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The Beggar & The Novice

Reverend Jack wasn’t always a man of God, nor was he a man of any religion. In fact, Reverend Jack in his youth believed in a Higher Power as much as trout believe strike indicators are midges. But his enlightenment and transformation, a story he rarely shares, is a truly spectacular and inspiring narrative.

I suppose the upcoming Easter holiday caught Reverend Jack in a particularly introspective mood. He usually sat at The Wulff’s Den table in the corner alone during the day, diligently constructing his sermon as diligently as Father McKenzie, although Jack’s sermons were heard by many in contrast to McKenzie’s no one.

It was during one such session when the shop’s traffic was nonexistent that I approached Reverend Jack during his break. It amazed me the degree to which each man’s exterior was shed during solitude – for Jack, his sarcastic air disintegrated, leaving a core of humility and candidness.

“Another mocha?” I offered Jack.

He looked up from his notes and peered at me through his thin spectacles. A smile quickly came over his face and he replied, “Not right now, Andy, but thanks.”

“Whatcha working on?”

“Oh, my sermon as usual. This one’s gotta be real special for Easter.”

“Gotta do the Lord’s resurrection justice,” I added with a chuckle. I’m no theologian but I know the basics of Christianity at least.

“As if that’s possible. But my flock expects me to be at my best. I expect me to be at my best.”

“If you’re gonna do it, might as well be a pro at it, right?”

“Exactly.”

“You know,” I began as I sat at the table, “I don’t think you’ve ever told me what made you decide to become a preacher in the first place.”

Reverend Jack chuckled lightly and replied, “Well, Andy, that’s a long, long story.”

I smiled. “I’ve got all the time in the world as you can see. If you’re willing to tell it, I’d love to hear it.”

“Of course. Heck, it may help me defeat this writer’s block of mine.” He emptied the remaining contents of his mug into his mouth, swallowed hard, and started his tale:

“In order to fully understand my current status, you must understand my previous one. When I was a youngster, I was narcissistic, arrogant, and completely ego-centric. Even more so than I am now, believe it or not! After graduating from high school, I began working full-time as a fly fishing guide in a small fly shop near Woodland Park. I was a great fly fisherman and a master salesman, but an atrocious human being. My clients were always pleased with their trips with me – they caught a bunch of quality trout and had a blast doing it. But I was always cold toward my clients, and especially cold to everyone else. If money wasn’t being given to me, I wouldn’t even think of helping. Numerous times I was approached by non-profits to teach the less-fortunate how to fish, and every time I rejected the offers whole-heartedly. If there wasn’t extrinsic benefit, I wanted no part of it. And that’s when it happened, in the summer of ’73, God sent a blessing to me in a way that I could not begin to imagine.

“I was up in Eleven Mile Canyon on an early weekday morning. At that time the fishing pressure was very light, particularly in the morning, and the Blue-Winged Olive hatches were always incredibly heavy. I spent a few hours at Blind Curve Run casting to the trout that were slurping flies off the surface of the water by the hundreds. Once the hatch stopped though, I packed my stuff up to return to Woodland Park to pick up the clients for the day. It was in Lake George that I saw this Beggar standing on the corner of Highway 24 and Canyon Road. He didn’t have a pack with him or any clothes, just a cardboard sign that read: The Gate is Narrow and the Road is Hard. I said to myself, ‘That is the fate of a foolish philosopher right there – standing on the street corner begging for his next meal.’ I sped away not considering the Beggar, his message, or my reaction any further.

“When I got to Woodland Park, I had to do a double-take because standing on the corner of 6th and Main was the same Beggar, dressed differently but the same Beggar no less. The only other difference was the message on his sign, this time reading: The Tree is Known by Its Fruit. At this I laughed out loud and yelled from my open window, ‘Brilliant observation, my man!’ I turned the corner, parked at the fly shop and went to work, still not considering the Beggar, his message, or my reaction any further.

“It became an almost daily routine for me – I’d go out with a client and I’d see the Beggar either in Woodland Park or Lake George, always holding his sign with some random message of wisdom printed on it. Each time I saw him, I mocked him and his sign. Most of my clients laughed while others simply ignored my comments. They knew from where the messages came, whereas I clearly did not. This went on for weeks, and then months.

“After the sixth week, I got sick of seeing the Highway 24 Beggar, so sick that I notified Sheriff Hank – a much slimmer Sheriff Hank at that time – and told him to tell the Beggar to get on his way. Hank came back to me each time and said that he didn’t see a beggar and nobody he spoke to knew of a beggar either. Apparently, this was a magical Beggar that only I could see. And I continued to see this Beggar too! Every single day I saw that darn Beggar.

“Finally around the beginning of August, I had enough of this Beggar and was gonna give him a piece of my mind. I drove the length of Highway 24 between Woodland Park and Lake George, but I never saw him. I went into Eleven Mile Canyon and didn’t see him there either. So I went to Blind Curve Run and started fishing instead.

“I was there for no more than an hour when I heard stones and gravel rolling down the embankment behind me. I turned abruptly and saw this clumsy fisherman – clearly a novice – stumbling down the embankment to try his hand at fly fishing. This looked to be the classic guy who heard how much fun fly fishing was, but had no idea as to how complex the sport truly was. I turned my back and continued fishing. This clumsy fellow though walked right up to me and asks in the friendliest voice imaginable, ‘What they bitin’ on?’

Without even turning, I replied, ‘The end of my line of course.’

He laughed nervously, clearing missing the girth of my joke. ‘You fish here often?’ he asked.

I replied sarcastically, ‘No, never.’ I just wanted him to leave me alone, but it seemed the last thing this guy wanted to do was fish. Apparently he thought Eleven Mile Canyon was a social club and I was his new best friend. He stood behind me awkwardly until I finally said rudely, ‘Wanna jump in my waders with me? If not, find your own fishing hole.’ Even a social reject like this guy could get the hint with that, and he trudged downstream to the next hole.

“What’s the only thing worse than a novice fly fisherman, Andy?” Jack inquired.

“I don’t know,” I replied, confused.

“A novice fly fisherman who catches more fish than you, that’s what. This guy, whose cast resembled my grandfather’s rendition of Saturday Night Fever, started slaying them! His fly wouldn’t be in the water for more than a few seconds and he’d have a trout tugging on the other end of his line. It was like he’d discovered some new technique that was simply irresistible to the tastes of trout. To me, his technique was everything but irresistible. In fact, it was downright excruciating! Almost like listening to a singer whose voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard? That terrible.

“After ten minutes of this guy pulling trout after trout out of the river – all the while I not catching a thing – my curiosity got the best of me and I asked him what he was catching them on. He replied, ‘A gracious touch and a fearful heart.’

“I immediately thought this guy was a fruit loop! Gracious touch and a fearful heart? What did that even mean? ‘No!’ I yelled. ‘What fly are you catching them on?’ To which he replied, ‘Whatever fly He wills.’

“Again, I looked at the novice like he was a lunatic. ‘He who?’ I replied angrily.

‘He who is called I Am,’ the novice replied. At that, I tossed my hands in the air and stormed up the embankment out of frustration.

“I ended up driving down the road a few miles and fished a few holes. I was so frustrated by the novice, though, that I could hardly even cast properly no less fish effectively. My presentation was horrible, the sun was too high, and I was way too ticked off to even have a chance of catching a trout.

“I stormed back to my vehicle, packed my things, and drove away. Just as I was leaving though, I saw the novice in my rearview mirror, sprinting towards my vehicle and waving his arms like a madman. Don’t ask me why I even stopped because I honestly don’t know. But I did, thank God.

‘Pardon me,’ he said, ‘but my car broke down up the road and I was wondering if I could hitch a ride with you into town?’ I was ticked but I wasn’t gonna leave a fellow fly fisherman up the creek without a paddle, so I agreed to take him into town. He was quiet for the first few minutes, but the silence eventually got to him and he started blabbering like a teenage girl. ‘I’m new to fly fishing and heard this was the place to come. Great fishing up here. I still can’t believe I did as well as I did today.’

‘Yeah,’ I replied, ‘hard to believe how easy you made it look.’

‘Like I said,’ he added, ‘just the grace of Him’.

‘What do you mean by that? You said that back there. Who is he?’

The novice laughed – no, erupted into laughter like he was watching Seinfeld or something. He replied matter-of-factly, ‘God of course.’

Equally as matter-of-factly I replied, ‘Don’t believe in Him.’

To my surprise, the novice didn’t seem offended, but said, ‘That’s too bad because He’s chosen you as one of His servants.’

I laughed, ‘What are you talking about?’

‘God,’ he said, ‘He chose you as one of His servants.’

‘And why would He do that?’ I asked.

When the novice replied this time, his voice seemed to carry the tune of a canary, yet he was not singing. His words warbled from his mouth, though he wasn’t whistling. He spoke as a man and an immortal, all at the same time. ‘You are a lamb among wolves, Jack, a lamb that gazes at its reflection in the river and sees a wolf. You are not a wolf though, Jack. You are a lamb. You’ve spent your preceding days living in fulfillment of your body, your own self. This, you will do no more.’ The novice paused and placed his hand on mine on the steering wheel. I wanted to protest, but my body and mind felt paralyzed – inaccessible. The novice continued, ‘Within your body, the lamp has been lit. As His servant, your job is to reveal this light to others and to kindle the flame within them. Your job, Jack, is to become one of the Seventy, to protect the lambs from the wolves. Be the lamb that is the shepherd.’ A flash like a bolt of lightning filled the car, and when my vision was restored, I no longer was in the vehicle with the novice, but was sitting in a shallow pool of the South Platte River in Eleven Mile Canyon. I stood slowly, the strength of my limbs restored and missing in a palpable contradiction. I gazed up the ridge at the road, and it was there that I saw the Beggar standing near the edge, his sign in hand and reading clear as daylight: Your Faith Has Saved You.

He walked down the road and disappeared around the bend.

“Is there any wonder that I love the South Platte as much as I do?” Jack rhetorically asked me. “Of course not. It’s the location of my baptism. It’s funny though, I’ve never seen the Beggar or the novice since that day.”

Reverend Jack leaned back in his chair with a pleasantness on his face that I’ve yet to feel personally or see on another’s face.

Timidly I asked, “Was the novice Jesus?”

Jack was silent with thought for a few moments. He replied, “He was but a lamb, Andy, a lamb amongst wolves.”

Slaughter House Bend

I never would’ve taken a man like Arthur to be a sucker for ghost stories. He’s one of those analytical thinkers, you know? A retired engineer to be exact. If there isn’t a statistic or some scientific basis for something, Arthur won’t even entertain the idea of believing it to be true. As I’m sure you already guessed, Arthur’s as atheistic as they come. Not only does he believe that religion – monotheistic religions in particular – are farces, he believes that any person who does believe in a god is as clueless as a country house wife. If Arthur had the choice of having dinner with three people – dead or alive – he’d choose Bill Gates, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin.

Anything with statistical support, Arthur will believe it.

Anything but one though, and that one thing is the story about Slaughter House Bend on the section of the South Platte River that snakes its way from the Spinney Mountain spillway to the Eleven Mile inlet. Slaughter House Bend is a wide, deep bend in the South Platte that has a rundown footbridge running over it and a couple rundown homesteaders’ homes nearby on the north bank. The fishing was always pretty good in Slaughter House Bend, particularly in the summer for big browns. Until this particular day though, I never knew why it was called Slaughter House Bend.

But I heard The Wulff’s Den discussing it one evening, and I just couldn’t resist inquiring.

“Boy, you don’t know the story behind Slaughter House Bend?” Hank asked dramatically.

“No, sir,” I replied. “Perhaps you gentlemen can enlighten me?”

“I’ll enlighten you,” Arthur said. “You know those old homes on the river bank right there? Settlers used to use those homes for cover during the brutal winters on their way to the west coast. Sometimes they’d only stay a few days, a few weeks – sometimes they’d stay a whole season, hunting and fishing at their leisure. But those hills weren’t just the homes of jackrabbits and antelope, Andy. They were the homes of the Colorado Ute tribe. And let me tell you something, those natives hated those settlers more than you can ever imagine. The settlers would come through and kill every living thing in the valley, sometimes making it impossible for the Utes to feed the people of their tribe. Well, after a few years of this, the Utes had finally had enough.

“The story goes that one evening during the summer, while a family was settled good and tight in that little shack there, the Utes sent out one of their hunting parties to get food. But they weren’t going out for no antelope or deer. They were going for human flesh.

“The Utes surrounded the house and ordered the family to line up along the river bank just east of that old footbridge that’s still there today. Two little girls, a little boy, a husband and a wife, the family was. The Utes took a length of rope and tied it ‘round the man’s neck, tied the other end to one of the bridge beams, and kicked him over the edge and into the water. His neck didn’t snap though. Instead, he drowned in the water with his body still bouncing back and forth against the tightness of the rope. As for the woman and children, the Utes treated them like fresh carcasses – they decapitated them, skinned them and filleted them. The Utes did the same thing to any other family that dared to stay in the homes ever since.”

“How many you suppose they killed, Art?” asked Hank.

“I’d guess hundreds, Sheriff. At least…”

“That’s ridiculous,” Reverend Jack replied with a chuckle. “You’re gonna tell me you believe in that old wives’ tale? That’s just some stupid story you tell everybody to keep them away from your fishing hole.”

“I haven’t touched that darn spot in twenty-two years, Reverend.” Arthur replied sternly.

“Why’s that, Arthur?” I asked, intrigued.

“I’ll tell you why,” Arthur began dramatically. Arthur has an incredibly heavy voice, the voice of a man who’s smoked far too many stogies and drank way too many whiskies in his day. If Clint Eastwood had a secret brother, Arthur would be him. The rest of the society, unusually, had their mouths shut up tight and were clinging to every word Arthur uttered.

“It was one of those days out on the Dream Stream where you walk at least fifteen miles because the fish have lock-jaw so bad you can’t find a single one to bite. But you fellas know how stubborn I can be at times, and by golly, I was gonna stay out there until midnight to get a trout in my net. The sun was about passed the horizon, I’d say, when I finally did get my trout, a decent two-and-a-half pounder up by the pool with the big stumps poking out of the water like Punji sticks. Naturally, I was parked in the bridge lot about a mile away, so by the time I had that trout unbuttoned and was heading back, I was walking in moonlight. Let me tell you something, I haven’t ever walked alone out there in the dark since then.”

“What happened?” Robert asked with intrigue.

“I wasn’t in no rush, so I took my time and walked down the north side of the river, sticking to the game trails as best I could. Well I wasn’t sure at first, but I thought I saw a fire light in the distance. Not a fire light like that from a camp fire though; no, this light was coming from inside one of them old homesteader’s homes on the side of the river.”

“The one’s by Slaughter House Bend?” Reverend Jack quickly inquired.

Arthur nodded dramatically as he sipped his pint.

“Well what’d you do?” Robert asked.

“Didn’t think nothin’ of it really. I just figured a fisherman was gonna spend the night in there to catch the dun hatch the following morning. So I just kept on with my leisurely pace and minded my own darn self.

“Well, I was maybe fifty yards from the one of the homes – that little red one with the caved-in roof – when I heard the rustling of grass from behind me. I turned, thinking it was some mice or a jackrabbit, but I didn’t see anything moving, not in the moonlight at least. ‘Course up there, it gets so darn dark, you can’t hardly see anything, right Sheriff?”

“Mmhmm,” Hank answered, his eyes glued to Arthur’s face.

“I figured it was just the wind and turned back around to keep heading to the parking lot. That darn rustling grew louder though – and louder. The closer I got to that little red house, the louder the rustling grew. I was staring at the one window of that house, glowing orange and yellow with the fire from within. My heart started beating a little faster and that was when I started walking a little faster as well. There was something about that house, that lone window glowing like a coal in the pitch black that just made my skin crawl. And that’s when I saw it…

“I glanced over to the river bend, right at that deep pool where that old footbridge is, and I saw a very distinct, white form bent over on the river bank. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me or something, but I’m telling you, this white mass was there and it looked way too much like the silhouette of a man. I stopped dead in my tracks and crouched low in the grass. I didn’t know what it was, but I sure didn’t wanna find out any time soon. So I just stayed there crouched in the grass, watching this – figure on the river bank.

“And that’s when it hit like a bullet – AAAHHHHHHH!!!!!” Arthur belted in his best imitation of a female shriek, making every person in Wulff’s shriek as loudly and jump out of their hides through the ceiling. “A woman screamin’ bloody murder so loud it was like she was being stabbed right in front of my face. Louder and louder and louder it got, all the while the white figure just stayed by the river, hunched over. I did what instinct told me to – I stood up and ran for it as fast as I could. I ran ‘round the back of the house but as I looked back one last time at the white figure, it stood and turned, and that’s when I saw what it had been workin’ on over by the river bend. It looked me dead in the eyes as it held up the severed head of a woman by its long, blonde hair. The figure was white, the head was white, but there was no mistaking the bright red of the blood as it gushed out of the severed neck like a faucet. I turned and ran faster than I’ve ever ran in my life.”

The shop was dead silent when Arthur finished, every person looking intently at the corner table at which The Hemingway Society was gathered. As for Hank, Robert, Jack and Buck, their chins were almost touching the floor and their eyes were wide open.

“I’ve never stayed past sundown since then,” Arthur said. “Don’t have the heart to. And I’ll tell you another thing: I haven’t even thought of fishing Slaughter House Bend since then either.”

After that evening, I haven’t either.

I’ve come to recognize that Hank, Robert, Reverend Jack, Buck and Arthur rarely, if ever, enter Wulff’s without the company of each other. Just as their various histories dictate, neither of them leaves his buddies alone in the fox hole.

But on the off chance that one of the members of The Hemingway Society do enter my shop without the others, I try to savor that moment for all that it is worth. This next story is one such instance.

The sun was yet to rise on a breezy August morning. I was tending to my shop the way I always did on summer weekends, busily brewing stiff coffee and pulling steaming scones and muffins from the oven like Fords off the beltline. As much as I enjoy the company of my patrons, I love the early morning preparation that much more. I’m a solitary man, as all fly fishermen are by nature, and the mornings provide me with a solace as comforting as my Oma’s living room. The aroma of coffee, cloves, cinnamon, and that creamy icing Wulff’s is famous for drizzling on its pastries fills the shop like noxious gas, seeping into the pine walls and leaving their tastes for future generations.

But I heard a sharp rap on the door that morning, promptly at half passed five. I peered through the window and saw the knocker was none other than Mr. Robert, the quiet and reserved piece of The Hemingway Society. I quickly returned the pot of coffee to its place on the stove and ushered the gentleman into the shop.

“Sorry to trouble you so early, Andrew,” Robert said. He had a habit of calling me by my Christian name despite my instruction to just call me Andy. “I couldn’t sleep last night and I figured I could wait in here for the others to arrive.”

“No trouble at all, Mr. Robert.” I replied. “Can I get you something?”

“An Earl Grey’d be terrific.”

While I prepared Robert’s tea, I asked, “Where you gentlemen heading to this morning?”

“Prolly Antero, I suppose. It’s always packed this time a year, but we got our pontoons so we can usually avoid the crowds.”

“Unlike the canyon and the Dream Stream, right?” I asked with a chuckle as I placed the cup of Earl Grey on the table before him.

He laughed lightly, “You’re not kidding there. ‘Course, it’s a riot watching Hank try to clamber into his boat.”

“I can only imagine,” I replied. “Rev. Jack probably eats Hank alive during that process.”

Robert chuckled harder, “You know it! Although, when does Jack not give Hank a hard time?”

“Never from what I observe.”

“Ha! Never indeed.” Mr. Robert sipped his tea and said, “Don’t let me keep you from your work, Andrew. I got the Post to keep me company.”

“Good company,” I said smartly over my shoulder.

“Bad company’s better than no company…” he replied.

“Amen, Mr. Robert.”

I returned to the kitchen knowing full-well that Mr. Robert was everything but okay. Of course, a man of his nature would never admit to such a condition – none of the society would I reckon. It’s interesting though because old dogs, no matter how stubborn they are, always open up eventually. And Mr. Robert was certainly no different.

“You know my wife passed away three years ago this weekend,” Robert said to me as I placed a fresh pan of scones into the oven. Immediately after he said this, though, I removed the pan and flipped the oven off. I grabbed a blueberry scone for him and a stiff cup of coffee for myself and sat down at the table with him.

“That’s Arthur’s spot, you know?” he replied smartly to me.

“Think he’ll mind much?”

Robert took a healthy bit of the scone and said, “Nah, I don’t suppose he will. At least until he comes that is.”

I smiled and remained silent, hoping he’d regain the story he was surely going to dictate.

Right as rain on a cloudy day, Robert began:

“Myocardial infarction it was. She was healthy as a horse too, the darndest thing really. Isn’t it strange how those things work? The woman never smoked, ate right, exercised regularly, went to church every week, treated everybody as sweet as apple pie, and yet her heart still wasn’t strong enough to keep her alive. The darndest thing…” He paused momentarily to regain his mental traction. A smile soon came over his face though, and when he spoke, he spoke with a happiness I can only dream of experiencing. “I met her on the railway actually. She was a boxcar maintenance technician and I was a young, brash sailor with the United States Navy. I remember the day I met her like it was yesterday, Andrew. We’d just pulled into a small town outside of San Diego – Jasper, California. Gorgeous day it was. I stepped out of that railcar, my whites pressed perfectly and my hat cropped on top of a thick mat of black hair. Some girls thought I looked like the King, you know? Well, when I laid eyes on her for the first time, my legs nearly gave out from under me. She was standing between to railcars to the rear of the locomotive, banging away heartily at the coupling. She had grease smears on her face and sweat dripping from her brow, but even those weren’t enough to hide her rosy cheeks and bright green eyes. Her hair was black as coal, bundled loosely beneath a cap so that it was just barely peeking from beneath the rim. She had a remarkable figure as well…” at this, Robert chuckled healthily.

“Didn’t hurt her case I’m sure,” I replied with a smile.

“Ha ha, no it didn’t. She was a babe, Andrew.” Robert laughed healthily at this and continued. “I told my buddy, Samuel, ‘Sam, take a good look at that young lady over there because I’m going to marry her someday.’ Of course Samuel laughed at me because I was the complete opposite of a lady’s man. I was a helpless romantic at best!

“You know when the woman is the right woman though, Andrew, because she makes you do things you’d never even think of doing. If it was any other woman, I wouldn’t have approached her. I would’ve just left the train station and not thought a second about it. But she was different and God knew it. I walked right up to her, stuck my hand out and introduced myself. ‘Hi, miss,’ I said. ‘My name’s Bob Lowet.’ I was Bob back in those days, Andrew. Robert is my refined name. Well, she seemed just as struck as I was ‘cause she stood there for several moments just gawking like a child who’d just met John Lennon. ‘Ma’am,’ I asked, ‘Are you alright?’ She fluttered her eyes beautifully and replied in the voice of an angel, ‘My name’s Maria – Maria Struppel.’

“And that was it. We stared into each other’s eyes for what seemed like an eternity. But I was roused out of my stupor by a heavy clap on my back. I turned and saw the glowing face of Samuel. ‘Who’s your handsome friend?’ he asked me. Before I could reply, Maria replied, ‘This, sir, is Bob Lowet.’ I tell you what, son, old Sam’s jaw nearly crashed through the station deck when she said that! Hell, mine nearly crashed through the deck. Never had a woman admitted her attraction to me and certainly not in that direct of a way. She held her hand up to me and asked, ‘Well, sailor, are you gonna help a lady up or not?’ I quickly grabbed her hand – a hand as soft as silk to my surprise. You know that kind of work doesn’t play kindly with one’s exterior. I pulled her up onto the deck and she says, ‘Thank you very much, sailor. I really must be going, but I do hope to see you again soon.’ Her eye lashes fluttered like a hummingbird’s wings when she said that, and my heart and soul nearly blew away in the breeze when she did it. She walked away confidently, certainly knowing that I’d look her up the moment I returned from sea to find her and marry her.”

“Well, what’d you do?” I asked excitedly.

“I did as I said I would do, Andrew. Slightly delayed of course, but a man of his word sticks to that word, you understand? Thirteen months I spent touring about the Pacific fighting Japs and trying to stay alive so that I could kiss that beautiful Maria for the first time. When my time was finally over, I returned to that little train station in Jasper, California. Sadly, she was nowhere to be found.”

“What’d you do then?” I interrupted.

Robert chuckled, “I did what any young, halfwit would do. I asked around and found out she’d gone back east to Texas to work on the rail line there. I got me a train pass that very day and headed right back into the rising sun. I eventually found her at a station in Midland, Texas, hacking away at a boxcar coupling the same exact way I’d met her. Her hair was a bit longer but she was even prettier than I remembered. Lotta times I revisited that image of her in my head, lotta times when I either couldn’t sleep or was too scared to move to my post. Her memory kept me sane, Andrew, gave me something to fight for, you know?

“I went right up to her and said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am. Do you know when the next train is leaving?’ She turned and her jaw fell to the ground. She leaped up onto the deck and wrapped her arms around me so quickly I thought she’d hold me forever. I was quite alright with that too! There isn’t a single straight man on this earth that wouldn’t want that. But I tore her away from me for a moment. She looked up into my eyes and I down into hers and I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for over a year now.’ And that’s when I did it, Andrew! I laid the biggest, fattest kiss you could imagine on her gorgeous, red lips. I’m not a scientific man really, but the electricity that coursed from her mouth to mine was as intense as a bolt of lightning. My heart melted, son. My heart absolutely melted in my chest.

“It wasn’t long after that that I left the Navy, made Maria my wife, and used the G.I. Bill to buy us a modest home and go back to school. I’ve been through a whole lot in my life, Andrew, but that day that I first met Maria, that day at the train station in Jasper, California was by far the scariest day of my life. The scariest and the best day of my life for sure. There hasn’t been a day in my life where I haven’t thought about that day at the train station. And although it saddens me to think of it now, I know I’ll relive that day for eternity in Paradise.”

Robert swiped the smallest tear from the corner of his eye and tilted his tea cup to his lips.

People wouldn’t believe the romantic that rested within Robert’s soul. And if they did believe it, they’d envy him for it because love, even if only for a fleeting moment, is God’s greatest gift to man.

It was a cold February weekend. Not a single fly fisherman was on the water, and if by some violation of physics and deductive reasoning they were, they certainly were not catching any fish. I know this because most of my regulars were in my shop, toiling away the frigid hours glancing at the tackle and supplies and telling the tallest tales only fishermen could believe. I’ve always believed that fly fishermen, above all other categories of men, are the most likely to be novelists because of their innate abilities to stretch the truth to the factual threshold. It was clearly obvious that the majority of my patrons were in my shop solely to escape their wives, who most likely wanted their husbands to shovel the driveways and fix those driers that were always on the fritz.

It should be no surprise then that TheWulff’s Den was in its usual, boisterous form.

“Have I ever told you boys about my bear?” asked Hank, the retired sheriff who had as much of a passion for beer and pretzels as he did enforcing law and fishing a streamer. This guy wasn’t from Texas, but a bystander certainly would’ve suspected it with Hank’s “go big or don’t go” attitude. His voice boomed like a fog horn and his jowls and gut bounced like fresh gelatin.

“Bear, my rear-end, Sheriff,” replied Rev. Jack. “You prob’ly saw yourself in the mirror after a long bout of not shaving.”

“No, I swears!”

“Oh, that’s a crock,” replied Jack and another gentleman, Buck. Buck was a part-time professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

“No, he even had a name…”

Jack interrupted, “What? Yogi?”

“No, no …”

“Winnie the Pooh?”

“Wouldja shut up already and let me tell my story, ya ragin’ bible thumper?”

Laughter exploded from their circular table in the corner.

“Alright, you grumpy old man. Tell us your story.”

Hank replied, “Maybe I won’t now seein’ as you’re not interested or nothin’.”

“Oh, just tell us the damn story already.”

“Alright, alright.” Hank adjusted the waistband of his synthetic jeans and began. “So I was fishin’ the canyon ‘bout twelve years ago near the end of November. Considering the weather in the past weeks, the morning was pretty nice – windier than the dickens with occasional snow flurries. Naturally, I’m bundled up ‘bout as much Sandy Claus on Christmas Eve and still shivering all over. I was fishin’ that area just downstream of the two tunnels – you know, where the huge rock wall and the big pool?”

“Great hatches in the summer there,” Buck replied. “Big brutes.”

“Right. So’s I’m standing there in knee deep water huddled behind that huge boulder just tryin’ to get outa the wind. Well wouldn’t ya know it, I hear branches cracking and I sees trees shakin’ like a darn freighter is plowing down the slope, and outa the thicket in a cloud of white powder is this little black bear.”

“Noooo,” Buck replied. “You’re kidding.”

“Serious as a heart attack, Buck.”

“Well what’d you do?” another gentleman, Robert asked.

“Well I watched him for a while, ya know? At first, he just jumped around in the snow drifts along the river. I wasn’t sure what he was trying to do until he climbed onto a small boulder that was halfway pokin’ out the water. Well, he clambered up top that rock, perched his self on his furry behind, and slowly crept his front paws down the face of the rock.” Hank shuffled his hands up and down his gut as if he was rubbing himself after a hearty meal. “I ‘spose he was trying to catch a drink of water. And boy did he! His little behind started slidin’ forward and his front paws clawed at that rock for dear life. But his strugglin’ wasn’t good ‘nough, no sir. He slid, slid, slid, then BAM! tumbled head over teakettle right into that darn water!”

The men laughed heartily, Hank the hardest of all of them.

“What happened to him?” Buck asked.

“Well the little rascal must’ve crapped his self ‘cause he was slappin’ and flounderin’ in that water. Luckily for him, he landed in that slow pool there and was able to swim back to the bank in good ‘nough shape. When he climbed out the water, he shook his self off real good, gazed about to make sure no one had saw him lookin’ like a big ofe – I had of course, but he didn’t pay no mind to me.”

“Of course he didn’t,” Rev. Jack added. “You probably looked more like the boulder than the boulder did.”

“I’ll have you know, Reverend, that I was quite a specimen in my time. I’ve gotten this way outa choice.” Hank pointed to his protruding midsection as if it were a badge of honor.

Jack laughed hard before replying, “Boy Hank, I’d hate to see the other choices you’ve made down the road.”

The men laughed once again. All the while, I was stifling laughter as I prepared coffees for some other gentlemen.

Hank continued, “Can I finish my darn story already? Alright, so the little bugger scampered back up the hill, scared half outa his wits mind you. Well I didn’t think much of it until a few weeks later. I went to patrol the canyon road for a bit, and wouldn’t you know it, I saw that little rascal again!”

“What was he doing this time?” Robert asked.

Hank laughed so hard tears were streaming out of his eyes. Every time he opened his mouth to continue his story, further laughter erupted out of his mighty jowls. Finally, after several minutes, Hank regained his composure enough to continue.

“He was wearin’ a darn trashcan for a sombrero!”

“What!?” Jack asked.

“How’d he do that?”

“Well, as much as I can tell, he was getting his self some grub when he fell too far and got trapped in there. His little ‘ole back legs were kickin’ a mile a minute, but all it was doin’ was makin’ ‘im roll all about the parking lot like a darn Coke can in the breeze. He ended up running into the side of the outhouse and back into the fence again.” Hank stopped to wipe his eyes free of the tears that were steadily seeping out of them.

“What’d you do, Mr. Lawman?” The reverend asked.

“HA HA! Well I couldn’t jus’ let ‘im struggle in there like a darn rodeo clown, could I? So’s I go over there, grab the trash can by the butt and yank on it as hard as I can. That little rascal popped outa that can like a champagne cork! Tubbled halfway ‘cross the lot he did. He was scared outa his mind again and took off towards the woods. But he stopped before he got there. He turned around and looked at me for I dunno how long.”

Buck laughed as he said, “Sizing you up, I’m sure.”

“Not much to size up,” Jack quickly added.

“No, no, not at all! He wasn’t really sizin’ me up as much as .. well … smilin’ at me.”

“Smiling?” The others asked simultaneously.

Hank continued, “Yes, smilin’. I know it sounds crazy, but I swears he was. After a few moments of that, he stumbled off clumsily into the forest making as huge a ruckus as he always done.”

“You never did tell us his name,” Robert added.

“Well of course I’d name ‘im Cork.”

“Cork?” They all asked quizzically.

“Yes, Cork. Cork the Black Bear.”

Hank smiled and the other four laughed uproariously at him.

“Cork the Black Bear…” Jack said ruminatively. “Well, I’ve heard worse.”

“Definitely heard worse.”

“So, Sheriff,” Jack began, “What ever happened of ‘ole Cork the Black Bear.”

Hank sipped his coffee and continued, “You see, that’s the problem with you boys – you never let a man finish his stories. Hell, this story hasn’t even begun really.”

“Well we’re all ears now, Hank.”

“Alright, alright. Well, me and Cork had made it a habit to unexpectedly run into one another on occasion. Lot’a times I was fishin’ the canyon when I’d see ‘im stubblin’ down the mountain side playin’ by his self. But then he started showin’ up closer and closer to me, almost as if it wasn’t no coincidence at all. Almost as if he was lookin’ for me, to visit me or something. Shoot, by the end of that next spring, Cork would lay on the bank just where I was fishin’ as if he were my ‘ole ‘coon hound. I’d see people drivin’ or walkin’ nearby, starin’ at me ‘cause I got this black bear – now considerably larger ‘cause you know them bears grow so quick. I’d just turn and wave to ‘em with a big smile on my face. They must’a thought I was a loon-tic or somethin’.”

“I know I do,” Rev. Jack added smartly.

“He was great ‘ole pal alright, that Cork. He knew my favorite spots too ‘cause it’d take no time at all for his big behind to come stumblin’ down the hillside when I got there. Occasionally, I’d toss ‘im a fingerling for his comp’ny. But I don’t think he was there to beg or nothin’. He just liked me I think.” Hank smiled.

Jack said, “Alright, so big doofus meets other big doofus and the two live happily ever after, I suppose?”

“Not quite, I’m ‘fraid,” Hank replied solemnly. “That winter, I was patrollin’ the canyon. I heard a buck shot go off up the way so I sped up the road to sees what was the matter – mind you, there’s no huntin’ allowed in them parts. Well when I turned the corner, I saw three hunters in the camo and orange vests and hats, standing in a circle in the parking lot.”
            “What were they standing around?” Robert asked.

“Somethin’ big was all I could see. I pulled up behind them and rolled down my window to ask them what they was doin’, but before I could ask, I saw one of the hunters was my ice fishin’ buddy, Sal. Sal says to me, ‘Sorry, Hank, he came outa them bushes and I had to shoot ‘im.’ He pointed his rifle at what they was standin’ round, and it was a huge black bear – least thousand pounds I’d say.”
            “It wasn’t Cork, was it?” Robert and Buck asked.

“I’ll git to that, hold your horses. So I says to Sal, ‘No trouble at all. I’ll radio someone to come an’ take ‘er away.’”

“Her?” they asked confusedly.

“Yeah, it was Cork’s mama they’d shot.”

“What’d you do?”

“Well, Animal Control showed up ‘bout an hour later and took her body away. After that, I didn’t see Cork no more for the longest time. I went to all our fishin’ spots every week, but I saw no sign or trace of ‘im. I wasn’t too worried ‘cause it was winter and bears hibernate durin’ that time. But then the frost thawed and spring came and still no Cork. I guess I just kinda figured that Cork went on his way to other parts. But he didn’t…”

“What happened to him?”

“You didn’t find him dead to you?”

“He didn’t hurt anyone did he?”

Hank shook his head and smiled, “I finally saw ‘im at the end of that summer, same spot where I first met ‘im actually. Technically I didn’t see ‘im first, I saw another little cub that was struttin’ along the river bank lookin’ for some food and a drink. I watched that little guy for a few minutes before I heard the trees shakin’ and branches crackin’ and all kinds of ruckus stirrin’ up on the top of that ridge. Stones started rollin’ down the hill and into the river, broken twigs came next. I thought a gosh darn earthquake was strikin’ or somethin’. It wasn’t no quake though, I shoulda known. Outa the darn forest came stubblin’ my buddy Cork, three times the size with two little ones rollin’ in his wake.”

“Ha ha, he went and had himself a family, huh?” asked Robert.

“Darn right he did. Three gorgeous cubs and a big mama to support ‘im.” Hank chuckled ruminatively and sipped his coffee.

“You still see much of Cork?” Buck asked.

“Oh no, Cork’s long dead. Hunter’s you know? Darn trigger-happy rascals jus’ got the best of ‘ole Cork, you know? I still go back to that spot by the rock wall though; sometimes I see Cork’s grandkids and their kids down by the water, sometimes I don’t. It’s always nice to see them though. Never as friendly as Cork was or nothin’, but still a blast to watch.”

And that’s the story about Hank’s black bear, Cork.

I’ve fished that very same spot to which Hank was referring, and I’ve not once seen a sign of any black bear there. At first, I was under the assumption that Hank was just a little crazy, but after a while, I’ve come to believe that some men are born with that extra connection with the wilderness. Hank is certainly one of those men.