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Heron Walks' Hat

"I look like a chipmunk," Milly said to the mirror. Kevin threw open the shower curtain and reached for a towel.

"You're too tall," he said.

"Thanks a lot."

"To be a chipmunk, I mean."

Looking at the face in the mirror, Milly's eyes filled with tears. She felt stupid. She glanced at Kevin's water-beaded body, behind her reflection's shoulder. He was thicker in the waist than the shoulders. She couldn't see the girl under her aging face any more. She had heavy cheeks. She saw a square-jawed matron in the mirror. Kevin had a foot on the bath sill, drying his ankle. As she passed him, she noticed that the side of his thigh was puckered with cellulite.

I should judge, she thought to herself.

Last night, after she got the kids to bed, they'd had a fight about the Indian who was killed. At least, she thought it was a fight. She'd asked him how Tim was taking the police brutality charges. Tim Odegard was Kevin's best friend on the force, and he and Owen Thurman had been investigated by Internal Affairs. Now the case was at the Grand Jury. As Kevin talked, she realized that what really happened was a little different than what Tim and Owen claimed.

"You mean they did beat him up?"

"I didn't say that. I said he didn't just fall down. He got violent and they had to push him around. That's when he fell and hit his head."

"But I thought you said the guy was so drunk he could hardly walk."

"Look, let's drop it."

"But Tim and Owen did beat him up."

"I didn't say 'beat him up.' I said 'roughed him up.'"

"I don't see the distinction."

"'I don't see the distinction.' Well I see the distinction! This guy's six-four, two-hundred-fifty pounds. Hell, he's almost as big as Tim's old man. He's a real violent type."

"Like Tim's father."

"What are you getting at? Arnold Odegard was my watch captain for ten years."

"Nothing. Just nobody beat Arnold Odegard to death."

Kevin exhaled a loud breath, an angry sigh. "Heron Walks was in a hospital the night before he was arrested. You know that?"


"Yeah. He was too drunk to stand up that night too. Two of his buddies brought him in. He'd been in a fight. He started it, according to his buddies. He got hit on the head with a pool cue. The emergency doctor thought he might have a concussion. Tim and Owen had no way of knowing that. The Indian threw a punch at Tim, and Tim decked him."

"That's all? I thought he hit the back of his head."

"I wasn't finished. He got up and went for Owen. He outweighed Owen by fifty pounds. Tim hit him with his nightstick."

She didn't say anything, just listened. Milly and Kevin had been married fifteen years. They had married after dating on and off for a couple of years. Milly'd had a scholarship in history at the university, and they had met when she and Kevin ended up a night class together. Kevin was full-time at North Central Community College then, but after they married he had dropped out to go to the police academy. She had worked for the state consumer affairs office for two years while Kevin finished at the academy. He was lying.

"Why don't they just tell the truth?" she ventured after a silence.

"Because the truth, as you call it, isn't all that different from what they say happened, except it doesn't require any explanations."

"I don't understand."

Kevin sighed volumes of exasperation. "Look. They didn't do anything out-of-line. He resisted arrest, and they used force to restrain him. They didn't have any way to know that guy had fractured his skull the night before. They did what they were trained to do. But if they say they hit him, then there are more questions: how hard, how often, was it really necessary. It's like if I accidentally broke a vase. You know, it wasn't my fault. I know it wasn't my fault, but nobody saw it. If I say I broke it, we have to argue over whether it was my fault. I know it wasn't, so I just say I don't know what happened to it."

"A man's head isn't a broken vase."

"You're twisting my words. Goddamit, I'm sorry the guy is dead! Tim's sorry. It was an accident. But the guy was a punk. He's been looking to get killed for ten years, sounds like. Tim didn't kill him; the son of a bitch committed suicide." He walked away suddenly, headed for the kitchen. "Just drop it, for Chrissake!"

"Kevin, you started this. You told me what really happened."

He turned in the doorway. "Yeah, but I also told you that this Heron Walks guy was permanently drunk. And I told you that according to his blood alcohol level, he was already legally dead when they arrested him. And what killed him was blood in the brain that probably was there from the night before."

He had gone into the kitchen then; she heard him open a can of pop. She was tired; she had gone upstairs to bed by the time he came back.

Now, the next morning, while she assembled breakfast, Milly rehearsed the conversation. The papers had the public story. Billy Heron Walks had fallen while he was being booked; he'd hit his head on the counter; his already fractured skull had failed under this last insult, and he'd died a few hours later of a massive brain hemorrhage. Indian activists didn't believe it. It gnawed at Milly that they were right. She brought cereal boxes and milk to the table.

Kevin came into the kitchen, crisp and elegant in his uniform.

"Kevin, shouldn't you talk to Internal Affairs?"

His face turned grim. "No."

She said nothing. She poured him coffee.

"Look. I don't know anything," he said to the coffee cup. "I wasn't there. What Tim told me is hearsay."

"Kevin, it's not hearsay; it's a confession."

"Babe, I'm not going to screw up my job situation over the death of a drunken, violent derelict. Tim is my friend, and Owen is a good cop."

"It's not fair. They shouldn't get away with it just because this Heron Walks guy wasn't Jay Silverheels and they're nice guys."

"Why not? Why the fuck not?" Milly glanced at the door. Brad and Jenny were still upstairs. Felicity was still asleep, as far as Milly knew. "Why should two good cops have their careers screwed up because a big drunken Indian pushed them and they pushed back too hard? Where is the god damned justice in that? Justice," he added, stirring his cereal. "Your god damned social worker justice," he added in a level tone.

Milly heard Brad on the stairs. "Can we drop it?" she murmured, glancing at the door.

"Sure. I'm not 'ediccated' enough to understand this 'justice' bullshit anyway."

"Kevin, I didn't say that."

"'Say' shit."

Jennifer beat Brad to the kitchen. Kevin stopped talking when he heard her coming, and her gait changed when she caught the mood of the room. She took her place at the table. Milly heard the scuff of Brad's shoes approaching the door.

"You walk like a ground sloth," Jennifer said through a mouthful of cereal when he appeared in the door.

"Tie your shoes, Bradford," Milly said.

Brad looked down at his shoes as if just discovering they'd attached themselves to his feet. He sighed and stooped to flop the laces together. When they were minimally secured on his feet, he sat at the table. He poured cereal, then treated his little sister to a good-morning glare and began eating.

Kevin had finished his cereal. Picking up his coffee cup, he got up from the table. He scratched the back of Jennifer's neck while speaking to Brad. "You have karate practice tonight?"

"Yup." Brad didn't look up from the mechanical roll of his spoon between his mouth and the bowl.

"Don't forget we have Elaine's party tonight," Milly said to Kevin.

"Brad'll be home at seven to stay with Felicity. Right, Thunderhand?"

The spoon halted a moment and Brad grinned up at his father. Kevin hardly ever used his D&D nickname. "Yeah!"

Milly spent the day in the basement, preparing her annual Goodwill donations. At five, she began dressing for the party. At six, Kevin was home, switching into civilian clothes. As soon as Brad got home, they drove over to Elaine Gerald's place.

Milly had been there an hour when she noticed the Indian man. "Who's that?" she asked Elaine, indicating the man speaking to Allan Dobney.

"Emerson Kills Horse," Elaine said. "He works for one of the oil companies. He's local chairman of America's Indian Now." She paused and examined the man as if she were deciding what else was worth knowing about him. "He's with Betty Stadler."

Emerson Kills Horse was not a big man. He was only an inch or so taller than Milly, and trim-waisted. He wore blue jeans and cowboy boots, a pearl-button shirt and a shiny brown leather vest. His hair was oil-black and braided in two long ropes that reached his shirt pockets. A piece of bright blue ribbon, matching his shirt, was woven into each braid.

Milly could barely hear his voice, a dark, rich sound–chocolaty, she thought. Milly glanced around the room. Kevin was sitting on the couch, sipping a drink. Milly walked casually over to Emerson Kills Horse and Allan Dobney.

"What was stolen stays stolen until it's returned," Kills Horse was saying.

"Yes," Allan replied. "I understand that. But–"

"Most people don't. If a man steals my car, and he gets caught, I want my car back. If he offers to buy it, I don't have to take his money. The car is mine."

"But we're not talking about cars."

"You know, one way to identify cultures is to look at how they categorize things. There's this poem about space invaders coming to earth and saying they want to buy the sky. People say, 'These guys are nuts. They want to own the sky? How can you own the sky?' But some unscrupulous ones figure to make a buck. They figure, 'They want to buy the sky? OK, let's sell it to them.' So they claim they own it, and they offer to sell. The invaders pay a fabulous price for the sky, and these crooks take the trade goods. Then the aliens turn on this ray and suck up all the atmosphere into a compression tank."

Allan nodded to Milly. He introduced her to Emerson Kills Horse.

"Just like Indians didn't understand what Europeans were getting at when they offered to buy the land," she said.

"But what if the guy who stole your car wrecked it?" Allan said.

"OK. But it doesn't change my rights. I still can either take my car or his money."

"But with the Black Hills, it's really the opposite problem. The land has been damaged, yes, but it's also been improved; thousands of people live on it; they have enormous amounts of money invested in it."

"It's no different. What if my car was an old beat-up junker, a '52 Studebaker. The guy who stole it sells it to a guy who cleans it up, paints it, puts in a new radio, new seat covers, a new transmission. Then he sells it to a nice retired couple in Ogden. It's still my car. I want it back."

"What about the people who bought it?"

"Let 'em take it up with the guy who stole it."

"Well, what about the new radio? And the transmission? Those don't belong to you. Do they get to keep them?"

"Sure. If they put back my good old radio and seat covers, and put back the transmission he stole."

Emerson Kills Horse turned his attention to Milly Kendall, meeting her eyes but not speaking. His face was smooth. He seemed older than she was, something about his voice, but he looked younger. He keeps himself in shape, she thought. It makes a big difference. Looking at him, she remembered her class in Indian treaty rights. They'd talked through the legal complications. There was a big guy in the class, Aaron something Deer or something, who said one day, "What it boils down to is when the government steals, nobody can do nothin' about it."

"But do you really think the Black Hills are worth more than forty million?" Allan said.

"That's not the point, Allan," Milly said. "Who says what they're worth? The thief or the owner? The government didn't pay for the land they purchased, and we owe the Indians a century of back payments and interest. And with the precedent of buying land from them, we've acknowledged their ownership, so any land we didn't buy and specifically recognized title to, like the Black Hills, is stolen."

Kills Horse nodded. "No matter what they're worth, if they're mine and I want them back, I get them," he added.

"That's all very idealistic, but I don't see how you can seriously expect all the present owners to vacate."

"I don't think there's a statute of limitations on ownership."

"Isn't that one of the differences?" Milly said. "Anglos talk about property rights a lot, but our culture really has no concept of 'always.' For us," she concluded, addressing Allan, "there is a statute of limitations on ownership. If something was stolen long enough ago, the theft stops being real."

"Are you all talking about that man who was killed?" Linda Dobney slipped an arm through her husband's, stepping between the two men and giving Milly a quick smile.

"Billy Heron Walks?" Kills Horse asked.

"Is that his name? What do you think happened?"

"The police killed him."

"You mean, murdered?"

"I mean he was beaten to death."

"I thought he fell and hit his head," Allan said.

"I was at the Grand Jury hearing today for a while, with his family. His sister says that he must've gotten up and fallen and hit his head five or six times."

"Well, it's a terrible thing," Linda said. "Milly's husband is a policeman." She paused, then her face focused across the room. "Oh, Allan, there's Theresa and her husband! I've been looking for them all evening. They just got back from Mexico." She stepped around Kills Horse, half dragging her husband. Allan Dobney excused himself as they moved away.

Milly stood silently with Emerson Kills Horse for what seemed more than a minute. He glanced toward the buffet.

"Why do you think they killed him?"

"They didn't need a reason. He was just a big, dumb Indian, too drunk to know what he was doing and maybe a little belligerent. Hitting him turned into fun, and it got out of hand."

"I'm sorry," Milly said. "That's not what I meant. I meant what makes you think that they killed him. I mean, I can understand how Mr. Heron Walks' friends would want to believe it was police brutality, but is there any evidence?"

"It's all circumstantial. He supposedly fell against the edge of a counter, hitting the back of his head so hard it cracked his skull. But that counter is sharp, and hitting his head that hard didn't break the skin."

"I read in the paper that he'd been in a fight the day before and he was treated for a concussion."

"At St. Luke's. Supposedly his skull was already fractured and the fall finished him off. I still want to know why that sharp edge didn't break the skin. The bruises were all more like he'd been hit with something round. Cylindrical, like a nightstick. And then there's the hat."

"What hat?" She said. Kevin was looking at her from across the room. She smiled back, and he got up. He stood in front of the couch, finishing his conversation with a couple she didn't know. She and Kills Horse moved to the buffet table. While they foraged through the hors d'oeuvres, he replied.

"Billy was wearing a big black Navajo cowboy hat. Both policemen had said he had it on when he fell. Our attorneys questioned them hard about that. They didn't seem to see why. Then somebody pointed out that if he fell the way they said, the hat would have cushioned his head. And it would show some signs of the injury–angle of the fall, shape of what he hit, things like that."

"Doesn't it?"

"It's gone."

"It's missing?"

"It was logged into the jail as property, not evidence. It should still be there. We got the duty sergeant to testify that it was there a couple of days ago. Then it was mentioned in court. When they went to get it, it was gone."

"Why would anyone take it?"

"Because it isn't dented. They're lying." He was looking at something over her shoulder, she noticed. "He never hit his head on that counter." His eyes met hers again. His were coffee black, a little brown in contrast with his hair. "You know, nobody liked Billy Heron Walks much."

She was startled. "I understand he was a brawler."

"And an alcoholic. A real deadbeat."

"But he didn't deserve to get beaten to death."

"Maybe he did. But that doesn't make it OK. This isn't about whether Billy Heron Walks deserved it. It's about what they did." He was looking over her shoulder again, as if speaking to someone behind her.

"Hi, hon."

Milly flinched and turned to see Kevin. "Kevin. This is Emerson Kills Horse. He's a friend of Betty Stadler."

"Hi. Kevin Kendall." He shook hands with Kills Horse.

"Elaine said you work for an oil company?" Milly said.

Kills Horse blinked. "Yes. I'm a systems analyst."

"What exactly is a systems analyst, anyway?" Kevin said, smiling.

"A computer programmer with too much education."

"It seems to me," Milly said, "that your views on the appropriation of tribal lands might not be very popular at an oil company."

"There are two kinds of job security. You can be invisible or you can be very good at what you do." He smiled self-deprecatingly. "I can't be invisible."

Milly smiled. Kevin didn't.

"My company has a pretty good record on the environment and land claims. They sponsor a couple of Indian scholarships each year in engineering. I'm hoping to increase Indian awareness in upper management, but that's down the road. If they got involved with some of the stuff the other companies are into, I'd have to quit. I wrote a piece on Black Mesa for the company newsletter; got a little flack for that. There are guys in engineering who belong to the Sierra Club."

"They have scholarships exclusively for Indians?" Kevin said. Kills Horse nodded. Kevin turned to the buffet and began to build a sandwich. "Don't you think that's a little unfair? A scholarship that isn't based on merit and need?"

"But, Kevin, lots of scholarships are set up like that," Milly said.

"I know lots of scholarships are set up that way. That doesn't make it right. If there was a scholarship exclusively for white males, every minority in the country would scream bloody murder."

"There is," Kills Horse said. "The American school system."

"That's available for everybody," Kevin said, turning back to them and taking a bite from his sandwich.

"Yes, but it only works for white men."

Milly intervened. "It works best for white males. But I know it's frustrating to talented white males when they find themselves excluded from opportunities because of their race and sex."

Emerson Kills Horse grinned.

"Oh," she said. "Still, it's not fair that anyone is held back for the benefit of someone else, is it?"

"No, it's not fair. But considering what we had taken from us, a few scholarships are a real bargain for white people."

"Milly, do you want a drink?"

Milly shook her head, and Kevin walked away. Milly looked at the food. When she looked up, Betty Stadler was headed for the buffet. She had in tow a man Milly didn't recognize.

"Sonny," Betty said to Kills Horse. "Sid was on the original development team for NetWare! Sid, Sonny Kills Horse. This is Sid Peterson. Milly, do you know Sid? Milly Kendall. That's her husband Kevin, over there. With the green shirt?" She waved to Kevin from across the room; he smiled and toasted her, then turned away.

Betty appeared to understand the hermetic conversation that blossomed between Sid and Emerson Kills Horse. Milly drifted away.

"You ready to go?" Kevin's voice startled her. He had approached her again from behind.


"I'll get your coat."

"Are you going to make it to Brad's meet Saturday?" Milly said as they drove home.

Kevin nodded.

"Jennifer wants to get into karate too," Milly said.


"Is it? What if she gets hurt?"

"Honey, she could get hurt in ballet class. It's a great confidence builder," he said. "That Indian guy is really something, huh? He works for an oil company?"


"I'm surprised they let him wear his hair like that."

"He says he's sure Tim and Owen killed that Indian."

"Yeah, I figured."

"He says the real point isn't whether he deserved it, it's whether they had a right to do it."

"Yeah?" His tone was flat and uninviting. She went on.

"He says some evidence disappeared."

"What evidence?"

"A hat."

They were both silent. Soon they were home. They went to bed as if each was alone. Neither one slept well. Kevin got up once. Milly was awake immediately. "What is it?"

"Bathroom," he mumbled. In a moment he was back. They lay awake, not speaking.

The next morning Milly began on the garage. She had three boxes of clothing ready in the basement. She could that herself, but Kevin would have to go through whatever she selected from the garage. She hadn't mentioned that she was getting things ready for donation. After fifteen years, she expected him to simply assimilate everything she was thinking. She might have mentioned it if things hadn't been so cold this morning. He hadn't kissed her goodbye. He often forgot, but he hadn't forgotten this time. She had walked with him to the garage, stood watching him go, her arms crossed against the cold. He didn't wave or smile.

The hat was on a high shelf behind a box. It had fallen behind the box in such a way that she could see only an unfamiliar crescent of black, and that only from the second rung of the ladder. She climbed a step higher. When she slid the box aside, it revealed a black circle with a hole in it. The gestalt suddenly made a hat, then the hat itself fell flat on the shelf. It was black felt, with a crown nearly a foot tall. It wasn't new; it was scuffed and a little gray in places. There was a stain like grease on the brim. The hatband was handtooled leather like a cowboy belt. She rotated the hat slowly. The hatband didn't have initials or a name tooled into it.

She climbed down. She got a leaf bag, shook it open, and brushed the hat into it. She put the bag in the largest box she had and took the box to the kitchen. She sat at the table, the hat in the box on the floor, and let coffee get cold.

There were two Kills Horses in the phone book, she was startled to discover. She called D. E., thinking that 'Robert' couldn't be right. She got a child.

"Can you give me his number, or call him and have him call me? It's an emergency."

The little boy gave her the number. He was at his desk.

"Mr. Kills Horse, this is Melissa Kendall," she said. "We talked at Elaine Gerald's last night?"

"Yes?" His voice didn't suggest recognition. "Oh, yes! What can I do for you?"

"Well." She took a breath. "I have a hat I think you might want."