Many a time I've heard the tale from the men in the shipyards about the rat that could speak. I never laid no confidence in that before; but tonight, if I'd demeaned myself to lay my ear to the door of the further bin, I could pretty much have heard what they was saying.
Friday after work, Madbird and I were drinking shots and beers at the Split Rock Lodge when his niece, Darcy, came prancing through the door. The raucous conversations of the dozen barroom regulars stopped like somebody had dropped a girder on a squawking radio. Darcy knew how to steal a scene.
She was Blackfeet, same as Madbird, and she was some smoke-just turned twenty-one, full-bodied and vibrant, with hair that fell almost to her waist and gleamed like a raven's wing in sunlight. She'd grown up on the tribal reservation in northern Montana, then spent her late teens moving from place to place, looking for the things you looked for at that age. Now she was trying her luck in our state capital city of Helena.
She was as wild as she was pretty, and Madbird did his best to keep tabs on her-he'd gotten her a job waiting tables here at Split Rock because he and I were working nearby these days, remodeling some motel units- but Darcy walked her own walk.
She waitressed the lunch shift on Fridays, then stayed through the afternoon to help clean and set up for dinner. She was a good worker, we'd heard-cheerful, energetic, and possessing that all-important quality of doing what needed to be done without waiting to be told.
Now she was finished for the day and dressed to party, wearing tight jeans, spike-heeled boots, a turquoise- colored low-cut sweater, and a black leather biker jacket studded with silver.
'Hi, Hugh,' she said to me.
'Darcy, you're scorching my eyeballs.'
She gave me a big smile and pulled up a barstool next to Madbird.
'Buy me a drink,' she commanded him teasingly.
His mouth twitched in amusement, but the rest of his face remained unmoving. It looked like it had been carved out of a cliffside by a lightning storm, and his rumbling voice sounded like a diesel engine with a handful of gravel thrown in.
'Well, I guess, since you ask so nice,' he said. 'But I ain't sure they got Shirley Temples here.'
'I'll kick your Shirley Temple ass,' Darcy said scornfully. 'Gin and tonic.'
'Gin?' He frowned. 'You got a note from your mother?'
She snapped a quick punch to his forearm, smacking his Marine Corps skull-and-crossbones tattoo.
'Whoa! Okay, goddammit.' He backed away, rubbing the spot dramatically.
'See? He's not so tough,' she whispered to me.
'You ain't got to say it so loud,' Madbird muttered. He signaled the bartender and pushed forward a five from the pile of bills in front of him.
He wasn't much for vocalizing his feelings, but I knew that he had a special affection for Darcy. Even as an infant, she'd been uncowed by his fierce appearance, and she'd soon grasped his quirky brand of humor and learned to throw it back at him. This had developed into ritual sparring that both of them loved.
Over the years, he'd worried about her a lot, with reason. Now he was concerned in a different way, and it showed in his next words.
'I suppose regular bar gin ain't going to be good enough for you, seeing as how you been hanging around with the rich and famous,' he said.
Darcy's eyes narrowed just slightly, just for an instant. But she bounced back in a heartbeat with her mischievous smile.
'You got that right,' she said, and called to the bartender, 'Bombay Sapphire, please.'
Madbird whistled softly. 'Bombay fucking Sapphire,' he repeated, to nobody in particular. He pushed forward another five-dollar bill.
'It's a pretty blue bottle. Almost this color.' She plucked at her sweater.
'That what your boyfriend drinks?'
'He coming by here to pick you up?' Madbird said.
'Sure, why not?'
'I didn't say nothing about why not. I just wonder why he don't ever come inside.'
'What, to meet you? You kidding?'
He slumped dolefully against the bar. 'Well, ain't that the way it goes. Ashamed of your poor old uncle.'
'I'm not ashamed of you! I'm sitting right here beside you.'
'Yeah, long as I buy you fancy liquor.'
'Hah. Play me a game of eight-ball.' She grabbed his hand and tugged him away from the bar.
'I ain't played pool in a hundred years,' he objected, but he didn't resist.
'Come on, Hugh,' she said to me. 'My poor old uncle needs help. You two against me.'
I wasn't going to provide much help; I couldn't remember the last time I'd touched a cue myself. But I gathered our drinks and followed the two of them to the barroom's pool table, a sturdy old veteran scarred by countless cigarettes, stained by blood from fights and, according to rumor, occasional dousings of amatory body fluids as well. The conversation level in the bar had risen back up to normal, with the jukebox shifting from Bob Wills to Hank Snow doing 'A Six-Pack to Go.' Darcy punched quarters into the table and expertly arranged the rack, alternating stripes and solids and giving the centered eight ball a spin, then pressing the triangle inward with her fingers to clamp it tight.
Her newest boyfriend-the source of Madbird's concern-was a Montana state representative named Seth Fraker, from the resort area of Flathead Lake. The legislature had been in session in Helena for the last couple of months; Fraker and Darcy had met one evening when she was waitressing here and he'd come in with some colleagues to have dinner. He came from a well-established business family and he had all the trappings that went along with that-money, connections, and sophistication. Except for the inconvenient fact that he was married with kids, he seemed a big improvement over the aimless, troubled guys and sometimes outright criminals she'd run around with in the past.
But that was as far as the Cinderella story went. There was no glass slipper, just a variation on an old theme-an upper-crust white guy having a fling with a hot young Native girl. The deeper problem was, there were hints that Darcy was taking it more seriously. She'd suddenly decided to move to an apartment more expensive than she could afford, with money from a mysterious source. She gave off a new sense of excitement, like she had an important secret. She had let it slip that he described his marriage as being 'in name only,' without her seeming to realize what a stale ploy that was. While she was far from naive in many ways, this situation was outside her experience, and maybe she was subconsciously blinding herself besides.
That happened to just about everybody, in some way, at some point, but it was hard to watch it happen to Darcy.
For sure, Fraker had no intentions of leaving his family and marrying her. At best, he was setting her up as a mistress; he'd have plenty of pretexts to come to Helena. If that was the case and she could accept it, it might be a cynical but advantageous arrangement for her until something better came along. But far more likely, when the