The Burials of Red Potter
Beneath the canopy of high mountain pines down in the shade by Johnson’s Creek a pack-horse stood with heavy panniers, a silhouette against the sunlit stream. Two large, dark bundles lay on the creek’s bank. Another bulk lay on the dry campground soil by the rock-ring of the fire pit. The waters bubbled, its ripples shimmering in the afternoon August sunlight.
Coming up from the trail towards the elegant two-story Big Creek cabin the Elliotts had built, a blue-tick hound nosed and poked at the ferns and grasses by the pile of downed tree lengths. Ernest was sitting at the porch bench packing shells. He, Wahoo, and Ray, his mountain buddies, had earlier done with a day’s sharpshooting, and the two of them had moseyed on down the mountain trail to the road’s end where they had their trucks parked. They lodged in Yellow Pine several miles down the mountain road. As usual after their practice, Ernest took to cleaning his pistol and now he was tidying up the powder from repacking his ammunition. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the movement of the animal, Red Potter’s cougar hound. Red’s hound did not too often stray far from his master, hermit as he had been all his years. Although, Blue, everyone called the hound Blue, did seek out the Elliotts’ dog, a red-tick hound, from time to time, straying a ways off the Logan Creek trail over where Red Potter stayed when he returned from his mining. Narrow Logan Creek, its water sweet from the arsenic, was a hop, skip and a jump away from Big Creek, the one the settlements were known by.
Any minute Ernest expected the hoarse holler of Red Potter, calling the hound home back to his cabin, down on nearby Logan Creek. Or else Potter himself might amble down to say howdy. No whistle or holler came. Blue wandered about, looking up at times. Finally with purpose, he looked up at Ernie and turned back with a long pointing posture. Once before Ernie had seen this and having followed the dog, it turned out old Potter had collapsed down by his cabin. That time, when he had soon come to, he warned Ernie that this type of swoon had been occurring off-and-on of late. “This’ll be the way I go,” he said. “But I ain’t going to the doctors in town, no, sirree!”
Ernie grabbed his roll, his twenty-two rifle in it, and set out his backpack. Then quickly he strapped on his empty holster. He went in the cabin for a water canteen and came out; he took his Colt pistol from the bench and set it firm in its holster. Blue went ahead. Ernie scurried after, down towards the hillside along the trail toward Johnson’s Creek, a good hike more than he’s counted on. It was more than an hour on the jog before they came to the water’s edge under the canopy. Red Potter was already bloated, dead in the heat for a day or so it seemed. Ernie took a good look at Red’s dark face, blue in the shade. The stink was mostly from meat Red had packed into the paniers and came from the bulk of the elk he had shot and neatly butchered. The weight, that’s what done him in. To butcher the elk and carry the sides had been too much for old Red in this summer heat. The swoon he’d presaged. Lucky the pack horse wasn’t taken by a bear or cougar since the cave of the trees smelled pretty ripe, attractive to scavengers and predators both. The horse was nuzzling the sparse grasses, tied by a twelve foot rope to a sturdy aspen sapling. Blue nosed down at Red’s body and looked up at the horse.
Best thing, thought Ernie, was to go back and get some tarps, take the horse with its load. Time still to bring a horse and wagon before sundown. Ernie heard a blast from up mountain. In those days, Ernie’s father and a hand worked their mine up above Stibnite, the government’s last-legs antimony mining town, way up off the beaten track. A hermit of some old gold and silver stakes, Red Potter, too, had worked his own mines up in the same area and all over the peaks beyond. Ernie might manage the packing of Red himself, but it would have been a good idea to rouse up his friends Ray or Wahoo to assist in the loading. He left a note on the porch post up at Big Creek cabin for his partners. Time was short before sundown so Ernie returned alone to the scene of Red’s body.
Ernie brought his own horse, his roll and the wagon, and set a campfire to stay the night. He had jerky and he’d carried a can of easy-open Oscar Meyer’s Vienna sausages n’ beans, but, instead, he threw a line and single egg in the creek for a couple of pan-sized trout and skewered them on sticks for a dinner-time snack. He always carried a small salt pack, too. The beans would be good for morning. He set his camp and roll a few yards up-breeze from the coppice Red’s body lay in. Blue came down and slept with the red-tick at Ernie’s camp. The bubbling creek waters took Ernie’s mind off the matter and would become his soporific when the time came after dark.
A brawny, lanky kid, Ernie had the heft to roll the corpse into the tarp, but it took a little awkward manhandling to haul the weight into the short wagon Ernie’s stout packing horse would pull. He had pulled enough game into that wagon in times before, but getting Red Potter’s torso onto it was rather tenderer loading than pulling a doe or a buck, yanked by the rack, onto the flat bed. Warned by Red, Ernie had expected another time and place, but he never wanted to come upon Death’s toll alone in the broad daylight of hot August weather.
Morning was cool by the creek. He balanced the half-open bean can on a small fire he’d set, and gobbled it down. It seemed with another big day already heating up, no time should be lost. Ernie’d thought it through. He led the horse and trailer down into the cave-like canopy where Potter’s corpse lay. There, he undid the harness, pulled the packhorse back a ways and let the small flatbed slant down close to Red’s body. A little more work to cinch up the ends of the tarps on the feet end and then thread a line through the head grommets, Ernie figured he could slide the weight up enough by winching on the rounded iron on the flatbed edge. It was a good pull to haul it that far, but he tied the line to the nearest tree trunk and went round to lever the lower end up a foot or so with a stake of wood lying by the fire. Once the harness was hooked back up, the body lay even on the bed and Ernie tied it firmly round the top with some woven hemp straps and cords he’d brought. No need to wait for Ray or Wahoo to show now. He’d probably hear them if they came the way he’d suggested on his map and note, or, hell, they’d hear the racket of the wagon on the uneven trail. He was set to drive the trailer and body back up the widest trail he knew to Big Creek.
Okay, this story and it’s a short story, to be kept tight as can be, needs to get a-going. Undoubtedly it’s back woods and Jeez Loueeze I’ve tried to get it going so many times. This time it’s got to get the attention it needs. Why? Cuz’ I know the damn thing from miles of driving and hiking and it’s been thought to death. When I told it to some beer-y bleary eyed loggers at the Clear Creek tavern, they listened quietly and never budged, even for a pee, till I’d finished. One of them said “Damn!” so I figured I had a ‘rapper’ to go on. The other thanked me for the tall-tale, but never asked me a thing else.
Beginning. So, I played God in the opening spying the mounds in the trees by the stream, giving away the scene that needs discovered. God doesn’t give a damn in those mountains but it’s my hook. That’s the omniscient opening, but it’s not long before I get to the human action, the character who’ll drive the piece. Mostly this’ll be limited omniscient, Ernest Elliott’s story. Once before I tried this and gave up, until I’d scouted the area of Big Creek and looked at a few topographical maps to see what the forest and roads looked like. That’s behind me now.
Just recently I read a couple of legends, the story of the 19th-century mountain men, John Johnson and his mean trapper community. Johnson was the same as the fictionalized Jeremiah Johnson from the old movie of the same name directed by Sydney Pollack and starring Robert Redford. I’d also seen movie The Revenant, but that stuff is ancient, made up to be more than savage. Del Gue, one of Johnson’s friends, was said to have had his skull clamped twice in a grizzly’s jaws. What I got from the Johnson legend, called Crow Killer: the Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson, a Paul Bunyan pseudo-myth at best–so little evidence to go on–was the style of the piece that harked back to the verbal dialect of the old coots that would have related the stories they’d heard.
What do I do with Ernie? Or should it be Ernest? Do I tell the story as Ernie—Ernest—would have related it: “Then I seen ‘em coming through the dust along the road.” “Ah sid , No.” No, I refuse to do a Faulkner shtick on it. You know, just after I started this the first time, and maybe this was why I quit, I watched a TV show of “As I Lay Dying” and thought, “Well, that’s one burial story and mine is not that much different except for details.” How can you beat Faulkner? People’d say, “She’it, that’s just warmed-up Faulkner, done modern-day Idaho-style.” This burial story is modern-day 1950s but it still a good story and it happened. That’s also the problem. If I stick too close to the facts, it’ll be hokey. God! There’re many mental STOP signs have to be run when writing a story.
If I could remember the version when I told the tale to the locals, my own tongue loosened by Irish Death or some such brew, I would have a better grasp. One thing I do have to decide, for consistency’s sake, should it be so formal in style to call him Ernest or Ernie? Ernie makes him an intimate. Should I describe the pale-blue striped shirt he wore with his jeans held up by a rawhide belt and his beard a three-day growth fuzzing his chin? No, I didn’t tell the details to the drinkers who liked the story; they got the picture of Ernie—maybe I called him “this guy”—they wanted. They know the type from these here mountain towns because they are still around, though wearing baseball caps instead of cowboy hats. Not so many wear the cowboy boots, but Ernie never had fine boots except for going to town in. His were durable Redwing specials of the time. His jeans were probably Wranglers from Sears-Roebuck, tho’. Yet, in a short story, even today, the big-city reader might need the naturalistic, realist modernist, whatever you want to call the fine detailed descriptive shit. I’m getting tired of the many decisions that go into presentation.
How often I go through this! Why can’t I remember the mind-tripping story I kept telling myself. I hear the words, my words, and I am talking to myself, and eventually I get the full picture just like Odysseus all alone having converse with his heart in Book whatever-it-is in Homer? What is the problem going from head to paper? Each process is a word-puzzle: the one is the interior audiation. Musicians working on symphonies, they say they hear the sounds they want to represent in notation, each instrument they hear even separately and in unison. Why can’t the words drop down from the brain the same way into words through the poised pen or pencil? It’s all “locked” up somehow in the synapses of Broca’s Brain and the writing out here is another attempt to unsnap the locks that allow the words to trickle down the funnel. Trouble is, there are funnels and the words gush like sand and have to be re-sieved to select just the right one. Got to hit the sack. Goodnight Ernie! Goodnight Red, R.I.P.