The Weight of a Feather By C. Joseph Greaves

A genuine Rhea Americana

The Rhea Americana

1.

When they quit the highway at Variadero, the countryside opened and the old Ford yawed on the graded washboard, sending ravens flapping and squawking before their rattling dustcloud.

A half-hour later, their progress metered by stunted cedars and silted arroyos, by chollas and cattleguards and glimpses of the distant river, they reached a gate.

“Bell Ranch,” the driver explained, mopping his face with a shirtsleeve.

He turned to the Indian, impassive in his tweed coat and polished brogans.

“I’ll get it.”

Beyond the gate, the ranch road straightened, parting a low, rolling landscape of blanched hardpan and telescopic mesas. They passed the remnants of a cattle chute, shipwrecked and listing, and a creaking windmill in whose shadow cows had gathered to loll in flickering somnolence.

When they topped the next rise, the driver braked the car and leaned and spat through the settling dust.

“There she is.”

The Indian straightened. Below them lay a canyon. A jagged suture of cottonwoods. New buildings, clustered in a clearing.

“What do you think about all of this?” he asked the driver.

“What, the feather?”

“No, not the feather. The dam.”

The driver was a young cowhand with sharp sideburns. He thumbed his hatbrim, scratching absently at his scalp.

“Well sir, I don’t rightly know. Jobs is jobs, I reckon. And Lord knows, we need the jobs.”

2.

It was several hours before the expedition returned. The Indian heard a truck engine grinding and shifting long before the horses appeared single-file through the broken hogback. He rose stiffly to retrieve his jacket and briefcase, and he crossed the dusty quadrangle to the shade of the livery.

The truck was first to arrive, and with it a tall Anglo of middle years unfolding himself from the passenger seat.

“Welcome! You must be Professor . . . Elk?”

“John.”

“John. Good to meet you. I’m Jack Montgomery. I’m the –”

“I know. We use your textbook at the University.”

“So you’re the ones.” They shook hands, the tall man smiling at his own joke. “I’ll have you know I’ve been reading Birds of the First Americans. And not for the first time, I might add.”

By now the riders were straggling into camp. Both men watched as the lathered horses were unsaddled and flank-slapped and passed off to the waiting hands.

“You received the photograph?”

“I did.”

“And what do you make of it?”

But before the Indian could respond, a voice like a poleax split the evening air.

“Well, looky here! Don’t tell me you gone and hired yourself a tracker, Montgomery. Christ almighty, we got archeologists and anthropologists and ornithologists. I was just today sayin we need ourselves a goddamn medicine man to make a full circus.”

The face behind the voice was broad and pink beneath a sweated hatbrim.

“John Swimming Elk, this is Jim Bob Hewitt from the Corps of Engineers. As you can see, Jim Bob has a habit of saying whatever he’s thinking. Even when he isn’t.”

“I’ll tell you what I’m thinkin, Montgomery. I’m thinkin I need to start buildin me a dam before I’m too old to sit a goddamn horse.” The ham-faced man tugged at the seat of his trousers as he turned toward the barracks. “I reckon we’ll see you boys at nineteen hundred hours.”

3.

            “Here’s where it was. Here.”

They walked in the dappling shade of the bosque, fifty yards from the west wall of the barracks. Montgomery squatted and pointed with a pencil.

“One of the wranglers found it, and he brought it to the district engineer. The district engineer called the County, and the County called Fish and Wildlife.”

“I’m sure he wishes he’d never laid eyes on it.”

The tall man nodded. “He’s made a few enemies. Hewitt, for one. But to some, he’s a local hero. Not everyone wants this project built, you know.”

“What about you?”

Montgomery looked toward the buildings that stood where nothing had stood only three months before, his eyes reflecting the world not as it was, but as it soon would be – the ground around them under water two miles wide, the shoreline ringed with houses and schools, storefronts and churches. And beneath the water, flooded burial mounds and fading petroglyphs and the countless artifacts of a civilization older than Rome lost forever to science.

“I wasn’t hired for my politics,” he said as he stood. “I was hired to identify a bird.”

4.

            Montgomery clicked the lamp and adjusted the jointed arm, passing the heavy glass to his guest.

“I’m afraid it’s not intact.”

As in the photograph, the rachis had been broken at both ends. Even so, the feather measured over nine inches in length. Clearly, it came from an enormous bird.

“The barbules are unusually long,” the Indian intoned as he moved the glass over the specimen. “Obviously a retrice. A tail feather.”

“Yes,” said Montgomery with a note of impatience. “But what of the bird?”

“That’s difficult to say. It could be a turkey, I suppose. Although.”

The tall man backed from the table. “And what if I hadn’t told you its provenance? What would you say then?

“In that case, I’d probably have said Struthioniforms.”

“Exactly!” Dust rose where Montgomery slapped his hand on the filing cabinet.

“Hold on. You’re not suggesting –”

Rhea Americana. That’s what I’m suggesting.”

“Except that you and I both know there hasn’t been an American Rhea living north of the equator in a thousand years.”

The tall man was pacing now, unable to contain his excitement.

“That’s the conventional wisdom, certainly. But what if it’s wrong, John? More convention than wisdom? In this remote habitat, with good water and shelter and little or no predation, anything is possible.” He paused and ran a hand over his mouth. “Do you have any idea what a discovery like this would mean?”

The Indian set down the magnifying glass.

“Even if you’re right – and let’s say for the sake of argument that you are – would it stop this dam from being built?”

The tall man seemed to sag under the weight of the question.

“I don’t honestly know. It’s possible that a find like this could tip the balance.” He stepped closer, placing a familiar hand on the Indian’s shoulder. “Possible, that is, with your support.”

5.

            The others were already seated when they entered the mess hall. Hewitt was there, hatless now, his great pink head gleaming in the overhead lights. Porter, the project auditor, sat fingering a pocket watch fobbed to his waistcoat. Roybal, the Governor’s man, appeared constipated.

Montgomery did the introductions.

“I’ll have you both know that I’ve spoken with the Director personally,” Porter began in a tone that the Indian recognized from the Mission schools of his youth. “He reminded me, and he wanted me to remind all of you, that neither the patience nor the budget of the Public Works Administration is without limits . . .”

They were seated in the farthest corner of the room. The construction had been hasty, the walls still open to the studs. Across the way, a group of wranglers shifted dominos, stealing glances over their coffee mugs.

A door opened at the far end of the room, and an old woman entered pushing a cart. Navajo, the Indian thought. She lifted a bucket with both hands and set it gently on the concrete floor. Then she pushed her cart to the wall, returning with a mop.

“Professor?”

“Excuse me?”

“Are we boring you, Chief?” Hewitt was standing now, both fists pressed into the tabletop.

“I’m sorry, gentlemen. You were saying?”

“One more party,” Roybal repeated. “That’s it. We’ve already lost a week on this bird business. This is an election year, for Christ sake!”

“All right,” said Montgomery. “One more party. We’ll start after breakfast, and we’ll break into two groups. I’ll lead one, and John can lead the other. We’ll cover both rivers that way. John, you can take the truck. We’ll meet back here at the same time tomorrow.”

Hewitt raised his voice as the others stood to leave.

“Let’s get one thing straight, right here and now. If I don’t see somebody walkin a big ol’ bird on a leash by this time tomorrow, I’m breakin ground out there on Monday.”

“Whatever happens tomorrow,” Montgomery replied, “Cadwalader is due by nightfall. He’ll decide how to proceed. Not you, Jim Bob.”

6.

            The driver stood with one boot on the running board as Montgomery called the riders together for their final instructions. Four would accompany the truck, and the rest would ride with him. They would split where the river split, with one group covering the Canadian and the rest heading eastward up the Conchas.

“Any questions?” the tall man asked. The riders looked at one another, and to their snuffling horses. “All right, let’s mount up!”

“You must have drawn short straw again,” the Indian greeted the driver as he slid into the passenger seat.

“Are you kiddin? I’d sooner tote you on my back than muck them stalls yonder.”

They set out slowly, on a rutted path that wound through the shade of the riverbank. When they turned north at the bridge, four riders peeled off from the posse and followed.

“If you don’t mind my askin, exactly what is it we’re lookin for?”

“Well, if Dr. Montgomery is correct, we’re looking for a long-legged bird with grayish-brown plumage. Around five feet tall, and sixty or seventy pounds.”

The driver whistled. “Tell you what. That sumbuck messes on the truck, we’ll both wish we was wearin slickers.”

The Indian chuckled. “I wouldn’t be too concerned. First of all, the bird we’re looking for doesn’t fly. And secondly,” he adjusted the mirror with an air of detachment, “I’m quite certain that it doesn’t exist.”

7.

            They’d driven all morning, tracing the river and bouncing into side-draws and washes where the clearance allowed. They’d shared some pemmican and a few pleasantries, but mostly they’d ridden in silence, both men studying the red-rock escarpment and the sunlit cottonwoods green against the indigo mesas, all the world’s colors passing in a slow parade across the dusty glass of the windscreen.

“Water?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The driver drank first, wiping his mouth with the back of his wrist. When the Indian accepted the canteen, he drew a clean handkerchief from an inside pocket and dabbed at the threaded spout.

“Hope you don’t mind me sayin this, but you ain’t like no Indian I ever met before.”

“Oh? And what Indians have you met?”

“Well. Around here you got your drunks and your hostiles mostly, plus a few sheep herders. But I been down on the Mescalero, and I seen villages there with no cars and no electricity. Just a few mustangs and a whole lot of goats. The men growin corn, and the women haulin water on their heads. That was the damndest thing.” He accepted the canteen and screwed the cap into place. “I ain’t never met me no university professor with a briefcase and a barbershop haircut.”

They rode in silence, toward the dark clouds menacing the low and distant hills.

“We Lakota have a saying,” the Indian finally responded, startling the driver. “Harder grows a man’s heart, the farther he moves away from nature. Do you suppose that’s true?”

The driver frowned. “Well. I know I get right testy if I ain’t set my horse for a day or two.”

The Indian nodded, as though weighing the wisdom in that. “I wonder,” he said finally. “Does a man even realize when his own heart has hardened?”

8.

The Indian stood under the portal, waiting for the others to return, watching as the rain grew from a light drizzle to a cold and sheeting downpour.

Hewitt was first, bouncing at a lope and cursing with every stride. Next came Montgomery, hatless and defeated, his hair plastered in streaks across his ruddy scalp. The rest followed in twos and threes, and soon the camp was a welter of sodden men and gleaming tack and slick and steaming horses.

Hewitt’s bootheels boomed on the planking, his jingle spurs clashing as he walked a slow circle. He stopped behind the Indian, leaning in to whisper.

“It’ll take a miracle to stop me now, Chief.”

As Montgomery approached their shelter, Hewitt dug a hand into his trouser pocket and withdrew a banknote. He folded it carefully, tucking it into the pocket of the Indian’s shirtfront.

“No hard feelings, compadre.” He patted the pocket flat. “This here is carfare back to Albuquerque, compliments of the U.S. Government. Don’t ever say we ain’t done nothin to help the red man.”

9.

            That evening, there were four men waiting in the mess.

Cadwalader, the deputy Director, wore a vested suit and steel-rimmed spectacles. He squared his papers as they entered, nodding toward the empty chairs.

“Gentlemen. Mr. Hewitt has been giving me a rundown on the situation, including the fact that neither his survey teams nor your search parties have turned up any evidence of this alleged bird. Is that a fair summary?”

Montgomery sat and reached into his jacket and placed a glassine envelope on the table. Inside was the feather.

“In my opinion,” he began, “this is a tail feather from Rhea Americana, the largest bird in the Americas. I believe that a population of these birds exists somewhere in the area you propose to bury under your precious lake. And if I’m correct, then Mr. Roosevelt will be personally responsible for destroying the last known habitat of this species in all of North America. He and his administration will go down in infamy as having perpetrated the worst act of biological stupidity since the extinction of the dodo bird.”

In the silence that followed, a door banged. The men turned to watch as the old Navajo woman set her bucket on the floor and pushed her cart to the wall.

“Professor?”

All eyes moved from the stooping woman to John Swimming Elk.

“It looks like you’re the tie-breaker here. Do you concur with Dr. Montgomery’s identification?”

The Indian looked from the envelope on the table to the waiting faces of the men. Behind him, he heard the squeak of a mop on polished concrete.

“Yes, I do concur. Moreover, I support Dr. Montgomery’s call to preserve the species habitat until a full field study can be organized and conducted.”

Hewitt’s face flushed. The others shifted in their seats, turning their attentions to Cadwalader, who drew a watch from his pocket.

“Very well. I return to Washington this evening. You’ll have the Director’s decision within a week. Until then, all work on the project will cease immediately.”

He scraped back his chair and stood, and the other men rose to follow. Montgomery was the last, and he turned and made a thumbs-up gesture to the Indian where he sat.

10.

When the door had closed behind them, the Indian was alone, at last, with the old woman. He rose and crossed to where she worked.

“Yá’át’ééh,” he said, and she lifted her eyes from the floor.

“Grandmother. May I buy that from you?” He nodded, and her eyes followed his to the cart.

“Here.” He took the folded banknote from his pocket. She leaned her mop and accepted it with both hands, her eyes shining as they shifted to the stranger’s face and back again.

“It’s a miracle!” she proclaimed.

The Indian opened his briefcase, and took the feather duster from the cart, and placed it inside. Then he thanked the woman, and turned toward the door, and began his long, long journey home.

 ***

About the Author

C. Joseph Greaves is the author of the award-winning legal mysteries Hush Money, Green-Eyed Lady, and The Last Heir (St. Martin’s Minotaur) and the historical novels Hard Twisted and the forthcoming Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury). Chuck Greaves is represented by Antonella Iannarino of the David Black Agency.

Rhea Americana

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