Rain swept upriver in slow moving columns like a May Day parade through Red Square. New leaves, bright green, on willowy boughs bend as the indomitable columns pass through tree crowns and fields of clover and continued pressing inland. In the cemetery at Klamath Grade, lilac blossoms turned their shoulders to the rain and hung heavy over veterans who fought in foreign wars. And the forester for Guy Roberts Lumber Company, head bowed and wet, having run out of gas a mile upriver, hurried toward Siletz. His steps were double time.
When I saw the forester, I stopped and offered him a ride. I was actually on the lookout for him; for I needed a place to live—the house I had been renting in Siletz had sold, and I had a month to move. And the lumber company owned several older houses. I was hoping to rent one, but I needed their forester’s say-so.
The heavy mud-tread of my Bronco's tires sang so loudly as they slung rain from the wet pavement that conversation was difficult. What he heard was different from what I asked. Nevertheless, he said, "You could probably get Hank Kenatta's old place there at Twin Bridges for forty-five a month," as if he had read my thoughts.
Hank died a year or so earlier. The lumber company bought his place to gain access to several million boardfeet of timber they owned that they would otherwise have to pay for trespass rights through Georgia-Pacific's holdings in addition to the expense of building their haulroad on G-P land for G-P’s future benefit … they paid less for Hank's farm which abutted their holdings than they would've paid for trespass.
Most of Hank's hundred forty acres were in brush-choked fields that alders were reclaiming. But his place also included an old sawmill site. Several of the outbuildings still stood.
Hank had been living in the four bedroom manager's house. The other three houses on the site, though, were uninhabitable and served only as frameworks for blackberry tangles. Even the road around the millpond that led uphill, at one time planked with old-growth fir instead of being graveled (planking was cheaper than rock), was overgrown by sapling alders, scotch broom and blackberries.
After returning the forester to his pickup with a couple of gallons of gas, I hurried to the lumber company's office at their Toledo sawmill where I asked to rent the Kenatta place.
I moved in the next day.
Any dwelling along the Coast not occupied by humans is usually claimed by wood rats. Hank's house was no exception. A large pack rat had taken up residency on top of the pantry shelves in the utility room. Her nest, several feet across, stank of her urine. It had to go; she had to go. So said my wife, Susie.
My experience with rats was limited: I trapped a couple of rats under the old Adventist church we remodeled while I was in high school. They were the generic urban variety that a common rat trap will catch and kill. They were a little bigger and a little smarter than a mouse, but trapping them had been merely a matter of smearing peanut butter on the trigger of what looked like an oversize mouse trap. But the critter that dwelt in the utility room of Hank's house was the size of a small cat, and her white forefeet looked more like my hands than feet of a rat.
In my travels, I had acquired a Victor #1 1/2 single spring leghold trap. I suspected this trap might be a bit large for the rat. But my wife had already set up her washing machine in the utility room, and she wanted the rat gone before she did her first load of laundry. She informed me that I was not to play fair with the rat, that I was to kill it, and the sooner the better. So using an empty freezer basket—I had also moved our chest freezer into the utility room—I constructed a cubby set, with some scorched mincemeat for bait, the mincemeat having conveniently thawed during our move.
The rat doesn't seem to like the mincemeat any better than I did. She didn't come near the set.
After a week, I broke the set apart, returned the basket to the freezer, and told my wife, "It looks like the rat has left."
Retreated would have been the better word.
Before another week passed, I was awakened at 3:37 by the gnawing of the rat on wiring insulation in the utility room. I know exactly when I was awakened for I knocked the alarm clock off the nightstand when I jumped from bed.
The rat was gone by the time I turned on the utility room's overhead light.
The head of our bed was against the wall separating our bedroom from the utility room; so when the rat returned the following night and awakened my wife, she insisted that I get up and kill it despite me having just gotten to sleep from working swing shift—I worked rotating shift work at the pulp mill in addition to trying to make a gunshop successful. I didn't seem to need much sleep, and I didn't get much. But I didn't like being awakened when I am asleep so I got up and set the #12 trap in the middle of rat's nest before going back to bed. Her nest seemed to get rebuilt each night regardless of what I set on top of the pantry shelves.
I no sooner laid down than I heard the trap snap.
As I hurriedly got back up I expected to hear a struggle, but I didn't. I didn't hear anything. And there was nothing in the trap but a stick.
I have had smart coyotes dig out traps and piss on them. I have had raccoons spring traps by pushing a wad of debris into them. But I trip traps with a stick. I wasn’t used to having a critter do so.
The rat returned every night, and her nightly gnawing on insulation began a war that I was determined to win without resorting to poison, not that I thought poison would work. I certainly didn't want any poisoned grain around—the chickens would, inevitably, find it.
Weeks become months, and the rat got smarter the more determined I became to kill her.
After the house would get quiet at night, she began her gnawing. But if I turned on a light anywhere in the house she was gone. If she heard my feet on the bedroom floor, she was gone. And she never again came near a trap.
My wife sort of learned to live with the rat although I still heard about my failure to kill it when she saw its footprints on the utility room floor … the boot of her washing machine leaked. Sears had sent service men out to repair it. When none of them could, she accepted the reality she would have to live with the leak. And anything that walked through the puddle of water in front of her washing machine left its wet footprints on the utility room floor. When the bear came into the utility room, woofed at the cats, and frightened my wife while I was at work, its footprints were still visible when I came home a couple of hours later. I trapped the old boar the following day. I hung some elk ribs in a tree, and cut a ten foot long vine maple for a drag; I had two #15 traps, and I set one at the base of the tree.
The old boar was hungry and easy to trap, but this rat was anything but easy to catch.
One of the boiler firemen at the mill found he could take a small-headed three cell flashlight and lengthen its body with a piece of chrome plated drainpipe from under a kitchen sink and thereby make a small-headed seven cell flashlight. This is in the days before Maglite flashlights. And all of us working in the mill had need for a small-headed seven cell which we couldn't otherwise buy: a fellow can hold a small-headed flashlight in the same hand he holds the forearm of his rifle and still keep its beam parallel to his line of sight. He can shoot if he needs to with the aid of the flashlight without any brackets attaching the light to his rifle barrel.
I, like everyone I work with, had one of these seven cells. I used it every so often to dispatch a raccoon or possum that got into my garbage or my garden; so I kept mine by my gun rack for when I needed it. I also put a five-cell bulb in the seven cell, so its light was really bright.
During these years of my early married life, I slept nude, a fact that will come into play shortly.
I also continually drink coffee while working at the mill without its caffeine having any apparent effect. But on this one particular swing shift someone brought in a large sack (five pounds or more) of chocolate covered coffee beans. I thought they were good, and I ate several handfuls. For the first time ever, I felt wired. I knew, then, what other fellows talked about when they claimed caffeine kept them awake.
I wasn’t a bit sleepy when I was relieved at the end of swing shift. Even though I hung around the mill for a little longer than usual before driving home, I was still not sleepy when I arrived home. I wasn’t sleepy when Johnny Carson signed off, but I had to get up in the morning so I headed for bed where I lay wide awake in the darkened house.
I was staring at the ceiling, wishing I hadn't eaten those coffee beans and wondering why they affected me when coffee never had before. I promised myself I'd avoid chocolate covered coffee beans in the future, and I wondered who thought up the combination. The person who had either was extremely tolerant of caffeine, or the person liked feeling wired.
About two a.m., still wide awake, I heard the rat.
Quietly and slowly, as quietly and slowly as if I had a big buck coming into a stand, I slipped from bed and without turning on a light, I slipped my hunting pouch over my shoulder and loaded my .54 with ten grains of powder. Capping my rifle and taking the seven cell from the gun rack, I sneaked into the kitchen and opened the door into the utility room. And more slowly than the moon was setting, I climbed atop the chest freezer, aimed at where the rat's nest was, and turned on the seven cell.
The spot of bright, bright light froze the rat long enough for me to fire …
Ten grains isn't much powder. Fired outside during the day, its report is hardly louder than popping the cap. But at night in a quiet house, my shot seemed to roar from the utility room, through the kitchen and living room and into the bedroom where a frightened wife leaped from bed and rushed to see what happened, turning on every light on her way.
She stood in the doorway between the kitchen and utility room and started to laugh—she laughed so hard she dribbled on the floor as she found me standing atop the freezer, wearing just my hunting pouch, blowing down the muzzle of my .54.
And if I don't tell this story, she will—
The rat was dead, my ball having removed its head.