Down-river floats the button boat. In and out of sun it drifts, in and out of shade. It is a face seen in a dark mirror, a whisper heard in a dream.
“What a beautiful day,” says Dicksie.
“Bushwah,” says Auston.
“It is so.”
The river is wide and deep and a lovely molasses brown, coiling through fern woods and muskrat swamps and moss meadows where cows meet and moo and lick salt and flick flies and think about important matters. Auston, who has never been anywhere, claims that the river is a great snake which, making a circle by gripping its tail in its mouth, holds the world together like an iron band on a barrel. If the snake ever lets loose, he claims, to hiss at a storm or bite a mountain – hold your hats, folks, here we go! To Dicksie, who has never been anywhere either, who has as much imagination as Auston but more common sense, the river is a big brown rope that ties them where they are. “I wish you wouldn’t use that word,” she says.
“Get me a snappier one’n I won’t,” says Auston.
Dicksie sighs. “If we could only go into town and talk with other children, nice children. Then we’d hear lots of new words, nice ones.”
“If, if--bushwah, bushwah.”
“I’m just trying to improve you.”
Auston sticks out his chest. For a shirt he wears a feed sack with rips for arms and neck and some faded letters. GRO-CHICK. The GRO-CHICK swells up with his chest. “Improve yourself,” he says. “I’m perfect.”
Dicksie sighs again. She is eleven, her brother nine, and it is the fate of older sisters to despair of brat brothers. But as we shall soon see, Dicksie has many sighables.
A line tautens. While she backwaters the oars, Auston hops over her seat and hauls the taut line up hand over hand. At the end hangs a fat fresh-water clam. With a knife he pries open the shell, yanks out the fishhook over which it has closed tightly, drops the shell into the scatter of other shells, lets the line back down into the water, and hops back to his seat.
The button boat is a flat-bottomed wooden scow sixteen feet long and so square at both ends that only the river knows whether it is coming or going. It has a set of oars and, on uprights two feet high above each side, running from one end of the scow to the other, a sturdy wooden rack. To these racks fishlines are tied, perhaps thirty on each side, which trail down through the water and drag their hooks along the bottom, slowly, slowly.
Suppose you are a clam, minding your own business in the mud. Something tickles you. You are curious. Life can be very lonely on the bottom of a river. So you open your shell and suck whatever-it-is inside to have a look or taste and close your shell and--yank! Before you can say “Ouch!” or “What the Sam Hill goes on here?” or “Don’t – catch – me – I’m – not – good – to – eat – and – I – don’t – make – pearls – because – I’m – not – a – salt – water – clam – I’m – a – fresh – water – clam – minding – my – own – business!” you are out of the water and being pried open whether you want to be or not and dropped into a crowd of your relatives whether you want to be or not and that is almost the end of you but not quite.
But that is the purpose of a button boat--to catch clams. This river is noted for the abundance and size of its clams and the number of button boatmen who live along its banks. Clamming on top of a river, rowing up a stretch and floating down again, can be as dull as being a clam on the bottom, but for children who must do it there is small consolation. When a line goes taut it is usually a clam. Sometimes, however, it is not. Once in a while, once in a blue moon, it is treasure.
This morning, for example, besides two tin cans, an inner tube and a rusty breadbox, they fished up a flower vase. And already this afternoon, besides three tin cans and a hacksaw without a blade and a small radio without any parts, they have hooked a prize – a recent movie magazine in which, when the pages are dry, they can admire pictures of famous stars like George Raft and W. C. Fields and Carole Lombard and Mae West. They have never seen a motion picture. Last but not least, their clam catch has been good. At each end of the scow there is a large collection of clams lying limply about and wondering what for pity’s sake will happen to them next.
Auston sits down in the scummy bottom, leans back, scratches an itch, and does his two tricks. First he spits grandly over the side, ptooey. His upper middle baby tooth is missing, and his lower middle, and since his adult teeth have not yet filled the gap, he has mastered the art of spitting accurately and loudly through it. This trick disgusts Dicksie. Second, out of the holes in the toes of his rubber boots he wiggles his ten bare, scummy toes one at a time, separately. It is a real feat, for most people’s toes wiggle together. This trick his sister envies. “Y’know, Dicks,” he says, “it ain’t such a turrible life, bein’ a clammer.”
To get her goat, he repeats herself. “Nope, ain’t a turrible life atall. Sailin’ up’n down a river, doin’ as you please. Maybe that’s what I’ll be, is a clammer.”
Dicksie steadies the oars and addresses him seriously. “It is so terrible. No other children to talk with or play with, we don’t know any grownups but Poppa, we’ve never been in a movie theayter, we’ve never even been to town--why we don’t even belong to the world! Then there’s school.”
“Auston, you hush.”
“Or maybe I’ll be a Dillinger, tearin’ around in a big car an’ robbin’ banks an’ shootin’ up towns ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-oh-oh!” He sits up suddenly, popping his eyes over her shoulder. “Wow,” he whispers, “lookit what I’m lookin’ at.”
Dicksie swings her head. The button boat is drifting downstream toward the highway bridge over the river, and there by the bridge is a sight such as they have never seen.
“Hot spit!” Auston whispers.
2. Enter our hero, Whipper Smith, the handsomest, daredevilest peace officer hereabouts
He should be in the movies. He’s a young man tall an slim and towhead. On his noggin tilts a wide-brimmed hat of fine gray felt and on his legs are boots of bright black leather. In between he sports a neat gray uniform of whipcord, blouse and breeches, a shining badge, black leather gauntlet gloves, and a black belt heavy with the pistol holster. The horse on which this cowboy of the road
is seated glitters, the noble steed on which this knight of nowadays is mounted gleams and seems to paw the ground. It’s a black and silver, eighty-cubic-inch, fifty-horsepower Harley-Davidson, the mightiest motorcycle in the U.S.A!
Man and motorcycle take the children’s breath away. Toward them they float, nearer and nearer. To Dicksie and Auston the bridge is a stage. From their seats in the scow they have often watched cars cross, and humans walking, and once even a youngster their own age who ran away when they called to him. But upon the stage no actor like this has ever strutted.
“He’s lookin’ at us,” Auston says.
“Don’t look, don’t let out a peep,” his sister whispers, keeping her back turned. “Member what Poppa warned us--we’re not s’posed to talk to strangers.”
“Stranger? Everybody’s strangers to us,” Auston argues. “Who wants t’chew the fat with clams all day? Or you?”
“Just the same, you hush.”
But her brother fidgets. Finally he can’t resist. “Hey, there,” he pipes up as the bridge looms, “who’re you?”
The happy holler makes them jump. “Whipper Smith, that’s who!”
“Waitin’ for Dillenger!”
Auston grins from ear to ear. “Oh yeah?”
“Auston, button your lip,” orders Dicksie.
“What’d you do if he was t’come along?” demands her brother.
Whipper Smith sticks out his chest and looks fierce. “Fill him full of lead and sing a song on my siren and take him to town and get a medal and be in the papers and run for President and beat Franklin D. Roosevelt and live in the White House and invite you over and put you in the bathtub and give you a good scrub!”
“Bushwah!” Auston laughs under the bridge. When they emerge on the other side, Auston has to turn round and Dicksie faces the young man on the motorcycle. He smiles at her. His teeth are pure white and have no gaps.
“Why aren’t you in school this afternoon, young lad?” he asks.
Young lady? No one has ever called her “young lad.” She looks north, she looks south, she tries to row, but the words tickle her heart. It opens, and takes them inside to taste.
Whipper Smith perks up an interest in them. “What’s your name, you kids?”
Dicksie hides her face. “Don’t answer,” she warns Auston. “Poppa’ll whup us good!”
As the scow splashes away from the bridge further and further, Auston has fits. He tingles to talk to someone, to anyone, but remembering, his backside tingles even more.
“Dagnab you kids!” shouts Whipper Smith. “Why aren’t you in school? What’s your names?”
Out of sight around a bend pulls the button boat. Auston, who can no longer contain his loneliness, lets it out through the megaphone of his hands. “Hey,” he cries, even though he can’t hope to be heard, “I can wiggle my toes one at a time!”