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High Hunt

Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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“I don’t know that you two been good enough today to rate a story.” It was a kind of ritual.

“We’ll be extra good tomorrow, won’t we, Dan?” Jack promised quickly. Jack was always good at promising things. He probably meant them, too, at the time anyway.

“Yeah, Dad,” I agreed, “extra, extra, special good.”

“That’ll be the day,” the Old Man grunted.

“Come on, Dad,” I coaxed. “You can tell stories better’n anybody.” I climbed up into his lap. I was taking a chance, since I was still supposed to be sitting on the couch, but I figured it was worth the risk.

Dad smiled. It was the first time that day. He never smiled much, but I didn’t find out why until later. He shifted me in his lap, leaned back in the battered old armchair, and put his feet upon the coffee table. The wind gusted and roared in the chimney and pushed against the windows while the Old Man thought a few minutes. I watched his weather-beaten face closely, noticing for the first time that he was getting gray hair around his ears. I felt a sudden clutch of panic. My Dad was getting old!

“I ever tell you about the time your granddad had to hunt enough meat to last the family all winter?” he asked us.

“Are there cowboys in it?”

“Shut up, Dan, for cripes’ sakes!” Jack told me impatiently.

“I just want to be sure.”

“You want to hear the story or not?” the Old Man threatened.

“Yeah,” Jack said. “Shut up and listen, for cripes’ sakes.”

“It was back in the winter of 1893, I think it was,” Dad started. “It was several years after the family came out from Missouri, and they were trying to make a go of it on a wheat ranch down in Adams County.”

“Did Grandpa live on a real ranch?” I asked. “With cowboys and everything?”

The Old Man ignored the interruption. “Things were pretty skimpy the first few years. They tried to raise a few beef-cows, but it didn’t work out too well, so when the winter came that year, they were clean out of meat. Things were so tough that my uncles, Art and Dolph, had to get jobs in town and stay at a boardinghouse. Uncle Beale was married and out on his own by then, and Uncle Tod had gone over to Seattle to work in the lumber mills. That meant that there weren’t any men on the place except my dad and my granddad.”

“He was our great-granddad,” Jack told me importantly.

“I know that,” I said. “I ain’t that dumb.” I leaned my head back against Dad’s chest so I could hear the rumble of his voice inside my head again.

“Great-Granddad was in the Civil War,” Jack said. “You told us that one time.”

“You want to tell this or you want me to?” the Old Man asked him.

“Yeah,” I said, not lifting my head, “shut up, Jack, for cripes’ sakes.”

“Anyhow,” the Old Man went on, “Granddad had to stay and tend the place, so he couldn’t go out and hunt. Dad was only seventeen, but there wasn’t anybody else to go. Well, the nearest big deer herd was over around Coeur d’Alene Lake, up in the timber country in Idaho. There weren’t any game laws back then—at least nobody paid any attention to them if there were—so a man could take as much as he needed.”

The wind gusted against the house again, and the wood shifted in the heating stove, sounding very loud. The Old Man got up, lifting me easily in his big hands, and plumped me on the couch beside Jack. Then he went over and put more wood in the stove from the big linoleum-covered woodbox against the wall that Jack and I were supposed to keep full. He slammed the door shut with an iron bang, dusted off his hands, and sat back down.

“It turned cold and started snowing early that year,” he continued. “Granddad had this old .45-70 single-shot he’d carried in the war, but they only had twenty-six cartridge cases for it. He and Dad loaded up all those cases the night before Dad left. They’d pulled the wheels off the wagon and put the runners on as soon as the snow really set in good, so it was all ready to go. After they’d finished loading the cartridges, Granddad gave my dad an old pipe. Way he looked at it, if Dad was old enough to be counted on to do a man’s work, he was old enough to have his own pipe. Dad hadn’t ever smoked before—except a couple times down in back of the schoolhouse and once out behind the barn when he was a kid.

“Early the next morning, before daylight, they hitched up the team—Old Dolly and Ned. They pitched the wagon-bed, and they loaded up Dad’s bedding and other gear. Then Dad called his dogs and got them in the wagon-bed, shook hands with Granddad, and started out.”

“I’ll betcha he was scared,” I said.

“Grown men don’t get scared,” Jack said scornfully.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Jack,” the Old Man told him. “Dad was plenty scared. That old road from the house wound around quite a bit before it dropped down on the other side of the hill, and Dad always said he didn’t dare look back even once. He said that if he had, he’d have turned right around and gone back home. There’s something wrong with a man who doesn’t get scared now and then. It’s how you handle it that counts.”

I know that bothered Jack. He was always telling everybody that he wasn’t scared—even when I knew he was lying about it. I think he believed that growing up just meant being afraid of fewer and fewer things. I was always sure that there was more to it than that. We used to argue about it a lot.”

“You ain’t scared of anything, are you, Dad?” Jack asked, an edge of concern in his voice. It was almost like an accusation.

Dad looked at him a long time without saying anything. “You want to hear the story, or do you want to ask a bunch of questions?” It hung in the air between them. I guess it was always there after that. I saw it getting bigger and bigger in the next few years. Jack was always too stubborn to change his mind, and the Old Man was always too bluntly honest to lie to him or even to let him believe a lie. And I was in the middle—like always. I went over and climbed back up in my father’s lap.

The Old Man went on with the story as if nothing had happened. “So there’s Dad in this wagon-bed sled—seventeen years old, all alone except for the horses and those two black and tan hounds of his.”

“Why can’t we have a dog?” I asked, without bothering to raise my head from his chest. I averaged about once a week on that question. I already knew the answer.

“Your mother won’t go for it.” They always called each other “your mother” and “your father.” I can’t think of more than two or three times while we were growing up that I heard either one of them use the other’s name. Of course most of the time they were fighting or not speaking anyway.

“Well, Uncle Dolph had loaned Dad an old two-dollar mail-order pistol, .32 short. Dad said it broke open at the top like a kid’s cap gun and wouldn’t shoot worth a damn, but it was kinda comfortable to have it along. Uncle Dolph shot a Swede in the belly with it a couple years later—put him in the hospital for about six months.”

“Wow!” I said. “What’d he shoot him for?”

“They were drinking in a saloon in Spokane and got into a fight over something or other. The Swede pulled a knife and Uncle Dolph had to shoot him.”

“Gee!” This was a pretty good story after all.

“It took Dad all of three days to get up into the timber country around the lake. Old Dolly and Ned pulled that sled at a pretty steady trot, but it was a long ways. First they went on up out of the wheat country and then into the foothills. It was pretty lonely out there. He only passed two or three farms along the way, pretty broken-down and sad-looking. But most of the time there wasn’t anything but the two shallow ruts of the wagon road with the yellow grass sticking up through the snow here and there on each side and now and then tracks where a wolf or a coyote had chased a rabbit across the road. The sky was all kind of gray most of the time, with the clouds kind of low and empty-looking. Once in a while there’d be a few flakes of snow skittering in the wind. Most generally it’d clear off about sundown, just in time to get icy cold at night.

“Come sundown he’d camp in the wagon, all rolled up in his blankets with a dog on each side. He’d listen to the wolves howling off in the distance and stare up at the stars and think about how faraway they were.” The Old Man’s voice kind of drifted off and his eyes got a kind of faraway look in them.

The wood in the stove popped, and I jumped a little.

“Well, it had gotten real cold early that year, and when he got to the lake, it was frozen over—ice so thick you coulda driven the team and wagon right out on it, and about an inch of snow on top of the ice. He scouted around until he found a place that had a lot of deer-sign and he made camp there.”

“What’s deer-sign, Dad?” I asked.

“Tracks, mostly. Droppings. Places where they’ve chewed off twigs and bark. Anyhow, he pulled up into this grove, you see—big, first-growth timber. Some of those trees were probably two hundred feet tall and fifteen feet at the butt, and there wasn’t any of the underbrush you see in the woods around here. The only snow that got in under them was what had got blown in from out in the clearings and such, so the ground was pretty dry.”

From where I sat with my head leaned against the Old Man’s chest, I could see into the dark kitchen. I could just begin to build a dark pine grove lying beyond the doorway with my eyes. I dusted the linoleum-turned-pine-needle floor with a powder-sugar of snow made of the dim edge of a streetlight on the corner that shone in through the kitchen window. It looked about right, I decided, about the way Dad described it.

“He got the wagon set where he wanted it, unhitched the horses, and started to make camp.”

“Did he build a fire?” I asked.

“One of the first things he did,” the Old Man said.

That was easy. The glow of the pilot light on the stove reflected a small, flickering point on the refrigerator door. It was coming along just fine.

“Well, he boiled up some coffee in an old cast-iron pan, fried up some bacon, and set some of the biscuits Grandma’d packed for him on a rock near the fire to warm. He said that about that time he’d have given the pipe and being grown-up and all of it just to be back home, sitting down to supper in the big, warm, old kitchen, with the friendly light of the coal-oil lamps and Grandma’s cooking, and the night coming down around the barn, and the shadows filling up the lines of foot-prints in the snow leading from the house to the outbuildings.” Dad’s voice got faraway again.

“But he ate his supper and called the dogs up close and checked his pistol when he heard the wolves start to howl off in the distance. There probably wasn’t anybody within fifty miles. Nothing but trees and hills and snow all around.

“Well, after he’d finished up with all the things you have to do to get a camp in shape, he sat down on a log by the fire and tried not to think about how lonesome he was.”

“He had those old dogs with him, didn’t he, Dad?” I asked, “and the horses and all? That’s not the same as being all alone, is it?” I had a thing about loneliness when I was a kid.

Dad thought it over for a minute. I could see Jack grinding his teeth in irritation out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t really look over at him. I had the deep-woods camp I’d built out in the kitchen just right, and I didn’t want to lose it. “I don’t know, Dan,” the Old Man said finally, “maybe the dogs and the horses just weren’t enough. It can get awful lonesome out there in the timber by yourself like that—awful lonesome.”

I imagine some of the questions I used to ask when I was a kid must have driven him right up the wall, but he’d always try to answer them. Mom was usually too busy talking about herself or about the people who were picking on her, and Jack was too busy trying to act like a grown-up or getting people to pay attention to him to have much time for my questions. But Dad always took them seriously. I guess he figured that if they were important enough for me to ask, they were important enough for him to answer. He was like that, my Old Man.

The wood popped in the stove again, but I didn’t jump this time. I just slipped the sound on around to the campfire in the kitchen.

“Well, he sat up by his fire all night, so he wouldn’t sleep too late the next morning. He watched the moon shine down on the ice out on the lake and the shadows from his fire flickering on the big tree trunks around his camp. He was pretty tired, and he’d catch himself dozing off every now and then, but he’d just fill up that stubby old pipe and light it with a coal from the fire and think about how it would be when he got home with a wagon-load of deer meat. Maybe then his older brothers would stop treating him like a wet-behind-the-ears kid. Maybe they’d listen to what he had to say now and then. And he’d catch himself drifting off into the dream and slipping down into sleep, and he’d get up and walk around the camp, stamping his feet on the frosty ground. And he’d have another cup of coffee and sit back down between his dogs and dream some more. After a long, long time, it started to get just a little bit light way off along one edge of the sky.”

The faint, pale edge of daylight was tricky, but I finally managed it.

“Now these two hounds Dad had with him were trained to hunt a certain way. They were Pete and Old Buell. Pete was a young dog with not too much sense, but he’d hunt all day and half the night, too, if you wanted him to. Buell was an old dog, and he was as smart as they come, but he was getting to the point where he’d a whole lot rather lay by the fire and have somebody bring him his supper than go out and work for it. The idea behind deer hunting in those days was to have your dogs circle around behind the deer and then start chasing them toward you. Then when the deer ran by, you were supposed to just sort of bushwhack the ones you wanted. It’s not really very sporting, but in those days you hunted for the meat, not for the fun.

“Well, as soon as it started to get light, Dad sent them out. Pete took right off, but Old Buell hung back. Dad finally had to kick him in the tail to make him get away from the fire.”

“That’s mean,” I objected. I had the shadowy shapes of my two dogs near my reflected-pilot-light fire, and I sure didn’t want anybody mistreating my old dogs, not even my own grandfather.
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