Authors: Don Berry
for a certain patience
with the old man on
mountains, other trails
The old man traveled alone. He came riding from the
north, a skeleton rider on a bony horse, plodding methodically along
the riverbank. He sat humped in the saddle with the posture of a man
who has ridden many miles, and knows there is no speed in haste.
Two locks of hair—long, thick, heavily
greased—dangled in front of his ears, set into gentle swaying by
the jarring steps of the horse and the endless watchful movement of
the man's head. A great limp-brimmed felt hat dwarfed his features.
The old man's buckskin hunting shirt folded from the points of his
shoulders as from pegs in a wall, and it was a mottled black of
grease and dirt and dried blood. His breeches were buckskin to the
knees (bony pinnacles, threatening to tear through the leather), but
the bottoms of the legs were of blanket cloth. It had shrunk in
wetting so that eight inches of grimed and bony leg showed between
trouser bottoms and moccasins.
It was not yet dawn. The eastern sky was beginning to
be light, a heavy grayness like a pool of dull Galena lead suspended
overhead; but it was not yet tme dawn. In the cool and neutral light
he came to a river crossing his path, and stopped. He dismounted,
letting the reins drop to the ground, and his horse began to browse
contentedly among the ferns at the river's edge, nosing them gently
aside to find the rich grass beneath.
The old man walked to the very bank of the river,
cautiously. He scanned both banks with care, watching for movement,
listening. alert to any sign that he was not alone. A few hundred
yards to his right the fast-moving stream emptied into the larger
river along which he had been riding. The large stream, he knew, was
called the Willamette. He grunted deep in his throat, and the sound
was like the coughing snort of a bear.
He looked at the meeting of waters, watching the
ripples of the fast-running tributary lose themselves in the wider
flood. It was vaguely annoying that the Willamette should run north.
Sensible river'd run south, he figured. All of them did.
Except the Yellowstone. And the Bighorn. And the
Powder and the Rosebud . . . he remembered. He snorted. "Don't
make no difference," he said aloud. "Goes against nature
He was not happy about the river he had to cross. The
banks were heavily wooded, timbered almost to the edge, with the
thick growth of brush he'd found everywhere in this rain-soaked
country matted below the trees. It was good cover. Put a whole damned
Piegan encampment in there, and you'd never see it.
He squatted on his haunches and pushed back the brim
of the huge felt. Finally he spat down into the river and grunted. He
told himself it didn't matter—he was in civilization now, just an
hour or so from Oregon City. But suspicion of good cover was a habit
of his life, and there was neither way nor reason, now, to change the
habits of his life.
He shrugged and stood again, absently fingering the
ends of one long braid of hair. He'd cross, because there was nothing
else to do.
He remounted, swinging easily into the saddle, and
let the old horse slide down the bank and into the water. The river
itself was little different from any other; so viciously cold it
seemed solid, so swift the horse's feet were swept out from under her
in the first five seconds.
The water closed around the old man's legs with the
painful pressure of drying rawhide. As the horse lost her footing and
plunged deep, the vise of cold clamped suddenly around the old man's
groin, making him gasp with the shock of it. Together, as one animal,
they floundered across the stream and scrambled up the opposite bank,
many yards downstream toward the confluence. At the top the horse
stopped and shook her head like a dog, stretching her neck to relieve
the cramp of cold. The old man kicked her furiously in the ribs.
wuthless hunk o' meat. Hya!"
In her own time, the horse resumed her steady pace,
unconcerned. The freezing chill of the water had seeped into the old
man's bones, and his testicles ached as though he had been kicked. He
put it away from his mind; he had crossed many cold rivers and he was
no longer interested in the pain they gave him.
"Damn poor doin's," he muttered vaguely,
meaning not the river but things in general. He was mildly
disappointed that he had not been attacked; the place was perfect. It
was a kind of waste.
He laughed, a short, yelping bark that made the
horses ears twitch. It reminded him of another time, reminded him of
a story he'd been meaning to tell himself. "It was some, now,"
he muttered under his breath. "It was. Was Doc and Gabe and this
child as was just down from the Roche Jaune with three inches o' iron
in the hump ribs . . ."
The horse's hoofs thumped dully along the trail. With
a habit so old he was no longer aware of it, the old man scanned the
forest on either side of the trail, watching. To his left the eastern
sky soaked up light from the coming dawn, and on the right the broad
sweeping flood of the Willamette reflected the silver grayness of the
sky in its current, silent in the early morning, glimpsed between the
endless ranks of firs.
Had a hair o' the black bear to him, now.
he did," the old man muttered. It was a long time ago, but it
was very clear in his mind. He traveled along, telling himself a
story of men long dead and what they had to say and where they went
and what they did there. From time to time he gently eased the horse
out to the bank of the Willamette, so he could see more clearly
upriver. He could see the great horseshoe of the falls ahead, and the
distant, steady murmur of white water came to him. Just below the
cascade that stretched across the river was a small island, and there
was a faint plume of white smoke rising from it into the still
morning air. He watched it.
Major says, 'Gabe, sorry as hell about the man,
but no damned rascal of a 'Rapaho going t' insult my wife, hear?' "
His monologue was endless, as life itself was endless. In the telling
he became a sort of god, for he restored warmth to flesh long since
cold and gave living bodies back to bones picked white and clean in
the mountain valleys.
Gabe says, 'Meek, you know the rules about
firin' offa gun in camp.' 'Hell's full o' such rules,' says the
Major, cleanin' his gun just as ca'm as ca'm .... "
The plume of smoke was
from a building built near the edge of the island. A mill, near as
the old man could make out, and no threat to him. He tugged gently on
the reins and the bony horse moved obediently back inland to the
trail. In half an hour he had come into sight of the first of the
buildings of Oregon City, perched high on a cliff overlooking the
falls of the Willamette.
The old man did not go into the main settlement. He
stayed low, on the bench of land bordering the river. From below he
could see a few houses of the cliff-perched settlement, one of them
large, white, and freshly painted. Though he had never before been
within a thousand miles of the place, he recognized the house as
being that of John McLoughlin. He recognized most of the buildings he
saw, except for the very new ones. In winter camp, sitting half
frozen around a lodge fire, a man had a chance to pick up a good bit
of information. Oregon City had been described to him once, and as a
matter of habit each detail had remained fresh in his mind, waiting
for the time it would be needed. He was a mountain man; it was his
The old man reined up, surveying the buildings of the
upper town, the few frame structures now beginning to be built lower
down, on the bench. There was a ferry landing, and he figured it was
the ferry McLoughlin had started when he left Hudson's Bay. On the
opposite side of the river was another settlement—a few buildings,
rather, straggling among the timbered hills. Went by the name of
Linn, he recalled.
The sky was now full light, and the old man felt
exposed. He had no curiosity about Oregon City at all. He was only
regretful he had to pass by now that it was light. It was fully six
o'clock, but he could see no signs of activity except the plume of
white smoke from the island mill, now directly opposite him.
He thought about it. His lingers moved in the long
black lock of hair, plaiting it into a tight braid, then shaking it
out again. He felt unsafe among the wooden structures.
"Goes against nature," he muttered,
scanning the signs of human settlement. It wasn't like a real
village. A real village you could pick up and move and a week later
there would be nothing but a few traces of fires and the packed
surface where the lodges had been. These wooden shacks were ugly;
they didn't belong, they were badly made and offended the land.
Permanent. You could never give the world back to itself when you
built like that. He leaned over the saddle horn and spat
Bunch o' wuthless dungheads," he said.
"' But that
was the way it was, and there was no help for it. There was no doubt
in his mind that the human race was some kind of hideous error on the
part of a god intending something more sensible. It made a man mad
just to think about it.
He kicked the horse up again, anxious now to get
past. The trail changed abruptly into something resembling a street,
lined on one side with a few frame buildings. Ugly as the rest of
them, with painted signs on the front. He could have read them if
he'd been interested, but he wasn't.
Names. Always names. It was a dirty habit they'd got
into of naming everything. He supposed the river he'd crossed near
dawn had a name of some kind or other. People always put names to the
world, the dungheads. Not enough sense to leave things be . . .
Suddenly he stopped, his reverie broken. just ahead
of him a still figure was lying curled tightly against the wall of a
building, a shapeless lump rolled in a blanket. The old man eased the
horse ahead until he drew even with the silent form. The sleeper
clutched the neck of a bottle in one hand, but it was overturned and
empty. A stale and foul pool of vomit stained the earth around his
The old man sat still, watching. The blanket bundle
stirred, vague wakefulness brought by the sound of the old man's
horse. A black, disheveled head poked out, and two puffy eyes turned
up hopefully. It was an Indian, but one of the coast peoples the old
man did not know. The face was flat and broad, with almost oriental
folds around the eyes. The man's lips were slack and wet as he stared
humbly up at the mounted white man. Blankly the Indian's eyes roved
over the towering figure, trying to understand.
Wiskey?" he said tentatively, and tried to
smile. "Wiskey, no?"
The old man said nothing. His face impassive, he
leaned forward across the saddle, watching.
The Indian put his head back down and turned to the
wall. He let his black head rest still for a long time, but the old
man did not go away. Finally he turned back, lifting himself shakily
on one elbow, and tried to clear his vision.
The old man watched without expression, peering at
him from behind the leathery mask of his face; a mask that showed no
feeling. The Indian blinked uncertainly and for a moment the two were
still, watching each other. The Indian levered himself up to a
sitting position against the wall, beginning to be afraid. A terrible
sharp pain coursed through his skull, but he dared not close his eyes
while the other watched so steadily.
, " the
Indian said apprehensively. There was no answer.
Slowly the brown man pushed himself up, supporting
his back against the wall, drawing the blanket around him. The blue
of his denim jeans was a dirty gray and the once brightly checked
shirt he wore was stained with vomit and the accumulated dirt of
months. He began to inch along the wall away from the old man,
clutching the blanket with one hand and feeling his way along the
building with the flat palm of the other. He felt the corner of the
building with his fingertips, and a soft, deer-like whimper sounded
in his throat. He turned away from the old man and began to run down
the street, the loose end of the blanket trailing behind him in the
dew-dark earth. He ran shuffling, not in control of his legs,
stumbling and lurching. Reaching a corner he turned, with one
panic-born glance back, and disappeared.
For a long moment the old man remained, sitting his
horse quietly, leaning over the horn and watching the corner where
the Indian had vanished. Then he sat up straight and jerked the horse
into movement. When they passed the corner he did not look to see
where the Indian had gone.
"So Major cleaned his gun 'n' there wasn't a
thing in hell old Gabe c'd do about it. Fined 'm five dollars,
But if I recollect me, we never had trouble like that with Meek