Day 6: As they sat piecing and whittling the second night after the sleet
storm, Sara heard a wolf baying. The sound was clear, mournful, and close.
Bo stopped rocking and listened intently. He seemed to hold his breath. He closed and pocketed his knife as he stood, put on his bearskin coat, and took both guns from the pegs overhead on his way out the door.
Her interest piqued, Sara layered on extra clothes, buttoned up, and trotted out into the night to follow.
Glancing back, Bo saw, then ignored her. Apparently he had no objection to her tagging along. Neither did he wait for her. She jogged to keep up with his long strides as he tramped through the darkness. Dappled light from a full moon shimmered a path. Running warmed her in the cool, still night air.
The wolf’s intermittent howls broke the silence continuously.
They had gone less than two miles up and through a gulch then downhill through a stand of pines, when she saw lights from a cabin nestled in a valley separating two low mountains. That seemed to be their destination, although the wolf’s doleful wail came from beyond.
A short, stout woman with a shawl clutched around her ample frame bustled up from somewhere below the cabin. Could she be Bo’s girlfriend? Sara didn’t think so.
Looking beyond the woman, Sara saw reflections and heard the muffled torrent of rushing water.
The woman waved. “Bo. Thank God.” She spoke breathlessly as her fat legs propelled her toward them. “It’s Lutie. He rode the mule acrost...” Her voice faltered as she tried to catch her breath. “...to cut a tree for Deborah. Before he come back,” she hesitated, catching her breath again, “the river swoll. He only got part way.” The woman stopped directly in front of Bo, staring up into his face and gasping. “He’s stuck out there on that dern spit. The mule come on the rest o’ the way without him. The water’s coming up fast. Fayette ain’t got back from town yet.”
Sara had a hard time following the account. She peered into Bo’s face. Who was Lutie and why was this woman telling Bo all this? Was he obligated to her? Sara looked again at the dark, silent sweep of the river. What did the woman expect Bo to do?
He nodded, his calm demeanor soothing the woman momentarily, allowing her to catch her breath. Apparently he understood what she wanted. He didn’t seem alarmed.
The woman glanced at Sara, said “Howdy,” studied her for a moment, then looked back at Bo who handed his guns to Sara, removed his coat, and handed her that, as well. She felt honored until she realized what he must be thinking. She grabbed his shirt sleeve.
“Don’t be crazy, Bo. You can’t go into that water. The current’s too fast.”
With a look of mingled annoyance and surprise, he pulled his arm free, walked into the shadows around the cabin and returned moments later, leading a mule. Bo had skinned out of his clothes, down to the pants of his long handles, a T-shirt, and socks. Sara bit her lips and continued shaking her head. “Please don’t go. I don’t want you to.” As if what she wanted would influence him.
He didn’t hesitate as he led the mule, but the animal balked at the water’s edge. Sara hoped the mule’s common sense was contagious. Bo pulled the mule’s head down, took a firm hold of its sizable ear and put his mouth close to it. It looked as if Bo bit the ear, or maybe he only whispered into it. Whatever the method, it convinced the animal to step out beside him into the black, swirling water. Sara shivered and hugged Bo’s coat tightly in both arms, clutching the guns in one hand, but pointing them away from her.
They plodded in the shallows, man and mule, angling against the current.
Spellbound, Sara followed the woman in tandem down the bank to the water’s edge.
“Who’s Lutie?” Sara had to shout to be heard above the noise of the water ruffling over the rocks along the bank. Out in the main channel, the current flowed fast and was ominously silent.
“My boy. He’s eight y’ar old,” the woman shouted back. “He’s already been drowned once in this fool river, the year he were six. Died right here on this bank. River was swoll that night too. I don’t look for it to turn out that good again.”
Usually annoyed by poor grammar, Sara absorbed the woman’s words, enjoying again the ring of another human voice.
Watching the man and the mule struggle to move against the turbulence of the racing current, Sara noticed they chose their path carefully as they negotiated what appeared to be treacherous footing.
What had the woman said? Sara turned, wondering, and shouted, “Your son drowned before?”
“This one, Lutie, the one out on the spit. He’s been drowned once already. His poor little body got caught up in a tree branch last time, on its way down river. Bo was here that time too. Clumb into that evil water hisself. Swum my baby out.
“Once they was out, the boy looked to be dead. Ever’ body went to wailing, except for Bo. He bent his back to the boy, breathing his own air into Lutie’s innards.
“Bo worked over that baby a long time, breathin’ ‘im, mashing his belly. Others went to shoutin’ for folks to bring blankets and a light. My man, Fayette, told me to get down there beside them two and call Lutie, tell him to get hisself back here.
“Pretty soon the boy commenced to stranglin’ and coughin’ up more’n one child’s share of that old river.”
Sara’s eyes strained against the darkness trying to see the sand bar or the child. Bo was waist deep now. She trembled, shaking all over with a sinister feeling of fear and dread.
“But he weren’t right in the head that night nor a lot of nights after that one neither.” The woman stopped speaking. She looked grim as she, too, strained to keep her eyes on Bo and the mule.
The water crept to Bo’s chest and his shadow was swallowed in the seamless joining of night and water, disappearing and reappearing eerily, like a vapor.
“Did your boy Lutie ever get right?” Sara’s fear kept her eyes on the shadowy forms bobbing toward the far bank.
“Not ‘til Bo brung the pup. A wolf pup, not yet weaned. Bo learned Lutie to feed it milk from a rubber glove. It ‘as dead winter by then. The boy brung the animal inside to sleep nights. Caring for that pup brung Lutie back to hisself.”
The woman turned and glanced up at the mountain which seemed to be the location of the continuous howling.
“That’s the one, Lutie’s pup, raising all the ruckus. He’s full growed now, ‘course. He don’t run with no pack. Never did. He’s a loner. But he’s always close by when Lutie’s out away from the place. That’s how I come to know something weren’t right tonight.”
Bo’s head went under the water. When it bobbed up, he and the mule had shot downstream
“Ohhh...” the woman cried. “Lost their feets.”
Sara lunged forward. Her companion grabbed her arm and hung on.
“He needs help,” Sara shouted, twisting to break the woman’s hold. She had no idea what she could do, only that she had to help him.
The current swept faster as the water rose, dank and dangerous. Bo’s head bobbed back into sight. Adrenalin shot through Sara. She was a strong swimmer, but the woman kept a staying hand on her.
The man floundered, struggling for a moment before his shoulders appeared, dipped and rose again, this time remaining visible. Bo and the mule both appeared to have stopped their headlong run as the water again coursed around their bodies.
Bo’s upper body appeared part of the mist above the surface as he continued moving away. Gradually he emerged on the sand bar, the mule lumbering behind.
Sara’s breathing was ragged. They still had to make the return. She couldn’t see well but could make out the shapes of the man and the mule as they moved along the narrow spit--which appeared to be shrinking--working their way back upstream.
Eventually, almost directly across from Sara and the woman, they stopped. She either saw, or imagined she saw, Bo lift a slim figure onto the mule’s back. He led the mule several yards further upstream then turned and appeared again to be devoured by the river.
“Oh, God,” she whispered, “please bring him back to me. Please.” She scarcely breathed as the man, the mule, and the boy advanced slowly toward the rough river bank some distance below where the women waited.
Sara dropped Bo’s coat and guns on the ground and ran, the woman close at her back. They scrambled and scurried over rocks and down a cutaway to meet the convoy as it emerged from the chill water.
Ready to throw herself into his arms, Sara stopped instead, caught her breath, and stared. Her heart pounded as Bo lifted the boy from the mule’s back and stood him on the ground.
The woman stepped in front of Sara, wrapped her shawl around the child, swung him into her arms, and bustled toward the cabin. As an afterthought, she turned.
“Come on, you two!”
Sara stood paralyzed, her eyes locked on the man. She had intended to fling her arms around him, to hold onto him and comfort him and praise him for his courage. Instead, she stood stunned, staring. The powerful man who had emerged from the water was a stranger. She retreated a step, confused, frightened.
His hair and beard were plastered back revealing a high forehead, full dark eyebrows and a strong chin. The wet clothing clung to him, outlining the swells and crevices of a strapping body, broad shoulders, muscular biceps. She could see the definition of his chest and stomach, his slim waist and narrow hips. The long underwear clung to his well-formed legs. Amazed, Sara caught her breath as her eyes trailed from his face down his long physique.
This was not the old man who had shuffled into the river. Yet this was the same man who only appeared to be old behind the whiskers and layers of clothing. Now the river had exposed the truth.
Ducking his head, Bo tried to circumvent her, leading the mule toward the barn, but Sara recovered and grabbed the reins from his stiff fingers.
He yanked the straps back.
Gently, watching his face, she touched his hand, the massive hand usually warm and gentle, now unsteady in the chill wind whipping over his soaked body.
“Please let me.” Her words sounded hoarse as she gazed into the familiar depths of his black, black eyes. “I want to do this, for you. Please.”
He hesitated, looked at her a moment, then opened his hand, allowing her to take the reins from his icy fingers.
The woman appeared in the cabin door and shouted. “Bo, come on in here now and get shed a’ them wet clothes.”
Bo flashed Sara an apologetic look. She nodded, encouraging him to go. He turned toward the cabin, detouring only enough to pick up his abandoned coat and guns.
Sara took the mule to the barn, patting the animal, praising him for saving one human life, maybe two. She was amazed at her own calm. She’d been around few horses, had never even touched a mule.
Inside, out of the wind, she tied the docile animal to an iron rung, picked up a handful of straw from the corner and began wiping the water from his coat.
She rubbed a long time, exchanging dampened straw for dry from time to time. He stood very still, obviously enjoying her rapt attention. All the time she was drying him, she murmured to him about how heroic he was for going into the racing water.
“You were wonderful. Strong. Brave. You’re like that man in there, silent, and dependable, and courageous.”
She stopped stroking the animal and stood still a moment, contemplating.