Island Voices

An Incurable Trickster

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

John Sweetman and I were sipping beer in front of a roaring fire in the cozy confines of my log cabin overlooking outer Quartermaster Harbor. “Why don’t you write about that thieving raven you had in Republic,” John suggested.

I laughed like hell when the raven tore out of the barn that I lived in on Lambert Creek. He had John’s keys in his beak and was headed for the six-inch space under the shop building. John had been shaking his keys at Tukatah, to intimidate him, when the raven grabbed them and ran out the door. “Stop him, Stop him,” I yelled, as the raven dove underneath the shop.

The raven is an “incurable trickster,” or so the Indians say. They were right in every aspect, the raven revealed. I had a stand of dead tamarack or larch about four miles up Lambert Creek at the cutoff to the old Stagecoach Road. There were about 50 trees in a swale that was only accessible during the dry months, when I could cut a road into the stand with due diligence so I wouldn’t have trouble coming out. Road building consisted in finding the easiest way in and out, and doing the least amount of work to make the wood logs available for cutting and hauling to town for firewood.

There was lots of wildlife in this neck of the woods – deer, rabbits, the occasional bear, and even trout in Lambert creek. I stopped one day to gas up my saw and heard a commotion in the tree canopy. The ravens were awfully excited, and I climbed up to where they were diving and calling at something on the ground. A young raven was hiding under a fallen log when I scooped him up. Only later did I learn that ravens literally kick their young out of the nest and feed them on the ground for six weeks before they can fly to any extent. Before flying, the young can only flutter from branch to branch as they climb to a safe place in a tree. This bird still had his pin feathers, and I took him home. Tukatah was the name I gave him, from one of his brash calls. He didn’t like his cage. Sometimes his cries to be let out were answered by other ravens flying over the little cabin on Lambert creek, and the adventures began.

John Sweetman was the county assessor and had been re-elected four times. He stopped by to assess the property one day and join me in a drink of moonshine. Tukatah was out and running around the yard. I made Calvados or apple brandy, 10 gallons at a time. Two bins of apples produced 100 gallons of juice to be fermented with wine yeast and runoff in the still. The product ran 130-proof and was quite tasty, according to the locals. A teaspoon of it lit up in a little blue flame.

This was a time when Ferry and Okanogan counties were the last of the areas in Washington where genuine white lightning was made. There was a “magic” round of winter tires down at the Texaco in Republic where inside you could leave an empty jug and a ten-dollar bill. Next day, the jug would be filled with clear liquid…and your ten bucks would be gone. Magic, until the credit card companies sniveled at the charge: “One Gallon Rice Brother’s Moonshine.” After that, it had to be cash only.

John and I were having a short snort in the cabin, discussing last night’s poker game at the Eagles in Republic. Aerie 68 is one of the earliest chapters. We went to the shed to inspect the results of the ongoing distillation. John said: “Jeez. It tastes like it could take rust off grader blades…but if you run it through my special filter made from diatomaceous earth, activated carbon, and special cotton…it might be useful in raising the dead!” We agreed after a few sips that improvement was necessary. After adjusting the brew and setting up filters, we came out of the shed, looking forward to a few minutes of late-afternoon sun. The first thing we saw was Tukatah sitting on the bench-table with shiny keys in his beak, taunting us for sure.

John had teased the raven with his keys until Tukatah grabbed them and tore out the door with John in hot pursuit, a broom in his hand. The raven hated the broom and would “croak” and run, it made him so mad. He dived under the shop, into an inadequate crawl space. Out of reach, of course.

The problem solved itself when I saw something shiny and kicked the leaves under the big fir tree between the cabin door and the shop and found the keys. The raven had dropped them as he performed the ruse of having taken the keys under the shop, and that wasn’t the end of his capers. 

I had four or maybe it was five cats. The raven hated them with a passion. They all hung around the kitchen table as I cut up a deer for the freezer, waiting expectantly for their scraps. Tukatah would be given a choice piece, but he didn’t grab it and run, but set it down in front of himself and waited for the cat. Down his beak would come on the cat’s head, sending the cat scrawling, and a deep sense of satisfaction would cross his face, as he looked for his next victim.

The worst trick of all was the night he smoked my TV. For weeks, I had waited for Charles Kuralt and his travels around the country. He was coming on at 6PM, and Tukatah was on top of my TV. I turned to get myself a beer when there was a loud popping and smoke poured from the back of the television. Tukatah had taken a poop and he flew out the door, pursued by my broom.

The demise of the TV led to Tutanka’s departure, as he could no longer watch Jeopardy, which had been his favorite show. He grew bored with merely pestering the cats and increasingly responded to the calls of other ravens. He eventually joined them, except for when he would occasionally land on the porch, to keep his art of stealing dog food up to par.

October 11, 2022

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