Good God. Get looking, she shouted. Three years old and on the loose. Spread out, and the people left their napkins by their plates and did as she ordered. Norton, she yelled to the cook. He came out wiping his hands on the dingy apron that girdled his body. Check down by the river. And fast.
Len felt his heart seize. If anything had happened to the boy You set there, the waitress said. She placed a hand on his shoulder and forced him into the cracked padding of a booth. You look like death. Cant have him see you like that, and Len felt himself collapse under her soft push.
The room emptied. Len counted slowly to five, forcing each breath into his lungs. And then he stood and followed the cooks broad back down a path to the river. He paused when Norton did, watched the cook straighten from his bearlike slump, tap a cigarette loose from a crumpled pack, hold it to his mouth. Norton leisurely cupped his hands to light the cigarette and drew a noisy, satisfied lungful of smoke.
Len strained to see past the brush that blocked his view. Wrecker stood on a boulder not ten paces away, throwing smaller rocks into the swiftly flowing stream. He had a powerful overhand and imperfect aim.
Norton ignored the kid and smoked with gusto. Then he snubbed out the cigarette on the sole of his shoe, tossed the butt into the bushes, and roared, All right, Champ. Come on with me. Len watched Wrecker lift his chin and glance at the fat man in the apron. His gaze swept around to gather Len as well. He kept throwing his rocks into the water.
Norton tapped his foot. You want a cheeseburger? he bribed. I can make you a cheeseburger. The boy didnt stir, and Norton yawned, his mouth opening wide as a walruss. Fine, he said, unperturbed. Hide out down here and eat these weeds. Its all the same to me. He started back up the trail. Hold your nose when you chew on them, Norton shouted helpfully. Helps cover the fish shit.
Wrecker held on to the rest of his pebbles. Fish dont shit. Len lifted an eyebrow. He hadnt been raised to use language like that. Hadnt been raised to wander off, either.
Norton snorted. Dont kid yourself. He spit out of the corner of his mouth. Everybody shits. You get hungry, come on up, and lumbered past Len back up the trail to the diner. Wrecker threw the rest of his rocks, one by one, into the flow. Then he turned and followed the heavyset cook back to the diner.
Len couldnt eat. He watched the boy tuck into his burger, kneeling on the booth seat to be tall enough to reach the table, and thought, Oh. What in the world have I done. It was half past ten when Len made his careful way at last down to the Mattole. He felt happiness swell a lump into his throat. Every part of him ached and his mind was frozen with fatigue, The Mattole Valley lay nestled in the rain- soaked western reaches of Humboldt County. It was a bump high on the California coast that jutted into the Pacific and sheltered bear and mountain lion in a kind of sleepy, soggy paradise of the ages. Sure, Len thought. Until the nineteenth century roared in. Hed read his history. That was a new age, a freight train fueled with the promise of fortune, and lumber barons and oil drillers and commercial fishermen and cattle ranchers caught wind of a fine opportunity and came to gather what they could of the rewards. By the time Len and Meg arrived in 55, the biggest trees had been felled and the oil played out and what was left was just enough range to run a few hundred head of cows. The river rose in 56, wiped whole towns off the map. Nobody was getting rich anymore.
Excerpted from Wrecker by Summer Wood. Copyright © 2011 by Summer Wood. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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