A skim of ice, peanut brittle thick, rimmed the banks of the Rapidan river. It crackled when Tom slid the canoe into the December chilled water. He swung the boat parallel and held it steady while Ted boarded the front and the boy scrambled into the center, his .22 pointed safely across the river.
“All set?” Tom didn’t wait for a reply. He stepped in and shoved off, minding his own shotgun nestled alongside him. He shifted to get comfortable, rocking the boat.
“As soon as you get comfortable there, Tom… Anymore rockin’ and the boy’ll paint the inside a’ your boat a shade of runny eggs and toast.” Ted, the boy’s father, looked back. “You alright there, boy?”
The boy nodded silently. He was wrapped in a faux-sheep’s-skin coat, thick gloves and a dark knit hat. He sat on a cushion and leaned back against a cooler full of lunch, tuna-salad sandwiches and honey-butter balls, holiday cookies sent with love by Ted’s mother in Montana.
“Good,” Ted said, turning forward to look over a makeshift blind made from wooden staves, dark-green cloth and leafy twigs. He’d wedged it into the bow. Its purpose was to shield unsuspecting ducks, canvasbacks and mallards, from the hunters’ antics as they floated down the river.
“You know what I brought for lunch?” Tom asked the boy as they bobbed in the middle of the glassy water, skeletal trees drooping bony fingers into the smoothness. Tom had a velvet southern accent that nearly purred.
The boy twisted to lookup. He consciously kept the Remington rifle pointed sideways and shook his head.
“Cheese and quackers.” Tom dipped his paddle and sent them further downriver then began a stream of off-color jokes. “There was this boy who tucked a roll of duct-tape under his arm and walked outside. Wha’cha up to? the boy’s dad asked him. I’m gonna go catch some ducks, said the boy.” Another stroke and Tom’s paddle switched sides. “His dad said, you can’t catch… The boy came back an hour later with a pair of ducks. The next day the boy headed out with a bundle of chicken wire. Going to catch chickens, he said. His dad said, you can’t catch… The boy came back an hour later with a fat rooster.”
Ted interrupted, “There’s a squirrel, you see him, son?” Ted, eyes like a hawk, pointed up into a grey-barked tree with a thick branch that leaned well over the river. “It’s a long shot. But go ahead and try.”
“Hold on, now,” Tom said, the paddle across his knees. “I was just getting to the punchline. OK, so the boy starts walking out the door with a bundle of sticks. Wha’cha got there, his dad asked. A bunch of pussy willows, said the boy. Yeah? His dad said. Well, hold on, let me get my hat.”
The boy thought for a moment and started to giggle.
Ted set his own paddle across his knees. “There was a lawyer, a doctor and a farmer went hunting over a pond on the farmer’s property…”
POP! The boy took aim and fired a single round. The squirrel bounced, began to slide off and hung by its front feet, its needle claws dug deep. It twitched and fell with a splash.
“Sorry, dad. You were sayin’?”
“Ah, never mind. Nice shot.” Ted plucked the body from the water and set it at his feet.
The trip continued, accompanied by Tom’s never-ending stream of jokes. At each bend in the river, Ted would shush the boat, crouch down and peek around the blind hoping to spy their prey. The ducks, however, proved elusive, as did any additional squirrels. When clear water showed, Ted would loosen his grip on his Winchester shotgun and loosen his shoulders, the tension of the moment easing down his back.
Ahead, the hundred yard wide river narrowed to flow around a spit of gravel, a one-sided island covered with saplings and driftwood. There, the water sped up, choked to a third of its width. Angled across the channel, a previous year’s flood had pulled in a large tree that hung, half in—half out, from the opposite bank. It pointed out over the water like a howitzer, a foot in diameter—the river flowed swiftly beneath it.
Tom swung the canoe close to the side bank and urged Ted to paddle swiftly, the idea being to shoot crosswise out from under the snag. The river fed them faster and faster toward the menace. As the nose of the canoe made its way out from under the angled tree, the current pushed the stern up against the log tipping the right side into the frigid water. The boat filled in seconds.
Ted pitched out, as did Tom. All of their gear, their guns and ammo, dumped out and dropped straight to the bottom of the river. Their cooler and extra clothes, wrapped in plastic bags, bobbed downstream along with loose odds and ends. They righted the canoe and towed it, full of water, to the gravel island. The river at the channel, it turned out, was only waist deep.
The boy, at the instant of being capsized, had grabbed the tree and wrapped his arms and legs around it. Soaked to the bone he clung to it, a raccoon treed by a pack of hounds.
“My wife’ll divorce me I don’t bring the boy back,” Ted said, standing at the island’s point, surveying the situation.
Tom struck out, followed by Ted, wading in the ripping current, out to pry the boy from his hold. Ted held Tom’s belt as Tom grabbed the boy just as the boy’s arms gave out from the strain of hanging upside down. They trudged back to the island, the dark-green water swirling around them.
“You alright there, boy?” Ted asked, leading him to the middle of the gravel island.
The boy nodded silently.
“Good. Why don’t you help gather up some firewood. Tom’s got his waterproof matches, we’ll get you warmed up here soon.”
Within minutes they had a blaze roaring, autumn-dried leaves and smooth driftwood crackling happily.
Stripped to their long johns, the trio slowly smoked their soggy clothes to a comfortable dampness, slapping their legs to get the circulation going.
“For a minute there, we thought we’d lost you, boy.” Tom’s red underwear making him look like a mad-farmer ranting about a fox in the henhouse.
“I… I… know,” the boy chattered.
“You know any jokes about being stranded on a deserted island, Tom?” Ted’s cream colored long johns, not nearly as entertaining, had begun to crisp at the edges.
“Well, there once was a pirate who…”
Two hours later, dried as best they could, they reentered the canoe and proceeded to locate their personal jetsam. First, Ted’s lost paddle, and a bag of clothes were saved. Then the red cooler was spied spinning in a whirlpool.
“Least, lunch survived intact,” Ted said, pulling it aboard. “Who wants a cookie?”