The Game Warden
Sappy: A Short Story
A young and energetic game warden arrived in a small rural town early one morning. He walked into the Fish and Game office eagerly anticipating his new assignment. He cheerfully greeted the current elder officer with an outstretched arm and open palm.
“Hello.” he said. “My name’s Jerry, Jerry Cromwell. I start work here today.”
“Ah!” The elder gentleman said. “My replacement!. I’ve been expecting you for over thirty years!”
The two men laughed. “They call me Hank. Stow your gear there, I’ll show you around town.”
The younger man carried his gear bag into the other room and came out with pep in his step eager to take on the world.
“Easy now,” the elder officer warned. “I remember when I was about your age; I was full of myself too. This is a good job, not another one like it in the world. Just take it one day at a time.”
“Yes sir.” The young officer responded. He couldn’t wait for the old guy to retire so he could take over the duties in this small agricultural area. He had heard that the present Warden was a pushover, and he was bound and determined to be the “New Sheriff in town.” The two men got into the green pickup and headed out into the town.
“Just take it easy, son,” Hank told him. “The people here are set in their ways. They’ve lived here all of their lives. They take care of one another. Don’t try and change things too fast.”
Hank stopped in front of a large old building. “This is the county courthouse,” the younger officer looked up. “You’ll be spending a lot of time here. Let’s take a walk.”
The two men walked abreast down the main street, talking together. The new officer was introduced to the various business owners and prominent citizens. While walking, Cromwell over- heard two young boys talking about a recent fishing trip:
“….that salmon I got was big, but not as big as the one ol’ Sappy took. ‘Ol Sappy jes’ uses a net or a trot line with a hunnerd hooks on it. He don’t care ‘bout nothin’. Ain’t no game warden worth his sawt ever took ‘ol Sappy…”
Young Officer Cromwell’s curiosity was piqued. “Who was this ‘Sappy’?” He thought to himself.
He spent the rest of the morning touring the town and the countryside with his predecessor.
The two men stopped for lunch at the diner, making small talk about the department, the town and the job in general.
“I do have one question I need to ask.” Young Cromwell said. “Who is this “Sappy” guy?”
Hank had a look of annoyance on his face, put his fork down on his plate, and sat pensively for a minute. He took a sip of his iced tea, and sat back in his chair and looked Cromwell right in the eye.
“It’s against my better judgement,” Hank continued, “but, I’ll take you to see him in the morning.”
“Why? What’s the big deal?” Cromwell asked. “He’s just a poacher, right?”
“I could explain him to you,” Hank responded “But you’ll eventually have to learn on your own. You’re no different than anybody else.”
They finished their lunch, and continued on with the tour. At 4 am the next morning, they were up and ready to head out to ol’ Sappy’s place. They headed out of town about 6 miles, then turned up an old logging road, and drove on another 2 or 3 miles.
“We have to hike in from here.” Hank said. “About another half-mile.” Hank zipped his jacket, and Cromwell grabbed a shotgun out of the back of the truck.
“What’s that for?” Hank asked.
“For Sappy.” Cromwell said.
“He’s not Dillinger!” Hank retorted. “We’re just going out to meet him, so I can introduce you. Put the gun back!”
Cromwell put the gun back, but checked the status of his sidearm. “How come you don’t wear a sidearm, Hank?”
“Never really had a call for one, son.” Hank replied. (“Great!” Hank thought to himself. “I’m taking ‘Barney Fife’ to meet Sappy.”) “I keep a hogleg in the truck. You know, just in case.”
The two men walked through the thick underbrush to a small clearing. In the middle of the clearing stood an old cabin with a spiral of smoke rising out of the chimney.
“Wait.” Hank said.
They stood and watched the cabin from the edge of the clearing. Soon a thin old man walked out in his long johns and shouted towards the two of them.
“I know you’re out there warden! Why don’t you just come on in and have some coffee, t’ain’t right you be a-settin’ out thar in the woods like that!”
Cromwell looked at Hank in amazement.
“After you.” Hank motioned to the young officer.
The two walked in and had morning coffee with Sappy. Cromwell looked around at the walls. There were furs, antlers, snowshoes, animal traps and a myriad of miscellaneous other things hanging there. The two men sat and talked fishing and hunting with him until about 8am, and then they left.
“How do you suppose he knew we were there?” Cromwell asked. “Did you call him last night?”
“He has no phone.” Hank replied. “He just knows. He knows the country like the back of his hand.”
“Well,” Cromwell replied. “He doesn’t know me!”
“Look, son.” Hank began. “Sappy’s been poaching these hills longer’n I been a warden. He was here for the last guy before me, and I’m sure he’ll be here long after you. He’s part of the countryside. Leave him be. He only takes what he can use, nothing more.”
Hank could see it in Cromwell’s eyes that his efforts were useless. “Consider it a warning, son.”
As time went by, Hank retired and Jerry Cromwell began his endless pursuit of ‘Ol Sappy’.
The new warden tried everything. He would sneak up on the cabin in the early morning hours to try and catch the poacher in the act, but was always greeted with Sappy’s morning cadence asking him to come in for coffee. Cromwell was baffled. He began to camp quietly in the woods outside of Sappy’s clearing, but still to no avail. Every effort ended the same way, with coffee on Sappy’s old wooden table.
Jerry Cromwell had eventually become a fixture in this town, as was the game warden before him. He pursued Sappy nearly every morning the first two years of his assignment, and then only occasionally after that. After 15 years on the job, he would go out and try his luck with Sappy about once or twice a month, but still to no avail. It got to the point where he carried his own coffee cup with him.
The day finally came when Sappy was down on his deathbed. Some young boys that frequented the old man’s cabin called the warden and told him of Sappy’s illness. Cromwell grabbed his medical bag and rushed to the old man’s aid. He drove down the road, siren blaring. He radioed for an ambulance to meet him at the parking point.
Cromwell arrived at the parking point and ran the distance through the underbrush to the clearing. There was a small gathering of boys and their parents on the porch. He walked inside.
Jerry sat on the edge of Sappy’s bed. “Hi, Sappy!” he said.
“Hey, young man.” Sappy said in a scratchy voice. “ You ain’t been around fer coffee fer quite a spell, I thought you was mad at me.”
“Naw,” Jerry said. “I just been busy, but I heard you was sick, and I rushed right over.”
“Yeah.” Sappy said. “Jes’ a little ache, you know.” Jerry looked up at one of the kid’s parents, a doctor. He made a motion to his chest and mouthed the words “his heart”, and shook his head.
Jerry fought back tears, and told Sappy that he had an ambulance outside if he wanted to go to the hospital. “Naw,” Sappy said. “I ain’t a-gonna go to no hospital.”
Jerry sat for a moment, thinking about all of the mornings that he had coffee with Sappy. Sappy could see the sadness in Jerry’s eyes.
“What’re you thinkin’ about son?” Sappy asked.
“About all of the mornings we sat together.” Jerry replied.
“Yeah, we had some good talks, didn’t we boy?” Sappy said.
“Yes sir, we did.” Jerry continued. “But I have one question.”
“How did you know I was out there all of those mornings? How did you know that Hank and I were out there that first morning 15 years ago?"
“Aw, hell!” Sappy responded with a smile. “You mean me a-hollerin’ at you to come in fer coffee all them times?”
“Yes.” Jerry said.
“Why, I been a-doin’ that ever’ mornin’ fer the last sixty-five years or so, whether somebody’s out there ‘er not. Why’d you wanna know?”
“Oh, no reason.” Jerry looked around the room at the people there. They were chuckling lightly to themselves through tear filled eyes. Jerry didn’t mind, Sappy had become part of his life.
Sappy lifted his head and grinned at the small group. He lifted his fingers just enough as if he was trying to wave. He laid his head back and closed his eyes one last time.
‘Ol Sappy was remembered with the largest funeral the town had seen in recent history. He was buried up in the clearing near his cabin, which he left to the boys of the local Boy Scout Troop.
His headstone had a simple but familiar phrase:
“I know you’re out there, warden!”
© Del Banks 2001/2010