Lonesome Animals

Lonesome Animals

by Bruce Holbert


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In Lonesome Animals, Arthur Strawl, a tormented former lawman, is called out of retirement to hunt a serial killer with a sense of the macabre who has been leaving elaborately carved bodies of Native Americans across three counties. As the pursuit ensues, Strawl's own dark and violent history weaves itself into the hunt, shedding light on the remains of his broken family: one wife taken by the river, one by his own hand; an adopted Native American son who fancies himself a Catholic prophet; and a daughter, whose temerity and stoicism contrast against the romantic notions of how the west was won.

In the vein of True Gritand Blood Meridian, Lonesome Animals is a western novel reinvented, a detective story inverted for the west. It contemplates the nature of story and heroism in the face of a collapsing ethos –not only of Native American culture, but also of the first wave of white men who, through the battle against the geography and its indigenous people, guaranteed their own destruction. But it is also about one man's urgent, elegiac search for justice amidst the craven acts committed on the edges of civilization.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781619021563
Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: 05/14/2013
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 1,053,095
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Bruce Holbert is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Other Voices, The Antioch Review, Crab Creek Review, West Wind Review, Cairn and The New York Times. Bruce Holbert grew up on the Columbia River in the shadow of the Grand Coulee and a stone's throw from the Okanogan Mountains. His great–grandfather was an Indian scout and among the first settlers of the Grand Coulee.

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The Omak Stampede was only another rodeo in those t days and Omak just another lumber town. The year of the Crash back east, the mill owner's wife, along with her women's group, pressed her husband and the cattle barons and city fathers to adopt ordinances closing the taverns at 9 pm, and the sheriff was ordered to accost Indians and drovers for vagrancy if they had less than ten dollars on their person.

In the late summer of 1932, two eateries shut their doors and all three taverns, including The Lucky Seven, which served as city hall. Ranch hands traded their callings for dam construction in the coulee and payday whorehouses. The alfalfa second cutting was left standing as no one remained to operate the swathers and balers, let alone buck and stack the bales. The city fathers concluded the winter following that, though the women were fine ladies and the five churches' bells tolled a refined melody Sunday mornings, none were likely to turn their righteous efforts to peddling flour or fence wire or nails or hammers or supply the manpower to drive them.

The mayor, who drew the black lot, traveled to Nespelem and promised the tribe a rodeo with longhouses and stick games and Wahlukes and a powwow if they would consider coming in for a community fair. An Indian woman named Pence mentioned moving the Keller downhill races to the Okanogan sand hill. Six months later the inaugural Omak Stampede Rodeo and Suicide Race crowded the town with enough broke drifters and cowhands to tend the ranches through spring.

Strawl was a horseman of some repute and a lawman of more renown, though much of it had been fostered in infamy. Nearly sixty-three, he had been invited to join the melee. When he declined, the fair's committee offered to name him parade marshal and, when he again begged off, the city council asked him to fire the starter's pistol for the first night's race. He agreed to attend on the condition that there be no public announcement. His reason was hardly modesty. His reputation was such he would be noted by any he encountered, whether he mounted a pulpit or rode in a convertible automobile. It was also such that half the crowd possessed reason to kill or maim him, some beyond even grudges, so he determined to make it as difficult as possible.

Near sunset, half an hour before the race found him with a group of doddering septuagenarians, smoking beneath a tremendous oak at the race's beginning point. Though ten years their junior, his pigeon toes and inward nature folded his shoulders and shrunk his stature, not unlike the others. In his law days, the posture made him appear earnest and simple, a guise he employed to combat the lies of suspects or those close to them.

Old Belsbe coughed an awful hack. He had been ill for two months, though there was nothing other than the sniffles going about. It was likely the men around him had stood at his wedding and certain they would carry him to his rest, but without a son to take on his ground, his widow would be compelled to auction implements and all. Huddled in their snapped shirts and bolo ties, they calibrated Belsbe's days and their own assets and those of the others.

Ground was truth past title and deed, past the addition or subtraction or algebra or calculus they learned in school or the god they learned in church or the trite history lesson a politician might use to lever a vote, a truth so inarguable it required no faith at all. Ground simply was. Strawl's own five hundred acres he'd bequeathed early to his children — a mistake slowly bankrupting him, though dirt and its flora knew no difference.

The participants in the race had begun to separate themselves from the crowd. They swapped whiskey bottles and laudanum in a tight group, while below the rodeo announcer delivered scores on the last few bull riders and chided the clowns draped on the stock chutes. Laughter and talk and periodic applause wafted up the embankment along with the smell of the frybread in the concession cooker grease.

Strawl checked the blank rounds in the starter pistol, then examined the course, which opened with a leap onto a sixty-two-degree grade that hurtled a hundred yards into the Okanogan River. Once man and horse were across and up the bank, they labored a hundred-yard incline into the rodeo grounds.

As the events in the rodeo round wound up, the announcer directed the audience above and behind the north bleachers. Lights mounted to the poles that lined the course suddenly blinded the onlookers. Horses, turned blanched as the moon, reared and wheeled. They grunted as the last of the riders cinched their saddles. One began to nicker and fight its bridle. The other animals responded until the whole field was astir. Riders yipped, armed themselves with quirts, and tied leather pouches filled with gravel meant not to stir their mounts but beat passing riders.

The mayor nodded toward Strawl, who lifted his arm and squeezed off a shot. Animal and man leapt at the bluff and piled as one down a hill too steep to hold plant or seed. In a breath, half the riders covered the two hundred yards to the water. The rest remained in the fog of men and horseflesh tumbling toward the Okanogan River. Those still aboard their mounts floundered through water, swam a few yards, then lumbered into the rodeo grounds, which were once again filled with sound and light.

The other riders littered the grade and nearest bank, hobbled with broken ankles, dislocated shoulders, cracked ribs, and cracked skulls. Their horses drank at the water's edge as if suddenly and quietly pastured. Three tested broken legs, stunned that something as certain as a bone could be so quickly cast into doubt. Later, in the rendering yard, they'd be put down for pig feed.

The crowd quieted. The temperature was stifling, and Strawl's duties as honorary marshal were finished. He started a second cigarette and admired the orange ember cooking the paper. In the clear sky, he could discern the constellations. They were all that was left of his mother's teachings, stars in the sky that someone once thought made pictures.

Strawl searched for the Rotarians and his check. They were uneasy in his presence and wouldn't keep him long. In his police days, when their tone bent toward haughty, Strawl would soon follow with a stop at their businesses, one of their children in tow. He'd confide evidence of their daughters letting lowlifes into their pants or their sons stealing skin books for self-abuse. Not crimes, he'd say. Just unbecoming. Not what a community man would want out.

The old-timers drifted toward a stand that hawked cold drinks. One wiry man remained, slight of build. His hand smoothed his long mustache and his blue eyes blinked in the dusty air. He wore a grey county sheriff's cap.

"Well, I guess you know why I am here," the man said.

"You're going to offer me some work, Officer Dice. Or arrest me."

"Both possibilities have been discussed."


"The former. We want to contract you."

"Why waste the time and the money? The reservation is across the river from you," Strawl told him.

Dice remained quiet.

"And it's not your jurisdiction."

"No, it's not."

"Let the tribal police hunt him."

Dice looked into his hands. "It's more complicated than that."

Strawl laughed. Dice was sheriff of the neighboring county but rarely absent from his office except to walk across the street to town hall and lunch with the mayor. At his insistence, his picture appeared in the weekly papers next to the crime blotter, though he had investigated nothing rougher than a trespassing since succeeding Strawl as sheriff. Even when Jasper Sampson was arrested by vigilantes for burning outbuildings, then lit his jail cell on fire and cooked himself; Dice let a federal man clean it up. It wasn't that he had no stomach for the work; he saw no profit in it. Hiram Evans meant to give up the State House the following winter. A well-meaning neighbor had approached Strawl himself about an appointment to the position, but Dice wasn't waiting for encouragement.

Strawl hollered at a passing boy.

"Bring me a cold drink," Strawl told him. "Be quick."

The boy pointed at himself. Strawl nodded.

"Yes sir." The boy turned for the drink stand.

"You didn't give him any money," Dice said.

"He'll be glad to treat."

Dice watched him go. The rodeo below was breaking up. Strawl listened to the audience's steps clatter the bleacher planks.

"You hunted George Taylor," Dice said. Taylor was a bank robber after the Great War. He stuck up two Spokane Old Nationals in one day. A week after, Strawl discovered his abandoned sedan at Leahy Junction. He borrowed a mount and followed him north as far as the Columbia, then east through the reservation. Finally, he killed Taylor through a line shack window while the man fried bacon at the woodstove.

Dice stuck his hands in his pocket.

"Put the State boys on the bastard," Strawl told him.

"They been," he said.

"They got to have a lead or two then."

"Not a sniff."

Dice paused and lit a cigarette, then offered one to Strawl, who declined, as he was still working on his own.

"Heard you got you some help," Dice said. "Hired man?"

Strawl shook his head. "Dot's husband."

"I thought he was educated?"

"Can't eat a sheepskin."

"Them shysters back east wrung us good, haven't they?"

"My meals are still arriving regularly enough," Strawl said.

Dice drew from his cigarette. His pinched face pinked in the glow.

"That dam coming along?" Strawl asked him.

"Now that Roosevelt has shook Congress by the collar."

Roosevelt was a liar, but good at it. He'd requested money for a high dam in Grand Coulee, like Hoover's, but Congress had only funded enough for a low structure. Roosevelt ordered the engineers to go ahead with the original proposition anyway, then told Congress to either finish the chore or explain five million dollars for a dam that stopped no water.

"Workers thick as ants on an anthill is what I've heard."

Dice nodded.

"Registered voters all, I presume."

"Soon as they cash their checks."

Strawl leaned into the oak. The striped bark pressed lines into the skin on his arm.

"Would you consent to examine a body?" Dice asked him.


"Truax's meat locker."

"Family don't mind you keeping him in a cooler?"

"Storing him isn't nearly as cruel as killing him was."

Strawl had planned to cross the river to Nespelem in the next week to sharpen saw blades at Clara's Mill anyway. Visiting the butcher wouldn't put him out. "I'll look at the body," Strawl said.

The boy returned. He handed Strawl the paper cup and Strawl took it and drank.

Dice tossed the child a quarter and the boy looked at it. "You want some, too?" the boy inquired.

Dice shook his head. The boy vanished.

"You got a kind streak for children?" Strawl asked him.

"I'm happy to treat, too," Dice said.

Strawl blew a cloud of cigarette smoke his direction and watched him blink.

"We've got three counties that meet within fifteen miles of one another," Dice told him.

"Well, you all put your heads together, then."

"There's money in it is what I'm saying. Might be handy." Strawl turned the cup in his hands.

"How's that wife of yours?" Strawl asked him.

"She's nothing to this affair."

"Affair," Strawl said. "A word that fills both barrels, doesn't it?" He turned the paper cup until he found its seam, then slid his thumbnail under the corner and began unraveling the coating. "How long have you been copping?" Strawl asked.

"Including time as your deputy, ten or twelve years, I guess."

"In all that time, you ever once know anyone to twist my tail?"

"No," Dice said.

"Or herd me like a woman."

Dice shook his head.

He spat on the ground and smiled hard. "You think when I left that badge in the drawer, I left what was behind it in there, too?"

Dice extinguished his cigarette into the heel of his boot, looked at Strawl one more time. Dice had shoved too hard, coaxed too little, and Strawl waited to see if he possessed sense enough to retreat. And when he turned and walked back to his car without a word, Strawl gave him credit at least for that. He watched the patrol car pull away, a boxy Chevy magazine ads claimed delivered eighty miles an hour on a straightaway.


The following morning, Strawl arrived at Thacker Ferry just after dawn. He drove his trap wagon, a flatbed pickup. On the undercarriage, iron forks extended beyond the grill. They braced a hundred-pound bar on which Strawl had bolted a cable winch. He replaced it with a snow blade November to March.

Young Bill Thacker, Wild Goose Bill's son, picked at his breakfast on board the boat. A late riser and a drinker all his waking hours, Young Bill was worthy of remark, but he was never a shade to Wild Goose Bill, who had established the ferry for the army, which drove the Salish tribes through the Big Bend country to the Okanogans and back again until the federals settled on the reservation boundaries. Bill turned a profit, but he gambled and drank with anyone so inclined, which kept him from gathering the riches he might have. He'd earned his nickname for a drunken Thanksgiving hunting expedition that ended in him poaching a farmer's pet goose, then claiming he'd seen it walking toward Canada to migrate. He was killed finally in a gun battle over a woman he had determined to take as his wife, though the idea wasn't fondly received by her or the boy she coaxed into being her champion. The woman was shot twice through the arm by Bill, and the boy and he swapped enough lead to put them both beyond a doctor's care.

Young Bill wiped his chin and rose from the table, then pulled on his oily duster and wide-brimmed hat, beaten from crossings under weather less fair than this morning's. He unchained the gate and Strawl drove the truck carefully over the metal ramp onto the barge. Bill tugged at a come-along pulley and the heavy ramp rose, shifting the ferry forward in the water. He untethered the ropes from the poles driven into the river bottom on both sides and the current pushed them toward the downstream pilings, but Young Bill gunned the diesel engine and squared the ferry with the cable strung to the opposite bank. He tugged a rope starter and another, smaller motor caught, which turned a pulley. When he locked the crank into place, the spool took the cable slack with a lurch, then commenced to drag them across. Two seagulls rose at the sound, but a family of ducks simply separated and let the ferry pass.

At the opposite landing Bill opened his ledger and added the trip to Strawl's tab, then eased the ramp onto the sandy bank. The road rose out of the canyon, carrying Strawl again into the Okanogan country. Judged by beauty, it was far superior to Strawl's own ground. The slopes to the water were grassed with bluebunch and broadleafs like balsamroot and wolfweed. Alder and cottonwood dotted the bluffs and draws. He could smell the pollen in the air, and the pine and fir pitch cutting it, reminding him of Indian medicine.

Above, in the flat meadows, a few farmhouses appeared, some painted and others abandoned, their sideboards buckled against from weather and neglect. Falling boughs had punctured a roof or two. The Indians had surrendered the dwellings after a final year of not harvesting enough to make expenses, or simply deciding to labor upon a farm they never desired, so they could pay bills for which they felt no responsibility, wasn't a bargain they were willing to enter into another year.

Other homes were scattered across the clearings beyond: poorer shacks and lean-tos, often walled with rusting tin or the hoods and hacksawed roofs of cars. Spoiling elk and deer carcasses hung from a few cottonwoods and locusts shading them. Two men spooned in a garden like dozing lovers. Grease darkened their checked shirts. One's head rose, and he shaded his eyes with his hand to watch Strawl pass. A barnstormer dipped a wing over the road, then climbed until his plane was a speck in the sky too distant for anyone but Strawl to hear.

The town was four streets with passable houses surrounded by another scattering of shanties extended this way and that, as shapeless as spit on a flat rock. White men, like the butcher, Truax, owned the hardware and the livery and taverns and grocery. Most had appeared on the reservation with nothing but what they could borrow or pilfer. Eventually, they took women, but on the reservation the institution of marriage was unhinged. The merchants refused to acknowledge tribal ties and the churches wouldn't wed heathens until they could read catechism. Ceremonies, licenses, preachers, and justices of the peace were tiresome formalities, shed for flesh and convenience. Courtship consisted of a man putting whiskey into his beloved until she either surrendered to or slept through his passions. Women changed hands like tractor parts, and often a pretty girl was more or less shanghaied into a man's house if her family didn't have the means or guns to argue. The Catholic priest scolded his parish weekly over such indiscretions, but Sunday morning generally presented its own difficulties to the local population, and the few in the pews already abided by the Church's teachings.


Excerpted from "Lonesome Animals"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Bruce Holbert.
Excerpted by permission of Counterpoint.
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.

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