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The Horses of Dawn, by Loren Wynn Whitaker
 
by Loren Wynn Whitaker
  

The road Bill Broughton had taken was a dark stretch of rocks and rutted dirt. But it was his truck.and his heavy foot on the gas pedal, and his wooden rowboat bouncing and clattering in the truckbed, sounding as if no bond or joint in it could now be intact. Harrison Cooper sat on the passenger side, and while darkness somewhat hid his face he was trying hard not to wince at the continual rattles and bumping bangs of the dinghy Broughton had nailed together five years ago.

Broughton sped across a foot-deep rain gully; the truck heaved, the tires chugged, the motor died. He cranked the starter, a loud screeching whine that went on and on until the motor finally began sputtering again, by which time Cooper suspected that all the foxes and raccoons within hearing distance had fled over the dark mountain ridges, back over into Engle's Branch or the other way into Knott County. Broughton tapped Cooper's left knee and said, "I'll get us there, old buddy. Unless some son of a bitch has cut it down, the pine grove ain't but a hop and a jump. Are you making it all right?"

"I'll be all right," Cooper said. Although both men lived on Engle's Branch they were barely acquainted. To Cooper, Broughton seemed a bit off-center-the reclusive old widower, once a tobacco farmer, now with a face the color and texture of biscuit dough and a voice full of rhythm and pertinacity like a preacher's. He had a black bill cap stretched so tight on his head it looked like a bad scalp ailment that had lingered too long; and there was yesterday's unexpected telephone invitation, Cooper's slow acceptance, and then Broughton's insistence that they leave before daybreak. Nevertheless Cooper would not label him "a flaming screwball," as his son-in-law had done after yesterday's offer. Broughton's words Are you making it all right? settled calmly in Cooper's thinking, and he let himself sink into the padding of the ragged truck seat. He rolled down his window and propped his elbow in the window frame. A couple of stray rain drops wet his arm: maybe dew? No, he decided. Rain.

I'm all alone....Broughton picked up a cassette tape. "Listen here."

"What?"

"You like gospel music, don't you?" he said, clicking in the tape, the sounds beginning, "This is me." And it was Broughton, singing, bellowing "Precious Memories," while someone bludgeoned a guitar in the background. Broughton was a member of the same church Cooper's wife Gladys had attended, and she'd told him that Broughton tried to sing there once. Cooper slumped in the seat and inhaled a careful breath of clean air-perhaps his last, he thought, unless he could stop the whooping clamor rising from the dashboard speakers.

Before taking his English degree Cooper had studied music and still made extra money tuning pianos. At Gladys's funeral, Mrs. Pugh had clawed at the keys of an old plywood-looking piano that was so badly out of tune the hymns sounded like bebop played on a zither. Broughton, on the second row, was tapping his feet; and it had crossed Cooper's mind that at least Gladys had escaped, had moved on to the Grand Perhaps in time to be clear of anything the likes of that.

"Gives you the goose bumps, don't it, old buddy?"

The grunted response that issued from Cooper's throat sounded more affirmative than he had intended. Broughton snickered, saying, "I told you we'd be just alike." He turned up the volume, slapped Cooper's knee. Cooper hated having his knee slapped. He also disliked manipulation and craftiness, but the knee slap spurred him directly into these other two.

"How about that poem you said you wrote, the one about your wife?"

"Oh!" Broughton said. "You'll like that, too, I bet." He licked his lips and then dried them with the back of his right hand. "You want me to say it?"

"I probably can't hear with the music.."

"No problem." He snapped out the cassette. Cooper took another breath.

"It says like this:

I'm all alone. I'll never forget you.
We had no kids. I don't know what to do.
But I will take this sorrow on my back,
And seldom leave the house. Your heart attack
Has made me see that I had acted dumb.
Ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum, ta-tum."

"What?" Cooper said. "The last line was what?"

"That's the brilliantest part of it, you see. She was a born poet and tried to teach me but I never learnt past the I-ams and the tro­chees. I was always working. Out there in the fields, working, raising the tobacco they say ended up killing her."

"Rough."

"Yep. So that last line, I just fill that in with I-ams, and it makes you feel like nee-ha-hum-dee-dah, like life ain't worth living no more and who gives a shit. Didn't it make you feel that way when I said it?"

"Mmm.." For an instant Cooper wondered whether Broughton had read Emmiline Grangerford's ode in Huckleberry Finn, but didn't think of asking, for Broughton's poem had touched him strangely. He wanted to ask Broughton What has it really been like for you? Instead Cooper turned and said: "Still, you have to try to go on, don't you?" and felt a nasty numbness.

Broughton tugged on the black bill cap, which was riding over the tops of his ears now. After a moment, he said, "Well, if you do, you don't have to make a big deal out of it."

While Cooper wondered whether Broughton was advising him or accusing him, his thoughts clouded over and sank, the sinking thoughts passing by the rising words: "Are we close to the thing now, the pine grove?"

"Hop and a jump. Me and Jack wore a path through these woods. You just take the boat down the knob and shove right off. Me and Jack fished out here a thousand times."

Cooper had not fished in thirty-two years. He squirmed in the truck seat, thinking of shoving off. Shove off, he thought, while "We ain't got none" had been Broughton's answer to "Where are the life jackets?" The commotion in the truckbed kept alive the image of the boat, with Broughton and himself and their fishing poles, all sinking instantly and directly to the bottom of the lake. At the same time, he was affirming speechlessly that Broughton's truck would not break down or catch fire, that you cannot judge a truck by its overwhelming gas fumes. However Cooper knew that without the darkness he could have looked through the rusted-out floorboard and watched the yellow clay earth passing, disappearing swiftly beneath his feet. But he would keep his apprehensions to himself-mainly because Broughton, of all people, had finally offered him an opportunity to get out of the house, and he was grateful. Broughton had been a pallbearer at Gladys's funeral; and Cooper hadn't even thought of fishing and never would have gone alone. Besides, he had not actually seen Broughton's boat-just the box-like thing in the truckbed, wound in a gray tarpaulin, making wood-knocking sounds. "It floats," Broughton had said as, from Cooper's house, the two gray-haired men had set out at 3:45 a.m. to fish.

"Not much of a road," Cooper said.

Broughton tugged at the cap. "I've seen it worse."

Until a couple of years ago Broughton had taken these dark morning fishing trips with Jack Reedy, who had lived in the same hollow with Cooper and Broughton. Jack was found dead at home one night during a memorable rainstorm and was buried beside his wife, whose grave had been barely three years old.

"I've missed being out here," Broughton said, "missed it bad." He put his face so close to the windshield the bill of the cap touched the glass, and he turned his gaze from one side of the road to the other, sighing as if thrown into wistfulness by the two cordons of hogweeds growing eight feet tall and chaotically thick and closing in from both sides of the road. If Broughton would just tilt his gaze upward, Cooper thought, he might notice the rain clouds moving in. Maybe at the end of the road he would look up.

"Does the road end at this pine grove?" said Cooper.

"Oh, no. It loops round the whole lake. They bulldozed this back in nineteen and sixty-five or something." As he spoke he rotated his face, describing the circuitousness of the lake, the bill of the cap scraping little dust circles on the inside of the windshield. "You can drive around it and then go get more gas and come back and loop around again. I've done it."

"I'm not up to any loops."

"Of course you ain't. You don't have to tell me, old buddy."

No--pi is the circumference....Cooper imagined traversing the cyclic miles of bumps and jolts, suffering the notion that Broughton from time to time actually enjoyed such a thing. But then, gazing out his window toward the black sky, he beheld an image of the lake.and Broughton's old white truck, all in an aerial view, as if he were hang-gliding on one of the rain clouds above. There was Cooper's own elbow, bouncing, stuck out the window; and there were the black hillsides, the serrated valley floor, the lake, Broughton's truck buzzing around the golden ring of sandy clay dirt-and freshly-broken kindling clacking in the truckbed. Gliding over the mountain ridge to his left, he could see Engle's Branch, the creek, his house, the Mortons' house, his own red Chevette. These mountains are mazes, meandering walls, he recollected, a line one of his English students had written ten years ago. A hogweed smacked Cooper's elbow and rendered his imaginings thick and useless, but for a sudden woe-stippled wondering of what might be the circumference of this Appalachian lake. Could you use pi? Ah, his old teacher's brain was saturated with literature and notions about grammar and usage and not much else. No room left for geometry, no tolerance for cycles, and no interest in loops.

"Me and Jack Reedy circled it many a morning," said Broughton. "Jack would take migraine headaches and refuse to fish sometimes, so I'd go get him and just drive him around."

Cooper was thinking, no-pi is the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle, and the lake is not a circle, it's more the shape of a warped crab apple, and head-like at one end. At Gladys's funeral Broughton had slapped Cooper's back and shaken his hand so hard it still showed a bruise just over his right thumb. "Now's your chance to get right with the Lord," Broughton had told him. "Gladys is hoping to see you up there, when your time comes." And he'd started the same thing on the telephone yesterday. Cooper had thought, Jeez. Gladys rarely spoke of it. "You know where the Bible is," she would say. He leaned his head against the back of the truck seat. Air gushing in through the window fanned his hair, which needed a trim, which Gladys used to cut; and he wondered what had been the circumference of, say, Tolstoy's head, down about his eyebrows where those big nodulous bumps stuck out.

Clatter went the boat, and Broughton's words caught up with Cooper.

"I'm sure Jack appreciated everything."

"He never said that he did, but he did." The bill of the cap still touched the windshield. "I wish he hadn't passed away, but death is part of living, you know."

They hit a pothole and Cooper's head nodded.

"Just when I thought he had stopped whining, he up and conked out, turned up his toes. He bought the farm. You know." Broughton kept the truck speeding along, thirty-five, forty miles an hour, apparently heedless of how the unending tract of pits and chunks of slickrock were jolting and jarring the truck, prodding Cooper's shoulder muscles like a dozen picadors. "And I ain't been out here since he, since that," Broughton said.

"Since he died?"

Broughton moved his face away from the windshield and pushed the accelerator down farther. He was not going to answer, just drive faster.

"I guess it's no fun fishing by yourself," Cooper said, grasping the armrest.

"No-ho. And half the time I had to twist his arm to get him out here. I had to break him in. He complained for six months. The last time we fished he cried like a damn little baby."

"Why?"

Broughton's head did something barely noticeable, yet intense: a start, a shudder-he kept his foot on the gas, but turned a cold eye on Cooper, and then sharply back to the road. "Well, I guess, goddamnit, because his wife was dead!"

Cooper clung to the armrest and scooted closer to the passenger door. Hadn't Jack's wife been dead nearly three years? he was ready to ask, but Broughton had more to say.

"Let me tell you something, old buddy," and he shifted in his seat and pulled the cap down. "My own wife has been gone five years."

"Oh, I know that," Cooper said. "I didn't mean."

"But wait now," Broughton said, wagging all the fingers of his right hand in Cooper's face. "You never do get over a thing like this. Not your wife. A man doesn't spit on his wife's grave, old buddy. You just don't get past it, around it, through it, or nothing else. So you get that in your head."

Cooper's thinking dwindled to nothing. He had no response. Indeed Broughton's words were all at once amorphous, mingled with Cooper's sudden perception of the paucity of light in front of them. How dimly shone the headlights.and how dark was the morning! After a few minutes he was pondering how just an hour ago he'd climbed out of bed, believing that if he could puff out his chest and go fish for a while-do anything for a while-his yellow house in the hollow might begin to lose some of the pale sickly hue that had tinctured it ever since his light, who had been Gladys, ceased three weeks ago to shine.

"I don't want to fish today," he said.

Broughton stopped the truck.

"You can't go back now.why, you're almost there." He flicked a switch and in the light that suddenly filled the cab his face looked bloodless, stiff with shock, his black eyes sunken and seized as if missing their lids. "Old buddy," he said, "I can almost smell the pine needles now." He moved his face closer.

Cooper turned toward the air floating through his window, warm and billowy; and he sensed that a heavy rain was coming, maybe a storm. "It's going to rain," he said softly, and then wondered why he had not spoken insistently to Broughton. Rain was on the way: he knew that, yet he sat like a block of wood. Was there a part of him that did not want to get over Gladys's dying? What had Broughton just said, really? Ought he to hold to his memories of her with a more intractable awe, or consider the memories to be untouchable.or even to be all that's left? Might he not fare better this way? Wouldn't he be less foolish? He was not trying to suppress his identity of having been married to Gladys, of having been part of a couple. It was nothing like that.and he wanted to say aloud to Broughton that it was nothing like that.but his words seemed to stick somewhere in his stomach, his thoughts drifting out and floating within those billows of night air, in which sank and rose whispered reminders of the many things that were now entirely over for him.

He sat up straight and replaced his elbow in the window frame. "So, honest to goodness, you think it won't rain?"

"It just feels that way," said Broughton, flicking off the inside light, setting the truck to sputtering along, gaining speed, bumping along between the walls of hogweeds. "It always feels like rain when you're close to the lake real early in the morning."

"Is that a fact?"

"Yeah, it's got something to do with the ozone layer."

"Hmm," Cooper said. He knew less about atmospheric stuff than about geometry. Maybe Broughton was right. He turned again toward the window and the air, put his face just outside the window, closed his eyes, and let the night wind refresh his face. The leafy bitter smell of hogweeds gradually became the pulse-quickening scent of pine resin, and amid the trills of crickets and ratcheting grumbles of bullfrogs he heard the water lapping against the shore of the lake below. Not until the truck fizzled to a stop and Broughton said, "This is it, old buddy," did Cooper open his eyes and start taking in what was before him.

The headlights broke the darkness only to the back of the pine grove, a sinuous green wall of black pines standing high around the curvature of the knoll, lining the edge of the road and looking old, tremendous, and crusty-much like aged, hypertrophied hogweeds. "Hahmm, I tell you," Broughton said, "there's nothing like the smell of so much pine, that breeze just carrying it along." He put his head outside the window and inhaled. Cooper was looking for the footpath but saw only trees crowded at the back of the grove. Brush, bracken, and wild, zealous-looking vines.dense, tangled, growing, twisting around and between the trunks, crawling with briars-and Broughton had said: ".carry the boat down through the pine grove?"

Broughton stepped out of the cab, up into the truckbed, tied a mining light to his belt, and unwound the boat.

"I don't see a footpath," said Cooper, getting out of the truck.

"It's right over there." Broughton tapped on the edges and corners of the boat with a clawhammer-peck here, bang there. Peck. Bang. Nails rattled. Broughton stuck out his pointer finger and waved it in arching apathy. "Right over there." The mining light would have lighted the whole area if Broughton had turned it face up.

"Where? Show me a path."

"Leave it to me, old buddy."

"But there are snakes in there that could eat us both."

"No, there ain't." Broughton slid the boat from the truckbed , turned off the headlights and started stumping along the knoll, dragging the tiny boat by the front. "Grab that end and let's go."

Cooper carried the back of the boat, Broughton, his hands behind him, held the front and chugged forward, his head down, tearing like a drunken cow pony through the outgrowth. The battery pack for the light flopped about in the boat. A black cord connected it to the head of the lamp, which hung from Broughton's belt. In the wind the trunks of the trees groaned, and the air swooshed and curled their upper limbs and branches, flipping them. In the swaying light, Broughton and Cooper attacked the underbrush. Sumac trees: broken down. Saw briars: pushed aside. Ragweed: waded and conquered. May-apple: borne back ceaselessly into the past.

And then they were walking on wide unencumbered areas of reddish-brown needles and lofty pines, cedars, spruce-and there was a footpath that led downward over the knoll and toward the lake; and they set out upon it, and Cooper secretly decided that he was Dante, and that Broughton was Virgil.

Broughton had built the boat from pine lumber and painted it white. The sides were much too tall for the width, and would hold only two average-sized people sitting down-one person at each end, their stuff in the middle. He had fastened two screen door handles to each end for carrying. Put a lid on it, Cooper thought, and you'd probably have as good a coffin as the one that, say, Daniel Boone was buried in.

"Is pine good for building rowboats?" asked Cooper.

"Not really."

Cooper's toes curled as Broughton spoke on:

"But you know that big pine tree on the point behind my house?"

"Oh, yes," said Cooper, thinking this pine tree ought to be in the circus. A colossal, frightening sight. Maybe the world's oldest living thing. It made the trees around them now look like bean sticks. "Aren't you afraid it might uproot and fall on your house?" asked Cooper. "What if that thing was to grab lightning some night and just blow all to hell?"

"Woah, ho, now. Nothing of the sort. That's where my wife is buried, up there in the shade of that tree. It's a peaceful place, clean as a pin."

"I'm awfully sorry," said Cooper. "I should have known that, I'm awfully sorry." His toes gathered up the loose ends of his socks, and a roll of thunder reverberated as if down upon that knoll only.

Broughton looked up and then shrugged. "I've got my plot marked off already, side by side with hers. I'm not afraid of what's bound to happen anyhow."

"I'm not afraid either," Cooper said. "Fear doesn't change a thing." His toes released.

"It is the ineluctable will of the Lord."

Cooper's head tilted and his nose wrinkled. Something did not make sense, and then it did. "That's a commanding word, a Latin word," he said. "Ineluctable."

"They carved that on her tombstone. They lost the words I'd made up, and by the time they got it set up there it was too much trouble to do it over again."

Cooper pictured the headstone beneath the tree, the limbs looming out over the edge of the point, shadowing half of Broughton's house. From the base of the pine, where the grave must be, to the bottom of the point was a straight drop of thirty feet: a slate cliff. "If you don't mind my asking, how did they get the tombstone up to such a place?" And he was thinking How did they get the corpse up to such a place?

"Same way we're getting the boat to the lake," he said, dragging a foot through the dead pine needles. "They hauled it around. Carried it. Brought it down from the back."

They walked from beneath the umbrage of the pines and onto the shore, and the rain had already begun. The pine trees climbed the knoll behind them now, fanning backward in the wind, and the lake lay vast in front of them, dark and wind-rippled like a flag of black chintz. Broughton stood facing the water. He kept his hands behind him, still holding to the front of the boat. He would flip his gaze out over the water and then close his eyes as if holding some picture in mind. His chest would swell, his eyes would squint, and he would use his grip on the boat to steady his leaning out toward the water. Then back, then a glance, then the puffed-out chest. He was gearing up for something, Cooper figured; and the idea upset his thinking such that he said the opposite of what he wished: "We'd better set sail if we're going to."

"You know, the only thing I really want to do today is make it just a little farther than where me and Jack Reedy got to the last time." He held to the boat and leaned toward the lake. A squall of wind failed even to ruffle the cap, level with his eyebrows, halfway over his ears.

Cooper said, "Where? How far out?" He found himself craning his neck, looking beyond Broughton, looking through the drizzling rain, trying to see something out there on the lake, and then felt embarrassed when he saw Broughton glancing back at him dreamily.

"You're eager to get her in the water, too-ain't you, old buddy? 'We'd better set sail,' you say! I heard that, and be-damned if I don't believe you're the fishing buddy I've been looking for since Jack died."

"Oh, just this once, I think."

"You'll see, you'll see," said Broughton, fingers wagging.

"But the rain."-and a shimmer of lightning crossed the sky at a distance, forked and sharp as barbs. Thunder came in loud, deafening ruptures of the sky. Cooper hunched his shoulders down.

"Don't let it worry you, old buddy," said Broughton, "We're prepared for a little rain."

"This is going to be more than a little rain."

"We'll come back if it gets bad."

They lowered the front of the boat into the water. Broughton let go a whispery laugh and hissed, "You want to set sail, huh?"

"No, I want to know where we are headed," said Cooper. "What were you talking about?"

"It's out there a good piece, but we'll make it fine. And it's just what you need. You'll be a new man tomorrow."

"Maybe I'll just wait here until daylight," Cooper said and he could feel the dread and misgiving pumping through his veins. It was as if he were still at home, waiting by the door, still hoping Broughton would not show. He took a step back. The weariness he had intended to leave behind felt now like a wash rag tamped far back into his mouth. He could not speak out against the old chalk-faced man, as he felt sorry for him, yet nervous around him. There was something backward and morose here-and Cooper wanted to go home and tell it all to Gladys, but she wasn't there anymore.

Broughton had detached himself from the mining light and was leading, coaxing rhythmically: there we go, can't wait around till daylight, watch the provisions box, step up, I'd better move the battery, there you are, turn this way, watch the side there. Just sit there and let me do the paddling. We've got provisions in the provisions box-and he kicked the wooden box, scooting it mostly underneath his bench. We're set up. He tossed one of the oars over his left shoulder and onto the bank-we won't need but one paddle. Cooper raised a finger to question him, but Broughton said, "I've done this before and you're not fit to be paddling anyhow." He shoved the boat into the water with one foot and, before he even sat down, started dousing the oar in the water.

With his eye on Broughton, his knees drawn to his chest, with splashing fears that the boat was already sinking, with his back to the lake, a splinter in his ass, Harrison P. Cooper was adrift.

Two bone-colored fishing poles and a jelly jar of black dirt and worms rattled and knocked about in the bottom of the boat. Ensconced in the shore-side seat, Broughton rowed harder, was soon rowing intensely, from one side of the boat to the other. His back was to the shore and bent forward, his lips gathered and rumpled, his gaze frozen as if boring directly past Cooper, through the entire night, through everything about it. Cooper looked behind him to see what Broughton might be eyeing, but turned quickly back, dropped his head, and humped up; for behind him he had seen no shore. The yellow lakeside they'd stood on minutes ago was now a blurred crescent of shadows, except for the point of fading radiance that was the mining light.

Black clouds were moving in over the lake, colliding and tumbling upon one another as if vying for the spot directly over the boat. Rain fell gradually harder, striking Cooper's head, neck, back.and directly above the cloud-tops static lightning made lingering orange flares that smeared over the darkening gray like something spilled. Broughton had stretched the black cap down to the bridge of his nose and was rowing as if ordained supernaturally to row, digging hard and deep, as if shoveling away the water that separated him from some lightless, arcane cranny of the night.

A jag of silver lightning dashed across the sky, and thunder came loud and crackling. Cooper's shirt was soaked, clinging to his back like a sluggish hide. The wind had stiffened and was blowing keen sprays of rain through the black of morning, the air smelling strangely like dirt, like a night when Cooper was seventeen, when his mother had lain direly ill and the flood waters of Engle's Branch kept surging, silvery-white and bounding high over the plankwalks and low edges. Now, flashes of lightning shot over a mountain ridge and then struck close to the lake, illuminating the shores and the lake and Cooper's place in it. Broughton was moving them beyond the outer edge of a black cove. Thunder blasted. Water was steeping his face, his tongue was darting about his lips like a slick gray lizard; and he was rowing, digging, rowing like a refugee.

Broughton grabbed Cooper's cap bill....Cooper was a sodden clump of silence, thwarted by the assumption that anything he might say to Broughton would get no response. Below the bill of the cap, his face looked white and rubberish, his eyes small, pitch black, and set deep in their sockets. He had been rowing about ten minutes when Cooper took a chance and spoke up: "This is far enough. We can fish here." Broughton said nothing. He did not slow down or break the rhythm of his rowing. "The storm!" Cooper said. "This is not going to blow over! Let's get back-at least to the bank!" His words came loud but seemed to sail over the rain-peppered lake and just dribble down into the fading pine grove. Broughton rowed on. Dark clouds kept gliding into the bubbling, churning mass of blackness over the lake.

Cooper took a fishing pole and tapped the end lightly at Broughton's left knee. "Hey, old man," said Cooper. With a stiffer slap: "Hey!"

"Quit doing that, old buddy, heaven sakes. We ain't even off the shore yet."

"Not off the shore! You can't even see the shore now!"

"Just out to where me and Jack." Thunder boomed, squelching Broughton's words, not fazing his rowing.

Suddenly Cooper was on his knees in the bottom of the boat, reaching for the oar as it moved from one side of the boat to the other in Broughton's big hands. "Give me that. Turn loose, what's the matter with." Then he felt the shove, the shock just over his right eye. As he knelt in front of Broughton, his torso fell back nearly to the bottom of the boat.

Standing, coming to Cooper, Broughton said, "They, God! Great balls of cat shit and fire bugs, I've done hit you with my paddle!" He laid the oar in the bottom of the boat and bowed over Cooper.

The pain was not terrible. Cooper knew he'd get a pump knot at most. "I'm alright," he said. "Just get us out of this rain. What are we, nuts?"

"We're prepared, old buddy, that's what we are." Broughton turned to the provisions box and dug. "Here it is," he said, turning, a black cap in his hands. "Jack's old cap." He slapped it repeatedly against one leg as if to make sure it had not decomposed. "Put that on," he said, tossing it to Cooper, "else you'll catch pneumonia, diphtheria, Lord knows what. Legionnaire's disease or something."

The rain was battering Cooper's eyelids, hitting him in stinging sprays that came slantwise and all directions the wind took at its whim. He remained kneeling in the boat and tried the cap. It was far too small. He tossed it back. "I can't wear that. It's like a little kid's cap."

All at once, Cooper's knees and Broughton's were touching. Broughton was in the bottom of the boat and cranking the cap down over Cooper's head, pulling the hair at his temples, saying, "It has to fit good, else the wind will be blowing it away."

"You're hitting that pump knot."

"Sorry, old buddy. But there it is anyway. Fits like tailor-made."

"It's too small."

Broughton grabbed Cooper's cap bill like a handle and turned his head up and down, side to side. "Yeah, I'd say your noggin's about the same as Jack Reedy's was."

I am wearing a dead man's cap.

Cooper made a quick swipe toward the cap, but Broughton seized his forearm like a frog catching a bug; and the pain of Broughton's grip went straight to Cooper's bones. He tried to stand, tried to turn sideways, but the grip was rigorous and he could not move. "Let go of me, for God's sake!" He kicked at Broughton's shins.

"All right," Broughton said, flinging Cooper's arm down toward his lap. "But we ain't going to back out of fishing just because of the least little thing, now."

"The least little thing! We're in a typhoon and you're beating me with an oar!"

"Shoot," Broughton said. "You won't get wet, now, old buddy." He was unfolding a piece of plastic, a sheet of thick clear plastic he must have taken from the provisions box. "Here we go." He shook out the plastic like a bed sheet. It flapped in the wind and then settled lightly down over Cooper.and Broughton. "I told you we was prepared." It was the stench of his breath, the stagnant smell of teeth that might not have been brushed in days that made Cooper push him slightly away. Then came a lingering flare of lightning, and in it Cooper could see Broughton's black cap no more than a foot from his own. Broughton began laughing, a big open-mouthed laugh that sounded both wayward and victorious. The laugh kept going. All that remained of his teeth were brown little nubs that stuck up and hung down from his gums like dead apple stems. Cooper felt his muscles growing warm with blood. Broughton grabbed Cooper by the shirtsleeve and yanked him close. "See, old buddy, I told you we was just alike!"

When the laughter began again, Cooper stood up, his arms thrashing and flailing at the sheet of plastic. "Settle down," Broughton said, "stick with me." and he rasped and coughed as if trying to gain control of his merriment. Cooper moved forward but felt Broughton's grip on the waistband of his pants and said, "Let me go!" He turned and hacked at Broughton's hands and forearms. He pulled at the plastic until his head was out from under the rattling sheet. The instant Cooper felt rain on his face, he put a hand on Broughton's chest, pushing him back. Cooper stepped up and over one side of the boat, letting himself drop away from the plastic, away from Broughton.

He toppled over and splashed down into the deep warmth of the lake.

Once underwater, it seemed to take forever to surface. He dropped, tumbled, rolled, flipped topsy-turvy. When finally his head popped out, he saw nothing: no boat, no Broughton. Lightning flashed and thunder crackled like a hundred hammers on a tin roof. The lake was darkened nearly to pitch by storm clouds. Then, above the clamor of rain on the lake, there was "Old bu-u-u-ddy!" coming faintly. As he bobbed and rotated in the water, he saw the outline of the boat, which had been behind him. He had jumped from the right side, yet somehow had surfaced on the left. For a moment he felt as if the whole world had turned completely around.

Broughton was just now escaping the plastic sheet. Cooper said, "Over here!" But Broughton knelt in the boat and locked his gaze toward that opposite side, where there was only darkness. The wind-blown water was taking Broughton and his box-like boat farther away. Cooper yelled again. Directly, Broughton stood from kneeling and took his seat in the boat. Cooper shouted once more, but the pouring rain made his voice inaudible to Broughton. Dark blurry images of the gray old man and his boat became even more gray and indescribable as Broughton rowed steadily off in the wrong direction, away from any shore, finally disappearing in the mist of the rain coming down.

Cooper floated on his back, his face and kneecaps showing above the water. He stripped the cap from his head and tossed it to the side, where it floated like a fat dead crow. The shore was not a hundred feet away. He would get there slowly. He would get back home somehow. Gladys would not be there-but today he would visit the cemetery again , which was not on a high cliff and beneath a giant pine, but on level ground by a couple of dogwood saplings. He would drive the six miles over to Farler and muss the Cooperish hair of Goldie, who was nearly eight now. He would do such things often and he would come back around to everything that he had, to his teaching, his family, to a county history he'd barely begun to write-though all of this would take some time, unhurried.

He eyed a black cloud overhead and thought how, if he could really hang-glide a cloud, borne on the wings of this sweeping wind, and if he could sail over Engle's Branch now, his yellow house in the hollow would shine out like the very breaking of day. John Milton had written about a fair goddess who "urged the horses of dawn to a swifter gallop." Attaching his thoughts to this image, Cooper turned to his side and started swimming toward the shore, the water splashing, his arms loping, the rain pouring-and his impression of that moment was one of fecundity, even of birthing. It was like something new coming into the world.

  

Loren Wynn Whitaker is from Kentucky, from the heart of the mountains: born, raised, and shoved into the creek several times.  He has published numerous stories in paper and ink magazines.

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