SCALP DANCE, by Lu Clifton - CHAPTER ONE
One, two, three . . . four.
Sam Chitto eyed the men standing in the trailer’s shadow. The singlewide sat on U.S. 70, accounting for the state patrol officer’s presence. A Hugo, Oklahoma city limit sign across the road explained why the town cop was there. The man in the tan uniform had a sheriff’s department insignia on his sleeve, accounting for his interest. A fourth man, wearing the black-and-gray uniform of the Choctaw Nation Tribal Police, waved him into the driveway. Pulling his white Tahoe alongside another one just like it, he killed the engine and waited.
Tommy Rideout climbed into Chitto’s SUV, fanning his face with a campaign hat. “What took you so long, Sam?”
Rideout was young, fresh out of training, and did his uniform proud. Biceps stretched sleeves taut, damp cloth outlined tight abs. Chitto wondered if he’d ever been as fit.
“Got here soon as I could, Eight.”
Chitto had trouble with names. He had field responsibility for District 9 but handled multiple-district responsibilities when needed. Like today. While still a rookie, he had resorted to using associations as identifiers—a physical characteristic or a place; easier yet, a number—which led to using the district number to ID the respective field officer. The rationale made sense. People came and went. The Nation’s districts remained the same.
“This what it looks like?” he asked, eyeing the three officers in the distance.
“Yep. Mexican standoff. Girl’s been raped and it’s not clear whose land this trailer’s settin’ on. You bring a checkerboard?”
“Raped,” Chitto hissed. “When you called, you said I needed to mediate an incident.”
“Well, see . . .” Eight dipped his chin, staring at the floorboard. “The, uh, the girl was right next to me—listening—and, uh . . .”
Chitto listened to his words fade. Though new, the young officer had what it took to be a good, solid tribal officer. He believed in protecting the Choctaw and their land, and didn’t go looking for trouble.
“Okay, then,” Chitto sighed. “Let’s see if it’s in our jurisdiction, or out.” He pulled a map from the glove compartment and unfolded it. The patchwork of colored blocks—the checkerboard—represented the homeland of the Choctaw since the Removal, the forced march of the Choctaws from Mississippi to Oklahoma in the 1830s. Subsequent chopping and changing of tribal boundaries by successive governments had created a nightmare of jurisdictional problems for modern peacemakers.
The problem drove Chitto and every other lawman to distraction, not least because of the amount of time wasting it caused. Here today were five officers—most of them standing around twiddling their thumbs—forced to wait for a consultation involving a map to determine whose jurisdiction this particular crime fit in.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Frustration among investigating officers occasionally escalated into arguments and disputes worse than the crimes being investigated. More than once, an officer’s performance bordered on idiotic. More than once, the suspect slipped out the back way and was never brought to justice. Those with a perverse sense of humor found the situation laughable. But they weren’t the ones dealing with the fallout.
To Chitto’s thinking, the whole thing could be brought back to politics. And politicians. The good-old boys. Back slappers with hidden agendas. Chitto had little use for politicians. Truth be told, he hated them with a vengeance.
“It’s in. Belongs to us,” he said a minute later. Noticing Eight’s hesitation, he waited for him to voice the cause.
“The guy’s still inside. I’ll send these other boys packing if you’ll handle him. Call just came in on my cell ’bout a domestic dispute. I could follow up on it while you’re finishing up here.”
Chitto stared at him. “You telling me the perp’s inside with the girl?”
“Yeah.” Eight glanced toward the trailer. “But she’s okay. She bashed him after . . . when he was done with her. Dragged him into a closet, wedged a chair under the doorknob, called us. She cold-cocked him a good one. Think he’s sleeping one off, too. Smells like a bottle of Jack.”
Chitto’s chest felt like a hollowed-out gourd. The People called the tribal police ahead of other agencies—those that bothered anymore. Women rarely reported assaults. A few years before, the Nation had been granted government money to fund abuse-prevention programs. All ten and a half counties that fell within the Choctaw Nation boundaries had received train-the-trainer instruction with the money. How to teach young women and battered wives ways to avoid rape and domestic abuse. Still, the numbers were staggering, and most times, the assailant walked free.
“He, uh, he doesn’t look Indian.” Eight ran a hand over dark, burr-cut hair. “So you know what that means.”
Chitto knew only too well. Making an arrest in the checkerboard was quite literally a game of checkers, the ability to make a move dependent on whether the victim and suspect were native or non-native, whether the incident occurred on native or non-native land, whether the Nation had a cross-deputization agreement in place if on non-native land. A crime committed against a native by a native on Indian land was handled in the state court. A crime committed against an Indian by a non-native on Indian-held property was filed in federal court, and sometimes required the tribal police to contact the U.S. attorney’s office to see whether an arrest should be made or paperwork filed for a later indictment. Because an arrest started the clock—putting the attorneys under the gun to build a solid case—tribal police typically filed paperwork in lieu of an arrest. Chitto didn’t have to make a call today. He knew what the answer would be.
“Well, hell.” Chitto sighed again. “Okay, take care of that other incident.”
“Will do. Oh, I called for a victim’s advocate from the county. Be here any minute.”
“That’s good, real good.”
Eight paused as he opened the door, the hint of a grin showing. “It, uh, it smell like cigarettes in here to you?”
Shaking his head, Chitto laughed quietly. “That’s just nostalgia you smell. Now get the hell out of my car.”
Eight was still grinning as he made his way toward the three officers next to the trailer. It was common knowledge that Chitto kept a pack of Marlboro Reds in his glove compartment. No one knew the reason it was there or why it was replaced from time to time with a fresh pack. All they knew for certain was that he had given up smoking four years before—cold turkey. Trading chewing gum for smokes, he bought a pack of Doublemint weekly and stored it next to the Marlboros. His habits had made Chitto the butt end of jokes, not to mention earning him a reputation for being somewhat eccentric, all of which he sloughed away like water off a duck’s back.
Chitto pulled out a stick and folded it into his mouth. Not a day went by when he didn’t want to pull out a cigarette instead. But he didn’t. He kept the Marlboros there as a reminder of a promise he’d made and intended to keep. The aroma of tobacco served to remind him that, whatever else his shortcomings, he was a man of his word.
Opening the car door, he paused, easing scorched air into his lungs. The burnt-out yard provided no relief from record-breaking heat. Summer temperatures typically ran in the nineties, but this year, the norm had been a hundred or better and the skies had granted little rain. On the fifty-mile drive from his office in Durant, he’d noticed trees and bushes turning yellow, dropping leaves early. Still, animals in the field sought out their measly shade.
Retrieving his camera from the backseat, he heard tires crunch on the caliche driveway and watched Rona Guthrie pull up in a sedan with a Choctaw County insignia on the side panel. The victim’s advocate. This dark-haired, dark-eyed woman was a crusader when it came to women’s rights and outspoken about the need for more convictions. In spite of the oppressive heat, her white blouse and beige pantsuit were crisp.
“You boys finally sort out which square this checker’s on?” Not waiting for a reply, she headed for the front steps, the wooden kind that spoke to the impermanence of a home on wheels.
Chitto hustled ahead of her, planning to brief her on the situation.
“Know the drill, Sam.” She pushed past him. “How’s she doing? Take her statement yet?”
“Just got here myself.”
Following her inside, Chitto spotted a girl sitting on a worn sofa, a nervous-eyed dog at her feet. Australian shepherd, a herding dog with a protective nature. Bared teeth brought Rona to a quick stop. Chitto stepped in front of her, watching the girl calm the dog.
“Lieutenant Chitto,” he said, pulling a business card from his shirt pocket. “This is Mrs. Guthrie from the county. We’re here to help you.”
“Name’s Domino,” the girl said, taking the card. “His chain’s at the back door.”
As Rona sat down next to the girl, Chitto hooked a finger in the dog’s collar and led it to the back stoop. Pausing, he noted the lock on the door hadn’t been jimmied. Beyond that, he saw a patch of yellow grass, no fence. A battered red Bronco was parked in the alley, front end jutting into the yard. Driver’s door half open. Liquor bottle in the grass next to it.
Returning to the front room, he eyed the girl. Faded jeans, loose cotton shirt and tennis shoes did not detract from her natural beauty. What did was a split bottom lip and eyes all but swollen shut. A cast-iron skillet lay on the floor at her feet. In legal parlance, a weapon of opportunity.
A strong girl. Proud.
Noticing Chitto studying her, the girl turned her face to the floor.
Always the same . . .
Pulling a kitchen chair into the living room, Chitto laid aside his camera and ran the procedure. “Your name?”
“Teresa Walker with no H. I mean, Teresa, there’s no H in it.”
“Thanks, I’ll remember that. Age?”
“Fifteen. Just turned fifteen last week . . .”
Chitto swallowed as the girl’s words trailed off and jotted down the rest of her answers.
Place of incident: There at her aunt’s trailer house on Highway 70, west of Hugo.
Aunt’s Name: Betty Tomlinson.
Time of incident: Lunch hour, when she came home from school to eat a sandwich and let her dog out.
He glanced at his watch. “Did you say lunch hour?”
“Yeah. I got a free period before lunch, so I come home to let Domino out.”
He glanced at the kitchen. A loaf of white bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly on the counter. Sandwich, uneaten.
He looked at her again. “You didn’t lock the door after you let the dog out?”
She frowned. “He just needed to pee. I was gonna let him back in soon as I ate.”
Just what anyone would’ve done.
“Okay, then what’d he . . .” He let the question hang, not wanting to verbalize what had been done to her.
She covered her face with her hands.
He reached for his camera. “Need to take a couple of pictures.”
“That’s enough,” Rona said after he’d taken a few shots. “I’ll take her to the clinic. You’ll get a copy of the report.”
“Not yet,” Chitto said, looking at the girl. “How’d this guy know you were here alone, Teresa? Sounds like he might’ve known your routine.”
The girl blinked slowly. “He’s, uh, he’s married to my aunt. But she’s divorcing him ’cause he’s a drunk. She works at the casino there near the airport, that’s where she met him.”
Which explained why the dog likely didn’t bark or attempt to protect Teresa, he thought.
Another, more disturbing, thought pushed into his mind. The man was the girl’s uncle, at least by marriage. Still, familial ties were as strong as blood ties.
Or should be, said a voice in his head.
“You know the assailant’s name then?”
“Yes, sir. It’s Buster, Buster Tomlinson. Think that’s a nickname, but it’s all I ever heard him called.”
“Member of the Nation?”
She shook her head.
“That red SUV out back there belong to him?”
“Okay.” Chitto flexed tight shoulders. He’d come to the part he hated. “Look, here’s the way it works.” Briefly, he explained the steps he needed to go through to bring her attacker to trial. “So, you see, because the guy’s not Indian, I write the incident up, turn it over to the U.S. attorney’s office and they handle it. I’ll file the paperwork today—soon as I get back to the office—but it could take a while. Sometimes the courts are pretty backed up.”
The girl’s face hardened. “Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard.” She turned, listening to a scratching sound at the back door.
“You go with Mrs. Guthrie,” Chitto said, glancing at the door. “I’ll let Domino back in, close up the house before I go.”
“No problem.” Chitto did not feel worthy of the courtesy Teresa Walker paid him. He felt a need to apologize to her. “Anything else I can do?” Looking around the room, he saw a telephone on the floor. “Maybe call your aunt?”
She glanced at the phone, too. “Tried. Not at work yet, but she was goin’ to the Walmart first. We’re out of some things.”
Chitto nodded, wondering if the rapist locked in the closet figured he’d find the aunt home and, when she wasn’t, decided the girl would fill the bill.
“Mother, then?” At times like this, girls turned to their mothers, grandmothers and aunts. The comfort givers.
“Mother,” she repeated. “Yeah . . . I don’t know the number, but I’ll learn it.”
Rona gave Chitto a look that said, That’s enough. He nodded and watched the two leave, his mind on the girl’s parting words. Why wouldn’t she know her mother’s phone number? Why was she living with her aunt? Neither answer was necessary for his official report, but it was the kind of loose end that kept him awake nights.
A pounding in the adjacent room channeled Chitto’s attention back onto the job. Walking to his car, he retrieved his nightstick, half hoping he got the opportunity to use it. But that rarely happened. When all was said and done, he’d file a report not deemed critical enough to warrant pursuing. Other things, like terrorism and drugs, had higher priority.
He blamed history for the situation, one event in particular. The Removal. The forced march of the Choctaws from Mississippi happened in the 1830s. Survivors of the march were given a part of Indian territory, a steaming basin wedged between the Canadian River on the north and the Red River on the south, the Ouachita Mountains on the east and grassland prairies to the west. Later, the federal government overhauled old treaties, restructuring ownership of the land—slicing and dicing the whole into smaller pieces—making allotment Indians of the Chocataw. Sometime after that, another government treaty replaced the previous one, opening up land not yet allotted to Choctaws to immigrant farmers and miners. The mix of tribal and non-tribal lands presented a checkerboard of problems for the law-enforcement community—federal, state, municipal and Indian—and created a land lawbreakers joked about.
Chitto returned to the trailer, ready to deal with the perp. As he pulled the chair away from the closet door, another question popped into his mind: Did Teresa-with-no-H take the rape-prevention training?
Of course she didn’t. Why would she? A fifteen-year-old girl shouldn’t have to take rape-prevention training to let her dog out to pee.
The drunk in the closet fell on his face when Chitto opened the door. Plaid shirt and khakis hanging open, belt unbuckled. Breath smelling like a whiskey keg.
“I’m bleedin’.” A prominent Adam’s apple jerked up and down when he talked. “Need a doctor.” He fumbled with his zipper.
“Other things you need worse ’n that.” Chitto jerked Buster Tomlinson’s arms behind his back so he could cuff him. “Ever think about castration?”
“What the hell you doin’?” Tomlinson struggled free. He was a half head shorter than Chitto, twenty pounds heavier and sober enough to be aware of limitations brought on by insobriety.
“What’s it look like I’m doing? I’m gonna have you hauled to lockup.”
“Can’t let you out on the roads in your condition. You’re an endangerment to the public. You can sober up in the county jail. Night in the slammer will do you good.”
And, Chitto thought, buy me time to get an indictment working.
“But my car’s here. How the hell am I gonna get back to get it?”
“Won’t have to. I’m having it towed to impound. It’ll be there waitin’ for you when you get out. As a matter of fact, be a good idea you never came back this way.”
“That girl’s the one needs arrestin’. What the hell she hit me with?” Tomlinson swiped blood from his head with a shirtsleeve.
“Looky here.” Chitto held the nightstick in front of his face. “You think I’m not aching for a chance to use this? My opinion? Nothing’s lower than a rapist, ’specially when the girl’s his kin.”
Tomlinson steadied himself as best he could. “That girl’s no kin to me. And those squaws, they like it rough.”
“What’d you say?” Chitto waited, watching Tomlinson swallow, then swallow again. The Adam’s apple sliding up and down like it was on a pulley.
The nightstick in Chitto’s hand seemed to put Tomlinson in a cooperative frame of mind. “Go ahead,” he said, holding out both wrists. “Hell, I’ll be out ’fore supper.”
Chitto shoved hard, bouncing Tomlinson’s head off the wall. “That very well may be,” he said, “but I’m making you a promise. I aim to see you get your just due.”
“Yeah, right.” A snicker. “We both know how this is gonna turn out.”
Reaction moving faster than reason, Chitto’s nightstick connected with Tomlinson’s right shinbone. The next thing he knew, he had the stick across the man’s Adam’s apple. Tomlinson had no choice but to look him in the eye.
“Listen good.” Chitto spoke in a bare whisper. “I make a promise, I keep it.”
Ignoring the man’s howling, Chitto hauled him outside and locked him in the backseat of the Tahoe. Returning to the trailer to take care of Teresa Walker’s dog, he saw Eight pulling into the driveway. The young officer hurried to catch up with him.
“Had another call but thought I might oughta check in with you first.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What’s with him? He’s yelling something ’bout police brutality.”
“Still too drunk to drive. We’re cross deputized in this county, so I’m gonna call the sheriff and have him haul the guy in. Car, too. Wouldn’t hurt my feelings, that guy disappeared off the face of the Earth.”
Eight eyed the nightstick hanging at Chitto’s belt. “You, uh, you think I should handle it? Maybe you could take this other call; it’s here in Hugo.”
“What kind of call?” Chitto freed Domino from his chain and let him into the kitchen. Turning the inside lock, he pulled the door tight.
“Old man got mugged at a local bar. He’s Indian; that’s why they called us. Said he came in talking about some guys getting killed.”
“At the bar?”
“Well, see, that’s not clear. Now he’s sober, he’s clammed up.”
Chitto walked with Eight toward his SUV, eyeing the man in the backseat. Anger surging again, his thoughts went to the first criminal in the universe. How could a deity of any breed see fit to allow Lucifer and his like to survive?
“Yeah. Call the sheriff’s office, have a deputy come get him,” he said. “I’ve had all of him I can stomach for one day.”
Compassion was a questionable virtue.
Scalp Dance is available here.