Making a Name
The old man whittled off another sliver of his fingernail and watched it flit over the side of the boat and disappear in the current. Miles watched him move methodically from finger to finger, moving the wood-handled knife with no more care than he was carving into a bar of soap. The old man’s hands were as good with the knife as they were with the ropes. Miles had seen those hands lash down gear, quickly pulling off complex knots without the eyes following the work. The old man folded the knife closed and brushed his pants clean in the direction of the river.
“You feeding the fishes over there?” Miles asked.
The man pushed the knife into his pocket. “Give a pull on your right oar,” he said. “Shallows out near that cottonwood.”
Miles pulled the oar and the dory responded by drifting cross-river. The 12-foot boat eased to center and straightened. His shoulders ached. He’d been doing the majority of the rowing since they left Cartdale two days ago. The winding flat water along the foothills had nearly killed him. Half way through the first day and his arms quaked so much the oarlocks rattled when he took a second to rest. He tried to hide it from the old man who he knew was wondering if he’d made a mistake bringing a kid on the run. The old man’s usual oar man had busted his hand on the last outing. No one in town that time of year to fill in on the oars. No one but a soft-handed teenager straight off the train.
“I’m trying to make a name for myself,” Miles had said when the old man had pressed him for a reason to put him in his employment.
“What do you mean by that?” The man hissed.
“Take a look around,” Miles answered. “This town, Cartdale; that peak, Larned; the pass I came over to get into the river valley, Mullen’s. Anything out here worth naming is carrying the name of a man who came out here and put his stamp on it.”
“Don’t know what that does for a man,” the man grumbled.
“Back east, names still carry a lot. But there you have to be born into a name,” Miles said. “Out here, you make a name for yourself. Make your mark by what you do.”
The man laughed. “All I got for you to do is a load of rowing and some lifting,” the man said. “If you can get a handle on that, you’ll get some meals and week’s wages.”
The current had picked up on the second day when the river slipped between two hills and cut into the canyon. The rowing got easier.
“You think the fish eat them? Your fingernails?”
The man shifted from the gunwale to center-aft of the boat and sat atop a canvassed crate. He looked upriver, gauging their tack. “You got to give a little of yourself to the river. Call it an offering,” he said.
“An offering?” Miles asked.
“River’s going to get something from you one way or another,” the old man said and shifted his gaze to the scrolling riverbank. “Might just take your hat with a gust of wind. Sometimes takes a paddle. I’ve known guys who have near made a whole run, just one night away from delivering, and they lose a cooking pot or a pair of boots when the river comes up at night.” The man smiled at that revealing the matchstick-long void on his bottom row of teeth. “I find it much easier just to go ahead and make an offering, get it out of the way.”
“I’ll have to remember that,” Miles said.
“Of course you could give the river some of these,” the man snickered and stuck his tongue through the gap in his teeth. “Flash flood had the water high and rough. Boat was moving like a blade on ice. That oar you’re holding in your left mitt caught a rock and—” The man slapped his hand over his mouth.
“Damn,” Miles winced.
The man lowered his hand. “I spit that offering into the river and kept on rowing.”
Miles looked down at the oar handle in his left hand. The sun-bleached wood was pocked and dented. “Well, here’s hoping your offering is enough that we don’t lose any of Mr. Robb’s supplies.”
The dory slipped from sun to shadow as the river bent to slide around a big sandstone wall.
“Oh, Mr. James Robb has given plenty to this river before he filed that mining claim,” the man announced. He stood to get a better view of the gooseneck turn. “He lost that man to those falls.”
Miles had heard plenty about the falls. They were just upriver from Mr. Robb’s recently christened Thumper Mine. The falls were at a hard bend in the river. The way the old man told it, the river dropped out around that turn into a set of three plunges.
“Each step of that thing looks like it’s a mouthful of sharp teeth,” the old man had said on their first night out. “The water is pure white from the first drop on.” The man waved his hands and spread out his arms to try and give the kid an idea of the rapid’s size. “And the noise, lord, the noise. Imagine the biggest bellows blowing on the biggest forge. The way those coals roar. Loud enough standing by that water that you can’t hear a man shouting next to you.”
According to the old man, no boat had gone down those falls. To get to the Thumper mine, every supply boat stops above the falls. All gear is unloaded and carried up a serpentine switchback over a saddle and back down to the riverbank below the falls. The empty boats go last up that trail. “Slogged up that grade half on the back of a mule and the other half hefted up by two men,” the old man told him. “That switchback is the roughest part of the whole expedition.”
No boat had gone over those falls but one of Mr. Robb’s men had just two weeks before. The miner had been on that slope digging and blasting out the portage route. It had been a hot day and he capped off his lunch break with a dip in the eddy where the dories pulled in to unload.
The old man told Miles on that first night what happened next. “The outer lick of that current caught him. Guys that were with him said he floated back so slow, they didn’t believe he was even in trouble. Guess his eyes just went wide. He knew what was happening. His mates just watched him sweep around the bend and that was the last they saw of him.”
Miles questioned the old man on that. Surely with the mine just below the falls, one of the miners would have found him floating.
“That would count on him coming through,” the old man answered, his voice flat. “Water like that will hold on to a body. Stuff it under a ledge. Pin it up against a strainer of tangled logs. Sometimes the water will just cycle a body around in a current.”
Miles didn’t need to be told they were coming up on their take out, he could hear it. The prevalent sounds of the last two days—shuttling wind in the cottonwoods, oars creaking in the locks, ripples against the wooden hull—all muted down under a slow-growing hiss. The hiss grew to a roar. Ribbons of mist curled out from behind the bend of the canyon.
The old man took the oars from Miles and steered them toward the eddy at the base of the switchback.
Miles moved to the bow and looked downriver. Mist plumed halfway up the cliff walls. The cloud set the whole curve in shade and the shadowed, water-stained rocks looked charred. There was no way for Miles to see the falls from that angle. All he could make out of the first drop was a quickening of the water’s pace and a break in its color. The silt brown current stretched out and turned a greenish white just before hooking around the wall. Miles realized the old man had been yelling.
“Fetch out that goddamned rope!” the man shouted. The nose of the dory slipped toward the bank. “Jump up there and lash us to that log.”
Miles looped the rope around the log and held it taut. The man secured the oars and climbed out. He took the rope from Miles and whipped off a hitch knot while looking up the slope. The man motioned with his chin, “Here comes our help.”
A man in coveralls leading a mule had just crested the saddle and was starting his winding descent on the switchbacks. By the time he reached the canyon floor, Miles had most of the gear on the bank. The old man did all the untying, jostled crates and barrels free, but had Miles do the lifting.
“Damn!” Miles cried out, cradling his right hand in his left.
“What is it?”
“Got a sliver of that last barrel in my palm.”
“Well, wrap it up,” the man said dismissively. “Got more work for that hand.”
“Pass me your knife and I’ll get it out. It’ll be fine.”
The old man fished out his knife and slapped it into Miles’ hand. “Get those last two out of there,” the man said and stepped ashore.
The last of the cargo landed on the bank and Miles cut the rope. He snatched up an oar and pushed away from the bank.
The man spun toward the river.
“Here’s your blade,” Miles shouted and tossed the folded knife.
The old man fumbled to catch it. “What are you doing!”
“I’m going to be the first man to run those falls!” Miles shouted and jammed both oars into their locks.
“You can’t do it, son,” the old man shouted, jogging down the bank, pacing the dory as it slid out into the current. “Throw me the line!”
“I’m going to run this,” Miles said and settled into the rower’s seat facing the bow of the boat. “I’m going to do this and make a name for myself.”
“Boy!” the old man shouted and then shinned a rock and tumbled into the gravel.
“Come around and meet me on the other side,” Miles shouted.
The old man raised up on his knees and saw the boy’s mouth moving. Whatever he was saying was lost in the roar of water breaking on rocks. The boy turned away, dug his oars in, and pushed the dory on.
The boat whipped into the center of the river and the big wall concealing the falls glided aside like a stage curtain. Miles could see three ledges full of what looked like boiling snow. The rapid was a cauldron where air, water, rock, and debris were mashed into a new element. And the noise—Lord, the noise—was rattling the gunwales.
The water stretched out under the hull and blurred from brown to green to white. The bow of the dory shot over the lip of the first drop and hung horizontally for a heartbeat. The boat pitched forward. Miles gripped the oar handles, forced them down into the locks, and hooked his feet under the bench. The back of the boat snapped into the air.
They dropped. The nose of the dory vanished into the froth then bobbed up and pitched starboard. An oar struck solid and lanced Miles from his perch. Miles scrambled back onto the bench as water poured into the boat. He grabbed an oar. The other gone.
The water in the boat made it sluggish and it cruised into a fang of rock. The planks groaned and sent a dull shudder through Miles’ bench. He harpooned the rock with the oar but couldn’t stop the dory from pinwheeling. He went over the second plunge backwards.
Miles abandoned the oar and clawed at the bench for a hold. His feet left the boat and he floated, legs flailing in the mist.
The boat slammed down and Miles’ face smashed into the bench. The cascade pummeled the boat under. Both he and the boat were submerged, the throaty roar of the rapid vibrated against his whole body. The currents twisted out his sense of up and down. He tried to swim but his strokes found no hold in the whip of water and air. A rock scraped his leg and he kicked off. Miles surfaced beside the turtled dory, a ragged hole the size of a steer’s head in its side. He hooked his hand in the hole.
Despite the chill of the water, Miles’ lips felt hot. He spit and watched the river swallow a blot of blood and bits of shattered teeth.
The curl of the next plunge sucked at the overturned boat. Miles let go of the hole. The boat was now just debris. He tried for a boulder and got a couple fingers into a crevasse. The water slapped his body against the rock. His legs swept downriver like streamers in wind. He felt one shoe slip off. The dory dropped away.
Miles tried to pull himself atop the rock. If he could get there, maybe he could leap for the snag of logs piled up against the cliff wall. Wait there for the old man and the miners to work there way up from below. They could bring rope. He curled his fingernails into the crevasse.
Miles’ fingers loosened a bit when he saw the body. It was bobbing at the base of the snag, one arm twisted up over a limb. The poached face was tipped forward, but not far enough that Miles couldn’t see that the eyes were missing. The waves pushed against the miner’s body so that he rose and fell against the logs like a man with a cough.
Miles’ fingers slipped from their hold and he glided over the final drop.
The old man sat down at the table and promised the newspaperman five minutes. The man scribbled out notes on a pad of paper while the old man recounted the cutting of the rope and watching his boat head for the falls. Even placed his folding knife on the table for the newspaperman to examine. The old man confirmed that he and Mr. Robb’s men didn’t find a body, just pieces of his wrecked dory.
The newspaperman told him that folks were talking about naming the falls after the boatman. He asked the old man to comment on that idea.
The old man plucked his knife off the table and pushed it into his pocket. “Hard to do when you never got the boy’s name.”