Like most medical personnel in the Four Corners country, Shirley Ahkeah had seen Black Death before. There'd been no cases on the Big Reservation for three or four years, but there were three already this year. One of the others had been on the New Mexico side of the Rez and hadn't come here. But it, too, had been fatal, and the word was that this was a vintage year for the old-fashioned bacteria--that it had flared up in an unusually virulent form.
It certainly had been virulent with Nez. The disease had gone quickly from the common glandular form into plague pneumonia. The Nez sputum, as well as his blood, swarmed with the bacteria, and no one went into his room without donning a filtration mask.
Delano, Howe, and Woody had drifted down the hall beyond Shirley's eavesdropping range, but the tone of the conversation suggested an agreement of some sort had been reached. More work for her, probably. She stared at the sheet covering Nez, remembering the man under it racked by sickness and wishing they'd move the body away. She'd been born in Farmington, daughter of an elementary schoolteacher who had converted to Catholicism. Thus she saw the Navajo "corpse avoidance" teaching as akin to the Jewish dietary prohibitions--a smart way to prevent the spread of illnesses. But even without believing in the evil chindi that traditional Navajos knew would attend the corpse of Nez for four days, the body under the sheet provoked unhappy thoughts of human mortality and the sorrow death causes.
Howe reappeared, looking old and tired and reminding her as he always did of a plumper version of her maternal grandfather.
"Shirley, darlin', did I by any chance give you a long list of special stuff we were supposed to do on the Nez case? One thing I remember was he wanted a bunch of extra bloodwork. Wanted measurement of the interleukin-six in his blood every hour, for one thing. And can't you just imagine the screaming fit the Indian Health Service auditors would have if we billed for that?"
The First Eagle. Copyright (c) 1998 by Tony Hillerman. Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
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