Cruelly Turn the Steel-Belted Radials of Desire
Crow Country – 1973
In the six years since his vision quest Samson had endured almost daily interpretations of the vision by Pokey Medicine Wing. Again and again Samson insisted that it wasn’t important, and again and again Pokey forced the boy to recall his experience on the mountain in detail. It was Pokey’s responsibility as a self-proclaimed medicine man to bring meaning to the symbols in the vision. Over the years, as Pokey read new meanings, he tried to change his and Samson’s lives to fit the message of the medicine dream.
“Maybe Old Man Coyote was trying to tell us that we should turn our dreams into money,” Pokey said.
With this interpretation, Pokey dragged Samson into a series of entrepreneurial ventures that ultimately served no purpose except to confirm to the people of Crow Country that Pokey had finally gone full-bore batshit.
The first foray into the world of business was a worm ranch. Pokey presented the idea to Samson with the same blind faith with which he told Old Man Coyote stories, and Samson, like so many before him, was captivated with the idea of turning religion into money.
Pokey’s eyes were lit up with liquor and firelight as he spoke. “They are building that dam up on the Bighorn River. They tell us that we will prosper from all the people who will come to the reservation to fish and water-ski on the new lake. That’s what they told us when they put the Custer Monument here, but whites opened stores and took all the money. This time we will get our share. We’ll grow worms and sell them for fishing.”
They had no lumber to build the worm beds, so Pokey and Samson went to the Rosebud Mountains and cut lodgepole pines, which they brought down by the pickup load. Through a whole summer they hauled and built until the Hunts Alones’ five acres was nearly covered with empty worm beds. Pokey, convinced that their success depended on getting a jump on other prospective worm ranchers, instructed Samson to tell everyone who asked that they were building corrals to hold tiny horses that they were raising for the Little People that lived in the mountains. “It’s easier to keep a secret if people think you’re crazy,” Pokey said.
With the beds finished, they were faced with the problem of filling them. “Worms like cow shit,” Pokey said. “We can get that for free.” Indeed, had Pokey asked any of the ranchers in the area, they would have let him haul away all the manure he needed, but because most of the ranchers were white and Pokey did not trust them, he decided, instead, that he and Samson would steal the cow pies in the dead of night.
So it began: sunset, Samson and Pokey driving the old pickup into a pasture, Pokey driving slowly along while Samson followed on foot with a shovel, scooping piles into the bed of the truck, then the two of them stealing away with their reeking load to dump it in the worm beds, then out again. “The Crow have always been the best horse thieves, Samson,” Pokey said. “Old Man Coyote would be proud of the trick we have played on the ranchers.”
Pokey’s enthusiasm mystified Samson, who couldn’t muster the same self-satisfaction at stealing something that nobody wanted. Nevertheless, after a month of pasture raids the beds were full and they drove to the bait store in Hardin to buy their breeding stock: night crawlers and red worms, five hundred each.
Pokey burnt sage and sweet grass and prayed over the beds and they released the worms into the beds of manure. Then they waited.
“We shouldn’t disturb them until spring,” Pokey said, but many nights Samson spotted him sneaking out to one of the beds with a trowel, turning over a patch, then skulking away. One night Samson was sneaking out with his own trowel when he saw Pokey on his knees with his face pressed to a bed. He stood up when he sensed the boy behind him.
“You know what I was doing?” Pokey asked.
“No,” Samson said, hiding his trowel behind his back.
“I was listening to the sound of money.”
“You have shit on your ear, Pokey.”
From that time forward they were both more careful about their nocturnal progress checks, but neither found worm one. They waited through the cold Montana winter, sure that come spring they would be waist deep in worms and money. Never mind the fact that Yellowtail Dam wouldn’t be completed for two more years.
After the thaw they marched to the beds together, shovels in hand, to turn over their squirming horn of plenty, but shovel after shovel turned up empty. Into the third bed they began to panic and were wildly slinging shit in the air when Harlan pulled up.
“Digging for horses?” he asked.
“Worms,” Pokey shouted, lifting the veil of secrecy with a single word.
“Where did you get the manure?”
“Around,” Pokey said.
“The ranches on the res.”
Harlan began to laugh and Samson was afraid for a moment that Pokey would brain him with the shovel. “You were trying to grow worms?”
“Old Man Coyote told us to,” Samson said defensively.
“We let go a thousand worms in here to breed so we could sell ’em to fishermen.”
“I guess Old Man Coyote didn’t tell you that cattle ranchers put a wormer in their cattle feed, huh?”
“Wormer?” Pokey said.
“That manure was poison to your worms. They were probably dead ten minutes after you put them in there.”
Samson and Pokey looked at each other forlornly, the boy’s lower lip swelling with disappointment, the man’s temples throbbing with pain.
Some people believe that hard work is its own reward and a job well done is a tribute to a man’s character; fortunately, none of those people were around or they would have been ducking shovel blows. Pokey and Samson decided to get drunk. Harlan stayed on to coach the boy through his first hangover and run interference with Grandma, who would have skinned the two men had she known they were giving liquor to a twelve-year-old.
It was the end of summer, a summer spent in sulking and speculating, before Pokey brought home the goats. He’d obtained the pair, a male and a female, from a dubious source in a Hardin bar by winning a bet that had something to do with a pineapple, a throwing knife, and a waitress named Debbie. Samson had difficulty putting the story together from Pokey’s drunken ravings, but he gathered that because Debbie had survived, and the pineapple had not, Pokey had two goats on his hands.
“We could breed ’em and sell ’em for meat,” Pokey said. “But I got a better idea. Them lawyers and doctors are flying into Montana from the city and paying a thousand bucks a head to shoot bighorn sheep. I say we go to the airport in Billings and wait for one of them to get off a plane, then tell ’em they can come to the res and shoot one for two – three hundred. I can be the faithful Indian guide and lead them all over hell and back, and you can take the goats up into the mountains and tie them up where they can shoot ’em.”
Despite Samson’s objections that even a city lawyer might know the difference between a bighorn sheep and a nanny goat, Pokey insisted that come morning they would be on the road to riches. Come morning, however, when Samson went outside to look at the goats he found them lying on their backs, legs shot stiff to the sky with rigor mortis, dead as stones. In his excitement Pokey had tied the goats next to a patch of hemlock, and the goats, perhaps sensing what was planned for them, munched their last meal and joined the ranks of Socrates.
Not all of Pokey’s quests for spiritual capitalism were complete failures. He and Samson made a little money with the ;authentic; Indian fry-bread taco stand they set up outside of the Custer Battlefield National Monument, until the health department objected to the presence of marmot and raccoon meat in their all-beef tacos. And they did make forty dollars selling eagle feathers to tourists (actually the feathers of two buzzards that had dined on tainted goat carcass), which they used to buy marijuana seeds that produced a respectable crop of grape-sized casaba melons. (Harlan referred to this as the magic beans incident.) And finally, while Samson was busy with school and basketball and a developing obsession with girls, Pokey turned to prostitution and made five bucks from the owner of the Hardin 7-Eleven who paid the shaman to take his sandwich sign and go stand somewhere else.
Samson was fifteen by the time Pokey decided that perhaps they were not meant to turn their dreams into money. Once again he sat the boy down in the kitchen to recount the vision.
“Pokey, I don’t even remember much of the vision, and besides, how important could it be? I was only nine.” Samson’s friend Billy Two Irons was waiting outside to drive them to a «forty-nine» party at the Yellowtail Dam and Samson was not in the mood to be cross-examined about an event that he was trying desperately to leave behind, along with the rest of the trappings of childhood.
“Do you know why the Crow never fought the white man?” Pokey asked gravely.
“Oh, fuck, Pokey, not now. I’ve got to get going.”
“Do you know why?”
“Because of the vision of a nine-year-old boy. That’s why.” As much as Samson wanted to leave, he had spent too many years listening to the Cheyenne and Lakota call his people cowards to walk out now.
“What boy?” he asked.
“Our last great chief, Plenty Coups. When he was nine he went on his first fast, just like you. He cut pieces from his skin and suffered greatly. Finally, his vision came, and he saw the buffalo gone and then he saw the white man’s cattle covering the plains. He saw white men everywhere, but he saw none of our people. The medicine chiefs heard his vision and said that it was a message. The Lakota and the Cheyenne had fought the white men and lost their lands. The vision meant that if we fought the white men we would lose our land and be wiped out. Our chiefs decided not to fight and the Crow survived. We are here because of the vision of a nine-year-old boy.”
“That’s great, Pokey,” Samson said, having gained nothing useful from the story. He was not going to quell any ridicule from non-Crows by telling them that his people had changed their way of life over a mystical vision. It was hard enough trying to live down the reputation of his crazy uncle as it was. “I have to go now.”
He grabbed the drum that Pokey had made him and took off through the living room, high-stepping over his eight younger cousins, who were sprawled on the floor watching cartoons on televsion. “‘Bye, Grandma,” he tossed over his shoulder to his grandmother, who sat in a tattered easy chair among the kids, adding the final touches to a beaded belt she was making for him.
In front of the Hunts Alone house a tall, acne-speckled Billy Two Irons was pouring a jug of water into the radiator of a twenty-year-old Ford Fairlane. Most of the water was draining out of the bottom of the engine onto the ground at his feet.
“That thing going to make it up to Yellowtail?” Samson called.
“No problem, bro,” Billy said without looking up. “I got twenty milk jugs of water in the backseat for the trip up. Coming home’s downhill most of the way.”
“You fix the exhaust leak?”
“Yep, tomato can and a hose clamp. Works fine as long as you keep the window down.”
“How about the brakes?” Samson was staring over Billy’s shoulder into the greasy cavern of the engine compartment.
Billy capped the radiator and slammed the hood before he answered. “You let it coast down to about ten miles an hour and throw it in reverse it’ll stop on a dime.”
“Then let’s do it.” Samson jumped into the car. Billy threw the empty milk jug into the backseat, climbed in, and began cranking the engine. Samson looked back to the house and saw Pokey coming out the front door waving at them.
“Hit it, man,” Samson said. “Let’s go.”
The car finally fired up just as Pokey reached the window. He shouted to be heard over the din of the damaged muffler. “You boys watch out for Enos, now.”
“We will, Pokey,” Samson said as they pulled away. Then he turned to Billy Two Irons. “Is Anus working nights again?” Anus was the name they used for Enos Windtree, a fat, meanspirited half-breed BIA cop who liked nothing better than to terrorize kids partying at some remote spot on the res. Once, at a forty-nine party near Lodge Grass, Samson and Billy and nearly twenty others were drinking and singing with the drums when Samson heard a distinct, sickening series of mechanical clicks right by his ear: the sound of a twelve-gauge shell being jacked into a riot gun. When he turned to the noise Enos hit him in the chest with the butt of the gun, knocking him to the ground. Then Enos shot the lights and windshields out of two cars before sending everyone on their way. When Samson told the story, people just said he was just lucky Enos hadn’t hit him in the face, or shot somebody. There were rumors that it had happened before. And people were dying on the Lakota reservation at Pine Ridge, killed by the tribal police in what amounted to a civil war.
“Enos works whenever he can find someone to fuck with,” Billy said. “I’d like to hang that fat fuck’s scalp from my lodgepole.”
“Oooooo, brave warrior, heap big pissed off,” Samson chided in pidgin – speaking Tonto, they called it.
“You telling me you wouldn’t want to see Anus’s head through a rifle scope?”
“Yeah, if I thought I could get away with it. But a rifle would be too quick.”
For an hour and a half, between stops to add water to the radiator, they theorized on the best way to do away with Enos Windtree. When they finally arrived at the party it had been decided that Enos should have his entire body abraded with a belt sander and a two-inch hole saw slowly driven through his skull with a drill press. (Samson and Billy had just finished with their first year of shop class and were still fascinated by the macabre potential of every power tool they had used; this fascination, of course, was fed by their shop teacher, a seven-fingered white man who described in detail every accident that had mangled, mutilated, or murdered some careless shop student since the turn of the century. The teacher had been so successful in instilling respect for the tools in the boys that Billy Two Irons had taken to skipping two classes after shop to mellow out and would have had a nervous breakdown had Samson not finished building his friend’s birdhouse for him.)
Billy pulled the Fairlane slowly onto the dam and up to a dozen cars that were parked haphazardly on the three-hundred-foot structure. He threw the car into reverse and gunned the engine until the transmission screamed in protest and the car stopped in a jerking, squealing mechanical seizure.
Samson was out of the car in an instant and a warm wind coming off the newly formed reservoir washed over him with the scent of sage. Twenty people were gathered at the rail of the dam, beating drums and singing a song of heartbreak and betrayal in Crow. Samson scanned the faces in the moonlight, recognizing and dismissing each until he spotted Ellen Black Feather, and smiled. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Her long hair was blowing in a black comet tail behind her, her shirt was wrapped tight around her in the wind, and Samson noticed, to his delight, that she was braless. She saw Samson and returned his smile.
It was perfect. Just as he had envisioned it on a dozen nights while he lay in the dark with his cousins sleeping around him. They would sing and drink for a while, maybe smoke a joint if somebody had one, then he and Ellen would finish the evening in the backseat of the Fairlane. He walked to Ellen and sat beside her on the rail of the dam, oblivious to the three-hundred-foot drop behind him. As he started to beat his drum and sing he looked back to the car to see Billy adding water to the radiator. It suddenly occurred to him that if he were going to enjoy the favors of Ellen Black Feather in the back of Billy’s car, it would be a good idea to move the twenty jugs of water first. He excused himself with a pat on her knee and returned to the car.
“Billy, help me get these jugs into the trunk.”
“They’re all empty, don’t worry about them.”
“I’m going to need the space. Just open the trunk, okay?”
Billy handed him the car keys. “Hunts Alone, you are a hopeless horndog.”
Samson grinned, then took the keys and ran around to the back of the car. He was loading his first armload of jugs into the trunk when he heard a car pass by and the singing abruptly stopped. Samson looked up to see the green tribal police car stopping in the middle of the partiers, some thirty yards away.
“Fuck. It’s Anus,” Billy said. “Let’s get out of here.”
“No, not yet.” Samson eased the trunk lid down and joined Billy at the front of the car. They watched Enos Windtree climb out of the car and reach back in for his nightstick. The partiers stood stock-still, as if they were standing near a rattlesnake that would strike at the first movement, but their eyes were darting around looking for possible lanes of escape. All except for Ernest Bulltail, the biggest and meanest of the group, who met Enos’s gaze straight on.
“This is an illegal gathering,” Enos rasped as he swaggered up to Ernest. “You all know it, and I know it. The fine is two hundred dollars, payable right now. Cough it up.” Enos punctuated his demand by driving the end of his nightstick into Ernest’s solar plexus, doubling the big man over. Ernest made an effort to straighten up and Enos hit him across the face with the nightstick. One of the other men stepped forward but froze when Enos dropped his hand to the Magnum strapped to his hip.
“Now for my fine,” Enos said.
“Fuck you, Anus!” someone screamed, and Samson’s heart sank as he realized that it was Ellen. Enos turned from Ernest and started for the girl.
“I know how you’re going to pay up,” Enos said to Ellen with a leer.
Samson knew he had to do something, but he wasn’t sure what. Billy was tugging on his sleeve, trying to get him to go, but he was fixated on Enos and Ellen. Why hadn’t they brought a weapon? He moved to the back of the car and opened the trunk.
“What are you doing?” Billy whispered.
“Looking for a weapon.”
“I don’t have a gun in the car.”
“This,” Samson said, holding up a tire iron.
“Against a three fifty-seven? Are you nuts?” Billy grabbed the tire iron and wrenched it out of Samson’s hand.
Samson was almost in tears now with frustration. He looked back up the dam to see Enos, his gun at Ellen’s head, putting his free hand under her shirt.
Samson pushed Billy aside, then reached into the trunk and pulled out the spare tire. He began creeping up the dam, cradling the heavy spare in his arms. The others watched him, eyes wide with fear. Ten yards away from Enos he started running, the tire held out in front of him.
“Enos!” Samson shouted. The fat policeman pulled away from Ellen and was bringing up his gun to fire when the tire hit him in the chest and drove him back over the railing. Samson followed, tumbling halfway over the rail before someone caught the back of his shirt and tugged him back. He didn’t turn to see who it was, he just stared over the railing at the dam wall that disappeared into the darkness two hundred feet below.
The others joined him at the rail and several minutes passed before the stunned silence was broken by Billy Two Irons. “I just had that spare fixed,” he said.
The Call to Action
Forget What You Know
Crow Country – 1973
Of all the people who had seen Enos go over the side of the dam, only Billy Two Irons seemed to have avoided a state of stunned silence. While the others were still staring over the edge into the darkness, Billy was already formulating a plan to save his friend.
“Samson, come here.”
Samson looked back at Billy. He was beginning to shiver with unused adrenaline; a look of dreamy confusion had come over him. Billy put his arm around Samson’s shoulders and led him away from the railing.
“Look, Samson, you’re going to have to run.”
A moment passed and Samson did not answer until Billy jostled him. “Run?”
“You have to get off the res and not come back for a long time, maybe never. Everyone here is going to think that they’re going to keep this a secret, but when the cops start kicking ass, your name is going to come out. You’ve got to go, man.”
“Where will I go?”
“I don’t know, but you have to. Now go get in the car. I’m going to try and raise some money.”
Grateful that someone was thinking for him, and because he didn’t know what else to do, Samson followed Billy’s instructions. He sat in the car and watched his friend going from person to person on the dam collecting money. He closed his eyes and tried to think, but found that there was a movie running on the back of his eyelids: a slow-motion loop of a fat cop with a spare tire in his face going backward over a rail. He snapped his eyes open and stared, unblinking, until they filled with tears. A few minutes later Billy threw a handful of bills on the front seat and climbed in the car.
“I told them you were going to hide out in the mountains and I was getting money for supplies. You should be able to get a long way before the cops figure out that you’re not on the res. There’s about a hundred bucks here.”
Billy started the car and drove off the dam toward Fort Smith.
“Where are we going?” Samson asked.
“First we have to stop and fill up these jugs with water. I’ll take you to Sheridan and you can catch a bus there. I don’t trust this car to go any further. If we break down in the middle of nowhere you’re fucked.”
Samson was amazed at his friend’s ability to think and act so quickly. Left to himself he knew he would still be staring over the dam wondering what had happened. Instead he was on his way to Wyoming.
“I should go home and tell Grandma that I’m going.”
“You can’t. I’ll tell them tomorrow. And once you’re gone you can’t call or write either. That’s how the cops will find you.”
“How do you know that?”
“That’s how they caught my brother,” Billy said. “He wrote a letter from New Mexico. The FBI had him in two days after that.”
“Look, Samson, you killed a cop. I know you didn’t mean to, but that won’t matter. If they catch you they’ll shoot you before you get a chance to tell what happened.”
“But everyone saw.”
“Everyone there was Crow, Samson. They won’t believe a bunch of fucking Indians.”
“But Enos was Crow – part Crow, anyway.”
“He was an apple, only red on the outside.”
Samson started to protest again but Billy shushed him. “Start thinking about where you’re going to go.”
“Where do you think I should go?”
“I don’t know. You just need to disappear. Don’t tell me where you’re going when you figure it out, either. I don’t want to know. You could try and pass for white. With those light eyes you might pull it off. Change your name, dye your hair.”
“I don’t know how to be white.”
“How hard can it be?” Billy said.
Samson wanted to talk to someone besides Billy Two Irons, someone who didn’t make as much sense: Pokey. He realized that for all his craziness, all his ravings, all his drinking and ritual mumbo jumbo, Pokey was the person he most trusted in the world. But Billy was right: going home would be a mistake. Instead he tried to imagine what Pokey would say about escaping into the white world. Well, first, Samson thought, he would never admit that there was a white world. According to Pokey there was only the world of the Crow – of family and clans and medicine and balance and Old Man Coyote. The white man was simply a disease that had put the Crow world out of balance.
Samson tried to look into the future to see where he would go, what he would do, but any plans he had ever made – and there hadn’t been many – were no longer valid, and the future was a thick, white fog that would allow him to see only as far as the bus station in Sheridan, Wyoming. He felt a panic rising in his chest like a scream, then it came to him: this was just a different type of Coyote Blue. He was trying to look into the future too far and it was ruining his balance. He needed to focus on right now, and eventually he would learn what he needed to know when the future got to him. What did Pokey always say? “If you are going to learn, you need to forget what you know.”
“Don’t use all your money for the bus ticket,” Billy said. “Once you get out of the area you can hitchhike.”
“Did you learn all this when your brother got in trouble?”
“Yeah, he writes me letters from prison about what he did wrong.”
“He put a bomb in a BIA office. How many letters can that take?”
“Not that. What he did wrong to get caught.”
“Oh,” Samson said.
Two hours later Samson was climbing on a bus headed for Elko, Nevada, carrying with him everything he owned: twenty-three dollars, a pocketknife, and a small buckskin bundle. He took a window seat in the back of the bus and stared out over the dark countryside, really seeing nothing, as he tried to imagine where he would end up. His fear of getting away was almost greater than his fear of being caught. At least if he were caught his fate would be in someone else’s hands.
After an hour or so on the road Samson sensed that the bus was slowing down. He looked around for a reaction from the other passengers, but except for an old lady in the front who was engrossed in a romance novel, they were all asleep. The driver downshifted and Samson felt the big diesel at his back roar as the bus pulled into the passing lane. Out his window he saw the back of a long, powder-blue car. As the bus moved up Samson watched the big car glide below him, seeming to go on forever. He saw the back of the driver’s head, then his face. It was the fat salesman from his vision. Samson twisted in his seat, trying to get a better look as they passed. The salesman seemed to see him through the blackout windows of the bus and raised a bottle of Coke as if toasting Samson.
“Did you see that?” Samson cried to the old lady. “Did you see that car?”
The old lady turned to him and shook her head, and a cowboy in the next seat groaned. “Did you see who was in that car?” Samson asked the bus driver, who snickered and shook his head.
The cowboy in the next seat was awake now and he pushed his hat from over his eyes. “Well, son, now that you got me wetting myself in suspense, who was in the car?”
“It was the salesman,” Samson said.
The cowboy stared at him for a second in angry disbelief, then pushed his hat back over his eyes and slid back down in his seat. “I hate fucking Mexicans,” he said.