Little Joe hit Buster from behind with a three-foot section of galvanized steel, hit him so hard the single flat note of it echoed through the welding shop like a bell. The whole shop stopped working and watched Buster drop to his knees. His eyes rolled back and he fell flat to the ground. There had been no argument, no warning. When Joe ran back through the front office and out to the street with the pipe still swinging in his right hand, no one tried to stop him. After he was gone, I watched while the others gathered around Buster, shouting at each other to call an ambulance, to chase Joe, to do something. Instead I simply walked out the back door where my truck sat in the parking lot. Joe had changed everything and I needed time alone to think it through.
I left the shop and drove through Bonham, down Main Street, over the tracks at the far end of town where a green tractor hung its sickle bar over the levee’s edge and laid waste to the goose grass on its slope. The news of Buster and Joe followed me like a shadow. A sheriff’s car roared past with its carnival lights bright beneath the overcast sky. I drove down to the river with the cold wind at my back, down Bonham Ferry Road where Buster and his wife, Sarah, lived on a hump of ground raised up out of the bottoms. The cornfields, cut down to great stretches of stubble, left the road naked and lonely in the emptiness. I drove to Buster’s house even though I knew Sarah wasn’t home. If Buster was still alive, she’d already be on her way to the hospital in Hannibal.
The house was empty and quiet. I parked at the foot of the long gravel drive and shut off the engine. It had been three years since the house I rented in town had burned along with almost everything I owned in the world. When Buster heard about the fire, he insisted I stay with them until I got back on my feet. He drove me to his place through the tall summer corn after work, telling stories the whole way to take my mind off things.
“There’s no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road,” Buster told me. “They moved it to a better landing downstream twenty years ago. There’s only one reason for people to be down here now. That’s the way I like it.”
Buster put me up in his spare room for over a month while the insurance company processed my claim. I wore Buster’s clothes, ate dinner at his table. While he was gone in the evenings throwing darts or shooting pool in town, I would sit on the back porch with Sarah and watch storms sweep down into the bottom from the south.
Now I was glad Sarah was gone. I needed time to get my head around what had happened to Buster, to understand what it meant for us. The truck windows fogged up as I sat in the cold, blocking my view of the empty house and the ruin of the cornfields.
Sarah called after midnight, but I was still awake. “Everyone’s gone,” she said. “I’m so tired.”
“Is he dead?” I asked. There was a pause. I could tell she had been crying.
“No,” Sarah answered. “He’s up in the hospital now. They’re not sure about anything yet. He may never wake up again.”
“Maggie’s boy got him good,” I said. “The whole shop saw it happen.”
“Christ, Charlie,” she said. “Have you talked to the police?”
Her uneven breathing filled the silence. “What’s going to happen?” she asked.
I remembered the way it sounded when Joe took his shot. I remembered the way Buster lay on the floor, still and quiet as a dead thing. “It depends on who finds Joe first,” I said. In the dark of the new moon I stared at the dim outline of the bedroom window while Sarah breathed into the phone, saying nothing. She knew where Buster stood in the town.
“I just hope the cops find him first,” I said. “The way Buster treated Maggie, Joe had a right to do something. Cops may understand that. Buster’s friends won’t.”
“I don’t want to be alone tonight,” Sarah whispered.
I kept staring at the ghost of the window. “Call your sister. She’ll come stay with you.”
“I want you to come over, Charlie.”
“I can’t.” The neighbor’s dogs were barking wildly. “Call your sister.”
“I love you.”
“Don’t say that,” I told her.
Her words sounded ridiculous there in the dark with Buster still breathing, with his friends out for blood, with Joe on the run somewhere. I hung up the phone as the German shepherds slammed into the chain-link fence like fists knocking on a door.
I remember seeing Little Joe pinned up against the wall of Pop’s Bar in town just a year before, his face crushed against a framed picture of Johnny Cash, his cheek bleeding from the broken glass. Buster had Joe’s right arm wrenched up behind his back. The boy screamed as Buster put his weight into him, a high-pitched, unnatural scream as the tendons stretched tight. At fourteen, Joe was already a big, awkward boy, but Buster was a man. His thick neck flushed red even as he smiled. He was drunk. I was drunk. The whole bar was drunk, watching Buster put the boy into the wall.
Old Pop came up from behind Buster and put his face up to his ear like he was telling some big secret, but I knew what Pop was whispering. I wanted to say the same thing. “Put him down. He’s just a boy.” Joe’s face was livid with hate and pain. He screamed as if Buster was tearing his arm clean off. Buster tried to smile again, as if it was all a joke, a lesson Maggie wasn’t strong enough to teach her own boy, but the scream changed everything. We all knew better.
“Go easy on him,” said Pop’s wife.
“You don’t want to break his arm, do you?” said Buster’s best friend, Randy, laughing.
I wasn’t laughing, but I may as well have been for all the good I did. When Buster finally let him go, Joe staggered toward the door, sobbing. He cradled one arm with the other and kept his eyes on the floor.
“Go home to your momma, Little Joe!” Randy jeered. “Go home!” echoed the other voices in the bar. For Christ’s sake, go home, I thought.
Joe pushed his way out the door without looking back. Old Pop just shook his head and went back to business. The show was over.
The cops came to the welding shop the next morning and finished taking statements. Mrs. Murphy, the boss’s wife, stopped me at the time clock and frowned. “They’ve been asking for you, Charlie,” she whispered. “They want to know why you took off out of here so fast yesterday. I told them you were just upset about Buster. We’re all upset about it. What Maggie’s boy did was awful.”
“Awful,” I said. Maggie’s time card was still untouched in its slot. “Where is she?” I asked.
Mrs. Murphy frowned. “She tried to ride with Buster in the ambulance. Thank goodness the sheriff stopped her before Sarah showed up. Right now she’s waiting at home in case Joe turns up.”
When it came time for me to give my statement, I told them everything I could remember. “We were working just before lunch yesterday when Joe came in. His mom, Maggie, is the receptionist here. Before anyone could stop him, Joe took a piece of pipe off Petey’s workbench and hit Buster in the back of the head with it. Buster had his back to the door. He never saw it coming. Then Joe took off.”
When the cops asked if I knew Joe’s reason for going after Buster, I thought of the murder in Joe’s eyes when he swung the pipe. I remembered how he looked at Pop’s Bar, screaming, his arm pulled back.
“Buster fooled around with Maggie,” I told them. “He beat her up pretty bad a few times. Everyone knew about it.”
“Are you friends with Buster?”
“I’m friends with Buster’s wife,” I answered.
Maggie started flirting with Buster from the day she began working at the shop. It was early summer. Buster rode his Harley to work that morning, his sunglasses hiding everything from her, but Maggie grew up in Bonham and knew he was married. Buster wore his thick gold high-school ring on his left hand instead of a wedding band. In fights he would lead with his right and end it with his left. “A lot of people wear scars from that ring,” I told her when she first asked me about him. His buddy Randy had a four-inch scar beneath his right eye from a fight with Buster over a girl their senior year. The next day they were friends again. Buster was like that.
Maggie didn’t seem to care that Buster was married. She didn’t care that almost everyone knew someone Buster had beat up over the years. Buster was confident and dangerous. Welding for the shop made him more money than others, and he wanted her, that was clear. Maggie was young and pretty in a careworn way. She smiled at him every morning and blushed when he teased her. The first and only time she did that to me, I almost fell in love with her, too. I guess Maggie was dangerous in her own way.
I first remember seeing Buster, Maggie, and Little Joe together at the county fair the summer their affair started. Joe was thirteen then and seemed to like having Buster around. Buster threw money around all day long, buying nachos and Cokes for Joe and tickets for the roller coaster. When he thought no one was looking, he put his arm around Maggie.
Mrs. Murphy fanned herself in the thick summer air and smiled at them. “I think it’s sweet how Buster’s started looking out for Maggie’s boy.”
It wasn’t sweet. As night fell and Buster got more beer in him he got less careful with Maggie. Soon Joe was alone spending Buster’s money on the carnival games while Maggie sat on Buster’s lap in the beer garden beneath the hard tent lights. It was then, with Maggie draped drunkenly across Buster, both of them laughing like fools, that the whispering started.
“Where’s Sarah tonight?” Mrs. Murphy asked. I knew Sarah worked the night shift every third weekend at the nursing home on Route 3. Somehow that made her suspect, as if she gave Buster the opportunity to cheat on purpose. Rumor in town was that Sarah refused to give up her job and raise children, denying Buster the family that everyone believed would settle him down for good. Maggie was too close to Buster, too alluring, and Sarah was at fault, as if Buster also had something missing inside him, some great space that Sarah refused to fill.
I remember how they all looked that night, so good the whole town pretended that they were a real family and Sarah was the enemy of all that was good and wholesome. At the time I thought they might be right. I could still laugh about it, remembering the stolen nights Sarah and I spent in the spare bedroom while Buster was out fooling around with Maggie.
Night in the bottoms is a special kind of dark. During the new winter moon, with the air so clear and cold you can see the faint blur of the Milky Way, you feel utterly alone, like an astronaut in space. I drove down Bonham Ferry Road toward the steady light from Sarah’s house as if it was the only light left to follow, the only shelter in the cold void between the river and the bluffs. I knew there would be people at Sarah’s that night. It was the only safe way for me to see her.
Buster’s friends sat out on the front porch smoking cigarettes beneath the stars as I walked up. “How’s she doing?” I asked them.
“Just got back from the hospital,” Randy said. “Buster’s still hanging on.”
I nodded and looked around at their hard faces. “I know Sarah’s got plenty of help right now, but I just wanted to stick my head in the door and see how she’s holding up.”
“The cops said they’ll try Joe as a minor,” Randy said, ignoring me. “He’ll walk out of jail on his twenty-first birthday like nothing ever happened.”
“He’s only fifteen,” I said.
Randy shook his head. “He’s a man now.”
“There’s nothing we can do about the law,” I told him.
Randy dropped his cigarette on the porch and ground it out with his boot. He studied me while the faint murmur of voices drifted out from the house. I could hear Sarah talking, trying to get rid of Randy’s wife and the other women who’d followed her back from Hannibal. I could still hear Minnesota in her voice. She had two older brothers, both Swedes, tall and blond with thick shoulders and bright white teeth.
“We figure Joe’s holed up somewhere in the state forest,” Randy said at last. “He used to go hunting up there with Petey’s boys. Tomorrow we’re all going out to find him.” He stared through the shadows, waiting for me to answer.
“What do we do once we find him?” I asked.
Randy paused, a heartbeat. “We bring him back,” he answered. “Are you coming, Charlie?”
I couldn’t get in to see her. Randy and the rest of Buster’s friends stood on the porch like guard dogs, their eyes half closed, waiting for someone, anyone to challenge them for her. “What time are you heading out?” I asked. “I’ll meet you there.”
The light from the kitchen shone on Randy’s scar, making it seem new. With Buster, all was forgiven the minute he slapped you on the back or bought you a drink. No hard feelings, no questions. Buster’s friends were ready to hunt down Joe out of love, not fear. Only love could forgive pain. Without it, pain festers into hatred, as it had in Joe, in Sarah. In myself.
I kept my dad’s old Winchester .30-30 stuck in the back of a closet. When I was twelve, I stole the rifle from his locked cabinet and walked into the woods alone, my pocket full of cartridges, hoping to escape far enough out into the trees to avoid being caught. An hour later, on the banks of Walker Creek with the rifle in my lap, I sat trapped between the desire to shoot the gun and the temptation to run home. I loaded the magazine, levered a cartridge into the breach, opened it, kicking the shell to the ground, then loaded another. In time I started sighting in everything around me: a beaver bullying his way through the honeysuckle, the last sycamore leaves waiting to fall, my own shoe, as if to dare fate.
Then the dog came. She was a ragged, feral mutt, white and black, full of burrs and half-starved. She shambled down the bank to the cold water and drank deep, ignoring me. I could see her ribs beneath the fur and the knots of bone along her back. The deer rifle went off like a cannon, driving my shoulder so hard I fell back against the muddy bank, yet the shot was good. The dog dropped where she stood.
My father had never been a good shot. He used soft points to help his chances even if it meant wasting meat. The dog’s entry wound was little more than a vague blemish in the thick white fur behind her shoulder, a bit of blood, a pale glimpse of naked bone. The other side, where the fattened slug came out, was an obscene mess. I stood trembling over her while the creek bubbled across the rocks, my ears ringing as I fought the urge to throw the rifle down and run away.
When I got back I cleaned the rifle like my father taught me, careful to remove any evidence of what I had done. Then I locked it away and didn’t touch the gun again for fifteen years.
We gathered before dawn to look for Joe. Randy stood spring-tight with his old scar livid in the truck lights. His brother Ray smoked in silence, hulking up behind him like a ghost, every bit of six and a half feet tall and built like an Angus steer. Petey crouched down and drew pictures in the fine gravel of the drive. Bob Cotton brought his four grown boys, all dressed in brown duck coveralls with morning beards and clean new rifles. Amos and his half brother Roger shared sweet black coffee from a thermos lid. Ross from the farmer’s co-op chewed the last of his breakfast with his eyes on the ground. I recognized Skip and Paul from the river, and John the ferry pilot with his buddies Dave and Jake and poor Dumb Bob who opened and closed the gates when the boat landed. Buster’s only neighbor, Buddy Creech, came with his binoculars and a cooler full of sandwiches his wife made that morning. The Smith boys were down from Hannibal and Old Pop was there too, still half-drunk as he rooted around in the back of his truck for his gun.
Everyone was there to look for Joe, familiar faces even in the dark, familiar voices, all but a handful. Six of Buster’s friends from across the river stood at the edge of the group, muttering back and forth, smoking cigarettes like soldiers.
What Little Joe did was hardly in cold blood. No one could keep a secret in Bonham, and Buster didn’t even try. When trouble started between him and Maggie, it happened in front of everyone. They would argue in the bar or Buster would show up to throw darts, alone and angry. Some days they would work all day without saying a word to each other.
One day, Maggie showed up to work with her eyes red, holding her purse close to her ribs, keeping her face turned away from everyone. She sat down at her desk and let the first phone call of the morning ring itself out without answering. When Mrs. Murphy cleared her throat, Maggie jumped in her chair.
“Where’s your head this morning?” the old woman asked.
Maggie shrugged and settled back against the hard-backed desk chair, obviously in pain, as if she could hardly stand the weight of her own body pressed against the wood. I stared at her from the break room and stirred sugar into my coffee. Sarah had warned me about Buster from the beginning, how he acted when he got angry.
“Buster’s just an overgrown boy,” she told me. It was our first night together. She paused, pressed her hand against her stomach. “No, I guess he does think, at least with me. He never hit me where it would show, not even when he was drunk.”
That night I lay beside Sarah on the hard spare bed and felt my gut coil up tight as I studied her face. I ran my thumb across her cheek, so delicate, so easy to break. It was something she and Maggie had in common. Both were small. Buster stood six foot four. He could carry pieces of steel I couldn’t lift off the ground. Buster wore heavy steel-toed boots everywhere he went. Buster could’ve killed either one of them without trying.
“Do you think he hits Maggie?” I asked. It was the first time I had mentioned Maggie. Sarah seemed startled to hear it, but sighed and draped a thin arm across my chest.
“The only good thing about Buster and Maggie is that he stopped hitting me,” she said.
Driving out Bonham Ferry Road with Buster after my place burned down, I felt like we were friends. Now hatred sat heavy on my chest.
Sarah seemed to fall asleep after that. I watched the numbers on the clock glow above her pale shoulder. Buster played darts in Hannibal every Friday until well after midnight. We were safe for a while. Finally Sarah stirred and turned her back to me. “If he hasn’t beat her yet, he will,” she said. “There’s no reason for him to change. And she’ll take it, too, you just watch.”
As I pulled out of her driveway, my stomach was tight at the thought of Buster’s headlights coming toward the house. There was no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road. I had no business being down there in the middle of the night when Buster wasn’t home.
As the sun came up through the trees, I hiked into the woods with the boys from the ferry to look for Joe. Randy had decided we were the worst fuckups of the bunch.
“Go check the campsite up by the spring,” he told us.
I knew there was no chance Joe would hide somewhere so obvious, but I didn’t argue. Randy took Buster’s out-of-town buddies to the caves along the bluffs where Joe was sure to be hiding. I led our group to the least likely spot with my father’s old rifle slung, unloaded, over my shoulder. Dave and Jake had never hiked in the forest before. It wouldn’t have mattered if Dumb Bob had been born there. No one would ever follow him anywhere except off his ferryboat.
We found the tiny campsite late in the morning, five miles off the main trail in a grove of shabby hickories at the top of a hill. The fire pit was cold and empty. Dead branches and leaves lay undisturbed on the ground. Even Dumb Bob could tell that no one had camped there in months.
“It’s a long way back,” he said, sighing. Dave and Jake nodded and crouched together next to the fire ring.
“No shots yet,” said Dave. “I guess no one found him.”
We sat together beneath the hickory trees and waited, telling stories about Buster while the rising sun warmed the air. None of us knew what we were waiting for. Jake shared the rumor that Buster ran cocaine across the river, how he hid cash all over his sprawling property.
A cold spread through the backs of my legs even as the sun climbed higher. Out in the woods I could hear the first stirrings of a warm fall day, the kind of day every deer hunter hates. I could remember a warm November weekend long ago when my father came home from the hunt without a deer, sweating in his coveralls, his face red. We sat together in the kitchen with the windows open and the green smell blowing through the screen. We stared across the table at each other, helpless against the warmth. Now the warm sun and cold ground fought a silent war inside me. My hands shook as I wiped the sweat from my face.
Dumb Bob told the story of Buster and Dottie, the dancer he’d met at the River Club before he got mixed up with Maggie. Bob was in awe that anyone could have a girl like Dottie. “He just reached out and took her,” Bob said, shaking his head. “I don’t know how he did it.”
“Coke,” Dave said under his breath. “That’s how you date a stripper.”
“You remember the night Buster fought that trucker outside Pop’s place?” Jake said. “He put the guy down with one punch, broke his nose just like that. Everyone thought it was over.” He rubbed the back of his neck and shrugged. “Then Buster started kicking the poor guy as hard as he could while he was crawling away, one shot after another. The guy tried to cover up, but it didn’t do much good. If I hadn’t pulled Buster off of him, he would’ve killed the guy. I’m sure of it.”
I hadn’t seen the fight with the trucker, but I could picture it in my head, except in my mind it was me on the ground trying to cover up while Buster took his shots. Every time I left Sarah I thought about what would happen to me if Buster found out. “Do you think Maggie ever bothered to fight back?” I asked. The guys stared back without answering.
My father never touched me, not once, but he was an angry man. There were days I’d come home from school and hear him slamming around the kitchen cabinets or pacing up and down the hallway in his heavy boots and a scream would rise up from my gut and burn its way to the back of my throat. If I wanted to, I could count the days I held that scream in my mouth like a bird bashing itself bloody against its cage.
When Buster put Joe against the wall at Pop’s Bar, I recognized the sound. Later, when Joe took his shot at Buster, I knew the boy was empty. The scream had left him wide open. The day I left home, my father hugged me like nothing had ever come between us, as if we were normal, he and I. I hugged him back with that same scream still burning inside me. Sitting there talking about Buster, I realized that it was still there. I had never dared to let it go.
“Would you do what Joe did?” I asked the ferry boys. “If someone hurt your mother over and over again, would you have the guts to make it right?” They still didn’t answer.
Three gunshots echoed through the trees. Dumb Bob jumped to his feet and raised his rifle to his shoulder even though the sound was far away. We waited in tense silence for a fourth shot, but none came. A cloud of gnats hovered between us, drawn out by the warmth of the day, lured close by the smell of our sweat. When nothing else came, we started back down the trail. This time I marched last in line, nursing a familiar, sick feeling. I was glad the others couldn’t see my face.
When I left the hunt, I didn’t bother making an excuse and the others didn’t ask. It was almost dark when I pulled out of the park and headed out toward Buster’s dead-end road. I knew Randy had found Joe, that the gunshots meant the hunt was over. I knew Sarah was back at the house alone. Hot and sweating in my coveralls, I drove to Buster’s house with my window wide open. The air grew cold as the sun went down and the wind swept out of the north.
The house was dark and quiet, the driveway empty, the door to the pole barn open and swinging. Everyone had gone. I walked slowly around to the back where Buster’s mud-caked boots stood empty beside the door. I walked and listened for voices, looked for light behind the curtains. The back door was locked. I found the right key after four tries and opened the dead bolt with a dull scrape of metal.
Buster used to sit by the back door on a kitchen chair and smoke with the door cracked, blowing his smoke out into the night in an effort to appease Sarah. The smell of tobacco lingered there, guarding the door with the threat of him, the unquestionable fact that this was his space, and he would be back to claim it. Walking in that night, with Buster gone, I noticed the empty space he left behind. The memory of his cigarettes was old and faint, obscured by the warm food smell of the kitchen and the sweat that stuck the shirt to my back.
The house seemed empty, still as frost. I walked into the master bedroom and stared down at their bed. Sarah always folded back the covers. Now the blankets were tucked up beneath the pillows like a closed door. Someone else had made it up that day.
A sudden creak of weight shifting on the floor braces at the back of the house made me jump. The noise came again and I followed it slowly out of the bedroom and down the dim hallway toward the back of the house. Buster kept a loaded .38 revolver beneath the bed, but I left it alone. I could see the back bedroom in my mind, the mismatched furniture, the stiff, cheap sheets on the bed. An old rocking chair sat in the corner by the window, hard and uncomfortable. The nights I spent with Sarah were always in the back bedroom. I would sit in the chair and watch her dress in the moonlight, my weight shifting back and forth on the floor with the same rhythmic creak. Someone was there now. I recognized the desperation that hung heavy between us as I knocked softly and pushed open the door.
“It’s Charlie,” I said quietly.
Sarah sat in the chair rocking back and forth. Little Joe slept on the bed, his filthy clothes leaving mud on her grandmother’s quilt. Sarah looked up at me with her eyes full of the ruins of her life. I started to talk, but couldn’t.
“He showed up this morning,” she whispered. Her voice was bruised from crying. “He hasn’t slept in days. I told him I’d help.”
“He can’t stay here,” I sighed.
Sarah nodded. I took a blanket from the closet and covered him up. His face was peaceful beneath the dirt. “He’ll be all right for now,” Sarah said as she closed the door behind us. In her bedroom I watched as Sarah got undressed and slipped naked beneath the sheets. I followed with my jeans still on. She pressed tight against me and closed her eyes while I stared up at the ceiling. Their bedroom was a foreign place. My hatred of Buster was cold and useless there.
“Buster’s gone,” she whispered at last, then took a deep breath. “I love you, Charlie.”
I closed my eyes and let her words sink in. Buster’s gone.
“They called me just before you came. He never woke up.” She squeezed harder and buried her face into my shoulder. “What are we going to do now?”
I kept my eyes closed and felt my body tighten beside hers. I was in Buster’s bed with Sarah, surrounded by his things, the smell of him. After hearing the news, I felt helpless even against his memory. Buster was gone. Before, it had seemed just a matter of time before he would sit up in his hospital bed and pull off the wires and hoses that bound him. Now he was dead, his ghost just an echo in an empty room.
Little Joe had screamed when he cracked, but I was a full-grown man. My fear passed silently out of me as the truth came in. There was no ferry on Bonham Ferry Road. No dogs barked there in the empty night. In the other room, Little Joe slept for the first time in days.