Chapter 1: The Untimely Death of George Whitehorse
“There is no death, only a change of worlds.”
Although the buffalo had never been seen on the reservation in known history, the tourists who passed through on their way to the national parks always expected to see them. To them, all Indians hunted buffalo. The closest the small town of Red Lake got was a scroungy half-cow, half-buffalo that smelled like the devil and occasionally escaped to wreak havoc in that section of the reservation. Alfie Manygoats, the would-be entrepreneur and rug seller had paid twenty dollars for it from a ranch outside Flagstaff, built a ramshackle enclosure considerably less sturdy than sheep fence, and placed it out near the highway for all the tourists to take their pictures next to it.
The tourists, smarter than Alfie gave them credit for, recognized the sham buffalo for what it was and drove the thirty or so miles further to Kayenta in the north, or Tuba City to the south. Essentially, they sold the same blankets and silver jewelry, but you could get it there without having to stand downwind from a flatulent faux buffalo—when it was there. It liked to have its morning hay flake around 9:30 in the morning, snuffled up the crumbs by 10:30, and proceeded to destroy at least one wall of its pen by 10:45. It then trotted off to hump mercilessly on the few cows scattered about the ranches, scare the sheep by charging them, and occasionally chew at the bales of straw positioned by the roadside to stop flash flooding. Alfie named the beast Runs-Swift-with-Thunder, but no one ever referred to the creature that way, unless they were being sarcastic. For the most part, everyone called it Chaunt—a variation on the Navajo word for defecation.
Alice Begaye, the beautiful owner of the Coyote Kitchen counter at the gas station, told Alfie that if she ran afoul of the smelly beast, there’d be fresh burgers at the grill and she’d give him one for free along with the foul-smelling robe. The way people talked about Chaunt, Alfie was beginning to think if that might just be a good idea.
That’s why when Painter came to Red Lake with an idea for bringing back the buffalo; the people did not take to it too well. Of course, there were other reasons why; the main one being that Painter was crazy because of his mixed blood, and that he may well have been old Beelzebub himself in disguise. But he wasn’t the only one to blame. The antics of the three Hooligans, Dieden and Jeremiah Begaye, and April Windtree, had a lot to do with it. And of course there was Alice’s affair with Painter, the hunt for the skinwalker, the worst Navajo band in the world, the immortal reservation dog, Big Al’s Circus on Wheels, and Elvis.
All of them contributed toward the nearly earth-shattering event that occurred later. The day the buffalo came to Red Lake on Thanksgiving Day, of all days. But before that, a whole strange summer began. Most everyone was not quite sure of the exact day everything started to turn strange, but most agreed it was definitely a Tuesday. Nothing good ever happens on a Tuesday. The old folks, though, say it began the day George “Buck” Whitehorse decided he was dead, but went right on living anyway.
And even if they were not right, it was as good a place to start as any…
George Whitehorse was the unluckiest man in Red Lake. Although no one could remember when he was born, it was whispered that he was born at the exact moment that fatal iceberg bumped against the Titanic. While the sinking of the Titanic had no real relevance to anyone there, it was just the kind of disastrous bad luck that was common around George. At somewhere between eighty and one hundred and twenty years old, George didn’t have a single thing to his name except for the clothes on his back.
George had never been married or had any kids, but in Red Lake, everyone considered him family. Although invited to dinners and special occasions, he was avoided whenever something being done required some semblance of luck. He was never invited to help in herding or shearing sheep and was even asked to leave the room when somebody was buying a lottery ticket. His health was sketchy as well. He was half blind with a milky cataract over his left eye, had only one leg (he lost his other one to a rattlesnake, or so he claimed), and had trouble breathing even on the short walk to and from the trading post. He had diabetes, a bad heart, tuberculosis, and only two teeth left in his head. He was decidedly in a bad way. However, almost thirty years prior, he had had a stroke of luck.
A white man in a big cowboy hat and mustache like a walrus opened a truck dealer in Tuba City and had tried to promote his new business. The deal was that if people came in and looked at a new truck, their names would be placed in a jar for a chance to win a brand new truck in the drawing to be held in a month’s time. It was a good idea for a town where a lot of people had money, but not for the reservation. Many families came in to look and put their names in the drawing, but no one was buying.
That’s why when George stumbled into the dealership that day thirty years ago, thinking he had entered the dialysis building next door, that white man pounced on him. He jumped on him, pumped his hand and wheeled him around the showroom, extolling the virtues of each and every shiny new Ford present. When he ran out of words, George patted one of the trucks on the hood like he would have a favorite dog.
“You have excellent taste,” the white man told him, thinking he was going to make a sale. “Let me take you to my office, go over a few papers, and you can drive it right off the lot in style!”
“Can’t drive,” George told him, pointing to his blind eye and rapping a knuckle on his wooden leg. It made a sound like a drum. All the color drained from the white man’s face.
“Then we’ll get your wife…”
“I ain’t married,” George informed him.
“Any family at all?”
“Nope,” George said. “It’s a pretty truck, though.” George saw the jar with all the names in it that everyone was talking about. He pointed at it. “Do I get to put my name in that jar?”
The dealer laughed nervously. “What would be the point? I thought you couldn’t drive.” George shrugged.
“I figured I could sell it back to you and buy a horse, maybe.” It was more than the dealer could handle. His face turned crimson as he took down George’s name and address and slipped it into the jar. George thanked him kindly, told him he was sorry about his mistake, and went next door for dialysis.
Two weeks later, a van and the truck he had liked pulled up in front of the trading post. The dealer hopped out wearing a falsified smile and shook George’s hand while everyone took a few pictures. George thought the dealer was just going to take the truck back and use the pictures for publicity, but the dealer was true to his word. They left George with the truck and the keys in front of the trading post.
George was understandably proud of the truck and spent most of his time polishing it. He even had Red Manygoats park it near the cattle guard so that everyone could see it when they drove by. No one could believe his luck.
Then, a week later, the monsoons came along with flash floods. The flash flood wiped out a three-mile section of highway and deposited Red’s outhouse in the parking lot of the Tuba City Truck Stop. The last they saw of George’s truck, it was heading downstream with a load of frightened sheep standing in the bed, headed for the Little Colorado River. Everyone joked and figured that George had used up all his luck and would have to die in order to ever win anything again. Thirty years later on that Tuesday morning, George woke up and had his second stroke of luck in his life and figured he must have died.
To spread the word that he was in fact dead, he shuffled into town and made the Gas and Go his first stop. Theresa Benally sat behind the cash register reading the latest scandal rag when he pushed his way into the store, tripping over the welcome mat as he entered. Theresa didn’t even look up.
“Ya-ta-hey, George,” she said, and turned another page in her magazine.
“Ya-ta-hey, granddaughter,” he replied. Then: “You can see me?”
She looked up and pushed her glasses further up her nose. “Yes.”
“Ah, granddaughter, I’m sorry. You must be dead too.”
“Dead?” She blinked at him. Like most traditional Navajos, the subject of death was taboo. She bristled at the very word and touched her lips to make sure she was alive. She scowled at him. “You ain’t dead, old man. And neither am I. Hey, Alice,” she yelled across the store where the deli sat. Alice Begaye stuck her head out of the tiny kitchen. “Can you see George?”
“Right there by the Slim Jims,” she assured her, and ducked back into the kitchen.
“See?” Theresa said to him. “You ain’t dead.”
“Sure I am,” he said stubbornly.
“If you’re dead, why ain’t anybody told anybody else?”
“I only just died.” He took a deep breath and tried to stand up straight. “I went to sleep last night and I woke up this morning dead.”
“How do you figure that?”
“I just witnessed a miracle. I must be dead.”
“What kind of miracle?”
“I had me a stroke of good luck.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“George Whitehorse is no shitter.” He tried to grin slyly at her, but it was difficult with so little teeth. “I woke up this morning and walked on over to the cattle tank to wash my face.” Shakily, he reached into the pocket of his grimy slacks and pulled out a surprisingly clean handkerchief. With trembling hands he folded back the corners and held its contents up for the woman to see. “What do you see?”
“That better not be a booger.”
He scowled up at her and pointed at the tiny green object in the folds of the handkerchief. “That’s a four-leaf clover.”
“Bullshit.” She leaned over and looked closer. Prodding it with a lacquered fingernail, she breathed in. “I’ll be damned. That booger looks just like a four-leaf clover.” She smiled to show him she was joking. “One miracle don’t make you dead, George.”
“I didn’t break nothing when I tripped on the way in here.”
“True, but that ain’t nothing. You’ll probably break your arm on the way out.”
He smiled confidently and slipped the four-leaf clover into his back pocket. “I’m dead, granddaughter. I’ll prove it. Give me a lottery ticket.”
“What are you going to pay for it with?” She put the magazine aside. “You already owe me three bucks. You want to owe me four?”
“Give me a lottery ticket and you’ll get it back.”
“Yeah, right,” she said, but reached under the desk anyway, coming up with a scratch-off ticket. Digging a penny out of the dish beside the cash register, she handed it to the elderly man. He took it and shuffled over to one of the plastic chairs by the deli counter.
“What’s all this about?” Alice asked her from across the room. Theresa shrugged.
“George thinks he’s dead on account of good luck,” she replied.
“Good luck? George Whitehorse? Impossible.”
“That’s what I said,” she told her as George shuffled back to the counter. He handed her the ticket and the penny, bowed as gracefully as he could, and left through the door, deftly avoiding the mat. Theresa shook her head as she watched him go, then looked down at the scratched lottery ticket. “I’ll be damned.”
“What is it?”
“We better plan a funeral for old George,” she replied and shook her head. “He just won four bucks.”
By noon, everybody heard that George was dead and gave him his or her condolences as he sat outside the trading post sipping a warm Diet Coke. He took their farewells gracefully, nodding and waving as they passed.
“You were a good man, George, we’ll miss you,” Alfie told him, joining him out on the porch with an orange soda.
“It wasn’t a bad life,” George told him. “It wasn’t a good one, either, but it was a life.” He took a swig of his own drink and smiled. “Glad to see me remembered so fondly.”
“You were a good man,” Alfie reiterated. Tourists rolled by on the highway and the two men waved cheerfully. Old Lady Manygoats (no relation to Alfie) stopped to shake George’s hand.
“You come by my hogan this afternoon and we’ll have a party in your memory,” she told him.
“Sure. You making your world famous fry bread?”
“Buying the flour now. Red butchered three sheep this morning. Going to be a lot of stew. You be there, too, Alfie.”
“George was a good friend,” Alfie said, wiping away a tear. “Damn, I’ll miss him.” Old Lady Manygoats nodded knowingly and went into the store. George finished his soda and stared out into the parking lot. An ugly dog like a black fuzzball lifted his leg on the tire of one of the trucks and moved on. Alice Begaye’s sons Dieden and Jeremiah went into the gas station and came out with sodas and Slim Jims. The gate to the buffalo pen swung uselessly in the warm reservation breeze. George belched meditatively.
“Hey, cousin, this being dead is pretty useful,” George muttered. “I feel like passing on a vision.” Alfie sat up.
“What’s that, George?”
“I think I can see the future.”
Alfie nodded. “When you’re dead, all the secrets of the universe are revealed.” He gazed intently at the elderly man. “What do you see? Any secrets of the universe?”
“Nah, just a feeling,” George replied. “Something funny going to happen. Something going to change everybody here.”
“Too bad you had to die so suddenly,” Alfie said, shaking his head sadly. “You would have liked to have seen it.”
“You remember my truck?” George asked suddenly.
“Yeah. It was a nice truck. Too bad about that flood, huh?”
“Yeah. That was a nice truck. Made it all the way to the ocean, with all those sheep around it. That was some flood.”
“It was.” Alfie drank, then thought for a moment. “You sense another flood, maybe?”
“I don’t know. I was just thinking of my truck and floods.” He shook his head. “Maybe another flood, but not water.” His breath rattled in his chest as he coughed and spat something black into the parking lot. “I saw that buffalo of yours. He was running and there were buffalo all around him. I saw Elvis, too. And a parade.” They watched the road for a while longer before he got up to get another Coke from the store. He shuffled to the cooler in the back, selected another Diet Coke, and wandered back out to the porch.
“Hey, you can’t just take that, you old fuck,” the white man who owned the trading post yelled after him. Alfie glared in at him through the screen door.
“Hey, don’t speak ill of the dead,” he scolded him.
“Goddamned Indians,” the owner grumbled, and shook his head.
The party at Old Lady Manygoats’ was a big deal and nearly everyone showed up to pay their respects to George Whitehorse. He accepted all of their goodbyes in the seat of honor near the huge bonfire. Old Lady Manygoats’ son, Red, the local hataałi, sung him a Blessing Way before they dug into the food. Theresa made her rounds, telling the story of discovering George was dead in the Gas N’ Go, each telling getting more and more dramatic the more she told it, until everyone started to believe that George had discovered the directions to the Lost Dutchman Mine, solved the mystery of who had sunk the Lusitania, and had personally brewed his morning coffee in the Holy Grail. Everyone was so caught up in the celebration, the only ones that noticed the appearance of the stranger was the ugly black dog urinating on the tires of all the vehicles present, and the children collectively known as the Hooligans.
They watched as the stranger coasted into town in a dusty pickup truck in the same colorless gray as the surrounding landscape, riding the wave of an uncommonly cool breeze. With him came the smell of rain and lightning, the scent of wet mud and ozone. He smiled as he came, tipping the Hooligans a wave with a long-fingered hand. They were left with the impression of a youngish man with long, wild hair, his skin a shade lighter than their own. A skin, arguably, but not one like they’d ever seen. His eyes had been a glittering blue.
And then he was gone, swallowed up by the cloud of gray, choking dust that clung to the back of the truck like a fluttering apron. April Windtree, Jeremiah, and Dieden looked at one another briefly in the dim evening light, curiosity weighing heavily on their young minds.
And like that, the Buffalo Summer was ushered in.