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Sacred Clowns

Hillerman, Tony

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During a kachina ceremony at the Tano Pueblo, the antics of a dancing koshare fill the air with tension. Moments later, the clown is found bludgeoned to death, in the same manner a reservation schoolteacher was killed only days before.

Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn believe that answers lie in the sacred clown's final cryptic message to the Tano people. But to decipher it, the two Navajo policemen may have to delve into closely guarded tribal secrets—on a sinister trail of blood that links a runaway, a holy artifact, corrupt Indian traders, and a pair of dead bodies.

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About the Author:

Tony Hillerman (1925–2008), an Albuquerque, New Mexico, resident since 1963, was the author of 29 books, including the popular 18-book mystery series featuring Navajo police officers Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two non-series novels, two children’s books, and nonfiction works. He had received every major honor for mystery fiction; awards ranging from the Navajo Tribal Council's commendation to France 's esteemed Grand prix de litterature policiere. Western Writers of America honored him with the Wister Award for Lifetime achievement in 2008. He served as president of the prestigious Mystery Writers of America, and was honored with that group’s Edgar Award and as one of mystery fiction’s Grand Masters. In 2001, his memoir, Seldom Disappointed, won both the Anthony and Agatha Awards for best nonfiction.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

At first, Officer Jim Chee had felt foolish sitting on the roof of the house of some total stranger. But that uneasiness had soon faded. Now this vantage point on the roof had come to seem one of Cowboy Dashee's rare good ideas. Chee could see almost everywhere from here. The drummers directly beneath the tips of his freshly shined boots, the column of masked dancers just entering the plaza to his left, the crowd of spectators jammed along the walls of the buildings, the sales booths lining the narrow streets beyond, he looked down on all of it. And out over the flat crowded roofs of Tano Pueblo, he could rest his eyes on the ragged row of cottonwoods along the river, golden today with autumn, or upon the blue mountains blocking the horizon, or the greentan-silver patchwork of farm fields the Tanoans irrigated.

It was an excellent perch from which to witness the Tanoan kachina dance--for duty as well as pleasure. Especially with the warm, jeans-clad thigh of Janet Pete pressed against him. If Delmar Kanitewa was present, Chee would be likely to see him. If the boy didn't show up, then there was no better place from which to watch the ceremonial. Such mystical rituals had always fascinated Chee. Since boyhood Chee had wanted to follow Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai. In the Navajo family structure Nakai was Chee's "Little Father," his mother's elder brother. Nakai was a shaman of the highest order. He was a hataalii--what the whites called a singer, or medicine man. He was respected for his knowledge of the traditional religion and of the curing ways the Holy People had taught to keep humankind in harmony with the reality that surrounds us all. Nakai worked along that narrow line that separates flesh and spirit. Since boyhood, that had interested Chee.

"On the roof is where they like visitors to sit when they're having a kachina dance," Dashee had said. "It gets you tourists out from underfoot. Unless you fall off, there's a lot less chance you'll do something stupid and mess up

the ceremony. And it leaves room around the dance ground for the Tano people. They need to exchange gifts with the kachinas. Things like that."

Dashee was a sworn deputy sheriff of Apache County, Arizona, a Hopi of his people's ancient Side Corn Clan, and Jim Chee's closest friend. But he could also be a pain in the butt.

"But what if I spot the kid?" Chee had asked. "Is he going to wait while I climb down?"

"Why not? He won't know you're looking for him." Cowboy had then leaned against Janet Pete and confided in a stage whisper, "The boy'll think Detective Chee would be over there in Thoreau working on that big homicide. "

"You know," Asher Davis said, "I'll bet I know that guy. There was a teacher at that Saint Bonaventure School--one of those volunteers--who called me a time or two to see if I could get a good price for something some old-timer had to sell. One time it was a little silver pollen container--looked late nineteenth century--and some jerk in Farmington had offered this old man two dollars for it. I got him two hundred and fifty. I wonder if that was the teacher who got killed."

"His name was Dorsey," Chee said, sounding slightly grouchy. He didn't know Davis and wasn't sure he'd like him. But maybe that was just the mood he was in.

"Dorsey," Davis said. "That's him."

"See?" Cowboy said. "Officer Chee keeps up on those serious crimes. And he also has time to write letters to the editor telling the Tano council what to do with its old uranium mines."

Chee had been ignoring Dashee's needling all morning. At first it had been based on the letter, published in that morning's edition of the Navajo Times. In it, Chee had opposed a proposal to use the open pit of the abandoned Jacks Wild Mine as a toxic waste dump. He had called it "symbolic of the contempt felt for tribal lands." But then they had heard of the homicide on the car radio. A school shop teacher at Thoreau had been hit fatally on the head. Some materials were reported missing and no suspect had been identified. It was a pretty good murder by reservation standards. Certainly it was more dignified than this assignment. It had happened yesterday, on Chee's day off. Still, Lieutenant Leaphorn might have assigned him to work on it. Or at least mentioned it. But he hadn't, and that burned a little.

What burned more was Janet. Janet had encouraged Cowboy's needling with amused grins and occasional chuckles.

But now, warmed by her praise of his letter, Chee was willing to forgive all that--even to feel better about Cowboy. He had to concede that he had started the exchange by kidding Cowboy about the Hopi tendency to grow wide, instead of high. And he had to concede that what Cowboy had said about the roof was true enough. If Kanitewa was down there In the crowd watching his pueblo celebrate this autumn feast day, the boy would be feeling secure among family and friends. But, on the other hand, kids who run away from boarding school know someone will be coming after them.

Chee had been just such a kid himself, once. That feeling of fear, of being hunted, was one he could never forget. You can't relax even when, as in Chee's case, the hunt was brief and there was little time for the fear to build. The man from the boarding school had been parked out of sight behind the sheep pens, waiting, when Chee had walked up to his mother's hogan. Seeing him had been almost a relief.

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