Read The Eagle Catcher Online

Authors: Margaret Coel

The Eagle Catcher (9 page)

Vicky forced herself back into the present. She wasn't the one in danger now. She wondered where Ernest had been last night, but she checked herself before asking. Better not give Ernest any other excuse to hit his wife. She would find out herself. “Ernest inside?” she asked.
“He ain't gonna want to see you.” Jenny pulled a tissue from her pocket and began blowing her nose.
“He's going to see me anyway,” Vicky said.
Vicky walked up the stairs of the concrete stoop, stepping over the black space where part of the middle stair had been, and rapped on the screen door. Then she opened it and walked through the small kitchen into the darkened living room. Ernest slouched in a recliner with gray stuffing poking out of the sides. A stash of empty beer bottles lay on the linoleum floor. The white light from the television flickered across his face.
Slowly lifting his eyes from the television, Ernest turned toward her as if he were having difficulty comprehending her presence. His face was drawn, his eyes bloodshot. Shocks of black hair stood up on the top of his head. His shirt was unbuttoned, exposing rolls of brown flesh around his stomach, and bare feet splayed out of his blue jeans onto the floor. Balancing a half-empty beer bottle on the armrest, he said, “Why'd you come out here?”
Vicky sensed Jenny and the kids behind her in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. One of the kids was whimpering, and the sound mixed in with the drone of television voices.
“Harvey's dead, Ernest,” Vicky said. “He was murdered last night at the powwow grounds.”
Ernest frowned, his eyebrows coming together in a bushy black line across his face. He seemed to consider this while he took a drink from the bottle. Then he belched and dropped the bottle on the floor. It clinked against the others.
“Were you at the powwow last night?”
Ernest rose halfway from the recliner before sitting back hard. The recliner skidded a couple of inches across the linoleum sending the beer bottles rattling against one another. “You made yourself chief detective? You tryin' to find Harvey's killer? Try lookin' someplace else.”
“Where were you last night?” Vicky persisted.
“Who says I wasn't right here?” A glimmer of understanding crossed his eyes. “Bitch,” he said, looking back toward the kitchen. He tried again to push himself out of the chair. Then he sank down at an angle, one shoulder wedged into the back, his left hip climbing the armrest. Out of the corner of her eye, Vicky saw Jenny shrink behind the kitchen door. She was holding the little girl. The boy, who looked about five, hung on to her skirt, his eyes wide and wary.
“You've hurt Jenny enough,” Vicky said. She made her voice as cold and sharp as an icicle.
“It ain't your business. Get outta here.” Waving one arm, Ernest squirmed in the chair until he was facing the television again.
“The FBI agent will want to know where you were last night.”
Ernest swept one hand over the floor and fingered the neck of a bottle. Nudging it toward the recliner, he picked it up and drained it with a loud sucking noise, as if he wanted to swallow the glass itself. Tossing it on the floor, he shouted, “Jenny! Where the hell are ya? Get me some more beer!”
Jenny set the little girl on the floor in the doorway before disappearing again into the kitchen. The refrigerator door opened and shut. Stepping around the child, she came toward Ernest and held out a brown bottle. He grabbed it with one hand while taking a sharp swipe at her stomach with the other. She jumped back, missing the blow, and ran into the kitchen, scooping up the child as she went. The child started wailing, but the little boy was silent, peering around the edge of the door.
Vicky had felt herself flinch, as if to ward off the blow. She wanted to run, but she forced herself to stand still. “Stop it, Ernest!”
He started out of the chair toward her, eyes blazing, beer sloshing out of the bottle. It was offensive to give an order to any Arapaho, but Vicky held her ground. “Look at yourself,” she said. “What are you doing to your family?”
Ernest swiveled toward the kitchen. The boy, one fist in his mouth, backed slowly out of sight. The baby girl was gulping out loud sobs, and Jenny was trying to soothe her. “I told ya—keep those kids out of here today!” he hollered at Jenny.
Then, to Vicky, “I don't need this shit. Nobody needs it. And we sure as hell don't need no fancy white lawyer lady snoopin' round, givin' orders. Get out.”
“I am not white,” Vicky said, drawing out the words, making them as precise as possible. “I am Arapaho like you.”
Vicky slammed out the front door and walked quickly to the Bronco. Fighting back the rage, she rammed into reverse and backed into the hard-packed dirt yard, crunching beer cans under the wheels. Out of the comer of her eye, she saw Jenny running around the house, dragging the boy with one arm and juggling the little girl and a pile of laundry in the other. Both kids were crying.
Vicky leaned over, opened the passenger door, and pulled the front seat forward. Jenny dropped the baby and laundry on the back seat. Then she swung the little boy in next to the baby and climbed onto the front seat herself, slamming the door. The Bronco filled up with the sweet smell of sage and cotton and the sound of the kids' sobbing. “I gotta do it for the kids,” she said.
“You've got to do it for yourself,” said Vicky. She gunned the Bronco down the driveway and out onto the road. She had seen a side of Ernest she despised. Drunk, he could be capable of anything, even murder.
HE SUN DROPPED behind the Wind River Mountains, shooting orange and magenta flames across the western sky. Long yellow shadows fell over the plains as Father John and Father Brad walked through the field turned into a temporary parking lot. Ranch hands ran along the rows of Cadillacs and Lincolns, directing the stream of incoming cars into available slots. The sounds of country music and laughter drifted from the Cooley ranch house where a large crowd had already gathered on the front lawn.
This was one party Father John was not looking forward to. After this morning, after Harvey's murder—well, he was in no mood for a party, but he'd gotten back to St. Francis by late afternoon and found his assistant all ready to go. They didn't need to stay long, Father Brad had said, just long enough for him to meet the next governor of Wyoming and a few people from Lander and Riverton.
Father John had said he wasn't going. Then he had slumped into the leather chair in his study, pushed the stacks of paper and books on his desk to one side, propped his feet on the desk, and thought about it. There was nothing he could do for Harvey's family tonight. Cousins and other family members would be dropping by the ranch all evening, coming from all directions, traveling 1-25 from Denver and Cheyenne and Billings. Plains Indians moving across the plains, just like in the Old Time. No, they didn't need him tonight. And the party would be a chance to talk to Ned Cooley, maybe find out why Harvey had changed his mind about buying the ranch. Jasper Owens, who leased most of the oil wells on the reservation, would undoubtedly be there, and maybe he could explain why some of the wells had run dry all of a sudden. Finally Father John had swung his feet off the desk. “Okay,” he'd said half-heartedly. “I'll go with you.”
The guests clustered in groups across the wide expanse of lawn that wrapped around the house. On the west side, green-and-white-striped canopies stretched over rows of tables draped in white cloths that billowed in the breeze. Paper lanterns, like giant red cherries, hung from the cottonwood trees around the yard. Greasy smells of pork wafted through the air. Somewhere on the ranch a whole pig was roasting in a hole dug into the earth and lined with charcoal and mesquite. Several young white men wandered through the crowd, dressed in white waistcoats, carrying trays of beer and soft drinks. They looked about Anthony's age, college boys picking up an extra summer job.
The Cooley ranch dated from 1879, five years before the Jesuits had come to St. Francis. The house was built of reddish-brown bricks two stories high with pale yellow shutters and a cupola on the peaked roof. A wide L-shaped porch clung to the front and west side. In the comer, a cowboy band was strumming guitars and singing, “Mammas, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys.”
Father John took off his cowboy hat. Sticking one fist in the crown, he began spinning it around. Everybody looked alike: women in frilly blouses and skirts that billowed at their ankles, with silver and turquoise Indian jewelry around their necks and wrists. Men had on blue jeans, western shirts, and cowboy boots, all a good deal fancier than the clean, stiff blue jeans, faded green-plaid shirt, and scuffed cowboy boots Father John was wearing.
“Must be some rule around here everybody has to dress western.” Father Brad let out a low whistle, like steam from a kettle. He had worn tan slacks, short-sleeved red shirt with a button-down collar, and Top-Siders, which had surprised Father John. He was just getting used to seeing his new assistant either in clericals or jogging suits.
“Hell, anything goes.” The raspy voice came from behind, and Father John turned to face Ned Cooley. He stood about six feet tall, trim and athletic-looking in a pale-gray western suit with matching shirt and a bolo tie of woven black leather. He had pushed a gray Stetson back on his head in the manner of men who have worn cowboy hats all their lives and are totally accustomed to them. He took a long sip from a bottle of Coors, then stretched out his hand. His grip was strong, his hand as fleshy as a baseball glove. The rancher's eyes were almost the same light shade of gray as his Stetson. The smell of beer hung like a cloud between them, and Father John felt a part of himself yearning toward it. He stepped back.
“Meet the new assistant at St. Francis Mission, Father Brad Jansen,” he said to Ned.
“Mighty pleased.” The rancher extended his hand to the younger priest. Then he motioned to one of the women in a small group in the center of the lawn. “Come on over here, Dorothy.”
As the woman came toward them, Father John noticed others turning to stare. She was at that indeterminate age some women—wealthy women, he thought—had the capacity of reaching. Probably somewhere in her forties, she was slender and striking in a white dress with a ruffled top that slanted off one shoulder. A silver Navajo Squash Blossom lay around her neck. Curly blond hair framed her face, which had a stretched look like a drum. She was smiling, and bright red lipstick outlined a row of perfect white teeth. Tiny lines fanned out from the corner of her eyes like wisps of straw.
“We had to throw the last pig roast in the history of the Cooley ranch to get Father John here. He's still got that Boston accent thick as clam chowder,” Ned said, directing his comments to Dorothy, making a point to ignore the priests.
“Welcome, welcome.” Dorothy linked an arm through Father John's. “Shame on you for staying away so long.” She glanced up at him sideways, as if to say that it was all right to flirt a little. They both knew nothing would come of it.
“This beautiful lady here's my sister, Dorothy Bennett,” Ned said to. Father Brad.
“You must be Father Bart, the new priest at St. Francis we've heard so much about.” Still clinging to Father John's arm, Dorothy redirected her attention to the young priest.
“Brad. Brad Jansen,” he said, a look of discomfort crossing his face. Father John was starting to regret having decided to come, and he wondered if his assistant would regret it, too.
“You hear about Arapahos buyin' my ranch?” Ned took a step toward Father John.
“I didn't know it was settled.”
“A done deal. Business council's gonna put their John Henrys on it next week.”
“Oh? Everybody's for it, then?”
Ned leveled his gaze at Father John. “Everybody's been for it except Harvey Castle. Harvey would've come around, though. Those Indians like to make every vote unanimous,” he said with the confidence of a man used to getting his own way. Obviously Ned understood the Arapaho custom. The business council always voted unanimously after thrashing out differences in private. It was a way of putting up a united front against whites, and it dated from the Old Time.
“Poor Harvey,” Dorothy said. “Murdered by his own nephew! We were stunned when we heard.”
“Anthony didn't murder his uncle,” said Father John, taking his eyes from Ned and glancing down at the woman with her arm still linked in his.
Just then Melissa Bennett walked over, appearing from nowhere. Her dark blond hair fell in curls to her shoulders. Sunburn accentuated the freckles on her nose and cheeks and the green in her eyes. She had on a yellow dress with a long full skirt that swayed as she moved.
“Melissa. Good to see you.” Freeing his arm, Father John grasped the young woman's hand. Her fingers felt slim and cool next to his palm. When he had first come to St. Francis, Ned Cooley's niece had been a long-legged teenager, home for the summer from boarding school, unsure of herself and a little too pretty. Now she was a young woman, beautiful in a casual, outdoors way. She was at the University of Wyoming. He hardly ever ran into her on the reservation; whether that was because she never came to St. Francis or because she seldom came home, he didn't know. Home for her and Dorothy was the little house about a mile down the road from the main ranch house. It was far from little, as Father John knew from the two or three times in the last six years that he and one of his assistants at St. Francis had accepted Dorothy's invitations to dinner.
“About to graduate?”
“Getting close,” she said, smiling.
Father John introduced Father Brad, and she shook his hand. “I've heard about you. You're the runner.”

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