A&E is set to launch its new series, "Longmire," this summer. It's based on the novels of Craig Johnson—a longtime favorite around here—the latest of which, As the Crow Flies is about to hit stores. Catch the first chapter here. After all your friends are hooked on the TV show, you can say you knew him back when.
“IwannaknowwhatKatrinaWalksNicedidto get kicked out of a joint like this for sixty-one days.”
I began questioning the makeup of the negotiation team I’d brought with me to convince the chief of the Northern Cheyenne tribe that he should allow my daughter to be married at Crazy Head Springs. “Don’t call the White Buffalo a joint; it’s the nerve center of the reservation.”
My undersheriff, Victoria Moretti, shook her head. “It’s a fucking convenience store.” She smiled, enjoying the muckraking. “She must’ve done something pretty shitty to get eighty-sixed out of here for two months.” Vic gestured toward the white plastic board above the cash register where all the reservation offenders who had been tagged with bad-check writing, shoplifting, and other unsavory behaviors were cataloged for everyone to see—sort of a twenty-first-century pillorying.
My eyes skimmed past the board, and I watched the crows circle above Lame Deer as the rain struck the surface of Route 212. It was the main line on the Rez, and the road that truckers used to avoid the scales on the interstate. Before 212 had been widened and properly graded, it had been known as Scalp Alley for the number of traveling unfortunates who had met their demise on the composite scoria/asphalt strip and for the roadside crosses that ran like chain lightning from the Black Hills to the Little Bighorn.
As my good friend Henry Standing Bear says, on the Rez, even the roads are red.
I was trying to pay attention, but I kept being distracted by the crows plying the thermals of the high plains sky; it was raining in the distance, but the sun appeared to be overtaking the clouds—a sharp contrast of blue and charcoal that my mother used to say was caused by the devil beating his wife.
“She must’ve stolen the cash register.”
My attention was forced back inside and under cover, and I twisted the ring on my pinkie. My wife, Martha, had given it back to me before she died so that I could give it to Cady whenever she got married.
I looked up—the negotiations weren’t going well. It would appear that Dull Knife College had suddenly scheduled a Cheyenne language immersion class at Crazy Head Springs on the day of the wedding. We had reserved the spot well in advance, but the vagaries of the tribal council were well known and now we were floundering. The old Indian across from me nodded his head in all seriousness. I was negotiating with the chief of the Northern Cheyenne nation, and he was one tough customer.
“That librarian over at the college is mean. I don’t like to mess with her; she’s got that Indian Alzheimer’s. Um hmm, yes, it is so.”
I trailed my eyes from Lonnie Little Bird to the rain-slick surface of the asphalt—Lame Deer’s main street being washed clean of all our sins. “What’s that mean, Lonnie?”
“That’s where you forget everything but the grudges.”
I smiled in spite of myself and took a deep breath, slowly letting the air out to calm my nerves, as I continued to twirl the ring on my finger. “Cady’s really got her heart set on Crazy Head
Springs, Lonnie, and it’s way too late to change the date from the end of July.”
He glanced out the window, his dark eyes following my gray ones. “Maybe you should go talk to that librarian over at the college. You’re a large man—she’ll listen to you. You could show her your gun.” He glanced down at the red and black chief ’s blanket that covered his wheelchair. “She don’t pay no attention to an old, legless Indian.”
Henry Standing Bear, my daughter’s wedding planner, who had made the arrangements that were now being rapidly unraveled, sipped his coffee and quietly listened.
“But you’re the chief, Lonnie.”
“Oh, you know that don’t mean much unless somebody wants a government contract for beef or needs a ribbon cut.”
Up until this year, Lonnie’s official contribution to the tribal government had been limited to falling asleep in council. A month ago, when the previous tribal leader had been found guilty of siphoning off money to a private account belonging to his daughter, an emergency meeting had been held; since Lonnie had again fallen asleep, and therefore was unable to defend himself, he was unanimously voted in as the new chief.
“She’s in charge of all the books over there and she’s full blood—that’s pretty much the worst of both worlds.”
A heavyset man with long hair and a gray top hat with an eagle feather in it stopped by the table and rapped his knuckles on the surface. “Mornin’, Chief.”
Lonnie sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that, Herbert.” Herbert His Good Horse, the morning drive announcer on the low-power FM station KRZZ, smiled and turned to the rest of us in the crowded booth. “Do you know the story about the three Indian women who died at the same time?”
Herbert was a mainstay on the Rez, where almost everyone tuned in to 94.7 FM just to hear the outrageous jokes he told between songs.
Lonnie responded for the table. “Nope.”
“St. Peter was sitting on his throne at the gates of heaven—”
“Is this a true story, Herbert?”
He nodded his head vigorously, the eagle feather stuck in the band of his hat bobbing up and down like a crest on his head. “It’s from one of those priests over at St. Labre, and those Catholics, they sometimes tell the truth.”
Vic barked a laugh. “Fuckin’ A.” She raised an empty coffee cup to get Brandon White Buffalo’s attention in hopes of a round of refills, but the big Crow Indian was attending to another customer.
Herbert His Good Horse produced an elongated cigar from his silk brocade vest along with a cutter. “One of the women was Lakota, one was Crow, and the other was full-blood Cheyenne. St. Peter looked at them and said that they were heathens and there wasn’t anything he could do to let them into the white man’s heaven, but that he was curious because they had all three died at the same time. He asked the first one, the Lakota woman, if she had anything to say, and she said she didn’t know anything about the rules but she had always lived her life attempting to seek a balance in the red and black roads. St. Peter listened and was impressed by the spirituality of the woman and told her she could go in after all.”
Lonnie smiled and nodded as Herbert repocketed the cutter and produced a chopped-down, brass Zippo lighter, the one that he had carried in the seventies in Vietnam. “St. Peter leaned down to the Crow woman and asked her if she had anything she wanted to say, and she told him that to her, there was a spirit in the air, the land, the water, and all the creatures that populated mother earth and that she had spent her life attempting to be respectful of all these things. St. Peter was so impressed that he waved her into the white man’s heaven, too.”
Lonnie sipped his coffee, and Henry, smiling, glanced at me. “Then St. Peter turned on his throne and looked at the Cheyenne woman. He asked her, ‘Do you have anything you’d like to say?’ The Cheyenne woman nodded and said—‘Yeah, what are you doing in my chair?’ ”
Lonnie laughed so hard, rolling his head from side to side with his mouth hanging open, that no sound came out. After a while he began slapping Henry on the leg; I suppose just because the Bear had both of his and because he was also Cheyenne. “Um hmm, yes, it is so.”
Herbert, who had recovered from laughing at his own joke, lit his cigar, rapped the table, and signed off with his signature slogan—“Stay calm, have courage . . .”
The entire booth responded with the rest: “And wait for signs.”
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., fromAs The Crow Flies by Craig Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Craig Johnson.