Making a Name
Competition: Short Story Challenge 2011, First Round
Subject: A supply
Original Illustration by
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 20-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
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
“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
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.”