Walking free across the green pasture grass under a blue Wyoming sky, wearing a patched red flannel shirt and muddy brown shoes, the boy, age eight, carried his worms packed in damp grass in a lard pail given to him by his mother. She ruled a kitchen where his family worked on a Wyoming ranch, a world removed from their former life.
Stepfather was away on horseback with Pete Fisher, the ranch owner. They were usually away all day; he didn’t know where. Pete’s ranch stretched away in all directions across the Red Desert. Pete claimed it was a 90-mile ride around his outside fence.
The horse pasture beside the barn below the bunkhouse tapered down to a narrow winding creek which raced along between willow groves. It wound away to descend down a narrow canyon. The horse pasture held a world of tall grass and tilted fence posts and big grasshoppers that buzzed and snapped away in bunches. He lunged after the ones slow to fly. He pounced and swatted them down for bait.
The field concealed a cold and narrow irrigation ditch fed from the creek beyond the outbuildings.
These were his summer sunshine days, his solitary sport, his boy’s life on the ranch while the men were away working cattle and mending fences and his mother tended to the kitchen and her household chores.
His fishing pole was a hand-me-down telescoping tubular steel rod with a line guide missing from its middle section. The other guides were there and it stretched out pretty straight if he gently pulled each interlocking piece out from the larger butt tube while being careful not to pull the sections apart. They’d not easily go back together.
The pole’s palm-stained, hook-pitted cork handle held a threaded twist ring that locked down his dime store reel. He’d filled it with some of his stepdad’s old black braided casting line. It ended with a clear leader and a single barbed bait hook for worms or grasshoppers, whatever came easiest each day.
The shallow, fast-running creek at field’s edge lay in open sunshine where willows had been trampled or grazed away. Washed gravel bars and wide shallows held little more than sparkling riffles and darting minnows. The trampled down sections where Pete’s horses waded ankle deep to drink held no cover or feeding places for trout. Lingering here offered no sport other than jumping through the shallows or skipping flat stones across the water.
A great pool lay downstream, out of sight around a willow bend in a forbidden zone. Stepfather with a hard voice had ordered, “Never go there alone!”
He walked the upslope edge of the pasture, following a thick growth of fence-line willows arching over an irrigation ditch. Old and rimmed with heavy grass, the ditch had eroded into a deep and narrow slow-flowing stream. It had run so long neglected, undercutting its grass-lined banks, that its deep water lazily eased between sod-anchored banks scarcely wider than his own jumping step. It lay deeper than himself in places, cold, clear, dark water, half-hidden in shaded seclusion.
Curious, he bellied down in the grass, pulling it aside to inch forward, cautiously, eager to peer into the hidden depths. This was an irrigation ditch, scorned by stepfather as no place for fish. He eased forward just enough to peek over the cut bank, through the slowly parted tall grass. He looked straight down into the swirling lines of the slow-moving water.
He was surprised at its depth. He felt its chill on his face; then, for a fleeting moment he saw a dark shadow hovering just above the mottled clay bottom.
He gasped and pulled back out of sight of whatever big fish hung suspended there in the water. He had never seen such a fish--but did he see it, really? Did it linger there, still? He dared not look again lest it see him and dash away. Could it be true? Here? In this deep and narrow pasture ditch?
With silent stealth he rolled onto his side to partly extend the thicker section of his steel rod. He dug into the folded grass in his lard can, pulling out a muddy worm, the choicest fattest worm, its wriggling ends writhing in rolling twists. He bellied face-down again and crawling slightly forward. He eased the pole tip over the water and flipped the baited hook onto its eddy-lined surface.
Earth drifted off in oily rings from the wriggling worm. Peering over the edge he watched it sink, spiraling down, slowly descending, unrestrained. He fed the braided line hand by hand; he let it go to sink freely downward.
In a flash a shadow darted and then in a bursting heave of water and rod he jerked it skyward and in a slow motion play of upthrust rod and scattering spray a thrashing slab-sided trout soared over his head to land, furiously bouncing, body-thumping in the horse-cropped pasture grass behind him.