Under a bright sun, shadows and heavy clouds are piling up over the peaks from the south. The lake and the dock are below, and the water spreads out quivering like a branch of aspen. Across the dock the men move back and forth, and I hear the sound of a boat being dragged from its rack.
“Go on, Gabe, They’ll be waiting for you,” says my father and closes the car door.
I do not look back.
“I’ll see you Friday, Gabe. Be careful.”
The motor is still idling. I know he will be leaning forward now with one hand on the seat next to him. I turn once before walking the last dip down the road and we raise hands to each other. Then there is the sound of his engine, and I bitterly think him home over the road through the woods. I feel abandoned, I am 14, this is my first job, and I will have to live for a week with a crew of men who are almost strangers, whom I have mostly seen at a distance talking, moving things, laboring for us, the summer people. My father has given me up to them.”It’ll be good for him,” I heard him tell my mother.
One of the boats pushes out from the dock with the wind trying to push it back. The other men are waiting for me and nobody speaks when I first get there. Only Marcus Harley grins and nods, but I have seen him do that to the sun in an empty clearing. They are filling the boat with equipment. Finally Ryland Starks comes out from the far comer of the boathouse. He is the boss, and tells me to go in the boat with Smith and Gorman and Marcus. Marc rows with deep and steady strokes and sometimes his knuckles graze my back. He skirts the shore of the long and narrow lake, and only Smith and Gorman speak from time to time to each other in mono-syllables, chewing the end of an old argument.
Starks has reached the dock ahead of us. It is raining now and the water drips from the rubber hood of his parka. Marcus unwinds and steps over me onto the dock, showing the white sticks of his legs.
“He’s been here again,” Starks says.
“Who?” and Smith stands shivering under the eaves of the boatshed.
Marcus laughs quietly. “You best send for Armand Oils, by Jesus.
“Hell,” and Smith rubs his hands. “I’m going home. If that bugger Crafty’s going to be nosing around my kitchen I’m going home. Don’t touch that boat. Take me home, Marc.”
Starks and Gorman grab the prow and with a running heave they drag it clattering up onto the dock. Starks stands then, takes a handkerchief from his pocket and blows his nose.
“You aren’t going no place. And as for Otis, I guess we’ll give Crafty a try ourselves first.”
Marcus, standing under the eaves by me, takes off his hat and beats it against his thigh once before jamming it back on his head.
When we reach the camp, Smith sends me out to split kindling. The shower has ended. The woodhouse is behind the cabin on the edge of the meadows where the maples grow wide, as if long ago they agreed never to stand too close to each other. In the evening the deer will graze down through the tall grasses to the lake, and sometimes at night I can hear their high snort and spooked running. Behind the woodshed no one can see me and I pause for a while, watching the sun break into the far end of the meadow and come sweeping through to my feet. I take the blocks that will split well. The air in the woodshed is close and turpentined, full of the rot of porcupine droppings. I stroke lightly, getting to know the balance and length of the strange axe with its rusted bit. When I come back with the wood, only Ryland and Smith are in the kitchen and back in the bunkroom I can see Pete Lamb putting on his boots. Pete is only six years older than I am, but they treat him like a man and I am still a boy. But we’ve known each other for years and once he taught me how to play horseshoes.
“Well, you took your time,” Smitty says.
I drop my load into the bin and bring in more from the wheelbarrow at the door. Smith is already jamming paper and sticks into the black hole of the iron stove. He has put on his rust-stained apron. Starks is looking over two heavy steel traps that he has set on the table, their clamped mouths grinning side by side. My last armload fills the box.
“That’s one thing you can do, anyway,” Smith says to me. With the stove beginning to smoke, his slippers on and his hands running gently, nervously over the objects he has helped to wear smooth, Smitty is feeling at home and his voice shows it.
Starks lifts the traps off the table and carries them past us through the door, The chains gnash against each other.
“That’ll get him.” Smith clamps the lid over the stove hole.
“Crafty, that’s who. Now move on out of my kitchen so I can get something done.”
I go out onto the porch, easingdhe screen door shut, There is a scuffling in the kitchen.
“And you too, damn it,” says Smitty.
Pete Lamb comes out grinning.
“Hello, Gabe.” He walks to the edge of the porch and stands there with his hands in his pockets so that his shoulders hunch.”How’s your folks?”
He is not much taller than I am, but stronger, with wide battered hands and a smile that shows his missing side teeth, recently lost in a car accident.
“Fine, thank you.”
Starks is down near the tool shed, tinkering with the traps.
“I didn’t see your dad up on the lakes this summer. Too busy?”
“I guess. Is Starks going to kill Crafty?”
Pete looks at me and then grins. “Kill him? I suppose he’ll try. Lots of folks have tried.”
Pete looks at the toe of his boot and rubs it with his other foot.”I suppose.”
Starks is beating a hammer against steel, and his arm comes down a second before the chink reaches us.
Pete slips around the corner of the porch to the side door. Smitty is moving about inside, and the sunlight catches the white of his apron, turning him into a moth that beats against the window.
“You see this?”
Pete points to the door. Splinters have been torn out, leaving fresh yellow wood, and all across the lintel are deep gouges that have seared and ripped the grain. The door itself hangs awkwardly on bent hinges.
“He almost got in this time. It wasn’t such a long time ago, neither.”
“One night, maybe two nights ago. He’s around all right.”
I cannot keep back a shudder in my arms. The glade is still and empty except for the hum of the flies in the tall, wet grass. The sun catches at the freshly wounded door, and I sense the power of the claws. A tuft of coarse brown hair is caught on the edge of a splinter. Pete takes it off and rolls it in the palm of his hand.
“Yessir, old Crafty,” and he holds it gently between his fingers.
We stare quietly for a moment. After he lets go of the hair, he wipes his hands along his pants.
I think all day of the broken wood. In the evening I go down to the dock. There is almost no wind. A frog jumps from me and leaves his muddy trail on the bottom. I crouch and watch his bubbles, trying to count them, The sun goes down. The pale gray lake and sky join against the darker woods. Somewhere across the water the barred owl begins his rhythmic barking and is faintly answered. A bat dimples the air with a swoop. From the dock I can see the lanterns going on at camp. I start to go back.
Inside Smith is sitting on the edge of the sink. He is arguing with German, who stands a few feet away, and his pudgy fingers slash at air. Gorman peers belligerently at him through his square-rimmed glasses, pendulous lower lip thrust out. Standing near the porch steps, I cannot hear the words, only bickering tones. There is a thicket on my left, a solid block of night. From behind it and out of that night I hear something like a weighted foot, a heavy pressing into the small sticks and leaves. Then silence. But I will not turn. Something tells me no, don’t look now, so I walk onto the porch and put my hand on the latch and still unwilling to go in, I listen, neck tight, thighs tensed to spring. Gorman replies, his hands in his back pockets and face red, the night pushes at my back, but I don’t want to go in either, and when I lift the latch it rattles like old bones and both men start and turn.
Late that night I wake to the light of the moon that covers my bunk with blue squares. There is no wind. The meadow is quilted and the bole of a tree holds back the moonlight in a black shaft. Someone moans, breathing quickens, and there is a turning in the room, I shut my eyes and still see the squares of light. They flow and shift when I press my lids. Darkness floats over the light and its breathing becomes my own.
The morning air snaps, brittle as a fall leaf. The sun makes the cold dew rise in steam from the spruce and hemlock. There is the sweet and musty smell of bacon cooking as, running through the kitchen to the yard, I leave my shirt on the porch and work at the pump handle. It catches and the water flushes out, spattering my shoes and pants. I duck my head under the stream, the cold knifing at my neck, my body tensing as though to snap, and I hear my own voice moan. My flesh is wide awake and pricking. I go down to the dock. The water is still, and the wisps of fog that rise in the sun ride sideways to the shore. At the distant mouth of the lake, a deer raises his head from drinking and walks slowly back into the woods.
At breakfast Ryland’s seat is empty. Halfway through he comes back with the traps which he puts on the porch. He tells Marcus and German to row out and fetch Armand Otis, and no one talks about it because of the expression on Starks’s face, but I follow him when breakfast is over. I am not afraid of this thin man with mild eyes, but a mouth that can be steely. I know he has ten children and I have seen them all and his wife crowded into the green pick-up on Sunday mornings on their way to the Catholic Church.
“Did he get away?” I ask.
He is looking at the sprawled trap. “I guess so. At least they were sprung.” He won’t say anymore.
After lunch he sends me across the carry to the boatshed to bring back a can of paint. I take my time. I lie on my belly on the dock. The splintered boards smell like tar and the minnows swim above the leafy bottom in patches of sun. When my hand lies still in the water they nip at my fingers. Before long there is a boat coming up the inlet and I recognize Marc’s hat on the figure rowing with his back to me. In the middle of the boat a man is sitting with hair so white that the sun seems to turn it to a bright spark gliding against the green of stunted spruce. I hear his voice across the water, a high and steady sing-song, and from time to time a hand rises to make a gesture in the air.
I pick up the can of paint and run back into the woods to the side of the trail where I can hide and still see the dock. At first I mean only to surprise them, but then, lying with my body pressed tight against a slanting rock and the pine boughs brushing the top of my head, I get a sense of power from watching their boat near and knowing that they do not see me there. The boat comes in head on. With a twist of the oar Marc turns it sideways and it strikes the dock. German jumps out and kneels to hold it. The old man has become silent. He has a florid, puffy face and bright blue eyes that move in quick stabs. On his cheeks and chin there is a fine white stubble. The corners of his mouth twitch constantly.
“Funny,” he says, high and piping, “I could have sworn there was someone on this dock.”
I lower my head until only his face and shoulders show. There is something in the way he talks that sounds like my father.
With a sinuous jerk he is up and on the dock. His checkered, faded shirt is open down the chest of tangled gray hair and his faded dungarees bag out. Marcus unfolds himself from the prow and stooping quickly, Otis and Marc yank the boat up on the dock and drag it under the roof.
They walk up the trail and pass a few feet from me, Gorman frowning seriously as he carries the pack, then the old man, the eyes still flicking about to all sides and his feet making no noise. As they pass I see his face closely, and the ruddiness is a net of fine veins all over his cheeks. For a moment our eyes seem to meet. Perhaps it is a faint smile that I see, or only the twitching of his lips.
Even their voices are gone. I lie there for a moment. A cloud comes over the sun and wind ruffles the inlet. When the boughs over my head toss, I jump down to the trail.
We spend that afternoon laying traps on the hill by Case’s camp. I watch them anchor the chains and pry back the mouths, and they make me stand away. Armand tells the men where to put them, and when they are set he covers them with leaves and sticks and the men watch silently, almost reverently.”We’ll get the bastard now,” says Ryland when the last trap is set.
Dinner is almost ready when we get back. Smith is so edgy that he will not let anyone in the shack while he is cooking, so we take our turns washing up at the pump and then we stand around waiting for the call. The men are made shy by Otis. A group of them sitting on the porch are talking quietly among themselves, and yet their eyes keep wandering to where the old man stands and talks. But Otis moves from man to man, saying a word, poking at them, and his high laughter rises over them. The men grow still to listen to that sound. I sit by the pump having done my evening chore of working the handle while they wash.
“Do you think we’ll get him?” Pete says to me.
“Crafty. Mr. Otis set out traps, you know.”
“I know. Me and Starks and Otis set them out this afternoon. I was there,”
“Oh? I didn’t know. What d’you think?”
“Mr. Otis says most of the traps are too small, but he thinks the big one might work and he knows just where to put them all—”
But I stop then, aware that the old man has come up to us and that he has been listening to me.
“Well, go on, boy,” and he is smiling. The rest of the men are watching us.”You didn’t answer Pete’s question here. You think we’ll get him?”
But Smitty is at the door again, his pinched face glistening with sweat, and he beats the gong as though we are miles away. The men begin to shift forward to the door.
“I don’t know,” I hear Pete saying to the old man as they work their way in, “sometimes I almost wish that we don’t get him,” and the old man laughs once, sharply.
There are platters of steaks at both ends of the table, bowls of hot biscuits, and plates full of steaming corn. The men are suddenly noisy, and Smith, his hands trembling, shows Otis where to sit. There is a rush of forks and arms around the platters, leaving them clean save for the brown slick of drippings. The old man holds his own, and I watch his mouth purse as he raises his first forkful of meat to his lips. When the first course is over, Smith clears the table. Otis takes a tooth-pick from his pocket and plucks reflectively at his teeth. I want another biscuit, but they are gone before I can reach them.
“There’s nothing like your corn for gumming up a man’s teeth,” Otis says and Marc agrees.
Smith brings on the cake, a big, two-layered square with brown sugar icing and across the top in white is scrawled “Otis” as though traced with a stick.
“Now, I’ll be damned,” Otis says. “I’ll be damned. Ain’t that something, Smith Miller.”
He is still staring when Starks begins to knife into it. We eat the cake and then comes the coffee. Still the old man has said nothing more, and when he lights his pipe the match flares in the growing dusk. Suddenly Otis laughs to himself. Even Smith pauses over the sink and then leans back against the counter, hands folded.
“That brings to mind,” Otis says, “the time me and Noah was up here at the lakes looking for moose, Not that there was none . . .”
I lean my back against the wall. For awhile I listen to the tale, something about a moose they can’t find and the tracks of a wild cat, and yet it is the sound of his voice and not his words that begins to run through me; a voice somehow becoming separate from the man himself, and as I grow drowsy I even imagine the lips to be moving silently and the voice to be coming from some other place, from the dark corner of the ceiling beyond the rafters, from someone I cannot see who moves his jaw like a puppet’s. I stare at his face so hard that all the rest of the room blurs, and his head becomes a small pin-point that gradually recedes. Then it is disembodied, a speaking mask, and I see the tracks of the cat filling with water, the gleam of the eyes in dark branches.
When I awaken, there is a dim lamp on the table that casts a yellowish light over his face. He is still talking, quietly now, and most of the men have gone. There is only Starks and Pete and myself at the table with him, and Smith stands hesitantly at the bunkroom door.
Starks rises and stretches. “Another day coming, I guess. Gabe, you and me will share a bunk tonight so’s Armand here can have one to himself.”
“Now, hold on. Don’t you go to no trouble. You done too much already, putting on a spread like that and that cake and all. Nossir. Me and the boy’ll share the bunk. I don’t sleep so good these days no more anyway.”
But Otis puts his hand on Starks’ elbow.
“Don’t cross me now, Ryland, I made up my mind. Besides, this boy’s been sleeping for a while. Him and me’ll talk a bit and then turn in.”
I want to go to bed, but after what the old man has said, I do not dare.
“See you in the morning,” Starks says and Pete just smiles, brushing my shoulder with his hand as he passes,
Then I see the flask, although I smelled the whiskey before. Perhaps that accounts for the puffed and watery look to his eyes. I sit opposite him, and for a while he stares at the wall just behind my head. Finally he raises the flask to his lips, and tilting back his head, he shows the leathery skin of his neck. He holds the liquid in his mouth while he caps the bottle, and then swallows.
“That’s enough for tonight. Would you like some, boy?”
“No. No, thanks.”
“Too bad. It’s pretty good stuff. Give to me by Mr. Harrison. You know Mr. Harrison?”
“Nice man, Mr. Harrison. Knew his father.”
He stares at the table top for a few minutes. The fire in the stove makes a dying flup-flup. Someone cries out in their sleep.
“I didn’t say anything,” but now he is looking at his hand that rests on the table.
“Will it hurt the bear much when he is caught?”
“The bear. Will it hurt much when he gets caught in the trap?”
“Sure. I s’pose so. It’ll hurt just as much as it has to. Usually breaks the bone. Sometimes slices right through the bone too. But he won’t be going anywhere.”
“Will he die there?”
“If everything works right. He’s a big fella, that bear. It’ll probably take a couple of shots in the morning to put him away. That is if he don’t gnaw through the leg and limp off. But if he does that, he won’t be getting too far away. Blood leaves a good trail.”
Then he seems to be talking to himself, his lips moving slightly. The lantern wick has been set too low, and the flame is smudging the chimney.
“Dammit,” he says and lunges forward, toppling the flask. “Git him this time.”
I start. The red-veined face stares angrily past my shoulder. His jaw hangs slack and trembles, and the hands claw at the table top. Then it leaves him, and he is expressionless, leaning on the table. He raises his hands to rub his whiskered face. “Here now,” and he looks ruefully at the flask lying on its side, then winks at me as he unscrews the cap, “Did I startle you?”
“Boy, don’t you fear me. I never hurt a soul in my life. Just getting on, that’s all.”
I do not know what to say. When he holds the bottle to his lips, the hand trembles slightly. For the first time I notice he is missing a finger. He corks the flask again and leans far to his right to put it an arm’s length away.
“Did you know old Noah Sabattis, boy?”
I shake my head, but he doesn’t seem to pay much attention to me.
“Before your time, I guess. Half-breed he was. Mother a Canuck, father an Injun fella worked over to the iron mines. Well, he’s the one taught me to hunt bear. Never knew anyone hunted bear as much as Noah did. He shot them, and trapped them, and would have choked ‘em with bare hands if he could of gotten hold of one. You listening?”
Suddenly his eyes are on me.
“Don’t go asleep on me, hear? I hate talking to myself.”
Again he raises the flask to his mouth and then corks it.
“Last one for sure. They tell you about Crafty? You know about that bear?”
“Yes. My father did. My father says he’s not real,” and I can tell by the way his head begins to slant forward that he does not like what I’m saying, but I don’t want to stop.”He says everyone blames things on a big bear they name Crafty and that really it’s just a lot of regular bears but it’s more exciting to . . .”
“Hell,” and he snorts so loudly that I wonder if everyone will wake.”Not real? Not real?” He wipes his mouth with his hand suddenly.”Lookit,” and he holds up his maimed hand.
“You see that hole there where a finger should oughta be?”
“I owe that to Crafty. Not real?”
His eye sights me through the gap.
“I’ll tell you then, and see how good you can sleep tonight, boy. And then you tell your Dad from me. I’m working the belt saw up at McGee’s Clearing, see. It’s late fall and I’m just piling up wood to drag off down to the cabin after the first snow. I knew he was about. He’d gotten into George’s camp the day before when he’d gone off to town and tore the hell out of the kitchen and killed his dog. I don’t mean just killed him, either. He took one whack at him with a paw and laid that dog’s guts all over the porch. Well, I had my gun with me, and I was about done sawing for the day when I looked up. Sun was almost down, you know how high up McGee’s is and how the sun gets caught in the trees before it drops over Hedgehog. And twice as big as usual.”
He pauses for a moment, his hand gesturing and eyes unfocussed as if he is seeing the sun just beyond my face. I can’t take my eyes off the gap in his hand.
“I saw him there, right like he was walking out of the sun. The saw was whining, I was halfway through a log, the next thing it would be dark, and I’ve never seen anything so big and black and fierce as that bear, and that’s when it happened. I don’t mind telling you, boy, I was scared, and I moved too fast, reached quick for that gun and before I knew it the finger was off and I was holding it in the other hand and the blood was coming right out the stump like a gusher.”
I feel sick. Suddenly the hand, black in shadow, seems covered with blood.
“He was gone when I looked again. I didn’t even remember to shut off the saw. There wasn’t anything they could do for the finger. He owes me one,” and he holds the hand in front of me like a fan, opening and shutting the other fingers. “Tell your dad that one.”
Again he drinks, and then he shakes the flask next to his ear,
“Dead and gone.”
I don’t know why the story makes me angry, or maybe it’s the old man’s way of telling me. Even though he is arguing with what my father has said, he is saying it in the same way my father would, heavily, totally certain, as though there is no room for disagreeing.
“He didn’t do it, though,” I say.
“The bear. He didn’t cut off your finger. You did. Why do you want to kill him?”
At first he looks at me as if he is not certain he has heard me correctly, then his eyes stare without blinking.
“Maybe we’d best back out of this talk, boy. Why kill him? Because he’s a bear, The bear. Because they’re mean, and God put them here for man to be set against and for a curse on us.” Then he snorts again and waves a hand in front of his face as if a swarm of gnats has come between us.”But you’re only a child, and you’ve not lived in these parts enough. You can’t expect to know, boy,”
For a moment neither of us moves. A log in the stove settles with a thump.
“Enough for tonight. We got to be steady in the morning.” He wipes a dribble from his chin.”You don’t quite see, do you. Well, can’t expect you to. I was your age once, you know. I know what you’re thinking. Crazy old fool. Probably laugh at me later, won’t you?”
“No sir. I won’t laugh.”
He reaches forward, I feel the firm grip of his calloused hand on my bare arm, and I hold myself still, although the clench of his fingers is like the jaw of his trap.
“You’re a good boy, you are, and I’ve kept you up long enough. Good to listen to old Armand chatter on all night. What’s your name, sonny?”
My arm grows numb to his touch.
“Gabe,” I say and my throat feels tight.
“Gabe. A nice name. Where you been keeping yourself, Gabe?”
“Where you been all day, boy?”
“I was with you and Ryland. I was with you when we set the traps and—”
But I stop, my voice too choked up to go on. He pulls his arm back as though he has touched a hot panhandle.
“Hell, now. Ain’t that something? I recollect now. Sure. You was the young fella was with us this afternoon.” He wipes one trembling hand across his brow and then stares down at it.
We are silent. High above us in the night there is the random honking of a flock of geese, and even the flutter of their wings sifts down to us as they pass. But he does not seem to hear them, and the quiet flows back around us. I stand up.
“You’re right, boy. Here,” and he holds out that hand as he stands too.”Will you show me where the bunk is? I don’t want to be waking up someone by mistake.”
I hesitate and then take it. The three fingers hold me like the claw of a bird, and I feel as though I am pulling a slow weight behind me through water.
The bunkroom is dark save where the moonlight casts pale squares, making the room an unfamiliar place of fluid shapes. I pause at the edge of the bunk.
“This it?” he mutters and I hear his hands groping over the covers.
He groans and the springs jiggle under his weight. When he is still, I lower myself, taking what is left of the bed. “Thanks,” he whispers, and I smell the fierce mash of his breath. “You’re a good boy,” and he repeats “good boy” soothingly to himself until there is only his heavy breathing.
I lie stiffly, holding my body back from his. His knee rises gently to touch my thigh. He snores. The moonlight splashes over the distended belly of an iron stove. Soon I am the only one awake.
I know what I want to do. That isn’t hard to decide. But for a long time I can’t move, and my heart clenches.”Go on, go on,” I say to myself, but I am afraid. Finally I get up and leave the cabin and head for Case’s camp. I walk quietly, afraid even of the sound of my own footsteps. The thump of a beaver striking the water makes my head pound and the ripples of its dive shatter the moon’s pathway. I stop at the edge of the clearing. I hear nothing. The roof of the shack reflects the moon like a flat, gleaming rock.
Something runs off in the brush with a flutter. The grass soaks the cuffs of my trousers. I put my hand against the corner pillar of the porch, and the weak beam of the flashlight will not cut through the darkness deep inside. There is a crash and rattle of cans, a rasping growl, and a raccoon runs out to the grass, rustling back into the woods. I stand still, breathing the rank odor of spilled, decaying food.
It takes awhile to find the shovel. We had left it leaning against the wall, but somehow it has slipped and is lying with the debris. Once I stumble on the slope, and the handle strikes the side of my head. Then setting my course by the roof of the shack, I step cautiously, groping with the shovel ahead like a blind man. If I pass the trap, I will not dare to walk down the hill again and will have to wait there in the dark for morning.
The shovel leaps, the handle digging into my gut, and for a moment I am on my knees, unable to breath, hearing the crush of the jaws breaking the limbs and twigs like dried bones. I have to wrestle with my own lungs as though arms have grasped me tight. At first I can’t walk, crawling backwards down the slope and dragging the shovel with me. Then I can stand, running, sliding, and at the end of the slope I fall.
I turn onto my back, and the night seems to press on my bruised ribs like a heavy weight. Across the moon black objects flit like bats. They are my own arms, struggling with the air. I make them lie still, and breathe slowly, deeply, watching the ragged cloud send fingers into the halo of the moon, swallowing stars, finally snuffing the sky into darkness.
At first it is only the snap of one twig. I sit up. Then I hear it nearer, as though someone is dragging a heavy sack over the leaves. As the cloud parts for a moment, I see a dark and shapeless piece of the night humped on the silver hillside. Stumbling, sprawling, up again, the saplings whipping my face, I run down to the edge of the lake and along the shore, falling sometimes and jamming my hands on rocks, but my feet run on until I see the camp and the boathouse.
There, I kneel on the dock. When I wash my face, my flesh is numb.
I run into Pete on his way to the outhouse, but my body is so tired that I am not even startled. His flashlight sears my eyes and he holds me tightly by the arm.
“What’re you doing here?”
He turns the beam away but still holds my arm and we speak in whispers.
“I been out there.” I wave my arm. “I mean, I been to the outhouse.”
“Chrissake, you’re all wet,”
He lets go and wipes his hand against his trousers.
“How the hell’d you do that?”
“I don’t know. I mean I fell in the lake. I got lost.”
“Got lost? Gees, you must’ve. The damned outhouse is in the other direction.”
“I know it. That’s what I mean. I got lost.”
“Hell, Gabe, get on inside. I sure hope when you found the stool you didn’t wet that up too,”
He walks away, and I go into the kitchen. The stove is still warm, and when I lean close to it, the dripping from my clothes hisses on the iron.
I strip off my shirt and then my shoes. When he comes back, Pete finds a blanket and flings it around me, his strong hands rubbing at my back in rough jerks.
“Now go on to bed.”
“Pete, Listen, I went to—”
A hand covers my mouth. The flashlight left burning on the table casts shadows on his face but I can see his eyes.
“No. I don’t want to know where you was. You was going to the outhouse and you got lost. You fell in the lake. I don’t want to know more.”
For a second more his hand rests gently over my face, and then I feel him urge me into the bunkroom.
In the morning I find myself alone in his bunk and most of the men are already up.
“Eat your oatmeal, jughead,” Smitty says when I walk into the kitchen.”It’s getting cold.”
Ryland and Otis are standing near the door. Otis has a gun.
“Hello, there, youngster.” His white hair is disheveled still from sleeping, “Didn’t like your bed last night, or something?”
Pete is on the porch. He stands with his back half turned and a gun crooked in his arm.
“Are you going now?” I say to Ryland.
Starks begins to urge Otis to the door.
“You going to eat your breakfast or do I give it to the coons?” Smith menaces with a spatula.
“Can I come?”
Starks frowns and Otis who is halfway out the door turns around, “Why not, boy? You want to be in on the end?”
“Now you hold on, Armand. I ain’t having no child along when that bear comes tearing out of a thicket hot for blood. We got no time for funerals.”
Otis shrugs. “Damn shame. It’s something he’d never forget, I bet. You can run, can’t you?” but before he has finished talking he has turned his back and is beginning to walk off the porch with Pete.
Starks tells me to spend the morning splitting kindling. From my chair at the table I can see them walking off through the meadow, the old man’s short legs moving in quick jerks, and as he passes from shadow to sunlight his white hair glints. I don’t eat any breakfast.
The logs splinter and crack. I drive the axe as hard as I can. My back and shoulders ache soon, but I do not stop, shredding the big sticks of spruce, and sometimes the axe slants off and is buried deep in the black earth. A squirrel comes to scold at me from a limb and then runs off.
I am in the woodhouse when I hear them coming. I crouch with my hand in the shavings. There is only the sound of their feet and the clink of something metal. No one is talking. When they are gone, I do not move. Their footsteps cross the porch. The screen door slaps shut. I can hear them moving in the shack. For a long time nothing happens. A woodpecker hammers in a tree nearby, laughs, and is gone.
How much longer it is, I do not know, but their voices begin and I run to the edge of the woodpile where I can see them through the chinks. The old man has his wicker pack on. I cannot see his face. Starks and Pete are with him and on the edge of the porch Smith stands wiping his hands on the apron.
“I wish you’d stay on, Armand,” says Ryland. “We should give her another try tonight.”
“No, There ain’t no use trying. I knew it was coming.”
I can hardly recognize the voice. It is flat, quiet.
“You shouldn’t take on so. I don’t see how he could have snapped that trap and got off like that. He couldn’t of.”
“Then I ain’t done it right, that’s all.”
“You done your best.”
I see the old man’s face for the first time, expressionless, grizzled.”I’ve done my best.”
Pete stirs restlessly. The old man walks a few feet down the trail and then pauses.
“Here,” says Pete, “whyn’t you let me take your pack on down to the dock?”
He holds out a hand. The old man twists around savagely and spits a line of tobacco juice sideways onto the grass.”I can still do that much, boy. They ain’t finished me yet.” He wipes the side of his mouth and shifts his eyes around the clearing.
“Goodbye, Armand,” says Smitty.
“So long there, Smith.”
“Stay on, Armand,” says Starks again as though he can think of nothing else to say.”We ain’t half tried yet.”
But Otis shakes his head and looks out beyond us all through the grasses to the lake.
“No. I’m getting too old for it.”
He turns. His figure moves slowly along the trail, past the big maple, over the hand bridge across the marsh.
Then I am out from behind the woodpile, running past Ryland who looks up startled.
“Wait,” I say, then louder, “wait.”
Pete’s hand grabs my collar. The shirt jerks into my neck. I plunge once and then stand still.
He lets me go. Only the white gleam of Otis’s hair shows, bobbing distantly, and then that vanishes too.
“No. It doesn’t matter now,” Pete says.
Starks is looking at us. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” and Pete’s hand rests gently on my shoulder. “He just wanted to tell the old man goodbye.”