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  • On December 12th at 9:14 in the morning my father walked outside put one shell in the bottom barrel of a shotgun shoved it into his mouth and didn’t pull the trigger. Sometimes I wonder why I so carefully placed that same gun on top of my mantle. On late December nights like this I sit and enjoy the smell of burning pine, inhale the flavor of my old pipe and study my father’s would-be executioner.

    The winters seemed to last a lifetime, but spring and summer came and have stayed in my memory longer. I can remember climbing the tall pine trees in search of a better crow’s nest for my pirate ship. Being so far from Helena we seldom had company, but the mountains became my friends. Swimming in the black, back mountain pools, pushing my older brother from the cold granite cliffs down into the wet water. With our lips turned blue and our hearts pounding out of our chests we would dry on the hot bare rocks. My brother would use father’s old pen knife to whittle points on our long lances. We had quite an extensive armory of pine hidden deep in an old mine on the north side of the mountain. My father forbade us from going near the southern entrance, but after months of exploring we were able to find the brush covered secret opening to the mine. We would plan our missions there for years until my brother grew up and decided that the entrance was too dangerous for us. He told father about it too and soon my extensive fortress was boarded – impenetrable to a child’s hands. Years before she came and my brother lost his interest in our natural crusades, we knew nothing but were everything of a Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.

    I often notice the old shotgun’s smooth worn stock and it reminds me of how large my father’s shoulders seemed then. He was a bear of a man. His long thick hair was held back by cord of leather my mother had given him. She never liked the hair in his face. He would take us into the mountains for days at a time. At night we would set camp and my father, looming in front of the fire, would tell my brother and I old stories of ghosts and monsters that would give us chills no fire could warm. Once or twice I asked my father about his time in the war. His responses, normally factual and overly general, would always skirt around his feelings towards the topic. It wasn’t until later, when my brother got into West Point, that my father broke apart about the horrors he had seen, but by then I had stopped hearing his words.

    As we grew into young men our camping trips turned into hunting trips, and late one fall my father and I tracked an older grizzly bear who had been eating our cattle for three days. Father explained that it was only the bear’s way of getting ready for winter and his long sleep. At the time I couldn’t understand how something could sleep all winter long; now it seems to me perfectly normal to want to skip the shorter months when the earth kills everything alive. The bear was wounded from that same shotgun perched on my mantle. My father, in full gallop had managed to shoot the bear before it completely dismembered a calf. Tracks of blood and the bear’s slow speed had allowed my father and I an easy track. He wanted to let nature take its course, which is why he told my brother and I that eventually the bear would bleed to death. There would be no need to get close enough to shoot such a powerful beast. On the third day a light snow covered the ground and the bear finally settled down to rest. My father wanted a confirmation that the bear died, and I think he was trying to teach us how to track better, but I always wondered why he shot the bear right there at the end. He just wanted to make sure I guess.

    Growing up with my father in the wilderness was exhilarating and magical, so I often wondered why mother had chosen to leave when I was only four. Father said that the rugged world we lived in had just turned out to be too much for her. In 1882 separations never seemed to cumulate to the full extent of divorce. My mother wrote often and wanted to make sure my father was taking good care of her sons. There was a large portrait of mother in her wedding gown that would stare at me as I came down the stairs every morning seeming always to chastise me for my lack of sophistication, mocking me for living out in this harsh environment. Quite often my father would arrange for a carriage to come and take my brother down to see mother and once he made me tag along. I didn’t, naturally, want to make my father angry but there was little I had in common with mother. Bustling streets in Helena always stole away my brother’s attention, his eyes the size of dinner plates would glue to the buildings and multitude of top hats. All kinds of foreign smells would assault my nose and make my throat dry out. I did enjoy the horses. Mother always had several beautiful horses that she would let me ride in the arena. Once when my brother and I made the trip in the early spring my mother greeted me with a wide smile claiming she had something that would wipe away my frown. When she opened the old box and pulled from its velvety innards my grandfather’s long knife I almost fainted with excitement. It was my turn to be wide-eyed. The bone handle was smooth, almost cold in my grip and the long tarnished blade looked back at me with as much pride and I looked into it. It was years later that I realized my mother’s small gifts were her best way of connecting with a boy – or a man – who had gone too far into the wilderness. She always treated me well, and I could tell in some ways she loved me, but she didn’t love father anymore or the home that I grew up in. I hated being stuffed into her starchy world of manners and butlers, but I knew my father needed us to be there so I kept my mouth shut – I learned which fork to use first.

    Bowties littered my brother’s room, or rather, were neatly hung in his closet. He fell head first into mother’s world and soon after our tutor came, thought about nothing more than books and school – so much actually that he began to forget about our adventures, our world of treasures. I started spending more time with my father, but he seemed different. At the time I thought it was his illness. Father had seen many doctors about his problems, and I thought he would always pull through; after all, it wasn’t like he was really sick. Mother told me it was just in his head. Later I realized that was why my father had decided to move his young wife out to the wilderness – because the doctors recommended fresh air. Sitting here watching the hot coals glow now, I realize it wasn’t his head. It wasn’t anything but simple human loneliness. He missed mother and a life that once was filled with little boys and love. It may have been at that point, because I was growing older, that his shoulders started to seem smaller to me. With my brother distracted and my father spending less time outside with me I too almost took to a depression; then, right when I thought the precious mountain world that was so close to me would collapse in fire, Miss Laurie Pritcher knocked on our door.

    I had been out shooting. My shoulder smeared with rabbit blood and a long cut across my brow from a wicked bush didn’t seem to startle her like it would have my mother. I remember her legs. She was wearing a dress that was cut in a way I had never seen before which seemed to match, at that moment, the way she raised her right eyebrow at my appearance. Her crimson lips moved and, “You must be the younger one” was the first sentence she said to me. I’d never seen whiter teeth either. She was a tutor from New York City my father told us. From some obscure relation to mother’s sister she apparently felt obligated to my father’s invitation to come and teach my brother and I about literature, mathematics, and the world outside mine. My original infatuation soon decayed to a dull hatred as our lessons began and she moved into the house. My father began to get better and show more interest in taking me out hunting again, and I have to admit that my brother, his intellectual lust satiated, perhaps almost saturated, began to be a boy again. Of course it was all bittersweet for me. I couldn’t stand her lessons. Shakespeare and long division had their places in my mother’s world of etiquette and dance lessons, but she didn’t fade away from our lives, and she certainly demanded a front seat to the affairs of my mountain world. I realize now that those times were some of the best for me – if not to me.

    Shoeing horses with my father one afternoon, she strolled into the barn and began to watch me nail the iron spikes into the hard hoof. She stole away my free time, and now she was going to rob me of the precious hours I spent with my father. I hit the nails harder, but she wouldn’t go away. When my father looked up and saw her, that grizzled face broke into a wide smile. “What are you doing out in this cold?” my father’s voice steamed the air.

    “I came to see what really goes on at this house!” her fiery lips curled into a smile and I shook my head. My father chuckled.

    “Well, come over and lend a hand then. We don’t take kindly to sloth in the barn.”

    My father took off his jacket and put it over Miss Pritcher’s shoulders as she approached my hammer. The loud clack of iron on iron and my father’s deep voice drove my boyish anger into the cold afternoon and out of my head until at last I let her have a try. She didn’t hesitate and her first horseshoe ever – although not as perfect as I knew father liked – went on without a hitch.
    After that day Miss Pritcher spent more and more time with my me and father. She came hunting in the winter and fishing in the spring. My father even took her into town one day to have some tailored riding pants made up so she would be more comfortable on our long excursions into the mountains. I didn’t mind that she was there as much as how she stole my father’s attention from our usual adventures. I’d never had guessed then as I can see now how my father began to fall in love with her. She was everythin mother wasn’t. My brother and I had a chance to bond more on those trips. One camping trip when my father and Miss Pritcher were off gathering wood, my brother challenged me to a tree climbing competition. After fourteen splinters and an extremely broken arm my brother not only regained my respect but beat me at shimmying pine trees. Unfortunately that competition physically ended my brother’s presence in our outings for that spring and left me with only my father and Miss Pritcher to deal with.

    Summer in Montana is perhaps one of the most soul lifting experiences any person can have. Wildflowers color the earth and the pines seem taller and fuller with an almost supernatural green. I used to crunch along the pine needles and suck in the potent pine smell until my lungs were about to burst. That summer Miss Pritcher went back to New York City to see her family. My father saw her off at the train station but as soon as she waved him goodbye, with his back turned on the train, he smiled that wild grizzly smile that lifted heart to a full grin. We knew the summer would be a good one. All three months the three of us would laugh, play and sweat together. My brother turned seventeen in July, and, with the help of my mother, wrote a letter of application to West Point. My father would set his jaw and stare into my brother’s eyes when the topic came up, but he helped with the letter and encouraged my brother’s enthusiasm. I was fairly sure he didn’t want my brother to get in though. It may be the most serene three months I’ve ever had in my long life. We were inseparable, and my father loved us again.

    I almost completely forgot about Miss Pritcher until my father mentioned her arrival in late August. This time I wasn’t as shocked by her legs. In fact I think that year she showed up in stockings; but her enthusiasm never slowed a beat. She had prepared a new curriculum that year designed especially for me. I tore into Mark Twain’s Mississippi River and explored the mysterious ancient world of Odysseus. My mathematics lessons were split between practical house lessons and “applicable” outdoors lessons. One crisp fall morning Miss Pritcher actually woke me up to continue our lessons on distance and rate of travel. She was carrying my rifle. We spent all morning target shooting from different distances and varying angles. My brother again spent most of his time with my mother preparing for his college career, but it didn’t seem to bother me much. Miss Pritcher had my full attention. She also seemed to have my father’s.

    The summer before one of my father’s projects had entailed us building a large porch facing west. Father told us the doctors said watching the sunset each evening would help him relax; I think he wanted a nice place to sit with Miss Pritcher because that’s what they would do almost every evening. Even deep into the winter, I could watch from the steamed panes of my window; my father would keep the fire warm and offer more blankets if Miss Pritcher seemed to be getting cold. He was a good cook and after lunch routinely she would let me have some time away from studies to pursue the outdoors so that they could take walks. I remember wondering how anyone could talk to someone for so long about plain nothing. Father’s letters to mother left less frequently. Late that same winter I once crept down the stairs, avoiding my mother’s eyes, and slipped into the kitchen. Cracking the window made a small noise as I freed it from the ice outside, but they didn’t hear. Most of there conversation was about current events. Far off strife and discussion about the weather nearly put me to sleep right there on the kitchen counter; then, It was my father’s question, a question that my young ears couldn’t quite hear all of, which woke my weary eyes. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t tell you now exactly what he asked, but memory fades in the most odd ways. I do remember her response however. After a long pause, she simply looked him in the eyes, drew her hand against his stony face and whispered, “I can’t.”

    That next morning, I was roused by a sharp sound from the old back door. I never saw Miss Pritcher again but her lips and legs have remained burned into my memory. That morning my mother’s painted eyes seemed less angry and more fearful than they ever had as I flew down the stairs to see what had happened. Nearly crashing into my father’s slow strides as I rounded the corner to the kitchen, I caught a faint whiff of something I would later identify as whiskey. At that time it was just another oddity that seemed not to fit my father that morning. His eyes were greyer and glazed over, which seemed to match that smell and the hard bare feet that glided past me. I froze when I saw his hands. That smooth bear killer was gripped stiffly in his white knuckles. My legs locked as firmly as my eyes became locked onto the sight of my once father. Looking at him with two knees buried in the fresh snow and that gun in his mouth pulled the tears from my eyes.

    Two days later when my mother and several men showed up to take me away, the door to my father’s room seemed impenetrable through the pile of bottles. Clouds had covered my view of the mountains and in the filtered morning light I thought I saw that old bear bleeding off towards the woods again; Then the image faded and the cold black steel handle swung the carriage door open. I moved in with my mother but soon became nostalgic for the natural world I had come to know so well. That year – when my brother went off to begin his military career – I took a ranch hand job in southern Colorado somewhere around Durango, and I’ve been here all my life. I’d never had asked for a better father or a different home. Like I said, the mountains are my friends, and my father introduced me to them. Sometimes I watch the sun set into the west, its crimson radiance lighting up the snow a burnt orange and then fade to black. In mid December when the lights go out, I often wonder if my father pulled that trigger.
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