It’s funny how some of the richest gifts and most treasured items of a man’s walk on this land don’t always come wrapped and packaged in such a way that they’re seen as such… at the time. Like high-grade ore, hidden under the muck and grime of rotten quartz, the strength to succeed, sometimes intertwined and unlocked with the challenge a crisis brings, or the healing and Purpose brought to life and given wing in the wounded and lonely, through the soft ‘need’ sounds and honest love of an infant-child... some treasures don’t show their value till they’ve been mislabeled a time or two.
This one was shaping up the same way.
We came into camp and I walked past my fire-ring to a tarp I kept over the supply of wood and sundries (ax, saw, and a small can of kerosene). Lifting a corner of it, I picked up a large double handful of kindling sticks and shavings to start the fire with. The old man’s eyes were taking in the whole layout, his head nodding ever so slightly in what I took to be approval of my choices. I didn’t mind that none.
I dropped the kindling in the center of the ring and headed back for the kerosene.
I’d just picked up the can and turned back toward my fixins when I saw a fire blaze up in full vigor, devouring my meager offering of twigs and sticks. That old man was sitting there on his haunches, like he hadn’t moved and hadn’t a clue how it happened.
“What?” he said in a tone of innocent surprise.
“You know what.” I said in a tone equally full of confusion and consternation… “How in the world did you do that already?!”
“I’ve been COLD before, boy. Made a promise to myself years ago not to repeat the experience.”
He pulled back the edge of his CPO jacket and reached into a war bag hanging off his right hip that I hadn’t seen before. He called me over and motioned for me to hold out my hand. Into it he dropped three small chunks of dark, heavy, richly aromatic wood.
“What’s that?”… That seemed to be the main thing coming out of my mouth this day.
“Well,” says he, “It’s been called many things over the centuries… “splint light” (the Indians used slivers of it for candles ~~ produced a flame as pure and bright as any lantern), “fatwood”, “devil’s drip”… and “lighter” wood. That’s the term I’ve heard used for it most of my days.
It comes from the heartwood section of nearly all old piney-wood trees. The best I’ve found though comes from what the French call “Pin a feuilles rigides" (the pine with rigid leaves), we call it Pitch or Bull Pine ‘round here.”
“You go ahead and keep those, son. Next time you need a fire, you may not be that close to your tarp… or your kerosene.”
“Oh, and by the way, you better put somethin’ bigger than wishes on this fire, son, before it goes out.”
“I’M NOT YOUR SON!”
The words seemed to just hang there in the crisp air, like dirty laundry hangin’ from the campus flagpole. And instantly, I was just that ashamed of them, too.
He had been looking at the fire… my eyes were already locked on him. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder and was smiling like I’d just offered him a marshmallow.
“I know that, son… oh, sorry. Would you rather I called you Travis? That is your name, isn’t it?”
Well I’ll be damned! For about the hundredth time that morning he had just floored me again!
“How… h-how do you know that?”
He reached over to his left and picked up a limb and started breaking it up and feeding the fire.
“Travis, how in the world do you ever expect to conquer these mountains, or what you’re dying to accomplish with that bow there, if you don’t learn to settle down… and observe?”
He grinned… and sighed… and went on.
“I suppose I could keep you in suspense a while longer, thinking I’m some type of clairvoyant or IRS investigator. But truth is, two years ago when you first came up here, you stopped in at the DX station, just out from Mt. Judy. Remember?”
“You bought hotdogs, a six-pack of RC, a bag of Lays, a Heath bar and a county map. Oh, and $3.12 in ethel.”
“As you were leavin’, you asked about ‘good hunting places’. The fella standing next to the cig machine told you about Lost Lodge, and then asked you your name. Remember?”
“Yeah, I remember all that. But where were you?”
“Do you remember, as you came out, you walked over to that ol’ yeller Ford truck with the buck laying on the tailgate?”
“Yes sir. That monster is the reason I keep coming back here!”
He was still smiling, and giving me that intent look, like there was something I wasn’t getting. There was.
“Well son, uhm… Travis. That was my truck."
"...And you’re standin’ on my land.”
Those last words obliterated whatever memoried scene his conversation had brought to light, and turned every single atom of conscious thought in my brain into fine stardust, blowing now across a black void of stunned shock. Yessir, you might say I was frozen stiff, and speechless.
Ever been there?
It’s not like I hadn’t tried to get “proper” permission… you can bet your last arrow with 12 days left to hunt I DID! I’d been trying ever since that fella, Mr. Parks at the DX told me about Lost Lodge, about the spring and the meadows ~~ and the game. I had asked him who owned this ground and where I could find them to ask. He just told me what everyone whom I had asked thereafter said, “Don’t you worry ‘bout it young man, I’m pretty sure you got permission. You just go ahead on.”
I asked at the café in Judy (nobody from the area calls it by its ‘proper’ map-name, Mt. Judea… they all just call it “Judy”). I asked at the hardware store, the little corner grocery. I asked the Hefley’s, the Greenhaws, a mister Foster… heck; over the last 2 years I must have asked everyone along Hwy. 123! And always, it was the same thing ~ I’d get some sly grin, sometimes a shake of the head, and then, “I’m pretty sure you got permission son…” It was almost like it was a conspiracy.
Little did I know how close to the truth that was.
The old man was breaking through the fog.
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you look about like a deacon, his first three seconds in Hell.”
He had stood up and was reaching for my right hand, hanging limp at my side. As he shook it (like he meant it), he was saying, “I suppose we could have done the introductions sooner, but it didn’t seem to be mattering much. My name’s Daniel Tucker Arnold. Most folk just call me ‘Tuck’”.
“I…I…err…I mean….um….I’m sorry sir….uh… I mean…”
Looking back, I realize he must have been enjoying this VERY MUCH. But that old coot acted like we’d just been discussing the ingredients in a saltine.
“You get that fire stoked a bit more, Travis, and I’ll set the coffee to makin’, if you’ll point me to the pot-n-such.”
Sitting there, under a clean blue sky, we handed first one side of ourselves, then the other to the warm embrace of that fire. The occasional popping of an ember and the soft gurgling of the coffee making were welcomed and calming sounds. The rich, dark aroma of its brewing told me that Mr. Tuck definitely liked it strong, which suited my growing appreciation for this basic necessity of outdoor livin’ just fine.
The Dutch-oven biscuits he had whipped up were posting their own sweet, heady welcome sign right at the front door of our taste buds.
And the main course? Mr. Tuck had seasoned the tenderloins with some ‘secret fixins’ he brought out from a wrap of foil, told me this would make them “some mo’ better!”. As we turned them bit-by-bit with the finesse of hungry men who were enjoying the hell out of the whole experience, it was smelling like he was right… again.
It had been quite a day, already.
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