Willy Two Horse cut through the children’s playground, crossed the back end of the hotel’s parking lot and climbed down the steep slope to look out over Prosser, Arizona. The forests on either side made a dull woooosh in the crisp morning wind, but the sky remained empty and Willy wondered if Coocochee would ever show up at all. It wouldn’t be the first time the old bird had copped out on him. In fact, they hadn’t talked much since Willy had been elected, not that they ever talked much before. But this time he needed Coocochee’s advice more than ever.
An odd phone call had come in from a white man he didn’t know, who specifically said he, “Needed something extra special and right away.” He’d refused to say what that was but promised to reveal everything when, “They met eye-to-eye over flapjacks at Denny’s.” These kinds of phone-calls, with their secret demands and needs, had started coming in right after Willy Two Horse was elected the Tupai Tribe’s President in a close vote only a few weeks before. And from the moment Willy was told that he’d won the election every breakfast, lunch, dinner, and friendly cocktail took on a new significance whether Willy wanted it that way or not.
He’d been duly elected, handed a phone, assigned a secretary, and given the exact same office and the exact same desk that Tupai Chiefs before him had occupied for decades. (The old wooden desk even had a few loose family snapshots of past Chiefs and Presidents, unopened packages of Juicy Fruit Gum, an old ballpoint pen that still worked, and the rubbery remnants of an old soap eraser).
“Viola is your secretary,” he was told; “She also makes the coffee.” Of course, Willy knew all this about Viola but didn’t bother to mention it to the overweight office manager who seemed to resent anyone invading her world even if he happened to be the newly elected Chief of the tribe. Besides, Viola was Willy’s niece and had been Secretary for the last President and the one before that. This may not have meant much at the time, but it was the first solid realization for Willy that Indian Chiefs came and went like August winds. The fact of it hit him the moment he sat down at the old oak desk that had been occupied by Tupai chiefs past and present, and as soon as he did all his dreams came crashing in on him. The rifle-waving warrior astride a magnificent stallion faded into phone calls from lawyers, bankers, insurance brokers, personnel agents and a variety of contractors looking for an angle to make a quick buck off the Tribe and its sprawling Reservation that included a resort hotel and a couple of casinos.
Willy had been elected, certified, and thrown onto the corporate trash pile like a worn out bolo tie. Instead of a magnificent stallion he was given a desk to ride, a phone to wave, and a calendar that detailed board meetings and special events that even he was required to attend. And when he saw his gum-chewing niece making still another pot of coffee for the office caffeine freaks, he realized that Great Indian Warriors just weren’t needed anymore. No Red Cloud, Cochise, Geronimo or Crazy Horse, no eagle-feathered headdress, or blazing fire to dance around in the dead of night. He’d been given a dusty office, an old wooden desk, a phone, and his niece Viola for a secretary. They were all just symbolic tokens like the friendly mongrel dog that had roamed the Reservation for years but now slinked away and avoided him.
Willy’s main job was the meetings. Town politicians, businessmen, the rotary club, all had requests to finance their “new” ventures and other “great ideas” the banks had deftly sidestepped for years. The simple trick of his new job was to make as few mistakes as possible, and push as many decisions as he could over to the tribe’s Executive Board. He had plenty of advisers to help him, like the vice-President, an overweight, arrogant, alcoholic with deep family problems who gave Willy bad advice because he had dreams of taking over after the next election and straightening things out. There was also the executive board, consisting of three women who could barely stay awake during the weekly meetings and didn’t seem to have the slightest clue of why they were there.
So Willy’s basic duties dragged on, meeting White Men in fast food restaurants to discuss “money matters” and elections, which he soon realized were exactly the same thing. At first, he just tried getting to the meetings on time so that it looked like he cared and was involved. Arriving early had always been important to Willy even though his great teacher Coocochee had taught him to do the opposite. “The White Man expects Indians to be late,” Coocochee lectured; but Willy could never quite understand why anyone would purposely arrive late for anything. Coocochee would get so angry with his pupil that he’d shake all over and caw, “What kind of an Indian are you?” and that would make all the children in the class laugh. Arriving early for anything just wasn’t expected. Hours, minutes, and seconds were the White Man’s creation and the Indians seemed perfectly happy to let him have them. Nights, days, and moon phases were all that the Indians needed or wanted.
At one of these “classroom confrontations,” the contrary little Willy snapped back at his teacher and said, “Guess I’m just one of those Indians that doesn’t like being late. Crazy Horse was never late for a battle, and that’s why he won them all.” An ominous hush rippled through the class at such arrogance from a little boy.
Willy’s quick answer agitated his teacher so much that the bird’s thick body began to shake out of control under his shiny black feathers. “If you’re on time for anything that has to do with the White Man you’ll confuse him,” Coocochee insisted; “If you arrive on time the White Man won’t trust you. Everything the White Man does is based on trust,” he squawked from a low branch on a scrub oak. “Even the White Man’s money has TRUST printed on it. That’s the reason his money is so important to him. Printing the money, counting the money, feeling the money, smelling the money, and spending the money is the essential part of the White Man’s daily life force. He worships money, like the Indian worships the land,” Coocochee squawked down at the little boy. “And that means if you show up on time for an appointment with a White Man you’ll break his trust in you. Later is always better with the White Man. He doesn’t trust early, especially when an Indian does it. If an Indian arrives early it throws the White Man’s whole world out of whack, makes him suspicious and angry, and that could make things bad for us again. Trust is sacred to the White Man even though he can’t be trusted. Always remember that!” the large black Raven croaked in a low warbled warning.
This simple paradox of the White Man’s trust and his not being able to be trusted made little Willy Two Horse more confused than ever. No matter how hard he tried, Willy just couldn’t seem to grasp his teacher’s lesson and the importance of being late. “Even if the White Man wants me to be late,” he asked, “why can’t he be trusted?”
By this time, Coocochee had his back to Willy and the Great Bird had to turn his entire neck around to look down at the annoying little boy waiting for an answer to his dumb question. Coocochee’s black wings opened wide at young Willy’s impertinence, and he rose in the air, ever so slightly, and did something he’d never done before. He grew larger on the low hanging branch and at the same time stared down into the dark eyes of little Willy Two Horse.
Coocochee’s trick had been totally unexpected and some of the timider children ran and hid behind the large copper-stained boulders on the hill. But little Willy held his ground and stared back into the large Black Bird’s yellow eye that never closed, flinched, or blinked.
“No one knows why the White Man doesn’t trust anyone even though his money says TRUST on it,” the bird began. “What we do know is that his women and the weather fall into this same category, complicating things even more. And even though the White Man spends much of his time with his women and the weather, for some unknown reason both of them seem to confuse him. That’s a given and not to be argued,” the dark bird warbled down at the little boy.
“But what do women and weather have to do with trust?” Willy asked when Coocochee stopped to take a breath.
This time the big black bird took in large gulps of air and his entire head began to spin and turn. “Trust is the simple test for all living things,” he cawed. “Trust has come to us from the Anasazi, handed down by sacred spirits from generation to generation as a precious gift. The White Man has also been given special knowledge from a variety of his ancient peoples. The Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, and of course, all those drunken crazies in the Dark Ages. His sacred gifts were handed down from one monk to another monk until they finally reached him here at the White Man’s New Age of Semi-Reasoning. The White Man may have lost many things along the way, including his ability to learn from his mistakes, but TRUST is the one thing he has kept with him through the centuries. TRUST is sacred to the White Man and he believes that trust is the great denominator of all living things. You do know what a denominator is?” Coocochee screeched. Little Willy nodded and the Great Bird continued the lecture without taking a breath.
“The numerator of life changes with every situation we run into, but TRUST being the denominator of all living things remains constant like the buffalo moves with the rains and the wolf follows.” The children sighed their understanding, nodded in agreement, and came back out from where they were hiding behind the rocks. “The endless dance of the tides and the moon, and the migration of the birds and the whales swings the great fusion that holds all the rhythms of life we need and live in. One must TRUST in all this because it’s what sustains us. It must not be altered. Not ever!” Coocochee cawed at the little boy.
Little Willy Two Horse nodded his acceptance of the complicated lesson, and waited for Coocochee to stop fluttering his eye like he did when he wanted to let the children know that this part of the lesson would be on the test. “The White Man is simple to understand,” he chirped. “But if he can’t trust his women and the weather then he can’t be trusted either,” he shrieked, and the other children sighed their approval. “No one knows why the White Man has trouble with these things. Even the White Women refuse to talk about them, and we know that whenever the Weather God resents having been blinded by the Sun, he punishes everything in his path without ever seeing it.”
“But if the White Man can’t trust ANYONE, does that mean he can’t trust other White Men too?” Willy asked.
Coocochee began to hop up and down at Willy’s sudden grasp of the Great Raven’s reversed logic, and cawed, “At last you understand the simple truth of the world and the White Man who rules it!”
Willy could feel the admiration of the rest of the children in the class, but deep down he knew that he had no idea what the Great Black Bird was trying to teach him. It made no sense, and he blamed himself for not grasping these great social ideas. So he just kept nodding his head at his teacher, pretending to understand everything he was saying, and accepting the admiration of the other children.
Back then, The Great Coocochee had tried to teach them the way of the world, but had only made the whole thing more confusing than ever. So Little Willy Two Horse was left with the distinct feeling that he’d have to learn much more about the White Man if he was to become the great leader of the Tupai Tribe he so wanted to be.
Willy stared at the early weekend traffic rolling into town along Highway 69. Behind him, the tribe’s great hotel stood in the clear morning light like a Colossus, throwing its shadow across the parking lot and most of the grassy hill below. The Tupai’s Resort Hotel was the largest and tallest building in Tupai County, and its attached walk-in casino took in mucho bags of White Man’s money that had to be sorted, counted, wrapped, stacked, bundled, bagged, and taken to the bank twice a day and three times on weekends. It may have been the White Man’s age of Semi-Reasoning, but the Indians were now in their “Casino Era” and the Tupais had become richer than everyone else in town.
They had built their massive structure on the highest hill of their Reservation and it dominated the entire eastern side of Prosser. Its rows and rows of windows stared out at the enormous butte that dominated the western side of town. At this hour in the morning both monoliths glowed in the sun’s bright glare, and faced each other like primitive, arrogant gods about to battle for the Arizona town that stretched between them like an old rubber band.
The rough, rugged butte was the hiker’s Paradise, and the Tupais’ hotel with its layered dining room, four-way views, Olympic indoor swimming pool, and split-level casino with flashing lights and beeping slot machines had become the wandering tourist’s escape and solace in the pervasive boredom of the White Man’s confusing Age of Semi-Reasoning. Like the Balm of Gilead and the Hindu Wheel of Life, the Tupai Tribe’s Hotel and Resort was the only place in the County where you could hide behind a poker hand, pump quarters into its slot machines, and get rubdowns from ten in the morning to eight at night without having to show an ID. This great building held the promise and future for all Mankind, and it was wrapped in a great weekend package at a fair and modest price. American Express, Master Card, and Visa accepted.
Unfortunately, all of this successful decadence happened too fast for the white owners of Prosser City’s cramped motels that grew like a filthy fungus out of the town’s seedy center called Whiskey Row. The depravity of this street, in the very center of town, had grown and expanded like a misshapen spider’s web. The fact was you couldn’t go anywhere in Prosser without seeing the magnificent butte to the west, and the Indians’ shining hotel on the hill in the east. Both monoliths had become Prosser’s landmarks for the growing number of tourists that poured in on weekends and holidays to hike the massive butte on the one end of town and gamble in the Tupais’ casinos at the other end.
But the white businessmen in town were not happy. They wanted “those illicit slots, poker tables, and beeping money games to be theirs too. It was unfair, illegal and immoral to have it any other way,” they shouted at each other in their City Council meetings. They were shocked that “The federal government allowed such an abomination to go on within their town limits without giving them the right to have those same devil-games that obviously made so much money for the Injuns. Not to share these wonderful machines that gave so much pleasure to the tourists, and generated so much money, favored the Tupai Tribe in an unfair way and would eventually ruin the small businesses that the White Man had created and maintained for over a century!”
They stomped, picketed, and threw money at the Governor until a reluctant County Board was forced to vote for a sickly-looking betting parlor at the old broken down racetrack on the north side of town that very few, if any, had attended in years. And to do the County one better, the Prosser City Board declared racetrack betting legal at Whiskey Row’s Black Bart’s Saloon on any given weekend. (Naturally, this betting parlor could not interfere with Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, or any other Church Sunday within a radius of fifty miles).
This new City ordinance not only put the White Man’s trust at stake, but as Coocochee predicted, “It placed the White Man’s sacred religious beliefs in a hypocritical jeopardy with everything he swore by, including his printed money that stated quite clearly, IN GOD WE TRUST.” In the White Man’s ardent political fight against the Indians, he had unwittingly put his religious beliefs into questionable philosophic differences with what he called, “Those goddamned money-making Injun casinos.”
The White Man’s fight to have gambling had turned into the greatest historic and political battle in the short, nondescript history of Prosser City. This new position of wanting gambling, and all the wonderful things that came with it, would test the city’s sacred Christian principles, and make Coocochee’s theory that “The White Man’s lack of trust in women and the weather” become a law of Nature.
But even after all the memos, legislating, and court battles it only took the white businessmen about two weeks to figure out they still couldn’t compete with the juicy hotdogs, comfortable stools, Monday’s free beer, and the well-oiled slot machines that hummed and spun at both of the Tupais’ walk-in casinos 24-7, all year long.
The Indian’s parking lots remained filled with the usual cars, cycles, and busses. Gamblers, hotel guests, and those same white businessmen wrangling for a bigger piece of the Arizona Pie kept dropping by the Tupais’ hotel for dinner and drinks with the family, a fox trot with the little woman, and a shot at those “One-armed bandits.” And while the slots spun and took their money, they complained about “Being discriminated against by their government officials, their women, and the weather.”
Even their White Governor began to do crazy things. In a fit of frustration and anger, he actually shut down the Tupai’s casinos until an Appeals Court ordered them opened again. And in yet another weak moment, the Governor signed a bank loan to himself for a building he was constructing in the middle of downtown Scottsdale that would eventually, after a bitter and costly trial, throw him in jail for fraud and grand theft.
These were terrible times the White Man had brought upon himself and, of course, he blamed it all on the “Injuns.” And what seemed to irritate the White Man even more was that a White Woman had taken over for the jailed Governor and her first order of business was to declare a Day of Prayer. Obviously, the tight, hypocritical world that the White Man had so carefully built around him was beginning to crack and fall apart.
With each unexpected new event things became more and more confused and self-evident, and the White Man’s resentment toward the Indians began to grow deeper and deeper. History had always been on the side of the White Man, but now it seemed to be getting away from him and he didn’t know how to stop this swinging pendulum, or even slow it down. A floodgate had opened and Indians, Black People, Asians and Latinos seemed to be everywhere. They worked the restaurants, did the landscaping, drove the cabs, cleaned the buildings and shops, and one of them was even running for the House of Representatives. Those dangerous times that the White Man had predicted were coming, had arrived.
Willy Two Horse stared out over the land that had been taken from the Tupais more than a hundred years before when a tall, bearded lawyer wearing a dark high hat and a long chesterfield coat sent his blue-and-gold-draped horse soldiers into the Arizona territory to take possession of all the land surrounding that upward pointing fingered butte on the west side of town. Back then, the great White Chief was determined to make the Arizona Territory part of the Union even before it applied.
Basically, the bearded Chief had instructed his horse soldiers to grab every bit of land that belonged to the Tupais, even though they had worshipped and farmed its soil for centuries before anyone had even known the land was there. And just like the town’s present businessmen, who wanted gambling and well-oiled slot machines, the 19th century Tupais complained that their sacred land was being stolen by horse soldiers waving a document from a faraway Chief with a mole on his face and a sad look in his eye.
Then an historic thunderbolt struck in a place the White Man called Virginia, on a warm Palm Sunday morning in the year of our Lord, 1865. The War Between the States came to a screeching halt. White Men stopped killing White Men and the Great White Chief with the mole on his face set all the black slaves free, much to the great surprise of the Indian Tribes who quickly sensed the terror that would be coming next.
For years the White Man had been burning, raping, stealing, and killing. Now they were being asked to simply stop because two bearded men in uniforms signed a truce at a place with an Indian name called Appomattox, on a warm Palm Sunday. But it was all too late because a strange twisted desire had taken hold of the White Man. It was the smell of gunpowder and killing that persisted in him and he couldn’t “just let it go.” He had been riding too long with Death, and the Indians knew it would soon be the end of one horror and the beginning of another. The White Man had become addicted to the smell of gunpowder, and what it wrought. Fire and death prevailed because addictions like that have to find a release, and the Indians knew they were next on the list.
It started right away when some crazed actor killed the White Chief with a mole on his face, and a new drunken Chief was quickly sworn in to take his place. After that, it wasn’t long before the cigar-smoking General from the last insane White Man’s war became the new President. This White Chief decided it was time to take away the Indians’ food, water, land, and horses, and force them on long marches to places the White Man called reservations. The eighteenth President took words from the fifth President and declared the White Man’s curse, “Manifest Destiny,” over all the land. The White Man was going to take all the land, and his destructive addiction for gunpowder and death would continue. If the Indians resisted they’d be hunted down by the new cigar-smoking President’s horse soldiers and killed. All those years of death and burning had turned the White Man blind like the Indian’s Weather God, and nothing was going to stand in his way.
Willy Two Horse had been taught these things in the shade of a golden oak before an early snow. And even though lessons of slavery, war, and Indian Reservations made no sense to little Willy, it didn’t stop Coocochee from teaching the children all the things that had happened to make their life so difficult. Willy remembered how Coocochee would garble on and on, as the snow fell, and in the middle of the lecture, the large black bird would stop and stare down at the little faces trying to make sense of the White Man’s logic and why these terrible things had come to pass.
Then one day, from a deep primitive understanding of the universe, Coocochee’s long black wings began to flap and shake on the stump where he was perched. The children clapped in excitement at the bird’s great feat and they watched their teacher rise in the air and fly up into the snow-filled sky amid their rousing cheers. And from that moment on the subjects of slavery, Indian Reservations, women, weather gods and casinos never came up again. This had never happened before in the treacherous, battle-weary centuries between Indians, White Men, and Ravens. All of that history seemed to fade in unopened books and unspoken subjects, and was never to be discussed again. There would be no learning from the mistakes of the past. Coocochee had tried to explain the unexplainable, but none of it was ever really understood by anyone, including Little Willy Two Horse. And so it went like so many other things. Unsolved, unlearned, but never quite forgotten.
Willy searched the cloudless expanse and wondered why Coocochee hadn’t come to advise him. It was late and there wasn’t a feather in the sky. By now he would barely be able to make it to the Valley on time for his appointment. He had parked his red pickup in back of the casino and when he turned the corner he saw Coocochee sitting on top of his truck, pruning his feathers.
The old bird began cawing at him when he approached, “Where the hell have you been?” he asked in his semi-Navajo garble; “I’ve been waiting for hours!”
“I only got here a few minutes ago, give or take,” Willy said, placing his brown, wrinkled hand on his truck’s hood. “The motor’s still warm. You’re late!” he said.
“You calling me a liar?” Coocochee snapped.
“A warm motor never lies.”
The bird began an agitated dance on top of the truck’s cab, glaring down at Willy with his dark flicking eyes. “I told the Elder Ravens that since you’ve become Chief it’s gotten harder and harder to deal with you,” he cawed.
The Great Council of Ravens had actually discussed this problem at several meetings, and had ordered Coocochee to instruct Willy about his behavior, but the opportunity never seemed to arrive. Even now, Willy had manipulated Coocochee into a situation where there was little time to discuss leadership, expanding the casino, or anything else. In fact, Willy had not asked for any advice from the Elder Council at all, and the Ravens felt that Willy’s attitude had gotten so bad it threatened the entire tribe and all the gains they had made since the great Casino Era had begun. If this arrogance continued, then the quick-money casinos might disappear like mist in a sudden rain and they’d be destitute again.
“We must have a meeting after your meeting,” Coocochee demanded. “I have been ordered to speak to you by the command of the Grand Circle of Elder Ravens.”
“Because my motor is still warm?” Willy asked.
“That, and other things,” Coocochee muttered.
“Where do we meet for such a meeting?”
“You will be notified.”
“What about my meeting right now?” Coocochee just stared back at him, “This White Man has asked me to breakfast because there is something special he needs, and I want to know what that is before I go.”
“We don’t know what it is,” Coocochee answered; “The White Man has become more secretive since he was told he couldn’t have the one-armed bandits. So the Grand Elders have nothing to report on this matter.”
“What good are the Grand Elders if they have nothing to report?” Willy sneered. Coocochee stomped across the top of the pickup and Willy thought the bird might slip off. “I didn’t mean to upset you,” Willy said, moving in closer to catch the old bird if he did slip.
“You’re upsetting everyone in the forest and it has to stop. The Great Council of Ravens insists!”
“But all I wanted was some advice from my teacher.”
“Can’t you hear the sarcasm in your voice?”
“Why would I be here if I didn’t need advice?”
“You hide your mistrust in questions. This is an old White Man’s trick handed down from the Hebraic Tribes.”
“What has that got to do with my meeting with the White Man this morning?”
“We don’t know. Just don’t give anything away!”
“I don’t have anything to give away. I can only vote if there’s a tie on the Executive Board, and that hardly ever happens.”
“That’s because it’s modeled after the Great Council of Ravens and the American Constitution. It takes longer but it’s safer.” Willy grunted an approval, but shook his head; “There’s your Hebraic ambivalence again,” Coocochee snapped at him.
“I don’t even know what that means,” Willy muttered.
“That’s because you didn’t pay attention in class,” the bird screeched, prancing back and forth on the top of Willy’s red truck.
“I’ve got to go. I’ll be late,” Willy said.
“At least you learned that!”
“But I still don’t understand it.”
“Now you’re being insolent,” the old bird snapped.
“I don’t know what that means either.”
“It means you don’t pay attention,” Willy shrugged; “If this White Man won’t tell you what he wants it means he needs something very important, and he won’t mention it until the very end of your meeting. Just when you think the meeting’s over he’ll say, “Oh, by the way,” or “I forgot to mention,” and it will end with “Don’t you have a vote?” or “Aren’t you in charge of…” and he’ll spring one of those little remarks just when you’re leaving so he can catch you off-guard. Don’t be fooled. The White Man always has that ‘little extra thing’ he wants and needs.”
“What should I tell him?” Willy asked.
“Nothing. Just nod and smile. He’ll circle you. White Men love to circle. that’s when he’ll tell you what he needs.”
“Then what do I do?”
“Just nod, smile, and head for your truck. Don’t wave or look back. That gives the wrong signal.”
“What signal do I want to give?”
“You don’t want to give any signal.”
Willy and the large bird stared at each other. Neither moved. Then Willy nodded, smiled, and got into the truck; “Are you coming with me?” he shouted up at the old bird on his roof; “Or are you just going to shit all over my truck and leave?”
An insulted Coocochee flew off the truck and Willy started down the hill to his meeting with the White Man.
J.S. Kierland is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and Yale Drama School. He has been writer-in-residence at New York’s Lincoln Center and Lab Theatre, Brandeis University, and Los Angeles Actor’s Theatre. He has written two Hollywood films and rewritten several others. Over eighty short stories of his have been published in Collections, Reviews, and Magazines like Playboy, Fiction International, Oracle, International Short Story, Emry’s, Colere, and many others. He has also edited two one-act plays. The best of his short stories, “15” now out in a collection from Underground Voices, along with a novella ebook titled Hard to Learn.