The farewell feast
We crowded in and out of the bathroom, checking out the kill reclining lasciviously in the bathtub with its legs spread, tongue out, eyes glazed. The little hole in its head.
I opened the door to find myself staring into the lawful blue eyes of a jar-headed Montana state trooper. In that instant, a cloud of illegal smoke issued from the room and slammed the trooper with the impact of a cannon ball.
The farewell feast
by Steve Hawthorne
Decker killed the motor. I rolled the window down. The crew’s chatter let up.
In ready silence we coasted the van down the winding logging road, turned a bend, and eased to a stop beside a grassy clearing in the firs. I shoved the barrel through the window frame and rested my elbow on the door to steady the ‘aught-six.
Brought the bead in line with the rear sight notch…
Squeezed the trigger….
Rifle CRACK concussion hammered the eardrums of all ten crewmembers inside the van—ears ringing, their unshaved faces strained to see the yearling waver, drop to its knees, struggle to regain its legs, then fall again.
“Got him, Willy!” Decker hollered as I swung the door open. The crew exploded from the van, shouting triumphant, bellowing, grunting like successful Paleolithic hunters. No need for a second bullet.
The buck lay next to a stump, blood coursing from a neat hole at the base of its skull, seeping into the spring grass that lured it to the spot.
The strange mournful feeling came to me. Get it every time I kill an animal: melancholy entwined with jubilation for the kill. It’s natural, I suppose.
I slid the rifle under the seat—we’d planned the thing—a couple guys unloaded tree bags from the tool compartment while the rest of us hauled the deer over, stuffed it in, and piled the bags back on top. It wasn’t exactly deer season.
It was our last day planting trees near Thompson Falls, Montana. A forest service job—big timber sale, clear-cut, good ground, slashed, burned, just enough slope.
We attacked it like maniacs, “runnin’ an’ gunnin’”–pumping in a million seedlings on an 8-by-8 spacing–it looked like a giant checkerboard grid covering half a mountain.
We’d been driving by for a week and, most days, it would be there; somebody suggested we shoot the buck and have a party to celebrate the end of the season. Everybody agreed it was a good idea. I said, OK, I’d shoot it if it showed on the last day, though I wasn’t really that hot on the idea. But I was the only one who brought a rifle that trip, and if I hadn’t done it, one of the other guys would have borrowed the gun and shot the deer anyway.
We always looked forward to working in Montana. We loved the pristine wild places, the old-time funk of small towns, the trout fishing, the mystic spacious quality that served to loosen inhibitions and inspire the adventurous, creative soul. (We’d seen tavern girls fill with that creative inspiration, become adventurous, abandon their inhibitions, and dance on the tables; oh mercy yes.) The Big Sky state invited you to be free. Freedom somersaulted like a red-headed crazy clown–howled like a wolf call from blue mountain ranges in perpetual snow, resounding like a rifle-shot across vast lonesome expanses to resonate in our hot young hearts.
We liked the people; Montana people were the friendliest anywhere.
Independent and self-reliant, Montanans had a distinctive way of letting problems work themselves out. Just prior to our arrival, a Thompson Falls woman suffered from a common problem. The guy was an asshole, a berserk, vicious drunk who used his fists on her, kicked her—even ripped her tender flesh with his teeth on one particularly black night.
Everybody around Thompson Falls knew the situation. The cops knew all about it.
She’d come to get him from the tavern. He was drinking up the grocery money.
They were in the pickup, out in front of the bar, and he started whaling the shit out of her. Closed-fisted punches. Punching her lights out. Killing her.
She felt herself going under. Desperate, she grabbed his deer rifle off the rear window gun rack—she knew he kept it loaded.
The first shot blew him out of the truck. The second one blasted him clear across Route 200, where he collapsed, dead, by the Northern Pacific railroad tracks.
The cops figured the problem took care of itself—wrote it up as self-defense, called one of her friends to drive her home and stay with her to make sure she was going to be all right. No more black eyes, fat lips, or bites. That was the end of it.
The Webfoot Reforestation crew filled all the cabins at the Rainbow Motel on the east end of Thompson Falls. (Across the road, beyond the rail tracks, an expanse of the Clark’s Fork River winks through the cottonwoods–big trout swam in that section of river). The Rainbow was a relic from the earliest days of motels–six separate wood-framed clapboard cabins arranged in a row. The place was pleasantly run-down, had low rates, and deep old-fashion claw-foot bathtubs with wrap-around shower curtains. The larger cabin at one end was the housekeeping unit, with stove and refrigerator, which I shared with Jerry and “Burrito.”
Jerry and I were old friends. We both lived in northeastern Washington, so of course we were known as the “Washington Boys” to the Webfoot guys who, for the most part, came from the Willamette Valley-Eugene, Oregon area.
(“Those Washington Boys can shoot!”)
Jerry and I always roomed together while working away from home.
Ernie Britto, our roommate, was from Eugene. Everybody called him Burrito.
Burrito possessed an esoteric nature, a spiritual guy who, when not working, was often seen carrying or reading a book titled, Serving Humanity; something to do with the ascending levels of “Attainment,” and devoting oneself to “Service.” (I’d tried reading Serving Humanity, but the author’s sentence constructs were so long-winded and convoluted that I couldn’t get through it.)
Most tree planters were blatant and committed Hedonists, adventurers of the tactile, existential world; raging, passionate, burning their youth like butane.
I was slightly less of a partier than most of them, and somewhat of a philosopher, so Burrito, I think, related to me more than anyone else on the crew. He usually stayed with me, and Jerry, if it was three to a room. Sometimes we would lay in our beds in the dark, bodies ringing with the perfect exhaustion that comes after humping across mountains all day with sixty pounds of trees strapped on, running to get them planted, straining to get lighter, bending, running and bending every eight feet, swingin’ that hodag–workin’ that hoe—pluggin’ ‘em in. We’d lay there, not able to sleep yet, coming down from the adrenaline, talking about divinity, expressing with the fervent surety of young men our ideas about how and why things are, until it was very late, suspended in the lucid alpha-state between the world and dreams.
Burrito had recently become a macrobiotic vegetarian. He did all of his own food preparation in a set of cast-iron pots and pans he carried in a war-surplus G.I. pack.
The pans never knew meat, not even the innocuous just-this-once hamburger patty or slice of ham. The pans were sanctified and free of any death karma and, Burrito said, they’d have to be thrown away if they ever had meat cooked in them.
Webfoot owner Gus Shartz once said to Decker, his crew boss: “You see a guy eating carrots for lunch; I want you to fire him, Decker. Fire his fuckin’ ass an’ make him walk home.”
But, Burrito was a good tree planter, a “stepper”—one of the hammerheads capable of heeling in a thousand trees a day on slopes so steep that an average person would need climbing equipment to traverse them. He’d been with Shartz for many seasons and earned a solid position on the Webfoot crews. Shartz, in spite of his own culinary prejudices, tried to accommodate Burrito with housekeeping quarters when we were on the road, so he could prepare the special diet.
So, there we were, headed toward Thompson Falls with a poached deer stashed under the tree bags. Everybody was in a fine mood. Feeling good. Finishing the unit on a Saturday was an option–we had enough crew to cover it–Burrito took the day off to go for a hike up the Thompson River. We made a stop at the store in town where we loaded several cases of beer on top of the buck. We hadn’t really thought the plan past the procurement stage. Hadn’t precisely clarified in our own minds, or to each other, where we’d have the barbeque once we shot the deer. Of course, it was known that Jerry and I were staying at the housekeeping unit with Burrito. It had a stove. And if not ample, there was at least enough room to squeeze in the fifteen or so friends who would join the party.
In the wordless drive home, we tacitly decided to take the deer over to our cabin at the Rainbow. We backed up close to the door, and when we thought no one was watching, snuck the body inside and flopped it into the bathtub. It had to be the tub; there wasn’t any other good place.
Everybody had a beer opened, crowding in and out of the bathroom, checking out the kill reclining lasciviously in the bathtub with its legs spread, tongue out, eyes glazed. The little hole in its head. A good thing, we all agreed.
Baggs stationed himself at the table, wearing the blue ballcap bearing his oblique but proud statement on the class struggle: “PO FOKE,” the embroidered inscription announced. He grabbed his bong-pipe and got busy filling the bowl, passing it around.
Didn’t have to look for a knife; we all had them. The favorite was the Buck Folding Hunter—hard to put an edge on, but held one once you did. It had a good all-purpose blade that folded into a flat-sided wooden handle with brass bolsters, and fit snug in a discreet leather holster worn on the belt. I kept mine razor sharp.
“Let’s cut that liver out an get it fryin’,” Pollock urged from the doorway, tilting his beer toward the carcass while Jerry and I gathered the ticks trying to clamber out of the slippery tub, fleeing the cold host, abandoning ship. We pinched the ticks and threw them in the toilet. Didn’t want them getting into the room, the beds–ticks in that area carry the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever bacillus. Makes you violently sick. Causes death.
“We need some onions a fry with that liver,” somebody said.
I slit the throat–lots of blood–stuck the knife point into the soft skin at the back of a hind leg, cut around the asshole and pecker, zipped open the cavity, reached in and cut the liver free. Nice. Nice looking liver. I put it in the sink. “Hey! One of you guys have a frying pan?”
Ten or twelve guys looked at each other. Shuffled. Examined the floor. Looked at each other again. Nobody had one–we weren’t camping that trip. Couldn’t buy one in little Thompson Falls–you’d have to drive all the way to Missoula for a goddam pan.
“Fuck…Me…Runnin’,” Decker invited, throwing himself in front of the stampeding dilemma. “Doesn’t Burrito have a set of pans for cooking his sprouts and seaweeds?”
Jerry cast me a glance. I could read his eyes–wanting to know if we’re going to fall off the horns.
The motel had no barbeque facility; we had to cook all the meat, had no way to keep it, couldn’t waste it. No, wouldn’t even consider that.
“Burrito would be upset if we used his stuff…” I said, peeling back the hide.
Pollock offered a pretty good, but not bulletproof plan: “Let’s just cook all the meat, real quick, scrub the pans, an’ put them away like we never used ‘em. He won’t know.”
The only flaw we could see in the plan was that Burrito might walk in at any time and catch us in the act. Nobody knew when he’d be back.
Baggs, the pragmatist, the natural-born arbitrator, came forward with what seemed like a reasonable theory, and a way toward solving the frying pan problem.
“Burrito would want us to use those pans,” Baggs maintained. “Burrito is our brother.”
He’d help us out–you know it. He won’t care. Really. He’d do it for us. Besides, we can ante up enough to buy him a new set. He’d be happy with a new set.”
Baggs made a convincing argument.
Burrito would want us to use his stuff. The whole crew thought so.
That goddam Jerry was no help, ambiguous, staying out of the decision-making, silently working on the butchering.
They all looked toward me. It was generally felt that I had the tightest relationship with Burrito–hence, in his absence I should have the final word on the matter.
“Well….” It just came out, and was immediately interpreted to be a “yes!”
Before I could stop them, the boys had everything out of Burrito’s pack, all four burners on the stove lit and covered with the requisite cast-iron vessels.
Pollock took charge of the liver.
Somebody found a couple of onions among Burrito’s stash of veggies in the refrigerator. “Burrito would want us to use these onions.” The rest of Burrito’s vegetables remained, unmolested.
We had the venison rendered off the bones, cut into fryable-sized pieces, and stacked in a pyramid rising above the bathroom sink. Pollock kept it moving from the pile to the stove and the place filled with the savory carnivorous bouquet of frying game and onions.
Did I tell you there was a lot of blood in the bathroom? The bathroom resembled the blood-splattered nightmare at the Banks Motel in the movie Psycho–after the murder. In addition to copious blood, the tub contained the buck’s head, hide, bones, and guts—a considerable amount of guts. Jerry, always resourceful, solved the solid-waste problem by peeling the cases off the motel pillows and stuffing them with the leftover parts. He slipped out to the dumpster with the pillowcases, obscene bleeding bags, hair sticking out of the tops. We used the bathroom towels on the blood—a ghoulish surprise for the maids.
The buccaneer crowd swelled the cabin, slouching on the beds and furniture in their muddy logger clothes; dirt clods loosened from lug-soled boots crunching on the linoleum. The beer popped and bubbled–flowed like a babbling brook. A lot of beer.
Everybody enjoyed the fresh venison. Self-serve: We grabbed our buck knives, stuck a piece out of the pan and ate it off our blades. No messy plates. Basic. What could be better?
We had the door closed and there was a good accumulation of smoke: A mix of venison, tobacco, dope. A couple of friends from Cooper’s crew came in. “Smelt the venison clear down at the tavern,” Darrell Crow said. Everybody called him “Crow.” He wore a long ponytail with a raven feather plaited into it and dressed in the tree planter uniform of hickory shirt, suspenders, 88 jeans frayed short up to the boot tops by slash and brush.
“Heard we’re havin’ a party. Heard Willy jacked that little buck.”
Who knows how these things get around?
The party revved–Bagg’s boombox blasted Howlin’ Wolf: “We be down by da fiiiyahouse shakin’ dat wang dang doodle….” Bumpin’. Thumpin’. Honkin’.
All-you-could-eat venison. Feelings of camaraderie filled the gathering. Everybody talking at once–wall-of-sound talking—excited, buzzed.
They’d be going home on Monday. A day and a half of R-and-R in Thompson Falls while the crews finished. Shartz would have the pay envelopes ready on Sunday, and we’d be through with the spring planting season.
We broke the legs off the wooden table. Arm wrestling. We propped it up and it still held beers OK. You just couldn’t arm wrestle on it anymore.
Decker, his belly full, heart warming with the fourth beer, expressed his love and concern for Burrito. “I don’t know how Burrito can live on that shit. You can only live on moss an’ grass for so long. I wish he was here right now; I know he’d eat some of this good venison with us. I know he would. Damn straight he would. Hey? Don’t you think Burrito would eat with us, Willy?”
“I guess he would. Maybe. I don’t know.”
As is the way with young men, their voices rose to outdo each other recounting tales of renown. Legendary stories of glorious deeds and debauchery.
The bong got knocked off the couch arm. Bummer. But no problem, the upholstery soaked up the mess. That smell, though….
Things couldn’t have been better. I was about half whacked, the party rolling nicely when…Knock. Knock. Knock. There were three equally spaced loud knocks on the door.
I opened the door to find myself staring into the lawful blue eyes of a jar-headed Montana state trooper. In that instant, a cloud of illegal smoke issued from the room and slammed the trooper with the impact of a cannon ball, knocking him back a step; I swear I saw the Smokey Bear hat slide back on his head.
Silence crashed the party. The conversation ducked for cover.
A lone voice broke the silence behind me, “Aw, shit.”
“OK,” the trooper started, “I know that you are smoking weed in there. You guys are leaving Monday, right? Here’s the deal: Do not shoot any more deer. If I come back here, I better not smell any more dope or poached venison frying in there.
“And I don’t want to see any of you guys around the local women.” That said, he turned, got in his cruiser, scrubbed out of the driveway, and never came back.
We were the Kings of the Woods! Right? Hell yes! You know it! Damn straight!
We were invincible, unconquerable, indestructible, indomitable, insuperable, impregnable, inviolable. Mighty powerful. Even the cops left us alone.
“Shoulda offered him a beer an’ a piece of meat, Willy.”
“Willy has no manners.”
“Willy needs to develop his social skills.”
“Can you believe that shit?”
We all agreed that the Big Sky state was the center of the universe. Its kindness to us would become a thing of legend, and the stories of our deeds there, in a very short span of time, would grow to mythic proportions.
The visit from the law did kind of break the party’s momentum. Things were winding down when Burrito showed. I heard him exchange greetings with a couple of the boys outside. He walked in smiling, then noticed the greasy assembly on the stovetop.
The smile dissipated. His lips moved as if to produce words, then tightened into a straight paper cut. He had no words for us. There were no words to be wasted on the conniving, disrespectful likes of us.
Everyone noticed this change of mood and rushed to the cause, plying Burrito with beers, weed, an offering of meat from Decker. I tried to give him the hundred bucks we’d collected to cover ruining the pans, but he wouldn’t take it, wouldn’t even look at me when I lamely offered it. He wouldn’t look at any of us. You couldn’t get near him, the vibe was too repellent–a crackling force field against us.
I could tell he was on the verge of tears, and I knew it wasn’t about the pans. He’d walked in on naked betrayal pure and simple.
Burrito packed his duffle and split. Left the cookware. Took off hitchhiking toward Oregon.
Most of the crew woke with hangovers on Sunday. We trickled in for coffee and by mid-morning the local café filled with freshly showered tree planters.
Shartz held accounts at one of the tables. He’d been staying over in Plains, and if he knew anything about the party he kept it to himself.
Me and Jerry came over to the job in my pickup and were going to leave for Washington as soon as we got paid. We shook hands all around and said our good-byes.
Decker wanted to know if we’d be back next year. I told him I’d call–but I never did.
The rest of the guys would be riding back to Oregon in Webfoot’s three crew-vans.
Burrito would have been riding with Decker if he hadn’t got pissed-off and hitchhiked.
I know that stretch of road very well. We all knew it: The narrow road between Thompson Falls and Sandpoint. Jerry and I passed through on our way home, past the tight curves as you drive through the gap in the Cabinet Mountains, the Shed Roof Range rising in the north like a white-capped tidal wave. I’ve driven it many times, to and from planting jobs, sometimes on fishing excursions into Montana. It used to be fairly unspoiled, steep and heavily timbered—wild country where the traveler might see an eagle circling above the narrow, impossibly green Pack River Valley. Passing through, there is the chance you will startle a bear attempting to cross the road and send it hustling back up the embankment. A group of elk grazing on the bottomland pasture may stop its feeding to watch you pass. And if your eyes are sharp, you might catch a glimpse of the pale trickster coyote slipping like a gray spirit toward the shadows of a tamarack stand beside a bend in the highway.
The crew got an early start, eager to be on the road, happy to be going home.
Baggs sat in the seat Burrito usually rode in. The Oregon boys are used to hauling ass on country roads, and they were jamming through those curves near the Pack River when the deer jumped out. They should have hit it; it would have been better if they’d just slammed into it and destroyed the front end of Shartz’s van. I wish they’d hit that fuckin’ deer, but they swerved to avoid it, traveling too fast, bombing, inertia seized hold of them, weighed them on the balance, this way-that way, and hurled them.
They flipped, rolled over twice, and plowed into that stand of tamarack on the edge of the pasture.
All nine of the friends riding in the van were injured. Decker and Baggs were thrown out when it rolled, and died in that place, crushed under the tumbling van.
Shartz phoned and gave me the news about the boys. That’s how I found out that Burrito had lucked out on a ride all the way to Oregon, and was already home in Eugene when it happened. §
Steve Hawthorne is a freelance writer who lives in Morro Bay.
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