Chapter 1 – in which the first conundrum is untangled
Thomas Jefferson Smith was a man of few words, unlike his neighbors, who would as soon talk as work, he said. Not Mr. Jeff, no standing around for him. It might have been his German grandmother, because (like her), he could work most men right into the ground, just simply leave them pink-faced and blowing, and screwed right down tight into the mud with only their hats showing so they wouldn’t get stepped on by the stock.
The thing was, Mr. Jeff could work hard but he hated to work stupid. Now that might have been his grandmother on the Scotch-Irish side. She said there was nothing a man couldn’t do better than a horse could if he only had a pry-bar or a come-along winch, and Mr. Jeff had both, in different sizes. (So did his grandmother.) Jefferson Smith would use a horse though, and he’d use it in ways others wouldn’t even imagine, they’d be all like, “Hunh. How’d you get that team up there?” And Mr. Jeff would just maybe spare them a dry look before getting on with his business, which was usually sawmilling, with a little homesteading on the side, which was where I come in.
The time we took the whiskey into Oregon City to sell to Dr. John was one of those times people would tell about Mr. Jeff, though nowadays they usually get it wrong. He himself would never talk about it much, so... me? Well, I was his son, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was way way back in the woolies and the prickleburrs on the Santiam in the days when the wagons were still coming through. I was one of the first who was born here, y’know, one rainy night as they say, and I remember it all
I think it really started that October morning Mr. Jeff sent me hiking upriver to ask Stan Pickering to come on out for a noon meal and a parley, and to bring Mrs. Pickering, and to take home some late vegetables. Just before dinnertime the three of us rode up on one of Stan’s red mules, and it was just pouring down rain, as usual that October.
“Come in, come in out of the downpour,” Ma said, “Get those wet things off and come dry out right now. We’ll have dinner here in just a bit. Elizabeth, it is so nice to see you, how’re you keeping?” As usual, she was careful to pronounce the “g”. “You don’t drop your Gs just because you’re in Oregon,” she used to say. While she was still swooping on our guests, Ma swooped my way and said, “Daniel, go tell your father and John the Pickerings are here and the men are to come to dinner,” and I went at a trot down to the mill to get dad and John and John’s two cousins to come in to eat. Three more twelve foot hemlock planks lay neatly stacked beside the saw pit, and Pa had the whipsaw off the carriage and propped up for sharpening. He was bent over it with a file when I slid off of the big wet mule and stepped into the sawshed. “I’m ready, Danny,” he said, and dropped the file with a clank. “C’mon John, c’mon you boys, let’s go eat for heaven’s sake.” Kalapuya John stood up from where he’d been watching the rain, and his cousin who’d come up for the day to help with the sawing got quietly to his feet also. “Yes sir,” I said, “it’s ready,” wondering about Mr. and Mrs. Pickering’s visit, and the parley. I didn’t have long to wonder. I turned their mule into our barn, and threw him a little clover hay, and went to lunch myself.
When my father had taken three bites in a row of mother’s smoky beans, he paused and turned to his neighbor from up the Santiam. “Stanley,” he said, “Who are we selling the whiskey to this year?” He took another spoonful of beans and ham. The rain picked up, drumming on the shakes overhead. Mr. Pickering, who was in the act of putting butter and honey on a corn muffin, barely paused. Mother and Mrs. Pickering, who had been keeping up a patter of visiting, stopped to listen too. Mr. Pickering wore spectacles on his big freckled face, little rectangles of glass which he was very careful and deliberate about. Now he looked over the top of them at my father. “That thief Jones, of course,” he said shortly, and ate half of the muffin. “Ma’am,” he said, and turned to my mother, “Liza and I are grateful for your hospitality. You are a wonderful cook!” He turned back to father. “Mr. Jeff, what are we to do? Buena Vista is the closest market.”
Mr. Jeff addressed his own plate and said slowly, “Yet Jones buys your whisky and resells it in Oregon City for twice what he pays you.”
“Our whisky, sir,” then, “That’s correct,” and Mr. Pickering gestured forcefully with his half a muffin while he spoke, “And don’t forget we pay his ferry to take the mules across that blessed river to sell him the damn whisky in the first place.” Mr. Pickering nodded to my mother, “I beg your pardon, ma’am. He makes me that angry; bein’ as how he could just as easy meet us on our side of the river to do business. He’s making his profit of course.”
“Have some more beans, sir, and a couple more muffins,” said my mother. My father smiled across the table at her, and continued. “Jones is indeed a thief,” he said, “And the handful of livestock we both possess are not enough to pack our whisky into Oregon City’s buyers and still make it worth our while; not with the roads and river and creek crossings as bad as they are. But we want cash money. And… I do have a plan, sir. You say you have to pay Jones’s ferry rates?”
“As you do yourself, Mr. Jeff,” said Mr. Pickering, “Though he takes it in whisky.”
“Well sir, what if we could take the ferry itself, or rather build our own ferry -- and run our goods into Oregon City for our own selfs? And keep the profit.” My ears perked up. Float our stuff to Oregon City! On the river!
Mr. Pickering had big fair freckled hands - beat up, of course, but clean for lunch. He reached to spear a buttered carrot from the serving dish; mashed it onto his wooden plate, arranged the carrot with some ham on his fork and put it all in his mouth. He chewed his bite quietly for a moment, looking at his plate, then turned his shaggy head and looked direct at my father. “Mr. Smith, I will be game for any such venture as long as you yourself take the lead,” he said, and started to chew. Father leaned back contentedly and smiled. “Come down to the mill after supper, Mr. Pickering, and I’ll show you what I have in mind.”