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Buffalo Bill's Dead Now

Margaret Coel - Author

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ISBN 9781101581445 | 304 pages | 04 Sep 2012 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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After more than 120 years, the regalia worn by Arapaho Chief Black Heart in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show were supposed to be returned to his people. But the cartons containing the relics were empty when they arrived at the Arapaho museum. Rancher and Indian artifact collector Trevor Pratt had them shipped from Germany and believes thieves must have stolen them en route.
 
Vicki and Father John suspect Trevor knows more about the theft than he’s telling—a suspicion that’s confirmed when they witness a car speeding from his home and he’s found murdered inside. To find the killer, they must first uncover the truth about a blood feud between two Arapaho families—and the original theft of Black Heart’s possessions dating back more than a century…


1

The pickup rumbling past the administration building sent a tremor through the old walls. Father John O’Malley set his pen down and pushed the notes he’d been making into a neat stack. Topics for next month’s sermons, ideas for the men’s club he’d started this fall, agenda for the social committee meeting this week. Five parishioners in the hospital, six new mothers who needed help with diapers, blankets, and baby food, a dozen elders who might run short of food this winter. Plus notes he’d written on the budget, never his strong point. What was it the provincial said? He ran St. Francis Mission on a hope and a prayer? Some truth in it. His business plan was to make lists of what the mission needed and pray for miracles. The donations always arrived, checks for five, ten, even a hundred dollars from people he had never heard of. Help the Arapahos on the reservation the scribbled notes said.

He hurried outside and down the concrete steps. The black pickup slowed in front of the Arapaho museum at the far curve of Circle Drive. He broke into a jog along the drive, past the turn off to Eagle Hall and the guest house, past the white stucco church decorated in the blue, red, and yellow geometric symbols of the Arapaho people. It was the third Tuesday in September, the Moon of the Drying Grass, as Arapahos kept time, and the sun was hot, the sky crystal blue. Gravel crunched under his boots and wild grasses in the center of the drive swayed in the wind. He liked autumn best, the trees and brush, the earth itself, engulfed in flames of red, orange, and gold.

St. Francis Mission on the Wind River Reservation had been home for almost ten years. Still a surprise, when he thought about it. A Boston Irishman, a Jesuit priest on the fast track to an academic career teaching American history at Boston College or Marquette University, at home in the middle of Wyoming on an Indian reservation with a Plains Indian tribe he had only read about in the footnotes of history texts. One day he would be assigned somewhere else, but he was here today.

The driver’s door swung open just as he reached the pickup in front of the old gray stone building, the mission school once. The school had closed decades ago, with not enough Jesuits or money to keep it going. A few years ago he had turned the building into a museum of Arapaho history and culture. The wind whistled in the banner stretched over the front porch. Printed in black on a red background were the words: “Arapaho Artifacts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. September 21 to January 10.”

Father John leaned down to steady the old man starting to climb out of the pickup. Scuffed boots swung forward and planted themselves on the ground. “How are you, Grandfather,” he said, using the term of respect for elders.

Bernard Tallman pushed his Stetson back with the knuckle of an index finger and blinked up at him. He had been tall once, Father John suspected. Bent forward now, shoulders pulled in around him. A hollowed look to his chest. At six feet four, Father John loomed over him as the old man steadied himself. “Ni isini,” he said. “It is a good day. Black Heart’s stuff has come home.”

Father John nodded. He held onto the old man’s elbow and guided him up the steps and across the porch. An hour ago, he had stood at the window in his office and watched the last delivery truck back up to the porch. Delivery trucks had been arriving all summer, bringing items borrowed from other museums for the Wild West exhibition. This was the most important delivery. Chief Black Heart’s regalia that he had worn in the Wild West Show. Two men had unloaded cartons and carried them into the museum, cradling them as if they knew the contents were precious. The phone had rung as the truck headed back out to Seventeen-Mile Road. “Artifacts arrived.” It was Eldon White Elk, the museum director. “I’ll call Grandfather.”

The over-sized wooden door, a remnant from the past, like the building itself, swung open. Eldon motioned them inside, nodding and grinning. A row of white teeth flashed against his dark skin. Part Arapaho, part Lakota, the director was at least six feet tall with thick shoulders and arms and a little pouch that hung over his silver belt buckle. He had on blue jeans and a red plaid shirt, cuffs rolled up partway. His hair was black, slicked back into a long ponytail that emphasized his high forehead, sharp cheekbones and hooked nose, the kind of sculptured features that had appeared on posters for the Wild West Show or the Indian nickel.

“Cartons in my office,” Eldon said, tilting his head toward the end of the corridor that bisected the building. Rows of doors led into what had once been classrooms but now served as offices and small exhibition areas. Directly across the corridor was the large exhibition hall. “Got here just in time. School kids are coming for a preview later today. Let me show you what we’ve prepared.” He motioned them past the staircase that wound upward to another corridor and still more rooms. Another staircase, Father John knew, had taken students to the third floor dormitory for Arapaho kids who had lived too far out on the rez to walk or ride ponies into school each day. Items from that time were still stored in the basement, he suspected.

Father John followed Eldon and Bernard into the exhibition hall. Plexiglas display cases wrapped around the walls, a row of low cases ran down the center. The glass surfaces reflected little flares of light. For an instant, Father John felt as if he had stepped back in time and wandered into the Wild West Show itself. A kaleidoscope of colors and motion burst from the display cases. Red, yellow, blue, and black posters of Buffalo Bill leading a charge of cowboys and Indians, horses galloping, dust flying beneath the hooves. The red-printed banners across the top of each poster said Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. Along the bottom edges were the printed words: “Colonel William F. Cody, ‘Buffalo Bill.’” There were posters of the performers: “Johnnie Baker, The Marvelous Marksman,” printed in black letters beneath the illustration of a teenaged boy holding a rifle. Another poster illustrated a dark-haired young woman in a fitted jacket filled with medals, one hand on the muzzle of a rifle, the barrel planted on the ground. Black letters said, “Miss Annie Oakley, The Peerless Lady Wing-Shot.”

Alongside the posters were buckskin shirts with beaded designs, feathered headdresses, beaded vests and worn cowboy boots with the toes curled up. Bows and arrows, Winchester rifles, silver spurs and belt buckles had been laid out in the middle cases. Arranged around the displays were black-and-white photos of Indians. Show Indians, they had been called. Photos of Indians posing in front of tipis outside an arena, visitors strolling past. A photo of a cavernous canvas tent with “Dining Tent” scrawled across the bottom and the Wild West train standing on tracks in the background. Another photo of Buffalo Bill himself in a gondola with a group of Indians. “Venice,” neatly printed along the bottom edge.

Father John recognized the man and woman on the far side of the hall, peering at what looked like half-empty cases. Sandra Dorris, black-haired and pretty with quick dark eyes, a student at Wyoming Central College who had started working part-time at the museum last spring to help Eldon with the Wild West Show exhibit. Trevor Pratt, stocky, average height with thin, light colored hair that revealed patches of pink scalp as he leaned closer to the display case. Father John knew very little about the man. Two months ago Trevor had walked into his office. Rancher outside Lander, he said. Collector of Indian artifacts. Rare Arapaho artifacts from the Wild West Show that belonged to Chief Black Heart had become available in Berlin, he’d said, and he had arranged to purchase the collection. He’d heard the museum was planning an exhibit on the Show Indians in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West. The Arapaho artifacts could be part of the exhibit. He wanted to donate the artifacts to the museum.

For a moment, Father John hadn’t known what to say. It was like the checks that spilled out of envelopes when he most needed them. A little miracle. Arapaho artifacts would be the centerpiece of the exhibit.

Trevor and Sandra spun around in unison, then Trevor hurried over and took Bernard’s hand. “Your grandfather’s regalia are safe,” he said.

The old man was grinning. “We’re grateful,” he said.

Father John shook Trevor’s hand. The man had insisted on remaining anonymous. It was the only condition he had put on the donation.

“Dealer could’ve gotten more money,” Eldon said, placing a hand on Trevor’s shoulder, “but Trevor here convinced him the artifacts belonged with the people. The display case is ready.” He nodded toward the Plexiglas cases where Trevor and Sandra had been standing. “Unbreakable glass, solid locks. Take a bulldozer to remove anything.”

“How’d you know?” Trevor said.

Eldon stared at the man, as if he could pull the meaning from the words.

“That the dealer could’ve gotten more money.”

“Museum gossip.” Eldon shrugged. “You’ve been a collector long enough to know there aren’t many secrets. Show them what we’ve planned,” he said, facing the young woman.

Sandra Dorris squared her shoulders, walked back to the display cases and trailed her fingertips over the glass. She had a slight build, almost like a teenager who hadn’t yet turned into a woman. Father John followed Bernard over to where she stood. “All the other things,” she said, gesturing around the hall with one hand, “are borrowed from the Cody and other museums. We want to convey a sense of the Wild West Show.”

“Posters are original lithographs,” Eldon said, and Father John realized the man was at his shoulder. Trevor Pratt was waiting near the door, arms folded across his chest. “Gorgeous, vivid colors. Buffalo Bill knew how to promote a show. Sent people ahead to plaster posters on walls and fences of every city the show visited. Thousands packed the arenas for every performance.”

“We want to showcase the Arapahos in the 1889-1890 season in Europe,” Sandra said, tossing Eldon a searching glance for approval. “Black Heart’s regalia are the highlight, of course.” She stopped a moment, as if she had been drawn in by the large, bronze-tinted photograph on the back wall of one of the unfinished display cases. Black Heart staring into the camera with solemn black eyes, dressed in a bone breastplate and eagle-feathered headdress, hands folded in his lap, the dignified pose of a chief.

Bernard Tallman curled himself closer to the case and gave a respectful nod toward the photo. “My father said that Buffalo Bill himself went to the agent in Oklahoma and asked permission to take Arapahos to Europe.” He might have been talking to himself, drawing out a memory. “Some of the Indians was scared the big ship would fall off the earth at the edge of the water. Grandfather”—he nodded again toward the photo—“had gone to England with Buffalo Bill three years before. They put on a show for Queen Victoria herself. He told the other Indians not to be afraid. They’d make twenty dollars every month, a lot of money. They’d get to see new places and meet different people. They could bring their wives and children. So a lot of Arapahos showed up at the agency, and Buffalo Bill came out and stood on the porch. Didn’t say anything, just looked over the faces.”

Bernard straightened up and turned toward Father John. “He’d been a scout on the plains, you know. He just stood there, like he was waiting for the buffalo to show up. Then he nodded to the Indians he wanted in the show. Put Black Heart in charge because he had experience.”

Scattered on the floor of the display case were smaller black-and-white photos of Indians looking nervous and uncomfortable in front of the camera, as if they were staring into a new and unfathomable world. “I’ll arrange these photos around the regalia,” Sandra said. Then she gestured toward the program opened on the floor of the case. Across the top of the right page, in bold, black letters were the words: “The Wild West of Buffalo Bill. 1890.” “This was the show they put on, day after day for almost two years,” she said.

Father John leaned down and scanned the program. Entry led by Arrapahoe Indians, their Chief Black Heart. Ogallala Sioux Indians under Chief Rocky Bear, and Cheyennes under Chief Eagle Horn. Horse races. Pony-Express Rider. Indians racing bareback. Buffalo hunt. Shooting exhibitions featuring Annie Oakley and Little Johnnie Baker. Indian camp and dances and foot races. Surprise Indian attack on immigrant wagon train. Indian attack on the Deadwood stagecoach and frontier villages. Buffalo Bill riding to the rescue, galloping and shooting at the same time, cowboys racing alongside.

“We’ll display Black Heart’s eagle-feathered headdress here.” Sandra waved toward the back of the display case next to the chief’s photograph. Father John saw that the elder hadn’t taken his eyes from the photograph.

“The other items will go here,” Sandra said, nodding toward the adjacent cases. “Black Heart’s beaded vest and moccasins and armlets, bone breastplate, wrist guards, his red, white, and blue shirt that looks like a flag, beaded leggings, painted pouch and belt and medicine bag. Lance decorated with wrapped cloth and feathers.” She tapped at the glass above the clear plastic stands. “A dozen pieces altogether.”

“Every one of them documented by photographs.” Eldon stepped forward and put up a hand, like a professor who had been observing a particularly gifted student, but felt there was something he had to add. He rapped the glass above the photos on the display case floor. “Here you see Black Heart wearing both the headdress and breastplate. Over here, he has on the moccasins, leggings, and the flag shirt. Here he is on horseback wearing the beaded vest, with pouch and medicine bag attached to his belt. In this photo, he’s in the Indian camp next to the arena, and his wristbands are clearly visible.”

Eldon took a couple of steps toward the end of the display case and nodded toward a photo of several Indians standing around Buffalo Bill. “That’s Black Heart on the left, holding his spear. Notice the right wristband. Two rows of beads missing. The wristband in the collection is missing the same two rows.” He looked around, the wide grin of achievement creasing his face. “The photographs prove not only that the regalia belonged to Black Heart but that he wore them in the Wild West Show.”

“Most things belonged to my grandfather’s father,” Bernard Tallman said. “My ancestor earned every eagle feather in the headdress. Fought the enemy, protected the village. Broke Black Heart’s heart, my father told me, when he learned the headdress and all the rest had gone missing.”

The room went quiet a moment, then Eldon said, “Your ancestor’s possessions are in my office, Grandfather.” He nodded the old man into the corridor, and Sandra and Trevor filed out. Father John followed. The director’s office was small. Windows framed a view of the Little Wind River and the buffalo herd in a nearby pasture. Cartons stood against the wall below the window. Eldon had already moved a carton to the top of the desk. “Please do us the honor, Grandfather,” he said, handing the old man a box cutter.

Bernard Tallman looked shaky, a little off balance as he stepped closer. Father John stayed behind the old man until Bernard had propped himself against the edge of the desk. For a moment he stared at the mass of postage and insurance stickers, the thick brown tape crisscrossing the top, as if the carton were a buffalo he had just brought down and he was about to make the first cut. Finally he ran the box cutter down the middle and separated the flaps. Then he set the box cutter down and pulled the flaps apart with the determination of a man used to roping calves.

He was holding his breath. No one said anything. Father John was aware of the sounds of the old building creaking around them. Finally Bernard began pulling out the bubble wrap, iridescent, shimmering in the light. He dropped each sheet on the floor before he pulled out the next one.

The carton was half empty now, hardly enough room left for any artifacts. Father John leaned closer, unable to look away from the bubble wrap deep within. Trevor had moved in beside him, and Father John could sense the barely suppressed anxiety in the man. It was the same with Eldon who crowded alongside the elder, boots snapping the bubble wrap.

Bernard lifted out the remaining wrap and let it fall to the floor. The carton was empty.

“There must be some mistake,” Eldon said. It sounded like a wail. Sandra stood at the end of the desk, hands clasped over her mouth as Eldon took the box cutter and swiped at the tape on another carton. He yanked out the bubble wrap and flung it onto the floor, then upended the empty carton and started ripping at another. Father John moved around the desk, tore back the tape on a carton and pulled out an armload of bubble wrap. Trevor did the same, until all the cartons had been emptied, bubble wrap foaming like waves at their feet.

“Gone,” Bernard said. “Gone. Gone. Gone.”




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