TIMBERLINE (A ROAMER WESTERN)
BY MATTHEW P. MAYO
I never expected to see a monkey that morning at the Williwaw train station. It being the middle of October made the discovery all the odder. Seems to me monkeys shouldn’t be in the fickle climate of northern Oregon. They should be in tropical places, enjoying fruit and squabbling with other monkeys high up in the treetops. Of course, none of this stopped me and the dozen or so other folks waiting on the rain-sogged loading platform from staring at the little creature.
The monkey’s hide was dark brown at the tips, lighter beneath, and sort of tufty where it stuck out around his red coat. He—that’s my assumption, though I didn’t get close enough to verify—was no bigger than a barn cat, but with little, delicate hands that gestured and reached as a person might. I reckon we are closer to the animal world than the Bible whackers care to admit. What is it they’re afraid of, anyway?
That monkey didn’t seem to mind the miserable gloomy weather, the bite in the air that carried the promise of snow. Maybe it was the attention he was getting from all those people. I was grateful to the little fella, who kept everyone’s stares from me and my big, hard-looking face. I am what the less-kind folks among us call ugly. That’s the plain truth of it. I know it and I can’t do a thing about it. I shave and I look worse. I don’t shave and I look like a bear in man’s clothing who decided to step out andwander on down from the mountains and into town for supplies.
I’ve been called everything from homely beast to killer and thief, all unwarranted, I hasten to add. And though I usually elicit little more than sharp-drawn breaths, tight-set teeth, and wary glances as people hustle by me, occasionally I will hear a stifled gasp and know it’s nothing more than a reaction to my appearance. This sort of reception only reaffirms my natural inclination to spend as much time apart from civilization as I can. That, in turn, has led to me earning names I don’t mind, closer as they are to the truth.
Nomad, vagabond, wanderer, drifter, I’ve been called them all. The only one that stuck is “Roamer,” given to me by my friend Maple Jack, the crusty old mountain man I consider my mentor. He considers me a burr under his saddle blanket.
Sometimes I call him my tormentor. He’s a mountain man and a whole lot more. Mostly he’s a raconteur of the highest order. I told him that once, knowing full well he is aware of the meaning of the word.
He fixed a lone, hairy eye on me, piercing through the spidery shrubbery of his facial hair and eyebrows. “You call me that again, whelp, and I’ll have no choice but to take a round or two out of you. And don’t think I can’t!” He then wagged a thick finger at me.
I recall not suppressing a bark of laughter. He winked and turned back to stirring that godawful-smelling stew he’d been building for half an hour. I don’t know what he puts in his stews when my back is turned, but it’s usually something untoothsome, concocted so he’ll get the lion’s share of the foul, bubbling meal. Fine by me.
I’d laughed at his threat, but the truth is, Jack’s a powerful fellow with more grit and scrap in him than any I have ever met. I hope I’m not too far down that list myself. I’m well north of six foot, big at the shoulder, and I don’t carry much reserve flesh, as Jack refers to his paunch.
If I had a say-so, I’d not have been born looking the way I do. Scorfano is the name given me by the people who birthed me, then gave me up to be raised as a laborer on their plantation. I ran away when I was but a lad and, until I met Jack, fended for myself. That I’m still alive is a testament to the power of good fortune, and reliance on instinct. Scorfano means “ugly one” in Italian. On that score I will agree with them. I was born homely and that hasn’t changed in the intervening years. In fact, it’s only gotten worse because I’ve taken a few knocks that have not improved my looks.
All that said, I am no hermit, and I do enjoy the company of others on occasion. And yet, whenever I do venture into a town, mainly to restock my meager required supplies—coffee beans, cornmeal, flour, salt, dried beans, canned fruits in syrup, waxed thread for repairs, needles for said thread, and a small stack of other useful items—I am reminded why I should have stayed away. I’ve been beaten, stabbed, jailed, and clubbed in the head more times than I care to recall. Or maybe it’s more times than I can recall, which is much closer to the truth, I suspect, given how tender a man’s bean can be. Even my shaggy head.
The fellow tending the monkey, possibly a Basque from the looks of his jaunty beret, stroked the monkey’s cheek, smiling in fondness. The monkey, unlike so many kept creatures exploited for financial benefit, appeared happy with his lot and accepted a peanut from the man’s grimy, work-creased hand.
A young woman at the front of the tiny crowd raised her head and asked the Basque a question. “May I . . . that is, does he bite?”
The man smiled and shook his head. “No, no, it’s okay! He will not bite, not bite.” He nodded at her, encouraging her.
She reached a tentative gloved hand, soft blue kid leather, toward the monkey, palm up. The monkey set his own slender hand right in hers as if they were about to shake. Wonder of wonders. Like a little person, he was.
I watched the young woman’s profile as she turned, smiling. Right then, I felt a stab, like a hatpin had slid between my ribs and deep into my heart. She looked to be perhaps twenty years old. A lock of wispy blond hair hung over her face, loosed from beneath a hooded wool cloak of a blue I’ve only seen on flowers on fine painted porcelain.
Her skin’s pallor resembled the rest of that porcelain—white, but with the faintest bloom of pink riding high on her cheeks. Her chin was prominent and bore a slight cleft in the center. Faint purple smudges rested beneath her bright, wide eyes, a blue nearly as rich as that of her cloak, and wreathed by long lashes. She looked to be a young woman getting over a sickness that had somehow enhanced her beauty. At least that’s the fanciful line of thought I caught myself trailing. I averted my gaze as she turned and made her way through the little crowd, which parted before her as if she were a magical being.
She was smiling and talking to an old woman who I now saw held the young woman’s elbow in a firm grip.
Great lummox that I am, so says Jack, I was neither fleet enough of mind nor foot to turn away before she reached me.
“. . . a homely thing,” said the girl as she looked up at me, not but two or three inches from me. She wore a delighted look conjured by the monkey. I could have bent down and kissed her, so pretty and startled did she seem. But her comment settled like a scrim of soot on the moment.
She looked into my eyes and her mirth was replaced with the inevitable fear and pity. Revulsion would be next. I turned from her gaze even as the old woman scowled at me and jerked the girl’s arm, guiding her away from this brute who had ruined their moment of happiness.
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