The Ghost Walker (Wind River Reservation Series #2)by Margaret Coel
Father John O'Malley comes across the corpse lying in a ditch beside the highway. When he returns with the police, it is gone. The Arapahos of the Wind River Reservation speak of Ghost Walkerstormented souls caught between the earth and the spirit world, who are capable of anything.
Then, within days, a young man disappears from the Reservation without a… See more details below
Father John O'Malley comes across the corpse lying in a ditch beside the highway. When he returns with the police, it is gone. The Arapahos of the Wind River Reservation speak of Ghost Walkerstormented souls caught between the earth and the spirit world, who are capable of anything.
Then, within days, a young man disappears from the Reservation without a trace. A young woman is found brutally murdered. And as Father John and Arapaho lawyer Vicky Holden investigate these crimes, someoneor somethingbegins following them.
Together, Vicky and Father John must draw upon ancient Arapaho traditions to stop a killer, explain the inexplicable, and put a ghost to rest...
Coel's inoffensive series (or series-to-be) in the Hillerman tradition finds a space where Jesuits and Native Americans can meet in a culture of common decency. The stories could benefit from a less polite tone and less attention to the minutiae of food, clothing, andin this case, coldweather.
Read an Excerpt
Snow had fallen all day, and now the open spaces of Wind River Reservation lay under deep powder. Father John Aloysius O’Malley gripped the wheel of the Toyota pickup and peered through the half-moon the wiper carved across the windshield. He tried to follow the depressions of the tire tracks running ahead, all that hinted at the boundaries of Rendezvous Road—tire tracks and an occasional scrub brush or dried stalk of goldenrod poking through the snow in the ditches. It was the second Sunday in January, the First Moon in the Arapaho Way of marking time: the Moon When the Snow Blows Like Spirits in the Wind.
A blast of frigid air filled the cab, and Father John glanced at the dashboard. The heater lever still rode on high, but the Arctic itself had begun to stream through the vents. The tiny needle on the temperature gauge danced in the red zone.
He felt the engine start to miss as he pumped the gas pedal. “Come on,” he coaxed, startled at the sound of his own voice in the vacant cold. The Toyota slid to a stop. He flipped off the headlights, still pumping the pedal. Nothing. The engine was as lifeless as a block of granite.
He was already late for the meeting, which was why he’d taken the shortcut to Lander. Rendezvous Road angled across the eastern edge of the reservation and joined Highway 789 near the southern boundary. Now he wouldn’t make the meeting at all, and how would he explain it to the bishop’s personal representative, Clifford Keating, who had driven into a Wyoming blizzard to meet with the local pastors?
Father John opened the glove compartment, fished through a stack of opera tapes, two maps, a couple of pencils, and a spiral tablet and pulled out his earmuffs. His fingers felt stiff inside his fur-lined gloves as he removed his brown cowboy hat and adjusted the earmuffs on his head. Replacing the hat, he snapped the ends of his collar together, then yanked the flashlight from beneath the seat and swung out into the storm.
Cold seeped through his parka, past his flannel shirt and blue jeans, into his skin. The wind drove the snow slantwise, pricking his face with hard pieces of ice. He squinted as he groped for the metal catch and threw open the hood. A cloud of steam rose, and he jumped back, even though the warmth had felt good. He shone the flashlight over the engine, spotting the broken radiator hose still dripping water. The coffers at St. Francis Mission had enough last month for a tune-up and new hoses or for two recapped rear tires. He had bought the tires. Bad choice.
He slammed down the hood and, pushing back the cuff of his parka, turned the flashlight onto his watch. Seven-fifteen P.M. The meeting had started. Highway 789 lay a mile ahead. He might be able to catch a ride there to Jake Littlehorse’s garage, another two miles west. It was hard to imagine any other fools out tonight, except for priests summoned by the bishop’s delegate.
Swearing under his breath for not carrying a roll of duct tape and a jug of antifreeze, he pushed the flashlight into the pocket of his parka and struck out for the highway, snow crunching under his boots. He guessed the temperature to be at twenty below with the wind-chill factor. His feet were beginning to feel like ingots. Wyoming blizzards had it all over the storms he had known in Boston. You could freeze to death here.
He had probably come half a mile, but there was no sign of the highway. What was there to see? One white road flowing into another. Just ahead, it looked as if the snow had been churned by a tractor, with tire tracks crisscrossing one another. Somebody had started down Rendezvous Road and turned back. Smart, thought Father John. Whoever it was had probably decided to head home to a warm fire.
As he got closer, he could distinguish the tracks of two vehicles. He couldn’t have missed them by more than ten or fifteen minutes judging by the deep, wave-like marks. They made a wide turn across the road and stopped at a dark, smudged area next to the ditch. Father John angled toward it. He saw the boot prints, the trampled slope of the ditch, the broken scrub brush. Four or five feet below the road lay a dark object, a log. Only logs didn’t wear boots. The wind bore through Father John’s parka, sending shivers along his spine.
He started down, his boots sliding in the snow. One boot hit something flat and sharp—a boulder—and he drove his foot against it, steadying himself while he extracted the flashlight. It flickered a moment, then went out. He pounded the plastic tube into his glove until a narrow, eerie beam burst over the loglike figure: the boots, the patterns in the black soles, the tops of gray socks. The figure was wrapped in a brown tarp, but hanging from the side was a strip of blue fabric with white stars and red and yellow stripes: the Arapaho star quilt. He recognized the stillness of death. He was looking at a corpse. “Dear God,” he prayed out loud, “have mercy on his soul.”
Jamming the flashlight back into his pocket, Father John climbed to the road and started for the highway. He was running now, gulping in icy air that punctured his lungs like a thousand sharp needles. He sensed he had passed from cold to numbness, the beginning of hypothermia, but his thoughts were focused on the poor dead soul wrapped in a star quilt and tarp and thrown into a ditch. “God help him,” he prayed silently over and over, the words matching the rhythm of his boots against the snow.
He ran past the stop sign and turned west on the highway. There were no headlights, no signs of life, nothing but the blowing snow and the white earth slipping into the gray sky. Strips of icy asphalt crept through the snow in places. He felt his boots slipping. He nearly fell. Catching himself, he slowed to a walk, breathing hard, clapping his gloves together for warmth.
Just before he heard the motor, faint in the distance, he sensed the slight tremble in the highway and swung around. White pinpricks of light glowed in the darkness. He started running back along his own boot prints. As he ran, he pulled the flashlight from his pocket and waved it back and forth before realizing it wasn’t working.
Jiggling the switch, he ran on. The flashlight sprang to life as he came into the far reaches of the headlights. He circled the plastic tube in front, shouting, “Stop, stop!” With a kind of shock, he realized the truck was not stopping. He jumped out of the way.
A gray Chevy pickup lumbered by, its wheels throwing clods of snow over him. He hollered after it, scarcely believing anybody would pass a man in a blizzard. Then suddenly the brake lights came on, and the pickup ground to a stop. Father John ran after it and grabbed the tailgate. Half expecting the driver to take off, he lunged around the side for the door handle and hoisted himself onto the passenger seat as the truck started moving.
“Thanks,” he managed through clenched teeth, swallowing the swear words he usually forgot he knew.
In the dim light of the dashboard, the driver looked to be in his twenties. The beginning stubble of a blond beard covered his chin and he wore a dark cap with ear flaps pulled down. He sat square-shouldered behind the wheel. “Didn’t see ya,” he said. “No car anywhere.”
Pounding his gloves together to work the circulation back into his fingers, Father John said, “I broke down on Rendezvous Road.” It was an effort to keep his tone civil. “I’d appreciate a ride to Jake Littlehorse’s place.” Then he added, “I’m Father John O’Malley, pastor at St. Francis Mission. You from around here?”
He knew the answer. Nobody from around here would think of leaving another human being out in a blizzard in subzero temperatures. Not unless he wanted the person dead.
“Yeah. From around here,” the driver said.
Father John wondered why his companion was lying; what difference did it make? He shrugged it off. The cab was warm; the heat rising around his legs made his skin tingle; he was grateful for the ride. You didn’t have to like the guy who gave you the ride.
He turned his eyes on the frozen landscape sliding by his window. The snow seemed lighter, gentler, like cotton billowing downward. Less than an hour ago, he’d been driving down Rendezvous Road, late for a meeting called by the bishop. The meeting was probably half over by now, and he could imagine the excuses Father George and Father Edward and the other priests from Lander and Riverton had laid out for him. “Always late. Probably forgot. You know the Jesuits.” And they’d all have a good laugh, except for Clifford Keating, who wouldn’t be laughing. Jesuits. They were always trouble.
“So you broke down on Rendezvous Road?”
The question startled Father John. His new companion hadn’t seemed very talkative, which was fine with him. He was in no mood himself for a friendly chat. He decided to keep the conversation light. No mention of the body in the ditch. He drew in a long breath before explaining he’d been on his way to a meeting when his pickup had popped a radiator hose. He’d walked to the highway to catch a ride.
The driver was quiet, and after a moment Father John said, “Jake Littlehorse’s is just around the curve up ahead.”
If the man were a local, Father John thought, he wouldn’t have to be told. The truck banked around the curve, turned into a snow-crusted driveway, and stopped in front of two squat frame buildings nestled among some cottonwoods. The buildings were dark. The headlights illuminated the black letters on the plate glass of one: JAKE’S GARAGE. Father John knew Jake lived in a couple of rooms tacked onto the back. He could be there. “Mind hanging around a minute?” he asked, stepping out.
The driver reached across the seat and grabbed the door handle. As the door slammed shut, the truck started backing up, its wheels grinding through the snow. Metal screeched against metal as the gears shifted. Then the truck took off down the highway.
Father John watched the red glow of the taillights a moment before hunching his shoulders against the cold and starting down the driveway, kicking up little clouds of just-fallen snow. It swirled around his blue jeans, sifted down into his boots. In the back, the driveway widened into a kind of court. At the edge of the court stood an old truck chassis and a pile of hoods and doors and wheels, half covered with snow. Calling Jake’s name, he banged on the back door. No answer. The tow truck wasn’t around. The garage man could be out on an emergency.
Father John made his way back along the driveway, cold slipping over him like a sheet of ice. The nearest ranch house was at least a mile farther. On an impulse, he veered toward the front door and pounded into the silence. Then he grasped the metal knob. To his surprise, it turned in his glove. The door swung open, its hinges shrieking like owls in the night. A wave of warmth tinged with the faint odor of grease hit him as he stepped inside. He closed the door and leaned against it. He wasn’t going to end up like that poor, frozen corpse in the ditch.
He knocked the flashlight into his glove until the bulb spurted enough light to make out Jake’s office: the glass-topped counter with a cash register and phone on top, a couple of hubcaps and a calendar on the wall behind, and a metal chair next to the door that led to Jake’s living quarters. He set the flashlight on the counter, pulled off his gloves, hat, and earmuffs, and scooted the phone into the beam of light.
He had just begun dialing 911 when he felt a hard object shoved against his parka into the small of his back. There was the sound of a rifle being cocked, then a male voice: “You move, and I’ll blow you to kingdom come.”
Jake Littlehorse was a nervous man.
Father John could hear the Arapaho gulping in air as he jammed the rifle harder against Father John’s back. The buzzing noise in the phone seemed a long way off. One wrong move, and he wouldn’t hear the noise that followed.
In a steady voice, he said, “Jake, it’s me. Father John.”
The pressure lifted from his back. “Jesus, Father.” Jake’s voice quivered. “You tryin’ to get yourself killed? How’d you get in here, anyways?”
Father John turned around, catching the glint of the flashlight off the blue-gray rifle barrel. Slowly he replaced the receiver as Jake, still pointing the gun, backed to the wall and flipped a switch. White fluorescent light flooded the small office, which had gone hot and stuffy. Father John yanked open the front of his parka, keeping his eyes on the Indian, who leaned the rifle into the corner. He looked half asleep, black hair sprouting upward like a feathered headdress, eyes narrow slits in a fleshy brown face. He had on a rumpled green sweatshirt and blue jeans that hung below a cliff of stomach flesh. His stockinged feet were planted wide apart on the linoleum floor.
Father John said, “I thought you’d been called out. The tow truck’s not around. The front door was unlocked, so I came in.”
“Truck’s in the garage,” Jake said, nodding sideways. “Guess I might’ve dozed off watchin’ TV. I thought I’d locked up and you was some burglar. I got lots of valuable things here them Indians are always after.” A whine seeped into his voice.
“The Toyota popped a radiator hose on Rendezvous Road,” Father John said.
“Hell, how come you didn’t say so?” Jake raised his head and squared his shoulders, a man about to enter familiar territory. “Hang on ’til I get my boots and coat.”
The Arapaho disappeared through the door as quietly as he’d come in, and Father John grabbed the phone and dialed 911. He counted four rings before the operator’s voice sounded. After giving his name, he explained he’d spotted a body in the ditch along Rendezvous Road about a half mile north of Highway 789.
“Hang on,” said the operator. After a minute she was back. A patrol car and ambulance were on the way.
Father John knew the body would be hard to spot. If it hadn’t been for the tracks and boot prints, he would have missed it. By morning it would have been buried in snow. It might have stayed hidden until spring. He told the operator he was at Jake Littlehorse’s place, but would meet the police on Rendezvous Road.
As he replaced the receiver, he sensed a presence in the room and whirled around. Jake stood so close, Father John wondered he hadn’t felt the Indian’s breath on his neck. He had silently entered the office a second time, like a warrior stalking the buffalo.
“You didn’t say nothin’ about no body.” The Arapaho’s brown eyes widened into a stare. He kept his arms close to his sides, looking as frozen and stiff as the poor soul in the ditch.
Father John explained he’d seen what he thought was a body. It was up to the police to investigate.
“I ain’t goin’ out there.” Jake shook his head. “I ain’t goin’ nowheres near. The ghost’s gonna be walkin’ around.”
Father John felt a flush of impatience. “A few minutes ago you were about to blow me into kingdom come. Then my ghost would’ve been walking around here. Did you think about that?”
“You been a burglar, I might’ve pulled the trigger,” Jake said. “I wouldn’t’ve liked it none.” Stepping behind the counter, he stooped over and began shuffling through cardboard boxes on the floor. After a minute he hoisted a roll of duct tape onto the counter, then swung a gallon of antifreeze next to the tape. Pulling himself upright, he said, “You can patch that hose good enough to get the pickup over here. I’ll fix it tomorrow.”
Father John saw the resolve in the Indian’s eyes. No appeal to reason or common sense would change his mind. Arapahos believed in signs and wonders, in the mysterious and unseen. How could he argue? He believed in them, too. He picked up the receiver and again dialed 911. “Father O’Malley here,” he said. “I’m going to need a ride to Rendezvous Road.”
“Hang on.” The operator’s voice registered no surprise, as if she’d expected the call. No Arapaho wanted to go near an abandoned corpse—a corpse that hadn’t been properly blessed, whose ghost hadn’t been shown the path to the sky world. Without the traditional blessing, the ghost was left to its own devices, stumbling around the earth, lost and terrified, trying to find the land of the ancestors on its own. The Indians on the Bureau of Indian Affairs police force had to take their chances. That was their job, but it wasn’t Jake Littlehorse’s job.
The operator said, “Chief Banner’s going south on 789. He’ll stop for you.”
Father John hung up and pushed the phone back. Nodding toward the duct tape and antifreeze, he said, “What do I owe you?”
“Seven-fifty. You can pay me tomorrow after I fix the radiator.”
By the time Father John had snapped up his parka and pulled on the rest of his winter gear, yellow headlights flashed through the plate-glass window. Scooping up the antifreeze and duct tape, he let himself out.
He got into the white patrol car with the gold BIA insignia emblazoned on the side and settled the duct tape and plastic bottle of antifreeze on the floor next to his boots. Art Banner sat straight-backed in his bulky, dark-blue uniform parka, the beak of his cap tipped over his forehead, gloved hands curled on the rim of the wheel. The rear wheels skidded sideways as the patrol car backed out of the driveway and lurched forward. Snow billowed across the highway ahead.
“Dispatcher says you found a body on Rendezvous Road.” The chief’s tone was relaxed, as if bodies routinely turned up in ditches on Wind River Reservation.
Father John launched into the story, stressing the fact that the body couldn’t have been there long because the snow barely covered the tracks and boot prints.
“Man or woman?”
Father John was quiet, aware of the warm air floating out of the heater, holding the cold at bay. He had assumed it was a man, but it could have been a woman. Women wore heavy hiking boots. He said, “I’m not sure.”
“Crummy way to end up. Dumped in a ditch on a miserable night. Makes you wonder what the hell went wrong.”
Father John sensed something else was on the chief’s mind. When Father John first came to Wind River Reservation almost seven years ago, Banner was a patrolman along with other Indians—Arapaho, Shoshone, Lakota, Crow, Pawnee—on the BIA police force. A couple of years ago he’d made chief. Father John had never seen him lose his cool, not from the broken bodies he’d pulled out of car wrecks, the drunken brawls he’d waded into, or the battered women and children he’d carried into emergency rooms. There were times in emergency rooms when Father John had had to step into the corridor to get his own anger under control. But not Banner. He was always up to the job.
“Yeah. Yeah.” The chief shrugged. “Tell you what, John, you’re lucky you don’t have kids.”
“You think so?” Father John couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have tall sons, beautiful daughters. It wasn’t something he thought much about. He’d chosen a different path. But Banner and Helen had four grown children, three daughters and a son.
The chief laughed. “Don’t try that old psychology trick on me. I’m wise to the way you guys toss everything back like a baseball. Besides, you aren’t even a psychologist. You used to be a history professor, right? Before the Jesuits exiled you here?”
“A high school history teacher,” Father John reminded the chief, probably for the twentieth time. Banner persisted in believing he’d once held some exalted university position. Was it so obvious that’s what he had wanted? To teach American history at one of the Jesuit universities? He had been on the fast track for such a position, would hold it now if it hadn’t been for what he thought of as “the great fall”—the ten-year love affair he’d conducted with alcohol.
The patrol car turned across the snow-drifted highway onto Rendezvous Road. “Kids can worry you into an early grave,” Banner said. “And turn your hair gray and keep you awake nights while they do it.”
Father John stared at his friend. “What’s going on?”
“Patrick.” The chief sighed. “The girls, they’re doin’ okay. Their mother keeps up with them. But Patrick—well, he just got out of the army and needs a job. Problem is, he’s a warrior now, and no job’s good enough. Nothin’ suits his dignity.”
“What’s he looking at?”
“Lookin’! Even that don’t suit his dignity. Only thing he’s lookin’ at is soap operas.” Banner stopped the police car behind an ambulance and another police car lined up at the edge of the road. Lights fastened on the other car’s roof whirled like a kaleidoscope against the darkness: red-black, red-black. Two medics stomped up and down beside the ambulance, moving in and out of the light, rubbing their gloves together.
Banner threw open his door, and cold air blasted through the car. Before the chief could swing out, Father John grabbed his arm. “If you think it might help, I’d be glad to talk to him.”
The chief nodded slowly. “Yeah. I was gonna ask you. Maybe you can light a fire under that warrior.”
Just then a young policeman opened the passenger door and bent down. “You want to show us where you found the body, Father?”
Father John lifted himself out into the blowing snow and walked between the police car and the ambulance to the side of the road, his eyes searching for the boot prints, the smudged area. Banner and the policeman fell in beside him, their boots scuffing the snow. Their breath floated in little clouds. Another BIA policeman came toward them, shining a flashlight along the ditch.
“There,” Father John said, spotting the packed, smudged area. “I hope I didn’t disturb any evidence.”
“Only need evidence for a crime,” said the policeman with the flashlight.
“Dumping a body is crime enough.” This from the chief.
Father John fixed his eyes on the policeman. “What are you getting at?”
“If there’s a body out here, we can’t find it.” He waved the flashlight across the ditch.
Father John moved close to the edge. The snow in the ditch looked even more trampled, but where the body had been was only a smooth indentation, like a narrow cot.
“This the place?” Banner asked.
“It was a body, Banner,” Father John said, irritated. “Somebody’s taken it.”
Banner turned toward the other men. “Check the ditch on both sides, in case the body got thrown somewhere else around here.”
Father John was lost in his own thoughts. There was one man who might have guessed he’d found a body on Rendezvous Road that wasn’t meant to be found. As he and Banner walked back to the police car, Father John said, “You might want to talk to a blond guy, early twenties, new to these parts, driving a gray Chevy pickup.”
The body preyed on his mind all night. Father John managed to snatch only a few intervals of sleep before getting up at about five. He alternated saying daily Mass with Father Peter Roach, the seventy-two-year-old Jesuit the Provincial had called from retirement six months ago to help out at St. Francis. This morning was Father John’s turn. He showered, dressed, and headed down the dark stairs. He flipped on the little light over the stove, which turned the kitchen into a blur of shadows.
After brewing a pot of strong coffee, he poured some into a mug and sat down at the round wood table, going over last night’s events again in his mind. Everything about the body was unknown: the name, the face, the terrible fate that had brought it to the ditch, the disappearance. There were no explanations, only questions.
A couple of times the three-legged golden retriever he’d acquired last fall—or who had acquired him, as Father Peter insisted—struggled off the rug in the corner and shoved a cold nose into his hand, then flopped back down and resumed snoring. Father John had named the dog Walks-on-Three-Legs. Walks-on, for short. He felt a kinship with this animal who had also arrived at St. Francis Mission not quite whole.
At about six-thirty, he let Walks-on go out for a few minutes while he filled the dog’s bowl with canned meat and rock-hard chow. The quiet of the house was broken by the sounds of the dog slurping and chomping his breakfast as Father John shrugged into his parka and pulled on his gloves. Setting his cowboy hat low on his head, he let himself out the front door and plunged into the frigid morning.
The buildings of St. Francis Mission rose out of the snow around Circle Drive like a miniature village under a Christmas tree: the white stucco church, its bell tower floating among the ice-crusted Cottonwood branches; the stone administration building where his and Father Peter’s offices were; the cement-block Eagle Hall, half gym, half meeting rooms; the one-room guest house; the old school—the mission’s first building. He’d once suggested demolishing it, but the elders had raised such an outcry he’d ended up apologizing for the suggestion. St. Francis was like the reservation itself: What was here belonged here. It was a sacred space, enclosed by four sacred spaces: the Wind River, the Little Wind River, the mountains, and the sky.
On the far side of Circle Drive stood the new elementary school with a white stucco entry in the shape of a tipi. Behind the school lay the baseball field where, his first summer here, he had marked off the baseball diamond, carefully measuring ninety feet between the bases, and had started the St. Francis Eagles. The kids needed something to do in the summer, he had told himself, but he knew he needed a baseball team to coach.
The first daylight glowed in the east, spreading fingers of pink and orange and magenta across the silver sky. Last night’s snowstorm had passed over, leaving the sky clear and luminescent, a field of blinking stars. In the north wasNahax, the morning star, always the last to rise. Father John had the sense that St. Francis was gripped in the same winter stillness that had lain over Arapaho camps on the plains in the Old Time.
The stillness of the plains had been the first thing he had noticed when he came here, after an eight-month stint in Grace House. The silence had seemed loud then; he sometimes thought he could hear it. Yet it was unlike the noise of Boston where he’d grown up. As a kid, making his rounds alone in the early morning, tossing the Globe onto the little stoops of the red-brick buildings that lined the streets of his neighborhood, he had been engulfed in noise—dogs barking, engines roaring, tires squealing, a baby crying. Noise had seemed natural then, but it was silence that was natural. It was only in silence, the Arapahos believed, that you could hear the Divine drawing near.
He began the Mass as daylight stole through the side windows of the church and played across the faces of the old people at prayer. The old faithfuls, he called them. The elders and grandmothers who climbed into pickups every day, no matter the temperature, and drove thirty or forty miles across the reservation to Mass. John and Mary Red Deer were here, and old Donald Lightheart in his usual place in the first pew, and Eddie Walsh, rosary beads twisted through gnarled fingers, and five or six others.
This was their church, the Arapahos’. They had built it and painted the walls with sacred symbols: the lines and circles that symbolized the journey of life. Above the front door they had painted the figure of the crucified Christ, the staked warrior, like the warriors in the Old Time who had staked themselves to the ground so that enemies might vent their anger upon them while the people escaped. On the wall next to the altar, they had painted a yellow daffodil, so that a flower might always grace the altar, even in winter. Father John knew the Arapahos considered the Mass only one of the many ways to worship the Great Mystery, the Shining Man Above. There couldn’t be too many. He offered Mass for the body in the ditch.
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