In the West: A Tragic Boating Accident
Before we begin, a word of warning:
People who might find this story offensive include: the politically correct, People Against the Defamation of the Snake River, Christians, Mormons, cross-dressers, persons for whom mention of the Oregon Trail brings back tearful memories of hardship and loss, wearers of ill-fitting calico dresses, historians, and persons given to passing out tracts on the subject of "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" with some lack of discrimination.
The sun rose high and bright over the Snake River. On the bank, Curtis Franklin stood by his covered wagon and stared grimly at the waters. Beside him stood his young bride, looking frail and incongruous in her white apron.
"Oh, Curtis!" she cried, "How ever shall we cross with no ferry? The river looks dreadfully treacherous."
"Now, Betsy," Franklin replied, "you and Jedidiah just sit tight there while I go talk to them Injuns."
"My father says that the only good Injun is a dead Injun!" she bleated, nearly dropping Baby Jedidiah as she clutched at his wrist.
Just then, Miss Hepzibah Franklin, Curtis' spinster sister, poked her abnormally large nose out of the back of the wagon. "I have heard," she said primly, "that some of the Red Indians have been Christianized and live peacably. It is, of course, the white man's duty to spread the knowledge of Christ Jesus to the heathen." With this she looked pointedly at Curtis, who, truth be told, had not converted a single Indian in the four months of their journey.
"I, on the other hand," she continued, "have distributed nearly all of the tracts that the good Reverend Alden has given us. If it were not unseemly for a woman to do so, I would have distributed them in person, instead of hanging them on trees and boulders."
Betsy belatedly turned Jedidiah upright again as she nodded vigorously at Curtis. "If they are baptized, you may trade with them for passage across the river. But should they be heathen still, you must have nothing to do with them."
"Nay! Nay, I say!" said Hepzibah. "If they be heathen, he must convert them!"
Curtis mechanically arrested Jedidiah's tumble to the ground as Betsy dropped him to stamp her foot. The child, long used to these hairbreadth escapes, waited patiently in his father's arms while his mother wailed, "I followed you from my town of respectable, God-fearing people, and you would leave me alone with your sister to fraternize with the heathen, and this when I might have married Mayor Higgins!"
"I am not converting Indians," Curtis snapped, glaring at his sister. Clearly, the name of J. Christopher Higgins did little to improve his mood.
Hepzibah drew herself up with righteous indignation. "And whyever not?" she cried.
"Because ... because," Curtis stammered, casting about for an excuse, "because we haven't any tracts left, on account of your passing them out to every rock, tree, bush, and abandoned shoe in Missouri!"
"You have the Good Book, have you not?" brayed Hepzibah, crimsoning to the the tip of her oversized nose at this insult to her missionary efforts. "You have the noble memory of dear Rev. Alden's sermons to draw upon! If I were not bound by the laws of decency, I could and would do my duty and pass on the sweet lessons of living a Christian life and--"
"Stop it, Hepzibah!" interrupted Betsy. "It is Curtis' duty to listen to his wife. And while we are on the subject of duty, it is a Christian woman's responsibility to marry a God-fearing man, and to raise his children to be similarly terrified of an incomprehensible yet powerful being who condemns thousands of people to eternal anguish at will. I shall remember MY duty, even when Mayor Higgins would come for me at one word, or even without if he thought my husband heeded his sister over the mother of his child!"
"I will not hear one more word about Christopher Higgins, a base coward and poltroon who bought his way into the mayor's office, and that of councilman before that, and I have even heard it said that he bought his first wife! Now," Curtis growled, "I am going to trade a few bonnets and blouses for some help in crossing this here river. I think those Indians," he said, pointing while glaring at Betsy, "will make fine guides, especially as their stereotypically wild head-dresses indicate a pleasing degree of heathendom. And," he continued, now turning to Hepzibah, "I shall give them no tracts, show them no Bibles, mention no Christ, and encourage in them no morals. In fact, I think I shall take our bottle of medicinal brandy"--here he stormed over to the wagon and retrieved it, frowning slightly, as he did not recall that they had used so much--"and see what I can get in trade for it!" With that he stormed off, pausing only to deposit Jedidiah in his mother's arms.
The Indians in question, who had been regarding this touching tableaux of family life with considerable interest, brightened in spirits at the pleasing turn the action had taken.
"We could offer to drown the sister, and see if he would throw in his tobacco," said one young man hopefully as they watched Curtis make his angry way over.
"Or perhaps he would consent to sell her," another replied, "for she is a comely lass, though pinched in face and overlong of nose."
Not knowing that her looks had found such relative favor, Hepzibah took advantage of Betsy's indignant silence to open her Bible with the cold, aloof air of a martyr. All was silent for half a minute, until Betsy was startled by Hepzibah's shrill cries of triumph. "One last tract! If this is not a sign from Our Good Lord Himself--tucked right between Numbers and Deuteronomy so that Curtis may do his duty. Oh, Curtis! Curtis, wait!" Hepzibah ran after him, for once in her tedious and proper life breaking out of a walk.
Curtis turned, saw Hepzibah, saw the tract, saw the words "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" printed upon it, and said, with some asperity, "I shall not touch the thing!"
Hepzibah, for a moment, wavered between fear of impropriety and the fear of eternal damnation that awaited the Indians behind her obstinate brother. She resolved to pray for guidance. What, she asked the Lord, ought she to do? After all, the Bible was rather clear about a woman's duty of obedience and submission to male authority. But on the other hand, it was also her duty as a Christian to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ among the heather. It was indeed a vexing problem. Just as she was explaining to the Lord the many complications of the situation, she felt herself being hauled to her feet.
"Good Lord, Hepzibah!" Curtis cried. "You've gotten your dress all dirty, kneeling in the mud like that. I didn't pay ninety-three cents a yard for that white lawn just so you could make it unfit for Indian consumption."
"Indian consumption!" cried Hepzibah, bemused. "What ever do you mean?"
"I have traded the dress you are wearing for the services of Squanto here," Curtis said, gesturing to the handsome young Indian beside him, "so kindly take it off."
The silence that followed this remark was broken only by the Indian muttering, "My name is Joe."
Hepzibah drew herself up with a steely calm that would surprise her later. (She would, of course, give all due credit to the Lord.) "Curtis," she began, when Squanto-Joe interrupted.
"Wait," he said, lifting the hem of Hepzibah's skirt with two disdainful fingers. "This dress is not only dirty, this oughtn't to have cost more that a dime a yard. And the hem is crooked. The skirt is unevenly gathered. And the sleeves are two different lengths. And now that I've taken a closer look, this shade of ivory is not very flattering. Is this dress the only one you have to trade?"
Curtis turned furiously on him. "We had a deal! The dress and the brandy! Do you intend to welch on it? You take this dress"--he stripped it off a protesting but ineffectual Hepzibah and threw it at Squanto/Joe--"and take us across the river!"
"At least throw in that petticoat," stormed Squanto-Joe beneath his new veil. "It is not so egregious an example of shoddy craftsmanship. And anyway, this dress is made of such third rate material that a petticoat is needed to give it at least the illusion of shape..."
"Our deal remains as it was!" Curtis shouted back. "Our should I tell all your friends back there about your unseemly interest in woman's dresses?"
"Why, who do you think they are, but the mid-Western branch of the Sartorialist Society?" was the rejoinder. "I'm up for membership; it's my second try. I was black-balled the last time, thanks to a member jealous of my cuff links. Well, I have no proof of his perfidy, but one has one's suspicions."
Curtis gasped. "Do you mean to say that you are no Indian at all, but a white man who dresses up as such for amusement, and also habitually attires himself in female clothing? My! I knew the West attracted some strange characters, but this is really too much! Why, sir, you are almost as bad as a Mormon!"
"I heartily invite you, sir," snapped Squanto-Joe, "to step outside and say those words!"
"We are outside," Curtis sneered, "and I have said those words, thus rendering yout invitation obsolete the moment it left your lips."
"I do not brawl before ladies. Perhaps that is what you are accustomed to, but I--" Squanto-Joe paused, not for emphasis, but to step over Hepzibah, who was praying for forgiveness over her indecent attire, "--am a well-bred gentleman of refinement and impeccable bearing. Subjecting a delicately-nurtured lady to such crude violence would be beneath me."
In the mean time, Betsy, who could not long bear to be left out of anything, braced herself for the proximity of heathen and made her cautious way over. The oxen, still hauling the wagon, trailed after her.
"Oh, pish," said Curtis. "That is no lady." He took his pistol out of the holster, aimed, and fired one shot.
Everyone watched as a rolled-up tract escaped from the gun and bounced to a halt.
"Hepzibah..." began Curtis in a dangerous soft voice.
"I thought I could fire the tracts at heathen that chanced to be passing by," his sister replied with icy dignity. I was running out of cotton to hang them from trees."
"Hepzibah!" cried Betsy, lately arrived on the scene. "What on earth are you doing, passing out tracts in your underclothes? Do you realize you are lowering the name of decent Christian women everywhere? Husband, I hate to say it, but your sister is obviously a fallen woman. I insist you cast her out immediately."
"Before you do that," interjected Squanto-Joe, "give her a chance to explain how she rigged up that gun. It would come in handy when the Sartorialist Society is recruiting for new members. As a new member, I must find ways to make my mark on the organization, don't you know."
"Are you baptized?" Betsy demanded. "For if you are not, I, nor any of my folk, shall speak one word to you." She conveniently forgot that she had already spoken twenty words to him.
"The loss would be mine, to be sure," he replied with a sarcasm entirely lost on its target. "Happily for me, I have been baptized. It is true that I renounced Christianity a scant half-hour afterwards, and killed the minister with the collection plate because his shoes were absolutely unforgivable, and the cut of his sleeves, a crime! But yes, I am baptized."
"Well, that's all right then," said Betsy. "There is nothing worse than a man who does not take care of his sleeves. My precious Curtis is so particular that his sleeves hang just so."
"It is perhaps unjust of me to interrupt such a charming conversation," said Curtis, whose sleeves, were, indeed, hanging with unnatural perfection, "but do you actually know how to cross rivers?"
"Well, no," answered Squanto-Joe. "I hope that doesn't change our deal."
"You bastard!" Curtis cried, and shoved him into the river. Alas, in the interval Squanto-Joe had rogueishly perched himself upon an ox, and he led not only their team of oxen, but also the wagon they pulled into the river.
"Jedidiah!" Betsy cried, as she leapt onto the wagon that held her baby.
"Betsy!" cried Curtis, as he thrust himself onto the wagon after her.
"The medicinal brandy!" Hepzibah cried, as she, too, plunged after the wagon. "Oh, yes, and my clothes."
Well, to make a long story short, the oxen, the wagon, Jedidiah, Hepzibah's clothes, and the bottle of medicinal brandy were all lost to the treacherous depths of the Snake River. Squanto-Joseph heroically saved dear Betsy, while Curtis heroically saved Hepzibah, or, depending on whose version of events one wishes to believe, Curtis struggled to the shore, trying all the while to break Hepzibah's iron grip around his ankle. He was rather sore about the loss of his firstborn son, until Betsy admitted it was really Mayor Higgins' child and what kind of idiot thinks a baby gets born only four months after the marriage is consummated? Curtis vowed revenge, but all that will have to wait as our happy family is stuck on the wrong side of the Snake River with no oxen, no wagon, no food, and no alcohol. Oh, yes, and winter is coming. We suspect cannibalism is in order.