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Half-Moon and Empty Stars

Chapter 1

For more than half a century the Redtail shack, distinguished only by its fine dilapidation, had stood mute and patient, waiting for the first human regard over its blistered siding and crumbling foundation. Inside the family shivered like ground squirrels hiding from the coyote.

The shingles on the roof were grayed and curling, some blown from the underlying boards. The roof leaked. When it rained the two Redtail boys, twins, put out gallon coffee cans to catch the dripping, and in the winter when the thaws came, they hauled the cans out once more to catch the melting snow. Mary Hamilton, their mother, had tried to keep the wind out with cardboard nailed up against the holes and with rags stuffed into the cracks.

A '58 Ford pickup came coughing in a blue cloud of exhaust and died in front of the house. The fender on the driver's side of the nearly ten-year-old truck had been ripped off, the tailgate missing. The windshield on the passenger side was cracked, and dried reservation mud coated the truck like ugly frosting.

Mary Hamilton had seen the truck pull up, the man get out, and with urgency in her voice she whispered, "Billy, you get in the closet. Charlie, go hide behind the couch." She stood up against the wall watching the tall man slam the truck door which refused to latch. The man walked quickly, smoothly, with a plentiful stride to the front door of the house, jumped the two rotted steps at the porch, and knocked at the door. The woman held herself up against the wall out of sight, and did not breathe.

The man knocked again, and waited, thumbs caught in the front pockets of his denim pants. Then he looked up and down the street. The houses on both sides were small single-story bungalows built in the twenties. Over the years most of the original shiplap siding had been replaced, some with colored stucco and some with new aluminum siding sold to the householders by itinerant peddlers. The neighborhood was a menagerie of multicolored houses, some sided yellow, some pink, a blue house guarding one corner, a bright avocado green another. The citizens of Twin Buttes were Americans. They had the right to paint their houses any damn color they pleased. But since the day it was built no one had painted the Redtail shack.

The man on the porch hollered, "Hey, anybody home?" The sound of his voice came from in front of his teeth, the man standing alert as if waiting, watching for the first sign, big hands now loosened from the pockets. He walked to the window. The missing pane in the bottom half had been replaced with the side of an Oxydol carton, the blue and yellow stripes. The man walked around the side of the house and looked in the south window as he passed. The kitchen. A pot of geraniums sat in the window without blooms. He stopped at the back door and knocked by slamming the screen door hard against the jamb half a dozen times.

Then he walked to the driveway and saw it was empty, the other driveways in the neighborhood crowded with an assortment of old campers used in the fall by the man of the house for his mobile hunting camp; outboard motor boats of every description on trailers used by the man of the house a couple of times a year for his fishing excursions to Bull Frog Lake; motorcycles used by the man of the house, occasionally, in furtherance of his masculine image, and pickup trucks driven at all times by the man of the house who would not be caught dead in a Chevy station wagon. Two lots down a couple of women were hanging out their wash on galvanized clotheslines, talking across the fence to each other. They paid no attention to the man at the back of the Redtail house.

The houses were built on fifty-foot-wide lots, an anomaly peculiar to those small western towns surrounded as they were by hundreds of miles of vacant prairie. But within the city limits the lots were huddled together as if grasping one another in fear of being alone in such a desolate place. The original builders, eager for anything green, had planted saplings robbed from the banks of Twin Buttes River, which in the ensuing decades had grown to magnificent old trees that shaded the neighborhood and created a charming archway over the graveled streets, the corduroy surfaces shaking the occupants in automobiles until their teeth rattled. But no trees grew on the lot occupied by the Redtail residence.

The man walked around to the far side of the house and attempted to look in the bedroom window. The shades were drawn. He started once more for the front of the house. Thinking better of it, he returned to the back door and again hollered, "Hey, you in there. Anybody home?"

Then the back door opened a crack, small eyes peering out. From inside the man heard Mary Hamilton holler, "Charlie, get back." But when Charlie Redtail saw his father he flung the door wide open, ran through the screenless screen door, and grabbed the leg of his father as if hugging a tree in a hurricane. The mother followed the boy to the door.

"What do you want, Joe," she said. The weary face emphasized her otherwise young good looks. She stood in the doorway, bare feet, the faded cotton housedress.

"I come to see the kids," Joseph said. He put his hands in his back pockets.

"You shoulda called first." She grabbed at Charlie and started to close the door.

"I couldn't call," the man said, his voice as flat as planks. "You ain't got no phone."

"I'd have a phone if you'd pay your support."

"Hard times," he said. He took a hesitant step toward the door but she stood in the way.

"Not hard times, Joe," she said. "Hard booze."

"I ain't been drunk for a long time," he said.

"You were drunk last week."

"Them waitresses don't know nothin'," he said.

Twice Joseph Redtail had gone to the priest at Hiram Falls to "take the pledge," his vow to Jesus not to take the first drink, a vow that if broken would bring on the manifold terrors of hell. Twice he had stayed sober for more than three months. But Mary knew: Promises are for today. One cannot live on yesterday's promises. Yet Mary Hamilton had continued to cling to thin strands of hope.

The man stood looking at her. Finally he said, "I could come home." Home was not the shack. Home was not even where the boys were. Home was where the woman was.

"No, Joseph," she said. "This is not your home. You live out there. I live here. Have you forgotten?"

"I don't forget," he said. The words like the sound of slow water. "I don't drink no more."

"I've heard that a thousand times."

"Not a thousand times," he said. He bowed his head so that the broad bridge of his nose was in her eyes. She pulled at the boy and tried to shut the door, but the man put his hand up against the door, easy like. "Can I see the boys?"

"The judge told you you can't see the boys if you don't pay your support."

"They get their allotment checks."

"I know," she said. "But the checks aren't much these days. Don't even pay the rent. You should get a job."

"They don' hire no Indians."

"Your drinking buddy, Jacob Yellow Dog, has a job working for Jensen Brothers."

"Don' work for Jensens no more."

"I 'spose he got drunk."

Joseph Redtail put his hands partway back in his pockets and waited. He wore an old T-shirt where you could make out American Indian Days in faded red letters across the back, and his face was long and flat across the cheeks. As she looked at him, the eyes without pleading, without pride, she wondered how she could have loved the man.

"The boys need shirts," she said.

"I'm gonna go get me a job at the Middle Fork." He referred to the ranch run by the Arapahoe tribe. "I bought me a pair of work gloves. See?" He pulled a pair of orange cotton work gloves out of his back pocket. "I can go to work."

"Like I haven't heard that before," she said.

He forced a hand into the front pocket of his pants and pulled out a five-dollar bill. "Here," he said, "buy the boys a shirt."

"Right," she said. "You can buy two shirts for five dollars 'bout anywhere today." She tucked the bill in the pocket of her dress.

"Then buy Charlie a shirt," he said.

"The boys need shoes."

"I'll get 'em shoes next month. Can I take the boys? I got me a new truck." The boy, Charlie, standing there still holding on to his father's leg, his twin, Billy, looking out at his father from behind his mother's skirt.

Mary's hands were on her hips, looking up at the tall man. "Why are you buyin' a truck when the kids need clothes?"

"Didn't cost much. Cost a hun'ert. Pay for it by the month."

"You should pay for your kids by the month," she said.


"Don't make me any promises, Joseph," she said. "You only break 'em."

He looked at Billy hanging on to his mother. "Okay," he said. "Can I take Charlie? I'll bring him back tonight. Take him up to the mountain." The way the man said it, "the mountain," the hint of life in his voice, the faint suggestion of hope. She and this man had gone to the foot of the mountain together for the Sun Dances in the late summer, the Arapahoe people gathered, their tepees in a wide circle. The willow-thatched roofs lashed to new cottonwood poles saved the old people and the children from the sun while the dancers joined with the spirits and made their sacrifices of sweat and pain to coax a blessing out of the firmament, to heal the sick, and to accept retribution for past wrongs. And they danced that good times might come again.

"If you get drunk it'll be the last time," she said.

"I don't drink no more."

She stared at him for a long moment. Together in the night they had walked up Spirit Mountain, the drummers below beating the rhythms of their blood, the beat of their young bodies, the coolness of the August night on the mountain. And behind the dancing, back from its rhythm, they had found their own on the ground, the clean smell of sage around them, his body, fresh and strong, and he, not able to say that he loved her.

"Can't you tell me now?" she had asked when it was over and they had looked up at the full moon and pregnant stars. In the distance, the drums, and in the distance they could also hear the laughter of the children running.

"There is no word for it in the Arapahoe language," Joseph Redtail said, sitting up and looking at her with eyes she could see in the moonlight.

"There's a word for it in English," she said. "You speak English." Then she laughed and threw him back down and sat on his chest, and she bounced up and down on his chest like a girl on a trotting horse. "Tell me you love me or I won't stop."

He let out small groans.

"Tell me," she said.

"Can't speak with you jumpin'."

"You just did," she said.

"It is not our way," he said, and then he pulled her off of him and, once more, showed her in his way that he loved her.

At the back door of the Redtail residence the woman stood with the face that men liked. Her large mouth. The face looking naked into the face of Joseph Redtail. She bit her lower lip, stared, the eyes still tired.

Finally she said, "You take Charlie and you be careful, Joe, and you have him back for supper." Then the boy let loose of his father's leg and ran into the house. Back again, he pushed past his mother, the boy holding a small leather pouch his father had given him on his last birthday. It contained the power of the mountain, a stone and leaves of sage from it. At ten the child was deemed weaned from the mother like the fawn from the doe. At ten the child became an entity separate from the mother, and at ten the child could go with the father.

Then the two of them had walked out to the truck, the father and the son walking beside each other, the son walking tall and smoothly like the father. Mary Hamilton followed them around the side of the house, and as the truck drove away the boy did not wave to his mother watching after them for a long time.

The other boy, the twin with the same face, also looked after them. "Go back in the house, Billy," Mary said.

"I woulda gone," Billy said.

The mother didn't answer.

"I woulda gone," he said again. He looked up at his mother as if she knew the rest.

"You've always been good to your mother," Mary said. Then she closed the door behind them.

Excerpted from HALF-MOON AND EMPTY STARS by Gerry Spence. Reprinted with permission by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.

Half-Moon and Empty Stars
by by Gerry Spence

  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743202767
  • ISBN-13: 9780743202763