by Christopher Reynaga
They found most of Crow Face Wilson two miles south of Silver Creek. Part of him was behind the rusty chicken wire of the corn crib, swarming with horse flies. The other parts were loosely scattered off into the tall grass just short of the swayback fence. A body showing up here was strange, since it usually happened the other way around.
It’s Indian land beyond the fence, the reservation where I was born. The white men like to dump their bodies on that side because it falls within the tribal jurisdiction. Much wrangling goes on between the state police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, much red tape and no lost love. Now it was Crow Face laying on the wrong side of the fence and the Suits were circling in like Vulture to claim him for their own.
Damn you Coyote.
My knees were wet from the grass I had been kneeling in. They itched in the soft summer breeze that drew sweetness from the cornfield sunset. The wind licked around me, hotter than the spit-warm water I drank from the mason jar, and it brushed my hair like cornsilk. It was going to make for a beautiful night.
“Thirsty?” I waved the jar towards Weed and Joe.
“No,” grunted Joe, arms crossed uncomfortably.
“Thanks, Bright Rope,” nodded Weed. He took the jar and sipped it slowly, leaning against the ancient government Chevy half-ton painted in rust and road grime.
They wore their BIA badges and flannel shirts. Weed had his badge pinned to a weathered leather vest that I had never seen him without since the day his old man got drunk and rolled off the roof of his tobacco shed.
The state trooper sat in his car near the end of the ditch road and watched us. He’d look up every once in a while and stare like we were a bunch of blunt muzzled animals yapping at each other and pissing in the sun.
I wanted to glare back at him sometimes, maybe tell him to get off of my property, but I didn’t. It called to me what my grandfather used to say about looking into a white man’s eyes. “No one has suffered as beautifully as we have,” he said once, “we’ve spent our lives looking down from their eyes and they take it as respect. The secret is, young one, we’ve been looking at their hearts.” He had coughed, and a speckle of red blood found its way onto my shirt. “It’s not an easy organ to get at with all that bone in the way.” I held his hand, soft like old chicken skin, and listened to him laugh as the storms rolled through until he was gone.
“I think Coyote did it,” I murmured, leaning back against the truck with them. The warm metal drummed as I slapped the hood in rhythm, a comforting sound that called to the sleeping ears of corn. “He made the mess in my dynamite shed. Left hair everywhere. Footprints leading back up here to the body. I think he burned his tail too.”
Weed laughed, coughing water, and in the distance I began to see the flowing trail of dirt rising its way up the gravel road.
“Took them long enough,” said Joe, slamming his hand into the rhythm of the hood like he had been interrupted in the middle of an argument. The sedan charged up the bank, spitting stones, and nosed sharply against a silent row of corn that bowed supplicant against the fender. There were Suits in that car.
I decided to call them Big Chin and Little Owl.
Big Chin swept his shiny door open and paused on it like he was hoping that some newsboy would be there to take his picture. There was none, so he slammed it impatiently. A smile crept onto his face that never touched his eyes.
Little Owl stumbled out of his door and into the ditch below it. He clutched his black case and scrambled to put his glasses on all at once. It struck me hard in the gut that it might be Coyote in a suit, bumbling about with a white man’s mask on. That would be just like him, nodding his muzzle with the other suits, Yessir, Yessir, and winking at us every once in a while. But the short one didn’t share Coyote’s lanky grin. I sniffed at the air when they was walking up, smoothing their suit jackets. He was just a man, smelling sweet and musky.
“Robert Shapard, Homicide,” said Big Chin, offering his meaty paw. “This is Upbin.” He gestured to his partner.
“David,” added Little Owl impatiently, dropping his case to offer his own hand.
“David,” echoed Big Chin correctively, and with a touch of menace.
Joe gripped Big Chin’s hand. “I’m Joe Means and this here is Weed Carlson and that’s Bright Rope. He owns the property. Out there behind the crib is Crow Face Wilson. We’d let you shake his hand, too, but we haven’t found it yet.”
The conversation just died. Joe was real good at that.
Weed continued shaking hands firmly, treating Little Owl’s like it was a pump handle in need of priming.
The patrol car door slammed a ways back and I could hear the gravel crunch with the state trooper’s footsteps. Little Owl must have thought up some excuse to go talk to him because he dashed off with an uncomfortable nod.
Big Chin took a deep breath. “How were you able to identify the body?”
“Wallet,” muttered Joe simply, staring off at a pair of crows that were making for the power lines.
“We all sort of recognized him anyway,” Weed added, thumbs looped in his leather vest.
“I was under the impression that dynamite was involved in the mutilation of the body,” he said carefully, flipping open a pocket note pad and reading.
“Yep,” said Joe and he leaned back against the truck and had himself a drink from the mason jar. Big Chin just stood there gripping the notebook tightly and then he flipped it closed and stuffed it back from where it came.
He turned to me with his evening blue eyes and smiled suddenly.
“Mr. Rope, you called this in?”
“I called in that my dynamite shed got broken into. The officer spotted Crow Face first.” I nodded toward the state trooper.
“Could you show me where you found the body, Mr. Rope?” He got my name close enough so I grunted and started to lead him further up the slope toward the weathered gray corn crib that hadn’t seen corn in years. Weed followed behind at a polite distance. Big Chin stopped halfway there, his body making no intention to go further.
“This your property Mr. Rope?”
“That’s my house over there,” I said pointing to the black shadow that the edge of the sun was almost touching. Dark green waves of corn lapped around it in a living dusty sea tainted the color of blood. “Barn’s over there too, and the dynamite shed.”
“Did you hear anything?”
“I was at a gathering in Silver Creek, on reservation land.”
Little Owl passed us, talking with Joe and the trooper. He had his black case open and there was a meat thermometer in his hand.
“You’re familiar with the Indian community on the reservation?” Big Chin asked.
“Yes. Was born there.”
“Do you know anyone that might have might have wanted to hurt this Wilson? Any long standing arguments–”
“No, Crow Face never hurt anybody.”
Weed stepped close and put his ear forward like maybe he was looking at the men gathered around the corn crib. Big Chin threw him a glare but kept on talking.
“Is there a casino on your reservation where he might have run up gambling debt?”
“No,” I whispered. “But I know who did this to him.”
“Is there–” He stopped and his eyes got a little wider. The little notebook came flipping back out and a pencil stub appeared in his hand.
“Who do you think did this, Mr. Rope?” He waited, eyes just plain relieved, like he just wanted to scribble a few notes, make an arrest, and go home.
“Coyote did it.”
He didn’t write that down. “A coyote did this?”
“Not a coyote, Coyote did it. Played a trick on him. Crow Face probably wouldn’t share any of his rot-gut with him.”
“A fellow named Coyote?” he asked hopefully, writing real slow.
“Not a fellow, can’t you hear? Coyote did it. You know, like this?” I pointed my fingers up through my hair like ears and did a short Yip–Yip–Yip–Howl!
I was answered in the far distance by a howl that was high and throaty as only a true coyote can sing. It hung sweet on the air like laughter. Big Chin just stood frozen, pencil poised, looking at me like I had grown a muzzle and ears myself.
“That wasn’t him,” I added, “That’s just a coyote. They’re all over the place around here.”
“Mm-hmm.” He folded the notebook closed again and gripped it for a moment like he couldn’t decide where he wanted to stuff it, and then jammed it back in his pocket brusquely, trying not to look at anyone.
“Upbin!” he growled.
Little Owl came jogging out from behind the crib, peeling rubber gloves off of his hands.
“Upbin, what do we got here?”
“Well, I haven’t had much time to look at the body.”
“Upbin, so far?”
“OK. We got a male Native American, age thirty to thirty five, dead maybe fifteen, twenty hours. Burn residue everywhere. The scattered organs are remarkably intact. Very unusual. There should have been much more destructive liquefaction of the tissues–”
“I was able to locate just about everything except the liver,” Little Owl said hopefully.
“It’s over in that stand of corn,” I said, nodding just past the other side of the corn crib.
“How do you know?” asked Little Owl adjusting his glasses.
“Crow Face was always drinking that rot-gut liquor, Night Train. His liver’s over there. I can smell it.”
Big Chin and Little Owl just looked at each other. After a second Little Owl sauntered back up there to the corn row and then ran off to fetch a plastic bag.
Joe came up with the trooper behind, planting his boots firmly and crossing his arms. He looked Big Chin up and down. “Upbin and us, we were all having a chat up there. You thinking of maybe letting us take care of this?”
“You do realize this is under our jurisdiction,” Big Chin grinned gutturally.
“I reckon that’s true, but I can remember plenty of times when the reservation’s moved the fence a bit to accommodate your department.”
Big Chin seemed to chew his teeth for a moment, like he had a bone he didn’t want to give up.
“You and your men have some strong leads?” he said glancing sideways at me.
“We’ve identified some suspects that we’re following up on investigating right now. There are only so many people within the reservation perimeter who could have perpetrated it.” Weed and I both looked over at Joe, who had just used more long words than were apt to fall out of his mouth in a dry summer. They seemed to soften Big Chin’s face somewhat, but still he held that chin up like he was out fishing for something.
“It might be a bother to change the reports now, considering officer…” –He looked over at the troopers name tag– “Richardson would have to swear that he mistook on which side of the property line the body was found.”
The trooper looked like he was ready to swear that the body got back up and ran off through the cornfields if it would get him back in his patrol car and out of this dusty field.
“Not really much trouble at all,” said Joe, and smiling, that was all he said.
Big Chin’s smile looked strained, like he was real tired all of a sudden. “I’ll get the reports,” he said softly. The trooper followed him out, pulling folded pieces of paper from his clip-board.
That left Weed, Joe, and me looking at each other.
“You find Coyote yet?” I asked.
“Hell,” whispered Weed, “picked him up last night, drunker than a skunk, chasing the cows out in Red Storm’s field. Figured he did something. Kept on yammering about thunder and he was laughing so hard he couldn’t even walk straight.”
“He’s sleeping it off,” grunted Joe in affirmation. “I had Red Storm bandage his paws. His fur was kind of singed.”
“You make sure Coyote’s slept it off good before you give him Crow Face’s body,” I said.
They both nodded.
“Don’t you give him the liver though,” I said gruffly. “He might not put it back!”
“Of course he’ll put it back,” said Weed. “It’s pretty vital I think.”
“Well then you make sure he puts it back. I don’t want no more shenanigans. I’m going to hear enough grief from Crow Face when his mouth gets put back on straight.”
The Suits were waving at us to come down. Weed smiled gentle as he was apt to do when he didn’t think nobody was looking. Joe sighed like he just found himself back in the saddle with nothing broken. He looked longingly at the mason jar that was hanging back on the spigot.
The sky began to slide its red velvet arms around us and the crows took to the air heavy, sending their croaking song up to the twinkling backbone of night. Everything began to take that magic purple glow that comes with dusk. They signed their releases and for a brief moment the reservation was just a bit bigger than it had been, which would have made Coyote laugh pretty hard, I think.
The trooper pulled out, and Big Chin got into his car and just sat in the open door a moment like he was trying to remember something. Little Owl stumbled into his seat and just stared at us as they pulled out of the swaying corn. His eyes spoke as if he had missed something important that his soul had touched and needed, but that was slipping into corn shadows unseen.
A rooster tail of dirt followed them out.
What I remember most was the look in Big Chin’s eyes as he saw us break out laughing in his dust. They were Suits and we were poor Indians scratching out our existence; fiercely alone except when the feather boundaries of our worlds would cross. It was really no surprise that we kept to ourselves. Magic tended to turn vulgar at times like this. A danger to hands that had no understanding.
They would never check to see a death certificate, or fancied-up report. They wouldn’t travel up to Silver Creek to watch Crow Face walking down the streets, his skin flushed red. Absent of that slight limp he always had since childhood. They would never hear him rant and rave and drown himself in bottles of cheap corn whisky that never got him drunk again, no matter how hard he tried.
They would never know Coyote’s song, gentle on the wind, as he laughed long into the night.More stories like this by topic: American Indian/First Nations, American Indian/First Nations authors, Authors of color, Characters of color, Yaqui authors