The Navajo Tribal Police patrol a 27,000 square mile area, mostly in Arizona’s high desert between Flagstaff and Teec Nos Pos. Author Tony Hillerman’s dozen-or-more novels have won many awards from both the Navajo Nation and American literary groups, for portrayal of Navajo and Hopi Indian customs and culture against a background of police and government intrigue.
Anderson Nez, a Navajo sheepherder, lies dead of bubonic plague, “the black death”, in Flagstaff hospital. Dr. Albert Woody, working for the Indian Health Service (IHS) “vector control” people, had brought him in only a day ago. Plague doesn’t usually kill that fast, and the IHS people worry about a new, more virulent and drug-reseistant type among the wild animals that spread it.
Acting Lieut. Jim Chee is officer in charge at the Tuba City police station. He has received an urgent call for backup from Officer Benny Kinsman, who had gone out to Yells Back Butte on a tip that a known eagle poacher is at it again. Always short handed at the station, Chee goes himself. Poor radio reception, except at one point he hears Kinsman softly urge, “Lieutenant, hurry!” Parking beside Kinsman’s patrol car, he follows the deputy’s tracks, finds him face down, unconscious, with a young man squatting beside him. Both are blood stained. A large bird cage containing a live eagle stands nearby. Chee draws his pistol, tells the young man, “Hands on your head! Down, face on the ground!” He handcuffs him, reads him his rights.
Newly-retired Tribal Police officer and mentor for officer Chee, Joe Leaphorn, has been hired by the law firm of a wealthy Santa Fe widow to investigate the disappearance of her niece, Catherine Pollard, recently hired as a “fleacatcher” by the small IHS laboratory at Tuba City. Last week one morning, she went to work and never came back. There has been no sign of the Jeep she was driving.
Janet Pete is a half-Navajo attorney, once engaged to Chee, who is returning from Washington, DC to the “Big Rez” on government assignment. She informs Chee that she has been appointed defense attorney for Robert Jano, the young eagle poacher Chee arrested for the murder of officer Kinsman. She says the politically ambitious prosecutor intends to seek the
death penalty, to emphasize his “tough-on-crime” policy.
She also says that an old friend, whom both she and Chee know and trust, Deputy Sheriff Dashee, is Jano’s cousin and has known him since childhood. “He told me that thinking Robert Jano would kill somebody with a rock is like thinking Mother Teresa would strangle the Pope.”
Chee cannot find any reliable witnesses of Kinsman’s death, but an elderly woman sheep-herder has seen a “skin-walker” – a Navajo ghost – as white as a snowman, with flashing face and a trunk like an elephant’s, roaming the Yells Back Butte on the day of the crime.
All of these people, and more, are focused on the border area between the Navajo and Hopi regions, where most prairie dog colonies are dying out from black plague bacteria, while a few nearby colonies remain entirely free of it.
And soon, IHS worker Dr. Albert Woody himself arrives by ambulance at Flagstaff Hospital’s emergency room, already close to death with a rapidly progressing case of the plague.