In the midst of a blizzard, Myra and Eldon Little Shield found an abandoned baby on their doorstep and brought her inside. Five years later, no one has come back to claim the little girl now known as Mary Anne Little Shield. But now that she’s old enough to start school, her foster parents fear social services will take her—a white child—away from them.
Determined to adopt Mary Anne, the Little Shields hire lawyer Clint Hopkins, who wants Vicky as cocounsel on the case. But before their meeting can take place, a black truck deliberately runs Hopkins down in the street.
Enlisting Father John to help investigate who would kill to stop the child’s adoption, Vicky unravels a connection between the five-year-old girl and a missing alcoholic Arapaho wanted for robbery—only to uncover one of the darkest secrets in Wind River’s history…
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Margaret Coel
Snow had fallen all day, dense cotton fluff that cocooned the brick bungalow in a white world and obscured the small sign: Vicky Holden, Attorney at Law. Now the snow dissolved into a white dusk as Vicky drove through the side streets of Lander, tires thumping over ruts and ridges. The heater kicked into gear, and warm air streamed into the frosty cold that gripped the Ford. She hunched over the steering wheel. She was late.
The monthly meeting of the Fremont County Bar Association would probably end early. Always a speaker, followed by a little socializing, catching up, exchanging gossip, which she suspected was the real purpose of the meetings; but with the blizzard, everyone would be eager to head home.
The call with Jim Peters, Fremont County and Prosecuting Attorney, had lasted longer than she’d anticipated. She had almost given up hope of convincing him to allow her to turn over her client, Vince White Hawk, to the sheriff at a prearranged time tomorrow. Six o’clock, say. Earlier, Peters had said. Vince could take it into his head to disappear. She hadn’t argued, just kept insisting. The last thing she wanted was the police at his mother’s house, a SWAT team swarming the place. Vince would panic and pull out whatever weapons he had stashed away. Somebody would be shot, probably Vince, and maybe an innocent bystander. And for what? Attempted robbery at an ATM? Granted, the woman Vince had threatened—he had not had a weapon on him, she had pointed out, and Vince claimed he was only panhandling—had been scared, thrown her purse at him, and bolted for her car. Not so scared that she hadn’t managed to get Vince’s license number as he tore out of the parking lot. Now he faced a felony charge.
“Come on,” Vicky had pleaded. “You have my word Vince will turn himself in tomorrow afternoon.” In return, Peters would recommend to the court that Vince be released on bond and sent to rehab. Vince White Hawk needed rehab.
Finally, a long, weary sigh had come over the line and the prosecutor had agreed. But—always a warning—if she failed to deliver, every cop in the county and on the reservation would be on Vince’s trail. A hollow feeling had invaded her chest as she hung up. She had to find Vince and convince him.
She had called Betty White Hawk, Vince’s mother. Yes, he was there, Betty said. Sleeping it off. The woman sounded beaten down, as if the weight of worrying about her son had pushed her into the ground.
“Tell him I’ve worked out an arrangement for him to turn himself in. He’ll be free on bond and sent to rehab. It’s his chance.” She tried to disguise any hint of her own worry that Vince would run. “I’ll pick him up tomorrow afternoon.”
Now Vicky pulled a slow turn onto Main Street, wishing she hadn’t promised Clint Hopkins she’d attend the meeting when he called this afternoon. Clint had a one-man practice in Riverton devoted to family law, DUIs, and minor assaults, similar to her own practice, but Clint specialized in adoptions. If you had a difficult adoption case in Fremont County, Clint was the attorney. She had consulted with him herself on a couple of cases. It had surprised her that he wanted her to join him as cocounsel on a case. A complicated case, he’d said, involving an Arapaho couple on the rez.
“Complicated? Most adoptions on the rez tend to be pretty straightforward,” she had told him. It wasn’t unusual for grandparents, aunts, or uncles to step in and raise children abandoned by alcoholic or drug-addled parents. His request had caused her to draw in her breath, press the receiver against her ear, and concentrate hard.
“Nothing’s straightforward about this case,” Clint had said, a tight, anxious note in his voice. He hadn’t wanted to discuss it on the phone, and they had made an appointment for ten o’clock in the morning. But he wanted her to have his notes before then. He would bring them to the meeting tonight. She would be there, wouldn’t she? The whole conversation, with its sense of urgency and secrecy, had left her unsettled.
The vehicles in the parking lot that bordered the Sagebrush Motel and Restaurant looked as if a giant crane had dropped them at random angles. She circled twice before she slid to a stop and waited for a sedan with red beams of light sweeping over the snow to back out. She turned into the vacated space and, wrapping her scarf about her head and clutching her coat, made her way past the parked vehicles to the sidewalk. A narrow path had been cleared, leaving a sheaf of ice littered with blue deicing crystals that popped under her boots. Through the fogged plate glass window, she saw people milling about with bottles of beer and glasses of wine. Her breath floated ahead in the cold air.
Vicky let herself through the heavy front door into the aroma of beer, coffee, and grilled meat that drifted across the restaurant. People moved from group to group, mired in the buzz of conversation and the crack of laughter. No one looked familiar, and yet everyone looked familiar—faces she had seen in court, chatted with at other meetings, nodded to on the street. Other lawyers practicing in Lander or Riverton or in one of the other small towns flung about the county. But not friends, merely acquaintances moving around the same track she was on. She ducked into the coatroom on the right, hung her coat and scarf among the piles of coats already occupying the hooks, and went back into the reception. Nodding and smiling, she worked her way to the table propped under the window and was about to pour herself a glass of sparkling water.
“Allow me.” A tall man materialized beside her and took the bottle. He wore a navy blue blazer over a white shirt opened at the collar and blue jeans. A silver watchband studded with turquoise flashed beneath his cuff as he twisted off the cap and filled the glass almost to the brim.
“You must be the bartender,” she said.
“Nowhere near as important, I’m afraid.” He was smiling as he handed her the glass. “Rick Masterson. I would remember if I had seen you in the audience.”
“My apologies for coming late.” She recognized the name. Rick Masterson, this evening’s speaker. A lawyer from Cheyenne, known across Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and Colorado for teaching other lawyers how to seat the most sympathetic juries for whatever case they were trying. “Rules for Reading Jurors” was the title of the speech on the flyer the bar association had e-mailed about the program. He was holding out his hand, and she slipped her hand into his. “I’m Vicky—”
“Holden, Arapaho lawyer. You practice in Lander.”
“You know every lawyer in the state?”
“Pretty much in the Rocky Mountain region. It’s my job.” He was still smiling. “Hang on a moment,” he said, backing away. Then he turned and plunged into the crowd.
Vicky sipped at the water and headed into the crowd herself, searching the faces for Clint Hopkins. A few people brushed past on their way toward the coats. The reception was starting to break up. Finally, she spotted the sandy-haired man with the quarter-sized circle of freckled scalp on the crown of his head seated at a table, bent in conversation with two other men. She veered diagonally in his direction.
Clint glanced around, then jumped to his feet with surprising agility for a man in his fifties with the stiff, bowlegged look of a rodeo rider. He had a slim build with narrow shoulders and a long, sun-blotched neck that stretched out of the collar of his plaid shirt. A bolo tie hung down the front. He looked more like a rancher than a lawyer. The weather lines at the edges of his eyes crinkled as he grasped her hand between both of his. “I had about given up.”
She found herself apologizing: A conference call that ran late. His hands were rough and strong.
“You’re here now.” Clint released her and gave a little wave. The vertical worry line between his eyes set him apart from the other lawyers standing about, drinking beer, tossing their heads back in laughter. He lifted a briefcase from the floor and guided her to a corner near the doorway to the motel reception area. She could feel the slight tremble in the hand he placed on her back.
“We can talk over here.” He threw a dismissive glance at the crowded room. “I appreciate your willingness to cocounsel,” he said, slipping an envelope from inside the briefcase. He held the envelope close for a moment, as if he were reconsidering, then handed it to her.
“I can’t make any promises until I know what the case is about.” Vicky let her glance run around the room. “This place is filled with lawyers who have handled adoptions. It makes me wonder why you called me.”
“This isn’t about family members adopting a child whose parents can’t raise her.” He leaned in close and lowered his voice. “This is about an Arapaho couple and a white child.”
Vicky sank against the wall, aware of the roughened plaster snagging her spine. White people wanting to adopt an Arapaho child from the Wind River Reservation—that she understood. A tribal matter. Only if tribal officials allowed the adoption would it proceed. Lawyers for the white people always portrayed them as good—saintly, even—God-fearing folks who would give the Arapaho child every advantage. One day the child would come to forget she was Arapaho, that she had ever been part of something bigger and richer than all the advantages. Or she would begin to wonder who she was, where she had come from, where she belonged.
Clint looked down at the envelope Vicky held in her hand. “Myra and Eldon Little Shield in Ethete. I assume you know them.”
Vicky shook her head. Close to twelve thousand people lived on the reservation, nine thousand of them Arapaho. The rest Shoshone. She couldn’t know all of them, but outsiders labored under the belief that every Arapaho knew every other Arapaho in the world.
Names were another matter. Names had history; names came trailing their own stories. Shadowed and contoured by people from the past: the old chiefs, the warriors, the medicine men. People had something to live up to, to aspire to, in names. Something glorious and admirable and never forgotten, passed down in stories of the Old Time. She had heard so many stories while sitting cross-legged around the fire in Grandfather’s tipi when she was growing up—the tipi was where stories were passed down, not in the small frame house where her grandparents lived—that the people from the Old Time seemed real to her, as if they still walked the earth and might, at any moment, drop in for a visit. Their names were recognizable. If she had run into a couple named Little Shield in New York City, she would know they were Arapaho.
“Little Shield signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie.” She lost him with that. She could tell by the distant look in his eyes, as if a snow cloud had passed between them. She pushed on: “An important treaty that made it possible for the people to come to the Wind River Reservation. He was much admired for his foresight.”
“You’re saying you don’t know Eldon Little Shield or his wife.”
Vicky shook her head. The crowd was dissipating. Every now and then a blast of cold air funneled into the room as the front door opened. The men Clint had been talking with at the table had left. She had the sense that they were alone, off in the corner.
Clint shifted his gaze to the envelope. “Read the notes. I’ll fill you in on the rest tomorrow. I’ve been dealing with this case exclusively for a couple of weeks. Nothing about it is routine, and I worry about the consequences of pursuing the adoption.” He looked up, eyes shining with the anxiety she had sensed during their phone conversation.
“You’ll understand.” He scanned the room. “Looks like the meeting’s over. Come on. I’ll walk you to your car.”
Vicky slid the envelope into her bag as they crossed to the coatroom, where a few coats still clung to the hooks. Clint helped her with hers, then pulled on a dark, bulky jacket while she searched for her scarf. She found it draped under another coat, and she headed toward the entrance, Clint’s boots clacking behind her. Through the window, the night was filled with snow.
She was aware of the pressure of Clint’s hand on the small of her back, the briefcase swinging in his other hand. Great billowing flakes floated against the black sky and blanketed the trucks and cars in the parking lot. “I’m parked across the street,” Clint said. “Where’s your car?”
“Vicky!” A man shouted behind them just as she was about to gesture toward the Ford. They stopped in unison, she and Clint, and looked back. Coming through the front door and slamming it behind him was a man in a dark cowboy hat and a sheepskin jacket with the collar pulled up around his ears. She blinked against the snow that splashed her cheeks and eyes. The man started toward them, and through the glow of light in the window she saw that it was Rick Masterson. He held out a package.
She turned to Clint. “Go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He divided his glance between her and the man hurrying through the snow and nodded. Wiping a gloved hand across his face, he turned, stepped off the curb between the dark hulks of parked vehicles and started across the street.
Vicky looked back at Rick Masterson. The package in his hand was the size of a book. “When I got back to give you this, you’d been whisked off into a corner by a very intent Clint Hopkins. I didn’t like to interrupt, but I did want to give you this.” He held out the brown package, an offering.
Vicky peeled back the bag far enough to read the top line of the title: Rules for Reading Jurors. “Thank you.” She dusted off flakes of snow and folded the bag back into place. “I’m sure I’ll be able to use it.”
“Anytime you’d like to get together and talk about . . .” He stopped, lifted his face into the snow a moment as if a miraculous event were taking place around them. “I’d like to see you again. Dinner, lunch, whatever time you might have. I’m in the area consulting for a few days. How about it? You’re not involved with anyone at the moment, are you?”
In the way he said it, the way he tilted his head and stared at her, daring her to disagree, she knew he had done his homework. Check out the background on the juror would be the first rule in the book.
She gave a little laugh, a brittle sound in the cold, like the spark of a match. “You don’t leave anything to chance.”
“Not if you want to win the case.”
An engine roared behind them, like the sound of a diesel locomotive speeding down track. Vicky swung around, clutching the brown package against her chest. A truck was racing down the street, yellow headlights jumping through the haze of snow. In a blink, as if she had snapped a photo, she took in the entire scene: Clint Hopkins halfway across the street, a dark figure in the falling snow, briefcase in one gloved hand, silhouetted against the white night. The truck bore down, headlights jumping.
“Clint! Look out!” She was running into the street, the sound of her own voice enveloping her, cutting through the roar of the truck. “Clint! Clint!”
She was barely aware of Rick Masterson sprinting ahead, shouting around her. “Clint! Look out!” And the truck still coming, Clint frozen in place, stopped in time by the all-enveloping sound and the sheer incomprehensibility of it. Then he was flying over the hood, bouncing sideways, dropping onto the street like a limp bag of trash as the black truck sped past.
Vicky threw herself toward the dark, motionless figure, the bulky jacket pulled halfway off his shoulders, the plaid shirt ripped open. She was barely aware of Rick Masterson kneeling across from her. “Oh my God,” she heard herself saying. “Oh my God.”
Other people appeared from nowhere. Out of the parking lot and the restaurant. Out of the darkened shops up and down the street. Someone shouted: “Did you see that? Ran him down like a dog.”
Vicky was fumbling in her bag for her phone when she realized that Rick had his phone out. He shouted: “Ambulance on the way. Don’t move him.”
Something had changed, and she realized Rick had taken off his sheepskin coat and laid it over Clint. She set the tips of her fingers against Clint’s neck. “I can’t find a pulse.” She sank back onto her heels. “Oh God. There is no pulse.”
The police cars and ambulance screamed in the distance, a wall of sound and a haze of blue and red lights coming through the snow. Clint was staring up at the sky, eyes wide in surprise, and Vicky reached over and closed his eyelids, the way Grandmother had closed the lids of her grandfather lying inert on the narrow bed, a view of the tipi out in the yard framed in the window. Closed his lids, a sign that he had seen enough. There was nothing more to see.
She felt the pressure of Rick’s hand on her arm, helping her to her feet, steadying her and walking her across the street. “Was he a friend of yours?” he asked. When she didn’t reply, he filled in the answer. “I’m sorry.”
They stood at the curb and watched the vehicles pull up: three or four more police cars, a coroner’s van, a couple SUVs. A growing crowd of officers in bulky blue jackets and plastic bags over their caps, others in parkas with knit caps pulled around their faces. Several officers had fanned out among the spectators, asking questions, jotting down notes on small pads they tried to shelter from the snow.
An officer stopped in front of them. “I saw it happen,” Vicky told him before he’d asked. “The truck was waiting down the street. As soon as Clint started to cross, it pulled out and sped toward him.”
“Did you get the license?”
“The license?” She heard the brittle sound of disbelief in her voice “It happened so fast. Clint was thrown over the cab. I ran toward him.”
“You know the victim?”
“Clint Hopkins. A lawyer from Riverton.”
“And you are?”
“Vicky Holden. I practice law here in Lander. We were at a meeting of the county bar association.”
“You’re saying the driver of the truck deliberately struck the victim?”
“It was deliberate.”
The officer filled the small page in his notebook, turned to the next page and smoothed away the flakes of snow. He fixed his eyes on Rick. “You?”
Rick gave his name and said he had just come out of the restaurant and stopped to talk to Ms. Holden when the accident occurred.
“So you believe it was an accident?”
Vicky felt as if the world had ground to a stop. But it wasn’t the world that had stopped, she realized; it was she who had speeded up, shot forward on adrenaline. Is that what the other witnesses were telling the police? An accident? Had no one else seen what she’d seen? Not even the man who had been standing next to her?
She rounded on him. “Clint was murdered.”
“The driver didn’t see him in the snow.”
“The truck came after him,” she insisted. “It must have been waiting for him.”
“Let the police figure it out, Vicky.”
The officer spent another moment writing in the notebook, then started toward the bystanders a couple yards away.
Vicky felt Rick’s arms around her, pulling her against the sheepskin coat that had covered Clint as he died, but the cold had already infiltrated her, turned her to ice. She realized she was crying, the tears like needles pricking her cheeks. Was she the only one who had witnessed a murder?
She wasn’t sure how she had managed to drive home through the whiteout that had descended over Lander, tires bouncing through the snow, the radio blaring: Accident alert! Don’t go out if you don’t have to. And always moving ahead in the snow, the image of the dark figure in the middle of the street, the truck bearing down.
Inside the apartment, she dropped her bag on the counter that divided the small kitchen from the dining room and headed down the hall to the bedroom. She couldn’t stop shivering. She stripped off her clothes and stood in the shower a long time before the shivering finally gave way to an occasional muscle spasm. She closed her eyes and lifted her face into the stream of hot water and tried to think back to the meeting. Clint Hopkins, alive, worried and anxious, caught up in an adoption case. Not a usual case, yet still a normal part of a lawyer’s life. Go ahead, she had told him. I will see you tomorrow.
She toweled off, wrapped herself in a heavy robe, and went into the kitchen, steeled against the coldness that threatened to overwhelm her again. The dark figure had imprinted itself in her mind. She wondered if she could ever leave the image behind. Her black bag looked like a cat that had stretched itself over the counter. She could hear Clint’s voice: Read the notes. I’ll fill you in on the rest tomorrow.
She made herself a cup of tea, retrieved the sealed envelope from her bag, and settled into the corner of the window seat in the living room. The front of the envelope was blank. She managed to work it open and unfold two sheets of paper. Photocopies of what looked like pencil and pen jottings made at different times, as if Clint had jotted down thoughts as he’d delved into the case. She lay the pages side by side. A collection of notes was not what she had expected. She wondered why, if Clint wanted her to cocounsel, he hadn’t given her a printed summary of the details. Nothing here other than random jottings, ideas that might have come to him at odd moments.
Scrawled across the top of the first page were the words: Notes Little Shield Adoption. The handwriting looked consistent, words neatly formed, lines running straight. But on the second page, the handwriting began to deteriorate. Scribbled words, difficult to make out. Lines bolted up and down, running into one another. She searched for the beginning of a sentence, but there were no capital letters, no punctuation marks. Another chill ran through her, and she took a long sip of tea. The random thoughts of a man in a hurry. An anxious man. A frightened man.
She read through the notes, teasing out the facts from the rambling asides and comments: I don’t know. Doesn’t seem possible. Maybe. Look into this. Eldon and Myra Little Shield, Arapahos, Ethete. No appointment. Urgent matter. Agreed to see them. Desire to legally adopt five-year-old daughter, Mary Ann. White. Raised by LS’s from infancy. Foundling. Left on front doorstep. Midwinter. Snow and cold. Woman ran away and got into truck. Truck sped off.
Did not call police. Felt sorry for woman, probably mother. Believed she would return for baby. Healthy, strong. Had been cared for. Own child dead at birth a few weeks earlier. Waited for mother. Never returned. Baby theirs.
Mary Ann five years old, starting school. Need legal adoption. Based on desertion? Check with relatives, friends. Newspaper articles. Internet. Police? No police. LS’s adamant. Must not lose child.
Vicky refolded the notes, slipped them back into the envelope, and drew her knees to her chin, folding herself together. She stared out the window at the snow falling over everything like a white shroud. There was nothing in the notes to indicate the Little Shields had reported the abandoned baby to the police, which could leave them in a vulnerable situation. Certainly the police should have been notified.
Annie Bosey, her secretary, was already in the office when Vicky arrived. Computer humming and coffee brewing, fluorescent lights flickering overhead. The office had a warm, welcoming feeling that reminded her of grandmother’s kitchen after she and her cousins had been building snowmen.
“Are you okay?” Annie, her usual solicitous self, came around the desk in the reception area. “I heard about Clint Hopkins. What a lousy night to be out.”
“It was hit-and-run.” Vicky took off her coat and draped it over the wooden coat tree. She wrapped her scarf on top. “If it had been an accident, the driver would have stopped. Right?” She’d reached that conclusion somewhere in the night. An innocent driver would have stopped.
Roger Hurst, the other attorney in the two-person firm, emerged from the back office, the same look of solicitation stamped on his face. “Clint was a good man,” he said. “He handled the Mountain Man case, remember? Rip and Edith Mountain Man adopted their grandson.”
She gave a quick nod. People from the rez often found their way to Clint’s office.
“Good lawyer. Thorough,” Roger said.
“Too much, you ask me.” Annie sank into her chair and swiveled back and forth, tapping a pen against her lips. “From what I heard, he delved into Rip’s and Edith’s backgrounds until he started finding things. So what if Rip did time in Rawlins when he was twenty-two for getting drunk and assaulting some guy? Who doesn’t do stupid things when they’re young? He’d lived a responsible life for thirty years. It was like Clint took on both roles, working for the couple and against them. Like his real client was the boy. What was best for the boy? Rip and Edith were afraid the judge would rule against the adoption, then what would have become of the boy?”
Always the dilemma, Vicky was thinking. The choice between the best and the available. They were not always the same thing. Clint had been dogged; Annie was right about that. He threw himself into adoption cases. He never gave up until he believed he knew what was best for the child. She squeezed her eyes shut at the image that had arisen unbidden, unwanted: the dark figure in the yellow headlights.
“What else do you know about Clint?” She looked at Annie. “Was he married?” For some reason, she believed he was married, but she had never met his wife.
Annie had started tapping the keyboard, looking straight at the screen. The printer on the table whirred into motion, and a sheet of paper popped off the top. “I figured you’d want to pay your condolences. Wife is Lacy. One child, a daughter at the University of Wyoming.” She handed Vicky the sheet. “Address and telephone number are at the top.”
“Thanks.” Annie was good at anticipating her needs, Vicky thought, especially at times like this, when she wasn’t sure she could anticipate them herself.
She had started for the beveled doors that closed off her office when Annie said, “There’s something else.”
Vicky swung back. Something else? She didn’t want anything else, not today, not after last night.
“Betty White Hawk called. She said Vince went out last night and hasn’t come home.”
What had she expected? Betty had told her son he had to turn himself in today, and he had bolted. Vicky felt herself sagging against the glass doors. “Get her on the phone, please.”
“You sure you feel like working today?” Roger took a step forward, as if he might catch her should she slump to the floor. “I can handle whatever you have going on.”
“I’m fine,” she called over her shoulder as she made her way to the desk. “Everything’s just fine.”
James Two Horses was six feet tall with short black hair slicked back behind his ears, skin the color of cinnamon, thick wrists and knuckles surprisingly knobby for a man in his twenties. He had sown his wild oats, he once told Father John. Sown more than he could remember, since most of the time he had been drunk. Sober now and had been for five years, and for the last two of those years, he had felt the calling. Waking him from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, a quiet voice in the back of his mind: Come follow Me.
On two or three mornings each week for the last six months, James had shown up at St. Francis to serve Mass. Weighing the possibility of a vocation to the priesthood, he had explained. Seeking to experience what it might be like.
Father John O’Malley hung his cassock in the closet of the sacristy next to the altar while James arranged the Mass books, the stole, and the chalice in the cabinets. Father John was grateful for the help. For some time now, either he or Bishop Harry had offered the early morning Mass without a server to help set up the altar, bookmark the prayer books for the proper readings, and tidy up afterward. They alternated the weekday Masses, he and the bishop. Today had been his turn.
It was the fourth Tuesday in March, the Moon of Buffalo Dropping Their Calves, according to the Arapaho way of keeping time. A handful of parishioners had scattered themselves about the pews, the Old Faithfuls, he called them. No matter the weather, the blowing snow and icy roads, they propelled their old trucks to St. Francis Mission for early Mass. They were gone now. The silence in the church made its own sound.
He had offered his prayers this morning for the soul of Clint Hopkins, a white man hit by a truck last night in Lander, and for the family the man had left behind. James told him about the accident while Father John was robing for Mass, pulling on the long white alb, the stole, the chasuble. “I hear he was a lawyer,” James had gone on. “Adoption cases for the most part. He helped a number of Arapahos and Shoshones adopt kids. Witnesses saw the accident. Hard to see anything in the blizzard last night, you ask me. It’s a wonder folks don’t have the sense to stay home.”
All of which, Father John gathered, James had learned from his sister, the night dispatcher at the Lander Police Department. Somehow, between last evening and seven o’clock this morning, the news had made its way across the moccasin telegraph.
Father John, pretty sure the telegraph hadn’t missed any details, had asked if Clint Hopkins left a family. In his near decade at St. Francis Mission, he had come to regard the moccasin telegraph as nothing less than a miracle of technology.
“Wife and daughter,” James had told him. “They must be in shock. The man went off to a meeting he’d probably gone to dozens of times. Everything the same. Sure, the weather was lousy, but he’d lived in the area all his life, so he probably thought he could handle whatever the storm handed out. He never came back.”
“We’ll pray for his family.” So many deaths, and yet each one a shock, a disruption of nature, a realignment of the world.
With everything in its place in the sacristy, Father John followed James back through the small church built by the Arapahos more than a century ago. Faint odors of cold-stiffened leather and tobacco and perspiration hung in the air. He stopped to scoop up a wool scarf from the back pew before exiting through the front door that James held open.
The mission was iridescent in the sunlight that had broken through the clouds and blazed like fire across the snow-covered grounds. Father John squinted into the brightness as he came down the front steps. The redbrick residence across Circle Drive, the old stucco school building that housed the Arapaho Museum, the yellow stucco administration building; all shining in the snow. He had been at St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation nearly a decade, six years as pastor. Longer than Jesuit priests usually stayed in one parish. This was home.
James waited at the driver’s door of his blue truck, the only vehicle still parked in Circle Drive. Red lights flickered in the tunnel of cottonwoods as the last parishioner drove toward Seventeen-Mile Road. Father John started to thank the man for helping out this morning, but James put up a black-gloved hand, palm out. “Got time for a sit-down soon?”
He always had time, Father John told him. He could see his breath in the brisk cold. He took his gloves out of his parka, pulled them on, and started down the snowy path across the center field to the residence. He turned back. “Give me a call first. Make sure I’m here.” Things had a way of turning up at the mission. Emergencies, unexpected delays. The day was never his own. And this morning, his niece, Shannon O’Malley, the third of his brother Mike’s six kids, was arriving. He had to pick her up this morning at the Riverton airport.
Behind him he could hear the engine of James’s pickup coughing into life and sputtering around the curve in Circle Drive out to the cottonwood tunnel. Walks-On, his golden retriever, came romping through the snow toward him, tossing snow with his nose and leaping on his three legs as if the snow were a disc he could snatch out of the air. Walks-On fell in beside him, and he patted the dog’s head as they walked up the steps to the residence. He had shoveled the steps in the dark this morning before going over to the church, but a sheen of snow clung to the concrete.
He was thinking James would make an excellent pastor at St. Francis. It had always been a Jesuit mission, but there were fewer and fewer Jesuits, and the day could come when diocesan priests might have to take over. James would fit right in, one of the people. But years of seminary lay ahead. He was jumping ahead, he told himself. James was still pondering whether he even had a vocation to the priesthood.
Father John let himself into the front hall, draped his parka over a hook, and tossed his cowboy hat on the bench below. He tried to shake off the thought of another pastor at St. Francis Mission. But every now and then rumors reached him that the Provincial officials were reevaluating their commitments. There were times when he could feel the day when everything would change closing in on him.
The dog skittered down the hallway, and Father John followed him into the kitchen. The odor of fresh coffee mingled with an unusual burned smell.
“Help yourself to the oatmeal.” Bishop Harry Coughlin—in his late seventies, round-faced and bald except for a stubborn fringe of gray hair that wrapped around his pink scalp—sat at the table, the Gazette opened beside his coffee mug. “Elena called. Her grandson’s pickup was dead this morning. She’ll be in as soon as they find someone to give them a jump. I made the coffee and oatmeal. I believe you will find them tasty.”
Father John poured dry food into Walks-On’s dish and set it on the floor. He took a bowl from the rack in the sink and ladled in some oatmeal, trying to avoid the brown, crispy chunks that clung to the bottom of the pan. The coffee he poured into his mug had the washed-out look of dirty rainwater. He smiled at the image of Bishop Coughlin, who had spent thirty years tending to the spiritual well-being of Catholics in Patna, India, puttering around the kitchen, preparing oatmeal and making coffee. Father John had never known Elena not to make it to work. If her grandson’s car didn’t start, there was every chance she would stride out cross-country through the snow. He set the bowl and mug on the table, took his cell out of his shirt pocket, and called the housekeeper’s home. He told the young woman who answered—probably the wife of Elena’s grandson—that he’d be glad to drive over and pick Elena up. “Oh, they got a jump and she’s on the way, Father,” the woman told him. “She was anxious about you and the bishop not having breakfast.”
He slid the cell back into his pocket and sat down across the corner from the bishop. “Elena’s on the way,” he said. In her seventies, maybe her eighties, he was thinking, but she would never admit it. She didn’t even admit to her seventies.
“Anything wrong? Bad news was on your face when you came in.”
Father John took a bite of the oatmeal. It had the taste of burnt toast. Picking up the coffee mug, he turned toward the bishop. “A lawyer from Riverton was hit by a truck last night in Lander. He didn’t make it.”
“The blizzard.” The old man shook his head and looked away. “We all hang by a very thin thread, I’m afraid.”
“Clint Hopkins. He handled some adoptions for people on the rez.”
“Another friend lost. Did you know him?”
Father John shook his head. He wondered if it was Hopkins who helped his parishioners Jan and Mike Rivers adopt their niece last year. He made a mental note to give them a call, offer his condolences for the loss of a man they must have trusted.
“On a happier note, I’m looking forward to meeting your niece.”
“So am I,” Father John said. The last time he had seen Shannon, she was twelve years old. The woman stepping off the plane this morning would be someone else, a twenty-four-year-old doctoral student at the University of Chicago doing a dissertation on two sisters captured by Indians in the nineteenth century. There had been many white captives. Some had been rescued after a brief time, but others spent years with the tribes. Still others, like Cynthia Ann Parker, captured by the Comanches when she was a small child, had grown up with the tribes—become Indian—before being forcibly returned to their families. Those were the saddest cases of all, he thought after he’d read some of the stories. White women who no longer belonged in the white world, forced to live in a culture they didn’t remember or understand.
Shannon had called a couple weeks ago. She was researching the lives of Amanda and Elizabeth Fletcher, captured in 1865 in a Cheyenne raid on their family’s wagon train. Amanda had been rescued within months, but her two-year-old sister had had been traded to the Arapahos. She had lived out her life as an Arapaho. Lizzie Brokenhorn, as she was known on the reservation. “Think I could talk to one of Lizzie’s descendants?” Shannon had wanted to know, and he had told her he would do his best.
He glanced at his watch, got to his feet, and carried his bowl with the half-eaten oatmeal and the mug still nearly full over to the sink. Bills to pay and calls to return, and only a couple hours before he had to leave for the airport. He thanked the bishop for a lovely breakfast.
“My pleasure.” The old man was beaming. “I decided this morning to take up cooking. I believe I have a natural talent, and it’s so relaxing and rewarding to make a meal for someone else. Yes, I do believe I’ll take up cooking.”
Riverton Regional Airport occupied a high plateau northwest of town. The wide, empty spaces of the reservation stretched into the distances with the Wind River Range rising into the Western sky. The music of Il Trovatore blared from the CD player on the center of the seat. A white world this morning, seamless and bright in the mid-morning sun. Father John bumped through the snowy ruts that crisscrossed the parking lot in front of the terminal, parked close to the main entrance, and turned off the CD. In the distance he could hear the low roar of a jet, but the sky remained as clear as newly washed glass.
A few people stood around the polished vinyl floor next to the gate that accommodated the passengers. Father John walked over to the wall of windows that gave out over the runway and the great openness beyond. The plane was coming in low from the south, a metallic twinkling in the blue sky. He watched it glide, until finally it was on the ground, coming down the runway, braking gradually. It stopped outside the windows.
He had been wondering if he would know her; she’d been so young the last time he saw her. A child still, with light, reddish hair and blue eyes, teasing and mischievous. She had liked to play games, and he remembered long stretches at the dining room table playing Monopoly and gin rummy and poker. Shannon O’Malley played deliberately, her freckled forehead wrinkled in concentration, but she jumped to her feet, shouted, and high-fived everyone in the house when she won.
A line of passengers started down the metal steps, but there was Shannon, standing on the landing, looking around. He would have known her anywhere, even on the crowded streets of Manhattan. Tall and slim with masses of curly hair that caught the sunlight in waves. And so like her mother that, for a fleeting moment, Father John felt something grip his heart. Then down the steps she came, hopping, half running, a backpack bouncing on her shoulders. The same exuberance she had shown after bankrupting him in Monopoly.
Dodging around the other passengers, glancing about the airport, she came through the door. “Uncle John!” she called as he made his way toward her. “It’s so great to see you.” She was in his arms, hugging his neck, kissing his cheek. “You haven’t changed at all.”
He held her for a moment, then set his hands on her shoulders and took a step back, wanting to take her in. This daughter of Eileen and Mike—part of him, his own family. She was laughing and smiling, pinpricks of light in her blue eyes. She had her mother’s creamy complexion and delicate nose. But the way she stood, the deep blue of her eyes, and the frankness in her expression were her father’s. “You’re beautiful,” he said.
She tossed her head, laughed, and waved away the compliment. “I’ll bet I’m the only girl you can tell that to.”
He reached for her backpack, but she shrugged away. “I’m used to it,” she said. “It’s part of me, like a large hump I carry around.”
“Any other luggage?”
She shook her head. “I travel light. You can move faster that way.”