***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Craig Johnson
OLD INDIAN TRICK
It’s hard to argue with an old Indian or his tricks.
I was driving Lonnie Little Bird up to Billings for an evening diabetes checkup at Deaconess Hospital when we pulled into the Blue Cow Café, on the Crow Reservation just off I-90, for some supper. The Blue Cow had been a restaurant longer than it’d been a casino; its MONTANA BREAKFAST! SERVED ALL DAY! AS FEATURED IN READER’S DIGEST! consisted of a half pound of bacon, four jumbo eggs, twelve pancakes, three-quarters of a pound of hash browns, a pint of orange juice, and endless coffee—a western epic, well known across the high plains.
We had gotten a late start—the sun was already sinking over the rolling hills of the Little Big Horn country and was casting surrealistic shadows against the one-ton hay bales of the Indian ranchers. It was September and, with the sporadic rain of a cool August, it looked like everybody was going to get a third cutting.
We rolled the windows half down and made Dog stay in the truck. I lifted Lonnie, placed the legless man in his wheelchair, and rolled him in. He smiled at the remains of the day and picked up a free Shoshone Shopper newspaper as we passed through the double glass doors into the restaurant. I wheeled the old Cheyenne Indian to a booth by the window where I could keep an eye on the truck and on Dog and where we could hear Montana Slim singing “Roundup in the Fall” through his nose on a radio in the kitchen.
“Nineteen-forty-eight 8N tractor, only twelve hundred dollars.” He held his gray and black hair back with a suntanned, wrinkled hand. “Comes with a Dearborn front-end loader.”
I tipped my hat back, pulled a menu from the napkin holder, and looked at the tiny rainbows at the corners of his thick glasses. “I don’t need a tractor, Lonnie.”
“It is a good price. Um hmm, yes, it is so.”
I nodded, tossed the menu on the table, and glanced around. “You think there’s anybody here?”
He blinked and looked over my shoulder toward the cash register. My gaze followed his—two sets of eyes stared at us, just above the surface of the worn-out, wood-grained Formica counter.
“So, you weren’t here when it happened?”
The Big Horn County deputy continued to take my statement; he was young, and I didn’t know him. “Nope, we just stopped in for a little dinner and noticed that everybody was hiding.”
“And you’re headed to Billings?”
I wondered what that had to do with anything. “Yep.”
“And the old Indian is with you?”
I had listened as he’d questioned Lonnie Little Bird and hadn’t liked his tone. “Lonnie.”
He stopped scribbling. “Excuse me?”
I looked at my friend, now parked at the corner booth and still studying the Shopper. “His name is Lonnie. Lonnie Little Bird. He’s an elder and a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council.”
The deputy gave me a long, tough-guy stare, or as much of one as he’d been able to cultivate in the six weeks he had spent at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena. He stabbed the still shiny black notepad with his pen for emphasis. “I’ve got that in my notes.”
“Good.” He gave me more of the look, so I smiled at him. “Then it won’t be hard for you to remember his name.”
“You didn’t see anybody when you pulled in?”
“No Indian male, approximately twenty-five years of age with a . . .”
“She didn’t say Indian. She said ‘dark hair with dark eyes.’ ”
He didn’t like being interrupted, and he liked being corrected even less. “Look, Mister . . .”
I made him look at the notebook for my name.
A tall, heavyset man entered the café; he wore a large silver-belly hat, a .357 revolver, and a star. He waved at the two behind the counter as I turned back to the deputy. “Wanda’s Crow. If she thought he was Indian, she’d have said so.”
I caught the eye of the woman with the hairnet. “Wanda, was the kid Indian?” After a brief conversation with the man- ager, they both shook their heads no. “You need to quit jerking us around, get a more detailed description of the suspect, and put a unit out to circle the vicinity.”
“Is that what you’d do?” He studied the notebook again for my name—evidently he wasn’t a quick learner.
I watched as the large man with the star stood behind his deputy. Wesley Burrell Best Bayles, the sheriff of Big Horn County, was a legend; hell, I’d seen him eat the MONTANA BREAKFAST! SERVED ALL DAY! AS FEATURED IN READER’S DIGEST!
“Son, don’t you recognize the highly decorated peace officer of Absaroka County, Wyoming?”
After telling the deputy to get in his unit and ride surveillance, Wes excused him and drank a cup of coffee while I talked to the manager. Ray Bartlett said a guy had come in and asked for a job, so he had given him an application. The kid had sat in the corner booth till a couple of rodeo cowboys finished up at the buffet and departed. He had worked up his nerve, come up to the register, pulled a .22 pistol from his waistband, stuck it in Wanda Pretty On Top’s face, and demanded the cash. Wanda, figuring the $214 wasn’t worth her life and unsure if the .22 would kill her or just hurt real bad, handed it over. He asked for the change, and she had sighed and then dutifully dumped the coins into a deposit bag. The kid made them get down on the floor, which Wanda said was fine with her ’cause she was dying to get off her feet. Then he told them that if they moved in the next ten minutes, he’d shoot ’em. Ray said that it had been about five when we came in.
Wes filled himself another and motioned toward me, but I declined. “Ray, what’d the kid look like?”
“Tall, thin . . . stringy long hair and a straw cowboy hat.” Ray thought. “Jeans, a T-shirt, and one of them snap-front western shirts.”
I nodded. “Had the tail of the shirt out to cover the gun?”
Ray thought some more. “He smelled, and he had bad teeth.”
I looked to Wes and watched as he plucked the mic from his shoulder and called in the description to the deputies and assorted HPs he had out prowling. We shook hands.
I walked to the booth and knocked on the table to get Lonnie’s attention. “You ready to go?”
He nodded enthusiastically but kept reading. “They switched the electrical system over to twelve volts.” He looked up. “I don’t know why people do that; the six-volt system is a good one. Um hmm, yes, it is so.”
I loaded Lonnie, folded up his wheelchair, and let Dog out. I watched as the beast relieved himself and memorized every smell between the lamppost and the truck, then let him in the back and fastened my seat belt. Lonnie was still reading the Shopper, and it was beginning to worry me. “You all right?”
He didn’t look up but continued reading. “Yes.”
I waited a minute. “I apologize for that.”
He still didn’t look at me. “For what?”
“The deputy in there.”
He finally turned his head. “Why should you apologize for him?” I stared through the windshield and started backing out. “Where are we going, Walter?”
I thought Lonnie must have been getting forgetful. “Well, we were going to your doctor’s appointment, but it’s so late, we’ll have to go home and reschedule.”
He looked back at the paper. “Oh, I thought you might want to go get the young man who robbed the café.”
It was a rundown trailer park on the outskirts of Hardin, the kind that attracted tornados and discarded tires. We cruised the loop and stopped just short of a sun-weathered single-wide with a rusted-out Datsun pickup parked in the grassless yard. A television cast its flickering blue light across the curtained windows, and Wesley Bayles, Ray Bartlett, and I turned to look at Lonnie, who folded his paper and glanced at the number on the dented mailbox alongside the dirt driveway. “This is it, 644 Roundup Lane, Travis Mowry. Um hmm, yes, it is so.”
I shrugged, placed my hat on the dash, and reached my arm behind the seat. “Can I borrow your gun?” Wes handed me his sidearm, and, quietly closing the door behind me, I got out of the truck. I stuffed the big Colt in the back of my jeans as Wes got out on the passenger side with an 870 Remington he’d brought from his vehicle.
I glanced over to make sure the interior lights of the truck had gone out. It was fully dark now, and the trailer park gave me an advantage by not having any streetlights.
I pulled out my wallet, rolled all the cash I had into a substantial wad, and then mounted the rickety aluminum stairs to knock on the screen door. I could make out the kitchenette and the carpet strip that led to what I assumed was the living room. Some reality show was playing on the television, and I had to knock again. After a moment, a weedy looking young woman came to the door and looked at me. She did not open the screen and had the look of someone who had taken life on early, made some bad choices, and had gotten her ass kicked.
I grinned and, making sure she could see the twenty on top, gestured with the bills. “Is Travis around?” She looked uncertain. “I’ve got this money that John gave me to give to him? I know it’s late, but I thought he might need it?” It was a calculated risk, but everybody knew a John.
She still didn’t come close to the screen, and her voice was thin and halting. “You can give it to me.”
Always let them see the money.
I shook my head but continued to smile. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t know you. Is Travis here?”
She didn’t say anything but turned and disappeared.
I took a deep breath, glanced back to the truck, and wondered, if there was trouble, what Wes thought he could do from out there.
I heard footsteps and watched as a tall, lanky young man stopped in the hallway. He wore dirty jeans, boots, and a grimy, wifebeater T-shirt. He was holding a can of Coors Light and smoking a cigarette. “Who’re you?”
“I’m a friend of John’s. I was supposed to bring this money over to you?”
It appeared not everyone knew a John after all. I took another calculated risk—they were working so well. “John from the bar? I mean you are Travis Mowry, right?” I held up the cash. “Something about some money for you?”
Always let them see the money.
He stepped forward, pushed open the screen door, and reached for the roll of bills. I let him have it but then grabbed his wrist and, slipping the .357 from the back of my jeans and lodging it under his jaw, yanked him from the trailer in one heave. I turned the two of us back toward the truck. The doors were open, Wes was running across the yard with the shotgun, and the manager was nodding his head yes.
Ten minutes later, we were booking Travis Mowry at the Big Horn County jail under the watchful eyes of two Montana highway patrolmen and three deputies, including the one who had questioned us at the Blue Cow. It appeared that the majority of eastern Montana law enforcement wanted to know how, after we’d stumbled onto a relatively cold 10-52, we had apprehended the suspect in less than twenty minutes.
Travis had a four-page rap sheet, starting with his stealing a car at the age of fourteen. He got caught and was remanded to juvenile detention. He got out, stole another car, got caught, was sent to a foster home, ran away, and stole yet another until he graduated to producing methamphetamine in a bathtub. He had done a two-spot in Deer Lodge, where the prison psychologist intimated that it was all a question of comparison, but that if you sat a bag of groceries next to Travis, the groceries would get into Stanford before he would.
The police officers stood a little away from Lonnie but snuck glances at him as he continued to read the Shoshone Shopper in Big Horn County’s basement jail as I finished up my written statement.
Wes tugged at my sleeve. “All right, how did you know?”
I looked at the old Indian, who folded his paper in his lap and waited along with the legendary Wesley Burrell Best Bayles and the collected force for my reply. “Why, Wes, that was just top-flight investigative work.” I looked back at the group and tipped my hat, especially at the narrow-minded deputy. “You fellas have a nice night.”
I waited. We were racing a 150-car Burlington Northern Santa Fe down the Little Big Horn Valley, another famed site of monumental hubris and stupidity. There was a slight breeze rustling the sage and the buffalo grass, the obelisk and markers of the Seventh Cavalry almost discernible in the light of the just-risen moon. Lonnie remained quiet, his veined arm resting on the doorsill, his thick-lensed glasses reflecting the stripe of the Milky Way stretching from horizon to horizon, what the Indians called the Hanging Road.
“Did I ever tell you about that rattlesnake I ran over with my father’s 8N tractor?” I sighed and wondered what sort of pithy homespun philosophy this story would turn out to illustrate. “When I got back from Korea, he had two hay fields, and one was about three miles down the county road. It was a Friday afternoon, and I had just finished cutting. I was a young man, and in a hurry, but I saw this big rattler sunning himself on the road. Not the smartest thing to do.” He chuckled. “He was a big one; had twelve buttons on him—”
“All right, Lonnie, how did you know it was Travis Mowry?” He turned to look at me, hurt at my interrupting his story. “And how the hell did you know that he lived at 644 Roundup Lane?”
He half smiled, and his eyes returned to the stars as he nodded with his words. “OIT.”
I thought about the well-known phrase. “Old Indian trick?”
He continued nodding and carefully pulled Travis Mowry’s Blue Cow Café employment application from the folds of his newspaper. He handed it to me—the form was completely filled out.
“Um hmm, yes, it is so.”