The tongue-lasing I received from Jack was, judging by the audience of gawking passengers, more extravagant and profane than the average steamboat debate. She called me every form of varmint I had ever heard spoken of on the canal and a few more I tried to remember to ask about later. She would not relent, and I could not respond. But eventually everyone has to breathe and on her inhale I took my opportunity.
“They cheated us both, Jack.” I said rapidly, “The dealer and the farmer were in cahoots from the beginning.”
This idea took hold. She was about to let loose another salvo but stopped, paused a moment then spit out, “Tell me what you mean!”
In a few words, I told her what the farmer had told me and why I did what I did. I told her it had all been a sham, played out by both men—from the farmer losing in the beginning to Jack losing in the middle, to me losing at the end; it had all been a script, played out by the two of them.
I could see Jack’s blood rise and I was hoping the anger would not be directed at me. It wasn’t.
“Then let’s get those bastards!” she shouted.
They had disappeared from view, the dealer and the farmer, but we were, after all, on a boat in the middle of the Hudson River. Unless they had jumped overboard—and they were not that type—they were still on board. We agreed that they must have changed clothes and disguised themselves and we went looking for them amongst the passengers. To Jack this did not mean a quick look, she went eye-to-eye with everyone, interrupting meals and conversations, lifting hats and removing spectacles, making a nuisance of herself that could not be ignored by the officials of the boat.
We were confronted by one of the captain’s men— I wouldn’t know his title, but he wore a crisp white uniform with epaulets and gold ropes—who asked us to please stop annoying the passengers. This officer had the misfortune of coming upon Jack at the precise moment that she had decided that these men who cheated her could not have done so and escaped without the help of the captain of the boat. She pulled out her knife and demanded that he either produce the thieves that had taken her money or bring out the captain to pay back what was stolen.
He ran away then, but he did return with the captain, flanked by two surly men, each about the size of Lukas Ramsey. Jack sheathed the knife and began to relate what had happened to us, what I thought was the cause, and what she thought was the cause. Then she demanded that he return the six or seven hundred dollars that had been stolen from us.
The captain listened patiently and waited until Jack was finished. I think he was surprised by our youth and decided to give us some leeway.
“We have three choices here, “ he said when Jack had finished, “I can put you in chains and make you shovel coal until we get to New York, then turn you over to the police there; or you can jump overboard and swim away; or I can take the boat to Rhinebeck and let you walk ashore and we part company forever.”
We took the third option. The boat pulled alongside the pier at Rhinebeck, lowered the gangplank, and we walked off the boat while the passengers stood at the railing and watched as if we were just another tourist attraction. They lifted the gangplank and chugged away.
Jack started walking up the pier, but I just sat down there on the edge, watching the steamboat sputter away.
Jack turned to look, “C’mon Pratt, let’s get out of here.”
“No, Jack, I’m staying. I’m just going to sit here, and stay sitting here, until I can think of a way to live my life where I won’t be accused of theft or murder, where I won’t have to disguise myself to go to the theatres or sneak down corridors to get my own clothes out of a hotel, and where I will never again have to worry about getting thrown off a steamboat.“
Well, I guess Jack was curious as to what I would come up with because she sat down where she stood, about three paces behind me. We sat in silence for a long time, but I didn’t even have to turn around to know that we had not yet reconciled.
“I still don’t know what you thought you were doing, Pratt,” she said at last, “bettin’ all that money. There was more than three hundred in that bag, and now it’s gone.”
“I’d guess you lost about as much as I did, Jack,” I said without turning around.
“But I was losing by degrees, how could you lose that much at once?”
“The game’s over now, Jack, and I don’t see the difference.”
We were quiet again. I watched the steamboat as it turned out of sight behind an outcropping of rocks some ways south, leaving behind only the trail of black smoke that followed it down the river. Soon the smoke disappeared as well.
I don’t know if I was serious about sitting there until the thought of a way to live, but I was surely not ready to stand up. In fact, I had no idea how to change my fate; it always came back to the dead Scotsman. The Lord got me here, and he could damn well get me out of here. And I guess, in his own imponderable way he did.
As I sat on the end of the pier running these things through my mind, again and again, I stared idly across the river. I noticed a sloop tacking lazily down the river, a small sailboat, one-masted, with a mainsail, a topsail, and a jib—yes, in Salem we know our boats. I had seen so many on the Hudson since Albany, like seabirds, lazily riding the river as if they had no purpose. But before long I saw that this one was purposeful, it was heading toward me. Time on a sailboat is not like time on a steamboat, and I knew it would be quite a while before I knew his intentions. Just as well because I had thoughts aplenty, off of the river, to occupy my mind.
Finally, the sloop came up to the pier, so close that I had to raise my legs to avoid getting hit. It was piloted by one old man who threw a loop of rope around a piling, pulled the boat close to the pier, then sat back and lit his pipe. He nodded hello to me, and I nodded back.
He smoked for several minutes in silence then said, loudly enough for us both to hear, “Did I see you fellers get off the steamboat here.”
“Yes, sir, you did,” I said.
He took a long puff from his pipe and said, “She don’t usually stop at Rhinebeck.”
“They stopped special to throw us off the boat if it’s any of your business,” Jack called out.
The old man nodded as if it all made sense now, and just continued enjoying his pipe. I returned to my thoughts; all the wrong turns that had brought me to this pier. How could I undo my steps? How far back would I have to go to find another course that would lead to salvation? The answer was easy; it was the moment that Mirable kissed me. Had I then the boldness I later grew into, I would have taken her, at that moment, away from her father, off on our own to start a new life, away from blasphemy and treachery and all of the baseness that grows in the canal.
“What was you throwed off the steamboat for, if I might ask?” the boatman called up.
“For being robbed and cheated at cards,” Jack answered, “and having the audacity to ask the steamboat operator for recompense.”
“You played cards on the steamboat?” the man asked, and I nodded yes.
“There’s blacklegs on those boats,” he said, “you never want to gamble on a steamboat.”
“Well thank you, mister,” Jack said, “I wish you had told me that this morning before I got on the goddamn steamboat.”
The boatman was quiet again. I went back to my thoughts but I could not get back to that fleeting moment where I saw a path to a more beautiful life. This was the hand I was dealt; there was no use in dreaming. I wondered if the Lord ever did lay out a life that traveled down a path of joy and beauty. At first I thought of course, there were many living a life of ease, but when it came down to cases, I could not think of any examples that did not come from storybooks. From what I have seen of the world, everyone, rich or poor, is struggling with something.
“I don’t imagine that Rhinebeck was your intended destination.” The boatman said at last.
“We were on our way to New York City,” I said.
“As am I,” he said, “I am waiting now until the tide is in my favor.”
This time I nodded back, nothing else to say.
“You boys seem to me honest lads down on your luck.”
“That we are sir,” I said.
“I have a proposition that may benefit us all. I have a considerable amount of cargo on board,” he gestured to some wooden barrels on the deck, and I could see that there were more in the hold. “And I will need some help unloading it in New York. I will carry you to that place if you will help me unload.”
I looked at a Jack.
“We ain’t used to working for no pay.” She said.
I looked back at the boatman.
“And I will pay you a dollar apiece.” He said.
I looked at Jack again.
“Well let’s go then.”