The Shadow Trout

by Graybyrd

Blue sky, green grass, red flannel shirt and grey muddy shoes: the boy, age eight, carried his worms in a tin lard pail given to him by his mother. She was busy today in the ranch house where they worked on a Wyoming ranch at least one generation removed from anywhere in the known world.

Stepfather was away on his horse with the old ranch owner; they were always away all day; he never much knew where, for the ranch stretched away in all directions. It was said to be 90 miles around the outside fence.

The field below the barn, below the bunkhouse, stretching down to the narrow winding creek which disappeared in a sweeping curve into the thick willow groves and away into the arroyo, this field was the center of his young world of tall grass and tilted fence posts with grasshoppers that snapped away when he hunted them down for bait.

The field with its deep and narrow irrigation stream that fed from the creek some distance above and returned to the creek not far below, this was his summer world of days on the ranch.

His crooked fishing pole was a hand-me-down tubular steel affair with one line guide missing, in the middle telescoping section, but the other guides were there and it was still pretty straight if he was careful to pull each interlocking section out from the stiff butt tube, just so, careful not to pull the rod apart, because it might not go back together.

A pitted cork handle and a threaded twist ring held a dimestore reel with old casting line, black and twisted, that ended with a leader and a single hook for worms or grasshoppers, whichever came handy.

The creek running past the field lay in open sunshine where the willows had been mostly grazed away; washed gravel sweeps and shallow riffles held little more than glittering rocks and darting minnows. Trampled down banks where cattle watered held no secret places for trout. A morning here offered little more than jumping shallows and skipping rocks.

The great pool lay some distance downstream, around the bend, in the forbidden zone where stepfather in stern voice harshly said, "Never go alone."

Unnoticed before but obvious now as he walked along, following a thick line of willows arching over, the irrigation ditch was now a narrow, deep stream that had run so long neglected, steadily undercutting its grass-lined banks, this shaded stream now flowed in gurgling step from top to bottom scarcely wider than his own step and deeper than himself in places, the cold, clear, dark water lay in shaded seclusion.

Curious now the boy bellied down in the grass, pulled it aside to inch forward, cautiously, almost self-consciously, eager now to peer into this place so disguised by its obvious status as a ditch, not a place for fish, and peering over the cut bank, looking straight down into the swirling water he was astonished at the depth and chill and for a fleeting moment he saw a dark shadow hovering just above the mottled gravel bottom.

Heart filling his throat and blood pounding in his head he almost gasped aloud he had never seen such a thing but did he see it really? The shadow was there but is it there still? He dare not move farther lest it see him; can it be true? Here?

With wordless stealth he moves his head back from sight and rolling half onto his side partly extends his old steel rod and finds the hook; with muddy worm he baits it with the choicest fat one he can find, its wiggling ends writhing; he bellies again and this time easing the pole end over flips the baited leader onto the water.

Earth floating off in oily rings from the wriggling worm; peering over the edge he watches it sink spiraling, sinking. Hand-feeding line inch by inch he lets it go circling downward and in a flash a shadow darts and then with explosion of water and muscle and arc of straining rod he heaves in over-eager rush and like a slow motion film of upthrust rod and heaving water and the glittering whitesided trout it soars over his head and lands, furiously body-thumping, in the pasture grass.

A beauty. An honest-to-God two-pound beauty of thrashing native rainbow trout, thick as his arm and just as long, his mouth gaping open, his chest about to split he jumps and lands on his trophy, holding it down until it stills, its huge gills gasping, a red gash of rainbow tint gleaming down its sides.

Tearing grass from all around he lines the lardpail sides and carefully bending, stuffs the huge trout, head up one side, tail up the other, nested in the pail, and running now hell-bent-for-leather, metal pole flailing, tin pail swinging, he yells to his mother at the ranch house, to show her.

"My goodness, son, what a big fish!" she marvels, as he proudly shows her.

"Where did you catch it," her glowing face framed in streaming hair smiles down at him, flour dusted hands taking it from him.

"In the old ditch, down in the field," he exclaims. "It was in a deep hole under the willow bank," he gasps, still excited.

"You're sure it wasn't from the big creek bend, the one your father warned you about," she looked at him intently.

"No, I swear, it was in the ditch. I could see it there, on the bottom, just a shadow hiding under the bank," he insisted.

"Well, it sure is a beauty," his mother said, holding the trout for both to see. "We'll have this for dinner, and you can tell your father how you caught it."

Late that day, almost dusk, his stepfather came and murmuring voices in the cabin overheard and then the explosion, the roaring voice:

"Allen, come here!" and he ran to the door, thinking his stepdad should be proud and found himself caught by a hard hand and swept along to the barn.

"I thought I told you never to go near that big creek bend when I was gone," his father roared as the barn's gloom swallowed them both.

"Honest, Dad, I never did! I stayed in the field, by the ditch!"

"Don't lie to me you, you must of sneaked down to the creek. You couldn't have caught that fish anywhere else; I know damn well there's only one place such a fish could be found!"

No matter how honestly the boy explained or how earnestly he protested, his stepfather's face went harder and darker until he pulled his big leather belt out of its loops and doubled it up. He lashed the boy's legs and backside, slamming it down in cracking, snapping strokes until tears ran in streams and pain choked the protests.Sitting alone in the dirty gloom of the barn with bitter injustice brooding in him, the boy learned that truth is wasted in the ears of a hard-minded fool who won't listen. •


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