Doc's deceased wife had come from a ranching family in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. When Doc first met her on a fishing vacation nearly twenty years ago, I think he fell in love with her state almost as much as he did with her. After her death and burial on her family's ranch, he returned to Montana again and again, spending the entire summer and holiday season there, floating the Bitterroot River or cross-country skiing and climbing in the Bitterroot Mountains with pitons and ice ax. I suspected in Doc's mind his wife was still with him when he glided down the old sunlit ski trails that crisscrossed the timber above her burial place. Finally he bought a log house on the Blackfoot River. He said it was only a vacation home, but I believed Doc was slipping away from us. Perhaps true peace might eventually come into his life, I told myself.
Then, just last June, he invited me for an indefinite visit. I turned my law office over to a partner for three months and headed north with creel and fly rod in the foolish hope that somehow my own ghosts did not cross state lines.
Supposedly the word "Missoula" is from the Salish Indian language and means "the meeting of the rivers." The area is so named because it is there that both the Bitterroot and Blackfoot rivers flow into the Clark Fork of the Columbia.
The wooded hills above the Blackfoot River where Doc had bought his home were still dark at 7 A.M., the moon like a sliver of crusted ice above a steep-sided rock canyon that rose to a plateau covered with ponderosa. The river seemed to glow with a black, metallic light, and steam boiled out of the falls in the channels and off the boulders that were exposed in the current.
I picked up my fly rod and net and canvas creel from the porch of Doc's house and walked down the path toward the riverbank. The air smelled of the water's coldness and the humus back in the darkness of the woods and the deer and elk dung that had dried on the pebbled banks of the river. I watched Doc Voss squat on his haunches in front of a driftwood fire and stir the strips of ham in a skillet with a fork, squinting his eyes against the smoke, his upper body warmed only by a fly vest, his shoulders braided with sinew.
Copyright © 2001 by James Lee Burke