Running cattle was a man’s work, and Oscar was just old enough to make his first drive across the ranch. He couldn’t afford to make a mistake. Rattlesnakes and coyotes would be the last of his problems if he couldn’t find food and water. “You have to learn how to read the river like you would read a map. Like a wily mistress, it holds secrets amongst its banks,” the old man told his son.
Oscar had been given the job of retrieving one of the three hundred and fifty head who wandered off. He needed to return the heifer to the herd and himself to the team before too long. Failure to do so would endanger more than one life. The heifer would give birth soon. A twelve year old boy, exhausted mother, and newly-birthed calf would make for easy pickings.
They had enough fresh water. The Colorado ensured they wouldn’t die of dehydration under the Texas sun. The problem was sustenance. The horse and heifer had food enough, grazing along the banks, but Oscar’s last meal of a couple of campfire biscuits, quick scratch gravy, and slice of venison jerky was over three days ago. The pain of hunger was starting to affect his judgement.
He couldn’t afford to stop for long to test the waters, but when the banks of the river had opened up to a wide span of calm water, he would stop briefly to cast his line. The grasshoppers were enticing enough, but each time he pulled back his line there was an empty hook.
The group traveled on. Oscar’s weary head dropped low in the saddle as the paint led the way, the heifer on a length of rope trailing behind. Soon enough, the sun dipped low, streaking reds and orange sherbet along the horizon. “Red sky by night, sailor’s delight,” Oscar mused. The boy, his horse, and the wayward heifer bedded down for the night next to an oak along the bank. The splashing of life just beneath the surface taunted him.
“You’ll be tempted into her wide arms, thinking you’ll find refuge there, but underneath that calm smile of hers are lies. What you want are the murky shores, gnarled with roots. It won’t seem right, that in this darkness you’ll find what you’re looking for, but it’s there,” the advice of his father interrupted as Oscar was about to drift off.
His eyes adjusted to the darkness around him. He felt the roots of the oak curling around him and down into the banks of the river. Exhaustion and hunger buzzed violently in his mind and hands as he worked to set the hooks at intervals. The bank line was fixed to a knotted root just below the surface of the water. “This is it. Either she embraces me or I embrace our good Lord,” he decided as he cast his line one last time. No sooner had he sat back against the trunk of the tree than he saw the slack in the line pull taut. The fresh moonlight across the water betrayed that something was already on the line.
Oscar kicked back on the bank with his hat slung low over his eyes, only the hint of a smile peeked out from underneath the brim. In a few hours, the trot would writhe with fish. He would feast in the morning and then return the stray heifer to the herd. A great catch for a hard day’s work.