From up on the flybridge her father yelled at her to pay attention.
"A little more before you hit him. Ease off on your drag, this is a big girl."
She picked her moment, then yanked back on the rod, sunk the hook, and in the next instant the fish showed itself. Forty yards behind them, its long bill broke through, then its silver head, holding there for several seconds, its wild eye staring back at Morgan as if taking her measure. The fish shook its head furiously and flopped on its side and was gone. Sounding, diving down and down and down, the reel shrieking, the rod jumping in her hands as if she'd hooked a stallion at full gallop.
On the bridge, A.J. was silenced by the sight.
Johnny stood at the transom transfixed, staring out at the blue water where the fish had disappeared. His blond hair hung limply down his back. A pudgy baby, a pudgy kid, and now a pudgy teenager. Smiling at the wrong times, always fidgeting, gnawing his fingernails to the quick.
Her dad stood with his butt to the console, reaching behind him to run the controls, doing it by feel, backing the thirty-one-foot Bertram toward the spot where the fish had disappeared. The Braswells worked as a unit. It required first-rate teamwork to catch these fish. No one could do it alone, not the big ones. Someone to handle the boat, keep it positioned; an angler strapped into the fighting chair; a wire man to grab the leader when the fish was finally brought close to the boat. Then a gaffer who nailed the fish in its bony jaw and helped haul it through the transom door. The five of them circulating the jobs.
"You okay, Morgan? You want some water?" Andy asked.
She was pumping the rod, then cranking on the downstroke. For every yard of line she won back the fish was taking out two. The reel was more than half-empty and Morgan had begun to sweat, her fingers throbbing already, back muscles aching. In only twenty minutes the fish was making her pant.
"Water, yes," Morgan said.
He held the water bottle to her lips, tipped it up. With a towel he mopped her forehead. He gave her shoulders a rub, stayed with it for a while, a good massage, working his fingers in deep.
The line went out in screaming bursts and with grim focus she reeled it back in, inch by grueling inch. The fish stayed deep, two hundred yards of line, perhaps. A.J. cheering her on, giving her small instructions, though Morgan knew the drill as well as he did. She could hear it in his voice, a trace of envy. It should be him in the chair. It was his passion more than hers. He went to the tournaments. Mexico, Bahamas, Virgin Islands. He hung out with marlin men. Went fishing on the bigger boats of his rich friends. Boats with full-time crews. Two million, three million dollars purchase price, a few hundred thousand a year to maintain and staff them. He lusted for one of those boats, a sixty-footer with four thousand horsepower rumbling below decks. At the rate MicroDyne was growing, it wouldn't be long before he could afford one.
Her dad should be the one in the chair hauling this fish to the surface. But that wasn't how it worked. The Braswells rotated the angling on a set routine. Morgan first thing in the morning, Andy next. After lunch A.J. took the chair. Then her mother had her shot, and finally in the last hours of the day, it was Johnny's turn. Johnny, who would rather work the wire, the close-in stuff. He didn't want the spotlight for hours at a time, didn't have the patience for that kind of labor. He liked the big, dramatic moments. Slipping on the heavy glove and taking a couple of quick wraps and then arm-wrestling that fish to the edge of the boat, gaffing it.
An hour passed. Andy gave her water, her father rooted her on. As Morgan pumped the reel, her mother watched silently. Morgan was dizzy. Despite the fluids, she felt dehydrated. They'd not seen any sign of the fish again. It was down about nine hundred feet and was heading east out to deeper water. Her dad was quiet now, handling the boat. Wanting to be in the chair so much, but not a whiner, trying to be encouraging to his daughter.
Copyright 2002 by James W. Hall. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, St Martins Press.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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