Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1429
As they continue their journey, even the mare seems to realize the solemnity of the situation. Suddenly, a turn in the trail reveals a bear in their path. Franklin curses himself for not reading the signs more carefully and takes his father off the horse, placing him on the ground instead. Franklin realizes that his best bet is to face the bear directly, fearing that attempting to leave would show fear that the bear could capitalize on. Trying to make himself appear as physically large as possible, Franklin confronts the bear head-on. He realizes it is just a juvenile, not yet mature enough to be completely filled out. When they are only a few paces apart, Franklin breathes in the scent of the bear, filling his lungs until it seems as if they will burst. Finally, the bear decides to leave, walking slowly at first and then running away from the confrontation.
Franklin returns to his father, who is “booze sick.” Franklin gives him some of the medicinal concoction that Becka had sent with them, and Eldon takes a sip. Indeed, the remedy relieves some of Eldon’s sickness. He tells his son that it took great courage to confront the bear; Franklin replies that pretty much everything takes some form of courage. Eldon asks whether the old man taught him to move through his fear; Franklin responds that “some things you just gotta get to on yer own.” After a nap, Eldon asks Franklin to pour out the remainder of his alcohol so that he can “go out clean.” After he falls asleep again, Franklin walks to the creek with the bottles.
Franklin recalls the time when he was nine and he and the old man rode horses to town for the first time. Eldon had written a letter asking to see Franklin, so they journeyed to Parson’s Gap to find him. Once in town, the old man used the envelope to track Eldon down. When they entered his room, they found Eldon in a drunken dance with a woman; furniture was strewn all over the room, and Eldon couldn’t even stand up straight. He told the old man that he should have let him know when they were coming, insisting that he could have planned for a better meeting. The old man retorted that it wouldn’t have made a difference, regardless of what Eldon said. The old man insisted that Eldon apologize directly to Franklin before they left. He then sent Franklin outside while he spoke to Eldon privately. When he came back out, he apologized, saying a child shouldn’t have to witness an adult acting in such a manner. Franklin questioned whether his father was drunk again, and the old man affirmed this, saying that his father’s drunkenness wasn’t “proper.”
On his tenth birthday, Franklin was again invited to visit his father in town. Eldon had promised the old man that he would be “straight” this time. The old man again took Franklin to town but didn’t accompany the boy to the meeting. Franklin followed the given address to a nice house and was met by a kind woman named Jenna. She retrieved Eldon, who introduced her as his landlady. Jenna was seemingly aware that the father and son were meeting to celebrate Franklin’s birthday; she had already packed the pair a lunch for their trip and was happy to watch Franklin unwrap his birthday gift—a new fishing rod. She had previously agreed to allow Eldon to borrow her truck for this special day but warned him to take care of it and to avoid all “foolishness.” He took Franklin to a fishing hole, and the day started out well. Eldon taught him the basics of fly fishing and then gave him some space to do his own fishing. A while later, Franklin heard his father fall into the water; when he went to help him out, he smelled whiskey on his breath. Eldon was so drunk that he could barely climb out of the water, even with Franklin’s help. Franklin recognized that he should have known what was in his father’s Thermos. Realizing that Eldon was too drunk to drive, Franklin grabbed the keys and started the truck. His father passed out halfway back home; Franklin drove back to Jenna’s and handed her the keys.
Two years later, Franklin visited his father in town again. After waiting in his father’s room for a while, Franklin was surprised when Eldon returned with a woman; the two were so caught up in their tryst that they didn't even notice Franklin in the room. Franklin left, recalling that he had been invited there with the promise of a camping trip. The following September, Eldon wrote to Franklin with promises of spending an incredible Christmas together. Against his better judgment, Franklin believed the letters and was then crushed when his father didn’t show up. The old man comforted Franklin, telling him that he would be alright.
Franklin awakes beside his father to find that he is very hot. Digging through his supplies, he realizes that Becka had secretly given them a few extra provisions: bacon, beans, and bannock. He gives his father some more of the medicine and tries to get him to eat a few beans. Eldon recalls that his mother had told him that stories “get told one word at a time.” Franklin helps him back onto the horse, and they continue their journey. As they walk, Eldon tells Franklin that he’s a good man and that the old man did well to turn him loose on the land. They stop again, having finally reached their destination, and Franklin places his father on the saddle blanket and then gives him some more medicine. He sneaks off to kill a couple of birds for their dinner and then begins roasting the game on the fire, noticing as he does so that his father is overheated and drenched in sweat. Eldon’s side is causing him great pain, and Franklin fears what is to come.
When Eldon wakes up, he begins coughing so intensely that Franklin suggests he take an extra dose of Becka’s medicine. Eldon complies and then recalls how Jimmy had once told him that Indians were a “Great Mystery” and that the secret to successful living was accepting the reality of the mystery. He tells Franklin that he’s never felt he belonged to anyone or anyplace and that on some level, he believes he deserves his fate because of all he’s done—and has never done. When the doctor told him that he was dying, Eldon wanted to return to this exact spot; he had seen it once when he was fifteen, and he recalled how good it felt just to be there. The setting gave him peace and a sense of belonging that he’d never found anywhere else. He then tells Franklin that he killed a man once, and that is the next story he needs to share.
Eldon is torn between the man he wants to become and the man his addictions allow him to be. As Franklin grows older, Eldon makes intentional efforts to connect with his son. Unfortunately, each of these attempts is disastrous and further distances Franklin from any feelings of connection to his father. On the fishing trip, young Franklin is forced into the role of caretaker, recognizing that his father has snuck whiskey into his Thermos and become so drunk that he cannot be trusted to drive them back home. Eldon further breaks his son’s trust when he promises that they will spend Christmas together, filling Franklin with the dreamy hope of an ideal Christmas for weeks before simply failing to show up altogether.
Franklin learns to guard his sense of expectation toward his father after these continued disappointments, and he begins to question what it means to even be a father. Yet in the background of these ongoing heartbreaks is the old man, gently guiding Franklin, supporting him in every way. He insists that Eldon treat Franklin like a man, demanding that Eldon speak directly to his son and offer a personal apology for his actions. When Eldon makes Franklin feel insignificant, the old man is there to insist that Franklin “know[s] everythin’ there is to know ’bout bein’ a son.” His faithfulness to Franklin has given the boy the courage necessary to face the bears—both literal and metaphorical—in his life.
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