave him the same small hint of a smile he had given me earlier. "Great White Hunter," he said, and shook his head. "Can't even miss right."
The other man scowled and raised the gun.
Inhale. Exhale. Now.
I went at him with the club raised back over my right shoulder, a roar bellowing up from down deep in my stomach. Make a lot of noise and sometimes you confuse them.
It confused him. He turned to me, his mouth open in a big round O of surprise. For a moment he was too startled to move, and then he was bringing the gun down, the barrel lining up with my chest, but by that time it was too late because I was already swinging. The stick smashed into his wrist and something snapped and it wasn't the wood.
The gun went tumbling off to the left as I followed through on the swing, and then I braced my feet and came back with the club—no time for subtlety—and slammed it into his kidneys. He gasped and started to go down, and I saw that the big man was on his way, slow but determined, like a freight train. I dropped the club and spun to the left and scooped up the gun and came around in a crouch and thumbed back the hammer. I could've slipped a nice neat hyphen between the l's in DALLAS. I almost did. I was high on fear and fury.
The big man put on the brakes and stopped a few feet short of his friend, blinking rapidly.
The other man, the short, skinny one, hadn't moved at all. He just stood there by the Winnebago, frowning, puzzled, as though he'd wandered into the wrong movie. Probably he'd need the other two to explain it to him later. Slowly.
"Pick him up," I told the big man, and jerked the gun barrel toward the man on the ground.
Except for blinking his eyes, the big man did nothing.
I took a step toward him. Through my teeth, just the way Clint does it, I said, "Pick him up, asshole." The only way to deal with stalwarts like these is to convince them, from the start, that you're a lot meaner and a whole lot crazier than they are. Just at that moment, I probably was.
He looked away, convinced, and then stepped forward to help his friend up. The other man groaned and clutched at his wrist.
I said, "Now get the hell out of here. And listen." With my left hand I reached into my back pocket, slipped out my wallet, and held it out so he could see the badge. Hector Ramirez, a friend in the Santa Fe Police Department, had arranged it for me. It was an honorary Santa Fe County deputy sheriff's badge and it was almost as official as something you fish out of a box of Fruit Loops. But these three dipsticks didn't know that. "Nothing would make me happier, nothing, than blowing your guts all over the grass. You remember that when you start thinking about coming back here."
The big man put up a hand and said, "Okay, okay. We're leaving." Once again, his glance didn't meet mine.
The short, skinny man, still looking puzzled—Golly, is the fun all over?—helped him load his friend into the back of the Winnebago, then got in there himself. The big man, without glancing at me at all, went around the RV, opened the front door, and climbed up, pulling the door shut behind him. The Winnebago's engine turned over, caught. The big boxy vehicle backed away from the dirt road, lurched once, and then moved forward, turning onto the wide rutted path.
As it drove away, I looked down at the gun. It was a Ruger, a. 357 Blackhawk. I flipped open the loading gate and spun the cylinder. Two cartridges left. I clicked the cylinder forward until the last empty chamber was aligned with the barrel, snapped the loading gate shut, lowered the hammer.
Now that there was no one around to admire my Dirty Harry impersonation, my hands were beginning to shake.
I took a deep breath, blew it out, and looked at the old man. His head bent forward, he was fingering the hole in his jeans thoughtfully.
"You all right?" I asked him.
He looked up at me and smiled his faint smile. "Of course," he said. "I was okay even before you got here."
I smiled. "Yeah?"
"Sure," he said. "I had 'em surrounded."
Excerpted from At Ease with the Dead by Walter Satterthwait. Copyright © 1990 Walter Satterthwait. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.