Never knowing a real home, Markus Novak’s only constant in life is his passion for paperback westerns. The child of a family of outlaws, he moves through the West town by town with his mother and two uncles, staying in a place just long enough to run a short con and move along. After one job goes south and his mom gets locked up, Markus finds himself in the foster care of a rancher and his wife—with whom he’s strangely comfortable, yet torn by loyalty to the family he’s lost.
To distract himself, he spends his days working the farm and his nights fixing a rusty old ’55 Chevy. Then he discovers a note from his uncles hidden in a book at a local pawnshop and learns that they are hiding out in a mountain town near Yellowstone. Restoring the car soon becomes Markus’s only hope of finding them, and maybe finally finding himself, too.
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By the time Markus was ten he understood the con well enough to participate in it. By the time he was thirteen, he understood it well enough to want nothing to do with it.
That was the year they visited Medicine Wheel, and the pilfering of a few bills from tourists who were happy to offer them suddenly felt evil. That had nothing to do with the con itself, and everything to do with the place.
Markus had seen his mother's routine practiced all over the west — the Black Hills, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, Flathead Lake, Sunlight Basin — by the time they drove for Medicine Wheel, a new stop.
"Special kinds of fools," Uncle Ronny said of the tourists. He drove with one arm resting out the open window the Ford Sport Custom pickup. "The folks who think it's insane that the Sioux won't accept 600 million dollars for the Black Hills, even though they don't have it now and never will again, still believe that any Indian might be in touch with the spirit world."
Markus didn't object, didn't say much of anything, just watched the long empty highway snaking toward the Big Horn Mountains, the highest peaks obscured by low-lying clouds. The four of them were jammed in the cab: Markus and his mother in the middle, Ronny at the wheel, Larry at the opposite window. In the bed of the truck, curled up on blankets, was a dog of unknown origins named Amigo. It had been a good week — Markus's mother had made nearly two hundred in palm readings, Ronny had made fifty in a trick-shooting demonstration, and Larry had lost only forty at poker. They were coming out ahead, which was probably what convinced them to take the shot at Medicine Wheel.
Markus's mother was a slim, petite woman with light brown hair and blue eyes. During the summer tourist season, though, you wouldn't see the blue eyes or the light hair. Between tanning beds and tinted lotion her face became the color of the inside of a walnut. Her hair was dyed raven-black and lay straight down her back in a perfect, tight braid, with a few feathers interwoven. Her blue eyes were hidden by dark contacts. She looked to have exactly the heritage she claimed, and that was critical, because Snow Creek Maiden, princess of the Nez Perce, got a lot more palm-reading dollars than did Violet Novak, single white female, of Billings.
All she got were collection notices.
Because it had been a good week, both in revenue and in weather, with summer at its beautiful peak, the sky huge and blue and cloudless except near the peaks, the country fanned by gentle winds, they were feeling bullish about the ruse, and Markus found Medicine Wheel intriguing for reasons he wouldn't mention to his family. Truth be told, he was fascinated with the Native American rituals, particularly the drum circles and chants, a sound that carried you right out of the present and into an unknown past. He was the only one who cared to see what the ancient, sacred site at nearly two miles in the air actually looked like; the others cared only that it sounded ripe for the taking.
His uncles often rode his mother's con based on their sense of energy, like a poker game, and so Markus wasn't surprised that they endorsed the plan. Also, it had nothing to do with them. They only drove the truck. His mother didn't have such clear motivation. She was known to give up on a good location to pursue a bad one without explanation, and Markus never voiced his guess — that, on some secret level, she had begun to believe her own act. He suspected there was at least a part of her, hidden beneath the laughter and behind the dark contacts, that thought she truly heard spirit voices better in some places than others.
None of this weighed much on Markus as they drove into Wyoming. The biggest concern on his mind was a girl from his seventh grade class in Cody named Ruby, a rancher's daughter with endless blue eyes and an unabashed yelp of a laugh. He couldn't imagine any reason for her to be in the Big Horns in summer, but there was a chance, and if she saw him ...God, he couldn't deal with that.
It was a silly concern for two reasons, really. One, Ruby wasn't likely to be in the Big Horns, true, but the second reason was sadder than the first and so he didn't like to consider it: Markus hadn't spent more than a semester in the same school in five years. He was unlikely to see Ruby again under any circumstances.
They spent the first morning getting acquainted with the location. The wheel was nearly ten thousand feet in elevation, with 28 stone cairns laid out in a circle by unknown hands hundreds and possibly thousands of years before. For as long as understood in recorded history, it had been a sacred spot of the Crow and Arapaho tribes in particular, and its 28 cairns mirrored the 28 sacred lodge poles of the Lakota sun dance. Now in the possession of the United States government, it was also a seasonal tourist attraction, accessible when the snow on the high mountain pass melted enough to allow access. During the season, it was staffed by rangers at top and bottom. The parking lot was a mile below the Medicine Wheel, and it was a steep walk up over the windswept mountainside. Markus's mother determined that the best location would be somewhere in that mile, forcing one ranger to come up or the other to go down if they wanted to harass her. By the time that happened, she would be done, and have both the tourists' money and their support. Depending how often they changed rangers, she thought could do well here. Very well.
"It's perfect," she said after returning from her first walk to the top. "So much spiritual energy! Even the people who don't think they believe might want to believe up there. And the rangers are good, actually. They reinforce the chain of thought. One of their jobs to is protect the chance for people to worship. You're asked to be silent to respect the Indians, and you're asked to walk in the right direction around the wheel. From up there, you feel as if you're on top of the world. Absolutely perfect."
She was almost breathless.
Markus thought that the idea of police stationed to protect the chance for people to worship was a strange one, but maybe not. Everybody seemed to want a piece of the Indians as they passed through, some little token of the authentic western experience. Instead, they got his mother.
They still drove home satisfied.
While she talked about strategy, Markus focused on his fly box. He was fishing a stream to the southeast of Medicine Wheel and had caught three small brook trout on a hand-tied Caddis imitation. He was proud of that, because the flies, tied in the long nights of a long winter, were the first he'd ever made on his own.
They walked along behind him, talking, making plans.
"Rangers will run you off, Violet," his uncle Larry warned. Larry was the closest to reluctant in the group, which wasn't saying much. Most people would regard him as a hell-raiser, but in Markus's family, he was the voice of reason.
"No, they won't. I'll make a show of ceremony up on top, and then start back down. Stop halfway. It's perfect. It will help that there are other native people here, too."
"Other native people?" Larry said, and then he rolled his eyes and spat. "You do remember our ancestors are German, don't you?"
She waved him off with a cursory hand and then went back to the truck to dress. Markus wandered farther from the truck, crossing the stream on flat stones, wishing she'd take a day off at least, just one. He actually didn't mind their summer ramblings. They saw beautiful country and he had regular opportunities to fish. He liked traveling with his uncles, too. In the times when the four of them were separated and it was just Markus and his mother, the loneliness could overwhelm him. He'd find himself thinking about kids at school then, kids with real families, and he'd go quiet and sullen and begin to hate her.
His uncles kept that at bay. They were always either in the middle of doing something interesting or telling a story of a time something interesting had happened. They'd worked nearly every job in the west at some time or another, fished every stream that was worth fishing, drank at every bar that was worth a stop. Strong men, lively men, loud men. Once Markus had asked if his father had been that kind of man, but nobody said much about him. Not even his name.
After a while, you learned not to ask.
While his mother prepped back at the truck and Ronny smoked a cigarette and lay in the sun with his hat shading his eyes, Larry came down to fish. He asked Markus to read the water and point out the casting zones, pleasing himself by catching the occasional trout out of a hole Markus had dismissed. There were less of them these days, though. He was beginning to read the water very well.
"Hell of a spot, isn't it?" Larry said. He'd stopped casting and was idly scratching Amigo's ears and looking at the forested slopes and the high rock peaks. The breeze smelled of the fir trees and their limbs dulled the sun to a slanted light that cast sparkles over the rippled water.
Markus said, "Yes, it is. Think we'll be staying long?"
Larry's peaceful smile slid away. He took his hand from the dog's ears, brought out a cigarette, and lit it.
"Long enough for your mom to make some coin, anyhow. Right now, your uncle and I can't stay in one spot for too long, though. You know how that is, son."
In late spring, just before the last snow, Larry and Ronny had been arrested for stealing a car in Cody. Their justification made enough sense — the man they'd stolen it from owed them more than five hundred in poker debt, and the car wasn't worth half that — but it hadn't mattered much to the police. Markus's mother had scraped enough money together for bond, but since then they'd been on the move, and they were always a traffic stop away from jail.
Watching his uncle's face and mood darken, Markus wished he hadn't brought it up. He said, "Hell, they'll never catch you. Anyhow, we'll find ourselves a stronghold if we need to hole up."
That raised a ghost of a smile on his uncle's face, and Larry picked up his rod again. "You got it," he said. "Just like we learned from George Ranger Johnson."
George Ranger Johnson wrote books about men in all sorts of trouble in the west. Larry couldn't put them down, and he'd just lately started letting Markus read them. The characters almost always had a stronghold.
"Always have a backup plan," Larry said as he cast below a riffle that Markus had already tried without success. This time, a trout struck on the fly almost immediately, and Larry soon beached the best fish of the day, its speckled belly gleaming in the sunlit rocks. He slid the hook out of its jaw and released it, but the fish didn't dart away. For a few seconds it held place, moving its tail just enough to hold in the current. Then, in a blink and a flash, it was gone.
Larry watched the trout vanish and said, "It's important that you understand that your mother and Ronny and I, we're sticking together, Markus. Never forget that."
"I'll forgive you for most mistakes, you know that. But you got to have some rules to live by. That's just a matter of honor, like those cowboy stories you like so much."
"I like so much! They're your books!"
Larry laughed. "Fine. That we like so much. Gotta remember your sense of honor, just like the men in those books. You gotta have a plan, and you gotta take care of the people you ride with. And your family. In your case, for now, family is both."
Markus had heard a version of this speech dozens of times, usually offered to explain why they were leaving one town or another after one uncle or another — or, plenty of times, his mother — had gotten into some type of trouble.
"I know it, Uncle."
"And you also know we've got a bit of risk out here."
The bit of risk involved the active arrest warrants for car theft. Markus didn't like considering that on any level — what it meant that his uncles had stolen a car, or what might happen if they were caught for it, but Larry was looking at him with a hard stare that said they were talking man- to-man, not man-to-boy, and Markus forced himself to meet his uncle's eyes.
"All right. Your mom's going to do her thing here, and I'm not saying it'll go bad, but if it does, Ronny and I ... well, we can't exactly linger to see how it sorts out. You follow?"
Markus nodded again. There was a thick ledge forming in the back of his throat, but if he kept his eyes on his uncle's, the tears stayed away.
"Now, I'm not expecting trouble," Larry said, "but if there is any, I got a way of contacting you all worked out. You remember that bookstore in Powell?"
The bookstore was little more than a couple of bookcases at the back of a pawn shop where the owner paid less attention to the sources of items than their immediate value, but Larry always called it the bookstore when they took Markus along, and Ronny dealt with selling the guns, car parts, stereo equipment, or whatever else might be in play that day while Larry and Markus browsed the old books.
"If we get separated for any reason, you get down there, and look for my George Ranger Johnson books. You'll know 'em. I'll leave a note in there for you, okay?"
Markus felt an overwhelming sense of alarm. There was a difference between this plan and the ones he'd discussed with his uncle before — it felt more real, and less like a game.
"We're not going to get separated, are we? I don't understand —"
"Just listen to me, Markus. I'm telling you, if it were to happen, you need to find a way to get down there. The way I see it is, nobody's going to keep a kid from getting a book, right? Everybody thinks reading is good for a kid." Larry seemed to be talking to himself as much as to Markus now. "So you tell them you want a book, and you get over to that store, and you'll find the right books, and I'll leave word for you in them. Okay?"
"Who are you talking about? Who would I be with? I don't want to —"
"Markus." Larry's voice softened and he knelt before Markus and gripped his upper arm gently. "We're gonna be fine, hoss. I'm just doing what I always do, and thinkin' ahead. You need to learn how to do the same. It's a mean world for a man who can't see the horizon. You understand that?"
Markus blinked back the rising tears and nodded.
"Of course you do," Larry said, and clapped him on the back. "Do you know how to catch a damned trout, though?"
"Best prove it. You've been showing off with that cast, trying to look pretty. You catch a fish in the air, you'll be the first man to do it."
Markus laughed and coughed to clear away the tears. He turned back to the water, trying to breathe and relax. They were fishing, that was all he needed to worry about. The horizon, whatever it held, didn't matter right now.
"Tighten it up now," Larry said. "Read the water, and tighten your motion up."
Markus made a short cast just below the base of a fallen tree. No strike, but it was a fine cast, and Larry nodded in approval. Four casts later, a riffle caught his fly and sucked it down toward the bone-white limb of the downed tree and then there was a flash of color and splash as a cutthroat hit it. Markus jerked the line, setting the hook in the trout's lower jaw, and then kept his rod tip up and fought the fish to the bank. It wasn't big, but it was beautiful, and it was earned by careful casting. They didn't need to be big to be wonderful.
"That's my nephew at work right there," Larry said with enough pride to make Markus flush as he removed the hook and put the trout into his creel.
They went on down the bank, and Markus would have been happy to spend the rest of the day fishing and talking with his uncle, Amigo trailing behind, hunting patches of sunlight to sleep in, but it wasn't to be. A busload of tourists from Ohio pulled in, and Markus's mother saw potential.
"I'm going to need you, Markus."
He wanted to argue, but he knew better. "Right."
His role in the con was both integral and shameful. He'd dress to look as much like a rich tourist's kid as possible. Then he'd come by his mother once she was in a session, her fingertips tracing someone's palm, her voice issuing a low hum or chant, and he'd say something racist and cruel. She would look at him gently then, playing the part of the implacable Indian, used to this treatment. The white man or woman paying for the reading usually threw in a couple extra bills on account of guilt-by-proxy, as Larry termed it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last Honest Horse Thief"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Koryta.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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