Read The Eagle Catcher Online

Authors: Margaret Coel

The Eagle Catcher (2 page)

“Now what makes you think so, Grandmother?” He used the Arapaho term of respect for the old woman, but he couldn't resist teasing her a little.
“You pawin' the ground like some bronco locked up in a chute.” Alva White Bull scooped up the dough and flopped it into a pan on the cookstove at the end of the table. Grease popped and spit in the air.
“Just waiting for you to pour me some more coffee,” Father John said. Pushing his cowboy hat back, he bent his six-foot-three-and-one-haif-inch frame under the sloping roof of the brush shade and set the empty Styrofoam cup on the plank counter. He'd already had four or five cups of coffee this morning—he'd lost count—but coffee beat the vodka tonics he had once used to jump-start the day.
The old woman swung an aluminum coffee pot off the cookstove and refilled his cup. Then she pushed a paper plate stacked with fry bread toward him. Rivulets of grease ran from the plate, leaving wet tracks along the counter.
He wasn't hungry; he'd had toast and a couple of eggs at the priests' residence earlier, but he took a chunk of fry bread to be polite. It tasted crusty and warm.
“Have you seen Harvey Castle this morning?” he asked.
“No. You s'pose to meet the tribal chairman?” The old woman's voice rose with expectancy as she cast out a line for some gossip.
“Supposed to,” he said.
“He must've forgot.”
Father John laughed, nearly choking on the fry bread. “Not likely, Grandmother. The Arapahos and the Irish are alike, you know. We never forget anything. It's a blessing.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, flapping one hand as if to wave off a pesky mosquito.
Suddenly the loudspeaker began whistling back on itself, and the announcer's voice boomed over the crowd. “Good morning, folks, and welcome to the Ethete powwow.” He was seated at the judges' table inside the arbor.
“We got the best dancers on the Great Plains gonna dance for us this weekend.” The voice rose over the whistling sounds. “This weekend we're gonna get in touch with the harmony and peace that us Arapahos know is important for a good life. That's what the powwow's all about. Dancers say they're ready now, so we're gonna start the Grand Entry.”
The drums started beating, and the loud thuds rolled through the air like thunder. Then the singers began chanting in high-pitched voices as the dancers flowed into the arbor, turning it into a sea of colors. The women were in dresses, blues and reds and purples and golds. Some wore buckskin dresses with long fringed sleeves and skirts. The men wore silk shirts and shorts topped with breastplates of polished bones and aprons covered with shimmering glass beads. All the dancers had on beaded moccasins and ankle cuffs of white angora. Some had wheels of red and orange feathers twirling on their arms and backs. Long yellow feathers, like stalks of prairie grass, sprouted from headdresses and bent in the wind.
Father John considered going back to his lawn chair to enjoy the dances. He was feeling a little guilty at leaving his new assistant alone for so long. Father Brad Jansen was easy to spot in the front row of spectators. His was the only blond head among the cowboy hats and baseball caps, and nobody else had on black clericals. But something held Father John in place. It wasn't like the tribal chairman to schedule a meeting and not show up. Harvey had been worried. There had been something in his voice—unspoken, but unmistakably there. Father John was starting to feel uneasy.
Then it hit him. Harvey could be in his tipi. Maybe he didn't feel well this morning and was taking his time getting ready for the powwow. Or maybe some tribal business had come up that demanded his attention.
“Thanks for the refills, Grandmother,” Father John said. Setting the half-empty cup on the counter, he started for the campground which abutted the western edge of the powwow grounds. In the distance, the brown humps of the Wind River Mountains rode against the sky like a herd of giant buffalo. Most of the Arapahos would stay here over the weekend. The campground was filled with pickups and aluminum trailers parked next to white canvas tipis with lodgepoles jutting upright like bundles of kindling wood set on end. The tipis all looked alike, the flaps facing the east so that the first thing Arapahos saw each day would be the rising sun. He was pretty sure Harvey had pitched his tipi where he usually did, next to the access road.
“You goin' the wrong way, Father. Dancin's over that way.” Leon Wolf had just stepped out of a trailer and was adjusting a baseball cap on his head, grinning. A row of white teeth flashed in his brown face.
“Thanks a lot, Leon,” Father John hollered back. The simple, good-natured exchange made everything seem normal and in place, but the uneasy feeling still gnawed at him. The minute he spotted Harvey's tipi, he knew something was wrong. The flaps on the other tipis were closed, tied securely in place, but the flap on Harvey's hung loose, jumping sideways in the wind. Father John started running, the thud of the drums reverberating in his chest. He reached the tipi, threw the flap back against the canvas, and ducked inside. In the slim shaft of daylight, he saw the army-green sleeping bag on the dirt floor. Someone was in it.
“Harvey,” he called. “You okay?”
Then Father John saw the black stain on -the bag. He dropped down on one knee, wincing as the hard ground bit through his blue jeans and into his kneecap. He pulled back the top of the bag. Harvey's eyes were open, staring up into nothingness. Father John laid a finger alongside the Indian's neck. The skin felt stiff and cool. There was no pulse.
Suddenly Father John was aware that someone had come in behind him and was blocking the thin stream of daylight.
2
“W
HAT'S WRONG WITH Harvey?” Leon sounded scared.
Father John pivoted slightly, his kneecap burrowing farther into the earth. Glancing up, he said, “Get the medics, will you?”
“What happened?” Leon persisted.
“I don't know,” Father John said. “Just get the medics.”
Leon backed out of the tipi, his boots making a slap-slap sound against the earth as he ran away. The noise of the powwow filtered through the canvas: pounding drums, high, scratchy singing, humming loudspeakers, a wailing child somewhere.
Father John looked down at the still figure in the sleeping bag. He felt a chill crawling over him like an army of ants. Based on the number of times he'd been called to emergency rooms, he could make an educated guess as to what had happened. The tribal chairman had been stabbed in the chest. A bullet would have produced a lot more blood than the tidy stain that had soaked through the sleeping bag. Leaning closer, Father John saw the small slit in the bag, neat, clean, and precise as a surgeon's cut.
But where was the weapon? There was a suitcase pushed against the slanted tipi wall, and tossed on top a dark windbreaker, a shaving kit, and some keys splayed on a metal circle. Nothing that could have done this. The ground was churned into little mounds of dirt, and in the filtering daylight he thought he could make out a footprint. Perhaps a moccasin print. There, at the foot of the sleeping bag, was what looked like an eagle feather half hidden in the broken dirt. Father John couldn't take his eyes off it. Harvey would never have allowed the sacred eagle feather to touch the ground.
Looking back at the still body, Father John began slowly tracing the sign of the cross on the Indian's forehead, speaking the words of the ancient prayer: “May your soul rest in the mercy of God, and may the perpetual light shine upon you.” Then he added, “May you dwell with the Star Nations, my friend. May you walk in the Milky Way.”
Suddenly Leon burst into the tipi, two medics right behind. “Here he is, like I told you.” The Indian was breathing hard. Father John got to his feet as one of the medics leaned over the sleeping bag and placed his fingers below Harvey's right ear. “Jesus,” the medic said.
“Is he dead?” Leon asked.
“Dead as he's ever gonna be,” said the medic, pulling a radio out of the clip on his belt. “Get the Bureau of Indian Affairs police over to Chairman Castle's tipi,” he barked into the radio. “We got ourselves one hell of a problem.”
A crowd of Indians had started to gather outside the tipi, their whispers like the soft swoosh of the wind in the cottonwoods. They began filing inside-three or four men, a couple of women, two little boys crowding into the small space. Father John kept expecting Harvey's family to rush inside—his mother, Maria, or his sister, Rita. And where was Anthony, Harvey's nephew? Surely they were at the powwow somewhere. Then he remembered he hadn't spotted them in the crowd when he was waiting for Harvey.
At that moment Charlie Taylor, one of the tribal councilmen, burst through the opening and shouldered his way to the sleeping bag. He looked down at Harvey's body, not saying a word, then abruptly swung around and darted outside. Father John watched him through the opening. He was running.
 
“Jesus H. Christ. Never thought I'd see this,” said Art Banner, the Arapaho chief of the Bureau of Indian Affairs police force at Wind River Reservation. The armpits of his light-blue uniform shirt were rimmed in sweat. One hand rested on top of the holster attached to the wide black belt of his navy trousers. He glanced back at the policemen looping yellow tape around stakes driven into the ground outside of Harvey's tipi.
The drums had stopped beating, and the air was heavy with silence. The sky had turned luminescent blue, as if the gray sky had rolled away to reveal another sky above. The sun was out in full force now, bathing the powwow grounds in golden light and burning through Father John's plaid cotton shirt and blue jeans. He had taken off his windbreaker and swung it over one shoulder. Now he pulled his cowboy hat forward. What a curse on the Great Plains—red hair and pale, freckled skin. No one who looked like he did belonged here, he sometimes thought. His nose was permanently sunburned.
“Who the hell did this?” The BIA police chief looked off into the distance, his black eyes squinting in the sun. He seemed to be talking to himself. “It wasn't robbery. Nothin's been messed with.”.
Father John wished there was something he could say. Art Banner, he knew, had been a lifelong friend of Harvey's. Words were so inadequate. Finally he mentioned the footprints. It was more comfortable to keep the conversation on facts.
“Yeah. I saw 'em. We'll get casts,” said the chief.
“How about the eagle feather?”
Banner met Father John's eyes. “You thinkin' the murderer dropped that eagle feather? Nothin's ever that easy, John. Most likely Harvey dropped it and didn't know it. His dance regalia's in the suitcase. We'll look over the headdress for any missing feather.”
Father John let his eyes roam over the powwow grounds a moment. Less than an hour ago, the Grand Entry had started, and the rows of lawn chairs around the arbor had been filled with Arapaho families. Now the arbor was deserted, and dancers and spectators were lugging coolers and folded aluminum chairs toward the campground. The sound of metal clanging against metal filled the air as tipi stakes were hammered out of the ground. News of Harvey's murder had spread like prairie fire, even before the announcers had officially declared the powwow canceled. In another hour, Father John knew, Arapaho families would be tearing down the highway in pickups and trailers piled high with camping gear, getting away from the Ethete powwow grounds as fast as possible. Evil seeped into a place, contaminated it, destroyed its spirit.
Father John drew in a long breath. “I haven't seen Harvey's family,” he said.
“A couple of my boys are on their way out to the ranch to tell 'em. God, it's gonna be tough.” The chief lifted one arm and dipped his forehead into his shirtsleeve, leaving long, wet streaks on the blue cotton. “How come you happened to find him?”
Father John explained how he was supposed to meet Harvey this morning and went looking for him in his tipi. Banner seemed to listen with one ear while he watched his men finish cordoning off the area. As soon as Father John mentioned Leon Wolf, the chief motioned to two policemen. “Get some boys talkin' to everybody who was camping in the vicinity before they're all out of here. And get a detail out searching every inch of the grounds,” he ordered.
“So you and Harvey s'pose to have some kind of meeting?” Banner turned back to Father John.
“He called yesterday and said he had something important to talk over.”
The police chiefs eyebrows shot up. “What d'ya think it was about?”
“I wish I knew.” Father John lifted his cowboy hat and ran his fingers through his hair. It was wet with perspiration. He could feel the guilt burning through him like the sun. Harvey hadn't sounded like himself. Father John had sensed the different tone in his voice, but he had pushed it aside. What if Harvey had been killed to keep him from talking? Why hadn't he driven out here last night? Found out what was bothering Harvey? If he had, maybe his friend would still be alive. Why hadn't he? Because he'd wanted to watch the Red Sox, for God's sake.
“Maybe that Arapaho history he was working on?”
Father John stared at the police chief in astonishment. He hadn't even considered the possibility that Harvey had wanted to talk about Arapaho history.
“You was helpin' him with it, ain't that right?” the chief persisted.
It was true Harvey often dropped by St. Francis Mission to discuss the latest nuggets he'd dredged out of some archives. The warriors killed in a battle in the Old Time. The fine print in some treaty. The grand promises whites had made to get Arapahos to follow the White Man's Road. History was Father John's field. He had taught American history at Jesuit prep schools back east for six years before what he called his Great Fall—whenhis alcoholism became common gossip in the hallways and cafeteria.

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