Charley and Me — Part 2

Charley’s not a very big guy, but he’s solid, and every inch of him you can see is either burned a deep tan by the sun, or covered in tough hide from a lifetime of hard outdoor physical labor. Below the neck, everything inside that hide is either hard muscle, rawhide-strong tendon or solid bone. And there’s this: Charley has a reputation. He’ll fight anybody, anytime, and he’s never been known, in any town within a day’s drive, to lose. If you catch his hands still for a second, you can count the scars on his knuckles from those fights. As I found out later, even the local cops would back away from getting into a physical dispute with him.

Anyway, about 20 seconds into this male-dominance dispute, Danny-boy picks up his plate with as much grace as he can muster, and quietly moves to another chair.

After breakfast, Charley has me help him pack his mules, and gives me more tips on doing what we do. I’m new to all this, so I have to learn the diamond hitch and such as a complete novice. Charley shows me how to load pack boxes and bags so as to keep each side balanced, how to put them gently up on the pack saddle to keep from spooking the mule, and how to tarp and tie off the load so it will stay in place for the whole trip, which might be six hours or more on the trail, bouncing and swaying to the mule’s gait on a rocky trail, and even occasionally getting whacked on trailside trees.

In two meetings, I already know this about Charley: He’s tough as hell and not afraid to show it, and he’s patient enough to teach a noob such as myself what he knows.

This is tribal stuff that strikes a deep, deep chord in a young man. I liked the guy, I respected him, I was drawn to him like lesser wolves are drawn to the pack leader.

I wasn’t fawning at him like an overeager wolf pup, but I was learning everything he could teach me about packing, and liking it. When he had a problem a few months later with the wife of the Big Boss and left the outfit, I missed his teaching and his company. I followed him over to his new outfit the next summer. We ended up working together for two more summers, and became darned good friends.

Here’s a third thing about Charley: He knew just about everything about the wilderness. If you pointed at a tree or a bush, he could tell you what it was. And so I learned to tell red fir from white fir, Jeffrey pine from Ponderosa pine, gooseberry from currant. He showed me fallen trees that had carvings on them from a hundred years before, images of naked women – pre-Playboy pornography – scratched into the bark of aspen trees by lonely mountain sheepherders and miners.

He pointed out to me certain glass-smooth sections of rock along the trails in most of our canyons, telling me about how they’d been polished by glaciers flowing down-valley like the grit in a million-year lapidary tumbler, scoring them also with rocks trapped between ice and stone, making deep linear grooves pointing the way down-canyon.

He showed me how to spot deer in distant cover, how to find the dens of marmots and pikas, how to tell what Clark’s nutcrackers and ravens and coyotes were up to.

I learned the most amazing things from him. He knew about horses and mules. He knew the weather and the night sky. He knew the habits and peculiarities of the wily rainbow trout and golden trout that populate the high-country lakes and streams.

And he knew stories. Damn, could he tell a story.

One weeklong trip I was on with him, he started out telling about the history of the mountains around us. Our guests, five big-city firemen on holiday for high-country trout fishing, lounged around the fire after a king’s meal cooked on a campfire (Charley cooked it, of course), sipped coffee or whiskey at their pleasure, and just listened to him talk.

Somehow everything Charley touched had his brand on it, and if he called a thing by a certain name, you found yourself calling it that too. If he had a difference with another man and called him Dumb As A Post, pretty soon you found yourself thinking of the guy, who might be Bob Smith or Lawrence Ashworth or Kent Green, as Dumb As A Post. One of Charley’s favorite drinks was plain bourbon and water, which he called a Whiskey Ditch.

So anyway, Charley stood in the light of our dying campfire, twenty miles and a thousand years away from the nearest electric light, a Whiskey Ditch in one hand and a storyteller’s art in the other, and told tales. He told about the early white settlers in wagons at the far end of local history, and the ski industry that trailed after them at the near end. He told about shallow survival caves you could still find here and there if you knew where to look, a safe place where a hiker could wait out the blizzards that could come at any month of the year at this altitude. He talked about places he knew of where there were soft veins of pure gold you could peel out of the rock with a pocketknife.

But mainly, he talked about the Sierra natives, the Paiutes and Yokuts, the Inyo and Mono Indians who lived in this land before the gold miners and sheepherders and timbermen came.

There was one story that had us all spellbound, the story of an Indian maiden, Shining Fawn, the most beautiful of her generation, desired by every young buck in the tribe. Three young men earnestly sought her hand from her aged father, Black Deer, the chief. Grey Owl and Falling Rock were great and successful hunters, Running Wolf was a mighty warrior. And the chief couldn’t decide between them.

So he set them on a quest. The one who could first bring back a white stone from a distant peak, a jagged-toothed crest close to 14,000 feet high, would gain his daughter’s hand in marriage. The three set off on separate paths toward the distant peak. Grey Owl and Running Wolf met up on the trail two days out and sat down together to rest. They talked about the contest, what each stood to win and lose, and made a treacherous deal. They would conspire together so Running Wolf could marry the daughter, but Grey Owl would gain all the chief’s horses when he died. But to make it work, they would have to kill Falling Rock.

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