The last shades of pink and orange faded from the mountain tops, and silence settled over the forest about us. We hung waders and boots to dry, then I set a pot of canned stew on the burner while Cave squeezed fresh lime for the margaritas. The liquor began to melt away the ache in my muscles, and we spoke of the day, of the beauty of a brook trout’s markings, and the guilelessness of a high-mountain cutthroat when tempted with a dry fly.
From the corner of my eye, movement—a white orb bobbed up the hill towards us, upon closer inspection a stetson, softly glowing in the last light of the day.
“You fellas got an axe?” the newcomer asked without preamble. “Looks like it might get chilly tonight.”
We’d noticed his arrival in the meadow below upon our return. I’d wondered briefly at the power of the human herding instinct. Hundreds of square miles of public land about, and he’d chosen to set up within a stone’s throw. I looked beyond him to his camp below—truck, trailer, ATV, expedition tent, full camp kitchen including overhead lamp, firewood stack… Some salesman at Cabela’s had just met his monthly sales target.
“Sorry mate,” I replied, “we’re not doing a fire. Makes it harder to see the stars.”
He stood and looked slowly about, as if to satisfy himself as to the veracity of my response. While he stood, all boots and buckles, his hat continued to glow white in the lingering light of the day. He pushed his jacket back off his hip to reveal a pistol in a holster. He tapped the grip with his trigger finger and continued.
“You guys see any blue grouse up there? That’s what this is for. I see any, I’m gonna get me some.”
“Huh. I didn’t know there were any around here.”
He noticed our waders, drying from the rope we’d strung between a couple of trees. “How’s the fishing?” Without waiting for an answer he continued. “I was up this way in the spring, May sometime. It was OK. Didn’t catch anything decent.”
Caveman, who up until this time had been keeping counsel with his margarita, studiously ignoring the intrusion, looked up at him for the first time, fixing him with a stare known to silence a barroom. I was grateful we were only on our first marg. Wars have started over less. “What’s decent to you?” he asked.
The stranger shrugged, holding his hands a vague distance apart. “You know…decent.”
“You’re right.” Cave gave him a “bless your heart” smile. “There’s nothing decent up here.”
“Well, wish we could help with the axe,” I intervened. The stew was beginning to bubble in the pot, and I lifted the lid and gave it a stir.
He touched the brim of his hat, bade us a good evening, and turned, heading off downhill.
Cave drained his marg and reached for a beer from the cooler between our chairs. “Nothing decent,” he chuckled, scratching his chin and shaking his head.
A few minutes later, we heard the thud of an axe, a few minutes more and a generous tongue of flame reached into the night from the meadow below us. We ate in weary silence, each replaying the day according to his perspective, and turned in with the darkness, content to leave the dishes for morning. Somewhere out in the night, coyotes yipped and howled, and I thought of Tex, curled up in his tent, fumbling under his pillow for the safety catch.