Jed and Tanner took turns rolling the barrel down the road as the sun rose on the Tennessee hollow. Tanner’s turn usually lasted longer because Jed was talking. Tanner’s father said that Jed talked like he was being paid by the word. But Tanner didn’t mind too much; if Jed was talking, then he didn’t have to. And Jed was always talking.
“I’m tellin’ ya, Tanner. This is gonna be the biggest thing you and me have ever done. They will be tellin’ our story to their grandbabies one day. You just wait and see. Why, they may even write a song about us! Can you imagine that, Tanner? Grown men, sittin’ and spittin’ around a fire under the stars, in the year of our Lord, 1826, singin’ a song about us? Damn, Tanner. It just don’t get no better than that. That’s real accomplishment, right there.”
Tanner nodded, wiping his face with his sleeve, and leaning into the barrel as the road began to turn up the mountain. Jed really didn’t require more than a nod in the way of encouragement. The sound of his own ideas coming out his mouth was usually encouragement enough. Tanner rolled, and Jed was on a roll.
“And what about the ladies, Tanner? What about that? Do you know how they are gonna look at me and you down at Haney’s Mercantile? Just picture it – you and me walkin’ in, just to get a stick of candy or something. Picture it, Tanner. There’s three or four girls in there after school, buyin’ perfume or powder or whatever it is they sniff over at the counter. You and me, we just walk in all normal, and they see us. They know our story; you know, cause their Paw has sung our story-song to them in front of the fireplace after their Maw has done the Bible readin’. Not too soon after, mind you, because their Paw don’t want to shame the Word of God with our story. That happens, and kids won’t want to listen to Bible readin’ anymore. Famous is fine, but you and me don’t want to come between children and the Almighty. Important to remember that after today, Tanner. Our notoriety can’t lead to another’s damnation. That would really sully up our story. We have to protect that, Tanner. To whom much is given, much is expected.
Preacher said that last Sunday. Reverend thinks I ain’t listenin’ to him preach, but I just don’t want him to get the big head, so I just close my eyes and pretend to sleep. Keeps him humble. Tanner, come to think about it, that is probably my God-given mission on this earth. Helpin’ the Reverend with his humbleness. Tanner, you think God would give that job to a thirteen year old man?”
Tanner wasn’t too sure about anything regarding God, but he was sure that Jed made him feel humble most everyday. He was just glad Jed let him hang around, so he nodded his head again, grunted as he pushed the barrel around the turn in the dusty road, and leaned into its weight again. It seemed his turn pushing was going to be just a bit longer.
“Anyway, like I was sayin’ - the girls. The girls see us walk in to Haney’s, and commence to gigglin’ and whisperin’. Now, we know it’s about us, but we just go up to the counter like we don’t even see them, and we pick out our candy. We try to pay for the candy, but Mr. Haney won’t have any of that. Talks about how we have put this place on the map with our adventurin’, how he has people comin’ in everyday, askin’ about us and buyin’ things. Mrs. Haney is standin’ there, sayin’ he shouldn’t just give us candy, but Mr. Haney waves her off. Tells her to go stock something. We thank Mr. Haney for his kindness, and he tells us to call him Joseph. We are obviously men, what with all our adventurin’. We turn from the counter and those girls are just standin’ there, still gigglin’ and all. We lean in, open our candy bag, hold it out, and offer them some of our free candy. We don’t say nothin’. Just say, “Ladies?” And they take some of the candy, and just start followin’ us until we tell them to go on home. We got adventurin’ to do, and that is no place for a lady. We have to remember that, Tanner. We can’t let no one stumble on account of our fame and fortune. The Good Book talks about that, as well. Not sure where. Do you know where, Tanner?”
Tanner wasn’t sure he did, but that might just be because he was getting a bit dizzy pushing the heavy oak barrel up this far. He just shook his head. It was too hard to talk.
Tanner didn’t seem to be having any trouble, however. “Somethin’ about hangin’ a millstone around your neck or somethin’. You ever seen a millstone, Tanner? I bet one of those weighs a million pounds. I don’t care how good a swimmer you are, Tanner Wilson, you ain’t totin’ that across the river. So we’ll just have to leave those girls right there.”
When Jed finally said they had arrived, Tanner felt like he would pass out. His stomach was churning, his head swimming, and he was seeing spots. But there was no way he was going to tell Jed this.
“Whew, I tell you what, Tanner. All this adventurin’ has me a little winded. How about you? Let’s sit in the shade a bit and take a break.” Tanner gave the barrel one last shove, and dropped to the ground, leaning up against the nearest tree. A cool breeze blew across his face, and Tanner just sat and savored it. Maybe he wouldn’t die after all.
Tanner suddenly remembered that he had no idea what adventure Jed had planned for the day. That wasn’t unusual; Jed typically just showed up and said, “Come on.” But the lead-up to the fun rarely demanded this much from Tanner.
Tanner looked over at his friend. Jed was leaning against the opposite tree, eyes closed, grinning like a fox.
Jed answered without opening his eyes. “Yep?”
“Why did we just push that barrel all the way up here?”
“Tanner, haven’t you heard anything I just said on the way up here?”
“Well, yeah. Adventure, songs, God, candy, girls... I got all that. But what are we doin’ with the barrel?”
Jed opened his eyes slowly, the grin on his face growing. “You’re ready, aren’t you, Tanner? That’s what I like about you. You are always ready. Just us talking about adventurin’ and there you go. I swear, Tanner Wilson. You are a hard man to keep up with.”
Tanner had no idea why Jed would say he was hard to keep up with. Jed had never once followed Tanner anywhere. He was always out front. And now Jed was up again, pushing the barrel himself, heading deeper into the woods. Tanner scrambled to his feet to follow. He thought he heard the sound of water up ahead.
Tanner broke through the trees into the light a half second after Jed, and immediately felt his heart leap into his throat, threatening to choke the life from him. Just past Jed, the ground dropped away. Tanner cautiously edged forward until he could see fully what Jed had been planning all day. Ten feet below, the river rushed by, the roaring of the water filling his head and echoing around inside. Tanner followed the river downstream with his eyes. Not fifty feet from where they stood, the water disappeared. Tanner slowly walked down to take a look at what came next. He did not like what he found.
The drop must have been 30 feet or more. Water crashing at the bottom of the falls, churning up, and thrashing violently into what appeared to be another drop. Tanner turned back to Jed, his eyes refusing to blink.
Jed stood there grinning, leaning against the now upright barrel. “Wanna flip to see who goes first?”
Tanner was unable to speak. Every word that formed in his brain seemed to wash over the falls before he could send it in protest toward Jed. He just stood there with his uncooperative mouth hanging open.
But, once again, Jed did not require a response. “Wait! I’ve got it. We can both go if we hang on to the outside of the barrel!”
He was going to die. This Tanner knew beyond a shadow of a doubt. He was going to drown and it was going to be today. He watched in his head as the men down in town pulled his limp, waterlogged, dead body out of the lake below. His father would be standing there, calling him a damn fool, while Jed walked away wrapped in a blanket, heading to Haney’s to get his free candy.
The Committee of Voices in his head began weighing in. His father’s voice rattled, “I always knew you would do something this stupid, and it would get you killed. Dumbass.” The voices of the older boys in town yelled out next. “Hey, momma’s boy. You gonna chicken out again? I bet you do. I bet you’d run right now, go and hide behind her skirt if you could.” Reverend Adams’ chastising quickly followed. “Tanner, you are shaping up to be just like that no-good drunk father of yours. Your mother would be ashamed if she could see you.”
Jed’s voice interrupted the free-for-all inside Tanner’s head. “Hey, you ready to be famous?”
Tanner didn’t hear anything after that. The roar of the whitewater, the sounds of the woods behind him, even Jed’s voice had faded away as Tanner walked over to the barrel and he grasped the open top. He looked over at Jed, who, he thought, was telling him to help scoot the barrel over to the edge. The boys rocked the heavy barrel back and forth, inching it ever closer to the drop. Tanner still wasn’t hearing anything; only this high-pitched ringing in his ears. He may have vaguely heard Jed shout for him to hang on.
Suddenly he was tumbling toward the water. The barrel had caught on a root as it tilted over the ledge. Tanner had not lost his grip on the edge of the barrel, but they had spun in the air when the barrel briefly caught. Tanner was now falling backward, the barrel on top of him, and Jed on top of the barrel. The last thing Tanner saw before hitting the water was Jed flying through the air, whooping like an Indian.
And then they hit the water. Tanner felt like he had been crushed between the surface and the barrel. He saw a flash of light as the barrel cracked his nose, and felt his ribs give under the weight of the barrel. He couldn’t see and he couldn’t get any air. When his breathing finally decided to work again, Tanner desperately sucked in. He had just gone under, and his lungs filled with water.
The barrel that was killing him was still his only lifeline, and he held on with everything he had. The air inside forced the barrel back to the surface, and it shot like a bullet up out of the water. Tanner coughed, sputtered, and gagged as he tried to find air again. The barrel settled into a bucking bob as it flew toward the thirty-foot drop just ahead. His vision clearing a bit, Tanner tried to stay above water, but Jed was no longer hanging on the other side, and Tanner’s weight kept spinning the barrel around, putting him repeatedly under the barrel. He pulled himself up, resting his chin on the edge of the barrel. As he raced toward the big falls, he felt something grab his leg and yank down. His chin smacked the barrel hard, splitting open. Underwater again, Tanner opened his eyes to find Jed holding on to his leg.
As they tumbled over the falls together, Tanner was absolutely certain that Jed was still smiling.
Tanner woke up to find Jed leaning over his face. Slowly, his vision cleared and his ears began to work again.
“Tanner! Was that not exactly as amazin’ as I promised? I swear to you, people would line up just to hear us retell our story of what just happened. Unfortunately, we will not be able to tell our story a first time. Old man Tucker’s barrel is pretty much smashed to bits. He would be pretty damn mad if he found out we was the ones who did the smashin’. Don’t worry – I hid the pieces already while you was takin’ a rest down here. Now, I’ll admit to you, I am just as disappointed about this need for a code of silence as you are. That does cut down on the songs and the candy. But I got to thinkin’, while you was nappin’ here and I was hidin’ what was left of the barrel. That’s not what you and me do all this adventurin’ for. Sure, the glory is nice. But you and me, Tanner, we do the adventurin’ strictly for the adventurin’. Ain’t that great, Tanner? That, sir, is why you and me are such good friends. See you tomorrow, Tanner.”
It was getting dark as Tanner watched Jed bound off. The moon was in the sky now, it’s reflection bouncing off the lake at the bottom of the falls. He continued to lie on his back at the edge of the bank, water lapping into his ear and silt running down into his pants.
He felt no urge to get up. Not just yet.