*Based on a true story
It was 1956. Doug’s parents were taking him to the mountains to celebrate his sixth birthday. Doug had never been to the mountains, but he was excited to go. They were so far away that they looked like ghosts on the horizon—their bodies translucent in the sunlight. He loved to gaze at them on hazy afternoons and dream. His parents said God made them. Doug didn’t know if God existed, but his parents and the Sunday school teacher kept saying so, and they were right about most things.
They were driving through the dusty, windswept landscape of the Nez Perce Reservation, and from the back seat Doug could make out the dilapidated shacks and rusty cars of its inhabitants. He had never been on a reservation. He had seen Indians before but only in passing. They always looked sad and that scared him. He didn’t know why.
‘Why are Indians always sad?’ he asked his father one day.
‘They have a lot of reasons to be,’ his father answered.
‘Things you’re too young to understand. Things you’re better off not hearing about.’
Doug knew not to press his father any further.
Besides, he was anxious to get to the mountains. He thought of all the things he hoped to see there: the trees, the deer, the bears, maybe even a moose! His cousin Jimmy had said there were wolves way high up, and that was the only thing that worried him. He knew he would be no match for a pack of wolves if they surrounded him. He was just a boy.
They finally reached the foot of the mountains and their car—an old Willys station wagon— was chugging down the highway next to the Clearwater River. They crossed a bridge and entered the town of Orofino. It was just a handful of streets nestled in the foothills. A broad creek ran helter skelter through town—shaded by a scattering of cottonwoods that drank thirstily at its edges. A series of well-worn Craftsman homes and crumbling businesses lined the main street. The car stopped outside a grocery store.
‘Your mother and I are going inside to get some drinks,’ his father said. ‘Do wanna a soda, son?’
‘Of course,’ Doug replied. ‘Can I look around?’
‘Sure, but don’t go too far. We’ll be ready to leave in ten minutes.’
Doug hopped out of the car and squinted in the bright sunlight. His parents entered the store and he made to head down to the river. It was far, but he thought he could get there and back quickly enough to avoid a scolding by his dad.
Just as he started off, Doug heard a commotion up ahead. He stopped as a mob of men turned onto the main street. They were yelling and moving in a frantic circle. He couldn’t tell what was at the centre of the crowd. Their voices sounded mangled—like a pack of wolves moving in for the kill. He began to feel uneasy.
A couple of men ran past him toward the mob. One of them was dressed like a cowboy—boots, chaps and all. They stopped a few feet from Doug.
‘They caught him,’ the cowboy exclaimed with joy. ‘They caught the Indian!’
The mob came closer. Their shouts rang out up and down the street. Several men poured out of a nearby bar to see what was going on.
Across the street a woman grabbed her children and bustled them away in the opposite direction. Doug wondered why she was in such a hurry to leave. If they’d caught somebody, wasn’t that a good thing?
The crowd thickened and Doug’s legs tensed as the mob came up the street. When they got within a hundred feet the men veered off the road and stopped under an old maple tree that sheltered an empty lot.
Doug was scared but didn’t know why.
‘That’s the Indian who raped the white woman,’ the cowboy said out loud.
Doug didn’t know what rape was, but he could tell it was bad. Beads of sweat formed on his brow, and he began to shiver. He thought it strange that he was shivering under the hot sun.
Doug saw the Indian fall to the ground. His long black hair was covered in dirt and blood, while the rest of his body was hidden by a cloud of dust. The men were kicking him. The Indian moaned.
Doug wanted to leave, but his legs wouldn’t move.
‘Do you think they’ll hang him?’ the cowboy asked his buddy enthusiastically.
‘Of course,’ the man replied.
Someone ran into the crowd with a coil of rope and the beating stopped. Doug was relieved. He could feel the sensation come back to his legs. He was about to turn around when he heard the cowboy yell: ‘They’re going to kill him now!’
Doug froze. Several men pulled the Indian to his feet. Someone had made a noose in the rope and thrown it over a tree limb. Soon the noose was slipped around the neck of the Indian, who was being forced to stand on a couple of apple crates stacked atop each other.
Doug wanted to look away, but couldn’t. The crates were kicked out from under the man and he squirmed on the end of the rope. The crowd cheered. The drop didn’t have the force to break his neck, and Doug watched as the man suffocated.
Doug couldn’t feel his body nor the air he breathed nor the heat of the summer sun beating down upon him. For a second he thought he was dying too.
Then the Indian stopped squirming, and his lifeless body swung back and forth beneath the tree. Doug remained still.
A hand grabbed Doug’s shoulder and yanked him back.
‘What are you doing, boy!’ his father yelled.
Doug looked blankly at his dad. He didn’t answer, suddenly ashamed he had watched someone die. Doug took a deep breath. His father dragged him back to the car, where his mother was waiting.
‘What was all the commotion about?’ she asked.
‘It was a hanging,’ his father said.
His mother’s face grew pale.
‘Are you alright?’ she asked her son.
Doug didn’t answer.
‘Pretend you didn’t see it,’ his father advised.
The words echoed through Doug’s mind as he sat dazed in the back seat.
His mother stared at him through vacant eyes.
‘Some fresh air will do you good,’ she mumbled in a weak voice, as she reached back and rolled down his window, like she was spellbound.
The car started and the family sped off—leaving the horror behind them.
Doug sat in silence as large conifers sprang up along the road. He barely noticed the fresh pine scented air that came in through the open window. He couldn’t tell whether what he saw was beautiful or not. Beauty didn’t seem like something real anymore.
They came to a trailhead and Doug’s father pulled the car off the road. The family got out. ‘It sure is pretty around here,’ his father said. ‘Come on Doug, let’s see what’s down this trail.’
His father took off and Doug followed. The air was much cooler than it had been in town, and the sky nuzzled sad, dark clouds brimming with tears. His father walked fast. Doug didn’t have the will to keep up. He couldn’t think straight. Soon he found himself crying under a tree.
His mother walked up slowly, and when she reached him, told him to stop crying.
‘It would be for the best,’ she said. So Doug stopped.
His mother was relived. ‘That’s better,’ she said.
In the distance Doug heard thunder. Soon his father came running up the trail.
‘It’s time to go back,’ his father said. ‘Don’t want to get stuck in a mountain storm.’
They turned around. By the time they arrived at the trailhead, the wind had picked up and Doug could sense the rain was about to hit. They jumped into the car as the first drops pelted the ground, and Doug rolled up his window.
Instead of heading toward home, his father continued driving up into the mountains. Doug didn’t mind. He didn’t want to go back through that town ever again.
The rain grew heavy and thunder crackled around them. Doug stared out the window. The clouds seemed to be crying. Better they cry then I do, he thought. Soon he grew tired and the hypnotic sound of the rain put him into a deep sleep.
Doug woke with a start when the car ran over a pothole. He was out of the mountains and it was no longer raining. The sun was beating down on the car. Doug was almost home.
He rolled down the window and let the wind blow on his face. He liked the feeling. It stopped him from thinking. The dead Indian seemed very remote now. Like a bad dream.
When they arrived home, Doug stepped out of the car. Everything—the pavement, the lawn, the house—seemed unreal. The whole block was still. Doug followed his parents inside and went to his room. He sat unmoving on his bed, curtains drawn, unable to process what had happened that day. After awhile he rose and peeked out the window. He tried to find the mountains on the horizon, but all that was left were the silent echoes of thunder and rain as they washed away the translucent ghosts of beauty God had made.
Postscript: This story is based upon true events that took place in Orofino, Idaho, in 1956 as told to me by my friend Douglas Frantum. Ever since he witnessed the lynching, Doug has shied away from the mass hysteria of mobs who, whether liberal or conservative, are bent upon ganging up on a victim, whether guilty or innocent, in order to unleash their fury. To Doug the tragedy lies not only in the murder of an innocent man, but also the way in which people change when they come together as a group to terrorize others. Even as an adult Doug still described what happened to the unruly mob that day the way a child would: ‘They turned into a big monster with a thousand hands and no mind.’
Eros Salvatore is a non-binary writer and filmmaker living in Bellingham, Washington. They have been published in the online journal Anti-Heroin Chic. They have a BA from Humboldt State University, and their work can be seen, heard and read at www.erossalvatore.com