Written by A. LaFaye
Illustrated by Peter Catalanotto
A Breakfast Serials story
Fishing and Fear
The Story So Far: It’s 1867, and eleven-year-old Iah Thomas, who is making his way back home to St. Louis by working as a runabout on a Missouri River steamer, has just decided to stay clear of the fearsome Rattler Cole.
At sundown we had to grasshopper over a sandbar. Once a boat runs up over a sandbar, no paddles are going to push the steamer over it. Folks have to set long poles called spars into the water. Then they rig up a wire as thick as my wrist from the front of the ship to the capstan, an engine attached to the axle. When the capstan pulls, the spars on either side lift up the ship and pull it forward like some giant, slow grasshopper. Then they reset the spars and hop again. It’s hard to believe two poles, a mess of wire, and one engine can actually lift a boat over a sandbar. Seeing something like that is bound to make a body believe anything can happen.
With no rain for weeks, we ran on shallow water. Folks were anxious for the next rise to come, but even if it rained in buckets, the rise wouldn’t reach us until after we left Fort Union. That fact had everyone leery of sandbars and snags. A log wedged into the bottom of the river could punch right through the hull of a steamboat and sink it in a matter of minutes. So the least bit of flotsam set folks to praying for rain.
After the scare of facing Rattler Cole and then the threat of the sandbar, it felt Christmas pudding good when Mr. Davis asked me to go fishing. Sitting on the aft deck, we dangled our poles in the water. And I felt myself relax a little.
“Do much fishing, Iah?”
“I’m a bullhead fan, myself,” I told him. “They’re real fighters.”
He nodded. “Indeed they are.”
Watching our lines cut through the evening currents, I thought back to our first meeting in the store. “Why’d Mr. Mike call you the Liberator?” I asked.
“Ever hear tell of a newspaper called The Liberator?”
“No, sir.” Most folks I knew didn’t have the time or the know-how to read a paper.
“It was an abolitionist paper. Michael knew I read it.”
“You must be right popular down in St. Louie.”
He just laughed.
I’d heard of those abolitionist folks laying down their lives to save slaves. Boy, how I wished I had that kind of courage. I could’ve saved Miss Vinca.
I tapped my pole on my knee, then said, “You hear about that kidnapping?”
He just nodded, but I could see the sorrow in his face.
Him being so quiet made me feel like I could come clean. “What you think would’ve happened if a fella saw the whole thing and tried to stop them?”
With a quick look at me, Davis flicked his pole to straighten his line, then said real sure like, “He’d a died. Especially a small fella without much know-how.”
That sounded like me all right. Felt like he pulled a ten-pound sinker out of me. Just wished he could’ve been there when they took Miss Vinca. He would’ve done something.
With Davis being an abolitionist and all, I figured he’d protect me from the likes of Mike. He might even be brave enough to stand up to Rattler Cole if I ever got tangled up with him.
“Think on this, Iah. God always gives us another chance at the things we’re meant to do.” Davis smiled. “Look at a place like Fort Union. Never a better trading house, but even the new owners can’t make it work. Rumor has it, the army plans to take it all apart, then use the lumber downriver for a new fort. That old fort can’t do its job upriver no more, so God’s sending it downriver to do another.”
The idea hollowed me a bit. Sure, it would be nice if God gave me a second chance, but I’d hightailed it out of town like those kidnappers planned to go after me next. Felt like the kind of coward that runs the other way when the battle starts. Like my daddy used to say, “Only a coward walks away from another body’s troubles.” I’d lost my chance for sure. Nothing I could do for that girl as I floated upriver.
Mr. Mike made me feel even worse. I passed him standing guard at the cargo hold on the way to my bunk. He put his rifle down to stop me. “Catch any fish?”
“Maybe you’ll have better luck with the rats,” he said, handing me a hammer.
He opened the cargo hold door and laughed.
Mike thought I’d turn tail and run, but not this fella. Not this time. I’d face that fear and give it a good whack.
“All right.” I marched down, thinking I’d showed him, but he just stood at the top of the stairs, laughing to beat the band.
“Don’t get bit now, you hear!” He slammed the door.
Sucking in my breath against the stench, I kept my hammer high as I crept along the rows.
Didn’t take long before I heard that rubbing sound again. Uncle Emmett used to say a ship’s got more rats than passengers, so you’re bound to find them.
The hold door opened, and I just about jumped over a crate. Feeling like a fool for still being so skittish, I didn’t call out, but waited for Mr. Mike to find me. The door closed, and I watched his lantern bob down the stairs. Then I heard a shaking sound like seeds in a dried gourd. That rat heard it too, and stopped gnawing. That rodent knew a real hunter when he heard it.
And I knew the sound of Rattler Cole coming even before I seen his tails in the light of his lantern. Not wanting to face off with a fella who could probably eat the head off a snake, I slipped behind a crate. But I kept my eyes on him. Who knew what he’d do if he found me there in the dark.
(To be continued.)
Text copyright © 2006 Alexandria LaFaye. Illustrations copyright © 2006 Peter Catalanotto. Reprinted by permission of Breakfast Serials, Inc., www.breakfastserials.com. No part of this publication may be reproduced, displayed, used or distributed without the express written permission of the copyright holder.