The Slider, Chapter 16: The Hermit

THE DRIVER

Fear.

It drove me for the first hundred miles.  What had begun as irritation at the stupid driver sitting stock still in my lane transformed instantly to a huge adrenaline surge as I blew by the little blue car.  Sudden swerve to avoid rear ending the other, just a slight over correction, clonk-bang-thump back there that told me the trailer had made contact, never mind that.  A quick, panicked glance in my rear view mirror showed the horrible truth, at least horrible if I was seeing it right.  Looked like the back end of that car.

Which meant there had to be some damage.

Lord save me, this couldn’t be happening.  One more ticket, the judge had warned me.  One more ticket and my license was going bye-bye.  I couldn’t have that.  Just couldn’t.

I didn’t even realize I’d put my foot all the way to the floor until I had to slam down the Ford’s speed to make the turn after the underpass.  Later, I’d remember powering up the freeway on ramp, westbound, hitting 90 miles an hour before remembering to slow down.  Any officer would stop a 90 mile an hour horse trailer.

Sparks?  Now what, I’d blown a tire?

Yep.  Wheel dragging, Fourth of July fireworks screaming, “Here he is!  Here he is!”

Off the freeway at the next exit.  Thank the Patron Saint of Fugitives, whoever that might be, I knew these back roads in central South Dakota like the back of my hairless, mostly Native American hand.  Grew up here, I did, drunk half the time, lucky I never huffed paint, getting chased by cops all over the place.  By the age of fifteen, I could hide a Mustang in a cornfield and elude capture entirely, believe it or not.

But a Mustang ain’t a one ton truck towing 30 feet of aluminum horse trailer.  Couldn’t hide this rig in the entire Missouri River. 

Nor was I fifteen any more, a minor whose criminal records–in both Tribal Court and the white man’s District Court–were sealed when I became of age.  No, I was now a twenty-eight year old man with a girlfriend on the Rez I’d hoped to ask to marry me, maybe on my next trip home.  But I couldn’t ask the woman to marry a ne’er-do-well with no license, jail time to do probably.  June’s family was all of that; she was the only one who’d stayed clean in her entire clan.  I couldn’t dirty her up by asking her to marry me now.

On the gravel roads, sparks still flew from all the rocks but the huge dust cloud made them invisible, even at the reasonable speed I was now going.

A hundred miles of panic, then the spot I must have been subconsciously aiming for without thinking.  Getting late in the day; the sun would be going down soon.  That was good.  What I needed to do required darkness.

In the meantime, time to see what the damages were.  No traffic.  Adequate pullout.  Ugly country.

One tire gone as I’d figured, the remaining rim worn down nice and shiny, nearly two inches less in diameter than before, hotter than a two bit pistol.  Fairly major dent in that back corner, blue paint scrapings attached.

The shock came when I rounded the back and realized the license plate was gone.  I stood staring at the torn spot where it had been.  They knew who I was, for sure.

But would they be able to prove it?

My gut roiled some more but settled down as I got to work.  First, the ground-down wheel had to be removed before discarding it several hundred yards from the road, well out of sight.  The hub was held up off the surface well enough by its leaf spring.  Short of a wheel, yeah, but out here that wouldn’t surprise anybody.  I was back in Indian Country now, inside the eastern edge of Pine Ridge Reservation.  Next, a few more minutes and the manufacturer’s identifying tag–a little metal plate, 2″ x 4″–was gone as well, though this one I buried among the roots of a friendly sage bush.

Not much to do now but wait for dusk.  I pretty much knew the Pine Ridge trails, too, but not well enough to find the right spot after full dark.  Man, I stank, fear sweat stink.  Couldn’t hardly stand myself, but there was no white man’s shower handy and taking the time to build a sweat lodge was out of the question.  Did have some jerky and a couple of Twinkies, though, as well as a six-pack of Coke.  Fed and watered, I settled down in the truck, tipped the seat back, and fell right to sleep.  Woke to the sound of coyotes, out hunting for their supper.  Gray dusk, just right.

It was black as Satan’s heart when I finally got to where I was going, even the stars hidden by cloud cover.  This was the right place, though, a few miles out of Wounded Knee.  Bury my trailer at Wounded Knee.  No use trying to wipe my fingerprints off the trailer, so forget that.  I simply unhitched and left it there.  The people here were poor, sucked down into poverty even worse than those on my home Rez.  Someone would spot the trailer within the next 24 hours.  Then that someone, or someone else, would tow it away for his own use.  A lot of the Oglalla were dead broke but they weren’t stupid.  They wouldn’t try to get this gift from Wakan Tanka registered in the white man’s tax theft office.  Instead, they would put it to other uses.  Maybe just run it on the Rez, unregistered.  Or use it for storage on a ranch somewhere.  Or–I’d seen this done–turn it into a house.  What people on TV were calling Tiny Homes these days.  240 square feet of living space.

Plenty of families could do a lot with that.

One good thing?  I didn’t own a cell phone or, for that matter, any phone at all.  So the white man’s police couldn’t track me that way.  A lady friend in Idaho once told me I should get a smart phone and sign up with Ford so I could track my truck anywhere.  Not me.  Could the authorities track my truck even so?

I didn’t think so, and I’d studied all the settings in this big green computer on wheels.  But with all the dark wizards out there, who knew?

It was near sunset the next day when I found the cop shop at Sheridan, Wyoming.  I’d been hunting in the Bighorn Mountains, I told the badge on duty, and when I got out to the trailhead after three days of camping on public lands, my horse trailer was gone.  Idaho registration because I still had property near Sandpoint and was just now moving the trailer to my place west of Sheridan.    Thankfully, I did have the Ford licensed in Wyoming, along with my own driver’s license, and the Idaho property sale had just closed two weeks ago.  Plus, having moved myself a bit more than a year ago, I’d qualified for a resident Wyoming hunting license this year.

The bighorn sheep license alone had cost me $200.  For a nonresident, it was more than ten times that much.

Happily, the sawed-off officer who took my report looked bored.  He certainly didn’t seem to know about any notice to be on the lookout for me.  Unhappily, I’d just finished paying that trailer off.  It was far from new but still pulled good and was worth an easy ten grand.  Yeah, I’d gotten it for twenty-five hundred and a lame ten year old horse, but so what?

Could I still, possibly, build a life with June someday?  I began to think maybe, to hope just a little.  If I didn’t get busted.  Another loser in her life, she did not need.

For now, after stocking up on goodies including the canned peaches I knew he liked more than anything, it was time to go see the hermit.

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THE HERMIT

A pair of long-tailed magpies swooped through the forest, circling warily at first, then finally landing on a branch in their home tree, a giant spruce with branches jutting out everywhere.  They peered down, inquisitive, wondering at the meaning of this dull green man-machine.  The great metal beast sat motionless, silent except for occasional small, sharp sounds emitting from its still-cooling engine.  Its body paint the color of pine needles, a similarly camouflaged tarp thrown over the cab and lashed down, the truck would not be noticed by most humans unless they literally stumbled into the thing.  Which was not likely, as hunters in their fluorescent orange almost always parked in the trailhead parking lot before starting off on one of the several game trails, angling well away from this spot.

The birds chattered among themselves for a while, gossiping about this strange monster until it became strange no more.  Finally, satisfied that it presented no immediate threat, they relieved themselves, spattering the tarp and adding subtle, artistic  touches to its camouflage.  In a way, the late model Ford became invisible to them as they decided it was time to go find something to eat.

Half a mile upcountry, hidden in thick timber, the descendant of mighty warriors moved silently, his moccasin-covered toes touching ground first with each step, testing the surface underneath before putting his full weight down on dirt, rock, or forest duff.  Except for tracks, visible only to a highly skilled tracker of years gone by, he was a ghost, an ephemeral presence, sensed more than seen by the wildlife of this place.  If they sensed him at all, which most of them did not.  Settled into his natural environment once again, never mind that he’d been born and mostly raised in open, sun blasted prairie country, the walker released his fears.  He called the Rez home when he thought of precious June, thought of his family, but this was his true home.  During their time together, grandfather had barely needed to train him at all, just explain once and point him in the right direction.

Not even the alarm systems of the woods, the ever alert squirrels and jays, took note of his passing.

To the west, as he knew, it was all public land, theoretically managed by  government caretakers, though seldom if ever did a forest ranger put out the extreme effort required to visit this area.  To the east, as he also knew, the land was privately owned, part of a gigantic ranch, a corporate operation.  Yet neither bureaucrat nor civilian had despoiled this part of the Bighorns.  They might someday.  If  the red man had learned anything from the white, it was that European man’s capacity for destruction was impossible to overestimate.  But here, as he progressed with deep certainty but no hurry, Mother Nature resisted as she could.  The terrain quickly became formidable, a proliferation of towering ridges and plunging draws with seemingly random jumbles of rock outthrusts interspersed among the trees.    Motorized traffic was forbidden on the public side and impossible on both sides.  Nor could even the hardiest outlaw ATV  manage here.  Cougars loved it, as did bears and reintroduced wolves, generations of the latter no longer wearing high tech collars.  Deer, elk, and moose dithered, staying out of this predator’s paradise when they could, retreating into it when hordes of orange clad humans pressured them in hunting season, often retreating back out of it again when the snows came.

In midmorning, he stopped for a while, stripped, washed his clothes, and bathed in an icy pool where great trout lurked under overhanging rock and the shocking cold left his teeth chattering for more than an hour as his apparel slowly dried on his body.

He liked that word, “apparel.”  Not because it sounded classy but because it could be heard as “a peril.”  Wearing stinky clothing most certainly presented a peril to the wearer, especially if one’s enemy happened to be downwind.

Or if one’s girlfriend happened to be too close.  Heh.

It was late afternoon, more than fifteen arduous miles from the trailhead, when he finally approached the hermit’s home.  Neither cabin nor hut, certainly not in the middle of the clearing like most would be, this was a residence few would discover even if they got this far.  The jagged limestone cliff barred passage to any but a professional rock climber, rising straight up out of the ground, fronted by a skirt of huge, old growth, windfallen trees competing with an uprising of younger, healthier second growth.  A regular jumble.

Bighorn sheep country.

No hunters, though.  The only way in here was on foot.  No horse could make it.  A helicopter could, but only if the hunters rappelled down from the chopper to retrieve the carcass.

He found a suitable fallen tree, not a big one, and sat down.  Waited.  There would be eyes on him by now.  He was being checked out.  Calling out, “Hello the dwelling!” was something you did in ranch country, but not here.  Here it would be foolish.  Sacrilegious, even.

He waited.

A great bluebottle fly buzzed around his head, checking him out for tastiness.  Except for speaking to it silently, he did nothing to deter its advance.  The fly flew off without biting.

Far overhead, the cry of a redtail hawk sounded.  Few white men realized their Hollywood heroes liked the redtail’s call so much, they often recorded it as the voice of an eagle.  It was no eagle.  The airborne vocabulary of the eagle was much harsher, much less suitable for movies.

An itch between his shoulder blades got his attention, and another in his crotch, yet he held still, did not scratch.  Self discipline was important.

“Whuff!” 

It sounded almost like a surprised bear.  No more than thirty feet from the visitor, Arthur rose to his feet from  dry autumn grass, his mottled gray-brown fur having passed perfectly for a piece of half-rotten log.  He had not been seen and he knew it.  Three feet tall at the shoulder, the half-mastiff, half-wolf grinned, his tongue lolling in amusement as if to say, “Gotcha!”

“Greetings, brother.”  The man smiled, nodding respectfully.  “I am welcome today?”

“Hroff!” 

Arthur turned, leading the way through the mess of fallen trees.  Just outside the rock face, off to one side of the cave, the hermit waited, dark eyes lively and bright.  His gray hair was plaited in braids that hung nearly to his waist.  Weathered and wrinkled as if a good piece of cowhide and a prune had gotten together and had a baby, he nonetheless looked every bit as vibrant as the last time….”Grandfather.”

“Hungry, Squirrel?  The stew is warm.”

“At your table, grandfather, I can always eat.”

“Aiee, you can that.  Your troubles must not be so great if your stomach welcomes food, eh?”

“Not so great now, my troubles.”  They never were, in this place.  Squirrel unslung his eighty pound pack.  “I brought a few things.”

“Peaches?”

“Twenty cans.  Cleaned out both stores.”

“Ah.”  The hermit’s countenance, always lively, lit up even more.  “Good.”

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SQUIRREL

So far, the image was perfect.  Wise old Native elder, living alone in the wilderness but for his mixed-breed monster animal guardian, greets lowly disciple.

Then we stepped inside, through the low opening in the rock that required removing my heavy pack and stooping, and the illusion was destroyed.  Cave living meets modern comfort.  The small front “vestibule” was dark enough, but just around that corner, into my mentor’s main living quarters, it was another matter altogether.  This room was nearly thirty feet across, more round than square, with multiple streams of sunlight illuminating the interior.   Old Charlie had drilled those light-and-ventilation holes, one at a time.  Each measured four inches across and, I knew, exited high up on the cliff’s south face, placed precisely to avoid detection.  He’d even fitted screens up there to keep bugs out and birds from making nests.

I knew because I’d helped him with that project.  It had taken most of one summer, the year I was fourteen.

The interior, where we now settled at a table of finely worked fir, never varied in temperature by more than ten degrees.  It wouldn’t have varied at all, had it not been so close to the vestibule and had he not drilled those light shafts.  Since the base warmth hovered somewhere around 55 degrees Fahrenheit, Charlie usually kept a small fire going in a soapstone stove.  That soapstone was heavy.  I had no idea how he’d gotten it up into this high country and didn’t dare ask.   It kept the place cozy and that was what mattered.

Underfoot, the pegged wooden floor was new, though it had been three…no, four years since I’d last visited.  Photos of his days in the courtroom, interspersed with framed newspaper articles, hung here and there along the stone walls.  I paused on my way to the chair he indicated, taking time to read one I hadn’t noticed before.  It was from the Billings Gazette in Montana,  June of 1998.

NOT GUILTY

Today at 4:13 p.m, the jury found forty-seven year old Matthew Thomas not guilty of murdering two police officers near Sidney in March of 1997.  Asked about the verdict, Mr. Thomas responded, “How do you think I feel?  Both officers were friends of mine.  We lost two good men to pure evil.  I’m relieved, sure.  Maybe this verdict will make the police department look seriously for whoever really did it, you think?”

Thomas’s attorney, John C. Quince of Glendive, said only that the verdict spoke for itself.  Proscutor Lars Janovich had no comment.

So.  Charlie decided to hang this one up?  Interesting.  It ended up being the last case he’d ever take to trial; I knew that.  Two weeks after being released from jail, Matthew Thomas shot another cop.  From ambush.  Only that time, the officer lived, returning fire and dropping the sniper.  Nothing but his freaking Glock against Thomas’s .308 bolt action hunting rifle, yet with a bullet through his own am he’d still nailed the guy.  Nobody questioned the result.  They couldn’t.  Matthew Thomas lived long enough to make it to the hospital, long enough for the medical staff to witness his final words.  “Pigs two, Matthew one,” he’d said, clear as a bell.  “I win.”  Then he’d died, rattle rasping in his throat,  a beatific smile still curling his lips.  Or maybe it was a grimace, but those who saw it swore otherwise.

John Charles Quince retired the next day.  He was sixty-one years old, still hale and hearty, with a win-loss record any defense attorney could envy.  But he’d had enough.  He’d hit a wall.  He was done.

Before the year was out, his wife of forty years was diagnosed with a fast-moving cancer that had already metastasized throughout her entire body.  She died on Valentine’s Day.  In a sense, so did John C. Quince.  He settled her affairs, rearranged his own finances, and disappeared into the mountains, becoming the little known Charley the hermit.  Very little known.  I was reasonably certain only three of us knew exactly where this cave was located.

Arthur dog came padding in, joining his family in one far corner of the room.  “Found himself a woman, did he?”

Charley chuckled.  “Collie girl followed big boy home last winter.  This is their first litter.”

A young litter, too.  There were three pups peering over at us, their furry muzzles neither as narrow as their mom’s nor as broad as their  dad’s.  Cute little buggers.  “Bet they won’t be little for long.”

“Not likely, eh?”  He was already opening a can of peaches, using a P38 can opener.  His motions were neat, precise, clean, like everything else about the man.  Did his laundry in an old galvanized tub, heated on the stove.  I knew that, too, having been introduced to the joys of old school clothes washing during that same summer he’d drilled those shafts.

While he ate, I laid out my problem.  Admitted fault, kept it truthful.  Charley could smell a lie quicker than a bloodhound could sniff out an escaped convict.  Except that one time when cop killer Matthew Thomas had fooled him, but I wasn’t going there.

“Interesting,” he said when I was done telling my tale.

“One way to put it.”

“I’m guessing you didn’t grace me with a visit just because you needed to avail yourself of my great serenity and wisdom, then?”

What could I say to that?  I shrugged, looking sheepish, and pointed my palms toward the ceiling.

“Aha.”  Charley grinned wide, accepting my surrender.  “Well, then.  You’re here for what, catch your breath and get a little legal advice?”

“Whatever you feel comfortable with,” I muttered.  “Don’t reckon anybody but me is going to solve my moral dilemma.”

“Probably not.  Nobody ever did for me, anyway.  Let’s see, worst case scenario, you killed somebody in that car.”

“What?!”

“Don’t have a heart attack on me, kid.  But you said the impact spun the other car plumb around, right?”

“Yeah.  Looked like it, only glimpse I got.”

“All right.  Probably nothing too serious on the bodily injury front, then.  But Squirrel, you always want to look at the worst case scenario.  Prepare yourself for that.  Then you don’t get any ugly surprises, right?  Now, last time I checked, felony hit and run resulting in death adds up to,” he tipped his head back, squinting up at the ceiling, accessing memory files, “ten thousand dollar fine and two years in prison in South Dakota.”

“Ungh.”  It hit me hard, right in the gut.  Death?  That hadn’t even crossed my mind.  Prison?  That hadn’t, either.  I’d only been worried about losing my license, not my freedom.  “And if the driver was hurt but not badly?  Then what?”

“Less, obviously.”  His tone was matter of fact.  “Less time behind bars, usually in jail rather than prison.  Smaller fine.  Guaranteed your license would be forfeit, though, likely for years.”

“I should have stopped, huh.”  It wasn’t a question.

“Most likely, yeah.  You weren’t on anything?”

“My mind was.  But not my body.  I was just distracted, not paying attention like I should have been.”

“One thing, kid.  What’s done is done.  You can’t change it, so beating yourself up about it won’t help one little bit.  Like realizing Matthew Thomas had snookered me.  I whaled on myself for a while after he did what he did, but did it change the past?  Even one second past?  Nope.  And then Doris got sick and none of that even mattered.  But back to your situation.  Right now, you’re holding nothing but a pair of deuces in a high stakes poker game, your last dollar is in the pot, and you’re hoping to bluff the card shark sitting across the table.  If you can sell your bluff, you’ll walk away without a mark on your record.  If you can’t, things will get ugly for a while, but it won’t be the end of the world.”

“No.”  I dropped my gaze, stared at the table glumly.  “It’ll just feel like it.”