by Kathleen Eagle
Belle Bridge Books, ISBN 978-1-61194-258-3 51595
NOTE: No part of this material may be reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior permission of the copyright owner.
Roy Blue Sky had heard the owl's warning call for three nights straight.
He would not have stepped outside his house after midnight on the fourth night if it hadn't been for Crybaby, who had gotten himself locked out of the yard again. With a sad, whimpering howl the dog begged to be let in. Roy flipped the switch for the yard light. Nothing happened. He kept forgetting the damn thing was burned out.
"Quit your whining, now. Where were you when I called before?" The chain-link gate squeaked on its dry hinges. The dog skulked past, brushing against Roy's jeans. "Damn, you smell like you rolled in something dead. Good thing you stayed away while that woman was here. You come around a woman smellin' like that, I'll pretend I don't know you."
But since it was dark and the woman was gone and it didn't matter how Crybaby smelled now, Roy leaned down to ruffle the black and white shepherd's stinky fur.
Then he noticed something else out of place.
"Who left that gate open? Did you do that, you stinkin' old mutt?"
He was sure he'd hooked the latch on the pasture gate after he'd shown his two flashy paints off to his visitor. The horses had gotten out on the road by now. They couldn't resist an open gate.
He glimpsed a flicker of white up the road before it disappeared below the rise. The dog whined and wagged its whole butt, looking for more petting.
"What did you do, stand there and watch them walk away?" Roy closed the gate to the yard and headed down the rutted approach toward the highway, dog at his heels.
It was a black velvet Dakota night, and the two-lane county road was not well traveled, even less so since the casino had been built on the Bad River cut-off, twenty miles south. But the night was never silent in the summertime. The tall grass housed night-song creatures, and the whispering cottonwoods gave perch to the owl, whose call struck old ears as an ominous thing.
Roy wasn't thinking about the owl as he walked, but about his visitor and how pretty she was for a fair-skinned wasicu woman. This was a thought he would not voice, not even to the dog, so he kept up his grumbling as if he'd turned on a recording. "You're supposed to be a stock dog, you know. Your father before you was a damn good stock dog. You quit whinin' and start usin' your instincts, you'll see it's in your blood."
The dog was spoiled, of course. Spoiled from the time he was a pup, and Roy had nobody to blame but himself. He'd spoiled his dogs the way he'd spoiled his sons, by not expecting a whole lot. He hardly saw Reese anymore, and Carter wouldn't have much to do with him since he'd called his son's employers "just another pack of thieving gangsters" at a Tribal Council meeting.
It had to be said. Wasn't anything personal. Carter was always telling Roy he had to start thinking like a businessman if he was going to lead the Bad River Sioux into the twenty-first century, but officially calling the Ten Star Casino Management Company mobsters was straight-tongue business. Nothing personal. Personally, he liked some of those guys. White guys, most of them, but you'd have to be white to be able to come up with the money it took to get a casino going. They were friendly enough, and they'd given him some nice gifts. They gave a lot of people nice gifts. But the casinos weren't bringing in the money they should, and nobody could tell Roy any different. He knew damn well there were some shady dealings going on somewhere.
"Hey! Get over here, mutt." The dog was slicing through the ditch grass, getting ahead of the game, but he turned tail when Roy clapped hand to thigh. "You stick by me until we can see them from the hill. We'll pull a sneak-up on 'em. You rush in and spoil it now, I'll be eatin' dog soup tomorrow."
The dog ducked back and got behind him. Roy laughed. Crybaby was no dummy. The woman had made a big fuss over the mutt, called him pretty puppy, old as he was. Old as Roy was, she could have had him wagging his tail, too, had she called him pretty. Pretty smart for an old buzzard, pretty funny, pretty spry, pretty anything. She was the kind of a woman who made a man think about what tricks he might have left in him to impress her with, just to get one of those devoted-daughter kind of smiles. Storytelling was about all he could come up with, and she liked his stories. Stories about the old days always pleased young white women.
She was a dealer down at Pair-a-Dice City, the casino his younger son managed. Carter hadn't hired her himself, but the boy sure turned on the old Blue Sky charm full blast whenever he got around her. That bothered Roy a little because the woman had been around before, years ago. She'd been Reese's girl for a while, so it didn't seem quite right, Carter's behavior. It was no good, brothers trying to wear each other's old shoes. Somebody was sure to feel a pinch. His sons could act tough and independent, but underneath it all they were both touchy over matters of the heart, each in his way.
"There, see?" They'd topped the hill alongside the road and spotted their quarry. "Grazing the right-of-way, lookin' for a chance to play chicken with some trucker." He could hear one coming, or feel it maybe, even before the headlights came into play. "This one goes by, we'll cross over and get around them. Then you'll stay on that side, and I'll come back to this side. Got that? Walk 'em home easy. Like cake, like pie."
The expression made him smile. He'd said it to the woman when he'd shown her how to play Using Hoofs, demonstrating how easy it was to spear a string of deer foot bones on a wooden pin on the first try—"like cake like pie." He'd shown her the old game before he told her one of his stories about gambling, about how the Lakota had been gamblers long before there were any casinos, before any of them had seen a deck of cards. She'd wanted to try her hand at it right away, and he knew he had to get her into it first, before he could get her into the story. She was that kind of a woman. The do-it-herself kind. She'd gotten the hang of it pretty quickly. She had good hands. Dealer's hands.
Woman's hands. Deft and delicate. Watching those hands find just the right grip on the fat end of the stick, the way she tested the feel and the balance, made a man wish and wonder and remember while he watched. Universal, eternal woman's hands. Necessary hands. Pretty hands. Her name was Helen, and she was quick and lively and fun to be around. And she had something on her mind, something she wanted Roy to know. She hadn't told him what it was, and he didn't think she would, not just out-and-out. He wondered whether it would still be weighing on her next time he saw her. He wondered how forthright she really wished she could be.
If it was about her job, he knew she wasn't supposed to tell him anything, but she didn't have to. She'd been a teacher before, worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Not too many teachers took up dealing blackjack. He figured her for the one who had been sent to investigate. Who else could she be? How clever they were to send a woman. Roy himself had filed the complaint with the gambling commission. He suspected some kind of cheating, big cheating, but he didn't know just who or how. Indirectly he had sent for her. He didn't want her to tell him anything, just do her job.
"You think she's a plant?" he asked the dog as he eyed the grass beyond the blacktop. "She smells like one, don't she? Stay here, now, and don't let those horses cross the road. Ssst. Hiya."
Roy smiled against the dark as he trotted back across the highway. He was trying to figure out what kind of a plant the woman smelled like. Must have been some garden variety, the kind he didn't know too much about. Reese would know. Reese was a city boy now, and he probably knew a great plenty about the smell of garden flowers on a woman's skin. Once the boy had started playing basketball on television, seemed like there was no shortage of women hanging around him. No wife, but plenty of women.
Carter, on the other hand, had been married three times, twice to the same woman. Roy felt bad for his two grandchildren. They were pretty confused. Some fathers had a way of doing that to their kids, and Roy himself had been one of them. Thinking about it touched off a vague, all-over ache in him. For their own good was so easy to say these days. A hundred years earlier he'd have made a good father, but in this century he was a flop.
A flip-flop. Got started later than most, which was probably why he hadn't been much of a breeder. No staying power. Finally they'd managed to get Rose, who had been her mother's special flower until Reese had come along. Roy hadn't seen Rose in a while. She lived in Oregon, never came home anymore. Reese was next, and then came Carter, and then . . . ah, that bone-deep ache again. Then he'd given Carter away, and later, years later, he'd taken him back again. No wonder the boy had two faces. And Reese, well, Roy had shortchanged Reese, pure and simple.
But his boys were men now, and there was little he could do to help or harm them anymore. He figured he had one more chance to do right in this life, and that chance had begun to take shape with his reelection to the council. Some people were already saying they'd like to see him run for chairman next time around. Maybe he would, but with age, he had gained the wisdom to take one go-round at a time.
"That's the beauty of it, ain't it, you ol' whiner? The reward for living this long. Stay back, now." He was herding the two horses along the right-of-way while the dog guarded the flank from the opposite side of the road. The mare tried to make a break for it, but the dog yapped as he moved into position to head her off. "That's right, you talk to them. They got a lot to learn yet."
The woman with the pretty hands. She'd asked about Reese. Doing real good, he'd told her, and she'd seemed a little disappointed until he told her the boy had never married. That sure had surprised her. She'd tried real hard not to show it, but it pleased her. So he'd given her what she was looking for, spread it on thick about how hard it was for Reese when he couldn't play basketball anymore because his body couldn't take it. Didn't tell her any medical details—Reese was real touchy about his privacy—but she didn't ask too many questions, even though she was hanging on every word.
He'd watched her hands, stroking the smooth game stick he'd told her she could keep, but he'd gotten a furtive peek at her face, gone soft and serene, as though she'd suddenly draped herself with a sheer, somber-colored scarf, the kind the old women tied way down over their tired faces. She'd said she'd read about Reese's retirement, and she'd known it had come too soon. But still, she said, Reese had done what he'd said he would do, and few dreams as lofty as his were ever realized.
"What do you make of lofty dreams?" Roy had asked her then, and she'd confessed that she didn't much like being up in the air herself, but she thought they were fine for some people. Tall people, like Reese. She made more of the dreamer than the dream, Roy thought, remembering how curiously hard it had been for him not to be rude, hard not to invade her privacy by looking her in the face when her tone turned melancholy. Hard not to wonder what memory she cherished behind those wistful-woman eyes. They had connections, he and this woman. He couldn't define all of them yet, but he could feel them as he watched her thumb trace a small groove in that game stick he'd carved long ago. Such grace in those hands. Roy had to wonder what his son had done to chase her away.
"And everyday, dirt-common stories told by dirt-common old men? What do you make of those?" he'd asked.
"Sense," she'd said. "Your stories make sense to me. Old stories are dependable, good for everybody. Dreams are tricky. You can't depend on dreams. I can't, anyway."
He'd thought about suggesting to her that dreams weren't meant for depending on, but who was he to say? In dreams he saw images that were both familiar and strange, things that beckoned and taunted, often played on his fears. He liked stories better, too. The woman was right-stories made sense. People were people, no matter what century they lived in. He couldn't say much about dreams.
"But tomorrow I'll have plenty to say about those crooks at Ten Star," he told his dog, his voice sounding bold in the dark. "I'll have a story or two to tell. Might just make a few people squirm, but . . ." He noticed a light swelling below the hump in the highway to the south. He signaled the dog as the headlights plunged over the hill.
But Crybaby wasn't there. Roy whistled. "Where did you get to now?" The headlights were closing in fast, too fast.
Up from the ditch on the opposite side of the road, the dog's eyes shone, too. He'd missed a beat, but he was there now. His master had called him, and he was coming. So were the headlights, hurling through the dark on the force of a roaring engine.
"No, stay back now. Hiya! "
Roy threw his arms out and waved wildly, thinking surely the driver behind those high beams saw him, but maybe he couldn't see the dog, he might hit the dog, don't hit the dog. Damn you, don't hit my dog. He pointed. The shepherd whimpered and crouched in the road, eyes gleaming like stars, caught between listening to him and being with him.
The shepherd was the last thought Roy Blue Sky had and the last thing he saw.
Copyright © 2013 Kathleen Eagle
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