Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1385
Franklin agrees to help his father but first wants to know what the real “deal” is. His father responds that his liver is failing, likely due to his drinking, and he feels that his death is now near. He takes long sips from a bottle, his head resting on Deirdre. Franklin asks Deirdre if she knows what Eldon is asking him to do, and she responds that everyone has a right to “go out” the way he wishes. Franklin tells his father that he didn’t pack for a long wilderness journey and will need various supplies; he used most of his financial resources paying off Eldon’s debt at Charlie’s. Deirdre then hands Franklin a large stack of bills for his purchases. As he prepares to leave, Eldon tells his son that Deirdre thinks they resemble each other.
Later, Franklin leads the old mare down the streets of the town with his father in the saddle. He believes that everyone who stops to watch them knows of the plan, and he is ashamed. Once outside town, Eldon turns to look back at everything he is leaving behind, telling Franklin that he has many memories in that town. They later make camp beside a stream, and Franklin builds a fire and catches fish for dinner. His father is impressed by Franklin’s talents and asks where he’s learned those skills. Franklin replies that the old man taught him most of what he knows. Eldon recalls that his own childhood was much too busy for spending time in the woods; he helped earn money for his family by scavenging wood to sell. He classifies his family as “half-breeds,” remembering how neither the Indians nor the whites wanted anything to do with them. He thus never stayed in one place long, often living out of a tent and always moving around looking for work. Franklin points out that his father isn’t the only person who was dealt a “lame hand” in life. He returns to the woods to gather more wood for their fire and imagines his father as a young boy, scavenging wood for survival.
Franklin recalls the first time he ever saw his father, when he was around five or six years old. He had been repairing a chicken pen to keep out predators, which had already killed several hens. The old man had always been patient with Franklin, teaching him how to do necessary tasks and then leaving the boy to complete them himself. If Franklin botched the work, the old man patiently explained his errors and then took the time to teach him how to correct the mistakes. One day as Franklin worked, a man approached him and struck up a conversation. He made his way to the house, and when Franklin finished his task, he returned to the house as well. The old man introduced the stranger as Eldon, and Franklin spat onto his hand and then offered it to the man. Franklin noticed that their visitor drank a good deal of whiskey as the old man prepared a stew and biscuits.
The following morning, the visitor was gone, and Franklin asked who he was. The old man answered that Eldon was someone he used to know quite well—or at least, he believed he did. He also explained that the man used whiskey to try to keep away varmints, much the same way wire kept predators away from chickens. Some people, the old man reasoned, used whiskey to keep away dreams, recollections, and even people.
A year later, Franklin returned from his chores to find that...
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the visitor had reappeared. He could tell that the old man and Eldon had been in a physical altercation, but he settled in between them. The old man insisted that Eldon say what he’d come there to say, and Eldon told Franklin that he was his father. Franklin was confused; he had believed that the old man was his father. He finally told Eldon that he didn’t even know him. This rattled Eldon, who clearly hadn’t anticipated the conversation going this way. He prepared to leave, and the old man advised him to make the coming years different for his son than his previous seven years of absence. Eldon acknowledged that he hadn’t completely thought his actions through, then left. Franklin asked the old man about his mother, but the old man insisted that this information should come from Eldon himself.
The timeline returns to the present, where Eldon feverishly awakens the next morning by the stream. He explains that his liver is shutting down, and there isn’t anything Franklin can do. Eldon tries to eat a bit of the fish that Franklin caught overnight; Franklin finishes off the remainder of the catch and then cleans up the campsite, being sure to leave everything as they found it. As they leave, Franklin notices that his father is even weaker than before, slumping in his saddle. He wonders how much time his father has left as a lump rises in his throat; he silently curses himself for the reaction.
Around lunchtime, Franklin makes a paste out of greens, berries, and mushrooms, which his father initially refuses to eat. Franklin insists that it tastes better than it looks, and Eldon is surprised to find that his son is right. They sit smoking together, and Franklin tells his father that he wants to take him to a rock nearby which is covered in ancient symbols painted onto the surface. He acknowledges that it will be a difficult climb but insists that he can help his father cover the distance that the horse can’t travel. The horse stumbles to find footing on the sharp incline, and they eventually tie her up to traverse the remaining portion of the journey on foot. Placing one hand through his father’s belt and the other between his shoulder blades, Franklin guides Eldon to the painted rock. Eventually they reach the ledge and gaze at the face of the cliff. Red, black, and white paintings of birds, horses, bison, stars, and other shapes cover the surface. Eldon asks to touch the paintings, so Franklin helps him do so. He comments that he doesn’t know what the paintings mean and that he has spent entire days looking at them and trying to figure it all out; it seemed like no one besides him ever came to look at the drawings and that they had been forgotten by the world. He kept returning to the spot so that there would be someone left who tried to understand their meaning. He adds that he doesn’t know how to face death and isn’t sure what he’s supposed to do when it happens.
The contrasts between Franklin and Eldon are evident in these chapters. Franklin is self-reliant, noting that the old man didn’t teach him everything he knows and that he had to figure some things out for himself. He is at home in nature, not even taking food for the journey and instead demonstrating complete confidence that he will be able to harvest food along the paths that they take. Franklin proves to be both an expert fisherman and forager in these chapters, caring for his father in a way that his father has never done for him. Indeed, the expected roles are reversed in these chapters, with the son demonstrating greater wisdom and courage than his father has ever mustered.
In speaking of his own upbringing, Eldon blames society for his shortcomings. He feels that he was denied a decent childhood because he was rejected and ostracized by both Indigenous and white people. Franklin sees another path that his father’s family could have taken and questions why no one ever considered simply working the land instead of moving around so often. His father again blames society, but Franklin reminds him that he himself hasn’t had an easy life, either—yet he has decided to make the best of it. Franklin and Eldon have both struggled through their childhoods, but their perspectives are juxtaposed through these conversations: while Eldon sees himself as a victim, Franklin is determined to find the opportunities in even the most difficult circumstances.