Read Land of Wolves Online

Authors: Craig Johnson

Land of Wolves (6 page)

“Well . . .” I listened as she mumbled, sticking what I assumed was another filter-tipped cigarette in her mouth, which she lit with a quick inhale. “That would explain why you haven’t answered.”

“Why have you been trying to get in touch with me, Libby?”

“Wait.” She took another puff. “Who called who here?”

“Consider it a response to your emails.”

She hawed and hemmed and then hawed again. “This is kind of a touchy subject, but a party has contacted me about a man-hunting opportunity, and it’s up there in your neck of the nape, so I thought I’d see if that delicious friend of yours, Henry Standing Bear, was available.”

“In what way?”

“Oh, I can think of a bunch, but this is simply a snatch and family grab.”

“Meaning?”

“This individual wants someone to go and get their kid back from a relative.”

“Are they the legal guardian?”

“Yes.”

“Then why don’t they just file a petition with the court and let one of my deputies take care of it?”

She hemmed and smoked some more. “I think they’d just as soon keep this on an unofficial basis.”

“And hire a kidnapper?”

She hawed. “Are you going to help me here?”

“Who are we talking about, Libby?”

“I’m not telling you, if you’re not going to help me.”

“There in Cheyenne, you mentioned Abarrane Extepare, and I’m assuming this is his grandson, Liam, we’re discussing.”

There was a pause including both hem and haw. “I was hoping you’d forgotten that part of the conversation.”

“Nope. Now who’s the potential felon?”

“The son-in-law, Donnie Lott.”

4

The Cheyenne Nation lifted the beer from the cooler behind the bar and rested the can on the surface of the coaster that bore the logo of the Red Pony Bar & Grill. No bottles in the Powder River Country—hard to throw a can and hurt somebody and nobody ever threw a full one.

“He has a cousin in Greeley.”

Henry Standing Bear pulled the tab on the can, leaving it vertical. I studied it. “Why do you do that?”

He folded his powerful arms and leaned on the bar back as Art Blakey’s “A Night in Tunisia” played from the jukebox. “It allows the client to know that the can is a fresh one.”

“They can’t figure that out on their own?”

“In my line of work there are levels of awareness, and most of my clientele are VIPs.”

“VIPs?”

“Very Intoxicated Persons.”

As if on cue an agricultural cowboy sidled up to the bar and, adjusting his signature John Deere ball cap, slurred the words, “Hey, um, can we get another round? I’m celebratin’ with my brother-in-law about just gettin’ divorced from his sister.”

“Nothing runs like a deer, or smells like a john.” The Bear
continued looking at me but spoke toward the man. “Does your group have a DD?”

The younger man looked at him, his face as blank as a shore-leave sailor’s bank account. “A what?”

“Is there a sober member of your party who can drive all of you home?”

“Um, yeah . . . JJ’s wife don’t drink.”

The dark eyes shifted to the man, and then to the two other men sitting at the far side of the pool table, one a regular looking fellow and the other a blond-haired guy in a rumpled suit and loosened tie. “I do not see a female accompanying you.”

The drunk kid looked—evidently, he wasn’t sure himself. “Oh, she’s on her way.”

Henry nodded. “When she gets here, I will be happy to provide you with a fresh round of beverages.”

He stood there for a moment more and then moved to go. After a few steps, he turned back. “He’s my lawyer, and like I said, we’re celebrating my getting a divorce from his sister. Why don’t you just give us those beers now, ’cause JJ’s gonna be real pissed if I head back over there empty handed.”

“I am truly sorry for the inconvenience.”

The kid nodded again and then cocked his head, listening to the jazz. “And could we get something else on the jukebox?”

“No.”

If anything, the blankness was enhanced. “Um . . . Okay.”

The Bear turned back to me. “Did you call the cousin?”

“Vic did.”

“Anything?”

“They were very sad and had no idea why he might’ve done it.”

He studied me. “You hate this part.”

“Yep, so much so that I palmed off calling Hernandez’s widow in Chile on Sancho.” I turned the beer on the coaster. “I do hate it. Telling people that their loved one has gone on to the great beyond? I do, indeed, hate it.”

“Lonely work.”

I turned the can some more. “Kind of like bartending.”

“I wish.”

Once again on cue, the young man reapproached, and Henry turned to look at him once more. “No.”

He stood there for a moment, almost frozen to the wooden floor, but then turned and retreated without another word.

“Tell me about the wolf.”

I brought my eyes back to him and shifted gears. “What do you want to know?”

“What did it look like?”

“Like a wolf.”

His head dropped a bit in disappointment in me. “Can you be a little more specific?”

“What do you care?”

“I want to know if I know it.”

“What, you’re on a first-name basis with all the wolves in Wyoming and Montana?”

“A few.”

He waited, and I summoned up the image of the wolf, which was surprisingly easy. “Big.” I glanced down at the snoring monster wrapped around the base of my barstool. “Bigger than him.”

“Amazing, few things in this epoch are.”

“Dark, but with a mask sort of over the eyes, along the nose, and to the sides of the muzzle that had a lot of gray. Dark-colored overall with really light eyes almost a caramel color.” I
shrugged. “He also had a four-thousand-dollar transmitting collar on him, and his official title is 777M.”

He looked slightly surprised. “Chuck Coon told you that?”

“No, a woman by the name of Keasik Cheechoo who works for the wolf conservancy did. She’s, let me see if I can get this right . . . Cree-Assiniboine/Young Dogs, Piapot First Nation.”

“Keasik—Cree for ‘sky blue.’ So, she’s Canadian.”

“I guess, but she says you broke her uncle’s arm one time arm wrestling over in Spokane.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t ring any bells.”

“Well, if I had as many cases of aggravated assault as you . . .”

He ignored me. “So, male.”

“Keasik Cheechoo is female.”

“The wolf, 777M. The M stands for male.”

“Oh.”

“How old?”

“I have no idea, but I’d say old. Probably kicked off from his pack by some young buck.” He smiled. “What?”

“You are feeling some empathy for this aged wolf?”

“I hadn’t thought about it; maybe so.”

“I would not want to meet the younger wolf that could run off something bigger than Dog.” He studied the surface of the bar between us, reached behind, and took a sip of the tonic water and lemon juice he sometimes kept on the bar back. “It might be someone I know, or perhaps someone you know.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Sometimes people’s spirits come back, and some of their favorites are bears, buffalo, and wolves.”

“Werebears and werebuffaloes?”

“Not exactly.”

Folding the tab down, I finally took a sip of my Rainier. “Uh, huh . . .”

“In my culture, animals are celebrated as beautiful, mysterious, powerful, dangerous, and benevolent. There was a period, before we lost the ability to listen, when the animals took pity on us, protected and taught us to the point where they became human in times of great need.”

“Henry . . .”

He held out a hand. “Hear me out. Back in the day, my people wore the skins and furs of these animals, choosing the animals that appealed to them. Say a person were to choose a wolf, or more important, the wolf were to choose this person and the person becomes the wolf without changing their physical form. He or she dreamed of wolves, developed wolf skills and power, acted like a wolf, immersed themselves in wolf lore, talked with wolves, hunted with wolves, was taught by wolves, protected by wolves, painted himself or herself as a wolf, and wore wolf
omotome
in his or her medicine bundle.” He reached into his shirt and pulled out the small, beaded pouch he always wore around his neck. “This is where the border between two species is broken, and spiritually the wolf and the human become one.”

“Well, I hope it isn’t anybody we know, because when the DNA testing gets back from the lab in Laramie, this wolf is as good as gone.”

He nodded, dropped his head, and, as the dark hair closed around his face, took another sip of his faux drink. “You said the wolf is older.”

“Well, he looked older, but I didn’t get a chance to see his ID.”

He returned the glass to the flat surface behind him and crossed his arms again. “How long ago was it you met Virgil White Buffalo on the mountain?”

I sat there just looking at him.

His face rose, and he studied me. “What?”

Pulling my horsehide jacket aside, I reached into my shirt pocket and tossed the card I’d found on the ground on the mountain onto the battered and gouged surface of the bar. I watched as it slid across and stopped just short of slipping off the other side.

The Bear leaned forward and examined the blue printing on the white card that announced
CASH PRIZES
,
MALLO CUP P
LAY MONEY 5 POINTS
—aware that I had found these selfsame cards left to me by a dead or possibly not dead seven-foot Crow shaman. Henry’s eyes focused so deeply, I was afraid the thing might burst into flames. “This was with the dead man?”

“No, it was where I saw the wolf for the first time.”

He picked it up and examined it more closely. “You found these before, during your interactions with Virgil?”

“Yep.”

“He could have scattered these things all over the mountain.”

“Yep.”

“There is only one problem.” He handed it back to me.

“This one is like new.” I placed the card down by my beer.

“I do not suppose Keasik Cheechoo or Chuck Coon are fond of Mallo Cups.”

“I really wouldn’t know.” I stared at the card. “If, and this is a big if . . . If Virgil came back in this manner, what would he be trying to say to me?”

“Difficult to know—perhaps nothing.”

I raised my eyes to look at him.

“It is possible he is simply checking up on you. Just seeing how you are progressing in the most inconspicuous way he knows.”

“A hundred-and-seventy-five-pound wolf?”

“We all have our ideas of unassuming. You have to admit it is more subtle than a seven-foot Crow shaman.”

“A little.” I spun my can on the coaster. “So, why is he checking on me?”

“Concerned for your welfare.”

I curled the corners of my mouth enough to give the impression of a smile. “I could’ve used his help down in Mexico.”

“Maybe you had it.” He placed his palms on the back edge of the bar, his forearms turned forward, the blued veins visible. “It is difficult to confront madness, because insanity is a stranger to reason and any reasonable response would be insane.”

I stared at him. “I think I got that.”

“The only thing more difficult is to return from madness, because we are never again sure that we are truly sane.” He fingered the card. “Like a disease, the madness lingers in the system, dormant but never truly gone from the mind, and we must learn to suppress it so that we can once again trust ourselves to be in civilized society.”

“So, I have to learn to trust myself again, huh?”

“Possibly.” He looked straight at me. “How is this aberration manifesting itself?”

I took a deep breath. “It’s like I’m freezing up, my mind and body—like a short circuit.”

“How long?”

“Five to ten minutes, or so I’ve been told.”

“Are you aware of yourself in these periods?”

“Some, but removed—like I can’t reach myself.”

“Perhaps you are being prepared for a vision.”

“Well, then why don’t I just have the vision?”

“You are not ready for it.”

“You have to work up to a vision?”

“Sometimes.”

“As opposed to horseshit, which is readily available at all times?”

He didn’t have an answer for that, and it was another moment before he surprised me by changing the subject. “We should go fishing.”

“What?”

“Fishing—precision guesswork based on unreliable data provided by those of questionable knowledge.”

“I know what fishing is.” I took a sip of my beer. “If you want to go fishing, we’ll go fishing.”

“No, I mean really fishing.”

“Like a trip?”

“I was thinking Alaska.”

I thought back. “A bear almost ate us the last time we were in Alaska.”

“That was a polar bear—does not count.”

“Where in Alaska?”

“Hyder.”

“Why Hyder?”

“I have never been there.”

“I’m not sure if I have.” I thought back to my period in Seward’s Folly. “Where in Alaska is Hyder?”

“Southeast, furthest point east in Alaska, south of Juneau. Ground transport through Stewart, Canada, is the only way there.”

“Is the fishing good?”

“Chum salmon.”

“Dog food.”

Dog looked up,
dog
and
food
being in his twenty-word vocabulary, following his number one word,
ham
. “Forty-pounders . . . But we’re not going there for the fishing, we are going there for the adventure.”

“Okay.”

“In the meantime, I may need your help with a project of mine that is closer to home.” He smiled. “Have you ever heard of Jaya Long, aka LongShot?”

“Nope.”

“Highest scoring girls basketball power forward in Lame Deer history, but there is a situation developing, and I may need your help.”

“Any relationship to Lolo Long, Cheyenne Reservation chief of police?”

He nodded, an unidentifiable expression passing across his face. “Her cousin.”

I was aware of some movement to my right and noticed that JJ was standing at the bar.

“Hey, Chief, how ’bout that round?”

Henry didn’t move, but the mahogany pupils shifted in his head and you could almost hear them clicking like a set of bolt actions as they registered full right. He waited a moment before speaking to the man with the rock and roll hair. “Your companion informed me that your wife is coming by to give all of you a ride home, and I told him that when she did, I would be pleased to provide you with another round.”

He snorted. “Well, she’s not coming, so you can just hit us with another.”

The Bear looked at him.

“Did you hear me?”

“Yes, I did.”

The drunk straightened a bit. “Do you know who the fuck I am?”

I started to turn and pull back my jacket to reveal my star, but Henry extended two fingers like an absolution, so I sat there and watched the show.

He stepped toward the man, an easy step like the ones the mountain lions make before sinking their teeth into the back of a neck. “Excuse me?”

The idiot actually leaned in. “I said, do you know who the fuck I am?”

Henry peered at him and actually looked concerned. “Do you not know who you are?”

There is a specific form of confusion that plays across a drunk’s face—I’d seen it many times, and I was seeing it again now. “What?” For some reason, the drunk looked at me, then at his friends, finally turning back to glare at Henry. “Look, asshole . . .”

You had to really be paying attention to see what happened next, but I had witnessed Henry in these situations before, so I knew what was going to happen, maybe not exactly, but certainly a form thereof. Like a timber rattler, the Bear’s hand leapt out, snatching the drunk’s tie and yanking downward, which caused the man’s chin to collide with the edge of the bar with a clack like a Willie Mosconi clean break.

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