When Robert Walking Bear’s body is found in the Wind River mountains, his death appears to be accidental—except for the fact that he had been hunting for Butch Cassidy’s buried loot with a map he had gotten from his grandfather, a map believed to have been drawn by the leader of the Hole in the Wall gang himself.
It isn’t long before rumors circulate that Robert was murdered by his own cousins to get the map and find the treasure themselves. Despite there being no evidence of foul play, the gossip gains credibility when both Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley are contacted by an anonymous Arapaho claiming to have witnessed Robert’s killing.
When one of Robert’s cousins falls prey to another deadly accident, Vicky and Father John are convinced the victim is the witness who confided in them, and the hunt for the killer is on in earnest—before more die in search of Cassidy’s cache.
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Berkley Prime Crime titles by Margaret Coel
Catherine McLeod Mysteries
THE PERFECT SUSPECT
Wind River Mysteries
THE EAGLE CATCHER
THE GHOST WALKER
THE DREAM STALKER
THE STORY TELLER
THE LOST BIRD
THE SPIRIT WOMAN
THE THUNDER KEEPER
THE SHADOW DANCER
WIFE OF MOON
EYE OF THE WOLF
THE DROWNING MAN
THE GIRL WITH BRAIDED HAIR
THE SILENT SPIRIT
THE SPIDER’S WEB
BUFFALO BILL’S DEAD NOW
NIGHT OF THE WHITE BUFFALO
THE MAN WHO FELL FROM THE SKY
WATCHING EAGLES SOAR
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-19128-0
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Coel, Margaret, 1937–
The man who fell from the sky / Margaret Coel.—First edition.
pages ; cm
1. O’Malley, John (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Holden, Vicky (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Wind River Indian Reservation (Wyo.)—Fiction. I. Title.
FIRST EDITION: September 2015
Cover illustration by Tony Greco & Associates Inc.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Carl Schneider, my longtime friend and fount of useful information, suggestions, wit, wisdom, and encouragement.
My deep gratitude to all those who were willing to help me with various aspects of this book and who took the time to read all or parts of the manuscript and make suggestions that greatly improved the story: In Fremont County, Mark Stratmoen, coroner; Ed McAuslan, former coroner; Virginia and Jim Sutter, members of the Arapaho Tribe; and Todd Dawson, special agent, FBI. In Boulder, Sheila Carrigan, Beverly Carrigan, Karen Gilleland, Carl Schneider, John Tracy, and, as always, my husband, George Coel. Any errors that may have crept into this novel are mine, and certainly not theirs.
We shall surely be put again with our friends. E’yahe’eye!
—The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, James Mooney
THE NARROW DIRT road clung to the mountainside between the granite peaks jutting overhead and the drop-off into the valley. Ponderosas, scrub brush, and scruffy undergrowth looked fat and green after the spring rain, greener than Alan Fergus remembered the Wind River range ever looking. It was the fourth Friday in May. The foliage wouldn’t turn gray and dusty until the summer heat set in. Tommy had been locked down in a classroom about as long as any twelve-year-old boy could stand, and since Tommy had a day off from school, they had made plans for a fishing trip. He and the boy rose early, the blue-black sky striped in red and pink and white, ate what Alan called a hearty breakfast, oatmeal that would stick to their ribs, and spent an hour in the garage packing up the fishing gear. Quiet, quiet, he had reminded the boy. Don’t wake Mom. Let her sleep in for once. Usually Sarah was the first one up. A good hot breakfast on the kitchen table before she and Alan drove to the body shop and Tommy ran the half block to catch the school bus.
It had taken some work to convince Eton to come in early and handle the front counter until Sarah arrived. All the cajoling and promises of extra time off next week had been worth it. A perfect day to escape, father and son, man-to-man. Tommy, almost grown now, getting so tall. They hadn’t taken enough special times together, and before he knew it, Tommy would be gone. Off to some college, most likely. Maybe Laramie. He was a good student. A little restless, but what boy wasn’t restless? He had been restless, and his father had taken him to Frye Lake to fish, and it had made all the difference. Sucked the restless, fidgety parts right out of him. Alan had backed out of the driveway this morning as the white-hot sun burst like the afterglow of fireworks in the eastern sky.
Tommy seemed pleased with the change in routine. Bouncing on the seat to whatever music blasted in his earphones, gawking this way and that, pointing out a hawk that lay flat out in the sky, guessing how many trout they would bag today. A dozen, two dozen. Our limit, for sure.
Yeah, our limit, Alan agreed.
The road narrowed as it started into a curve. Alan kept the pickup as close to the middle as he dared. The edge could be moist and soft. Theirs wouldn’t be the first pickup to slide down the mountainside. He drove slowly, in and out of wide stripes of shadows, and listened for an oncoming vehicle. If he listened hard, his dad had taught him, he would hear a vehicle before he saw it. Although he wasn’t sure what he would do. Slam on the brake and back up, search frantically for a wider place in the road in which to pull over.
“Keep your fingers crossed,” he said as he plunged into the curve.
“Keep my fingers crossed?”
“That the fish are biting. Should be hungry with the rain. Seen the lake yet?”
Tommy leaned toward the windshield and stared past the drop-off, eager eyes searching for a glimpse of shimmering blue water. The wide curve straightened into a narrow brown road that glowed in the sunlight.
“There it is.” The boy’s excitement was contagious. First sight of the fishing hole was always exciting, filled with expectations and promises. Tommy tapped the windshield. “Down there. We’re getting close.”
Alan stole a sideways look. Bull Lake spread below, meandering through the valley, reflections of ponderosas dancing on the blue surface. Another couple of curves, and the road would empty into a long straight shot down to the lake. They’d be there in ten minutes.
“Looks like another fisherman.”
“Really? So early in the season?” Alan had been counting on having the lake all to themselves. Nobody else to worry about, no thumping music and portable grills, makeshift picnic tables, lawn chairs, and kids running around, hollering and scaring off the fish. Through an alley between the trees, he spotted the truck parked close to the narrow strip of land where he was planning to stop. He swallowed back the disappointment. There was a good shelf there they could wade onto and cast into deep water where the fish were usually biting. The shelf disappeared on either side of the truck, but if he drove past, he might be able to pick it up again. Part of the fun of fishing for Tommy was the wading, the walking into the water, as if he were walking on the water.
Alan took the last couple of curves, listening for an oncoming vehicle, and headed down onto the straight road that cut through willows and tangled brush along the lakefront. He could see the truck parked ahead, a grayish monster with an extended cab and a metal box in the back. It was nosed toward the lake, water lapping the shore a few feet away. The tailgate stuck out into the road, and Alan had to slow to a crawl to get around it without slipping into the willows.
“Dad! He’s in the water.”
Alan worked his way around the truck before looking back. My God! A large body—a man’s body—bobbing in the water on the far side of the truck. He let the pickup roll a little farther ahead, wanting to spare Tommy another view of the dead man. “I’ll go have a look.” The pickup jerked to a stop. “Stay here, you understand?”
The boy looked scared, as if he might start crying. He nodded slowly, but he didn’t say anything.
Alan got out and slammed the door. The sound reverberated in the crisp, clear air. He glanced back as he made his way through the marshy undergrowth toward the body. Tommy was up on his knees, looking out the rear window, eyes as big as black marbles. He couldn’t save the boy from everything. Not from this view of death.
The body rolled and swayed facedown in the water, the back of a dark blue padded vest bulging, arms outstretched, as if the dead man might be attempting to float. The blue jeans looked like heavy weights pulling the legs down. There was an odd feeling of acceptance that clung to the body, as if the man had walked onto the shelf, stumbled, and been unable to get up, so he had settled in and waited for death. Clumps of black hair lifted off a pinkish scalp dotted with black freckles and moles. Alan reached down, then pulled his hand away. What sense did it make to turn the body over? The man was dead, and the look of his face would only burn itself into Alan’s retinas. Besides, whatever might have happened, no investigator would appreciate his tampering with the body. He looked around, realizing he may have already interfered by walking over here.
He hurried back to the pickup, punching at his cell, willing it to come to life. No service. No service. The boy was still on his knees, looking out the back window, when Alan slid behind the steering wheel. He turned the ignition and drove forward. There were camping spaces on the other side of the road ahead where he could turn around.
“We’re leaving him?”
“I’m afraid he’s dead, son. There’s nothing we can do for him. We have to report this.”
“You think he came up here to fish and fell into the water?”
“I don’t know.” Alan was thinking he hadn’t seen any fishing poles or tackle box in the truck bed.
He took a right toward a camping space and maneuvered the pickup through several tight turns until they were headed back toward the body and the truck hanging over the road. No telling how far he would have to drive up the mountain before the cell phone tapped into a tower somewhere. He looked sideways at Tommy, who was still fighting back tears.
“I’ll make it up to you, son.”
“I don’t ever want to come here again,” the boy said.
RUTH WALKING BEAR might have been hosting a party. Darting among the Arapahos in the living room, hoisting a metal coffeepot, pulling orange-red lips into a smile around tiny teeth, searching with dark eyes for the next empty mug. “More coffee? Cake? Cookies? Casseroles. Eat up. Eat up.” The silver embroidery on her red, Western-style blouse flashed as she moved about. Her flip-flops squished on the vinyl floor. She had curly black hair tinted red, and the curls sprang free from beaded clips like feathers in a headdress. Odors of fried meat, strong coffee, and warm cookies wafted from the kitchen, where women were arranging trays of food and setting out stacks of paper plates. Ruth stopped before one of the elders. “Why, Grandfather, your cup is empty.”
Vicky Holden kept an eye on the woman. Something forced and terrified about her. In another life, she and Ruth had attended St. Francis School together. Kids, climbing onto the school bus and crossing the reservation in blizzards and wind and rolling dust. Ruth had exuded confidence, as if she were driving the bus, in control of the weather, but Vicky had suspected even then that the confidence was a mask, like the party face she wore now. During the years Vicky had been married to Ben Holden, she often ran into Ruth at the powwows and ceremonies. They would chat and gossip—two women together. But Vicky had left Ben and that old life, gone to Denver, and become a lawyer. Everything was different when she returned, or was it just that she was different? It seemed that Ruth and the other women had gone away, set their moccasins on the traditional path, as the grandmothers said, and she had been unable to follow.
Vicky tried to excuse herself from a short, gray-haired woman who claimed she had also gone to St. Francis School, although Vicky had no memory of her. The woman had been peppering her with questions. What had she heard about Robert’s death? “People don’t fall into a lake and die. Must’ve been pushed, right? Who might have done it? What does the coroner say?” For some reason, the woman—what was her name? Cathy?— assumed that because Vicky practiced law in Lander, she was part of the conversations in the legal corridors of the white world.
Vicky had dodged the questions. She didn’t know the answers, but Cathy, like every other woman on the rez, probably knew quite a lot or thought she did. The women never missed a gathering. They looked after the elders, cared for one another’s kids. They lived by the moccasin telegraph and took pride in staying connected. What Cathy wanted from her was news to pass on. But the questions had only reinforced Vicky’s feeling of being an outsider among her own people. Woman Alone, the grandmothers called her. The Indian lawyer their relatives or friends went to when they got into trouble, but not one of them.
It took several tries before Vicky managed to break free. She made her way through the conversations buzzing about the room and stopped next to Ruth, who was refilling another cup of coffee. “Wouldn’t you like to rest awhile?” Vicky nodded toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. Most of the houses on the rez were the same Federal style with living room and kitchen on one side, a couple of bedrooms and a bath on the other.
“I don’t need to rest, and I certainly don’t need a lawyer.” Ruth struggled to keep the orange-red smile in place. “Robert’s dead and I have to go on the way he would expect me to, so that’s what I’m doing. You need some coffee?” She started to turn toward the kitchen and the stack of Styrofoam cups visible at the end of the counter.
“No, thank you.” Vicky set her hand on the woman’s arm. She could feel the tremors rising from somewhere deep inside. “Won’t you at least sit down. I can pour the refills.” She stretched out her hand to take the coffeepot, but Ruth stood motionless, her eyes on the man coming through the front door.
“Ah, Father John,” she said, as if she were expecting someone else. Then she handed the coffeepot to Vicky and started across the room. Conversations started to dissolve, like the wind dying down.
Vicky watched the little crowd surge around the tall, redheaded man inside the door, reach for his hand, pat his arm. He had on blue jeans and a blue plaid shirt. The brim of a tan cowboy hat was curled in his fist against his thigh. It had been a long while since she had seen John O’Malley, the mission priest at St. Francis. She thought of the intervals between their meetings not in days or weeks or months, but in seasons. The fall, the holidays and winter, the spring. He looked fit, strong and straight, yet different somehow. A few more gray hairs at his temples, more fine lines around his eyes. He reached for Ruth and drew her toward him. In the quiet that engulfed the living room, Vicky heard him say how sorry he was. She was thinking that everyone on the rez had come to love this white man who, one day, had shown up among them.
Ruth was leaning against his chest, her red blouse with the shiny embroidery stretched across her spine, shoulders rising and falling as she gulped for air. Vicky walked over and placed a hand on the woman’s back, conscious of John O’Malley’s eyes on her. Finally she looked up and met his gaze. “She’s been holding it in. It’s a terrible blow, losing your husband like that.”
The room remained quiet, as if a show were going on that held the audience spellbound. Vicky could feel the eyes boring into them, three people huddled together. And the calmness that emanated from John O’Malley, a man accustomed to such situations. So many people he had comforted on the rez, so many inexplicable deaths. They had worked together since he came to the mission almost ten years ago. Trying to help her people: the alcohol and drug addicts, the abused women and neglected children, the scared and lonely warriors facing charges for crimes they hadn’t committed.
“I need fresh air.” Ruth lifted her head and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief that, Vicky suspected, he had handed to her.
“I set up some lawn chairs out back.” Dallas Spotted Deer stepped over. Related to the Walking Bear family, one of Robert’s cousins, if Vicky remembered correctly. Everyone on the rez was related somehow, distant cousins of distant cousins, in-laws two or three times removed. Dallas had been at St. Francis School when she and Ruth were there. A middle-aged man now with red and blue ribbons woven into black braids that hung down the front of his yellow shirt, and a serious, pockmarked face.
John O’Malley nodded a thank-you to the man as they started across the living room. Past the sympathy-filled faces, past the kitchen counters piled with food, past the women drawing themselves back to make room. A grandmother darted ahead and opened the door. They stepped out onto the stoop and down the three wooden steps, John O’Malley holding on to Ruth’s arm, guiding her toward a pair of lawn chairs. He handed her into one and motioned Vicky into the other. Then he found another chair stacked against the house and shook it open as he brought it over. He sat down across from them.
“I’m sorry for breaking down like that, Father.” Ruth looked sideways. A barbed-wire fence ran between the bare-dirt yard and the pasture where two horses grazed on clumps of grass. The brown hills traced with green rose in the distance against a blue-white sky. She slipped off the flip-flops, tucked her feet under her, and kneaded at the fabric of her jeans skirt as if it were dough.
“You don’t always have to be strong,” John O’Malley told her.
Vicky looked away. She tried not to smile. There were times in the past when he had told her the same thing.
“I wasn’t expecting Robert to die,” Ruth said. “When the fed knocked on the door and told me Robert had been found in the lake, I told him there must be some mistake. He said that Alan Fergus, runs a body shop in Lander, found Robert’s body.” She lifted her shoulders and dropped them in a defeated shrug. “The moccasin telegraph must’ve gotten the news before I did. Before I knew it, all kinds of people were at my door.”
Mostly related to Robert, Vicky was thinking. A few distant relatives of Ruth’s, but everyone close to her had died or moved away years ago. And now—a new thought breaking through—with Robert gone, Ruth would be almost as alone as she was.
“All the women brought food,” Ruth was saying. “It’s like they make a lot of food and wait for something terrible to happen.” She dabbed the wadded handkerchief at her eyes again. “The worst part is what they’re saying.”
“What do you mean?” Vicky said.
“If they aren’t saying it, they’re thinking it.” A stream of tears and black mascara ran down the woman’s cheeks. She pulled at the handkerchief in her hands without making an effort to wipe away the moisture. “Stories go around faster than lightning.”
“What stories, Ruth?” John O’Malley leaned toward her. “Tell us.”
“The fed started it, asking stupid questions. Made me sick to my stomach.” John O’Malley was quiet. Patient, Vicky thought, unbelievably patient. He had once told her he had learned patience from the Arapahos, learned to sit and wait while people ordered their thoughts and decided whether he was trustworthy enough to give their thoughts to him. She, on the other hand, had learned impatience from years in the white world, college, law school, the years in a big law firm followed by her own small firm. Learned to jump up, be quick, be alert, never let down her guard. Pace the floor to order her own thoughts; rise in the courtroom: Objection!
Ruth unfolded her legs, wiggled her feet into the flip-flops, and shifted forward on her chair, pulling at the handkerchief in her hands. A pair of reddish curls hung loosely along her neck. She was struggling to say something, lips forming and reforming the words. Finally she said, “The fed wanted to know if Robert was depressed. Did he ever talk about taking his life? Had he ever tried to take his life? If he did decide to take his life, how do I think he might have gone about it? What was he saying? Robert walked into the lake, laid down, and died?”
She squeezed her eyes shut, as if she might squeeze out more tears. Then she tossed her head toward the pasture. “He had the ranch. Meant the world to him. Maybe it’s a nothing ranch, but we had meat on the table and Robert picked up jobs with the highway department every summer, and I got my job at the dental office. The Creator never saw fit to give us children, but Robert said we’d be okay, just the two of us.” She was staring out at the pasture. The breeze riffled the manes of the horses. “I’d say, anybody depressed around here, it was me. Same old, same old every day. No way out. Nothing ever changing. But I never thought he’d leave me like this.”
Vicky caught John O’Malley’s eye for a second. All she knew about Robert’s death had come over the moccasin telegraph. First, to Annie, her secretary. Then Annie had brought it to her. But maybe there was more, facts the telegraph hadn’t yet picked up. She could read the same thought in John’s face.
He took one of Ruth’s hands in his own and waited until she turned back to him. “Nobody knows yet what happened.”
“The coroner will order an autopsy and issue a report.” Vicky tried to match John O’Malley’s calm, assuring tone. “We’ll know the truth then.” She was thinking the report could take several weeks.
“That’s not all the questions the fed asked. Robert have any enemies? Altercations with friends or strangers? Anybody like to see him dead?”
“The fed has to look at every possibility.” Vicky was thinking that the local FBI agent, Ted Gianelli, was a thorough investigator. No stone would be left unturned. Eventually Ruth would appreciate his thoroughness.
“Nothing would have happened if Cutter had been with him.” Ruth turned toward Vicky. “You remember Jimmy Walking Bear? He went to St. Francis School with us. Got the name Cutter on a Texas ranch, where he was the best at cutting out cattle during roundup.”
Vicky tried for the third time this afternoon to reach back to the years at St. Francis School, all the brown-faced, black-haired kids bent over papers and books at desks arranged in perfect rows, and a nun—Sister Mary Rita, perhaps—or one of the priests explaining a mathematical problem, writing assignments on the blackboard, rapping a ruler on the desk to stop the giggling in the back of the classroom. There were several priests at the mission who taught classes then. Good teachers, the Jesuits. She tried to picture a boy named Jimmy Walking Bear, but all the gangly, pimply boys blurred in her mind.
“I’m afraid I don’t remember him,” she said.
Ruth waved one hand, as if she were shooing off a mosquito. “Robert’s cousin. Two or three times removed, but still a relative. Anyway when Cutter was about eleven, his father packed up the family and moved to Oklahoma. So Cutter grew up not knowing his own people, where he came from. He came back to the rez a couple months ago looking for family. First thing he did was find Robert. They formed a real tight bond. I wish Robert had taken him hunting, but Robert never took anybody hunting . . .”
Ruth gave a small smile of memory, unlike the fake, plastered smile she had worn earlier. “Treasure. Robert was hunting treasure. Long as I’ve known him, he talked about finding the treasure Butch Cassidy buried up in the mountains around Bull Lake when he was hiding out here after a robbery. Robert heard the stories when he was a kid and they clamped on to him, wouldn’t let him go. It was his hobby, hunting for that treasure. He worked all week on the highway, laying down asphalt in the hot sun, and on Friday he’d head up into the mountains where it was cool and he could relax and hunt for treasure. He liked to go alone, be by himself for a few days. I never knew for certain when he would come home. If he was onto something, he’d camp up there and keep working all weekend. So I wasn’t worried when he didn’t come home last night. I figured he thought he found something.”
She stopped and bit at her lip a moment. “I never expected him to find treasure. If you want to know the truth, neither did Robert. It was the looking that was fun. Until . . .” She left off again and squinted into space, trying to fix a memory. “When his grandfather Luther died, Robert found a leather case in the old man’s barn. Inside was a map. Well, Robert got real excited. Said Butch Cassidy left a map behind, just like Luther always said. With all those movie people on the rez making a documentary about Butch Cassidy, Robert figured there’d be a stampede of people hunting for Butch’s treasure. So he took time off his job and went up into the mountains every day. Said he was getting close.” She shook her head and rolled her eyes. “He was always getting close.”
The screened door opened and people began to flow onto the stoop, down the steps, and across the yard, heading for the lone cottonwood tree and the shade splashed over the dirt. Several women hovered over Ruth, wanting to know how she was doing. Was there anything they could get her?
“I should see about the coffee.” Ruth jumped to her feet.
“We’ll take care of it.” The women wheeled about and started back up the steps. The screened door slammed behind them.
“I have to check on the elders.” The lawn chair toppled over as Ruth started past.
Father John stood up. “We’ll come with you.”
He was so tall, Vicky was thinking as she stood next to him. She barely reached the top of his shoulder. He looked slim and fit, yet he filled so much space.
“I must be strong,” Ruth was muttering under her breath as she started for the house. “I must show them I am strong.”
Vicky followed Ruth up the steps and into the kitchen, conscious of the sound of John O’Malley’s footsteps behind her.
TRAFFIC HAD COME to a dead stop on Ethete Road. The asphalt glowed in the afternoon sun, and dust whirled about the line of vehicles ahead. Father John pulled in behind a white SUV. The minute he stopped, the heat started to accumulate inside the cab of the old Toyota pickup. The prologue to Pagliacci blared from the CD player on the seat beside him. It was the last week in May, the Moon When the Ponies Shed Their Shaggy Hair, as the Arapahos marked the passing time. The weather already turning warm. He shuddered to think of how far up the thermometer the temperature might crawl in July.
He got out and tried to see past the SUV. What looked like a bunch of cowboys came galloping across the prairie on the right, raising great billows of dust that hung like brown clouds against the sky. Arranged alongside the riders were cameras on black tripods and, behind the cameras, groups of men and women. Other cameramen in Jeeps followed the horses, holding out cameras. A row of pickups stood at the edge of the road. Beyond the pickups, what looked like a village sprang out of the prairie: a circle of campers, RVs, more pickups.
He got back inside the Toyota, turned up the CD player, and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. So this was where the Butch Cassidy documentary was being filmed today. Cowboys galloping at full speed, probably portraying the getaway after Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and the rest of the Wild Bunch had robbed a bank or a train. Now the cowboys rode back the way they had come, moving at a slower trot, which, he suspected, meant they would film the scene again. He drummed his fingers harder and wished he had paid attention to the list of filming sites in the Gazette. He considered turning around and taking the long way back to Seventeen-Mile Road and the mission, but he had pulled in close to the SUV and a blue pickup had pulled in behind him. It would take some maneuvering to turn around. He decided to wait. One more getaway and maybe the road would open up. The prologue of the opera came to a crashing end. He opened the door to let in more air, but it was hot air, all of it.
He thought of Ruth. She would need to summon strength for the days and months ahead, maybe the years. He had counseled so many people who had lost their life partners, trying to help them find the way forward. But what did he know? He tried to imagine what it would be like to lose someone who was a part of yourself. Like losing an arm. Sometimes, when he was going on about trusting in God, taking one day at a time, and all the other platitudes, he wondered how any of it could ever help.
For an instant, he let the thoughts of Vicky circling the edges of his mind come into focus. There had been times when she had been close to death, and he remembered the icy grip that had taken hold of him. He wondered how he would have managed if, in fact, she were no longer part of the world. He pushed the thought away. Seeing her today had been reassuring and comforting, even in a house of grief.
He got out again and stretched. The cowboys were galloping over the prairie, but this time other cowboys galloped behind, brandishing guns. A series of pops split the air. Lawmen after Cassidy and his gang. But did they ever catch up with him? He tried to remember the bits and pieces he had read about the Wild Bunch, the movie he had watched years ago. Who knew if the stories were based on historical fact? He realized another cowboy was coming along the line of vehicles, talking to the drivers. He waited as the man stepped back from the SUV and started toward him.
“Sorry for the inconvenience.” The cowboy had pale blue eyes and sun-reddened skin. “Director wants one more shot.” He gestured toward the prairie and the riders reining horses into a line. “Always a danger the horses might break away and run across the road, so tribal police say we have to keep the roads clear. Give us a few more minutes.”
The man had started for the pickup behind when he turned back. “Say, you wouldn’t be that mission priest we’ve heard about.”
“I don’t know what you may have heard, but I’m Father John O’Malley, pastor at St. Francis.”
“The director would like a word with you.” He glanced over at the horses again. “Todd Paxton. Looks like he’ll be tied up the rest of the day. Could he give you a call?”
Father John pulled out the little notebook and pen he kept in his shirt pocket, wrote on the top page both the mission telephone number and that of his cell phone, and handed it to the cowboy.
“Todd thinks you might be able to help us out.” He gave a nod of appreciation and walked back to the driver’s window of the blue pickup.
Father John slid behind the steering wheel. He wondered how much help he could be to the director of a documentary film on Butch Cassidy. About as much help as he had been to Ruth.
* * *
ANOTHER TWENTY MINUTES passed, the opera well into Act I, Don, din, don, din, and the vehicles ahead started forward. Father John pressed lightly on the accelerator as the old pickup growled and shook and finally settled into twenty miles an hour. Ahead actors in cowboy hats milled about; horses grazed on sparse outcroppings of grass. Like a giant machine, the crowd started rolling in the direction of a blue and white truck with a metal curtain raised on one side, revealing what looked like a counter in a diner.
Finally he was past the movie site, the pickup shuddering as it picked up speed, the SUV already far ahead, glinting in the sun. He turned onto Blue Sky Highway and picked up Seventeen-Mile Road heading east, thinking about Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch and what the reservation must have looked like more than a hundred years ago. The same endless stretch of prairie, the same brown foothills stretched low on the western horizon, probably some of the same log cabins around the rez. The same feeling, he suspected, of openness, expansion and—what was it? Freedom.
The blue billboard with St. Francis Mission in large, white letters loomed over the road ahead. He slowed past the billboard and turned into the tunnel of cottonwoods. Branches scraped the top of the pickup; white downy fluff painted the road. He could feel the rear tires slipping, and he slowed down. He had been trying to forget that the tires were bald. No money this month for replacements. He would have to remember to drive carefully.
He turned onto Circle Drive, the mission all around him. On the west, the redbrick residence; at the far end of the circle, the gray stone school building he had turned into the Arapaho Museum; and lined up to the east, the white stucco church decorated with bright red, yellow, and blue geometric symbols of the Arapaho—lines for the path of life, triangles for the buffalo, tipis for the people—the dirt road that led to Eagle Hall and the guesthouse, and on the other side of the road, the large two-story yellow stucco administration building sheltering among the cottonwoods that crept away from the tunnel. Bishop Harry stood at the foot of the concrete steps tossing a Frisbee to Walks-On. The dog leapt on his three legs through the tall grass in the center of Circle Drive, then paddled back like a swimmer pushing through the waves. He started for the bishop, pivoted on his single hind leg, and came at a full run toward the pickup. Father John stepped on the brakes. A spray of gravel and dirt peppered the pickup’s rear end. He leaned across the CD player, opened the passenger door, and helped the dog crawl onto the seat, the Frisbee still clenched in his jaws. He closed the door and, running his hand over the dog’s soft coat, drove to the front of the administration building, and pulled in next to the bishop.
Bishop Harry Coughlin, gray hair going white, pale blue eyes, a permanent band of sunburn across his nose and cheeks, walked over to the pickup and opened the door. “You interrupted a good game of Frisbee just when I was winning.”
“Against Walks-On?” Father John turned off the opera, got out of the pickup, and waited for the dog to lumber across the seat and jump down. He closed the door. He was thinking that this old man—this competitive Frisbee player—had to be close to eighty years old, but he had never asked the bishop’s age. The bishop seemed healthy and strong despite the two heart attacks and surgeries that had sent him to St. Francis, supposedly to rest. Another subject Father John never brought up. The bishop had spent thirty years looking after thousands of Catholics in Patna, India, and on the first day he arrived at the mission he had made it clear he did not know how to rest and would die if he tried. As simple as that. Father John had cleared out the back office, occupied at various times by various assistants. A parishioner donated a used laptop, and Father John found one of the kids on the Eagles, the baseball team he coached, to set it up. The bishop had settled in.
“You missed a visitor,” the bishop said as he led the way up the concrete steps. “Maris Reynolds. I told her to check back later.” He turned toward the muffled sound of an engine in the cottonwood tunnel, and Father John followed his gaze. “I believe your visitor may be returning.”
Father John walked back down the steps to where Walks-On stood shaking the Frisbee, eyes lit with expectation. He waited until the pink Cadillac sedan that looked as if it had materialized out of a retrospective film on American cultural icons pulled in next to the Toyota. Then he threw the Frisbee into the grass and watched Walks-On bound past the elderly woman emerging from behind the steering wheel. He walked over and held the door as Maris Reynolds straightened herself to her full six-foot height and patted her blue-flowered dress around her hips. A large red bag hung off one arm.
“Always nice to see you,” Father John said.
“Likewise, I’m sure. Is there somewhere quiet we can talk?”
“It’s pretty quiet everywhere.” The mission, the entire reservation—the quiet of open spaces. From his first day at St. Francis, he had been drawn into the immense solitude.
“I like the shade on a warm day like this. If it is all the same to you . . .” The woman gestured with the red bag toward the picnic table and benches under a cottonwood in front of the church, then walked around the car and started along the gravel road.
Father John fell in beside her. “How about something cool to drink? Iced tea? Lemonade?” He was pretty sure he’d seen Elena place pitchers of both in the refrigerator this morning.
“No, thank you. I am perfectly comfortable.” The woman stepped into a circle of shade and sat down on the bench facing the table, as if she were positioning herself to play a piano concerto.
Father John sat across from her. “What can I do for you?”
“For once, you are wrong, Father.” She fixed him with a hard gaze, but she was smiling. “The question is, what might I do for you? I am going to come straight to the point,” she said, opening her bag and slipping out a white, letter-sized envelope. “I’ve never gone for circling the point with a lot of trivia about the weather and the kids’ health and everything else the Arapahos use to take up time. My philosophy is: state your business and get on with it.”
“A useful philosophy.” Father John smiled. He was accustomed to the polite preliminaries that ensued before any conversation with an Arapaho, the way of connecting with another human being. Maris Reynolds lived on a ranch near Dubois, surrounded by other ranches, all owned by whites.
She opened the envelope and tipped out a smaller envelope, which she pushed across the table. “I have brought you a gift,” she said. “I believe the Arapahos would call this a double gift. I had the first pleasure of receiving these tickets to the Central City Opera from my son in Denver. Since I have no intention of spending two days driving to and from Denver to attend an opera, I have the second pleasure of giving this gift to you.”
“That’s very kind.” Father John opened the small envelope and glanced at the tickets. Rigoletto. August. Orchestra seats. It had been years since he had seen an opera. Years since he had listened to a live orchestra, to voices that soared like the voices of angels. Years since he had lost himself in the music, the elaborate costumes, the settings. All of it bigger than life, magical.
“I imagine your son might have a couple of friends who would like the tickets.”
“Poppycock.” Maris thumped her knuckles on the table.
“Yes. A very good word. Derisive and dismissive. I believe our culture is much diminished by forgetting such useful and exacting words. I have made it my business to use such words at every opportunity in order to bring them back into general usage. Now that you’ve been reminded of poppycock, I hope you will pass it on to others who will also pass it on. Within a short time, it will be heard everywhere.”
Father John smiled. “I wish you luck.”
“Thank you.” The woman looked as serious as if he had just wished her luck on a long journey. “I believe you are avoiding the tickets.”
“It’s very generous of you.” Father John slid the small envelope inside his shirt pocket. He could imagine the orchestra playing the prelude and the opening notes of “Questa o quella,” and the hush falling over the theater as the curtains parted. “I’d like very much to go to the opera . . .”
“That settles it. You will go.”
“I wish it were that easy.”
“Of course it is. You must find a way.” She swung her legs around the end of the bench and pulled herself upright. “I must be going. I’ll have to take a roundabout way home to avoid that foolish film crew that has been closing roads everywhere.”
Father John stood up and walked the woman along the graveled road to the pink Cadillac. She stopped at the driver’s door and waited for him to open it. “He was a good man, Butch Cassidy. Never killed anybody in his years of outlawing. I hope the documentary will reflect the truth.”
Gathering the blue flowery skirt around her, she folded herself behind the steering wheel. “George Cassidy is how he was known in these parts. He was a good friend to my grandfather.”
“How did your grandfather know him?” Father John leaned against the edge of the door, reluctant to shut it and send her on her way.
Excerpted from "The Man Who Fell from the Sky"
Copyright © 2016 Margaret Coel.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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