A Change of Idols
by John Taintor Foote
For as long as he could remember, there had been times when it was no fun to go home after school or play was over. At such times the whole house seemed to whisper, “Dad isn’t in his study. He isn’t in the fly-tying room. He isn’t out in the garage fooling with the car. No use to look; he’s gone!”
With him had gone—as David knew from a fascinated watching of the packing of duffel bags and suitcases— shooting clothes in the fall, fishing clothes in the spring. Also, of course, warm brown leather gun cases or shiny aluminum rod cases, depending on the season. Sometimes the rod cases would be long and made of leather. That meant it was salmon. The smaller aluminum cases meant trout.
His father always whistled while he packed—r--a funny whistle through his teeth. No tune. It was like a bird’s song with a faint hiss woven through it. The whistle was constant. It was an accompaniment to putting guns or rods in their cases, reels into small chamois bags, flies and leaders into their respective aluminum boxes. David noticed that the whistle changed when the rod cases and leaders were long and the flies bigger and much more brilliant. Salmon! the whistle was slower, lower, more reverent when it was salmon.
David was imitating the more lilting whistle as he came into the house one blazing afternoon in late August. He had just trimmed Bud Ellsworth three sets to one and dad was home and mother would probably forget the rule about eating between meals—she almost always did. He put his racket in a press, laid it on a shelf in the hail closet and moved soundlessly in his sneakers into the living room.
His mother was stretched on a couch with many pillows. Her jade-colored gown seemed like a shimmering green river flowing past islands of orange and yellow and robin’s- egg blue.
“Hi, muz! How about a noggin of milk with some cheese sandwiches on the side?”
Her eyes traveled up his long gaunt body. His tennis shirt, wet through, clung to his angular torso. He was nothing but hollows and ridges. Along his ribs he suggested a corduroy road.
“How on earth can you eat as much as you do and keep on looking like Mahatma Gandhi?”
“It all goes to brain.”
“Really? How do you account for your school reports?”
“Aw, are you going to start that again, when I could eat one of those pillows?”
She eyed him for a moment.
“You should put on a sweater when you’re as hot as that. Go take a shower and change. I’ll tell Mary to put something for you on a tray in dad’s study. He wants to see you.
“Oke,” said David. He bounded upstairs, shedding his wet shirt as he went. In ten minutes he was bathed, dressed and heading for the study by leaps, jig steps, short runs and slides. He found his father seating a reel on a long rod. Milk and sandwiches were on the encyclopedia stand. Two kinds of sandwiches—cheese and ham. Swell!
“Hi, pop!” He poured a glass of milk and seized a sandwich.
“Hello, son. Sit down?”
Son! Gosh! It should have been “Dave” or “long fellow” or “Skeezicks.” Was it the darned old school reports again?
“Yes, sir,” he said.
His father laid the rod carefully down on a flat-topped desk and lit a cigarette. He watched David take alternate guips of milk and bites of sandwich, then brushed away a wan haze of cigarette smoke that hung between them.
“Every man should learn to play as well as work.”
“Yes, sir,” agreed David, with some difficulty. It was a cheese-sandwich moment at the time.
“There are a lot of ways to play. Contract and golf seem to be the most popular just now. The sanest way—because it’s closest to nature—is shooting and fishing. Mostly you’ll find sportsmen lean, clean birds who mind their own business and don’t talk too much. That’s what streams and lakes and fields and woods and marshes do to a man. In addition to that, they’re keener than the rest. They’ll drive a hundred miles to fight a spring-trout stream with snow coming down and no trout coming up; or sit in a duck blind, for eight hours when it’s not far from zero.
“The reason why sportsmen are keener than golfers or polo players or bridge sharks or stamp collectors is this: The urge to shoot and fish is atavistic. You know what atavistic means?”
David considered while he took a swallow of milk and applied school methods to the situation.
“Has it anything to do with being active?”
“Good God! Look it up!”
“‘Pertaining to atavism,’” David read aloud from the dictionary a moment later.
“Well, look up atavism!”
“‘The reversion or tendency to revert to the ancestral type of a species. The—”’
“Never mind the rest! You’ll see what I’m getting at. Hunting and fishing were vital to our remote ancestors. And I think that when a man tries to make a good trout take his fly or works a duck call to bring a smart old drake mallard down to his blind, he’s tense and thrilled and keen as a brier, because somewhere inside him is a fellow with a bone fishhook and a spear or a sling who’s got to bring home fish and game or his wife and kids will starve. That s clear, isn’t it?”
David, who had returned to his milk and sandwiches, nodded, gulped and spoke:
His father stared at him unseeingly for a moment, then looked at the beautiful rod, with its gunmetal reel attached, lying across the desk. His eyes came back to David.
“You’re going to shoot and fish, of course. If you’d been raised in real country as I was, you’d have been at it long ago. New York and Southampton don’t give a kid much chance. Well, we’re going out in the back yard now and I’m going to show you a little something about how to handle a salmon rod. Tonight I’ll teach you to tie a fly on a leader.”
“That’ll be swell, dad!”
His father picked up the rod and balanced it.
“That’s a light fourteen-footer. I think you can swing it. But before we take it outside, I might as well tell you something. I’m going up to Nova Scotia with your Uncle Jim. The Margaree has a late run of salmon. We leave week after next. We’re taking you with us. You’ll miss some school, but I think it will be worth it.”
“Gee! Gosh! Hot dog! Oh, boy!”
Every day after that, for nearly two weeks, David spent the better part of each afternoon in the back yard with the fourteen-foot rod, under his father’s critical eye. Most of the time he practised casting, but when his shoulders and back began to ache, his father played fish. Picking up the end of the line, he would dash down the garden walk.
“Don’t try to stop me. Let me make my run. Rest the butt just below your belt. Hold the rod with your left hand well above the reel and keep the rod up. Just let me run on the click. Look out, I’m coming back! Don’t give me any slack. Reel in! Reel in! Look out for a run! Here it comes! Keep the rod up! Don’t let me pull it down that way! The rod’ll fight for you if you let it.”
It was interesting for a day or so, David thought. Then he began to miss his tennis. He was glad when at last they stood on the front porch saying good-by to his mother.
She kissed him. “Good-by, darling. Have a good time!” She looked at his father. “Now I suppose there’ll be two of them in the family!” She turned and disappeared through the front door.
They got into the loaded car and drove away. David looked back at the rambling white house with its moss- colored roof and its dark-green shutters. Mother might be looking out a window! . . . She wasn’t.
“They just can’t understand,” mused his father. “They call it ‘killing things!’ How you feeling, Dave?”
“Swell,” said David.
Uncle Jim was waiting at the pier, surrounded by rod cases and duffel bags. They watched the car being swung from the pier to the steamer’s hold before going aboard to inspect their cabins. Then David inspected the ship from engine room to bridge. He heard the shattering bellow of the whistle, saw that the pier was moving along the main saloon windows, and rushed on deck. His father and Uncle Jim were smoking by the rail.
“Well, here we go, Davy.” His uncle’s big hand closed,, lightly, on David’s scrawny arm.
“Is it much fun to catch a salmon, Uncle Jim?”
“Fun!” His uncle knocked out his pipe against the rail and looked at his father. “You answer that one!”
“Well, son,” said his father, “the day will come when a grouse getting up in a thicket will make your heart gallop like a fire horse. You’ll crouch in a blind and shake when a bunch of canvasbacks are circling you. You’ll feel something happen to your spinal cord when a big brown or rainbow trout rolls up and takes your dry fly. But tops, absolute tops, is the rise of a salmon and what happens after that. Don’t call it fun. It’s—it’s— I’ve done my stuff. Now you take over, Jim.”
His uncle tapped his pipe against the palm of his hand and thought for a moment.
“It’s a mixture of glory hallelujah and the Battle of Gettysburg,” he decided at last.
They ran into a storm twelve hours out. David developed a slightly greenish pallor and—this was serious—lost all. interest in food. Placid Halifax harbor seemed like heaven. He crept miserably down the gangplank, but by the time the car was swung from the ship and loaded, he began to think of ham and eggs—lots of ham and eggs and, well, yes—plenty of French-fried potatoes to go with them.
He got ham and eggs for supper that night at Mrs. Gerard’s, two hundred and ninety miles northeast of Halifax, on the upper Margaree. There was also smoked sal- mon, baked beans with plenty of catchup, bread and butter—four slices—with sugar spread carefully over all, and apple sauce. Also there was Miriam Gerard. She had waited on them at table. Her shoulder had brushed David’s once as she served him.
He drifted to sleep that night with the roar of the Margaree in his ears, wondering if she would be such a knock-out in daylight.
She was! He saw that at a glance when she came in with the coffee for breakfast. Gosh, what hair! Like golden fire! She looked at him. David dropped his eyes hastily and began to butter a fiapjack. If he was the kind of a guy that bothered about girls—but, of course, he wasn’t. It was funny, though, how he felt when she stood beside him with more fiapjacks. Her shoulder didn’t touch his, but somehow you knew, without looking, it was a girl.
“Well, are you full, long fellow?”
“Miriam, will you ask your mother if shell have dinner at night and lunch at noon? We don’t want our heavy meal in the middle of the day.”
“And, oh, yes. May we keep our wading things and rods on the front porch?”
“Yes, sir. They always do.”
“Thank you. . . . Let’s get going, you two.”
While they were getting into their waders, Uncle Jim addressed him:
“Better watch your step, Dave; that’s some gal”
“I don’t bother with girls,” he said.
His father and uncle exchanged winks.
There followed a morning in which David dropped from the peak of thrilled expectancy to a pit of aching boredom. He had waded into the swift mystery of the first pool in the stretch they had assigned to him with his knees knocking together. His father and uncle watched him work out line and make his first cast. The fly shot out and across and dropped to the surface without too much splash and with no curve in the leader. Nothing happened. He looked at his father and got a nod of approval. He made another cast, and another. Ten minutes later he realized that his father and uncle were gone. They had left him alone in a salmon pool with a salmon rod. He was casting as well as he ever had in the back yard and now his fly was dropping into golden water that frothed around bowlders and then slid rapidly on. At any cast a salmon might take that fly! A salmon! He cast and cast and cast, taking a step downriver after each cast, as dad had told him to do.
He grew conscious of his father standing on the bank. lie beckoned and David waded slowly in to him, bracing himself against the current and planting his felt-soled wading shoes carefully on the rough bottom at each step.
“River’s too warm, Dave. We won’t do much until we get a rise of water. I haven’t given you a gaff because you might catch your leader with it. If you do hook a fish, remember everything I’ve told you. Play him until he’s finished, then take hold of him just above the tail and drag him out on a bar.”
“Uncle Jim’s just below you. I’m going down below him. Keep plugging away; there’s always a chance. Hope you get one.
His father strode off downstream.
David waded out into the current and started casting again. An hour went by. Another hour. His shoulders began to ache. His arms ached. His back ached. Cast, recover, one step downstream! Cast, recover, one step downstream! He seemed to have been doing it all his life. And what for? There weren’t any fish in the darned old river. Cast, recover— Ouch! Gosh! His back was broken. David waded out and sat on a log.
That was where they found him at lunchtime. Uncle Jim had a four-pound grilse.
“Saw him lying in a shallow run. Floated a dry fly over him and teased him up. Got to have rain! Got to have rain!”
Well, he hadn’t caught a fish, but, boy, was he hungry! Scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sardines, beet salad, biscuits, milk, canned peaches, and Miriam to look at. He still looked away whenever she looked at him. He didn’t know why.
After lunch he told his father about his back.
“You’re using new muscles. Better not take it too fast! Suppose you rest this afternoon.
“All right, I’ll read. Mother put in some books.” lie selected Men of Iron and took it to a faded canvas hammock on the front porch. He was sharing Myles Falworth’s cold horror as the grim Earl of Mackworth appeared, suddenly, in the privy garden, when the screen door opened and closed with a bang.
“Hello,” said David.
“Why ain’t you fishin’?”
“I strained my back.”
“What you readin’?” She came to the hammock. “Men of Iron.”
She slid into the hammock beside him.
“Is it good?” She made rio effort to resist the pull of gravity toward the center of the hammock.
“Swell,” said David hoarsely.
He had never dreamed that anything could be so soft and warm. A penetrating electric warmth that flowed into him and through him Like a tide.
“How old are you?”
“Sixteen,” he managed to say.
“That’s funny. I’m sixteen too. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed.” She gave David a languishing look, their faces inches apart.
Something was expected of him—he knew that—but he sat there rigid, the blood pounding in his ears. He was in the grip of the bashfulness of the adolescent male, which transcends girlish modesty mountains high.
“You’re from New York, ain’t you?”
The moment was over! Oh, why hadn’t he kissed her?
He nodded, speechless.
“What’s it like?”
"Just buildings and traffic cops and taxicabs. It isn’t much.”
“What’s your house like in New York?” She was still burning against his side like a delicious flame.
“It isn’t a house. It’s an apartment. Our house is in Southampton.”
“I thought you lived in New York.”
“We do, in winter. We live in Southampton in the summer.
“What’s that like?”
“Just houses and a little burg and the beach. It isn’t much.”
“Are the houses nice?”
“They’re all right, I guess. Some of them have tennis courts.
“Are all the boys from New York like you?”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh”—she moved a hand into one of his—”sort of slow.” Once more she was looking into his eyes.
Another chance! He’d not act like a dumb bunny this time. His lips traveled the few inches separating them from her enticing, slightly opened mouth.
At the last split second she turned her head with a teasing laugh.
His nose and mouth buried themselves in her hair. The scent of it was devastating. A gentle delicate girl odor, more urgently commanding than all the perfumes of the world.
“Comin-n-g! . . . There’s ma! Lemme go!”
“Aw, please! Before you go!”
The fingers that were entwined with his tightened convulsively. Her lips met his, clung to them. The screen door opened and banged shut. She was gone!
There remained a trembling youngster, no longer concerned with the doings of Myles Falworth. He was gazing into a new, ecstatic world that he had just discovered in a faded hammock.
So that was what it was all about! Perhaps she would come back! He waited as long as he could. Then he got to his feet. He couldn’t stand it in the hammock, without her, any longer. He must get away by himself and think it over. He stumbled down the steps and headed for the Margaree. He plowed through some willows and came to the upper pooi that he had fished that morning. He sat down on a bowlder, dropped his head in his hands and stared at the slicks and troubled swirls of the amber river—red gold in the afternoon sun. Red gold like Miriam’s hair!
His father and uncle found him there as they came upriver at dusk.
His father chuckled as they stopped to take in that slender figure, brooding at the water’s edge.
“Too lame to fish, but he can’t keep away from it. It’s in the blood, Jim.” He raised his voice: “Hi, fisherman! Time out to eat!”
David got stiffly to his feet, picked his way through river bowlders and joined them.
“Nary a fish,” said his uncle. “Anyway. I’m not skunked.” He poked David’s father with his elbow.
“Huh, I don’t catch minnows! . . . Guess what we’re going to have for dinner, Skeezicks? Turkey! I saw it in the kitchen.”
“Gosh!” said David. But for some reason he wasn’t very hungry.
He was careful not to look at Miriam at dinner, although he wanted to. He wanted to see how she would look at him, now that they shared the secret of the hammock.
After dinner he went out on the porch and sat on the steps. He avoided the hammock. He didn’t want her to find him in it if she came out. It would look too much as though he were just waiting there to neck her.
She didn’t come out. He went quietly around the house and looked through the kitchen window. She was wiping dishes as her mother washed them. There was a screen on the window and the kitchen wasn’t very light. He couldn’t see her face well, but her sleeves were rolled up and he watched the gleam of her white arms under the dim lamplight, and felt his mouth go dry.
He went back and sat on the porch again. She would come to him when she was through in the kitchen, he guessed.
His father called him. He went in. They wanted him to play dominoes. He played dominoes until it was time for bed.
He looked at her at breakfast. She made a mouth at him. A delicious, funny mouth. He laughed out loud before he thought.
“Let us in on it, fisherman!” said his uncle.
“Can’t,” said David.
He stole another glance at Miriam, who departed for the kitchen with a luxurious roll of the hips.
His father’s eyes followed her through the door. He took one look at David’s face and lifted his eyebrows at his brother.
David began his casting that morning with the utmost care. Miriam was no longer in his mind. He was handling his rod with more ease than ever before. He was checking his back-cast when the rod tip was almost straight above him, not tilted far back as when he first began. As a result of this and the leverage of his right and left hands traveling in Opposite directions, but in full coordination, the line was rolling out over the water with an ease that was delightful. Now, how about the leader? He saw with pride that it Straightened perfectly with every cast. Say, this was fun! It continued to be fun for an hour. Then it became a dumb business without rime or reason. He sat down to rest.
He scowled at the river for a time, then turned his eyes to the mountains, rising on the other side, along which the Margaree hurried, fretting, to the sea. His eyes lifted to the tops of the mountains. Great, billowing, whipped-cream clouds were hanging over them, shutting off the steady blue of the sky. The clouds shut off the sun from time to time. When this happened, a shadow would come racing up the river to put out the tiny fires in the dancing rapids and dull the gleam of the poois.
And now David really began to hear the voice of the river—a steady chuckling roar. He had not been conscious of it while fishing. As he listened, his ill humor left him. That sound seemed to fill every crevice of his brain, leaving no room for thought. He sat there in a sort of dream, submerged in the sound of the river, vaguely aware of its steady, though varied march.
A covey of partridges nodded past him through the willows. A mink came in an arching gallop along the shore, to stop dead at his moveless figure. It plunged like a brown flash into the river, its whiskers bristling with horror.
David grinned. It was kind of nice here. Peaceful!
It was not peaceful long. Warm arms came from behind him to clasp themselves about his neck. A hot cheek was pressed against his own.
He rolled off his boulder and pulled her down beside him among some smaller stones. His long arms tightened about her. As he pressed against her, she sank back, bringing him with her, until her head came to rest on a water-smoothed, sun-baked stone. He felt the grip of her arms become firmer around his shoulders, then suddenly they relaxed. Her hands flew to his chest. He was being pushed violently from her.
“Oh, Miriam, don’t!”
“Get away! Get away, quick! You’re soaking wet!”
Then David remembered his waders. They were still dripping. He slid, contritely, away from her.
Miriam sat up with a jerk and looked at the skirt of her blue print dress, flow a vast dark stain.
“God!” she said. “What’ll I tell ma?”
David turned white. Now he was in for it! Darn the waders! Darn this fishing where there weren’t any fish! Dad was a nut. And Uncle Jim, too. Boys had told him about girls’ mothers finding out!
“Maybe it’ll dry in the sun,” he suggested wanly. “Maybe if you’d kind of spread it out and—”
“Do you think I can stay here till it dries? I sneaked away just for a minute. She’ll be looking for me by this time, mebbe. What did you want to come wallowing all over me in them wet pants for, anyway?”
David looked at her, bewildered. She had pulled him down against her. Well, girls were like that, he supposed, when they knew you were crazy about them.
‘I’m sorry,” he said.
“Well, it’s done now.” She stared, frowning, at the havoc he had wrought. Her face swiftly cleared. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll say I dropped a rock in the river and it splashed me.” She put a hand on his shoulder and got to her feet. “Gimme a kiss ‘fore I go, sweetie!”
David sprang up and obeyed with alacrity.
He watched her out of sight, wishing he dared go to the house with her. As it was, he had to fuss around in the darned ole river until dad and Uncle Jun came. He sighed and picked up his rod.
The week that followed was a trial. It remained hot, with Cloudless skies. Now and then, his father or Uncle Jim, by means of much patience and a deeper guile than David knew, would bring home a salmon. The largest one weighed twelve pounds. He looked huge to David, but his father said, “Wait till you see a real fish! Wait till you have hold of one that’ll go twenty pounds or better.”
Fat chance, thought David. By now he was fed up for life with salmon fishing. He hated the thought of that silly, futile casting in the hot sun. He snorted when he remembered that he had been crazy to leave a world that contained tennis courts for this dumb business.
But, then, there was Miriam! She was worth the trip. She dazzled him by day. She haunted him by night. He lived in a feverish daze—uplifted one minute, downcast the next. His appetite fell off. He grew thinner than ever. He had all but stopped fishing. He would tell his father that he had a headache or that he wanted to read. Then he would wait in the hammock on the chance of a too-swift embrace.
Miriam was of the earth, earthy, but she was also a born coquette. It pleased her to toy with this rich man’s son who thought fishing was hard work. She had known af- fairs of the heart since she was fourteen. That was why ma was always watching her. Ma was becoming different about this boy from New York, though. That was funny! Ma would even say, “Why don’t you take a nice walk through the woods with that poor, lonesome young fella?” Well, she’d handle it to suit herself, thank you.
There was a bank of clouds one morning beyond the mountains to the east—dark clouds. David’s father and uncle watched them with keen, interested faces as they got into waders and wading shoes.
“Looks like the real thing, Jim—at last!”
“Let’s kneel and pray.”
“Not coming, David?”
“I don’t believe I will, dad. Think I’ll stay here and read for a while.”
His father looked at him steadily, opened his mouth to speaks closed it again. “Just as you like.” He turned away, put on his worn fishing jacket, took his rod from its row of pegs and followed David’s uncle down the steps. Presently he caught up with him.
“So that’s a son of mine?”
“Sa-a-y,” drawled his brother, “what were you doing at his age?”
“I’ll tell you what I was doing,” said David’s father grimly. “I was walking four miles to Jackson’s Pond to fish for bullheads with a cane pole.”
“Sure. And you were catching bullheads, weren’t you?”
“Certainly. What of it?”
“What if you’d hoofed it to Jackson’s Pond every day for a week and never got a nibble?”
David’s father rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Well, I dunno about that.”
“Well, I know. You’d have quit! And now you expect that boy, who never had a fish on a line in his life, to pound a dead river in the hot sun, day after day—and like it!”
“That isn’t it. It’s simply that he wants to stay here and hang around that cheap, little, hip-swinging—”
“Wh-o-a! Back up, fella! This father business has got you down. That’s just about the niftiest little trick I ever saw. At his age she’d have had me jumping through hoops and rolling over and playing dead. Slander Dave if you like— he’s your offspring—but lay off that gal. I don’t dare look at her too much or Dave and I would be rivals.”
David’s father chuckled. He sobered suddenly.
“I’m worried. Of course she’s attractive—too attractive! What’s going on back there while we’re fishing? She hasn’t any more morals than a cat—you can see that at a glance.”
“There you go again! Thank God I’m not a father! Just who managed your girling for you when you were Dave’s age? Of course, after he’s twenty-one you’ve lost control. Why don’t you put him in a monastery till then? That would let you fish in peace.”
“Perhaps you’re right—I don’t know. I’ve always tried to make him work out things for himself. But I know I’m worried. I’m worried plenty. My, God, what would his mother say?”
“Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll just bet you fifty dollars those clouds don’t mean a rain that’ll raise the river, say, six inches, in the next twenty-four hours. If I lose I’ll be tickled pink. If I win I’ll have the fifty bucks.”
“Where do I come in?”
“You? Why, you’ll have something to think about besides Dave.”
“All flght, you’re on,” said David’s father.
Back at the house, David seated himself on the porch steps and waited. It seemed an age before he was rewarded. At last the screen door banged. She dashed across the porch and kissed him, hurriedly.
He seized her hands.
“Listen, Miriam! Let’s get away from here. Let’s go where no one will bother us. Will you? Please, oh, please!”
“Can’t, sweetie; it’s wash day.”
“What about late this afternoon?”
“Me go anywhere this afternoon! You ain’t never done a wash.”
“Well, tomorrow morning.”
“Ironing tomorrow morning.”
David, sick with disappointment, let go her hands.
“It’s always something! Some rotten, silly excuse!”
She leaned down and smiled into his face.
David turned away his head.
“Listen! If you’ll be good today I’ll get ma to do the ironing and we’ll go to the fox farm tomorrow morning.”
Silence from David.
“They’re silver foxes. Hundreds of ‘em. They’re pretty as pictures.
“What do I care about darned ole foxes?” he asked sulkily.
“It’s only three miles.”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to go!”
She suddenly kneeled beside him with eyes that had lost their bright, provoking look. They had grown dark and unseeing. With a quick, possessive gesture she gathered his head in her arms. Then she kissed his cheeks, his eyelids, his throat, his mouth.
“Don’t be a little donkey,” she whispered. “There’s a short cut—through the woods.”
That was a long day. He tried reading. No good! He tried skipping stones across the river. Worse! By late afternoon the bank of dark clouds had become a black canopy covering the entire sky. When bedtime came he undressed and lay staring straight above him. Then the thought of the way she had kissed him drove him to turning and tossing and pounding his pillow.
At last he quieted. His drifting to sleep was retarded by a sudden steady roar. Rain on the roof. It was pouring. What if it rained tomorrow! No going to the woods! He didn’t see how he could stand it. He heard his father call to Uncle Jim: “I’m going to buy a nice two-piece trout rod with that fifty dollars, old-timer!”
Rods! That’s all they thought about. Just goofy! David sank into slumber with the rain still beating on the roof. He wakened with a start next morning, feeling that something was going to happen that day—something wonderful. Now he remembered! He heard no sound of rain. He got out of bed and went to the window. The trees were still dripping, but the rain had ceased. There was a gray sky high up with low smoky clouds below. It was much colder. So cold that he began to shiver. That was too bad. He wanted it to be a nice warm day.
He saw Uncle Jim coming from the direction of the river and heard him call to his father:
“Up about eight inches! Just colored enough! I saw fish traveling! Let’s get this eating over in a hurry!”
At breakfast his father and Uncle Jim simply gobbled their bacon and eggs, swallowed their coffee and pushed back their chairs.
“Make it snappy, Davy! Something doing today!”
“I’m not going fishing, Uncle Jim,” said David. He felt himself blushing.
His father, who was striding out of the room, halted and turned.
“I’ve promised Miriam to go with her this morning to see some silver foxes at a fox farm.”
“You can do that some other day. Come and get into your waders.”
“Did you hear me?”
No use! When he spoke like that, you just had to keep still. David followed them to the front porch, white with rage and disappointment.
“You’ve had a discouraging time with your fishing, son. It’s been tough. When a river is as warm as this has been, salmon don’t move and seldom take a fly. A good rise of water stirs them up. Every pool will have taking fish in it today. I don’t want you to miss it. Now stop sulking! By night you’ll know why I’m making you come with us.”
“Yes, sir,” said David.
They left him at the head of his stretch of river.
“Tie on a fair-sized Thunder and Lightning, Dave,” his uncle called as they were leaving. “It’s a good fly in this kind of water.”
David selected a Thunder and Lightning from his fly box and tied it on. He found that his fingers were trembling a little. The river was different. Under gray skies and with dark pines, still glistening with rain, crowding either bank, this higher, more deeply muttering river was more mysterious, more forbidding. Anything might be concealed in such a river, waiting for his fly.
He began to cast. Presently his excitement died. The same old thing! Cast for hours and get nothing but aching arms and a crick in the back. And he would have been starting for the woods with Miriam about now!
He was staring unseeingly at his line as it began its swing toward shore. Twenty feet or so below the point where the line met the water, a wave appeared—a V- shaped wave, moving rapidly. Something was making that wave. There was a splash, a mighty swirl that left a whirlpool in the water, then the line swung on quietly toward shore. Ye gods! What was that? It was frightening! Why, it was about where his fly must have been. A rise! David’s knees sagged so suddenly that he nearly shipped water down the tops of his waders.
Gee, gosh! What had dad said about a salmon missing a fly? He remembered! “Wait one full minute, then cast again in the same place.” David dropped his eyes to his wrist watch. Golly! Was a minute that long? Ten seconds more! Five seconds! Well, here goes!
He cast well above the place, so that the fly would float over it. Now the fly was about where it had happened. Past it! Way past it! Nothing!
It must have been a salmon. Then what was wrong? Just his darned luck! Nothing ever went right for him! Better try again. He did. The fly reached the fatal spot. It passed it. Darn! The rod was all but jerked from David’s hands. Oh, where was dad? He hadn’t known! He hadn’t dreamed it would be like that! The savage blow of the strike all but paralyzed him.
Out of the mysterious, hurrying river rose a monster, huge beyond belief, vicious-looking, majestic, terrifying. It curved into the air and crashed into the river with a heart-shaking splash. Its sides were gleaming silver. Its head and back and great spadelike tail were black. There was one tiny spot of brilliant color at its jaw. It was the bright scarlet and orange of David’s Thunder and Lightning.
What should he do? For a moment he thought of dropping the rod and getting out of there. The thing was too huge, too implacable looking. The rod curved. The reel began a steady “ze-e-e.” Mechanically he sank the butt into his stomach and slid his hand up the rod. “Ze-e-e, ze-e-e-e, ze-e-e-e-e!” A hundred yards down the river the great fish curved into the air again. That was good! He wasn’t so frightening, far off like that. “Ze-e-e-e-, ze-e-e-e-e!” The salmon leaped again. Gee, he was a mile away!
David looked down at his reel. He was appalled at what he saw. The fat spooi of green silk backing was down to a slender spindle. What had dad said? “Follow your fish if he takes too much line!” David waded to shore and started downriver, stumbling among rocks and driftwood, trying to keep the rod well up against the remorseless pull of the fish, and reeling, reeling, reeling! He had recovered a good deal of the line when the steady pull ceased. The rod straightened. Gone! Well, that was that. He couldn’t have stood much more anyway.
Swoosh! Ker-swash! Great grief! The salmon had hurtled into the air not more than fifty feet below. Lord, he had all that slack! David’s tired fingers flew to the reel handle. He ground away in a frenzy until the fingers were still with cramp. He simply couldn’t reel in any more! He did, however, until the sag of the line became like a bow-string once more and the rod arched again. The line met the water a hundred feet above David, upstream! The fish had passed him while he was reeling in. “Ze-e-e, ze-e-e-eI” Upstream instead of down! David staggered after. How long was this going to last? He couldn’t stand much more. The renewed steady pull on the rod had proved that. His left arm, that bore the strain, was quivering with fatigue. His legs were shaking. His back felt as though it had been pounded with a club.
At the exact spot from where he had risen to the fly, the salmon came to rest. David worked up to him, slowly gathering in line. He stopped on the shore just below the fish and wiped the sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his free right arm. He supposed the demon was sulking. Dad had told him about that. Well, let him sulk. That suited David.
He shifted hands on the rod and eased his aching left arm. With the bow of the rod keeping the line taut, he stood there waiting and looked about him—at the river, its banks, the mountains, the gray sky just above them into which they seemed to thrust their pine-clad tops.
He was standing on the edge of the pooi he had fished so often. He thought he knew every flat, every riffle in it, every tree, every rock that formed its setting. It had become too familiar. He had learned to hate it. He found that he was seeing it all for the first time. Stimulated by the most violent excitement he had ever known, David’s senses were razor sharp. The smell of the pines had never been so pungent. He filled his nostrils with it and drew in lungfuls of the good air that bore it to him. The pines stood out more sharply than ever before. He could see each cluster of green needles on their branches. These somber steadfast trees seemed to be watching him—calmly, darkly watching.
And the river! He heard notes in its song altogether new to his ears. Sighs, gurgles, whispers, chuckles, the varied pattern of its steady roar. The water itself was different. The surface of the pool, beside which he stood, seemed like a smoothly sliding, dark-amber mirror concealing fathomless depths. Below this mirror, savage darting lives were being led by huge black-and-silver salmon. It seemed strange that the mere dropping of a tiny arrangement of gaudy feathers on this mirror could bring one of those monsters from the impenetrable mystery of his dim watery haunts to an intimate struggle with the boy who had put it there.
David looked up at the perfect curve of his rod. How steadily, how splendidly it fought for him! What a delicate thing, and yet how staunch! He loved it! He loved it all— sky, river, pines, mountains. He seemed a part of them. He was a weak continuation of his rod. They were joined forever in a world that contained two living creatures—himself and the great fish at the end of his leader, quiet now, for some reason.
What was he doing down there? Was he pausing for new atrocities to enter his diabolical mind? He must be tired or he wouldn’t rest this long. It hadn’t seemed possible that anything could tire him a little while ago. Maybe he was all in. Maybe he could be handled, after all. Boy, oh, boy!
The line began to move upriver with a faint hiss as it cut through the water. Where do we go from here? Nowhere! Just a jarring smash on the tackle that shook his arm from wrist to shoulder. Another and another and another! Good Lord! What was he doing? The fish was jigging. David had not been told about that. Panic seized him as jar after jar was telegraphed through line and rod to his arm. Something had to give if that kept up! Instinctively he reduced the pressure on the rod, but the jigging continued.
“Wish he’d quit that jerking,” said David, aloud.
His wish was swiftly granted. “Ze-e-e-e, ze-e-e-e!” Out of the water he came! The wave he made as he somersaulted in again washed inches up on David’s wading shoes. “Ze-e-e-e, ze-e-e-e-e-el” Tired? He’s going to the ocean! Got to go after him!
And now, as David discovered when he got to the salmon at last, the real fight began. Not so spectacular, not so vicious, but a wearing, remorseless series of short rushes, long runs and circling swings around a pool with the line hissing as it cut various impromptu figures through the water. No more leaps. That, thought David, was grandstand stuff. This is the real thing.
On and on it went. No let-up. No slightest sign of weakening in the dogged drive of the great fish. “Ze-e-e” from the reel. “His-s-s” from the rigid line, knifing up or down or across a pool. David could barely stand. Sweat filled his eyes and dripped off his nose. He could no longer close his hands. If the salmon bored away upstream or down, he staggered after, knowing he could not turn his reel handle to take up the slack. His thin arms were numb to the shoulder. “Oh, God!” he said at last to the watching trees and mountains. “I’ll never do it!”
If Dad would only come, or Uncle Jim! He couldn’t cut the line; he’d die before he did that! Was this going on forever? Not forever; he’d die, all right, before long, of heart failure or busted lungs, or something. But his heart and lungs continued to serve him for another incredible half hour. Then at last he saw a sudden gleam of a great silver side. He ~.aw it again a moment later. It was fiat on the water for an instant. That must mean something. It did! The runs began to shorten. The side was showing more and more, despite the still powerful sweeps of the awesome tail. The salmon was no longer swimming now. It was wallowing just below the surface. David’s eyes filled with quick, unaccountable tears. He blinked them away. ‘I believe I’ve got him!”
From some unsuspected source he drew enough strength to lift on the rod. He could not believe his eyes as the salmon came wallowing and rolling in.
“Thank you, God!” breathed David.
With the rod bowed to a complete arch, the fish came in, a heartbreaking foot at a time, but still he came, until he was thrashing the water to foam and churning up clouds of sand a few feet off the narrow beach where David stood.
Now what? He was supposed to get him by the tail and drag him onto the beach. He laid down his rod. He found he couldn’t stoop over. He staggered out beyond the fish and put the side of his foot against it. With a heave of his leg he got it nearer the shore. Another heave! Another! The salmon was now in a shallow mixture of sand and water. David fell on his knees. He got both arms around the fish despite the flailing tail. He must get to his feet! He must— he must! He did it, somehow, and staggered up the little beach. His arms gave way. The salmon thudded to the sand. David fell on his face beside it.
For ten minutes he lay there without movement, his mind a blank. Then thought returned. Was the fish still there? Was he as big as he had seemed? David sat up. He was still there! He was bigger! He was bigger than any fish could possibly be! David looked at the huge still slab of silver. Then he looked at the slender varnished rod lying in the sand. It just couldn’t be done! But he had done it! Once more his eyes filled with sudden tears—he didn’t know why.
He sat and stared at the magic river over which one could wave a split bamboo wand and lo, a miracle would come to pass. Footsteps crunched on some gravel behind him. It was Miriam. She was not in a pleasant mood.
“It’ll be a cold day when I ask you to go anywhere with me again, mister—and don’t you forget that! Just because you’re from New York, I suppose you think you can treat a person up here like she was dirt!”
David turned his head slowly and looked at her. She proved to be a girl with sort of reddish hair and big eyes. She brought back to him, vaguely, days of uncertainty and longing, broken by slinking, sneaky, throbbing moments that had left him shaking and unhappy.
“Scra-am!” The snarling of the command was an un conscious imitation of certain noble racketeers that people the fabulous world conceived by Hollywood. “Scram! Beat it! Don’t you see I’m fishing?”
Ten days later, David’s mother was welcoming her menfolk home.
“And, muz, I got eight more beside the whopper.” David searched in his coat pocket and brought out a newspaper clipping. “Thought you might want to see this,” he said, with elaborate indifference. “It’s from a Halifax paper.
She took the clipping and glanced at the headlines.
She looked up from the clipping at David’s father.
“Yes, there are two of them, now!”
David’s father slid a consoling arm about her waist.
“I’m afraid you’re right, old lady,” he said.