Read The Eagle Catcher Online

Authors: Margaret Coel

The Eagle Catcher (4 page)

So different from Boston where he'd grown up. People lived on top of one another there, encased in brick and asphalt, with no space around them. He and his brother had slept on the foldaway in the front room of a third-floor walkup that jutted over the traffic on Commonwealth Avenue. Only on the sandlots had he felt the earth stretching into the vastness, felt himself part of the sky and the infinite space. By the time he was twelve, he could throw a fastball that curved around home plate. He could still throw a decent fastball and trot around the bases at a pretty good run. Baseball had been his ticket to Boston College, and after graduation he had gone into the Jesuit seminary.
He hadn't intended to stay at St. Francis Mission long. The assignment had come while he was still in treatment at Grace House. He had figured he'd be here long enough to take his lumps, to be duly humbled, as only the Jesuits could humble one of their own. Then it would be back to teaching American history—with some fresh insight into the American Indian—at one of the Jesuit prep schools before moving on to a university, perhaps Fordham or Georgetown. He had actually said as much to old Father Peter, as if St. Francis Mission were the Siberia of the Jesuit order. Dear God, what an arrogant SOB he'd been.
But the months had gone by, then one year, then another. And Father Peter had had his heart attack and gone to the Jesuit retirement house in St. Louis, and he had taken Father Peter's place as superior. He'd been here almost six years now, three years as superior. And he'd had numerous young Jesuit assistants. One had stayed most of a year, but the others had hardly unpacked their bags before leaving. He wondered how long Father Brad would stay around. Life on an Indian reservation—the emptiness, the tonetiness—well, it wasn't for everybody.
The Toyota started up a rise so gentle he was hardly aware of the pull until the pickup began slowing. He jammed down the gas pedal feeling the bed fishtail on the asphalt. Suddenly Harvey's white frame ranch house hove into view. Behind it a field of hay moved in the wind like the surface of a green sea, while a line of gray-green cottonwood trees marked the banks of the Little Wind River in the distance. Easing on the brakes. Father John wheeled in behind the pickups at the side of the road.
Arapaho families were milling about in the driveway, and a group of men had congregated at the gate. Overhead, an arch of black iron floated against the blue sky forming the words “White Eagle Ranch.” Father John knew that White Eagle, Harvey's great-grandfather, had ridden with Chief Black Night in the Old Time.
Charlie Taylor stepped back from the group and came toward the road, just as Father John slammed the door of the Toyota. “How're you doing?” he called to the Indian, remembering how Charlie had run away from Harvey's tipi, as if he couldn't stand what he had seen.
“Hell, I'm okay.” A brown Stetson shaded the councilman's eyes which were busy searching the road. Father John realized Charlie hadn't walked out to greet him—he was leaving and he was in a hurry.
“We don't scare easy,” Charlie added as he reached Father John. The silver bolo tie hanging down the front of his crisp white shirt glinted in the sun. His pace barely slowed.
“Any reason to be scared?” The hit-man theory still crouched in Father John's mind, like an animal waiting to spring out of a cage.
“No. He]], no,” Charlie said over his shoulder, hurrying past. “I gotta get goin'. There's gonna be lots of work on the business council with Harvey gone, and I'm gonna fill in as chairman till we elect somebody permanent.” The councilman strode toward the line of pickups. Father John looked after him a moment before starting down the driveway. He stopped at each group, shaking hands, patting the men on the back in a half-hearted attempt at encouragement. Nobody said anything, and Father John felt the same helplessness and sadness that he knew was gripping them.
Just as he mounted the steps to the concrete stoop in front of Harvey's bi-level house, Charlie's pickup roared out into the middle of Little Wind River Bottom Road trailing a cloud of exhaust and sounding like an eighteen-wheeler pushing eighty. Suddenly it veered across the road just as an oncoming automobile topped the rise. Father John grabbed the metal railing on the stoop and braced himself for a head-on collision. Miraculously the pickup swerved back into its own lane just as the car passed.
Father John let out a long breath and glanced back at the driveway. The Indians stood riveted in place, staring at the road. Finally one of the men turned and caught his eye. “What's that fool Charlie thinkin' of?” the Indian shouted. “He's gonna get hisself killed one of these days if he ain't careful.”
ATHER JOHN RAPPED on the metal screen door. The front door stood open into the shadows of the entryway, and he could see people moving about on the landing at the top of the stairs. Their voices sounded like rain skittering over the roof. After a moment Rita came down the stairs and out of the shadows.
“I been hopin' you'd get here,” she said, holding the screen door for him with one hand while dabbing a tissue at her eyes with the other. Her long black hair swung about her shoulders like a nun's veil. She wore faded blue jeans and an orange blouse that hung below her waist and tugged at her hips, giving her a squared-off look. Her face had a blotched puffiness about it, but her eyes were the dusky gray of dawn. It struck him that she was probably not many years away from having been beautiful.
“I'm terribly sorry about Harvey,” he said, stepping into the small entry and waiting for his eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outdoors. There was a hollow ring to the words that hung in the air between them. He wished he could think of something to say that might console her.
“You were a good friend to my brother,” Rita said, still dabbing at her eyes. “He trusted you.”
He'd always hoped Harvey trusted him, but he had never taken it for granted. Arapahos didn't trust whites easily. He tossed his cowboy hat on the bench behind the door and followed Rita's broad figure up the half flight of green carpeted stairs, grateful for the little miracles. Here he was, hoping to console Harvey's family, and Rita had said something that consoled him.
Odors of the beef stew and percolating coffee drifted out of the arched doorway to the kitchen just off the landing. Several Arapaho women buzzed about, stirring a pot on the stove and shuffling casserole dishes, plastic food containers, loaves of bread, and bags of hamburger buns around on the counters. The green carpeting trailed down a long hallway to one side of the landing and spread across the living room on the other side.
Rita turned and planted herself in the kitchen doorway. “After you seen Mother,” she said, nodding toward the living room, “there's something important I wanna talk to you about.” Then, “What's the matter?”
Father John shook his head. That's what Harvey had said the last time he'd spoken with him. “There's something important I wanna talk over.” He wondered if what Rita had to tell him was related to whatever had been bothering Harvey. It would have to wait.
He took in the living room at a glance. Five grandmothers occupied the sofa and two upholstered chairs along the far wall. Six tribal elders sat on straight-backed kitchen chairs against the half wall that divided the stairwell from the living room. Maria was in a rocker in a far comer, near a window that framed the snow-tipped peaks of the Wind River Mountains. An Arapaho couple and two teenagers hovered over the old woman, paying respects.
Father John made his way down the line of elders, saying a few inane words about being terribly sorry, shaking their hands. Their grasp was stronger and firmer than their wiry, frail-looking bodies would suggest. He stepped across the room and greeted the grandmothers. Next to the sofa stood a table covered with wood-framed photos of Anthony. Anthony racing down court, sighting the basket, going for a layup, stopped by the camera in midair.
Father John still felt a twinge of regret that the most talented player he'd ever coached, definitely the MVP of the mid-Wyoming baseball circuit, had defected to basketball. Anthony had hit so many home runs the summer he'd played for the St. Francis Eagles that the other coaches had sent Father John a three-page letter, the gist of it being that the Castle boy demoralized their pitchers. The next summer, when Anthony decided not to come out for the Eagles, the other coaches had probably had a party.
Anthony had turned into the best center the Indian High School basketball team had ever seen. The Indian kids brought home the state championship two years in a row, and the University of Wyoming coach had come to the reservation to recruit him. Father John shrugged off the memory. It had all turned out for the best, anyway. Basketball meant that Anthony was able to go on to school, and Father John was glad of that.
He was amazed at how much of Anthony the stop-action shots had caught. Quickness, skill, determination, hotheadedness, it was all there. Shoot from the outside, fake out the defense, love the risks. Anthony was like the young warriors in the Old Time who had no patience with the talking ways of the chiefs. Action was what they had demanded, even if it brought soldiers to the villages. Father John wondered what Anthony and Harvey had quarreled about. Something Harvey had wanted to turn over and look at from all sides, thoughtfully, considering all the consequences, while Anthony had wanted action?
Father John felt a tug at his shirtsleeve. One of the grandmothers was motioning him toward Maria who was now alone, her black oxfords pushing against the carpet. The squeak of the wooden rocker cut through the buzz of voices that filled the room.
Her grandmothers had howled with grief at the deaths of their children. They had taken knives and gashed their arms and legs and cut off their hair. Somehow that seemed appropriate, Father John thought now. More equal to the terrible fact of a child's death than Maria's quiet containment of grief.
Someone opened a folding chair, and he sat down next to the old woman. Will Standing Bear scooted his chair over from the other elders, then settled back, knobby hands clasped in his lap. Father John took Maria's hand. It was as small as a child's and as smooth and cool as a rose petal. A red, sweater was draped over her shoulders, even though the house was hot and stuffy. She seemed sunk into herself, already in the half-life-half with her dead son, half with the living.
“Hana je nahadina,
the old woman said, her words almost lost among the murmuring voices.
Will leaned forward. “She says the commandment. ‘Thou shalt do no murder.' She don't know why the commandment was broke.”
Father John was quiet a moment. “I don't know either,” he said finally. “Harvey was a good man.” He saw by the flash of light in the old woman's eyes that she understood he meant good in the Arapaho Way. A good man was generous and kind, thoughtful of others. Only a few could be called good.
“We must bury my grandson on the third day. You take care of it, Teenenoo
,” Will said, calling Father John by the Arapaho name he had given him three years ago. It meant Touch-the-Clouds. It symbolized what he did as a priest, and, Father John suspected, the fact that his head rose above the heads of most other men around here.
He promised the old people that the wake would take place Monday evening, the funeral first thing Tuesday. Everything else at St. Francis, the sodality and ladies aid meetings, the religious education classes, the daily Mass, would give way to the rituals of Harvey's funeral. Aware of other people filing into the living room and waiting to speak to Maria, he patted her hand before he let it go. “I'll be back,” he said.
Rita was on the landing outside the kitchen. She wheeled around and started down the hallway, and he followed. Halfway along, she stopped, turning to look beyond him toward the living room as if to make sure no one else had followed.
“You heard about the fight last night?” Rita's voice cracked with anxiety.
Father John nodded.
“That's all the grandmothers are talking about. Not so I can hear, of course.” Rita pressed the tissue against her mouth, stifling a cry.
“Is that what you wanted to tell me about?”
Rita took a deep breath and nodded. “Anthony got home from school yesterday afternoon. He was gonna dance at the powwow. He does the Fancy Dance, you know. Harvey taught him when he was little.” She closed her eyes a moment, fighting for control. “Soon as Anthony got in the house, him and Harvey got into a big fight. Then last night, when Anthony came out to the powwow grounds, they started up again. Next thing I know, Anthony takes off in his jeep.”
“What was it all about?”
Rita shrugged. “Probably the Cooley ranch. No big deal. Anthony thinks Our People should buy it back. Harvey was against it, that's all.”
“They argued about the Cooley ranch?” Father John could have come up with a dozen things a headstrong twenty-two-year-old might argue with his uncle about. Dropping out of school before finishing his degree. Deciding not to go on to medical school. Getting mixed up with the wrong girl. But a piece of real estate? Whether Arapahos should buy back land that had once been part of the reservation? Besides, as far as he knew, Harvey had always been in favor of buying back the old lands. Why wouldn't he want to get the Cooley ranch back?
Rita lowered her voice to almost a whisper and, as if she had read his mind, said, “Oh, Harvey was all for it at first. Then he talked to Will Standing Bear and the other elders. They told him, ‘Don't trust the agent.'”
“The agent?” Father John knew Arapahos still referred to the first government agent as ‘the agent.' “What were they talking about? Mathias Cooley's been dead a hundred years.”

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