THE SCIENCE OF NAUSCOPIA. In March, 1785, in Paris, a man, by name Bottineau, announced that he had found out means of perceiving the approach of ships at distances extending as far as two hundred and fifty leagues; of distinguishing if there are several vessels or only one, for instance, five or six, or if they form a fleet; of showing the distance between ships invisible to the eye, their rate of speed, their stations; and many other circumstances interesting for war or commerce.
–Once A Week, vol. IV (1869), no. 92
We up an go raftin.
So they’d spent all winter felling logs and dragging them to French Creek–when they could borrow a mule–a big old hoard of ash and oak and cherry on the frozen shore, the good stuff, not just ordinary white pine but fine hardwood that fetches a premium at Pittsburgh. Frank had been spending a lot of time down at Little Hope, talking to the old raftsmen who loiter around the big stove in the middle of Raymond’s General Store–should they debark the logs? Square them up? How do you bend the bows round a lash-pole? What wood’s best to use for lash-poles? How about for pins? Who could they borrow a sheet-iron stove from? How do you make a sweep? Build the shanty so you can strike it quick when you come to a low bridge? For George, it was a boy’s best daydream, just like in some hair-raising true adventure tale, only maybe real.
Now the creek was in spate from the winter melt. The first sign is when the water curls round the downstream side of rocks and makes bubbles that bob up like frogs. Soon the creek’d be on the rise and of course the sun’d be shining like a brass band and icicles a-drip from every eave and birds piping and hopping about, all eager, and the ruts and crusts of boot-crushed, soot-blacked snow giving way to mud, mud, mud everywhere, black and brown and greenish (stinking to high heaven) and gray and yellow. And for sure (at last!) it’d be time to go.
It was really only half a raft—what’s called a pup—but it was theirs, they’d built it themselves. It floated real low in the water, due to all the hardwood, three or four logs of it to every one of poplar or pine. Twigs and clumps and even a few drowned varmints bumped against it and whirled away across the widening creek towards the clay bluff below the graveyard and ran out of sight southwards and westwards.
Go tell Mama, Frank said.
No, you go, George said.
Frank stood on the raft, arms crossed, feet planted firm, and gave George that big-brother look of his. Like he was disappointed, but George might still do right, if only—
Very well, Frank said, and made his way up the muddy bank. I’ll go this time. You watch the raft. Don’t let no one steal it now.
I won’t! George shouted back.
He plumped down on a stump and sat there, kicking at a rock. But he waited and waited, and Frank didn’t come back. What could be keeping him? He was up to something.
George stood tip-toe on the stump. No one in sight. He set off home.
The Tarr farmhouse stands at the end of a lane off the Freeport Road, a big, white, Greek-temple-looking place in the middle of a grassy lot, an old elm tree outspreading in front like a revival preacher making a big show sending his prayers up God-wards, three white chickens and a brown one stalking and pecking, and four dark pines like sentries at the north end. Soon as he got there, George saw Frank run from the front porch to the barn.
Frank! George shouted.
Frank ducked behind the woodpile, clutching a gunnysack to his chest.
A door slammed, then Mama’s voice:
George! Is that you? Boy! Where’ve you got to?
George walked towards the house.
Here I am, Mama.
She came round the corner of the porch.
Where’s your brother? He aint done his chores. You neither. Where’ve you two been off to?
Frank was shaking his head frantically and holding a finger against his lips.
She put her hands on her hips.
Been down to the creek. Aint seen him.
Feed the chickens, she told him.
She went back to the kitchen. George had to go by the woodpile to get to the feed bin.
Where you going? Frank hissed at him.
Mama told me to feed the chickens.
They got plenty of big fat bugs. We got to go.
What you got there?
Never you mind, let’s go.
George looked back at the house. Frank scrambled up, and the two of them hurried down the lane.
Mama was there on the porch again, broom in hand.
Why aint you feeding those chickens like I said, George?
George hung his head.
Your papa’s out in the fields today, Frank—
He ain’t my papa!
—and those cows aint going to pasture theirselves.
I’ll be happy if I never see another cow in my life, Mama.
I said I’ll be happy—
I heard what you said! What you got there, Frank? You steal something? I declare, I caught you red-handed just last week—
Nothing, boy? I’ll hide you good if you’re lying!
She hit the porch pillar—whack!—with her broomstick.
You will not, Mama, as I live you will never beat me again, and I won’t be courting those girls you keep telling me about as I don’t wish to marry, and I’ll be happy if I never see another cow again. What I want is what I’m off to now—to see the world.
The world! What mischief’ve you got up to—
Mama, we’re going away for a spell, Frank interrupted, just like I told you we was. Now you mustn’t try to stop us—
Benjamin Franklin Tarr! To talk to your own mother so! By my sweet Jesus I’d die of shame if I ever did such a thing. And George Washington Tarr! You two little heathens’re always talking a deal of moonshine but you will not be going on no adventures when there’s farm work to get done—
But Mama, the farm aint really ours no more since—
George tugged Frank’s arm (or else they might never’ve got out of there) and the last they saw of her (as they ran pell-mell down the road, coattails flying) she was standing on the front porch and shaking her broom at the sky.
We mak it down French crick.
The upper reaches of French Creek are all meanders and oxbows through low marshland. A pole would’ve been more useful than a sweep in these parts, and Frank had to work mighty hard, plunging it into muck and heaving it free, fending off from the banks and rocks and little islets that turned out to be just hanks of weeds snagged on sunk trees. He struggled and sweated and swore up a storm.
It’s like rassling a hog, he complained. A mad hog.
Let me try, George said.
You can’t do it, you’re too little.
Can not. No, stop that, let go!
But Frank let George take charge and nothing bad happened. The creek was wider along here, and the water still rising, churning with brown; all he had to do was hold the middle.
One of those unaccountably warm April days when the sun beats down hard but a cloud comes along and a breeze springs up and reminds you summer’s still far off—all up and down the banks green breaking out like wildfires—sun hot on bare skin. They’d both shed shoes, coats, shirts; rolled their trousers up above their knees. George’s hair was blondish tending towards reddish (that’s his mother’s side) and a bucketful of freckles spangled all over face and chest, down his wiry arms, pretty sturdy for his age—thirteen this past November—like flecks of wheat floating on milk.
The raft slid easy round a bend.
Frank, almost three years older, was already burnt beet-red, shoulders and nose especially; dark hair and dark brows, even a few brownish wisps on his chest. He set on the crate where George’d been dangling his feet in the water; picked up the fishing wand George had dropped, cast the line into the water.
You catch anything? he asked.
Naw. No bait. Wish I got one for supper though.
Should’ve thought of that.
Should’ve thought of a lot of things. Like Mama sending Papa to fetch us back on the wagon.
He aint your papa, Frank said. And she won’t. He’s too busy in the fields, horse too.
They didn’t have a sheet-iron stove after all, because none of the oldsters believed the two of them would (or could) tote it back upriver. Instead, they’d heaped dirt in the middle of the raft, flattened the top, and ringed it with bricks too soft to build with.
Frank pried out one of the bricks and poked around with a stick. After a minute, he went Ha ha! and pulled out a squirmy thread, a red wriggler. He pinched it in half and baited his hook.
The creek’s next bend was a sharper one. George leaned into the sweep, turning them towards the inner bank, where it’d be deeper, and away from a line of rocks skirling with white. But a trick current caught hold and tugged hard—George yelped and heaved, the sweep pulled him over, would’ve pulled him clean off if he hadn’t let go. Swinging free, it knocked Frank upside the head and down he went—the fishing wand sent flying—and the raft whirled around like leaf in the wind and they were spanking straight towards those rocks and
Frank Frank Frank! George yelled
and Frank sat up and grabbed the sweep, hugged it hard against his body
and George took hold too, held on for dear life as their feet scrabbled against logs and pushed the sweep back in line and
thump thump thump went something underneath the raft and the two boys nearly fell over again
and the raft lurched and steadied, running out the far side of the bend, clear calm water ahead, the raft slowed and drifted
and it had all been really only—what? A minute? No, less. It was all over and they were fine.
The fishing wand, caught under a lash-pole, snapped free, flew wild, George grabbed at it, the line snagged his arm, yanked taut. A walleye long as his forearm flopped and flashed greenish golden. He drew it in.
Hey, look, George said. I caught a fish.
The stream now was calm as a pond. Frank sat down, leaned back against the sweep’s mount.
Boy! he said. That was a real close thing.
What’s that noise? George asked.
Because the creek’s rushing had never been that loud before.
Both boys looked downstream. The flat water ended sharp, like a picture torn in half, in a frothy white line, and the landscape further on looked to have taken a couple steps downhill.
It’s a dam! George said.
No, that’s a weir, Frank said.
You know how to deal with it?
The old guys said steer for the center.
They both took hold of the sweep, good firm grips, and braced their legs. The raft picked up speed, held a steady line towards the edge. Then they were right on it, could see the six-foot drop and the water gushing over.
The raft tilted like an upset table, shot over the weir, teetered for a horrible second, and flung down into the lower water, smack, and the whole thing going under a few inches then rising up, water gushing off the logs—
My fish my fish, get the fish! George yelped.
Frank snatched it up just in time. The sweep banged as its blade went over. The raft rocked and steadied.
The water was shallower here, and rocky, but with a deep channel, straighter than before. The sun was getting low. They could’ve kept going, it was hours till dark, but they tied up anyway, and for supper roasted their catch over a fire kindled on the brick-and-dirt hearth, and had bread and butter with a good pinch of sugar sprinkled on.
Crawling into the hut, George cracked his head on the roof-pole.
Should’ve tried the hut out fore we went, make it bigger maybe, he said.
Could’ve should’ve would’ve, Frank said.
Well it’s true.
Frank didn’t reply.
How much you think the raft’ll go for? George asked.
Hardwood goes for much as a quarter dollar the lumber foot, Frank said. You do the reckoning.
So maybe twenty dollars?
Frank didn’t answer.
What you going to spend yours on? George asked.
George said, In Pittsburgh, I’ll get me some maple syrup. I like syrup.
George said, And something pretty for Mama, she likes pretty things.
Go to sleep, Frank said.
What you going to spend yours on? George asked.
A new little brother, Frank said.
Huh, George said. Well, I figure we’ll have plenty for pretty much anything. Twenty-five dollars!
He sighed happily and turned over. Frank tugged some blanket back.
After a while, Frank said: I figure we made near thirty miles today.
I never been thirty miles away from home before, George said.
No, as the river runs, I mean; maybe twelve, fifteen miles in a line.
Oh, I been twelve before.
Go to sleep.
The fire fell to ash, and the moon rose, and the day and the night were the first day.
We pas thru the oil feilds.
(What you going to spend yours on? George asked.)
French Creek runs through Wattsburg, where the East Branch joins up, and so to Union City, where the South Branch comes in, then on to Muddy Creek and a broad, westward loop through Crawford County, Meadville, Cochranton, Sugarcreek—a town, not a creek—into Venango County, and on to Franklin, where it empties into the Allegheny River.
(Best not to spend money till you got it, Frank said.)
Now the Tarr family was not among the original settlers of Greenfield Township, Pennsylvania, they were johnny-come-latelies, looking for better luck and greener fields, better than in Venango anyway, where the soil is greasy with black ooze that poisons crops and sickens livestock and belches up stink. Old Granpaps Tarr had swore he’d never leave the place his Grandpap had left the old country to find, and he never did, and he’s buried there now on a hill in Cherry Tree overlooking the abandoned farm.
(Tell me anyways, George said. Me, I’m going to buy a whole jug of maple syrup!)
After the Great Frost of June 1859, the land agent for some joint stock company back east offered more per acre than could be tilled out of it in three, four years. Papa took that cash and run with it—loaded the wagon, the horse, and both mules, and hightailed it out of the valley that the timber boom and the iron boom and the coal boom (very short) and now (oh Lord preserve us) the oil boom had left so desolate.
(I aint going to till another inch, Frank said, of that mean little farm, mortgaged out to bankers who squeeze and squeeze until they as good as own you too—
(And Mister Jay Gould comes along and emmy-doe-manes away twenty acres for his railroad but somehow you still owe money on it—
(And the money you got this year aint worth the same it was last year though it’s the very same cash notes—)
The boys couldn’t see the old farm from the raft, but they saw the abandoned derricks and rigs and pipes and tanks, and ghost towns—whole ghost cities—that come right down to the water in these parts. This stretch of French Creek is better known as Oil Creek, and they smelt the reason why way before they came to it, like something gone rotten a long time ago. Brooks and runs join the creek all along its course, but here they drained sluggish, like a man too sick to get out of bed. Trickles and seeps turned the water murky, with a green-blue-purple glisten.
(Sometimes, Frank said, when the whole world seems against you, and when they told you this and told you that and getting on your back about it, and you just got to bust out, sometimes, and go off somewheres, and see some of that wicked wide world you always hear about but never get to see just how wide or how wicked—well, that’s my plan.)
The sky was gray as an old wool blanket. No trees, no meadows, no cows or horses, no people. A few birds circled overhead, crows probably, black as coal anyhow. Heaps of slag loomed right over them, like black hills. Creosote timbers lay stacked for a railroad never built. The shard-framed windows of a burnt-out hotel glinted like rows of suspicious eyes. Taller than the hotel, a painted sign
W E L C O M E t o P I T H O
canted, its right side peeling off dingy tatters. The creekside railroad station, half-built, was topped with a slate-shingled steeple like a cockeyed dunce-cap.
(Can I go too? George asked.)
Past the ghost town, a forest of derricks tilted, some fallen, some unfinished, all bleached gray-white, like bones, and creaking and groaning in the breeze that rippled the water’s surface—all rainbowy—and fluttered the boys’ hair.
Don’t like this place, George said.
Don’t be so skeary-like, Frank said.
Something far away went bang, followed by a crash, a bunch more crack-crack-cracks, then quiet. George looked at Frank.
Must’ve been something fallen down, Frank said.
I guess, George said.
Makes you wonder.
Oh, weren’t always like this. Why people’d do it all? What for.
Cause they could, I guess.
All kinds of things I could do, but don’t.
In Indian times, it must’ve been forests and meadows, all full of bears and wolves and the like.
It was still that way when Great-Grandpaps come here.
That’s a long time ago. Before the railroads.
Well, he brung an axe, didn’t he, and he hewed down a deal of trees, just like we did to make a raft to sell.
The slopes here aint good for fields, so would’ve been lots left.
Well, you know—money.
A mighty heap of money, and where’d it all go?
Us Tarrs got none of it.
Must’ve cost a ton of money to build all these things but they just up and left em.
Yep, hotels, streets, railroads—
Sitting there all empty.
I wonder what it was like here in those glory days! George said.
The high ridges along the creek brought dusk early. The raft drifted along, the water murmured secrets to the shore, birds started to gather on derrick-top and roof-ridge, calling, like travelers looking for the rest of their party.
What’re Mama and Papa doing now, you suppose? George asked.
That man aint your papa.
Well I wonder anyways.
Talking about waling wayward boys, Frank said.
Well, maybe we’ll be gone long enough they’ll forget.
Then best we can do is not never come back, George said.
The breeze was picking up as the sky darkened, and the creaks and moans of the abandoned works got louder. One small cloud, high up, glowed orange, like a spot rubbed clear on a foggy window.
There really ghosts in a ghost town? George asked.
I’m not scared.
Just a bunch of old stuff.
Wait—you hear that?
Like a voice.
Naw, aint nobody there.
Something splashed the water behind them. Both boys jumped up, peered all around. Then a splash in front: a rock.
A little figure on the farther bank, waving both arms: Halloo, ahoy, halloo yonder watercraft, ahoy! A passenger, a paying passenger, ahoy!
We tak on the Prins of the Oil-men.
Pray to allow one to present John Washington Steele, called Johnny, also called Coal-Oil Johnny, and best known—and justly so!—as the Prince of Oil-Men. I am, of course, at your humble service, my dear boys.
The skinny old man actually bowed at them, flourished his hat.
And might this be your first venture to the Great Oil-Dorado, my dear boys?
Who are you, mister?
Ah, you find before you but a mere innocent, dragged up and enriched beyond his capacitation, and abandoned, thus ravished, to live upon his wits, such as they remain, and so far.
He looked around them in the failing light, at the raft, the shack, fry-pan, water-barrel, crates of stores.
You said something about paying, Frank said.
But of course! Of course. Fair, not to say generous, remumutation for all provision and amenity. One has yet to enjoy such, however, so logic—and we must all obey the dictions of logic, must we not?—logic propounds that no payment be yet forth-proceeding.
Huh, said George.
The Prince stepped aboard, pulled up a crate, and sat down, fussing with the tattered tails of his claw-hammer suit and primping his snarled collar; combed fingers through his dirty white beard, slicked ample white hair back under his hat.
To be sure, he said, one amenity that might be offered a guest would be a fit supper.
A gold dollar appeared between his fingertips. He flipped it into the air, caught it, slipped it back wherever it came from.
Huh, said Frank.
They cast off. George set to kindling a fire.
Afterwards, fingers and chin greasy (the Kings and Queens of Olde England had dined royally with but thumbs and fingers, he told them), the Prince stretched out his legs, leaned back against the crate, pillowed his head against interlocked fingers, and, looking back and forth between the two boys, sighed deeply.
George pointed at an orange glow behind the eastern ridge.
What’s that over yonder? he asked.
Ah, my dear boys, thereon lies a tale indeed.
The Prince licked his lips.
I propose now to fiddle for my vittles, as our forebears used to say, with an entertainment like unto those of the bards of yore. You know what bards are? Poets, like.
A True Tale
Told By A Prince-In-Exile (Alas!)
To A Pair Of Beggarly Paupers
Well, he began, all this hereabouts is the Oil Country, wealth and richness buried underground, and for many long years aslumber. One day, that being August 28th, 1859, a fellow name of Colonel Drake came to Venango and he said:
—Let there be drilling!
And it was even so. And the wells were named: McClintock Number One, Fox, Queen of the Bluff, Fox (again), John Buchanan Reserve (at the mighty boomtown called Tarr Farm, the richest part of a rich tract), Swamp Angel, Dry Hole Well Number 154 (now, that speaks to perseverancy!), Equator, Hap-Hazard, The Western Union Telegraph (not a made-up name, mind), Cold Water Number Three—ownership, my boys. Ownership! The key to happiness.
So! One fine Saturday morning, namely September 2nd, 1865, at or about ten o’clock, workers struck a wondrous flowing well. They’d reached a depth of five hundred feet when a column of gas hurled the drilling equipment sky-high. A spark ignited the gas and the new well exploded with an earthquake, shaking every house around, and an immense sheet of flame shot heavenwards. All the works was soon burnt up.
O, the spectacle was grand and awful! Flames darted with lightning speed! The earth vomited flame, a sea of fire! A fiery flood overran neighboring wells! As the great poet said, “The lightnings, barbed, red with wrath, Sent from the quiver of Omnipotence, Cross and recross the fiery gloom.”
The citizens labored to erect mud embankments, and at last they arrested the fire’s progress. Still it raged, fearful magnifiloquent, until the fuel was exhausted, and the smoke gradually thinned, and the sun shone palely over a charred territory.
But as this was what’s called a flowing well, the fuel was soon refreshed, and the conflagration reignited, more furious than ever. And it’s been burning so ever since, night and day, sometimes higher, sometimes lower, fifteen years now, a gloomy inculcus of folly and greed.
Huh, George said. How about that.
We here his Life Storie & a sad one tho.
Breakfast was mush and beans again, and coffee.
The Prince spat his out in a dark sputter.
That’s the worst excuse for coffee I ever did taste! Why, it might as well be acorns shat out a squirrel’s ass and soaked in muck.
It is acorns, George said.
Roast acorns, Frank said.
We aint allowed to drink boughten coffee, George added.
Allowed! Aboard your own raft?
His eyes narrowed.
It is your raft...?
We said so, didn’t we, George said.
We built it, Frank said.
The Prince looked slowly left to right, up and down.
I don’t see who’s not allowing.
Mama said— George started.
Frank kicked George’s shin.
One bristly and princely eyebrow lifted an inch.
What George means, Frank explained, is that we was raised right Christian and our bodies’re temples not to be bestained.
Bestained, naturally not, the Prince said.
He swept both hands wide.
O gloryful elixir of the divine bean! That doth revive men’s souls from the slaw of despond and bring good cheer to the most dowry of faces. That warmeth the belly and delighteth the brain, and vigors the heart like the drummer-boy’s snare amidst the smoke of battle!
For sure? George asked.
Indeed, the Prince continued. But that heavenly draft, which is but the confusion of a humble vegetable, is wrought nobler yet by th’addendum of that spirity distillation, whisky by name in the Scots, or Caledonian, tongue, or more vulgarly, likker, which suckers the brain and lifts it loftily unto the pure imperial. And the likker alone will do in a pinch.
But— Frank protested.
Not a word! the Prince said. Not a word against it. And, lo!, I see that the faithful whisky-boat is come to deliver us from our terrible desperation.
The Prince, after much protesting at prices and waving of arms and general hugger-mugger, procured two jugs for one gold dollar.
Pop! went the first cork. The Prince lifted the jug to his nostrils, sniffed deeply, scowled.
Why this aint whisky, it’s maple syrup! Those villains cheated me!
He flung the jug overboard.
No! George howled, wait—!
But it sank out of sight, gurgling. The Prince opened the other jug, sniffed, a broad grin split his beard.
Ah, he said, a fine anti-fogmatic.
He slopped a slug into his acorn-coffee and slurped it up.
Thus is the true soul’s salvation. Boys...?
He held out the jug.
Frank and George looked at each other. Their eyes dueled dare, counter-dare, counter-counter-dare, plus warnings and refusals of same, not to mention Hell-fires.
If you please, Frank said, thank you.
He held out his cup.
Me too, George said, pushing Frank’s out of the way.
The Prince beamed at them.
Oh no no, my dear boys, no more than a dainty spoonful, a medicinal dose, nary a drop more.
Thankee, sir, George said.
Thank you, Frank said.
It made them grimace, and shudder and cough, that first taste, but they grimaced, shuddered, and coughed manfully, the Prince assured them, with admirable masculine vigorosity, like true tipplers.
Are you quite sure, he asked them, quite quite sure, that you wish for more?
When the coffee ran out, they mixed it with water instead.
The sun rolled up the sky. The water unwound under the raft like wheels along railroad steel. They weren’t running French Creek any more, it was the great Allegheny.
George blurted: But who are you, Mister the Prince?
The Prince chuckled.
Coal-Oil Johnny, he said, Prince of Oil-Men. As I said.
But who’s that? George said.
Never heard of him, Frank said.
Never heard of him!
The boys shook their heads.
Well! the Prince said. That indeed is
Full Of Sound And Furor,
Worthy Of The Telling
I! John Washington Steele—better known to the public as “Coal-Oil Johnny”—was born an orphan in this big and busy world in the year of our Lord 1843, near Sheakleville. I was adopted into the family of Culbertson McClintock, a well-to-do farmer, comparisonly speaking. The only parents I ever knew were Uncle Culbertson and Aunt Sally, his good wife.
I was but twelve years of age when my uncle went the way of all earth. He left the farm to Aunt Sally, and after her death it was to go to me. I might have lived a quiet, homely life as a tiller of the soil, had not a Yankee by the name of Drake drilled a hole in the ground up near Titusville, and released a fountain of oily wealth that transfigurated our peaceful valley.
And I might have gone down unheard of had not Aunt Sally one day in the month of March, 1864, lacking kindling for the kitchen stove, poured in crude oil. The resultant blaze set fire to her clothing, and she died the next day.
I found under her bed, now belonging to me, twenty-four thousand five hundred cash dollars—and new oil royalties pouring in every day! Soon I was the country boy who’d come into an enormous fortune. Many hundreds of earnest people offered their services as separators from such quantities of money, and I received proposals of marriage enough to cause the most pronounced Mormon to drop dead from joy.
Well, of my career much has already been said in both prose and song, most of it outrageful lies. I never did, for example, buy a hotel so that I could fire the clerk who had been rude to me; I never discarded a coat due to the discomfort of the bundles of cash stuffed into its pockets; I never tossed out diamonds as tips.
True, I did buy a minstrel show, because who wouldn’t want to march at the head of his own minstrel show? And I did procure me a fine coat of arms: on a field gules, a derrick or, spewing fountain sable—noble indeed it was, and drew much satisfactory attention.
We dont goe to Pitsburg after all.
The Prince’s high-pitched voice droned on and on, like a bee worrying at George’s ear, lulling his already dazzle-addled brain. It was such a dull story, and a long one—full of names and places George’d never heard of and didn’t care to hear of. Oh why oh why won’t he just go away? Every time George’s eyelids fluttered open, the sun was a little lower. He waggled his empty cup.
The Prince kindly topped it up.
Lo, the Prince said as he pissed grandly into the river astern, in this same desolation we now pass through, the greatest glories of the age once flourished, now bodaciously used up and tetotaciously exflunctified.
Settled again, he went on:
And why? You’ve heard, surely, of that rascally ruffianly scalawag, name of Charles Vernon Culver? No? Well, he it was who single-handedly destructed the great and teeming city of Pithole, Pennsylvania, and much else. And how? Like this: He won ten thousand dollars of profit in a rich well, but did he buy more? No! He bought banks. Let others run the risks, he’d scoop up the cash. And the new oil millionaires gave it to him! I did myself. Who wouldn’t put his trust in marble walls and gilted teller-cages and glittering shandyliers? He’d bought all that perryfernalia on credit and never paid a penny for it—he just kept moving his capital around like the Queen in the three-card monte.
Huh, George said.
Dark was coming on. They should be looking for someplace to tie up soon. A gurgle at his ear as the Prince refilled his cup.
Before long the panic was in full swing, his banks collapsed, and he indulged the urge to absquatulate, and along come John D. Rockefeller, that bloodless Baptist bookkeeper, and bought up all the wells for pennies on the dollar, letting the oil-men keep on working them but making them sell their oil to his refineries at the price he set himself—and so he pocketed all the profit. A man with a ledger for a heart!
Then it was dark for real, moon hanging up there like a bitten apple. Scuffling. That’s what woke him up—scuffling, and cussing, and grunting and stamping. Two shadowy figures grappled, black against the moonlight, like a puppet show.
It was Frank. He was fighting with the Prince!
The two jumped apart, circling.
You aint nothing but a river pirate! Frank cried.
The Prince kicked at him. Frank dodged.
If, the Prince panted, you will but kindly—fall overboard—to drown or live—and so spare my soul—the burden of murder—no?—very well then—
A flash of steel in his hand. Frank fell backwards.
Leave him alone! George bellowed and launched himself at the Prince.
But his legs went all soft and wobbly and he fell on his face.
The Prince stood over him and turned him round with a boot-tip.
Silly little whelp, he said.
Behind them, Frank was making frantic thrashing noises.
The Prince bent over George, whose gaze was caught by the sharp glint at the very tip of the knife, like a twinkling star. He tried to roll away as it came nearer, but all of a sudden he was puking his guts out.
The Prince stepped back, like he didn’t want to foul his boots.
Frank loomed up behind George and flash (like a struck match) bang (like all the doors in the world slamming shut) a scream (the Prince, arms flung out wide) a splash (he fell backwards into the river) thump (the Prince’s body struck the raft underneath) and then silence, silence, and more silence.
George struggled up, wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
What— he started.
He was trying to steal our raft, Frank said.
I shot him.
He showed it to George: Papa’s service revolver, still half wrapped up in an oily rag.
That gunnysack! George said. You stole it!
Aint you glad I did?
When you dropped off, I begun to suspicion him, so I started spitting out the liquor. He was drinking for real, though he never showed it much. Reckon he’s used to it.
I pretended to wink out like you but I watched him and when he come for me—well, he sure got a surprise!
They’ll come after us! We got to get away!
I had to. Nobody’ll suspect us if you just keep your mouth shut.
George lay back down. He had to get Frank away somewhere, both of them, keep safe somehow, but he was too tired to think about it. He wasn’t even too sure what all he’d seen. The raft spun them on down the river, enclosed in night dark as sleep, and it seemed like the raft was trailing backwards a long, long string, a ribbon unwinding, all the way up the river and up French Creek and clear back to the place on the bank near Little Hope where they’d pushed the raft in. Not a tether; a trail left behind—like fairytale breadcrumbs.
And as it got longer, it stretched thinner, it got thin as a thread, as the raft ran on and on, a mile, a rod, a yard, an inch—a hair’s breadth—if they moved just one atom farther away, it would break. But the river never stops, does it?
George woke up just once. The river rushed, like wind in a forest; distant cries and shouts, like birdsong. A blear of lights through crusty eyes, towers and piers, houses and more houses, and chains of light that slid along, locomotives and carriages, and warehouses, factories—all of it doubled by the river’s reflection, so that it was like an old-fashioned pierced-tin lantern, the candlelight gushing out all its little holes, and he drifted inside some starry glittering crystal, but distant as heaven, and pulling now backwards, away, away—smaller and smaller, already out of reach, shrinking like a train gone by.
We snagg on a Big reck.
The rising sun was a gray smear, the river walled with fog.
Where are we? George asked.
We passed by Pittsburgh in the dark.
I fell asleep, Frank said. What with the drink and the fight and the—well, you know—just so tucked out I couldn’t keep my eyes open no more.
Frank looked at him steady.
Well? George said.
Well’s a deep subject, don’t fall in.
You killed a man!
We got to tell—
No! Frank shouted: no we don’t. We aint going to tell no one. Never. You hear?
But Jesus said—
Jesus shmeesus, you talk like a little girl! Eat your breakfast.
But where we going to sell our raft now? George asked.
Be glad we still got it, Frank said.
Sure, but what we planned was....
Frank wasn’t listening.
It was cold, like spring here hadn’t come yet, and the fog was full of noises, shouts and gurgles and muffled echoes, and you couldn’t tell where they were coming from. A lonesome booming, like far-away cannons. Voices calling? Shouts, maybe? Huffs and chuffs and, now and again, a bell, clear as if standing next to a church.
George was rinsing the bowls in the river when something big and broken loomed up out of the fog.
Frank! George shouted.
I see it!
He leaned hard on the sweep, but it was too late.
They got knocked over when the raft struck the—whatever it was—and turned round, bumped bumped bumped: and stopped thud. The water chuckled against the sides. The wreck they’d snagged on creaked and groaned.
Huh, Frank said. Raft looks ship-shape.
What is it? A fairy-tale house? Look at all them carvings.
The wreck’s side was worked all over in curlicues and animal heads, all painted in bright colors, like a heathen temple in Ballantyne’s Great Bonanza, Illustrated. It loomed overhead, all misty-foggy, and so mysterious-like, lying mournful and lonesome in the middle of the river. To get aboard of her, slink around a little, see what there was to see! Like Christofer Clumbus discovering Kingdom-Come, or Marco-Polo at the courts of Cathay.
Looks foreign, Frank said. Figure it’s hit a shoal in the fog?
Funny-looking boat. I smell smoke. Think she’ll splode?
The two boys looked at each other.
They made the raft fast. Frank clambered up the side, bail of the lantern between his teeth, to a pair of shutters and pulled them open, thrust in the lantern, then heaved himself up and went head first, kicking his legs. He disappeared inside.
Frank! George called up.
His head appeared at the window.
You got to see this! he said and disappeared again.
George climbed up, tumbled in. Then he saw:
The room was all over gold!
Sparkling and glowing, like the insides of a treasure chest. The deck was black, shiny as a mirror, and all the furniture was painted blood-red. Frank scraped his thumb against a timber, leaving a dark line and a glint under the nail.
It’s real thin, he said, like paint or something.
The walls moaned like a mortal-wounded man. Something else sighed. Then the creaking quieted as the ship settled but tilted more than before.
George opened the door a crack and peeped out and almost ran away right then. But Frank shined the lantern out and in just a second they saw it was only a painted statue. More lined the whole length of the passage, which must’ve stretched end to end of the boat; warriors, George guessed, all fearsome and many-armed, like octopuses but with swords; faces blank, eyes wide and red, and not armored but nekkid. Some had animal heads. All had teeth fierce as tusks.
Oh no, George said. That just aint right.
They crept along past them—like one of those paintings that watches you, its eyes following, but multiplied by a hundred. The ship kept up its wheezing and knocking. Frank held up the lantern.
Look, he said.
The biggest statue of all, stationed at corridor’s end, all eight arms just birch-pale splintered stumps. Not much was left of the doors behind it, either. Shadows rocked up and down the walls with the lantern’s swing.
What’s that? George asked, pointing at the deck. Looks like blood.
Statues don’t bleed, Frank said.
Course not. Don’t touch it!
Because Frank was bending down.
He held up his finger, smeared dark.
Clotted, he said, but still wet. There’s another one.
A trail! George said. I bet somebody needs our help. Where’s it lead?
The trail took them up steps, through cabins, all dim and uncanny by lantern light; more steps, more corridors; up through like a trapdoor, and out along the top deck towards the bow. The deck was sticky.
Then they heard it. Grunting, kind of, or sobbing. There!—hung from a high-up pole, and swaying in the fog like the big brass plumb-bob in the grandfather clock at the foot of the stairs back home.
It was a boy, black-haired and bruise-eyed, tied up hand and foot and wrapped all round with ropes like some ‘Gyptian mummy or the prey of a giant spider. He let loose with a flood of foreign talk, all sing-song.
Talk sense, George said.
Maybe he can’t, Frank said. Looks Chinee.
The boy talked again, like reading from a book.
That don’t sound like Chinee to me, George said.
Sounds like French, Frank said. But funny French, like.
Not Canucks French, George said.
The ship’s groaning rose to a shout, and something broke with a loud crash. The whole wreck shuddered.
We got to get out of here, George said.
The boy barked a command.
Now that’s German, Frank said, like Grandpaps used to talk. You wouldn’t remember none of that.
What’s he saying?
Probly Untie me!
He can’t hurt us, can’t be more’n nine.
They cut him down with Frank’s case-knife then traded it back and forth until the ropes went slack. They unwound him. Out of the ropes, he was naked and all over bluish, a hundred shallow cuts criss-crossing his chest, belly, back, all scabby and oozy. He’d been hanging up so long he couldn’t hardly walk. They helped him along, the two of them, carrying him when they had to, like down the boat’s side.
The Chinese boy fell asleep on the raft right where they laid him down. They threw an old blanket over him.
Wait, George said, wait, we got to go back for all that gold.
You crazy? Frank said.
He untied and pushed off with a spare lash-pole.
But the gold! George said. It’s like pirate treasure in there.
What, Chinee pirates?
Maybe! And we could bury the gold and join up and go buccaneering—
The ship groaned, the gap widened.
One of them statues’d fetch plenty, George said, specially now we got nowhere to sell the raft.
We can’t get it out and we’d lose the raft too.
Frank kept heaving, the current caught them, and they were pulling away fast. The fog closed up again, like eyelids shutting; the wreck, a fading sideways ghost, like a will-o-the-wisp, whirled out of sight, all round and round in one surge, like thunder. Then only the river rolled on as it had for thousands and thousands of years.
We see a stranje Thing & loos are raft.
The fog cleared bit by bit, like someone coming out of a heavy doze. The air was colder, the sunlight paler. The river flowed fast and easy—broad bends, few rocks or islands; so peaceful that Frank let George take over. Fields reached down to the river banks, freshly plowed, a sharp dirt smell, some already manured and ready to plant. By and by a church steeple would drift by, tucked up in the hills among bare trees, or a road follow the river’s course a mile or two before curving away. The few wagons they saw, bright-painted and drawn by bulky horses with manes plaited in blond braids, were too far away to hail, small as toys. George waved—the drivers lifted their hats, funny conical things with ribbons.
The river was dark with mud. Clear eddies swirled where streams poured in, but it was soon all one brown again.
Where’s it all come from? George wondered.
Where you think it comes from? Frank scoffed. It’s fields and roads and house lots. It’s America, running westwards to somewhere else, anywhere else, someplace maybe better, like Great-Grandpaps did, and like Papa did, and just like we’re doing.
Where’s it going?
But Frank just looked at him like he was a dunce.
He weren’t really no Prince, George said.
No, Frank said, just another scoundrel.
I’d like to see some real royalty. Now that’d be something, wouldn’t it?
Royalty, shmoyalty. You sure talk a deal of stuff.
Oh, silks and furs and crowns and jewels and whatnot?—mighty fine, mighty fine.
Think they’d buy some timber?
Don’t you know that kings already got plenty of that? Queens too. Whole forests of it.
Must be somewhere to sell though.
It’s just a raft, George said. You sure he’s really dead?
Course he is.
I mean maybe it weren’t a kill shot and he floated—
Frank gave him a look that would freeze sunshine.
The river moved on, hour after hour, mile after mile. The rescued boy slept like a log. It was like one of those long summer Sunday afternoons, dinner over and nothing to do (Hush! It’s the Sabbath!), nothing to look forward to but evening prayers, hours away yet, and at last to bed. Birdcalls, insect drone; brown and green. George drifted off, standing at the sweep.
Frank must’ve packed him away into the hut for a nap, because the next George knew, he was peeping out the canvas door at a river full of noise and color. He sat up and smacked his head on the roof-pole (again). He crawled out and watched the show.
Now that’s sure some pumpkins, Frank said.
Downstream, a fleet of paddle-wheelers, high-prowed like that wreck but plainer, crowded the river bank to bank, red black green flags aloft, snapping in the breeze; and what was that noise? Trumpets and drums? A white puff from the lead ship, then a crack!: a cannon.
Swarming towards the raft from all over was a dozen or so of the oddest looking boats he’d ever seen—sails like giant fish fins and oars swinging away on both sides in time with a drumbeat—and midships of each one, a man in black pajamas pointed a rifle at them, squinting along its length.
Beyond the oncoming boats was a larger one with a high platform at the stern. A man there in a long purple robe and black turban, red and yellow ribbons fluttering, swung his arm down like chopping the air, barked an order.
A dozen rifles flashed.
A dozen plumes of water sprouted around the raft.
Oh God help us!
George and Frank dropped flat down on the logs.
Get the Chinee boy! Frank hissed.
The second volley, closer, thunk-thunk-thunked into the raft, spat splinters into George’s face.
George’s jaw would’ve dropped open (if he hadn’t been so busy saving his own life), the way the Chinese boy stood up of a sudden, wrapped in that moth-eaten horse blanket like it was royal robes of velvet and ermine, and looked around, rubbing his eyes.
Get down get down! George cried.
Frank tugged on the blanket’s corner. The boy jerked it from his hand.
The riflemen looked ready for a third volley.
The Chinese boy raised his hands and clapped for attention. He called out.
The purple-robe man shouted back, raised his arms. The approaching boats gave way like insects scattering when you lift a log. But the bigger one kept coming, and just when it seemed about to ram them, the drum doubled its tempo; half the men rowed furiously, half backed water. The boat drifted to a halt, turning. A cry and all the oars lifted into the air and dripped.
Purple man leaned over the rail to get a better look. The boy chattered at him, purple replied only with grunts. Then purple smiled, spread his arms wide.
The sailors lowered their guns.
Purple ordered a sailor to throw a rope across. George caught it. The Chinese boy made tying gestures, so George wrapped the rope around the forward head-block and hitched it. And besides, those sailors still had guns.
The drum started up again, and the boatmen bent over their oars again, and the blades slapped the water, and the rope tightened, and the raft was beating along behind the boat towards the approaching fleet. In the middle was the biggest side-wheeler George had ever seen, whitewater racing away astern, the bows cutting the coffee-colored water like a plow through springtime mud. They were headed right for it.
That’s funny, Frank said.
What? George asked.
That boat. You see?
I see a mighty big paddle-wheeler churning along.
You don’t see anything funny about it?
George looked long and hard.
It’s working against the current, Frank said. But look up. See? No smokestacks.
Huh, George said.
Sailors swarmed down the gangway from the big boat and all over the raft. They tugged Frank and George up the plank behind the Chinese boy, where the boys lost sight of him in the crush.
Never knowed there was so many Chinamen, George remarked.
Frank looked over the railing—
Hey! he shouted. Stop that!
The sailors on the raft had started in with hatchets and saws. But Frank couldn’t break free.
Let me go!
He smacked at the hands shoving him along.
That’s our raft, leave it be!
He struggled back towards the gangway but the sailors were like a wall of elbows, knees, forearms, and Frank’s feet skidded on the deck as he and George were all but carried up steps and down narrow passages, through door after door. At last they came to a dim, dusty, bare little room. They stumbled in.
A white-haired white man, dressed all in black with a big shiny cross hanging from a necklace, leaned in the door.
Stay here, he said.
The door slid shut.
Frank rattled it. It was locked.
We mete a man namd Mary.
People came and went, bringing tea; then rice, fish, vegetables; and, when the boys asked (by gestures), a chamberpot.
Funny tea, George remarked. It’s green.
It’s hot. We got to keep our strength up so we can escape.
How can we without no raft?
We got to bide our time, Frank said, nodding wisely like he had some plan all worked out.
The food was meager and came without forks or spoons, and the fish tasted off—sour, like vinegar—and the vegetables were brown, salty, and mysterious. But by then they were so hungry they ate it all, with their fingers.
Just wait till I tell Mama all about it! George said.
I reckon we have plenty of waiting to do, Frank said.
I don’t like it in here. I want to see this boat.
After a while, a little window in the door popped open. An eyeball looked back and forth. Another eyeball did the same. The little window snapped shut.
After an even longer while, lots of people crowded in with curtains that they hung across the walls, and pillows that they strewed over the floor, and funny lanterns made out of paper that they hung up on hooks.
Then an old lady limped slowly across the cabin and sat down on one of the cushions. She had gray hair cropped short and was wearing a green robe and lots of gold bracelets. She fished in the robe’s pockets and pulled out a little pipe, shiny as porcelain, painted with blue turtles. She tamped in tobacco and lit up. She just kept staring at the two boys and puffing away, all thoughtful, until she was wrapped in a smoky cocoon.
The white man dressed like some priest came back. He sat on a cushion and bowed from the waist—nearly smacked his forehead on the floor—and waited.
George was about to bust. When’d they get to go? Were they prisoners? If only he could just drift down the river, gnawing a biscuit maybe, gazing at that far horizon that kept approaching, never arrived....
Finally a youngish man came in. He sat down right next to the old lady but didn’t bow. She knocked out her pipe against the heel of her tiny slipper. Looking directly at the two boys, she jabbered for a moment.
The man next to her talked some French, then the priest turned to the boys, and said:
You must think this a peculiar way to reward you for the rescue of my grandson.
Frank and George traded looks. George shrugged.
Frank said, Oh it was nothing, we don’t need no thanking and all. Can we go now?
The priest blinked at him, then talked some French to the other man, who looked surprised, then jabbered at the old lady.
A long pause.
Another exchange, and the priest said, The young Englishmen are too modest.
We aint Englishmen, we’re Americans! George said.
The reply made its way back to the old lady, ah-muhr-rah-kins plain to hear both times.
She narrowed her eyes a bit, her mouth tightened.
We shall not play word games, her reply came back. You speak English, thus you are Englishmen.
The priest added: The Queen does not care to be contradicted.
Queen! George exclaimed.
Oh, Frank said. We can go with Englishmen, she don’t look too happy. Don’t translate that!
May I offer a word of advice? the priest asked.
Sure! George said.
Be grateful that your heads are still attached to your necks.
Oh, George said. I am!
Tell the Queen, Frank said, that we are real thankful for the chance to do her some good services and thank her for all that tea and stuff she gave us. And ask can we go now?
Or words to that effect, the priest murmured then switched to French.
The old lady laughed and clapped her hands.
She spoke slowly as the men translated: The officials of the Permanent Emperor of the Second, or Trans-Pacific, Ming are as clever as they are cruel and capricious. I am an old woman, and suspicion and intrigue are like air and water to me. But you, I think, are just as you seem to be: two boys who have stumbled into what must be to you a most mysterious and hazardous maze.
My name’s George Washington Tarr.
Benjamin Franklin Tarr, but everyone calls me Frank.
You are welcome aboard my ship.
Thank you, ma’am, Frank said.
You must stay here for a short time longer, while more appropriate quarters are prepared for you.
Thank you, ma’am, George said.
She stood up and limped out. The younger man followed, but the priest stayed behind.
Never talked to a Queen before, George said. She seems nice.
Queens don’t have much time for the likes of you, Frank told him.
Do too, George said.
Besides, she don’t speak English.
Since introductions are being made, the priest said, allow me to do so as well: I am Père Marie-François of the Society of Jesus, but formerly Comte de Chaissapique-et-Patômaque.
Why’s a man got a name like Mary? George asked.
What’s a society of Jesus? Frank asked. You mean like his friends?
It is the name of my order, Marie-François answered, also called Jesuits, and I am honored with the name of the Mother of God.
Where’d you learn to talk such good English?
As a missionary, I spent much time among the apostates at their colony of Magna Caledonia.
Maggie what? George asked.
Where’s that? Frank asked.
North. Very far to the north. I shudder even now to recall the deprivations I endured, not least the food.
The food’s kind of strange here too, George said.
Indeed. But much better.
What happened to our raft?
It was required for repairs to the fleet’s ships.
That raft was worth upwards of eighty dollars! Frank said.
Not really, only—
(Frank kicked him.)
What are dollars? Marie-François asked.
You got different money in, um, France? Frank asked.
Indeed, Marie-François said with a frown.
What’s she queen of, the Queen? George asked.
Of the pirate fleets, naturally, Marie-François replied.
We lern how to find botes far a way.
Allow me to apologize, the old priest said when he came back, on behalf of the Queen, for your sojourn—however brief—in a disused storeroom. The fleet does not normally take prisoners, so there was some question, you understand, of what to do with you. Follow me.
He led them back the way they’d come, then farther up, onto the hurricane deck, and into the texas. When he opened a door, they were expecting a stateroom, but it was only a tiny cabin, hardly bigger than its bunks.
I bet the Queen’s got a real stateroom, Frank said.
It is a small ship, Père Marie-François said. There is not much room for splendor.
It’s the biggest paddle-wheeler I’ve ever seen, George said.
Perhaps so. Nevertheless....
Where’s our things?
You will find that there are lockers under the mattresses.
We got to stay in here? Frank asked.
Not at all!
Marie-François spread his arms wide.
You are free to roam the upper decks as you please.
He lowered his head so that he was looking at them through his bushy white eyebrows.
But the lower decks, he continued, are strictly forbidden, as are the pilot-house, the armory, and the like.
Perhaps our young guests might care to visit the saloon—as I believe it is called in English?
Sounds like fun, George said.
I druther get my raft back, Frank said.
Doubtlessly, Marie-François said, but I cannot do that for you. Come.
The double doors at the forward end of the passage opened onto a glass-walled, deep-carpeted, chair- and table-cluttered room. Far below on the river, sampans rowed from great side-wheeler to side-wheeler like bees around their hives. A crimson and gilt sunset was unfurling like the painting of the Apockylips at the back of the Tarr family Bible.
Père Marie-François sat them at a table, then crossed to a pass-through in the aft wall, where he conferred with a Chinese man. He came back presently bearing two steaming bowls.
Here is a fine dish, he said, that I have taught the cook myself. Café au lait—or milk and coffee, as you might say.
Coffee! George exclaimed.
Boys your age often enjoy it with sugar.
He opened his palm to show two crumbly cubes.
I have a private source, he said.
Why’s it that color? George asked.
Never seen yellow sugar before, Frank said.
It is the true sucre d’érable, Marie-François said, from the, how does one say, the maple-tree?
Yes please! George said.
Marie-François dropped one into the bowl.
Monsieur Frank? he inquired.
But Frank shook his head and Marie-François pocketed the other sugar-cube. He fetched a third bowl for himself.
Have you any questions? he asked.
George and Frank looked at him.
Certain aspects, he said, of your education appear to have been—ah—cruelly neglected. I am here now to correct that fault.
He raised his eyebrows, looked from one boy to the other.
Do you and the pirates just float around and see what’s to be seen, George asked, or do you have battles and treasures and secret maps and all that, like real pirates do? And I read in the illustrated weekly that China’s got an Emperor, what lives in a great big palace like a city full of you-nots, not some old Queen.
Marie-François pressed his lips together, tapped them with his fingers.
I fear, he said, that all those questions are far more delicate ones than you might appreciate.
Well then, what’s he doing? Frank asked.
He pointed outside. Far out on the prow, someone hunched under a black tarp surrounded by mirrors, lenses, and other gear of brass and crystal. He kept reaching out to make slight adjustments.
Oh! said Marie-François. A most perspicacious inquiry! That is our nauscopiste.
Your what? George said.
Aint no such thing, Frank said.
Come and see, Marie-François said.
As he led them back through the passage and around the verandah, he told them:
Our science of nauscopie began nearly a century ago. After many years of study and experiment, the great Étienne Bottineau, then an unknown Mauritian engineer, wrote a letter to the Emperor—that would be Napoléon I, styled le Bien-Aimé—to offer him his extraordinary invention: a means of detecting ships before they appear over the horizon. But I shall let our resident expert explain the mysteries of his calling.
He stopped, and spoke loudly in French.
The nauscopiste unbent from over his instruments but did not remove his tarp or hood. He whispered something.
The daylight would dazzle his eyes and disturb his ability to read the subtle signs that he studies, Marie-François said. Therefore he remains shrouded.
What’s he doing now? George asked.
He is studying the processions of the airs as they pass above. His art is not derived from undulations, clouds, nor any other perception except observation of the horizon. On the approximation of a ship towards ours, there appears in the atmosphere what might be termed a small incandescent body, visible to anyone. But it is the judgment of its manifestations and modifications that constitute the certainty and precision of his art.
Sure, but how does he do it? Frank asked.
Whisper, whisper. Marie-François translated:
He is not obliged to give an account of the principles. It is sufficient for him to operate upon the facts.
What does he see now? George asked.
This time there was some back-and-forth between the two.
His informations are for the Queen alone. But I may say that it might be wise, my dear boy, to say your prayers tonight as if you mean them.
Marie-François turned back towards the saloon.
Well, he added, we must not further interrupt such vital labors.
Frank followed along behind Marie-François, who started in about mechanical propulsion.
The nauscopiste tugged at George’s sleeve. His fingernails were long as claws. He leaned his hooded head close to George’s.
Nous avons, nous deux, he whispered, la même vraie faculté: pour faire ce qu’on peut croire. Ça, c’est le secret et mystère de notre vocation.
He tapped his head.
L’avenir, c’est ici.
What—? George said.
The nauscopiste chuckled and tugged at his hood.
He lifted the hood’s hem and fixed George with one blue and staring eye.
George about jumped out of his skin—it was the Prince!
We are sumened by the Pirat Quein.
George caught up with Marie-François and his brother outside a big door one deck down.
Mister Pear, that man, George started to say—
But then instead he asked: Where are we?
Because Marie-François had flung the door open.
And oh! What a sight! A big space lit brilliant as limelight, filled with men and machinery. Hundreds of men, hunched together on tiered platforms, pressed their bare feet against worn-smooth rungs, pushed and rose, pushed and rose, like climbing a ladder forever, as the giant wheels they toiled over slowly turned beneath them.
And what a racket! Not just the treadmills but bellows and rocking-beams, flywheels, rods and gears and spindles: all thundering along, with cries from the foremen, shouts of the engineers, and the song of the men walking the wheels, a kind of sea-chantey.
Marie-François let the boys ogle all they wanted, then herded them along the catwalk to another exit. He pulled the doors closed.
George’s ears were ringing.
Frank was all questions: how did this attach to that, who improved whose invention, maximum this, danger of that.
That is the purpose of the nets, Marie-François answered his last question, lest those who fall be crushed among the works.
Finally, George remembered to ask his question again.
Where? Marie-François replied. Why, we travel southwards along the Grande-Rivière.
The grand what?
Grande-Rivière, or Rîve Sainte-Marie-la-Bonne: the border of Cartésia-Est and Cartésia-Ouest. The Chinese call the entire continent Yíngzhōu, although they do—usually—concede that all the lands east of the Grande-Rivière are the possessions of the Emperor of the French.
He eyed George.
As, surely, he added, everyone knows.
The naw—the naw-scop—
Nauscopiste, Marie-François supplied.
He’s a bad man! George said. He tried to kill us!
It’s the Prince, he whispered to Frank.
He could be! George insisted: maybe he clunged on underneath and breathed through a reed or something.
Such nonsense! Marie-François said. I have known Charles-Valentin since childhood. As one of the nobility’s younger sons, his reduced rank is not unlike my own—and I was delighted when we were reunited for this posting.
Posting? Frank asked.
As envoy-without-portfolio to the pirate fleet. Napoléon IV naturally wishes to remain on good terms with the Permanent (or steam-powered) Emperor—but also with his rivals. As a matter of diplomacy, you understand. Hence, too, as a gesture of goodwill, his loan of a nauscopiste to our gracious Queen’s flagship.
What happened to your rank? George asked.
Oh! Marie-François said and blushed.
He waved away his embarrassment like a bad smell.
I was, ah—never quite Comte de Chaissapique-et-Patômaque. I was indeed heir to the title, but the late lord, my father, ah—found himself encumbered—in the Alsace Affair of XLVIII. He was dispossessed of his lands, title, and life, and so, disappointed of my expectations, I clung to the bosom of the Church.
But dear Charles-Valentin, now that the sun has set, has retired from his perch and made his report to the Queen. I shall send to him to join us.
Can he help us about the raft? Frank asked.
Marie-François pulled from its wall-hook a brass canister trailing a rubber string. He pressed it to his ear, then shouted into it. He nodded and replaced it.
(He aint the Prince, Frank whispered in George’s ear. He can’t be!)
Let us return to the saloon, Marie-François said and opened a door that led back onto the deck.
I never heard of no all-sauce affair before. What’s that? George asked.
Ha! A mere trifle, after all. Only the French can be so deeply serious about what is at heart frivolous, or so frivolous about the most serious matters of all. But thank God I am not German!
The saloon was crowded now, but the table where they’d been before was still empty. They were just sitting down when the door opened again.
Charles-Valentin, mon cher ami! Père Marie-François exclaimed. Viens prendre un verre avec nous.
A very fat man shuffled across to them. He was dressed like a tent, all in white, except for a red-white-and-blue ribbon, dangling with medals, over his left breast; bald, but with a short gray fringe; sharp blue eyes peered out of a ruddy, shaven face, like steel about to strike flint.
See? Frank hissed in George’s ear. That aint the Prince.
I can see that! George whispered back.
Why’d you go and say you saw him then?
If there’d been a spittoon about (and why don’t a genteel saloon like this one got any?), George could’ve put it to good use. Just what had gone on out there, what’d he see, why’d he think—?
Aint him, he said, that’s all.
You have met my two young charges, Marie-François said. Tu connais mes petits protégés.
The nauscopiste nodded, settled his bulk in a chair, which creaked.
Charles-Valentin and I, Marie-François told the boys, in those youthful, balmy days, would often sit together—how do you say? once upon a time?—just like this, at a charming cafe in Nouveau-Bar-le-Duc, toasting the blue sky and the young ladies and our brilliant futures. But the wines of France are not to be had here in the borderlands.
He sighed and spoke to the fat man in French.
Tu les souhaites? Charles-Valentin replied. Oh moi aussi, j’m’souviens des vins blancs des Pays-Bas, doux et frais....
His voice was a bass grumble, like a mountain talking. He smiled crookedly.
A ruckus at the saloon door. The Chinese man who’d made them coffee was hauling in a lidless crate, split at the sides and spilling straw, all the way across the saloon and thump up against the boys’ table.
Charles-Valentin clapped his hands, delighted as a child with candy. He brushed away straw, plunged an arm in, and pulled out a tall, narrow-necked, green bottle. He wiped the label clear and read it out loud.
(Then he winked at George!)
Clos Sainte-Hune XIV, Marie-François translated, a fine year, a fine vintage.
Charles-Valentin bawled out a mix of French and Chinese. A waiter scurried over with wine-glasses and Charles-Valentin set to screwing out the cork. He filled a glass to brimming, drank it off, refilled it, poured the other glasses, pushed them towards Marie-François and the boys. He sat back, arms crossed, nodding and smacking his lips.
Buvez, buvez! he said. À l’avenir!
George and Frank just stared at their glasses. Marie-François raised his to his nose and breathed deep. Then he froze, the glass an inch from his lips. The whole room got quiet.
The Chinese boy they’d rescued was here! George waved cheerfully. The boy walked over to them and spoke French.
You are required in the Queen’s presence, Marie-François told them. I cannot accompany you. Be brave and good, my boys.
This boat, the Queen’s flagship, was so big it had an extra deck above the hurricane. The boy led them up narrow stairs, along a verandah, opened a door, and left them there.
Candles inside glass jars hung from black strings, laced from beam to beam above—and books everywhere: face down like teepees, used as bookmarks in other books, piled up tall and teetering; cubbies crammed with scraps, ripped-out pages; maps, scrolls, notebooks. Half a globe of the world, perched atop a big leather book, rocked like a cradle.
In the far corner, the Queen was sweeping the floor with a twig broom. She waved them in, then kept on sweeping, to the right, the left, across the cabin until she got to the door. She tapped the dust together into a little pile outside and closed it.
We opin the Draggins egg.
She stood there for a minute, leaning on her broom.
Sweep floor, she said, every night, like when little girl, in floating world.
You speak English! George blurted.
She whisked the broom at a missed spot.
Learn too when girl, but poor. English sailor visit boat, talk all night.
Many years ago.
She hung the broom on a hook and limped across the room.
Place for every thing, every thing in place! That is heaven. Here is heaven, I am not out of it. Heaven is place, perfect order, clar-i-ty. And order, clar-i-ty, what we plant, here, on earth, so in heaven, even now. As are you. But you must re-turn, you two boys, go where be-long. Not here.
She pulled two chairs out from the piled-high table.
She pushed aside book-stacks, piled other books in new stacks, and pulled out two shiny red boxes with bright hinges.
My step son, she said, wish thank you, give gift.
The boys swung back the lids. Inside were thick folds, silk probably, and underneath a fist-sized ball, gray and knobby. George picked up his, gritty as sand. He looked at the Queen.
Is dragon egg.
A dragon egg! George exclaimed, eyes wide.
Of-course not real egg, only ugly rock. But!
She pushed the half-globe aside and pointed. George set the egg down. She opened a drawer, pulled out a ball-peen hammer with a spike on the other end. She eyed the rock, turned it a little, and struck it with the spike. Then she tapped, once, with the ball end.
The rock split and fell open.
Ah...: both boys stared, mouths agape.
Light glittered off points and edges, thousands of gems crusted to the rock’s insides, like a bag crammed full of hundreds of diamonds, bright flashing like the river on a sunny day.
The Queen smiled and bent over the broken egg, humming to herself.
She said, People same you know. Ugly out side may be, but in side— Or some time beauty out side, like beauty-full painted egg, in side rot and stink.
She handed the halves to George.
Oh, George said, Mama’d like this so much she’d put it up on the mantle in the good parlor, so folks could see.
You like gift? Good.
She bent to reach under the table, hefted up a black silk bag, dropped it, clunk, on the leather book.
Find this. You ex-plain.
She opened the bag. Inside was the gunnysack, inside that a wad of oily rags, inside that—
Is gun. I know. But where from, who make?
That’s Papa’s gun, George said.
This is the property of Mister Martin Tarr, Frank said. Return it to me.
You name Frank Tarr. I keep.
It come to me when Papa died! Frank insisted.
Oh, father dead? Very sad, lose father.
It’s from the War, George said, when Papa was in the War.
Remington Model 1858, Frank said. See?
He ran his finger along the cylinder: PATENTED SEPT. 14, 1858/E. REMINGTON & SONS, ILION, NEW YORK, U.S.A./NEW MODEL.
I told you, the Remington Company, Frank said. In New York, way off east.
You have more? she asked.
What? Frank said. No, just the one.
And he done stole that one, George said.
(Frank kicked him.)
Buy more? she asked. I pay.
Guns don’t grow on trees, George said.
That’d cost a whole heap of dollars, Frank said. Hundreds. More, maybe. And I’d need a new raft too, to go and fetch them, and I reckon the trip’d take, what, two, three weeks?
She sighed, sat silent for a minute. Then she rewrapped the gun and pushed it across the table to Frank.
May be you need, she said. After all.
Well, you’re the Queen, Frank said.
Queen? Who say? No, first of equal, every one vote.
She stood, started pacing the length of the cabin, limping.
Raised voices outside.
All the candles
We lissen and trie to unnerstand.
snuffed out, justlikethat, all at once. Outside, brightness fell, long streaks that struck the river, crept along the water like fiery caterpillars, hissing and smoking.
The Queen limped to the windows.
Kites, she said, peering out. Kites!
Persian fire. Very im-pressive, yes? But not much danger.
A faraway boat’s sails went up in flames but were soon put out.
Pity poor men, the Queen said, in kites.
She limped to a row of brass cans on the wall, pulled one out, listened. Then another. She pulled out a third and called into it, listened, put them all back.
The ship began to turn. Outside, the other ships were moving too, from bunched together to long lines, wedges.
Bombs come soon, the Queen murmured. In morning, real battle.
Bombs! George said. Oh I hope one don’t hit us.
She came back to the table.
You two boys. I believe you. But others—well! May-be not! But be safe here. I protect. Stay night, then we see.
She pulled out her pipe and filled it, lit up, puffed. The Persian fire didn’t keep falling for long. Puddles, blue at the edges, red middles, flickered, dimmed.
Sorry no light, the Queen said. Men in kites have speak, like these—
She pointed to the brass cans.
—long long string to ground, tell what see. We wait for dawn.
She shook her head, blew out a streamer of smoke. She paced across the cabin again.
Old woman now, she said. But once very pretty. Golden lotus of floating world they call me.
You know? Floating world?
George yawned and shook his head.
No, she said. Fāngzhàng, cap-i-tal of Yíngzhōu. Very famous. Harbor there, full boats, many boat. Floating world. Live, work hard, all life. Then husband come, pirate leader, take me away.
She reached the end of the cabin, turned.
New world! You under stand? Floating world, very beauty, women, wine, song, oh yes. But under very cruel, only money and fear. Now in pirate world, all hard work, dirt, noise. Few women, no wine, no song, some time no food at-all.
She reached the other end of the cabin, turned again.
But here not be owned, free to choose what do, what want, every thing place. You see?
Everyone? Frank asked.
She stopped in front of him.
Yes. All sail free. Then—!
She started pacing again.
Old Emperor die. New Emperor—hard to say. Not man. Steam power. You know, steam power?
Like the railroads, Frank said.
No. Not like. So. New Emperor, break pirate treaty. Emperor pretend truce, send husband en-voy. Ask for talk, negotiation. When get there, find Emperor fleet! Steam power fleet!
George rubbed his eyes and yawned again.
She stopped at the table, banged it with her fist.
Attack! We try flee. Big battle, husband die, children die, comrade die. So many death. In battle, lose leg.
She pulled up the robe’s hem to her knee. Her left leg was gleaming brass, all bolts, springs, gears. She propped the leg up on the chair seat.
But escape. And I vow. I vow! Destroy all steam power. Kill Emperor. Put man, real man, on throne.
She picked up the hammer and tapped her false leg. It rang like the gong Mama summoned them to dinner with, a rusty fry pan she’d hung from a porch rafter.
Man power better steam power! Bring all pirate to-gather. Unite fleets, write laws. Work hard. Build many new ship, many weapon.
She sat down.
Emperor gunship, name White Jade Tiger. White all over, like Emperor, gleam white. I chase, long time. But I find. Close now!
She blew out a long stream of smoke, watched it rise to the ceiling.
Try as he might, George couldn’t keep his eyes open any more. He would half wake when bells ding-dinged at the speaking-cans; through crusty eyelids he saw the Queen with one pressed to each ear while she talked into a third. Men and women came and went; bundles of paper, scribbled-on maps. The Queen paced her cabin, smoking; gave orders, smoking; paced....
George was running down a long, long hallway, full of doors, but every time he came to one, it slammed shut, bang!, and there was no way out. He kept running. Boom. The floor shook. He had to get away! —You will do no such thing, George Washington Tarr, the Queen said. And she shook her broom and slammed another door in his face. He could hardly breathe, he’d been running, running, running for so long, he had, he had to, he had to find, he had to find a way....
We liv thru the big Battul.
The whole ship shook. Glass rattled in the cabin’s window frames.
Come back here! someone said but George looked and there was no one there, just Frank asleep next to him.
The Queen was still pacing, still smoking, her limp worse, the early light like gray gauze draped over the windows. Outside, the sky was clotted with smoke, the river dotted with fire. The pirate fleet floated like wood-chips in a sawmill pond, bank to bank.
Downstream, something glinted white, catching the sunlight that hadn’t reached the water yet. George shook Frank.
Mama don’t say that, Frank muttered before opening his eyes.
He sat up.
Look out, George said, look what’s coming!
A giant metal man, shiny bright as tin, towered over the river. Girders scissored and thrusted as he waded along and weights swung and gears turned and turned—polished brass ratchets, brass pivots, double-pronged escapements—and he was haired all over with tiny black flags. Below him, paddle-wheelers churned. The lead boat, glowing white too, was even larger than the Queen’s flagship, decks stacked up like a wedding cake.
You trying to catch flies with your mouth hanging open like that? Frank asked.
Look! George said. Just look at him!
The flags fluttered like wind rushing through a cornfield. The rising sun flared on white metal and the two crystal balls he had for eyes.
A bright cloud shot up out of his head, like a fountain or a whale-spout, and shredded in the breeze like a feather.
Half a minute later, a low keening, faint, like a dove’s cry.
Then nearby and distant righted themselves, and the metal man must be farther away than he’d thought, more gigantic, taller, bulking above the oncoming fleet. No, not flags: people! Black-clad people swarmed over his head and shoulders, up and down the arms, the vast machine rippled with movement.
Frank gave a low whistle.
Out the fry-pan, he said.
No power on earth com-pare to him, the Queen said.
She was standing behind them, watching too, her blue-and-white pipe clenched between her teeth.
Steam power! Steam Emperor! No one have the like. Not France Empire, not Russia Empire. No one.
She drew in a lungful of smoke, sighed it out.
Great white steam-man, white boat, now I come. Ha! Now battle begin. So we see, yes?
The approaching fleet disappeared in a sudden fog. A moment later, water-spouts appeared all around them, a spar on a neighboring ship went to splinters, one of the Queen’s windows shattered and the wall aft of it had a neat round hole.
Thunder roared all around them. George clapped his hands to his ears. It didn’t help much: guns, cannons, bomb-trebuchets, rockets. The air was blue with gunpowder.
The Queen climbed a ladder bolted to the wall and pushed open a trapdoor. She clambered out onto the roof.
What should we do? George asked Frank.
What can we do? Stay here, I guess.
But the cannonballs!
You know how to dodge them?
I just want to live through it, that’s all.
The Queen paced the roof. Between rounds of firing, they could hear her false leg on the planks: thump thump, thump thump.
I’m hungry, George complained. All that food in the saloon smelt good!
I don’t see no food here, Frank said.
We got to do something!
But of course George didn’t know.
The boat kept on surging forward, faster and faster.
Ma’am! Ma’am! George shouted up. Let us go! I’m scared!
She passed the opening and glanced down at him. But she kept on pacing, puffing steadily at her pipe. Thump thump, thump thump.
We excape & find mor trubbles.
George said: You know, she aint doing nothing to keep us here.
Frank looked at him, then grabbed the gunnysack, stuffed the gun and dragon eggs in. He pulled on the door. It wasn’t locked.
They scurried along the verandah and down to the hurricane deck. The saloon was empty, the windows shattered. Sailors were forming up ranks where the nauscopiste’s post had been.
Where’s Mister Pear? George wondered.
Frank tugged his arm.
The big white boat was right ahead, smokestacks towering over them. Behind it, through gaps in the smoke, the Steam-Emperor strutted and gleamed. The Queen’s ship jerked as it put on even more speed.
George looked up. The Queen was leaning over the railing above, arms outstretched, her green robes unfurling like flags behind her.
You think we’re going to ram it? he asked.
Run! Frank shouted. Run aft!
They pounded down the verandah, crouched against the stern-rail. The ship bucked—
then a fierce: roar splinter, shake shatter
—the deck was a hillside and they rolled down it—
(smack, skidded face-down, skin torn raw)
—a mast, tatters of sail clinging to it, leaned over them like a felled tree, tilting bigger, wider; spars swung past, tore away half the verandah roof—
(whirled like a leaf)
and the railing whacked George’s ribs, spun him round, he clung to it, white-knuckled, but his grip broke
(the ship ground to a halt)
and his breath knocked out of him, huhnnhh!, and again huhnnhh! when Frank splayed on top of him, and the ship shuddered.
They’d landed on top of a bale of stuff on the lower deck. Frank rolled off him. They lay there, panting so hard their throats hurt.
From all around: cheering. Then feet pounding. At the bows, something green swung down onto the rammed ship’s white deck and ran into the smoke. Sailors swarmed and jumped across, shouting.
This aint going to end well, Frank said. We got to get out of here.
Which way? George asked.
Down there, Frank said. Paddle-wheelers always got life boats, don’t they?
But the stairs ended in twisted iron.
Forward then, Frank said. Then back round the other side.
George followed him, scrambling up the deck’s slant. They crept past the tumbled tables in the saloon (something was on fire). The boat lurched and a platter bearing a whole fish slick with oil and piled with shredded vegetables slid towards them, like it was being passed at a banquet. George swiped the fish as it skidded past. They squeezed out through the smashed door on the other side.
A thin, shrill cry overhead, like a penny-whistle, and the deck bloomed flame. They tripped over each other trying to get back from the hiss and sear. George’s fish got smashed underfoot.
What now? he asked.
Can’t go back, Frank said, can’t go down, can’t go up, so—
No, George said.
We got to.
Not there, George said. Not the Emperor’s boat!
But we can’t stay here.
Frank took George’s hand.
Way I figure it, he said, there aint a good choice here. We can stay and drown, if we don’t burn up first, or we can go and maybe find a way out—but we’ll die for sure if we stay here.
The boat lurched.
Feel that? Frank asked. This boat is fixing to go down.
George tugged at his arm, eyes wide and brimming.
Don’t leave me here, he said.
Come on, Frank said.
George let Frank pull him up.
Another bomb screeched overhead. The river was flooded with fire, tongues of flame; the sun pale as a cinder in the murk.
At the bows, George said: You spect me to jump all that way?
You go first.
Frank shook his head.
Just try, he said, you done it before. Remember the church picnic, the sand pit? How far you’d jump?
That’s right. You can clear it.
There weren’t no river to fall into then. No bombs and cannonballs neither.
Take a deep breath, Frank said. Ready—get set—go! Run!
George stumbled but got his footing, faster faster. He hesitated near the edge but Frank shoved him, hard, and George went flying—arms windmilling in empty air—and cleared the gap, landed thump on the deck, like a tossed bag of taters, lay there splayed, panting and weeping.
I hate you I hate you I hope you die! he screamed at Frank.
Frank tossed the gunnysack across and made the jump himself.
Stop blubbering. Come on.
Frank pulled George to his feet. Billows of smoke, shouts, shadows thronging. Metal clashed on metal. Gunfire. They scurried across polished white deck, slipped through a doorway.
Inside was murky and smelt of sweet smoke. Overhead, golden dragons wrapped around scarlet rafters, held up by pillars shiny black as boiling tar. The floor was black too, and the furniture—a few tables and one giant chair—red as blood. Outside, the battle raged, and the boat banged and rocked as it lost way and drifted.
I got a feeling like I been here before, George said.
We find away owtt.
Where we going? George asked.
Down, Frank answered. Looking for lifeboats.
George pointed at a sort of a window in the floor with a ladder poking out.
That’ll work, Frank said.
They climbed down.
Another corridor, this one stacked with crates and tuns to the ceiling. At the far end, a dim glow—a door, half off its hinges, led back onto the verandah. Frank crawled out and George followed, tugging the gunnysack behind.
The upper decks were on fire.
So was the river, grand and awful; barbed lightning, red blue orange, crossed and recrossed through the boiling black smoke.
The deck jerked like someone tugged a rug out from under them; the boat swung, shuddered.
What was that? George asked.
I expect we run into another boat couldn’t get out of the way.
Shadow slid over them, like a door closing.
The gun-, cannon-, rocket-fire had stopped. George’s ears buzzed and sang. In a quiet as violent as another battle: the chug-chug-chug of a locomotive working up an incline.
Now what? George asked.
He looked up
—into gleaming white and brass machinery all in motion.
Worlds away, in a head high as a mountain, two glass globes gazed down. A scalding wad of grease splattered the deck, and soot-stained water rained out of the Emperor’s arm as it swung against the boat’s superstructure. The deck shuddered and splinters flew. One wall stretched out like a mouth yawning—
Watch out! Frank shouted.
—and boards, joists, glass, timbers, a whole window
(George fell to his knees and hugged his head)
—rained down, smacked his legs, back, arms...
—and it all slumped over him, a heavy heap, like an unlit bonfire.
Through a gap, George watched two giant finger-struts reach into the remains of the upper deck above them, like a greedy eater snatching at the roast, and pull out a green-robed shape that fought and twisted in their pinch.
Cables winched, gears big as wagon wheels clanked, and the arm hoisted up to the Emperor’s gaping mouth.
The Emperor extended his tongue, a flight of stairs steep as a ladder, and opened his fingers. The green figure dropped, hung onto a steel tread, struggled upwards step by step.
The tongue clack-clack-clacked back up into the yawning cavern of a mouth. Gears caught and the jaw levered. The mouth (a house could fit inside! a big house!) closed. The Emperor pivoted away—
Oh no—! George said.
A flicker: a green flutter: in the shell of the Emperor’s ear.
But what could he do for her, what could he have ever done?
Frank? he called. Frank? Frank!
George got himself turned over. Frank lay just feet away, face bloody and legs twisted backwards, a black puddle under him and spreading.
Frank? George called. Help me! We’re trapped.
This aint happening, Frank was muttering, not to me, not yet, it just aint. I can’t be just another name carved on a stone, I aint going to end up like that.
George struggled under the heap so hard his coat ripped; whatever was holding him down let go. He wriggled on his belly under the helter-skelter wreckage to Frank. Frank’s eyeballs were rolled back, white in a mess of blood. His breath hissed.
What’s that smell? George asked.
Because it was an evil stink that even gunpowder and burnt oil couldn’t drown.
It’s me, Frank gasped. He let go of his belly. A wicked spear of glass jagged down from the wreckage above and stuck right through his guts, a big gaping gash, and things inside slid back and forth with every heave of his breathing.
Oh, George said. No. Frank.
Help me, Frank said.
How? I don’t know what to do with, with....
A gut wound, Frank said. A mortal one.
Die fast, or die slow. Don’t do that.
George was trying to press the wound closed. Frank’s jaw clenched, worked.
Where’s Papa’s gun? Don’t do that.
George let go.
I lost it, he said.
Give it to me!
I don’t got it, George said. Tell me what to do. We got to get you help. Chinese got doctors too, for sure.
George got his hands under Frank’s armpits and tugged. He had to get him out of here! Frank gasped, eyes clenched. George tugged harder. Frank screamed.
The glass snapped off. Frank slumped, the wound gaped wider.
Frank! How do we get out of here? George cried.
Help me, Frank said.
He fingered the broken glass stump still in his belly.
Reluctant, George grasped it. Frank’s hands were icy and trembled.
And they started to pull it out.
Frank shuddered. His whole body jerked.
The glass only went in deeper.
Frank, no! George cried.
He pulled Frank’s hands away, got a grip on it himself. It bit into his fingers but he pulled anyway.
Frank screamed; the glass, slick with blood, slipped out of George’s hand, sliced bowel.
No no no!
George tried again.
The glass slid out at last. He flung it away.
Frank’s belly gaped like an angry mouth, blood and black and straggly white rags.
Oh Frank oh Frank, no no.
Frank’s breath roared and clattered.
What should I do, Frank? What do I do now?
No answer. George reached for Frank’s hands. They slid loose, slashed to the bone, to the deck.
I wil hav no more Avenchers.
George twisted past broken beams and half a door, crawled between chairs, slats, floorboards, and tumbled out of the heap. He tugged his gunnysack out and lay there panting. The ship had already drifted from the battle, smoke closing in like a fog bank. No, he was not crying, it’s just sweat. How would he ever get out of here now, without, without—
Oh my dear boy, the priest said, here you are at last, at last, oh how wonderful! But where is your brother?
The fat nauscopiste tottered along behind him, both of them tattered and smoke-blacked, the priest’s left arm bound up in a sling, the fat man clutching a lumpy sack.
Are you wounded? the priest asked. You are fairly covered with blood.
George shook his head.
The nauscopiste dropped his sack, knelt by George, felt his forehead, pulled up one eyelid and peered in. He felt along George’s arms, torso, legs. He said something to the priest in French.
What is your name? the priest asked.
George, George mumbled.
Do you know where you are?
The priest looked to the nauscopiste, who shrugged.
Do you know what day it is?
Thursday? Don’t know. Fell asleep.
What is the month?
The priest frowned.
And the year?
Today is Octidi, 28 Germinal, my dear boy, in the year LXXXVII of the Republic.
I didn’t know what to do! George blurted.
Do about what?
About Frank. He’s still under there. I think he’s, he’s....
Marie-François nodded gravely.
Ah, he said. I see. Yes. But there was nothing you could have done.
George just moaned.
Marie-François spoke to Charles-Valentin, who chucked the sack over his shoulder and shuffled away.
Now, my dear boy, Marie-François said, you must come with me, I know where to find help and safety. Come along.
He held out his hand.
George shook his head.
Marie-François knelt, pulled out a handkerchief, and tied it around George’s cut hand.
Now, now, he said. We are all in great peril here. We must go, and quickly.
Not without Frank.
At any moment this ship could—
Not without Frank.
Very well. Where should we begin?
Marie-François bent, wrapped his free arm around a timber, and hauled it out. He slewed it across the deck and kicked it overboard. George dragged a broken crate out of the heap, an armful of barrel staves, a window-frame.
Charles-Valentin came back with his sack bulging even more. Marie-François explained to him.
It didn’t take too long, with three of them lifting and hauling, to get most of the debris cleared away. But Frank’s body was just nowhere to be found—all there was was a spreading pool of filth, shiny as spilt crude oil, slick with water.
Enfin, assez! Charles-Valentin panted.
George kept on working.
Il est devenu fou.
Marie-François laid his good hand on George’s shoulder.
We have searched, he said, we have done as much as—
What was that? George whirled around, but no one was there, just the two Frenchmen.
George, down here!
What? George called. Where are you?
The two Frenchmen glanced at each other.
To whom are you speaking, my dear boy? Marie-François asked.
Find me, find me, George.
George went and peered over the side. A tangle of timbers and ropes, odds and ends, flotsam really, had drifted against the hull. Water sloshed its sides but it floated. A shabby little raftlet, not like his and Frank’s, but—
George looked over his shoulder; the two Frenchmen were whispering together. They looked over at George, nodded to each other, and started towards him.
Now, my dear boy, Marie-François said, you must listen to the voice of reason and authority. You must go with—
It’ll hold you, George—
(Where was that voice coming from?)
George tossed his gunnysack down, clambered over the side, and dropped. The raft caught him, bobbed up and down.
Oh my dear, come back! Marie-François called.
George looked up:
Where can you go? Marie-François asked. I fear for you, my boy. You have no food, no water, no maps, no papers. Now, there seems to me to be room aplenty on your little craft for both of us, although perhaps not so much for three.
Charles-Valentin appeared, looked down at George. He shook the priest’s shoulder. Marie-François pushed him away. The fat man shouted down to George.
What’s he saying? George asked.
He says that there is much of great value that he could teach you about his calling, just as his cher maître did for him.
Charles-Valentin nodded and held out his arms.
A daunting task, Marie-François continued, to sail all alone! How will you find your way without my kind help? Do you know?
Charles-Valentin interrupted; Marie-François translated:
He says that yours is a dangerous path, my son. Much harm might come without his gentle guiding hand. He says that he can help you.
George untied the gunnysack. Charles-Valentin said some more but Marie-François continued:
But in truth, my dear George, what you most need is one who knows the territory, who might guide and assist, who may call upon the succor of holy mother church—
George slowly lifted the gun, hands shaking, and pointed it at them.
No, he said.
Get back, he said.
The two Frenchmen stepped back.
George leaned against the hull, shoved hard as he could. The raft inched away. He looked up: two faces peering down. He stepped back, swung the gun up. The faces disappeared. He shoved again, put his back and shoulders into it, the gap between the raft and boat opened another inch, another.
Marie-François’s head appeared over the railing again.
Take these, he called.
He heaved the sack over the side.
The sack thunked the raft’s edge and the raft dipped down, righted itself. A current swung it round.
Water and rations! Marie-François shouted. Also state papers, code books! Go to Fort Salmigondis, ask for Marshall Rimbaud, he will reward you richly. Remember, the left bank, safety! The right bank, death!
More gravelly French rumbles from Charles-Valentin.
He wishes you health, Marie-François called, and wealth, and good fortune. As do I! You will find your way home at last, I am sure of it, wherever it may lie. Farewell, my dear boy, God be with you!
His voice dwindled in the distance, the priest and his friend the nauscopiste waving like rag-dolls in a carny show.
But I don’t want to go home, George said. I aint never going back there. No, I got to get to someplace—not this place—better than this place, or where I come from. Somewhere I can grow up a good man, like you, Frank, not one who’s got to do bad things just to get along. Somewhere goodness thrives, like fields full of plump corn or cherry trees dripping with ripe red fruit—a good place, or no place; a place where I can go to sleep and wake up and find goodness still there. Where hard work gives you something worth having, not just money soon spent and some boss-man, all rich and fat, living way off in the big city in a mansion of gold, getting even richer and fatter. I can’t go home again, I don’t want to go there ever again.
And George pitched away the gun, flung it far and high, and the water swallowed it up as the water swallows everything.
The river overflowed the horizon. It ran on and on, broad and fast and deep, George on his raft riding it like a freckle on the shoulders of an angel, reaching for the shores of the sea, where the river might find an end, if it has one. Where does the sea end? No one knows.