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An American MYSTERY! Special
Skinwalkers Coyote Waits A Thief of Time Navajoland Discussion
Cast and CrewNovel to FilmStory Synopsis
Novel to Film

 Compare and contrast scenes the film as directed by Jan Egleson, Lucky Gold's screenplay adaptation, and Tony Hillerman's novel. How has the story changed in the translation?

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   Delbert's Death
Novel | Script | Film - [QuickTime | Real Dialup or Real Broadband]
   Meeting McGinnis
Novel | Script | Film - [QuickTime | Real Dialup or Real Broadband]
   Kennedy's Secret
Novel | Script | Film - [QuickTime | Real Dialup or Real Broadband]

Meeting McGinnis
From Coyote Waits by Tony Hillerman
Excerpted from Chapter 5

Editor's Note: In the book, Joe Leaphorn visits the Short Mountain Trading Post with an academic who does not appear in the movie, Professor Louisa Bourbonette.
The road from Highway 89 to Short Mountain Trading Post was a little better than Leaphorn remembered it from his days as a patrolman working out of Tuba City. It had been improved by gravel and grading from terrible to fairly bad. Leaphorn maneuvered the patrol car back and forth across its washboard surface, avoiding the worst of the bumps such roads develop. It was twilight when they dropped down into Short Mountain Wash and parked on the hard-packed earth that formed the trading post yard.

It was empty. Leaphorn parked near the porch, turned off the ignition and sat. He had brought Emma here once, long ago, to see this place and to meet Old John McGinnis. He'd described McGinnis as he'd known him, honorable in his way but notoriously grouchy, pessimistic, perverse, quick with insults and overflowing with windy stories and gossip. Over the front door nailed to the porch beam a faded sign proclaimed:


The sign had been there at least fifty years. According to local legend, McGinnis had hung it there within weeks after he'd bought the store from the Mormon who'd established it. The legend had it that young McGinnis had been outsmarted in the deal. Those who knew him found that incredible.

"He's rude," he'd told Emma. "No manners at all and he may snap at you. But look him over. I'd like to know what you think of him."

So, of course, McGinnis had been courtly, charming, full of smiles and compliments, showing Emma the best of his pawn goods and his collection of lance points, pots, and assorted artifacts -- perverse as always. Emma had been charmed.

"I don't see why you say those bad things about him," she'd said. "He's a good man."

As always when it came to judging people, Emma was correct. In his prickly, eccentric ay, John McGinnis was a good man.

Leaphorn was aware that Professor Bourebonette had glanced at him and glanced away. He supposed she was wondering why he was just sitting here. But she said nothing, and made no move to open her door. Willing to wait, sensing the value of this moment to him. He found himself favorably impressed with the woman. But then this sort of sensitivity would be something one in her profession would polish -- part of their technique for establishing rapport with those they need to use. How long would her formula cause her to wait?

Cold evening air settling into Short Mountain Wash pushed a breeze across the yard, moving a tumbleweed languidly toward the porch. A water barrel stopped it. The buildings here had looked tired and decrepit the last time he'd seen the place. In the red light of the sunset they looked worse. A plaster-and-stone building behind the main post had been partially burned and left unrepaired; the shed where hay was stored leaned to the left. Even the porch seemed to have sagged under the weight of age and loneliness.

Now a naked light bulb hanging over the trading post door went on, a feeble yellow glow in the twilight.

"Well," Leaphorn said. "He's ready to receive a customer. Let's go talk to him."

"I only met him once," Bourebonette said. "He helped me find some people. I remember he seemed fairly old."

"He knew my grandfather," Leaphorn said. "Or so he claims."

Bourebonette looked at him. "You sound skeptical."

Leaphorn laughed, shook his head. "Oh, I guess he really did know him. But with McGinnis -- " He laughed again.

The front door opened and McGinnis stood in it, looking out at them.

"After closing time," he said. "What you want?"

He was smaller than Leaphorn remembered -- a white-haired, bent old man in faded blue overalls. But he identified Leaphorn as soon as he climbed out of the car.

"Be damned," McGinnis said. "Here comes the Sherlock Holmes of the Navajo Tribal Police. And I betcha I can guess what brought him out here to the poor side of the Reservation."

"Yaa' eh t'eeh," Leaphorn said, "I think you know Dr. Bourebonette here."

"Why, yes indeed I do," McGinnis said. To Leaphorn's amazement, he made something like a bow. "And it's good to see you back again, Ma'am. Can you come on in and have something to drink? Or maybe join me at my supper. It's only some stew but there's plenty of it."

Professor Bourebonette was smiling broadly. "Mr. McGinnis," she said, "I hope you got my letter, thanking you for your help." She held out her hand.

McGinnis took it, awkwardly, his face expressing an emotion Leaphorn had never seen there before. Shyness? Embarrassment? "I got it," McGinnis said. "Wasn't necessary. But much appreciated."

He ushered them through the gloomy dimness of his store toward his living quarters in the back. Not much stock, Leaphorn noticed. Some shelves were bare. The case where McGinnis had always kept his pawn goods locked behind glass held only a scattering of concha belts, rugs, and the turquoise and silver jewelry by which the Navajos traditionally measured and preserved their meager surplus. There was a sense of winding down in the store. Leaphorn felt the same sensation when he stepped through the doorway into the big stone-walled room where McGinnis lived.

"You want to talk about Hosteen Pinto," McGinnis said. "What I know about him." McGinnis had removed a pile of National Geographics from a faded red plush chair for Bourebonette, motioned Leaphorn toward his plastic-covered sofa, and lowered himself into his rocking chair. 'Well, I don't know why he killed that policeman of yours. Funny thing for him to do." McGinnis shook his head at the thought of it. "They say he was drunk, and I've seen him drunk a time or two. He was a mean drunk. Cranky. But no meaner than most. And he told me he'd quit that drinking. Wonder what he had to burn up that officer for. What did he say about that?"

Leaphorn noticed that Professor Bourebonette looked surprised and impressed. He was neither. McGinnis was shrewd. And why else would Leaphorn be coming here to talk to him? Now McGinnis was pouring water from a five-gallon can into his coffeepot. He struck a match to light his butane stove and put the pot on it.

"I understand he won't talk about it," Leaphorn said.

McGinnis stopped adjusting the flame. He straightened and looked at Leaphorn. He looked surprised. "Won't say why he did it?"

"Or whether he did it. Or didn't do it. He just won't talk about it at all."

'Well, now," McGinnis said. "That makes it interesting." He sorted through the odds and ends stacked on a shelf above the stove, extracted two cups and dusted them. "Won't talk," McGinnis said. "And old Ashie was always a forthcoming man."

"That's what the FBI report says. He won't admit it, won't deny it, won't discuss it," Leaphorn said. Professor Bourebonette stirred in her chair.

"What was he doing way over there anyhow?" asked McGinnis. "Didn't his folks know? Mary Keeyani keeps a close eye on him. He don't get away with much that she don't know about."

"Mary doesn't know," Bourebonette said. "Somebody came and got him. Must have been that."

"But Mary don't know who?" McGinnis chuckled. "I know who then. Or, I'll bet I do."

"Who?" Leaphorn said. He tried to make it sound casual, resisted the impulse to lean forward. He remembered how McGinnis loved to drag things out and the more you wanted it, the longer he made you wait.

"If it was somebody he was working for, that is," McGinnis said. "He'd been working for Professor Bourebonette here -- " he nodded toward her " -- and for somebody from the University of New Mexico. I think his name was Tagert. And for a couple of others off and on. People who wanted his folk tales like the professor, or wanted to put down some of his memories."

McGinnis stopped, tested the side of the coffeepot for temperature with the back of his finger and looked at Leaphorn. Waiting.

"Which one was it?"

McGinnis ignored Leaphorn's question. "You sure Mary didn't know?" he asked Bourebonette.

"Absolutely sure."

"Had to be Tagert then." He waited again.

"Why Tagert?" Leaphorn asked.

"Tagert used to give him whiskey. Mary found out about it. She wouldn't let him work for Tagert any more."

Leaphorn considered this. It fit with what Mrs. Keeyani had said. And it made a certain amount of sense, even though the way McGinnis told it, it seemed nothing more than a guess. But McGinnis knew more than he'd told. Leaphorn was sure of that. He was also tired, with hours of driving ahead of him. He didn't want to sit here while McGinnis amused himself.

"Did you write a letter for him? For Hosteen Pinto?"

McGinnis tested the coffeepot again, found the heat adequate, filled one cup, handed it to Professor Bourebonette.

"If you like sugar in it, I can get you that. I'm all out of milk unless I have some condensed out in the store."

"This is fine," she said. "Thank you."

"You known Lieutenant Leaphorn long? If I might ask such a question."

"You may. We met just this morning. "

"Notice how he gets right to the point. That's unusual in a Navajo. Usually they're more polite about it." McGinnis glanced at Leaphorn. "We got plenty of time."

"Pinto got a letter from Tagert here."

Leaphorn said. "He happened to pick it up himself, didn't he? You read it to him and then you answered it for him. That about right?"

McGinnis poured Leaphorn's coffee into a mug that bore the legend JUSTIN BOOT reminded Leaphorn that the boots Emma had bought him for his birthday after they were married were Justins. They couldn't afford them then. But he'd worn them almost twenty years. Emma. The sure knowledge that he would never see her again sat suddenly on his shoulders, as it sometimes did. He closed his eyes.

When he opened them, McGinnis was holding the mug out to him, expression quizzical.

Leaphorn took it, nodded.

"You had it about right," McGinnis said. "He was in the store when the mail came, as I remember it. Tagert wanted to interview him about something. He wanted to know if he could come and get him on some date or other. He asked Ashie to let him know if that date was all right or to name another if it wasn't."

"Anything else?" Leaphorn asked. He sipped the coffee. Even by the relaxed standards of the Window Rock Tribal Police headquarters it was bad coffee. Made this morning, Leaphorn guessed, and reheated all day.

"Just a short letter," McGinnis said. "That was it."

What was the date?"

I don't remember. Would have been early in August."

"And Pinto agreed?"

"Yeah," McGinnis said. He frowned, remembering -- the plump, round face Leaphorn remembered from a decade ago shrunken now into a wilderness of lines and creases. Then he shrugged. "Anyway, the upshot was he asked me to write Tagert back and tell him he'd be ready in the afternoon."

Professor Bourebonette, either politer or more starved for caffeine than Leaphorn, was sipping her coffee with no apparent distaste. She put down the cup.

"So now we know how he got to Ship Rock," she said. "Tagert came and got him."

But Leaphorn was studying McGinnis. "Pinto said something about it, or something like that? He didn't just immediately say write him back?"

"I'm trying to remember," McGinnis said, impatiently. "I'm trying to get it all back in my mind. We was in this room, I remember that much. Ashie's getting too damn old to amount to much but I've known him for years and when he comes in we usually come back here for a talk. Find out what's going on over by the river, you know."

He rocked forward in his chair, got up clumsily. He opened the cabinet above the stove and extracted a bottle. Old Crow.

"The lieutenant here don't drink," McGinnis said to Professor Bourebonette. He glanced at Leaphorn. "Unless he's changed his ways. But I will offer you a sip of bourbon."

"And I will accept it," the professor said. She handed McGinnis her empty coffee cup and he poured the whiskey into it. Then he fumbled at the countertop, came up with a Coca-Cola glass and filled it carefully up to the trademark by the label. That done, he sat again, put the bottle on the floor beside him, and rocked.

"I didn't offer Hosteen Pinto a drink. I remember that. Wouldn't be the thing to do, him being alcoholic. But I poured myself one, and sat here and sipped at it." McGinnis sipped his bourbon, thinking.

"I read the letter to him and he said something strong." McGinnis examined his memory. "Strong. I think he called Tagert a coyote, and that's about as strong as a Navajo will get. And at first he wasn't going to work for him. I remember that. Then he said something like Tagert paid good. And that's what had brought him in here in the first place. Money. You notice that belt out in the pawn case?"

McGinnis pushed himself out of the rocker and disappeared through the doorway into the store.

Leaphorn looked at Bourebonette. "I'll tell the FBI about Tagert," he said.

"You think they'll do anything?"

"They should," he said. But maybe they wouldn't. Why would they? Their case was already made. And what difference did it make anyway?

McGinnis reappeared carrying a concha belt. The overhead light reflected dimly off the tarnished silver.

"This was always old Pinto's fallback piece. The last thing he pawned when he was running low." McGinnis's gnarled hand stroked the silver disks. "It's a dandy."

He handed it to Professor Bourebonette.

Leaphorn could see it was indeed a dandy. An old, heavy one made of the turn-of-the century silver Mexican five-peso pieces. Worth maybe two thousand dollars from a collector. Worth maybe four hundred in pawn credit.

"Trouble is he'd already pawned it," McGinnis said. "Not only pawned it. He'd been in twice to bump up the loan. He wanted another fifty dollars in groceries on it and we was jawing about that when the mail truck came up."

McGinnis was rocking while he remembered, holding the Coca-Cola glass in left hand, tilting it back and forth in compensation for the rocking motion. Exactly as he'd seen him do it when Leaphorn was twenty years younger, coming in here to learn where families had moved, to collect gossip, just to talk. Leaphorn felt a dizzying sense of dislocation in time. Everything was the same. As if twenty years hadn't ticked away. The cluttered old room, the musty smell, the yellow light, the old man grown older, as if in the blink of an eye. Suddenly he knew just what McGinnis would do next, and McGinnis did it.

He leaned, picked up the Old Crow bottle by the neck, and carefully recharged his glass, dripping the last of the recharge until it was exactly up to the trademark.

"I've seen Pinto poor before. Many times. But that day he was totally tapped out. Said he was out of coffee and cornmeal and lard and just about everything and Mary wasn't in any shape to help him with her own bunch to feed."

McGinnis fell silent, rocking, tasting the whiskey on his tongue.

"So he took the job," Professor Bourebonette said.

"So he did," McGinnis said. "Had me write Tagert right back." He took another tiny sip, and savored it in a silence that made the creaking of his rocker seem loud.

A question hung in Leaphorn's mind: Why had Pinto called Tagert a coyote? It was a hard, hard insult among the Navajos -- implying not just bad conduct but the evil of malice. Mary Keeyani said Tagert had given him whiskey. Would that be the reason? Leaphorn noticed his interest in this affair growing.

"But I know he didn't want to," McGinnis added. "I said, What's wrong with this fella? He looks all right to me. He pays you good money, don't he? He's just another one of them professors. And old Ashie said Tagert wants me to do something I don't want to do. And I said what's that, and he said he wants me to find something for him. And I said well hell, you do that all the time, and he was quiet a while. And then he said, you don't have to go looking for Coyote. Coyote's always out there waiting."

Meeting McGinnis
From the screenplay by Lucky Gold

[Leaphorn] turns off the road into an empty lot in front of a derelict trading post. Unlike the thriving post at Red Rock, this one is straight out of a western ghost town. A weathered sign proclaims: "SHORT MOUNTAIN TRADING POST." Beneath it scrawled by hand: "THIS ESTABLISHMENT FOR SALE. INQUIRE WITHIN." Parked on the other side of the trading post is a light-colored pickup truck.

Maybe you should stay in the car. Old John McGinnis is vinegar piss on a stick.

Nothing I haven't seen before.

She grins affectionately. A naked light bulb hanging over the trading post door comes on.

There's our invitation.


Leaphorn leads Emma inside the dark, smoky interior. There is a musty display case of Navajo artifacts and dusty shelves of canned goods. Hardly a thriving business.

If it ain't the Legendary Joe Leaphorn.

They turn to see a shaggy, white-haired, old man in faded overalls sitting in a chair in front of the stove, smoking a cigar and not even looking at them.

John McGinnis, I'd like you to meet my wife.

McGinnis looks up now in surprise to see Emma. He gets out of his chair, never taking his eyes off her; then, to Leaphorn's amazement, he bows to Emma.


Emma smiles graciously as Leaphorn looks on.

Mr. McGinnis, I've heard a lot about you.

Lies, my dear lady, all lies. But you -- you are even lovelier than they say you are.

Emma gives Joe a look.

May I offer you a refreshment, Mrs. Leaphorn?

Coffee, if you have it.

Help yourself.

As Emma pours coffee for herself and Leaphorn, McGinnis takes down a dirty glass, cleans it with a dirty cloth, and opens a bottle of whiskey.

You've heard about Ashie Pinto.

Notice how he gets right to the point? That's unusual for a Navajo. He fills his glass with whiskey.

To your health, ma'am.

McGinnis toasts her and takes a stiff drink.

LEAPHORN: (Impatient)
Did Ashie Pinto ever pick up his mail here?

McGinnis lowers his glass and eyes Leaphorn warily.

I thought the case was closed, Lieutenant?

Just tying up some loose ends.

Yes, Mr. Pinto was here a while ago when the mail came. He asked me to read it to him. This fellow wanted to talk to him.

This fellow have a name?

Some professor over at the university. Tagert, I think.

And Pinto agreed?

MCGINNIS: (Shaking his head)
First thing he says is, "Coyote. Tagert is a coyote." That's about as strong as a Navajo gets, ain't it? He wanted to say no.

Why didn't he?

He was tapped out. Flat broke.

He goes to the display case, opens the lid and removes a handsome concha belt adorned with heavy silver coins. He holds it under the light and the silver seems to glow.

It's beautiful.


Bolivian. See, those are Bolivian pesos. Very old. A New York collector would pay a few thousand. How Ashie Pinto found it I'll never know and he'll never tell.

He pawned it?

Several times. He was trying to squeeze another fifty in groceries when the mail truck come.

So he took the job.

So he did. I wrote the professor right back, just like he told me to.

MCGINNIS: (cont'd)
But when he made his mark, you'd have thought he was signing away his soul. I asked him, what's the problem, Ashie? The man's money is good, ain't it? He says Tagert wants him to find something. And I say ain't that what you always do? And then he looks at me with those sad eyes of his and says you don't have to go looking for Coyote. Coyote's always out there waiting.

McGinnis stares into his glass. Leaphorn looks at Emma, a silent signal it's time to go.

I think that's all for now.

It's been a pleasure, ma'am.

He smiles at Emma, all but ignoring Leaphorn.

Mr. McGinnis.

Leaphorn and Emma start for the door.

That's pretty fine whiskey you're drinking.

Only the best.

Leaphorn stops at the door and looks back at him.

Did you give a bottle to Ashie Pinto?

McGinnis's smile fades as he meets Leaphorn's stare.

Good night, Detective.


Leaphorn and Emma walk back to their car.

I couldn't wait to get out of there. That man seems like corruption itself.

The way he swirls that whiskey. Like he enjoys all the misery it causes.

They stop at the car, but Leaphorn doesn't open the door.

One night when I was a kid, my dad woke me up and put me in the car. We drove to town and parked outside some building. He wouldn't tell me why. He just said, "Watch." Turns out it was a bar. All night they stumbled out -- men I knew and respected. I watched them fall down on the sidewalk.

Emma gently touches his shoulder.

If I had one wish it would be to get rid of booze. No more scotch, no more bourbon, no more vodka or gin. Nothing that makes a man beat his friend with a hammer.

Leaphorn opens the door for her and Emma gets inside. He walks around, gets behind the wheel and starts the car.

ANGLE TO: McGinnis watching at a window as Leaphorn's car pulls away. The light above the porch goes out.

Meeting McGinnis
An excert from the film Coyote Waits, directed by Jan Egleson:
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