By Steve Siciliano
You know how it is when you walk into one of those up north saloons and you're given the once over by a couple of the locals? Well, a few winters ago Harry Winston and I stopped by the Bear Creek Inn and the only guy who didn't bore a hole through us was wearing a Santa suit and he was passed out in one of the booths. After brushing aside the stares and stomping off our boots we sat down at the bar.
"What, did we suddenly turn invisible?" Harry said after a few minutes.
"Relax," I said. "She's busy talking to her boyfriend."
"What'll it be?" the bartender asked when she finally walked up to us.
"Long neck Blatz," Harry said.
Harry pushed a twenty towards the bartender when she came back with the beers. "Both out of here. We'll take some peanuts too."
"Buck for the peanuts," the bartender said.
"A buck? They used to be free."
"Lots of big changes around here," the bartender said. "Want them or not?"
"Forget the peanuts," Harry said. "Is Pete around?"
"Pete?" The bartender looked past us to where two men were throwing darts. 'Hey Ralph," she yelled. "Guy here wants to talk to Pete."
"Well go get him," one of the men yelled back.
The bartender shrugged then picked up the twenty Harry had laid on the bar. She walked to cash register, made change from the open till, grabbed a step stool and then reached for a wooden cigar box from a high shelf on the back bar.
"What's this?" Harry asked when she put the bills and the cigar box in front of him.
"You asked if Pete was around."
Harry looked up at the bartender then looked down at the cigar box and then turned around and looked at Ralph.
"C'mon Harry," I said. "Let's finish these beers and get the hell out here."
"When did it happen?" Harry asked the bartender.
"Two years ago last spring. Couple of fishermen found him halfway down the hill at Bowman Farm." She motioned a finger towards her chest. "It was his ticker. No family. Some of the boys took up a collection and had him cremated. Big Ralph over there picked up the joint for back taxes."
"Nice. Pete runs this place for forty years and now he's stuffed in a cigar box," said Harry.
The bartender leaned forward. "Bad blood between him and Ralph," she whispered. "Word is that Big Ralph owed him some money."
"I didn't owe Pete shit." We turned and saw that Ralph had walked up to the bar and was standing in back of Harry.
"Just saying what I heard," the bartender said.
"And I 'm saying that I didn't owe that little bastard any money. Is there a problem here?" he said to Harry.
Harry swiveled around in his stool and looked up at Ralph. 'Maybe. Pete was a friend."
"And I don't like how he's being treated. How about I take him with me?"
"Fat chance," Ralph said. "I paid for him just like I paid for the tables and stools. He came with the joint."
Harry reached around for his beer and looked down at the floor. "Tell you what," he said after a few moments. "Let's you and I play a dart match. Two out of three. Cricket and 401. If I win I get Pete."
"And what if I win?" asked Ralph.
Harry finished his beer and placed the empty on the bar. "If you win you get 500 bucks."
"Get me a bottle," Ralph told the bartender while keeping his eyes glued on Harry. He poured and drank a shot of Jack, poured another, drank that, poured another and then pulled at his lower lip. "Alright buddy," he said. "Show me the damn money."
By then the whole bar had gotten wind of what was going on and everyone followed us to the dart boards. After some practice throws Harry insisted that the cigar box holding Pete's ashes be placed on the high-top table I was sitting at and Ralph insisted that the five C-notes be placed under the box. Harry won the cork and the cricket game was nip and tuck. When he closed it out with a triple fifteen and a bull, double bull, you could hear a pin drop. Ralph won the cork and immediately hit a ton forty. He followed that up with a ton and two fat 60s. When he threw a two-dart out to even the match everyone but me and the passed out Santa cheered.
"Show me a cork, sport," Ralph said after some hard slapping high fives and another shot of Jack.
"In a minute," Harry said and walked over to the high top.
"Well, what do you think?" Harry said to me in a low voice.
"I think you better win the next cork," I said back.
"Then you better call cricket."
"I know so."
Later that year on a day in early June Harry and I fished the Au Sable and the Pine in the morning and the Manistee in the afternoon. After a shore lunch we drove down to Bowman Farm and fished the Little Man until just before dark. When fireflies began blinking in the stands of tag alders I found Harry and told him I would meet him back at the truck.
"I'll be there in a few minutes," he said.
I made my way up the steep hill and when I got to the top of the bluff I sat on a big pine log and spotted Harry standing in the middle of the river. Then I watched while he gave Pete Hamlin a proper burial.