Authors: Margaret Coel
“Thank God, things have been quiet lately on the rez,” Gianelli had said. That was last Sunday, over spaghetti dinner at the agent's house. He'd helped Gianelli with a lot of cases over the last eight years. They were friends. Two transplants from the east. He, from Boston. Gianelli from somewhere in the Bronx. A baseball player who had once dreamed of the big leagues, and a one-time linebacker for the Patriots. Both opera fans, but Gianelli knew more about opera than he did by a long shot, a fact Father John didn't like to admit, certainly not to Gianelli. The man's wife made the best spaghetti in Wyoming, and dinner had been accompanied by the jabbering of four teenaged daughters and the music of “Madame Butterfly” in the background.
Three days ago. Everything had seemed normal and ordinary.
Father John pulled over the Rolodex and flipped through the cards until he had Vera's number. He picked up the phone and tapped the buttons. A half ring, then: “Hello? Hello?” Vera's voice, clipped with anxiety. “That you, T.J.?”
“Father John,” he said, before launching into the purpose of the call. Now was not the time for polite pleasantries. “How's T.J. doing?”
“Grieving real hard for that wife of his, Father. Blames himself. Says some fool came looking for him and found Denise instead. Says
he should've been there to protect her. Not bad enough Denise got herself killed. Now the fed thinks T.J. was the one that shot her in the head. Plain harassment, that's what I call it.” There was a long intake of breath on the other end. “Easier to pin murder on an innocent Indian than go out and find the real killer.”
“Where can I find T.J.?” Father John could feel a wariness settling inside him, like sand dropping into the pit of his stomach. The man was going to need somebody to talk to, somebody to reassure him. It would be easy in such a hard time as thisâoh, he knew the truth of itâto look for reassurance in a whiskey bottle.
“T.J. took off early this morning. Didn't sleep all night. Crying and pacing the house like a caged lion. He chopped off his hair like a crazy man. He should've waited for the funeral when he could've sat in front of the casket, and the ceremonial woman with the special scissors would have cut off his hair. That's the Arapaho Way. I don't know what's come over him. He drove off with nothing but a sleeping bag. Oh, I know where he went. Up into the mountains to do his grieving.” A short pause, another gasp of breath. “Like the ancestors in the Old Time.”
Father John was quiet a moment, trying to pull from his memory what the elders had told him. How a man, grieving for someone he loved, went alone into the mountains. He smeared the dust of the earth onto his face and wailed into the wind, begging the eagle spirit to help him find the strength to soar above the grief, to be steadfast and sure. He stayed in the mountains until the spirit answered his prayer and he felt himself ready to return to his village and a new life.
“Give me a call, Vera, when he returns,” Father John said, ending the call. He hoped that T.J. didn't take a bottle of whiskey with him.
Gripping the receiver between his chin and shoulder, he dug through the notebooks and papers in the desk drawer and pulled out the local phone book. Then he thumbed through the pages until he had the listing for the Riverton Police and tapped out the number. Three rings, and a woman's voice came on the line. He gave his name
and asked to speak to the investigator handling Christine Nelson's disappearance.
Four, five seconds passed. Father John drummed his fingers on top of the desk. Finally a man's voice: “This is Detective Porter. Any news on Christine Nelson?” he asked.
“I was hoping you'd have some news,” Father John said. He could sense a feeling of dread coming over him like a dull ache.
“We're treating the woman's disappearance as an abduction, Father. Every law enforcement agency in the area is working the case, including the FBI. Tribal police are gonna have officers at the mission this morning to check out the museum. I've got my men canvasing the neighborhood and talking to neighbors. Somebody might've seen something and didn't realize what they were seeing. The state patrol's looking for the woman's Range Rover on every highway in Wyoming, and we're checking Teton County records for a line on the license plate. We could get lucky, Father. I'll let you know if there's any new developments.”
Father John thanked the man and started to hang up.
He pressed the receiver against his ear and waited.
“You wouldn't happen to know if the lady kept a day timer or calendar, would you? Might be she wrote down the name of the person she was going to meet Monday night.”
“If she kept a day timer, she probably took it with her,” Father John said. He could still see her picking up her briefcaseâthe quick, impatient fluttering of her slim hands.
“Might be a big help, Father, if you come across any names the lady might've jotted down. Could be she told somebody at the museum where she was going.”
“Could be,” he said. He doubted it. He had the feeling that Christine Nelson told people only what she wanted them to know.
He told the detective that he'd let him know if he heard anything, then dropped the receiver into the cradle and swiveled sideways toward
the window. Beyond, the cottonwoods shimmered in the sunlight; even the air was tinted gold. Maybe Detective Porter had a point, he thought. Maybe Christine Nelson had scribbled a note about the appointment she'd been eager to keep on Monday night.
Father John jumped to his feet, grabbed his jacket off the coat tree, and headed outside. He tossed his jacket over one shoulder and plunged through the corridors of sunshine and shade toward the museum.
THE MUSEUM WAS
warm and bright under the white fluorescent ceiling lights. The murmur of voices mixed with the sound of hot air whooshing out of the vents. From the entry, Father John could see a scattering of visitors in the galleryâmoving along the walls, pausing in front of the photos, nodding, smiling. Catherine stood near the photograph of the village. She reached out and swept her hand across the glass, making a point to the three middle-aged white women beside her. He smiled at the image. The woman seemed to be enjoying herself after all.
The door to the office was open, and he went inside and sat down at the desk. Telephone on the right.
The Plains Indian Photographs of Edward S. Curtis
on the left, and in the expanse of polished wood, a yellow notebook with two columns of names and telephone numbers on the top page. There were check marks next to the names. Parishioners. Catherine had probably been calling people, asking them to come for Senator Evans's visit on Monday. Damien wanted a crowd.
He opened the center desk drawer. Pens, pencils, paper clips, all arranged in neat compartments. No loose notes with the kind of scribbled reminders that he had left to himself. He slid open the side drawer. A few file folders arranged in alphabetical order. Budgets, expenses, inventory. Ah, here was something. An agreement with West Wind Gallery, the Denver gallery that had loaned the Curtis exhibit. He pulled the phone over and punched in the number on the letterhead. It was a long shot, but maybe somebody at the gallery might know something about Christine Nelson. He tucked the receiver into his shoulder and listened to the buzz of a phone ringing somewhere in Denver, thumbing through the pages for a name. There it was, on the last page.
The buzzing stopped, and a man's voice came on the line. Father John asked to speak to Linda Novak.
“Linda's on vacation at the moment.” The words were precise and clipped. “Perhaps I can be of help to you?”
Father John gave the man his name and said he was calling about Christine Nelson, who had arranged for the Curtis exhibitÂ .Â .Â .
“Yes, yes, yes,” the man interrupted. “Linda is in charge of our Curtis collection. I'm afraid you'll have to speak with her. Shall I connect you to her voice mail? She sometimes checks her messages.”
Father John repeated what he'd said into the vacuum of a machine, then dropped the receiver into the cradle and got to his feet. Apart from the abrupt sound of laughter that burst from the gallery, the office was quiet, an unoccupied feeling about it. Books stacked in the bookcase across the room, a pair of chairs with worn brown cushions pushed against the side wall. There was nothing of Christine Nelson, nothing she might have left behind. The woman might never have walked into the office, picked up her briefcase, grabbed her coat from behind the door. It was as if she was being erased from the image he carried in his mind, disappearing, the way she'd disappeared Monday night.
Well, that was crazy, he told himself. Christine Nelson had to be
somewhere, and chances were, whoever she'd gone to meet on Monday night knew what had happened to her.
He started across the entry toward the front door, the hum of voices floating around him like a familiar melody. He turned back and stepped into the gallery. Next to the door, on a small metal stand, was the guest book and a stack of brochures. He nodded at Catherine, who had thrown him a sideways glance before turning her attention back to the visitors. Then he picked up the book and a brochure and went back into the office. Settling into the chair he'd just vacated, he began glancing through the book, trying to make out the names scribbled down the left side of the pages. As indecipherable as hieroglyphics. The names of towns on the right were easier to read. Towns in Nebraska, Montana, Idaho, Colorado.
He hunted now for the local towns, checking the names next to Riverton, Lander, Fort Washakie, Ethete, Arapaho. Next to Arapaho, on the second page, was scribbled Eunice Redshield.
He stared at the name, another image beginning to take shape in his mind. Monday night, and the college students studying the photographs, jotting notes in notebooks, arguing. And the dark-haired young woman saying that one of the warriors was Thunder, her ancestor. Saying that her grandmother, Eunice Redshield, had told the curator.
“Here's the pastor.” Catherine stood in the door, a group of women crowding around her. “These folks came down from Montana,” she said, tossing her head from one side to the other. “I've been telling them how Curtis could've been taking the photographs yesterday. Black Mountain looks just the same. Nothing's changed. That old log cabin that Curtis stayed in is still there.”
“Good to have you here,” he said to the visitors, who smiled and nodded before flowing back into the entry with Catherine. He was thinking that, like the log cabin, descendants of the people in the photographs were also here.
He picked up the brochure and folded it into his shirt pocket.
Then he grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair and headed for the front door, giving Catherine and the group of women a little wave as he walked past. Back outside, he pulled on his jacket as he hurried toward the pickup.
THE REDSHIELD PLACE
was at the end of a two-lane road close to the Little Wind River. Sheltered under a cottonwood was a small, rectangular house with brown siding and patterns of sunshine running down the sloped roof. There was a barn in the back that looked like a larger version of the house, and beyond that, nothing but the blue sky dipping down to the ground tipped in gold and red and vermilion as far as he could see, as if the earth were on fire.
Father John pointed the pickup into the tire tracks that crossed the yard and parked next to the house in a patch of dirt where a vehicle had obviously been parked not long before. He got out and slammed the door hardâa brittle sound that reverberated through the silenceâto let whoever was inside know there was a visitor. He'd called Eunice from his cell as he'd turned out of the mission grounds. She'd be here, she told him. Maybe out in the barn.
Father John waited a moment, then headed down the side of the house for the barn. Through the open door that had scraped a
halfmoon into the dirt in front, he could see the woman moving about, a bucket hanging from one hand.
“Hello,” he called, giving the door a rap and stepping inside.
Eunice Redshield lifted up the bucket, eyes round with fear, chest rising inside the folds of a denim jacket. “Oh, my goodness! Scared the bejeebers out of me, Father. How come I didn't hear that old pickup of yours? You didn't get yourself a new car, did you?”
“Afraid that's not in the budget.” He laughed at the idea of a budget. Hay was scattered over the dirt floor, and the walls were covered with shelves filled with ropes, tack, and blankets. Two geldings bent into a trough of oats. The air was warm and humid with the horse's breath and the odors of manure and hay.
“Just got the boys their breakfast,” she said, throwing her head toward the horses. She dropped the bucket on top of a large bin. “I got coffee brewing in the house.”
He followed her across the yard and into the kitchen. “Have a seat, Father.” Eunice nodded toward one of the chairs at the table, then hung her jacket on a hook behind the door and worked at tucking the ends of her T-shirt into her blue jeans. She was a short woman with a squared look and thick legs encased in the jeans. Probably in her fifties, he was thinking as he draped his own jacket over the chair she'd indicated and sat down. She had a weathered look, with curled gray hair and worry lines etched into her forehead. Old enough that the kids on the rez would call her grandmother.
“You been doing okay, Father?” she asked, stretching upward on her toes to reach a shelf and pull down two mugs.
The question took him by surprise. “What makes you ask?”
“I hear that new priest you got at the mission is pretty much taking over. Got involved with the business council to get Senator Evans over to the mission.” Eunice poured coffee into the mugs and set them on the table. Then she dropped with a loud sigh onto the chair across from him. “Gossip says you might be getting ready to leave. That true?”
“I'm not planning to go anywhere.” He forced a little laugh and took a gulp of coffee. He could feel it burning somewhere deep inside his chest. The gossip on the moccasin telegraph that reached him was always about somebody else, never about him. He didn't want to think about leaving St. Francis. Fitting himself again into a teaching job at a Jesuit prep school or university. Finding his way again, his place somewhere else.
“Father Damien's a pretty good priest,” she said. Then she took a sip of coffee and reached over and patted his hand. “People hereabouts like that other priest fine, but we'd sure hate to lose you, Father.” She seemed to contemplate the possibility for a moment, the lines in her forehead frozen in concentration.
Sitting back, she worked at the coffee, then she said, “Hear that white woman at the museum went off somewhere. Hope nothing bad happened to her. She was one of them nervous types, you know, face all pinched and white like the blood drained out of her. Looked like she was running fast with an evil spirit right behind her. Hear somebody tore her place up. Think the police'll find her?”
He said that he hoped so, trying for as much reassurance as he could muster. Then he pulled the brochure on the Curtis exhibit from his jacket pocket. Smoothing out the shiny paper, he pushed it across the table. “I understand one of the warriors is your ancestor,” he said, tapping at the photograph of the village on the front.
The atmosphere seemed to change, as if the warm air blowing through the vent had turned frigid. Eunice stared at the photo for several seconds before she started tracing the figure of the warrior on the right with one finger. “My great-grandfather, Thunder,” she said. “Don't mind telling you I was real surprised when I walked into the museum and seen his photo. I went into the curator's office and told her she had my great-grandfather on the wall.” The woman looked away, gathering the memory. “I remember she went on about how Edward Curtis never got around to identifying a lot of people in his photos, and she was sorry but the Arapahos weren't ever gonna be
identified. I said, you got that wrong, 'cause I know my own great-grandfather. I got another picture of him. She got real interested then and said she'd like to see my picture, so I said, âCome on over any time you want.' Hold on a minute, Father.”
Eunice pushed away from the table, got to her feet, and disappeared through the archway behind her. There was the sound of drawers opening and closing, then she was back. “The lady came last week, and I showed her this,” she said, slapping a large, sepia-toned photograph with curled corners next to the brochure. “Plain as day,” she said. “Thunder had a real distinctive nose and big chin, and he had dimples in his cheeks. Don't see many Indians with dimples.”
Father John pulled the brochure and photo in front of him. The man in the photo looked tall and muscular, with a clump of hair standing up from his forehead and thick braids that hung down the front of his fringed shirt. He smiled into the camera a hundred years ago, and the smile showed the dimples that made him seem relaxed and content. But in the dark eyes was a mixture of wariness and surprise, as if he wondered how much of himself the camera might capture. There was no doubt about it: The smiling man in the snapshot was the warrior with the feathered headdress and broad stripes of paint that looked like lightning zigzagging across his face and naked chest. Same forelock pulled up from his forehead, same nose and squared jaw and dimples.
“What did the curator say?”
“Oh, she got real excited. Wanted to know where I got the photo. âPortrait,' I told her. Stories that come down in the family say that Curtis took the portrait in his tent out there by Black Mountain. Thunder got killed, you know, after Curtis set up that attack on a so-called Arapaho village. Other warriors got killed with him. Them others didn't leave any descendants.”
“How did they die?”
The woman was quiet for so long that Father John wondered if she'd heard. He sipped at his coffee and waited. Finally she went on:
“Wasn't something Dad wanted to talk about, but one time he told me that people said Thunder and the others killed a woman in Curtis's village. Told me the family had it real hard afterward, and no sense dwelling on the past. “She reached over, picked up the snapshot, and stared at it. “Dad said that Curtis took lots of portraits of people in his tent. Had people come in and dress up in fringed shirts and beaded necklaces that Curtis brought along, some of it from the Sioux. Even made the village look like a village in the Old Time. That's it right there.” She tapped the brochure.
Father John was quiet a moment. “Who was the woman Thunder was accused of killing?”
Eunice shook her head and blew out her breath. “He was innocent, Father. All three of them warriors was innocent.” She looked away a moment, then, bringing her gaze back to his, she said, “Name was Bashful Woman, the daughter of Sharp Nose. That's how come Thunder and the others had to die, I guess, 'cause people wanted revenge for a chief's daughter getting shot.”
“You told Christine about this?”
The woman started nodding. “She wanted to know if I had a magnifying glass. So I went and found an old one in the desk and gave it to her. She stared at the village, moving the glass around, studying this and that, not saying anything for a long time. Then she handed me the brochure and the magnifying glass. âYou see the women in the village?' she says. I told her, âMy eyes aren't gone yet.' And she wants to know, who was the woman that got shot. I said, âHow would I know that?' âSomebody must've told you what she looked like,' she says. I tell you, Father, I got fed up with that pushy white woman. I said, âExcuse me, ma'am, but I showed you what I got, and I told you what I know.' I quit talking then, and that encouraged her to leave. But you know what she says on the way out? Says she could get me a thousand dollars for my photograph, and would I like to sell? I told her I wasn't selling any image of my ancestor. Then she wants to know who else on the rez has Curtis photos, and I told her, âNobody,' but that didn't satisfy her.”
Father John picked up the brochure and studied the image of the village. He could make out the figures of women in the shadows. Black hair in braids, light-colored dresses with fringe that dropped over their moccasins. One carried an infant on her back; another sat in front of a tipi, cradling a small child in her lap. He could almost feel the curator's excitement at the possibility of identifying more people, of making sense out of what had happened.
“Let me guess,” he said. “Christine wanted the names of Chief Sharp Nose's descendants.”
“Oh, she wanted names, all right.” Eunice shrugged. “I told her, âThat was a big family with descendants scattered around the rez. You can find lots of people that come down from Chief Sharp Nose. He was the last chief, and people got a lotta respect for the old chiefs.'Â ”
“Did you give Christine the names of any descendants?” Father John could think of two or three elders who were great-grandsons of the last Arapaho chiefâMax Oldman was oneâbut an outsider like Christine wouldn't know who they were unless someone told her.
Eunice shook her head. “Sharp Nose family's had enough trouble down the years, you ask me. Max Oldman's nephew got himself shot some years back, and now DeniseÂ .Â .Â .” She let the thought trail off.
Father John didn't take his eyes from the woman. Denise Painted Horse was also a descendant of Sharp Nose, and chances were good that Christine Nelson had gone looking for descendants with Curtis photographs. He swallowed hard against the gaps in the logic. There were probably dozens of Sharp Nose descendants on the rez, and Eunice hadn't given Christine any names. What was the connection? Where was the proof that Denise and Christine had even met?
He drained the last of the coffee and got to his feet. “Thank you, Eunice,” he said.
“See, that's the difference between you and white people like her.” The woman stood up next to him. She barely came to his shoulder. “They never say thank you for what they get. You think that white woman went looking for one of Sharp Nose's people and got herself
into some kind of trouble? You think that's why she's disappeared?”
“I don't know,” Father John said. The lines in the woman's forehead deepened, and he realized that it was now his turn to give the gift of information. He said, “I think she could have been on her way to meet someone on the reservation when she disappeared.”
“If she asked any Arapaho that come into the museum about the Sharp Nose people, she would've heard about Max Oldman.” Eunice stepped back and pushed her chair against the table. It made a sharp noise, like the ring of a hammer. “Oldman's head of the family now.”
Father John pulled on his jacket, only half following what the woman was saying: something about how she hoped the white woman would turn up okay. He was thinking that he'd drive over to Max's place and have a talk with the elder. But before he did, he wanted to find out what had happened at Curtis's village.
He was outside and around the corner, following his boot prints along the side of the house, when he heard Eunice call out: “Come back any time, Father. I always got the coffee on.”
He slid behind the steering wheel and, leaning across the seat, fumbled through the papers in the glove compartment for his cell. The cab was warm in the sun. He rolled down the window and pushed in the number for the mission.
“Father Damien.” The voice on the other end was clear and confidant andÂ .Â .Â . Dear Lord. Damien was at the mission and in control.
“You had a few calls, but I took care of them.”
“I'll be back in a couple of hours.”
“No need to hurry,” the other priest said.
Father John hit the end key and tossed the cell onto the passenger seat. Then he started the engine and shot out onto the road. He had to laugh at the irony. Finally an assistant who took a real interest in the mission. It looked as if his prayers had been answered. The problem was, he now had an assistant who could replace him.