Today's Reading

"Uncle Gil always tells the story like it was a spur-o'-the-minute thing," Prentiss said.

Peyton ran a finger along a seam on the quilt where they sat, absently tracing its north-south path. "I don't think so. The map has a price tag on it from the Savannah Shop 'n Go, so he bought it here. And it's dated 1921—that year Daddy woulda been 13, but he didn't make the trip till he was 15, same as us. Maybe he didn't mark all his stops ahead o' time. Can't really tell. But I believe he was thinking about it before he left for camp."

"You believe it's possible—that he rode the whole way on his bike, I mean?" Prentiss asked him.

Peyton nodded. "Yeah, I do. It wouldn'a been easy, but it's possible. I know his first stop in Florida was Aunt Rosalie's in Jacksonville. That's seventy-five miles from the camp. Aunt Lily's family lives in St. Augustine—maybe he stayed there awhile to visit with them because he didn't get to Flagler Beach till nearly two weeks later, and it's only thirty miles away. The trick would be figuring out where to stay and where to get supplies—food and water and someplace to wash your clothes. 'Specially if you went in the summertime, it'd be hot as blue blazes, so you'd be sweatin' like a pig."

"I got fifty bucks that says you'll never do it," Winston said.

"Me too," Prentiss said. "I'll put down fifty bucks."

"I never said I was gonna do it. I just said I think it's possible."

"Sounds like he's bailin'," Winston said.

"Yep," Prentiss agreed.

"'Course I'm bailin'," Peyton said. "Why would I want to spend my summer pedaling a bicycle and let some other guy move in on Lisa?"

"You got a point," Prentiss said.

Peyton picked a dandelion and held it up in the breeze to watch its feathers fly. "Y'all would seriously pay me a hundred bucks if I did it?"

"Yeah, but if you start the ride and quit, you gotta pay us fifty bucks apiece," Winston said. "Wanna bet?"

"Not yet," Peyton said. "But I'll think about it."

They looked up as a horse appeared from the pecan grove. Actually, they heard it before they saw it—a thunder of hooves hitting the ground as a powerful Thoroughbred named Bootlegger raced around the border of the front lawn and made his way to the rear garden before following the same dirt road Peyton's mother had taken. The rider, at once familiar and foreign, looked reckless even at this distance, holding the reins in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other, his boots tight against the horse's sides, his sandy hair blown by the spring breeze.

Peyton was at once sickened and mesmerized by the sight of it. He heard the familiar murmurs rippling across the porch. "I'm tellin' you, he's gonna kill hisself with that bottle..."

Horse and rider reached the crest of a hill that blocked the view of Peyton's house—the cottage his mother had fled to. Peyton heard the horse snort and saw it pawing at the ground, impatient to release the energy rippling through its sinewy legs. The rider kept turning to look over the hill and then back at the main house until at last he appeared resigned to his fate. Turning toward the house, he gave the horse its head and sped back down the dirt road toward the front lawn. As Bootlegger came streaking around the grand old house, Peyton saw clumps of grass fly up each time the Thoroughbred's hooves landed. It was hypnotic, the sight of his father racing into the picnic, carrying his bourbon bottle like a knight bearing a standard, ready for the joust. Without speaking, the three boys stood but remained under the tree, only halfway trusting Peyton's father not to run them through.

Years later, when Peyton was a grown man with a family, what unfolded on this spring afternoon would replay in his mind again and again, always in slow motion. Just as his father raised the bottle to his lips, leaned his head back, and took a long draw, the two squirrels in the tree suddenly raced down the trunk and scampered into the yard. Jubal, his grandfather's Irish setter, spotted them from the porch and tore down the steps after them. Barking as he laid chase, the dog startled the horse. It balked, sending Peyton's father sailing out of the saddle, over the head of his mount, and straight into the Ghost Oak, where he hit his head with such force that it sounded like a billiard ball dropped onto an oak floor. And then nothing—lifeless silence for a split second before all the women screamed and the whole family swarmed the fallen rider.

In an instant, the slow-motion scene accelerated to lightning speed, and Peyton couldn't keep up. The three boys were unceremoniously pushed aside as an ambulance was called and a cousin visiting from Birmingham—the only doctor in the family—ran to his car to get his medical bag.

Suddenly, it hit Peyton. His mother knew nothing about this. As the ambulance sped away with his father—and before anyone else thought to do it—he ran into the library and called home.
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