Authors: Richard Wagamese
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Indians of North America, #Friendship, #Westerns, #Literary, #Cultural Heritage
“Oh, geez, god,” Darlene said. “What time is it?”
“I apologize for calling so late, but I thought you’d want to know right away.”
“He did it, didn’t he! That doggone whelp. Made himself All-Round Cowboy at the National Finals, didn’t he? Didn’t he?” she asked.
“No,” Johanna said.
“No? Well, what then?”
“He’s busted up, Darlene.”
She lit a cigarette, exhaled and set the lighter down beside the photo of her and Joe Willie at the Yuma Rodeo two years back. “He’s been busted up before,” she said.
“Not like this.”
“Like what?” She reached for the beer tucked under the edge of her bed.
“It looks like he’ll never ride again.”
Darlene laughed, then took a gulp of beer. “No way,” she said. “We’re talking about Joe Willie Wolfchild here. That son of a bitch’s got rodeo for blood. He’ll mend.”
“He’ll mend, Darlene, but he won’t ride again. Ever.”
“Ever’s a long friggin’ time, ma’am,” Darlene said.
“It can be. But it doesn’t need to be,” Johanna said.
“What does that mean?”
“It means he’s going to need you now like never before.”
“I’m here. I’m here,” she said, draining the beer and looking at the can puzzled and wanting another. “When have I not been? Been four years off and on.”
“Well, it has to be on now,” Johanna said firmly.
“I’m Joe Willie’s girl. Everyone knows that.”
“Just as long as you know, for absolute and for certain.”
“I know. I definitely know. So he ain’t world champion this year. There’s always another go-round. You’ll see,” Darlene said and flopped back on the bed.
“Understand this, Darlene,” Johanna said.
“I understand. You told me when we first started going out that getting busted up was part of the life and that I had to get used to it. Well, I did. I always been in the corner when it counted. I ain’t never been no buckle bunny.”
“There’s more than bones to mend this time.”
“Yeah. Okay. Can I go to sleep now? I gotta work.”
The phone went dead in her hand.
“Frigid bitch,” Darlene said and went in search of another beer.
She was standing at the kitchen window when he came in. He didn’t see it at first but when she stepped away from the window and into the light the bruises stood out on her face like
remnants of the shadow she’d just moved out of. The black around her eyes shocked him. She reached out her hands to him, but all he saw was the hurt there and he couldn’t move and he couldn’t think of a response so he just sat on a kitchen chair and stared at her.
“What the hell?” was all he could say.
“Aiden,” she said, stepping closer to him.
“No,” he said, backing away from her in a half crouch.
“Aiden, I’m okay.”
“You call that okay?” He stood in the doorway now, pointing at her.
“It’s not what you think.”
“It’s not? What is it, then?”
“It’s a mistake.”
“Bullshit. Where is the fat fuck? I’ll show him a mistake.”
She slumped into the chair he’d just vacated and sat there, leaning on her elbows with her head bowed and she didn’t speak again for a long time and for a moment he wondered whether she was even breathing. Finally, she lifted her head and looked at him through a silvery sludge of tears that looked slick like oil through the purple of her face. She sniffled. She wiped at her nose with the back of one knuckle. “I need you to do something for me,” she said.
“Don’t do anything.”
“What?” he said again, harder.
“Don’t say anything to him. Just be neutral.”
“Neutral? What the fuck is neutral?”
“Let me deal with it. I know what to do.”
“Yeah? What’s that? Call the cops?”
“No? The asshole beat you.”
“You better fucking know because your face is a mess.”
She stood up and walked to the counter and reached down to the carousel where he kept his booze and poured herself a large shot of bourbon that she drank straight down and then placed the glass carefully back on the countertop. He watched her, and the dull clunk of the glass on the counter seemed like punctuation to it all. Recessed, empty, flat. When she turned to him again he could see her trying to be strong, could see it working in her face and he wanted to step toward her and hold her. But he just stood there. They both just stood there and the distance between them seemed like a living thing suddenly, breathing, growing larger by the second.
“If we say anything he’ll kick us out,” she said quietly. “Even if we go to the police we’ll be homeless. I let everything go to come here. Everything. He said he’d take care of us. He’d take charge and we wouldn’t have to worry. So we need to be neutral. For a while. Just for a while until I figure out what to do.”
“What if he beats you again?”
“Why not if he knows he can get away with it?”
In the shadow she stood in, the features of her face seemed to slide downward slowly, and he understood then what outright surrender looked like and it angered him. “Because I’ll give him what he wants,” she said, and this angered him even more.
In the dream Joe Willie saw the bear. He was straddling the chute, the bull beneath him, pale dust yellow, horns like fists at
the side of the great wide head, breathing, taking in huge gulps of air, preparing for the battle. He raised his eyes from the bull and scanned the arena. The crowd was boisterous, filled with a nervous energy that prompted chatter, the ludicrous banter of spectacle. As he took in the familiar motions of the infield, the cowboys leaning over the rails, the clowns stretching, running in place, the pickup riders talking to their horses, he saw the bear, a grizzly the size of a Brahma bull staring at him through the slats across the infield. When he met its gaze the sound of the arena died and he could hear only his own breath and the huff of the bear’s. There was no threat in the look. It seemed only curious about him. Joe Willie wondered why the rough stock hadn’t flown into a panic over the bear or why the horses weren’t rearing. The grizzly stood there like part and parcel of the whole deal, as if it was going to reach back and rosin up for a ride. The bear tossed its head and then slowly began to rise on its back legs using its forepaws for balance on the fence. Joe Willie could see the bend in the boards as they caught the great weight of the bear. Finally, it stood looking out over the fencing, lifted its snout to sniff the air and then levelled its gaze at Joe Willie again. Joe Willie closed his eyes and shook his head to clear it of the hallucination and then turned his attention back to the bull in the chute. Except it wasn’t a bull. It was the bear.
As he leaped up higher on the rails the dream changed.
He was in a tent in the mountains above the ranch. It was early morning and there was a wavy curtain of fog over everything. He’d slept with his head facing the open door, and as he looked around him he felt comforted and peaceful. He knew this spot. It was a small glade where he’d often camped. It was a private place where he went to heal aching bones and muscles in the chill of the glacial stream at the glade’s northern
edge and to refresh his mind from the disruption of the road, the cities, the sometimes jarring world of rodeo. He craned his neck to stretch it and peered out at the fog. It moved. At the far northern edge, where the glade dipped to the stream, the fog moved. It parted, and a large black shape began to emerge.
The bear walked slowly out of the trees and toward the tent. All Joe Willie could hear was his own breathing and the bear’s. It came closer, slowly, its gaze squarely on Joe Willie, who lay frozen in place. Time slowed to the rhythm of the bear’s walk, and Joe Willie felt captivated by it, entranced and somehow, strangely, unafraid. When the grizzly got to a point just beyond the fire, fifteen feet, perhaps, from the tent, it stopped. They stared at each other. Then the bear rose up, presented itself to Joe Willie in its tremendous size, dropped to all fours, turned and padded away toward the trees. It turned its head every four or five steps and looked back at him. All the way across the glade it did this, and Joe Willie kept expecting to hear it speak to him, maybe in the ancient voice of his grandfather’s people or his mother’s. But it merely looked at him. Joe Willie squinted at it, trying to discern what the message was. The bear reared up on its back legs once more and rolled in bear walk toward the edge of the trees and the fog. When it reached the point where the fog was about to enshroud it, the bear turned its great head to look back at Joe Willie one more time. Except it wasn’t a bear. It was an old woman wrapped in a bear robe. She held the gaze briefly, then stepped into the fog.
Joe Willie moaned once in his sleep and rolled back into the fog himself.
At least the fat prick was good for cash. He slipped an envelope with a twenty-dollar bill under the crack of his bedroom
door every morning. The money was supposed to let him go to the movies or whatever distraction he could find for himself until moneybags could get his mother into the bedroom at night. That was fine with him. He didn’t want to have anything to do with the fat prick. The day when he did would be the day the fat bastard paid out on everything. Everything. Aiden felt the bile of his anger against the back of his throat and he shook his head violently to clear it. The money was good, and even though he never went to a movie with it he’d put it to good use. Not like the fat prick thought. Instead, he’d saved it. Kept it in one of the envelopes and stuffed it under his mattress until it had built up into a nice little stash. He’d kept his eyes and ears open enough on the street so that he knew who to talk to. Making the purchase was easy, and as he walked down the street he felt secure, settled, carrying the knowledge that things were moving in the direction he had chosen and that there was nothing in the world that could halt it now. When he showed up at Cort’s they slipped up to his bedroom and locked the door behind them.
“Did you get it?” Cort asked.
“I said I would, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, well, sometimes guys just say stuff.”
“I’m not one of those guys.” Aiden looked hard at his friend. He walked over to the bed, reached behind and pulled it from his belt and threw it down on the mattress.
Cort smiled. He picked it up and gauged the weight in his hand. “Kinda small, ain’t it?”
“Glock 26,” Aiden said. “Subcompact. They call it the Baby Glock. Still a nine-millimetre though. It’s perfect for us.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Look for a score, case it out, take it down. You sure you wanna do this?”
Cort nodded solemnly. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I wanna do it.”
“You done this before, right?”
“No. Not this.”
“Me neither. You scared?”
Aiden gave him a level look, and Cort could tell that the question irritated him. He pursed his lips and studied the floor before he spoke. “Scared? Yeah. Maybe. Some.”
“Me too. But that’s good, right? Keeps you sharp? Keeps you ready for anything?” Cort’s head bobbed nervously as he spoke.
“Something like that,” Aiden said. “But I give it a different name. Something I can handle.”
“I don’t know. Like ready. Or pumped. Tell yourself you’re ready, you’re pumped, not scared, not that, not ever.”
“Yeah,” Cort said. “Okay.”
“I’m gone, pal. Can you stash the piece?”
“Mum’s the word, right?”
“Yeah. Count on it.”
They shook hands solemnly, and Aiden made his way out of the apartment and out to the street. The gun was his ticket. With it he could change everything, and when he thought about it he felt a raw excitement. There was a charge to this, the idea of walking into a place, bold as brass, pulling down on somebody, raking in the loot and then backing out, gun pointed, threatening. Jesus. His pecker was getting stiff just thinking about it. He grinned and looked in the windows as he passed. No one knew. To them he was just another kid
walking home after school. But they’d know soon enough. All of them. Especially the fat prick.
Coming out of the darkness was like being pulled backwards into the world. He felt the back of his head first. Then his face. Then, slowly, inch by inch, the rest of him. It hurt. Bad. There was a cottony numbness to everything that told him they’d shot him up with morphine. It was always morphine. When guys got trampled, morphine was the only thing that could kill the agony left by hooves, horns and arena hardpack. When he tried to move he felt the tightness of the body cast. He tried to recollect the ride to find the moment when it all went to hell so he could meet it, find his peace with it and start mending. His hand. The wrap. He relaxed and remembered. The son of a bitch reversed himself quickly and kicked out at the same time so that there was daylight between his butt and leather. Only the wrap held him, and as he struggled to reclaim the narrow seat behind the bull’s shoulders the wrap and his hand became the swing point for his whole body. When he felt the pocket of air grow with the successive twists and jumps he tried to let go, to kick out and save himself, but the bind was too strong. He remembered yanking at the bull rope and then flat spinning off the bull’s back with his hand still strung to the rope and the vision of the arena roof with all its banners. Then it became a series of images: colours, screams, the smell of fear in his nostrils, the hard haul on his arm, the toes of his boots clunking on the hardpack, the slam of the bull’s sides against his chest and then his back and ribs as he twisted on the fulcrum of his gloved hand. Then the ripping, the tearing, the burn of muscles stretched beyond their limit and the funny white pop in the head born of sudden pain. He tried to squeeze his left hand together but it wouldn’t move. In fact, he had a whole lot of
trouble even feeling the whole arm. Only a sodden kind of heaviness told him it was there. As he came farther back into the world he felt his right leg. It was elevated. All he could feel of it was the terrific heaviness of it sitting in its sling. He tried to shift to relieve the weight on his lower back. He groaned.