I'm a thirteen-year-old-half-breed, a mongrel, according to my mom's father. He's full-blooded Kootenai Indian and I am only half-Indian. My dad's heritage is a mix of Scot, Irish, French and Ger-man. So maybe the old man is right, I am a mongrel, like most Americans, a mix of nationalities. But, with him, it's not a simple fact. It was spoken with disgust and loathing ten years ago and my mother died because of it. My older brother Chris and I hate him.
For ten years, no one heard from the old man and we were ﬁne with that. Then a letter shows up saying he wants me to spend the summer with him. Dad said my mother would have wanted her youngest son to know her people. I fought against it and lost in the end. I always do when it's 'what Mom would have wanted.'
So I'm stuck on the Kootenai-Salish Indian Reservation in northwestern Montana. All I have to do is ﬁnd his stash of booze and I'll be on my way home.
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|Age Range:||9 - 11 Years|
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By Trisha Davis
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Trisha Davis
All right reserved.
Chapter OneI had heard the stories many times. About my mother belonging to the Kootenai Indian tribe in northwestern Montana; and Dad, who isn't Indian in any way; and how that was a problem for my grandfather. As I got older, the story of my mother's death was told.
I knew Mom, my older brother Chris, and I visited her father the week before my third birthday. Chris was only nine then, but he remembered their argument. Mom wouldn't let our grandfather drive us to town because he had been drinking. Hot words hurled between them when he told her to "crawl home to your white boy and take your mongrels with you."
Mom, mad and crying, called to us, "Chris, get Buddy. Take him to the car. We're leaving right now!" Chris said he remembered her picking up a rock and throwing it at the house. She called Dad from a phone booth and said we were on our way home because her father was mean-drunk. Chris told me things my dad hadn't. Chris said he heard our grandfather call us mongrels, half-breeds. Chris said he hated our grandfather. And I did, too.
Mom was still angry when we got back on the highway. She must not have seen the truck cross the centerline until it was too late. According to the police report, my mother swerved to miss it. Then our car went over the guardrail, rolled down an embankment, and landed upside down in a stream. I was in the back, strapped into my car seat, dry and unhurt. Chris's arm was broken in two places. My mother, knocked unconscious, drowned.
Dad blamed himself, claiming if he had been with us, there wouldn't have been the ugly fight and Mom wouldn't have been on the road. But I knew the truth. If Chris and I had never been born, she would still be alive.
* * *
Within six months, Dad took a biology job in Alaska and we left Montana and the places that held memories of my mother.
Chapter TwoI grew up in remote Alaska cabins so Dad could study bears and their habitat year-round. Chris and I were homeschooled by our PhD dad. That meant there were no excuses for poor grades. With him "there ain't no such word as ain't." By the first of every month, we had to pick one new word from the dictionary. And he insisted we use the word often so we would remember it. May's was risible: it means something can make you laugh. June's would be superb. I hadn't picked out July's yet.
As usual, I was tagging along with Dad when his boss and friend, Nick, gave him his summer assignment. "I've got some great news, Mike. We finally got the funding to work with the Canadians on relocating some grizzlies to Montana and Idaho. I'll be sending you as the main grizzly biologist, and Savannah Hansen will serve as liaison. The Canadians will be the project managers until you're in transit with the bears."
"Savannah Hansen, huh? Isn't she that new grad down in Anchorage?"
"No, that's AJ you're thinking of. Savannah's been working out of Skagway for several years. You'll meet her next month. She knows her job and will make yours a lot smoother. I think you'll make a good team."
"Nick, you're not trying to set me up again, are you?" It wouldn't have been the first time.
Ignoring Dad's question, Nick went on. "Mike, I know you like having your boys with you, but with this being an international effort, it would be best if they stayed around here. Chris and Buddy can stay with us. Hailey has been complaining about our empty nest now that Rachael is off to college. Frankly, I'd enjoy their company. They're both good to have around the homestead."
"We'll talk it over and I'll let you know, though I doubt Chris will take you up on it. I'm pretty sure he plans to go out on a fish processor for most of summer. Between college and his girlfriend, he needs a good summer job."
Hailey was a superb cook. You knew that just looking at her and Nick. There's plenty of food, always. But she clucks. You know, like a mother hen when she worries about her brood. Hailey never let me out of her sight. It was okay when I was little, but by the time I was twelve I liked to get out and hike by myself. I hoped Dad would say no, but I didn't know where I would stay if he did.
That's the day the letter came.
Chapter ThreeYou're going to say no, aren't you, Dad?"
My grandfather had not spoken to my father or me or Chris, not once, in all the years since Mom had died. Suddenly, he wanted me to come to Montana and spend the summer with him.
Dad was hesitant. "I don't know Buddy. He says he's forgiven me for not being Indian." He snorted and shut his eyes. After a moment he nodded, opened his eyes, and studied mine. "I'm not sure I've forgiven him, though. I'll have to think on it. If it was just me I'd say no, but I have to think of what your mother would've wanted too."
I hated it when he made decisions based on what my mother would have wanted. I was sure she wouldn't want me to go to Montana. She wouldn't want me to spend the summer with a rotten old man.
"You know, your Aunt Rose sends one letter a year. I don't know why, really, other than staying in touch with you boys. The last few mentioned Sebastian and how he's sobered up. Volunteers at the Cultural Center, helps out at the Bison Range. He's mellowed some, I guess. Enough for Rose to encourage him to write that letter. I don't think he would have done it on his own." I could tell Dad was trying to be fair. For Mom.
"The day after your mother's funeral, old Sebastian got roaring drunk. He said the worst thing that ever happened to his Katie was meeting me." Dad was quiet, staring at the cloudy sky before softly going on. "Meeting your mother was the best thing that ever happened to me." I sat there. I didn't know what to say except, "Dad! You can't send me there. How could you even think about it? He said we're mongrels! Chris hates him and so do I. And what about me? What if I don't want to go? Why should I?" My mind searched for a reason not to go, anything that would make sure I stayed in Alaska. "Let me stay with Hailey. I could use some good, solid mothering. I'm running wild as an Indian." Stupid. I am Indian. Well, half anyway.
"I know, son. I don't blame you. I wouldn't even consider it if it weren't for Rose. She would like to get to know you some too. And she's right; you should know your mother's side of the family. I just never gave any thought to if, or when, that would happen."
"So let them come here. I don't see anyone trying to get to know us." I fidgeted. I was losing the biggest argument of my life. "What does that old man want with me anyway?"
"He says he wants to get to know one of Katie's sons." Dad pulled at neck hairs sticking above his henley shirt, a habit he had when he was thinking seriously. "I guess he figures Chris is too old. Maybe he thinks he'll have a better chance with you. Let's think about it for a few days. If it doesn't work out, I'll tell Hailey she has a houseguest."
That night I planned how I'd take off if Dad said I was going to Montana. I figured I would take the two-man raft Dad had given me for my thirteenth birthday. It was small enough that I could manage it, yet big enough for me and my camping gear. We were staying in a cabin on Wolverine Creek, about a mile up from the North Fork of the Kuskokwim River. It would be easy; I'd float all the way to Bethel. There were people along the river that would trade food for work. That's the way it is in the bush.
Drifting off to sleep, jagged lines of light flickered behind my eyelids. Weird.
Breakfast was unusually quiet. We each had our own thoughts about the letter and about the man who wrote it. I finally spoke up. "I've been thinking all night. I've decided I don't want to go. I'll stay with Hailey and Nick."
"First, let me make a call to Montana. I want to talk with Sebastian before I make any decisions. I want to know—"
"Dad! Just call and say I'm not coming, that I have my summer booked!"
"I was saying—I want to know why your grandfather has decided to mend the damage he has caused. I owe it to your mother I'm not much on forgiveness, but your mother was. Maybe now is the time for you to get to know your mother's family."
I went to my room and started packing. Not a suitcase; my backpack. It would hold everything I needed. I wasn't going. I didn't care what anyone said! I was not going to Montana!
"What are you doing?" Dad leaned against the doorway.
"Packing. Not that anyone cares." I crammed in a pair of leather gloves.
"Son, you can't run away from the past. I'm asking you to give me a chance to check out the situation. It's what your mother would want me and you to do. We owe it to her."
"He called us half-breeds! What am I supposed to call him? Granddad? Grandpa? Grandfather? Son of a bi—"
"None of that! Buddy, I don't have an answer for you. That's something you'll have to decide. Just don't embarrass yourself."
"How about Sebastian? It's not like he's been a real grandparent." I knew I was losing the argument. I always did when he said "it's what your mother would have wanted" or "it would've made your mother proud." I knew then I'd end up going, but I didn't have to like it. Besides, I was curious. That's not the same as giving in.
I had cousins, aunts and uncles in Montana, but I never gave them much thought. I didn't remember anyone except Aunt Rose, and that was only because she sent a letter every Christmas. Once, she even sent a picture of herself in a Mrs. Santa dress. She looked small enough to be an elf. Dad keeps the picture in the album we always haul around with us.
That night I went through the picture album. I wanted to see the people I would meet in Montana. Dad told me their names but I wasn't listening. I was looking to see if we really were related, if I looked like anyone on Mom's side. Everyone had dark hair and eyes. Like me. But the pictures were small and I couldn't tell if I looked like anyone. I liked the pictures of my mother when she was a little girl. I looked more like her than Dad. There were a few with our whole family in them. One had my mother's father in it and he was holding me. He didn't look like a murderer, but I knew he was. It was his fault my mother died. Chris had said so.
There were lots of pictures of us growing up. We had pictures of the hunting and fishing trips we made. One of Chris proudly holding up the first fish he ever caught. We all laughed when we came to the one of me covered in mud to keep the mosquitoes off. And there were the birthday pictures, the ones Dad took of us every year. Chris and I took pictures of Dad on his birthday.
I slipped one out of the album and tucked it in my wallet. It was of the three of us standing together on the bank of the Kenai River. Each one of us held a twenty- or thirty-pound king salmon. It had been a good day for fishing, one that I would remember for a long time.
Chapter FourSo that's how I landed in an old pickup truck in northwest Montana with someone I didn't know, didn't like, and never missed. I had made my best arguments to stay in Alaska, and I lost.
Leaning against the slightly open window, I felt the cool, rainy Montana air on my cheek. I hadn't been there for nearly ten years, not since my mother died. With little notice and a lot of arguing, I was sent to the Flathead Indian Reservation to be with a grandfather I had no reason to like.
Up to that point, all I knew about the man behind the wheel was he didn't like us—us being Dad, me, and my older brother, Chris. We didn't like him much either. Dad said the man had been a mean drunk most of his life, and that it was his drinking and bad temper that had killed my mother; a simple case of cause and effect.
In the Missoula airport, a man wearing a brown T-shirt with a buffalo head printed on the front stood watching the passengers heading to collect their baggage. Seeing me, he smiled and waved like he was glad to see me. He didn't try to hug me. Good thing. He offered his hand instead. I hesitated before letting him shake my hand. I hadn't expected that.
"Hey, Buddy. Welcome back to Montana! How was your trip?"
"Okay." I didn't say I had sat in airports for hours or that I wasn't glad to see him. It showed though, and I didn't care.
"You don't look too happy about being here."
I didn't say anything, just nodded and gave my best drop-dead glare.
"I guess you would rather be somewhere else. Is that right?" Glare.
"Humpf, this is tougher than I thought. Well, Buddy, you're here now. How are we going to get through the next month or so?"
I held my silence a moment more. "For starters, don't call me 'Buddy,' because I'm not your buddy. And don't expect me to call you 'Grandpa.' I don't even know if you are. You never acted like one."
The man flinched as if I had thrown ice water on him. I could see that got to him. Good. He looked at his tennis shoes for a moment and then said slowly, "Okay. So how will I know if you are talking to me? You have something else in mind? Something you can say out loud?"
I nodded. "Sebastian. That's your name, isn't it?" I sounded belligerent even to my ears, but I held on anyway.
"Yeah, it is. Guess that's better than some names I've been called. Sebastian it is. Now, what do I call you? "
I hadn't thought about that. I put my chin in the air. "James. Call me James, like people that don't know me."
That settled, I grabbed my bag and followed him out into a drenching rain. Sebastian pointed to an old truck saying, "Over there." The truck was a '72 Chevy. Its dark-brown paint glistened in the rain, not a scratch on it. The 4 x 4 must have been parked for years. I stuffed my bag on the seat, leaving little room for the gearshift on the floor to work. Sebastian got in, started the truck, and drove out of the parking lot, and I felt my first pang of homesickness.
Once on the highway, every car passed us. We were barely going fifty miles an hour. "Is this as fast as it goes?" I sneered, not really caring how fast it did or didn't go.
"I kind of baby this old truck; try not to go too fast. Cuts down on engine wear," he said. "And I like to see where I'm going and what's around me. We'll get to where we're going soon enough."
I barely heard him over the engine noise and pounding rain.
Too soon for me. I thought about how fast I came from Anchorage and understood what he meant.
I didn't know what to say to the man. He didn't look like the Indian grandfather I had expected. No white hair, no braid, no animal stuff hung from him. His black hair was tied back into a short ponytail; his low-pulled baseball cap shaded eyes as dark as mine. He was about my height, maybe five feet eight or nine. I could have looked him straight in the eye. Right then? That was the last thing I wanted to do.
The rain had slacked to a fine mist. Clouds hung on the mountainsides, turning pink and yellow. Sebastian hadn't said much, his fingers tapped on the steering wheel, keeping time with the tune he whistled. That was okay by me. I didn't want to talk anyway and it gave me time to check out the country.
I don't know if I thought all Indians lived in tepees, but I didn't see any—Indians or tepees. Instead, there were small houses, lots of horses and pastures and white fences, and a few big fancy houses with fields of alfalfa already laying in rows ready to bale. Not much different from small towns in Alaska. It was somewhat pretty with steep mountains, narrow valleys, and pine trees everywhere. Like Alaska. Like home. My throat stung.
I started reading road signs to keep my mind off home. "Did that sign say something about bison? Isn't that the same as buffalo?" Curiosity had made me ask.
The finger tapping stopped. "Yep, to both questions. The National Bison Range. It's the largest herd of buffalo in the US. I work there in the spring when calves are being born. I'll give you a tour later if you like."
I would like to see it, but I wasn't going to tell him.
"We'll be home soon. I thought we would stay at my mountain cabin instead of the bachelor apartment I keep in town. There is more to do, and we can get to know each other a bit."
Yeah, right, just what I want to do, I thought sarcastically.
"There's a single shot .22 for plinking. You fly fish? My canoe is there with fishing poles and a couple of good fly rods."
What, no bow and arrows? "Yeah, I fish." I didn't bother to cover the dread in my voice. I wanted to say, I came because Dad said I should. Not because you asked me to. So stop trying to get me to like you. It won't work. I'll never like you. But I didn't. I had promised to be civil and not say everything I thought. I hadn't promised not to think.
Excerpted from WILDFIRE! by Trisha Davis Copyright © 2011 by Trisha Davis. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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