Excerpt from The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The First Eagle

by Tony Hillerman

The First Eagle
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  • First Published:
    Jan 1999, 360 pages
    Jul 1999, 319 pages

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The First Eagle

The body of Anderson Nez lay under a sheet on the gurney, waiting.

From the viewpoint of Shirley Ahkeah, sitting at her desk in the Intensive Care Unit nursing station of the Northern Arizona Medical Center in Flagstaff, the white shape formed by the corpse of Mr. Nez reminded her of Sleeping Ute Mountain as seen from her aunt's hogan near Teec Nos Pos.

Nez's feet, only a couple of yards from her eyes, pushed the sheet up to form the mountain's peak. Perspective caused the rest of the sheet to slope away in humps and ridges, as the mountain seemed to do under its winter snow when she was a child. Shirley had given up on finishing her night shift paperwork. Her mind kept drifting away to what had happened to Mr. Nez and trying to calculate whether he fit into the Bitter Water clan Nez family with the grazing lease adjoining her grandmother's place at Short Mountain. And then there was the question of whether his family would allow an autopsy. She remembered them as sheep camp traditionals, but Dr. Woody, the one who'd brought Nez in, insisted he had the family's permission.

At that moment Dr. Woody was looking at his watch, a black plastic digital job that obviously hadn't been bought to impress the sort of people who are impressed by expensive watches.

"Now," Woody said, "I need to know the time the man died."

"It was early this morning," Dr. Delano said, looking surprised. It surprised Shirley, too, because Woody already knew the answer.

"No. No. No," Woody said. "I mean exactly when."
"Probably about two a.m.," Dr. Delano said, with his expression saying that he wasn't used to being addressed in that impatient tone. He shrugged. "Something like that."
Woody shook his head, grimaced. "Who would know? I mean, who would know within a few minutes?" He looked up and down the hospital corridor, then pointed at Shirley.
"Surely somebody would be on duty. The man was terminal. I know the time he was infected, and the time he began registering a fever. Now I need to know how fast it killed him. I need every bit of information I can get on processes in that terminal period. What was happening with various vital functions? I need all that data I ordered kept when I checked him in. Everything."

Odd, Shirley thought. If Woody knew all that, why hadn't Nez been brought to the hospital while there was still some hope of saving him? When Nez was brought in yesterday he was burning with fever and dying fast.

"I'm sure it's all there," Delano said, nodding toward the clipboard Woody was holding. "You'll find it there in his chart."

Now Shirley grimaced. All that information wasn't in Nez's chart. Not yet. It should have been, and would have been even on this unusually hectic shift if Woody hadn't rushed in demanding an autopsy, and not just an autopsy but a lot of special stuff. And that had caused Delano to be summoned, looking sleepy and out of sorts, in his role as assistant medical superintendent, and Delano to call in Dr. Howe, who had handled the Nez case in ICU. Howe, she noticed, wasn't letting Woody bother him. He was too old a hand for that. Howe took every case as his personal mano-a-mano battle against death. But when death won, as it often did in ICU units, he racked up a loss and forgot it. A few hours ago he had worried about Nez, hovered over him. Now he was simply another of the battles he'd been fated to lose.

So why was Dr. Woody causing all this excitement? Why did Woody insist on the autopsy? And insist on sitting in on it with the pathologist? The cause of death was clearly the plague. Nez had been sent to the Intensive Care Unit on admission. Even then the infected lymph glands were swollen, and subcutaneous hemorrhages were forming their splotches on his abdomen and legs, the discolorations that had given the disease its "Black Death" name when it swept through Europe in the Middle Ages, killing tens of millions.

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The First Eagle. Copyright (c) 1998 by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

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