So a weasel and a toad and a wet one and a ringleader and a little princess get into a boat.
then things got interesting.
Article & Illustration by Bob White
From the May/June 2009 Issue
It was late June, still spring in Alaska, and the soft twilight had lingered long past midnight when I found Rusty sitting alone next to an unlit fire,...
a mostly empty bottle of Jack Daniel’s and two tin cups on a big spruce round.“How’d 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. Mind if I light a fire?” There’s nothing so sad as two fishing guides drinking whiskey in the dark. I knew the glow of a fire would change the mood, and I poured a little diesel over the cordwood laid in anticipation of the next get-together. Rusty scratched a wooden match and tossed it.
He grunted as he poured a generous measure into the tin cups, and we sat there sipping without speaking for a long time, listening to the dry spruce crackling and popping. Rusty hates complainers, has no time for whiners, and generally avoids expressing displeasure with the Lodge Boss’s decisions. But tonight he was at the end of his rope. “What the hell’re we gonna do with that pack of rugrats tomorrow?” He finally moaned. “Gawd, I hate kids.”
Anyone who knows Rusty will tell you that he harbors no ill will toward 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 he enjoys being with anyone who’s good at it. Even if he shared a boat with Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-tung, they’d have a wonderful time if the fish were biting.
“Aw, it’ll be all right,” I said. “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 for a big fire and a 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 grumbled. “The best run of kings in three years, and I’m going on a pike-nic!”
Honey, it’s time to get up. Honey?” Lisa was gently shaking my shoulder. “Ooooh, you look bad. Let me get you some coffee.”
“Ahhhhrg,” 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. And honey?”
“I hope the other guy looks worse.”
I smiled. I was quite sure he did.
The morning was soft and clear, and the day promised to be warm and dry: at least we wouldn’t be babysitting in the rain. “Have a nice time today, kids!” their mother called from their cabin porch
as Rusty and I herded her flock of squabbling
little anglers down the dock and into the waiting floatplane.
“That’s right!” their father said, leaning into the airplane’s open door. He had way too much enthusiasm for the time of day. “You boys listen to the guides, and no picking on your little sister.”
“Ouch!” She screeched into Rusty’s face. He was hidden behind dark fishing glasses, but I could see him wince. “Daddy, someone pinched me! Make him stop! Make him stop!”
“Clear!” the pilot mercifully called out.
“They’ll be fine, sir,” I said. “We’d better go now.”
His head disappeared from the doorway, and the crew turned the old de Havilland Beaver away from the dock. “You’re clear!” someone yelled. The big radial engine coughed once and caught, roughly at first, and then smoothed out as we taxied into the lake.
It seemed to take forever for the engine to warm up for takeoff, but the flight was humanely short, and the pilot, sensing Rusty’s mood, didn’t circle, but landed as quickly as possible. Only one of the five kids fell into the lake while Rusty and I were unloading the plane. “I’m cold!” the youngest boy screamed as he pulled himself from the water.
The pilot said, “Serves you right for picking on your sister.” He then closed his door quickly and yelled, “Clear.”
“I’m cold,” the Wet One wailed. “I want some cocoa.”
“Help yourself,” I said, handing him a thermos and a mug.
“This tastes funny! Like what Daddy drinks when he comes home from work.”
The eldest, the Ringleader, took a sip. “I’m telling! I’m telling Mom you tried to give us whiskey!”
“Sorry,” I said, quickly retrieving the thermos and pouring the evidence into the lake. “This must have been left over from yesterday, right, Rusty?”
One small tear appeared from beneath Rusty’s sunglasses and fell to the beach, mingling with the laced coffee.
Within half an hour both boats drifted within talking distance in a shallow grassy bay. Somehow Rusty had drawn three of the kids, and I had only two. The two older boys in his boat were slinging Devil’s Horses, long cigar-shaped topwater plugs with propellers on each end, while their little sister, who insisted on fly fishing, was waving her father’s rod around like a drunken samurai warrior-princess.
Rusty stood stoically behind his sunglasses, 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 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 if I ever saw one. “I want to go where there’re fish.”
Something about Rusty changed in that instant, and I thought he was about to launch little ferret-face out of the boat.
Then, “Holy shit,” Rusty said, pointing. He seemed more like himself now. “Look at the size of that!”
“You said a bad word!” the Little Princess squealed.
“I’m gonna tell my dad!” the Weasel screamed.
The Ringleader followed Rusty’s Ahab-like stare a few yards past the sputtering topwater plug to the enormous wake that followed it. “Holy shit,” he whispered.
“I wanna go where there’s fish or I’ll tell my dad you said a bad word,” Weasel shrieked as his brother’s lure drew near the boat. The Ringleader stopped reeling and the lure went dead. The monster slowed, but didn’t stop until its alligator nose was all but touching the trailing treble hook. It held there, finning, mouth gaping, its mean yellow eyes glowing in the morning sun. “Holy shit,” the Ringleader whispered again.
“What’s that?” the Weasel yelled, pointing at the fish. “I don’t like it! I’m ascared!”
“I’m fly fishing, I’m fly fishing,” the Little Princess sang as she performed a pirouette and then slapped the big deer-hair bug down within a few feet of the big pike. The water exploded in a kind of volcanic fury. “Ahhhhrg!” the Ringleader screamed.
“I’m ascared,” the 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 a duet. Rusty stood on the bow, boat net in hand like a harpoon. The hint of a smile crossed his face.
I started to ease my boat closer, thinking Rusty might need a hand. The two boys in my boat—the fat one I thought of as the Toad, and his little brother, the Wet One—noticed my shift in attention and turned around just as the Little Princess swung her fly rod in yet another sweeping arc, which totally confused the big pike and sent it charging directly toward Rusty’s boat. He barely had time to lunge with the net as the brute rushed by, almost tearing his arms from their sockets. Somehow Rusty managed to hang on, sweep the net around the bow, and using the behemoth’s momentum bring him to the surface and into the boat. The monster pike thrashed around with a sound like an orchestra full of kettledrums. The Weasel shrieked a long and piercing note as he jumped into the lake, where he wailed and thrashed around in the waist-deep water.
“Would you look at the size of this thing?” Rusty yelled as he strained to lift the fish. When he hoisted it into view, the Wet One shrieked and jumped into the lake. The Toad wet his pants.
“It’s huge!” Rusty said.
“Huge,” the Ringleader whispered in awe.
After restoring some semblance of order and getting everyone back in the boats, we released the fish and managed to catch a few small pike for lunch. Rusty seemed like a new man as we cruised across the wide glassy lake to a broad pebbly point, an ideal spot for a big shore lunch. The kids 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?” the Weasel screamed into Rusty’s face.
“Git!” Rusty rasped. “Git now, or I’ll skin ya like a pike!” He emphasized his point by shaking a pike carcass skewered on his knifepoint.
“If you don’t let me light the fire, I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna . . . I’m gonna tell my mom and dad about the whiskey!” 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 promised, 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 the Weasel his lighter.
“I get to light the fire! I get to light the fire!” the Weasel yelled to everyone, and they all gathered around to watch.
“Hey!” Rusty screamed. “Not that jug! Don’t—!”
The explosion of boat gas sent them all to the ground as a column of flame leaped 60 feet. There was a chilling silence.
“Cool!” they screamed as they ran up to us with singed hair, no eyebrows, and no eyelashes. “Can we do it again? Can we?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I stammered. They looked disappointed for a minute, then ran off to skip stones. “Did you see them, Rusty? They look like little aliens from Area Fifty-one! Jeez, 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 the fudge brownies they all went swimming. “You play lifeguard,” Rusty said. “They’ll be cold when they get out and will want a big fire.” I shook my head as my mentor dragged driftwood from a hundred yards in every direction.
“Cool fire,” the Toad said as he toweled off and opened another can of grape soda. Everyone gathered around the fire.
“Can we throw pop cans in it?” the Wet One asked. “We did it at summer camp. When they get hot they explode and take off like rockets!”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Sure,” Rusty said. “Sounds like fun.”
They all tossed in a can, and we ran back 50 feet, anticipating a grape-soda Fourth of July. Nothing happened, and after a few minutes we all crept a few yards closer. Still nothing, so we closed in on the fire a little more. A few minutes passed, and we edged even closer. I was explaining to Rusty why it wouldn’t work when the first can pinwheeled into the sky, covering everyone in purple goo.
“Cool!” they screamed as we ran for cover. “Whoa!” they said as the second, third, and fourth cans rocketed skyward, trailing grape-scented steam.
“Well, we’d better clean up,” Rusty finally said. “Time to go soon.”
Collectively they moaned, “Aww, do we haveta?”
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.”
At that instant a grape-flavored
intergalactic missile rocketed out of the flames and clipped 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 form 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 okay?” the Weasel asked.
“He’ll make it, but we’re gonna have to stitch him up some,” Rusty said. “Weasel, go get my tackle box. Toad, get some water. You,” he said, pointing to the Ringleader, “take your little sister over by the boat. This ain’t gonna be pretty.”
The Weasel appeared with the tackle box in an instant. The Toad dribbled water over his brother’s wound. “Oooh,” the Wet One 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 fishhook, some monofilament, and a bandage,” Rusty told the Weasel in an operating-room voice.
“Oooh,” the Wet One moaned.
“Easy there, big guy,” Rusty said as he pretended to stitch him up, tugging convincingly on the line while hiding the operation with his hands.
“There, got it,” Rusty said as he bent over, bit the mono in two, and covered the evidence with a big bandage. “He’s gonna make it, now. You guys better carry him back to the boat. And 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 drifted toward the dock, where the crew and the parents waited. “How was your day, kids?” they asked in unison as their brood spilled out of the plane and onto the dock in a singed and tangled heap. “Oh my God!”
“You wouldn’t believe the huge fish we caught!” the Ringleader yelled. “Uncle Rusty said it was the biggestfuckinpike he’s ever seen!”
“I got to light the fire, Mom!” the Weasel said. “It went sixty feet high!”
“I fell in twice even 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 ’em knocked him out cold,” the Toad said. “And he never even cried. Even when we sewed him up with a big hook and some fishing line!”
“Yeah, and Uncle Rusty says I may not even have a scar!” the Wet One added, removing his bandage. “See?”
“I went fly fishing, like this!” The Little Princess waved her arms around and pranced off the dock.
Rusty and I stood there smiling and nodding as the parents herded the four brothers toward the cabin, where the Little Princess waited, pirouetting on the porch.
“Jeez, that was close,” Rusty said. “I thought for sure one would mention the whiskey.” n
Bob White’s artwork and writing is an expression of his misspent youth, reflections of the outdoor magazines, and books he read instead of his homework assignments.