A Fish Story about Love
A FISH STORY ABOUT LOVE
Author of "Appreciating Peter," "Strength of the Gentle," etc.
GIDEON LIMES was dictating. The sunlight of early April, wholly Springlike for the first time, streamed through the window of his office, spattered on the nude dome of his egg-shaped head and set its accentuating rays full on the framed photograph which overhung his dingy desk, a photograph of himself, in waders, fishing-jacket and khaki sun-hat, hip-deep in scooting waters, a fly rod balanced in his fat hand and a sharp consciousness of the camera's purpose on his heavy, usually inexpressive features.
The warmth annoyed Gideon and he stirred, looking absently at the great knot of hair at the nape of Miss Vera Somers' delicate neck as she sat beside him, pencil ready above her pad, waiting for him to resume his stumbling way. Her hair was like the sunshine, that brilliant.
"Begin again," he said, hitching and scowling into the gloomiest corner of his desk and toying clumsily with a paper-knife.
"Messrs. Hoyt & Hoyt, Youngstown, Ohio. Dear sirs."
His voice filled the room. In other days before the plate-glass partition had been erected and his office was a railed corner of the factory itself, he had competed for hearing with the whirr of belts and clatter of machinery. The clash of industry no longer disturbed him, but habit was strong, and he still shouted his dictation.
"Dear sirs," he repeated, passing a hand over his head, "yours of the twenty-third instant received, contents noted. In reply would state sample shipment Phenix Brand galvanized iron were—was—In reply would state sample shipment Phenix Brand galvanized iron was not up to our required standard. Recommend——"
He swung in his chair, searching for the proper phrase. That brought him to face the sun and he blinked in annoyance. He swung back.
"Recommend that your representative call at earliest convenience. Would be willing to give your product thorough trial—thorough trial——"
The slight expression of annoyance departed as his vagrant eyes fell again on the photograph. "Thorough trial—but prefer one five-pound German Brown trout——"
He broke short.
Three happenings coincided with the interruption: Gideon Limes flung the paper-knife impatiently away. A freckle-faced youth at a desk behind him choked. The superbly rounded head of Miss Vera Somers quivered ever so slightly.
Limes turned to look at the source of the choking sound. He saw bony, boyish shoulders bowed low over an absorbing litter. He stared hard at Miss Somers and saw the ear nearest him redden. He looked up at the photograph.
"—— the blessed sunshine!" he said with a ponderous sigh.
The girl laughed, riotously; not, it seemed, so much at what he said, but rather as though the exclamation offered excuse to liberate laughter which threatened her self-control. And the youth behind, freckles swamped in a fiery flush, looked at her with his blue eyes dancing.
"Finish that for yourself," said Gideon. "Now; take this:
"James C. Pulver"—voice mounting—"Pulver Rivet Company, Cleveland. Dear Jim. Yours under date of February twenty-seven received and filed. Note what you say regarding trip. In reply, state have delayed answer until own plans arranged, as per my first letter on subject.
"Now plan to leave for North June fourteen. Will take usual month's fishing. In view your health, would urge you do same. You could go earlier or stay longer. The shack is comfortable, four rooms, tight screens. Can sleep ten. At no time will there be more than six. Four of us own it. Always careful not to fill up with cook-stove fishermen. Would state this does not apply to your case. You will get interested in trout fishing, I know.
"The Boardman one best streams ever ran down hill. Plenty fish, few neighbors. You might even catch the Lunker. He is trout I have fished for years. Must net over five pounds. German Brown. Broke my rod in second joint last year. Carries away several items tackle each year. I will get him yet, so don't think you could, after all. Better be on deck though, to watch. Will be great sight.
"Conclusion, would state you are foolish go through life thinking only of rivets. I have time for two things, fishing and business. Better worker for being fisherman. Every business man should fish for trout at least eight per cent, of his time. Reduces cost upkeep. Besides, you might see me catch Lunker. Hoping to receive prompt affirmative reply, I am, yours truly."
Miss Somers waited. Gideon was slumped in his chair, the bare suggestion of a smile on his face. He sat so a moment, hands loosely clasped across his rotund stomach; his lips moved in soundless syllables. He rose languidly.
"That'll do for now," he said, as if he thought of other things.
He gazed into the street below. He jingled his keys. He turned and looked at the picture again. Hulbert, the foreman, came in, letting the din of machinery through the door. Limes sighed impatiently and walked heavily toward him.
And Washington C. Kirk, who should have had his mind on the work before him, followed the corpulent walk until his employer had passed down between the rows of bumping presses. His blue eyes shifted, then, to the small, competent head of Vera Somers and rested there for so tenacious an interval that the young lady looked up from her note-book, left off pattering the keys of her typewriter, and, with her smiling brown ones, met them. She flushed, her eyes flamed, her trim shoulders trembled and she turned back to her work, leaving toward him one smooth, pink cheek, tempting to a degree.
Just that, but when Kirk forced his gaze back at the task before him he found that it was a trifle giddy, that the symbols on bills and invoices were less prosaic and, could he have known, the look that hinted at loneliness which had been in them for four long months had almost disappeared.
For those four long months young Kirk had functioned as stock and shipping clerk in the Detroit factory of the G. Limes Can-Screw Works and during that span, though he rubbed elbows with those about him, he had lived in complete isolation. Limes, the stodgy bachelor, could scarcely be expected to grow companionable with the lowliest of his office staff. "Puny" Boggs, who kept the books, was not the type to grow chummy with a youth. Hulbert's digestive disorders made it difficult for him to handle the factory force, let alone make friends. And Miss Somers, the efficient, the intent, had so impressed him with the impersonal quality of her manner that from the first he had told himself that hope of familiar contact there was impossible.
But now, when their smiling glances met and struck response, he knew that he had been mistaken, knew that behind the girl's office demeanor lurked characteristics that were far from repelling, and the realization warmed him—even more than did the shaft of sunlight, now streaming full across his desk.
His attention, like his eyes, persisted in straying across the fitter before him, across the floor to Vera Somers' desk, where they lingered, speculating.
WHEN the noon gong sounded Kirk whisked through the office door and trotted the four blocks to the one dingy restaurant the vicinity afforded; then back again, after gastronomic accomplishments of rather amazing rapidity. He knew that the girl brought her lunch with her.
When he reentered the office, that lunch scarcely tasted yet, was arrayed on a napkin spread over Vera's desk. She looked up at the unusual intrusion, a sandwich half-way to her mouth—a mouth as red as the glass of jelly staining the linen. She smiled and tossed her head, a gesture which was not at all like an intent executive, so girlish, so gay.
He approached slowly, not just certain of himself, and stood before her stiffly.
"The sunshine," he began, "sort of fogged up our esteemed employer's mind."
She laughed and bent forward quickly.
"Poor old fellow!" she cried, and Wash Kirk thrilled at the lilt in her unbusiness-like voice. "He gets that way every Spring when the first warm days come and he commences to dream of fishing."
"Can't blame him," said the boy still, uneasy, not knowing just what to say to this girl. "The Boardman's a great stream, especially for Browns."
"Oh! Are you a fisherman, too?"
She looked up, quite amazed. Wash Kirk flushed. Her quick interest was as pleasing as it was evident.
"Not his kind. My home's in the trout country and fishing is just like sleeping well or eating with a good appetite. Matter of course. We expect it."
"You came from the country!" she breathed, incredulously. "Isn't that fine!"
Her brown eyes were wide and, realizing, Kirk felt his assurance mounting.
"Which: coming from the country or coming from the country?"
"Oh, just knowing it, being a part of it. My, how we city folks envy you!"
His blue eyes searched her face at that, prying to find insincerity. She sat relaxed in her chair, mouth drooping a trifle as though she were tired. She seemed a little girl there, wholly unlike the self-reliant person who had awed him.
"I guess you mean it," he said, delighted, leaning a hip against her desk. "I've heard people say it who didn't mean it."
"Of course I mean it," she replied, seriously. "I've never seen the country except at a resort at too many dollars a week. I've never known country people or anything but city ways until I came here.
"Poor Mr. Limes! He isn't very graphic and he never talks to me except on business, but sometimes I think I get more out of the letters he dictates to his fishing pals than I do out of anything else—about the country. He's awfully prosy, but I know how deeply he feels about rivers and woods and sometimes when he's been sending off letters about them, or his vacation plans, or the fish he has caught, I can't get down to work for hours."
Wash Kirk's manner changed. The restraint left him. He moved around the desk, seated himself on its edge, heedless of the way his coat threatened disaster to the unconsumed meal and said:
"That's funny! Here I've been on the job four months, with never a soul to talk to about the open, believing that you all, that you especially, didn't have time to think of anything but the city.
"I've lost weight for loneliness. You see, it's horribly necessary that I stay here a while, a long while, and I was just about getting down to the ragged edge, what with being lonesome and not knowing anybody who'd agree with me about a city and not being able to take my job or any of your jobs as seriously as you people seem to take them—I—gee whiz! Miss Somers, why didn't you say something?"
"Say something! How was I to know that anybody in this rackety place knew about the things I've longed for?"
And so they went on, each revealing to the other; the one the eagerness to learn, the other the longing to re-live by telling, eyes warming intimately, Kirk hitching along the desk closer to her as each freshly discovered common interest delighted him.
"You said," she ventured in a pause, "that it was necessary—horribly necessary—for you to stay here."
"Yes? Well, it is," shaking his head slowly. "You see, my dad's a queer old bird. He's the Gaylord Potato-Planter Company, which you've never heard of. If I stay here long enough, it'll be me.
"My governor started that factory when I was so big. Now it's going to be pretty much mine—maybe. Last year dad got the idea that we had no efficiency, no modern methods, all that sort of thing. So he sends Washington G. out into the world to learn the manufacturing game.
"'Go out,' says he, 'stay a year, come back with a letter of recommendation that you've won by hard work and enterprise, and the management's yours.'
"Fine, understand. But my dad! He's rock-ribbed. If I should fall down——"
He whistled two little descending notes of apprehension.
"I'd have to take my chance in some place like the Limes Can-Screw Works for good—and then where'd I be?
"I don't amount to much," he went on after the silent interval which followed his shoulder-shrug. "If I did I'd take this year's stunt seriously. I've learned a lot, but somehow I like our little factory better. Only ten men, understand. We call 'em all by their first names and they do us. My mother is neighborly with their wives. When one of 'em wants a day's fishing, he takes it, and if we're behind we all work evenings. We haven't had a man leave since I can remember.
"It's the usual thing for country boys to come to the city. I've never wanted to. Since I've been here I've wanted to get back home—awfully! Why, the folks here 're all pitiable to me. Poor old Limes, with his eight per cent. of the year fishing! And Boggs! Think of a man spending his life taking ledgers so seriously. I'm not under-estimating his importance, but he'd be a lot better bookkeeper even if he took Limes' advice and played a little.
"Hulbert—I'll bet he hasn't laughed since he saw his first automobile. He thinks the sun rises and sets among those machines. He doesn't even know parks, let alone that rivers run and winds blow!
"And I've got to try to be like those men for a year—gee whiz!"
He told her of his home, of the great cutover lands, the plains of northern Michigan, of fish he had caught, grouse he had killed, the furs he had trapped for his mother; he etched cedar swamps under Winter moons and duck-shooting on Houghton Lake. He told of running white water in a canoe, of hiking through Autumn woods. He talked of wild flowers and birds.
He enthused over his dogs, the setter, the hounds; over skating and skiing, described his runs on snow-shoes. He discussed the fine craft of camping and went into ecstasies over sunsets and storms. She listened eagerly to his stories of the lumber camps, of weather indications, and without consciousness whatever, she leaned toward him, pointed chin in her hand, eyes reflecting her hunger for more.
"But," she argued finally, "all you have to do is make good on this job and you can go back to it. Think of us who've never had a chance to know what you know, who dislike this racket and rush just as much as you do."
"Yes, make good on this job," he interrupted, scowling absently. "I haven't a chance of going back unless I make good; my governor's that sort. So I will—I've got to, now!" Then, focusing his eyes on her face—"I think you're going to like it very much up there."
"Oh!" she said with a catch of her breath and started back.
Nor did she allow him to kiss her—not for three full weeks.
AFTER they had made their pact they decided, quite originally, they foolishly thought, to keep it wholly to themselves for an indefinite time.
"Having it a secret will make it all the better, won't it?" he asked, as several million lovers annually ask.
Walks in the parks followed, and long, rainy evenings together, reading aloud from books and from one another's faces. And no one else knew—not a soul!
One May morning after he called Vera for the first dictations Gideon Limes unwrapped a bundle from the printers. It contained big white boards with black characters on them—
SMOKING POSITIVELY PROHIBITED.
And while he sat there he wielded a heavy-leaded pencil on one of the placards. Then, quite deliberately, seriousness reflected in his little gray eyes, he held it up.
"Oh, Kirk," said he, "tack this up where it'll do the most good."
In a flaming flush the boy read—
LOVE AFFAIRS POSITIVELY PROHIBITED.
Limes tossed it rather indifferently to Kirk's desk and began the day's work.
At noon the lad said to his sweetheart:
"The old chump! How'd he find out? I suppose it's his idea of a joke."
Vera eyed him a long moment.
"I wish I could think that, dear. You see, I know him so well, and I'm sure he didn't do it to be funny. He meant it. The fact is, he's come to depend on me for so many things that he doesn't like to bother with, that he'd have to do if I didn't.
"There's no sentiment in his life. He's never been in love. The only thing he considers now is that he's in danger of losing me. He'd be awfully mad if he thought you intended taking me away from here.
"If it weren't for circumstances we wouldn't care a rap, but you know, dear, that if we fail to get our letter of recommendation out of this office it means six months lost—and six months is a terribly long time!"
Kirk nodded grave assent.
A week passed, the two particularly careful to display no indications of affection and Limes, looking over his fat shoulder, grunted a summons for Wash.
"Ever fish much, Kirk?" he asked, and before an answer could be given—as if the reply were of no consequence whatever—went on. "It's my religion—fishing. My picture, there," nodding. "Spend a month near Traverse City every Summer.
"Most time to go, now. Every time I get ready to go, I think about something that happened a few years back.
"Had a rod. Wonderful rod. Moller Dry-Fly Special. Built for me; four ounce, eight feet, balanced like a watch. Great for night fishing when you can't see your fly. Could always tell by the feel just what I was doing.
"Got so I depended on that rod. It did my fishing for me. Didn't realize for a long time what its value was.
"Fella come up to our camp who didn't know the game. We fishermen don't take to greenhorns much, but he was a nice fella and wanted to learn. I lent him my rod.
"He got a rise. Whipped back like a greenhorn will, crazy to get his fly on the water in a rush again. Hooked the brush behind him, didn't think, slashed down like he was splittin' wood. Put a set in that rod of mine—strained it, understand."
He looked at the photograph and blinked. Then picked up a sheaf of papers.
"Ruined, you know," wriggling forward in his chair. "Ruined—ab-so-lutely!"
"That's all, Kirk."
Wash moved toward his desk, puzzled.
"Oh, Kirk!" He faced about. "Since then I've never let my likin' for a fella interfere with my own interests. Keep my tackle to myself. Now, if a fella come along and insisted on using anything I depended on—I'd run him out of camp!"
With a pencil he commenced checking footings on the papers he held.
As they walked that night in Palmer Park Wash Kirk related the incident and after a silent, hand-gripping moment Vera sighed:
"It'll go hard with us, I'm afraid. No use shutting our eyes to it. He's so set in his ways that nothing can change him. He can't make himself think of giving up an idea. Why, the way he quarrels with his best friends in letters is frightful!
"If they catch more or bigger fish than he does, he raves. If they disagree with him about tackle he never forgets. He hasn't any use for anybody's opinions or wants—except the men who win big-fish prizes in the magazines he reads. He almost worships them, but other folks—he's sure to have his way at any price.
"You see, he's bound I'm not going to leave him. He thinks you're to blame—and he'll—he'll——"
"There, don't fret!" he said, scowling up into the trees. "If he fires me I can start again. It'll only be six months lost!"
"But I'm jealous of those six months! I want you all, and I know you can't love me your fullest until you take me away!"
So day by day they strove to be oblivious of one another and not heed the cloud that impended—a bald-headed, gray-eyed cloud which rumbled enigmatic thunder threats—and the time grew shorter before their month's reprieve, when Limes would be away.
"If we can tide things over until then," Wash said, frowning at the water from their deck seats on a Belle Isle ferryboat. "We have more of a chance. He's getting restless. The other day I saw him looking into a fly-book on the sly and yesterday he was discussing reels over the telephone. He'll be shy on patience and the least little thing's likely to spill our beans!"
"And if he does come back rested and happy he may overlook what we fail to cover up." Vera said slowly, with the procrastinating optimism of youth.
UNE'S}} first fortnight dragged along, dragged for the boy and girl because dread was on them, with all their happiness, and dragged for Gideon because the call of the stream had fevered his veins. The last days were a furious harvest of detail and never before had Wash Kirk realized how fully Limes depended on Vera.
She was his memory, his sense of caution, continually beside him, alert, anticipating wants, unobtrusively advising him, taking the initiative at other times. The two worked evenings and for a week the lovers had little privacy. That told on the girl even more than the long hours and Kirk saw, with great pride, that she missed him frightfully.
"No wonder he's sore at me," the boy thought.
The last, mad day! Suit case, waders, rods, hip boots, tackle boxes, creel, landing net piled about him like offerings to some fat god, Gideon Limes sat in his shirt-sleeves, glaring at the final barriers which kept him from freedom. Vera vibrated between him and her desk, rattling off letters with amazing speed, eyes bright, color high, nerves strained. But now and then she looked at Wash Kirk and the light in her eyes softened her mouth lost its tensity and she smiled, most adorably.
Noon—two o'clock—an hour until train time. Pen in hand, Gideon Limes hurriedly read the final letters. One by one, he scrawled his signature and put them aside. He gathered the last, reading, as was his habit, with moving lips:
Acme Brass Foundry
He put down his pen. He turned ponderously to look at Vera. He kept on moving until his gaze rested on Washington G. Kirk. He eyed the youth a moment, then gave that summoning grunt.
When the apprehensive youth approached, Limes, buttoning his collar, said:
"Of course, we're sorry you have to leave us, young man. I hope you can see your way clear to staying on the customary two weeks?"
Kirk's mouth opened and closed twice before words came.
"But I don't want to quit, Mr. Limes! I want to stay—I—why, I've been trying my best; there hasn't been a word said to me. I——"
"Remember my spoiled rod? The fella who used it did the best he could, too.
"Oh, Boggs!" lifting his voice and turning away as, with fat chin lifted and fat fingers fumbling, he contrived a knot in his black tie.
When he had gone, Boggs teetering after for a last word, Vera gave way and, looking into the sweltering street, cried openly.
"Never mind, sweetheart," Kirk whispered, putting his arms about her shoulders. "I'll hook on somewhere else."
"If he were only like other men," the girl sobbed, "we might appeal to some other side of him. But he knows only th-this and fish-fishing. There's no way to approach-ch him. H-he——"
She looked up suddenly, tear-filled eyes peculiarly alert.
THE valley of the Boardman was gathering its purple mists of evening. The sun had gone, the cerise bloom of the sky faded to a pink flush. The river gurgled contentedly in the quiet, its surface rosied in places, polished ebony in others, and here and there flecked by silver as a snag or ripple broke the even flow. A stranger, in black relief, was casting across the stream and above the water hung a myriad of insects, wide, gauzy-winged creatures, the caddis-fly, born at dusk to live its span of minutes and pass on.
Gideon Limes sat alone on the screened porch of the Uneedsumfish Inn staring with unseeing eyes out across that panorama. It was the hour, above all others, to fish. By thousands the expiring flies settled to the water and by scores the fish were feeding. No need for description. You, fishermen, need no words to breed the thrill at memory of plopping, splashing trout as they break evening water to feed, and you, the uninitiated, explanation to you would be meaningless.
Gideon Limes was aware of what transpired, and yet no enthusiasm stirred in him. Last night—another such an evening—the Lunker had struck his fly, hung a frantic moment, and torn loose, but even the prospect of having the great fish on again did not stir him. Life on the river had lost its keen taste.
He could trace the reason back to the hour of his departure, leaving the factory under that stifling sense of being tied. For years he had worked with a perfect office staff; now it was ruined by a love affair with a red-headed whipper-snapper. That had made him irritable. His irritation, he found, made inroads on his luck.
He did not have the necessary patience to fish effectively. His companion rivals picked on him, too, and he writhed under their jibes, choosing now to sulk rather than dominate by sheer bulk. Confound love anyhow, he thought as his mind went back again to the office. He stirred in his chair, swinging the landing net he held to relieve the rancor in his heart.
Footsteps, coming toward him; grasses swishing against boots. He looked up and could barely distinguish the figure of a fellow camper.
"Gid! Oh, Gid!" the man called, and he answered. "Hustle! Somebody's got your big fish on just below the bridge."
Gideon's discontent dissolved suddenly. He slammed the screen door behind him and waddled across the open.
"Who is it?" he called, but the other, the better runner, did not hear.
The pink had gone from the west. Just a silvered sky remained, enabling the identification of figures, not of faces, and as Gideon neared the stream he saw his four companions moving along on his side, other men across the water.
And in the river a man, thigh deep, ran down the languid current in great, floundering strides, heaping the black water into phosphorescent mounds as he went. His right hand held the straining rod and his left paid out line swiftly as he followed the rush of the fish he had hooked. As Gideon came close and started following the course of the river the man slowed his pace, gradually dropping to a walk, giving out line more eagerly, reducing his walk to a reluctant edging along while the bamboo bent and bowed mightily.
Then the tip of the rod vibrated and writhed and a hundred feet below them the water was ripped in a gleaming gash as the frantic fish charged across toward the other bank. Gideon Limes, standing still, held his breath as in sympathetic reaction he clamped his right hand and felt the strain come to bear on the tackle. Then gasped aloud as the fish broke water.
He burst through with a vigor which told of superb strength, of splendid fury. For an instant he was in silhouette against the dead white sky full three feet in the air, a wonderful water-creature taking to an alien element in his battle for liberty. Then, losing rigidity, the fish crashed back, body slapping the surface with its full length, sending out a shower as of new silver coins to spatter for yards about.
And as he went under, the man took in a length of line, quickly, deftly, careful not to bring up slack too suddenly. The tip of the rod bent and quivered again, dipping low before the strain, stiffly pointing out the direction of its quarry while the man braced backward against the ripples, breathing in a low grunt to attest to the tug yonder.
Again the fish leaped; again he crashed down limply, as if to fall on the strand which snared him and break with his weight that which he could not part with his pull. Again and again, until he had displayed himself, a black blotch against the western sky, six times.
Then change; the water quieted. The rod stood straight out, springing lightly, not an ounce of weight there.
"Gone, by heck!" some one cried.
"Gone, like ——!" snorted Gideon Limes. "Look!"
A ribbon of riffle showed, moving swiftly up-stream. The man in the water watched it go, watched it pass him, not a dozen feet away, and all the time his reel ate slack yard upon yard. He turned, following with his eyes the trail of the moving line until he faced up-stream. Then commenced to walk, to run, leaning low against the flow of water and when the trout did strike resistance again his enemy was moving with him, putting the strain on leader, line and rod gradually, carefully, skilfully, so that when the splints were again doubled and a-tremble the tension had come on them easily, not of a sudden.
"Look out for those snags!" Gideon cried, voice betraying his excitement. "Snags and jams all along the other side!"
In an ordinary tone, quite coolly, the response came from the other as he slowed to a walk and worked in close against the bank to put himself across the stream from the trout, giving the necessary trifle of slack and watching the moving flap of water laid back by the ripping line as his fish drove to and fro, laboring toward the tangle of logs.
Man to fish, fish against man, fighting that superb up-stream fight that the German Brown makes. Giving, taking, each wise in the ways of battle, the fish, close to bottom in his three feet of water putting every ounce into the struggle toward safety so near; the man, deft, collected, displaying that fine repression of effort which marks the master angler, countering move with move, stealing a yard here, yielding a foot there, scheming for a position that would give him a cross-pull on the trout's head to hold it away from its objective.
"You'll lose him; drag him out!" a man across the stream advised.
"It'll be my loss then," evidently nettled by suggestion from the clearly inexpert.
Yet the man gave, inch by inch, moving forward a step, halting, bracing until it seemed as though something must snap, then surrendering another foot; but each time he made that stand it was for a longer duration. The back fin of the Brown showed above the water within a yard of the jam that offered shelter, where he could tangle and break the leader. Another foot the man granted, another hand's breadth.
Minute after minute they fought, in silence now for those who watched spoke but rarely and then in hushed voices. Occasionally the man in the stream grunted or muttered an indistinguishable word. The trout worked back and forth feverishly and the man gave—when he did not want to give—letting the creature wriggle closer into the scant margin which was between him and his haven. The zig-zags became shorter, more frantic; he burrowed for deeper water and the rod segment became more acute.
Then, with a foot, perhaps, to spare, the man braced himself on spread legs, leaned backward and swung the tip of his rod straight upward. It was the crisis and Gideon Limes felt his heart slow with apprehension. Would the tackle stop the fish? Or would it set him free?
The man in the river strained with stilled breathing. Pound by pound he applied the upward pull, considerate of his tackle yet risking all against the resistance of the trout, risking it cautiously and wisely. Deeper grew the dip of the tip. The slender whip of bamboo bent clear to the grip, and still the Brown withstood the drag, wriggling sharply.
CAME the telling moment. The rod vibrated, the line was taut and still as though fast, finally, to the snag itself. So for the space of a deliberate breath, and with a hissing gasp of relief, of triumph, the man was moving with the river, for that last ounce had drawn the fish to the surface, turned him over with a flop and a cuff of the broad tail and headed him with the flow, away from the dangerous jams!
"Goo' boy!" cried Gideon Limes, brandishing the landing net and jogging along through the grass to keep abreast.
For an interval the man sloshed through the water, letting the fish go but holding him just within control. They rounded an easy bend, moving with the current.
"How's the water below?" the man asked, not turning his head.
"Jam clear across thirty rods down—Shallow water—banks clear—look out for hole to left—if he gets to that jam—water awful deep——"
Information rained on him; and Gideon Limes, panting in his effort to make through the brush that now covered the banks, dropped into the water, splashing along a dozen yards behind the fisherman, forgetting the absence of his waders.
A whippoorwill sounded its lonely note. A nighthawk "squnked" as it swooped close over their heads. The gloom deepened; but the afterglow, caught again and flung upward by the water, let them see.
Below was down-timber, clear across the stream. They could hear the laugh of the water as it sported over that obstacle. And the man with the fish began to slow once more, by fine degrees, looking from side to side, working out into mid-stream, where the water reached his hips.
He was deliberate in action now, almost hesitant, always underplaying. And before the others realized, he had checked the flight of his trout, was standing still, stooped forward from the waist, resisting sturdily.
Again the fish leaped, not so high, not with so much verve and display of strength and again the man stole slack as he crashed back on the water. He sulked, working sluggishly over to the right bank. He leaped again, and a third time. Sullen thereafter, keeping close to the bank.
Then he turned and veered for the other side. Back and across, again and again, twisting the rod until he threatened to wrench it to slivers. And to meet that stress the man was again forced to move on down, each step bringing the water higher about him, to his waist—his stomach—half-way to his armpits.
He stopped; still, and with indications of finality. Below was deep water. Once there, no tackle could hold that fish, so again the man forced a crisis, lay back against the current, lifted the tip of his rod and applied that upward pull.
The trout showed a flash of his back, and his tail flung into the air to smack the water. Once more the dark hump, and again the arc described by the tail time after time, end over end, rolling like a hoop, head chasing tail, tail flaying out in frantic effort, the fish, in a hysteria of rage, strove to break down the man's strength.
It did not avail. In a flash he was speeding up-stream. He reached the end of the line, hesitated an instant and swept back with the current. Then, across, then up once more, that time near the other bank, while the man, always facing his fish, took in a foot at a time, satisfied to win slowly, never yielding, now.
On the bank the watchers stood silent. In the stream Gideon Limes shivered unconsciously from the night damp and let mosquitoes feed on his fat neck without protest. His mouth was dry, eyes aching from the strain of following the fight.
"You got him now!" he rumbled and when the other did not answer, repeated: "You got him now. Here, let me help," waving the landing-net.
"Stay out! Watch!"
The other snapped out the words for the fish had turned and, back-fin showing, charged up the river. He went beyond his captor. He passed Gideon. He swung toward mid-current and Limes floundered, stepping high as he felt the line tighten about his legs. Somehow he got free without disaster, panting audibly.
"Now, if you can keep out of the way," the other said with stinging dispassionateness, "I'll try to land this fish."
Gideon muttered something. He did not know what. His thrill covered wholly his humiliation.
Another quarter hour passed. The moon was shining, silvering the stream, letting them follow every tired move of the drowning trout. Up and down, in short spasmodic flights, devoid of sweep or power, he went. Now and then his yellow belly flashed as he turned on his side. At no interval was he wholly submerged. Five—ten minutes the man toyed with him so, adding caution to caution. Then reeling in slowly, confidently, leading the fish gently about at his leader's length, he dipped his net and waded toward shore, a dripping, glistening weight in the mesh.
"Holy smoke, what a fish!" some one cried. "Come on to the shack; let's look at him in the light."
Fighting it over again, talking all at once, they trailed across the misty flat toward the Uneedsumfish Inn and in their wake Gideon moved heavily. Reaction had set in. For years he had dreamed of taking that fish and now he realized that he never could have taken him. It wasn't in his mind or body to fish as this man had fished. He was not born to it. He remembered the sharp rebuke, and suddenly he felt quite inferior—inferior and depressed.
They were clustered about the lighted lamp when he entered. In its glow lay the great trout, wide-eyed, gasping. Bright yellow was his belly, color deepening as it swept up his goodly girth to his rich brown back. The darker spots on him were big, clearly cut and the red dots stood out vividly from the more somber shadings—a superb specimen, crowding thirty inches, six firm pounds! Gideon's little gray eyes sparkled again as he gazed upon the trout. Then he lifted that gaze to the white, elated face of the stranger.
His jaw dropped. Incredulously he held out a hand.
"Kirk!" he cried. "Kirk, my boy! When the devil—how in—why——"
He pumped Washington's hand and looked about into the faces of the other admirers with rising triumph.
"You're friends?" one of his companions asked, perhaps enviously.
"Friends"—drawing himself up—"why, he's my right-hand man in the office. By the Lord Harry, it took somebody from that office to show you fellas up, to let you know what real fishing is."
"His vacation, you see—" looking at the youth, a peculiar flush on his own face—"he'll stay until my time's up. We'll go back to work together."
He slapped Kirk on the shoulders.
"By the Lord Harry, boy, you've caught my fish—and—" meeting the blue eyes— "you've hooked something else of mine. But there 're as good fish in the Boardman as ever 've been caught and that's true of everything—men, and women—stenographers and all those things."