Manna from Heaven
by Christina Carson
As autumn crowds in upon us, one of the funniest stories from my Northern Exposure Meets James Herriot series always comes to mind. Don’t read this where you might burst out laughing and get caught by your boss, but do give it a read if you love to laugh. Remember…these stories are true.
It was like we ran our own private country. You see when you get far enough north and far enough into the bush, you begin to forget you live in a country other than one called by its local name, in this case, Clear Hills. We had our own parliament that convened regularly at Pete’s for coffee. We had our own values – be honest, help out when you can, but be responsible for your own stuff. We had our own protection, the Clear Hills Irregulars, and we had our own laws. Not that we did not try to stay somewhere in the vicinity of the proffered statutes. We just had a few extra they had not thought of, primarily for outsiders. I mean how would outsiders know what they were allowed to do inside this small farming community if we had not come up with these laws? Mind you, we usually forgot to tell them what they were, but they invariably found out.
Being more rowdy than god-fearing, the greater energy of our community, four hundred miles north of Edmonton, went into having a good time rather than being overly concerned about the rules. Since the nearest movie house was 50 miles away and the nearest bar 35 miles, this created a real strong interest in local entertainment. But sometimes in an effort to keep things running smoothly but still enjoy ourselves, enforcement and entertainment got somewhat intermingled. It was not that we were mean-spirited or anything. It was just that living in such a small community, we identified with the whole as much as we did our own farms. We wanted it respected and to have a say in how that was done… and we wanted a few good laughs amongst all that hard work.
Summer was our most creative season, actually spring, summer and fall. But since spring and fall were usually only a few days long, summer was our favorite. We were too preoccupied in the winter thinking up new ways to thaw frozen things like our tractors, trucks, our water lines, various parts of our anatomy, and the like. There wasn’t a lot of time left over for merriment. But the rest of the year was for fun.
Clear Hills is situated on a fly way and in big game country. People came from all over the world with guns or cameras to challenge the moose, wolves, grizzlies, ducks and geese that were also Clear Hills indigents. We weren’t selfish about sharing, for the locals occasionally hunted for meat in the hills too, but we were particular about attitude, especially Pete, and when he wasn’t cowboying, he was one of the local guides in the community. If outsiders came in acting like they owned the place or like they wanted to rape and plunder it, Pete took a certain offense. Not knowing anything about Pete and judging from appearances, the outsiders would think Pete was just one more of the boys. They’d share confidences about their past glories and their future schemes. You could watch him standing there in his cowboy duds attending to each new set of hopeful hunters. One mile-weary cowboy boot would be toed in the ground behind the other as he’d lean on a corral post, listening. One hand was usually stuck in his jeans and the other hung on his droopy mustache while he chewed his snoose and smiled. He always had a friendly smile on his face. Only the locals knew that if that smile started to deepen, the hunters of the day had not passed the evaluation. That did not mean he wouldn’t take them into the bush. It just meant it was going to be fun…for him, and educational…for them.
This particular morning when a group of us turned into his drive, we found him interviewing some wannabe goose hunters. “Well, from what you’re saying, you fellas appear to me to be here for a most unusual experience.” They nodded in macho agreement. Then with his skill for being one of the boys he continued, “Am I reading you right, you wanna get your quota and then some?” He winked, and knowing smiles were traded all around.
“Well, this place I know is so good you don’t even have to dig pits. Several thousand of these babies sleep in a holler in a north hay meadow. Tim and me, we can put you up there about 5:00 AM before they wake up for the day, and you can have goose coming out your ears.”
It was too easy. Pete actually preferred more of a challenge. By this time, he had heard the case, tried them and pronounced sentence before they knew court had been in session. These were the kind of men we called murderers, not hunters. They came merely to blow things out of the sky. We lived close to the land, and while we did not reject the gifts the natural world offered us, we did not waste them either.
The hunters got back in their truck eager with anticipation and thanking Pete in advance. They treated him with that phony respect people use when they want an obvious underling to feel like their peer. It never fazed Pete. He didn’t need their respect. He had his own. I glanced at Pete for one long second. He had one of those faces that could hold the same expression regardless of what was going through his mind. Hundreds of late night poker games had taught him how to keep that short, steady smile. Only a local would have been privy to what really transpired here. As our eyes met, the slightest hint of mischief flickered in his.
The hunters met at Pete’s the next morning and loaded their gear into his ancient pick-up. What these two city boys saw was a Clear Hills version of a safari wagon. Pete and Tim had C-clamped boards on the front half of the pick-up box. On top of the planks, they had bolted two lawn chairs. Seat belts had been supplied so it would all be legal. The belts had been scavenged from old wrecks around the community. This was going to be too grand a day to be bothered by any little extra effort required on their part. They stood proudly by as the hunters threw their gear into the truck box.
One could only speculate on what the hunters were thinking as they gazed on what looked like a parade float for the Beverly Hillbillies. But it appeared they had decided to humor these two characters, and they climbed up, sat down and strapped themselves in.
“This is going to be a once in a lifetime experience, boys,” Pete assured them. “We didn’t want ya to be distracted by bouncing around in the back, so we set you up like this. When the shit hits the fan, I want you to be able to drink it all in cause you ain’t never gonna forget this day.”
Pete then filled them in on the plan. Leaning on the truck box he talked quietly as if sharing a private confidence. “Tim and me will drive you out to the field. We’ll go over two hills before we come to the last one. As we crest that hill, I’ll gun ‘er and you guys get your guns pointed skyward. I’ll get this baby going flat out and drive right into the middle of ’em and give’em a wake-up call. Don’t chamber nothing ’til I honk my horn. Then let ‘er rip. You got it?”
Like focused troops before a battle, the serious-faced hunters nodded tightly in unison like a salute. The mission started out. The morning was overcast and cool. Fall in the north is not an overly friendly affair. You have to be prepared for almost anything coming down out of the sky. These hunters were dressed for the occasion wearing haute couture for goose hunting – army fatigues covered over with camo vests and green goose hunters’ caps. The boys inside the truck wore the same thing they had on yesterday and last year for that matter. The truck was nothing for looks either. It had the characteristic wheel wells eaten through by rust, the results of salt-stained winter roads and one too many summer mud hole. The obligatory crack running lengthwise across the windshield was a tribute to Alberta gravel roads.
What didn’t show was what was under the hood. This was a 454 Chevy, the engine made with cowboys in mind. It was low on economy but high on power, raw power that let a cowboy put as much dust in the face of his opponent as when he was on a good horse.
Pete drove out of his place and ambled along the gravel road toward the destination. He had learned early, from living in this harsh environment, to take his enjoyment any chance he got. Fall in the north isn’t real splashy but there was the occasional red and yellow poplar to brighten up the dark of the spruce. The road headed west keeping the Clear Hills on Pete’s right, ready to reflect the southerly sunrise in an hour or so. He seemed to savor the intense quiet, the peacefulness and his insider knowledge of what was to come. In appearance, Pete and Tim were Mutt and Jeff, but the rest of the cloth was cut from the same bolt. Each rambled about in his own thoughts that morning, breathing quietly and staring out in to the vast wilderness that surrounded this small community. As Pete turned off the main road and headed north, they both smiled.
Outside, the hunters were alert and centered. Looking like barn owls as their heads circled almost 360 degrees, they scouted the sky and the land for wild things. At this moment each was a character out of his own favorite fantasy. Freed from the roles they held elsewhere in the world, they were now able to be the men of their dreams. So intent were they on the characters they were playing, they never gave a thought to what this might have looked like to an impartial third party.
When Pete reached the field, he entered in third gear, idling low to keep the noise down while
picking his way through the field like a wily coyote on its early morning run. He rolled up the window he had opened to enjoy the musky scent of wet leaves in an early autumn morning. As the old truck topped the last hill, Pete paused for a moment, the clue for the hunters to ready themselves. Then he shifted into first, revved the motor and side-stepped the clutch. There was a temporary pause as the hungry engine gulped for air to feed those huge cylinders and shuttered momentarily. Then the surge of power launched the beast into action. With the engine rising to a Pavarotti-like tenor, the sound could be felt by the hunters in the chairs outside. A rooster tail of sod chunks and old hay splayed out for 20 feet behind, and the truck roared into the nesting ground of several thousand geese below. The suddenness of the assault caused the entire mass to lift off almost simultaneously, creating what looked like a huge low-lying cloud over the entire end of the field. Then as some clouds are wont to do, this cloud began to precipitate. In the same manner all geese have lifted off since time began, they shed any excess baggage in anticipation of a long flight ahead by evacuating their amazingly copious bowels. Several thousand in unison produced a veritable monsoon that in this case rained down on the credulous hunters below. Just as they aimed skyward, the goose let loose, so to speak.
Inside the cab, Tim rolled a smoke, lit it and handed it across to Pete. Pete reached his hand out slowly, took the cigarette and put it in his mouth. He sucked long and hard as if it were a soda straw as Tim rolled a second, lit it and slowly brought it to his mouth. The two dragged leisurely and inhaled deeply. In the short distance they had traveled, the 454 was well on its way past 60 miles per hour. Flames were coming from where the muffler should have been and Pete’s boot was still glued to the floor.
Outside the cab, the speed the engine delivered turned the downpour into a solid sheet and left the hunters gagging and gasping for a breath that had only air in it. They were ripping at their seat belts and flailing wildly in an attempt to get free of the chairs. One finally released himself and pounded on the rear window of the cab pleading to be let in. Pete reached over and turned on the windshield wipers to keep a bead on where he was headed. The truck was encrusted with green slime as were the hunters in the back. It hung in gooey strands off their caps and gun barrels. It piled up in the corners of the box and coated their carefully billeted gear. Their screams finally muted when their banging on the back window caused the two slow talking cowboys to turn and stare in feigned horror while slowly shaking their heads.
The grey cloud moved off to the east as if on a west wind, and Pete slowed the truck to make the ride more comfortable in the knobby hay field a poor plow job left behind. He headed back to the side road that had brought them there. Never glancing in the rear view mirror, he allowed his charges their privacy. When the truck arrived back at Pete’s place, the two hunters unloaded themselves and their gear in the driveway. How they were going to load all this into their brand new Cherokee was their problem. Under such circumstances, men understand to leave each other alone.
Pete and Tim drove off, bent on the car wash in Grimshaw and a beer at the bar. Even as they parked at the Econowash, both took an extra-long leap out of the cab to insure they didn’t come in contact with any part of the truck, and each chose carefully the place he pushed on to shut the door again. Had anyone else been in the car wash that morning, they would have seen two rough-hewn cowboys doubled up on the concrete floor with tears streaming down their cheeks.
You couldn’t call Pete mean. Well, I guess you could, but it wouldn’t be true. The laws were the laws. The only thing left to one’s ingenuity up here was how to enforce them.
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