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True Stories by Steve Keely
On the morning of July 21, 2004, after three hot weeks of neither seeing nor
seeking a soul in Sand Valley, I drove from Scorpion’s Crotch to charge the car
battery and say ‘howdy’ a mile away. Laura threw up a stern hand with
fingernails dancing sunlight as I slammed the door and froze. ‘Old Pete passed
on sometime, an’ I just found him in a pool of blood.’ Over her shoulder, the
sheriff chatted with J.R. and a .45 pistol in a shoulder holster lay on a wire
spool table. ‘His exact words a week ago were, ‘if I can’t breathe, I’m gonna
shoot myself’,’ T.J. dryly told the Sheriff.
‘His grandkids told me,’ Laura added, ’before he left them last week in the city
that he said, ‘I’m goin’ home to die’. He ain’t told them that before.’ I kicked
the nearly melting tires of my Contour until T.J. invited me to the group.
Certainly Pete, occupying a trailer in the corner of T.J.’s 40 acres, was past
his prime with six coronary bypasses and bad lungs. ‘He never told us he had
lung cancer too,’ Laura cried.
The dogs, cats, chickens and turkey milled as the Sheriff scratched out the
official paperwork and called the coroner. ‘Were there any other guns?‘ he
asked. ‘There was a .22 rifle,’ T.J. replied. ‘How long?’ he popped, and they
chuckled in relief at the suicide idea. ‘He just bled out from the lungs and
mouth,’ T.J. determined.
I liked Pete, as did everyone in the Valley, and he was an honest scavenger, but
there was no sense hanging around that grimness, and Laura walked me to the car.
She stopped short, looking up. ‘A Sun Dog1’ she exclaimed. I followed her
fingernail to a heavenly rainbow that hung like a light chime against the blue.
It was the first I’d seen in the Valley. (A parihelia, or Sun Dog, is a multi-color
halo that faithfully follows the sun on sizzling days and is produced, science
claims, when sunlight passes through plate-shaped crystals that are oriented
horizontally. These crystals need not be visible, and today they weren’t.)
‘That’s Pete smiling down,’ I said, and patted her shoulder.
I won’t hold still around death, and grabbed a shovel back at my property. The
project of the day was excavating the north face of the burrow to open it for
ventilation and light. It had been as stagnant as an animal den down there all
summer. With brow mop and drink at the surface, I dug out the north retaining
wall of underground tires and paused to fling one to the surface when a
scratching sound arose. I peered inside the tire at a Giant Hairy Green Scorpion
(the most common species here). It stretched to 7”, green and likely in
aestivation. I carried the tire ten yards from the burrow and lay it gently
flat. The scorpion began running around and around inside like a racehorse with
a raised tail. I squatted transfixed over the tire for a dozen laps until I
realized it was like the laundromat.
With the scorpion circling in the distance, I dug and picked to neck deep and
looked up to see the biggest snake ever coursing straight at me on the surface.
It’s said a snake doesn’t strike until it tastes fear with its tongue, and I was
too busy figuring if it wore rattlers to get afraid. It was six feet long and of
strong girth with the brown blotches of a western diamondback (the most common
rattler), but the head bobbed back and forth so quickly that I couldn’t judge if
it was wedged with venom glands. Automatically, I had raised the shovel not to
strike but to ward off, and he dodged this way and that looking for an opening.
That snake wanted in the hole with me. I can rightly say I let it pass due to a
genial face, and now it whipped a slender tail past my ear identifying it as a
gopher snake. These often are mistaken and killed as rattlers, but as rodent
eaters are beneficial. He dove into a hole in the retaining wall and
I dug until sunset with the Scorpion asleep in the tire, the snake still in the
burrow, and the Sun Dog had dissolved. I figured Pete had seen enough today, and
ducked into a Louis L’Amour western.
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