Calvin Noble was three courses from the top of the last wall when the lodge phone rang. At first he didn't even know what he was hearing; in eight years of membership and three months of employment, the phone at Trout Club had never rung and Cal was surprised it could. He slid through the screen door and picked it up.
The caller seemed just as surprised to get an answer. "Oh, hi--Maggie Nordstrom here, from up at Criswell. Is this the Trout Club?"
"Yup," Calvin replied. He had no idea who Maggie Nordstrom was.
"Yeah, hi, listen. Reason I'm calling is I was going past your west gate there about half an hour ago and I saw three boys sneaking up that treeline toward the creek. They had fishing stuff. Just thought ya’d like to know."
Cal did not want to know, with the siding above the windows and soffits to do after. It was 4 and he hoped to be on the Wall Run at dusk.
"Okay, thanks there, Maggie. I'll go up there and boot’em out."
"Right, well, one thing is this. I don't like to, you know, pick on people, but one of the three was Jason Guyler, I'm pretty sure. I've known him from the high school and he can be a kinda tough case. I'm just sayin'."
"Okay, that's fine, I'll look into it. I appreciate your callin'," Cal said.
Cal stood a moment and looked at his siding job. He was no carpenter but he'd gone slow, keeping it straight and level, learning as he’d gone. It seemed a clean, well-grained job, and he’d had a lot of pleasure in getting there. The forty-year-old cedar he’d pulled off had been more moss than wood. He frowned at the unfinished strip.
Cal did know Jason Guyler, at least by reputation. He'd known an older Guyler--Chris, maybe-- in school, eight or nine years before, and had heard since that another brother was in Stillwater for something bloody. The Guylers drove fast and broke things all over Winona County. Cal picked up his cell phone, hesitated, then picked up the 20-ounce framing hammer as well and started up the river path.
Trout Club occupied two miles of river bottom in a broad limestone valley, with a funnel-shaped section at the road end trailing up along the river with lease-farmed corn and soybean fields on the other side of a strip of woods and scrub. A gravel access road ran up the other edge of the valley from the watercourse and ended at a gate at the top where state land began. The river was fed by over a dozen springheads and grew quickly into a substantial flow, holding to the east flank of the valley along past the old jack-legged lodge house, under the county road, and down another mile until it joined the Root. In the flats the creek was ledge-riffle with freestone runs, then deep bend-pools where it pressed the yellow limestone cliffs braided with strata and stalactites.
The club was really just a group-owned chunk of private property with a decrepit two-room cabin. The farm leases paid most of the taxes; about thirty members skimped on the upkeep and made the drive from the Cities or Rochester less often than they liked. They didn't admit that their lodge was really a gift from a wealthy dotty old man that they or their fathers had had the good luck to know; at the gatherings they showed a lot of Barbour but few could afford to join another club if this one threw them out. The members paid Cal by the job and tolerated his frugal residence in the lodge house. He’d been working since March and things were looking a lot better.
Cal humped up the path. He was reasonably sure he'd find his trespassers in the Birch Pool. It was visible from the road, a wide run backed up behind a log dam to provide a winter refuge for the odd year when the spring flows couldn't keep up with the Minnesota cold. Now, in cloudy late-spring runoff, it would be dense with fish. Teenagers with spinners could do some damage in that easy water.
He saw them from Camp Hill, a little rise above the Braids where the path hooked up to a clearing. From the top of the path he could see a pair of kids casting across the tail of the pool with spinning rods and another one further upstream where the current settled out. While he watched one hooked a trout, cranked it unceremoniously in, yanked it up the beach, and threw it in a plastic grocery bag.
Cal had no plan. This was his first set of trespassers. He was not unsympathetic; he’d killed a few birds and fish on private property in his time. But he had responsibilities now, and that fish and the Guyler factor decided him. He opened the cell phone to call the sheriff.
The phone had no signal. He stood a moment and waited, watched the same kid kill another trout, watched the little icons of modern connection fail to appear on his cellphone screen. Another kid caught a trout, admired it a moment squeezed in his fist, tossed it up the beach.
A sudden moment of awareness washed up his body like cool creekwater. He had a vision of moral equilibrium, compounded with his own recent history and past behavior that included not a few counts of trespass. He thought of himself pulling buckthorn along Hennepin County roads for thirty days—actually 28 days 2 hours; he got time off for good behavior. He looked at his phone—still no signal—and heard again the empty responses from his mother and sisters, the blank courtroom benches and the sick tension of jail, even a junior-grade jail. He had two semesters of honor roll and three of mediocrity. He hadn’t checked to see if your credit transferred after expulsion.
The memory of it left him tingling with the sucking urge, his first jones in a lonely month of work and the narrow lodge bunk. It felt like a sprinkle of hot gravity over fingertips and face and a hollow ugly hunger in his upper belly. The dark streets, the bad friends, greasy money, power, guilt. Still no signal. Cal snapped the phone shut and walked out of his reverie into the weak May sunshine, down the root-wrapped path and out into view on the creekbank.
The kid at the tail of the pool was a big one, and he had Guyler written all over him. The other two had the good grace to show surprise and fear but Guyler didn't blink, just stared at Cal and continued cranking his Abu-reflex across the deep water along the log dam. Cal stood thirty feet from him. It was quiet except for the cycling ratchet-and-squeak of the spin reel, something Cal hadn’t heard in a long time.
"You boys are trespassing, which you know very well. Now get on out of here before I call the DNR," Cal called to them.
The other two were frozen but the Guyler kid spat in the sand and made another cast.
"You'll be arrested and they'll seize your car and tackle there, also suspend your fishing license," Cal said. "We prosecute."
Guyler pursed his lips a bit. Cal could see a trace of a blush tracking up his fair cheek.
"You a Guyler?" Cal said. "I knew your brother in school."
"Yep," he said. He cranked the spinner mechanically.
"Come on, Jason, let's go," the nearest kid said. Then, to Cal, "We're cool, man. We'll go. Sorry. We didn't know," he called, turning a shoulder toward the path.
But Jason stood, then said, "Fuck that. We knew. Goddam rich bastards takin' up the river. Should be for everybody."
Cal didn't answer that. He felt the moment tense up, saw that Jason was leaning toward the explosion that upbringing and genetics ordained for him. He was bigger than Cal but young-looking, maybe seventeen, soft and thick in the middle.
Cal took the cell out, looked at it--still no signal—then dialed a number and waited a beat, listening. The nearer kid, skinny with a dark blue baseball cap, said, "C'mon, Jason, let's book." Then, to Cal: "We'll go, mister. Sorry. We didn't mean to...."
Jason cut him off. "Fuckin rich bastards," he said, and stolidly made another cast.
"We're going. Let's go, Pete," said Baseball Cap. Both of them took a weak step away from the water.
But Jason wasn't leaving. Cal, listening into the dead phone, admired him a moment. Jason cranked the spinner steadily and Cal idly hoped for a strike. Pete and Baseball Cap stood hesitantly.
"Hi--give me officer Keneally," Calvin said to himself, borrowing his mother's maiden name for the fictional Conservation Officer.
"Shit," Pete said. He and Baseball Cap looked at each other.
"You pussies go ahead. I'm staying," Jason said.
"Officer Keneally?" Calvin said. "Hi. I got three trespassers on Yellow Creek up here, on the Trout Club?" Pause. "Yeah. Right on 348, one mile, you'll see their car. I'm holding them here.” Calvin looked up; Pete and Baseball Cap were gone and Jason Guyler stood on the river bank, jaw locked, cranking the handle of his Mitchell 300.
Cal stood still on the beach, phone to his ear, feeling ridiculous. He couldn't get the cops and he couldn't brain the kid with a framing hammer; he was caught in his own bluff. He could tell from Jason's posture that he was listening, but he could also see in his stiff back and raised chin that it was going to take a couple of DNR cops and maybe a sheriff or two to get this kid off the Birch Pool. He let another couple of beats go by and then gave up.
"Rick?" he said, promoting Officer Keneally to friend. "Hang on. Give me a few minutes. If I don't call you back in ten come on up here. I want to try to handle this myself." As he was saying it Cal felt himself blushing. It was silly. He had work to do. He snapped the phone shut and crossed his arms.
"Jason. Come on up here and let's talk," he said.
Another pause, and then Jason turned and walked up the beach. His eyes widened when he saw Cal's hammer, but he maintained his defiant stance.
"You're not going to bust me?" he asked.
"Do you want me to?" Cal said.
"Don't matter to me," he said. "Don't mean nothin'."
"I can't have you killing trout here. I don't have to bust you. That doesn't get me anything, maybe just an enemy."
"You got that right," Jason said, but his eyes had come up and the menace had paled from his voice. Cal looked more closely at him, saw something eager and young under the brass. He had a thin scar that tracked left from his chin. Cal paused a moment, thinking, then surprised them both. He said, "You want a job?"
Jason paused a three-beat, chin down and left, lips pursed in what Cal recognized now as a family gesture that included defiance, threat, and contempt. "You ain't gonna bust me?" he said.
"No. No point in it. Unless you come back without permission," Cal said.
"What's the job?"
"Basic stuff. I got too much to do, not enough time. Right now I'm siding the lodge house. Gonna cut a bunch of brush, tune up some river structures, put in a new gate on the main drive, get out the furniture, build some steps and railings on these trails, maybe a deck. Most of May and June, anyway, at a couple hours every evening. Beats McDonalds."
“They ain’t hirin’,” Jason said, perfectly serious, and Cal felt another flare of embarrassment. Jason stood a moment more, looking out across the creek. One of the trout in the grocery bag flapped swishingly in its plastic shroud.
Cal continued. "Can't pay, money anyway. But if you like to fish, I'll pay in creek time. Hour for hour."
Jason's head came up another inch. He told his desire in a slight widening of the eyes, a tiny pursing of the lips.
"Coupla things, though. One, you'd have to release. We catch and release. And do it right, gently, get your hands wet, all that.
"Two, you'd have to use a fly rod. I'll teach you, I got the gear. You can be my guest. Help me out, only come when I'm with you, you can have a good summer and learn something besides. Work after school a couple hours, then we can fish the evening rise."
"I'm not in school right now," Jason said to the trees.
A pause. Cal carefully did not react. "Fine. Get an early start. I get on it at 7. Earn your lessons, earn your creek-time. Do it properly, legally. You in?" Jason hedged a moment, idly swinging his fishing rod.
"Can't do too much. I don't know nothing about, like, siding, that kind of stuff."
"That's all right. I'll show you what to do. Won't be glorious or anything. Just work, then fishing. Make the call. One-time offer. Yes or no?"
Jason smirked off into the sunset, then looked up, nodding a bit, and said, "OK. Sounds good. How long I gotta do it?"
Cal shrugged. "Long as you want. An hour of work gets you an hour on the creek. We get going and you, you know, work out, I'll see if the members will pay you. I doubt it. They don’t even know I’m here. For now, though, it's just the fishing."
"You're not going to bust me."
"No. Not if you hold up your end."
Jason paused another moment. The declining sun penetrated his face, gave him up as sixteen. He looked back up the Birch Pool, now quiet but touched with occasional rises, and almost smiled.
"Come on, let's get back on up to the lodge. You can call somebody to come get you."
"What, don't your phone work?" he said.
"Nope. No service," Cal said. He saw Jason's face harden a moment, then settle as his eyes crossed the creek. Then a smile, just a hint of a redemptive smile. Cal turned. “We got a phone in the lodge house.” They began to walk.
"You might as well take them," Cal said, pointing at the bag with his chin. "Don't send them to waste."
Jason bent and snagged up the bag. "My momma loves trout," he said.
They walked along in silence. When they had passed Camp Hill Jason suddenly spoke. "Don't need to call. My brothers'll be along."
Cal dropped the hammer by the table-saw and began shifting the lumber and tools under the eaves where he would cover it with a tarp for the night. Jason looked curiously at the job.
"It isn't that hard. Got the rest of the lodge house and the shed to do, and the old spring-house upriver. If you're going to come reliable, we might take on this deck here, I want to build, and a lot of railing and stair work on the pathways. Maybe a bridge over the little creek up at the top of the property there where they come together. Hour for hour, you could be fishing all summer."
Jason watched impassively while Cal ordered the last of his equipment. When he went into the lodge-house for his gear Jason peered curiously inside.
Cal leaned the 3-weight against the doorjamb. "You think you can give up your spin rod?"
Jason nodded. "I seen flyfishing before. Looks kinda cool. I could do it," he added, edging toward eager.
Cal bent to put on a hip-boot. "It's hard, I guess, but it's fun. It's not all just about catching." When he straightened up again Jason was looking over his shoulder. Cal turned and saw three big men close the last forty feet through the graveled parking area and unconsciously open up space between them. They were grim lean variations of Jason. Cal stood stupidly and watched them come. He wore one hip boot and one sock.
The three settled up into combat formation. The wingmen looked left and right; the leader looked through Cal's eyes and into the back of his head in a polished big-yard stare. Jason hedged a minute then Cal felt as much as saw him harden up, go grim himself. It was quiet except for the crunch of a boot on gravel and a distant whisper of creek. Cal felt a cool fearful sadness well up from his groin. Still he found the wind to speak first.
"Chris. What's up?"
Chris Guyler blinked and then knew him. "Cal Noble." A slight pause then the menace returned. "What is up indeed."
Cal turned to Jason. "Your ride's here," he said lightly, and turned back into a blur and thump that detached him from himself, one part noticing how sort of interesting a sharp blow to the head can be and the other asking what what. His mind spun out a sloppy half turn while his body stayed put and the next thing was a disjointed realization that Chris Guyler had put a fist wrist-deep in Cal's unguarded belly and as he was folding downward a cool eerie voice said, "Now they stomp you."
But they didn't. Cal wound up folded into a huddled crouch, where he stayed for a moment or more. His entire midsection felt like an unresponsive block of wood and he had a terrible need to breathe. It then seemed much easier to lay down. There was a confusion of laughing over him and something changed about his head and face but it didn't hurt and then other noises around him, including the dry remote crunching that Cal knew through the swirl was his favorite little Scott 3-weight and he hoped in distant muddy waves that they'd stop there because the rod was guaranteed even against thuggery but the tarnished little Hardy had been his father's. Then those thoughts became too much and he just concentrated on suffocation. Then all of it receded another couple of paces and he relaxed into the cool half-green grass.
For the next hour it was just easiest to lay back, gradually uncoiling from his ribs on out, first on his side and then, as things eased, on his back looking up into the fletching trees. Eventually as the sun settled he realized that the strange crooked hieroglyph in the tree above him was his flyrod dangling from a branch, but that too didn’t motivate him to stand. It wasn’t until the soil turned cold that he levered himself up, an old man, and tottered inside the cabin.
He was much better in the morning. It took him fifteen minutes and a hook of wire taped to a 12-foot strip of cedar siding to snag down the flyrod. It was a loss, but Cal was happy to let the graphite wizards at Montrose manage that one. The break was not at all clean. His visitors had done nothing else much worse than dump blue snap-line chalk over his head. After the sore ribs and shiner a blue hairdo wasn't his first concern. He was just starting to think about some breakfast when a shape at the screen door spooked him staring. It was Jason Guyler, not at all apologetic, reporting for work.