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His first year at the paper, the best lead Tom wrote went like this:
If Warren Giles had taken his coffee black on the morning of November 12, the .45-caliber ricochet that killed him might have ruined the Starbucks sugar counter instead of his aorta.
The best editor he'd ever had sent that story back after rewriting the first sentence this way:
If Tom Coleman hadn't dreamed of writing sappy features, he might have made an okay cop reporter.
Translation: The story is what happened. Not what might have happened if.
In explaining a thing or two about good writing to a newsman from the cold type days, Tom had managed to argue his way out of his first byline. It hadn't seemed fair at the time.
Joyce Coleman hit the Coleman's Landing like a Pine Sol tornado the first week in May.
Tom walked down the hill to meet his folks when he heard their car roll in. At the foot of the cedar chip path, his mother doffed her carryall, pulled him down by the neck, and squeezed the breath out of him.
"My son the river rat."
He stood there, bent. "You're crushing my windpipe."
She pushed back to arm's length. "Let me see you."
Tom nodded to his dad, who brought up the rear a few steps behind. His mother touched a warm palm to his stubble.
"You should shave," she said.
"And shower." She patted his cheek.
Then she was off.
Within the half hour, she'd thrown open every window and started emptying cupboards. Tom walked back down the hill with his dad to bring up luggage.
"Let her get it out of her system," his dad said. "She's been waiting a month for you to let her come help."
"I know." Tom couldn't explain why it had taken him so long. So far the weeks had passed like the river itself, flowing around him.
At the steps to the deck, Jack Coleman stopped and put down his suitcase. He put his hands on his hips and looked out at the river. He looked at Tom.
"She's worried about you."
They both turned toward a sudden racket near one of the sheds, where Duane Foster pounded a piece of scrap metal with a hammer for some reason or other.
"See you've already got help."
"That's just Duane," Tom said. "He came with the place."
Foster said he'd answered a job ad in the Omaha World-Herald three summers ago. According to Foster, Tom's grandfather had paid him room, board, and minimum wage-in cash and off the books-from a few weeks before the tourist season started until a few weeks after it ended. Duane maintained the equipment and the vehicles, did whatever odd work around the place Tom's grandfather told him to do, and ran customers and gear back and forth in the silver bus until the weather turned cold. He migrated back to Omaha for winter.
Tom hadn't seen the point in firing the guy. He hadn't hired him in the first place. Foster claimed to have no other prospects, and Tom didn't know the first thing about the canoe business. His dad shook his head as though he'd finally seen everything.
"You're going to live here," he said. "Run this place."
"Until I figure out what else."
"Money's good for a while."
"I wasn't asking about money."
"I don't know, Dad. Write a novel. Maybe sell the place. See what happens."
His dad put his hand on the split-cedar railing, gave it a wiggle, seemed to find it sturdy. Directly above them, Tom's mother leaned out a window.
"Are you two going to stand around down there with your mouths open?"
His dad grinned at him then, the way he did, a quick twitch at the corner of his mouth.
They hauled the luggage upstairs, fell in, and followed orders. By nightfall, the three of them had turned over his grandfather's spare living quarters above the arrival center from top to bottom.
After every corner had been cleared of its cobwebs, every layer of dust taken up, every inch of pinewood mopped with oil soap and every rug shaken outside, Joyce Coleman put one arm around her husband, the other around Tom, surveyed her lemon-scented handiwork, and nodded.
"Livable," she said.
Later, while Melissa had been carrying Grace, Tom had worked a slot on the investigative team that picked up a Renner Award and a few cordial death threats for a series on police graft.
The best editor he'd ever had, retired to Hilton Head by then, sent him another note:
You're a slow learner, Coleman, but you do come around.
He'd just finished making coffee when Duane came into the shop, brimming with news. The clock above the candy rack said half past eight.
"That was quick."
"Yeah. Get this."
Duane was back from shuttling a young couple to the put-in at Fort Niobrara. At least that was where he was supposed to have left them. He also was supposed to have picked up a trio of game, giggle-prone older ladies who decided they'd had enough paddling the previous day. The women had called by satellite phone an hour ago from their camp-over spot at Smith Falls.
From his stool behind the counter, Tom could see the honeymooners through the big front windows, getting Cokes from the vending machine on the deck. He didn't see the golden girls anywhere.
"State fuzz stopped us at the bridge," Foster said. "They're keeping people off up top."
Duane glanced at Tom's dad, who leaned against the other side of the counter, sipping his coffee, seeming amused.
"I mean, state cop. No offense, Mr. Coleman."
"I told you yesterday, you can call me Jack."
"No offense, Jack."
"None taken, Duane."
Tom's sigh must have been audible.
"County deputy blew past us on the way back," Foster said. "Doing about ninety."
"Some kind of explosion. One of the fishing cabins up there."
From the corner of his eye, Tom picked up the subtle change in his dad's body language: the set of the jaw, the square of the shoulders. Forty-two years on the force, ten in command, all in a change of posture.
"Saw a Game and Parks truck and a town cop turn off around the thirteen-mile marker."
"Dunno. Statie said LifeNet choppered somebody to Lincoln already."
Jack Coleman sipped his coffee quietly. Foster nodded toward the couple out on the deck. "What do you want me to do with those two?"
Hell if Tom knew. "What would the old man do with them?"
"Your gramps? Probably give them some money back or something."
"So I guess we'll give them some money back or something."
"You could see if they'd want to put in at the falls," his dad suggested. "Float the bottom today."
Tom shrugged. "Tell them we'll comp it."
"Got it, boss."
Tom didn't like it when Duane Foster called him boss. He'd asked him to knock it off. "You're on your way there anyway, right?"
Foster just looked at him.
"Smith Falls." Tom waited for it to sink in. "The Lauterbach party?"
"Relax. They're not going anywhere."
Duane gave a sigh and hustled back outside.
When they were alone again, Tom said, "It's okay. You can go see if you want."
"What the hell, I'll go with you."
Things weren't exactly hopping at the Landing. According to Duane, it was early in the season.
"No sense closing the place up," his dad said.
"Duane can handle things."
"Anyway. None of my business anymore. Local boys don't need us poking our beaks in."
"Suit yourself." Tom figured he'd give it a minute. It took about half that long.
"Guess I could make a call or two. See if I can find out what's going on. You sure you don't mind?"
"I said it's fine. We'd just be standing around here anyway." His mom had driven into Valentine to spend the day with a friend she knew from Audubon, Nebraska; they were planning a chapter trip to the Dry Tortugas. "We'll go be bystanders."
Jack Coleman finished the last of his coffee and put the empty mug on the counter. He glanced at the lidded travel mug in front of Tom. If he'd guessed it contained anything other than coffee, he hadn't mentioned it yet. Tom waited.
"I'll do the driving."
Tom reached under the counter and tossed him the keys. Neither of them said anything else for a bit.
His dad finally nodded. "Guess we should go, if we're going."
They found the fishing camp, or what was left of it, a little over fifteen miles upriver.
They'd crossed the county line back into Cherry; Tom's dad estimated their position to be right along the eastern boundary of the refuge. Tom didn't see what difference it made, but that was his dad. Some retired men did the crossword; Major John P. Coleman figured jurisdiction in his head.
Tom paid more attention to the charred bones of the small cabin twenty yards off the north bank.
They reached the spot in a tree-ringed clearing by a winding, rutted sand track. His dad pulled in behind a white Expedition with a gold Cherry County Sheriff shield on the door. Tom counted two dark blue state cruisers, a county prowler, and a Game and Parks half-ton, all crowded together in fender-high grass. The shorter grass in the clearing had curled black almost to the tree line. The air still had a smoky, doused campfire smell.
"Looks like the party's over."
"We'll just stay a minute."
Near the gutted skeleton of the cabin, Tom saw the Game and Parks man chatting with the man Tom took to be the sheriff. A deputy in the same brown uniform as the sheriff poked around the edges of the blackened lumber and ankle-deep ash.
The two state troopers leaning against the trunk of the nearest cruiser watched Tom and his dad park. The larger of the two put on his hat and strolled over. Tom's dad switched off the ignition and got out to meet him.
Tom waited in the truck. He watched the trooper loosen his stance and shake his dad's hand. The two of them chatted a bit. When the trooper pointed toward the sheriff, Jack Coleman walked in that direction. The trooper looked at the pickup, raised a wave in Tom's direction.
Tom decided he was already tired of sitting there.
He got out and stretched his legs while his dad talked to the sheriff and the Game and Parks officer. He watched his dad wander over to the remains of the cabin and stand with his hands on his hips. Another handshake with the deputy there.
While Tom waited, he noticed a charred piece of litter in the bromegrass near his feet. He nudged the scrap with his shoe.
When he looked up, he saw his father moving back toward the truck, cell phone to his ear. Tom walked back and met him just as he folded the phone shut.
"Was that Mom?"
A nod. "Lost the signal. We'll meet her at the hospital in town."
"What's going on?"
"Don't know much," he said. "Hop in, we'll get moving. She'll be waiting for us."
Tom shrugged and got back in. He was curious, but the suspense wasn't exactly killing him. And he knew his dad.
He'd hear about it on the way.
According to Sheriff Roy Hilliard, three local teens had spent the night at the cabin, drinking beer and fishing, mostly drinking beer. The cabin had an old propane stove that vented out the center of the roof. Apparently, the stove had a leaky seal somewhere in the line.
Two of the boys had been inside when the stove blew. The third boy, oldest of the trio, had been down the bank taking a leak. The cabin was already burning by the time he made it back; he'd pushed into the flames and the smoke and dragged the others outside to the water. He'd had a cell phone with him but couldn't get a signal, called for help using the CB radio in his pickup.
He'd then raced back and forth with five-gallon buckets of river water while one of the other boys, injured but apparently able, pitched in with a twenty-pound fire extinguisher from the tool bed of the truck. They'd kept at the edges of the blaze until grass rigs from the volunteer fire department arrived from town.
Tom said, "You know the kids?"
"Ry Wheeler's boys, two of them."
Tom didn't know Ry Wheeler or his boys. His dad didn't offer anything on the third kid. Tom didn't ask.
"Pretty bad, one of them. Ryland's youngest, Morgan. That's who they took to Lincoln."
Tom decided he might as well throw it out. "I wonder if he had sinus trouble."
"What makes you wonder that?"
"Found an empty Sudafed box in the grass," he said. "Burned black on one side. Figure it came from the cabin."
Jack didn't say anything for a moment, and Tom didn't take the comment any further. No need.
"Well, Roy Hilliard's a good man. He'll know what's what."
They rode along.
A couple miles from town, his dad said, "Just so you know, Scott Greer was out there, too."
There came another pause then, the kind you learned to sit through while Jack Coleman decided what he wanted to say.
He finally said, "Worked the last couple summers for your grampa."
Tom said, "Oh."
When they got to the county hospital on the edge of Valentine, Tom saw his mother waiting for them out front. They parked in the center circle and got out of the truck. She hurried over, slinging her purse over a shoulder, her face pinched with concern.
"Poor Abby," she said.
The name hadn't registered in the truck. Tom glanced at his dad, who only shrugged. Didn't see the point in making a drama out of it. As they hustled down an antiseptic hallway, following the directions a nurse had given, his mother frowned at him.
"Don't play dense."
He could feel his mother watching him. He wasn't trying to be difficult; he just didn't know what she wanted him to say. He'd expected the subject to come up at some point during the visit, but not like this. He wasn't ready. And he was hung up on the math.
"How does Abby have a teenage son?"
"Scott's her stepson," his dad said. "The fellow she married had two boys."
"Dan Greer," his mother said. "Honestly, Tom. You know this."
"Is he here?"
He saw his parents exchange looks. They thought he was a basket case, he realized.
"Honey, he died two years ago. I sent you the obituary."
She had. Somehow he'd let it slip.
"Haying," his dad said. "Bailer caught him."
His mom said, "Thomas. Please."
He suddenly wanted to put on the brakes.
They hurried on.