The Last Days of Scouting (Boot Fiction)

wadin' boot

Donny, you're out of your element...
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I Joe and Al Roll boulders

The first one rolled about forty feet and came to a stop in a cloud of dust. It never made it to the river. Undeterred, Joe Monson saw a better one, about as big as a dorm fridge, and with the muscle of his friend Al Moran, they moved that granite ball out of its dirt cradle and sent it down the hill. It wobbled some before gaining momentum, channeled into a small gully, took down first grasses then shrubs and eventually off a two yard bluff where it vanished from view. Even far up on the hillside they heard it splash hard into the river, heard it smashing into submerged rocks, and saw a plume of water angle and spray over the far bank. They were both smiling.

“There are no more good ones.”
“Yeah, that sucks.”
“We should make it back. They’ll want the firewood soon”
“Should we bring the trap?”
“Nah. That asshole would freak.”
“He’s such a tightwad.”

Joe picked up the trap, they made their way down the gully, down to the small bluff that overlooked the river, and there in two foot water was their boulder, bright and foreign in a drab bed of algae-covered river rocks and small drifts of weeds at the pool’s tailout. Under their arms were modest bundles of wood, a pretty half-assed effort for a thirty minute excursion to gather firewood.

“Pretty cool.”
Al grunted, Joe turned to see him hunched over, stretching the jaws of the trap wide, his foot either side of its mouth, setting the spring.
“Put your leg in here Joe.”
“Yeah right.”
“What are you doing?”
“Just watch.”

Al picked the trap by the chain, still ready to spring, and swung it first slowly around his head then faster. Joe stepped back.

“This looks like a bad idea.”
“Stop being such a wuss.”

He threw it towards the river, towards the boulder. It struck hard and vanished out of sight.

“You think it went off?”
"It would be better if it didn't. I didn’t hear it spring. I hope not. Catch us some fish or something.”

II- The Trap

They found the trap earlier that day in a grove dense with low scrub. It caught the sun a little, despite a cover of blackberry vines and that metallic glint made it look a little like a lizard or a snake. Al pointed it out, Joe recoiled at the sight. Reptiles frightened Joe. He moved like Croc hunter- before he died- smooth and confident all bent knees and arms extended, speaking in a lousy Aussie accent.

"come 'ear you litl' blightah"

And in matter of seconds, hoisted it out fast and held it high in case whatever it was bit him.
Joe shouted, the thing seemed to writhe. These jaws weren’t live though.

“What’d you think it was, a snake?"
"It’s a trap, dumbass.”

They watched it all rusted and sad looking, swaying on the chain.

“Probably for wolf, maybe a cougar, they like this sort of place.”

He pointed to the tight dense brush before them, the outcropped boulders with darker places in between.

“Son of a bitch, that thing looks mean.”

Twin-hooped jaws tightly closed, faint ochres or blood along their bite, an old patina of death.

They sat on some boulders and inspected it. Al asked for Joe’s knife, and with it he scraped a layer of rust from the mechanisms, from the springs, and poked the underbelly beneath the footplate. Joe set a plug of chew deep in his cheek and watched as Al changed the blade to a driver, unscrewed bolts, blew on them, ran the threads through his bunched up jacket sleeve, spat on them, and returned them to their holes. He cinched them tight, focused, as though he’d done this before.

"I can get this to work."
“I’m quitting Scouts.”
“Stupid. Boring. I don’t know, I just hate it. Speckler, he’s a prick. Telling me do this, do that. Talks about himself all the time.”
“You used to like him.”
“I learned what I needed.”
“Fires, food, fun.”
“What I don’t know scouts won’t teach me.”
“What don’t you know?”
“Girls. Beer. Cars.”
“Remember me and you, we were going to the very end?”
“look at the guys who end up staying on, Eagle Scouts, what a bunch of losers.”

Joe said nothing, not in his world were Eagle scouts losers. He knew this day, this moment was coming. There's a point, a moment, where it doesn't fit anymore. There weren't any checkboxes or merit badges in dealing with doubt, and yet, this territory was becoming way more familiar. What motivates a kid to become a man? At what point does the growing-up stop? Those boulders roll and gain speed and then fly and then they stop.

“maybe some of them are. Remember that kid from Wenatchee? He wasn’t a loser.”
“Phil Siebert. Yeah, I guess you’re right not all of them.”

He’d always followed Al, his best friend. Brothers to the end they would say. As they got older, the following was increasingly unsatisfying. Blundering through adolescence, that’s what Speckler said Scouts protected you from. Here they were though, on Scout camp, blundering. He watched Al step on either side of the jaws, watched while they creaked open, there was a small click as the clasps held, a false metallic smile, ready now.

“Like new eh?”
“Give me the stick.”
“You do it Joe.”
“No, you.”

Al plunged it into the footpad, the trap snapped, leaped and shut as the twin springs were triggered, shards of wood flew and the chain rattled. When all the excitement was done they looked at the end of the stick. There, stuck into the wood a quarter inch or more were the tines sharding up the bark like a bear got to it.

“It’s a beauty innit?”

III The Jacket

Felix Speckler, Troopmaster, and all around jerk, made his way up the path. His mission was twofold, help Al Moran find his camouflage jacket and fish the ---- River. His flyrod in one hand and a small map in the other he walked confidently. Behind him loped Al Moran, morose and sullen. Speckler assumed it was the returning that bothered Al. After all, Speckler hated covering the same ground twice, knew that kind of carelessness could be avoided with meticulous planning. He voiced that concern to Al, which had he turned to see the boy, was met with his two middle fingers extended.

“You and Joe will be starting up for Eagle Scouts in the next two years, that’s a great achievement right there.”

Silence. Speckler was proud of Joe and Al, he considered them sons he never had. Not that he really ever had a solid or planned chance at fathering sons. He wanted them to make it, do what he never could, Eagle Scout.

“Sure is pretty up here isn’t it?”

But Al wouldn’t talk. He was filled with a kind of pointless and misdirected loathing. He hated Speckler’s soft hands. No one in the Moran family had those desk hands. He hated how he looked when he told him the jacket was back at Nineteen mile and that he had nothing for when the cold would come through later that evening. And then there was the whole raised eyebrow, like he was being judged. Like Speckler was disappointed in him. Al told him he could find it himself, knew where to go, but Speckler insisted he come along.

Speckler continued on, telling Al how he hoped to fish while Al looked for his jacket. How he would look into a fly-fishing merit badge for him and Joe- once he figured it out- that is. At the mile marker, Speckler started rigging up, stringing his line, lacing his tennis shoes tighter, tying leader to tippet, tippet to fly.

Al began searching. His old man would be bullshit if he didn’t come back with his Gulf War jacket. He crossed the river in the tailout, downstream of where the trap lay, scrambled up the hillside, over the flattened grasses from where the boulders had run, looked back down at Speckler, now wading into the pool. He could just hear the zip of the line Speckler was pulling from his reel as he began to cast, back and forth, and then let his line shoot forward and down.

Speckler wasn’t much good, Al saw the line move up over the far bank, into a dense nest of shrubs, and then he pulled back and shouted, line tracing a path to his rod bent and loaded far more than it could take. He was snagged up. Then he saw Speckler start wading in after it. He wasn’t going to lose his fly, he would retrieve it.

“Asshat. Noob.”

The trap was in that hole, that same place. Al knew about where the trap was, he thought Speckler was moving on a line that would steer him clear, no jaws would trap him so long as he stayed on course.

IV The Hole

Speckler had read about flyfishing in the Scout manuals and on the web. He’d seen a movie or two as well, and he’d spent several weekends browsing websites where they told you all about lines, rods and reels. He asked a lot of questions on a different website and got some nice information back along with some jokey banter. He’d given some back and somehow he’d been banned from the site.

When he walked into a flyshop three weeks earlier, he was confident, but when he left, $700 dollars down, he wondered if he’d been taken. He didn’t let such thoughts trouble him though, Speckler was a man who unfortunately possessed little self-doubt and because of those capacities, was seen by the troop leaders of the S.... Valley Boy Scouts as an ideal leader. He did, however, now have requisite gear, the best of things, including a nice new hat with a fancy company’s logo plastered on it that the shop owner had given him for free.

In a local park near his apartment building, with his new hat on, and a small twist of yarn tied to the end of his line as a fly, he practiced. He endured the jeers of Sunday walkers who shouted as that small yarn ticker whipped beside their ears or snapped close to the legs of their dogs or tangled their toddling children. He learned the hard way about how much room you need for a backcast. His timing was poor, his rod would not load and he waved it all over the place like a magician's wand.

He’d read about reading rivers and holes, he knew, for instance, that fish were wherever branches and mess overhung some deeper water. Structures, the books said. Either side of a boulder there was always a fish, and he reminded himself, sometimes fish will hold (that was the new verb he’d learned) in front of, or often behind, a big rock. He knew about oxygen and where the fish might lie, and imagined the pictures he’d seen in the magazines applying to this hole.

Speckler wasn’t off, 19 mile was a likely looking spot, fed by a two clear paths of well oxygenated waters into a deeper boulder-lined pool with several downed trees and an undercut and overgrown bank. Gravels of varying diameter had been sorted by hundreds of seasons, and a small rock tailout was already holding fish. He would have seen them if he’d purchased some good lenses, but he balked at getting them in the flyshop without some recommendations from those who he was sure knew better.

You would have wanted to fish here too, the water was clear and the rocks covered with casts of bugs, flies were emerging, and fish were trying to dent balloons of what was turning out to be a very solid hatch. Up here, mile nineteen, no-one fished. It was a beautiful run, fit for steelhead, kings, bull trout, rainbows, cutts and fat whitefish.

If you hiked all this way and saw Speckler in this perfect hole, thrashing about, slapping the water hard with his line, pushing his way through to the far bank, pulling down structure, muddying the waters with gravels and dusts, slipping on the algae covered rocks in his cleaned and polished Stan Smith’s, you’d be sad. At one point there was a small part of you just like this guy, yet now this noob was messing up the secret hole you’d just spent a day and half getting to.

Speckler tied on the fluffiest floating thing he could, the guy at the shop said that this was his favorite for the Slough close to the shop. Speckler assumed that meant it would work anywhere. Of course he was wrong, but he was never able to prove that. On his first cast, a wide-looped bank-dragging attempt, his forward shot left his line snaking out straight into those same rugged banks. His fly stuck hard in some bleached woods. Snagged up now, he stretched, pulled, jerked and cursed. His rod creaked, the smooth cork now pushing hard into his soft palms, but the line wouldn’t snap.

He decided to follow it to the bank, wading through the one-foot water, the balance hard to get, at two-foot he went down briefly, soaked his shirt and Scoutmaster chinos. Despite that he was able to perch and then shimmy up on the low branches of a logjam. He moved himself forward on wrist-thin branches that were in places cleanly snapped right through the heartwood on account of them being so dry and brittle. He made his way to the bigger woods were the rotting began in earnest. And finally to his fly, stuck fast in floodwoods. He jiggled and pulled hard and freed it, and then reversed the whole process of getting there, moving quickly, awkwardly slipping in the dimming light.

V- The Trap, again

Al Moran found his jacket draped over a good rock where he cleaned the trap. They never thought to roll it because the jacket hid it. With the jacket now cinched around his waist, Al admired what was clearly the prince of boulders. An ancient onion- skinned pink granite a mite bigger than a medicine-ball. A great beast sized perfectly for velocity and destruction. Probably sixty pounds of rock there, and when he toed it with is boot it shifted a little. This would definitely roll.

He looked down to the river, he could see Speckler casting again, on the far bank. He levered the ball, rocked it under his foot, underestimated the inertia and its check, and in a quick moment lost his balance a little and couldn’t overcome the boulder's new motions. Somewhat surprised and nevertheless fascinated, he watched it roll first gently, and inevitably toward the river. It moved into the gully, a marble run, progressively more urgent. It was a good one-hundred yards or so from the river and when Al looked up to see where Speckler was, he was gone. He knew there was potential for disaster.

He shouted Speckler’s name, and ran after the boulder, down the hill.

A sixty pound ball traveling at twenty miles an hour, now airborne off a six foot bank will move in a parabola and crush anything in its path or will smash itself trying. A ball that size, were it to smash into your head would no doubt mash your facial bones, break your nose, and fracture and displace your skull backwards into your frontal and temporal lobes. That wouldn’t kill you though, not at first. The impact would shift your top cervical vertebrae from it’s snug hold on the base of your skull, and then it's free to slide, to sublux. Your spine would want to stay in place, but your head would not, because a great big granite ball was now part of you. But with your body staying still and your skull still moving, the bone that lines your foramen magnum would cut its path through whatever tissue stood in its way. The important stuff, your spinal cord, would be severed. And when cut, you would stop breathing and die in seconds. The only blessing? You would have been unconscious the entire time.

Al watched the ball disappear, in front of him, still no sign of Speckler. For a few agonizing seconds there was no sound. No sick sound of impact into something other than water, just another plume and spray. When he reached the bank and looked down, there was the boulder, right beside the other, that he and Joe had rolled earlier. No Speckler pinned beneath it. Nothing.

Speckler ran out of the bushes on the far bank, holding his line in his hand, shouting. “Holy Crap Al, did you see that fish jump? It sounded like he was huge?”

He’d been untangling his fly from more foliage, again on his casting bank.
“Right below where you are, you see anything? You see him, how big is he?”

The waters were clearing, he saw no insects moving, saw no fish feeding. Everything was down tight, hiding. Waves were still making their way up and back through the pool, reverberating, sloshing.

Al held his hands as wide as they could go.

"Jesus. that fish has to be huge..."

Speckler moved quickly, fumbled in his fly pocket for a mouse pattern. He bought one just for this kind of fish. He worked fast to tie it on, crude knots plied poorly. And set out trying to cast right where the new boulder was, he waded out towards Al- ten feet, five feet, he climbed the new boulder, placed a foot on the old one.

“You probably don’t want to do that, those rocks don’t look too stable, and he’s moved upstream some” Al pointed further. Knowing full well Speckler had just dodged a bullet he was not interested in seeing Speckler now slip into the trap that lay close to where he now stood.

As Speckler tried to cast upstream, his footing slipped, the new boulder rolled a little, and he threw his fishing arm up to balance like an end-game Wallenda, he wobbled further, and began a fall, forward, towards the two-foot water where the trap was. The mouse pattern flew to parts unknown, the knot failed. He watched Speckler topple, holding his rod high and twisting to protect it. He went down hard, under the water, brought his wrist down fast and then there was thrashing, trying to prevent waters seeping into him.

Al heard the unmistakable sounds of the trap springing, as though the bubbles that Speckler beat out of the water carried little packets of sound, of chain and metal moving at speed. That submersed metallic reptile pouncing. He heard Speckler scream. And again, watched him pull his arm hard, but it wouldn’t budge.

“What the hell, something down here’s got my rod and it won’t let go.”

Speckler’s two hands made their way out of the water, one of them holding flyline. He went back down. No luck, and asked Al if he could find a stick for him to lever one of the boulders away. He tossed him one that looked sturdy and watched Speckler force some simple physics into play. The mass levered out, he retrieved his rod, or what was left of it, snapped about seven inches from the cork, very clean, very neat, the line cut also. It was a good little trap that one, wrapped around the mess of Speckler's rod. He held it up, stared at it.

"Who would have thought a trap would be right here?"

There were two people who knew the answer to that.

“Mr. Speckler, I think it’s time we went back.”

They walked the half mile back to camp in silence, and in the line of tents and circle of boys hungry for adventures, Speckler told the other scoutmaster about the big fish, how he almost got it, how the boys should go back in the morning and try their luck with their own rods if they had them. The younger guys were wide-eyed and excited. Meanwhile Al found Joe.

“Hey Joe, let me tell you about what really happened…”

And as Al spelled it out, in hushed tones, Joe laughed where he thought Al would want him too. It was clear Al was without remorse. This would be Al’s last year. And if Joe was honest, if he cared about doing right and being good and merit badges and Eagle Scouts, he would have told Speckler what really happened up there. About the trap, about the boulders. But he wasn’t that kind of kid. He wouldn’t rat out his friend. Joe had a kind of empathy that comes with an old and yet somehow still raw friendship. He had more insights watching Al than he did Speckler. Even if both were models of who he didn't want to be. He wouldn’t disturb Speckler’s illusion with what really happened and how close he skirted a blunt ‘accident.’ And in that day, as the sun fell and as Al told him again about the look on Speckler’s face as he fell into the water, or as he picked up the tattered remnants of a virtually new rod, Joe knew this would be his last year of scouting too.

(I wrote that one in 2009 and was re-reading it the other day and couldn't find it linked up on WFF when I posted it way back. So apologies if you've read that one before)
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