“Let me see that for a second,” I told Ross.
“You? You want to fish? I didn’t take you for the type,” he said.
Grimy boys doubted me the same way when I was little. Boys without shoes and cane poles taught me about boys without shoes and cane poles, and not much more except that doubt hangs around until envy comes. After a while, they wished they could catch fish the way I did. The secret was to think like the bait. Nothing wants to be eaten.
“Types aren’t real, yeah, that one there,” I said pointing to the fishing pole leaning on the overturned canoe next to Ross.
“Sure, have at it,” he said.
“Your doubt stinks,” I told him.
I really did feel like I could smell it. I had no idea what I was fishing for, but after flipping a few rocks next to the shore I found what I was looking for.
“I have worms,” Ross said.
I didn’t bother to acknowledge him. I never asked for a worm. I pulled the crawdad in half, some of the guts stayed attached to the tail. If it was cooked, I’d have sucked the rest of the juice from its head. The tail is really all I wanted. It’s where the good meat lives.
“Do we eat these?” I asked moments later, holding a fish.
“Um, yeah. As a matter of fact, we do,” Ross said.
He spoke slowly. At least I think it was him, it may have been envy.
“Well, here, take it then,” I said.
I tossed the fish onto a small grassy area amidst the rocks and boulders we now called home.
“Seems like a pretty nice day so far. I’d like to take a look at where the canoe was found, maybe the rest of his stuff too,” I said.
“That’s going to be a lot of paddling. Two totally different directions. Honestly, I think we should split that into two trips,” Ross said.
“Tell you what, why don’t you take me through a typical day around here. Do what you do, everything, run the gamut,” I said.
“Well we need some firewood, if you want to get some,” he said.
I couldn’t say no but I sure as hell didn’t want to say yes. I guess I figured if I just turned and walked away, he would think I was going to get wood so of course that’s exactly what I did. I laughed to myself watching him trying to get a grip on that fish. Maybe it was pity that forced me to notice and consequently pick up a few handfuls of branches.
“When you think you have enough wood for the night, get three times more,” Ross said.
“Yeah, see the thing is firewood goes fast and people never get enough so there’s a rule of thumb that says,”
“I get it,” I said, cutting him off mid-sentence.
“When do you think we can get going?” I asked.
“I guess we can take the fish we have, maybe get a few more and have a shore lunch on a different site,” Ross said.
“Sounds good to me,” I said, even though it didn’t.
He had to have everything arranged before we paddled out, leaving nothing controllable to chance. He was the kind of guy that buys and wraps a November birthday present two days after you gave him the first hint in August. Gage must have been the same way, or one may have killed the other after so much familiarity.
We took more than enough time to fill a grandfather clock by the time we were anywhere near where Gage’s canoe was found.
“There’s only one more campsite on this part of the lake, we’ll stop there,” Ross said.
I didn’t argue, hunger was making me angry and because of that, everything was making me angry. I cursed the extended families of flies and silently mouthed terrible things to the Loons that I can only assume were laughing at my expense. We had half a dozen fish of various shapes and sizes dragging in the water next to the boat, slowing us down, adding paddle strokes and therefore difficulty to my already pinging personal misery index.
Food out here is underrated. It changes everything. You can feel the energy return to your muscles and brain. I was thinking again. First, I was thinking about how unbelievably good the lunch was and then I was thinking if I should tell Ross.
“Did you and Gage ever stop here?” I asked.
“Um, I’m not sure, yeah? Maybe? I mean, we’ve stopped at dozens of campsites. Sometimes we’re just scouting it out for another trip, sometimes to make food. We never camped here, but I remember being here for one reason or another.”
“How much further till we get to where the boat was found?” I asked.
“There’s a bay around that point over there,” he said pointing.
“It’s a couple miles up there and some change, his canoe was up at the end, probably pushed up in there by the wind,” Ross said.
“Then you don’t think that’s where he would have dumped?” I asked.
Ross became slightly irritated at the question, flinging some pieces of fish bone with bits of white flesh still attached into the fire pit with his fork.
“I don’t think he dumped at all. I told you,” he said.
“Right, I get that. But if the wind, or whatever, or whomever pushed it up there, that would mean whatever happened to him, didn’t happen there right?” I asked.
“I suppose,” he said.
Ross cupped his hand under his chin as food disgustingly fell from his mouth and stuck to his lip while he tried to say something. I got up and walked away. I didn’t want to see him say it as much as I wanted to hear it.
“Spit it out,” I said.
“No, the food. Spit it out or swallow it before you start talking. I shouldn’t have to see that,” I said.
I found what I said suddenly funny and turned away so that he couldn’t see my face until I composed myself.
“So it’s just a big dead end up there?” I asked.
“No, there’s a portage trail up there, a long one,” Ross said.
“No better time than the present, if you’re done,” I said.
“Yeah, just let me clean up and we can head up there.”
We pushed off under sunny skies and a nearly non-existent, warm breeze. We had been lightly paddling for about ten minutes or so, taking it easy with full bellies and worn limbs.
“Listen! Stop paddling!” I said in a loud whisper.
Ross pulled his paddle up and held it horizontally to the water, waiting, listening. The only thing we could hear was the leftover water dripping off his paddle. The dull, distant rumble that followed proved I wasn’t losing my mind yet.
“What is that?” I asked as we heard it again.
Ross turned his head quickly side to side like some sort of bird trying to turn its head towards the sound.
“Canoes on the portage maybe? Sometimes you can hear when people slam them down on the rocks, especially if they are aluminum,” Ross said.
The third time we heard it, I doubted very much that we were hearing a canoe.
“Shit,” Ross said.
“What? What’s shit?” I said.
“What? Look at it out here, it’s a perfectly sunny day,” I said.
As if to mock my words, a much closer and obvious rumble of thunder shook the air.
“Not for long,” he said while putting a hard stroke down on the water.
“What are we doing?” I asked, somewhat unsettled by the prospect of the impending storm.
“We’re going for the portage trail, there’s a place to pull the canoe up. We’ll get under it until the storm passes,” Ross said.
My first thought was to ask if he was out of his mind, but I actually had to think back in time order to finish that question as I was interrupted with the thought that it might not be that bad of an idea after all. Soon, I could see the obvious place on the distant shore where there was enough of a break in trees to land the canoe. We were moving like a Roman warship getting ready to ram. Not seeing the need for panic I placed my paddle across my lap. The sudden and nearby bolt of lightning had less of a mocking tone this time and lent itself to something more along the lines of strongly worded advice. I did what I could to keep up with Ross until we reached the shore.
I felt pretty good at my new-found efficiency in regard to quickly landing a canoe. We slid-in sideways, perfect speed, perfect stop inches from a couple of perfect stepping stones.
“Should we unload?” I asked as I hopped out of the bow, paddle in hand.
“No just grab an end. We don’t have that much in there. Let’s get back in there by the rocks,” Ross said.
The wind met us at the shoreline, cementing the timeliness of our hurried retreat. The sky was split in three. One side was blue, but the sun was obscured, a harsh edged band of grey looked like it was being bullied from behind by a mass of dark grayish purple.
“Let’s go,” Ross said leading the way down the trail.
Drops of rain big enough to notice falling out of the corner of your eye started to drop randomly, occasionally thumping down on the bottom of the canoe. I kept my head down to avoid taking one to the face. I dropped my end of the boat and stumbled forward when Ross suddenly stopped.
“Whoa, scared me. Didn’t think I’d see anyone back here,” Ross said.
Just ahead was an overturned aluminum canoe. The scars and deep scratches that probably nearly killed it were strangely appropriate for its poor faded camouflage paint job. It had appeared that we heard both.
A middle-aged woman with a straw hat brim large enough to see from underneath the boat looked us over with a smile on her face, but said nothing. Her head gently shook like maybe she had a touch of something neurological happening. Her pants were canvas, lots of pockets and worn to the edge of what’s still practical to wear.
“Mind if we join ya?” Ross asked as we set our boat against the same rock formation next to hers.
Not that we were asking permission, but we were at least being friendly. At least Ross was. Her shirt was a thick flannel that the sun stole the color from years ago. It looked like it had been of high quality or it most likely wouldn’t have lasted this long. Maybe wearing a shirt two sizes too big for her helped them to last. She continued to watch us, all the while with what I could now determine was a fake smile on her face. I wondered for a moment if she was able to speak English when she finally spoke.
“Hey there,” she said.
She almost wasn’t able to say the words over the frog gurgling in her throat. Clearly, at least to me, she hadn’t spoken for a while, not even to say ouch or swear out loud. Everybody swears out loud, some are just quieter than others, especially this spook case.
Ross and I took our places under our boat. The temperature started to drop with the onset of the gusting winds. Rain came in sideways, blowing sheets, making communication even with Ross difficult.
“Holy crap!” I said, yelling over the rain and thunder.
“What?” Ross asked.
I swished his words away from my face with one hand and held the canoe off my head with the other instead of bothering to yell again. She just sat there, staring at us. My mind raced, building a wall of excuses to block out the idea that I had just met a crazy person deep in the wilderness. I stared back at her, trying to reciprocate for the vibe I was getting that said she was just another white woman who didn’t approve of me being there with Ross. I noticed her gaze slipped past me, down the portage trail. Instinctively I reached for the pistol in the small of my back, thinking I would need it to defend against what I thought was a bear I saw out of the corner of my eye. It was a man.
An older man reasonably assumed to be of similar age to the woman walked by us without any sort of acknowledgement of our presence. He hunkered down quickly next to the woman under the canoe. His leather boots looked nearly black in the rain. Unlike her, he had an extra-long poncho, like the kind that might have been used by soldiers once upon a time, and a big, green fisherman’s rain hat. With his head down I couldn’t make out his face. Pea-size hail began to pelt us as she put her mouth so close to his ear that there’s little doubt he could feel her breath when she spoke. I wouldn’t have been able to hear her scream if I wanted to.
He pulled his poncho up slowly, first over his ankles, followed by bare, heavily scarred shins and eventually up over his knees. His theatrically slow motion dripped with intent. I could now see he carried a green canvas bag about half the size of a backpack. He had it strung with the same color strap over his shoulder under his poncho that he pulled up just high enough to expose it. As he turned his attention to the button flap on the bag, I let my hand get a little closer to my gun. He noticed. He froze to the extent of acting the fool in a party game, even keeping his fingers on the button.
I could see his face now, gritty, drawn, and lower than most, melted away by years. There was no discernible emotion. I felt like happiness may have never existed for him, but he didn’t hate because of it. His eyes told the short story of a man who had things to do which meant he had no intention of dying.
Meet Nitty Gritty
“Let me see that for a second,” I told Ross.