Sulfur springs, p.1
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       Sulfur Springs, p.1
 

          
Sulfur Springs


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  For Paul and Becky. The lost treasures have been found.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  * * *

  My heartfelt thanks—and also my deep admiration—to those who work as volunteers with Los Samaritanos and Humane Borders. These are courageous, good-hearted people who risk a great deal to offer assistance to the thousands of refugees crossing the border every year in the hope of finding sanctuary. Their knowledge, personal experiences, and insights, which they shared so generously with me, proved extraordinarily helpful in my understanding of the difficult situation—political, economic, and humanitarian—that currently exists along our border with Mexico.

  Thanks also to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents who were willing to talk to me and who offered their own perspectives. I have nothing but the greatest respect for law enforcement and for the men and women who put their lives on the line every day, believing in their hearts that they are ogichidaa.

  And finally, my thanks to the people who live in southern Arizona and who feel the impact of the undeclared war being waged there. Over coffee and over beer, they helped to open my North Country eyes in many useful ways.

  CHAPTER 1

  * * *

  In the balance of who we are and what we do, the weight of history is immeasurable.

  When I was thirteen years old, my father, who was sheriff of Tamarack County, Minnesota, was killed in the line of duty. Five years later, at the height of the Vietnam War, I graduated from high school. In the first draft lottery since 1942, the number I drew was well above 300, high enough to ensure that I would never be called up. But I saw my friends entering military service, by choice or not, and although I had my doubts about that conflict, its legitimacy and its ultimate goal, I felt I should do my part. My widowed mother begged her only child not to go. We argued, sometimes bitterly. In the end, I agreed to a compromise. I would not go to war; instead, I would go into law enforcement, as my father had. In that way, wearing a little metal shield, I would fight the battles I believed were important.

  The weight of history.

  I completed an associate’s degree in criminal justice at the community college in my hometown of Aurora, Minnesota, then applied for and was accepted to the Chicago Police Training Academy. Why Chicago? It was where my father had been born and had trained and had been a cop before marrying my mother and moving to Tamarack County.

  The weight of history.

  The morning I headed off, just before I stepped onto the Greyhound bus idling blue exhaust in front of Pflugleman’s Rexall Drugs, my mother kissed me good-bye. She put her hand on my chest over my heart. The last thing she said to me, this woman who’d been trained as a teacher and had been inordinately fond of gothic romances, was this wonderfully melodramatic parting: “Wherever you are, there I am also.”

  A week before I completed my academy training, I received word that my mother had died unexpectedly, felled by an aneurysm, a burst vessel in her brain. I missed the graduation ceremony, returning home instead to bury her in the O’Connor family plot next to my father. Into the granite marker above her grave, I had chiseled her final words to me: “Wherever you are, there I am also.”

  I served eight years with CPD, working mostly the South Side, before I met and married Nancy Jo McKenzie, a smart woman attending the University of Chicago Law School. When our first child was born, I brought my family back to Aurora, deep in the beautiful North Country of Minnesota, and took a job as a Tamarack County deputy. In a few years, I was elected sheriff and wore the badge my father had worn.

  The weight of history.

  I lost my wife in the same way I’d lost my father, to mindless violence. I used to blame myself for these tragedies, though they were events I could never have foreseen and could not have prevented. I’ve let go of this blame and others, not an easy thing, but I’ve had help, mostly from my second wife, a lovely woman named Rainy. She’s Native, full-blood Lac Courte Oreilles Anishinaabe, member of the Grand Medicine Society, a Mide, a healer. When we married, she kept her family name, Bisonette, because it has been hers for nearly half a century and is part of the way in which she thinks of herself.

  Again, the weight of history.

  I haven’t worn a badge or uniform in the last ten years, yet I still often find myself in the middle of situations in which my law enforcement experience and training have proven invaluable. The story I’m about to tell you is one of these. Like many of the stories from my history, stories that have so shaped my life, it begins with murder.

  * * *

  Rainy wears her hair long, often in a single braid that sways across the middle of her back as she walks. Her skin is light tan, but deepens in the summer. Her eyes are dark jewels, like brown topaz, and even in dim light they sparkle. She smiles often, and her laugh is exactly the sound my heart needs to hear.

  Naked, as she was that evening in our bed, she was all I needed to know of heaven. She glanced at the clock on the nightstand. “Almost time for the fireworks to begin.”

  I kissed her shoulder, wet and salty from our lovemaking. “I don’t know about you, but I’ve already seen them. In spades.”

  She laughed, nestled against me, and I felt her heart still beating fast and strong. “We promised the kids we would join them in Grant Park. Waaboo’s looking forward to his grandfather being there. He’ll be awfully disappointed if you don’t show.”

  “Duty,” I said.

  “Duty,” she echoed.

  The cell phone in her purse, which lay atop the dresser, began to ring. She tried to get up but I held her to me.

  “Cork,” she said laughing, “I have to answer it.”

  “You don’t have to do anything but give me five more minutes.”

  “Cork.” Her tone made it clear our time together, at least for the moment, was at an end.

  I let her go, but the cell phone had stopped ringing by then. Rainy got up, pulled the phone from her purse, and checked the display.

  “It was Peter,” she said, speaking of her son. “He left a voice message.”

  Peter was living in Arizona, where he’d completed a drug rehabilitation program that had worked wonders for him. He’d become a substance abuse counselor himself and was now employed in the rehab center where he’d gotten clean, located in a town called Cadiz, south of Tucson. I’d met him only once, the previous April, when he’d come to Aurora for our wedding. I liked him, liked him a lot. A young man who’d been through the wringer, he’d come out straightened and determined, and I thought he had a great deal to offer those in need of his kind of help.

  Rainy listened to the message, and I saw her face darken. She lowered the phone and stared at it, as if it were a snake in her hand, a snake about to strike.

  “What is it, Rainy?”

  She lifted her eyes to me. “He killed someone, Cork.”

  I swung my legs off the bed and was up and beside her in an instant. “Killed who?”

  “I couldn’t hear very well. The connection was terrible. Someone named Rodriguez, I think.”

  “Why?”

  “I don’t know.”

  “Where is he now?”

  “He didn’t say.” She was punching in his number, her hands trembling.

  “Tell him to get himself a lawyer
, stat.”

  “He can’t afford a lawyer.” She put the phone to her ear.

  “We can. And even if we couldn’t, he needs legal counsel and he needs it now.”

  She looked at the ceiling while she waited, as if praying, then looked at me. “He’s not answering.” She waited another few seconds. “Peter, it’s your mother. Call me back. Now.”

  I held out my hand for the phone. “Let me listen to his message.”

  She was right. It was scratchy and broken, but the name Rodriguez and the words “killed him” and “they’ll be looking for me” were all discernible.

  “Okay if I try him?”

  She nodded.

  I called him back. On his end, the phone rang and rang and then went to voice mail.

  “Peter, it’s Cork. Your message was garbled, so I don’t know exactly what’s happened. It sounds like someone’s been killed. Rodriguez maybe, whoever that is. And it sounds like you believe you’re responsible. You also said they’ll be looking for you. That much came through. I don’t know who’s looking for you, but if it’s the police, get a lawyer and get one now. We’ll be there just as soon as we can.”

  Rainy signaled for the phone back. She took a deep breath and said, “It’s Mom, Peter. I love you. I believe in you. Whatever is going to happen, I’ll be there for you.”

  She ended the call and stood staring at me, stunned. For a moment, there was not a sound in our bedroom, in our house, in our whole world. Then the first explosion of the Fourth of July fireworks in Grant Park made us both flinch.

  “You’ll go with me?” she said. Some women might have been crying. All I saw in Rainy was an iron resolve.

  I took her in my arms and we stood together, naked, and I felt once again the weight of history settle on my shoulders.

  “Wherever you are,” I told her, “there I am also.”

  CHAPTER 2

  * * *

  I made a phone call to a guy named Ed Larson, who’d worked as a deputy for me when I was sheriff in Tamarack County. He’d retired to Green Valley, south of Tucson. I told him what was up and asked if he could check things out in Cadiz, which wasn’t all that far from where he lived. Ed was only too happy to help. Rainy insisted I book a flight for us as soon as possible. The first plane out of the airport in Duluth was at six-thirty the next morning, and I bought two seats. Rainy had been trying to connect with Peter, but still no answer. She’d thrown on her robe and paced the room. Every few minutes, she punched in her son’s number on her cell phone, tapping the display screen hard as if squashing a bug there.

  “Why isn’t he answering, Cork?”

  “I have no idea, Rainy. It may be that he’s already been arrested, and they’ve taken his phone away.”

  “They have to allow him one call, right?”

  “That’s protocol, more or less, but it doesn’t have to be immediately. It depends on a lot of things.”

  “Like what?”

  “Where they picked him up, whether they actually intend to arrest him, whether it’s a custodial interrogation or they’re simply probing for information. Or maybe his phone just ran out of juice.”

  “The moment after he called us?” She shook her head.

  She was right. That would have been a huge coincidence, and I don’t put much stock in coincidence. His silence concerned me, too, but I’ve been in enough bad situations to know how to keep a rein on my worst fears. And I know how callous this sounds, but the reality for me was that he was my wife’s son, not mine, and so once removed from that place in my heart where a parent’s deepest fears are locked away. For Rainy, of course, it was different.

  “He said they’re after him.” She gave me a dark look. “That doesn’t necessarily mean the police.”

  “Let’s not assume anything until we know more. Maybe Ed can find out something helpful. In the meantime, do you know anyone down there you could call?”

  She thought a long time. “He’s never talked about people, his friends.” It seemed a revelation to her, one that disturbed her, and the hard front she was putting up cracked a little. She closed her eyes. “It’s possible he’s using again.”

  “Don’t do this to yourself. He got clean and he’s stayed clean. This is about something else.”

  I said it as if it were an absolute. There are no absolutes, but sometimes, to keep fear at bay, you have to insist that there are.

  My cell phone rang. I hoped it was Ed getting back to me. But it was my daughter Jenny calling.

  “Dad, you and Rainy missed the fireworks. Where are you?”

  I did a quick explanation, and she said, “We’ll be right there.”

  Rainy stood in the middle of the room, and I could tell she’d come to some decision. “I have to talk to Uncle Henry.”

  Henry Meloux is Rainy’s great-uncle, a man as old as time itself. For several years, Rainy had lived with Meloux in his isolation on Crow Point, a finger of land that juts into Iron Lake far north of Aurora. Like Rainy, he is Mide and was her mentor as she learned the ways of the Grand Medicine Society. After we married, Rainy had come to live in the house on Gooseberry Lane where I’d been raised and where I’d raised my children.

  “He knows even less than we do about Peter’s situation,” I said.

  “That’s not what I want from him.” She threw off her robe and began to dress.

  We were both downstairs when the rest of the family returned home. It was hard dark by then, late. Five-year-old Waaboo, always in a rush of energy, came storming in. His legal name is Aaron Smalldog O’Connor. He’s half Ojibwe, Red Lake Band. His nickname is Waaboozoons, which in the language of the Anishinaabeg means “little rabbit.” We call him Waaboo for short.

  “Baa-baa,” he cried, his name for me. Don’t ask; the explanation is a long one.

  “Good fireworks?” I said.

  His response was a terrible scowl. “You weren’t there.”

  “Something came up, little guy.” I glanced at Jenny and she shook her head. She hadn’t explained.

  But it was clear Daniel understood. “Does Peter have a lawyer?”

  Daniel English is Rainy’s nephew, and like her, full-blood Ojibwe. He and Jenny had been married less than a year. In keeping with the tradition of the Anishinaabeg, and because they were saving money for a place of their own, after the wedding, they’d moved in with us. Daniel was a game warden for the Iron Lake Reservation and understood the necessity of good counsel when navigating all the unpredictable crosscurrents that were usually involved in a legal proceeding.

  “We don’t know,” Rainy said. “He’s not answering his phone.”

  “Could be a lot of explanations for that, Aunt Rainy,” Daniel said. Calm counsel. One of the reasons I liked him.

  “We’re flying down first thing in the morning,” Rainy said. “But right now, I want to talk to Uncle Henry.”

  I could see that Jenny and Daniel understood. The old man might not be able to advise on specifics, but Rainy needed grounding, and at one time or another we’d all gone to Meloux for the solace of his company.

  “It’s late,” Daniel offered cautiously. “Dark.”

  “I can find Crow Point blindfolded,” Rainy said, no idle boast.

  “Can I go?” Waaboo pleaded.

  “The only place you’re going is to bed,” Jenny said and kissed the top of his head.

  We left them to the nighttime rituals and drove north out of Aurora.

  * * *

  If you have never been outside a city at night when there is no moon, then you don’t know darkness. Without streetlamps and neon and all the ambient glow in any town or city, night can be impenetrably black. Even a million stars won’t illuminate a path through a forest. We drove the county road along the shore of Iron Lake and saw the occasional porch light of a cabin or the dull luminescence from behind a curtained window as we passed, but without the headlights on my Expedition, we’d have been stone blind. Rainy stared ahead and held to silence, deep in her anxious thinking, he
r own terrible imaginings. I could have tried to ease her worry, but it would have done no good. She needed Henry Meloux.

  I parked off the gravel road beside the double-trunk birch that marks the beginning of the trail to Crow Point. The path cuts through thick woods of pine and spruce mixed with stands of poplars. It’s well worn. For most of his hundred years, Henry Meloux has lived in virtual isolation. To my knowledge, he’s never discouraged anyone from visiting him, but because he’s a hell of a lot more difficult to get to than your family physician, you have to want his help pretty bad. That well-worn path was a clear indication that a lot of people did.

  By flashlight, we made our way two miles through the woods, crossing at some point onto land that belonged to the Iron Lake Ojibwe. When we broke from the trees onto Crow Point, the whole sky opened before us, and against the haze of a billion stars, I could see the dark shapes of two cabins. The older was Meloux’s, which he and his uncle had built more than eighty years before. The other had been Rainy’s once, and I’d helped build that one. Rainy’s aunt, Leah Duling, lived under its roof now.

  There has never been electricity on Crow Point, but I could see light in both cabins, kerosene lamps. I’d expected to have to wake Meloux, but in his mysterious way, he was probably already expecting us. My suspicion was confirmed when, just before we knocked, I heard his melodious old voice call out, “Leah, they are here.”

  Rainy’s aunt opened the door and welcomed us both with a hug. Leah was just into her seventies, and most folks would have called her old, but compared to Henry Meloux, she was a spring chicken. She’d spent her life in difficult places all over the world, the wife of a missionary. She maintained that until she came to Crow Point, she’d never known a place where she felt she belonged. But in Meloux’s cabin, which smelled of tea, blackberry, and sage, she seemed beautifully at home.

  Meloux sat at the table, one he’d made himself so long ago that he claimed even he couldn’t remember exactly when. The walls of his cabin held mementos from his past—a deer-prong pipe, a bear skin, a bow whose string was made of snapping turtle sinew. The old man sat straight and tall, his hair a long fall of white over his shoulders, his face more lined than the shell of a map turtle, his brown eyes bright even at that late hour. Though it was a hot night, a steaming mug sat in front of him.

 
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