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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Walt -- Shaken at the Fire

I had just settled in with Craig at the fire when an unfamiliar car pulled up into the apron. Craig and I were reminiscing about the good old days and I was really starting to feel the scotch.

"It's funny, man." I said. "I'm looking at this fire and all I see are faces. It's like they never really leave."

"Yeah, I know." replied Craig. "It's been ten years since Dad left, and there are days it still makes sense to me to pick up the phone and call him to ask what he remembers about such-and-such a case."

"I can look out past the fire, to the other side of the ring," I went on, "And I see them."

"Yep."

"Do you see them?" I asked.

"Yep." said Craig, "I've got another crazy piece to add to all this. I'm now certain that human beings only have just so many faces they can remember. I think I hit my limit around thirty-five."

"Yeah." I said. "I'm following you."

"So now I everyone I meet looks like somebody else." he said. "Like I see this little high-schooler at McDonalds the other day, and I swear it's a girlfriend from high school, except she's thirty years too young. Dead ringer. My brain just keeps recycling faces."

"Spooky," I said. "Just plain spooky." It was getting a little spooky. The sounds from inside were voices I'd known all my life. Little murmurs of this and that just added to the effect. In the flicker of the fire it was easy to get lost and see and hear men that had been mouldering in the ground for sometimes thirty years. In a way that made me feel good-- good that they were still roaming around, if only in my mind. It felt stronger than that though, especially tonight. I took another draw from the cup and stared into the fire, and felt warm.

I heard a familiar voice as someone came up to the fire. He greeted us. I think Craig said something. The guy sat down on a log next to me. I finally turned and looked at him. There was Buck WIlliams, one of the old guard. I hadn't seen him since. . .

"Howdy, Mister Williams." I said. "Good to see you." I realized that I was slurring my words a bit, and it dawned on me I had best shut up until the scotch had had time to wear off. Buck had always been good friends with my Dad, even though there was a good twenty years between them. Buck had sons of his own, but they hadn't taken an interest in the camp like Dad. Buck had been dead since Seventy . . .

Sometimes, if you're not careful with your scotch, you can have two lines of thought that get put on the same piece of track only going in opposite directions. Neither one really thinks much about the other until they both round the same curve and there you have it. In my case, the jolt was so sudden that I screetched, turned violently, thinking that I'd just seen a ghost, and darn near fell off the log when I looked and saw nothing, where a moment ago there'd been a man. In the next instant I realized I was falling off the log, and where I'd been looking was skyward and as I completed the roll, my head finally did turn and there really was Buck Williams, plain as day, and he was reaching for me as if to pull me into oblivion with him. I heard myself shriek a bit, and then something caught me by the jacket and I turned and it was Old Man Steinholtz who'd grabbed me and helping me regain my balance.

I jumped up and in an instant I was cold stone sober, and scared out of my wits. I looked to confront my ghostly attackers, and there was Craig Steinholtz, grandson of Carl. There was also Phil Williams, Buck Williams grandkid.

"Buck? . . . er. . .Phil?" I said. "Phil Williams?"

"Hi."

I reached over and shook his hand mightily. I was still terrified, but it had already sunk in what had happened. I felt rather sheepish, but I took it nobody much knew or cared what had just happened. In the dark, Phil was the living breathing reincarnation of Buck WIlliams, only younger than any time I had direct recollection of him.

"Walt Cooper." I said. "Boy, am I glad you're here. You know Craig? This is Craig Steinholtz. Have a seat."

Craig pulled out another coffee cup and handed it to Phil. I waived off-- I'd had enough. We sat back down and started talking. Soon others poured in and sat down and the first good campfire of the season was off and running.

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