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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs


Sun Dog
19/08/04

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 disappeared.

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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