The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up as the voice of the Old Man hit my ears.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going sonny?”
I had made it three quarters of the way across the field when he appeared seemingly out of nowhere. I was scanning the surroundings as I rode, keenly aware of any sign of life. He must have walked out of the old barn next to the windmill; his movements disguised by the wind blowing through the tall basin rye grass and old apple trees that grew in the lower part of the field.
In a moment he was in front of me. My heart pounded out of my chest as he blocked the entrance to the gate that would have put me in the clear. He had a pitchfork in one hand and an old six-gun strapped to his side. I was caught. The situation I found myself in was not great for a 12-year-old kid. It doesn’t get any more frightening than this.
He looked me up and down for a minute, not saying a word. My heart continued to race as adrenalin pumped through my veins. The look on his face was threatening and angry, this was not going as I had planned at all.
“You’re little Anders, Lars Hansen's kid aint cha”? His sudden calm demeanor and softening facial expression took me aback. He suddenly didn’t seem nearly as scary as everyone had always told me he was.
“Yes sir”, I mumbled quickly, barely getting the words out through the lump in my throat.
Then he said something unexpected that caught me off guard.
"You know, it's been 6 years to the day since that big redwood tree took your Poppa out."
The words hit me like a splash of cold water. I guess the Old Man wasn't much for being subtle. I missed my Dad terribly and had not thought about the day the logging crew foreman came knocking at the door for years.
When the big company took over the mill Dad lost his job to mechanization and had to go back out into the woods to fall trees to support the family. It was hard, dangerous work and one day, a tree barber chaired on him and he couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. It took two D8's and a loader to move the logs and recover the body out from under the 7ft diameter redwood.
Then the Old man started slowly speaking again, deep in thought, his eyes looking vacantly into the west.
"Your dad.......... he was a damn good man, the best.” His voice trailed off choking slightly with emotion.
Then he regained his composure and said, "How’s your Mom? You know she is the best cook in the valley by far, her apple pie is amazing! I can see you aren’t going hungry boy!”
I was put at ease now by the way he talked. I was probably too little to remember him, but something about him seemed familiar. Some things started to come back now. I had faint memories of early mornings hearing my Dad and the Old Man talking quietly on the front porch, arranging gear and food for a day on the river. I could hear the familiar rumble of the ancient Willys jeep the Old man drove idling in the driveway with his pram on the trailer behind it. The memory faded and I answered him.
“Oh, she’s good, she’s working three jobs sometimes, you know trying to keep the farm and all.”
“Your Dad and I, we used to work together at the mill before it changed hands to the Big Guys. We also spent a good bit of time on the Big River fishing over the years. Once you and your sisters were born we never did fish much anymore, he was always working.”
Then he looked me in the eye and said “I thought you were that blasted Talbot kid, he spooked my mare into the wire fence awhile back and she and her colt ran off. It took me all day to find them again. I was going to let him have it, you know scare the hell out of him”
He looked at me again and raising an eyebrow and grinning a grin he said. “Hey kid, you ever shot a 45 before?”
I was tempted to stay and shoot the big iron but my responsible side told me no.
" I gotta go Mister, my Mom's gonna kill me if I don't do my chores before dark. Then I have homework to do."
"Chores and school are important and you should get home to do that. You respect your Mom son and do what she says, she needs your help now that you are the man of the house."
Then the mischievous grin came back. As he was patting the old single action Army Colt he said "But, if you want to shoot this thing, you come around the house tomorrow right after school. I got some other stuff I want to show you that you might like."
“OK Mister”, I said quickly not thinking to ask his name, and then I jumped on my bike and headed for home as fast as my pedals would go.
The whole way I home I thought about what had happened. The Old Man actually seemed kind of nice. He didn’t shoot me with rock salt so that was a positive development. The painful memories of the day my Dad was killed swirled around in my head, brought to the surface from the Old Mans remarks. Why did he have to be so harsh? Why did he have to bring that day up?
I went straight to the woodpile when I got home and started bringing in wood for the night. My sisters were cleaning up the house, doing their own chores, and getting dinner ready as they always did, since Mom never got home till after 6PM.
Kari, my older sister by 3 years was at the stove when I walked by to stock the wood box.
“ Where have YOU been mister?” “You haven’t been messing around at the creek again have you?” “You know Mom wants you to come straight home after school”
“What’s this the third degree?” “What’s it to ya, you’re not the boss of me!“ I snapped angrily as I flipped a split piece of madrone into the wood box with a thud.
“Wow, what’s got you in such a huff?” She said with a loud voice.
The whole encounter with the Old Man had me of out of sorts for sure. Without hesitation I told her of my encounter with the Old Man. She listened intently as I described where I was and what the Old Man looked like.
“That’s Walt McLeod, Dad and he worked at the mill together, they used to fish and hunt all the time before Dad died. He has been sort of a recluse since then and when he lost his wife a couple years ago he sort of went off the deep end, some people say he’s plum crazy now!”
“I know he told me he and Dad were friends, he didn’t seem crazy to me, I thought he seemed a bit lonely really. He said today was the day 6 years ago the tree came down on Dad, is that true?”
She went over to the wall calendar and looked at the date. I went over and looked with her. Mom had drawn a small heart on the bottom corner of the calendar, it was her reminder of the day and we both knew why it was there. It confirmed what the Old Man had told me.
We both stood in silence, as we looked at that little heart there on the calendar, both of us lost in the emotion of the moment.
I looked at my sister, “Kari, I’m sorry I snapped at you. I was just kind of upset thinking about Dad and how much I missed him since he’s been gone. I just got mad. It’s hard without him.
“It’s OK Anders, it’s hard for all of us, I don’t know if it will ever be any easier”
Just then Mom rolled into the front drive. She was still driving the Ford truck that was Dad’s pride and joy. The tires crunched on the gravel as the old truck ground to a stop along the side of the house. The door slammed and in a moment she was up the steps and in the door, dropping her bags and collapsing in the big chair in the front room. She was exhausted.
I ran over and gave her a big hug, climbing up in the chair with her and burying my head in her overcoat. The smell of her perfume calmed me instantly. She didn’t even speak she just closed her eyes and hugged me back for a long time.
Then finally she said “Hey honey, how was school today, and more importantly, did you do all of your chores when you got home?”
“Well Mom, it’s kinda like this” I started out sheepishly.
“I did get the wood in for the night and……
Kari burst into the front room and blurted out “ He was messing around at the creek again and he got caught cutting through Old Man McLeod’s property, about got himself shot!”
“ What a tattle tale, I can’t believe you!” I said jumping out of the chair and running to confront her.
“Well its true” she said with her hand on her hip.
Mom interjected opening her eyes for the first time and said, “What were you doing on Walt’s place Anders?” “ That man is not right in the head”
She continued, “Ever since Fran died he’s been kind of unpredictable. He tends to hit the bottle a little too much at times. I’m not sure you should be hanging around with him”
“ He’s not so bad Mom, I didn’t know he was friends with Dad.”
I then filled her in on the conversation we had, and how he said that today was the anniversary of Dad’s death.
“We looked at the calendar and saw you had written a small heart under today’s date,” I said
“Yes, I put one there every year. It helps me to remember the great man that he was.”
She continued, “ You know he loved you all so much.”
“I miss him Mom.” I said trying not to cry.
“So do I honey, so do I,” She said.
“He told me to come over tomorrow and shoot the gun after school, can I go Mom?”
Mrs. Hansen sat in the chair lost in thought. Deep down she knew that Walter was still a good man and that he was just in a rough patch right now. She had lost touch with him after the accident and in fact had not spoken to him at all since then. He had taken the more recent loss of his own wife hard and sort of pulled back from all his friends. She remembered all the times he and his wife had come over to the house, sat down for Sunday dinner after church when the kids were still little. She recalled the great friendship that he and Lars had. Maybe he could use a little friendship from Anders right now…..
“I need to call him and talk to him first” She said after thinking it over.
“Well Call him Mom call Him!” I said excitedly
She went over to the phone and picked it up, scanning a phone list taped to the wall she went down the list with her finger, stopping at Walters name. Her fingers worked the rotary dial until all the numbers were in. She grabbed the phone and with the long cord dragging behind she went around the corner into the study and closed the door behind her.
I wanted to follow but knew I should not try to listen in. I strained my ears and leaned toward the door.
I heard her say, “ Hello Walter, it’s been a long time”
And then my sister grabbed me by the arm and pulled me away from the door and said
“Don’t be an eavesdropper, if Mom wanted you to hear she would have stayed in the room”.
It seemed like forever but finally after 10 minutes or so Mom came out of the room. She had been crying for sure.
“Are you OK Mom,” I asked trying to be of some comfort.
“Yes, I’m fine” She said wiping a tear from her eye.
“That call just brought up a lot of old memories about your Dad”
“ I had forgotten just how much a part of the family Walter and Fran used to be”
“We both have a lot in common you know Anders, we have both lost our spouses and it was so good to speak to him again”
“You can go over there after school as long as you get home for chores, and let’s be clear, there will be no shooting of that pistol!”
We sat down for dinner and I wolfed my stew down in a few minutes, knowing full well I had chores and schoolwork left. My little sister Astrid cleared the plates and did the dishes then went back out to the barn where she was tending to a new litter of puppies that had just been born. She was the animal lover of the family and she was actually starting to do a lot of the farm animal feeding and such. For a nine year old she was pretty tough and she had a good bit of Tomboy in her.
I raced through my chores and got to my schoolwork. I hated math with a passion and it was always the subject that threw me for a loop. I struggled with some figures and finally finished my assignment. Tomorrow could not come fast enough. It was good that Mom had called him, if she trusted him then so could I. The mystery of the Old Man and what I would encounter at the big log house at the end of the lane were the last thoughts before I drifted off to sleep.
I rode to school the long way, riding by the front of the drive that led down the lane to the Old Mans house. I knew his name now but he was still the Old Man to me. I strained my eyes to see anything interesting down the lane. It was overgrown with rhododendron, oak, maple and madrone. Towering redwoods lined the lane and it looked like a tunnel through the dense foliage. His house was the only house on the road and was completely invisible behind 30 years of neglected trees and shrubs that were once a well manicured front yard. The Old Man wasn’t much for yard work anymore it seemed.
School was boring as usual, I could barely focus and my teacher again noted it as I filed out of the class. I hopped on my bike slinging my backpack over my shoulder as I mounted the seat. I rode straight to the long lane and looked down again to the end where I knew the house sat. After taking it all in I started down the one lane road. As I drew within a quarter mile of the house the most amazing smells started to hit my nostrils. Alder smoke from a smoker was first to attack my senses. He must have some early fall Chinook going in the smoker already I thought. Then fir smoke from the wood stove hit my nostrils. The pungent earthy smell of hundreds of years of decaying forest duff rose up through the air. The afternoon sun broke through the clouds creating a misty fog that wisped upward from the ground as it heated after the fresh rain. This ground cloud chased me down the road, curling behind my bike as I rode toward the house.
As I rounded the bend in the road that led to the long driveway to the house, a big black lab rose from the driveway entrance and growled half menacingly. He barked once then looked at me.
“Hey boy, watcha doing” I said as confidently as I could.
He cocked his head to the side and then shook off the rain that had collected on his coat as he was sleeping.
He slowly and cautiously came over and I put my hand out for him to smell. He smelled it and decided I was not a major threat to the property and he started toward the house. I followed and soon he was jogging slowly beside my bike as I rode.
The smell from the smoker was intense now and my mouth was watering for whatever was in there. As I got closer I could see the house better. The house was made of log and was fairly large. Various out buildings, shops and barns emerged from the overgrown yard as I drew closer. The big lab lead me to a large covered but open carport attached to a shop.
I could hear noises coming from behind the open hood of a Willy’s Jeep. As I walked around to the front of the rig he hadn’t even seen me yet. The Old Man was almost entirely inside the engine compartment frantically wrestling with a fuel line that was leaking gas all over
“@##%$% fuel line! Don’t do this to me now when I’m so close!”
“Hey mister” I said quietly
He turned toward me and raised his head, obviously startled and cracked his head on the open hood of the jeep, which sent him into another cascade of curse words, several I had not yet heard.
“Don’t ever sneak up on a guy like that for crying out loud Kid!”
“You about gave me a heart clutcher!!!” he exclaimed as he rubbed the back of his head with his one free hand.
“Well don’t just stand there looking dumb, go into the work bench and grab me a pair of vise grips and be quick about it, I got a situation here!”
I turned and hurried into the workshop and looked around for a pair of vise grips. Lucky I knew what they were as I could see this was no time for tool identification questions. The shop and bench were cluttered with tools of every kind and shape. Hand chisels and planers crosscut and rip saws, wrenches and paintbrushes. There were welders and band saws, sanders and table saws strewn out across the floor and sawdust was everywhere. I located the vise grips and was about to head back out to the Old Man when an old photo caught my eye. It was a picture of my Dad and Walt down at the Big River standing in Walt’s pram. Walt was quite a bit younger and I barely recognized my Dad he looked so young. Walt was holding an enormous salmon that looked to be close to 50 lbs. Both of them had what looked like fly rods not the gear rods that most people used in the Big River. I stared at the picture wondering what it must have been like to land that fish on a fly rod. I must have lingered too long because the Old Man started yelling.
“What’s going on in there, did you get lost?”
“Move kid move, this line aint gonna clamp itself!“
I ran back out to the carport and handed him the vise grips, which he used to quickly clamp the ruptured line stopping the gas from leaking.
“Thanks kid, that’ll hold it until I get the right size line on there” he said as he crawled out from under the hood, still rubbing his head.
“I’m done for the day, I have no interest in fighting this old girl any more today,” he said, obviously beaten.
“It’s a neat old Jeep Mister McLeod” I said admiring the rugged tires and pickup bed still littered with old beer cans and bark from wood cutting.
“Call me Walt would ya, no need for the formalities here kid.” “Or should I call ya Anders?”
“Anders is fine Walt” It felt funny calling him Walt maybe I would get used to it.
“Your Dad and I spent many a day in this thing over the years. I can’t tell ya how many deer and elk have been in that bed. Lots of salmon, steelhead, ducks and geese have been piled in there as well. Its a game getter, that’s much is sure. Been trying to get it working again the last few years but it needs a lot of work”
“ It was sure good talking to your Ma yesterday” He said
“She really seems to like you Walt, she told me how you used to all be pretty good friends when we were little, how come you never came around anymore after my Dad died?” I asked, thinking I may be probing a little too much.
He got real quiet and didn’t answer me instead he walked into the shop and told me to follow him. Through the maze of shop tools, duck decoys, and half finished projects we went. Endless shelves and cabinets full of canned vegetables and smoked fish lined the back wall. He went into the very rear of the shop and there was an interior door that led into a finished room.
I was not at all prepared for what I was about to see. I entered the room and felt immediately comfortable. A large wood stove was cranking in the corner, the wall lined with elk and deer mounts from successful hunts. Across the ceiling and on the left side wall and mounted on various racks were fly rods, probably two or three- dozen all with reels and line on them. Meticulously arranged according to length and size starting from trout rods all the way to salmon. Paintings of outdoor river and woods scenes adorned the wall and there were framed pictures everywhere. Three Leather chairs and a huge leather couch draped with a Pendleton wool blanket sat arranged around the stove, a huge coffee table made of redwood burl sat in the middle. A desk was set up in the far corner, a tying vice with feathers, fur, materials and various spools of thread lay strewn about across the surface. A wooden gun case with glass front stood on the far wall loaded with lever action and bolt action rifles of every caliber and make. I saw at least three Winchester model 94 30-30’s. Next to that in a special felt lined glass top case were a good dozen wheel guns and auto loaders of various calibers.
The smell of Hoppes #9 permeated the air near the table where an M1911 45 laid, field stripped and partially cleaned. That smell mixed with the wood smoke and fine leather was wonderful to the senses.
The Old Man went to a desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of some kind of whiskey and poured three fingers into a tin coffee cup and took a long swig.
“There’s pop in that refrigerator back there kid, go grab yourself a Coke if you want” he said taking another drink from the cup
“You have a refrigerator in here?” “That’s neat!”
I went to the refrigerator and opened it. Inside were several cases of Rainier beer and a half dozen of bottles of Coke. I grabbed one and closed the door, using the mounted opener on the side of the fridge to pop the cap off. Oh man, this is the best garage ever I thought as I took a drink on the chilled Coke.
The Old Man had settled into one of the big leather chairs and had his feet up on the table. He pulled a pipe out of his vest pocket and packed it tight with tobacco. Grabbing a Diamond strike anywhere match off the side table, he flicked it along the underside of the pipe and it flamed to life. He drew on the pipe long and hard until it was well lit. He puffed contentedly as he fiddled with a fly reel that had been lying on the table. He was pulling old backing off the reel and the growl of the gear and pawl working in tandem had a certain draw to it.
Grrrrrrrrrr….. Grrrrrrrrrrrrr ……….Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr! He was pulling line off in long smooth strokes, smoke rolling out of his pipe that was still clenched between his teeth.
“Hey Kid, have you ever seen a Hardy Perfect before?”