After Bonin liberated the Scots’ pelts, we rode the lower trail until we come to a ford in the river where the Frenchman run his ferry. But the barge was tied the other side and we saw no sign of that old trapper Plante.
No dust rose behind us on the Mullan trail. Maybe we had not been followed.
Liberate is a poorly word for what you done, I said to Bonin.
We’d struck camp that morning for the north when Bonin rode up with that thick pelt pack tied to the cantle of his saddle. He said the Scots made him a bargain, that if we made a rush of it we could cross at Plante’s Ferry and sell the pelts at Fort Colville by nightfall.
But the way he kept looking back I became of mind that Bonin had stole the pelts. So I asked him outright. That’s when he come up with that word liberated. A God-fearing man would’ve rode off then and let him take his own lashings, but my weakness and Bonin’s knowledge of that strange country had hold of my nerve.
And now Plante’s Ferry was unmanned and our planning lay in waste. We could swim the ponies, I said. But Bonin’s pocked cheeks colored as he looked down that raging river. Snow still shadowed the foothills and the river bulged with fierce current.
Might swamp the furs, he said. But I knew Bonin could not swim more than a thrash or two. And that early in spring the Spokan River was a beast. The plume would sop them pelts, pull his little Kentucky saddler downstream, and dump him in the froth.
Just then a boy appeared from the brush on the other shore, a hundred feet across. He was small, nine or ten, from that river band of Indians that Plante had took up with.
Where’s the Frenchman? Bonin called.
I will cross you, the dark-skinned boy called back.
Do it then, Bonin yelled. This being the only crossing, the posted price was high: four dollars for a wagon and six bits for each animal and man. We had no wagon, just two men and two animals and that bundle of pelts.
The boy untied the log barge and began working his way across, using a long pole to push off the shore and along the riverbed. Two thick ropes rose from each end of the boat to pulleys hung on a high guide rope that spanned the river and was tied to thick trees on both shores. Near the middle of the river, the current pulled at the barge, the trees groaned, and the guide rope bent like a hunter pulling a bow.
Onshore, Bonin gave his skittish pony’s bit a yank and said, Hush now. And then, in agreement with his horse, he said, I wish that boy would hurry.
We both looked back at the trail behind us.
Finally, the boy settled the barge on the bank and we walked our uncertain ponies onto the wood deck, shoes clomping. Bonin gave the boy six bits for himself and his animal. He looked at me. You are the cause of this, I said. So he dug out more money.
The boy pushed us off the shore and had started poling us back to the other side when I saw dust on that upper road, maybe a half mile behind. I nodded at Bonin and we watched riders come our way. We was half crossed the river when four men rode into view on the south bank.
Gimme the pole! Bonin yelled at the boy, and he grabbed for it. The boy would not let go, and they tussled a moment before Bonin simply grabbed the boy and hurled him from the barge. He hit the water with barely a splash. Bonin pulled his knife from its scabbard and began cutting the ropes leading up to the guideline.
I saw what he meant to do. And I will give Bonin credit. It was likely our only chance. Were we to pole our way across that river, we’d be caught. They could ford faster than we could pole. But the current was strong enough that it could float us downstream almost as fast as those men could ride, and since the trail departed from the riverbank, we ought to make a bend or two and find a spot for a proper escape.
In the river, the boy turned and swam with easy strokes toward the north shore. I wanted to tell him that I was sorry, but there was so much I was sorry for since Bonin and me first rode out of Kansas Territory, and there weren’t enough sorrys in this world.
When I turned back Bonin had cut the ropes. We spun a little in the current, caught on a pulley, but then we swung free and soon our little barge was riding the current. I’ll be damned, I said. That’s how it was with Bonin. Scared and thrilled minute to minute. My pony stirred but I gripped her bridle and bid her quiet.
On the south shore, the horses of the men who’d chased us settled in their dust. The last thing I saw before we rounded a bend was the swimming boy reaching the opposite shore. He pulled his hands to his mouth and called out something. A curse, maybe. I am sorry, I muttered again under my breath.
Something I ought have told you, Bonin said. The Scots trapper and I quarreled with knives.
Then you’ve ruined us, I told Bonin. I had worried about a few lashings, but it would mean the noose if those men caught us.
The thought was barely out my mouth when I was yanked sidewise by the shoulder and there was a thud and the report of a rifle, the order of which seemed wrong, as if the wound in my shoulder and my horse’s staggering and the gunshot had nothing to do with one another.
My horse, shot through the neck, pulled her cheekpiece from my hand and leaped from the barge, causing the boat to dip and rise and Bonin’s horse to stagger and fall off the other side, both animals now swimming to shore, mine with a wound in its neck, Bonin’s with our prize pelts waterlogged and dragging behind. And a piece of the ball that hit my pony had burrowed into the meat and bone of my shoulder.
I am shot! I yelled to Bonin. We were both on our stomachs, clinging to the boards of the barge. We rounded another bend then and I could see the man who shot me, tracking us on a trail just above the south bank of the river. He’d shot from the saddle, a fancy piece of aim. Now he bore down again. A report cracked. And another. But these shots missed and the river raced us away until a cluster of boulders on the riverbank rose between him and us and the crack shot could not see to get off another round.
The river was in full churn and we bumped along, rising and falling over rapids and unseen rocks, the raft turning this way and that. The barge pole had gone over with the horses and all our belongings. We had nothing to brake or steer that hurtling barge. It was just us two on this big thrashing vessel.
Pain flared in my shoulder with each bump.
Next eddy we’ll pull out, Bonin said, though the speed of that river did not bode well for eddies or for us controlling that barge. And still I seen the dust of riders pursuing us on the south shore.
Bonin, I asked, was the Scots alive after your quarrel?
He did not answer. But I knew. Probably the moment he rode into camp with the pelts I knew. I wondered if those men would treat my shoulder before hanging me.
Still the river bucked beneath us, like an unrode colt, shoreline trees and ridges seeming to glide past.
I cannot give account of this river except to say that it was a full torrent from the vast mountain lake from which it drained all the way to the Columbia. This Spokan was not some meandering Midwest trade river nor quaint fish stream but a blast of angry white water over hard rock bed. And even when we emerged in a couple of slower stretches, or when our big boat snagged on limbs, we could not disembark, for the banks were bouldered or overhung with heavy brush and no snag could hold us. We rounded more bends and passed a sliver of island. The southern riders had fallen back a bit, their dust faint. Perhaps the speed and harshness of that river might be our salvation after all.
Bonin crawled across the boards and squinted into my shoulder.
Is it mortal? I asked.
I do not believe so, he said. But then he crawled back to his side of the barge.
That’s when I saw dust on the road above the north bank of the river.
So now we were being pursued on both shores. Sure enough, two riders emerged at a full gallop on the north river trail, on a rise above us. One was older and bearded and looked like he might be the French-Indian ferryman. The ferry boy was leading him on a smaller mount.
I was our doom, Bonin said.
I’ll not quarrel with that, I said.
The river picked up pace again. Rose and fell like a nest of white serpents. We clung to our barge and watched, first one bank and then the other, as our pursuers dropped down to the river and then were forced to ride up and circle back on the bluff again, as terrain and brush warranted. I waited for the saddle-aim to try us again, but he could not get a clear shot.
I was aware of a great sapping from my wound, as if I were draining from it. I lay with my face on those wet boards and I drifted in and out, rising and falling on the rapids, and I don’t know how much time passed. We snagged a few times more on rocks and tree branches but always we pulled off before Bonin could get us to shore. One sandbar willow reached for us and Bonin grabbed hold, but the current was barely amused and he was left with nothing but a handful of leaves.
I feared I was becoming too weak to swim. The river was too fast, too high. And the few stretches where we might have made shore were also reachable from the river roads and the men chasing us—trappers on the south side, the boy and the old ferryman on the north.
So we held on. And we rose and fell, scraped by rocks and limbs. I felt the heaviest sleep I have ever known settle about my head. My arm went numb like the empty sleeve of a coat.
Shame you fell in with me, Bonin said.
I looked up at him. My own character is at fault, I said.
We talked like this as we clung to that ferry, looking across the wet boards into each other’s eyes. I can tell you, at the end, you marvel at those. Human eyes. I thought of my mother’s easy blues and the bark-browns of the boy who had just taken us across the river. How many hundreds of eyes in between? And how many more I would never see, Bonin’s green demons to be my last.
Bonin seemed to know my gloomy thinking.
Listen, he said, I need to tell you about this river. There is a great falls, six or seven steps, the last one twenty feet of drop. In summer the tribes gather at these falls to fish, but now? So recent to snow and the river running like this? He shook his head. Be hell’s churn. We’ll be dashed onto rocks and what pieces left thrown over into a deep canyon.
Maybe we’ll survive, I said. Maybe we will be the first to make it over. I smiled, and tried to think of our old adventures.
He didn’t answer.
The river had finally slowed again and the trail on the north shore dipped down to us. The boy and the old ferryman rode alongside us now at a fast trot. The boy was as close as he’d been since we were on the barge together. Almost as if we were traveling together, him by road, me by river. I wondered if he had a rope to throw us.
Forgive me, Bonin said, and at first I thought he was talking to the boy, saying what I was thinking about stealing his barge. But when I turned back I saw Bonin slide off our punt into the river and swim for shore. He made that awful stroke of his, flailing, flapping, gulping, the current pulling him alongside the barge, so that I could still see his face, until it went under and resurfaced ten feet away, him still trying to make shore. He glanced back my way and our eyes connected again.
Sure now of his folly, he thrashed back to the barge, scrabbled his hands on the side. I tried to pull myself over to help him up but I was too weak. And the next time I saw Bonin he was just a human back and hair, floating alongside our barge—and then gone.
I forgive you, I said.
I did not see the riders on the south bank again, but the boy on the north shore had separated from the French ferryman and rode along on the bluff ahead of me as if to cut me off. I was feeling sleepy. Water sloshed the side of the barge and I could taste my own blood.
I thought of my mother again. And my father, buried two years past. I wondered if my sisters had all married off. And I thought of that Indian boy. I had thought him to be no more than ten, but by the way he rode I saw he was older. I imagined the French ferryman angry for him losing the barge and again I wished to apologize. I was only seventeen. That boy and I might have ridden together in another world.
There is no other world.
The river had picked up speed again but this time it felt different. Like every current in the world pulled into a single reckoning. I could see a great dip ahead. I wondered if this was the first of them falls Bonin had described.
I thought again of the glory of being the first man to go over these falls. And then I remembered the boy and his tribe, living God’s eternity along these banks. I wondered what the boy would make of white men like me claiming to be the first across this pass, first to this mountain lake, first over these falls, naming streams the boy’s people had fished for centuries. Like someone coming into your home and naming your bed in honor of the queen.
Maybe one of his people had gone over these falls and lived to tell. Maybe the boy would share the story with me one day. This thought gave me some branch of hope and I sat up to see where the river would take me. I felt dizzy and had the strange thought that I needed to stay awake for the plunge.
The boy and his pony were waiting on a ridge twenty yards downstream. As I approached I raised my good arm to the boy.
Watch! I called. I cannot say why I yelled this except I imagined that if I were witnessed now I might continue to exist, even if just as a tale the boy thrilled his grandchildren with—the scoundrel who stole a ferry and rode it over the great falls.
Then the boy did something remarkable. From the back of his pony, he raised his hand to me as I went by and called out the way you might to a rider you recognize, a friend, three short triumphant yelps, a song whose meaning I would never know but which, as my barge passed him, I took to mean: I see you.
There is no world but this one. And all we can ask in the brief moment we inhabit it is to be seen. I see you, the boy said. And I was grateful.
And then my barge seized up beneath me, front end risen like God reached down from heaven to pluck me from the water with His great forgiving thunderclap hand, but I had merely run against a boulder that split the current and my vessel in two, and, riven to sin and salvation, I tumbled to the smaller end of my broken punt and clung to its side in wet tumult till I looked back and could scarcely believe what I had done. I had gone over. Fallen eight, perhaps ten feet on half a raft and lived to tell it! I looked up to the north shore for the boy and tried to make the whoop sound he had made—but I was weak and this first stairstep had been the easiest, what came next surely would be my end.
Above and behind me, the boy sat atop his pony on that grassy ledge—his widened eyes mirroring my thoughts: Did you see that! He began to raise his hand once more (this to be the end of the story he would tell his grandchildren—As he went over, I waved) and I went to lift my own arm in response, but before either of us could finish the movement the next step came and I was taken by the cold froth that awaits—