His mother held Jimbo by the bridle while Jack grabbed mane and jumped astride his back. She handed him the drugstore sack with the bottle of Delmar’s heart pills.
“The problem’s not half as much getting it to him, as getting him to take it when you get there,” she said.
Jack gathered the reins. “Delmar’s contrary, all right,” he said.
“That’s one word for it.” His mother stepped back from the horse. “Someday he may get a dose of his own medicine.”
Jack saw in her hard burnished eyes and by the way she crossed her arms over her chest that she did not think nearly as highly of the old man as he did.
He clucked the horse and started down the dirt lane. The July day was hot and muggy after a week of heavy rains that wouldn’t stop. The road was a mire of clay that splattered under Jimbo’s hooves. Grasshoppers thumped against Jack’s legs and the air hummed with cicadas.
Jack turned the horse at the end of his own farm’s private lane. Now he was on a public road, though still only dirt. He headed the horse north toward Delmar’s place on the Grand River, about a mile away.
Jimbo could not be rushed. He plodded steadily along. Jack watched six vultures settle in a dead cottonwood tree high on Packwood Bluff. Their heads swiveled a reconnaissance.
Jack thought about what his mother had said about Delmar. To him Delmar lived the life. Single. Solitary. He owned a small farm along the bank of the Grand. He raised hogs and corn and soybean. He fished and hunted without licenses and still cooked corn liquor, though his bootlegging days were long over. The Rural Electric Association had offered to set poles and string line for next to nothing, but he wanted no lights or telephone. He had no mailbox and little human company. He had an old stray tomcat with half a nose and bit off ears. He had a radio. It was a battery-operated transistor radio and often Jack sipped brew and listened with Delmar to the baseball games. Delmar did things his own way without consideration of consequence. That was probably why his mother didn’t like him, and why his father would have tanned his hide if he knew half the stuff Delmar let him get away with.
The vultures startled by something and dispersed to the four winds. They circled in a gray foggy sky and would regroup.
Somewhere in Delmar’s story was the story of a woman. Jack had heard the story but only by the back way and with scanty details. It was a tragic story and maybe sordid, to be told hushed and hidden. The woman had died violently and in a way that was unjust. She’d left Delmar with a daughter that had nothing to do with him. He didn’t know how to raise her and sent her to live with kin. And so maybe Delmar was also bitter.
Jimbo had reached a stretch of road that ran very close to the Grand. Jack could hear the river rushing fast and bank high. He heard a train and could see it crossing the railroad bridge. This was the only spot where the road bridge and the railroad bridge could be seen together, a perspective that made them look overlapping.
Jimbo came out of the curve around Packwood Lake and raised his head in alarm and snorted and Jack saw a car parked and two men standing at the end of the bridge. One of the men had a foot on the car’s muddy bumper. The other was sitting on an iron rail that was the frame of the bridge. The bridge was not out, but water was running over the wooden planks. Logs and debris were swirling and bumping against the iron pillars of its supports and around its frame and making the old bridge creak and sway. The men were waiting for the river to go down, afraid to cross. They were chatting in voices too low for Jack to hear. They both wore gray suits and thin black ties and black dress shoes, identical as uniforms and just as drab. One of them smoked and the smoke lingered in the heavy air like the trailing fumes of a tracer. Jack knew by the same instinct that could pick rattlers out of rock piles, that they brought trouble or troubling news.
The men turned and greeted him when Jack pulled Jimbo up. They said they were federal agents, and they showed their badges and made a point as they took out and put back their wallets to show him the holstered guns on their belts.
“We are looking for a partner of ours named Zebulon Johnson,” the smoker said. He was the older of the two and wore a hat pushed back on his head. “He’s a young man about your age. He was out here a few days ago on assignment. Well, here, I’ve got a picture.”
He flipped the cigarette butt in the river and took a folded black and white Polaroid from his coat pocket. He flattened the photo between his palms and then held it for Jack to see, careful not to hand it to him.
Jack looked at the creased photo closely and shook his head. “Sorry, no, haven’t seen him.” Jack slid off Jimbo and slipped off the bridle, tossed it in the ditch, and thumped the horse on the behind. Jimbo galloped down the lane, mud flying; he would go home much faster than he’d left it.
“Zeb didn’t show up for work or call in sick or nothing,” the younger of the two men said, and Jack believed he might be sincere. “It’s not like him. We’re worried something might have happened to him.”
“I’ll keep an eye out, ” Jack said. He started on foot, north, along the river.
“Where you headed? What’s in the sack?”
Jack didn’t answer. He walked along the edge of the bean field toward the railroad bridge. The bridge would come out on a logging trail just across from Delmar’s farm. The bean field was sodden as a marsh. The heat was close and his shirt was soaked and riding the horse bareback had sweat-slicked and hair-coated his jeans. Mosquitoes bit his neck and face, relentless as flak. He moved to the end rows where the going was easier and there was some shade and now and then a light breeze off the river.
He had not been truthful about Zeb, the young man in the photo, and he thought about the last time he’d seen him, which had been just a few days ago. He’d been cutting brush out of the barbed wire fence around the cow pasture and Zeb had stopped to visit. His car was new and flame red and customized with silver metal dual exhaust pipes. Zeb had a dog in the car with him, a young black Labrador. He had to shove the eager dog back while he got out.
Jack had not seen Zeb for a while, but they’d gone through school together. Zeb was several years ahead and in the same grade as an older brother. Zeb was the captain of the football team and Jack’s brother played tackle. Jack had been around thirteen or fourteen at the time, too young for the varsity team but football crazy. Zeb was good about letting him join in the practices and fetch water and gear for the players and just hang around. Jack counted him as a friend and their greeting was warm.
Zeb had gone through the Missouri State Highway Patrol and was soon to graduate from FBI Academy. He said he was having a high time chasing criminals and wanted to know where Delmar Blackburn lived. Jack asked if he planned to arrest him, and Zeb laughed and said no he wanted to warn him to get his taxes paid before folks in the government got ideas.
They talked for an hour about football and farming and hunting and girls and cars. Zeb’s father was a feed salesman and his mother had a dog breeding business. Zeb got the Labrador out of the car and showed Jack his black tongue. He said his mother had a coonhound bitch that was something special and he wanted to show Jack her pups. They made plans to meet again at the kennel one day soon to look at the litter.
Now as he walked, Jack worried about what had become of Zeb. The main dirt road went right by Delmar’s house; he couldn’t have gotten lost. He’d heard Delmar joke about feeding revenuers to the hogs and the catfish because both eat everything, but those were just wisecracks.
Jack reached the railroad bridge and started across. The banks of the Grand were wider and steeper here and the water had not reached the planks of the bridge. Halfway across, he looked down through cracks between the boards at the rushing water and the froth of dirty white foam and for a moment he was dizzy. The river raged only inches beneath his feet.
He walked along the railroad rail with one ear cocked for a train whistle and knew it was risky. He thought of how quickly innocent things turn deadly – whirlpools and whirlwinds and heartbeats. Nature didn’t know or care. Her works were random and without opinion.
Jack had stuffed the sack with Delmar’s heart pills under his shirt to keep it from getting wet. The old man had already had one heart attack. It was Jack who’d found him on the ground, his back against a wagon wheel, already turning blue. Jack wondered how long he would last without the pills. There were lots of kinds of danger and lots of kinds of death, he supposed. Physical death was just one kind of death. There was the spirit’s death, too, and he did not need his mother or a preacher to tell him it was just as profound and every bit as permanent as any kind of physical death.
At the end of the bridge, Jack stopped. A huge mound of debris had sloughed off from the bank of a ravine that fed into the river. It was slipping along the wide ditch, slow as an iceberg. Under the leaves and brush his eyes caught a glimpse of something red.
The ravine was down river, a good quarter of a mile away. He mucked up the river bank, sinking in and out of mud. Then he slogged along the end rows of a cut cornfield and down the bank again, slipping and sliding, but he caught up in time. The banks of the ravine had caved and the brush pile was in the middle of a mudslide. It hadn’t reached the river yet.
Jack took stock. Bank full, the Grand was 90 foot deep. Its floodwaters carried houses and cars down river and it had an undertow no man could swim against. He didn’t want to wind up in the river.
But Jack had to know if that red glint was what he thought it was and feared and knew it was.
He took a leap and cleared the gap to the mound and instantly sank to his knees in mud thick as fresh cement. He reached about wildly and got hold of leaves and sticks and pulled away limbs and branches and finally felt something solid and cold – metal. He knew it was the exhaust pipe on Zeb’s car the moment he touched it.
He used the pipe to drag himself out. He lost his shoes and socks but was able to get a foothold on the raised mound. He scrambled over the top of the moving Island and was on the hood of the car.
Again, he held himself suspended between fear and doubt and a need to know that was urgent and too strong to resist.
Then, almost in a frenzy, he scraped the leaves and dirt and brush off the windshield. The glass was cracked and drilled with holes. It was not a clear vision through the shattered and mudsmeared glass. But he saw well enough. Zeb was in the front seat and the dog was beside him. The sight of them made Jack suck in his breath. Zeb and the black Lab had been torn up by bullets.
Jack pushed himself away from the car. The island was moving past a last holdout of rocks and trees at the mouth of the ravine, and he jumped and got hold of the trunk of a tree. He clung to the rough bark. He was in shock. He panted and shivered, and his heart slammed fast. He watched as little by little the island of debris hiding the car slipped closer to the river. Soon it would wash into the Grand and be lost, buried somewhere downstream under tons of mud and muck.
By the time Jack climbed the muddy bank and walked back to the logging road, he had stopped shaking. He started toward Delmar’s over the wheel-rutted trail. Cornstalk stubble ground into his bare feet but he didn’t feel it. His mind was on Zeb and what his death would do to his folks. He turned often and looked back toward the river. He wondered why anyone would do such a thing, gun down a young man and his dog. What could drive someone to that kind of sick meanness? In Jack’s mind it took a powerful turning by forces as strong and irresistible as cyclone, fire, or flood. But somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew that it might also be the slightest twist, like the falling of a feather or the tumble of the die.
He reached the gray-boarded house on the river. It was the only house in the floodplain. The Grand had not crested the bank here and was slowly going down.
Delmar, a white-haired man in overalls, was behind the house. He had a still hid in a grove of thick willows back there.
“Not quite ready,” he told Jack. Delmar was standing amid pipes and pots and staved barrels and sacks of cane sugar. He gave Jack an odd look. “You look white. See a grizzly?”
“I have your heart pills,” Jack told him. His hands and knees and voice were steady. It was his insides that still shook.
Delmar did not take the drug store sack. He walked past Jack into the house and Jack followed.
There was a wood stove in the main room of the dark house and Delmar was frying potatoes in an iron skillet. He filled Jack a plate and handed him salt and by the time Jack was done eating he felt better, stronger.
He told Delmar about meeting the men on the bridge.
“I knew they were coming, “Delmar said. “There was one out here a few days back. He came creeping through the brush, taking pictures and writing things down, like some kind of foreign spy.”
“Did you talk to him?”
“Not much. We never had much to talk about.”
Jack scraped fried crumbs with his fingers and didn’t look up from his plate and asked, “What became of him?”
Delmar didn’t answer the question. He said, “They think they can confiscate my land because I owe back taxes. But I outfoxed them. My daughter is on her way here with the tax receipts. She ought to be here any minute.”
Delmar left and returned with homebrew in a coffee cup. The corn whiskey was sour as spoiled grain and went fast to Jack’s head.
“I didn’t think your daughter had anything to do with you,” he said. It came out harsh and Jack was surprised to sound that way. He didn’t try to take it back.
“She hates me, for a fact,” Delmar said.
“She doesn’t hate you if she’s helping you,” Jack said.
Delmar laughed. “She’s helping me because this land will be hers when I’m gone. It’s worth a pretty penny. I couldn’t be gone soon enough to suit her.”
Delmar pulled a cardboard box off a shelf. The box was full of women’s things, silverware and hand-held mirrors and brushes and perfume bottles. He handed Jack a picture. It was a black and white Polaroid of a woman and girl standing on the porch in front of Delmar’s house.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met her,” Jack said.
“No, probably not. After my wife was killed she was raised by my sister in St Joe. She comes out to see if I’m still kicking maybe once or twice a year. She doesn’t stay long.”
Jack could have asked a thousand questions just then, but not one formed clearly enough in his buzzing head to come out of his mouth.
He heard a car on the road and went to the window. It was not the FBI agents; they were still on the bridge. It had to be the girl’s car, coming from another direction.
“She’ll bury it to the hubs in that big mud hole,” Delmar said.
Jack left the house and hurried down the road and waved her to a stop before she tried to plow through the mud hole. The mud hole at the crossroads of the dirt roads was the size of a small pond and just as full of cattails and turtles and frogs.
She got out of the car. “Who are you?” she asked. “And where are your shoes?”
Jack started to say “A friend” but thought better of it and said “A neighbor. I brought Delmar his heart pills. He won’t take them.”
The girl wore a yellow cotton dress and a wide-brimmed white hat. She had blue eyes and freckles all over pale skin and Jack thought she was passably pretty. He imagined how he must look to her in his muddy clothes and bare feet. He felt the mud in his hair and instantly remembered the matted blood in Zeb’s hair. He felt a chill slither up and down his spine. He realized the image of Zeb’s death would be with him forever and like Eden’s snake would come to him in just such sharp-as-fang moments in just such sidewinder ways.
“Heart pills? Is the old man sick?” she said.
“He’s not at death’s door,” Jack said.
“Oh,” she said. And Jack wondered if it was relief or disappointment he heard in her voice.
She was a fast walker and took long strides through the corn rows, not fussy or preening or pretending to be too good for it as he expected. As they neared the house, Jack asked, “What happened to your mother?”
She stopped in her tracks.
He said: “Delmar showed me a picture of you and your mother. He said after she was killed you went to St Joe. He said she died on this day and I wondered how she was killed.”
The girl leveled a look at him, considered, and decided.
“She was as wild and wayward as he was,” she said. “He treated her like an equal and she shared equally in everything he did. She helped with the hogs and in the field. When he ran moonshine, she was his lookout. Sometimes she carried a Tommy Gun and rode shotgun. Sometimes she was his getaway driver.” She turned back to face the way they’d come. “She died right there where that big mud hole is. The blast is what made the hole. I was standing at the end of the driveway and saw it with my own eyes.”
She looked at him with eyes that had seen that and more and too much.
“The law was always after them and one night they set up an ambush. Delmar was hauling of a night using an old truck with no headlights. He used torches for headlamps. The fool. She was driving. When the law jumped out, she drove off the road and turned over in the ditch. The alcohol spilled out and the torches caught it on fire. She couldn’t get loose and caught fire. I remember her screaming. Twisting in that big blaze of flame and smoke and screaming. There was a shot and she quit screaming. But whether it was the law or Delmar shot her, I’ll never know.”
She went on towards the house and Jack followed her. Before they reached the house, she eyed Jack up and down, and said, “It puts a different slant on it all, doesn’t it? When you know the woman can and will kill you?”
She stepped up on the porch, and said, “What’s this I hear about you not taking your pills, old man?”
“Do you have the receipts?” he asked her.
“I have them,” she said. She went into the house.
Delmar was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch. He had a rifle resting crosswise on the arms of the chair. He said to Jack, “I await the assassin. I won’t have long to wait.”
The federal agents had crossed the bridge in the car and were approaching slowly on the mud sloppy lane. The girl came out with a pint jar.
“Drink up,” she said to Delmar. “And take your medicine.”
Delmar popped the pill and drained the glass. “What do you say, Jack?” he said. He worked the lever on the rifle.
Jack bent down and picked up a handful of wet dirt and worked the dirt into crumbly daubs of mud.
His eyes searched the river. Zeb was a g-man, but he was a good man, and he would have tried to do right by the world. His vision divided and went to the car where the other two government agents approached. They were as intrusive and unwelcome as the flood and mud and bugs. His eyes went to Delmar. Delmar was neither god nor judge but empty of whatever it took to make one; he slept like one. Finally his eyes lit on the girl. Her eyes on him were as full of anger and envy and spite as the drink she’d fixed.
It wasn’t for the dirt, he knew. Maybe it had started for the dirt, the earth, the land, home. But now it was for something else.
Jack shook the mud clods like dice in his hands and then tossed them at his feet, for all the world as though he were casting lots.