I was standing beside Charlie when he yelled about the spooky chants the Navajo was calling out while they mended fence in the canyons of the Muddy – Keller Canyon to be exact. Tall, lanky. Charlie is real. The stoop shouldered Indian is real. The exact interactions between me, Charlie and Navajo Joe (Not his real name) are not real, but are creations of my imagination. Charlie’s death was as I describe it, not much detail.
“But there is a spirit in man and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding.” Job 32:8
It was mid morning on a hot summer day in July when they found Charlie in the banged up old half-ton Ford pickup. The truck was in the ditch up in the Muddy and Charlie was slumped over the steering wheel. They figure he had been there three days when they found him and, like Lazarus, he stinketh.
Charlie had no family that we knew of. He talked of being tied to a shrew long enough to figure that life was too short to spend it fighting with a woman who was so hateful that she would sit on cactus cause it felt so good when she pulled out the spines. I didn’t ask Charlie if she really sat on cactus. I was so young I was still trying to figure out when a man was kidding or when he was serious. I guess I couldn’t believe that anyone would be stupid enough to sit on cactus, no matter how hateful they were so I just laughed and let it go, creating in my own mind a picture of Charlie’s Cactus Queen sitting in a bed of spines. What I did wonder was what kind of woman would marry Charlie. After all, he wasn’t exactly a model of culture and propriety. Tall and lanky like Gary Cooper, profane like Jack Nicholson, and uneducated like Bigfoot, Charlie was just about as rough as they come – seventy plus years in mortality, no family, making $500 a month working as a ranch hand in and out of sheep camps. His lack of education, however, did not keep Charlie from waxing eloquent in home spun philosophy.
“Never drink downstream from the herd,” he would say or “don’t kick a cactus or hug a skunk.” My favorite was “It’s a lot easier to let the cat out of the bag than to put it back in,” when advising me about the evils of gossip.
Rough and alone he was, but if Charlie was unhappy he hid it well. He found his happiness in being alone; no woman to culture him, no time clock to punch, no political correctness to confuse his mind. When he laughed, and he laughed often, he laughed long and loud and I sometimes wondered if the laughter was a mask for his loneliness. How could he not miss the companionship of a fine woman, the love of children and the laughter of grandchildren? These were questions that went unanswered in the few short weeks that Charlie came into and out of my life. Of all that I remembered about Charlie; the sweat stained hat, the re-soled, wrinkled high top leather boots, the dirty wool shirts stuffed inside of stained levi pants – nothing stuck in my mind more than what happened that day in the canyon with Navajo Joe.
Joe came off the reservation to work for Rolland when the sheep were moved from the high country to winter on the Arizona Strip. He, like Charlie, danced to his own drummer and made it his mission to steer as far away as possible from anyone who tried to tell him what to do. He lived in a tent, Joe did, at least between the green buds of spring and the death of autumn when the last yellow leaf fluttered to the ground, and he made it clear why the entry to his tent always faced east.
“The great white spirit will one day return,” he said. “And when he does he will come from the east.”
When Joe stepped out of the truck, fresh off the reservation, his feet were bare. No stockings, no flip flops, no shoes. Just brown, arch-less, calloused bare feet. He had an answer when pressured to put on shoes.
“The earth and me are friends,” he said. “My feet talk to the earth. The bottoms of shoes stop that talk.”
The Navajo tried to tell us his name, Charlie and me, in his native tongue but we were just plain ignorant and as hard as we tried we could never get it right so we just called him Joe…Navajo Joe.
As far as I knew Charlie was not superstitious, nor did I ever hear him pray or mention whether or not he had religion, but Charlie and me learned real quick that Joe had a spiritual side and how Joe demonstrated it didn’t sit well with Charlie. Charlie got real nervous when the old Navajo began to chant that day in the canyon.
It started when Joe and him were repairing fence up in Keller. The canyon was narrow and deep with sides that reached one thousand feet to the sky. It was rimmed by fifty foot high sandstone cliffs that bounced every sound that rose out of the canyon bottom back and forth from ledge to ledge until one million echoes faded as if they were pulled away into some far off universe. It was mid-morning on a cool, clear, fall day when wrinkle faced old Joe began to chant. The ghostly cadence of the “Hoy ya, hey ya hey ya ho” echoed off the canyon walls, bouncing from rock to rock, entering the mostly hollow cranial cavity that contained Charlie’s brain; leaving, then coming back again before finally rising into oblivion above the canyon ridges. It was as if a new voice was coming from every little side canyon and from over the top of every ridges. Charlie was convinced that every dead Navajo in the southwest had joined Joe’s chorus. He couldn’t take it.
I was standing between them when Charlie shouted. Joe had the cut end of a piece of barb wire secure in the claws of a hammer and was pulling it taught around the top of a cedar fence post. The part of his brain that wasn’t telling his hands what to do with the hammer and the wire was so busy telling his vocal cords how to send one note after another out into the crisp morning air, that he couldn’t hear Charlie yelling. Charlie came stomping right past me. He caught the Indian by surprise.
I can’t repeat the curse words he used to describe the hapless Joe but they would curl your toes, and the degree of political incorrectness of Charlie’s descriptors would have landed him in jail in today’s world. I hoped that Charlie wouldn’t use the hammer he wielded to silence Joe, and I wondered if I should try and stop him, but I was just a kid, half the size of Charlie.
Charlie was five feet from Joe when the Indian looked up and saw the giant of a man towering over him, his face red with rage and the hammer raised above his head. The abrupt end to Joe’s ritual left a vision in my mind of spiritualistic Navajo words floating off into an endless space looking for a god to hear them and then I saw them in my minds eye float back to earth only to take their place on a large granite tombstone as a meaningless epitaph.
Joe’s quickness caught me off guard. He backed up in surprise, stumbled over a large sandstone boulder and fell backward to the ground. As luck would have it, the hand that reached the ground first and stopped his fall, rested on a dead limb from a pinon pine tree. Just as quick as he fell to the earth Joe sprung to his feet, club in hand. He held it with both hands as if he was ready to use Charlie’s head as a baseball, backing up cautiously while keeping his eyes focused on the enraged Charlie. The look in Joe’s eyes was not an imaginary fear but one that revealed the belief in his heart that this rugged white man, the man he had learned to laugh with, would club him into oblivion.
Charlie stood towering over the frightened Indian, yelling to the top of his lungs and beyond that if Joe didn’t stop that blankety blank chanting he would send him to an early meeting with his father. Joe watched, waiting as if he were trying to decide to use the tree limb then he yelled back at Charlie…something in Navajo. I guess Charlie understood the words, or at least some of them, because he lowered the hammer as Joe kept yelling at him and then Joe’s words came in broken english.
“You stupid man big Charlie. Brain not think what heart feel. You tell me like my work and like me, but my song to great white spirit scare you. Stupid! Song to great white spirit make me better man…make you better man but you stupid. You do work alone.”
Joe dropped the club, turned away from Charlie, and let his bare feet carry him quickly among the rocks and out of the canyon. I watched Joe until the old sagging felt hat on his head disappeared around a bend in the canyon then I turned and looked at Charlie. Charlie stood, his arms at his side, holding the hammer in his right hand and looking down the canyon. Joe was out of sight long enough to make me wonder if Charlie was going to go after him but he didn’t move. He turned and started walking down the canyon toward the camp.
“Where you going Charlie,” I asked.
“I’m gonna tell Rolland that I ain’t working with that weird old Indian no more,” he said.
“Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked. Charlie stopped and looked at me.
“If I call that old Indian back he’ll make me agree to let him keep doing that scary chant. I aint’a gonna do it. It’s just plain scary, all that stuff about the spirits of his family talkin back to him when he does his chant.”
Charlie just looked at me, waiting and I wondered if he wanted me to speak, to say that I agreed with him but I just waited.
“Doesn’t it scare you?” he asked.
I looked at Charlie, my mind trying to formulate a response that wouldn’t offend him cause, after all, I was jut a sixteen year old kid and sixteen year old kids don’t counsel adults, but deep in my heart I knew Charlie was wrong. It took me years to figure out a way to tell someone they were wrong without worrying about offending them or making enemies but those years hadn’t passed. I was long into being an adult when I learned that there’s always a way to tell someone to go to that place down below in such a way as they look forward to the trip and that we can disagree without being disagreeable. At sixteen, when all I could think about was hunting, fishing and girls, in that order, I hadn’t learned that. It’s not like my telling Charlie that I wasn’t scared with Joe’s chanting, was suggesting that he go spit in the wind, but I didn’t know how to tell him I believed he was wrong.
“Are you going to answer me?” Charlie asked.
“No I’m not scared Charlie,” I meekly responded, the thought going through my mind that Charlie still had the hammer in his hand. “I’m not scared cause I’m fascinated by Joe’s chanting. I’ve seen the Navajo’s sit around a campfire in full ceremonial dress and do their dance to the beat of drums and perform their rites of worship, beating the drums and doing the chant. It’s fascinating watching em, twenty, thirty at a time sittin around a camp fire with the drums pounding and most of them bare footed. It doesn’t scare me.”
“Well it scares the blankety blank out of me,” Charlie swore. “Especially in these canyons. When Joe gets into it, it sounds like every Navajo on the reservation is sitting up in the canyon, singing back to him.”
I figured it was time for me to jump in feet first so I looked at Charlie and asked.
“Don’t you believe in spirits Charlie?”
“Don’t I what?” Charlie asked.
“Don’t you believe in spirits?” I repeated.
“I need a smoke,” Charlie said.
Charlie walked to a large pinon pine tree, brushed the sticks from a spot on the north side of the tree and sat down in the shade. I watched as he reached into the pocket of the brown wool, plaid shirt and pulled out a small cloth sack. The sack had the words “Bull Durham” stamped on the center. Charlie took a small packet of cigarette papers from the other shirt pocket. He formed a small trough with the paper and shook a fixing of tobacco from the bag into the trough. Holding the tobacco filled paper gingerly in one hand, he lifted the tobacco bag to his mouth with the other. He grasped the draw string with his teeth, pulled the bag closed and dropped it back into his pocket. He rolled the paper around the tobacco and sealed the joint by licking where the edges met. He rolled the ends tight and licked them to seal the joint at the ends and then he placed it in his mouth. Reaching into his shirt pocket again he pulled out a match, struck it lightly on a nearby rock and, lifting the flame to the cigarette, inhaled deeply, drawing the smoke deep into his lungs.
I sat on the ground with my back leaning against a large boulder where I faced Charlie.
“Do I believe in spirits?” Charlie asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
Charlie drew again on the cigarette, blew into the clear morning air what was left of the smoke that hadn’t coated his lungs, and looked at the ground. I wondered as I waited what “Charlieism” was coming. I detected a bit of calmness when he spoke, like he was searching for something deep inside, something that had been hiding for most of the seventy plus years that was his life. He looked up and turned his head to gaze toward the top of the canyon when he spoke.
“My mother told me all my life that I had a strong spirit,” he said. “When I was old enough to really think about what she was saying I asked her what she meant by that.” ‘There’s more to you than what you see and feel about yourself Charlie,’ she said. ‘There is a part of you that you can’t see; a part that goes on after you die. That’s who you really are. There are as many different spirits as there are people.’
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“She told me she hoped I would understand about that spirit in me as I grew older, but if I didn’t feel and know about it when I grew up, that I sure as shooting would know about it when I died.”
Part of me wanted to ask the obvious question that was fighting to get out but something was holding me back. I rationalized that if Charlie had come to believe that he had a spirit that existed beyond death, he would not die but would live forever, and what life was like for him in the after life would be determined by how he lived in this life. Knowing Charlie the way I did, It didn’t much appear that he was trying to build a life for himself after death. Even though I thought I knew the answer to my question I wanted to hear it from Charlie.
“So you’re grown up Charlie. Do you believe there’s a spirit part of you.”
Charlie leaned back his head, formed a circle with his mouth and blew three perfect smoke rings into the air.
“I decided maybe there is and maybe there ain’t but it don’t matter none. I figure there ain’t much I can do about it anyways.”
“Navajo Joe seems to think there is something he can do about how the spirits treat him, singing to them and all,” I said.
“Joe thinks them spirits hang around him all the time,” Charlie shot back, “and it’s downright scary.”
“So that means you must believe in spirits Charlie.”
“What do you mean?”
“If Joe is chanting into thin air,” I said, “then there’s nothing for you to be scared about, no spirits, no ghosts. Nothing. But that’s not the way it appears to me. If you didn’t believe in spirits then all the chanting in the world wouldn’t get you so stirred up inside. You really do believe in spirits Charlie, but you don’t want to admit it.”
Charlie lifted the cigarette to his mouth and this time I detected a little shaking in his hand as he placed the stogie between his lips and let it stay. He half closed his eyes to avoid the smoke curling up from the tip of the cigarette, but he didn’t speak.
“I think you know that there is a spirit side of you and that there is a spirit side of Navajo Joe but you don’t like the spirit side of Joe because you believe his spirit is connecting to spirits that you fear. You believe they’re “Injun” spirits – spirits of the savages that scalped the white man and staked him over fire ant hills in the hot sun to die.”
I just looked at Charlie, wondering what he was thinking and the sixteen year old kid in me shouted that I had no right to tell this pioneer, who had seen over seven decades of winters, what he did and did not believe. My first thought was to apologize, but I waited…I waited cause I knew I was right and Charlie needed to know that there really was a spirit part of him that was just as strong as the spirits that he feared and the sooner he knew that, the sooner he could stop being afraid. Then I remembered what Navajo Joe said before he stomped out of the canyon. He said his song to the great white spirit made him a better man and it made Charlie a better man. That’s it!!
I believed through much of my young years that there were good spirits and then there were bad spirits. Bad spirits could, if you let them, cause you to live in fear but if you believed in yourself and in your own ability to be good and do good, bad spirits had no power over you. The spirits Navajo Joe sang to were spirits just like the one that was part of him. You didn’t have to be around Joe very long to take a liking to him. He was quiet, but he was warm and friendly – the kind of man you’d trust to be alone with your sister. It showed in him. Joe couldn’t be the Joe we knew if he had a connection to bad spirits and somehow I had to convince Charlie of that and that he had no reason to fear ‘Joe’s spirits.’
“What kind of spirits do you believe they are Young Tait?” Charlie asked. “Since you appear to know so much about what I believe, you tell me what kind of spirits they are.”
Charlie didn’t change his position when he spoke. He was relaxed leaning against the pine tree. He held the cigarette in his hand as he looked at me and I thought about how I was going to respond to Charlie’s challenge. I knew that Charlie wouldn’t respect some melee mouth, beat around the bush answer. He wanted it plain and simple.
“Well you can’t believe one way and live another,” I said. “You can’t live a lie. All you have to do is to look at Joe. Remember what he said when you threatened him? He reminded you of how you liked his work and how you liked him. Why do you like Joe?”
“What does that have to do with the kind of spirits Joe sings to?” Charlie countered.
“If you answer my question you’ll answer your own Charlie. Answer my question.”
Charlie didn’t like being manipulated, and I was sure it chapped his hide even more that it was coming from a sixteen year old boy. I was sure he had never heard the word manipulation before, but the look on his face had manipulation written all over it. He just stared at me. Being the rough-sawn character that he was, Charlie also wasn’t the kind of man who took well to talking about feel good stuff and I was asking him to do just that. Charlie’s stare turned soft and he looked away from me. He took one more long draw on the stub of a cigarette, smashed the smoldering butt into the dirt and blew a long stream of smoke into the air.
“Joe only has to be told once what to do and then he goes to work,” Charlie said, “and you don’t have to keep checkin on im, A little bit like you. If he sees something that needs to be done he does it. That’s why I like Joe.”
“That’s it?” I asked, believing Charlie wasn’t telling it all.
“That’s it,” Charlie said.
I thought how I was going to remind Charlie why he really liked Joe without settin him off and then I figured I’d already swum halfway across that stream so I just laid out some reminders.
“What about the chats at night when the work is done Charlie? What about the tricks he plays on you that you laugh at and what about you letting him wear your old boots when we were working in the rocks? And, oh yeah don’t forget the headache medicine. You spent your headache medicine money on beer and Joe gave you money and told you not to pay it back. He didn’t say ‘pay me when you can.’ He said don’t pay it back. Oh, and here’s my favorite. You pouted for two days cause I gave your last sourdough biscuit to Spunk. You finally snapped out of it when Joe told you that it didn’t take a very big man to carry a grudge. You Like Navajo Joe because he is the person we all wish was our brother, right?”
I looked at Charlie who was staring at the ground. He looked at me and slowly nodded his head.
“I’m not really much good at sayin those things Tait,” he said. But yeah, Joe’s one of the good guys.”
“So now tell me, What kind of spirits do you think Joe has his song fests with?”
I figured I needed to give Charlie time to chew on the question before he put out an answer so, again, I waited. After all, Charlie had something else to think about now that I had helped him feel why he really liked Navajo Joe. I fully expected him to build and light up another smoke – something that would give him some fiddling time while his mind walked on weed filled paths into a faded realm that I believed it had traveled before. I believed deep in my heart that Charlie not only believed in spirits but he knew the difference between good spirits and bad spirits. I also believed if he would stop and think about who Joe really was he would know he had nothing to fear from letting the indian do his chanting.
“I get your point young Tait,” he said. “If Joe was talking with evil spirits I wouldn’t have to offer to let him wear my boots, he’d steal em.”
“That’s pretty much it,” I said. “But there’s more. Remember what Joe said.”
“Yeah, he called me stupid.”
“He did at that, but he also said that his talking to those spirits makes him a better man but it also makes you a better man. I promise you Charlie, if Joe was talking to the kind of spirits you fear, you wouldn’t like him. There’d be something about him that would make you want to hate him but you don’t hate him. You like him. Right?”
“I told you that.”
“Then I think you should do something about it before it is too late. Do you really want this simple, wise Indian walking out of your life, never to be seen again, when you have something to tell him? He’s probably half way to town by now.”
Charlie just looked at me and I began to think that he just didn’t care and then I thought that some people just don’t know how to show they care and of all of those people, Charlie would be right at the top of the list. I gambled that he was trying to wrap his mind around the idea that, yes he did care about Navajo Joe, but it boiled down to pride, and pride can be a cruel master. Charlie would have to, first of all, admit to himself that he was wrong, then he would have to admit to me that he was wrong, and he could to that without saying anything, and then he would have to catch up with Joe and admit to Joe that he was wrong. I just knew, as I waited, that Charlie would not disappoint me. I mean, how could someone who loved to laugh and joke as much as Charlie did, not have the courage to stand up and conquer one of his, and mine and most everybody’s demons.
“You think he’ll come back Tait?” Charlie asked.
“Will he come back? I don’t know Charlie.” I hesitated before adding; “What I do know is he won’t come back if you just sit here.”
I didn’t tell Charlie that I thought the reason he wasn’t hurrying to catch Joe was that he wasn’t about to throw his feelings out there and have Joe throw them right back at him. After all, what Charlie was dealing with was like him diving into the immensity of space that is the Grand Canyon knowing the updraft that would keep him from smashing onto the rocks below would be Joe’s acceptance of his apology. The two headed monster of pride and rejection had Charlie paralyzed and only one thing would free him from that monster – faith…faith that making an attempt at repairing the damage he had done was far better than turning and walking away.
“Will you go with me Tait?” Charlie asked.
My answer to the question I expected Charlie to ask was sitting in my mind before the question came.
“You’re on your own on this one Charlie,” I said. “You don’t need Joe to even have a particle of thought that the reason you came after him was because I talked you into it. I’ll be here when you come back.”
Charlie stood and without saying a word, walked down the canyon toward camp. I moved to where I could watch him walk around the bend and it wasn’t more than ten minutes that I heard the engine start on the old Ford truck.
I wasn’t in the camp when Charlie came back with the old Indian. My dad came to get me before Charlie came back so I could return to school. I asked about Charlie and Navajo Joe and learned they went back to work on the fence in Keller before the barefoot Indian made his way back to the reservation. Joe wasn’t there the morning they found Charlie and I wanted to find him when I was told. I wanted Joe to tell me what Charlie said to make peace that unforgettable morning near the mouth of Keller. I wanted Joe to tell me that Charlie told him to chant away and that maybe Charlie even joined in.
The emotion of shock that first hit me when I learned about Charlie, quickly melted into a sadness that pushed me to want to be alone so after I learned as much as there was to know about his death, I walked up the small trail behind the school house and sat among the rocks. I guess the sadness was more for me than it was for Charlie cause Charlie left so unexpectedly. I knew that the question I could never quite get Charlie to answer with conviction had now been answered for him. Deep in my heart I had a pretty good idea what Charlie knew now that he didn’t know before he died. I could see him in my minds eye, embracing his mother and two brothers who had gone before him. I think he most likely had met the father that he never knew, giving him a piece, or maybe all, of his mind because of the way he walked out of his life when Charlie needed him the most. Most of all what I saw was Charlie turning and looking at me, his big blue eyes looking deep into my soul and smiling…a smile that said he would see me again some day. I couldn’t deny the feeling that came from deep inside me that Charlie and me and Navajo Joe would someday walk the canyons of the Muddy together and we’d finish the fence in Keller. I could see Charlie, hammer in hand, pulling barb wire taut around slender cedar posts and chanting in unison with the old Indian.
I was sure the light of eternity had unlocked the shackles of mortal comprehension for Charlie, confirming what his wise mother told him about his spirit. I sat and looked skyward toward the sand stone ledges that rose high above the school as the haunting cadence of Navajo Joe’s music filled my mind.