In the shadow of threats both obvious and unknown,
Stuart and Cody Ray have only each other.
A month after Cody Ray was born, his mother left for Nevada. She told her father, Jesse Sumpter, that she thought she might have better luck in the desert. She promised to return for her two young boys as soon as she had a place to live. Mr. Sumpter thought she settled in Phoenix instead. At least her infrequent letters were postmarked from there.
Stuart was older than his brother by a year. Their father had drowned in a duck-hunting accident shortly before Cody Ray was born. Mr. Evans and two of his hunting friends had ventured out in a small boat into the flooded lands beyond the levee where thousands of ducks fed on the grain. Sometime during that afternoon, the wind had shifted suddenly from the northwest, bringing stinging icy pellets out of the plaster-gray sky, and their boat had overturned in a flooded field. The water was frigid, and the hunters had been drinking. Their waders quickly filled with water and anchored them as they thrashed for air under the flashing white flakes. After three days, they were found in several feet of water, but the icy water that drowned them had also prevented them from blooming into grotesque and unpresentable beasts. When somebody asked, Cody Ray said his parents died while he and Stuart were babies.
Stuart and Cody Ray would sit on the back stoop of their grandfather's old farmhouse to drink beer, smoke weed and watch for the B-52s. They came from the west, sneaking in on the final leg of a practice bombing run on the Titan II missile silos that honeycombed the earth around the farm.
"Shhh!" Cody Ray whispered one evening as he cocked a finger at the flushed sky. He was usually the first to see them. Stuart followed the cant of his brother's arm toward the lights twinkling on the horizon as bright incoming stars. A mock attack from the unpredictable planes usually left Stuart giddy and shaking.
The huge chariots guttered in so slowly the air ached. As they drifted in on their final low approach, Cody Ray disappeared inside the house. Stuart watched them waft over with their bomb-bay doors cranked open, insides lit up mute and sparkling like a carnival just before closing, and strained his eyes for a glimpse at the nuclear orb cruelly nestled inside the huge plane like a stone in the heart.
When Cody Ray stepped back outside, he cradled a .44 magnum rifle in the crook of his right arm. The brothers only used it to hunt white-tailed deer in the hills. While it lacked the glamorous reach of a .30-06 or .30-30, a .44 magnum bullet traveled slowly and packed a nasty wallop as powerful as a blow from a sledgehammer. Common deer rifles maimed about as many of the leaping deer as they killed inside the heavy brush. Stuart didn't think too much about it, because they were always fooling around with guns--until the rapid wham! wham! wham! off the muzzle sent him flying into the yard.
"What the hell?" he shouted at Cody Ray, who was squinting with his left eye, his dominant eye, down the rifle barrel at the exposed belly of a low-flying plane. He had squeezed the rifle tightly against his cheek and his flesh had shuffled into tiny ridges that resembled gills.
Cody Ray shrugged and lowered the rifle. "Missed," he said.
"You're nuts!" Stuart whispered. He wanted to puke with his fear, but he wouldn't let Cody Ray win so easily. An envelope addressed to Cody Ray from the Selective Service had arrived yesterday. Cody Ray hadn't attended his classes at the nearby college most of the spring and had failed the semester. Stuart had hidden the envelope from Cody Ray under the underwear in his top drawer. He understood what the letter meant.
Stuart limped to the edge of the yard to watch the planes disappear over a distant ridge, half expecting a nuclear cornucopia to rend them in a quick, searing flash of irrevocable light. He held his breath, badly shaken, unable to speak.
The planes floated away as gracefully as the purple martins that filled the air above the garden. Cody Ray propped the rifle against the house. Then he reached into the cooler for an icy beer.
"What was it?" Jesse Sumpter called into the gloaming from the kitchen door. Mr. Sumpter was one of the first farmers to plant peach trees down in the web of land stretched between the hills and mucky bottoms. It was an immense, rich land he called "crawdad land," land that buzzed softly under the warm light of the universe.
Cody Ray stepped backward into the deepening shadows. "An old coyote, sir," he said matter-of-factly. Coyotes haunted the chicken houses back in the hills, where each morning chicken farmers heaped fresh white snowbanks of carcasses against the barbed wire fences. Green flies buzzed at the feast, and the stench drifted for miles. Coyotes and circling buzzards soon cleaned the hosts with their ruthless liberty, though no one had seen a coyote around the Sumpter farm in years.
"Did you hit him?" Mr. Sumpter asked. Diabetes had weakened his eyes. His kidneys were failing. He was old and weak in the sorrowful way of the ancient, and he scooted when he walked across the rough wooden blanks of the porch to press his face tightly against the rusty porch screen. Only his fleshy lips moved, and he resembled a bandit with a dark silk stocking pulled tightly over his face. The sagging, rusty screen would leave his face stitched for hours.
"Missed, Grandad," Cody Ray answered with a melancholy--and totally believable--sigh.
"Well..." Mr. Sumpter said, only half-interested or half-remembering by then, and disappeared into the kitchen through the dusty penumbra that fanned out onto the porch. The rude shots had pulled him up from his books, up from the pages of his immutable China. He resettled inside the soft, familiar glow of his reading lamp and stared through the thick magnifying glass at words tugged like bloated fish from the yellowing pages. Then he drifted back into the sanctuary of his missionary days. His parents were medical missionaries in China during the bad years. His stories about muddy river baptisms and a desperate, smoky flight during a local insurrection resonated with biblical adventure and waning hope. He said the Chinese were the first to domesticate fire, eat dogs, and harness the wind. His soft lies were meant to entertain. But it's possible he knew.
Cody Ray held out his beer as a peace offering. Stuart took it. It was impossible for Stuart to fight with his brother, a summer dreamer. Cody Ray tugged at his fly to relieve himself into a row of white snowball hydrangeas planted beside the gravel driveway that circled to the rear of the house. His water arched proudly upon the hard ground. He laughed softly at some private joke.
His mild laughter was contagious. "What?" Stuart asked.
Cody Ray called through the darkness: "You best hope, Stuart, you never know when the missiles come--too much time to think. Just pray they come in the middle of the night when you're sleeping." Cody Ray shook himself vigorously before zipping up. "Kaboom, Stuart! Crispy critter!"
"You'll die, too," Stuart said.
"Nope." Cody Ray shook his head. "Not me, Stuart... not me." He said he already knew his death. It was no big thing to him.
"I hope they send your ass to Vietnam!" Stuart hissed bravely from the beer now that the planes had safely passed.
Cody Ray turned and walked silently past Stuart into the house. And from deep inside the house, Stuart heard again the sound of his brother's gently pitying laughter. Stuart couldn't move off the stoop for a long time.
At three the next morning Troy Tate waited for the boys at the sorting sheds. Mr. Sumpter had hired Tate to manage the farm when his health had failed. Tate wore a rumpled St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. Stuart and Cody Ray were to drive the peach truck to a farmers' market in Memphis.
"I topped off the gas tank," he said. "We'll have enough to make it over and back. You got money?"
Stuart nodded. Mr. Sumpter had counted out ten dollars for their lunches the night before. "You're going then?" Stuart asked. Occasionally Tate rode with them, but most of the time he stayed at the sorting sheds to watch the migrant workers, who sometimes stole peaches to sell along the highway from the beds of their rusty pickups. Tate nodded and Stuart was glad. He liked this affable, bald man.
They watched Cody Ray shake the high sideboards on the truck to test if they were firmly anchored. Then he climbed the sideboards to test the load for shifting.
"Three bucks a bushel, and not a penny less," Tate said. It was a suitable price he and Mr. Sumpter had decided on after Tate had supervised the loading of the truck the night before. "Three bucks, Cody Ray," he repeated, but really to himself, practicing now for the throbbing farmer's market, a place where clever merchants would steal from an unwary farmer.
Stuart slid behind the wheel. Cody Ray preferred to ride on the first leg, though he might drive back in the early afternoon after the peaches were sold. Cody Ray jerked the half-sprung passenger door open then. Tate slid in last and slammed the door shut, then shut it again because the rusty latch had not caught the first time. "There's coffee," Tate said, nodding to the large red thermos resting in the dirty litter on the floor of the truck.
The old truck's tires crunched upon the gravel road, a gratifying, uninhibited sound to someone lucky enough to have grown up beside one. The air whizzed through the lowered windows; it was damp and clean, like neat whiskey. This was good country; anybody who knew anything could smell it in the air, even before they turned a shovel of the dark sweet earth. Tate poured hot coffee into a Styrofoam cup and passed it to Stuart. It was strong, the way Stuart liked it. The coffee smelled good inside the open truck cab. Stuart drove slowly although everyone fidgeted, impatient to get started. They still had a good two-hour drive to the market.
Once a large owl blundered into the bouncing glare of the headlights from the shadow of a tree, then disappeared across the top of the truck with a panicked gray swoop. Cody Ray fiddled with the buttons on the radio until he picked up a rock-and-roll station in Iowa; the night was clear, and the signal was strong. A black-haired woman had once said to Cody Ray as they lay on a blanket staring up into the black greatness of space, "Rock 'n' roll might be simple, but it ain't profane."
Stuart balanced the cup and steering wheel in his right hand as he rubbed his shriveled left leg. Occasionally they met a truck delivering eggs from the long chicken houses shining brightly against the wings of the hills into the city to be washed, graded, and packed into crushed-paper cartons. Stuart turned onto a paved county road, and after several miles, they passed a missile silo.
Radiant pink lights the color of begonias, the kind of lights that grew the best marijuana, stood near the hardened concrete doors of the silo. A cattle gate protected the narrow entrance. A white sign with black numbers beside the gate identified the site. The area hummed like an electric substation, and even if Stuart hadn't known the biggest roman candle in the world stood ten stories tall under them, the wondrous air would still have danced with fine licks.
A black cat dashed across the road before them.
"Damn!" Tate shouted.
"What?" Stuart asked, his heart jumping suddenly into his throat.
"Bad luck," Tate said, looking along the ditch for the cat.
"You don't really believe that," Cody Ray said.
Tate took off his baseball cap to rub his bald head. He stared at the road before them. "And what do you know?" he asked.
Cody Ray laughed. "Plenty," he said bravely. Tate also laughed.
The headlights fluttered above the next rise; then in one slim moment, like something slowly rising from a muddy dream, they roared upon the Mennonite's buggy. A kerosene lantern swung grimly from the back. A bright orange reflector on the back of the rig glittered in the truck's oncoming lights. Stuart jerked the steering wheel to pass safely in the left lane, but the spooked horse reared up. Its owner stood to pull at the horse's reins. The horse jumped into the left lane as the peach truck roared past, and the horse squealed like something pained. Then the horse bumped against the side of the truck.
Stuart had locked his brakes near the top of the rise; now his tires squawked upon the pavement until they left the blacktop and the truck spun upon the loose gravel on the shoulder of the road. Stuart fought the wheel to stay in the road, but the truck was suddenly as wildly unrestrained as the horse. They left the road and plunged forward into a deep ravine. They bumped wildly over the rough ground, spewing peaches into the air, then sprayed a fountain of water in the soft bottom of the ditch before the truck lurched to a stop. Peaches rained down hard across the hood.
They sat for a minute without moving to clear the adrenaline from their brains. The only sound in the cab was an unholy crackling of static on the radio and the men's heavy sighs. The Mennonite ran down the embankment, then slipped as he hit the thick mud. One of the headlights shined brightly across his slick, white face. He grabbed the door and jerked it open. Tate and Cody Ray left the truck. Stuart slowly pulled himself up the tilted seat and followed them out the door. Cody Ray was standing on the gravel shoulder at the top of the ravine when Stuart reached him. He looked down towards the truck and shook his head. "You're dead when Grandad hears about this," Cody Ray said with a grunt.
Stuart didn't answer.
Tate walked toward the two brothers. "You okay?" he called.
"Yes," Cody Ray said.
"I'm okay," Stuart said. He looked away from the bruised truck to Tate.
The Mennonite walked up behind them. The four men stood in the road studying the truck at the bottom of the ravine. "I had lights," the stunned man finally said.
"My horse..." the man said. He pointed towards his twisted rig. They followed him over to it. The buggy was twisted in the air at a crazy angle because of the horse's weight. The horse lay panting in the middle of the road.
Tate examined the horse's leg. "It's broken," he said when he finally stood up to face the Mennonite.
"Yes," the Mennonite said sadly.
"We need to get it out of the road before somebody comes," Tate said. He had lost his baseball cap during the wild ride. Everyone looked down the road for a speeding car.
"Yes," the Mennonite whispered softly again. He reached into his loose pocket and brought out a knife. He snapped the blade open and bent over the horse. The horse breathed deeply, its eyes wide with pain, but quit thrashing when the Mennonite placed his hand gently upon its neck. In a minute, the horse was free.
"You got some rope?" Tate asked.
The man walked around his buggy. In a moment, he returned with a strong length of rope. Tate tied the rope around the horse, and the four men pulled it from the crest of the road into the heavy grass where it laid panting heavily. The four men then pushed the buggy out of the road. Cody Ray walked back across the road and down the ravine to the truck. He reached inside the cab and lifted the rifle from the gun rack. Stuart waited in the road.
"What can we do?" the man asked Tate while standing over his horse.
"It'll have to be destroyed," Tate said.
The Mennonite nodded. "How?" he asked.
Cody Ray walked up and extended the rifle to the Mennonite. "You would shoot him?" the man asked softly. Nobody answered. He crossed his arms, unable to take the rifle. His white shirt was bright under his black suit.
"You want to do it?" Cody Ray finally asked.
The man looked over at his horse panting heavily in the stiff, dry grass. "No," the man whispered.
Cody Ray walked up to the horse and fired quickly. Cody Ray then turned to stare at the smoldering amber lights of the missile silo a few hundred yards away. When he spoke, he sounded dazed, the way he did when he had smoked too much weed. "Troy, look at my head, will you?"
Tate had turned away, looking again down on the truck slumped at the bottom of the ravine, and Cody Ray had to repeat it. "Where?" Tate asked.
A trail of peaches followed the muddy tracks of the truck. Stuart stood quietly by himself. He knew he'd soon have to tell Cody Ray about the envelope hidden in his dresser drawer. Maybe tomorrow, he thought.
He turned in time to hear Cody Ray reluctantly admit Tate might have been right about the black cat while Tate examined the oozing cut in Cody Ray's scalp. Something else was shared between Cody Ray and Tate, something too quietly secret to be understood from a distance. Then Cody Ray laughed and said, "Tonight I'm gonna find me a fine woman and some cold beer!"
Tate laughed, too; "You just don't get it do you, boy?" He put his arm around Cody Ray's shoulder.
Stuart watched their warm embrace, then suddenly remembered when he and Cody Ray had been boys running with their dogs before the shadows from the sun.
Hollis Drew (email@example.com) lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he is gainfully unemployed.
InterText stories written by Hollis Drew: "Shooting Stars" (v6n5), "Paddlefish Sky" (v7n3), "Ox-Plum Road" (v8n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Hollis Drew.