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In the wake of Fourth of July fireworks in Montana’s Madison Valley, Hyalite County sheriff Martha Ettinger and Deputy Sheriff Harold Little Feather investigate a horrific scene at the Palisades cliffs, where a herd of bison have fallen to their deaths. Victims of blind panic caused by the pyrotechnics, or a ritualistic hunting practice dating back thousands of years? The person who would know is beyond asking, an Indian man found dead among the bison, his leg pierced by an arrow.
Farther up the valley, fly fisherman, painter, and sometime private detective Sean Stranahan has been hired by the beautiful Ida Evening Star, a Chippewa Cree woman who moonlights as a mermaid at the Trout Tails Bar & Grill, to find her old flame, John Running Boy. The cases seem unrelated—until Sean’s search leads him right to the brink of the buffalo jump. With unforgettable characters and written with his signature grace and wry humor, Buffalo Jump Blues weaves a gripping tale of murder, wildlife politics, and lost love.
“The fifth case for McCafferty’s fly-tying detective is as rich in history, local color, and unique characters as the first four. You can’t help hoping that the two leads will solve the problems of their relationship as readily as all those crimes.”
—Kirkus, starred review
“McCafferty’s wryly bantering characters are irresistible, his humor tangy, and his lyricism potent as he matches escalating action with intriguing disquisition. The latest in this ever-evolving, highly enjoyable series is a sharply ironic and suspenseful tale surreptitiously veined with profound insights into love, friendship, cultural collisions, and dire conflicts over wildlife and land, the sacred and the profitable.”
—Booklist, starred review
“Gorgeous writing about Montana’s wilderness, and battles among the forces competing to claim it: ranchers, Indians, developers, and in their midst, McCafferty’s first love, fly fishers standing waist high in the rushing waters, casting their lines.”
—Sara Paretsky, New York Times Bestselling author and Mystery Writers of America Grand Master
“Keith McCafferty understands that there is much more to a riveting mystery than what is commonly found in the typical whodunit. He also knows that a rousing good tale can often shine a light on important matters that deserve our attention. In BUFFALO JUMP BLUES, McCafferty does that and more as he takes us into the heart of Big Sky Country, a place he knows and loves, and treats us to a tightly crafted tale packed with quirky, captivating characters — mostly good, some just plain mean, and several who are simply murderous – and weaves an adventure that leaves you wanting more. He writes with heart and command of the story that sparkles on every page.”
—Michael McGarrity, crime writer, recipient of the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and Santa Fe Police Officer of the Year
Explosive, gripping and not-to-be-missed. Keith McCafferty gets the West just right with its cast of individualistic characters, stunning backdrops and a past that breaks through in violent and unexpected ways. Buffalo Jump Blues is an impressive crime novel, and McCafferty is an impressive writer.
—Margaret Coel, New York Times Bestselling author of The Man Who Fell from the Sky and Winter’s Child
Behold, my brothers, the spring has come . . . Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our neighbors, even our animal neighbors, the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land.
—Chief Sitting Bull, Hunkpapa Lakota Sioux
When the last buffalo falls on the plains I will hunt mice, for I am a hunter and I must have my freedom.
—Chief Joseph, Nez Perce
Chapter One: Kettle of Blood
“I suppose a gun would be too much to ask for.”
Harold Little Feather stared across the river. A small group of gawkers, two fishing guides and the couples who were their clients, gathered at his back. Moaning sounds emanating from the tree and willow tangle at the base of the cliffs were spaced farther apart now, just in the twenty minutes since he’d driven up from Ennis. He’d been sitting down to breakfast when he got the call. His day off, a date to meet Martha and cast a fly in the braids of the Madison, hence unarmed.
“I mean this being Montana and all, land of free men and open carry, I’d think somebody would be packin’.”
If Martha was here she’d have her Ruger, day off or not. Strapping up was part of her a.m. ritual, like turning Goldie out for a run while she steeped her tea, running a Chapstick across her lips and looking at her face critically in the mirror before squaring her hat. On nights when Harold slept over, he’d step up behind her, bring his big hands to her face, chestnut against white, lift the corners of her mouth so she saw herself smile.
“I got a two-two.”
Harold turned around. He’d heard the crunch of gravel a few minutes before as another truck pulled up. It was Peachy Morris hauling his Clack-a-Craft, the one with the pink ribbon on the hull to show his support for breast cancer research, though anyone who knew Peachy knew the only breast research he was interested in was the hands-on kind. The lanky fishing guide crinkled up his eyes, a “what do we have here?” look on his face. Harold’s glance took in Peachy’s clients, a tall, sandy-haired man he recognized as a member of the Madison River Liars and Fly Tiers Club, though he had forgotten the name, and a small girl who looked maybe seven.
“And what’s your name?” Harold asked the girl.
The girl hid her face behind a wing of straw colored hair. It’s because I’m Indian, he thought. When she’d boldly pronounced her armament, he’d been facing away from her.
The sandy-haired man extended his hand. “Robin Hurt Cowdry. We’ve met.”
“Sure. You’re from Zimbabwe, you import the African artifacts.”
“Botswana,” the man corrected. “Mugabe redistributed my keister all the way to Botswana. This is Doris, my niece.” And to the girl, “Mind your manners.”
She shyly faced Harold. “You can have my two-two,” she said, “but it’s back at the house.”
“I might need something bigger than that,” Harold said. His eyes turned to the cliffs as the moaning picked up in volume.
“Sounds like a bloody pride of lions,” Cowdry said.
Harold’s nod was half an inch. “It’s bison. Guy on the game range saw some on the escarpment before dark last night, maybe a part of the herd that came out of Yellowstone onto the Hebgen Plateau, reported it to FWP this morning. A guide putting in heard the ruckus” — Harold jerked his head to indicate the group standing at the boat ramp — “so he called the county and here I am with my hands in my pockets.”
“So you figure they fell over the cliffs?” Peachy Morris was tugging on his rowing gloves. “Fourth of July. All that racket down in the valley, people setting off fireworks. They could have panicked.”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Then let me see what I can come up with.”
Harold crossed his arms against the bite of morning chill, caught the girl staring at his tattoos, the weasel tracks hunting around his left upper biceps, the hooves of elk following each other around his right.
“Are you an Indian?” she said, pushing the hair out of her face. “I’ve never seen an Indian.”
“Absolutely,” Harold said.
“I saw a Zulu warrior dance. They’re fiercer than you.”
“That’s because I didn’t put on my paint this morning.”
Peachy was back, handing over a revolver in a leather holster.
“It’s a .454 Casull. The loads are just snake shot but there’s some hard cast rounds floating around in my boat bag. Shoot through thirty inches of wet phonebooks.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “Jah, you could right donner them with that. Couldn’t he, Uncle Robin?”
“Speak American, Dorry,” Cowdry said.
Morris produced five hard cast loads with the comment that they might not be enough. “How many you think there are?” he said.
“Sounds like a few.” Harold tipped out the cylinder to dump the snake loads and fed in the full power rounds. He turned to Cowdry. “I left a message with the sheriff. She comes, she’ll have doughnuts. Tell her to save me one of the glazed. Make sure your niece gets one.”
He raised his chin to the guide. “Peachy, you think you could row me across?”
He spoke briefly to the group who’d been standing on the bank, telling them to wait until he’d crossed before launching and to stay in their boats until they were through the cliffs. He left them stringing fly rods and pushed off with Peachy at the oars of the drift boat, making for a backwater on the far bank.
“You want me to come with you?” Peachy dropped the anchor.
“No, I got it.”
Harold ran his eyes to the tops of the cliffs, which were known as the Palisades and stood sentinel for a solid mile over the river’s west bank. The moaning sounds were louder here and sounded more like growling, though the reverberation on the rock walls made them hard to place. He drew the Casull from the holster and checked the loads. “I won’t be needing this,” he said, and tossed the leather holster to Peachy. He started hiking up the bank, holding the heavy handgun at his side.
The first buffalo was dead, a jagged edge of cannon bone sticking through the skin of its foreleg, its bowels evacuated, its enormous eye glazed over. A cow, fingers of shaggy winter coat hanging off like brown moss. It had rolled after falling off the cliff, carving a wide swale through the brush. Twenty yards farther up, where willows choked the river bottom, was a second cow. Its cavernous rib cage expanded, then collapsed like an accordion. With each exhalation, a ragged gurgling sound blew bubbles in the blood covering its nose and mouth. Its eye followed Harold as he walked around it, but it lacked the strength to turn its head. Harold clenched his jaw. He extended his right arm and shot it in the back of its skull.
At the shot, Harold’s arm jerked up and back, spinning him halfway around. He brought the barrel down out of recoil, feeling a sharp pain in his shoulder from the wrenching of his arm. Jesus, the thing was canon. His ears ringing, he sat down beside the dead bison. The roaring of other bison had become an undertone, dull and muted from the concussion. Eventually the underwater sensation subsided and the sounds of the dying animals came back.
Harold tucked his braid under the back of his shirt and fought through brush. He climbed until he reached the base of the cliffs, which was scree rock and sagebrush studded about with giant slabs of stone that had broken away from the cliff face. The rattling, guttural sighs seeming to surround him. He found another dead cow and then three bison still clinging to life, two of them lying down, one on its knees, feebly pushing its short horns against the withers of one of the fallen animals. Harold tore strips from his bandana and wadded them into his ears. He looked away for a few moments, putting off the inevitable. Then he grasped the rubberized grips of the handgun with both hands, extending his arms, and shot the bison that was on its knees. It rolled over and was still. He moved a few feet, sat down and shot the next one, and then the third. The great heads rocked with the impacts and the moaning stopped.
Harold got to his feet. He pulled the cotton out of his ears. Except for the river running, he heard nothing and the relative silence seemed oppressive. That must be the lot, he thought. He had gone a long way inside himself to find that still place where the hunter went when he killed, and only now did he take in a bigger picture. Harold was Blackfeet, his people were buffalo people, nomads who had followed the herds until there were no more herds to follow. For thousands of years his ancestors had driven bison over cliffs similar to those above him. In fact, Harold thought, it was entirely likely that they had driven bison over these very cliffs, for this had been a Blackfeet hunting grounds and the cliffs formed what was called a pishkun in the tribal language, a “deep blood kettle.” But that was before the white man came with his seeds and his cattle, before the Sharps rifles spoke and the Sun Dances held on the reservation became only ceremony.
Harold squatted on his heels, facing the river. He watched the occasional car pass by on the highway, a quarter mile to the east. If you lifted your eyes it was Eden as his grandfather’s grandfathers had seen it, the mountains uncolored by time. The irony of what he done, killing the first bison to have returned to these ancient hunting grounds in one hundred and fifty years was not lost on him, and the tears that hung on the high bones of his cheeks were the tears of his people. He ignored them as a white, boxy looking vehicle slowed and turned onto the access road. That would be Martha’s Cherokee. Well, he’d better get back across and give her the news.
The slope he’d climbed earlier was choked with willow and alder and he looked for an easier route down to the river. To his right the gradient eased, and he’d descended a few yards when he saw the bushes bulging and heard a sound like rocks clashing. The head of a bison emerged from the brush, strings of bloody mucous hanging from its nostrils. It was striking its hooves against the stone scree, pawing it. The bison was a little above him and it came in a stumbling charge. A bull, its great hump standing taller than Harold’s head, coming on three good legs, one rear leg flopping. Harold cocked the hammer on the last round in the Casull and held his fire. Twenty feet, ten, the bison’s head dropping to toss him with its thick, incurved horns. Harold brought the muzzle level with its forehead and pulled the trigger, then jumped to the side as the bull fell heavily, its nose plowing into the scree. For a moment it lay still. Then, slowly, it began to slide down the hill. It picked up speed, rolled over once and came to rest against the trunk of a limber pine.
Harold had felt the earth shake as the bison fell and now he couldn’t feel his feet underneath him. Where he’d been standing, blood painted the stones. He worked his way down to where the beast lay dead, into the envelope of its heavy odor, into their collective past. The underwater sensation was back and he shook his head. Such a magnificent animal. Such a waste of life.
That’s where he heard the bleating. It was not loud, but higher pitched than the moaning he’d heard earlier. He knew it must be a calf. He thought about going back to the landing, waiting for Martha, borrowing her .357 to finish it off.
No, do it now. Get it over with. He reached for the bone-handled knife on his hip.
Chapter Two: Facts of Nature
Martha Ettinger stood on the riverbank, looking across to the cliffs where she’d heard the last shot.
“That’s all he had with him, five rounds,” Robin Cowdry said.
Martha placed her hands on her hips and drummed the grips of her revolver. Harold should have waited for her, but if he’d waited, he wouldn’t be Harold.
“I can’t hear anything,” she said.
“He must have got them all.”
Martha shook her head. This was going to make news. Bison were a hot button issue in Montana, had been ever since the herds had started migrating out of Yellowstone Park more than two decades before, hazed back by cowboys and helicopters, or shot after crossing the border. To a degree the animals were pawns in a controversy that went beyond animal control and was in fact cultural warfare, everyone in on the act, from the cattle ranchers who couldn’t say the word bison without spitting to buffalo hippies who’d take a bullet for them, from Native Americans who wanted to bring herds back to the reservations to the urban electorate who’d like to see them roam freely on public lands. Even the governor was caught between the rock that was the livestock industry and the hard place that was public sentiment for this icon of the West that only a century ago had stood at the brink of extinction.
“Harold thought this was part of that Hebgen herd,” Cowdry said. “The ones that came out of the park.”
He might as well have been talking to a river stone.
“Here they come,” Martha said.
She’d seen the skiff pull out of the cove, Peachy hard at the oars. Harold wasn’t sitting in the bow seat from which a fisherman would cast, but looked to be kneeling on the boat’s bottom. Caught in the current, the skiff swept downriver at an angle, Peachy working it into the near bank some forty yards below the landing. He hopped out in his waders, taking the bow line to haul it upstream. Harold stayed where he was, Martha now seeing that he was bending over and his head was down. She felt a flutter in her blood and subconsciously brought two fingers to the artery in her throat.
“What’s that in the bottom of the boat?” Cowdry had pulled on his waders and was stepping into the river to help Peachy with the skiff. The girl, Dorry, stepped up beside Martha and reached for her hand. Her mouth was white with powdered sugar from the doughnut Martha had given her.
“Look,” she said. “Look.” She let go of Martha’s hand and jumped on a rock to gain a higher vantage. “Look Sheriff, he’s got a buffalo!”
Harold had stepped out of the boat into thigh deep water, his back to the bank. When he turned around, the bison calf was bleating against his chest. The veins on his biceps stood out from the strain of lifting it. He sloshed to shore and stepped onto the bank.
Martha started to speak, but there was something behind Harold’s half smile that gave her pause.
“Did that snake-bit calf pull through?” he said. He set the bison down so that the girl could pet it with her greasy fingers.
Martha gave him a look. “No, I gave her mouth to nose until Jeff Svenson showed, but she was too far gone.”
“What happened to the carcass?”
“Skinned and hanging. Why, do you want some veal? Personally, I’m a little put off by meat pumped with poison.”
“When did this happen?”
“Last night.” Last night when you didn’t come over. That part went unsaid.
Martha caught the amused look Peachy Morris was giving them. The last time Peachy had heard Martha talking with Harold about something and what they were really talking about was something else, he’d told them to get a room.
She looked hard at the fishing guide. He rolled up a stick of gum and put it in his mouth, wiped the grin off his face.
“What did you do with the skin?” Harold asked.
The shoe dropped as Martha shook her head.
“Hunch-ah,” she said. “It isn’t going to happen.”
Harold knelt down beside the little red bison, which had quieted down while the girl had her arm around it, but was now bleating incessantly.
“Hey little fella,” Harold said. He lifted his eyes to Martha, who mouthed the word, “No.”
“Meet your new mother,” Harold said.
—from Buffalo Jump Blues