Today, we’ll take a look at some of the action in THE BISTI BUSINESS. In the following scene, our intrepid PI, BJ Vinson, accompanies the authorities from Farmington on the trail of things owned by BJ’s client’s son pawned in the little town of Shiprock by Crispido Hernandez and One-Eye Begay, both elderly Navajos living on the reservation.
The other players in the scene beside BJ are Gaines, the FBI agent, Plainer, a BLM agent, and a man named Atcitty, a Navajo translator. The scene starts in Chapter 21, page 175.
Gaines, who apparently knew nothing about Navajo etiquette, parked, got out of the vehicle, and marched up to the hogan. If he’d read Tony Hillerman’s popular Leaphorn-Chee mystery series, he would have known to wait in the vehicle until the occupant signaled he was ready to receive visitors. The agent banged on the door aggressively, announcing in a loud voice he was a representative of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. Hernandez demonstrated his opinion of the mighty FBI by taking his own sweet time answering the call.
A stocky, mahogany-hued man who must have been in his sixties, yet looked in the prime of life, eventually stepped outside. His broad, heavy-featured face showed neither surprise nor curiosity. The small, sharp eyes moved restlessly over the three of us and settled on our Navajo guide.
“Yah-ta-heh,” Hernandez said in a deep voice.
“Heh.” Our guide was considerably younger and less formal than his elder. After an awkward pause, Atcitty spoke to Hernandez a full minute in his native tongue. By the end of the monologue, I suspected Hernandez had known our mission all along. Then Atcitty turned to Gaines. “Okay. You ask, and I’ll put it to him.”
Plainer frowned. “He doesn’t speak English?”
“Not much. Better if you ask me.”
Under these circumstances, the interview was something less than ideal. The old man eventually invited us inside to search for other articles that might have belonged to Lando Alfano. We found nothing. Hernandez agreed to take us to where he had picked up the leather kit, but he refused to get into the car. Instead, the old man threw a blanket over a bony pinto in a brush corral at the side of the hogan and set off horseback across the desert hardpan. Atcitty elected to remain in the brush shelter as the rest of us piled into the SUV. It wasn’t long before we came to a long, narrow ditch which rendered the SUV incapable of proceeding any further—as I suspected both this old curmudgeon and Atcitty had known would happen. Reluctantly, we got out and plodded along in the heat. The sun had an extra bite in the high plateau country.
Hernandez, who had pulled up while we got out of the car, wheeled his mount, leaving us to scramble along afoot in his wake, dodging fist-sized rocks and the pinto’s horse apples. He led us over the lip of an arroyo that ran in a generally east-west direction and turned his pony up the sandy bottom. After about a mile, he halted and dismounted.
“Here,” he announced. I was pretty sure a smile hid behind those dark eyes as he watched the three of us struggle up the bottom of the dry wash.
“Was there any sign of whoever left it?” Gaines asked.
The old man paused but finally admitted he understood English by answering. “No. No sign. Nobody. Wasn’t no man.”
Plainer had had his fill of the games. “If it wasn’t a man, what was it?”
I am absolutely certain the corners of the man’s thick lips curled as he answered. “Witch. They was green lightning night before.” The thick shoulders rose and fell. “Witch.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Plainer demanded.
“How long have you been out here in the Four Corners area, agent?” I asked.
“About six months.”
“Let me guess. Your last assignment was back east somewhere.”
“That figures. There’s a Southwestern phenomenon known as green ball lightning. Nobody’s quite sure what it is, but the best guess is it’s a small meteorite containing copper, which burns green. Some of the Native Americans believe that’s not the case at all. They figure it’s the way witches travel around.”
The old man grunted at my explanation.
“Mr. Hernandez, were there any footprints? Anything at all?” Gaines asked.
“Here,” he stopped before a scraggly piñon, “maybe where somebody set down to rest.”
“Did you look for anything else he…uh….” Gaines tripped over his tongue in an effort to avoid offending the old man again. “I mean anything it might have left behind?”
The Indian hesitated a minute before waving a broad hand up and down the wash. “Nothing else. Look maybe a mile.”
I was unable to remain on the sidelines as an observer any longer. “Have any strangers been hanging around, Mr. Hernandez?” Gaines gave me a look, but didn’t say anything.
“Old One-Eye’s shape-shifter.”
“Did you see him, too?” I asked.
There was little more to see, although we split up and walked the arroyo for a distance in either direction. All Plainer and I turned up was a cranky little sidewinder, which we gave a wide berth. They are aggressive little creatures; more so than the larger rattlers.
As we reassembled to begin the trek back to the hogan, Plainer looked at the steep sides of the arroyo and groaned aloud. I knew how he felt; my knees were already complaining. The old gunshot wound in my right thigh throbbed from the exertion. Street shoes are not made for soft sand or loose rocks or steep, crumbling clay walls. The pinto, with Hernandez aboard, had little trouble getting out of the gulch and was almost out of sight by the time we topped the gully. Sweat-drenched, we recovered the car and paused at the hogan long enough to pick up our guide. Gaines cranked up the air conditioning, and we were all thoroughly chilled by the time we arrived at the Begay hogan.
That interview was a virtual rerun of the previous, except One-Eye spoke not a word of English and dwelt a great deal more on shape-shifters—talk that made Atcitty noticeably nervous—without coming up with a good reason why a witch would have any use for a costly nylon bag with dirty laundry—albeit expensive dirty laundry.
The only real surprise was that One-Eye wasn’t one-eyed at all. He merely talked with a habitual squint, which made his right eye virtually disappear behind folds of chestnut colored flesh.
It seems to me that the Navajos were getting a little payback for their years of suffering under the white man’s thumb. What do you think?
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading, and let me hear from you.
New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.