from mysteries by
Tony Hillerman
(1925 – 2008)

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A Thief of Time

Talking God


detective fiction

indigenous Americans (fiction)

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A Thief of Time

Copyright © 1988 by Tony Hillerman


The moon had risen just above the cliff behind her. Out on the packed sand of the wash bottom the shadow of the walker made a strange elongated shape. Sometimes it suggested a heron, sometimes one of those stick figure forms of an Anasazi pictograph. An animated pictograph, its arms moving rhythmically as the moon shadow drifted across the sand. Sometimes, when the goat trail bent and put the walker’s profile against the moon, the shadow became Kokopelli himself. The backpack formed the spirit’s grotesque hump, the walking stick Kokopelli’s crooked flute. Seen from above, the shadow whoud have made a Navaho believe that the great yei northern clans called Watersprinkler had taken visible form.

2 Even at this distance Leaphorn could see the woman was beautiful. It was not just the beauty of youth and health, it was something unique and remarkable. Leaphorn had seen such beauty in Emma, nineteen then, and walking across the campus at Arizona State University. It was rare and valuable.



4 But Emma’s absence always intruded. When he raised his eyes, he saw the R. C. Gorman print she’d hung over the fireplace. They’d argued about it. She liked it, he didn’t. The words would sound in his ears again. And Emma’s laughter. It was the same everywhere he looked. He should sell that house, or burn it. It was in the tradition of the Dineh. Abandon the house contaminated by the dead, lest the ghost sickness infect you, and you died.



The Navajo Way was devoted to the harmony of life. It left death simply terrifyingly black oblivion.




Until recently telephone calls between the world outside and Chaco had traveled via a Navajo Communications Company telephone line. From Crownpoint northeast, the wire wandered across the rolling grassland, attached mostly to fence posts and relying on its own poles only when no fence was available going in the right direction. This system made telephone service subject to the same hazards as the ranch fence on which it piggybacked. Drifts of tumbleweeds, winter blizzards, dry rot, errant cattle, broke down both fences and communications. When it was operating, voices sometimes tended to fade in and out with the wind velocity. But recently this system had been modernized. Calls were now routed two hundred miles east to Santa Fe, then beamed to a satellite and rebroadcast to a receiving dish at Chaco. The space age system, like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration which made it possible, was frequently out of operation. When it operated at all, voices tended to fade in and out with the wind velocity.



11 He thought of that aphorism of southern Utah’s hard country—if you want to be meaner than everybody else without dying young, you have to be smarter than everybody else.
14 An odd young man, Chee. Smart, apparently. Alert. But slightly . . . slightly what? Bent? Not exactly. It wasn’t just the business of trying to be a medicine man—a following utterly incongruous with police work. He was a romantic, Leaphorn decided. That was it. A man who followed dreams. The sort who would have joined that Paiute shaman who invented the ghost dance and the vision of white men withering away and the buffalo coming back to the plains. Maybe that wasn’t fair. It was more that Chee seemed to think an island of 180,000 Navajos could live the old way in a white ocean. Perhaps 20,000 of them could, if they were happy on mutton, cactus, and piñon nuts. Not practical. Navajos had to compete in the real world. The Navajo way didn’t teach competition. Far from it.

“She been looting ruins?” And he laughed.

“Does she do that?”

“She’s an anthropologist,” Arnold said, his chuckle reduced again to a grin. “You translate the word from academic into English and that’s what it means: ruins looter, one who robs graves, preferably old ones. Well-educated person who steals artifact in dignified manner.” Arnold, overcome by the wit of this, laughed. “Somebody else does it, they call ’em vandals. That’s the word for the competition. Somebody gets there first, gets off with the stuff before the archaeologists can grab it, they call ’em Thieves of Time.”

text checked (see note) October 2021

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Talking God

Copyright © 1989 by Tony Hillerman

2 “And don’t you feel bad about it. Born for Water told Monster Slayer to leave Death alive to get rid of old people like me. You have to make some room for the new babies.”



They had worked a way around the Navajo taboo that decreed sons-in-law must avoid mothers-in-law. Agnes Tsosie decided that role applied only to mean mothers-in-law with bad sons-in-law. In other words, it applied to people who couldn’t get along.




“What were you looking for?” Kennedy asked. “Besides tracks.”

“Nothing in particular,” Leaphorn said. “You’re not really looking for anything in particular. If you do that, you don’t see things you’re not looking for.”


Chee had known her on the reservation as a lawyer on the staff of the Dinebeiina Nahiilna be Agaditahe, which translated loosely into English as “People Who Talk Fast and Help the People Out” but was more often called the DNA or Tribal Legal Aid [...]




text checked (see note) May 2006

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