“What’s taking you so long?”
Her dark eyes tossed him an impatient look as she led the way to the swimming hole. She was clutching a beach towel, and wearing a two-piece bathing suit under an oversized, pinstriped blouse. Her legs stretched leanly out from beneath its windswept hem while her dark hair trailed wildly in the wake of her step.
He, on the other hand, was simply distracted.
He padded aimlessly along behind her, kicking at the sun-baked trail, and raising clouds of red dust. The wagon wheels of his imagination spun with the westerns of Saturday matinees, and he could hear the whoops of Apaches in the distance as they quickly bore down upon them. His passenger, a young, raven-haired beauty, leaned anxiously out the stagecoach window and implored him to make haste.
“Don’t you be worryin’ none now, missy” he hollered back over the thunder of the horses. “These ‘ere animals can run to hell and back without scorchin’ a hoof.”
He whipped the reins, snapping them smartly against the team’s backsides, and the carriage lunged forward. Suddenly, a war party sprung from the row of trees alongside the river and he single-handedly cocked the Winchester preparing for the worst, but the horses bolt forward fearlessly leaving the troop of savages in a trail of red dust.
“Why are you always walking behind me anyway?” She asked sharply. “It’s really a little late to go swimming, you know. The boys will be back from the field soon and Mother was starting dinner.”
The mention of food simply snapped him out of one daydream and into another.
He loved her mother’s home-cooked meals, something he didn’t always get at his own home. His parents were always preoccupied with the family business. All the same, their families were close, and in an effort to instill a sense of work ethic within the boy, it was suggested by her father that he spend the summers at their farm.
The fact that he and his daughter were the same age may have been more than coincidence, but it was no less an incentive. At any rate, he still enjoyed going out in the field with her older brother and riding high on the terraces in the big Massey Ferguson. Her father had even let him drive the tractor home one evening, much to her mother’s disapproval.
“What in the hell were you thinking, Dean Brown? Are you out of your mind!” She had exclaimed. “He might have driven right off that rickety, old bridge and into the river!”
“The river isn’t that deep,” her father had supplied calmly. “Besides, I was right behind him in the pick-up. I could have fished him out easily enough.”
Of course her father was correct; the river wasn’t that deep.
Her mother sighed hopelessly, and went back to peeling potatoes.
The river was shallow and mostly sandbar and reeds. Cottonwoods grew tall along its banks, fed by the wellsprings which ran deep beneath the sand. It ran just south of the tall, white farmhouse, well within walking distance, and on previous summers they had ventured there regularly. They would walk along the sandbars, cooling their feet in the shallows, or explore the shade beneath the old bridge, where barn swallows had built nests high up in the weathered supports. That was before her father had a small pond dug in the back quarter to use as a swimming hole; it too was fed by the wellsprings.
“God damn it!” She stopped abruptly in the middle of the trail, and turning around, shot back at him, “what—in the hell—is taking you so long?”
This time her voice commanded attention, and looking up, he recognized her mother’s stance of disapproval. Leaving his head in the clouds, he quickly trotted up alongside her and smiled innocently. However, his attempt at charm had little effect. She stood there, her hands on her hips and one eye winced, looking at him bitterly.
“You walk behind me all day long, but you never seem to notice to me.” She stamped. “Are you ever going to grow up? You know, one of these days—damn you—I’m just going to leave you behind!”
She stomped over the next hill and disappeared from sight.
He was staggered by the gravity of her words; she had never spoken to him in that tone before. Over the course of two summers they had become the best of friends and there were very few secrets they didn’t share. It wasn’t but the night before they had made a nest in the wheat behind the house and lay there in hiding, counting stars and discussing their dreams until her mother had called out for their whereabouts. Even so, summer was coming to an end. They would both be starting their first year of high school and he would have to return to his own home soon enough to enroll.
Their days were numbered.
He scurried quickly up the hill after her, but she had already reached the swimming hole without him. All he could do was stand there and watch as she dropped her blouse at the water’s edge, and dove soundlessly beneath its surface.
He could see her moving silently, like a fish, beneath the reflection of tree tops. Her body appeared elongated in the refracted light. Her legs were long and muscular as they moved in unison while the length of her dark hair flowed with the fluidity of the water. When she emerged alongside the small, floating dock anchored in the center of the pond, she didn’t seem the same plain and lanky girl who had just dove into the water.
Pulling herself sinuously onto the platform, her body tan and wet and glistening in the late-afternoon sun, she rolled on her side and called out to him softly.
“Come on. It will be dark soon and they will be wondering where we are.”
This wasn’t the tomboy he knew.
In the distance he heard a truck rattling across the unkempt, wooden bridge and the rush of barn swallows flooding out from beneath it. The air was sweet and heavy with the pungent scent of alfalfa blossoming, and the tops of the cottonwoods moved with the cool whisper of the day’s approaching end. The sky was already changing to a deeper shade of blue, and as he looked to the west, he could see the clouds painted in pinks and purples and he wondered—how heavy is the heart of the sun, that it might sink too soon.
“Come on, they will be wondering where we are.”
He had unconsciously wandered down to the water’s edge, and drawn like a sailor to a song, he stepped impulsively into the water. A cold well-spring of comprehension crept slowly up the inside of his thigh and suddenly—
All his days were strung together like pearls.