Guardian Grandma

(1975)

by Ramon Sender Barayon

 

The white Dodge sedan with the roof antenna cruised the ridge, Grandma Padovani on patrol, white hair in a colorful bandana, sunglasses on her Roman nose. Her family had raised sheep on these coastal California hills for three generations. It required her constant vigilance to protect the flocks from that peskiest in her view of all critters, "canis vulgaris," the common dog.

Weekends were the worst.  Alder Creek Road meandered across the ranch for three miles before dropping to merge with Route One at the Pacific Ocean.  People would park on the westernmost bluff to enjoy the panorama, allowing the kids and the pooch out for a breath of salt air, the feel of the kindly soil.  Grandma's job was to get to them before the dog saw the sheep.  Sweet old Spot, who spent his city days leashed and languid, could run a flock into heart attacks in less than half an hour.

Grandma carried a rifle in her car and was a crack shot.  She wiled away the hours on guard duty chatting over the CB radio with her son Jim in the four-wheel drive or with Grandpa back home in the kitchen, disabled by a stroke.  During holiday times, Jim stationed himself on the eastern hill where he could see who was entering the property and follow their progress along the ridgeline south with his binoculars.

Tony, a keyboard musician in his thirties, had lived on the two communal ranches that bordered the Padovani spread.  Grandma knew him well enough to stop the car and chat whenever he passed by.  She was a kindly old lady despite her gruff attitude and Tony enjoyed his occasional encounters with the guardian spirit of the ridge.  He also appreciated the fact that her presence on the road kept some of the less desirable summer traffic, the chains-and- leather Harley bikers, the souped-up hot-rodders, moving on.  Not only were the sheep susceptible to dogs, but the dry grass to a carelessly thrown cigarette butt.

In the late 'sixties, when Gresham's Ranch up the road blossomed into an open-door hippie encampment, relations with the Padovanis had been tense  The day a stoned young man was found swimming in Grandma's water tank, the family talked about circulating a petition.  Jack Gresham, an idealistic young artist with a social conscience, had visited them with his wife May and their newborn Acacia in an attempt to sooth ruffled feelings.  May's classic American profile and the baby's gurgles had carried the day.  Jack promised a 'no dogs' rule within his three-hundred-acre gypsy kingdom and drove triumphantly down his rutted right-of-way ('Worst road in the county!' he proclaimed with pride.) with Grandma's promise to shelve the petition and give Jack some time to get his newly arrived communards settled.

Tony lived at Gresham's for almost two years, joining the acoustic group that formed there.  His curly chestnut mane and Mediterranean features could be spotted at the frequent feasts, frowning in concentration above the small accordion strapped to his barrel chest.  The band played blues and their own unique western hillbilly tunes.  Visions of becoming a commercial success led them to rent the ranch across the west canyon where there was electricity and thus the enticing possibility of amplifiers and electric instruments.  The property was a 300-acre promontory within the Padovani preserve.  The newcomers promptly baptised it 'Rainbow Hill' after the band's own name.  The old ranch house became 'the Main House' as the arrivals scattered to build their shacks and cabins in the woods.

They had barely settled when the county condemned Gresham's next door as a public nuisance and for violations of the health and building codes.  Trucked-in bulldozers crushed a dozen hobbity huts and domes into kindling before Jack and his friends, seeing the havoc wrought to the trees and topsoil by the heavy machines, burned down the remaining 30 themselves.  That night Tony stood in the meadow at Rainbow Hill transfixed by the nightmarish scene on the eastern ridge.  Which ruddy glow came from the little canvas-and-redwood nest that he had built with so much love?

A feeling grew in him as he watched, something more than just a hatred of this senseless destruction of their harmless way of life.  They had fought long and hard to neutralize their enemies, first in the courts and then with two printed manifestos outlining their non-violent philosophy.  The first one Tony wrote himself and its distribution had raised enough in donations to pay the printing costs and then some.  But the attorneys' fees were staggering and their appeal of the permanent injunction was refused by the California Supreme Court.  The tenor of the times and a conservative governor who actually mentioned the place by name in one speech ("There will be no more Gresham's Ranches!') finally overwhelmed them.

They're terrified of us, he thought that night, watching the flames lick the sky.  Luckily the winter rains had soaked the forest and the blazing homesteads were 'controlled burns,' in forestry parlance.  The scene reminded him of the Dukhobors' Sons of Freedom who had burned their homes to protest the Canadian goverment's restrictive measures.  He had previously played with the notion of writing a book-length history of the ranch and the Dantesque scene before him stiffened his resolve.  He decided, then and there, to move far enough away to give him enough perspective on the story, and where he could devote himself without interruptions to a typewriter keyboard instead of an accordion's.

When Gresham's closed, a handful of refugees joined the band at Rainbow Hill.  Grandma Padovani viewed this influx with some alarm, but the ranchers promised her not to follow Gresham's open-gate policy and, of course, no dogs.  No dogs except Katy the Dog, a short-legged, black-haired cairn mix whom Tony himself had introduced to Grandma.

She squinted at the creature in his arms, head tilted to one side.  "Looks more like a rabbit," she said.

"Is it okay if she lives with us?" he asked.

"Don't see why not," she replied.  She reached out to pat Katy's head.  "Only wish more of them were her size."

Tony didn't tell her that in her younger days Katy had chased the local deer with enthusiasm.  More than once he had run to her rescue because he could tell from her frightened yelps that a cornered doe had turned on her with her hooves.

The following spring, Tony moved away from Rainbow Hill.  After six years of tribal living, he had 'communed out.' Not only had he seen Gresham's razed but also another communal ranch ten miles away.  The Rainbow Hill band had dissolved after a number of local concerts because of a disagreement between Eli, the temperamental lead guitarist, and the drumer.  Katy the Dog, as ranch mascot, stayed on with smiling Pam, the tawny-haired woman with whom he had enjoyed a gentle, uncomplicated romance.  Two failed attempts at a serious relationship had left him emotionally wrecked and Pam's undemanding, cheerfully loving presence helped him climb out of the abyss.  Confidence restored, he began to think of his book project once more and decided to take a music-teaching job in Santa Cruz while he wrote it.

The following February he delivered a copy of his three-hundred-page manuscript to Pam and spent the night.  Things were much the same as he had left them, Eli still zany and impossible, Pam delighted to see him and eager to read what he had written.  Relations between the ranch and the Padovanis remained warm yet tentative.

The next day, driving down Alder Creek Road towards the coast, he spotted Grandma parked beside a green Triumph.  Two young men in down jackets stood silhouetted against the sky on the far bluff, their red setter zig-zagging the meadow below them to the frantic baa-ing of the sheep.

"Here Randy!" they shouted, waving their arms.

Randy did not respond.  He was barking in a frenzy, caught up in some atavistic memory of the chase.

Grandma, checkered kerchief snugged over her white hair, had unlimbered her rifle when Tony arrived.  A few miles away Jim's red truck was on the move from his distant lookout.

"Please, lady, we'll get him back," the tall blond pleaded.  "Don't shoot him!"

His partner cupped his hands and called the dog again but the blustering wind swallowed his voice.  Occasional gusts rippled the wild oats and grasses that the winter rains had coaxed from the eroded hills.

"Randyyyyy!"

A hundred yards away, the setter closed in on the bleating herd.  Heavy with their unborn lambs, the sheep stumbled and scattered on the steep slope.

Grandma lifted the rifle to one weathered cheek.  "Can't afford to wait, boys," she said.  "'Less you pay me a hundred dollars a head for every one he kills." She tracked the dog in her sights, waiting for a clear shot.

The crack of the bullet echoed off the outcropping beside us.  The setter turned a somersault and hit the ground, back legs kicking dirt.

"Bitch!" screamed the blond.

"Hate to do it," Grandma muttered, staring at the still form on the hillside.  She ignored the enraged owners and turned to me.  "It's times like these I feel like giving up and moving north."

Tony shrugged, his arms spread in a placating, helpless gesture.

"You'll hear from our lawyer, lady!" the blond shouted from the Triumph.  Slam!  They roared off in a spray of pebbles.

"Plain misery runnin' sheep," she said, remountng the rifle against the dashboard.  "Dogs get worse every year." She unhooked the microphone.  "Jim?  Come on down."

"He's already on his way," Tony said, spotting the pick-up coming around the bend.

The radio squawked something.  She settled in the driver's seat, both hands on the wheel. Her blue eyes stared him up and down, pursed lips cracked into a hint of a smile.  "Haven't seen you in quite a spell, Tony."

"I've been away, down south.  Working on a book."

"When you see that girl with the chickens I forget her name."

"Pam?"

"Yes, tell her that her visitors are parking on the roadside and sometimes leaving dogs in their cars." She shook her head.  "That's no good.  Cars neither, because strictly speaking, that's on our property."

Jim arrived.  Tony gave him a wave and said goodbye, due back in Santa Cruz by late afternoon.  He put the dented Bel Aire in gear, lapsing into the meditative state that overcame him on long journeys.  He missed the ranch more than he had realized, the quiet winter days beside the woodstove, the soughing winds in the Douglas firs beside Pam's house.  And Pam too!  She'd been so overjoyed to see him.  In Santa Cruz he had made a new friends, but led a writer's hermit-like existence.  He smiled, remembering how Katy had leaped all over him.  Perhaps he should have taken her, but after all these years in the country, she would hate city living.  I'll come back soon for a longer stay, he promised himself.

Easter weekend he visited the ranch again.  To his disappointment, Pam was away for the evening.  He should have phoned first perhaps he was taking her too much for granted.  That night he slept alone in the trailer that had been his home the previous year.  Since that night when he had watched his distant hut go up in flames, he had lost all enthusiasm for building his own house.  Gypsy wagons and tipis now seemed more attractive -- they could be moved before the bulldozers roared into view. The old trailer had seemed a perfect solution. Since his departure it had been used as a guest room, too rusted to travel, too damp from leaks to encourage permanent occupants.

He awoke at dawn to a pounding. noise  "Sheriff's posse!  Open up!" a gruff voice ordered.

He stepped into his jeans and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.  What the hell?  When he opened the door, a red-faced man in a uniform was standing there cradling a shotgun.

"Sheriff's posse," he growled.  "Stay where you are.  We're in hot pursuit of a fugitive."

"Jesus Christ!" Tony groaned and raked his fingers through his hair. "Can I at least go out and take a leak?"

The man shrugged.  "Okay." His bulky form blocked the entrance but he moved back when Tony approached, the muzzle shifting slightly.

Tony moved towards a convenient bush.  "What's going on?" he called over his shoulder.  He could hear a helicopter thudding through the low overcast.

"Can't say anything, buddy!" the man shouted.  "Orders."

It must be another raid like the ones at Gresham's, he thought.  Suddenly, out of the blue, a hundred armed men had descended one Halloween upon the peaceful inhabitants, ostensibly looking for runaways but Tony had interpreted it as hippie persecution.

He zipped his fly and returned to the trailer.  If he was going to be held under house arrest, he might as well go back to bed.  He stared at his watch.  Seven fifteen.  Real earlybirds, he thought with a sarcastic grimace.

Half an hour later two men entered, one of whom he recognized from the previous raids as Bustini, chief of the county's narcotics detail.  They fished around in the mouse-infested drawers.

"Ugh," Bustini commented.  "How can you people live like this?"

"This trailer is currently vacant," Tony huffed.  "I'm just an overnight guest."

"Great accomodations," the other man sneered.

Tony frowned.  "Look, mister, save the comments.  By the way, where's your search warrant?"

"Don't need one," Bustini said.  He unscrewed the lid on a jarful of old mints leaves and sniffed the contents.  "We're in hot pursuit of one Kenneth Rischoff, convicted felon." He glanced at the guard.  "Okay, Joe, go join the canyon search."

Ten minutes later they let him leave.  At the main house, Pam was stirring a pot of hot cereal.  A large pot of coffee was steaming on the back burner.

She smiled at him.  "Tony!  What a nice surprise!"

He put his arms around her but before he could greet her, Eli came crashing through the door.  His gaunt cheeks twitched behind the wispy beard he was growing.

"Sixty pigs armed to the teeth!" he yelled, kicking the five-gallon metal can serving as a waste basket into the corner.  "What a double-fucking drag!" he dropped into a kitchen chair.

"The dawn patrol," Tony said.

"Six o'clock," Pam replied.  Her blues eyes sparkled and her tresses poured like sage honey down her back.

"It would've been a hell of a lot earlier if Grandma hadn't stopped them at the gate," Eli muttered.  He grinned suddenly.  "D'you realize how much free protection we get from her?  Burns guards would charge thousands for what she does for free!"

"They had bloodhounds with them," Pam explained.  "She wouldn't let them on the ranch.  They had to get Jim to call her off, but he agreed with her about the dogs."

It was afternoon before the posse came panting up the canyon trail.  They hadn't found their man.  Disgruntled and winded, Bustini arrested young Hank, the drummer's teenage son, for a tray of marijuana seeds that had sprouted overnight on his windowsill.  Tony, who was preparing to drive Pam to Solano Junction, went out to put a quart of oil in the Bel Aire.  Eli was plunking away outdoors on his electric guitar, a long extension cord leading from the amplifier through a window to a power outlet.

He grinned at Tony.  "They didn't find him."

"Who?"

"Kenny."

"You mean "

"Sh!" He put a finger to his lips.  "Not a peep!  Grandma saved his behind.  If they'd let loose their Dick Tracy hounds, they'd have found him for sure!"

In Santa Cruz, when the semester ended, Tony travelled with a new woman friend to South America to research another book they planned to co-author.  He remained away from the ranch for a few years.  During that time, the war ended in Vietnam, Nixon resigned and California voted Jerry Brown governor.  He was rummaging through a used bookstore in North Beach one day and looked up to see Pam enter.

"Pam!"

"Tony! How wonderful!"

They traded kisses and hugs.  "Everything okay up north?" he asked.

"Fine.  Not much different since you were there.  Some new faces, and my flock of hens is about twice as big as when you last saw them.  Katy's older but doing well." She smiled.  "We all miss you."

Tony looked sheepish.  "I'm way overdue for a visit." His lips curved.  "How's Grandma doing?  I keep thinking about her."

Pam grimaced.  "They sold off a big chunk of the ranch.  She and Grandpa moved into a rented house on the coast, leaving Jim to run things on the ridge.  Grandpa had to have a pacemaker put in and Grandma went in for a total hip replacement." She sighed.  "It's not been very easy for them.  What with her high blood pressure, they had to have this woman take care of them.  One day their son Jim went down to visit and Grandma looked so bad she could hardly recognize him so he took her back to the hospital.  It turned out their nurse was really crazy!  She had been keeping them both zonked out on tranquilizers!  Grandma hadn't had her medication in weeks!  It took a month in he hospital to straighten her out.  She was in really bad shape.  Jim insisted they move back up to the ranch and bought a trailer for them."

"God, that's a terrible story!" Tony grabbed her hand.  "Let's go to Vesuvio's for coffee." He walked her down Columbus Street.  "So the old folks are back?"

"They should never have moved.  You can't take people away from what they've been doing all their lives."

Tony grinned.  "Grandma's back on patrol? That's amazing!"

Pam nodded.  "She really is!  And Dorie, at our ranch, is a graduate nurse now.  She drops over to their place once or twice a week to check their medications.  It's no trouble for her."

A month later Tony finally did drive up the coast highway, through Bodega Bay and across the Russian River to where Alder Creek Road straggled inland next to a row of wind-carved cypresses.  He downshifted his 'new' old Chevy into first and started up the grade, past Irish Hill, the old house where Jack Gresham and May had first lived before they bought the land.  The remains of the large barn still stood on the curve, and uphill from it, the overlook where the red setter had left her owners to hunt on happier trails.  Sure enough, the old white sedan was parked by the roadside, Grandma at the wheel!  She was gazing out over the canyons towards the setting sun, caught up in some sort of epiphany.  His first impulse was to stop and chat, but he continued on, not wishing to disturb her.  She didn't recognize him in his new car and haircut.

He was satisfied, just seeing her there again, watching the sun quench its fire in the Pacific.  It felt good that in this world of change and turmoil, a thread of continuity remainded for the old lady.  That's where the Good Shepherd will find her some day, he thought, home on the range, staring off the edge of the world into pristine pastures where her sheep might safely graze.