By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, June 21, 1941.
“Here comes a guy,” muttered Jimmie Frise, “that might tell us where the fish are.”
“Maybe he’s the owner,” I muttered back, “going to kick us off.”
We went on fishing with that extra-innocent air that is used when what appears to be the landlord comes through the bushes.
“Hyah,” said Jimmie agreeably to the stranger.
“Good-day, gentlemen,” said the sinister-looking stranger. “I thought you might be cows.”
“Cows?” I said indignantly.
“I’ve lost four cows,” said the stranger. “They’re around here somewhere. You haven’t seen any cows lurking about, have you?”
He was certainly a strange looking man. His clothing was ragged and coarsely patched. He had a week’s growth of scattered tan stubble on his jaws. His eyes were close-set and he narrowed them curiously when he looked at you. It did not seem likely to me that such a man would own any cows.
“No, sir,” I said shortly, “we haven’t seen any cows lurking.”
“Two brown ones,” he said, and his voice was soft and his speech almost scholarly. “Two brown ones, one Jersey and one white and brown. Heifers.”
“This is a tough country to lose cows,” said Jimmie. “Why don’t you bell one of them?”
“I should, I should,” said the stranger thoughtfully. “Are you having any luck?”
“Not a rise,” said Jimmie, who is always ready to talk to the most unprofitable kind of people. “We’d heard this was a good trout stream.”
“It is good,” said the stranger softly, “but at this time of June, they gather in the pools that have springs in them. The larger stretches of the stream are getting too warm for trout. So they foregather in the spring pools.”
“Foregather,” I said, because the word seemed so funny coming from such a tramp.
“Yes,” he replied gently. “I could show you the spring pools, if you like.”
“We’d be very grateful,” said Jimmie.
“Go ahead, Jim,” I announced. “I’ll just fish along.”
“In one of the spring pools,” said the stranger in his quiet, prim voice, “I imagine I could show you a two-pound trout.”
“In this creek?” I scoffed.
“Unless someone has caught it since last Sunday,” said the stranger, “it ought to be still there.”
“Couldn’t you catch it?” I inquired.
“I do not try to catch them,” smiled the sinister man, veiling his eyes and looking me up and down. “I love things to be free.”
“Like cows,” I suggested.
“I do not bell them,” said the shabby man.
“Let’s go,” cut in Jim, “and see these spring holes.”
The Glorious Big Trout
And though I did not care for the stranger, I reeled up my line and followed, because a two-pound trout is a two-pound trout.
The stranger took the lead and with the bent legs of a man who knows how to stumble skilfully and loosely through the bush, as an Indian does, he wove in and out of the trodden path along the stream made by the feet of generations of anglers. He showed us two or three smallish spring pools, and sure enough there were trout to be seen.
“Don’t fish now for them,” said the stranger. “There will be clouds in about an hour. Come back and fish these pools when the clouds come over.”
“You won’t fish,” I smiled, “but you will show others how to fish.”
“I like everybody to be happy,” returned the stranger with a sinister smile. “I like the trout to be free. But I also like anglers to catch fish. I am not partisan. I love trout. But I do not therefore hate fishermen.”
He turned on his heel before I could think up any dig back at him. A most unpleasant, smooth, ragged man, I thought.
Through alder and cedar thickets he led us with almost animal-like craft, showed us pool after pool. including some large ones, dark and motionless, where he assured us there would be as many as a dozen trout of a pound or over.
“Trout,” he said, “like human beings or wrens or seagulls, or anything else for that matter, live according to a natural economic law. Where food is most plentiful, where the living conditions are best and where there is the most security, they are most plentiful. This pool is the biggest town on this river.”
“Is this where the two-pounder is?” I asked, getting my rod ready.
“No,” replied the stranger, when he got big enough to be the object of too much attention, he retreated into a suburban area, handy enough to the big town so that he can run in and gobble a smaller trout when the mood strikes him, yet secluded enough to be safer than in this busy traffic.”
“You’re quite a philosopher,” admired Jimmie.
“There is little else to be,” said the stranger, gliding again into the brush.
And 100 yards further down, he showed us the big trout. In a small deep ice-cold pool deep amidst cedar roots, where it was impossible to dunk a worm much less place a trout fly, the glorious trout lay. You had to lie down and peer amidst the stout cedar roots to see him. Flecks of sunlight dappled the four-foot depths of the pool, and to one side, on a golden patch of sand washed clean by some bubbling spring beneath the lordly trout lay fanning.
“Sir,” I said to the stranger. “I beg your pardon. This is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.”
“Don’t mention it,” said the sinister one with a twisted smile. “But if you see my lost cows, you might let me know. I live in a rather tumble-down place just a hundred yards or so to the north of the end of this road out here.”
“If we see them,” said Jim, kneeling up from worshipping the great trout down below, “we’ll bring them home to you.”
“Don’t trouble yourselves,” said the stranger, “just drop by and tell me where they are. I think they’re out along this road somewhere.”
“Good-by,” we called, as he vanished again into the silent brush.
“What a queer bird,” I submitted.
“Some kind of a hermit,” said Jim.
“A poet,” I corrected. “Jim, there’s a man with a true touch of genius.”
“A little cracked, I think,” said Jim.
“This is Uncanny”
So we knelt and studied the great trout for half an hour. We went out to a clearing and caught grasshoppers and dropped them in. He ignored them. We stuck sticks down, and with great and noble laziness, he turned out of the way, to return to his golden sand throne the moment we left him alone.
“Some hill-billy,” I declared, “will bomb him out of here with stumping powder.”
“Well, anyway, there is no way we can catch him,” said Jim.
So we left him and, clouds coming along as the sinister stranger had foretold, we sought out the spring pools we had been shown and cast our flies and caught two fine baskets of trout. In the “main town” pool, Jim took three and I took two of the one-pound trout he had predicted.
And when, with heavy baskets and rods taken down we walked out to the road to our car, there, grouped around the car, cropping the luscious grass of the country backroad, were four heifers.
“Two brown,” cried Jimmie excitedly, “a Jersey and a white and brown.”
“Jim,” I agreed, “this is uncanny. We will have the pleasure of returning his cows to the man who gave us one of the best fishing days of our lives.”
So Jim cut a couple of gads and I drove the car. And as Jim herded the cattle ahead, I held the road and low-geared along to keep the four strays from turning back, as they constantly tried to do.
“A little wild, all right,” said Jim. “They won’t stray after another winter in the barn.”
As we moved slowly along, we encountered a gentleman driving a buggy, who drew to the side of the road to let us by. He surveyed us with a look of extreme astonishment. In fact, when we both greeted him with a cheery good evening, he did not even answer us. He just stared and then clucked to his horse and went off at a trot.
“A lot of queer ducks in this neighborhood,” I remarked.
“As a matter of fact,” said Jim. “I’ve often noticed: the better the trout fishing, the queerer the ducks.”
At the cross roads. we looked north and sure enough, there amidst the abandoned looking back country farmland, with its brush and sketchy fences, we saw the old roof of a house.
“Soooo bossy,” said Jim, slapping the cows lightly with his gad. “Gee, haw.”
And we turned them up the road and in a moment had them started down the lane. It was as sinister an old house as the man who owned it. Its windows were blank and deserted. Its gates and doors hung awry. There were weeds thick in its barnyard and no sign of any habitation.
Right Under Their Noses
We drove the cows into the yard and Jim lifted the gate which had not been moved for years, by the look of it. I tooted the horn loudly, and when the stranger did not appear, I got out and rapped cautiously on the door. There was no reply.
“A kind of run-down place.” I recalled. “Just north of the cross roads.”
“This is it all right,” said Jim. “Halllooo!”
We heard a car coming. We heard two cars. Two cars came tearing up the road and in the lane in clouds of dust. And seven men boiled out of them.
“I’m the county constable,” said the first of the seven to reach us. “What are you doing with these cows?”
“They are strays,” I explained, “and the man who owns them asked us to let him know …”
Them’s my cows,” cut in an elderly and agitated man, “and everybody here knows it.”
“We were fishing down yonder,” stated Jim, firmly, “and met a man hunting for stray cattle, two browns, a Jersey and a brown and white. When we came out on the road, there they were…”
“You took ’em right off my property,” cried the elderly man.
“They were on the roadside,” I informed him.
“Yes, right beside my own fields,” accused the owner.
The county constable and the others were standing in a circle around us, eyeing us with hard, alert gaze.
“What kind of a man did you meet down there fishing?” inquired the county constable.
“Why,” I said, “he was a most interesting man, knew the stream like a book, showed us all the best holes …”
“That would be him,” said all the others.
“What did he look like?” demanded the constable.
“Well, he was very shabby,” I replied, “and he was brindled and kind of odd looking, and he spoke in a soft, gentle voice …”
“That’s him,” they all cried.
“That’s who?” demanded Jimmie.
“The man that used to live here, in this farm,” said the constable. “He is the biggest cattle thief in history. Been to prison four times for cattle stealing. Can’t quit it, no matter what they do to him.”
“Does he live here?” I asked in dismay, looking at the abandoned house.
“Nobody has lived here since he went to prison 18 years ago, the first time,” said the constable. “But he comes back every now and then and steals cattle right under the noses of his old neighbors.”
Feeling Very Mystified
“How do we know,” demanded a rather pious-looking little farmer with a raspy voice, “that these men aren’t in cahoots with him? How do we know …”
“No, no,” laughed the county constable, “this is the perfect job. He’s probably hiding in the bush watching us right now and laughing. If Mr. Potts had not met these gentlemen driving your cattle off, they would have by now been pleasantly hidden back in the bush there: and tonight, a truckload of his prison friends would have arrived and carted them off.”
“Why, the scoundrel,” I exclaimed.
“He does it for the mischief of it,” said the constable.
“Mischief nothing,” I said hotly. “Why, we would have been accessories to a crime, and driven off and never even known. Look here: pinch him the next time you see him and we’ll come back and give evidence.”
“Pinch him!” said the constable. “Nobody ever sees him. He hasn’t been seen by anybody that knows him around here for 10 years. He creeps in and creeps out, usually with a bunch of cattle. We know who does it. But we can’t prove it. He’s like a mink in the bush.”
“What a strange life,” said Jim.
“He was a wrong one, even as a youngster,” said the constable. There was never enough to keep him amused around here, so he took to tricks.”
So we all shook hands and said good-by and we drove off, keeping anxious eyes on the shrubbery along the back roads until we got safely out to the highway.
“I knew he was a crook,” I stated. “The minute I saw him, I had a hunch he was a bad ‘un.”
“He sure knew his trout,” said Jim.
“Crook was written all over him,” I maintained.
“Yet he was as gentle as a child,” said Jim.
“I wouldn’t trust him with my back turned,” I insisted.
“He showed us more about a trout stream in 20 minutes,” said Jim, “than anybody has shown us in years.”
“Yet the whole business,” I cried, “was a frame-up to get us to help him steal some cattle. I bet he drove those cows around our car.”
“And him hiding in the thickets, watching us,” said Jim.
“It’s eerie,” I mused, “to think of lives so twisted up as that.”
“I don’t know,” said Jim very mystified. “I kind of liked him, I imagine he is a more natural man than all us human clothes pegs.”
Upon which it was dark enough to have to turn on the car lights and pay attention to the driving, and the conversation languished.