novel excerpt

Prologue from The Patience of Rivers
by Joseph Freda
W.W. Norton

The business was always there. It grew over their family like a big tree, casting its shadow on everything they did. It was there when Nick Lauria and his sisters needed jobs during the summer of 1969, the summer of Woodstock and the moon landing and too many boys dead in Vietnam. It was there when Nick’s mother confronted her husband’s business partner and changed their lives forever. And it was there even when it was no longer there, when it had finally slipped from their grasp and landed in the hands of someone outside the family.

Nick bucked another haybale down from the loft, and the radio news wafted up through the thick, dust-filled air: Ho Chi Minh was dead. Understanding came to him the same way the chaff and hayseeds choked his nose and eyes—slowly and inexorably. Ho was dead. Maybe now Vietnam was, too.

A truck rattled outside and his mother’s boots thumped the barn floor. Nick opened the haymow door a crack. The fresh air felt good, so he opened the door farther and gazed out upon the Upper Delaware Valley stretching away to the north, the river itself on the right, shimmering between the mountain ranges—New York’s Catskills and Pennsylvania’s Poconos—drawing a sparkling line through layer after layer of green hills fading to deep aqua. In the middle distance a few horses grazed in the field, cream and dun and bay swatches that shifted as naturally as the grasses in the breeze. His parents’ farmhouse shone white in the early-September sun. Directly below him, a battered stock hauler cut a red diagonal across the dusty driveway and intersected with his mother’s yellow pickup.

The truck idled, the radio droned about Ho’s death, and in the stall below, Stone Dust stamped his hoof and nickered, impatient at the interruption of his currycombing. Nick welcomed the breeze off the river, even with the diesel fume. Below, his mother faced off against two disheveled truckers. Nick swung down from the loft.

The truckers weren’t the kind of people who showed up at the farm for trail rides or horseback lessons. The white lettering on their shit-spattered stock hauler said “KILEY’S AUCTION BARN, Bovina Center, New York.” The sun glinted off the truck’s windshield. A spidery crack ran from the windshield wiper to the rearview mirror.

Nick could tell from his mother’s back and the driver’s expression that something wasn’t going well.

“Ten head, lady,” the driver was saying. “That’s what my shipping order says.”

“I don’t care what your shipping order says,” Nick’s mother said. “You’re taking no horses off this farm.”

The driver looked at her and chewed his teeth. His long sideburns flexed in and out. Kit stood stiffly, her ruddy ponytail businesslike on her denim shirt. She held her arms tight at her sides, as if to control them. Nick could see that her hands shook.

“You people placed this order,” the driver said, “had us drive all the way down here. And now you say you don’t want to sell your horses?”

“That order did not come from me, and these are my horses,” Kit said. “Not one of them is leaving this farm.”

She knew how these men happened to be here. She knew, or suspected she knew, the sequence of events that had led to this scene. Her eyes drilled into the driver, but she saw beyond him and his skinny sidekick, these mere props, to the hand that moved them.

At that moment a burgundy Buick LeSabre swung into the farm’s long driveway, bouncing on its shocks. A cloud of red-shale dust rose against the mountainside. Appropriate, Nick thought. A dustcloud always seemed to follow Ted Miles, and now it billowed down the lane towards them.

Over the dustcloud, way up on the mountain, a patch of orange leaves blazed out of the foliage. An early-turning maple, signifying the season to come.

Ted’s Buick pulled in past the stock hauler, and the driver turned at the sound. So did Kit. A look passed over her face, a look of knowledge. Knowledge and acceptance.

Ted’s presence gave the driver courage. He nodded at Kit, reached inside the cab of his truck, and came out with a shipping order on auction house letterhead.

“Says so right here, lady,” he said. “Ten head to be sold at auction this Saturday night.”

“And does it say who initiated the order?” Kit asked.

“Says it’s per Ted Miles,” the driver said, allowing himself a grin as Ted slipped out of the driver’s seat. Ted wore a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, and khakis that cuffed squarely over his tasseled Weejuns.

“Oh, well, in that case…” Kit reached into her pickup and rustled in the glove compartment. She had started carrying a handgun the previous summer, after too many encounters with rabid foxes and raccoons had sent her to the hospital for the series of shots. Now, when she was out fixing fences or filling chuckholes, she kept her .38-caliber Smith & Wesson within close reach.

At the sight of the pistol, the driver smirked and glanced at his partner. Ted Miles, however, stopped short by the Buick’s bumper.

“Now, Kit…” he said, and tried to work up his smile.

Kit regarded him. Of all the things Ted Miles had taken, or tried to take, from her and Francis—all in the guise of being “best for the business”—this was the last, the one thing she wouldn’t allow. Her beloved horses—Stone Dust and Roxanne and Big Boy and Apache and all the others, twenty-four head in all, all hand-fed and -combed, tended with care and appreciation and love, as if they were children, and who always performed when asked, who always lined up in the corral and who didn’t fight the bit or girth strap, or, if they did, like Frosty and Buckskin, put up only token resistance, a kind of joke on her, and who bore their city-bred, inexperienced riders with tolerance and docility around the well-worn trails of the farm and the surrounding hills, and by doing so kept filling the cashbox inside the first stall; who, like the big black gelding Midnight, took great pleasure in rolling in the pasture after being unsaddled, the day’s work done, or who, like the Appaloosa Durango, waded into the river at dusk to drink nose-deep in the clear Delaware and then raise up, muzzle dripping, to gaze upstream with a calm that approached contemplation—now to be hauled away and auctioned off, subjected to who knew what abuse and ignorance and even the knacker’s hammer?

“God damn you,” Kit said, and Ted began working his face toward his next move.

Kit leveled the .38 at the shipping order and said to the driver, “You hold that good and steady for me, will you, while I sign it?”

The driver’s grin froze and he whipped the paper out to arm’s length, and Ted repeated in that placating tone, “Now, Kit…” and Kit fired with a shaking hand and opened one hole in the paper and another in the door of the stock hauler, putting an extra dot over the i in Bovina.

The driver dropped to his knees, and when he realized he hadn’t been hit, scrabbled backwards. His partner eased toward the truck. The diesel idled. The radio broke into the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.”

“Get off my farm,” Kit said.

The driver ground the gears finding reverse, and he tried rolling up his window while backing the truck, but the glass was shattered. He found a forward gear and roared out the driveway.

As the haze of red dust and diesel exhaust settled, Kit turned to Ted.

“You tried to sell my horses,” she said. “You tried to sell this farm.”

The gun shook in her hand, and then Ted did the one thing he shouldn’t have done, the one thing he couldn’t help doing. He smiled.

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The Patience of Rivers

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