In the fading sunlight, Sam Bailey pulled his battered Explorer off the tarmac and on to the gravel track leading to the headquarters of the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society. After unlocking the substantial metal gate, he wound his way back to a large log and stone structure tucked into a grove of white pines. Sam struggled to remove the heavy shutters that covered the windows and slowly unloaded the truck. He started a fire in the cold stone fireplace and poured himself a dark scotch. He sat down before the fire to catch his breath.
As the darkness crept into the cabin with only the snap and hiss of the fire as companions, Sam’s thoughts also turned dark. He struggled to change his mood by remembering the old days and the good times: The deer camps with cards and laughter filling the cabin, along with wood and cigar smoke. The redolent odor of drying wet wool hunting clothes hanging everywhere and exhausted dogs dozing contentedly by the fire. The clink of ice cubes and whiskey-lubricated merriment had echoed off the log rafters.
Most of all, he remembered his friends. But one by one his companions had grown frail and died. Only Charlie remained, housed in a nursing home over in Racine, unable to even remember his own name.
They had all had believed that the next generation would take over the Society, but inexplicably, all the children of the next generation had moved away or were uninterested in hunting and fishing. His own son, Joe, his favorite hunting and fishing buddy in the early years, had too quickly grown and moved to California where he worked for a big software company. His daughter, Sue, had married a Navy pilot and was raising a family in Florida. The offspring of all the other members had similar stories, either moving away or uninterested.
But Sam’s biggest blow had been losing his wife, Martha, two years ago. He had been utterly lost since. He sighed, drained his glass and, struggling to his feet, shuffled to the kitchen area to prepare his supper. A second scotch was required for the meal and a third for the clean up and dishes. It had become a nightly ritual and his doctor didn’t like it one bit. Frankly, he did not give a “fiddler’s fart” as his Dad used to say, what a doctor half his age thought about his alcohol consumption. What was it going to do…. Kill him?
After coaxing the fire back to life in the blackened granite fireplace, he settled into a battered cherry wood rocker. He carefully placed the scotch bottle on the end table next to his Smith & Wesson .38 Special revolver and propped his feet on the hearth. This had been his routine in recent nights. Sam was trying to find that elusive niche between inebriation and consciousness where he would find the courage to join his wife and his old friends from the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society. He had yet to find it, but the night was young. Perhaps one more scotch?
I first met Sam Bailey on a sunny mid-May morning on the Big Green River in Southwest Wisconsin. The Big Green runs out of the oak and walnut forested hills of Grant County and into the Wisconsin River about 20 miles up from where it joins the Mississippi on the relentless journey to the Gulf. The limestone soil and outcroppings along the Green’s passage provide the nutrients to produce fat brown trout and also accounts for the impressively solid antlers on the local white tail bucks.
I arrived at the Green a little late that morning and as I approached my favorite hole I could see someone had beaten me to it. It soon became clear he was an older gent and he wore clothes of another era; a checked wool shirt topped with an ancient fishing vest, canvas waders and a battered felt hat. The wicker creel that hung at his side clearly cemented him in another century. I had never seen one of those outside of fancy hunting and fishing stores where they served as wall decorations. In the modern religion of catch-and-release, a creel represented a clear sacrilege.
He worked the water with the easy efficiency of decades of wielding a fly rod, and as I sat down to watch, I could see from the smooth, slow action that it was a bamboo rod. Some Blue Olives started coming off and Sam tied on one of the delicate mayfly imitations.
He quickly hooked and released a couple of smaller fish when he noticed a heavy rise near the far bank where I was sitting. It would be a long cast, perhaps 65 feet, but the old man didn’t hesitate. He stripped long pulls off his reel and made several double hauled false casts before landing the tiny, dry fly soundlessly in the back eddy next to the grassy bank. It disappeared in a slurp and as the line snapped taut, a dazzling shower of droplets were catapulted into the sunlight along its entire length. With the reel screaming and the rod bucking, the trout powered back and forth across the pool before turning and racing upstream like a charging bull. At the end of the pool, it launched skyward and seemed levitated in the sunlight, gleaming gold with black and red spots all surrounded by a halo of sparkling spray. And then he was gone.
Sam reeled in his slack line and carefully waded the river toward me. He plunked down beside me and I could see that his hands were shaking as he pulled a scared briar pipe and worn tobacco pouch from his vest and began the ritual of filling and lighting it.
“Big fish.” I offered in horrendous understatement. “Must have been 5 lbs.”
“Yep.” He replied. “Too big for that tippet anyway.”
“Too bad.” I mumbled lamely.
“Ah well, It was fun there for about 10 seconds.” “By the way, my name’s Sam Bailey.” He offered his big rough hand that bore the wear and spots of many years and too much sun.
“I’m Kurt Jensen,” I replied.
I could see him eyeing my Winston rod and Ross reel with interest. “Nice outfit,” he said. And then looking at me directly in the eyes, “Don’t see many Black guys out here on the rivers.”
He could see that I was a little surprised and annoyed and quickly said, “Ah shit, sorry. I guess you guys like to be called African Americans now.”
“No. Mostly I like to be called Kurt and referred to as a fly fisherman,” I replied a little offended.
He chuckled. “Sorry Kurt. That was rude of me. I apologize. What do you do…? I mean for a living.”
“I’m an attorney in Milwaukee with Bigelow, Linstrom and Meyers.”
“Sure. I know that firm. I used to do a little business with old Bill Bigelow. Good guy. I was sad to hear of his passing.”
“Me too. He was the man responsible for my joining the firm.”
“You hunt?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, love to hunt grouse. Got a setter at home. A few friends and I go out for deer each year.”
“Hmmm,” replied Sam. “Let’s see you wave that high priced piece of plastic, Son. I’ll just sit here and smoke for a bit.” Sam relit his pipe and watched as I waded out into the pool and started peeling off some line. I’ve been fly-fishing since high school and pride myself on my technique, but I must admit that I was a little nervous. After about 10 minutes, I hooked a nice foot long fatty, and after a brief but furious struggle, brought him in and released him. I looked over for some praise from Sam but he had already gone.
I was at my desk early the following Monday–as all law associates aspiring to make partner must be–when my intercom buzzed and my secretary, Lucy, announced in her strangled valley girl voice, “Kurt, there’s a Mr. Bailey here to see you.”
I happened to be working on a routine real estate deal at the time so, intrigued, I replied, “Fine, send him in.”
Sam lumbered in, slightly hunched over, and I stood and offered my hand. He was dressed in a brown tweed sport coat that looked like vintage 1980 complete with string tie and tan slacks. His long white hair was slicked back and accentuated his ruddy complexion. He sat and refused my offer of a coffee. After staring at me for a moment, grinned and said, “Surprised to see me?”
I nodded. “What can I do for you?”
“I checked you out this weekend. The Internet is amazing. We never even had a damn phone until I was in high school so I could never have imagined what we have now.”
I just nodded wondering what was coming next. “Go on.” I said.
“I did a Google search on you and checked out your Facebook and Linkedin page. You are an interesting fellow…. Your Dad was a 30-year vet of the Milwaukee police department and your Mom an elementary teacher, three successful sisters. You’re a lucky guy to be born in those circumstances with a family like that. A lot of black kids in Milwaukee are not so lucky.” He paused to see if I’d reacted and I tried not to look pissed. Sam continued, “To your credit, you didn’t waste it. You’ve done well.”
“You have impressive computer skills.”
“Yeah, well,” He chuckled. “Full disclosure, I called my son, a computer nerd, and he walked me through it.”
“That’s all fine, Sam. But why are you here?”
“I’ve got a story to tell you and then a proposition for you to consider.”
My phone rang promptly at 8:00 as I was hanging up my coat. “Hello,” I chirped into the phone trying to sound business-like.
“Man, you are so predictable. I could set my watch by when you walk in the door.”
“What are you talking about? I‘ve been here for half an hour working away at my desk.”
“Bullshit, Jeff. I’ve known you since the seventh grade and you never have been anything but perfectly on time in your entire life. Never late and never early. I couldn’t figure out how you always managed to do it.”
It was Kurt Jensen, my best friend for as long as I could remember. We had gone to grade school, junior high, high school and college at the University of Wisconsin together. We had parted in grad school when I took my MBA at Marquette and Kurt had gotten his law degree at UW Madison. We got reunited in Milwaukee when Kurt joined one of our biggest law firms and I started plying my investment banker trade with the money boys on Water Street.
I asked, “What’s up calling me so early?” I thought he might want to set up a game. He regularly kicked my ass in racquetball and I cleaned his clock in one-on-one basketball, a fact that our friends found hilarious since Kurt is black and I am as white as a person can be without actually being blue.
“Lunch? Kurt asked.
“Sure,” I responded quickly. “You buying?”
“OK. Jonah’s on the Water. 12:30.” He hung up.
“That’s odd,” I thought. No quibbling about who was going to buy. Nothing. I sat back wondering.
As I sat fidgeting at Jonah’s, nursing an iced tea, Kurt was, as usual, late. Finally, he swung through the door and waved as he spotted me across the crowded dining room. He looked, as always, like a GQ model suddenly set loose in downtown Milwaukee. He sported an impeccably tailored tan summer weight suit, brilliant white shirt and patterned brown and gold tie. It all complimented his smooth light chocolate completion. He carried himself with such confidence that he seemed bigger than his 5’ 10” that I knew him to be, and coupled with his looks and dazzling smile, he caught the attention of every female in the room. I shook my head for it was always the same. I used to tell him… before my marriage, of course…that I would just follow him around and pick up his cast-offs.
He slid into the chair across from me, grinned and asked, “Waiting long?”
“Nope, just the usual 20 minutes.”
“Sorry, Man. Busy, busy, you know.” Before Kurt could continue the waitress showed up and Kurt glanced down at my iced tea and frowned. “Tea is not going to cut it today,” he declared. “Let us have a bottle of the Sterling Chardonnay, 2009 and take this man’s tea away immediately.”
I looked at him curiously. “What’s up Kurt? Did you discover gold in your garden? Is Darlene pregnant again? What’s gotten into you? You never drink at lunch.” I said. “Did they make you a partner?”
“Nah, maybe next year on the partnership. I’ve got an opportunity for the two of us and a few of our close friends.” Kurt raised his hands to halt my coming questions as the waitress arrived with the wine.
We went through the ritual of opening, tasting and pouring the wine and as we clinked glasses in the traditional toast I said, “OK buddy, let’s hear it.”
Kurt started by relating his encounter with Sam Bailey at the Big Green last Saturday and then began, “So Sam shows up unannounced at my office yesterday at 9:00 sharp. He sits down in my office and without much preamble says, ‘You got 6 or 7 pals who are hunters and fishermen and have a few disposable bucks in their pockets?’ And, I say, ‘Sure, so?’ He then proceeds to tell me about how he and 7 of his friends founded the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society 49 years ago.”
“The what?” I ask.
Kurt held up his hand to stop me, “In due time, son, in due time.” He also waved off the waitress who was hovering to take our order. “We’re going to enjoy our wine for a bit.” He squinted at her name tag. “Thanks, Eileen.” He gave her his 1000-watt smile and she blushed and scampered away.
“OK. Cut the flirting and tell me what this is all about,” I grumped.
Kurt sighed and began, “Sam tells me that he’s the last of the Society members still alive. The only other survivor died this weekend at a nursing home. He’s 85 and doesn’t seem to determined to live much longer himself.” Kurt paused and took a hit of his wine. “He tells me that our firm, specifically our founding partner, Bill Bigelow, did the legal work to set up the Society originally. It was started in the early ‘60s during the period when farmland prices, especially for marginal farmland, were in the toilet. Sam and his friends bought 400 acres of bottomland on the Wisconsin River and the surrounding hills for a song from a bank that had foreclosed on the property.”
I took a sip of the chard and raised my hand to slow Kurt down, “Where does this chowder and marching society come in?”
“Whitetail and Chowder Society. Pay attention.”
“OK. Proceed, Councilor.”
“Bill set up this society and made a deal with the Wisconsin DNR, under certain stipulations: That they would provide an easement for fishermen to have access to the trout stream that flows through the property; that they would do no actual farming or grazing on the property and that they would maintain it in a natural state. The society was grandfathered in on a reduced real estate tax rate but the kicker is…if the society ceased to exist the title of the property would revert to the state to turn into public hunting land.”
I sat there a little confused while Kurt let that sink in. “Why is he coming to you? What about the kids of the original members?”
“All gone. Some dead, many moved away and some not interested. I guess the members had a lot of girls. We better have the water supply checked out there,” he replied thoughtfully.”
“So why us? Or more specifically, why you?”
“Us. Sam wants the two of us to recruit 5 or 6 more guys our age to take over the…”
“Marching and Chowder Society?” I interrupted. Kurt gave me the Don’t-Be-A-Smartass look.
“Well, here’s the catch. Sam’s proposing that we agree to use some of the time during the summers to turn it into a sort of camp for under privileged kids from Milwaukee.”
“Well, not completely. We have to take over the taxes and maintenance plus continue to follow the obligations of the original agreement with the state.”
“This deal goes on in perpetuity?”
“Nope. It’s a 100-year deal. Expires in 2062.”
“Holy shit! I can think of five guys off the top of my head who would jump at this deal.”
“I can too, but let’s consider carefully because we will be stuck with each other for a long time in this deal.” Kurt refilled our glasses and started to tick off some names. “By the way, he wants to meet us out at the property on Saturday morning at noon when he gets back from trout fishing.” He waved his hand at Eileen who had been keeping her eye on us and she came running.
Kurt and I followed Sam’s directions to the driveway of the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society property. He was waiting for us at the end of the dirt track in his dusty Explorer. He started up his truck and motioned for us to follow him.
The classic log and stone house had the look of a structure that had been built in many stages over the years by people who had vastly different architectural theories. Sam unlocked the substantial oak door and swung through the door to turn off the alarm system. “We had a few burglaries and vandalism incidents over the years so we installed a very sophisticated system of video cameras, motion detectors and alarms.”
“Does it work? This place is pretty far away from any police service.” Kurt asked.
“Pretty much. The system rings up a couple of the neighbors who we keep on our good graces with some generous Christmas gifts and word gets around.”
We walked into the cavernous main room, dominated by a huge, rustic stone fireplace that was adorned by a mounted moose head. “You shoot that sucker on this property, Sam?” I asked nodding toward the moose.
“Sure.” He grinned. “I’ll show you the spot up on the ridge later.”
The log living room seemed to be the original cabin with a kitchen and bedroom wings tacked on at a later date. Mounts of huge whitetail bucks, mallards, wood ducks and grouse with a few duck art painting interspersed formed the decorating theme. “You two can wander around and see the rest of the place while I dig out some of the paperwork.” Turning to my buddy, he said, “Kurt, did you bring along the original legal documents setting up the club?”
“Yep. Got them out in the truck.”
“OK, after you’ve had your look around we can sit down and go over everything.”
Ten minutes later we gathered around the dining room table and scattered various files and books between us. “Kurt, you have the signed agreements from the new members, right? These fellows presumably understand their legal, financial and moral obligations that are spelled out in the charter. In addition, here are the Society rules and traditions.” Sam slid a thin, leather bound book across the table at us.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“These have evolved over the years by consensus. Not legally binding, but hopefully things the new members will continue to honor.”
I opened the book and glanced at the first page. “I see the first entry is about gun safety.”
“Yep. Other than failing to hold up your financial end or screwing another member’s wife, violating the gun safety rules is the one thing that can get you kicked out of the Society. Accidental discharge of a firearm, bringing a loaded gun into the cabin, or carrying one in a vehicle are grounds for automatic expulsion.”
Kurt and I looked at each other and nodded. “Sounds good to me.” I said.
“The rest of the stuff is in there and you can read it and pass it on to the other new members. By the way, in the back is the recipe for our traditional chowder. Each year a designated guy has to prepare a large vat of the chowder for the opening day of deer season. It’s for lunch. I’ll show you the hidey hole where we keep that book and some other stuff too before we leave.” He rose and headed for the door. “Come on, I’ll show you the boats and ATVs.”
A large metal pole building stood a short distance from the cabin. Inside stood a substantial pile of fireplace wood, four Lund aluminum fishing boats and three ATVs of various vintages. Sam waved his hand to the corner where three 25-horse Mercury outboards stood on a rack. “None of those have been used in several years so you should probably have them serviced before you let anyone go out on the river. While you’re at it, oughta have the ATVs checked too.”
“Can we get a look at the river access?” Kurt asked.
“Sure. Good idea. If you’re going to bring kids out here this summer there’s pretty good walleye and bass fishing and a nice swimming hole. Probably be a popular spot.”
We strolled about 100 yards down the path leading to a grassy clearing on the bank of the gently flowing Wisconsin River. A rolling dock stood well back from the sandy beach and the deep hole beyond. Sam pointed to one of the wooded islands that checkered the wide river and said, “Those islands out there have some potholes that the mallards love during the migration and you can get some great wood duck shooting early in the fall.”
Sam led us back to the cabin and we stood in front of a large map on the wall. He pointed out another gate on the other side of the county road and the trail leading up to the hardwood covered hills that had been the ancient river bank during the glacial floods. “Nice campsite here by the creek. When you bring kids out that might be a good place to set up. There are some pretty good brown trout in the creek, although it’s tough to fly fish it. The kids used to do well drifting a night crawler down into the deeper holes.”
I pointed to a number of red stars scattered across the map. “What are these, Sam?” I asked.
“Permanent deer stands.” He replied. “You can see there’re not too far off the ATV trails that run throughout the property.”
Sam showed us where all the keys were stashed, gave us the security code and the names of the neighbors and left us to fire up one of the ATVs and take a tour of the property. When we got back, he was gone.
We traveled in convoy. Kurt rode with me in my Suburban in the lead and the other six members of the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society followed in two SUVs. Kurt hadn’t said much until we got past Madison and were passing by Barneveld, the site of a nasty tornado that wiped out the town back in the early 80s. “Sam came to me and had me re-write his will shortly after we took over the society.” He said.
“You read the will when his kids were here for the funeral, right?”
“Yep. But he also included a letter to me and that’s the reason we are all going out to the cabin today.”
“I was wondering what all the mystery was about. No wives, no kids, no dogs and all members present on a nothing happening Saturday.” I replied.
I turned on to the country road that paralleled the Wisconsin River and slowed to follow its narrow, winding course. As we passed the entrance to the upland part of the property Kurt glanced up at the sign above the gate that read SAM BAILEY YOUTH CAMP. “I’m glad Sam got to see us get a bunch of kids out here this summer before he passed.” He said.
“Me too. I think he got a real kick out of seeing those kids swimming in the river and learning how to fish. By the way, it was a master stroke getting your Dad and his retired cop friends to do the bulk of the work.” Kurt flashed me a grin with those dazzlingly white teeth of his and popped his seat belt as I turned into the driveway that leads to the cabin.
Twenty minutes later we were all clustered around the foot of the dock that extended out into the river. Kurt carried the urn and a bouquet of daisies and I held a polished wooden box. He stepped up on the dock gazed at us and began, “Sam asked me to bring us all down here after the funeral and consign his ashes to the river. He figured they would eventually make it down to the ocean and get back into the food chain. He also said he was looking forward to joining his wife. I’m not sure how exactly those two things work together but that was his wish and we’re honoring it.”
“Sam told me he was glad that all the new members of the Society were joining at the same time and were about the same age. He thought we would develop our own traditions but hoped we’d keep some of the old ones.” He nodded at me. “Jeff.”
I opened the box and started passing out small crystal glasses and then a dark bottle of Hennessey brandy. As I poured a generous shot in everyone’s glass Kurt continued, “Sam explained that somewhere in the early days of the Society they had purchased this bottle and the idea was to open it when the last of the original members died. The thinking was that the Society would be adding members as they went along. Since that didn’t happen it’s up to us.”
He raised his glass. “To Sam Bailey and the Mill Hollow Whitetail and Chowder Society!”
To a chorus of “Here, Here!” we all downed the amber liquid and grimaced. Fifty additional years of aging hadn’t done it any favors. It might be useful for lighting fires. Kurt handed me his glass and walked to the end of the dock where he opened the urn and began spilling Sam’s ashes into the river. The light breeze scattered some of the dust and Kurt tossed the daisies into the rest. A small swirling eddy of current caught the ashes and flowers and sent them spinning toward the shore.
“Looks like Sam’s in no hurry to leave,” quipped Mike. We all stared at him for breaking the solemn mood and then we all burst out laughing. As we trooped back down the path to the cabin I thought, “Sam would have gotten a kick out of that.”
Copyright 2014 Richard Draper
Alert readers may notice that this story is told from different Points Of View as it goes along. It was intentional. I had written several short stories before I purchased a book on ‘how to write a short story’. I’d never really thought about it much…. just did it. It’s kinda like a golf swing, if you think about it too much you can’t do it. Anyway, I found the chapter on POV interesting and decided to play with it a bit in this tale. I did not read far enough in that chapter to find out if switching POV back and forth in the same story is a no-no. Probably is, but who cares. Let me know if you find the flipping back and forth confusing or if you think the story is crap.