Field and Stream

Tommy’s Fiddle


THE THINGS I LEARNED FROM Tom during the 12 years I knew him should rightly fill a book. On a grand scale, he taught me to be a competent and caring sportsman and even how to build a log cabin— my present home. On a smaller scale, each day with him brought new delights of practical and sometimes arcane knowledge that I still use today: the way to fill a woodbox fast is to gather wrist-thick wood that can be chopped with two swings of an ax; a loose axhead will firm up solid if left overnight in a waterbucke­t; and no matter how dog-tired, cold, and hungry you are, you always unsaddle, brush down, feed, and water your horse before retiring to the warmth of the cook tent in hunting camp.

Only once was Tommy genuinely angry with me. It was when I became angry at a 16-year-old on his first hunting trip who gut-shot an animal. After consoling the youth and telling him he did just fine for his first deer, Tommy strode over to me and hissed between white lips, “You’re gonna ruin hunting fer that kid’s life if you keep up like that. You got to teach kids, not bully ’em. Don’t never forget that you were a young punk once, too.” Since that day, I never have.

The end came swiftly for Tom, and for that I’m grateful. One year he was climbing mountains and making music and the next year he could not even take the moderate cold of a well-made duckblind or the warming bite of a shot of bourbon. There was something in my mind that said Tom was eternal, so I didn’t worry, I just told him he would be better next year, and that he would hunt and fish and play again.

“If I could just get back up into those mountains one more time,” I overheard him tell a friend that fall.

I received the letter in New York the following January, sent to me by a distant relative who had found my temporary address among Tom’s belongings. Emphysema, colitis, and finally pneumonia had felled him. He was buried in a cemetery that overlooked his family’s old homestead. From his grave you can see the Madison Valley, and the Spanish Peaks beyond.

I don’t know what became of his fiddle. I wish he would have willed it to me, and I think he would have if he had known the value I placed on it. But never mind. On cold winter nights when the snow curls like smoke around the eaves of my cabin, if I listen very carefully I can still hear Tommy’s fiddle, ringing out as clearly as the stars shine in the coal-black sky.

July 1985

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