Sam Talkingbird

Sam Talkingbird’s “Free Indian Museum” advertised itself on broad gaudy billboards for fifty miles in both directions along Highway 191. The signs, black, gold and red, promised “real Indian artifacts,” “cold drinks,” “cigarettes at fantastic savings,” and “souvenirs not seen anywhere else.” And they worked.

From early April until late October cars filled Sam’s parking lot—station wagons from California, vans from Arizona, Winnebagos, Mustangs, Broncos, Jeep Cherokees and so on. Sam knew how to get the “white man” to do what he wanted, which was to buy his plastic tomahawks and fake feather headdresses. That was also what brought three members of the Indian tribal council to his backdoor early one morning—not the billboards—the knowing that Sam could get the “white man” to do things.

Sam was sitting on the edge of his loading dock, smoking a cigarette and reading a Superman comic book when the Council members arrived. They were riding together in a red Chevrolet pickup that skidded in the loose gravel behind his place before it stopped. Sam recognized William Fleetfoot’s truck. William and other Indians from the reservation often stopped at his place for a smoke before driving the forty miles to the reservation settlement on the other side of the desert. That was how Sam kept up on the news—who was in jail, who’d wrecked a car driving drunk, who was getting it from whose wife. If that kind of talk got slow, Sam filled in with Superman trivia. He collected Superman comic books. He owned the best collection west of the Mississippi. The others were willing to listen to the Superman stuff because Sam supplied the tobacco and almost never repeated himself. He knew that much about the planet Krypton and the most famous sole survivor of its race.

But that morning seeing who it was getting out of Fleetfoot’s pickup, Sam guessed this was some kind of “official” visit. He closed his comic, slipped it inside his jacket and straightened; his interest piqued.

William Fleetfoot and his brother, Ben, were both over fifty years, stocky, weatherbeaten and worldly wise. Between the two of them they’d fathered fifteen children, and their grandkids were their pride. It wasn’t uncommon to see these old, seemingly solemn men riding through town with a passel of kids packed into the cabs of their pickups each kid with an orange soda and a bag of licorice. Thomas Twobulls was younger, close to Sam’s age. He wore polished cowboy boots, tight jeans, and a lavender shirt. He also had a traditional wife out on his ranch. But he kept another woman in a silver trailer at the edge of town. When he wasn’t with one of his “wives,” Twobulls rode around in a beat-up Camero with pictures of naked women under the visors. With men like these, Sam figured his race would continue.

The three of them gave Sam a nodded greeting, and an exchange of “how you doing?” “fine,” “fine morning this one.” Twobulls boosted himself up next to Sam and then each of them took a cigarette from the pack of unfiltered Camels Sam offered.

William lit up, took a couple of drags and said, “Indian ranchers got the best beef in the county, probably in the whole damned world.”

The others nodded.

William went on. “Ben and me bought a new fancy irrigation pump. The water makes the grass get this high sometimes.” He held his hand out close to his waist. “That tall grass makes prime beef, ribs all covered with sleek, nice fat—real pretty.”

Sam knew it was true. He’d been out past the Fleetfoot ranch only a week and a half ago with a photographer from National Geographic looking for lava caves filled with rare bats. When he wasn’t clerking at his store, Sam was the best desert guide anywhere around. He was in enough demand as a guide to keep himself from turning completely soft and tourist addled. But he didn’t think William, Ben and Twobulls were looking for compliments on their cows or a desert guide.

The desert itself stretched from the loading dock to the horizon—hard, brown earth pocked with patches of low brush and protruding bare, black lava rock. Above the desert, the sun was just beginning to rise. The morning chill hadn’t entirely evaporated, but the day promised to be warm.

William shook his head. “You know what happens when an Indian reports a dozen prime cattle missing?”

The question hung in the air. William answered it himself. “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”

“No, worse than nothing,” Twobulls said waving his arm for emphasis. “It’s insulting. The sheriff wanted to know if we’d counted right. He wanted to know if we’d looked for those cows way out in the brush. He claimed he’d done some cowboying in his day and he knew cows could get themselves lost off into the far back country. He asked again if’n we had checked real good. He wanted to know three times if we’d checked real good.” Twobulls rolled his eyes.

“The sheriff wasn’t listening,” William continued, “or didn’t want to listen. ‘Cause we found the carcasses out in plain sight, cut-up, the hind quarters and best parts gone. We weren’t reporting lost cows. We was reporting dead cows, butchered cows. We know where the cows are, we just didn’t know where the beef is. The sheriff didn’t want to understand that.”

Sam shook his head in sympathy with the others’ problem, but cattle rustling was nothing new. White city folk—postal employees and school teachers on camping trips—stole cows from the Indians all the time. They would be driving along some remote road in their four wheel drive machines and see a fine sleek cow. They would shoot it, take only the best parts, like their frontiersmen forefathers killing the buffalo for their tongues, and then they’d be gone—a freezer full of meat for them, a big dollar loss to the Indian rancher. But mostly these ranchers lived with the losses because they knew there weren’t enough sheriff’s deputies in the whole state to keep the back roads patrolled.

He took out a second cigarette, tapped one end on the edge of the loading dock and stuck it in his mouth. Then he passed the pack around while he leaned back and reached into the front pocket of his jeans for his lighter.

“We been losing two cows about every other day,” Twobulls said talking around his cigarette.

“Every other night,” Ben said.

“Yeah, nights,” Twobulls agreed. “We told that to the sheriff. We told him two cows every other night isn’t joyriders filling their freezers. This is organized.”

“Usually we like handling our own problems. We know who’s beating up on who else. We take care of that kind of thing,” William added. “We don’t need help too often.”

This was a reference to the reservation police force—one Indian driving an old Buick painted like a squad car. The reservation was its own jurisdiction. And one solution would be for the tribal council to hire more reservation police. They could afford it, but the idea of armed squads of Indians still raised the hackles on too many necks to be politically feasible. The tribal council knew that. Sam understood that.

William spit into the dust, cleared his throat, and said, “After the sheriff, we took the problem to the state patrol. The state patrol wanted to know if we’d talked to the FBI. If the beef was being shipped interstate, then the FBI was supposed to help us. But we don’t know if the beef is being shipped interstate. We need someone to investigate before we can know if we should go to the FBI or not, but nobody will investigate because they all say someone else should first.”

“But the real problem is no tracks coming in or going out,” Twobulls said. “That’s the strange part that nobody wants to believe when we tell them we can’t find any truck tracks.”

Ben grunted, “They got to be using a helicopter, but we can’t prove that either.”

Sam stubbed out his cigarette. If the Fleetfoot brothers and Twobulls and the whole Indian Tribal Council wanted him to help them find helicopter tracks, he could do that. He swung himself off the dock and said, “Well then, let’s go have a look.”

The Fleetfoot brothers climbed back in their truck while Thomas Twobulls slid in beside Sam in Sam’s Dodge van, and they all started down the highway, the older red Chevrolet in the lead.

On the way Twobulls talked baseball. He followed the Pittsburgh Pirates when they were losing. He didn’t like New York teams or California teams or winners, only underdogs. Radio had introduced him to the sport. He still didn’t have television at his ranch, but he made it a point to come into town and watch with his trailer house “wife” whenever a big game was going. There was a big game that weekend he was excited to see.

Maybe an hour later, they turned off the main highway onto a narrow two lane leading deeper into the reservation. Half an hour after that, they left that road and took an even narrower gravel and dirt track. At one point cattle standing on the road slowed them to a crawl. Twobulls rolled his window down and banged the side of the van to scare the cows out of their way. The cows stood and stared until the front bumper almost touched them. Then they moved milling back in behind mooing.

Way out past the Lost River Sinks, on a low grassy spot, Ben and William stopped their truck and got out. Sam drove up behind and parked. Then he and Twobulls also got out.

The carcasses lay about twenty-five feet apart. Birds and probably a coyote had been at them since the rustlers, but it was still obvious that whoever butchered the pair had known what they were doing. The steaks and roasts were gone. The hamburger had been left to the desert vermin. In both cases the cows had been shot first.

The three Indian council members stood up wind watching as Sam circled the carcasses, making his examination.

When Sam finished, he looked up and grunted, “Clean job.”

They nodded.

“All the carcasses look like this?” he asked.

“The same,” William said.

Sam circled the dead cows one more time and then widened his arc. The ground was torn up with hoof prints. He guessed that a bunch of cattle had been grazing there and the rustlers had buzzed them with the helicopter shooting until they got two, but he didn’t say anything. The three men watching him would have figured that out.

Sam circled again and again widened his arc. He came across a set of tire tracks. He looked up.

William said, “Ours, from when we found them.”

Sam nodded.

He circled again. The ground was still torn up with cow tracks turned every which way. He guessed the cattle had been herded in a circle, milled around, to cover any sign of the helicopter or its occupants. Sam circled wider again and wider yet. His grandfather had taught Sam about the desert. His grandfather had come from a long line of shamen—not witch doctors or medicine men with strange powers or arcane knowledge of folk herbs as some white people believed, but true wise men, who sought not to alter but to understand. The true shaman changed nothing. He only discovered. He let the land and the unseen spirits speak to him. A shaman of habitual spiritual consciousness knew where the rabbits multiplied and where the berries grew. He guided his people there. He knew how to make the waters safe and the rattlesnake harmless. The Christians believed that, too. Their own Bible promised, “They shall take up serpents, and . . . not be harmed by them.” But they hadn’t taught that in the Lutheran Bible School Sam attended. The white man had lost his roots too.

Again Sam asked himself what he was searching for as he searched the ground over and over. The answer his grandfather would have given was—”not helicopter tracks.” If he looked for where the helicopter had set down, he would find nothing. He must look for something out of place—something wanting to speak, something wanting to tell what had happened here. The land remembered. It wanted to speak. With that shift in focus, Sam sank deeper into his concentration. Still, he almost missed it.

The wind on the Idaho desert blows one direction. Every branch, bent twig, and blade of grass echoes that direction. But Sam found a place where the sand ripples had been blown clear and piled up as if the wind had blown in all directions at once.

He stooped closer to the ground, straining his eyes, searching with his mind. Then he reversed his circling and tightened his arc until he defined the limit of the affected area. It was a circle about twenty feet in diameter. Beyond that, the effects were more limited but extended another forty feet.

But, by then, he had drawn himself so far into his grandfather’s way of thinking, his grandfather’s reasoning revolted. His mind reeled. It was wrong, out of balance, out of place for an eagle to swoop down and devour a cow. Cows did not have eyes that could look up. Cows never saw the sky except at the horizon. Danger wasn’t supposed to come from above, not for beefy cows, meat on hoof.

Moving up through the layers of his consciousness, Sam wondered how Superman would have handled the situation. Would he have plucked the rustlers out of the sky and delivered them directly to the sheriff? Superman could do that. He was “more powerful than a steaming locomotive” and “able to leap tall buildings.” Also nobody questioned what he was doing even when what he was doing was pretty weird.

Twobulls said, “Helicopter, sure enough.”

The other Indians had followed Sam through the entire examination. They hadn’t seen anything before, but when Sam saw, they saw. And yet the three members of the Indian Tribal Council showed no signs of being satisfied with that information. They continued to stand on that low grassy spot within smelling distance of those two dead cows with the sun getting high enough to produce real heat. They stood there looking at the ground, looking at the sky, looking at Sam. They obviously expected something more.

Then Ben complained about how hard it would be to make someone in town believe a helicopter was carrying their cattle away.

William didn’t think anyone would come way out on that desert to look at the sign Sam had found. If they did, they wouldn’t believe it was helicopter sign. It was awfully hard to see.

Twobulls harumphed and said he wasn’t going into town with any kind of story like that. No one would believe he was sober, and if they believed he was sober telling the story, they still wouldn’t believe he was sober when he imagined the story. He didn’t need that kind of trouble.

Sam could see their point. It had taken him three hours and a ride into the desert to fathom the deeper currents at work in the situation. His grandfather would have been quicker because it was basically simply: The tribal council didn’t care how the cows were disappearing, they just wanted it stopped.

In the old days, cattlemen nabbed rustlers with the help of lawmen, horses, six-guns, and friends in the posse. But these particular cattlemen, being Indian, were short on lawmen, six-guns and friends in the posse. They wanted Sam to do something about that—something that would even things out. It was basically the same as what Superman did for his friends. They weren’t settling for less.

As Sam saw it, the problem was something like getting Lois Lane to fall in love with Superman when you knew damned well she could never like Clark Kent. How could he get the sheriff, the state patrol, and maybe the FBI to take an interest in a problem they’d all tacitly decided couldn’t be handled and therefore must be ignored for all the usual reasons—lack of jurisdiction, budgetary constraints and plain passing the buck.

This was going to take some thinking. Sam opened the passenger side of his van and sat down out of the sun, alone.

William squatted to the ground on the shaded side of Sam’s Dodge. Ben sat down beside him. The two of them took out a deck of cards. Twobulls ranged, his nervous energy sending him off to kick rocks and stomp the tops of squirrel holes.

And Sam thought. He thought deep; he thought hard turning the problem this way and that way carefully, expectantly because he knew all things were possible if sought with a desire to understand, not conquer.

He thought hard enough to cease being conscious of the tribal council members at all. They receded along with the heat of the sun, the smell of the dead animals and even the feel of the rough seat covers. What Sam sought was beyond sensual awareness. What he needed was to see behind things to the fabric of connectedness.

White men, especially official white men with badges, he knew, liked to think they conducted their affairs logically. They liked to believe that the technological achievements of western civilization had been accomplished by laying aside myths, superstitions and the rituals that had held back the progress of lesser races. Western civilization, they would argue, relied firmly on proved fact, careful reasoning, reliable testing, experiments that could be duplicated. This was true, but this was not their motivation. Their motivation was as mystic as snake dancing. For beyond all that drive to conquer surged a need to be surprised, awed, mystified.

It was on that level Sam sought for his understanding. He probed for an unknown large enough, compelling enough to make things happen. And when he knew it, the simplicity, the completeness of the idea startled him.

He stood up. William and Ben folded their cards. Twobulls turned directly back to the van.

Sam felt through his pockets and found a small knife, but it wasn’t adequate for the job he had in mind. Twobulls produced a Marine Corps combat knife. Sam took it, felt its heft and nodded approval. Then he went back to the carcasses, the others following him, running a few steps to keep up with his purposeful pace.

With Twobull’s knife, Sam cut off the ears, tongues, tails and then in what was a particularly unpleasant and messy job given the ripe state of the dead flesh, he cut out each cow’s vagina.

When he was through, Sam motioned the others to gather up the cow parts and throw them into the back of the Fleetfoot Brother’s truck. While they were doing that, Sam wiped the knife and his hands up to his elbows on a couple of tufts of dry grass. It got the worst of the blood and smell off, but not all. Then Sam joined the three Indians from the tribal council at the back of Fleetfoot’s truck where they stood with their own smelly, bloody arms looking at the cow parts.

Sam said, “Do the same to every carcass not too far gone to tell what part of the cow is what.”

The Indians nodded.

“And take pictures. Get any old camera and take pictures of the mutilations. Make sure the pictures show the parts missing that are not beef.”

The Indians nodded.

“And get rid of this stuff,” Sam said thumbing the mess in the back of the truck. “Bury it or something.”

The Indians nodded.

“Then take your pictures to the newspapers and the TV news people. Tell them about the two cows a night. Emphasize how this only happens at night. Tell them about there not being any tracks, and make sure they understand that you’re Indians. You’d see tracks if there were any.”

They nodded, and Sam practically watched the path of the thought making passage through their minds and connecting with the solution. It took Ben the longest, but to a man each of them first relaxed their puzzled brows, lifted their eyebrows, widened their eyes and then broke into a broad grin.

 

Next afternoon Sam was ringing up the sale of a bow and arrow set for a woman from Bend, Oregon who insisted on telling him, a total stranger, all about her grandson. The phone rang. Sam excused himself, motioned for one of his assistants to take over the sale and answered. The person at the other end of the call was a young woman, breathlessly intense.

“We’ve got a camera crew headed for a site approximately twelve miles east of a reservation ranch owned by William Fleetfoot. Some cattle were killed and mutilated there. I understand you know the place and can find it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sam said.

“Do you think you could find it from the air?” she asked.

“From the air?”

“Yes, sometimes guides who know things from the ground, can’t recognize them from the air. Everything looks different.”

Sam didn’t know about that. He thought it an interesting question. Did Superman see a world Clark Kent wouldn’t even understand? Surely it was just a matter of thinking about it differently. He told her he could find the cows.

“Good,” she said. “The helicopter will be over to pick you up in twenty minutes.”

“Helicopter?”

“Yes, our eyewitness news helicopter. Can you leave that soon?”

Sooner if the grandmother from Bend was still hanging around trying to make conversation, he thought, besides, did Clark Kent hang around when he could be Superman? He told her he would be ready.

When the helicopter landed in back of Sam’s place, some of Sam’s customers came around the building to look. The young woman who’d been on the phone climbed off and ducking low ran to Sam’s side. She was lean, smartly dressed, and quick of eye. Sam felt himself being sized up in one glance.

“You ready?” she asked.

Sam was standing on the ground at the end of the loading dock with his desert pack in his hand. He’d figured out long ago that people hiring a desert guide expected him to show up with some kind of equipment. So he had his bag.

Sam took his reading of the young woman by waiting long enough to answer that it forced her to set her jaw and ask again, “Are you ready?”

Sam nodded. The young woman, he decided, had set-vision: she saw only what she looked for. Sam would have to make sure she looked for the right things.

Meanwhile she was rattling off instructions. Sam was to duck low and enter the right side of the chopper and sit next to the pilot where he would have a good view, but they would be filming some aerial shots so he was to be careful of the equipment and of blocking the view. Sam followed the young woman across the ground and through the dust being kicked up by the helicopter blades.

Besides the pilot, there were three others aboard the helicopter when Sam and the young woman climbed on: two young men, one with a camera in his lap, the other with boxes of equipment strapped down beside him and a well-groomed older man with a gray beard. The young woman nodded to the pilot, and before Sam had noticed more than the shadow of the pilot’s heavy beard and the worn elbows on his brown leather jacket, the helicopter lifted and lurched to the right, Sam’s side. He grabbed for a handhold. The pilot laughed a deep, smoker’s sound.

Sam said, “Where’d you learn to fly one of these?”

“Iraq—the first one,” was the terse reply.

Was he supplementing his income, did he have debts to pay, maybe a drug habit to support? Sam wondered. Was it possible he was leading the exact helicopter, maybe the very culprits, back to the scene of their crime? Sam checked those thoughts. He had a job to do and it didn’t matter anyway.

The desert from the air was different. The dark lava flows spread like a spiderweb over the lighter colored grasslands. The hills and valleys blended into such a fine pattern, Sam felt nearly hypnotized by it. His grandfather was right. Everything was in its place. Sometimes the eyes couldn’t see enough or looked from the wrong perspective, but seeing it all spread before him, like that, Sam marveled at the completeness.

He had no trouble guiding the crew.

As they approached the low grassy spot with the dead cows, Sam again wondered about the pilot. Had he glanced a little too quickly to the exact spot? Sam wondered, but it didn’t matter, so he didn’t worry the thought. That was the beauty of having discovered the underlying texture. Nobody had to catch the criminals for the solution to work.

Once they landed, the older man with the gray beard, a professor from the University of Idaho, examined the dead cows while the film crew set up the shoot. The anchorwoman, her short skirt and hair whipped by the wind, her skin moist from the heat spoke directly into the mike doing the lead-in. She explained that she was standing at the site of a cattle mutilation, one of nine that had been found recently on the Idaho desert. Then she turned to the professor and asked him what made the events so unusual.

He cleared his throat once before he started talking quickly and authoritatively about blood rituals and Satanic cults. He stated that clearly the cows showed that such rituals were being practiced locally.

The shoot was interrupted when another helicopter landed a short distance away. This film crew was from a neighboring television station. Their experts were a couple who kept files and a twenty-four hour telephone hot line on UFO sightings. Their theory was that the cattle mutilations had been done by aliens experimenting. The whole scene was too perfect. Sam walked around feeling the way he imagined Clark Kent felt whenever someone asked him where he’d been, and why he’d missed the excitement of seeing Superman.

That night on one local station Sam saw the professor edited to succinctness while his VCR taped the UFO couple on the other station. The next morning the film clip with the professor made the national morning news program. The lead-in emphasized the mystery of the mutilated cows.

Almost overnight people who had lived all their lives in southeastern Idaho discovered the desert and began roaming its back roads hoping to surprise some cult in its ritual or to discover some irrefutable evidence of flying saucers. Teens joyriding in Mavericks would buy beers and go looking for cows missing vaginas. Old folk in Dodge Colt Vans would take afternoon rides shaking their heads about what the world was coming to and hoping to see exactly what it was coming to. And hunters with licenses for deer hoped secretly to find sex ogres instead so they could terrorize the miscreants with their rifles. They bragged to each other about what they’d do if they found the Altar of Lucifer down in some lava rock hollow.

McDonald’s sacks and 7-11 cups began to appear in gullies amidst the tangles of tumbleweeds, but the rustling stopped. There were too many people around looking for strange activities for any strange activities to actually take place. And when that many people started roaming the back roads, soon the sheriff and the state troopers found it necessary to add their own patrols.   The FBI had to answer questions from as far away as Stockholm, Sweden, and the Idaho legislature passed a much needed brand inspection law.

 

About six weeks after the initial trip into the desert, Thomas Twobulls stopped by Sam’s place with his trailer house “wife.” He asked Sam to come over and watch a baseball game.

Sam went and brought Twobulls a souvenir poster he’d had printed up. It showed a red beefy cow head, minus ears and tongue with big black X’s marked over the eyes. The caption read, “Next time, take ALL of me to your leader.”

Twobulls laughed. He showed it to his girlfriend when she came from the kitchen bringing beers and baloney sandwiches.

She thought it was sick. She told Twobulls he was sick to laugh at such a thing. She told Sam he was sick to sell such a thing. The world was sick, she said, sick, sick, sick.

When she left Sam and Twobulls got almost silly laughing at her reaction and retelling from the beginning how the whole thing had happened.

Twobulls looked at the poster again and said, “You really sell this shit?”

Sam shrugged, a gesture of modest acknowledgement. “Business has never been better.”

Twobulls shook his head in respectful disbelief.   Sam Talkingbird had always been able to get the “white man” to do things.