Sun Going Down A Novel, by Todd, Jack
- ISBN: 9781416550495 | 1416550496
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 8/4/2009
Eb Paint woke at dawn to a caressing fog, eyelids fluttering where damp sycamore leaves drizzled mist. He tried to cuss but the word stuck in his whiskey-parched throat; he was too dry to speak or spit. The fire was dead and the stink of wet smoke hung where blackened cottonwood boughs leaked steam. He tried to recall why he hated that smell so, gave up the effort and parsed the river without opening his eyes. There was a good deal a man who knew the Mississippi River could tell by listening. He could hear the rush of water over a bluff reef, theslap slap slapof ripples on wet sand around the finger of land where they had anchored theMarielita, the whinge of mosquitoes, curlews somewhere, a catfish breaching the surface for a toothful of dragonfly. He strained to listen. Somewhere out there, the big river flexed her tawny muscles. Seldom had the Mississippi been so quiet since the twelfth day of April, 1861, the day Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard of the Confederate States of America opened fire on Fort Sumter. Before the war, half-acre rafts and scows and broadheads floating downriver would chance this peasoup darkness, the crews banging pots and pans with tin spoons to warn off the eight-hundred-ton steamboats pounding upriver through the main channel. Only a double-plated fool would chance the river now, not knowing whether the next bend would bring hungry rebels, jittery bluecoats, or some daft and murderous outlaw like Quantrill. Most of the boats on the river were bringing supplies to Grant's besieging troops as the vise tightened on the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, but in this fog even the Union supply boats were shut down waiting for the sun to burn through.
TheMarielitawas beached on a long finger of sand out there in the mist, creaking as she shifted her weight in the lee of the towhead like an old woman squatting to pee. Eb tried to see the old tub where she was tied fast with two bowropes thick as a man's ankle, knotted to deep-rooted cottonwoods. The effort made his whiskey headache pound like a brass band. He closed his eyes again, went back to listening. There it was again, something out of place in the fog. The thick air muffled the sound but it carried plain enough.
Thwuck. Thwuck. Thwuck.
He rose to shake the sand from his britches and strolled to the water's edge. A shoal of minnows darted left and right away from the manshadow -- and by what mysterious semaphore did each tiniest minnow know to zig and zag, rise and dive and flee in a single body and never mistake the direction? You could drill a squadron of crack troops until their heels bled and they would never perform in such singleminded unison. It was a thing to ponder and Ebenezer Paint of Jones County, Mississippi, was by nature a pondering man, but on this day his noggin was thick with whiskey and he had, more urgent matters to ponder. At the edge of the towhead, where sand met river, there coiled a rolling shoulder of fog; beyond that it was like trying to look up the devil's arse.
Thwuck. Thwuck. Thwuck.
It came from the starboard side of theMarielita, a sound like a rotten watermelon tossed on a wharf.
Lucian was still wrapped in his bedroll, a scrap of wet blanket hiding the nap of his head. Eb prodded his kidneys with a bare toe.
-- Goddammit, Lucian.
He yanked the blanket back and peered into the bloodshot eyes of Lucian Quigley, who regarded him as one regards a man who has taken leave of his senses.
-- What is that goddamned noise.
-- What goddamned noise.
-- That goddamned noise.
Thwuck. Thwuck. Thwuck.
-- Sound like somebody tryin to beat through the hull with a wet hammer.
-- Off to stabberd, like.
-- Trouble with fog like this. Can't see a goddamned thing. Could be a ghost.
-- Could be a old tree too. You get the damnedest ideas for a white man, like a old slave woman.
-- I aint the one tacked that cross o' nails in my left bootheel to keep off the evil spirits, am I? I aint the one afraid to look over my left shoulder at the new moon.
-- Man got to be sensible, take precautions in this life.
-- Precautions, hell. Superstitions, what it is. Now I'm goin out there to see what it is bangin on my boat. You comin or aint you?
-- Aw hell.
Lucian rolled onto his knees. The rye came up with chunks of catfish, all of it hurled over the exposed roots of a dwarf oak. Eb wrinkled his nose and turned away.
-- You have to do that? You and your goddamned rye. Stuff tastes worse'n arsenic.
-- If it aint to your taste leave it be. More for me that way.
-- I swear you make it in a outhouse.
-- Didn't hear you complain once last night. Not once. All I heard wasLucian, pass me that there rye one more time. You kep at it till my whiskey was most gone. Smack your lips like you was tastin honey from the bee. Yessir, honey from the bee.
-- That was last night and this here is this mornin. If you're done evacuatin your innards, can we go have a look, find what's messin with my boat?
They crawled into the skiff. Eb climbed to the bow and left Lucian to row while he navigated by the sound of water lapping against the hull of the old steamboat and the other sound, the metronome beating time to the river.
Mist rolled down their shirtsleeves and trailed off their fingertips. Eb tied the boat fast to theMarielitawith a double sheetbend. Lucian shinnied aboard and led the way with his bowie knife held blade up. Eb followed the sound of Lucian's bare feet goingslapslapslapacross the main deck, three feet above the waterline. The mist was so thick they couldn't see the starboard rail from the larboard, and the deck was slick with damp where Lucian had whitewashed it fresh not a month before. Eb leaned over the rail and peered down into water the color of tar.
-- Aw Jesus.
-- Hell is it?
-- See for yourself. Aint no pretty Natchez lady out for a stroll.
-- Lordy. It surely aint.
The corpse, its feet tangled in a drift of willow limbs, had lodged on the upriver side of theMarielita. A Confederate officer, by the look of his butternut coat. A wisp of fuzz on his cheeks and upper lip, a man not yet old enough to grow a proper beard, long blond hair now riverdark. A thick black tongue lolled like an eel from his mouth. One blue eye stared off somewhere the other side of beyond but the near eyesocket was pulped with black gore. With every roll of the Mississippi, the dead man's head beat against the hull.
Thwuck. Thwuck. Thwuck.
-- Reach me a oar, Lucian.
-- Aint we goin to pull him in?
-- No, we aint goin to pull him in, unless you want to get caught tryin to dig a hole for a dead Confederate and you a black man. They'd string you from the nearest oak and then hang me from your toes to make sure we was both dead. Reach me a oar, now. This poor sonofabitch is in the only grave he's ever goin to know. May the Lord have mercy on his mama.
Eb took the oar from Lucian and poked the rebel's feet free from the willow drift, then turned the oar paddle down and heaved on the dead man's chest. The corpse spun away from the oar back to belly, like a sternwheeler churning downstream. As he rolled they could see where the ball that took out his eye had splattered the back of his head. Eb turned and retched, caught his breath, tried a second time and managed to tuck the tip of the oar in under the man'ssuspenders, where he got enough purchase to guide the corpse the length of the boat. With one last heave he shoved the body clear of the sternwheel and watched the current take it. The butternut coat fanned out over the surface and the dead rebel rotated like the hands of a courthouse clock, head to boots, head to boots down the gullet of the fog. Two rotations, three, four, and he vanished, bound for Milliken's Bend, the Gulf of Mexico, the land of perdition. Eb handed the oar back to Lucian and knelt on the deck, leaned out low over the water and vomited rye and catfish into the stream.
-- You and your goddamned tangle-foot whiskey.
They slipped back into the skiff and rowed to the sandbar. Lucian pried hot embers from the sand, got the fire going again. Eb roasted green coffee beans in a skillet, filled a buckskin bag with the beans still hot, pounded the bag between two rocks until the beans were crushed fine. They didn't risk another word until the coffee was boiled and they could squat in the sand with battered tin mugs, nibbling hardtack and drinking coffee thick as molasses.
-- That was some awful sight.
-- Deed it was.
-- I seen some things on this river, Lucian.
-- Ain't we all.
Lucian fried bacon in a charred pan thick with grease. The fog held, persistent as a bulldog locked on a hambone.
-- Y'know, I seen the wreck of the Pennsylvania.
-- Oh, she was a hard one, that. Hard. I was down with Judge Quigley when she blew and we heard her go two counties south. Folks was talkin about it for months.
-- I pulled a burned boy from that wreck was hangin on to a stick of wood no bigger than your arm.
-- Helluva thing. The judge said when she went up they found pieces of that boat a mile off and they was a thousand dead on the river they never did find.
-- Was more than a mile. They was things from thePennsylvaniatraveled three mile in the air and was still goin hard enough to kill a pelican on the wing. Brass fittins and boiler plate and hunks of fellas like you and me that was smokin a pipe and jawin about the price of calico in Shreveport not a minute before she went. Seen it myself, but I seen worst things. Last spring I seen a poor goddamned devil Union corporal, tried to take a bath in the river all by hisself. Wild boar, must of been the guns made him crazy, come bustin out of the scrub. Big bastard the color of a rusty nail, longleggedy vicious razorback sonofabitch barrelin along with green foam drippin off his tusks, fast as a racehorse. Run right over that naked corporal, knocked him down and went to eatin him from the pecker up. Soldier beat on the beast with both fists and screamed like Judgment Day but that hog paid him no more attention than you would a gnat, just went right on chewin with the man's innards danglin from his jaws. I dragged out that big ole muzzle-loadin Whitworth rifle figgerin to shoot the beast but there was so much chop on the water I couldn't get no bead on that critter, big as he was. Pulled the trigger and fired a bolt to scare him but that hog was past scarin. Then the boat was on by and around a bend and there wasn't ary thing I could do cept to pray for that corporal's mortal soul. Never forget it as long as I live. You lead a dishonest life, you will find a critter like that razorback boar waitin to greet you personal at the gates of Hell.
-- Amen, my brother.
-- Don't know that I can take much more of this river.
-- Aint goin to hear no aggument from me.
-- Tired of listenin to rebels tell me Bobby Lee is a genius and the South aint got no quit.
-- Tired of wakin to find a dead man's head bangin on my boat.
-- Tired of thinkin about the misery folks is in down to Vicksburg, ball and shot droppin on their heads day and night. They say women and children is eatin rats and mules cause they got nothin else. We been awful lucky to steer clear of the worst of it.
-- Maybe that dead Confederate is a sign it's time to get shed of this place for good. Find a spot where a fellow can eat his dinner without crackin a tooth on a minié ball stuck in the peas.
-- They say Dakota.
-- Dakota! Dakota? I aint goin anywheres near any Dakota. Full a nothin but wild Indians, Dakota. They scalp you, stake you to a anthill and spread you with molasses, then they slice off your tallywhacker and stuff it in your mouth.
-- Lord, Lucian. Where you hear these things?
-- Folks that aint been no nearer Dakota than yourself. I was through all that country on the way to California back in 'forty-nine. The Indians didn't give us a peck of trouble and there's plenty of free land up there.
-- Free land for a white man, maybe. Aint never been nothin free for a black fella on this white man's earth and never will be.
-- That's here in Dixie. Aint the same everywhere you go.
-- Aint no nevermind to me. I aint taggin along to no Dakota and that's all she wrote.
-- I aint asked you to. Just passin time, is all. Like as not I aint goin to no Dakota neither. If I want to light out, I got to find me some fool wants to buy hisself that leaky little pissant forty-ton store boat we got. World full a fools, they say, but I aint yet met the man fool enough to buy that boat.
-- Except yourself.
-- Except myself. But I was young and foolish then. Now I got to find another such goddamned fool.
Lucian took his bowie knife, stabbed at a sliver of bacon left in the pan.
-- That's it right there. You said a mouthful. World full a fools. Trick to life is to find the right goddamned fool.
Copyright © 2008 by Jack Todd
Excerpted from Sun Going Down by Jack Todd
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.