What the Heart Knows

What the Heart Knows

Kathleen Eagle

April 2013 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-258-3

A secret son. A lost love. A dangerous job. A frightening risk.

A second chance at the happiness their hearts were once afraid to share.

Our PriceUS$15.95
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Thirteen years ago, alone and secretly pregnant, Helen Ketterling left her job as a school teacher on the Bad River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. Her summer love affair with Reese Blue Sky had ended abruptly when he left the reservation to pursue his chance at a NBA career.

Now her new position, a dangerous assignment for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Reese’s father’s sudden death bring them both back to Bad River for a reunion at once fiery and bittersweet. Not only does Helen fear a custody battle if Reese learns that they share a son, but she can’t reveal that she’s working undercover at the reservation’s casino.

And Reese has his own secret—one that ended his basketball career and could endanger his son. While much has changed in the years since he left home, he finds that his roots and his heritage still matter as he reaches for reconciliation with his past. Family ties are the basis of Lakota tradition, and all are threatened by political intrigue and corruption. Was Reese’s father murdered because he planned to blow the whistle on the casino’s outside management company?

As their investigation into his death leads them down a treacherous path, Reese and Helen struggle to bridge the memories and heartaches of a time when she was an idealistic young teacher and he was a lonely man on the verge of reaching for the stars. They’ll have to search deep inside themselves to challenge the doubts that have kept them apart.

Bestselling author Kathleen Eagle set aside a gratifying seventeen-year teaching career on a North Dakota Indian reservation to become a full-time novelist. The Lakota Sioux heritage of her husband and their three children has inspired many of her stories. Among her other honors, she has received the Romance Writers of America's prestigious RITA Award.


"Kathleen Eagle never fails to delight." -- Joyce Chaplin, Netgallery

"Kathleen Eagle is a national treasure."—Susan Elizabeth Phillips

"Kathleen Eagle is an author without peers." —Tami Hoag

"A poignant and unforgettable tale.”—Library Journal

"What the heart knows can’t be denied.”—Kirkus Reviews

"The kind of magic I associate with...authors like Anne Tyler, Amy Tan, and Alice Hoffman." —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel



"The race is not always to the swift

nor the battle to the strong—

but that's the way to bet it.”

—Damon Runyon

ROY BLUE SKY had heard the owl’s warning call for three nights straight.

He wouldn’t 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 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 his 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 cutoff, 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 at the beginning of a whole new 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 still 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 near 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 both were touchy over matters of the heart, each in his own way.

"There, see?” They’d topped the hill alongside the road and spotted their quarry. "Grazing the right-of-way, look-in’ for a chance to play chicken with some trucker.” Roy 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 the game 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 who was involved or how. Indirectly he had sent for her. He didn’t want her to tell him anything, just to 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 and trotted back across the highway. He was trying to figure out what sort of 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 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, allover 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. 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 every day, 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.



Chapter One

DEATH HAD a way of screwing up the best-laid plans.

Helen Ketterling was a heavy-duty plan maker. Keeping things in order required a plan. She very much resented any form of plan bomb, and death was atomic.

She stood next to her car in the graveled parking lot across from the Bad River tribal offices and puffed on a cigarette as she watched a trio of old Indian men mount the steps to the front door. Two of them were older than the man they’d come to visit for the last time, but the third one might have been a classmate of Roy’s in about 1940 or so.

In the brief time Helen had known Roy Blue Sky, she hadn’t gotten around to asking him whether he’d finished high school. She didn’t want to offend him by asking the wrong questions. He was a wonderful storyteller, but he preferred folk tales to personal reminiscences, although she’d managed to get a few of those out of him, too. She now knew that he’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge and that he’d been married twice, to young wives, both of whom had died much too soon. He’d told her less about the second wife, the mother of his children, than he had about the first, which was how Helen knew that the memory of the second loss still pained him.

Orhad. Nothing pained him anymore. He had found peace now, and as a member of the Bad River Lakota Tribal Council, he was lying in state beyond those bright blue doors.

He was also her son’s grandfather, but no one knew that. No one but Helen.

She turned her back on the building and the mourners mounting the steps as she puffed madly on her cigarette like a sneaky kid. It was the only way she ever smoked. The only good cigarette was a secret cigarette.

Sidney had caught her at it a couple of times, and he’d read her the riot act, saying, "You’re supposed to be a teacher, Mom.” She’d been proud of him, the way he’d whipped those health-class facts on his mother, who still called herself a teacher, even though she’d gotten into this other business because... well, partly because it paid well. But Sidney was always holding her to her own high standards, and she’d felt guilty about her lame claim that this was such a rare indulgence that she could hardly be called a smoker. He’d asked her what it did for her, and she couldn’t tell him. She hated it when she needed a good answer and realized there wasn’t one.

Helen had come to Bad River to look for answers. She had a job to do, and she told herself that learning everything she could about the Blue Sky family was simply part of that job. She needed to know about their involvement with the casino she was investigating. Roy had asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs for an investigation, a fact that was particularly interesting because his son Carter was Pair-a-Dice City’s general manager. In the time Helen had spent around the two men, she had observed, as was her habit, she’d listened, and she’d put a lot of pieces of a still patchy picture together, which was her job.

But she had motives beyond the duty to her assignment. She had a duty to her son. Sidney had always been her son, hers alone. It was a necessary selfishness on her part, but now that he was barreling headlong into adolescence, she had to start thinking about who he was besides her only child, and who he would become. He had questions, and God only knew how she was going to answer them when the time came for a mother’s full, unambiguous explanation of the ways of the real world. So she was angling for family history, and she had been reeling it in quite nicely since she and Roy had become friends.

There were times when she was sure he knew what she was up to, and she decided he didn’t mind. She sensed that he actually approved. Tacit approval counted as approval in Helen’s book. It wasn’t such a huge leap from knowing to not minding to approving, one small hop at a time. She wanted the old man’s approval. She liked him and knew that Sidney would like him, that they ought to meet, that Sidney ought to hear his grandfather’s stories; and knowing these things pained Helen, still pained her, for she was very much alive. Her secrets were very much alive, as was the risk she was taking just by coming to Bad River. The risk was huge.

The risk was over six and a half feet tall. Thirteen years ago she had known Roy’s other son, who must surely be waiting behind those blue doors, too. She turned and stared at them, tried to bore a hole through them, tried to see how he looked now, how much the very public end to his illustrious professional basketball career had changed him, and how he carried his grief.

Helen had loved Reese Blue Sky once.

She had lusted after him, anyway. From the moment her craving for him had hit her—and it had hit her hard—she had told herself that this was the Romeo-and-Juliet kind of love that could never last and should never be declared unless you wanted corpses lying all over your personal stage. Reese believed, even if no one else did, that he was on his way to becoming a sports star. Helen was on her way to graduate school, after adding Indian-reservation teaching experience to her résumé. She was too busy for love, and he was too young, too unsettled, too quiet, too sexy, too improbable by half.

But he was a powerful temptation, and she had made little attempt to resist. She had denied love and fallen headlong in lust because he was the essence of her secret, silly female fantasies. The American West was etched on his angular, rough-hewn face, and he moved like a wild and natural creature, wondrously agile for his size. She knew full well that her fanciful fixation with the myth of the noble warrior had followed her into early adulthood, and it embarrassed her to think about it.

She was an intelligent woman, mostly. Responsible to a fault, but when her faults shifted and her shield cracked, she had a bad habit of folding in on herself and tumbling into the fissure. That tiny vein of romanticism was one of her weaknesses. She indulged in a private love affair with the myth and mysticism of the stark plains that rolled beyond the little clutch of boxy brick buildings across the street. Behind the tribal offices, the Bad River flowed between the Missouri and the Badlands, and beyond the river, the hills harbored history, the buttes remembered days of triumph and tragedy. She loved this place, and she was enchanted by its history. She had read about a man named Touch The Clouds, a name that had flashed inside her head the first time she saw Reese.

He’d been shooting hoops against an old backboard with a group of children who had been chased off the playground by the high school boys. School wasn’t in session, but one of the elementary school teachers had complained about the bullies on the playground.

Helen had gone in search of the dispossessed youngsters with the intention of championing them in their claim to their rightful territory. But the little ragtag group had found its champion in the form of a lean and lanky giant who could lift them close enough to the netless hoop for even the smallest child to score. He was Touch The Clouds, dressed in snug, threadbare jeans, a black tank shirt, and shoes that looked like ordinary Nikes until she’d seen them, two weeks later, lying beside her bed next to her own size sevens. A small child could have canoed in Reese’s shoe.

He was a very big man with very big dreams, and, oh, what a very big time they had had that summer. What a short, sweet, grand and lovely season.

Now she would see him again after almost thirteen years, and she would offer commonplace condolences, and she would be collected and polite. It was the proper time for collected and polite.

To go in there and see him in the flesh again after all this time would be foolish, but she’d made up her mind. She ground her cigarette into the gravel and waved to her friend Jean Nelson, who’d just gotten out of her battered Bronco. Jean was still teaching at Head Start, still seemed to enjoy her job as much as she had when Helen had first met her, when they’d been young and idealistic and questing. Neither of them had gone back to school as they’d planned, but Jean was now in charge of her program. Helen was working hers.

"Let’s do this together,” Helen suggested when Jean drew close enough to link elbows.

"Have you seen him?”

"I haven’t gone in yet. I just got here.”

Jean gave her a knowing look. "I meant Reese.”

"No, I...” Helen glanced at the blue doors. "I just got here.”


Jean thought she knew how Helen felt about Reese. She was one of those frustrated would-be counselors who was always trying to pick the emotional garbage cans of her friends’ brains. She was too damned intuitive to suit Helen, who returned a blank look.

Jean tightened down on the elbow link as they walked. "How long has it been since you’ve seen him? In person, I mean. For a while there, he was all over the—”

"Since I left,” Helen said, cutting her off. "I haven’t seen him since then.”

"We didn’t see much of him around here, either. Once in a while he’d show up at a high school basketball game, but that was rare. And it sure created a stir.”

"He’s a celebrity.” Helen said this with an easy shrug, but the concept wasn’t so easily managed. "No, I’m not nervous. He probably won’t even recognize me. I’m here for Roy Blue Sky, Jean. This is about him.”

"He and Reese were sort of estranged lately, I guess.”

"That’s too bad. I was just getting to know Roy.” And what she knew was that if Reese had shut his father out in recent years, his loss would be magnified. The old man had been a delight. He’d had a dry sense of humor and an anecdote for every situation. "He said I could come over and ride his horses anytime, and that’s what I’ve been doing for recreation.”

"While you played cards for a living,” Jean admonished.

"It actually pays better than teaching summer school.”

"Almost anything you can name pays better than teaching.”

"Roy was hoping to change that. He wanted to use some of the casino profits for education.” Except that there had been scant profits. A little-known fact that Helen had not discussed with Roy, even though it concerned them both.

"He’ll be missed,” Jean said as they threaded their way among the parked vehicles, most of them sporting a dried crust of summer bug guts and South Dakota clay. "He was a man who was just coming into his own, late in his life. There was talk that he was going to be the next tribal chairman.”

Helen had heard the talk, and she’d mentioned it to Roy. Just talk, he’d said. He wasn’t sure old age was much of a qualification for office. "We need an educated man,” he’d said, and then he’d laughed and amended his last word with a gender-neutral noun. Then he’d told her that he’d heard Reese had gone back to school. He’d heard. And what she’d heard in his voice was the distance mixed with a father’s heartache.

"Roy will be missed,” Helen echoed quietly as they passed through the blue doors.

She spotted him immediately. Surrounded by people, he stood head and shoulders above all of them and could easily see over their heads. He looked straight at her when she came in the door, but there was no change in his face, no sign of recognition or welcome or displeasure. He simply looked at her, kept on looking at her in a way that drew her directly.

She made an attempt to smile, then let it slide away. She’d thought about what she would say if he didn’t recognize her right away. Something witty and flippant. A casual quip, some sweet, private little joke to jar his memory and maybe throw him slightly off balance. Then she’d have the upper hand. But he was still looking at her, his dark eyes completely unreadable, and she couldn’t think of a single clever thing to say.

So she offered a polite and collected handshake. "Helen Ketterling.”

"I remember.” His big, warm hand swallowed hers up completely. "It’s been a long time.”

"Yes, it has.”

"Ten years?”

"More than that. You’re looking—” Casting about for her wits had left her suddenly short of breath.

"Yeah, I’m looking.” His smile was slow in coming, but finally his eyes befriended hers. He wasn’t releasing her hand. She wasn’t drawing it away. "You haven’t changed.”

"Yes, I have. I’m really very...” She shook her head and glanced away. She was going to say "sorry,” but it felt like a pale, simpering word, and it had little to do with his comment. Different. She was really very different, but she didn’t want to say that, either, because part of her wished she hadn’t changed so much.

He’d changed, too. She’d known him when he was rawboned and edgy, when his everlasting hunger burned in his eyes, but now she beheld a cautious, confident man who had made his mark. "I’ve only been back for a short time,” she said quietly, suddenly noticing Jean’s absence and wondering when she’d moved away. "But your father had become a friend.”

Reese looked surprised. "To you?”

"He remembered me from...”

His surprise turned to expectancy. Would she say it? From the time he’d introduced her as "his girl” and she’d teased him about using a schoolboy’s term? She’d used his greenness against him at times, embarrassed him in a shameless attempt to gain the upper hand in their impetuous courting game.

Unable to look him in the eye, she sidestepped, withdrawing her hand. "He invited me to ride his horses anytime, and of course I jumped at the opportunity. We visited about politics, history, folklore, all kinds of things. He had so much life in him, so many stories.”

"What brings you back?”

"A job. The quest for the perfect job.”

"And you came back here to Bad River?” He chuckled, shook his head in disbelief. He’d always worn his hair long, neatly trimmed, touching his shoulders in back. "Well, it’s good to see you.”

"Not like this, though.”

"Why not? It’s good that you came to say good-bye to your friend. You forget to do that sometimes.”

A stab. So unlike him. She had to remind herself that she really didn’t know him anymore. She had to remind him. "We said good-bye. In the rain that night. Remember?”

As soon as it was out, she was sorry she’d said it. She could feel the cold rain on her face, his wet shirt beneath her hands, his warm, promise-making breath in her ear. He’d said he figured he had one shot, and now was the time to take it. He would call. He would be back. He would catch up with her.

Cold rain, she remembered, shivering inside as she noted the cooling in his eyes. "It was a long time ago,” she said quietly.

"I didn’t realize it was meant to be a final good-bye.”

"It wasn’t meant to be. As it turns out, it wasn’t.” She lifted her chin and offered a tight smile. "Hello again.”

"Hello again.” He stepped around her, turning his back to the room, as though he was putting her in his breast pocket to keep her to himself. She’d always liked the subtle way he had of positioning himself as her protector. "You never know, do you?” he said quietly, his gaze drifting to the coffin that stood several steps away. "Which good-bye will be the last.”

"No.” She laid her hand on his dark blue sleeve, and she realized she’d never seen him in a sport jacket before. She wondered whether he’d bothered to own one back then. "I guess the gods think they’re being charitable, keeping us in the dark as we go our merry way.”

"It’s shadowy,” he told her. "It’s never completely dark. But if you pay attention to the shadows, you can get along pretty well.” He shifted his big body again, turning her attention toward a pass-through window and tables laden with kettles and trays full of food. "Did you get something to eat?”

"No, I...” She looked up, all set to excuse herself. Uncollected. Impolite. "But I will.”

"Good. The frybread’s great. I haven’t had any in a while.” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his slacks and inhaled the aroma of deep-fried yeast bread as he edged her toward the table. "Ah, the smell of home.”

"That was the first thing I looked for when I came back. I went to a powwow just to find a piece of..”

With a subtle chin jerk, he signaled one of the women who was tending the table. "Gramma, Helen needs some food. Some frybread to start with, right?”

"You come with me,” the old woman said.

He touched Helen’s shoulder, and she turned and found gratitude in his eyes. "It really is good to see you, Helen.”

She was more interested in helping at the serving table than eating. From that vantage point she watched the people pay their condolences to Roy Blue Sky’s sons. Roy had been a community leader, and there was a kind of honor due that was readily understood and easily managed. But Reese was a hometown hero, and that honor was not as easily managed. Not by Reese. It surprised her to see the underpinnings of his shyness in gestures she remembered so well. Surprising to see a man as big as he was, as physically imposing and adroit, fumble over an old man’s handshake when the recollection of a particular play during a particular game was mentioned.

"No one could touch you that night,” the man said. "You were unstoppable.”

Shoulders back, head bowed, Reese gave a small nod and muttered an acknowledgment.

"We’ve got something we want to talk to you about later,” the man said. "Not now, but pretty soon. Toksa. Me and some friends. Friends of your dad’s, relatives, friends of...”

Reese lifted his chin, questioned with a look.

Somehow the look connected with Helen, although his eyes did not stray. He knew she was listening, even as she made a production of scraping the last of the potato salad from one bowl on top of the fresh mound in a bowl she’d just set out on the table. She scraped louder, faster, but still she listened. It was part of her job.

The man tapped Reese’s chest with the back of his hand. "Not now, but before you head back to the Cities. We have things we want to say.”

"Sure. You know where to find me.”

"Out to your dad’s place?”

Reese nodded, and the man motioned to a small boy who was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the name Minneapolis Mavericks, Reese’s former NBA team. "This is my grandson. He wanted to meet you.”

Reese shook hands with the child, then squatted to the boy’s level and gave his full attention, as though they were the only two people in the room. The child had a story to tell, his small hands describing shapes and sizes, and Reese was right there with him for every detail. Helen pictured Sidney standing in the boy’s place, his lanky arms measuring the size of a fish he’d caught or the length of a pass.

Reese looked up and caught her smiling. She turned away quickly. She knew what a silly look she’d permitted to cross her face and what sentimental notions were bound to follow, and she could allow herself none of that now. Just seeing him, even after all this time, was risky enough, but seeing how open he was to the child’s interests, how he made the boy’s whole face light up...oh, lord. She hadn’t intended to see him again, not until Sidney was older. Her son’s grandfather, yes, even his uncle, but his father wasn’t part of the plan.

Reese’s warm smile pricked that pouch of guilt she swore her obstetrician had stitched into her belly during her C-section. He’d probably been a basketball fan. A fan of the man who stood beside her now because she’d been eavesdropping, and he’d caught her at it.

"How was the frybread? As good as you remembered?”


"For me, too. Almost. They say you can’t go home again.” He took a piece of frybread from the blue roaster pan on the table, tore it into two pieces, and offered her half. "Do you think that’s true?”

"Not always. I think it depends on how long you’ve been gone and where you’ve been.”Whether you had the good sense to insist on a female obstetrician. "And maybe on what you’re looking for.”

"Just a little taste of home.” He ripped off a big bite of the chewy bread. She nibbled at the piece he’d given her. He swallowed and smiled. "Can’t get it anywhere else. Why did that amuse you before—me and that kid?”

"Just the way he was so star struck.”

"That is funny, isn’t it? I was probably all done by the time he could even say the word ‘basketball.’ His grandfather and the ol’ man used to hang out together.”

"They were on the council together, weren’t they?”

"Before that.” He waved frybread at their history. "They go way back.”

"Do you...” She was about to play her hand unwisely, and she knew it, and she couldn’t stop herself. "... have children?”

He shook his head. "Haven’t had time for any of that. No wife. No kids. You?”

"I do have a son, yes. But his father and I are no longer together.” It sounded so funny and formal, the way it came out. Cover-up came with the territory she’d ventured into as a casino investigator, and she’d gotten pretty good at it, but this was rough. Reese was looking at her with too much interest, and her stomach was getting itself in a twist. "And he’s not with me. My... my son isn’t.”

"That must be hard.”

"I miss him.” He was looking at her with some new feeling. Sympathy? Oh, Lord, not that. She found a sunny smile and pasted it up front. "He’s in camp this summer. He loves it. He loves..” If you’re smart, you’ll say anything but.. "Sports.”

"How old?”

"Ten.” She’d said the number too quickly, and it reverberated, mocking her. This was more than custodial cover-up now. She was back to telling those "necessary” lies. "Almost eleven.” He’d turned twelve.

"What sports does he like?”

"Everything. You name it. Swimming, hockey, baseball, anything involving...” Games, games. Oh, God, the man was tall. Looking right down into her devious brain. "Horses. He loves to ride.”

"Like his mom, huh? How about basketball?”

"Any kind of ball. He loves...” Part of her didn’t like the way this conversation was going, while another part of her was dying to go there with this man, to tell him, show him, and let him share in her parental pride. It was past time to get a grip, to clamp down on that foolish second part. "Well, he’s an active boy.”

"That’s good.”

She nodded, the words Yes, you’d get along fine burning in her brain.

"You have to share him with his father?” When she didn’t look up at him, didn’t answer, he quietly apologized. "None of my business.”

"That’s not it. I just... it’s complicated.”

"Seems like it always—”

"Hey, Blue!”

They’d both been so absorbed that the interruption startled them. It was a tribal police officer, stopping to help himself to half a bologna sandwich on his way over.

Reese scanned the room, looking for help. "I don’t know where my brother is. I gotta talk to this guy, but...” He touched Helen’s arm. "I want you to meet my sister. She’s around here somewhere. Don’t go away.”

She didn’t. She still had a job to do. In fact, she used his request as an excuse to stay within earshot of another of his conversations. She didn’t catch all of it, but she gathered that the driver who had killed his father had still not been found and that the police had plenty of questions but no answers.

They were questions she’d already been asked. She had left Roy’s place at about ten the night he died. She was the last person known to have seen him alive. She had already recounted much of the discussion they’d had, explaining to the police that she and Roy had become friends, that she enjoyed his sense of humor and the stories he told her. She sensed some skepticism on the investigator’s part. Why would a young white woman be paying a social call on an old Indian man alone at ten o’clock at night? He was telling her stories? Strange he should turn up dead.

But then, Bad River was a strange place. An unusual place where the people lived in the detached backwater of the mainstream and where they’d gotten by on so little for so long. Policy after policy, one government program after another, had failed to do much except compound the problems that isolation, lack of resources, and a history of injustice had caused.

Then, suddenly, the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act arose in the East like the promise of a new day. Here was new possibility for new enterprise. Although, according to Roy Blue Sky, gambling was not a new enterprise for his people. But the form it was taking now was new. In the form of casino gaming, the pastime had taken on some new wrinkles, and Roy was suspicious of wrinkles. "Trouble can hide in the folds,” he’d said once. She’d waited for him to elaborate, but he had given her a fable instead. Finding trouble was her job. He must have known, she thought as she gazed down at the inanimate mask that had once been his warm face.

Coyote loves to gamble. They say he lost his whole tribe one time to the Knife River People. So he turned himself into a really good-looking man, and he talked Gray Badger out of three of his daughters. Then he took those daughters back to the Knife River village, and he said he wanted to play a dice game. And he said he would bet his fine new brides, who could breed some muscle into those bandy-legged Knife Rivers. Got them all snorty, talking like that. But all the while, Coyote had this little bird hidden in his thick hair, right behind his ear, and when they got to playing—

"They did a good job, didn’t they?”

Helen looked up as Carter Marshall joined her at his dead father’s side. Carter favored his father more than Reese did. Carter and Roy were closer to the same height, same build, and she now saw they had exactly the same ears, turned out like half-open doors. It seemed ironic that Roy had given this likeness of himself away when Carter was a baby, given him up for adoption and later taken him back. She knew little about either deed except that a change in the law had permitted the latter. The Indian Child Protection Act had returned Carter to his father’s house when he was a teenager. She knew all about that law. She had a copy of it tucked away at home.

"He looks peaceful, doesn’t he?” Carter said.

Helen nodded as she extended her hand. "I’m so sorry.”

"Thank you.” He smiled, but he was already looking around the room for something or someone else, as though he’d been signaled. She was tempted to check behind his ears for birds, but Carter was like a bird himself, always keeping an eye out for the next perch. "Just got here. So many details to look after, you wouldn’t believe it. I had to stop in at the casino, plus call my wife and make sure she’s bringing the kids over.” He squeezed her hand quickly before drawing his away. "You’re on the schedule tonight.”

"I know.”

"Everything’s going to be closed tomorrow for the funeral. Even the casinos. He’d like that. Show of respect. His favorite word.” He glanced at his father’s corpse again, then back to Helen. "Did you get something to eat?”

"Yes, thank you.”

"Well, look at this. Isn’t that Rick Marino, the basketball player?” Carter nodded toward the door, where the man who had just entered with a small entourage was turning heads. If he wasn’t a basketball player, his height had gone to waste. He was the only man in the room who stood taller than Reese, who was welcoming him with a handshake.

"He’s got a hell of a nerve,” Carter said. "He wants to build a big casino over by Spearfish. He’s trying to get the state to change the laws and up the betting limits to suit his plans. Must be nice to be famous.” He shoved his hands in his pants pockets as he eyed the two giants. "We’ll have to raise the roof to accommodate my brother’s friends, won’t we?”

"The door frames at least.”

"I gotta meet this guy. Come on, we’ll get an autograph.” This remark made Helen draw a quick scowl. "Just kidding,” Carter said. "A handshake’s plenty.”

"But you just said he had a hell of a nerve.”

"So do I. Hell, we were here first. We’re established. We’ve got Ten Star behind us, and Ten Star has deep pockets.” Carter smiled, still watching the two once-famous rivals, who were plainly exchanging friendly words. "Let him pay his respects to both of us. And to my father.” He tapped her on the arm. "Don’t be shy, Helen.”

"I’m not. I have to be on the floor in...” She checked her watch, even though they both knew she had plenty of time. It was a good opportunity to quietly withdraw.

"On second thought, I don’t think I want to introduce my best dealer to a prospective competitor.” Her boss excused her with a nod. "Thanks for coming.”

SHE LEFT without saying another word to Reese or to Jean. Suddenly, there was only one person she wanted to talk to, and he was five hundred miles away. She wasn’t carrying a phone, but she found one when she stopped for gas at the Standard station.

It was suppertime at camp, the best time to get hold of her son. She tried not to call too often, but staying away from the phone wasn’t easy. This was the first time he had been away from her for more than a week, and a week had seemed interminable. Yet he’d wanted this particular summer camp for his birthday. It had been a major expense for Helen, but he was such a gifted child, and gifted children needed special gifts, special opportunities. Helen wanted to make up for what was missing in Sidney’s life by giving him more opportunities, often expensive ones. It was right that she should pay. It was the way of the modern, guilt-ridden parent.

She managed a casual greeting when he came on the phone. He’d been too old for a gushy mother since the day he’d started kindergarten.

"Everything’s great, Mom. Tomorrow we’re going backpacking up in the San Juan Mountains. We’re only going to eat what we can harvest on the trail.”

Across the road, three boys were playing marbles in the dirt. She didn’t know kids still played marbles. She smiled. "What if there’s nothing to harvest? It’s pretty late in the season, isn’t it?”

"There’s always food, Mom. This is a survival test.”

"But you’ll have a little trail mix along just in case.”

"No way. That would be, like, wimping out. The counselors might have something stuffed away in their bag of tricks, but I’ll just be roughing it.”

"I sent them a boy; they’re sending me back a man?”

"That’s what you’re paying them for. I scored fourteen points in basketball last night. I’m getting pretty good.”

She closed her eyes and nodded, picturing him in his oversized shorts, his hair sweaty, sticking to his neck. He wanted to let it grow, maybe wear it in braids. He’d suggested that when he’d been mad at her for a remark someone had made at school. Someone who was white, like his mother, had made a remark about his being a half-breed, and he’d told her he didn’t like the word, didn’t like it that he never seemed to be or have or do any more than half of something. He just didn’t like the sound of "half,” so he was going to go the whole way, and the hell with the white part of him that didn’t count for anything, because it was the Indian part that showed more. She’d asked him not to swear, and he’d ignored her. Hell, he was almost twelve.

"Sounds better than pretty good to me. How about your writing?”

"I’m keeping a journal, which is, like, part of the program. I try to write in it every day.”

"I was thinking about a letter. Since you don’t have a computer there, how about a real letter that I can put in my scrapbook?”

"Jeez, there’s so much going on, Mom. I haven’t had time for any letters.”

Good Lord, his voice was changing. He sounded so much older, so much like a man, like...

I haven’t had time for any letters. The words could have been Reese’s echo.

"So what have you been up to, Mom?”

"Just dealing cards, sweetheart.”

"Notjust. You’re on a case, right?”

She laughed. "You make me sound like ‘Bond. Jane Bond.’” Sidney did the accent better than she did. "Yes, but I’ll have it wrapped up by the time your program is over.”

"You’re letting me stay through both sessions, right?”

"Is that what you want to do?”

She heard her own hesitancy, and she wanted to attribute it strictly to the fact that this would be a long separation, the longest she and her son had ever experienced, and it was too soon for him to be easy with it. He was still a boy. She wasn’t Mommy anymore, but she was still Mom. And Mom didn’t want that hesitancy to come from any place but her lonely heart. Her son was so far away, and at this point, she knew she was going to need more time to get her job done. Mom would not allow Helen’s slightly shady job to cloud her noblest instincts. But Helen had a job to do. Helen was the breadwinner.

"You know what’s really cool?” Sidney was saying. "Everybody else in the program is American Indian. I’m not the only one, you know? There’s guys from Alaska and Florida and Montana and New York. They’re from all over the place, Mom. But we’re all at least part Indian, and it’s cool.”

What had been even cooler was that Helen had not had to provide proof of tribal enrollment for this program, which was partly funded by federal money. Sidney’s teachers had recommended him, and all she’d had to do was sign a statement that he had at least one Native American grandparent. She hoped she hadn’t risked any kind of exposure by signing the document and filling in the word "Lakota” under tribal affiliation. That seemed vague enough. There were many Lakota tribes.

There was no documentation of Sidney’s affiliation. In the first year of a twelve-year history of haunting lies, she had put "father unknown” on his birth certificate. She had never come any closer to overturning that lie—other than explaining that the reason he looked "different” was that he was half Indian—than she had when she’d signed his application for the summer program.

It had been a good move. He was having a ball. She could hear it in his voice.

"You can stay, but I want at least one letter a week. Deal?”

"There’s a big deal for parents at the end.”

"I’ll be there.”

"You won’t believe how much I have to show you.”

"I can’t wait.”

The boys across the road had finished their game, and the smallest one was claiming the winnings. Something was always wagered, Roy had said. Even the young ones learned to bet what they valued against what they hoped to gain. As long as you draw breath you will gamble. Everyone does.

"I miss you, you know.”

"I know. I’ll try to write sometime. Listen, I gotta go.” But he hung on, and she did, too, hoping there was more. He cleared his throat. "I miss you, too, Mom.”

THE FOLLOWING day Helen attended the funeral of Roy Blue Sky. She stayed at the edge of the crowd. She waited in line to shake hands with his family. His two sons, his grandchildren, the daughter Helen had never met but whose stature and features and regal solemnity were unmistakably Blue Sky.

An eagle hovered above the mourners as they lowered the casket. It circled when they dropped gifts into the grave, and it circled still, resplendent against the clear cerulean sky, as they took turns at the shovels. Women trilled, men pounded a drum and sang their ancient song, and male and female tears flowed generously. Helen kept to herself, but she would hold the memory for her son. He should have been there. By all rights, she knew he should have been there.

She also knew instinctively, while she listened to the heavy clay fall into the hole, that Roy’s death was no accident. The old man had not been afraid to blow the whistle, to call for an investigation that could implicate some of the people who stood around his grave. Management, employees, tribal officials, even Roy’s own son. How many of these people knew about the investigation? Roy had bypassed Ten Star’s in-house monitors and contacted the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was the reason Helen was involved. Roy’s suspicion that somebody was taking the tribe to the cleaners was no secret, but had he told anyone that he’d done more than just make some local noise? Nobody loved a whistle-blower, and Roy no longer had breath to blow.

But Helen did. She had breath, skill, and mandate. And she had duty to a friend.



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