excerpt from BLOOD RIVER

     Blowing through the desert at 85 miles per hour, Teri kept her eyes on the road.  When she slowed to 55 mph the world seemed to shift and tilt, pale colors coming into sharper focus.  I thought of a flight attendant gripping a microphone saying ‘this is our final approach, please stow your tray tables’ and all that shit, but it occurred to me that we might be landing in a dimension I knew nothing about, unprepared with stun guns and a few magazines of .40 ammo, our Glock 23s and a shotgun.   I had a feeling this wasn’t a .40 caliber world anymore.  Teri slowed down so she could make a left turn and braked nearly to a crawl to get over the first thick ridge of hardened clay that formed a barrier.  We cleared the clay ridge and looked west over an empty prairie plain, sagebrush, scraped clean with wind that had been blowing for eons.  Teri eased the big Chevy into the rutted road moving the steering wheel with little flicks of her wrists.  After a mile and a half of bumping along the clay, Teri slowed, rolled the window down.
     “Smell the sagebrush?” She said.
     “Beats that fucking putrid rest stop bathroom stall stench.  Jesus.”  I shook my head and opened the door staying strapped in the leather bucket seat.  “Teri, I know that gas station -Navajo-tourist-stop is right around here somewhere, but I’m just not seeing it right now.  My eyes blurred up when we screeched to a halt on that runway back there.  Tell me when we get there.”
     “We’re there.”
     “Come on, I gotta pee.”
     “The world is yours, Mat.  Do what you gotta do.”
     Forging out to a stand of brush that hid my doings, I took a leak.  Then I took another look around.  Off in the distance a third of a mile stood a low bungalow, half of it was pale ochre, the other rust red.  A man sat on a stool wearing a wide brim hat and a bright turquoise shirt.  No privacy anymore, I thought, nowhere to hide your moments of necessity.  I walked through the soft clay dust and got back in the Chevy.  Teri steered the big SUV another seventy five yards in the direction of the hut, stopped it a hundred yards away and shut it down.  She motioned to get out and we walked past a scattered collection of tin cans, skeletal remains of barbecue grills, microwave ovens, a vacuum cleaner that had sucked its last dust and a torn half panel of what looked like a small billboard with the pasted photo of an Indian man with a wrinkled face the texture of fault lines viewed from five thousand feet in the air.  When Teri stopped, I stopped.  She raised her hand at the man, who remained still.  Finally, slowly, the wide brim lowered into a nod of acceptance, and Teri touched my left arm just above my elbow.  Walking toward the man, I could see his eyes now, deep-set in thick folds of bronze skin, his hands folded in front of his large belly.  Held between his thick clasped hands, a thin wooden shaft with brown and white feathers tied at one end. 
     “There are cold drinks in the refrigerator,” he said.  Teri went inside and the man called out, “Bring the folding chairs next to the water cooler.”  In a moment Teri came out holding three cans of Sprite and two brown folding metal chairs.  I set up the chairs and we sat and all three of us popped open the cans.
     “You have come from Flagstaff?” the man said.
     “Yes,” Teri said.  “This is Mat Arroyo, my partner from the Yuma office.  Mat, this is Sicheii.”
     “Grandfather,” I said.  I smiled at him.
     “You know Navajo?” he said.
     “A few names is all.”
     “Teri, I see your father in my dreams many times these days.  He says you are protected and the land, it is no longer the sacred place.  The big birds are everywhere.”
     “Airplanes?” Teri said.
     Sicheii nodded with his wide brim felt hat.  When the brim dipped below his eyes it was if the sun had gone down, the light gone from his soul until he brought his head up again and the brilliant black of his eyes focused on me.  He pointed to the west with his thumb, over his shoulder.  “That way.  At night mostly.  They don’t have lights but I can hear them.”
     I looked at Teri.  “Airplanes are landing out here, on the Reservation?” I said.
     Sicheii said yes, his brown brim flapping up and down.
     “If you want ice,” Sichee said, “there is some in the freezer.  You have to pick it out with the hammer in the top drawer by the toaster.  There are glasses.  I don’t use the glasses anymore.”  He laughed and grinned, the wrinkles spreading around his dark eyes.  “I don’t like to wash them.”
     “Hey,” I said, “I don’t wash dishes as much as I used to, either.  You’re sure the airplanes are landing?  Or just cruising the edges of the canyon.”
     Before Sicheei continued, Teri unfolded the USGS Topographical map and showed it to him.  “Sicheei, how far are the fire lookout towers from here?  According to my map, there are two along the canyon rim, but they look like they’re still several miles from here.  Do you know?”
     “Two, maybe.  Many years ago I used to ride out there to the canyon.  Not for a long time.”
     I said “Does anybody from the Rez go out there?”
     “First, Mr. Arroyo, I hear the engines of the planes.  After midnight.  They have come in right over this house.  Then the engines stop.  Later they start up again, and they rev them up to high speed when they take off.”

     Teri looked at me.  Then she spoke in Navajo.  She explained to me that she wanted to speak to Sicheei in his native words so she could be sure what he was talking about.  Later on in the Tahoe she would explain to me what was going on.  Sicheei motioned to me, then out to the land, and I took a walk.  At the Tahoe, I spread out another map on the back seat and tried to pinpoint the position of Sicheei’s house.  Fifteen miles from his house, was the eastern end of the Canyon.  The Colorado River separated the Navajo reservation from the National Park.  Teri would know the road conditions and roughly how many houses might be in between Sicheei’s house and the Canyon.  Scanning the sky over the horizon, only white clouds were moving, and there weren’t as many as when we’d been coming down into the rest stop.  Fewer than when we’d left the stop after the Highway Patrol had secured the area.  Across the rich red prairie, the breeze freshened and the sage and white fir, blue spruce and Douglas fir offered a pure fresh scent.  Underneath the tinkle of spruce, beat the low notes of rubbery creosote.  Off to my left was Sicheei’s pile of rusted metal.  To the right, north, the Colorado tumbled down steep canyons from Utah, dammed at Page and Lake Powell and continued its epic journey through the carved desert.  Down in Yuma the desert offered plenty of dump sites, municipal sites where locals alternately dumped and went looking for gems in the piles of refuse, and the random remote sites where refrigerators, stoves, old cars and mattress springs went to die.  Often, I’d come across piles of bottles, cans, remnants of nights stewed in alcohol, syringes, ripped open packs of cocaine, heroin, long since given up their street-valuable contents to raiders, law enforcement and cartel thugs.  What I saw, now, off in the distance, wasn’t the reflection of a can or bottle, a windshield or a flying machine.  It was low, on the ground, the reflective glare of binoculars.  There . . . fading now.  Again.  And gone.  I didn’t see it again.  Someone glassing the area.  My face, the Tahoe, in the field of some 7x40 or larger binoculars.  I didn’t move.  Possibly a rifle scope.  Slowly, I folded the map and moved so that the Tahoe shielded me from where I’d seen the reflection.  Teri was walking toward the Tahoe, and I positioned myself so that she could see me, but still hidden from the position of the reflection of glass.  I held my fingers around my eyes, like two lenses, until she saw me.  She scratched her left shoulder, the signal that she saw me and what I’d just signaled had registered.  Her pace didn’t vary, she gave nothing away.  When she got to the Tahoe she handed me a cold can of Sprite and put a double plastic bag of ice under the front seat and got in, closed the door, waited until I’d strapped in and closed the door.
     “Binoculars?” she said.
     “Yeah.  Three o’clock.”  Teri looked out the windshield.  “Sicheei says the planes have been coming for three weeks.  Only at night.  He’s driven out there a couple of times but he doesn’t want to go out there again by himself.  There’s no phone in his house.”
     “Did Sicheei say anything about finding anything out there?  Junk, debris, like someone had dumped stuff out of a plane?”
     “No.  He didn’t see anything.  No signs of any big fires, either.  How far away would you say those binoculars were?”
     “At least a mile.  With the sun in that position he wasn’t looking at me.  At least not at that moment.  The angle of reflection would mean he was scanning southwest, or due south.”
     “Can you get a bearing?”
     My day pack was stowed behind my seat.  From one of the outside pockets, I pulled the compass and set it on the spot where I’d seen the reflection.
     “323 degrees.”
     “Set it.”
     The GPS took the coordinates and the Tahoe humped along at the designated heading.
     “You’ve known Sicheei a long time,” I said.
     “Almost my whole life.  Actually, more than my whole life.  According to my father, Sicheei blessed me when my mother started showing.  Two, three months.  I can’t even see a woman showing at three months.  Not that I ever look.”
     The horizon was accepting the evening light, a pale shade of rose fading up in the west.  It was a beautiful time to look at the Canyon.  For now, I swept the landscape with my eyes, 180 degrees, back and forth, slowly, as Teri maneuvered the big SUV.  When Teri was speaking to Sicheii, I had checked the pump action Remington 870 and stocked the ammo case strapped to the stock.  The binoculars I used were high quality Nikon and they brought the distant red rock into sharp focus. 

     Teri wore her Oakley wrap-arounds and driving gloves, grappling with the weight of the Tahoe like a bull rider tugging on the reins.  Every time I thought she’d taken one too many unpaved roads on a high speed bump and run, she’d proved me wrong.  A blind corner on a dirt road was time for Teri to put it into a slide, get some air, test the suspension, kick up a fantail of desert dust.  Her hope was one day to drive in the Baja 500, or the big daddy, the 1000. 
     The binoculars were up against my eyes, ranging across the landscape.  I kept them there and spoke.  “The Remington’s loaded and the stock pouch is full.”
     “Sicheei hasn’t seen smoke all month.  The planes fly low and the way he described the sound, I’d say single engine.  Fast single engine.”
     “So we’re looking for a vehicle, somebody moving around on the ground with binoculars.  Maybe some kind of an airstrip.  A camp or a trailer.  What happens, typically, if someone is on the Reservation without authorization.  You call someone?  Approach them by yourself?”
     “People wander out here sometimes for bird watching, maybe photography.  It’s okay to travel on the rez as long as you don’t camp, hunt or hike.  Basically you can drive around and photograph.”
     “Population.  Density.  About how many homes are out here, out to the rim of the Canyon.”
     “Not many.  The closer you get to the Canyon the lower the water table is and you won’t be able to drill a well.”
     “So what are these planes doing out here?”
     “Hell if I know.”
     “Sicheei say he’s seen any vehicles out here roaming around?  Campers, trailers, people?”
     “He’s not as alert as he used to be.  He’s starting to listen more to the spirits and not watching the land.  I love him.”
     “All alone out here,” I said, “what’s going to happen to him?  He’s got some mileage on him.”
     “He’ll wander off.”
     “The old way.”
     Teri nodded, her Oakley’s reflecting a pink glow now from the setting sun.  She gripped the wheel at 10 and 2.  “This is about a mile.”  We got out of the SUV.  Teri stood at the hood and I took the back.  The binoculars revealed nothing.  I looked at Teri, who had her back to me.  Slowly, she turned and looked at me, over her right shoulder, her Oakley’s black and shiny.  I reached into the Tahoe and pulled out a can of Sprite and took it to her.  She snapped open the can and while it was close to her lips, she spoke.
     “Campfire smoothed over.  Fifty yards, ten o’clock.”
       The campfire was hidden, but visible.  Black rocks and smudges of charcoal surrounded it in the dirt, smothered and ground in.  Sicheei’s house was a mile away, a bump that blended in to the landscape at this distance.  “Sicheei would see it,” I said.  “Unless a barrier hides it.”
     “They’re not going to be landing planes this close to his place,” Teri said.
     “Let’s take a look,” I said, pulling open the door and reaching for the shotgun. 
     Inside of a low ring of rock, grey and black charcoal embers were mixed with the soil and doused with water.  The soil was cold.  Teri kneeled down to inspect the ground a few feet from the fire ring.  I watched the area in the distance for anyone moving, metal reflections, cans, bottles, debris.  The last light of the afternoon sharpened the shadows, casting a relief pattern in the rocks giving a crisp glow to sage and conifer shrubs that wiggled in a slow wind.  I was standing erect, a full target for a shooter, and a bullet would pierce my skull before I heard the sound and recognized what was coming.  The bullet-proof vest would hold off the penetration of a high-caliber weapon from a distance, and a head shot took great skill from two hundred yards in a slight wind.  Factors, calculations, angle of incidence, all of the judgment calls made on the fly in the wild, gave little hope for what I knew we were most likely dealing with.  Drug cartel weapons men were among the best in the world, but most of their work was close-in, ten yards, twenty at most with fully automatic weapons.  Spray and pray.  A well placed head shot from two hundred, three hundred yards was the exclusive domain of experienced hunters, military snipers. 
     Teri stood up, looked around at the parched desert glow of sunset, nodded one time and kicked a small rock with her left boot.  When we got back in the SUV, I sat in the driver’s seat.  Teri closed the door on the passenger side.
     “Couple of 9mm casings,” she said.  “And a .308 Winchester.”
     The Tahoe slid forward, and I steered past the burned out fire pit and headed west towards the Canyon.
     “I could see a 9 mil fired without Sicheei hearing it when the wind is right,” I said.  “.308 makes some noise.”
     “We don’t know if this airplane stuff is connected with our guy.  Could be but we’ve gotta decide if we . . .”
     The impact sounded like a heavy metal skillet banging into the driver’s door and the next shot put a spider-web of cracks through the windshield, the back seat taking the bullet with a slapping thud.
     “Goddamnit, keep your head down,” I yelled.  Teri sandwiched into a folded torso so her head was below the dash.  The steering wheel pulled lightly and I jammed the foot pedal all the way down until the wheels started to spin and I backed off.  The Tahoe shot into the slanting sun’s rays while I heard the boom of a third shot that missed.  Teri kept her head down while I fought the wheel of the big machine as it leaped and skidded around the corner of a thin edge of dirt road that looked recently scraped.  Instantly, I pulled the vehicle off of the red dusty path, thinking it might be the runway and then I saw a smudge pot on the left side, then another forty yards ahead. 
     “This is the landing strip, Teri.  I’m pulling off the road again.  Hang on.” 
     “Don’t go to Sicheei’s house,” Teri shouted. 
     Warning shots, intent to kill, misplaced drunks doing some critter hunting, it made no difference and I was driving over what appeared to be a runway now, the last few yards before it emptied out into the low grass and shrubs.
     I glanced at Teri hunched over with her hand on the console.  “You okay?”
     “Yeah, just keep going.  Get out of this shooting gallery.”
     Stunt drivers and second unit production crews spent millions to capture scenes just like this on film.  Then they called ‘Wrap’, and everyone slapped each other on the back and met at the catering truck.  No chance.  This was live, in your face, and the Tahoe had taken a hit.  The windshield was intact, minus a piece about a third of an inch just under the rear view mirror in the middle of the vehicle, but the shooting had stopped.  
     “Hold on I’m going to do some spins and kick up some dust.”  Doing a rough mental fix, I figured the shots from the northwest, from the door shot and the windshield shot.  If I could put some dust in the air, enough of it to cloud a sight picture, I could put distance between the shooter and be out of range in a matter of moments.  Even an experienced shooter with a rifle scope and high powered cartridges would be hard pressed to make a hit from three hundred yards.  Possible, but doubtful.  The thick steering wheel pulled easily and turned forty-yard radius NASCAR-type donuts sending up dirty cover until even I couldn’t see.  Punched it over the rev limit then, and the beast propelled down range until we were out of the target range.  A half mile ahead a low stand of trees provided more cover. 
     “If he’s got a night vision scope,” I said, “we’ll be visible, maybe not in his target range.”
     Teri unfolded herself.  She didn’t say anything.  I slowed down when we approached the stand of spruce and maneuvered the vehicle between a few saplings on the edge of the small forest, until the trees were too dense to continue.
     “Just one shooter, you think? Teri said.  Her hand was on the radio mike, but she didn’t key it up.
     “Two hits on a slow moving vehicle, unknown range.  Possibly .308.  Doubt it’s the 9mm. 
     “The suspect in custody could have lied and said north rim to throw us off.”
     “Then why give us anything near the Canyon?  Could say they’re off to Gallup.  Kingman.  Anywhere.”
     “He gives up his buddy and we find him, that’ll be in his favor, he thinks.”
     “Planes and guns, Teri.  And a big stash of cash and weapons coming across the border.  Preliminary indication?”
     “We’re outgunned.  We don’t know how many shooters there are, but we do know what we have.  It’s not enough to take down multiple shooters.  We can radio in our position and call for backup.  Hold it down in here.”
     “Is there a way we can get to Sicheei’s house and get him out of danger without putting the focus on him?”
     “When it gets dark, but night scopes can track us.”
     “That’s a tough shot if we’re going evasive at 50mph.”
     “They know he’s there.  Up until now he wasn’t a problem.  Old man living alone.  If these are cartel men they know he’s got no phone and they know his habits.  They see a black SUV pull up they know it’s Marshals.”
     “Teri, I couldn’t live with it.  We got to get him out of there.”
     “I’m going to radio.  We stopped at a roadside stand and we heard about planes coming in at night.  You agree?”
     I nodded.  “Tell the truth.  That’s why you’re a Marshall, Teri.  You know the territory better than anyone in the office.”
     “Unit one to base.”
     Hissing and popping.  No response.  I looked up out the windshield.  The tree tops were only fifteen feet high but the sightline to the repeater could be blocked.
     “Unit one to base.” 
     “Hold on,” I said.  “We may have to move out of these trees.”
     “Unit one to any unit.”
     The topo map and the GPS synched up, showing we were approximately a mile and a half now from Sicheei’s house and approximately two miles from the rim of the canyon.  Darkness was settling in making it difficult to see the ground without putting on the headlights.  It would be a challenge to get around the stand of trees, moving towards the direction the shots could have come from, and making it in the open another mile to his house. 
     “You’re a better driver,” I said.  “Don’t worry about it, doesn’t bother me.  Get in there, get us out of here.”  I climbed in the back seat and looked at the torn rear seat back, reached in as Teri crawled over the console into the driver’s seat.  The fabric of the back seat was torn in a small hole.  My knife split the fabric enough to reach in my hand, but the thick springs were about an inch below the surface making it hard to move my fingers around.  Teri said she’d wait a moment while I tried to find the bullet.  The heavy foam of the seat back didn’t have much give and a bullet would even pass all the way through if the shot was from somewhat close range. 
     “I can’t get to it.”  Just when I’d strapped the seatbelt over my shoulder and punched it in the lock Teri cranked the vehicle into reverse and started backing out of the trees.
     “Go,” I said.  “I’ll keep trying the radio.”  Outside of the trees the space opened up in a wide swale of rock and low sage that took on the look of a gray marshmallow pie in the dusky early evening light.
     We kept our heads low.  No binoculars, I held only the Remington and I knew Teri had her Glock strapped in on her weak side for cross draw.  The SUV shuddered over rough terrain but moved through paces like a thoroughbred heading for the barn.  Teri varied her speed from death-defying to Oh Fuck―occasionally spinning tires until they locked into traction.  I gave her headings from the GPS so she could keep her eyes on the horizon, dark now in the southeast.  So far no shots, but I urged Teri to do evasive maneuvers, swiveling the steering wheel both ways so our path was S-shaped and random.  Our speed reduced, but so did the target acquisition ability of a marksman.
     We picked up a dirt road about three quarters from Sicheei’s house and Teri stayed on it all the way to the bungalow.  Teri kept the vehicle running, jumped outside and went up to the house.  I couldn’t see any lights.  In the direction from where I’d seen the reflection of binoculars two hours earlier, darkness had taken over.           

1 comment:

Timecheck said...

Got me hooked. Let me know when it's out.