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Ch. 3: American Salmon

The race is neither to the swift nor the battle to the strong;
but time and chance cometh to all.

I HAVE lived!

The American Continent may now sink under the sea, for I have
taken the best that it yields, and the best was neither dollars,
love, nor real estate.

Hear now, gentlemen of the Punjab Fishing Club, who whip the
reaches of the Tavi, and you who painfully import trout over to
Octamund, and I will tell you how old man California and I went
fishing, and you shall envy.

We returned from The Dalles to Portland by the way we had come,
the steamer stopping en route to pick up a night's catch of one
of the salmon wheels on the river, and to deliver it at a cannery
downstream.

When the proprietor of the wheel announced that his take was two
thousand two hundred and thirty pounds weight of fish, "and not a
heavy catch neither," I thought he lied. But he sent the boxes
aboard, and I counted the salmon by the hundred--huge
fifty-pounders hardly dead, scores of twenty and thirty pounders,
and a host of smaller fish. They were all Chenook salmon, as
distinguished from the "steel head" and the "silver side." That
is to say, they were royal salmon, and California and I dropped a
tear over them, as monarchs who deserved a better fate; but the
lust of slaughter entered into our souls, and we talked fish and
forgot the mountain scenery that had so moved us a day before.

The steamer halted at a rude wooden warehouse built on piles in a
lonely reach of the river, and sent in the fish. I followed them
up a scale-strewn, fishy incline that led to the cannery. The
crazy building was quivering with the machinery on its floors,
and a glittering bank of tin scraps twenty feet high showed where
the waste was thrown after the cans had been punched.

Only Chinamen were employed on the work, and they looked like
blood-besmeared yellow devils as they crossed the rifts of
sunlight that lay upon the floor. When our consignment arrived,
the rough wooden boxes broke of themselves as they were dumped
down under a jet of water, and the salmon burst out in a stream
of quicksilver. A Chinaman jerked up a twenty-pounder, beheaded
and detailed it with two swift strokes of a knife, flicked out
its internal arrangements with a third, and case it into a
blood-dyed tank. The headless fish leaped from under his hands
as though they were facing a rapid. Other Chinamen pulled them
from the vat and thrust them under a thing like a chaff-cutter,
which, descending, hewed them into unseemly red gobbets fit for
the can.

More Chinamen, with yellow, crooked fingers, jammed the stuff
into the cans, which slid down some marvellous machine forthwith,
soldering their own tops as they passed. Each can was hastily
tested for flaws, and then sunk with a hundred companions into a
vat of boiling water, there to be half cooked for a few minutes.
The cans bulged slightly after the operation, and were therefore
slidden along by the trolleyful to men with needles and
soldering-irons who vented them and soldered the aperture.
Except for the label, the "Finest Columbia Salmon" was ready for
the market. I was impressed not so much with the speed of the
manufacture as the character of the factory. Inside, on a floor
ninety by forty, the most civilized and murderous of machinery.
Outside, three footsteps, the thick-growing pines and the immense
solitude of the hills. Our steamer only stayed twenty minutes at
that place, but I counted two hundred and forty finished cans
made from the catch of the previous night ere I left the
slippery, blood-stained, scale-spangled, oily floors and the
offal-smeared Chinamen.

We reached Portland, California and I crying for salmon, and a
real-estate man, to whom we had been intrusted by an insurance
man, met us in the street, saying that fifteen miles away, across
country, we should come upon a place called Clackamas, where we
might perchance find what we desired. And California, his
coat-tails flying in the wind, ran to a livery-stable and
chartered a wagon and team forthwith. I could push the wagon
about with one hand, so light was its structure. The team was
purely American--that is to say, almost human in its intelligence
and docility. Some one said that the roads were not good on the
way to Clackamas, and warned us against smashing the springs.
"Portland," who had watched the preparations, finally reckoned
"He'd come along, too;" and under heavenly skies we three
companions of a day set forth, California carefully lashing our
rods into the carriage, and the by-standers overwhelming us with
directions as to the saw-mills we were to pass, the ferries we
were to cross, and the sign-posts we were to seek signs from.
Half a mile from this city of fifty thousand souls we struck (and
this must be taken literally) a plank road that would have been a
disgrace to an Irish village.

Then six miles of macadamized road showed us that the team could
move. A railway ran between us and the banks of the Willamette,
and another above us through the mountains. All the land was
dotted with small townships, and the roads were full of farmers
in their town wagons, bunches of tow-haired, boggle-eyed urchins
sitting in the hay behind. The men generally looked like
loafers, but their women were all well dressed.

Brown braiding on a tailor-made jacket does not, however, consort
with hay-wagons. Then we struck into the woods along what
California called a camina reale--a good road--and Portland a
"fair track." It wound in and out among fire-blackened stumps
under pine-trees, along the corners of log fences, through
hollows, which must be hopeless marsh in the winter, and up
absurd gradients. But nowhere throughout its length did I see
any evidence of road-making. There was a track--you couldn't well
get off it, and it was all you could do to stay on it. The dust
lay a foot thick in the blind ruts, and under the dust we found
bits of planking and bundles of brushwood that sent the wagon
bounding into the air. The journey in itself was a delight.
Sometimes we crashed through bracken; anon, where the
blackberries grew rankest, we found a lonely little cemetery, the
wooden rails all awry and the pitiful, stumpy head-stones nodding
drunkenly at the soft green mullions. Then, with oaths and the
sound of rent underwood, a yoke of mighty bulls would swing down
a "skid" road, hauling a forty-foot log along a rudely made
slide.

A valley full of wheat and cherry-trees succeeded, and halting at
a house, we bought ten-pound weight of luscious black cherries
for something less than a rupee, and got a drink of icy-cold
water for nothing, while the untended team browsed sagaciously by
the road-side. Once we found a way-side camp of horse-dealers
lounging by a pool, ready for a sale or a swap, and once two
sun-tanned youngsters shot down a hill on Indian ponies, their
full creels banging from the high-pommelled saddle. They had
been fishing, and were our brethren, therefore. We shouted aloud
in chorus to scare a wild cat; we squabbled over the reasons that
had led a snake to cross a road; we heaved bits of bark at a
venturesome chipmunk, who was really the little gray squirrel of
India, and had come to call on me; we lost our way, and got the
wagon so beautifully fixed on a khud-bound road that we had to
tie the two hind wheels to get it down.

Above all, California told tales of Nevada and Arizona, of lonely
nights spent out prospecting, the slaughter of deer and the chase
of men, of woman--lovely woman--who is a firebrand in a Western
city and leads to the popping of pistols, and of the sudden
changes and chances of Fortune, who delights in making the miner
or the lumber-man a quadruplicate millionaire and in "busting"
the railroad king.


That was a day to be remembered, and it had only begun when we
drew rein at a tiny farm-house on the banks of the Clackamas and
sought horse feed and lodging, ere we hastened to the river that
broke over a weir not a quarter of a mile away. Imagine a stream
seventy yards broad divided by a pebbly island, running over
seductive "riffles" and swirling into deep, quiet pools, where
the good salmon goes to smoke his pipe after meals. Get such a
stream amid fields of breast-high crops surrounded by hills of
pines, throw in where you please quiet water, long-fenced
meadows, and a hundred-foot bluff just to keep the scenery from
growing too monotonous, and you will get some faint notion of the
Clackamas. The weir had been erected to pen the Chenook salmon
from going further up-stream. We could see them, twenty or thirty
pounds, by the score in the deep pools, or flying madly against
the weir and foolishly skinning their noses. They were not our
prey, for they would not rise at a fly, and we knew it. All the
same, when one made his leap against the weir, and landed on the
foot-plank with a jar that shook the board I was standing on, I
would fain have claimed him for my own capture.

Portland had no rod. He held the gaff and the whiskey.
California sniffed up-stream and down-stream, across the racing
water, chose his ground, and let the gaudy fly drop in the tail
of a riffle. I was getting my rod together, when I heard the
joyous shriek of the reel and the yells of California, and three
feet of living silver leaped into the air far across the water.
The forces were engaged.

The salmon tore up-stream, the tense line cutting the water like
a tide-rip behind him, and the light bamboo bowed to breaking.
What happened thereafter I cannot tell. California swore and
prayed, and Portland shouted advice, and I did all three for what
appeared to be half a day, but was in reality a little over a
quarter of an hour, and sullenly our fish came home with spurts
of temper, dashes head on and sarabands in the air, but home to
the bank came he, and the remorseless reel gathered up the thread
of his life inch by inch. We landed him in a little bay, and the
spring weight in his gorgeous gills checked at eleven and one
half pounds. Eleven and one half pounds of fighting salmon! We
danced a war-dance on the pebbles, and California caught me round
the waist in a hug that went near to breaking my ribs, while he
shouted:--"Partner! Partner! This is glory! Now you catch your
fish! Twenty-four years I've waited for this!"

I went into that icy-cold river and made my cast just above the
weir, and all but foul-hooked a blue-and-black water-snake with a
coral mouth who coiled herself on a stone and hissed
male-dictions.

The next cast--ah, the pride of it, the regal splendor of it! the
thrill that ran down from finger-tip to toe! Then the water
boiled. He broke for the fly and got it. There remained enough
sense in me to give him all he wanted when he jumped not once,
but twenty times, before the up-stream flight that ran my line
out to the last half-dozen turns, and I saw the nickelled
reel-bar glitter under the thinning green coils. My thumb was
burned deep when I strove to stopper the line.

I did not feel it till later, for my soul was out in the dancing
weir, praying for him to turn ere he took my tackle away. And
the prayer was heard. As I bowed back, the butt of the rod on my
left hip-bone and the top joint dipping like unto a weeping
willow, he turned and accepted each inch of slack that I could by
any means get in as a favor from on high. There lie several
sorts of success in this world that taste well in the moment of
enjoyment, but I question whether the stealthy theft of line from
an able-bodied salmon who knows exactly what you are doing and
why you are doing it is not sweeter than any other victory within
human scope. Like California's fish, he ran at me head on, and
leaped against the line, but the Lord gave me two hundred and
fifty pairs of fingers in that hour. The banks and the
pine-trees danced dizzily round me, but I only reeled--reeled as
for life--reeled for hours, and at the end of the reeling
continued to give him the butt while he sulked in a pool.
California was further up the reach, and with the corner of my
eye I could see him casting with long casts and much skill. Then
he struck, and my fish broke for the weir in the same instant,
and down the reach we came, California and I, reel answering reel
even as the morning stars sing together.

The first wild enthusiasm of capture had died away. We were both
at work now in deadly earnest to prevent the lines fouling, to
stall off a down-stream rush for shaggy water just above the
weir, and at the same time to get the fish into the shallow bay
down-stream that gave the best practicable landing. Portland bid
us both be of good heart, and volunteered to take the rod from my
hands.

I would rather have died among the pebbles than surrender my
right to play and land a salmon, weight unknown, with an
eight-ounce rod. I heard California, at my ear, it seemed,
gasping: "He's a fighter from Fightersville, sure!" as his fish
made a fresh break across the stream. I saw Portland fall off a
log fence, break the overhanging bank, and clatter down to the
pebbles, all sand and landing-net, and I dropped on a log to rest
for a moment. As I drew breath the weary hands slackened their
hold, and I forgot to give him the butt.

A wild scutter in the water, a plunge, and a break for the
head-waters of the Clackamas was my reward, and the weary toil of
reeling in with one eye under the water and the other on the top
joint of the rod was renewed. Worst of all, I was blocking
California's path to the little landing bay aforesaid, and he had
to halt and tire his prize where he was.

"The father of all the salmon!" he shouted. "For the love of
Heaven, get your trout to bank, Johnny Bull!"

But I could do no more. Even the insult failed to move me. The
rest of the game was with the salmon. He suffered himself to be
drawn, skip-ping with pretended delight at getting to the haven
where I would fain bring him. Yet no sooner did he feel shoal
water under his ponderous belly than he backed like a
torpedo-boat, and the snarl of the reel told me that my labor was
in vain. A dozen times, at least, this happened ere the line
hinted he had given up the battle and would be towed in. He was
towed. The landing-net was useless for one of his size, and I
would not have him gaffed. I stepped into the shallows and
heaved him out with a respectful hand under the gill, for which
kindness he battered me about the legs with his tail, and I felt
the strength of him and was proud. California had taken my place
in the shallows, his fish hard held. I was up the bank lying
full length on the sweet-scented grass and gasping in company
with my first salmon caught, played and landed on an eight-ounce
rod. My hands were cut and bleeding, I was dripping with sweat,
spangled like a harlequin with scales, water from my waist down,
nose peeled by the sun, but utterly, supremely, and consummately
happy.

The beauty, the darling, the daisy, my Salmon Bahadur, weighed
twelve pounds, and I had been seven-and-thirty minutes bringing
him to bank! He had been lightly hooked on the angle of the right
jaw, and the hook had not wearied him. That hour I sat among
princes and crowned heads greater than them all. Below the bank
we heard California scuffling with his salmon and swearing
Spanish oaths. Portland and I assisted at the capture, and the
fish dragged the spring balance out by the roots. It was only
constructed to weigh up to fifteen pounds. We stretched the
three fish on the grass--the eleven and a half, the twelve and
fifteen pounder--and we gave an oath that all who came after
should merely be weighed and put back again.

How shall I tell the glories of that day so that you may be
interested? Again and again did California and I prance down
that reach to the little bay, each with a salmon in tow, and land
him in the shallows. Then Portland took my rod and caught some
ten-pounders, and my spoon was carried away by an unknown
leviathan. Each fish, for the merits of the three that had died
so gamely, was hastily hooked on the balance and flung back.
Portland recorded the weight in a pocket-book, for he was a
real-estate man. Each fish fought for all he was worth, and none
more savagely than the smallest, a game little six-pounder. At
the end of six hours we added up the list. Read it. Total:
Sixteen fish; aggregate weight, one hundred and forty pounds.
The score in detail runs something like this--it is only
interesting to those concerned: fifteen, eleven and a half,
twelve, ten, nine and three quarters, eight, and so forth; as I
have said, nothing under six pounds, and three ten-pounders.

Very solemnly and thankfully we put up our rods--it was glory
enough for all time--and returned weeping in each other's arms,
weeping tears of pure joy, to that simple, bare-legged family in
the packing-case house by the water-side.

The old farmer recollected days and nights of fierce warfare with
the Indians "way back in the fifties," when every ripple of the
Columbia River and her tributaries hid covert danger. God had
dowered him with a queer, crooked gift of expression and a fierce
anxiety for the welfare of his two little sons--tanned and
reserved children, who attended school daily and spoke good
English in a strange tongue.

His wife was an austere woman, who had once been kindly, and
perhaps handsome.

Very many years of toil had taken the elasticity out of step and
voice. She looked for nothing better than everlasting work--the
chafing detail of housework--and then a grave somewhere up the
hill among the blackberries and the pines.

But in her grim way she sympathized with her eldest daughter, a
small and silent maiden of eighteen, who had thoughts very far
from the meals she tended and the pans she scoured.

We stumbled into the household at a crisis, and there was a deal
of downright humanity in that same. A bad, wicked dress-maker
had promised the maiden a dress in time for a to-morrow's
rail-way journey, and though the barefooted Georgy, who stood in
very wholesome awe of his sister, had scoured the woods on a pony
in search, that dress never arrived. So, with sorrow in her
heart and a hundred Sister-Anne glances up the road, she waited
upon the strangers and, I doubt not, cursed them for the wants
that stood between her and her need for tears. It was a genuine
little tragedy. The mother, in a heavy, passionless voice,
rebuked her impatience, yet sat up far into the night, bowed over
a heap of sewing for the daughter's benefit.

These things I beheld in the long marigold-scented twilight and
whispering night, loafing round the little house with California,
who un-folded himself like a lotus to the moon, or in the little
boarded bunk that was our bedroom, swap-ping tales with Portland
and the old man.

Most of the yarns began in this way:--"Red Larry was a
bull-puncher back of Lone County, Montana," or "There was a man
riding the trail met a jack-rabbit sitting in a cactus," or
"'Bout the time of the San Diego land boom, a woman from
Monterey," etc.

You can try to piece out for yourselves what sort of stories they
were.


Rudyard Kipling

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