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Dillon Haws “They Shall Inherit the Earth”

Dillon Haws

My name is Dillon Haws and I am from Middleton, Idaho. I am an English major with a focus on rhetoric and composition. I chose this major because I thought it would be a good pre-law major. After graduating this May I will enter law school and hope to work in the field of health law after receiving my J.D. When I’m not studying I enjoy spending time outdoors running, hiking, fly fishing.

They Shall Inherit the Earth

Poised for attack, we steadied our sunburned arms on splintering fence rails that lined the road behind our homes. Under the cover of mesquite trees, gripping antler-handled slingshots made with strips of inner tube and recycled leather, two shoeless youth waited patiently for the chance to strike a jackrabbit or a Chihuahuan raven, saving a few fire-red lava stones for our favorite target—the yellow-Mexican.

Shamelessly we waited to fire upon the little man of peculiar origin: the town gimp, the day laborer, the will-work-for-food man who drew second and third glances; the one our fathers called “Chonkie Cabra,” because Mrs. Landson claimed she saw him sodomize her goat. But it hadn’t always been that way, before Alby Jones came to town on his orange Indian pony, Chonkie was just a fixture of the community like the stray dogs that roamed in packs. The town let him alone and even kept him employed with its various dirty jobs but that changed as quickly as the day that Alby Jones rode in waving a newspaper turned to night. Being on the westernmost part of the valley, our ranch was Alby’s first stop when he returned from California. He rode right up to the hitch post and dismounted while his horse was still at a canter, yelling at the cabin about bombs and Japs and raising a militia, not realizing the cabin was empty and grandpa and I were watching him with amusement from the orchard we were watering.

“All over California they’re rounding ‘em up and sending ‘em to cages in Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho,” Alby said once he spotted us. He thrust a copy of the San Francisco Examiner into my grandfather’s hands. And my grandfather read the front page headline slowly.

“Evictions?” my grandfather asked, his eyes skimming the article.

“Righto,” he said. “Frisco gots lots of ‘em.”

“Lots of what?” I asked.

“Japs.” Alby replied without acknowledging my presence. He leaned in closer to my grandpa and started jabbing his long bony index finger on the paper as he summarized the article. I didn’t know anything about the Japanese beyond what I learned from the adults when they talked about the war over dinner, but Alby’s vilification of them scared me and I listened to his report like I was hearing a ghost story.

“My word,” my grandfather replied as he handed the newspaper back to Alby. In exchange Alby handed him a single leaf of paper, dense with writing on one side, that he’d been eager to trade since the moment he’d handed the newspaper to my grandfather. My grandfather read the heading out loud, “Civilian exclusion order number twenty-eight…instructions to all persons of Japanese ancestry…” he paused and moved down the page with careful eyes, “all persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated,” he read.

“Brought a bundle back to post in town,” Alby said excitedly.

“What for?” Grandpa asked. “We’ve only got a half-of-a Jap here and he’s harmless.”

“Half, whole, it don’t matter…gotta get ‘em out,” Alby said.

“Out where?” Grandpa asked.

“Just out…maybe send ‘em back home I s’ppose” Alby said.

“Home?” my grandfather asked. “And where do you suppose his home is? Salomón Chonkie’s lived in this valley longer than you. I reckon he’s as deserving of this home as you or me or the damned mesquite,” he said as he waved hand over the landscape. Alby spat a stream of tobacco juice into the soil where we were standing. “A scorpion’s still a scorpion no matter where he hatches,” Alby said. Grandfather shook his head and handed the paper back to him then dragged some dirt over Alby’s black puddle with his boot. “Judge not lest ye be judged, Alby,” he said and extended a farewell handshake.

Alby didn’t argue. Undaunted, he mounted his gelding and rode towards town with the feigned urgency that brought him to us in the first place. Until that day I’d never heard Chonkie’s first name. Salomón, the Spanish pronunciation of Solomon, like the king, the son of David, wealthy, wise, and Chonkie’s polar opposite. Chonkie was a beggar, a vagabond: dusty, dirty, and unshaved. He had no home, but sometimes slept in borrowed barns and under borrowed stars. In his direst need, he returned to the caves south of town, a stalactites palace that kept him cool and dry when he needed it, the route to which required passage on the gravel road that flanked our ranch. Each day our fathers escaped the valley on that same road to tend the cattle they kept on the mesa beyond the bluffs Chonkie survived in. They had seen him there, passed by his cave daily, and even peaked inside once when they were sure he wasn’t around. Not that Chonkie was a threat to them or anyone else; they were just interested in curbing their curiosity, not in an encounter.

The description of his modest quarters circulated town quickly once it was told to Alby Jones as he took it upon himself to spread word with the same screeching persistence of the desert ravens that seemed to squawk from sunup to sundown. With this new news, Alby Jones would be responsible for cultivating the greatest hostility towards Chonkie the town had known, a distinction he wouldn’t shy away from. Though Chonkie wasn’t particularly well liked by most, indifference turned to hostility the day Alby returned to Talon City from his California run with the San Francisco Examiner dated March 3rd, 1942 in hand. A while after Alby’s departure it occurred to me to ask my grandfather more about the Chonkie, and particularly about something he’d said about him to Alby.

“Chonkie was born here?” I asked.

“That’s right,” he said, nodding. “Right here.”

He’d lit the tobacco in his pipe and was toking heavy plums that made his red eyes water.  Cherry pipe smoke rode on every syllable he spoke, the aroma filling the space between us. “Well, actually, he comes from over there,” he continued, pointing towards our cinder- block barn. “Chonkie was born in that barn some forty-years ago, back when your pa was smaller than you.”

“Why was he born in a barn?” I asked.

“That’s a strange thing ain’t it?” he said, tracing my puzzled expression on the front of his teeth like he was searching for something he’d lost.

“See, Chonkie’s mama…” he paused to toke his pipe and choose his words. “His mama was a whore at the Penny Whistle back when sportin’ acceptable work for a woman,” he said, choosing to exercise less restrain than he might have if I was younger.

“Anyway,” he said as he took a deep breath. “Chonkie’s mama couldn’t help that she got pregnant, not that time anyway, which wasn’t good for her business, see? And so she needed help and we helped her by giving her chores to do here and made her a little place to sleep in that barn.”

“And she had Chonkie there?” I clarified.

“Indeed she did,” he said. “Then they both disappeared.”

“Why?” I asked

“Don’t know for sure,” he said.

“When did they come back?” I asked.

“They didn’t, only he did,” he said. “He came back about a decade ago,” he explained.

“I guess he felt like it was safe to return home.” He said home with squinted expression, said it like it tickled his throat.

“What about his pa?” I said.

“What about him?”

“Who is…” I rethought my question. “Where is he?”

“Chonkie’s daddy could’a been any one of a handful of Mexican vaqueros who stopped in at the Penny Whistle for a drink after horse traddin’ and had enough jingle to spend some time with Mei—that was his mama’s name.” He paused to make sure I understood, and I did. After the long pause and a silence that was filled with the steady hum of the desert and the quiet sizzle of burning tobacco I asked,

“Do you like Chonkie?” I asked.

“Like?” he said through a furrowed face. “Hell, I wouldn’t say I like him, no. But I guess I don’t dislike him neither,” he said. “Matthew said blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. He is meek, so I say God bless him. Lord knows I don’t want to inherit this…” he picked up a handful of sand and yelled, “graveyard!” as he threw it towards the nearest mesquite tree. I didn’t speak, just listened to the echo of his voice get consumed by the drumming pulse of the earth as it cooked.

“Anyway,” he continued, “the poor man ‘ll have to earn it. I fear he may get jostled a bit more b’fore his days are through. Ol’ Roosevlet just dealt him a tough hand,” he said as he turned from the garden and headed towards the barn, whistling the chorus of “Old Man River. As he walked away I thought about Chonkie and didn’t know if I feared him and his people or felt bad for him, it was a conflict in my mind that persisted, ever complicated by my age. I was stuck between kind adolescence and the fierce force of growing into a man and feeling the need to prove it.

The Saguaro Valley of my youth was a humble, sparsely populated bowl of dry desert speckled with sharp plants and metamorphic rock blisters that poked through the crusty earth as sores. It was rough country with no easy harmony about it, which was mirrored by the society that struggled to exist there just as the flora and fauna, all contending for resources. Our family labored to maintain a garden and a small patch of orange trees but the water we pulled from the well to feed our plants attracted jackrabbits that devoured lettuce and melons, and ravens that ravaged our oranges trees. The ravens were also nest robbers that wolfed the eggs of smaller desert birds. Our fathers hunted the ravens and jackrabbits whenever a gun was handy, to protect the garden or defend a nest of fledgling finches from slaughter. My cousin Jesse and I built slingshots to help in the effort and spent the summer as desert vigilantes, weaving through the web of mesquite trees that covered our ranch, maintaining order and forsaking our innocence.

Most families lived like ours, a mile or more outside of town on a plot of land hugging the bluffs that was farmed or ranched or merely squatted on. The bluffs offered a reprieve from the dogged sun once each day, at sunup or sundown depending on which side of the valley one lived, but Talon City baked right in the middle of the valley and only cooled off after the sun had been tucked away for an hour or so. The spiny bluffs that shielded us from the sun also formed the walls of a bowl that trapped the pungent scent of mesquite like an invisible fog, which kept us all a little high, a little out of our minds, and not always able to see things clearly.

The summer of my twelfth year was mostly spent in the uneven shade of mesquite trees; nostrils tingling and head grown full from the dizzying honey-lacquer they perspired. My grandfather called them rooted devils. “This place is hellish enough without the claws of Satan reaching up through the earth,” he’d say. It wasn’t just their scraggly form or their angry thorns that made them evil in his eyes—he didn’t trust the way their honey scent made men act.

“We are not forsaken, but this land seems to be,” he told me once in response to a story I relayed about Chonkie and Alby, one I heard my father telling my mother, as we struggled to carry water to our thirsty clump of orange trees.

“You think Alby punched Chonkie because of mesquite?” I asked.

“I think…if the devil can take the form of a serpent, he can take the form of mesquite,” he explained. “Daryl, those wretched things and the stink they sweat make a man short on temper and restrain. That doesn’t make what he did to Salomón Chonkie all right, but it helps make some sense of his actions I s’pose,” he said. His reasoning made me feel unsteady, made me question my own behavior. Made me wonder if even though I felt straight maybe I was doing everything in a daze. I used my grandpa’s logic to justify Jesse’s actions the next day, and my own many times thereafter.

Late in the afternoon, once chores were finished and we’d been told by our mothers to get out of their kitchens, we trekked eastward to the edge of our family’s ranch, to where it met the only road into Talon City from the Mexican Border. Our cinderblock houses looked like sugar cubes melting in a mirage behind us; we were far enough from home to feel bold, and bold enough to make mistakes. The first time we saw Chonkie walk by we just watched him. He was short and stocky, maybe even fat, though it was hard to tell because he always wore a heavy poncho that disguised his physique.

“I’ll bet he eats people,” Jesse suggested once as we watched him from a distance.

“He don’t look look that mean,” I said.

“Man aint gotta be mean to eat people, jus hungry,” Jesse said.

“How is he eatin’ anybody if no one is missing?” I asked.

“Ain’t you ever heard of grave robbers, Daryl?” He responded with surprise. The thought made me sick and I chose not to respond. We waited until he had passed by us to start walking home, but just before we did Jesse surprised me and yelled at him to go home and called him yellow. Chonkie didn’t respond, it had been a couple weeks since Alby spread the word of the eviction notice and he must have been used to the treatment.

“Why’d you say that?” I asked Jesse.

“I don’t know…my dad says he is a pest,” Jesse said. We walked the rest of the way home in silence .

A few days later Jesse’s father, a tall man with wide shoulders and a nose like a buzzard beak that pointed right at his boots, invited Jesse and me to get ice cream in town. He was a lanky man whose limbs seemed to swim in the space of his garments. He moved with the assuredness of an armed man because he always was. His heavy steps gave away the two cannons—Colt 44s—he kept in twin holsters on his belt, though he tried to hide them under a tan canvas duster. Despite his deliberate manner, he kept an easy way about him; he wasn’t above telling a joke or letting one of us beat him at an arm wrestle. Although my uncle and my father looked very dissimilar, making it hard to see them as brothers, they shared a similar mindset about most things. The night before our trip to town I got a clearer view of their feelings towards Chonkie.

“Chonkie Cabra’s the only Jap in this town. Nobody is gonna come and take one man away,” my father said to my uncle as they were unsaddling their horses for the night. I’d heard them arrive and rushed to help them move their tack into the barn and heard some of their conversation.

“I’ll bet you right,” my uncle said. “Maybe we ought to drive him out of town?”

“To where?” my father asked.

“Just somewhere else,” my uncle said. “I reckon it won’t be too tough.”

“Well why us?” my father asked. “You don’t think those exclusion orders are persuasive enough?”

“Nah. Those won’t mean shit to him—doubt if he can read anyway,” Jesse’s father siad.

“Why do you want him out of here so bad?” my father asked. “He’s helped us out a time or two when we’ve been in a pinch.”

My uncle stopped short of relieving his horse from the saddle’s breast strap and waited for my father to make eye contact. “2400…” he said.

“2400?”

“That’s how many of our people were killed by his people in Pearl Harbor,” he said.

“He’s no better than a damn raven.”

That was the end of the conversation. They finished their chores in silence, which suggested a concession on behalf of my father; he seemed convinced by his older brother. Our drive into town for ice cream was paused shortly when we encountered Chonkie walking the gravel road. My uncle slowed his Ford Coupe to a stop in the middle of the road, about fifty feet ahead of Chonkie, and waved him over to us. When his slender frame appeared at the window, I examined his curious features to understand what he was, knowing only that he didn’t look like anyone I knew. He looked tired; the stresses of his life weighed heavy on his golden face, which was cracked and peeling like the desert floor, accenting his cheekbones and the bags under squinted eyes.

“Wanna make some money, Chonkie?” my uncle asked with a stern face. Chonkie replied with a slight nod.

“I’ll betchu do,” my uncle replied with a snort as he exited the car. “I’ll betchu danced for joy when your Commi friends dropped bombs on our navy, dintcha?”

Chonkie shook his head and shuffled backwards away from the car.

“Aw hell, course you did. I’ll bet you took a break from pesterin’ the livestock to do a little dancin’,” he said, leaning on the open door of the car. He stood there for a while examining Chonkie like an eagle watching the ground for prey, then he quickly moved around the door and paced towards Chonkie, his heavy steps kicking up dust. “I wanna show these boys how a Jap can dance,” he said before beckoning us to join him in the street where he was in a faceoff with the slight man who was confused and scared.

I stayed still on the bench seat of the still-running Ford while Jesse hurried to his father’s side.

“Daryl, dontcha wanna watch the show?” Jesse asked with a toothy grin. I shook my head and rested my chin on my knees, peering just above the dashboard, and tried to understand the sinking feeling in my gut. Jesse’s dad unsheathed his two six-shooter revolvers and pointed each of them at the ground to the left and right of Chonkie’s mismatched boots. Chonkie shook his head but didn’t speak.

I cringed when Jesse’s dad pulled the hammers back on each revolver and roared, “Let’s see a dance boys!”

One-by-one he sent a round into the ground near Chonkie’s boots where it tossed up a tower of dust, causing him to raise his legs in startled leaps like he was trying to run in a shallow creek. The .44 rounds thundered through the valley. Each shot was accompanied by ricochet until all twelve rounds had been fired in call and response fashion and the only sounds that remained were the joyful laughs of Jesse and my uncle, the humming Ford, and ringing in our ears.

Salomón keeled over panting in the thick heat, while the sun and the laughter beat down on his sweaty, bald head; then he turned to retrieve his sombrero which had fallen off during the dance and been carried a few feet away by stray bullets. My uncle fished a couple dollars out of his wallet and floated them towards Salomón before turning back towards the car.

“Naw, I wouldn’t have shot him,” my uncle responded to a question I didn’t hear. “I just wanted to spook ‘m a bit.”

“Why’d you give him money?” Jesse asked.

“Good question,” Jesse’s dad said before throwing the car into gear and lurching us past the still-panting Chonkie who was pouring his salt into the earth in drops.

The ten-minute drive to town wasn’t long enough for me to feel comfortable with the display I had witnessed. Once there, my uncle went to Dax’s general store while Jesse and I wandered Main Street—the town’s only street. All of Talon City’s buildings were extensions of the red ground they were borrowed from; they looked as if the earth boiled over one day and formed them accidentally—stiff and crusty like the flora surrounding them. Each had Roosevelt’s edict pinned on its door. I paused to read one and was abandoned by Jesse who ran over to the Penny Whistle to try and steal a glimpse of any women who might have been lingering there.

Though Salomón Chonkie seemed far from his mind, he weighed heavy on mine. A few days later my grandfather mentioned Chonkie to our fathers as they were saddling up to ride out to the mesa. I had made a habit of getting up early and seeing them off, well before Jesse was awake; so I lingered in the yard and listened the men talk between sips of cowboy coffee and preparing their horses.

“Chonkie was working in town yesterday—cleaning out the corrals,” my grandfather said.

“Oh yeah? Is that the town gossip?” my father asked, occupied with coaxing cooperation from rigid saddle leather and a stubborn horse named Snap.

“Well son, perhaps it has become gossip, I don’t know, but that’s not the point,” my grandfather said.

“Well don’t keep us waiting, what is the point?” my dad responded.

“The point is, it appears people sorta turned on the man,” my grandfather said.

“What’dya mean?” my father asked.

“He had holes in his hat. Three of them,” my grandfather said.

“Ok?” my dad said.

“I asked him where they came from. Told him a hat like that wouldn’t do much good in the rain,” he explained as he lit the tobacco in his pipe.

“Lucky for him it damn near never rains here,” Jesse’s father said in a tone that bordered on defensive but was slight enough to be ignored by my father and grandfather who didn’t know he had reason to be.

“Well Jim, you’re right on account of the rain; Chonkie said the same thing, bless him,” my grandfather said. “But you’re wrong on account of him being lucky. No man is lucky to have holes punched through his hat by another man.”

“What’dya mean punched?” my father asked.

“Bullets,” grandfather replied.

“How’dya know that?” my father asked.

My uncle chimed in before my grandfather could answer, “They don’t call him Chonkie Cabra for nothin’, right? Maybe one of those goats he likes finally reared its head and got revenge.”

The brothers nodded in agreement and laughed quietly. I wanted to laugh too, to feel like I was a part of their inner circle, but first I looked to my grandfather for permission; he was smiling slightly, so I joined in.

That night over dinner I told my parents about encountering Chonkie on our trip to town and how he was made to dance over bullets.

“That stuff’s good for ol’ Chonkie,” my father said. “He gotta eat like you and me and the way I see it that’s easy money.”

My mother, somewhat concerned said, “Yeah, so long as the gun aint aimed a little too high and shoots off one of his feet.”

Then I, trying to impress my father said, “‘Least then the goats of Saguaro Valley’d be able to sleep at night, right?” It was a thought that brought a smile to both of their faces.

“Well I reckon you’re right, Daryl,” my father said.

His expression swayed me. No longer did I question whether or not Chonkie was a friend or a foe deserving of the ridicule he was subjected to; it wasn’t a matter of right or wrong. It was, in my naïve mind, acceptable—all of it. He was a stranger; dropped in our unforgiving desert by some strange wind and was never able to get away.

When Jesse first suggested slinging a rock at Chonkie, it was a coincidence that we had wandered far enough from the house in pursuit of rabbits and birds to encounter him. And it was his Japanese heritage that made it acceptable, just like it was the raven’s exploit of other birds’ nests that made it deserving of our volley.

When Chonkie’s small frame could be seen emerging from the heat waves on the road we took deep breaths searching for pockets of fresh air in the sea of mesquite and gathered ammo between our knees. Chonkie earned and ate by the day, often a donation of eggs or fruit from whoever he’d been in the service of that day; he cradled the goods close to his chest as he walked to the hills. His heavy, wool-knitted poncho and a charro sombrero that offered minimal protection from our stinging stones. Once we were in firing range, Jesse made the call, “FIRE!”

Besieged by a volley of musketry, Chonkie moved far to the opposite side of the road but was trapped in a no man’s land between our wooden fence and the barbed wire fence on the opposite side. He didn’t run when we let our collection of stones fly; he just hugged the barded wire fence as close as he could without getting snagged and tried to knock our stones out of the sky without dropping his belongings. He took his hits, even the ones that landed on his bare hands, without a sound or reprimand or pleading. We fired upon the bantam man from the protection of the brush until he had moved beyond the reach of our slingshots, then we ran as fast as we could back to our homes a few hundred yards away.

It should have been enough, seeing Chonkie dance over the stream of bullets and made to look stupid in front of children, and covered in dust that turned to mud as it mingled with his sweat, but over the few weeks that followed I found myself time and again with my slingshot in hand, barefooted, waiting for our yellow target to come down the road—he had no other choice but to travel that road or to skip town. It’s difficult not to feel guilty thinking of two desert juveniles attacking a helpless tramp simply because we could, because we knew we’d get away with it; that we could run to the protection of our homes, to our families and meals, to baths and running water, while he was left alone to lick his wounds and muster the courage to stay another day. We thought, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that what we did was justified—even ordained.

We were so much like the Chihuahuan Ravens we hated: with every stone launched from our slingshots that managed to reach an egg Chonkie counted on for breakfast, shattering the shell and leaving a sticky dripping mess on his poncho, we were just like them. Our daily patrol for invaders began to slip to the back of our minds. Nothing was quite as fulfilling and firing on Chonkie. With a jackrabbit or a raven, we were lucky to get a second chance at a hit if we missed our first—they were too fast. But Chonkie was so slow and methodical and longsuffering, and Jesse and I were able to fire ten or more stones apiece before he could move beyond our range.

This went on for week, we fired a hundred or more stones at him in that time, and I was beginning to get bored of the attack, but I didn’t quit until I was one stone too late. The last time we fired upon him, we waited a long time, longer than ever before; so long we nearly gave up waiting for fear of missing dinner. Long enough that I began to feel childish for crouching under a mesquite expecting an easy target to expose himself. We weren’t hunters or marksman, as we fancied ourselves; we were like fisherman shooting spawning salmon with buckshot. Nevertheless, when he finally approached, we took aim.

By now, Chonkie knew what to expect when he passed by our ranch. He’d started carrying his food in an old leather saddlebag to protect it, he pulled his hat brim down low over his ears and synched it with a string like he expected a gust of wind to blow it off. On that day he didn’t have his walking stick to fend off the volley of lava rocks; instead he swatted futilely and rarely diverted a stone’s path before it struck him. Ever enduring, he maintained his mild pace, all the while watching the point of attack.

I loaded a final stone, having already committed to myself that it would the last, and let fly. Before the stone cleared the leather pocket of the slingshot a bolt of adrenaline made me weightless. I realized that despite myself I had aimed too well; it was a shot that would have killed a jackrabbit if it hit him in the head. I watched Salomón flinch and raise both hands to his face as quickly as I had released my shot, dropping a container of water and his saddlebag of food to the road. I heard the hollow thump of my stone as it plunged into his right eye, causing him to twirl a bit and fall to his knees. As the slingshot slipped from my hand, Jesse quickly rose to his feet and sprinted towards home. I heard purring across the desert: the steady, droning buzz of the earth begging the sun to go away. I watched bright blood roll down his yellow arms and into gurgling water that babbled out of his thermos.

Unsure of what to do, I buckled my legs to my chest to make myself small and felt the urge to vomit but could only purge tears. Tears as heavy and swift as raindrops fell from my cheeks to the earth. Jesse had bolted, and I was left alone under the mesquite, thirty yards from a man who, I would discover later, I had harmed irreparably. I bawled into my hands and blamed the honey mesquite for the shot that wasn’t intended for eyes or tears or blood. I blamed it for making me, as my grandfather had warned, “short on restrain.”

The tears I shed were full of anger and sadness, but they also seemed to cleanse me of the mesquite inebriation I supposed I was in. With a clearer sense of self, I rose slowly to my feet. Chonkie hadn’t moved, but blood was no longer streaming down his face; he was huddled under his heavy poncho in a prayer position. Trusting in something unseen, a gentle urging in my gut, I began walking towards him.