The Yahoos Were Back…

From the novel: the story continues…

Note: this one is out of order, and should follow the Joe Consonants chapters. I really should get more sleep before attempting a post…

After Joe Consonants shrugged off the incident as not worth worrying about, because the skooks had marked my son out for a special relationship dating back centuries, I stopped going to talk to him that summer. I was afraid if I spent more time around him, my own grip on reality would slip; after all I had slaughtered a lactating female to rescue my son. Sometimes I wondered if I hadn’t been hallucinating the whole thing.

The rainless mild days bled into one another and August came. My orchard’s tree-fruit ripened and the wild blackberries along the fences turned deep blue-black and juicy. Meanwhile, the outside world went about its business: Nixon resigned his Presidency that August to avoid impeachment.

When I wrote a story about pestis in the Cascades for the Sunday Magazine, Lincoln at the Health Department told me he was keeping an eye on professional journals for reports of an unidentified parasite like they found in my son’s stool sample; so far, nothing seemed suggestive. I wasn’t about to ask him if he thought an unknown parasite could transmit extrasensory perception via a cryptid mother’s milk.

I tried to keep life as normal as possible. With Mildred’s help, I took my son to see Ralph at the Soldier’s Home in Orting, and they had a happy reunion. I promised to bring him to Wilkeson for Tillamook ice cream the next time Mildred brought Ralph to her cabin. Mildred reported no new skook sightings but said she was keeping her rifle handy in the Gorge. Mildred’s unrelenting hatred was one of the few things to reassure me of my own sanity.

My wife kept working for the jet-engine guy, and enjoyed learning all the ins and outs of clearing the New Zealand motors through Customs. She brought home trunk loads of New Zealand pine slats from their crates for me to split into kindling.

I failed to get a job as Seattle bureau man for a string of weeklies, because the editor didn’t believe I could find enough gas to get to work in the aftermath of the Arab oil embargo. I couldn’t tell the editor that thanks to my wife’s connections in the Gorge I could always find forty gallons for my truck’s dual tanks. Boots Rubery up in the Gorge had some covert arrangement where gasoline tankers sneaked up there to keep his station in plenty of fuel, but said if I didn’t keep my mouth shut it would provoke a run on his station to make the bank runs in the Depression look like an Easter parade. So I kept my mouth shut and missed the job. With the inbred poaching clan and skooks I already had the Gorge secrecy habit.

Found a part-time job I liked better anyway. Two reasons: it was an outdoor publication where I wrote stories about coastal salmon fishing and inland trout, and covered various hunting seasons when they opened; and it was weekends only, so my wife was home with our son. My first days away from the plateau were tense, worrying the skooks might somehow know I was away. But my wife promised faithfully not to let the boy wander off, the first weekends of work passed, and skooks stayed gone. Our finances eased. I began to relax by degrees.

In mid-September I had a Saturday free and took Harry and my shotgun up in the Cascades to look for grouse or band-tail pigeons. My wife grumbled about it, but I told her now I was officially an outdoor writer and needed to get outdoors. That got an eye-roll but I went anyway.

All the chipmunks I saw looked healthy and frisky, and seemed to delight in teasing Harry. He damn-near climbed a Doug fir chasing one. He bumped a couple of ruffed grouse out of an alder bottom. I got a clear shot on one and dumped it with the left barrel of my old Winchester 24. Later, way up in the high country, I found a blue grouse that looked big as a young turkey, perched in a fir and made a head shot with a .45 Colt round in my Casull. The only band-tails I saw were flitting along the far side of a canyon. We were coming back down mid-afternoon when I saw fresh sign crossing the road atop my tire tracks.

They came down the cut bank on one side of the road and climbed the other side. I slipped a couple of rifled slugs into the Model 24, never having lost my old Florida habit of carrying big-game loads for my shotgun, and tried to follow them up the bank. My boots dug in, causing mini-avalanches with each step, and I slid back before I reached the top. The bare feet had caused no such disturbance.

When I was a kid, Fess Parker played Davy Crockett on TV, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Being contrary, I thought Daniel Boone was really the frontier king, always westering out ahead of what passed for civilization, returning with hair-raising tall tales for the stay-at-homes. He was a long-hunter well into his crippled-up old age after most men would have traded their saddle for a rocking chair.

Too good a yarn to die, it trickled down through generations of wilderness campfires and eventually into tall-tale collections; after all, this is the nation of Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan.

The big bare footprints atop my tire tracks reignited my paranoia as if it had never been away. When I made it back down to pavement, I decided to go see if Joe Consonants was home.

— — -

There was a clapped-out old Plymouth station wagon parked near the path leading to Joe’s mine shaft. I left Harry in the truck and took the blue grouse with me. Joe was hunkered comfortably outside the door to his cave puffing on his pipe, talking to one of the most Mongoloid of the kids from beneath the Burnett Bridge.

“Brought you some dinner, Joe,” I said.

He stood up with that amazing ease. The boy stayed hunkered. I never could hunker worth a damn but Joe looked capable of catching a double-header even at his age. “First grouse o’ the season,” he said. “I thank you. This here’s one of Aaron’s boys.”

Aaron was the albino outlaw with the CB to warn his poaching clan if the law showed up.

“You look like you ran into an unfriendly Indian,” I told the boy. His usually bushy hair had been buzzed so short he resembled a boot-camp trainee.

He gazed up at me with his narrow almost-lidless eyes. “Too hot.”

The Gorge had probably topped at around seventy that summer. A veritable heat wave. “You’ll need a warm cap pretty soon. Fall steelhead showing up yet?”

“Some. Wanna come spearin’?”

“See you’re acquainted,” Joe said. “He brought me a nice one, already smoked. With steelhead and grouse I’m gonna eat like a king tonight.”

The boy stood up as easily as Joe. It struck me that with his new haircut he looked just like that banjo-playing hillbilly kid in the movie Deliverance. “Better git,” he said.

“Say hello to Aaron for me,” I said.

He nodded. “Come spearin’.” And he was gone.

Joe was studying me. “That boy don’t trust many. He likes you.”

“Showed me his favorite spearing spots one time.”

“Quite an honor.” Joe hefted the grouse. “Nice and plump, and already drawn. I thank you.”

“I stopped by to see if you’d been up roaming the high country today,” I said. “Big bare feet on top of my tire tracks.”

“Warn’t me. I’ll just put this bird on the sink and put on the coffee.” When he came back, he was lugging one of the chairs from beside the stove. “I noticed you ain’t much for hunkerin’,” he said. “Take a load off.”

“So it was a skook.” I sat.

“Imagine so. It’s berryin’ time. You and Harry musta got upwind and spooked him, for him to leave tracks in the open thataway. Told you, they know you.” He resumed his catcher’s squat. “They’ll be down to see Aaron soon.”

“What do you mean, down to see Aaron?”

The big man shrugged. “Him an’ his have a sort of agreement. They don’t get run off the creek for spearin’ skooks’ fish. In turn, they dry-cure fish and jerk pemmican — venison an’ dried berries — for the skooks, so they can stay out of the creek and hide from people like you an’ old man Tuchi.”

“Disbelievin’ don’t make it not so,” Joe said. “Huntin’ season’s comin’. Skooks cain’t fish for winter supplies like they usta before the coal towns crowded up the Gorge.”

“You’re telling me old Tuchi really saw them fishing for salmon like bears do?”

“Tuchi warn’t the only one. Men goin’ fishin’ run some off the creek a time or two. Some got rocks thrown at ’em, and ran themselves. They didn’t talk about it much.”

“Tuchi said skooks resented the miners taking their fish. Caused cave-ins to kill the offenders. I have reasons of my own to know they’re handy with big rocks.”

“That’s…possible,” the big man said. “Warn’t that many good ways to find out what caused a land slippage in them days. And just because Mr. Darwin never met a skook don’t mean they stand outside the natural processes he figgered out. Aggressive displays an’ such — like throwin’ rocks — can turn deadly outside yore own kind if you’re defending territory that’s been encroached on. They never had a pact with miners, see.”

“Except maybe the Chinese miners in Burnett?” I said. “You told some Japanese tourists the Gorge looked after its own when the Knights of Labor came to burn down their tent city.”

“Like a belief in giant screeching animals slinging boulders the size of a basketball at every raider who raised a rifle?”

“You’re developin’ quite an imagination,” Joe said. “Giant screechin’ animals that smell like they crawled rottin’ from their tombs, I bet you was about to say. Not that I was there, mind. I ain’t that old.”

“But your mentor, Ronnie Satiacum, was.”

He smiled sadly. “Ronnie was some taken with a Chinee girl, daughter of one of the laundry fellers in Fairfax, because she respected him as an elder. He come to respect them hard-workin’ men in Burnett after she tole him how they was workin’ for their destitute families back home. Took it strong amiss when them white boys from Tacoma marched up the Gorge.”

“You ain’t old enough to remember Johnny Weissmuller.”

“I watched a lot of Saturday movies when my folks got their first black-and-white TV.”

“It’s all ancient fairy tales anyways,” he said. “More ancient than Mr. Burroughs’ original Tarzan books. Bloodbaths averted don’t make history, as a rule. But they can become part of fairy tales.”

“With you as the chief tale-spinner,” I said. “But we did kind of wander off Aaron being the commissary for skooks.”

“I don’t wonder you have a hard time takin’ it all in.” He hunkered again. “The injins would say Aaron is touched by the gods. But modern-day society just discarded him to that damn state school because they decided he wasn’t all there.”

“Aaron was in the state school? He’s no more a boy than me.”

“He was just a boy when he escaped, though. Kids are always escapin’. Sometimes they drown in the river. Sometimes they get caught again. Sometimes they die of exposure.”

“He’s odd, Aaron,” I said. “But I never thought of him as retarded.”

“Aaron’s got plenty of brain cells. He just uses ’em different, like. He tries to look after his kin.”

“For God’s sake, Joe!” This was just taking it too far. “Hypertrichosis doesn’t make those kids of Aaron’s part-skook. Not unless skooks have the right number of chromosomes.”

“My, what a fancy word for havin’ a lot of hair.” Joe smiled a little sadly. “I sometimes think fancy words are what we use to hold reality at bay. Far as I know, nobody ever counted chromosomes in a skook.”

I changed gears. “If I was still a newspaperman, there would be a story in what you say about kids escaping the school and coming to harm,” I said. “Official neglect, and so on. Now you tell me Aaron was an escapee a long time ago.”

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.