by Jack Alexander Drum (a short story by Wynter Reed Newhouse1)
I had before me the prospect of a long, enforced vacation because the doctors said my nerves were shattered. The work I had been doing constituted practically a twenty-hour-a-day grind, and I was simply worn to a frazzle. My old high school chum, Don Ross, Scotch-Irish and a bagpipes player, was fed up with his job. Being by profession a carpenter, he was sick of sawdust and nails and wood. He said, "Jack, I always wanted to travel. Let's go."
I said, “Where?”
"Well, I've been thinking about that old Ohio River and New Orleans. Get the picture! For two months we lie on our backs in a boat. We sun ourselves, we fish, we loaf. Then one fine day there we are: New Orleans, the city God blessed with more sin and good things than it knew what to do with. Wha'd ya say?"
What could I say? We grinned at each other. Don feinted at my chin with his left and shot a bull's-eye right at the rather decided paunch I had been developing the last year or so. I got my elbow down an instant too late and began to moan. Three days later we were in Cincinnati. We bought an old skiff from a river man and stocked her with fishing tackle, a couple of lobster pots and some groceries. This trip we solemnly told each other was the kind of vacation that would pay for itself. We had visions of a schoolboy holiday, of stealing roastin' ears, tomatoes, cabbages; yes, and we even contemplated robbing chicken coops. Oh, this was going to be the vacation that a king would enjoy. No more inhibitions, no more of the monotonous civilized nonsense of adult life. This vacation was going to take us back twenty years to the times when we gathered at night in gangs under the corner street lamp to play Run, Sheepey, Run and between times made dangerous sorties into old man Nelson's grape arbor or stripped the cherry tree in Aunt Spiker's back yard. We entered into the spirit of the thing with the glee and enthusiasm of ten-year-olds. Don sat in the rear of the skiff rigging up a device of fishhooks that was going to catch us a big river buffalo it'd take a week to eat. The river man from whom we bought the skiff had told him all about it. Meanwhile I rowed.
At first I was not conscious of the contrast between this picture and the one Roscoe (variation of Ross) had originally painted: "We lie on our backs in a boat", and "we sun ourselves; we fish; we loaf." Oh yes, I was sunning myself all right. And presently, as the yellow river rolled along monotonously beside us, Roscoe began to fish. He had a six-foot, weighted line tied to a big brown bottle which was in turn connected with a longer line. He put the bottle in the water and let it drift in the current. When as hard as I worked I could not catch up with the bottle he stretched out on his back with his feet on the gun'l and smirked at me. Logs and driftwood went by us in the current. I was in swimming trunks and big drops of sweat began to stand out on my too prominent paunch. "Say,” I complained,"when're you gona spell me?"
Roscoe looked perplexed. He wriggled his shoulders and the heavy, clean muscles of his perfectly conditioned body rippled under golden brown skin. He cocked his head on one side and squinted at my white and rounded stomach, "Oh, you row a while yet. You need the exercise, Jack." I began to work myself into a decidedly disgruntled frame of mind. I was thirsty. The oars were crude heavy affairs that kept slipping out of the niches in the gun'Is that served for oar locks. The gun'Is themselves had begun to rot away, and the rest of the skiff was in much the same condition. It leaked. It leaked badly. I sat with my feet in three inches of water. Furthermore the boat was fishy. The river man must have scaled every fish he ever caught in the skiff and left the refuse to soak into the planks for days before he cleaned up the mess. In other words, the skiff had a bad smell.
At noon we pulled up briefly on a sand bar to get rid of the water. It was a heavy boat, and we had a hard time. With malicious blandness, Roscoe said, "You can take the stern, Jack."
I stood waist deep in water trying to heave the skiff up on the shore. After superhuman effort we got her over on her side and the water rushed out upon the sand. We ate some sandwiches and drank luke warm water. Stretching out, I thought, "Ah, what makes a man more happy than a satisfied stomach, the solitude of nature and a warm sun?"
Ants began to climb over my legs and chest. One of them bit me. I began to squirm. I killed two of the pests with a vengeful, resounding smack. But their kindred kept up the attack in droves. O Lord!
"Well," said Roscoe, "it's time to up anchor and away. We'll never get to New Orleans like this.”
"Yeah," I said.
It seemed that I was still to furnish the locomotion. "Oh," said Roscoe, "You row today. I'll do it tomorrow." Pretty soon he got out his chanter, a thin-stemmed horn about a foot long and sat cross-legged practising crazy Highland airs. He looked like an East Indian snake charmer; I felt like a starved bulldog chained within a foot of raw steak. But I rowed on. If you don't believe in the possibility of resurrection I want to add my testimony to the affirmative side of the case. I died from sheer exhaustion before the day was over. I died about sunset and was resurrected just about daylight by a cloud burst of cold water in my face. Upon arrival again in this world I found I was wrapped in a damp blanket. In the background was a woods and a high-shouldered Kentucky hill. I tried to stand and experienced excruciating aches. My shoulders and back were the color of ripe tomatoes with a sprinkling of big blisters. I tried to flex my fingers and moaned with pain. My fingers simply would not straighten out.
Roscoe busied himself about the camp and occasionally paused to grin at me. He built a fire; he whistled cheerfully. While the salt pork fried he practiced on his chanter. He cooked some flap jacks. I felt better.
Roscoe squinted at my waist line and said, "l do believe, Jack, it's smaller already."
As we shoved the skiff into the muddy river water I indicated pain with a series of unpremeditated groans apostrophized by the observation that today is was Roscoe's turn to row. This affected him much the same as a glance at a snakey-haired Medusa's head. He stood frozen with horror at the idea. For the millionth time he eyed my middle, "It isn't so much smaller, Jack. And anyway you'd better work off that stiffness. I'll spell you when you get loosened up."
So I rowed again that day. We began to pass through the government dams, and obligingly lock keepers opened up the gates and let us down to the lower levels. This made us feel quite important. Roscoe even decided to christen our skiff. He decided upon Aurora as a good name because of the contrast, and at the next town, determined to buy some paint and inscribe the appellation upon her bows. We needed supplies anyway. Also he thought he'd look around for an old shotgun or a rifle. There'd be good hunting on the Mississippi.
And what was I to do while Roscoe attended to these errands? I was to guard the skiff. It contained a very valuable cargo. Besides oars are scarce on the river and any river man would jump at the chance of borrowing ours. And, well, where would we be without oars? Of course, the next time I could go into town. But now it was Roscoe's turn.
We pulled up behind a houseboat that was moored on the Indiana side. Roscoe jumped ashore and climbed up the bank toward town. On the porch-like deck on the rear of the shanty boat sat a man with his feet propped upon the rail. He was nearly black from the sun, and his forehead was buried in a tangle of hair which might once have been black but was now bleached to a muddy brown. He had an agreeable grin. At first I didn't notice him for I was weary unto death. My face and shoulders were on fire and raw from the sun. I stretched back miserably on the prow of the boat. I was sorry I could think of no decent excuse to call the whole thing off and return to Cleveland.
The man on the boat hailed me, "Hi there, friend, pull over here under the stern out o' the sun." This struck me, when I thought it over, as a mighty good idea. So I maneuvered the skiff into the shade and tied it to the rear of the shanty boat. The man's wife came out and stood behind him. She was toothless, freckled, possessing faded blue eyes and stringy hair which certainly had not been touched by a comb in a year. She looked at the box in which our supplies were stowed and asked if it were the cabin. Her husband drowned out her tired-sounding voice with, a flood of talk.
He wanted to know where we were going. New Orleans! He'd been there. Sure, lots of times. Great country, we'd see some real boats down there: submarines, big warships, steamers and most everything. We'd have a hard time getting there. The people on the Mississippi didn't have no sense. No sense a-tall. Why, he'd seen five murders down theah himself. Five of 'em! John Calvary Carter, he'd been killed down theah. Yes sir, they shoot you just to see you kick. Yes sir, (he laughed a little too gleefully) just to watch you kick. They shot John Carter four times. Hyere's the way of it. A fellow asked John Carter and his family if they had any fish.
"Sure," said John Carter,"come on aboard."
Well sir, that fellow came right up that gangplank and pulled out a gun and shot John Calvary Carter five times. Then he wasn't satisfied with that. He shot John Carter's wife once and beat her head in with his gun. Yes sir, that's the kind o' people you got to contend with on the Mississippi.
Why, he remembered lots of rimes he'd be going ashore for water, and he would stumble on a couple barrels of mash. That was during prohibition, and they was a bootlegger back of every bush and rock you wanted to pick out. He'd wondered once what was in a couple barrels he saw in a gulley. He'd walked over and started to look in one of them when a big mean-lookin' cuss stepped out from behind a tree and pointed a rifle at him.
"Git out of hyerel" the mean-lookin' cuss yowled and repeats it three or four times, so what could he do but get out. Yes sir, it was a bad country. Just as soon shoot you as look at you. Lots of times he'd been rowing along in a skiff and a bullet would go whizzin' by his head. Wouldn't miss him an inch, half an inch. No sir, (he laughed) the Mississippi was bad all right. Miles and miles of what they called "boils”. And the mosquitoes! They were as big as your fist. They sounded like an airplane when they lit on you.
As for himself he'd been down to New Orleans three or four times. During the war he'd been down there in the army. Now wasn't the time to make the trip. No current a-tall. Not a bit. He'd like to make the trip in high water. Would I have a drink?
From under his chair he obtained a black bottle and tilted it skyward. He smacked his lips. Would I have a drink? No? Great stuff. Well then, if I wouldn't have a drink. His tone grew very low and very confidential and it developed that he was willing to sell me an hour or two in private with his wife at a very reasonable price. He wouldn't do that for anyone but he needed money pretty bad and he could see I was a gentleman. I declined graciously and moved back into the sun. Presently Roscoe returned with his arms loaded and we pulled out. As usual I rowed.
"You've got to get used to it, Jack. We've got a long trip ahead of us."
Roscoe displayed an old shotgun and an equally old twenty-two rifle. He winked and patted the twenty-two, "This's for chickens and maybe a pig. Get the idea?"
I was scandalized of course, but didn't let on. Roscoe then leaned over the side and painted the name on the bows of the skiff. His perspective was upside down, and by some contortion of his visibility and thinking apparatus he managed to imprint this word on the gun'l of our sturdy vessel, aroruA. That night we capitalized the first of these letters and thereafter, until her untimely end, our good ship was known as the AroruA.
The next day we got up under a cloudy sky and for about half a day rowed through a rain storm. Then the wind got so strong in our faces that we were not sure whether we were going upstream or down so we finally pulled up on shore after making less than ten miles. I was so tired from bucking the big waves in our clumsy boat that I covered up with my poncho and went to sleep, half sheltered from the rain by the boat. Meanwhile Don went into town for the makin's of some chili con carne. While he was gone it began to thunder and lightning. The wind bent the trees round about almost to the ground. I awoke long enough to see what was the matter and went back to sleep.
When I awoke finally it was dark but Don was working in the half-drizzle beside the prettiest and best-protected little fire you ever saw. There was an odor in the air that couldn't be duplicated in heaven. Did you, ever taste a well-cooked, well-seasoned bowl of chili con carne when you were starved? Try it sometime, especially if Roscoe is around to cook it for you.
After gorging myself I was no longer sleepy. I said in a joking way, "What about that pig?"
Roscoe said, "Right! Tonight's the night."
He finished up the chores quickly, laid half a dozen trauling lines, cleaned up the pans, loaded the twenty-two, put out the fire, hid our most valuable supplies and said, "Come on."
As we crept through the quiet corn field my conscience began to hurt me and I resolved when I got back to Cleveland to send the price of a pig and more to the poor farmer we were about to rob. I don't think it occurred to me that I wouldn't know his address. Anyway we presently found ourselves in a farm yard. Everything was quiet. Apparently there were no dogs; at least none barked. Roscoe whispered, "You go ahead. When we find one I'll shoot and you grab it and run."
Suddenly I stumbled over some big dark object that let out a thunder of disgruntled oinks, rushed off a few yards and stood glaring obscurely at us from the depths of a shadow.
"That's it," chortled Roscoe, "That's it! Now quick, you get closer and I'll let go."
It occurred to me that this must all appear very ridiculous if someone were watching; two grown men stalking a pig, and one of them a fat man at that. Cautiously I ventured closer to the pig. "Go on, go on," urged Roscoe. "We haven't all night. They'll be onto us any minute now."
The pig was enormous, and it had eyes that gleamed in the night. I moved closer. Behind me Roscoe's rifle cracked. I rushed headlong at the pig. It set up a sudden tremendous squealing and rushed at me. I grabbed it and tried to hoist it on my shoulder. It was no pig; it was a sow and must have weighed three hundred pounds. It rushed at me with all the fury of a charging battalion. It got between my legs and knocked me down. It trampled on me and bit. Then, somehow, on hands and knees, any way I could manage, I began to get out of there.
The lights of the farmhouse were lit now. Dogs began to bark. A man came running out of the house waving a shotgun. We fled. My forearm where the pig bit me began to hurt and bleed. Behind us the shotgun went off once.
Back safely at camp we launched our skiff and drifted down the river into the night. About dark the next evening we went into Golconda, Illinois and bought some fish sandwiches at a little stand near the river. While we were there a fat fellow with a hammered-in face and squint eyes entered. If you looked very closely you could see there was a badge on the under side of his coat lapel. The woman behind the counter asked, "Well, Scotty, did you bring 'em in alive or did you have to shoot 'em?”
"Had to shoot 'em," said Scotty. After a period of silence he added, "Found one of 'em dead in the car. The other two are still loose but we're closin' in on 'em. Richardson thinks they tried to steal a pig up the river last night."
"I can't see what a couple of young fellows would want to do a thing like that for," said the woman. Roscoe glanced at me with a strange gleam in his eye. As I swallowed my sandwich in lumps I tried to keep my bandaged arm out of sight.
"They identified the dead one. Had a couple of robberies and a murder charge against him."
"Oh," said the woman. A long period of silence. A man come from the back and stood beside the woman. Suddenly Scotty said, "I'd like to speak to you outside a second, Hank."
The man came from behind the counter and went outside with Scotty. Finishing our sandwiches we went out too. Half a dozen men loitered about the door. Scotty cast a cautious squint-eyed glance at us, and we sauntered down the street toward the river. I tried to hide the bandage on my arm where the pig bit me. About a block farther on a voice bellowed from the darkness off to the right, "Just a minute there."
We turned about to face a flashlight. "Whar you from?" came out of the darkness. Other voices chimed in, "How'd you get heah?" "How long you been heah?" "Whar you goin1?"
"Uh, er, Cleveland," I said.
"You got any guns?"
Scotty came out from behind the glaring flashlight and stuck his face close to mine while he patted my pockets. I stuttered out a "No!", regretting with all my heart the episode of the pig. They were hunting us down as if we were ordinary bank robbers.
A little fellow with glasses stuck the flashlight into my eyes and held it there. He told us to come on to the courthouse with him and wanted to know how we got here and what was wrong with my arm. Don told him a couple of times how we got here and said, "Oh, he just got a fishhook in his arm.”
Then Scotty said, "In your own skiff?"
"Yea," we replied in unison. Scotty took his face out of mine and said, "Oh, that's all right then. Sorry to have bothered you. We're just lookin' for a couple of fellows who killed the chief of police over hyere in Hardin county." He went on and on, explaining why he'd stopped us, not mentioning pigs even once.
However, needless to say we'd had enough of pig stealing in this life, but we'd certainly not yet had enough of life on the big rivers. Endless idiotic things happened to us, impossible, slapstick, amazing things. We began to catch fish… Catfish, carp, buffalo. We filled our lobster pots every night with river shrimp, crawdads to you. We stole our watermelon, squash, and roastin' ears. The skiff fell apart before we reached Cairo. We bought a shanty boat stranded a quarter of a mile from the river. With my muscle and Roscoe's knowledge of carpentry we tore it down, hauled it to the river in three pieces and put it together again. We drifted down below Memphis until Louisiana was on one side of us and Mississippi on the other. Then we left the shanty boat moored to the bank while we slept at a riverside plantation. A storm came up during the night and in the morning our ark was gone. What happened to it we never knew. We hiked as far as Vicksburg, and there the captain of the Sprague, largest shallow water steamer in the world, made us welcome and we rode with him to Baton Rouge. Presently I found myself looking into the mirror of a room in a New Orleans hotel at the reflection of a very brown and pleasantly slim-waisted young fellow (how I go on).
Roscoe eyed my waist line significantly, "Well, you certainly reduced it the hard wayl"