The DOORWAY Buck
Author: CM Sackett

Chapter 4
Courage... On Ice

As the snow continued its soft, swirling swarm to the ground you could almost watch the folds and drifts grow and spread. This was my first real snowstorm up here, and I was suddenly even more grateful for my campsite. I had chosen it mainly because of its remote beauty… and the seep (it was a good 600 yards off the main dirt Jeep path that led to Lost Lodge). But I had taken into consideration, however lightly, that the limestone overhang the tent and fire pit were tucked into could serve as a break from winds and rain… and thank God, snow.

    The clearing that formed the rest of the knoll had been absorbed into the rumpled blanket of it all, right up to the overhang. But here, although a few large intruders sifted through the trees that clung to the upper edge of the cut, nothing lasted but a smattering of gold and blush painted leaves, a banked fire… and good company.

 

As we sat there, warm and free in this transforming oasis of the Wilds, the fire crackled and popped… the camp pot sighed and gurgled… and the rest of the world lay silent, blue, and frozen.

    “Mr. Tuck.”

     “Yes, son?”

     “I saw your outfit.”

     “Yessir.”

     “Mr. Tuck; I ain’t never seen anything like that bow… or quiver”.

     My eyes were fixed on him, my ears eager for the story. For a moment, he sat there on that stump with his coffee cup poised half way to another sip. Slowly, he lowered his arms back down to where they were resting on his knees. And as the steam lifted and rolled from the cup, his eyes seemed to be looking through it… into another world.

     I noticed he did that a lot.

     “Well, if you’re interested, and willing to go fetch it, I’ll tell you about that particular rig.”

     I nearly tripped and fell… I got up so fast.

     I came out of the tent with them both and headed over to hand them to him. “You hold it, son. This coffee cup’s feeling awfully comfortin’ right about now” he said with a grin. I didn’t mind that at all.

     As I turned the bow over in my hands, marveling again at the story on the limbs and the exquisite features of the riser, he started.

     “Early part of ‘34 was a perfect time for a sure-of-himself twenty year old to get out of these mountains and go see the world. Tweren’t no jobs, and with no real family to hold me it just seemed like the natural thing to do, to head out.”

     “Used the last $2.80 I had to catch a bus out of Harrison down to OKC. From there, I followed that new ribbon of road they called “66” all the way to Barstow. Then I hitched a ride with a chicken truck to the Bay area.” He chuckled over that memory and added something about not being able to get too excited over fried chicken ever since.

     “When I hit San Francisco, I was tired… I was hungry… and I was plumb broke. So, as I drifted down to the Embarcadero I was ready for whatever job a man might offer my hands and back. At Pier 5 I ran into a gentleman looking to add two more crew members to a vessel sailing for Seattle, then Alaska. I figured that’d do.”

 

“So, I worked that supply junk on up to Ketchikan and hauled my freight ashore… me and the captain didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on how a man pulling his weight ought to be treated. Safer for both of us that way.”

     “Anyhow, I hit the docks with good wages and a strong desire to see more of this new wonderland I had discovered, while she was still shining in all her unfrozen glory. And that’s exactly what I did.”

     “One evenin’ in a local establishment, I struck up a conversation and eventual friendship with the red-headed 1st mate of an “old style”-whaling vessel registered out of the Chukchi Sea area of Russia. By night’s end we had clasped hands… I was going aboard.”

     As he continued, I sat enthralled and dumbfounded. His vivid, yet matter-of-fact recounting of tales of the rigors and terrors and joys of working those sapphire chasms of the Bering and Chukchi and Beaufort Seas were as surreal, and yet, just as palpably “real” as the surroundings in which I was hearing them. And as he spoke to me there, man to man, the realization that THAT is exactly what he was doing left me as warm and strengthened as the coffee on my lap… that I had totally forgotten about.

 

He got up and grabbed the pot and refilled our cups. Then he stood at the edge of the overhang watching the snow’s silent assault for a moment. As he turned and headed back to his seat, he said “So, I spent two whaling seasons aboard the Одобрение Ветра (Favoring Wind). Didn’t take long to work my way from general hand to “striker”, that’s the fella that handled the deck gun and killing harpoon. Seems the skipper was watching me and a couple of the boys one day hunting seals on the pack ice, for something to do… and eat.”

     “You see, on our first stopover in Nome, after I’d joined the crew, I picked up a nice yew and bloodwood flatbow. She was short for those days, only 62 inches. But she was a lively sprite. And the fella I bought her from had taken real good care of her… I don’t think he ever braced it. He had ordered it from of a magazine advertisement in ‘Forest and Stream’. Anyhow, he was headed home to Burlington, Iowa and seemed to have lost all affection for those things of his current surroundings, except cash. So, I had me a good bow, and a heck of a time!”

     “Seemed a perfectly natural thing to have around in that country in those days, what with all the game and time… and need”.

     Tuck paused, ever so briefly. He seemed to actually gasp, or start at the sound of that last word coming back to his ear. I was to understand why, in just a few minutes.

 

He talked of trapping in the cold, off-season ~~ when the fall and winter blast would lock the whaling waters behind crushing, jumbled masses of opalescent pack ice. Spoke of hunting the caribou of the great Porcupine herd during the nuliavik tatqiq (“moon when caribou rut”) under the saw tooth sentinels of the Brooks Range. And the fire flashed in those grey eyes, as the misty memories of the splendor of Sheenjek Valley became the crystal clear murals his words were painting on my mind. From the banks of the shallow Jago River to Wainwright, Meade River, and several other locations along the Arctic Slope Tuck Arnold and that flatbow made meat… and friends.

     “That’s where the story on that bow comes in, son.”

     “The winters of ’34 and ’35 weren’t bad… as a matter of fact, according to their standards, they’s most tolerable.” He looked out towards the Buffalo; the snow seemed to be easing a bit. I rose to fetch the coffee as he continued, “Me and another lower 48er I met my second April there, Ben Arden, we both made off like bandits, trappin’ and trading with old Tom Gordon at the outpost on Barter Island.” He grinned big, tossed another small offering to the fire and said with his trademark chuckle, “That Gordon now, he was a character!”

     “Anyhow, Ben was an Idaho boy from the Thompson Pass area of the Bitterroots… he was good company, and a hell of a shot.” Tuck motioned over to my rig leaning against the tent flap, “Yeah, Ben liked those ‘longstyks’ like yours. He used a 70-inch thumper that he’d built himself, back home. Never had much use for that much wood, myself, but in Ben’s hands… it was a wicked thing of beauty!”

     I was liking this Ben fella. I was liking him a lot!

     Tuck continued, “The scene on that bow you’re holding happened during the siqinrilaq tatqiq of 1936.”

     “What’s a ‘sigi…n…’… what’s that thing you just said?”

     “Oh, I’m sorry boy. Sometimes I forget and pass out words I’ve grown comfortable with like everyone else ought to know them… siqinrilaq tatqiq …that’s the Inupiat way of saying December. It means (“Moon with no sun”). Ben and I had shared many a hunt and warm fire with those folks over the course of the previous season. During that dark and dreadful time, we shared our lives.”

     “That winter of ’36, and from what I heard later, the next one, as well, was just plain brutal. Ben and I both had made plans to pack it in and head for home in September. We had actually become quite prosperous young men for those times. With nothing more than a bow, a quiver full of “C L O S E D” signs…” (I learned that that was one of his favorite terms for a hunting arrow. And on his string… that’s exactly what they were!) “…woods skills and a love for the Land, we made our early fortunes.”

     He took a sip.

 

“Well, when we got to Barrow the ice flows had already cut off any sea exit for quite a ways. And as anxious as we both were to get home, we had enough sense to know that fighting the situation would, at BEST, skinny our money belts far more than we were comfortable with… and the scenarios went downhill from there. So, we figured to winter one more time with our friends, and help with the hunt. And that’s just what we did.”

     “Nobody starved in our group, although I did hear that the folk around Kaktovic had it pretty rough. But it was a hard one.” He motioned toward the bow… “On that particular hunt, Ben, myself and two young bulls from the Inupiat camp had actually been hunting seals and musk ox to share with other villages and to trade for store goods at Gordon’s post. We’d been on the ice over the Beaufort for three days, hadn’t seen a thing. Then we hit the mother lode.”

     “The grating moan of the ice shifting and jostling against itself was all we had heard… that, and the wind. Then, on our fourth move we heard the distinct bark of a seal, just over an upshot of ice ahead. We got down and crawled to the leading edge… there were breathing holes as far as the eye could see! In the next two days, we and our friends took 18 seals, fifteen of them with our bows ~~ and that polar bear.”

     What I was thinking must have made its way to my face (I just couldn’t imagine shooting a large, lounging lump of lard on the ice as being any sort of challenge…), for the old man turned a keen eye to me, leaned forward a bit, and said, “You need to learn this too, Travis… what your eyes ain’t seen, your hands ain’t touched, and your life ain’t done… ain’t always safe ground for such easy judgment.”

     There was no ‘threat’ in it. His tone was as soft and even as ever. But I definitely saw the wolf in him then… and the sense of what he said, in the years to come.

 

“Anyhow, we had us a stack of meat behind us, and that one you see on the bow before us when that old boar decided we had fixed him just about enough lunch. And if one or two seal carcasses would have set him up to table enough to leave the rest be, we’d have been happy to share. But like some men, it was plain that THAT wasn’t in the picture of his mind… at all. So, we made our stand.”

     “Ben’s the one who realized right off that our being knotted up together like we were, not only wasn’t scaring this devil, it wasn’t going to do us any good in besting him. So he sent me to the left flank and our friends, with their toggle-harpoons and one throwing lance, to the right.”

     Mr. Tuck reached over and gently tapped the figure on the limb. “Ben, he stayed head-on with the bear, waving that bow of his and hollering and cussin’ him like the last drunk to leave the bar (giving us time to get in place). That’s the grittiest and bravest man I ever knew…”

     The old man stretched and scanned the western sky. “Snow’s letting up, son. It’s almost time to get up there amongst ‘em.”

     My protest was rather strong and immediate, “You haven’t finished your story YET!”

     I saw that pleased him. I didn’t mind doing that.

     “Oh, I got time to finish the story, boy. I just figured you’d be itching to be out making your own memories, instead of just sitting around, listening to mine.” he finished with a laugh.

     “I’m making memories-a-plenty, right here.”

     My matter-of-fact way of saying it sounded… almost like him! Startled both of us a bit.

     “Well, alright then. Where was I? OH… Ben caught his foot on a bump on the ice and fell forward, straight at the bear. WELL, that lit the old boy up! He woofed and started forward..., not fast, but with purpose. Ben was trying to gather his battle gear to him for a proper response. He finally got a feathered cedar on the string and, in his understandable excitement, sent it just over the mountainous shoulder of the beast.”

     My own eyes were dancing now! My arms unconsciously and instinctively raised the bow in phantom support of the scene playing out in his story.

 

I caught myself, and looked over at Mr. Tuck sheepishly, thinking I may have just made a fool of myself. Needn’t have worried… he was at “full draw” his own self… with nothing in his hands but memories! His voice was rising in pitch and intensity, just enough to let a person know he was THERE… relivin’ every frigid, frightful SECOND! He went on…

     “I knew I had to turn that bear. My first shaft took him clean behind the shoulder; the dark fletching vanished into the white of him before I even realized I’d loosed it. He didn’t blink, he didn’t baulk, he didn’t break stride… he just lowered his head and picked up his pace.”

     “Ben was scrambling to find an arrow that hadn’t been broken in the fall. Our young friends (neither of whom was over 14) were standing there, sixty feet beyond the path of the beast, transfixed, as the stuff of fireside story and tribal legend passed from nightmare to nightmarish reality before their young eyes.”

     Tuck gave a short, soft chuckle, “I don’t remember it being a ‘willful’ act of bravery, son ~~ so much as a deliberate act of desperation. But I found myself running and focusing right at that growing red hope, screaming like a banshee and giving wing to arrow after arrow as I worked to intercept this enemy of my friend (funny, that’s all I thought of the beast as… in those slow ticks of Eternity).”

 

“Anyhow, I guess my ‘war cries’ sparked the budding fires of man-ness in those young’ns… ‘cause son, THEY CAME ALIVE! They started for him with a primal growl, like your best dog on a bad coon! The older one grabbed the throwing lance out of his friend’s hand on the run, skidded to a stop just fifteen feet from that heaving wall of muscle and madness, and let her fly! Oh, THAT gave him pause!”

     The old man grimaced, as though he was having sympathetic reflex contractions.

     “That big fella was game… I’ll give him that! But as he skidded around, actually bumping the seal carcass, to meet the sting that boy had put into his left side head on ~~ I drew one final nock to my cheek… hesitated just long enough to focus on the blood-soaked crease of his massive shoulder… and sent that shaving point home at three steps (I could actually feel the heat from his body). At that same instant, Ben, who had never flinched or faltered in his search for a workable shaft, shot from one knee… from directly behind the seal. The arrow entered the sinews of the neck, right at the base of the skull, and sank half its length into the giant’s last thoughts.”

     “The bear crumpled and rolled another six feet from his momentum. Fierce. Phenomenal ~ and quite dead.”

     Tuck sat there for a moment, staring into the fire as though it were a portal into that day, that experience. I sat stunned, staring at the bow as though the bear was actually still in motion… the man still waiting for just the right instant to release.

     And the snow… stopped.

 

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