The Gila Monster’s Shadow Part 2


….I was 10 years of age in the spring of 1982 when Dad started hauling gear from the trailhead to the new gold claim high in the Talkeetna Mountain Range. He used an old freight sled with half-inch thick iron runners, hooked up eighteen dogs to the bridle and careened his way over Gunsight Pass with all manner of assorted cargo, chickens and two-by-fours, gasoline and gold pans, tools and hard tack. You name it, Dad hauled it in. The amazing thing was spring was far enough along that the winter’s snow had long since melted, leaving him only gravel, rock, dirt and tundra to bounce across. For the two weeks that Dad was doing this dangerous job, Mom and my brothers and I remained at the trailhead tending to the horses and goats and living out of a small cab-over camper. When us kids finally left the dusty trailhead and made the climb over the steep mountain pass, we all wore rucksacks loaded with canned foodstuff and led the livestock in a long train. Mom packed the .41 magnum on her hip, a piece of iron that would be used many times throughout the years and still has a place near at hand, and Dad walked with his beloved Arab/Quarter horse cross Gemini who was loaded with gear, including a 12 gauge Remington shotgun hung from a sling.

The valley was like some fantastic dream; deep and lush, and waiting with the promise of adventure. It was narrow, barely a quarter-mile across, and surmounted by sheer walls over five hundred feet high. A lively river ran from one end to the other, and terrific box canyons complete with water falls let into it at regular intervals. The valley floor was rugged and rumpled, a mix of young birch and old growth spruce and tamarack blending into gentle fields of moss and wildly profuse blueberry bushes. Paradise.

We boys spent the long days of summer scampering about the hillsides, and Mom and Dad explored the valley from one end to the other on horseback. There had always been dogs in our lives, but until now we had never known this side of our parents. Dad, mounted up on Gemini, a spirited roan mare, looked like a character from a Louis L’amore novel, complete with a wide-brimmed Stetson and .32 Special lever-action carbine in a saddle scabbard. And the way those two moved together! Pure poetry. Dad’s passion for the equine animal was evident in his every action, and years later when I heard the description of the mythical beast Centaur, I knew exactly what they were talking about.

Summer passed and fall began to chill the air. Dad built a small deck and fashioned a rough framework of immature spruce saplings atop it, which he then covered with opaque sheets of four mil plastic Visqueen (very thin plastic sheeting). He lugged in a small Yukon stove for heating and cooking, and put in hooks for several Coleman lanterns. The horses were quartered on a small plateau with a steep embankment leading down to the house and the forty odd dogs and yearlings that made up Dads team were sheltered just to the south. We didn’t have houses for them, but we did our best to give them cover in the form of crude windbreaks constructed from countless spruce boughs.

Winter descended and the days grew dark and cold. By mid November the sun would only show its face for what seemed like a few minutes at a time as it cleared the walls enclosing the valley at noontime, than quickly slide from view behind the escarpment to the west.  After reading a book called ‘The Gila Monster’s Shadow’, a story about Mexican bandits at the turn of the 19th century, I was inspired to talk the rest of the family into Spanish lessons taken from an old battered English/Spanish dictionary. We would all sit around in the glow of the lantern, the thin plastic walls of our house shivering and flapping in time with the wind, eating moose steaks and sometimes if we were lucky one of Mom’s pan fried chocolate cakes, and delighting in the absurdity of learning this strange and beautiful language in such an unlikely setting. Sometimes, with my breath frosting and my nose crispy with cold, I would lie in my sleeping bag and watch the northern lights undulate across the roof of the sky and dream of distant places….

It was bitter cold the morning Gemini fell. I don’t know how cold, we had no thermometer, but it was cold enough that a stream of piss would burst into particles of steam before reaching the ground. Only minutes before, Mom and Dad had bundled Will, my youngest brother, into thick blankets in the basket of the freight sled and left for the day to go to town and gather supplies.

My older brother Laird and I were in the house trying to stay warm when something crashed against it, down low amongst the pilings, and we heard a terrible whinnying.

We ran outside to see what had happened. It was Dad’s horse, she had slipped and came flying down the embankment on her side and was now wrapped about the pilings underneath the deck like a child’s plaything. Her eyes were wide with panic and her cries were throaty, terrified squeals that will haunt my dreams until the day I die. She was in the process of trying to get back up, throwing her beautiful head up and bringing it crashing down with maniacal force. Blood streamed and splattered from her nostrils, flying in long streamers to paint the nearby snowbank.

Laird grabbed my shoulder, shook me. His face was chalk white and his one good eye was sick with horror. Go after them! He meant Mom and Dad. They were only gone by ten minutes or so. Maybe there was a chance.

I snatched the 12 gauge from the wall pegs inside the house, and then I ran. I followed the outbound trail, the one that led up out of the valley and then to the highway below.  I ran with my head down and my elbows tucked in close, the shotgun snug against my back, sucking in great lung searing breaths, trying to fight the panic that threatened to engulf me. I ran for Gemini’s life. And when I could run no more, when I reached the point where I could see the place where the trail climbed the valley wall and disappeared over the far side, I stopped, planted my feet in a shooting stance, and rattled off six shots from the shotgun so fast that it must have sounded like the roar of an automatic rifle. Then I screamed, my frozen tear streaked face turned to a sky as hard and uncaring as granite, and screamed until I thought my throat would burst.

Only the ravens answered me.

I returned to camp much older than I was when I left. Gemini was still stuck. Laird was frantically trying to subdue the poor girl, who was determined to batter her brains out upon the frozen ground. She was growing weaker by the minute, but still had the power to send Laird flying. Together, we were able to pin her head down, after fashioning a crude cushion, and then sooth her into ceasing her struggles. We brought every blanket we could find and wrapped her as best we could.

And try as we might, we could not free her from her trap. As the day wore on, we tried everything we could think of, pulling and pushing, block and tackle…but in the end, she was just too big. Laird and I stayed with her, stroking her face and crying, nearly hysterical with grief, unaware that our time as children was now over, that our innocence was dying out here in the cold with this magnificent beast.

The day passed. Mom and Dad and Will came home just before night fall. Dad saw right away what had happened. He let out a great anguished howl and dove headfirst under the deck. He pulled the cocoon of blankets from her, wrestled her hind legs out from under the pilings, than ripped her out from under the deck like she was made of straw. There was still a tiny spark of life in her, but it was fading fast. Dad built a great bonfire as close to her body as he could without burning her, then covered her with the blankets.

Night fell and the cold deepened. Gemini was so weak that she could barely nicker as Dad stroked her nose and murmured into her ear. He looked at me and Laird with a face as hard and cold as a block of ice. He picked up the 12 gauge, and then told Mom to get us all inside. Stunned and frozen, we followed Mom. Inside, through the walls of the cabin, the bonfire spun and danced and threw shadows across the floor. Dad and Gemini were stark silhouettes cast in relief against the backdrop of the night.

Time ticked by. Suddenly the silence was shattered by the shotgun coughing its terrible roar. It was much later before Dad came in…..

Thanks for tuning in–more to follow….


7 Responses to “The Gila Monster’s Shadow Part 2”

  1. wow, stiring stuff. it must have broken all your hearts to lose gemini. sounds like a hard childhood jason.

    • Well, everybody has their tough stories, I believe, it’s just that not very many people share/write them. I look back on my own childhood with a great deal of appreciation & fondness–I’m rooting for those little guys, if you know what I mean 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Matt.

  2. Marlene Phillips-Daniels Reply May 4, 2011 at 14:05

    Jason, as many times as I’ve read this story, I still shed tears. Like a small child I keep hoping you and Laird will win. I remember how the whole area changed from what you remembered when you took Harmony in to see it years later.
    Powerful story.

  3. Jason,
    I hesitated to comment at first until I saw these others. It is such a deeply personal story; well-told. I sat in front of my computer and wept for so many reasons.

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