margaret coel
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        Winter's Child
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        Night of the White Buffalo
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wind river




Winter's Child

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The Girl with Braided Hair The Girl with Braided Hair: Excerpt

The air tasted of summer—of dust and dried sage and brittle grass. Cottonwoods straddled a dry creek bed, branches splayed against the blue sky, and the lumps of sagebrush scattered about shimmered like water in the sun. There was a reddish tint to the bluffs that rose out of the earth. A hot wind knocked against the Toyota pickup and whistled through the cab, nearly drowning out The Magic Flute that blared from the tape player on the front seat. It was the last Monday in July, the moon when the chokecherries begin to ripen, in the Arapaho Way of marking the passing time. Father John Aloysius O'Malley shifted into low gear and pointed the pickup down a slight decline. He could feel the rear tires slipping. Pebbles and dust spewed from beneath the wheels and laid a thin golden film over the rearview window. The slope flattened into the gulley that trailed the base of a bluff. He followed the tire tracks that ran across the brown earth.

"Might wanna head out to the Gas Hills," Thomas Whiteman had told him. The elder's voice had cracked on the telephone, and for a moment, Father John thought the call was breaking up.

"Somebody buried in a gulley out in no man's land. Wild animal got to the bones." The old man sounded like himself again, the voice strong with indignation. "Ain't right, Father. Buried alone, nobody knows where you are, nobody prays for you, blesses your body."

Father John had written down the directions, trying to picture the location: Gas Hills Road, east of Highway 789, just beyond the border of the Wind River Reservation, nothing much out there. He'd been at St. Francis Mission on the reservation now for almost ten years, seven years as the pastor—longer than the Jesuits usually left a man in one place, for which he was grateful; he could find his way blindfolded down the asphalt roads and the narrow dirt tracks and across the vast emptiness by the feel of the wind, the sound of the old pickup's tires thumping on the hard-parked earth.

He was familiar with the wild, remote areas around the reservation. So many times he'd hiked into the wilderness to think and pray and draw near to the silence. God was in the silence.

Whenever a body had been found in the wilderness—a rancher or a hiker spotting something protruding from the earth, something that didn't belong—the phone had rung at St. Francis. And on the line, the Fremont County sheriff, the local FBI agent, the Wind River police chief or one of the Arapaho elders: You might wanna come, Father.

"Coroner's out there now," Thomas Whiteman had said. "They're gonna be moving the bones pretty quick."

He'd told the elder he was on his way, then he'd walked down the wide corridor in the old administration building to the office of his assistant, Father Ian McCauley. He'd found the man curled over a stack of papers on a desk marked by the rings of countless coffee cups that had rested on the surface through the decades. The sun bursting through the window gave a yellow cast to the other priest's scalp beneath his thinning, sandy-colored hair. Father John told him he'd be out for awhile.

"Emergency?" Father Ian hadn't looked up.

"Dead body out in the Gas Hills."

"Jesus." He'd looked up then and shook his head. "I'll hold down the fort," he'd said, which had struck Father John as ironic. His assistant would handle the phone calls from the Arapaho parishioners and visit with anybody who happened to drop by—"You busy, Father? Got a minute?" In the Old Time, white men had defended the forts—held them down—against the Indians.

Father John had made his way back down the corridor, past the framed black and white photos of the past Jesuits at St. Francis, dark eyes trained on him through wireless spectacles perched on prominent noses. He'd jogged across the mission grounds to the old pickup parked in front of the red-brick residence. Years before he'd come here, somebody had donated the pickup to the mission; for sometime now, the odometer had been stuck at one-hundred and-twenty-two thousand miles. He'd driven around Circle Drive, tires squealing, past the old gray stone building that had once been a school and was now the Arapaho Museum, past the white stucco church with the stained glass windows in the geometric symbols of the Arapaho and the white steeple that seemed to sway with the cottonwood branches shading the roof, past the two-story yellow stucco administration building. He'd turned down the tunnel of cottonwoods and headed east for 789, a route he'd taken so often that he half-suspected the pickup could find the way on its own. Now he could see vehicles parked ahead in the gulley. Sheriff's deputies in tan uniforms were milling about with men in blue jeans and dark shirts, sleeves rolled to the elbows, wind plastering the shirts against their backs. Father John parked between a white SUV with Fremont County emblazoned on the sides and the gray pickup that Thomas Whiteman drove.

"Hey, Father." Gary Coughlin, detective in the sheriff's office, looked up from the carton he'd been rummaging through in the back of a van. He ducked his head through the strap of a black camera.

"What do you have?"

"Not much left but a skeleton." The detective beckoned with his head as he started around the van toward the group of officers in a half-circle near the base of the bluff.

Standing inside the circle was the gaunt figure of Thomas Whiteman, a black cowboy hat shading the elder's wrinkled, brown face. With both hands, he slowly lifted a pan toward the sky. A thin wisp of smoke trailed out of the pan into the wind, leaving behind the faint odor of burning sage.

Heito'eino'hoowuciixxokuno. The old man's voice punctured the noise of the wind. Woow heetneechoohun. The Arapaho words seemed to hang in the air around the circle of officers standing with heads bowed. Father John understood some of the words; he could guess at the rest: Your relatives are nearby. Now you can go home.

The elder finished the prayer, then nodded at Father John. The half circle began to pull apart, the officers glancing back, waving him forward with their eyes. It was then that he saw the ocher-colored bones protruding through piles of brown dirt, as if they had been laid out. Except that he knew that wasn't true. Whoever had left the body had probably pushed it into a shallow, hastily-dug grave, and the piles of dirt were the remnants of that grave.

The officers pulled apart to make a space for him, and he stepped closer. A raven rose from the side of the bluff and flapped away. The bones were small in diameter, yet long. Long femur, long humerus. Knobs of the long spine emerged from the dirt. The thin arm bones had been pulled back. Frayed pieces of rope were tied around the wrist bones. He could see the breaks in the bones. The skeleton was face down, so that the back of the skull was visible, and on the left side was a small, round bullet hole. And something else: a long rope of braided hair still attached to a piece of dried scalp. The braid wound alongside the spine, disappearing into the earth, then protruding again. It was black hair, faded with the brown dust of the earth.

Father John swallowed hard against the horror that rose inside him, the bitterness of bile. He got down on one knee and made the sign of the cross over the bones. "God have mercy," he said out loud. "God, have mercy on this woman." That it was the skeleton of a women, he was sure. The delicate bones, the long black braid, and some inexplicable sense that this had been the body of a woman. Indian men wore braids, but there was something about the hair. It looked fine; it might have been silky once. It struck him then, not for the first time, that God was not limited by time—by minutes and hours and days that passed into years. That God was eternal, and all time was present to Him. "God be with this woman," he said again, praying for her then, when she had died this terrible death. He noticed the debris scattered about, poking from beneath the bones—pieces of leather, faded scraps of calico and denim, the heel of a boot, pieces of metal that might have been buttons or snaps or rivets. The detritus of a life, he thought.

"Coroner agrees," Detective Coughlin said, moving next to Father John as he stood up. "Skeleton's most likely a woman."

"How long has she been here?"

Coughlin shrugged. One of the other officers was pointing a camera toward the scalp and adjusting the lens. A series of clicking noises cut through the buzz of conversation and the whoosh of the wind, and for the first time, Father John was aware of the wind gusting. It didn't surprise him; the Arapahos said the wind always blew when a body was disturbed.

"Forensics might be able to ballpark a date. Depends what they can get from the pieces of clothing and boot. Not much left. All we know for sure is that she was a homicide. Nobody ties their arms behind them and shoots themselves in the back of the head. Animals been digging here. Coyote or fox, maybe a wolf, dragged a femur about a hundred yards down the gulley. Couple of rock hunters come along this morning looking for rocks and arrowheads. One of OEem had a dog that got hold of the femur, and the men went looking for the source. Came upon the grave and called us." That would be the two men in levis and black Stetsons, Father John was thinking, talking to another officer over by a green, four-door pickup.

"She's Indian, that's for sure."

Father John turned around. He hadn't realized that Thomas Whiteman had come up behind them.

"It's possible," Coughlin said. He exchanged a glance with Father John. They both knew that the skeleton was probably that of an Indian woman .

"Yeah, she's Indian." The old man was nodding, confirming his own theory. "Black braid like that. You don't see no white people with that kinda hair. One of our own people," he went on, still nodding, "left out here by herself for a long time. Well, now we found her, and we're gonna get her buried proper so she can go to the ancestors in peace."

Father John didn't say anything. He could almost feel the detective swallowing his own comments. It would be awhile before the coroner released the body—not until the investigation into the woman's death was complete, and with a death that probably occurred years ago, the investigation would take awhile. Still, the Arapahos would be anxious to bury her in the traditional way, anxious that until they did, her soul would be walking the earth.

Coughlin said, "Just as soon as possible."

"We wanna know who she is."

"So do we."

The elder nodded at this and started to walk away. Then he turned back.

"We're not gonna forget her," he said, before starting again for the gray pickup.

"Not gonna be an easy case to solve." The detective was shaking his head. "Could be an old homicide, which is gonna make it a very cold case. Witnesses die and move away. Evidence evaporates. Killer could be dead."

He shrugged. "Sometimes they're impossible, cases like this."

"The Arapahos are going to want to know who she was and what happened to her."

"Lot of murders never get solved, Father. It's not a perfect world."

"When will you have the forensics report?"

"Oh, man. Bad enough the elders are going to be on my case. Am I gonna have to put up with you bugging me?"

"Simple question, Gary."

"Okay, simple answer. Could take a couple weeks before the coroner gets the full report."

Father John nodded. "I'll be in touch," he said. Then he made his way through the officers still milling about and headed toward the pickup.

"I'm sure you will," Detective Coughlin called after him.

© Margaret Coel