“I told you he was okay,” the boy said.
They wove through the trees on the north side of the creek, the old horse plodding, occasionally grunting in complaint, and Kenneth sat pressed against her, his arms encircling her waist.
“How far do you want to go?” she asked, but he was right, she felt refreshed, contented, her arms and face cooling, as though her body’s heat was wicking out into the mottled night. She felt him shift, looking past her to get his bearings.
“Not much farther.” He pressed a cheek against her shoulder blade. “I’m a little bit afraid of the dark,” he admitted, and then: “Do you think my mom’s crazy?”
The horse snorted at a downfall and balked before stepping over. They gripped tighter with their knees.
“What do you think?”
“If she is crazy it’s probably okay.”
“Then I guess it doesn’t matter.”
“That’s what I think.” He looked around her again. “Once, in a book I read, it said a kid would be okay if there was just one person to watch out for him.” He was whispering. “The book was in the counselor’s office at school.”
“What were you doing there?” She raked her heels along the horse’s ribs, and he quickened his pace.
“It was because I hit Ricky Wheeler in the neck. He’s the one who said my mom was crazy, but I didn’t tell the counselor that was why and Ricky didn’t either. I had to apologize to the whole class.” He unclasped his hands, pointing ahead to a clearing. “Up there,” he said.
Then they were out of the trees and the air grew warmer, their shadows falling away to the right, lumped together and following them through the tall meadow grass.
“Can you keep a secret?”
“Sure I can.” She felt him leaning into her.
“Rodney isn’t just my mom’s friend. He’s my real dad.”
He’d made the statement as plainly as if reading from a book in a counselor’s office. “Who told you that?”
“Nobody did. I figured it out by myself, but I don’t want you to tell McEban.”
“I won’t tell anybody.”
There was the hollow drumming of a sage grouse beating its wings against a downed cottonwood.
“I know there’s you and Uncle Paul and my mom, but if I’m going to turn out okay it’s mostly because McEban’s watching out for me.” He dropped his hands away from her. “Right here’s perfect.”
She reined the horse in and he slid to the ground, pulling his T-shirt over his head, stumbling, waving an arm to right his balance, still gripping the white shirt as though it were the limp body of something he’d snatched out of the dark.
“You truly are a little shithead,” she said.
“It’ll be fun.”
His smile flashed in the moonlight, and he sat down in the graveled apron at the edge of the creek, tugging at his boots.
“You told me we were just going riding.”
“And it’s not a secret.” He was peeling his socks off. “You can tell anybody you know how much fun it is.”
She looked at the creek, where it deepened into a long pool of flat water, edging the southern crescent of the meadow. “Who do you think I’m going to tell I went swimming in the middle of the night?”
He was on his feet again, unbuckling his belt. “Spencer likes it too,” he said. “Uncle Paul and I swam him last summer.”
He nodded. “You can ask him.”
She looked to the water once more and then slid down beside him and they piled their clothes on the smooth stones, and when all he said about her nakedness was, “You’re really, really white” she swung back onto the horse, pulling him up after her.
He was wriggling, twisting left and right to look past her, his knees thumping the backs of her thighs. “Put him in there.” He pointed at the headwater of the pool.
“You’re sure about this?”
“It’s easy.” He turned, shaking his hand toward the broad flash of rapids where the pool emptied. “That’s where we come out. It’s only cold the first time.”
By the third trip through she felt as if she were shining, lit from within, and Kenneth hung on tight as the horse fell from under them, swimming, and they floated behind and above him in the sound of churning water and their laughter, his arms encircling her, their legs paddling away.
“Can we go again?” he asked.
The horse was standing in the tailwaters, blowing hard, water streaming into the shallows, and the pull of gravity had fallen upon them both again, feeling newly invented.
“Just once?” she asked. He was slippery against her. “How about as many times as you want?”
His smile went wild and he dropped his hands to her hips as she reined the old horse around toward the head of the pool.
She was cool and relaxed as she slipped into bed, and Paul woke, smiling as the boy had smiled. He swept his hair away from his eyes, listening while she told him where she’d been.
“You’re still an asshole,” she said.
He lay back against the pillow. “I know I am.” He yawned. “Did he get a little boner?”
“Yeah, he did.” She turned and settled back in against him.
“He got one with me too.” She could feel his breath on her shoulder, on the back of her neck. “He’s too little for it to mean anything,” he said. “It just feels good.”
“I know,” she whispered, and pulled his arm around her and held his hand open against her belly, her eyes shut, slipping away into sleep as though adrift in clear water.
WHEN HE WAS UP to speed, with the windows down and the swirl of summer air plucking at his shirt, he cracked open a Bud. He let a car pass, and when there wasn’t another in the rearview mirror he drank down half the beer, wedging the bottle between his legs. He radioed Starla.
“Isn’t it your day off?” she asked.
She sounded annoyed, as though he’d interrupted her during the last episode of The Sopranos.
“Just checking in. In case something comes up.”
“I thought you and Jean’d be at the parade, or the rodeo or somewhere.”
“I’m not feeling that festive,” he said, “and anyway, there’ll be a better parade tomorrow.”
When there was only the sound of Starla snapping her gum he broke the connection, and ramped up onto the interstate heading south toward Sheridan, propping his elbow in the window so it wouldn’t ache as much. He sipped the beer, watching the clouds mass over the Bighorns to the west. In the foreground the prairie grass stood dried and blanching, bowed heavy with hardened seed-heads, but the creek bottoms were still lush.
He stopped at a rest area just north of town and snapped open his cell phone and dialed *67 and the telephone number and sat watching a heavy woman lift a dachshund out of her RV. She tucked the dog under her arm and started for a mown patch of prairie behind the toilets.
On the third ring a woman’s voice announced: “Merrick, Russell, Marcus and King.”
“Is Larry there?”
The woman couldn’t bend clear to the ground but she got over far enough to drop the dog, and it bounced just once and stood wagging its tail. Then it ran in a tight circle around her.
“Do you mean Mr. Russell, sir?”
“I mean Larry.”
A man who looked like the woman might if she cut her hair came down the RV’s steps sideways, one step at a time, and opened an aluminum lawn chair on the asphalt, easing himself into it, apparently for the simple pleasure of watching his wife and dog.
“Mr. Russell is unavailable at the moment. May I take a message?”
“What about tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s the Fourth of July, sir.”
“I’m aware of that,” he said.
The dog still raced in a circle, just out of reach, as though it’d been bred to bring obese women to bay on open ground.
“I’m afraid Mr. Russell will be gone through the end of the week. Who may I say’s calling?”