Early that August, Coalman Gillespie and I walked side by side on the old Indian trail from Ellensburg. I like to think that I, at least, was enjoying the hike through the woods. Like most sixteen year old boys, he was a skinny coil of wire inside, all ready to spring. We both carried full packs, and my hand carried the old gun, in case we ran into something with teeth and claws.It was hot, and the trail was dusty.
The lad’s head was covered in bristly dark hair, which in turn was covered by an old, dying felt hat with a floppy brim. His nose was almost flat, like someone had clubbed him hard, and it just happened to stick that way. He squinted a lot, like he’d stared into the sun too long. Maybe he was nearsighted.
Grandma Gillespie was very sick, almost eighty years old, and she was the only one who could control her grandson. When Coalman’s daddy died, well, it turns out he was too much even for Grandma. He tore around the country with his friends got up to all sorts of trouble. So, since she was one of the first people in the country we had known when we started proving up the homestead, Alphie and I told her we would take the lad out to the place.
I’m simply dreadful at making light conversation. I am a person who does things, rather than says things. “I think you’ll like it on the ranch. Mrs. Z is a great cook. Do you like chicken?”
“Sure,” he replied. Coalman had a long, green whippy stick that he’d picked up, and was using it like a switch, lashing out at huckleberry bushes, and the tiny dark green leaves all over the dusty path in front of us.
“Maybe she will fry up a hen tonight. Also, there’s kids your age. Ismerts live just on the other side of the river. Crooks and Walkers just downstream. Lawrences live upstream from us. Maybe you’ve seen them in town.”
“Mmm.” Whip whip whip.
“Yep. Lots of girls and boys. Schoolhouse is right up on the ridge about the homeplace. Say, do you like fishing?”
“Yes I like fishing. Listen, Mister Zahnizer, meaning no disrespect here, why are you asking me all this?” His voice sounded rough, a shovel digging through course gravel.
“Well, you’re going to be with us awhile. Figured I should get to know you, son.”
He stopped switching. “Not your son,” he said, with a heavy emphasis on the word not.
“No offense.” I muttered. This kid was prickly.
“After all, I’m kind of busy here,” he said. He went back to flashing his switch like a saber. A low hanging spruce branch was his target now. Sharp, itchy needles rained everywhere.
My eyebrows raised involuntarily. “Well, all right, then.”
We walked in silence for a few miles before I said another word.
That word was lunch. It seemed to get his attention.
I unwrapped a thick slice of smoked salmon that I’d bought at Edson’s store. Coalman grabbed at the fish, stick dropped by the wayside, and began breaking off chunks big enough to choke a less careful person.
I turned my head so he wouldn’t see me smiling. Boys are always like starving forest creatures, and this one was no different.
“Can I have another?”
I nodded and removed the paper around the next salmon steak, handing it his direction. He ate the second one just as quickly as the first and asked for water. I had a tin canteen slung over my shoulder, and handed it his direction. He took a few swigs, and wiping his mouth with his sleeve, handed it back.
“Feeling better?” I asked.
“I suppose,” he said. He looked vaguely dissatisfied now that his stick was missing, but we kept our pace in the August dust.
“Hey,” he asked suddenly. “What’s the biggest thing you ever killed?”
I nearly broke our pace.
“Well, I don’t know. A bull ox, most likely. It broke its leg and we couldn’t do anything for it.”
“I killed a sea lion once. Big one. Right out on the rocks by Hume’s cannery. Shot it right between the eyes.”
I grunted because I wasn’t really sure what a person should say.
He continued his story. “There were sea lions hanging around, looking for rubbish from the cannery. I sighted up and bang!” He pantomimed the act of firing a rifle.. “He dropped like a log, right into the river. Then the rest of them, they jumped into the surf and started honking like a bunch of geese. I laughed and laughed.” As if to demonstrate, he laughed again, long as a rasp. It went on well after the tears began running out of his squinty eyes.
I was so surprised I could only say “Why?”
He misunderstood my question. What I meant was “Why did the family start barking?” I supposed it was because the creature was near his family, but I don’t know much about sea lions. Or maybe I meant “Why in the name of the Creator did you laugh?”
So when he answered, he was on the defensive. “It’s not like I need a reason to shoot one. It’s just a stupid sea lion. There’s thousands of them, biting the stomachs out of the fish and just leaving them to float around dead. It says in the Word to have Dominion over the beasts in the sea. The earth is for the taking, so I take.”
“That’s true enough, I suppose,” I said. And now that I thought about it, what I probably meant was “How come you asked me about the all things I’d ever killed?”And I guess he answered that question, and more. So we continued the journey with two different kinds of silence. My silence was awkward, like I’d just sniffed a piece of meat that may, or not, have gone bad. And Coalman, well, his silence was an aggressive, coiled thing, a silent echo of his laugh. We didn’t really have much else to talk about until we reached the ranch.