Authors: James Crowley
Tags: #Fiction - Middle Grade
Text copyright Â© 2011 by James Crowley
Illustrations copyright Â© 2010 by Jim Madsen
All rights reserved. Published by Disney â¢ Hyperion Books, an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher. For information address Disney â¢ Hyperion Books, 114 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10011-5690.
Printed in the United States of America
Designed by Elizabeth H. Clark
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data on file.
For Doc and Jude
that fell through the night let up near morning but continued to swirl and whip around the government barracks and outbuildings of the Chalk Bluff Indian reservation. Against a night sky, the structures' silhouettes looked like ghostly ships crossing the desolate, rolling hills of the high Montana plain.
An old man felt his way along the buildings, his gnarled hand brushing against the neglected, paint-peeled walls. In his other hand, he clutched a bottle and the corner of a tattered gray army blanket, which he fought to keep wrapped around his shoulders.
The old man steadied himself, drew a long pull of corn liquor from the heavy green glass bottle, then stumbled toward the small corral that ran adjacent to the barracks. He remembered the days before there were buildings like this, or of any kind, on the landâthe days when he had been known as a great warrior, a great hunter. But that was a long time ago. Now he was known as a drunk.
The old man reached the corral and fell to his knees in a deep bank of snow. He mumbled a song, and the singing seemed to summon a shadowy presence from the darkness. The man looked up at the shadow, the snow landing in tiny wet kisses on his face.
As the shadow moved closer, the old man let the army blanket drop from his shoulders. A string of heavy bear claws hung from his withered neck. He pulled the strand over his head, reached out to the night, and collapsed.
& THE P
to a familiar drip. An icicle had appeared in the corner of the window next to his bed one night and had proceeded, over the course of the winter, to find a way through the seam of the frame and into the barrack. In the fading moonlight, he watched as a single droplet of water wound slowly down the icicle's smooth contours. From there, Lionel knew, it would pass over the frozen and rotting wood of the windowsill, then hold for a moment before dropping with annoying regularity into the small puddle beside his bed.
The steady plinking sound reminded Lionel of the piano that the Brothers who ran the Chalk Bluff boarding school played from time to time. As Lionel lay listening to the monotonous drops, he heard another soundâthe faint hint of movement coming from the girls' end of the barrack.
The girls and boys had once lived in separate barracks, but ever since the girls' bunkhouse had burned to the ground, they had been housed in opposite ends of the same building. Lionel stared down the long dark hall toward his older sister, Beatrice. He watched as she threw back her heavy covers, pushed the hair from her face, and crept to the potbellied stove that separated the girls' and boys' sides of the bunkhouse. Beatrice was three years older than Lionel, but he and everyone else on the Blackfeet Indian reservation knew that she was already beyond her twelve years. Lionel had heard older people say that it was because Beatrice stood watch at their mother's bedside while she died of tuberculosis in the winter of 1903. others said that Beatrice was just born old, as some people are.
There had never been any photographs of their mother, so Lionel had no way of knowing if the image he carried of her in his head was in any way accurate. when he questioned his sister, she described their mother as having long black hair and strong arms, so that is how Lionel saw her.
“But, it don't matter no more,” Beatrice would say about their mother's passing. “She died a long time before that hospital bed. She died years ago, the day they started calling our land this here reservation.”
After their mother's death, Beatrice and Lionel had been sent to the boarding school, where they had lived for the last six years. The school was run by the Brothers from the church, and while not directly overseen by the government, the proximity of the soldiers' outpost inevitably led to their involvement in maintaining the peace and some semblance of order. Beatrice complained to Lionel that they were not allowed to leave the reservation without the superintendent's permission. Lionel often wondered where they would go if they had been allowed, and why this bothered Beatrice so, but it did.
Beatrice's flannel pajamas were visible as they hung from beneath the layers of sweaters and the heavy wool pants she now wore. The pajamas had been a gift from the army captain of the nearby post, when it was learned that Beatrice and Lionel's father had also died. No one seemed to know how or why their father died, but Beatrice was given the pajamas and Lionel was given a small army sack jacket identical to the one that the captain wore from time to time. The captain, who Lionel thought was a nice man, had tried to give Beatrice a jacket, but Beatrice refused to wear it no matter how cold it was, so she ended up with the pajamas.
Lionel liked the captain and the ribbon medals he sometimes wore on his jacket. He knew the captain because brushing down the captain's big bay stallion was one of Lionel's morning chores. The horse was the small military outpost's pride and joy. The captain called him Ulysses, and he was thought to be the fastest horse in Montana. Beatrice said that an association of horse enthusiasts came all the way from Billings by train one time just to watch him run.
From his bed, Lionel watched his sister adjust the damper, stir the embers, then add another piece of dusty black coal. He was always amazed that Beatrice was able to move without making a sound. He lost her for a moment in the darkness but heard the distant punctuated sigh of her bunk as she slipped back beneath the heavy woolen blankets to wait for morning.
Lionel lay listening to the breathing of the other children who slept around them under their piles of army-issued blankets. He waited for his sister's breath to fall into the same easy cadence, but it did not come.
Beatrice suddenly spoke, telling Lionel to sleep, in the native tongue of their people. And although she spoke softly, it wasn't a whisper.
“You're going to get whipped if they hear you're not speaking in the English,” Lionel warned.
“They'll whip ya real good if they hear you been out of bed.”
Beatrice did not answer, and again Lionel heard the slow drip of the icicle. It seemed far away now, but soon transformed into the very present ringing of Brother Finn's brass bell.
up with a start. Brother Finn had shoved his bunk and was shouting in Latin, “Up. Up. Today is your day to serve the Lord our Savior!”
Lionel's eyes followed Brother Finn's long black robes as they swept down the narrow rows of the barrack. The other children got up from their bunks, pulling off their nightclothes and dressing for the dayâeveryone but Beatrice. Brother Finn stopped at the foot of her bunk and stared into the jumbled mess of bedding.
“Let's go, Beatrice. Let's not start the Lord's day this way,” Brother Finn announced in English.
Beatrice appeared from beneath her blankets and pushed the hair from her face.
“And today is the day that your hair will be cut. You've been warned. You will report to the barber after Mass. Now, let's go!”
Brother Finn continued down the row and out the other end of the room, but his cries still echoed through the barrack. Beatrice crawled out of bed and pulled on her patchwork school uniform.
Beatrice's uniform was different from those of the other thirty-three children who attended the school. To start, it wasn't as new; the rich navy blue color had faded, and it seemed to be more patch than original material. The Brothers told Beatrice repeatedly that she should report to the quartermaster for a new issue, but she preferred what she now wore.
Lionel looked at his sister. Her hair was dramatically longer than the rest of the children's. It was thickâhe supposed like their mother'sâand so dark that it shone almost blue in the morning light. Lionel's hair was cropped close to his scalp, as short as the outpost's barber's shears could cut.
You'll be whipped if they hear you're out of bed
Beatrice called down the row, imitating her brother's voice. She smiled at Lionel and turned to make her bunk.
Lionel pulled his blanket tight at the corners. He couldn't believe his sister's stupidity.
“You will,” Lionel warned again, “and you know it.”
Lionel stepped from the relative warmth of the bunkhouse into the weak light of a late winter's sun. He walked in silence except for the crunch of old snow that lay a few inches under the fresh. Around him, the neighboring outpost came to life. He heard, but no longer listened to, the different calls of the army men's bugle, the rustling and rousing of livestock, and the drone and drill of military life to which he had become accustomed. Lionel watched Beatrice and some of her classmates as they poured from the girls' side of the barracks on their way to Mass.
Beatrice's hair was tied into two thick braids. She had been allowed to keep her long hair as she had been in the infirmary when the new regulations came from the East. The latest rules defined the manner in which the girls' hair should be cut, and stated that they would now have a new and different uniform.
Lionel watched as Beatrice wandered in her tattered clothes behind the rest of the girls and in particular Delores Ground. Delores and the other girls proudly wore the new issue, oddly cut dresses that Lionel thought resembled the uniforms of the army men that worked on the water. The captain called them “sailors” and had shown Lionel a picture of the men standing on the bow of a great ship. The men wore white uniforms with wide collars, like Delores's.
Lionel had a hard time trying to imagine Beatrice with the short bobbed hair and in a dress like the ones the rest of the girls now wore. But he knew that he would soon see it for himself, as the Brothers and the captain were not likely to let her slide on regulations now that she was no longer sick.
Beatrice joined Lionel, and together they walked toward the corrals, where Lionel slipped between the snow-covered pine poles. He glanced at Beatrice and thought of their grandfather, who did not want to live near the actual agency and had chosen instead his own “reservation,” a small plot on the banks of the Milk River near the northern end of the Blackfeet's allotted lands. It was, Beatrice said, a good day's ride from the school.
Lionel watched as his sister turned away from the corral and stood with her back to the rising sun. She angled herself slightly to the north, to their grandfather and the great mountains that broke through the low snow clouds.
She dug into her pocket and pulled out a small tobacco pouch made from the soft underbelly of a buffalo calf that their grandfather had found frozen one late-spring morning. He had given Beatrice the pouch on her ninth birthday, and she still practiced what he had taught her, despite the Brothers' and soldiers' rules.
Beatrice opened the smooth leather pouch and removed a small plug of tobacco. She worked the dark leaves in her hands and then raised them, holding the tobacco out in front of her. She held it above her head, offering it to a jagged mountain peak that was the easternmost tip of what the army referred to as the Rocky Mountains.
The army and Brothers from the school called the broken section of the mountain “Chief Mountain.” They said that movement from within the earth had caused its eastern wall to separate, and now it lay in jumbled piles of rubble among the small foothills.
Their grandmother had once told them that the mountain fell because the Blackfeet no longer had their sacred Beaver woman as a spiritual leader. She said that because of this, they had lost their way and had been forced to settle down as opposed to continuing their nomadic life following the great herds of buffalo across the northern plains. She said that this forced the buffalo to leave, although they were waiting for the Blackfeet somewhere. Lionel often wondered where.
Beatrice let some of the tobacco slip through her fingers and then watched as it floated off toward the north. She turned west, holding the tobacco as an offering, then south, her eyes passing over Cut Bank Ridge and eventually stopping as she faced Heart Butte. She held the tobacco out toward Heart Butte, then turned east to the endless expanse of snow-covered grass before her. Lionel could see Beatrice's lips move as she sang a song quietly to herself. He felt a slight breeze from the north as if somebody or something were actually listening.
He lowered his head and thought of the day that they were told their grandmother had also gone on to join their parents. Then Lionel turned with the wind, crossed the corral, and climbed out the other side. He stood above the water trough, looking down at the thick layer of ice that had formed overnight. He scuffed his feet through the snow at the trough's base, searching for the rock that he stored there for the specific chore of breaking the ice.
As he shuffled along, Lionel looked over his shoulder. The schoolhouse and chapel loomed some fifty paces away on the hill above him. He hoped that no one was watching what Beatrice was up to, as it would surely end with her getting in trouble. Lionel did not understand Beatrice's fascination with the older traditions, and he definitely did not understand how they could possibly be worth the troubles they caused. He turned to warn her again, but was interrupted on his way by a soft nuzzle from Ulysses.
“Good morning, Ulysses,” he said softly to the horse, not taking his eyes off his sister. “Look at her, will you? Sometimes I think Beatrice tries to get us in trouble.”
Lionel wrapped his arms around the horse's thick neck and entangled his hands in his long mane for warmth. Ulysses, who normally would stand still for hours with this kind of attention, rocked his head and shifted his weight from hoof to hoof.
“What is it, boy? You hungry? Thirsty?” Lionel asked. He thought it must be the feed. Ulysses often grew hungrier over the long snowy nights.
“Okay, okay, I've got to find my rock.” Lionel dug through the snow. “I'll get you started with some water.”
Ulysses continued to shift uncomfortably, making short guttural noises that Lionel thought resembled a hog more than a Great war Horse.
“What's with you this morning?” Lionel followed the horse's gaze and discovered the source of his discomfort. There was a man kneeling, almost in a pile, at the far end of the corral. Ulysses trotted the length of the corral, and stopped, as if waiting for Lionel to follow.
“Hello?” Lionel heard the word escape from his mouth, more in the form of a question than a greeting. The man did not move.
Lionel slowly made his way toward the silent figure. “Are you all right?”
Lionel knew the answer to his question before he had even asked it. The kneeling man was frozen. Frozen solid. His exposed skin was the fading gray color of the morning, and a silver layer of frost covered him from head to toe. In one hand, almost as though he were handing it to Lionel, was a string of bear claws; in the other hand was a green glass bottle.
Lionel looked around, unsure of what to do. He knew that he should run immediately, right now, and find the captain or Brother Finn, but he didn't move. Lionel was frozen. Frozen like the man. Frozen to the man.
“Mister?” Lionel's voice cracked as he pulled off his mittens. He reached his arm toward the man's outstretched hand, toward the string of bear claws.
The claws felt smooth beneath Lionel's fingers, and the warmth of his skin immediately melted the frost that covered the shiny black of each claw and the intricate beading on the woven leather straps that held them together. Something within Lionel told him to take them. They seemed to be offered. He actually didn't see it as taking so much as liberating the claws from the cold, frozen hand.
Lionel pulled at the string, but was surprised to find that the small tugs did little to release the necklace. Something within spoke again, telling him to pull harder, so he did. He yanked at it with a short, quick motion, freeing the bear claws but not without a price. Lionel felt the necklace break, and stumbled backward, holding what had once been a circle, but was now a long string of bear claws.
“Say, there.” A voice from behind startled Lionel. “Say, boy, what the hell ya doin' over there?”
Lionel spun around, slipping the claws into his coat pocket. There stood Sergeant Haskell Jenkins.
“Who you got with ya in the snow there?” Jenkins spat. His words had a slight slur to them.
“I-I-I don't know,” Lionel stammered, stepping back from the Frozen Man. He hoped that Jenkins hadn't seen him slip the claws into his pocket.
Jenkins moved closer, until he stood above Lionel and the frozen corpse. Lionel looked up into Sergeant Jenkins's face. A jagged scar started at his pointy chin, snaked up and over the left side of his mouth, then continued until it disappeared beneath a coarse black leather patch that covered his left eye. The mark pushed the good side of Jenkins's mouth into what looked to be a permanent sneer, and the patch was crossed with a hobnailed
. Jenkins liked to tell people, especially the ladies at Gorence Trading Post, that he had received his alteration at the hands of “fierce savages” in the “defense of this Great Nation.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. The scar that took one eye and slurred Jenkins's speech was actually the result of a drunken debacle with a log-cutting machine at the wyoming State Fair. The machine ran a long chainlike blade off of a steam driven engine, and the moment that Jenkins, who offered to demonstrate the contraption, laid the blade on the log, the chain kicked back, buckled, and broke, taking a good chunk of Jenkins's face with it.
Jenkins pulled his wool cap from his head and kicked at the Frozen Man with his shiny black boot. “Aw, hell boy. Don't be scared. It's just a dead, drunk Indian.”
Lionel watched as Jenkins reached down and rifled a few coins from the man's pockets, then pried a hunting knife from the Frozen Man's belt. Jenkins turned and raised a crooked finger to his snarled lips.
“That's our little secret, you understand?” Jenkins said this while drawing the sheathed blade of the Frozen Man's hunting knife across his neck. “Understand?”
Lionel nodded his head as Jenkins pocketed the coins. He was suddenly overcome with a feeling of shame for having taken the Frozen Man's necklace. He thought about what Beatrice had told him about where his father and mother had gone, versus where Brother Finn said they had gone when they died. He wondered where the Frozen Man was off to, and if he might have needed his bear claws with him when he got there.
“I'm guessing that the old chief had a little too much firewater,” a familiar voice said.
Lionel looked up into the bad teeth and scraggly beard of Jenkins's running buddy, Private Samuel Lumpkin. “That about right, boy?” Lumpkin continued.
Under different circumstances Lumpkin and Jenkins might not have been friends, but years in the service on the plains had brought them together, and their general disrespect for everything, including themselves, had solidified the deal. Lumpkin knelt down and wrested the bottle from the Frozen Man's hand.
“Spoils of war,” Lumpkin said. But as he stood, he startled. on the fence directly in front of him sat Beatrice.
Beatrice looked Lumpkin in the eye with an unnerving intensity. Lumpkin took a step back, still holding the bottle.
“Who in the hell are you?” he asked, collecting himself.
“Beatrice,” she answered, her voice steady.
Jenkins took a step toward Beatrice, the Frozen Man still in prayer at his feet.
“Beatrice, huh?” Jenkins slurred. “Well, Beatrice, as I was tellin' yer young schoolmate here, this is our li'l secret.”
Ulysses continued to nervously shift and move about the corral behind Beatrice. A bugle blew in the background, which was soon followed by the ringing of Brother Finn's bell. Lionel watched as the children made their way into the chapel, but he knew that his sister would remain where she was, sitting on the rail. She would wait to make sure that the two soldiers didn't do anything more to disrespect the corpse.