Junior wasn’t even forty-five minutes into the trees when his son Denny called him on the walkie, to meet back at the truck. Denny was twelve, and Junior could tell he’d got spooked again.
He wasn’t going to get any less spooked if Junior called him on it, though.
So, instead of staking out a north-facing meadow like he’d been intending, waiting for the sun to glint off some elk horn, Junior tracked himself back, stepping in his own boot prints when he could. And it’s not that he didn’t understand: coming out an hour before dawn, walking blind into the blue-black cold, some of the drifts swallowing you up to the hip, it wasn’t the same as watching football on the couch.
The bear tracks they’d seen yesterday hadn’t helped either, he supposed.
Since then, Junior was pretty sure Denny wasn’t so much watching the trees for elk anymore, but for teeth.
He was right to be scared, too. Junior was pretty sure he had been, at that age. But at some point you have to just decide that if a bear’s going to eat you, a bear’s going to eat you, and then you go about your day.
One thing Junior knew for sure was that if he’d been in walkie contact with his dad, then there wouldn’t have been any meets at the truck.
Junior was doing better, though. It was one of his promises.
So he eased up to the truck, waiting for Denny to spot him in the mirror. When Denny didn’t, Junior knocked on the side window, and Denny led him fifteen minutes up a forgotten logging road, to a thick patch of trees he’d probably stepped into for the windbreak, to pee.
“Whoah,” Junior said.
It was a massacre. The bear’s dining room. At least two winters of horse bones, some of them bleached white, some of them still stringy with black meat.
Junior had to admit it: this probably would have spooked him, twenty years ago.
Hell, it kind of did now.
“They’re supposed to be asleep,” Denny said. “Right?”
Junior nodded. It was his own words. The tracks they’d seen yesterday, he’d assured Denny, would lead them to a musty den if they followed them.
“Let’s go work the Line,” Junior said, and Denny was game.
The Line wasn’t the one that separated the reservation from Canada, but from Glacier Park. It was just across the road from Chief Mountain.
Twenty-five years ago, Junior had popped his first buck there, across a clearing of stumps he’d been pretending just needed tabletops to make a proper restaurant. That had been his secret Indian trick to hunting, back then: to not hunt. The same way you never find your wallet when you’re actually looking for it.
Just, keep a rifle with you.
Junior dropped Denny off right at the gate, told him to walk straight up the fence, and keep an eye out.
“Check?” Denny said into his walkie, stepping out, gearing up.
“Check,” Junior said into his walkie, his own voice echoing him.
“Just walk back to Chief Mountain if you lose the fence,” Junior told Denny. “You’ll hit the road first. I’ll be up at that other pull-out. Maybe you’ll scare something my way, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Denny said, looking at the tree line with pupils shaped like bears, Junior knew.
Junior left him there, pulled over a quarter mile or so up the road.
He hadn’t been lying about them scaring elk or some whitetail into each other’s paths, either. It was how he’d learned to hunt, his uncles pointing down this or that coulee, telling him to slip down there, make some noise, they’d shoot anything that spooked up.
Denny wasn’t just a brushdog, though.
Really, Junior was half-hoping to scare something over to him. Every animal on the reservation, it knows to run for the Park when Bambi shooters are in the forest.
The kid deserved an elk this year, or a nice buck. Something to hook him into this way of doing things, instead of all the other ways there always were, in Browning.
Junior pulled his gloves on, locked the door, and beat his way through the brush, keeping his rifle high like he was a soldier fording a river, not a latter-day Indian with a burned arm and forty-percent disability.
Maybe a half hour into it, half-convinced the world was made of trees all blown over into each other, the ground under his boots tilted up sharply. Junior followed, eager for an open space.
Like was supposed to happen, the trees thinned the windier it got—the higher Junior got—until he stepped out of the crunchy snow, then onto the blown-flat yellow grass of . . . not quite a meadow, but a bare knob, anyway. One of a hundred, surely, if you were flying above. But, standing on it, it was the only—no, it wasn’t the only one: directly to the west of Junior, like a mirror image, like he’d walked up to his own reflection, was another bare knob.
Except this one, it had a little pyramid of black rocks right at the very crest.
Junior looked away to search his head for the word, finally dredged it up: cairn.
Like what you arrange over your favorite dog, when the ground’s frozen and you can’t cut into it with a shovel. Like what you put over your favorite dog for temporary, promising the whole while to come back in Spring, do it right.
But you never do, Junior knew.
Because you don’t want to have to see.
Except—who would bury a dog way the hell out here?
Maybe this was some super-old grave, some baby from the Lewis and Clark clown parade.
Or maybe it was older. Maybe it was real.
Junior brought his rifle up, leveled the scope on the cairn and steadied the cross-hairs against the wind, gusting like it knew Junior was trying to draw a bead.
The rocks looked just the same, only closer up now, and trembling, the scope dialed up to nine.
Trembling until they smudged out, anyway.
Junior took an involuntary step back, pressing the scope harder into his right eye socket—stupid, stupid, he said to himself—and then got things focused again.
When there was just blackness again, a fabric texture to it, Junior lowered the scope, looked across with his real eyes.
He’d lost the Line, it looked like, was falling up through the trees as well, his rifle slung over his shoulder.
Instead of doing it like Junior had taught—two steps, stop, listen, look, wait, then two more steps—Denny was just stumbling across the yellow grass, his face slack like he’d been out there for hours, not thirty minutes. One of his gloves was gone, Junior noted.
His first impulse was to put the scope on Denny, so he could give a report later. Saw you out there, Cold Hand Luke. Didn’t you see me? Except, even if he drew the bolt back on his rifle, just the idea of putting his son in those crosshairs made him feel hollow under the jaw.
Saw you out there, son. By those black rocks.
Junior said it aloud, the wind pulling his words away.
And Denny was lost, Junior could tell. With Chief Mountain looming behind, the Park right there to the west, and Canada just a rifle shot to the north, if that, the kid had managed to get off-track somehow. Again. And in spite of how the Line was a three-strand fence for the first couple hundred yards. All you had to do then was walk where the fence would have been, if it went on. It didn’t even take a sense of direction. The Park Service had come through with chainsaws back when, shaved a line through the woods, to tell the Indians what was America, what wasn’t. Just follow the stumps, kid.
Junior had told him that at some point, hadn’t he?
Now Denny was doing one thing Junior had taught, anyway: going up the closest hill to eyeball for a landmark. To find Chief Mountain, like Blackfeet had been doing since forever.
“Looking the wrong way there, son,” Junior said, using his best John Wayne voice.
Soon enough, Denny was going to have to look over, see Junior waiting there for him. Even if he wasn’t scoping for Chief Mountain or for the elk he was supposed to be after, then he would at least be checking for the bear he probably thought he was climbing away from. That he could probably hear huffing and grunting right behind him.
His knob of hill was steep enough now that he was having to reach ahead, touch the ground with his bare fingertips.
Junior took a step higher, his back straightening, some alarm ringing behind his eyes.
It was nothing. Stupid.
You’re the one being stupid, Junior told himself, in his own dad’s voice.
With his hands to the ground like that, Denny had looked like something else. Junior wasn’t even sure what. A four-legged, as the old-time Blackfeet said it, in books written by white men.
And Denny still wasn’t looking across.
“Hey!” Junior called, but didn’t put any real force behind it.
Still, Denny’s head rotated over at an angle Junior associated with owls more than people, his face snapping up perfectly level, his jaw hanging loose, mouth a skewed black oval, eyes vacant even at this distance, and Junior’s breath caught hard enough in his throat that he had to cough.
By the time he was able to look back up, Denny’s front hand was reaching forward delicately to the cairn, like warming his palm by a cast-iron stove. Junior brought the soft back of his glove to his face, to rub the blear and the heat from his eyes.
The bald knob across from him, it was just that again.
No rocks, no son. Nothing.
Junior lifted the walkie, said, “Den-man? You out there?”
Fifteen seconds later, the walkie crackled back in Junior’s hand.
No words, just static. Open air.
Because of distance, he told himself.
Because these walkies had been clearance over in Cutbank, were pretty much line-of-sight piece-of-craps.
When Junior stepped out of the tree line and into the ditch thirty minutes later, ready to tap the horn three times—their signal—there in the passenger seat of the truck was a shape that slowly assembled itself into Denny: hat, jacket, safety-orange gloves, frosted breath.
Behind the steamed up window, he turned his head to Junior and watched.
• • • •
Because Deezie was in Seattle sitting by her dad’s hospital bed, Junior cracked open two cans of chili and poured them into a pan, shook their can shape away.
Denny was in his room, peeling out of his hunting gear. If Deezie were here, he’d have had to strip at the door.
Junior set the pan down into its ring of flame.
On the ride home he’d said the obvious aloud to Denny: that he’d found his other glove, yeah? Good thing they were orange, right?
Denny had looked at his hands in his lap, then out the window.
“I like hunting,” he’d said.
They were picking up speed coming through Babb Flats.
Once Junior had seen a whole herd of elk there, pale in the moonlight like ghosts of themselves.
“How many horses do you think it was?” Denny asked then, and came around to face Junior. His face up-close was just normal.
“How many’d that bear eat, you mean?” Junior asked, changing hands on the wheel.
“We should have counted the skulls, I guess,” Junior said, raising his eyebrows to Denny in halfway invitation.
Deezie wouldn’t be home for two more days.
Maybe counting skulls would get Denny over the hump of his fear.
“Grub in ten,” Junior called down the hall.
Denny’s door was closed. No sounds from in there.
Junior knocked, said it again, about food.
“Check,” Denny said, like they were still talking through the walkies.
Fifteen minutes later, the game was on and the couch was the couch and Junior was making his same joke to Denny about chili: that people shouldn’t eat stuff that looks the same going in as it does coming out. Even Deezie would laugh at that one, some nights.
Like had been happening more and more lately, Junior fell asleep somewhere in the third quarter, woke to an empty room, a flatlined television.
And—an open front door?
“Den-man?” he said out loud, on the chance.
Junior crossed to the door, hoisting his rifle up on the way. On that chance.
There was nothing, though. Nobody.
Junior had already closed the door when it registered, that something had been different outside. Not wrong, just . . . not the same.
Because he was the dad and couldn’t afford to be scared, he hauled the door open and stepped out without looking first.
His eyes adjusted, fed him what was different.
Out where the road to their house crooked over the creek.
Another cairn had been stacked out there.
Junior walked half the way there in sock feet then looked back to the house, sure it was going to be surrounded now by ghost elk, or that there was going to be a figure in the doorway, watching him.
It was just the house. The same one he’d walked out from twenty seconds ago.
“Deezie,” he said then, quiet, secret, because her name always reminded him who he was. And because maybe, six hundred miles away, she would hear, look his way, and that would be enough to keep him safe.
To show himself he could—because she might be watching—Junior walked all the way out to the cairn. With his heel, his gun in both hands, he dislodged the top rock, sent it clattering down the side, taking a couple of small pieces of slate with it.
Under that top rock was just another rock. Because it was rocks all the way down. That’s all it could be.
Cairn was the wrong word, probably. Pile would have been better. Like what you end up with when you’re trying to plow a field but keep snagging on rocks, keep having to carry them over to the one fence post left from when there were corrals here.
That’s all it was.
Junior studied the trees all around, his rifle at port arms, and heard himself telling Denny again that he just had to walk toward Chief Mountain to find the road.
Chief was too far to even see from this side of Browning, though.
Junior shook his head and went inside without looking behind him even once.
Hours later in bed, his leg kicked deep into territory Deezie insisted was hers, Junior realized he was awake, and wasn’t sure how long he had been.
After that came the realization that he’d been listening. With his whole body.
Something was moving down the hall, and Junior couldn’t have said exactly why, but it was something big, something too big for the hall, but it was lumbering down it all the same.
“Six,” he heard himself say, like an offering.
It was how many skulls there had been at the bear’s dinner table.
He didn’t know if that was a lucky number or not.
He rolled over, away from Deezie’s side, and his burned arm crackled under him and he flinched, had to fumble for the light to see that he’d heard wrong. That his arm was just the same, that it wasn’t on fire anymore. That all the therapy had worked.
Still, instead of sleeping, he rubbed the lotion into his scar tissue, into the moonscape of his melted skin, and then higher, into his shoulder as well. Just to be sure.
• • • •
“But I want to see,” Denny said.
The six skulls.
They were in the truck. The sun was just happening.
“Later,” Junior said, and hated himself for it but did it anyway, again: glanced over at Denny’s hands.
One of his gloves was safety-orange, but the other was Deezie’s wool one. It was white with red-thread stripes that always looked like they were going to catch on something, tear away.
“What about that—that pyramid of rocks yesterday?” Junior said then, just real casual, after running it through his head a dozen times, a dozen ways.
In reply, Denny looked out his window.
He had no idea about the gloves.
Or the chili still crusted on his lips.
Junior swallowed. It was loud in his ears.
“Who won last night?” he asked.
“Patriots,” Denny said.
“Good old Pilgrims,” Junior said, leaning forward to rest his forearms on the steering wheel.
It was another one of his jokes: of course the Pilgrims won. Look around, right?
“I want to go to the skulls,” Denny said, his voice flat.
“After this,” Junior said.
“Chief Mountain,” Denny repeated.
Junior moved his mouth in that way he used to do when his brother was torturing him and he was promising himself not to cry this time.
He cranked his window down.
“I saw a young bear here once,” he said, hooking his chin down the road they weren’t taking, the other way through Babb.
Denny looked down that road and Junior held his breath, waited for Denny to call him out: this wasn’t Junior’s story, it was one of his uncle’s. Junior was stealing it.
Denny just looked over, waited for the rest.
“I had that little Toyota then, the hatchback. Jace drives it now. The one with the primered hood?”
Junior could feel his face heating up, even with the window down.
“You were, like, papoose size,” he said, and waited for Denny to lodge his objection about that not being a Blackfeet word.
Instead, he just sat there with his one orange hand, his one white hand. Six skulls in his head.
“I was looking for this one old bull I knew had come over from the park,” Junior said. “I was just married to your mom then, and we needed meat, yeah?”
Just the eyes.
“So I was just cruising along, and this young bear, he just comes trotting right up the yellow stripes, his feet flapping like flippers they were so big. Like he was a cartoon of himself. When he stopped beside me to put his paw print on the flank of my trusty steed”—not even a blink of disgust—“I could see his collar, the one that told he was crossing the Line here, that he was on Indian land now.”
The rest of the story was his Aunt Lonnie, using her favorite nail polish to trace the bear’s paw print in the Toyota, but Junior didn’t have the heart, and Deezie didn’t wear nail polish anyway.
This story had been doomed from the start.
“I miss that Toyota,” he said. “It was one of the magic ones, I think.”
“Papoose,” Denny finally said.
Five minutes later Junior turned them up toward Chief Mountain.
The truck coughed like there was air in the line, but it caught, pulled them up the black ribbon of road, the clouds cold enough that they were skimming the trees.
There was nobody else.
In the summer, people would come up to tie ribbons to certain branches, to trunks that felt right, but in the winter those ribbons were all faded and frozen, their prayers trapped.
“There’s where I came out,” Junior said, slowing to show his tracks crunching through the crust of snow in the ditch.
Denny was looking higher, though.
Junior slowed to a stop two hundred yards farther up the road, where the next pair of boots had crossed the ditch. And the handprints beside the boots.
Because he’d fallen, Junior told himself.
Because he was twelve.
“This is you,” he said, and Denny looked over to him, then back out into the trees.
“You don’t remember, do you?” Junior said, the lump in his throat cracking his voice up.
“We were here yesterday,” Denny said.
“We were here yesterday,” Junior said, and, because that’s what you do, Denny stepped down.
“It’s loud in there,” he said, pointing with his face into the trees.
“Scare something good my way,” Junior told him, instead of everything else.
Denny kept looking.
“There’s a restaurant out there somewhere,” Junior said then, having to close his eyes to get it said, his chin trembling. “There’s no tabletops, but it used to be a—a place.”
“A restaurant,” Denny said, looking back to Junior, not seeming to care he was sitting there behind the wheel crying.
“They served venison,” Junior said, and looked hard the other way, toward Chief Mountain, stationed up in the clouds like a sentinel.
Junior prayed it was watching right now.
After a thirty-count, he looked back to the other side of the road.
Denny was gone, into the trees.
Junior turned around, pulled down to where he’d gone in yesterday—everything had to be the same—and stepped in all his same footprints as close as he could, and, crashing through the trees like he was, he could almost feel his uncles on the rise behind him, waiting for what he was about to flush out.
If they were still around, they could have told him what’s buried in the cairns, he knew.
Or told him not to look.
But it was too late now. He was already doing it. They were already doing it, him and Denny, Den-man, father and son out in the woods, in the cold, trying to undo the day before, and Junior only realized it was too late when he opened his mouth to call to Denny, and static from the walkie came out.
From deeper in the trees, his real son opened his mouth, answered with that same open-air hiss, and like that, they felt toward each other in the new darkness.
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