SUNDAY WAS A BATTLE
Sunday, June 25th, was a battle. The last of the smoke cleared in the afternoon, the dust settled in the barley field, and the Sioux, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Crow, and Seventh Cavalry called the horses, picked up the arrows, dusted themselves off, and headed downtown together for cold beers at The Mint. Most of the chiefs and officers had planes to catch in Billings, but the group got on without them. They'd pick up the Indian wars again at next year's Reenactment of Custer's Last Stand.
On Monday morning, June 26th, the day after the big battle, Owen Doggett came home from The Mint to find he was now trespassing on the dirt half acre he used to almost own. Everything the actor now owned formed a crude breastwork ten yards from the chipped cinder-block front step that led to the single-wide he also used to almost own. A buckskin shirt. A few T-shirts. Some socks. A faded union suit. A broken a.m. radio with a coat-hanger antenna. His Sage fly rod. An empty duffel bag. A brick of pistol rounds, and the title to the '76 Ford Maverick.
Charlie Reynolds, the basset hound, was off chasing rabbits in the cheatgrass; he belonged solely to Owen Doggett now. Owen Doggett banged on the window of the locked trailer house with his gloved fists and yelled, "Sweetheart, I'll make you eggs!"
His wife had already begun her day's work, tying flies for an outfitter in Sheridan. Her fly patterns are intricate, exacting, and hold the subtle variances of nature usually reserved for spider webs, mud dauber nests, and snowflakes. Through the cloudy window of her workroom, Sue Doggett looked up from her vise and out at her husband in his riding boots and dirty wool tunic. She mouthed, "Read my lips: I am not acting."
Mr. and Mrs. Owen Doggett were married three years ago on a moonlit Monday midnight in Reno, Nevada, after meeting at a Halloween party and dating for exactly sixteen days. The engagement lasted an afternoon and a dinner. They took the redeye out of Billings and stayed drunk for the entire two-day trip. They married in the same clothes they met in-his custom-made Custer buckskin, her star-spangled Wonder Woman bustier. The wedding cost exactly twenty-seven dollars, bourbon and snapshots included.
Sue is a full-blooded Crow. Owen Doggett calls her "The Sioux." And sue is what she is doing; she's suing the trooper for all he's worth. No negotiations. Owen Doggett isn't worth much. Sue gave him an old government Colt revolver as a wedding present. She wanted the valuable relic back. "Indian giver!" he called her. He cannot afford a lawyer.
Owen Doggett is a local, an extra, a private. But Owen will tell you he's a trouter by heart, an actor by trade, and he has faith he will one day soon be the hero, the star, the colonel in the Hardin, Montana, Reenactment of Custer's Last Stand. "Call me Colonel," he'll tell you. He is rehearsing. "I'm an actor from Hollywood. Bred-in-the-bone." Right now he, his trouting buddy, and Charlie Reynolds are on their way east so Owen Doggett the actor can audition to be the Black Hills Passion Play's substitute Pontius Pilate. Colonel will not tell you he is only a private. He will tell you he may soon be cast as Pontius Pilate in a large-scale production of the second-greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus' last seven days in South Dakota. He will not tell you he is from Hollywood, Pennsylvania, and that he has to rent a nineteen-year-old grade horse when he wants to ride.
Hardin's current Custer is a Shakespearian-trained actor from Monroe, Michigan. He looks like Colonel George Armstrong Custer, owns a white stallion like Custer's, pulls a custom four-horse trailer, does beer commercials for a brewery out of Detroit, and calls his wife "Libbie." It will not be easy. Colonel is torn between what he wants to do, what his heart tells him-goddamnit, you're an actor!-and what is to be done. "History is the now of yesterday," he says. In his own recent history, Colonel has caught some nice fish, drunk a few beers, cheated on his wife, and watched some movies. He sees himself on the big screen-not in a factory, not in an office. He hasn't paid many bills, but "Hell," he says, "we don't have a satellite dish and we don't get cable. That's a big savings right there."
Libbie Bacon Custer wanted her husband to be President of the United States of America. Sue Doggett wanted Colonel to get a not-have-to-always-tenderize-a-cheap-cut-of-beef job. Not full-time necessarily, just something where the trooper worked more than one day every two weeks. But that would mean giving up a few Mondays-and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and the like-of sore-lipping fish.
"Do I not bless you with much fish and bread?" Colonel asks his wife.
"Whitefish and Wonder Bread every day isn't my idea of heaven," says Sue.
Colonel calls his trouting buddy, Ben Fish, "Private." They might be knocking back a few Rainiers at The Mint. They might be boning up on the Black Hills Expedition of '74 over morning coffee at the B-I. It might be Monday, when they're casting the Little Bighorn River for browns and rainbows. They might be, like right now, rumbling down U.S. 212, on their way only a few hours after dawn, with Charlie Reynolds in the middle and Private riding shotgun. Just the three of them in the old oil-burning baby-blue Maverick, their forage caps cocked back on their heads, spitting the hulls of sunflower seeds out the windows. For Private this trip is a chance to scout some new country, cast some new water.
Private is a teacher. He has stitches in the back of the head where the heel of his pregnant ex-wife's cowboy boot caught him from point-blank range. He, too, has come home from work to find his earthly belongings on the front yard, in the kind of rain that is almost snow. He has lived in a U-Store-It shed for an entire January. Private has slept in libraries and eaten ketchup soup and melba toast for breakfast. He has talked with lawyers he couldn't afford. He has lived in Wyoming.
Private is learning not who he is but where he needs to be. It's a process of elimination. Sue gives him flies for simply appreciating them and showing her the little spiral-bound steno pad in which he logs which fly caught which fish under which conditions. Private is growing older, which means to him that it's harder to have fun.
"One week," he tells Colonel. "One week and you'll have to find another couch to sleep on."
Every now and then responsibility picks up an ax handle and knocks Colonel into government service. He delivers mail in Hardin on a substitute basis. "It's a job," he would tell Sue. It's a job. He works about once every two weeks. Right now it is good to be getting out of town to see about some acting, to see about some fishing.
Hardin is a tough town because it is one thing but also another. Most of it is not part of the reservation. But some of the town, across the Burlington Northern tracks, rests on the reservation. You can see cattle over there graze through the front and back yards of the trailer homes and government prefabs that are a little more in need of things-a window that isn't cardboard, siding that doesn't slap in the wind. The roads are mostly gravel and dust. There is the beef-packing plant where many townspeople, mostly Crow, work. The Crow kids go to school where Private, Mr. Fish, teaches history: Hardin Intermediate. The Bulldogs.
Every May the Bulldogs take a field trip to the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The Little Bighorn draws people from all over the country, from all over the world. Some of the students live less than ten miles from the national monument, and they've never been to it. Mr. Fish wears his wool Seventh Cavalry uniform, riding boots and all, and acts as if he were there on June 25, 1876, taking fire from all sides.
"Company dismount!" he calls, and the students file off the bus. "Form a skirmish line on the west flank of the bus and hold your ground. Any horseplay and you'll be back in second-period study hall so fast your head will spin."
Mr. Fish and the campaign-hatted guides lead the students around the grounds amid the signs that read WATCH FOR RATTLESNAKES and METAL DETECTORS PROHIBITED. The spring wind whips their hair and makes it difficult to hear, though they understand. There are many questions. Sharp notes fill the afternoon like gun smoke as Mr. Fish bugles the students back on the bus. They talk motives and strategy, treaties and tactics on the short bus ride back to Hardin.
Colonel doesn't get called to work much. Private has summers off and many sick days during the year. On Mondays they go fishing. Sometimes to the Tongue River down in Wyoming. Sometimes the Powder River over in Broadus. Sometimes the Bighorn. But most often the Little Bighorn. They take sandwiches and keep a sharp eye out for rattlesnakes, Indians, and landowners. And it's often hot. Very hot. They fish other days, too, but always Mondays.
A SUNDAY DRIVE THROUGH CUSTER'S MONTANA
By driving east-going backwards-down U.S. 212, over the Wolf Mountains, through Busby and Lame Deer, Colonel, Charlie Reynolds, and Private study through the yellow-bug-splattered windshield where Custer and his men camped on their way to the last campaign from Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory. It's probably how the outfit would have retreated.
"If you were captured by the Sioux, the idea was to shoot yourself before they had a chance to torture you." The actor steers with his knees, making finger pistols in the air over the steering wheel. "Troopers kept one round, their last round, for just that purpose. Shoot yourself in the head before they could cut your heart out while you watched."
The road is rough here and cuts through the charcoal remains of a forest fire that burned most of the salable Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, but it gets better when they get to Ashland and back into everyone's Montana.
"Private," says Colonel, not shouting over the rattle and thunk of the car so that his words are lost in the noise and it appears that he is just moving his lips, "now what the slowest thing in the world is?" The warm July wind rushes through the open windows and the gaps in the brittle rubber gasket surrounding the windshield. Private is used to this Maverick lip-reading.
"Besides us right now?" says Private. The muffler and tailpipe have a few holes in them, like tin whistles, and the sunflower seeds taste like exhaust. "It's either us right now or a reservation funeral procession with only one set of jumper cables," says Private. The speedometer needle is shaking at around fifty-one miles an hour.
Private isn't laughing. Charlie Reynolds isn't laughing. Colonel's eyes glass over at the humble recognition of having told a joke everyone heard many campaigns ago. But as you get older-he is forty-one, nearly past his Custer prime-you forget. Everything turns to history with daguerreotype eyes and brittle, yellowed edges.
Charlie Reynolds stands on Private's lap and sticks his nose into the fifty-one-mile- an-hour prairie wind. Private lets his palm ride on the stream of air and dreams of becoming a scout. The Colonel talks numbers. Bag limits. Length, girth, weight. Hook size. Tippet strength. Rod action. He talks of the beefiest brown in Montana, the heftiest rainbow in Dakota Territory. "Pleistocene man used shards of bone for hooks," he says. "Indians used rock-hard spirals of rawhide until we traded steel hooks with them. Custer used steel hooks."
What is different about Sue's flies, different from the flies tied by hundreds of nimble-fingered Western women for pennies apiece, is that they are tied for fish, not for fishermen, aesthetics. Unless, that is, they are true fishermen and know the difference deep inside them, like right and wrong.
There is something of the ancient in them, from her ancestors on the frontier, as well as from evolution: her Darwinian ancestors, the fish. Sue tests her flies in an old aquarium in her workroom. The aquarium is stained, filled with the murky water of the Little Bighorn. With a pair of fencing pliers, she cuts the hook off at the bend and ties it onto a length of leader attached to a two-foot-long willow branch and flings it into the tank from across the small room. Weight. Aerodynamics. Flight. She is looking for balance. In the aquarium are several small rainbow and brown trout. Sue gets on her back, crawls underneath the aquarium stand, and studies the trout's reactions to the new insects through the tank's glass bottom.
After only a week she throws the burlap water bag over her shoulder and walks to the river to turn the trout back into the Little Bighorn. "Thank you," she tells them, "thank you. Goodbye." She then unfolds the little pack rod from her day pack and ties on one of her new and experimental flies. She casts and catches new fish to help her with her work. Though it rarely happens, if she does not catch new helper fish, she walks back to the trailer with the empty burlap bag, thinking about how she is going to adjust the new patterns. She enjoys being outsmarted now and then.
What matters is what an imitation looks like on the water, in the water, not warm and dry in a tackle shop that smells like chicken livers and epoxy. Sue's workroom smells like old wool, spruce, and duck feathers. Damp dog, river water, coffee. She rendezvouses with Ben Fish at the river and bails the aquarium out once a week, trout or no trout.
If it is late and he is drunk, Colonel may tell you Sue ties the most beautiful, most perfect trout flies in the Louisiana Purchase. The Colonel calls them "bugs."
Mr. and Mrs. Owen Doggett celebrated their three-year anniversary by getting a six-pack of Heineken instead of Rainier and toasting the event at home while watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on video.
A week later, that belly-dancing night at The Mint, Sue said only this: "Three strikes, you're out. The faraway look in the Colonel's eyes was a sure sign he knew she meant it and he didn't shoot back, didn't ask about strike one, strike two.
Sue calls the legal papers "the treaty." She'll get the waterbed and the microwave. The banana boxes of Harley Davidson parts. The eight-track player and turntable. The veneer bedroom set. The Toyota Corolla and the single-wide.
The straw that broke the camel's back is named Salome.
SALOME ON SATURDAYS
Real live camels. Salome told Colonel and Private about them on her breaks at The Mint. She is an actress. She works the Passion Play during the week and The Mint most Fridays and Saturdays. She also told the Colonel she could arrange a private audition for him because she happened to know for a fact that Pontius Pilate was moving to Florida and the director owed her a few favors that she'd probably never get a chance to cash in on anyway.
Belly dancing is hard work, she also said. So she took lots of breaks. She was not taking a break when Sue walked in after one of the battles to find her Colonel. Sue found him. The Colonel pleaded with her that it was all part of the act and about how belly dancing was an art form going back to biblical times and that it should be respected.
Horses, too, they have horses. Doves. Sheep. Donkeys.
THE BLACK HILLS EXPEDITION OF 1995
They stop in tiny Alzada for Cokes, oil, gas, beef jerky for Charlie Reynolds, brake fluid, more sunflower seeds. Colonel says to Private, "You want to scrub them mustard bugs off the windshield?" It is Sunday afternoon when they cross the twenty or so miles of the townless northeast corner of Wyoming. Yes, Colonel is trying out for Pontius Pilate, but they will fish, too.
"Nothing between this car and the North Pole but a barbed-wire fence," Private tells Colonel.
"Nothing between this car and the South Pole but Mount Rushmore and a fistful of gold mines," Colonel tells Private.
They cross the Belle Fourche River and see the Black Hills, the sacred land the Indians were afraid of.
"They heard thunder in there and thought it was the Everywhere Spirit," says Colonel.
"Maybe they were right," replies Private. "This wind does blow."
Spearfish, Dakota Territory. The sign at the edge of town has a trout with a spear sticking through it. "Trout are not indigenous to the Black Hills," Colonel says to Private and Charlie Reynolds. "They were stocked, all of them. The Indians speared chubs and suckers. That's all there were."
The sun is shining and the summer-school coeds are not wearing much. "Welcome to Calvary," says the Colonel.
The Colonel tells Charlie Reynolds to stay in the car. The dog jumps onto the gravel parking lot of the Shady Spot Motel (phone, free coffee) and high-tails it to a bush, which he immediately sniffs, then waters. Private tackles him and lugs the hound back to the car.
The Shady Spot rests between the Passion Play amphitheater and the city park Spearfish Creek runs through. Families here enjoy the steady increases in the value of their ranch-styles and don't mind the flash and rumble of the Crucifixion and Ascension three nights a week. There are coffeehouses and bookstores and no bad neighborhoods in Spearfish. No railroad tracks. No reservations.
"Reservations?" asks the elderly desk clerk, looking them over in their forage caps, Bermuda shorts, T-shirts (Colonel's Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge Tour, Private's Bagelbird), and sandals.
"You fellas with the Passion Play?" asks the desk clerk.
"We're Texas Rangers in town on a pornography bust," says Colonel. "You rent by the hour, too?" The desk clerk does not think this is funny, is frowning. Private nods, "Yes, we're here for the Passion Play. There a discount for that?" One dollar.
Colonel then pays the two-dollar surcharge for Charlie Reynolds after the desk clerk says, still looking down at his reservation book, "I see you brought a dog."
THE BOY COLONEL
Her flies are small miracles. Tiny damsels, Daisy Millers, opulent caddis flies in all colors and sizes. Shiny Telico nymphs. Little Adams. Noble royal coachmen. Muddlar minnows and grasshoppers. Bead-heads. Streamers. Hare's ears. Stone flies, salmon flies. Woolly buggers, black gnats, and renegades. She even invented a fly she calls the Libbie Bacon, tied with the soft hair from Charlie Reynolds's belly.
"It's a shame that you'll now have to buy them, pay for them," Private tells Colonel. But their fly boxes are still worlds of insects: peacock hurl, elk hair, chicken hackle and deer tail, rabbit fur and mallard feather woven to life around a gold hook.
"And you won't?" asks the Colonel.
Sue gave Private a full fly box as a Christmas gift the first year he moved to Hardin from Wyoming. Sometimes at night, when he's alone-most every night-and cannot sleep, he opens the box under his reading light and gently touches the flies and his heart speeds up a bit. When he would lose a fly-on a large willow, a snag in the river, maybe a fish-Sue would replace it with one of the same kind but yet different, one thing but also something else. None of her flies are exactly alike. Private pointed this out to Colonel, who still called them "bugs."
Private started keeping the fly journal the first day he fished with the flies Sue tied for him, the morning of the day after Christmas. It was bitter cold and the guides on the rod kept freezing so that he would have to dip the graphite shaft into the water to de-ice the rod before each cast. Yet he caught more trout than ever in his life.
Private looks through his fly box while Colonel ties fresh leader and tippet material onto his line. Their plan is to take in tonight's Passion Play (free tickets) and do some fishing tomorrow after the ten o'clock audition. From the motel room window, they can see Calvary, the sturdy cross as big as a pine tree, up the hill to the east of the amphitheater. "Welcome to the Cavalry," says Colonel.
They were trying to have children-if not directly trying to prevent them is trying. Sue would often say, "I already have my hands full taking care of one boy. I don't need any more." This concerns the Colonel still. Even more so now. His mustache weighs at his lip when he thinks about it too hard.
Spearfish Creek runs strong and clear through the Passion Play neighborhood. Today you can stand on any bridge in town and peer down at fish feeding against the current. Many healthy rainbows and browns. Colonel's eyes widen as the men count the black silhouettes of trout feeding on the insects that wash their way. Heartbeats quicken. He calls this creek a "river."
The detachment of three-a colonel, a private, and a basset hound scout-set out into the afternoon sun from the Shady Spot to scout the holes, the "honey buckets," they will fish tomorrow. There are many of these honey buckets running through the backyards of the people who don't mind living in the New Testament neighborhood.
As they patrol the creek, the troopers wave to the grillers and the gardeners and the fertilizers and waterers, crossing now and then through the cool, calf-deep water in their sandals, though only some of the neighbors wave back; some sheepishly from behind their gazing balls and ceramic deer; some annoyed from behind their smoking Webers; some taken aback with beers in their hands, as if to say, Honey, I think Colonel George Armstrong Custer in a Rolling Stones T-shirt and his basset hound just waded through our backyard.
THE COLOR OF SUNDAY
Salome did not tell them about this: the hatchery! How could she have left this out? The creek runs under a stonework bridge, and they wade out from the shadow of the bridge and peer through the chain-link and barbed wire NO TRESPASSING fence of what the sign heralds as the D. C. BOOTH FISH HATCHERY, EST. 1896. And for whole moments, minutes, they are old men outside the chain-link of the city swimming pool, Seaworld, Marineland, staring in.
Tall cottonwoods, oaks, and spruce trees, as well as the flowers that have been planted around each of the three stone-and-concrete rearing pools, reflect off the green-gray water. Two lovers and a family with a stroller and children walk along the boardwalk and gaze into the pools. You can, for a quarter, buy a handful of trout meal from the gumball machine bolted to the railing. Many signs: NO FISHING.
A young woman in a khaki uniform sows trout meal from a tin bucket. The water boils with feeding fingerlings. Her auburn hair catches the late-afternoon light and is the color of Sunday. She is singing to the fry as she feeds them. Her hand dips into the bucket and she bows slightly and releases the meal. "I will make you fishers of men, fishers of men, fishers of men." Charlie Reynolds chases a butterfly at the edge of the shallow water running over their feet, never catching it, as the men watch, mouths slightly closed, hearts racing. "I will make you fishers of men, if you follow me."
The lovers and the family stop to lean over the railing and look down into another pool, a larger pool. The father buys a handful of trout food and gives it to the young boy who flings it all at once. The water explodes with trout, trout as big as-or bigger than-the Colonel and Private and Charlie Reynolds have ever seen. "Good Lord, will you look at that! Did you see the size of those fins?" asks the Colonel. "Those tails!"
"Yes, she is beautiful," says Private in a dry-mouthed whisper.
SUNDAY IN JERUSALEM
The Black Hills Passion Play draws people from all over the country, from all over the world. Colonel and Private have never been here. Young Christians in purple tunics direct cars, sell tickets, sell programs. An official program costs as much as it costs Charlie Reynolds to stay at the Shady Spot, where he is now. Outside the ticket office/gift shop there is a rather graceless statue, Christ Stilling the Waters, by Gutzon Borglum, the artist who blasted four presidents into a mountain just south of here. The Christ of the sculpture looks less like he's stilling waters than waving to friends.
The evening is cool. The tickets Salome gave them are not excellent, not VIP tickets. The troopers are in the center, the fifty-yard line, but back fifty rows, back far enough to wonder how much real weight Salome pulls around here. But they can see downtown Jerusalem. They can see Calvary. They can see the tall cottonwoods that surround the trout hatchery a couple of blocks away. The troopers stand and remove their forage caps and place them over their hearts for "The Star-Spangled Banner." There is a sliver of moon, not yet a quarter. There is an evening star in the west. The fanfare ends. A blond angel appears in the Great Temple and recites the prologue, "O ye children of God. . . ."
"It's going to be a long night-look at this program-twenty-two scenes," says Colonel.
"That which you will experience today, O people, treasure well within your hearts. Let it be the light to lead you-until your last day." With that the angel disappears and the streets of Jerusalem fill with asses, sheep, armored centurions on white stallions, and laughing, running children.
"Private, did you see the size of those dorsal fins?" says Colonel.
When the play ends, the troopers are not beseiged with passion, which is a little disappointing to both of them. An hour and a half of Sunday left. The actor has an audition in eleven and a half hours. Pontius Pilate is a muscular, tan, deep-voiced man. No long dirty-blond curls to his shoulders. No bushy handlebar mustache. It will not be easy.
FINS THE SIZE OF PRAIRIE SCHOONER SAILS
"Private, you awake?" asks the Colonel at a quarter to midnight.
"Yes," replies Private. "Thinking about Sue?"
"The audition tomorrow?"
"No." Those fish. "Private, did you see those dorsal fins?"
CUSTER'S LAST STAND
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."
SPEARFISH ON MONDAY
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:
Come home. Be quick. Bring Charlie
Reynolds and Ben Fish. I'm pregnant.
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.
FRIDAY IN OCTOBER
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.
MONDAY ON THE PLAINS
"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.