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Father John O'Malley pulled up the collar of his jacket and dipped the brim of his cowboy hat against the hard wind whirling little pellets of snow into the air. Thick gray clouds scuttled overhead and rolled through the cottonwoods like a dense fog, nearly obscuring the snow-covered path that ran between the trees and the Little Wind River, He could see his breath ahead of him. The rhythmic crunch of his boots on the snow punctuated the sound of water gurgling over ice. It was November, the twelfth month in the Arapaho Way, the Moon When the Rivers Start to Freeze.
Walks-On-Three-Legs bounded toward him out of the trees, and Father John coaxed the red disk from the golden retriever's mouth and gave it another toss. It sailed down the path into the fog, a streak of red in the grayness. The dog loped after it and, pivoting on his only hind leg, snatched the disk out of the air and darted back. Another toss, another snatch. Was it really three years ago that he'd found the dog in the barrow ditch? It seemed like yesterday. He'd rushed him to Riverton, where the vet had amputated the dog's smashed left hind leg and saved his life. Father John had brought him back to St. Francis Mission.
He tossed the disk again, putting some real spin on it this time so that it veered into the cottonwoods. He would leave Walks-On at the mission. Even if the new pastor didn't like dogs, Elena, the housekeeper, was fond of Walks-On, no matter how much she proclaimed otherwise. "Just more work around here, which I don't need, thank you very much," she'd told him when he'd carried the dog into thepriest's residence and laid him on a rug in the corner of the kitchen. Hers was the same protest his mother had made when, as a kid in Boston, he would come home with a stray dog. He'd seen how Elena slipped the dog the best table scraps, and more than once he'd popped into the residence in the middle of the day to find her seated in a chair with her beading, Walks-On curled at her feet. She would take good care of him when he left.
When he left. The words echoed in his mind, a counterpoint to the sounds of his footsteps. He'd been at St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation now for nearly eight years, but he'd been pastor only half that time. Six years was the usual term for a Jesuit assignment. He'd hoped the provincial would date his assignment from the time he became pastor. It wasn't to be. The call had come less than an hour ago. He'd stared at the phone jangling into the quiet of his office in the administration building, a sense of foreboding sounding in his head. Finally he'd reached across the desk and lifted the receiver. "Father O'Malley," he'd said, his throat tight with dread.
"John? Good news." The familiar voice of Father William Rutherford, the Jesuit provincial. For one crazy moment he'd allowed himself to believe that he was about to get a new assistant. He needed an assistant. He'd been alone now for almost two months, ever since Father Joseph Keenan had been murdered, shot to death when he went out on an emergency call. Everywhere he looked were stacks of papers demanding his attention. Next year's budget, next semester's religious-education classes, liturgies for the Christmas season, speakers for the new parents' group. There were shut-ins and people in the hospital to visit and a never-ending round of meetings to attend: Alcoholics Anonymous, men's club, women's sodality. He was hopelessly behind.
"I've found a new pastor for St. Francis." The provincial had blurted out the news. "Kevin McBride. You know him?"
Father John had snapped a pencil in half and shot the pieces across the desk. So this was it, the news he'd been dreading for two years. He had muttered something about never having heard of the man.
"Recent doctorate in anthropology. Anxious to get some fieldwork among the indigenous peoples."
"Fieldwork?" He'd heard the sharpness in his voice. "St. Francis Mission isn't some kind of laboratory. The Arapahos need a pastor."
The line had gone quiet a moment. "Perhaps I phrased that badly. Kevin will make a fine pastor. To be perfectly honest, John, I expected you to welcome the news."
He'd drawn in a long breath, struggling to control the disappointment that flooded over him. It was as strong as the mountains, as big as the sky. He heard it in his voice when he said: "I've started a lot of things here, Bill. I'd like to finish them."
"You don't have to worry. Kevin will step right in, take up where you leave off, finish things before he starts his own programs."
"Look, Bill"—a different tack—"I'm not ready to leave St. Francis. I was counting on another couple of years."
Silence had hung on the line like an eavesdropper. Finally the provincial said, "Frankly, John, you've been on the reservation long enough. I've seen other men like you. They start feeling too much at home. Go Indian, if you will. Start thinking they are Indian. When they finally leave, they have a hard time making the transition into the outside world."
"I know who I am," Father John had said in an impatient tone. Boston Irishman, with red hair fading to gray at the temples and blue eyes, taller than most men at almost six feet four. A recovering alcoholic. A struggling priest. How could he forget?
"I didn't want to bring this up, John, but ..." The provincial hesitated, then plunged on. "I've heard the rumors."
"What rumors?" Father John's stomach muscles tightened. He knew the answer. O'Malley, stuck on an Indian reservation in the middle of Wyoming, probably drinking himself into oblivion.
He was about to say that he hadn't had a drink since he left Grace House eight years before when the voice crackled over the line: "The woman, John."
He'd been wrong. The rumors weren't about alcohol after all. They were about Vicky. The long, unrelenting lines of the moccasin telegraph had reached all the way to the provincial's office in Milwaukee.
He said, "Vicky Holden's an attorney. We work together on adoptions, DUIs, juveniles who get picked up by the police, divorces, a lot of different cases. We're friends, that's all. I hope I have a lot of friends here."
The provincial had drawn in a long breath that sounded as if he were sucking air from the receiver. "There's always the danger ..."
"She's back with her ex-husband." The explanation was sharp with anger and a sense of violation. What in heaven's name had gone out over the moccasin telegraph? "There's no danger," he added, stopping himself from saying, There's no longer any danger.
"I hope that's true," his boss had said in a tone that suggested he didn't believe it. "In any case, it's time for you to move on. You've been stuck at St. Francis long enough."
"Stuck? I don't consider myself stuck."
"You're an academic, an historian. Have you forgotten? It's time you got back to teaching and finished your doctorate. A position has opened up in the history department at Marquette University. You'll teach a couple classes in American history next semester and finish the last of your course work. Should only take another couple years to write your dissertation. Maybe you could do something on the history of the Arapahos. Make use of your experience on the reservation."
Father John pressed the cold receiver hard against his ear and stared out the window at the clouds drifting over the Wind River mountains, gray in the distance, and the sweep of the snowy plains disappearing into the fog. This was home. He loved the place; he loved the people. He couldn't imagine leaving. "Let me think about it," he'd managed.
"Think about it? There's nothing to think about. This is in your own best interests, believe me. Take a little time and get Kevin up to speed. I'll expect you in Milwaukee in two weeks."
Father John didn't remember asking when the new pastor might put in an appearance, but the provincial had volunteered the information. "Kevin should arrive any day. He's on his way." The entire conversation reverberated in his mind, like the electrical charge of a lightning storm. He'd hung up, grabbed his cowboy hat and wool jacket, and set off for a long walk. Walks-On had come loping along, disk clenched in his jaw.
Now Father John jammed his gloved hands into his jacket pockets against the cold and kicked at a stone, sending it skittering over the riverbank and pinging against the ice. The vow of obedience was the hardest to live by; he'd always known that would be the case. "How you gonna do it, lad?" His father's voice. He could still see his father at the kitchen table, shaking his head in disbelief, pouring the whiskey into a tumbler with the fine, musician's hands that spent the days adjusting the knobs of steam furnaces beneath Boston College. "An Irishman vowing to be obedient. Ha! We can't even spell the word."
"Give me the grace to obey," he prayed. "Please, Lord, the grace ..."
Suddenly he realized Walks-On hadn't returned. He walked a little way farther on the path before turning in to the cottonwoods where he'd sailed the disk. The sound of his footsteps mingled with the hush of the wind in the trees and the in and out, in and out of his own breathing. "Here, boy!" he shouted. There was no sign of the dog, but he heard a faint scratching noise. He stood still a moment, listening, then started toward the noise.
The dried bushes and undergrowth snapped under his boots as he ducked past a low-hanging branch, peering through the trees for the dog. Finally he spotted him, nose to the ground, front paws feverishly digging out a narrow trench in the earth. The red disk lay at his side. The dog had found some buried bones, he thought. Cow bones, perhaps. "Come here, boy," he called.
Walks-On kept pawing, shoulders hunched to the task. As Father John moved closer he saw something light-brown-colored partially submerged in the trench. He grabbed the dog's collar and eased him back a few feet. The dog gave a little yelp of protest. "Stay," he ordered.
He moved closer. Wild animals had been here before Walks-On, judging by the snow and soil pushed into ridges here and there. Scattered in the freshly dug trench, like hard pieces of snow, were tiny bone chips. Stooping down, he brushed away some of the loose soil. What looked like a femur began to emerge. Brushing harder now. Another bone appeared, small and gnarled, like a joint. He reached across the trench and scraped at a ridge. His fingers found something hard and round, and he pulled it free. A human skull, wisps of brown hair still clinging to the bone. His heart thumped against his ribs.
He laid the skull back in the earth and stood up, eyes fixed on the burial place. "Whoever you are," he said, "may God have mercy on your soul."
Nearby he found two dead branches, which he pushed into the ground at each end of the grave site. Then he snapped a thin branch from a tree and jammed it between the others, bending the tops together in the form of a tripod, like the skeleton of a tipi. He set the red disk on the branches. The wind would probably blow the whole thing over, he knew, but it was the best he could do.
He glanced about, trying to get his bearings. The fog was thick and icy, wrapping the trees, seeping around him and the dog and the bones. The muffled thrum of an engine sounded in the distance. Rendezvous Road was probably only a half mile away, which meant they'd come about two miles from the mission. He had to get back and call the police.
"Come on," he said, taking Walks-On by the collar again and leading him through the trees, counting the steps until they reached the river. The dog stared forlornly in the direction they had just come as Father John tied his handkerchief around a low branch. Then he started running along the path, Walks-On loping at his side and finally bursting ahead, breaking the way, as if this was some new game. For an instant the fog parted and Father John caught a glimpse of the white steeple of St. Francis church rising above the trees in the distance.
He ran on.
Posted December 9, 2008
Ancient enemies, the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes peacefully live and work together on the Wind River Reservation in the Southwest. The tribes trust Jesuit priest Father John O¿Malley. Vicky Holden of the Arapaho grew up on the reservation but left her people and her abusive spouse to become a Denver lawyer. Now she is back trying to make things work with her former husband and to regain acceptance by her people. <P> Vicky¿s friend Laura has come to the reservation seeking to finish the definitive biography on Sacjawca, a Shoshone who was a guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Charlotte Austin started the memoirs, but vanished while hiking in the mountains decades ago. Her mother wants Laura to finish the work as a memorial to her daughter. Laura turns to Touissaint to attain the memoirs, but she disappears before she can gain Laura¿s work. Vicky and John wonder if this mysterious Touissaint did something to Laura and begin an investigation to learn the truth. <P> Fans of Hillerman and the Thurlos will find this Native American mystery compelling, exciting, and informative. THE SPIRIT WOMAN is a well-drawn tale that uses the legends of the Shoshone as a backdrop to the main story line. John and Vicky are unique charcaters struggling to keep from giving in to their feelings for each other. Margaret Cole changes the direction of the series so that there is an added freshness that doesn¿t lose the essence of the Wind River mysteries. Margaret Coel provides rich detail about reservation life, assimilation into the Anglo world, and preservation of the Indian heritage inside an exhilarating plot. <P>Harriet Klausner
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Anyone who knows of someone who has been abused should read. Also an excellent insight into the life of a Native American, Sacajawea. Margaret Coel does a very good job in helping people understand the life, history, & culture of our Native Americans.
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