John Welch’s battered pickup waited at the ferry landing. Welch slouched in the cab, whistling a breathy, unrecognizable tune through the few crooked teeth that remained in his head. He gazed intently at the spot where the ferryboat would materialize out of the mist—first its apron, angled upward to match the exact slope of the riverbank, then its forward deck and weathered board railings, and finally, Buck Shyrock standing erect and solid as a tree trunk in the steer boat. Every fiber of the ferry operator’s soul would be focused on the single task of landing the ferry straight and smooth against the Indiana riverbank, despite the hard nose of the current pushing at its side. Welch, with his window cracked open, could hear the motor out in the middle of the river, fighting the current, wheezing in the soupy air like a tired lung.
And then the motor stopped. Welch shook his head, muttered “Soppy ol’ fugger” against a rising swell of tobacco juice, and then reached down to the floorboard and retrieved an old rusty coffee tin. He spat and set it down again.
A few minutes later, the motor stammered back to life. Not long after, the boat emerged out of the mist, exactly as Welch had pictured it, the ferry and its pilot as timeless as the river itself. As the ferry apron eased onto the sand, Welch began lowering his window. The worn crank mechanism on the old truck moved in fits and jerks, the window glass screeching in its frame. Once it opened enough for his narrow, wizened face to poke through, Welch bellowed, “Shyrock! There y’are!”
“What’d ya expect?” Shyrock shouted back.
“Expected ya sooner is what I expected. Your motor quit. Run into some trouble out there?”
As was often the case, the ferry operator pretended not to hear him. Leaving the idling motor to hold the deck in place against the landing, Shyrock grabbed hold of an upright and squeezed his thick frame through a space in the railing. In knee-high black gumboots, he tramped the length of the deck and unhitched one end of the log chain barrier draped across the end of the ferry. Welch sat gunning his engine, but the pilot refused to be rushed. By the time Shyrock reached the other end of the ferry and turned to direct him onto the deck, Welch had lurched his truck over the apron and onto the runner planks.
“I never knew it to take you so dad-blamed long, Shyrock,” Welch complained as he gimped to the rail and opened his mouth enough to let the chaw of tobacco drop into the river.
Shyrock’s hound jumped onto the deck from the steer boat. She sauntered up to Welch and sniffed his pant leg. Welch patted her on the head. Her curiosity satisfied, she returned to the corner of the ferry nearest the steer boat and collapsed in a jumble of bones and long, heaving sighs.
“I gathered it was you, so I took m’time,” Buck said. He dropped a four-by-four beam behind the rear wheel of the truck and re-slung the barrier chain. “And jist ta remind ya, reg’lations say I’m ta die-rect you onta the boat.”
Welch leaned against the fender of his truck and pulled a King Edward from his barn coat. He lifted his boot, scratched a match against its heel, and pulled at the cigar until it was lit. With a cool flick of his wrist, he tossed the match into the river. He smacked his lips, feigning supreme satisfaction with his cigar and himself.
With a lurching step, Buck dropped down into the steer boat.
“You’re gettin’ too old for this, Shyrock.”
“You worry ’bout your own self, Welch.”
“I ain’t worried. I just don’t want you breakin’ a limb so I can’t be delivered across the river when I feel the need.”
“Don’t push your luck, Welch. More’n one’s offered ta pay me a healthy sum if I’d drop ya in Indiana and leave ya there.”
Besides his rented-out farmland in Illinois and a few head of cattle he fattened in a pasture across the road from his house, Welch owned an eighty-acre piece over in the Indiana flood plain. Because of its seasonal deposit of floodborne silt, it was some of the richest soil in the river valley. Problem was, come planting time, it was more often than not underwater. Teasingly, Shyrock called it the mudflats. Welch said it paid for itself and refused to get riled.
Shyrock swung the rear of the steer boat around so it faced the heart of the channel. He dropped the motor into gear with a hard ka-chunk that jarred the entire ferry and eased the throttle forward. “Feller on the bank over yonder,” he said, jerking his head to indicate the spot.
Welch turned to look. He knew in an instant what it meant.