Uncle Daney's Way, page 1
Uncle Daney’s Way
Thanks to Jay Bailey, Wayne Bartlett, and Sonny Brown, who show us how every year at the Deerfield Valley Fair
FOR OBVIOUS REASONS
WHEN UNCLE DANEY got out of the hospital, there was no place to put him but the barn.
“I think it’s terrible!” Mom said. She and Pop had just gotten home from visiting Uncle Daney.
But Pop said, “Lou, that barn is a palace, compared with the places he’s been living. Heck, it’s a palace compared with this trailer!”
“Why does he have to live with us, anyway?” Cole asked. He knew that Uncle Daney was a logger and that he had been in an accident back in the winter. But when Mom and Pop left this morning, there had been no talk of this.
“They say his legs won’t get any better. He has to be in a wheelchair, and he doesn’t have anybody else.”
“And you can see what it would be like, having a wheelchair in here.” Pop looked the length of the trailer. From where he sat at the table he could see most of it, narrow and crowded, and all in a straight line.
“We could manage,” Mom said, but Cole didn’t think so. Even when it was just the three of them, all with good legs, they bumped into one another too often. Cole had always lived in trailers, but the one they’d had back in the trailer park had been big and new.
“The barn’s easy to get in and out of,” Pop said. “I won’t have to build a ramp. And we won’t be on top of each other every minute of the day. It was his own idea, Lou. I don’t see how we can tell him no.”
Mom snorted. “Nobody can ever tell Uncle Daney no!”
After supper Pop and Cole put on their jackets and went out to the barn. The air felt soft and warm on their faces. It smelled like mud, like spring.
When Pop snapped on the lights, the barn became a huge yellow cave. The beams cast dark bars of shadow across the wide central aisle. On each side of the aisle were three stall doors, bottoms closed, tops open and dark. On top of each bank of stalls was the platform for storing hay. The platforms were dark and shadowy, too, and empty.
Pop pushed the big door farther back on its roller and bent down to look where the driveway met the threshold. “Smooth enough,” he said. “He’ll be able to get in and out, no problem.”
Now Pop pulled open the door of the first stall.
It was like a little room, with tightly fitting board walls all the way up to the ceiling and a tight board floor, roughened by horses’ hooves. This was a rich person’s horse barn. Once there had been a rich person’s house where the trailer now stood. It had burned down a few years ago, and that was why Mom and Pop could afford to buy this place. Just barely afford it.
“You’ll have to move all this stuff out,” Pop said. Cole had used the stall to store sap buckets and the boiling pans when he had finished sugaring a couple of weeks ago.
“I guess we’ll have to sand this floor, too. That won’t be good for a wheelchair.”
“There’s a bump here at the threshold,” Cole said.
“We can build a wedge in there.”
Cole shoved his hands deep in his jacket pockets, frowning at the stall. This was going to be a lot of work, and that was good. Now that sugaring season was through, he didn’t have much to do after school.
But it wasn’t fair. He wanted to live out here. From the first day they’d moved here, almost a year ago, he’d been planning how to make one of these stalls into a room for himself. He’d even asked once or twice. Mom and Pop might not be able to say no to Uncle Daney, but they could say no to him, loud and clear!
And anyway, why couldn’t they say no to Uncle Daney? Loggers drank a lot, Cole knew. They were rough on their horses, and if they had families, they were rough on them, too. Pop seemed to think this barn was a palace, and maybe he’d described it that way to Uncle Daney. But what if Uncle Daney didn’t agree?
“You think it’ll be okay?” he asked.
“Oh, yeah,” Pop said. “It’s nice and tight. Good big window—”
“No. I mean, will he like it?”
“We’ll start work on it tomorrow,” Pop said. He didn’t sound worried, so Cole kept his doubts to himself.
They had a week to get ready. For Cole it was a good week, in spite of everything. In the afternoons, when the empty school bus turned around in his driveway and let him off, he had work to do. He didn’t have to invent something. He didn’t have to walk alone up the Hogback, the huge dark hill that rose behind the trailer, blocking out the sun. He didn’t have to wish for some wood to stack or even for more homework.
Monday he moved the sap buckets and swept down the cobwebs from the ceiling. He ripped the wooden bars off the window with a crowbar, and he washed the window inside and out. There was an iron hayrack in one corner, and he left that. It would make a good place to store things.
That night Pop brought home lumber and helped Cole draw up plans to make the half door into a solid door. Over the next few days Cole rebuilt the door himself.
He liked having it to think about at school. Even though he’d been in this school for all of seventh grade now, he didn’t fit in. His clothes were different. He wore homemade shirts and work boots instead of running shoes. His hair was cut just like Pop’s. Only Roger Allard looked and dressed the way Cole did, but Roger fitted in fine. He didn’t seem to need another friend. So Cole was glad to have the plans for Uncle Daney’s door to tinker with in his free time. At least it made him look as if he was too busy to care.
Pop borrowed a sander and smoothed the floor out. He got Uncle Daney a heater, and he put in plumbing. Pop could do most of the work himself, but still, the lumber and supplies cost more than he could really afford.
Mom swept, vacuumed, washed, and aired the stall. On Friday afternoon, when it was clean and fresh-smelling, she and Cole brought in the table and the chest of drawers they’d gotten from the secondhand store, and set up the iron bed frame. When it was together, Mom stood back with her hands on her hips and looked around the stall.
“It’s not that bad,” she said. “If I put some curtains in the window and get him a rug—”
“A carpet would be better,” Cole said. “For the wheelchair.”
“You’re right,” said Mom. “And if I know Uncle Daney, he won’t be interested in how it looks, anyway!” She took the sheets out of her basket to make up the bed.
“Do you like him?” Cole asked.
Mom’s hands slowed in surprise. Cole couldn’t see her face. “Yes,” she said after a moment. “Everybody likes Uncle Daney.”
The next day was Saturday, and a friend of Uncle Daney’s was going to bring him down from the hospital. Mom got Pop and Cole up early because nobody knew when Uncle Daney would arrive. But he didn’t come at breakfast, and he didn’t come while Pop sat at the table and slowly finished his second cup of coffee.
“Well, I can’t just sit,” Pop said. “Might as well cut some wood.”
He and Cole went out to the pasture. It flowed like a river along the bottom of the Hogback, choked with big jumper bushes and wild roses. There was barely enough grass for the one steer Pop was raising.
Where the pasture fence came close behind the trailer was the pile of logs Pop had dragged down from the Hogback last fall. Pop cut trees all year round, but he could get the logs down only at the end of corn-chopping season, when he could borrow somebody’s tractor.
Pop ran the chain saw. Cole helped him move and balance the logs and rolled the chunks of firewood out of his way. The chain saw made a horrible noise, and Cole was glad he was too young to run it. When he was a few years older, he would have to run a chain saw. When Cole was old eno
Pop shouldn’t have to work in a paper mill, Cole thought. That was why they’d moved out here, where they could grow their own food and cut their own wood, make a little maple syrup, and maybe get ahead. But Cole still wished that somebody, soon, would invent a quiet chain saw.
While they worked, Cole kept his eye on the road. He felt strange working out here like any normal Saturday when any minute now everything was going to change. Uncle Daney was coming to live with them. He wasn’t going away. Somebody Cole had never met—and a logger, a kind of person he’d heard only bad things about. A logger in a wheelchair. All week, while Pop was at work and Cole at school, Mom would be home alone with him. Cole’s stomach began to feel as if he had broken bottles in the bottom of it, shifting and scraping around.
Finally, late in the morning, he saw a big green livestock truck slow down and disappear behind the trailer. After a minute Mom came to the corner and waved.
Cole touched Pop on the shoulder. He turned off the chain saw, and they walked around to the front.
The truck was parked there, next to the barn, and as Pop and Cole came around the corner, the driver’s door opened.
The man who got out was huge and bald, with silver fur on his face. It wan’t curly like a beard, and it wasn’t long enough. It looked about the length of cat’s fur.
The man nodded hello and let down the ramp of his truck. Now Cole heard a heavy thump and scrape inside. Must be a horse in there, he thought.
The man ran up the ramp, quicker than a man that size usually moves, and came back down wheeling a wheelchair. In the chair was a worn old suitcase, and slung over the man’s shoulder was a bulging denim laundry bag. He put the bag and suitcase on the ground and wheeled the chair up beside the passenger door. Cole could see somebody in the cab, but he couldn’t see much of him. He seemed to be slumped way down in the seat. Cole wondered just how sick Uncle Daney was.
“I’ll give you a hand,” Pop said, stepping forward. But the silver-furred man already had the door open. He reached inside, and when he turned around, he held a little old man in his arms.
It must be a mistake! thought Cole. They switched them in the hospital!
The big man settled the little man gently into the wheelchair and turned him around to face them.
“Oh, Uncle Daney!” Mom said, laughing. “Did you lose your teeth?”
The old man’s sunken mouth widened in a pink cackle. “Heh-heh-heh! Them nurses made me wear ’em all the time!” His words were mushy and hard to understand.
“But did you bring them?” Mom asked, bending down to kiss his forehead, close to where his wispy white hair began. “I’ve got other things to do besides chew your food for you, Uncle Daney!”
“Ay-yup! Right here!” Uncle Daney fumbled in his pocket and brought out a complete set of chompers. He clacked them in his fingers, near Mom’s nose, and she laughed again.
“Hello, Daney,” Pop said. He reached down and shook Uncle Daney’s hand. “How you doin’?”
Uncle Daney slid his teeth into his mouth and settled them into place, like a cow chewing its cud. “I’m doin’ all right, Bill.” With his teeth in, his voice was clearer, high and piping like a bird’s. He couldn’t be a logger, Cole thought. Maybe he was a supervisor. Maybe he’d been sitting in his office one day and a file cabinet had fallen on him—
“Who’s that behind you?” Uncle Daney asked. He was craning his neck to look past Pop.
“This is our son, Cole,” Pop said. He put the flat of his hand on Cole’s back and swept him forward.
Cole reached down, and Uncle Daney reached up. His hand wasn’t much bigger than Cole’s, but his palm was hard and rough, as if it had been cut with a knife a hundred times. His face had lines running down it, like the lines spring runoff carves in hillside soil. He looked very old. But his eyes, meeting Cole’s, seemed twice as alive as anybody else’s, so bright and curious that Cole drew back in surprise. “Glad to meet you,” Uncle Daney said. “This here’s Stewie Turner.” The big man behind him nodded once more.
“Well, all right, Stew,” said Uncle Daney. “Let’s bring him out now.” The big man started to push the chair toward the back of the truck, but Uncle Daney held up his hand. “Nope, I’ll push myself. You go on up in there and untie him. Speak to him gentle now.”
Stewie nodded and disappeared up the ramp. Uncle Daney slowly wheeled himself toward the back of the truck. His wiry arms worked strongly, and the wheelchair tires crunched on the gravel. Mom and Pop and Cole all looked at one another. “What …?” Pop said, and Mom shook her head.
They heard Stewie’s voice for the first time, a low, wordless booming within the truck. Then more thuds and scrapes, the rattle of a chain …
“Stay back out of his way!” Uncle Daney said as Cole came close to the ramp. Thud thud thud thud.
Down the ramp stepped a big red workhorse, with a tousled blond mane and a sleepy face. He stopped at the bottom and stood there, looking mild and puzzled. Slowly Uncle Daney wheeled his chair closer. The horse turned his head and bent to sniff the wheels. His head alone seemed as big as Uncle Daney’s whole upper body.
“Uncle Daney!” Mom said. “What—what is this?”
Uncle Daney reached for the rope, and Stewie gave it to him. Still holding the rope, he slowly turned the chair to face them. “This here’s Nip,” he said. “My skiddin’ horse.”
THIS WAS THE FIRST Cole had heard of Uncle Daney’s bringing a horse with him. From the way Mom’s and Pop’s mouths hung open, it was news to them, too.
Uncle Daney looked from one to the other. His eyes, under bushy white brows, were gentle.
“Nip’ll want to stretch his legs,” he suggested after a moment.
Pop looked at Mom and shrugged helplessly. “Out this way, Daney. Want me to take him?”
Uncle Daney shook his head. “No, no! He’ll follow me.” He turned his chair. Nip raised his head slightly and looked at the shiny wheels. He seemed vaguely alarmed.
“Walk, Nip,” Uncle Daney said. He draped the lead rope over his shoulder and let go of it, then used both hands to move the chair. It crunched forward, and the slack loop of rope stretched to a straight line. Just when it looked as if the rope would fall off Uncle Daney’s shoulder, Nip lifted one big foot and set it down—crunch. Step by step, almost in slow motion, he followed Uncle Daney’s wheelchair out behind the trailer.
Where the grass started, the chair bumped and stopped. Pop made a move to go help but stopped himself. They watched Uncle Daney maneuver, taking the smoothest path over the grass, reaching far back to get a good grip on the wheels, and hauling himself over the bumps. Nip followed, stopping whenever Uncle Daney stopped.
Pop went ahead to the barway. He drew back the bars and let them drop to the ground. Uncle Daney wheeled through the gate, with Nip behind him. When they both were inside the pasture, Uncle Daney stopped and turned.
“Head down,” he said. Nip lowered his huge head till his nose rested in Uncle Daney’s lap. Uncle Daney unbuckled the halter and slipped it off.
“Go on, now! Kick up your heels,” he said.
Nip gave a huge sigh. He lifted his head out of Uncle Daney’s lap and sniffed along the rim of a wheel. His eyes looked faraway and thoughtful.
Then he shook his head and lumbered off, one big hoof at a time, toward the pile of logs where the young steer was standing. The steer looked astonished, stuck his tail straight in the air, and galloped away.
“Never seen a horse before?” Uncle Daney cackled. He started to turn his chair again and paused. “You’d have a lot more pasture, Bill,” he said, “if you’d pull out some of them junipers.”
Stewie had unloaded more things while they were putting Nip out to pasture. There was a pile of dark, dusty leather beside Uncle Daney’s stall, a huge
Pop opened the stall door. “We took your suggestion, Daney. Hope it’s all right.…” Now Pop sounded a little nervous.
Uncle Daney rolled over the threshold that Cole and Pop had worked so hard to make smooth. He stopped in the center of the stall and looked around for a long moment. They could see only the back of his head. Mom pressed her lips together and reached for Pop’s hand.
“Would you rather be in the trailer with us, Uncle Daney? We can—”
Uncle Daney shook his head. When he spoke, he sounded as if he’d taken his teeth out again. “I never had a place as nice as this, Lou.” He wheeled himself over to the bed. Cole watched the tires roll smoothly across the sanded floor. The bed was the same height as the chair, and Uncle Daney could slip onto it without help. He straightened out his thin, motionless legs with his hands and then lay back against the pillow. He watched while Pop showed him how the gas heater worked and where everything was. Then he said, “Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Lou.” There was nothing more, but his words were like gifts.
Cole was pleased when Pop said, “Cole did most of the work.”
“Did, did he?” Uncle Daney looked at Cole, and Cole hastily drew his brows down in a frown. Uncle Daney smiled. “Just like your grandfather,” he said. “He always looked at me just that way!” Everybody started to look at Cole, but Uncle Daney’s voice caught them quickly.
“Guess I’ll catch forty winks, if you don’t mind. Stewie—”
Stewie stepped forward. He had to stoop a little, and he took up most of the stall. He reached down and shook Uncle Daney’s hand. “Be seein’ ya, Daney,” he rumbled, and turned away. His huge whiskery face was red and sad.
“Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do,” Uncle Daney called after him.
Then he relaxed against the pillow. Cole wondered why Uncle Daney had gone to bed right away like that. An old, crippled man who had just ridden a long way in a truck might be worn out. But Uncle Daney’s eyes were bright, and the way he lay against the pillow, looking around the stall, Cole didn’t think he was planning on going to sleep just yet.
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