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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Cannonball's Tales"

The River Rat Boys Page 2

By W. T. Block
Page 1
I sat in the back of the skiff with the bag on my lap. Pa put the oars in the oarlocks and pushed the boat out from the bank. Then his back and elbows went into motion, and the big oars seemed to jump up alongside of me every second. Pa's big muscles moved up, then slid down to his elbows as each stroke of the oars moved the big skiff the length of a bull frog's leap or more. I figured he could lick any bully twice his size, but Pa wasn't prone to fighting or losing his temper. He often said people shouldn't fight, but should settle their differences in a "civilized manner" - whatever that's supposed to mean. Very soon, we left the mouth of the bayou and entered the Neches River at a point where the river is very wide, about 1,200 feet or so, a little south of the Magpetco docks. I looked at Pa a lot as we moved north toward Gray's Bayou. And Pa's face - I don't exactly know how to describe it. He doesn't smile much, or laugh, but still his face is friendly and warm, the kind you know you can trust. He never hollers or speaks harshly, except perhaps at a horse or mule. And he doesn't have to, at least, to me anyway. When the ends of his mustache straighten out, any thought of my disobedience is as far from my mind as the stars are from the earth.

Sometimes Pa looked in back of him to see if a ship or tug boat were coming. As the skiff moved north in the direction of Beaumont, a big ship did glide past us. I braced myself as the gentle waves or ground swells approached, and my emotions were always mixed -- half of joy and the other half of uneasiness. But Pa always knew how to turn the boat perpendicular to the ground swells so we wouldn't capsize. But by then it didn't much matter. Already I could see the houseboats in the mouth of Gray's Bayou, and soon I would be playing with my friends, the river rat boys.

The swells on the river had died away as we entered the mouth of the bayou. Already the big ship was slowing down, and Pa said it looked as if the boat would stop as a place he called the Pure Oil dock. I stopped watching it when I spotted Leroy on the dock at his boat landing. He is exactly my age, but is a lot taller than I am. When I first saw him, he was moving up and down his boat landing with a fish spear. After a while, the three-tined spear sprang out from his arm, and he pulled it back with a big mullet fish flapping on the barbs of the spear. Leroy never missed, I knew that, and he has promised to show me the fine points of that art whenever he has the time. After all, he says it's something you can't learn in books.

Leroy spoke to us as Pa tied up the skiff to the wharf, and always my first impulse was to correct his English. But I thought first and decided not to because Pa had explained to me that Leroy had never been to school and would always speak in that manner. Goodness knows Miss Ashley would have kept him after school for a month if she'd heard his double negatives. She was always threatening to wash somebody's mouth out with soap, but I don't believe she ever did - at least where I could see it. But she knew how to whack the palm of a kid's hand with a ruler whenever he used bad grammar.

Leroy's brother Augustine is only a year older than I am, and already he can slice the hide off a ten foot gator in ten minutes and steak his tail as well. That's exactly what Augustine was fixing to do when Pa and I climbed onto the wharf. He pulled a big black gator off a pile -- there must have been a dozen or more in the stack -- flipped him over on his white belly, and then he reached for that big, sharp Barlow knife of his. Then he opened one of the long blades and made a slit around one of the front paws. It was a pleasure to watch the thin blade glide along under the hide, guided by the hand of a master - one who never left the slightest trace of meat attached to the skin. Although I had watched him before, I still marveled at the way his knife moved along -- at that and countless other things the river rat boys can do that I can't do. They are truly my idols, people I want to grow up and be like, and I made absolutely no attempt to hide my admiration for them. Leroy noticed how I stared at a long gash across the alligator's tail at the point where it joins the body. "Watcha gawkin' at, Bill?" he finally asked.

"That gash," I replied, as I pointed at it with my finger.

"I done that wid my hand axe last night whilst Augustine was a-shootin' 'im in the ear. Them big gators has a heapa hosspower in dem tails after they's shot. They kin plumb tear up a big skiff inter kindlin wood in no time flat."

Again my ears flounced and flinched at the sound of his river rat English, but I said nothing to him. That's just one more advantage of living in a houseboat in Gray's Bayou where the truant officer can't reach you. Goodness, if I just missed one day of school, he'd be right down to Block's Bayou wanting to know why. Pa picked up his bag and went into the first houseboat to see Leroy's daddy, whom Pa always called "Old Rob." I don't know what was inside the bag or what Pa wanted to see Old Rob about -- cattle perhaps, because Pa's cows roamed all up and down the ridges and shell banks on the east side of the river, even back into the cane brakes. Old Rob is revered all up and down the river as a sort of uncrowned king of the river rats. He wears a long handlebar mustache, much longer than Pa's, that hangs down under his nose like two snake tails, and his face is pointed and bronzed like that of a gypsy I once saw in a picture. And boy, is Old Rob ever dirty! I know Ma would have loved to wash behind his ears with that gritty old soap. And Old Rob never wore any shoes - winter or summer - in fact, about all he ever wore was that dirty pair of old jeans, tied up with a length of sail rope, and always, that black-handled gun poked into his jeans at his belly. Boy, if I hadn't known him to be a friend, I'd surely have been afraid to meet him in the dark somewhere!

But Old Rob can really tell some stories -- stories that'll unwind every curl in your hair about the Indian bones in the clam shell mounds nearby and the pirate ghosts that travel along the ridge. The story that still chills my spine the most is the one in which Jean Lafitte's ghost chased Old Rob a half-mile through the marsh, hacking at him every inch of the way with his cutlass, and as he tells it, Old Rob ploughed up twenty acres of cane brakes with his heels getting back to his houseboat. And he still has the scar to prove it -- in back of his ear where the cutlass grazed his scalp.

Why, only a couple of weeks ago, while Old Rob was helping out with our tater harvest, he was telling me one of his best stories while we were drinking some water at the end of a turning row. He said he had been outside at night about a week earlier, hunting a stray hog. Suddenly, the ghost of one of those Karakawa chiefs buried up on the ridge shellbank got after Old Rob with his tomahawk. The ghost chased him so fast along the North Ridge that Old Rob said his feet were only hitting the ground about every 15 yards or so. And he almost didn't make it back to the houseboat in time. The next morning, Rob found some eagle feathers scattered all along the ridge, and he showed me one of them to prove it. And he never did find that hog.

Old Rob always comes over during harvest time to work in the fields and to tell me stories. Pa always gives him sacks of taters or cabbage or turnip greens for helping out. Rob says that's about the only time he ever gets any green stuff to eat, but I'll never understand why anyone would prefer green vegetables who has a plentiful supply of gator tail to eat. Whenever trapping and alligator hunting is slack, Old Rob spends a lot of his time hunting Lafitte's treasures that are buried all up and down the river. He believes that some day he will find a big pot of money, and so do I. Pa sometimes snickers and smiles at some of Old Rob's tales as if he doesn't believe them, but I do. My friend Rob just doesn't seem like the kind of person who'd tell me a lie. And, besides he has the eagle feather and other things to prove his stories.

Leroy took me racing up the bayou in his pirogue while he was checking his fish traps. After we returned to the boat landing, he held my right arm while he was showing me how to spear fish. I made several practice throws and finally, when a mullet came swimming by on the surface, I let fly with the barb. It missed though, and the fish paddled away toward the river. "It's harder than it looks!" I quickly remarked.

"Aw, hit ain't so hard, Bill! You jist ain't hardly had no practice yit," Leroy replied. My eardrums winced again at the discordant grammatical sounds. Leroy's patience with me did hold out until a pound-size mullet graced the barb of the fish spear, and he added it to the string of fish bound for the houseboat's kitchen.

About that time, his mother rang a bell. After we had all feasted on gator tail steak, Leroy and I helped Augustine stretch and salt the gator hides. Then we raced for the clamshell mounds on the North Ridge. I held a good pace at first, but as I became winded, the river rat boys pulled on ahead, then they sat down and laughed at me as I staggered up panting and exhausted. It was plain as day how much I had to master if ever I were to become a river rat equal to them.

Augustine sneaked up from behind me and poked an old Indian skull in front of my face. I froze at first sight of it, but soon I was pulling the bones from the mounds as eagerly as they. Obviously, some of the rudiments of being a river rat are just more easily learned than others.

As the afternoon waned, Pa loosed a blast of his whistle for me to come running, and the three of us raced toward the houseboats. I told Augustine and Leroy goodbye, and again, I sat in the back and held the bag while Pa once more heaved at the oars and rowed the big skiff downriver. As we neared our landing, Pa made some remark about how rapidly the river rats in our area were disappearing from the local scene which, as usual, I failed to grasp the meaning of because of a couple of his big words.

For me, it had been a delightful day, one that I was loathe to see come to an end. And it only confirmed what I had known all along and what my chosen vocation should be. Pa's ideas on book learning and mine will never agree, especially with that doctor and fiddler stuff. I know he has his plans for me, but I'll just sit tight and bide my time till I can grow up and get me a houseboat of my own. This vow I'm renewing, in silence of course so Pa won't overhear -- that someday I'll skin gators with my very own Barlow knife, spear fish, and be a river rat just like Leroy and Augustine are. And I'll learn to be a well-trained river rat like them, and a good one. And no one, not even Pa, is going to keep me from achieving my chosen profession. Pa's ideas of me being a doctor or a fiddler will just have to go hang.

*Miss Ashley actually was one of my grade school teachers, although art instead of grammar. She was killed during the New London, Texas, school explosion about 1938
W. T. Block, Jr.
"Cannonball's Tales" >
June 11, 2006 column
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