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Authors: Margaret Coel

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“I'll do my best.” She smiled at the old man. It had been the elders who had seen that, when she became an attorney, she'd received power—magical gifts was how they looked at it—to help the people. She'd always had the feeling that, despite the grandmothers' disapproval of the fact that she had left her husband and made herself into a lawyer, the elders were on her side.

It was another few moments before Vicky could excuse herself and head into the kitchen. Vera was waiting for her.

“T.J. said you'd come soon as you heard the news.” The woman had the same sleep-starved look that Vicky had seen in T.J. Exhaustion lay in the sloped shoulders and fluttering hands. “Some bastards brought a bottle over last night. They was drinking outside, T.J., too. Hasn't had a drink in . . .” She glanced at the ceiling. “Fifteen years. I don't blame him none. He's going through hell. That woman, she had no right to put him through that kind of hell.”

Quiet descended over the kitchen, and Vicky could feel the eyes of the other women turning toward them. She took Vera's hand. The woman was trembling. “I'm going to take T.J. to my place to rest,” she said, her voice low. “I'll take him to Gianelli this afternoon. Will you get his things?”

Vera drew in a long breath. The trembling seemed to recede into
whatever recess it had erupted from. “Wait here.” She withdrew her hand and headed into the living room.

“Want some coffee?” one of the women asked. The others had turned back to the counters, cutting casseroles and cakes, stacking paper plates and Styrofoam cups. Another woman was at the stove, turning chunks of fry bread in a pan. Drops of grease spattered the adjacent counter.

“No, thanks,” Vicky said. Vera stood in the doorway, holding out a canvas bag that bulged at the sides. A plaid wool jacket was folded on top.

“Try not to worry about T.J.,” Vicky said, taking the bag and jacket. The load was heavy in her arms. She slipped past the woman and made her way through the knots of people to the front door.

T.J. was asleep, she thought, opening the passenger door. Then she realized that he was awake, eyes closed, staring at some image on the back of his eyelids, clasping and unclasping his hands. The inside of the Jeep was like a freezer. She set the jacket on his lap, then shut the door.

He was pushing his arms into the sleeves as she got in behind the steering wheel and tossed the canvas bag over the front seat. The stale smell of whiskey hung in the space between them.

“What else does the fed want from me?” T.J. asked, a plaintive note in his voice that made her heart go out to the man.

The Jeep plowed over the barrow ditch and out onto the road before Vicky glanced over, struggling to ignore the uneasy feeling that clung to her like the odor of whiskey. “Maybe you'd better tell me what you told Gianelli last night.”

It was a moment before T.J. said anything. The rhythm of his breathing—in and out, in and out—was like a soft drumbeat punctuating the sound of tires crunching gravel. “Told him how I came home from the office and found her,” he said finally.

“What time was that?”

“Late, Vicky. I don't walk around looking at the clock.”

Vicky glanced over again. Shades of wariness and distrust were working through the man's expression. “No one is accusing you of anything,” she said.

“Around nine,” he said after a few seconds. “Maybe nine-fifteen. Council meeting ran late. Some of the councilmen are starting to think that maybe we shouldn't go against Senator Evans on the methane drilling, since he might be the next president. Maybe we oughtta withdraw the request for more studies that we sent the BIA.”

Vicky stopped herself from commenting. This wasn't her business. Surely the law firm in Cheyenne would discourage the council from backing away.

“Found her in the bedroom,” T.J. pushed on. “Blood all over the floor. God, I knew she was dead, but she still had her eyes open. I started screaming. I don't even remember calling 911, but I must've, because pretty soon the police were pounding on the door. Then the fed showed up and started asking me all kinds of questions. Father John came over.”

John O'Malley. She'd been working at putting the man out of her mind. No more phone calls with some lame excuse about how somebody was doing, just to hear his voice. They'd worked together on a lot of cases since she'd come back to the area five years ago—DUIs, divorces, drunk and disorderlies, drug possessions, and homicides—more homicides than she wanted to remember. He would've been one of the first people called last night, and he would've gone. She wondered if her people realized the enormous space that John O'Malley filled on the rez, like the space he had filled in her life, and the enormous emptiness that he would leave behind should he ever go away.

“What kinds of questions?” She had to force her thoughts back. They were heading south now on 287 behind a truck that spit gravel off the bed. Brown dust flecked the windshield like mosquitoes.
Vicky turned on the wipers and tried to focus on the road past the spray of water and the gradual appearance of a clear half-circle of glass.

T.J. sucked in a breath, then he said, “ ‘Who'd the gun belong to? Where'd Denise get it?' How the hell do I know? Denise hated guns, never would touch them. ‘Was she depressed? On drugs? Drinking?' Christ. Denise never took a drink in her life. She was the one put up with me when I was drinking. Last night . . .” He hesitated. Out of the corner of her eye, Vicky could see him jabbing his fingers into his hair. “I'm not proud . . .”

“I know, T.J.” The odor of whiskey was still there, encapsulated in the Jeep, permeating the seat and dashboard. She followed the truck around the curve into Lander, staying back a couple of car lengths from gravel still rolling like marbles over the asphalt. Down Main Street several blocks, then right, left. She pulled into the empty space in front of the blocklike apartment building. Usually she ran up the stairs to the second floor, but T.J. was shaking now, unsteady on his feet, lurching as they walked up the sidewalk. Inside the entry, she punched the elevator button and waited until the yellow light came on and the doors parted. She guided T.J. inside, where he slumped against the back railing. After the elevator rocked to a stop, she took the man's arm and led him down the hall to her door at the far end.

“There's lunchmeat and fruit in the fridge.” she said, showing him into the living room. “Bread in the drawer.” She waved at the small kitchen and led him down the hall. The bath on the left, the cabinet with clean towels. The bedroom on the right. A white terry cloth robe on the closet door, an array of cosmetics spread over the dresser top, books stacked on the bedside table. She found a wool blanket in the closet and set it on the bed. “You can put this over you,” she said.

His arms were around her, pulling her into him, his mouth moving over her face, the odor of whiskey like a blanket suffocating her.
“Stay with me, Vicky,” he whispered. “I need you to stay with me. I never needed anything more in my whole life.”

“Stop it, T.J.” Vicky managed to get her fists between them and push at his chest. He leaned away, and she pushed again as hard as she could until he was staggering backward, arms flapping at his side. He crashed into the foot of the bed and flopped down on his back.

“I'll be out front at a quarter to three,” she managed, her breath caught in her chest. “For Godsakes, T.J., pull yourself together.”

6

FATHER JOHN HEARD
the phone ringing as he bounded up the concrete steps to the administration building. He yanked open the heavy wood door and sprinted across the entry to his office on the right. Before he could pick up, the ringing stopped. From down the hall came the voice of Father Damien, filled with the authority of an executive in his father's company. Father John tossed his jacket over the coat tree. The conversation seemed one-sided, Damien's voice occasionally punctuating the quiet.

“Very good.” He was breaking off. “We'll see you later.”

Father John sat down at his desk and started working his way through the papers and folders spilling across the top, aware of the clack of boots coming down the hall. He looked up as Damien executed a sharp turn and came through the door.

“It's all set.” The other priest laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles.

“Senator Evans's campaign manager—name is Martin Quinn—will be here this afternoon to assess the mission.”

“Assess the mission?” Father John pulled over a stack of phone messages that he intended to follow up on: Visit Ben Little Elk at Riverton Memorial, arrange the baptism date for Lucy Monroe's grandson, stop by Dora Willow's place to see how the old woman was getting along. And he wanted to drive over to Vera's and check on T.J.

“Quinn wants to see the grounds,” Damien said, an edge of impatience in his voice. “They may want to build a platform . . .”

“What?” The other priest had his full attention now.

“For the senator to speak from. Quinn intends to invite the mayors from Lander and Riverton, county commissioners, a few judges. You know, local VIPs lining up behind local man's bid for the presidency. It'll make a terrific photo-op.”

“What about the Arapahos and the programs at the mission?”

The other priest cracked his knuckles again. “There'll be Indians around the platform. The senator will be speaking to them, encouraging them to avail themselves of the AA meetings, GED classes, after-school tutoring. Don't worry, John. It'll be all about the mission and the people.”

“It'll be all about the senator.”

“Trust me, John, it'll work out for everyone's . . .”

The front door banged shut, and Damien stepped back. Catherine Bizzel burst past him into the office. She was out of breath, her chest rising and falling beneath the fronts of the green jacket that she gripped together. Her face was flushed.

“What is it?” Father John asked.

“You see all the cars at the museum?” Stout and square-shouldered, in her fifties, with short, tightly curled gray hair and narrow eyes that looked like slits in her round, puffy face, Catherine was married to Leonard, the mission caretaker, for longer than Father John had been at St. Francis. Last summer, Father John hired the
woman to work part-time, helping to arrange meetings and line up volunteers for the programs. He'd had to create a space for her out of a storage closet across the hall, which was barely large enough for a desk and chair.

Yes, he told her. He'd seen the cars on his way over from the residence. Since the Curtis exhibit opened, cars had been parked out front every day. Locals, tourists—probably a couple of hundred people had visited the museum.

“Well, a lot of people are hanging around, waiting for the museum to open.” Catherine let go of her jacket, scratched at one sleeve, and stared at her watch. “Supposed to open twenty minutes ago. Where's the curator? She's here early most mornings.”

True, Father John thought. He said, “Something might have come up.” He fished a key out of the desk drawer, walked over, and handed the key to the woman. “Would you mind looking after the museum until Christine gets in?”

“I got my own work to do today,” she said, wrapping puffy fingers around the key. “I gotta get the storeroom organized.”

“I appreciate it, Catherine,” he said, ushering the woman into the hall. If the storeroom had ever been organized, it was long before anyone at the mission could remember.

“A reluctant recruit.” Father Damien was shaking his head and smiling. “Wonder what's holding up Christine?”

Father John stepped back to the desk and picked up the phone with one hand while riffling through the cards in the Rolodex with the other. He punched in Christine's number and stared at the papers on his desk, listening to the buzzing of a phone somewhere in Riverton. Seven, eight rings, and he hung up. “She must be on her way,” he said.

 

IT WAS ALMOST
noon when Father John parked the pickup at the edge of the other vehicles in front of Vera's house. The sun was warm
on his face, and what was left of the morning frost had turned into moisture that glistened like diamonds flung across the gold and orange brush. The front door stood open and he stepped inside, making his way through the crowded living room, visiting with the grandmothers and elders as he went. T.J. was nowhere around. The house was hot and stuffy, reeking with the odors of coffee and perspiration. And grief, he thought. Grief had its own distinct odor. He'd gotten so that he could detect the smell of grief the moment he stepped into a house of mourning.

Vera was on the far side of the room near the hallway, shoulders rigid with anxiety, eyes rimmed in red. He tried to hurry over, but someone handed him a mug of coffee and someone else plucked at his sleeve and wanted to know when Denise's funeral would be held. He'd tried to explain: As soon as the coroner released the body. That had started a new round of questions—didn't white people understand that the body had to be buried within three days? Didn't they know that Denise's spirit was waiting to go to the ancestors? He promised to do his best to try to explain to the coroner and to Gianelli, even though he'd explained dozens of times in the past.

“How's T.J.?” he asked, when he finally got to Vera.

“He's a mess, Father.” The woman let her gaze flicker across the room. “Never seen him in such a state. Started drinking last night, so he can get through this.”

Father John closed his eyes and kneaded his fingers into his forehead. He used to tell himself that it was easy to slip backward, but he'd been wrong. It was hard to slip backward. It took something horrible, the plates of the earth shifting beneath your feet. Easy was going along, guarding against the opportunity and the excuse to take a drink, conquering one easy temptation after another, thinking you were safe. It was in the hard time when all the resolutions and AA meetings and firm intentions gave way to the thirst.

“He's a good man.” Vera was staring across the room, as if T.J. might materialize on the sofa with the grandmothers. “He wants to
be strong for others, but with Denise up and shooting herself . . .” She shook her head. “It's more than any man can take.”

“Where is he?”

“Fed's been breathing down his neck. Why can't he leave T.J. alone? Let him get on with burying his wife. Vicky came and got him.”

Father John looked away, giving himself a moment for the dull ache that always came at the mention of her name to subside. It had been two months since he'd seen Vicky Holden. He'd put her out of his mind, he'd thought, and yet, there she was again, like a picture in an album that he'd come upon unexpectedly.

“Vicky will make certain T.J.'s okay,” he said.

 

A ROW OF
dark clouds—a promise of snow—had begun piling up over the mountains and drifting across the sky as Father John turned into Circle Drive. Still, a pale sunshine speckled the grounds between the stripes of shadow. He spotted his assistant with two men in black topcoats over in front of the vehicles parked at the museum. Damien flapping an arm toward the open field in the center of Circle Drive, the other men rolling their heads from side to side.

The pickup lurched to a stop a few feet away and Father John got out. “Here's the pastor now,” Damien said.

“Ah, Father O'Malley.” A stocky man, about six feet tall, came forward, extending a beefy hand. He was still in his thirties—light-brown hair combed tight against his scalp, a round face flushed with cold that made him look as if he'd just jogged a couple of miles around a track.

“Paul Russell, with Senator Evans's campaign.” His grip was like an iron clamp. “Meet Martin Quinn, Wyoming campaign manager.”

Father John shook hands with the other man, who had at least twenty years on Russell and a quiet authority about him. He was
shorter, not more than five-and-a-half-feet tall, with a thin, muscular build and long, pock-marked face bisected by narrow, wire-framed glasses. Behind the glasses were eyes like gray steel nuggets. “Looks like we'll have the senator here about an hour after Fort Washakie.”

“We'll put the platform there.” Damien took a couple steps forward and jabbed one fist toward the edge of the field. “That'll allow plenty of room to set up the communication systems and folding chairs. Television cameras will be in front, but people will still be able to see the senator and the local dignitaries up on the platform.” He shot a glance at the other men. “Demonstrate the senator's wide appeal to the people here.”

“We'll want a big crowd of Indians in the front.” Quinn turned to Father John. “I trust you can get them here.”

“Hold on a minute.” Father John held up one hand. “Platform? Communication systems? What are we talking about? A political rally?”

“The campaign staff will provide the necessary equipment, Father. You and Father Damien here”—Quinn gave a brief nod toward the other priest—“will supply the Indians.”

“We can't hogtie people and bring them to the mission.”

“Hogtie?” What passed for a smile came into Russell's florid face. “We're aware this isn't a hundred years ago, Father.”

Quinn straightened his shoulders and rocked upward on the balls of his feet, so that for an instant he seemed taller. He cleared his throat—a low, rough noise like that of an engine trying to kick over. “Senator Evans supports the right of the people here to benefit from the resources on their land.” A campaign speech, Father John thought. The man might have been reading from a teleprompter.

“The senator wants to see jobs created on the reservation by opening the coal beds to drilling. We have to develop the nation's natural energy resources. I'm sure you can make the Arapahos understand
that, as president, Senator Evans will support Indians' benefiting from the resources on reservations.”

The man turned to Father Damien. “We'll be in touch,” he said, then he started toward a green SUV. Russell followed, arms swinging at his sides like a bulky black bird trying to get aloft.

Father Damien took a couple steps after them, then turned back. Father John felt the man's hand clamp like a vise on his shoulder. “Don't worry, John,” he said. “Quinn will make sure that the senator mentions the programs here at the mission. The senator supports private programs, the kind where underprivileged people learn how to help themselves. It's part of his agenda.”

The SUV burst past, tires spitting out gravel as the vehicle headed toward Seventeen-Mile Road. “Spoke with Dad this morning,” Damien went on. “He pledged to match the donations that come in. We should be able to start building the new community center in the next few months. And we can spruce up the old place.” Taking his hand away, he made a slow turn toward the mission buildings, as if he could already see the results.

Father John followed his assistant's gaze. The museum could use a coat of paint, the residence a new roof. The roof would probably leak with the first snow—a slow stream of water dripping into the upstairs bathroom. The church needed refurbishing, and the administration building—where would they start? The old building hadn't been touched in years. Maybe the donations would flow in. In any case, Damien was the first assistant in a long time who'd taken an interest in the mission. He was different. The man could be here for a while.

Which meant . . .

Father John pushed the thought away. He didn't want to follow it to the logical conclusion: With a man like Damien in place, the provincial would no doubt find another assignment for Father John.

“I asked Leonard to pick things up a bit.” Damien nodded at the pile of branches broken in the wind two weeks ago. “Touch up the
paint on the porch.” A nod toward the museum as a couple came through the door, crossed the porch, and headed for a sedan. “TV cameras are sure to zero in on the museum, with the Curtis exhibit. Dad says it's important that the mission not look too rundown. People like to be on the side of winners.” He laughed at this, his eyes on the sedan following the SUV's tracks around Circle Drive.

For the first time, Father John noticed that the curator's Range Rover wasn't parked at the far end of the porch where she usually left it.

“Did Christine come in?” he asked.

“Never showed up. Tried calling her house. No answer. Catherine's been fuming about having to watch the museum.”

“Maybe Catherine's heard something,” Father John said. He gave the other priest a wave, then darted between two SUVs and bounded up the steps.

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