CHAPTER 18

What happened the night of the homecoming dance changed Winona Crane.

She’d always been outgoing and clearly not afraid to take a walk on the wild side. After the attack, however, she withdrew from the world. For a while, she simply disappeared. She didn’t come to school or to Sam’s Place or into Aurora at all. Cork knew she was still on the rez; Willie Crane told him that, but it was all Willie would say. Cork’s mother, who had relatives in Allouette, told him a bit more. Winona had become deathly afraid. She didn’t want to see anyone, yet the idea of being left alone terrorized her.

“Is she getting help?” Cork asked, trying desperately to think of something, anything, he might be able to do for her.

“Henry Meloux,” his mother replied.

Two days later, Cork borrowed his mother’s car, picked up Jubal Little, and they drove north out of Aurora until they came to the double-trunk birch that marked the beginning of the path to Crow Point.

Jubal had changed, too. The death of Donner Bigby had done that. He was still remarkable in all the ways people in Tamarack County had come to expect, yet Cork, who was his closest friend, recognized a difference. It was as if, when he climbed down from the top of Trickster’s Point, Jubal had simply kept going and climbed right into himself. When he and Cork were together, Jubal was often silent. Cork had no trouble with silence-it was an Ojibwe virtue he admired-and he didn’t push his friend.

The day was sunny but cool. The forest floor was covered with fallen aspen leaves, and it seemed to Cork as if they were walking on a carpet of gold. It was Saturday, and the night before they’d won another football game and he should have felt like a million dollars, but all he could think about was how, yet again, death had changed his world. Jubal walked with his shoulders hunched and his eyes on the aspen leaves underfoot and said not a word the whole way.

They broke from the trees and crossed the meadow where the wildflowers were gone and the tall grass had turned yellow, dead from the frost that came now in the nights. Smoke rose up from behind the rocks west of the cabin, where Meloux had the fire ring he often used in his healing ceremonies. Cork headed toward the rocks, but as they passed Meloux’s cabin, the door opened, and Willie Crane stepped outside.

“Don’t go there,” he said. Dongoere.

“He’s with Winona?” Cork asked.

Willie nodded.

In the cool, still morning air, Cork could hear the faint chant of the Mide.

“Is it okay if we wait?” Jubal asked. “Please.”

Willie thought about it and nodded once again.

Cork sat on the ground, and Jubal did the same, then Willie. The day warmed, and the sun reached its zenith, and still the Mide chanted beyond the rocks, and the air was redolent with the cleansing scent of burning sage and cedar.

An hour past noon, Cork saw Henry coming from the rocks with Winona at his side. Henry Meloux was nearly sixty then, tall and strong, and he walked regally and erect, with his long hair like a flow of white water over his shoulders. Winona was tall, too, but the way she carried herself made Cork think of her as a creature small and afraid. Henry didn’t seem surprised in the least to see his two new visitors.

“Come inside,” he said to them. “We will eat.”

Winona looked at them as if they were not old friends but strangers who deserved her suspicion.

They ate stew that Meloux heated on his old cast-iron stove. And then they sat in the sun outside and smoked tobacco, and in all this time not more than a dozen words passed between them.

Finally Meloux said, “Come with me, Corcoran O’Connor.”

The Mide led him away on the path through the meadow. At the edge of the forest he said, “It is time for you to go.”

Cork looked back at the cabin, where Jubal still sat with Winona and Willie. “But I want to stay.”

The Mide shook his head.

“What about Jubal?”

“Sometimes, Corcoran O’Connor, you can see the ropes that tie people together. When I look at Winona Crane and Jubal Little, I see ropes. Go home now. There’s nothing more for you here today, and I have work to do.”

Cork was crestfallen, but he knew it was useless to argue. He turned and headed alone back along the path toward the double-trunk birch.

Although it didn’t please him, it also didn’t surprise Cork that, when Winona Crane returned to the world, Jubal Little was almost always at her side. It wasn’t like dating or going steady or anything Cork had a name for. They were together because of something powerful between them that seemed to have no name. It was like love but not love. It was necessity but not needing. It was the right hand to the left. It was nothing Jubal or Winona cared to explain to Cork, and it was something Willie claimed he couldn’t. Whatever it was, it excluded Cork in a way that pained him deeply. He’d always been in love with Winona Crane, at least a bit. And he’d never had a better friend than Jubal Little. Now he was on the outside of some inexplicable intimacy between them, and he felt abandoned and a little betrayed.

In the spring, Jubal was accepted to the University of Northern Iowa, in Cedar Falls, and offered a full athletic scholarship. All that summer when they worked together at Sam’s Place, Jubal confided in Cork that he was seriously thinking of not going. He didn’t want to leave Aurora, which Cork understood really meant that he didn’t want to leave Winona. Cork argued with him, pointed out that it was the kind of opportunity most guys would give their left nut for, and if he passed it up, God alone knew whether something like it might come again. But as the end of August drew nearer, Jubal only became more fixed in his determination. Cork figured there was nothing more he could do.

It was Jubal’s mother who convinced him to try again. She came one evening to the house on Gooseberry Lane, and sat with Cork and his mother in the kitchen, and cried. She had such great dreams for her son, she told Cork. Jubal would be the first in the entire family who’d ever gone to college. Did Cork have any idea what that meant? When she left, she went with Cork’s promise that he would do what he could to change Jubal’s mind, and he knew the only person who could do that was Winona.

He found her at the community center in Allouette practicing with the jingle dancers for a powwow at Cass Lake a couple of weeks away. When the dancers were finished, she sat with him in the bleachers of the empty gymnasium and listened as he talked. Her face was beautiful and sad, and it hurt him to say the things he did, but they had to be said.

“I know,” she admitted when he’d finished. “Jubal needs to go.”

“Tell him that.”

“He won’t listen to me. He’s made up his mind.”

“He’s going to throw his life away, Winona.” Cork realized immediately how awful that sounded and added, “I mean he should at least give it a try.”

She looked across the big, empty space of the gym, a look that went beyond the walls. “As long as I’m here, he won’t go.”

“Because you need him?”

She shook her head and said, “Because we need each other.” Her sad eyes rested on Cork’s face now, and his heart nearly broke seeing the pain there. “Henry Meloux told us that we both were healing and that we had to help each other but that we had to be careful because we might end up like skin that grows together over a wound. I guess we weren’t careful.” She stood up, and her dress gave a tinny jingle. “I’ll make him go,” she promised. And Cork saw tears trail down the fine bones of her cheeks.

Two days later, Winona Crane ran away. She stuffed a backpack with clothing and disappeared in the middle of the night. She left a note for Willie explaining that she had to go and that she would stay in touch and not to worry about her.

The news gutted Jubal. Cork had never seen him so desolate, so lost. “Why?” he kept saying and looked to Cork as if for an answer. After days of this, Cork couldn’t stand it anymore, couldn’t take Jubal’s unrelenting despondency, and couldn’t shoulder the guilt he felt because of his own part in Winona’s sudden departure. He told Jubal the truth.

They were in Grant Park, late on a Thursday afternoon, standing on an empty fishing dock, staring at the lake, where a warm breeze rocked the blue water and the sun made it sparkle. Jubal glared at him for a long, painful moment, and then Jubal hit him. He drove his fist into Cork’s midsection. The blow threw Cork onto the weathered dock boards, knocked all the air out of him, so that for a minute he couldn’t breathe. When he finally got his wind back and his vision cleared, he found Jubal standing above him, huffing like a steam engine, his big hands fisted and ready to do more damage.

“You son of a bitch,” Jubal said through clenched teeth.

“I didn’t know she’d run away, Jubal.”

“Why the hell did you have to interfere?”

“Your mom asked me to.”

“You’re my friend, or you’re supposed to be. You should have stood up for me and for Winona.”

“I’m sorry, Jubal. I swear to God I’m sorry.”

The glare finally left his eyes, and Jubal slowly relaxed. His fists became hands again, and he shoved them into the pockets of his jeans.

“I want to get drunk,” he said.

“All right.” Cork stood up, carefully because of the pain just below his ribs. “I know a place.”

There was a bar a few miles outside town, the Black Duck, popular with loggers. From listening to the talk of his father and his father’s deputies, Cork knew it was a place where the bartender didn’t mind serving someone who hadn’t quite hit the legal drinking age. He drove Jubal there, and they went inside, sat in the dim light, drank beer, and listened to Waylon Jennings on the jukebox. Jubal talked about Winona, and for the first time in their history together, Cork saw his big friend cry.

They were both into their third bottles of beer when the door opened and Buzz Bigby walked in. He strode up to the bar and told the guy behind it-he called him Dwight in a tone that said they knew each other well-that he needed a bottle of Jim Beam to go, and he swung his eyes left and saw Jubal and Cork.

“Jesus Christ,” he said. “This is a moment I been waiting for a long time.”

Dwight looked at Bigby, then at Cork and Jubal, and two and two came together. “Take it outside, boys,” he warned.

Bigby nodded toward the door. “Let’s talk.”

“I don’t think-” Cork began.

But Jubal cut him off. “Sure thing,” he said and slid from his barstool.

Cork put a hand on his friend’s arm. “Jubal.”

“Mr. Bigby wants to talk,” Jubal said, pulling away. “I’m going to talk.”

He took the lead, and Bigby followed. Cork said to the barkeep, “You might want to call the cops.”

The barkeep said, “You might want to go fuck yourself, kid.”

The bar was a ramshackle affair at the crossing of two back roads in the woods west of Aurora. Evening had settled. The sky was a soft blue, and the air was calm and quiet. There were half a dozen vehicles-dusty pickup trucks, mostly-parked in the dirt that served as a lot. In one of the trucks, Cork saw a kid staring out the window of the cab, and he recognized Lester, Donner Bigby’s little brother.

Jubal walked ahead, Buzz Bigby immediately at his back, and Cork, because he’d talked to the bartender, a few steps behind them both. No sooner was Jubal out the door than Bigby swung a fist hard as a wrecking ball into Jubal’s kidneys. Jubal arched and cried out and fell forward onto his knees. Bigby swung a steel-toed boot into Jubal’s ribs, and Jubal went down onto the dirt of the parking lot. Bigby delivered another kick, this one to Jubal’s head, and Jubal’s neck snapped sideways as if broken.

It all happened in the blink of an eye, executed by a man who’d probably been in more fights than Cork had toes or fingers to count.

Bigby wasn’t even breathing hard. He stared down at Jubal and said, “I want the fucking truth, boy.”

Jubal tried to speak but could barely raise his head from the dirt.

Buzz Bigby set himself to swing his steel-toed boot again.

And that’s when Cork went berserk. In the few seconds it had taken Bigby to bring Jubal down, Cork had stood paralyzed, stunned by both the swiftness of the attack and its brutality. But when he saw Bigby set to kick Jubal again, he snapped into action and launched himself blindly. Without thinking, he threw himself onto Bigby’s broad, muscled back. He wrapped his right arm around the man’s thick neck. With his left hand, he grasped his right wrist and put all his strength into keeping the bone of his forearm pressed against Bigby’s throat. Bigby stumbled back. He grunted but couldn’t speak. He grasped at Cork’s arms and tried to break the grip, but adrenaline poured into every cell of Cork’s body, and his arms were like the steel of a vise. Bigby swung his own body left, then right, trying to shake Cork loose. For Cork, it was like riding a raging buffalo, but he held on. Bigby stumbled across the bare dirt of the lot and slammed Cork into the door of his pickup. Cork held. He could feel the man’s strength ebbing, and he pressed harder against his throat. He wanted Bigby dead. He wanted to kill him with his bare hands.

Buzz Bigby leaned forward, away from the truck, preparing to go down like one of those great pines he’d made his living felling. He stumbled again and turned, legs all wobbly. And Cork suddenly found himself almost face-to-face with little Lester Bigby, who was staring through the glass of the driver’s-side window, wearing a look of horror.

Cork came back to his senses. He released his grip on Bigby’s neck and slid from the man’s back. Relieved of the weight, Bigby lurched, fell into the dirt, rolled to his back, blinked rapidly at the evening sky, and gasped for breath.

Jubal was at Cork’s side. Even though his face was smeared with his own blood and he grunted in pain when he moved, Jubal put his arm around Cork’s shoulders firmly and urged him away from where Bigby lay sprawled on the ground.

“That’s enough,” he said to Cork hoarsely. “Let’s go home.”

At the end of August, Jubal Little left on a Greyhound bus for Cedar Falls, Iowa. Cork, along with Jubal’s mother, saw him off at Pflugleman’s Rexall Drugstore, which doubled as the bus depot. He stood watching as the bus drove away in a smelly cloud of diesel vapor. They’d sworn to each other that they’d stay in touch. Even so, it felt to Cork as if the best friend he’d ever known was heading out of his life forever.

He would discover later, and not without regret, that nothing except death was forever.

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