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Virgil Wounded Horse is reluctant to get involved in a case about drug dealers — but when his beloved nephew ODs on heroin laced with fentanyl, it becomes personal. (An excerpt from Winter Counts.)
David Heska Wanbli Weiden
Posted on October 18, 2020, at 12:25 p.m. ET
We’re excited to announce David Heska Wanbli Weiden’s debut thriller Winter Counts as BuzzFeed Book Club’s November selection. This gritty thriller follows Virgil Wounded Horse, a man hired to deliver punishment on the Rosebud Indian Reservation when the American judicial system or tribal council comes up short. When his nephew Nathan — the son of his beloved late sister — ODs on heroin laced with fentanyl, he sets off on a mission to find the man responsible, with the unexpected help of his ex-girlfriend. They find themselves in the midst of a complicated web of drug cartels, uncovering a dangerous world of money, power, and violence with far-reaching ramifications. It’s an absolutely riveting page-turner.
Check out an excerpt below — and sign up for a chance to win a signed copy.
Black shadowy clouds gathered on the horizon as I loaded up the car. The TV had said a bad storm was coming, probably heavy rain and thunderstorms. We’d agreed to take Marie’s much nicer and more reliable car to Denver. I was grateful for this, as I’d been worried about the dependability of my old banger.
But first I had to take Nathan to his auntie’s house. I’d packed a load of groceries, all of the junk foods I knew he liked to eat, his schoolbooks and cell phone, and forty dollars I’d taken from my stash. He’d been complaining all morning, lobbying to be left alone at our house while I was gone.
“You know I’m old enough to take care of myself,” he said. “And what about not going to school? It’s stupid to be all the way out there.”
I kept my eyes on the road as I drove out to Audrey’s house. “You can miss some school while you rest up.”
I swerved around a large tree in the road. “You can call your teachers or have Jimmy give you the assignments.”
“Do I have to go? Please, will you turn around and take me back home? Please?”
Part of me wanted to let him stay home alone. At fourteen, I’d been almost completely independent. But Nathan was still recovering from a drug overdose. The best thing for him was to take some time off — maybe he’d think about things and get his head straight.
“Dude, I know you want to stay at home. But I need to let Auntie Audrey look after you for now. That’s the way it has to be. And help her out, all right? Remember, she’s pretty old, she needs help gathering firewood.”
We were quiet for a long time as I drove. After a while, I turned the car radio to the local rez station, which was playing country music.
“Well, I’ve always wondered about this thing, but never really asked. Maybe I didn’t want to know.”
I glanced over at him. He looked worried, scared even. I flashed back to that terrible day, the phone call I’d gotten from the tribal police, the drive to pick up Nathan from school, the wreckage of her vehicle at the tow yard, the handwritten Post-it note from Nathan miraculously still stuck on the ruined car’s dashboard, proclaiming I love you, Mom.
“No, bud. She wasn’t drunk, not at all. She was driving to work when the other driver crossed over into her lane. He might have been, but she wasn’t.”
It took me a second to understand what he was saying. “Nothing’s going to happen to me.”
“Leksi, I’m not stupid. I know what you do. Everybody knows, okay? So, if you get, uh, killed, what do I do? I won’t have no one, except Auntie Audrey, and she’s like ninety years old, she could pass on at any time. What happens to me then?”
“I guess you’d go to Audrey, and if something happened to her, you’d . . .”
My voice trailed off, and I stared at the road, the pine trees and the long grasses rushing past us.
After dropping Nathan off and saying my goodbyes, I drove over to Marie’s place. She looked great, wearing jeans, a navy-blue V-neck shirt, and beaded earrings that looked like purple tulips. She had only one suitcase, so there was plenty of room in the hatchback of her car. I’d taken my beat-up gym bag, which was stuffed with a few pairs of jeans, some T-shirts, underwear, socks, and a toothbrush. At the bottom of the bag I’d stashed my gun and plenty of ammo, a knife, and some brass knuckles I’d inherited after a fight many years ago. Made sense to come prepared.
“Hold on a sec,” she said, and went back into her house. She came out with a large bowl filled with something I couldn’t see.
“Dog food,” she said, putting the bowl down by the side of the street. “A few dogs come by every so often. I’m worried they won’t have anything to eat while I’m gone.”
“Oh.” I suspected that other animals would get to the food first, but I kept quiet.
Because of the weather, we decided to take the shortest route to Denver, even though it meant plenty of driving down two-lane highways. We’d take Route 18 through our rez and into the Pine Ridge reservation, then swing down into Nebraska and eventually get onto the big highway into Denver. I was glad to skip the longer drive through the Badlands — those strange rocks and formations gave me the creeps.
As we started off, I felt some guilt at leaving Nathan behind at his auntie’s house, but also a sense of freedom as we drove away from all the daily rez dramas and problems. And excitement, I had to admit, at being with Marie for the first time in years.
“All right. He’s still weak, but it looks like he’ll be okay. I dropped him off at Audrey’s place. He didn’t want to go, said he could stay by himself. I told him, no way.”
“You made the right decision,” she said. “Too soon for him to be alone. Not to mention, be good for him to spend some time with an elder.”
“So, I’ve been praying on this, and I had an idea,” she said. “Maybe he could help out at the center. You know, volunteer, spend some time with the elders or the kids at day care. The community, right? Stay away from the gangs and drugs.”
“Not a bad idea,” I said. “Problem is getting him motivated. You got any ideas on that, let me know.”
Not this again. “He needs to focus on his school stuff,” I said. “He graduates from high school, he can go on to college if he wants. Get a real job, a career. But he’s got to do the work.”
“You’re being a little hard on him, don’t you think? You weren’t exactly a model student.”
This was true. I knew when it was time to shut up, so I asked her to put on some music. She hit a few buttons, and the gloomy sound of some punk band filled the car, something I didn’t recognize.
“Siouxsie and the Banshees. Their third album. Still the best.” It was a little slow for me, but I’d heard worse. Even though Marie was long past her Goth phase, she’d retained the music of her high school years, to my dismay. When we were together, she’d made me listen to a variety of strange bands and singers — Joy Division, Bauhaus, PJ Harvey, among others. I didn’t mind the stuff with strong guitars, but the electronic bands left me cold. When the song ended, I asked if she could put on something with more of a beat. She hit another button, and a twangy country tune started playing.
“Lucinda Williams? I don’t know, a few years ago, heard it on the radio. You like it?”
Twenty songs later, we passed through the desolation of Whiteclay, Nebraska, just over the state line from South Dakota and the Pine Ridge reservation. Pine Ridge was dry, so a handful of liquor stores had popped up in Whiteclay decades ago. The town — population twelve — existed solely to support the beer barns that sold booze to the citizens of Pine Ridge right across the border.
Of course every visiting newspaper reporter and TV camera crew had to take shots of the Indians passed out in town by the stores. The bums with the dirty clothes and the vomit smeared across their faces. Poverty porn. The camera crews never ventured one hundred miles east, where liquor was sold openly on the Rosebud rez. Sure, we had alcoholics — I’d been one of them for a while — but there was far less sensationalism to be filmed or written about on our rez. Instead, every TV anchorperson like Diane Sawyer had to focus on Pine Ridge and the supposedly sad Indians there. There was plenty of sadness on our rez as well, but why not cover the good things that were happening at Rosebud and Pine Ridge? All the rez artists and musicians, the skateboard parks, the new businesses, and the groups revitalizing Lakota language and culture?
I watched the desolate Nebraska landscape pass by, and soon I dozed while Marie drove. After a while, I woke up and looked around.
It had been a long time since I’d eaten or taken a bathroom break. “Yeah, if there’s a gas station I could go for some beef jerky.”
She turned the music off abruptly. “You ever seen this? I forgot about it till now.”
The sign by the parking lot declared CARHENGE and below that, in smaller letters, ENTRANCE. We pulled into the empty parking lot.
I blinked a few times. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. About twenty old cars were buried in the ground, front bumper down, standing straight up like monoliths. They were arranged in a large circle, and I realized that they were obviously some sort of bizarre homage to Stonehenge. Not only were the cars buried on their edges, the artist had placed some autos on top of the others as a kind of cap or connector, just like at the real Stonehenge monument. There were a few cars buried on their sides in the center of the circle, serving as the focus of the installation.
“Crazy, huh?” Marie said, looking up at the vehicles, which were all painted a uniform gray. Graffiti scarred some of the cars’ bodies. I saw Archy sucks, I love Mehitabel, Daddy Longlegz, and in the corner, Wanagi Tacaku. We walked around the circle.
“I don’t know. Some guy with too much time on his hands. I read a little about him last time I was here.”
My first impulse was to mock the crazy man who’d created this weird folk art and make cynical comments about the ways of the wasicus. After all, what sort of cracked person spends their free time building giant sculptures at an abandoned farmstead in Nebraska? It must have taken years to create this odd mélange of old autos in the middle of nowhere.
We stood there for a while in the shadow of the statues, and walked around the circle together. As we strolled between the buried vehicles, I began to appreciate the scale of what the artist had attempted. These were full-size American automobiles, buried, welded together, and painted gray, bottom to top. The artist clearly had a vision, a dream of what he wanted to express. A cynical statement about American consumerism? I didn’t think so. For some reason, I had the feeling that the creator of this monument was guided by some deeper philosophy. There were no fees for admission, no chain-link fences keeping out gawkers. It seemed to me that the artist had been driven by a goal to convey some deeply held conviction, expressed through the medium of 1970s automobiles.
I wandered off by myself to the edge of the circle. It was quiet at the site, no one there except for Marie and me. I positioned myself at one end of the circle so that I could see the entire thing. In the silence, I began to appreciate the weird majesty of the buried cars. I thought about what it must have felt like, four thousand years ago, to stand before the real monoliths in England and feel connected, truly connected, to the earth, the stars, and the spirits.
I stared at the cars so long that my head began to spin, and it felt like I was drifting off into space, floating in the heavens. Time seemed to stop, and the Lakota phrase mitakuye oyasin — we are all related — came to me, and in that moment I understood what those words meant. I inhabited them, as images, thoughts, and memories arose amidst the old vehicles.
I saw my mother, gone but still with me, my father, who’d died too soon, and my sister, who I’d loved like my own life. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends. They appeared before me, all of my relations, my ancestors, Native and white, who’d loved and struggled, hunted and gathered, worked and played; they’d stood on this continent, looking up at these stars and these planets. It was daylight, but I could see the stars now, all of them, surrounding me, lighting the air, their brilliance shining and radiating off the monoliths. And then it was dark, a black-hole sky. But I looked down and saw that the stars — every one of them — were now in my hands, lighting up my veins, my muscles, my bones.
I stood there, alone with my ancestors, and listened to them. Finally I turned away. As I walked back to my life, the words my mother used to say finally came to me.
From WINTER COUNTS by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Copyright 2020 by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
David Heska Wanbli Weiden is an enrolled citizen of the Sicangu Lakota Nation and received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. He’s a MacDowell Colony Fellow, a Tin House Scholar, and the recipient of the PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship. A lawyer and professor, he lives in Denver, Colorado, with his family.
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