By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, April 8, 1939.
How do you tell a cattle thief when you see one? Greg and Jim would like to know
“In the next few days,” said Jimmie Frise, “we’ve simply got to go and scout out a good trout stream.”
“The season is almost upon us,” I admitted.
“Remember last year,” warned Jim. “We left it so late, by the time the season opened all the good streams were leased up.”
“All the good streams are always leased up,” I corrected. “Only the fished-out streams are for rent.”
“No,” said Jim; “old men are always giving up their private brooks and men who were rich and idle last year are poor and very busy this.”
“Thank goodness for the stock market,” I agreed. “What a cruel world this would be if the market was always good.”
“It’s the bad luck of the world,” confirmed Jim, “that gives homely guys like you and me a chance at some of the good things.”
“Suppose,” I suggested, “we call up a few stock-brokers and get a list of some of the prominent men who have been ruined lately. Then we could check over and see if any of them are fishermen.”
“There’s a real idea,” cried Jim. “A sideline for brokers. Preparing confidential up-to-the-minute lists of people recently ruined. With data as to their tastes, style of life, personal possessions. Such lists would be invaluable to art collectors, antique dealers and sportsmen. I’ll bet we could pick up some real bargains in guns and sporting stuff of all kinds if we had such a list.”
“It ought to be a good way to locate a nice bit of trout property,” I agreed. “I know a couple of brokers. I’ll do a little quiet investigating.”
“We don’t want anything fancy,” cautioned Jimmie. “Just a nice little farm stream.”
“I have in mind,” I offered, “a stream that runs corner-ways across a farm, with plenty of woods and open fields, and a quiet pool, with logs in it, about every hundred yards.”
“With riffles,” said Jim, “and rapids in between.”
“And the whole thing,” I continued, “so situated that it can all be seen from the farmhouse. I have no use for trout streams that can’t be watched from the farmhouse.”
“Correct,” said Jim. “A good noisy dog is also a great help in keeping a trout stream in good condition.”
“And a bad-tempered farmer,” I added. “If anything ruins a trout stream, it is a good-natured farmer.”
“The best trout stream I ever fished,” related Jim, “was owned by a man who, whenever he looked out and saw somebody fishing his creek, he simply went and got his gun, stood in the doorway and hanged two shots, rapid, into the air.”
“Ah, that’s the kind of man we’re looking for,” I agreed. “Where was he?”
“Up in Simcoe county,” said Jim. “The last time I was chased off there must have been 10 years ago. He leased the creek to a couple of elderly doctors. By George, they may have got too old to fish.”
Two Shots in the Air
“Jimmie,” I cried, “do you remember how to find it? What do you say if we investigate.”
“Find it,” said Jim. “I could find it with my eyes shut. I could find it by the sweet odor of willows in bloom, by the music of the water of that little brook where it comes out under the log bridge on the side road.”
“Side road,” I lamented. “Is it far off the highway?”
“It’s only a mile off the highway,” said Jim.
“I wouldn’t care to take a chance at any country driving for the next couple of weeks,” I demurred. “The back roads will be awful.”
“We could walk in from the highway,” said Jim, “for that matter.”
“What is the stream like?” I inquired.
“It’s one of those narrow, deep, fast streams,” recited Jimmie raptly, “that winds through impenetrable tangles of alder and cedar and then comes rushing and bending out through meadows, forming deep pools with log jams, where great big trout lurk.”
“Good fly casting?” I breathed.
“In the thickets,” said Jim, “even a country boy couldn’t penetrate to fish with a worm. That means those bits of the creek are a haven for the trout. The stream can never be fished out. But in the open stretches the trout lie under the deep, soddy banks: and in the pools, they have the log jams and tree roots, all tangled for a hiding place. It is the loveliest place to cast a fly I have ever seen.”
“Jim,” I said solemnly, “how old were these doctors when you last saw them?”
“They were old, pottery fellows,” said Jim. “Maybe they’re gone now.”
“Let us devoutly hope so,” I said reverently. “When can you get away?”
“Tomorrow, if it’s fine,” said Jim, looking at his drawing board sourly.
And it being a fine day, with the earth fairly singing out of its prisoning bars, Jim and I slipped away after a long enough visit to the office to let all our editors see us very seriously hustling about; ten o’clock or thereabouts.
“Ah, Jim,” I cried, once we were well past the suburbs, “is there anything like April?”
“Me,” said Jim, “when I look out over those sopping black fields, I could get out and fall down, with my arms spread wide, and kiss the earth.”
“The world, Jim, the world,” I amended. “Kiss the world.”
“Men are lucky,” said Jim, “who are born with a love of fishing. It makes them do such silly things. Yet those silly things will be the only bright beads on the string when we are old and counting our memories.”
“Tell me now,” I said, relaxing after the poetry, “what kind of an old geezer is this farmer who owns the creek?”
“Well, I never got a close look at him,” said Jim, “or, to put it more accurately, he never got a close look at me. He must have been a middle-aged man, 10 years ago, because if he had been a young man, he would have chased me. All I recall is that as soon as I came out of the bushes, where I had been trying in vain to find a hole to drop my line, this fellow would appear at the door of his farmhouse and, pointing his shotgun in the air, would fire two shots. I would immediately start to leave. He would wave his hand in acknowledgement, and I’d keep on going.”
“Did you never get any trout?” I inquired.
“Never,” said Jim. “He was always too alert. I lived in hopes of some day having a few minutes before he saw me. But I wouldn’t be 10 feet out of the bushes before he’d spot me.”
“How do you know there were any trout in the creek?” I demanded.
“How do I know there is balm in Gilead?” retorted Jim. “I’ve seen trout a foot long scuttling up that stream before I could cast a single line.”
“Well, all I can hope is,” I sighed, “that the former lessees have gone to some better place.”
So, piously and tenderly thinking, we bowled northward on the all but deserted highway of early spring.
Through several towns, dull still with winter, we sped, and took a side highway for several miles, and then Jim began to slow down and study the country.
“I think,” he cried, “the next side road is it. If it has a frame church on the corner, it’s it.”
And to our delight we beheld, rising in the distance, a bleak and bony church, which stood sure enough at the corner of a side road lined with giant gnarled tree stumps for fences, and down which certainly no engined vehicle could possibly travel. The thaw was coming out in huge bulges and ruts.
“Okay,” said Jim. “Here we park, and walk in. The walk will give is an idea of the nature of the country. The farm we want is at the next corner in. We’ll strike the near corner of it just beyond that hill you can see.”
It was a beautiful type of country. Rolling hills, with a woodlot on the crest of each: and valleys full of cedar and alder shrubbery. The earth was black, but out of it nobbled great boulders, giving character and color to it. The first early crows flapped like black rags across the fields, and many kinds of small birds hurried in the bushes; chickadees sang their sweet spring call, not the “chicka-dee-dee,” but that faint, sweet call of two notes, like a young girl signalling from a small window, secretly.
Taking to the heavy turf along the side of the road, Jim and I stepped out boldly, with deep lungs.
“Can’t you just smell trout?” cried Jim.
“I can even feel trout,” I admitted, “in this soft turf, through my boots.”
It was glorious. We went heartily for half a mile and then breasted a rise in the road, over the top of which Jim proclaimed we would first behold the farm of the trout stream, and, in its folds, see the course of the little dark river.
“Aha,” said Jim, as we came to the top. “And there’s our friend, loading cattle.”
“It’s a kind of a bad time to talk business,” I suggested, “while he’s loading cattle. If he’s a bad-tempered man, nothing could put him in a worse temper than cattle loading.”
“There’s two of them,” said Jim. “We’ll just look the situation over when we get there. Maybe it isn’t for lease anyway.”
Lending a Hand
At the nearest corner of the field they had a truck backed to the fence. They had removed one section of the rail fence and erected a sort of corral and loading ramp.
As we approached, they quit work and lighted cigarettes and watched us draw near.
“Tiring work, gentlemen,” I hailed pleasantly.
“Mmmm,” they grunted, in the country tradition.
“We’re out looking for a trout stream,” I explained, “and we heard your place might be for rent.”
“It might be,” spoke up the older of the two. He might have been the father of the other.
“Too bad to call,” said Jim, “when you’re busy. Do you suppose we might have a few minutes with you later, sir?”
“After I get these cattle loaded,” said the farmer, “come on to the house.”
“Why,” said Jim, “we’ll give you a hand. Is there anything we can do?”
“No,” said the farmer. He turned his back on us and rounded up a cow and guided her to the ramp.
“Here’s our chance,” said Jim when bossie, with a bewildered sort of look, stepped off the ramp first one side and, when the farmer had run around to steer her back, then the other.
Jimmie and I sprang into action. With Jim on one side of the cow, the farmer on the other and me shoving from behind, we got the cow up the ramp.
“Is there anything else we can do?” inquired Jimmie pleasantly.
“Well, now,” said the farmer, “there is. There’s two heifers got away on me, and they’re down in that scrub, yonder. If you don’t mind a little mud, you might go down and shoo them up this way.”
“Certainly,” said Jim.
It was a muddy field. They had four cattle in the truck and three more cornered in the corral ready to be shoved up the ramp they had made with planks.
“We’ll get these on,” said the farmer, “and by the time you chase them two up we can go back to the house.”
“Come along,” said Jim, climbing the snake fence.
“Jim,” I said, quietly, after we got a few yards, “we’re not booted for tramping around muddy fields like this. We’ll get soaked.”
“Listen,” said Jim, “this may mean the difference between us getting the lease and not getting it. Use your head.”
So we floundered across the greasy field and down to the first little woods of alder and cedar.
Over a little rise we went to the next patch of small woods, and looked very carefully, without seeing or hearing any cattle.
“Jim, my feet are soaked,” I protested.
“Okay,” said Jim, eagerly, “over the next rise is the stream. You can have your first look at it.”
And sure enough, in the next small valley, with the dense thickets of a stream, we saw the two errant heifers.
“Gittem,” cried Jim. “Go that way and I’ll head ’em this way.”
A Sort of Sixth Sense
So we floundered in the coarse and swampy water meadow, in no time having caught the heifers’ attention and sending them anxiously headed back over the fields.
“Bang, bang,” went a gun.
“Look,” shouted Jim. “It’s him.”
From the farmhouse came a figure running furiously, and reloading as he ran.
“Hoy,” he roared.
So we waited.
“This is kind of funny,” said Jim, coming cautiously nearer to me but watching the oncoming figure.
“What’s going on here?” demanded the farmer grimly, looking us over. He had gray hair but his moustache was red. And his eyes close together.
“We’re helping the farmer round up these heifers,” I explained.
“What farmer?” demanded this one.
“The farmer that owns this farm,” said Jim. “The one up on the road with the truck.”
“What truck?” shouted the farmer. “Hey, you two follow me. Or else …”
And he brandished the gun.
He set us a terrible pace up over the hill and down the next gully and so up the last hill to the road.
The truck was gone. The ramp was gone. The hole in the snake fence remained and also the tell-tale tracks of cattle trampling about.
“Explain yourselves,” gasped the farmer, dangerously, standing facing us.
So we explained that we had heard of his trout stream and had parked our car and walked in to see about it. And finding two gentlemen loading heifers, we took them for the owners. And when they suggested we might assist them by rounding up a couple that had run away…
Did we get the number of the truck? No. What kind of a truck? Oh, just an old sort of a truck. What did the men look like? Like honest farmers. Just plain fellows. The older one had a moustache, but really we hadn’t taken much of a look …
“Well,” said the farmer, “you can come back while I call the police and you can give them what description you can, which is mighty little.”
“By the way, sir,” asked Jim, “is the stream for lease?”
“No,” roared the farmer, “it isn’t for lease. And if it was for lease, I’d be jiggered I’d rent it to a couple of half-wits that don know cattle thieves when they see them.”
“How could we know they were cattle thieves?” demanded Jim hotly.
“Oh, it’s a sort of sixth sense,” said the farmer grimly and he began looking Jimmie very intently.
Editor’s Note: There Is a Balm in Gilead is a biblical reference that was made into a hymn, basically meaning that he knew something was true.