Authors: Margaret Coel
Father John shook his head. “She is very dependable.”
“I'm freezing to death,” Jana said, hunching her shoulders and dipping her chin further into the folds of her sweatshirt. “Can we go to my house and talk?”
“Lead the way.” The officer reached back and pulled the door shut as Jana started across the lawn, her shoes snapping against the dried leaves scattered about.
Father John started after the woman, the officer behind him, so close he could feel the warmth of the man's breath on his neck.
“I'm gonna call in the investigator on duty,” he said. “He'll want to know everything that you know about Christine Nelson.”
Odd, Father John thought. The woman had worked for him for a month now, and he knew nothing at all about her.
JESSE WHITE OWL
leaned over the fire, cupped the cedar smoke in his hands, and brought them to his faceâthe healing, cleansing cedar smoke. It would bring the spirit of Bashful Woman to the ancestors, the elders said, and Jesse believed that was true, even though he wished for nothing more than her spirit to come walking toward him through the junipers. A selfish wish. He closed his eyes against his selfishness and weakness. She should go to the sky world now and dwell with the ancestors, her spirit light and free and peaceful, and not return simply because a man who walked the earth loved her.
“Go in peace, Bashful, “he said, staring over at the flowers that spilled across the hump of dirt covering her grave, trying to inhale the sacred smoke into his own spirit.
Carston Evans, the white man, had said, “My wife will have a
proper Christian funeral at the mission. She will be buried on the mission grounds.”
It was then that Stands-Alone, the son of Chief Sharp Nose, said, “My sister is Arapaho. She shall be buried with the ancestors.”
In the end, they had compromised. Stands-Alone said, “We will go to the church first, and then we will take her into the mountains and place her in the earth where other relatives are buried.”
“After the funeral”âJesse could still see the contempt in the way the white man spit out the wordsâ“do whatever you Indians want.”
Jesse had gone with Stands-Alone to the burial place, walking into the hills that lifted out of Fort Washakie and merged into the high slopes of the Wind River Range. Walking in the silence of grief, the shovel light on Jesse's shoulder.
“Her grave will be here,” Stands-Alone said. Nearby were the mounds of other graves. Junipers and lodgepoles all around and through the branches, the clear blue sky from which their people had come. Her spirit would return to the sky.
Jesse said. It is good.
He had dug deep into the earth so that the wild beasts would not disturb her body. Later, after the priests had shaken their holy water over the pine box in which she lay, he and Stands-Alone and his son, Thomas, had lifted the box onto the wagon and brought her to the grave, a line of wagons and people on horseback trailing behind, everyone walking in silence and respect. The clip of hooves and the loud squeal of the wagon wheels dissolved into the sounds of the wind. Before they'd lowered the box into the ground, Stands-Alone had opened the lid. She had looked beautiful, Jesse thought. A fine piece of beaded deerskin covered the wound that had opened her heart. All of her belongings had been carefully wrapped in bundles and laid in the grave with her. The drumming began, and the women started singing.
A'nea'thibiwa'hana, thi'aya'ne, thi'aya'ne'
âthe place where crying begins, the mound, the mound.
It was then that the holy old men had approached, lifting pans
with burning cedar so that the smoke would float over her body. They had painted her face with the sacred red paint that marked her as one of the people so that the ancestors would recognize her. Not until the ceremony was finished did they lower the box into the earth. Jesse had shoveled in the dirt, and one by one people had approached and laid flowers on the grave until the mound was bursting with pink and white wild roses and the red of Indian paintbrush.
That had been four days ago. He had stayed with her since.
Now Jesse sat back on his heels and raised his face to the sky. He winced at the images coming to him, bringing a lesson he was supposed to learn. Images of the day he had first seen Carston Evans on the porch at the Arapaho Mercantile Company, his face shining like the moon in the brown faces milling about. It was sale day, and families pulled up in wagons loaded with bales of alfalfa and burlap bags stuffed with the surplus oats that the ranchers didn't need for the cattle and horses. Usually the white man who owned the store, John Cooper Burnet, checked the amount of alfalfa and oats. But that day, the new white man went from wagon to wagon, making little black marks in a ledgerbook and passing out the yellow chits that were the same as money in the store.
When he reached the front of the line, Jesse jumped down and followed the white man around the wagon, glancing over the man's shoulder to make certain that he wrote down the correct number of bales and burlap bags. He'd never had to worry about Burnet, but this white man was a stranger dropped into their midst. He didn't trust strangers.
“Where's Big Eyes?” Jesse asked, using the name everyone called Burnet.
“Gone to Omaha to buy merchandise.” The white man had stopped putting down his numbers and looked Jesse straight in the eye, as bold as a she-bear. “Hired me to help out for a couple weeks. Carston Evans, the name. Move along.” He pressed a handful of yellow chits into Jesse's hand and nodded toward the warehouse behind them.
Jesse had climbed back onto the wagon seat when he saw Bashful. The moment was as clear in his mind as a recurring dream. He looked for her on sales days, watching for the slightest change in her expression, the little adjustment in the way she held her head, which meant that she would try to slip away from Auntie Sara and meet him alone behind the store for a few moments. She was always chaperoned by Auntie Sara. Ever since Sharp Nose died, her brother had looked after her in the traditional way.
But when Jesse had tried to catch her eye that day, Bashful had looked away. He'd followed her gaze to the white man walking around the wagons, shouting, “Move along.” Jesse felt as if an icy hand had gripped his heart, and he knew that he must act now, even though the log house he was building for her was not yet finished. He had only the faintest memory of unloading the wagon. What he remembered was stomping into the store, the chits damp with the sweat of his hand. He'd selected the finest pieces of calico from the piles on the counter. Then tins of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and slabs of bacon, as much as he could hold in his arms, aware of Bashful at the window, eyes hunting the white man outside.
Jesse handed his chits to Carrier Shotgun, the Arapaho who helped Burnet inside the store. He'd hurried across the porch and stored the purchases in the wagon. Then he drove out of the yard, willing the horses to fly over the prairie.
He'd found Stands-Alone waiting in the opened door of the big log cabin where he lived with his wife and children, close to the small cabin that Bashful occupied with Auntie Sara. The man had waved Jesse inside, as if he'd been expecting him. Jesse had followed him, his gaze fixed on the line of gray sweat that ran down the other man's white shirt, over the knobs of his spine. Jesse set the gifts on the table and waited until Stands-Alone straddled the wood bench and motioned him to sit down on the other side. It was then that he'd noticed Thomas, Stands-Alone's oldest son, on the chair in the far corner. He
had tilted the chair back against the wall, his boots tucked behind the front legs.
“Why do you come?” Stands-Alone had not wasted time on the polite preliminaries, and Jesse understood that Bashful's brother already knew why he'd come.
He began slowly, reaching for the words in Arapaho. Stands-Alone was the son of a chief, and he, Jesse, was nobody, the son of nobody. He had no memory of the time when his mother had taken him from his father and fled Oklahoma with another man. Bravehorn, he was called. Bravehorn had never treated him like a son. In the warm months, Jesse had slept in the corral, and in the cold times, on a blanket in the kitchen. One day the priest had come to the house and said, “This boy should go to school. He's smart.”
Bravehorn had laughed, but he didn't interfere when his mother took him to the boarding school at St. Francis Mission. He'd joined the other new children, all sniveling and crying. Jesse didn't cry. It was the day he started to become a man.
Bashful was one of the children, but she hadn't cried either. She'd been kind to him, telling him not to worry. They would learn to read and write and follow the white road, the way her father and Auntie Sara had said, and Jesse hadn't the heart to tell her that he wasn't worried. He was free. He had started to love her then.
By the end of his school years, Jesse had read many books. He could figure numbers, build houses and barns and fences, and plant and harvest crops, and he had his height and strength. He could make his own way. He had his own allotment, one hundred and sixty acres on the reservation parceled out by the government in Washington to educated Indians. He'd focused his energy on proving himself worthy for a chief's daughter.
“For many years, I have loved your sister,” he'd told Stands-Alone. From the corner came a low snicker. Jesse remembered trying to blot the sound from his mind. It made no difference what Thomas
thought. “I ask your permission to take her as a wife.” Jesse's tongue had felt dry, the words like chips of wood inside his mouth. He'd stumbled on, explaining that he'd had a fine crop this season, surplus oats and alfalfa to sell at the Mercantile, not mentioning that he'd used the profit to purchase the gifts. He had enough logs to finish the house he was building for her.
Stands-Alone was quiet a long time. Finally he struck the edge of the table with the palm of his hand. “You are a fool, Jesse White Owl. Do you think she cares about your crops and livestock and log house? She has her own allotment next to the land our father gave to her, with a fine house the relatives have built for her. She will go to the house when she marries.”
“I wanted to give her a gift.” Jesse had blurted out the words.
“You wanted to show her what a great man you are.” Stands-Alone got to his feet and leaned over the table, angry white light flicking in his dark eyes. “You speak too late. Another man will marry her.”
The icy hand squeezed his heart. Jesse had to fight for the next breath. “The white man,” he managed.
“He has been courting her, meeting her outside the Mercantile when they didn't think anyone was watching. While you were in Omaha selling your cattle, he came with a wagon-load of gifts, thinking he could purchase my sister.” Stands-Alone threw back his head and guffawed. Another snicker erupted from the corner. “I told him to leave,” Stands-Alone said. “Who is he? A stranger from a farm in Nebraska comes here to Indian country and gets himself a job at the Mercantileâthat's all he is. He has nothing to give her.”
“You told him to leave?” Jesse asked, his face warm with the flush of hope.
“Aunt Sara came to me and said, the girl is crying. Refuses to eat or leave the cabin. She said to me that Bashful will die if I don't allow her to marry the man she loves. What could I do?”
Jesse remembered leaving the cabin, legs wobbling beneath him.
He'd managed to hoist himself onto the wagon bench and pull away, not looking at the cabin where she lived. He did not go to the wedding. He'd tried to stop up his ears when people gossiped about how Bashful had worn her mother's dress, deerskin as soft as silk with beads across the top and fringe along the hem of the skirt. Her black hair was pinned up with beaded combs and an eagle feather. She and the white man had gone to St. Francis church where the priest said they were now man and wife; but afterward, they'd gone to the two-story house that her family had prepared for her. She had stood in the doorway and invited the white man inside, the way her mother had invited her father inside the tipi her family had given her. The moment the white man had stepped across the threshold, they became man and wife in the Arapaho Way. All the relatives had crowded into the house, and Stands-Alone had spoken to Bashful and her husband in Arapaho. They should love one another, he'd said. They should live in peace; they should follow the white road and the good red road. They should love their children.
Now Jesse rocked back on his heels, his gaze fastened on the flowers, drooping and fading over the mound. He could feel the wetness on his face, taste the warm, salty moisture on his lips. It was his fault that she was dead. He saw the sequence of pictures, one after the other, like shadows flitting over the mound. He hadn't asked for her soon enough, and she had married the white man, who brought her and the child to Curtis's village. And there she was, cradling her child, when the foolÂ .Â .Â .
The fool, Thunder, playing at being a warrior, riding down slope with the other fool warriors, shooting rifles into the air. Into the air! Except for Thunder, galloping through the village, forgetting it was a game, rushing toward her tipi and firing, firing. When was it? At what point had Thunder drawn a real cartridge from his pocket, slipped it into the loading port of the Winchester 73 and worked the lever? Just before he'd turned his pony toward Bashful's tipi?
Oh, there were witnesses who saw what happened next. The white
man himself told the agent what he sawâthe fool firing the rifle at his wife. Firing close-up to make certain he wouldn't miss.
Jesse knew then what he had to do. The certainty rose up inside him and choked off the air until blackness started to circle him. The blackness didn't leave until he made his vow: “I will kill the man who killed you, Bashful.”