"Damn it, we haven't caught a thing all morning!"
"Be patient, Marion!" Mana said. "They don't just go leaping for the hook."
"The bait's all wrong."
"It's a bad day for them," Mana said. "It's too sunny, and the water's too high."
"They like something interesting to chase. If you'd let me make the bait, we would have had enough for supper by now."
"Marion, they're fish, not cats," Allen said. "Cats like interesting things to chase. Fish like bugs to eat."
"Fish don't eat machines, Marion," Mana said, "and Allen ties the best flies. Anyway, it's not his fault they're not biting. The water's too high"
Marion pulled in his line. "Whatever the reason, they're not biting, and I'm bored. Beryl's brother said that the old tree upriver got struck by lightning last night. Want to go see?"
"Wait, you're on speaking terms with Beryl's brother?" Allen asked, laughing.
"Why shouldn't I be?"
"Guess Beryl didn't catch you with Franny behind the stable."
"You little wanker!" Marion rounded on Nea. "What did you do, run and tell everyone straight away?"
"Oy!" Nea's face burned, partly with indignation and partly with discomfort at his reaction to what he had seen. "I would never!"
By now, everyone was laughing but Marion. "He didn't have to," Allen said as he set his rod down carefully in the wet grass next to the tackle box. "You're not exactly sneaky. Keep going the way you are, and Beryl's brother will turn you into fish food."
"I can handle him," Marion said. "He's big, but he's got a glass jaw."
"How do you know?" Nea asked, still fuming.
"Stay out of this, runt," Marion said. "You're not even old enough to know what we're talking about."
"I am, too!" Nea said, setting his own fishing rod alongside Allen's. He was only two years younger than Mana, and he hated it when Marion treated him like a child. "I know what I saw you doing to Franny."
"And what she was doing back," Marion said, tossing his rod carelessly into the pile. "Don't forget that part!"
"Beryl's going to do all kinds of things to you," Allen warned, "and none of them good."
"Not if she doesn't find out. Come on, let's go!"
Mana set his rod down with the others. "Might as well. You're all too noisy. You're scaring the fish."
"He scares everything, especially mothers," Allen said.
"You're just jealous," Marion said as they headed upriver.
"Of you? No!" Allen said. "I don't fancy Beryl or Frannie."
Marion gaped at him. "How can you not fancy Beryl?"
Allen shrugged with forced nonchalance. "Not my type."
"Who do you fancy?" Marion asked.
"Nobody I'm telling you about."
"Yeah, 'cause you know I could have her if I wanted her."
"What makes you think she'd want you?"
"He thinks everyone wants him," Mana said.
"I haven't seen any evidence to the contrary," Marion said, "and I'm doing a scientific study."
"Beryl likes you because she thinks there's money in it, and Frannie likes everything in trousers," Allen said. "Nothing scientific about that."
"And you think this fair English rose of yours likes you for what, your personality?" Marion asked.
"Shut up!" Allen said, his cheeks scarlet. "What would you know?"
"How to talk to a girl without tripping over my own tongue, for one thing. Five pounds says she doesn't even know you exist."
Everyone turned toward Mana, who was holding onto a tree branch with one hand and his ankle with the other.
"Are you all right?" Nea asked, reaching for his brother.
"Yes," Mana said, setting his foot back on the ground and putting weight on it, testing. "I just twisted it."
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Allen asked, frowning.
"I'm fine, really," Mana said as he caught up with the others. "The doctor said that exercise is good for me."
"The doctor doesn't even know what's wrong with you," Marion said. "How does he know what's good for you?"
"Well, I've had enough rest to last me a lifetime," Mana said. "Oy! Look at that!"
The tree, a gigantic oak, had been cut in two, one half still standing, and the other nearly bridging the stream, the highest limbs dangling tantalizingly on the opposite bank. They made their way toward it, holding onto branches and sometimes to each other to keep from sliding into the water, but the storm the night before had left the bank muddy and treacherous. When they reached the tree, Nea ran his hand up the pale exposed inside, wondering at the force it must have taken to rip this massive landmark apart.
"Lucky it was raining so hard," Marion said, peering upward at scorch marks. "This could have turned into a forest fire."
"It feels pretty stable," Allen said, pushing downward on the broken part with both hands, putting as much weight into it as he could.
"It's going to die, isn't it," Nea said. This tree was a living thing, older even than his grandparents, and now it was badly hurt in a way that no one could fix.
"Eventually," Marion said as he climbed onto the broken trunk, jumping experimentally before he reached a hand down to Mana.
"Mana, be careful!" Nea said.
"He'll be fine," Marion said, pulling Mana up. "I think it's strong enough to hold all four of us."
Allen climbed up without hesitation, leaving Nea to swallow down his own apprehension or look like a baby in front of the older boys. He ignored Allen's proffered hand, and pulled himself up behind them.
The trunk was wide but slippery, and the rush of the stream, swollen to almost twice its normal size, sounded like a waterfall. If the other boys noticed or cared, they didn't show it, they just worked their way toward the branches. There was no reason to try to get to the opposite bank, but that didn't mean they shouldn't find out if it could be done.
A branch cracked under Marion's foot, and he pulled back. "Careful!" he said.
"Nea, maybe you should go back," Mana said.
"I don't see why," Nea said. "I'm lighter than you. If anyone can make it, it's me."
"No!" Mana said. "If you fall in, Mum will skin me alive."
"I won't fall in," Nea said. His bravado, reinforced by his balance, had grown into courage.
A second branch cracked, forcing Marion to retreat again.
"Give it up!" Allen said. "Those branches aren't going to hold you."
"Beryl's brother said he made it across," Marion said
"Beryl's brother's full of it," Mana said. "He outweighs you by a good two stone."
"I still think I can do it," Nea insisted.
"I said no," Mana said.
"Forget it, Nea," Marion said. "There's no point. You'd just have to climb back over anyway. I wonder what they'll do with this?"
"I don't know how they're going to get it out," Mana said. "They can't get a team of horses in here, and if they want to haul it out by hand, they'll have to cut it up."
"They're probably going to let it rot here," Marion said, "because moving it will be more trouble than it's worth. Let's go!"
"Let me guess," Allen said as he nudged Nea's shoulder, coaxing him back toward the bank. "By the time we get back, either Beryl or Frannie will be free."
"Actually, I was thinking that Liza visits her grandmother on Saturdays, and she might need someone to walk her home."
Allen snorted. "Someone catches you, and you're going to have three girls out for your blood."
"I told you, I'm doing a scientific study. It doesn't count if I have only one or two—."
Marion broke off as Mana shouted. Whether it was his ankle, his recent illness, or the slickness of the wet wood, he was falling.
To Nea, it was as if time itself slowed down. He could see the surprise on Mana's face, then fear as Mana flailed, lost his footing, grabbed in vain for a branch, then hit his head as he tumbled into the rushing water.
"Mana!" Nea screamed, then he threw himself into the stream.
He struggled upward, coughing and spitting, trying to keep his head up as the current took him downstream. Mana was just ahead of him, but Nea couldn't tell if he was swimming or not. He tried to shout, but got another mouthful of water, and then his head went under again. He smacked his hand on a rock as he pushed back up toward the surface, then he knew where he must be. Ordinarily, one could walk across the stream on these rocks, but with the water so high, the place had become a small rapids.
"Nea!" Mana's voice was filled with pain and fear, and when Nea turned his head, he saw his brother clinging desperately to one of the rocks, blood and water streaming down his face.
Nea gave a great heave of effort, throwing himself perpendicular to the current toward Mana.
He felt a blinding pain in his arm and choked on a mouthful of water so big that he thought he would drown, instinctive terror mixing with despair. He'd underestimated his own strength. Instead of pushing himself hard enough to clear the next rock, he'd slammed into it. He tried to swim, but he couldn't move his arm. It's broken, he thought. He needed to breathe, but it was all he could do to lift his head above water for a split second before he was pulled back under.
I'm sorry, Mana! he thought as he held his breath, lost in the pain and the water and the roaring in his ears. I'm sorry! He kicked as hard as he could, trying to get his feet under him, grabbing with his good arm for something, anything, but the water carried him inexorably down.
Then he fetched up against something solid and his fingers slid over wet skin. "Mana!" he gasped.
"It's me." It was Allen's voice, which meant it was Allen's arms around him.
"Get Mana!" Nea sobbed through uncontrollable coughing. His nose and throat burned
"He's fine," Allen said, pulling Nea towards the bank.
Nea didn't believe it. "Let me go! I have to get Mana!" But he screamed with pain as his struggles put pressure on his arm.
"Nea, hold still, you're hurt," Allen said. "We have to get you to the house."
"Mana's hurt, too," Nea said.
"I know," Allen said. " Marion got him."
Mana's voice was a weak shout, and when Nea opened his eyes, he got water in them and had to blink. "Mana?"
"He's fine, see?" Allen said, although Nea couldn't see through his tears. "Can you walk?"
"Yes," Nea said, even as his feet gave out from under him, and he screamed again as he tried to catch himself.
Allen caught him instead, then knelt in the water, pulling Nea's good arm over his shoulders. "Get on my back. I'll carry you."
"I just wanted to help Mana." Nea rested his face on Allen's bare, wiry shoulder, sobbing with shame. He'd wanted to help, but all he'd done was make things worse, and it made him feel very small, as if it was he and not Mana who might never grow up.
"I know," Allen said. "It's going to be all right, Nea. I've got you. It's going to be all right.