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Authors: Sandi Ault

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6
The People

Wednesday, 1430 Hours

Following Momma Anna, I approached the group of Native Americans with Mountain on his lead. Clearly, he'd already met most of them, because many of them smiled and reached out to pat him or scratch behind his ears. He nuzzled them like old friends. The group was quiet, though, and no one spoke.

In the center of a large, flat floor of stone, one man held a tall staff in one hand. The tip rested in a shallow, pecked-out basin, perhaps two inches deep. The top of the staff was crowned with a pair of eagle talons, with the long joint of the legs—complete with downy feathers—extended outward from the top, resembling a pair of short antlers. The possessor of this wand was dressed in jeans, moccasins, and a bear hide. Sweat rained from his face and upper body, which was bare. His eyes were closed, and he was taking long, focused breaths. After what seemed like several minutes, he finally began to speak in a deep, thunderous voice.

“Time before time, the chiefs in the Center of the World could talk with fire and receive its knowledge and power. They used what fire told them to hold the moon unmoving in the sky.

“Far to the north, many priests lived and worked on Fire Mountain, learning the Way. From their round tower there, and from the ridge across the river, they made many studies, watching Grandmother Moon and Father Sun rise over the shoulders of the Earth Mother. They measured with sticks and a hole they made in the rock, and they counted days with lines of dots and brush marks, or with piles of pebbles. They built great night fires and used big, flat stones to shoot the light of the flames far, very far. They sent their wisdom on nights when Moon was hiding, so the fires could be seen in the sky. Three-days-walking to the south, on Red Mask Mesa, the fire tenders received the messages, then built blazes of their own, and—using the same kind of stones—sent the fire's light another three-days-walking to the south, to the Center of the World. The chiefs of what they now call Chaco Canyon would see the fires, read their messages, and the Way would be known.

“The People would gather at the temples, and the chiefs would say:
On this night, I will tell the moon where to stand, and it will come to that place because I say it must!
The People would watch and see.

“And when Moon obeyed, and came to the appointed place in the sky, the People knew that the chiefs were very powerful. The fires had bestowed their gifts.”

When he finished, several of the women ululated in high-pitched calls, and a few of the men shrieked and whooped loudly. Nearly all the rest of the people watching the storyteller uttered a grunt and nodded their heads in agreement. Then those seated got up and began to mingle around, and those standing wandered here and there. Some walked away, up the path toward the parking lot.

“What a beautiful story,” I said to Momma Anna, finding a place in the shade so Mountain could escape the blazing sun.

“He good, talking stick,” she said.

“Was that the talking stick that he was holding?” I asked.

Momma Anna frowned at me and shook her head. The Tanoah considered questions rude, yet asking them was so ingrained in our culture that I often forgot. Momma Anna almost never answered me, but instead found ways to teach me through her daily activities: making pottery and jewelry, cooking, baking, gathering herbs, wild spinach, and piñon nuts, and gardening. Most of the time, I would come to visit Momma Anna or she would ask me to take her someplace, and I knew that the occasion would provide me with a lesson, and perhaps information for the book I hoped to write on the customs of Tanoah Pueblo.

“I need to find out who's in charge here,” I said.

“Nobody in charge,” she said.

“Well, then, I need to know who is organizing the ceremonies.”

“Maybe you pray. Creator in charge.” She got up and walked away from me.

For a time, I sat and watched the crowd, trying to determine from their behavior who might be acting as a coordinator for the group. A round, brown woman wearing Hopi ceremonial dress seemed to be preparing to do the next storytelling. Her companions were smoothing her hair and fussing over her apparel. I got up and led Mountain around the assemblage until I found Momma Anna again. She was standing next to a group of women, and they looked to be deciding who was going to take the seats on the benches and rock walls and who would be left standing.

“Momma Anna,” I said, careful not to phrase it as a question, “I would like to give some information to these people from those of us managing the fire.”

She smiled approvingly and removed the thin, tan blanket from her head. She stepped to the center of the flat stone area, near the recessed place where the last storyteller had staked his staff. She stood there for a moment as the group grew quiet and took places in a circle around her. Then she waved to me to enter the center of the gathering. I handed Mountain's lead to Momma Anna. “Hello, I'm Jamaica Wild. I'm the liaison officer with the fire team. I'm here to let you know that the incident command team is doing everything it can to contain this fire so that you can go on with your ceremonies uninterrupted.”

The crowd rumbled, and one man spoke up. “We're not going nowhere. You can lock that gate down there so nobody else can come, but you can't make us leave. This is our sacred time.” Those around him nodded and grunted in agreement.

I held up my hand. “I understand. I do. We're not there yet, so let's not get into a disagreement right now about that. I wonder if there is one person, or perhaps a small group of a few people, with whom I could speak, an individual or council who might want to carry the message or speak for the rest of you?”

They looked at me in silence.

I waited patiently for several minutes, a skill I'd learned in working with the Tanoah. This demonstration of a tolerance for quiet—for comfort without conversation—often earned me respect among the tribe. After some time had passed, I could see more acceptance in their faces. Finally I said, “Okay, well, I can talk with all of you now, and perhaps if you'd like to later, we will arrange another way to carry our messages. I have been chosen to speak to you on behalf of the incident management team. We want to do anything and everything we can to ensure your safety and your comfort. Now, I've brought some cold bottled water up for you, and I wonder if there is anything else I can do. Do you need meals?”

They remained mute. Dozens of sober faces looked at me with expressions I couldn't read. I puzzled for a moment, then realized how many customs I'd just violated with my last remark—not only had I asked a question, I'd suggested that they needed something from me instead of simply offering them hospitality. Most Native Americans are fiercely proud and do not like to be seen as needy in any way.

I hung my head and closed my eyes. I felt ashamed, frustrated with myself. When I opened my eyes again—my head still lowered in humility—I saw that my clothes were covered with dirt and wolf hair from my recent challenge with Mountain, and I realized how unkempt I must look to them. If the rest of those gathered here were anything like my Tiwa family at Tanoah Pueblo, then cleanliness was a prized virtue. I drew in a breath, faced the assembly, and—turning slowly to look at each one of them in turn—I spoke very softly. “Please forgive me. I am so sorry, so ashamed of that last thing I said. I know you do not need me or anything from me. It was a mistake for me to insinuate that you might. I ask your forgiveness.”

Then I waited for what I knew would be a long time.

Ultimately, one of the women sitting on the block wall raised her hand and stepped into the circle. I had the good sense to step back next to Mountain. Momma Anna did not look at me. The woman in the center spoke, “This white girl seem like she is okay. I say we let her speak. She cannot be too bad if she has the love of a wolf.” Everyone laughed at this last, and Mountain—sensing he was being talked about—gave a happy yip and wagged his tail. The woman opened her arm to invite me back into the circle.

I stepped to the center again, brushing my clothes with my hands. “Thank you. I will not make the same mistake again. I am sorry if I offended you. I would like to offer some meals to you tonight. I would like to know how many people so we can bring plenty of food. I want to send anything else you might use and enjoy, too: tents, sleeping bags, sunscreen. If any of you would like to have some first aid or medicine, I would like to have someone come. It would be good if there was one person or a couple people from among you who would agree to be the ones to carry messages to me so I don't have to interrupt your stories and rituals. And if I can ever do anything for you or get anything for you, please let me know. I will do my best to help.”

Heads nodded approvingly, and a few women smiled at me. A small spattering of applause broke out. I returned to take Mountain's lead. Momma Anna gave me a little nod.

I walked away from the gathering to permit them to confer about what I had said. Mountain was panting heavily in the heat, so I went to the comfort station, took a bottle of cold water from one of the coolers, opened it, and squirted water from the pull-up nozzle top onto his tongue. He closed his mouth around the plastic tip and drank from it eagerly, just as he had when I'd bottle-fed him goat's milk as a tiny pup. It reminded me of when he was just a baby, and I smiled, my heart remembering the tenderness of that time. When he had drunk all the water in the bottle, I dipped my hands into some of the melted ice in the foam chest and scooped icy cold water onto his back. I wiped my cool hands across my own brow.

I knelt down to finally greet Mountain. I put my arms around his neck and hugged him. “Hey, buddy,” I said. “Did you think I'd left you? I was going to come back. I just had to come work on this fire. And I have to leave you with Momma Anna again now, but I won't be gone for long, okay? I'm going to see you every chance I get—and then, when we get the fire out, we'll both go home. You can ride home with me, in the Jeep.” The wolf smiled and wagged his tail wildly. He licked the side of my face, his tongue cold and rough.

Momma Anna approached, her blanket pulled over her head for sun protection. She gave a little smile when she saw me hugging the wolf. I stood up and smiled back.
Perfect!
I thought.
Momma Anna and I already know one another. She'll be the ideal person for me to liaise with.

“That Ute guy,” Momma Anna said as she reached us.

“What?”

“That Ute guy. You talk him.”

“What Ute guy?”

Just as I said it, Bearfat strutted toward me like a peacock—this time without his young companion. “Guess we'll be working together, Jamaica Wild,” he said, leering.

7
Clara White Deer

Wednesday, 1600 Hours

Before I left Chimney Rock, I radioed to Logistics to request meals, basic first aid, and some comfort supplies for the Native Americans. But the trucks full of ordered supplies were en route to Fire Camp, so Logistics was not prepared to provide provisions until the next morning at the earliest. They agreed to contact the Red Cross and local emergency services and get the list filled. With the first item on my agenda complete, I headed for Ignacio to perform the next assignment Roy had given me.

I drove south down Highway 151 past Navajo Lake, then west across high desert country into the next county and the small town of Ignacio, home of the Southern Ute Agency and the Sky Ute Casino. Heat shimmered on the asphalt and the temperature in my Jeep was sweltering.

At Ignacio Intermediate School, I asked the summer classes coordinator to help me find Clara White Deer. I was directed to the music room—past the empty gymnasium and down a quiet hall that rang with my footsteps. When I looked through the glass window in the door, a slender woman with long black braids was alone in the room, dusting off the music stands. She wore a turquoise tank top, jeans, and sandals. I knocked, then opened the door enough to stick my head in. “Ms. White Deer?” I asked.

A tawny, good-looking face with high cheekbones and large, dark eyes turned toward me. She was stunningly good-looking, perhaps in her midfifties, and I could just imagine how beautiful she must have been in her youth. The woman pushed her chin up in a gesture of pride and said, “I am Clara White Deer.”

“May I come in?” I asked, opening the door a bit wider. “I'm the liaison officer with the incident command team on the fire. I wanted to talk with you a moment.”

She returned to her dusting, rubbing the stand in front of her with sharp, quick strokes. “Did you guys find him?”

I stepped into the room and was quiet a moment. Then I said, “Could we sit down and talk?”

She stopped dusting and looked at me. “I don't want to sit down. I can't.”

I moved forward, coming around so I was in front of her. “I believe someone from the sheriff's office talked to you.”

“Yes. He didn't have any news. Do you have any news?”

“I wonder—is there someplace I could buy you a glass of iced tea?”

Clara White Deer tipped her head to one side. “Did you find him or not? Just tell me. I don't need a glass of iced tea, and even if I did, I can buy my own. In fact, I should probably buy yours—you work for the US government, so I bet you don't make too much money doing that. I probably make a lot more than you do just for being a member of the Southern Ute tribe.” She started wiping her hands on her dust rag, then cut in front of me and walked to the desk at the front of the room.

“I just thought perhaps we could sit down someplace so we could visit,” I said.

“We can visit right here,” she said, locking eyes with me as she dropped the rag on the desk and brushed her hands together loudly to signify that she was done with the chore.

I stepped forward so I was standing in front of the desk. Clara White Deer never let her eyes leave mine. I spoke in a calm voice. “I just wanted to tell you that we did everything we could to try to find Grampa Ned where you last saw him. The fire blew up, and we had to suspend all activity in the area. We had firefighters in danger at the time, and we couldn't even go after them. We still don't know about any of them—Ned or the firefighters.”

Finally, Clara White Deer looked away. She shook her head back and forth. “That old man,” she said. “That stinking old man. I ask him for one thing, one thing. I never asked him for anything before. But I ask Ned Spotted Cloud for one little thing, and he goes and gets himself burned up in a fire.”

I held up a hand. “Wait! We don't know that. He could be anyplace. We have no evidence.”

She shook her head even faster. “I don't need evidence. I saw him going down that road toward the ruins back there by the mine. He drove right through the yellow tape and broke it. He ran over one of those orange cones that was set across the road. I honked at him, and he just waved his hand out the window. The sheriff said you found his truck back in there, right?”

“Yes, we did. But we didn't find him. He could have walked out.”

She made a sardonic grin. “Not Grampa Ned. He drove everywhere—he's always been a smoker and he doesn't have such good wind anymore.”

“Well, maybe someone met him, picked him up.”

“Ned Spotted Cloud didn't have a friend in this world, Miss…what'd you say your name was?”

“Wild. Jamaica Wild.”

She leaned forward, pursing her lips and studying me. “That's a funny name for a white girl.”

I shrugged. My name was always the source of curious comments and strange reactions. I searched for something to say. “It's not nearly as nice as Clara White Deer,” I finally managed. “That's a beautiful name.”

She lifted her chin even higher, narrowing her eyes suspiciously. Eventually she nodded. “There's a little café a block from here. I'll buy you a lemonade. Their iced tea tastes awful.” She picked up a handbag from beneath the desk and started for the door.

A half hour later, we were sitting across from one another in a booth, sipping lemonade. “Why do you call Ned ‘Grampa'?” I asked. “Is he any relation to you?”

She laughed. “Now, that's real funny. No, he's no relation to me, none whatsoever. Everyone calls him Grampa. It started as a joke years ago, but it just kept on going. Ned was always a ladies' man. He had so many girlfriends that everyone used to say that four out of five kids on the Southern Ute Reservation were his children. Then, as he got older, they just started teasing him, calling him Grampa.”

“Did he ever marry?” I was thinking of the burning man's words:
Save the grandmother.

“Grampa Ned?” She snorted. “No. He never cared about anyone but himself.”

I watched her as she rummaged in her purse and pulled out a tube of lip balm. She smeared some on, then said, “What? Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I'm sorry. It's just that…well, a little while ago when you were saying you were sure he was dead…I mean, I guess I thought you were upset because you cared about him and we couldn't find him.”

“Oh, don't worry,” she said, plopping the tube back into her purse. “I probably care as much as almost anyone does about Ned Spotted Cloud. He's a Southern Ute, a member of my tribe. I guess I care for that reason. But you won't find anyone around here who will say anything nice about him.” She paused a moment and put her hand to her chin as if she had thought of something. Then the hand came away and she held it up in the air as if she had surrendered whatever had come to mind. “At least not anyone who really knows him. You think I'm making this up? You ought to speak to Mary Takes Horse. You know the trading post on the corner downtown? That's her place. She's one of the tribal storytellers—she'll give you an earful about Grampa Ned.”

When the waitress brought the check, I grabbed for it, but Clara White Deer was faster.

“I'll get that,” I said. “It was my idea.”

“No, I'm buying,” she said. “You did me a favor. I'm calmer now. It was good to just talk—you know, say it how it is? Besides, I told you, I probably got more money than you. The Southern Utes are well off—we're not some starving, illiterate tribe looking for government handouts to get by.”

“I didn't mean…”

“We're the richest tribe in the country. Our people are very savvy. We have excellent health care and good education for our children. And we take care of our own: every member of the Southern Ute tribe gets a check every month whether she works or not—a big check. It's from the investments our tribe has made with the income from our gas and oil leases and our casino.”

“So why do you still work at the school?”

“I've been teaching music here on the reservation since I was a young girl. I needed the money back when I started, and for a long time after that, before we got our tribal growth fund going. But now I do it because I love it. I love the kids.”

“Do you have any children?”

She smiled. “I have a beautiful daughter named Nuni. She went away to school, married a boy from another tribe, and after a long time away, she and her husband have moved back to the reservation.”

“Any grandchildren?”

She lowered her head. “No. No grandbabies,” she almost whispered. When she raised her head again, I thought I saw moisture gleam in her eyes.

I considered asking Clara about her husband, but I noticed that she was not wearing a ring.

We started to scoot out of the booth. “You said you asked Grampa Ned for one thing,” I said. “What was it?”

Clara White Deer looked at me, then stood and gathered her purse from the seat of the booth. “It was something he stole from me,” she said.

I got up and tugged at my Nomex pants to straighten them. “He stole something of yours?”

“Yes. A long time ago. And—wouldn't you know it?—after all these years, I finally asked him to give it back, but he wouldn't do it. And now he's gone and gotten himself burned up.”

“We don't know that,” I said again.

“I'm sure of it. I saw him drive in there when I was on my way into Pagosa Springs this morning. They found his truck. No one's seen him. The sheriff said the fire burned right down to the road where he parked. It's just like that old man to die and deny me the one thing I ever asked of him.”

“Was it something of value?” I asked as we strode toward the cash register.

Clara White Deer plunked down a twenty-dollar bill for the two lemonades and waved at the waitress, calling, “Keep the change.” She started toward the door and I followed.

When we got out on the sidewalk, a gust of 106-degree air blasted us. She looked at me in my BLM T-shirt, my Nomex pants, and my smoke-jumper boots, and said, “You must be hot in that getup.”

“I'm used to it,” I said. “The winds are picking up. I better get back to the ICP. Thanks for the lemonade.” I reached in my pocket and pulled out a card. I scribbled the number of the satellite phone on the back of it. “Here's a phone number where you can reach me while I'm on this fire. If you ever need anything, if there's anything I can do for you, just give me a shout.” I held it out.

Clara White Deer was slow to open her hand and take the card. She was looking at me with a curious expression. “What Grampa Ned took,” she said, “meant a lot to me. Maybe not to anyone else, but it was priceless to me.”

I studied her face. “Do you have any idea what Grampa Ned might have been doing in that area where you last saw him?”

She shook her head, obviously finished with the conversation.

And then my sat phone rang.

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