In the Company of Men 

A true story

By the winter I was 12, I had become a bookish person, one headed for a teaching or writing career rather than a life of honest labor out in the open air. My uncle Grant took it upon himself to save me from the direction I was headed in. He took me hunting ducks on Silver Creek, which was fine, and ice fishing at Jimmy Smith Lake, which was not.

Jimmy Smith Lake was on the East Fork of the Salmon, three hours from where we lived in Hailey. For me, that meant three hours of low-grade-reading-in-the-car-sickness. We would get to the lake after everyone else had gone home for the day. Sensible people didn't spend afternoons in long winter shadows, stupid with cold, sitting on blocks of wood, knocking ice off lines and bait.

After two or three hours we would drive back to Hailey with our day's catch, 10 or 12 little cutthroat. If there was enough light, and if I hadn't had powdered-sugar donuts and a Coke for lunch, I'd finish my book.

Our last fishing trip that year was on a sunny morning in April. We were a mile below Galena Store when a man appeared on the bank of the Wood River, waving his arms and post-holing toward us. Grant stopped the car. The man fell and got up and post-holed again until he dove over the snowbank and slid onto the pavement. He ran to our car, jumped in the driver's side back door and huddled close to the floor.

He was a small man, hardly bigger than I was. He was wearing cowboy boots and a cotton T-shirt. His jeans were soaked because he'd broken through the ice on the river, and he was shivering so much he couldn't talk, except to say, "Go! Go on! Go!"

Then we noticed that another car was moving down from Galena Lodge on our side of the road. It slowed and stopped a foot from our bumper. A big man got out. Grant rolled down his window.

"Give me that little son-of-a-bitch," said the big man. "I'm going to kill him." He started for the back door but Grant reached back and locked it.

"You leave him alone, Swede," said Grant.

"Grant?" said the big man.

"Here's what we're going to do so you don't end up back in prison," said Grant. "I'm going to pull around your car. We're going to take Eddy to Smiley Creek where he can warm up. You go back to Galena and stay there."

The big man stood there for a long minute, then got back in his car. Grant backed up and drove around him.

"He has a gun," said the little man.

"Shut up, Eddy," said Grant. "When I saw it was you I was sorry I stopped."

"You don't like me, do you?" asked Eddy.

"As far as I know, nobody does," said Grant.

Grant didn't introduce me. Eddy sat up in the back seat and tried to take off his cowboy boots, but they were too packed with snow to get off. Grant turned the heater up as far as it would go, and started driving up Galena Summit, too fast for the icy road.

Eddy shivered all the way to Smiley Creek, but he told us he couldn't get out there. It wasn't safe. He shivered all the way to Stanley, where it wasn't safe, either. We finally left him shivering in front of the fireplace at the old hotel in Clayton, went on to Jimmy Smith Lake, and caught our limit of cutthroat with the April sun on our backs.

"Eddy's been running Galena Store with Swede," Grant told me. "Swede's not very smart. Eddy makes fun of him and jabs at him—chips away at him and makes him feel even more stupid than he is—until Swede decides to kill him. It looks like cabin fever, but Eddy's just a mean little asshole."

It was still daylight when we got to Galena Store. Grant slowed down and I thought he was going to stop. Swede was standing in the doorway of the store, blocking it. Eddy was standing in front of him in the parking lot, shivering and pleading to get in. "Jesus," said Grant. "Jesus Christ." He shook his head, and we drove on home.

These days, Galena Store is Galena Lodge. It's a much bigger building now. The snow doesn't slide off the roof and block the windows like it used to. Nobody gets cabin fever there anymore, and the people out on the banks of the Wood River are on skate skis and snowshoes and they all feel safe and happy, from the looks of them.

Over the years, I've thought about what Grant said about Eddy sitting in the snow-shadowed interior of Galena Store, chipping away at Swede, who didn't understand what was happening to him, who only knew it hurt.

I've thought that what Grant and I drove into that day was a darkness he didn't want his brother's young son to see. He explained it away as one guy being stupid and one guy being a jerk. It was a hasty cover story, designed to bring a quick order and understanding to a situation that lacked both, but it came to have a wider application for me. For a long time, I imposed it on every situation I found myself in. When it finally quit working for me, Grant was dead. I couldn't ask him what thing he saw that day, and how he knew enough to turn my gaze away from it.

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