Skook, Chapter Five
Mildred Fenton thought my son was cute as the dickens in his little yellow rain boots, and hunkered right down on the wet ground outside her cabin to tell him so. He was just past two that year and still navigated with the rolling walk of a sailor just on shore. The doctor said he was physically precocious, which usually meant he would lag behind in words, but he was coming along. And shy he was not.
“Hi!” he said with a blazing grin, flung out his arms and marched right into her, almost setting her back on her trim rump in the mud. He chortled and she laughed out loud and enfolded him in a close embrace, whereupon he reached up and planted a resounded wet kiss on her chin.
“Oh, my!” She picked him up and stood in one movement, with the grace of a dancer, and smooched him right back. “This one is a lover.” She smiled at me. “I bet he’ll be giving the girls fits before too many years go by.”
Mildred Fenton was what they used to call a woman of a certain age. She could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, moderately tall, slim, but with appropriate curves here and there, modestly on display in snug wool slacks and a light roll neck sweater. She had those rubber L.L. Bean pac shoes on her feet. Her dark hair, with veins of silver sparkling in it, was pulled back into a kind of chignon. She had regular features, a nice smile, and that pale, fresh complexion that I had come to associate with women of the Northwest. Her best feature was a pair of vivid violet-hued eyes. A trained reporter notices these things in less time than it takes to tell them.
Her family cabin was three times as large as the vacation cabins in Lower Fairfax, walls and roof sheathed entirely in well-weathered cedar shakes. A gravel-dinged old white International Travel-All stood in the dooryard; people of the Gorge didn’t go in much for automobiles.
“Bob Petoskey told me you’d like to see the coking ovens,” she said. “You’re writing a story about the old days for the Seattle papers?”
I said I was.
“You talked to Mr. Tuchi? Isn’t he an old dear? And boy, can he spin the yarns.”
“I liked him a lot,” I said. “I’m thinking this story is turning into a darn good yarn itself. It’s hard to believe there’s so little in the newspaper files about it.”
She jiggled my son on her hip and absently chucked him under the chin. He grabbed her fingers and laughed. “Hi!!”
“Hi yourself,” she told him. “You already said that. Can you say Mildred?”
He studied her. “Mil-dwed?”
“Close enough. Yes, Mildred.”
She was having a good time with him. “It’s a bit of a walk to the ovens. Not sure his little legs can carry him.”
“I’ve got one of those modern papoose packs. He likes to ride.”
“Facing forward or back?” she said quickly.
“Forward. He likes to see where we’re going. Why?”
“Did you know that the papooses in tribes that were faced forward instead of backward developed their reflexes much faster?
“I didn’t know that. He seems pretty well-coordinated to me, but what else would a dad say, right?
“Right. But you’re on the right track. Where’s mom?”
“At work in Tacoma.”
“Wow, pretty modern arrangement, for the seventies. I can’t get over what a good-looking boy he is.”
She had those lovely violet eyes, wide and candid. I suppressed the urge to tell her something I said to cute gals who kept on about how handsome he was: I can make you one just like him. Didn’t seem the time or place.
“Let me just throw some feed out for my chickens and we can go,” she said.
I got my papoose pack frame out of the truck while she headed around the corner of the cabin. I left the dogs in their kennels in the truck camper shell, and their ears drooped unhappily. Mildred Fenton came back out the front door of the cabin. I was surprised to see that she had a rifle on a sling over the shoulder of a canvas farm coat. She saw my glance.
“Fresh coyote tracks around the chicken house,” she said. “They didn’t get in — I built it pretty stout — but if I spot one, I’m going to discourage the hell out of him.”
I nodded, and she led out across another of those empty meadows that I was beginning to realize marked the former sites the coal towns.
“So this was Upper Melmont,” I said.
“Yes. My dad rebuilt this cabin after the Second World War, when they tore the rest of the buildings down and carted them away. They had some temporary structures here then — mining picked up a little during the war years. All gone now.”
At the edge of the meadow, an eroded dirt track zigzagged toward the river. As we picked our footing on the slippery mud, rain began to patter in the trees. She pulled a Vietnam boonie cap out of a capacious pocket and fitted it somehow over her hairdo.
“We’re going to get a little wet,” she said.
“We’re ready for that,” I said. I had on my leather bomber jacket and a leather baseball cap. I handed her a miniature version of a rubber Sou’Wester hat. “Would you mind putting this on him? I can’t quite reach.”
“Oh, how cute! It matches his boots and jacket.”
While she stood close helping my son with his headgear, I got a good look at her rifle: a very-well-kept Winchester lever-action Model 71. Awfully heavy ordnance for coyotes; the 71 only came in .348. It was a favorite of brown-bear guides in Alaska, worth almost a thousand 1974-value dollars. Maybe it was her only gun; I wondered how such a slim woman handled its considerable recoil.
“This road was graveled back in the day,” she said over her shoulder as we headed down. “It all just washed away.”
The rain steadied into a typical Northwest drizzle out of a leaden sky; the storm had gone on over to tangle up with the higher mountains. The temperature seemed to be falling instead of rising as the morning went along.
“De-uh!” my son suddenly shouted in my ear, startling me. “Da! De-uh!”
And there they were, two blacktail does drinking in a spring at the base of an embankment a few feet off the road. They raised their heads to watch us pass and froze into immobility.
“He’s got eyes like a hawk,” Mildred said softly. “He saw them before I did. That pool where they’re drinking? It’s where the ground slumped after they dynamited a coal shaft in the face of that little hill.”
“De-uh!” my son repeated loudly. For some reason they didn’t spook at his voice.
“Yes, son, deer,” I said.
He said it maybe a dozen more times, in a kind of happy little chant, as we reached the bottom of the grade. Another meadow, but here the alders were taking it over.
“Lower Melmont,” Mildred said. “See the ovens?”
All I saw was brush and trees and the slant of the rain. “No.”
“See that little ridge running along there with all the little alders growing out of it? There they are.”
She led me around the corner of the ridge, and now I could see the regular line of curving brickwork here and there among the forest litter and the tangle of small alder limbs and skunk cabbage and ferns. When she pushed aside a screen of ferns, there was a dark opening behind it.
“Door to one of the ovens,” she said. “Here.” She reached down and came up with a loose brick, charred at one end and covered with lichen. “A souvenir.”
We spent maybe an hour wandering around down there under the enclosing trees with the rain tapping down. A spread of forty-foot-tall alders stood where the Melmont roundtable had been. The forest had completely reclaimed any evidence of the hardstand Mr. Tuchi recalled with such fondness from his socializing nights while the coke cooled.
At the edge of the alder copse above the vanished roundtable, we startled a ruffed grouse into thunderous flight. My pulse rate jumped, and my son shrieked with glee. When I looked at Mildred, her rifle was in her hands, her face expressionless.
She reslung the rifle, looking embarrassed. “Sorry. It startled me.”
“Grouse do that,” I said. “You must have been a forward-looking papoose when you were little.”
“Excellent reflexes. If that had been a shotgun, you’d have roast grouse for dinner.”
She laughed, and looked at her wristwatch. “Have you seen what you came to see? I need to be thinking about getting back. Ralph will be waking up from his nap and I don’t like to leave him alone.”
“Ralph is one of your veterans?
“I only brought Ralph this time. He’s a kind of loner, doesn’t play well with others. He was a Montana cowboy in the real cowboy days before he went to war. I think he developed the habit of solitude over there on the other side of the Continental Divide.”
I picked up my souvenir brick from where I’d stashed it, and we started back up. I could see she was holding back for me, and told her to go on ahead. I needed to walk slowly to avoid a fall with my son on that slippery mud. She hesitated, but shook her head.
“I wouldn’t be a good tour guide if I left a greenhorn alone in these woods.” She said it lightly, but her eyes shunted around and I wondered why she was nervous. We took our time getting back to the top. She seemed to relax once we were in sight of her cabin.
A big burly bear of a man with an old-fashioned skinned-sidewall haircut — all the visible hair iron-gray — was rocking in a chair on the front porch. I smelled burning tobacco. When we got closer, I could see the tell-tale tag of a bag of Bull Durham hanging from the pocket of his flannel shirt.
“He still rolls his own,” Mildred said. “Says the only place he could ever smoke indoors was the Army and bunkhouse, so not being able to smoke in the Home doesn’t bother him.”
He stood up slowly. “Mildred. I was asleep.”
“Yes, Ralph. How are you feeling?”
He considered this carefully as if it might be a trick question. We stood on the porch and waited. He ground his smoke under his boot heel and carefully field-stripped the butt, tossing the remains into the rain. He had a hard time bending over.
“Hungry,” he said finally. “I feel hungry.”
“I’m fixing us some hamburgers with all the trimmings for lunch,” she said.
“I’m hungry,” he repeated. “I’ll go wash up.” He lumbered slowly inside.
“Shellshock from the First War,” she whispered to me. “He has his good days and his bad days. He always does better out here.”
I told her I thought it was fine that she brought the veterans out to her cabin during her time off. She shrugged it off and called them her “boys.” Then she asked me if my son could eat a hamburger.
“He’ll gum it pretty hard,” I said.
“How about French fries?”
“A bad habit I’ve taught him, according to his mother. He loves French fries.”
“Well kick the mud off your boots and come on inside. I’ve got plenty.” She unslung her Model 71 and went inside. I noticed she didn’t clear the chamber or unload it and wondered about the safety of a loaded bear rifle around a shell-shocked vet, but I didn’t say anything.
I still hadn’t asked her about Mr. Tuchi’s wild men. I thought lunch might give me a chance to bring it up.