Amid this frontal assault on credulity, Hart interjected a story to the effect that a mountain lion, just before my arrival, had killed and buried a doe outside his garden gate, returning two consecutive nights to finish it off. "There we were, the two of us," Hart said. "I was out there to guard my garden, the cougar was lying just outside to guard his kill." This was no joke. Hart pointed out a fresh, round cougar pawprint in the ground, the remnants of the unfortunate victim, the brush the cat had pawed over it and the depression where the lion had bedded down. "Lots of people live a whole lifetime," Sylvan observed, "without having a mountain lion in their garden."
Fact is hard to separate from fancy on Five Mile Bar, the facts tend to be so fancy. The elk-antler door handles would be a good case in point, except that there are so many others. It is difficult to believe, looking around the compound, that practically every ingenious element of its orderly clutter was fashioned by Hart's hand, and the degree to which everything is made and placed for some specific purpose is something more than ingenious. Even the pastel red of the buildings, achieved by using an iron compound in the homemade plaster, is designed to harmonize with the complementary pastel greens of surrounding apple and apricot trees.
The effect enhances an already esthetic, if rampantly eclectic, architecture. Kitchen house and blacksmith shop, linked in a Tennessee dogtrot pattern, are in turn joined to the two-storied, balconied living quarters, a modified Swiss structure, by an open South Seas roof house. Those living quarters, by the way, demand further mention. The lower room, masoned of native stone, serves as winter quarters. The frame upper floor, Buckskin's summer house, boasts a bay window—a B-18 Plexiglas cockpit canopy he packed in on his back. It also has, in the balcony, a fine place to sleep in fair weather and good protection for firewood in foul. Over it all whips and cracks a picturesquely indomitable 48-star flag, its fabric faded by sun and frayed by wind. "Oh, I'm patriotic," says Buckskin. "Ever' time a bald eagle flies by, I take off my hat."
Of furnishings within the compound, only two are partial ringers: the rocking chair came around Cape Horn in the gold rush, and the table is made from the oak flooring of a building in the ghost town of Dixie. Otherwise, even the pole-picket fence enclosing the 200-by-100-foot plot is totally indigenous. Occasional pickets are much higher than the others, because "deer look up at those tall pickets, think the whole fence is that high and decide they can't jump it." The gates, which swing on marble ball bearings, are mounted with bells, not so much to sound pretty as to prevent bears from raiding the garden. "One time a bear knocked down a gate," explained Hart, "came in, packed out a sheep foot I was pickling in sulfuric acid and ate it."
Buckskin enjoyed imagining the bear's discomfiture. "Hee, hee, hee," he chuckled, wriggling in his chair. This is a characteristic expression of amusement, just as stroking his beard to a point is an expression of reflective thought. The beard, parenthetically, is a beauty, being red at the sides, white at the chin and straw-colored at the tip. Nothing, in fact, is uncolorful about Sylvan Ambrose Hart, this one-sixteenth-Apache who was born in Indian Territory in 1906, one year before it became Oklahoma. (Born in Stone, a town now vanished without a trace.) Not the nasal, reedy accent—smacking strongly of Arkansas, with its conversion of o's into broad a's (sparrah, arrah). Certainly not the vocabulary, ranging from pure dialect to free use of words like "syndrome" (in discussing Soviet Economist Liberman).
Hart soon bounded up again to show off his stock of sporting goods. "This here is my skis," he said, having herded me to a storeroom at the customary trot. "I discovered birch was best for slipperiness and hog hide was best to keep from sliding backward on hills." Buckskin also displayed bows, arrahs, crossbows, pack frames, wicker fishing creels, fly rods and highly crafted snow-shoes, but his interest skipped to his boats: "This is my canoe, and someday I may make a kayak out of that elk hide over there." We then loped out to the beach, where I was to survey his rowboat, whose name, XAP?N, is emblazoned on its prow. Charon, you may or may not recall, was the dread boatman who ferried dead souls across the River Styx. On the River of No Return, the symbolism was not obscure.
Of almost equal antiquity is one of Hart's prize enthusiasms, an ancient cave once inhabited by red men long since vanished into a realm less celebrated than that of Charon's patrons. "See that soot on the cave roof?" he asked after we had scrambled the few hundred feet to prehistory. "It's so old you can't possibly rub it off." You can't.
"There are two feet of kitchen midden here," said Hart, pointing to a deep fire hole. "The first thing we want to know is how old it is. We reach down in here...." Sylvan did so, pulling out a handful of beach sand and charcoal. "I sent this to be carbon-dated, and found out it goes back to 226 B.C. Think of it. The Great Wall of China was being built, Hannibal was a great man."
Hart jarred me back into 1966. "Let's take a look at the bomb shelter," he said cheerfully. "We might be attacked and you wouldn't know where to go." Sure enough, near his house he had blasted, bit by bit, an underground shelter out of solid rock. Sylvan smiled, looking up and down the empty Salmon River, as he said that he, unlike some others, would allow all his neighbors to use his shelter.
The two caves characterize Hart, a man living in several centuries simultaneously, an unassayable amalgam of romanticism, risibility and rank realism. "I'm a pretty fierce man for culture," he said, unsequentially resuming his Hannibal soliloquy. "When I go into someplace outside, like a roadside restaurant, I'm likely to ask the waitress, 'Is there any culture in these here parts?' 'Culture? Why no, I guess there isn't any.' "