Jimmy watched the Natchez Belle draw near, a shining eagerness in his stare. He stood on the deck of the shantyboat, his toes sticking out of his socks, his heart knocking against his ribs. Straight down the river the big packet boat came, purpling the water with its shadow, its smokestacks belching soot.
Jimmy had a wild talent for collecting things. He knew exactly how to infuriate the captains without sticking out his neck. Up and down the Father of Waters, from the bayous of Louisiana to the Great Sandy other little shantyboat boys envied Jimmy and tried hard to imitate him.
But Jimmy had a very special gift, a genius for pantomime. He’d wait until there was a glimmer of red flame on the river and small objects stood out with a startling clarity. Then he’d go into his act.
Nothing upset the captains quite so much as Jimmy’s habit of holding a big, croaking bullfrog up by its legs as the riverboats went steaming past. It was a surefire way of reminding the captains that men and frogs were brothers under the skin. The puffed-out throat of the frog told the captains exactly what Jimmy thought of their cheek.
Jimmy refrained from making faces, or sticking out his tongue at the grinning roustabouts. It was the frog that did the trick.
In the still dawn things came sailing Jimmy’s way, hurled by captains with a twinkle of repressed merriment dancing in eyes that were kindlier and more tolerant than Jimmy dreamed.
Just because shantyboat folk had no right to insult the riverboats Jimmy had collected forty empty tobacco tins, a down-at-heels shoe, a Sears Roebuck catalogue and--more rolled up newspapers than Jimmy could ever read.
Jimmy could read, of course. No matter how badly Uncle Al needed a new pair of shoes, Jimmy’s education came first. So Jimmy had spent six winters ashore in a first-class grammar school, his books paid for out of Uncle Al’s “New Orleans” money.
Uncle Al, blowing on a vinegar jug and making sweet music, the holes in his socks much bigger than the holes in Jimmy’s socks. Uncle Al shaking his head and saying sadly, “Some day, young fella, I ain’t gonna sit here harmonizing. No siree! I’m gonna buy myself a brand new store suit, trade in this here jig jug for a big round banjo, and hie myself off to the Mardi Gras. Ain’t too old thataway to git a little fun out of life, young fella!”
Poor old Uncle Al. The money he’d saved up for the Mardi Gras never seemed to stretch far enough. There was enough kindness in him to stretch like a rainbow over the bayous and the river forests of sweet, rustling pine for as far as the eye could see. Enough kindness to wrap all of Jimmy’s life in a glow, and the life of Jimmy’s sister as well.
Jimmy’s parents had died of winter pneumonia too soon to appreciate Uncle Al. But up and down the river everyone knew that Uncle Al was a great man.
Enemies? Well, sure, all great men made enemies, didn’t they?
The Harmon brothers were downright sinful about carrying their feuding meanness right up to the doorstep of Uncle Al, if it could be said that a man living in a shantyboat had a doorstep.
Uncle Al made big catches and the Harmon brothers never seemed to have any luck. So, long before Jimmy was old enough to understand how corrosive envy could be the Harmon brothers had started feuding with Uncle Al.
“Jimmy, here comes the Natchez Belle! Uncle Al says for you to get him a newspaper. The newspaper you got him yesterday he couldn’t read no-ways. It was soaking wet!”
Jimmy turned to glower at his sister. Up and down the river Pigtail Anne was known as a tomboy, but she wasn’t--no-ways. She was Jimmy’s little sister. That meant Jimmy was the man in the family, and wore the pants, and nothing Pigtail said or did could change that for one minute.
“Don’t yell at me!” Jimmy complained. “How can I get Captain Simmons mad if you get me mad first? Have a heart, will you?”
But Pigtail Anne refused to budge. Even when the Natchez Belle loomed so close to the shantyboat that it blotted out the sky she continued to crowd her brother, preventing him from holding up the frog and making Captain Simmons squirm.
But Jimmy got the newspaper anyway. Captain Simmons had a keen insight into tomboy psychology, and from the bridge of the Natchez Belle he could see that Pigtail was making life miserable for Jimmy.
True--Jimmy had no respect for packet boats and deserved a good trouncing. But what a scrapper the lad was! Never let it be said that in a struggle between the sexes the men of the river did not stand shoulder to shoulder.
The paper came sailing over the shining brown water like a white-bellied buffalo cat shot from a sling.
Pigtail grabbed it before Jimmy could give her a shove. Calmly she unwrapped it, her chin tilted in bellicose defiance.
As the Natchez Belle dwindled around a lazy, cypress-shadowed bend Pigtail Anne became a superior being, wrapped in a cosmopolitan aura. A wide-eyed little girl on a swaying deck, the great outside world rushing straight toward her from all directions.
Pigtail could take that world in her stride. She liked the fashion page best, but she was not above clicking her tongue at everything in the paper.
“Kidnap plot linked to airliner crash killing fifty,” she read. “Red Sox blank Yanks! Congress sits today, vowing vengeance! Million dollar heiress elopes with a clerk! Court lets dog pick owner! Girl of eight kills her brother in accidental shooting!”
“I ought to push your face right down in the mud,” Jimmy muttered.
“Don’t you dare! I’ve a right to see what’s going on in the world!”
“You said the paper was for Uncle Al!”
“It is--when I get finished with it.”
Jimmy started to take hold of his sister’s wrist and pry the paper from her clasp. Only started--for as Pigtail wriggled back sunlight fell on a shadowed part of the paper which drew Jimmy’s gaze as sunlight draws dew.
Exciting wasn’t the word for the headline. It seemed to blaze out of the page at Jimmy as he stared, his chin nudging Pigtail’s shoulder.
NEW FLYING MONSTER REPORTED
BLAZING GULF STATE SKIES
Jimmy snatched the paper and backed away from Pigtail, his eyes glued to the headline.
He was kind to his sister, however. He read the news item aloud, if an account so startling could be called an item. To Jimmy it seemed more like a dazzling burst of light in the sky.
“A New Orleans resident reported today that he saw a big bright object ‘roundish like a disk’ flying north, against the wind. ‘It was all lighted up from inside!’ the observer stated. ‘As far as I could tell there were no signs of life aboard the thing. It was much bigger than any of the flying saucers previously reported!’”
“People keep seeing them!” Jimmy muttered, after a pause. “Nobody knows where they come from! Saucers flying through the sky, high up at night. In the daytime, too! Maybe we’re being watched, Pigtail!”
“Watched? Jimmy, what do you mean? What you talking about?”
Jimmy stared at his sister, the paper jiggling in his clasp. “It’s way over your head, Pigtail!” he said sympathetically. “I’ll prove it! What’s a planet?”
“A star in the sky, you dope!” Pigtail almost screamed. “Wait’ll Uncle Al hears what a meanie you are. If I wasn’t your sister you wouldn’t dare grab a paper that doesn’t belong to you.”
Jimmy refused to be enraged. “A planet’s not a star, Pigtail,” he said patiently. “A star’s a big ball of fire like the sun. A planet is small and cool, like the Earth. Some of the planets may even have people on them. Not people like us, but people all the same. Maybe we’re just frogs to them!”
“You’re crazy, Jimmy! Crazy, crazy, you hear?”
Jimmy started to reply, then shut his mouth tight. Big waves were nothing new in the wake of steamboats, but the shantyboat wasn’t just riding a swell. It was swaying and rocking like a floating barrel in the kind of blow Shantyboaters dreaded worse than the thought of dying.
Jimmy knew that a big blow could come up fast. Straight down from the sky in gusts, from all directions, banging against the boat like a drunken roustabout, slamming doors, tearing away mooring planks.
The river could rise fast too. Under the lashing of a hurricane blowing up from the gulf the river could lift a shantyboat right out of the water, and smash it to smithereens against a tree.
But now the blow was coming from just one part of the sky. A funnel of wind was churning the river into a white froth and raising big swells directly offshore. But the river wasn’t rising and the sun was shining in a clear sky.
Jimmy knew a dangerous floodwater storm when he saw one. The sky had to be dark with rain, and you had to feel scared, in fear of drowning.
Jimmy was scared, all right. That part of it rang true. But a hollow, sick feeling in his chest couldn’t mean anything by itself, he told himself fiercely.
Pigtail Anne saw the disk before Jimmy did. She screamed and pointed skyward, her twin braids standing straight out in the wind like the ropes on a bale of cotton, when smokestacks collapse and a savage howling sends the river ghosts scurrying for cover.
Straight down out of the sky the disk swooped, a huge, spinning shape as flat as a buckwheat cake swimming in a golden haze of butterfat.
But the disk didn’t remind Jimmy of a buckwheat cake. It made him think instead of a slowly turning wheel in the pilot house of a rotting old riverboat, a big, ghostly wheel manned by a steersman a century dead, his eye sockets filled with flickering swamp lights.
It made Jimmy want to run and hide. Almost it made him want to cling to his sister, content to let her wear the pants if only he could be spared the horror.
For there was something so chilling about the downsweeping disk that Jimmy’s heart began leaping like a vinegar jug bobbing about in the wake of a capsizing fishboat.
Lower and lower the disk swept, trailing plumes of white smoke, lashing the water with a fearful blow. Straight down over the cypress wilderness that fringed the opposite bank, and then out across the river with a long-drawn whistling sound, louder than the air-sucking death gasps of a thousand buffalo cats.
Jimmy didn’t see the disk strike the shining broad shoulders of the Father of Waters, for the bend around which the Natchez Belle had steamed so proudly hid the sky monster from view. But Jimmy did see the waterspout, spiraling skyward like the atom bomb explosion he’d goggled at in the pages of an old Life magazine, all smudged now with oily thumbprints.
Just a roaring for an instant--and a big white mushroom shooting straight up into the sky. Then, slowly, the mushroom decayed and fell back, and an awful stillness settled down over the river.
The stillness was broken by a shrill cry from Pigtail Anne. “It was a flying saucer! Jimmy, we’ve seen one! We’ve seen one! We’ve--”
“Shut your mouth, Pigtail!”
Jimmy shaded his eyes and stared out across the river, his chest a throbbing ache.
He was still staring when a door creaked behind him.
Jimmy trembled. A tingling fear went through him, for he found it hard to realize that the disk had swept around the bend out of sight. To his overheated imagination it continued to fill all of the sky above him, overshadowing the shantyboat, making every sound a threat.
Sucking the still air deep into his lungs, Jimmy swung about.
Uncle Al was standing on the deck in a little pool of sunlight, his gaunt, hollow-cheeked face set in harsh lines. Uncle Al was shading his eyes too. But he was staring up the river, not down.
“Trouble, young fella,” he grunted. “Sure as I’m a-standin’ here. A barrelful o’ trouble--headin’ straight for us!”
Jimmy gulped and gestured wildly toward the bend. “It came down over there, Uncle Al!” he got out. “Pigtail saw it, too! A big, flying--”
“The Harmons are a-comin’, young fella,” Uncle Al drawled, silencing Jimmy with a wave of his hand. “Yesterday I rowed over a Harmon jug line without meanin’ to. Now Jed Harmon’s tellin’ everybody I stole his fish!”
Very calmly Uncle Al cut himself a slice of the strongest tobacco on the river and packed it carefully in his pipe, wadding it down with his thumb.
He started to put the pipe between his teeth, then thought better of it.
“I can bone-feel the Harmon boat a-comin’, young fella,” he said, using the pipe to gesture with. “Smooth and quiet over the river like a moccasin snake.”
Jimmy turned pale. He forgot about the disk and the mushrooming water spout. When he shut his eyes he saw only a red haze overhanging the river, and a shantyboat nosing out of the cypresses, its windows spitting death.
Jimmy knew that the Harmons had waited a long time for an excuse. The Harmons were law-respecting river rats with sharp teeth. Feuding wasn’t lawful, but murder could be made lawful by whittling down a lie until it looked as sharp as the truth.
The Harmon brothers would do their whittling down with double-barreled shotguns. It was easy enough to make murder look like a lawful crime if you could point to a body covered by a blanket and say, “We caught him stealing our fish! He was a-goin’ to kill us--so we got him first.”
No one would think of lifting the blanket and asking Uncle Al about it. A man lying stiff and still under a blanket could no more make himself heard than a river cat frozen in the ice.
“Git inside, young ‘uns. Here they come!“
Jimmy’s heart skipped a beat. Down the river in the sunlight a shantyboat was drifting. Jimmy could see the Harmon brothers crouching on the deck, their faces livid with hate, sunlight glinting on their arm-cradled shotguns.
The Harmon brothers were not in the least alike. Jed Harmon was tall and gaunt, his right cheek puckered by a knife scar, his cruel, thin-lipped mouth snagged by his teeth. Joe Harmon was small and stout, a little round man with bushy eyebrows and the flabby face of a cottonmouth snake.
“Go inside, Pigtail,” Jimmy said, calmly. “I’m a-going to stay and fight!”
Uncle Al grabbed Jimmy’s arm and swung him around. “You heard what I said, young fella. Now git!”
“I want to stay here and fight with you, Uncle Al,” Jimmy said.
“Have you got a gun? Do you want to be blown apart, young fella?”
“I’m not scared, Uncle Al,” Jimmy pleaded. “You might get wounded. I know how to shoot straight, Uncle Al. If you get hurt I’ll go right on fighting!”
“No you won’t, young fella! Take Pigtail inside. You hear me? You want me to take you across my knee and beat the livin’ stuffings out of you?”
Deep in his uncle’s face Jimmy saw an anger he couldn’t buck. Grabbing Pigtail Anne by the arm, he propelled her across the deck and into the dismal front room of the shantyboat.
The instant he released her she glared at him and stamped her foot. “If Uncle Al gets shot it’ll be your fault,” she said cruelly. Then Pigtail’s anger really flared up.
“The Harmons wouldn’t dare shoot us ‘cause we’re children!”
For an instant brief as a dropped heartbeat Jimmy stared at his sister with unconcealed admiration.
“You can be right smart when you’ve got nothing else on your mind, Pigtail,” he said. “If they kill me they’ll hang sure as shooting!”
Jimmy was out in the sunlight again before Pigtail could make a grab for him.
Out on the deck and running along the deck toward Uncle Al. He was still running when the first blast came.
It didn’t sound like a shotgun blast. The deck shook and a big swirl of smoke floated straight toward Jimmy, half blinding him and blotting Uncle Al from view.
When the smoke cleared Jimmy could see the Harmon shantyboat. It was less than thirty feet away now, drifting straight past and rocking with the tide like a topheavy flatbarge.
On the deck Jed Harmon was crouching down, his gaunt face split in a triumphant smirk. Beside him Joe Harmon stood quivering like a mound of jelly, a stick of dynamite in his hand, his flabby face looking almost gentle in the slanting sunlight.
There was a little square box at Jed Harmon’s feet. As Joe pitched Jed reached into the box for another dynamite stick. Jed was passing the sticks along to his brother, depending on wad dynamite to silence Uncle Al forever.