"You all right, Vic?"
He'd really took an awful fall, flat on his back.
He nodded. But he wasn't breathing easy yet.
"Yeah - I'll be - all right - in a minute - but I - sure do - see a lot - of spots."
That little flop onto the barracks deck must've been what got Vic's balance wheel stuck and later let him set off on that man-hunting thing. He didn't get that idea until a few months later, but he probably wouldn't've got it at all or wouldn't've gone on so with it if he hadn't took that thump in the barracks.
Vic and I were in the same outfit in Korea - sort of. We came up for discharge about the same time, along with six or seven other fellows in my outfit. All of us got shipped back to the states in a bunch. Somewhere - on the ship or at the separation center - Vic got hold of a paper-back book called The Big Sky and started reading it.
That book really took hold of Vic. He carried it around in his fatigues so he could pull it out and read a few pages every time he took a break. After chow, he'd lie on his bunk and read out of that book until lights out - every night. He must've read it clear through at least four or five times.
Pretty soon, he knew long parts of it by heart, word for word, and he went around talking like the old mountain man in the book - "it 'pears to this coon" and "this chile's a-thinkin'," and all the time calling me "hoss" in his New Jersey accent. He kept on reading out of that book, even after it was nothing any more but a cover and a bunch of loose pages. He wasn't just reading it any more - he was reading out of it. He just took it out of his pocket every now and then, took the rubber band off, and read out of it like a scripture hawk, wherever it fell open to.
Well naturally we got to kidding him about it - it was kind of funny, you got to admit. But we didn't bother Vic a bit. He just ate it up - grinned and made some more mountain-man talk while he waved that book around. We made so much out of him reading out of that book all the time, it soon got so he wouldn't do anything else. He'd take that old book out of his pocket as soon as he came back to the barracks, and if anybody else was there, he'd whirl around (with his nose still in that book), flop backward onto his bunk, and read out loud.
One day - the deck was just buffed, or something - he whirled around too far, flung himself back - and missed the bunk. Never touched it. He hit the deck whop! and the loose pages of that book went all over everywhere.
Vic lay there like a trout on a creek bank, with his eyes big and his mouth working. We picked him up - he's a hefty boy, you know - and sat him on his bunk. After a while, he got back enough breath to groan.
"Maybe you better lie down a while, Vic."
"Yeah - I guess - I better."
His book was all over the deck, pages everywhere. I got up all I could find and put them together in the cover neat enough to put the rubber band around them. I handed the book to Vic.
"Thanks, Mac." He didn't call me "hoss."book
The rest of us changed into dress canvas and went to chow. When we got back to the barracks, Vic sat up and just grinned a little when some of the fellows kidded him about making that quarter-gainer onto the deck. He'd been lying on some of the loose pages, so he got them up and took the rubber band off the book and sat there putting all the pages back in order.
"Say, that was an awful flop you took."
"Yeah, hoss, kind of shook this chile up a little."
"You all right now?"
"Waugh! Takes more'n that to break my stick, hoss!"
"Bet you won't whirling around like that any more, though."
"No, reckon not, hoss."
Vic was quieter and not as funny after that. We quit kidding him, partly because one by one we were getting discharged and going home. He was the last of the old outfit who was still there when I got my papers and came back home to Missoula and the Bitterroot Valley. Before I left, though, we talked a lot about this country around here. Especially about the places where Lewis and Clark and the mountain men and Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce had come through.
He had to know all about the Big Hole massacre, but he frowned a little and didn't say anything when I told him about Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce tribe coming around Lolo Peak, around the soldiers waiting to stop them, and trading with stores and ranchers on their way up the Bitterroot to the Big Hole.
He wanted to know all about what it was like around here - weather, Indians, the high country, hunting - everything. It was hard on him to hear that western Montana wasn't just like it had been in the fur trade, but he had to hear all about it just the same.
"How 'bout jobs, hoss?"
"What do you mean, 'How 'bout jobs?'"
"Wal, what kind o' work'd a coon git, thar?"
"Why, most any kind. But not factory work. We got towns and some cities out there now, y'know. Mills - stores - "
"I mean outdoor work, hoss. Clean air."
"Plenty o' that too, Vic, for anybody willing to work. Some ranch work, now and then - logging from spring to fall - and the Forest Service hires a lot of help in the summer too. The forestry school is in my home town. You could work summers in the woods 'til you get your degree, and - "
"Ain't figurin' on school, hoss." He thought a minute. "Might have to, though, to get a good job."
By the time I left, he was still planning to go back to New Jersey to see his folks. His dad wanted him to take over the deli, and Vic felt he had to, I guess. But he wasn't looking forward to going home the way I was. He was more interested in my home country than his own.
"Come out and see me sometime, Vic." I slung my gear aboard the bus to town. "We'll borrow some saddle and pack stock and take a trip up to the high country."
"Might jes' do that, hoss. Sounds prime."
"Well, keep in touch, Mac."
But he never wrote, and that surprised me.
Back in Missoula, everything was about the same. The company gave me my old job back. The boss had lost his boy in Korea, you know - before I went over. He put my picture and the medals in the front window with his boy's for a while. By the middle of the summer, old Charlie had retired, and I was shipping supervisor here. I'd made up my mind to go back to the U in the fall, so I stayed at home with the folks and saved back all I could for school.
We'd just had supper one evening when the phone rang and Mama answered it and said it was for me.
"Hello, hoss! How do I get out to your lodge?"
"Well! Where are you, Vic?"
"At the train station."
"Here? In Missoula?"
"Yeah, hoss. Missoula."
"Which one what?"
"Which train station in Missoula? The Milwaukee or the NP?"
"You got me treed thar, hoss. How can I tell? Didn't know there was more'n one."
"Look out the windows." I couldn't remember where there was anything like a sign inside either depot. "If you see the river right there, and a bridge, you're at the Milwaukee depot."
"Has to be th' other'n', hoss. Nothin' 'round here but cliff dwellin's. And an old iron hoss out front."
"Yeah, you're at the NP. You stay put right there. I'll come get you. Give me about ten minutes. Wait out by the old locomotive."
"Prime beaver, hoss. I'll be right thar."
I drove over and got him.
"Yeah, hoss. Could eat a mule, and him still kickin'."
"Right there - " I pointed. "The Oxford. Let's grab a bite. You'll like this old place." I parked and as we walked back to the corner, I told him a little about the Ox, a real Old West saloon. I figured he'd like the Ox, and he did. He'd seen his share of bars and diners and clubs in the states and any number of ports, but he'd never seen a place quite like the Ox.
I saw old Art Breenin dozing in his usual chair in the back but decided not to wake him up.
"That little fellow wearing the dark blue shirt, sleepin' at that table all by himself -- "
"I see 'im, hoss."
"That's Captain Arthur Breenin. Old Rough Rider. He went up San Juan Hill. Got all shot up -- won The Medal. Teddy himself put 'im up for it and later hung it on 'im. At the White House."
"Yeah? Him?" Vic just gave him a funny look and didn't seem interested.
"What you doing out here in the middle of July, Vic?"
"Aw, them pilgrims back east - "
I had to laugh.
" - and crowded! Man! Couldn't hardly breathe."
"Worse than Japan? You thought Yokosuka was 'cozy.'"
"Weren't the same, hoss. Had to come see this country."
"Too bad you couldn't keel-boat up the Missouri."
I was kidding, but he said "'Y doggies, I wish I could've." Then after a while, he said "But maybe I wouldn't've. Too slow. I just got the cramps so bad I had to get shut of that country fast. Wish I'd had the money to fly, even."
"Just about. Kept back enough beaver for an outfit. Thought I'd get a job for the rest of the summer. Something that'd let me see a lot of the high country."
I took him home with me. I'd told Dad about Vic already, so Dad was looking forward to meeting him anyway. Said he thought Vic had the kind of spirit more young fellows ought to have. All three of us talked about how to get Vic a job, figuring all the possibilities. The Forest Service had hired all the summer help it needed or had the budget for - unless a big forest fire came along, of course. It nearly broke Vic's heart to find out there was such a thing as the smoke jumpers and not be able to join up until the next year.
We called everybody we could think of to call, that night and the next day, but we couldn't line anything up. But it was the middle of the week. Sunday, when the loggers were in from the Swan Valley, Dad got Vic a job setting chokers for a gyppo outfit. We staked him to a hard hat, some can't-bust-'em jeans, good boot socks, and a pair of White's corks, and he went up to the Condon district on the Swan River for two weeks.
When he came back to Missoula, he had a good tan and the start on a set of whiskers, and he was making more money than he'd ever made in his life. Loggers were his kind of men, and he was talking about getting his own McCulloch and outfit so he go back to the woods as a sawyer as soon as he got "a little more experience."
The middle of the week, he came out of the woods - out of a job.
"Aw, the Forest Service caught three of our sawyers fallin' unmarked timber and kicked us all off the sale."
We couldn't find another woods job for Vic. I tried to get Vic a job here where I work, but there wasn't enough work here to need another hand. On his own, he found that job at the supermarket. He roomed at home with me, "just 'til I find a good job," he said. He wanted anything that would give him some experience. He'd saved a lot from that month of logging, almost enough for a year of school with the G I Bill for Korea veterans throwing in a hundred and ten dollars a month.
One day, the picture on the cover of Guts & Gore in the window at Rudy's News made him go inside and buy a copy. That issue had a story about some outfit that was getting set up to send divers down to salvage the Andrea Dorea, that ocean liner that sank. That appealed to Vic because of the experience he could get on a job like that.
He wrote to the salvagers - offered to work for just his room and board and the experience he'd get, and told them about his service overseas "with the Marines." (He'd been a mess cook at the base, a Navy white hat, not a Marine). The salvage outfit wrote back that if he didn't have any experience as a deep-sea diver, they didn't have a job for him.
Vic got to be a regular reader of Guts & Gore. Sometimes, he picked up the new copy as soon as Rudy's got it off the truck, before they even got it put up on the rack. Every time Guts & Gore had a story about something he thought he'd like to get a job at, he wrote to the author in care of the magazine. He didn't get many answers back, and of course he didn't get any job that way. But he didn't give up. By winter, he was glad he had that job at the market. All the summer work was over with, and logging was falling off.
Last March, Guts & Gore had a story by a government bounty hunter in one of those little South American countries. The first I heard of it was when Vic came to see me at work and wanted one of our invoice envelopes - the tan ones with the red corners, that we staple on the outside of the crates we ship.
"What for, Vic?"
"Got to send a birch bark plumb to South America, hoss. Back country, up-river. Need a tough envelope. That birch bark'll have to go all the way to the head of the Amanoco by canoe."
"This Texan. Called 'El Tigre.' That's South American for 'The Tiger'."
He opened the latest copy of Guts & Gore to a wild picture - a drawing, not a photograph - of an American with whiskers, a machete in one hand and a .45 automatic in the other, fighting a bunch of South American natives.
"He hunts rebels and outlaws for the government and gets a bounty for 'em. Takes the heads of the big outlaws and the ears of their men, the ord'nary ones."
"What y'writin' him for? T' ask 'im for a job?"
"Why, sure, hoss. This chile could get a lot of good experience thar."
Vic and I worked on his letter that night. He wanted it to be just right - wanted a job with El Tigre worse than he'd wanted any of the others he'd wrote away for. He had enough saved up for a good outfit, and he had a good Colt.45 - just like El Tigre's - and could shoot it pretty good.
We wrote that Vic was looking for experience and would be a good man that El Tigre could count on to back him up in a tight spot. We wrote El Tigre that Vic would pay his on passage to the mouth of the Amanoco and would supply his own outfit and all his ammunition, if El Tigre would just give him a place to sleep. Vic'd even pay for his own food.
When we got done with the letter, Vic couldn't see any way El Tigre could turn him down. I wondered that maybe this "El Tigre" character wasn't just some bum, maybe not even a Texan, who'd turned that story out just to get enough money for a ticket back to the States or to pay hospital bills or just to buy more booze. But Vic was certain sure the story was the real thing.
"Look here," he'd say, and read some detail in the story, "He's got all that right, jes' like it'd have to be. Warn't no wino wrote that, hoss."
"Maybe not. But here it is, April already. That letter won't get to El Tigre - if there really is an El Tigre, doin' what that story says he's doin' - until next month. Then you can't hear back from him any earlier than June, and it'll probably take you 'til July to get there. Summer'll be 'most over 'fore you even get there."
"Know that, hoss. Don't matter. Gives me time to get up my outfit and get ready to go."
The next day, Vic came home with a surplus machete - just like El Tigre's - and a good whet stone. After supper, he sat down and started putting a good edge on it.
"Thought I knew how to sharpen a good blade," he said, "'til one of the guys at work showed me how to put a real good edge on it. Secret's how smooth, not just how sharp." He pulled up his pants leg and tried to shave hair off his calf with the machete, then went back to stoning it.
Somehow he got onto a sale of GI ammo and bought a case of .45 ball for his Colt. And more stuff. Before long, it wouldn't all fit under his bed and mine. We stacked a lot if it in the closet.
"How you goin' to haul all that gear, Vic? Down there, I mean."
"Oh, ever' now 'n' then, El Tigre takes a man alive to haul his gear for 'im 'til he gets ready to collect the bounty. 'Sides, we'll leave most of it at El Tigre's headquarters or in camp 'til I need some of it along with me."
All he ever talked about anymore was "this man-hunting job with El Tigre." He kept reading Guts & Gore very month, of course, but he didn't write off for any more jobs.
One day, we'd just left Rudy's - Vic with the new issue of Guts & Gore - and were walking past Mau-Jones Sporting Goods. Vic saw one of Rudy Ruana's big bowie knives in the window.
"Look at that, hoss!"
He went right in and bought it. Paid more for it than any two or three knives ought to cost, seemed to me. If Carl Mau'd had two of 'em, he'd've bought one for El Tigre too.
"Good Lord, Vic! What's that thing good for?
"Why, this is a real skookum knife, hoss. Man can do 'most anything he has to, with a knife like this."
"Yeah. Pick his teeth or paddle a canoe. But what else?"
"Chop ears, hoss!"
He chased me back to the car, swishing that knife back and forth, playing like he was trying to get me with it.
He stoned that big knife all evening, from supper to after bedtime. There was better steel in it than there was in his machete - he made sure I knew that - so it took him a while to put an edge on it as sharp and smooth as he wanted. It was sharp enough to suit me when he bought it.
"This here blade'll really hold a good edge, hoss. Longer it takes, longer it'll last." He pulled his pajama leg up and mowed a gob of hair off the side of his calf. "Waugh!"
It was a couple of months or more before we heard anything about Vic's man-hunting job. Except what we heard from Vic, that is, which was plenty. He got his passport and all the papers he'd need for the trip. He got dope from the travel agent about traveling on a freighter and wrote to a couple of steamship outfits trying to get a job so he could work for his passage to South America. It would be good experience, he said, because El Tigre's headquarters on the river was an old river steamer. He got all kinds of shots and pills, and he bought lots of medicines and bug dope for his outfit.
Just about everybody in the neighborhood knew Vic by now, and of course they all knew about the job he was going to get in South America. Every time any of the neighbors saw me or Vic, they made sure to ask whether he'd got any word from El Tigre yet.
Vic wore that big bowie knife everywhere except to work, and he chopped big gashes in the bull pines when we went hiking in the Bitterroots.
"Developing my wrist," he told me.
We came in from one of those hikes one Saturday evening, and there was a letter on Vic's dresser. It was that big tan envelope with the red corners, all worn and ragged, with water spots all over it.
But Vic didn't open it. He just turned it over and over and looked at it. Didn't say a word.
Just before he dropped it in the waste basket, I saw the big purple letters stamped across the front of the envelope - DECEASED.
"Man! I'm hungry!" Vic said. "Can't wait 'til supper. Let's go get a burger and a shake to fill up some of the hole, Mac. On me."
Vic still has that job at the supermarket, but he's talking about opening his own shop or deli somewhere up the Bitterroot - as soon as he's saved up enough money. He's getting to be a real good butcher.
Though it's written in the style and format of a fictional short story, this story is true. I've put actual details together, like building a stone wall - not of man-made bricks but of real, natural stones laid-up with a bit of man-mixed mortar to bind them into one edifice. The real-life Vic was three stones. One, reading a paper-back book and showing-off before his buddies' kidding, whirled too far and made that thumping quarter-gainer onto the bunkhouse floor.
Another bought the big Ruana bowie knife, put a razor edge on it, and chopped splinters in inappropriate places with it. (And later - I found out when I tracked him down about thirty years after I'd written "El Tigre, Jr" - ran a family deli near Sacramento.) He'd grown up and been in service with the third Vic, whom he introduced me to, after he'd told me the story about the obsessive reading of A B Guthrie, Jr's novel The Big Sky and its effects on Vic, including the story - just as I've told it here - of the applications for adventuresome jobs and all the rest, right down to the word stamped in purple on the returned envelope. Even the magazines and their stories are true - except that there were several magazines, none of which was really titled Guts & Gore.
When I came to know the late A B ["Bud"] Guthrie, Jr, a few years later, I told Bud how his book The Big Sky had affected "Vic," figuring he'd get a kick out it. He laughed long and hard at several points in the story. At the end, he was excited about it. "What a story! What a story!" he said, over and over. He said it should be written, and he said he wished it were his to write. I didn't see it - then - as all that much of a story. "Bud," I told him, "if you see something in this worth writing, be my guest. It's yours. Write it." I was naturally eager to see what he'd do with it. "No, Ken," he said. "It's your story. You have to write it. You have to write it."
I still didn't see it as that much of a story, but out of my immense regard for Bud's skills and his great story sense, I mulled it over until what you've just read began to take shape in my mind. Once I had the key to the story and started typing, the story simply told itself. Bud liked it. He made only one suggestion for improving it (the dialogue lead), which I took as the obviously good advice that it was. Over the years since, I've seen other little opportunities to spit-shine it here and there. Each of these later story-craft improvements is one that I know Bud would approve. Its main value to me, however, is still that it's true - my all-time favorite kind of story. Only the style of its telling is fictional.
Copyright © 1967, 1991, 2002, Dr Kenneth E Howell. All rights reserved.