DENNIS BALK BOOKS
BOATS ON A RIVER is an immersive, cinematic adventure. Characters in the story possess personalities and perspectives that come to the reader in a series of historical events from America’s formative past.
Representative Franklin Knight is newly elected to present day Congress. Knight is a dapper and cantankerous man in his sixties, a politician’s politician. Knight is also a bit of a dreamer, a man with more than his share of self-doubt; he’s a complicated gentleman. He has decided that a Winnebago press tour would be the most impressive formula to arrive in Washington. Along the way, he believes a quick stop at one of America’s grand rivers should prove an enlightening experience, and why not? Knight is accompanied to the river by the son of the Winnebago’s driver, a twelve-year-old kid from Southern California. At the river’s edge, Knight suffers a mild episode of his chronically annoying heart condition. With a bit of luck, a small boat appears on the river and will take the two of them to get medical attention. Soon enough, the men in the small boat reveal a baffling contradiction in time, and with all the mysteries implied, the gritty adventure begins. Knight and the boy move through episodes of river time and, along the way, connect with several determined locals and outsiders, some of them more than a little eccentric. A few of these souls become part of the journey and reveal the nature of their participation. Everything moves downriver. Every history is a story, always told for the first time.
FROM CHAPTER FOUR
In the chaos, Niwashake sees his moment is now upon him. His purpose must be made. He walks Hardy over to the brave, kneeling Chickasaw. He takes Hardy’s hand and very gently places his hand directly on the bloody, open wound on the Chickasaw warrior’s thigh. Hardy tries to pull away but only wrestles for a brief moment. He feels the strength of will coming through Niwashake’s hand. He feels the warm blood of the open wound on his palm. Hardy is present between the strength and the weakness of the two men. Neither the aggressor and neither the victim, he feels the connection, he connects them.
Piominko turns his head upward to Hardy and looks directly into his eyes. A young man to an Indian warrior.
In that very instant all of Hardy’s frantic, anxious confusion vanishes. The ongoing, never ending confusion of being trapped in the woods with people he fears and cannot understand. These extreme characters shooting rifles and now a hanging. The men in the boats, the Navy uniforms and the D on William’s forehead. The strange and dreadful murder of Jack Lank-Sleeve, all of that is vanished. He closes his eyes. In this dream there is only the River. Wide and stretching off into the distance, brown with the Spring rains. Only the thin line of a horizon, only the River.
The Chickasaw’s thigh begins to tremble. Hardy hears Niwashake’s voice, as his eyes open to the woods, Niwashake quietly tells him, “you must go down River.”
Hardy is startled back to the horror of the situation he is truly in the middle of.
FROM CHAPTER SIX
“Lieutenant Don Luis de Villars from the Louisiana Regiment, up from the New Orleans,” Barbury announces with sufficient pleasantry. “I make pleased to introduce you to the Mister Knight, American from the Mississippi Valley, perhaps affiliated with the…” Barbury stops and tries again.
“Mr. Knight is a prominent with the Loyalists, here in the River Valley. He has pledged his loyalty to the Crown and like the rest of the fellows, they are very concerned that chaos, corruption, and mob rule is all that will come from this so-called revolution. Mr. Knight is devoted to the Loyalist’s cause, with no patience at all for the Spanish intrusion, and he has announced, on several occasions, his devotion to what is morally correct, and he will go to his grave defending it.”
Barbury takes an exhausted, deep breath. He has no intention of participating in this particular side show any further, confident he’s done his job, Captain Colbert could find no fault, he sits. Boy walks across the room, a little attitude, and stands next to Barbury.
Knight rolls his eyes and clears his throat, a confusing but interesting list of attributes, more than he’s used to, a loaded charade. De Villars steps over to take his place at the table and as he is sitting, he painfully considers his options to respond. “Pardon?” Is all he can manage.
Knight quickly intercedes, “Lieutenant, I am Representative Franklin Knight from the great State of California, 29th Congressional District, San Fernando, and I am extremely pleased, dare I say perplexed to make your acquaintance.”
“Quien es este burro?” The Lieutenant counters, “this is not making sense.”
“Nothing more than pirates. This is theater,” the Señora tells them. Her voice is so filled with tempered anger that when she speaks a bit of her saliva runs down her overly-powdered chin. “Speak to my husband with respect or not at all.”
Hardy thinks I’ve seen this before, I can’t remember where from.
“Señora, Señor,” Knight methodically lowers his voice, fine-tuning his approach. “My apologies. I believe the difficulty here is that we all come from such different backgrounds, very different places. We’re all struggling to appreciate the significance of this meeting and to be mindful of the respect each of us should show and each of us should expect to receive.”
“The burro is eating its own mouth.” The Lieutenant says to his wife.
Doña Marie blurts out a giggle, with a little more saliva. No one in the room can say a word, the dripping saliva has brought everyone to the edge of their seats. Not one breath. Finally, she takes a little white embroidered-linen handkerchief from the lace cuff of her blouse and delicately daubs her chin. A simultaneous exhale across the room.
FROM CHAPTER SEVEN
The crescent moon creates splintered light on the River and Knight squints his eyes.
He watches the shore to know his place in the River, the river itself is black as coal. And, just like that, the early morning’s rose appears on the horizon, this time in front of them.
Both the exhaustion and the ease of the River, the night is remarkably short.
The River begins a wide turn, another the River has offered, the bateau is drawn into the bend.
As Hardy wakes, on top of the tarp, in the bottom of the bateau, before he opens his eyes he lists the names of the birds, far to the sides, as they begin to participate in the early daylight.
“Mockingbird, Canada goose, Grackle.
Suddenly remembering where he is he jerks up straight. “Was that the whole night? Did you steer the whole night, did I help? Did I have a shift?”
“Good morning sailor, how’d you sleep?”
“Mr. Knight, did you sleep at all?”
Still waking up, Hardy lays back down, “I was thinking, Mr. Knight, about birds. If you listen to all the birds it’s a lot of talking at once, even from out here. If you know the sound of each one of those species communicating with each other, you can hear just the two of them talking, saying what ever is important at the time. It’s like a separate channel in the noise. I was thinking that maybe that’s what this is, this experience we’re having, something like we’re tuned into a channel, and all this is happening on this one channel, and back home, and my dad is a separate channel, maybe something like that.”
“I like that you’re approaching our situation like an eccentric writer, a hermit who lives in his parent’s basement, even though I doubt we’re like birds chirping at each other from a distance.”
“Your first order is to sort through the bags and let’s do our best to eat a decent meal. The biscuits and the water, conservatively, and the other salted meat, the pork. That’s about it, right?”
The current easily pulls the bateau. The boat glides through the mid-point of the bow, a change in direction.
Hardy starts to sort through the crate, he has already organized it.
“Mr. Knight, you didn’t sleep, how are you going to last through this day, take naps, in the sun? I doubt we’re anywhere near New Orleans.”
“You eat, son. I’m fine. Actually invigorated. It was a beautiful quiet night. The River was as much asleep as you were. I kept us straight and let the current do the rest, kept to the middle.”
The sun is up, the day’s begun. Hardy can see the Arkansas River has more floating branches and debris from the woods, more than usual. What the heck does that mean, are we headed into something? Out of something?
The bateau is pulled out of the bend, and as the River begins to straighten itself, renew its energy, the current pushes hard. The River is rushing.
“Do you feel that?” Knight says, “the pull?”
He hears the air open up around him, and he waits to hear more, “Listen. Can you hear that?”
“I do hear it.” Boy says. “It’s an octave change, definitely. It’s like I can feel the air changing.”
In the rush out of the last bend of the Arkansas, the River’s wooded edges are left behind, the little bateau is changed from a boat on a River into a ship on the widest of everything.