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In the chaos, Niwashake sees his moment is now upon him. His purpose must be made. He walks Boy over to the brave, kneeling Chickasaw. He takes Boy’s hand and very gently places his hand directly on the bloody, open wound on the Chickasaw warrior’s thigh. Boy 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. Boy 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 Boy and looks directly into his eyes. A young man to an Indian warrior.

In that very instant all of Boy’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. Boy 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 slim line of a horizon, only the River.

The Chickasaw’s thigh begins to tremble. Boy hears Niwashake’s voice, as his eyes open to the woods, Niwashake quietly tells Boy, “you must go down River.”

Boy is startled back to the horror of the situation he is truly in the middle of. 

Representative Knight is overwhelmed by Niwashake’s unbelievable and perverse treatment of the youg boy. He is saying over and over, “this is wrong, this is wrong, this is wrong.”


The odyssey of an elderly gentleman, newly elected to Congress, and a teenage boy, from southern California, surprisingly enlisted in the histories and the metaphors of a great American River. 


Franklin Knight—newly elected to the House of Representatives—has decided an ‘On The Road’  style pilgrimage would give him the prestige of the hip and soulful, future thinking Congressman when he arrives in Washington. A cross-country, Winnebago press tour is the solution. Half way there he considers the Samuel Clemens theme of the great American River couldn’t hurt either. The common understanding of the metaphors is never really the issue for Knight. The closest opportunity is the Arkansas River, an access spot from a highway rest stop, is just ahead. It's decided Knight will not make the trek though the woods to the River alone. The teenager, who everyone calls Boy, will go with Knight in case there is a problem. The path through the woods is anything but simple, it’s a thick and challenging forest. Once at the River, Knight feels less than overwhelmed and old thoughts of his purposeless life resurface. Knight is suddenly stricken with serious heart pains and Boy must decide what is to be done. In a stroke of luck a boat on the River appears and instead of the long trip back to the Winnebago, Boy is convinced to head down River, with closer medical attention more than likely. In short order the men in the boat reveal themselves as deserters from the British Navy which has been engaged in numerous strategic battles throughout the Mississippi Valley. Revolutionary war soldiers who have deserted and are now running the Rivers looking for other companions. Neither Knight or Boy can comprehend or appreciate what is actually happening. The visceral presence of the men compound Knight's confusion which is greater than Boy’s. They have no real option but to go along, down River. One of the deserters, William, understands Boy’s place in the larger story and realizes he needs protection. 

Farther down the River, the boat is overtaken by canoes of young Osage warriors, a Tribe in constant conflict with other Tribes in the Mississippi Valley. In a raid on a group of Chickasaw, captives are taken and Boy must participate 'first hand' in the brutality of the scenario. With the bounty of captives, the flotilla of canoes and small boats head down River to Fort Arkansas, currently occupied by the Spanish. They’ve arrived in the night and so must wait for the following day to make their trade. That same night the British attack the Fort and in a strange and surprising battle, Knight and Boy are enlisted for their particular expertise, someone else’s fantasy. Knight becomes a co-strategist with the charming, toothless British Captain Colbert, who has lived with the Chickasaw most of his life. A Spanish Commandant, concocts theatrical strategies in his perverse and private quarters. And Boy is befriended by an African slave who becomes an important ally. Disparate Tribes, waring Europeans, American loyalists and patriots and Representative Knight with Boy, an authentic and surely odd mix of characters.

The tale of Representative Knight and Boy weaves through further, down River, scenarios. A Civil War campaign of ironclads at the battle of Vicksburg, a 60s race riot, the time line appears to overlap in hundred year increments. Prominent characters—each bound to their historic episode—see passed the significance of that particular time and place and confirm the imperative that Boy must proceed down River, as quickly and safely as possible, down River to New Orleans. 

The River does fulfill its promise to deliver Boy to New Orleans.

Lives are lost and time doubles back, as it has always done.

History is the telling of the stories, souls saving souls. 


BOATS ON A RIVER is drawn from historical events which took place along the Rivers of the Mississippi Valley. People represented in historical archives become characters written into their own stories with fictional characters by their sides. The activities of the Native American Tribes in the story are based on fastidiously researched documents. Some of their activities are not what is typically known about their endeavors and pursuits. 


BOATS ON A RIVER is a cross-genre tale of adventures on a River and the metaphysics wrapped inside the metaphor.

A back-pocket paperback, in the tradition of Mark Twain, and Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, the tale is also a True Grit of visual details and the fast-paced eccentricities of fictional characters let loose to do what they do best. 

BOATS ON A RIVER is the first feature-length Novel by the artist Dennis Balk


“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.”

Boy 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.


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 Boy 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, Boy 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.

Boy 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. Boy 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.

The Mississippi.