Reg Green of La Cañada Flintridge enjoys a brisk early morning hike, and that's what he was doing in the hills behind Descanso Gardens when he came upon an imposing figure standing motionless on the trail.
Green, 83, was briefly alarmed, then realized he was looking at a life-size plywood cutout of a man, and not just any man. It was Clint Eastwood in a pose from the movie "A Fistful of Dollars." The rugged cowboy was wearing a poncho and chomping a stogie.
"What a great idea this is," Green thought at the time, back in May. "This is really a way of bringing art to the people."
A few weeks later, Green hiked the same trail and discovered that a bad hombre had ambushed Clint.
"I saw a young man on his knees where the cutout had been," said Green. It was the artist, who was picking up the pieces of his vandalized creation.
Justin, a 31-year-old Glassell Park resident, explained how he had done similar cutouts of John Wayne and Gene Autry and then planted them on nearby hills for the amusement of motorists traveling on the 2 Freeway between Eagle Rock and La Cañada.
Justin had moved to Los Angeles from Oregon in 2006 and was struck by the region's extremes, with modern urban density so close to barren landscape straight out of an old western movie.
"Clint Eastwood, Gene Autry and John Wayne — they're like pillars of this community in a mythical kind of way. They're Hollywood legends and they're also cowboys."
When they met on the hill, Green couldn't help but tell Justin why he has such an appreciation of public art.
In 1994, Green and his wife and two young children were on vacation, driving in southern Italy when highway robbers gave chase and shot at their car. Green managed to speed away, but his son, 7-year-old Nicholas, had been shot in the head and died two days later.
In their despair, Green's wife, Maggie, suggested they donate Nicholas' organs and corneas. In death, Nicholas gave new life to seven Italians, four of them critically ill teenagers. One would later give birth to a boy and name him Nicholas.
"It was as though the whole country wanted to put its arms around us," Green said of the response from Italians.
In Bodega Bay, where the family lived at the time, a memorial tower was built by a San Francisco sculptor named Bruce Hasson, who told the Greens he had once made bells fashioned from melted firearms. As the story of Nicholas and the memorial tower spread, bells began arriving in Bodega Bay, sent from people in distant lands. The bells, which were hung from the tower on the wind-swept coast, still chime today. One of the bells was blessed by Pope John Paul II after it was manufactured in a foundry used by the Vatican for hundreds of years.
The Greens, meanwhile, began promoting organ donation in their son's name, and Reg Green, a former journalist, wrote a book called "The Nicholas Effect: A Boy's Gift to the World," which was made into a TV movie.
Justin, who uses only his first name as an artist, was so moved by Green's story he decided to pay tribute to Nicholas. But he didn't tell Green about his plans.
And then one day last month, Green hiked back up the trail and was pleased to see, from a distance, that Clint was standing again. But something had changed.
He was holding a bell.
In the original pose, Clint wore a holstered gun. But Justin had painted the gun out of the picture.
On the back of the cutout, Justin posted a brief version of the story Green had told him about his son.
"If you are inspired by Nicholas' story," Justin wrote, "ring the bell and commit to becoming an organ donor today. Visit http://www.nicholasgreen.org for more details."
"I positively sobbed," Reg Green said. "I put my head against the figure, shoulders shaking."
He saw two hikers approaching and felt compelled to tell them the whole story, and the hikers then rang the bell.
On Dec. 15, Green went back up the hill to check on things before taking me up to see Justin's creation.
"I have a shock for you," he said later in an email.
Clint was gone, completely removed this time, as if he never existed. A Glendale parks official told me he likes the cutouts and was unaware of any city order to remove any of them. And neither Green nor Justin has any idea what kind of heartless desperado would walk away with a tribute to a fallen child.
Green and Justin are considering a replacement, and possibly finding a more secure and accessible place for either the old Clint or a new one. If you have information on his whereabouts, please let me know and I'll pass it along.
In a way, though, the mystery keeps the story of Nicholas Green alive, and the bell keeps ringing.