FISH KICKER

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FISH KICKER

THE FOLLOWING IS THE FIRST CHAPTER OF FISH KICKER

 

FISH KICKER

ONE

Sharon sat in a small patch of sunshine outside Willie’s weigh station, resting her back against a scrubby pine tree, her face raised to the warm light. The heat from the afternoon sun dulled her mind like a drug. The end of summer was unseasonably warm this year on the Kenai Peninsula. The Alaskan fireweed already finishing an early bloom meant the first snowfall could come any time now and Sharon wondered where she’d go when it turned cold.

A pick-up truck loaded down with a fresh catch of salmon rambled up the road and backed into the weigh station. Open net fishing season, a short run of excess salmon during spawning season, put into play a frenzy of underemployed men and women scrambling for the mother lode of sockeye and reds heading up stream and into the interior. Willie owned a stretch of land on a bluff overlooking Cook Inlet and in the summer he turned an old shed on his property into a weighing station and became a middleman for the fish canneries.

“Sharon!” Willie called.

He didn’t need to shout. She knew her job. But he was the head honcho and Sharon figured he thought all seasonal workers were lazy and stupid. And by the way he hollered she’d begun to think he probably thought they were all hard of hearing, too.

“Herb!” Willie called for his son, the only other person, beside himself, that the old man allowed driving the forklift. “Herb!”

It sounded to Sharon by the way Willie had to holler for his son the last couple of days, that the old man thought Herb might have gone hard of hearing, too.

She stood up, headed for the weigh station and waited for Herb to show up.

The driver of the pick-up turned off his engine, opened the door, and cigarette smoke billowed out of the truck as the tail end of Johnny Cash singing “Folsom Prison Blues” blasted out from the radio. The driver climbed down from behind the steering wheel, stretched his back, and said, “I don’t know, Willie. I’m getting too old for this shit.” He reached into the cab of the truck and turned off the radio.

“Real men don’t stop fishing, you know that Jake,” Willie said.

“Suppose so,” Jake said. “It just seems to be getting harder every year.”

Sharon stepped into the weigh station. Jake nodded to her, and said, “Morning.”

She nodded back, leaned against a far wall and waited.

Jake looked around the weigh station, nervously fidgeting with his sweat-stained baseball cap. “Is this going to take all day?” he asked. “These fish won’t stay fresh forever.”

“Herb!” Willie yelled. Hands on his hips, Willie glanced at Sharon with an exasperated look.

She did not respond. She had no intention of getting involved with any trouble brewing between this father and son. But it was clear from the first day she’d met Herb that he had taken an instant dislike for her. He was a mean-spirited young man and all she wanted to do now was put in her time until the end of the open net fishing season and then get the hell out of there.

When Herb finally sauntered into the weigh station he gave no apologies, no excuses and climbed into the forklift. He jostled the vehicle back and forth a couple of times until he positioned a large wooden crate just below the tailgate of Jake’s pick-up. Sharon then climbed onto the bed of the pick-up truck and slogged across the slippery mound of fish.

Willie unlatched the tailgate and called up to Sharon, “All right, let’em go,” and then he backed off.

Sharon’s official job title was fish kicker. She was hired to kick, push and shove the fish off the bed of the trucks and into the waiting crates. She’d gotten pretty good at it. Her stout, muscular legs gave her an advantage as she walked atop a pile of salmon. Being on the short side with a lower center of gravity had its advantages too. A taller person would have had difficulty balancing as she scrambled over the slippery mess of fish, but Sharon quickly got the cargo moving. And her arms were as strong as any man’s after all the years she’d spent chopping wood and hunting with her father and brothers. She’d gotten even stronger when she’d worked as a cook and river guide rowing the rafts up and down the Kenai River maneuvering the white water rapids.

She scrambled across the load of salmon and quickly removed most of the fish from the bed of the truck into the cargo boxes, and when there was no longer the natural slime of other dead fish to easily move the creatures, Sharon resorted to kicking individual fish into the crate. By now the fish were no worse off for this treatment. Once they got this far, most salmon had already been roughed up by their ocean voyage. The salmon were a windfall for the Beluga, seals and other large predatory feeders in the waters along the Alaskan coast and it wasn’t unusual to see a salmon with a missing tail, a fin snipped off or even a bit taken out of the belly.

Sharon jumped out of the empty bed of the pick-up just as the local sheriff’s car pulled into the driveway. The sheriff had been around plenty this season and no matter what the weather, he wore a pair of ridiculous sunglasses, the kind with rainbow mirror lenses. Sharon never trusted people who lived with their eyes hidden.

“How you doing, Willie?” the sheriff asked.

“Can’t complain. What’s going on, Allen? You come by to get some fish?”

“No. Just checking with places along the inlet to see if anyone saw something out of the ordinary in the last couple of days.” Sheriff Allen peered into the crate of salmon sitting at the entrance to the weigh station. “Fishy smelling place, ain’t it?” The sheriff then looked at Sharon. “You this year’s fish kicker?”

“Yep,” Sharon replied. It sounded more like she’d taken a bite out of the air than actually commented. He’d seen her plenty this summer but he’d never paid her any attention until today.

“Where you from?” he asked.

Sharon heard suspicion in his voice. She shrugged her shoulders. “Up north.”

“How far?”

“The North Pole.”

“What’s going on, Allen?” Willie asked.

Sheriff Allen cleared his throat and took off his sunglasses. Sharon saw large, puffy circles beneath his charcoal black eyes.

“One of the fish nets pulled up more than fish early this morning,” the sheriff said. “Someone caught a dead guy. The crabs and sea lice got to him before he was snagged by a fishnet, but it was the bullet hole that made us take notice.” Sheriff Allen paused for a moment, probably waiting for a response. Then he continued, “You hear about any trouble in the area?”

“Sorry, can’t help you out, Allen. Only one other load besides this one came in today. Haven’t heard anything about a dead guy.”

“How about you fish kicker,” the sheriff said. “You see anything suspicious?”

“If I did, you’d be the first one I’d tell,” Sharon said and then grabbed up a garden hose, turned on the spigot and pointing the water at her feet, washed the slime from her boots.

“Looks like you got a feisty fish kicker on your hands, Willie. Well, if you hear anything let me know.” Sheriff Allen turned and headed out the door of the weigh station, but then he stopped and looked into the open window of the pick-up truck. “You’re mighty quiet, Jake,” the sheriff said.

“I’ve been up all night. Don’t feel much like talking.”

“Did you hear anything about this trouble?”

“Nope. Haven’t heard a thing.”

Sheriff Allen looked at the cell phone sitting on the dashboard. “I thought you boys out on the water kept the cellular antennas humming day and night with gossip and bad jokes.”

“Battery’s dead. Like I told you, Allen, I don’t know anything.”

Sheriff Allen slipped on his sunglasses. “Well, you get home safe, Jake,” he said and headed out to his patrol car.

When the sheriff was out of hearing range, Willie said, “Don’t be such a smart ass, Sharon. It’s bad for business.”

“You want me to be polite to the local dick, pay me more. Six bucks a truck doesn’t give you anything but my stubby old legs to do some kicking, and that’s all.”

Willie grunted and headed for the back of the shed where he sat down at a desk consisting of two saw horses and a rough sheet of plywood. He punched at the keys of an ancient adding machine, tallying the last haul. He scribbled a few figures on a slip of paper and handed it to Jake.

“You look like shit, Jake,” Willie said. “Go home. Get some rest.”

Jake took the paper, climbed into his pick-up, turned on the radio and headed out to the main road.

“Herb! Where’s that lazy son of mine? Herb! Get your ass in here.”

Several minutes later, Herb stepped into the weigh station.

“Where the hell did you run off to?” Willie snapped. “Take that crate off the scale.”

“All right, all right, don’t have a coronary,” Herb said as he jumped into the forklift. He removed the crate of salmon from the scale and then scooted the vehicle across the floor to a corner of the shed.

“What’d the sheriff want?” Herb asked as he jumped out of the forklift.

“Looking for someone, I suspect,” Willie replied, more occupied with his figures than with the sheriff’s business.

“Who?” Herb asked.

“Sheriff Allen doesn’t say much of anything. But it looks like he’s on the trail of a murderer.”

Herb turned and was almost out of the weigh station when Willie said, “Hose-down the driveway out front.”

“I’m busy,” Herb replied. “Have the fish kicker do it. She’s not doing anything.”

Willie glared at his son then nodded to Sharon. The old man turned his back and continued with his bookkeeping.

Sharon picked up the garden hose, and watched Herb walk across the driveway to where he parked his motorcycle. It had been obvious from the start that Herb would be miserable to deal with. He treated her like dirt and if she didn’t know he wasn’t worth much more than what his father gave him, you’d have thought by his actions, that he’d been born into royalty.

As long as the daylight held, which this late in the summer was another nine hours, Sharon sat near the weigh station waiting for trucks to arrive loaded down with fish. When the last truck drove away Willie locked the bay doors for the night.

“We’ll start about seven tomorrow morning,” Willie told Sharon and gave the padlock a yank.

Sharon nodded to the old man and then trudged out to the highway. She’d kicked a lot of fish today, her legs were dead tired and Willie knew she walked to and from wherever it was that she lived. But no matter how late they worked he never asked her how far she had to go or offered her a ride. She wouldn’t have told him where she lived if he had asked, and she certainly wouldn’t have taken a ride.

At the end of the driveway, Sharon turned left the way she always did and walked in the shallow ditch that ran alongside the highway. She walked until she came to a narrow opening in the underbrush that led into the forest. Earlier that summer she’d stumbled across an abandoned hunter’s shelter on the bluff about a mile from Willie’s weigh station and that’s where she now went every night. Nothing she ate needed refrigerating but she’d rigged a cooler with a rope and pulley system to keep the wild animals from getting into her provisions.

She’d made a home out of a pile of boards and a couple sheets of plywood leaned up against a cluster of tree trunks with a rusty piece of corrugated metal thrown on top for a roof. The structure sat near the edge of the bluff, a strip of pebbly beach and the Cook Inlet just below. The wind could get pretty fierce up there some nights. When a squall blew across the water, the shelter usually needed a bit of anchoring the next day though the place had kept her comfortable all summer.

Winter would be a different story. She didn’t think she was tough enough to live on the bluff through the cold weather and she had no idea where she’d end up once it started to snow. But, she knew as long as she stayed away from the booze, she’d be all right. Maybe she’d head back to her mother’s, see if she could get her daughter out of foster care. Or maybe she’d head the other way, go farther up north. She had no idea where she’d end up.

The visit from the sheriff today had upset her. She’d never tell him but she’d seen something night before last. She knew the night he was questioning her about. She’d been sitting on the edge of the bluff drinking a cup of tea, watching the northern lights, when she heard two men shouting on the beach below. Someone fired a gun. From the sharp, cracking sound she suspected it was a .38 pistol. When she peered over the edge of the cliff, one man had fallen to the ground, and the other guy was running away.

A short time later, the man who had run off came back and picked up the guy lying on the beach, threw him over his shoulder and staggered away, disappearing around a bend in the shoreline.

Sharon had no way of knowing if either one of these guys ended up in the fish net. And she didn’t see any reason why she should get mixed up in someone else’s trouble. She’d leave the law to figure it out.

Too exhausted to eat, she lit a small fire in a clearing near the edge of the cliff and brewed a cup of tea. She crawled into her shack, pulled a ragged blanket over her shoulders and sipped the warm beverage until the cup was empty and she could no longer keep her eyes open.

The wind howled through the cracks in the makeshift walls, a lonely sound that made the ground feel harder than usual. Several hours later, the pack of dogs that came by every night on its hunting foray whined and barked as they nosed around her shanty’s door. She kicked at the flimsy entrance to her shelter. “Beat it,” she shouted. They didn’t frighten her, just annoyed her. She knew later that night she’d hear the mother moose and her calf walk past her place, chomping at the underbrush as they worked their way along the well-worn trail.

The next day, Sheriff Allen showed up again at the weight station, still wearing his shades even though the sky hung thick with low, dark clouds. Sharon wondered if he thought they made him look like a tough guy in the movies. Though the only thing they did, as far as she was concerned, was probably intimidate a few weak-minded locals and make him look stupid.

“So, where do you live?” Sheriff Allen asked Sharon.

“Up the road.”

“Yeah? Now, isn’t that a coincidence. I live up the road, too.”

Sharon ignored his comment and pulled on her rubber boots.

“I took a long walk on the beach last night,” the sheriff said. “Not far from where we suspect this body might have been dragged into the water. It’s about a mile from here. I thought I saw the glow of a campfire up on the bluff.” He took out a pack of cigarettes, offered one to Sharon.

“Don’t smoke,” she said.

“So, you know about anyone living up there? You living up the road and all.”

“Don’t know a thing,” Sharon said.

Just then a pick-up truck loaded with fish pulled into the weigh station. “Got’a get kicking,” Sharon said, and headed for the truck.

A grubby full-bearded man climbed out of the truck. Two small children, a boy and girl, tumbled out of the front seat and ran close behind the man.

Herb sat in the seat of the forklift smoking a cigarette. He took a couple more drags then crushed the butt against one of the metal braces of the vehicle before turning the key in the ignition. The forklift coughed a bit of exhaust fumes when Herb tromped a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Sheriff Allen stepped to one side while Sharon stood by the pick-up watching Herb jockey the wooden crate into place with the forklift.

Willie got up from his desk and walked to the pickup.

“How’s it going?” the bearded man asked Willie.

“Same’ol, same’ol,” Willie responded.

“You hear about the guy they found in Pete Clauson’s net yesterday?” the bearded guy asked.

“I heard,” Willie said. “Anyone you know?”

“Don’t think so. He wasn’t in the water long but the wildlife down there did a number on his mug. Hard to tell who the guy was.”

Herb was having a lot of trouble with the forklift. His eyes were glassy and his skin a sickly ash color. Sharon recognized the drunkard in this young man. She’d been there plenty of times herself.

While she waited for Herb to get the crate situated by the tailgate of the pick-up, she saw the little boy and girl walk to the horseshoe pit on the other side of the weigh station. This fisherman regularly brought loads of fish to Willie’s but he’d never dragged his kids along with him before. Sharon watched the children playing and wondered if her daughter would ever forgive her for deserting the family. Sharon’s mother, furious that social services had taken the little girl away, was granted custody and refused to have anything to do with Sharon. It all seemed like such a long time ago.

Bright sunlight broke through the thick clouds and played in the little girl’s dark hair, reflecting off the fish scales that dotted the child’s ponytail, sparkling as if she were draped in jewels.

Then she heard Willie shout, “What the hell’s the matter with you, Herb. Get that box in place.”

“I’m trying!” Herb bellowed. Then with one more backward and forward motion, Herb managed to align the crate with the bed of the truck.

“You’re hanging out too late at night. If you can’t do the job right, I’ll get someone who can.”

“Forget it,” Herb growled.

“Not with all the money you owe me.”

The father and son were always squabbling and Sharon knew that if Herb had a choice, he wouldn’t have been living with his parents. As far as she could figure out, from the scraps of angry conversation she’d overheard, Herb had tried to make it on his own in Anchorage, but something happened and he came home this summer, his tail tucked between his legs. Willie had raised a cocky son and there was nothing he could do about it now.

Willie’s wife never came into the weigh station and as far as Sharon could tell the woman never left the house, at least not during the work day. Family business could get complicated, Sharon knew that first hand, and Willie sounded like he might have been battling with everyone in his household. Sharon didn’t need to get involved with Willie’s family troubles. She only wanted the pay that was owed her, a dry play to sleep and to be left alone.

She jumped onto the bed of the truck, sloshed around atop the mound of fish until she’d emptied the load of salmon into the crate. When she’d kicked the last fish off the truck, Sheriff Allen walked over to her. “Leave me alone,” she mumbled.

“So, you in a better mood to talk now?” he asked.

Sharon jumped off the back of the truck. “I smell the same don’t I?”

“Probably,” Allen replied.

“Well, my mood’s kind of unpleasant, too, about the same as my smell.”

Herb slipped the tongs of the forklift under the crate full of fish. But he jammed the gears into reverse too quickly, the vehicle rocked sideways, and the crate toppled over, scattering salmon across the concrete floor.

“Shit!” Willie shouted. “What’s wrong with you boy? Can’t you do anything right?”

Herb jumped off the forklift. “Go to hell!” he shouted and stomped out of the building and climbed onto his Harley. He revved up the engine, raced down the gravel road heading for the highway, leaving the mess for everyone else to clear up.

“That boy giving you trouble, Willie?” the sheriff asked.

“Since he came back from Anchorage I haven’t had a moment’s peace. If it’s not his loud music, it’s his Harley. He’s out all night and the damned fool can’t do anything right. I’m afraid he’s a hopeless case. His mother won’t hear a word of criticism about him and gives the kid money behind my back. Too bad we can’t lock his ass up in your jail house and see if that would knock some sense into his thick skull.”

“Sorry, Willie, I don’t get involved with domestic situations unless one of you happens to beat on the other.” Sheriff Allen removed his glasses and wiped a bit of slime that had splashed on his face.

“It might come to that,” Willie grumbled.

“I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear what you just said, Willie.”

“What about my fish?” the bearded man called out. “I can’t wait around all day to get my load weighed.”

Willie, Sharon and the bearded man righted the crate. The little girl and her brother lifted a twelve-pound Sockeye, one child at each end of the slippery thing. Standing on tiptoes the children grunted and huffed until they finally shoved the fish over the edge and into the crate.

Willie drove the forklift for the remainder of the afternoon. Herb still hadn’t shown up by quitting time.

Sharon felt a chill in the air as she walked through the woods to her encampment. She’d lived in Alaska all her life and knew the seasons could change on a dime and she figured that there might be one more week of work at the weigh station. Willie hadn’t said when he thought the net fishing season would be over but a couple of part-timers who worked for Willie from time to time told her they’d planned to pull up stakes in a day or two.

Sharon looked forward to a bit of food, some quiet and she certainly wasn’t in the mood for what she found when she arrived at her campsite. The place had been totally trashed. The walls of the rickety shack lay atop each other in such a mess that her meager home looked like a garbage heap.

At first she thought a moose had gone on a rampage and kicked her living quarters to shambles. She looked for hoof tracks but only saw boot treads on one of the sheets of plywood. The corrugated roof, dragged to the edge of the bluff now sat teetering in the wind. No animal had done this.

The cooler had been pulled down from the tree, the lid torn off, its contents scattered among the underbrush. Her few possessions from a life she barely remembered were stomped and broken. The only photo of Tasha, her daughter lay face down in the mud. Sharon cleaned the image of the little girl as best she could but a long crack in the surface of the paper cut the innocent smile in half.

A nearly empty peanut butter jar sat under a bush, the lid nowhere in sight and a skimpy trail of ants crawled about in the gooey mess. “I’ll bet you guys think you hit a jackpot,” she said and scooped the mess of bugs from her food.

Every tea bag from the Lipton box had been ground into the earth by a heavy boot heel.

As she set the walls of the structure back into place, dragging the sheet of corrugated metal back onto the top of the structure, she wondered if it would be wise for her to crawl inside this thing tonight. What if the vandals came back?

Even the ragged blanket she slept in was nowhere in sight. She’d spent worse nights than this out in the open. One thing about being a drunk in this country, you learned to sleep where you passed out. Many mornings she’d awakened surprised at how the night had comforted her.

It didn’t take her long to realize there was no way she’d spend another night in that shelter and she explored the area around her campsite looking for a soft place to settle in for the night. When she found a suitable location, she gathered handfuls of branches, mulch and other forest debris, then quickly wove a makeshift blanket. She sat down on the moss, leaned against the tree trunk, pulled the stiff branch cover up over her shoulders.

The sun eventually settled behind the ridge of mountains on the other side of Cook Inlet, and a pale purple hue filled the sky. Night would take over the land eventually but until then the dim glow of the setting sun would last for hours.

Sharon leaned her head against the tree knowing that she could not fall completely asleep. She closed her eyes, her mind in a semi-wakeful state, something she’d learned from her grandfather who taught her how the old-time trappers used to survive in the wild.

In the stillness of the night, an image crossed her mind of the little sister and brother carrying the heavy fish. She smiled. They were such serious, little workers. Her thoughts drifted to her own daughter and wondered if in the night she cried for a mother.

The soft swooshing sound of an owl’s wings startled Sharon to attention as the bird landed on a tree limb near where she sat. The night passed quietly, softly, until she heard the roar of a motorcycle engine in the distance. It came closer, closer, until she saw a single beam of light ripping through the underbrush, traveling up the moose trail, coming toward her camp.

Sharon lowered herself deeper into her covering. The driver of the cycle stopped and then positioned his headlight to shine on the shack. The sound of heavy boots tromped onto the ground, cracking twigs, clumsy, awkward footing, and a stranger to the wilderness. The driver came into the light of his own vehicle. It was Herb. He pulled off his riding goggles and kicked at the side of the shack.

“I hate the smell of you, fish kicker,” he shouted, and with a heavy boot he pushed roughly at the wall and it easily slid to the ground.

Sharon breathed, soft and slow as she watched Herb stomp on the rickety structure. Then with the angry eyes of a man gone mad, he looked down at what he had done. He walked to his bike and turned the front wheel from side to side, casting the headlight across the underbrush. The light slid past where Sharon sat. She closed her eyes, not wanting her pupils to reflect in the glare. He revved his engine several times, and then he shouted, “I know you’re out there, fish kicker! It’ll be safer if you just go back to where you came from.”

He let out a howl like a triumphant warrior and then spit into the darkness. He turned the bike around and drove back along the moose trail, making his way to the highway. He didn’t frighten her. He was too much of a fool to be feared.

She remained in her hiding place the rest of the night and at first light, she crawled out from her hiding spot, dusted herself off and walked along the edge of the bluff, pushing her way through the underbrush to the weigh station.

Sharon sat near the horseshoe pit waiting for Willie to arrive. She’d decided to hit the road. She could sure use more cash and she’d miss the convenience of the small toilet facility where she’d wash-up each day and did her meager laundry, but after last night, not even the steady pay was enough to keep her hanging around here any longer.

“You’re early,” Willie said as he passed her on his way to the weigh station entrance. “I didn’t know you liked your work that much.”

“I don’t,” Sharon said. “Today’s my last day. I’ll collect my pay after the last pick-up drops its load.”

Willie didn’t seem surprised. He shrugged his shoulders, “Okay.”

Sharon saw the Harley parked, near the house. “Did Herb come back last night?” she asked.

“God knows when.”

Herb didn’t come out of the house until after the noon break and then when he did show his face, instead of working, he sat on the ground polishing the wheel rims of his bike. At one point Sharon caught him watching her. His eyes were mean, angry, threatening.

Willie did not say a word to his son and drove the forklift himself. Willie gave Sharon a few extra tasks, jobs Herb would have ordinarily done. Tomorrow Willie would have to manage on his own. How this thing worked out between father and son wasn’t any concern of hers.

It didn’t surprise Sharon when later that afternoon the sheriff’s car drove up the road. He’d stopped at the weigh station every day since the body had been caught in the fishnet. And she suspected he was going to ask her the same nonsensical questions. But this time he walked directly to Willie.

Sheriff Allen took off his sunglasses. “I hear net fishing season’s almost over.”

“That’s what they tell me,” Willie responded. “You find any more bodies floating around in the water?” Willie picked a few fish scales off the back of his hand.

“No more bodies. We found out who he was though, a guy by the name of Butch Benton, from Anchorage. Seems like he’d done a good deal of jail time. Had his prints on file.”

“Well, you’ve been busy, now haven’t you?” Willie rubbed his hands together. A cool breeze blew into the weigh station.

Sharon stood in the doorway. The sheriff glanced over at her. “How you doing today?”

“Fine,” she said.

Sheriff Allen glanced around the shed, and then looking at Willie, he said, “Butch was last seen at the Irish Eyes Tavern. Someone said they saw him leave the bar with Herb. And they never saw him again, left his beer on the bar and his motorcycle in the parking lot.”

Willie did not respond and he looked long and hard at Sheriff Allen.

“Willie, you own a .38?”

“I own a few guns. Doesn’t everyone around here?”

Sharon couldn’t tell if suspicion or anger raced across Willie’s face but he looked like he might have been holding his breath, waiting for the sheriff to say more.

“Herb own one, too?” The sheriff looked out into the yard where Herb sat polishing his Harley.

“What are you getting at, Allen?”

“I think I’ll have a chat with Herb.” Sheriff Allen turned and walking out into the sunlight, passed the horseshoe pit and stopped and stood behind Herb.

The color drained from Willie’s face and Sharon realized that he most likely suspected all along what his son had been up to.

The sheriff said something to Herb, and then put a hand on the biker’s shoulder. Herb quickly stood up and started running toward the edge of the bluff. Sheriff Allen didn’t look like much of an athlete but he out-ran Herb. Grabbing him by the collar, the sheriff pulled the young man down to the ground.

“Oh, God,” Willie gasped, and Sharon saw fear strike the tired old fishmonger’s face as if he’d been hit in the gut with a club.

“I’m sorry about this, Willie,” Sheriff Allen said as he handcuffed Herb and escorted him to the patrol car. “Maybe it’ll all work out, but I got to take your boy in.”

Herb no longer resisted and willingly climbed into the back seat of the patrol car. When the sheriff made a U-turn and was driving out toward the main road, Sharon watched Herb give his father a smile that more resembled a sneer.

Willie sighed heavily, and the poor old man looked smaller, frailer, as though half of his life had drained from his body. He closed the doors of the shed. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll bring your money.” Sharon heard the words trembling in the old man’s throat.

Sharon slipped off the smelly rubber boots, leaning them against the door. She felt sorry for Willie. She hadn’t done badly by him. A few minutes later she heard the screen door to the back porch of the house slam shut. Willie walked toward her and handed her an envelope. “Thanks,” he said.

Sharon did not count the money. She nodded, shoved the envelope into her pocket and walked down the gravel road. This time when she reached the highway, she turned right, not left. She had the picture of her daughter in her pocket and though she’d tried to clean up the campsite so that it didn’t look so much like a heap of garbage, she’d taken nothing else with her. Everything back at her camp amounted to trash.

She had walked several miles when Sheriff Allen drove by. He parked his vehicle in front of her and stepped out, still wearing those stupid shades.

“Where you headed?” he asked.

“You tell me.”

“I have no idea where you’re going, fish kicker.”

“Sharon. My name’s Sharon Wolf.”

“Well, Ms. Wolf, it’s going to get pretty cold out here soon. I brought you something.” He opened the back door to his patrol car and took out a heavy winter coat and handed it to her. “Thought you could use it,” he said.

She took the coat, nodded, but said nothing.

“Well, maybe we’ll see you again next fish-kicking season.”

“Maybe.”

Sheriff Allen got back into his car and sped off down the road.

Heavy dark clouds floated in from the inlet and hung close to the earth. A whistling wind blew a sharp breeze into Sharon’s ears. She put on the coat the sheriff had given her and wondered if any one had bothered to come by her mother’s place to chop enough firewood for the old woman’s winter stash.

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