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When the cat came through the little trapdoor at the bottom of the screen it made a clack-clack sound. Slight, but enough to awaken Jim Chee. Chee had been moving in and out of the very edge of sleep, turning uneasily on the narrow bed, pressing himself uncomfortably against the metal tubes that braced the aluminum skin of his trailer. The sound brought him enough awake to be aware that his sheet was tangled uncomfortably around his chest.
He sorted out the bedclothing, still half immersed in an uneasy dream of being tangled in 'a rope that he needed to keep his mother's sheep from running over the edge of something vague and dangerous. Perhaps the uneasy dream provoked an uneasiness about the cat. What had chased it in? Something scary to a cat -- or to this particular cat. Was it something threatening to Chee? But in a moment he was fully awake, and the uneasiness was replaced by happiness. Mary Landon would be coming. Blue-eyed, slender, fascinating Mary Landon would be coming back from Wisconsin. Just a couple of weeks more to wait.
Jim Chee's conditioning -- traditional Navajo -- caused him to put that thought aside. All things in moderation. He would think more about that later. Now he thought about tomorrow. Today, actually, since it must be well after midnight. Today he and Jay Kennedy would go out and arrest Roosevelt Bistie so that Bistie could be charged with some degree of homicide -- probably with murder. Not a complicated job, but unpleasant enough to cause Chee to change the subject of his thinking again. He thought about the cat. What had driven it in? The coyote, maybe. Orwhat? Obviously something the cat considered a threat.
The cat had appeared last winter, finding itself a sort of den under a juniper east of Chee's trailer -- a place where a lower limb, a boulder, and a rusted barrel formed a closed cul-de-sac. It had become a familiar, if suspicious, neighbor. During the spring, Chee had formed a habit of leaving out table scraps to feed it after heavy snows. Then when the snow melt ended and the spring drought arrived, he began leaving out water in a coffee can. But easy water attracted other animals, and birds, and sometimes they turned it over. And so, one afternoon when there was absolutely nothing else to do, Chee had removed the door, hacksawed out a cat-sized rectangle through its bottom frame, and then attached a plywood flap, using leather hinges and Miracle Glue. He had done it on a whim, partly to see if the ultracautious cat could be taught to use it. If the cat did, it would gain access to a colony of field mice that seemed to have moved into Chee's trailer. And the watering problem would be solved. Chee felt slightly uneasy about the water. If he hadn't started this meddling, nature would have taken its normal course. The cat would have moved down the slope and found itself a den closer to the San Juan -- which was never dry. But Chee had interfered. And now Chee was stuck with a dependent.
Chee's interest, originally, had been simple curiosity. Once, obviously, the cat had been owned by someone. It was skinny now, with a long scar over its ribs and a patch of fur missing from its right leg, but it still wore a collar, and, despite its condition, it had a purebred look. He'd described it to the woman in the pet store at Farmington -- tan fur, heavy hind legs, round head, pointed ears; reminded you of a bobcat, and like a bobcat it had a mere stub of a tail. The woman had said it must be a Manx.
"Somebody's pet. People are always bringing their pets along on vacations," she'd said, disapproving, "and then they don't take care of them and they get out of the car and that's the end of them." She'd asked Chee if he could catch it and bring it in, "so somebody can take care of it."
Chee doubted if he could get his hands on the cat, and hadn't tried. He was too much the traditional Navajo to interfere with an animal without a reason. But he was curious. Could such an animal, an animal bred and raised by the white man, call up enough of its hunting instincts to survive in the Navajo world? The curiosity gradually turned to a casual admiration. By early summer, the animal had accumulated wisdom with its scar tissue. It stopped trying to hunt prairie dogs and concentrated on small rodents and birds. It learned how to hide, how to escape. It learned how to endure.
It also learned to follow the water can into Chee's trailer rather than make the long climb down to the river. Within a week the cat was using the flap when Chee was away. By midsummer it began coming in when he was at home. At first it had waitedtensely at the step until he was away from the door, kept a- nervous eye on him while it drank, and bolted through the flap at his first motion. But now, in August, the cat virtually ignored him. It had come inside at nightonly once before-driven in by a pack of dogs that had flushed it out of its den under the juniper.
Chee looked around the trailer. Far too dark to see where the cat had gone. He pushed the sheet aside, swung his feet to the floor. Through the screened window beside his bed he noticed the moon was down. Except far to the northwest, where the remains of a thunderhead lingered, the sky was bright with stars. Chee yawned, stretched, went to the sink, and drank a palmful of water warm from the tap. The air smelled of dust, as it had for weeks...
Skinwalkers. Copyright © by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.