Fiction

Air-nest and the Child Harold

Mr. Dart went fishing for a big trout. Instead, he caught a strange creature chewing bubble gum and weighing forty pounds

W. O. MITCHELL August 1 1948
Fiction

Air-nest and the Child Harold

Mr. Dart went fishing for a big trout. Instead, he caught a strange creature chewing bubble gum and weighing forty pounds

W. O. MITCHELL August 1 1948

Air-nest and the Child Harold

W. O. MITCHELL

THE STILLNESS of the clearing was broken now and again by the knock of a woodpecker on the ridge of the cabin. Along the branch of a nearby cottonwood a shrill red squirrel enjoyed a nervous breakdown. Over the meadow beyond the corral a colt ran on stilting legs and a calf went rocking like a metronome loosed of its gearings over the baize of spring grass. Clear and virginal with snow, Maid O’ The Mist stood out sharply from the majestic jumble of the Rockies.

The only blemish in the picture presented by Ecclefechan Retreat was the child seated on the back st oop of the cabin.

He was a boy of perhaps twelve years, wearing stovepipe trousers of grey flannel. His hair approximated the color of ginger; his face was freckled, not with the distinct speckling of eastern brook trout but with spreading patches of pigment which ran into each other to give the mottled appearance of a cutthroat’s back. His lower jaw worked with unceasing movement, for he breathed around a glut of gum. It was a perfect synchronization of inhalation, exhalation and mastication.

On the soft breeze was borne a bright whistling: “Silver Threads Among The Gold” but with some of the bounce of “Tiptoe Through The Tulips.” Nearer, it seemed to possess a little of the languor of “Roses Of Picardy.” Ernest Dart rounded the corner of the cabin, saw the child, ceased whistling.

Steadily the boy returned the gaze, from paleblue eyes hard and wise. It was a cold look which Mr. MacNab had several days before labeled as “the stare of the iconoclast.” “Your dad back yet?”

“Your-dad-back-yet?” the boy parroted in a high voice.

Mr. Dart stood hesitantly, warily eying the boy. He laid a fishing rod against the wall of the cabin, then turned, a little man in faded levies, “Don’t touch that pole, please.”

“Don ’t-touch-that-pole,-please.”

Mr. Dart took the reel and dropped it into his pocket. He looked at the boy again, then unjointed the rod. He took it into the cabin with him. “Didn’t see you at Blackjack’s Pool.”

The middle-aged man at the kitchen table looked up, his face and neck flaming with sunburn. “Couldn’t go.” He held up a snarled line; gobs of grey matter were caught up in the tangles.

“That’s too bad, Mr. Belterlaben.” Ernest paused. “Harold?” he asked, just as though he did not know. Belterlaben nodded his head. Ernest turned to the stove, his usually cheerful face without happiness. It was as though a light had flickered out of a lamp. The wick of joy had been burning lower and lower in Ernest Dart ever since the arrival at Ecclefechan Retreat of Belterlaben and his son, Harold.

Mr. Dart went fishing for a big trout. Instead, he caught a strange creature chewing bubble gum and weighing forty pounds

IT WAS, in a way, Ernest’s own fault, for he had persuaded MacNab to put the advertisement in Reel, Creel, Line and Stream. H. J. Belterlaben of Belterlaben’s Self-Adjusting Disc Sharpeners and Dandy Daisy Mustard Seed Retrievers, had read the ad and made immediate arrangements by letter to come to Ecclefechan Retreat at the opening of the fishing season. He had made no mention of Harold.

Upon first seeing the boy, MacNab had fixed Belterlaben with an accusing stare from between the flaps of his cap, worn down summer and winter, so that he had a little of the appearance of a dyspeptic turkey with blinkers on.

“Ye made no mention of bringin’ a fingerlin’ wi’ ye.”

That had been his wife’s idea, Belterlaben explained. She had felt that he and his son should grow closer together; it would be just lovely for them to spend a month with nature. And MacNab wore a momentary expression of wonderment as though he pondered the unending magic of parent love. There was nothing about the outward appearance of Harold that could charm one into the desire for anything but the most^remote of relationships.

Alone with Ernest the first night, he said, “I dinna like the look of yon child, Air-nest.”

Ernest bent forward over the table until his curious nose almost touched the tumorous growth. “Seems like a nice little kid. There’s somethin’ I sort of like about kids—helpless—like a colt or a calf or a baby chick—need pertectin.’ ”

Na, na. Jumpin’ up an’ doon like a frog on a river bonk—jaws tireless ye’d think he’d run oot of gum or jaw,—”

“Uses the same hunk,” explained Ernest, “over an’ over agin.”

MacNab picked up his worn copy of Walden. “He has all the earmarks of a catostrophe diligently sairchin’ for someone tae hoppen to. It, shall not be me!”

ERNEST began again to cut strips from a piece of leather before him on the table. From time to time he consulted the Hudson’s Bay Catalogue opened to the harness section. Heat bloomed from the stove where birch chunks cracked their knuckle; The smell of burning wood mixed with the wildness of drying buckskin and hung pelts. Now and again, as Ernest spat into the stove, the fig-richness of eating tobacco made a spirited dash about the room.

Ernest flipped over the catalogue; with a darning needle he began to sew together the tiny strips of leather he had cut, his attention going from the work in his hands to the glossy page of the catalogue and the half-tone illustration: “Side-Hooking Lissome-Line Corselet for trim, controlled hipline.” He turned the pages: “Durable—good-looking— tugs three ply for additional strength —Sweeney shape collar—roller buckles—bellyband billets doubly stitched.”

At length he held up his work, looked at it with satisfaction.

“What,” said MacNab, “might that be?”

Ernest dropped the thing. “Nothin’, ” he said, “Jist a hobby.”

“Looks like a cross between a corset and a harness.”

Ernest’s face brightened. “That’s what it is.” “What for?”

“Somethin’ to pass the time.”

“Ye would not be makin’ a wee harness for yon Schopenhoo-er in short trous. Will na do ye any good caterin’ tae the child—nor tae the father— tactless and stubborn!”

He referred to Belterlaben’s entry into the cabin that afternoon.

“Skunk!” Belterlaben had said.

“ ’T’isna,” contradicted MacNab.

“Sure is.” Belterlaben turned in the doorway. “I can smell it as strong as—”

“Pack rat!”

“That’s too strong for packrat. If ever I smelled sk—”

“Pack rat!” said MacNab with heat. “Ecclefechan is not the Bonif Springs Hotel, ye ken, Mr. Belterlaben.”

“It. sure isn’t. And I still saywhat’s that!”

He pointed to the stove where the tin lid on a washtub moved perceptibly in spite of three sadirons. It was as though the contents were breathing. They were—in a continuous gurgling, accompanied by a seething wheeze with now and again a sharp report like the crack of dead brush underfoot.

“Air-nest’s sour dough. ’Tis the raw material from which he fashions biscuits, bread, bonnocks, flopjocks and such. The smell is pack rat.”

“Skunk,” said Belterlaben.

At breakfast the next morning, as he sat down, MacNab had looked sourly at Harold. “Would it be possible for the child tae cease the display of his food and keep his trop shut while eating?”

“I’m not eating,” said Harold and exaggerated the chewing movement.

MacNab picked up his spoon. At the first taste he looked up to Ernest. “There’s na salt in the parra tch !”

“We’re out,” said Ernest.

“Impossible! I brought back twenty-five puns from Bluebell!”

“Not a grain. Can’t even fin’ the bag.”

MacNab pushed away his dish.

“Way this cabin smells fellow hasn’t got any appetite,” said Belterlaben.

“Hae ye ever gone without--” In the middle of Harold’s face was a new thing—a mud-grey protuberance swelling as MacNab watched. It bloomed still larger under Harold’s eyes slightly crossed in the intensity of creation. Ernest bent forward over the table till his curious nose almost touched the tumorous growth.

Whop.

“Put away your gum at the table,” admonished Belterlaben.

“He has,” said Mr. MacNab, “as ye may see from the generous portion over Air-nest’s nose and chin.” He turned to Harold, “That bog of salt,” he said grimly, “when we return from anglin,’ I expect tae see it in its rightful place in yon cupboard. If it isna, we may eat our meals wi’oot salt, tis true, but ye willna eat any !”

The salt had been returned, but it had been a false victory for MacNab. He found the flies he had not taken fishing with him, welded together in a mass of gum.

“Must of been an accident,” said Ernest. “He didn’t have no reason to—”

“He didna need any.”

“Kids ain’t that mean.”

“The deed was deliberate,” said MacNab. “ ’Twas a sad day for Ecclefechan the day ye persuaded me tae poot in that advertisement. Ye’d better go wi’ Belterlaber^this afternoon while I stay wi’ Harold.”

D E LT E R LA BEN, Ernest found, was not a I ß skilful fisherman. His course down the river was accompanied by the popping report of his back casts and be left the banks of the High wood littered with the flies he snapped off behind him. He waded through riffles to turn and fish the water he had just disturbed; he clumped over gravel and sand bars, telegraphing his approach to a hole with shock and vibration.

Ernest himself was not an artistic angler, but he was a careful fisherman. His view of the world was that it had been created with its streams for the use of man. Fish were meant to be caught and Ernest’s methods were grimly utilitarian. He used steel leader, gang hooks, live bait and a green hank of at least one hundred pounds test, much to the disgust of MacNab —a dry-fly purist.

He took Belterlaben that afternoon to Blackjack’s Pool, a place of some sentimental attachment for him. There in nineteen-two, Blackjack Riley had drowned himself after his wife had run away. The pool was the home of Old Faithful, a bull trout with which Ernest had struck up an acquaintance five years before.

They saw him that afternoon, the long torpedo body, spotted orange, hanging tilted with snout to the drift of the current, fins the size of small oars moving lazily.

“That’s not trout!” exclaimed Belterlaben. “Those whiskers!” Catfish!”

“Gut,” corrected Ernest. “Length of gut a-hangin’ from the corners of his mouth. He’s got enough tackle to stock a sporting-goods store!”

“What a beauty!” breathed Belterlaben. “Bigas your thigh! Three feet ”

“Thirty-two inches,” said Ernest.

“How do you know?”

“Seen where he was stretched from the end of a log three years ago to a broken branch got a steel tape after he’d—”

Belterlaben pawed frantically through his tackle. “What you think he’d take! You think he’d go for—”

“Nothin’,” said Ernest coldly. “Not now he’s seen us. You better come back tomorrow.” Ernest, was regretting that he had brought Belterlaben to the pool. The attachment Ernest had formed for Old Faithful over the five years had all the fervency of an adolescent for his first love. He had tried to hook him with every kind of bait his resourceful mind could imagine: minnows live and dead, salmon eggs, worms, maggots, grasshoppers, crickets, pork strips, red flannel from underwear, frogs, and on one occasion an enticing lump of Old Stag eating tobacco placed in a gopher trap and lowered down into his favorite spot.

He had fished from his belly, from his knees, from behind a wolf willow, from halfway up a lodge pole pine that grew on the bank. He had fished for him in the full of the moon and the light of the moon, when the river was swollen and dark, when it was low and crystal, illegally by lantern, in rain, in sun and through a hole in the ice in winter. There had not l>een one strike all that Ernest needed.

The excited Mr. Belterlaben beside him now soured Ernest’s usually sweet and placid soul. Old Faithful was his!

“I’m going to take a crack at him!” Belterlaben was babbling. “Do you figure this artificial grasshoppHey! Watch what you’re—”

“Foot slipped on the shale,” said Ernest. “Sorry.” He stared at Belterlaben’s aluminum tackle case glinting in slow descent through the depths of the pool. “Like I said come back tomorrow.”

“I will,” said Belterlaben with feeling. “Just let me catch that baby! That’s all! Anything after him would be an anticlimax!” He stared down at the pool. “We’re staying till I catch him—if it takes the rest of the summer!”

“Huh!”

“I said we’re staying here until “Never mind, Mr. Belferlaben. “I guess I heard you all right.”

And Ernest, who had recently hit upon a sure plan for catching Old Faithful, had become very sad indeed. He told MacNab of Belterlaben’s determination. MacNab had brightened immediately: “Our worries are o’er, Air-nest. AU ye hae toe do is assist him in catchin’ Auld Faithful, so that he and the child may be away and Ecclefechan may return to its usual peace and calm.”

“But I can’t—it. ain’t right for him to—”

“Ye must, Air-nest. And by the way—hae ye seen anything of my reel around?”

Ernest shook his head.

“I was sure,” said MacNab, “that I’d left it on my rod when I came in this morning. It’s not there noo.”

“I ain’t seen it around the cabin,” said Ernest.

It was Harold again, of course. But this time MacNab had not the success he’d managed in the salt affair. Now, after three days, the retd was still missing. They had turned the cabin upside down in search, but to no avail.

So it was, sadly, that Ernest went, about his preparat ion of supper, while behind him Belterlaben struggled with his tangled taf>ered line. With unerring intuition Harold came in from outside just as Ernest had finished laying the table with bowls of steaming potatoes, pork and beans. As MacNab entered, Ernest set down a loaf of sour dough bread hot from the oven.

Save for the sound of Harold at his food, the meal progressed in silence, till that moment when MacNab went to cut a second slice for himself from the bread. The tip of the knife struck something hard. MacNab stopped his sawing motion, his spare face ¡»erplexed. He slit the loaf the long way— to reveal deep wit hin it his reel. His eyes under the rusty brows of the Red MacNabs went to Harold, to the washtub of sour dough, to the reel, to the bread knife, to Harold again.

“Cooked! My Old Country reel—precision-built —with interchangeable drumsbrought o’er—” “I’ll pay for it,” said Belterlaben quickly.

“From the thairty-five years I’ve had it— used it—kept it tae l>e cooked !”

“But how did it git into my—”

“Must have fallen into the sour dough,” said Belterlaben, “went right into the loaf you put in the oven—name your price I’ve told you I’ll pay whatever—” “Ye canna!” cried MacNab as much n anguish as in anger. “Ye canna replace it noo.” He rose from the table. He lifted one long arm. “The family of Belterlaben is no longer welcome at Ecclefechan Retreat. Ye may go. Noo! Ye may tak’ yon—yon misanthrope and—”

“He’s ruined your reel. I’ve offered to pay for it. What more do you want? I’m sorry—”

“Sorrysorry ! Mr. Belterlaben—tae the north of here ye may hae seen Maid O’ The Mist, and beyond that a peak we call locally, Senator’s Snoot. On the other side again are the Three Sisters and then the beautiful volley of the Bow. There stonds the Bonff Springs Hotel. There ye may lounge wi’ luxurious ease by the side of a plotinum-plated swimmin’ pool. Ye may sink tae the fetlocks in velvet, suck doon stuffed goose livers, oysters on the half shell, and Winnipeg goldeye. Ye may spit intae gold goboons an’ belch intae silken sairviettes whilst liveried lockeys cater tae yer hedonist oppetites an’ desires. All this ye may

do a rnotter of thairty-five miles away as the eagle flies,” crooned MacNab. His voice leaped with feeling to a higher pitch. “What I’m drivin’ at is this: Tak’ yon—fiend in human form and—” his voice cracked, “—get out of Ecclefechan Retreat/”

F)R A moment Belterlaben was silent, his face shocked with the fury of MacNab’s ultimatum. When he spoke, it was quietly, with the same stubborn tone he had used on entering the cabin the first day. “I paid you in advance.”

“Ye may hae yer money back—all of it.”

“I don’t want it back. I’ve got another week to go. I made a deal with you. I expect you to keep it.” “The MacNabs dinna go back on a bargain, but ye canna hold me to it after what your son—”

“Look, MacNab it wasn’t any choice of mine that I brought him along.” Belterlaben’s voice trembled with feeling. “I planned for this trip three years. I dreamed of it, imagined it, ached for it. And I’m holding you to your bargain! I don’t leave Ecclefechan until—”

“Until what?”

“Until I catch that fish in—”

“Auld Faithful !”

“The one Dart and I saw.” Ernest gave a yelp of anguish as though he had caught himself in a vulnerable spot with one of his own gang hooks. MacNab turned to him. “Ye see, Air-nest.” He turned back to Belterlaben. “Ye would leave then?”

Belterlaben nodded.

“If ye caught him tomorrow?”

“I would.”

“Air-nest!”

“What?” said Ernest dully.

“The wee harness ye were makin’.” Ernest kept his eyes on the table. “Ye will turn it o’er tae Mr. Belterlaben wi’ whatever else may be necessary tae the nefarious method ye hae contrived tae catch Auld Faithful. Do you hear me, Air-nest?” Ernest nodded.

He slept uneasily and fitfully that night. Just at dawn he rose and stole out to the kitchen. He did not light a lamp as he took his rod and a burlap sack. Through the thin morning light he made his way to Blackjack’s pool. There he lay on his stomach, gazing into the pool, down through the emerald depths. Until the sun broke over the peak of Senator’s Snoot he wrestled with the devil of temptation and, as the light melted down the side of Maid O’ The Mist, he lost.

With a sigh he took a cigar box from the sack, opened it. He had just finished attaching four gang hooks and a toggle when he heard footsteps.

Harold !

Dart’s hand went into the sack again, came out with a matchbox. He placed it beside him on the bank.

Harold had a rod.

“That’s your old man’s rod.” “That’s-your-old-man’s-rod.”

Ernest for a moment watched Harold tie a rusted hinge to the leader, observed him as he took an amorphous grey mass from his mouth and plastered a chunk the size of a small hen’s egg about the hook.

There came a clunking splash audible above the thump of the falls above; Ernest winced. It had been a good cast. Ripples spread from a centre about a half a foot from the end of Old Faithful’s favorite log. Mr. Dart returned his attention to the matchbox, slid back the cover, placed his hand quickly over the opening. He took out a dead field mouse. He placed it in the half-corset, half-harness contraption with its four hooks, then took out a block of wood.

He saw that Harold had laid down his rod, was staring across at the opposite bank with eyes lost and jaw active. Carefully Ernest placed the block where the current would carry it past Old Faithfuls hide-out; at that point he would jerk the mouse off the block and—

“You’ve got something on yer line!” The loose line at Harold’s feet had taken on snakelike life, was trickling slowly out in the water.

“You’ve-got-something-on-your-line.”

“Your line!” shouted Ernest. “You—” “Your-line—you—” Harold’s eyes bugged out. He grabbed up his rod, which promptly doubled like a hairpin.

Ernest suddenly felt chill as he watched the tip of the rod jump with fury. He did not hear the cry that came from the brush behind him.

Over by Old Faithful’s log a curving back broke the water and Ernest knew that it belonged to only one fish. Harold had hooked thirty-two inches of bull trout. Five years he had tried and now a kid with a hunk of gum—

OLD FAITHFUL sounded. Harold, with one foot on a short length of log at the edge of the pool, lifted up on the rod. There came a snap as the tip of the rod suddenly gave—a splash as Harold lost his balance and fell into the pool. He clutched desperately at the log, which, loosened from the brush along the bank, slowly drifted out before Ernest’s startled eyes.

“Grob him! Grob him!” It was MacNab, who had come up with Belterlanen in tow.

And Ernest stooddazed—for moments, then leaped forward. The whirl of the pool had taker Harold and the log out of his reach. “He can’t swim!” called out Belterlaben.

Continued on page 40

Air-nest and the Child Harold

Continued from page 22

Mr. Dart and Mr. MacNab looked at each other in sudden consternation.

“Go in after him!” shrieked Belterlaben. “I can’t!”

Numbly the two old guides looked at each other, out to Harold draped over the log, stern in the air, spinning slowly in the very centre of the pool.

“I canna. Air-nest canna,” said MacNab. “If we could reach him wi’ a pole—”

“Forty feet— too far,” said Ernest. “He’s liable to slip off by the time we— that there water’s like iceglacier—I got it!”

He bent down, took up his rod, swiftly loosed the mouse. Then, with the harness and its gang hooks close to the tip, he swung the pole about his head. The gear sailed over the pool with line singing, plopped in the water a good ten feet beyond Harold. Carefully and slowly Mr. Dart reeled in the line that now lay over Harold’s posterior. The hooks crawled up on the end of the log, came to rest by the hoy’s trouser seat.

Ernest gave the pole a yank, the quick, sharp jerk that had been so deadly to countless unsuspecting graylings. A shrill cry rent the stillness, shearing up through the roar of the falls.

“Ye’ve got him fast!” yelled MacNab. “Hand-o’er-hand retrieve, Airnest!”

Arms and legs thrashing the water, 1 larold slid off the log.

“Dinna yip him in!” warned MacNab. “The tockle willna stond it!

I’lay him, mon—play him! An’ keep the bow of yer rod tae the shore— ye’re no in a parade wi’ a flog!”

Ernest braced himself with both feet apart. He leaned back against the fight of Harold on the end of the line.

“Dinna let him tae the fost water, Air-nest! Ye’ll never lond him. The fast water, Air-nest!"

Perspiration beaded and rolled down Ernest’s forehead. His breath came in short wheezes, as he fought against Harold frantic on the end of the lint-. Small waves spreading from Harold, lapped the edge of the pool.

“Tak up the slack—tak up the slack! Dinna let him go doon—-he's soondin’ noo. Watch for the branches of yon tree under the sairface!”

“Take a hold of that net,” gasped Ernest to Belterlaben standing stricken at his side. “Wade out!” Belterlaben stood dazed. “Hurry up!”

Belterlaben waded out to his waist.

“When he comes up the next time,” said Ernest. “Clap it over his head. I can’t hold him much longer!” Harold came up just within his father’s reach — stern first.

Belterlaben made an ineffectual stab with the net.

“Wait for his head!”

Harold came up a second time. His father brought the net down over his head. Moments later he lay gasping on the bank while his father worked af extricating the hooks from his trousers and from Harold.

“Did everything but bust clear of the water like a rainbow!” said Ernest.

“Ye did well. I’m prood of the way ye hondled him. It wasna done on a fourteen fly hook—gang hooks are illegal,” said MacNab, “but I couldn; hae done better myself.”

CALM LAY over the kitchen of Ecclefechan Retreat. The coal-oil lamp flame threw shadows sprawling over the chinked logs of the walls.

Mr. Dart looked up from the harness damaged in landing Harold. “Hope he don’t develop no blood poisonin’.” “No danger.” MacNab laid down the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. “Just one hook went intae him. 1 merely suggested the lockjaw tae speed them on their way.”

Mr. Dart stared down at the harness that was to have caught Old Faithful “How much do you figger that kid would go?”

“Aroon three stone.”

“An’ Old Faithful?”

“Twelve pun, perhops.”

Ernest sighed. He flipped the small harness into the cigar box. Upon his face lay a look of sadness and disenchantment.

He shut the lid with a click. -Ar