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Doubting River

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 1 (v.1) - Chapter 1

Submitted: June 14, 2019

Reads: 88

Comments: 2

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Submitted: June 14, 2019



For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


--13th century proverb




All for the want of a horseshoe nail. That pithy warning, one of his dad’s favorites, taunted nine-year-old Lucas Gibson as he watched a sleek, black bullet streak toward its target. In this case, the nail was a forgotten leash, the bullet was a dog, and the target was a fallen duck. Mister Halsey’s duck.

It wasn’t as if he’d meant for River to go after the bird. As late as he was, they’d still detoured the long way through the woods at the far end of the long, narrow strip of pasture that made up Mister Halsey’s favorite hunting spot. But River had seen Mister Halsey’s gun swing toward the sky. Thankfully, in the seconds it took the dog to mark the duck that dropped, Lucas had tackled him and wrapped his arms around his neck.

“Stay,” the boy hissed, his mouth close to the dog’s ear. “Stay.” The duck had fallen over a rise, at the other end of the fallow pasture, probably landing in the pond. No way River could have seen where it fell. No way.

Judging by the frantic waving and incoherent shouts coming from his neighbor, Mister Halsey’s half-deaf, half-blind Labrador Buddy wasn’t having much luck finding the bird. Lucas buried his face in River’s neck and screamed. Just go get the dang bird already! His mom was due home any minute, and she was going to kill him if he wasn’t there.

Seconds turned into one minute, then two. Lucas shifted to ease a cramp in his leg. River swiped the boy’s cheek with his tongue and stamped his front feet. The boy stroked the dog’s chest with his thumb. “Just be patient,” he murmured, the curls on the dog’s ears tickling his lips.

River was a retriever, but not like Buddy, and physically there was little resemblance. River’s muzzle was a little longer, and the smooth fur of his face morphed into slight waves on his forehead then into crisp curls, small and delicate on his ears, larger but still tight on his neck and body, giving him what would have been an almost lamb-like look had the fur been longer or his body less powerful.

The old man waved and hollered and occasionally blew the whistle hanging around his neck. The shouts turned to swearing, and finally he lumbered down the slight slope and out of sight, Lucas assumed to fetch the duck himself. Lucas exhaled.

“Let’s get home,” he whispered and loosened his hold to grab the dog’s collar. But he underestimated the value of the fallen prize. River bucked once to the side, broke loose, and bolted. The boy’s mouth dropped open. Crap.

He followed, yelling the dog’s name, but the dog ignored him and sprinted across the pasture, leaping over thatches of Johnson grass beaten nearly flat by late-season storms and winter cold. Unlike the chunky Labrador, River’s long-limbed body was built for speed. Lucas crested the small rise in time to see him blow past his frustrated neighbor on a direct line to the pond. For several long seconds, the startled hunter just stared, and then he frantically struggled to get his shotgun to his shoulder.

“No, Mister Halsey, no!” Lucas shouted. He flung himself at the man’s arm, pulling the gun down. More swearing, as the old man tried to shake him off. “It’s River.”

The man looked down at him and blinked twice, and then squinted toward the water. “What the hell are you doing? Call that mutt back!”

Lucas didn’t get a chance to call him back, because at that moment River reached the edge of the pond and came to an abrupt halt. He swung his head right and left looking for the downed bird. Buddy sat on the bank nearby, looking for all the world like he was waiting for River to get in that cold water and get his duck for him. Probably no more anxious to get wet than Buddy, River turned and followed the left bank.

Mister Halsey growled and spat. “Damn dogs. I’d shoot every one of ’em, but I can’t afford the shells.”

Lucas gripped his neighbor’s flannel jacket. “No—look.”

River had picked his way around the edge of the lake to the far side, where he paused, sniffed, and then plunged into shallow muddy water and emerged seconds later with the duck.

Before Mister Halsey could respond, Lucas grabbed the whistle hanging around the old man’s neck and gave two sharp tweets.

Both dogs looked towards them. River paused long enough to shake and adjust his grip on the bird, then trotted back the way he’d come, around the end of the lake and along an easy path through the weeds, stopping directly in front of them.

“Holy shit.” Mister Halsey sounded awed. Then he snarled again. “That’s my duck, kid. I shot it on my own property. There’s laws against stealing.”

“We’re not stealing!” Lucas yelled back. River dropped the duck into his hands, and the boy shoved it at the old man. He took off at a run, his dog at his heels. “You’re welcome,” he shouted over his shoulder.

They didn’t stop until they reached the barbed wire fence that separated Mister Halsey’s land from his parents’ farm and, more importantly, kept the cattle out of the bottomland swamp his dad claimed was overrun with alligators. Well out of range of his neighbor’s ire, Lucas bent over and sucked in deep breaths of cold air. He glanced back the way he’d come and wondered briefly if Mister Halsey would call and complain. Nah. Mister Halsey was a crazy old grouch, but he wasn’t a snitch.

River plopped his butt on the ground and scratched his ear. Lucas glared at him. “This is all your fault, you know. Now we’re really late.”

Lucas peered through the rusty wire. Their barn blocked most of the view of the house and driveway beyond, good cover for a boy coming back from somewhere he shouldn’t have been with a dog he wasn’t supposed to take out.

He tugged on a silky corkscrew of a curl behind River’s left ear. “Mind your manners, and keep quiet,” he said, then added as an afterthought, “and no, you can’t chase a cow.”

The retriever’s eyes brightened at the mention of the beloved “c” word, but Lucas held tight to his collar as they crossed the pasture and slipped into the barn through the horse paddock at the back.

The chestnut gelding napping in his stall woke and snorted. Lucas put a finger to his lips. “Shhhh.” He reached over and unlatched the stall door. Home free.

"Where have you been?"

Lucas's head whipped to the right. His mother stood in the barn’s doorway, arms crossed, watching him. Busted. "Just out back.”

She arched her eyebrow and looked him up and down. “Want to try again?”

He followed her gaze. Mud, wet grass, and leaves coated his jeans from the knees down, and one knee had a conspicuous rip. In unison he and his mother looked at River, who chose that instant to trot through the stall door. Still wet from his dip in the lake, he had taken the opportunity to roll in the stall bedding, and sawdust (and other less desirable substances) covered him from his nose to the tip of his tail. As if to emphasize the point, the dog shook, showering them both.


"Lucas Alexander Gibson!"

The boy dragged the dog toward the house, scattering a trio of chickens pecking for tidbits in the middle of the gravel drive. River bounced every other step, trying to free himself from the death grip on his collar. "I'll get him cleaned up, Mom. I swear," Lucas said over his shoulder.

She followed him, brushing at the sawdust flecking her jacket. "That doesn't answer my question. And honestly," she said, "the pond? Without a leash? If we've told you once…"

Protests rose in his throat. He hadn't intended for River to go in the pond, and he'd had a leash when they left, but he left it at… never mind. She definitely didn't need to know where he left it.

"This dog isn't a pet, Lucas." She punctuated each word with a shake of her index finger. "He's a hunting dog…"

"A very special hunting dog," Lucas sing-songed, more than familiar with this particular litany. “And he belongs to Mr. Forbes, not to us, and we have to take extra special care of him.”

"Exactly.” She glared at the dog in question. “Lord knows, we can't afford to import another one if something happens to him."

The water hose lay in a tangled heap where he'd left it after filling the troughs that morning. He grabbed the nozzle and turned on the spigot on the side of the house. The hose choked and sputtered, but no water came out. "Oh, come on," he muttered, shaking it.

"What would your father tell Mr. Forbes if you’d lost him?" his mother continued. "You know better. Where were you?"

"Maybe it's frozen," he said, peering into the end of the nozzle.

She pressed her lips together. "That's not an answer." She took the nozzle and gave it a shake. "This is Mississippi, not Michigan—it's not that cold. If you would put the hose away properly, it wouldn't get kinked up." She snapped it, hard.

Water exploded from the end, jerking the hose from her grasp. Mother and son screamed and jumped apart to escape the deluge. His mother stumbled backwards, but the hose, writhing like a dancing cobra, followed her. River, delighted with this game, jumped in the middle, chasing the stream as it whipped to and fro. Lucas stared, open-mouthed, too shocked to act.

"Turn it off!" his mother yelled.

Lucas grabbed the knob and turned it left, then right, then left again. Which way was off?

"Righty tighty, lefty loosey!" She danced forward, backward, spun left, and bobbed. Water was everywhere, and everywhere was River, moving in an odd syncopation, bounding and snapping at the drops.

Lucas turned the spigot to the right until the hose sputtered and fell lifeless, bringing the game to an abrupt end. River sniffed at it and pawed it hopefully. For a long moment, no one spoke.

Lucas gawked at his mother. Water dripped from her nose and her chin. Her hair, a red, usually somewhat more tamed, version of his own curls, hung limp in her eyes, and now, in addition to the sawdust, her jacket sported a set of four perfect paw prints walking their way from her left hipbone to her right shoulder. To his horror, laughter quivered in his gut. He bit the inside of his cheek, but he couldn't help it: a giggle climbed his chest and burst out of him. I am so getting grounded for this. Once he started, he couldn't stop.

His mother stood frozen, mouth gaping open. Then a tell-tale red built in her cheeks, and her shoulders began to shake.

Lucas smothered his guffaws under clasped hands and cringed. Not grounded. Dead. I am so dead.

Instead, there was a snort, then a chuckle. Then deep belly laughs. Lucas's jaw dropped open, and for a moment he forgot his own amusement and just stared. That seemed to delight her even more. She plopped down at the picnic table and laughed until tears mixed with the water on her face. After a moment, she shrugged out of her wet jacket and dabbed at her face and streaming eyes with the collar of the lightweight cardigan underneath.

Lucas slid onto the bench beside her. "You're wet."

"I am?" She shook her head, showering him with water droplets. His squeals of delight turned to ear-splitting shrieks when she slipped her hands under his shirt and tickled bare ribs. "I'm cold too!"

"I'll get you a towel." He started to get up, but she caught hold of his wrist.

"Not yet. First, I want you to tell me where you were when I got home."

"Mom…." He tried to pull away, but she pulled him down beside her and wrapped her arm around him to keep him still.

"I spent twenty minutes looking for you. You weren't out back."

He stuck out his bottom lip and looked down.

She held up an index finger. "One."

Lucas's eyes widened. One day grounded. "Mom!"


"It's Christmas!"


"But we're training River!"

A horn honked, and tires crunched on the gravel drive. Both mother and son swiveled around to see the source. "Dad!" Lucas jumped up and ran to meet his father's truck, River close on his heels.

"It's not fair!" he complained as his father emerged from the cab.

"What's not?" His father knelt down and rubbed the retriever's ears. "What happened to River?"

"Your son took that dog and disappeared this afternoon," his mother said, joining them.

"Three days!" Lucas said. "She grounded me for three days."

His father looked back and forth between them for a long moment. "Lucas," he said finally, "go inside and put on some dry clothes. Oscar’s waiting for us.”

Lucas glanced at his mother and saw her jaw tighten the way it did when she held back words she didn't want to say in front of him. He started to turn away, then paused. "River…."

"I'll take care of him," his father said.

"Yes, sir." The boy fled to the house, a buzz of heated conversation rising and falling in his wake.

"Why are you making me the bad guy—"

Lucas shut the back door, cutting off the rest of his mother's words. He didn't want to hear. This was his fault. Forget it. I'm telling her the truth. He turned, then hesitated, hand on the doorknob. And then they'd never get to train River. He kicked the door.

The impact scattered chunks of mud from his shoes across the laundry room’s linoleum floor. Great. He dropped to his hands and knees and brushed the dirt into a pile. Then, careful not to dislodge anymore dirt, he stripped off his shoes and his socks, and after a moment of consideration, his jeans.

Mud safely contained in the heap, he left the clothes where they were and raced through the house and up the stairs in his underwear, taking the steps two at a time. Socks on first, but his feet were already chilled, and he hopped from one foot to the other as he dressed. His mother didn't see the point in heating the house during the day when they were out, even now when he was on break from school. He complained once, but she threatened to give him extra chores to keep him warm, so he decided to wear an extra sweater.

Before he went back downstairs, he dashed into the guest room and peeked through the window to see what his parents were doing. They stood face-to-face, his father's jacket around his mom's shoulders, her hands wrapped in his flannel shirt. His father's head was bent close to hers as he spoke. The words were just for her; not even the hum of conversation reached the glass. Her lips were pressed tight, but the corner of her mouth twitched, and then she smiled, looking down when she did so.

Lucas backed away from the window and headed outside. He went through the front door, rather than the kitchen, vaulting over the rail on the porch steps out of habit. The railing wobbled and groaned. He cringed. Squeaking that rail was a sure-fire way to annoy his mom, the last thing he wanted right now. He circled wide to the barn, keeping his head low, hoping not to attract their attention.

When he slipped inside the old structure, he blew out his breath and relaxed. In an unused corner, his father had built a chain-link kennel run for River, and next to that stood a cabinet where they kept training equipment. Lucas opened it and looked over the contents. Whistle, replacement leash, long line—they’d definitely need those. He pulled out a couple of knobby white retrieving dummies and considered them. River usually retrieved these plastic bumpers instead of birds. It sure would be cool if they could retrieve some ducks instead. He looked wistfully at his dad's shotgun.

"You were late."

Lucas looked over his shoulder to see his father and River coming through the barn door. He glanced past them, but his mother was out of sight. "She wasn't supposed to be home until three."

"And you were supposed to be home at two. What happened?"

“I forgot River’s leash.” He summarized River’s adventure in their neighbor’s pond, minimizing his own fault as much as possible.

But his father wasn’t interested in fault. “River marked a duck from the woods and found it in the pond?” His forehead creased as he thought. “That had to be three hundred yards.”

Lucas tilted his head. “How far is that?”

“Three football fields.”

Lucas screwed up his face and tried to imagine the high school football field in Mister Halsey’s pasture.

“Incredible,” his father muttered. Then he frowned. “But that doesn’t change what happened. How many times do I have to tell you? The kingdom was lost…”

“I know, I know,” Lucas whined, anticipating what he was going to say. “All for the want of a horseshoe nail.” He hated that poem.

“Yes, all for the want of a horseshoe nail. You forgot the leash, and now we’re late. And if we don’t get a move on, Oscar will leave, and we won’t get any training done tonight.”

Lucas sighed. Logic sucked. "Am I grounded?"

"No. I told her that boys keep secrets at Christmas." He turned and began sorting through the equipment Lucas had pulled out. "You'd better have something good for her under that tree though."

The boy tapped a bumper against his thigh. How could he tie the vase he made in art class into his trip through the woods? He’d have to ask his buddy Sam. He was good at figuring out things like this.

River grabbed the bumper and tried to tug it out of his hands. He obliged him for a moment, then tossed it for him to fetch. The dog bounded after it and returned it, tail wagging.

"Can we train with real birds today?" Lucas asked. "I bet you can get some pigeons from Oscar."

His dad dug in the back of the cabinet until he found what he was looking for: a pair of foam dummies weighted and painted to feel and look like dead ducks. "We've talked about this. We're not ready for live flyers yet."

"But River has retrieved lots of real birds. Oscar said so. When he was in New Zealand, he retrieved real birds all the time. I told you what he did today. He didn’t have any trouble at all."

"I didn't say River couldn’t do it. I said we're not ready. We need to test him, bit by bit, to find out what he knows and what he doesn't. There's a huge difference between hunting in New Zealand and American field trials. We've got to figure it out systematically, starting with the basics. And that means we go slow."

The boy sighed. "All right. But I think he's bored."

His father faced him and bent down like he was sharing a secret. "You know what? I think he is too. Since he did so well with the pond, what do you say we try some water retrieves today?"

Lucas wrinkled his nose. "Isn't it kind of cold?"

"Not to River." His father suddenly swept the boy up and hung him, upside down and backwards, over his shoulder.

For a split second, Lucas considered complaining that at nine years old, he was too old for this, but his argument was overruled by irrepressible giggles.

"We’re late. Hurry up, and get the stuff," his father said, turning so he could reach it.

It wasn't easy to manage all the bits and pieces while hanging upside down, but that was part of the challenge. Of course, the snickers he couldn't control and the dog that kept jumping up and licking his face didn't help, but he managed to hold onto everything all the way to the truck. He watched his mother approach, shaking her head. She looked funny walking on her head, and it made him laugh harder.

"Jake," his mother admonished. "It's a wonder he doesn't have brain damage. Look how red his face is."

His father swung him around and set him on his feet. "Just trying to get the blood flowing up there. Want him firing on all cylinders."

"Mmmhmm." She didn't sound quite convinced, but at least she seemed amused and no longer angry.

A silver "dog box" designed to hold multiple hunting dogs and their equipment was mounted on the bed of his father's pickup. This one wasn’t fancy like the one Oscar had. His dad had bought it used off Craigslist from some guy near Vicksburg. But it worked fine, and Lucas felt like a real dog trainer with River riding in the box. He shoved the equipment into a compartment on the driver's side, then ran around and opened the one on his side. His dad lifted River in, and then carefully fastened the hatch. Lucas crawled into the truck's cab.

"Seat belt," his father reminded him.

"Don't forget," his mother said as his parents walked around to the driver's side, "your training partner has cows to feed, you have a porch rail to fix—” She shot Lucas a glance that told him she hadn’t missed his attempt to sneak past. “—and we promised to attend the live Nativity at the church tonight."

His father gave her a quick kiss and got in the truck. "How could I forget? Chasing Gertrude McKelvey's ass up and down Main Street is a December twenty-third tradition." He rolled down the window and turned the ignition key. The truck put-put-putted to life.

His mother leaned in the window. "I hope you're talking about her donkey."

Lucas giggled, and she gave him a wink.

"You're going to have to watch Lucas tonight too. I promised to sell ornaments in the church booth."

"Grandma will be there. I can stay with her," Lucas said.

"No, you can't." Her tone was flat. She met his eyes until he nodded, then tapped his father’s arm. "Speaking of the McKelveys, I heard Tom might be looking to hire somebody to help build some new fence in his back pasture before the winter calves come."

"All Tom McKelvey has to do is ask, and the whole county will turn out for free."

"Free won't pay for a new alternator or my textbooks. New quarter starts right after New Year's. I had to charge…"

"Don't worry about that," his father said. "We'll get the money. Have I ever let you down?" He gave her a quick kiss. "Home for dinner!"

She smiled and stepped back so he could turn the truck around. "Be careful."

He started down the drive. "Nahhhhh."

Her laughter followed them onto the road.

Lucas turned on the radio. Twangy music blared for a moment, then dissolved into static. He fiddled with the tuner, but the old truck apparently wasn't in the mood for music today. "Crap."


"Sorry." He turned the radio off. "I wish Mom didn't hate Grandma so much."

"She doesn't hate her. They're just too alike and too stubborn, and your mom can't let go of some stuff that happened a long time ago."

"A long time ago like when you got married?"

"Like even before that," his dad said.

Unable to imagine such ancient history, Lucas switched topics. "So if River wins this contest, will Mom stop worrying about money?"

"Field trial. If—When—River wins a field trial, I will be the man for training around here, and our troubles will be G-O-N-E. Trust me, Lucas, that dog is our golden ticket."

"I don't know why Mom's going to school anyway. I know I wouldn't go to school if I was a grownup." Lucas watched the scenery pass for a long moment and then blurted the words he'd been holding in. "I think we should tell Mom the truth."

His father pulled up to the stop sign at the turn onto Highway 61 and stopped. "We've discussed this. I thought you understood."

"I do understand." Lucas kicked the dashboard. "It isn't fair!"

"Maybe not, but don't take it out on my truck." His father made the left onto the highway. "I don't like this either, Lucas, but I don't see any other way to do it."

The boy crossed his arms and huffed. "It's just... She just… She just ought to be reasonable."

His father threw back his head and laughed. "I agree. I don't recommend you tell her that though."

A sudden blur of tan distracted Lucas from his reply. "Look out!"

The truck careened and skidded as his father tried to avoid the buck that leapt in front of them. Lucas glimpsed the deer's eyes, rolling in terror, an instant before the collision flipped the animal onto the hood. Glass shattered, and the boy yelled and threw his arms up to protect himself. Another lurch, and the truck came to a halt.

Lucas sat with his eyes squeezed shut until the unnerving stillness finally drove him to peek. He yelped and flinched away from the buck, its face just inches from his own. The deer was beyond reacting. It had come partially through the windshield, its body wrenched and twisted by the impact. The neck was at an odd angle, the antlers wedged between the dash and Lucas's abdomen.

The boy exhaled. That was close! He pushed at the massive head, but it wouldn't budge. He tried again. No luck. Maybe he could slide out. He fumbled with the seatbelt, but somehow the tip of one antler had jammed in the clasp.

"Dad, I'm stuck." His father didn't answer. Lucas looked over. "Dad?"

His father was leaning forward over the steering wheel, eyes closed, as if he were trapped in that moment before impact, praying they wouldn't collide.

"Dad?" Lucas's voice shook. He reached over and tugged on his father's sleeve. He slumped toward him, his head lolling backwards to reveal a small cut and swelling on his forehead. Lucas grabbed his jacket and shook him. "Wake up!"

His father made a sound low in his throat and blinked his eyes. He slowly lifted his head, wincing as he did, and looked around. He blinked again and sat up straighter. “You okay, Lucas?” He ruffled the boy’s head and looked him up and down.

 “I’m fine, but I’m stuck,” he said, his voice trembling.

His father leaned to help him and found himself restricted by his own seatbelt. He jiggled the clasp, pulled on it, then pressed as hard as he could, the effort showing in the tendons on his neck. The belt suddenly popped loose and retracted with a whir. They stared at each other, and then laughed in relief.

A horn blared, and tires squealed. Lucas looked past his father with a gasp and took in their situation all at once. They were on the highway, facing oncoming traffic, or what would be oncoming traffic if he could have seen it. The road angled left limiting his view—and the view of anyone coming towards them. He grabbed his seatbelt and jerked at it. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

His father pressed the seatbelt’s release button. “Stop pulling on the belt!” He finagled with it, alternating yanking on the belt and smashing the button.

In the distance, there was a rumble. Lucas looked around them. Beyond them, the car that had almost hit them had stopped, and a man was getting out. He couldn’t see beyond the curve, but the rumble was getting louder. “You’ve got to get out of here.”

“No, I’ve almost got it....”

“Dad, go!”

The rumble became the blare of a horn, then the squeal of brakes. The seatbelt slithered free, and Lucas threw his shoulder against the door. But it was already too late. He looked back and for the briefest moment caught his dad’s eye. Before the blackness, his last thought was of a dog’s leash and his father’s favorite poem. All for the want of a horseshoe nail….

© Copyright 2019 Melissa Alexander. All rights reserved.


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