The DOORWAY Buck
Author: CM Sackett

Chapter 5
A Measure Of Manhood...

The sky cleared, the air brightened… and the land lay silent. Looking out across the knoll and on up to the azure-toned vista of the flat, it was almost as though Newton county had been swallowed by the snow, and I had been bodily transported to that fierce, rich Northern land of Tuck’s memories. I actually caught myself looking into the snow-bound timber for a glimpse of Ben, or the young Inupiat warriors… or that bear (I still chuckle every time I remember that. But you know how it was at 18, the hair’s a growin’ on the chin… but the imagination is still as bald and vivid as a child’s! I was all right with that. Still am).

     Mr. Tuck was adding a large stump piece to the fire. Noticing the tilt of my head and knitted brow he said, “On days like this son, leave a night-burner on for a watch fire. It’ll burn slow and steady and warm. That way, anyone who might come across the camp whilst we’re out will find a welcome break in their walkabout. And, even if we get back mighty late, she’ll be here to greet us with a warm embrace and a ready bed of coals.” And then he added, with a sly grin and a wink, “Roughin’ it don’t necessarily mean a lack of comfort”.

     My ‘book-learning’ came to my tongue faster than my mouth could bridle it ~~ “Well, I’ve read where you’re supposed to always put a fire out when you leave camp.”

     He just smiled as he tucked a few pieces of tinder into his war bag, “Read the same thing a time or two. But don’t ever let passive learning override active thinking, son.”

 

“Take a look around you. There ain’t nothing under this overhang to catch and hold a flame long enough to do any damage. And it’s plain from the patched holes in your tent, and the current selection of fire pieces that you’ve learned how to pick your camp wood better.” (…this one had me smiling. I’d almost burnt the thing up the year before when I threw a moss-barked pecan log on my first morning’s fire. Man, did she ever pop and spit!)

     He took note of my grin, shook his head, and then continued, “And as for out there… even the Keeper of the Fires of Hell couldn’t get that lit today.” Then he turned to face me, “But you do as you decide. It is your camp. And that makes what any other man thinks on the subject just what it is… just~ their~ opinion.”

     With that, he took his bow off to the other side of the fire and began drawing it back bit by bit, time and again, until the weapon was finally brought to full draw... and his muscles and joints to full limber.

     I had never met anyone as seemingly prepared for a situation as Mr. Tuck, any situation. Everything I ever saw him do made perfect sense (even if some of it was after the fact). The term I later came to use to describe him was ‘self-possessed’. He was utterly and completely confident, and proved to be rightly so, in every circumstance I ever shared with him. And yet, I have never been around a man who was less inclined to (or who had less use for) bragging OR false modesty. That’s what I mean by ‘self-possessed’. He was whole ~~ complete in his manhood… without pointing it out himself, and totally aside from what anyone else thought of him. He put it to me this way once…

     “The Good Lord made me, boy. Gave me every gifting, aptitude and skill-set I have, just like He gave the trees their strength, the stream its chuckle and the fox his cunning. So the braggin’ rights are His. And so far, son… those things have been enough to keep me, and others alive… and to keep my word good. From what I’ve seen in this world, that’s enough.” And then, with the life-fire a blazing in those grey eyes, he added, “I have no problem standing in the company of ‘men’.”

     He sure as Hell didn’t.

     But what I marveled at most, and came to cherish and treasure above all else about this crusty old man was the uncanny ability, and pleasured willingness he displayed in giving me room… to be a man.

     And since this was my camp, I made an executive decision… “Fair enough” I said “Let ‘er burn.”

 

There was well over two foot of snow covering our climb to the meadows, with many a drift longbow-deep. Trudging through it would be no picnic on the flat. But our path also wound through the benches of timber, rock, and blow-downs, tangles of blackberry and honeysuckle, Virginia creeper and pepper vine… not to mention the hundreds of gullies and washes that cut their own sign into the face of the mountain. All of this now lay under a seemingly even blanket of soft white, only slightly rumpled here and yon… and nowhere showing any sign of the slippery, bone-splintering possibilities lying beneath the facade.

     I was just about to step out into it, when the old man brought me up short.

     “Whoahoh! Where you headed?”

     “I’m going huntin’”.

     “Like that?”

     I looked down and gave myself a good once-over. My boots were tied, my coat buttoned, and the brand new wool gloves I had picked up in Bellefonte were looking mighty spiffy on my numbing fingers. I had my bow, quiver, arrows… I looked back over my shoulder at him, “Yeah… just like this. It’s all I got.”

     “Well don’t you think snowshoes would be nice? And something a little more suited to the current background than those forest-green canvas Keys you got on might not hurt.”

     He was starting to bug me again.

     I turned back to face him. He was sitting there at the fire with that beautiful, dark, shaggy-furred quiver on his lap. He was leaned over like the great Thinker, with an arrow in his right hand, touching the broadhead to the thumbnail of the other. His face, close to his ‘work’, was a study in total concentration… like he was performing some delicate surgery. He never even looked up.

     I stood there watching him for a moment, curious as to what exactly this whole ritual was about, but too young and impatient to ‘waste’ time asking. So, I blurted out the brilliant response I had been working on, “Well, the last time I checked, there wasn’t a snowshoe store around the corner, or a “WHITE-SALE” going on at the seep!”

     The broadhead stopped in mid-tap.

 

Tuck moved his jaw around a bit, like he was trying to pop it back into place, but didn’t look up. “If mouth was a measure of manhood Travis… most boys, and all curs and porch-pups would be giants.”

     He leaned a little closer and focused on his thumbnail, which was beginning to show the furrowed results as the broadhead caught at even the slightest contact, all along its edge. Then he slowly raised his gaze to meet mine, which wasn’t wavering… just yet.

     “But it’s not, son. Being a man is a matter of action and results, not talk and intent.” His tone was calm and even. His eyes… his eyes held no flame; they looked almost cool and sad. That’s when I had to look away, even though I wasn’t quite finished with my defense.

     “Yeah, well… I’ve grown awful tired of people making fun of me all my life! I maybe ain’t got ‘family’ or tons of stuff, but I don’t ever stick my hand out, I don’t ever pester anyone!”

     Tuck pursed his lips as he sighed and slowly scanned the glistening horizon. “Yessir, folks’ useless cruelty can get mighty old in a hurry, that’s for certain. But this day isn’t “all your life” Travis and I ain’t most “people”. He leaned over, way over, to catch my downcast eyes. Slowly he brought us both back to a level-chinned look, as he added…

     “And this ain’t no dressin’ down, just a statement of what is, son. I’ve been young, and I still remember the feelings and processes of growing into myself. Anger, fear, wonderings… I got no problem with any of those.” He broke the tension some with a chuckle, “Hell, I still deal with them myself, from time to time!”

    “But I stopped the useless practice of barking at other men many, many years ago… and I damn sure don’t have any use for it when I hear it coming off the porch, my way.”

     I had definitely been chastised! Calmly. Quietly. THOROUGHLY.

     “Yes sir. I’m sorry.”

     He was already in motion, even as the words were leaving my shame-chaffed lips. He reached out to shake my hand, and said, as lightly and matter-of-factly as if we’d just reach a mutually agreeable business deal, “Fair enough. Nuff said.”

     “Now if you’ll look about your camp a little more closely, you may find you have more ‘stuff’ than you thought.”

     Now what in tarnation did he mean by that?!

 

I scanned the area around the tent, even went behind it… nothing. I peered into the deeper recesses of the cut… nothing. Mr. Tuck was rinsing and setting the pot up for our return coffee (“plannin’ for contingencies” he called it) and acting like there was nothing else going on… mean ol’ man!

     Finally I glanced over at the tarp I used to cover my wood and sundries, and noticed it seemed a bit ‘fuller’ than I remembered. Walking over to it, careful-like, I looked back at Tuck; he was holding his bow up and looking down the limbs, like he was inspecting it. Just as I reached for the corner of the tarp he said, “Well, go ahead son. It won’t bite.” As the covering peeled back I caught a glimpse of white fur… and what seemed to be honey-colored ribs of polished wood.

     “Pull ‘em on out, boy! It’s time we were getting’.”

     He walked over and picked up various items out of the pile, leaving twins of each and every one.

     “If a boy’s going to hunt proper in this kind of world, he ought to be outfitted proper for it… don’t you think?”

     I wasn’t sure what to think. I didn’t know what half of this stuff was. He must have figured as much, for as he was donning his own pieces he would point out the corresponding item for me…

     “That’s your vest. That long, course outer layer is polar bear… no, not that one. Those hollow-core hairs are just the thing for keeping ol’ Jack Frost out and holding what’s needed in. Sheds water well, too. It’s lined with Merino wool and filled with Canadian down. You won’t be wantin’ for warmth in that, son… and a vest allows you to stay quick and ready in your movements, without worrying about your string slapping some big ol’ bulky sleeve.”

   I took off my coat with obvious reserve. He just grinned, “Go ahead, put it on.”

     It didn’t seem to weigh much, but when it settled on my shoulders I could tell already that whatever heat I put out, it would send right back!

     The buttons were double-tapered cylinders of ivory, each about ¾ of an inch in diameter and two and a half inches long. Oh, this was nice!

     “Here’s your leggings. They’re of the same makings, same critter. You just wrap them around the front of your legs… like this. O.K., now take those four back cords and run ‘em around the back of your legs and through the eyes… there you go. Now, tie a knot in them, make sure the ones around your knees are loose enough to let you bend without binding up. That’s the ticket!”

     The cords on the leggings were wrapped in wool and fit snug, yet soft across the backside. The eyes or ‘buttonholes’ tapered to a slit. The knotted cord just naturally slipped to the narrowest point at the back and settled in. Dandiest thing I ever saw!

     There was one piece of fur on the ground… and what I took to be snowshoes, although I’d never seen any like those before!

     “Well, pick it up, son. That’s your hat.”

 

As I bent over and took it to hand, I could see it was a fox skin of some sort. The fur was long, thick, silky soft and glistening white… with an unbelievably thick luxurious tail that would all but cover the neck side of a good-sized man. There were four arrow-shaped ivory buttons around the perimeter of this little beauty, and a larger one at the top center. I looked from the hat to Mr. Tuck.

     “Them’s to keep your wool liner in place during needful times, like today. And, when you don’t need to keep all that steam in…” He took a hold of his and undid the buttons, pulled the shaped fleece liner away, revealing a red silk inner lining! “Yours is the same, son, except the lining is royal blue.”

     He grinned at my dropped-jaw gawk.

     “Just because its woodsman wear boy, don’t mean it can’t have class… now come on. It’s time to introduce you to ol’ LogHorn.”

 

We sat on our notched thrones, looking like key players in a Jack London novel as we went to putting our snowshoes on.

     “Mr. Tuck?”

     “Yessir…”

     “Sir, I’ve seen pictures of snowshoes before…”

     “Mmm hmm…”

     “Well, all the ones I’ve seen were kinda long and narrow. These look like… giant pizza pans.”

     He chuckled as he cocked his head and looked at the one on his left foot. “Yeah, I never really thought of it that way. But now that you mention it, they DO.”

     As he held the other one up, he said… “There’s bunches of different designs for them, son, dependent on the terrain and the travel patterns and needs of those building ‘em. The ones you’re talking about come from the Athabascans in Alaska and the western territories of Canada. And when you think about it, it makes sense in that part of the world to build them long and narrow.”

     “The country they travel is more open, covered with pack ice and rolling tundra, mainly. Why, I’ve seen ‘em more than five feet long and all dolled up with paints and bead work. Some say it’s all for show, but I walked among them Travis. And them people like their fancies as much as you or I, but there’s a practicality and economy of movement and resources in everything they do up there. That paint and bead work can serve as a good signpost on that canvas of blank white when needed, and mainly works like a rancher’s brand. You walk up to an abode, trading post, or local establishment, you’ll see them lined up, leaning against the outside wall. You can tell every man in there by the unique patterns on the shoes.” He turned his head toward the flat… “That can even save your life, sometimes.”

     “These here came from a Cree friend of mine up around the village of Fort George, Quebec (*now relocated to Chisasibi). In Long-Walkin’ those primordial timber-tangled wonderlands I quickly learned the value of these “pizza pans”, as you call them! Their short, round stability don’t get hung up in brush fingers and such near as easy as those others might.”

     “The set you have on came from him as a gift, some years later… as if friendship with salt-o-the-earth good men requires ‘payment’!”

     I was shaking my fox-ed head in rapt astonishment ~~ was there a place on this planet that old man had NOT been?!”

 

It was just shy of 11:00 when we stepped beyond the overhang and sunk the first circled sign of our intentions into the leading edge of that virgin wonder. Each step raised a swirling vortex of fresh powder, our shoes making only the slightest “Fffphhff” sound as we made our way out to the main Jeep trail that pointed the way to Lost Lodge Flat. Three steps into it I was feeling like a sophomore at the senior prom… dancin’ in boxes!

     “This is going to take FOREVER!” I moaned “How in the world do people ever get anywhere in these things, anyway?!”

     The old man (whom I’d noticed, by the way, wasn’t flailing his arms and legs like a chicken on a bungee cord!) turned back to me, with that Cheshire cat grin of his…

     “Why Travis, that sounds like a voice from the past!” he chuckled. “I said almost the very same thing my first time on them.”

     Well, that helped… some.

     “Remember son, each day has its own tempo, the rhythm of it set fresh every mornin’ by the weather, the surroundings, and the myriad of other things that make this a living, breathing world. A man what wants his plans to succeed would do well to take the time in his planning to allow for that… and learn to move in step with what he finds.”

     “As for them shoes, you’re trying to ‘walk’ in ‘em. You gotta STEP in them, like this.”

     I watched closely as he picked his leg straight up, moved it with economy and purpose around and directly in front of the other leg, and placed almost the whole of the shoe’s perimeter down in one smooth motion.

     “You see, boy? Days like this aren’t made for a stroll… and neither are these things. But, one step at a time, you’ll eat up far more ground than a man without ‘em, and have energy left for the tasks at hand, once you get there. Hmmm?”

     My head was nodding, even as I worked to imitate his graceful advance. “Like this?” I asked.

     “Mmm Hmm!”

     It was feeling better… and I was ready to roll!

 

The clouds were rolling up like bolts of grey and blue muslin as they marched on East; their tattered ends now even with Lost Lodge Mountain. Looking over my left shoulder I could see the ramparts of the Buffalo River bluffs in the distance, shining right back at the sun as it re-staked its claim to the day. The shadows were still strong where we were, but I was beginning to think Mr. Tuck might have been right about those fields… and our chances.

      It took us over a half-hour to reach the branch road that would take us on up to the flat. I commented on the fact that it took so much longer than usual.

     “Yessir” he said “but you can sweat just as easy in the 20’s as you can in the 80’s, son. And even on a day like this, that can prove deadly.” He paused and took in the scene of tree-lined powder with a deep sigh, “Besides, being the first humans to break ground on a whole new world ain’t that common a thing these days… and gives a man something to savor.”

     As we “Fffphhff’d” our way on up the trail I began to enjoy the “rhythm” of this day like few others before it. A couple of times we came across tracks, and Tuck would stop to reveal the ‘story’ they told… “You see them series of big holes amongst those coyote tracks?”

    “Yessir.”

     “He’s scent trailin’ a vole, or rabbit, or something under the drifts. The holes are where he was pretty sure he had ‘em dead-to-rights, and dove in after them.”

     Before these last two days, I would have never believed that holes in a snow bank would have been worth looking at, let alone be the least bit interesting. But I was enthralled! This old man was gooood! He was very, very good.

     “Well,” I said “…did he get ‘em?!”

     “Not yet.”

     “Oh” says I, trying to rush my ‘wisdom’ a bit “…that’s because there’ no blood on the snow, right?”

     Tuck gave me a wink, “That would be one possible sign, boy. Good thinking.”

     I smiled.

     He continued. “But take another look Travis. See how ‘clean’ the hole is… no wallerin’ or tearing about? There’s no struggle, he’s still just exploring.”

     We’d gone about another thirty yards when the whole lane looked like 50 coyotes had had a barn dance!

     “Look Mr. Tuck! He GOT HIM!” (you’d a thought I was a six year-old at Disneyland…).

     He chuckled, “Well, they definitely said some ‘howdies’ here.” Then he pointed with the limb tip of his bow, “But you see that single hole, over there towards the brush, about ten steps? And then that other one a few steps further, over there… right into that briar patch?”

     “Yessir.”

     “My guess is, that’s where that old rabbit (we’d finally seen his tracks amid the churn of torn snow) got tired of the dance and headed home.”

     “So... you don’t think he got him?” I wasn’t so sad about a coyote going without a meal as I was about my tracking ‘skills’ once again proving to be incomplete… at best.

     “Well son, a scene like this is where your blood-sign should definitely show itself, don’t you think?”

     Yep. That made perfect sense. DANG IT!

     “That, combined with those holes over yonder, and the fact that the coyote tracks lose focus right here and start meandering towards the Lodge, makes for a pretty good chance that he ain’t tasted his lunch… yet.”

     Tuck’s eyes were gleaming, as though he were as excited about these leftovers of drama in the snow as I now was. And you want to know the truth? He was. That was another wonderful facet of the old man’s draw for me. His knowledge and experience and wisdom, they never acted as a gulf between us. On the contrary, he had a wonderful capacity for using them all as a natural bridge between where he was, had been… and I desperately wanted to be.

 

 

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