Excerpt for Paint Your Face on a Drowning in the River by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Produced by ReAnimus Press


Other books by Craig Kee Strete:

Burn Down the Night

Dark Journey

The Bleeding Man and Other Science Fiction Stories

A Knife In The Mind

The Angry Dead

The Game of Cat and Eagle

My Gun Is Not So Quick

Death Chants

When Grandfather Journeys Into Winter

If All Else Fails

To Make Death Love Us

Dreams That Burn in the Night


© 2018 by Craig Kee Strete. All rights reserved.




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Table of Contents














Tall Horse is digging in the yard, digging in the dust. No grass in the yard, lot of dust there.

“What you doing?” yells his old-lady grandmother. “Are you like a dog buried a bone?”

“Digging,” says Tall Horse, not looking at her. “Just digging.”

“What for digging?” asks grandmother.

“Just,” he says, “just digging.”

“Crazy you!” she says. “You must think I am a dumb old stupid! Craziness! Next your crooked squirrel mouth’ll be telling me you’re storing beer cans in your cheeks for the winter time!”

“Huh?” says Tall Horse, looking up at her like she is maybe crazy.

Grandmother puts her hands on her hips in her angry manner and glares at him.

Tall Horse dumps out one last shovelful of dirt and climbs out of the hole. Hole maybe two feet deep. Hole not going anywhere, just a hole.

She shakes her finger at him. “You think I don’t know what that hole is for? That digging is for? Digging up that ground to get that money I got put there!”

“Money?” says Tall Horse, trying to look innocent. He looks down at the hole at his feet, incredulous. “Me? Digging for money? I never—”

But his old-lady grandmother is too fast for him. “You never!” she interrupts. “You like a guilty cat that’s got bird feathers on your breath! Don’t be telling me!”

She’s real angry now and her cheeks puff out.

“Don’t be telling me!”

Suddenly, she’s shouting. “Don’t be—”

Goddamnalready!” shouts Tall Horse right back at her, and he raises the shovel and bangs it angrily against the ground. “So O.K., you caught me! So I am digging for money! You hear me? Dig! dig! diiiiigiiing for moneeeeeey!” He waves his shovel, angry and out of breath. Angry she caught him out.

“See, I knowed all the time you was digging for money!” says grandmother triumphantly. “Try and fool this old woman! Hah!”

Tall Horse turns his back on her and gets back in the hole and goes to digging again at a furious pace, really attacking the ground.

“You ever think I could be digging a gold mine?” he asks. “Could be digging another pay outhouse for the tourists? You ever think that?”

Grandmother just snorts. “Just ’cause I old don’t mean I am a stupid. You think I like that dumb church preacher, that dumb church preacher that came out here last summer and crawled under the stomach-cramped horse to see why it wouldn’t go... and got brown-faced when it went? I ain’t that dumb. But you, you know that money ain’t yours! Don’t it bother you that that money in the ground is my money?”

Tall Horse kinda shuffles his feet. “You know I was gonna pay it back, first chance I got, I swear. I would have put every penny of it back. Now, though, I need it.”

She just shakes her head and rubs her hands on her faded old dress. “Want to know where I got that money? That money you’re being so free and easy about walking off and taking?”

“Well,” begins Tall Horse, somewhat uncertainly. “I figure you inherit it. Maybe Uncle Black Wing, when he die, he give it to you. Just know it’s been in the ground a long time.”

Inherit!” she shouts, waving her arms in an angry circle around her head. “Give it to me! What you know! You don’t know nothing! I’ve been saving it forever since way back. Save it from what, you ask? I tell you from what,” she says, real angry. “There is three thousand, seven hundred and fifty-six skipped lunches in that hole, and got notch on every inch of my belly for each missed lunch of it!”

Tall Horse says, “So what the devil you saving it for?”

Grandmother stops to think about it. She starts to answer, but then stops again. “Well, why I am saving it for is...” She lets the sentence trail off as she realizes it has been a long time since she has thought about her reasons for saving the money.

“I am saving it for...” she begins again.

She shakes her head in frustration.

“Oh, the horse!” she curses. “What was I save it for?”

Genuinely perplexed, she makes a long face.

Suddenly, she remembers.

“Oh! Remembering now! I was gonna buy a colored-type television box,” she says, but then she hesitates and looks somewhat uncertain. “Or was I gonna buy a two-door, ice-cube-and-everything refrigerator machine?”

She tries to concentrate. “Well, I know it was one or the other,” she says finally.

“Craziness!” says Tall Horse. “Absolute nut craziness! We don’t even got no electricity! Ain’t gonna have it! Not now, not ever!”

Grandmother nods, embarrassed. “That pretty much why I never buy no TV or refrigerator machine. ’Course, I might want to buy something else any day now,” she says.

“Never happen. You never gonna use it and you know it,” says Tall Horse.

“Hah!” says the old lady, bluffing. “How you know I won’t go buy me a Cadillac car? How you know?”

“’Cause you can’t drive is how I know,” says Tall Horse.

“Well,” says grandmother vaguely, “I might’ve used it raising chickens in the car trunk or something.”

She glares at him. “Even so, still ain’t your money ’less I saying so!”

Tall Horse bends over and lifts a small box out of the hole he has been digging.

“You hear what I say!” says the old lady, angry at the way he isn’t listening to her. “It still ain’t your money less I saying so!”

Tall Horse brushes the dirt off the box before he speaks to her. The old lady is watching him handling that box, her eyes like an eagle seeing its prey.

“Not counting absolute-nut, Cadillac-chicken-coop idea, you saying I can have the money? Saying so?”

He opens the lid of the box but his eyes are on her, not on the contents of the box.

“Saying so?” persists Tall Horse.

The old woman shakes her head sorrowfully, giving in. “Guess I saying so. Can’t stop rivers flowing with a pebble. If there no dam in your heart stopping you take that money and go away, then pebble of my wishes not stopping this river in you. ’Course, you knowed all along I would let you have the money anyways, whether you ask or not.”

Tall Horse uses his hand to push his long black hair back over his shoulders. When it isn’t braided, it is always getting in his eyes.

“I wasn’t trying to steal this money,” he says, trying to explain but not finding the words easily. “Just... just trying to dig my way out of here. I was really gonna pay every penny of it back.”

He hangs his head a little.

“I know I ain’t been the best—” he starts to say, but she interrupts.

“I sorrow for you, grandson. You are in your nineteenth summer on this world and you have only half of what you should have learned by now. Sometimes I think the only thing in that head of yours is wind.”

Tall Horse, expecting a lecture from the old lady that he probably already heard maybe a million times before, takes his eyes off her and looks down at the box.

He glances inside the box and his eyebrows rise in surprise. The old lady starts to look too, but he sees it and moves the box quick. He hides it in such a way that she cannot see it. Holding it off to one side, he turns it upside down and shakes it, further proving to himself what he has just discovered with his eyes. The box is empty.

“That hole there ain’t no way out of this place, just a hole,” the old lady says, “but you ain’t seeing that. Get that money in your pocket and your eyes see only out of that pocket. That’s the way the white man see the world.”

“Ain’t so,” he says.

“Is so,” she says with a sigh. “But I don’t mind. Bather you had the use of it. Better you get it than your old not-fit-to-sleep-with-dogs grandfather get his hands on it. Least you won’t spend it on drinking foolishness like that no-good man. Would hurt my heart to think he steal that too.”

She motions at the box.

“How much money in there? Probably three, four hundred dollars I bet?”

Tall Horse bites his lip, hiding the box from her. He makes a decision. He pretends he is stuffing a roll of bills into the ragged pocket of his faded Levi’s jacket.

“Easy four hundred dollars there,” he says with a smile. “Maybe even four hundred and fifty. And you know I’ll pay it all back.”

The old lady sighs again, relieved. At least that old bum didn’t get it. “Least that is good money there that won’t get drunk away!” she says.

There is an uncomfortable silence between them.

Finally she speaks. “Now that you got that money, you want to eat ’fore you go?”

Tall Horse looks down, studying the toes of his scuffed-up old boots. Lot of dust on them boots.

“Come in the house. I fix you some deer meat. Some stew.” She sounds like she might cry.

Tall Horse tosses the shovel aside, trying to find something to do with his hands, trying to find some excuse to not look at the hurt becoming evident in her.

“Ain’t hungry,” he says, looking away from her, acting like he’s real interested in where that thrown shovel is going.

“You afraid to look at me, or is maybe the sun on my white old-woman hair so bright it’s hurting your eyes?” she asks, that clever way of hers.

Tall Horse doesn’t answer and he still doesn’t look at her.

“Come in the house and I fix for you one time more,” she coaxes him. “Just think, Tall Horse, just think this, come same time next day, you’ll be miles gone. Gonna be all them miles gone. Gonna be all them miles away and nobody fix you stews. Nobody fix for you!”

“I ain’t hungry.”

“You hungry,” she says, “but it not food you hungry for.”

Tall Horse looks up at her, ashamed, but his back stiffens up and there is more pride there in that back of his than is shame. And the old woman knows that. She knows that boy is got pride.

“Wouldn’t hurt to eat just a little. Come eat. Fill this old woman’s heart.” She’s got that crying look on her face. She rubs her arms like they ache.

She bends over with stiff hurting old back and brushes the hair off his face. He lets her do it, but he feels too grown-up for her doing that.

“Maybe I eat just a little bit,” says Tall Horse, knowing it makes her happy if he do.

So the old lady smiles, crooked yellow teeth and all, and puts her arm around him and they walk back inside, and that hole in the ground, ain’t nothing, just a hole back there.


Tall Horse is sitting down in front of that beat-up old table his uncle found at the dump. It’s an old fall-down kind of a place, more a shack than a house. Kitchen, living room, sleeping places, all jumbled together in one room. Hasn’t really changed much since Tall Horse was born on an old mattress in back of the shack. Maybe there are a few more holes in the roof, a few more cracks in the walls for the dust to sift through. There’s an old wood-burning stove and some old furniture. Torn-up stuff they got from the city dump mostly. Couple of beat-up chairs someone donated to them, for Christmas probably, something like that. Got an old kerosene lantern hangs from a frayed length of rope over the center of the rickety old kitchen table. Big crack in the glass chimney of it that someone patched with adhesive tape. Heat’s got it half peeled off, though.

Tall Horse is sitting there and the old lady’s fixing for him and she’s talking. “You ain’t bothered to go leave us? Leave your grandmother and where your father and mother are buried, buried right here behind the house, and you ain’t bothered going? Where you be not having your peoples?” she’s saying, waving her finger at him. “This reservation here, maybe you don’t care about your peoples no more?”

“I care,” he says, and his face looks hurt at what she’s telling him. “But it’s more than that and you know it,” he answers her, and he means it.

There is a rat under the floor by the table making rat noises, and Tall Horse listening to that rat moving down there like it’s important or something. He trying not to look at the old lady and listening, that rat there, yes, rat.

Grandmother takes him up with her angry look. She’s acting like she’d hit him if she thought it would do any good. ’Course, she never would. White people would do that, but she’s too Indian for that.

“You don’t have no pride,” she accuses him. “No pride in your peoples, no pride in anything or anybody!”

Tall Horse looks up at her, getting a little bit angry at her talking like that. “Yes, I got pride!” he says, defending himself against her saying that. “Why you think I am leaving? It’s me here at this table, this table that Old Cat got out at the dump, me sitting here and I try not to hear that sound that damn rat under the floor is making!”

The old woman bangs a pot on top of the stove, anger in that, but she’s listening to him, anger or not. This place maybe got a rat, but it’s her home. His home too.

“Tell me about pride!” says Tall Horse, defiance in his voice. “I tell you about rat noise under the floor! Tell you about furniture from the city dump! This ain’t no way to live!”

Grandmother wipes the sweat off her face with the back of her hand. That old stove is heating her up; anger too. She looks around at the place she calls home. Listens, don’t want to hear it, but she hears that rat noise too. Damn rat and his noise!

“Well, you know I been after Old Cat to shoot that damn rat!” she says, as if that was some kind of apology, but bothered about it all, that’s plain too. “Damn old man! He such a worthless!”

Tall Horse stomps his boot on the floor, scare that rat off, shut that rat noise up. He hears the rat scurrying away. Be quiet for a little while anyway.

“Shoot the rat or not,” he tells her. “All the same, this place ain’t fitting for nobody. This place is so bad it can’t attract but one rat. We is overrun with one rat!”

The old lady comes away from the old wood stove with a battered black pot, walking careful-like so she don’t step in that hole in the floor Tall Horse never got around to fixing. The steam rises up off that stew. She sets the pot down on the table in front of Tall Horse and dishes out some into an old cracked bowl for him. Tall Horse looks away, like the food is something frightful. Maybe it is.

The screen door flaps open with a bang. Tall Horse looks up and sees his grandfather coming in. Old Cat walks in like he’s younger than his seventy summers, but he walks in with every step unsteady. He walks like he’s leaning into a stiff wind. His old face is wrinkled from the passing of his many summers, but the biggest wrinkle is his smile, which looks painted on. Old Cat is dressed in faded, much-patched Levi’s, down-at-the-heel cowboy boots and a bright-colored shirt that looks like a horse rolled on it. Old Cat’s got his ragged shirttail hanging out and one sleeve ripped from wrist to elbow.

Tall Horse and the old lady don’t see it right off, but the back of his shirt and pants have these large blotches of drying white paint on them. His hair is gray with his age, braided loosely at the sides, hanging down almost to his waist. In his hands, he carries a long, feather-decorated pipe. He holds it protectively to his chest, as if it were of great value to him and any minute some crazy person might get it in his head to try and steal it.

The old lady sees him come in and puts her hands on her hips and glares at him. Just getting madder by the minute, him coming in like she knows the shape he’s coming in, like always, like always.

Old Cat sees them looking at him, tries smiling, but he already is, so nothing happens. He moves abruptly to the table, as if he has been shoved from behind.

“Where the devil you been, old man?” demands the old woman, starting in on him already.

Old Cat starts to sit down in one of the kitchen chairs and he says, “Well there was this—”

Drinking!” the old lady shouts at him, startles him so much that he rises up instead of sitting down.

“... wild horse,” continues Old Cat. “See, there was this wild horse, a real beautiful—” he is saying, and again he’s starting to sit down.

But the old woman beats him out of the end of that sentence too.

Gambling! Gambling away the government money!” she yells at him and he rises up again over the chair.

“Just back of the agency store was where we first saw him,” he says, and without much hope begins sitting down again.

She is on him right away with heavy feet, hitting him ’fore he can even get a breath. “Sure! Sure!” she says. “That wild horse ran right out the back of the liquor store! I know how it is!”

Old Cat is back up again. His legs are really getting wobbly now.

“A big old roan it was, a big rascal, had at least....” Old Cat stops speaking and looks at the chair and then looks over at grandmother. He knows she isn’t believing a word of what he is saying, not one single word, so he quick try to change the subject.

“They got a new line of dress material over to the agency store,” he says, but he don’t have much confidence in the subject being changed.

Even so, them words spoke, he quick tries to sit down, but naturally, the old woman, she is too fast for him.

Think you fooling me, you big old worthless!” storms the old lady.

Her words pop him up and he stands there, poised all awkward over the chair like a pregnant bird about to land.

Grandmother is going on. “That dress stuff don’t be interesting me none, ’cause I know you already spent every last dime of our government money on drink! On cards! On old-man foolishness.” She waves her fist at him, wishes she had a big stick, made of hard wood too.

Old Cat, he just glares at her and grabs the back of his chair to steady himself. He gives her a hot stare fit to burn something.

“Wish you’d shut your mouth, old woman! So much wind come out of it, I am afraid to sit down for fear you gonna blow the chair over backward and me in it!” he tells her.

She don’t flinch, and she says right back at him, “You stand there and tell me you ain’t drunk away all the money!”

Once again, he is lowering himself toward the chair. “I am gonna sit here and tell you I am biscuit-and-gravy rich! Full four-wheeled and Cadillac-car rich! I can hardly carry all my money these days!” He’s bragging now, telling her. “Maybe have to get a wheelbarrow to carry all my money around!”

He is almost in the chair.

Lying bone nose!” she shrieks at him, yelling like he’s a mile away and she sure wants him to hear her. Old Cat jumps back up, frightened rabbit face and a little dizzy from all this constant up and down. She’s really got him jumping, really got him going.

“So you just show me color of all this money you talking about!” demands the old woman, still waving that fist at him. “So where is the money, you lying old man?”

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