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The River by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller

Author:Peter Heller [Heller, Peter]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Published: 2019-03-05T05:00:00+00:00


* * *

Replay of the morning. Steady paddle. Except that now their muscles were tired and sore and the wind came in flat gusts upstream or quartered across from the northwest and then they could smell the smoke with the intensity of a campfire that blows in your face. More acrid and dense, though; more char. It smelled like devastation. And then, in late afternoon, they saw the first flocks of birds.

They were haphazard squadrons of songbirds, forest birds, colorless, in chaotic formations, mostly silent and fast winging east across the river. There were chickadees and tiny warblers and waterthrush, olive flycatchers, kinglets and crows. The wrens and warblers cried and peeped as they flew in a chorus of constant questioning, maybe panic, and the reedy squeaks rained down like gusts of weightless hail. Then came waxwings, woodpeckers, flickers flashing yellow. And the larger lake birds, the rare heron the color of fog beating out the slow cadences of lunar time, the cranes, the loons in twos and threes, sailing overhead with the singular swiftness of arrows. No raptors yet, which the boys found curious. They watched with speechless fascination and often found themselves stilled, not paddling, drifting against the wind and gawking at the sky. Also, it could not be good. Neither said a word.

When they paddled they paddled hard, as hard as they had ever done. Jack did not want to get there in the dark with no options but to sit out the freezing night with no fire—he wanted to devise a plan, he wasn’t sure what, and have enough light to enact it. The sun lowered to the tops of the tallest spruce and made a molten fringe of the trees; it seared and spindled them as if they had already burned. The temperature dropped. Wynn dug out the sleeping bags and covered her and they kept paddling into the frail light, the river surface gone to slate, then a casting of flat burnished silver that tilted into the uneven darkness of dusk.

They passed the rock island with the two trees and were swept into a tight left bend and they heard the buffeting rush of the rapid carried up the half mile of river like the sound of wind. The river began to straighten and they knew that soon on the right they would see a small shale beach pale in the twilight. Their portage. That’s what the book had said. Jack turned suddenly and very sharply said, “Head to the right bank. Pull out. Now.”

“What?”

“Do it, Wynn. Crank to the right. Hurry the fuck up.”

“That’s steep bank.” It was. “Nothing but trees.” It was. “We’ve got to get her out, the easier the better, and lay her down. Get her warm. The book said there’s an easy beach landing.”

“Head in. There.”

“No. Jesus, what’s wrong with you? She’s gonna go back into sh—”

The word died in his mouth. Jack had set his paddle against his seat. He had picked up the rifle and he was aiming it at Wynn.



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