Spike’s was the kind of place where a rounder felt comfortable telling lies. It huddled in the southeast quadrant of where Old Placer Creek Road crossed Montana Highway 333 and became Last Lost Mountain Road which bridged the river and dodged into the mountains beyond. Beside the rickety one lane, wooden decked bridge, There was a boat ramp that, in season, offloaded an armada of fishing dinghies, rubber rafts, canoes, and inflatable one-man tubes in the hunt for the Last Largest trout in the world.
You might expect a tavern situated so close to a sports fishery hot spot to have a flashing neon trout on the roof to blaze its presence. You might expect the interior to be over-decorated with pictures of men in waist waders lifting a bent rod with a huge trout tailing the water in the foreground. You might expect taxidermized trout with fishing lures dragging from the corner of their mouths and illustrations of the life cycle of a Mayfly or Caddis on every wall. But there was only one fish over the mirror behind the bar, a dusty, gray old thing whose once radish red gills had become a sort of dull brown. The only neon in the small window flashed “Gr at Fa l elect” in an irregular pattern as if there was a lot more wrong with the wiring than the few shorted letters. On one wall was the head of an American Bison with a dusty beard and a cracked glass eye, that sparked winks of neon flash.
The usual patrons of the place could have been home watching TV or running a Toon through the dungeons of Azeroth or flipping pages of the latest New York Times Best Seller. But they weren’t, they were at Spike’s. And they were there because, after twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years of fake entertainment, they had come up empty. So here they were leaning over a beer or a coffee or orange juice or tall glass of cold milk and oatmeal and raisin cookies, fanning the waning sparks of culture into flame with lies and other minor mischiefs, misdemeanors, and delinquencies.
Of course, there were also the folks off the river, wearing seven pocket rayon vests and floppy hats with lures snagged in the brim and band. They were fishermen so they often had good stories to tell, and if told well (and truth be damned) they would have a hearing from the usual crowd. But the best entertainment occurred when an Orvis-vested stray from the river asked Spike about the bison or the fish or the broken neon sign. No sooner was the question out of her mouth than everyone who heard suddenly paused all their own lying and dissimulations, and a silence rippled across the bar. Heads turned and chairs scraped as people with their backs to the bar adjusted to better catch the drama.
Spike would lean a heavy forearm on the bar, hook the unlit cigar from his thick lips with a heavy forefinger, latch the gaze of the woman or man who had asked the question with the spark of his brown eyes and grin his canines at them. Then he swung his head toward the object of their question, lifted his cigared hand and scratched his thatch of white hair. “That,” he would begin, “Is why I am a bartender instead of. . . .” And that was the only thing that was ever, ever the same in the telling. Nobody ever understood what sparked the rest of whatever story managed to get told.
On this particular late afternoon, light leaked past the neon buzz and flicker and a house fly bumbled on the dust specked window. The open door leaked the aroma of beer out and the fragrance of blooming alfalfa and clover in. A screen door kept most of the flies out and lay a hazy rectangle of light from the sun on the linoleum floor. Automobiles hummed past on the highway, with barely a nod to the “45 Speed Limit” signs posted either side of the cross roads. There were three or four fisherpersons—one was a woman—at the bar staking bragging rights on their morning float down the river. And there the usual crowd of professional liars and amateur story tellers sitting at two or three tables.
The woman, whose name happened to be Sarah Pinfisser, started it all by asking about the buffalo head.
Spike turned his head. He removed the cold cigar, he grinned his ivory canines, his eyes sparked at Sarah; then he looked up at the dusty-bearded bison head and lifted his hand to scratch his noggin. “Well,” he said, “That there is why I’m a bartender and a single man instead of a hunter.”
The usual crowd grinned at each other. He had never chanced mentioning he was a bachelor before. They all thought Very would love to hear about this. “Very” was short for “Verify” who was Spike’s common law live in and had been for thirty years.
Spike didn’t even wait for Sarah to ask what he meant by such a (to her) strange statement. “It was thirty-four years ago,” he said. “Me and Joany. . . . You fellas remember Joany,” he let his gaze drop from the bison to scan the tables. A few heads nodded. Nobody let on that they had no idea which of the four or five Joans they knew in the Last Lost Valley he was referring to.
“Well, anyway, me and Joany were honeymooning out east of here up near Last Lost Mountain, roughing it. Had a pack mule and two horses and panniers of victuals and small luxuries you can afford to take when you are packing a horse instead of a hiking pack.
“You know where that open park is just at the head of Bryan’s Creek, there where the spring gushes from under the rocks?” But of course, Sarah had no idea what he was talking about, having just immigrated from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She nodded.
“That’s where we set up our tent.
“About two miles down from that spring, the creek became a passable fishing water. You could latch on to some nice ones once in a while.” He looked down at his cigar and rolled it between his large spatulated thumb and short forefinger. “That’s where I got that.” Spike tossed his head back over his shoulder at the brown gilled fish. “It’s Joany’s fish. She caught it. Eight pounds on a two-pound tippet.” Everybody looked at the fish, which seemed to be more on the order of one, maybe two pounds. But nobody, not even Sarah would suggest such a thing. A fisherman’s story is his story, everybody understood this.
“It’s where the first beaver damn used to be. Back then it was still there, holding good water, clear as mountain air and we could see those fish laying in there smug as roosters in the hen house.
“You fellas remember how it used to be up there then, no beavers but those ponds still there and those fish like lake lunkers in them?” Nobody said anything, but there were nods.
“Well, anyway, we snuck up on that pond and just kind of waited for a while. Then I told Joany to toss her hopper out on the water. And you could see that old lunk”—he tilted his head back at the fish on the wall—“kind of waver its tail and coast up and just suck that damned hopper in, just like that. Joany lifted her rod and the war was on. She had to be real careful, having only a two-pound tippet and the fish being obviously ten-fifteen pounds. But she was good and knew how to work that fish and keep it.”
Spike sighed, looked down at his cigar again, rolled it contemplatively between his thumb and finger, then put it in his mouth and shook his head. The barroom was still and quiet. The fly buzzed and bumped on the window, the neon fritzed and sparked.
And just before Sarah broke the silence to ask again about the buffalo head, Spike unhinged the cigar from his mouth and said, “And then it all went to hell in a hand basket.
“We heard a snort behind us, a kind of low bellow really, like a bull makes when they are in rut, only meaner and more growly.
“Well, I turned my head a little and there he was”—Spike pointed with his lips toward the head on the wall—“ There he was, lifting the dust with his hooves, shaking that head, his mouth slavering like a loco wolf, and growling to piss the wind.”
I tried to get Joany’s attention but she was a fisherman if ever there was a fisherman. She had almost landed that trout and was damned if hell, high water, or a sour bovine would stop that.
“‘Joany, be real slow and don’t do anything sudden,’” I told her.
“‘I almost got ‘im. I g ot im.’ she squeaked.” You all remember how Joanie squeaked when she got excited? Well she was excited beyond paying attention. “‘God he’s a beaut,’ she squeaked, ‘God damn. Look at the . . . .’” I don’t think she even had a clue what was about to happen.”
Spike looked sadly down at his cigar.
“I tried to distract him, waved my hat at the end of my hand. Screamed and yelled. Danced like a savage.
“But the old bastard. It was Joany that had pissed him off with all her squeaking and pumping and fighting that fish”—Spike turned a baleful glare up at the fish, then at the buffalo head.
“It took my hat with one horn as it went by, throwing up beaver pond mud and muck. Then. . . . Well, it’s too much to talk about any more.
Then there was silence in the empty barroom again. Spike shook his head. It is possible he managed a tear or two to moisten his cheek.
“Joany’s last words were, ‘Aint he a beaut.’”
“I’m so sorry,” Sarah said.
“I had my .44 of course,” Spike said, “So, I unloaded it into the son of a bitch right there and then.
“And that’s how I got those two useless pieces of stuffings.” Spike nudged his head first at the fish and then pointed his lip up at the head.
“It’s also why I don’t fish or hunt and why I am a single man to this day.”
“I am so. . . .” Sarah could not say sorry again. But her eyes sparkled with moisture.
“Now,” someone said, “That is one Very fine story.”
Spike scowled at him. Then grinned a canine and winked.