The huge-antlered Mule Deer buck acknowledged the dominion of the place and catnapped knee-deep in the cool, shaded pool pushed to the side of Gold Creek. There seemed no black flies to annoy him and he was lazy with the breathing space. Sometimes his ears stirred when the stream quickened and whispered; but they moved slowly, with the foreknowledge that it was merely the stream grown chatty at the discovery that it had snoozed.
It wasn’t long before the time when the buck’s ears lifted and tensed with swift eagerness for sound. His head was turned down the canyon. His sensitive, quivering nostrils scented the air. His eyes could not pierce the green screen through which the stream rippled away. He knew he was not the authority here; that argument could take place between the black bear, the mountain lion, and the wolf. But to his ears came the voice of a human; a man. It was a steady, monotonous, annoyingly pitchy voice not unlike the exasperating barn owl. But it was a man massacring the tone and the lyrics.
“On top of spaghetti, all covered with cheese. I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed!”
At the sound, the buck snorted with a sudden start that propelled him through the air from water to meadow, and his feet sank into the wet young moss, while he pricked his ears and again sniffed the air. Then he stole across the tiny meadow, pausing once and again to listen, and faded away out of the canyon like a ghost, soft-footed and without sound.
The man’s voice grew louder. It was a loud shrill -chant-bad tenor squealing sound that could only be enjoyed by him, but it was for his gratification anyway. He neither signaled like a hunter nor looked like one although he had a large caliber pistol holstered on his waist and another two loaded clips in his possession. Nobody
walked around these woods without one unless they wanted to risk being on one of the wild creature’s food chain menus.
The spirit of the place fled away on the heels of the black-tailed buck. The birds quieted. Other smaller animals froze or hid. The man peered out at the meadow and the pool and the sloping Cascade hillside. He was a deliberate sort of man. He took in the scene with one embracing glance and then ran his eyes over the details to verify the general impression.
He was a weathered-complexioned man in whose face friendliness and humor seemed the main characteristics. Ideas chased across his face like wind-flaws rippling across the surface of a lake. His hair, sparse and unkempt of growth, was as indeterminate and colorless as his complexion but one could tell it was once a straw-color. It would seem that all the color of the bright sky had gone into his eyes, for they were startlingly blue.
From out the canopy of vines and thorny green leafed creepers climbing and gripping the plus one hundred foot tall pines he pulled out a hunting knife and hacked himself into the open. He was clad in faded tan duckin’ pants held up by a weather-beaten pair of silk braces over a faded red black and white cotton shirt, with tall leather boots on his feet, and on his head a black western hat whose shapelessness and stains advertised through the use of wind and rain and sun and camp-smoke. He stood erect, seeing wide-eyed the secrecy of the scene inhaling the warm, sweet breath of the canyon through nostrils that dilated and quivered with delight.
A lone coyote appeared about thirty yards in front of him. They looked at each other and the coyote turned into the brush and disappeared. His eyes narrowed to slits of blue, his face looked of joy, and his mouth curled in a smile as he again began his awful singing, an old-time hit, or whatever those dreadful sounds were.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog. I say you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog …”
He had the habit of oration. His quick-changing facial expressions might tell every thought and mood, but the tongue, inescapably, ran hard after, repeating, like playing back a recording.
The man sat his large backpack on the ground and he lay down on the lip of the moving creek and drank long and deep of its water. He lifted his head and gazed across the pool at the side-hill, while he wiped his mouth with the back of his shirt sleeve and saw a slight movement. The coyote had returned in a different spot and attracted his attention. Still lying on his stomach, he studied the animal long and carefully.
It was an expert eye that followed the coyote up the slope to the crumbling canyon wall and back and down again to the edge of the pool not far from him. He scrambled to his feet and the animal scurried away as he scanned the area with a second survey.
He crossed the stream below the pool, stepping smoothly from log to stone and log to stone. Where the forest was thick near the water he squatted down; holding a bag he retrieved from his backpack and slid his knife along the bottom of many morel mushrooms growing abundantly. Then he laid them in the bag and he began to work very deliberately and carefully gathering many more.
His blue eyes were shining with desire as he rose to his feet. “Yes,” he muttered aloud. He stood still a long while, surveying the woods. In his eyes was a curiosity, new-aroused and burning. There was something triumphant about his success like that of a hunting animal catching the fresh scent of game. He moved downstream a few steps and took another cutting of mushrooms.
Still moving down the stream, he cut more morels that he found in bunches at the foot of a very old extremely wide tree. Each cutting seemed to give him more satisfaction. His elation increased until he arose and jubilantly began singing out his dreadful vocals again.
“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall. Ninety-nine bottles of beer…”
The man toiled on. He worked until the sun shone from the top of the sky. Returning to where he had started operations, he went up the stream; the tally of his results steadily decreasing But he had already gathered two large bags.
He moved over to the creek and laid the bags gently on the ground. Then he lowered himself to the water and got himself another drink.
Suddenly chills ran down his spine; a sound. What was it? Faint, yes, but a sound that set him up. He turned his head and flung a measuring glance at the direction it came from. There she was; Frostbite. He had seen her in this area for the past three years; a female mountain lion that he had named because of the loss of the tops of her ears and the tip of her tail during the second winter. He unsnapped the holster strap and placed his hand on the semi-automatic. She had never threatened him directly but he did not want an introduction if she had brought a two hundred plus pound husband with her. There was little prospect for the spirit of the place to return with its quietude and repose, for the man’s voice, raised in ragtime song dominated the canyon with possession. It seemed that each time he had given musical voice the cat always retreated. Sure enough, she scampered across the stream below the pool and disappeared through the thick undergrowth green screen. He snapped the leather strap on his holster and continued to sing this time a Kenny Rogers hit.
“You picked a fine time to leave me loose wheel…!”
After a time, the man’s voice leaped to a higher pitch and was unnecessarily sharp. He unpacked his food and got out frying-pan and coffee-pot. He gathered an armful of dry wood and with a few stones made a place for his evening fire.
The April showers and May flowers brought forth more than herbaceous growth. The black bears emerged from winter slumbers in April of this year. Typically, the large male bears emerge first, followed by females with newborn cubs. Spring bears are hungry, some of which have lost near a third of their weight while in hibernation. Thus, local knowledge demanded that the man build a substantial night fire. He gathered more wood.
The sun moved down in the western sky soon to be below the top of the Cascades, the shadows lengthened, and the man sang on like he was singing along with a loud radio. He wandered down the creek admiring the
sheer beauty of the wilderness. So engrossed was he in his toil that he did not notice the long twilight of oncoming night. He straightened up abruptly and was greeted by darkness.
He stumbled up the stream in the black and lighted his long-delayed fire. The bacon and warmed-over refried beans went down fast. He sipped on a steaming cup of coffee and after he smoked a pipe he had filled with cherry tobacco, that he always said smelled so grand and tasted so bad. He listened to the night noises and watched the moonlight stream through the canyon. He broke into song.
“I’m a little frog and my daddy loves me.
I’m a little frog and my mommy loves me.
And when they tuck me in to say good night,
They say “ribbit ribbit ribbit”
After that, he unrolled his bed, threw sufficient logs on the fire, crawled in and pulled the blankets up to his chin. His face showed white in the moonlight, like the face of a cadaver.
He slept through the early gray of the morning until the direct rays of the sun struck his closed eyelids, only waking once when a wolf pack began singing not far from him. He placed another large log on his fire and went back to sleep. He awoke with a start and looked about him until he had established and identified his present self with the days previously lived.
He rose, stretched his arms and legs, turned to the east-southeast, stood at attention, placed his hand over his heart and began to bellow out the gaudiest version of the complete, Star Spangled Banner ever heard. Whether he was a hardcore patriot or he just wanted to clear the forest of the animals was unknown.
The man sauntered over to the creek, cut a short but sturdy limb at the water’s edge and drew from one of his pockets a bit of fishing line and a dirty old fake night crawler that had several times been chewed on by more than a few breakfast fish.
He dropped the bait in the pool next to a rock and got an instant hit. “It’s Moby Dick, it’s Moby Dick, it’s Moby Dick,” he yelled. He pulled up a rainbow trout about twelve inches long. No Moby Dick but a good fish. A few minutes later he caught another trout of similar size and he was ready to clean them and cook his breakfast.
After breakfast, he got down on his belly and began to drink from the creek. Something below the water glittered when struck by the sunbeam. He reached down and picked up a small gold nugget raised it to his eye for inspection. A grin crossed his face and then it started.
“Annie, my sweet little redhead. Guess what I found? The gold’ll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar
that tomorrow, there’ll be more!
Jus’ thinkin’ ’bout tomorrow…”
He continued with his lyrics as he crossed over on the stones, and he fell to bending down and gathering more mushrooms that were as important to him as gold. What he would not keep for himself he would sell to a local market in Twisp.
At nightfall, he unbent. The small of his back was stiff from stooping, and as he put his hand behind him to soothe the protesting muscles, he said:
“Put a nother log on the fire. Cook me up some bacon and sum beans…”
Then it was time to sleep. A couple of hours later he heard what sounded like a woman’s scream that made him sit upright. He froze. He listened. Then he heard it again. He recognized it this time as a familiar bobcat yell. He rolled back and went instantly to sleep.
Rising with the sun, and seizing a hurried breakfast, he was early at work; this time to find gold. A beginning of a gold fever seemed to be budding in him, and even when he found nothing for hours did this dispel this fever.
There was a flush in his cheek other than that made by the heat of the sun, and he was oblivious to fatigue and the passage of time.
He walked up the hill and filled a pan and carried it down the hill to wash. It contained no trace of gold. Feverish with desire, with aching back and stiffening muscles, with camp shovel gouging and mauling the soft brown earth, the man toiled up the hill. He dug deep, and he dug shallow, filling and washing a dozen pans, and was unrewarded even by the tiniest golden speck. He was enraged at having yielded to the temptation and chastised himself impishly. Then he went down the hill and in a moment’s pause his fingers soothed his aching back. Before him was the smooth slope, brilliant with flowers and made sweet with their breath. He hardly noticed them.
In the morning he had finished breakfast when its first rays caught him, and he was climbing the wall of the canyon where it crumbled away and gave footing. From the viewpoint, at the top, he found himself in the midst of loneliness. As far as he could see, the mountains heaved themselves into his vision. his eyes leaped the miles, the main crest where the backbone of Washington State reared itself against the sky. And in all that mighty sweep of earth, he saw no sign of man or of the handiwork of man.
He dug in and his eye caught a gleam of yellow. He dropped the shovel and squatted suddenly on his heels. As a farmer rubs the clinging earth from fresh-dug potatoes, so the man, a piece of bad quartz held in both hands, rubbed the dirt away. He believed there was a pocket of virgin gold there… somewhere. He just needed to find it like he found the mushrooms years ago.
At the days end nightfall found him by the edge of the stream, his eyes wrestling with the gathering darkness over the washing of an empty pan except for the one nugget that he kept in his pocket and could not stop
thinking about its possibilities. His heart had given a great jump up into his throat and was choking him. Then his blood slowly chilled and he felt the sweat of his shirt cold against his flesh; in his hands that chunk of gold
He found sleep difficult that night. Many times he composed himself and closed his eyes for slumber to overtake him, but his blood pounded with too strong desire, and as many times his eyes opened and he thought about gold. He knew he had to leave that day or his large mushroom find might spoil.
Sleep came to him in the end, but his eyes were open with the first paling of the stars, and the gray of dawn caught him with breakfast finished and wanting to climb the hillside and start digging again.
When the morning sun poked him in the eyes he rose and sat still for a while. He lit his pipe and scanned the area with his eyes. Frostbite was sneaking away with a rabbit in her mouth.
In the end, he gathered his things and started back up the trail toward his home. Then the voice of the man was raised in song: —
“Happy trails to you, until we meet again…”
The song remained ostentatious and out of tune. He kept walking. The melody grew faint and fainter, and through the silence crept back the spirit of the place. The stream once more napped and whispered; the hum of the mountain bees rose sleepily. Down through the perfume-weighted air fluttered the snowy fluffs of the cottonwoods. The butterflies drifted in and out among the trees and overall blazed the quiet sunshine.
He would return to his mushroom and gold find throughout his lifetime as often as the urge came over him. His squawking shouting lyrics that had broken the peace of the place with every visit reminded some of the question, “If a tree crashes to the ground in the forest and nobody hears it, did it make a noise?”
The only ones with the answer are the victims that scattered with every minor fall and major lift…the startled forest creatures.