The 'Missus' and The Wayfarer

WHEN we moved to Whitney, Oregon, the buildings that were left were weather-beaten and broken-down, survivors of an old mining and lumber town. Swallows flew in and out of the buildings and built their nests in the eaves. The sagebrush and the high, open sky shared the immense silence with a m 142>nage of swallows, coyotes, elk, great blue herons, and sandhill cranes - and us. Into the silence of winter dropped the sounds of spring. The steady drip of the snow melting from the eaves and a warmer wind when I went out to milk in the mornings were the first signs. Geese flew and honked up the valley. And the raucous, rattling, prehistoric cry of the sandhill crane foretold spring's arrival.

When these things happened, I began to look for Guy's arrival. Guy had been making a seasonal route among Jacksonville, Whitney, and Greenhorn Mountain for at least 40 years. He arrived in his pickup with all his worldly goods loaded in the back. He had a longstanding agreement with the owner of the cabin across the road, where he would set up camp. His total setup time was one or two hours.

After we got to know each other he always called me "the missus" - a title that my friends deplored. I suppose it sounded pretty strange for a woman in her 30s to be called "the missus," especially in the 1980s. 'Ms." was in. "Missus" was not. But I knew that with Guy, it was an old ranch term of respect. For him, even though there were other women in Whitney, I was "the missus" of the valley. My husband, Jon, said that whenever Guy came to the house and I was gone he kept peering around Jon pointedly a nd finally would burst out with, "Where's the missus?"

When I saw the smoke rolling from the chimney of his little cabin, I knew that he was "campfire" cooking again. His morning breakfast always consisted of salted coffee and doughnuts. The salt was to "bring out the flavor." He cooked meat and then put it aside, without refrigeration. "Cooked meat lasts longer."

Guy loved to fish, but hated to eat what he caught, so I was the happy recipient of trout from Camp Creek. But Guy wasn't too interested in cleaning them either. Guy gave me my first fish-cleaning lesson, and although it was a job I never liked, I enjoyed being involved in the process of feeding my family from nature.

Guy kept a coffee can of small Milky Way candy bars under his cot. About twice a week I would tell our daughters, Juniper and Amanda, they could go to Guy's and get a candy bar. To get there you had to look both ways, cross the dirt road, and run up the boardwalk to Guy's open door.

Usually the kids would get their candy bars and run. But as they got to know him better, the visits lasted a little longer, and if I walked over with some homemade bread or cookies for Guy, I'd find him telling them stories about his wandering life, or perhaps about the wildflowers. Guy loved children, wild creatures, and flowers, but hadn't much use for grown-ups.

Despite his dislike of grown-ups, he enjoyed some of the projects Jon and I came up with. He helped supervise the carpet laying and thought it was a grand joke to hear Jon grumble good naturedly and to watch me ignoring it all and getting on with the business.

No doubt he was happy to live his own fuss-free life and congratulated himself on his wise decision regarding the marital state.

The Fourth of July was a grand occasion too, with Guy supervising the fireworks out on the dirt road in front of our house. He blithely ignored all cautions written on the fireworks and stood as close as he wanted. Respectful of his 81 years, and mindful of the fact that he'd managed just fine without me for the first 75 of them, I still couldn't resist cautioning him as he lit the fireworks and stood over them.

Early in our relationship, after Guy had decided that he liked me, he and I went for a walk to see the first flowers of the year. We walked about a half-mile, and he taught me the names for widow's grass, bird's bill or shooting star, and harebell.

As we came to know each other better each returning spring, and as I became "the missus" to Guy, he grew more protective of me. When I was visiting one day he noticed a cloud of mosquitoes on my legs and became quite alarmed. He said that he always sprayed himself with Raid, then they didn't bother him. I looked at him in wonder and said that really, they didn't bother me anyway. Guy was insistent, however, and before I left he had sprayed a thick coating of Raid on my legs. I waved goodbye and proceede d over to the house and around to the backyard where my husband was pursuing organic gardening.

"What's that on your legs?" he asked in horror.

"Raid. Guy wanted to help me keep the mosquitoes off."

"Go into the house and wash that stuff off!" Jon ordered, for once abandoning all husbandly caution and falling into the role of a father with an errant child.

WHAT same year I saw a car down at our next nearest neighbor's house, about a half-mile away. I'd promised to keep an eye on their place while they were gone. Jon was off working on the ranch, so I rambled across the street to tell Guy what I was up to. That was a mistake because Guy drew his gun from under his pillow and said he'd come with me. All the protests in the world wouldn't change his mind, and when we arrived at our neighbor's house I walked up the driveway with Guy behind me.

I wondered at every step about the absolute stupidity of my latest venture. What if Guy tripped and the gun went off? What if the other person had a gun and there was an actual shooting match between this old man (who I'd silently sworn to protect and care for) and some young, desperate athlete of a robber? But the final event was peaceful and diametrically opposed to my overexcited imaginings. The door opened and a quiet, gentle woman came out. I introduced myself and recognized by her name that she wa s a close friend of our neighbors. Guy proudly showed off his shooting abilities, into the field, away from my back, and we went home.

Guy visited his sister in La Grande occasionally. They were good friends. She washed his clothes, cooked some hot meals, and sometimes went grocery shopping with him. Now and then she came to Whitney. She and I talked as she washed dishes in Guy's dishpan on the stove. She worried about Guy, but he'd always been so independent. "He left home when he was 14 and never came back," she said.

Her good humor always overcame the worry, though, and after a while she and Guy would tell me their family stories, punctuated with chuckles and grins.

Guy returned one day from a visit with his sister after being gone for a week or so. That was longer than usual and I'd been wondering about him. As he stepped up on the porch the sun caught his fly-away white hair and turned it into a sunlit silver aureole. His cheeks were pink and his penetrating blue eyes shown invincibly. "Angelic," I thought. "Radiant." He made his brief hellos and left. Guy never visited long. He liked most to be alone.

Our dog Thorn almost knocked him down as he walked along. He put out a gentle hand and continued on his way.

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