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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The River of Kings

A Novel

Taylor Brown

St. Martin's Griffin



Altamaha River, Day 1

The river, storm-swollen and heavy, gleams like a long dark muscle in the earth, a serpent sliding mindless through the yet-bare arcade of river birch and cypress that lines its banks. The two brothers stand motionless over the waters, silent, then haul their kayaks onto their shoulders, bearing them bloodred and blue down the old boat ramp, the concrete scarred beneath them like ancient stone. A pair of fractured gullies, parallel, marks the hard decades of boat trailers and trucks, and the traces shine wet and broken in the early light. The ramp runs like a dagger into the shallows, vanishing into the tea-dark current.

The brothers wear short-torso paddling vests, each with a silver dive knife affixed in an over-heart sheath. Their spray skirts hang from their waists like floppy tutus. They carry sufficient provisions for five nights on the river: canned beans and freeze-dried fruit, mixed nuts and combat rations and a flask of Kentucky bourbon. They carry eight gallons of fresh water stored in bottles and plastic bladders, along with sleeping bags and insect repellent and a tent they’ll use only if it rains. On one of the boats, lashed aft of the cockpit, they carry five pounds of ash in a black nylon dry bag.

Their father.

Hunter, the younger, steps knee-deep into the current, and he can feel the weight of it pulling at his calves and ankles, the dark pull that is like an ambition. The spring rains charge down the dark swales of the Appalachian foothills, rumbling in wider and deeper confluence, birthing rivers that slither for the sea. Midway, they tumble and crash over the Fall Line, the belt of shoals and waterfalls and hydroelectric dams that marks the lost edge of the continent, past which the state of Georgia was once the bottom of a prehistoric sea. The fossils of ancient corals and mollusks are found far up-country, and the land is full of sharks’ teeth.

Hunter wears one on a string around his neck. It’s the size of an arrowhead, with a jet-black root and blue-gray enamel, the edges slightly serrated. He found it digging for baitworms as a boy, several miles inland of the coast. It is from Megalodon, the fifty-ton shark of the Cenozoic era. He and his brother are putting in deep below the Fall Line, down in the ancient seabed of slash pine and cypress and gum, while above them roam heavy gray monsters of cloud.

Lawton sits erect in his boat, waiting.

“Boy, you planning to lollygag all day or what?”

Hunter looks down at him. His older brother has a bushy red beard, fire-hued, that he grew in-country. In some of his pictures, the other men have black ovals instead of faces, and the mountains and vehicles and buildings are of a color: sand.

“I’m coming,” says Hunter. “Jesus, your horses run off?”

“I want to make the house before dark.”

“So you said. You keep badgering me, you’ll get an ass-whipping before we even get there.”

Lawton, forty pounds heavier, grins. His eyes a vicious, merry blue.

“I’d like to see that.”

“Keep it up, big boy, you’ll have a front-row seat.”

Hunter settles himself into the cockpit, checking the ashes are secure at his back. The eight-liter bag is waterproof, held down by crisscrosses of elastic deck rigging. He wanted to store the bag under one of the hatches for safekeeping, but Lawton wouldn’t have it.

“The old man ought to see his last ride down the river, don’t you think?”

Hunter hadn’t said what he was thinking: the old man was long past seeing.

They push off, letting the river ease them out into its flow. The ramp recedes behind them, the pickups and trailers grown toylike, and the river stretches itself through the trees. They are outside the mill town of Jesup, Georgia, some fifty miles to the coast by crow flight, but their journey seaward will be twice that long, the river winding its way through the lowcountry before them, curling nearly back onto itself again and again, growing ever more brackish and tidal before it empties its mouth into the sea.

Half a mile downriver stands the old Doctortown Railroad Trestle, the iron trussworks red-rusting over pilings of wet stone. This is the Altamaha Bridge, where state militia armed with two cannon and a rail-mounted siege gun held off a brigade of Union cavalry—one of the only stumbles in Sherman’s long march to the sea. Hunter squints, searching the woods for men on horseback, earthworks bristling with bayonets or gun barrels, purple plumes of gun smoke. The world alive from his history books. But the riverbanks are quiet, the ghosts asleep in the shade.

He looks to the bridge. Two boys who should be at school sit hunched on the edge of the tracks, bare feet dangling. They are watching wads of their spit swirl down into the current, comparing whose is fastest. One of them looks up, seeing the kayakers. He squints an eye, aiming, and shoots them the bird. He elbows his buddy, and now they’re both doing it, both-handed, grinning like fat-cheeked little devils.

Lawton’s neck swells like a pony keg.

“Them little sons of bitches.”

“Same as we would of done, that age.”

Lawton isn’t listening. He lays his paddle flat across his lap and gives them the bird in kind, pumping his arm up and down like a trucker on his air horn, his middle finger slightly bent from some old fistfight or doorjamb or car hood. On the belly of his forearm, there is a tattoo the size of a postage stamp, the tiny skeleton of a frog.

“Boy, get you some of that!” He slaps his arm for emphasis. “Get you some!”

“Bad idea.”

They have to paddle hard for the cover of the bridge, passing through a hail of spittle and curse. They slide white-flecked into the shadowed hollows of the span, the pilings graffitied like cave art on either side of them. Above them the thump of bare feet, the enemy repositioning for a second barrage. Lawton lifts a hand from his paddle, two sharp chops.

“Spread out. Don’t let them concentrate their fire.”

His face bristles with flame. He shows his teeth to the coming light.

Copyright © 2017 by Taylor Brown