Something is rotten in the Fort Belknap Reservation. Life has always been tough on this barren stretch just south of the Canadian border, but now the children are getting sick. While playing his fiddle in a reservation bar, part-time deputy Gabriel Du Pré meets an accordionist who suspects the children’s health defects and low test scores are connected to pollution from the nearby Persephone gold mine.
Meanwhile, Du Pré investigates the disappearance of one of the afflicted children. When the boy turns up dead, the accordionist’s theory gains credence. It wouldn’t be the first time the rich men of Montana found wealth at the expense of the reservation’s kids. But is there something more than greed and indifference at work? Something even more sinister? Du Pré will make it his business to find out.
“In other hands, melodrama could easily rear its head and trample the scenery, but Bowen has a firm grip on his large cast of interesting players . . . [in this] tale of grace vs. greed” (Publishers Weekly).
The Stick Game is the 7th book in The Montana Mysteries Featuring Gabriel Du Pré series, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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About the Author
Following time at the University of Michigan and the University of Montana, he published his first novel, Yellowstone Kelly, in 1987. After two more novels featuring the real-life western hero, Bowen published Coyote Wind (1994), which introduced Gabriel Du Pré, a mixed-race lawman living in fictional Toussaint, Montana. He has written fifteen novels in the series, in which Du Pré gets tangled up in everything from cold-blooded murder to the hunt for rare fossils. Bowen continues to live and write in Livingston, Montana.
Peter Bowen (b. 1945) is an author best known for mystery novels set in the modern American West. When he was ten, Bowen’s family moved to Bozeman, Montana, where a paper route introduced him to the grizzled old cowboys who frequented a bar called The Oaks. Listening to their stories, some of which stretched back to the 1870s, Bowen found inspiration for his later fiction. Following time at the University of Michigan and the University of Montana, Bowen published his first novel, Yellowstone Kelly, in 1987. After two more novels featuring the real-life Western hero, Bowen published Coyote Wind (1994), which introduced Gabriel Du Pré, a mixed-race lawman living in fictional Toussaint, Montana. Bowen has written fourteen novels in the series, in which Du Pré gets tangled up in everything from cold-blooded murder to the hunt for rare fossils. Bowen continues to live and write in Livingston, Montana.
Read an Excerpt
The Stick Game
A Montana Mystery Featuring Gabriel Du Pré
By Peter Bowen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2000 Peter Bowen
All rights reserved.
The night was warm for Montana. Du Pré and Madelaine wandered among the booths, where the traders had sat all day, selling jewelry and clothing and crafts. Some of the traders were boxing their things up and taking down the folding display stands.
The Crow Fair at the agency. A bleak town in a third world nation in the United States. The Crows had fought with and scouted for the whites. They had little choice, stuck between the powerful Sioux and the crazy Blackfeet. They were rewarded with some good land south of the Yellowstone and north of the Beartooth Mountains. And the good land was taken by the whites, for cattle, and the Crows shoved east into the hard dry country around the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
"Me," said Madelaine, "I don't want, see them fancy-dancers. I see them fancydancers all the time, always doin' the same thing. Roosters. There is a Stick Game, in that big tent over there, huh?"
Du Pré nodded. The day had been hot. His feet ached from walking around. Alcohol was forbidden at the fairgrounds. He'd run out of Bull Durham and he was smoking pissy tailormade cigarettes that were stale and not good tobacco to begin with.
Du Pré was bored.
A big tent made of dark green nylon stood off on a small patch of ground, surrounded by picnic tables. The tables were full of people resting and drinking sodas. Mostly tourists, carrying cameras. Two tables were filled with Japanese, who chattered gaily.
People were spilling out of the front of the big green tent. Du Pré and Madelaine waited until the stream of people thinned and then they made their way inside and over to some bleachers which had a few seats near the top. They climbed up a narrow walk and sat and looked down.
"Kiowas," said Madelaine, "They are pretty good Stick Game players, beat them Sioux, last couple years."
Stick Game, Du Pré thought, this is that. I remember, the one got the bundle of sticks, seventeen or twenty-one, she hold them behind her back and the other team guesses how many she got in each hand. But while they are guessing they got to tell stories, stickholder she tell stories back, sometimes songs. Each story, better than the last.
Three times, the guessing team tells a better story, the stickholder has to tell them what she got in each hand, they win, or they can guess, try to be lucky.
I think that is how I remember it is played.
Hard to tell, I don't talk Kiowa so good. Kiowa, they say they are Apaches some, never went up into the mountains, stay on the Staked Plains. They were cannibals, like them Sioux and Comanches.
There was a lot of money piled to one side of the players, one for the game, another for side bets, and then there were the real side bets going on between pairs of spectators. Illegal gambling but the State of Montana was a little smarter than trying to bust a Stick Game in the middle of Crow Fair.
Maybe they are that smart, Du Pré thought, though I see them do plenty that is not very smart.
"Du Pré!" said Madelaine, "That is Jeanne Bouyer there! She is my cousin! I have not seen her, maybe ten years!"
Half them people on earth, Madelaine's cousins, Du Pré thought. Chinese cousins. Russian cousins, cousins, Switzerland. Woman has more damn cousins than them Martins got sheep.
The Kiowas were guessing. Suddenly one Kiowa woman, a big stately woman in a green beaded cape, stood up and she began to sing a song and tell a story with her hands. She made a snatching motion.
The Gros Ventré team was defeated. The stickholder laid down the two bundles of sticks. The Kiowa women picked up the money piled to the side and in the crowd people were digging in purses or pockets for money and handing it over to people who looked much happier than the diggers were.
"Must have been a good story," said Madelaine, "That Kiowa she just take the Gros Ventré right out of the air, there."
Take the contest.
Du Pré snorted.
"We go see Jeanne," said Madelaine, "I know you are bored, we see her a minute, then we go and get you a drink, Du Pré."
Du Pré followed Madelaine down the steps of the bleachers and through the crowd, which was milling and talking loudly.
Madelaine caught up to her cousin, who was standing with the other three women on the Gros Ventré team. They were all smiling sadly and shaking their heads.
"Jeanne!" said Madelaine. She dragged Du Pré forward by the hand. "How are you, your babies? Your husband?"
Jeanne looked at Madelaine for a moment and then she recognized her and she smiled.
"Ho!" she said, "It is that Madelaine!"
"I am fine. My husband, he was a shit, so I divorce him. Go off to Minneapolis, go to school, but I don't like it there. My babies are ... they are pretty good. I guess."
Du Pré looked away while the women talked.
When Madelaine pulled him forward to be introduced he smiled.
"Du Pré," said Jeanne, "You be good, my friend Madelaine, I kick your ass you are not."
"She kick my ass I am not," said Du Pré, "So you don't got to help. Worry, either."
"Uh," said Jeanne. She was tall and a little heavy, with a wide smooth face and black eyes. Her hair was braided and the ends of the braids were wrapped with otter skin. She had on some heavy silver bracelets and a choker of buffalo bone and trade beads, black, white, and red.
"Them Kiowa they are tough," said Jeanne, "That was a hard game. But we are better, maybe, next time."
Two other teams had faced off on the blankets and the songs were starting. The air in the tent was close. Du Pré wanted a cigarette.
"Du Pré," said Madelaine, "She meet us, downtown, the bar there that is the Stockman, huh?"
"Ok," said Du Pré. Relief.
"Yah," said Jeanne, "I want to get rid, some of this jewelry, maybe go down, have a cheeseburger."
"A beer," said Du Pré.
"I don't drink alcohol no more," said Jeanne.
Jeanne went off toward a small door in the back of the big tent. Du Pré and Madelaine pushed their way through the crowd and outside. The air was a little cooler but not that much.
Madelaine took Du Pré's arm and she held close to him.
"My cousin she got something on her mind," said Madelaine.
"Uh," said Du Pré.
"Her kids, they are in trouble some," said Madelaine.
"What she say?" said Du Pré.
"She don't say nothing," said Madelaine, "She don't have to. Women they get that little line between their eyebrows, go up and down, they are worried a lot. She is rid of that shit Gros Ventré she marry, she got that line, so it is her kids."
Du Pré nodded.
Me, I can track a coyote across rocks but not a woman's mind across her forehead, he thought, so that is about right.
"Who is this shit Gros Ventré?" said Du Pré.
"He is that Charley Bouyer. I never like him, he is mean, I see his eyes. He beat her up some, you bet."
Gros Ventré got a Métis name, lots of them Sioux, Crow, whatever. Us Métis, we marry anybody, Du Pré thought, they still don't like us much. That Charley Bouyer I know him, can't remember.
They walked through the parked cars to Du Pré's old police cruiser, shorn of the light bar and siren but still very fast. They got in and drove to downtown Hardin and found the Stockman and they went on in.
The bar had been recently redone and it smelled of disinfectant. The floor was quarry tile and the bartop was thick plastic over wood. The walls still held yellowed photographs of ranchers, mostly white. There were branding irons and a pair of dried- out shotgun chaps and the usual ratty antelope heads mounted on slabs of oak, with brass plates to tell who had shot them.
A stuffed javelina on a shelf over the old nickel-plated cash register, and a stuffed longhorn head. The longhorn head was pretty new and hadn't lost much hair yet.
Du Pré ordered a whiskey ditch for himself and some sweet wine for Madelaine. The cheerful woman behind the bar mixed the drinks and she took Du Pré's money and she gave him change and Du Pré left a dollar on the bartop for a tip.
They drank and waited for Jeanne Bouyer.
They danced for a while. After two hours they looked at each other. "I don't think that she will come," said Du Pré. Madelaine shook her head. "It is her kids," she said.
The drove to the motel and watched television for a while before going to bed.CHAPTER 2
Du Pré was fiddling with some Turtle Mountain people. They were on stage in Calgary, one of several stages set up on the park grounds. People could wander and find an act that they liked and then sit and hear it and go on.
There were hawkers of fruit juices and snacks wandering in front of the stage.
Du Pré was very thirsty and he wished the song would end in time for him to snag one of the hawkers and get a cool drink. But by the time the song ended the hawkers were too far away.
Du Pré and the Turtle Mountain people finished their set and took a break and they went to the edge of the stage and cased their instruments while an old-timey band of bearded college types set up.
"Pret' good playin'," said Bassman. He slipped a chamois cover over the fretless electric bass he had made himself.
"Yah," said Du Pré. "You lay up that good floor there."
Bassman nodded. He was a fine bass player, subtle, always proving a steady beat and rhythm for the violin and guitar to lift up from. He was Du Pré's cousin. They had been playing together off and on for nearly forty years.
"You know," said Du Pré, "I been playin' with that Tally, him on the accordion, long time, I don't know what happen to his legs."
Tally's legs were twisted and he had a bad back. He used crutches to get from place to place, though he could manage to stump for short distances, his head thrown way back to keep his balance.
"Born that way," said Bassman, "His mother she is in Ontario when she is pregnant with him. Her husband he is working in the smelter at Sudbury. They are poor, she gets some bad water, had something in it. Lots of kids there are crippled, some of them retarded, they have to be in the hospitals all their lives. Lots of babies born dead, too."
Du Pré nodded:
"Well," he said, "He play that accordion pret' good."
Du Pré lifted his fiddle case, a rawhide one his father had made and his mother had beaded and quilled.
Tally was packing up his accordion. He leaned on one crutch and held the other under his arm and he seated the accordion and closed the lid and flipped the catches and he lifted the heavy case easily and held it against his right crutch and he made for the stairs. He was enormously powerful in the shoulders and arms. Someone made his shirts for him. His neck and upper arms would have burst a storebought shirt at the seams.
"We play again, three hours," said Bassman. He was looking at a schedule. "That Sound Stage seven, right after that lady singer from Texas."
Du Pré nodded.
Du Pré heard the ululations of the Inuit throatsingers in the distance. He grinned. He walked down the steps and made off toward the eerie warbling.
Them Inuit make me think of ice and snow ever'where, they sing, Du Pré thought, pret' cold up there, the Arctic Ocean. Hunting seals. Man want to make his wife happy, he take her a seal liver. Wealth. Me, I would like to go, see where these good people came from.
The Inuit were grouped around a bank of four microphones. The crowd was paying rapt attention. Du Pré stood in the back and he listened hard. The Inuit didn't pause between songs, they would change the tune a little and keep going. After half an hour, they quit.
The people watching clapped hands and they cheered. The Inuit smiled shyly. They were older people, and not used to so many people all in one place. Or trees. He had seen some of them touching the trunk of a maple and looking up at the green leaves with wonder on their faces. At the tents where the performers ate, the Inuit ate salads. Huge salads. They loved salads.
Far north people, tough country. No salads.
Du Pré went to the performers' tent and he found his bag and he fished a plastic bottle out and had a swig of whiskey. It was very expensive in Canada, and you had to go to a Government store to get it.
"We don't sell it in the drugstores," said the clerk, looking at the performer's badge on Du Pré's shirt.
Them tightass English, Du Pré had thought, me, I never like them that much. Got no blood, or something.
There were a couple scarlet-coated Mounties wandering through the festival. Tall and with moustaches. Keeping the peace.
Du Pré sipped his whiskey and he rolled a cigarette and went on outside, through a door in the back of the tent. There were portable toilets there and a shower enclosure with a pressure tank and a propane water heater. Some of the performers got soaked in sweat, if they were on a stage that faced the sun, the stage gathered heat like a solar oven.
"Hey, Du Pré!" said Tally. Du Pré looked over and down. Tally was less than five feet tall with his crutches, though he had a big head and he was very handsome in his face.
"Good accordion," said Du Pré.
"You are wondering about my legs, eh?" said Tally. He was grinning.
Du Pré was embarrassed. Damn Bassman.
"Bassman don't say nothin'," said Tally, "I just see your face, there, I see a face like that all the time. My mother, she drink bad water and I am born like this. My spine was not covered, down low, it is open to the air. I almost die."
Du Pré nodded.
He looked at Tally's left hand. No ring, he had never married.
"Me," said Tally, "I stay away from them women, don't want one marry me because she pity me. Also, I get infections down there, all the time, I stink sometimes."
Du Pré rolled a cigarette and handed it to him.
"That damn mining company they say they don't know why I am like this, they are so sorry," Tally went on, "But then all these poor people they have babies like me, or simple, or born dead. Too many of them. People don't live near a mine, a smelter, they are all right mostly, this only happens once, a while."
Du Pré nodded.
"I am taking a shower," said Tally, "Had the infection, it is draining again. Maybe you watch my accordion?"
Du Pré nodded. Tally could check his accordion with the security people but he obviously didn't want to.
Tally went inside and he got a bag and went to the shower enclosure and he pulled back the plastic sheet and went in. Du Pré heard the water.
Du Pré had some more whiskey. He waited fifteen minutes and then Tally came out in fresh clothes. He had his bag and a piece of newspaper folded up. He put the newspaper in the trash.
"Thanks," he said. He looked at Du Pré.
"You know, we got our people, Fort Belknap Reservation, got a lot of our people there," Tally said slowly.
Du Pré nodded.
"Some of them kids, a lot of them kids, they are having some trouble in school," said Tally, "So the mining company says, it is not us, our gold mine, it is because they are dumb Indians."
Du Pré nodded.
"Kids got the lowest test scores, whole state of Montana," said Tally, "And they all live, next to the two creeks the mine drains water from."
OK, Du Pré thought, here it comes.
"That mining company, Persephone," said Tally, "It is killing them kids. Might as well. Lots of birth defects, too."
Du Pré waited.
"You good at finding things out, Du Pré," said Tally, "I hear that you are very good, finding things out."
Du Pré nodded.
"The people, State of Montana, supposed to see that the mine don't poison people, they say the water is fine, Du Pré," said Tally, "But if the water is fine, why are the kids so stupid, so many of them?"
Du Pré looked at Tally.
"It is too late for me," said Tally, "But maybe not for them, or the ones not born yet. You maybe go there, look?"
Du Pré shrugged.
"They your people, Du Pré," said Tally. He gripped Du Pré's wrist and he squeezed slowly.
Du Pré looked at him.
"Don't you, break my bones," said Du Pré.
Tally laughed. He let go.
"They are your people, lots of people, ver'sad," said Tally, "I hear you got a rich friend, he maybe help find out, that water."
Du Pré shrugged. Bart was rich. Of course he would.
"You maybe do this," said Tally, "Not for me, for that music?"
Du Pré grinned.
"OK," he said, "I will go and see."
"No," said Tally, "You don't go and see."
Tally's dark eyes were level and full of fire.
"You go and find," he said, "You find, Du Pré. They are killing, your people."
Du Pré nodded.
He had a little more whiskey.CHAPTER 3
Du Pré was standing on the slope of one of the low hills near a buffalo jump. The contours of the hills were soft and in places limestone formations weathered out by the chewing waters hugged the little arroyos. It was August and it was damn hot. The grass was ready to burn. If it caught fire it could move, with the right wind, eighty miles an hour.
Down below there was a small archaeological dig. The rancher who owned the land permitted the University of Washington to excavate a site near an old stream that had cut down and filled in and now was just a greener stripe of rank grass winding between old banks.
Long time ago, it ran with a lot of water, Du Pré thought.
He walked back down the hill. A young woman wearing a space suit was washing soil in a box sieve. She sprayed pressured water on the soil that the diggers brought.
Bart was standing with the archaeologist. He was waving his hands.
"... send me the published material and I'm sure that the family foundation will consider it," said Bart.
Excerpted from The Stick Game by Peter Bowen. Copyright © 2000 Peter Bowen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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