DEADLY INDIAN SUMMER
A Contemporary Novel
The battered and scraped pickup truck, its blue body fifteen years old and looking worse than the hulks found in automobile graveyards, strained and bounced down a tortuous rock-filled path that was designated as a road on a map of the Navajo reservation. It was no worse a road than most of those found on the reservation and better than some.
The sun was high now in the sky and only an occasional dust cloud swirled about them as the winds subsided. The worst of the sandstorm was past here on the higher plateau north of Gallup and the warmth of the sun filled the cab of the pickup.
Hosteen Williams, the driver, used both the sun visor and the brim of his stetson to shield his eyes from the glare. His muscular arms, bared by flannel sleeves rolled up above the elbows, controlled the wheel. It was necessary for him to keep a firm grip at all times as the ruts and stones of the road threatened to tear the wheel from his hands at any moment.
The concentration was apparent on his broad, weather-lined face. His small eyes were made to appear even smaller by his high cheekbones and the wire-rimmed spectacles he wore. What could be seen of his hair from beneath the stetson was grey and cut short. Hosteen was fifty years old, the second oldest of Mary Begay's eleven children, and like most of his brothers and sisters was a sheep herder. Except for a two year stint in the Army served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, he had spent his entire life on the reservation. He had been a widower for many years and his three children were all gone now. He understood their rejection of the harsh life of Navajoland but their leaving the reservation had hurt him nevertheless. Their letters now arrived from the white man's cities of Chicago, Tulsa and Boise and sometimes, as he read of their new lives, he wondered if they were really his children and still Navajos at all. His two sons and daughter were aware of the rift that had grown between them and their father over the years and whereas they had tried at first to make regular visits back to the reservation, they now contented themselves with occasional letters that contained whatever money they could spare.
Next to him sat his mother, Mary Begay, and cradled in her arms was her grandson and his nephew, Joseph Williams. The boy was still unconscious and the only sound in the cab was that of his labored breathing and intermittent coughing. Mary held the boy's head turned to her breast to keep the sun from his face and used a corner of her shawl to wipe off the red-stained mucus that dribbled from his lips.
Her mouth was firmly set and, like her son, she stared directly ahead at the road, which ran across an arid, flat plain, and then later curved and twisted through more rugged mesaland perched on the walls of boulder-littered canyons. She felt the heat emanating from the boy's body but if she experienced concern for his condition, her face did not betray it.
Hosteen Williams had been driving for almost an hour since leaving the hospital in Gallup. His eyes were fixed now on a point just beyond a butte-shaped rock to the west. At first glance there was nothing visible other than the brown and grey pastel colors of the rocks and small clumps of mezquite and ocotillo. There was some movement among the vegetation and a few sheep appeared, followed by a hairless brown mongrel that stared impassively at the truck bouncing along in its direction.
It was not until they had passed the largest rocks that the hogan became visible, blending into the land and seemingly a direct outgrowth of it.
The low dome-shaped structure was made of logs and mud covered with earth and had a central smoke-hole in the roof. It had no windows and the only ventilation for the dwelling was provided by the cracks around the one door leading into it and by the smoke-hole. The doorway faced to the east so the inhabitant could see the dawn. To the side of the hogan was a gasoline drum for water storage and beyond that one could see a stack of firewood tied in teepee fashion.
Except for sheep and the dog, which now wagged its tail lazily, there was no sign of life as the pickup truck approached.
Hosteen guided the vehicle almost to the door of the hogan and turned off the engine. The silence of the mesas immediately surrounded them and they could hear only the harsh breathing of Joseph Williams.
The door of the hogan suddenly opened and a gaunt Navajo dressed in faded denims appeared. He was taller than most Indians and wore no hat. His hair hung shoulder length, accentuating the lean, drawn appearance of his face. His sharp aquiline nose and sunken cheeks gave him the fevered look of a Biblical ascetic.
Harvey Running Bear was born in this same hogan fifty years ago. His mother had died when he was still young and his father was killed shortly after that when he fell asleep drunk on the Santa Fe tracks. His brother and sisters had gradually drifted away but Harvey remained and still lived in the hogan. When he was younger he had worked for short periods of time on Anglo ranches off the reservation but inevitably his longing for the solitude of the mesas brought him back to his ancestral home. He had taken a wife during one of his sojourns away from Dinetah, Old Navajo Land, and brought her home with him to his hogan. Bright Sparrow was an Apache, no more than fifteen when she went to live with Running Bear. One year later, she bled her life away on the earth floor of the hogan in a vain attempt to bear her child. The baby, too, was dead by the time Harvey could get her into Gallup.
For a long time no one would visit the "chindee hogan," the place where death had occurred. Later the word got out that Bright Sparrow had actually breathed her last on the trip into Gallup. That was why Running Bear had not abandoned his hogan and built a new one to the east.
He had never married again and shortly after his wife's death, Harvey Running Bear had had a mystical experience. He was visited one star-filled night by the Spirit of the Gila Monster. For many weeks after that visitation Harvey had been sick, burning with fever, but when the malady passed, Harvey knew that he had "the gift." From that time on he had been a hand trembler.
The hogans and woodframe or adobe cracker-box houses of Dinetah were miles apart. Harvey's nearest neighbor was three miles to the west across canyons and unpaved roads. Nevertheless, word of Harvey's abilities with divination had spread and he was now recognized as the most famous hand trembler in the region. His diagnoses were invariably correct and a necessary prelude to the eventual restoration of harmony by the Singer.
Hosteen stepped down from the truck and clasped Harvey's hand. They remained like that for several seconds, their hands gently touching, neither man speaking. They had not seen one another for many months.
At last Hosteen spoke, indicating the truck as he did so. Harvey glanced momentarily at Mary Begay and nodded. Hosteen then went to the other side of the cab and took the boy from Mary's arms. Mary descended and they both followed Running Bear into the hogan.
The one room was immersed in darkness except for the light that filtered in around the smoke hole and through the door cracks. It was also at least twenty degrees cooler than outside in the noonday sun. Harvey lit a kerosene lamp that rested upon a large flat rock. The hogan was completely devoid of furniture and the shadows of the people danced eerily upon the mud walls.
Harvey's bed was a sheepskin stretched out on the dirt floor next to the gasoline drum stove in the center of the hogan. A makeshift chimney rose from the stove to the smoke hole. The stove was still faintly warm from the cooking of breakfast hours before. Also near the stove on the pounded dirt floor was a section of oilcloth, upon which Harvey ate his meals.
There were few objects in the hogan. Some pots, pans, and utensils occupied one corner and next to them were staple items-flour, salt, and pepper. In another corner an old shotgun rested against the wall. Two pegs formed from heavy branches protruded from the wooden door and a blanket and pair of pants hung from these.
Running Bear took the boy's limp body from Hosteen and placed him on the sheepskin. He looked intently at Joseph Williams and grunted.
"You can undress him," he said to Mary. "I'll go for water while you gather some firewood," he instructed Hosteen.
"I didn't see your truck," said Hosteen as the two men left the hogan. "I wasn't sure you were here."
"Charlie Bigwater came over early this morning to borrow it. His wife has some rugs for the trader."
The two men stood in silence and watched a hawk circling lazily above them. Running Bear nodded as if in answer to an unspoken question only he had heard. "The boy is very sick, Hosteen. The spirits are killing his body."
"Do you think you can find the cause?"
"I'll try. After you get the wood why don't you ride over to Homer Red Arrow in Tohatchi. Tell him we need some good medicine for the boy to make him feel better until the Sing is held. And while you're there you can talk to Sam Begay about arranging the Sing. How soon do you think you can make preparations for it?"
Hosteen thought for several minutes without saying anything. This was not a matter to be taken lightly. There were people to invite, food had to be prepared and payment had to be arranged. A sand painting also needed to be done and time had to be allowed for this. But he knew that with Joseph Williams so ill, he could not wait very long.
"I think we can be ready by tomorrow," he mumbled almost to himself. "If Sam is willing."
Running Bear nodded. "Good," he said simply and then walked to the water tank.
Hosteen, in the meantime, gathered up some pieces of wood from the stack beyond the water drum and carried them to the hogan. He found Mary sitting on the floor watching Joseph. She did not look up when he came in. The boy's thin body was now completely naked. His breathing had worsened, becoming more irregular with a gurgling sound that seemed to arise from deep within his chest, and his entire body trembled with the effort to get air into his lungs.
Hosteen could readily see that despite the overwhelming problems involved in arranging a Sing on such short notice, his judgement had been correct. Joseph Williams was losing in his battle with the evil spirits and only the immediate intervention of the power of the Singer could help the boy now. He informed his mother that he was heading over to Tohatchi to see the herbalist and make arrangements for the Sing.
She looked up at him. "It will have to be done very soon. Can you get word to everyone?"
He nodded, inwardly relieved that his mother concurred in the need for haste.
"I will stay here then," she said, sighing almost imperceptibly.
Hosteen placed the wood by the stove and glancing once more at his nephew left the hogan. Running Bear approached with a can of water and the two men nodded as they passed each other. There was nothing left to say and Hosteen swung his body into the driver's seat of the truck. As he drove away he could see the first few wisps of smoke coming from the roof of the hogan.
Inside, Running Bear had begun his preparations for the ceremony. The fire was going in the stove and he and Mary washed the boy's fevered body, cupping the water in their hands and letting it trickle over him.
Running Bear then went to a crevice in one wall of the hogan and withdrew a small leather pouch. From this, he took a powdery substance and then squatted next to Joseph Williams. Mary watched as he rubbed sacred corn pollen on the boy's body, first on his feet and legs, then his hands and chest, always working from right to left. He then asked Mary to place the boy in a sitting position and finished spreading the pollen on Joseph's back and on the top of his head. As Mary let the boy sink again into a reclining position, Running Bear rubbed the remainder of the pollen on his own right arm, beginning at the vein in the inside of the elbow and continuing to the tips of his fingers.
He shifted now into a kneeling position and began to pray. His lips barely moved as he intoned the Navajo chants to the Gila Monster. Because Harvey had the spirit of the Gila Monster within him he asked the spirit to tell him what was wrong with the sick boy, offering shells and turquoise in return. After four repetitions of the prayers, Running Bear invoked the Gila Monster with songs, listening at the same time with his right arm extended.
Mary Begay could see a slight tremor in the outstretched fingers and then suddenly the entire arm and hand began to shake violently. Running Bear's concentration was so intense that he seemed unaware of the movements of his extremity. He appeared only to be listening to an unheard voice.
The shaking of his hand and arm subsided, only to begin again moments later. This sequence of events continued until his arm abruptly fell to his side and he appeared to waken from a trance.
Once again the Gila Monster had shown its acceptance of him and he had been able to determine the cause of the patient's illness. He stood up, stretched, and, indicating a pot near the stove, asked Mary to heat up the coffee that remained from the morning.
Mary did not ask what Running Bear had learned. In his own time, she knew, he would tell her.
He puttered around in one corner of the hogan and came up with two cups. These he handed to Mary and she poured the steaming black coffee for them. They drank in silence, their attention focused on Joseph Williams's struggle to breathe.
"The evil winds have brought this sickness to the boy. He will need the Windways chant."
Those were the only words he was to utter to Mary for the remainder of the afternoon. Shortly after he had finished his coffee, he picked up the old shotgun, found a few shells in a small crack in the hogan wall, and left the dwelling.
Mary in the meantime dressed Joseph Williams and tried to get him to drink some of the water that remained in the can. At intervals throughout the afternoon, she carefully poured small amounts between his parched lips but more often than not the boy would begin to cough, spitting out the liquid along with globs of blood-flecked mucus.
The small amount of light filtering through the cracks into the hogan began to fade as the hours passed. It was shortly before nightfall when Running Bear reappeared. In one hand he held the carcass of a jackrabbit, already skinned. He grunted with satisfaction as he replaced the shotgun in its corner of the room and laid the rabbit on the flat rock next to the kerosene lamp. Running Bear's moving form threw grotesque shadows on the walls. The light outside had completely disappeared now and they depended entirely on the lamp.
In contrast to the cold evening air of the desert outside, the interior of the hogan was warm enough from the fire that still burned in the stove to cause beads of perspiration to appear on Mary Begay's forehead.
Running Bear checked the supply of wood and went out to get more to last through the evening. While he was gone, Mary heard the sound of the approaching pickup truck. Moments later, Running Bear entered with the wood and behind him was Hosteen. They all squatted now around the stove as Harvey fed some more branches to the fire. The light of the flames danced on their faces as Hosteen spoke.
"I got the medicine from Homer Red Arrow," he said, producing from his shirt pocket two small packets of folded newspaper. Each contained herbs and he pointed out that Red Arrow had indicated the one looking like tea leaves was to be used first after boiling it for at least a half hour. Once the boy had drunk that, the second, made up of larger dark green leaves, was to be given, again after boiling, but for a shorter time.
Mary said she would like to begin to boil the water and Running Bear handed her the water can and a pot.
"I also saw Sam Begay," continued Hosteen. "He says he will begin the preparations for the Sing tonight providing it is the Windways or the Shooting chant. I'll have to go back to Tohatchi later to let him know."
"It is Windways," said Running Bear. "The boy is afflicted with the evil winds."
Hosteen's face looked relieved. He knew that Running Bear must have suspected it even before the hand trembling or he would not have sent him to Sam Begay. Of course, if Running Bear's assumptions had proven wrong, it would have been necessary to see a different Singer since Sam Begay knew only the Windways and Shooting chants.
"I have spoken also to some of our family," said Hosteen, "and they will get word to the others. They will try to reach Frank and Lilly in Shiprock. We are to meet at Sam Begay's hogan tomorrow at dawn. I have already arranged with everyone about the food. We are to bring Sam Begay twenty sheep and five hundred dollars. The Sing is expected to last for three nights."
Mary nodded silently. The price was high but would bring great
prestige to the family. Although the boy's parents both worked at the electronics plant in Shiprock, Mary knew that the whole family would have to help them get the money together. She herself would have to pawn some of her silver and turquoise jewelry. Unconsciously, she glanced at the heavy silver bracelet on her wrist. The inlays of turquoise reflected the light from the fire. This was her bank account and she would pawn it, along with her rings if necessary, at the trading post.
The sound of the water boiling interrupted her thoughts. She took the first packet given to Hosteen by the herbalist and emptied the finely shredded leaves into the water.
Running Bear suddenly looked up from his spot near the stove. "Charlie Bigwater is coming," he said. Hosteen and Mary listened but could hear nothing. After a full minute had gone by they could hear the sound of a vehicle approaching. They were not surprised that Harvey Running Bear had known of its approach long before they had. They knew that the spirit of the Gila Monster told him many things.
A pickup truck pulled up outside the hogan and they heard the doors slam. Harvey went outside and returned leading an Indian couple that provided a strange contrast. The man was extremely tall, at least six-four, while the woman behind him was no more than five feet high.
Charlie Bigwater's appearance could only be called impressive. His muscular chest and shoulders threatened to burst from the light windbreaker he wore. His mother, a full-blooded Navajo, had married an Anglo lumberman, a Swede, and Charlie had spent his childhood around the lumber camps of Oregon. By the time he was fourteen he was felling trees as well as any of the men but his career came to an end two years after that when his father was crushed to death in a log jam on the Clackamas River.
His mother returned to the reservation and Charlie, who had taken her name, became a sheepherder. Despite the long braids he wore, his sharp features and light hair were unmistakable evidence of his mixed blood. To the Navajos, however, this was unimportant. Tribal customs did not prevent a Navajo from marrying into another tribe or race and the offspring of such a marriage were treated the same as full-bloods.
Charlie Bigwater's wife, Betsy Lee, was one of the best known rug weavers on the reservation. Her wood frame loom was set up near her hogan and every step in the making of the rugs, from the shearing and washing of the wool to the designs formulated in her mind, was done by her alone. Some of her designs were exhibited in the Navajo Guild's museum in Window Rock.
She was a petite woman with a pixie-like quality, unusual in a Navajo past thirty. Despite her weaving ability she wore a cheap factory-made blanket over her shoulders, giving her the appearance of a mischievous child playing hide-and-seek in the bedding.
Hosteen and Mary knew Charlie and Betsy Lee very well and they greeted one another warmly. The visitors looked with anxious concern at the sick boy and Hosteen informed them of the Sing scheduled for the next day.
"We'll be there," said Charlie Bigwater and his wife nodded in agreement.
"Let's have some dinner," said Running Bear. Mary got up to help and Harvey handed her the rabbit he had killed earlier but she shook her head, knowing that it was too small to share among five people and that it would deprive Running Bear of his food for the following day. Instead, she prepared frybread, a mixture of flour, baking powder, salt and water, which was patted into cakes and fried in deep fat. Mary also put a pot of fresh coffee on the stove.
There was little conversation until they were all seated around the stove and eating. Before having her own dinner, Mary took the herb tea she had brewed and attempted to spoon it into Joseph Williams's mouth. He seemed to respond slightly, his eyelids fluttering, and he was able to swallow some of the liquid without choking. Mary allowed him to rest for a while and then at intervals fed him a few teaspoons at a time.
"I'll prepare the other medicine when we get home," she said to Hosteen, who nodded his assent.
While they ate, Charlie talked about their visit to the trader. He knew that Betsy Lee was being paid poorly for her labor but it was in immediate cash and that was something they always needed. It was also difficult to sell rugs without having access to tourists and the trader was able to fulfill that function as well. During the past year, Betsy Lee had gotten two direct orders from customers familiar with her work and was able to earn eight times what the trader would have given her. It was the first time that had happened and she hoped that as her fame spread, such orders would make it possible for her to bypass the trader entirely. Since preparing the yarn for a Navajo rug required as much time as it took to actually do the weaving, there was a limit to the number of rugs Betsy Lee could weave in a year. And with four children at home, all under seven, there never seemed to be enough income.
Throughout the dinner Betsy Lee stole concerned glances at Joseph Williams. The boy looked very ill and illness in a child was something Betsy Lee was very familiar with. She and Charlie had had six children and two had died before their fifth birthdays, one from pneumonia and the other from diarrhea.
Hosteen belched contentedly after he had eaten and rose from his spot on the floor. "It's time to go," he said to Mary. "I want to get down to Tohatchi before it gets too late."
Mary rewrapped Joseph Williams in his hospital blanket while Hosteen went off in a corner with Running Bear and handed him five dollars.
"I will see you at the Sing," said Harvey.
Charlie Bigwater and his wife accompanied Mary and Hosteen to the truck and helped them get settled.
"Do the boy's parents know?" asked Betsy Lee.
"I've sent word," replied Hosteen.
"We'll see you tomorrow then in Tohatchi," said Charlie, shaking hands with Hosteen, who was already in the driver's seat. "And our thoughts will be with you."
The headlights cut a swathe through the cold darkness as the truck pulled away from Running Bear's hogan. Joseph Williams's breathing was easier as they drove to their home twenty miles north. Mary again cradled the boy to her breast and Hosteen turned on the heater. Although it was June, the nights in the desert were still very cold.
"I'll get you home so the boy can have his medicine," said Hosteen. "Then I'll go back to see Sam Begay."
Mary sat silently with Joseph Williams nestled in her arms and watched the full moon rise in the sky. The stars spread out around them in a vast display and Mary felt an inner contentment despite the sick boy being warmed by her body.