Williams the Australian looked like a kid—skinny and playful. He looked a lot younger than he was. He possessed a heavy Aussie accent and bull-like determination. We stood at a crook in the trail that led up the side of a rocky mountain-ish hill. He was happy, intrigued by the height as he watched rain on the sagebrush below. It felt good to see him have fun.
At the same time, I feared for him. He looked small and fragile against granite. He stood close to the edge where the trail dropped into the space below. The campground spread out on the other side of the North Platte like a fish skeleton traced in the stone. The hills beyond rose up in waves, each darker than the one before. The entire scene was savage and beautiful and smelled like dried grass and sagebrush. It was just the kind of thing that makes a person wish time would stand still or that they could fold up all the hills, river, and sky and tuck it away like a leaf in a book. I was afraid Williams might take this all in and succumb to the magnetism of yawning void. I thought he might step off the cliff and float over the sagebrush hills on the far side of river like I wanted to.
Williams made a turn in the trail where it disappeared into the jaws of the cliff and we couldn’t see him on the last part of the climb up to us. O’Kelley began to throw rocks, then to roll boulders, off the top of the rocky bluff where we stood. They bounced off the ledge where the Australian had been, turned a moment, suspended above aspens and pines that studded the riverbank, then fell with what seemed like grace into the rocks and sagebrush below.
O’Kelley grunted like a workman with his stones. I watched clouds thick as quilts roll in and turn the North Platte oil black. The wind foamed the river up and gave cover to home-bound trout who needed time in open water. Lightening struck the hill behind the campground and left the taste of electricity and fright in my mouth.
The storm boiled. Williams climbed. O’Kelley toiled. I stared. O’Kelley tore apart a pile of stones an earnest Christian built on the pinnacle to secure a huge cross made of crooked pine and cedar branches. It wasn’t much of a cross, leaning as a cowboy would against a fence post. He was possessed.
And I was too. All of my fear and anger I felt about the direction my life was taking me turned into blind might. Child support, lack of opportunity, stumbling blocks of my own making and those foisted upon me churned my insides. I joined O’Kelley to throw stones on the bears in those parts. The rocks popped down the slope into brushy ravines joining the river. We dripped sweat as the storm blew rain and sleet. Lightening spidered over the hills all around us as O’Kelley broke and flung the cross over the brink. I wondered what happened to the Australian.
“Give me a hand with this one,” O’Kelley grunted behind me. He puffed away at a boulder that represented one cubic yard granite. I heaved in next to him and felt veins skitter across my temples. We glanced at each other when the boulder broke the edge of the bluff and began to move under its own weight.
The boulder struck the ledge below and took a spike of rock ten fly fishermen high and fifty trout wide with it. Sliding away from the bluff face, the stone sheet topped with boulder rolled over on itself and crumpled on the rocks below.
“You bastards!” Williams shouted when he came out of the rocks and juniper a little below us. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
We stood slackjawed looking into the cloud of rock dust below rising in the rain. We were astounded how our fun vanished in the destruction. Williams turned to go back to the campground. Still silent when he appeared below the bluff, we watched the Australian march over the wildflower and sagebrush to the campground. Even in the green dimness of the thunderstorm, I could see him fuming. O’Kelley stared blankly. I wanted to disappear.
Numb and silent, we climbed down and made our way back to the campsite, a picnic table and Fiji ring set between some boulders on a rise between ravines. We dripped under a plastic canvas we had stretched between the boulders. The wind whipped the cover, spraying the rain in on us. None of us said anything for a long while. We just stared out over the river. When the Australian looked me in the eye, it felt like sewing needles.
“What do you say after this storm lets up, we pull a few trout out of that river?” I said lamely.
“What did you to that for?” Williams spat. I felt my knees shaking in his voice. “What makes you guys so angry?”
O’Kelley tried to make up something. I mumbled about not much at all.
“Someone could have been buried under there,” Williams said. “And maybe there is. For god’s sake, you two took apart the damn hill.”
It was true. The cliff wore a huge triangle of white that looked like whipped cream run over pie crust. Below, a heap of stones and boulders lay like skeletons.
“The BLM won’t like this much,” O’Kelley said.
After the wind and rain died down, I walked to the river. Williams gathered sagebrush and pine for a fire. O’Kelley moped under the drooping canvas.
That evening, I pulled a strong brown trout about a foot long out of a mid-river riffle. My fly, a Royal Coachman on a number-six hook, skewered the fish in the roof of his mouth. The hook came free easily, but the trout’s eyes crossed. It bled through its mouth and down its gills. I tried to wash the blood off in the water. But the blood only flowed faster when I picked it up again, running over my hands and off its tail. I cradled the trout in the water again and held it while the stream flowed over its gills. The little pool around the fish turned opaque as the fish’s life spilled out of it.
When I looked up, the triangle of bare stone hung blood red in the setting sun.