A brown western hat snugged the man’s head, crowding his ears downward. His blue and black checked flannel shirt, draped loosely over his slightly stooped shoulders, fought off the early morning Wyoming chill. Faded, well-worn jeans contrasted sharply with a big, silver belt buckle—a relic from his younger days when he competed with the best of cowboys on the bare backs of bucking broncs. And, finally, reflected rays of sunshine shot skyward from a pearl-handled Colt .44 revolver. Hanging from a gun belt strapped to his leg, the Colt was handed down to him by his granddaddy. The man never left his house without the gun, especially this time of year when the Diamondback rattlers were slithering out of their dens to enjoy the early Wyoming sunshine. It was the 20th century, but the man appeared to be a remnant of the old west.
The man’s name was Clark. Sloshing through the creek in rubber waders, he slowly and deliberately closed the distance between himself and the beaver dam in front of him.
There was the beaver. Droplets of clear water spotted his slick, taupe-colored coat, glistening and sparkling in the morning sun like so many crystal pendants dangling from an invisible chandelier.
The beaver sat still, patiently waiting, dark, button-like eyes darting across his immediate horizon. His two front teeth resembled shining white candidates for a vintage Ipana toothpaste commercial. Those strong choppers were enjoying a brief rest from their seemingly constant chewing, chomping and carving. It’s not a craving for industry and productivity that causes beavers to fill their days with felling trees and building dams. Instead, they must spend a large portion of their lives cutting and chopping to keep their teeth worn down and, thus, prevent them from elongating and stabbing painfully into their lower jaw.
The beaver’s chubby body stiffened in anticipation. “Aha,” he thought in beaver language, “I knew he’d be here.” Cocking his head to the right and raising his tiny paws to his mouth, he fixed his button-eyed stare on Clark wading through the creek.
The beaver skittered his glance upward to the snow-crested peaks of the Grand Teton mountains surrounding this place called the Hoeback Junction at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The mountains were a calendar for the beaver. He reckoned time by how far the mantle of undisturbed snow extended down the mountains’ pitted faces. This was the first meeting of the year between Clark and the beaver. The pattern was set nine years ago, when the beaver was a youngster crowding close to the soft fur of his mama while she demonstrated the fine art of dam-building. That was the first time he saw the man. That was also the first time he heard him, bellowing and cussing about “damn beavers” ruining his pastureland with their “damned chewing.”
The beaver didn’t understand the words but his senses told him there was a struggle here. He glanced at his mama but she seemed to ignore the man as she continued gnawing through the trunk of a slim, silver aspen. He remembered how the tree cracked and snapped, falling with a splashing plop into the shallow creek directly in front of the man. The cold water flew upward and backward, drenching him in instant shivers. To this day, the beaver couldn’t be sure but, when he looked at his mama, he could swear he’d seen the flicker of a smile on her mouth. That was nearly 10 springs ago. Since then, the beaver managed to give the man a couple of doussings of his own. He always remembered his now-dead mama’s smile when he did it.
Clark stopped and surveyed the destruction around him. The crystal clear creek was one of several dotting his 2,000-acre ranch. It watered cattle and elk and moose, and even provided drinking water for himself and his family when their well ran low. Every year, after the beaver left, he waded in and cleaned out the fallen timber, freeing the water and allowing it to again run its natural course. It needed a month before regaining its clarity, draining itself of the muck and crud that accumulated above and below the surface as a result of resting stagnant in its beaver dam prison.
The man put his hands on his slim hips and tipped his brown hat back from his forehead. He didn’t look at the beaver. He knew he was sitting on a log not more than 25-yards from him, but he’d be hanged if he’d acknowledge him. Instead, the man directed his gaze and his thoughts toward the mountains.
Clark brought his eyes downward, frowning at the water eddying smack against the steps leading to the front door of his oldest son’s cabin. His four-year-old grandson was sitting in the open doorway, pulling on the rubber boots his mom handed him.
“Mornin’, Pop,” called his daughter-in-law. “We found the water when we woke up. The beaver’s back and he must have worked all night.”
“I swear, this’ll be the summer,” Clark growled. “He won’t live past June.” He hitched at his waders irritably, still refusing to glance toward the beaver.
The beaver continued staring at the man, thinking his own beaver thoughts. “He’s aged,” he mused to himself, using padded paws to pat down his rich fur which was drying and becoming very uncomfortable in the upward angling Wyoming sun. He thought he could feel it pulling and pinching from the inside to the outside.
Clark did look older. Even his two boys could see it. He was 68 this summer and it had been a hard life. His grandfolks on his daddy’s side were the first white family to settle in the Hoeback. Until then, the only people had been the Indians who named those two towering mountain peaks the Grand Tetons, which translated rather crudely into “Big Tits.”. It’s no wonder Clark felt a God-given right to the land.
The beaver was about to return to his work when he noticed the man opening his mouth to talk. He couldn’t understand the words, but the years had taught him to read much of the man’s body language. He thought the man looked worried as he leaned over and allowed his daughter-in-law to speak into his ear.
The man finally looked at the beaver. “You flinty-eyed little devil,” he hissed. “I just found out I got me another grandbaby on the way. You keep pushing that water up to this house and I’ll be forced to use this on you.” The man patted the pistol while he held the beaver’s stare. “You hear me, you furry rat? You cause any problems and your hide will be on the inside of my coat this winter. You hear me?”
The beaver was the first to break the deadlock of their eyes. He blinked at the man….just once….one blink. The man felt his head jerk back just a fraction. “Dang,” he said to himself. He knew the beaver had just answered him. He watched as the beaver slid off the log, made a couple of deep dives to wet his fur thoroughly, and then cut through the water in a gliding motion to begin work on yet another tree.
Spring turned into summer and the piles of felled trees grew higher. The man swore the beaver never slept. The young couple in the creek-side cabin insisted they could hear his big, front teeth gnashing late into the night, followed by the plop of aspen falling into the stagnant water at rhythmic intervals.
July gave way to Labor Day. By mid-September, the Wyoming air developed its first crisp edge. The mornings were chilled, and the nights were dropping to two-blanket lows. Clark was eating supper one evening with his sons and daughters-in-law, all seated around the big table in the main house. It was near the end of September.
His younger son laid down his fork and looked at his father. “Pop,” he said, “it seems to me that beaver is worse this year than he’s ever been. The water must be 10 inches up the side of our house. It’s bothering me. Didn’t you say something about killing him?”
Clark directed his full attention to his coffee mug, never looking away from the dark brew, blowing across the top of it in tiny ripples. “Soon, son,” he said. “I’ll take care of the beaver. Probably some time this week.”
The man glanced out the front window. There was just enough remaining twilight to get a good look at the Tetons. He mentally calculated the length of the snow mantle draped down the mountain. “Soon,” he said. “Real soon.”
Clark went to the creek the next morning. He waded into the water and sat down on one of the chewed logs. He could hear the beaver on the other side of the dam, chomping and carving. He waited. In less than three minutes, he felt rather than saw the button-eyed stare. He turned his head. The two pairs of eyes—one as black as flint pebbles and the other as blue as the Wyoming sky—locked on one another. Neither man nor beaver moved. Then, as if by unspoken agreement, both turned to look at the blanket of snow drifting down the big bosom of the Tetons. “Soon,” said Clark to the beaver. “Soon.”
The beaver blinked….just once. They both understood. Each knew just how far to push the other in this battle of wills they waged each year. They understood and abided by their unspoken rules of war; rules based on steadfast, mutual respect.
Clark returned to the creek the following morning. He looked around. He waited a few minutes, his mind sliding into the unfamiliar silence. Then, slowly, he began dismantling the now vacant dam…. just as he’d done for the past several years…. just as he’d done when the beaver used to come with his mama…. just as he figured he’d do next year and the year after that. And he’d need to instruct his kids and grandkids to do it after he was gone.
A man needed his pride but, then, so did a beaver. He’d have a new grandbaby next spring. One of the first things he’d do would be to show her the beaver. Then, just as he was straightening his back and lifting a limb from the cold water, he heard a “plop.” There was no need to turn around. He knew it was the beaver, getting in the last word before his final good-by. Clark kept his back turned away from the sound. After all, he didn’t want the beaver to see him smile.