“You got any hooks?” asked Tad Pinfeathers.
“I think I got three. You got any line?” said Elmer Arrow Hits.
“Lotsa line. And I saved a really good fishing pole I cut last time. Let’s go down to Willow Creek.”
The creek meandered through the town, wandering under a bridge and into a culvert before coming out on the other side of the east boundary. It was a wet year with lots of late snow and the grass and brush were thick and tall. July poured down on the boys’ ball caps and t-shirts as they crashed along, heading for the part of the creek beyond where people had dumped in old tires and bedsprings. They caught grasshoppers as they went, giving their heads a good squeeze to make them behave and stuffing them into a plastic bag that had been waving from a bush.
“What you gotta do,” the boys always claimed, “Is think like a fish!” Look for the deep water, the shelter, the eddies that would keep things like bugs moving past their noses. Pass up the shallow wide water warmed by sun. Though that was very good for wading. They sent the blue heron who lived along there up out of the water and he went lazily flapping on big wings on towards the mountains, legs trailing, easily getting way ahead of them.
“Where you lookin’?”
“Somebody’s legs in the grass.”
“Must be a drunk.”
They became very silent and slipped around to where they could see the rest of the person. It was a man. With braids.
“It’s my uncle,” said Elmer. “He’s a wino.” Sure enough, there was a bottle of Thunderbird, almost empty. “Must be passed out.” Elmer liked to point out both the obvious and the more subtle aspects of life. “Don’t wake him up. Sometimes he wakes up really mad.”
“What if he’s dead?” Tad liked dramatic possibilities. Elmer cut a long strand of grass and held it under his uncle’s nose where it pulsed with breath.
“He ain’t dead.”
“Yet!” added Tad. The uncle was certainly deeply passed out.
“Aw, forget him. Let’s go fishin’ -- that’s what we came for.” The boys went on along the bank, testing the water now and then but not catching anything. Pretty soon they felt sweaty and settled under some willow brush. There were few trees out this far. It was the gravel flood-plain of Willow Creek, mostly grass if you got away from the water. Their minds kept wandering back to the uncle.
“My dad threw him out the last time he came over drunk,” reported Elmer. “He was yellin’ and cussin’ and throwin’ stuff around. My mother tried to calm him down because he’s her baby brother, but he wouldn’t listen.”
“What was he so mad about?”
“Flunked the fire fighting exam. Can’t go make money this summer.”
“He might’ve gone fire fighting and hurt his back or something. Like that guy last summer that the tree fell on. They say he’ll never walk again.”
“Yeah, but now he’s got disability. He’s got it made!”
“Can’t fancy-dance no more, though.” They weren’t really old enough boys to consider what the injury might do the unfortunate man’s love life. “Wonder if he could still ride a horse.”
The boys would love to ride horses, or so they thought, though the only time they’d even been on a horse was when that guy was trying to start a program for keeping boys out of trouble by teaching them to break wild mustang horses. They got to sit on some of the tamer ones then. The horse’d put its nose around and blow snot on them, which made them laugh hysterically. They were at an age when all body fluids struck them as funny. They sat remembering the smell of horses. It was really strong.
That’s because there was a real horse on the other side of the willow brush. In fact, it was one of those mustang horses. They were really good at escaping and going wherever they wanted to. This one was mouse-colored, kinda speckled, with a very long black tail and mane. The front of the mane fell over its face and it gazed at them with big eyes like a girl looking through her bangs.
“Should we catch it?” asked Elmer. He liked a consensus opinion. His grandfather always said that if the tribal council could just reach a consensus once in a while instead of pulling in every direction, they might get somewhere.
“Might get kicked or run over. Besides, no rope.” The horse looked at them mildly and chewed a big bract of yellow sweet clover, letting it hang out of her mouth where she hadn’t sucked it up yet. The honey scent of sweet clover mixed with the incense of sun-warmed horse hide. The boys were content to watch and smell. Pretty soon the horse went off and the heron came back along the creek, now heading east.
“Better start home,” said Tad. “Don’t want to miss supper.”
“You know, Tad, we’re gonna remember today all our lives but we won’t remember what we had for supper.” His grandpa often said that. They laughed as they ambled back along the crushed trail they’d made.
Pretty soon they came to the uncle, still passed out and now in full sun because the shade had moved away from him. He was still breathing. “How long does he usually stay passed out?”
“I don’t think he’ll make it to supper.”
“He’s gonna be reeeeeallly sunburned.” Tad looked at the uncle consideringly. “I think we should help him out. We could cover him with branches. I saw elephants doing that on the nature channel. They rip down leafy branches and cover up an elephant on the ground.”
“That was a DEAD elephant! My uncle is not dead!” Elmer suddenly felt panic rise within him. But Tad was already breaking off branches and laying them gently over the uncle in a kind of bower. He was sort of leaning them so there was space under them. Elmer got to work, too. The uncle muttered a little but didn’t wake up. “We should get rid of that bottle, too.” He poured out the last dregs of Thunderbird and threw the empty in the creek.
“Won’t he be mad?” worried Tad.
“He won’t remember.”
“I’m gonna set the last of these grasshoppers loose.”
“They won’t live now that you’ve squeezed their heads.”
“I think they should be free, no matter what.” His hands had “tobacco juice” on them, but he didn’t care.