River Stories

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Meeting Buckskin Billy

In August, 1969, I made my first float trip down the Salmon River from Corn Creek to Vinegar Creek. I used a wooden drift boat, and the game warden from McCall accompanied me on the trip. It was an exploratory excursion for me and I didn't know much about the river, but I was aware there were some old pioneer types living down there and I had planned to stop and visit them along the way. I had heard of Buckskin Billy and that he was kind of reclusive and not especially friendly to unannounced visitors. I thought I would bring him something to break the ice, and after racking my brain for a few days, decided on some paperback books from my collection. Although he was isolated on the river, he was supposedly a college-educated fellow and perhaps might enjoy reading. I wrapped them in plastic to keep them dry and stored them in the bow of the boat.

On the fourth day, after some rather harrowing rapids, and after we had visited with Frank Lantz, Francis Zaunmiller and Tom Close, we arrived at Buckskins' compound at Fivemile Bar. There were a couple of donkeys on the beach, braying at us, and there was a flagpole flying a 48-star American flag, but no sign of any person. We tied up the boat, I retrieved the bundle of books, and we walked up the sand beach to the wooden gate and rang the bell hanging on it.

After a minute or so, Buckskin Billy came walking up to the gate. He was not a particularly big fellow, about 5ft 6in, but he looked imposing with his elkhide helmet, beard and red flannel shirt. I introduced myself, told him I was with the Department of Fish and Game, and was just making a trip down the Salmon to learn what the river and surrounding area was like. I told him I had brought him some books and showed him the bundle of about 20 or so I had tied up with string. He just sort of grunted and opened the gate and told us to come in.

We entered his compound and set the books down on a heavy handmade picnic bench under a tin-roofed open shed. He accepted the books, unsheathed a big Bowie knife at his belt, and cut the string. He picked up each book, one at a time and looked at the cover. He just snorted at each one and dropped it on the table as he worked down through the pile. It appeared he was not impressed with the selection I had brought him. There were only a few left and I was about to accept defeat when he stopped, slapped the cover of a book with the back of his hand and said, "I've been looking for this book!". I was never so relieved in my life. At that, he became pretty friendly, and invited us to sit down at the table and said he would make us some tea.

One wall of the compound had several shelves filled with various containers of tea. Had I known he was a tea aficionado, that is what I would have brought him. He went into his "cook shack", which was only a few steps away. As were most of the several buildings in the compound, it was made of pink colored stucco. The front was covered with a large collection of animal skulls and antlers. He came back out with a beautiful hand made copper Samovar, placed it on the table, filled it with water from a bucket, and commenced to build a fire inside it with scraps of wood. He told us he had made the Samovar, including the copper squirrel handles welded to it. The eyes of the squirrels were different colored beads and he went on to explain that they were very special beads and each had an extraordinary history, including one particularly sacred one from Arabia that resulted in the death of the person who absconded with it. How it arrived in his hands, he did not elaborate, and the warden and I looked at each other with the realization that perhaps we were in the presence of someone who might be prone to exaggerated story telling.

He poured us some tea and as we sat there in the August heat sipping it, Buckskin grew quiet, eventually got up from the table, walked back into his cook shack, and closed the door behind him. The warden and I sat there slowly sipping the tea, flies buzzing around us and getting a little sleepy.

About 5 minutes went by. I had my back to the cook shack and the warden was facing me across the table. I heard the door open and saw the warden's eyes get real wide and he froze raising his cup. I turned my head and looked over my left shoulder to see Buckskin Billy towering over me with both hands raised above his head holding this great shining broadsword. In my shocked glance I took in his Viking warrior outfit, complete with bearskin trousers, metal breastplate, and Viking helmet with two horns jutting out from the sides. I looked right into his crazed eyes and as I did he let loose with a blood curdling scream. At this point, I assumed my tenure on this planet was limited to about 2 microseconds, and I just hoped this didn't hurt too much before oblivion set in. At that point, after Buckskin had seen the abject fear and surprise on my face, he lowered the sword and started laughing like crazy and reeling around the compound hysterically. This was his idea of a joke, and it was obvious the shock and total paralyzation of both the game warden and myself was a source of great entertainment and satisfaction to him. It took us both a good minute or so before our adrenaline levels subsided to a point where we could breath again, and we were both left shaken for several minutes after that.

He did eventually apologize somewhat, and, as if to make up for traumatizing us, became very friendly and showed us all around his digs and let us look at all the marvelous things he had fabricated over the years he had been at Fivemile Bar, including some of the most beautiful flintlock rifles I had ever seen. Before we left, he consented to allow me to photograph him holding one of these rifles, wearing an incredible hand carved sheephorn powder horn, a wampum pouch, his elkhide helmet and one green and one black sock with a pair of old ratty sneakers. That photo is below.

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