SKOOK. CHAPTER SEVEN.
The rain continued all afternoon and it got colder. My wife and I had agreed I’d come home tomorrow, so if I didn’t test my hand loads this afternoon I might not have time in the morning. My son was tired out after his big day with Mildred and big Ralph, so I fed him his afternoon bottle and put him down for a real nap this time. I left the dogs in the bedroom with him, to protect their ears from rifle fire, and got out my rain gear and rifles and hand loads.
I dug a couple of home-made target frames out of the back of the truck, paced off about a hundred yards across the meadow to the embankment that climbed to the county road, and nailed them against some alder stumps. Then I crawled up in the camper shell to get out of the rain and laid a folded blanket across the top of the dogs’ fiberglass kennels for a shooting bench. My seat was an old milking stool I picked up at an estate sale in Enumclaw.
I kept mulling over Mildred’s Sasquatch story as I got set up. She didn’t seem noticeably crazy; like Signor Tuchi, she saw what she saw. Just another unexplained tale to weave into the rich tapestry of Northwest folklore, this one told by what I’d have to say was a credible witness. Then I put speculation aside to concentrate on the work at hand.
The hook for the story I hoped to sell to one of the guns and ammo magazines was reloading heavier-than-conventional bullets for the 7mm Remington Magnum. The 175-grain was the largest then commercially loaded, considered good medicine for elk; an honest five-hundred-yard elk cartridge according to Pete Brown, one of the good old gun writers of my youth.
Some pundits — they were coming out of the woodwork with all the new gun magazines in the seventies — thought the 175-grain was too light for the big bears, or even moose. I couldn’t say from personal experience. As I’d told Petosky, I’m mostly a duck hunter. But I wondered if the heavier, partitioned bullets I loaded in new brass would show the same inherent accuracy every other load did in my 700 Remington. The rifle was my birthday present from my father when I graduated from high school and for over ten years the only rifle I owned.
The company that built the heavy 7mm bullets said they would provide better penetration into the vitals of heavily muscled bears, moose, and African plains game. That was the theory anyway. I didn’t own a chronograph, but a cranky old gunsmith who lived on the state highway toward Bonney Lake did. He had kind of taken me under his wing. He even gave me little carefully-marked paper cups full of different powders to try so I wouldn’t have to buy a whole pound just to load a dozen cartridges. We could check velocities at his shop range, where I usually did my sighting-in. Accuracy plus velocity plus bullet construction should give enough for a brief article to add to the debate.
My other rifle was a trim Ruger bolt-action in 7mm Mauser, a gift I gave myself to celebrate my decision not to take the transfer to Washington, D.C. The famous African hunter Karamojo Bell reportedly harvested tons of elephants with the 7mm, not recommended practice for any but iron-nerved professionals. Jim Corbett, the celebrated hunter of man-eating tigers in India, once used a 7mm when he had nothing heavier to drop a big Bengal that had recently feasted on a hapless villager; Corbett called it a .275, but it was the same cartridge. The Spanish used 7mm military Mausers to give the Rough Riders hell in Cuba, and Boers armed with 7mms ran rings around the British in South Africa. I had always wanted a rifle chambered for the round for sentimental reasons, from reading all those adventures when I was young.
I warmed up with a few shots from the Ruger, and walked down to check the group. The Ruger had mild recoil, about like a twenty-gauge, and its sharp crack was completely muffled by my shooter’s ear-muffs. The new Redfield scope was off; I was throwing them low and left about five inches. The group was okay but nothing to write home about. I dialed the scope in and shot another group. This time the holes in the target puddled over the bulls-eye, a little larger than an inch. I adjusted the scope again, to throw about three inches high, and trudged back through the steady rain. The third group was satisfactory; I was sighted in if I decided to take the Ruger deer hunting.
The big Remington kicked quite a bit more. I once ran 56 rounds through it one long day at the range, wearing a light flannel shirt, and felt a little punchy afterward. This time I draped its soft case over my rain jacket to soak up recoil and fired for group with my usual hunting loads, to check the zero. The Weaver four-power, old as the rifle, hadn’t moved over the summer and the group was under an inch, with two of the three holes touching; the same accuracy the big rifle had right out of the box that first Christmas.
So I broke out my new hand loads. Equal and opposite reaction being what they are, the heavier bullets made the gun buck noticeably more than 150-grain deer loads. When I walked through the rain to check, the point of impact had moved. That was to be expected, but the group had opened up to two full inches. I didn’t like that. Maybe my hand-weighed powder charges were inconsistent. Maybe I had flinched a little after the first heavier recoil. I went back and tried again, this time concentrating hard, letting the break of the trigger take me by surprise. That tightened the group to just at an inch and a half. Maybe I was demanding too much. Anybody using the heavier loads on heavy game would not be firing at long enough ranges for slightly larger than one-inch groups to matter.
Daylight was beginning to fade under the trees. I adjusted the zero to move the new heavy slugs onto the bull and fired another group, trying not to hurry. Muzzle flash lit the interior of the camper shell. To the unaided eye, the targets were just a pale blur now. I went up to check. The group was still over an inch, but right above the bull. I decided to call that good for my first effort with the heavy bullets. Trying to race the falling light would just open the groups, and prove nothing about the load.
I was carefully peeling the wet targets off the frames when somebody spoke behind me, a deep gravelly voice. I felt like I jumped a foot; I guess all this talk about wild men and Bigfoot had slipped into my subconscious.
“Reasonable shooting,” the voice said.
He stood maybe a dozen feet away from me in the glade, a literal giant of a man, almost a head taller than my six-feet plus. Grinning, showing snaggle teeth. His fuzzy old green wool mackinaw looked as if it was soaked clear through with rain, and water ran unchecked down his big bald dome to soak his wild beard and drip from his bushy eyebrows.
He was between me and the rifles in the truck.
This all flashed through my mind in an instant. Then I noticed his feet. They were big. They were big and hairy. They were big and hairy — and bare. He was standing in a puddle and didn’t even seem to notice.
“I said,” the deep voice raised and boomed, “pretty good shooting.”
“I thought you said ‘reasonable.’ ”
“Huh! Heard me the first time huh? I thought you might be deef from blastin’ all them rounds inside that truck shell.”
“I’ve got earmuffs. I left them in the truck.”
“Smart man,” he said. “I usta be a huntin’ guide. Shot too much with no kwolan kloshe nanitch. No ear pertection. So I’m getting’ on for ikpooie kwolan. Deef as a stump. ‘Course I’m pret-near old as these hills, so you gotta expect some deficiencies.”
He seemed friendly enough, but he had come on me like a ghost, and some of his words sounded like gibberish to me. That, and his big bare feet, spooked me. I wondered how the dogs had not heard or scented him, even inside. Ghosts don’t have a scent, my grandmother would have said.
“You all sighted in now, for deer season?” the stranger asked.
“Close enough.” I took a couple of tentative steps to the side, thinking to walk around him back to the truck. “If you don’t mind my asking,” I said, “where the devil did you come from?”
He laughed, a big booming haw-haw, and seemed to notice the rain puddling in his thick eyebrows and dripping in his eyes. A big paw went up and swept the water away, then squeegeed his scalp. The ends of his eyebrows stood up like horns when he put his hand down. While his elbow was raised, I saw a big sheath knife on a rope belt around the sodden jacket. It looked bigger than a Bowie; hell it looked as big as a Roman soldier’s gladius.
“I wuz walkin’ by up on the road,” he said. “Heard the shootin’, and came down to see what was up. I kinda kloshe nanitch up here in the Gorge.”
“I would have sworn you said ‘closely manage.’”
The big laugh boomed again. “Close enough. Means keep watch, in Chinook Jargon. You gonna stand there and let them targets soak to pieces?”
I had forgotten I was holding them. I used his reminder as an excuse to move toward the truck, kind of crabwise. Chinook Jargon; that must have been the other gibberish too. But he didn’t look like an Indian; this was getting weirder and weirder. I didn’t want to put my back to him and that big knife. He turned and drifted with me, big feet planting so softly in the puddles there was no splash.
“You walk soft for such a big man,” I said when I reached the truck.
“There’s a trick to it. No shoes help quite a bit.”
“Aren’t your feet cold?” Talk about your inane conversation with a giant weird stranger in the dusk in a vanished coal town.
“Naw, there’s a trick to it,” he said. “Friends a’ mine in the Himalayas taught me. Some a’ them Nepal holy fellers, yuh know?”
For crying out loud; I half-expected gibberish he would describe as Nepalese for “there’s a trick to it.” I knew there were strange people in these hills, but this apparition was taking the cake. Some kind of religious hermit? Or a lunatic escaped from a horror film? I was close enough to grab one of my rifles now. But of course both of them were unloaded. I wondered if my old infantry training in butt strokes would come back to me if I needed it. I was half afraid the walnut stocks of my sporters would just shatter on that man-mountain if it came to that.
“Didn’t mean to make y’ nervous,” he said. “Onliest reason I injin’ed in here was cause it’s dangerous to spook somebody with a loaded calipeen.”
“Rifle?” I guessed.
“Kloshe!” he said with a big grin. “Means right,” he added.
“I’m not going to ask whether that’s Chinook or Nepalese,” I said.
He had a rumbling chuckle. I couldn’t make out his features in the gathering dark. He was just a huge man-shaped shadow with voice like an out-of-tune pipe organ. He didn’t respond to my crack, but kept on talking.
“Nearly spent time in a hoosegow in Nepal after the colonel’s lady-wife got nervous with her calipeen in camp that time.”
I was under the tipped-up gate to my camper cap, out of the worst of the rain. Other than that one move to clear his eyebrows, he didn’t even seem to notice the rainfall. I leaned into the truck bed and put down the targets and came out with my Remington, the bolt still open where I had left it to cool after the last shots. He didn’t seem to notice that either.
“It’s not loaded,” I said, tipping the action toward him.
“Good safe gun handlin’,” he said in an approving rumble. “Too bad the colonel’s lady-wife didn’t. Course they was some said she did it a’purpose.”
“What did she do?”
“Huh. Blew the back of his head off with a .30–06, that’s what.”
“Huh. Saghalie Tyee — Jesus — shore warn’t in Nepal that night. Had to pack that poor soul all the way down the mountain from huntin’ camp on them little horses they got. About like a Shetland pony to me. My feet dragged.” He chuckled hoarsely. “And then the local con-stabb-u-lary, bless their little Oriental hearts, almost tossed me in the jug. Good thing I was on good terms with them holy fellers.”
Of course my son took that exact moment to wake up and raise a howl about the state of his britches and being in the dark.
“That youn’un do have a set of lungs, don’t he?” the big man said. “Guess that makes you the feller up here to write about the coal mines an’ all. Figgured so.”
“You know about that?”
“Huh. Everybody in the Gorge knows about that. We talk to each other, you know.”
At the door of the cabin, Harry let out a loud woof. He sounded confused.
“Heard us talkin’,” the big man rumbled. “But he can’t wind me. All I smell like is the wind and the snass. Rain,” he added before I could ask. “He a good dog?”
“The best,” I said.
“Better keep him close, up in here. These woods is dangerous for good dogs.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mildred Fenton told me about her King today.”
“You know Mildred? A good woman. Now that with King was a crying shame an’ a tragedy. But it goes to show what I mean about it bein’ dangerous up here for good dogs. You better go tend to your young’un.”
“Soon as I get my rifles put up.”
He chuckled. “And soon as I go back in whatever hole I crawled outta, huh? Time I was headed home anyway. I’m goin’.”
He dematerialized. I never heard him go. My son continued to wail. Harry woofed again, and you could almost see the question mark at the end of it. I slipped a round in the Remington’s chamber and closed the bolt quietly. The rain beat down. I slung the Ruger on my shoulder and closed and locked the truck and made my way cautiously to the door.
Harry wanted to come out. His hackles were up and he had that focused look he got when he locked on a wounded honker. But I wouldn’t let him out. Not until I had a fully loaded rifle and a flashlight. I locked the cabin door behind me and went to tend to my son.