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Heather Reardon felt hot and damp all over, her gut gone goosey, like some silly teenage groupie with no friend along to poke her and remind her not to stare. The tinny chords from a steel guitar looped round and round her, while a dying bulb in a beer sign above the door marked “Can” did a crazy dance.
Can, indeed, she thought giddily. Can and did. Searched and found. The man she wanted was sitting kitty-corner across the bar, big as life. She had followed her leads and her instincts deep into the backwoods, nearly to the Canadian border, and found the man she’d been looking for perched on an common bar stool.
She wasn’t staring. She didn’t have to. Heather Reardon was a professional. She had the eavesdropping ear of an owl and the peripheral vision of a horse. Staring was no way to get what she’d come to the Minnesota backwoods for, which was not so much the man as his story. But the man—seeing him in the flesh, hearing his voice live, remembering his public deeds as well as the personal stories she’d been told —the man was something else.
His name was Kole Kills Crow, and he was acting remarkably ordinary, sitting there minding the beer on the stained bar, the sportscaster on the small screen above the fat bartender’s head, and the occasional comment from the younger Indian man sitting two stools down on his far side. He didn’t resemble any fugitive she’d ever encountered—and she’d met a few—nor did he strike her as a martyr. He didn’t look like a rabble-rouser or a terrorist or a messianic leader of Native people or a convict. He certainly didn’t look like a murderer, but Heather had interviewed enough murderers to know that you couldn’t tell by looking at them.
And he knew she was looking at him, if furtively. That much she could tell by the way he studiously ignored her.
She was fairly certain that being the only woman in the Cheap Shot Saloon rendered her somewhat noticeable. She was also the only Caucasian, although the bartender was probably more white than Indian. He was the only person who’d said anything to her so far—“What’ll it be?” and then “Never heard of it. You got a second choice?” She’d ended up with red wine vinegar in a juice glass.
“How is it?” the bartender asked her after he’d delivered a couple of beers at the other end of the bar. “The wine.”
Heather looked down at the glass. Not that she’d forgotten, but she couldn’t bring herself to look the guy in the eye when she said, “Fine.”
“Didn’t know if it would keep. Opened it up for a lady last month.”
“Last month? Well . . .” She flashed a tight smile. “As long as you keep the cap screwed on tight.”
“Lost the cap, so I just . . .”
“Are you palming off some of that stuff you make yourself, Mario?”
The bartender raised his voice as he shot the younger man a scowl. “Put a cork in it.”
“Damn, we lose more tourists that way.”
The exchange drew a chuckle from the reticent Mr. Kills Crow as he set his beer down after taking a sip.
“They come all this way to soak up the flavor of, uh, the native. . .” The young guy made a rolling gesture. “What do you call it, Kola?”
“Not that. The atmosphere. The whole cultural—“
“That ain’t hooch, hey. That there’s genuine—“ The bartender grabbed the bottle, checked the label, then shoved it under the younger man’s nose. “Italian. It’s Italian wine. Imported from Chicago. I got a cousin there.”
Heather slid Kills Crow a quick glance. She had the edge. She knew who he was, knew from her reading that kola was the Lakota word for friend, knew that they were both visitors to the woodsy Northern Minnesota Blue Fish Indian reservation that was home, not to the Lakota, but to their traditional rivals, the Chippewa. He, on the other hand, knew nothing about her.
Not that he was interested. Clearly he meant to spare her no more than a glance as he lifted his beer, but he stopped short of a sip and lowered the bottle. A spark flashed in his dark eyes, like a secret smile. “You’re supposed to let the lady check the cork, Mario,” he said.
He no longer wore his hair in the braids he’d sported when he’d waved an assault rifle above his head and defied the South Dakota National Guard with a chilling whoop that echoed across the airwaves into living rooms across the country. Heather had had only had a passing interest at the time—much like that reflected in the look he was giving her now—but she’d since gathered every piece of news he’d made. His hair had been jet-black then. It was shorter now and streaked with an abundance of silver for a forty-year-old man. She could count the years in his tawny face, too, but he wore them well. And his eyes promised a fascinating story.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with the cork. See? Just a cork.” Mario snatched it out of the sink and thrust it under each nose along the bar, as though he wanted them to sniff for spoilage. “Damn, you guys,” Mario said, flicking the cork in the young man’s face when he grimaced. “She said herself, it’s good wine. Right?”
“I said it was fine.” She nodded, another tight smile for the bartender as she grabbed the glass, cast a quick glance at the man she’d come fifteen thousand miles to find.
Dare ya, said the eyes with the secret smile.
She drank, willing her tongue to let the stuff pass quietly, finishing off by turning a sour pucker into a savory lip smack, then a grin. “Mighty fine wine,” she declared.
The secret smile turned public.
The younger man applauded.
Bartender Mario looked worried. “You’re the wine expert, Jack. How many days does it have to age before it’s safe to chug like that?” He laughed when Heather’s face fell. “Just kidding. You’re a good sport.”
“What is your sport?” Kole’s friend, Jack, asked. “Hiking, fishing, canoeing? What brings you way out here from way over . . .” He gestured with a revolving index finger. “. . . yonder?”
“East,” she said with a nod as she lit a cigarette. “A little of each, along with the fact that I’ve never seen this part of the country.”
“Did you know you’re on an Indian reservation?”
“Yes, but it’s not closed to non-Indians, is it?” She glanced at Kole through her smoke. “I actually have a little Indian blood. Cherokee, I think.”
“That puts you in with about ninty-nine percent of the population,” Jack said.
“I suppose that sounds . . .” She waved her own claim away with cigarette smoke, embarrassed to have made it to these people in this place. “Family fable, I guess. Am I not allowed to be here? I’m staying at the lodge, which was advertised on the Internet.”
“What kinda net?” somebody beyond the bar put in.
“Internet,” the young man said. “They use it to fish for tourists.”
“It’s legal,” Mario reported with a grin. “No limits, no season.”
“Is it covered by treaty?”
“Some white guy invented it,” another voice reported, the conversation spreading like ripples from a pebble plunk.
“Then we’re safe. You’ve got a home page, Mario?”
“They gave it to me free with the Internet service.”
“You got a computer?”
“No, but I’m gonna get one pretty soon.”
“He uses mine,” Jack said.
“It’s the cheapest kind of advertising you can get, and it works.” Mario jerked his chin in Heather’s direction. “Reeled in a real nice one.”
“Without even mentioning the fine wine,” Heather said.
“Mighty fine wine. Would you care for another hit?”
With a quick hand she covered the glass. “Oh, no, thanks, I’m fine.”
“Mighty fine.” Mario winked at her, went to brace an arm on the bar and tipped over a bowl of peanuts, which he quickly brushed onto the floor behind the bar. “What are you fishing for?”
“Well . . . fish. Whatever bites.”
“You’ve got three or four of us here swimming around the hook here,” Jack said, grinning. “But Mario can’t do any serious biting since his ol’ lady wired his jaws.”
Other baiters chimed in.
“Stuffed and mounted is what he is.”
“When Mario has a few beers, his ol’ lady does all the pissing. That’s how close they are.”
With lips rather than fingers Mario pointed past the bar. “What about you, Dogskin? You’re caught, too.”
“But I’m about to be released. She kicked me out two days ago.”
“I have a feeling I’m in way over my head here,” Heather said with a laugh. “But I really do need a guide.” As long as everyone seemed easy with her now, she slid Kole a look to complement those he’d given her. “Would you be interested?”
“That’s not my line,” he said quietly.
“Mario knows every trail around here,” Jack said. “But if you’re looking for an outfitter, you probably should have—”
“Is that what you’re looking for?” Kole asked, his eyes telling her he knew better. “An outfitter?”
“Well, all right, maybe I will have something in a sealed bottle,” she said with a pointed glance at his beer.
Kole signaled the bartender, who served her a bottle and a glass. The glass appeared to be Mario’s special favor to her, since no one else had one. She figured the bottle was safer, but she didn’t want to hurt any feelings or cause any offense, so she poured, sipped, grimaced—she wasn’t a beer drinker—nodded, smiled, and thanked them both. She was, she decided, making progress.
“I’m Heather Reardon, from New York. I’m a writer, and I’m here for a much-needed getaway and a little of that ambiance you mentioned.”
“I mentioned? That must be something you saw on the Internet, Heather Reardon from New York.” Kole Kills Crow had a formidable scowl. “Did you advertise our ambiance, Mario? Is that what we’re selling these days?”
“There’s plenty here,” she said.
He laughed. “Yeah, but you gotta pay for it. We’re not giving it away. Not even to the great-great granddaughter of a Cherokee princess.”
“I’ll pay.” She laughed, too, because he couldn’t drive her away with a stick, not when his eyes kept inviting her back. She stubbed her cigarette out in the black plastic ashtray. “What would a dance cost me?”
“You want a guide or an escort service?”
“Just a dance.”
He tipped his head to one side, drew his mouth down, considering.
Jack slapped him on the shoulder. “Where are your manners, Kola? The lady’s askin’ nice.”
He surprised her when he slid from the stool. “I’ll risk it if you will. No charge.”
“The man is priceless,” Jack said.
YOU NEVER CAN TELL by Kathleen Eagle
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