By Mark Herder
While retrieving the package in his brother’s garage, Tom Doughtery came across a calendar from 1992 – “Freebirds”– and gazed upon Cheri, who would have been eighteen at the time, topless, straddling a 1935 Indian Chief motorcycle, and was struck with the full frontal glory of her breasts, her truly righteous melons, and that is where it started. Perhaps.
Cheri was thirty-one now. Not long after she had leaned over the handlebars of that motorcycle (September, titled “Indian Summer”) and stared at you with those big brown eyes, she married Tom’s brother, Dacon.
Then again, it could have started with their father, Ed Doughtery, an attorney in St. Louis, one of the best, one of the most respected (as far as lawyers went), a nice guy caught skimming a client’s estate. Tom always suspected it was not his father’s first run‑in which might have been why his father’s influential friends were influenced to let him hang at last. Big Ed got off with a stiff fine and probation. Disbarred, too. Small potatoes, really. Two months later, he skipped town with another woman. Went to Florida. At the time, Tom was eleven, Dacon fourteen.
Tom was left to wonder if such criminous tendencies might be inherited, a sociological theory dismissed by various Pooh-Bahs who believed life started off fair and square, tabula rats-ass and all that, but which everyone else knew – at least every Doughtery knew – wasn’t the case, and if you were such a god-damn fool to believe that crap, then you got what you deserved. Certainly, there was a gene for intelligence: all the Doughterys went to college, none of them had given a shit, yet all had succeeded, high honors, etc.
Maybe it had even started on Cheri’s side, with the mother or grandmother who bequeathed her those tits and that ass. The more Tom thought about it, the more the start of his present adventure became impossible to pinpoint: all history led to this moment. At least that was the conclusion he reached as he smoked a cigarette in his brother Dacon’s speedboat just up the Mississippi from the Mississippi Queen, waiting, waiting, waiting, in the middle of the night.
Then again it might have started two years ago when Dacon Doughtery was caught with a package of marijuana by a highway patrolman. A god-damn really stupid mistake, Dacon admitted. It was a piss-ant offence, considering what Dacon could have gone down for, considering what kind of real crimes were out there, but for the time being it was the best the authorities could do. They had been trying to nail Dacon for ten years. For the time-being, a possession rap would have to do.
Before his hearing, Dacon took Tom for a ride in his speedboat, a twenty-foot Mercury Hydrocruiser. They beached it on an Illinois sandbar and lit up a joint. This was August, the river low, and the sun beat down without mercy.
Being out on the river reminded Tom of when Dacon would take him fishing as a kid. They’d hit the sloughs, brimming with fish after the floodwaters had receded, and in a few hours, they’d fill up one of those collapsible mesh buckets. Mom would fry ‘em all up, invite the neighbors over, too. But once – maybe because of the heat, lack of oxygen in the water – when Tom pulled up the bucket, all the fish had died. Tom was pissed off because they wouldn’t be having fish for supper, but Dacon, hell, Dacon had tears in his eyes as he pitched the fish bodies against a tree trunk, saying he didn’t like to make things suffer like that, to suffocate slowly.
“I had more than 35 grams,” said Dacon. “That bumps it up to a class ‘C’ felony.”
“What does Bellora say?” asked Tom, referring to Dacon’s baggy-pants lawyer. Tom noticed Dacon took two hits before he passed back the joint.
“A class C is no more than seven years, said Dacon. “While I’m gone, I want you to take care of Mom.”
Dacon, in his way, had watched over Mom ever since their father left them. In less than a year, she had gone from wife of an influential attorney to check-out clerk at Kroger’s.
“Who says you’re going anywhere?”
“I’m going away,” said Dacon. “They want my hide. So, remember – Mom. Show up for Mass at least once a month.”
“Once a month?”
“And another thing, look in on Cheri.”
“Oh, I’ll look in on Cheri, all right.”
He didn’t see it coming. Tom’s shoulder suddenly lost feeling, then caught fire. Dacon could bench four-hundred pounds. He had jailhouse muscle and hadn’t even been to jail yet. Dacon could take a joke but apparently not about Cheri.
“Bellora says I’ll probably get five years,” said Dacon. “Be out in three.”
Tom nodded, rubbing his shoulder. He wouldn’t be able to raise his arm for a week. “What the hell, I’ll take ‘em all to Mass. Kill two birds with one stone.”
“And another thing, I need you to keep up my business while I’m on sabbatical.”
They sat out on that sandbar, enjoying the subtle high until the sun was an orange ball on the rim of the world, then skedaddled home before it got too dark: you might smash the prow into a refrigerator or some other piece of crap floating down from Minnesota. Once ashore, Dacon poured gas from the reserve tank over the bottom of the boat. Tom was too blazed to react. Dacon shoved off the boat, and once the current caught hold, threw in a pack of matches. A fireball erupted, just like in the movies, only there was a lot more black smoke. The boat didn’t sink, it just burned, dispelling particularly noxious smoke from all the melting plastic and fiberglass, and it floated on down the Mississippi into the sunset like an Indian burial canoe.
For the first few months after Dacon went away, the deliveries averaged about twice a week. Cheri would telephone Tom and tell him he needed to come over to her and Dacon’s farmhouse to fix the sink, clean out the gutters, do this, do that. That was the code; Dacon was paranoid like that. Tom would then drive over, go in the garage, and find a box wrapped in plain brown paper. Sometimes a Post-It with the delivery address was attached, sometimes Cheri would just tell him where to drop it – local bars, restaurants, a few clubhouses. Tom didn’t question anything, just did what he was told.
On some of these visits, Cheri would invite him for a drink on the patio behind the farmhouse, and they’d watch the fireflies come out of the woods, and sometimes this big ol’ groundhog would meander by. Down the hill, the Amtrak train would sound its horn as it passed Vicks Landing. Cheri was back at the Hairport, working as a stylist. Tom was doing re-hab work with his sponsor’s construction company, tearing out the guts of old houses in St. Louis and rebuilding them.
The days were long and hot, and Tom wasn’t in much shape, marketing (his former profession) not being particularly good training for sweating your ass off, and the drugs surely hadn’t helped matters, either. Even though Dacon was giving him fifty bucks per delivery (through Cheri), Tom was losing his enthusiasm for running all over town after a day spent breathing plaster dust and hauling dry wall.
“What’s the matter, you don’t need an easy fifty bucks?” Cheri asked. “You making too much money yanking out toilets?” They were both sipping Jack Daniels and smoking cigarettes. The groundhog waddled past in plain sight, getting almost tame.
“I had almost two years of law school,” said Tom, “I think I can manage better than swinging a sledge hammer.”
“What kind of job do you want? Your resume ends rather abruptly.”
“I don’t know. I just need to knock on few hundred doors.”
“You better let me give you a haircut then.”
Tom put up some feeble resistance, but he liked the idea of Cheri cutting his hair. She led him to the kitchen, pushed him down on a chair, and made him lean his head over the sink. As she worked the shampoo into his scalp, Tom watched through half-closed eyes her beautiful bosoms shift and glide beneath her shirt, the pink bra working overtime to contain them, and he worried the zipper of his jeans would rip down the center.
“I’m going to get one of those,” he said out of the blue.
“An Indian motorcycle.”
It seemed her fingertips dug in a little more as she cradled his head to rinse out the shampoo, and as she leaned over more, he swooned at how the tobacco-colored tan of her neck faded into the milky-white purity of her breasts. God damn howdy.
“Get a Harley,” she said at last. “We could go riding.”
“We don’t need no motorcycles to go riding.”
She shrieked and pulled his hair, but it was okay, because she was laughing when he jumped up from the chair, suds flying, and chased her around the table before hauling her sweet ass into bed.
Cheri told Tom she had met Dacon at Rusty Springs Tavern while waiting for her boyfriend at the time, an old dude – meaning early thirties. Cheri was in her prime then, even she would admit that, looking like a Missouri Tiger cheerleader with gonzo tits, and she would wear – and still wore – low-cut blouses so everyone could appreciate them. Tom certainly did. And, Tom supposed, so did Dacon.
Tom knew of Cheri’s old boyfriend, Steve Something or Another. He was associated with the Nighthawk motorcycle gang in Jefferson County, just outside St. Louis. That hadn’t stopped Dacon from calling up Cheri and seeing her on the sly. She insisted she had never let Dacon get in her pants during these clandestine encounters. Tom, knowing Dacon, didn’t know what to believe.
Then one day, Cheri told Dacon she couldn’t see him anymore. She loved Steve Something, and she was going to marry him and become Cheri Something or Another, etc. Cheri thought she’d never see Dacon again. Just by chance, however, about a week later, Dacon showed up at another bar (which, not by chance, was a favorite Nighthawk watering hole) and ran into Cheri. It looked as if Something had run into her face. Her left eye was swollen and blackened. When she saw Dacon, she looked away, scared. He sat down next to her at the bar. She warned him that her boyfriend was coming.
The bartender, a friend of this Steve, smiled a “you better git” smile, and Dacon indeed left, walked right out of there as if he were scared shitless. Before that night ended, Dacon had found through his various associates where Steve Something lived, a trailer in the middle of Nowhere, kicked the door off its aluminum hinges, and beat the living crap out of him, the big, tough Nighthawk motherfucker.
Tom could never figure out why no one came after Dacon until Cheri explained that her boyfriend was one of the meth pioneers of Jeff County and had built up a sizeable client base. Some people downtown wanted in on the meth trade and were glad to see Steve knocked out of the action. They’d help anybody keep it that way, too.
Cheri and Dacon were married by the priest at Mom’s parish, though Cheri was hardly a Catholic. The reception was a big affair, lots of Dacon’s friends attended, held at a buddy’s clubhouse beside the Meramec River, with slabs of barbequed pork steaks and kegs of beer. The reception went on into the wee hours when the remaining guests got naked and slid down a muddy bank into the river.
On Cheri’s side, the only people who attended were a cousin (the only female who got naked and went mud-sliding) and the aunt who had raised Cheri. Cheri’s mother – who had combined Sonny with Cher to come up with a name for her only daughter – had been killed by a drunk driver when Cheri was six; her father skipped out when she was ten. They had a lot in common, Cheri, Tom, and Dacon.
Tom met Sarah at St. Louis University, but they didn’t start dating until after they graduated. Her family lived in Ladue, a large brick manor, circle drive, with one of those cast-iron jockeys painted white. They married a year later, just before Tom started law school. They lived in a walk-up in the Soulard area and pretended to be a poor married couple working hard for the future, starting small, but Sarah’s father, a bigwig at Budweiser, still gave her a two‑thousand-dollar monthly allowance.
All in all, it was probably the best year of Tom’s life. Law school was no breeze, but he and Sarah had a great time on weekends – Sarah loved to party – and in the end, Tom managed to pull high enough grades to continue his second year. That was when Tom was introduced to OxyContin by another law student, and that was all she wrote. He faked a back injury and got a whole prescription. He dropped out before his second‑year exams, which he would have flunked away. He told Sarah that he couldn’t handle the stress.
Sarah’s father was one of those guys who are always ready to help when called upon, and he swiftly pulled a few strings to start Tom at Budweiser as a junior account executive. Not long after this, Sarah was ready for the next step on the agenda, a starter home. An empty banking account led her to check their credit cards, and that’s where she discovered Mr. and Mrs. Doughtery were five-thousand past their ten-thousand limit. Then came the prescriptions from a dozen doctors.
Tom was surprised how little he ever thought about his marriage. After all, it had lasted over three years. That whole time he had never cheated on Sarah other than one blowjob at Riverside Speedway where Budweiser was sponsoring a car, and who would even call that cheating.
What he thought about was what his life would have been like if only. By now, he would have made marketing director. Sarah had wanted children – two boys preferably – so they probably would have had those, and they’d have that starter house for sure, probably next door to her parents in Ladue. They’d have a white-faced jockey, too.
Instead what he had was Cheri, only Cheri, but God knew she was enough. Her waist had gotten a little thicker since her calendar days, but her tits were just as big (if not bigger) though there was the usual sagging, which on Cheri made her look even sexier. She shaved her pussy, and Tom had to wonder for whom.
“No more hair between your teeth,” she said.
“Nice,” mumbled Tom.
Going down on her, fucking her, sucking on those big titties while he watched her come one-two-three, that was what he had and that was enough. For now.
Tom spent that Saturday night with Cheri. Come early Sunday morning, Mom telephoned and said she had choir at 8:00 a.m. mass; she needed Tom to take her. Tom didn’t ask why she needed to sing or why she needed him to drive, nor did he question how she knew to reach him at the farmhouse instead of his apartment. He tarried just long enough to give Cheri a quick fuck – she was half-asleep but didn’t seem to mind – and left to take Mom to mass.
“He came in about a half-hour after you left,” Cheri later told him. “I heard somebody step into the bedroom – I didn’t have any clothes on – and I came about this close to calling out your name. Wow. I certainly wasn’t expecting Dacon.”
“Shit,” said Tom. Three to five years. Right. His heart quickened just imagining how close he had been to meeting Dacon in bed with his wife. “So, what happened then?”
“Well, I was just real surprised to see him. I mean, nine months isn’t three years.”
“Did you fuck him?”
Tom could see Cheri briefly contemplate lying to him, but if anyone knew the Doughtery boys, she was the one, and after nine months in jail no Doughtery was going to talk about the weather to a woman like Cheri. “He’s my husband, you know.”
What Tom wanted to ask her was, what was it like to fuck him just after you fucked me. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think that Cheri might have enjoyed screwing two brothers less than an hour apart. She would, though; she would like that.
Almost three years to the day he had left his family for a new life in Florida, Edward Doughtery returned to die. His girlfriend drove him back to St. Louis, checked him into the Little Sisters of Mercy hospice, and disappeared. Maybe you couldn’t blame the girlfriend because she was only thirty when she left her husband for Ed. At that time, Ed was well into his forties, though he had kept himself fit and tanned, and was as smart, savvy, and probably as good a cocksman as any Doughtery. Now here he was shitting himself, had dropped from 235 pounds to 110 in a few weeks, and his face was so contorted with pain, he didn’t look like himself. That was what pancreatic cancer could do to you.
Mom visited him daily, which drove Dacon insane. He said he be damned if he’d ever visit that son-of-a-bitch, even after Mom told him how much his father was suffering. The cancer was literally eating away his stomach and liver. The doctors gave him six months. Dacon said he hoped his father would live six years – and suffer every minute. Tom said he would visit his dad after he got used to the idea, but before that could happen, Ed Doughtery died, cheating both boys.
Dacon invited Tom over for a drink. It was Cheri’s usual Wednesday late‑shift at the Hairport, so she wouldn’t be home. Tom suggested they meet at a bar instead, but Dacon said he wanted to talk in private. Tom thought about driving over to Mom’s and sneaking out his father’s old .45, but then he realized that if Dacon were going to shoot him, he’d never get the drop on him anyway.
Before going into the farmhouse, Tom kicked back a shot of Jack from the bottle he kept beneath the seat of his pickup. Inside, Dacon poured Tom another glass of Jack, and they went back to the patio. There weren’t many fireflies, too damn hot.
Dacon explained that the jails were so overrun by meth users, they kicked him out to make more room. Still, Tom knew they didn’t release prisoners on Sundays, not even on Saturdays. They released you during the week, during regular working hours. So Dacon had probably been released on Friday. So why did he show up unannounced on Sunday morning? Where had he been for two days? What had he been up to?
“Tired of your shitty job yet?” asked Dacon.
“Those deliveries –”
“I’m not talking about the fuckin’ deliveries.”
Suddenly there was a pistol in Dacon’s hand, a .45 automatic. Tom suddenly wished he had his father’s pistol, then realized that this was his father’s pistol, a GI Colt .45 from the Korean War.
The gun went off, deafening, and Tom howled, pressing himself back against the wrought‑iron chair. “Fuck! Fuck!”
Dacon smiled and pointed to the backyard with the pistol. The groundhog lay belly up, right on top of his groundhog mound, all four legs twitching. “I want to plant tomatoes back there,” he said. Then he said, “I got you a job. Mississippi Queen.”
“Gambling? I don’t know anything –”
“Shut up, would you? One of my associates works there. He said that a guy’s been using the Queen for a distribution center.”
“Your ol’ friend.”
“I’m off that shit,” said Tom quickly.
“I wouldn’t expect you to use $80,000 of that shit. We’re going to take it away from the bad guys and distribute it ourselves. A thousand caps, eighty dollars per.”
“I can’t do it.”
“I don’t want you to do it. All I want you to do is drive my boat.”
“My new Hydrocruiser. So, my associate wants ten grand; he’s only going to get five. I’ll pay him up front. That leaves $75,000. After we distribute them, I get forty, you get thirty-five, which is more than fair.”
“We’ll get ten-to-fifteen, is more like it.”
“First of all, let me ask you, who’s going to call the cops? Huh? ‘Officer, someone just stole my OxyContin which I stole from the pharmacy last month’? The bad boys ain’t going to know what hit them. Besides, you’ll be in my boat. Things get too hot, you pull a Huck Finn and float down the river.”
Tom smiled. How many guys in his therapy group would get such a literary allusion? Maybe the judge but no one else. Dacon was something. “I wouldn’t do that to you.”
“You won’t have to. Trust me.”
Dacon emptied the pistol into the groundhog’s body, the .45 slugs tearing it to pieces, but one damn leg kept twitching. When a man pulls a gun on you, Tom realized, you don’t run, you don’t flee for your life; you sit and stare at it as if you can’t quite believe you’re finally next.
Cheri dropped by his apartment, a surprise. One of her appointments at the salon cancelled; Dacon would never know.
“I heard he wants you to help him out with a job,” she said.
Tom didn’t want a conversation. He wanted to strip off her clothes and throw her over the back of the broken-down couch. He hadn’t seen her in three days; he hadn’t screwed her since Dacon came home a month ago. He started untying her pink hairdressing smock.
“Dacon told me about your plans, about Mississippi Queen.”
Tom stopped unbuttoning her blouse but held her close, his hand on her tight rear. “I’m going to two meetings a week. I told him I couldn’t do it.”
“You called him on the telephone to tell him?”
“I had to think about it for a bit. I’m trying to turn things around.”
“How are you going to turn things around on seven dollars an hour?”
“You want me to do it for you, is that it? Do this job for you?”
She slapped him across the face. “Fuck you. I want you to do it for yourself, you shit. I don’t want to see a fucking dime; I don’t want you to do anything for me ever.”
Tom wiped his eyes. He wasn’t sure if his eyes were tearing up from the slap or if he were really crying somehow.
Then she said, “Come here, baby. Come here.”
As he rested his head upon her breast, he asked, “What’s going to happen to us?”
“Let’s don’t worry about that right now,” she said.
“I enjoy the work, you know. I get a sense of real satisfaction when I see some grandma get three plums, holding up all those coins in her hands. They hired me because I’m Indian, you know.”
“You don’t look Indian to me,” said Tom. They were drinking beer in the rear booth at Rusty Springs Tavern, Tom, Dacon, and Dacon’s associate, the Indian brave.
“Shit, yeah. See my eyes, how they sort of go down at the ends? Indian. Indians are good at gambling.”
“Then stop being an Indian because I don’t want to gamble,” said Dacon. “I want this to be a sure thing. I want to surely find this gun in your janitor’s closet when I come looking.”
“Top shelf. Behind the odorizers. I got it covered.”
“Fuckin’ Indians,” said Dacon, tossing two bundles of dollar bills onto the table. “You used to shoot buffaloes with bows and arrows, that took some balls. Now all you do is run slot machines for old white women.”
Dacon’s Indian associate scooped the bundles off the table. “That’s the fate of my people, I guess.”
At two a.m. exactly, Tom started up the Mercury Hydrocruiser and pulled away from the Illinois shore. Dacon had bought the exact model and color of the boat that he had set afire. Tom didn’t know where Dacon got that kind of money. These babies started about thirty‑thousand. Freebird –the name was already painted on both sides when Dacon bought it.
The lights of Mississippi Queen were all Tom needed to navigate; the big riverboat was lit up like a psychedelic wedding cake, neon striping around the wheel hub, spotlights shooting up the smokestacks. It looked like a real riverboat on the outside, four stories tall, a pilot house, lacy woodwork, a grand thing, but it was built only ten years ago. It didn’t go up or down the river; it sat on a barge chained to the cobblestone wharf. There weren’t any engines; the paddlewheel was for decoration. The inside looked like any casino anywhere in the world.
Once he was upstream from the riverfront, Tom puttered about in lazy circles, running lights off. He needed only to avoid the enormous stone pilings of the Eads Bridge and all the crap floating downstream. He spotted a towboat pushing a bevy of coal barges ’round the bend. He felt his pocket for his cell phone, just to be sure. The stainless-steel oxbow of the Arch, Gateway to the West, sparkled with the reflected light of the gambling boat moored along the wharf, a place where they used to auction slaves. The towboat pushed the barges past the Mississippi Queen now, the steady rumble of its engines scaring up a flock of night birds that winged back and forth across the river, inches from the surface, calling “kow-mit, kow-mit.” The cell phone vibrated in his pocket.
Tom jabbed the Merc into gear and trolled down the black waters, beneath the Eads Bridge, to the Mississippi Queen. He searched the bottom deck for his brother. Several groups of figures were clustered along the railings, taking a breather from the slots, smoking cigarettes, sipping drinks in plastic cups. Calliope music played from tinny speakers.
There he was, silhouetted against the revolving neon paddlewheel. Tom edged the Hydrocruiser alongside the Queen, Dacon stepped over the chain railing and was in, just like that. Tom edged down the throttle, and the speed boat moved away slowly, nobody in a rush here. Dacon even waved at a couple along the lower deck railing. As Tom looked closer, he realized that the woman was bent over the rail, the man thrusting behind her. Both waved back.
Tom waited until they had floated farther downstream into the darkness of the river before picking up speed. He looked back at Dacon, seated at the rear of the boat near the engine. Dacon held up the leather briefcase, grinning from ear to ear. Tom gave a shout over the roar of the big Merc.
They had done it. It was done. Over. He felt an all-too-familiar rush, an electric surge flowing up his spine, as violent as any drug. Maybe more so. This rush was real. This, too, could be addicting.
Of course, he had never wanted to do this. The money, the drugs, they were never a factor. Whenever Dacon finally gave him his share, he planned to throw the whole mess into the Mississippi, every single packet. Maybe he’d take out the packets, peel off the aluminum backing, and throw the capsules one by one into the river. Freebird, baby. Freebird.
He did it for Cheri. Suddenly he wished she could feel this rush. She would get off on it. They’d get drunk on champagne, and he’d stick a cell phone up her ass and let it vibrate, then – he veered hard to starboard. An enormous uprooted tree charged past, narrowly missing the bow. He needed to chill. Cheri would be there for him. Calm down, Tommy Boy. Be patient.
He glanced over his shoulder to see if Dacon hadn’t been thrown out of his seat. The .45 was aimed right at his head, right at his face, and, as was his custom, Tom just stared. The pistol shook in Dacon’s hand. Tom could see the tears in his brother’s eyes.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Tom thought he would act outraged. Then he thought he would laugh, make it a joke. On second thought, nothing could have been more ridiculous. “Don’t,” he said at last. “Please, don’t.”
Dacon kept the gun on Tom but could not fire, not yet. His teeth were clenched, sweat poured down his face, the gun shook as if he were straining with all his might to pull the trigger, caught in that nightmare where you’re chased by a bear but you can’t move your legs. And as Dacon began to lower their father’s Army‑issued .45, Tom slapped down the throttle.
The Merc prop dug deep, the front of the boat kicked up. Dacon staggered, the .45 fired, a slug zipped by Tom’s ear. Dacon braced himself, leveled the gun again, and this time Tom knew there would be no hesitation; his skull would momentarily be obliterated into blood mist. He aimed the boat into the tree as he screamed, “Cheri!”
At her name, Dacon hesitated, pausing for a split-second for his anger to come full head, but that was all it took. As his trigger finger contracted, there came a simultaneous boom, a sharp crack, a sick splintering
The Hydrocruiser went vertical. Tom flew like one of those strange river birds straight toward Dacon. The bow fell, spanked the water hard. Tom’s face smashed into the engine housing, teeth and cartilage cracking. He wasn’t sure whether he had been knocked out. When he got to his feet, the boat was empty, listing hard to port, the engine gurgling but still pumping.
Dacon’s face was ungodly pale in the black water. He raised his hand and waved. And now it was Tom’s turn to hesitate. All the time, the current was sweeping them to Louisiana. And just as Dacon raised his arm to wave once more, the same huge tree that had cracked open the Merc mowed him over – trunk, roots, and branches.
Tom circled the boat about, calling for Dacon, this time really looking for him, knowing Dacon was an expert swimmer, a fucking Eagle Scout. At the end of the tree, something moved in its twisted cage of roots, a white creature trapped among the mangled stalks, tugging desperately at them, but the roots, waterlogged, wouldn’t break; they merely bent. Perhaps it was Dacon’s own strength that caused the tree to roll slowly over. Dacon heaved and kicked, but the enormous tree wouldn’t be stopped. The roots grabbed the fluttering man, lifted, then pulled him under for good.
The rear of the boat was filling with water, lifting the prow. Tom eased down the throttle. The Merc engine gurgled, then caught – the damn thing could just about run underwater – and he set out for shore.
The boat made it within thirty feet. Tom floated out of his seat, kicked a few times, not fighting the current, and was on dry land. He was walking down the railroad tracks before he realized he was carrying something in his hand. Some Doughtery instinct made him grab the leather briefcase before the boat sank, made him hold onto it as he swam to shore. He should have thrown it away, that was the plan, but now . . . well, that would be later.
A vision of pale Dacon in the river, waving, returned to him. Was his brother waving so Tom might spot him in the darkness, might save him? Or was he merely waving to say good‑bye?
At the crossing, he left the tracks and started up the hill. He got turned around in the pitch-black woods but then caught the sickly-sweet stench of rotting flesh. The fucking groundhog. The smell led him directly to the farmhouse. He was surprised to find the back door opened, and as he started into the dark room, he heard her cry out.