Chapter 1 (continued) – in which the first conundrum is untangled
Now, the mill was our sawmill, and as far back as I could remember being alive there was that sawmill and us all working it, though of course at some point in the misty past, back way too far for me to remember, Kalapuya John must’ve muscled that water gate open for the very first time, and then the stone-lined millrace had filled up with the bright Santiam for the first time, and the great wooden water wheel spun into noisy life. Pa would’ve been standing there on the deck, hand on the clutch of the driveshaft, and he would’ve run his eye over everything then, and everything would’ve been ready, (because he built it of course), and he would have put in the clutch and engaged the saw. But we were never really done with it; you never are done with something like that; I mean, I think we spent at least half our time just taking it apart and putting it back together. My earliest memories, it seems, were me finding an oak peg for Pa, or fetching him his pipe while he tinkered, or holding something while he hit it with a big hammer. “Don’t flinch, Danny,” he’d say, “You’re gonna get hurt if you flinch.” Gonna, he’d say. He dropped his Gs considerably out at the mill though he picked them back up in the house for ma - so did I.
I did not think of that then; I was happy from my dinner if I recall, and content to let Mr. Jeff do the thinking and drop all the Gs he wanted, and I knew I would be included in whatever was planned. (And likely be called on to hold something while he hit it.) What did that mean ‘build our own ferry?’
We had a book of stories in our house, you know. Both my mother and Mr. Jeff read easily, and wanted me to also, and taught me early. Of course the book was precious, we had so few, and I remember every story in that book started with a little picture, and this one about pirates had a pirate ship, and a jolly roger flag and a parrot, all very exotic to me, and somehow this silly thing got in my head, and as I was clearing the table after dinner I was looking at that picture, in my head.
Pa and Mr. Pickering put back on their oilcloth slickers after dinner, as did I, and we walked down through the heavy rain to the mill, and into the half-light inside to a stack of dry lumber against one dark wall; a stack of twenty foot cedar 1 x 10 planks the color of smoked salmon, as pretty as you please, and stacked as tall as I was, that we had built board by board the winter before, the winter I was twelve years old; neat, level, seasoned, and ready...for what?
The rain was a steady beat. Pa said, “Refresh us, if you would, Stanley: how did you and Mrs. Pickering get in-country from the Umatilla… or did you come that way?”
Mr. Pickering reached out to feel of the pink squared plank-end at eye level in front of him, and picked at a small splinter. “It was not a bateau, Mr. Jeff, if that’s what you’re thinking. They were there, of course, and folks were using them, but Elizabeth did not like the looks of the Injun who was offering to guide us, and to be honest, I did not like the looks of the river; not that it mattered anyway, we couldn’t pay. You will remember I have told you that Elizabeth and I were at the end of our string there in Umatilla, Mr. Jeff, although we had been pretty well outfitted when we left Missouri. We had took losses on the Platte and Snake crossings that summer. When we finally reached the Columbia, we sold what outfit we had left for pennies on the dollar, bought one old Nez Perce horse, some food, some moccasins (because we were barefoot), some black powder and percussion caps, and walked Sam Barlow’s road over Mount Hood, and down the valley to just upstream from you, Mr. Jeff, right here on the Santiam. You recall that was four years ago.”
“Four years already. Do you ever regret it?” asked my father, and I looked up, surprised at his question. Mr. Pickering stood up straighter then, and looked my father in the eye, and with a bit of a smile said, “Despite the damn rain, sir, not even for one moment do I regret coming west. Nor Elizabeth neither. Not for one moment. Now tell me, Mr. Jeff: did you bring me out here just to admire this great stack of cedar?”
My father looked back at Mr. Pickering and smiled. “Such a good neighbor,” he said, “And such a good partner.” He stuck out his small thick hard right hand; Mr. Pickering looked puzzled, and amused, and then clasped my father’s hand in his own large fair one. I remember now how both of their hands had little wounds on them, some healed and some new and raw, and broken dirty nails too, though none of that was remarkable then; all men's hands looked like that. My hands looked the same. They shook and let go, and Mr. Jeff said, “The best cooper in the whole valley, and we’ve got him right here, Danny. Can you believe our luck?” “Yes sir,” I said. My father went on, “Mr. Pickering, your barrel-making, your skilled hand and eye is why we have any whiskey to sell.” Mr. Pickering retorted, “Your milled white oak, sir, and the tools you ordered from Ft. Vancouver when mine were lost in the Snake River. And let us remember, that it is you who knows how to make the whisky from corn, though I am improving my effort. Three years running now, and a quality product, if I do say so. And I do say we want a more reasonable return on our labor.”
“Well, Pickering,” said my father, “We are looking here at enough dry seasoned cedar to build a substantial bateau. You help me build it this winter, and run it down the Santiam and the Willamette this spring, and your labor, including your cooperage, will pay to freight you and your whiskey to Oregon City’s buyers, with extra on top. What do you say? It will be profit free and clear for you.” “Oh well, Mr. Jeff,” he said, “That’s not hard. As I said earlier, if you will be our leader, why sir, I’m your man.” “Good!” said Mr. Jeff; “Done. And what about you, Danny?” “Right with ever-sharp, sir,” I said smartly, “But one thing...what’s a ba-toe?”