Chapter 2 - 23/10/2017
The drive to Open Sky Reservation was an easy one. Few turns across a flat open land left plenty of scenic horizon for a bored traveller to take in. Flecks of green shrubbery dotted the desert landscape, giving you a full view of the world for miles in any direction. Far into the distance the earth crested like a wave of dirt and stone.
Large rock formations dotted the horizon, which came in handy when you were trying to make a long drive a little less boring. You could keep an eye on unique looking mountains, pillars, or the occasional jutting slope, keeping track of how far youve travelled based on the next stone landmark. The really interesting ones were tourist traps. People were bound to show up where sediment and volcanic rock formed in a way that looked like an angel, or pizza slice.
Jane had a few landmarks she followed when travelling north, to help her pass the time. A rock she thought looked like a rabbit. She named it Theo, after her favorite cereal mascot. Long drives made her nervous, but once she hit Theo she knew it wasnt far to her next destination.
Unfortunately, Open Sky Reservation was to the west. It was a drive she was familiar with, but one devoid of landmarks. Dry, open space slowly gave way to scattered pine and prickly bushes. It made for a slightly more interesting landscape until hitting farmland, where everything became a uniform green.
Corn and wheat fields were the last major destination on American soil before officially entering reserve territory. Its close proximity to the Open Sky had blended the municipalitys culture over the years. Many young men and women living on the reserve that were looking for a way out made easy roots here. Homes werent cheap, but there was plenty of work for eager farmhands.
The cultural exchange went so deep that the locals had even voted to change its name from Flinchers Park to the more humble Elks Rest. Jane had been there for the occasion and she was relatively impressed. Those kinds of exchanges more often dissolved into pointless arguments. She guessed the non-Indigenous locals must have really thought the name was cute.
Despite feeling anxious Jane keep a close eye on the road. There were few homes in the area. Even fewer side roads. If Lynn Kline had taken the trip on bicycle she would have stuck to the main highway. Skid marks or tire treads could points to signs of an accident. If Jane couldnt find any reliable information on the reserve she would need to stop by these farms along the way back. It was always better to be thorough.
With fuel becoming a precious commodity there werent many cars on the road. Electric-only vehicles like hers were a rarity. Even still, there were signs of normalcy here. Harvest was soon. Long stretches of corn and wheat were occasionally interrupted by farmers working in small groups, inspecting crops or repairing fences. Some were armed, and gave Janes vehicle careful consideration as she drove by. Theft from desperate outsiders had become commonplace over the past few months.
Jane watched a group of teenagers working together to pull up a scarecrow. She always wondered how effective those things were. It was probably more busywork for the kids than it was anything else. In a few days theyd be swarming with crows looking for a place to rest if they didnt go the extra mile to find some bright colored clothing to flap around in the wind.
Most of her farming experience had come from her mothers side. Alejandra Pilton could do it all. Baking, gardening, fixing a plow, sculpting clay, setting a broken leg; even coaxing a nervous animal on a stormy night. No one ever knew how she managed to accomplish so much in a single day. On Janes quinceañera she converted their barn into a lavish dance hall, complete with twinkling stars that would swing above guests.
Jane only ever absorbed a small portion of it. Mostly the baking. She could make a mean pretzel bun. Her father spoiled her with all the really fun lessons.
He was a modern hunter, if such a thing could truly exist. Jane followed his every step both figuratively and literally. Summers would be spent taking outings once a month, where they would look up at the stars while recounting their favorite birds and constellations. In the winter he would hide paper-wrapped gifts in the woods for her to find. He was the kind of man who thrived under pressure. Graduating from her academy training made him so proud he cried for an entire week. Any time it was mentioned.
They used to target practice on scarecrows for fun. Ten points for the bucket head. Twenty if you could knock a hole in a glove. Those were good memories. It brought a smile to her lips. How strange it is, the things that make us return to the past.
The sign for Open Sky Reservation was large, beautifully painted and carved from several treated and stained planks of wood. It was well maintained and taken care of. A keen observer could fall in love with the small details carved into the wood. Rushing waters and strong trees. This attention to detail was a pride not often shared so openly by small communities.
In remarkable contrast to the reserves sign the well-maintained highway pavement suddenly came to an end, giving way to a rougher looking, more worn down highway. The road was smooth, but had clearly seen better days. You could travel past the reserves sign for miles and encounter several branching routes. Some marked, others left unnamed. Private driveways and dirt shortcuts made with time and enough off-roading.
Before all that, the social center. An impressive building that reminded Jane of a fancy modern art exhibit. Curved walls and high windows let plenty of light pour into the building from almost any angle. There was something unusual about the brownish coloring that made the building seem old. Maybe older than it was. It was designed to be a place to gather for a number of social events. Weddings, birthdays, celebrations, pow wows and holidays.
Normally Jane would stop by and say hello, but the gathering of trucks and absence of music or outdoor stands suggested an important meeting was being held. She didnt have enough time to get caught up in a politics talk today. Instead she gave a friendly smile and wave to a group of older man standing guard near the road. Patio chairs gathered just outside of a weathered RV, they reciprocated the gesture, rifles kept at rest.
Just you? an older man called out as she drove past slowly. He looked buried under a wide-brimmed hat, barely able to see.
Just me, a quick visit. she tipped her cap back in thanks as they waved her by.
Her destination from there was a modest home, by country standards. Breaking away from open farmland the land was claimed almost entirely by pine trees, standing tall and proud. It was an hour drive down a winding dirt road, lush and green from a more than ample rainy season. There, tucked far in the woods, was what Jane affectionately called The Den
She pulled up to the home slowly, not wanting to move too quick for the black lab that had sauntered up to meet her vehicle. The Den
was a two story home with a large patio. Jane loved it. It looked warm and welcoming. Shade from an oversized oak tree kept much of the driveway cool. A set of swings hung from the largest branch, sitting just beside a comfortable looking hammock draped in a colorful blanket.
It was the most comfortable looking place to rest, but certainly not the only place. From a distance it looked as though the home had vomited out a stream of chairs of all shapes and sizes. Some had clearly seen better days, but most were in good condition. The Den
had gained a reputation over the years for being a place to meet. All of the chairs had been brought and left behind by others. Most were claimed. Jane knew for a fact that it took around half an hour to bring them all outside -- which was important to do because you never knew who would show up.
Stepping out the front door was a woman in her early thirties. Tan worn from years spent working under the sun, she cradled a box filled with pipes under one arm while taking a sip from a water bottle. Her worn shirt and faded jeans were stained with bright paints and dark oil. Workers clothing that fit her as naturally as a uniform. A smile crept across the womans face as she watched Janes jeep make its way to the front of her home.
¡Mira quién es! she laughed as Jane parked just beyond the gathering of chairs. Tu asiento no está listo todavía.
No te preocupes por eso. Jane smiled. I wont be long, Dawn.
Dawn set her box aside to give Jane a warm embrace. Jane gave an audible sigh, closing her eyes with relief.
Its been too long. she said, pointing over to the swings. Have time for a chat?
Ive got a few visitors once the town hall is over. Give me a hand with these and well have a drink.
Together the pair got to work organizing chairs into place. Jane had been to plenty of these before. Family meetings. Friendly gatherings. Less frequent during the harvest season and stormy weather, it was a chance for everyone to share stories about their day. Not just any stories, really. Only the best. The most memorable stories would move from week to week, creating a competition within the community to come up with the best tale. One that could dethrone the king.
Funny stories usually lasted the longest, and while the pair idly worked Dawn filled her in on a few new ones that were bound to become classics. They both had to stop working to laugh over a retelling of the Yazzie twins switching places on a date with daughter of a family friend. When they were done outside the pair took their conversation indoors. While Dawn made tea, Jane took a moment to appreciate her art.
There may have been better painters in the world, but there was something special about Dawns work. Jane wasnt well-versed enough in the art word to describe it. The living room was like a cathedral of color, off-white walls mostly hidden behind a collection of murals, watercolor portraits, and half-finished landscapes still resting on easels. Jane couldnt help but be drawn to the works in progress, waiting to be finished.
Is this the rec center? she paused at what appeared to be the start of an unusually shaped oval.
Yeah! Dawn yelled from the kitchen after poking her head around the corner. I was thinking about making a map. Start with the entrance to the reserve. Maybe block out some property lines.
I like it. Maybe if we can ever get a printer up and running we can scan and make a few copies.
Thatll be expensive. said Dawn, passing a steaming mug to Jane. Plus, dont you have Sheriff Duty?
Mmm. Jane admired another portrait of a desert landscape, black clouds rolling across a bright blue sky. Yes and no. Thats why Im here actually.
Walking slowly through Dawns impromptu gallery Jane filled her in on the disappearance of Lynn Kline. Her red bicycle, the yellow dress, the unusual circumstances of her vanishing. While other locals may have held some reservations in speaking with an outsider, Jane knew that Dawn would be honest with her.
Im sorry to hear about the girl, but I dont think I can help you on this one. said Dawn with a frown. Ive seen her around too, but not in the past few days. Pretty girl.
What about the boyfriend?
Uh, John River. Hes a skinny kid. Kind of lanky. If you ask around, ask for Creek.
Creek. Jane flipped open a small writing pad and jotted down a note. Any idea of where he is?
You getting all tough cop on me, Officer Pilton?
Im not afraid to break out the nightstick on this one. Jane grinned.
Almost everyones working the farmland these days. Either that or watching the main road. Dawn sat down on a reclining chair, stirring her cup with a spoon. You see the post on the way in?
Some. A big gathering at the rec center?
No, thats no gathering. Thats the way it is. Had a few raids a week back and we decided its time to close borders.
Raids? On what? concern fell across Janes expression. Things had always been tense since the Federation fell, but the dams need for labor and supplies had kept everyone working toward a common goal. Who would risk starting a fight?
Dawn paused for a moment, letting Jane take a seat before speaking further.
About a year back we were approached by a Federation representative. It was part of that reparation initiative they started. Guy flies in with a fancy suit, asks to speak with our Chief.
I heard about that. They did that for a lot of tribes didnt they?
All of em. Everyone got the same treatment. They offered to bring the entire reservation up to speed. Pave new roads, update our medical facilities, assist with housing, electrical, you name it. Said that we were long past due for being treated like citizens of the twenty first century.
For free. Dawn snorted a laugh. Said there were no terms, no conditions. Just good will. We could ever put together a list of things we needed, to see if they could manage anything extra.
What? Why? Janes confused expression made Dawn shake her head in reply.
Thats exactly what we said. I mean, dont get me wrong, the Feds were nice. They always seem to be. Just seemed too good to be true. Dawn sighed. We said no. But they tried again. Two more times. Then we wake up one day and find a few dozen crates left outside the reserve, right under our sign.
Jane had heard about this from the locals. It had stirred up quite a controversy at the time. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical equipment, left unattended for the Indigenous residents of Open Sky to receive. Most of it came with replacement parts and contact information regarding further inquiries.
Most who were aware of the drop off knew they needed it, but it had caused a tremendous rift in the community. The offer, soon after known as the Indigenous Reparation Initiative, was an effort to bring these more isolated communities up to date with Federation standards. It was meant to be a balancing act. Many saw it as favoritism.
Explaining life here to outsiders was always tricky. Jane knew the frustration well. She wasnt born here, but she considered Open Sky to be a part of her family. There was a lot of pride in every Indigenous community. Dawns great, great grandfather had built The Den
. Since then, every generation had added a little more. A second floor, a shed, a garage. Dawn had taken it upon herself to fully restore the home. No one wanted, or expected handouts. Where self reliance was valued most, it was equal parts embarrassing and infuriating to be assumed lazy or selfish.
These people... Dawn trailed with a sigh. They kept trying to give us things, ya know? Stuff. As if it just fixes everything.
Maybe in this case its better late than never. Equipment like that can go a long way.
We just want to be left alone. Dawn leaned back in her recliner, cradling the drink close. Sometimes it feels like no one gets that.
You ever think that just humoring them would have made it stop?
The government? Cmon Jane, you should know better. You cant compromise with suits. The second they want something they just figure out how to take it. People think were just complainers. That were still crying about something done to our people hundreds of years ago. But till the very end, they kept trying to take and take. Pipelines through our land. Farmers relocated. Industrial spills that bled into our rivers --
Well I dont think that will be a problem anymore. Jane spoke loudly, not wanting to interrupt but know full well when a rant was coming. Its not that she disagreed. Normally she would be all ears, but there was still a girl missing.
Every day I think about it. Maybe the collapse was the best thing to happen to us. Dawn shrugged. Now we just need to worry about our neighbors stealing food. We can manage that.
Ill try to find a lead on that for you. I just cant imagine who would be that stupid.
Try looking in your own backyard.
Jane opened her mouth to retort, but paused. Dawn held a hand across her mouth, eyes glossy with tears.
Im sorry Jane. Im so, so sorry. Dawns voice was muffled but full of strain.
Hey, Jane got up quickly, and the two women embraced in a hug. It was easy to feel her friends restrained sobbing through the jump of her shoulders. I get it. Really, I understand. Things are tough on everyone, but we can make it work.
I know. I know. Dawn sniffled, regaining her composure. And I know youre not like them. I do. She took a step back, wiping the tears from her eyes. Youre always welcome here. Everyone agrees. We dont get why youre so bent on staying at Beryl.
Well, someones gotta give them some perspective right? Education and intervention. said Jane with a grin. Ive got a nice lakeside view, too.
Kenny didnt deserve you. My brother really fucked your marriage with his bullshit. Dawn stifled a laugh. I wish I said something before you got together.
He was an idiot. Jane nodded. But I was too. We were young. After the first few months I just told myself I was in it for the family perks. I shoulda kept the surname though. Jane Thundering Bear had such a nice ring to it.
Well, youve got that nickname out of the deal.
Yeah. There were a couple of those in the running. I remember hearing Bear Fucker was popular with the boys when I was working the strip. Jane frowned, recalling the experience.
Well lets be glad Bear Lady won out. Thats the kind of name that really ages well.
I picture an old woman surrounded by furs. Maybe with an oversized shotgun.
And one of those hats with the flaps. You know. Whatever its called! laughed Dawn, holding up a hand to her ears as an example.
They talked for another hour. About funny hats, tea, movies and men. It was a good distraction from the hard times they lived in, and Jane knew that she had always been luckier than most. The least she could do was spend some time sharing a laugh with a good friend.
Jane would have probably stayed longer but she still had work to do. Dawn walked with her outside, promising to let her know if she learned anything about Lynn that would help her investigation. At the very least, she would come visit.
A small caravan of vehicles had just begun to make their way down the dirt road just as she was stepping into the drivers seat. Jane recognized a couple of faces. She waved as they started to pull in, lowering her window while she waited for them to park.
Bear Lady! You bringin us good news? one shouted while pulling his truck beside her.
She laughed, greeting each with a cheerful hello as they started to fill in for the planned gathering. Most were still dressed from their work in the fields, with exception to who she assumed were the Yazzie twins. They both wore leather bomber jackets with a unique letter embroidered on each arm, a B and a J -- gifts probably forced on them after one too many teenage pranks.
No one had any information about Lynn. Theyd seen her around and knew she dated this Creek. He worked night shifts at the dam, but otherwise he was a good kid. Knew a lot about electrical wiring. No one had seen him for the past day but that alone wasnt too unusual. You could go a week without seeing a neighbor in these parts.
But he was scheduled to work night shifts all this month. If Creek was going to be anywhere, Beryl Dam would be the place to find him.
Driving away from The Den
she checked her rearview mirror for as long as she could, wanting to soak in as much of the home as she could possibly hold in her memory. It was still early in the afternoon, but the ride to the dam would take a few hours. Leaving the reservation she passed a new set of men on guard. Armed, attentive, and happy to wave goodbye while she drove off toward the main highway.
With another long ride ahead of her Jane tried to think about how she would confront the boyfriend. If he wasnt at his job then she would have wasted hours trying to get in touch with him. It would have been smarter to go visit his home while she was on the reserve. Maybe press the locals harder. She had assumed she knew better, but the truth was anyone was capable of murder.
She knew right then she was making a mistake. If she turned around now then she could still visit his home, then the dam without wasting much time. Maybe a half hour lost, if she drove fast.
Quickly she pulled her jeep into a U-turn, checking both lanes of the farm-surrounded road to make sure there was no oncoming traffic. She was just about to complete the maneuver when something bright red caught her eye in the drainage ditch. Pulling to a stop Jane stepped out to look down into the dirt spillway.
A red bicycle, twisted and mangled. Its bright red somewhat tarnished with dirt and grime, the bike looked like it was well taken care of, at one point. There were several sets of footprints in the dirt, some boots and some barefoot. Drag marks. Some corn stalks, broken at the stem. It was a clear sign of a struggle if shed ever seen one.
Jane checked her surroundings, hand reflexively moving toward her revolver. In the distance she could see the other side of the farmland where she had drove in earlier. The scarecrows were all up. There was no yelling, none of the unusual loudness that comes from working in the outdoors. Everything seemed strangely quiet.
For a moment she eyed the field of corn, playing with the idea of following the trail of confusing footprints. It was always dangerous to enter a field of crops. You never knew what machinery could be working, and the way everyone had been on edge at the reserve there was a good chance these farmers would be equally dangerous. It was always best to avoid spooking an armed homeowner.
Realizing that she needed a better vantage point Jane drew her pistol and strode into the crops, moving past the obvious trail of struggle to the direction of a nearby scarecrow post instead. Those things were fairly sturdy. If it could hold her weight then there would be a much better view of --
Blood. So much blood. The post was soaked in it. Dried from too much exposure to air and sunlight, but thick enough to leave the ground crusted in a foul smelling red.
The scarecrow was nowhere to be found. In its place were ragged scraps of torn leather and faded denim. All of it was covered in a thick red sludge, save for a single tattered strand of yellow cloth. The squelching of wet soil underfoot told her whatever happened here wasnt that long ago. It may not even be finished.
Gun raised, Jane doubled back and found the trail of footprints in the dirt. Walking low, trying hard to reduce the telltale sound of shifting corn, she followed the signs of struggle deep into the unknown.