Prev | Next

Chapter 4

Labor, Guilt, and Cider.

The labor of bringing the drowned Scotsman back on board the canal boat was the hardest work I had done since leaving the cooperage, but it was almost a blessing, for a time taking my mind off my role in his death. I worked with the three Horne brothers for what must have been hours, trying to leverage three hundred odd pounds of flesh and fabric out of the water and over the gunwales. Deacon Eaton took to praying, but if he was praying for our success, it did not seem to help. I did not see what engaged Reverend Travis, but I am sure it was neither labor nor prayer. The Hornes finally decided on using a block and tackle, and with a rope around the old man’s neck, we hauled him aboard like a prize catch.

The import of the event did not fully hit me until I lay down to sleep—a man had died, and I was at least partially to blame. The guilt would have kept me awake had I not been so fatigued. I slept soundly and would have slept until lunch if Captain Horne had not awakened everyone at first light for the purpose of addressing all aboard.

The sun was barely visible above the trees behind of us when the captain assembled us all atop the cabin. With a brother on either side of him, Captain Horne spoke.

“Everyone now listen to me.” He began in his most authoritarian voice, “Listen to me now and listen good. Yesterday, as we all know, we lost a passenger. It was a tragedy; the worst you can have aboard a canal boat. You prayin’ folks, I know you prayed last night for the dead man, and I thank you for it. But it’s morning now, and we must take care of earthly matters. We will soon be in Canajoharie and I have no choice but to inform the magistrates. The canal is not like the ocean; we can’t just leave our dead behind. This man’s death must be reported, and it is best to get this business done and behind us. 

“There will be questions, and if all our answers are the same, we will be on our way all the faster. For those of you who did not see what happened yesterday, let me tell the story. Several of the men of the cloth, that we are so, so, fortunate to have on board the Mary Claire, were engaged in a Biblical discussion—you may have heard them loudly citing chapter and verse. My brothers and myself, heathens that we are, did not understand the playful nature of their disputes and went up top to try and cool them down.  These jolly men decided to take our advice and cool down by jumping into the canal. Now, ninety-nine times out of a hundred, or even ten times that, jumping into the canal does no permanent damage. This time, though—well, maybe the Scotsman should have removed his coat first.

“In any case, between the locks and the lawmen, we stand to be in Canajoharie one night at least. There is a fine inn in town for those tired of canal boat sleeping. And that’s all, except if any man remembers yesterday different than I told it, please talk to me before talking to the sheriff.”

Reverend Travis and Mirable were already gone.  They had left a note on my pillow saying that they planned to hold a service in town if they could find a willing church, far enough away from the passengers that they would not attract their attention. I was to meet them at the inn at 6:00. No doubt it would be the usual service, crutches and all. I wasn’t sure I could do it now, still harboring the guilt of killing the Scotsman. It seemed like so much mockery, more than my soul could bear.

Most of the passengers had already left the boat, and the Horne brothers seemed just as happy.  The body was laid out on the grass near the lock, covered with a canvas tarpaulin. They were waiting for the arrival of the sheriff and the coroner. I had no place to go and decided to wait as well. Maybe if I talked to the sheriff, it would ease my guilt. I hadn’t yet decided if I would relate the incidents as I remembered them or as Captain Horne remembered them.

Jack Horne came striding up to me saying, “Why so glum Pratt? We’ve a whole day in front of us with nothing to do. You ain’t planning to spend the whole day here are you?”

“Leave me alone,” I said.

“Don’t be like that, Pratt. You were such a jolly fellow yesterday.”

“You mean when we killed the Scotsman?”

Jack grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me behind the locksman’s house.  Quietly, through clenched teeth, he said, “We didn’t kill the Scotsman; don’t say that, even in jest.”

“I wasn’t jesting, we threw him off the boat, and he drowned. We killed him.”

He rolled his eyes and scolded me like a child. “First of all, nobody drowns in the canal. How in hell could we know he wouldn’t have sense enough to stand up?  And second, weren’t you listening to him? By his religion, nothing happens unless God wills it. We done God’s will and nothing more.”

It surprised me that Jack had been listening, but yes, I had been listening too.  Not only was the Scotsman beating Deacon Eaton at the scripture game before his demise, but he had begun to sway me to his way of thinking. I saw that I was already beyond saving, already damned, why was I even reading from that wretched book?

“You see what I am saying, Pratt. I can tell you agree.”

“We still pushed him,” I said. 

“But we didn’t kill him. And if we stay around here today we’ll be answering questions from coroners and magistrates, and one false word will have us stalled here for days.”

“If that’s God’s will there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Maybe it’s God’s will and maybe it ain’t, and maybe there’s nothing I can do about it but I’m sure as hell going to try. And for both of our sakes, so are you.”

He led me into the woods beyond Canajoharie, and I didn’t resist. “I know this place, Pratt. We can have some fun here if you let yourself. I can show you things you’ve never seen before.”

 The forest grew thick and deep very quickly, and I was soon lost. I asked Jack if he was sure he could find his way back. He said he knew his way around the full length of the canal and could never get lost. But Canajoharie he knew especially well because he had grown up nearby. I asked if he still had a home here.

“My home is the canal.” He said. 

We came to the end of the woods and on to a farmer’s freshly plowed field—a good sized piece of land. 

“Must be planting spinach or peas,” I said,” they like to go in early.”

Jack looked at me. “You a farmer? I thought you was a preacher.”

“I don’t know what I am now,” I said, “Might as well say I’m a canaller; it’s as true as anything else.”

This sent Jack into a fit of laughter. “You are a funny lad, Pratt. C’mon, if you like growing things, you ‘ll love this.”

He took off through the plowed field, cutting across the left corner towards another stand of trees. I started running too and caught up with him. I hadn’t run since I left my father’s farm; in fact, I had a barely moved. It felt great to stretch my legs, and breathe air not tainted by canal water or the human stench of the sleeping cabin. We ran into a huge apple orchard. The trees were just beginning to bud, but they already smelled sweet to me. 

“Too bad it’s not apple season,” I said.

“Well, it’s always cider season,” said Jack.

We walked through the orchard and into the farmyard. Jack led me to a shed behind the barn. The door was tied shut with a piece of cord; Jack pulled out his knife to cut it.

“Are you sure that’s wise?” I said.

“If he really cared about his goods he’d put a proper lock on them,” Jack said, and with one stroke of the knife, the door was open. Inside were dozens of earthenware jugs, of all shapes and sizes. 

“This one ought to do us,” Jack said, taking a heavy looking gallon jug. “We’ll return the jug when we’re done; he won’t know the difference.

Jack made a half-hearted attempt to retie the shed door then we hurried away.  I followed him into the woods again to a stream about a hundred yards beyond the farm.  I now had faith that Jack meant me no harm, but if he left me here, I would never find my way back to the boat.  We followed the stream a ways then around a bend I could see a waterfall, about ten feet tall, not too wide, with a pool below it. We walked almost to the falls then up the bank into a mossy patch beneath the trees and sat down. Jack pulled the cork out of the jug, took a drink then handed it to me.

I took a sip. It tasted bitter, strangely burning. “I think this cider is spoiled,” I said.

Jack started laughing again. “Oh no, Pratt, you’ve never had real cider before. Take another drink, the second taste is not so bitter.”

Then I realized what he meant—hard cider. My father was a teetotaler, as was everyone we knew. The Pratts did not drink alcohol. But I was no longer in my father’s house, and I had less and less use for his morals. I took another drink. It still burned but Jack was right; it tasted better the more I drank. In fact, everything got better. I soon forgot the Scotsman, and I was happier than I could ever remember being.  Jack and I were laughing and talking like old friends, and I could not remember why I had been frightened.