When the cat came through the little trapdoor at the bottom of the
screen it made a clackclack 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?
... 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
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 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 the 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 to 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
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 lights 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.
And again. Without thought, Chee had dropped to the floor, aware of the
cat clawing its way frantically over his back toward the doorflap.
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
(CHEE'S CAT MEOWS.)
(to cat) How ya doin', Slim?
Remember, eat what you kill.
EXT. CHEE'S TRAILER - LATER
(HIS CAT IS HEARD CRYING AS A COYOTE HOWLS.)
INT. CHEE'S TRAILER - CONTINUOUS
(SLIM COMES IN THE CAT DOOR. CHEE SEES SOMEONE DRESSED IN
BLACK APPROACH WITH A RIFLE. HE DUCKS AS THE MAN BEGINS
FIRING INTO THE TRAILER, HITTING CHEE IN THE NECK.)
(A CAR SPEEDS AWAY.)
EXT. CHEE'S TRAILER - LATER
(LEAPHORN AND OTHER OFFICERS HAVE ARRIVED.)
WANDA: (VO on radio dispatch)
(muffled) 785 is the residence... (muffled)
Any problems lately? Family troubles? Girl troubles?
Look, forget it, okay? It was our guy.
I don't know. We got tire tracks. We got a
gun. None of the things we've seen before.
Wrong. This here is a bone bead. I found
it all over my trailer. They must have
mixed it in with the shot.If it gets under
your skin, it brings you a curse.
(LEAPHORN WALKS OFF.)