Cradled in strong arms, Dan’s Dad carried his son up to bed then pulled the quilt to Dan’s chin and kissed him on the forehead.
“Chores tomorrow, Dan. Get some sleep.”
Now, Dan Hanson snuggled deep under the thick quilt. In the kitchen, the room just under his tiny bedroom, the men were talking. Outside, a heavy wind whipped, driving hard spring rain against their old, stone home as Dan strained to hear what the men were saying. Dan listened to the rain while trying to listen to the men. At first, each of the men talked about what he needed to do around his place, but finally they got to it, the reason they were there. Other than working or listening to Mom, hunting and fishing filled what remained of Dan’s Dad’s time.
Dan held his breath as the talk became hushed, solemn and centered on an old hook-jawed, red-spotted brown trout the men called the Kaiser. Little Dan knew the hole in the Middle Fork where the Kaiser lived. It was near the bottom end of their place where the river formed a loop. There, the Middle Fork made a quick drop over difficult rocks before rounding the bend in the loop. The inside of the loop held a thick stand of old willows that had been landscaped over the years by grazing cattle and now looked like funny umbrellas. The outside of the bend cut the bank, which then leaned out over the noisy river.
The Kaiser was an old fish, and Dan had a favorite story about the Kaiser and knew it by heart. Once, in the fall, as thin golden willow leaves wafted into the Middle Fork, Dad and another man were fishing the cutbank pool when a small flock of mallards landed in the river under the cutbank. Dan’s Dad pointed, and the men stopped to sit, allowing the evening to close and the river to rest. The men lazed and talked about elk, all the time watching the ducks twitch and twist in the current. Suddenly, there was a big splash, and the ducks winged up and out across the brown hayfield, but floating on top of the pool were a handful of duck feathers. Dad was certain there was one less duck leaving than landing and that the Kaiser had helped himself to a duck dinner. The thought of a duck-eating, hook-jawed, old brown trout thrilled Dan, making his toes curl under the thick quilt.
The tone changed again, and Dan knew the men were drinking whiskey. Pushing the covers back an inch, he smiled, happy that those below were outdoor men capable of their rugged outdoor stories. Dan loved the smell of men as much as he already loved the outdoors, and he loved the sound of the word, whiskey, especially when it was associated with men. He hoped one day his Dad would let him taste it, and maybe one night he could sit with the men in the springtime and talk about fishing and drink whiskey. Time didn’t pass fast enough for Dan.
The talk ended, and the kitchen door opened. Dan heard the two men leave then the sound of creaking stairs as Dad tried as quiet as possible to get to the top. The footsteps paused outside his brother’s room and then his before ending with the sound of Dad getting into the old iron-framed bed with Mom. Dan liked that his Dad looked in on him every night; it made him feel good. Snuggling deeper now under the cozy quilt, the boy returned to listening to the wind and rain. Sleep slowly pooled and his last thought was of hooking the Kaiser on his first cast.