Authors: A. B. Guthrie Jr.
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Fair Land, Fair Land
A B Guthrie
To Robert F Cubbins
friend, promoter and goal
sworn more than once to write no more about the early-day West and
just as often have broken the vow. I break it again for one reason
among others. In my series of novels — mostly about the interior
northwest — I left a time gap, roughly from 1845 to 1870. Here I
have undertaken to fill it. Though the story is complete in itself,
it belongs chronologically between The Way West and These Thousand
Hills. No writer escapes debts. My thanks then to Ruth K. Hapgood, my
helpful editor; to my wife, Carol, an acute and gentle critic, and to
my stepson, Bill "Herb" Luthin, no poor critic himself,
both of whom have encouraged me and waited on my work almost page by
page; and to the Great Falls Public Library and the Center of
Military History, Department of the Army, for ready and abundant
DICK SUMMERS climbed the ridge from the channeled
valley, glad enough to be leaving Oregon behind him. He hadn't said
goodbye to any of the wagon-train people who had hired him for a
guide. Goodbyes were something like gravestones. Yeah, rest in peace,
you sod-busters. May the Lord bless you, good men and weak. Here's
hoping your plows pay off in berries or melons or apples or whatever.
Hurrah for Oregon," they had called. Sure,
plant a nail and reap tomatoes. Till the soil. Put up a house. Breed
chickens, pigs, sheep, cattle or whatever. Live fat right there,
today, tomorrow and tomorrow. The soil, for certain, was richer than
that on the stingy acres he had farmed in Missouri, but farming was
still farming. Let those do it who were farm-turned. For an instant
he was back, a gray-back in Missouri, the slow sod turning to the
share and the slow-poke mule farting in his face. The corn grew up
spindly and the tobacco leached-looking. The hogs were growling in
their pens, wanting slops.
No more of that for him. Good for them as liked it.
Boresome life if not. He ought to know. He had tried it while married
to a good if sickly wife who got as tiresome as the chores. He could
count as fun only the careful training of a good horse.
Even high on the ridge the breath of the Pacific
reached him, wet enough and salt enough to pickle pork in. Going east
he was, going east to find the west, the west of wind and open skies
and buffalo. Hurrah for that.
He shifted his hold on his Hawken. It was all he
carried, it and his old Green River knife, some ammunition and a
small sack of possibles.
He veered off to the edge of the Columbia's gorge,
lay down and peered over. Far below him, almost straight below, the
rushing river ran. Here was beaver country, too, though not much to
his liking. Or it had been beaver country, the whole scoop of it,
north, south and east, when there were plenty beaver and the price
good enough to attract men and companies. Hudson's Bay men had
trapped clear into California and east of there in territory claimed
by Americans who weren't too careful themselves, both sides being
plenty willing to poach.
He ought to be getting on, he thought, but for a
moment let his mind play with the great cargoes and pack-train
harvests of furs that meant fame for Fort Vancouver and money for
Hudson's Bay. What would the fort do now, with beaver scarce and
worth next to nothing? What would old Here Before Christ do?
He squirmed back from the cliff's edge and started
walking again. Here had been beaver country all right, but give him
the Popo Agie and the Wind and the Seeds-kee-dee and throw in the
upper Missouri in spite of the Blackfeet. Give him a far reach of
eye, the grasses rippling, the small streams talking, buttes swimming
clear a hundred miles away. Give him not Mount Hood but the clean,
ungodly upthrust of the Tetons. They were some.
He was hankering for the young years, for the new
land and the frolics he had been part of, and he shrugged to shake
the hankering out of his head. Like a tomfool he had spent too much
time remembering and, remembering, had rushed toward old age, at
least in his mind. He was maybe sixteen when, with a scatter of
education, enough to read, write and cipher up to a point, he had
quit his no-account home in Missouri. Two years later he had gone up
the Platte and learned to trap beaver. No sooner was he in the
settlements again than he began to hark back, as if the best part of
his life was behind him. That's the way it had been. Later he had
gone up the Missouri and into the country of the Roche Jaune and then
again up the Platte and over South Pass to the Seeds-kee-dee and had
wintered in South Park and so become a hiveman or sure enough
mountain man. Next, up the Missouri in a keelboat, and most of the
party, all except three, rubbed out by the Blackfeet. And each trip
was a remembered trip, too much remembered. Afterward, feeling old,
he had gone back to his farm and stayed there until the party bound
for Oregon had wanted him as a guide.
He plodded on, feeling the ocean mist closing in. How
the hell old was he, anyhow? Christ maybe knew. Couldn't be much more
than forty-five, if that, but the western winds wrote time in a man's
face, and the sun and wind bleached what hair hadn't turned white,
and anyone who had spent more than one season in the mountains was
likely to get "old" attached to his name.
But that wasn't the point. The point was he kept
looking back, like a grandpa returned in mind to his pup days.
He halted at a trickle of spring water and drank,
belly down. Time, he thought, getting up and going on. There was no
such thing as time, then, now or ever. Time was always. It was the
changes, the trappings along the way, that a man reckoned his life
by. Rendezvous dead and gone, along with plenty of those who had
enjoyed it. Beaver nigh gone. Fur companies and some sometime
mountain men making out with coarse furs. Before a man knew it the
buffalo might all be killed off. Another marking, another trapping to
reckon by. That was the way of men and things. Find a good country
and spoil it.
Maybe only mountains lasted, like Mount Hood yonder,
dimmed by the mist.
He came to a stream he didn't know the name of and
shucked off his clothes and waded across with his plunder. As long as
he was at it, he might as well clean himself up where he didn't have
to watch for womenfolk.
Dressing, he thought he"d put on his old
buckskins once he got to buffalo country. Homespun and peg boots were
all right for now. He bet his feet would be tender in moccasins.
Mountains lasted and what else? The sky. The stars. Maybe the high
plains and the riffling grasses, though like as not men would find a
use for the land and gouge it up so's to raise turnips and cabbages
or some other truck not worth eating. Before that was done, he aimed
to have a long, good look again.
But even a turnip would sit all right now. He had
been walking for eight hours or so by the look of the sun that was
trying to show through the mist, and he hadn't brought even a bite to
tide him over. No matter. A mountain man could make out. Make out
then, he told himself. Look sharp. Must be some kind of game in this
teary country, small game, anyhow, but the Hawken was too large for a
rabbit or bird. It would make mush of the meat.
To his right appeared a likely stand of evergreens,
pines or spruces, he couldn't tell which. He walked to it, going
soft, and after what seemed a long time heard little throat
cluckings. In a small open space a few fool hens were pecking. He
could kill one with a thrown rock, but the motion of his arm would
probably flush the others, and he had best get two if he could. He
withdrew and found a dead limb and from his possible sack took a
short length of buckskin. He made a sliding loop of it and tied it to
the small end of the branch. By itself it would collapse, so he bound
it around with long stems of green grass. He went back to the
clearing and sat down, moving slow. It was movement and not unmoving
presence that spooked critters. The birds didn't scare. They looked
at him with their little snake eyes and went back to feeding. He
snared one and drew it to him, the others just watching it flutter.
He broke its neck with his fingers. He didn't need the noose for the
second one. It came close, and he reversed his pole and tapped it on
the head with the butt end.
At a ribbon of water he cleaned and plucked the birds
and went on until he came to a low bank. It would shut off the wind
if the wind blew and reflect heat from the fire if he needed it
during the night. He gathered wood, built a small fire and let it go
down mostly to coals. He speared one bird with a green · stick and
positioned it over the heat.
Watching it beginning to sizzle, he thought even a
big fire would be safe in this country. There was no gumption much in
the fish-eating Indians of the coast, no spizerinctum. But feed them
on rich buffalo meat, and they might get ringy.
When the hen was done, he ate it, wishing for salt
and even bread. That showed how far he had strayed from his
mountainman days. In time fur hunters lost their taste for both, as
he had once. He wrapped the other bird in a piece of canvas and tied
it in a tree.
He smoothed out his possible sack so's to have
something to rest his head on and lay down, the Hawken by his side.
He would drowse off, he thought, by thinking of Chief White Hawk of
the Shoshones and a squaw lying willing under a robe.
HE WAS DRIFTING into light sleep when a voice came of
the darkness. "Hello, the fi."
He sat up, his hand closing on his rifle. "Step
A form took shape, a long and skinny form in old
buckskin. "No cause for the shootin' iron, friend."
Come and set then." Summers tossed a
couple of sticks on the dying fire.
Wanted to make sure what was what. I got a
couple of horses. Wait till I tend to them."
When the man returned, he carried a jug. He sat down
by the fire. "Don't know about you,
I could do with a dram."
The man was probably thirty-odd years old. His
clean-shaven face had known weather. He uncorked the jug, held it out
and Summers drank.
Name's Birdwhistle. Birdy, they call me."
I've heerd the name in the settlements. Bound
My mind goes back and forth, like a dog that
keeps runnin' out to bark and keeps runnin'' back, scared of what
he's barkin' at." Birdwhistle took time to drink. "I went
west with a party and decided I didn't like it much, so I started
back by myself. A couple or three days out, and I thought, what's the
idee, goin' back to what you come from?"
A couple of stars shone through the mist. The night
was silent, without a bird or coyote sounding off. Birdwhistle asked,
Bound `back yourself?"
Well, there I was, with two minds, so to speak.
I"m a fair hand with horses and machinery and good with a hammer
and saw, and I figured latelike, though I knew it damn well, that
there would be plenty of work in Oregon, not like in the settlements,
and, hell, I could stand rain. So I turned ass-around."
There was a party herdin' cows west."
How far away?"
Two days, maybe a little more, from here. Why?"
Friends of mine."
I take it you been a mountain man?"
The Hawken and the looks of you. The mountains
put a brand on a man."
Onct I was."
"Me, too. I trapped beaver and went to one
rendezvous, but I was never no great shakes. That rendezvous! I come
out of it with a dose of the clap and a case of bottle fever that
would have made God cry. That was toward the tail end of things."
Summers said, "It all petered out."
The man was full of talk, so let him talk.
Fun while it lasted, though. We wasn't pups,
most of us, but it was like pups we played. All that crazy language.
"This child" and ‘This nigger' for your own self and all
those damn ‘waghs.' It kind of sticks to me yet."