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"Caw! Caw! Caw!"
The sudden call of the black crow shattered the quiet of the cornfield,startling nine-year-old Johnny Gage as he plucked the row clean.He paused to glance at the fierce brightness of the afternoon sky,wiping at his sweaty brow with the sleeve of his T-shirt.It was blisteringly hot,the blazing summer sun burned hot on his head as cicadas buzzed in the nearby windbreak of cottonwoods.He had one more row to pick,but the gunnysack in his hands had grown heavy,and his throat was parched.So instead of trudging toward the last row of corn plants,he shouldered the sack and headed back to the homestead.
The corn occupied the farthest third of the vast vegetable garden behind the house.It had once been tended to by his mother,but now Johnny labored over the plot alone.His papa helped sometimes when he could,but he was busy all day on the ranch.Johnny had already thinned the ripe tomatoes,picked several pounds of green beans,collected a bushel of red and green peppers,and a similar amount of cucumbers.Betty Simonson was going to can the produce at her place the next day,and Johnny was going to help.He trudged for the well pump in the yard,setting down the sack and reaching to work the handle.Refreshingly cold water began to gush from the spout,and Johnny quickly dunked his hot,sweaty head beneath the water.Then he shook the water from his hair,wiped his face,and cupped his hand under the spout and slurped several handfuls of the cold water.The sound of a voice behind him caused Johnny to release his hold on the pump handle and jump in spite of himself.
Johnny turned to see a man and a woman standing in the yard. Both were dressed in city clothes.The man wore a camera around his neck; the woman held a clipboard and file in her hands.
Anthropologists,thought Johnny uneasily.He squinted suspiciously at the pair.Others had intruded since the start of summer,studying the locals. A few times Johnny had been interrogated while in town. One of those occasions occurred while he'd waited in his father's pickup while Roddy was inside the auto parts store and a man with a camera started taking pictures. Roddy had put himself between the man and his son and sped off.He hesitantly faced the man and woman.
"What do you want?"
“Is this the Gage residence?"the man asked.
Johnny sighed,hefting the sack once more and edging toward the house."Yeah."
"Is your mother home?"
Johnny flinched slightly,hand on the screen door.It had been just seven months since his mother's death.He glared at the intruders.
The man looked uncomfortable,but the woman stood haughtily,as she glanced with thinly-veiled disgust at the modest homestead.Despite being primitive in many ways,it was also tidy and well-kept.The Simonson ranch stood on a section of reservation land,and Ed had allowed Roddy and his family to occupy the converted schoolhouse instead of some dirty shanty or bunkhouse like other ranchers in the area.The woman sneered at the sight of the well pump and privy,and noticed that the power lines by the side of the road did not extend to the house.She appeared unaccustomed to the facilities common to homes without electricity or plumbing. Johnny yanked the screen door open,clearly signaling that he didn't wish to continue talking with these strangers,but apparently neither took the hint.The conceited woman failed to recognize his clear intention,or chose to ignore it,as she stepped forward.
"Can we speak with you?" the man asked,as he lifted the camera."My name is Marcus Parkham.I'm from the university in Billings."
"I can't,"Johnny insisted,edging inside."My papa isn't here."
“Where is your father?"the woman asked. Her companion lifted the camera and took a few pictures.
"He's workin',"Johnny declared defensively,ducking his head.
"C'mon,kid,"Marcus pleaded as Johnny stepped inside the house,thrusting his foot out to catch the door and keep the boy from shutting it.He muscled his way into the kitchen,as Johnny scrambled back in shock. "Just a few more."
"Get outta here!" Johnny cried,rapidly stepping back from the man's forceful entry.He wished that he had gotten his picking done sooner and had headed over to the Simonson place across the hayfields.His father had told him to come by at two,and a quick glance at the clock revealed that it was twenty to three.His father was going to be mad,and he needed to get this aggressive stranger to leave.Marcus's intimidating manner frightened him.Johnny backed farther into the house,anxiously searching for an escape.Parkham seemed oblivious to his fear,or to the fact that he had crossed the line in entering the house without permission.He continued to pursue his quarry,as Johnny turned and raced through the adjacent living room toward the front door.
"Just let me talk!"he demanded,seizing hold of the boy's arm,twisting Johnny to face him.He pressed his face within a couple of inches of Johnny's terrified eyes."If you don't let me study you,your people won't allow access to the others."
Johnny looked back in shock.Few locals spoke to outsiders already.Even fewer cared whether he spoke to anyone or not,and plenty would have expressed their distaste if he did talk with the anthropologists,for then the academics would never leave the reservation population alone again.Tears began to trickle down Johnny's cheeks,as his lower lip trembled.He didn't hear the approach of a pickup outside,nor the sound of his father's voice as he spoke harshly to the man's companion. All he saw was Marcus's determined,overzealous face thrust close to his own as he stood trembling.Before Johnny could say anything,Roddy Gage suddenly appeared behind the man's shoulder and roughly spun Parkham to face him,his own expression outraged.
"Who are you?" he demanded."Why are you interrogating my son?"
"I'm Marcus Parkham.I-I'm from the university in Billings-"the man began.
"An anthropologist,"Roddy spat."You have no right!" He glimpsed the tearful expression of fear on Johnny's face and protectively snatched his wrist,steering him close beside him.Thinking that he was in further trouble,Johnny began to cry. "Don't you think you've done enough? Get out of my home or I'll call the sheriff!"
Amazingly enough,Parkham began to plead his case,in spite of the mask of indignation on Roddy's face."Please,I just wanted to study some of the locals."
Roddy gave him a small shove toward the door."Then take your 'studies' someplace else!" he warned.
Again the pathetic anthropology student attempted to reason with Roddy."But he's unique,"he almost whined."Your son is the only half-breed in the area."
Roddy's temper exploded.He released Johnny's arm and he seized hold of Parkham's collar and slammed him against the wall.Johnny flinched in spite of himself."MY SON IS OFF LIMITS!"he said menacingly,through clenched teeth."As for his heritage,that's none of your business! You will refrain from belittling him with your ignorant biases! DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR?"
Marcus swallowed audibly,paling considerably,until his face was as white as his pressed shirt.He managed to nod before Roddy finally released him.Johnny stared with round eyes as he slowly backed up,watching as his father pulled open the front door.Parkham was about to leave,when Roddy felt a tug at his sleeve.Glancing down,he saw Johnny point to the camera around the man's neck.He stopped Marcus and held out his hand expectantly,his expression one of intense disgust.
"I believe that you have something,"he replied coldly.Parkham colored crimson and slowly handed over the camera.Roddy snatched it from his hand,and opened the back,and yanked the roll of film before handing the camera back. The film was exposed,ruining every shot,and Roddy cast him a look of triumph as the unwanted anthropologist retreated to the front porch."My son is too young for a record." At that,Roddy slammed the door in the man's face.
Through the window,Johnny glimpsed Parkham rejoin the woman at the Buick parked outside,then drive away quickly in a cloud of dust. He let out a shuddering breath,swiping a hand across his wet cheeks,then turned to face his father,expecting a scolding for both forgetting what time he was due,and for allowing a stranger into the house.But while his father's face was still red with anger,it wasn't directed at his son.
"I-I'm s-sorry,Papa,"he stammered."I-I forgot to look a-at the clock,an'..."
"I'm not mad at you,Son,"Roddy said edgily,cringing at the anger still in his voice. He took a deep breath before looking down at Johnny's apprehensive brown eyes.He rested a hand on his son's shoulder."That man should have never forced his way in here.It was wrong and he should have known better.Are you alright?"
Johnny nodded,then shook his head."Kinda...h-he s-scared me,Papa."
Roddy wrapped his strong arm around Johnny's shoulders."He won't be back here,Wapike,"he said,gazing back down the road toward the retreating car.
Johnny looked up at his father.
"Papa,what're you doin' home so early?"
"When you never showed up at Ed's I got worried.Of course, I expected to find you playing instead of working,and I certainly never expected to find you being interrogated by some over-zealous anthropology students!"
“They were pushy,Papa,"Johnny described."An' the man barged right in the house,even after I told him to leave.Why do some people act so rude?"
Roddy scratched his head."I suppose they never were taught better or have no sense." He ruffled his son's hair."C'mon,let's get back before Ed thinks that I went AWOL!"
Johnny frowned as they headed out to the truck."What's AWOL?"
Roddy chuckled,opening the door so that the boy could climb into the passenger seat."It means 'absent without leave'.That's what they call someone who takes off without permission." He stuck the key in the ignition and started the engine.
Johnny looked shocked. "But you asked Mr.Simonson if you could leave,didn't you?"
"Yes,Wapike! Of course!" Roddy put the truck into drive and headed back down the road to the ranch house and the barns.
Ed was impatiently checking his pocket watch as Roddy's truck bounced up the dusty drive.He was furiously chomping on the unlit cigar stub in his mouth,his bushy white mustache twitching comically as the truck rolled to a stop and the pair emerged from the cab.
"Well,it's about time,Gage!"he said gruffly,as Johnny contritely sidled up next to his father,eyes wary.He liked Ed,but now the man just looked mad.Johnny had seen the old rancher chew out inept or shiftless ranch hands in the past and never dared cross the man.Roddy held up both hands in a placating gesture.
“Now,Ed,Johnny has a good reason for being late,"he began,and proceeded to describe the anthropologists' unwanted visit,complete with the man's cornering Johnny,frightening him in the process.As Roddy explained it,Ed's brow furrowed deeper and his chewing on the cigar intensified.He spat upon the ground in annoyance.
"Damn anthropologists!" he snorted,and Johnny's mouth quivered,thrilled and shocked by the man's curse.His father was mindful of using such language in his presence and seldom swore.Ed sighed and briefly rested a rough hand on Johnny's unruly dark hair."Jake and Nolan need help with the horses.Go on,Son."
"Yes,Sir,"Johnny replied,relieved that the older man wasn't mad at him.He headed for the horse barn.Ed watched him go before turning back to Roddy.
"I'm getting tired of those 'students' trespassing and forcing themselves on the people here,"he grumbled,and Roddy had to agree.
"I'm afraid that these people scared Johnny,"Roddy said in a low voice."I had to collar the man that barged into the house.He was interrogating Johnny as if he was guilty of something.As if it was a crime being both white and Indian."
Ed shook his head in dismay.The two men reached the back step,where Ed's matronly silver-haired wife Betty had come out to meet them.
"Supper's at five,"she announced."You're welcome to stay,Roddy."
Roddy looked slightly embarrassed."I don't want to impose..."
Betty waved that away off-handedly."It's no imposition.And I made Johnny's favorite."
Roddy cracked a grin and nodded.No matter how many times she insisted it was no problem,he always felt greedy when he and Johnny would stay for supper.Since Emma's death it happened more frequently.
"Thank you,Ma'am.Maybe someday one of us boys will learn to cook."
Betty laughed as he continued for the barn,shaking her head in spite of herself.More of Roddy's lightheartedness has been slowly returning.For several months that past winter he had been despondent,only doing what needed to be done; the chores,work,making sure that Johnny was cared for without any thought toward himself.Just one month following Emma's death both had came down with influenza,and Johnny had trudged the quarter-mile to their door,ill himself,seeking help.Since then they had slowly adjusted themselves to their new life,and learned to accept the assistance of their neighbors and friends.
Roddy soon entered the barn where he paused,leaning on the rail,to watch as Johnny helped Nolan take care of the horses after a hard day's work.Despite barely reaching the horse's shhoulder,Johnny was tenderly brushing the burrs from the steed's sides and pausing now and again to murmur to the animal.The horse snorted at him softly,then blew his breath out against the boy's cheek,causing Johnny to giggle.He kissed the horse's snout and continued his brushing below,while Nolan worked on the animal's back and tail.
Roddy watched his son interact with the horse,smiling at the gentleness that Johnny displayed.He never grew cross or impatient with Ed's horses,despite having been nipped a few times and having his foot stepped on. He always followed the mens' instructions and the horses excitedly trotted over when he appeared.
The brown horse in the stall calmly ate the apples that Johnny produced from the feed bin,serenely chewing as the boy stroked his neck.Then Johnny brushed off his hands and climbed between the rails.He glanced at his father with a glowing face,the earlier incident with the anthropologists forgotten.
Roddy reached to stroke the animal's nose briefly."He's a beautiful horse,isn't he,Son?"
“Uh huh,"Johnny replied."He likes me.Someday I'm gonna have my own horses,too,Papa.An' I'll never treat them bad,or let other people do that,either."
"One day you'll make a fine horseman,"agreed Roddy.
Johnny gave the horse one last pat through the rails,then headed out to the yard with his father.
When they reached the house,they removed their work boots and entered the kitchen.Betty smiled and kissed Johnny's cheek as he stepped to the sink to wash his hands.She helped Roddy make sure that the child had clean clothes,brushed his teeth every night,and minded his father,among other things.If he wasn't at school or doing chores,Johnny was spending his time with the sweet-faced woman.
"I hope you're hungry,Darling,"she replied."I have your favorite dish waiting."
"I'm starving!" Johnny declared,rinsing off and reaching for a towel.He quickly dried,then took the extra seat squeezed in at the small table between his father and Betty.
Not only did Betty prepare chicken,but there were fresh,ripe tomatoes,sweet corn,potato salad,cold milk,light biscuits and sliced melon as dessert.Johnny accepted the plate that his father dished up and quietly ate,mindful of his manners as he listened to the men discuss ranch business.They were startled by the firm knock that sounded on the screen door,and Ed got up to answer it.A black-haired uniformed deputy from the Sheriff's department stood patiently waiting on the back step.
"Can I help you?"Ed asked.
"Yes,I was wondering if a Roderick Gage is here? I went past his place,but no one was there.I understand that he works for you."
"Yes,he does," Ed glanced back into the room,and Roddy rose from the table and joined him at the door,pushing through to join the deputy outside.
"I'm Roddy Gage,"he said."Is there something wrong?"
The deputy looked almost apologetic."My office got a call from a couple of anthropology students from Billings,"he explained."Something about use of excessive force and damage to property."
Johnny had gotten up from his chair and pressed his face to the screen door,glancing out,before wordlessly joining his father outside.He surreptitiously moved to Roddy's side as he spoke with the officer.
"Those anthropologists were trespassing,"Roddy explained,glancing down at Johnny and placing his hand upon the boy's head."They entered my house and were interrogating my son.I,ah,used a little force to make my point clear."
"And the damage to property?"
"They were taking pictures,"Roddy replied."I yanked their film."
The corner of the deputy's mouth curled upward and his hazel eyes glittered as he jotted Roddy's statement down in a small notebook.Pausing,the man winked at Johnny and crouched down to face him.
"I understand that you asked them to leave,Son."
Johnny nodded solemnly."Uh huh,"he said."I did,but they didn't listen to me,even after I...."He shrugged sheepishly,too embarrassed to admit that he'd cried.The deputy seemed to understand what he meant.The deputy looked up at Roddy,then put his hand on Johnny's shoulder.He didn't understand those anthropologists' demeanor towards the Indian population,and he didn't condone the way that they've been intimidating the local children,either.
"Well,you did the right thing,"he reassured Johnny."Those anthropologists frightened some kids a couple of days ago in town."
"What is the Sheriff's department doing about them?"Roddy asked.
The deputy straightened up."Right now,we're documenting incidents,but if the complaints persist,we'll file restraining orders.Anyone commits a crime,we'll prosecute.I don't think you have anything to worry about."
"What about the charges filed by these two?"
The deputy grinned."I doubt that the Sheriff will take them seriously when he learns that they were the ones trespassing and causing emotional harm to your son.Well,I won't take up any more of your time.Have a good evening."
Roddy shook his hand."Thanks for everything."
The deputy nodded and headed back to his patrol cruiser.Johnny watched him go.
"He looked half-Indian,Papa."
"Yes,he does,"Roddy agreed,watching the police officer climb into his cruiser.
"Papa,if that man became a deputy,you think I could be a firefighter when I grow up?" Johnny had been harboring the dream of being a firefighter since witnessing a fire in town as a four-year-old.He'd gone on a shopping trip with Emma,and had stood among the small crowd,enthralled with how the volunteer company battled the blaze.Emma had to drag him away,and then all Johnny had chattered about afterward was the truck,the men battling the flames,the heat and smoke and how spellbound the crowd was.
"I don't see why not,"Roddy replied,sitting down at the table once more.
Johnny climbed into his seat. "Papa,what did you want to be when you were growing up?"
Roddy thought briefly.Truth was,he had not dreamt much as a kid. With Forrest Gage's constant drinking,he'd left school and scrounged for jobs to pay for the rent and bills.
"I never thought about it,even after I left school,"he admitted."But I wanted to work with horses,and now I am.Don't forget to eat your vegetables,Son."
Johnny pondered his father's words."Papa,how old were you when you left school?"
"Fourteen. What's with the inquisition?"
"The what?" Johnny looked confused.
“You're asking a lot of questions tonight,"Roddy said."Anything else?"
Johnny shook his head,poking at his food."Uh-uh."
Roddy smirked around his mouthful and tapped his son's plate.Johnny took the cue and resumed eating.
Later that evening,as Roddy was tucking the sheet over Johnny, he kicked the covers away."Too hot."
"Oh." Roddy folded the sheet back,then sat on the edge of the bed.Johnny was sprawled on his stomach,and Roddy softly rubbed the smooth skin on his son's back.
“Papa?" Johnny murmured."Those anthro'polgists weren't very nice today."
Johnny rolled over to gaze at his father,his expression slightly confused."How come some people,like the Simonsons,Jake an' Nolan are nice,but other people,like Uncle Teddy an' Grandpa aren't?"
"I don't know,Wapike,"he admitted."Sometimes I wonder that myself.I guess that's the way that people are.Some people have better sense than others."
"But why do some people act mean?" Johnny persisted."Teddy calls me names,an' so do the kids at school.An' those anthros talked to me like I was dumb," Johnny frowned."I don't like it,Papa."
"You must not let everything that everyone says bother you."
“Their words still hurt,Papa,"Johnny insisted.
"I know,"he sighed."But sometimes a person just needs to let those bad words blow over him like the wind.You hear them but they don't do anything to you." Roddy leaned forward to touch his forehead to his son's."Now go to sleep."
Roddy kissed Johnny's forehead,then blew out the kerosene lamp. He stood up to leave but Johnny shifted to lean on his elbow.
Roddy paused in the doorway,holding the curtain back."Yes,Johnny?"
"There are more good people in the world than bad,isn't there?"
“I'd like to think so," Roddy smiled."Good night,Son."
"G'night,Papa." Johnny lay back down with a satisfied sigh.
The anthropologists' visits to the reservation were winding down,as Marcus Parkham sat at his desk that evening following a productive day of observances.It was still hot,despite the fact that the sun had gone down over an hour ago,and he'd shed his shirt in an act of self-preservation.He rested his bare feet on the rug as he withdrew a sheaf of photographs that he'd picked up at the drugstore.Even though Roddy Gage had yanked his last roll of film,he'd gotten some really good pictures of the children in town. The images were stark,black-and-white,but they were telling in their austerity.The serious faces and dark,poverty-hardened eyes reinforced the conditions that he was writing about.
He was still disappointed in losing the photos of John Gage he'd snapped that day; the boy was the lone child in the area he'd been assigned to study that wasn't a full-blood,and that fascinated Parkham.Interracial marriages weren't rare in Montana,but they were uncommon,with Indians and whites generally avoiding association with each other.What had drawn Roddy Gage and his deceased wife together? What were the circumstances of her death? What kind of future did a biracial boy on a reservation face? These questions flitted through his mind as Parkham lifted one photo of Johnny that he'd managed to get with an earlier roll of film.It had been in town,when they boy sat in his father's battered old Chevy pickup outside the auto parts store.The small boy stared at the camera framed by the vehicle's passenger door window,eyes squinted in the strong afternoon sunlight,dark hair askew,and his expression startled.Another more distant photo,taken of a group of children playing,depicted Johnny sprinting after a small rubber ball.He was shirtless,his spine and ribs clearly evident. Like most of the reservation children Johnny was thin,but whether that owed to limited food supplies or genetics,or a combination of both,Parkham wasn't sure.
Marcus had sat semi-concealed in his car parked several yards away,watching the small group as they engaged in their impromptu game,taking down notes.While John Gage seemed accepted by the majority of his peers,there was one boy who seemed to regard the youth as an interloper.He was a larger,heavier boy,with a head of sleek hair that swept to his shoulders.He'd begrudgingly allowed Johnny to join in at the insistence of another youth,but now he apparently had enough.When Johnny managed to catch his fifth ball effortlessly,the bigger boy kicked at the dusty ground in irritation and stalked over.
Parkham had watched as the larger youth approached Johnny,snatched the ball from his hands and gave the smaller child a harsh shove.Johnny has stood his ground and words were exchanged,but in the end Marcus watched as Johnny stepped back to avoid a confrontation and started to leave.Several of the other kids idled,unsure of what to do next,and one boy dashed after Johnny to try and convince him to stay,from what Parkham assumed was being said.But Johnny had shook his head and then shrugged before walking away.Parkham had a lot to write following that incident,as he tracked Johnny with his eyes until the boy disappeared behind a scraggly hedge at the edge of the empty lot.
Parkham sighed,stretching in his chair before rising slowly.He was thirsty,and the thought of a cold drink overruled sitting hunched in a cramped desk chair on a hot evening.He shut his notebooks,put away the envelope of photos,and pulled the blank sheet of paper from the typewriter before padding off to his small apartment's kitchen.He'd made a pitcher of iced tea when he arrived home following the altercation at the Gage homestead and he hoped that it was chilled enough to drink as he reached into a cupboard for a glass,then reached for the ice cube tray.The pitcher was cold and frosty to the touch and he withdrew it and poured the brown-hued liquid over the ice in the glass.He wondered idly if the Gage home had at least ice in that small icebox that he'd glimpsed in the tiny kitchen as he brought the glass to his lips and drank.
Johnny had tossed and turned for over forty minutes in a futile effort to fall asleep in the lingering heat.His father had opened every window wide,but without even a fan to move the stifling air,it was impossible to stay comfortable.Johnny was clad in just his boxers,but every time he shifted his skin stuck to the sheet underneath him and strands of his hair were plastered to his temples from a fine sheen of sweat,and his pillow was damp. He rolled over in growing impatience,trying to find a good position. He wondered how the house could be so unbearably hot and muggy like this in the summertime,then be drafty and frigid in winter. Apart from some decent weather in spring and fall,the little house was either suffocating or freezing cold.
He snorted and rolled over in annoyance.Brownie,his cat,padded silently into the stillness,and Johnny felt the feline's landing as he leapt up onto the mattress.Next thing he heard was the cat's purring as Brownie thrust his nose close to the boy's ear,then settled with a soft bump beside him.Johnny felt the cat's hot,hairy back against his skin and flinched,then shoved the cat away.
"Get off!" he muttered in annoyance,and was promptly bitten on the wrist for his trouble."Ouch!" Brownie hissed and slunk beneath the bed.Tiny beads of blood erupted from the tooth marks on Johnny's wrist.
Johnny sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.He stomped into the kitchen,where he glimpsed the faint glow coming from his father's bedroom through the doorway.The Gage house was small,comprising just three rooms,with Johnny's space divided from the pantry. The doorway had no door,just a curtain made from a couple of yards of a vibrant floral patterned muslin. HIs father's room was not much bigger,with the full-sized bed taking up most of the space.There was just enough room for a slim bureau for clothes,Emma's rocker,and the wood-burning stove in the corner.Roddy was seated on the bed removing his clothes in preparation for bed.The two small windows in the room were opened wide in an effort to catch any breeze.At the creak of the floorboard he turned as he was tugging his shirt off,glimpsing his son peering through the doorway.
"It's too hot,"Johnny stated,shuffling inside the room and flopping down wearily onto the bed."Can't sleep."
Roddy's fingertips swept the damp bangs from the boy's forehead.He balled up the sweat-stained shirt and tossed it onto the chair.Then he leaned back beside Johnny on his back,his feet still resting on the floor with a sigh.
"It is hot,"he admitted."I was thinking maybe we should sleep outside."
Johnny looked over with a pleading look."Could we?"
"Why not?" Roddy got up and reached for the blanket he'd shoved off the bed.He also took up his pillow,and Johnny scooted off his father's bed and ran for his room.Within moments he had his own blanket and pillow under his arm,and they headed outside with the lantern lighting their way.
The tiny light attracted a few moths,and the winged insects fluttered around the weak illumination as Roddy set the lantern on a stump a short distance from the back door.At dusk the mosquitoes swarmed so much that it was unpleasant sitting out some evenings,but once the sun set the frenzy died down.The crickets chirped in the tall prairie grass beyond the perimeter of the yard,while katydids sang in the cottonwoods that formed the windbreak on the northern side of the property.The darkened house loomed like a black silhouette against the purple night sky and the heavens were lit with millions of stars as Roddy spread his and Johnny's blankets on a wide swath of thick soft grass.
Johnny dropped down onto the blanket with a sigh,glad at least to be out of the stuffy house.It was warm outside,but not nearly so stifling,and a faint breeze came up from the creek bottoms south of the house.He felt his father settle beside him,leaving the lantern lit like a night light.Roddy threw one arm over Johnny's shoulders briefly,ruffling the hair at the back of his head.
Johnny was already falling asleep. "Uh huh..."
Roddy smiled to himself,keeping his hand rested on the small of Johnny's back as the child drifted off.He could feel the steady rise and fall of his son's chest,and the warmth of his bare skin against his palm. In the faint light he peered at the boy's still form before laying his head down on his own pillow.He was sound asleep himself in a matter of minutes.
Marcus Parkham was called to the dean's office shortly after breakfast the following morning.When he got to the man's office his study partner,Gladys Johnson,sat waiting patiently in the outer office.Gladys was a study in cool detachment as she sat quietly,waiting for the dean's secretary to admit them.She had been this way from the start,rebuffing all attempts by Parkham to try and ingratiate himself with his study subjects.He got the distinct feeling that she disliked all Indians,and wondered to himself what had led her to study anthropology in the first place.She didn't seem to possess respect for the people they were observing,and it had been her who insisted that he act more proactively in gaining research material and data.He had been curious about the local tribes since he was a child,and he wanted to help the Bureau of Indian Affairs with helping the people under its jurisdiction.
The secretary's intercom buzzed,and the woman looked up at the two waiting students."Mr.Holland will see you now."
The Dean of Colleges,Frank Holland,was seated behind his broad desk when the pair entered.A serious,dignified-looking man of sixty,he gazed over his reading glasses as the two entered and took seats before him.
"Mr. Parkham,Miss Johnson,"he said in a deep bass voice. "Thank you for responding in a timely manner.The reason that I called you here is of extreme importance." The man pulled open a drawer and withdrew an small envelope. "Last evening I received a restraining order from one Roderick Gage that was filed against the two of you by the Sheriff's Department. Do you care to elaborate on why this man felt it necessary to file such an order?"
Marcus drew in a breath; he knew that this was coming.He traded looks with Gladys before speaking to the dean. "Gladys and I were at his place yesterday afternoon,while we were seeking study subjects.I,uh,guess that he didn't appreciate us being there."
"His son was home alone,I understand,"Dean Holland added,glancing at the restraining order,then at the list of residents that his students were covering in the county."His nine-year-old son,"he added with emphasis."Mr.Parkham,one of our mandates was not to pursue minors for interview without written consent of their parent or guardian.And Roderick Gage's underage son was approached by the two of you yesterday."
Parkham looked flustered as he struggled to come up with a reasonable excuse.He looked at Gladys,who wore a smug expression,then down at his shoes."W-we were seeking additional information...I-"
"We are to follow our mandate,Mr.Parkham,"the dean interjected firmly."Not to bend the rules.These people are our study subjects,but we're also responsible for our actions as guests on their land." Dean Holland rubbed his upper lip thoughtfully for a moment,fingering the restraining order with his free hand."Let me explain it to you,Mr.Parkham,Miss Johnson.We are to observe only.No interrogations,or forcible entries.If someone does not wish to speak to you,you are to vacate their properties immediately.Do I make myself clear?"
"Observe,but do not interrogate,"Dean Holland sternly warned."One more action like this and our participation with this study will be terminated,and your grant will be revoked.Plus,I do not wish to have this institution's good name dragged through the mud .
Parkham and Johnson exited the office without a word.While he was relieved that the appointment was over,Marcus was worried about the future of his study if he was paired with Gladys.He glanced over at the woman she paused to dig into her purse.He hesitantly touched her elbow.
"Uh,Gladys?" he said,as her cold blue eyes rose to meet his green ones."Perhaps i-t would be better..if we weren't paired together...f-for this study,that is."
Gladys withdrew her car keys,then sharply tugged her purse strap over her shoulder as she jerked her elbow from his hand.
"Fine,"she sneered."Have it your way.If it wasn't for me we'd never get anything accomplished. You can't let those uneducated savages boss you around,Parkham."
"Those 'savages' are people."
The woman snorted,stalking for the exit,Parkham trotting after her back out into the muggy morning air.He trailed her all the way to her car.
"People,"she muttered."When they live like vermin,refuse to work,and drink themselves to death?"
"They're impoverished,Gladys,"Parkham explained."And not all of them are unemployed.You saw that at the Gage place yesterday."
The woman jerked open the car door and climbed behind the wheel.Marcus had to jump back as she furiously swung the door closed."I don't know why I ever accepted this grant or this study.It's a big waste of time and money."
"I don't know why,either,"Parkham muttered,as she pulled away.While he was as eager to crack the surface on these people and gain some insight into their lives,he knew that they had dignity,even with their problems.It was fixing those problems that drove his work.Sighing,Parkham turned to head for his own vehicle parked a short distance away.
Roddy had a rare day off that Thursday,Johnny's tenth birthday.He wanted to spend it with some quality time,and Johnny wanted to see a movie and have ice cream in town. He seldom got to go to the movies,and there was an interesting matinee showing at the town's sole single-screen theater,a Disney picture called 'Old Yeller'.Johnny had read the Fred Gipson juvenile novel in fourth grade,and had wanted to see the film when it was released the previous Christmas.He'd never celebrated his birthday with a children's party; such an event was unheard-of in a place where a gift meant something practical like new shoes or mittens,and sugar was a precious commodity.His mama had baked a simple cake each year before her death,but Roddy was not adept at baking anything,so he agreed to the trip to the movie. Following lunch they headed out in the pickup.
Johnny sat perched on the edge of the seat in his excitement.Roddy had to smile to himself; their lives involved so much hard work,and while he'd tried to make things interesting for his son,it was still difficult knowing how much Johnny missed.He'd never worn anything new; their home was drafty,difficult to keep clean,and lacked real plumbing,heat and electricity; he attended a substandard school with rotating staff.Roddy's heart ached knowing these things,but it also swelled with pride and devotion for his only child as he glimpsed the eagerness in his son's eyes.Johnny impulsively reached over and fitted his small hand beneath his father's as it rested on the bench seat between them,and Roddy gave it a squeeze.Love,on the other hand,didn't cost him a dime.
In no time they reached the town and rolled down the main street toward the movie theater.The building stood on the main street,and it was easy for Johnny to spot with it's illuminated marquee sign.The place was small and nondescript,painted a tan and beige.Roddy parked nearby in a public lot beside the bank and they crossed the street. A small group of children,and a few mothers,stood in a line that snaked from the ticket window.Roddy was the only father present,and he stood out tall among the women and children.He was wearing his Western dress shirt,clean dungarees usually saved for social trips,and his dress cowboy boots.Johnny thought he cut a handsome figure dressed so nice,and a couple of the women cast sneaking glances at him while holding their children's hands. Johnny,too,was dressed up for this special trip to town in a short-sleeved cotton shirt bearing a pattern of bucking broncos,khaki pants,and his own scuffed cowboy boots.His unruly hair had been slicked down by a wet comb at home,but riding in the fast-moving truck with the windows rolled down had sent the waves wild.Roddy reached to smooth an errant lock that stuck up from the boy's head.Johnny had adamantly refused the Vaseline.
They reached the ticket window and Roddy paid for two matinee passes.Then buying one small popcorn to share,they headed into the dim auditorium.The crowd wasn't large and there were plenty of seats.The pair took two near the back,and Johnny gazed about excitedly,soaking up the atmosphere.The seats were plush and deep,wall sconces lined either side of the auditorium and illuminated the angular paintings on the wall,and a curtain covered the screen.A single teenaged usher led patrons to their seats,and he paused to remind Roddy of the no smoking rule during show times when he lit up.Roddy nodded and extinguished the cigarette.He pocketed the pack and passed Johnny the box of popcorn.He remembered his first date with Emma at this very theater.It had been 1946 and they'd been friends just four months,and had fallen in love. The following April they were married by a justice of the peace at the courthouse; Johnny arrived that August.
The lights dimmed as the curtain lifted.The show started with a Mickey Mouse cartoon,and Johnny stretched up straight to watch,eagerly gobbling at a handful of popcorn.Roddy wished that whatever magic transpired could be preserved and he could see his energetic,impulsive son capable of sitting still like this when needed. Roddy remembered the times when Emma,pregnant with their only child,placed his hand on her swollen belly to feel the baby move.She had been awakened plenty of times by the unborn infant kicking,and when Johnny was old enough to crawl he crept all over the house.By the time he was a toddler he had to be watched because he proved to be an inquisitive and fearless child. Once Emma turned her back for a second and when she focused on her young son again Johnny stripped and was discovered sitting in the middle of a mud puddle,playing gleefully.He collided with the door jamb at two and broke his nose,and at four he jumped from the creek bank without warning and was hauled out of the water by his father. Needless to say,he was frequently getting into jams.
The movie was very good,and Johnny felt like he knew Travis Coates like an old friend,and he cried when the boy had to shoot his beloved pet due to Yeller getting rabies.He was still wiping his eyes when the house lights came up.Then something embarrassing happened when they exited the auditorium.while Johnny was getting a drink of water from the nearby fountain,a freckle-faced boy with a spiky blond crew cut saw his father standing off to the side waiting and stepped over.
"Indians don't watch movies!"
Johnny straightened up,nonplussed."Huh?"
"You're Indian! Did you see that tomahawk Travis's dad brought home? That's 'cause he whupped your tails!"
"Jimmy!" A harried blonde woman tugging a reluctant younger boy hissed.She snatched the boy's arm,then cast the Gages an apologetic look."I'm sorry."
Roddy simply shrugged.A little boy's taunts were nothing compared to the insults,threats and abuse that he'd endured since he was a child attending the BIA-run boarding school in North Dakota farm country."He's still a boy." The woman smiled as her kids took off,leaving her to chase after them.Roddy patted Johnny on the back."C'mon,Son.Let's go get that ice cream."
The nearby ice cream parlor,Patterson's,boasted an old-fashioned soda fountain,and Johnny gawked as they passed through the door.The decor was largely unchanged since the 1920s,with a marble countertop,iron stools,polished walnut paneling,and a mirrored wall behind the counter.Glass shelves lined the mirror,and the glass jars that sat on them were filled with a wide assortment of candy.The soda dispenser was original,as was the hot fudge pot.Johnny climbed onto a stool at the counter,his eyes dazzled.A teenage boy in a white paper cap and an apron tied around his waist stepped over.
"What can I get you?"
Johnny glanced up at the menu board,undecided. There was so many choices! "Uh...I'll take chocolate with sprinkles,"he decided.
The teen looked at Roddy. "Vanilla,"he said,adding,"Make it single scoops for both."
Johnny had an idea he's order only single scoops,but he didn't really care too much.Two scoops cost forty cents,and he'd seen the modest amount of money in his father's change purse.The movie and popcorn alone had set them back fifty cents apiece.It didn't sound like much,but when Roddy's pay was only one hundred dollars a month,they couldn't overspend.Roddy still had to fill the tank in the truck before heading back home.
The soda jerk set about scooping their choices,and Johnny folded his arms on the counter,craning his neck to watch as the teenager deftly scooped perfectly round dollops into each dish,then dramatically sprinkled the colored garnish over Johnny's selection.He served the treat with a flourish.
"Can I get you anything else?"
Roddy shook his head."No thank you.This is fine."
Johnny spooned up a large sample on his spoon and let it melt on his tongue.He'd had Betty's home-made ice cream many times,but she always made plain. Having chocolate was a rare treat.He was so engrossed in savoring his dish that he didn't notice Marcus Parkham entering the store.The anthropology major started down the aisle toward one of the rear booths,and he caught Roddy's eye as he passed.An uncomfortable look passed between the two men before Parkham hastily continued,eyes averted.Johnny saw his father's frown and looked confused.He'd missed the passing man's face.
"Papa? Who was that?"
"It's nobody,Son,"Roddy replied curtly,turning back to his dish."Eat your ice cream."
Johnny cast a baffled look at his father before picking up his spoon again.
"I,uh...wanted to apologize,"a voice said behind him,and Johnny's scalp tingled at the familiar voice.But before he could even turn around his father had slid off his stool and was nose-to-nose with the anthropologist.
"You have a lot of nerve!" he said in controlled anger."After what you did a few days ago.Haven't you done enough?"
The other patrons inside the shop stopped what they were doing and looked on in astonishment.While Roddy was a regular visitor to town,he seldom patronized the restaurant,and a couple of white men drinking coffee at the far end of the counter likewise stood.They approached the scene,and one of the men spoke up.
Marcus swallowed,his eyes shifting between the man and Roddy."I'm fine.I was just leaving."
The white man stepped closer."Maybe it's you who should leave,Injun!" he said menacingly to Roddy.
Johnny felt his heart skip a beat,then his stomach drop as he glanced between the stern faces of the men.He gazed at the remains of his ice cream melting in the dish and sighed.He started to slide from the stool as Parkham retreated.His father simply glared at the other man,unafraid of his threats.Instead he gestured to Johnny to follow him.
"Come on,Son,"was all Roddy said,and Johnny obediently followed his father outside.The other man's slur rang out in the humid summer air as they stepped onto the sidewalk.
Roddy deliberately ignored the man's shout as he steered Johnny down the sidewalk and back to where they'd parked the truck.Inside he was seething,but outside he was cool and detached as he reached into his pants pocket for the keys.He unlocked the driver's side door and Johnny scrambled into the cab.Roddy slammed his door so hard that Johnny's ears rang.
"It's alright,"Roddy said tightly in defeat,then sighed."I'm not angry with you.I'm angry with those...people back there!"
“I saw one of them,Papa,"Johnny said."He was the man who came to the house.Papa...why was that other man so mean?"
"Not everyone you'll meet will like you,"Roddy said."That man doesn't like Indians,I guess."
Roddy shifted in his seat."So what did you think of the movie?"
"I liked it,"Johnny said."'Cept that Travis's papa stole that tomahawk an' headdress without even askin'.He should have left them alone."
"Not all folks hold our people's sacred relics in such high regard,Wapike,"Roddy replied as he started the engine.He pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street,then headed toward home."But I'm glad that you enjoyed your birthday,Son."
Johnny grinned."I did,Papa.Thanks."
As they headed out of town Roddy began to sing an off-tune rendition of "Old Susanna",much to Johnny's amusement.He joined in,singing at the top of his lungs,trying to out-sing his father.He no longer worried about the previous incident in the drug store,or of Marcus Parkham's presence.
The end of the summer was near,and the local children would be heading off to school in a few days.Marcus Parkham and Gladys Johnson were done with their study until the next summer.The young woman had decided to switch her major,changing from anthropology to English History,which meant that Parkham would be paired in the spring with a new partner to continue their studies-if they received an additional grant to do so.He hoped so,for he wanted to write about the things he'd learned that summer.The goal was to document several of the local children for several years and gauge their development and growth into adulthood.He hoped he'd be able to continue his research.
As he was packing away his files in the empty anthropology classroom a sheaf of papers slipped from one folder and fluttered to the floor.Muttering softly,he set the file aside and knelt to begin gathering the spilled pile together.A few snapshots lay underneath one of the penciled reports and Parkham paused to glance at them.Johnny Gage's squint-eyed gaze met his from the photo,the boy's expression one of annoyance,one hand shading his face from the bright late-afternoon sun.
Parkham remembered the moment well.He'd gone into town to refuel his car.There was a small group of children outside the small town grocery,and he saw the youngsters passing around a single sack of penny candy.Johnny Gage was among them,and Parkham surreptitiously reached into the open window of the Nash for his Speed Graphic. The camera was bulky and difficult to handle,but its photo quality and depth were unsurpassed and he aimed at the children as they approached.He had managed to snap a few pictures before an older man,obviously angry at his intrusion,hollered at him to leave.That had accounted for the expression on Johnny's face as he released the shutter one last time.Sighing,Parkham tucked the trio of snapshots back into the folder and straightened up.
'Next summer,'he thought to himself.'Next summer I'll be able to continue this study,if only we get the funds.'
-------- The End --------
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