“Some Days Are Easier Than Others”
Henry Croucher pulled his square-stern Grumman onto the shore of Little Moose Lake. The boat’s aluminum hull glittered under the afternoon sun.
It rained twice during the previous month, but the brief showers didn’t make up for the sustained drought that had gripped western Maine since early June. During that time, the lake had receded a considerable distance. On two occasions, Henry was forced to lengthen the PVC pipe that led from the little wooden shelter he’d built to house an electric pump. He’d driven more than thirty miles on logging roads and another twenty on the two-lane blacktop over to the Builder’s Supply in Riverton. Henry had hauled back long sections to extend the pipe from the pump house into the lake. Patches of summer grass now grew from the grit and small stones that earlier in the season had comprised the lake’s bottom.
Henry’s father had built a cabin with the help of a few friends after the men returned from the war. His father had lost two toes to frostbite while fighting back the Third Reich’s final attempt to break through the Allied line. Huddled in a foxhole outside the Belgian town of Bastogne, Herb Croucher decided he would spend the rest of his days fishing for brook trout if he survived the war, and that’s exactly what he did for the next seventy-two years.
Henry had been coming to the camp since he was a child. He took a break during two tours in Vietnam, returning after his discharge from the army, continuing during a brief marriage, and later, after the divorce. Over the years, he’d helped his father enlarge the living room and build a second bedroom. They replaced the tarpaper roof with shingles and added three out-buildings—one to store gear, another to stack logs for the woodstove, and a shed to store a small gas-powered generator that allowed the electric pump to pull water from the lake up to the kitchen sink, and more recently, to the shower and toilet Henry had installed.
Each year, brook trout and landlocked salmon left the lake to enter the Big Moose River on their spawning run that historically occurs during the month of September. But it is rain that triggers this fall run, rain that for the past three years failed to occur until October, which was after the fishing season closed. But that was okay with Henry. Although the big fish might remain in the lake, there were plenty of smaller trout willing to take a well cast fly if an angler knew where to look, and after more than sixty years, Henry knew exactly where to look. Even with the lack of rain, he had had a successful season.
Henry knelt on his wooden dock with various parts of an ancient Evinrude engine spread out before him. He had all the time in the world to work on the recalcitrant outboard now that the fishing season closed. Having begun to turn color by the beginning of September, on this afternoon in October the hills framing the lake were awash in scarlet, orange, and gold. Earlier in the morning there had been frost on the ground, causing Henry to grab a boat cushion from a hook on the porch. Plopping it down on the top step of his cabin, he sat with his cigarette and morning mug of coffee while watching a red squirrel chase a chipmunk up a tree.
Now, with the sun high in a flawless blue sky, Henry removed his woolen jacket. While staring down at the disassembled carburetor, he heard a shotgun go off and few minutes later, another. October was bird season. After retiring their fly rods to the closet, many in western Maine took to the spruce-and-balsam forest to hunt partridge. Although Henry gave up hunting after his father died, he kept track of the comings and goings of the ruffed grouse population during his travels over the web of logging roads that stretched through the woodland surrounding his cabin.
Henry had the sleeves of his flannel shirt rolled to the elbows and his hands stained with grease when an eighteen-foot Lund motored up the lake. He watched as the sole occupant reduced speed. Coming off plane, the boat slowly advanced toward the dock.
The young man who climbed out of the boat was dressed in forest green. He wore the red-and-black emblem of a Maine Game Warden on the upper arm of his shirtsleeve.
Stanley Pierce was a man of few words. He’d been assigned to the region after Reggie Culpepper retired. Reggie had been the warden for as long as anyone could remember. Stanley was twenty-six years of age. After completing eighteen weeks of basic law enforcement training, the veteran of the second Iraq War graduated third in his class at the Warden’s Academy.
Stanley had been on the job since April. Henry had met the young warden while wading along the Big Moose River, another time on the lake, and again while he was casting an elk-hair caddis to palm-size brook trout on a tiny pond a mile from any logging road. It was clear to Henry that the former marine took his job seriously. Although the young warden had been polite whenever they met, Henry could not remember seeing the man smile. This afternoon did not appear to be the exception that would prove the rule.
“What brings you to my neck of the woods?” Henry wiped his hand across his shirt before extending it toward the taciturn warden.
“You see Frank Miller lately?” The younger man grimaced as if the very name left a sour taste in his mouth.
“Can’t say as I have,” Henry replied.
Little Moose Lake was a long manmade impoundment. Nearly nine miles long, it began at the outlet of the Big Moose River and ended at the concrete dam built along the paved road that ran from the New Hampshire border east to the little town of Riverton, Maine. In most places, a person standing on one side of the lake could see across to the other. A dozen or so camps stood within easy driving distance of the blacktop road and another three or four cabins farther up the logging road. Henry’s father had built his camp not far from where the Big Moose River entered the top of the lake. The Miller’s camp was located on a cove a half-mile south. It had been passed down to Frank Miller through two previous generations, who all ignored the State’s fish and game laws. The Millers had a reputation for poaching moose and spotlighting deer. Frank and his extended family fished out of season, took trout beyond the daily limit, and used bait in fly-fishing-only waters.
“What now?” Henry asked.
“A sport called into the hot line. Two dozen gutted fish strewn along the bank.” As he replied, the warden’s scowl tightened around the corners of his mouth. “Not only over the limit, but after the season has been closed for more than a week.”
“What does that have to do with Frank?”
“They were found beside his favorite fishing hole,” the warden grumbled.
“That would be the place.”
Henry knew it well. The wooden dam had once stored water used each spring to raise the level of the Big Moose River, which allowed loggers to float timber down to the lake. A steamboat would haul the logs across the lake and down the Little Moose River, and from there, to the Androscoggin and the paper mills across the border in New Hampshire. The last log drive in that part of the State took place in the mid sixties. Since then, the wooden dam had fallen into disrepair. All that remained were the rocks and boulders that had formed the cribwork and a few logs strewn across the stream. During the summer, brook trout would congregate along the edge of the oxygen-rich current that ran through the cribwork.
Two or three times a season Henry would hike two miles up the side of the river to fish below the remains of the dam. He remembered one time, the first year he’d returned from the service. Frank’s grandfather, Lester Miller, showed up carrying his fly rod and toting a pistol. He’d threatened Henry, who backed off. That night, Henry grabbed his father’s side-by-side. Rather than call Reggie Culpepper, the young veteran climbed into his father’s canoe and paddled down to the Miller’s cabin. A ramshackle affair, he remembered seeing motor vehicles in different stages of disrepair rusting away in the front yard and a backyard with broken appliances, including two refrigerators, a kitchen sink, and a cast iron woodstove with only three legs.
Henry had burst into the cabin with the shotgun leveled at Lester, who was slumped over a table. Frank’s father, another of Lester’s sons, and three more distant members of the family sat around in various states of drunkenness. A nearly empty bottle of Old Crow whiskey stood on the table while another lay on the cabin floor. Lester had looked up at Henry through bleary eyes.
“Well don’t you got balls bustin’ in here all by your lonesome.”
Staring across the table at the other men in the room, the old man sneered, “Sonny boy didn’t even bring his daddy along or that pasty-ass warden.” With a sly smile, he grabbed the bottle and offered his “guest” a drink.
Henry Croucher never had any trouble with the Millers after that.
“Well, if you see Frank, let him know I’d like to speak with him,” Stanley sighed. As the younger man began checking messages on his cell phone, Henry heard the sound of an outboard.
“Would now be soon enough?”
When the warden looked up from his phone, Henry was pointing at a boat that had slipped around a point south of the dock.
No fewer than ten of the Miller clan—men, women and children, most with beer cans in their hands, squeezed between the gunwales of a beat-up Starcraft. The half-dozen fishing rods sticking over the sides of the over-sized rowboat reminded Henry of a porcupine. A small American flag flapped from a stick fastened to the stern, while like Ahab at the bow of the Pequod, Frank Miller stood, his shirt off, a can of beer in one hand, a fly rod throbbing with life in the other.
“I guess some days are easier than others,” Stanley Pierce mumbled as he climbed into his boat.
With a little practice, he just might learn to smile, thought Henry Croucher.