I woke up the next morning on the canal boat. The sun was high, and the table had already been cleared from breakfast. It was just as well, I was hungry, but the mere thought of food made me gag. I still had the taste of cider in my mouth, and like the first sip, the taste was bitter.
If my afternoon in the woods with Jack had been paradise, the following day was hell itself. My head was throbbing with pain, and when I left the cabin, I thought the sunlight would blind me. The boat approached a curve, and the blast from the captain’s trumpet was like a punch to my already tender head. I slouched towards an empty chair, but just as I was about to sit down, someone yanked it away and fell on my back, writhing in agony. I couldn’t believe it; Jack had done it. She stood above me, now a boy again, drssed in her rough canal clothes.
“You look uncomfortable, Pratt, sprawled across the deck like that.” She said, then walked away laughing.
Had I dreamed it all? Had Jack really transformed into a sweet young girl who seduced me, or had I been plied with demon rum and left deluded? Nothing had changed on board the Mary Claire; Jack was still the ugly bullyboy I had always known.
Reverend Travis helped me up and said, “Come inside the cabin, Jonathan, I need to talk to you.”
Once inside his tone was less than gentle, “What the hell were you doing yesterday?”
“I had some cider,” I said, barely able to say the word without getting sick.
“Never again come to a service drunk, Jonathan. To the people we minister, alcohol is as bad as the devil himself. I had to tell them that you were so full of the spirit of the Lord it made you stagger and babble like an idiot.”
He continued to berate me about the cider until the pain in my head pulsed in rhythm with his words. And he scolded me at length about coming onstage unexpectedly and for running an act we had not rehearsed. Going forth, I was to stick to the script. It was the first time I had heard him speak in these theatrical terms; it confirmed my own views on the venture.
“But as it turns out,” he said, relaxing his tone somewhat, “your improvisation was well received. These people are hungrier than I thought; they believed I healed your legs through the Holy Spirit. We are going to build the whole act around healing by faith.
“But Jonathan, you must never catch me unaware again.” He chuckled, slapping me on the back. “Oh, and the sheriff will be by today, asking about the Scotsman. You must echo the captain’s story, or we will never leave this place.”
He left me more confused than ever. The cabin was close and stuffy; I needed fresh air. I wished the Reverend really could heal me. Maybe if I sat in the sun without moving or thinking the heat and light would purify my soul and relieve my aching head. As I stepped out of the cabin, Jack slipped a foot under mine, and I stumbled almost going head first over the gunwale.
Jack was walking away. I got up and chased after her, grabbing her arm.
She turned and said, ”What?”
“What are you doing to me? Didn’t you tell me you’d stop?” Maybe she didn’t; I had no clear memory of what she told me.
Jack glanced around quickly, then pulled me back into the cabin. She grabbed my shirt and led me into the crew’s cabin and shut the door. In an excited whisper, she said, “I can’t treat you different now, my brothers’ll notice.”
“You aren’t treating me same; you’re treating me worse. I feel like I’m dying as it is, and now I have to watch out for you.”
“Cider got you, huh?”
“Well, I can make you feel better. Drop your britches, Pratt.”
“What here?” I couldn’t believe what I heard. “No, I can’t. I have to talk to the sheriff. “
“Alright Pratt, if all goes well, we’ll be out of here soon. Listen for my brother’s horn; he’ll blow it as we approach Little Falls. When you hear the horn, make sure you are up top. “
Jack headed up on deck, then turned and said, “And don’t give nothing to the sheriff. Lay it all on the deacon.”
The sheriff of Montgomery County arrived that afternoon. He and the coroner had been around the day before and had removed the Scotsman’s body and taken statements from everyone on the boat—everyone but Jack and myself.
I waited above deck while the sheriff interviewed Jack below. After all of it, I was still unsure how I would answer the sheriff’s questions. There was the captain’s truth: we had been roughhousing atop the boat, and all had jumped in. But I knew the real truth, Jack and I had pushed the old man in, and it had not been easy. Still, I could not avoid what Jack had reminded me; by his religion, God already knew when he would die, and who would push him overboard. It was written; it was not something we could change.
Jack came back on deck, giving me the high sign, as the sheriff called me below. The sheriff was as nervous as I was, murder and suspicious death being as rare as it was in Montgomery County.
“Mr. Jonathan Pratt,” he said, “You are traveling with Reverend Travis, are you not?”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “We are spreading the word of God.”
“And you were there at the time of the drowning?”
“Yes sir, one minute he was there, the next he was gone.”
“And was there an argument before the, uh…”
“Yes, sir,” I said, “a most educational ecclesiastical argument. The Scotsman was arguing predestination against Deacon Eaton’s belief in man’s free will.”
“And did the argument turn violent?”
“No,” I said, “it was all in fun. We all jumped into the canal, then we all got back on board—all but the Scotsman.”
“That is what so many have told me, but I cannot ignore Deacon Eaton’s testimony. He said it was you, along with a member of Captain Horne’s crew who pushed the Reverend off the boat.”
I had expected this, and I was ready. “I hate to speak against a man of the cloth, Sheriff, but I wonder if Deacon Eaton was not as much to blame as anyone. He did nothing but pray and preach upon boarding the boat, in violation of the captain’s wishes. It was Deacon Eaton who started the argument and he who stoked the flame. We who jumped into the canal—and I include the Scotsman—did so to douse a fire that could not end well. I bear no ill will toward the deacon, but I’m afraid that what he tells you now comes from guilt and nothing more.”
The sheriff sighed, closed his notebook and said, “I have heard that story too. Perhaps it is just as well for all concerned if this matter were treated as the unfortunate accident it no doubt was.”
The sheriff left us and we were moving again. As Jack had predicted, late in the morning we came to a bend in the canal, and the captain blew his trumpet. With no idea what to expect, I did as Jack had told me and made my way to the top of the cabin. There stood Jack with a stuffed haversack across one shoulder and what looked like my carpetbag on the end of a loop of rope around the other.
“Now what?” I asked. She just smiled and pointed to the front of the boat and an approaching bridge.
“Low bridge!” shouted Caleb from the helm. I started to duck as everyone else did, but Jack caught me under the arm and kept me upright. With her other hand, she caught the bridge as it came toward us.
“Grab the bridge, Pratt.” She said, pulling herself upward. I had no choice but to comply and we both pulled ourselves up as the boat drifted beneath us. We scrabbled through the railing and onto the surface of the bridge. I realized then that this was Jack’s dramatic escape and I started running down the bridge expecting her to follow.
“Wait a minute, Pratt.” She said. “Let’s see what they do.”
We stood at the railing watching the boat where eighty, or so, wide eyes stared back at us. The boat moved slowly and without stopping, someone— a Horne brother, maybe, or Mirabile Travis— could have easily jumped off the boat and run to the bridge and grabbed me, if not us both. But nothing happened, nobody moved, the boat just kept floating west.