THE HIGHLINER AND THE DOCTOR

By Paul Randau

A Tale of the Kodiak Alaska Salmon Fleet
Preface: The author crewed on commercial Alaskan salmon boats during summers while attending medical school in California. This story is dedicated to the Kodiak Alaska salmon fleet–wooden boats and iron men.. The season following this story Rickett and his crew perished in a storm on Shelikof Straits.

I

Thomas Rickett was nearing his killing grounds. Here he had made the big haul two seasons ago—eight thousand salmon in a single set of the net. Big money. He hunched over the windscreen of the seiner and scanned the waves through the glasses, his fingers blue from the wind sweeping in from Shelikof Straits. Rickett wanted to make a killing again—a chance to load up, break a hundred thousand salmon by season’s end. Once more a high liner. But he had problems: surly weather, and this year he had a marginal crew: Ted a graying alcoholic, Axel a slowing giant, and a greenhorn—the Californian they called “Doc”. He caressed the spoke of the wheel. The forefinger was missing on his right hand—an old accident, price of the fishing game.

Rickett thought about his crew sitting down below, brewing coffee, while he sat up here in the weather. Rickett enjoyed the aloofness, the integrity of riding out the sea without the crutch of companionship. But he didn’t like their complacency—the season wasn’t over yet. There was still money to be made. Rickett stomped on the deck beneath his feet. A hooded head poked up at the rear of the bridge.

“You guys comfortable down there, Doc? Tell the crew to get their gear on.”

“Skipper,” the Californian said, “Ted’s not coming out of it this trip. Boozing in town again—he’s groggy.”

“Soon’s we get the net out, he’ll brighten up. The run’s hitting, can’t waste time.”

“We could leave him off on a tender, better for all of us.”

“Who’s running this God damn boat? You want to take over?”

Rickett knew that, down below, in the heat of the cabin, thick with the smell of diesel fumes and fish gurry, his crew would struggle into their slickers, cursing him. “They’ll earn their pay today.”

An hour later the rip tide caught them. A northerly gale was pushing mountains of turbid water south around the reef, only to meet the opposing flood tide in an upheaval of churning waves.

First they lost the skiff – the towline broke and it danced away to stern, only fifty yards, before it was crushed under the fist of a breaker, leaving only a sodden life jacket, and an engine cover immersed in bubbles. A succession of waves hit from different points. Rickett thought, “either the center of the rip or we’re over the reef,” then the end of the seine washed off the stern, flowing behind the boat like the intestines of a gut-shot bird.

Axel and the Californian crawled like bugs on the stern, trying to salvage the net, alternately in a foot of water and then silhouetted against the mist as the stern pitched upwards. Rickett was yelling from the bridge, his words lost in the wind, unable to leave the wheel, when old Ted stumbled up out of the cabin. He gazed in incomprehension until the Californian yelled, “Ted, get us a rope!—right there by the mast!— a sling! Get it here!”

Ted began crawling over the remains of the seine pile, a loop of rope clenched in his teeth—the faithful spaniel returning his master’s stick. Axel and the Californian had even begun to laugh, yelling “Here, Ted, bring her here!” when the comber caught them all.

Rickett on the bridge saw only a mass of black water materialize—cascading with primitive force from railing to railing, revealing flashes of slimy, malignant things, lapping hungrily at the ladder rungs, and then receding to leave two figures, spread-eagled, still clutching the net, but Ted was gone—vanished.

Rickett cut the engine and leaped down to the deck. “Ted’s overboard! Get those corks over the side!” Coughing salt water, they paid out the line, but no head ever appeared clinging to the cork line, and no voice ever called from the other side of the dancing wave tops.

The Californian stared at Rickett. The crewman yelled, “Looks like you won’t make your big pay day, Tom! You still so hungry now?”

Another wave broke across the deck, and the time for recriminations passed in the frothy chaos of water, tangled lines, slimy kelp, straining legs, clutching hands, the scream of orders and the pain of loss.

They fought the storm back into Kodiak port. “So the sea finally got old Ted?” the fishermen in the Beachcomber asked Rickett, as he stood with his back pressed to the lip of the bar.

“We got in the jackpot off Ugat. Rip tide found us,” Rickett answered. He sipped the amber pool of whiskey, savoring its warmth. “Lucky any of us made it. Lost the seine, skiff, and old Ted. I lost a good crewman there. But the sea is the great equalizer.”

“Come on Tom, let’s plug that glass! We’ll drink to old Ted!” The warm glow of alcoholic camaraderie filled the bar-room, reassuring Rickett of their shared knowledge of the sea’s impartial , unfathomable malevolence. Rickett raised his glass again, and noticed, at the end of the bar, that only the Californian was not drinking. The young crewman was looking directly at him.

“Drink up, Doc! Don’t you drink to old Ted?” But the Californian faded into the shadowy throng at the bar. Rickett turned his glass slowly in his hand, admiring the icy radiance—like sleet hitting the sea’s surface—flash, then gone. Like friendship and things that used to matter.

II

The Californian had been with him for three seasons—he was almost another son. Not quite a son—the Californian was an uncharted reef in Picket’s sea. But they could talk. On warm summer evenings they sat on the bridge under the long, drawn out sky of the arctic twilight.

One night they discussed poker. “I always draw to an inside straight, Doc.”

“Poor odds, Tom.”

“But if I hit, I beat your two pair or three of a kind, or low ball straight. That’s the kind of chances I like.”

As they talked, the motionless water of Kodiak Harbor mirrored the myriad rising masts, shimmering reflections of the sleeping fleet. The Californian had brought a girl as lithe as a dolphin on board for a beer, and the three of them, Rickett, the Californian, and the girl, perched on the wooden rope locker and watched the sunset sweep across the harbor to disappear in red waves beyond the harbor peaks.

“Next year I’m bringing up my boy, Jimmy. Think you can break him in, Doc?”

“Do they call you, ‘Doc’? You’re not a doctor!” the girl had laughed.

Rickett said –“Your boyfriend says he’s studying doctoring , and worse, he’s a Californian.” He opened them all another beer. “We don’t get many Californians up here. He’s a curiosity.”

“Why do you keep a Californian on board? They can’t fish.” The girl smiled, sipping her beer and watching the youth.

“I don’t know. He’s our token.”

“Token?”

Rickett sipped his beer. “Doc’s a college boy. We’re fishermen. He’s maybe where we thought we were headed.”

The Californian laughed. “You’re not just a fisherman, skipper. You’re a highliner!”

Rickett laughed, and stood up. “I’m going up town, Doc. Plenty of beer in the reefer. Check those tie -up lines some time tonight.”

“Sure, Tom, we’ll keep an eye on things.”

Night had fallen upon the harbor. Rickett left them sitting together in the cabin. He walked slowly up the floating dock between the bows of silent boats, row upon row of rising prows, like columns in an antique temple by the sea. Rickett was at home in this world. The creak of the hawsers in their channels was barely perceptible above the whispering of the water beneath the dock. Rickett reached the gangplank leading up to town. The fetid smell of seaweed hung like fog over the nestled boats. He could already hear the throb of far-off music flooding down from town. The shouts of welcoming fisherman violated the night air. The highliner comes to town, he thought—man meets myth.

Rickett thought about this crewman, whom he hated and loved at the same time. Hungry, the Californian had called him. Not an insult, not a compliment. “That’s right, hungry—you have to be hungry to put up with the fishing game—and you have to be hungry enough to beat the odds, Doc. Hungry enough when I taught you how to find the big schools. Hungry enough when we hunted deer on the beach.”

The deer hunts—those were Rickett’s pleasure. They would cruise along the strips of beach between the capes, watching in the evening light for feeding deer, Rickett holding the thirty-thirty and gauging the tide, the rocks, the distance to the beach through the mist. Rickett had tried to teach the Californian to shoot. “Hell, Doc, if you’re going to make a high liner, you’ve got to get the killer instinct. And wait for the down roll. Squeeze it off on the down roll.” But the Californian always hesitated, didn’t fire. Rickett guessed that he liked hunting but didn’t like the killing.

Rickett had seen that the Californian was hungry – but hungry with reservations. He wondered if his son Jimmy would ever make it to one of those California colleges. Not likely, Rickett thought, Jimmy going to college. He and the Californian were almost the same age, but one’s an outsider from a different world, and the other’s a fisherman’s son – no – a high liner’s son.

Rickett loved his son, and he at last he had to admit that he liked the Californian. Rickett liked very few people up here. For a highliner, friendship was a luxury.

III

The next season, greed trumped resentment: The Californian was hungry enough to stay with Rickett. Ted was missing, but now Rickett had Jimmy as his greenhorn.

“Doc, the fish are running like the old days. But we’ve got to hurry–that’s a storm front moving in over Shelikof.”

They rested for a moment between sets of the net. The roll was getting worse. Axel was nursing the last glow of his cigarette, the Californian was clutching his empty coffee mug, Jimmy was slumped over on the seine pile, regaining his breath. But Rickett was standing, facing out to sea, watching for something, intent. The sky boiled with alien clouds pouring in malevolent intent from across Shelikof Straits.

And then Rickett saw the almost imperceptible flash of jumping salmon. Each jumper meant a school. Now three, four at a time – heading in from the straits. His heart accelerated with the age-old shock of the quarry sighted. The run was really coming. He could plug this old bucket yet tonight. With one good set he could make a killing. One good set.

Rickett called, “Let’s set her out. Let’s go!”

Jimmy was the first to protest. “Pop, She’s blowing – hell – forty knots! Let’s leave it for morning.”

Rickett looked intently at his son, studied him. He couldn’t even raise a half-assed mustache yet. Skinny, not like his own stocky build –– but the grey eyes were Jenny’s.

“Christ, Jimmy, did you come up here to fish? Doc, let’s get that seine out! Axel, get that deck cleared. Jimmy, get in the skiff. Make yourself another car payment.”

But Jimmy was unmoved, resisting, a trace of desperation in his voice – not yet a man’s voice – as if he had a far-off presentiment. “It’s crazy. You won’t be able to see the skiff from the bridge. How’re you going to hold a hook in this wind?”

Rickett said, “No need to hold a hook. There’s enough fish coming for a five-minute set—five minutes will load us down.”

Rickett looked at his son, then added, “If you can’t stand the gaff up here Jimmy, maybe we’ll have to dredge up another skiff-man.”

Rickett turned to the Californian. “How about you, Doc? Going to go belly-up?”

“Nobody’s going belly up.”

“Then get that seine ready! There’s fish to catch!”

“We can’t catch fish if we catch the reef. Hard to walk ashore in this weather,” said the Californian.

“Turning wise, eh?”

“It’s only money, Tom”

Rickett stared at his crew, calculating. He knew they’d make the set if he gave the ultimate order – hell, this was a high liner’s crew – but he wondered if they, by some strange chance, were right. He looked again at the oncoming storm– a moment – and once again he saw the jumpers, enticing, playing with him among the waves. The high liner hesitated.

Jimmy made his move. “You think you’re proving something?” His voice was becoming strident. “What the hell are you gambling for? You already lost one gamble.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“You know – Ted! I mean Ted.”

For a moment, only the mutter of the wind in the rigging could be heard across the shifting deck.

“O.K.,” Rickett spoke softly, menacingly. “Let’s get that seine out. No more games. You’re on a fishing boat, Jimmy. You get in the skiff, or you want Doc to take her? Axel, deck ready? We’ll hook to the right. Five minutes around that school. Fast and clean. No screw-ups.”

And as Rickett had predicted, the crew went to their places. Jimmy jumped into the plunging skiff, Doc and Axel readied the maze of purse lines, even while Rickett was accelerating the boat. They were a high liner’s crew, all right, Rickett grinned, tempered with a strain of mutiny.

The boat rolled as Rickett neared the shore, made his turn, and yelled, “Let her go!” He could barely discern the figures of his deck hands as the boat, now having reversed its course, headed away from the breakers, paying out the seine sternward. The last of the seine pile melted away into the turbid water, leaving a string of corks arching away in a great parabola, a thousand feet in length, ending at the skiff. The skiff, with Jimmy in it, was now barely visible as a blemish appearing and disappearing on the swelling face of the ocean. Rickett held the great net open for only five minutes – he had towed the parabola around into a circle almost before the crew was ready to haul the lines aboard. Surrounded now by whitecaps, Rickett was unable to distinguish the flash of jumpers, but he was certain that the school was there – inside his purse seine.

Now, Jimmy’s skiff was back alongside, bounding and rebounding against the hull of the rolling boat. He timed his leap and was back on deck, his rain coat flaring out in the wind.

They worked rapidly, fighting to stay upright, deafened by the howl of the wind and the engine. Rickett thought, “When we get these fish aboard, there’ll be no more bitching, not with another five hundred bucks on their checks. Weather’s turning heavier – hurry them up.” Rickett exhorted the men with epithets.

Axel and the Californian were bringing in the taut purse line around the head of the power winch. The thick nylon line, straining, springing beads of water, came foot by foot, sucked in by the mindless, voracious strength of the spinning winch. Then Rickett spied a snag in the seine and, bracing his knees against the bulwark, back protesting, he leaned far over the side to clear the net. Another whitecap drove against the boat, and Rickett lost his balance and, just as quickly, regained it, shouting, “Damn!” Jimmy, working a few feet aft, heard Rickett’s curse, and jumped to assist his father.

Jimmy took two steps towards the rail, struggling to keep his balance, brushing by the spinning winch and its captive purse line. At that moment a gust of wind hit the reeling boy, and as a girl’s seductive touch might have brushed aside her lover’s locks, so the wind swept the tail of Jimmy’s raincoat around the straining purse line and into the winch. The boy felt an impatient tug at his shoulder, turned his head, and saw in one glance his approaching fate. He struggled against the relentless grip, his boots scraping along the deck, his free arm flailing at the purse line, his mouth forming words of protest that would not come, but already the winch had consumed his arm in a tangled mass of knotted purse line, shredding rain gear, and black iron. As Rickett was screaming, “Cut it!” the Californian had leaped across the fouled lines and clawed at the control lever – and the thing came to a halt.

In the murk of the Alaskan night, lurching on the glistening deck, three figures worked, knives flashing in the glare of the deck light, to free a fourth shadowy figure which sprawled beneath them. No word was spoken, only the throb of the engine seemed to echo the pounding of Rickett’s heart.

That night, back at the cannery, Rickett waited for the sea plane to carry his son away. Rickett stood heavily in the midst of a shifting, uneasy group of fishermen. Their eyes, listening to his tale again, spoke of shared sorrows and unmentionable fears, but subtly, beneath it all, there shone a surreptitious relief that once again it had not been they.

The Californian, his face ashen, much older, approached Rickett.

“You’re hungry, Tom. First Ted, then Jimmy. Anything to make a killing. I’ve had my season with you, Tom.”

“Running, kid? You can’t run from risk if you stay on the boats.”

“I’m leaving your boat.”

“I never thought you’d make it anyway, “ Rickett said.

“Let’s leave it at that. See you on the fishing grounds.”

So they parted, without the handshake, leaving Rickett standing on the timbers of the cannery pier, from which the stink of creosote and fish entrails arose to saturate the night air. He knew his relief would be to stay in the only life he knew–the fishing game.

IV

The next season saw an unwanted rendezvous. Rickett returned to Ugat Point.. Jimmy was still in therapy in Portland. Rickett had a feeling of unease, of unrest. But he had promises to keep to Jimmy, and to Denise, and to himself.

Lying just seaward from Ugat point he saw the low hull and needle mast of another boat—a seiner. Rickett could see the dark ribbon of net hanging from the rigging like a bedraggled feather. Alongside the boat, the seine had entrapped a school of salmon—a dark green seething mass. She’s low in the water, he thought, they must be loading up. Whose boat is that? He glanced through the glasses. That’s the Sea Stranger—Arnie Anderson’s boat—Ted’s brother.

He had heard that the Californian was with Arnie Anderson this year. Now he could see without binoculars the Californian and the other crew members working on the deck.

So you’re back again for the money, Doc. You’re just as hungry as the rest of us. Do you still hate my guts? He could see the Californian there on the brailer. He was lifting masses of thrashing fish from the sea, onto the deck, then down into the hold.

Rickett brought his boat up alongside the Sea Stranger where she lay dead in the water. The two boats were broadside, engines idling, separated by ten yards of oily water. The meeting was unavoidable. The Californian looked up from brailing to see Rickett’s oncoming seiner. Rickett nodded to the Californian. Rickett’s stare was unfaltering, eyes set in his sea-swept face. The Californian returned the nod, perfunctory and cold.

He’s an arrogant bastard now, thought Rickett. Not even a little chatter—too young to compromise. Christ, Ted knew it wasn’t easy money, and Jimmy’s coming back up with me next year – one bad arm but no grudges.

The other skipper, Ted’s brother, had remained silent, motionless, looking at Rickett. Finally Ted’s brother seemed to reach some obscure decision, stepped to the railing, grasped the rigging, and called over to Rickett, “Long time no see, Tom.”

Rickett said, “Right, Arnie, long time.” He paused. “Looks like you’ve got a good haul.”

Rickett looked over at the shoreline a few hundred yards away where the salmon schools lay idly in the evening slack tide. “I’ll try over there,” he said.

“Yeah, Tom, go ahead,” said the other skipper. “Enough fish for a couple of boats.”

Rickett’s diesel awakened as he swung the boat towards the shoreline. He looked at the Californian, perhaps to call something, but the Californian was already turning back to brail the salmon into the boat. The college boy hard at work, thought Rickett. He felt the dull throb of anger, beating within him. He headed into the misted bay.

”Ready up back there!” Rickett snapped to his crew. He was watching the shoreline, wind in his eyes, with the high liner’s calculating, rapacious gaze. There’s a couple of schools in that bight. Christ- that Californian – never said a word. Snotty punk, — hell, who taught him the fishing game? Does he figure he’s a high liner now?

The seiner headed towards the shoreline, where clouds of foam rose into the air like smoke. Then Rickett’s eye seized upon a faint form moving – above the water – there –at the far end of the beach, standing, walking, blending now with the tossing surf, now with the forest’s edge—there it was again in the gloom–a deer, a buck.

Rickett felt a surge of elation. He throttled back. The hell with the fish – this would only take a moment–an easy kill. Only two hundred yards. Let’s show that Doc who’s the high liner.

“Anton, get me that thirty-thirty – up here on the bridge!”

The deer was moving with the dancer’s grace, moving at the water’s edge, bold in the gloom of dusk, searching among the salt rich fronds of kelp. Rickett looked back at the Sea Stranger –four figures were watching him–oil-skinned statues on a floating pedestal, like figures in some somber dream. Rickett cut the engine and the boat glided slowly, softly, to a halt, and lay rolling gently.

Rickett braced his left elbow upon the compass, rifle muzzle wedged in the V of the wind screen, chest against the railing, one leg coiled around the steering column. Rifle, skipper, and boat merged together, united in one transcendent love. This would be a pretty shot.

Wait for the down-roll – just like I told you, Doc, but you always screwed it up. Just watch this –I’ll show you how– one more time– I’ll show you how to kill like a highliner.

Christ! Those gulls are right overhead. There – he’s moving again, plenty of time. Can’t hold a bead tonight. Eyes watering. Getting old?

I see you’re still out fishing, Doc – did you get away from the killing? Let’s finish this off – get back to seining. Next down roll.

Doc, I hope to God you make a better doctor than I am a father.

The deer made another dancer’s step, paused, one forefoot lifted, as if to listen to distant warnings, took another lilting step forward, and then lurched and collapsed in a rolling brown mass at the water’s edge, even before the sound of the rifle reached the ears of the statues standing on the Sea Stranger. Rickett let out his breath, relaxed his grip on the rifle, and stretched his fingers. He was very tired. He gazed shoreward where a cloud of mist haloed the deer which made erratic kicks in the water.

Rickett started his boat in towards the beach. The pungent smell of kelp reached him. The only sound now was the guttural rumble of his diesel, the cry of the gulls, and the beat of the surf. Rickett was nearing the killing ground, where the deer lay still. Along the shore, broken black boulders studded the beach in the failing light. Rickett turned to look back at the Sea Stranger. Three men had returned to brailing the salmon, a fourth figure still stood motionless, watching him.

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