I know we last left Isolation at chapter 7. And I know I said I wouldn’t be posting chapter 3 here on this blog. But circumstances have taken me away from writing lately (namely, relocating to Ohio), and so instead of not posting anything, or posting something half-assed, I submit to you Isolation: Chapter 3. This chapter marks the beginning of the second of 4 narratives in the book.
Isolation: Chapter 3
Built in the spring of 1933 by Basajuan Salaberri, Porter’s Retreat was intended as a hunting shack for Basajuan and his newborn son. Basajuan immigrated to the U.S. along with his parents and two older sisters from Biscay, Spain when he was eleven years old. His father, Argi, had higher aspirations for his children than shepherding, the family trade for generations. He enjoyed the work himself, the time alone in the fields, the simple meals, the wide sky set like a blanket over his piece of the word, but looking east over Europe he saw only darkness on the horizon. Looking west, however, he saw the bright light of American opportunity. The start of the Great War was the excuse he needed to pick his family up and move toward the light.
The ties between the Basque and America went back more than a hundred years, or even thousands, depending on with whom you speak. There is evidence Basque fishermen discovered the Americas before the Viking Knarr reached their shores. But for Argi, there was a much more personal tie. His great, great-grandfather shook the hand of Founding Father John Adams during his visit to Biscay in 1779. So taken with his hosts was John that portions of the U.S. constitution owe their origins to the Basque people and government. As such, Argi did not see his immigration to America as abandoning his old country, inhabited by his people for thousands of years, but rather venturing into his new country.
They settled first in Idaho, Argi finding work on a ranch. His wife and two daughters earned a few extra dollars making and selling traditional Basque crafts. Basajuan, meanwhile, occupied himself with exploring the ranch where his father worked. On more than one occasion he nearly cost his father his job. He had a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But Basajuan was the light of his father’s life, and his only son. He could not bring himself to punish the poor boy. Argi swore to be different from his own father, a strict-disciplinarian. So his son’s antics were indulged. Until they stopped.
Basajuan loved horses. He knew he wasn’t allowed near the horses’ stable. He’d been caught there before, once even by the ranch owner who would have beat the boy with a bull whip had his father not intervened. Argi pleaded with his son to stay out of trouble, and the boy really did want to please his father. It was just that horses were so wonderful! Big and beautiful, and strong. He wanted to be a cowboy, just like his father. He wanted more than anything to ride one of the horses, but the rancher forbade it. These horses were for work, not play. Basajuan didn’t know it, but his father was saving to buy a horse for his son. He had worked out a deal with the rancher. Had the boy known, he might not have done what he did. One night his desire got the better of him and he snuck into the stable. His favorite horse of all was Falconer. Falconer was the newest horse to the stable, bought just three months earlier by the rancher. Half-Mustang, half-Arabian, and wholly magnificent. It had the short, muscular frame of a Mustang, the graceful, curved neck of the Arabian, dark eyes and an intelligent face. Its coat was a solid grey that shone in the moonlight. The beast stood 5 feet at the shoulders, the same height as Basajuan. He had witnessed the horse being delivered to the ranch and knew it was untrained. The way it struggled against the ranch-hands’ ropes, nostrils flared, whinnying and snorting; it was a sight to behold. And little Basajuan had, and hadn’t forgotten.
He crept along the stable floor, right up to Falconer’s pen and peered through the slits into where the horse slept standing. As quietly as possible, Basajuan climbed the pen door until he was perched on top. What would he do now? He’d gotten this far just to get another look at the beautiful animal. He paused a moment: it looked so peaceful that the memories of its wild, untamed nature temporarily vanished. Before he knew what he was doing, he jumped onto the horse’s back. He landed on his stomach and immediately began to slip off. He grabbed the horse’s mane to pull himself up. The horse, meanwhile, had woken up. Even a trained horse would find it difficult to react any differently to being awakened by a boy jumping onto its back and pulling on its mane. Falconer, even after three months with the rancher, had yet to break.
The horse reared and kicked open the pen door. Basajuan clung to the horse for dear life as it bolted from the stable. The commotion, and the boy’s screams, brought the rancher and several hands running out of their beds in their PJs. Argi threw open the door of his barrack just in time to watch Falconer gallop by, the terrified face of his son staring out from between two fistfuls of mane. Argi leapt from his porch and took off for the stable. Grabbing a rope, he ran after the horse. He tied a lasso in the rope as he ran and the horse circled back, heading straight for him. Argi tied one end of the rope around a fence post and expertly threw the other at the horse, lassoing it around the neck. The horse was brought up short and stopped suddenly, throwing Basajuan from its back. Argi ran forward to calm the horse before it stomped his son into the ground, and called to his son to get out of the way. The horse snorted and cried and reared back, furious and wild. Argi tugged on the rope, trying to pull the beast away from Basajuan, who lay on his back, frozen by the fall and the horrifying spectacle. The boy’s father turned to his son and the horse turned on the ranch hand. One solid kick to Argi’s chest, right above the heart, and Basajuan’s father was dead before he hit the ground.
After the accident, Basajuan had no choice but to grow up quickly. He was the only man in his family. Using the money Argi had saved for a horse, Basajuan’s mother moved them to Oregon near other Basque settlers in the hopes of making life a little easier. When Basajuan was old enough he found work as a lumberman. The work was exhausting and demanding, and he was only ever home long enough to eat a quick meal and sleep. But he preferred the hills of Oregon to the plains of Idaho, and his young body took well to the exercise. So much so that, during the off-season, he could sometimes find work as a strongman in small carnivals. He became something of a celebrity in his small community and, though not the most eligible bachelor, was certainly a favorite of the ladies to look upon. But he had eyes only for one: Rosina MacMillan.
Rosina was the daughter of the sawmiller, and the prettiest girl in Oregon as far as Basajuan was concerned. Other girls’ affections fell on deaf ears and blind eyes. For three years he watched Rosina from afar, catching occasional glimpses of her at the lumber yard or in town at Morgan’s General Store. It’s not that he lacked the courage to approach her; he felt he had nothing to offer a young lady in the way of ease and security. He struggled along with his mother and sisters to provide a roof and food for themselves, and he refused to put a flower like Rosina through that. He scrimped and saved every penny he could, the real reason he took those odd-jobs with the carnivals. He worked harder than every other man at the mill and earned every promotion and raise he was given. His heart burned for the day he’d saved money enough for a small house of his own, at which time he imagined he’d walk into the sawmiller’s house and ask for his daughters hand in marriage. And he could hardly believe it when the daily finally arrived.
It would have taken much longer than three years if his sisters had not married and lessoned his financial burden. Provided for by their husbands, Basajuan had only to provide for himself and his mother. An end in sight, he worked even harder. Fortune seemed to smile on him yet again when an east-coast blacksmith decided he’d had enough of the hustle and bustle of city life and would move across country and live out the rest of his days in rural (relative) bliss. He had a modest house built for himself before his arrival, just on the outside of town. Basajuan walked by the house everyday on his way to and from work, each time swearing to himself that he would build a house just like it for Rosina. The blacksmith, unfortunately, never got to lay eyes on it. One unseasonably warm January morning in Boston, a tank containing two million, three hundred thousand gallons of molasses burst under the pressure, creating a wave of sticky sweet, brown death that swept through the city. The Great Boston Molasses Tragedy claimed the lives of twenty-one people, including the poor blacksmith. His widow was well-cared for by a relative and wanted to sell the unused house quickly. She telegraphed the only lawyer in the small community and hired him to sell the house on her behalf. He was instructed to agree to the first offer over eighteen hundred dollars, the cost to build the house and the land on which it sat. Being winter, and off-season for lumberman, Basajuan had no real reason to walk past the empty house. He had just come off a week with the carnival, where his take had been better than usual. The townsfolk welcomed him home, especially the young women, and to escape their advances he slipped away to take a long walk. Without thinking he found himself walking the familiar route to the lumber mill, and passing by the dead blacksmith’s house. A beautiful home, he thought to himself. Without ever having been inside, he knew the layout because he’d seen its construction. There were three bedrooms; one for him and Rosina, another for his mother, and a third for the children. He daydreamed what life would be like, and could almost see the children playing in the yard, his beautiful wife watching them from the kitchen window while preparing dinner, his mother knitting on the porch, and him coming home from a day’s work at the lumber mill. It was the earnest and innocent daydream of a young man in love. It was also a daydream interrupted by the lawyer opening the front door of the cottage and stepping out onto the porch. Basajuan’s heart sank when he saw it, believing it to be the blacksmith finally taking up residence.
Basajuan looked again and realized it was the solicitor, Tom Welmont.
“Mr. Welmont, sir. Is he arriving, then?
“The blacksmith, sir. The house appears all in order. Will he be moving in soon?
“Ah yes, well. Ahem, uh poor fellow. Some sort of accident, I’m told. A tragedy, really. I’m afraid the owner of this house has, well, met our maker.”
“It appears so, yes.”
“God bless him.”
“Blessings, yes. Well, Basajuan, a pleasure.”
Tom Welmont made to depart.
“Er, uh, sir?”
“If I may be so bold, what will happen to his estate? This house here, sir?”
“Well, his widow, the Mrs. um, oh, the widow has sent instructions that the property be sold immediately.”
“Yes, and she doesn’t stand to earn a penny on the sale, either. Going very cheap. The first offer of eighteen hundred dollars or more is to be accepted on the spot. Plus my meager fees, of course”
Basajuan’s jaw dropped. Tom Welmont tipped his hat.
“Well, be seeing you.”
“Mr. Welmont sir!”
Somewhat agitated, Welmont turns around again and raises his eyebrows to the young man.
“I wonder if we might have a word. Inside.”
Basajuan motioned toward the vacant house, inviting the lawyer and himself within. Agitation gives way to curiosity and Welmont leads the way. Two weeks later Basajuan ushered his mother into his, and her, new home. It was more than he could have hoped for and all he had dreamt. The house came fully furnished: upholstered armchair and couch, feather duvets on the beds, two stoves in the kitchen, a brick outhouse… a mansion compared against what they were accustomed to.
Basajuan emptied his savings to buy the house, and even so had to convince Welmont to forward him a small loan in order to make the purchase. His plan was to have a house and money in the bank before asking the sawmiller for his daughter’s hand, but he simply couldn’t wait any longer. With a second, smaller loan from Welmont, Basajuan bought his first suit & tie and knocked on the sawmiller’s door.
The sawmiller, Orson MacMillan, had always been secretly fond of Basajuan in a fatherly manner. He saw something of himself in the eager boy who, three years earlier, knocked on the same door looking for work. MacMillan would normally have sent one so young scurrying back to his mother, but something in his eyes, an honest desperation born out of sincere need and carrying the promise of hard work, stayed MacMillan’s tongue and instead he opened his office to the lad. The sawmiller offered the boy a glass of water, which he politely refused but drank anyway when placed before him. Courteous, doesn’t want to be a bother, but also careful not to offend. The child has manners, MacMillan thought. And so Basajuan was put to work in the lumber yard, trial by fire, a proving ground if ever there was one. And prove himself he did. The young man excelled at every station, earning the respect and trust of the other employees, even the seasoned veterans. In no time he worked his way to assistant supervisor. MacMillan was proud of him, and proud of himself, too for spotting Basajuan’s potential. His potential didn’t stop at the sawmill MacMillan guessed. He saw the way his employee looked at his daughter, and the effect it had upon her. MacMillan had no son of his own. His wife died of pneumonia shortly after Rosina was born. She was the light of his life, and the heir to his business, if she wanted it. He prayed whoever his daughter married would be capable of managing the mill once he grew too old. He prayed that man might be Basajuan. And so it came as no surprise but a great delight that Basajuan knocked once again on his office door and asked for his daughter’s hand.
Within a month they were wed in the town church, presided over by Reverend Carpenter who, as usual, was about ten minutes too long-winded. But it was an otherwise blissful occasion for the happy pair (and a decidedly depressing affair for many of the town’s young ladies), punctuated by the groom carrying his blushing bride over the threshold of their new home to start their new life together. Basajuan couldn’t believe his good fortune. His father’s many sacrifices had not been in vain. His mother could rest easy. Truly, he was living the American dream his father hoped for his family. And, like many good Americans, Basajuan very nearly threw it all away to get laid.