I don’t know which smelled worse: the ass-end of a horse hauling cured hay, or the ass-end of a diesel tractor idling for hours on a hot day. “Always got it better,” Dad said to me through the sweat. What he meant was, I should shut up about his diesel tractor coughing in my face because before my time it was his time and before his time it was Pa Thompkins’ time, and back then there was no choice but the ass-end of a horse. Back then they gathered mowed hay into windrows using horse-drawn rakes. After curing, the fields lay speckled with amber haystacks that could stand a good windstorm, feathered layers of hay and rock salt, their silhouettes cutting high into the horizon like mountains sprung up overnight.
Dad let me in on my first full-time harvest in 1962, the summer I turned twelve and the same season we bought our first hay baler. By then, everyone in Shelton County, Oregon owned a hay baler or saved pennies to buy one. We didn’t raise market cattle, so ours was the business of baling hay to feed another farmer’s herd through winter. My job was to follow the tractor and load the slip with hay bales. Working with half a dozen field hands, we could get nearly 1500 bales a day to the stackers and most days we did just that. All the field hands were older and didn’t have much to say to me, the boss’s son. But Roy Gibbons talked at me until we baled every last blade, and my mom told me to listen well. Roy lost his boy in the tines working the hay fields other side of the Imnaha River. Some ugly mess, she said, but by the time I got the full story I’d seen worse.
My third summer on crew, anytime Roy talked to me all I could think about was his daughter Ginny. It was drag week, which meant the sun beat so hot we worked before dawn until lunchtime, then quit for the hottest part of the day. When most folks ate supper, we dragged back to the fields for few more hours’ labor. Supper came late; a giant bite between unlacing my boots and dropping my head onto the pillow.
During the hottest hours, I walked to the Jane. She was just a slow-moving, straight-arrow creek along our property, about eight paces wide. “Deep enough to drop a car into,” Dad liked to say on the rare occasions he went for a swim. Most days, I swam alone. If the other field hands did come, it felt different. They’d follow the fence lines, treading the narrow footpath my boots had cut since I was old enough to walk. The men moved slower than me, never in a hurry. Everything about them felt large, determined. Big hands, big strides, big lifting. Men who hardly said a word working the hayfields came to life swimming in the Jane. They’d whoop and holler at the cold shock of water, shake the creek from their hair like wet dogs, then settle back onto the banks for a nap, quiet as statues.
Ginny lived on the other side of Jane Creek with her two sisters, all of them tough as snakes. Hers wasn’t a haying family. Just a few small fields turned russet-gold and gone to seed. An old barn sheltered Roy’s beat up Cutlass convertible from a life he’d lived before coming to Shelton. Beyond that, Indian paintbrush and aster spread through their fields, a few ponderosa pine on the fringes.
One afternoon during drag week, I saw Ginny wading in the creek wearing just her panties and an undershirt. Never mind what she could have been thinking doing a thing like that—in one breath I saw all her good parts pressed right up against that thin cotton, and if I could do it over better I would, but I just waded right in with my boots still on and told her, “Ginny Gibbons, you must be the prettiest thing this side of Hell’s Canyon.”
She didn’t run. Didn’t run or shriek or do anything but smile a wide-eyed smile and duck into the water till it came up to her chin.
“Still think so?” she asked.
“Without a doubt,” I said. Then I backed out of the water, marched in a nervous line toward home, and tried to erase the embarrassment of what I’d just done. No use. By the time I made it to the barn, I saw Roy Gibbons with the other field hands, and though I tried to screw my mind shut from all the heat of seeing his daughter half naked and prettier than anything I thought could come from him, I couldn’t even look the man straight in the eyes. I must have turned all shades of red, but I didn’t care. My whole body felt on fire.
When the day’s work ended, I walked back to the house. Something felt different inside, like I’d been hijacked. Ginny played over and over in my mind, reel-to-reel, and I think I liked it. “I got something to chew,” I told myself. It was another thing Dad always said, and at fourteen, I started to understand what he meant. Ginny Gibbons. Like a fever spell. Like a prayer song. Like some kind of wild woman drumming up all the fish.
Ginny returned to the creek every afternoon that drag week. She left her clothes in a pile in the grasses and slipped into the water like it was hers. Pale as old cattle bones underneath her clothes, but her arms and shoulders tanned as dark as honey. We waded circles around each other and swam from one bank to the other. I touched her once by accident, just my forearm floating clumsily against her thigh. I drew my arm away, but she never even flinched.
When we swam, everything was mostly quiet except for Ginny, always humming a pulsing song that sounded like something the native people sang at the County Fair. She said her daddy Roy came from the Christians who married the Nez Perce way back before Oregon was even a state. Hard to believe, with her summer-blond hair and hazel eyes, though I had no reason not to trust her.
“Nimipu,” she told me once. “That’s what the Nez Perce called themselves. It means ‘our people.’ I’ve been reading books from the library all summer.” She was up to her waist in the water, fingers sliding atop its glassy surface. She waded deeper, and I studied the way the water cupped her breasts, how they grew lighter in its hold.
“I’ve been reading the hay fields all summer,” I told her. “It’d be nice reading books.”
“I can get you a Western if you want one.”
“I won’t be here swimming all the time next week like I am now.”
“Don’t you think I know?” she said. “You’re on hay time just like my daddy.”
I blushed at the thought that my family supported hers. I didn’t mind being told what to do coming from my own father working our own land, but seeing how others took to his role was a different matter.
A few days later, Ginny waded across a shallow spot in the Jane and followed the fence line straight toward our barn. I suppose walking the driveway or coming to the front door of the house would have been too customary for a girl like her. I heard her first by her humming a short ways off, then closer by the hollow hay stems crunching underfoot. That time of year, the only shade for miles was the backside of a barn come late afternoon. I leaned against the gray slats of wood and scanned the fields until I could see her, long hair shifting over her shoulders and a funny lilt to her step. She had a book in her hand.
When she reached the barn, I saw she’d walked barefoot all the way from the creek and thought she must be sturdier than anyone working the fields of Shelton County. She smiled and handed me the book, a paperback called Unbound Glory, with a ferocious horse and rider on the cover.
“Thanks,” I said, flipping the book over in my palms. The yellowed pages smelled exactly like the Shelton County Library: a mix of ponderosa pine, hay, and pipe tobacco; something like a forest fire right before it starts. “How’d you pick it out?”
“It’s you,” said Ginny, pointing to the cover with a smile.
I looked closely: tough muscles, green eyes, and a straightedge smile. The cowboy on the cover looked like a superhero, nothing like me but for the color of his farm-red skin and dirt brown hair. She came in close then and kissed me. Her lips felt cold as the creek and the same kind of fresh. I let the book slide from my hands and curled my palms over her breasts, easy, like the water taught me. We kept at this for a while, not knowing how I knew what more to do but doing it anyway.
Ginny hadn’t read the book, so she let me tell it to her while we waded circles in the Jane, the end of summer coming quick and myself eager for a break from the fields. In the story, the cowboy chased one crisis after another. First, his widowed neighbor lost one hundred head of cattle to a gang of livestock thieves and he dutifully helped track them down. When his cabin burned in a cook stove fire, he saddled his horse and headed into the wild lonesome, only to come across an outlaw and his gang running from a bank robbery. After an arduous chase, the cowboy finally earned his cash reward for the outlaw’s head.
That fall, I started sophomore year at the high school, and Ginny was set to graduate the following May. She never finished out the year. Something having to do with her mom’s mom who lived along the Willamette River near the state capital and that’s where they moved. She left before the first snow.
Several years later, my buddy Hudson took me spinning in the Cutlass clunker he bought from the Gibbons before they moved. Hudson had just earned his license, two days shy of eighteen. Never mind the fact he’d been driving farm trucks since age nine. He started cutting figure eights around light poles in the factory parking lot like he had nothing to lose. His brother Dwight rode shotgun while I sat strapped in the backseat, biting my cheeks. I could see my reflection in the rear view, this mat of brown hair, two eyes beaned out of my skull, then Hudson turned around—I mean turned around—to look at me while he was spinning fifty miles an hour and said, “I wanna die like this, Thompkins! Just like this!” He screamed at me, as though I was halfway across a hay field with the wind at my back. We locked eyes and everything came at me double speed, my hair whipping into my eyes, the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline, then snap. That’s where my mind took our picture.
“Keep your eyes on the road!” I shouted.
“What road?” Hudson smiled.
“Exactly,” I said.
Dwight reached for the steering wheel. “Turn back around,” he said. “You’re scaring me.”
At least I didn’t sound like a teet-starved calf when I tried standing up to Hudson but still, I felt relieved when he faced front and placed two hands on the steering wheel. He eased his foot off the gas a bit, and we cruised in steady circles along the periphery of the lot. I tilted my head back and the stars blurred into lines across a navy sky. I yipped at the moon, coyote style, and caught a glimpse of Hudson’s face in the rearview, eyes shut, steering the Cutlass by sound and feel. Something shifted then and I felt it, I could’ve died right there just like Hudson said, and I wouldn’t have missed a thing.
That was the last time we were together like that. After high school, Dwight enlisted and shipped to Vietnam in a flat second. Hudson and I bided our time that first summer talking about everything but the draft. “Just kickin’ boots,” he’d say. “Kickin’ boots.” His father owned the local hardware store and for my part, it was haying season.
Late evenings, I could hear the Cutlass coming for miles along the highway before Hudson cut left down our gravel drive. I sunk like sandbags into bed after a day’s work, but there he’d be, honking in my parents’ driveway if I didn’t get out the front door quick enough to shut him up. Warm nights, I lay across the backseat, empty cans of Budweiser pinging against the floorboards as we drove the back roads with the top down. Hudson always took the long way, winding slow and steady along the Jane toward that summer’s deepest swimming hole. One night though, he swerved onto the highway without explanation. He cranked the radio and pressed on for another twenty miles. Finally, he eased off the main road and slowed when the pavement turned to gravel, then to what felt like washboard and packed dirt after that. I wanted to jump out, but I couldn’t see a thing. He parked at the edge of some BLM land farther downstream than I’d ever been. He cut the headlights, and it was darker than a hayloft at midnight.
In the back seat, I kept quiet when Hudson called for me, pretending I’d leapt out along the way, sliced and broken in a ditch with the bunchgrass and sumac. Un-phased, he grabbed a six-pack from the front and headed down the trail, assured I’d blow my cover. I sat up quick and hopped out, but not before snatching a flashlight from the glove box.
“It isn’t far, man, can’t you hear it?” Hudson said through the dark. I heard the hush of dry grass beneath his boots and knew he was already walking away from me, into the night.
“Where are we?”
“Old man Foster’s.”
“You mean that patch of land he left for his eldest? The one that parallels the Jane?”
“Yeah. But that’s not what counts.”
“What counts?” I asked.
“What always counts?”
“The Bureau of Land Management lines,” I said.
“Right…This here’s the thin strip of land that runs parallel to Foster’s for about a mile. It’s the narrowest spot, not more than a hundred yards wide. A miscalculation if you ask the tax offices, but I’ve seen the maps. It’s solid.”
Just like him. Smarter than a book when it came to the ins and outs of Shelton County, but couldn’t pass algebra to get his diploma. Shelton didn’t have much, but it did host the regional Bureau of Land Management offices. County officials stayed hands off when it came to the BLM, outranked and out-funded. The few locals hired by the Feds patrolled BLM land like it was theirs for keeping. Scab-dogs, that’s what we called them, and Foster had been one of them. He died five years back, and his son managed a bank in Spokane. Came home once a summer for the Shelton County Fair. I hadn’t heard of any big rapids on the Jane, but I never trespassed on BLM land to find any, either.
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“You won’t need that flashlight,” he said. “Trust me Thompkins, the falls aren’t far.”
“Falls?” I shoved the flashlight deeper into my pocket.
“Bigger falls means—”
“—a bigger pool,” I finished for him. A line we rehearsed since grade school.
If I’d thought about it at all, I could have guessed Hudson took me to old man Foster’s because he wanted to see where the Jane falls down into the Imnaha River. It unnerved him that he hadn’t seen where those two bodies of water came together, though he’d spent every day of his life putzing around Shelton County, studying the landscape like a palm. He had a thing for trespassing but he had a bigger thing for falls, especially ones you could hear this far off. I kept at his heels as he led us through the dark across the scablands. For all our years going swimming, I never told him about my fear of black water—water you couldn’t see the bottom of, or water you knew was there but couldn’t see for lack of light. Hudson had a way of spooking you if you told him your weak spots.
I worked my mind’s eye hard to get around that darkness, trying to make it feel like daylight. Here would be the wheatgrass and milkvetch. Here the fireweed and yarrow. Where the loess felt soft, I pictured granules of glacial dust compressing beneath the soles of my boots. As we got closer to the falls, I started adding to the picture. Here, the rough edges of ancient basalt would jut into the plain like the scoured heads of giants peeking above ground. Further out, the rocks would form slick columns along the river’s edge, and that’s what I kept the flashlight tucked in my pocket for.
I knew we were close by the sound of the falls and the way Hudson walked a beat or two faster. The noise was something like a chopper overhead, except where there ought to be a pulse I heard steady splashing. Then Hudson put out his arm, telling me to stop.
“How deep is the pool?” I asked. I pushed his arm away and walked toward the epicenter of sound. Quickly, I clicked the flashlight on and scanned ground. He’d taken us within twenty feet of the cliff edge.
“What’s that for?” said Hudson.
I shined the light over the falls but couldn’t see much. A thin spray of water filtered through the triangle beam of light and I forced my eyes to trace it to the very edge, but it only ended in more darkness. “Is it deeper than the pool at the highway bridge?” I asked.
“It’s deep enough,” said Hudson. “Turn that thing off, you’re blinding me.”
“What about the pool up in Wallowa—is it deeper than that?” I took another step toward the edge, shining the flashlight down the basalt cliffs and looking for the place where the dark brown rocks dipped into black water.
“I jumped this last week, Thompkins. It’s a leap and tuck, bombs away. Quit with that light, you hear? You know the deal.”
The deal was old. Something we swore on two summers past and I liked to think I’d grown smarter. Jumping blind into a pool I knew by heart was one thing, but jumping into the pool of a waterfall like this called for a new deal.
“The deal is, you go first,” I told him, clicking off the flashlight.
He grabbed a beer and popped it open. “Fine,” he said.
It took two beers and a lot of bullshit before Hudson finally leapt from that cliff, but as soon as he did I knew I’d have to follow him. I counted—one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three—until I heard it, the splash. I counted again for the time I knew he was under the black water. One Mississippi, two Mississippi. If he did it right, he should have cannon-balled straight into the pool, teeth clenched to save his tongue if he hit bottom. Three Mississippi, four Mississippi. But if this pool was as deep as Hudson promised, it shouldn’t matter quite how he sunk down. What mattered was finding his way back up. Five Mississippi, six Mississippi, seven…
Coming up once at Wallowa, I bumped my head on a sublevel outcrop and fingered my way to its sharp-lipped edge. I pulled my body up and around, sure I’d break the surface of the water just above. Instead, I gulped a pint of water straight into my lungs before realizing my mistake. Came up coughing five long Mississippi’s later and hacked on shore for a few minutes until my body found itself again…Eight Mississippi. Nine…Counting past ten meant bad luck and besides, it would be just like Hudson to slip out of the river quietly and keep me guessing.
Just then I heard Hudson hollering victory. “Oh Thompkins! Oh Jesus! It’s a good one!” he shouted, and I knew by his tone he hadn’t jumped it before like he said. Knew he was still plumb crazy. That if he kept on like this he’d be lucky living long enough to see anything outside the lines of Shelton County. “You up there, Thompkins? Thompkins?” I heard him maneuver onto the riverbank, still short of breath.
Here, my toes gripping the edge of the basalt cliff. Here, a few lichen blooms across the top of the rock. Below could only be a deep pool where the Jane poured into the Imnaha. I dreamed the water bright and deep as ever, slate green like the only kind of river water I know. In between, there would be nothing to fear. Just the same air I’d spent my whole life breathing. The same air I’d hold in my lungs once I went under, not caring how black the night or how black the water or how black behind my eyes when I closed them tight and finally did jump.
I knew I had to be falling by the way the wind lifted the hair away from the sides of my face. The hit came sooner than expected and then I was under, water sounding like a train coming out my ears. Imnaha. Something for a Nez Perce chief from way back when, and it almost didn’t feel right being in his territory. Ginny told me all about Chief Imnaha that summer we waded in the Jane. Said he could tame rattlesnakes with a special walking stick carved from ponderosa pine. Said he forked his tongue and hissed in his sleep. Tall tales, no doubt, but I could feel the chief down there at the bottom of the river. His presence was like an awful war between something that had me by the ankles pulling down and something that had me by the hair pulling up. My body felt light and sandbagged all at once. I kicked my legs free of his grasp, slicing through the black water with force. Streaks of lightening crossed my mind’s eye, trying to illuminate a way out. That’s when I saw Imnaha: two braids, cheekbones cut like the cliffs of the riverbank, black eyes holding the same kind of darkness that kept wrapping around me the longer I stayed underwater. I wanted nothing more than to part my lips and suck in a great breath of air.
It seemed another minute before I broke the surface of the water. I came up gasping and followed the sound of Hudson’s voice.
“This way,” he hollered. I cut left and found the riverbank, then his hand reaching for me as he pulled me out of the water. The air still felt warm from the day’s heat but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t stop shaking.
My number for the draft came up a few weeks after that night jumping into the Imnaha. I left for the war without ceremony and that was fine with me. If Ginny hadn’t moved away, she’d have been the girl to kiss. Far as I understood, she had a new life as a typist in Salem. She wrote while I was overseas once, a real business envelope addressed to me. The letter had perfect rows typed margin to margin. She said she missed the scablands something fierce, but that it probably didn’t compare to how much I missed home. She told me to keep on the good side of luck and come back in one piece. That’s what everybody said, not knowing how hard such a thing might be in Vietnam.
My second week in combat, our unit got stuck between more than one outfit of Viet Cong and nobody could tell which way out. There were twelve of us and Jesus-knows-how-many of them. The VC could make six men sound like sixty, and they were scagged-out enough to tourniquet their limbs before an ambush. That way if they got shredded, they could hobble a few more paces and toss a grenade into the face of some oops-I-shat-my-pants Marine Corps rookie before croaking in a rice paddy. Hudson would have fared well there, if such a thing were possible. He would have understood already what I had to learn in combat: that the only way to win is to decide you’ve got nothing to lose.
The night of the ambush, the VC barged through the forest blowing hard on whistles they kept faceted to their black uniforms. With so much screeching coming from so many directions, there was no telling who or how many. My squad dodged bullets, returned fire, then raced for the water. We spent the night up to our necks in the swamp, weapons held overhead. It was the only place the VC weren’t shooting from. I remember feeling horrified after just a few minutes, the black water slowly eating through my legs. I conjured Ginny then, for all her humming and peaceful quiet, the way the water took to her soft parts; anything to keep me steady through the maze of blood and bullets and all that darkness.
By dawn, there wasn’t any separation between the rest of that jungle and me. The swamp had saved every last one of us.
In camp, we didn’t talk about near misses. You were either dead or alive, and nobody gave a hoot if the bullet clipped your earlobe. But drying my fatigues that morning, I shook out my pants and held them up for inspection. I found four bullet holes down the outside of my left pant leg in a clean line from hip to knee. There I was, buck naked in the morning light, and not a single mark on me. I gaped at my thigh and laughed. It looked as pale as a newborn pig, so clean and vulnerable in this land of death and dirt.
When I looked back at my pants, the fabric had shifted and the holes were misaligned, as though I’d never been under fire. I wished then that gunfire could be so easily erased—a simple wave of the cloth to undo all this die-hard-doing. I wished, too, that so many villages we stormed through had never been there in first place. Just think what we might have done with ourselves after hours of stalking through the swamps, M-16s fully loaded. We’d have parted the leaves of teak trees and bamboo, grenades at the ready, only to peer out at a small clearing of cogon grass, everything becoming finally and suddenly still. In the middle of it all? Sunlight touching down, as if for the first time.