Philip W. Arnold
Copyright © 2012 by Philip W. Arnold
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This story could never have been completed without the gift of imagination that the good Lord has blessed me with, and that my mother Maureen never let me lose. Many thanks go out to my daughters Carolyn and Angie who worked countless hours typing my manuscript and changed it from a muddled mess of written words into an organized final copy. I give thanks to every middle school student whom I have ever taught. They are the ones who helped me see this story through the eyes of a young adult. Especially helpful were my 2012 8th grade Language Arts class; Isaac, Grace, Emma, Angelica, Shylo, Ashlee, Shyenne, Zach, Bryce, Robey, Jesse T., Jesse W., Garnett, Ally, Mikel, Anthony, and last, but certainly not least, Maicel.
Finally, to you the reader, I genuinely hope that you have as much fun reading this book as I did writing it.
Philip W. Arnold
Garden Valley, Idaho
Send comments to: Parnold@gvsd.net
Table of Contents
“The Suicide Hill Race is run every summer in Omak Washington. Brave young men, some out for a thrill, some just out to prove themselves, enter the race. They race their horses over a 100 yard flat piece of ground that abruptly drops off to an impossibly long and steep slope which ends at the edge of the Okanogan River. If the horse and rider manage to negotiate the “Suicide Plunge” then they must swim across the river and race into an arena on the opposite side. The first horse and rider to make it into the arena are declared the winner.”
Although all of the bedlam seemed to assault his senses at the same time, it was always the sounds that affected him the most. The thunderclap of the starter’s gun came first. This would be followed almost instantaneously by pandemonium; shrieks and yelps of Indian boys and men as they goaded their horses to maximum speed. As the horses and riders charged over Suicide Hill, the noise level would increase so loudly that picking out individual sounds was impossible. At that point vision became difficult too. The dust would become so churned up that individual horses would appear only as a blur.
As the bedlam reached its highest level, the riders in a boiling cloud of dust would appear. The horses would literally fly over the cliff’s edge in a mad dash towards the river. Sand and small rocks tossed up by flailing hooves would pelt the top of his head. The smell of leather, sweat and dust all intermingled and formed a musky aroma that stung his nostrils. This craziness nearly always caused his senses to spin into overload.
In today’s race, a horse right in front of him stumbled and the young rider quit the saddle, narrowly avoiding the slashing hooves of the oncoming horses. Both rider and horse careened down the hill like a tumble weed caught in a hurricane.
Towards the bottom of the hill a pileup of horses and riders began. The faster horses that had raced here before saw the river and bolted towards its cool safety. The less experienced horses balked. They whistled and snorted with fear due to the steepness of the incline, but in the end they were forced to surrender to gravity.
The young man grimaced as he watched slower animals pile into the logjam of horseflesh. The last horse literally pushed the shrieking mass into the Okanogan River. He stood on his tiptoes now to watch the horses swim the river. The lead horses crow hopped through the shallows to the other side. The slower horses, some riderless, swam towards the far bank. He heard the shouts of excitement from below as the first rider entered the arena and crossed the finish line.
Billy, an 18 year old native of Washington State’s Colville Indian Tribe, had always dreamed of being one of those riders. This race was one of the few things left that could bring a young man honor and glory in the tribe. Honor and glory however were two traits that had been lacking in his family for many years.
Billy’s excitement about the race was short lived. “Hey Apple,” a drunken voice slurred, “Remember how your dad cost Stew Coley the race in ‘88?” Billy turned to face the crowd of spectators. His tormentor could have been any one of a dozen leering faces. A chorus of laughter greeted his cold stare. Billy clenched his fists and advanced menacingly towards the sounds of their mockery. He didn’t care if there were a half dozen of them and he was alone. He had a fierce pride and allegiance towards those he loved. Although his father had failed miserably at his job of being a dad, nobody could get away with disrespecting the man.
Fortified with liquid courage, a crowd of drunks shouted vulgarities that were meant to hurt his absent father, but in his place, Billy became the target. Too late to think, time only to react, Billy swung a chopping right hook at the first hate filled face he could reach. His large hands, callused from hard labor, did not miss. The closest nose exploded in a spray of crimson mist. The ugly circle of sneering faces involuntarily oozed back at the sight of their fallen comrade. With his eyes glaring daggers into the crowd, Billy bulled his way through the drunks and out into the street.
Shaking his right hand, and sucking on the knuckles, Billy tried to ease the pain of his throbbing hand. “Apple Indian, red on the outside and white in the middle is it?” Billy spun around at the sound, but his dower expression immediately turned into an enthusiastic grin. “Uncle Blake, where have you been?”
Blake, a mountain of a man, wrapped Billy up in his arms and gave him a bear hug that would send most men to the chiropractor. “I’ve been up in the hills minding my own business when I decided to come down here and see how you flat landers race horses. I heard the commotion and figured my infamous nephew must be right in the middle of it.” The remaining crowd quickly melted away at the sight of Blake. No sane man would dare challenge him.
“Have those vultures been riding you about your dad again?”
Billy nodded. “It’s been the same for the past ten years.” Billy said. He spat out the words in disgust. “It’s the same old broken record. Your dad cost Stew Coley his title. Your dad was bought and paid for by the rich white man.”
“You think in ten years, they’d come up with something new.” Uncle Blake chuckled softly.
Billy became serious and asked, “Blake, you know my dad better than any other man, and you were at the race of ‘88. Do you think dad purposely knocked Stew and his horse over just so another horse could win?”
Blake stared into space for a long while. The announcer’s voice droning on in the background startled him out of his brooding. “Come on Billy, The Longhorn is still open, let’s get some grub and I’ll tell you what I can remember.” As the tinny sounds of the PA system faded away Blake kicked the old stock truck into gear and they headed out to the restaurant.
The aroma of old grease, fry bread, and stale beer filled Billy’s nostrils reminding him th
at he hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Blake guided him to a worn table. A red cowhide chair comforted his back. Billy was able to fully relax for the first time all day. A young waitress whose nametag read “Jill” glided up to their booth. “It’s Billy!” she said, looking thoughtfully at his scraped knuckles. “Been up to no good as usual?” Without waiting for an answer, she said “I’ll bring some ice.”
Blake smiled. “That one likes you, didn’t she graduate with you a couple years ago?”
“She’s doing the Omak shuffle,” explained Billy. “She went to college for two years dropped out and now is back here swimming in circles going nowhere.”
“As if you should talk,” grumbled Blake. “You work with me in the hills for a year and a half, and then come back here to live with your dad. Since he is off truck driving you are just bumming it yourself!”
Billy smiled mischievously at Blake. “Hey Uncle, when have I ever not had a plan? I’ve been thinking, I don’t intend to stick around Omak with the rest of the fish. I want to leave my mark on this town, and then get out of here for good. The most important thing to me is to make up for what my dad did.”
Blake’s face didn’t change yet his hand restlessly drummed on the old formica tabletop. “Billy, how can you do that? Your dad, my brother, forgot the most important thing about being an Indian. A man can choose to live any way he sees fit. But to disgrace himself, his family and his people, is unforgivable. Billy you were there at the race that night, you saw what your father did to kill any chance at all of Stew Coley winning his 14th race in a row.”
Billy remembered that alright, like an ongoing nightmare that he relived nearly every day of his life. It was like watching a bad movie playing on a never ending loop. The emotions always ran their course in the same order. First, he felt the intense pride of having a father, his father, riding in the Suicide Race. For months before the race he and his father had practiced in the hills above the town. Billy and his friends would watch his father as he galloped full speed down hills and cliffs that would give a mountain goat trouble. On the night of that race, Billy had brushed his father’s horse until its coat glistened like an oiled black cat. With pride he’d dipped his hand in bright red paint and mashed it down on the horse’s flank. This was a tradition his tribe had used for decades. It showed a mark; his family’s mark. It was a way of showing family unity and spirit.
Finally the riders lined up, cameras flashed, the starter’s gun sounded and the race was on. In his mind the picture quickly changed. It was always as if he was watching a TV in a tunnel of fog. His father’s horse broke out into an early lead on the flat. In his mind, the movie changed from pride to horror at that moment. For what his father did next brought the utmost shame to Billy and the tribe.
Just seconds before his horse was to make the plunge down Suicide Hill his dad suddenly pulled violently on the reins. He nearly jerked the bit out of his horse’s mouth as he veered directly into the path of an oncoming rider. That rider just happened to be the most revered man among his people, Stew Coley, a thirteen time winner of the Suicide Race. It was hard enough to get to ride in the race, and the odds were extremely low to even win once. Stew Coley, a man looked upon with awe by the entire tribe, had won the race an unheard of thirteen times. As his father’s horse veered left, Coley had no choice but to pull up his horse. In the ensuing tangle Stew tumbled to the ground. Although uninjured, there would be no fourteenth win.
His father never talked about the incident. Although other members of the tribe had no trouble finding a reason for his father’s unexplained mishap. The rumor quickly circulated that his father had been bought off by rich white gamblers who had made a lot of money that day by betting against Stew Coley. To add fuel to their speculations his father bought a used Kenworth truck and began hauling freight across the country. He never seemed to end up back in Omak much after that.
The sounds of clinking ice broke up Billy’s painful image. His uncle got to his feet and helped the waitress with the soup bowl full of ice that she brought up to the table.
As he returned to the table he stared long and hard at Billy “Billy, we’ve been over this hundreds of times before. It’s time to bury this and move on. Come with me up to the hills and help me with the dudes this summer.”
Billy knew working with the dudes meant working with the city folks that paid his uncle good money to ride horseback into the mountains with the intention of getting back to nature. Although Billy hated the silly tourists, the idea of another summer wasted doing nothing had little appeal to him. Besides considering the shape his body and mind were in, perhaps it was time that he got back to nature.
Blake paid the bill and as they left, Billy smiled and said, “Uncle Blake, you are a great salesman, pick me up in the morning and by afternoon, I’ll have your tourists riding like pros.” The two men shook on it and grinned as they both departed separately into the night.
The old flatbed truck crawled slowly up the hill in low 4-wheel drive. During the long dusty ride Billy had time to recollect how much he really did enjoy getting back into the mountains. In spite of how he tried to resist it, the pull of his mind and body back to nature was the result of his Indian heritage. He had no doubt whatsoever about that. Although he lived in a city, his people still netted salmon and hunted elk and deer in the fall for winter substance. Some of his greatest experiences with his father had been in these same woods. It seemed that every fall, they’d drop whatever grudges they currently held against each other to head out to hunt and fish. It seemed the greatest benefit was simply in finding themselves again. His father had referred to it as a cleansing of their souls.
For Billy those times in the woods were the best memories he had of his dad. It seemed like that was the only time his dad ever opened up to him. They’d laugh and joke for hours just enjoying where they were and forgetting about the city and all its tarnished glamour. The only unspoken rule was they never discussed “The Race.”
The old flatbed hit an especially deep hole. As if reading Billy’s thoughts, his uncle remarked “I called your dad, asking if he’d join me this year. He never would commit. Maybe we’ll see him Billy, you never know.”
Billy grimaced and shot Blake a knowing glance. “Uncle Blake we both know we won’t see him here today or any other day.”
Blake sighed and shrugged his shoulders. That was it; end of conversation. Billy had experienced his father’s decline in the last few years. There were few happy times now. So often now his father was gone on another long trip in his big rig. When his father was home it seemed his only desire was to get to the bottom of one bottle after another. They began to have less and less in common. Billy had seen enough of his father’s downslide to last a lifetime. That was why it was so easy to say yes to Blake and let the beautiful mountains welcome him back into their embrace.
The last few miles before they got to camp made Billy more excited by the minute. Very little had changed in the splendid wilderness. Every hill and mountain seemed to be newly painted green. Animals were abundant everywhere he looked. Every stretch of road with borders of grass seemed to contain some kind of animal. Billy saw grouse, deer, cotton tailed rabbits, and even a tired porcupine waddling up the road oblivious of the roar of the old engine.
Finally Billy saw what he had been dreaming about for so long. Tucked in at the end of the meadow stood the camp. Billy could distinctly make out the green military surplus wall tent. It looked worn but well kept. It seemed to beckon to him like an old friend. Next to it stood a magnificent tipi. Blake always said he kept it up to keep the tourists happy, but Billy knew the tipi kept Blake happy. “Get back to your beginnings and you will find your future,” Blake had always said.
“Throw your gear in the Indian tent we’ve got to go check on the stock,” Blake commanded. Billy did as he was told and they both set out on foot for the high pasture.
The high pasture was a meadowed oasis amid the prolific aspens. The small spr
ing at the western end was the only year round water for miles around. This tended to keep the horses from straying. Blake had never believed in fences. “Just ruins the view nature is giving us,” he once said. Blake hobbled any horse that had the tendency to wander. After a few weeks of hobbles, Blake’s horses learned not to stray far.
As they crested the hill they caught sight of the horse herd. Most of the horses were grazing contentedly on grass not yet withered by the summer heat. A few horses jerked their heads up to gaze alertly at the strangers. Blake whistled and all of the horses looked up expectantly. Blake took several apples from the pockets of his jean jacket and tossed them towards the herd. The horses trotted quickly forward and gobbled up Blake’s treats. Billy studied the animals closely. There were an even dozen horses. He noticed that most of the horses were paints with a sprinkling of appaloosas in the herd. “Those are Indian ponies” stressed Blake as he nodded towards the herd. Billy saw one horse had a noticeable limp as he stepped towards the apples. As a result of his slow pace, he got no apple. Blake reached into his pocket one more time and produced an apple which he handed to Billy. “Nephew, that’s your project for this summer.” Billy looked questioningly at his uncle. “His name is Samson. He’s just average in size,” his uncle explained, “but he has heart as big as any Marine I’ve ever met!” Billy looked more closely and noticed a nasty scar just above his rear left hoof. He nodded questioningly at the wound and Blake told Billy the heartbreaking tale. “Until about a month ago, he was my quickest horse. He had stamina too, but what I liked most about him was his guts. He could go longer on the trail with a heavier pack than any other horse I’ve ever owned, yet look at his size. He’s built like some rich kid’s horse, but he thinks he’s a Clydesdale.” Billy looked more closely at Samson, studying his deeply scarred leg. Blake continued, “One night about a month ago we had a terrific lighting storm.” Blake nodded towards a huge pine at the head of the meadow that had its top burned and shattered. “Lightning hit that pine and sent the horses stampeding. Sam was quicker than the rest and didn’t see the cattle guard as he raced up the road. At the last minute he must have seen it and tried to jump over it. He didn’t quite make it and hooked his leg in the grate. The rest of the horses saw him trapped and had enough time to stop. So in a way he saved them from the same fate. Smart horse that one, he stayed put till daybreak when I found him and worked him loose. Most horses would have struggled till they tore their leg to pieces.”