Lo, the Long Brown Ridges
Lo, the Long Brown Ridges
Even now, I can feel the lucid silence of a cedar swamp - tomblike, tangled, ancient as the Book. And above the swamp the brown ridge rests in perpetual peace. This is the ridge eastward of peeled spruce cabin, whose walls blend more and more with the surroundings as the seasons mellow them.
Forty-one steps from the cabin door the waters of Third Chain Lake have washed the stones and lapped at the cedar roots for centuries. Evening and morning in November the white mist coils to catch the sun. You breathe its almost tangible humidity. You hear the hum of silence - so imperious that you shame at the drip of your own paddle or the damp splutter of your pipe.
Across the lake is the greatest of the long brown ridges - Duck Lake Mountain; and another to the north; and only to southwest is the skyline low, where the carry leads to Unknown.
We built the cabin with our own hands in a virgin stand of pine; and in a northwest wind the great trees rub against one another, moaning in their topmost branches, and keeping us fitful in our bunks, thinking of a headwind paddle next day. We built that cabin - H. and Roy, and an unknown Indian and I. Particularly, therefore, are we endeared to the creaky floor, the tar-smell of the caulking and the graying logs of its walls. Because always men have pondered preciously the graces of their own handiwork.
If anyone may be said singly to possess the cabin, it is H. That is to say, he paid for it. Yet he would hardly claim it as his own. On the contrary, it possesses him. H. is older than the rest of us. He is 60, and the wake he has left behind him in his life is as impressive as the white track behind a liner. H. is a grandfather, and a great deal of wisdom has gathered in his head. His interest in all things on earth is insatiable, and he can love a cloud, a cardinal flower or a human being - and sometimes he can almost explain them. He loves to hew with an axe, and loudly he berates himself when he cuts his knee. He paddles his own canoe, totes a lion's share on the carries, and he hunts the long brown ridges alone. He asserts that his miles-per-hour, or his heavy pavement-tread in the timber, would gutter the chances of a companion in getting a shot at a deer. But actually, he likes to come single-handed against the wilderness. Alone, he treads on no one's heels, nor waits for the man behind him.
But in hunting alone, H. denies the rest of us the pleasure of his conversation. We look forward to evenings in the cabin, wondering what thoughts he may have had during the day's hunt.
I believe," said H., one last night in camp while the rain dripped sleepily on the roof . . . "I believe in a Unity of Things."
"Why?" I asked. If you have had no formal training in philosophy, the word "why" gives you a chance to array your thoughts. Without further prompting, H. enlarged upon his theme.
"Everything dovetails too perfectly for chance," he said, "running smoothly and perpetually in the river of cause and effect. For example, I cannot be satisfied that the great ice sheet, which formed these lakes and ridges a million years ago, came at the whim of chance. Either the mind of man was fashioned purposely to regard the lakes and ridges as perfect, or the lakes and ridges came last, perfectly formed to man's eyes. In either case, you have a sort of Unity." Roy hung a pair of damp socks on a rafter and got out his corncob. "I never looked at it like that," he said. "But I see how you mean, H. You mean a thing don't happen just to suit you, because you might of happened just to suit it, an' there's no telling which."
I drew an oily rag through the barrel of my Winchester and tried to think of some argument for the opposition. To me, it was merely the ancient problem of which came first, the hen or the egg. But H.'s mind was opening up as free and hopeful as wind on a hill. His idea of Unity was pleasant to contemplate, but like all universal speculators, he was merely taking a shot in the dark at Truth.
"I don't believe the Unity idea," I said. "It's too neat. The precepts of chance suit me as well. And chance preempts purpose. The whole works just happened, and so did we. Where's the need of any ultimate purpose anyway, so long as each individual clings to his puny private one?"
H. grinned, and I guessed he had been laying a complicated trap for us, which would gradually lead us into an illustration from his day's hunting. Roy drew audibly on his corncob, and H. smacked his lips, preparing to pounce from the abstract to the concrete.
"Chance!" he said. "Why, man! If there were any probability in chance, I would have shot a deer today!"
"Did you?" I said.
"No. But I saw one."
"Didn't you shoot?" asked Roy, his pipe forgotten.
"No, I didn't shoot.
"Well, what did you do?"
"I pointed my finger at it!" said H., dramatically. "Now - do you call that chance? Or purpose?"
I hung my rifle muzzle on a wall peg. "I take it you intended to shoot the deer?" I said. "But some purpose from a great exterior stayed your hand, so you pointed your finger instead?"
"Precisely," H. chuckled. "Absolutely."
"Huh," said Roy dryly. "Buck fever, an' at your age!"
"Indigestion," said I.
These were lame explanations, and besides we felt there was considerable more back of the story than met the ear. Recently, H. figured up from old diaries the number of trips he had taken to this country. Counting camping trips, fishing and hunting trips, they totaled 80! He had been deer hunting 30 different seasons, and his record was impressive. Furthermore, he had never in his life complained of indigestion. He was evidently getting us into a prearranged corner.
"You claim," he went on, "that my experience with the deer this afternoon was an effect, not a cause."
"Sure it was," Roy said, nervous to hear the rest.
"Well, it wasn't," H. said. "It was both. Moreover, all causes can be effects, all effects causes."
Roy turned his wet socks on the rafter so as to dry their other sides. "It's all runnin' off of me like rain off a roof," he protested.
"It's getting pretty swampy, at that," I agreed. "Darn you H., anyway!" "On the contrary," he continued, taking his own time, "everything becomes quite simple at this point." Here he began to make those marvelously expressive gestures with his hands, lean, squarish hands, which you remember always when you think of H.
"I pointed at that deer," he said, "and since you so desire, we'll call my gesture an effect produced by cause or causes unknown. Yet I propose to demonstrate that the effect shall be proved a cause - you see, it caused me not to shoot that deer, and it causes us now to sit here pondering the subject." In the face of this, Roy and I cheerfully admitted that black was white and up was down, depending on the point of view. And we went to our bunks in the shelter of the long brown ridges, little dreaming of the chain of events crawling toward us from the future.
But I did dream, just a little. At first I could not get to sleep. The pine boughs sang above the cabin roof like remote 'cellos. I thought I heard a porcupine prowling in front of the cabin, and an old doe snorted on the ridge toward Killman Pond. I fell to pondering our oblique conversation of a moment before. H.'s pointing his finger at a buck deer was unusual. At least he had made it sound so; and I knew he felt it so himself. I set it down as a continuation of the hard luck that had dogged him through the last three deer seasons. I still believed in luck, especially in connection with deer hunting, but I hadn't reached the point of calling it Fate.
Four seasons ago H. had finished building himself a home. The dining room is dominated by a huge brick fireplace, and even a glance at it warms you. The room is paneled with Pennsylvania chestnut, and the ceiling beams are hand-hewn, solid and convincing. Above the fireplace is a rectangle of sacred space, a space where the master of the house would hang his finest oil painting - if he were a sportsman he would hope for a Benson or a Winslow Homer. But in H.'s house, for some seasons, the space had remained vacant.
"I'll get a buck this fall," he would say. "I'll have it mounted by the finest taxidermist in the world, and I'll hang it there to last me when I'm really old and begin to write a book about myself."
Lying in my bunk, listening to the clumsy maraudings of the porcupine, I remembered H. standing in front of that fireplace and staring at the vacant space above the hewn mantle. One subsequent fall he had stepped on a dead spruce twig, and his buck had got away clean. The November after that he had come upon an old gray monarch on the slope of Dark Cove Mountain when his glasses were so steamed he couldn't see to shoot. Last season he had seen only does, and this year he had pointed his finger! If my belief in luck were even partly valid, I felt that H. was due for a standing shot at something weighing close to 300 pounds, with horns to match.
That night in the cabin, when I finally dozed off I dreamed very dimly of a great-antlered buck in a key-road. Dreams, I have thought, result from some digestive menace, and are nothing upon which to base a prognosis. I had eaten some mince pie of my own devising, which may be reason enough to cause a dream. When I awoke, it retreated before the more essential fragrance of the coffee pot.
After breakfast we settled on the day's hunting territory. H. guessed he would hunt the base of the big ridge to the northwest, and Roy decided he would take me over toward the Second Chain burn. We separated long before the sun had melted the white furry frost from the beech leaves underfoot, long before the old gray trunks had taken on form and substance.
Roy is a native guide, and he can concentrate on deer for hours. I can't. Sometimes, looking through the silence at a spruce tree, I see beneath the bark to the wood, see through the wood into its fibrovascular bundles, see beyond that toward infinite divisibility - and this fruitless imagining makes me a poor deer hunter. This time I came back to earth at a signal from Roy. "Sh-h-h! I hear one."
I listened, trembling a little, watching Roy's lynx eyes search the thickets. What he heard turned out to be a carousing red squirrel. Roy knows how to keep a hunter hunting!
At the edge of the Second Chain burn, we stopped. This was my only day in camp, and truly I neither deserved nor expected to shoot a deer. I carried a rifle for the form of the thing, and expected to shoot nothing but a porcupine or a roosting partridge.
"I'm hungry," I said. It was barely ten o'clock.
"Hungry!" glared Roy. "Hungry! You got a gander-gut!"
"Well," he said. "What do you say we work back to Killman Pond brook?" "Are you thirsty?" I asked.
"No, I ain't. Just seemed better to eat handy to water. But I ain't fussy." So we sat together on a double spruce blowdown and from our hunting shirt pockets removed two huge liver sandwiches. They were as thick as sofa pillows. I took a bite and began to chew industriously.
Roy, too, was in the middle of a mouthful when his eyes suddenly turned a shade darker. His jaws stopped working. He braced himself without apparent movement, other than a slight stiffening of his body. "What was that?"
"I didn't hear a thing," I said, my voice muffled by a full mouth.
"I heard a deer!"
Eighty yards away the spruce bushes trembled. I concentrated so intensely on the spot that my eyes watered. Presently the bushes moved again, and a buck stepped into view, stopped with fore-feet braced, head high and magnificently alert. He pranced sideways, placing himself between two small beeches. He was facing me squarely.
"I can see him," I whispered. "Shall I shoot?"
"Yes," Roy whispered.
As I reached down for my rifle, I knocked the liver sandwich off the blowdown. It fell silently, coming apart on the moss. I cuddled the rifle stock against my cheek and drew the ivory bead down fine into the rear sight notch. I squeezed the trigger, holding my breath until I thought my lungs would explode. With the discharge, the rifle jumped in my hands, and the buck vanished into thin air.
"Never touched him," I said.
"You got him," said Roy.
My nostrils twitched at the whiff of powder smoke. I drew down the lever of my rifle and jacked in another cartridge. Lifting our feet high, like a couple of old cock partridges, we moved cautiously toward where the buck had been standing. He lay stone dead underneath the beech trees, and I don't think he had taken a single step after I fired.
Roy stood looking down at the deer. "I haven't seen a better head come out of the woods in ten seasons," he said. The spikes were unusually long, the horns and points well formed, and not so symmetrical as to be uninteresting. But I was thinking of chance, or luck if you prefer. A woods appetite at ten in the morning had been in charge of things - not a trained still-hunter. It seemed scarcely sporting to have shot a buck as handsome as this after having been in the woods only four hours. H. had been in for two weeks, and I wished he could have been standing in my moccasins. This buck deserved that space above his fireplace.
"Roy," I said, as we lashed the deer to a couple of dry spruce poles, "a fellow with my luck doesn't have much use for brains, does he?"
"No," he replied, unhesitatingly. "You don't even see a buck like this once in five years, let alone a standing shot!" He finished a complicated knot in the lashings and strapped on his belt axe.
"I wish H. had been here. I'd have passed him my rifle, honest I would."
"He wouldn't of took it," Roy said. "He'd ruther you got a deer than to get one himself. That's his way."
"But he's had four years of hard luck."
"His luck'll turn," said Roy. "You mind what I say."
We got the sling poles to our shoulders and toted the deer down along the ridge toward camp. It was two o'clock when we got in. We were pretty well fagged. H. was waiting for us - empty-handed. His eyes danced with delight as he helped us down with the deer. He fingered the horns and counted the points. "Great work! Oh, simply great!"
We told our tale, and H. beamed, and I had no heart to ask him about his day on the big ridge to the northwest. He saved me the trouble by saying he hadn't seen hide, hoof or hair. It didn't seem to bother him in the least. He spoke of the beauty of the long brown ridges, and never mentioned luck. We got a late lunch, and made it a kind of banquet. It was the last day of hunting.
That afternoon Roy stayed in the cabin to pack up, and H. asked me to go with him for the last two hours of daylight. He knew I didn't like to hunt alone. We took a canoe and crossed the lake toward the great ridge beyond which vanishes the sun in fall. We hauled the canoe into the brush over the seawall and struck out afoot through the darkling cedars.
There's something sobering about the last afternoon of the last day in camp. There are long-fingered shadows, and a hovering chill, which remind you that your freedom here is at an end. A hint of the first big snow loiters in the vault above, and on the deadwaters the black ice lies sinister. Another week, another day, and the forest will be smothered white and lonely in deep snow, without a man-track on its vastness. You long to stay, but may not. You want to desert, but something mocks you, daring you to stay and try your steel.
I could see H.'s breath puffing white over the shoulder of his faded hunting shirt. I could see the little white circle on the receiver of his rifle, where Roy had wound the sling ring with twine so that it wouldn't jingle. H. tested the wind, looked at his compass, and jacked a cartridge into the chamber of his rifle. He let the hammer down to half-cock, and went on. I followed closely. H. could talk all he wished of cause and effect and Unity. But when a good hunter goes four years without one good chance, he's under the spell of foul fortune. We struck a key-road, long years abandoned by lumbermen, and turned north by west, upwind. There was ritual in this last short hour of hunting. I felt a faint shame at deserting the tired old forest just when winter was preparing a siege. I can see it all as plain as writing: a winding trail, interrupted by mouldering blowdowns, untracked by human feet. On one side the trail was flanked by a sepulchral cedar swamp extending back to the seawall; on the other by regiments of spruce and beech - the sloping forefoot of Duck Lake Mountain. Deep in here the sun had vanished, challenged and beaten by shadow - all except one urchin shaft of gold, which had tunneled a rift in the cedars. As I watched, the shaft appeared to flicker, and I stopped in my tracks. There was no wind to wave the dead ferns at the edge of the trail where the light had fallen!
H., too, saw the motion. His left hand stiffened toward me, commanding silence. We knelt there on a little knoll, and watched the most magnificent buck step into view. I suddenly remembered my dream of a buck in a key-road, and my scalp prickled. Could I have dreamed this creature into reality? He was near enough for me to count his points and guess a mammoth spread, and he stood so that the shaft of sunlight drew a gold halation around him.
H. brought his rifle to his shoulder, and I waited for the report. Plenty of time - an easy, standing shot of less than 60 yards. My head was inches from H.'s right ear. "Go ahead and shoot!" I whispered.
"Hurry!" I hissed, as quietly as possible. I was shaking, as Roy expresses it, like a chicken's foot in the mud.
H. was grinning quite broadly now - and again he had taken the rifle from firing position. My heart whacked hard against my ribs. I was panicky, then dumbfounded as H. let the hammer down to half cock, deliberately raised his right arm - and pointed his finger at the buck!
Oh vacant place above the chestnut mantel! Oh chance, Oh luck, beyond wildest imaginings! Who would have passed it up so serenely, but H.? The buck caught the motion of H.'s arm in a flash. His head jerked toward us, high, startled, fine. We took each a breath-halting swallow of his majesty before he cleared an eight-foot blowdown and was gone, flying his flag in our faces!
"What the devil ails you, H.?" I cried. "You'll never see another like that in a lifetime!"
"It was too far," said H. softly.
"It was an easy shot, and you know it!" I wanted to take off my hat and jump on it.
"I might have missed," said H.
"You couldn't have missed!"
"Well," he chuckled, "I did!"
"But, H.! He belonged over your fireplace."
"You know," he said. "I'm not so sure. I think he belongs right here - where he is. I simply couldn't bear to change the picture of him here. I don't know why. I never will - except that trophies at my age are not so much to brag about, as to remember by. And I'll remember that old fellow, just as we saw him. Never fear."
I understood. All I had to do was look around me at the darker twilight in the cedars, the sky at peace with everything under it, the gray moss bearding the trees with prehistoric gravity, the glow on the lake that lingered rather than depart. This was where the buck with the gold light over him belonged.
But I got a fine taxidermist to mount the head of my buck from the Second Chain burn, and I gave the mount to H. It hangs over his mantel in the dining room.
Editor's Note: "Lo, the Long Brown Ridges" is from A Tomato Can Chronicle by Edmund Ware Smith, first published in 1937 and reprinted in 1991 by The Derrydale Press. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Published by permission of The Derrydale Press. A wonderful read from cover to cover, the '91 reprint of A Tomato Can Chronicle is still available. To order, call 800-462-6420 or visit www.rlpgtrade.com.
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