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About the Author
A Shandra Higheagle Mystery
This is a work of fiction, Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Patricia Jager
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or Windtree Press except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles or reviews.
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Visit us at http://windtreepress.com
Cover Art by Christina Keerins
Published in the United States of America
Shandra Higheagle sat up in bed. Her heart raced and her mind replayed the dream in vivid detail.
Ella, Grandmother, stood in the middle of stampeding horses. Her long bony finger pointed at a mangled body on the ground. Shandra wanted to turn her eyes from the sight, but the hat with the beaded hat band on the ground next to the mangled body brought a feeling of safety and love that eased her lonely soul. The wind shrieked. Shandra’s gaze flashed to her grandmother. Tears trickled down Ella’s cheeks. The horses stopped and all circled the body, their muzzles pointed inward to…her father.
Shandra scrubbed her face with her hands. She’d had this same dream every night for the last week. Finding the truth behind her father’s death was the only way she’d ever have a good night’s sleep and relieve her mind.
The red glowing numbers on the clock beside the bed told her she might as well get up. A couple more hours and Aunt Jo would be awake. She’d call, giving her aunt warning of Shandra’s arrival that afternoon. There was no sense in putting the trip to the reservation off any longer. Her mother and stepfather wouldn’t give her any information about her father’s death, but the Higheagle family, hopefully, would fill her in on the details she needed to know.
Sheba, her large, slobbery, mutt of several large breed dogs, raised her basketball-sized head and stared at her.
“I know, you don’t like to get up this early. I have things to finish in the studio if I’m going to the reservation today.” Shandra slipped her feet into fuzzy slippers and wandered out of her bedroom. A deep sigh and thud in the room behind her tipped her lips into a smile. Sheba might not like to get up this early, but she won’t allow me out of her sight.
Shandra continued through the great room, glancing at the laptop she’d left open on the heavy, wood coffee table. She’d run into dead ends while trying to search online for records of her father’s death.
On the way to the kitchen, her gaze landed on a photo of her father on the bookcase. He was holding up a large belt buckle and grinning. Her heart stirred, remembering those same hands holding her and whispering in her ear that life was a mystery and to live uncovering every clue. She’d only been four when her father died, but she remembered nearly every moment they’d spent together that year.
She walked over and held up the photograph and ran a finger over her father’s face. Memory was a funny thing. More and more of her fourth year on this earth came back to her as she dug to discover if her father’s death was an accident or intentional. She remembered traveling to the rodeos as a family, but then tagging along with her father because mom disappeared. Almost as if she didn’t want to be seen with her Native American husband and half-breed daughter.
She shook her head. “That couldn’t be. Could it?”
Sheba pushed against Shandra’s thigh with her head.
“I know, if you’re up, you’re hungry.” She ruffled the black fur on Sheba’s head and continued to the kitchen.
Shandra started the tea kettle, poured kibble into Sheba’s bowl, and refreshed her water. The kettle whistled. Plucking one of her own mugs from the open-front cupboard, Shandra poured steaming water into the cup and dropped in a tea ball with green tea leaves.
While the tea steeped, she debated when to call Ryan. While his office was all of Weippe County, his county detective work kept him stationed in and around the county seat of Warner. But if he happened to be in the area and stopped by, he’d get worried if she wasn’t home. Unlike her mother, who wasn’t so much worried about her daughter but about what rumors may get started by Shandra’s exploits, Detective Ryan Greer did genuinely care what happened to her. A smile started at her lips and infused joy in her heart. They’d only been dating three months, but she had a closer connection to him than any man in her life up to now.
Thinking of her last disastrous relationship, her brow scrunched and the joy seeped from her chest. If she’d been older, more worldly, she would have made that sadistic professor pay for the way he’d treated her.
Sheba woofed at the door, dissipating her anger. Shandra pulled on a coat, shoved her feet into fuzzy boots, opened the door, picked up her tea, and headed down the path carved in the eighteen inches of snow to the studio.
The moon still clung to the dark sky spattered with stars. A blush of pink flirted in the eastern sky. This time of morning held a special appeal for Shandra. The bright stars slowly fading as the sun crept over the horizon. The cold snow sparkled like diamonds and squeaked under her feet.
The promise of another day.
She stopped a moment to savor her life on the mountain. This ranch she’d purchased nearly three years ago had captured her heart from the first moment she set foot on the land. Finding the clay deposits she needed for her vases added to the feeling she’d found her home.
Sheba bounded out of the pine trees behind the house, studio, and barn. She skidded to a stop at the door to the studio.
Shandra laughed at the big dog’s puppy-like antics and continued to the studio. She opened the door, and Sheba lay down in her usual spot under the glazing table. As she grew, Sheba had learned to stay under the table to avoid being told to move every five minutes.
Shandra flicked on the bright overhead lights and headed to the kiln. The drying unit was filled with the small coasters she made as souvenirs for the local businesses to sell. They were mindless squares of clay she etched Huckleberry Mountain on and glazed. Lil, her employee and a stray that came with the property, had learned how to make the clay squares, freeing up more of Shandra’s time to work on her high-end vases.
That was why she needed to get this load of coasters out of the kiln. She needed to start a slow glazing process she was perfecting on a vase she planned to reveal at a February art show in New Mexico.
“What are you doing up?” Lil’s voice crackled in the silent building.
Shandra spun around. Her fingers opened and several kiln-dried coasters sailed through the air.
“You don’t have to throw things at me.” Lil said, picking the shattered pieces up off the floor.
“You startled me. I thought Sheba and I were the only ones awake.” Shandra held back the grin twitching her lips. Lil had on a wild, purple flowered shirt under her usual, purple wool coat that she wore in the winter. Faded purple corduroy pants that had many ribs worn off covered the older woman’s legs. Lil’s short white hair stuck out in tufts under the lavender stocking cap on her head. Like a mink collar on the coat, a large orange cat hung around Lil’s neck. Both Lewis, the cat, and Lil came with the property.
The ranch had been in Lil’s family for two generations. But when the grandparents who raised her started having health issues, the ranch was sold to pay their doctor bills. There had been two owners between Lil’s grandparents and Shandra. Both had kicked Lil off the property when she tried to squat on the land. Shandra saw Lil’s skills and offered her a job. The eccentric woman made a room for herself and Lewis in the tack room in the barn.
“At this hour, it’s usually only Lewis and I that are awake.” Lil set the cat down on a chair and walked over to the kiln.
“I had a dream that woke me. I’ve decided to visit my aunt today and wanted to get that newly glazed vase in the kiln.” Shandra avoided making eye contact with Lil. The woman knew a bit about Shandra’s grandmother coming to her in dreams, but Ryan was the only person she’d told everything about her dreams. She’d had to or end up in jail for a murder she didn’t commit.
“Why this sudden trip to see your aunt?” Lil picked up several coasters and carried them over to the table housing Sheba.
“It’s not sudden. I’ve been thinking about it for a month.” Ever since she’d revisited Phil Seeton, a cowboy that had rodeoed with her father, and he’d suggested Edward Higheagle’s rodeo accident wasn’t an accident.
“You never brought it up.”
The accusing tone in Lil’s voice drew Shandra’s attention. She watched the older woman walk back to the kiln and reach into the depths. The large round ceramic oven appearing to swallow the woman up to her waist.
“That’s because I wasn’t positive I needed to go. I am now.” She waited her turn to grab more of the coasters.
Lil straightened from the kiln and peered into her eyes. “Detective Greer know you’re going?”
Her reference to Ryan as detective was typical Lil. Since Ryan had thought Lil had killed her fiancé thirty years ago, Lil hadn’t been too friendly with him. But she didn’t say anything about Shandra seeing him. Until now.
“I’m going to call him right after I call Aunt Jo and make sure this is a good day to visit her.”
Lil snorted and carried the last of the coasters to the table. “More like you were going to call him after you passed through Warner so he couldn’t stop you.”
Shandra shoved her hands on her hips. “Why would it matter whether or not Ryan cared if I went to the reservation? He isn’t my keeper.” That was why she’d kept their relationship at arm’s length. She’d had several men over the years who had dictated her life. She wouldn’t do that again. She was older and wiser than when she’d lived at home and been a college student.
“I seen the way you’ve had your nose in your computer. There’s something you’re digging up. From where I’m at, I see trouble.” Lil picked up Lewis. “I’m going to feed the horses.”
Shandra held the phone to her ear and smiled. “Yes, Aunt Jo, I can make the trip easily today. Yes, I know there is a snow storm headed to Northern Idaho, but I’ll be headed to Northeast Washington.”
“I’ll be working at the Community Center until three. You can stop at the center if you get here before that. Otherwise, I’ll be home,” Josephine Elwood, her father’s sister, said.
“I should be at Nespelem before three, it’s only a three-hour drive in good weather. I’m figuring four hours today.” Shandra didn’t worry about weather in her Jeep.
“We’ll be looking forward to your visit. I have to go or I’ll be late for work.”
“Have a good day,” Shandra said and hung up. The next call wouldn’t be as easy. Ryan knew why she wanted to visit her family.
To stall, she walked into the kitchen and added more tea to her cup then sat down at the counter. She turned the phone on and found Ryan’s number. A deep breath fortified her and she tapped his name.
The phone rang several times and went to voice-mail.
He must be working.
The phone beeped.
“Ryan, this is Shandra. I’m headed to Nespelem for a couple of days. I’ll text you when I arrive so you don’t worry.” She tapped the phone and let the air out of her lungs. That was one bullet she’d dodged.
She cleaned up the kitchen and went into the bedroom to dress and pack clothes for a couple of days. The suitcase was packed and she was dressed when a jazz tune filtered into the bedroom.
Shandra ran into the kitchen, then hesitated to pick the phone up when she saw the caller. Sliding her finger across the screen, she took a deep breath and answered.
“What is this about going to Nespelem today? If you wait until the weekend I can take you.” His deep voice always soothed her. But his words riled.
“I don’t need you to take me to Nespelem. I’ve made the drive a couple times by myself.”
“Not during the type of weather we’re having now. There’s another storm coming through tomorrow.”
“I’ll be at Aunt Jo’s tomorrow. I won’t come home until the storm has passed.” Shandra had managed just fine the past seven years without anyone telling her what to do or when to do it.
“Why do you have to go today?” Ryan questioned.
“I had a dream. I have to ask my aunt some questions.” She inhaled and slowly let the air out. “Ryan, I can’t go on without answers.”
“I know. Everyone wants closure, but you can’t take the word of an old man who was drinking heavily at the time of your father’s death.” He blew out a long breath. “Shandra, I looked into the records, what little there were, and no one suspected foul play. It was an accident.”
Tears burned behind her eyes. She’d expected Ryan to do his own digging, especially, when he’d suggested she not stir up the past. Her last dream remained vivid in her mind. She couldn’t ignore the fact, it meant something.
“The authorities wouldn’t have looked for anything other than an accident the way it happened. Ella was in my dream last night. I can’t explain it, but I know he was murdered. I just have to piece it all together.” Shandra brushed the tear sliding down her cheek away. “I’ll let you know when I get to the reservation.” She touched the off button and stood in the kitchen watching snowflakes float by the window.
I have to know the truth. She shoved her phone in her purse and returned to the bedroom to get her suitcase.
Once everything was stowed in the Jeep, she turned to Lil who stood ten feet from the vehicle, one hand on Sheba’s scruff.
Shandra knelt in front of Sheba. “Be good. I’ll be back in a few days. You’ll have so much fun playing in the snow you won’t even know I’m gone.”
Sheba stared at her with sad puppy-dog eyes and licked her cheek.
“Don’t make me feel bad. This is something I need to do.” Shandra stood, wiped the slobber from her cheek, and peered into Lil’s eyes. “I’ll keep in touch, but I should be back in three days. When the kiln shuts off just leave the vase in it. We are ahead on the coasters, but the lodge sent an order for one hundred. They want to be prepared for the Christmas shoppers. If you could box them up and deliver the order today or tomorrow that would be a big help.”
Lil nodded. “I’ll deliver them this afternoon.”
“Thanks. See you on Thursday.” Shandra climbed into her Jeep, waved at Lil with Lewis slung around her neck and Sheba sitting beside her, and put the vehicle in gear.
Three and a half hours later, Shandra drove through Grand Coulee, over the bridge, and onto the Colville Reservation. This was only the third time in her life she’d visited here even though half of her heritage called this area home since 1885.
Nearing the agency, she glanced to her left and bobbed her head to the six metal root diggers, images of women digging roots as in days past, and continued on toward the Colville Agency. The snow had disappeared an hour earlier. The wind blew but the roads were clear and the traveling easy.
The agency had buildings scattered on both sides of the highway. To the right stood the tribal gas station and trading post. Behind it other new and old buildings that dealt with the needs of the people on the reservation scattered along narrow asphalt and dirt roads. To the left of the highway the community center sat looking inviting. Aunt Jo worked in the cheerful building as the community center coordinator.
Shandra turned left and parked in the small gravel parking lot in front of the center. She’d never set foot in the community center. Eighteen years earlier when she’d stayed with Ella, the old woman had kept her on the family horse ranch up the Nespelem River.
A half a dozen teenagers burst through the double doors, bounded down the stairs, and piled into a small car newer than her Jeep. She watched the back end of the vehicle fishtail as the driver gunned the car pulling out of the gravel parking lot. Shaking her head at their disregard for safety, she walked up the steps and entered the building.
The entry was well lit from the large windows in the front of the building. Posters and Native American Art hung on the walls. An easel had a listing of activities for the month. An elder sat on the couch to her left. He nodded but didn’t smile. Straight ahead was a long, sloped walkway. She contemplated whether to walk down when a group of men in their twenties, joking and jostling one another, appeared from the depths of the corridor.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
The joking stopped. All dropped their gaze to their feet, except for the tallest of the group.
“Yeah?” he asked.
“I’m looking for my aunt. Josephine Elwood.”
The young man’s cheeks reddened and his gaze lit everywhere but her face. “She’s down the hall over there. Fourth door.”
Shandra wondered about the way they all shifted their feet and hurried on by her. She shrugged and followed the young man’s directions. She didn’t remember Aunt Jo as being a hard nose, but from the way the young men acted it made her wonder.
The fourth door on the left stood ajar. Shandra knocked and walked in. Aunt Jo looked up from her seat behind a computer monitor.
“Shandra. You made good time.” Aunt Jo waved her hand at the computer. “I have to finish filling out next month’s schedule. Take a seat or wander through that door and grab a drink out of the little fridge.”
Shandra dropped her purse in a chair and wandered into the next room. From the stacked folders, boxes of decorations, scrap paper, stickers, and glue sticks it was a store room of sorts. She found the small fridge and grabbed a bottle of water. Returning to the other room, she found Aunt Jo frowning at the monitor screen.
“Anything I can help you with?” Shandra asked.
“No. This is an old system and things don’t always save as they should.” She glanced up and smiled. “I called several cousins. We’re all meeting at Velma’s house for dinner tonight. I thought it was time you really met your family.”
Shandra sat down and took a sip of her water before answering. She hadn’t planned on a family reunion. “That’s nice. I didn’t come here to get reacquainted with family. I came to learn more about my father.”
Jo glanced up from the monitor. “This is the best way. Edward’s family will all be there and you can ask them anything, but be prepared. You’ve stayed away for many years and there will be those who don’t trust you. You’ve lived as a White man. The only time you showed interest in your heritage was at my mother’s funeral. The elders will question your motives for asking questions of the dead, now, so many years later.”
Shandra had expected there would be members of the family who would take their time determining if she should receive answers to her questions.
“I know I’ve not been a good member of this family. At first it wasn’t by my choice, then later, I wasn’t sure how you would all accept me.” Shandra opened her water and took a swallow.
Aunt Jo smiled. “Once they see you want to be part of the family, I’m sure they will come around.” She clicked a few more buttons on the keyboard and stood. “There. I’m done for the day.”
Shandra stood, slipping her purse over her shoulder. “What all do you do here?”
Aunt Jo waved a hand. “I set up all the events, coordinate the use of the facilities, and make sure there are people in charge of opening and closing the facilities.”
“That’s a lot of juggling I bet,” Shandra waited for Jo to put on her coat and grab her purse from the back room.
“It is. But if there is no one to set up events and make the kids feel at home here, they will go out and drink and do drugs. I try to have events that will appeal to all ages, and hopefully, keep them informed on how to live a clean life.” Aunt Jo closed the door and locked it. She slipped the key into her purse and headed to the front door. Instead of walking to the door, she turned down the hallway on the opposite side of the sloping corridor.
“Down there,” she pointed to the tunnel the young men had walked up, “is the gym. It is always busy whether it’s a basketball practice, game, tournament, or a speaker or other event.” She continued down the short hallway.
Large windows looked down into the gym. There were more men, the age of the ones she’d encountered, playing basketball.
“Basketball is the main entertainment around here. Families play families and there is much rivalry.” Aunt Jo shook her head. “It’s not good to have such feelings for other families.” She shrugged. “That’s what happens when so many different tribes are living in one place.”
“How many different tribes are there?” Shandra asked. She’d looked them up on the computer and hadn’t given much thought to whether or not they would get along.
“Twelve tribes live on this reservation. They get along for the most part, but there is always bad feelings, jealousy, when a person or family of one tribe has good fortune. Those that only see bad try to bring down the ones who see promise.”
“That sounds like outside the reservation. There are some who don’t strive to do better, yet they talk poorly of those that do,” Shandra said.
Aunt Jo nodded. “The people and tribes of the reservation are like anywhere. You have those that work hard, get a good education, and come back to try and help. Then you have the ones that feel they have been wronged and instead of trying to change things, they drink or do drugs, don’t finish school, and continue to complain. They try to forget their hardships by using drugs or drinking themselves into a stupor, or committing suicide. We have a high rate of suicides, mostly in our youth.”
Shandra had heard stories about drugs and alcohol on reservations but had thought people were stereotyping and just wanted to slur the Native Americans. “Isn’t it against the culture to take one’s own life?”
Aunt Jo nodded. “But when they are high, they forget about traditions and honor. They only want out of the depressing life they see in front of them.”
Shandra followed her aunt out into the parking lot. The sun was already drifting to the horizon.
“Follow me. I’ll take you to Velma’s. She’ll be glad to see you.” Aunt Jo unlocked the door of a newer pickup, grasped the hand hold, and pulled herself in.
Shandra unlocked her Jeep and followed Aunt Jo out of the parking lot, back to the highway, and left to Nespelem.
The streets were narrow but mostly paved. Some houses and yards were neat and tidy while others could use a coat of paint and repairs and had several old and new vehicles cluttering the yards.
Shandra tried to remember Velma as they wound through the streets. What she remembered of the woman came from their meeting at Ella’s funeral. Velma was her father’s cousin. She was a bit older than Shandra’s father, tall, wide shoulders, and big hands. She was also at the seven drums ceremony. Shandra scanned her memory. Yes, Velma, one of her daughters, and Shandra were the only Higheagles at the ceremony.
Did that mean Velma would understand Ella coming to her in dreams?
Aunt Jo turned into a short drive that led to a large, tidy house. A small barn with three horses in the corral stood to the side of the house. There were already half a dozen cars parked in front of the lawn and house.
Shandra parked next to Jo. Her aunt smiled and waved her to follow.
Shandra stepped out of the Jeep and raised her phone. “Just a minute. I need to let my friend know I made the trip fine.” She texted Ryan she was at the reservation and then called Lil. Lil didn’t answer. Shandra left a brief message telling her she was with her aunt.
Jo stood on the porch waiting for Shandra to join her.
Hurrying up the walkway, Shandra shoved the phone in the pocket on the side of her purse.
“Don’t be nervous. Velma has been anxious to visit with you ever since mother’s ceremony.” Aunt Jo put an arm around Shandra’s shoulders and knocked on the door.
Shandra’s heart raced. She needed answers but had a feeling she would be as novel to her relatives as they were to her.
The large woman Shandra remembered as Velma answered the door. Her black hair, streaked with gray, hung loose around her shoulders. She stood a good head taller than Shandra and her shoulders filled the door opening.
“Come in! The weather is getting colder.” Velma ushered them into a brightly lit living room. Several women Shandra’s age and older sat on the couch and a chair. Two young men leaned against a doorway.
Shandra stopped scanning the room. The taller of the two had been the one from the community center who’d answered her question. The minute he realized she’d recognized him, his cheeks darkened.
That was why he’d hurried out of the center. He’d realized she was family.
Velma took their coats and started the introductions.
“This is my daughter, Wendy, you should remember her from Aunt Minnie’s ceremony.” Velma placed a hand on the woman sitting in the chair by herself.
Shandra nodded and smiled at her cousin.
“This is my sister, Clarice, and her daughter, Sky.” Velma motioned to the two larger women on one end of the couch.
Shandra nodded, smiled, and said, “It’s nice to meet you.”
“And these two are,” Velma waved her hand at the other two younger, smaller women on the couch, “your cousins, Jackie and Sylvia.”
Shandra nodded, smiled, and said, “I’m pleased to finally meet my cousins when there is time to visit.”
Velma moved to the young men standing in the doorway. “These are Jo’s boys. Coop and Andy.”
“We’ve already met,” Shandra said, smiling.
The two eyed her suspiciously, then smiled.
“You have? When?” Velma asked.
“At the center,” Coop, the tallest said.
“Yeah, we were leaving when she arrived,” added Andy. He was a head shorter and stouter than his tall, thin brother.
“I hope you behaved yourselves,” Jo said, narrowing her eyes at her sons.
“They did,” Shandra said and received wide grins from the two.
Aunt Jo took hold of Shandra’s arm. “Come in and sit,” she said, pulling Shandra to the last stuffed chair. Jo sat in the folding chair next to Shandra.
All eyes were on her. Shandra smiled even though her first instinct was to flee. The churning in her stomach resembled her first day of grade school, before her mother started using Adam, her stepfather’s, last name when she registered Shandra for school.
Velma arrived with a cup of steaming hot coffee. “Nothing like a cup of coffee on a cold day like this,” she said, pulling up another folding chair on Shandra’s left.
“Thank you,” Shandra muttered before taking a sip. She wasn’t a coffee drinker but she wasn’t going to refuse something warm to hold in her hands.
“Josephine said you had some questions for us about Edward,” Velma said, leaning toward Shandra.
Velma didn’t move into conversations as slowly as Shandra remembered Ella and her friends had when Shandra had visited the summer she was thirteen.
“Y-yes.” Shandra scanned the eager faces. She directed her attention to the older women. The ones who were alive when her father followed the rodeos, became married, and died. “I ran into an old cowboy who rode the circuit with father. Since I don’t remember much about my father, I asked the cowboy questions.” She smiled. “This cowboy, Phil Seeton, had only good things to say about father.” Her heart filled with the memories of Daddy. His kindness. “How father always treated others with respect.” She frowned. “Even the ones who weren’t nice to him.” Phil had told her stories of how some of the Caucasian cowboys had harassed the Indians on the circuit.
“Your father was a good man. A good Nez Perce,” Velma said, nodding her head.
Clarice and Jo also nodded their heads.
“Is that why you’re here? To find your roots by starting with your father?” Velma asked.
“Yes, and no.” Shandra took a sip of coffee to stall for time to find the right words.
Everyone watched her. She didn’t want to tell everyone about her dreams and Ella coming to her in them. Velma and Wendy would understand the significance, but Jo had told her Clarice didn’t care for her sister’s belief in the seven drum religion.
“I am interested in my roots. But I’m more interested in justice.” She peered into Velma’s eyes. She knew! Shandra stared into the depths of the woman’s eyes and saw the same thing she witnessed in her dreams. The horses in a circle staring down at her father.
Velma nodded and took her hand. “I’ve been waiting for you to seek the truth.”
“What are you two talking about?” Aunt Jo asked, breaking the connection Shandra felt with Velma.
“Your brother didn’t die from an accident,” Velma stated, releasing Shandra’s hand and peering at Aunt Jo.
“What? No. It was ruled an accident.” Jo shook her head as if her head thought one thing and her heart another.
Clarice stood. “Did you bring this poor girl here to trample on her heart to prove your visions?”
“Velma didn’t bring me here. Talking to Mr. Seeton brought me here and has had me digging into the past trying to find the truth.” Shandra motioned with her hands for Clarice to sit. “Mr. Seeton believes my father didn’t have an accident. He said the horse father drew that day was an easy ride for him, that he shouldn’t have fallen off. And it was well known that same horse would stomp a man if he landed on the ground.”
Shandra faced her aunt. “Were you at the rodeo that day? Did you see it? Or do you know of someone that was there that I could talk to?” Now that her intentions were out in the open, she wasn’t leaving here until she’d talked with anyone who might know something.
Aunt Jo shook her head. “I wasn’t there. Your mother had asked me to watch you for the weekend.” She patted Shandra’s head. “We so rarely saw you even before your father’s death, I didn’t say no.”
Guilt gnawed at Shandra. The years since graduating high school, when she was legally free to do whatever she’d wanted, she’d stayed away from the side of her family who wanted her.
But she latched onto the conversation. “How often had mother left me with you during rodeos?”
“That was the first, and last, time.” Jo’s eyes held sadness. “We didn’t see you again until that summer you showed up without warning.” She smiled. “Your ella, was so happy you came. She talked about your visit for years afterward and wondered when you’d come back.”
The guilt slapped Shandra again. She took Jo’s hands. “I’m sorry I didn’t find my way sooner. I would have enjoyed learning more about my past from Ella.” She glanced at Velma. “And other family members.”
“You’re here now, that’s what counts,” Velma said. She waved her hand at Coop. “Bring me that pad and pen sitting on the kitchen counter.”
Coop disappeared then returned. In three steps, he stood beside Velma. “This one? Looks like you lost to Clarice again. Ays,” he said and received a swat from Velma.
“She cheats.” Velma glared at her sister.
“How can I cheat playing dominoes?” Clarice asked.
Velma humphed and took the pad and pen. “I’ll make a list of names of people who you should talk to.” She scribbled a few names, then stared at Jo. “Do you think she should talk with Charlie Frank?”
“Who is he?” Shandra asked. The name sounded a bit familiar, but she wasn’t sure why.
Aunt Jo scrunched her face. “He was a Colville who also did rodeo and always tried to make Edward look bad.”
“He once—” Velma said.
“Charlie hated—” Clarice said at the same time as Velma.
Shandra held up her hand. “One at a time, please.”
Velma nodded to her sister.