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November 27, 2023
"Mes de los Muertos"


By Barbara Link

The Henderson's house sat high on the north side hills of Frazer, Montana. It overlooked older homes partially hidden by cottonwood trees. It overlooked the railroad tracks that divided the north and south side of town. And it overlooked the grain elevator and the four bars on Front Street. The view stretched south to the Milk River and ended at the line of brown, dry hills on the horizon.

Mary Agnes Lone Hill was immune to the view from her employer's house. She had Harry Belafonte on the Hi Fi. It was 1958 and he was the hot new singing sensation with his chocolate voice and brilliant white teeth. Mary Agnes did a kind of push dance, what the Crow Indians* called a foxtrot, with the vacuum over the new wall-to-wall carpet. She worked over the traffic areas until her ponytail came loose and her man's shirt swirled around her legs and she smelled her own armpits.

"Day-Oh, Daaay-Oh. Daylight come and I want to go home," she sang along with Harry.

Suddenly, Mrs. Henderson touched her arm "Mary Agnes, are you playing my new record?"

"Yes, Ma'am," she answered, "I'm real careful."

"Good. I brought this picture to show you." Mrs. Henderson held out an encyclopedia. "Look at these Indians. On top of a Montana hill -- could have been near here."

Mary Agnes examined the picture. The men rode bareback with war bonnets, buckskin leggings and feather-decorated lances. They had ochre stripes and black stripes on their stern but handsome faces. Their fine horses had similar markings around their eyes and flanks. It could have been a scene from a Charles Russell painting or a Hollywood movie. The caption read Great Plains Indians, 1896.

"These are your people, Mary Agnes. They're real Indians." Mrs. Henderson ran her fingers over the page. "Aren't they proud and beautiful?"

"Yes, Ma'am." She returned to the vacuum.

"Are you about finished?" Mrs. Henderson asked. "The ladies will be here at one for bridge."

"Is the Coach's woman going to be here? Can I ask her about my boy? He wants to make the team."

She put her hand on Mary's shoulder. "Why Mary Agnes Lone Hill, I didn't know you had a child." She leaned closer. "Have you been drinking?"

"No, Ma'am. My boy is called Pretty Weasel. He's sixteen and lives in Poplar with his other mother."

"Is he in school?" She looked at her watch and frowned, "I'll try to put in a word for him with Mrs. Vernon, the coach's wife."

Mary Agnes hurried to do the beds in the children's rooms. The new contour sheets made bed-making easy. She thought of the bare mattress in her tarpaper shack. Yes, Mrs. Henderson. Yes, Mrs. Doctor. Yes, Ma'am, she chanted under her breath and fingered her pearl-handled pocketknife. Maybe she didn't have a horse and feathers in her hair like a real Indian, but she had a real knife.

She had been the only girl on the res to play Mumblety-peg or knife-in-the-ground-hits (bechea-mapa-chewok) -- a game where they balanced the point of the knife on the tip of their finger and launched it in a backward flip. She stuck her knife in the designated circle nearly all the time -- her opponents' knives fell flat in the dirt. Mary Agnes figured she was still good with her knife. Maybe later she'd practice her throws.

The September sun slanted through the open door of the Montana Bar. A man came out of the back room with a case of beer and stacked it in the bar fridge.

He and the bartender discussed last night's fight. Two Indian women, only Indians drank in the Montana Bar, had a heated discussion that ended on the sidewalk. There was a lot of hair pulling, slapping and swearing before the sheriff stuck them in the squad car and took them over to the jail.

"Get you something, Mary Agnes?" The bartender asked.

"Red beer." She downed it and gestured for a refill. "My boy, Pretty Weasel, is trying out for the team today."

"That so." He lit another cig on the butt of the last one.

"He shoots hoops all day and never misses."

"We could use some new talent on the team." He refilled her glass with equal parts of tomato juice and beer. "So are you going over to watch?"

"Maybe." Mary Agnes took a long pull from her glass and licked the foam from the corner of her mouth.

Mary Agnes perched on the church wall behind the lilacs bushes. Waiting for Pretty Weasel gave her a chance to rest. Cleaning white people's dirt wore her out. She let her worn tennis shoes slip to the ground.

Basketball, she thought -- why is everybody on the rez crazy about basketball; like it was a religion or something? Her Grandma, Lillian Turns Plenty, had told her it had replaced traditional Indian games. It was a way one person could shine, get some notice. If Pretty Weasel made the team, maybe, he'd stay in school. Maybe he'd be so good even the white girls would date him.

She pressed closer to the lilac bush, watched Pretty Weasel jump out of a pickup. What a fine-looking boy with coffee-colored skin and shiny black hair. And he was tall -- six one or two.

She hadn't seen him much as he grew up. Bonnie Sees Foxes, her half sister, came for him. It was a common thing with the Crow people for a child to be raised by a close relative. Especially, as Mary Agnes had been unwed, only fifteen when Pretty Weasel was born and Bonnie and her husband had no children. Mary Agnes never did forget the day when Bonnie took the warm, flannel bundle right from her arms.

Just then Coach and Pretty Weasel came out of the gym.

Mary Agnes slipped into her shoes and crossed the street.

"Hi." Mary Agnes said. Pretty Weasel didn't introduce her.

"What do you think, Coach?" Mary Agnes asked. "Isn't my son a good player?"

"I'm going to give him a try," Coach said. "If he stays in school."

Mary Agnes and Pretty Weasel were alone in the parking lot. "You look real good, son. You'll be handsome in your letter jacket. Do you have a place to stay? My place is no good. Too far. I hitch to town."

"Drunks can't drive," Pretty Weasel said.

Mary Agnes looked at her shoes. No laces. "I've had some bad luck. The reservation cops set me up."

Pretty Weasel turned to go.

"I could help some with the rent," Mary Agnes said to his back. "I'll be at all your games."

Mary Agnes was scrubbing the oven. The supper party Mrs. Henderson had prepared last night had made a hell of a mess. She'd already washed and dried all the crystal goblets and china. The tablecloth and napkins were damp-rolled, waiting for the iron. Ironing was one job Mary Agnes didn't mind. She liked the heft of the iron, the warm steam and starch smell coming from the clean linens. Stacking the folded napkins like pages in a book gave her a feeling of accomplishment.

"Mary Agnes, have you finished the bathrooms?"

"I'm getting there."

"I've got to get to the beauty shop. Patti hates it when I'm late."

"Yes, Ma'am."

She picked up her handbag and rummaged for the car keys. "Oh, I almost forgot. Isn't tonight the first game? You can go when you're finished. Honestly, that's all Coach talked about last night. Pretty Weasel -- it turns out he can shoot!

Mary Agnes watched Mrs. Henderson back out of the driveway. She threw her shirt in the washer then the dryer and finished the chores in her bra. The she set up the ironing board. First she did the linens; then pressed her shirt, spending extra time on the collar and cuffs.

Strolling to the Civic Center, she checked her image in the store windows making an effort to stand straight. The parking lot was empty except for the school bus of the opposing team. She hesitated -- it was too early. She circled the block a couple of times. Then she cut through the alley and came out on the corner by the Montana Bar. The bank clock showed a little after seven. Still too early. The sheriff's drove by and slowed to take a look -- an Indian woman loitering on the corner. When he made a u-turn she ducked into the Montana.

She sat near the door, smoothing her shirt so it wouldn't wrinkle. She ordered a beer -- took small sips. The radio was broadcasting a pre-game show. They discussed Frazer's past basketball victories. Would they mention Pretty Weasel?

Wanda Goes Home and several friends strolled in and headed to the back booth. Mary Agnes and Wanda had played some basketball together in the seventh grade.

"Hey, Mary Agnes," Wanda asked over her shoulder, "you going to the game?"


Wanda leaned out of the booth. "You can buy me a beer. You're a rich Indian," she laughed, "with a job." The bartender took a beer back to Wanda and put another next to the one she was nursing. Mary Agnes finished both. Time to go. She bent to tie her shoes. Her heart plunged. She'd forgotten to put in her laces. The old white tennies were scuffed and stained yellow. Horrible. She felt so shabby. The game had just started; she heard the tip off on the radio. Late for sure.

Mary Agnes listened to the radio, took baby sips of a third beer and went over her plan. She would slip into the gym at half time when everybody was at at the concession stand. Maybe no one would notice her shoes.

Wanda's group got louder and louder -- Mary Agnes could hardly hear the radio. She thought it was a tie game at the end of the second quarter and Pretty Weasel had scored fourteen points. She pictured Bonnie proudly cheering him on. She got up to go.

"Hey, there, lonely girl." Wanda called from the booth. "Come join us, if you're not to good for us rez people."

"For a sec -- you guys going to the game?" She slid off the barstool and straightened her shirt.

"They don't serve." Wanda tapped her beer with a red fingernail, "the party's here."

"What about that new player?" Mary Agnes asked.

"Pretty Weasel, from Poplar?" Wanda chuckled. "He'll play well for awhile, but he'll never stay in school. None of us do."

Mary Agnes shut up. They didn't know. Suddenly, she had to pee. She stumbled over Wanda's feet to get out. Laces. Her heart leaped with excitement. Wanda's saddle shoes had white laces.

Mary Agnes sat on the pot -- her mind raced with a plan. She returned and slid into the empty booth behind Wanda. The group was telling jokes and screamed laughter. Mary Agnes slid under her booth to her hands and knees. Her knees stuck to the grimy floorboards but she crawled forward with her eyes on the prize. With a feather touch she tugged lightly on one lace. The bow unraveled in her hand. Carefully, carefully, she pulled it out. Okay, she had one. Then Wanda shifted her feet and Mary Agnes pulled back.

"Where is that Lone Hill?" Wanda asked. "Did she fall in?" She laughed at her own joke. "Did I tell you how Mary Agnes and I played ball together?"

"Oh, ya?" Someone asked. "About a hundred years ago?"

Mary Agnes crouched under the booth as the conversation continued overhead. She felt stealthy and invisible. Like she was a raiding warrior stealing horses from another Indian band. Her hand inched to the other lace. She tugged but there was a knot. She pulled again.

"She was the Mumblety-peg champ too.

"Bet I could beat her," one of the guys said. "Specially, when she's drunk -- like now."

The knife. She'd show them. They were the drunks; she was just feeling good -- beer helped you do things. She snapped open her pearl-handled pocket knife, cut the lace and eased it out. It could be knotted later for her own shoe. On her hands and knees on a dirty bar floor, late to the game, three sheets to the wind, Mary Agnes clutched the lace -- triumphantly, as if it was Custer's bloody scalp.

It was late and the bar was nearly empty. Wanda, unaware of the lace theft, and her crowd had tumbled out the door. Mary Agnes listened to the fourth quarter. Frazer was ahead by five points. It looked good for a win. Her shirt was wrinkled, her jeans were grimy. But she get to the Civic Center for the final minutes, clap and cheer for her boy.

Then she'd tell him that he owed her big for one thing, anyway. He could play ball and he'd inherited that skill from her. From her, he owed her that. He needed to know that she had been a pretty good ball player too. Just like Wanda said.

She'd tell him how her team got to the championship round. About how thirty years ago people were just as basketball crazy as they are now. About how the whole town turned out for her Friday night game. The gym had been full to the rafters. Mary Agnes remembered they played the first game of the evening. And how they got ready at home as the dressing rooms at the gym were only for the boy's team. Their uniforms, they bought themselves, were rag-tag. Some had the jersey; some had the white satin shorts with the maroon stripe. They all had some type of tennis shoes.

That night the cheering and yelling, even at the beginning of the game was deafening. Mary Agnes didn't play in the first quarter as the coach was saving her for later. She could make hoops but usually fouled out.

They had held their own against Plentywood and only fell behind at the end of the first half. Mary Agnes started in the second half. Her legs hurt as she jumped in the tip off. The night before the game she'd had painful leg cramps that kept her awake. But she ignored the soreness as she raced back and forth. She got good feeds from her teammates and scored three baskets. Then their defense picked her up and froze her out. After their next basket she got the ball, broke fast and went for a lay-up. Then they traded baskets with Plentywood for the 3rd and part of the 4th quarter. Suddenly, the opponents missed a few baskets and Frazer pulled five points ahead.

Coach called a time out. Put a full court press on them. Keep them away from the basket. It was a good plan. They had done it before. They dribbled and passed, dribbled and passed, keeping the ball and slowing down the action. Way down. Eventually Plentywood overcame their efforts and scored a couple of times. In the last minute they were one point behind and Mary Agnes fouled their center. A personal foul, her fourth of the game. She couldn't get any more but it didn't matter now. Too little time left. Everybody in stands was standing and yelling

The overtime stayed even. Plentywood would score, and then Frazer would score. Then the opponents pulled ahead by two. Mary Agnes got the ball and raced to the basket, her teammates defending. Just as she started to shoot she got an elbow in her chest and went down. The wind completely knocked out of her.

"Get up Mary Agnes, get up." She heard Wanda say, "Are you okay?"

"Ya, I'm okay," She rubbed her chest.

Mary Agnes stood at the free throw line. She got two shots good for one point each and they were behind by one. Only five seconds left on the time clock -- not enough for Plentywood to make a basket. Mary Agnes could win it. She looked up in the stands where her Lillian Turns Plenty, her Grandma, always used to sit and wave her medicine feather when Mary Agnes made a basket.

Her knees were weak, although she rarely missed a free throw. On the rez she'd developed her free throw style of bending real low with the ball between her knees, then rising and launching it to the basket in a perfect arc.

Mary Agnes pictured her shot. She didn't hear the crowd -- she felt alone in the gym. Later she didn't remember much of what happened. Just the Frazer scoreboard flashing the winning score and the girls pounding on her back yelling Mary, Mary, Mary.

Wanda's brother, Larry Star Boy waited outside the gym. His car was a shiny black Ford with fancy mud flaps, dice hanging from the mirror and it was lowered in the back, had a throaty muffler.

"Want to ride?" He slouched behind the wheel, an unlit cig in the corner of his mouth.

"Yes," they screamed, absolutely thrilled. All five crowded in the back seat. They yelled and waved pompoms out the window while Larry cruised Front Street.

Mary Agnes caught a glimpse of their faces in the rear view mirror. They looked so happy. "This is the best night of my life," she'd said and hugged all the girls at once.

It was two AM and another game, another Friday night was over. A dirty cloud of cigarette smoke hung in the bar. From the dusty jukebox in the corner, Hank Williams wailed of broken hearts and hard times -- but no one listened. The bartender had gone back to the toilet. A couple nodded over their beer cans at the table, a sleeping cowboy occupied the first booth and Mary Agnes slumped in the back one.

Wanda looked in the open door. "Where is she? Where is that broken down Indian?"

"Lone Hill, you there?" She called again.

The bartender came out of the back. "Closing time," he waved at everyone. "You all go home now."

"Yup, we're going." Wanda replied.

"And take Mary Agnes -- she's in the back booth." He passed his hand over the gray stubble on his chin. "I missed the end of the game. How'd her kid do?"

"Pretty Weasel? He did good, real good, for an Indian."

Wanda jiggled Mary Agnes' arm. "Your coach awaits," she said. Mary Agnes slept on. Wanda tugged her by the hands.

"Okay, okay." Mary Agnes sat up. "Yes, Ma'am. I've got them now. I'll put them in."

"What the hell are you blabbing about?"

Mary Agnes stared at her shirt, "Oh, oh, wrinkles, where's the iron?"

"I'm taking you home, you worthless rez kid."

Wanda guided her to the door and then to the back seat. The rest of the group piled in. There was a little confusion over who was going to drive, but Wanda ended up in back next to Mary Agnes.

The twenty miles passed in silence. The moon had been up so long; it tired and slid down the other side of the earth. The highway shone faintly -- a silver dark ribbon. Night air swooped through the open windows and blew the smoke from their clothes. Mary Agnes slept, her head on Wanda's shoulder. Wanda shrugged her away. But Mary Agnes slumped again. Another push from Wanda, firm this time. For a moment, Mary Agnes sat straight. Then she sighed in her sleep and her head again found a resting place. This time Wanda let it stay.

* In the 1950s, when the story takes place, the term Native Americans was not yet used to describe the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains; they were called 'Indians.'

Article © Barbara Link. All rights reserved.
Published on 2017-01-02
Image(s) are public domain.
4 Reader Comments
11:28:28 AM
What a great story looking forward to more from Barbara link what a talented writer!
09:57:18 PM
Gripping story, great writing!
07:59:16 PM
Love reading this story! Where I can I read more from this author?
Steven Smith
03:17:38 AM
You nailed it, Barb. I've been there, both the bar and the game. You nailed it. Love that last paragraph.
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