The Drowning Man: Prologue
Now something wasn't right.
Brian Little Wolf squinted past the pock-marked windshield at the mountain rising over the road and tried to put his finger on what was different. Something out of kilter, he could feel it in his gut. Red Cliff Canyon looked the samethe road snaking ahead around a hump of mountain, the sun beating down through a sky as blue and clear as glass. He adjusted his spine against the hard seat of the pickup and squinted into the sun that glistened in the streams of runoff tracing the road. He had the odd sense that he'd never driven up this road before, never been in this canyon.
Well, that was ridiculous. True, Red Cliff Canyon was a sacred place, which always filled him with awe, as if, in the midst of the vast isolation and silence, he was not alone. Spirits dwelled in the canyon, and that was a fact. They had carved their own images on the boulders that jutted out of the mountain as proof of their presence, so the people would know they were always with them. They had watched over the canyon, the elders said, from the beginning of time when the Creator made the Arapahosbefore He made the other human beings. Every time Brian Little Wolf drove through the canyon, he looked for the images, comforted by the flash of light-colored figures carved into the rocks. He'd always felt safe in the canyon, comforted. Not like today, when he felt bereft, alone in a strange and lonely place.
He'd been driving through Red Cliff Canyon since the summer he was thirteen years old, hired on as a junior wrangler up at the Hidden Lake Dude Ranch where the road narrowed into two-tracks that loped into the Shoshone National Forest. The foreman had tossed him the keys and said, "Kid, go down to the Taylor Ranch and get a couple extra bales of hay for the horses," and he'd said, "Yessir," and jumped into the old black pickup, this very pickup he was driving now, half-sitting and half-standing, hauling himself upright over the steering wheel so that he could see the road. He'd turned the key in the ignition and stomped on the gas pedal, the way he'd seen the cowboys do, and bumped across the field, hoping he'd make it to the road before the foreman realized he'd never driven before and called him back. He'd driven down the canyon, picked up the hay, and headed back to the dude ranch, fighting the steering wheel all the way to keep from plunging down the mountain into the creek.
That was ten years ago, and ever since, he'd been in Red Cliff Canyon so many times that he could find his way blindfolded. In the summers, as soon as the tourists arrived, he stayed up at the dude ranch, looked after the horses, took the guests out on trail rides. Sometimes a whole week went by before he drove down the canyon. But during the winter, he'd drive up to the ranch two or three times to knock the snow off the roofs so they wouldn't collapse, fix the fences around the corral. A thousand tasks, just to keep the place from being swallowed in the Wyoming blizzards.
He knew this canyon, he told himself. He'd seen it in all kinds of weather, from a hundred different vantage points. Why did he feel as if he were seeing it for the first time?
He pulled himself over the steering wheel and scanned the boulder-strewn slope. Ah, there was a petroglyph, and another right beside it. And up ahead, as the road started to curveyes, there it was, the long wall of carved pictures that looked like humans with square-shaped heads and rounded eyes and short, stick-like legs, and arms and fingers that looked like twigs floating in the water.
Water. That was it!
He hadn't seen the image of the Drowning Man. It was always the first petroglyph that came into view, looming over the road not more than thirty feet up the slope. The guardian of the canyon, welcoming visitors into the sacred place of the spirits. The image gave permission to proceed, and one shouldn't proceed without permission. Yet somehow he'd driven right past. He hadn't paid the proper respect. It explained why he felt so uneasy.
He pressed hard on the accelerator . The tires squealed into the silence as he drove around the curve, keeping his eyes glued on the road for the turnout ahead. He had to go back and pay his respects, ask the spirit to grant him a safe passage through the canyon.
He pulled into the turnout, an apron of land that jutted over the steep drop off into the creek below. Moving the gearreverse, forwardhe carved out a half turn until he was back onto the road heading downhill. Calmness began to settle over him. The other spirits had shown themselvesthat was true, wasn't it? He hadn't just imagined them, or seen the figures that his eyes had seen so many times he'd assumed his eyes were seeing them again. Yet he had failed to see the Drowning Man.
He came around another curve near the mouth of the canyon, crossed the lane and bumped to a stop. This was the place. The pickup tilted sideways toward the barrow ditch. He got out and started up the slope. No sign of the image.
He bent forward and kept going. There was a steep pitch to the slope, and he had to dig the heels of his boots into the soft earth, still moist from the snow that had covered the ground all winter. He could see the road unwinding below. The petroglyph had to be here somewhere. He kept climbing, struggling to fight off the panic that grabbed at him, like the branches plucking at his arms and pant legs. Why would the spirit refuse to show its image?
It was then that he saw the rock where the image should have been. His breath knotted in his throat. The face was a raw wound with pink and white stripes running like blood and water through the stone. The edges were jagged, broken by the deep thrusts of some kind of weapon. Beyond the rock was nothing but piles of other rocks wedged among the scraggly brush and pines. There was a hollow sound in the breeze sweeping through the canyon.
The Drowning Man was gone.
Excerpt: Chapter 1
He wasn't sure how long the gray sedan had been behind him. Somewhere along Seventeen-Mile Road, Father John Aloysius O'Malley had glanced in the rear view mirror and seen the vehicle hugging his bumper. He'd turned right onto Blue Sky Highway, the sedan following, then pressed down on the accelerator and lurched ahead. The sedan had dropped back before sprinting for his bumper again. The noise of tires beating against asphalt drifted past Father John's half-opened windows. He could see the driver clearly in the mirror: dark eyes that flashed in a square, brown face and black hair cut long, tangled around the collar of a reddish shirt. There was something determined and fierce in his expression.
Father John held the old red Toyota pickup steady at about forty miles an hour and kept driving north. Turandot blared from the tape player on the seat beside him, mingling with the rush of wind through the cab. He'd just visited Hiram Whitebird, who had gotten out of the hospital yesterday. And he'd promised Mickey and Irene Wolf he'd stopped by to see their new son this afternoon. He glanced at his watch: almost five o'clock. He didn't have time for the gray sedan.
They were the only vehicles on the road. Outside his window was a stretch of scrub brush that bumped into the barren foothills of the Wind River Range, and on the other side, nothing but the flat, open plains of the Wind River Reservation melting into the blue sky on the horizon. It was the last Monday in June, the Moon When the Hot Weather Begins, in the way that the Arapahos kept track of the passing time, and the wild grass that checkered the plains looked green against the brown earth. Houses were scattered about, set back from the road with rounded white propane tanks, pickups and old cars dropped onto the bare-dirt. An assortment of clothes and towels flapped on lines strung between poles.
The roofs of Ethete flashed ahead, and Father John started to ease on the brake pedal. The sedan stayed with him, the driver grimacing into the specks of sun that danced on his windshield. He was Indian, Father John was sure, but no one he recognized. No one from the reservation. He considered pulling over to let the pickup shoot ahead, then thought better of it. There was a chance the vehicle might put him in the ditch. He could almost feel the resolve andthat was it, the angerbehind the grimace.
Anything could have triggered the anger. Father John had been the pastor of St. Francis Mission on the reservation now for almost nine years. Nine years of counseling parishioners, listening to a hundred different problemsthe alcoholism and abuse, the break-ups and divorces, the lost jobs and rebellious teenagers, the lingering despair. And he, a white man, trying to talk Arapahos through to the other side where there was hope. But there was always the risk that when someone found the way to go forward, someone else was left behind, someone who blamed the pastor and decided to look for revenge.
He followed the road through the outskirts of Ethete, mountain peaks floating into the sky on the west. The sedan was still on his tail. Ford, with an out-of-state license plate. A couple of houses passed outside his window, kids playing in the yards. A truck was stopped at the light swinging over the intersection ahead.
Father John made a sharp left turn across the highway and into the parking lot of the gas station and convenience store on the corner, the sedan right behind. He skidded to a stop at the curb that ran alongside the sidewalk in front of the store, got out and walked around to the car drawing into the next slot. The license plate was from Colorado. "What do you want?" he said as the Indian lifted himself out of the front seat.
© Margaret Coel