By Tony Hillerman
When the cat came through the little trap door at the bottom of the screen it made a clack-clack sound. Slight, but enough to awaken Jim Chee. Chee had been moving in and out of the very edge of sleep, turning uneasily on the narrow bed, pressing himself uncomfortably against the metal tubes that braced the aluminum skin of his trailer. The sound brought him enough awake to be aware that his sheet was tangled uncomfortably around his chest.
He sorted out the bedclothing, still half immersed in an uneasy dream of being tangled in a rope that he needed to keep his mother’s sheep from running over the edge of something vague and dangerous. Perhaps the uneasy dream provoked an uneasiness about the cat. What had chased it in? Something scary to a cat—or to this particular cat. Was it something threatening to Chee? But in a moment he was fully awake, and the uneasiness was replaced by happiness.
Mary Landon would be coming. Blue-eyed, slender, fascinating Mary Landon would be coming back from Wisconsin. Just a couple more weeks to wait.
Jim Chee’s conditioning—traditional Navajo—caused him to put that thought aside. All things in moderation. He would think more about that later. Now he thought about tomorrow. Today, actually, since it must be well after midnight. Today he and Jay Kennedy would go out and arrest Roosevelt Bistie so that Bistie could be charged with some degree of homicide—probably with murder. Not a complicated job, but unpleasant enough to cause Chee to change the subject of his thinking again. He thought about the cat. What had driven it in? The coyote, maybe. Or what? Obviously something the cat considered a threat.
The cat had appeared last winter, finding itself a sort of den under a juniper east of Chee’s trailer—a place where a lower limb, a boulder, and a rusted barrel formed a closed cul-de-sac. It had become a familiar, if suspicious, neighbor.
During the spring, Chee had formed a habit of leaving out table scraps to feed it after heavy snows. Then when the snow melt ended and the spring drought arrived, he began leaving out water in a coffee can. But easy water attracted other animals, and birds, and sometimes they turned it over. And so, one afternoon, when there was absolutely nothing else to do, Chee had removed the door, hacksawed out a cat-sized rectangle through its bottom frame, and then attached a plywood flap, using leather hinges and Miracle Glue. He had done it on a whim, partly to see if the ultracautious cat could be taught to use it. If the cat did, it would gain access to a colony of field mice that seemed to have moved into Chee’s trailer. And the watering problem would be solved. Chee felt slightly uneasy about the water. If he hadn’t started this meddling, nature would have taken its normal course. The cat would have moved down the slope and found itself a den closer to the San Juan—which was never dry. But Chee had interfered. And now Chee was stuck with a dependent.
Chee’s interest, originally, had been simple curiosity. Once, obviously, the cat had been owned by someone. It was skinny now, with a long scar over its ribs and a patch of fur missing from its right leg, but it still wore a collar, and, despite its condition, it had a purebred look. He’d described it to the woman in the pet store at Farmington—tan fur, heavy hind legs, round head, pointed ears; reminded you of a bobcat, and like a bobcat it had a mere stub of a tail. The woman had said it must be a Manx.
“Somebody’s pet. People are always bringing their pets along on vacations,” she’d said, disapproving, “and then they don’t take care of them and they get out of the car and that’s the end of them.” She’d asked Chee if he could catch it and bring it in, “so somebody can take care of it.”
Chee doubted if he could get his hands on the cat, and hadn’t tried. He was too much the traditional Navajo to interfere with an animal without a reason. But he was curious. Could such an animal, an animal bred and raised by the white man, call up enough of its hunting instincts to survive in the Navajo world? The curiosity gradually turned to a casual admiration. By early summer, the animal had accumulated wisdom with its scar tissue. It stopped trying to hunt prairie dogs and concentrated on small rodents and birds. It learned how to hide, how to escape. It learned how to endure.
It also learned to follow the water can into Chee’s trailer rather than make the long climb down to the river. Within a week the cat was using the flap when Chee was away. By midsummer it began coming in when he was at home. At first it had waited tensely at the step until he was away from the door, kept a nervous eye on him while it drank, and bolted through the flap at his first motion. But now, in August, the cat virtually ignored him. It had come inside at night only once before—driven in by a pack of dogs that had flushed it out of its den under the juniper.
Chee looked around the trailer. Far too dark to see where the cat had gone. He pushed the sheet aside, swung his feet to the floor. Through the screened window beside his bed he noticed the moon was down. Except far to the northwest where the remains of a thunderhead lingered, the sky was bright with stars. Chee yawned, stretched, went to the sink, and drank a palmful of water warm from the tap. The air smelled of dust, as it had for weeks. The thunderstorm had risen over the Chuskas in the late afternoon, but it had drifted northward over the Utah border and into Colorado and nothing around Shiprock had gotten any help. Chee ran a little more water, splashed it on his face. The cat, he guessed, would be standing behind the trash canister right beside his feet. He yawned again. What had driven it in? He’d seen the coyote’s tracks along the river a few days ago, but it would have to be terribly hungry to hunt this close to his trailer. No dogs tonight, at least he hadn’t heard any. And dogs, unlike coyotes, were easy enough to hear. But probably it was dogs, or the coyote. Probably a coyote. What else?
Chee stood beside the sink, leaning on it, yawning again. Back to bed. Tomorrow would be unpleasant. Kennedy said he would be at Chee’s trailer at 8 A.M. and the FBI agent was never late. Then the long drive into the Lukachukais to find the man named Roosevelt Bistie and ask him why he had killed an old man named Dugai Endocheeney with a butcher knife. Chee had been a Navajo Tribal Policeman for seven years now—ever since he’d graduated from the University of New Mexico—and he knew now he’d never learn to like this part of the job, this dealing with sick minds in a way that would never bring them back to harmony. The federal way of curing Bistie would be to haul him before a federal magistrate, charge him with homicide on a federal reservation, and lock him away.
Ah, well, Chee thought, most of the job he liked. Tomorrow he would endure. He thought of the happy times stationed at Crownpoint. Mary Landon teaching in the elementary school. Mary Landon always there. Mary Landon always willing to listen. Chee felt relaxed. In a moment he would go back to bed. Through the screen he could see only a dazzle of stars above a black landscape. What was out there? A coyote? Shy Girl Beno? That turned his thoughts to Shy Girl’s opposite. Welfare Woman. Welfare Woman and the Wrong Begay Incident. That memory produced a delighted, reminiscent grin. Irma Onesalt was Welfare Woman’s name, a worker in the tribal Social Services office, tough as saddle leather, mean as a snake. The look on her face when they learned they had hauled the wrong Begay out of Badwater Clinic and delivered him halfway across the reservation was an image he would treasure. She was dead now, but that had happened far south of the Shiprock district, out of Chee’s jurisdiction. And for Chee, the shooting of Irma Onesalt didn’t do as much as it might have to diminish the delight of the Wrong Begay Incident. It was said they’d never figure out who shot Welfare Woman because everybody who ever had work with her would be a logical suspect with a sound motive. Chee couldn’t remember meeting a more obnoxious woman.
He stretched. Back to bed. Abruptly he thought of an alternative to the coyote-scared-the-cat theory. The Shy Girl at Theresa Beno’s camp. She had wanted to talk to him, had hung on the fringes while he talked to Beno, and Beno’s husband, and Beno’s elder daughter. The shy one had the long-faced, small-boned beauty that seemed to go with Beno women. He had noticed her getting into a gray Chevy pickup when he was leaving the Beno camp, and when he had stopped for a Pepsi at the Roundtop Trading Post, the Chevy had driven up. Shy Girl had parked well away from the gasoline pumps. He’d noticed her watching him, and waited. But she had driven away.
Chee moved from the sink and stood by the screen door, looking out into the darkness, smelling the August drought. She knew something about the sheep, he thought, and she wanted to tell me. But she wanted to tell me where no one could see her talking to me. Her sister’s husband is stealing the sheep. She knows it. She wants him caught. She followed me. She waited. Now she will come up to the door and tell me as soon as she overcomes her shyness. She is out there, and she frightened the cat.
It was all, of course, a silly idea, product of being half asleep. Chee could see nothing through the screen. Only the dark shape of the junipers, and a mile up the river the light that someone had left on at the Navajo Nation Shiprock Agency highway maintenance yards, and beyond that the faint glow that attempted to civilize the night at the town of Shiprock. He could smell dust and the peculiar aroma of wilted, dying leaves—an odor familiar to Chee and to all Navajos, and one that evoked unpleasant boyhood memories. Of thin horses, dying sheep, worried adults. Of not quite enough to eat. Of being very careful to take into the gourd dipper no more of the tepid water than you would drink. How long had it been since it had rained? A shower at Shiprock at the end of April. Nothing since then. Theresa Beno’s shy daughter wouldn’t be out there. Maybe a coyote. Whatever it was, he was going back to bed. He ran a little more water into his palm, sipped it, noticing the taste. The reservoir on his trailer would be low. He should flush it out and refill it. He thought of Kennedy again. Chee shared the prejudices of most working policemen against the FBI, but Kennedy seemed a better sort than most. And smarter. Which was good, because he would probably be stationed at Farmington a long time and Chee would be working…
Just then he became aware of the form in the darkness. Some slight motion, perhaps, had given it away. Or perhaps Chee’s eyes had finally made the total adjustment to night vision. It was not ten feet from the window under which Chee slept, an indistinct black-against-black. But the shape was upright. Human. Small? Probably the woman at Theresa Beno’s sheep camp. Why did she stand there so silently if she had come all this way to talk to him?
Light and sound struck simultaneously—a white-yellow flash which burned itself onto the retina behind the lens of Chee’s eyes and a boom which slammed into his eardrums and repeated itself. Again. And again. Without thought, Chee had dropped to the floor, aware of the cat clawing its way frantically over his back toward the door flap.
Then it was silent. Chee scrambled to a sitting position. Where was his pistol? Hanging on his belt in the trailer closet. He scrambled for it on hands and knees, still seeing only the white-yellow flash, hearing only the ringing in his ears. He pulled open the closet door, reached up blindly and fumbled until his fingers found the holster, extracted the pistol, cocked it. He sat with his back pressed against the closet wall, not daring to breathe, trying to make his eyes work again.
They did, gradually. The shape of the open door became a rectangle of black-gray in a black-black field. The light of the dark night came through the window above his bed. And below that small square, he seemed to be seeing an irregular row of roundish places—places a little lighter than the blackness.
Chee became aware of his sheet on the floor around him, of his foam-rubber mattress against his knee. He hadn’t knocked it off the bunk. The cat? It couldn’t. Through the diminishing ringing in his ears he could hear a dog barking somewhere in the distance toward Shiprock. Awakened by the gunshots, Chee guessed. And they must have been gunshots. A cannon. Three of them. Or was it four?
Whoever had fired them would be waiting out there. Waiting for Chee to come out. Or trying to decide whether four shots through the aluminum skin of the trailer into Chee’s bed had been enough. Chee looked at the row of holes again, with his vision now clearing. They looked huge—big enough to stick your foot through. A shotgun. That would explain the blast of light and sound. Chee decided going through the door would be a mistake. He sat, back to the closet wall, gripping the pistol, waiting. A second distant dog joined the barking. Finally, the barking stopped. Air moved through the trailer, bringing in the smells of burned gunpowder, wilted leaves, and the exposed mud flats along the river. The white-yellow blot on Chee’s retina faded away. Night vision returned. He could make out the shape of his mattress now, knocked off the bed by the shotgun blasts. And through the holes punched in the paper-thin aluminum walls, he could see lightning briefly illuminate the dying thunderhead on the northwest horizon.
In Navajo mythology, lightning symbolized the wrath of the yei, the Holy People venting their malice against the earth. SFR