They had been climbing up the steep hill until they came to the trail they were obviously looking for, the trail I was walking. Well, not at the moment. I had exhausted myself trying to make it to the ridge and back before dark. I knew that it was two point four miles from where I had parked my pickup on the Forest Service road. I would have to push it in these last few hours of daylight. I was panting and puffing and leaning more heavily on my staff as I pushed myself. Reluctantly, I had to muzzle my pride and sit down on the stump to catch my breath.
And that’s when I first saw them. I’m sure that they had seen me long before I noticed the man and his wife. He carried the hindquarter of a nice elk and his wife was bending under a large pack of meat that still dripped blood. I suspect it was the meat from both front quarters. As I watched these two approach, a boy came out of the pines below, following their way. He was obviously laboring with the hindquarter that I suspected most white men would not have carried very easily. I didn’t need to understand her language to know that the younger girl following him was obviously teasing. It is the way of all sisters in every race and tribe. I know from both observation and experience.
He had a most nondescript face, like most Umatilla’s I had met before. But there was one feature that appeared to one who looked at him. At least those who looked into a man’s face with a sincere desire to see just what kind of man lived behind it. Not the casual glance that most men exchange when passing on a trail.
It was his smiling eyes. His face was totally devoid of any expression or communication of feeling or emotion. There was no sign of fear, anger, joy or sadness. Not even a hint of curiosity. But the eyes were smiling. I thought, they were actually laughing. And I liked them and him.
He stopped and looked at me for a brief moment and I was delighted when I detected the slightest lift of his chin. I knew it was more than just permission to follow. He was actually inviting me to come along.
I was well aware that if they had not all been so heavily burdened with their fresh supply of meat I would never have been able to keep up their pace. But now the side-hill trail had leveled out and made for easier walking. Then up a section that was so steep that a sharp switch-back to the left was the only relief in the climb.
Unable to communicate, I couldn’t ask the many questions that I wanted. Just where they were headed? How far had they come to find their meat? Were they headed for a village? Would they stop and spend the night over the ridge in a spot sheltered from the stiff breeze that was picking up?
As we slowly, steadily and silently climbed we came to the crest of the ridge. And there in the trail was a stack of stones. It must be why they called this Indian Rock trail. He stopped and carefully laid his burden on a boulder. Then selecting a rock about the size of your head, he placed it on the pile, laid one hand on the rock, and lifted the other to the dazzling sunset. Don’t ask me how I know that he offered a prayer of gratitude. Maybe it was for the elk he had killed or just an acknowledgement of the awesome beauty of these mountains and this sunset and this panorama from the hand of The Creator.
But that was what was in the heart of this old man. Along with a big “Thank You, Lord” for leaving the imagination with the boy that is tucked away in the wrinkles and stooped shoulders of this old greybeard!