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Excerpt from Gideon’s River

October 22, 2010

Chapter One: Spring Flood

Rosalie and Fred stood on the bridge looking up river, enchanted by the pattern of swells and troughs as the mass of water surged heavily westward in a mad plunge toward Binghamton.  There, having gathered other waters, the wide Susquehanna would bend south through Pennsylvania and empty at last into the Chesapeake Bay.  It was a river neither joyful nor sad, Rosalie thought, and, unlike the sentient beings standing above it, enviably without remorse.

“Let’s not take it home,” Fred said.  “Wouldn’t fit in the bathtub.”

Rosalie leaned closer, comfortable in her carpenter husband’s humor, which was as reliable as the walls of the houses he built.  “Doesn’t fit in our minds either.  But it’s nice to stand here.  It’s tranquil on the bridge, as if time has stopped and we will stand always like this, safe above the flood.  We could bring the kids here with perfect safety.”

“Bridges are one of man’s better ideas,” Fred said, patting the concrete balustrade.

She turned half toward him.  “I’m trying to imagine swimming to shore.  I’d never make it.  That water has its own agenda.”

Fred wrapped her close, his chin on her head.  “Even a motor boat would be hard put to do anything but go downriver.”

“Good first rehearsal tonight.  I like you as Bluebeard.”

“I’ve always wanted to play a villain.  Being good gets old.”

“Rascal.”  She yawned and stared dreamily upriver.

“I like you as Mrs. Bluebeard.  I get to take an ax to you!”

“Oh, you!”

Upriver a large and patchy shape broke free from a half-submerged log and moved quickly along in the current.

“What is that?”  Rosalie drew away to peer over the moonlit water.

Fred followed.  “Looks like a cow.”

“Oh, no.  You don’t suppose it’s one of Jim’s.”

“Could be.  His pasture runs right down to the river.”  As kids, Fred and Jim had helped Jim’s father with the milking.

In no time the cow floated under, its bulky side almost touching the bridge.  It sped away to disappear around a bend.  They looked back the way it had come.  Jim was walking briskly along River Road in his mucking boots, huffing and puffing.  Soon he reached the bridge.  “I’m not up to outrunning a river in spring!  Happen to see my prize milker in the drink?”

“Sorry, yes.  She wasn’t struggling.”

“Drowned.”  He looked grim.

“See where that log is?  Seemed like she was caught there and just now broke loose.”

Jim studied the spot where Fred pointed.  He nodded.  “I thought she was up pasture with the others, but she didn’t come in for milking.  A cow likes to be milked.  I knew she was in trouble.  But I had to milk the rest.  Then I called her again.  I looked all along the river.” A cloud sailed over the moon.  Rosalie shivered.  Jim whooshed out a breath.  “That cow would traipse onto the island, what’s left of the bottom pasture.  Liked the new spring grass.  Had to drive her back up yesterday.”  He studied the river.  “Can’t move my fences around every flood that comes!”  He turned and leaned his elbows on the railing, gazing glumly at the hurrying water.

Fred said, “Still rising even now the rain stopped.  That’s what sprung her off the log.”

“Snow melt.”  Jim motioned at the dark hills, keeping his gaze downriver. “Few thousand of my dollars just floated away.  Damn fickle river.  Waters your herd all year and then, just like God, takes your unblemished one.”

 

Into a dusk made darker by pouring rain, a shadowy figure slipped between the house and lilac bushes, which were as yet a collection of wet sticks reaching into a wetter sky.  Above one bent arm, a squarish object bulged through his jacket.  The figure peered ahead and plunged into the downward slam of the rain.

A second figure followed, hunched against the downpour.

“Wait, Gid!”

The first boy ran on.  Head bowed into the wind and rain, he sprinted down the sidewalk past the church at the end of Apple Street.  He rounded the corner onto Main Street and made for the bridge, the second boy now many paces behind.  Suddenly the first boy heaved something into the river.  The other, catching up, smacked a wet hand against his streaming forehead.  His words came between labored breaths.  “What’d you do that for, Gid?”  Gasping, he leaned both hands on his knees, his question swallowed in the pound of wind and rain.

Gideon’s eyes squeezed shut.  His mouth contorted in a phantom howl silenced by the storm.

“Come on,” Cody said, straightening now and putting an arm over Gideon’s shoulder.  “You gotta get back to the kids, man!”

“I am!”  Gideon choked back tears, straightened his shoulders, and ran back the way he had come.  This time Cody kept up.

Inside, Gideon put his soaked jacket on a peg in the hall and trooped wetly upstairs, Cody close behind.  Joshua and Anthony, absorbed in building a Lego motorcycle garage, paid no more heed to Gideon than did Hannah, on the phone with her friend and soccer buddy Chelsea.  Cody looked into the bathroom, grabbed a towel from the rack, and began wiping the floor and stairs.

“You better change before your parents get home from rehearsal.”

“I know!  Just go before they find you here.”

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