The rain intensified around a quarter after five, switching from a light moving vertical mist to a steady heavy drizzle, thus disallowing our pre-dinner stroll down to Lower Lake. Instead, we began in on the wine, noting we were more thirsty than hungry, the three of us admiring in each other our shared propensity for excess. Smiling thinly, but pink with anticipation, Bennet produced a corkscrew, flipped it open, and drove it in slowly, all the while eyeing Stadler and myself.
“My Uncle Hank had this stuff flown in from Chile for Sarah’s wedding. But of course, we all know she won’t be needing it now. I’ve a whole case of it here behind me.” Bennet handed each of us a cold bottle.
“If anybody would be in need of a bit,” offered Stadler, fingering the corkscrew, “it would be Slakely.” He looked around for our responses.
“Slakely shouldn’t touch the stuff,” I said. “Not anymore. Of course, I’m no one to talk, but then I’ve never taken a life due to drink.” Stadler handed me the corkscrew. I centered the corkscrew over the cork and began to turn it.
“It was purely accidental,” said Bennet, looking up from pouring his wine and breaking in. “He was just playing a bit too rough. One of us should’ve stepped in after Sarah said something. She was practically screaming.”
“I know,” I said. “I know. She absolutely had a right to, but I have a hard time accepting responsibility for the death, beyond what you said, Bennet, about one of us stepping in.”
“Say,” asked Stadler, “how long did your sister have Gus, anyway?”
“Seven years. His whole life,” said Bennet. “Until Slakely broke his neck. Everybody heard it, too.”
Stadler nodded over his cup. “It’s not doing Slakely any good to keep on denying it, saying that Gus died of a heart attack.”
The three of us silently drank the wine, wine that was meant to be drunk at a wedding, at a celebration. Instead it was being drunk here at Bennet’s cabin on the lake. It was creek cold at least. Bennet had placed it in a pool in Rose Creek, a thin stream that ran down the mountain from Boulder Lake. Boulder Lake, where we planned to fish and camp the next day, was so named for the seven massive boulders that rimmed its rocky edge. A small lake, only half a mile wide and three-quarter mile long, it was deep and clear and cold, fed by the glaciers above.
It had been an early Spring tradition for the four of us , including Slakely, to do the climb to Boulder Lake. We’d get roaring drunk there, casting our flies about for trout in the morning after having stayed up around the fire the whole night through. Now it was different. Slakely wasn’t here. It was as if he had been silently and wordlessly banished by the group after having killed Sarah’s dog. Sarah said it was the last straw, that she could no longer stomach Slakely’s drinking and the antics it would bring on. They were going to get married, her and Slakely, but she called it off after the killing. We all felt it was accidental, although we were all well aware of the growing violent streak which marked Slakely’s character, this being the main reason, I felt, why each of us was reluctant to part dog and human, not for fear of an angry dog but a vicious man. Indeed, as we sat around the dimly lit cabin, without Slakely around, things felt awfully good, less tense and edgy.
Slakely had only fallen in with us a couple years ago, after meeting Bennet’s sister, Sarah, at a political rally. He was quite gung-ho, that one, always flailing his arms around and talking loudly, striking his fist into his palm. He provided a great burst of energy, true, but in the two years we had come to know him, he had come to behave quite strangely. Slakely would often stick out his chest and thump it, saying, “Who’s the mountain? Who’s the mountain?” He became careless with his strength after drinking too much, and he had come to be a constant threat to each of our safety, nearly breaking all our arms in wrestling matches. It had occurred to all of us that this behavior would lead to injury, but when, and to whom? Bennet had often expressed concern for his sister’s safety, but she didn’t let on if there was anything happening, for she was always cheery about their relationship. Perhaps it was better that it was the neck of a dog that was broken, not one of ours, with all that worry going on. Now, there was hard and tangible evidence that Slakely had gone too far, and none of us were slow to acknowledge this.
Each of us, then, had come to the personal conclusion that we were better off without him, and we were happy to have a reason to spurn him. None of us had had that chance, though, because we never saw him after the killing. He had left the party, still maintaining that no, it had been a heart attack that had killed that dog, not him.
Bennet broke the silence. “So what do you guys think of the wine?”
“Damn good,” I said, rising, eager to be in a happier mood. “Now here’s a toast – to the long march of the vine from the coast of South America to the bottoms of our gullets! Here’s to the Chilean grape! Gentlemen, here’s to the three of us! Heads and shoulders bent now, into your cups!”
After this happy pronouncement, we began to drink without regard, the three of us beginning to feel a bit better, better about ourselves, better about the safety of our little group, better about the hard Montana rain and the cold deep of the high glacial lake, the chill of our wine, and better about the guilt we shared, the truth that not one of us was strong enough to have raised a hand to saved a wrecked life, not Gus’s life, not Sarah’s life, not Slakely’s life, and most preciously, not the life they could have shared together.
Copyright © Horse of the Sun and Keith Haines 1999-2002. All Rights Reserved.