Folk tales are very common, especially in the mountains; ghost stories and the like, most first told by old miners and trappers. But not this one, not this believe-it-or-not story.
It was near Sawtooth City, present-day, Central Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, where I found a legend, a novel centenarian, an old man beyond the trees, the very-much alive Ernest Hemingway, though preferably called “Papa.” (He hates his first name, truly.)
Because his hearing long ago left him, far-sightedness, too, his elderly yellow Labrador, Gracie, saw and heard me first. He wore khaki overalls, one leg cuff caught, jacked up on a boot’s upper strap. The old man’s white hair, like a cotton ball’s fuzzy strays, danced in the breeze; his slouched back to me, eyes looking east, sun warming his white beard.
His famous W.C. Scott & Son shotgun, a double-barreled, side-by-side, at least seventy-years old, steadied his crooked legs; wood butt-stock on a flat rock, his left hand cupped over the muzzle (at first, I thought a walnut and blue-steel cane).
I called out to him, “Papa, sir!” He turned sluggishly, the third time. “I smelled you,” he cracked, almost smiling, his gray teeth grinded-down, a hundred and twenty years of gritting.
I offered a grin and approached him. Though I extended my hand, he looked up and away, over my shoulder, toward a square-log and stone cabin, about forty yards behind us. Quietly pointing a bent forefinger, he nudged old Gracie and lumbered toward the porch.
Though cool, almost cold this day, the fresh-skinned black pelts—maybe a dozen, neatly draped and arranged, sunning on the porch rails, shiny and coarse—reeked of death.
He stopped and stepped up, both boots on the creaking porch, rusted nails raising their square heads. And then he turned to me, shotgun low in one hand, pointed at the gamy pelts, and swept the muzzle left to right, the gold bead glistening in sun. “Black wolves!” he thundered hoarsely. “I’m the slayer of the black wolf!” he added, frowning, not bragging. “Uccisore del lupo nero, a very old Italian friend might say. My Italian is very rusty,” he added, seemingly ashamed.
He shoved the cabin door open, eased the shotgun against a chair and invited me inside. Dry pine and maybe maple popped, hissed and cracked, flickering orange in the stone fireplace, black soot framing the church-like arch.
He’d fried bacon for breakfast, brewed freshly ground Robusta, too. “Coffee?” he asked, on cue, his voice softer, hoarser. I nodded yes and watched him pour from a stoneware pot, purple-veined hand trembling.
Steaming tin cup in hand, I studied him, this very old man. He kept his eyes on the paned window, one ear always turned to the door. We sipped black coffee in silence, maybe three or four cups; oddly, not an awkward moment for two hours.
The cabin was simple; only functional furniture, a few decorations, all from someplace other than Idaho, except maybe the kitchen table, likely from a long-gone ghost-town tavern, its grainy blonde top, five hand-planed wood planks, worm-holed and ring-stained, separated joints revealing light. And, he’d been reading Gertrude Stein; a familiar title on the wood top, face up. “A good friend from Paris,” he said, patting the tattered cover.
From under his bed, along the west wall, a six-toed cat, “Scotty,” as he called him, emerged, arching his back, stretching from a short nap. The old man snapped an arthritic thumb and finger and the cat came to him, brushing against his scuffed boots.
“One of my Key West tomcats,” he said, stroking it’s back. “The other cats are dead, like my other loves. Damn, I miss Hadley. Mary, too. Sometimes Pauline and Martha, but mostly Hadley—and Paris.” His eyes welled and his jaws tightened, as a cloud painted the room lead gray, like a melted pencil sprayed on the sky.
Sometime, mid-afternoon, after talking more about Hadley—never his children—he sprang from his chair, much quicker than earlier, his antique shotgun in hand, his pants sagging, six extra shells in each pocket, and yanked the door open. – Kaboom-Kaboom!
Gunsmoke, a sulfuric steel, rolled in white twists from each barrel. “Damn bastard black dogs!” he bellowed.
He slammed the cabin door, teeth clenched, snarling, and spun, a sharp about-face, like a young, lean sentry. He staggered a moment and steadied himself, squarely facing a pine cabinet, rusty pie-tin panels between the door rails. Whiskey, maybe forty bottles, and sherry and gin, French-labeled wines, too, lined the seven shelves, like Scottish, Irish, British and French soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, each flying their battalion colors.
Two short glasses in hand, he poured generously, four-fingers in each, skating one across the table, sipping the other. “Despite my characters’ tastes and what you might’ve read, I prefer my whiskey neat,” he declared. “As a real man!”
He grinned and bumped Gracie with a boot. “Isn’t that right, old girl?” The old dog appeared asleep. “She’s an old bitch, like my…., but she’s family!”
His eyes trailed mine, studying the Picasso; Les Amoureux (The Lovers), hanging on the east wall. “He was a friend, too, from Paris, like Gertrude and Ezra.” Sadness traveled his face, each word cutting its own path on the wrinkled world map.
We drank from unlabeled bottles, maybe three, until sunset. Then, the old man stumbled outdoors, blasted three more black wolves and promptly returned to the cabin, white hair a tussled mess. It was moose meat (he said), a pleasant surprise he presented in folded white cloth.
We ate moose steaks, salted and peppered, honied sourdough bread, and listened to jazz of 1920’s Paris. Between sips and gun shots, he told me about the wars, battle wounds, shrapnel, life-long pain and scars, bullfights in Spain, big game hunts, dead lions, and plane crashes in Africa, spirited marlins in Cuba, his beloved fishing boat, Pilar, Sloppy Joe’s in Key West, and the very many women, exaggerations for sure, but the very best storytelling.
Then, he slayed at least six more wolves. “Goddamned black dogs,” he growled.
Though I never saw where he dragged them to keep until beheading and skinning, and until exposing them to the sun, I assumed he had a cavernous, cold hole, a natural vault somewhere close to the cabin and his whiskey.
Sometime after midnight the centenarian stood and stretched, shotgun in one hand, near-empty whiskey bottle in the other, and opened the door, his droopy mirrored eyes on me. I was very drunk on Hemingway’s whiskey.
“Thanks for visiting,” he said, flatly, as if I’d been a boy scout selling magazine subscriptions. “It’s time to retire now, so I don’t miss tomorrow’s sunrise.” I’d read somewhere he never missed a sunrise.
“And,” he whispered, bent toward me, “I wouldn’t tell anyone about our visit. They might think you’re crazy, like I was ~ before I started slaying those goddamned black dogs.”