Old Bill Bent to Drink


OF A nice morning, forty year ago or such a matter, Old Bill Smith taken a notion for to get him a deer, because Marthy was down to the bottom of the salt pork bar’]. He had a brassbreeched Winchester, like you don’t see no more, and he run the rag through her till the bore shone like silver. Marthy she fixed him a johnnycake snack with fried sowbelly and he tucked it away into his pocket. His boots was all tallered and soft as a glove. But he taken time, before he lit out, for to tell Marthy, with her hands in the dishpan, that she might as well give up the notion of a mail-order hat she picked out in the catalogue, even if she had saved the egg money.

“A woman of your years!” he says to Marthy, poor soul. It was God’s truth as he seen it. His old woman, she never spoke back to him; she just stooped a little nearer her dishwater. Then Old Bill, a-tamping his pipe, he turns to Young Bill, and he says, “There’s them tools for to sharpen, and no sneaking away to the haymow with ary book. Your ma’ll turn the stone.”

He let one of them old sulphur matches burn red, and he taken two-three puffs at his pipe. Little Marthy, a-wiping the dishes, she knowed her turn was next. Did ever you hear tell of Jim Sinclair, who got rich raising sheep? The sheep king? That’s the feller! Little Marthy married him that same fall, though he wasn’t no account then. Old Bill he says to Little Marthy, “As for you, mind you, no lallygaggin’ down by the gate with that Jim Sinclair whilst I get us some deer meat!”

Like her ma, Little Marthy hadn’t no spunk at all—but there was mighty few had spunk when Old Bill was a-straightening things out for them. Yet a man ought for to be fair to him; it was only according to his lights. He hated books because they was made up of lies, way he looked at it; and he hadn’t no manner of use for Jim Sinclair because Jim a’ready was a-talking sheep, and Old Bill hated sheep like his pappy before him. Then Old Bill, with his pipe a-drawing good, he lit out for his deer, and he felt like a man does when he seen his plain duty and done it.

He went by way of Purvis’s, aiming for to take to the woods farther along, and everywheres beside the trail there was white lamb-tongues blooming to beat all, and those fuzzy, funny little flowers called cat’s-ears. Old Bill, he never noticed them, for flowers was sheer foolishness. The south fork was music in the stillness, over and over, but he paid no heed to it. Music was a sort of a sound, and sound wasn’t more than just sound. But when a blue grouse, a hooter, flushed at his feet, and went a-roaring away, his eyes follered it, whilst he hoped it would perch, so’s he could shoot its head off. For grouse was meat—it was something a man could sock his teeth into — and meat was truth.

Only one thing troubled him whilst he walked the trail, and that was Little Marthy’s sad face. She favored her ma, when her ma was young, and her ma was the pick of them all. There was a soft spot in Old Bill’s heart for Little Marthy — but he wouldn’t admit it. “Pretty!” he says to himself. “Is women ever pretty?”

At Purvis’s place, on account of it being the post office and mail day, some of the neighbors was apitching horseshoes. Oh, there was — let me see — there was the two McSwains, and Billy LaFromboise and Pap Purvis, and that there young Jim Sinclair. A man could hear the cranes a-going north across the blue far sky. A cock quail was a-calling in the bresh, “Sit-right-there!” And Billy LaFromboise, he made a ringer, and that surely sounded like music, too. But when they seen Bill, them neighbors of his’n they acted like they had been caught a-robbing a hen roost.

“Good morning, Bill!” they says. Old Bill he just grunted and give them a gruff look, and he looked p’intedly at the ringer snug to the peg. As a matter of fact, that ringer didn’t amount to nothing, come right down to it— but it wasn’t neighborly for to look at it like he done. The way he looked at it sort of reminded them that they had chores for to do, and when Old Bill was gone the game broke itself up pretty soon. He knowed well enough what he’d done — he had give them the truth, as he seen it — and it was a great comfort to him. Old Bill he turned off the trail.


DEAR sign seemed skeercer than was common, for in them days the Umpquas was all deer pasture, foothill to summit, and though there’s a many the deer in them hills to this day, it ain’t nothing like then. Old Bill hunted farther and farther from the home place. He went deeper and deeper into them woods; he clumb and he clumb; he went down into Two Finger Canyon, beyond Baldy, and out again, on account of he was as tough as whang-leather.

After a bit, without him seeing as much as a track, Old Bill come to a country he couldn’t recollect ever having clapped eyes on, though he knowed well enough he had hunted all the deer country there was for miles around. It surely was a problem. He stopped and he studied the lay of the land, for to figger out the directions. He was high up in the snowbresh, with a hen hawk sailing over, and the timber was below him, like a dark, watching shadder, with gold dust sprinkled onto it.

The trees where he was, they was little and crooked — they looked like they had been tormented — they leant every which way. He knowed well enough it was the snow and the wind that had done that to them — yet, by Godfrey, them trees they give him a queer feeling. On top of the world like that, he soon seen where he was; all the landmarks was plain — and he seen that he’d found where the deer had been using. There was fresh sign everywheres, and directly at his feet was a fresh bed. Old Bill put his hand down for to feel, and the bed wasn’t cold yet.

When he straightened up, it taken him by surprise, for dang him if he wasn’t a-looking directly into the eyes of a big white buck. White as a petticoat! Yes, sir, one of them white ones like you hear tell of but never see, and its eyes was as red as the stones in Marthy’s Sunday brooch, and it had six p’ints. That white buck was as stainless as Baldy in winter; nary spot nor blemish on him. A man calculates that Old Bill Smith had killed him maybe a thousand deer, in his time, but he never got a crack at a white one before.

The idea may have throwed him off his aim, he never did rightly know, for it was the chance of a lifetime — but the fact is that at twenty paces he missed. There was a beller of black powder, and the white buck was into the snowbresh. He knowed he had missed. He couldn’t understand it, but he knowed he had missed clean. Then he seen the white buck again, and he fired once more. A clean miss for the second time! The echoes was a-rolling from Baldy, and Old Bill never felt so foolish in all his born life—for he generally shot as straight as he talked. They wouldn’t let him take part in ary turkey shoot.

When a man misses a good shot, it’s the same thing as lying — that was the way he figgered it. He taken a close look at the sights — and they was all right. He throwed out a shell and he looked down the bar’l, and the bar’l was smudged some, of course, but wasn’t nothing wrong with it. It come to him then that he might be a-getting old, but he put it out of his mind and went to trailing the white buck. He knowed just about where it would be likely to stop. He wasn’t in no manner of hurry — he knowed the ways of the deer — but the going was rough, and it was nigh noon and getting mighty hot on that mountainside.

With the heat and everything, Old Bill was so thirsty he couldn’t of spit; he couldn’t remember ever having been as dry as he was. He was so dry that he’d of swapped the white buck for one swig of hill water. And just when he knowed he couldn’t stand it no longer he seen some green fern in a gully, and a bush of wild lilac, and he heerd water. He heerd water, and then, by Godfrey, he was on his knees alongside of it. The spring was cupped in a sort of bowl of black rock, and it run no more than enough for to trickle away and be lost. It smelled funny, that water did, clear as it was — it smelled sort of like yarbs. But water was water, and there wasn’t no hill water anywheres but was more than fitten for anyone. Old Bill bent to drink.

The water was cold and wholesome, and he drank fit to bust, but when he got to his feet again, Bald Mountain it reeled and it quivered, seemed like, and Old Bill was dizzy as though he’d been asampling a still. And dang him if he wasn’t happy enough for to sing. Seemed like that spring water run through his veins like quicksilver. He wanted for to shout “Hallelujah!” But this only lasted a moment, and Baldy come to rest again. He taken it to be a tetch of the sun, what with the cold water, too.

But still things wasn’t just right. The country seemed stranger than ever, and the rocks was like faces. In a scrub tree nigh to him a bird was asinging, and a-watching him whilst it sang. There was dance tunes in it, and scraps of Methodist hymns, and organs, and flutes and fiddles. There was grief in the song, but still and all it was glad, and Old Bill he p’intedly knowed that the bird was a-singing for him. That there was the first singing bird he had listened to since ever he was a onegallused boy. It seemed for to bust into flame, when the sun hit it, like fat pine, and it flew away ashining. He shaken his head and took up the trail of the white buck.

And he come to that deer about where he figgered to, at the foot of the moss-painted cliff a man can see from Purvis’s place. There the white buck was halted, looking over its fat rump at him, and either side of that deer was a corncob mushroom as tall as the buck himself. Them mushrooms by rights is about as long as your trigger finger. But he hadn’t no time for them then and he aimed the Winchester for a heart-shot. This time he just couldn’t miss, he knowed it well — but it sort of spoiled the dance tunes in his head. Old Bill held steady as a rock and he eased off the trigger. Pent in betwixt the woods and the cliff she made a noise like a cannon. He ducked his head for to look past the smoke.

But danged if the bullet had reached the white buck—he could see it as plain. It was still atraveling, and slower and slower, and when it was at the buck’s shoulder it hung there without tetching the deer, and dropped to the needles. Was it a defective ca’tridge? Old Bill never rightly figgered it out. He was so mortally astonished that he plumb forgot for to lever in another ca’tridge, and whilst he was a-standing there, the white buck tossed its antlers and leapt. It leapt straight up the painted rock, as high as ary medium fir, easy as a flipped peanut, and it never tetched hoof till it lit on the top! Old Bill seen the white rump of it, with the tail a-wagging at him, and then it was gone.

He taken a few steps to them two mushrooms and he picked up the bullet. It surely puzzled a man. It was a problem. If that there ca’tridge was defective, as might be, still how was he a-going for to account for the jump? He shaken his head and went on, without meat. The dance tunes was aplaying for him yet — and mortal eye ain’t seen that white buck since.


OLD BILL headed for Whiskey Creek, but when he reached her the water was up a mite, and he spent a little while looking for a good place for to cross. And whilst he was a-squandering around, something that looked like a mouse came a-nosing out of the willers, and jumped spang into a sunny, clear puddle of backwater. A dozen or so young trout was in there, mere minners, and the mouse taken after them like an otter after a salmon. It dove and it swum, whilst the poor little trout tried their dangest for to get away, but finally it caught up with one, and it clumb out on a rock with the trout in its mouth, right at his boots. He moved a hand towards it but the critter slipped into the willers.

Of all them things that happened that day, seemed like this was just about the beatingest. He didn’t believe nobody ever would credit it —but he fair hankered for to tell about the white buck and the fishing mouse. Howsomever, it was p’intedly a matter of indifference to Old Bill, that always had set such store by his reppytation, whether folks believed him or didn’t.

When he come to the old trail of the Lucky Card cinnabar mine he found it just about growed over, but it was better’n no trail at all, and he was in a hurry for to get home. If he hadn’t taken that trail he never would of met up with Charley Joe’s squaw. But there she was a-standing with her back to him, where the trail widened a bit, and she had on a red calico waist and a skirt made out of flour sacking. Mrs. Charley Joe’s backside was about an axe-handle across, and the flour sacking was stretched so tight that Old Bill could read the big letters plain — “Pride of the Valley.”

Yesterday he never would of paid attention to that, but something surely had happened to him, and he split his whiskers for to grin. Mrs. Charley Joe didn’t hear him a-coming. She was a-staring at a patch of sky through the sugar pines, and he knowed what she was a-watching for, because he could hear geese. The geese they got louder and louder and then the V of them, maybe fifty honkers, passed northward across that patch of open fair sky. And whilst they was a-crossing, Mrs. Charley Joe held out her arms to them, and she says, “O wild geese, take me with you!” She put her face in her arms and she bust out a-crying.

Indians had always been Indians to Old Bill, and because that was the way it had been he couldn’t understand why he was a-feeling sorry for Mrs. Charley Joe. He’d run that squaw out of his huckleberries many the time. And when she lifted her wet eyes and seen who it was, of course she turned for to run again— but something in Old Bill’s face it stopped her, something that come right through the whiskers. Fact of the matter was, he was a-thinking some of chucking Mrs. Charley Joe under the chin for to comfort her — but way he told the story, he always declared that he didn’t. However that may have been, he got her for to tell him her troubles — in Indian, and jargon, and white talk. A mile or so away, she says, Charley Joe was in camp with a busted leg, and with him was a lot of relations — old folks and kids — who looked to Charley Joe as their natural pervider. All them Indians was on a starvation diet, with nobody for to hunt for them.

“You come along with me, Mrs. Charley Joe,” Old Bill tells her, “and we’ll soon get you a deer.”

So Mrs. Charley Joe she pigeon-toed along behind him, a-figgering that her troubles was over, and never guessing that already he wished he had his promise back. Fact was, he was afeared he couldn’t redeem it, the way he’d been a-shooting and everything. But he went to hunting for all he was worth, a-going slow and a-going careful, because that time he calculated for to make a spoon or spoil a horn.

Mrs. Charley Joe follered him like his shadder, and it was her who seen the deer first, with them Indian eyes of her’n. She whispered to Old Bill, “ Mowitch!” and he stiffened. They was in a little draw and at the head of it was twin rocks, set like the rear sight of a rifle — and the buck he was between them rocks. Old Bill drawed a careful bead on it, and the Winchester belched again. That there surely was Mrs. Charley Joe’s deer!

But when the smoke thinned, danged if the deer was down and kicking like it should of been. It stood there just like before, and Old Bill drawed a second bead. He pulled trigger again. And when the smoke blowed away for a second time the buck was a-standing there yet. Old Bill was fitten to tie, and he wanted for to throw down his hat and jump on it — but he cut loose a third time. Six times the Winchester bellered, and last time he was a-shaking like he had the buck agger, before the deer was down in the notch of them rocks.

Well, the two of them run up to it, with Mrs. Charley Joe a-drawing her skinning knife, and she got there first. But before ever she slashed at its throat, she turned towards Old Bill and she give him a look that was mighty nigh worship. He seen what she seen, though he couldn’t believe it, and the two of them stood there a-staring at one another. Behind the right-hand rock was five fat bucks, all in a heap, and the sixth one laid where it fell in the notch. You can see how it was — he hadn’t missed ary heart-shot! The first five bucks jumped ahead for to die, whilst the sixth one fell exactly where he plugged it.

He wouldn’t take none of the meat — he just waved his hand at it, and grinned at Mrs. Charley Joe and stepped out for home again, a-figgering to hunt some more as he went. But when he looked in his pockets he found that he had fired his last ca’tridge. The bird tunes like fiddles and flutes was still in his head, and somehow being fresh out of cartridges didn’t make no difference to him, though he wondered why not. And whilst he was a-walking and a-wondering, somebody called to him.

“Oh, Bill!” — just like that. He always said he knowed it happened like he told it, because there was one of them big woodpeckers, with the red topknot, left off hammering a snag for to hearken. And here come the feller. He come a-running without ary sound, for he wore moccasins — and Old Bill never had set eyes on him before. The stranger was dressed in buckskin, with a fringed hunting shirt, and a coonskin cap with the tail a-flopping, and he carried a long flintlock rifle like Old Bill’s own grandpappy used for to set such store by. A young lad of about thirty, or such a matter, and an inch or so under six foot. Powerful built. Long nose and blue eyes, and well-weathered. He had a hunting knife at his hip and a hatchet stuck into his belt. Old Bill seen all this at a glance, and them two fell into step. He couldn’t, puzzle it out, but he knowed a woodsman when he seen one, and seemed natural for to talk with that stranger about the woods and the hunting. They got along fine.


AFTER a bit Old Bill says to the stranger, polite as a basket of chips, he says: “Stranger, you got the advantage of me. Dang me if I can place you. But I guess we met somewheres,” Old Bill says. “ Where you been hunting, mostly? And what?”

“Kaintucky,” the stranger tells him. “And b’ar, and deer, and elk, and bufffler, and turkey.”

A thunderhead was a-shaping over Baldy, and Old Bill he taken a squint at it for to gain time. He knowed there hadn’t been a buffalo killed in Kentucky since he was born, and longer than that. And Kentucky was a far ways. His ma’s folks they come from there. The buffalo was even long gone from the plains, where he seen them when he was a shirttailed boy. If he had met up with the stranger yesterday, and the stranger had told him about ahunting buffalo in Kentucky, Old Bill would of called him a liar to his face and backed it up toe to toe. But Old Bill was a lot different since he had taken a long, sweet drink at that spring.

“Buffler?” says Old Bill.

“Buffler to burn,” the stranger tells him.

The thunderhead was a-thickening and a-boiling over Baldy, and the firs and cedars and sugar pines was beginning for to sigh and to sing.

“And Injuns,” the stranger says. “Shawnees and Chickasaws; Cherokees, too. In Kaintucky, ‘fore folks come a-surging in. Bill, you shorely missed it!”

Now Old Bill he knowed, as his ma’s son, that the buffalo and them three tribes wasn’t in Kentucky no longer, nor for a considerable spell, and that the stranger was a-talking nonsense. But still and all it didn’t sound like nonsense, and Old Bill he taken to the stranger like they was brothers. And in the back of his mind there was something a-stirring and awhispering that a man couldn’t admit to himself. Old Bill always claimed that he suspicioned who the stranger was, on account of what his own ma had told him.

“What might your name be, stranger?” says Old Bill. The big thunderhead over Baldy was arolling up from its center, and the edges washed like with dust from the Umpqua placer bars.


There was a white fork of lightning over Baldy, a rumbling and crash of thunder from the black cloud — and Old Bill was soul-alone on the trail. He couldn’t see hide nor hair of the stranger anywheres.

Well, sir, the rain went to westward and the woods was bright again with the sun. He knowed it wasn’t no manner of use, he knowed it wasn’t the thunder he’d heerd, — he knowed what it was, — but he stood there in the manzanita, it a-smelling like honey, and he called.

“Hey!” Old Bill calls. And “O-o-o-o-h-o-o-o!”

There wasn’t no answer, and he didn’t expect none—but all the same, he was flummoxed. He taken a look over one shoulder, now and again, as he stepped it off down the trail, though he wasn’t afeared, and he felt uncommon supple and fit. You wouldn’t of knowed it was a-threatening for to storm a few minutes before, for the far top of Baldy was bright as a cavalry button. Folks would think he was a liar, when he told them — but strangest thing was, he knowed he wouldn’t mind it at all. The violins and flutes they was still in his head, a-playing the old square dances over and over.

That was how things was with Old Bill when he had a feeling somehow that, he was a-being follered — and him with nary a ca’rtridge. There wasn’t ary creature nor man that Old Bill was afeared of, so after a bit he turned square around — and, dang him, if there wasn’t a nine-foot cougar, a she one, he suspicioned, flowing towards him like silk whilst she sniffed at his boot tracks! He knowed cougars — he’d shot many a one — and he jedged her to be as big and beautiful as sin. Like I say, Old Bill wasn’t afeared, but there he was without ary ca’tridge, and he reckoned it might be no more’n hoss-sense for him to make himself skeerce around there.

“If its tracks you want,” he says to the cougar, “I’ll just step you off a few!”

He lit out long-legged at first, limber and easy, and still not a mite afeared, but when he taken a look over his shoulder he settled down for to run like a towhead — because she was a-loping along behind him almost at his heels. But the look on that she-cougar’s face had him puzzled. It was surely a problem. She didn’t look mad, nor fierce, not a bit, and, praise the Lord, she didn’t look a mite hungry. She looked like a tabby that hankered for to play. She looked like a girl Old Bill remembered a far piece back, when he went to barn dances.

And a-thinking of how she p’intedly favored that girl, Old Bill he legged it so as skeercely to tetch the trail. It felt almost like he was a-flying. Could Old Bill have outrun that she-cougar after he’d settled down for to make it a race? He never rightly knowed — for he went head over heels, backside over brisket, in the prettiest cartwheel ever you seen. A vine, maybe, or a root in the trail. But he come to his feet with a whoop, and he had his knife out and the big blade opened. He looked for her for to jump him all spraddled out, and he aimed for to make a fight of it.

A man never can rightly figger a cougar. They’ll do the dad-blamedest things. And that cougar, that nine-foot she one, she put on the brakes when Old Bill cartwheeled, and as he come to his feet she was a-sitting there looking at him, and more than ever she looked like the girl Old Bill recollected. She slitted them turrible eyes of her’n and beamed on him. She cocked her head on one side, just like that girl used for to do when she felt kittenish, and reached out her paw — she’d broken the neck of many a deer with it — to cuff at his hat in the trail. Then she looked at Old Bill, whilst she was a-smiling like a tabby, and them big claws of her’n tickled the hat again, and the tip of her tail quivered a bit, and she started in for to purr.

She purred something turrible, and still a-purring she began a-cuffing his hat around and a-tossing it up into the air, and taking a swipe at it as it come down. Old Bill, he seemed for to have growed fast to the trail. He couldn’t stir a foot and he couldn’t wiggle ary finger for watching her didoes. And stir he didn’t, till she give him that barn dance look again — it was Amelia, all over — and with his hat in her mouth went a-loping into the timber. It beat all, her taking his hat — yes, and welcome. But the beatingest thing of all was, why did that she-cougar look like Amelia? It was surely a problem.


OLD BILL, he given a whole lot of thought to this, and the rest of it, whilst he traipsed along home, with the fiddles not so loud now, but a-playing soft and low, like as though he only felt them. He seen the wildflowers by the trail and his heart was rejoiced. It was just yon side of Purvis’s that he chanced upon the littlest LaFromboise, and the boy had been a-crying. Seems he had follered a baby rabbit into some wild blackberries, and he like to never got out — him being little more than a baby himself — and he was scratched up considerable.

When he seen Old Bill he began howling again, on account of Old Bill’s general reppytation. But Old Bill reached out and caught him as he was a-backing off, and he drawed him to his side, and there on one knee in the trail he taken out his bandana and wiped away the tears. And danged ef he didn’t manage for to get that LaFromboise infant to tell him why he had been a-weeping.

“Why, shucks!” Old Bill he says to the little LaFromboise. “Blackberries ain’t nothing for to cry about! When I was a boy your size we used them blackberry vines for galluses!”

He taken the boy on his shoulder, both of them a-laughing fit to kill, and so them two come to Purvis’s place together, and the same neighbors was a-playing horseshoes again. They couldn’t believe their eyes, they couldn’t. And when Old Bill taken a set of shoes and right off pitched him a ringer and a leaner they taken turns sidling around for to get a whiff of his breath — but all that it smelled of was Peerless pipe tobacco. It had them all beat. It surely puzzled a man. But he didn’t play long. He wanted somehow for to see Marthy, and Little Marthy, and Young Bill — and Baldy was a-getting pink and gold as a wedding cake. He surely wanted for to see them — for seemed like to Old Bill that he had a lot to make up for.

When he come to his place he went over the fence like a yearling, and Marthy was a-fetching water from the well. She turned towards him as he come, and he seen the thin stooped slope of her shoulders, and he seen her gray hair and her wrinkles, and the gray look of her that was like a child about to be cuffed — but, by Godfrey, seemed like he didn’t see none of this at all! It surely seemed to Old Bill that he seen Marthy like in old days, when them two was young and there wasn’t a prettier girl in the county. He taken the buckets from her hands.

“Give me them buckets, Marthy,” says Old Bill Smith.

It surely must have been the spring — how is a man to figure it was anything else? But nobody never found the spring afterward, when they heerd tell about it. Even Old Bill, he never could backtrail to it. Young Sinclair, hunting hooters, shot down Old Bill’s hat from the branch of a sugar pine forty foot from the ground, beyond Purvis’s. It was tore some. A couple of the neighbors come by Charley Joe’s camp, and he did have a broken leg, and him and Mrs. Charley Joe and all them relations had more deer meat then than they rightly knowed what for to do with. Facts is facts. And a man couldn’t rightly expect all of it for to be proved.

From that day on, as folks tell it, Old Bill made it a p’int for to be almighty moderate with the truth when it was nowise necessary. There’s lots of people ready for to take oath that Old Bill was an abler liar than Cap Bivens of Silver Creek—which is a-saying a lot, because Cap Bivens was a caution and he had sixty year of steady practice. He had more than a head start on Old Bill, but Old Bill was surely a credit to the Umpquas. It seems funny that, a-starting late like he done, he lied so easy and so natural. It surely seems funny unless a man considers that spring. He taken a deal of pride in his reppytation too, though he give the lost spring the credit. Until he taken sick, ten year afterwards, Old Bill’s cabin was the happiest place in all them hills. A good lie has its p’ints. A danged good lie is better than a mean truth anytime, a man is honestly bound for to admit. There’s times it fair staggers a man — the amazing grace of a good lie. And Old Bill, he give a mighty good accounting of his gift, praise the Lord.

But time come when Old Bill was a-dying, and he taken quite a while for to cross Jordan, and his back must have hurt him dreadful. All his folks was there in the room, and all the neighbors. Marthy stooped over him like as though he was a child of her’n.

“Do you hurt anywheres, Bill?” she says.

His eyes they twinkled up at her out of the shag of his whiskers and eyebrows. “Hell, no!” whispers Old Bill Smith — and seemed like he fallen asleep.