Sam saw the sheriff’s black and white pull into the parking lot and stop. A heavy man, the sheriff made the car dip and rise as he swung his legs out and stood up. He hiked his pants. He strode up the three steps, past the wooden Indian, and threw open the door, slamming it into a string of fake feather headdresses. They danced in the window of Sam’s Free Indian Museum, a well-known tourist stop on Highway 191.
Sam looked up from behind the counter where he sat reading the latest Superman comic.
“You own this tourist trap?” the sheriff asked.
Sam nodded, sizing up the sheriff the way he imagined Clark Kent did when he was pretending not to be Superman.
The sheriff was less subtle. He strolled around the store looking things over, fingering the merchandise. “I knew your grandfather,” he said. “Used to pick him up drunk every Saturday night. But hell, if I needed a guide, he was the best. Haven’t been out on the desert in years‑‑not since the U.S. government started patrolling federal land themselves.”
Sam kept still. He was trying to get a handle on the sheriff, beyond the obvious fact that he’d exempted himself from state-mandated sensitivity training.
The sheriff went on. “I hear the old boy taught you before he died. They say you know the desert better than any Indian around here. That so?”
The sheriff walked over to the counter. He opened the decanters one at a time and sniffed the cigars. “I need to know if there’s any uranium out there?”
“Yeah, uranium.” The sheriff pulled a sample out of his pocket and tossed it on the counter.
Sam fingered the flat, black rock laced with lighter fillings. He recognized it. Technically it was pitchblende streaked with coffinite, an uranium silicate. That part was easy. What he couldn’t figure was why the sheriff was interested in this.
“I got that from a friend of mine down in Nevada. He owns a diggings there. What I want to know is if you’ve ever seen any rocks like that up here.”
Sam set the rock on the counter. “No,” he answered.
“There’s a guy nosing around town, talking about uranium. Loud, obnoxious type, he’ll probably show up here looking for a guide. But if there’s uranium out in the desert, I don’t know why we’d need some outsider getting the advantage, if you know what I mean.” The sheriff looked Sam in the eye, then cleared his throat and went on. “We’re maybe talking big money here. A rich Indian gets all kinds of respect.”
Sam pushed the rock back at the sheriff. He didn’t need the trouble of a rich Indian. Besides, to the best of his knowledge nobody had gotten rich off uranium in years and years. Not since the early part of the Cold War when America thought the future was going in the direction of bombs and atomic submarines. Sam wondered if the sheriff had walked out of a time warp. Or maybe it was the other way around and the comic books had finally gotten to Sam. Everyone knew the best Superman comics were the old ones, and he distinctly remembered several school teachers who’d promised him he’d dull his brain if he kept reading them.
“Keep it,” the sheriff said, pushing the rock back in Sam’s direction. “Maybe it’ll begin to look familiar.”
Sam doubted that. He also wondered if the sheriff knew he was a cliché.
As if to complete the cliché, the sheriff smiled. “If you run across any rock like that, let me be the first to know.”
Less than half an hour later, the front door opened again. This time a white man in his early thirties dressed in brand new western duds walked in. He was short, muscular, quick moving and loud. He said with voice enough to fill the whole store, “I’m looking for an Indian named Sam Talkingbird.”
Sam lowered his comic book. “I’m Talkingbird.”
“I’m Lew Garrett. I need me a desert guide. I hear you’re the best.” He immediately pulled a map from his hip pocket and spread it on the sales counter.
Sam had seen it before. It was a copy of a thirty-year-old government survey. Every gully in the Idaho desert had moved since it was printed.
“You familiar with this?” the guy asked.
“Some,” Sam said.
“Well, let me show you. Here’s the highway.” He ran his finger down a prominent red line. “Here’s the Snake River. The formation I’m interested in, is about half way between them.”
Sam nodded. “Rock Falls.”
“You know the area?”
The only thing he knew better than the Idaho desert was old Superman comics. He owned one of the most complete collections. Sam said, “It’s Indian land.”
“Yeah, I got me a permit. Look here,” he said, “have you seen any rock like this?”
His sample was Wyoming pitchblende, slightly richer in uranium than the sheriff’s. Sam turned it over in his hands, first this way, and then that way, giving it a dramatically prolonged examination. Then he reached under the counter and pulled out the sheriff’s rock.
Lew Garrett’s eyes nearly popped. “Where?” he gasped and then had to catch his breath. “Where did you find this?”
Sam answered, “The local sheriff gave it to me. Came from a diggings down in Nevada.”
“Oh,” Lew said. The disappointment registered on his face, but was quickly replaced. “But have you seen anything like this around here?”
“No,” Sam answered.
“Well, you really can’t tell unless you have a Geiger counter.”
“A Geiger counter?” Sam asked. He hadn’t heard of anyone using a Geiger counter in the last twenty years. Maybe longer.
“Yeah, you know. It’s an instrument that detects radiation. It goes beep, beep, beep when it gets close to uranium.”
“Oh, I see,” Sam said. And he thought how in a comic book, it might have worked out that way‑‑a greenhorn taking a Geiger counter out in the desert and discovering something someone else had missed. In real life, a Geiger counter couldn’t tell one radioactive element from another. Feldspar started it beeping. Potassium threw off gamma rays. But Sam suspected this guy didn’t want to hear any of that from a roadside Indian.
“You planning on doing some mining?” Sam asked.
Lew looked around like maybe there were spies in the store. There was no one. Business was slow. Having determined that fact, Lew leaned across the counter and said, “It’s about climate change and the survival of the human race. When it all falls apart, the guy who has a source of energy is not only going to survive, he’s going to thrive. That guy will be the new king of the world, or at least one of the barons. Trust me on this. I’ve studied it. Uranium will ultimately save us all,” he said with obvious satisfaction.
He was crazy, of course, but Sam took a liking to him anyway. He reminded Sam of Jimmy, the young overzealous photographer who worked on the same newspaper as Clark Kent—the one who was always getting himself in trouble over stupid things.
Like Superman, Sam was the offspring of a race endowed with a special knowledge. He knew the desert. He guessed that meant it was up to him to keep fools like Lew Garrett safe. Besides, business at the store was slow and he preferred working outdoors. They haggled briefly over his fee. Then Sam shrugged and agreed to be Lew’s guide.
The next day, about dawn, the two of them turned off Highway 26 and headed northeast across the desert on a dirt road. Lew drove, the dust boiling up behind, the sage between the tire tracks thumping against the Jeep’s underside. And he talked. He bragged about how many push‑ups he did before breakfast every morning because he needed to be fit when the “big troubles” came. He had his own theory about which conspiracy was going to bring the end of the world and when it was going to happen. Soon. On the basis of that theory, he’d quit his job as a bartender, sold his trailer house, and taken up prospecting. That was how he was getting ready. When the world changed and everyone else was fighting for their lives—or life as they once knew it, he was planning to strike it rich—energy rich, he kept explaining.
Sam listened without comment. He watched thunderheads build along the horizon. He saw a sparrow hawk circle wide overhead, attracted by the ground squirrels the Jeep’s vibration jarred out of their holes. A faint tinge of sulfur hung on the air from a nearby hot spring.
“You know, I don’t think we’re going in the right direction,” Lew suddenly said, pulling a compass out of his pocket and holding it in one hand while he drove with the other. “Shouldn’t we be going more east?”
Sam sat up. More east or less east wasn’t going to make a difference to a crazy man, but somebody needed to keep an eye on the road.
Lew continued to fuss with the compass. The jeep rolled on. They rounded a small rise where one side of the road had washed deeper than the other, leaving a rock sitting high. Seeing the danger, Sam grabbed the steering wheel and wrenched it hard to the right, nearly jerking Lew out of his seat.
“What . . . What’d you do that for?” Lew yelled, spitting dust.
“We could have lost the transmission on that rock,” Sam said. “It’s a long walk home.”
“Well, this is one hell of a road we’re on anyway,” Lew replied. “I’ve been trying to tell you it’s taking us in the wrong direction.”
“Which direction do you want to go?”
“That way,” Lew pointed northeast.
Sam nodded. “There’s a wash between there and here, too deep to cross. We have to go around.”
Two hours later, they got to Rock Falls, a brown mesa with a rock fall on one side. They hiked to the base where Lew immediately started clawing rocks away from the crevices and poking his instrument as far inside as he could reach.
Sam watched for a moment. “What are you doing?”
“Looking for radioactive gas vents,” Lew said. “The gas comes up through the cracks and indicates uranium deep underground. This area has already been surveyed by overflight. I figure it’s a waste of time looking for anything but deep deposits.”
Sam said, “One thing you’re sure to find, turning rocks over with your bare hands, is a rattlesnake.”
Lew let go the rock he was holding and stepped back. He swallowed, then switched to a smile. “Ain’t that the way it is with us little operators? We have to take all the chances.” He started moving rocks again.
Sam turned his pack over and unzipped one side compartment. He took out a pair of heavy leather gloves and handed them to Lew.
Lew took them, pulled them on, flexed his fingers and went back to work.
Sam helped him work his Geiger counter in and out of every crevice on the east face of the mesa until well into the afternoon. Then he said, “We’d better make camp before dark.”
“Not now. If we keep going, we can finish in a couple of hours.”
“It’s getting late. You’re already working around into the shadow,” Sam told him.
Lew paused long enough to glance at the sun. “I want to try another place in the morning.” He pulled the map out of his pocket and spread it over the rock. “Here, this formation.” Two stubby fingers pointed to a steep lava cliff.
Sam said, “Lost River Sinks.”
“What does it look like?”
“Like here. It’s a lava formation.”
“That’s all? A lava formation? That’s all you can tell me about it?”
Lew snorted and spat into the dust. “Doesn’t matter. I’m lucky. I’ve always been lucky. You know how it feels to feel lucky?”
Sam shook his head. He relied on his wits.
“Well, never mind. Here’s the thing. I want to finish up here, so I can move on in the morning. Fortunately a Geiger counter works just as well in the dark as in the daylight.”
Sam cleared his throat. “The desert isn’t safe after dark.”
There were lots of reasons. Sam offered the one he thought Lew would understand. “It’s easy to lose your sense of direction.”
“But I got me an Indian guide.” Lew slapped Sam on the back. “I got me the best Indian guide in the whole damned territory, or so they tell me.”
Sam picked up his gear. He was serious.
“Now, what’s the matter?” Lew asked.
“The temperature can drop forty degrees.”
“I’ll keep moving.”
“There are holes in the lava rock‑‑some big enough to swallow a man.”
“Holes!” Lew laughed out loud. “Man swallowing holes! But hey, that’s all right. I mean if you’re superstitious about the dark or something, just tell me. Holes!” He laughed. “Holes!” he said again and couldn’t stop chuckling.
The lava holes were deep, razor‑edged caverns formed millions of years ago when the steam that collected in the molten rock suddenly vented. No one knew where all of them were. Worse, new ones kept opening up as the top layer of rock eroded away and caved in. But if Lew didn’t want to understand it that way, Sam wasn’t going to enlighten him. He gathered the rest of the gear, turned on heel and hiked wordlessly down to the Jeep, setting a pace he knew would tax the white man following him. When they got there, he swung his pack against one of the Jeep’s tires and began to unlash the back of the vehicle.
Lew sat on the Jeep’s front bumper catching his breath. “Maybe we should just move on in the morning,” he said. “I don’t like leaving part of the mesa unsearched, but maybe we should move on anyway. Still I’d hate myself if somebody came along and hit pay dirt just beyond where we quit. Know what I mean?”
The sun, low on the horizon, cast long shadows, reaching across the land, filling it with darkness from the ground up. That meant it was already dark where the danger was.
“It might be smartest to move on though,” Lew continued. “I’ve only got a few days. There’s a lot of territory to cover. Others are going to figure it out—this energy thing. Then they’ll be out here looking for uranium, too. I just don’t know . . .”
Sam unloaded the Jeep, set up the tent, and gathered some firewood. He saw Lew sneak away with his Geiger counter, and decided to let him go. He figured the desert would teach him, give him a good scare. He didn’t think there was much chance of actual harm if Lew stayed to the trail they’d already walked twice that day. Lew knew the way, and the mesa, itself, formed a well‑defined landmark, black against the darkening sky.
Sam gave him an hour, no more. Then he picked up his pack and went after him.
He found a new pile of rocks that Lew had turned over in his search. It was only a few yards beyond where Lew had left off working earlier. That was a good sign. A second rock pile was a few yards farther on. A third and fourth followed. Then nothing. Sam hunted along the foot of the mesa. He backtracked to the last rocks and hunted again. He called Lew’s name into the silence. There was no answer.
He returned to the last pile of newly disturbed rocks. Taking out a flashlight, he searched the ground for a track. He found one footprint and another one. By carefully checking and double-checking each sign, he followed the trail along the base of the bluff for a few yards until it veered to the right. Sam stopped, backtracked a few steps, and checked again. There was no mistake. Lew had turned out into the desert.
Sam stood with his back to the rock bluff and stared across the open expanse. The darker shapes, he knew, were the lava outcroppings, still flows of barren black rock with sharp ridges and deep cracks, surrounded by gray tangles of scrub sage and rabbitbrush. The spaces of bare ground scattered here and there across the landscape were the brighter patches. Only the distant mountains were more distinct, outlined, as they were, by the star studded sky and a quarter moon.
Nothing moved. Sam figured two possibilities: either Lew was hurt, lying on the ground, or he had come back to the mesa and was still moving along ahead of him. Sam decided in favor of the second. If Lew was hurt, he reasoned, he’d be yelling his head off. Besides, it only made sense he would stay close to the mesa with his Geiger counter. That’s where he’d wanted to finish working. He explained Lew’s not answering by figuring he wasn’t ready to be found yet.
Sam searched three hours more, calling Lew’s name into the darkness. Then he went back to camp, ate a few uncooked rations, rolled himself into his sleeping bag and waited. He slept off-and-on, waking just before the dawn. He got up, stumbled around in the darkness, checked. Lew still hadn’t come back. Soon as it was light enough, Sam went back and picked up Lew’s trail where it had veered into the desert.
By daylight the trail was easier to follow. Lew had zigzagged around sagebrush and patches of thorny tumbleweeds moving in a more or less easterly direction. It was slow going. Sometimes Sam lost the trail and had to backtrack, studying the ground, looking for signs. He kept expecting to stumble over Lew, asleep under a bush. That is, until he rounded a lava mound a saw the opening on its backside.
The lava hole was so small, if Lew had walked two steps to the right or the left, he’d have passed without even knowing it was there. But he hadn’t. He was dead. His body had hit several times on the way down. His head rested at an unnatural angle amid a pool of blood at the bottom, his smashed Geiger counter lay at his side.
Sam looked up, away. Overhead, he saw heat ripples and a hawk. In the whole expanse of that gray‑blue vaulted dome, all he saw were heat ripples and a hawk. His grandfather had explained many things from the flight of a bird or the color of the heavens. What Sam knew was small by comparison. Yet what Sam knew about the desert was more than anyone else. Little consolation considering that he’d let a greenhorn fall into a lava hole—a crazy man that he knew he should have watched every minute.
Figuring it was his fault, he shuddered‑‑a single, involuntary, chest racking heave. Then he ripped the pack off his back, threw it down and slammed his foot against it. That didn’t help. He stomped around the hole, kicking rocks until his rage passed. Then he slumped and sat cross‑legged, stone still, while he questioned why.
Why had Lew left the mesa and turned out into the desert? Why had he kept going when he must have known he was lost? Why had Sam let him wander off at all? Why had Sam agreed to this in the first place? Everything not understood was a web of why, he knew, and mostly we never unravel it.
His grandfather had warned him of the cruel tricks the desert could play. Yet he’d expressed that warning without fear. Nothing was ever out of place. The eyes trying to understand it could be out of place, but not the thing, itself His grandfather had wanted nothing more than to become a man of habitual spiritual consciousness like the greatest of his many fathers. He’d failed. The white man had muddied his world and left him dizzied, feeling out of place in the only place he knew.
Superman was different. Superman would never have let this happen. He’d have made it in time. At the last possible moment, he’d have snatched Lew back. But if Sam wasn’t half as good as his grandfather, he certainly couldn’t expect to be Superman. He knew that. He also remembered the sheriff’s earlier visit and figured he had reason to watch out. There was danger here. He would need all his wits.
Knowing that, he climbed over the edge of the hole and down the side. Without disturbing the body, he fingered through Lew’s pockets. He found some string, a pocketknife, a package of chew, Lew’s government map and forty‑one dollars in cash. Not much money for a man with big ideas.
Sam shook his head. He’d read enough comics to understand Lew’s desire to be the one who saved us all. The world needed saving. He’d been in touch with that much reality, at least. There were worse ways to be crazy. Then shaking his head again, Sam reached into his own pocket, pulled out four twenty dollar bills, three fives, a couple of ones and some change, all the money he had on him. He added his bills to Lew’s bankroll and poked all of it‑‑every dime‑‑into Lew’s right pant pocket. Then he carefully replaced everything else. That done, climbed up to the level ground, hiked back to camp, slid behind the wheel of the Jeep and started the motor.
An hour later, he found a desert patrol car parked at the junction of Highway 26 and Alternate 93. The deputy had set up a speed trap behind a low hill. He radioed for a rescue unit.
By late afternoon, seven people were at the accident site, the deputy, an ambulance crew, the coroner, and two detectives. The sheriff showed up just before dusk.
It was an accident. There wasn’t much to tell. Things ought to have been simple. Yet when the sheriff arrived, the deputy, an intense, clean‑shaven young man, started questioning Sam all over again.
“If you know the desert so well, why didn’t you warn that guy about falling into a lava hole?”
“I tried,” Sam answered for the third time.
“What was he doing out there after dark anyway?
“I don’t know.”
“Why don’t you know? You were supposed to be his guide, weren’t you?”
Sam shrugged and leaned back against the Jeep. It was damned hard to save a fool from himself, but he wasn’t going to voice that thought.
The sheriff walked up.
The deputy turned and said, “I think we ought to run this one in. He won’t say much. Maybe he’s hiding something.”
The sheriff scratched his head. “There aren’t enough jail cells in this county for all the untalkative Indians. Has he been drinking?”
“No, sir,” said the deputy. “There’s no sign of liquor at all.”
The sheriff read down the deputy’s notes. Then turning to Sam he said, “How you doing?”
“I see you decided to be this guy’s desert guide.”
“It was a job.”
“Uh-huh,” he muttered, still reading the report. “Well, it looks like my deputy has about covered it, except for one thing. When you were out with this guy, did you see any shiny sort of glasslike rocks?”
Sam’s mind felt for the trap in that question.
“Come on, speak up!”
“No,” Sam answered.
“Where did your ancestors get rock for arrowheads?” he asked. “That’s the kind of rock I mean.”
Sam figured it out. The sheriff had been reading up on uranium, but he still didn’t know anything. “My people ate roots and berries and rabbits snared in nets. We didn’t hunt with arrows, because we didn’t have any shiny rocks to make them.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know about that, but I got to wonder about this. A guy comes around asking about uranium and almost immediately he’s dead. Maybe this is bigger than it looks. Maybe there’s uranium out there, and you killed this guy so you could have it yourself.”
Sam was tired. He’d been up most of the night. He hadn’t had anything to eat since yesterday. Worse, none of this was ever going to make sense because it was senseless—an accident. Like Superman, Sam wanted to grab that sheriff and leap straight into the air with him. He wanted to swing him around with acrobatic ease and leave him clutching fearfully to the top of a telephone pole. Instead, he said, in his best Superman voice, “There is no obsidian or pitchblende in this desert. Therefore it is highly unlikely there is any uranium‑‑not even low grade ore.”
“What the hell,” the sheriff exclaimed. “Where did you learn that?”
“In college? What? You went to school on one of those government paid deals?”
“And what does a smart Indian like yourself study in college?”
“Meteorology. That’s the weather, isn’t it?”
The sheriff took a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, pulled one out and lit it. “So then, we going to have an easy winter this year?”
“How do you know?”
“The wasps are building in the low brush.”
“You studied wasps in school‑‑did you?”
“Who learned you that?”
“He weren’t no meteorologist. I know. He used to spend time in my jail.”
The sheriff laughed. “Raindancer? Raindancer!” he repeated, and then nudged his deputy, like he was sharing a joke.
The deputy offered half a smile.
The sheriff shook his head in a continued gesture of disbelief. Then he asked his deputy. “Did you search the dead man’s things?”
“Yes, sir,” the deputy answered.
“What did you find?”
“The usual camping gear.”
The sheriff hemmed. “Any money?”
“One hundred thirty-eight dollars and sixty five cents.”
Turning to Sam, the sheriff said, “Empty your pockets.”
Sam laid his meager effects on the hood of the Jeep. He was relieved that they’d finally come down to something that mattered, at least from a white man’s point of view.
“No money?” the sheriff asked.
Sam shrugged. “He was buying the grub.”
“What do you think? You want me to run him in?” the deputy asked.
“No,” the sheriff answered. “You just told me there was more than a hundred dollars in the dead man’s pocket. Proves we got an honest Indian, right? Let him go.”
With that the fat sheriff waddled away, the deputy at his side, straining to match the bigger man’s gait. They were like a couple of comic book figures drawn in exaggerated form, striding over the land like they knew where all the holes were. Sam watched them go. Then he stuffed his belongings back in his pockets, and became Clark Kent again.