weekend-readsSpeckle Trout

Ron Rash

Lanny came upon the pot plants while fishing Caney Creek. It was a Saturday, and after helping his father sucker tobacco all morning, he’d had the truck and the rest of the afternoon and evening for himself. He’d changed into his fishing clothes and driven the three miles of dirt road to the French Broad. He drove fast, the rod and reel clattering side to side in the truck bed and clouds of red dust rising in his wake like dirt devils. He had the windows down and if the radio worked he would have had it blasting. The driver’s license in his billfold was six months old but only in the last month had his daddy let him drive the truck by himself.

He parked by the bridge and walked upriver toward where Caney Creek entered. Afternoon sunlight slanted over Brushy Mountain and tinged the water the color of cured tobacco. A big fish leaped in the shallows but Lanny’s spinning rod was broken down and even if it hadn’t been he would not have bothered to make a cast. There was nothing in the river he could sell, only stocked rainbows and browns, knottyheads, and catfish. The men who fished the river were mostly old men, men who would stay in one place for hours, motionless as the stumps and rocks they sat on. Lanny liked to keep moving, and he fished where even the younger fishermen wouldn’t go.

In forty minutes he was half a mile up Caney Creek, the spinning rod still broken down. There were trout in the lower section where browns and rainbows had worked their way up from the river, and Old Man Jenkins would not buy them. The gorge narrowed to a thirty-foot wall of water and rock, below it the deepest pool on the creek. This was the place where everyone else turned back. He waded through waist-high water to reach the left side of the waterfall, then began climbing, using juts and fissures in the rock for leverage and resting places. When he got to the top he put the rod together and tied a gold Panther Martin on the line.

The only fish this far up were what fishing magazines called brook trout, though Lanny had never heard Old Man Jenkins or anyone else call them anything other than speckle trout. Jenkins swore they tasted better than any brown or rainbow and paid Lanny fifty cents apiece no matter how small they were. Old Man Jenkins ate them head and all, like sardines.

Mountain laurel slapped against Lanny’s face and arms, and he scraped his hands and elbows climbing straight up rocks there was no other way around. The only path was water now. He thought of his daddy back at the farmhouse and smiled to himself. The old man had told him never to fish a place like this alone, because a broken leg or a rattlesnake bite could get you stone-dead before anyone found you. That was near about the only kind of talk he got anymore from the old man, Lanny thought to himself as he tested his knot, always being lectured about something—how fast he drove, who he hung out with—like he was eight years old instead of sixteen, like the old man himself hadn’t raised all sorts of hell when he was young.

The only places with enough water to hold fish were the pools, some no bigger than a washbucket. Lanny flicked the spinner into the pools and in every third or fourth one a small, orange-finned trout came flopping out onto the bank, the spinner’s treble hook snagged in its mouth. Lanny would slap the speckle’s head against a rock and feel the fish shudder in his hand and die. If he missed a strike, he cast again into the same pool. Unlike browns and rainbows, the speckles would hit twice, occasionally even three times. Old Man Jenkins had told Lanny when he was a boy most every stream in the county was thick with speckles, but they’d been too easy caught and soon enough fished out, which was why now you had to go to the back of beyond to find them.

He already had eight fish in his creel when he passed the No Trespassing sign nailed in an oak tree. The sign was scabbed with rust like the ten-year-old car tag on his granddaddy’s barn, and he paid no more attention to the sign than he had when he’d first seen it a month ago. He knew he was on Toomey land, and he knew the stories. How Linwood Toomey had once used his thumb to gouge a man’s eye out in a bar fight and another time opened a man’s face from ear to mouth with a broken beer bottle. Stories about events Lanny’s daddy had witnessed before, as his daddy put it, he’d got straight with the Lord. But Lanny had heard other things. About how Linwood Toomey and his son were too lazy and hard drinking to hold steady jobs. Too lazy and drunk to walk the quarter-mile from their farmhouse to the creek to look for trespassers too, Lanny told himself.

He waded on upstream, going farther than he’d ever been. He caught more speckles, and soon ten dollars’ worth bulged in his creel. Enough money for gas, maybe even a couple of bootleg beers, he told himself, and though it wasn’t near the money he’d been making at the Pay-Lo bagging groceries, at least he could do this alone and not have to deal with some old bitch of a store manager with nothing better to do than watch his every move, then fire him just because he was late a few times.

He came to where the creek forked and that was where he saw a sudden high greening a few yards above him on the left. He left the water and climbed the bank to make sure it was what he thought it was.

The plants were staked like tomatoes and set in rows the same way as tobacco or corn. He knew they were worth money, a lot of money, because Lanny knew how much his friend Travis paid for an ounce of pot and this wasn’t just ounces but maybe pounds.

He heard something behind him and turned, ready to drop the rod and reel and make a run for it. On the other side of the creek a gray squirrel scrambled up a blackjack oak. He told himself there was no reason to get all jumpy, that nobody would have seen him coming up the creek.

He let his eyes scan what lay beyond the plants. He didn’t see any- thing moving, not even a cow or chicken. Nothing but some open ground and then a stand of trees. He rubbed a pot leaf between his finger and thumb, and it felt like money to him, more money than he’d make even at the Pay-Lo. He looked around one more time before he took the knife from its sheath and cut down five plants.

That was the easy part. Dragging the stalks a mile down the creek was a lot harder, especially while trying to keep the leaves from being stripped off. When he got to the river he hid the plants in the underbrush and walked the trail to make sure no one was fishing. Then he carried the plants to the road edge, stashed them in the ditch, and got the truck. He emptied the creel into the ditch, the trout stiff and glaze-eyed. He wouldn’t be delivering Old Man Jenkins any speckles this evening.

Lanny drove back home with the stalks hidden under willow branches and potato sacks. He planned to stay only long enough to get a shower and put on some clean clothes, but as he walked through the front room his father looked up from the TV.

“We ain’t ate yet.”

“I’ll get something in town,” Lanny said.

“No, your momma’s fixin supper right now, and she’s set the table for three.”

“I ain’t got time. Travis is expecting me.”

“You can make time, boy. Or I might take a notion to go somewhere in that truck myself this evening.”

It was seven-thirty before Lanny drove into the Hardee’s parking lot and parked beside Travis’s battered Camaro. He got out of the truck and walked over to Travis’s window.

“You ain’t going to believe what I got in back of the truck.”

Travis grinned.

“It ain’t that old prune-faced bitch that fired you, is it?”

“No, this is worth something.”

Travis got out of the Camaro and walked around to the truck bed with Lanny. Lanny looked around to see if anyone was watching, then pulled back enough of a sack so Travis could see one of the stalks.

“I got five of em.”

“Holy shit. Where’d that come from?”

“Found it when I was fishing.”

Travis pulled the sack back farther.

“I need to start doing my fishing with you. It’s clear I been going to the wrong places.”

A car pulled up to the drive-through and Travis pulled the sack over the plant.

“What you planning to do with it?”

“Sell it, if I can figure out who’ll buy it.”

“Leonard would buy it, I bet.”

“He don’t know me though. I ain’t one of his potheads.”

“Well, I am,” Travis said. “Let me lock my car and we’ll go pay him a visit.”

“How about we go over to Dink’s first and get some beer.”

“Leonard’s got beer. His is cheaper and it ain’t piss-warm like what we got at Dink’s last time.”

They drove out of Marshall, following 221 toward Mars Hill.

“You in for a treat, meeting Leonard,” Travis said. “They ain’t another like him, leastways in this county.”

“I heard tell he was a lawyer once.”

“Naw, he just went to law school a few months. They kicked his ass out because he was stoned all the time.”

After a mile they turned off the blacktop and onto a dirt road. On both sides of the road what had once been pasture was now thick with blackjack oak and broomsedge. They passed a deserted farmhouse and turned onto another road no better than a logging trail, trees on both sides now.

The woods opened into a small meadow, at the center a battered green and white trailer, its windows painted black. On one side of the trailer a satellite dish sprouted like an enormous mushroom, on the other side a Jeep Cherokee, its back fender crumpled. Two Dobernans scrambled out from under the trailer, barking as they ran toward the truck. They leaped at Lanny’s window, their claws raking the passenger door as he quickly rolled up the window.

The trailer door opened and a man with a gray ponytail and wearing only a pair of khaki shorts stepped onto the cinderblock steps. He yelled at the dogs and when that did no good he came out to the truck and kicked at them until they slunk back from where they had emerged.

Lanny looked at a man who wasn’t any taller than himself and looked to outweigh him only because of a stomach that sagged over the front of his shorts like a half-deflated balloon.

“That’s Leonard?”

“Yeh. The one and only.”

Leonard walked over to Travis’s window.

“I got nothing but beer and a few nickel bags. Supplies are going to be low until people start to harvest.”

“Well, we likely come at a good time then.” Travis turned to Lanny. “Let’s show Leonard what you done brought him.”

Lanny got out and pulled back the branches and potato sacks.

“Where’d you get that from?” Leonard said.

“Found it,” Lanny said.

“Found it, did you? And you figured finders keepers.”

“Yeh,” said Lanny.

Leonard let his fingers brush some of the leaves.

“Looks like you dragged it through every briar patch and laurel slick between here and the county line.”

“There’s plenty of leaves left on it,” Travis said.

“What you give me for it?” Lanny said.

Leonard lifted each stalk, looking at it the same way Lanny had seen buyers look at tobacco.

“Fifty dollars.”

“You trying to cheat me,” Lanny said. “I’ll find somebody else to buy it.”

As soon as he spoke Lanny wished he hadn’t, because he’d heard from more than one person that Leonard Hamby was a man you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of. He was about to say that he reckoned fifty dollars would be fine but Leonard spoke first.

“You may have an exalted view of your entrepreneurial abilities,” Leonard said.

Lanny didn’t understand all the words but he understood the tone. It was smart-ass but it wasn’t angry.

“I’ll give you sixty dollars, and I’ll double that if you bring me some that doesn’t look like it’s been run through a hay baler. Plus I got some cold beers inside. My treat.”

“OK,” Lanny said, surprised at Leonard but more surprised at himself, how tough he’d sounded. He tried not to smile as he thought how when he got back to Marshall he’d be able to tell his friends he’d called Leonard Hamby a cheater to his face and Leonard hadn’t done a damn thing about it but offer more money and free beer.

Leonard took a money clip from his front pocket and peeled off three twenties and handed them to Lanny. Leonard nodded toward the meadow’s far corner.

“Put them over there next to my tomatoes. Then come inside if you got a notion to.”

Lanny and Travis carried the plants through the knee-high grass and laid them next to the tomatoes. As they approached the trailer Lanny watched where the Dobermans had vanished under the trailer. He didn’t lift his eyes until he reached the steps.

Inside, it took Lanny’s vision a few moments to adjust, because the only light came from a TV screen. Strings of unlit Christmas lights ran across the walls and over door eaves like bad wiring. A dusty looking couch slouched against the back wall. In the corner Leonard sat in a fake-leather recliner patched with black electrician’s tape. Except for a stereo system, the rest of the room was shelves filled with books and CDs. Music was playing, music that didn’t have any guitars or words.

“Have a seat,” Leonard said, and nodded at the couch.

A woman stood in the foyer between the living room and kitchen. She was a tall, bony woman and the cut-off jeans and halter top she wore had little flesh to hold them up. She’d gotten a bad sunburn and there were pink patches on her skin where she’d peeled. To Lanny she mostly looked wormy and mangy, like some stray dog around a garbage dump. Except for her eyes. They were a deep blue, like a jaybird’s feathers. If you could just keep looking into her eyes, she’d be a pretty woman, Lanny told himself.

“How about getting these boys a couple of beers, Wendy,” Leonard said.

“Get them your ownself,” the woman said and disappeared into the back of the trailer.

Leonard shook his head but said nothing as he got up. He brought back two long-neck Budweisers and a sandwich bag filled with pot and some wrapping papers.

He handed the beers to Travis and Lanny and sat down. Lanny was thirsty and he drank quickly as he watched Leonard carefully shake some pot out of the bag and onto the paper. Leonard licked the cigarette paper and twisted it at both ends, then lit it.

The orange tip brightened as Leonard drew the smoke in. He handed the joint to Travis, who drew on it as well and handed it back.

“What about your buddy?”

“He don’t smoke pot. Scared his daddy would find out and beat the tar out of him.”

“That ain’t so,” Lanny said. “I just like a beer buzz better.”

Lanny lifted the bottle to his lips and drank until the bottle was empty.

“I’d like me another one.”

“Quite the drinker, aren’t you,” Leonard said. “‘Just make sure you don’t overdo it. I don’t want you passed out and pissing on my couch.”

“I ain’t gonna piss on your couch.”

Leonard took another drag of the joint and passed it back to Travis.

“They’re in the refrigerator,” Leonard said. “You can get one easy as I can.”

Lanny stood up and for a moment he felt off plumb, maybe because he’d drunk the beer so fast. When the world steadied he got the beer and sat back down on the couch. He looked at the TV, some kind of western but without the sound on he couldn’t tell what was happening. He drank the second beer quick as the first as Travis and Leonard finished smoking the pot.

Travis had his eyes closed.

“Man, I’m feeling good,” Travis said.

Lanny studied the man who sat in the recliner, trying to figure out what it was that made Leonard Hamby a man you didn’t want to mess with. Leonard looked soft, Lanny thought, white and soft like bread dough. Just because a man had a couple of mean dogs didn’t make him such a badass, he told himself. He thought about his own daddy and Linwood Toomey, big men you could look at and tell right away were badasses, or, like his daddy, once had been. Lanny wondered if anyone would ever call him a badass and wished again that he didn’t take after his mother, who was short and thin-boned.

“What’s this shit you’re listening to, Leonard,” Lanny said.

“It’s called ‘Appalachian Spring.’ It’s by Copland.”

“Ain’t never heard of them.” Leonard looked amused.

“Are you sure? They used to be the warm-up act for Lynard Skynard.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“No matter. Copland is an acquired taste, and I don’t anticipate your listening to a classical music station any time in the future.”

Lanny knew Leonard was putting him down, talking over him like he was stupid, and it made him think of his teachers at the high school, teachers that used smart-ass words against him when he gave them trouble because they were too old and scared to try anything else. He got up and made his way to the refrigerator, damned if he was going to ask permission. He got the beer out and opened the top but didn’t go back to the couch. He went down the hallway to find the bathroom.

The bedroom door was open, and he could see the woman sitting up in the bed reading a magazine. He pissed and then walked into the bedroom and sat down on the bed.

The woman laid down the magazine.

“What do you want?”

Lanny grinned.

“What you offering?”

Even buzzed up with beer he knew it was a stupid thing to say. It seemed to him that ever since he’d got to Leonard’s his mouth had been a faucet he couldn’t shut off.

The woman’s blue eyes stared at him like he was nothing more than a sack of shit somebody had dumped on her bed.

“I ain’t offering you anything,” she said. “Even if I was, a little peckerhead like you wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

The woman looked toward the door.

“Leonard,” she shouted. Leonard appeared at the doorway.

“It’s past time to get your Cub Scout meeting over.”

Leonard nodded at Lanny.

“I believe you boys have overstayed your welcome.”

“I was getting ready to leave anyhow,” Lanny said. As he got up, the beer slipped from his hand and spilled on the bed. “Nothing but a little peckerhead,” the woman said.

In a few moments he and Travis were outside. The evening sun glowed in the treetop like a snagged orange balloon. The first lightning bugs rode over the grass as though carried on an invisible current.

“You get more plants, come again,” Leonard said and closed the trailer door.

Lanny went back the next Saturday, two burlap sacks stuffed into his belt. After he’d been fired from the Pay-Lo, he’d about given up hope on earning enough money for his own truck, but now things had changed. Now he had what was pretty damn near a money tree and all he had to do was get its leaves to Leonard Hamby. He climbed up the waterfall, the trip up easier without a creel and rod. Once he passed the No Trespassing sign, he moved slower, quieter. I bet Linwood Toomey didn’t even plant it, Lanny told himself. I bet it was somebody who figured the Toomeys were too sorry to notice pot was growing on their land.

When he came close to where the plants were, he crawled up the bank, slowly raising his head like a soldier in a trench. He scanned the tree line across the field and saw no one. He told himself even if someone hid in the trees, they could never get across the field to catch him before he was long gone down the creek.

Lanny cut the stalks just below the last leaves. Six plants filled the sacks. He thought about cutting more, taking what he had to the truck and coming back to get the rest, but he figured that was too risky. He made his way back down the creek. He didn’t see anyone on the river trail, but if he had he’d have said it was poke shoots in the sacks if they’d asked.

When he drove up to the trailer, Leonard was watering the tomatoes with a hose. Leonard cut off the water and herded the Dobermans away from the truck. Lanny got out of the truck and walked around to the truck bed.

“How come you grow your own tomatoes but not your own pot?”

“Because I’m a low-risk kind of guy. Since they’ve started using the planes and helicopters, it’s gotten too chancy unless you have a place way back in some hollow.”

One of the Dobermans growled from beneath the trailer but did not show its face.

“Where’s your partner?”

“I don’t need no partner,” Lanny said. He lifted the sacks from the truck bed and emptied them onto the ground between him and Leonard.

“That’s one hundred and twenty dollars worth,” Lanny said.

Leonard stepped closer and studied the plants.

“Fair is fair,” Leonard said and pulled a money clip from his pocket. He handed Lanny five twenty-dollar bills and four fives.

Lanny crumpled the bills in his fist and stuffed them into his pocket, but he did not get back in the truck.

“What?” Leonard finally said.

“I figured you to ask me in for a beer.”

“I don’t think so. I don’t much want to play host this afternoon.”

“You don’t think I’m good enough to set foot in that roachy old trailer of yours.”

Leonard looked at Lanny and smiled.

“Boy, you remind me of a banty rooster, strutting around not afraid of anything, puffing your feathers out anytime anyone looks at you wrong. You think you’re a genuine, hardcore badass, don’t you?”

“I ain’t afraid of you, if that’s what you’re getting at. If your own woman ain’t scared of you, why should I be.”

Leonard looked at the money clip in his hand. He tilted it in his hand until the sun caught the metal and a bright flash hit Lanny in the face. Lanny jerked his head away from the glare.

Leonard laughed and put the money clip back in his pocket.

“After the world has its way with you a few years, it’ll knock some of the strut out of you. If you live that long.”

“I ain’t wanting your advice,” Lanny said. “I just want some beer.”

Leonard went into the trailer and brought out a six-pack of cans.

“Here,” he said. “A farewell present. Don’t bother to come around here anymore.”

“What if I get you some more plants?”

“I don’t think you better try to do that. Whoever’s pot that is will be harvesting in the next few days. You best not be anywhere near when they’re doing it either.”

“What if I do get more?”

“Same price, but if you want any beer you best be willing to pay bootleg price like your buddies.”

The next day soon as Sunday lunch was finished, he put on jeans and a T-shirt and tennis shoes and headed toward the French Broad. The day was hot and humid, and the only people on the river were a man and two boys swimming near the far bank. By the time he reached the creek his T-shirt was sweat-soaked and sweat stung his eyes.

Upstream the trees blocked out most of the sun and the cold water he splashed on his face and waded through cooled him. At the waterfall, an otter slid into the pool. Lanny watched its body surge through the water, straight and sleek as a torpedo, before disappearing under the far bank. He wondered how much an otter pelt was worth and figured come winter it might be worth finding out. He knelt and cupped his hand, the pool’s water so cold it hurt his teeth.

He climbed the left side of the falls, then made his way upstream until he got to the No Trespassing sign. If someone waited for him, Lanny believed that by now the person would have figured out he’d come up the creek, so he stepped up on the right bank and climbed the ridge into the woods. He followed the sound of water until he figured he’d gone far enough and came down the slope slow and quiet, stopping every few yards to listen. When he got to the creek, he looked upstream and down before crossing.

The plants were still there. He pulled the sacks from his belt and walked toward the first plant, his eyes on the trees across the field.

The ground gave slightly beneath his right foot. He did not hear the spring click. What he heard was the sound of bone shattering. Pain raced like a flame up his leg to consume his whole body.

When he came to, he was on the ground, his face inches from a pot plant. This ain’t nothing but a bad dream, he told himself, thinking that if he believed it hard enough it might become true. He used his forearm to lift his head enough to look at the leg and the leg twisted slightly and the pain hit him like a fist. The world turned deep-blue and he thought he was going to pass out again, but in a few moments the pain eased a little.

He looked at his foot and immediately wished he hadn’t. The trap’s jaws clenched around his leg just above the ankle. Blood soaked the tennis shoe red, and the leg angled back on itself in a way that made bile surge up from his stomach. Don’t look at it anymore until you have to, he told himself and lay his head back on the ground.

His face looked toward the sun now, and he guessed it was still early afternoon. Maybe it ain’t that bad, he told himself. Maybe if I just lay here a while it’ll ease up some, and I can get the trap off. He lay still as possible, breathing long shallow breaths, trying to think about something else. He remembered what Old Man Jenkins had said about how one man could pretty much fish out a stream of speckle trout by himself if he took a notion to. Lanny wondered how many speckle trout he’d be able to catch out of Caney Creek before they were all gone. He wondered if after he did he’d be able to find another way-back trickle of water that held them.

He must have passed out again, because when he opened his eyes the sun hovered just above the tree line. When he tested the leg, pain flamed up every bit as fierce as before. He wondered how late it would be tonight before his parents would get worried and how long it would take after that before someone found his truck and got people searching. Tomorrow at the earliest, he told himself, and even then they’d search river before looking anywhere else.

He lifted his head a few inches and shouted toward the woods. No one called back, and he imagined Linwood Toomey and his son passed-out drunk in their farmhouse. Being so close to the ground muffled his voice, so he used a forearm to raise himself a little higher and called again.

I’m going to have to sit up, he told himself, and just the thought of doing so made the bile rise again in his throat. He took deep breaths and used both arms to lift himself into a sitting position. The pain smashed against his body again but just as quickly eased. The world began draining itself of color until everything around him seemed shaded with gray. He leaned back on the ground, sweat popping out on his face and arms like blisters.

Everything seemed farther away, the sky and trees and plants, as though he were being lowered into a well. He shivered and wondered why he hadn’t brought a sweatshirt with him.

Two men came out of the woods. They walked toward him with no more hurry or concern than men come to check their tobacco for cut worms. Lanny knew the big man in front was Linwood Toomey and the man trailing him his son. He could not remember the son’s name but had seen him in town a few times. What he remembered was the son had been away from the county for nearly a decade and that some said he’d been in the marines and others said prison. The younger man wore a dirty white T-shirt and jeans, the older, blue coveralls with no shirt underneath. Grease coated their hands and arms.

They stood above him but did not speak. Linwood Toomey took a rag from his back pocket and rubbed his hands and wrists. Lanny wondered if they weren’t there at all, were nothing but some imagining the hurting caused.

“My legs broke,” Lanny said, figuring if they spoke back they must be real.

“I reckon it is,” Linwood Toomey said. “I reckon it’s near about cut clear off.”

The younger man spoke.

“What we going to do?”

Linwood Toomey did not answer the question, but eased himself onto the ground beside the boy. They were almost eye level now.

“Who’s your people?”

“My daddy’s James Burgess. My momma was Ruthie Candler before she got married.”

Linwood Toomey smiled.

“I know who your daddy is. Me and him used to drink some together, but that was back when he was sowing his wild oats. I’m still sowing mine, but I switched from oats. Found something that pays more.”

Linwood Toomey stuffed the rag in his back pocket.

“You found it too.”

“I reckon I need me a doctor,” Lanny said. He was feeling better now, knowing Linwood Toomey was there beside him. His leg didn’t hurt nearly as much now as it had before, and he told himself he could probably walk on it if he had to, once Linwood Toomey got the trap off.

“What we going to do?” the son said again.

The older man looked up.

“We’re going to do what needs to be done.”

Linwood Toomey looked back at Lanny. He spoke slowly and his voice was soft.

“Coming back up here a second time took some guts, son. Even if I’d have figured out you was the one done it I’d have let it go, just for the feistiness of your doing such a thing. But coming back up here a third time was downright foolish, and greedy. You’re old enough to know better.”

“I’m sorry,” Lanny said. Linwood Toomey reached out his hand and gently brushed some of the dirt off Lanny’s face.

“I know you are, son.”

Lanny liked the way Linwood Toomey spoke. The words were soothing, like rain on a tin roof. He was forgetting something, something important he needed to tell Linwood Toomey. Then he remembered.

“I reckon we best get on to the doctor, Mr. Toomey.”

“There’s no rush, son,” Linwood Toomey said. “The doctor won’t do nothing but finish cutting that lower leg off. We got to harvest these plants first. What if we was to take you down to the hospital and the law started wondering why we’d set a bear trap. They might figure there’s something up here we wanted to keep folks from poking around and finding.”

Linwood Toomey’s words had started to blur and swirl in Lanny’s mind. They were hard to hold in place long enough to make sense. But what he did understand was Linwood Toomey’s words weren’t said in a smart-ass way like Leonard Hamby’s or Lanny’s teachers or spoken like he was still a child the way his parents did. Lanny wanted to explain to Linwood Toomey how much he appreciated that, but to do so would mean having several sentences of words to pull apart from one another, and right now that was just too many. He tried to think of a small string of words he might untangle.

Linwood Toomey took a flat glass bottle from his back pocket and uncapped it.

“Here, son,” he said, holding the bottle to Lanny’s lips.

Lanny gagged slightly but kept most of the whiskey down. He tried to remember what had brought him this far up the creek. Linwood Toomey pressed the bottle to his lips again.

“Take another big swallow,” he said. “It’ll cut the pain while you’re waiting.”

Lanny did as he was told and felt the whiskey spread down into his belly. It felt warm and soothing, like an extra quilt on a cold night. Lanny thought of something he could say in just a few words.

“You reckon you could get that trap off my foot?”

“Sure,” Linwood Toomey said. He slid over a few feet to reach the trap, then looked up at his son.

“Step on that lever, Hubert, and I’ll get his leg out.”

The pain rose up Lanny’s leg again but it seemed less a part of him now. It seemed to him Linwood Toomey’s words had soothed the bad hurting away.

“That’s got it,” Linwood Toomey said.

“Now what?” the son said.

“Go call Edgar and tell him we’ll be bringing the plants sooner than we thought,” Linwood Toomey said. “Bring back them machetes and well get this done.”

The younger man walked toward the house.

“The whiskey help that leg some?” Linwood Toomey asked.

“Yes sir,” Lanny mumbled, his eyes now closed. Even though Linwood Toomey was beside him the man seemed to be drifting away along with the pain.

Linwood Toomey said something else but each word was like a balloon slipped free from his grasp. Then there was silence except for the gurgle of the creek, and he remembered it was the speckle trout that had brought him here. He thought of how you could not see the orange fins and red flank spots but only the dark backs in the rippling water, and how it was only when they lay gasping on the green bank moss that you realized how bright and pretty they were.

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