Legendary figures of Mississippi’s past-flatboatman Mike Fink and the dreaded Harp brothers-mingle with characters from Eudora Welty’s own imagination in an exuberant fantasy set along the Natchez Trace. Berry-stained bandit of the woods Jamie Lockhart steals Rosamond, the beautiful daughter of pioneer planter Clement Musgrove, to set in motion this frontier fairy tale. “For all her wild, rich fancy, Welty writes prose that is as disciplined as it is beautiful” (New Yorker).
About the Author
EUDORA WELTY (1909–2001) was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and attended the Mississippi State College for Women, the University of Wisconsin, and Columbia University (where she studied advertising). In addition to short fiction, Welty wrote novels, novellas, essays, and reviews, and was the winner of both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
Date of Birth:April 13, 1909
Date of Death:July 23, 2001
Place of Birth:Jackson, Mississippi
Place of Death:Jackson, Mississippi
Education:University of Wisconsin
Read an Excerpt
It was the close of day when a boat touched Rodney's Landing on the Mississippi River and Clement Musgrove, an innocent planter, with a bag of gold and many presents, disembarked. He had made the voyage from New Orleans in safety, his tobacco had been sold for a fair price to the King's men. In Rodney he had a horse stabled against his return, and he meant to spend the night there at an inn, for the way home through the wilderness was beset with dangers.
As his foot touched shore, the sun sank into the river the color of blood, and at once a wind sprang up and covered the sky with black, yellow, and green clouds the size of whales, which moved across the face of the moon. The river was covered with foam, and against the landing the boats strained in the waves and strained again. River and bluff gave off alike a leaf-green light, and from the water's edge the red torches lining the Landing-under-the-Hill and climbing the bluff to the town stirred and blew to the left and right. There were sounds of rushing and flying, from the flourish of carriages hurrying through the streets after dark, from the bellowing throats of the flatboatmen, and from the wilderness itself, which lifted and drew itself in the wind, and pressed its savage breath even closer to the little galleries of Rodney, and caused a bell to turn over in one of the steeples, and shook the fort and dropped a tree over the racetrack.
Holding his bag of gold tight in his hand, Clement made for the first inn he saw under the hill. It was all lighted up and full of the sounds of singing.
Clement entered and went straight to the landlord and inquired, "Have you a bed for the night, where I will not be disturbed till morning?"
"Aye," replied the landlord, who brushed at a long mustache--an Englishman.
"But where have you left your right ear?" said Clement, pointing to the vacancy. Like all innocent men, he was proud of having one thing in the world he could be sharp about.
And the landlord was forced to admit that he had left the ear pinned to a market cross in Kentucky, for the horse stealing he did.
Clement turned and went on up the road, and the storm was worse. He asked at the next inn, which was equally glittering and bright, indeed he could not distinguish them in his memory from one year's end to the next, if he might be accommodated for the night.
"Aye," said the landlord, showing his front teeth all of gold.
"But where have you left your left ear?" Clement asked, and he had that man too. The fellow said it had been clipped away in Nashville for the sad trouble he got into after the cockfights.
On he went, the rain worse all the time, until it sounded like the quarreling of wildcats in the cane, and at last, at the very top of the hill, he found an inn where he was able to pronounce the landlord honest.
"Since you appear to be a scrupulous man," he said, "I would like to engage of you a bed for the night, with supper and breakfast, if not too dear."
"To be sure," replied the landlord, the very image of a hare, whose large ears were easily set a-trembling. "But, sir, this is a popular house, if I may say so. You may have one bedfellow, or even two, before the night is over."
At that very moment there came a loud gust of laughter from the grogshop at the side--"Ho! Ho! Ho!"
"But it is early yet," the landlord said, his ears beginning to quiver nonetheless. "If you go up at once, you will be able to take first choice of place in the bed."
Clement stopped only to eat a supper of beefsteak, eggs, bacon, turkey joints, johnnycake, pickled peaches, plum pie, and a bowl of grog before saying good night to him.
"Pleasant dreams!" the landlord said, and the traveler went up the winding stair.
Clement was the first man to the room. The storm was unabated, the wind was shaking the house like a cat a mouse. The rain had turned to hail. First he hid his moneybag under that end of the pillow which was nearest the door, and then he sat down to take off his boots before getting into bed, such being the rule of the house. But before he got his first boot off, in walked a second traveler.
This was a brawny man six and a half feet high, with a blue coat, red shirt, and turkey feather stuck in his cap, and he held a raven on his finger which never blinked an eye, and could say,
"Turn back, my bonny,
Turn away home."
"Ah, stranger," said this fellow to Clement, striding up. "It's been a long time since we slept together."
"So it has," said Clement.
"Have you got the same old smell you had before?" asked the stranger, and Clement did not say no.
"Are you just as lousy as ever?" he roared, and Clement said he was.
"Then shake hands!"
Before Clement could get the second boot off, the third traveler walked in.
He was as brawny as the other, though but six feet tall, and dressed up like a New Orleans dandy, with his short coat knotted about him capewise. But for some reason he wore no hat, and his heavy yellow locks hung over his forehead and down to his shoulders.
"Ah, stranger," said he to the second traveler. "Crowded days! It's been a long time since our heads were side by side on the pillow."
"Long as forever!" sang out the other.
Then Clement knew they were all three strangers to one another, with the stormy night ahead.
When the third traveler removed his cloak, there was a little dirk hid in the knot, which he placed with his moneybag under the pillow. And there were the three bags of gold sitting there side by side, like hens on their nests. So Clement held up the snuffer over the light.
"Wait!" said the third traveler. "Are we dreaming already? We are going off without the last nightcap, gentlemen."
"Ho! Ho! Ho!" said the second traveler, punching himself in the forehead and kicking himself in the breeches. "That is a thing I seldom forget, for my mind is as bright as a gold piece."
All three of them sat and uncorked their jugs and at the same moment drank down. And when they looked up, the second traveler had drunk the whole jugful.
"Remarkable!" said the yellow-haired stranger, who had made way with half a jug. Poor Clement, who had swallowed only a fourth, could say nothing.
"That was only a finicky taste," replied the other, and throwing off his blue coat, he yelled, "Drink again!"
And he seized Clement's own jug out of his finger and emptied it.
"A master!" said Yellowhair. "But I dare say that is the end, the show is over. You can do no more."
"Ho! Ho!" said the other, and taking off his red shirt and filling his bristling chest with a breath of air, he seized the other's own jug and finished it off.
Then, sailing his cap in the air, he gave a whistle and a shake and declared that he was none other than Mike Fink, champion of all the flatboat bullies on the Mississippi River, and was ready for anything.
"Mike Fink! Well now," said the yellow-haired stranger, and putting his head to one side studied him with all the signs of admiration.
"Yes indeed I am," said the flatboatman crossly. "Am I not Mike Fink, as you live and breathe?" he roared at Clement.
It was a cautious night, but Clement believed him, until the yellow-haired stranger said, "Well, I doubt it."
"You doubt that I am Mike Fink? Nevertheless, it is true!" yelled the flatboatman. "Only look!" And he doubled up his fists and rippled the muscles on his arms up and down, as slow as molasses, and on his chest was the finest mermaid it was possible to have tattooed at any port. "I can pick up a grown man by the neck in each hand and hold him out at arm's length, and often do, too," yelled the flatboatman. "I eat a whole cow at one time, and follow her up with a live sheep if it's Sunday. Ho! ho! If I get hungry on a voyage, I jump off my raft and wade across, and take whatever lies in my path on shore. When I come near, the good folk take to their heels and run from their houses! I only laugh at the Indians, and I can carry a dozen oxen on my back at one time, and as for pigs, I tie them in a bunch and hang them to my belt!"
"Strike me dead!" said the yellow-haired stranger, and he yawned, got into bed, and shut his eyes.
"I'm an alligator!" yelled the flatboatman, and began to flail his mighty arms through the air. "I'm a he-bull and a he-rattlesnake and a he-alligator all in one! I've beat up so many flatboatmen and thrown them in the river I haven't kept a count since the food, and I'm a lover of the women like you'll never see again." And he chanted Mike Fink's song: "I can outrun, outhop, outjump, throw down, drag out, and lick any man in the country!"
"Go down to the corner and buy yourself a new jug," said the yellow-haired stranger. His eyes were shut tight still, though Clement's, you may be sure, were open wide. "You're still nothing but an old buffalo."
"So I lie?" bellowed the flatboatman, and, leaping out of his breeches, he jumped across the room in three jumps and said, "Feast your eyes upon me and deny that I am Mike Fink."
Clement was ready to agree, but the yellow-haired stranger said, "Why, you're nothing but an old hoptoad, you will make me mad in a minute. Now what is it you want? If you want to fight, let us fight."
At that, the flatboatman gave one soul-reaching shout and jumped into the featherbed and burst it, and the yellow-haired stranger leaped up with a laugh, and the feathers blew all around the room like the chips in a waterspout. And out the window it was storming, and from the door the raven was saying,
"Turn again, my bonny,
Turn away home."
As for Clement, he removed himself, since he was a man of peace and would not be wanted on the scene, and held the candle where it would be safe and at the same time cast the best light, and all the while his bedfellows sliced right and left, picked each other up, and threw each other down for a good part of the night. And if he sneezed once, he sneezed a thousand times, for the feathers.
Finally the flatboatman said, "Let us stop and seize forty winks. We will take it up in the morning where we leave off tonight. Agreed?"
"Certainly," said the other, dropping him to the ground where he was about to throw him. "That is the rule Mike Fink would make, if he were here."
"Say once more that I am not Mike Fink and, peace or no peace, that will be your last breath!" cried the flatboatman. And then he said cunningly, "If by now you don't know who I am, I know who you are, that followed this rich planter to his bed."
"Take care," said the other.
"I will bet all the gold that lies under this pillow against the sickening buttons you wear sewed to your coat, that your name is Jamie Lockhart! Jamie Lockhart the----"
"Take care," said the other once more, and he half pulled out his little dirk.
"I say for the third time that your name is Jamie Lockhart, the I-forget-what," said the flatboatman. "And if that does not make it so, we will leave the decision to this gentleman, whose name has not yet been brought out in the open."
The poor planter could only say, "My name, about which there is no secret, is Clement Musgrove. But I do not know Jamie Lockhart, any more than I know Mike Fink, and will identify neither."
"I am Mike Fink!" yelled the flatboatman. "And that is Jamie Lockhart! And not the other way around, neither! You say you do not know who he is--do you not know what he is? He is a----" And he took hold of Clement like a mother bear and waltzed him around, whispering, "Say it! Say it! Say it!"
The poor man began to shake his head with wonder, and he did not like to dance.
But the yellow-haired stranger smiled at him and said coolly enough, "Say who I am forever, but dare to say what I am, and that will be the last breath of any man."
With that delivered, he lay down in the bed once more, and said to Mike Fink, "Blow out the candle."
The flatboatman immediately closed his mouth, put his breeches and shirt and his coat back on, blew out the candle, and fell into the bed on one side of Jamie Lockhart, if it was he, while the planter, deciding that affairs were at rest for the evening, lay down on the other.
But no sooner had Clement given a groan and got to the first delightful regions of sleep than he felt a hand seize his arm.
"Make no sound, as you value your life," whispered a voice. "But rise up out of the bed."
The storm was over, and the raven was still, but who knows whether he slept? It was the yellow-haired man who had whispered, and Clement had to wonder if now he should find out what Jamie Lockhart was. A murderer? A madman? A ghost? Some outlandish beast in New Orleans dress? He got to his feet and looked at his companion by the pure light of the moon, which by now was shining through the shutter. He was remarkably amiable to see. But by his look, nobody could tell what he would do.
So he led Clement to a corner, and then placed two bundles of sugar cane, that were standing by the wall, in their two places in the bed.
"Why is that?" said Clement.
"Watch and wait," said he, and gave him a flash in the dark from his white teeth.
And in the dead of the night up rose Mike Fink, stretching and giggling, and reaching with his hands he ripped up a long board from out of the floor.
As soon as it came under his touch, he exclaimed in a delighted whisper, "Particle of a flatboat you are! Oh, I would know you anywhere, I'd know you like a woman, I'd know you by your sweet perfume." He gave it a smack and said, "Little piece of flatboat, this is Mike Fink has got you by the tail. Now go to work and ruin these two poor sleeping fools!"
Then he proceeded to strike a number of blows with the plank, dividing them fairly and equally with no favorites between the two bundles of sugar cane lying between the feathers of the bed.
"There! And there! If we have left you one whole bone between you, I'm not the bravest creature in the world and this pretty thing never sprang from a flatboat," he said.
Next, reaching under the tatters of the pillow, he snatched all three bags of gold, like hot johnnycakes from a fire, and lying down and stretching his legs, he went to sleep at once, holding the gold in his two hands against his chest and dreaming about nothing else.
When all was still once more, Clement stretched forth his hand and said, "Are you Jamie Lockhart? I ask your name only in gratitude, and I do not ask you what you may be."
"I am Jamie Lockhart," said he.
"How can I thank you, sir, for saving my life?"
"Put it off until morning," said Jamie Lockhart. "For now, as long as we are supposed to be dead, we can sleep in peace."
He and the planter then fell down and slept until cockcrow.
Next morning Clement awoke to see Jamie Lockhart up and in his boots. Jamie gave him a signal, and he hid with him in the wardrobe and watched out through the crack.
So Mike Fink woke up with a belch like the roar of a lion.
"Next day!" announced Mike, and he jumped out off bed. With a rousing clatter the moneybags fell off his chest to the floor. "Gold!" he cried. Then he bent down and counted it, every piece, and then, as if with a sudden recollection, he stirred around in the bed with his finger, although he held his other hand over his eyes and would not look. "Nothing left of the two of them but the juice," said he.
Then Jamie Lockhart gave Clement a sign, and out they marched from the wardrobe, not saying a thing.
The flatboatman fell forward as if the grindstone were hung about his neck.
"Bogeys!" he cried.
"Good morning! Could this be Mike Fink?" inquired Jamie Lockhart politely.
"Holy Mother! Bogeys for sure!" he cried again.
"Don't you remember Jamie Lockhart, or has it been so long ago?"
"Oh, Jamie Lockhart, how do you feel?"
"Fine and fit."
"Did you sleep well?"
"Yes indeed," said Jamie, "except for some rats which slapped me with their tails once or twice in the night. Did you notice it, Mr. Musgrove?"
"Yes," said Clement, by the plan, "now that I think of it."
"I do believe they were dancing a Natchez Cotillion on my chest," said Jamie.
And at that the flatboatman cried "Bogeys!" for the last time, and jumped out the window. There he had left three sacks of gold behind him, Clement Musgrove's, Jamie Lockhart's and his own.
"Gone for good," said Jamie. "And so we will have to get rid of his gold somehow."
"Please be so kind as to dispose of that yourself," Clement said, "for my own is enough for me, and I have no interest in it."
"Very well," said he, "though it is the talking bird that takes my fancy more."
"You may have that and welcome. And now tell me what thing of mine you will accept, for you saved my life," said the planter in great earnestness.
Jamie Lockhart smiled and said, "I stand in need of one thing, it is true, and without it I may even be in danger of arrest."
"What is that?"
"A Spanish passport. It is only a formality, and a small matter, but I am a stranger in the Natchez country. It requires a recommendation to the Governor by a landowner like yourself."
"I will give it gladly," said Clement. "Before you go, I will write it out. But tell me--will you settle hereabouts?"
"Perhaps," said Jamie, making ready to go. "That is yet to be seen. Yet we shall surely meet again," he said, knotting the sleeves of his coat about his shoulders and taking up the bird on his left forefinger. It said at once, as though there it belonged,
"Turn back, my bonny,
Turn away home."
Clement decided then and there to invite this man to dine with him that very Sunday night. But first, being a gullible man, one given to trusting all listening people, Clement sat Jamie Lockhart down in the Rodney inn, looked him kindly in the face, and told him the story of his life.
"I was once married to a beautiful woman of Virginia," he said, "her name was Amalie. We lived in the peaceful hills. The first year, she bore me two blissful twins, a son and a daughter, the son named for me and the daughter named Rosamond. And it was not long before we set out with a few of the others, and were on our way down the river. That was the beginning of it all," said Clement, "the journey down. On the flatboat around our fire we crouched and looked at one another--I, my first wife Amalie, Kentucky Thomas and his wife Salome, and the little twins like cubs in their wrappings. The reason I ever came is forgotten now," he said. "I know I am not a seeker after anything, and ambition in this world never stirred my heart once. Yet it seemed as if I was caught up by what came over the others, and they were the same. There was a great tug at the whole world, to go down over the edge, and one and all we were changed into pioneers, and our hearts and our own lonely wills may have had nothing to do with it."
"Don't go fretting over the reason," said Jamie kindly, "for it may have been the stars."
"The stars shone down on all our possessions," said Clement, "as if they were being counted and found a small number. The stars shone brightly--too brightly. We could see too well then not to drift onward, too well to tie up and keep the proper vigil. At some point under the stars, the Indians lured us to shore."
"How did they do it?" asked Jamie. "What trick did they use? The savages are so clever they are liable to last out, no matter how we stamp upon them."
"The Indians know their time has come," said Clement. "They are sure of the future growing smaller always, and that lets them be infinitely gay and cruel. They showed their pleasure and their lack of surprise well enough, when we climbed and crept up to them as they waited on all fours, disguised in their bearskins and looking as fat as they could look, out from the head of the bluff."
"They took all your money, of course," said Jamie. "And I wonder how much it was you would have had to give. Only yesterday I heard of a case where travelers captured in the wilderness gave up three hundred doubloons, seventy-five bars of gold in six-by-eights, five hundred French guineas, and any number of odd pieces, the value of which you could not tell without weighing them--all together about fifteen thousand dollars."
But if he spoke a hint, Clement did not hear it. "The money was a little part," he said. "In their camp where we were taken--a clear-swept, devious, aromatic place under flowering trees--we were encircled and made to perform and go naked like slaves. We had to go whirling and dizzied in a dance we had never suspected lay in our limbs. We had to be humiliated and tortured and enjoyed, and finally, with the most precise formality, to be decreed upon. All of them put on their blazing feathers and stood looking us down as if we were little mice."
"This must have been long ago," said Jamie. "For they are not so fine now, and cannot do so much to prisoners as that."
"The son named after me was dropped into a pot of burning oil," said Clement, "and my wife Amalie fell dead out of the Indians' arms before the sight. This made the Indians shiver with scorn; they thought she should have lived on where she stood. In their contempt they turned me free, and put a sort of mark upon me. There is nothing that you can see, but something came out of their eyes. Kentucky Thomas was put to death. Then I, who had shed tears, and my child, that was a girl, and Salome, the ugly woman they were all afraid of, were turned into the wilderness, bound together. They beat us out with their drums."
"The Indians wanted you to be left with less than nothing," said Jamie.
"Like other devices tried upon a man's life, this could have compelled love," Clement said. "I walked tied beside this woman Salome, carrying my child, hungry and exhausted and in hiding for longer than I remember."
"And now she is your second wife," said Jamie, "and you have prospered, have you not?"
"From the first, Salome turned her eyes upon me with less question than demand, and that is the most impoverished gaze in the world. There was no longer anything but ambition left in her destroyed heart. We scarcely spoke to each other, but each of us spoke to the child. As I grew weaker, she grew stronger, and flourished by the struggle. She could have taken her two hands and broken our bonds apart, but she did not. I never knew her in any of her days of gentleness, which must have been left behind in Kentucky. The child cried, and she hushed it in her own way. One morning I said to myself, `If we find a river, let that be a sign, and I will marry this woman,' but I did not think we would ever find a river. Then almost at once we came upon it--the whole Mississippi. A priest coming down from Tennessee on a flatboat to sell his whisky stopped when he saw us, cut us loose from each other, then married us. He fed us meat, blessed us, gave us a gallon of corn whisky, and left us where we were."
"And you turned into a planter on the spot," said Jamie, "and I wonder how much you are worth now!"
"There on the land which the King of Spain granted to me," said Clement, bent to tell his full story now or burst, "I built a little hut to begin with. But when my first tobacco was sold at the market, Salome, my new wife, entreated me in the night to build a better house, like the nearest settler's, and so I did. There was added the fine bedroom with a mirror to hang on the wall, and after the bedroom a separate larder, and behind the house a kitchen with a great oven. And behind the kitchen in a little pen was a brand-new pig, and tied beyond him to a tree was a fresh cow. A big black dog barked in the dooryard to keep anybody out, and a cock jumped on the roof of the house every morning and crowed loud enough to alarm the whole country.
"`How is this, wife?' said I.
"`We shall see,' Salome said. `For it is impossible not to grow rich here.'"
"And she was right," said Jamie.
"Yes, she was right," Clement said. "She would stand inflexible and tireless, casting long black shadows from the candle she would be always carrying about the halls at night. She was never certain that we lived unmolested, and examined the rooms without satisfaction. Often she carried a rifle in the house, and she still does. You would see her eyes turn toward any open door, as true as a wheel. I brought her many gifts, more and more, that she would take out of their wrappings without a word and lay away in a chest."
"A woman to reckon with, your second wife," said Jamie with a musing smile.
Clement closed his lips then, but he remembered how in her times of love Salome was immeasurably calculating and just so, almost clock-like, in the way of the great Spanish automaton in the iron skirt in the New Orleans bazaar, which could play and beat a man at chess.
"As soon as possible," said Clement aloud, "I would bring her another present, to stop the guilt in my heart."
"Guilt is a burdensome thing to carry about in the heart," said Jamie. "I would never bother with it."
"Then you are a man of action," said Clement, "a man of the times, a pioneer and a free agent. There is no one to come to you saying `I want' what you do not want. `Clement,' Salome would say, `I want a gig to drive in to Rodney.' `Let us wait another year,' said I. `Nonsense!' So there would be a gig. Next, `Clement, I want a row of silver dishes to stand on the shelf.' `But my dear wife, how can we be sure of the food to go in them?' And the merchants, you know, have us at their mercy. Nevertheless, my next purchase off the Liverpool ship was not a new wrought-iron plow, but the silver dishes. And it did seem that whatever I asked of the land I planted on, I would be given, when she told me to ask, and there was no limit to its favors."
"How is your fortune now?" asked Jamie, leaning forward on his two elbows.
"Well, before long a little gallery with four posts appeared across the front of my house, and we were sitting there in the evening; and new slaves sent out with axes were felling more trees, and indigo and tobacco were growing nearer and nearer to the river there under the black shadow of the forest. Then in one of the years she made me try cotton, and my fortune was made. I suppose that at the moment," said Clement in conclusion, but with no show of confidence (for to tell the truth, he was not sure exactly what he was worth), "I may be worth thousands upon thousands of gold pieces."
"You are a successful man," said Jamie, "willy-nilly."
"But on some of the mornings as I ride out," said Clement, "my daughter Rosamond runs and stops me on the path and says, `Father, why was it you shouted out so loudly in the night?' And I tell her that I had a dream. `What was your dream?' says she. `In the dream, whenever I lie down, then it is the past. When I climb to my feet, then it is the present. And I keep up a struggle not to fall.' And Rosamond says, `It is my own mother you love, swear it is so.' And Salome listens at the doors and I hear her say to herself, `I had better wake him each morning just before his dream, which comes at dawn, and declare my rights.'" Clement sighed and said, "It is want that does the world's arousing, and if it were not for that, who knows what might not be interrupted?"
But Jamie said he must go, and reminded him of the passport that was needed.
"You have interested me very much," said Clement, when he had written it out; for the poor man was under the misapprehension that he now knew everything about Jamie, instead of seeing the true fact that Jamie now knew everything about him. "And in order to persuade you to settle near-by, and come and talk more to me in the evenings, I invite you to dine with me on next Sunday night. It is only three hours' ride away, and I will meet you here to show you the way."
"And I think I will come," said Jamie, his teeth flashing in a smile. But his look was strange indeed.
"I wish to introduce you," said Clement, nevertheless, "to Salome; and to my daughter Rosamond, who is so beautiful that she keeps the memory of my first wife alive and evergreen in my heart."
Then they both rode away--Clement through the wilderness to his plantation, and Jamie on an errand of his own, with the raven perched on his shoulder.