We stood on the bridge and watched as the boat moved on slowly. At first, we could see them, all the passengers standing at the rear of the boat, gawking at us, then it was hard to tell if they were looking or not. The boat floated off in the distance, then the canal banked to the right, and it moved out of sight behind a stand of trees.
“Why didn’t we just jump off the side, on to the towpath?” I asked Jack.
“Then they would have had to chase us,” Jack said. “And probably would have caught one of us. Besides, you wouldn’t have come if asked ya.”
“I might have,” I said.
Jack nodded and smiled at me. “Anyways, I always wanted to try that—hangin’ from a bridge. They’ll remember us. They’ll tell stories about us.”
We crossed the bridge and started walking east. I quietly pondered my new situation. I knew I had to leave the Travises; I couldn’t do that work anymore. It wasn’t God’s work, I knew we were selling lies, and people lined up to buy them. But, for all that, I never went hungry with the Travises.
“How will we eat, Jack?
Jack laughed, “Oh we’ll eat Pratt, “she punched my shoulder, “We’ll eat like kings.”
Jack stopped and pulled a leather pouch from her shirt; it was filled with gold coins and banknotes.
“Where did you get that?”
Jack closed the bag and stuck it inside her shirt. “I told you my brothers were saving up to buy the boat—for themselves, not including me. I been leading them mules long as I can remember and they weren’t going to give me a share when they bought the boat. So I just took the money. I’ve been planning it all season.”
“You took it all?”
“I helped earn it all.”
“But wouldn’t a third be fairest?”
“Well Pratt, you’re the preacher, so you would know what’s fair,” I knew that attitude; if I didn’t watch she would have me on the ground. “But they were going to leave me with nothing, so I left them with nothing. That’s fair enough for me.”
As it turns out, it was fair enough for me too. That night we slept in at an inn with a feather bed; the first real bed I had slept in since leaving the farm.
Our plan was to tell the world we were trappers, come down from the Adirondacks to sell our winter pelts. To that end, we went first to an outfitter in Little Falls who sold me a pair of canvas trousers, a chambray shirt, some boots and a jacket of buckskin. Jack, with some reluctance, exchanged her canal hat for a trapper’s woolen cap and bought herself a blanket coat. I put on the new clothes, but when Jack saw me in full array, she thought me too natty. To take the shine off it, we took my new suit to the banks of the canal and in the mud and sand, we stomped on each piece—the breeches, the shirt, and the coat—until they were thoroughly soiled and somewhat tattered, then we washed them in the canal and hung them on tree limbs. Once dried, they looked and smelled nearly as bad as Jack’s attire, and then she was satisfied that, if I kept my mouth shut, I could pass for a trapper.
We followed the canal east, and during that time we lived a life that was next to ideal. By day we were two carefree trappers, young men from the hills looking for adventure. But at night, whether in a room at an inn or in the woods off the road, we were husband and wife, and Jack, back to her proper sex, all but overwhelmed me with her passion.
Once I had become accustomed to the standard mode of lovemaking, Jack taught me some variations. There were ways, she explained, where both parties could experience pleasure, without the possibility of conceiving a child. This was a possibility that, in the throes of lust, had not even occurred to me. I could not imagine what might happen to Jack, or to me, or to the child if Jack were to bear one. Needless to say, I listened to every word.
The easiest way, she told me, was a method she had learned from a boy in Oneida. “Male continence” his people had called it, and it involved ending the process just prior to the man ejaculating. In practice, though not completely satisfying to either of us, it was a fairly good compromise. She had other methods, though, more effective at both goals—some she had learned from other boys along the canal some she had surmised herself. Many of the tricks she proposed were—at least by my unstructured reading of the bible—so abhorrent to the Lord that their practice had led Him to destroy entire cities.
I know, dear reader, you are saying to yourself, “He has taken up with a doxy, he deserves what he gets.” Yes, it is true, I had started down the road to hell, but it is a winding road, through wilderness unimaginable. Follow me to the end before pronouncing the rope a fitting destination.
In fact, I knew full well I was living a life of sin, but I had, by now, fully accepted the religion of the dead Scotsman. Not the righteous assurance of my place in heaven, quite the contrary; I believed my damnation was certain and irreversible. The Lord knew before creation who would be sheep and who would be goats; why should I feign righteousness when the Lord and I both already knew which herd I was in. To be sure, there were nights, well past midnight, with all others asleep, when I was kept awake by the horrors of hell awaiting me. But morning always came, and in the earthly plane, the life of sin has much to recommend it.
We had a destination. We were heading for New York City to put Jack’s simple dream to the test—buying apples upstate at five cents a bushel and selling them on the street for two cents apiece. The profit seemed good, but how many apples could New York eat? Apples were just the start, Jack said, Once the apples were flowing, we would add cider to the mix. New York would drink all the cider the Mohawk Valley could produce, Jack speculated, and the profit then would be astronomical. We would be the Vanderbilts of cider.
I was all for it; things were going so well for me (ignoring, of course, the damnation), I could believe it was just a stepping stone to even greater times. But here is some advice to those as young as I was: when everything is green grass and blue skies, by all means, enjoy it; but don’t spend your time dreaming of the next harvest, instead prepare for the coming storm.
We headed east toward Albany, there to take a steamboat down the Hudson River to New York. Along the way, I believe we stopped at every tavern and roadhouse on the canal. I had even regained my taste for cider, though I had vowed, after the first binge, to never touch another drop. I had also developed a taste for ale and rye whiskey. I had resigned myself to a life of sin, and it seemed that every corner held an opportunity to pursue that life. I tried to express this sentiment to Jack and she just nodded, saying, “Wait ‘till we hit Watervliet.”
Watervliet was on the west side of Troy, the eastern end of the canal—end of the line for the men and boys moving the boats. The canal boats would continue down the locks to Albany and there unloaded, but canalers took their pay in Troy, and all but the most conscientious took the money to Watervliet.
I had grown used to the canal towns, each had a tavern or two, but for the most part, they were serious drinking establishments. I expected no entertainment beyond Jack’s often quite entertaining yarns, and the bottle itself. Watervliet was not like any place I had ever seen. The town was nothing but taverns; I saw no dwelling there that did not serve spirits. Jack led me the wildest dives—with names like The Black Rag, The Pigs Ear, and The Tub of Blood—who were fighting tooth and nail for that canaler pay, offering music, loose women, gambling, blood sport, prizefighting, and all else that might be appealing to a man numbed by weeks of monotonous travel down the big ditch.
It was after dark when we arrived, and I was completely lost in this place, but Jack knew where she was going and led us into a tavern called The Peg Leg House. I heard the muffled noise of the crowd before we opened the door, but once inside we found a raucous celebration that, to my mind we were only two drinks away from joining. Music from a fiddle and a button-box had driven the boys to the dance floor. A few had partners, but most of the men were just tapping their heels and gyrating to the rhythm. Jack and I bought ale at the bar and stood there laughing at the spectacle.
“Jack Horne,” a voice boomed from across the tavern, “Is that Jack Horne?”
Jack tensed at the sound of her name, and looked around for a quick exit; there was none, and the man was coming closer.
“Lukas Ramsey,” Jack called back, “You still on the canal?”
“I’m still canallin’” In girth, the man was as wide as Jack and I together, and in height, perhaps a foot taller. “But I see you surely ain’t.”
“I’ve had enough of the canal, Lukas, I’m following other pursuits.”
“Your brother’s looking for you, Jack” said the giant with a sneer, “He’s really anxious to see you.”
“Tell my brother to go to hell, and you go chase after him.”
The big man paused for a moment, breathing heavily, then said, “I will relay those sentiments, and best of luck to you, Jack Horne.”
He turned around and walked out of The Peg Leg.
“Who is Lucas Ramsey?” I asked.
“He’s captain of the Queen of the Mohawk,” said Jack. “and he’s big trouble. I’m going to go see how big.”
And she followed Lukas Ramsey out the door.