Exclusive: “The Bear Trap,” A Mike Bowditch Short Story
“The Bear Trap” by Paul Doiron is an original short story in the Mike Bowditch mystery series, where legendary Maine woodsman and bush pilot Charley Stevens tries to convince young Mike Bowditch of the dangers awaiting rookie game wardens.
“The Bear Trap”
The wind moved across the surface of the lake like breath upon a mirror. In the stern of the canoe Charley Stevens dipped a paddle to bring us around again over a submerged field of weeds. We were fishing for early-season pike. Charley was a retired Maine game warden—thirty years in the service—and the best woodsman I’d ever met.
The evening before, I’d happened to remark that I’d never caught a northern pike on a fly rod before. Charley had sat upright in his chair, as if the notion offended his sensibilities, and said I needed remedial schooling if I was going to have any future at all in the Warden Service. It was my first year on the job, and every day I was learning how little I actually knew about my new profession.
And so, here we were, at dawn, on a distant body of water whose name was unfamiliar to me.
“How do you know this place anyway?” I asked.
“Oh, this was my first district when I was a new warden, back from the war.” The canoe rocked gently, almost like a cradle. “Of course, it’s changed a lot since those days.”
I waited for him to go on, but he pressed his lips together and squinted across the lake toward a mist-blurred line of trees.
In my experience, retired wardens loved nothing more than to tell tales about their escapades in the North Woods. I was always having my gullibility tested by some gray-haired joker who believed the point of spinning yarns was to see how many lies he could pass off as the truth. Charley’s approach to story-telling was to casually mention some brush with death he’d had as if were a humdrum matter of no particular interest. That very morning, on the drive over, I was shocked to hear him let slip that he’d spent months in Vietnam as a prisoner at the Hanoi Hilton, in the same cell block as John McCain. I wanted to believe the old geezer, but I had been raised a skeptic.
I reeled in my line. “How has it changed?”
He raised the dripping paddle toward a point of land where the pines had been cleared to make way for a cedar-shingle mansion. “Do you see that monstrosity of a domicile? There used to be a boys’ summer camp there. I don’t know how many nights I spent staked out in the puckerbrush, trying to nab the damned hermit who kept robbing the place.”
“Wait,” I said. “What hermit?”
He frowned. “I thought you wanted to hook a pike.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t hear about it in warden school. But I guess it’s ancient history to the current generation.”
“Come on, Charley. Tell me.”
He sighed, his breath shimmering in the chilly air. Then he set the paddle across his knees and nodded his head in the direction of the trapper’s basket at my feet. “Pour me a cup of coffee from that thermos. I bet it’s still hot.”
Charley’s field training officer was a chain-smoking ex-Marine by the name of Nash. He was a veteran of Peleliu and Okinawa, who said he could no longer recognize the country he had fought for in this land of psychedelic rock and long-haired hippies. Sgt. Nash believed the men of Charley’s generation were soft—why else were they getting their asses handed to them by a bunch of yellow midgets in black pajamas?—and he did nothing to hide his cynicism.
When Charley showed up on the first day of work, not wearing his service revolver, Sgt. Nash threatened to write him up for dereliction of duty. Charley explained that he didn’t think Maine game wardens needed to go everywhere armed; some situations called for wearing a gun and others didn’t. Mostly, being an effective law enforcement officer came down to being skilled in the art of persuasion, of laying out the choices a man had before him: to make things better for himself or worse. The legendary sheriff Buford Pusser—whose life story had recently been dramatized in the movie Walking Tall—had faced down the Dixie mafia with just a stick. None of these arguments persuaded Nash who told his new warden to strap on his Smith & Wesson or hand over his shiny new badge.
Sgt. Nash spent that first morning subjecting Charley to a lengthy diatribe on the Maine Warden Service’s decline in admissions standards while he pointed out his favorite places to spy on scofflaw fishermen. The sergeant never seemed to have met an innocent man. The world he described seemed to be one populated by either empty-headed dope fiends and toothless poachers or by criminal masterminds.
When Nash told his young charge that a bearded wild man was living in the woods of central Maine; that this mysterious figure traveled only by night, venturing out from his hidden lair to rob lakeside camps of their canned goods, propane tanks, and blankets; that he had burglarized hundreds of properties over the years but had only been glimpsed twice, the first time by a couple of amorous teenagers who thought they’d found privacy on a cabin porch, the second time in the headlights of a speeding car that came flying around a bend; and that this backwoods phantom had been eluding authorities since the Eisenhower Administration—Charley had reason to be skeptical.
“Maybe I’ll be the one to catch him,” said the young warden.
“Keep dreaming.” Nash pressed a new cigarette to his lips.
Even after he’d begun patrolling his district alone and started introducing himself around the lakeside villages, Charley wondered if this so-called hermit was a collective joke the community was playing on its new warden. Everywhere he went, he discovered a new piece of the legend. At Grindle’s Store, some wag had sketched a wanted poster, depicting a bearded, bespectacled creature named “Sweet Tooth.” The reward for the burglar’s apprehension was listed as “a cool million” dollars.
“Why do you call him ‘Sweet Tooth’?” Charley asked Tom Grindle.
The storekeeper, who had been slicing tomatoes for Italian sandwiches, wiped his hands on his apron, leaving marks like bloody fingerprints. “Well, he has pretty unusual tastes in food,” the old man said. “He’ll take peanut butter and maple syrup, but he’ll leave behind cans of tuna fish and vegetable soup.”
“Peanut butter and maple syrup?” Charley peered again at the poster. “Are you sure it’s not a bear?”
“Oh, he’s human all right. People leave notes for him. ‘Take all the food or clothing you want, but please don’t take the power tools,’ and damn if he doesn’t oblige. He cleaned me out of paperbacks a few years ago. Tell me what sort of animal reads Travis McGee.”
Soon Charley began to receive calls himself from burglarized camp owners, and sure enough, the stories the victims told him were bizarre, if not borderline comical:
“He took all of my husband’s underwear and the writing desk of the guest room. When he left, he locked the door behind him.”
“He broke the faucet climbing in through the window above the kitchen sink and then ransacked our liquor cabinet. Took everything but a fifth of tequila.”
“He stole the batteries out of my camp radio—but then left the radio. I figured he must already have one of his own.”
“All he took from our place was a big stack of National Geographic magazines.”
In his first year, Charley counted nearly a hundred thefts. Most were reported in the springtime, when the owners returned to Maine to open up their camps and realized that someone had been sleeping in their beds and eating their porridge, so to speak. On each call, he would inspect the crime scene for evidence, but the hermit seemed to wear gloves and walk without ever leaving a footprint. The closest Charley got to him that first summer was when he stumbled across a cache of household goods expertly hidden in a ravine cave. Beneath a green tarp was a neat little dugout area with a dirt floor swept clean of needles and a row of twenty-pound propane bottles rigged together and connected to a propane light. There was a folding director’s chair and a plank bookshelf on which were arranged alphabetically a series of books, including an impressive collection of Travis McGee mysteries. Charley decided this must be the hermit’s personal library, although the National Geographics were nowhere to be seen.
He spent a few bug-bitten nights lying on his stomach nearby, watching the cave, but only encountered a single raccoon that wandered onto the scene to sniff the propane tanks.
The general consensus, when Charley addressed the members of the lake association at their annual meeting, was that the hermit was a nuisance but not a danger. “Sweet Tooth” never robbed a building while its owner was at home, and he had passed up many opportunities to steal cash, jewelry, and firearms. A few people—newcomers from out of state who had recently purchased their properties—stood up to tell their stories with fear in their eyes or anger in their voices. Charley had the sense that they came from urban neighborhoods where the term “crime wave” didn’t provoke smiles. He felt slightly sorry for these frightened city people who carried their fear like so much overweight luggage.
The incident that changed Charley’s mind about the hermit was the third time he robbed the boys’ camp. It was a damp, drizzly morning in early April, months before the first campers were due to arrive. The director—a prematurely bald young man by the name of Lafontaine—met the warden at the mess hall, with his hands thrust into his raincoat pockets and an expression of utter defeat on his smooth pink face.
“He took everything this time,” said Lafontaine.
“Can you be more specific?” said Charley.
The camp director indicated the broken latch where the hermit had jimmied the door. He escorted Charley across the vast echoey cafeteria, with its pine floors and war banners hanging from the rafters, and brought him into the kitchen. He showed off cupboards in which round circles in the dust revealed where huge cans of food had formerly been. He opened the door to a walk-in freezer and waved his hand at the frosted shelves, like a magician’s assistant gesturing at an empty box where the magician had just vanished into thin air. “I bought four hundred and fifty dollars worth of food yesterday, and that bastard got away with all of it. What’s he going to do with eight pounds of hot fudge?”
Eat it, Charley supposed, but the despair in Lafontaine’s voice kept him from making a glib comment. He knew that the camp catered to disadvantaged children from big cities who had never heard a loon before or caught a perch on a worm. It was one thing to pilfer wool blankets from Bostonians who used their second homes for a few weeks a year, if at all. But this was another matter.
Charley committed himself to capturing the hermit. He began by extensively reconnoitering the surrounding woods, figuring that the hermit couldn’t have gotten away with such a haul unless he made multiple trips to a nearby hide-out. But when he found no prints in the mud except those of the resident moose, he began to consider the lake. A man could load a canoe with a lot of heavy bags and steel cans. If the hermit had come by water, then he could be living anywhere along the wide, marshy pond.
“I want you to go grocery shopping again,” Charley told the camp director. “The hermit will be waiting for you restock your pantry, and I want to lure him back here so I can spring a trap on him.”
“I don’t have the money to!”
“You’re welcome to what I have in my passbook savings. Consider it a donation to the cause.”
Lafontaine reluctantly agreed to Charley’s offer. The warden even helped him load the shopping cart and pushed it down the warped wooden aisles of the A&P. They returned to the camp, restocked the shelves, locked up the mess with new padlocks they had purchased in Tom Grindle’s store, and then drove off the grounds, making as much noise as possible and being sure to give the impression of vacating the property for the evening. Charley hoped the hermit would see their two sets of headlights disappear up the hill into the darkness.
When they reached the asphalt road, Charley told Lafontaine to drive home, to the farmhouse where he lived while the camp wasn’t in session, and then the warden hid his truck in some alder bushes. He did his best to camouflage the vehicle and used a pine bough to swirl away the tracks the wheels had left in the mud. He zipped up his rain coat and buckled on his service revolver. Now that Nash was no longer perched on his shoulder, Charley usually kept the pistol locked in the glove compartment. He found the weight of the gun to be oppressive, and most of the time he only wore it for show. Then he took his flashlight and a pair of handcuffs and made his way cross-country back to the mess hall. He moved as quietly as he could, slipping from tree to tree as the Viet Cong had done along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
When he returned to the camp, he kept close to the buildings until he reached the bunkhouse across from the mess. He had noticed that there was a porch under which he could hide with a good view of the entrance. The windows were all boarded up so the door was the only way inside. Charley wriggled into his place of ambush, and he waited.
It rained that night. Small ponds formed around Charley’s knees, elbows, and bony hips. When dawn came it was still raining, but the hermit had not appeared. Eventually, Lafontaine returned and the two men—the camp director and the mud-soaked, shivering warden—inspected the mess hall, just to be certain the pantry remained untouched. The hermit had seemingly spent his evening out of the rain, feasting on hot fudge.
“He’ll be back, though,” Charley assured Lafontaine. “I’ll bet you a penny he’s here tonight.”
The warden returned home to take a scalding shower and sleep in his solitary bed, but by nightfall he was back at the camp. This time he positioned himself on the rooftop of the infirmary. He spread himself flat on the asphalt shingles and peered down at the mess hall. He had come to the conclusion that the hermit might have anticipated an ambush from the ground. It didn’t rain that night, but a cold wind stirred in the treetops, and he found himself wishing he had worn an extra pair of socks. In the morning he climbed down off the roof with dead pine needles stuck to every part of him, as if glued there by an out-of-control arts and crafts class.
Every evening after that, Charley returned to the camp. He changed hiding places, returning to the damp hollow beneath the porch. He built himself a duck blind in the alders and crouched inside the woven rushes until the sun came up. He tried moving his vehicle a mile up the road in case the hermit had discovered its parking place and was waiting for the game warden to abandon his stakeout before raiding the camp again. Nothing he tried seemed to work. A strange notion began to form in his head of the hermit being some sort of cryptozoological creature, half-man and half-beast, with extraordinary powers of perception. He felt as if he were hunting for Bigfoot.
After a week of sleepless, freezing nights, a crazy idea occurred to him. “I want you to lock me inside the mess hall,” he told Lafontaine.
“I’ve already tried that,” the balding director said. “I had my wife padlock the door, and I put down a sleeping bag under one of the tables, but he never showed. Either that, or he sensed somehow that I was in there.”
Charley pulled on his chin as he considered the problem from a new angle. “Can you pick me up at my house this afternoon?”
When Lafontaine arrived at the little ranch house the Warden Service had provided Charley, he found the young warden dressed for a blizzard. He was wearing a woolen parka, heavy leather boots, and a green hat with ear flaps. He crouched down in the back seat with a blanket pulled over his head while the director drove back to camp. When they arrived at the mess hall, he had Lafontaine unlock the door, and then he quickly slipped inside the building, worried that even ten seconds in the open would alert the hermit to his presence.
“Now what?” asked Lafontaine.
“I want you to lock me inside the freezer.”
“You’ll freeze to death!”
“I might get a bit chilly, but it will be no worse than the nights I spent in the snow caves I built as a lad.”
Charley explained that he thought the hermit had developed a means of determining whether a person was hiding inside the mess hall. Unless he had X-ray vision in addition to his other seemingly supernatural powers, he couldn’t see through the stainless steel walls of the Master-Bilt freezer. It was Charley’s intention to spring out at the burglar the moment he opened the door, taking him by complete surprise.
“This is the most insane idea I have ever heard,” Lafontaine said.
“That is why it will work.”
“You’d better hope I don’t get in a car accident on my way home tonight,” said the director, closing the steel door.
It was black inside the freezer, and Charley began wishing he had brought a blanket to sit on. The cold penetrated through his wool layers into the marrow of his bones. He tried standing up, then crouched on his heels for a while, but found no position that could be described as comfortable. None of them was worse, however, than the postures he had been forced to assume by his North Vietnamese captors.
Now that he was locked inside the box, various flaws in his reasoning began to sharpen into focus. He wasn’t worried about Lafontaine failing to return in the morning; Charley Stevens had never been plagued by irrational fears. However, the hum of the machinery was loud enough that he was unlikely to hear the hermit approaching until the door opened, so he would have no advance warning to prepare himself. If his muscles tightened in the cold, he might be unable to leap out at the robber with requisite quickness. The success of the plan depended on the hermit not having the presence of mind to slam the door shut on his ambusher. The people who had seen the man in the flesh had described him as a husky gent, and while Charley normally considered himself a scrappy wrestler, his numb limbs would put him at a disadvantage in a scuffle. Fortunately, he had brought along his Smith & Wesson and realized it might come in handy, at least, as a prop.
He hunkered down to wait, figuring nothing was likely to happen until the wee hours of the morning, but after a while his ass cheeks began to freeze solid again and so he climbed once more to his feet and did a little a French lumberman’s jig to return blood to his toes. The timing was fortunate because things might have gone much worse if he had been seated when the door opened.
There was a crack, as of a seal being broken, and then a blast of cold air blew past Charley’s ears toward a tiny light poking in through the darkness. Ahead of him, he heard a sharp intake of breath, and then Charley sprang forward, leaning with his raised shoulder at the spot he guessed the man’s chest would be. What he encountered felt like blubber. The impact knocked both combatants to the floor, and the pen light skittered away beneath the sink.
Charley was the faster of the two to his feet. “Police!” he said, through chattering teeth. “You are under arrest!”
The other man let loose with a series of asthmatic-sounding wheezes and slumped back to the floor. In the fuzzy light slotting in through the boarded-up windows, Charley couldn’t make out many details, other than the fact that the hermit was the largest man he had ever seen.
Charley removed his own flashlight from his coat pocket and directed the beam at the outline of the man’s head, hoping to blind him into submission. He saw, beneath him, a hugely fat man with an unruly salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rimmed eyeglasses that had been taped together after some previous mishap. The hermit raised his hands against the light, spreading gloved fingers that were as thick around as hot dogs.
Good lord, thought Charley. It is the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.
“Remain where you are, sir,” the warden said. “I have no interest in fighting you. Stay there and catch your breath.”
It took him a moment to locate the light switch on the wall. He understood that the hermit might be play-acting submissiveness, in which case he should probably unholster his revolver, but when the fluorescent bulbs blinked to life, the big man was still sitting on his enormous posterior, blowing his cheeks in and out like two bellows. The hermit was wearing a pair of farmer’s overalls that were too short at the ankles, a gray sweatshirt splattered with assorted stains, and a puffy blue parka that was spilling cotton batting through rips in the nylon. On any other man, the brogues he was wearing would have looked like clown shoes. Around his shoulders he had strapped an overstuffed army backpack.
“I apologize for giving you a fright,” Charley said. “But you forced me to resort to desperate measures to capture you.”
The big man opened and closed his mouth a few times, but the sounds that came out didn’t resemble words, so much as throttled attempts at clearing his lungs of some pulmonary obstruction. One normally thought of hermits as scrawny creatures, but years of junk food had given this one a sizable gut and a mouth full of brown teeth.
“Why don’t we sit down on in the chow hall while you catch your breath,” Charley said. In truth, the warden needed to warm up after his hour in the deep freeze, and he didn’t want the hermit to notice him shivering. They sat across a picnic table from each other.
“What is your name, sir?” the warden asked.
Behind his eyeglasses, the hermit had large brown eyes that seemed like the adaptations of a nocturnal creature. A faint odor came off him of rotting leaves.
“How about showing me some identification?” Charley said.
The hermit held out both empty hands, as if to indicate he possessed no such documentation, and there was no point in searching him.
Seeing that this line of inquiry was leading nowhere, Charley adopted a harder tone. “Well, what am I suppose to call you then? Sweet Tooth?”
“Sweet Tooth?” the hermit said hoarsely.
“Lo! He speaks.” Charley leaned back on the bench. “You don’t realize that the local populace has given you a nickname?”
The enormous man smoothed his beard with one gloved hand, but his eyes drifted toward the revolver peeking out from Charley’s coat. “That’s not my name.”
“So what is it?”
The hermit folded his arms across his overinflated chest. “I’ve forgotten.”
“You’ve forgotten your name?”
“It was of no use to me.” The man spoke with a formal, almost professorial air, as if beneath the layer of sweat and grime, he was a person of great accomplishment. “I have abandoned many things over the years.”
“And taken a few other things that don’t belong to you,” said the young warden. “Why don’t you show me what’s in your backpack, and we’ll start tallying the ledger.”
Sweet Tooth removed the pack from his shoulders and set it on the table. It occurred to the warden that the man might have a concealed weapon hidden inside, but the burglar seemed content to remain seated. If anything, he seemed to radiate relaxation. Maybe it was a relief to him to have been captured.
Slowly, he began removing items and displaying each with a prideful smile: three cans of peaches, two bags of marshmallows, peanut butter and jelly, a box of crackers, matches, a coil of rope, a folded plastic tablecloth, wadded trash bags, an aluminum canteen, and a Tupperware container filled with mildewed bills of assorted denominations. He carried a hammer and a crowbar in a flour sack. Also, a screwdriver taped with electrical tape around the grip. The tools of a burglar’s trade. “I was hoping to find some hamburger and steaks in the freezer,” he said after he reached the end of his show and tell.
Just to be on the safe side, Charley gathered up the steel tools and set them on the bench beside him, out of reach of the hermit. “I am sorry for interrupting your shopping spree. You do realize that this is a camp for disadvantaged youngsters that you have been burglarizing?”
“Of course I do.”
“And you have no remorse for your misdeeds?”
“I only took what I needed.”
“People around here are generous. If you had asked for a handout, I am sure they would have been glad to help.”
“I am not a beggar!”
No, Charley decided, he was more like a two-legged raccoon. By this point, however, the warden was less interested in challenging the man than in plumbing the depths of his self-regard. “What are you then?”
“A man in full, Warden. I am a man in full.”
“From the weight you are carrying around your midsection, I can’t dispute you on that point,” Charley said. “But I suspect the district attorney will use a different term.”
“There is only one who can judge me.”
“He’ll get his turn, too, but first you’ll have to face a man in a black robe down in Augusta.”
The hermit moved his tongue around the inside of his cheeks as if it were a ping pong ball. “So you’re going to arrest me, I gather?”
“That was the general idea of me hiding inside that freezer,” Charley said. “I went to great lengths to apprehend you.”
Sweet Tooth folded his hands together across his belly with a certain satisfaction. “I saw you under the porch and on top of the roof. You’re not very good at camouflaging yourself. Not very good at all.”
“I guess you could say I’m learning on the job, though.” He tugged an earlobe that was beginning to ache from frost nip. “So you’re telling me that you’ve been hiding in these woods this past week, watching me run around the place like a fool?”
“This past week!” The big man smiled broadly. “I have been living in these woods for nineteen years.”
“That is correct. I was eighteen when I left home.”
“And no one ever went looking for you or reported you missing?”
“They never knew I was there to begin with.”
Charley had suspected a bad family situation; it was a topic he knew something about himself. “Where exactly have you been hiding?”
“I’m sure you’d like me to show you.”
“Yes, sir, I would. Because I have trouble believing that even a resourceful feller like yourself could camp out in the forest since 1956 without assistance.”
The hermit’s forehead drooped; he looked quite literally crestfallen. “You don’t believe me?”
“Not without evidence.”
Sweet Tooth pushed himself abruptly to his feet. The action was so sudden that Charley himself sprang backward and landed lightly, like a startled cat.
“My camp is closer than you’d probably think,” boomed the hermit. “You can almost see it from the counselors’ quarters.”
Now Charley was even more skeptical. Lafontaine had told him that the camp staff had beaten the bushes with a half mile of the property, looking for signs of the hermit. And the warden himself have done a thorough search of the surrounding woods, too. It scarcely seemed possible that this Sweet Tooth character had been hunkered down within earshot the whole time, with no one the wiser.
“Show me,” said Charley.
It occurred to the young warden that the hermit might be contemplating some sort of breakneck escape into the darkened forest, so he decided to follow the big man closely. As they picked their way through the puckerbrush and damp leaves, Charley was struck by the hermit’s style of walking. For such an enormous specimen of humanity, he moved lightly, almost seemed to dance. He hopped from one moss-covered rock to the next, always set his foot down a tree root instead of a patch of mud, never seemed to snap so much as a twig. He left not a single footprint to mark his passage upon the earth.
Charley’s disbelief began to melt a little. “So you say you’ve been out here for nineteen years. What is the last thing you remember?”
“Elvis Presley,” said Sweet Tooth. “I remember him singing on the Ed Sullivan Show ”
“What drove you into the wilderness?”
The big man stopped so abruptly Charley almost collided with him, but he didn’t turn his head to make eye contact. “Talking.”
“I am not following you.”
“I got sick of all the talking. Gab, gab, gab. I couldn’t hear anything. Believe it or not, you are only the third person I have spoken to since I took to the woods. The other two were fishermen.”
The hermit started moving again, forcing the warden to catch up. “You seem a talkative enough feller to me,” Charley said. He was still dressed in his heavy winter clothes and boots, and now found himself sweating profusely through his long johns. “Was there something in particular you were having trouble hearing?”
The answer caused Charley to nod. “Oh, so you’re a religious hermit then?”
“The preacher at our church said, ‘Pray and your prayers will be answered.’ When I told him that wasn’t the case, he said I wasn’t listening hard enough. So I started going off into the woods by myself, but I kept hearing…nothing. So I went a little farther and stayed a little longer, and eventually I was living out here by myself. That was nineteen years ago.”
“Did you ever hear Jesus?”
Beyond the bushy edges of the camp, the land took on a different aspect. Huge glacial erratic boulders appeared out of the darkness, forcing them to make a detour. Spring freshets cut ravines through the melting earth, too far to jump across and deep enough to make scrambling down one side and up the other a challenge. Before Charley had realized it, they had pushed through a dense green curtain of hemlocks, and the next thing he knew he was standing in the middle of the most fantastic place he had ever seen.
The hermit’s compound was completely hidden. Green tarps were stretched across the sky from tree to tree to form a waterproof ceiling. Metal trash cans were covered with dirt and moss so they would not shine in the sun. Brown blankets, draped over sagging ropes, formed curtains that separated a cooking area with a camp stove and an impressive store of empty propane tanks from the raised platform where the hermit had pitched his tent. There were buckets hanging from trees to collect rainwater and plastic tubs buried in the ground where the man could keep frozen meat cool well into the summer. Charley had seen the inside of Viet Cong spider holes and tunnel mazes, but never had he seen an encampment so well-camouflaged.
“Sir, I have to tell you, this is the most impressive camp I have ever seen.”
“And you’ve lived here for nineteen years—blizzards and all—without ever seeking shelter in a building?”
“I conserve my energy and hibernate.”
Sweet Tooth seemed delighted to show off his home. He pointed out the mouse traps he had set near his food to protect it from vermin and the mattress he had sewn out of bedsheets and stuffed full with magazines.
“Let me guess,” said Charley. “National Geographics.”
The hermit smiled his rotten-toothed smile. “I am proudest of my commode. Building it was a problem it took me ten years to solve. My outhouse stands as my greatest achievement.”
He gestured toward a leafy structure, a mass of sticks and vines and interwoven branches, downwind of the tent. This, Charley had to see.
The warden took four steps in the direction of the toilet when suddenly he heard a metallic snap and felt a crushing pain in his left leg that caused him to fall forward onto his elbows, howling. Just like that, the hermit was on him. Before Charley even realized that he had stepped carelessly into a hidden bear trap, he saw the huge man standing over him, holding his own service revolver. The trap had sharp steel teeth that bit into his boots. He was utterly helpless.
“If you had just believed me, none of this would be happening to you,” Sweet Tooth said. “I told you my camp was here. I don’t know why people just can’t believe things.”
Charley yowled but he realized there was no one to hear his cries. He twisted his head, seemingly in pain, but really to look for a weapon. There was a fist-sized rock within reach but the hermit would shoot him before he had a chance to close his hand around it. “You don’t have to do this.”
“None of us has any choice in life.” The hermit seemed genuinely sad as he said this.
“Can you do it clean then? Right between the eyes?”
The big man squatted down on his heels and stretched out his arms, using both hands to grip the pistol. He closed one eye and squeezed the trigger.
There was a click as the hammer fell on an empty cylinder.
The sound seemed to confuse the hermit, who opened his other eye to look at the gun, then quickly pulled the trigger again.
Click, click, click, click, click.
Before Sweet Tooth understood that the revolver was unloaded, Charley had gotten hold of the rock and flung it squarely between the man’s eyes, shattering the wire-rimmed glasses in the same spot they had been previously broken. The hermit fell like Goliath.
Charley drained the coffee dregs from his cup and screwed the plastic top back on the thermos. His expression remained deadpan.
“A bear trap, huh?” I said.
“One of the biggest bone crushers I ever saw. Must have weighed close to fifty pounds.”
A school of fish dimpled the water thirty yards off the bow of the canoe. Something big and unseen was chasing the minnows to the surface. It might well be a pike. I remained still, holding the fly rod in my cold, cramped hand, studying my friend’s weathered expression, waiting for it to crack.
Finally he laughed. When he smiled, wrinkles radiated from the corners of his eyes. “You don’t believe me. Do you?”
“I don’t know. It’s quite a story.”
The old man bent down and rolled the pants leg up from his left leg, then turned the sock down over the bootlaces so I could see his pale calf. A crescent-shaped scar arced across the shinbone. Even now, decades later, it looked like it hurt.
“I was lucky I was wearing my winter boots in the freezer that night because the leather cushioned the bite of those trap teeth,” Charley said. “We dug up two bodies from under the hermit’s camp, and both of them had broken legs, the poor sons of bitches.”
Copyright © 2014 by Paul Doiron