From a novel in progress. Working title “The Book of Titus.”
In the weeks just passed the homestead had been filled with the frantic activity characteristic of any warm-blooded species preparing for a very cold winter to come.
Johann Weber and his older sons worked through the long autumn twilights seven days a week: hunting, felling firewood, making repairs to buildings that would shortly be burdened by many feet of snow. Young Titus, to his disgust, was generally left at home with mother to harvest the extensive garden, pick berries and stock the hillside root cellar with jars of canned goods from carrots to pickled fish.
As often as possible he fished the river and nearby lakes, accompanied by the big husky mix named Leader who seldom left his side. Bears didn’t pay much attention to a small boy with a noisy dog, especially when the bruins were already fattening on fall runs of salmon. Titus never felt happier—or more secure—than in the hours he and Leader wandered through the wilderness.
Fall brought four species of salmon up to east side of the homestead where the muddy rivers feeding Cook Inlet joined the clear water of the Chalatika River, typically a bounty that made it easy to stock the smokehouse and drying racks and pack a winter’s worth of red salmon into cans. Perhaps they would be sick of eating salmon by spring, but they were unlikely to be hungry.
Titus fished with a heavy rod and old fashioned knuckle-buster reel selected for efficiency, not elegance. Catching salmon on the homestead in the fall was harvesting, not sport, and unless the runs became heavy enough to justify a dipnet Titus relied on high-test fishing line and a heavily weighted treble hook to drag in gleaming bright sockeye and coho salmon. The chum salmon local indians called dog fish he mostly left in the river. With no dog team to care for, the Webers didn’t usually need to bother with the abundant but less attractive flesh of the big chums.
There was nothing subtle about the process but Titus did bring a practiced, rough skill to the task. Sometimes the salmon were so thick in the river that almost any cast would hook a fish, but today the run was thinner. He cast his weighted hook toward the far bank and reeled back quickly, pausing about every fifth turn to yank his lure back hard across the current. Once or twice on every cast the big treble hook would hit a salmon and half of those times the barbs would hold.
The unthinking rhythm of cast and retrieval was soothing and his isolation alone on the riverbank was a familiar comfort to the homestead boy. By mid-afternoon the September sun was warm on his back and a breeze blowing upriver along the shoreline helped keep attacking mosquitoes to a manageable minimum.
The sockeye salmon that were most prized—local folks mostly called them “reds”—were powerful singleminded fish that always fought the snag. Hooked in the tail or dorsal fin the fish could use both its strength, weight and the river current to pull against the hook. Titus’ challenge was to tire the fish and work it into calmer water near shore without pulling the hook from its flesh.
He’d snagged a big one in the back and had his hands full maneuvering the powerful fish toward shore. To gain line from the fish he pointed the rod tip toward the salmon and stepped into the current, walking toward it. The river water, even in late summer, was only slightly above freezing but the cold was an expected sensation for Titus. “River” and “warm” simply were not concepts that went together in his experience. He walked with care but confidence across the steam bottom cobbled with smooth round stones and watched the bright silver fish maneuver through water clear as gin.
Just before beaching the fish shook and twisted up out of the water, tossing the lure and drifting tiredly back toward the faster current.
Waste, even in the presence of such abundance, was a foreign concept in homestead life, where anything killed was to be eaten. anything store bought was to be preserved, and anything broken was to be repaired—or, at least, put aside and saved for parts.
“Leader!” Titus shouted to the husky nosing his way downstream. “Leader! Fetch him, boy. Fetch him up!”
The big dog turned in an instant and loped along the bank toward Titus, bright intelligent eyes scanning the water for his assignment. He spotted the drifting salmon and a running dive launched him six feet out into the current. A few powerful, choppy strokes and he’d closed the distance, capturing the eight-pound fish in his jaws like bear cub, gripping the struggling salmon securely.
Leader swam to shore and ran to Titus to deposit the prize at his feet before pausing to shake river water from his coat all over the grinning boy. “Good boy, Leader, good dog,” he praised, roughing the thick fur atop the hucky’s broad head.
Titus held the gasping salmon still beneath one boot and stabbed his long, sharp fillet knife between the eyes to end its struggles. He scanned his growing pile of fish on the grassy bank and decided to stop for the day. He’d chop off their heads and gut them all before carrying them home, naturally, but mother always wanted to do the filleting herself to avoid waste.