By Bob Cram
Lawsuit turned beet red. Sputtering he jumped into the seat of the Navigator and slammed the door. Through the open window, he glared at Joe.
Joe pulled the Jeep to the side of the dusty road and we both looked out over the small beaver pond on Keeper Brook.
“It’s right beside the road,” I said.
“Yeah, an’ most folks jist drive right by on their way to good fishin’ water,” Joe replied. He climbed out and reached behind the driver’s seat, where his little 3-weight, 6-foot fly rod was always standing, already strung. Tilted just right, its tip didn’t quite touch the rear curve of the cab roof.
“We need two more trout to make a decent meal,” he continued as I slid from my seat and eyed the dark water behind the dam. “Oughta be a couple in here that jist wanta jump into the fryin’ pan.”
The dam lay just a dozen feet from the upstream side of the bridge. Standing on the bridge, it was a simple matter to drop a fly into the still waters behind the dam. Joe did just that, the number 16 Adams drifting down to touch lightly onto the dark surface.
It was late April, and the ice still hadn’t left the larger lakes in the region. Small, shallow ponds and beaver flowages, however, were ice-free, although patches of snow still lingered along the shorelines and in the deeper woods. Given the cold temperatures and high water, coupled with the easy fishing access to Keeper Brook, I didn’t expect much from Joe’s fishing attempt. But he gave one small twitch to the fly, and it instantly disappeared in a swirl of water. Just beneath the surface, the bright sides of an eight inch trout flashed in a series of pulls and tugs. The slender tip of Joe’s rod flexed and bent. Then he reeled in line, lowering the tip of the rod toward the dam. With a slight flip, he lifted the trout clear of the surface and swung it, squirming, over the low railing of the bridge.
Smoothly, Joe eased the hook from the trout’s lip, broke its neck, and slid it into the old wicker creel by his foot. As he carefully dried the fly for another cast, the sound of an approaching vehicle made us both look up. A shiny black Lincoln Navigator rolled onto the bridge and stopped. Claude Lawsuit stepped down from behind the wheel.
Claude was a medium sized man with a strong jaw, a careful comb-over on his balding pate, and a perpetual smile that never quite seemed to reach his eyes. He was clad in North Face winter gear, with L.L. Bean boots on his feet. A lawyer from Fort Kent, Claude had just recently purchased Edgemont Wimp’s old place next to Joe’s cabin. He was in the process of tearing down Edgemont’s tiny camp to replace it with a large, modern summer home. His construction crew had already built a big, three car garage near the edge of the property. He was always slightly condescending in his attitude to the local populace and I got the impression that he’d really like to have Joe’s land to broaden his waterfront holdings on The Lake Where The Woman Drowned.
“Afternoon, boys,” Claude said jovially. “Doing a little early fishing?”
“Yeah, just trying to get a few trout for a meal,” I said. “I thought it was too early, but Joe doesn’t seem to be having much trouble.”
But Claude Lawsuit ignored me completely. His eyes were fastened on the fly rod Joe held. Claude reached out and snatched it from Joe’s hands. He lifted the rod and flipped it carefully back and forth. Joe just had time to release the fly to avoid it hooking into a finger. He frowned slightly at Lawsuit’s rudeness.
But Claude was staring at the rod he held. “I have a large collection of some of the best rods. This is a beautiful, perfectly balanced fly rod. Wherever did you get it?”
“I made it,” Joe replied.
“Made it?” Claude stared.
“Well, I say I made it. I bought the blank. Don’t like how most of them store-bought rods balance or cast. I taped eyes on it an’ kept tryin’ the rod for balance and casting, movin’ the eyes an inch or so til I got ‘er just how I wanted her. Then I wrapped the eyes an’ finished the rod.”
“But the handle and reel seat! They’re all one piece. And what is this exotic wood?”
“It’s cherry. From a burl I cut down on Mooseleuk Stream a few years back.”
“The handle…it’s not round. It’s carved in curves. Why…it almost fits my hand!”
“It’s carved to fit my hand,” Joe said.
“But how did you do that?
“Not that complicated,” Joe said, carefully taking the rod back from Claude’s clutching fingers. “I wrapped some modelin’ clay around the butt. Then I jist gripped it like I was gonna cast the rod and squeezed a little. Left the impression of my grip in the clay. Then I slid the clay off the rod stem an’ stuck it in the freezer fer a few hours. Once it’s frozen, the clay stays stiff for a long time. I set it up on the work bench beside the piece of burl, an’ then carved the wood jist like the clay.”
“Imaginative,” Lawsuit murmured, still staring at the rod. “I must have one just like it. Name your price.”
“Nope” Joe replied.
“What?” Claude scowled. “I’ll give you $500 dollars for a rod like that carved to fit my hand.”
“Seven hundred! And that’s my last offer!”
“I ain’t makin’ you a fly rod, Mr. Lawless.”
Claude’s face darkened. “Why not?”
“It’s comin’ on spring. I got guidin’ to do, an’ a whole lot of fishin’. I jist ain’t got the time. An’, besides,” he looked Lawsuit straight in the eye. “I don’t like you.”
Lawsuit turned beet red. Sputtering he jumped into the seat of the Navigator and slammed the door. Through the open window, he glared at Joe. “I don’t like being thwarted! You haven’t heard the last of this! And, by the way, you’ve got some firewood piled on my side of the property line. I’d suggest you move it.” Dropping the shift into drive, he spun the tires on the weathered planks of the bridge and tore off down the road.
I stared after him, thinking it probably wasn’t a really good thing to antagonize a lawyer. But if any lawyer needed antagonizing, it was Claude Lawsuit. I glanced at Joe.
“What are you gonna do?”
“Do?” Joe said, working out line. “I’m gonna ketch us another trout.”
A week later Joe was splitting up the last of the firewood we’d brought in last fall from his wood lot on the side of Mooseleuk Mountain. As he split it, I carried the pieces of wood over and stacked it in the roofed-over, open rick near the property line.
From the corner of my eye I caught sight of Claude Lawsuit walking through the trees from his lot. If Joe noticed him coming, it didn’t stop him from chopping wood. Lawsuit stood and watched for a moment, s smirk on his face.
“A lot easier done with a wood splitter,” he said.
Joe stopped and wiped sweat from his face with one forearm. “I am the wood splitter.”
Lawsuit was quiet for a moment. “Are you sure you don’t wnat to be reasonable and build me that fly rod?”
Joe squinted as sweat irritated one eye. “Nope.”
Lawsuit gazed into the distance. “A few years ago you purchased a piece of land on Beagle Pond, just outside town.”
“From what I’ve learned, you camp there once and a while and have built a wharf out into the pond. You also allow the Boy Scouts to camp there from time to time.”
“That’s right.” Joe put another junk of rock maple on the chopping block.
“There seem to be some legal problems with the land,” Lawsuit continued.
Joe lifted the splitting maul and glanced at the lawyer. “Don’t think so.”
Lawsuit smiled a shark-toothed grin. “Oh, my friend…take my word for it. It’s my business to know. We’ll talk again.” With a casual wave of his hand he sauntered back toward the property line.
I looked at Joe. “What do you suppose that was all about?”
Joe watched Lawsuit walk off through the woods. “Don’t have a clue.”
“It sounded like he might try and make trouble.”
Joe turned back toward the chopping block. “He’s a lawyer. That’s what they do.”
Joe seemed unperturbed, but I began to sweat as days went by and we saw little or nothing of Claude Lawsuit. The two acre parcel on Beagle Pond had come into Joe’s hands some ten years before when Hugo Frostbite decided he just had to move south to get away from the cold winters. He’d sold his modest house in town to Eben Ramdown and had sold the Beagle Pond lot to Joe for a song. Then he’d moved south to the town of Lincoln, where, presumably, the winters were milder.
The little pond had a healthy population of both white and yellow perch and also pickerel. It was a great place to get out of town occasionally and pitch a tent in warm weather. A fish fry with perch or pickerel from the pond as the prime ingredient made things about perfect.
Joe had let the Boy Scouts use the parcel for camping and the occasional jamboree right from the start. I couldn’t really see what trouble Lawsuit could cause, but the lawyer was devious and had already made a negative name for himself around Fort Kent for representing out of state interests bent on buying up wild land and banning the public from access.
My fears seemed justified a few weeks later when me and Joe drove into Mooseleuk to pick up some roofing nails at Houndstooth Hardware. We were re-shingling Joe’s woodshed and had run out. It was payday at the sawmill and people were walking the boardwalks and entering stores all along the street.
As we stepped up onto the boardwalk in front of the parked Jeep, I saw Claude Lawsuit approaching from up the street, a much smaller man in tow. The two men stopped a few feet away and Lawsuit grinned, a look of triumph on his broad face.
“Well, Joe, it really pains me to have to do this,” he said, although the smile gave the lie to his statement. Along the boardwalk, people stopped to stare and listen.
“You really should have made me that fly rod,” Lawsuit continued.
“Couldn’t,” Joe said calmly.
Lawsuit bristled. “Why not?”
Joe eyed him thoughtfully. “I don’t do no work fer a man I cain’t respect.”
The lawyer seemed to swell up, flushing to the ears. He got control of himself with an effort. The empty smile returned.
“Well, it’s too late anyway. I mentioned to you before some problems with your land on Beagle Pond, but you just brushed it off. I’m afraid the problems have come home to roost.” He waved a hand at the small man beside him.
“The town clerk and I have been going over the tax records.”
Abner Hackle waved a hand feebly. “Hi Joe…”
Besides his part time job as town clerk, Abner ran a small fishing tackle shop out of his house.
“Howdy, Abner,” Joe nodded at him. “Got them brown grasshoppers tied for me yet?”
Abner brightened. “Yes I do, an’ I also got some variations on a green drake that I think you’ll…”
“Mr. Hackle!” Lawsuit interrupted. The little man stopped abruptly and swallowed. The lawyer smiled again.
“As I was saying, we were examining the tax records and, guess what?” He spread his hands in a ‘what can you do’ gesture. “You haven’t paid taxes on that parcel of land for nearly seven years!”
Around us, people on the boardwalk stared, then glanced at Joe with looks of compassion. In rural Maine, paying taxes was often difficult and nearly everyone had been late on property taxes a time or two. But seven years was a long time.
Lawless continued to smile benignly. “Now, usually, some agreement can be reached about payments over time, but, unfortunately, there’s another little statute in town regulations.” His smile broadened. “It seems that when a tax bill isn’t paid after three years, the property is acquired by the town. Then they, in turn, can sell the property. In my own generosity,” he looked around at the people on the street. “I’ve agreed to pay the back taxes and take ownership of the property, in order to prevent hardship to the town.”
I was appalled. I stared at Joe, but he just looked at Lawsuit thoughtfully. The lawyer continued, his smile turning nasty.
“If you have anything left on that property, I would suggest you remove it forthwith. And, as for the Boy Scouts…well, I’m afraid they’ll have to find somewhere else to hold their little camping trips. I have plans for that lot; plans that include a series of very expensive summer homes for some of my friends.”
Joe eased out his sheath knife, and Lawsuit took a hasty step back. But Joe simply carved a split fingernail. He looked at the result with satisfaction, before lifting his gaze to the two men before him. Abner squirmed uncomfortably, while the lawyer openly gloated.
“Now, less me git this straight,” Joe said thoughtfully. “Jist because I wouldn’t make you a fly rod, you’re threatenin’ to take that land as punishment? That about it?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t put it just that way,” Lawsuit said soothingly, “but I’m not just threatening…I’m already doing it.”
“Nope,” Joe sighed and slid the knife back in its scabbard. “Yer not.”
“I’ll have you know, this is all perfectly legal! All that’s necessary is…”
“I don’t blame you, Abner,” Joe interrupted. “You ain’t use to these legal shenanigans. I guess my mistake was thinkin’ Lawsuit, here, was a better lawyer than he actually is.”
Lawsuit scowled ominously. “I’m one of the finest lawyers in northern Maine. My reputation is irreproachable…”
“You’ll likely have a different reputation after this,” Joe said, “at least, around here.” He sighed. “You checked on my purchase o’ the land. You checked on my tax records. Tell me, Mr. Bigshot Lawyer, did you ever check on land transfers?”
A look of concern finally showed in Lawsuit’s eyes. “That doesn’t pertain to this issue.”
“’Fraid it does.” Joe glared at the other man. “If you’d bothered to check, you’d have seen I give that land to the Boy Scouts eight years ago. Nice folks that they are, they let us camp on it time to time.” He turned suddenly to Abner Hackle.
“Abner, the Scouts own a couple of land parcels here’bouts. They late on any taxes?”
Abner beamed. “Oh no, Joe, they’re all paid up on everything.”
Joe turned his stare to the lawyer. “I think that about takes care of the situation, don’t it Lawsuit? Or you got somethin’ else you want ter share with the crowd.”
Claude Lawsuit swallowed nervously as he glanced around at the people who were now looking at him as though he were something that had crawled out from under the boardwalk.
“Well, I…that is…” He finally straightened and frowned again at Joe. “You may have won this round. But I’m not done.” He started to turn, “And I told you before, to move that wood you have piled on my land. If I have to see the county sheriff…”
“Oh, yeah, about that lot line,” Joe said. Lawsuit stopped and looked at him.
“What about it?”
“You have a survey done?”
The lawyer smiled. “I didn’t have to. It had already been done and is on file. Oh,” he waved a deprecating hand. “old Edgemont Wimp took me around and showed me the boundaries…the big maple by the water…the rock pile near the road…rather quaint, really.”
“Yeah, that was ol’ Edgemont, all right. Quaint. But he was a little loose with his definitions of the boundaries. Didn’t matter much when it was jist me an Edgemont” Suddenly, Lawsuit’s face lost all expression.
“You shoulda asked to see the actual pins. They’re there.” Joe held up a finger. “Wait right here a sec.” He walked over to the jeep and reached in the back, drawing forth a large, rolled-up paper. A look of trepidation came over the lawyer’s features. Joe walked back and began to unroll the paper.
“This here’s a copy of the actual survey. I got it from the town office, didn’t I Abner?”
“Yessir, Joe, you surely did! ‘Bout a month ago, it was!”
Joe shoved the unrolled plot copy in front of Lawsuit’s face. “If you look close at the actual boundaries, you’ll see they’re a might different. In fact,” he pointed closely to an item on the map, “it looks like about nine feet o’ yer new garage is on my property.” Lawsuit went deathly pale. Joe rolled the plot map back up.
“I figure to give you about ten days to move that buildin’, or I’ll have it torn down an’ charge it to you. That’s also part o’ the town ordinances, if you care to check.”
Lawsuit appeared ready to blow a gasket. He seemed about to speak, then clenched his fists at his sides, turned, and stalked off down the boardwalk. As he passed, one bystander clapped his hands together once, then twice. Others began to join in and shortly a thunder of applause echoed down the street , where Lawsuit began to hurry away faster and faster.
I scowled at Joe. “You might have let me in on your little secrets.”
He grinned slyly. “Aw, heck…it was as much fun watchin’ you as it was watchin’ Lawsuit.” He eyed me closely. “’Cept the lawyer seems to have higher blood pressure.”
“Listen, here…” I began. But Joe had already turned toward the door to the hardware store.
“Let’s git them nails,” he said shortly. “Enough of this fun. We got work to do.”