Who is Sagebrush?
(As told by childhood friend John Longhew)
Well, Victor – err, “Sagebrush” is a complex character. Seemed like one part of him was always warring against the other. Now, we were both born in this town. Both grew up here. Both in the Marines. I worked as a mechanic in Italy. And we both ended up back here. I suppose, most days, I see him more than I do my own wife. She likes it that way, though.
She’s French – says there’s a saying that the person you see most in life shouldn’t be your spouse, else you’ll get too accustomed to them and be tempted to “see more” of someone else. Well, I got a terrible accent, but I do consider myself fluent in that language. Plus I never heard any such thing over there, so I suspect she’s making it up; which is part of what I love about her.
But, as I was saying, Sagebrush and I actually used to be pretty close before he joined up and left. And he’s always been one of the most artistic guys I’ve known – I’ve never met anyone who can draw better than he can. I’m not saying I’ve never seen work that’s better than his; I’m just saying, I’ve never actually met any other artists who draw better. Mind you, though, I lived in Paris and Rome – I’ve met my fair share of artists.
Sagebrush has, not only the skill but also the artistic – I don’t want to say temperament, although that too – personality. He’d get enthralled by the way the light shines through the trees, or reflects off the lake. He’d notice things about perspectives and angles that no one else would.
But, as I said, he’s also got that artistic temperament. He’s sensitive, and not the shrinking violet kind of sensitive either – more like the growling bulldog type. He’s less Zen Buddhist Tibetan monk and more Irish school-teaching, wrist-slapping-with-a-ruler Christian monk.
Like his mother was a poet and his father a boxer. Or, better yet, if it were vice versa – that’s how mixed up I sometimes think he is.
He used to draw a lot as a kid, until his father discouraged it, so mostly he turned to acting up and fighting. Not as if those are the only two ways to go about living – either drawing or fighting – but that’s just what he did. Maybe he figured if he was gonna listen to his pa, he may as well follow in his footsteps. Not sure why he listened in the first place; his pa was too drunk to think straight half his life. The other half, he was trying to make up for the time he’d lost being drunk. He’d pull Victor out of school to help him make money on odd jobs as the first of the month approached.
His mother would get furious when she’d find out, but she was too exhausted from the two-and-a-half jobs she had, trying to keep them all sheltered and fed.
Most people thought Sagebrush was 100% Shanowah, but his pa was a naturalized citizen. He was Mexican. But, ‘far as being Shanowah, he got teased a little: “Hey, man, we’re getting’ creamed in this baseball game. You got a rain dance somewhere up your sleeve?” “Oh, you haven’t done that in a long time? How many “moons” would that be?” That kind of thing. But I don’t know that people around here made a joke of it so much as they just didn’t really care. Which is maybe a shame, but not the worst situation, I think. But, being different, and being sensitive, I think he was always on the lookout to be slighted.
Anyway, no one was really surprised when Victor joined up. I hoped for the best for him. He seemed like someone who needed to go find himself and I figured that’s what he was doing.
I guess he saw some pretty rough action in the service. That’s where he got his nickname – Sagebrush. Far as I can tell, ‘cause of his heritage, and maybe also ‘cause of his temperament. But I guess he did OK, ‘cause he ended up in some kind of commanding role, which made it worse when it happened, I suppose. He had his unit out on some kind of routine patrol when they were ambushed. Darn near wiped ‘em all out. They didn’t expect him to make it.
Got a purple heart and a heap of psychological scars out of it – as if he didn’t have enough already. I guess that’s when he came back and eventually joined up with that gang of bikers he ran with for a while, down south some. Probably helped him take his mind off of…everything. From the little I’ve heard of that, he was kind of the moral one of that group. And I don’t doubt it, that was his nature. Angry, sure. Maybe a little over-reactive. But never unfair. And his time in the Marines, I don’t doubt that he wasn’t afraid to take a stand on things he believed important.
Guess he left that gang around the time his pa passed, which is when he wandered back up here. Got a job working with Eagle Feather. You know about him? Yeah, he was a house painter. Guess that was Sagebrush’s first step back toward his passion. No, not really. He was just making ends meet. But luckily he fell in with Eagle Feather – everyone called him “Eag.” He was another Shanowah. He was older, had even been on the tribal council, before it disbanded.
Eag got Sage into meditation. Eag was kind of like, a big, bulky guy. Deep, rough voice. But the calmest guy you’d ever meet. He also rekindled Sagebrush’s infatuation with nature. Sage’d always had an interest in, as I’ve said, the visual beauty of it, but Eag encouraged a deeper appreciation of it. I remember at that time you’d see his bike outside of town, along the side of the road. Turn out he’d be on some miles-long hike.
Then that turned into him always taking along his sketchbook. Got back into art again. I don’t know if Eag knew anything about art therapy, per se, but he realized Sagebrush was more at peace when he was doing his art, so he encouraged it.
And that’s when Sagebrush learned a lot about his tribal heritage. I never got the feeling he was much interested in asking his mom about it, and I don’t know how much she knew. But Eag had been on the council – he knew a lot. And I guess, when you’re painting houses with a guy, or whatever, you get to talking. And he seemed to really learn a lot about the tribe’s history; their legends.
He took it really hard when Eag passed away. Once again, he was depressed. For a guy already prone to depression, he sure was being tossed enough triggers.
He started following in his pa’s path at that time, drinking a bit. I was visiting a lot around then – I guess kind of preparing to move back. Plus, my mother was ill. So I was helping out at the bar some. I didn’t really like seeing him come in here. I’d try to talk to him. We rekindled our friendship a bit. Didn’t do much to cheer him up, though, I’m afraid. No, that required a little more than I had to offer. Luckily, he soon met Amber. Well, lucky for a while, anyway.
Amber was a great girl. Full of life. They say someone could light up a room, but I’d venture she could light up a full mansion.
It was almost like she was custom-ordered for ol’ Sage. Finally, it seemed, something in his life was looking up. Seemed maybe he’d paid his dues and was finally reaping the karmic benefits.
They say redheads are fiery, and I don’t know if it’s always true, but there was a fire to Amber, an infectious, flirty energy that could make even the grumpiest of souls smile. His art really flourished with her. She was the antithesis of his father in that way – very accepting and encouraged his art. She was amazed by his ability. He could always count on her to support him. She was kind of a hippie, so she thought it was neat he was part Native American. I think that’s what drew her to him initially. But turned out, in a weird, unexpected way, they seemed kind of made for each other. Like when you have two puzzle pieces that look as if they don’t go together, but you flip one around or something, and then, all of a sudden, they mesh perfectly? Kind of like that.
Well, she was always leading him off on adventures. She loved going for rides on his bike. They’d come back dusty and tired with rings of flowers she’d found tied around their necks.
Eventually, she got it in her head – I think Sage must’ve been telling her the stories he’d learned from Eag about Graveyard Valley and that Hell Hole mine on the edge of it – not the for-the-history-books story of the “epidemic.” Not even the story of the ghosts that seem to consider that area a kind of town square, or even the two miner brothers who massacred the town. He told her some Shanowah legend about an evil demon-spirit trapped in a cave-in deep in the mine. “Skinwalker,” I think they’re called in general. The Shanowah call it a “Shakani.”
Well, she got it in her head that she wanted to go up and visit that old mine on the edge of Graveyard Valley – Hell Hole Mine. You know, kids like that think they’re immortal. And Sage, well, I don’t think he ever really believed the myths and legends Eag’d told him. He’d been in combat – seen the worst life had to offer. He wasn’t afraid of some reject from the afterlife.
‘Way I’ve heard it, Amber gets up there, calls out for Pandora – that’s what they call the blonde ghosts who roams up there – doesn’t get any response. Doesn’t see any skinwalker. So I guess she figured that was all the invitation (or, at least, lack of warning) she needed. She started figuring it’d be a real trip to dig up some gold and get rich. Well, can’t say I disagree, but it takes a lot to keep men from gold, and something did that up there – either lack of it, or something worse.
Still, I guess Sage figured it wouldn’t be too poor an idea to let her have a go of it. He wasn’t in the habit of telling her “No.” I suspect he was still a little surprised he’d managed to wrangle a gal like that, and a little afraid of losing her if he wasn’t exciting or fun enough to keep her interested.
So they start making a real operation of it. Tear down the boards that have covered it for well-nigh a century. And start diggin’! But, actually, turns out to be great therapy for Sagebrush – he puts in his Walkman, swings his pickax, and he’s too tired to be bothered by his past. Plus, he’s got Amber there with him, and the sun setting over the ghost town to sketch in the evening...
If they’d found any gold, instead of what they did, I daresay it’d’ve been the perfect situation for him.
Now, it doesn’t take much to become a popular topic of gossip in a small town like this, so you would be right to assume that everyone was talking about the two of them going spelunking. They’d usually camped out up there. I was as curious as anyone, so when they stopped by after being up there about a week, I asked them how it was going.
That’s when I found out their attitude about the whole thing. Amber’s reasoning was that whoever owned the mine had stolen it from Sagebrush’s mother’s ancestors anyway. And if they DID find gold, she was sure whoever owned the mine would be happy to know it was still “active.” She said it like it was a volcano.
She seemed to keep trying to reassure Sagebrush, saying that he deserved anything they found and that they owed it to his ancestors to keep digging.
When she went to wash up, he asked me what I knew about the mine. I told him, “Nothing interesting. Same thing everyone knows – that “tourist” story of an epidemic. And that, in reality, those two miners went insane because they couldn’t find any more gold, or they started seeing things. And that drove them off the rails, and they went around town on a killing spree. And the mine had been boarded up ever since. Plus now and then people say they’ve seen something.”
“Right,” he said. “Seeing things. You know, Eag told me there’s a Shanowah legend of a demon trapped in there?”
“Is that right?” I laughed. “Well, seems neither white man nor red trusts that place too much.”
But by his reaction, I’d’ve guessed maybe he by then counted himself among that bunch who didn’t trust it. Not sure why he confided in me – we really weren’t that close anymore – except that, at that point, other than Amber, he may have had no one else. He was real serious, so I stopped laughing and asked why he’d brought it up.
“Well, you just…spend time there, and you think about things, start seeing things…I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the stories dancing around in my head.”
“Oh, man,” I told him. “I guess I thought maybe, with Amber in the picture, everything’d be lookin’ up.”
“Well, it was,” he said, “but something is wrong with her. She’s sick or obsessed or something. She won’t give it up. And she’s paranoid that other people are gonna come out there and take her gold. She said she saw this blond woman.”
I asked if she’d ever had hallucinations before. He shook his head.
“Well, that’s strange,” I said. “I can see why you’re asking these questions. Maybe you should take a canary with you – some gases might be seeping out of somewhere. You ever hear of the oracle at Delphi?”
“That’s actually not a bad idea,” he said. “But can you tell if a canary’s gone insane?”
It was a question for an ornithologist, but, as we didn’t have one there, I was mulling it over when Amber came out of the washroom. That was the end of our conversation.
So, what happened then was, Sage and Amber grabbed some food and supplies, and headed back to the mine the next day. And, unfortunately (as you might expect), the hallucinations seemed to kick right back up. Amber claimed she heard voices – of Sagebrush and another woman. She accused them of…well, “doing it” right down there in the mine.
He asserts that there’s no other woman (and, if you were looking at it from the outside – sure, I’ve been surprised in my time, but Sagebrush was so caught up on Amber that I’d be surprised if he so much as looked at another woman). But she demands there is, so he asks her where he’d be hiding her.
Amber says she knows he’s keeping that other woman deep down in the mine. And she’ll find her. And she’s not leaving till she does.
He wakes up in his tent that night and sees she’s gone. He runs deep into the mine and finds her at the deepest part, where it’s been boarded up. She’s got her pickax and is trying to pry the boards off; insists the mistress is right behind there. Guess she figures Sage boarded her up for safe keeping, but the blockade was over a hundred years old.
So, Sagebrush argues that the mine is affecting her and they’d better leave. She accuses him of calling her crazy when he’s the one with the mistress. She attacks him with the pick, he yanks it away and she slugs him with a sharp rock, knocking him out. That’s how he got that scar.
When he wakes, he can’t find her and she doesn’t come back. Not the next morning. Not the next day.
He starts up a full-scale, methodical search. He calls the police. After 48 hours, they join in, but they think either she’s just run off, away from him, or he did something to her. Not that they think he’s the murderin’ type, but they also know the legends of the mine making people crazy. And in the story he tells them, something certainly made her crazy – they wonder if it didn’t maybe make him crazy, too.
But there’s no evidence of anything untoward. No evidence of her at all. So they conclude; either he committed the perfect murder or she ran off. If it’s the latter, well, the desert’s a big place, so she may have perished out there and become coyote food…or she may be anywhere else in the world, being her free-spirited self. Again, her personality didn’t lend itself to convention, so she wouldn’t have necessarily collected the few belongings she had and, you know, left a forwarding address.
But Sage searches and searches. Long after they’ve stopped aiding him. I mean, for months. And you could see how it wore on him.
He’d been anti-social before but nothing compared to after Amber. He’d sit in his corner and drink. Anyone who wanted to talk to him would just get a long glare back.
Some folks in town are convinced Sage killed her. A few times, in the bar, I’ve seen him crying. I don’t believe a killer would do that.
Others say it was the ghosts of the miners that got her, and I’m finding that one harder and harder to dispute.
But this much I know, if Sage doesn’t let Amber go, find some closure, he’ll up and disappear one day like some ghost from Graveyard Valley.