The packer’s business is guiding mule trains into mountains where wagons can’t travel. It’s a life of danger, long days, and low pay. But for those wedded to the wilderness and inaccessible high country, it is the only life there is.
During the Great Depression, young Ty Hardin is sent from his family’s failing Montana ranch to learn from the last of the great packers, Fenton Pardee, legendary in the Montana Rockies for his packing adventures across the Swan Range all the way to the Big Divide. High Country follows Ty through this apprenticeship and into World War II, where he watches trucks and jeeps replace the army’s mules. Wounded and shipped home, Ty recovers by packing into the Montana mountains he loves. After his mentor dies, Ty leaves Montana for the Sierra Nevadathe highest country of allwhere he becomes a legend in his own right.
Writing in the tradition of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs through It, Willard Wyman shares techniques of breaking and packing and leading animals into forbidding country, hunting and tracking, and making camp. Wyman brings you so close to the packer’s life you smell the leather, sweat, and oil.
About the Author
Willard Wyman (1930-2014) was a wrangler, guide, and packer in Montana's Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Sierra Nevada High Country for over forty years. He taught literature and was a dean of students at both Stanford University and Colby College. He was also Headmaster of The Thacher School.
Read an Excerpt
By Willard Wyman
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESSCopyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Will Hardin claimed nothing ever had been easy for the Hardin family, that there'd always been a cloud hanging over them. But his son wasn't so sure. From the first Ty could see why his grandfather, old Eban Hardin, had built the barn where he did, the house. Even if the corrals needed patching year in and year out, they were good to work in, had a plan, made sense. Ty thought Eban was probably looking at better things ahead when the big freeze came in and wiped him out.
The big outfit had the Hardin ranch now. They kept Will Hardin on to look after the land his father had homesteaded, live in the house his father had built, teach his sons what the land had taught him. It was a dark picture he painted. Without Mary Hardin around it would have been a darker picture his boys saw. But she had a way of finding light— especially for her boys. She saw that Jimmy understood the big outfit's equipment, could drive it in a straight line and fix it when it broke. She knew Dan had a way with numbers. And it didn't take her long to see that Ty had some of old Eban Hardin in him, had a way with animals— with horses and mules, even with the half-wild range cattle they had to doctor wherever they found them.
Which is how Ty cut open his head and broke his arm. He was heading back to the corrals with a half-frozen calf over his saddle when he hit ice on the same cut bank he'd crossed to rescue the calf, the sun behind the ridge now, the air snapping cold. They went down hard, the filly tumbling over Ty and crashing through the ice before plunging up again, wet and shaking, one hock bloody. Ty waded out to her, knowing something was wrong with his arm and troubled by an odd warmth on his face. He got the calf back over the saddle and washed the blood from the filly's leg. He wiped to clear his eyes and found blood, blotted it with his sleeve as he led the filly out of the draw.
It was almost dark when he came into the corrals, the cow following as though being led. Blood had crusted on his face; the calf hung limp across the saddle. Ty was afraid they would lose it. He was thinking about how to put the mother over an orphaned calf when he heard his father.
"Shit." Will peered at Ty in the failing light. "Got scratched up. Knew I'd have to fire up that damn lantern." Ty heard matches scratching in the shed, saw the lantern take. He led the filly into the broken barn, the light casting outsize shadows behind his father and across old gear, broken and abandoned along the walls.
"Lucky it's still numb." His father probed at the wound. "That'll help when your mother starts in."
"That calf could make it." Ty watched Will ease the calf off the saddle and carry it under the shed, the cow following, too played out to protest. But the filly wasn't played out at all, getting so jumpy when Will came at her that Ty had to calm her himself. He slid the saddle off with his good arm, doctored her leg before following the lantern up to the house.
His mother cleaned his wound, pulling the cut together with tape. She worried over his arm even more, wrapping it and fixing a sling before telling them what to get in Missoula after they saw the doctor.
"Wish them doctors didn't cost so," Will said. "Might save some if we let the damn calves die."
"Better than no doctors. Lucky you grew up at all, Will."
"I was a lot more careful, is what I was. Wouldn't hurt to practice on that." Will got up from the table. "Save money too." He got out the makings for a cigarette, surprised Ty was the one who'd gotten hurt.
They left the next morning before the others saddled and got started for school, needing to get the pickup out while the road was frozen. Ty was looking forward to a long day in town.
When they left the doctor's office they went to Horace Adams's feed store, Ty with a cast on his arm and shiny white bandages over the stitches. Will had a list of things to do, but Ty knew he'd want to complain to Horace Adams first. Horace supported half the ranchers in that country anyway, never expecting much until folks got their hay in and their calves sold, carrying many even beyond that.
In no time Will and Horace were telling each other how bad things were. Ty drifted off, feeling unsettled not so much because his arm hurt as because he didn't want to hear that kind of talk. He knew ranch people liked to complain, but he also knew this time they were right. There wasn't enough money to do anything but complain. Or pretend. Sometimes when he was riding out to check on the cattle he'd start thinking about the crazy schemes his brothers had, and he'd get so blue he'd ride past what he needed to do. It made him even sadder to hear his mother. She was always looking for ways to lighten Will's dour predictions, which was getting harder and harder to do. The big outfit didn't pay much, and they were down to just a handful of cows of their own. And it always seemed their calves that were lost each spring, not the big outfit's.
In one corner of his feed store, Horace kept tack he got from hands down on their luck. Ty went to look at the saddles, dreaming to have his own, one that fit him, that he could rig just the way he wanted. A tall, deep-chested man with the whitest hair Ty had ever seen was holding up a pannier, checking it for weak spots. He brought it down and looked at Ty.
"See you been chased around by one of them grizzlies," he said. "Too bad you wasn't quick enough to step aside."
"No, sir," Ty said, pleased. "I just misread the ground. My horse rolled on me some."
"You think these panniers'll last me two or three seasons if old Horace don't want all my money? They ain't half bad."
"We only use ours to put out salt." Ty thought of the ragged panniers Will kept in a corner of the barn. "They been used pretty hard."
"I believe you have too." The man took in the tattered Levi jacket draped over the cast. "Well, I seen some fellers in worse shape when they did get out of the way. Runnin' too fast in my country is near as dangerous as wrestlin' with a damn bear anyhow." He hooked a finger in the ears of the panniers, put them over his shoulder, and went over to barter.
Ty went back to the saddles, thinking his father seemed less discouraged in town.
They had a sandwich at the Elkhorn. "Try this." Will slid a bottle of beer over to Ty. "Ease your ache." He took a pull from his. "Might ease mine too." The beer seemed to perk Will up. He even began kidding with some of the men as they came in.
After their errands they came back to the Elkhorn, using up time before heading for home. Will wanted the meadow frozen solid before he crossed it. He'd had to harness the mules too many times when Mary bogged down in the pickup.
Ty didn't mind. An old-timer got him into a game of checkers. Ty liked the man's stories and the way he laughed when he made a run on the board. He liked seeing his father there too. He wouldn't call Will happy, but with the other men talking about their troubles he didn't seem nearly as low as he'd been on the way to town.
Before long the white-haired man from the feed store came in. He walked directly over to the table where Ty was playing checkers.
"Well, Jasper," he said to the old-timer. "See you found somebody broke up enough so you might win." He looked at the board. "Go easy. This old boy's havin' a hard time. His horse rolled on him, and now you're about to chase him off the board." He took a swallow of Jasper's beer and looked at Ty. "Don't get to bettin' with Jasper Finn. Could hurt worse than rollin' around under your filly." He took another swallow and headed for the bar, where he started right in talking with Will. It seemed to Ty the man had a way of having a conversation with people before they knew they were in one.
"Don't let Fenton scare you," Jasper Finn told him. "I ain't gonna do no bettin'. Save stealin' from colts for when I get old." That made him laugh so hard he began to cough. Ty whacked him on the back until he got his breath. Then he watched him sit up, sip his beer, and solemnly jump every one of Ty's remaining checkers. Ty was so startled, Jasper got to laughing and coughing again, drinking more beer to quiet things down. "Can't beat age and cunnin'," he wagged a finger at Ty, "not with no broke arm."
The bartender came over with a pitcher of beer.
"From Fenton," he said. "He's feelin' unusual generous."
Jasper didn't even offer a thank-you, accepting the beer as though he'd ordered it himself. He told Ty that Fenton Pardee was a packer who packed across the Swan Range all the way to the big divide. Ty didn't know where the Swan Range was, but he didn't let on to Jasper, who was happy explaining that he did a lot of work for Pardee himself, most often as a cook but sometimes as a wrangler. Once as a guide.
"They was pretty thin for guides that year. But I got them fellers some elk. Hell, in them days elk would drift into camp for coffee." He poured a glass, looking disappointed when Ty refused. "Old Fenton gets a lot of folks into tight spots." He drank, watching to make sure Ty was listening. "But he knows mountains. Slickest packer you ever see. All them rough places, and he always got me out. Hardly a scratch. Just frostbit. A little."
* * *
On the way home Will told Ty all he knew about Fenton Pardee. And Ty listened almost as though he sensed the part Fenton Pardee would play in his life. He told Ty about Fenton coming up with Tommy Yellowtail to pick up his own father's mules, explaining that after the big freeze Eban Hardin decided on mules, figuring they were tough enough to fight off any winter and he could always sell them to the army. When the army shipped up all the mules they needed from Missouri, Eban was stuck with more than he could handle. He didn't know what he would have done if Fenton hadn't got the Forest Service contract and come to get them.
Will thought about that, rolling a cigarette with one hand, steering with the other, the truck lurching onto the shoulder as he made his smoke. Ty cracked the window a little to keep Will awake. He wanted to hear all of it.
"Pardee's hair black as a raven, then. But he wasn't too young to learn. Your grandfather knew mules. Like you. Got along with all them four-legged bastards, even the cows he kept to remind him of the freeze." He wound down his window, spit, wound it back up.
"One didn't have no ears. The other lamed up till she died. Feelin' never did come back in her leg." He hunched down as though to warm himself.
"It's cold as Canada in here." Will shook himself. "If you're so handy with windows, you drive. That cast don't seem to slow you none."
"Just a little fresh air. I believe it's good for you."
"Not if I'm froze." He slowed. "You drive. I'll crank windows."
Before Will fell asleep he told Ty how Fenton Pardee had trailed the mules, Tommy Yellowtail ahead with a bell mare, down the Bitterroot to Missoula, crossing the Blackfoot at the University, following it to the Clearwater, then up that to Fenton's meadows below Crippled Elk Lake.
Ty liked hearing about old times, though he was relieved when Will finally slept and he could enjoy the drive up the Bitterroot. He watched the moon on the river and thought about families that had to move into town. He guessed this wasn't as bad as the big freeze. But almost. You didn't have to see your cattle die, just watch as someone took them away.
He'd bounced across the frozen ruts before Will woke. The generator was going, and Mary used the light to make sure they unloaded everything. Then she poured a glass of milk for Will and pushed Ty off to bed.
"Glad he got to relax." She turned back the frayed blanket. "His fretting won't fix anything."
She sounded so resigned Ty got to feeling low himself, even after all the excitement of being in town. And he was surprised to hear her talk that way about his father, about her own fears. He went to sleep thinking about them, their worries blending into his own.
In the night his arm started to throb. The pills were in Will's pocket, and Ty didn't want to wake him. He tried to forget the throbbing by thinking about the summer ahead, which didn't look good. Though they might save that calf he'd brought in, they'd already lost three. And the cattle prices were still going down. The only good thing was they wouldn't have to work the mules so hard. The big outfit had contracted the haying out to a company with all the newest equipment, pulled by their big tractors.
It might cause a lot of racket, but the mules would get a rest.
With his arm in the cast Ty spent most of his time around the barn and the sagging corrals. Will had made repairs over the years, but the corrals still looked tired. Ty guessed old Eban needed things in a hurry when he built. Each spring Ty had helped Will brace a post here or string some wire there. Now he saw places that needed fresh patching—and sections that needed to be torn out and rebuilt. He couldn't do either. All he could do was look, see what ought to be done. There was plenty of that.
Ty did what he could, mostly feeding and some doctoring—when he could do it with one hand. He couldn't remember spending so much time around his mother and father before, or hearing so much talk between them. It seemed like one long conversation, interrupted by what had to be done and then picked up again as though never put down by either. And always the talk was bad. Though the haying contractor would take some burden off the mules, it meant less money from the big outfit. How to get through the summer until the calves were sold gnawed at them, and everyone had a part to play. Jimmy had signed on with the haying contractor. There would be a little money there—unless Jimmy ran off with the Malone girl. And Mary found a job for Dan at the Missouri Bar, sweeping and keeping the ice chest full and making sure the books balanced.
"He'll learn something," Mary told Will. "Not much left to learn here."
Will nodded, rolling a cigarette. The truth was he saw no reason to learn anything about ranching anymore. To him it was a dead-end trail.
* * *
A week before the cast was to come off, Ty came into the kitchen with a pail of milk to find his mother and father at it again. It seemed to him all their concerns of the past weeks filled the room. Will went right on talking, but Mary got up and started fussing with the dishes.
"It ain't such a big thing," Will said to her. "Ty knows horses, and the man has that government contract."
"You might as well know your father wrote that man up at Crippled Elk Lake." Mary was wiping her hands on her apron. "Nothing but a bedroll all summer and not much more come winter."
Suddenly the tie on the apron broke. It seemed kind of funny to Ty, but he knew there was nothing to laugh about. Everything seemed to be breaking around the place. Mary kept wiping her hands with the loose apron.
"He thinks you could help with their stock." She looked at him.
"Why, your father. We haven't heard back from that man Pardee."
It was three more weeks before they did. And Fenton Pardee said all he needed to say on a penny postcard.
Will—It might work. If he can shoe I can teach him the packing. He will learn the rest soon enough. When school quits send him up.
When the day came, Ty put what he needed in his grandfather's old kit bag. He put on his best Levis and his best shirt and jammed his socks and underwear into the old saddlebags Will gave him, deciding to wear Jimmy's outgrown jacket rather than carry it.
Mary looked to see what he'd left and was surprised to see he had about everything he owned with him. She gave him some peanut-butter sandwiches she'd wrapped in brown paper. He put them in the saddlebags with his socks. He'd grown tall, but there was still no weight. He looked much too young to be leaving home.
"You look older." Mary's hands were playing at her apron again. "Be careful. We don't want you coming home in some new cast."
He gave her an awkward hug and she felt his leanness through the jacket, the tightness of his body the only sign he gave her.
She went into the house after their dust settled, thinking she might have a cry. But somehow she couldn't. She took off her apron and found a needle and set about sewing on the tie. It had broken loose again.
Ty felt hollow on the ride into Missoula. He ate one of the sandwiches, feeling a little sad about what was behind him, a little worried about what was ahead. He wasn't nervous about the work; he was just worried that Fenton Pardee wouldn't stand still long enough to answer any questions. And Will wasn't much help. He just drove, concentrating on the road as he smoked. It seemed to Ty his father looked more pessimistic than ever.
His worries grew when they pulled up at the feed store and Horace Adams explained that Pardee was picking up mules north of Hungry Horse and couldn't find anyone to meet Ty.
"Don't you fret." Horace looked at Ty. "I'll ship you out there with the lumberjacks. Won't have to test that bad arm hitching." He looked at Will. "He's growed. Up but not out." His eyes turned back to Ty, the kit bag, and the ragged jacket. "And you got your gear. That's good. Gets cold as a witch tit in that country."
Excerpted from High Country by Willard Wyman. Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsBook One: The Swan,
Death and Life (1945–1947),
Book Two: The Sierra (1950–1984),