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by George Cramer

Forty years ago Agent Orange covered Pete head to foot. Not yet known as killers, his platoon cursed the mess left by the defoliate. Later he laughed at their ghost-like photo images. Now sixty-eight, he mused, I’m just another casualty of the Vietnam War. The doctors gave him six weeks.

I have one last shot at Joe, the best time, late afternoon.

Pete needed an experience he could savor. Only a mile to Joe’s, Pete took his time wandering through the forest of changing colors. He first came here on a spring day before he left for Vietnam. The trees had been shielded by leaves in brilliant shades of green, young and strong, much as he had been. Now the approaching winter turned the landscape into a strange rainbow of orange, yellow, red, and brown. Pete saw the cold and bleak future he faced reflected in nature’s cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

Only I won’t be reborn.

He arrived early, perfect timing for an afternoon nap. Joe would be doing the same. A rock shelf provided enough warmth for Pete to enjoy a brief respite from the pain that came with the cancer.

Pete assembled his gear when he awoke. Joe had been his elusive quarry for twenty years.

Today might be the day.

Standing in the shallow current, Pete made his first cast. The fly dropped with a loud plop. This won’t do, Joe will never come up for something so clumsy.

Pete’s fourth cast drifted as if on a cloud. His hand-tied mayfly landed. Joe struck. The strike much stronger than Pete ever imagined – much stronger.

Be careful, work slowly. Joe can break the three-pound test. He has before.

With a skill honed over decades, Pete worked Joe back and forth, ever closer. An hour later, he slid his net under a still combative Joe. Joe was everything he could have hoped for in a native brown trout, a real trophy weighing at least eight pounds.

With the compassion of a true sportsman, Pete removed the small barbless hook. He held Joe up to the sky, an offering to the gods. He knelt and with a tenderness bordering on love, Pete gently returned Joe to the swiftly moving water.

This is the best day of my life!

George Cramer served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era. He took an early discharge in 1968 to begin a career in law enforcement and investigations. After retiring, a Senior Center writing class convinced him to write. His stories have appeared in four anthologies.

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