In those days, Montana’s dirt-blown towns held a special allure for urban adventurers who craved wild places. They’d pass through, hiding their wide eyes behind aviator glasses and ski resort ball caps. Locals would put out bait in the form of land-for-sale signs, five thousand dollars for two-and-a-half acres set among deer trails, bear tracks and Indian country. Most folks would hear about land for sale on an Indian reservation and they’d have no interest. But some would picture an undiscovered paradise by the lake. There were Indians, but not as many as you would think. They’d hear how it was one of those reservations where settlers got an early foothold and kept carving away. This kept the overall population down, the prices more affordable, and a way of life that felt further away from those eggheads who ran the country. Plus, the tribes kept their remaining lands nearly pristine.
Having grown up here, you get used to seeing the fancy visitors cycle through. It was especially easy to spot out-of-towners in the grocery store, their hands flexing as if squeezing stress toys, anxious for the checkout lady to finish her aching back story and move the line along.
I was heading for the checkout when I caught a whiff of something sour, like goat cheese left out in the sun. Sure enough, there was Stu in his tank top ready to rattle off the latest talk from the real estate offices where he mowed the lawns. He’d tear open a new pouch of Red Man chew before checking out, which made summer visitors uneasy. Sometimes they’d point it out to the manager who knew Stu always paid. Like me, he worked outdoors except I’d shower after work.
“You know the Henderson place?” Stu said.
“Out by the old dairy farm, in the Big Draw? Someone finally bought that?” I said while waving off his offer of the chew bag.
Nodding his head excitedly, Stu said some city attorney just signed a deal for 120 acres of rocky farm land, small boulders, a suitable ranch house and an old tar-paper shack in the middle of the draw. It was little more than a shed with wooden rail ties for steps, and faded animal hides tacked onto weather-stained walls. A winter breeze would pass through the place without hesitation. Surrounding the reservation hut was an expanding ring of rusting farm equipment from curved blades to various pins and hitches, a dream landscape for antique dealers and junkyards.
“Isn’t Sonny Boy crashing there?” I said, which made Stu’s head nod faster with some mush-mouthed “uh huhs!”
I knew Sonny Boy from school. He was a local Indian guy with a bit of the protest-sixties left in him. I had played high school basketball with his nephew, who showed some skill in middle school until he washed out our freshman year. He kept shooting when he should have passed the ball. During games, Sonny would lurk behind our bench to yell at the coach to play his nephew. By the third quarter, Sheriff’s deputies had asked Sonny to cool it when even the Athletic Director’s threats couldn’t muzzle Sonny’s insults.
Pass to the coach’s son. They sure as hell won’t let Indians shoot!
“I need to see this,” I said while backing away from Stu.
Luckily, the Bakers hadn’t expected me to adjust their sprinklers for another two hours and their place was not far from the Hendersons. When I started my own sprinkler and landscaping business, it gave me free time for day-makers like this.
Quite a few lifers like Stu and myself had either found seasonal jobs, started small businesses or worked side hustles to pay the bills. Put a cartoon pig on an oil barrel grill and suddenly you’re a caterer. That’s just small-town life. I drove my white Ford F-150 past the reservoir, near the spot where Dr. Johnson’s wife shot herself when she discovered his side fling followed him here from Minnesota. When her family flew out for the funeral, her younger brother was swimming in the lake and was killed when a local boater ran him over. Didn’t expect a swimmer out that far, they said. Stu’s younger brother drove ambulance and if you bought him a coffee, he’d spill the latest ER mishaps.
The drive up the Big Draw would have been too much for most cars. From up there I could see the flat acres stretch out with brown lines of stubble left from the last hay harvest. In the distance was the cool blue lake waters that stretched to the horizon where craggy mountains kept guard. Previous owners leased the land out for production. More cows than people out here and cows needed to eat. Farmers knew to show respect to Sonny who regularly holed up in the shack. As their combines thrashed by, farmer’s seemed to enjoy waving to Sonny. If Sonny was in a good mood, he’d holler, “White man! Hey, White Man. Ha Ha Ha! White man on my land! Don’t be afraid of the Indian, white man! Ha ha ha! Don’t be afraid!”
Stu said the city attorney asked Sonny for rent by taping a lease to his door. There was a little red arrow flag on the lease aligned perfectly to show Sonny Boy where he needed to sign and date the rental terms that would charge Sonny $255 a month, hardly enough to call it rent.
I’ve got to confess. I don’t know many Indians. You learn their names in school. You get to know the bigger families. Sonny always sat with about a half-dozen Indians at the basketball games. Other towns on the reservation seemed to have more Indians and tribal families fill those gyms, but my hometown hardly felt like a reservation. You had to be careful talking about it but when folks asked, I’d let them know what towns were best suited for regular folks. Some people can get along anywhere, even in the Indian towns. Here most towns were sort of split into Indian and white sides. Houses were priced cheaper the further you went from the lake. Some Indian families tried lake life for a while, but they’d eventually move. Easier for everyone that way because Indians didn’t always get along in my town where there were fast food joints, a movie theater, and a downtown promenade with statues of settlers who came here 100 years ago. Tourists came here to play with their fancy boats and grill ribeye steaks while enjoying the lake views. Going to school here I remember the small pack of brown kids who sat at their own table at lunch, like an island, all looking bored and pissed. I don’t remember them talking much except during Indian week, where’d we’d learn how Indians contributed to society. I remember spotting Sonny marching into the school and heading for the principal’s office, riled up about something.
“If you can’t teach history right, then my nephew’s going to a school that will get it right,” Sonny said the day he withdrew my old teammate from classes for good.
The sun began peeking out from the clouds as I watched Sonny move around far below. He was outside the shack, tacking up some sort of bed sheet banner over the walls. It had big black letters in hand-painted scrawl.
This is Indian Country! This is Indian land!
Sonny had already lashed together pine lodge poles and hoisted up a tattered tribal flag, which was whipping in the wind.
I hadn’t noticed the black shining truck moving up the rutted road until it cleared the rise behind me. New truck, modified grill, sports-package trim and impressive new wheels — designed more for show than performance. This must be Mr. City Attorney. He waved from behind gold aviator sunglasses and an Aspen Snowmass ball cap. He stepped down from the truck. He was tall and had a practiced smile etched into his face. He glanced down at the scene below as he walked toward me with his head tilted a little to the side. His eyebrows flashed up as he introduced himself and offered his hand.
“I’m Bill. Bill Castle. This is my place. Who might you be?”
Good handshake. Not too firm, but enough to let you know there was more there.
“Oh hey Bill. I’m the local sprinkler guy. Call me Johnny,” I said.
“Johnny On the Spot Sprinklers?”
“I’ve been meaning to call you,” City Attorney Bill said.
“I’m known around here,” I said as Bill nodded, moving his hands to his hips.
“I’ll tell you what John. I like to move fast. I need a hand with my friend down there,” Bill said. My alarmed expression made Bill put his hands up to calm me. “I just need someone to go down there and speak with him. Tell him he has forty-eight hours to sign a lease or clear out of here. Whenever I get near Mister Boyd down there he starts that ‘Hey White Man’ thing, and you sir are the closest thing to a friendly I got right now.”
A new client is a new client. He didn’t spell out how it’d be worth my time, but I suspected a favor for Mr. Castle could go a long way.
There was no way to approach Sonny Boy without being seen for half a mile. I should have brought Stu so he’d smell us first. Going in solo, I turned up a Van Halen song with my truck windows down. I drove up real slow and revved my engine. Sonny got up from a makeshift bench when I reached the bottom of the steps. He opened the door to the shack.
“You been playing any ball?” he said.
I was surprised he remembered me. I followed him inside and said, “Three on three tournaments here and there.”
I hadn’t been inside any Indian homes in my life, I realized as the smell of smoked buckskin and sweetgrass filled my nose. The walls featured a couple powwow posters, groups of framed photos of his nephew with other relatives. There was an old wooden cutting board on the counter with an open loaf of white bread next to a hunk of sweating red skinned bologna. Sonny made two sandwiches, put one on a paper towel and handed it to me along with a Coke from a red cooler on the floor.
“So you here to install my new sprinkler system?” Sonny said.
I remembered he was funny.
“Bill Castle bought the place. I heard he’s trying to make you an official tenant,” I said. “Not sure he knows what to think about a tenant who yells ‘hey white man’ at him.”
Sonny nodded and looked out the window. “Mr. Attorney’s probably had worse yelled at him. He call the cops?”
“Two days is what he told to me,” I said and took another bite.
Sonny took in the news. He must have had other places to go, but he never said much.
Here you have a rich attorney who legally owns the land, an Indian on his reservation being told what to do on what was his land, and I just want to live my life by the lake in my hometown. The attorney’s paying me. Sonny’s business, whatever it is he’s up to, is his own. I looked at my watch and realized I needed to meet the Bakers soon.
Sonny stood up and walked back outside to his makeshift flagpole where he noticed it gave in one direction. He leaned down to adjust the support straps anchored to the ground. At the time, I was glad he didn’t have much to say. I started getting antsy and wanted to return to my sprinkler duties.
“All right Sonny. I’m heading out. Thanks for lunch,” I said. He didn’t seem to notice I said anything.
That was the last time I spoke with Sonny.
Stu told me later that Mr. City Attorney posted an eviction notice and Sonny still wouldn’t leave. The Sheriff sent in four deputies who put Sonny in handcuffs and took him to the county jail. The stubborn Indian never posted bail. Hardly spoke to his public defender, I heard later. After a few months behind bars, Sonny contracted some sort of lung infection and died a few weeks later. He was 49 and had no kids according to his obituary in the paper.
I hardly know him hardly at all, but I still felt bad. I thought he’d just move on and find a new place. His wake drew hundreds of people, mostly Indians who smelled of sweetgrass. I know because I went to his wake alone and saw his nephew there. I walked to Sonny’s open casket where he lay with his arms folded across his chest with an eagle feather in his hands. Stu asked me later why I went to an Indian funeral. I remembered saying I didn’t know and left it at that.
Years later, I took a job with the City maintenance crew and didn’t see Stu much anymore. I heard Mr. City Attorney put the place back on the market. He wanted to trade his hobby farm for lakefront in Idaho. During a lunch break on a slow day, I drove a truck up the Big Draw again. The shack was still standing. Part of me expected to see Sonny down there under a tattered tribal flag fluttering in the wind.
That night my wife asked me why I brought home white bread and bologna. “It’s so unhealthy. We don’t have to eat that way,” she said.
I spent the next few days trying to apologize to her for “raising my voice.”
“It’s just a sandwich!” I remembered yelling. “You don’t have to eat it! This is for me.”
I just wanted something different.