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Rite of Passage
My rite of passage came about unexpectedly. It wasn’t killing an animal or getting drunk, and thank God it wasn’t losing my virginity.
I was nine years old if I remember correctly. Grandpa Henry owned a ranch in the White Mountains of eastern Arizona. He was a tall, lanky man, a WWII Marine vet, hardened by the sun and long, cold winters in the high country. I once saw him bend a horseshoe with his bare hands.
He had a hard time hiring willing and able ranch hands that spring. So he resorted to having my uncles on his payroll; bad idea.
My uncles were a rowdy bunch. They drank hard and played even harder. The only time they got off their lazy butts was when my grandparents were around.
Nobody really knew what was going on at the ranch except me and Cousin Ernie; the wild parties, wild women, fighting, and gambling. My uncles held it against Ernie and I because we saw how they were behaving. But, we didn’t tell. As long as we kept our mouths shut, we got to keep whatever the people at these parties left behind, like money, shades, jackets, hats, and bandanas.
One morning grandpa woke us before the sun came up. The delicious smell of potatoes, eggs, bacon and fry bread were coming from the tiny kitchen where my grandma and aunties cooked.
Ernie and I were the first ones up. My uncles were either still passed out or not home. Grandpa was furious! When he got that way, you better stay the hell out of his way. Sure enough, when uncle Bunky came into the kitchen, grandpa asked him, “Where’s your brothers?”
Bunky said, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Grandpa flew off the handle and let everyone within earshot get a taste of his wrath. I had never heard my grandfather lash out like that.
Outside in the freezing cold, Ernie and I shivered beside the crackling fire. After what seemed like forever, my uncle and grandpa emerged from the house. I felt something was up, for they were whispering to each other and looking at me.
After a few minutes, grandpa stepped toward me. Putting his hand on my shoulder he said, “Today you’re going to earn your keep around here.”
“What’re you talking about?” I said, trying hard not to show fear. He told me to get dressed according to the weather which looked like rain.
After I packed a lunch, my uncle started to snicker. I asked, “What’s so funny?”
He said, “You’re going to need more food than that, and some butt wipe to go along with it.”
I found out later, I was to look after the cattle herd some cowboys had rounded up the day before. I was to tend the cattle all night; all alone. Trying to talk my way out of that frightening task, I told grandpa I was getting sick.
“You have to do this. You know that don’t you?” He sternly replied.
On the verge of anger, I said, “No, I don’t have to! Why can’t Bunky do this?”
He looked me in the eyes and said, “They’re not Bunky’s cattle. They’re yours.”
He answered he had given cattle to all his children and put aside a few head of cattle for his grandchildren. And since I was the first-born, I was to set an example.
“You have to work hard and sacrifice for family and what is theirs-to-be.”
As scared as I was, I couldn’t back out now. Around noon, under heavy rainfall, Bunky, grandpa, and I set out for the meadow where we kept cattle that belonged to various tribal members.
Bunky showed me which herd was mine. It was a big herd. Moments later, grandpa stepped out from the pine trees, holding a rifle and a box of ammo.
He said, “Here, you’re going to need this when it’s dark.”
Bunky gleefully chimed in; “The wolves!” And you might run into some weird things out here.”
I looked at grandfather for reassurance. He smiled and replied, “Don’t let your fire die out and you’ll be fine.”
That night was the longest, scariest experience I’d ever had. It started out quietly, then around midnight, I began to hear people singing songs long forgotten. I looked around. No one was there. But, most disturbing was the howling the wolves made. I thought my uncle was messing with me.
Clenching the rifle tightly, I summed up courage to do my rounds. Stroking the fire, I headed out to check the herd. When I got to the far end of the meadow, I sensed something watching me. Hairs on the back of my neck stood up. To my right, I heard a low, angry growl. On instinct, I neared towards the sound and fired the rifle. I ran back towards the fire.
As I put more wood onto the fire, the light became brighter. I saw wicked eyes staring down at me just a stone’s throw away. I shot a few rounds, they scattered, not to be seen or heard from again.
The blackish purple dawn broke across the mountainous horizon, as I shivered beside my pathetic campfire. I was relieved to hear grandfather’s voice in the distance. I saw my uncle coming down the rocky knoll towards me. He got off his horse and handed me breakfast sandwiches and a thermos of hot coffee.
“Counting the herd.”
Twenty minutes later, grandpa showed up, a big smile on his face.
“Damn good job! No cattle are missing.”
On the way home he surprised me by saying I had wounded a wolf. He had seen the blood and paw prints in the mud.
“You earned your keep, and to top it off, you’re a man now,” he boasted. He put his hand on my head. I felt like a great load had been lifted off my chest…
Ronald Johnson (White Mountain Apache) is from the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona. He attends the Institute of American Indian Arts where he majors in studio arts.