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"Engine's back," observed paramedic John Gage as he turned the squad onto 223rd street. Absently he rubbed at the soot smudging his face before switching on the flashers. "I bet they didn't even save us any lunch."
"It was Kelly's corned beef hash. Are you really that hungry?" asked Roy DeSoto tiredly. Closing his eyes, he let his head loll against the communicating window behind the seat.
Gage made a rude noise. "They probably got done with the overhaul before we even finished the first round of hospital triplicate."
"You can always go back to hauling hose." Reluctantly opening his eyes, Roy leaned forward to retrieve the run sheet from the dash. "No paperwork," he concluded, pulling a pen from his pocket.
Gage glared at his partner while he waited for the traffic to drop back to a respectful distance before angling the squad into the station driveway. "Ha. Ha. I seem to recall a certain paramedic griping to Dixie about the paperwork, while I got the case of writer's cramp." He gazed into the sideview mirror, watching the apparatus bay reardoor grow larger while he backed the vehicle into place.
"You've been complaining that I don't let you run enough calls. That was your call. Writer's cramp is an occupational hazard." DeSoto lifted the radio microphone. "Squad 51 in quarters," he announced, tilting the handset slightly as he glanced at his watch and recorded the time on the run sheet. Sighing, he replaced the microphone in its cradle. "Still, I thought we'd never clear the follow-up."
"Morton's a jerk," complained Gage sourly, turning off the engine and sliding from behind the wheel. He shrugged and stretched, listening to his joints pop.
DeSoto climbed from the squad. "I understand he wants to be careful, but I just wish he'd learn to trust us. Not every..." Roy stopped abruptly as tall, curly-haired Todd Castelli stepped from the dayroom and slouched against the jamb.
John could sense his partner tensing. One-sixteen's B-shift paramedic was a long way from home; his presence was no mere coincidence. He bowed his head, watching DeSoto out of the corner of his eye.
Lopez, Kelly and Stoker crowded into the doorway behind Castelli.
The blood drained from Roy's face. "Joanne? The kids?" he tried to ask, the words dying in his suddenly tight and dry throat.
Stoker caught DeSoto's eye; he shook his head solemnly. "They're OK," Mike mouthed soundlessly. Taking advantage of John's apparent distraction, Mike gave a nearly imperceptible nod in Gage's direction and flicked his eyes toward the captain's office.
Briefly, Roy's shoulders slumped. He drew a slow steadying breath, a rush of guilty relief swelling in his belly. "How's the knee?" asked DeSoto hastily, trying to cover his reaction.
"Better," said Castelli. He paused, eyeing Gage.
Looking suspiciously from one closed face to another, John stiffened, gripped by the same discomfort that had afflicted Roy. "What're you doin' all the way down here?" he began.
"You know what'll fix our problems with Morton?" blustered Castelli, awkwardly deflecting Gage's question. Nervously, he pulled away from the doorway, shifting his weight. "Standing orders," finished Todd, answering his own question.
Momentarily sidetracked, Gage snorted. "Can you imagine what the American College of Emergency Physicians would say, let alone Brackett?"
"Mark my words, they're coming. If the DOT would just..." Todd's words trailed off.
Gage turned. Hank Stanley stood at the entrance to his office. The brick pillar at the opening of the apparatus bay cast a harsh shadow across the station officer, hiding his face from John. Stanley's voice was solemn and still. John's blood went cold. "Cap?"
"I need to speak to you for a moment."
"Yeah. Uh -- sure," stammered Gage. Reluctantly he followed Stanley into the office.
Roy listened to the door closing. "What happened?" he demanded.
Biting his upper lip, Kelly shook his head.
Hank pulled the door shut behind the paramedic and nervously cleared his throat. He walked to the window and gazed through the slats of the blinds, watching the afternoon traffic on the street in front of the station. "Johnny, umm, I have some bad news."
Gage took a deep breath, steeling himself.
"Your mom called...." Stanley's voice trailed off. He turned back toward the paramedic. "There's no easy way to tell you this."
"Your father died this morning." Hank studied the floor by John's feet.
Stunned, Gage stared past the station officer. He was unable to understand the rest of what Stanley was saying about his father and a heart attack.
"I've talked to headquarters and arranged leave. Todd'll finish up the rest of your shift."
"Uh-huh," mumbled Gage. Numbly he turned.
Johnny bowed his head. "Thanks, Cap."
"Johnny?" Roy stopped just inside the door of the locker room and watched John reach into his locker, packing his toiletries into his shaving bag. "Cap, told me what happened. If there's anything I can do..."
Gage straightened, grappling for a calm he did not feel. "Thanks, Roy," he answered carefully, dealing in the cold practicalities of the moment. "I talked to my Mom. She's making the arrangements," his voice caught. "The funeral's Saturday. I'm gonna to stop by my place to pick up a few things, then head out." He lifted his duffle bag, rubbing the rough edges of the handle between his fingers, the fraying fibers matching his own raw nerves.
"OK." Roy hesitated. "I know things weren't so good between you and your dad, but..." he shrugged, unable to continue.
The door opened. Chet Kelly stood uneasily, half in and half out of the room. He shuffled from one foot to the other. Marco Lopez and Mike Stoker stood a few feet behind him. Castelli peered over their shoulders.
Gage finally turned to face his partner. "Yeah, I know."
"Gage... Johnny," Kelly's word trailed off. He looked down at the toes of his shoes.
"Johnny, I'm sorry," added Mike. Lopez nodded his agreement.
"Gage, man, I'm sorry," finished Castelli.
John nodded. "Thanks, Chet... guys."
John lifted the dented, green metal Coleman ice chest into the back of his Land Rover and wedged it between an old milk crate full of plastic bottles of water and a red toolbox. Carefully, he lay the garment bag containing his best -- and only -- suit atop. Making a final inventory of the contents, he reached for the rear hatch.
Gage stopped, his fingers still wrapped around the handle, thinking of how his father prepared thoroughly for even the shortest trips. For an instant, he was again a child, shuffling from foot to foot impatiently beside the ranch's machine shed while his father sorted through the box of spare belts, selecting an appropriate size, the oily stench of old rubber heavy in the South Dakota summer air....
John slammed the hatch shut, cutting off the flow of memories. Deliberately, he climbed into the driver's seat and turned the ignition switch.
Johnny crept down the hall and hid behind the chest of drawers near the living room doorway. Cold air seeped through his pajamas. Leaning his forehead against the dresser's rough wooden back, he listened, wishing he understood Lakhota.
In the kitchen Marie Gage, Johnny's mother, stood looking out the window into the night, her hands clenched angrily around the counter's edge. She urgently questioned Johnny's grandmother Annie Baptiste, while his father stomped out to Annie's truck.
His grandmother's face was dark and rage had deepened the lines around her eyes. Her words crackled and hissed ominously. Rudely, Annie spoke her son-in-law's name while rapidly flicking her fingers out straight.
Johnny shuddered when he saw his strict, polite grandmother deliver such a vile insult. He crouched lower to insure the adults could not see him.
Roderick Gage came in, carrying Johnny's cousin Dwayne Baptiste wrapped in a stiff wool blanket. His father set the boy in a chair. Even from his hiding place, Johnny could smell the animal odor of unwashed clothes and neglect. A bruise darkened Dwayne's cheek, and a long red wheal stretched down his neck, disappearing beneath the collar of his soiled shirt.
Roddy gently wiped the side of Dwayne's tear-streaked face with his callused thumb. "Don't cry," he instructed.
Outside a car wove an erratic path along the lane leading to the house. The glare from the headlights bobbed and jerked across the curtains covering the kitchen window. Annie pushed aside the fabric and peered through the glass. She turned to Gage's parents and said something pointed and angry.
Johnny's father jerked his chin sharply toward the bedroom. "Get in back." John pressed himself tighter against the wall and held his breath as the two women walked past, Marie carrying his cousin.
Abruptly someone began pounding on the backdoor. The blows rattled the canning jars on the shelves along the mud room walls.
Silently, Roddy opened the door.
Dwayne's father stood on the porch, his fist raised and face red. He swayed uncertainly, thrown off balance by the sudden disappearance of his target. Perspiration dripped from the end of his nose despite the autumn chill. Johnny's uncle blinked at Roddy for a second then exploded, his words peppered with slurred references to his son.
Roddy's eyes narrowed as his brother-in-law's sour breath hit his face.
"Initomi yelo," pronounced his father calmly. Roddy planted his hand in the middle of his brother-in-law's chest, preventing him from entering the house.
Johnny's uncle stumbled backwards a step. Dwayne's mother appeared out of the darkness and tried to stagger past her husband. Her once stylishly arranged hair was greasy and uncombed and her eyes struggled to focus on Johnny's father as he blocked her path.
Roddy started to shut the door.
Unexpectedly, Dwayne's father shoved the wooden panel, throwing Roddy off balance. The silver blade of a folding knife flashed as the man raised his arm over Roddy. Johnny's aunt screamed.
For an instant the two men grappled, one of Roddy's huge hands locked around his brother-in-law's wrist, the other clutching a handful of the man's dirty hair. Roddy slammed his drunken in-law's hand against the kitchen counter. The knife clattered to the floor. Swiftly, Johnny's father kicked it under the stove.
Dwayne's father slumped, his bloodshot eyes filling with tears. He didn't resist as Roddy forced him from the house.
Gage ducked lower. His palms left damp prints on the back of the chest.
Suddenly Johnny's aunt stumbled toward the hall. Annie stepped from his parent's bedroom, closing the door behind her with a solemn finality. She stared at her drunken daughter, her face hard.
Mid-stride Dwayne's mother crumpled, falling at the old women's feet. "Ina," she wailed.
Swallowing hard, Annie looked away.
In the silence that followed, Johnny could hear Dwayne whimpering, echoing his mother's cry. Marie murmured soothingly.
Roddy picked up his sister-in-law and unceremoniously deposited her, limp and wailing, on the porch. He slammed the door, turned the lock, and stood statue-like beside the door. After a long moment there came the sound of the car starting. Roddy's shoulders slumped and for the barest instant his hands shook. Blood dripped from his arm and nose onto the mud room floor.
Annie's knees folded. Covering her eyes with her hands, she slid down the wall and wept. "Micunks," she repeated over and over, swaying. From Marie and Roddy's bedroom came the soft, broken sound of Dwayne's crying. Annie rocked faster.
Johnny squeezed his eyes shut and buried his face in his arms. Suddenly firm hands hooked beneath his armpits, plucked him from behind the chest, and set him on his feet. Terrified, he looked up.
Roddy loomed over his son, lips compressed into a thin angry line. Taking Johnny's shoulder, he pointed the boy toward the bedroom. "Get in your bed now, John," he ordered.
Gage scurried down the hall and threw himself into bed. He drew the blankets over his head, and listened to muffled sounds of weeping and the muted voices of the adults. His heart pounded as he stared into the dark, his cheeks growing stiff from drying tears. In the night beyond the window, his grandmother's truck growled to life and clanked down the lane. Gradually, Johnny drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Johnny awoke to his mother's soft murmurs as she shifted him to one side of the bed. Gage lay motionless, pretending to be asleep. The springs creaked as his father leaned over the bed.
Roddy lifted the blanket and nestled Dwayne beside John. Tentatively, he smoothed his nephew's still damp hair.
His mother bent and kissed Dwayne. "We'll be next door if you need anything." She straightened.
Clad in one of Roddy's old undershirts, Dwayne huddled alongside Johnny's back, sniffling quietly. He pressed his forehead against Johnny's spine and shuddered.
Gage could smell traces of his father's aftershave coming from the fabric. His cousin's skin was freshly scrubbed and moist. John risked opening one eye.
Roddy sat on the bookshelf by the window, silhouetted in the faint moonlight. He turned to Marie, his eyes glistening. "I'd better stay."
The bedroom door closed.
Dwayne slid from the bed. Hesitantly, he walked over to Johnny's father and crept into his lap.
John watched his father wrap his arms around Dwayne and shift the child's weight. "I'll keep you safe," promised Roddy, tracing the bruise on the boy's cheek.
Johnny rolled over, pulling his knees to his chest, drawing in around the cold, jealous hollow forming in his chest.
The dashed white line wavered and doubled, writhing across the empty road surface under the glare of the Land Rover's headlights. Gage blinked, scrubbed his hand across his burning eyes, and shook his head. Signaling, he pulled on to the shoulder and turned onto a dirt road that cut through the dark fields. The washboard surface rattled his teeth as he coasted to a stop next to an irrigation ditch. Slowly, he climbed from the truck and stretched. A sparkling veil of stars capped the mountain-ringed valley.
Gage bounced on his toes, feeling his tight hamstrings loosen. Yawning, he walked to the back of the truck, opened the rear door, and pulled out one of the bottles of water. He splashed a handful on his face and rubbed his wet hands over his dusty neck. The water quickly evaporated, leaving his skin tingling and cool.
The air was thick with the green smell of growing things. Johnny found himself remembering sitting alongside his father atop his grandfather's old Massey-Ferguson tractor, watching damp, freshly turned earth roll up from under the blades and feeling the heady vibrations of the powerful engine. Roddy's hard hands had turned the wheel and moved the levers with an easy comfort and peace he seemed to lack in all other areas of his life. Sighing, Gage shook his head and turned back to the 'Rover.
John crawled onto his sleeping bag, which covered the thin foam mattress in the back, and flopped on his side. Watching the stars framed by the open back window, he reached into the cooler and retrieved two bologna sandwiches and an apple. He devoured the sandwiches in a dozen huge bites and started on the fruit. A few minutes later the half-eaten apple rolled from his hand as he fell asleep.
"Just reach in 'nd grab 'em," grinned Kenny Lemieux, rocking back on his heels. The Ojibwe former-rodeo-star listed dangerously on his ruined leg, long ago crushed in a fall from a bull. A month-old Angus calf bawled in the chute behind the old cowboy. Lemieux reached between the steel rails and seized the tufted black sac of the animal's scrotum. A mosquito landed to feed on the blood beneath Lemieux's leathery brown skin. "Go on." He pointed with his chin to the bucket of disinfectant in which soaked a scalpel and the pliers-like emasculator.
Johnny turned away, only to find himself facing the huge jar of water nestled in a protected grassy spot. In the turbid, bloody liquid floated the creamy veined ovals of mountain oysters. The teen fought the urge to cross his legs.
Emile Hegstrom, a reed-thin Bad Face from Calico, glanced up from the branding iron he was preparing and laughed. "He cantewakanheja yelo," he said, as he pushed back the brim of his straw cowboy hat and scratched his short, wavy black hair.
"Don't'cha worry. It's not catching," added Lemieux, chuckling.
John colored. He looked away only to meet his father's gaze.
Roderick Gage's square jaw worked up and down. His eyes grew cold and he glared at his fourteen-year-old son. "Dwayne," called Roddy, his gravel-washed voice hard.
John slipped past his older cousin and plunged his hand into the bucket. The cool water and disinfectant made his skin tingle. Shuddering slightly, he gripped the knife. Crushing a fold of skin between his clenched teeth, he grabbed the coarse fur-covered pouch, felt for the right place and cut. The calf shrieked and struggled against the steel walls of the chute.
All at once it was over. Lemieux opened the jar, catching the severed part as it fell from Gage's hand. He slapped a heavy hand on the youth's shoulder. "Good job."
"Uh-huh," agreed Hegstrom, pressing the hot branding iron against the calf's flank. The stench of burning hair filled the air.
Feeling faintly lightheaded, John solemnly nodded, not trusting himself to do more. Behind him the chute clanged open and the newly-made steer scrambled to freedom. Johnny watched the blood swirl away from his hands into the cloudy water filling the bucket. Stiffly, he walked to the edge of the corral and slumped against the fence, pretending to study the new bruise darkening his forearm.
Roddy appeared at his elbow. Leaning next to John, he held out a thermos cup of coffee. "For doin' a man's work."
Johnny sipped the bitter beverage.
Roddy pushed away from the fence.
Gage awoke, the ground shaking around him. He lifted his arm and blinked groggily at the bright sunlight streaming across his face. The soft flannel nap of his sleeping bag clung to him in a dank embrace, the air was chokingly thick and warm, and beads of sweat trickled through his hair.
"Hey, in there!" The Wasatch County Sheriff's Deputy pounded on the side the Rover, again setting the vehicle swaying.
"Wha..." mumbled John, struggling simultaneously with his sleeping bag, the door latch, and his own confusion. His stiff legs protested as he stumbled from the truck. "What's wrong, officer?"
The deputy hastily stepped back. Damp strands of his close cropped blond hair were plastered to the razor-burned skin of his thick neck. "You can't sleep here. This is private property."
"Oh," replied Gage, stifling a yawn. "OK, I didn't know. Sorry." He yawned once more.
A pair of expensive mirrored aviator glasses concealed the officer's eyes, and made Gage's reflection shift and bend as the cop moved his head up and down scrutinizing the paramedic. "Where are you going?" he asked, his tone edging into suspicion.
John flushed, acutely aware of his uncombed hair, disheveled clothing and dark skin. This encounter was not obeying the collegial dynamic to which he was accustomed. "Home."
"Driver's license and registration, please."
"Is there a problem?" Gage asked, looking past the deputy at the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains, rising above the undulating fields of sugar beets.
"License and registration, please," repeated the officer, ignoring Gage. His right hand twitched closer to his holstered gun.
Face flaming, John dug in his jeans pocket. "I gotta get the registration out of the glove compartment," he warned, involuntarily visualizing the damage that a round fired at close range from the officer's service revolver would inflict. Gingerly, he opened the passenger side door and leaned across the seat, feeling the man's stare burning between his shoulders. "Here." He handed the documents to the deputy.
"Where's home?" the officer asked, examining the papers.
"Potato Creek," replied John, stiffly. The burning indignity of being treated this way pushed up from his belly into his throat.
The officer's face remained frozen in a skeptical mask. He peered past Gage, studying the interior of the Rover. His gaze slipped from the rumpled sleeping bag and the mattress in the back, over the box of emergency supplies, coming to rest on the license plate.
"It's in South Dakota," prompted Gage, gritting his teeth.
"You're from California."
"Yeah. My family's back east -- in South Dakota tho'. I work in California. I'm a fireman," added John hastily, hoping to invoke some sort of sympathetic reaction. He gestured toward the California Professional Firefighter's Association decal on his rear window.
"Is that so?" The deputy ignored the sticker and unhurriedly turned the driver's license in his hand.
"Yeah," John said, struggling to keep the irritation from his voice. "Look, I'm going home for my father's funeral." For a second, a wave of sadness washed over John, surprising and overwhelming him. He pushed away the rising grief and forced himself to continue. "If everything's in order, I'll just be on my way."
The officer sighed and bobbed his head, not quite nodding, seemingly disappointed that he couldn't find a legitimate reason to arrest Gage. "Things appear to be in order." He held out the documents. "Drive safely."
"Thanks," hissed John from between clenched teeth. Quickly he slid behind the wheel and started the engine, resisting the urge to slam the door. As he signaled and cautiously eased off the shoulder onto the pavement, he glanced into the rearview. The police car followed close, the officer's mirrored sunglasses reflecting twin images of the back of his truck. An unexpected thrill of recall and understanding ran up his spine.
"Dad!" Dwayne turned on the pickup's bench seat, climbed onto his knees, and pointed to the police flashers visible through the communicating window. His dark elbow brushed Gage's temple as he gestured. Johnny turned. Marie yanked both boys back down onto their seats.
Johnny's father's dark brown eyes flicked toward the rear view mirror. He muttered under his breath.
"You gotta stop," offered Johnny.
His mother pressed her finger against John's lips to silence him. "Roddy," Marie began.
His father savagely flipped the turn signal and angled onto the shoulder. He turned off the engine.
"How fast were you going?" asked Johnny around his mother's finger. Roddy glared at him. Marie's grip on the nape of John's neck tightened. He fell silent.
"What'd we do?" asked Dwayne, watching the Rapid City police cruiser pull behind the truck.
"Hush," hissed Roddy, carefully positioning his hands in a very visible location on the steering wheel. "Everyone keep quiet."
A tall, barrel-chested man slid from the police car. As he approached the driver's side of the truck, he hitched his wide leather utility belt higher on his hips. His slender red-haired partner climbed fluidly from the passenger side of the cruiser. Placing his hand lightly on the pommel of his nightstick, the redhead positioned himself beside Marie's door, staring expressionlessly through the open window.
"License and registration, please," asked the first officer. His pale hazel eyes narrowed as the officer's gaze slid across Johnny's father, coming to rest on Gage.
Johnny felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.
With exaggerated care, Roddy pulled down the visor, extracted the registration card, and handed it to the man. Slowly he dug in his hip pocket for his wallet. "What's the problem, sir?" he asked, passing his driver's license out the window.
"What are you doing here?" demanded the officer, gesturing toward the neat rows of houses with their backs facing the old state road.
Sandwiched between Roddy and Dwayne, Johnny felt his father tense, the man's leg muscles drawing stiff and taunt against his. Roddy's hands tightened on the steering wheel.
"We're shopping," his father replied, mildly. His tone was at odds with the chilling aura Gage could feel emanating from his father.
"School starts next week," offered Marie, forcing a smile.
"I took a wrong turn; ' was tryin' to find 44."
The redhead prodded the packages in the bed of the pick-up. One of the bags tipped over, spilling its contents.
Johnny watched the nightstick touch his new pants. He felt his face flush and he recalled Sister Margaret's civics class. "We weren't doing anything," he started. His father's elbow connected with his ribs. Gage ignored him, his voice rising an octave. "It's a free country."
"Step out of the vehicle, please," ordered the first officer. His west Texas drawl stretched the word 'vehicle' to three long syllables. The polite phrasing conflicted with the subtle menace in his voice.
The redhead opened the passenger door. He jerked his head toward the weed-choked ditch.
Marie stepped from the truck. "Johnny, Dwayne," she prompted, pointing with her lips to a spot close beside her.
Johnny climbed from the cab and stood beside his mother. Dwayne followed, his short black hair rippling in the breeze, his ears red.
The redheaded policeman held his arms wide, herding them into the long grass along the ditch and away from the truck. His pale eyes moved slowly up and down Marie, a faint leer gathering at the corners of his thin lips. Johnny's mother ducked her head, her face flaming, and seemed to fold in upon herself. The man shifted, stepping closer, his large feet straddling the crumbling concrete apron at the side of the road. The tip of his tongue slowly moved across his upper lip and his gaze never left Marie.
Rage and fear warred in Johnny's belly as he remembered whispered playground stories of white cops taking Indian women for 'rides.' He drew closer to Marie, his hip pressing against her leg. He could feel his mother shaking. Gage glanced at his father. Instead of protecting his mother, Roddy was rooted impotently beside the truck, arms outspread on the roof and eyes downcast.
Face locked in the arrogant expression Gage had seen on too many whites as they abused Indians, the first officer stood behind his father, fingering Roddy's documents and watching his partner. His lips slowly twisted in a sadistic sneer. "Are you aware this vehicle has a burned out taillight?" the first officer finally asked.
"No, sir," answered Roddy. He met Johnny's gaze, his eyes coldly angry.
"This isn't the reservation. Here we expect people to maintain their vehicles."
"Yes, sir," replied Johnny's father diffidently. "I didn't know it was out. I'll fix it as soon as I get home."
Ashamed of his father's meekness, Johnny winced. He glared angrily at the redhead.
The man meet Gage's eyes and his gaze moved down Johnny's arm, stopping on the boy's clenched fists. The redhead's lips twitched in an amused, dismissive smirk.
Johnny bowed his head, his neck burning with shame.
"I'll have to write you a ticket." The cop pulled out his citation pad and pen.
Roddy's jaw muscles worked furiously.
The police officer noted Roddy's reaction and grinned. He tore off the ticket with a flourish and handed it to Roddy. "You can mail that in."
"Yes, sir," replied Johnny's father tightly.
"Go back, half a mile, and turn right at the stop sign. Forty-four is the next light."
"Thank you." Roddy's lips were drawn into a thin, irritated line. He climbed into the truck.
The redhead stepped aside. Marie grabbed the boys' arms and scurried for the pick-up.
Johnny's father started the engine and pulled carefully onto the road. Johnny glanced out the window; he could see the cops following them. Roddy drove in silence until they reached 44. "Johnny, if you ever do a stupid thing like that again..." he began angrily.
Gage fumed, frightened and hurt. He slid closer to his mother. Marie squeezed his shoulder.
"It's not the boy's fault," she interrupted.
"You shelter him too much," snapped Roddy, his face red. "He needs to learn how things are." He glared at his son. "You keep shooting off your mouth at the wasicu and we'll find your dead body in a ditch somewhere."
Cold sweat gathered under Johnny's arms. He ducked his head in humiliation and fear. Each time he blinked, he saw his body, a great oozing red hole blasted through his head. A shiver ran up his spine.
His father hissed something hard and angry under his breath.
"Roddy!" Marie put her arm around Gage.
Johnny pressed his forehead against his mother's side, knowing exactly how things were.
The small, green Summit County limits sign rolled past the passenger side window. Reflected in the rearview mirror, Gage could see the police car make a tight U-turn, dust billowing from the median as it pulled into the other lane. John pounded his fist on the steering wheel, furious at the senseless prejudice that never seemed to change, furious at the memories welling up inside him.
Down-shifting Gage rattled across the cattle guard as he drove through the opening in the fence onto the section line road that snaked over the last low rise that separated him from home. The dusky blur of the hill rolled past his window and, despite the numbing weariness that enfolded him, his hands began to sweat as the house came into sight. Switching off the headlights to avoid disturbing the household, he coasted onto the bare patch by the barn and the corral.
Stiff-legged and exhausted, John climbed from the truck, stumbling slightly on the gray ribs of fossilized tire tracks. The heat of the previous day still sighed from the earth, wrapping his legs in its warm moist breath, competing with the faint nighttime chill. Behind the dark hulk of the barn, his mother's dogs began to bark.
The bright glimmer of the morning star hung low over the ragged, chalky silhouette of Crow Killer Butte, outshining the faded blue-white crescent of the moon. The moonlight touched the plain surrounding the foot of the butte with silver, painting ghostly slashes that winked in and out of existence with the rippling movements of the long-stemmed grasses. The rising pre-dawn wind rustled the leaves of the willows, cottonwoods and wild plums lining the creek bottom and carried the smell of drying alfalfa hay. Tipping back his head Johnny inhaled, and the barrier between the past and the present blurred, leaving him uncertain. Light bled from the kitchen window into the night.
Slowly, Gage climbed the back porch stairs, opened the mud room screen door, and stepped into the house. He stood in the dark, trying to regain his bearings. A small, steel stationary tub had replaced the old enameled wash basin and the chipped yellow stand. The kerosene lamps now sat empty and unused on the back of the shelves lining the wall, covered with a thin film of dust. But, the galvanized wash tubs were still stacked in their corner and a broom still leaned by the door. A bar of light from the kitchen touched his father's barn coveralls, hanging on a peg beside the sink. John lifted a faded sleeve, the heavy fabric rough beneath his fingers, and breathed in the musky odor of horses, cattle, manure, machine oil, sweat, and dirt.
"Han!" The kitchen door opened and Johnny's mother stood in the doorway silhouetted by the harsh light from a single bare bulb. A halo of long gray hairs had escaped from the loose braid hanging down her back and floated around Marie Gage's head. "Johnny," she called.
"Mama," said Gage, stepping into the pool of light spilling across the floor.
"Johnny," repeated Marie, folding her arms around him.
Gently, Gage returned her embrace, her body too small and light in his arms. Quickly he stepped back, studying the weary lines gathered at the corners of her mouth and eyes. "How are you?"
"I'm..." She stopped, her eyes suddenly watery and bright. "I am," she finished quietly.
John followed Marie into the kitchen. The warm smell of cinnamon, cloves and boiling beef filled the air. A heavyset old woman from the Saint Mary's Society stood at the stove, stirring a pot of thick purple wojapi. Half-a-dozen pies sat cooling on the shelves and two enormous soup pots bubbled on the back of the stove. A soft round of piecrust sat on a mound of flour in the middle of the kitchen table. The golden rectangle of the living room doorway framed the tableau of the ongoing wake. Reluctantly, Gage looked through.
The ceremony was in its final night. The furniture had been pushed back against the walls. In the middle of the room a plain pine casket rested on sawhorses, the lower half draped with a brightly colored star quilt. At the foot of the coffin stood a small table holding cheesecloth-wrapped bowls of candy and cigarettes, gifts for the old men and women keeping vigil. John glanced away, unable to look at his father's body, instead imagining Roddy's rough hands and heavy silences.
Men in suits or stiff new jeans and western shirts and women in black dresses filled the room. A young white priest, his pockmarked face flushed, stood in the corner, holding a cup of coffee and talking with an old man. Gage's Aunt Kate sat in a straight-backed kitchen chair, one of her grandchildren asleep in her arms, the child's legs dangling off the side of her lap. Her husband, Howard Red Owl, had his bulky frame folded into a small metal chair. He perched, leaning forward with his elbows resting on his knees, looking distinctly uncomfortable. Howard nodded gravely to John, the chair squeaking as he moved.
An elderly relative, her gray hair covered by a scarf, walked to the coffin, reached in and patted his father's stiff arm. She murmured soundlessly in Lakhota, tears streaking her wrinkled cheeks. Against his will, John's eyes followed her hand as she touched Roddy's forehead. His father's face was waxen, still, and dead. Shivering, Gage turned.
"...Joe Red Pipe, Emile Hegstrom, and Father Larson are here," continued Marie. "You should go in and thank them for helping out."
Jaw muscles tightening, John stepped through the door.
Johnny watched Roddy's hand awkwardly trace the seam between the red and white strips of fabric, yet again to smoothing the flag that Dale Old Crow and Lee Janis had, on behalf of the local VFW, draped over Dwayne's coffin. The movement was a ghost of the caress that the thick wooden lid and his father's own nature would not permit. Dale, his face twisted into a permanent one-sided grin by the deep, scarred ruts carved by shrapnel from an exploding Japanese shell, nodded slightly acknowledging Roddy's gesture.
Gage shifted, stretching his stiff legs. He had spent the entire night sitting in the middle of the small crescent of family keeping a vigil next to the casket, wedged between his uncle's brother and Dwayne's sobbing fiancée, who occasionally clutched at his arm, breaking into a renewed waves of tears and incomprehensible Lakhota wailing. Johnny closed his eyes, the dull ache of a headache tightening behind his temples. Outside he could hear the muffled deep voices and stomping of the men who clustered in the yard and on the porch, braving the harsh Dakota January cold to smoke and to escape the brittle grief of the wake in discussions of cattle, cars, weather and tribal politics. A hushed laugh leaked into the room.
"I'm goin' for a smoke," announced Roddy, his seldom worn dress shoes scuffling awkwardly and loudly on the floor as he lurched to his feet.
Johnny opened his eyes.
Tentatively, Roddy touched Marie's shoulder.
Marie nodded stiffly. She continued to slide the rosary beads that an elderly relative had pressed into her hands through her fingers, not breaking rhythm. She mumbled softly about needing to see to something in the kitchen, but never moved.
Roddy turned and walked away, his hand falling to his side.
Johnny saw his mother shudder as the contact was broken, her face sagging. "I thought you stopped," he called after Roddy, who continued walking, ignoring him. The mudroom door slammed behind his father, leaving only the faint scent of tobacco smoke hanging in the air.
Numbly Marie rose, the rosary falling to the floor with a glassy clatter. She walked slowly to the kitchen, her gait the broken, hesitant shuffle of an old woman.
Breaking the fiancée's sodden grip, Gage stood and bent to retrieve the rosary. The glass and metal string was still blood-warm from Marie's hands. His mother's pained and hollow expression as Roddy left floated before John's eyes; angrily, his fingers convulsed, pressing the hard facetted edges of the beads into his palm. Shoving the rosary into his pocket, he straightened and followed his father.
Gage panted as the sharp cold took his breath away. The dry and bitter air burned his nostrils like acrid smoke, and cut through the California-thin fabric of his pants. Drawing his father's old mackinaw tighter, he hunched his shoulders and thrust his bare hands into his armpits, stomping his feet on the frozen floorboards to warm his legs.
His father stood at the far end of the porch, fumbling blindly with a bag of tobacco and a rolling paper. A fragrant, brown sprinkling of Flying Dutchman ringed his feet. As Johnny approached, Roddy looked up, his eyes red and glittering.
For a second Gage froze, unable to take another step, abruptly recalling what Aunt Kate had told him about his father:
"Get the roots too," instructed Aunt Kate, pushing back the tiny, clustered flowers and sparse silver-haired leaves of the fleabane plant, to grasp the base of the stem. She pulled the plant smoothly from the earth, shook the dirt from the roots, and gently set the plant on the growing pile lying atop a clean sheet of newspaper.
Johnny grabbed a cluster of the woody stems and yanked, but the ground held tight to the roots and he ended up sitting on the hard earth, clutching a handful of torn leaves. The hot sun baked his hair and a trickle of sweat ran into his eyes. He sighed.
Swallowing a grin, Kate sprinkled a pinch of tobacco over the torn earth. "One at a time, we're not in a hurry. Neither are the plants," she said when she finished.
Biting his tongue, Johnny wrapped his fingers around the base of another plant and pulled carefully. The crusted, gray gumbo cracked, releasing a faint odor of fallen rain and damp earth. Triumphantly, he lifted the uprooted plant above his head, a trickle of gray dirt falling on his face.
"Very good," approved Kate. "What is iniyanpejuta used for?"
Johnny lowered the plant and squinted at the sky, knowing he was about to fail another of his Aunt's lessons. "Making deer hides soft," he finally ventured.
"And?" prompted Kate.
He shrugged, bored with the unfamiliar names and obsolete uses. He thought instead of Sister Celeste, his eighth-grade science teacher, and her scorn for the old ways. She had laughed when Sarah Milk had blanched over the tub of formaldehyde bloated frogs and refused to touch their rubbery bodies, explaining to the nun that the old people said frogs could cause sickness.
"Do we have enough?" he asked, kicking at a thick clump of wiry buffalo grass.
"Yes, we have enough." Kate folded the newsprint over the plants, tying the bundle with a length of string. "My grandfather taught me all of this," she said straightening. "Someone needs to remember."
John shrugged again. Picking up the bundle, he followed the faint path of broken grass they had made coming to the little dry wash below the earthen, Army Corp of Engineers flood control dam, a place his Aunt called her herb garden.
As they walked, Johnny thought of his great-grandfather, the wizened old man who had lived in a blanket-walled corner of his Aunt Kate's house. When he visited, the old man would hobble over, reeking of Ben-Gay and the peculiar odor of the extremely old, and fix a vise-like grip on his neck, while squinting and shifting to peer around the descending blindness of glaucoma and cataracts. Ashamed of his broken, childlike English, the old man had shunned the whiteman's language and never spoke a single word directly to Johnny, but instead conveyed his wishes through his granddaughter. John had been frozen by the old man's milky eyes and the awful weight of his great-father's childhood memories of the terrible epidemics and despair that had stalked the then-new Lakhota reservation like the seventh cavalry risen from their graves. The old man's funeral had been first where John had taken a place among the mourners, instead of playing in the yard with the other children. He had sat on the cold metal folding chair in the community hall basement during the wake, watching his father, fascinated and appalled by Roddy's lack of reaction.
"Aunt Kate," ventured Johnny, stopping in the shade of a lone cottonwood that topped the low, crumbling bluff above the creek bed. "Why didn't Dad cry at great-grandpa's funeral?"
Kate stopped, startled by the question. Shifting her burden from one arm to the other, she peered closely at her nephew.
"Mama told me it is right for men to grieve when their relatives die," stated Johnny.
"It doesn't mean he doesn't care. It just isn't in your father's nature to cry."
Johnny pursed his lips. "Grandpa cried."
Kate carefully set the newspaper-wrapped bundle down, spread her apron on the grass beneath the tree and sat down on the improvised cover. She pointed with her lips to a spot next to her.
Johnny dropped to his knees beside her. "I'd have cried if my grandfather died."
"I don't think I've seen my brother cry since we were in school."
Johnny looked up, startled. "In school?" he asked, remembering Roddy's harsh words when he cried on his first day of school.
"Your dad was very young when he started at the school and was homesick."
As he watched, Aunt Kate stared at the horizon, her facing changing, taking on the shade of a child's frightened expression. A deep sadness filled her eyes. Johnny glanced away to allow his aunt the privacy of her pain.
"He cried a lot at first, but the Matron and the older boys teased him about being a cry-baby." She paused. "Finally he didn't cry anymore -- not even when he found our sister had hung herself in trunk room of the girl's dorm."
Johnny remembered sneaking into the closed dormitory building with Manny Adams and Clay Kills Good. They had pulled the boards off a broken window and crept into the building, climbing the creaky wooden stairs high into the attic. There by the light of a tiny round window, its loose glass rattling with every passing gust, they smashed the lock on an abandoned trunk and examined the musty gray-wool uniform, with its faded red braid, giggling nervously over the moth-eaten girl's undergarments. Shivering, Gage wondered if the clothes he had held had belonged to his dead aunt.
Kate shook her head hard and stood. "Let's go home and make some Kool-Aid," she suggested, bending to slap Johnny lightly on the leg.
His father's expression hardened as he turned away from Gage to hide his face, his hands no longer uncertain as he sealed the paper. A second jolt of anger jerked John from his reverie. "Mama needs you," he said heatedly.
"Her mother and my sister, they’re with her," replied Roddy, striking a match. The stink of sulfur filled the space between them.
"They aren't you. Think of her for a change," hissed Gage, his voice suddenly as icy as the wind.
Roddy took a deep drag on his cigarette and then slowly exhaled, the smoke surrounding his head in a thin white cloud. "I'm not the one who left for good with promises to return on my lips," he accused.
John gasped, tensing as his father's words sealed the two men into the private and painful space neither entered voluntarily. For a split second Roddy glanced at him, George, Dwayne, Roddy's dead sister, himself, all reflecting in his father's eyes -- all the people who had left promising to return only to leave him behind.
Gage clenched his jaw. "You never wanted me as you son, you wanted him." He jerked his thumb sharply over his shoulder, pointing toward Dwayne's coffin.
"How’d you know what I want?" demanded Roddy, dropping the cigarette over the porch railing to sputter and steam in the snow. "You never heard me."
John glared at his father.
"You're like a wasicu, too deafened by your own loud voice to hear what is being said."
Gage's belly clenched around the Lakhota word. He flushed.
"He was thrown away -- by his own relatives. You're my son; you… I…. "
"Stop it, both of you!" Marie stood shivering in the door; her face was drawn and pale but her eyes sparked angrily.
Gage bowed his head.
"Stop it," repeated Marie, her voice breaking. Her shoulders slumped and tears began to spill down her cheeks. She shook.
Gage took a quick step toward his mother.
Roddy pressed past his son and gathered his wife in his arms. "Let's go back in; it's too cold out here," he whispered into her hair, guiding her back into the house.
John closed his eyes and listened to the door slam between them.
Marie wiped her hands on her apron, careful not to get flour on her dress, ladled soup into a bowl and filled a mug with coffee. She set the food on the table in front Gage. Turning, she picked up a knife and cut one of the still warm pies.
John stirred the stew, moving the lumps of beef, potato and cabbage from side to side. The bitterness of ash, death, and memory coated his tongue, but he mechanically shoveled the food into his mouth. While he ate, he watched his mother.
Marie placed the slice of pie in front of Gage. Her eyes were sunken into deep dark circles and her face had settled into ruts of fatigue. To John's practiced eyes she looked a little dehydrated; he suspected she had been fasting, enacting some portion of the old mourning rituals. Marie lifted the rolling pin, turned the dough, and began to roll out another crust. Her hands shook.
"Mama," began John, gently.
"I want to make a few more pies," said Marie, ignoring her son's concern.
"Mama, you need to..."
"Micinks, remind me to bring some bread and butter pickles up from the cellar." Her voice faltered. "You know how your father loved them with apple pie." Marie swayed.
John leapt, spilling the soup and knocking the old vinyl-covered chair backwards, and caught his mother as her knees buckled. "Mama?" he asked, easing her onto a chair. He took her wrist, feeling for her pulse.
Aunt Kate appeared in the doorway and spoke softly in Lakhota, her voice dropping slightly at the end of the sentence.
Marie brushed them off, struggling to rise. "I'm OK."
"No," said Johnny sternly, pushing her down.
Marie stilled. "I'm just a little tired. I need to finish these pies. Give me a minute to rest."
"No." John wavered, caught between the Lakhota respect for another's judgement and his paramedic's instincts. He motioned toward the stove and the boxes of foil-wrapped cakes and breads brought by relatives and neighbors, inexplicably angered by this last strain placed on his mother by his father. "There is more than enough."
Marie's eyes filled with tears.
"There is enough to honor him." At his words, Marie sobbed, her shoulders quivering beneath his arm.
John's hand tightened around the handle of the mug. Steam rose from the heavily sweetened tea. "Mama," he called, tapping lightly on the bedroom door.
Gage entered the room. His mother lay on the bed, her face buried in the pillow she held in her arms. Setting the tea on the nightstand, John sat on the edge of the bed.
Marie loosened her grip, smoothing the pillowslip with one hand. "You know, I haven't washed the sheets yet." She closed her eyes and drew a deep breath. "They still smell like your father."
John put a hand on her shoulder.
Slowly she rolled over and studied Gage, reaching up to brush back his bangs. "You have his hair and eyes."
John looked away. The thin genetic legacy was like a frayed rope, too weak to support any weight of affection. Her words left him adrift and aching. Wordlessly he picked at his nails, avoiding his mother's eyes, not wanting her to see the emotions reflecting in his.
Shaking her head, Marie let her hand drop. "That chip on your shoulder is very unattractive. Someday you'll have to forgive him for not being what you wanted."
Gage sighed, remembering the years of disappointed silence. Not once after he had left had his father ever written or called. Only second-hand words, transcribed in Marie's neat, boarding school script had connected them. "Mama, I'm not the one who had the unreasonable expectations."
"He did his best, just like you."
John shook his head and stared at the bedspread, still unable to meet her eyes. He watched Marie's hand caress the outline his father had worn into the mattress. Her thin brown hand, the tendons lying beneath the skin outlined by age, came to rest on the hollow shadow of his father's shoulder.
"Grow up, Johnny. It's a waste of time to be angry with the dead." Marie's voice caught on the last word.
'I have reason to be angry,' Gage wanted to say. 'I was his son, but he was never there when I needed him.' Instead, he choked back his words, pushing them down into the tight lump of pain, grief and resentment that had lain like a cold stone in his belly ever since Stanley had told him his father had died.
"I'm gonna get you!"
Johnny scrambled over the thick snow bank bounding the gray, ice-covered dirt road and plowed through the drifts, hoping to slow his pursuer. The powdery snow creaked beneath his overshoes and stuck to his still warm pants, melting and re-freezing in hard, heavy lumps. He burst into the trampled area by the barn. Freed of the cloying snow, he began to run in earnest.
"You'd better run!" yelled Dwayne, plunging into the open.
John threw himself forward, sprinting toward the back door of the house. His foot struck the glazed edge of the hardened path to the outhouse. He skidded, landing on one knee, the sharp edges of a frozen boot track cutting into his skin and his fifth-grade reader dropping from his arms. Dwayne's hand closed on the collar of his coat, pulling him backwards. Johnny sat down hard on the frozen earth. Clenching his teeth, he labored to his feet, but Dwayne dragged him off balance.
"Yah ha! You'll never be faster than me." Baptiste shoved Gage face first into a snowbank.
"Takoja, hehanyela!" His grandmother Baptiste stood on the back porch shaking her head at Dwayne. She had Johnny's father's overcoat pulled around her narrow shoulders; the wind wrapped the hem of her dress around her skinny legs and tugged at the thin fabric of her apron. "Come inside."
Gage climbed to his feet, the melting flakes sliding down his face, retrieved his book and stomped past his cousin. The old woman continued to stand at the top of the stairs, watching the road that crested the hill behind the house, her features distorted by a worried frown. Absentmindedly she wiped Johnny's face with the corner of her apron, her eyes never leaving the horizon.
Dwayne clomped onto the stairs behind John. He took advantage of his grandmother's distraction to poke his cousin in the small of the back.
Ignoring the provocation, Johnny lifted the worn broom leaning against the mud room door and began to sweep away the snow covering his clothes. Dwayne reached over John's shoulder and grabbed the handle. "Dwayne!" cried Gage, hanging onto the broom.
"Hecel inicagapi sni," snapped, his grandmother turning. "Brothers don't behave in such a way -- everyone knows that. Now, go inside." She jerked her head toward the door.
Dwayne released the broom.
Johnny bent to brush away the chunks of ice crusting his overshoe latches. A tiny dark reddish-brown spatter was frozen to the swept-clean boards. He scraped the tip of his boot across the spot; a thin shaving of red ice curled against the black rubber toe. A cold fist clenched tight in his chest.
"Mama," called Johnny, throwing open the door and running out of the mud room without taking off his wet clothes. The empty kitchen echoed his words. "Mama?"
"Takoja, your father," Annie referred to her son-in-law obliquely as good manners demanded, "took her to the hospital."
In the mud room Dwayne froze, still leaning over with a boot in one hand. "Is she having the baby?"
Annie Baptiste winced, biting her lip.
Johnny again saw the glistening bloody ice on the porch and remembered the cow last spring that had bled to death while calving. He shivered.
"Maybe," she answered finally. She reached for Johnny and slowly unwound the scarf wrapped around his neck, her hands warm and soft against his chapped skin. "Get your homework done. Your grandfather will be over soon to take care of the chores and he'll need your help."
Johnny rolled over under the heavy quilt and watched the light leaking under the door from in the living room flicker whenever a gust of wind made the kerosene lamp flicker. Dwayne lay stiff and still in the bed beside him, pretending to be asleep. In the kitchen beyond the closed door, Gage could hear his grandparents talking in Indian. He could not understand what they were saying, but their voices simmered with quiet anxiety.
Outside the house the sound of a truck engine grew slowly louder. Dwayne sat up, swinging his legs over Johnny, and scrambled out of bed. He tiptoed to the window and pushed aside the drapes.
John slid from beneath the covers.
Dwayne pulled his pajama sleeve over his palm and wiped his frozen breath from the window.
Johnny pressed his nose against the icy glass. In the dimness he could see his father's truck cresting the hill. He could just make out the shape of Roddy, alone in the cab.
In the kitchen, one of the chairs scraped and the loose floorboard in the hall squeaked. Johnny dived for the bed, colliding with Dwayne. He scrunched down between the blankets and threw an arm over his face. On the other side of the bed, his cousin squeezed his eyes shut and breathed evenly, feigning sleep. The door opened a crack and Annie peered into the room, lamplight reflecting off her reading glasses.
"Wana he gli yelo," called his grandfather, his words separated by breathy pulls on his pipe.
The truck engine ground to a halt and Roddy's heavy footsteps thudded on the back porch. Annie eased the bedroom door shut.
"Micunks kin toktuka hwo," started John's grandfather, referring to his daughter.
Johnny climbed from the bed and crawled quietly to the doorway. He pressed his ear to the crack between door and the jamb and listened to the silence that greeted the old man's question.
Roddy answered in Lakhota, his voice emotionless.
"Osti," wailed Annie. Softly, mournfully, she repeated the phrase, in a rising and falling lament.
John's heart leapt into his throat, suddenly understanding he was now an orphan like his cousin. His hands went as cold as the floorboards under his knees and tears filled his eyes. Struggling to his feet, he blindly stumbled into the kitchen. "Mama!" he yelled, crashing into his father.
Roddy seized Johnny's shoulder, shaking him. He stared down at Gage, his eyes dull and tired. "Quit crying," he commanded. "Be a man."
John exploded, pounding his fists on his father's chest.
Annie grabbed the child, wrapping him in her arms, restraining him. "Takoja, wak'okpe sni ye," she whispered soothingly into his ear. "Your mother's going to be all right."
He stared at the old woman. Sobs caught beneath his breastbone; he shook.
Annie gently wiped the tears from his face with the side of her hand. Her skin smelled of strong soap and coffee. "She has to stay in the hospital for a few days. She lost the baby, but she's going to be OK."
Slowly he understood his grandmother's words. He tried to speak but, against his wishes, relief released a fresh wave of tears.
"Shh," soothed Annie, rocking him.
"Johnny, go to bed," directed Roddy. His face was shadowed and his eyes bleak as he looked down at Gage. He turned away from his son's tear-soaked face.
Sniffling and ashamed, John got down from his grandmother's lap.
With a start John woke, listening for the noise that had troubled his uneasy sleep. From the kitchen came the brittle clatter of broken glass and a second muffled profanity.
Careful not to disturb Dwayne, Johnny again slid from the bed and crept into the hall. Pressing his hands against cool, smooth plaster he peeked through the open kitchen door.
His father was slumped at the kitchen table, the glittering fragments of a broken glass on the floor around his feet. Sharp-smelling amber liquid puddled on the worn linoleum. Drops of blood mixed with the liquor in crimson streamers.
Roddy lifted his head. His face was flushed as though he had been straining to carry some great load. "Don't come no closer," he ordered.
John froze, his heart hammering in his chest. He had never seen his father drink before; indeed Roddy had always warned the boys, in the most lurid terms, about the dangers of alcohol.
"You'll cut yourself." His father nodded toward the boy's bare feet. Silently, he regarded Johnny, his eyes hooded. "Micinks, you have a sister in heaven."
John swallowed hard, frightened.
"You'll never have one on earth." He lifted the half-full bottle to his lips and took a small swig. Blood dripped from his cut hand and splashed on the table. He grimaced and shook his head. "This ain't helping." Roddy stood, broken glass crunching beneath his boots, and poured the remainder of the liquor into the sink.
Despite the chill, sweat began to trickle down Johnny's back. His stomach lurched as his father stumbled a step toward him and then stopped.
"You’ve a sister in heaven," repeated his father, tipping back his head and staring at the ceiling. Abruptly, he snorted bitterly, a harsh grating sound. "The nun who said that, she told me I was lucky I wouldn't be alone in heaven. Lucky that my sister hung herself in that dormitory attic, that my brother died… That I have a whole family of relatives in heaven." His head dropped forward and he fixed his red and watery eyes on his son. "Lucky -- that my daughter died." Roddy's voice broke.
Johnny bowed his head, a numb emptiness swelling in his belly, suspecting his father didn't count him among the relatives he valued.
"Be a good boy and go back to bed, Johnny. You'll catch your death standing around in your night clothes."
Gage ran down the hall and threw himself onto the bed. Shivering with more than cold, he crawled under the quilts. Dwayne rolled over, pressing against his back and draping his arm over Johnny. Still trembling, Gage fell asleep and dreamed of a dead baby girl dangling from a noose and catching his death.
"He talked about you a lot."
The priest stood on the porch behind Gage. He walked over, leaned against the white-painted wooden railing beside John, and watched the sun pull its burning bulk above the green and white haze of the distant buttes. "Ro...", the young man stopped, still uneasy with the Lakhota habit of avoiding the causal use of the names the dead. Coloring slightly, he spent a few minutes gazing at the group of old men heading to the barn to do the morning chores before continuing to speak. "He was proud of you."
Cautiously Gage examined the priest's face, trying to judge how good a liar the man was. Not so good, he decided, studying the man's fair, nearly transparent skin and guileless features. After a moment, John nodded noncommittally.
"I remember him telling us about 'his son -- the hero who saved people's lives.'" The priest chuckled slightly. "He was trying so hard to be appropriately modest and deprecating, but he was just beaming."
John attempted to imagine his father saying such a thing about him. He failed.
The priest cleared his throat. "When you were so sick last fall," he said quietly, referring to the virus that had nearly killed Gage, "he came to the church."
John's eyebrows rose in amazement. Although his father had let Marie raise his sons in the Church, Roddy had come through the mission boarding school with little use for monks, nuns, priests, or the whiteman's God. The idea of his father kneeling before the altar, bargaining with the priest's Jesus, was nearly inconceivable.
"Your father was terribly hurt when he found out you had asked that he and Marie not be notified of your illness. Your friend, Roy, only called when the doctors thought you were dying." The priest stopped.
In the silence, John could hear the heavy fabric of the man's suit creak as he moved.
"Roddy," the priest cleared his throat awkwardly, trying to gloss over his inadvertent impoliteness, "he felt he had failed you."
An icicle of grief pierced Gage's breast, he turned away. He gasped, his eyes prickling with unexpected and unshed tears. John could feel the priest's eyes on his back. Cursing his usual glibness, he struggled to find the right words. "Thank you, Father, for coming to help us out," he concluded stiffly, not turning.
The priest jerked his head toward the house and listened to the somber, deep voice of the man who was making the announcements on Marie's behalf. "I hear the eyapaya," he said, hesitating slightly on the Indian word. "I'd better go back in." For a second he put his hand on Gage's shoulder.
Blinking, John nodded, not looking away from the sunrise.
Johnny ran, ignoring the burning deep inside his calve muscles and throwing his last bit of strength into a final burst of speed. He surged past the red-faced runner beside him and pulled alongside the slender, blond Norwegian teen from Belle Fouche -- two-time state champion in the 440 and current leader. From somewhere in the crowd watching the state track semi-finals echoed the high, thin ululation of a brave heart cry. Gage's heart beat even faster. Focusing on what Coach Molineux had taught, he lengthened his stride and edged slightly ahead. The finish line was only a few yards away.
Suddenly one of the Norwegian's pumping arms caught him in the ribs. John stumbled, thrown off stride. He landed on the edge of his foot, his ankle exploding in a white haze of pain. He fell headlong, the rough surface of the track tearing into the skin of his knees, shoulder and cheek. One of the trailing runners tangled with him, kicking his already sore ribs.
Gage struggled to his feet. Blood trickled from his cheek and skinned knees, and his ankle barely supported his weight. Pressing his arm tightly against his aching side, he stumbled froward. Shaking from pain and eyes burning, he limped across finish line, dead last.
Coach Molineux and his teammate, Clement Brewster, simultaneously converged on Gage. Molineux and Brewster threw Gage's arms over their shoulders, supporting the injured teen and helping him off the track. Molineux eased John down onto the grass surrounding the oval. The host school's nurse bent over Gage's ankle....
...Sweating, Johnny awoke. Peeking out from under his arm into the darkness, he could just make out the darker silhouette of his father as Roddy replaced the melted ice pack lying on the old dishtowel covering Gage's strapped ankle with a new one. Johnny squeezed his eyes shut. He and his father had fought before he had left this morning, as usual. Some days it seemed that all they had left was one long argument.
His father stood beside the bed. John imagined Roddy frowning his disappointment down upon him. Gage could hear the faint sigh of his father's breathing. Roddy lifted the blanket, settling it back around John's shoulders.
Surprised, Gage held his breath. His father shifted, seeming to sense he was awake. John waited for his father to speak, to offer some comfort. Instead, the floor boards creaked beneath Roddy's heavy feet and the door shut. Gage opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling.
Johnny grabbed his crutches and hobbled onto porch. The sky hung low and sullen, with sheets of steel gray clouds spreading from horizon to horizon, exactly matching his mood. The waxy green and silver leaves of the line of cottonwoods stretching behind the barn looked unusually intense in the soft light. Black chimney swifts wheeled overhead. Lightning flashed in the northwest, touching the distant ramparts of the badlands with an angry purple light. His ankle throbbed in time to the bursts of lightning.
Sighing, Gage dropped onto the old sofa under the kitchen window. Sourly, he frowned and rubbed his fingers back and forth over the rough blue clapboard wall, the paint long ago rendered faded and chalky by the harsh weather. As he stared at the pale blue powder coating his fingertips, he imagined his friends and teammates climbing onto Brother Joseph's weary old school bus and driving east to Vermilion for the state track championship. He thought of the college scouts in the stands: ever since Billy Mills, they had begun to consider Indians as viable recruits for college programs. Worst of all, he couldn't even be there to cheer on his school. Since he wasn't going to compete, his father had decreed the trip too expensive and had made him stay home. With his good foot, Johnny kicked the arm of the sofa irritably.
Through the screen door, Johnny could hear the crackling of the radio as his father tried to tune in the weather service. Sharp reports of lightning-caused static tore through the announcer's voice. Finally, Roddy switched off the radio.
The door squeaked. Johnny turned to see his father squinting at the horizon, studying the clouds. John grimaced, anticipating another interminable discussion of the weather.
Roddy leaned against one of the columns supporting the roof, his eyes on the sky. "Hope it don't rain too hard," he finally said.
Johnny grunted. He dug his fingernail into the wall. It figured that his father would want to talk about the coming storm, while Johnny's life went to hell.
"Or worse -- hail," concluded Roddy, shifting.
Gage remained silent.
Roddy glanced down at his son and shook his head. "A bad storm'll kill the oats." He turned toward the field.
Johnny followed his father's eyes. The tender shoots of newly sprouted plants formed a pale green haze over the dark, plowed hillside. He shrugged, his face flushing even as he finished the gesture, knowing a lost crop would mean buying oats to feed the stock. His mother would again have to get a job cleaning white people's houses to help pay for the grain.
"I forget you're young." Roddy frowned at Johnny.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Gritting his teeth, Gage pushed up onto his elbows.
"You take little things too hard."
"Little?" Johnny asked incredulously, his eyes narrowing. "My not getting to go to State is little?"
"Yes," pronounced his father.
"For your information, there were going to be college recruiters there." Suddenly, Johnny felt trapped, as though the very sky was closing in on him. He struggled to stand up, seizing his crutches and squeezing the grips until the rubber bulged between his fingers. Realizing he had absolutely nowhere to go, Gage dropped back against the cushions and gestured angrily at the surrounding ranch. "I might've even gotten outta this hell-hole."
"I've worked damn hard to make this 'hell-hole' into a good life for you and your mother," Roddy exploded. He flushed. "Do you think I planned to spend my life here?" Abruptly, he quieted and gathered his rage back into himself. "At least you can leave, even if it isn't on some fancy college scholarship," he finished softly.
Johnny sat silently, unable to meet his father's eyes. Instead he picked at the edge of the elastic bandage supporting his aching ankle.
"I was like you once," started Roddy. "I was gonna get the hell away from the reservation..."
John stopped fidgeting, startled by his father's words. He had never imagined his father wanting to do anything other than plod along as a yet another barely-scraping-by rancher.
"...See the world, make a ton of money." His father smiled slightly. "Come back in a big fancy car to visit my relatives." As he spoke, Roddy pulled a scallop-backed metal chair away from the wall, lifted Johnny's injured foot, and settled it on the old saddle blanket padding the seat. He sat beside his son on the sofa, his elbow touching Johnny's.
Gage risked sneaking a peek at his father's face. Roddy was again focused on the horizon, but this time he was not seeing the storm. His expression was an odd mix of old sadness, bone-deep disappointment and stolid resolve.
"Then George didn't come back," Roddy began, naming his rarely-discussed older brother, who had been killed during the invasion of Normandy, "Dad needed me. I had to stay."
Johnny nodded slightly. Black veils of rain began to drop from the leading edge of the clouds.
"Being a man is being able to keep goin' and take care of your relatives." Roddy stood and started down the stairs. "Even when your dreams die."
Surreptitiously, John wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. The sun was a hand's width above the horizon and had burned away most of the mist clinging to the damp swales and the dark green brush lining the creek bed. The cold knot of emotions in his belly had untangled, leaving him drained and numb. John spread his fingers, letting his tears evaporate in the wind, gathering the coolness into his heart.
Suddenly, Johnny realized his posture was an exact imitation of Roddy's. After his own father's death, Roy had remarked to John how much a father's weaknesses live in his son's strengths. Gage remembered shaking his head, at the time refusing any resemblance or even understanding of his own father. Now, standing in the same spot from which Roddy had always greeted the dawn, he understood.
Taking a deep breath John straightened, pushing away from the railing. Marie stood just inside the door, gazing through the screen at him. From inside the house came the soft murmuring of people telling stories, turning his father from flesh and blood into benevolent memories.
"It's time," she said softly.
Gage went back into the house to take care of his relatives.
"Amen," said the priest, closing his prayer book. The lacy white edge of his cassock swayed above the raw ground as he lowered his arms. The mourners, standing among the uneven rows of graves marked with white wooden crosses, lifted their heads.
The wind rose to fill the silence, scouring the hilltop with a stinging cloud of dust. Fraying streamers of red, yellow, white and black fabric fluttered on the ends of thin sticks stuck in the ground among the graves. The long strings of tobacco ties looped over various grave markers quivered.
An old man in a stiff new blue shirt lifted a hand drum. Head tipped back, he pushed up a mourning song, his voice strong and clear despite his age.
John moved beside the grave and pulled a plastic bag from his pocket. Self-consciously, he lifted a pinch of tobacco, presenting it to the four directions. He breathed in the sweet scent, remembering his grandfather and father sitting on the porch smoking. Opening his hand, Gage let the wind carry away his offering.
Howard and Emile stepped forward, lifting shovels. Methodically, they began to fill in the grave, the damp gray dirt clattering on the coffin lid.
Gage wrapped his arm around his mother's shoulder and watched the men fill in the grave. With each shovel-full Marie flinched, but John felt as though his own resentment and anger were being covered over with the thick Dakota loam. As Howard and Emile smoothed the mound, he sighed. Gently, Gage led his weeping mother away.
Pausing at the chain link cemetery gate, John glanced over his shoulder. Someone had nestled a cup of water and a bowl of gritty, rich wasna among the clods of earth at the foot of the grave. For an instant he imagined he could see Roddy standing on the hill, watching him. "Go well father," he whispered.
~~~~ 51 ~~~~
I would like to thank Jeff Morris, Todd F. and MJ for proof reading and/or a critical eye for "the guy thing" -- especially Jeff, whose "tingling spider sense" made this a better and fuller story, even if I did yank out my hair over the opening scene. A big hug goes to Mary for her usual encouragement and firm hand:). Ria, Kim, and Kate deserve kudos for their support. And finally, a special thanks to Todd F., whose Brice/Stoker scene in "Walls" helped break the motivational drought.
Translations and some rather lengthy cultural notes:
"Yaceye sni yo." -- Don't you cry(male speaker). "Initomi yelo" -- You're drunk(male speaker). "He cantewakanheja yelo." -- He is child-hearted(male speaker), implying that he is still too young and not hardened to the realities of life. "Takoja, hehanyela!" -- Grandchild, stop that! Hehanyela is a gentler phrasing used with children. "Hecel inicagapi sni." -- You('all) were not raised that way. "Wana he gli yelo." -- He is arriving home now(male speaker). Micunks toktukan hwo -- How is my daughter(male speaker)? Osti (hosti) -- female exclamation of sadness. Micinks (micinksi, cinksi, cinks) - my son. Wasna -- pemmican (roasted powdered dried meat, dried chokecherries, and melted suet), a food deeply symbolic traditional Lakhota values and mores, is used for ceremonies and an offering to the spirits of the dead.
The Lakhota have a complex method of counting kinship -- based on the ancestral practice of the both sorarate and levirate -- this intertwines family members for good or ill more closely than similar relationships would in the dominant culture. Under the Lakhota system, Dwayne as Marie's sister's son is Johnny's brother. When I use the term cousin, it is to conform to dominant culture kinship terminology and to underline the social distance Gage feels.
Each kinship term comes with a rather strict set of rules. The entire system evolved to promote domestic tranquility and self-discipline in a society where three generations might be close-quartered in one tipi for a long Dakota winter. Forced acculturation and the pervasive influence the dominant culture have eroded these traditional standards of behavior. (Although, the mother-in-law/son-in-law avoidance still remains strong enough to make me a touch uneasy about the scene with Annie and Roddy.) Familial relationships model patterns much closer to those of the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the methods by which the larger society defuses domestic stress have not followed. This hand in hand with high rates of alcoholism and the after effects of the boarding schools, has led to shockingly high rates of child abuse and neglect -- especially for a society where the word for children, wakanheja, means literally they are sacred.
One of the most heartening aspects of Lakhota cultural revival is an attempt to teach all children how "they call each other kin." Within the community, considerable effort is being devoted to revitalizing and adapting the old patterns of family behavior. The Lakhota have decided they can no longer tolerate behavior that feeds on their women and children.
On to other matters.... In the old days the flicking of fingers was a strong insult. Although it has lost much of its shock value in the face of a "Howard Stern" society, it is still akin to Annie flipping the bird while discussing her son-in-law.
Billy Mills is an Oglala who won a gold metal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He has gone on to be a successful businessman and motivational speaker.
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