This story is by Avery Christy and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jason finished clipping the straps of the horse blanket on Clay, who was too preoccupied with noisily eating his corn to care what was being done with him. Then he rubbed the horse’s neck, saying a few soft, reassuring words before turning to the crackling campfire, its thick pine scent whisked away almost before the nose could taste it. He saw through a gap in the tall pines, in the deep gray light of evening, that the snow was increasing. The vague outlines he could determine of the little valley laid out before he and his father’s campsite were disappearing in the snowy mist. And, the temperature was dropping.
Jason took a seat on the small stack of firewood he had gathered. His father, Paul, did not look up from tending to their cans of store-bought chili which had warmed on a flat rock close to the campfire. “Food’s ready,”
“Good. I’m as hungry as Clay, there.”
Paul chuckled, “He’s a good little horse. Stout, to be handling this terrain.”
Jason nodded, “And expensive. It took a lot of training to get him used to packing, and a lot of rich feed to build up his muscles.”
“I appreciate your work this past year to get ready for our trip,” Paul said.
Jason nodded, “Well, we were both sore at missing last year’s hunt.” Jason said nothing more because he did not want to hurt his father’s feelings. The fault was not Paul’s alone, having had surgery shortly before the trip and needing more recovery time, for Jason had suddenly been swamped at work, and canceling their father-son hunting trip had given him the chance to catch up—not that there was ever a chance to fully do so.
“And I’m glad for this campsite.” They could hear the wind picking up, causing the tops of the pines to sway violently, but they were high on a ridge, with canvas tents tucked up tight against a rock shelf that ran below the spine of the ridge, and quite safe from the worst of the storm. Still, it would be a cold night in their sleeping bags.
Paul handed Jason his can of chili using a split branch as a handle. Pulling a spork from a pocket, despite the steam billowing from the can indicating how hot it was, Jason attempted a nibble, promptly burning his tongue. A little opened package of crackers sat near Paul’s foldable camp chair. Jason snitched a few and crumbled them into his chili—he could feel how badly he needed the carbs after today’s trek and setting up camp in the cold with that storm bearing down.
Paul poured in a tiny measure of cold water from his canteen, stirred his chili, then began to eat without evident consequence.
After a long moment of eating, Paul ventured, “You know, me and my dad used to tell stories around the campfire when we went hunting.”
“Ghost stories?” Jason asked dryly. Paul had jogged past seventy a year or two ago, maybe three. And for Jason, fifty was insistingly knocking on his door, wondering if he’d like a pamphlet and hear the news about getting older—they were past spooky children’s stories.
Paul shook his head, “No, we’d talk about stuff, anything and everything. I guess mostly funny stories from our lives.”
Jason nodded. He had precious few of those to share.
Paul chuckled, stirring his chili, “It reminds me of what he told me about our great, great, great grandfather. He used to live up here, you know. That’s why we keep trying to come back here to hunt.”
Jason had heard this story before. “Samuel de Layn? The pioneer?”
Paul smiled, “He was more than a pioneer. He was an explorer—he came out with Louis and Clark, or so the story goes. He earned his way by being a porter and supplying the party with fresh meat. He got started as a frontierman in the Ohio River valley, back when that was the western frontier.”
Jason nodded indulgently, more intent on his chili than the story. Years ago he had been curious enough to pay for a family history search. The reality of his ancestor, Samuel de Lyn, what precious little the history service could provide, was very lackluster and contrary to the versions he had heard through the years. At the least, he had existed and lived out in the West.
“Ah, can you imagine what it must have been like to live back then?” Paul’s gaze was off in the distance as his imagination painted a scene, his chili almost forgotten in his hand. “There were grizzlies here, and packs of wolves, and buffalo covered the plains. When Sam came back out here a second time, on his own, he lived with a tribe of Sioux for a time.”
Paul smiled as he turned his attention back to Jason, “Apparently, he had a child with a Sioux woman. We might have distant Sioux relatives!”
Jason smiled and nodded as though he was enjoying the story.
Paul returned to eating his chili, then continued, “He had to leave the tribe, though. One day he was out hunting and crossed paths with a grizzly.” Paul looked up, fresh animation coming to him from the retelling, “He fired his musket rifle at the charging grizzly, but that only angered the beast. Then it was on him and all he could defend himself with was his knife.”
“Do you think you could beat a grizzly with a buck knife?” Jason asked, his face partly scrunched with doubt.
Paul chuckled, “Different times, different men. He’d already proven himself against an angry black bear and hunted buffalo before then. Anyway, he got torn up pretty good, but he killed the bear before it could kill him. His Souix family found him, saved him, and doctored him as best they could. But when he could travel, he felt he needed the help of Western medicine for a better recovery.”
Jason chimed in with the bitter twist of their ancestor’s legend, “But he was never able to return, and he regretted it.”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Paul gestured to the gap in the pines and the view of the canyon beyond. There must have been a bright moon above the storm. It was fully night, but there was an ethereal twilight revealing gross details of the land, forest, and open meadows despite the blowing snow and mist. “You can feel yourself alive—this was living! Who wouldn’t go back?”
Jason softened, thinking of his days at his job and how much he had looked forward to this, “Yeah, I love it up here, too,” he admitted. “Sam must have lived a pretty good life.”
“You never really appreciate what you have until it’s gone,” Paul replied. “The story goes he tried to go west again, but never made it beyond the Mississippi because of health reasons. Ended up working at a warehouse on the riverfront. Of course, that’s where he met our great-whatever-grandmother and had a family that led to us.” Paul shook his head ruefully, “Living life takes its toll, and we’re not meant to live forever.” Paul’s gaze had dropped to what was left of his chili, but he clearly was not looking at it, instead, his sight was lost in ages past. “So you make the most of what you get in life, however brief.”
Jason wondered about Paul’s recovery from his surgery, but he was not going to ask about it. Paul had answered the cursory questions but mostly talked about what the doctors said. He never really mentioned how he was doing. Jason’s gut feeling was … he pushed that thought from his mind. “I can picture it, day after day like this, nothing to worry about but living your life with no bills to pay or deadlines to meet, total freedom, and no one to answer to. And likely no health problems which couldn’t be solved with some herbs you’d find around.”
Paul looked up, smiling again, “Yep. Every day was yours, and you lived with the people who mattered most to you. It was an amazing time to live.”
“Better times, better people,” Jason added.
Paul smiled at him, “Just like now.”
Jason smiled, feeling an emotional constriction in his throat, “I’m glad I’m here, with you, Dad.”
“So am I, Son.”