Otis rolled in at two-thirty in the afternoon. I was sprawled in my recliner, pretending to read Dan Cushman’s classic tale of life on the Reservation. Mostly, I’d been napping. Not that Stay Away, Joe didn’t deserve my attention. It did when I first read it in the fifties and it does today, never mind that Elvis Presley seemed an odd casting choice when they made the book into a movie. Louis Champlain’s prize Government Issue bull had just been slaughtered at the party in place of a cow when my partner strolled into the living room, coffee in hand. He plunked his slightly spreading butt down in his own chair and just stared at me, grinning like an idiot.
“Take it you got laid and the laying was good.”
“Ai-yee! That woman do know what she’s doing! And you vacuumed…or did you have a woman out here while she ran the Hoover, poring through our secrets, eh?”
Smug bugger. I didn’t give him the satisfaction of rising to the bait. Just grinned back at him, then sobered and dropped my little mini-bomb. “Saddled up and rode out to the hollow this morning.” At the far edge of our property, well out of sight of our buildings, the hollow was precious. Fueled by a natural spring, it constituted a true oasis in the middle of otherwise dry country in August. Cottonwood trees abounded, all the way from young saplings to old fallen giants, gray and rotten, slowly being reabsorbed by Mother Earth. Grasses, flowers, bees. A few junipers. Frequent deer, either grazing or bedding down under cover. “We have a poacher.”
“Yeah. Or at least one rat. I swapped out the memory disks in the game cameras. Care to take a look?”
“No. But I suppose I’d better.”
I had the computer ready, rigged for Show And Tell. It had taken us months of digging to locate high tech cameras capable of functioning after sunset without telltale laser dots flying around, but in the end we’d done it. “It looks like this guy operates mostly at night. I didn’t find anything during daylight hours.” The camera was focused on a section of game trail that came into the hollow from a low rise. A few seconds from where I had it cued up, the motion activated camera sprang to life. A man came into view, slipping down the trail one slow step-stop-and-listen at a time. No night vision monocle or anything but the moonlight would have let him at least make out shadows. The hunter was strongly built and clearly Native American, wearing jeans, what looked like moccasins, and no shirt. A single feather, eagle no doubt, rode at a slant under a (probably soft leather) headband. His hair was in braids. A sheathed knife was belted at his right hip. The bow in his hands, no doubt an excellent weapon for hunting out of season on private property without permission, appeared to be the spitting image of the one used by Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games 3 movie, Mockingjay.
“Hunh.” Otis grunted. “Big warrior carry girly bow.”
We’d both read the books and seen the movies. “Correction,” I amended dryly. “Big warrior carry Mockingjay bow. Mockingjay shoot eye out of gnat at hundred yards.” I froze the image so we could stare at that bow for a while. Reverting to white-man speak, I wondered aloud, “Where on Earth did he find that? I’m guessing the movie version is a prop bow, not the real thing. Did some research online. There are several outlets touting copies of the early Katniss hunting bow but I couldn’t find a single one that had this military grade for sale.”
“Our poacher did score on our land. Right there in the hollow. I found what was left of the entrails where he’d cleaned it out. The lead buck, no less.”
Another camera on a different trail had caught him leaving, arrow quiver now at one hip right alongside the knife, bow fastened horizontally at his waist somehow, tips pointing ahead and behind. “Looks to me like he used this trail because there are fewer trees along its borders. Fewer chances to snag the bow if he turns a hip while he’s walking.” The big, very dead muley buck was being transported across the hunter’s broad shoulders, velvet-antlered head hanging down, tongue lolling. The poll of the animal’s head was pointed straight at the camera, cute and fuzzy. I tried not to look at that too much. “Gotta be the buck you named Eight Ball.”
“Yeah.” Otis’s mouth was a compressed slit, his eyes expressionless. “Two hundred pounds, guaranteed.”
“At least he didn’t take a doe.”
“No. Question is, trophy hunter or meat?”
For us, there was no greater question when it came to the killing of game animals. If the Native was killing for bragging rights, maybe feasting fifty people while strutting around, all proud and stuff about the buck’s big rack (which, for you city folks, is way different than a good looking woman’s rack), we’d have to go to war on this guy. Never a happy plan when you’re two mostly-white men with secrets, trying to keep a low profile on somebody else’s Reservation. On the other hand, if Bow and Arrow Boy was out there getting meat for his family, we’d be comfortable taking a different approach.
We watched as predator and prey made their way down the trail, out of range of one hidden camera but picked up by another. The man was moving slow and easy, not the snail-speed hunting stalk but not rushing, either. He looked right at home, dark and dangerous, a natural part of this land. Which he was.
A few more steps and he would have been out of range of that final camera, but he stopped. Eased the buck to the ground. For the first time, it became obvious that he was now wearing a shirt, a black tee with white printing on it. “Wait for it,” I said…and froze the image as Mr. Hunter was stretching his arms, working the kinks out but also listening to the night, his ears cocked. Hard to say where he’d been hiding that shirt on the way in, but he’d obviously had it with him, his only concession to the cooler temperature. The time stamp said 3:12 a.m.
“What’s that say?” Otis leaned forward, squinting. I zoomed in, enlarging the image. The message on the shirt jumped out at us.
It caught Otis off guard, same way it had caught me. He laughed explosively. I started laughing with him, amused as much by his reaction as by the message itself.
“I’d say most likely meat hunter.”
“Pretty good odds.” He got this out between snorts.
Now the question was, what were we going to do about it? Ignoring the intrusion was unacceptable. That would mark us as either ignorant idiot white men who had no idea what was going on or too cowardly to stand up for ourselves. Warning him off might or might not work. Probably not. Then we’d be in a position of having to escalate later on. But feeding the whole blinking Rez wasn’t an option, either. Maybe a dozen deer used that hollow regularly. You have any idea how fast a dozen deer can turn into people poop? A fairly small family, say five people, can eat up twenty to twenty-five animals in a single year. Besides, those deer were our friends. Otis had named more than half of them. And yet, and yet, and yet…we could afford to buy our meat off-Rez, so we did. But not everybody out here had that luxury.
We had to do something. “I’ve seen this guy. At the casino. Think he works security, at least part time.”
“That would be right,” Otis nodded. “Name’s John Thunder. Married with children. Lives out in the middle of the Rez. Ranches maybe fifty horses and about that many cows. Not enough to make anybody a living.”
“You know him?” I shouldn’t have been surprised. Otis had been living here for far longer than I had. Of course he would have made it a point to learn the people as well as he could.
“Not know him, exactly. Barbara and I drove past his place on the way to hers.”
Barbara. His woman. “Yeah, partner, tell me about your lady. What I can be trusted to hear, that is.”
“I haven’t told you?” The sparkle in his eye said he knew he hadn’t. “Barbara Poulter. She’s a doctor, left the Rez to get her education but came back to serve her people. Works at the hospital. Lives with her aged grandfather who’s a real hoot. Old bugger told me he’d have been one of those Navajo Code Talkers in World War II if he’d only been born Navajo. And hadn’t ducked the draft. And if he hadn’t been a coward.”
“And is he, do you think? A coward?”
“Got me. I smelled Native amusement factor the whole time he was talking. He does know how to talk. I think Barb wanted me to meet him as a test. If old Sees Beaver–”
I sat up straight in my chair, disbelieving. “His name is Sees Beaver? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“I’m not, but maybe he was. Barb admitted to me later that not everybody knows how to take the old man. The fact that I genuinely enjoyed him got me a whole truckload of brownie points with her, especially since he seemed to like me back. But back to the serious stuff, what are we going to do about Thunder?”
“Good question. I have a plan.”
“Oh, goody. I hope it’s a little less convoluted than knocking him out, tying him up, and delivering him to law enforcement in Montana.”
The Thunder ranch house was hidden from the road, being surrounded at some distance by low, rolling hills. In its way, the place was almost as private as our own. The house was better kept on the outside, with well maintained sand-colored siding and maroon shingles on the house. The green door had been repainted recently. We got lucky. John was out in the round corral, working a spotted colt. We parked, got out, sauntered over, and leaned on a fence rail, watching him do his thing. John knew we were there, nodded to acknowledge our presence, but he didn’t stop exercising the young horse and we didn’t interrupt. I just touched two fingers to my hat brim and nodded back. Country manners and all that.
By the time he was done, not more than ten or fifteen minutes after our arrival, it was starting to rain. Gently at first, but by the time John Thunder had slipped the halter from his pinto’s head it was promising to really come down. We walked with him to the barn, also sturdier and better maintained that average, where he hung halter and longe line on pegs. We introduced ourselves, he admitted he knew who we were–not surprising with our pottery business raising our profile considerably–and the three of us trekked on into the house, shucking our boots just inside the door. John had soft moccasins handy for house wear. Otis and I were stuck in our socks.
The subject of our visit still hadn’t been raised. He likely had it figured out already, though. John Thunder was clearly no dummy.
He also had a cheerful, round wife, more working muscle than fat from the looks of it. Susan Thunder, Cree rather than Sioux but clearly Indian and mother of three inquisitive kids, two boys and one girl. I put their ages at ten, nine, and seven, but don’t quote me on that. Been fooled before.
Susan had a fresh pot of coffee ready on the stove. She poured for the three of us men, worrying the heck out of me. We needed to talk to John without his family in attendance. Accusing a man of poaching in front of his wife and kids seemed like a big no-no from a whole lot of angles. Thankfully, Mrs. Thunder was no fool, either. A look passed between husband and wife. Wife vanished quietly, herding her brood back to the rear of the house somewhere. She’d closed a door, too. We could talk as long as we didn’t get loud about it.
Otis left it up to me to take the lead. Thanks, pard. I’ll get you back someday. “The buck’s name was Eight Ball.”
That hit John where he lived. White man 1, Indian 0. What the hell; I couldn’t stop now. “Eight Ball was five years old. He’d been leading that herd since he was three. Always on guard, always put himself in danger to protect his does and fawns. First to sound the alarm, last to seek cover. I’m betting he knew you were there, that you saw him and only him.”
Then I shut up and let the silence go to work. No animus behind my words. Just the facts, sir. Joe Friday. Dragnet. We all sat, drinking our coffee until the dregs were gone, nothing more to say. Until John Thunder finally sorted things out in his own mind and found his voice.
“You called it. Only saw him. Like he was giving himself to me so I could feed my family.”
Which in a sense the buck had done. Not exactly giving himself to the poacher but making the ultimate sacrifice for his family. “Before you reached the clearing, the whole herd had been grazing there.”
“Didn’t know he had a name.” Apology without saying it in so many words.
Nothing mentioned about property lines, I noticed. Not that I’d expected there would be. When I was a kid, one of my best friends had been a man in his forties whose entire family survived on wild meat, very little of it legally taken. Elk, deer, fish. Man, that dude could fish. “Don’t remember why we named him that. Thing is, John, we need to have some kind of agreement between us.”
He looked surprised at that. No stoic Indian stereotype here. “Agreement?”
“Let me ask you something, John. I’m guessing you’ve been hunting that part of the Rez since before you could walk. Am I right?”
He nodded slowly, wondering where I was going. Sometimes I wondered myself. “Not quite that early, but yeah, since I was a kid.”
“You hunt for meat, not sport.” He didn’t dignify that with a response, so I went on. I let out a small sigh. “I know what too many deer can do to themselves. In my own youth, I happened to be around a situation like that. Literally hundreds of deer in just a couple of square miles. Population overgrowth led to population crash in the end. Ticks, mange, the works. Ugly thing. What I’m trying to say is that since Otis and I are too busy with our pottery business to do much hunting, and also since the herd frequenting that hollow are friends of ours, it’d probably be good to have some, shall we say, controlled harvesting by a hunter we could trust.”
I paused to catch my breath. John sat utterly still, waiting, one hand curled around his empty coffee mug. “So how about this? We agree, just the three of us, not to bother you about coming on our land and snagging a deer a couple of times a year. In return, you help us by making sure you’re the only hunter crossing our fence line.”
Thunder blinked. “You let me hunt there with no hassle and I become your personal game warden?”
I shrugged, spreading my hands. “Works for us if it works for you. We wouldn’t expect you to go out of your way. We’re relative newcomers, fair game. But you know the people and I have this sneaky feeling you could put the word out.” Otis, I noticed, was staring at the table, avoiding eye contact with anyone. Otis avoided confrontation, perhaps not at all costs, but with vim, vigor, and sincere enthusiasm. “I’d appreciate us getting together at least twice a year to go over the details. You know, maybe just a kitchen table coffee meeting like this one. We let you know what we’ve observed. You tell us what deer you’ve taken and when, just in case we miss one, and maybe tell us about folks you’ve had to quietly discourage from hunting there. Nothing written down, just an understanding between neighbors.” There was a good hour of driving between John’s place and ours but in Rez terms we were still neighbors.
Thunder nodded. “Better than I expected when you drove up. Okay, let’s do it.”
“Done,” I said. We didn’t shake hands. It wasn’t necessary.
“How’d you know it was me?”
Good question. White Man Catches Sneaky Indian. How? “You have a computer?” I knew he did. One of the satellite dishes bolted to the side of his house was a Hughes Satellite signal-catcher.
“Then here.” I pulled the thumb drive from my pocket. “Keep this. Game cameras.”
“Sneaky white men.” He smiled, turning the little drive over in his hands. “I didn’t spot even one of them.”
“It’s between you, us, and the gate post.”
“Appreciate that.” Getting caught by cameras he hadn’t seen would probably humiliate him far more than poaching charges. Either one would cost him his casino job.
We had to fight mud all the way back home. The one-hour drive turned into two hours. If we hadn’t taken the four wheel drive Dodge truck, we’d never have made it. Major thunderstorm, deluge, half a whisker away from having to throw chains. Which we were both more than happy to avoid. Throwing iron on tires buried to the hubs is never a fun project.
Once we were parked and inside, shucking our slickers and muddy boots, Otis got chatty. “Never thought he’d go for it.”
“Nope. Thought you were plumb crazy to throw it in his face like that, right off the bat. Figured wild Sioux get out scalping knife right then and there.”
I just shook my head. I’d been about eighty percent certain I could sell it. The deal was about as win-win as we could get in this part of the country. “You never know until you try, Otis.”
“Lots of things I’ll never know, then.” Wise began getting out things he’d need to cook supper. Neither of us cared for my cooking. “I’m just happy puttering around with my pots.”
True that. He was a genius at the pottery wheel but couldn’t have sold a single piece. That was where I came in. I still couldn’t get it right on the production side. My pots came out looking like they were on pot. But I could sell. Sell myself, sell a product, sell an idea. Been doing it all my life.
Little did I know that my sales ability would nearly cost us everything, and not too far in the future at that.