The Search for Cowboy Broken Horse

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that going to Oklahoma is never a solution to my problems. If there’s a second thing I know, it’s that when I’m looking for a lost relative, I can probably find them at the casino, and I was looking for a lost relative I never had met. I hadn’t even known I had him until a few hours ago.

My mom had lied to me my whole life. I had thought Paul Smith, her husband, had been my father, but then I’d taken one of those at-home DNA tests, a gift a friend had bought for me, and the results came back that I was 100% Native.

When I confronted my mom, she started crying. Then she told me the news I already knew: Paul wasn’t my real dad. Paul Smith, in case you didn’t already guess this, is 100% white man. There’s no way he could be my father with those DNA results, not biologically at least.

“There was another man,” she said. “I loved your father. Paul, I loved Paul. I still love Paul. I will always love Paul. But this man, Cowboy Broken Horse, he was so beautiful. He had these tragic dark eyes and this hair that fell in his face in just a way and the most perfect honey tan skin. He was just so beautiful.

“But I was already married, and I loved Paul, and he never knew about Cowboy. He doesn’t know. He was so excited for you; I couldn’t tell him. I couldn’t tell you. I should have, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell anybody.” My mom looked down at her hands. She looked broken by the revelation that I knew, shamed by her secret, but not regretful of what had happened with her beautiful man. “What would people think of me? I swear, it was the only affair I ever had. I swear. I didn’t want to break up our family. I didn’t want to hurt anyone. I swear. Oh, god.”

I had my own beautiful man, one that I called sometimes when my grown-up bed in my grown-up apartment felt too large and empty and I needed to do grown-up things, so I understood my mother’s dilemma although she didn’t know or need to know why. We sat there in silence, just being at the table together, until I finally put my hand on hers.

“Who names an Indian Cowboy anyways?” I asked. “Like, what were his parents thinking? That maybe he’d win the game with that name? Didn’t they know it takes more than a name for the Indians to win? It takes a freakin miracle, that’s what it takes.” She laughed, wiping away her tears, the tension broken, and she knew I’d keep her secret safe.

“There are a lot of Indians named Cowboy,” she said. She smiled and nodded. “I’m sorry for lying to you.”

“Do I look like him?” I asked.

“You do. You have his eyes, only yours aren’t as broken yet. And sometimes, when you are standing in the doorway or when you laugh, I can see him in you so much. Your whole life, I’ve wished you could know him. You’d love him.”

“Well, of course I would. He’s my father.”

She inhaled deeply and nodded. “He is, indeed.”

“I love you, too, mom.”

“Still?” she asked.

“Always,” I replied.

She nodded again. “I love you, too, my Jenny-loo.”

It was such a small conversation, and nothing was really fine. I had so many questions. But it was also the kind of conversation that was left at just that. Trauma, my therapist would tell me later, undealt with trauma. I wasn’t ready for that kind of psychoanalysis yet. Instead, I just wanted to get in my car and drive.

“I gotta go,” I said.

“Where are you going?” my mother asked.

“I don’t know, but I’ll call you when I get there,” I said.

Only when I turned onto I-35N did I realize where I was going. We’d lived in Plano, Texas, a wealthy suburb of Dallas, for over a decade now, since I was a freshman in high school and Paul got a big job promotion with BP, but Oklahoma was always home. It was a straight shot to the small town where our tribal land was, and I didn’t have work the next day, so I headed to the WindRush Casino to see what I could find out about Cowboy Broken Horse. I drove as fast as I could, only stopping once, when my car demanded gas. I grabbed the biggest coffee that truck stop sold, and then I kept on driving.

A few hours later, I walked in through the automatic glass door of my tribe’s casino. WindRush was tiny compared to some of the fancier casinos owned by bigger tribes, but it still had neon lights and bright flashing machines. The familiar smell of cigarette smoke and pumped in air freshener hit me as soon as I stepped onto the matted down red carpet, and I walked through the main pathway, glancing around, hoping someone might stand out to me. 

I’m a lousy gambler. It’s probably the only reason I don’t have an addiction. I go for the games based on pop culture, and I once won $100 on a game with bonus rounds that played Dolly Parton tunes. I also got shook down by some Oompa Loompas and ended up losing forty bucks to the Chocolate Factory. I wasn’t really there to gamble that night, but I didn’t know what I was doing or how to search for someone, so I headed over to a line of Margaritaville machines set up against a back wall to waste time and figure things out. 

Just as I popped in my player’s card and was about to bid the twenty dollars I had on it, a familiar voice called to me.

“Hey, little cousin,” a man said. Without turning, I knew it was Uncle Larry. Well, I’d called him Uncle Larry my whole life, but he was really my mom’s cousin, so my second cousin, but he’d always be Uncle Larry to me.

“Hey, Uncle Larry!” He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and had his big, lopsided goofy grin plastered across his face. Uncle Larry was a big man, at least six foot tall and nearly as wide, and he wore his hair long and back in a braid. “Aren’t you dead?” I asked.

“Yep, yep, yep,” he said. “Dead as a doornail.” He laughed like he’d told a joke. A year ago, he’d been drinking and swerved off the road and directly into a metal guardrail, which caused his car to flip into a ravine. Luckily, he hadn’t killed anyone else. My mom had been devastated by the whole thing. Larry had not just been her cousin; he’d also been her good friend. When I was little, Uncle Larry had lived in the same trailer park. He had a boy, Junior, the same age as me, and we’d played together, sharing babysitters and strollers.

That was a world ago, more than twenty years past. Before the car plant closed and Uncle Larry lost his job and his wife and his son. Before Paul got promotion after promotion until he finally became an oil executive. Before my mom could afford designer jeans and to get her hair done once a month and Uncle Larry ended up getting his meals from the local soup kitchen.

“This some mystical Indian stuff?” I asked.

“Nah, what? You never seen a dead Indian in a casino before? Pshaw. Happens all the time, little cousin.”

I nodded, wondering if he was imparting some kind of spiritual Indian knowledge on me, but then I remembered we weren’t those kind of Indians. We’d given up all our spiritual knowledge to love Jesus and behave for Uncle Sam. “Hey,” I said. “You know a guy named Cowboy Broken Horse?”

Uncle Larry let out a big breath and shook his head. “She finally told you, huh? About time. I told her she couldn’t keep it from you forever, but she didn’t want to listen. Yep, yep, yep. I knew Cowboy.”

I stared at him, waiting for more, but he seemed to be done with his statement. Instead of continuing, he hit the call button to summon the waitress over. A young girl in a sparkly black dress appeared in seconds.

“Two pina coladas,” my uncle said. He winked at the waitress, and she gave him the patient smile I imagined all waitresses give creepy older men. I shot her a glance that I hoped conveyed my apology and embarrassment as she passed me heading toward the bar.

“I’m looking for him. Cowboy,” I said. “Can you help me any?”

“I don’t know much about him, honestly,” Uncle Larry said. He turned the chair next to me backwards and sat down on it so his legs were straddled across the seatback. He looked as comfortable as a man his size could look in a chair. “Your mom, she met him at a powwow. He was a dancer, a freaking beautiful dancer. He looked like a bird, spinning and flying, like a goddamn bird. I swear he didn’t touch the earth.”

“More Indian mythical stuff?” I asked.

“Maybe,” my uncle said. “It was freaking mesmerizing, the way his body worked. The way it cut through the air, through all of physics. If that wasn’t Indian mythical stuff, I don’t know what is. He was a rockstar. How could she not want that man? Hell, I’m all about the ladies, but I wanted that man, too.”

“Oh, gross, Uncle,” I said. He rolled his eyes and let out one of his big hearty laughs.

“Let’s not pretend we’re not both grown-ups here,” he said. “Anyways, your mom, she stayed after the powwow for the 49er, but Paul, he went back to their trailer. He had to work the next day.”

Work was always dad, er, Paul’s excuse when anything was “too Native” for him, and I didn’t know how welcome he’d have been at the 49er anyway. It was a big party for the Indians. The powwow was sacred, but the outsiders still viewed it as a show, a form of entertainment.  The drumming and the music and the events afterwards, those were just for us.

The cocktail waitress arrived just about then, and Uncle Larry slipped her a twenty. “Keep the change, good looking,” he said. She smiled, clearly disgusted, and walked away. I thought about telling my uncle that was unacceptable, but he was dead, so I figured there was no changing him now.

“Was that it? A one-night stand?” I asked.

“God, no,” Uncle Larry said. “There were other powwows and other dances and then just other meetings. I’d love to tell you that Cowboy was a jerk, that he was the kind of man who wouldn’t have taken care of you or loved you and your mother or that he was an abusive asshole. I don’t know him that well, but from what I saw of that man, he would have walked through hell for your mom.

“Maybe she loved him too. I don’t know. But she was already married to your father when she found out she was pregnant, and I don’t think she could stomach the thought of leaving him for an Indian from Wetumpka. She had a life plan, and Cowboy didn’t fit into it.”

I was silent as Uncle Larry slurped on his pina colada. I took a sip of mine, but it just didn’t seem like the right drink for the casino or that moment, so I set it down in the cup holder of the game I was sitting in front of. 

“Wetumpka, huh?” I wondered if Cowboy still lived there, if I could look him up and figure out his address and just show up at his house. It’s not a big town, and Cowboy Broken Horse isn’t exactly a common name. I could knock on every door if I had to.

And then what? Would I show up and tell some man I’d never met I was his daughter? What would he do? What did I even want?

“That’s where he was years ago,” Uncle Larry said. “I don’t know now, little cuz. But look, you got Paul and your mom and life in Dallas. Things are good. Why you want to mess with it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess to see the truth, who I am, who he is. I don’t know. Wouldn’t you want to know?”

My uncle was quiet for a minute. “Before I died,” he finally said, “I used to dream of Junior showing up on my doorstep. I wanted to hug him, you know, and let him know me. But of course that never happened. He was left thinking I was a good for nothing drunk. Left with whatever vision she gave him of me.

“Maybe Cowboy would want the same- for you to know who he really is, the chance to show himself. Or maybe not. Maybe he’s got a family and it’d just make things messy. I don’t know, little cuz. One good thing about being dead is I don’t have to make any decisions like this anymore.”

“Yeah,” I said. We sat in silence as Uncle Larry finished his drink.

“Well, I’ve said enough,” he said. “This is really in your mom’s story to tell, I guess. I hope you find whatever you are looking for out there.’

We both stood up, and he turned to go, but I reached out to him. “Uncle Larry, wait. Junior, he did show up at your funeral. I don’t know who told him or how, but he was there. We talked and laughed. It was like the old days. You would have loved it. He’s a good guy, doing well. He was sad he never got to really know you, but I told him you were a pretty cool uncle.”

Uncle Larry looked down at his hands, tears in his eyes. Then he nodded at me. “Thanks, little cousin. I gotta get back to my friends now, but it was good to see you.” Then he was gone. He didn’t walk away or vaporize or anything; he was just gone, and I only knew he’d been there by the melting pina colada in my cup holder.

I punched the button and pulled my casino card out and walked away from the game. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going, but it felt wrong staying there after whatever had just happened with my dead uncle, so I strode down the center aisle, checking out the different games.

I stopped at one with a panda on the front and was about to sit down when a little old lady with a thick gray braid that reached the floor came and stood in front of me. She began speaking but it was a language I’d only heard at powwows and in my dreams.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

She spoke again, but I still didn’t know what she was saying. “I don’t understand,” I said again. I shook my head no, and her wrinkled face scrunched up even more. She had the same eyes as my mother, and I knew we must be related, that she was part of our tribe. She reminded me of the picture I’d seen of my great-great-grandmother, so I figured it was another of my ancestors haunting me at the casino.  “I don’t speak that language.” She looked at me long and hard and then took a deep breath in.

“Apple,” she said. Then she pulled her tiny hand back and slapped me across the face. The slap stung, and I put my hand to my face to stop the sting. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, the woman was gone.

I shook my head, and the panda looked like it was scowling at me, so I moved on down the row. Maybe I should just leave. I’d had enough of dead relatives. I knew more about Cowboy, but I didn’t think I was going to find him in the casino anymore.

I turned to leave. There, standing in front of me, was Rocky, my own beautiful man. He was standing with his hands in his pocket, leaning on the cash-out machine, his head tilted just so that the neon lights reflected in the green of his eyes. He had on blue jeans and a tight white tee shirt. He was smiling at me.

“Hey, there, baby girl,” he said in his twangy accent, reaching out his arms to pull me in.

“Hey,” I said back.  I walked into his open arms. I could feel him, his presence, his soul, but I also couldn’t feel him, at least not his actual body, his being. Just his essence was there even though there was some kind of weight, some kind of heft, some kind of aura that I was wrapping my arms around.

He placed an unearthly kiss on my forehead, his lips there and not there. I leaned back and looked up at his smile one more time, absorbing it like a ray of sunlight.

“You’re not dead,” I said, like it was a qualifier for entering the casino, like people had to show their death certificate along with their license at the door.

“Neither are you,” he replied.

“Oh, yeah, I guess that’s true.” For a brief moment, I’d wondered at seeing all these spirits if I was among them and just didn’t realize it yet, like in those movies where the soul tries to avoid leaving earth. “But I’m here for real. In person. You’re not. I don’t know where you are, but not here.”

“I’m out on a date with a woman I really like. It might get serious.”

I stopped and stared at him. He never took me on dates, and he never talked about his relationships. I knew we weren’t a couple, but I guess I hadn’t thought about what he did when we weren’t together.

“Do you love her?” I asked, trying unsuccessfully to keep the coolness out of my voice.

“Shit, babe,” he said. “You didn’t know.”

“I didn’t,” I said.

“Do you care?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. Like my mother, I couldn’t see my life with this beautiful man. He was wonderful to look at and an excellent lover, but we’d never had a serious conversation, and I doubted he would agree with my views on much of anything. Still, it stung a little to know that somewhere right now he was having a conversation with another woman and thinking about being with her forever, something he didn’t think about with me.

“Good. I mean, I thought we were in agreement that this was just for fun and, well, you know,” he said.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I know.” I bit my lip, a nervous habit, and pushed back from him, the hug long grown awkward.

“So, then, why are you here?”

“I’m not, really,” he said. “Check your phone.”

I looked down and saw I had a text message from Rocky. I knew what it said, something explaining about the woman he was seeing, the need to put an end to our relationship. I didn’t open it, putting off dealing with the inevitable.

When I looked back up, like the others, Rocky was just gone, but this time, I felt sad about it. I put my hand through the air, wishing to summon him back. There was nothing there. No one. Not even an indication he had been there at all, nothing but the memory of his ghostly arms and lips on me. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and headed for the door.

I was about to leave when one of the machines called out to me. My aunt always said this was good luck. Even though she usually left the casino with less money than she entered it with, I still believed her on this point. The machine calling me had a coyote and some wilderness scenery, some straight out of Oklahoma shit. I put in my card, and the game lit up.

I won on the first try. I never have had a strategy to play; I just pushed buttons and hoped for the best. On this game, it worked. I kept winning, and when I won, the coyote on the screen howled. He was going crazy, yelping at the full harvest moon. A few minutes in, I was up by over a hundred dollars.

That was when the shift happened. The coyote became a fox, running back and forth across the screen. Another win and it became a bear, standing tall and fierce. The next win, it was a mighty buffalo, staring out from the plains. Then a thunderbird, brightly colored and sharp beaked.

I knew I should take my winnings and leave, but I was too far gone. I had to see what happened next, not with the money, but with the thunderbird. I hit the button and the rows started rolling. The bird started growing, morphing, and the lights in the casino all blinked. The light on top of the machine spun round and round, lighting up bright orange and blaring out a siren, but I wasn’t paying attention to that.

On the screen, the thunderbird has become a man in full, colorful regalia. Suddenly, the siren sounds turned into the steady beat of a powwow drum, and the man on the screen started dancing. It was the most beautiful fancy dancing I have ever seen. The most beautiful dancing of any kind. The man and the bird became one, floating high above the dirt floor, swooping and lifting in hypnotizing motions. I couldn’t take my eyes away from this beautiful being, my father.

When the drums shifted and the motions started to slow, I knew it was time for me to go. I’d gotten what I wanted: I’d found my dad at the casino. I didn’t need to drive to Wetumpka or knock-on doors, but I didn’t want to go back to Plano either.

I hit the button to cash out. The dollar signs kept rolling in front of my eyes, and when it was all said and done, I’d won nearly $500,000. The casino people sat me down to fill out a form about my winnings for the IRS. I wrote my new name, Jennifer Broken Horse, in the box and had the taxes taken out. Then, I left the casino.

Before I got in the car, I texted my mom that I was safe but still didn’t know where I was going. Then, I headed west, putting miles between me and my new dad and the WindRush casino.

*****

D. Nicole Steele has been a an award-winning journalist with The Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, GA, and a participant in the American Indian Journalism Institute, She attended Kennesaw State University’s Masters of Professional Writing Program. Currently, she teaches writing and literature courses at Georgia Highlands College where she oversees the Georgia Highlands Writers Conference. She is a proud member of the Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, a federally recognized Native American tribe located in McCloud, Oklahoma, and a descendant of boarding school survivors.