The Dead Canary

An excerpt from “All the Demons Are Here,” a novel by Jake Tapper ’91


Butte, Montana
June 1977

So I slept in the hobo jungles
Roamed a thousand miles of track

—Elvis Presley, “Guitar Man”

The toughest tavern in Big Sky Country wasn’t the legendary Jimtown Bar near Lame Deer, with its acre of spent beer cans under which a corpse or two were likely buried. It wasn’t Al’s Tavern near the Billings sugar plant, with its buckshot-scarred front door and concrete floor stained with blood and brains.

No, that honor belonged to the Dead Canary, a dive outside Butte where the shot glasses once used to throw whiskey down the coal-dusted throats of dying miners were now clasped by Hells Angels and truck-stop hookers, poachers and drug dealers from the Flathead Indian Reservation. Plus the gang of circus freaks more formally known as the pit crew of legendary daredevil Evel Knievel.

I was one of those freaks.

That Saturday night, I was hanging out at the bar staring down the dozens of elk-head trophy mounts hung without rhyme or reason, as if customers paid their bar tabs with taxidermy. The effect was bizarre, like the beasts were stampeding right at me.

I was sitting beneath a sign that announced POWDER: NO CANDLES OR LIGHTED PIPES ALLOWED IN THIS DRIFT PER ORDER, a relic from the Montana Mining Company’s hunt for silver and gold and a warning that seemed a little too on the nose—for the bar and for me. This place was always one lit match away from disaster; it was squat and dim, with no windows for an easy escape. A cover band jammed in the far corner. Drunks crashed into each other on the makeshift dance floor.

I was tossing back whiskey and trying to make the bartender, Rachel Two Bears, laugh. She was tall and lean and hailed from the Crow Rez at the Wyoming border, though now she lived above this bar. She told me she was just there to help out a friend and planned to leave once Labor Day came around, but it seemed like she’d made herself at home, and I was glad about that. I wasn’t sure if we liked each other or just hated the same people. Okay, I’m full of shit—I was crazy about her.

“Big push to spring Patty Hearst for good,” I said, reading the front page of the Montana Standard. The kidnapped heiress turned bank robber was out on bail while she appealed her conviction, and newspaper columnists fed us daily dollops of details about how hard life had been for her when she was criming.

“Carter’s going to commute her sentence, mark my words,” she practically spat.

“You really think so?”

“The best ‘justice’ system money can buy,” she said. She mockingly assumed the voice of a bleeding heart: “Oh, poor girl, she was only nineteen when it started.”

“The Marines got me when I was seventeen. Where’s my sympathy?”

“Right here,” she said and refilled my shot glass.

Rachel’s politics were interesting; she seemed to have sympathy for Native American and other civil rights causes, but generally speaking, she was pretty hard-core law-and-order. Especially when it came to rich white folks gaming the system.

There were bikers in the house, big, ugly, hairy dudes. Some of those guys were freedom-loving rebels; others were actual fascists. There were also cowboys and Indians, students and farmers—and I wondered which way the night would go.

As if she’d read my mind, Rachel said, “Cantina scene tonight.” A few days before, Rachel and I had gone to see Star Wars.

“Lotta weirdos,” I agreed. “Not sure this means we’re at the start of an epic adventure, though.”

She smiled. “You’re not getting Leia’ed, if that’s what you mean.”

“Solo again,” I grumbled.

She winked at me, then went down the bar to pour a shot for a short, stocky biker in a black leather jacket.

Rachel was an enigma, a conundrum, a paradox—all those vocab words Mom made me study (for naught, since I bypassed college for the Marines). Anytime I tried to find out more about her—about life on the rez or where her family was or how she’d ended up here, of all places, in this rotten saloon in Butte—I hit a wall. She wasn’t a good liar, didn’t have a prepared story about who she was. Anytime I pried, she just closed up, flicked her attention past my shoulder, and waited for the conversation to move on. I had secrets too, of course, and sometimes I wondered who had more to hide.

The biker grunted his thanks. He was about as wide as a refrigerator, and on the back of his leather jacket, a German iron cross was painted in red. He downed his drink and signaled for another. Rachel told him to pay for the first two. He dug into the pocket of his jeans, dropped the change on the bar, and slowly counted his pennies and dimes.

Behind him, a smelly, greasy-haired cowboy mocked the biker in a dumb-guy voice: “One nickel . . . two nickels . . . der . . . I lost count.”

The biker turned to the grinning cowboy. “Why don’t you fuck off and—”

Rachel interrupted. “Kindly excuse Bitch Cassidy here,” she said, referring to the cowboy. “He’s just stoned. Fact is, he’s gonna pay for your drinks as compensation for his rudeness as long as you walk away and don’t cause no trouble. Okay, handsome?”

The biker stared into her dark eyes, possibly getting lost in them the way I frequently did. Cowboy started to complain, but Rachel’s scowl shut him down. The biker scraped up his change and walked back over to the corner where his buddies were emptying pitchers.

“All right, Midnight Cowpie,” Rachel said. “What are you buying other than two shots for the fifth column?”

The cowboy wasn’t happy, and Rachel’s quickness didn’t endear her to him. Not that he was going to do anything about it. Rachel had a shotgun behind the bar and a Model 19 Combat Magnum handgun on her hip, and if her little show-and-tell didn’t keep him in line, I was ready to. I had a couple years in the Corps and forty pounds on him and would’ve been happy to shut his mouth.

Wild Turkey on the rocks, he said. Rachel obliged, and as he walked off, she poured me one too. Wild Turkey was what my boss drank. If Evel caught you with anything else, he’d give you shit for being disloyal or soft, depending on the beverage.

“Motley crew,” she said.

“Motleyest in a while,” I said.

“I don’t think that’s a word.”

“Maybe not. Woulda been had Webster ever visited Montana.”

“Bikers and miners and drunks, oh my!” she said.

And he’s talkin’ with Davy, who’s still in the navy and probably will be for life,” I sang.

She spritzed carbonated water from the soda gun into a glass and raised it. “May we be who our dogs think we are.” Mac, her black-and-white mutt behind the bar, grunted.

I racked my brain for a decent toast that wouldn’t offend her, but nothing I’d picked up in prep school or the Marines qualified. Not that she was paying attention. She, along with a couple of the bar creeps, had turned toward the door. So I looked too.

A young blond woman wearing the kind of gray tailored suit you’d see on the streets of Manhattan—not in rural Montana—had just entered. I must have been drunker than I thought, because she looked exactly like my sister. But she couldn’t be my sister. My sister had no idea where I was. My sister was in DC, and I was hiding here, where she’d never find me. I squinted, and the woman locked eyes with me and gave me my sister’s goofy grin.

“Holy fucking shit,” I said.

“Ike!” She ran across the room, flung herself into my arms, and squeezed the breath out of me. I hugged her too, pretending I was happy she was here. I was, in a way.

She leaned back to get a better look at me and tugged at the beard I’d grown. “Not Marine Corps regulation.”

“How the fuck did you find me?”

Her nose wrinkled at the curse, then she smiled. “I’m a reporter, stupid.”

I guided Lucy to a corner table between the bar and the door, away from everybody, then went back and got her a beer and myself a whiskey rocks. “You can’t leave a military hospital in the middle of the night and expect no one to worry,” she said when I came back. “I thought Mom and Dad were overreacting, but seeing you now, I’m not so sure.”

“The Marines know where I am,” I said. This wasn’t exactly true, but I hadn’t been officially declared AWOL.

“That’s not what the Corps told Dad. He and Mom are freaking out.”

Lucy didn’t know the whole story, and I wasn’t about to burden her with it. She was only two years older than me, but you’d think she was my mom. “How are they?”

“Worried about you,” Lucy said, “but keeping busy.” She looked down at her beer, caressing the lip of the glass. “Mom’s been dragging Dad to every Shakespeare play at the Folger. Last week was The Tempest.”

“Dad must fucking hate it.”

“He’s fine. Okay, he’s not totally fine. He’s drinking again.” She looked pointedly at the glass in my hand.

I glanced away. Her eyes always were a little too sharp. “And how’s he dealing with the new administration?” Dad was a moderate Republican senator from New York; his respect for Carter, shall we say, knew bounds. Vice President Rockefeller had been a mentor of his, and he’d adored President Ford. I didn’t give a damn about any of this, but Lucy loved talking politics, and it got her out of my grille.

“He feels guilty, I think,” Lucy said. “By coming out against Nixon so early, he worries he undermined Ford and set the stage for his defeat.”

“How’s work at the paper?” The previous summer, right out of Yale, Lucy had been hired as an intern at the national desk of the Washington Evening Star.

“I left the Star, I quit,” she said. “I have a new job. Long story, but I’d rather hear about you. How did you end up . . . ” She looked around the room as if she smelled something foul. Lucy had been a protective older sister—always looking out for me, comforting me when I got suspended for fighting in high school, supportive when I enlisted before graduation. “Like, what do you talk about with this . . . gathering of the Cro-Magnon Society?”

“Work,” I said. “Bikes. Trucks. I’ve heard you and your friends yammering, and that’s not exactly the fucking Algonquin.”

“That’s true,” she said, laughing. She raised her glass to me. “Do you still watch TV? Back home, everyone’s talking about Roots.”

“I don’t have a TV.” My digs consisted of a bed in a room the size of a closet in what was essentially a flophouse for the pit crew. “But I read the book. And a lot of other stuff. Don’t really miss TV, except Carson.”

The band took a break. Rachel stepped out from behind the bar—cowboy boots, tight blue jeans, black sleeveless top. I liked watching her move. She went over to the jukebox. The first guitar bursts of Led Zeppelin’s “All the Demons Are Here” ricocheted around the room.

Ev’ryone gettin’ crazy
Desperation in the air
The storm made the trip and crashed the ship
We were all in deep despair

Ferdinand saw the evil
Knew from whence it came
The cursed love, the gods above,
The ship consumed by flame

Hellllllllllll is emmmmmmpty
And all the demons are here

Hellllllllllll is emmmmmmpty
And all the demons are here

Somewhere in the midst of one of Robert Plant’s more orgasmic vocals, the bar door opened and a whiff of gasoline from a motorcycle that was obviously jetting way too rich punched me in the face. A man by the door lit a cigarette, and in the lighter’s flare, his facial features were sharp, hawklike. When I blinked, the man’s face filled out, became chubby. To those who haven’t had them, flashbacks are difficult to explain, especially when they’re from combat, but for a moment in time, the sensory overload of rhythm and odor and harsh sounds pushed me out and away from Lucy and into a sweaty heart-pounding oblivion.

Lucy reined me in. “I didn’t know Zeppelin had made it to the wilds of Montana.”

It took me a second to get my bearings. “Oh, sure. We have the wheel now too.”

She shrugged. “I figured your jukes would be chock-full o’ Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.”

I looked at her. I’d been mad at Lucy. Growing up, I was closer to her than anyone, then she went off to college and lived her life and created a vacuum in mine and everything changed. I began spinning out of control; I got in trouble at school, and by the time I enlisted, I’d been drinking and fighting for so long, I figured I might as well get paid for it. Of course, Mom and Dad begged me not to do it, but that just made me want to get away more. I knew it wasn’t logical to blame any of this on Lucy, but I did anyway. I also wanted to tell her everything, like what had happened to me in Lebanon. But I couldn’t talk about it. Not even to her.

“Bathroom,” I said, standing. “Be right back.”

* * *

Swaying at the urinal, I read for the five hundredth time the September 9, 1974, New York Daily News front page that someone had tacked on the wall years before. Although the headline read “Nixon Gets Full Pardon,” most of the page was about my boss: “Evel Fails, Chutes into Canyon; He Is Unhurt in 600-Ft. Drop.” It was the story of Knievel’s ill-fated but spectacular jump over Snake River Canyon in a rocket that looked like something Wile E. Coyote had ordered from the Acme Corporation. That crazy stunt shared billing with a moment of actual historic import. I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of that crazy daredevil. Standing there looking at the photo of his broken rocket slowed everything down in my mind and calmed me, got me out of my fight-or-flight zone and gave me back some perspective. Evel Knievel! People couldn’t get enough.

I’d joined his pit crew seven months before. Evel had seen me on a TV news segment about my so-called heroics in Lebanon, an urban battle and urban legend in which I’d taken part, and it included some stunts I’d pulled on the back of an old motorcycle. The Pentagon was only too excited to sell to the American public via 60 Minutes its (redacted) version of my story to cloak the more important narrative of our disastrous mission and the larger problem of the dying American empire flailing and failing abroad.

If you’re lookin’ for trouble, Elvis sang from the jukebox out in the bar, you came to the right place. The King’s words relaxed me.

After seeing the 60 Minutes segment, Evel had sent a message to me at the Bethesda Naval Hospital via the Montana grapevine to look him up if I ever made it to Butte. When I got out here, he was impressed with my work ethic and the way I handled a motorcycle; he hired me to work on V-twin engines and ride like

I had nothing to lose. A world-famous celebrity was shining his affection on me, and I got to bask in it — for a while, anyway. He was a moody guy, and he was currently blaming me for his latest near-fatal crash, which placed me atop a short list of people he wanted to murder. I was hoping to make my way off that list and back to the light.

I felt calmer now. The bathroom was spinning less, and my heart rate had returned to normal. I would go out there and show Lucy that everything was okay, that I was doing just great, so she could get on that plane to DC and tell the folks to stop worrying. I’d go home when I was ready.

That was the plan, anyway.


Back out at the bar, I nudged past some low-level pot dealers from the Flathead Reservation (Damon, Adam, and Paul Yellowmountain; cousins, they said) and asked Rachel for another round of drinks. “The beer’s for my sister.”

She glanced over, and one eyebrow went up. “That’s the famous Lucy?”

“Come say hi when you get a minute.”

“Corporal,” Paul said to me.

“Lance corporal,” Damon said.

“Lance boil,” said Adam; his giggle and pink eyes revealed how stoned he was.

“I’m a lowly sergeant,” I said. “How’s business, gentlemen?”

Adam tucked his long dark locks behind his ears. “We’re all good, kemo sabe.”

“Yo, man, that ain’t cool,” Damon said. Damon was always trying to stir up shit. “Kemo sabe means ‘idiot’ in Apache.”

“No, no, it just means ‘white boy,’ ” Adam told him.

The three—obviously smoking away their profits—giggled hysterically.

As I headed back to my table, I noticed a big biker guy leaning over Lucy, his right boot propped up on my chair—a run-of-the-mill Montana dirtbag. I went over, handed Lucy her beer, and pulled my chair out from under his foot. He almost fell but caught himself.

“I was handling this,” Lucy said calmly.

“I thought you were with the redskin slut,” the guy said.

This guy wasn’t worth breaking my hand on. Bar fights were stupid, and it’d be even stupider to fight in front of Lucy, who was there to ensure I wasn’t beating up dirtbags in a bar in Montana. I told myself all these things, but I was drunk and riled up. I took a breath. Maybe this would resolve itself.

Then he gestured to Lucy and said, “Or is this your slut?” and I punched him in the face.

He hit the floor but quickly got up, rubbing his chin and smiling.

“Ike, stop!” Lucy said.

The band had come back from break and was blasting a cover of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Rachel shucking her pump-action shotgun. Usually, that sound was enough to stop anyone in his tracks. And in this part of the world, few would judge her for the bullet.

This guy must have figured she was bluffing and pulled a knife. A dirty, rusty switchblade. He lunged at me. I felt a sting as the knife nicked me under the rib. He came at me again and I lifted him like a duffel and slammed him into the wall. A two-top and a pitcher of beer crashed to the floor. I grabbed his wrist and twisted it, and the blade fell. He went for it and I got on top of him and pummeled his face with my fist.

I can’t pretend I didn’t know what I was doing. I was venting frustrations that had nothing to do with this miscreant. I was enjoying beating him up. Hell yes, it was fun. Facts I couldn’t acknowledge to Mom and Dad and Lucy: Fighting was fun, and winning was immensely satisfying.

He covered his face with his bloody hands, but I kept hitting him. Even after his hands dropped and he lay there, not moving, I kept hitting him.

The Yellowmountain boys dragged me off him. Rachel checked for a pulse. I realized the band had stopped playing, and Lucy was watching everything, terrified. I thought it was just a typical Saturday-night bar fight in Butte, but then I realized she’d never seen me fight and was horrified by what I’d done to the man now unconscious on the floor. Shame crawled up my neck. I felt like I was breaking my sister’s heart. I could see that she was revolted by me.

Rachel pulled up the guy’s bloodied T-shirt, looking for any wounds, as they teach in first aid. The band resumed playing. Folks picked up the tables and put them back in place. The rumble of conversations started up again. Rachel got up from the unconscious guy and came my way.

Lucy glared at me. “Ike, what the hell—”

“Listen, both of you,” Rachel interrupted. “He’s covered with prison tats—swastikas. SS. Hitler. He’s an Idaho Nazi. The sheriff’s in with them.”

“The sheriff?” Lucy went pale. “What does that mean?”

“You need to go right now, both of you, before you get killed.”


From All the Demons Are Here by Jake Tapper. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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