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Forrest and the Hermit

Forrest was born along the Albion in spring time, when the river and its gulch tributaries were still swollen enough for fishing. He arrived in 1909, the last of his mother and father's six children. His eldest brother, twenty-one years his senior, had been working in the woods for several years by the time Forrest arrived. His closest sibling, another brother, a mere two years older, shared a love of fishing. At preschool ages they procured wooden spears, affixed their own multi-pronged ends, and when the river proved too calm for salmon runs, they practiced spearing trout in their mother's metal wash tub. Thrusting and jabbing their spears through the trapped trout, the pair of boys soon turned the tub into a sieve.

About the time Forrest turned four, his six-year-old brother suffered from what turned out to be childhood tuberculosis in a leg bone. His brother traveled to a San Francisco hospital, disappearing from Forrest's life for months. The brother did not return return home to the family's Albion ranch and farm until after the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in the City.

Of course, boys will be boys, and fresh air was deemed a partial curative, so the two brothers ran and leaped as youngsters on the loose will do. Unfortunately, the older sibling re-injured his tubercular leg. Forrest accompanied his parents and brother to Albion to see them off on the steamer trip to San Francisco. Along with them stood Forrest's youngest maternal uncle, Will, then in his forties. On the way home to the family ranch, Will stopped to shoot a dozen or more blackbirds. Back home they cleaned the birds and Will baked them into a pot pie for supper. 

After supper, Uncle Will walked east through the family's largest apple orchard to his cabin at the foot of the northern hills. Forrest didn't see him again the next day or the one following. The boy rose early each day. Milked the cows, gathered eggs, fed the chickens, slopped the hogs, and fed himself until one day Bob Mathison, a lifelong friend of Forrest's two brothers in their late twenties, walked down the hill from his family home two miles away. Bob brought a pie baked by one of his sisters, Hilma or Emma. Bob and Forrest cut thick slices and chatted until Bob left for the steep climb home. Days blurred into each other until one morning Uncle Will reappeared. Time to go to Albion to meet the folks, he informed his nephew. They made the journey to the coast, all the while Forrest wondered how his uncle had any idea which day a steamer, let alone the one with their family members aboard, would arrive at Albion. But, sure enough, the vessel docked not long after uncle and nephew reached the pier.

Forrest's brother recovered from his bouts with bone tuberculosis, improved so much that by the time he neared high school age he could compete in distance races with the finest runners in the county. Younger brother Forrest never lost his taste for fishing. One wet day when he was twelve, Forrest hiked along the railroad tracks that paralleled the Albion River, all the way to a location proximate to Norden Gulch on the Albion's south fork. He caught several hook bills, tossed them in a gunny sack until it felt heavy enough to turn for home. 

Hook bill is one of the common names given to Chinook Salmon. They are typically blueish green on the back and top of the head with silver sides and white bellies, along with black spots dotting the upper half of the body. Their mouths appear gray to black. They can very greatly in length and weight, up to five feet long in extremely big ones. 

So, Forrest turned for home that damp day with quite a load over his young shoulders. It just so happened that this particular part of the Albion was home to a hermit called Big Bill. He resided in a redwood goose pen and took a very proprietary view toward that section of the river. 

Big Bill also possessed a .38 rifle. He spotted the intruder in his territory, aimed his weapon at the figure's back, and pulled the trigger. The bullet knocked Forrest face down onto the railroad tracks.

Matt Piper, who ran the Albion Lumber Company's slaughterhouse many miles downriver, happened along on the speeder car in the company of another man. They found the unconscious boy. Good fortune or dumb luck saved Forrest. Not only had he worn a thick coat that day, but Big Bill's rifle round penetrated the fish-filled gunny sack before striking the body. The bullet left a bruise and ultimately a scar, but no permanent internal damage.

Another fortuitous event: When Matt Piper dropped the recovered lad off in front of the family house, no one was at home. No explanations to mother required nor were any ever given. He did have to dispose of some bullet-riddled hook bills in the woods beyond Uncle Will's cabin.

Matt Piper went into Mendocino the next morning. Constable Ambrose Patton accompanied him on a trip upriver on the railroad alongside the Albion. At Big Bill's goose pen stump, they found the hermit had hanged himself during the night.

(*Full disclosure: Forrest Macdonald was the author's youngest uncle.)

2 Comments

  1. Laura Cooskey October 17, 2021

    Good story! The ending was a wowzer.
    Do you suppose Big Bill believed he’d killed Forrest?
    Otherwise, i can’t imagine doing what must have seemed routine or normal to him would cause him such remorse– scaring off someone encroaching on his turf.

  2. Corinna Fahey October 31, 2021

    Nice story. I was reading an article you wrote published some years back in the AVA. It was concerning the city of Fort Bragg, citizen oversize and legal politics. I thought to myself, this guy is a good writer, thoughtful and clear. So I looked your name up and found your story. Thank you.

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