“You’re gonna fall right in the dern drink. That’ll make two bodies in here.”
“Not likely. On either count.” He studied the crags in the heavy bark, found holds for fingers and toes, and started up. He missed a grip and dropped to the ground once, then tried again and dropped again. “Huck,” he said, “you’re bigger’n this runt. Why don’t you give a hoist.”
“Well, you’re bigger than the both of us,” said Raleigh. “Stouter, at least. Why don’t you hoist me?”
“Because it’s my idea. Plus I don’t trust your judgment.”
It was true Huck was big for his age, or tall anyway. Fourteen and he already stood above most men, certainly an inch or more over Shirley. Gangly as a sandhill crane, too—the only pants that fit for length were invariably agape at the waist, cinched into place with a belt that had additional holes in the tongue.
He could see this sparring going round and round, the shadows stretching longer, the day pinched shorter. He stepped over and wove the fingers of his hands into a basket. “You can both climb a tree, for all I care. Let’s just get somebody into the air.”
“You’d be the man to know, Slim,” said Shirley, and he put his foot in the web of Huck’s fingers and clambered up at the hoist, and Huck pivoted his shoulders and shifted his hands under Shirley’s heft and started to push, and Shirley no sooner got one grip on the crook of the tree than he let out a yowl like he’d been snakebit.
Or bee-stung. A handful of honeybees boiled out of the fork, and Shirley launched flailing and hit the ground scrambling. Huck both glimpsed and felt something thud against the bone near his eye while his breath caught for a jolt that never came, and he found himself pounding gravel right along with the others.
They stopped and caught their breath at the mouth of the wash.
“Left my rod,” Shirley croaked. “Jeez, look at my hand. Like a dern catcher’s mitt. Bastards got me in the neck, too.”
Shirley pulled his hand away and studied it as though the palm might reflect a duplicate of the wound at his nape, what showed to Huck as a rising red boil with an angry white center, the pinprick of the stinger like a bull’s-eye. “This ain’t good, boys. Last time I got stung I about choked to death. Swelled like that dern truck tube down there. Doc said I dodged a bullet.”
Raleigh had relaxed his hold with the fish and now the pale, skewered mess of them bled down the leg of his pants. “So what do we do?”
Shirley looked at him. “Cross our fingers and hope flyboy here can fire that Liz again. And get to it while I can still suck some dern air.”
They made their way up the draw. By the time they crossed the cheatgrass the red poison at his nape had worked around to his throat and up into his jowls, a mix of bruise and flush. His lips had ballooned, although his eyes appeared to shrink into slits. He looked like a pumpkin impaled on a barber pole.
Huck felt the anxious smack of his heart, felt a bead of sweat down his ribs. “Almost there,” he told Shirley. He pointed at the T, slouched in the lean of the sun. “I’ll run ahead, get her going. You want to keep walking?”
Shirley shook his head. He’d begun to wheeze like an engine sucking a vacuum. “Thung thwullen,” he said. He pawed at his eyes with his good hand. “Can’t thee thit.”
Raleigh’s peepers, on the other hand, were wide as moons, his mouth taut as a strop. Huck said, “You want to stay with him? Wait, no—come ahead. You’re gonna crank.”
They started to run, and the sprint went weirdly as if in a dream, seemed to occur in two cosmic places at once. On the one hand, he and Raleigh both ran and ran for what felt like agonizing eternity without ever closing the gap, the Ford always just ahead, just ahead, no closer and no closer and no farther away, either, with every long, desperate stride.
On the other, they seemed to appear at the car in an impossible jolting instant, as though they’d never made the physical dash at all but somehow catapulted not merely over the cheatgrass but also across the very plane of time itself.
Some trick of the mind, some distorted phase of panic. The rush of fear in the blood.
The fish hit the bed with a damp thud, and Raleigh went running for the front. Huck jolted back to himself, scrambled behind the wheel.
Raleigh looked at him across the hood. “Is he gonna die?”
“No.” He backed off the spark advance. “Crank it. Keep your thumb clear and get out of the dern way.” Raleigh gave him a look, and Huck said, “Wait, hold up. Hold up.”
Huck pulled the choke halfway out, experimentally advanced the spark. He and Raleigh watched each other through the cracked glass. The lever hit the top of its arc, and Huck heard the spark pop in the cylinder, saw Raleigh jump as the gas fired and the engine belched and shuddered awake.
“Hot start,” he yelled. “Didn’t think it would work.”
They bounced across the cheat, and Raleigh jumped free before Huck fully managed a stop, helped Shirley fumble into the bed, and then swung back in himself, and Huck stomped her right down into gear again.
Huck ground in low through the trace of his own wheels in the grass and swayed back up onto the roadbed, steered again around the frost buckle and over the corduroy at the base of the grade, and started up. After fifteen feet he thought better of it, let gravity and the brake lever bring them to a stop.
“What are you doing?”
Huck eased back down to level ground. “No way I’m coming down that hill bass-ackwards if the motor cuts on us.” He backed around and twisted to see over his shoulder. He glanced at Shirley, prostrate and gurgling in the back, and started up the hill in reverse.
“I thought you put gas in this heap.”
“I did. But she ain’t near full, and I don’t trust the carb yet anyway.”
Raleigh snorted. “That’s the least of it. Hate to stake my ol’ bee-stung hide on a dern jalopy, tell you that much.”
Huck gave it more throttle than he needed to and craned his head around to see. The T went up the grade in a steady shot, whining the whole way like the engine might blow a seal. They leveled on the flat up above and he swung around to face forward again and started for town. And a moment along when he stomped her into high, the Ford lunged like a hot-blooded horse and he felt a surge not of speed but of hope. Out of the corner of his eye he caught a flash in the air and he looked and beheld again the mergansers, circling and winging back toward the river, gliding like killer angels—
He caught himself from that same eerie distance, that same angle of refraction. Caught himself thinking, Please, God, please let there be gas. Please, God, please keep Shirley alive. Please, God, in Jesus’s name . . .
He pried his left hand loose from the wheel. He flexed and unflexed his rigid fingers, his frozen grip. Big Coulee was only two miles off, the tops of the elms showing above the rim at the west edge of town.
“How’s he looking back there?” He had to shout above the clatter of the motor, СКАЧАТЬ