The metal detector beeped and something small, round, and quick scampered from under the white disc. Young Bridger dropped to his knees and scooted in pursuit of the crawly critter.
A rusty fork under a red mountain fern had triggered my Garrett Ace. I set it on the old burned out fireplace where a cabin used to be.
Bridger came back with his tiny hands cupped like a cage. Mid-morning sun and straight blond hair framed his huge proud grin and innocent bright blue eyes.
“Look what I caught, Dad!” he said. “Can I take him to Mom?”
He opened his hands to show me. The horny toad ran up the small boy’s arm. Its tiny claws pricked just enough to tickle as it found a cave in Bridger’s short-sleeved, tucked-in, shirt.
“Dad, grab it Dad!” He spun around in circles. One hand ripped at his shirt, while the other flung wildly to help him keep his balance.
“Stand still boy.” However, I didn’t try to help. I enjoy the rodeos of their childhood.
The toad came out spitting tobacco-colored juice and hissing. I grabbed it and saw inquisitive faces on Jordan and Uncle Mike as they trotted to the scene.
“Dad, are you tickling my little brother again?” Jordan asked. They are 10 months apart and it is not my fault.
“Nope” I dropped the horny toad into Jordan’s shirt. Then I rested against a tree, cool as the underside of a pillow. I witnessed my older son kick, scream and run.
“Should I help him, Dad?” 5-year-old Bridger asked. “I know all about horny toads and shirts.”
“He needs your help like General Custer needed another Indian.” However, some of the words evaporated before he could catch them. He started with a jump; rounded a pine tree, then tackled Jordan into an old fire ring full of cold ashes.
I noticed panic rising in Uncle Mike’s face.
A cloud erupted, someone screamed, someone coughed, more ash hit the air, and we waited.
Uncle Mike looked at me with even more concern in the scrunched lobes of his forehead, “Ya think we oughta pick ’em up out a there?”
“Nope,” I offered, trying to see into the cloud.
Then, like a Phoenix, young Bridger emerged from the ashes, covered from head to toe except for his grin. He rose from the ring with his arms extended and hands together, like an angel in heaven’s mist. When he got to us, he opened his hands and ashes began to wiggle. Tiny horns shone through and Bridger’s smile grew.
I heard the words that made me proud. “I caught lunch Dad.”
Good-hearted Uncle Mike headed for Jordan, to dust him off.
“No ... don’t do it.” I whispered in a soft voice like a cartoon conscience.
Uncle Mike stepped on a slippery old soup spoon lying in shaded grass still wet with morning dew.
He hanged-10 the best he could, but after a short flight, he landed in the fetal position in the fire ring. I heard several vocals that sounded like a dog giving birth. Uncle Mike pushed to his knees, and then found his feet.
Bridger handed me the ash toad and asked, “Dad will you put him in your pocket and cook ’em for lunch when we get home?” I thought of my wife ... because I am always thinking of my wife. Opposites attract, and that is how we met. I took the toad.
Jordan commenced to spitting out ashes. Uncle Mike had a line right down his middle, head to toe. Ash caked on half of his face. One eye and an ear packed full. In the back, he had an ash crack.
I shook my head. “You’re all riding in the back.” I chuckled, pointing toward my old brown Ford truck.
As they headed out, I carefully released the horny toad under a bush and followed them.
At the house, Uncle Mike cleaned up quick. “How are you going to cook ‘lunch’?” he asked while the boys showered.
I carefully cut an elk steak into the shape of a small horny toad. I tossed it into the frying pan and readied the rest of our lunch.
Their mouths watered when I dropped the cooked “horny toad” onto a plate in front of them and cut it in half.
“GULP-GULP,” gone. Like fledglings in a nest, I doubt they even tasted it.
“Next time catch a bigger one Bridger,” Jordan instructed his little brother as they turned toward their grilled cheese sandwiches.
“What if I catch a big one and you’re not home, Daddy?”
My ornery streak ran toward my side of funny ...
“Mom is a horny toad chef, take it to her, she will cook it for you. It will be the best horny toad you ever ate.”