Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes
Because they were boys, no one believed them, including the old men who gathered each morning at the Riverside Gas and Grocery. These retirees huddled by the potbellied stove in rain and cold, on clear days sunning out front like reptiles. The store's middle-aged owner, Cedric Henson, endured the trio's presence with a resigned equanimity. When he'd bought the store five years earlier, Cedric assumed they were part of the purchase price, in that way no different from the leaky roof and the submerged basement whenever the Tuckaseegee overspilled its banks.
The two boys, who were brothers, had come clattering across the bridge, red-faced and already holding their arms apart as ifcarrying huge, invisible packages. They stood gasping a few moments, waiting for enough breath to tell what they'd seen.
"This big," the twelve-year-old said, his arms spread wide apart as he could stretch them.
"No, even bigger," the younger boy said.
Cedric had been peering through the door screen but now stepped outside.
"What you boys talking about?" he asked.
"A fish," the older boy said, "in the pool below the bridge."
Rudisell, the oldest of the three at eighty-nine, expertly delivered a squirt of tobacco between himself and the boys. Creech and Campbell simply nodded at each other knowingly. Time had banished them to the role of spectators in the world's affairs, and from their perspective the world both near and far was now controlled by fools. The causes of this devolution dominated their daily conversations. The octogenarians Rudisell and Campbell blamed Franklin Roosevelt and fluoridated water. Creech, a mere seventy-six, leaned toward Elvis Presley and television.
"The biggest fish ever come out of the Tuckaseegee was a thirty-one-inch brown trout caught in nineteen and forty-eight," Rudisell announced to all present. "I seen it weighed in this very store. Fifteen pounds and two ounces."
The other men nodded in confirmation.
"This fish was twice bigger than that," the younger boy challenged.
The boy's impudence elicited another spray of tobacco juice from Rudisell.
"Must be a whale what swum up from the ocean," Creech said. "Though that's a long haul. It'd have to come up the GulfCoast and the Mississippi, for the water this side of the mountain flows west."
"Could be one of them log fish," Campbell offered. "They get that big. Them rascals will grab your bait and then turn into a big chunk of wood afore you can set the hook."
"They's snakes all over that pool, even some copperheads," Rudisell warned. "You younguns best go somewhere else to make up your tall tales."
The smaller boy pooched out his lower lip as if about to cry.
"Come on," his brother said. "They ain't going to believe us."
The boys walked back across the road to the bridge. The old men watched as the youths leaned over the railing, took a last look before climbing atop their bicycles and riding away.
"Fluoridated water," Rudisell wheezed. "Makes them see things."
ON THE FOLLOWING Saturday morning, Harley Wease scrambled up the same bank the boys had, carrying the remnants of his Zebco 202. Harley's hands trembled as he laid the shattered rod and reel on the ground before the old men. He pulled a soiled handkerchief from his jeans and wiped his bleeding index finger to reveal a deep slice between the first and second joints. The old men studied the finger and the rod and reel and awaited explanation. They were attentive, for Harley's deceased father had been a close friend of Rudisell's.
"Broke my rod like it was made of balsa wood," Harley said. "Then the gears on the reel got stripped. It got down to just meand the line pretty quick." Harley raised his index finger so the men could see it better. "I figured to use my finger for the drag. If the line hadn't broke, you'd be looking at a nub."
"You sure it was a fish?" Campbell asked. "Maybe you caught hold of a muskrat or snapping turkle."
"Not unless them critters has got to where they grow fins," Harley said.
"You saying it was a trout?" Creech asked.
"I only got a glimpse, but it didn't look like no trout. Looked like a alligator but for the fins."
"I never heard of no such fish in Jackson County," Campbell said, "but Rudy Nicholson's boys seen the same. It's pretty clear there's something in that pool."
The men turned to Rudisell for his opinion.
"I don't know what it is either," Rudisell said. "But I aim to find out."
He lifted the weathered ladder-back chair, held it aloft shakily as he made his slow way across the road to the bridge. Harley went into the store to talk with Cedric, but the other two men followed Rudisell as if all were deposed kings taking their thrones into some new kingdom. They lined their chairs up at the railing. They waited.
Only Creech had undiminished vision, but in the coming days that was rectified. Campbell had not thought anything beyond five feet of himself worth viewing for years, but now a pair of thick, round-lensed spectacles adorned his head, giving him a look of owlish intelligence. Rudisell had a spyglass he claimed once belonged to a German U-boat captain. The bridge was now effectively one lane, but traffic tended to be light. While trucks and carsdrove around them, the old men kept vigil morning to evening, retreating into the store only when rain came.
Vehicles sometimes paused on the bridge to ask for updates, because the lower half of Harley Wease's broken rod had become an object of great wonder since being mounted on Cedric's back wall. Men and boys frequently took it down to grip the hard plastic handle. They invariably pointed the jagged fiberglass in the direction of the bridge, held it out as if a divining rod that might yet give some measure or resonance of what creature now made the pool its lair.
Rudisell spotted the fish first. A week had passed with daily rains clouding the river, but two days of sun settled the silt, the shallow tailrace clear all the way to the bottom. This was where Rudisell aimed his spyglass, setting it on the rail to steady his aim. He made a slow sweep of the sandy floor every fifteen minutes. Many things came into focus as he adjusted the scope: a flurry of nymphs rising to become mayflies, glints of fool's gold, schools of minnows shifting like migrating birds, crayfish with pincers raised as if surrendering to the behemoth sharing the pool with them.
It wasn't there, not for hours, but then suddenly it was. At first Rudisell saw just a shadow over the white sand, slowly gaining depth and definition, and then the slow wave of the gills and pectoral fins, the shudder of the tail as the fish held its place in the current.
"I see it," Rudisell whispered, "in the tailrace." Campbell took off his glasses and grabbed the spyglass, placed it against his best eye as Creech got up slowly, leaned over the rail.
"It's long as my leg," Creech said.
"I never thought to see such a thing," Campbell uttered.
The fish held its position a few more moments before slowly moving into deeper water.
"I never seen the like of a fish like that," Creech announced.
"It ain't a trout," Campbell said.
"Nor carp or bass," Rudisell added.
"Maybe it is a gator," Campbell said. "One of them snowbirds from Florida could of put it in there."
"No," Rudisell said. "I seen gators during my army training in Louisiana. A gator's like us, it's got to breathe air. This thing don't need air. Beside, it had a tail fin."
"Maybe it's a mermaid," Creech mused.
By late afternoon the bridge looked like an overloaded barge. Pickups, cars, and two tractors clotted both sides of the road and the store's parking lot. Men and boys squirmed and shifted to get a place against the railing. Harley Wease recounted his epic battle, but it was the ancients who were most deferred to as they made pronouncements about size and weight. Of species they could speak only by negation.
"My brother works down at that nuclear power plant near Walhalla," Marcus Price said. "Billy swears there's catfish below the dam near five foot long. Claims that radiation makes them bigger."
"This ain't no catfish," Rudisell said. "It didn't have no big jug head. More lean than that."
Bascombe Greene ventured the shape called to mind the pikefish caught in weedy lakes up north. Stokes Hamilton thought it could be a hellbender salamander, for though he'd never seen one more than twelve inches long he'd heard tell they got to six feet in Japan. Leonard Coffey told a long, convoluted story about agoldfish set free in a pond. After two decades of being fed corn bread and fried okra, the fish had been caught and it weighed fifty-seven pounds.
"It ain't no pike nor spring lizard nor goldfish," Rudisell said emphatically.
"Well, there's but one way to know," Bascombe Greene said, "and that's to try and catch the damn thing." Bascombe nodded at Harley. "What bait was you fishing with?"
Harley looked sheepish.
"I'd lost my last spinner when I snagged a limb. All I had left in my tackle box was a rubber worm I use for bass, so I put it on."
"What size and color?" Bascombe asked. "We got to be scientific about this."
"Seven inch," Harley said. "It was purple with white dots."
"You got any more of them?" Leonard Coffey asked.
"No, but you can buy them at Sylva Hardware."
"Won't do you no good," Rudisell said.
"Why not?" Leonard asked.
"For a fish to live long enough to get that big, it's got to be smart. It'll not forget that a rubber worm tricked it."
"It might not be near smart as you reckon," Bascombe said. "I don't mean no disrespect, but old folks tend to be forgetful. Maybe that old fish is the same way."
"I reckon we'll know the truth of that soon enough," Rudisell concluded, because fishermen already cast from the bridge and banks. Soon several lines had gotten tangled, and a fistfight broke out over who had claim to a choice spot near the pool's tailrace. More people arrived as the afternoon wore on, became early evening. Cedric, never one to miss a potential business opportunity,put a plastic fireman's hat on his head and a whistle in his mouth. He parked cars while his son Bobby crossed and recrossed the bridge selling Cokes from a battered shopping cart.
Among the later arrivals was Charles Meekins, the county's game warden. He was thirty-eight years old and had grown up in Madison, Wisconsin. The general consensus, especially among the old men, was the warden was arrogant and a smart-ass. Meekins stopped often at the store, and he invariably addressed them as Wynken, Blynken, and Nod. He listened with undisguised condescension as the old men, Harley, and finally the two boys told of what they'd seen.
"It's a trout or carp," Meekins said, "carp" sounding like "cop." Despite four years in Jackson County, Meekins still spoke as if his vocal cords had been pulled from his throat and reinstalled in his sinus cavity. "There's no fish larger in these waters."
Harley handed his reel to the game warden.
"That fish stripped the gears on it."
Meekins inspected the reel as he might an obviously fraudulent fishing license.
"You probably didn't have the drag set right."
"It was bigger than any trout or carp," Campbell insisted.
"When you're looking into water you can't really judge the size of something," Meekins said. He looked at some of the younger men and winked. "Especially if your vision isn't all that good to begin with."
A palmful of Red Mule chewing tobacco bulged the right side of Rudisell's jaw like a tumor, but his apoplexy was such that he swallowed a portion of his cud and began hacking violently.Campbell slapped him on the back and Rudisell spewed dark bits of tobacco onto the bridge's wooden flooring.
Meekins had gotten back in his green fish and wildlife truck before Rudisell recovered enough to speak.
"If I hadn't near choked to death I'd have told that shitbritches youngun to bend over and we'd see if my sight was good enough to ram this spyglass up his ass."
IN THE NEXT few days so many fishermen came to try their luck that Rudisell finally bought a wire-bound notebook from Cedric and had anglers sign up for fifteen-minute slots. They cast almost every offering imaginable into the pool. A good half of the anglers succumbed to the theory that what had worked before could work again, so rubber worms were the single most popular choice. The rubber-worm devotees used an array of different sizes, hues, and even smells. Some went with seven-inch rubber worms while others favored five- or ten-inch. Some tried purple worms with white dots while others tried white with purple dots and still others tried pure white and pure black and every variation between including chartreuse, pink, turquoise, and fuchsia. Some used rubber worms with auger tails and others used flat tails. Some worms smelled like motor oil and some worms smelled like strawberries and some worms had no smell at all.
The others were divided by their devotion to live bait or artificial lures. Almost all the bait fishermen used night crawlers and red worms in the belief that if the fish had been fooled by an imitation, the actual live worm would work even better, but they alsocast spring lizards, minnows, crickets, grubs, wasp larvae, crawfish, frogs, newts, toads, and even a live field mouse. The lure contingent favored spinners of the Panther Martin and Rooster-tail variety though they were not averse to Rapalas, Jitterbugs, Hula Poppers, Johnson Silver Minnows, Devilhorses, and a dozen other hook-laden pieces of wood or plastic. Some lures sank and bounced along the bottom and some lures floated and still others gurgled and rattled and some made no sound at all and one lure even changed colors depending on depth and water temperature. Jarvis Hampton cast a Rapala F 14 he'd once caught a tarpon with in Florida. A subgroup of fly fishermen cast Muddler Minnows, Woolly Boogers, Woolly Worms, Royal Coachmen, streamers and wet flies, nymphs and dry flies, and some hurled nymphs and dry flies together that swung overhead like miniature bolas.
During the first two days five brown trout, one speckled trout, one ball cap, two smallmouth bass, ten knotty heads, a bluegill, and one old boot were caught. A gray squirrel was snagged by an errant cast into a tree. Neither the squirrel nor the various fish outweighed the boot, which weighed one pound and eight ounces after the water was poured out. On the third day Wesley McIntire's rod doubled and the drag whirred. A rainbow trout leaped in the pool's center, Wesley's quarter-ounce Panther Martin spinner embedded in its upper jaw. He fought the trout for five minutes before his brother Robbie could net it. The rainbow was twenty-two inches long and weighed five and a half pounds, big enough that Wesley took it straight to the taxidermist to be mounted.
Charles Meekins came by an hour later. He didn't get out of the truck, just rolled down his window and nodded. His radioplayed loudly and the atonal guitars and screeching voices made Rudisell glad he was mostly deaf, because hearing only part of the racket made him feel like stinging wasps swarmed inside his head. Meekins didn't bother to turn the radio down, just shouted over the music.
"I told you it was a trout."
"That wasn't it," Rudisell shouted. "The fish I seen could of eaten that rainbow for breakfast."
Meekins smiled, showing a set of bright white teeth that, unlike Rudisell's, did not have to be deposited in a glass jar every night.
"Then why didn't it? That rainbow has probably been in that pool for years." Meekins shook his head. "I wish you old boys would learn to admit when you're wrong about something."
Meekins rolled up his window as Rudisell pursed his lips and fired a stream of tobacco juice directly at the warden's left eye. The tobacco hit the glass and dribbled a dark, phlegmy rivulet down the window.
"A fellow such as that ought not be allowed a guvment uniform," Creech said.
"Not unless it's got black and white stripes all up and down it," Crenshaw added.
After ten days no other fish of consequence had been caught and anglers began giving up. The notebook was discarded because appointments were no longer necessary. Meekins's belief gained credence, especially since in ten days none of the hundred or so men and boys who'd gathered there had seen the giant fish.
"I'd be hunkered down on the stream bottom too if such commotion was going on around me," Creech argued, but fewremained to nod in agreement. Even Harley Wease began to have doubts.
"Maybe that rainbow was what I had on," he said heretically.
BY THE FIRST week in May only the old men remained on the bridge. They kept their vigil but the occupants of cars and trucks and tractors no longer paused to ask about sightings. When the fish reappeared in the tailrace, the passing drivers ignored the old men's frantic waves to come see. They drove across the bridge with eyes fixed straight ahead, embarrassed by their elders' dementia.
"That's the best look we've gotten yet," Campbell said when the fish moved out of the shallows and into deeper water. "It's six feet long if it's a inch."
Rudisell set his spyglass on the bridge railing and turned to Creech, the one among them who still had a car and driver's license.
"You got to drive me over to Jarvis Hampton's house," Rudisell said.
"What for?" Creech asked.
"Because we're going to rent out that rod and reel he uses for them tarpon. Then we got to go by the library, because I want to know what this thing is when we catch it."
Creech kept the speedometer at a steady thirty-five as they followed the river south to Jarvis Hampton's farm. They found Jarvis in his tobacco field and quickly negotiated a ten-dollar-a-week rental for the rod and reel, four 2/0 vanadium-steel fishhooks, and four sinkers. Jarvis offered a net as well but Rudisell claimed it wasn't big enough for what they were after. "But I'lltake a hay hook and a whetstone if you got it," Rudisell added, "and some bailing twine and a feed sack."
They packed the fishing equipment in the trunk and drove to the county library, where they used Campbell's library card to check out an immense tome called Freshwater Fish of North America. The book was so heavy that only Creech had the strength to carry it, holding it before him with both hands as if it were made of stone. He dropped it in the backseat and, still breathing heavily, got behind the wheel and cranked the engine.
"We got one more stop," Rudisell said, "that old millpond on Spillcorn Creek."
"You wanting to practice with that rod and reel?" Campbell asked.
"No, to get our bait," Rudisell replied. "I been thinking about something. After that fish hit Harley's rubber worm they was throwing night crawlers right and left into the pool figuring that fish thought Harley's lure was a worm. But what if it thought that rubber worm was something else, something we ain't seen one time since we been watching the pool though it used to be thick with them?"
Campbell understood first.
"I get what you're saying, but this is one bait I'd rather not be gathering myself, or putting on a hook for that matter."
"Well, if you'll just hold the sack I'll do the rest."
"What about baiting the hook?"
"I'll do that too."
Since the day was warm and sunny, a number of reptiles had gathered on the stone slabs that had once been a dam. Most were blue-tailed skinks and fence lizards, but several mud-colored serpentscoiled sullenly on the largest stones. Creech, who was deathly afraid of snakes, remained in the car. Campbell carried the burlap feed sack, reluctantly trailing Rudisell through broom sedge to the old dam.
"Them snakes ain't of the poisonous persuasion?" Campbell asked.
Rudisell turned and shook his head.
"Naw. Them's just your common water snake. Mean as the devil but they got no fangs."
As they got close the skinks and lizards darted for crevices in the rocks, but the snakes did not move until Rudisell's shadow fell over them. Three slithered away before Rudisell's creaky back could bend enough for him to grab hold, but the fourth did not move until Rudisell's liver-spotted hand closed around its neck. The snake thrashed violently, its mouth biting at the air. Campbell reluctantly moved closer, his fingers and thumbs holding the sack open, arms extended out from his body as if attempting to catch some object falling from the sky. As soon as Rudisell dropped the serpent in, Campbell gave the snake and sack to Rudisell, who knotted the burlap and put it in the trunk.
"You figure one to be enough?" Campbell asked.
"Yes," Rudisell replied. "We'll get but one chance."
The sun was beginning to settle over Balsam Mountain when the old men got back to the bridge. Rudisell led them down the path to the riverbank, the feed sack in his right hand, the hay hook and twine in his left. Campbell came next with the rod and reel and sinkers and hooks. Creech came last, the great book clutched to his chest. The trail became steep and narrow, the weave of leaf and limb overhead so thick it seemed they were entering a cave.
Once they got to the bank and caught their breath, they went to work. Creech used two of the last teeth left in his head to clamp three sinkers onto the line, then tied the hook to the monofilament with an expertly rendered hangman's knot. Campbell studied the book and found the section on fish living in southeastern rivers. He folded the page where the photographs of relevant species began and then marked the back section where corresponding printed information was located. Rudisell took out the whetstone and sharpened the metal with the same attentiveness as the long-ago warriors who once roamed these hills had honed their weapons, those bronze men who'd flaked dull stone to make their flesh-piercing arrowheads. Soon the steel tip shone like silver.
"All right, I done my part," Creech said when he'd tested the drag. He eyed the writhing feed sack apprehensively. "I ain't about to be close by when you try to get that snake on a hook."
Creech moved over near the tailwaters as Campbell picked up the rod and reel. He settled the rod tip above Rudisell's head, the fishhook dangling inches from the older man's beaky nose. Rudisell unknotted the sack, then pinched the fishhook's eye between his left hand's index finger and thumb, used the right to slowly peel back the burlap. When the snake was exposed, Rudisell grabbed it by the neck, stuck the fishhook through the midsection, and quickly let go. The rod tip sagged with the snake's weight as Creech moved farther down the bank.
"What do I do now?" Campbell shouted, for the snake was swinging in an arc that brought the serpent ever closer to his body.
"Cast it," Rudisell replied.
Campbell made a frantic sideways, two-handed heave thatlooked more like someone throwing a tub of dishwater off a back porch than a cast. The snake landed three feet from the bank, but luck was with them for it began swimming underwater toward the pool's center. Creech came back to stand by Campbell, but his eyes nervously watched the line. He flexed his arthritic right knee like a runner at the starting line, ready to flee up the bank if the snake took a mind to change direction. Rudisell gripped the hay hook's handle in his right hand. With his left he began wrapping bailing twine around metal and flesh. The wooden bridge floor rumbled like low thunder as a pickup crossed. A few seconds later another vehicle passed over the bridge. Rudisell continued wrapping the twine. He had no watch but suspected it was after five and men working in Sylva were starting to come home. When Rudisell had used up all the twine, Creech knotted it.
"With that hay hook tied to you it looks like you're the bait," Creech joked.
"If I gaff that thing it's not going to get free of me," Rudisell vowed.
The snake was past the deepest part of the pool now, making steady progress toward the far bank. It struggled to the surface briefly, the weight of the sinkers pulling it back down. The line remained motionless for a few moments, then began a slow movement back toward the heart of the pool.
"Why you figure it to turn around?" Campbell asked as Creech took a first step farther up the bank.
"I don't know," Rudisell said. "Why don't you tighten your line a bit."
Campbell turned the handle twice and the monofilament grew taut and the rod tip bent. "Damn snake's got hung up."
"Give it a good jerk and it'll come free," Creech said. "Probably just tangled in some brush."
Campbell yanked upward, and the rod bowed. The line began moving upstream, not fast but steady, the reel chattering as the monofilament stripped off.
"It's on," Campbell said softly, as if afraid to startle the fish.
The line did not pause until it was thirty yards upstream and in the shadow of the bridge.
"You got to turn it," Rudisell shouted, "or it'll wrap that line around one of them pillars."
"Turn it," Campbell replied. "I can't even slow it down."
But the fish turned of its own volition, headed back into the deeper water. For fifteen minutes the creature sulked on the pool's bottom. Campbell kept the rod bowed, breathing hard as he strained against the immense weight on the other end. Finally, the fish began moving again, over to the far bank and then upstream. Campbell's arms trembled violently.
"My arms is give out," he said and handed the rod to Creech. Campbell sprawled out on the bank, his chest heaving rapidly, limbs shaking as if palsied. The fish swam back into the pool's heart and another ten minutes passed. Rudisell looked up at the bridge. Cars and trucks continued to rumble across. Several vehicles paused a few moments but no faces appeared at the railing.
Creech tightened the drag and the rod bent double.
"Easy," Rudisell said. "You don't want him breaking off."
"The way it's going, it'll kill us all before it gets tired," Creech gasped.
The additional pressure worked. The fish moved again, thistime allowing the line in its mouth to lead it into the tailrace. For the first time they saw the behemoth.
"Lord amercy," Campbell exclaimed, for what they saw was over six feet long and enclosed in a brown suit of prehistoric armor, the immense tail curved like a scythe. When the fish saw the old men it surged away, the drag chattering again as the creature moved back into the deeper water.
Rudisell sat down beside the book and rapidly turned pages of color photos until he saw it.
"It's a sturgeon," he shouted, then turned to where the printed information was and began to call out bursts of information. "Can grow over seven feet long and three hundred pounds. That stuff that looks like armor is called scutes. They's even got a Latin name here. Says it was once in near every river, but now endangered. Can live a hundred and fifty years."
"I ain't going to live another hundred and fifty seconds if I don't get some relief," Creech said and handed the rod back to Campbell.
Campbell took over as Creech collapsed on the bank. The sturgeon began to give ground, the reel handle making slow, clockwise revolutions.
Rudisell closed the book and stepped into the shallows of the pool's tailrace. A sandbar formed a few yards out and that was what he moved toward, the hay hook raised like a metal question mark. Once he'd secured himself on the sandbar, Rudisell turned to Campbell.
"Lead him over here. There's no way we can lift him up the bank."
"You gonna try to gill that thing?" Creech asked incredulously.
Rudisell shook his head.
"I ain't gonna gill it, I'm going to stab this hay hook in so deep it'll have to drag me back into that pool as well to get away."
The reel handle turned quicker now, and soon the sturgeon came out of the depths, emerging like a submarine. Campbell moved farther down the bank, only three or four yards from the sandbar. Creech got up and stood beside Campbell. The fish swam straight toward them, face-first, as if led on a leash. They could see the head clearly now, the cone-shaped snout, barbels hanging beneath the snout like whiskers. As it came closer Rudisell creakily kneeled down on the sandbar's edge. As he swung the hay hook the sturgeon made a last surge toward deeper water. The bright metal raked across the scaly back but did not penetrate.
"Damn," Rudisell swore.
"You got to beach it," Creech shouted at Campbell, who began reeling again, not pausing until the immense head was half out of the water, snout touching the sandbar. The sturgeon's wide mouth opened, revealing an array of rusting hooks and lures that hung from the lips like medals.
"Gaff it now," Creech shouted.
"Hurry," Campbell huffed, the rod in his hands doubled like a bow. "I'm herniating myself."
But Rudisell appeared not to hear them. He stared intently at the fish, the hay hook held overhead as if it were a torch allowing him to see the sturgeon more clearly.
Rudisell's blue eyes brightened for a moment, and an enigmatic smile creased his face. The hay hook's sharpened point flashed, aimed not at the fish but at the monofilament. A loud twang like a broken guitar string sounded across the water. Therod whipped back and Campbell stumbled backward, but Creech caught him before he fell. The sturgeon was motionless for a few moments, then slowly curved back toward the pool's heart. As it disappeared, Rudisell remained kneeling on the sandbar, his eyes gazing into the pool. Campbell and Creech staggered over to the bank and sat down.
"They'll never believe us," Creech said, "not in a million years, especially that smart-ass game warden."
"We had it good as caught," Campbell muttered. "We had it caught."
None of them spoke further for a long while, all exhausted by the battle. But their silence had more to do with each man's reflection on what he had just witnessed than with weariness. A yellow mayfly rose like a watery spark in the tailrace, hung in the air a few moments before it fell and was swept away by the current. As time passed crickets announced their presence on the bank, and downriver a whippoorwill called. More mayflies rose in the tailrace. The air became chilly as the sheltering trees closed more tightly around them, absorbed the waning sun's light, a preamble to another overdue darkness.
"It's okay," Campbell finally said.
Creech looked at Rudisell, who was still on the sandbar.
"You done the right thing. I didn't see that at first, but I see it now."
Rudisell finally stood up, wiped the wet sand from the knees of his pants. As he stepped into the shallows he saw something in the water. He picked it up and put it in his pocket.
"Find you a fleck of gold?" Campbell asked.
"Better than gold," Rudisell replied and joined his comrades on the bank.
THEY COULD HARDLY see their own feet as they walked up the path to the bridge. When they emerged, they found the green fish and wildlife truck parked at the trail end. The passenger window was down and Meekins's smug face looked out at them.
"So you old boys haven't drowned after all. Folks saw the empty chairs and figured you'd fallen in."
Meekins nodded at the fishing equipment in Campbell's hands and smiled.
"Have any luck catching your monster?"
"Caught it and let it go," Campbell said.
"That's mighty convenient," Meekins said. "I don't suppose anyone else actually saw this giant fish, or that you have a photograph."
"No," Creech said serenely. "But it's way bigger than you are."
Meekins shook his head. He no longer smiled. "Must be nice to have nothing better to do than make up stories, but this is getting old real quick."
Rudisell stepped up to the truck's window, only inches away from Meekins's face when he raised his hand. A single diamond-shaped object was wedged between Rudisell's gnarled index finger and thumb. Though tinted brown, it appeared to be translucent. He held it eye level in front of Meekins's face as if it were a silty monocle they both might peer through.
"Acipenser fulvescens," Rudisell said, the Latin uttered slowly as if an incantation. He put the scute back in his pocket and, without further acknowledgment of Meekins's existence, stepped around the truck and onto the hardtop. Campbell followed with the fishing equipment and Creech came last with the book. It was a slow, dignified procession. They walked westward toward the store, the late-afternoon sun burnishing their cracked and wasted faces. Coming out of the shadows, they blinked their eyes as if dazzled, much in the manner of old-world saints who have witnessed the blinding brilliance of the one true vision.
CHEMISTRY AND OTHER STORIES. Copyright © 2007 by Ron Rash.