The morning sun had just cleared the summits to the east, and the grass in the small valley was still thick with dew, wetting the boots and the shins of the man and the boy.
The man, tall and unstooped, wore bib overalls over a flannel shirt, his feet shod with cream-soled tan work boots, white hair crowned with a faded green John Deere ball cap. Carrying a heavy Kelty backpack topped with a rolled tent, he walked confidently. His oaken walking staff, gripped just beneath the fist-size burl at its top, seemed to be more for cadence than support. The whiteness of his hair, his wire-rimmed bifocals, the crow's-feet next to his eyes, and a longish nose, just beginning to thicken, were the only hints that he was well past his middle years.
The boy wore a hooded sweatshirt and blue jeans bought too long and cuffed short so they wouldn't drag. His pack was little more than a rucksack, and in his right hand he carried an Orvis split-bamboo fly rod, fully assembled and bobbing before him like a slender, overlong divining rod. Like the man, his blondstreaked light-brown hair was also topped with a John Deere cap, only his cap was still brand-new.
A small movement in the woods high on the hill to their right brought both hikers to a halt. They stood there, silent, for a moment, the bright mountain sun reflecting off a thousand beads of water on the foliage around them. Then the man made a sound halfway between a cough and the caw of a crow.
Up on the slope, a deer stepped out from the trees, velvet nubbins of horn sprouting on his tawny head. The deer stared at the man and boy, took a tentative step in their direction, then turned and bolted back uphill, his white tail upright in alarm, the snapping branches marking his flight for several seconds after he had vanished back into the forest.
The man tamped his staff on the ground and chuckled. The boy looked his way.
"Why'd he come out like that?"
"I called him," the man said. "That sound I made? That's the sound his mama made when he was just a fawn, how she told him to stop doin' whatever he was doin' and get over to her. They hear it when they're growin' up, and they never forget it. Even if you can't bring a deer to you with that, you can freeze 'em in their tracks for just a second when they hear it. It's how they was raised."
The boy made the sound, a tenor echo of the man's warm baritone.
"That's it," the man told him. "You've got it."
They walked on in silence for the next few minutes, the trail winding down to the valley floor where it paralleled a small, clear creek.
The boy slowed, stepped nearer to the creek bank, and then looked back.
"Look." He pointed to the water, where several sleek brown shapes hovered in an eddy, a stray shaft of sunlight picking out the bright red patch just behind the upstream end of one undulating form. "There's cutthroat in there."
"Always have been," the man said. "But if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, then you may as well just give it up. Black bear fish this creek all the time, and them trout are way too skittish. I've seen lots'a folks fix to hook one, but fixin' is all they ever done. You can't catch 'em; they're too wild."
The boy scowled and looked back at the creek. He turned to the man again.
"Well, can I try, at least?"
The man looked around and then walked to a half-buried gray granite boulder sticking out of the purple mountain heather just above the trail. He shed his backpack and sat. "Sure," he said, leaning back against the rough rock. "I could use me a breather. But you're wasting your time, boy. Them trout are just way too wild."
The boy set his pack down next to the man's, opened the flap, pulled out a small aluminum fly box and selected a mosquitosize dry fly, an Adams pattern. He held it up to the man, who shrugged and said, "Good as any, I suppose. But I don't suspect they'll be buyin' what you're sellin'."
Scowling, the boy took pliers from his rucksack and bent the fly's barb flat to the bend of its hook. He pulled the tippet from the fly reel, threaded it through the rod guides, and tied on the fly with a practiced clinch knot. He glanced at the man, who said, "Gift-wrap it if you want. Won't make no difference."
Then the boy pulled nail clippers from his pocket, snipped off the tag end of the tippet, and returned the fly box and pliers to the pack. He glanced up at the man, who had taken a small black book from the chest pocket of his overalls. The man read, looking up every moment or two. He appeared to be following a distant snowcapped skyline with his gaze.
Lips set thin and straight, the boy stepped toward the stream, stopped, backed up, then stooped close to the heather and approached the water again. He moved stealthily, setting his feet without so much as a sound, and stopped completely once he was within sight of the stream's far bank. Slowly lowering himself to all fours, he looked back at the man, who met his gaze for just the tiniest fraction of a second before resuming a leisurely inspection of the distant ridge.
The boy reached the bank and parted the grasses. Near the center of the water, a large trout rose, its brown back bowing the surface before it dipped back down and resettled to the gravel streambed. Tapping his fingertips against his thigh, one beat to each second, the boy watched, and when the big trout rose again he resumed his count: tapping, tapping, tapping.
Five times he watched the big fish rise and fall. When it sounded for the sixth time, he pointed the rod tip through the parted grasses, keeping his thumb on the reel and pulling the tiny fly back toward him with his other hand, the way a prankster might pull back a rubber band in school. The rod tip bowed upward from the pressure, and the boy's lips moved, silently forming the numbers one, two, three ...
Then, just as the fish was due to rise again, the boy released the tiny fly and its hook.
The fly shot out and up on its spider thread of tippet. Then the minuscule ruff of fur around the shank caught air and the dry fly slowed and settled toward the water.
In the creek, a brown shape began rising.
There was a swell of crystal water, a splash, and the fly was gone, the tippet pulling tight and yanking the bamboo rod tip downward.
The boy fed line off the reel, letting the fish pull until the tippet had completely cleared the guides and a foot or two of pale yellow fly line was clear as well, pointing this way and that as the trout raced to and fro in the pool.
Standing, the boy held the rod high, clear of the shrubs near the creek bank, and glanced back at the man, who was slapping his thighs and laughing with delight.
The boy straightened up and did his work, cupping the rim of the fly reel with his hand and letting it run a little. When the fish turned, he took line with it, keeping tension on the barbless hook. He did this three times. Then the fish seemed to tire and the boy stepped down the bank and into the water, gasping as it reached his knees.
He kept the rod high, turning and guiding the fish until it drew next to him. Still keeping tension on the line, he dipped his free hand beneath the surface, cupped the fish behind its pectoral fins and lifted it free of the water. The red mark behind the big trout's gill plate gleamed fiercely in the bright mountain sun.
"Whoo-eee!" The man was standing on the creek bank now, a black Vivitar camera in his hands. "That fella's two pounds if he's two ounces. Hold him up and turn a little this way, Tyler."
Tyler trapped the fly rod between his arm and body and held the fish out with both hands, displaying it like the prize that it was.
The man took one picture, then another. He glanced at the sun and said, "Breakfast was kind'a on the light side this morning. Want me to break out the stove and fry that fella up for you?"
The boy shook his head. "I just wanted to see if I could catch him. Let's let him go."
The man crooked an eyebrow. "That's no rainbow, you know. Cutthroat are smart. They remember. You won't be pullin' that prank on him twice."
Tyler laughed. "Then I'll just have to come up with a new prank."
He cocked his head. "Don't you think I should put him back?"
The man held up an index finger and then opened to the front of the little book he'd been studying. He leafed forward a few pages.
"'And God blessed them,'" he read, "'and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea.'"
He closed the book and looked at the boy. "'Have dominion.' You know what that means?"
Tyler shook his head.
"It means you get to decide. That may be a fish of the creek instead of a fish of the sea, but it's close enough. You still get to call the shots. Cook him or set him free, God says you're the boss. Sure you don't want him for lunch?"
The boy shook his head again. "I want to put him back."
"All right. Turn him loose, then."
The hook came free with one turn and a pull, and the boy lowered the fish belly-first into the stream, moving him back and forth in the cold clear water until the trout's brown body quivered and it swam from his hands and shot for an undercut on the far side of the stream.
The boy handed the fly rod up to the man and clambered out of the water. The man had put the camera away and held out a dry pair of boot socks. Tyler nodded and accepted them, sitting down on the warm, rough surface of the boulder to pull off his sodden boots. A soft breeze ruffled the hair above his forehead as a yellow butterfly flitted nearby among the heather.
"Is that really true what you told me? That nobody has ever caught one of those trout before?"
"Not in all the years I've been comin' here. And I've been comin' here since before the war. Seen folks try it. Lots of folks. You're the only one I've ever seen do it."
The boy beamed, and the man seemed to dim a little, his smile straightening, eyes moving back to the jagged edge of the distant ridgeline.
"What are you thinking?"
The man smiled at him. "About how much I love coming here. About how I like being here with you."
"Then why did you look sad there for a little bit?"
The man cocked his head and studied the boy a moment, then turned his attention toward the ridge again, tucking the Bible back into his bib pocket and buttoning the pocket shut.
"I've been coming into the Wind River Range for more than fifty years, Tyler. Started when I was barely shaving. And now ... well, now I'm old."
"You're not old."
The man took his cap off and his white hair shone in the sun.
"There's snow on the mountain," he said, laughing.
"But you're still strong."
"Am now." The man nodded. "But I won't be forever. And I was just thinkin' that there'll come a day when I won't be able to do this anymore. When I won't be able to just pack up and go."
The boy looked at the ridge as well.
"Then I'll bring you," he finally said.
"When you can't come on your own. I'll come and I'll get you and I'll bring you. I'll come to your and Miss Edda's house, and I'll put you in my truck and I'll bring you."
"You have a truck now, do you?"
Tyler shook his head. "Not yet. But I will when I'm a man. And I'll come and I'll get you and I'll take you into the Winds, just like you take me now."
The man smiled, tan skin crinkling more deeply behind his glasses at the corners of his blue eyes.
"Well, I'd like that," he said. "You wouldn't have to do it all the time. Who knows? When you grow up, you might live somewhere way across the country. But maybe when I'm too old to come up here all by my lonesome ... maybe you can come get me sometime and bring me back up for one last trip. Could you do that?"
"I'll do that."
The boy spat on his palm and held his hand out.
The man spat on his own and they shook. No laughter. No jokes.
"It's a promise," Tyler told him.
"All right then." The man looked around the valley and took the boy's wet socks, putting them under the straps that held the tent on his pack so they'd dry as they walked in the sun. "One last time. One last trip into the Winds."
"When you're too old."
"That's right. When I'm too old."
Wind River by Tom Morrisey
Copyright © 2008; ISBN 9780764203473
Published by Bethany House Publishers
Used by permission. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.