Authors note: Ocho is loosely based on Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I put my old man in the Montana Rockies, circa 1985. Some of my favorite stories have always been the classic novellas of Steinbeck, London, Stevenson, and other writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. I was drawn to this tale by the themes of man against nature, grace in the face of defeat, and society's lack of respect for the elderly. For this blog, I will be presenting this tale as a serialized novella. I hope you enjoy.
Twenty miles west of Augusta, the Rocky Mountain Front rises from the prairie like a great battlement guarding the high country. A band of Douglas fir runs along the base of wind-swept ramparts striped green by ribbons of limber pine. Limestone cliffs stretch to the sky, marking the last ascent of the stony wall. Behind this fortress, a succession of ridges and valleys leads to the Continental Divide. In this distant land, wild creatures have lived their immemorial lives since the last ice age. Notches in the Front’s rocky reefs provide access to the grasslands below. Ancient trails worn smooth by countless hooves trace passes where generations have migrated to escape winter’s icy grip and return to graze on spring’s new growth.
To the east, lights twinkle in the heart of the night, scattered ranches and farms dotting the plains where men and women make a living off the land. Besides raising cattle and growing crops, many supplement their income guiding sportsmen. They seek deer, bear, sheep, but most of all, the majestic bull elk, dark maned with spreading antlers tipped in ivory. On horseback, hunters climb the passes and probe remote terrain where few on foot can follow. The outfits return with weary riders and pack strings, sometimes loaded with trophies and meat, more often with unsuccessful hunters dreaming of their next visit to the lonely places.
* * *
The old man awoke in the dark, the dull thud of stocking feet interrupting a familiar dream. For an instant he thought he was back in the Painted Desert. Then a hand shook his shoulder, and consciousness spun his startled mind a thousand miles north.
“Zefarino,” a youthful voice whispered, “there’s trouble in the yard.”
The old man tossed aside his blanket and sat on the wooden cot, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Raising his hand before the boy spoke again, he overheard arguing outside the shack.
“Goddamnit, ya should’ve waited for a good shot.”
“But he would’ve slipped away.”
“Maybe, but ya wouldn’t have wounded him.”
“Keep it down. You want the boss to hear ‘bout this?”
Zefarino recognized the voices of two cowboys, a couple of misfits always up to no good. He pressed his ear against the wood wall and continued to listen.
“Hell, no, I don’t want him to find out…it’d be our asses.”
“Damned right, he’d send us both packin’.”
“Even though you made the bum shot.”
“Think he’d really care who pulled the trigger?”
“Damn, what an elk, though, an eight pointer…how often do ya see a bull that big?”
“Maybe we could go back and finish him off.”
“Shit, ya ain’t gonna find him now. Besides, we could never bring ‘im back…a trophy like that’s for the dudes, not a couple of hired hands.”
“Well, it’s done, now. Just remember this is dead man’s talk. Now let’s go have a drink….”
The voices faded as Zefarino rose, his bent frame creaking while he stretched. His ribs showed through his worn night shirt, flowing white hair hiding the deep wrinkles in his neck. His lean, weathered face remained open and friendly. Even in the dark room, lit only by moonlight leaking through the curtains of a single window, his eyes sparked blue like the big sky of his adopted home.
“They really shot Ocho,” the boy blurted.
The old man touched a bony finger to his lips, then nodded toward the yard. “Shhh, Lucas, wait ‘till they’re gone.”
The boy is right, he thought. They’ve wounded Ocho. I never thought that old bull would give a hunter a chance, but all of us make mistakes. Did they really leave him on the mountain? I must finish what they started. He imagined a long hunt, remembering where the two cowboys had ridden into the backcountry. I have known him too long to let him suffer a miserable death.
When Zefarino figured the two men had reached the bunkhouse, he pulled on a cord dangling from the ceiling. A single bulb lit the board and batten cabin, casting shadows across the plywood floor. Retrieving a brace from the trunk under his cot, he loosened the laces and poked his foot through the tube of canvas. He sat on a chair, rubbing his aching leg, long past hoping the stiffness would fade. Decades after his injury, a scar running the length of his knee remained vivid, resembling a coarse zipper. He pulled up and tightened the brace, then slipped on long underwear and wool pants.
“Get dressed, Lucas, I want you to drive me up the pass.”
“What?” The boy pointed across the room toward an old alarm clock resting on a work bench. “It’s a little past 3. Shouldn’t we wait until first light?”
“No, I want to be on the trail by then.” The old man pulled on his boots. “Just get me to the end of the road, then you can come back.”
“But I want to go, too. You’ll need me.”
“I would like to take you, but then who would care for the stock…those culos?” He thrust his chin toward the bunkhouse where music and laughter already drifted on the frosty night air. “One of us has to stay, and only I know where to find Ocho.”
“You?” the boy asked. “Your eyes might still be okay, but what about your leg? You shouldn’t go up there alone.”
“I’ll get by. Besides, I know a trick or two, even if I am a tired old vaquero.”
“Why don’t you let me saddle Red for you?”
“Riding hurts my leg worse than walking, and besides, no horse can travel where Ocho’s headed.”
“But an old man can?” The boy’s tone of doubt pierced Zefarino’s pride.
“I’ll manage. Perhaps I have one more hunt left in me. Go start the Chief. Let her warm up, then park in the front. I don’t want anyone to see us leave.”
The patron would not approve, the old man thought. Finishing a wounded trophy is far above my place, considering his usual instructions to me, “Zefarino, muck the stalls…Zefarino, mend the fence…Zefarino, castrate the calves.” Besides, I have not kept my job all these years by revealing the misdeeds of others. No, I must keep this secret and put down Ocho myself.
Lucas donned his jean jacket, brushing long brown hair from his eyes. He opened the shack door, revealing more merriment floating across the yard. “I wouldn’t worry, sounds like they’re getting into the booze.”
Just make sure you don’t join them, boy, the old man thought, as the gangly teenager stepped into the night. He had rescued Lucas from the pool hall a year before, the only home the orphaned boy had known since his mother drank herself to death. For months Lucas had swamped the joint every night after closing for a cot in the storage room and whatever food he could beg off the grill cook. Helping himself to leftover drinks after hours, the boy was already well on his way to his mother’s fate when the old man brought him to the ranch, convincing the patron another hand would be useful around the hacienda.
Zefarino lifted his canvas pack off the hanger he’d fashioned from a worn horseshoe. He rummaged about the single room, searching for what little gear he called his own. He found his knife and hatchet resting on a shelf over the wash basin. After testing the edges of both tools with his calloused thumb, he sheathed and tossed them in the rucksack along with a coil of rope, canteen, cook kit, flashlight, small candle and a lump of pine pitch. He folded his mackinaw shirt and packed it along with socks and a watch cap.
In the pockets of his trousers, he stuffed his jackknife, sharpening stone, compass, match case, and a handful of extra rifle cartridges he rolled in a handkerchief to keep them from rattling. Cramming an army surplus sleeping bag and the rest of his outfit into the pack, he heard the old Chevy pickup rumble across the yard, then skid to a stop in front of the shack.
Seconds later Lucas slipped inside, wearing a mischievous look Zefarino had seen before. He noticed a canvas sack in the boy’s hand. “What have you got?”
Lucas opened the bag, grinning with delight. “Here’s your grub. I have apples, bread, cheese, even those canned sausages you like. I snuck into the lodge and raided the kitchen. The way they’re carrying on, they never saw me.”
An unexpected bounty, the old man thought. Oh, well, if I have to clean up the mess made by those sorry ranch hands, the least the patron can do is feed me.
As Zefarino finished with his kit, Lucas asked, “Will that be enough? It’s November now.”
“I have all I need…no matter how far Ocho leads me.” He nodded toward an old radio resting on the window sill. “You’ll have to listen to the football game for me.”
The boy shook his head. “Nobody can beat the Broncos, not this year.”
“I worry about the Raiders.”
Lucas pointed towards a magazine cover tacked on the wooden wall over his bunk. “Elway won’t let the Broncos lose.”
“Well, you can tell me all about it when I come back.” The old man took down his worn Mauser rifle and binoculars from the small rack over the work bench, then looked about the room for any gear he might have forgotten. Satisfied he had not overlooked anything, he said to the boy, “Go ahead and get in the truck, I’ll be right out.”
After Lucas stepped outside, Zefarino lingered near the wooden barrel at the head of his cot. A faded photograph of a happy woman and boy rested in a battered frame next to a small stack of magazines. The old man whispered, “Good thing about this trouble, it gives me something to believe in…and a chance to forget.” Shouldering his pack, Zefarino allowed himself a last glance. “Soon I will lose, but this is a final test for the strength of my honor.” He gently touched the picture. “I’m getting closer.”