The Seven League Boots
Here’s another older story that I don’t think is online anywhere; this is the first half and the second half will follow in a separate post. This story first appeared in the Winter ’99 edition of New Millennium Writings and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by that magazine’s editor. This is a locale and a character I’ve revisited in another unpublished story and someday I’ll go back to this well and try and make something more of it all.
The Seven League Boots
In May 1916, when the cougar bounty reached four-and-a-half dollars for scalp and ears, Trevor Wilson shouldered his rifle and walked up into the Cascade Mountains. He left of an early morning when the mist churned thickly between tree trunks straight and orderly as dusty harpstrings. He told neither his father nor aunt goodbye and was twenty-three days on the mountain with his rifle lost, his boots broken and without a single trophy to hang from his belt before he admitted to himself he’d failed and might yet have to take the same mill job his father had settled for.
On and down and over the hills and through the forest the boy made his way back home. Early June with the summer’s first yellowy green in the moss and the river sparkling and cold, ringing like metal upon its bedded stone. Weary and gaunt and footsore and hungered, Trevor followed the river down-mountain toward the town of Morrison and home. He found little game; ate wild berries, roots, tree bark. When he came, at last, upon the old skidroad and heard, suddenly and from out of nowhere, the donkey-engines blowing steam and the millsaws shrieking, he realized he’d come down too far and overshot both the cabin and the town. Trevor stood for a time at the edge of the woods, staring at the greased logs running like ladder-slats into a wall of green. Sighing deeply, he stepped from the forest and onto the road and turned toward the mill.
He walked through bright designs of sunlight flashing through breaks in the wind-quivered canopy. The branches leaned low and as he walked he lifted his hands to brush back soft needles. The chugging engines stilled suddenly and the millsaws snapped to silence—all faded in echo on echo until only the deep, calm quiet of the forest remained. This hush he’d come to know so well—a stillness so green, so shadow-filled and wind becalmed that he stopped walking to cock his head and listen.
The saws started again and he could hear men calling from the clearing ahead where the mills stood. Trevor’s feet, encased in boots muddied, torn and ruined, slapped the guttered mud where wagon wheels had gouged furrows in the dark and loamy soil. Hoof prints stamped an incessant parade through the muck and little, darkly jeweled horseflies explored the air above clumped droppings.
Trevor walked the road toward the whine of saws and the shouts of men working. He smelled their tobacco-smoke before he came upon two of them taking their lunch beside where the road ran into the clearing. They sat on stones and their forearms were bare, their hands held cigarettes and sandwiches.
They did not see him and Trevor stood behind them, staring at the bread-and-meat in their hands. He swallowed dryly and said, “Afternoon.”
They started and swore and jerked their heads around. One was much older than his fellow and he let his sandwich drop into his tin pail as he stood, then set his elbow in the dish of his palm. The other was, perhaps, a year or two older than Trevor himself and stood with feet spread, thumbs hooked to beltloops with his cigarette slanting sharply from his jaw. Both were known to Trevor as he was known to them and they stood together without speaking for some time. Trevor stared at the mill and the half-hidden roofs of Morrison beyond the trees. He could smell suppers cooking. They stared at him until the younger said, “Jesus,” and, as if there were not enough, repeated himself adding, “What in hell happened to you?”
Trevor nudged a pebble with his boot toe. “Went up into the mountains for a spell,” he said.
“Looks like you been drug ass-backward through a blackberry patch is what it looks like.”
Trevor shrugged again and looked at the older man. “How’re things, Buddy?” Buddy pinched his cigarette between his thumb and middlefinger and drew deeply on it then took it from his lips to study the glowing tip held so close to his palm as though it was an insect he’d caught troubling him. Smoke leaked slowly from the corners of his mouth. He finally sighed and ground the butt into the mud with his heel. “Trevor,” he said. He squinted and frowned and set his hands to his pockets, took a deep breath. “How are you boy? You ain’t hurt or nothing?”
Trevor shook his head. “Nah. Had me a scrape but I run into old Early Greerson and he fixed me up.”
“Yeh. Your daddy seen him and told us the same day he—”
Buddy turned on the younger man and cuffed the back of his head with an open hand. “Hush up Ole!” he snapped.
Ole turned to Buddy and opened his mouth then shut it again. He worked the cigarette around his mouth, blowing long spurts of smoke from his nostrils.
Buddy turned back to Trevor. “You going home now son?”
“Reckon I should.”
Buddy nodded and looked at Ole. “Give the man your sandwich.”
Ole shrugged and dropped his cigarette, producing a new one from the bib-pocket of his overalls and setting it to his lips. He looked at Trevor. “Give me a light,” he said.
Buddy rapped the back of his head again, this time with fisted foreknuckles and Ole ducked and winced and finally stooped to hand his half-eaten sandwich to Trevor.
Trevor held the sandwich in his hand. He thanked Ole, then peeled back the wax-paper and began to eat, chewing slowly and deliberately then quicker, eyes shut, the food going into him like a blessing. When Trevor finished, Buddy nodded. “Better?”
“Yessir,” said Trevor. “I’m obliged.”
Ole got his cigarette lit and looked at Buddy. “You going to tell him?”
Yes, I’m going to tell him. Shut your hole.”
“Jesus,” said Ole, turning away. He picked up his lunch-pail and started toward the mill. “I don’t know what all the fuss and bother is about,” he said over his shoulder. “I didn’t even know mine.”
Buddy barked at him and Ole fell silent and walked away.
“Tell me what?” asked Trevor.
Buddy sighed and moved his feet about, looked down, looked briefly at Trevor. “You’ll hear about it sooner or later anyhow . . .” And then he told Trevor what needed telling.
Trevor stood listening to it. His eyes flicked from Buddy to the mill and back again. And to the mill and back again as though assembling, between the voice of the man telling it and the place where it happened, some visual link to prove or disprove his father’s death. He stared at Buddy. But only for a moment because then his face spasmed and he dropped the wax-paper to the mud and waved his hands in the air before him as though to dispel the words just spoken. His breath came hot and raggedy and he set the heel of his palm against his forehead and squeezed shut his eyes.
“You all right, Trevor?”
Trevor nodded and absently lowered his hand to grip and tug at his pant’s leg in the fashion of a small boy lost.
“Jesus Christ. I hated like hell to tell you that.”
“I know it, Buddy. I hated like hell to hear it.”
With that, Trevor turned away and went on past the hill, up the road toward Morrison. His head was bowed so he did not see the men within the bay of the mill remove their caps to a man and watch him pass. The firemen before the stove held their shovels slack in their begloved hands and the mechanics looked up from over the engine-casings of rusting trucks. They watched him go and it seemed to them—by his wet, torn clothing, dirty to the color black, by the expression on his face—that he had already been in mourning for some time.
* * *
When he next looked up, Trevor was off the uphill trail and at the fence-posted lane. He chewed his inner cheek and stood looking at his home. The broad, covered front porch with the brilliant moss that scaled the shingles and hung from the sides curtain-wise or like strange hair. The half-empty wood-shed waiting to be filled for winter.
The outhouse set back within a dark copse of fir. The toolshed. The capped rain-barrel. Trevor took a deep breath and started up the lane, his hand trailing along beside him to touch each and every fencepost in its turn. He looked at the Aunt’s little house garden on the left where the corn stood tall as himself, at the mean little buds of cabbage eking themselves from the soil, at the tomatoes hanging off the vine like red paint flicked from a brush. He walked along, feeling the hard, packed earth under his ruined boots and saw how it had been swept into tight little intaglios of broomstroke and heel-press. Smoke from the dying cooking-fire stood tall and static in the windless air.
Finally, he was at the bottom porch step, then up on the porch itself, his hands on the doorknob, and then he was inside the cabin and home.
It was quiet and dark within, and cool. Little shivers of heat ran along cracks in the charred, black wood set crosswise in the hearth. Trevor stood in the doorframe and cocked his head to listen for the Aunt but there was sound other than the restless ticking of the kitchen stove. He walked there and opened the heavy iron door to take out the plate of food he knew would be inside. He didn’t bother to sit at the table but leaned against the cupboard and held the plate close to his face while his fingers groped after the food. Meat and cornbread. A biscuit drenched in white gravy wherein bobbed bits of sweet sausage that had withal become a half-warm, greasy paste. He chewed and swallowed and his gullet jerked like some spastic heart risen throbbing up his neck. When he finished he set the plate down and licked his fingers then went to the tiny, leaking icebox to find the single cup of milk he knew would be there for him. He drank it and set the cup down hard upon the table. He stood for a time breathing, his eyes glassy, far away.
Then he moved; suddenly and deliberately away from the table, the small kitchen, and through the sitting room—not looking at his father’s chair or the Aunt’s cane rocker but away and past them—to the short hall and down that in darkness until he came to his shut bedroom door. Inside, he looked around, pausing before a small, cracked mirror hung from a bent nail near the dresser, then turned to the bed to see fresh clothes laid out for him. He turned again, went back into the hall and to his father’s room.
He smelled his father’s pipe-tobacco and the sourness old sweat and stale blood rising from the working-clothes that lay ajumble at the foot of the bed. Trevor toed the torn, stained clothes a moment before getting to his hands and knees and reaching out his father’s work-boots from under the bed.
He sat on the bed holding them in his hands. The boots were cracked and torn and sewn back again. Mudcaked. Trevor turned them this way and that as though to read the shape of the man’s life from the myriad creases in the leather. He found the saw-cut down the ankle of the right boot. In cross-section the old leather looked new—soft and yellow and pliable. Trevor cradled the boot, held it tight to his chest. He shuddered and began him a silent, dry weeping.
He had no way to know how long he sat there, but finally he stood and carried the boots to his own room. He set them down under his bed then went outside to the rain-barrel to draw a basin of water. By the time he changed into the clothes she’d left out for him, Trevor saw the Aunt through the window, coming slowly up the lane.
Bent-backed, leaning heavily on her cane, the Aunt’s tiny malformed shadow darkened each fence-post she passed. She did not look up. Trevor could plainly see his bootprints in the finely-wrought earth—there amidst her designs of broomstroke and heel-press—and he knew that she could see them too, that she of all people would notice such a thing, but she did not raise her head to look for him. She carried with her a worn burlap sack filled with the month’s shopping. Her bonnet, once the color or a robin’s egg and starched to a rough stiffness, drooped about her face pale and soft as cobwebs. When she was at the bottom step, Trevor opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. She looked up at him.
Squinting, she held herself quite still—leaning on the cane as if into a wind. They regarded each other a long moment before the Aunt sighed heavily and mounted the porch to face him. She drew herself erect so she stood a full head taller than Trevor and looked down into his eyes. Spitting to the side, she let go the cane and it clattered to the boards. Her hand was at the side of his head then, her long, strong fingers curling down and around the base of his skull, gripping to the back of his neck. The old woman lowered her face so it was close and he could smell her breath and the odor of her skin—a sharp, bitter fragrance as of a stone split by the maul that in the moment of its fracture radiates an invisible electric charge as the quiet fire within is set free. Her dark eyes stared unblinking into his. She turned Trevor’s head this way and that then let go his neck and probed his scalp with her hard, dry fingertips. Satisfied he was unhurt, she stepped back, spat again and sucked a tooth.
“Well,” she finally said. “Are you or are you not going to help a woman with a bag?”
Trevor looked at her and grinned a grin he did not expect her to return and that she did not return. He took the sack and followed her inside.