Today's Reading

That is one beginning for this story. There is another: three days earlier, when Henry Carter awakes on a patch of fern moss and finds himself staring at high cirrus clouds. He hears the one-note trilling of a cardinal. The spinning of car wheels. Feels the moss beneath him turn warm and wet, as he bleeds out.

In time, the cardinal flies away, the car wheels fade, and after that comes a great silence, a muteness broad and deep enough for him to tumble into. He spins in the silence a long time, what seems like days, until a foul smell comes over him and he reawakens.

He rolled when he was shot, and he is grateful he isn't face down. He lifts his head and sees blood pooling around his waist. It is starting to discolor. The reason for the smell. He lays his head down and goes back to watching clouds.

He doesn't spend time thinking about the betrayal. Not right away. It happened. He should have seen it coming. He doesn't allow more than that, not until the last minutes before he loses consciousness a second time, when he remembers her face.

The way she looked when he saw her last. Surprised. But not as surprised as she should have been. Questioning. But not in a good way. Wondering whether she should run. Whether that was the smart play and whether she had the time for it.

He knew the look.

When he reawakens, the air has chilled and there are black dots in front of the clouds, as though they have mottled. He wonders what would cause a thing like that, but no answer comes to him.

His father had an expression for her. He remembers that. "Tess Danby ain't no hand-upper, son." When he asked his father what that meant, he'd answered, "Means that gal is a great many things, Henry, but one thing she'll never be is any help to a man when he's down."

Funny. Is that funny now?

He ponders the question for the rest of the day, until the wind gathers strength and the late-afternoon gnats come and then are blown away; until the shadows climb down from the upper branches of the trees and begin to lie for the night; until the last of the day's light fades, glimmer by glimmer, from the forest floor. Just before the world goes dark, Henry Carter decides the question doesn't matter much—Tess Danby isn't there now—and it would be right and proper, an action befitting the facts, to kill his wife if he ever has the chance.


The next morning, I was on a Greyhound to Cape Rage. It was the milk run, stopping eight times before I got off, another eight after that before the bus reached its destination of Vancouver. We stopped at Everett and Mount Vernon, at Bellingham and Ferndale; stopped at a railway switching yard in the foothills of the Cascade Range where two young line workers jumped off and the bus stayed parked just long enough for the driver to have a cigarette.

We stopped at the Lummi Indian Reservation, where half the bus got up and walked off, each person carrying shopping bags, or children's toys, one old man carrying a wooden kayak paddle. It was at Lummi that I first saw Cape Rage. It looked like a distant white hill at the southern tip of the Strait of Georgia, the San Juan Islands in the foreground, each island with second-growth Douglas fir, the tree line of each looking roughly the same, almost too uniform to be natural, and in the shadows cast by Cape Rage those islands looked like boats making their way out to sea.

When the bus left the reservation, I put my duffel behind my head and resumed thinking about the work ahead. I had the three back seats, the ones that don't recline and nobody ever wants, but I can stretch out on those seats if I'm traveling solo and the bus isn't full. Which they never are anymore. Lot of days, I worry about Greyhound.

Artemis Danby came to Washington State, from Buffalo, New York, in the 1890s, one stagecoach ride ahead of an arrest warrant for a string of holdups and assaults along the Erie Canal towpath. He came west with money and soon built a sawmill near Cape Rage, at the mouth of the Drayton River. It was said by some that the reefs around Cape Rage sank more ships in the nineteenth century than the Columbia Bar, but Danby didn't care. Keeping visitors away seemed a good thing. And it made the land for his sawmill that much cheaper.

After the sawmill, Danby bought tugs to start moving booms up and down the Strait, then some seiners to go crabbing, and then—in a stroke of entrepreneurial brilliance that secured the Danby family fortune—some three-mast schooners to run Canadian whiskey through the San Juan Islands during Prohibition.

By the time the United States entered the Second World War, Artemis Danby—King Arthur, as he was known by then—owned salmon canneries in Blaine and Tacoma, a fleet of dry-haul steamers, five more sawmills, two pulp-and-paper mills and the entire town of Cape Rage, the settlement that had grown up around his first sawmill.

The Danby family business was now run by his grandson, Ambrose Danby, who lived on an island in the Georgia Strait with his son and daughter, the island bought in the '30s by Artemis from a bankrupt railway company, a grand hotel on the cliffs of the island that had once been the jewel in the company's portfolio. The Danbys turned a decent profit on their legitimate businesses but earned ten times more smuggling contraband up and down the West Coast. The family also—carrying on a tradition started by King Arthur—stole, almost for sport.

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