Chapter Ten: The Snake Hunt
The winter passed quickly for Graydon with school, homework, homestead chores, and Christmas. Chinook winds in February brought a sudden thaw to the deep snows. The runoff turned fields into lakes and roadside ditches into torrents. The thaw was followed by a hard freeze and snowfall that locked the valley into another six weeks of winter.
He savored his weekend cross-country ski treks across Wolf Creek and up to the old lodge, or up the mountain to the Virginian Ridge ranch where he enjoyed pleasant afternoons with Jim and Vi.
Spring finally arrived. The snow turned rotten and ran off in torrents. Rivers and creeks overflowed their banks and spread across the cottonwood bottoms. The surging muddy waters undercut the stream banks. Trees tottered and fell, clinging by their roots until those too were jerked loose and the trees rolled away downstream, flinging up their branches like drowning victims in the rushing flood. They piled in log jams against the river bends. When the floods receded these jams would create dark pools sheltering native trout.
Spring woke the hibernating groundhogs. They sunned themselves on the rock piles. Graydon's rifle, the gift from his father, was missing. Dee confronted Alex Sr. She learned he pawned the rifle for $50. Graydon left the house. He hiked as far up Wolf Creek as the snows would let him go. He sat alone in the timber, wondering to himself how a man could steal from his own family. It took a month and a small miracle, but somehow Dee and Graydon were able to find the money to redeem it. Alex Sr. never apologized. He grumbled in anger that he needed the money and was entitled to take anything in the house whenever he wanted it.
A bitter experience of a different sort happened later that spring. The sun warmed the talus slopes of the valley's east side cliffs and the rattlesnakes of the Goat Wall dens came out of hibernation. They warmed themselves on the sun-drenched rocks before scattering out into their summer range along the slopes above the river. Graydon heard older students talking about their weekend spent "denning." He heard them say they went up the rock slopes to the dens with pitchforks and shotguns. Those with the forks would scoop up the snakes and pitch them out onto the open ground. Others with shotguns would blast the rattlers as quickly as they could reload and fire.
"That's wrong, just plain wrong!" Graydon spoke, raising his voice to be heard, walking up to confront the students. "It's wrong, and you have no idea the damage you're doing, killing so many snakes for no good reason. They're part of the balance; they keep the voles and mice, the rodents, under control. The snakes protect your hayfields."
The students stood, mouths gaping, shocked as if some Communist agitator had just shouted "Bury America!" Graydon stood, his face red and angry. The largest of the students walked up to him and shoved his hand against Graydon's chest.
"No damned pansy-assed queer is gonna tell me I can't shoot them rattlesnakes anytime I want! Me and Pa and his friends do it every year when they come out. We hate the damned things. Ain't nobody around here wants to get snake-bit, you weird little faggot, so crawl out of here before I whip your stupid ass!"
This was a fight he could only lose and it wouldn't change anything. Graydon spun on his heel and walked down the hallway, finally stopping at the library room to sit alone at a corner table.
"I could hear you all the way down the hall with those ranch kids," Mrs. Granger, the librarian, commented from her desk. "You are right about the snakes, but you were wrong to confront them about it. There's nothing anybody can do to change their mind, and now they have something else to hate... you!" she said.
Mrs. Granger was the wife of the man who passed for the valley's leading naturalist and conservationist. Ken Granger was a taxidermist who had single-handedly built one of the most beautiful river bottom homes in the valley, save for a few wealthy families who bought a different opulence for themselves. Ken's property had been a neglected corner of an alfalfa field tucked up against a barren hillside that enclosed it on two sides and made it almost invisible from the road above. As a young bachelor, Ken hand-dug a pond, planted dozens of varieties of trees and shrubs around it, built a rambling three-bedroom house and workshop with big glass windows that faced the pond, then built an aviary and poultry house for an imported flock of exotic birds. It was a marvelous place and Graydon found himself in long discussions with Ken about the natural world and its environment.
It was another silent and lonely ride home on the school bus that day. He explained to his mother that there had been a confrontation at school, but no fight.
A few days later, on Friday evening, Alex Sr. came storming onto the porch and slammed the house door open, nearly shattering it as it banged hard against the wall.
"Where the hell is that little shitass punk? Graydon, where the hell are you? Get your stupid ass down here, NOW!"
Graydon was upstairs studying at his small table. Heart in his throat, he set his book down and descended the steep, narrow staircase to the landing below, cautiously turning into the main room and wondering just what he'd done to be catching hell.
"I work my ass off all week and I put up with those assholes that call themselves job bosses. So I come home to have a few beers and shoot a little pool, and what the hell do I get thrown in my face? My goddamned little nature-lover boy has got half the valley convinced that we're a bunch of snake-kissers out here! Did you do that? Just what in hell is wrong with you, boy? Did you tell those ranch boys at school that them and their dads can't go shootin' rattlesnakes, fer crissakes? Huh? Jeezus H. Christ, boy, don't just stand there playing with yer dick in your pocket! What in hell did you do?"
Graydon stared at his step-father, hands at his sides, careful not to speak or let any expression cross his face. He knew very well that his step-father wanted no explanation or excuse or reasoning or any other words out of his mouth except "I'm sorry; I won't do it again." So he stood silent while Alex Sr. raved and shouted and banged his huge fist on the table, and in drill-sergeant fashion finally approached to put his face a few inches away from Graydon's face where he continued to read Graydon the riot act. Dee Johns stood sad-faced in the kitchen doorway. Alex Jr. stayed upstairs in his room, probably glad to be completely away from this scene.
Alex Sr. finally vented his anger and subsided to a few muttering threats, making it perfectly clear that any repeat humiliations of this kind would result in a leather belt-strapping in the woodshed. This part Graydon knew to be true; it had happened before and it would likely happen again.
"A nighthawk, you say?" Purdy puzzled, peering at Graydon over his coffee mug. "I figure that's pretty unusual, youngster. The usual companion is a critter with more powers or predator ability, like a wolf or bear or some big cat, or maybe a hawk or eagle or owl. You've heard lots of stories, I know — about Injuns and spirit guides and animal brothers. The white man, and the eastern writers, they got all goofy about that kind of stuff after they'd kilt off all the bad Injuns. Then they came up with the noble savage idea, more suited to their notions for romanticizin' things."
Purdy paused, sipped his brew, and studied Graydon's face with his smiling dark eyes, peering out under the dusty black rim of his hat that seemed never to leave his head, never during waking hours anyway.
Graydon understood what Purdy was saying: most of the stuff he'd heard about Indian ways and their supposed companion spirit animals was probably wrong, or at least exaggerated.
They sat sipping from their coffee mugs for some time in Purdy's small kitchen. The little wood range was hot, throwing off waves of heat in the confining space. Graydon knew that both Purdy and Patch were old, and their frail bodies enjoyed a hot room. He also knew that in late autumn both of them donned their union suits, heavy wool flannel underwear. He didn't care to know whether or not these ever got changed for clean sets during the long winter.
"Most of the real spirit knowledge of the native peoples got kilt off or beaten out of 'em before the soldiers and the government people were done with it. Then the government left 'em to rot on the reservations," Purdy spoke again, softly, setting his cup down and rising, stiffly, to lift the pot and pour a refill for both of them.
"I know that all of it got wiped out on the Coast, and prob'ly near' all of it from the Okanogan country, and clear over through the Rocky Mountain states. I've heard that maybe a bit still exists over in the Dakota country, but I don't know fer sure.
"But I'm pretty sure what you've seen in those dreams of yours, with the desert and the pit house and those dancers – I s'pose I'd think pretty careful before discardin' that out of hand."
Graydon literally rocked back in his chair, eyes wide, before catching himself and forcing his mind and body to steady down. Purdy grinned. He knew he'd shook that young 'un pretty good, just then.
"Reason I say that, is cuz that desert canyon country is pretty vast. It's remote and inaccessible, and it's the kind of country the white man found a little too harsh for his taste. So them pueblo peoples, they've been more able to keep things hid away and out of sight. And they've always been close-mouthed and secretive, even for Injuns," he grinned.
"Now I don't know much about their practices and beliefs, but just goin' on a good hunch, I'd imagine there's still some of the old ways hangin' on down there, as few as the believers might be.
"But lets back up a minute. If I were to guess the time of these dreams, they'd go back quite a ways, to earlier times. Cuz think on this: the first dream, it was an elder you saw. He's maybe in his mid-60's or so. Let's say it's somebody alive today. Now, go back to the likely age of that feller you saw in the desert shootout. He'd be in his mid-20's, the way you described him, so I figure maybe 40 years back. Then you saw a pretty old medicine man or shaman ride up on his horse to confront that young man. Let's say he was maybe, oh, 60 or so. Right there we've gone back past the turn of this century when that shaman would have learned his craft. So, was there still some substantial spirit magic, if you want to call it that, around then? You bet, 'specially down in them desert pueblos!"
"So I don't doubt that what you've told me is true dreams, and I sure don't doubt that those were real happenin's with real people that you've described. So what's left is to maybe guess what some of it means, 'specially in your life since it's you that's gettin' these messages – and they are messages, don't doubt that fer a minute, youngster. And the other part is what's the meaning of the nighthawk? That one's got me puzzled."
"Ain't much more I can add to that, except a pretty strong feelin' that you saw a man gettin' transformed into a shaman. That chest-cuttin' thing was the ritual way of openin' that man up for a re-birth. You seen him get shifted over to regardin' hisself as more of a spirit bein' than a human bein'. I figger that shaman knew he had a better than usual candidate to begin with, since the feller'd already risked his own hide for somethin' that was none of his affair. He didn't do it just for a couple of stray kids, but for Injun kids! Back in those days, Injun was just another white man's word for vermin. It takes a damned unusual feller to risk his neck in a dust-up like that!
"So, there's this feller we could call some kind of voluntary saint, and the two kids' father and grandfather ride up, they hear the story from the kids, and they take the feller back to the pueblo with 'em before some angry white mob can run him down and lynch him. Makes perfect sense to me.
"And then I'd bet the old grandfather shaman, him knowin' that the spirit knowledge, the stuff he's inherited down the years from the first peoples, well, he knows it's gonna die with him. So, he takes our saintly feller and transforms him to carry it forward. Despite what people tend to think, it ain't the outside color that counts. It's the man's heart and his spiritual capacity that matters. There ain't no color involved in that at all."
"You rest easy. Somethin' or somebody's sendin' you messages, and I can see that they're sinkin' in pretty deep. You've got a lot of time to puzzle on it. I'm pretty sure that whoever's doin' this has their reasons, and when the time comes fer more, you'll get more and I reckon you'll have a pretty clear understandin' of it before its over. Now git! I bet yer mom's wonderin' what's keepin' you so long over here!"
Dismissed, Graydon grinned at Purdy, set his cup down, and scooted for home.