Shadow in the Valley, pt 4
It was several days again before the shadow returned. The rider had three skins drying on the racks, just downwind of the camp, a beaver and two rabbits. The former was of a decent size, though he’d caught much larger in years past. Not bad for a first catch, he thought. Four more like that and he’d pay for the whole season. If he caught a deer or two before it was time to head back, he’d be in for a decent profit. He had taken a full extra day to rig up a separate fire some feet away from the main pit, deep and wide enough to fill with heated stones and surround with a cone of canvas to use as a smoker. The thought again came to him that if he had simply set up a cabin here he would only need to set these things up once, but he shooed it away like an irritant fly.
One of the afternoon’s efforts were curtailed by a heavy summer’s shower. It was refreshing and energizing to walk around in the altogether and feel the rains washing away a week’s work, but it also kept him from his labors. As he sat on his blankets to dry by the fire, he pondered the satisfaction of one’s efforts. Not two weeks ago, this had been a pristine valley, without the barest trace of man’s existence, as if a fragment of the blessed garden of eden itself. And now, here had come man, tools in hand to craft from its beauty the needs of mankind. By the sweat of his brow, indeed.
But in less than a month, he would be gone from here, and nature would reclaim that which was its birthright. By the same time in a year, a man could find his way here and believe himself to bring the first footsteps to happen upon this soil. Perhaps the rider wasn’t the first, in fact. As spins the world, how could a man know his place? The Nez Perce talked about their old spirits having walked this world for generations without number, long before the white man arrived. And the spirits would walk this world still when all traces of mankind had long since been washed away.
He thought of his father’s words, back in the town he had left so many years ago. “Make yourself a legacy, son,” he had said. “Build something to leave behind for your children.”
“But I didn’t want children,” he whispered back.
“I didn’t believe you then,” the spirit replied. It was standing, again, just across from the rider, looking as if he’d sprung right out of the rocks. “I thought you were just angry.”
“I was angry. But I wasn’t just angry.”
“Angry enough to leave.”
The rider shrugged his shoulders, poking a stick at one of the new stones he had placed into the center of the fire. “There wasn’t much cause to stay. You made that plain.”
A moment passed before the shadow responded. “I never told you to leave.”
“I wanted you to stay. We’d planned for you to take over the shop.”
“You’d planned. Besides, Simon took over the shop, just like he always wanted.”
“True, he had more love for the enterprise than you had. But you could have stayed anyway.”
The rider threw the stick aside and sat forward angrily. “I never wanted it! I wanted this!”
“And what is this? What is it about this life that you loved so much more than your own family?”
“You wouldn’t understand! You never understood.”
“There you are,” the shadow whispered. “That’s the boy I remember.”
The rider wanted to scream, to throw something, to hit something, but he knew nothing would chase the shadow away. Though this was the first time they’d spoken, the shadow followed him every year from the outskirts of whatever westernmost city he departed at the frontier’s edge out into the wilds of the western mountains until he at last returned to the city. Strangely, he was only free of the pursuit when he found himself among the shadow’s home.
He breathed deeply, closing his eyes and covering his face.
“I’m an old man, now, father. I’m older than you were when you died.”
“You have a point to that? Do you think being older somehow gives you power over me?”
“No, it doesn’t. Just like you being my father gives you any power over me.”
He remembered his father’s words. “Power cannot be taken; it can only be given.”
“Why are you here, pa? Why do you always show up out here, when I just want to be alone?”
“I should ask you the same.”
“But you didn’t, so maybe you could answer me.”
“It’s the same answer, son, yours and mine. I could tell you the answer, of course, but…”
The rider interrupted him with the statement his father had made so many times before. “If you don’t work for the answer, I’ll never understand the question.”
“I always come out here because it’s the only place I feel like I’m free to be myself. I can do what I can do, and I don’t have to answer to the will of another. I can breathe the air, I can live on the land, and I can make what money I need by the things I can do well. I can think, and I can rest, and I can dream. Out here, I can live. Out here, I don’t need anyone or anything.”
The shadow was silent, as if giving the rider enough time to amend his answer. Finally, he spoke.
“That is a good, clear, and well thought-out answer. What is the actual reason, though?”
The rider opened his mouth, his throat burning with an angry response, but the shadow vanished as he was staring into it. He couldn’t be sure if the spirit was angry, sad, or laughing at him.
To be concluded