Tag Archives: Pistol River

The Outside Job

Somebody had torn the screen on the boys’ bathroom window at Pistol River School. In 1980, the school was already 40 years old. The building wasn’t sagging, but to us, it felt like it was a century older than us. So little things like tears in window screens added up to big destruction on a massive scale. At first it was a little rip. And as a team, because boys can’t keep their fingers out of holes, we all worried at the nylon mesh until the hole got larger and larger. At least I like to believe this is what happened. We all had to speculate as to what really happened. Eventually there was a big hole, shaped like someone had shoved their head through the thing in order to look at the sheep field outside.

Mr. Hyde gathered up all the boys,  even the ones from first to third grades, and we lost all our recesses. the girls got to play outside. All the swings, the tether ball, the merry-go-round and the monkey bars belonged to them, and them alone. As soon as lunch ended, we marched upstairs. As soon as we told the little kids to keep their grubby little-kids hands out of our desks, we crossed our arms and lay our heads down, in silence.  We watched the second hand slide by like an evil keeper of our punishment.

At the end of each recess, Mr. Hyde would question us.  “All you have to do is confess.  As soon as you tell me who tore a hole in the bathroom screen, you may all go.”

Nobody said a word, of course. We were angry and insulted by the very idea, not that we would rat out our friends–we would gladly do this to get our recess back–but that we had done nothing to deserve it.

It was the constant topic while we ate our lunches, as slowly as possible. Nothing was more agonizing than sweaty heads on sweaty desks.

“It could have been a girl. It could have sneaked in from the outside.”

“Right,” sneered Brett. “Like that would happen.”

“Well, it’s possible. We all know none of the boys tore that hole.” I offered.

“This is true,” Brett conceded. He must have been particularly miffed because Brett never conceded anything, ever.

“Well if it isn’t the girls, and it isn’t one of us, then who is it?” said Luke.

“It might have been one of the teachers. Maybe Mr. Hyde did it, and he didn’t want to get in trouble from the school board.”

“Yeah. I can see that,” said Luke. He always believed anything.

Then Woodie hit on what might be the truth. “Maybe, it’s an outside job,” he suggested with his casual North Carolina twang.

“Who in the world would bother to come around here?” Asked Brett. “And what’s an outside job?”

“An outside job is the opposite of an inside job, you know, like in the cop shows. Someone OUTSIDE the school did it. And I know just who the culprit is! Les Walker.” He said it with a nod. His enormous shock of white hair lent truth to his argument.  And all the boys nodded in silent agreement. Woodie was the brains of the outfit.

Les Walker was a guy who lived up the hill from our school, with his mom and dad. He was all black hair and sideburns, and had lived in Pistol River all his life. He sat outside the Pistol River Store with his dad, who cussed at us, as if we were a pack of demons. Les just stood there and nodded, as he he drank bottle after bottle of RC Cola. He was a few years older than my dad. When he was a baby, Ralph and Phyllis left him in a hot car with the windows rolled up, and he never recovered. He talked like a four-year-old, but loudly, each word was the honk of a goose.

One day, he was watching us play baseball, on the Walker side of the fence. Their sheep field adjoined Pistol River school. Mr. Hyde stopped our game and walked up to Les, all short, red and bristly, and said “Les, you are not to be on, or near the school property.”

So Les walked back up the hill to is place, shoulders slumped, with a bottle of cola in hand. I thought Mr. Hyde was being unnecessarily mean and I told it wasn’t very Christian of him.

Mr. Hyde just looked at me with a scaly gaze, and whistled our ball game back into play.

But our whole problem pointed to Les.

“Maybe I could talk to him,” I suggested.

“Yeah. Okay. Anything, as long as we can go back to recess,” said Brett.

Along with the Dalbys, Woodie and I rode the bus together toward Carpenterville, and we had to sit and wait at the Store, while Grandma took the rest of the kids to their homes.

So that day, after school, we kicked up gravel as we walked across the street. Les was there, sucking on his bottle of pop. His dad greeted us with a string of profanity.

“Hey Ralph. Hello Les,” I began.

“HI!” shouted Les.

“Dirty mother***” said Ralph. He drooled when he cussed because only half his face worked.

“Les, we have a question for you.”

“My name is Lesley!” he told us.

“We know. Les… Do you think you could do us a favor?”

“Mamo and papa got cows!” he exclaimed.

“Do you think you could, you know, tell Mr. Hyde that you were the one who tore the screen? So we can have recess again?”

“And sheep! I like sheep!” said Les.

“Goddamn sheep,” agreed his father.

“So, do you think you can? It would mean a lot.”

“Do you want an RC? Papa will get you one.”

And Ralph fished out a dirty sumbitch dollar, from his right front pants pocket. Les marched right into the store and handed it to Floyd, and got us two bottles. “It’s not for me, it’s for my friends!” he announced proudly.

Floyd just nodded, saying nothing. He never said anything. He would have rather been fishing.

The pop bottles were cool to touch, and were beading with sweat on that hot Pistol River afternoon. We drank them fast because the school district didn’t allow food or drinks on the bus. Grandma didn’t care, but rules were rules, she explained.

“So… What do you think?” I asked Woody.

“I think that went well,” and he nodded to his half finished  bottle.

“I got no teeth!” shouted our new friend as we boarded the bus.

“That’s right! See y’all tomorrow?” Woody shouted back.

“Bye!” waved Ralph and Les. We both waved back.

It was another week before we were allowed to get our heads off the desk. It just happened one morning, at ten o’clock recess. Mr. Hyde just glared at us and said “What are you doing in here? Aren’t you going to recess?” And so we did.

I could imagine how the confession went down. Les, hair combed, and dressed in his nicest suit, had a visit with Mr. Hyde, where he told him about his friends, and how he had accidentally put his smashed his face through the bathroom windowscreen.

“My good sir, I had been trying to stop a rampaging sheep. I had him pinned against the back wall of the school, but the bugger was just too quick for me. But don’t worry, Mr. Hyde. I will make monetary restitution. With money. But I feel for the children. If, perchance you would give them leave to remove their heads from their desks? Here is a million dollars. Don’t tell papa. He would be quite cross if he found out.”

And Mr. Hyde’s eyes glimmered as he accepted the money, and then the two gentlemen shook hands and shared an RC Cola.

And that, my friends, is how teamwork and soda pop will get your recess back, every time.

Zahnie (Part 4)

Asa Crook was a real person. I am trying my best to give utmost respect to historical persons in my writing. If I failed, please understand that I mean no ill will toward any readers who might be related to him.


People want land for different reason. For some folks, land is subsistence. We live on a piece of land, and we can’t ask much in return. It tolerates us, as we take what we need. It would just as soon open up a hole into nowhere, and  bury us all inside it. It is strong, and inexorable. The land belongs to itself unequivocally.

And then, for some folks, land is power. Land grows things despite itself. If you convert the product of that land into something that people want; lumber, or butter from the cattle you have raised, or gold you have sluiced off a riffle, you can exchange the fruits of the land for something you want. Something more, something better. If you own more land, you own more power. Power brings you riches and fame, which allows you to buy more power.

I’m not sure where I land on this (the pun was intended). Maybe someplace there is a middle ground (Ground. Get it? Never mind. Alpharetta is the only one who ever liked my jokes). I’m no railroad baron or mining company boss. But I’m also not going to roll over the moment my homestead is four feet underwater when Pistol River overflows its banks.

And if land was power, certainly my friend Asa Crook had lots of both. Recently the county had elected him as their representative up in Salem. He was a small, rounding man, dressed in a black wool suit. What was left of his mousy hair was parted just-so to the side, and an anemone mustache that curled over his mouth. I don’t know how he wasn’t sweating through that black suit of his. Maybe you don’t feel the need to sweat when you own more land than the Walkers, and the Lawrences, and the Ismerts, and the Prestons all put together. Not that he was a stranger to hard work. He was quite a stout fellow in his heyday.

We had been clearing brush all morning with Coalman Gillespie and a bunch of hired Indians, when Ace rode over schoolhouse ridge looking all sensible and organized. A huge smile was under that mustache. “Friend William,” he said, holding out his hand. “Your place is looking fine. Fine indeed!” He was a human magnet. Everybody outside his circle wanted to be inside. And those inside his circle generally wanted to be even closer.

I smiled back, and shook his hand. “How is your wife?”

“Oh, Ellen, you know her. Working hard, working hard.”

Coalman sidled up next to me and squinted. “How you doin’, Mister Crook?” he said, removing his floppy felt hat to wipe his brow, his bared forearms all coiled and sweaty.

“Mister Gillespie,” Ace nodded.

“Won’t you come inside?” I asked politely. “Alpharetta’s just pressed a fresh batch of apple juice.”

“Do you know, I believe I will.” He exclaimed, and he dismounted, tossing the reins to Coalman without looking at the boy.

“Coalman, could please you take care of Mr. Crook’s horse?” He glared at nobody in particular and led the horse to the hitching rail. I went inside, beckoning Ace to follow me into the house.

The kitchen was whitewashed, with a plank table occupying most of its center. We walked inside and with a jerk of my head, I motioned for Asa to sit on one of the long benches. Our home smelled of smoked meats and baked bread and of the onions hanging out of the way in the dark. To our left, an eternal pot of red beans was simmering on the stove, next to another pot, kept at a low boil so we had hot water. The room had been gloriously well lit ever since I had put in a window on the eastern side of the room. Alpharetta loved watching the sun rise while she kneaded dough in the morning. I pulled out two large pewter mugs from the cupboard and drew golden liquid out of the oak barrel in the corner, setting one in front of Asa. I threw a leg over the bench, and sat across from him.

“Now, what can I do for you, Mister Crook?”

“Come now, Zahnie. How many years have we known one another?”

“I came to Pistol River twenty years ago, I suppose, give or take a few years.”

“That’s right. So you’ve more than earned the right to call me Ace. What’s with all this Mister Crook business?”

“Well, look at you!” I gestured to the somber black suit he was wearing. “It’s like you’re headed to a funeral, or posing for picture. You might be a politician or something.”

“Damn right I might be.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Well, I didn’t vote for you.”

“Zahnie!” He acted shocked, but his eyes sparkled with a story. “Remember that time we were up in the mountains on the Preston place, catching the wild cattle?”

“I sure do. You hired two men just to haul Ellen’s stove up into the woods, piece by piece, so she could cook for us. And I remember who had to haul it back, too.”

“Wasn’t it glorious?” He looked up into the rafters, letting his arms drop to his sides.

“I couldn’t get out of bed for two days.”

“They say you should lift with your legs and not your back, Zahnie.”

“Shut up, your honor.” I smiled at the memory. Remember how we were just young and crazy enough to build that cattle chute in a breezeway between the two cabins, and connect the whole thing to a corral? They were so wild they wouldn’t come near the cabins and so smart they wouldn’t come near our cattle chute.”

“And then that one bull came running through at full speed when I was standing in the chute. Something spooked it out of the woods.”

“Yellow jackets can be pretty angry certain times of the year.”

“I’m pretty sure your jacket was brown, Zahnie.”

I grinned. “I’d never seen anything move as fast as you. You just leapt up both sides of the chute, grabbed the rafters, and straddled the bull while it ran straight underneath you.”

“Almost lost my nuggets that day,” the short man laughed.

I snorted. “You probably deserved it.”

“I supposed I did,” he said with another chuckle. “Ah. Those were days. Times were hard. Hard but good.”

We were both silent as we took a few sips from our mugs. Then we set them down simultaneously, pewter rapping the planks. This brought him out of reverie.

“Well, Zahnie, I’m a politician now.”

I nodded, once, to my old friend. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”

He blew out a puff of air.

“What do you need, Ace? Just come out and say it.”

“I’m that transparent, eh? Well, all right then.” He thought about his words for a minute. “Zahnie, do you have everything you need?”

“Of course I do. I have this place. I have Alphie, and I’m happy.”

“What about that day? What if you had more?”

I went stiff. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do. What if, on that day, you’d had the right supplies?”

I said nothing, so he continued. “They wouldn’t have died you know. At least not all of them. What if you had a sluice to bring water down from the hills? Or maybe a house built from brick instead of this, this…” He gestured around himself. “Hewn timber. What if you had linens and medicines? What if you had coal oil instead of wood fires? What if you had ammunition? Can you say, honestly, in your heart of hearts, that they would have all died?”

“I don’t want to think about it,” I told him quietly.

“I know you don’t, Zahnie, but you have to listen to me. I’m simply saying, having the right tools could have made all the difference. You’re smart. You had people who love you.”

“I still have Alphie,” I interrupted.

“Yes you do, and she’s as fine a woman as can be found in this county. But I’m saying, what if Hiram had lived? What if Mary Lee or Sarah or Elias had made it? This country is a harsh one and it does not give itself willingly to us.”

“What are you getting at?” I demanded.

“What I’m getting at is this. If you’d had medicine, if you’d had bandages, if you had neighbors who could be here in ten minutes instead of six hours, your children would have lived. You wouldn’t be homesteading. You’d be a land owner.” He took a huge swallow from his mug and slammed it onto the table. He wiped his mustache on a sleeve. He was getting loud.

“That’s all I’ve got to say. If your friends had a way in, if you had supplies… If you could even get supplies. What we needed is roads through here. Not just a ship that docks at Arch Rock every six months, trades our butter and wool for …” He grasped for words. “For the things we actually need. Flour. Sugar. Pins. Cast iron stoves. For God’s sake, man. For medicine.”

I was furious. I spat out, “You brought my children up because the county needs roads? “Damn you, Ace.” Tears began to run from you eyes. “Just… Damn you…”

“No. You misunderstand me. We need what the roads can bring. We all need…”

At that moment Alpharetta came in, wiping her hands on the canvas apron she wore. Her graying hair was tied back in a bun and she shook her head, sweat flying off.

“Whoo!” She exclaimed. “It’s hot as August out there. Of course, now that I give it some thought, it is August, ain’t it?” She smiled. “The new boy just told me some news. I was cutting brush out there with the Indians, and he just come up and tells me that the honorable representative Asa H. Crook was here, in my very own kitchen?”

We both stood. I blinked away tears and just as quickly replaced it with a smile. Ace might have knocked over a bench. He recovered quickly and clasped hands with my wife. “Missus Zahniser! What a pleasure to see you! My compliments on the fine crop of apples this year!”

“Why thank you. They are Gravensteins. From Denmark. Sweetest apples in the country. But this year the apples was all my doing, and only me. Mother Nature, God bless her, had nothing to do with them. I’m just sweet enough.” she winked. “And just the right amount of tart, I might add.”

Ace smiled broadly. “Indeed you are! And, Madam, if you ever tire of this big lanky drink of water… I’m sure I know a man who would fall head over heels for such a beautiful woman as yourself.”

She blushed slightly, but rejoined with “And if I ever needed a tree stump with a sea lion mustache, I’m sure I know right where to find him.”

We all laughed. Alphie winked at me, and I felt better somehow.

“Now what’s this about roads, Ace?”

“Oh. You heard that?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes. “Hard not to, what with two grown men shouting in my kitchen,” she added. “If you make my bread dough collapse and there will be hell to pay.”

He began again. “About that dough. What if you had all the flour you needed? What if you didn’t have to store it up, and pick out the weevils? What if…”

“Cut the crap, Ace. Nobody likes a politician around here.”

His face went stiff, but he nodded. “All right. The county needs your bit of property adjoining the river. We need to build a road through, and then put a bridge on that land.”

“Is that all? Now that wasn’t so hard to say, was it?” asked Alphie in a sugar-sweet tone. “You just needed to ask.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.

“And if you ever bring up the children around Zahnie within my hearing: I swear, Asa H. Crook, you will catch my own personal version of hell for you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” he said again.

“Now finish your apple juice and get out of my kitchen.” We had been dismissed. We both tipped back our mugs, nodded to my wife, and left through the back door, meek as schoolchildren.

“You boys rinse out those mugs and bring them back, you hear?” she shouted.

Asa cocked an eyebrow at me. “That’s one formidable woman.”

I nodded, the thin patch of once-blonde hair falling into my eye. “Why do you think I married her? She *made* me.”

We rinsed out our mugs and brought them right back to the Missus.

Zahnie (part 3)

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.

Zahnie (part 2).

I know these stories might not be for everyone. Honestly it’s more difficult to share this online than it is my memories about Pistol River, or the fact that I peed the bed until I was eleven. So if you like the fiction pieces I’m writing, please let me know. I sorely lacking in self-confidence here. Many thanks to my readers.


The night before our dog disappeared, I dreamed I was walking the strip of land toward Pistol River with Old Shep. We we needed to do something important out there, but I could not remember what it was. In the real world, the river is a short walk, several hundred strides, but in this dream, no matter how much we kept walking, we were not getting any closer.

I looked at Shep. He was a rangy, panting thing, all black and white, with a doggy smile that makes you want to give him belly rubs and curl your hands into his coat of fur. He kept on moving, but no matter how much I walked, he kept going further ahead. He kept running back and forth from fifty paces out, to check back on my situation, in case there came a moment when I needed a dog more than just about anything else in the universe.

There’s a kind of terror in standing still when you know you should be moving. Shep moved; I stayed in place. The river just kept being in its same place, and my place in the world kept being where it was. A thrill rippled through me at the wrongness of the situation and I shuddered. But I kept walking, because that’s what you do in a situation like that.

Then Old Shep turned his head toward me, from far, far away, like he was on the wrong end of a spyglass, all of a sudden he was there. With his one blue eye burning into my soul, he said, “The things around here are going to change, Zahnie.”

I don’t know how you behave when your dog speaks with you, but I figure if mine has something important to say, I better take the time to listen. So I did. I stopped walking and looked right back at him and said, “How do you mean, Shep?”

“Your family. This spot of land. Your friends. The world around here.”

I sighed. Hadn’t I had enough pain already? Change is pain. “Well, I guess nothing stays the same. Got anything else to say? We’re almost at the river now.” Because, we were. Without moving, we were standing at the gravel bar behind a huge, white driftwood log.

“Just be careful. ”

“I usually am.”

“You can do this thing. You can make things right.”

“Well, thanks” I said, because it’s polite.

Then his ears pricked. He looked upstream and down toward the ocean. He yipped “Get away from here! Detnaaghi!”And then my dog was just gone.

Before I could even say goodbye, or ask Shep which things needed making right, the ground started to shake. First there was a jolt, which slammed me to the ground, and then the world rocked hard. The ground tilted and the high grassy river dune began to split apart, and huge cracks began to appear in the ground. Then the fissures filled up with water. The driftwood log I’d hidden behind shattered into a million pieces, and the splinters shuddered, and they were long black snakes. They slithered fast in every direction, trying to break away from the quake. And then at once. they were all over my prone body.

I thrashed about, flinging snakes outward, as but as fast as I could remove one, another one replaced it. The serpents bit at me, gouging toenail-sized chunks from my flesh. I screamed, and flailed my arms to protect myself, but the snakes kept coming. The snakes covered my sight. The world was black with them.

In the end, the river itself saved me. Her water covered me and, in a breath, the world was nothing but the persistent heft, and the eternal rumble of Pistol River. I was swimming, fast.  I rolled in the rapids, coursed through the deep places, leapt over high rocks in my urge to move. I was full, and muscular, and nothing could stop me. I had been filled the ocean’s power. I was the powerful urge to move. I was instinct itself. I was the salmon and I was the river. I knew where to go, and how to get there.

And then I was awake, lying all sweaty and heart pounding. Alphie was next to me, on the straw mattress. She snored a few times but must have heard me. Her breathing changed and she fluttered awake. I just knew. She pressed her round, delicious warmth against me.

But the power and the fear of the dream was still there. I wondered if that earthquake had been a real thing. I wanted to run out and check for cracks in the ground. Look for snakes. Instead, I held still, and let my heart calm itself.

Sometimes I don’t have the right words for things. “Was there an earthquake?” didn’t seem right. Too direct. If I’m wrong I look like a fool. If I’m right, maybe she is imagining what I want to hear. “Did you feel that earthquake last night?” Too definite. I’m not sure the world even moved, outside my head.

I discarded both phrases, and simply whispered “I dreamed about snakes last night.” No reason to be so quiet, nobody was in the house. Whispering just seemed right. The last word Shep had spoken haunted me. Weird syllables that made me shiver. Detnaaghi.

“Oh?” I could hear the smile in her voice as her warm hand moved across my body. “Yeah, sounds about right. Snakes can pop up just about anywhere.”

“Alphie, we’ve got brush to clear.” But I did not really mean it.

“Do we really have to get out of bed?” she whispered. Her lips met mine in the dark.

Yes. I nodded, even though it was too dark to see.  I held to the moment like a hummingbird egg. “No. I think the snakes can wait.”

“Chores, you mean?”

“Right.” I rolled over, and our bodies pressed together.

Lord, I loved that woman.

Zahnie (part 1)

I don’t usually post this sort of thing on my blog, but here’s my hand at a short story. This is just the beginning of me trying to get my fiction legs back under me again.

I can’t guarantee I’ll post this kind of stuff all the time, but I expect I’ll serialize it, and then it will disappear from public view when I take it offline and try to complete the thing more rigorously.

Zahniser/Zahnie is a Pistol River name. I never knew the guy. They were related to the Walkers, and the Lawrences and the Crooks. Anyhow, any reactions you have, please let me know.


Every dummy knows you don’t feed salmon to your dog.  Every once in awhile you’ll hear that one of the neighbor’s pooches will get into a pile of heads, left over after some fisherman is finished cleaning the things. And that dog is liable to get a bone stuck somewhere deep inside, where things like that tend to stick. You bury the guts and heads deep.

Now, I know dogs can be bright creatures but, Ol’ Shep, with the one blue eye, he will not hesitate before he slurps up a nice pile of guts. Shep will turn all flappy-doglips and no brain, like some kind of ocean dwelling thing, and gulp them down. Then, not long after, everything that should stay inside your dog will start to show up the outside. He stops drinking. Then he won’t eat. And before long, he’s bloated and stiff, with flies buzzing around his one blue eye. At that point, Old Shep isn’t not a dog anymore. He’s a non-dog. He’s nothing. Just another thing to bury.

Don’t take me wrong. I’ve had my share of dogs on the ranch, for herding the sheep and tending cattle. They can’t be beat. But it’s not just work dogs. There’s nothing like sitting with our legs crossed, leaning against a tall fir with your dog by your side. He’s panting happily after a long day in the woods, and you’re sharing half a sandwich and dumping out a bit of water onto a dirt hollow you made in the fir needles, just for him lap up, like a strange communion between two tired animals. There’s a kind of an unforced innocence and trust about a dog.

But you don’t feed him fish heads. And especially, you don’t feed MY dogs fish heads. Maybe you’re starting to see why I was surprised here.

My name is William Zahniser. Call me Zahnie. Everyone else does.

Early in the morning, I was out the front door, on my way to tend to the cows. It was still too dark to see much of anything. The only light to be had was the armor-gray sky. No sense in wasting lamp oil. Alphie was in the kitchen kneading the morning’s bread, but her light was on the far side of our house, opposite the cattle, nearer the woodpile.

The morning smelled bright and fresh, of the sharpness of loam and cut grass mixed with the dull tang of manure. Pistol River was our neighbor across our cow field and on the other side of the wagon road. Nobody could really hear the river from this far back. It was more a silent companion, the constant breath of river water permeating the predawn gray. Pistol River was just there, like an older sister, whispering to its younger siblings, “Wake up. Time for your chores. Time to brush out your hair. Time to enjoy the day. And then work hard until dusk. If you’re quiet enough maybe you will see an elk calf today.” They were gone now, the children.

So it was no surprise that I nearly tripped and fell into the hole.

I noticed it at the last second, and scuffed my foot backward. I was lucky I didn’t twist an ankle. The hole was large and perfectly round, like when somebody moved a woodcutting block after months of use. Inside the hole, someone had placed the head and the guts of a Chinook salmon. Her fishy eyes were glassy and round, and her open mouth defied you with the hundreds of tiny inward-curled fangs you couldn’t actually see but knew were there. With the rain, the hole and its contents had concocted a kind of fishgut stew.

I just stared and sucked on my teeth for a minute, before I shook my head and muttered “Ain’t that some shit…” I went around the house, behind the cordwood, to get a shovel.

“Zahnie? What you doin’ back there? If you’re coming in here to steal a kiss or catch me nekkid, you better wipe your feet first!” The kitchen window was cracked open let in some springtime air.

“Hmm,” I nodded thoughtfully. “Kissing sounds like a lot of work. And you’re not naked. I’m just here for a shovel.”

“Who you calling a shovel, son?” she drawled. Then she pursed her lips, made a kissy sound, and lifting her hand up to her mouth, blew a palmful of flour out the window at my face.

I could feel the grin spread wide across my face. Twenty five years now, and she’s still something to behold.

Alpharetta and I were a study in opposites. Where I was tall and thin, a splinter on a fencepost, she was a short, round thing like a myrtle nut. Through many years and many accidents, I had learned to place my feet carefully: I had a long stride but the world tripped me up. She flowed when she walked, hovering over gopher mounds and tree roots as easily as she swept across dance hall floor. I was a Dutchman Yankee, and she was my Arkansas sweetheart. Since I was young I read everything I could get my hands on. Alphie signed her name with an X.

I could not imagine why any of our neighbors would leave a pile of fish guts at our place. We hardly saw them except at Independence Day picnics, and the occasional night when Alphie dragged my skinny carcass to a dance. But those things are too painful. Relationships are hard, sharp things and I spent years burying them deep, just like our eleven children, and just like I was doing with the pile of fish guts. Out of sight, out of mind, so the saying goes.

Even so, we have been married a long time, and that’s more than a lot of people can say. In those years, I’ve learned one thing: whatever troubles you face, and the Lord knows Alphie and I have had our share, you just hold together tight until, after a time, that coal turns diamond. Any dummy knows you don’t throw away something like that.

The Crusader

I lay absolutely still, my eyes pinched shut tight, while she crept into my room.  She came closer, closer, daring me to be awake. My heart pounded a frantic rhythm. I was prey. One arm was under my pillow, and my head rested on that arm. This is the way I always slept, so she could never know. I could hear her breathing as she crept closer in the night. What would become of me if she discovered I was alive? Would she eat me? Take another?  I held my breath and feigned sleep even harder, as if that were possible.

Then I felt the hand reach under my pillow, sliding coldly, silently in, silently out. And the presence left. I could hear the sweep of her faerie wings as she exited out my bedroom door.

I breathed again, once I was sure it was safe. Eventually I fell asleep.

In the morning there were 4 whole quarters under my pillow and the tooth, secured inside and envelope under my pillow, was gone.

“I fooled the tooth fairy!” I told Brett the next morning. My chest puffed while the bus hauled us to school. “She thought I was asleep the whole time, and she left me a dollar! I saw her!”

He rolled his eyes. “You still believe in the tooth fairy?” he said.

Brett was one of those guys from picture books–the ones in the white tabard with a red cross. The knight who corrected errors, and killing the hopes and dreams of those who believed differently. An nine year old crusader for truth and justice. Only he was the shortest guy in our class. Shorter than some of the first graders.

“Well, yeah,” I said, scornfully. “Who else would take teeth out from under our pillow? She wore a night gown”

“Duh. Your mom?” He said, with equal scorn. His forefinger circled his ear three times and he stuck his tongue out, the universal symbol someone belonged in the looney bin. The bus stopped to pick up Luke.

“Hey Luke! Brian still believes in the Tooth Fairy!” Brett shared with the skinny kid before he was even seated.

“Really?” Said Luke “Cool. And do you believe in Santa Claus, too?” Luke didn’t care. To Luke, everything was kind of cool.

“Of course I do! Who else brings me presents on Christmas eve?”

Brett had an answer ready. “Maybe the tooth fairy?”

“How could it be my mom?” I demanded. “It couldn’t be her. She wouldn’t lie to me.” Could she?

“You’re a dummy,” said Brett. Luke didn’t say anything. He was good that way. Maybe he was even still a believer.

Somehow I made it through the rest of the school day. I knew that, at any point, I could be laughed at. I liked little kids. They were nicer. My sister understood about Santa, and Tarra would understand how it made my heart warm when Rudolf soared over everyone’s house, when Saint Nick delivered presents to all the good little boys and girls.

On the bus later, Brett started a chant. “Brian believes in San-ta!”

After a few seconds of this, I shouted, “Fine! I don’t believe in Santa! But I believe in the elves.”

“Elves? Elves?” Brett demanded, dripping with derision.

Even the kids who might have been on my side, laughed at me after that.

I cried all the way up the long steep driveway home.

I barely made it inside our house before I confronted my mother. “Was it you? Santa, and the tooth fairy, and all the rest?”

“Oh, Brian,” she sighed.

She brought me into my room, and sat with me on my bed, the one where the tooth fairy had been just the night before, and told me she had been tricking me for all the years of my life.

Santa, she told me, wasn’t real. He was a real person, a good person, but he lived hundreds of years ago. And it’s tradition. “But don’t tell Lori,” she said.  “She’s too little to understand.”

“What about God? And Jesus? I can’t see them but we believe in them, right?”

She sighed again. I think made her do that a lot. “Of course we believe in God. He is real. And Jesus is risen, the way the Bible said.”

“Okay,” I said. I could feel my lower lip quivering.

Of course, I immediately went to find Lori and tell her the news. I didn’t want her to go to Pistol River School, and have her friends laugh at her, the way they made fun of me.

She nodded thoughtfully, sucking her fingertip like a lollipop, and said “Okay.” She was a smarter person than me.

I wasn’t angry or sad to lose Santa. Well, maybe a little. I knew I would keep getting presents. And Granny and Grandpa would come every year, and fill stockings. But I felt small. Very small. Why am I always being tricked? And Brett was right. He had every reason to be right. He had a good family, and his mom knew everything about God, and everything. But why are the people who are right always so mean about it?

If Brett could have killed me right there with his words, he would have. Maybe, he even did, just a little.

Deep Family, Deep Creek

As I lay in bed this morning, I was struck with a truly amazing occurrence.  It may not be that interesting to my readers but for a guy like me, who is 3000 miles from Pistol River, Oregon, this fact kind of plonked into my mind.

With my niece Clarissa, eight generations of my family have swum in the same river, and probably in the same swimming hole. EIGHT.  Starting with my great-great-great grandfather, and down to my grand-niece.

Continue reading Deep Family, Deep Creek