This short story was my first published in Gray’s Sporting Journal, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.
“Gawd, I hate kids!”
It was late June, still spring in Alaska, and the soft twilight had lingered long past midnight when I found Rusty sitting alone in the dusk, next to an unlit fire. There was a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and two tin cups on the big spruce round to one side, and he was softly mumbling to himself. “I was wondering when you’d get here.” He said over his shoulder as I approached.
“How did you know it was me and not some grumpy old brown bear looking for an easy meal?”
“No bear would dare mess with me tonight.” He grumbled. “I’m in too foul a mood… Whiskey?”
“Why not.” I said. “Mind if I light a fire?” There’s nothing as sad as two fishing guides drinking whiskey in the dark. I knew that the glow of a fire would change the mood and poured a little diesel over the cord wood that had been laid in anticipation of the next get together. Rusty tossed a wooden match to light it.
He grunted as he poured a generous measure of the amber liquid into each of the tin cups, and we sat there, sipping our whiskey without speaking for a good long time. The dry spruce crackled and popped as it caught. Rusty hates complainers, has no time for whiners, and generally avoids expressing displeasure with any of The Boss’ decisions… but he was at the end of his rope. “What the hell are we going to do with that pack of rug rats tomorrow.” He finally moaned. “Gawd… I hate kids.”
Anyone who knows Rusty will tell you that he harbors no ill will towards children in general… or anyone else for that matter. Simply put, Rusty loves to catch fish and judges an individual solely on his or her ability to do so. It chafes him to spend time with people who can’t fish, and conversely, he enjoys being with anyone who’s good at it. I’ve often thought that he’d have a wonderful day sharing a boat with Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung if the fish were biting.
“Aw… it’ll be all right.” I said, trying to cheer him up. “We’ll take them over to Spider Bay and fish for pike in the morning. Then we’ll go for a boat ride and find a nice beach somewhere across the lake for a big fire and shore lunch. Afterwards they’ll skip stones and go swimming… and before you know it… the day’ll be over.”
“That’s just dandy.” He wailed. “The best run of Kings in three years… and I’m going on a pikenic!”
“Honey, it’s time to get up… honey?” Lisa asked, gently shaking my shoulder. “Ooooh… you look bad. Let me get you a cup of coffee.”
“Ahhhhg…” I moaned into my pillow. “How much time do I have?”
“Not nearly enough from what I can see… now drink this. I’ll see you up at the ‘Big House’ in fifteen minutes.” She said. “And… honey?”
“I hope the other guy looks worse.”
I smiled… I was quite sure that he did.
The morning was soft and clear, and the day promised to be warm and dry… at least we wouldn’t be baby-sitting in the rain. “Have a nice time today, kids!” Their mother called from the porch of the cabin, as Rusty and I herded her flock of squabbling little fishermen down the dock and into the waiting float plane.
“That’s right!” Their father said leaning into the open door of the tightly packed airplane. He had way too much enthusiasm in his voice for the time of day. “You boy’s listen to the guides… and no picking on your little sister.”
“Ouch!” She screeched into Rusty’s face. Rusty was severely hung over and hiding behind his dark fishing glasses, but I could see him wince in pain. “Daddy, he pinched me! Make him stop… make him stop!”
“Clear!” The pilot called out mercifully.
“They’ll be fine, sir.” I said. “We’d better go now.”
His head disappeared from the doorway, and the old de Havilland Beaver was turned away from the dock. “You’re clear!” Someone called out. The big radial engine coughed once and caught, roughly at first, and then smoothed out as we taxied out into the lake. It seemed to take forever for the engine to warm up for take-off.
The flight was humanely short and the pilot, sensing Rusty’s mood, didn’t circle, and landed as quickly as possible. Only one of the five kids fell into the lake while Rusty and I unloaded the plane. “I’m cold!” The youngest boy screamed as he pulled himself out of the water.
The pilot looked anxious to leave. “Serves you right for picking on your sister.” He said from the open door and then closed it quickly. “Clear!”
“I’m cold!” The Wet One wailed. “I want some hot cocoa.”
“Help yourself.” I said, handing him a thermos and a mug.
“This tastes funny!” He yelled. “Like what Daddy drinks when he comes home from work.”
The oldest one, The Ring Leader, took a sip. “I’m telling!” He said. “I’m telling Mom that you tried to give us whiskey!”
“I’m sorry.” I said, quickly taking the thermos away from him and pouring any remaining evidence into the lake. “This must have been left over from yesterday… right, Rusty?”
One small tear appeared from under Rusty’s dark glasses and fell to the beach, where it mingled with the laced coffee, and then disappeared in the first gentle swell from the float plane’s take-off roll.
Within half an hour both boats were drifting within talking distance, in a shallow grassy bay. Somehow, Rusty had drawn three of the kids… and I, only two. While the two older boys in his boat were slinging Devil’s Horses, long cigar shaped top-water plugs with propellers on each end, their little sister, who insisted on fly fishing, was waving her “fly pole” around like a drunken samurai princess.
Rusty stood stoically behind his dark glasses, arms crossed, looking like a ZZ Top album cover… except when he ducked a lure or dodged a fly rod. “I’m fly fishing… I’m fly fishing.” The little samurai princess sang as she hopped between her brothers, slicing the air in wide and deadly arcs.
“There aren’t any fish here!” Announced the second oldest boy, a real weasel of a kid if I ever saw one. “I want to go where there’re fish!” Something about Rusty changed in that instant… I thought that he was about to launch the little ferret-face out of the boat.
“Holy shit!” Rusty said, pointing. He seemed more like himself now. “Look at the size of that!”
“You said a bad word!” The Princess squealed.
“I’m gonna tell my Dad!” The Weasel screamed.
The little Ring Leader followed Rusty’s Ahab-like stare a few yards past the sputtering top water plug to the enormous wake that followed it. “Holy shit!” He yelled.
“That’s right!” Rusty said.
“I wanna go where there are fish, or I’m gonna tell my Dad that you said a bad word!” Weasel shrieked as his brother’s lure drew nearer the boat. The Ring Leader stopped reeling and the lure went dead in the water. The monster slowed, but didn’t stop until its alligator like nose was all but touching the trailing treble hook. It held there… finning menacingly… mouth gaping… its mean yellow eyes glowing in the morning sun. “Holy shit!” The Ring Leader whispered.
“What’s that?” Weasel yelled, pointing at the fish. “I don’t like that… I’m ascared!”
“I’m fly fishing… I’m fly fishing.” The Little Princess sang as she performed a pirouette and slapped the big deer-hair fly down on the water within a few feet of the big fish. The water around the boat exploded in an eruption of fury that few serious fishermen have ever witnessed. “Ahhhhg!” The Ring Leader screamed.
“I’m ascared!” Weasel shrieked covering his eyes and dropping into the bottom of the boat.
“I’m fly fishing… I’m fly fishing.” The Little Princess continued to sing, as her father’s fly reel screamed in discord. Rusty stood on the bow, the boat net in hand like a harpoon. The hint of a smile crossed his face.
I started to ease my boat closer, thinking that Rusty might need a hand. The two boys in my boat; the fat one, that I thought of as The Toad, and his little brother, The Wet One, noticed my shift in attention and turned around just as The Princess swung her fly pole in yet another sweeping arc, which totally confused the big pike and caused it to charge directly toward Rusty’s boat. He barely had time to lunge with the net as the brute passed under him and it almost tore his arms from their sockets. He somehow managed to sweep the net around the bow and use the behemoth’s momentum to bring him to the surface, and then, with a war whoop, into the boat. The titan thrashed around in the bottom of the boat, making it sound like some sort of gigantic and demonic kettledrum. The Weasel shrieked one long, high pitched, and piercing scream before jumping into the lake, where he wailed and thrashed around in the muddy, waist-deep water.
“Would you look at that the size of this?” Rusty yelled, as he strained to lift the fish and show me. When he hoisted it into view the Wet One shrieked and jumped into the lake to join his big brother. The Toad wet his pants.
“It’s huge!” Rusty said.
“Huge.” The Ring Leader whispered in awe.
Once some semblance of order was restored and everyone was back in the boats, the fish was released, and we managed to catch a few small pike for lunch. Rusty seemed like a new man as we cruised, side-by-side across the wide glassy lake to a broad pebbly point that was ideal for a big shore lunch. The kids all seemed content to scour the beach for driftwood while Rusty cleaned the fish and I prepared to fry them.
“Can I light the fire, can I light the fire?” Weasel screamed into Rusty’s face from a few inches.
“Git!” Rusty said menacingly. “Git now, ‘er I’ll skin you like a pike!” He held the carcass of a fish on the point of his knife, and shook it for emphasis.
“If you don’t let me light the fire… I’m gonna… I’m gonna… tell my Mom and Dad all about the whiskey!”
“Errrr…” Rusty growled.
“If we let you light the fire… do you promise to keep quiet?” I asked, nodding to Rusty.
“Why sure then, little feller.” Rusty said, his voice dripping with poisoned honey. “Since you promise…there’s some diesel fuel in the yellow jug back there in our boat. Splash a bunch of that on the wood and light it with this.” He tossed Weasel a lighter.
“I get to light the fire! I get to light the fire!” Weasel announced to everyone and they all gathered around to watch.
“Hey!” Rusty screamed. “Not that jug! No! Don’t…”
The explosion of boat gas sent them all to the ground as a column of flame leapt sixty feet into the sky. There was a chilling silence…
“Cool!” They screamed as they ran up to us with singed hair and no eyebrows or eyelashes. “That was neat! Can we do it again? Can we?”
“No… I don’t think so.” I stammered, and they ran off to skip stones. “Did you see them, Rusty?” I asked. “They look like a bunch of little aliens from Area Fifty-One! Jeeze… if we don’t get fired over this…”
“You know?” Rusty said, his voice warming nostalgically, “These kids ain’t half bad.”
Lunch was a big hit and after fudge brownies for dessert, they all went swimming. “You play life guard.” Rusty suggested. “They’ll be cold when they get out and want a big fire.” I shook my head in disbelief as my mentor dragged driftwood from a hundred yards in every direction to build the biggest bon fire these kids would ever see.
“Cool fire.” The Toad said as he toweled off and opened another can of grape soda pop. Everyone gathered around.
“Can we throw pop cans into the fire?” The Wet One asked. “We did it at summer camp. When they get real hot, they explode and take off like rockets!”
“Well… I don’t…”
“Sure!” Said Rusty. “That sounds like fun!”
They all tossed in a can and we ran back fifty feet from the fire anticipating some sort of grape-soda-pop-fourth-of-July. Nothing happened and after a few minutes, as a group, we crept a few yards closer. Still nothing… and we closed in on the fire further still. After a few minutes more… we drew even closer. In an epiphany, I turned to Rusty and was about to suggest that we were fools, when the first can exploded, pinwheeling into the sky and covering everyone in purple goo.
“Cool!” They screamed as we ran for cover. “Whoa!” They said as the second, third and fourth cans rocketed into the sky, propelled by grape scented trails of steam.
“Well we’d better clean up.” Rusty announced. “Time to go soon.”
“Aww… do we have ta?” They moaned collectively.
While everyone else pitched in, The Wet One just stood there, looking into the fire.
“What’s up, kid?” Rusty asked. “Something wrong?”
“My can never exploded.” He said.
At that instant the grape intergalactic missile detonated, rocketing out of the flames and clipping The Wet One squarely on the forehead. He went down as he’d spent the day… in a wet heap.
“You all right, kid?” Rusty asked in a panic.
A small crimson circle began to appear on The Wet One’s brow as he regained consciousness, and a single small drop of blood trickled over an eyebrow.
“Is he gonna be ok?” Weasel asked.
“He’ll make it, alright… but we’re gonna have to stitch him up some.” Rusty said to my disbelief. “Weasel, go get my tackle box… Toad, get some water… You…” He said pointing to The Ring Leader, “… take your little sister over by the boat… this ain’t gonna be pretty.”
Weasel appeared with the tackle box in an instant. The Toad dribbled water over his brother’s wound. “Oooh.” The kid moaned.
“Hang in there, kid.” Rusty told him, as he winked at me. “This is gonna hurt some.” The patient bravely closed his eyes. “Hand me a big fish hook, some monofilament, and a band aid.” He told Weasel in an operating room tone of voice.
“Oooh.” The kid moaned again.
“Easy there big guy.” Rusty said as he pretended to stitch him up, tugging convincingly on the line while covering the operation from view with his hands.
“There… got it!” Rusty announced as he bent over and bit the mono in two with his teeth. He artfully covered any evidence of his charade with a big Band-Aid. “That’ll do it… he’ll make it. You guys better carry him back to the boat. Now… when we get back to the lodge, we’ll want to keep all of this quiet… especially from your folks.”
The floatplane cut its engine and we drifted towards the dock where the crew guided it to its space and tied it securely. “How was your day, kids?” Their mother and father asked in unison as they piled out of the plane and spilled onto the dock in a singed and tangled heap. “Oh my!” The parents gasped.
“You wouldn’t believe the huge fish we caught!” The Ring Leader yelled excitedly. “Uncle Rusty said he was the biggest fucking pike he’s ever seen!”
“I got to light the fire, Mom!” Weasel announced proudly. “It went sixty feet high!”
“I fell in twice… before we went swimming.” The Wet One added. “And, then we threw pop cans in the fire and watched ’em explode! It was cool!”
“One of the cans knocked him cold.” The Toad said. “And, he never even cried. Even when we sewed him up with a big hook and some fishin’ line!”
“Yeah, and Uncle Rusty says I won’t even have a scar!” The Wet One said. “See!”
“I went fly fishing… like this!” The Little Princess said waving her arms around and dancing off of the dock.
Rusty and I stood there smiling and nodding like idiots as their parents hurriedly scooped up the remaining four brothers and hustled them to the cabin where The Little Princess danced on the porch.
“Jeeze…that was close.” Rusty said, under his breath after they’d left. “I thought for sure one of them would mention the whiskey!”