Nate stared at the sign in front of him. He was still a little early to pick up his son, but he didn’t have time for this. He sat motionless in his beat up Dodge truck for a few minutes. Should he ignore the sign and go through? After all, his truck was a 4 x 4 with a lifted chassis. He could handle a fair amount of water. Or should he back up and go a different direction? And which direction should he go? North to Pitkin, or south to the Wye?
The rain had temporarily slowed to a sprinkle, and his windshield wipers were screeching as they dragged across the now nearly dry windshield. Nate reached up and turned them off, simultaneously checking his rearview mirror to see if anyone was waiting for him to make up his mind. Nope. He was the only one crazy enough to get out in this terrible weather.
Normally, he wouldn’t be either. However, the last time he was supposed to pick up Ryan for his weekend visit, he didn’t make it until Saturday afternoon. The boy pouted and refused to go with him. Not wanting to push his son too hard, he asked his ex-wife if he could just have the following weekend instead. She reluctantly agreed though Ryan glared at him from the doorway. As Nate walked back to his truck, head bowed low in disappointment, he heard his son yell after him that if he wasn’t important enough to stop drinking for, then not to bother coming next time.
Nate figured his ex had a lot to do with that particular outburst. It’s not that he didn’t deserve their ire, but he was trying hard to put things right. His drinking had led them to this situation they were all in—debt, divorce, distance. He was trying hard to make amends, going to Celebrate Recovery, volunteering at church, working extra hours, and anything else that he could think of that would keep him on the straight and narrow.
It was that working overtime bit that made him late last time. He tried to explain to his son why he was late, but Ryan wouldn’t listen and Nate didn’t blame him. For much of Ryan’s thirteen years, Nate had either been drunk or had lied about being drunk. Simple words of apology would not fix what he had broken. Nate wasn’t really sure anything would, but he was determined not to give up hope—which is why the bright orange sign in the middle of the road was a problem.
Nate knew how long the two possible detour routes would take him. Both would make him late…again. He also knew how much rain had fallen, how swollen the Ouiska Chitto bayou was, and how many flash flood warnings he had received from his cell phone’s emergency alert system. He also knew on the other side of the hairpin turn in front of him, concealed by the dense Louisiana pine forest, lay three low bridges over the widest part of the bayou. As was typical of these rural parish roads, there was no shoulder to the road, which meant no way to turn around if he needed to.
Having finally satisfied himself that arriving late was better than not arriving at all, he turned on his blinker to turn down the gravel road toward The Wye. He would have to snake his way back to Sugartown from the south, adding an extra 20 minutes to his trip, but at least he would arrive safely.
Just as he turned, he saw a flash of yellow speed along behind him. He knew instantly who it was. It was Greg Bailey’s boy, Tucker. He was the only one driving anything yellow in this rural Louisiana community. Most folks owned trucks, SUVs, or small, cheap foreign cars. Greg had gifted his boy a brand new Ford Mustang for his 18th birthday. The Mustang was simply the latest in a string of expensive and fast cars. Tucker had wrecked his electric blue Camero a few months earlier after playing chicken with his friends one night after a football game.
Nate immediately stopped his truck. He was just able to catch a glimpse of the taillights of the yellow sports car as it raced past the orange warning sign and disappear around the near 90-degree turn. Once again, Nate sat still, weighing his options. He stared at the clock on his dash. If he delayed any longer, he would definitely be late and Ryan might not go with him again. However, worry over the Bailey boy suddenly seized Nate’s thoughts.
Tucker was a hot head. Spoiled, selfish, and downright belligerent. Nate had had run-ins with both Tucker and his father over Tucker’s rude and often dangerous behavior. One night, Nate dragged the teen out of his car as he drunkenly tried to navigate the Wal-Mart parking lot. Tucker and his two friends were all intoxicated. Nate had not called the police on the boys, having been in their exact shoes at their age. Instead, he opted to take them home himself. That’s when the trouble started.
Tucker’s friends’ parents were mortified their sons were behaving so foolishly and thanked Nate profusely for their safe deliverance. However, whatever expectations of gratitude Nate had expected from Greg Bailey evaporated when he rang his doorbell. Tucker was so drunk he could barely stand so Nate set him on a chair on the front porch. When Greg finally answered the door in his bathrobe, Nate could tell Tucker was about to be sick.
Instead of thanking Nate for his help, Greg demanded to know where Tucker’s car was. Nate explained it was still in the Wal-Mart parking lot, which made Greg furious. He shouted obscenities at Nate, screaming that any damage to the car would be Nate’s responsibility. Nate tried hard to remain calm, working through his 12-step process in his mind. Seeing no good was going to come from the situation, Nate left wordlessly as Greg continued cursing at him in the dark while he heard Tucker vomiting in his momma’s prized azalea bushes. The Bailey family wanted no one involved in their affairs for any reason, and Nate had learned his lesson.
Still, Tucker was just a teenager. Like a true teenaged boy, his bravado outweighed his wisdom. Nate breathed out heavily, just realizing that he had kept his breath pent up.
“That boy needs saving, Nate, you old fool,” he told himself out loud.
So at the risk of widening the gap between him and his own son, Nate backed his truck up on the still empty highway and drove slowly past the warning sign to help out the son of a man who would most likely be angry at his interference.
Nate quickly rounded the curve and came face to face with a lake of water where there had once been a road. Nate panicked. He didn’t dare try to go any further, even with the four-foot ground clearance on his truck. The water was rising quickly, and he didn’t see the Mustang either. In an instant, he knew Tucker’s car had been swept off the road. The water was easily two feet over the road. The sports car never stood a chance. Nate grabbed his cell phone to call 911, but he was too deep in the piney woods to get a signal. He backed his truck up about 20 feet to get to a little higher ground and got out. The sound of the rushing water was incredible. The Ouiska Chitto bayou was normally quiet and sort of peaceful, in a scary Louisiana backwoods kind of way. But now, it was scary in a whole new way.
Nate walked around his truck scanning for any sign of Tucker or his car. He began yelling Tucker’s name. No response. Frantic, Nate tried calling for help again. Nothing. He felt like time was running out, but he wasn’t sure what to do. Leave and find a phone to call for help that would most assuredly come too late, or search the bayou himself? Nate was saved from that decision by the sound of a camouflaged colored, all-terrain utility vehicle coming down the road.
Nate recognized the elderly man and his younger driver immediately. He had gone to church with Mr. W.D. Honea when he was a kid, and Nate also recognized his grandson Cole.
“Mr. W.D., I sure am glad see you,” Nate shouted while taking a few steps over to the UTV to shake the elder man’s hand.
“Nate Williams, what are you doing out in this god-forsaken storm?” the older man asked as he shook hands. “We were just headed out to check on the water, when I saw your truck pass. I knew someone was going to be in trouble. Never guessed you’d be fool enough to try to cross this.” He gestured with free hand at the swift, brown running lake.
Nate chuckled. The old man was as honest as he was blunt. “Well, I am a fool, I give you that, but I am here because I followed a bigger fool than me. I saw Greg Bailey’s boy Tucker in his yellow Mustang fly past that warning sign and head around the curve. I figured he was stampeding into trouble so I followed him. But I don’t see him anywhere.”
Nate scanned the water and the trees again. No sign of Tucker. “Maybe he got across before the water came up. It’s rising fast. Maybe he got through.” Even as the words left his mouth, he knew they weren’t true.
Mr. Honea suddenly looked worried. “No, son, he couldn’t have made it across. The water’s been over the road for the last hour.”
Nate’s eyes widened. Instinctively, he began yelling Tucker’s name again, running up and down the small section of road that wasn’t underwater. Cole and his grandfather jumped out of the UTV and began yelling too, all three frantically watching the trees for any sign of life. Several minutes passed. The three men stood still. Nate put his hands on his head. The rain was falling again, but he didn’t care. He could feel hot tears run down his cheeks, mingling with the cool rain.
“Lord,” Nate whispered a quiet plea, “help me find him!”
“You’re right, son,” Mr. Honea said, “Let’s pray.” In a most surreal setting, an old man, a middle-aged man, and young teenager held hands in the middle the road, water inching their way toward their feet. Mr. Honea spoke simple words for divine deliverance for brash Tucker Bailey with Nate and Cole both chiming in their “amens” at the end.
They stood again facing the direction of the flowing water. Nate yelled one last night for Tucker. He knew he’d have to call both the police and Greg in just a few minutes, and he’d need to call his own son. All three phone calls weighed so heavily on his mind that he thought he’d fall down from the weight.
As he turned to head toward his truck, he locked eyes with Mr. Honea. The enormity of the event passed between their stares. Nate patted the old man on the shoulder as he trudged back to the Dodge. Why didn’t he follow him sooner? His thoughts were already starting to plague him, and he could feel the old familiar dry patch in his throat rise up, demanding a drink.
“No, Lord,” he told himself. “Not today. I won’t give up today.”
As he opened the door to his truck, he thought the door was being extra squeaky. “Probably the rain,” he thought. But then he looked across the road at Cole, who had paused midway into the redneck golf cart. Cole was staring at the trees in the middle of the bayou. Nate quickly looked that way, too.
“What is it, Cole?” Nate’s voice sounded higher and excited.
“Over there, Mr. Nate,” he pointed to clump of pine trees. “I thought I heard something. Thought something moved.”
Nate yelled fiercely, “Tucker! Tucker! Show us where you are!”
Suddenly, in a thicket of trees 50 feet from the road and about 10 feet up a tall, thick cypress tree, something dark waved back and forth. Nate was visibly startled.
Cole burst forth, “Mr. Nate! It’s him! It’s him! There! In the trees! Do you see him?!” Cole was jumping and pointing. Hope rushed back into the men’s faces, and it took the briefest of moments for Nate and Mr. Honea to respond.
“Hold on, Tucker! Hold on! We’re going to get you out of there!” Nate yelled excitedly.
He turned to his companions. “We have to get help out here. There’s no way we can wade out to him, or we will get swept away. And I don’t have a rope long enough to throw to him.”
Mr. Honea stared quietly at Nate, then spoke quickly and with strength, “I have rope, but we need more help. Cole, go get my new rope in the back of the barn. Nate, you go to the parsonage at Symrna Church. Tell Pastor Mike what’s going on and to get help quick. I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Tucker.”
Nate nodded. He ran to his truck and Cole to the UTV. He was at the church in less than 2 minutes, banging on the door and frantically relaying the story to the young pastor. Pastor Mike motioned for him to come inside and headed to the phone. He made several calls to the younger and physically stronger members to the congregation, asking for help from anyone who answered the phone. When he finally hung up the phone, he looked anxiously at Nate. “Everyone said they’d meet us there. Let’s roll.”
Nate swallowed hard. “Wait, Mike. We need to call the boy’s family.”
“Of course! I can’t believe I didn’t do that first,” Mike exclaimed. Nate was grateful that Pastor Mike was handling this phone call. Since Greg lived on the other side of the bayou, Nate knew he might not be able to make it to help in the rescue operation. He could only imagine what Greg and his wife would be feeling right about then.
Mike let out a long, low breath when he hung up his phone. “Anyone else?” Nate could see Mike’s tension.
“I just need to call my son and tell him I am not going to be able to pick him up today.” Nate winced as he said it.
Mike knew Nate’s situation without Nate having to explain. Mike kindly said, “Tell you what. You head on back to the bayou. Surely someone is there now to help. I’ll call Ryan. I’ll tell him what’s happening. You just focus on the task at hand.” Mike ushered him to the door as Nate said thanks and raced back to his truck.
When he arrived back at the flooded road, Mr. Honea and Cole were standing there waving at the dark figure in the tree. Cole handed Nate the rope, and just as Nate was trying to figure out what to do with it three more trucks appeared with nearly a dozen men, all ages and sizes. Hope had come to the bayou in ball caps and camouflage pants.
It took over five hours to complete the rescue operation. The collective experience and equipment of the men of the rural community produced a rather organized campaign. Ultimately, Nate was not the one to retrieve the exhausted and terrified teenager from his cypress tree perch, but he did remain until he saw the boy wrapped in his mother’s arms.
Nate arrived back at his house in the wee hours of the morning. As he stripped off his wet clothes and put on dry, comfortable ones, he briefly thought of his own son. In a mixture of relief and sadness, tears fell silently and slowly down his cheeks as he lay down and let exhaustion take him.
He awoke somewhere after noon. The sun was finally peeking through scattered clouds and flooding his bedroom window. Nate lay motionless for a few moments as he tried to process where he was and all of the events the day before. Just as he was stumbling to his tiny kitchen, he heard as gentle knock at the door. Confused, he ran a hand through his short hair and opened the door.
It was Ryan. Nate stared at his son for a moment without speaking.
“Ryan.” It was more of a question than a statement.
“Hey, Dad,” said the young teen tentatively, “about yesterday....”
Nate interrupted, “I’m so sorry, son. I really am. I know I didn’t keep my promise to you. I tried to pick you up on time. Truly. I wasn’t drinking, I…”
This time Ryan interrupted him, “It’s okay, Dad. Pastor Mike told me what happened. That was really cool what you did for Tucker. I just wanted to tell you that.”
Nate smiled and tried to gulp down the lump in his throat. It was the first kind thing his son had said to him in 2 years.
“And, look, Mom and I figured you hadn’t eaten yet, so we brought you lunch. I hope that’s okay.”
Nate looked up to see his ex-wife standing by her car. They exchanged a polite wave. “Only if y’all will eat with me,” he declared, smiling broadly.
Ryan grinned slyly, “I was hoping you’d say that. Mom made you some gumbo and banana pudding. Your favorites!” Then he whispered, “They’re my favorites, too.”
Nate laughed. He motioned for both of them to come in. While he was setting out bowls and paper plates for the first peaceful gathering with his ex and his son in years, he chuckled to himself. What an odd turn of events—and all because he couldn’t make up his mind in a rainstorm.