"Five Mile Bar is the only place on the river with good firewood," he said, changing subjects. "That's because there's never been a woman here. A woman sets around the stove all day burning fuel." Besides, Buckskin implies, he doesn't regard too kindly some of the women he does see. "I was taking a little bath in the river one day when I heard all this hollering and screaming," he relates. "I had just had time to get on my long red underwear and these women came round the bend yelling that their rubber boat was leaking. I hauled them out, prob'ly saved their lives, and all the while those frozen-faced women were sitting there locking disapproving. Well, first, I had less hide showing than they did, and then I don't think they were showing any proper appreciation a'tall.
"I've got six months, from November on, when this place is just like it's always been," Hart said. "Nobody visits, and I get mail twice a month. If I want to go anywhere, I put a pack on my back, get my gun, take off and stay as little or as long as I like. What more could you want?
"For the city man, life is just a jumble, like the facts in a college freshman's notebook. But you can ask me anything about nearly anything and I can answer, because I've had time to think about it."
Every word—and every copper pot—had been a tacit answer to the basic question: Why had he come here in the first place? But now Bill answered it direct.
"It is," said Buckskin slowly but readily, "a custom of my family, going back about 300 years, for the young men to stay in the woods for a year. Edward Hart, father of John Hart, who signed the Declaration of Independence, did it, moving from Connecticut to then-wild Mercer County, New Jersey. The next John Hart was one of the first Kansans, and my father went to the Creek country of Oklahoma. I just liked it so well I never came out."
It was quite possible to believe it was as simple and extraordinary as that—a man living as he was just because he liked that life. "But I wouldn't want to waste any time in complaining about what passes for civilization," Sylvan was demurring. "That's too negative. You should be able to see what's wrong about it with just a side glance, that's all.
"The good things a person needs—stubbornness, thinking for himself—don't make him a 'useful member of society.' What makes him 'useful' is to be half-dead. On weekends they open all the cemeteries and all those dead people march out. All the same sickly shade of hide, all sunken-eyed, not really seeing anything, just walking about because it's a weekend. Like I say, dead people. Then Monday—well, they don't all go back to the cemetery, where they belong. They ought to be honor-bound to go back where they'd be happier, the poor human ciphers lead such pitiful circumscribed lives."
It was late and we prepared for bed. The moon was not yet risen, but starlight poured down into the canyon, turning the granite opposite wall a chalk white etched with black, black pines. Where the stars are not shut out by the visual pollution of mercury vapor lamps—that blue glare fit only to light concentration camps—the eye can see again. At Five Mile Bar it can see a dark, mighty river under a pristine sky.
Such purity is rare in a night now, and, settling into my sleeping bag on one of Sylvan Hart's comfortable improvised beds, I watched the black-green Salmon hurry down to the Snake and saw Sylvan's collection of skulls phosphoresce softly in the half-light.