[Issue 12 / 1 Feb 15]

Seven months after the end of his second marriage, Mack Vogel packed up everything and moved into an old cabin near Dora, Missouri. He’d admired the cabin for many years, while canoeing with his cousin on the North Fork of the White River.

He had lived in the cabin for two months when a woman came onto his property. Mack stepped out on the back porch and saw her coming up from the river. She was young and thin and she had tattoos on both arms. Her hair was wet and matted down against one side of her face. She cursed as she scrambled up the bank and ran toward the cabin.

“This here’s private property,” yelled Mack.

The woman had been running low to the ground, like a running back cutting through defenders. Her head faced down, toward mole mounds and shorn blades of grass, as she panted. She had not seen Mack until she heard his voice. She stopped next to his lawn chair. She doubled over and took two deep breaths.

“My boy,” she said, pointing to her left. “He’s there.”

Mack stepped forward and stood with his hand on the lawn chair. There was a full can of beer on a small table next to the chair, a cigar smoldered in an ashtray.

The woman, still doubled over but now catching her breath, said, “Can you help me?”

Mack cleared his throat and grumbled. To his surprise, he hadn’t had any trouble with paddlers. He wondered if that was about to change.

“My boy’s with him,” said the woman. “They’re upriver.”

“Who’s him?” said Mack.

“My boyfriend…” said the woman. “He was my boyfriend.”

“Did they tump?” asked Mack.

“No. I don’t think so.”

The woman coughed. There were goose bumps on her shoulders. “I had to get away from him,” she said.

Mack let go of the chair and stepped closer to her. “What happened?” he said.

The woman didn’t speak. But when she raised her head, Mack saw that her exposed cheek, the one not covered with hair, was red and swollen. There was a speck of dried blood at the corner of her mouth.

“So you were canoeing?” asked Mack.

“Yes.”

“And what happened?”

“We got into a fight,” said the woman. “He thought I was flirting with one of his friends. But I wasn’t. He’s just jealous. He’s a fucking asshole. And now he’s got my boy.”

“Are you the only woman?” asked Mack.

“No.”

“How did you get here?”

“The boat,” said the woman, gesturing with her thumb toward the bank.

She had not moved closer to him, but now Mack could smell the sourness of ethanol.

“They drinkin’?” he asked.

“God, man!” said the woman. “He’s been drinking whiskey all day.”

Mack’s better judgment told him to mind his own business, to do nothing beyond suggesting that the woman call the sheriff. But Mack had dealt with the deputy who worked on Sundays and knew him to a semi-literate, bumbling dope.

“Stay here,” said Mack. “I’ll be right back.”

The woman bent over again and placed her hands on her knees.

Mack went into the cabin. From his bedroom, he grabbed a .22-caliber pistol. He loaded the gun and made sure it was concealed under his shirt before he went back outside.

The woman was there, trying to light a wet Marlboro and squatting to keep warm.

“’Bout how far upstream are they, you figure?” he said.

“I don’t know,” said the woman.

“You want a shirt or something?”

“You mind?” she said. “My shit’s all wet.”

Mack went back inside and grabbed a long-sleeve t-shirt from the laundry basket. As he lifted it from the basket, he thought back to when he was a young father. He saw himself yelling at his son for chores the boy hadn’t done, yet knowing he hadn’t properly explained how to do them. Mack was lost then, drunk most days and every night.

He returned to the back yard. The woman donned the shirt, the hem of which nearly reached her knees. Mack watched her as she folded the end of the sleeves to keep them from covering her hands or bunching too much at the elbows. She was pretty, he thought, and not much older than his own daughter.

“Did they cross the low-water bridge?” he asked.

The woman breathed in deeply and exhaled smoke through her nostrils. She shook her head. Mack could tell she was confused.

“Do you remember crossing it?”

“No,” she said. “I really don’t. I guess I had to’ve to get here.”

“That’s okay,” said Mack. “How long did you float by yourself?”

“I don’t know,” said the woman. She was getting flustered, impatient with herself for not having any answers. “An hour maybe.”

“And where are you going?” said Mack. “Which takeout?”

“Down to this place…” she said. “Down here.” She pointed downstream. She pointed straight at the sun.

“But you didn’t pass it?” asked Mack.

“No,” she said. “I know that. But I can’t remember the name of the place.”

“Was it Twin Bridges?” said Mack.

“Yes!” said the woman. “That’s the one.”

Mack nodded. It was then that he decided to go upstream rather than drive to the low-water bridge. Her people would come along eventually.

Mack told the woman to meet him down at the bank. He dragged his johnboat across the lawn and through the reeds and cane and splashed it down next to her canoe.

The woman asked why they didn’t take hers. The question annoyed Mack. It seemed like women were always questioning him. He didn’t answer. He pulled the boat all the way into the water and then tested the soundness of a patch he’d applied only a few days before. At the spot of the repaired hole, he pushed the boat down, and when water did not seep in, he crawled in and started pulling the cord to the motor.

“This is why,” he said.

As the motor roared loud enough to prevent them from communicating, Mack wondered what this was really about. Could she have slipped, her face landing on a rock? Or maybe she scraped it on a branch. The whole thing was probably a setup. When they got upriver, this woman’s Adderall-addled boyfriend would shoot him in the face, and then they’d float back to his cabin and steal everything he owned.

Or maybe Mack was going upriver to kill the son of bitch who had hit his daughter.

He let go of the throttle, and the boat idled. The sun had dropped below the ridge, but darkness wouldn’t come for another hour. The woman crouched in front of him. The wet cigarette dangled from her mouth.

“Let me ask you this,” Mack said.

The woman turned around and faced him. Her eyes were red.

“How’d you get that mark on your face?”

She looked away.

“Forget it,” he said.

The woman faced the bow, which was pointed straight upriver and right in line with the channel but just to the side of it. The ten-horsepower motor did not have to work hard. Mack squinted and focused up ahead. He saw nothing but leaves and water, but his eyes were drawn back to the woman, who now was crying. She tossed the cigarette. Her body convulsed as she tried to draw oxygen into her lungs.

Mack throttled down and pushed upriver as fast as the old johnboat would go against the current, which was strong but not swift or tricky in any way. Mack knew it was safe, that the water was deep enough to keep the prop down and spinning fast. The sound of the motor rattled against the side of his head. He didn’t like the noise. He had complained about people who used trolling motors on this section of the river. It ruined the peacefulness.

There would be two obstacles: the low-water bridge and a spot on the river the locals called the Nars, short for narrows, which was, as the name indicated, a narrow and deep chute followed by a short falls on a tight bend of the river that sometimes gave paddlers fits. They would have to portage through or around these obstacles.

Mack was surprised when he looked up and saw that they were already approaching the bridge. He throttled down again.

He did not think before speaking. “So he’s not the father?”

“God no,” said the woman.

“What about the dad?”

“What about him?” she said.

“He around?” said Mack. “Is he in the picture at all?”

“No,” said the woman, the way she said it made Mack stop asking questions.

Below the bridge, there was a narrow but navigable sluice. Mack swung the handle and steered toward it. It was on the right side of the river, opposite the main channel, and Mack knew it was the best way to get as close as possible to the bridge.

The woman hunched forward on the seat in front of him. She was still cold.

Mack let off the gas. The boat floated gently up against a shelf of rocks that the river had pushed through one of the culverts under the bridge.

“We need to get out,” he said. “I need to drag it over the bridge.”

“Do you want me to help you?” said the woman.

“Sure,” said Mack. “Grab hold of that handle there. We’ll carry it over these rocks.”

Water crashing against the concrete berm below the bridge prevented them from hearing the truck coming from the east. When Mack and the woman reached the deck of the bridge, they set the boat down with the intention of resting for a few seconds before dragging it over to the other side. It was at this moment, when their ears were no longer burdened by the rush of water or the scraping of metal on concrete, that Mack heard the truck approaching. He turned toward it and saw its headlights flash on and off.

He and the woman grabbed the boat and dragged it to the edge of the bridge. He directed the woman to hop down to the rocks on the other side. When she was out of the way, he got behind the boat, pushed it over the edge and started guiding it down the slope. Then he jumped over the shallow edge so the truck could pass.

Between Spiro Mountain upriver and the curved bluff closer to his own place, only a few people lived on this side of the river, and they were boxed in. Mack knew all these people. He knew their vehicles, and this truck wasn’t one of them.

He concentrated on getting the boat back on water. But he kept an eye on the truck as it got closer. He planned on getting a good look at the driver as the vehicle passed.

“Do you know this truck?” he shouted to the woman.

“No,” she said.

She was standing on a short stack of rocks. She held one of the wet cigarettes but made no attempt to light it. After answering Mack, she looked up at the truck, and her eyes tracked it as it crossed the bridge.

Mack pushed the boat down farther. At the bottom of the pile of rocks, he stalled and watched the woman as her eyes followed the truck. Mack then heard a man’s voice call out to him, but he did not hear what the man said. When he turned around, he saw Byron Peckwith, the man who owned Twin Bridges Campground.

“Didn’t recognize the truck,” Mack said.

“Don’t drive it much,” said Byron.

Mack spat into the river. “I got a feeling we’re looking for the same people,” he said.

Byron opened the door and got out of the truck. He nodded at Mack and then looked farther down, focusing on the woman.

“You with that group?” he said to her. “The ones I put on at the 19 bridge around noon?”

She looked at Mack first. He nodded.

“Yes sir,” she said.

“Where’s the rest of your party?” asked Byron.

“This way, I guess,” she said and pointed upriver. “But I don’t really know.”

“Well it’s gettin’ late,” said Byron.

Mack had climbed back up on the bridge and asked Byron to meet him other side of the truck. The two men convened at the tailgate. Byron looked back at the woman. She was sitting now, sideways on the seat of the johnboat with her legs dangling over the side.

“They run into trouble?” asked Byron.

“A little,” said Mack. “She did. I told her I’d help.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Just a little argument.”

Byron set his hands on his hips and shook his head. “I don’t like this,” he said.

“You’ll get your canoes,” said Mack.

“It’s not that,” Byron said. “There’s children in that party, and it’s gettin’ late.”

Mack clenched his teeth. The muscles in his cheek tightened. He did not like hearing this. It disturbed him that the woman had not mentioned other children. He returned to the edge of the bridge and looked down at her.

“You didn’t tell me there were other children,” he said.

“You didn’t ask me,” she said.

Mack didn’t say anything. He glared at her.

“There’re two other kids,” she said. “They belong to my friends. They’re older than my boy.”

“What else should I know?”

“I don’t know,” she yelled. “Nothing. I’m sorry I didn’t mention them.”

Byron had followed Mack to the edge of the bridge. They were both looking down at the woman.

“Could we go now?” she said. “I’m worried about my boy.”

Byron tugged on Mack’s elbow. “I’m gonna call Capers,” he said.

Capers was the deputy.

Mack said. “That boy will only complicate this situation. He’ll end up shooting himself or worse. I guarantee it.”

“Well, what do you intend to do?” asked Byron.

“Find this woman’s party and check on the welfare of her son.”

Byron chewed on his lower lip, while Mack kept an eye on the woman. He was looking for any sign that she might betray him. There was none. But he didn’t like those tattoos.

“Well you’re right about Capers,” Byron said. “My dog’s got more sense than him. I’ll go down to your place and get my boat. If they’re not back by eight-thirty, I’m calling the sheriff.”

Mack looked at his watch. Seven-fifteen. Part of him wanted to be back on his lawn, drinking beer and smoking that cigar. He waved goodbye to Byron, who drove slowly across the bridge.

The woman was wading in the water. She climbed in the boat one leg at a time and found the seat. This time she faced the stern, toward Mack, but he did not notice this right away because he was pulling the cord on the motor. When he turned around, they made eye contact.

“Is he your friend?” she said.

“Not really,” said Mack. “I don’t know him that well.”

“I don’t think he likes me.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” said Mack.

*

They found her people on a sandbar below the Nars. The sun had disappeared behind the ridge west of Byron’s thirty acres. Most of the day’s light and heat had gone with it. The fading light did not comfort Mack. The woods were dark, and too quiet. There were no shouts or cries – not even from the children – and no laughter or talking or any other human sounds. The first thing Mack heard was glass breaking, the smash of a bottle against rocks, and then the growl of a man who sounded like he was trapped.

Mack killed the motor and lifted the prop. He and the woman began paddling. When she saw her party, she tossed the paddle in the boat and stood.

“Sit down,” said Mack.

She sat and dropped her head.

“Look up,” Mack said.

She turned around and faced him. Mack paddled.

“You’re gonna do the work,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“When we get up there, you’re gonna walk over there and get your boy. Simple as that.”

“What will you do?” she said.

“Don’t worry about that,” said Mack. “Just go get him.”

The woman fidgeted. “But you don’t understand,” she said. “He’ll punch me. When he’s drunk like that, he don’t give a fuck.”

“Be quiet,” he said. “We’re gonna get as far as we can without being noticed.”

Mack paddled alone as the woman faced the bow, trembling. She was restless. She scratched her head and then her ribs, just under her right breast. Then she moved her hand back up to her head and tried to loosen her matted hair. Her movements rocked the boat.

Mack sat in the middle of the stern and spread his legs outward, bracing himself by locking the heels of his boots against the brackets of the rear crossbar. He dug in and paddled.

The only thing separating them from her child was a rocky island with a tall stand of densely clustered cane. The voices of her friends traveled through the grass. Now they were hooting and laughing. Mack heard children playing in the water.

The woman turned and looked at Mack one more time.

Mack nodded. “It’s gonna be okay,” he said. “We’re gonna get your boy.”

“He might have a gun,” she said. “I’m sorry I didn’t say…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Mack said. “I figured as much.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”

“Sshhh,” said Mack. “Not now. Just do what I say.”

She turned back around. Mack paddled hard against the current, and when they came around the island, they saw the pack of them in plain view on a high, rocky beach, twenty yards or so downstream from the Nars.

Everything was in disarray. One boat was beached properly, upright, but it was covered with wet towels and shirts and a diaper. Another boat bobbed upside-down in deep water on the far bank. It appeared to be caught in the roots of a sycamore that had fallen sideways along the bank. Empty cans and plastic sacks and more wet towels littered the beach.

The people were tattooed, sunburned and drunk. The women wore bikinis, the straps of which cut into the fat on their backs. One man had a blood-soaked towel wrapped around his hand. Another man was stumbling on the rocks while trying to light a one-hitter.

The woman gasped when she saw her son, who was crouched and playing in the water at ankle depth. She was ready to bolt out of the boat, but she waited for instructions from Mack.

“I don’t care what happens to me,” she said without turning around. “I just want my boy to be okay. Will you take care of him?”

“Shsshh,” said Mack. “Don’t talk like that.”

Mack guessed it was the boyfriend who was trying to light the pipe. Unlike the others, he was lean and muscular. He too had tattoos on both arms.

A third man was lying on his side, like a sleeping walrus, next to the canoe with the wet towels draped over it. His enormous body did not move, and there were no signs that he was conscious. His feet were in the water. The fourth man was floating on his back in the river and looking up at the empty, darkening sky. Some of the children were throwing rocks at him.

The boyfriend walked across the sandbar. Although he looked fit, he walked with a limp. His shorts hung low, showing the dark, elastic band of his underwear and the pink flesh of his ass. His hair was cropped short, and there appeared to be some kind scar or birthmark on the side of his head.

When he saw the woman sitting in Mack’s boat, he squared up and faced them, his arms dropped, the pipe still in his hand.

The others were oblivious.

Mack’s eyes switched back and forth between the boyfriend and the boy as he paddled. The boy was a beacon.

The boyfriend shouted: “Where’d you go?”

The woman remained silent. The other women and the man with the shirt wrapped around his hand looked at the boyfriend, and then they turned and saw Mack and the woman in his boat.

“Hey!” shouted the boyfriend. “Who the fuck is that?”

Again, the woman did not answer.

Mack took a deep breath and paddled away from the channel. They were thirty feet from the child.

“Jaden!” the woman shouted. The boy heard his mother’s voice and lifted his head. When he saw her, he stood up and said, “Mommy.”

A woman on the beach mumbled something, and then she and the man with the bandaged hand giggled. This made Mack itchy. He reached down and felt the gun under his shirt.

The boyfriend started walking. After a few steps, he tripped on the rocks. His legs wobbled, but then he balanced himself and continued walking.

“Jaden!” shouted the woman.

Mack paddled. Twenty feet separated them from the boy and the fat man beached next to the canoe.

“Mommy,” said the boy. “I found a rock.”

“You did?” said the woman.

The little boy stepped back out of the water. He stumbled toward the beached man, who had not shown any signs of life.

“I’ll get it,” said the boy. “It’s in the boat.”

“Sweetie,” said the woman. “Wait a minute.”

Only fifteen feet now. The woman stood in the boat, and Mack dragged the paddle forward to get the boat stabilized. The water was waist high. The woman hopped out and splashed into the water. She churned forward, pumping her arms like a boxer.

The boyfriend was walking toward the boy.

“No!” she shouted. “You get away!”

He continued toward the boy, who was now walking along the waterline in search of the canoe that held the rock he was saving for his mother.

Mack got a good look at the boyfriend. He was smiling.

The woman yelled as she came out of the water, her legs making waves and splashes. When she reached the spot where her son had been playing, she changed course and headed along the water line after him.

The boyfriend changed direction too. He headed toward the woman now instead of the boy.

“Stop right there!” yelled Mack.

The boyfriend kept walking.

The boat scraped against rock and ran ashore about eight feet downstream from the beached man. The woman had walked past him.

This time, the boyfriend addressed Mack. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I want you to leave that woman alone,” said Mack.

The boyfriend smirked. “Fuck you, man.”

The smile was gone. He dropped the pipe.

“Traci!” he growled. “Who the fuck is this guy?”

When Traci reached the boy, she lifted and hugged him tightly against her chest, his legs dangling and flopping side to side as she twisted her body from the waist up. She was crying.

The boyfriend stood about fifteen feet from Traci, the look on his face transformed into something cartoonish: eyes pinched and angular, lips straight and shut, teeth grinding, the veins in his neck bulging. He dropped his head, breathed in deeply and exhaled. Then he looked up and started shaking his head in a display meant to intimidate.

Mack held his ground. He had not gotten out of the boat or even stood up. His hand touched the gun, but he had not taken his eyes off the boyfriend.

Seething now, the boyfriend popped his knees like a child throwing a tantrum. He shouted: “Traci, goddamn it!”

She held on to the boy. Her eyes focused on the far bank. But the boy squirmed. He wanted to find the rock and give it to her.

The boyfriend started walking toward them.

“Don’t do that!” said Mack, rising now and stepping forward in the boat.

When the boyfriend did not stop, Mack leaped out of the boat. As he marched toward them, he reached down and felt the gun. The touch of it did not comfort him as it had before. He pulled it out.

The boyfriend grabbed Traci, shoving her and then pulling her elbow. She lost hold of the boy, and he slid to her feet.

“I said stop!” shouted Mack.

“Fuck off, old man. This ain’t your business.”

As Mack approached, he flinched at the crack of a gun behind him. He turned and saw the people on the beach, hunched over, protecting themselves from the gunshot. Mack turned back toward Traci and the boyfriend, who was still holding onto her but looking back at the beach, trying to see who had fired the gun.

When the gun fired again, Mack saw a man step out of the trees about fifty feet behind the beach. The man slid down an eroded bank and stumbled when he reached the rocks.

Mack scanned the beach. No one had been hit. Traci was okay. After the second shot, she had broken away from the boyfriend and dropped down to her knees, near the child.

The boyfriend grabbed Mack’s arm and reached for the gun. Mack recoiled. His left arm shot out and he clutched the boyfriend’s neck. Subduing him was easy. Mack dropped him to the ground and held him there.

He turned toward Traci. “Get in the boat!”

A gun fired again and Mack reacted by tightening his grip on the man’s neck. The man was gasping and gulping air. While holding him there, Mack looked up and saw Capers, the deputy, running toward them.

Mack shouted at Capers. “Put that away!”

The boyfriend tried to get up but Mack shoved him down, his head slammed against the rocks.

Capers ran up to them and stopped, doubling over and panting, a gun in his hand.

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Mack said.

Capers breathed so hard he couldn’t speak. Behind him, children were crying.

Mack squeezed harder. The boyfriend coughed. He had stopped struggling.

“Did you hear me?” Mack said to Capers. “Put that fucking gun away.”

The deputy stood up straight and shoved the gun back in its holster.

Mack let go of the boyfriend, who coughed violently and rolled over on his side, sucking air.

Traci and her boy were in the boat. Mack went to them.

“Where’re you going?” demanded Capers. Mack pushed the boat out into the current and paddled away.

*

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Matt McGowan grew up in Southwest Missouri, primarily in Webb City, a small town founded on lead-ore and zinc mining. He finished high school there and attended the University of Missouri, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in history and master’s degree in journalism. He is 47 years old and recently re-married, which he thought would never happen again. He has three children and two stepchildren – two in college and three in elementary school. He works as a science and research writer at the University of Arkansas. Before that he was a newspaper reporter. He has been writing fiction for about 15 years. He has written many short stories and completed drafts of several novels. When not writing or working or taking care of his family, he reads, runs, swims, cycles, lifts weights, hikes, canoes and kayaks. He doesn’t fish or hunt, and he doesn’t watch too much television.

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