By Nels Hanson
Nels Hanson has worked as a farmer, teacher, and contract writer/editor. He grew up on a small farm in California’s San Joaquin Valley and earned degrees from UC Santa Cruz and the University of Montana. His fiction received the San Francisco Foundation’s James D. Phelan Award and a citation in its Joseph Henry Jackson competition. His short stories have appeared in Antioch Review, Texas Review, Black Warrior Review, Southeast Review, Long Story, Short Story, South Dakota Review, Starry Night Review and other literary journals. His work currently appears on the Web at The Green Hills Literary Lantern, The 3rd of November Club, The Write Place at the Write Time, and The 13th Warrior Review, and stories are in press at Caveat Lector, Danse Macabre, Ruminate Magazine, The Iconoclast, and the Overtime Chapbook Series at Blue Cubicle Press.
At 7:30 sharp I was waiting at the curb in front of the Elgin Hotel in Kootenay, Montana. The elevator where 50 years ago a construction worker had fallen was shut and I’d come down the marble stairs. I saw the time on the bank sign. Already it was 61 degrees.
Someone tapped on the thick glass doors of the Elgin Theater lobby and I turned and saw white-haired Birdie Johnson waving.
As a girl she’d found a dime frozen in the ice in Anaconda and her father had told her she was lucky.
Behind her in a blue denim shirt and suspenders Ralph Weeks stood holding a toolbox, under the darkened 5,000-piece chandelier you could lower on a cable to dust the hanging crystals.
In 1936 he’d been hit by lightning on the sheep ranch in Dillon and deafened for a year, and the owner’s 17-year-old son had been killed instantly, the tremendous shock turning his black hair the color of fresh snow.
Birdie and Ralph lived together, to save on rent.
I waved back to my next-door neighbors I’d met the night before as Tug pulled up and I jogged across the main street.
“Morning, bro,” Tug said through the empty passenger window. “Ready to hit it?”
His hair was pulled back with a leather band and he was wearing his earring and the Grateful Dead t-shirt that said, “Jerry’s Kids.” Joyce or Denise must have washed it.
“You sleep all right?”
“Fine,” I said, getting in.
I’d dreamed of crashes and gunfire, of the Cinnamon River and Turtle Lake, then of Ray’s new rifle as he burst into his wife’s bedroom—
“I made a lunch.”
“Oh.” Tug glanced at my bag. “Joyce fixed you one.”
On the crisp brown sack Tug’s married sister had written “Bill Ryder” in a flowing feminine script. Under my name she’d drawn a little five-pointed star.
“I’ll put it in the fridge for tomorrow. Tell her thanks.”
Tug drove to the first cross street, turned left, and passed the Stockmen’s Café where I’d eaten last night, a hot-roast-beef sandwich with hash browns and a beer for three dollars. I hadn’t wanted to stay at Ray and Joyce’s for the barbecue, with Tug and Denise, Ray’s sister and Tug’s new sudden girlfriend.
Through Stockmen’s front window I could see the card players in back, in the green alcove, under the hanging sign that said, “The Game Never Ends.”
We went parallel with the river, the Clark Fork of the Columbia, toward the black volcano stack, past wholesale parts outlets and warehouses and oil-stained garages with plywood squares for missing windowpanes. We saw wrecked cars and old houses with drawn blinds and sad yards, beside vacant lots strewn with trash and wire.
We crossed unmarked curving railroad tracks and followed them through a field of littered dry grass.
“Perty, isn’t it?” Tug said. “The Big Sky.”
Big Sky Forest Products, Inc.
“Wise Management of Montana’s Precious Resources”
Raymond L. Everett, General Manager
“Do you want me, Bill?” Joyce asked from the bed as she lay beside the baby.
Raymond was Ray.
The cyclone fence was topped with a coil of razor wire. We entered the open swinging gates.
The big chimney was going, forklifts and log trucks driving in and out past the sheds. Tug drove beyond the workers’ parking lot, where four or five cars hunched low among fifty or sixty pickups.
He pulled up in front of the main office, a new wood-sided mobile home, beside Ray’s new Dodge Ram and I felt my stomach cinch.
“Back Off” Ray’s mud flaps said below Yosemite Sam and his raised pair of revolvers.
“Well, here we are, safe and sound,” Tug said, “through shot and shell. All the way from Ore-e-gon.”
Though Tug’s shot-out window from Turtle Lake I stared up the long black slope of the incinerator, to the burned cone grate where white smoke was rising in a slanting ribbon toward the east. The mill looked like a factory in Dis, the infernal city.
“Ready to return to the land of the Deadheads?”
“You wish,” I said. I took my two lunches and got out and followed Tug up the wood steps to the office.
Beyond a room with a radio and microphone and two secretaries, sober Ray was wearing slacks and a crisp white shirt, leaning back in his swivel chair at his desk, talking on the phone.
I felt queasy at the memory of kissing his unhappy pretty wife in the kitchen, and then holding her in the bedroom as she started to cry, yesterday, the first hours in Montana:
“Just tell me you love me—”
Ray saw us now, waving us back and covering the receiver.
“Take these out front to Sherry. She’ll tell you where to go.” He handed us two printouts with carbon backs.
“The cedar’s substandard,” Ray said into the phone, “Just like I fucking told you—”
It was Tuesday—he’d taken Monday off to celebrate our arrival—and Ray was all business again, no two cases of beer or bear hunting stories, no dynamite wrapped in bacon or the snow-cat slingshotting the sleeping grizzly across the gorge from the cable looped between pines.
Tug gave me my paper and we went to the first desk.
“Don’t tell me,” said the woman with bright red hair puffed out at her ears. She wore a tight, starched white blouse with half the buttons undone.
Her tan breasts had dark freckles.
“Tug’s my name, work’s my game.”
“Ray’s been talking about you non-stop. His favorite brother-in-law! He’s been real excited—”
“Us too. So what’s next?”
“Just a sec.”
Sherry leaned forward, quickly made out two cards, just our names on the top and code numbers and initials in the blanks. It was hard not to look at her chest.
She wrote down our social security numbers and handed a card to Tug and one to me.
“You go to C shed,” she said to Tug. “Your friend goes to A.”
“We working in different places?” Tug asked.
“I guess,” Sherry said. “Ray did the paperwork.”
Tug looked at his card. “Thanks.”
“You’re lucky. Ray’s a great guy!”
“That why we came.”
We went back down the steps.
“Ray’s got some scenery,” Tug said.
“I noticed,” I said.
“You don’t say.”
The humming sheds looked like airplane hangars. On the wall of each one a ten-foot letter was painted in yellow.
“The old ABC’s. Here we go,” Tug said. “Hold your breath. Remember, don’t screw with Idaho.”
“You’ll lose another window.”
“By the way,” Tug said, “if Joyce mentions the window, stick with the bear.”
“Black bear or grizzly?”
“We’re going with brown. See you later, bro.”
He started walking off across the yard. I turned and went over to the A shed.
I heard a forklift come up fast and looked over my shoulder.
A man in a blue hardhat leaned forward.
“What you got?”
“Card from the office.”
“You the new man, shed A?”
“I guess so.”
“Let me see it.”
I handed it up to him and he scanned it.
“I’ll meet you over there, that cabin off the shed. Get you straightened out.”
He hit the gas and the yellow forklift hurried toward the little house.
When I went through the door he had safety glasses and a yellow hardhat laid out on a bench next to a time card.
“You can put your lunch over there.” He nodded toward an old refrigerator.
I squeezed my bag and Joyce’s in among a crowd of pails and brown sacks and turned back to the driver.
“I’m Bob Burns,” he said. “Your supervisor.”
“See that time clock?” He nodded at the big buzzing clock on the wall. It ticked like a bomb when the second hand reached 12.
“Punch in every morning, as soon as you hear the horn.”
He stepped over and put my card into the slot at the bottom of the clock, the printer bit it, and he pulled it out and stuck it in the “R’s” on a wall file.
“Half an hour for lunch, you don’t have to bother with it. Just when you leave at night. I filled that one out for you.”
He touched a slanted tin box on the wall.
“Blanks are here for the first of each week.”
We went out and into the big shed of raised machines and catwalks. Men with hardhats and long poles with spiked hooks walked back and forth 20 feet off the ground.
“Ray’s wife your sister?”
“No, my buddy’s. Tug.”
I could hardly hear him. Everything roared and shook, the air clattered and a steady rain of sawdust fell down.
“Some set-up, huh?”
To the left, down one wing of the shed, big six-inch rollers moved the skinned logs toward a raised bumper. To the side of the superstructure, at the top of a spiral stairwell, a man stood at a bank of levers.
He lowered the bumper, threw another lever, and a log came out onto a chain conveyer. Cleated feet on hydraulic rams shot from both sides and held the log tight, the rams moving on rails. The log went forward onto another conveyer like a cradle that lined it up with a heavy band saw with a four-inch blade.
Two upright metal tabs pushed the butt of the log toward the whirring toothed band.
The saw cut off one rounded edge that fell through a long narrow slot onto a belt, then a bell rang and the log came back. The cradle conveyor moved the log to the left, the rams holding the log firmly but not so tight that the wood would pinch the blade, and it went through again, then came back as the bell rang. Now it had two square sides.
“Yeah,” I said.
The rams pulled back, a third ram with a steel foot came out and pushed the log over on a flat side, the two rams gripped it and the log went through the saw, came back at the bell, shifted, and passed through again. It went on as a horn sounded and another log was let past the lowered bumper onto the cutting platform.
With each different movement of the conveyers, horns went off and I could hear other bells and horns sound farther on under the high roof. I watched it all from below, through a steady fine snow of white sawdust.
Burns pointed again, this time at something below the new log.
“Here’s your station.”
Under the platform a sharp V of long steel sheets let the sawdust fall into gutters where water took it out.
Burns handed me two squeegees from a rack on the superstructure, a wide one and a narrow one, both with long handles.
He put a hand to my ear.
“Both sides,” he said. “Keep the gutters moving, the floor clean under the saw.”
“Okay,” I said.
He tapped my shoulder.
“You’ll get used to the noise.”
He turned and jogged to his forklift.
I took the big squeegee and stuck it under the conveyer, where the sawdust had lodged in a long wavy line. I walked along, pulling the sawdust down into the gutter. The gutter filled and threatened to run over where the water piled up against a jam.
I took the narrow squeegee and broke the jam, then went back and ran the squeegee the length of the gutter to clear it. The water ran free.
I moved past the man on the spiral stairway and under the roller conveyer, watching the big naked square log pass over my head.
I cleared the V on that side, then the full gutter so it ran clean. Then it was time to clear the other side again.
After a while, from the rhythm of the sounds, I could tell which cut the saw was on, how many round sides and flat sides the log had. Each of the four cuts sounded different, the trimmed edges changing the roar that after a while hummed nonsense words.
“The Sleeping Child knows . . . .”
“Kill the yellow fish.”
I worked at the saw end and blinked at the dust and watched the blurred toothed band cut the length of log like a skill saw through a two-by-four and remembered Stivers’ swerving black car and the lumber flying from the semi by the Cinnamon River.
Once I worried that one of Rick Speaks’ ecology friends from Mussel Bay had nailed a spike and the blade and log would explode and throw shrapnel and splinters.
At first the sawdust smelled clean and sweet but as I got sweaty I could feel it caked around my neck and under my arms and on my face where I’d sweated. It burned.
I worked until a louder horn went off and the man on the stairwell shut down the saw after trimming a log’s second side.
Men in safety glasses and boots came back through the shed from either leg and stood outside, talking and smoking. Some of them had snacks and coffee they’d brought from home, and others gathered at the Coke machine outside the clock room.
I leaned against the warm wall of the cutting shed, taking in the silence and morning sun. Nothing moved. I started to think about Joyce, then the horn blared and everyone went back to work.
Again the building shook and the horns and buzzers went off and on. I felt like I was breathing sawdust and tried to clear my nose, then got a drink from a fountain at the corner of the shed wall.
Bob Burns came up.
“How’s it going?”
I nodded, swallowing water.
“I forgot your breathing mask.”
He handed me the white felt-paper mask with the elastic strap.
“You get some down your throat?”
“I’m okay,” I said.
“You’re my man—”
He tapped my shoulder and grinned, then said something I didn’t catch.
He leaned closer, cupping his hand to block the noise.
“I said, did Ray introduce you to Sherry?—”
I nodded and he winked and strode back to his waiting forklift and I grabbed the wide squeegee.
Then I set it down. It was time to clear the gutters.
By stopping to take the drink I’d got off my rhythm, which had fallen into time with the rams moving the log from side to side. I could sweep one side of the V in the time it took to trim two sides of one log, and clear the gutter in the time it took to cut one and a half sides.
You’re late, you’re late, you’re late, said the blade eating through the passing log, like Alice in Wonderland’s white rabbit.
The shaking overhead platform and the bells and rams and the saw and the two squeegees that I pushed seemed to fall into an eternal ratio: two to three and a half, or four to seven, counting both sides of the V.
Yesterday as we’d pull up at Joyce and Ray’s, Tug had smoothed his long hair in the rear view mirror and asked how he looked. “About a minus 10,” I said and Tug had joked about his math skills and his knowledge of graphing and negative numbers.
The shed was a god of steel and electricity and pressurized oil and I was learning its pulse, I’d been gobbled up and was a part of its bloodstream.
It seemed right that some engineer hadn’t figured a better way to clear the sawdust, so a man would bear witness in the very guts of the monster. I remembered Rick Speaks and his hero Thomas Malthus, M’s famous geometric and arithmetic ratios, population growth versus food supply, and his grudging nod toward the chance of human morality to stop war, disease and famine.
When the horn went off again I didn’t hear it and kept working the squeegee in the gutter until men walked by and I realized the shaking and saw had stopped. Stunned, with a ringing in my ears, I stepped outside into the sun, looked around, then went to the little house to get my lunch.
My sack and Joyce’s were the last ones left in the refrigerator.
“Did Ray introduce you to Sherry?” Burns asked.
I saw Ray’s big hands at Sherry’s open blouse. I grabbed my bag and went out, toward a brick wall that threw a strip of shade where clusters of men leaned back and lifted sandwiches.
Somebody yelled in my ear and I bent my head away. I turned and saw Tug.
He was grinning, wearing a shiny blue hardhat, his Grateful Dead t-shirt clean as when he’d picked me up at the Elgin.
“I yelled at you three times.”
“I didn’t hear you.”
“You still got your mask on.”
"Oh.” I took it off. The outside was caked with sawdust.
“So how’s it going?”
“It’s noisy. But union wages.”
“Listen, I’m going to eat with Denise and Joyce. You want to come?”
“No, you go ahead. Tell Joyce thanks for the lunch.”
Tug ran off and I turned back toward the brick wall.
A man was on his feet, spreading his arms wide as he looked down at the sitting men.
“Just like this,” he said.
“Bullshit!” said a man holding an apple.
“I swear to God!” the standing man said.
He kept his arms apart.
“Sleeping Child’s full of ’em—”
I stopped, watching him describe his catch, but he didn’t mention the lake again. I touched my pants pocket and felt the antler Sleeping Child.
Yesterday at the kitchen table, trying to feed Charlie, Joyce’s baby, I’d taken out the Sleeping Child and he’d laughed and waved it in the air and let me put the spoon of orange food in his open mouth.
Joyce carried him to bed and came back with lipstick and her long hair combed, wearing tight jeans and the blue tank top, and put out her pretty palm that held the carving before she sat on my lap.
“It’s a door to another world—”
I walked along the wall past the last group in yellow hardhats. Twenty yards away an Indian with a ponytail ate alone.
I sat down. The man looked my way.
“How you doing?” I said.
“Fine,” he said. He chewed his lunch, watching me.
I opened my sack and popped the cold Coke and drank until my throat wasn’t rough. I set down the can and took out the sandwich and started to unwrap it.
“You don’t like fish stories?”
I looked up.
“Fish stories,” he said.
“Oh. Yeah,” I said. “No.”
“They’re all the same.” I thought that’s what he said. I put a hand to my ear.
“Sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”
He watched me take a bite of sandwich, then drink from the Coke. I remembered Joyce’s lunch in the refrigerator, on the brown sack my name and the star. I hadn’t looked inside. An empty log truck went by. The man said something.
“What?” I looked up.
“This your first day?”
“I thought it was. I ain’t seen you before.”
He held out a piece of brownish meat on some foil and I remembered the yellow fish on the Blue Fin.
“You like salmon?”
“Thanks. I got my lunch.”
“You don’t want it?”
I looked at the fish in his outstretched hand.
I leaned over and broke off a chunk. It was strong and salty but full of flavor, like a rare steak.
“That’s good,” I said. “You smoke it yourself?”
“Yeah. I speared it. Up north.”
I wiped my palm on my pants and stuck out my hand.
“My name’s Bill Ryder.”
“Glad to meet you.”
“You need cotton.”
“For your ears.”
He reached in his shirt pocket.
“Here.” He handed me a wad of clean white cotton.
“Thanks. The shed’s awful loud.”
“You just get to town?
“Where you from?”
“I been there,” Wes said. “Fishing at Crater Lake.”
“I worked on a salmon boat. Out of Mussel Bay.”
Wes shook his head.
“I never been there.”
“The ocean,” he said. He was unwrapping a Hershey bar.
“Let me buy you a beer sometime,” I said. “Pay you back for the fish.”
Wes broke off a piece of chocolate and held it out to me.
“I know a place.”
“How about after work?”
“That’s good. You better eat now. Time’s about up.”
Wes was right.
I had just finished my sandwich when the horn went off and we got up and walked back to the long shed.
This time I heard the horn for afternoon break and had a Coke with Wes, and then later the final horn. I was waiting for them. I heard them through Wes’ cotton.
The conveyors and saw shut down and I hung up the squeegees on the rack. I took off my mask and safety glasses and stuck them in my pocket and walked out of the shed with the others.
In the daylight I brushed off sawdust with both hands. I walked 30 yards before I remembered I hadn’t punched out.
Tired men in hardhats passed me as I walked back to the room off the shed and found my ticket. Bob Burns had put my name on a red adhesive label with a label gun. I let the clock bite the ticket when it was my turn, then stuck it back in my slot and hurried out into the yard.
I started toward the main gate before I realized I didn’t know where I was going and stopped.
On cue Tug came up from the office, grabbing my arm.
His clothes were still clean. He wasn’t wearing a hardhat.
“You make it?”
His voice was blurry. I took the cotton from my ears.
“I’m glad it’s over.”
“Ray says in two weeks he can get you in with me. Hey, let’s get going. I’m taking Denise to the movie.”
“Go ahead. I got a ride.”
I saw Wes standing by a blue pickup in the parking lot.
“Denise said to tell you that Joyce says howdy.”
“Tell her hello.”
Tug hurried to his truck still parked by Ray’s office.
I walked out to Wes.
“You still thirsty?” he said.
We got into Wes’ new GMC pickup and he drove back even with the river, past the Stockmen’s, and turned left at the Elgin. We passed the stores and six or seven stoplights to the end of the downtown, by the Amtrak station.
An old warehouse had been done over, with sandblasted brick and painted metal supports. Blue and yellow leaded-glass windows showed the 7th Cavalry banner waving from a brown staff as feathered arrows shot past. A carved sign hung from an outflung bronze spear over the door:
Inside gilt reproductions of pistols and bugles, rifles and sabers covered the walls. Fake battle flags and factory feather headdresses and bows and quivers were suspended from the open rafters. Custer’s looked like a franchise.
It was empty, except for a man and two women who sat on stools at the brass-railed bar, in front of a mirror and a big reproduction of “Custer’s Last Stand.”
The blonde glanced at Wes and me as we came in. Wes nodded and we went to a tall booth in back.
The bartender called to us, asking what we wanted, and Wes ordered two bottle beers. I noticed the blonde girl watching as the bartender brought our beer and mugs and I paid.
“She seems interested in something,” I said, nodding toward the bar.
She wore a short powder-blue skirt and a white jersey. She looked like she’d just got off work. The man wore a gray suit and tie and the brown-haired girl a peach-colored suit and heels. Her hair was the color of Joyce’s.
Wes studied the blonde for a moment.
“Don’t let me get in your way. I got to get groceries, anyhow,” I said.
“It’s too early,” Wes said. “I’ll wait for the season.”
“Deer season. When they’ll all be gone.”
I thought of Denise giving me a ride to the Elgin Hotel, saying Joyce wasn’t going hunting this year. I took a gulp of cold beer.
“It sounds dangerous.”
Ray had shown off his new Mossberg rifle with the high-powered scope as everyone sat drinking beer around the kitchen table. “Real sweet, huh, Tug?”
Tug offered it to me but I was holding the baby.
“Yeah,” Wes said, “but I just have to do it.”
He lifted his mug.
“Call me Custer.”
“I like what Chief Joseph said.”
“What was that?” Wes took a drink.
“‘I will fight no more forever.’”
He didn’t have a choice.”
“I guess not,” I said.
In the mirror behind the bar I saw the blonde girl smooth her hair.
“Hey,” I said. “I want to show you something.”
I reached in my pocket and handed Wes the Sleeping Child.
“You ever seen something like that?”
He turned it over in his fingers.
“It’s elk horn,” Wes said. “Where’d you get it?”
“A kid in Idaho gave it to me.”
“I know it,” Wes said.
“He said it was good luck. Something to do with Sleeping Child Lake.”
Paul Banner had mentioned it, when I’d brought him the live yellow fish from the Blue Fin.
Tug asked if I wanted to go work in the mill in Montana and Paul glanced up from the bucket, he said Kootenay was two hours from a green lake called Sleeping Child.
I’d dreamed about it, wide and turquoise-colored, before the shooters opened up at Turtle Lake and hit Tug’s window.
“Maybe,” Wes said.
He handed it back.
“You ever go up there?” I asked.
Wes looked over at the blonde.
“Where?” he said. “Idaho?”
“Sleeping Child Lake.”
He turned to me.
“You like to fish?”
“You want to go sometime?”
“To Sleeping Child?”
I remembered the man at lunch showing the length of the big fish.
“Another place,” Wes said. “You want to go Saturday?”
“You want another beer? This one’s on me.”
“Okay. Then I’ve got to find a store, get some groceries.”
“I’ll take you.”
Wes lifted two fingers toward the bartender. The blonde girl was watching in the mirror.
The bartender brought our beers and Wes asked me why I’d come to Kootenay.
I told him about the fishing boat in Mussel Bay, about getting laid off the same day I found the strange blue and yellow fish that looked tropical, from warm water, like something on a TV show about Hawaii. A guy on the boat, Ed Roper, tried to gaff it in the net and I got in a tiff that cost me my job.
“It must’ve been good luck,” Wes said.
I asked him about himself and he said he’d worked at the mill three years, after working in the woods on a logging crew. He liked the mill better.
“You don’t have to get up so early, drive all day. It’s more like a factory.”
“It’s a factory all right.”
My ears still rang. I thought I could feel the saw’s high-pitched vibration in my bones.
“It’s all a factory,” Wes said. “We just don’t know it yet.”
It was something Rick Speaks might have said, something he might have underlined in the book he lent me, Requiem for the Earth.
“They wrecked it all. Nearly fished out the river.”
I looked closely at Wes, at his wide, full-lipped mouth and strong nose and dark eyes under the black brows.
I was tired and half-expected an eagle feather to sprout from the top of his ponytail. I could see him as the Last Indian, telling me the Last Pine and Buffalo had gone down, the Last Stream dried up.
When we went fishing, we’d go after the Last Trout.
Wes glanced up at me and smiled.
“Hell, I don’t know. Your body is a factory. Isn’t that what they said in school?”
“Something like that.” Then I laughed.
“What’s funny?” Wes said.
“If the mill is a body, I hate to think what part of it I’m working.”
“It’s all an intestine,” Wes said.
“I’m at the bottom.”
“It’s better to be at the top.”
“That’s right,” I said.
We drank our beers.
“How long you lived in Kootenay?” I asked.
“Two years. I moved in from the country.”
“Do you miss it?”
“I miss the good fishing,” he said. “Clean air. The smoke from the mill fills the valley when the wind blows wrong.”
He raised an eyebrow, nodding toward the bar.
“There’s other things, though.”
The man in the suit was holding the door for the two women. Sure enough, the blonde girl in white and blue looked back at us.
“You know her?” I asked.
“I knew her once. About two years ago.”
“You go together?”
“A few times. It was during the season.”
“Deer season,” I said.
“No.” Wes smiled. “Elk.”
“Joyce isn’t going hunting with Ray this fall. She doesn’t like it anymore, you know, killing things,” Denise had said. “She’s staying home with Charlie—”
I shook my head. “You want another beer?”
“You got to get your food.”
“I got time for another. I have to pay you for the salmon.” I waved to the bartender.
“I got that during salmon season.” Wes chuckled, showing white teeth.
“Be careful,” I said.
Again I saw Ray snoring on the sofa and his new gun in the deer-foot rack next to the moose head. In Kootenay the hunting season was the social season too.
“He got it backwards,” Wes said. “Die with your boots off, rubbers on.”
The fresh beers came and we drank.
“Anyway, the money’s so good.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s all free.”
“I should grab that bugle,” I said. “Sound the retreat. I’ll warn the husbands you’re on the loose.”
“They wouldn’t hear it,” Wes said. “They’re too greedy.”
He told me about the rock pool on the stream we were going to fish, how he’d caught some big trout and no one went there, nobody knew about it.
He’d fished it as a boy with his father. He said you could use flies or worms.
“I try to go each weekend,” Wes said. “To get rid of the mill.”
“I thought you liked the mill.”
Wes set down his empty glass.
We got up and went out past the mirror and the bartender and the painting of yellow-haired Custer on the hill of dying troopers, his silver Colt revolvers throwing sparks and blue smoke as he fired his last cartridges.
Wes took me to a Safeway. He got a few things while I filled half my cart. I bought some better soap for the sawdust and a box of cotton balls. Then Wes drove back through the dusk down the long street of stoplights, past the closed shops and lit bars to the Elgin.
“You got it?” Wes said as I stepped out of the truck.
“Yeah.” I balanced the three sacks.
“So we’re going fishing Saturday?”
“That’s right,” I said.
“See you, Chief,” Wes said.
I laughed. “Okay, General.”
Wes smiled and drove off and I turned to enter the hotel.
The bright movie marquee was lit but no moviegoers stood in line. The girl in the seashell booth still read her book about the depressed Danish prince. The 12-foot, five-tiered chandelier in the theater was lit, the 5,000 crystals blazing red and pink and blue.
The elevator operator sat on the leather sofa beside the open elevator. I hadn’t seen him in the hotel’s narrow dim lobby. He was wearing his tam-o'-shanter.
He got up carefully, favoring his braced neck.
“I can take you up.”
I followed him into the elevator. He sat down slowly on his stool, then hung his cap on the hook and closed the screen. The doors shut. He gripped the bronze wheel and the elevator went up.
“You settling in?”
“Getting there,” I said.
“That’s good. It takes a while.”
“Little by little.”
“I see you’re following Mr. Gable’s rules.”
I glanced down at his thinning crewcut. I wondered if the elevator operator was the hotel spy. He looked straight ahead.
“Your friend. The one who dropped you off.”
“What about him?”
“You didn’t bring him up.”
“He had to go home.”
He titled his head stiffly to look up at me.
“There’s no Indians allowed.”
I stared at him, then looked away at the case of gaudy jewelry. When the elevator stopped the doors creaked opened and he pulled back the bronze screen.
“Don’t work too hard.”
I stepped out with my groceries and heard the doors close and the elevator rumble down.
I reached with my key and Birdie’s door opened.
“Hi, Bill.” She touched the collar of her blue housecoat.
“Ralph and me are tired too. We finished 10 seats today. We’re going to the cafeteria.”
“Have a good dinner.”
“You too, Bill.”
She stepped back and closed the door as Ralph called, “Birdie?”
In the shadows, Chief Joseph stared out from his poster and I remembered Ralph had been hit by lightning.
On the carpet lay a small folded piece of paper. I set the groceries on the coffee table and picked it up.
I was shopping downtown and thought I’d stop by,
to thank you for feeding Charlie! Take care—
Hope to see you soon—
I put the groceries away and had a bowl of cold cereal and milk as I watched the red and blue lights on the river and the shadowed brick train tower with its black pyramid roof.
After dinner I took out my thick encyclopedia and looked up the word “race.”
The article said:
"Any of the different varieties or populations of human beings distinguished by: a) physical traits such as hair, eyes, skin color, body shape, etc: traditionally, the three primary divisions are Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid, although many subdivisions of these are also called ‘races’; b) blood types; c) genetic code patterns; d) all inherited characteristics which are unique to the isolated breeding population."
“Don’t screw with Idaho!” the man had yelled from the trees at Turtle Lake and fired again, exploding the unlit lantern on the picnic table.
The clerk at the crossroads store hadn’t liked Tug talking back, about Custer and White Eyes—she’d warned us about giving money to Indians, after I’d handed the long-haired boy 10 dollars and taken the Sleeping Child.
The end of the definition said “the human race” meant “all people collectively.” It mentioned nothing about Adam and Eve or Lucy, the prehistoric woman the scientists claimed was the mother of everyone on Earth, whose bones they’d found in Africa.
I turned to the back and read the table for the planets of the solar system.
It took Pluto 248 Earth years to orbit the sun but it rotated on its axis every six Earth days. Mercury was almost the opposite. The planet closest to the sun took only 88 days for one orbit, but 58 days to make one complete spin on its axis.
On Mercury, like on Earth, the years were short but the hours and days were long.
I looked up Sleeping Child Lake and read that it was 1,200 feet deep, the third deepest in the United States, that its green waters were colored by feldspar.
A French explorer, a lieutenant of Champlain’s, discovered it and noted the unusual rock formations that resembled a submerged city. The lake was considered sacred by local Indian tribes and once had been a pilgrimage destination.
I closed the book and picked up the carved child, looking carefully at his sleeping Buddha’s face and his open basket like a boat and the prow like a monk’s hood above his head.
Joyce had been to Sleeping Child Lake before she was married. She said the water was the color of the sugar bowl on the kitchen table.
Her hair brushed my cheek as she set down my cup. Then she was sitting in my lap.
“Kiss me, just once.”
“It was a terrible mistake—”
I was going to ask about Joyce and me, but decided against it and left the yellow Book of Changes on the shelf. I already knew the answer. I looked up at Chief Joseph’s sad noble face and his words underneath.
I didn’t want to play the radio, to hear about the wounded girl Otis Stivers had shot by the Cinnamon River, before he passed the lumber truck on the curve and I swerved Tug’s pickup against the cliff wall. I didn’t want to read about Indians. I took my Poe book from the bookcase and laid it on the bed while I undressed and set out my clean work clothes and brushed my teeth in the kitchen.
The book was my temporary bank for paper money and I took out the bills and set them by the radio.
I lay back in bed and read again Poe’s one happy story, about Sullivan’s Island and the strange scarab beetle and the scrap of “foolscap” that bore a secret code in invisible ink—the insect and the map that led the nervous recluse, his concerned friend, and Jupiter, the kind freed slave, to Captain Kidd’s treasure.
The unstable genius broke the cipher because he knew that “E” was the most common letter of the alphabet. He had to use precise geometry, triangulation, to find the hidden spot—it was a matter of miles and inches.
At first loyal Jupiter dropped the plumb bob through the wrong eye of the pirate’s skull high in the tree and they couldn’t find the buried chest.
I loved the list of the treasure that went on for two pages, the doubloons from different countries and the numbered loose gems, and especially that there “was no American money” and “not a particle of silver,” that everything was gold and jewels.
Poor Poe must have loved writing it, like a starving man dreaming of a sumptuous meal:
“There were diamonds—some of them exceedingly large and fine—a hundred and ten in all, and not one of them small; eighteen rubies of remarkable brilliancy; and twenty-one sapphires, with an opal.”
Under my bed, in the theater lobby, the big chandelier glowed with all the hanging colored crystals.
The story was racist, Poe was from the South, but Jupiter was the kindest and smartest of the three, he knew everything from the start, when he said that the living beetle was made of gold and that his master had been bitten by the deadly Gold Bug—
I remembered the saffron and indigo fish in the Blue Fin’s net.
I fell asleep thinking about pirates and Joyce, about all the gleaming stones plucked from wedding rings and tossed like pebbles into Kidd’s chest under the giant tulip tree.
In the early morning, in my Levis, I went along the dark hall to the bathroom and heard the elevator rumble down and stop.
The doors opened and through the screen I saw a thin, very handsome Indian boy about 20 standing next to the operator with the brace. He wore tight slacks and a fancy blue sport shirt and he turned his face as he saw me.
I walked past and pushed open the restroom door. Behind me I heard the boy’s boot heels echo quickly along the tile floor toward the stairs.
The night I’d moved in the operator had told me not to believe what people said. Before he could finish Mr. Gable rang the bell for a ride from his penthouse down to the movie theater.
I dressed and had coffee and cereal and then a second cup watching the Clark Fork when I remembered I didn’t have to make a lunch.
I looked above the blue river, toward the gold morning ridge where Joyce lived with Ray.
When it was time to go I laced my work boots and locked my door and walked past the closed elevator for the stairs where the boy had secretly hustled down.
The operator was sitting on the leather sofa in the lobby.
“Why didn’t you ring for a ride?”
I ignored him and started out the door to wait for Tug.
“At least you could say good morning.”
I didn’t know if it was true about the Elgin and no Indians or only his private story he’d made up after seeing Wes.
It didn’t matter, I was through with him and didn’t care.
Mr. Gable could sleep with anybody he wanted but I had a feeling the boy had been paid and told to stay out of sight.
Tug pulled up and I crossed the street to the truck.
“You got your lunch, bro?” Tug asked as I got in.
“I have it at work. The one Joyce made.”
“That’s right,” Tug said. “I forgot. A lot’s been happening. Everybody’s aflutter.”
I didn’t ask who or why and we started toward the mill. Things at the Elgin had suddenly turned sour.
At morning break Tug asked if I wanted to eat dinner that night with him and Denise and Ray and Joyce.
For a second, I was tempted to say yes.
After all, Ray seemed disappointed when I’d skipped his barbecue and was sorry I hadn’t stayed at the house with Tug.
I knew the sweet smell of Joyce’s brown hair and the warm openness of her kiss, the way she pressed her blue tank top hard against me in the bedroom as I touched her breasts and her drunken husband slept under the moose’s wide antlers.
“Do you want me, Bill?” she’d asked from the bed, before I turned and went out to lie down on the dry bluff above the town.
Yesterday she’d left the note at the Elgin while I was at Custer’s.
I told Tug I had to go somewhere with Wes.
“Another time,” Tug said. “That’s cool.”
At the noon horn Tug was waiting for me outside the A shed.
He mentioned a picnic on Saturday, just Joyce and Denise and us. Ray was going to a shooting range to sight the scope on his new deer rifle. Denise was making fried chicken and potato salad and Joyce was getting a baby sitter. We’d eat at Swan Lake.
“There’s a little park, with honey locust trees.”
I told Tug I was going fishing on Saturday with Wes.
Denise had cut Joyce’s hair short. Tug said it looked good, real cute.
“I promised Wes I’d go with him. He’s got some special fishing spot.”
“It’s cool,” Tug said, nodding. “I dig the thing with Joyce. You’re a good soldier, bro, a straight arrow.”
“Not so straight. I don’t have much trajectory.”
“That’s all right. You’re biding your time, like an outfielder. He’s just relaxing, till the ball hits the bat.”
“How’s Denise?” I asked.
“She’s sweet, Billy, really sweet. I think maybe my number finally came up. I was due, after Dixie.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s good, Tug.”
Dixie was the Viking exotic dancer at the Gill Net in Mussel Bay, the girl that Ed Roper on the Blue Fin used to rave about and claim that he’d slept with one night on the boat.
I went in and got Joyce’s lunch. Again I saw my name in her handwriting and the little five-pointed star.
I sat down against the wall next to Wes. I opened the sack and found a short, more-than-friendly note from Joyce.
I folded it and put it in my shirt pocket.
I thought about the lunch being the only one in the refrigerator overnight, with a love letter from the boss’ wife. The morning before, when Tug picked me up and gave me the lunch, I’d told him to tell Joyce thanks and now Tug was inviting me places.
I felt like Denise had asked him to do it, for Joyce, that maybe Joyce told Denise to ask Tug to invite me. Joyce had left the message at the Elgin.
No one seemed too worried about Ray—not his sister, wife, or brother-in-law.
Maybe Ray wasn’t either, I thought, remembering Sherry.
After work I had a beer with Wes at Custer’s and walked home early and heated a frozen lasagna.
This time there was another folded paper slipped under the door.
I missed you again—
P.S. Can’t you come to the picnic on Saturday, at Swan Lake?
I got out my rod and creel and went over my gear for Saturday, then put it away.
I looked again at the Sleeping Child, turning it over in my hand— “No, take it, it’s big medicine,” the boy had told me, closing my palm over the carved antler as I tried to give it back.
I saw Chief Joseph and got up and picked a book from the low shelf against the wall.
I had two or three books about Indians—Ishi in Two Worlds, The Ghost Dance Religion, and Black Elk’s transcribed autobiography.
I read that part in Black Elk Speaks, after Little Big Horn, when the last of the buffalo are slaughtered and Crazy Horse is bayoneted in the jail.
To be loyal to his vision of the blooming tree growing in the hoop at the center of the world—to make the dying tree grow and lead his people from the selfish black road back to the red—Black Elk joins a Wild West show, hoping the whites have knowledge that will help him mend the tribe’s broken hoop.
But Black Elk realizes the whites don’t care about one another or the animals. In a storm at sea the sick Indians dress for dying and sing their death songs as they wait to drop off the end of the water and the white men throw the dead buffalo and horses off the ocean liner.
Queen Victoria tells Black Elk his people are the most beautiful in the world, that if they were hers she wouldn’t make them perform in the show. In Paris, dressed in Western clothes, only his long hair left to mark him as an Indian, Black Elk collapses at breakfast.
For three days his French girlfriend and her parents hardly feel his heartbeat while he rides a cloud across the ocean.
He sees all the Lakota bands gathered in one camp, his mother and father outside their teepee, his mother cooking.
But the cloud is too high and he’s afraid to jump. Over a town a turning house rises and touches the cloud and takes him down, spinning, until he hears the French girl talking, and she and her family and a doctor are standing by his bed.
The owner of the show buys Black Elk a ticket to America and he returns to Pine Ridge. All the Lakota are there because they’ve sold more land to the whites. His parents’ teepee is just where he saw it in the vision. His mother tells him that one night she dreamed he came to visit on a cloud but couldn’t stay.
He’d been away three years. At the end of his life, after the Ghost Dance and fighting at Wounded Knee, Black Elk was certain he had failed.
But maybe the story he told the professor was the finished work—Black Elk didn’t know his book was the mending hoop.
I closed the cover. It showed Black Elk standing in a red blanket, wearing eagle feathers and wide elk horns. I remembered that before battle Crazy Horse painted a yellow lightning bolt on his left cheek.
I sat for a while, looking out at the river, then listened to the radio, the country channel that played Jim Reeves and Patsy Cline.
The Reed girl shot at the A & W in Idaho was in stable condition in Walla Walla, out of intensive care. One of the bullets had bruised but not severed her spinal cord, and she was regaining the use of her legs. Her parents had brought her yellow lab to the hospital.
Tomorrow Otis Stivers and Lloyd Fleming, the boy Stivers had killed, would be buried.
I turned off the radio and lay back in the bed’s dark alcove, watching the headlights play across the ceiling and disappear as the cars crossed the bridge and the stars above the Clark Fork shone again at the window.
Again I saw Stivers shoot by in the black car and behind him the white two-by-fours sailing past my window and into the Cinnamon River and oncoming traffic as the lumber truck zigzagged with locked brakes.
Then the flashing sheriff’s car roared by and at the A & W we saw the ambulance crew leaning over the bloody girl who lay in a sea of glass.
Five miles later, about the time Stivers must have drowned in the river, we stopped at the country store to get beer and sandwiches for dinner and I gave the boy with the Sleeping Child the 10-dollar bill as the clerk watched through the window.
She wore a pink muu muu and had black dyed hair and said we could camp at Turtle Lake, before she griped about Indians buying liquor and Tug told her to tell it to Custer, that she shouldn’t offer such fine wines.
We’d been asleep in our bags, I was dreaming of the striped yellow fish and a green lake and when I asked a pretty girl by the shore she whispered that it was called “Sleeping Child,” before the men yelled “Fucking Indian lovers” and opened up from the pines, Tug’s truck window blew out and the lantern exploded and the table caught fire.
Cheryl Reed’s boyfriend was murdered and she was 17 and in the hospital in Walla Walla, coming out of paralysis, shot by her drowned ex-boyfriend, while I was 33 and lay safely in the Elgin Hotel in Kootenay, Montana.
Other renters had known the pattern in the plaster ceiling, I thought, hundreds of people had lived in this room, slept in the Murphy bed.
Fifty years of renters, each one lying on top of the other, would make a Tower of Babel higher than the Elgin, and for a second I could see the swaying human skyscraper doomed to fall.
I heard the muffled movie playing through the wall, not the words but the music and the rising and falling voices of the Wilderness Family. Ray had snored while Joyce sat on my lap in the kitchen, before we went down the hall. She’d left the note on top of the cheese and salami sandwich she’d made me.
I hope you enjoy your lunch on your first day of work.
I like you a lot and hope we can become good friends.
I thought of my ex-wife Jenny in the empty apartment in Mussel Bay, the pretty curve of her nose and the way she said my name and her hair glowed brown and red and how we might have made love before she took her kids to see the lions at the zoo in Portland.
“What’re you looking for, Bill? At first, I thought it was me.”
“It was you.”
“It was? I wasn’t sure—”
On the way from Ashland she’d stopped to pick up a box of dishes while her druggist husband and two boys waited in the car.
Then I was with Joyce again, kissing her hard in her bedroom with Charlie asleep on the bed, skipping work sometime and going over during the day, meeting her at Sleeping Child Lake, at the fancy place she’d stayed for the paralegal convention, before she was pregnant and got married to Ray.
Joyce met him at a party in Helena where she’d had three martinis.
She’d looked at the antler Sleeping Child and said the lake was very deep and clear green and some people said it had a monster. There were boats you could rent, with periscopes, to view the rock formations like cliff dwellings, like Mesa Verde, though no one had ever lived there.
Like Paul Banner, who kept the yellow fish safely in his special aquarium in Mussel Bay, Joyce said the Indians believed the lake was the door to another world.
“One better than this,” Joyce said and touched her lips to my mine.
Finally I went to sleep.
I didn’t dream of Joyce or the amazing fish and the green lake and the slim girl in soft buckskin sewn with blue beads, who answered, “It’s Sleeping Child.”
I dreamed I was working at the mill.
I wanted to sleep straight through to Saturday but Thursday morning Tug picked me up outside the Elgin and when he parked next to Ray’s pickup I put my lunch away and clocked in.
Tug hadn’t said two words, no jokes, no invitations to dinner or picnics. He wore a pale blue t-shirt with the words “What Happened?” in small white letters across the chest.
The horn blew and I put cotton in my ears and worked under the rams and roaring saw blade and the falling sawdust.
I ate lunch with Wes against the brick wall and again shared his smoked salmon.
“Let me tell you how the thing at Custer’s works,” he said.
Wes liked to joke, but I realized he was serious about the women we saw in the bar. He went to Custer’s to scout, to get the lay of the land for when he’d make his move.
Two falls before, he’d gone home with a married woman whose husband was gone hunting. Every male on the block past 16 was hunting.
“I have some friends I’d like to introduce you to,” the woman said.
She was pretty, with frosted hair and a good figure.
“I think they’d like to meet you.”
“I’d like to meet them sometime,” Wes said.
The woman’s kids were at her mother’s and Wes sat at the kitchen table drinking bourbon and coffee, in the husband’s velour robe and fleece-lined slippers.
I felt a shiver and saw Ray’s autumn kitchen, felt the touch of his clothes.
“Joyce is staying home with Charlie,” Denise said.
Through deer, elk, moose, and bear seasons, and during salmon spearing, Wes had slept with much of the neighborhood, some daytime bridge club the women all belonged to.
“Pretty risky,” I said.
Wes acknowledged that it was both dangerous and wrong, but he had about 500 years of history to pay back.
I smiled to myself as I thought of him trying to cuckold Columbus.
I thought it made him feel better, having slept with the wives of many of the men who snubbed him when he moved around town, through restaurants and stores and bars where most people treated him like an Indian.
After high school, on the reservation he hadn’t been around white people very much. He wasn’t used to women who dressed up and had the leisure and money to do whatever they wanted, who were high enough that they got a kick out of stooping down to slum.
I had a Coke with Wes at the afternoon break and five minutes later the emergency whistle shrieked and all the saws shut down.
All the men left the sheds.
Outside in the milling crowd of hardhats I saw Wes.
He said he’d heard a man in B shed had slipped from a catwalk when he tried to free a log and his leg got caught in the rollers.
Wes turned and I saw Ray striding past with a grim look.
Ray recognized me and without stopping he said, “Careful you don’t lose something—”
I wondered if he knew Joyce had come by the Elgin. He reminded me of Ed Roper, lifting the gaff on the Blue Fin to murder the fish before I caught his wrist.
I watched Ray walk off swinging his heavy arms, ready to manhandle the emergency into shape.
Five minutes later I heard a boom from the shed and for a flash I saw the boy with Ralph Weeks when the lightning struck and his black hair turned white as snow.
I didn’t see the injured man or know his name. I wondered if he’d been the one by the brick wall that first day, who’d spread his arms to show the fish he’d caught at Sleeping Child Lake.
The ambulance came with its siren and they closed the mill for the last half hour.
Custer’s was empty, the blonde girl from elk season didn’t come in, and Wes and I drank three beers and talked about fishing until he dropped me off at the Elgin and I went up to my room to eat.
This time there wasn’t any note from Joyce. I realized I was disappointed, then remembered Ray’s threat and the bad accident.
Friday the mill was going again full blast and at morning break I saw Tug and asked him what had happened to the man who was hurt.
Tug said an artery in the man’s leg was cut and some skin stripped away but the guy at the controls had seen it happen. He stopped the conveyer in time, before the rollers pulled him down and the next log crushed him.
Tug said it was lucky they didn’t have to take his leg to get him out.
“There was blood shooting five feet in the air.”
They’d put on a tourniquet while they cut him free with a torch.
“He going to be all right?”
“Over time,” Tug said. “The union’s going to sue.”
Everyone had been running around in a frenzy and a lift driver had punctured a compressor with a fork. Ray fired the driver.
That was the bang I’d heard that sounded like a lightning strike, after Ray warned me on his way to the shed.
“I guess it threw shrapnel,” Tug said. “Ray got nicked on the arm.”
“What was his name?”
“Burns,” Tug said. “Ray’s got a wasp up his ass. Home life’s a bitch—”
“You want to go to Custer’s with me and Wes?”
“I certainly do,” said Tug. “I’ll meet you five sharp.”
Bob Burns had thought he knew something about the red-haired secretary, Sherry, and now he was out of a job.
After work I smoked a joint with Tug in his pickup with the shot-out window, before the two of us went into Custer’s to join Wes.
Wes had said he didn’t like marijuana, it made him mean, but he’d smoke some if Tug wanted him to.
Tug thought Wes was serious, said that was all right, he didn’t have to if it took him that way, before Wes laughed and tapped Tug’s chest and walked into the bar.
“I guess I’m prejudiced,” Tug said. “That old firewater, peace pipe thing. I’m not thinking clearly. This trip with Ray isn’t good.”
“You mean the accident?”
“I mean the whole shebang,” Tug said. “It’s a bloody mess. It’s tough on Joyce.”
“You want the roach,” I said, holding it out.
“I better,” Tug said. “Denise bought a pack of cigarettes. I’ll stick it in the end.”
Tug had two beers with us, then called Denise and told us he had to go, he had to help get ready for the picnic in the morning. At least Ray wasn’t going.
“You sure you don’t want to come? You and me can take a hike.”
Thanks,” I said. “We’re going fishing.”
“Okay then. You’ll surely be missed—”
“Don’t you want me, Bill?”
I missed you again—
P.S. Can’t you come to the picnic on Saturday, at Swan Lake?
Tug nodded and started slowly toward the door, past the hanging painted guns and bugles and bows and arrows, to get in his truck and drive home to Ray’s.
I almost changed my mind, about the picnic, as I saw Tug go out.
I wondered what kind of trouble Joyce was in, if there’d been a fight over the secretary or something worse that had an ugly life of its own.
“He said her name was Denise?”
Wes rubbed his chin, wrinkling his forehead.
“I guess I don’t know her.”
“You’re like the plague,” I said.
“Like a blanket full of measles,” Wes said. “I’m the only one immune. Then I’ll be the last man on Earth.”
“Then what’re you going to do?”
“I’ll have to go to Mars.”
“During hunting season—”
“When they’re all on Pluto,” Wes said.
“It could be a long wait.”
On the farthest coldest planet a season took 248 years to return. I felt a chill.
Then I remembered that Sleeping Child Lake was 1,200 feet deep and two hours away, Paul Banner and the encyclopedia said it was green from the feldspar.
“There’s an Indian story, about how the lake’s a door to another world.”
“One better than this,” Joyce whispered and softly kissed my lips.
“That’s all right,” Wes said. “I’m patient. Till then I’m hibernating, like a bear.”
He glanced at the mahogany bar, at the Friday crowd who laughed and drank and flirted as the Earth tilted north toward fall and he surveyed the land before the armed men filled the woods and the lonely women stayed behind.
Then the leaves would turn and the antlered bucks run from Ray, while someone stepped from the street and started up his curving red-brick walk and Joyce waited with the boy who loved the Sleeping Child—
Black Elk was trying to find the lost red road and leave the black, to repair the broken hoop.
In my pocket I felt the carved Sleeping Child.
“Big medicine,” the boy in Idaho said beyond the Cinnamon River.
“Yep,” Wes said. “Another two weeks.”
I saw Ray’s new rifle in shadow beside the moose head on the wall, and Roper and his gaff, the yellow fish bright as gold in the Blue Fin’s net, bright as Poe’s magic scarab, the Gold Bug.
“I’m not waiting for the season,” I said.
Wes turned and grinned.
“You got her picked out?”
“She’s a paralegal.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
That’s why I’d saved the beautiful fish and got fired and taken it in the bucket of sea water to Paul’s apartment of big tanks, to meet Tug and go to Montana to work for Ray.
“At her house. She’s the boss’ wife.”
“At the mill.”
“Ray Edwards? That’s real good, Chief Joseph—”
It was the same as when I’d caught Roper’s hand that held the upraised spear above the lovely flashing saffron fish.
“Careful you don’t lose something,” Ray said before the compressor exploded—I’d thought of Ed Roper the bully, not the boy hit by lightning whose hair turned snow white.
Now the grizzly in Ray’s cable slingshot woke and roared:
“It’s a good day to die!”
“We’re going to Sleeping Child Lake.”
“That’s the weed talking, Chief.”
“Before deer season starts—”
Joyce and I would look down through the periscope, at the lost city—like Mesa Verde, “Green Table”—where the ancient cliff dwellers lived in peace.
“I can’t go fishing tomorrow,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry hell— You want to go out like Custer, with your boots on?”
I finished my beer.
“I got to go to a picnic.”
Wes grabbed my shoulder as I started get up.
“You better watch your step, Chief. Like the guy at the mill—”
“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ve got it worked out.”
“Sure you do.”
At Swan Lake we’d have fried chicken and potato salad and a beer, Denise and Tug and Joyce and I.
Joyce and I would take a blanket and find a late-blooming honey locust, make love and then talk it over while I held her.
“I’m going to take her away from Ray,” I said.
“You’re nuts,” Wes said, watching me.
I looked up at the gold-painted bugle dangling from the rafter. Next to it a blue-feathered dream catcher webbed with fishing line made a large hoop.
“We’re taking the boy.”
“You better stop, look and listen. Right now. Like they said in school—”
Wes gripped my shoulder and I shrugged off his hand as I got up to call Ray’s.
I didn’t care if Ray answered. I’d ask for Tug.
“If you don’t,” Wes said, “you won’t be Chief anymore—”
He reached for my wrist but I jerked my arm away.
“Lay off, Wes.”
“Bill, you won’t be anybody—” He pointed a finger. “You’re crazy.”
“Then call me Crazy Horse,” I said and started through Custer’s for the phone.