The Covered Bridge Chronicles – Bass Roulette

One weekend George and I decided to visit a county in which two covered bridges resided and which were somewhat remote, not only from each other but from nearly the rest of civilization. As usual he sat behind the wheel and I served as navigator, a position George woefully needed. He had obtained maps from the local library to the covered bridges still remaining in the state, but these maps had been drawn by hand as many as 50 years ago, and in no way were they drawn to scale. At some location on a map an inch may have represented a mile, while on the same map but in a different location that same measurement might represent five miles or possibly 500 feet. Fortunately I navigate well by landmarks—there were some on the maps—and numbers of roads. George’s navigational skills were not nearly as acute as my own, and occasionally we had small disagreements about which roads to take and where to turn, most of the time of which I was correct.

We traveled for a little over an hour and a half before we got within shouting distance of the first destination. George had driven there alone previously and he was somewhat bewildered by my crystal clear driving directions, for he revealed that he had come in a more circuitous way on his solo excursion. I, on the other hand, prefer main travel arteries for as long as possible. He confessed that he had taken considerably longer to get this close to the bridge.

Before arriving at this particular bridge, we had to pass through a small village of old houses along a river. Also at the river was an old dam, still structurally sound itself, but the things around it, like a walkway that extended nearly halfway across the spillway and 15 feet over the top portion of the dam, and a couple of buildings and some equipment no longer in use, were rusted and ancient. We had to take a sharp curve and go up a small, steep hill before we could park at the dam area.

Upon cresting the hill George pointed to a dilapidated building to our right. It was still in use, for there was an operating soft drink machine in front, cars parked in its gravel lot, and people were coming out a screen door. George laughed loudly and said, “Did you read the sign?”

I read it. “Big Don’s Bait and Pizza. I know it’s near lunch time, but I’ll pass on that.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Not in the mood for a mealworm pizza?”

“I think I’ll just capture some grasshoppers or a couple of cicadas when we stop. Maybe I’ll catch a fish with my bare hands. That’ll tide me over until we get to a restaurant.”

Also on the other side of the hill was a long line of automobiles parked along the road as far as we could see, and hundreds, maybe thousands, of people walking around, while hundreds more were fishing in the river, both above and below the dam. Some adventurous fishers stood on the walkway that extended over the dam and cast into the water below the dam, 30 to 40 feet below the walkway.

“What’s going on?” said George. “I’ve been here before and at the most I’ve seen just three or four people.”

“Kind of looks like a fair or celebration or something,” I replied. “I only see a couple of vendors, though, selling food and drinks. No crafts or anything like that.”

George parked the car far down the road and we determined to ascertain the cause of the excitement. There were many people along the riverbank, a good portion of them fishing, but some milling around in a party-like atmosphere. George has an innate sense of finding the best person from which to garner information, and he headed towards the bank after eyeing three men in a small boat getting ready to come ashore. On our way there a small, malnourished dog attached itself to us, running around us excitedly and yapping.

“What’s going on around here?” George asked the front man in the boat, who was wearing a hunting vest over the top of a blue flannel shirt, a fluorescent orange cap, hip boots, and was placing a container on the ground, apparently full of fish.

“Hey, where’d you get that dog?” the man answered. “We got here a week ago and that mutt was wandering around, begging for food. We fed him a couple of times, against my advice, but Red—he’s the one wearing the red shirt—threw him some bread and lunch meat.” He pointed at a man in the rear of the boat wearing a red flannel shirt, so we made the assumption he must be Red. “We think Red thought the dog was his nephew Orrin. Thought we’d never get rid of him, but for some reason the dog ran away the next day and we haven’t seen it since. He was nothing but skin and bones, somebody had probably dumped it here at the river. We figure he’d been starved out and that’s why he hadn’t come back, because everybody else just chased him away.”

Red staggered from the rear of the boat and stumbled onto the bank, revealing a solid bed of beer cans in the boat’s bottom. His red eyes rolled around as he looked for something stable to secure himself to the earth. “Where’s my pole?” he asked, but he had left it hanging over the side of the boat.

“You been fishing all night?” I inquired of Blue, making the assumption that their names matched the color of their shirts.

“Yeah, well kind of,” he replied. “At least me and Pete been fishing. Red doesn’t do anything but drink beer, and the cheaper the beer the more he guzzles. Don’t believe he’s drawn a sober breath for a couple of decades, maybe more. He was a drunk before we graduated high school, plain drunk at our graduation, but the school didn’t say nothing—they was just glad to get him out of there.”

“Does Red ever catch anything?” inquired George.

Blue chuckled and threw the rest of equipment to shore. “He caught a fish once down at Kramer’s Lake—you ever been there?” We shook our heads negatively. “Well, Red was powerful drunk, and we’d only been out a couple of hours. But then he hauls in a huge catfish and can’t believe his eyes. He really weren’t fishing, he’d just cast out and laid his pole on the edge of the boat. That fish bit and Red didn’t even know what to do. We had to help him bring it in. He was so excited, he went on and on. Didn’t know how to take it off the hook, so we pretended like we took it off for him and put it back in the water. Naturally Red thinks he’s caught another one, so we helped him bring it in again. We kept that up for nearly an hour and told him at the end that he’d caught about 30 fish.”

“You telling the boys about me catching all those catfish?” Red accidentally ran into consciousness.

“That’s right, Red,” answered his friend. “Best catfishing we’ve ever done.”

“I was better than all you that night,” Red replied. “Better than all you ever been. Nobody’s caught that many fish at one time.” Then looking at us he said, “That your dog? There’s been a dog running around here that looks just like your dog. You got any beer in your car? We seem to be all out.”

George assured him we were fresh out of beer, so Red lay down on the muddy bank and fell asleep.

“Why are there so many people here?” I asked. “Some type of festival going on? Fishing contest?”

“Well, you might call it a fishing contest of sorts,” replied Blue. “I reckon that people are mostly here to go to the funeral.”

“Some local fisherman die?” asked George.

“No, not yet, but he’ll be dying either today or tomorrow.”

“Bad sick? Cancer?” I asked.

“No, nothing like that. Seems fit as a fiddle. Doctor says he’s in tip-top shape and could live another 25 or 30 years. But he’s going to die as sure as Red is asleep down there.”

George and I looked at each other with puzzlement. “I don’t understand,” said George. “How do you know he’s going to die? Can we see him? What’s his name?”

“Name’s Ed Harbin. He’s around here somewhere—there he is, over by that tallest oak over there, dressed real nice, getting ready to be planted. I’ll take you to him. He can explain better than I can. After all, it affects him the most.”

We followed Blue, and he introduced us to Ed Harbin, an honest-looking man of about 50 to 55 years, slightly graying hair, wearing what was undoubtedly his Sunday best. He was jovial despite his impending demise and gladly shook our hands. George told him of our curiosity concerning his situation and he wholeheartedly told us his story.

“A number of years back—I don’t remember how many—a man by the name of Virgil Pressman went fishing right below the dam over there with a couple of his buddies. He reeled in this huge bass that was all tore up around the mouth. They figured he must’ve been caught numerous times and that’s what caused the damage around its mouth, so they named it Old Snagglemouth. Virgil up and decides he’s not going to throw Old Snagglemouth back into the river, but throws him in his container and keeps him alive. He was planning on cleaning and cooking him that night for dinner.

“Wouldn’t you know it, though, Virgil ups and dies of a heart attack before he got home. His buddies came to the conclusion that it was in retribution for deciding to keep Old Snagglemouth, so they quick as they can take the fish back down to the river and put him back in.

“Since that time Old Snagglemouth has showed up at this spot for one week a year—the week of Virgil’s death. Every year somebody has caught him. The second year he was caught by a man named Bob Dudley, and Bob decides he’s going to keep him as well, but wouldn’t you know it, Bob dies right on the spot and the fish went free.

“People began putting two and two together and came to the conclusion that that fish is some type of devil fish, and a curse of death goes with it. Every year since Virgil caught Snagglemouth the person who has caught him has died within a year—some of them natural-like, other’s violently, like in a car wreck.

“So we began having a fishing contest for that one week and challenged people to participate. Something about the danger attracted people—kind of like playing Russian Roulette, so to speak. People wanted to fish for Snagglemouth, hoping they’d not be the one who caught him. As it happened, I caught him last year, and since that time I’ve been waiting for my death. It will be exactly a year in two days, so I’m looking at passing on either today or tomorrow. I’ve been praying it will be quick and painless.”

He paused long enough for me to interject, “OK, let me see if I’ve got this right. You caught a fish and you’re going to die, you believe, in the next two days because there’s some type of superstition connected with catching the fish?”

“No superstition in it,” said Ed. “It’s a fact. Everybody who’s caught Snagglemouth since Virgil has died within a year, most of them almost immediately. I’ve made it longer than anybody. I’ve had a wonderful year, doing a lot of things I’ve wanted to do for a long time but never took the time.”

“Kind of like a bucket list?” asked George.

“Bucket list? What’s that?” said Ed. “Don’t know what a bucket list is. Simply done everything I’ve desired to do for years like visit the state capital, play in an all-night poker game, got married—“

“Got married?” I asked, smiling. “You never been married before now?”

“No, never took the time, too busy working. Up and asked Sally Leiter. Always had a crush on her but never let her know. She said yes, and we’ve had a great year. She knew it was going to be a short marriage, so I appreciated her saying yes. Wasn’t looking for love, only looking for someone to share my final days with.”

“So all this?” said George, pointing to the crowd.

“It’s about me, and the fishing contest. I don’t expect anybody will catch Snagglemouth until I die, but these people sure are having a good time. Started charging a hundred dollars apiece to enter the contest, and whoever catches Snagglemouth gets all the money so he can enjoy his remaining days on Earth. Last I heard we have over 250 people paid up this year, so the winner’s going to get at least twenty-five thousand dollars to spend however he likes.”

We stayed and talked to Ed for about 20 minutes longer, but he kept getting interrupted by people shaking his hand and wanting to wish him a fond farewell, so we went back to the car and proceeded to the covered bridge to take our shots.

After sundown we drove through the town again and there was no longer any crowd. Everyone had seemingly packed up and left. We stopped at the Bait and Pizza place to inquire where everyone had gone, and were greeted at the door by Blue, who had been profusely crying.

“What’s the matter?” George asked. “Did Ed die?”

“Yes,” replied Blue, “about two hours ago. They had a big fish dinner planned for him because fish is—er, was—his favorite food. Larry Martin caught a mess of catfish, cleaned them and gave them to his wife Sharon to cook up. She’s a mighty fine cook, but it didn’t work out too well tonight. After taking a couple of bites, Ed puts both hands around his throat and can’t speak. Appears like he got a fish bone lodged in his throat, along with some bread and other stuff he was eating at the time. Nobody could help him and he choked to death.”

“The curse continues,” said George.

“Never any doubt about that,” replied Blue. “Ed had a strange, peaceful look on his face right before he passed on.”

“That’s real sad,” I said. “He seemed like a nice man.”

“He was, he was. Salt of the earth. They don’t come any better than Ed.”

“So where is everybody?” asked George. “No one staying around for his funeral?”

“No, no one was planning to do that. They only wanted to see him these last couple of days and wish him well. But there’s no reason to stay around any longer, and that’s the main reason I’m upset.”

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

Blue looked over to the riverbank where his boat remained.

“Red’s still sleeping in the mud,” he began, “but he’s been dealt a bad hand. He won’t be conscious for some time, possibly not until morning, but when he wakes up I’m going to have to tell him that he caught Old Snagglemouth. The old rascal bit on Red’s line that was hanging over the boat. Weren’t even any bait on it, live or artificial. We don’t allow him actually to fish, just goes around and puts a hook in the water so we don’t have to mess with it while he’s drinking. As soon as everybody heard about it they cut out. The contest ended when Red caught him. I’m hoping maybe he’ll die in his sleep tonight so he never finds out.”

George and I departed, saddened and confused. He sheepishly approached the subject of us entering the contest next year but let it drop when I refused to respond.

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