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Vol. 1, No. 3

Custer on Mondays
by Jon Billman

      They are out the door at midnight with an electric beep of Colonel's Timex Ironman, waders on, vests heavy with tackle, wicker creels, rods in hand, Charlie Reynolds in the lead, scouting his way up the creek. They wade through the same backyards, which are now dark except for a few dim yard lights and the electric blue of hanging bug lights and TVs through a couple of windows. Walking, wading slowly, it is enough light to see by. They do not cast, do not hit the honey buckets they mapped in their heads earlier. "Just where are we going?" asks Private. The troopers are advancing.
      They stop under the bridge. Charlie Reynolds is up ahead, rustling through some willows along the bank. They take the lines from the reels and thread them through the guides on their graphite rods. Colonel reaches into a vest pocket and pulls out a tin fly box. He opens it and the insects come to life in the dim glow of a streetlamp. Gold bead-heads, hooks, and peacock hurl shine in the low light. Colonel selects a size ten delta-wing caddis fly, threads his tippet through the eye, cinches down a simple Orvis knot, and slicks the insect up with silvery floatant to keep it on top of the water.
      "Fishing dry, huh," says Private.
      "I'm not yet sure what these Dakota fish like for breakfast," says Colonel.
      Private ties on a humble Libbie Bacon in a size fourteen that will sink maybe a foot below the surface in still water, but no more.
      Upstream, Charlie Reynolds finds a low spot where he ducks under the fence and into the D. C. Booth Fish Hatchery. The troopers watch the basset hound's silhouette as he sniffs around the ponds and lunges at the bugs ticking under the floodlights. "How the hell did he get in?" asks Private. "Let's advance along the fence line," says Colonel.
      They find the high spot in the rusty cyclone fence. Colonel goes to his knees and reaches his fragile rod under the sharp steel mesh. "Just how low can you go?" says Colonel. He then commences to crawl under on his soft neoprene belly, careful not to rip the three-millimeter-hick waders. He stands erect, brushing the dirt from his waders and vest. "Private, why don't you check that flank over there?" says Colonel, motioning with his rod toward the tree-lined fencerow at the south end of the hatchery. The rearing ponds are lit from the bottom and they glow in the night.
      "Colonel," says Private, his rod leaning against the fence, both hands grasping the fence like a tree sloth, still outside the hatchery, still looking in. "Colonel, I can't go in there."
      "Why in heaven's name not?" asks the Colonel, nervously adjusting the drag on his reel between glances at the pools after the occasional light smack of a fish on an unfortunate insect.
      "Because it's trespassing," says Private.
      Colonel looks at him, his mustache arched in disbelief.
      "Because . . . I'm sorry. I know we've trespassed plenty of times before, but this is different," says Private. "And right now, I'm sorry, I haven't always, but right now I have just a little more left to lose than you."
      "For one?" says the Colonel.
      Says Private, "A job, for starters."
      Colonel reaches into his wicker creel and pulls out the crow-black government Colt. He tucks it back under the fence, handle first, and says, "here, there's one round in it. You know what to do if we're ambushed."
      "You want me to shoot myself?" cries Private.
      "Chrissakes, no. Fire into the air, warn me." Colonel leaps atop the stone wall and his rod is at once in shadowy motion, the graphite whip whistling in the still summer night. False cast, follow through, false cast, follow through-the fly stays suspended throughout the series of false casts, back and forth, not landing but rehearsing to land. Sploosh! The moment the delicate caddis kisses the surface of the pool a giant rainbow trout engulfs it, bowing the rod at a severe angle while Colonel arches his back and sets his arms to play the fish.
      The rainbow breaks water and skips a few beats across the surface, tail dancing in the night, its fat belly reflecting white from the floodlights. Colonel plays out line, careful not to overstress his leader and tippet. The reel drag screams as the furious trout takes more line, across the short pool, around its smooth sides, down, back to the surface, down again.
      Private watches this from underneath a willow tree, sentinel duty. Minutes go by and he watches with his mouth slightly open, jaw set, palms sweating against the cork handle of his fly rod. He can hear Colonel's heavy adrenalined breathing and the high-pitched din of monofilament leader and tippet, taut as a mandolin string.
      Two slaps at the water near the Colonel's feet and he sticks a thumb into her mouth, grasps the lower jaw and raptures the fish out of the water and into the night air. She is heavy with eggs, heavy with flesh and fins and bone. Upwards of twelve pounds and easily the largest fish Colonel, or Private, has ever played, ever captured. Her gills heave as he stuffs her head-first into his wicker creel, struggling to latch the lid. Colonel reties another caddis where the tippet is gnawed and stretched. He tosses the old fly on the sidewalk-bent hook, frayed elk hair and hackle.
      "Colonel, let's get out of here, I think a car is coming," whispers Private as loud as he can from a copse of ironwood that runs along the outside of the hatchery's southern length of fence. Fingers of one hand grasp his expensive fly rod, the other fingers curl around the smooth hardwood handle of the government Colt. But Colonel is in the moment, back on the stone wall, casting in a hyper-necessary, frantic motion that causes the tippet and leader to jerk and the fly to land a moment after the heavy slap of the line on the water. Maybe the car will cruise on by. Maybe whoever is driving will not see Colonel playing a big fish under the floodlights of the hatchery. Maybe whoever it is will not hear the gun crack and echo in the peaceful night. "Goddamnit, Colonel, a car is coming!" yells Private, the scout.
      Another large trout takes the fly just as the million-candlepower spotlight pans the hatchery like a movie premiere and backs up quickly to light Colonel on the wall, balancing against the fish, eyes filling with the realization that his stand on the wall is about to come to an abrupt end. He looks at the dark water, then up to the blinding light, back to the water, yells "Ambush!" looks at his expensive rod and reel, up at the spotlight, back at his rod and reel before dropping them in the water with the trout still attached to the business end. He leaps from the wall and runs for Charlie Reynolds's high spot in the fence.
      The government Colt lands in the rearing pond and sinks to the well-lit bottom, next to the expensive reel attached to the expensive fly rod attached to the expensive fish.
      The deputy's boot pins the Colonel to the ground between his shoulder blades like a speared suckerfish, the trooper's tail end still in the hatchery, the other half of him a few feet away from the gently running creek he calls a river. His forage cap hides his face until the deputy whips it off and shines a heavy aluminum flashlight in it. The deputy, a Sioux, looks at his partner, looks at the forage cap in his hand, and says, "Good Lord, we've captured the mighty Seventh Cavalry, red-faced and red-handed."
      Charlie Reynolds, now on the opposite side of Spearfish Creek, fords the river and licks Colonel on the face. Insects flit around the yellow glow of the deputy's flashlight. "Have any more scouts in there Colonel . . . Colonel Doggett?" asks the deputy as he reads the Colonel's Montana driver's license. "By the way, I'll need to see a South Dakota fishing license. The fine for not having one is pretty steep. The fines for illegal fishing are pretty steep. The fines for trespassing are pretty steep. Randall, you bring the calculator? Now, about your scouts, Colonel."
      Colonel nods, yes, then jerks his head toward the southern fencerow. "Over there, in the scrub," he says. "He's with me on this-he's my lookout . . . try not to shoot him."
      They do not shoot the scout. Private waddles out of the willows in his waders with his hands high, forage cap tilted down, rod in the air like a shepherd's staff. "I'm not armed," he says. "I surrender."
      "Careful with Colonel," says Private, as a deputy cinches the cuffs around his wrists. "He's got a gun."
      "Why didn't you shoot in the air to warn me?" asks Colonel.
      "Shoot what?" asks Private, looking Colonel in the eyes. "You're the owner of the dripping gun."
      The troopers sit, hands cuffed behind them, in the caged back-seat of the Lawrence County Sheriff Department Jeep Cherokee. "She must have gone fourteen pounds," says Colonel. "A fourteen-pound rainbow on a number ten elk-hair caddis. Put that in your fly book."
      "That is something that belongs in your history book. It's your story," says Private, "not mine."
      "This will probably mean we lose our South Dakota fishing privileges for quite some time," says Colonel. "Private, it's a good thing we live in Montana."
      The engine idles and the radio squawks periodically and the deputies gather little bits of evidence from the scene of the trespassing, the slaughter. The troopers watch the deputies put the trout in a plastic garbage bag, twist it shut, and label it. They watch the deputies fish the rod, reel, and pistol from the bottom of the pool, label each, and put them in plastic bags.
      The prisoners wait in the Cherokee for what seems like hours. A car pulls alongside the sheriff's vehicle and a woman's silhouette gets out and walks over to the fence and speaks with the deputies. They show her the rainbow in plastic while she crouches, one leg in the dirt along the fence. After a moment the three of them walk toward the Cherokee. It is the Sunday-haired woman.
      She looks at the prisoners. The corners of her eyes are sharp and pointed, like arrowheads, the centers glassy and reflective with tears. She is going to say something and the wait for her to begin is agonizing. "They will take anything," she says finally. "They would bite on a pebble. Spit. Anything! Those fish will take a bare hook!" The prisoners see she wants to hit them, spit at them, shoot a flaming arrow through their hearts. Though she doesn't.
      "Fourteen pounds, Private," whispers Colonel, then whistles for emphasis after the woman, sobbing, turns for her car. "Fourteen pounds I tell you. I was going to have that rainbow mounted."
      "Owen," says Ben Fish the scout, Ben Fish the teacher, Ben Fish the trouter. "I'd as soon you call me Ben Fish here on out. I've gone civilian."


      After nine a.m., Lawrence County Jail, Deadwood, South Dakota. The men breathe easily, adrenaline gone, in the tired relaxation when they've fully realized that fate has them and there is nothing they can do to undo all they've done. They had their photos taken with Lawrence County license plates around their necks. They have ink on their fingertips. They have called Salome for bail money, who said something to the effect of, "Leave me the hell alone."
      The Sioux deputy walks into the holding room, what they call the tank, says, "Your basset hound is in the pound and your wife called. She's bailing you out. See you at the courthouse in two weeks," and sets a stack of carboned forms in front of the men to sign, and hands the ex-substitute mail carrier a hastily scrawled note:

    Owen Doggett,
    Come home. Be quick. Bring Charlie
    Reynolds and Ben Fish. I'm pregnant.
                - Sue
    P.S. You can't act as if nothing happened here.
    But I'm willing to work on it.

    Owen Doggett reads the note once, twice, three times. His eyes show that he thinks it over deeply. He takes a long breath, exhales, and, without looking up from the note, says, "I suppose she needs me."
      Salt, pepper, and tabasco fly, and the men eat the scrambled county eggs in their cell instead of auditioning for Pontius Pilate at the amphitheater. "These eggs need mustard," says Owen Doggett. Ben Fish chews his eggs quietly.
      "Owen, things are settled between you and me. I don't want to have to worry about the three of you. Yes, the eggs do need mustard." It wouldn't take much.


      The prairie wind is the color of winter. Mr. Fish tells his eighth-graders that on the Black Hills Expedition of 1874 Custer lost a supply wagon full of whiskey and an expensive Gatling gun in a ravine along Box Elder Creek now known as Custer Gap. He also tells them that Custer and four or five of his subordinates shot a bear. The bear was so full of lead and holes that it couldn't be eaten, couldn't be stuffed.
      And he tells them this: "There was a troublemaker with the outfit, a private from Indiana. He stole food rations. He stole coffee, blankets, whiskey. He put locust thorns under saddles. He emptied canteens. One bright morning he cross-hobbled the wrong man's horse. The wrong man shot him in the chest. The chaplain said prayers for his soul and a detail buried him in the shadows of sacred Inyan Kara Mountain. Custer knew the dead man was a bad egg and judged the murder justified."
      The class watches Mr. Fish and listens intently to these stories, the details once lost in the folds of history, brought to life again by the teacher, though some stories, for the sake of history, Mr. Fish just makes up.


      "I have an appointment on Monday," Mr. Fish tells the secretary. "I'll need a sub." He does not tell her the blackflies are hatching on the Little Bighorn. Or that he will be there all day, with his new trouting buddy, Charlie Reynolds, fishing, reading, sucking on sunflower seeds, the two of them eating bologna-and-mustard sandwiches. He does not tell her his old trouting buddy, Owen Doggett, has to work on Monday because the packing plant never closes, never shuts down, and days off are best spent tending to legalities in Dakota Territory. The fine for fishing without a license-the teacher's only crime-can be paid by mail and doesn't show up on your permanent record. He does not tell the secretary that Sue Doggett just tied some tiny new blackflies that buzz and dance around a room on their own when a white man isn't looking. He does not tell her that Sue gave him some.

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