Local contempt for an exceptional native man affects an impressionable farm boy.
| Moses Bearskin was dead. Someone had shot him. That was the first thing that Pa and Eddie heard upon their arrival in town. Moses was dead and his funeral would be at two-thirty right there in town in the Anglican Church. The church on the reserve had burned down in the winter so the Indians had to borrow the church in town. “The preacher better nail down the pews,“ Eddie heard someone say. “Them Indians will steal anything that’s loose at both ends.“ But Eddie didn’t think that anyone, not even an Indian, would steal from the church. Especially not at a funeral.
Whoever had shot Moses nobody knew for sure, or at least nobody was saying. It must have been an accident because nobody would shoot old Moses on purpose. Except maybe one of his women. People said that, for an Indian, Moses was pretty good. You could trust him at least some of the time, but not when it came to women. “He’s got more women than a harrow has teeth. And most o’ them is married to someone else. Maybe someone decided that Bearskin was hanging around his wigwam a little too close.”
“Yeah, in his bare skin.“ The speaker guffawed in appreciation of his own wit.
“Well, them days is over for Moses. He’s a good Indian now all right.” Everyone laughed. “Yep, a good Indian is a dead Indian.”
It had been the longest and the heaviest rain that Eddie had ever seen. It had started with a thunderstorm that had knocked out of the telephone, which, Mamma complained, still wasn’t working. And now, after three sodden days, nothing could be done in the fields, so Pa had decided to go to town. “Get Duke and Daisy in from the pasture,“ he had told Eddie. “We better take the team and buggy. We could likely get through with the truck all right, but we’d tear up the road up too bad.“ Eddie hurried to do as he was told. From what his father had said, he understood that he was expected to go along.
“Lucky for me it’s summer holidays,“ he thought.
Mamma had chosen to stay home. “The bread is ready for the oven, “she said. “And maybe with you two out from under my feet, I’ll be able to get some work done. But you can take Ruthie with you. She’d like a trip to town.“
Eddie was not impressed with that. Ruthie was only five and was so shy that she wanted to hold his hand all the time. It was embarrassing. If Ruthie stayed home, he would be free to run off with friends. With all of this rain, there would surely be other farm boys in town. Maybe some from his old school, all looking for company. But he knew there was no use in protesting. If he said anything, he’d be the one to stay home.
And now, in town, everyone was talking about Moses Bearskin and how he had come to be shot. No one had seen him since Saturday morning and then, Monday afternoon, Joe Parker had come across his body in the yard of the old Winstead place. It was Joe who had phoned the police. Because of the muddy roads, the Mounties couldn’t get out there with their car so Joe had to take them with his horse and buggy.
Then Joe had been called on to help Doc Murray with the autopsy. The creek had overflowed and washed out the highway so the doctor had to come from Longacre on the railway jigger. They had laid Moses out bare naked on a table in the back room of the old Wong Lee laundry and the doctor had cut him up to find out for sure what had killed him.
Eddie heard all this from some town boys. They acted so smart because they had so much to tell. Eddie wondered what the town boys would think if they knew that Moses had worked for his dad and had slept in their bunkhouse. He decided not to tell them.
Pa decided to go to the funeral so took Ruthie over to Auntie Barb’s house for the afternoon. “Moses was a good friend,” Pa said. Auntie Barb lived in town and didn’t have any kids. She liked to fuss over Ruthie. That left Eddie free to stay downtown and listen to all the talk on the street. He wished he had heard firsthand from Joe Parker himself and not from those town kids. They thought they were so smart.
But Eddie had known Moses for as long as he could remember. And now Moses was dead. Eddie tried to imagine what Moses would have looked like lying there on the table in the old Wong Lee laundry. He had heard of other people dying, but it was never anyone he knew and never of someone being shot dead. And now it had happened to Moses, someone who had eaten at their table and slept in their bunkhouse. He had been shot and left to die and be rained on in a weedy old farmyard. Who could have done such a thing?
“Prob’ly a bunch of them was havin’ a whoop-up and they got to fightin’. Likely nobody knows who did the shootin’ or even who was there,” a man was saying. “If we could just keep them Indians in bullets ‘n booze for a few years, they’ll settle the Indian problem all by theirselves.”
Pa had often called on Moses when he needed help on the farm. He said that Moses knew more about horses than any dozen other people, white or Indian, all put together. “Moses ain’t a bronco buster,” Pa often said. “He don’t break a horse. He educates it.”
As soon as Daisy’s colt was old enough, Moses was going to take her home to the reserve and train her for riding. “Maybe I should take Eddie to,“ Moses had said. “Then I could train horse and rider at the same time.“ Eddie was glad that Moses was only joking because he wouldn’t want to go and stay on the reserve, not even for one day. The kids at school said that the Indians ate funny things like gophers and frogs – even snakes. And Mamma wouldn’t think much of the idea either. She always worried about fleas and bedbugs whenever Moses was around. And besides, Eddie didn’t think he needed to be taught how to ride a horse, at least not by some old Indian.
At harvest time, Pa always hired Moses for stooking and threshing. “Moses can use the cash,” Pa said. Whenever he could, Eddie would go out to stook with Moses or, if it was threshing time, drive the horses while Moses pitched the sheaves onto the hayrack.
Whenever Moses was there for overnight, Mamma would not allow him to sleep in the house. Not even in winter. “He can sleep in the bunk house,” she insisted. “We don’t need any of those redskin fleas in here.”
“In France,” Pa said, “we was all lousy. The cooties that bit Moses came to him from a bunch of white guys, but I didn’t hear him complain.”
When the threshing crew came in for supper, Moses always sat at the foot of the table. He didn’t ever use his plate the same as everyone else. When the gravy bowl got to him, he would keep it. Then, everything else that he wanted to eat – even his pie – just got dumped in with the gravy. Mamma learned that she’d have to have two gravy bowls, one for Moses and another for everyone else.
When he was young, Moses had gone to a residential school and had learned to read and write. His handwriting was the best that Eddie had ever seen. The words flowed so evenly across the page, with every letter perfectly formed. Even Mamma couldn’t write like that. “You must have had good teachers,” Eddie once said.
Moses didn’t answer right away. He just twisted his mouth a bit and then sort of snorted before he said, “Oh yeah. They taught us Indian kids lots of stuff. Real good.”
Pa would fill a big bucket with bottled beer and lower it down the well to cool. When the harvesters came in from the field, Eddie would help crank the bucket up from the well and bring the cold beer to the house where the men were washing up and waiting for their supper. Eddie had heard Mamma say that it was against the law to give beer to an Indian, but Moses was handed a bottle just the same as everyone else. “He gets thirsty too,” said Pa. “Just don’t say anything about it.”
But Eddie knew that Moses got drunk sometimes. Last Christmas there was a special program in the church. It had just started and the people were singing carols, but it wasn’t going so good because Sadie Metcalf was playing the organ. Sadie could play the piano well enough, but she had never had to play that persnickety old pump organ before and couldn’t seem to get the hang of it. Then Moses stumbled in shouting “Merry Christmas!“ And wanting to shake hands with everybody. “I heard the singin’” he said, “an’ I thought I’d come in an’ sing with you. I like to sing.” And then he started to sing. He sang louder and better than anyone else in the church. He knew the words to all the songs and he just sang until everybody joined in and sang along with him until the preacher said it was time for lunch.
Some people were mad because the program hadn’t gone the way they had planned, but others said it was the best Christmas program they had ever had. Sadie Metcalf said that Moses had saved her from the worst night of her life and she hoped he’d get drunk and come to church every Sunday. “Then we could chop up that wheezy old pump organ for firewood.”
“Moses learned all the songs in school,” Pa said, “and a church school at that. The preacher is lucky that Moses didn’t sing the songs he learned in the army. He can still sing them too after he’s had a couple of drinks. That would have been quite a program.” Pa laughed at the thought.
“They say he was one hell of a soldier,“ a man was saying.
“All them redskins are wild fighters,” said another. “Bloody savages.“
Eddie could hear more fragments of conversation. “He was in the infantry … a regiment outa Regina ...went overseas with a bunch of local fellas… got picked for a sniper… all them Indians is crack shots ... Moses could shoot the balls off of a horsefly from a quarter mile away…”
The funeral service seemed to be over, for Eddie could see a stream of people leaving the church. Yet a large group remained, most of them clustered around the big red grain truck that Eddie recognized as one that Pa had traded in a year ago. There were people, all women it seemed, and all wearing shawls and kerchiefs, seated on benches in the truck box. Information spread along the sidewalk. “They want to bury him out on the reserve… mourners and the coffin are all in the truck… but they can’t get the truck started… they’re gonna get a tow from Hunter’s Garage.”
A few minutes later, another large truck pulled up to stop in front of the first one. Two men got out to attach the chain from the rear of their truck to the front of the other. They got back in their own truck and pulled out into the muddy street towing the improvised hearse with its two rows of mourners seated along the sides. Only their heads and shoulders were visible above the high sides of the truck. Their kerchiefs and shawls gave them a somber uniformity. “Just like crows sitting on a rail,“ he heard someone say.
With motor racing and horn blaring, the strange cortege roared down the street. The windows in the lead truck were open, through which the driver and passenger both waved as they passed by knots of onlookers. They drove around the block, up one street and down the next, through street-wide puddles where great wings of muddy water spewed out from under the wheels, drenching anyone who was slow in getting out of the way.
“Jeezus! Ain’t that a sight! Ol’ Moses is going to glory with a real splash, ain’t he.”
“For sure. It might be a little late, but that’s what I call a real baptism. But lookit! They’re gonna go through that big puddle alongside the Elks Hall. Those women will get soaked.” Then he saw Pa go out and wave the procession down. Pa went back to the Indian truck and spoke to the driver who had emerged from the cab and was trying to clear the windshield. Pa opened the hood and leaned over the fender, reaching down beside the motor.
“That’s Charlie Dorset’s old truck. Charlie never had nothing but trouble with it. It used to go through distributor caps like they was jellybeans. Every few hundred miles she’d just shut down with a crack in the distributor cap. There wasn’t nothing you could do but put on a new one and away she’d go. Hunter got to keepin’ a few on hand all the time just so Charlie could keep his truck on the go.”
Several minutes went by. At last Pa closed the hood on the truck, the drivers resumed their places and the tow once more got underway. This time, the Indian truck started after being pulled only a few yards. The chain was detached and the truck, its passengers now bespattered and wet, wallowed its way out of town.
Eddie went over to join his father. “Is the coffin really in that truck?”
“Yes, it is. And now the truck and everyone in it is in a big dirty mess because of those too damn smart alecs.” He reached in his pocket and pulled out a dollar. “Here, go down to the Chinaman’s and buy some ice cream to take over to Auntie Barb’s. I’ll come up there in a little while. Your ma wants me to pick up a few groceries. But right now I’m going over to Hunter’s Garage. Got something to say over there.”
On the way home, Ruthie chattered about her visit with Auntie Barb. She had marvelled at the sight of the ice cream which came in the same shape as a pound of butter and in three colours – white, pink and brown. Eddie himself wondered what could possibly be next. Pa seemed strangely quiet and gave only curt answers to any remarks directed his way. The afternoon had passed and Mamma would soon be putting supper on the table.
When they turned into the yard, Eddie saw a democrat pulled up beside the barn. Visitors! He wondered who it might be. “Looks like Tony Howard’s buggy,“ said Pa. “Your Mamma’s been sorta expectin’ them to come by.“ Eddie was pleased. The Howards had two sons, both near his age. They would be good company. “So let’s unhitch the horses. You can take the groceries in while I look after Duke and Daisy.“
Ruthie raced to the house, eager to tell Mamma about her visit with Auntie Barb. Eddie took his time. This time, it would be for him to break the news about Moses. And not just to kids, but to grownups too. He considered carefully what he might say. The Howard family knew Moses too. Just in the spring Moses had helped them with seeding. Eddie gathered the bags of groceries, turning over in his mind all that he had heard that afternoon. He headed for the house.
They were all in the kitchen. Mamma, Ruthie, Mr. and Mrs. Howard and both boys. They exchanged greetings. “So. Eddie, what’s the news from town?”
Eddie swelled with importance. He paused. Everyone waited. “Old Moses. That old Moses Bearskin. He’s a good Indian now.”