When Lolo Long's niece Jaya begins receiving death threats, Tribal Police Chief Long calls on Absaroka County Sheriff Walt Longmire along with Henry Standing Bear as lethal backup. Jaya "Longshot" Long is the phenom of the Lame Deer Lady Stars High School basketball team and is following in the steps of her older sister, who disappeared a year previously, a victim of the scourge of missing Native Woman in Indian Country. Lolo hopes that having Longmire involved might draw some public attention to the girl's plight, but with this maneuver she also inadvertently places the good sheriff in a one-on-one with the deadliest adversary he has ever faced in both this world and the next.
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Sometimes I drive to the borders of my county and look for the end of the world and sometimes I see it, or I think I do, but maybe what I see is myself, and that's enough to send me scurrying back the other way.
I like to think I used to be braver, but maybe I just didn't know any better.
When I was young, all I wanted was out. I was pretty sure that the only reason I participated in sports was to do that, to go on those endless bus rides even if it was just more of Wyoming, with maybe a little Montana and South Dakota mixed in.
Along the way, with a little size, speed, muscle, and brains, I was able to land a spot as one of the top-ten, teenage offensive linemen in the country. The University of Southern California took note and offered me a scholarship where we even won a Rose Bowl for the red and gold against Wisconsin 42-37.
I graduated, lost my deferment in doing so, and found myself wearing the khaki and olive drab for the United States Marine Corps. The Corps taught me a lot of things that college hadn't-like how to shine my shoes, say sir a lot, and take other people's lives. The biggest thing it did, however, was pin a star to my chest, something that's still there to this day.
I am the sheriff, the final letter of the law in Absaroka, the least populated county in Wyoming, the least populated state in America. Kind of a period, if you will, in the great sentence of justice. But right now, I was retrieving a basketball from dead, frozen grass and tossing it back to an eighteen-year-old phenom. Luckily, I didn't have to do that very often because she didn't miss very often. "Not my game." My words clouded the air as I threw the ball, and she caught it with long, nimble, artistic-looking fingers.
"Chickenshit." She turned and dribbled through her legs, then circled out to the top of the key where she half turned and flipped up a three-pointer, all net.
Or whatever net was left with the red, white, and blue nylon strands that had been faded by the sun, rain, and incessant wind of the high plains, the unraveled threads like a horse tail swishing at a fly. It was a fitting banner for the Northern Cheyenne, a people ravaged by unemployment, alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, inadequate health care, and substandard housing.
I passed the ball back. "So, you got another note?"
She turned, dribbled to the baseline corner, and flipped the ball up again. I watched its arc as it slipped through the net, the ball caressing the nylon with a swirling sound-like hopeand then bouncing on the pockmarked asphalt before rolling to a stop near the ragged chain-link fence.
Flipping the dark hair from her face, she stared at me with polished-magnetite eyes.
"You don't answer my questions, I don't retrieve the ball."
Her head kicked sideways in disgust, but I was unfazed-I have a daughter.
I walked over to the fence to get the ball and bounced it to her. "Care to elaborate?"
She rolled it behind her back and then took a few quick dribbles before hoisting the ball skyward in a reverse layup. The momentum carried her toward me, where she stopped and looked up. She's six feet tall and doesn't like looking up at anyone in any way, but I'm taller than she is. "No."
I watched as she turned and retrieved the ball herself, dribbling toward the half-court line painted on the asphalt, reminding me of the prints on the parking lot at Parris Island back when I first became a Marine.
She shot, and it floated through, landing in my hands. "Do you think your life's in danger?"
She waited for me to give her the ball. "I am a young woman in modern America, living on the Rez-my life is always in danger."
I tossed her the ball. "Can you think of anyone specific?"
She circled the three-point line. It's where she earned the nickname Longbow, Jaya "Longbow" Long: the hands went up, the ball came down, three on the board.
The suicide rate for Native teenagers is two and a half times greater than the national average.
I tossed her the ball. "No enemies?"
She dribbled in the key just below the foul line and pivoted, tipping the ball up in one hand in a reasonable impersonation of a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-style skyhook.
I held the ball.
An exaggerated sigh as her shoulders dropped. "I'm in high school-I've got nothing but enemies."
Native women are three and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than the national average.
I tossed the ball. "You want to tell me about Jeanie?"
There was a brief pause, a nanosecond when I pierced the otherwise stoic reserve. Jaya began dribbling again, punishing the asphalt as she stalked toward the top of the key, then the half-court line. I waited for her to turn and shoot, but she didn't. She walked toward the double doors of the school with the ball under one arm, leaving me standing in an empty parking lot.
Native women are six times more likely to be murdered.
"That went well." Glancing over my shoulder, I saw my faithful companion sitting in the passenger seat of my unit, his dog breath fogging the glass.
I walked to the car and let the beast out, all one hundred and fifty-five pounds of him. He stretched and then picked a lamppost to water before looking up, rubbing his muzzle on my jeans. "Think you'd have more luck than me?"
There was a loud noise, and we both looked in time to see a decrepit '64 Buick Wildcat, with the license plate 2REZ4U, belching black smoke as it came around the corner of the building with Jaya Long at the wheel. Not looking at either of us, she took the drive leading down the hill from the school, her arm trailing out the open window, and then turned left toward the town of Lame Deer, Montana.
I looked down at Dog, who was sitting on my foot. "Maybe not."
I nudged him with said foot, but he refused to move.
"C'mon, I'll take you into town, and we'll have lunch at The Big Store, but I have to talk to someone first."
He stared at me.
He got in the truck.
There's a buffalo head in the main hall of Lame Deer Morning Stars high school, and black and turquoise banners printed with motivational sayings, and plaques with photos of assorted teams, championship pennants, and standout individuals.
There are three with Jaya "Longbow" Long hanging in the lobby, one with her sophomore year team, one with her junior year team, and a photo of just her with the ball on her hip and her head cocked sideways the way it had been out on the parking lot only a few moments ago. There is also an article from the Billings Gazette with a photo of her powering past a hapless Hardin player and the headline Jaya Goes Long. She looks like her aunt, the chief of the tribal police department, in this particular photo, but it's not photos of her I'm looking for.
Working my way down the wall of time, I got to the point where the photos go from color to black and white. There is a team photo of the Montana State Champions and a familiar player, front and center, holding the ball. His smile is like an arc light, the shining eyes in the broad face conveying a confidence and good will that's undeniable. Lurking in the back row is another face I know very well, this one a bit more somber, but the intensity of the eyes is there too-the guy looks like he could crush your spleen.
Smiling, I turned and walked toward the doors of the gymnasium.
There's a silence to an empty basketball court, a churchlike quiet that stills your breath.
I stood there near the gleaming wooden floor and stared at the feathered dream catcher inlaid at its center as the sound of a ball bounced across the floor toward me. Stooping to pick it up, I glanced over at the doorway at the far end of the bleachers where I could see a tall man who looked a lot like the intimidating youth in the team photo, powerfully built, holding a leather jacket over one shoulder. "You didn't play here."
"No. I played in the old, linoleum-floor gym across town."
"The middle school."
Henry Standing Bear walked toward me. "It was a junior high school back then." He glanced around. "I do not think they have junior high schools anymore."
I palmed the ball and nodded toward the line of photos out in the lobby. "You only played your sophomore year here?"
The Bear nodded, sweeping the dark hair from his face. "Yes, before I moved down outside of Durant to live with my grandmother."
"Who was the scariest person I ever met."
"She used to embarrass me by pulling over and plucking quills from dead porcupines." He smiled. "And she used to put evaporated milk in her coffee."
I thought back. "She made killer chicken and dumplings."
"If it really was chicken." He took the ball from me, dropped his jacket, and turned toward the nearest basket about forty feet away.
He shot, the ball bouncing from the rim to the top of the backboard and then against the wall and out of bounds. "You should have bet."
I followed him toward the locker rooms and the athletic director's office. "Hey, are you intimating that we ate porcupine and dumplings?"
Tiger Scalpcane was one of those indispensable individuals on the Rez, the man with the glue that held the volatile society together; a man who, in the empowering Cheyenne tradition, gave everything away, the one who never had any money in his pocket, having spent it on others. He was a conduit to his people, one of those unofficial chiefs, like Henry. Whenever there was a tragedy on the Rez, Tiger was there with a new pair of shoes, a casserole, or a pat on the back, always with his superpowered smile.
"How did it go?"
I stood looking at the whiteboard, attempting to make sense of the hieroglyphics of basketball plays. "She said about four things."
He sat at one of the tables, strewn with athletic supplies. "Hey, for Longbow that's not bad."
Henry sat and I, unable to make heads, tails, or jump shot, leaned against the whiteboard. "Has she always been like this?"
Tiger tucked an old pair of Buddy Holly glasses in his front shirt pocket. "Since her sister went missing, yeah, she's pretty much been at war with the world."
"Sounds like somebody else I used to know." I glanced at Henry and then back to Tiger. "What's the story on Jeanie?"
"Took a ride with some folks into Billings, and they had some car trouble on the way back near the Pryor Mountains exit. They had to stop to make some repairs and folks started wandering off even after the driver told them that as soon as he got the thing running, he was heading out, so they better not go too far. When they got the van running, they all piled in and nobody noticed that Jeanie was missing. They sent somebody back later, but they never found her-called in the Yellowstone County Sheriff, Search and Rescue, and finally the FBI."
"Nothing." He sighed. "It happens more than you might think."
"I think it happens a lot."
He frowned; the smile gone missing. "Like I said, more than you think."
"This was a year ago?"
"A little more, just as the season was getting started. Jeanie was good, not as good as Jaya, but more of a team player, you know? Even if she had a shot, she'd pass the ball to another player who needed the points-a real leader."
"Jaya, not so much?"
Tiger groaned, and I think it was unconsciously that he fished the glasses from his pocket and fingered them. "Jaya is the best player we've ever had, but she's so wrapped up in herself that . . . I just don't know how we're going to finish this year, let alone make it to the NNAI."
I glanced at Henry, and he grunted. "The National Native American Invitational is in Billings this year."
Tiger looked up at me. "I was talking to Harriet Felton, the girls' coach, and she said Jaya has missed about half her practices. Her immediate family is kind of nonexistent, so basketball is all she's got-in the off-season, she has a tendency to fade away."
I nodded but said nothing.
The smile came back. "Not your problem, right?"
"Well . . . My mission, if I decide to accept it, is to find where this threat against her is coming from and neutralize it before it becomes something more tangible."
He studied me. "You ever play ball?"
I glanced around at the basketball racks, ball returns, and assorted accoutrement. "Not this one."
"That's a shame, you got the height."
"That's about all I've got." I gestured toward Henry. "He was the basketball player, not me."
Scalpcane laughed. "Yeah, I played with him one year before he ran off to civilization."
Henry smiled. "Played good enough to get you to a state championship."
"That's because everybody was afraid you'd yank their lungs out if we didn't win."
The Cheyenne Nation shrugged and stood. "Probably right-I had not developed my wizened and sophisticated social skills by that time."
I pushed off the whiteboard. "Right."
Tiger offered a hand, and we shook. "You off to see the po-lice?"
"I guess so. Her aunt is the one who asked me to look into all this."
He walked us to the door. "Twenty-some notes threatening her life. A young woman with so much talent, and she has to deal with all this stuff her senior year when she's got more important things to concentrate on-just doesn't seem fair."