Authors: William Kent Krueger
“Ah, there he is,” he said, slapping my brother so heartily on the back that Albert looked as if he was going to toss up what little he’d been able to get down that morning. “We have a big day ahead of us, Norman.”
The men pulled chairs up to our table and sat with us, and Gertie and Flo fed them. Tru did most of the talking, laying out his plans to push a tow downriver the following week. “You have a lot to learn,” he said, addressing this to both Albert and Mose. “It’ll be hard work, but you’ll be learning life on the river, and I swear to God, boys, there’s no other life like it.”
Flo was pouring coffee, and she smiled and explained to us, “We grew up on the river, Tru and me. We’ve been up and down the Big Muddy more times than I can remember.”
“Nothing like watching the sun come up on the Mississippi, Norman,” Tru said. “The water like fire all around, and the whole river empty except for you and your tow. I swear, standing in the wheelhouse on such a morning, you know what a king must feel like when he’s looking out from his castle across all the land he owns.”
“You don’t own the river, Tru,” Cal reminded him.
“Feels like it sometimes.” He put his hand on my brother’s shoulder. “You’ll see, Norman.” Then he smiled at me. “We’ll find something to keep you busy too, Buck.”
I looked at my brother, his eyes bloodshot, his face pale, nodding his head like some stupid lackey at everything he was hearing, and in that moment, I hated Truman Waters, the man who was stealing my brother away.
IN THE AFTERNOON,
I set out to mail Maybeth’s letter, but first I visited the boatworks, where the
Hell or High Water
was docked. When I stepped onto the towboat’s deck, I spotted Mose and Cal in the wheelhouse. Through the open door to the engine room came the clank of metal on metal and the voices of Albert and Truman Waters as they discussed things. Engine parts lay on the deck, some cleaned and gleaming, others still steeped in grease and reminding me of the innards of a slaughtered animal rotting under the hot July sun.
“Cal!” I heard Tru holler from inside. “Bring us the starboard piston rod!”
But up in the wheelhouse, Cal hadn’t heard.
“Cal!” Tru called again. When no reply came, he swore loudly, then stepped from the engine room onto the deck, caught sight of me, and to my surprise, smiled as if he were quite glad to see me. “Hey there, Buck. Came to help?”
“Just to have a look-see.”
“Well, come on in and take a gander.” He beckoned me with a greasy hand.
The engine room was a cramped space filled with the great machinery that was the heart of the towboat, a long boiler tank to which was attached a web of rods and pistons and cylinders and pumps. Albert was on his back, staring up into that steel web, covered in grease, a big crescent wrench in his hand, and wearing maybe the fattest, happiest grin I’d ever seen. It was clear to me this was my brother’s element, the world of machines. His ordeal with the snakebite had shaken him, and he’d seemed lost in a way, but I understood that in the bowels of that towboat, he was finding himself again. I wanted to be happy for him, but my angry heart had put up a wall. He was so intent on his work that he didn’t notice me.
I left the
headed across the arched bridge, but stopped halfway to study the Mississippi, which was shit brown under the afternoon sun. A big island called Harriet lay west of the bridge, and above the island’s public beach stood a great bathhouse with no bathers anywhere in sight. The Mississippi in those days had become a foul run of sewage, and although the city would eventually grow into a better steward of that precious resource, in 1932 not even the bravest of souls would dare bathe in the water.
I stared up at the Heights, where fine homes overlooked the squalor of the Flats, and I wondered why Flo and Gertie and Tru and Cal and John Kelly and all the rest of them were content to live with just enough to get by.
I looked down at the boatworks, at the idled
. Although I’d spent a more than a month on the river, the towboat seemed alien to me, big and clumsy. Give me a canoe any day, I thought.
Somewhere downtown a clock struck four, and I realized I needed to get back to Gertie’s to help with the dinner crowd. I hadn’t mailed Maybeth’s letter yet. As it turned out, I never would.
“GONNA HOLD A
little celebration on the
tonight,” Tru announced after dinner that evening. “You’re all welcome to come.”
“My shanty boat,” Tru explained to her. “It’s where Cal and me live.”
When we finished cleaning the eatery and the kitchen, we trooped down to the river, where a line of weather-beaten, floating shacks sat drawn up to the bank. They were, if possible, poorer-looking than the ramshackle constructions that housed folks on the streets of the Flats, but I thought maybe they had one slight advantage in that when the floods came every spring, the shanty boats rode the rising waters and stayed high and dry. People—whole families—sat on the decks and hailed Tru and Cal as they passed.
Tru pulled bootlegged beer from his icebox and handed it out liberally. The adults drank, but Albert judiciously passed on the offer, accepting like Emmy and me and Mose, the alternative sarsaparilla. Tru had a steel barrel on his deck, cut down to half its original height. As dusk gave way to hard dark, he built a fire in the barrel. Kerosene lanterns glowed on the boats along the riverbank, and we found ourselves in a tiny community within the larger gathering that was the Flats.
Emmy and Flo and Gertie sat together on empty, overturned crates, Mose and Cal next to them. Tru had corralled my brother and was chewing his ear off with talk of adventures on the Big Muddy. I sat alone, apart, fuming silently, until Cal rose and crossed the deck and settled down beside me.
“You’re an onion in a petunia patch, Buck. And every time you look at Tru, it’s like you’re throwing rocks at him. He’s really a good man.”
“He drinks too much.”
“Not when he’s pushing a tow. He’s sober and all business then, one of the best pilots on the river.”
I drank from my sarsaparilla and made no reply.
“Here’s something you might find enlightening. The cops who beat up Gertie, they got the living daylights beat out of them. They claimed not to know who done it, and maybe that’s the case, but everyone on the Flats knows who made those two cops pay. Who do you suppose that was?”
“Tru?” I said grudgingly.
“He’s devoted to Flo, and because she loves Gertie, he’s devoted to her as well. And don’t let Gertie fool you. She loves Tru.”
“They’ve got a funny way of showing it, the kind of talk they throw at each other.”
“You ever eat a walnut? Crack that hard shell and there’s sweet, soft meat inside.”
Flo called out gently, “Buck, would you play us a tune or two on your harmonica?”
“Don’t feel like playing,” I said.
“Then a story,” Emmy insisted.
“A story, Buck,” Truman Waters said and lifted his beer as if in encouragement.
“A story?” I said. “Sure, I’ll give you a story.”
THERE WERE ONCE
“The fairy princess, the giant, the wizard, and the imp,” Emmy said brightly. “And they’re on an odyssey to kill the Black Witch.”
“Exactly,” I said.
They’d traveled long and hard, and although the Black Witch had sent many foes to battle them, they were still unharmed because together they were invincible. There was magic among them that made them strong, and they knew that nothing could stand against them, not even all the evil powers of the Black Witch.
Although they didn’t understand it, this was their weakness. Their absolute certainty of themselves.
But the Black Witch understood it, understood that sending an army against them was useless, and she understood that there was another way to destroy them.
I paused for effect, and the gathering on the deck of the shanty boat was silent, until Emmy cried in distress, “What way?”
She sent a little fly to whisper in their ears as they slept. What the fly whispered to the giant was this: You are strong and do not need the others. And to the wizard: You are smart and do not need the others. And to the fairy princess: You are magical and do not need the others. But when the fly tried to whisper in the imp’s ear, the imp slapped at it and crushed it dead.
The next morning, the giant rose and looked at his friends and thought, What do I need with the others? I’m strong enough on my own. And the wizard opened his eyes and thought: What do I need with the others? I’m smart enough on my own. And the fairy princess, who’d always been kind, awoke and thought: My magic is powerful. What do I need with the others?
The imp alone understood the dark plot the Black Witch had hatched. “Comrades,” he cried. “Don’t be fooled. The only way to stand against all the evil in this land is to stand together.”
But the whispering of the little fly had done its job, and the other Vagabonds were deaf to the pleas of the imp.
The giant said, “I’m going to kill the Black Witch myself. I don’t need your help.”
The wizard said, “I’m going to kill the Black Witch.”
The fairy princess said, “No, I will kill the Black Witch.”
The three boastful Vagabonds eyed one another with suspicion and then with anger. They began to fight among themselves, and in the end, they destroyed one another. Only the imp, who’d stood sadly by and watched and could do nothing to stop them, survived.
He knew he could never kill the Black Witch by himself. For the rest of his days, he wandered the land alone, cursing the Black Witch and mourning his fallen companions.
After a few moments of silence, in which could be heard only the crackle of the fire burning in the cut-down barrel, Truman Waters barked, “Well, hell, that’s not a very happy story.”
“Not all stories end happily,” I said.
My dour tale had the effect I’d hoped, putting a dark cloud over the celebration on the
Gertie stood and said, “We should all get to bed. Dawn comes early and hungry folks along with it.”
We trooped back to Gertie’s place, and Albert and Mose and Emmy and I settled ourselves in the shed for the night. Albert lit a candle and we sat on our bunks.
“Okay, imp,” Albert said, “tell us everything about one-eyed Jack.”
I recounted our chance meeting in the post office and my talk with Jack in the park.
A bullet in his heart and he’s still alive?
“He was dead,” Albert said. “I could have sworn it.”
“Only looked dead. The bullet missed his heart by half an inch.”
“He didn’t hate us, Odie?” Emmy asked.
“In fact, he was thankful, swore we’d changed his life. But here’s the thing. If Jack, who wasn’t even looking for us, found us, the Black Witch and her toady husband can find us here, too. We need to get back on the river and on our way to Saint Louis and Aunt Julia.”
In the flicker of the candlelight, I tried to read the faces of the others. I thought that once upon a time—not that long ago—I could have told you everything about each of them just from what I saw in their faces. But they seemed strangers to me now, their thoughts a mystery.
“Well?” I said.
“I’m staying,” Albert said. “I’m going to work for Tru.”
Mose nodded and signed,
Emmy said gently, as if she were afraid of hurting me, “I want to stay, too, Odie. I like Flo and Gertie.”
“Jack found me,” I said. “In a city of a million people, Jack found me, and he wasn’t even looking. The Brickmans are looking for us, looking hard.”
Albert said, “Next week, Mose and I will be going down the Mississippi on the
. Maybe you and Emmy can come along. That should keep us safe for a while.”
“For a while. But the Black Witch will never give up. You know that.”
“I don’t know that. And neither do you. The Brickmans will forget about us eventually.”
“Not the Black Witch. She never forgets.”
“Okay,” Albert said. “You insisted this was a democracy. All those in favor of staying, raise your hands.”
I knew the outcome even before the others cast their votes, and when Albert snuffed out the candle, I lay fuming, unable to sleep.
I got up and left the shed and aimlessly walked the streets of the Flats, the houses dark on every side, the storefronts empty, the night air unmoving, hot and heavy. My shirt clung to the sweat on my back, which might have been from the humidity or the effort of the walk or the way everything inside me was twisted and uncertain. Something terrible was on the horizon, I could see that. Why couldn’t the others?
Then it hit me. The horrible truth I’d been unwilling to face. DiMarco’s murder. The shooting of Jack. Albert’s snakebite. The relentless pursuit by the Brickmans. This was all my doing, all my fault. This was my curse. I saw now that long before the Tornado God descended and killed Cora Frost and decimated Emmy’s world, that vengeful spirit had attached itself to me and had followed me everywhere. My mother had died. My father had been murdered. I was to blame for all the misery in my life and the lives of everyone I’d ever cared about. Only me. I saw with painful clarity that if I stayed with my brother and Mose and Emmy, I would end up destroying them, too. The realization devastated me, and I stood breathless and alone and terribly afraid.
I fell to my knees and tried to pray to the merciful God Sister Eve had urged me to embrace, prayed desperately for release from this curse, prayed for guidance. But all I felt was my own isolation and an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Gradually, however, as I knelt on the West Side Flats under the glaring moon, a dark and cold understanding settled over me. When I finally brought myself up from the dirt of that unpaved street, I knew exactly what I had to do.