Eddie D. Chuculate (Creek/Cherokee) is a correspondent for the Tulsa World. An additional excerpt from his novel-in-progress Gathering Shadows appears in IAIA's 1995 anthology.
Once they visited Lisa's grandfather, "Grandpa Old Bull" she called him. They had just finished playing in an all-Indian co-ed softball tournament in Peggs near Tahlequah. The team—players, wives, girlfriends, friends, relatives and children—was camped along the Illinois River at a place where someone knew there was a good rope swing hanging from a tree on the bank. They had both taken their turns on the swing and were sitting alone toweling off when Lisa said she wanted to go see her aunt and grandpa.
"Where do they live?" Jordan asked.
"Right around here somewhere."
"Really? I didn't know that. How come you didn't tell me?"
"I didn't realize it until we were driving out here. The roads started looking familiar."
"Well, sure, let's go find them."
They told everybody they'd be back in a couple of hours and took the narrow road back to the main highway. The main highway—a crazy, tree-lined stretch of repeated curves—followed the course of the Illinois River. They took it slowly, with Lisa constantly craning her neck, looking up hillside driveways.
"Who's your grandpa anyway," he said.
"His name's George Old Bull. He's getting on up there in age and he's been sick. My aunt Linda takes care of him."
"What's she doing down here when everybody else is around El Reno?"
"She came here to go to NSU and met Jack and never went back—look, I think that's it."
Jordan turned onto a driveway, which followed a winding trail up a small hill to a neat, two-story, green-trimmed house. Jordan noticed a chicken coop and garden behind the house.
"This is it. I'm positive," Lisa said. "Park over there behind that mini-van."
Jordan and Lisa sat in the car combing their hair and sprucing up. Jordan sprayed on cologne while Lisa applied a small amount of makeup.
They were greeted at the door by Linda.
"Well, Lisa, what on Earth?"
They hugged while Jordan looked on. They broke and Lisa introduced the two.
"Nice to meet you," Jordan told her, shaking her hand.
"Come in, come in," she said. Jordan looked for the resemblance between the two and finally found it. Although Linda was almost as tall as Jordan and big-boned—Lisa was considerably shorter—they shared the same skin tone and high, prominent forehead. Linda was a sister of Lisa's father Curtis.
"Jack," Linda called out. "Lisa's here."
A short Indian man came out of a room near the kitchen. He stood next to Linda with his hands on his hips.
"How you doing Lisa," Jack said.
"Fine." She introduced Jordan.
"Jordan Water," he said, extending his hand.
"Water?" he said. "We go to church with a Water. What's her name, Linda?"
"Martha," Linda said.
"That's my grandma," Jordan said.
"Yeah we go by and pick her up sometimes if she doesn't have a ride," Linda said. "So you're Cherokee then."
"And Creek," Jordan said.
"Small world," Jack said.
Linda left and returned with four big glasses of iced tea. They all sat in the living room. Lisa and Jordan sat next to each other on a sofa, Jack assumed his recliner and Linda perched on a love seat.
"So," Linda said, "you guys are camping out down here?"
Jordan answered for them. "No, not really. We were playing ball in Peggs and we all stopped over at the river to cool off." Linda nodded.
"What have you been doing, Lisa?"
"Oh, nothing. Just waiting for school to start. We're going to Bacone next week."
"Oh, that's great. Are you going, too, Jordan?"
"Yeah, I went last semester too."
"He works at a paper too," Lisa said.
"Really? Where at?"
"What do you do," Linda said.
"I'm the sports editor."
"Oh, that's great."
Jack listened but didn't take part in the conversation. He was watching golf on TV, holding the remote control.
"How's grandpa doing,?" Lisa said.
"About the same," Linda said. "I gave him a foot massage just a while ago. Come on, let's go see if he's awake."
They got up and walked down a hall. They entered a room and Jordan heard Lisa say, "Hi, grandpa."
While they were gone Jordan got up to look at the collection of Indian artwork. There were dozens of original paintings, prints and sculptures.
"I know this guy," Jordan said, pointing at a huge sculpture of a horse and rider. "I know Will Wilson."
"Yeah, we bought that a couple years ago in Tulsa," Jack said. He had turned off the TV and stood next to Jordan, looking at some prints. Jordan was about to say something when he was distracted by a shrill whistling noise.
"What's that?" he said.
"Oh, that's just old Floyd. That old bird just sings up a storm sometimes."
Jordan was confused. "You mean that's Lisa's grandpa "
"Yeah, Old Bull likes for us to keep Floyd in his room every once in a while. He loves to hear him sing. Usually we keep him in the den or hang him outside."
Jordan laughed. "I thought you were saying Lisa's grand." Jordan stopped. "Who's this?" he said, pointing at a photograph.
"That's Mr. Old Bull."
"You mean Lisa's grandpa?"
"Yeah, that's him."
"The one back there?"
"That's him," Jack said.
"You mean he played baseball?"
"Oh yeah. Baseball, football, basketball. You name it."
Jordan tried to make out the insignia on the jersey and cap.
"What's 'H' stand for," Jordan asked.
"Haskell, I'm pretty sure. Haskell Indian College."
In the picture Old Bull was kneeling on one knee with a baseball bat and glove in front of him. He was grinning broadly, with the bill of his cap angled up to thwart shadow. It revealed a strong, high forehead. He was gripping five baseballs in one hand. Jordan noticed the thick neck and muscled forearms.
"If you think that's something, come here," Jack said, motioning over his shoulder. Jordan followed him down some short steps into a den. He flicked on a light. "Look at these."
Jordan was shocked. In every corner of the den were polished, gold-gleaming trophies from various sports. The trophies were old and had a solid, brassy look to them and were mounted on thick, wooden bases. Jordan saw the little figurines depicting participation in basketball, football, baseball, golf and track. All along one wall were framed pictures, medals and certificates. Jordan stepped up and read one of the certificates:
"In honor of his record-breaking achievements in athletics both amateur and professional and in recognition of his outstanding character on and off the playing field, George Old Bull is hereby inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame, this 26th day of October, 1966."
"Hell, I never knew that. Lisa never said a thing about it," Jordan mumbled.
Jordan prowled around the room, reading medals, certificates and trophy inscriptions. He found Mr. Old Bull had also been inducted into the Indian Athletic Hall of Fame, the Haskell Junior College Hall of Fame and the Cheyenne and Arapaho Hall of Fame. One trophy inscription read: "Most valuable player, Chattanooga League, 1923, George Old Bull, Richmond Braves"
"You mean he played pro baseball, too," Jordan asked incredulously.
"Yep," Jack said.
"Damn. Lisa never said a word."
"If you think that's something, look at this." Jack walked over to a desk, put on his glasses from his shirt pocket and fished around in a drawer. He pulled out an old paperback book, thumbed through the pages and handed it, open, to Jordan.
Jordan took the book and impulsively flipped it over and read the title. It was a Ripley's Believe it or Not book. Jordan returned to the opened spot in the book and read the bold scrawl:
"On Nov. 22, 1920, Quarterback David Old Bull and Wide Receiver George Old Bull teamed up for an 85-yard touchdown reception as Tiny Haskell Indian College upset No. 1-ranked Yale 7-6. It was the longest brother-to-brother pass play in football history!"
An artist had drawn a picture of a player throwing and a player catching a football in two separate frames. Underneath were two likenesses of the brothers. Jordan saw the strong foreheads.
After Jordan had looked over all the mementos in the den, they walked back into the living room. Lisa had spread out her beadwork on a coffee table and Linda was pawing through it.
"Oh, these are great, Lisa."
Jordan asked them how Mr. Old Bull was doing.
"He talked to me for a little while," Lisa said, "then he fell asleep."
"I didn't know he had such a distinguished athletic career," Jordan said.
"Oh yes," Linda said. "I've been able to collect a lot of his awards."
"I just got through looking at them. I'd really like to meet him some day."
"Did you get one of the calendars," Linda asked.
"Oh," Jack said. "I forgot to show him those. Here, wait, I'll go get one." Jack left briefly and returned with a glossy 1989 Indian Athletic Hall of Fame calendar. He opened it to August. There was Old Bull again, this time in his Haskell football uniform. The caption summarized his career—including the Ripley's record—and gave his nickname: "Big Ski."
"You mean I can have this?"
"Sure," Linda said.
"Well thanks a lot. This is great."
Lisa sold Linda some beaded hair barrettes and a bracelet. While they chatted, Jack returned from his garden with a paper sack. Inside were plump Jalapeno peppers, green peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.
Linda and Lisa hugged again before they left.
In the car on the way back to the river, Jordan said, "How was he, Lisa?" "Not very good. His toes and feet looked purple. He was hooked up to some kind of machine."
"I don't know, I think so."
They drove on silently.
"How come you never told me your grandpa was such an athlete?"
"I don't know."
"You know I'm a sports writer. You didn't think I'd be interested?"
"Oh, that was long ago. He's just my grandpa to me."
When they reached the campsite Jordan got out of the car, clutching the calendar. People were still swimming and charcoaling hamburgers. Jordan went up to a group of teammates who were standing around in a circle.
"Hey, look, this is Lisa's grandpa," he said, thrusting the calendar into the middle of the group. It was passed around and everyone had a chance to read it.
"Hall of Fame?" someone blurted.
"Really? Damn! You mean he played pro baseball, too?"
"Look at this! Holds record for longest touchdown pass from brother to brother."
Lisa stood nearby, talking to a group of women.
Someone joked: "Hey, Jordan, no wonder she hits better than you." This was followed by a roar of laughter.
Another: "Yeah, next week we tell Lisa to just leave Jordan at home. We don't need him anymore." More laughter.
"So this is really her grandpa," someone asked.
"Yeah," Jordan said. "We just got through seeing him. He lives right up there."
"Well hell, let's all go and get some tips. Ayyy." They roared.
As the sun began to fall, the calendar was passed around and was the basis for much conversation. People would stand looking, reading the calendar, then nod or point in Lisa's direction.
Lisa was polite and answered questions and even took one last swim. Finally kids were gathered and trash picked up and fires put out and the cars formed a caravan for the drive back to Muskogee. And on the way home, Lisa cried.
* * *
Two weeks later Linda called and told Lisa that her grandpa had been admitted to the Indian hospital in Tahlequah. It was on a Friday and since Jordan had to travel through Tahlequah on the way to cover a football game that night, they made plans to drop Lisa off at the hospital.
When they arrived in Tahlequah, Jordan was running late as usual.
"Tell Jack and Linda I'll see them later. Tell them I have to be in Stilwell in 45 minutes," Jordan told Lisa as they sat in the car outside the intensive care wing at the hospital.
"I'll be back around midnight. I hope he's going to be all right," Jordan said.
Lisa opened her beadwork box and took out the bolo she was going to give to Mr. Old Bull. She held it up and looked at it.
"I'm sure he'll love it, Lisa."
Jordan drove on to the game in Stilwell. Stilwell's mascot was the "Indians." Stilwell was led onto the field by a galloping, war-painted white horse with a painted up "brave" riding it. They raced up to the 50-yard-line where the horse reared on its hind legs and whinnied. When they came down they turned and faced the Okmulgee sideline and the rider slammed a spear into the turf and shook his fist at the Okmulgee team. The home crowd went wild.
Jordan sat in the press box and, as was his habit, scanned the Stilwell roster for Indian names. There were plenty of them: Sixkiller, Vann, Whitehater, Cheater, Smoke. Jordan even saw a "Water" in the program but didn't know who he was. Stilwell returned nearly everyone from the previous year's state semifinal team and made quick work of Okmulgee.
After the game, Jordan remained sitting in the press box and wrote the story and sent it back to Okmulgee via telephone through his portable computer. He then drove back to the hospital.
As he was driving around in the lot looking for a parking place, he saw Lisa sitting on a bench near the main entrance. Lisa saw his car almost at the same time and got up to meet him, carrying her beadwork. She opened the door and got in.
"What's up," Jordan said. Lisa did not answer. She was holding back tears. Jordan knew in his heart what had happened. He put the car in park. Before he could say anything, she blurted out, "My grandpa died."
Tears streamed out of her and she sobbed violently, and pulled Jordan closer to her. The harder she cried, the harder she squeezed. He pulled her face tight against his, and their tears mixed. Jordan couldn't think of anything to say so he just let her cry. She cried and squeezed and sobbeda low, anguished wailing. When she was empty, the tears came again, the cycle was repeated. The rhythmic, wrenching sobbing was the saddest music he had ever heard, and he never forgot the piercing, bitter tears upon his tongue.
* * *
The funeral was scheduled for the following Wednesday. Jordan arranged to be off work and to miss school. The explanation he gave both times was that his grandpa had died. One professor told him,—"Sorry to hear that, son."
Services were to be held at a small Methodist church outside of Geary at 10 a.m. It was a four-hour drive from Muskogee, and, as usual, they were running behind. As they drove, they left the hilly, green landscape of northeastern Oklahoma and slipped into the central and western portions of the state, a land of sweeping, red-earthen plains and sprawling, shallow rivers.
Jordan had never been that far west in the state before and misjudged the distance. He could have stopped for gas in El Reno but he thought it was only another five miles to Geary. Instead, it was 20.
"Oh shit, we're never going to make it," Jordan said as he saw the gas gauge needle dip under Empty. Mile after mile they continued that way until they reached the Geary exit. The church was located just off the state highway near the exit ramp and they pulled into the huge, grassy, near-full, parking lot of the church.
They were late and Jordan stayed in the car to put on a dress shirt and dress shoes but before he was finished Lisa and her mother came up to the car. People were already leaving the church.
"Hi Jordan, I'm glad you guys could make it," Carolyn said.
"I didn't think we were going to," Jordan said, and Lisa told her the story.
Carolyn pulled $20 out of her purse and gave it to Lisa for gas.
"Okay, we'll meet you there, then," she told Lisa before she walked off.
They drove into the town of Geary and ran out of gas as soon as Jordan pulled up to the pump. He refilled and Lisa directed him out of Geary onto a dirt road. After a series of turns they arrived at a house. Jordan noticed cars already parked in a field to the right of the house and he saw more cars behind him.
"What's this," he said. "I thought we were going to a cemetery."
"This is the cemetery," Lisa said.
Old Bull was to be buried next to his wife on their land given to his parents when the Southern Cheyenne were forced into western Indian Territory. Unlike some other descendants, Old Bull had refused to sell although he had many generous offers from white ranchers in the county. Finally, they had quit asking.
Lisa and Jordan were in a long line now and crossed a cattle guard. Carolyn came out of the house and flagged them down.
"Come on, Lisa, hurry," she said.
Lisa got out and the two walked about a hundred yards down an old pasture trail to the mourners huddled under a canopy. Jordan saw Curtis motioning him to just park near the house. He did, got out, and shook hands with him.
"How you doing Curtis?"
"Good. I'm glad you guys could make it. Have any problems on the way?"
Jordan told him of the gasoline scare.
"This is George. Lisa's brother," Curtis said, motioning to a teenager holding a golf club.
He approached Jordan and they shook hands. George wore camouflage military pants and black, high-top rock-climbing boots. He wore no shirt and had a dip of snuff under his lip.
"Man, you actually like her, I can't believe that," George said, and spat. He was tall and slender. Jordan noticed the high forehead.
"Aw, be quiet George," Curtis said.
"Hey, you play golf," George asked Jordan.
"Yeah, I play."
"You want to hit some balls with me?"
Jordan looked around, at the burial services that were proceeding at the grave site, and down at his own dress pants and dress shoes.
"No, I don't think so. Not right now."
Jordan watched as George walked up to his tee spot under a big tree, teed up a ball, waggled his driver, and blistered a drive toward the South Canadian River, distinguished by clusters of cottonwoods running along its banks. The ball exploded off the tee and climbed and climbed until Jordan nearly lost it in the clouds. When it reached its apex, the ball seemed to hover for a couple seconds, then began a gentle, forward fall. When it hit the Earth, around 350 yards later, it took three big, running hops and rolled and rolled. Jordan was impressed.
While Jordan and Curtis talked, they looked on at the services under the brightly-colored canopy. Jordan heard snatches of a low, mournful song, brought to his ears on gusts of wind. He presumed it was Cheyenne. George continued to angrily smash balls toward the river.
When it was over the cars began to file out and Lisa and Carolyn came walking back to the house. Lisa told Jordan that Old Bull was buried wearing the bolo she had made. Jordan and Lisa stayed until all the cars were gone, then they all stood around and made plans for an upcoming visit before they left.
On the way out, Jordan wondered why Curtis and George didn't go down to the burial, but he wasn't Cheyenne and he didn't know Cheyenne ways, so he didn't ask.
Jordan told Lisa that George was hitting golf balls during the service.
"Oh, he's just a goofy guy," Lisa said.
They crossed the cattle guard and turned left, east. The dirt road ran alongside the two graves. Both graves were freshly decorated and Old Bull's had a mound of fresh, red earth upon it.
Jordan slowed the car to a respectful crawl as they passed.