by J. Brooks
So Ezra walks into the saloon, see. And he picks out the biggest...the meanest...the ugliest...the smelliest...the orneriest cuss in the place -- the fella who just happened to have the biggest pile of cash sitting in front of him at the poker table -- and sashays right over to him.
Snickers rippled through the group of men sprawled along the shady riverbank. Encouraged, Buck Wilmington leaned a little closer to his audience and continued the tale.
Now, when I say this fella was ugly, I mean ugly. This hombre could back a buzzard off a gut wagon. Tell em, JD.
Plug ugly. Ugly as a burnt boot.
And mean? Hoo! That feller was so mean, hed share a plate with a snake. He was so mean, hed fight a rattler and give him first bite. He was so mean--
Right. So Ezra turns his best smile on the big fella, pulls out a deck of cards and asks him, Whats your best game, my friend?
Ooh, I want to tell this part, Buck!
Shut up, JD. Now the fella looks ol Ezra up and down and he doesnt say a word -- just hauls off and punches him right in the face, hard as he can.
JD broke in, punching his own palm for emphasis. Bam! Ezra went down like a sack of potatoes!
Spread him out like Tularosa, Buck confirmed, glaring the younger lawman into silence.
All eyes turned to the gambler who lounged in the shade of a weeping willow nearby, hat tilted over his spectacularly blackened eye. Ezra tipped the hat up with one finger and shot a look of mild reproof at his grinning associates.
Buck picked up the narrative again. But ol Ez just bounces up off the floor like a rubber ball. He holds out his cards again with that same shit-eating grin on his face and he says, So...whats your second-best game?
Under his hat brim, the gambler smirked as his friends dissolved in howls of laughter.
Dont tell me, Josiah choked, wiping his eyes.
Poker, JD snickered.
Ezra clean him out? Larabee asked, sounding pretty damn sure of the answer already.
Took him for every cent he had, and kept playing until he had the mans horse, guns and boots too.
Smiling, Chris Larabee tilted his face toward the warm spring sunshine and listened to the soothing murmur of the river and the relaxed chatter of his men. It seemed like ages since the seven of them had been all in the same place at the same time, with no pressing emergency to deal with.
For the past week, theyd been scattered to the winds. He and Vin had been chasing a band of cattle rustlers up and down every switchback canyon this side of the Mexican border. Ezra, Buck and JD had been stuck in the miserable burg of Whiskey Flats, safeguarding Judge Travis while he dealt with the trial and sentencing of a powerful ranchers son. Meanwhile, every pregnant woman in the territory had chosen that week to go into labor, forcing Nathan to shuttle frantically between the Seminole village, the town and scattered ranches to deliver no less than five newborns. Which left Josiah to ride herd on the small army of drunken cowpokes who came reeling through town on a trail drive.
Larabee stretched, feeling his muscles unknot and relax one by one. It really had been one of his better ideas to suggest they all meet up here, at his favorite fishing spot, before heading back to town to deal with all the work and complaints that had probably piled up while they were out of town.
He let out a contented sigh, letting the sound of his mens idle chatter wash over him
So how many babies you get named after you this time, Nate? Vin asked, hunting along the river bank for flat, smooth pebbles, just right for skipping across the water.
Nathan fished two good skipping stones out of the shallows, handed one to the tracker and sent the other one flying across the sun-dappled water, skipping twice. Homer Nathan Anspaugh, he reported with a grin.
Hell, Nate. One out of five? Youre losing your touch. Vin let his rock fly, watching it bounce one, two, three, four times. Nathan let out an appreciative whistle.
In Brother Nathans defense, the other four were baby girls, Josiah said mildly, rolling up the cuffs of his trousers and slipping his toes into the cool water.
Several voices piped up to offer various, awful, suggestions for twisting a name like Nathan around to suit a little girl. Nathan sniped back with a few ideas about feminizing the names Vin and Buck. JD chimed in with the unhelpful observation that Ezra already sounded like a girls name.
Ignoring the squabbling, Larabee rolled up on his elbow and studied the cool running stream, wishing hed brought his fishing pole with him. Not that any sensible fish would stick around at this time of day, with this much commotion along the banks. But it seemed unnatural to be at his fishing hole without...fishing.
Buck broke away from the debate downriver and plopped down beside him, nudging his shoulder in greeting.
I know what youre thinking, Buck said, nodding to the broad slow-moving waters of the river. And youre right. This here is a prime spot for noodling if ever I saw one.
Larabee squinted at him. Say what? he asked, not entirely sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Noodling! Buck repeated enthusiastically, shrugging out of his coat and bending to tug off his boots.
He had the groups attention now. Noodling? JD prompted, in a tone that warned that noodling had better not mean what he thought it meant. Ezra let out a snort from somewhere under the shelter of his hat. Nathan and Vin edged closer, baby names and skipping rocks forgotten. Josiah waded deeper into the river, unconcerned.
Catfish -- oof -- noodling, Buck said, grunting out each word as he wrestled with his one remaining boot. As soon as he was barefoot, he waded into the river, still talking. You know -- noodling! Grabbling! Hogging! Stumping! Dogging! He flailed his arms, trying to get the point across. Hand fishing!
JD still looked vaguely repulsed, but Vin and Nathan were nodding. Ah, Nathan said wisely. Grabbling. Vin had already stripped down to his skivvies and joined Buck in the water. Nathan and JD followed suit
Larabee groaned and edged away from the waterline to join Ezra under the shade of the willow. He accepted the flask of whiskey the gambler offered without comment. There was no way this was going to end well.
Buck, meanwhile, was filling his friends in on the mysteries of hand fishing.
This time of day, all the catfish are holed up in their burrows along the river bed. You just gotta feel along the bottom until you find a hole, stick your hand in and -- presto! -- catch us some lunch. Easy as pie.
Duck under the water, feel along the riverbed, JD repeated the directions to himself, nodding. Didnt sound too complicated. He took a deep breath, ready to submerge.
Bucks hand shot out and grabbed his shoulder, stopping him cold.
Almost forgot, Buck said, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. While youre feeling around down there, if you feel something that might, maybe, be a snapping turtle -- dont grab it, whatever you do. The old fella who taught me how to noodle, he lost three fingers that way.
JD shot out of the water so fast the wake nearly swamped Buck. He threw himself between Chris and Ezra, fingers tucked defensively under his armpits.
Ezra sat up and flicked off the stray droplets of water JD had splashed on him. Resting his elbows on his knees, he leaned forward to stare at Buck.
Am I to understand, Ezra drawled. That you took advice on hand fishing from a man missing half his fingers?
Good ol Stumpy. Buck smiled mistily.
Vin rolled his eyes and gestured to JD to get back in the water. Cmon JD. That almost never happens. Indians been fishing this way forever.
JD turned beseeching eyes on Nathan, expecting him to do the right thing and call a halt to the madness. The healer shrugged and grinned, holding up ten fingers and wriggling them encouragingly to prove they were all still attached.
Chris? JD asked hopefully. You goin in?
Larabees only response was to chomp down viciously on his cigar and squint at the idiots under his command. If God had intended man to hand-fish, he wouldnt have invented poles.
Ezra? JD tried again. The men in the water hooted -- except Josiah, who was floating on his back, letting the current spin him in lazy circles.
The gambler had produced a small leather-bound journal from his jacket pocket and was busily scribbling notes of some sort. He looked up, blinking at JD as if he couldn't quite believe his ears.
"This idyllic riparian habitat is best appreciated from the relative comfort of the shore," Ezra said, flapping a hand at the sheriff in a dismissive gesture as he turned back to his jottings.
"C'mon, JD," Buck wheedled, patting the water beside him like a sofa cushion. "Ain't nothin' to be afraid of here. Ol' Buck will protect you from the mean ol fish."
JD stiffened. "I ain't scared!"
"Right, kid. Whatever. You just stay there on the beach, don't worry. Maybe you can start us a campfire for all the fish El Buck is gonna catch for your dinner."
The other men ducked their heads to hid their smiles as the young sheriff bolted to his feet and stomped back into the river, muttering and swearing under his breath. He fetched up beside Buck, still holding his fingers gingerly above the surface of the water.
Larabee leaned over to see what Ezra was scribbling. All seven of their names, he saw, with numerical odds penciled in such tiny script that he couldn't quite work out who Ezra had pinned as the most likely to catch a fish -- or why Ezra had bothered to put all seven of them in the running.
After a moment's thought, Larabee fished out two bits and handed it over. "Vin."
The gambler grimaced at the paltry sum, but pocketed the coin nonetheless. He tapped the notebook. "Care to place a side wager?" There were separate categories for the first fish caught, the most fish caught and the largest catch. On the next page in the journal was a series of what looked to be the most likely injuries to come out of this fishing misadventure. Drowning. Broken bones. Contusions. Sunstroke. Fist fights. Animal attack -- the latter was broken down into sub-categories of likely assailants from the animal kingdom that began with 50-pound catfish and ran through water moccasins, snapping turtles and beaver.
Larabee shuddered, but fished out another coin. "My money's on the catfish."
Ezra scribbled away, then turned to take the shouted bets from the men in the river. JD blanched when Nathan cheerfully predicted he'd be wringing water out of the somebody's lungs before lunchtime. The healer gave JD a meaningful look.
"I can swim, you know," JD grumbled, splashing water at his grinning friends. "And it's not like this is deep water. Heck, it barely comes up to my chest."
Buck splashed him back. "That's the point, kid. You never go noodling in deep water. You'll have trouble enough hauling them big ol' cats to shore as it is."
"Mean fish, catfish," Vin said, his tone suspiciously bland as he wrapped his bandanna around his right hand and wrist. "Sharp teeth, too. Hell, if they take a notion, they'll latch onto your wrist and spin around like a top. Scour the skin right off your arms."
With a wink, the tracker submerged, leaving JD staring, aghast, at the murky water.
Buck threw a friendly arm around the kids neck and leaned in for some parting advice.
"One last thing. If you're groping around down there and you feel something that clearly ain't a catfish -- don't try to grab it. There's things that nest in river bottoms that'll snap your fingers off like candy canes. And not all of 'em are turtles."
JD rolled his eyes. Right.
"He ain't kiddin, JD," Nathan cautioned, looking remarkably cheerful for a man about to plunge his fingers into the watery depths. "I knew one fella almost had his arm gnawed off by an angry beaver when he went grabbling in its den by mistake. You don't want to mess with beavers. They'll gnaw you in half like an old tree trunk, unless somebody clubs them off."
JD eyed the shore longingly.
On the bank, Ezra made a quick notation next to his entry on "beavers." Possibly upping the odds. Larabee pinched the bridge of his nose, wondering if he had enough pocket change to cover all the possible disasters that could come out of this.
Nathan waded away, eyeing a shady, overgrown stretch of bank that looked like a likely catfish hiding spot. JD glared after him, then turned the glare on Buck.
Buck just grinned, drew a deep breath and slid out of sight beneath the muddy water. Bubbles broke the surface as Buck bobbled unseen on the river bottom, poking blindly into holes, using the time-tested Stumpy method.
All eyes fixed on the bubble trail as it meandered away toward the far bank and a tangled nest of tree roots that poked out of the bank and drooped down toward the river. JD looked around and realized he was the only fisherman left above water. He took a deep breath -- trying to ignore the last-minute exchange of money between Chris and Ezra on the shore -- and dunked under.
+ + + + + +
The river water was cool, not cold. It rushed into his ears, muffling every noise except the nervous thump of his own heartbeat. JD let himself sink down toward the river bed, trailing a finger along the slimy, silty bottom. Something brushed his hand -- probably a water weed, but he yanked his hand back nonetheless. No sense taking chances with his good trigger finger.
JD cracked open his eyes, squinting as the mucky water stung his eyeballs. Everything was shades of murky green -- brighter above, where the sun shone down on the lucky ones who'd stuck to dry land -- darker below where he could just make out the shadow of the river bed and banks, where catfish likely lurked.
Steeling himself, JD frog-kicked toward the bottom. He had half a day's pay riding on a bet that hed catch the first fish, and he aimed to collect. He groped for the bottom again, getting a feel for the underwater topography.
There! His fingers brushed through a pocket of colder water. A hole! Throwing caution to the current, he thrust his arm up to the shoulder and felt something slick and scaly.
A whoop escaped JD in a burst of bubbles. He felt around a bit more, feeling the delicate fan of a fin, an unpleasant blob of jelly that might be an eye, and -- whoa, big, big fish. There was nothing he could grab hold of and yank the fish up
His lungs were burning now, begging him to kick to the surface for a breath of air. Stubbornly, JD carried on grabbling in the hole. There! He felt the open slash of the catfishs mouth. If he could just...sort of...hook it--
+ + + + + +
Ezra made a smug notation as Nathan broke the surface with a whoop, brandishing a outraged-looking catfish the size of a mans thigh. The healer waded triumphantly to shore with his thrashing catch and chucked the cat far enough on the bank to be sure it wouldnt wriggle off.
With a cheerful wave, Nathan turned and splashed back into the water, eyes scanning the banks for another likely catfish hideout.
Oh, shut up, Larabee grumbled, slapping a coin into Ezras outstretched palm. Stupid side bets. He rose with a stretch and glared at the spot in the river where Vin kept popping up from time to time, empty handed, with river weeds poking out of his hair.
With a disgusted sigh, he stepped over Ezras outstretched legs and headed for Nathans catch. Might as well get the campfire going and start cleaning the fish. Lord knew Ezra wasnt going to volunteer.
He glanced back, but Ezra had turned away, focusing intently on the stretch of river where theyd last seen JD. Bubbles were roiling the smooth-running water like a cauldron coming to boil. As a particularly large bubble popped, Larabee almost fancied he heard a faint yikes! But that was ridicu--
Buck shot up out of the river, almost at Chriss feet. The big man flailed in the water, flapping some sort of object that looked nothing like a catfish. It was round and green and--
TURTLE! Get it off! Get it off me!! Buck howled, whipping his hand frantically back and forth. The turtle that had clamped down on the meaty heel of his palm hung on doggedly as it whipsawed around.
Chris fought off a brief temptation to check Ezras odds on turtle attack.
Cmon up here! he yelled, waving Buck toward shore. No way in hell was he going into those turtle-infested waters. Buck ignored him, whirling around in the water like a dervish, the turtle whizzing along in his wake like a malignant caboose.
And it was at that precise moment that Vin popped out of the water right next to Buck, his hair a mess of water weeds, mud and a sprinkling of what looked to be aquatic snails.
The whirling turtle connected with Vins nose with a sickening crack.
The impact sent Vin reeling back, clutching his face and swearing in three different languages. The snapping turtles razor beak ripped through the tender flesh of Bucks palm and the creature went flying, spinning through the air like a pie tin until it landed with a plop.
+ + + + + +
Oof, Josiah muttered peevishly, as something smooth and solid dropped onto his chest. Hed been floating peacefully on his back, eyes closed, ears submerged, blissfully unaware of the others antics.
He cracked open one eye. A cruel, hooked reptilian beak hovered inches from his chin. A pair eyes, like baleful green pistachios, pinned him with a glare.
The snapper hitched itself a bit closer, hissing a warning to him not to try any funny business. It had been rudely yanked out of its burrow, whirled like a top and tossed upstream. All it wanted to do now was relax on a nice floating log until the world stopped spinning.
Josiah blinked. The snapper hissed.
Uh, brothers? Josiahs plaintive call went unnoticed in the roiling mayhem upriver. A little help here?
+ + + + + +
Aw, hell, Larabee muttered. Vin and Buck were leaning weakly against each other, swearing alternately at each other and the turtle, and bleeding all over the damn place. Looked like hed have to get wet after all.
Kicking off his boots, he stomped toward the river. Ill get Buck. Ezra, you get--
A shadow shot by him. Larabee whirled, just in time to catch the splash as Ezra hurled himself into the river in a flat dive, arrowing straight toward the spot where theyd last seen JD.
+ + + + + +
The catfish was insane. That was the only possible explanation for it. JD had poked his arm into the only hole in the river bank where homicidal lunatic catfish lurked.
JD clawed and scrabbled at the soft mud, trying to get enough leverage to tear himself away from the bedeviled fish that had swallowed his arm up to the elbow and refused to let go.
His lungs were burning fiercely now. His eyes turned to the sunlit surface waters, twinkling just out of reach. It was a shallow river. When hed been standing, it only came to his chest. If only he could stand. He needed to stand up. He needed to breathe...
God, he didnt want to drown. He didnt want to die, fishing. That was the way men died back east. Died by the boatload -- shipwrecked, sliced to pieces by fishing line, lost in maelstroms out to sea, tangled in nets and dragged down to the depths.
Hed gone west to get away from all that. To get away from the reek of brine and fish, and the rough, hairy men on the docks, mending their nets with gnarled fingers, singing cheerful sea shanties about hideous death on the high seas. He could hear the old men singing now, laughing and asking him why hed want to do a fool thing like buy a stagecoach ticket west when he could make a good living right at home.Gloucester girls they have no combs,
They comb their hair with codfish bones
It was no way to die. JD struggled sluggishly, lulled by the slowing heartbeat that thumped against his eardrums. Not like out west, where a mans death could mean something. Out here, a man was supposed to go out in a blaze of glory. Not swallowed up in gray waters, in a death so commonplace it hardly bears remarking.Gloucester boys they have no sleds,
They ride down hills on codfish heads.
JD was floating now, not terribly concerned any more about man-eating catfish, or how stupid this this was going to look carved onto his tombstone. He hoped Buck would tell Casey hed gone down foiling a stagecoach heist or something. He hoped... He hoped...Heave away, my bully bully boys,
Heave away, heave away!
Heave away, why don't you make a noise?
We're bound for South Australia...
He was only dimly aware of the arms that swam out of the dark water, caught him around the chest and heaved him away.
+ + + + + +
Ezra broke the surface with a gasp of relief that turned to a yell of alarm. Because JD wasnt the only thing hed hauled to the surface.
The catfish was almost as large as JD -- wide-lipped and whiskered, oozing slime and ill will toward the men who had yanked it from its comfortable den.
Buck and Vin had gone wading to Josiahs rescue, brandishing turtle-whacking sticks. But JDs catfish caught Chriss full attention, and Nathans -- whod just come wading to shore with yet another hand-caught catfish in tow.
Nice! Nathan hollered, tossing his catch in the growing pile.
Not nice! Ezra spluttered back as the catfish began to thrash with freakish strength, almost yanking JDs limp form out of his arms. Not nice at--glub! Ezra and JD vanished from view as the vengeful catfish wrestled them under.
Chris and Nathan splashed into the river after them.
+ + + + + +
Dont...move... Buck whispered, staring intently at the armor-plated menace on Josiahs chest. He raised his turtle-whacking stick above his head, one-handed, preparing to tee off.
Whoa! Josiah backstroked away from Buck, and bumped into Vin, who was clutching his bleeding nose with one hand, and a cudgel in another. Watch where youre pointing those sticks.
Eady, Dhothiah Vin honked at him, poking the stick experimentally at the turtle. The snappers serpentine neck reared back, it snapped -- and Vin pulled back a stick with three inches missing off the tip.
The turtle pivoted and headed south, trundling toward anatomical parts to which Josiah was particularly attached.
He closed his eyes.
Get it off, he hissed. Get it off me right now!
Whacking sticks at the ready, Vin and Buck didnt need any more encouragement.
+ + + + + +
The pained bellow downstream gave Nathan pause, but he had bigger fish to fry at the moment.
Biggest damn cat Ive ever seen, he muttered, hauling JD -- monster catfish still firmly attached -- to shore. The shock of the beaching was enough to convince the fish to let go and it flopped away, thrashing, while Nathan flipped the kid on his back and began pushing gently below his ribcage, trying to push the water out.
Cmon, JD. Dont you do this to us, he said, pushing harder, feeling JDs ribs creak in protest.
Water gushed out from between blue-tinged lips. Nathan pushed one more time and then rocked back on his heels to give JD room to flop on his side, coughing and gasping.
Atta boy, JD. You did good. You did real good, Nathan said, rubbing the kids back to ease the spasms. He remembered his earlier joke about drowning and winced. There wasnt anything funny about this, not funny at all.
JDs breathing had gone from frantic pants to slow, deliberate breaths as he slowly relaxed. Nathan pulled him up to lean against his shoulder.
Nathan glanced down at the scratched, bruised skin of JDs forearm, where the catfish had clamped down with its sandpaper teeth. He patted the kids good arm.
Thats one hell of a fish, you caught, JD, he said, snagging Ezras red jacket out of the pile of discarded clothing and wrapping it around the waterlogged sheriff. Biggest damn catfish Ive ever seen pulled to shore. Miss Caseys gonna be real impressed when she sees it. Youre gonna have one hell of a fish story to tell her.
The soggy figure beside him straightened. JD raised his head, his expression of hangdog misery slowly brightening.
You really think so?
Neither one of them noticed Ezra, floating face-down in the river as the current tugged him downstream, or Larabee, chasing after him.
+ + + + + +
Chris Larabee knew his strengths, and swimming was not one of them. He heaved himself onto the far shore and took off running after Ezras motionless form. Sometime during the frantic rescue effort, the gambler had cracked his chin on the top of JDs head, stunning himself and sliding bonelessly back under the water.
Ezra! he bellowed as Ezras motionless form swept around a bend in the river and vanished from sight. Larabee put on a burst of speed and closed the distance, gasping with relief as he saw Ezra had fetched up against a tangle of logs and twigs in the river bend.
He sprinted out onto the pile of wood, and threw himself down next to the gambler, who had finally managed to raise his face out of the water and catch hold of one of the logs that had snagged him out of the current.
Larabee caught the gamblers head between his hands and winced at the bruise swelling on his jaw line. Ezras eyes roved about, unfocused and confused. He transferred his death grip from the log to Larabees shirt sleeve.
Ezra? Larabee peered into the dazed green eyes. You with me, bud?
Ezras gaze drifted over his shoulder and locked on something. His expression shifted from watery bemusement to abject panic.
Run, he croaked.
What? We arent going anywhere until Im sure youre in one piece. How many fingers am I holding up?
Beaver, Ezra said.
Larabee sighed. The gambler had had his bell rung but good.
Ezra tightened his grip. Beaver! he said again, pointing to the pile of twigs and sticks Larabee had just clambered down. Angry beaver! Run!
Slowly, the man in black pivoted. A squat, fuzzy form was hunched on a log, level with his neck, thumping its flat tail ominously. A soft splash in the water nearby heralded the appearance of the mama beaver, trailed by a pack of half-grown kits. The entire family bared long yellow incisors at the intruders. Larabee devoutly wished hed never heard Nathans little lecture on beaver attacks.
He tightened his grip on Ezra and slowly eased the two of them away from what he now realized was a half-finished beaver dam.
The beavers beady eyes tracked their every move. Triumphant chattering filled the air as the two hardened lawmen splashed back upriver with unseemly haste.
+ + + + + +
Tell me again. Tell me again how you caught the big fish! Casey Wells eyes glowed, her entire face alight with admiration as she leaned in to listen.
The aroma of pan-fried catfish drifted through Nettie Wells cabin, curling around the sprawled forms of the seven battered fishermen. Ezra had been bundled off to the guestroom bed with a poultice on his grossly swollen jaw. But not before the gambler had extorted his share of the bet for catching the largest fish of the day.
Vin had a similar poultice on his broken nose -- and he and Buck were sporting matching black eyes, courtesy of Josiah, who truly hadnt appreciated the two turtle-whacking stick blows to the groin. Hed made so much noise, the turtle had hopped off his belly and paddled away, while Josiah took off after his would-be rescuers. The preacher fidgeted gingerly in a rocker by the fire, avoiding the amused looks Nettie kept shooting him -- and fending off Nathans offer of a poultice.
Buck studied his bandaged hand, wondering if he could talk Nathan into giving him a matching sling. The ladies could never resist the charms of a man in a sling.
Larabee lounged against the far wall, smirking at his battered men. Further proof, if any were needed, of the superiority of fishing poles.
Cmon!" Casey wheedled. I want to hear the story again!
Nathan ducked his head modestly. Well, Miss Casey, you know it was JD who did most of the work.
Casey cut her eyes to JD, who sat wrapped in a quilt, nursing his sore arm by the fire. She sniffed and turned back to Nathan.
JD sighed. It looked like Casey wasnt quite ready to forgive him for throwing up on her shoes. Or for singing her that sea shanty about the girls who comb their hair with codfish bones. He shook his head glumly, then more vigorously, trying to shake loose the water in his ears. Or maybe shake loose the stupid song that was still stuck in his head.Gloucester mothers don't bake no pies,
They feed their children codfish eyes.
Cape Cod cats ain't got no tails,
They got blown off in northeast gales.
Cape Cod girls they are so fine,
They know how to bait a codfish line.