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Outlaw Ford (II)

Continuing the mildly fictionalized saga of young Les Ford in Mendocino County a hundred ten years or so ago, here is a second excerpt from the opening chapter of the novel Outlaw Ford:

* * *

The river, that river, first river of my childhood; crammed with logs near the harbor. The gray-green water at Deadman’s Curve banked by hills cut clear and brown: made the river look wider. Cal, the only one of us taught to swim. Then the Dillard boy got caught under the logs. Mother said, “If you go an’ get yourself drowned dead, don’t come crying home to me.”

Long straight stretch to the next bend upstream from Deadman’s; fields of grass growing wide on either side, reeds blending into clover. Company cattle grazed beneath a trestle that ran away from the water into a dark gulch of redwood yet to be felled.

Company beef: for the camp cook’s pot, for the hungry plates at the Guest House; folks up from Frisco chewing tender, gnashing tough; captains of freighters waiting to be laden with their precious timber cargo.

Learned both those words, cargo and laden, from Captain Freeman. He came from Norway with a name too hard to pronounce and told the immigration man, “I’m a free man in America.”

I got to eat lunch beside him at the Guest House, if I didn’t bother Cal while she served. The Captain always lifted his spoon ever so carefully over his bowl of soup. Never saw him spill.

Lost his accent right away in the States, but when he laughed I heard the Norseman sunk low in his throat. “Do you know the name of my vessel?”

He answered himself, “The Shroud of Fog.”

He laughed and I looked beyond his thick, gleaming teeth for a horn-headed Viking I’d seen in a picture book. Cal filled his water glass. The Captain studied her smile. “If I hit the rocks and go to Davy Jones’ Deep, I want it said I went down in a shroud of fog.” His ocean eyes followed Cal then he nudged me and grinned. “Nice excuse for my epitaph.”

Cal glanced away, so I pushed my cracker crumbs onto the floor. “Captain, what’s an epitaph?”

“It’s a saying writ on your grave, Les, a saying that sums up all your life and deeds.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice, “Sometimes, you have to lie a little to get at the truth.”

Cal was my favorite sister then. The one who taught me to swim when Mother wasn’t looking. I reached out, tugged her by the arm, and asked, “Will you marry the Captain?”

She flushed and pulled away. “Don’t think it’s your place to ask.”

The Captain’s chuckle ran down his throat to somewhere near a growl. “Les, sometimes you have to know when to keep your cabin door shut. Tight.”

Until I met the Captain I thought my first name was Boy. That’s all Father called me. Not that he didn’t say it pleasantly, as in, “For heaven’s sake, Boy, don’t let your mother know we’ve been up to Uncle Nolan’s still.”

If not for the Captain and big sisters Cal and Neva (what everyone called Nevada), I might never have heard my name spoken in childhood. My younger brother (by sixteen and a half months) was called Gus, short for August. He was born in May; maybe they were hoping for a girl.

Two bends beyond Deadman’s Curve and Railroad Gulch the river narrowed to a stream. A mile farther east, alders and willows grew where the stream became no more than a babbling creek, easy to ford. That was our name, Ford; Miller Ford, my father’s name. Miller had been the surname of one of his grandmothers.

Father once said you could always tell a man’s roots in the old country. Cooper or Baker or Smith had been the family occupation when a name took hold and stuck. A blueblood didn’t work a mill. A Ford once probably lived near the crossing of a stream or maybe it was a corruption of forge.

“How do you corrupt a word?” I asked the Captain the next time he stopped into the Guest House. I had the Fair sisters near cleaned out of their penny purses with poker, this new game Uncle Nolan showed me.

I clutched four aces close to my chest when I turned to listen to the Captain’s response. He heeled his boots clean on the mat by the door. “The same way you corrupt a man,” he said. “Let him think he’s more than he really is. Then watch him run.”

“Run?” I asked.

“Run away with your money or run away from the chance to earn it with an honest day’s labor.”

“Captain, you runnin’ away from marryin’ Cal?” With all eyes on the Captain, I slinked my fifth ace down under my seat.

Most of the logging camps along the river had no names, just numbers that grew as the chopping moved inland. Names were reserved for significant places like Railroad Gulch, the Forks, or Clearwater Creek.

The family who ran the cookhouse at the Forks lost a baby son to diphtheria in the late winter after I turned five. They nailed shut a clear pine box, set it on an open flat car, and tied the coffin down. Where the straps broke and the coffin tumbled off into the brush was Deadboy Siding from then on.

Assuming the body had ridden the rails to the undertaker, the dead boy’s family hitched two rigs to ride around to the mill town for the burial. Miles Standish himself, cranked upriver on a handcar to retrieve the body; Miles Standish, the company owner, the eighth Miles Standish in a direct line of Miles Standishes going straight back to the Mayflower.

Of course, he spoke several words at the service. Only phrase I recalled was “angel of death.” While the circuit preacher droned I asked Ma, “Is Death real?”

“Yes, indeed,” she whispered. “And he might just come after a little boy who doesn’t pay his respects.” She pressed a forefinger to her lips.

Brother Louis played the bugle at the funeral. Everyone in the family played. Father fiddled at dances down at the company hall, above the harbor. I’d sit on the edge of the stage while the toe of his right boot tapped out a tune; remember the smile on his face when I first learnt to slap the spoons in rhythm.

Mother knew how to draw the bow, too, but I recall her then as the church organist. Brothers and sisters picked up fiddles, banjos, and mandolins as easily as they learned to ride.

Morrie and Orrie rode horses since they were three, but there along the river one day I watched ‘em clamber onto some docile steers; one after the other threw ‘em in the grass. I looked on from the top rail of a fence. A Hereford bull, eatin’ at the clover, moseyed over ‘til he was right alongside. Mouth and drippy nose in the grass, he lingered there so long I couldn’t resist. Slid down astride his back; him so wide my toes barely reached his flanks. He didn’t seem to notice and carried me along to a new spot to munch. I patted his hide, his tail swatted me and a fly.

Leaned forward, grabbed his horns with both hands, and gave him a kick. He jerked and I flew, tumbling through sky, green grass spinning around me; landed on my bee-hind, like a whole hive stung me.

Rolled to my feet then marched right up to his white face. “You don’t look like no Mr. Death. I won’t take that, Mr. Bull.” I socked him on his curly forehead.

He looked up, eyes reddened, hooves pawing at his turf, and the next thing I knew Morrie swung me by my waist way up in the air, not settin’ me down ‘til we’re both far away from there.

That’s how I got my start punching cattle.

At dinner that night Orrie told what happened. Ma frowned at me. “If you want to go riding bulls and broncs, that’s fine, but if you break your neck don’t come crying home to me.”

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