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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Boatman's Daughter

A Novel

Andy Davidson

MCD x FSG Originals



Cook hunkered at the bottom of the ramp, let his fingers play in the slow-moving Texas water. Downstream, just beyond where the river became Arkansas, a train traversed a trestle bridge, tearing through the last lingering rag of night. He could almost read the graffiti on the boxcars. The sound of it put him in mind of an old song, something about a baby in a suitcase, thrown from a train, the woman who raised it. In forty-nine years of life, Cook had never ridden a train, and the woman who had raised him was long dead. He scratched his beard. Put his fingers back in the moving water, liked the feel of it flowing on, the river indifferent to his presence. The world needed nothing of him to keep on spinning.

He checked his watch: 5:12 a.m.

The train had been gone only a few minutes when he heard, downriver, the Crabtree girl’s boat.

He trudged back up the short ramp, over corrugated and broken concrete, to where his Shovelhead was parked. The road leading into the clearing was old gravel, long disused and grown over with Bahia grass. On a patch of ground where the grass was worn were the long-ashed bones of a fire. The woods beyond the clearing dark yet, the only light a blue mercury-vapor lamp shining at the edge of the trees. Cook took two longnecks from his saddlebag and popped each with a bottle opener on his key chain. Down the ramp, he saw her, rounding the bend in her Alumacraft, the trestle long and dark above. Cook lifted a hand, and she raised her own. She pointed at the old flat barge tethered along the bank, just up from the ramp. He walked down to it, through shin-high weeds, toes of his boots getting damp with dew.

The barge had been there as long as Cook could remember, rotting but never sinking. Parts strewn across the deck as if the vessel were mid-repairs when abandoned: a rusted inboard engine, gaskets, water pump and solenoid, all beyond good use.

The girl tied the Alumacraft to a starboard cleat.

Cook waited, holding the beers in one hand behind his back, as if they were flowers.

She bent to pick up her blue Igloo cooler and was about to board the barge when she saw his hand, hidden. She tensed. He held out the beers, waggled the bottles. She gave him a look and set her Igloo onto the barge and came aboard.

They sat cross-legged against the wheelhouse with its busted windows and graffitied walls, drinking, listening to the slow current of the Prosper, the distant whir of Whitman Dam four miles upriver. Beyond the dam the lake, and beyond the lake a hundred more miles of greenish brown water running south from northeast Texas like a scar on the land, cut eons ago when fossils were fish and the whole of the country was a Jurassic sea where great behemoths swam. Now, birdsong in the maples and oaks and beeches, the day coming alive.

Cook stole glances at the girl in the graying light. Her profile was sharp and long, like the rest of her, scattershot freckles across nose and cheeks, a few acne scars like slash marks across her chin. Her jaw was hard and set. Dark hair pulled back, tidy but unwashed. Her eyes a murky gray-green. She had cut things out of herself to survive on the river, as a man cuts free a hook barbed deep in his flesh. There were words for what she did not lack: grit, mettle. What it took to carve up an animal, to cut through bone and strip skin and scoop viscera with bare hands, to wipe away sweat and leave behind a streak of blood. She did not lack these things.

She’d see it coming, surely.

The end.

Perhaps already had.

She caught him watching her. Fidgeted, then finished her beer in three long swallows and tossed the bottle over her shoulder, through the broken wheelhouse window. The bottle clipped a shard of glass and the sound of it breaking was loud and jarring. She got up, dusting the loose seat of her jeans, and made a business of ignoring Cook. Stepped back into her boat, checked her fuel. Picked up a metal can and tipped it into the motor’s tank.

He drained his bottle, tossed it into the weeds along the shore, and tromped off the barge and up the ramp, back to the Shovelhead, where he fetched his bedroll with the money wrapped inside. By the time he returned, she was on the deck of the barge again, hands on the small of her back, stretching and staring at the distant silhouette of the railroad trestle. Cook took a knee by her cooler. He untied his roll and spread it on the deck. Tossed her the cash in a rolled lunch sack that lay at the bedroll’s center like the meat of a nut. Her lips moved silently as she counted it. Cook peeled the duct tape from around the Igloo’s lid and took out the dope and laid it all in a row on the roll: eight pint canning jars, stuffed full and sealed. These he rolled in a serape, then rolled the serape into the sleeping bag.

When he was done, the girl dropped the paper sack into the Igloo and closed it and made to pick up the cooler.

“Wait,” Cook said. He reached out, took her wrist gently.

She jerked back, studied him.

Searching, he knew, for some clue she had overlooked these last seven years, since the very first run. Any truth that could hurt or trap her. Cost her something she was not willing to pay. He held up his hands, palms out, an apology.

She just stood there, looking at him. Suspicious as a cat.

“I’ve got something else for you,” he said.

Wanting to add: It’s all been leading here, ever night since the first, when you were fourteen and came piloting that big boat alone.

He reached to the small of his back and brought out a pistol from his waistband.

She froze.

He flipped it, held it out flat on his palm like an offering between them.

“Smith and Wesson snub-nose,” he said. “Good close up, if it comes to it.”

She stared at him, unreadable as stone.

“Take it,” he said. “Learn to use it. Bring it next time. Keep it out of sight, but you bring it, hear?”

“Why?” she said, making no move to take the gun.

He set the revolver down on the barge between them and cinched each end of his bedroll with a rawhide cord. “Because,” he said quietly. “Maybe one day the man says do this one particular thing for the preacher and I say no, it ain’t the kind of thing I do. I truck in dope, that’s all. A man trucks in innocence—” He swallowed. Shook his head. “They put you under for things like that. If I’d known they’d ask me to, maybe I never would have…”

He lapsed, staring off into the river, which flowed quietly on, implacable.

“Gets you thinking,” he said, more to himself now than her. “What are you willing to do? Where’s the end of it?”

A muscle in her jaw ticked. She looked away.

Cook stood and shouldered his roll. He left the pistol on the rusted metal deck of the barge. “They’ll ask you to make another run,” he said. “Maybe one more, maybe two, I don’t know. It’s the last one you best worry about, savvy?”

The dawn had almost fully broken around them.

Her answer was barely audible, but Cook heard it. He always heard her, no matter how low she spoke, and she was in the habit of speaking very low.

“Crabtrees don’t use guns,” she said. She took the Igloo and hopped from the barge into her boat, leaving the pistol on the deck.

So he picked it up and did something that he had not done in all the time he had known her. He called her by name, and just speaking the word was enough to turn her head, if only for a moment, but it was a moment that would hang between them forever, so long as one of them lived. The morning mist curling up from the river like wood shavings. “Miranda,” he called, and when she turned, he tossed her the gun.

She caught it, a reflex. Held it in both hands.

He thought about what he might say next. He wanted to tell her what knowing her had meant, how every few months he grew restless not seeing her and did not know why. That she was a mystery and a magic in his life. But words like these had never come easy to Cook, so instead he just said, “Tell that dwarf to watch out for himself. We was friends. I reckon he’ll understand.”

A shadow of something—doubt, fear—crossed her face. But it was gone, just as quickly as it came, and after it had passed she tossed the gun carelessly in the bottom of her boat. She whipped the Alumacraft around and aimed it back downriver, sparing him no look, no farewell, not even a wave. As if putting distance between them as quickly as possible might erase this new, mysterious line just drawn. A border to be crossed, and she, retreating from it.

Least she took the gun, Cook thought. That’s something.

He walked back up the ramp and stood at the top, listening, until the sound of her motor had faded.

He had just kicked the Shovelhead to life—it snarled and spat—when a wave of loss so profound washed over him that he slumped on the seat. He looked one last time at the muddy river, where the only mystery left in his life had just disappeared, she, perhaps, fully ignorant of the empty wake her passing had left in his heart.

He rode his bike out of the woods and down the long, straight gravel road, which ran parallel to the train tracks for a time, a field of grain sorghum stretching away on the left in the amber light of morning.

Maybe I will buy myself a big silver Airstream and a truck to haul it, and I will head west. Way out west—

Ahead, where gravel met asphalt, a white Bronco was turned crosswise, and two men clad in T-shirts and denim stood outside it. One—short, pale-skinned, bald—looked down the road at Cook through a pair of binoculars. The other—huge and hulking—held a scoped rifle. Cook slowed, had just enough time to register what he was seeing, then caught the puff of smoke from the barrel. He never heard the shot, but he felt the impact in his chest, like a metal fist driving him backward, separating him from his bike, his daydreams, his tether to the world. He hit the gravel on his back and the bike skidded into the long grass.

Lying in the dirt, the taste of blood rising in his throat, he could not feel his body. He heard the pop of gravel under tire, heard doors slam.

A voice said, “Dope’s no good. Got glass all in it.”

He saw a giant dark shape blot out the golden sky. In its hand a blade, long and curved and wicked. A scythe.

“More where that came from,” the giant said, and raised his blade.

Cook shut his eyes.

Copyright © 2020 by Andy Davidson