THE SEA OTTERS
A boy with a bow and arrow (Followed Mr. Jackson on his mission to save the last of the sea otters ... He found that death ruled the beach
MY FATHER had no use for saloons or for people that drank in them, so he always stepped me along faster when we came to the
British Columbia Logger on our way home from the warehouse. This Saturday night he was hustling me past when the doors banged open and Mister Jackson lurched out to the boardwalk with his face all bloody and his long grey hair flying. He had hold of two men by their necks. One was Whitey Martin’s old man, the other was a Jap, who lived on a gas boat at Trollers’ Landing when he wasn’t working the salmon grounds away over on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Alister Jackson knocked their heads together with a crack you could hear across the street and let the men drop into the gutter.
Aly father made to brush by, but Mister Jackson stood square in the way, so drunk he teetered on his heels. He was a lot taller than my father, taller than almost any man in Maquinna, but so gaunt the bones of his wrists stuck out like knobs.
“They told me the sea otters was all dead,” he muttered, peering at me from under his brushy eyebrows with his eyes that were grey with brown flecks, like the old rubbed barrel of the .45-.90 he carried after deer. “The damn liars, they said we’d killed ’em all. But we know better, Jim, hey? We know it ain’t so!”
His bony hand groped out, and he gave my shoulder a little shake, like he was pleading with me to agree. Mister Jackson was my friend, and I’d sooner have had him for a friend than Dan’l Boone or Kit Carson or any of those I read about, even Buffalo Bill.
“Sure, Mister Jackson,” I told him, trying hard to keep my voice from squeaking. “We know better. The sea otters aren’t all dead.”
My father’s mouth was pulled tight, and the town constable was strutting down the boardwalk, swinging his billy.
“Take your hand off my boy,” my father said, loud
your my enough for the constable to hear him. “You’re a shame to your poor wife and a disgrace to the town. This time I hope the police put you behind bars, where you belong.”
The constable said, “You get on home, Mister Holtman.
I’ll handle him.”
My father marched me away, with his fingers hurting my arm and his face red with anger. He wouldn’t have dared talk to Mister Jackson that way if the constable hadn’t been right behind him, and knowing it made me go sullen and hard inside.
“He called you Jiin,” my father said, in the voice I knew meant a licking. “How is it he knows your name?”
When I didn’t answer, he dug his fingers deeper. “So it’s true then, what I’ve heard.
You’ve been hanging around that old rip, keeping bad company in spite of all the warnings you’ve had. I’m
going to teach you a lesson you won’t forget in a hurry!”
He didn’t say another word till he’d hauled me up the steps and into the house, then he lit into me with his belt. My mother tried to stop him, but he yanked his arm free.
“You keep out of this,” he hollered at her. “He’s got to learn sometime there’s more to life than running the woods and roistering in saloons, and it better be now than later.”
I set my teeth together and thought of the sea otters Mister Jackson was always telling me about, with their dark pelts and little whiskery faces that were almost human, swimming and sporting in the kelp. Thinking hard like that I could keep from hollering when the belt cracked around my legs.
^T'lIE next morning, early, I lowered myself from the JL window ledge, with my boots strung round my neck, and got my fish pole out of the woodshed. I’d caught eight cutthroat trout in the creek at the edge of town, and was on my way home when I almost stumbled over Mister Jackson. The constable hadn’t locked him up—maybe he was scared to tackle the job. He was lying under a yew tree in the open woods above the creek; the tree was shedding its berries and they stuck in his hair like drops of blood, and his straggly mustaches lifted and settled with each snore.
I lit a fire among the stones alongside him, a small one like he’d taught me, and cooked my fish on a switch, except for a couple of the bigger ones that I saved for mother’s breakfast.
The switch burned through and the last trout fell in the fire.
“Next time use a hardback,” Mister Jackson said from the ground. “ ’Bark’s thicker. She won’t burn so quick.”
I’d thought he was still asleep, but he was lying there watching me.
I was always kind of shy with him, when I wasn’t asking questions 60 to the minute, so I just hooked the fish off the coals and said nothing. Then I spread the trout on a flat rock and we set to.
After Mister Jackson had eaten he ran his fingers through his hair, shook himself, and climbed to his feet.
“You ought to keep away from me, Bub,” he said. “Nothing I can learn you will ever do you a mite of good. You ought to be funning with the other young ’uns and studying how to make yourself a living at a town job. By the time you’re growed these woods will all be gone. Hundred years, maybe less, there won’t be a man-size stick of fir on Vancouver Island.”
I didn’t say anything, just gave him the last of my fish. He held it by the tail and ate it, bones and all, looking at me searching and kind of sad; and I knew he didn’t really mean it, about staying away from him. Although I was 12 turned, my eyes stung as if there were tears back of them.
Nobody but me seemed to understand what ailed Mister Jackson, how he was hungry all the time for the woods and the wild places. And even today it’s hard for me to explain how I felt about him. It was the same way I felt about the woods and the white-water creeks, and the country on the other side of the mountains where I’d never been. If a boy could pick his father I’d have picked Mister Jackson for mine, not caring a whoop what the town thought about him.
“The only things I want to know,” I burst out, “are what I can learn from you.”
He didn’t answer, but I could see he was mighty pleased. A button had been yanked off his grey jersey shirt in the saloon brawl the night before. Pie took out his big jackknife with the deerhorn handle and began to carve a cedar chip into a toggle. When it was finished he cut a bit off my fishline and fastened the toggle to his shirt. It worked as good as a button and looked better.
“I’m going to do something for you, young fella,” Mister Jackson said. “Going to make you a bow. A sea otter bow.”
Pie was eying the yew tree while he spoke, and I figured he’d just take his knife and hack off a limb like I did when I wanted to play Indians.
But the bow Mister Jackson made for me wasn’t like that _
at all. It was so long coming, a year almost,-that I began to think he’d forgotten about it. He didn’t mention it again and neither did I. The months eased past the way they do for a boy, and Mister Jackson’s reputation got no better in Maquinna.
It wasn’t that he mooched around talking to himself, like the town drunk did. Only times in the spring, when the new smells were coming up out of the earth, or in autumn around the start of deer season, when the smoky west wind was blowing clean / across Vancouver Island, he’d get drunk. When he got drunk he fought. He was over 70 years old but tough
as a bobcat, and most always when he fought somebody got hurt.
Mister Jackson wasn’t a town man by nature, you see. He’d struck gold in the Big Interior Range years ago, and married a woman who worked on him till he gave up the woods. Often he’d say to me, “Jim, I made two bad mistakes. One was when I found that quartz outcropping. The other was when I took me a wife.”
At that time I didn’t quite know what he meant. Striking gold was a good thing, not any kind of a mistake. I didn’t care much for Mis’ Jackson, though. She was a big woman with a red face that always looked mad. Her tongue had a whine, and a bite to it like a buzz saw; she used it on Mister Jackson pretty freely, and once she laid it on me, claiming I’d robbed her cherry trees, when it was Whitey Martin and his gang. She told my father, too, and I got another licking.
One day not long after, when I’d played hookey and was hanging around while Alister Jackson spaded the
garden for his wife, he took a cautious look at the kitchen window and leaned his spade against the fence. “Got something to show you,” he told me.
I traipsed after him into the woodshed. He reached up to the rafters for a gunny sack and handed it to me. The things in it were long and narrow and had hardly any weight. I brought them out, and my breath hung up in my throat.
“This here’s your sea otter bow,” Mister Jackson
He hadn’t made it with a branch but out of a stave from the trunk of the yew tree itself. When I stood it on end it reached to my lower ribs. The outside was yellowy-white and the inside was red heartwood, full of little black knots. It was rounded at the centre where you hold it, but the arms were wide and thin and flat, tapering to notched tips. Around the grasp
Mister Jackson had glued a piece of salmon skin with the scales left on. It felt rough in my hand, and it didn’t slip. The string was of many linen threads waxed and twisted together; it was all I could do to bend the bow enough to get the string in place.
There were arrows too, in a deer-hide case. Most of them had big wooden tips, round instead of pointed, but there were six with barbed steel heads so sharp that a line of blood jumped across the ball of my thumb when I tested one. I put an arrow on the string and tried to draw the bow. I wasn t strong enough to budge it.
Mister Jackson said, “That’s a klootch hold, a woman’s hold. Do it like this.”
He took the bow and hooked three fingers under the string, holding the feathered end of the arrow between his first and second fingers. The flat wide arms bent easily for him. He slacked off and handed it hack, looking at me with his grey-brown eyes half closed, as if he were remembering something from long ago.
“In the old days it’d be worth more than a slave or a man’s life,” he told me. “It’ll put an arrow through a deer or a man. It’ll pin a sea otter in the kelp before he can dive. Only you’ll never get your hands in a sea otter’s pelt, Jim.
“They’re gone,” he said, and his face was sadder than I’d ever seen it before. “Gone, every last one of ’em, even if I do get to thinkin’ different when the drink’s in me. We killed ’em all. The Indians killed ’em for the Russians first, then for the Boston traders and the King George men. The Chinee mandarins wore their pelts in robes, and every robe was worth its weight in gold.”
I didn’t know what a mandarin was, but somehow I thought of a girl, a young girl, very slender, with black hair and slanted dark eyes, walking under flowering trees in a robe of shining fur that clung from her throat to her golden ankles. I was 13 by this time; old enough to think some of girls; young enough to be ashamed of it.
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The Sea Otters
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“Were they like the otter that lives in the pool above the dam?” I asked M ister Jackson.
“No more’n that otter is like a weasel,” he said. “They was three times bigger, Bub. They weighed 70 pound, and a good part of it was in their fur. I’ve seen ’em in the kelp of a morning, swimming and sporting, the mother floating on her back with her kitten between her paws. But we killed ’em all. You’d think we could have left a few, wouldn’t you? Now we got a law says you can’t kill ’em, but the sea otters is gone from this earth as if they’d never been.”
He was still staring at me, and I had a queer feeling his eyes didn’t see me.
“I helped kill the last of ’em, Jim,” he said, “and it’s the sin the Lord is most likely to hold agin me. And now I’m a mean old man that’s outlived his time, and you—well, it looks like you was born too late for yours.”
I was trying to puzzle out what he meant when Mis’ Jackson began banging her knuckles on the kitchen window.
“You scoot out the back way,” Mister Jackson told me with a worried look over his shoulder. “She expects me to have that damn boneyard ready for spuds by dark!”
I wrapped the bow and the case of arrows in the sack and ran down the lane. I couldn’t take them home because my father didn’t like guns or any kind of weapon. He held that men should buy their meat at the butchers, and that if they had to fight they should do it in court with lawyers. He’d have burned the bow and licked me, so I hid it in a place I knew by the creek, where there was a hole at the foot of a rock bluff and ferns growing across.
That summer I practiced with the bow until I could bend it almost as good as Mister Jackson. I got so I could hit things too, and once I knocked over a mallard that was swimming in the pond above the dam. Mister Jackson wouldn’t let me use the arrows with the steel heads, though.
“Them’s for real hunting or for war,” he told me. “Leave ’em alone till you need ’em.”
THAT time came soon enough.
There was this gang in the town with Whitey Martin bossing it. He was 18 or 19, big as his father that Mister Jackson had whipped, and just as mean, with yellowy eyes and thick lips that never quite met over his rotten front teeth. He beat up little kids and soft kids that were afraid of him. I feared him more than any devil I learned about in Sunday school, maybe because the devil was down under the earth and Whitey was on top of it, with his slack-mouthed grin and his dirty cruel hands.
Mostly I steered wide of the swimming hole in the creek because Whitey and his gang would be lying on the rock slabs in the sun, loafing and planning new hellery. But this afternoon I was just drifting along, mooning about sea otters with wonderful dark pelts and slant-eyed girls with golden skins. I left the woods above the hole with never a thought for Whitey Martin till he stepped out of a Spiraea clump and came toward me with half a dozen of his gang behind him, his thumbs hooked into his belt and that thicklipped grin twisting his face.
“You been spying around on us,” he said “You won’t any more, not when I get through with you!”
The bottom had dropped out of my stomach and my throat was dry as
ashes. There was no use running. I didn’t even think—just threw my left hand over my shoulder, like Mister Jackson had taught me, and whipped out an arrow. It was one of those with the long steel heads.
A thin voice—mine—was squeaking, “You stay where you are. Don’t come no closer —”
“Whyn’t you holler for your pal, Mister Jackson?” Whitey said, and kept coming.
I yanked the string back to the angle of my jaw and loosed at him. I shot for his chest, but I guess the Lord didn’t want me to be a murderer. The arrow grazed his arm and chunked into a tree across the creek. Whitey stood there looking stupidly at the blood running down toward his fingers.
Then he lifted his head and stared at me with his yellow cat’s-eyes, and he said, “I’ll kill you for this!”
He meant it, too. I yanked another arrow over my shoulder. It was only a wooden-headed one, but Whitey and the others bolted through the Spiraea and across the shallow end of the swimming hole. I ran the other way until my legs were weak and red flashes were shooting across my eyes.
Mostly I felt scared; I knew I’d done something pretty awful. I lay in the deep woods all the rest of that afternoon, but I had to go home sometime. So I hid the bow in the hole under the bluff and headed back to town, slow as I could drag my feet along the dusty road, and getting scareder every minute. I stopped by Mister Jackson’s place. Maybe he could help me, or at least tell me what to do. But only Mis’ Jackson was there, and when I saw her rocking on the porch I went on home.
My father was waiting for me in the doorway. Behind him in the hall I could see my mother’s pale face, and I knew Whitey Martin’s old man had been around. My father grabbed me by the shoulder and yanked me inside, and before mother could get the door shut he was laying into me with his belt. He licked me till his arms were tired and I could hardly stand.
“This is only the beginning,” he said in the bitterest voice I’d ever heard him use. “Tomorrow the police will come for you and they’ll take you off where you belong, to reform school. I knew your everlasting bushwhacking could only end one way!”
He hit me hard, with his open hand, on the side of my head. Then my mother said in a tight voice, “Not any more!” and put her arm around me and Jed me away.
Later she brought my supper to my room, and cried over me, but I couldn’t eat. I lay awake till nearly morning, then got up and dressed, quietly so as not to wake my father, and let myself down from the window ledge. I knew well enough what I was going to do, hut I just had to find Mister Jackson first.
He had a little fire burning in a pit at the end of his potato patch and he was hunkered over it, boiling tea in an old black pail. His wife had a fine range in the kitchen, but after a night of tomcatting around the saloons Mister Jackson would make himself a bucket of tea like this, over a fire in his hack yard. I guess he was just plain homesick for the woods.
He squinted up at me and I knew his eyes missed nothing, my face purfy from crying, and the bruise on my cheek where my father had welted me. And I could see he was excited about something, so excited he was fairly burning up inside.
“Set,” he told me. “I judged you’d be along.”
He fed another handful of chips under the tea pail and waited, not
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talking, not looking at me even, until I was ready to tell him. When I told him he didn’t scold me, or say I’d done a good thing either. He just took it in and accepted it like I was another full-grown man.
“So if I stay here they’ll send me to reform school,” I wound up, nearly bawling again. “And I won’t let them. I’m going to run away. If they come after me I’ll fight them —”
“Fight, hell,” Mister Jackson said. “You can’t fight the whole town. Anyway, between us we done enough fighting for a spell, Rub.”
He spilled the strong black tea into the cans we used to drink from, loaded them with sugar and pushed mine across.
“I heard about your fracas last night,” he said. “Near as I could figure, that lout needed drilling, and I told his old man so. He made war talk to me. We had another convocation out back, me and him and that Jap tilikum of his.”
It was only then I noticed his jaw was lumped and one ear bit through. I’d been too full of my own troubles to see straight. But Mister Jackson had something more than that on his mind, and finally it came tearing out of him.
“I was wrong!” he said. “The sea otters ain’t all dead. Listen, Jim . . .” He looked around carefully, although it wasn’t much more than daylight yet, and the town was asleep. “That Jap talks when he’s drunk. He was talking last night before we tangled. He’s just back from trolling on the west coast, and he saw the otters in the kelp off Tantalus Spit, swimming and sporting like they used to. The fool didn’t know what they was. But I know, and Martin knows. They was the last sea otters left alive in the world. The law won’t stop that pair. They’ll go back and clean out the herd and smuggle the pelts out of the country.”
Mister Jackson stood up, towering above his fire. His face was full of the wonder of this thing he’d told me.
“They can’t be let do it,” he said. “Them sea otters has got to live and breed and bring their kind back!”
He was still standing like that when Mis’ Jackson waddled down the path, puffing like a steam engine and mad as she could be. She was wearing men’s felt slippers and a dirty brown wrapper, and her hair was sticking out every which way from under her frilly white cap. She kicked the tea pail off the fire and lit into Mister Jackson with her tongue.
“You old fool, you,” she squealed at him. “Out here at this hour with this brat, and no better than a child yourself! You want to go back to living like a dirty, stinking Siwash; well, you can go. I’ll be glad to see the last of you. You aren’t fit to be a white man, or married to a white woman!”
She gave the pail another kick and went steaming up the path, one slipper on and one off, madder than ever.
“Jim,” Mister Jackson said, staring after her, “I’m not a churchgoing man, but I can see the hand of the Almighty in this. The one thing she might have given me she didn’t, an’ that was a son of my own. But I’ve got you, and by thunder, I’m goin’ to look out for you! Now take your bow and get clear of town - follow the skid road up the creek and head west. If you see anyone, hit for the brush. Keep working along the creek till you reach the alpine country, and hole up in the first of the high meadows. I may be a day coming, or two days even, but I’ll come.
“Now get moving. You want the police to catch you and haul you off to that boys’ skookum house?”
I COULD spend a week telling how we bushwhacked across Vancouver Island from east coast to west, living mostly by the gun and the bow, not seeing another human face and not wanting to see one. But I don’t like to remember that trip; even now when I think of it my feet ache and my belly sucks in. Far as I know, Mister Jackson and me were the first to cross by that route, and I doubt if anyone else has been crazy enough to tackle it since. Not that Mister Jackson minded it. By the end of the first week I’d begun to feel the old man wasn’t really human, but just a terrible machine made of steel and saddle leather that would never tire, never get hungry and thirsty, never wear out.
I can still remember his voice coming at me from on ahead in the deep sal-aal brush or the salmonberry tangles, harsh and impatient.
“Come on, Bub. You want to die here and the wolves eat you? You want to go back to the boys’ jail? Keep moving.”
But there was an evening, and I never thought it would come, when we’d worked our way clean through the Big Interior Range and over the other side, and were making trail along the banks of a white-water creek that tore down off a hemlock hogback. The banks were grown thick with devil’sclub; the big green leaves and spiky stems and scarlet berries were everywhere. I’d fallen into a clump of the stuff and my hands and neck ached with the poison. I was crying, and the tears ran down into my mouth, hut 1 kept plugging along behind Mister Jackson.
He stopped of a sudden, listening, and waited while I caught up.
“You hear that?” he asked me.
It was something you felt rather than heard, like a slow and steady pulse. The air was quivering with it.
“Surf,” Mister Jackson said. “Waves coming all the way from China, breaking on the west coast. We’ve just about made it, young fella.”
Two days later we pushed through the last spruce hell and came out on a beach of rounded pebbles, littered and piled with drift. A spit of black rock ran into the sea in a half-mile curve, and the waves, rollers that had the whole drive of the Pacific behind them, were crashing over the spit. The surf was white and the sea was a cold green, shading to blue at the horizon where the ocean fog lay heavy and close like cottonwool.
“This here’s Tantalus Spit,” Mister Jackson said. “This is where the Jap saw the sea otters.”
How he brought us there, what compass he carried in his brain, I’ll never know. There may be men like him alive today, but for myself I doubt it. He was one of the last of his kind. They’ve been crowded clear out of the world by the cities and railways and roads that pushed the woods back.
I don’t altogether know what I’d expected to find at the end of the trip, but it was all mixed up in my head with otters and slant-eyed golden girls, and here we were, and there was nothing to see but the combers charging in, and the white surf, and the offshore fog. No sea otters, no mandarins. Nothing but fog and surf, and the dark spruce sidehills at our backs. My hands itched and stung from the devil’s-club poison. My feet were raw in my busted boots, and I was so disappointed I could have sat down on the drift and cried again. We’d crossed the Island and lived through hardships, all for nothing.
But Mister Jackson was staring along the curve of the spit where the kelp beds made a slick among the waves. He didn’t say a word, just flung out his bony long arm and
pointed. I sighted along his arm like it was a rifle and saw a little shining head lifted above the kelp, turned shoreward and peering at us.
I didn’t need to ask Mister Jackson what it was. My heart bounced out of my boots. My slant-eyed girl was close again, walking under her flowering trees. 1 could almost hear her singing!
“We’ll build us a lean-to back from the creek mouth,” Mister Jackson said. “When Martin and the Jap come we’ll be ready for them.” He fished around in his raggedy vest and brought out a badge shaped like a shield. “We’ll take care of them all legal and proper,” he told me. “This is why I was a couple of days hooking up with you over the ridge. I got myself made a special constable.”
His face, bonier and more leathery than ever after our month of bushwhacking, was wrinkled in a tough grin, and he took a red bandanna out of his hip pocket and began polishing the moisture off the barrel and breech of his rifle.
“Yeah, all legal and proper,” he said again, as if he liked the taste of the words; and he gave the rifle stock a little pat and stuck the bandanna back in his pocket.
This was the heel of summer, hot blue days, and nights with a million stars. Those woods were lousy with deer, and we made ourselves lines from the thin kelp stems and snagged cod off the spit whenever we had a mind to eat fish. Pretty soon I stopped thinking about Martin and the Jap, and even about the life I’d left behind when we took to the woods. Only I did kind of miss my mother at nights, when the fire was low and Mister Jackson was snoring on his hemlock feathers.
There was just the two of us, and the gulls, and the sea otters playing and fishing among the kelp. I’m not sure how many there were in the herd. Half a dozen maybe, grown and kittens, at least that’s the most we ever counted at one time. Soon they got used to us, and the day came when I could even swim near them in the cold green water with the kelp leaves sliding over my legs. The sea otters would raise their little sleek heads and peer at me and whistle, then they’d dive, leaving a flat boil behind, and when you thought they’d never come up again there they’d be, 50 yards away, peering and whistling at you.
At night Mister Jackson would tell me about the canoe fleets of Indian hunters that killed their kind off all the way from the Aleutians to California, shooting them with bows like mine or with smoothbore guns, or chasing them till they couldn’t dive any more and were clubbed to death in the water.
Mister Jackson had shed a lot of his years—it was as if finding the sea otters weren’t all dead had taken an awful weight off his mind. Not that his age mattered to me; we were partners, and the sea otters were our friends.
I never thought but what it would go on like this, and I’d long since forgotten why we were here, because no boat ever passed within sight. There was nothing to bring a boat in, unless to shelter from a blow, no salmon banks anywhere near, and the reefs were like ugly black teeth sticking up everywhere beyond the Spit. But Mister Jackson hadn’t forgotten. Wherever he went his .45-.90 went with him in the crook of his arm.
The morning it all ended I’d got up early and left Mister Jackson sleeping. I went round the point, looking for drift from Asia, junk masts maybe, or the green-blue glass balls the Japanese fishermen use to buoy their nets. I’d have wandered right on around the next point too, but a sound stopped me, a fiat thud like someone pounding a
hollow tree with a club. It came again, and a third time, and I headed back for the creek mouth, jumping the drift tangles like a buck deer, while that noise kept coming every minute or so from the home cove.
I’d been living in the woods three months now, and some caution, some instinct slowed my feet as I rounded the point. One look, then I dropped behind a log and lay there with my heart trying to bang its way out through my ribs.
AGAS BOAT was tossing half a mile offshore, and a dinghy was beached in our cove. Two men in blue jerseys and hip boots stood by it with guns in their hands. At their feet, black against the tan sand, was a shapeless heap. Seeing it I dug my fingers hard into the pebbles and cursed to myself because they were out of bow range.
They’d come, Martin and the Jap. They’d shot our sea otters.
Mister Jackson slouched out of the timber above the beach. He was walking careful and soft, and his rifle lay across his arm. Martin raised his own gun, and Mister Jackson tossed the .45-,90 to his shoulder. He didn’t appear to take aim—it was all one smooth motion like an otter flipping in the kelp— but blue smoke puffed from the muzzle and the rifle spoke with a heavy slapping noise.
Martin’s knees came unhinged, and he slumped over the pile of dead sea otters.
The Jap shot Mister Jackson. I saw him check when the bullet hit him, but he came on, working the lever of his rifle. He fired once more, and the Jap leaned forward slowly, like he was bowing to Mister Jackson across the sand. He bowed deeper and deeper, till he toppled on his face.
Mister Jackson levered the spent cartridge out of the chamber, calm as if he’d just downed a couple of deer, and laid the .45-.90 back across his arm.
He was standing so when a rifle crashed at the edge of the timber. Mister Jackson didn’t move while I sucked in one long, shuddery breath, then he fell all his length in the sand and lay still with the wind ruffling his hair. He looked like he had that early morning when I found him under the yew tree, only the red soaking into the sand around him wasn’t the red of yew berries.
Whitey Martin slunk down from the woods. He carried a gun, and a wisp of smoke was trailing from the muzzle. He’d shot Mister Jackson in the back, and even that far away I could see he was grinning.
He picked up the .45-.90 and heaved it into the cove. Then he prodded Mister Jackson with the toe of his boot, like he was some animal lying there.
Seeing that, something happened inside me. I wasn’t scared any more or oven angry. It was just that I had to get to where Whitey stood over Mister Jackson, with his slack lips pulled back from his teeth.
I got up from behind my log and started across the beach. The tide was low and my feet sunk into the wet sand at each step. I didn’t remember reaching over my shoulder, but there was an arrow on the bowstring, one of the arrows with the heavy steel heads you use for hunting or war.
Whitey was hauling at his rifle bolt, slapping the breech with his hand and tugging back on the bolt. I kept moving in on him.
Mister Jackson’s voice drove at me from the ground, hoarseand whispering. “Now, Bub . . . Now! . . .” Whitey got the bolt back and lifted his gun. Mister Jackson scrabbled beside him with his hand, and flung a
mess of wet sand and pebbles full into Whitey’s face.
I drew the bow. A wind went by me and my ears were full of thunder as I loosed the string. The arrow raked across Whitey’s knuckles and clanged against the trigger guard, and the rifle spun from his hands to land muzzle down in the soft sand. Whitey dived for it. I knew then he had me, because that was my last steel-headed arrow. The rifle came up slowly, slowly, and 1 saw Whitey’s yellow eyes gloating behind it, and his finger tightening on the trigger. There was a muffled boom like dynamite makes under a stump; and somehow 1 was still on my feet. Whitey took one groping step toward me. His eyes still glared at me, but there was no face under them, just a blob of red. He started to fall, and he was dead before he hit the sand, the same wet sand that had plugged his rifle barrel and turned it into a bomb to blast the life out of him.
I went to Mister Jackson and dropped on my knees beside him. His face had a yellow look and his eyes were dulling.
“The sea otters,” he whispered, fighting to raise his head. “There’s still some living? They didn’t get ’em all?”
The kelp beds were empty, shining in the sun, but 1 lied to him.
“Not all,” I told him. “I can see them plain, swimming and sporting.”
“Good,” he muttered, and settled back. “Good. Take the badge out of
my pocket, give it to the first Provincial cop you find. Tell him everything was legal an’ proper. You got a long haul ahead of you. Keep to the ridges all you can. Don’t wade the creeks where the water runs green. Remember what 1 learned you, son, remember . . .”
I wanted to tell him I’d remember, but my voice wouldn’t come. All I could do was grip hard on his hands, while my eyes went wet and blind.
I buried Mister Jackson at the edge of the spruce with his rifle beside him that I fished out of the cove at low tide. And I buried the sea otters too, close to his feet.
When I’d finished I stood for a minute with my cheek against the scaly bark of a spruce tree. Everything was terribly quiet. Then, far out among the kelp a small head lifted from the grey water, and another and another. I heard a wild, sweet quavering whistle.
So I hadn’t lied after all; it was as if the sea otters that were left, the ones Mister Jackson had saved, were whistling him good-by.
I picked up my bow and turned to the woods; and I’ve followed the woods, one way or other, ever since.
It’s odd about the sea otters. They’re coming back again, in the Aleutians and even on the wilder stretches of this coast. Maybe there were always a few left, but I like to think they spread from our herd—that Mister Jackson kept them from dying off this earth.