The third book in Warren C Easley's Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries
About the Author
Award-winning author Warren C. Easley lives in Oregon where he writes fiction and tutors GED students. Easley is the author of the Cal Claxton Oregon Mysteries. For more, visit WarrenEasley.com.
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Not Dead Enough
A Cal Claxton Oregon Mystery
By Warren C. Easley
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Warren C. Easley
All rights reserved.
Fifty Years Later
"Come on, give the steelheads a break. I've got hot coffee."
It was my friend, Philip Lone Deer. He'd come up behind me on the riverbank. We were on the Deschutes River, just south of the Warm Springs Reservation boundary, on the Indian side. It was mid-morning and brutally cold, but the sun sparkled and danced off the river. I was standing hip-deep in fast-moving water. "Wait a sec. I'm feeling it here."
I was a novice fly-fisherman, so my comment made him laugh. Fly fishing for steelhead is the big leagues. "In your dreams, Claxton." Then with sudden urgency, he added, "Whoa, you're right. There's a fish out there. I can see him from up here. Cast out about forty feet and swing your fly to the bank. He's at three o'clock. A big one."
I flicked the lure — a big fly called a fire butt skunk — off the surface and back behind me and then cranked it forward, hoping for a decent cast. The fly hit downriver at about the right distance. I lowered the rod tip and began working the lure toward the bank. Sure enough, at three o'clock a big steelhead crunched the lure on a violent upward pass. The surface erupted, and the fish came out of the water like a chrome-plated missile.
"All right!" Philip cried. A Paiute who lives off reservation, Philip was a professional fishing guide, one of the best in the Northwest. I'd hired him to teach me to fly-fish after I arrived in Oregon, making good on a promise to my daughter that I would find a hobby. Our friendship had grown from there, and now we fished together as friends when our schedules permitted it.
With my heart rapping against my ribs, I set the hook at the top of the leap. The fish re-entered the water and wrenched the tip of my rod downward as it ran for the center of the river. It took me a good five minutes to bring it alongside. I slipped out the barbless hook and gently supported the fish from underneath with my hand until its crimson gills pumped hard. It rolled on its side, and its iridescent scales flashed in the sunlight. My heart swelled at the sight of such a beautiful creature, my first steelhead. I said, "Thanks, big boy," then watched it vanish with a flick of its powerful tail.
Afterwards, up on the bank as we huddled in the sun sipping coffee, Philip said, "Next Saturday there's going to be a commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the flooding of Celilo Falls. If you're free, why don't you come over to the Gorge and join me."
"Won't it be more of a wake than a commemoration?" I knew the story of how the construction of The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River had led to the flooding of the great Native American fishing grounds and village, and what that had meant to the tribes in the region.
"Nah, not really. We Indians know how to put things behind us. A matter of necessity. It'll be some speeches, some dances, a lot of good food. But don't come for all that. I want you to come and feel lots of guilt for what the white man did to us, man."
"But what about all those casinos we've given you?"
"Seriously, I want you to come, Cal. You can check out the work on the new village and the longhouse. The Corps finally admitted they'd screwed up the original relocation and coughed up millions of bucks to rebuild everything."
I whistled. "I don't feel so guilty anymore."
"Besides, you've got to see my father. He's going to wear his full headdress."
I told my friend I would go but intended to avoid the speeches if I could. I didn't see how anything good could be made out of what had happened and didn't want to hear any of the great white fathers from Oregon and Washington, D.C., try to spin it that way. To me, the flooding of the falls was just another gut shot to the Indians, and it was the dams that spelled the slow but steady decline of the migrating salmon populations, the lifeblood of the Columbia River tribes for millennia.
* * *
I headed out for the commemoration that following Saturday from my place in the hills above Dundee, a small town perched some twenty-five miles south of Portland at the epicenter of Oregon's wine country. I'd moved to an old farmhouse there six months earlier after taking an early retirement from the city of Los Angeles. Celilo Village was better than a hundred miles to the northeast, but it was a good day for a drive. The air had been scrubbed to a sparkle by a hard shower the night before, and the sky had that color, that achingly pure blue that seemed peculiar to the Northwest and always lifted my spirits. Of course, there's more rain than sun up here in Oregon, but I was beginning to realize that one day like this one was worth at least thirty days of rain.
Traffic was light when I reached Portland. Its handsome, compact center was cleaved east from west by the Willamette River and stitched back together by a series of eight bridges, earning it the nickname Bridgetown. As I cleared the river high atop the I-5 Bridge, I found myself wondering what an earthquake would do to the aging structure and quickly suppressed the thought. A reflex from my L.A. days, I suppose.
I took the I-84 turnoff and headed east toward the Columbia River Gorge, a passage carved through sheer basalt cliffs that funneled the mighty river for over eighty miles. A low cloud cover had formed, but when I entered the Gorge the sun broke through and began playing off the whitecaps flecking the gray-verging-into-blue water. I played tag with heavily laden eighteen-wheelers for ninety minutes before The Dalles Dam came into view — its low profile set against the humped, treeless hills on the Washington side of the river. White water from half a dozen open floodgates cascaded down the center of the dam and stretched downriver like a huge, white tongue.
I arrived at Celilo Village at quarter past one. It must've been a sellout crowd, because I had to park out near the highway and walk in on the frontage road. I knew lunch was scheduled for two, and the aroma of meat and fish being cooked over open fires greeted me at the edge of the village. Calling the place a "village" was a stretch, since what I saw was maybe a dozen manufactured houses jammed in on either side of a short dirt road off to my left. A single basketball hoop and a couple of dirt bikes leaning against the supporting pole were the only suggestions that kids lived there. On either side of the broad road, stakes and plywood forms gave me a sense of the shape of the village to come. It promised to be a real upgrade, but then again almost anything would be.
I followed the rich aromas to the large wooden building that I took to be the longhouse. An elongated A-frame structure, it sported a set of huge, old-growth timbers that crossed at the roofline, tepee style. A small army of cooks was busy preparing lunch along one side of the building. I slipped into the front entryway, stood at the back, and scanned the standing-room-only crowd for Philip.
I didn't spot Philip but saw his father immediately. He was the one on stage wearing all the eagle feathers. He sat with the other tribal leaders next to an American flag and the four flags of the sovereign nations affected by the loss of the falls — Umatilla, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Warm Springs. Several white dignitaries sat with them, including a gray-haired man in military dress with lots of ribbons and medals. The brass from the Corps, no doubt. A man in a blue suit and red power tie stood at the podium, reading what I quickly realized was a proclamation from the Governor of Oregon. To my surprise, the words were refreshingly honest and forthright, and I found myself wanting to believe the promise that government had learned a lesson, that something like this could never happen today. I wondered.
After a brief closing ceremony, the crowd emptied out and began queuing up for lunch.
"Cal. Good to see you, buddy," Philip said as he emerged from the throng and met me with a fist bump. "How long you been here?"
"Oh, quite a while. Nice ceremony. Your dad was looking good up there."
Philip flashed a brilliant smile. He had turn-your-head looks but none of the vanity that could have generated. Black hair pulled back in a ponytail, a chin like a block of granite, and obligatory high cheekbones were all Paiute warrior. But his green eyes and narrow, almost delicate, nose came from his white mother. "Bullshit," he said. "I saw you sneak in a few minutes ago." He was still smiling. "Let me guess — car trouble?"
I shrugged. "Give me a break. I did catch some of the Gov's proclamation."
"Impressive speech, huh? Makes me confident that if you ever take our land again, you'll do it with much more sensitivity."
"Well, don't take our word for it. Make sure you get a signed treaty."
Philip threw his head back and laughed. "Come on, let's get something to eat."
We piled our plates high with salmon, venison, corn on the cob, and salad and sat down at a table, joining another party of three. The man I sat down next to extended his hand and said, "Hello, I'm Jason Townsend," and then introduced us to the other two. Townsend was tall and blond and strikingly handsome. His yellow V-neck sweater with a button-down underneath, chinos, and spotless jogging shoes signaled a failed attempt at dressing down, Oregon style. He looked vaguely familiar to me. I scanned my memory banks but came up empty. "So, what brings you two to the commemoration?" he asked as we tucked into our food.
Philip looked at me to answer Townsend's question. "Well, Philip's a member of the Confederated Tribes at Warm Springs. I'm just here to pay my respects for the loss of the falls."
Townsend looked directly at Philip. "I'm truly sorry for your loss. Based on what we know today, we probably wouldn't have built The Dalles Dam."
Philip lowered his fork and looked back, not quite knowing what to make of the man. "Yeah, well, it screwed up the best fishing hole in North America." Townsend laughed at this, albeit a bit cautiously, and waited for Philip to continue.
After a pause, I filled the vacuum. I was used to doing this for my laconic friend. "I wish I could have seen Celilo Falls with my own eyes. Imagine all the migrating salmon in the Columbia squeezed into one spot."
Townsend leaned in. "I wish I could have seen it, too. The pictures don't do it justice. They say the roar of the falls shook the earth." He looked at Philip again, but he didn't respond. He'd spoken his piece. "Now we know the dams are killing off the salmon," Townsend went on. "I think they need to go."
That rang a bell with me. Is this the guy who's thinking about a run for the U.S. Senate, the guy who's advocating dam removal? Wasn't his name Townsend? I took another look at him. Could be. The other two are probably aides, I decided. The thin, well-dressed man across from Townsend, introduced earlier as David Hanson, said, "People in the Northwest don't want to give up their cheap power, and they shouldn't have to. We have so many new options now — solar, wind power, geothermal, wave. The dams can be phased out over time."
"That's right, David," Townsend added, coming in as if on cue. "I think we can find less ecologically damaging sources of power in the Northwest. But it's going to take new leadership."
I glanced at the other aide, Sam DeSilva, and caught him rolling his eyes at the comment. Sam was short and stoutly built with a closely shaved head that glistened in the sunlight. He obviously wasn't a true believer.
I looked back at Townsend. "Philip and I are fly-fishermen. We daydream about free-flowing rivers. Does this dam-removal idea stand a chance?"
Townsend squared his shoulders and looked me in the eye. "I think it does. It won't happen overnight, and we can't remove all the dams, but big changes always start with a dream."
We continued the conversation in this quixotic vein while we ate our lunches. I had to admit it felt good to think about the possibility of the Columbia River flowing freely again, but I still didn't give the idea a snowball's chance in hell. By this time, I was sure who Townsend was. I said, "You're thinking about a run for the Senate, aren't you? I read about you a while back." Philip shot me a surprised look that turned pained. He put white politicians right up there with people who fish with dynamite.
Before Townsend could answer, a reporter butted in and asked him for an interview. Philip took the opportunity to jump up and grab me by the arm. As we turned to go, Townsend slipped me a business card and said hastily, "Sorry for this, Cal. Great meeting you. I am running for the Senate. And I'm serious about the dams. Call me if you want to help."CHAPTER 2
As I caught up with Philip, he said, "Come on. I want you to meet my cousin." He guided me through a crowd that had formed around a drumming circle to a booth fronted by a banner that read "Learn about Pacific Salmon." There, a group of Native American kids listened to a woman wearing a fringed buckskin dress trimmed in turquoise and white beads. She was tall and willowy with her hair in traditional braids that hung past her shoulders. The kids seemed to hang on her every word, even the older boys standing at the back, although their interest probably had more to do with her figure than the subject matter.
"Okay," the woman said, "I've been doing all the talking. Now it's your turn."
The kids clapped and chattered excitedly.
She looked at the younger kids sitting up close. "Who can tell me why the salmon is such a special fish?"
A thin little girl wearing heavy glasses shot her hand up. "Um, they go back to have their babies in the same place they were born. Sometimes it's a really long swim back to that place, but they never forget where it is."
"Very good. What are fish called that do this?"
A boy in the second row called out, "Ana ... uh, anadromous."
The woman smiled brightly. "That's right. She looked at the boys in the back. "What do you guys think about a fish that swims a thousand miles up a river just to spawn?"
A tall boy in gangbanger pants and a black tee-shirt said, "They're damn tough."
The woman's face lit up. "Wonderful point. Tell me more. Why are they so tough?"
"Well, look at all the stuff they have to fight against — fishermen, dams, sea lions, pollution, people messing up their spawning grounds, stuff like that. But they keep coming back every year. My dad says there's no quit in them."
I looked at those kids huddled around the woman, tough survivors, too. No wonder they have such a strong bond with the fish they hold sacred. After all, they've lived together along this river for thousands of years. And then I had another, less comforting thought. What if our stupidity wins out and we allow Columbia River salmon to become extinct? Could these people cope? Shit. Could I?
The woman ended the discussion with an old Wasco story of how Coyote freed the salmon for the benefit of all the river peoples by fooling two old women who were hoarding the fish. The kids laughed and clapped when she told them Coyote did this by destroying a dam that was holding the fish captive. The irony of the story wasn't lost on them. Not one bit.
Philip and I waited in the back until she finished her talk, and the kids began to drift away. Philip waved and she came over to us.
"Hi, Winona," Philip said as he hugged her. "Meet Cal Claxton. Cal, this is my cousin, Winona Cloud."
Her face was unadorned with makeup, and her smile was as modest as it was brief, showing the hint of two honest-to-goodness dimples. Her eyes were almond-shaped and hazel-going-to-green. They regarded me with intelligence and obvious curiosity as she offered her hand.
"I enjoyed your talk, Winona. You had those kids eating out of your hand."
"She knows her stuff," Philip interjected, gazing at her proudly. "She has a PhD in biology from Stanford."
Winona showed another hint of a smile, and I thought she might actually be blushing.
"What are you doing with your degree?" I asked.
"I work for a nonprofit, Pacific Salmon Watch."
I nodded to let her know I'd heard of the organization.
"I'm heading up a project on river habitat restoration. We're working with the Columbia tribes on this. She glanced back at the booth, stacked with literature and decorated with photos and illustrations of salmon. Part of my job's education."
"I liked the way you mixed the science with the Indian lore," I told her.
Excerpted from Not Dead Enough by Warren C. Easley. Copyright © 2016 Warren C. Easley. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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