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From the road intersection at the top of the hill, Sam caught glimpses of the Oostanaula as it eluded the surrounding peaks and shouldered its way through the dense river valley foliage. Reflecting the peach-colored canopy of the evening sky, tiny river waves sparkled against a field of green like ants on a picnic blanket. As the noisy Plymouth rumbled towards lower elevation, an opaque cloud of brown dust followed behind it like a comet’s tail.
Sam had been rehearsing what he would say to the widow since leaving the service station. The only way for Mr. Bennet’s gamble to pay off was for Sam to not only buy the land—which already seemed like no small feat—but at a modest price-per-acre to boot. If his boss was correct however, and no one else was privy to the TWA’s plans for the dam, then he at least saw no reason to offer any more than one normally would for such remote mountain property.
Dodging several treacherous potholes in the gravel road, Sam pictured himself standing on Mrs. Garret’s front porch. He had to raise his voice in order to be heard over the timbre of the engine and the gravel stones peppering the car’s undercarriage like a fusillade of bullets.
“Evenin’ ma’am. Peach of a night we’re having, isn’t it?”
What? Oh boy, that’s no good at all.
“Hello there Miss Garret, my name is Sam and I’ve come all the way from Atlanta just to purchase your property. And I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer, either.”
“Ma’am, wouldn’t you prefer to live someplace smaller and easier to manage? Somewhere you can just relax, and enjoy your own twilight years?”
Hmm. That’s still not it, but maybe something along those lines.
Before he could cobble together another potential greeting, both car and driver slipped into the cool shade of the riverside vegetation. Here, any gaps of sunlight left between the slender oak trees and bushy hemlocks was plugged with an over-abundance of leafy plants and shrubs. Boring a tunnel through the flora, wayward limbs stretched out into the thoroughfare and tapped the sideview mirrors as the car grumbled past.
After a short distance, conjured out of the gloom, the road was forced to negotiate around an enormous moss-covered granite boulder that had likely tumbled from the surrounding heights long before mankind elected to carve a route through the area. As Sam came around the bend, (reaching for the procured half of chicken sandwich on the passenger seat), he suddenly stomped down on the brake pedal causing the car to skid a few thunderous feet before halting to the bouncing squeal of its shocks.
Had it been any later in the day—and as such, darker—Sam may have driven right past the little brick hut, over the deck of the waiting ferry, and straight into the Oostanaula River beyond. As it was however, despite the apparent lack of signs announcing of its approach, the Plymouth’s distinct waterfall grill came to rest scant inches away from the rusty chain spanning the road beside the hut. As a skittish flock of blackbirds scattered from the crown of a shagbark tree, the comet’s tail overtook the car at last, continuing of its own volition to the river’s edge before disappearing over the sparkling water for good.
Sam exhaled a ragged breath at the close call and climbed out of the car in order to survey the landing. Other than the dilapidated ferry boat—currently tied-off to a locust pole with its loading ramp laying on the riverbank like a giant opened maw—and the hut no bigger than a tool shed, it didn’t appear as though anybody was around. There were no other vehicles parked nearby; no little group of locals cloistered around the boat launch as they awaited the slow trip to the far side. Only the cicadas welcomed the gathering evening with their high-pitched warble, absorbed in the busy lives’ of bugs and thus indifferent to his plight.
Stepping over the low-hanging chain, Sam walked the remaining twenty feet to the rusting barge. With the majority of its blanched red paint flaked off, his first reaction upon seeing it up close— dutifully bobbing in the water—was surprise that it did in fact appear to be floating. About half the size of a flatbed train car, he couldn’t imagine safely squeezing more than two automobiles onto it at once. The wooden deck, a patchwork of mismatched boards hastily scabbed down, was barren save for a few coils of rope and empty fruit crates. Haphazardly affixed to the starboard wall, a narrow bench was the only seating available for the slow, eighty-plus yard trip across the Oostanaula River.
Turning over his shoulder to glance at the darkened little brick hut, Sam had been expecting someone to come out and greet him. “Hello?” he called out, startling the reclusive treetop cicadas into silence. “Is anyone here?”
Well this is just wonderful, he thought to himself as he impatiently dug his watch out.
It’s 7:15, Where the hell is everyone? Maybe the ferryman fell asleep.
Leaving the rickety boat behind, Sam decided to briefly investigate the hut before turning his car around to drive back to the service station. Perhaps Israel would still be on shift and knew of another way across the river. As he strolled across the tranquil ferry landing, gravel crunched loudly underfoot, and the stony echo rippled through the surrounding trees like the waves from the fish in the river, rising to feed on the bugs that haunted her surface.
Reaching the hut, Sam stopped out front. The handcrafted door appeared as if it had already been rotting in the shady river air for decades, any ideas for a fresh coat of paint having long-since been abandoned. Next to the door, a small single-pane window was the only other access into the little structure—though its burlap curtain was drawn shut, concealing the interior from Sam’s view. Not hearing any noise from the other side, Sam rapped his knuckles against the wood.
“Hello? Is anyone in there? You’ve got a customer out here.” He banged on the door more determinedly with the bottom of his fist, but still nothing stirred from the other side.
Come on, I don’t have time for this hillbilly crap.
Grasping the doorknob, Sam had just begun to twist when a man’s voice startled him from behind, and he flinched with a jolt.
“Well ‘lo there, friend!”
Caught off guard, he spun around quickly to face the surprise stranger. Rooted close enough to smell the combination of dried sweat and wood-smoke, a reed-thin man in homespun trousers and a stained and sun-faded blue shirt was smiling ear-to-ear. His greasy light brown hair—amateurishly chopped in all the approximate locations of a legitimate haircut—was brushed over to one side, nearly covering his right ear completely.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to give ya’ jump! M’back teeth were floatin’ an’ I had to step off fer a bit.” The man’s green eyes seemed to sparkle and pop with cheerful enthusiasm, and his smile—still plastered across his face—never flagged as he spoke.
Sam cleared his throat to compose himself and said, “Oh, yeah—that’s no problem. I didn’t hear you walk up is all. I was just having a look around while I waited.”
The man gave off a loud puff of laughter and said, “You done seen it all now, friend!” He swept his arm around the deserted ferry landing. “There she is—the lass’ workin’ ferry in all of Walker County.”
Sam humored him by the taking one more survey around the landing and then nodded appreciatively. Even the ferry itself appeared unimpressed as tiny waves lapped indifferently against the rusted hull. When he turned back, the man’s bony hand was thrust out at him. “Say, I didn’t catch yer name, friend.”
Stammering, Sam hesitantly took the man’s unwashed hand. “Oh, S-s-s—” Thinking back to his conversation with the service station attendant, he decided to err on the side of caution. “Bennet, Gerald Bennet. Most folks just call me ‘Jerry’ though,” and he gave the proffered hand a few polite shakes.
The man’s smile grew even wider still. “Name’s Hadley… but you can just call me ‘Hadley,’” he said before firing off another short guffaw at his own joke.
Kill me now, Sam thought to himself behind his best salesman smile.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance Hadley. Say, I’d like to catch the next ferry, if that’s possible.”
Nodding enthusiastically, Hadley said, “Why sure it’s possible. That’s why I’m here, ain’t it?”
“Oh, great. Alright, well shall I just pull on board, or do you have to—”
“Whoa—where’s the rush? We can’t leave just yet,” said the man, as though such information were obvious.
Confused, Sam looked around the deserted landing again and asked, “We can’t? Well how come?”
Hadley motioned with his chin as he pointed over Sam’s shoulder. Turning around to follow the dirty finger, a hand-painted tin sign nailed to an oak tree was barely visible as it struggled to resist the leafy tendrils of a kudzu vine:
“Last Ferry Departs at Dark“
Baffled, Sam groaned internally and looked up beyond the treetop awning. The peach colored sky had molted into a flaming orange-and-yellow smear as the sun continued to lose its grip on the day, though there was still enough light to see the landing on the opposite riverbank.
Swallowing his frustration at the further delay, Sam forced the geniality into his voice. “Okay. So what time is ‘dark’ around here anyway?”
Another loud, clipped laugh burst free from the ferryman, and he wordlessly stepped around Sam on his way to the front door of the hut. When he opened the door, the auburn twilight cast a feint glow on the dusty wood-plank countertop and few chairs set along the inside wall. Beyond the shaft of dim light, inky-black shadows hid the rest of the interior from view.
Sam waited outside the door as Hadley disappeared into the shadows, listening as the man bumped into several unseen objects while he opened and closed various drawers and cupboards. Finally emerging, Hadley was carrying a large, unlit lantern by its handle. Hanging the lantern from a wrought-iron hook on the outside wall of the hut, he at last stopped and pointed to the extinguished wick. “When I have t’ light that there, it’s time to go.”
Sam laughed incredulously and pulled out his watch. “Haven’t you people ever heard of a clock? You really ought to know the exact hour, like a proper schedule. That way people can make arrangements.”
“Hee-hee! Arrangements? Clocks? What good’s a clock out here?” Pointing to the watch in Sam’s hand, he said, “Tell me, at what hour do the flowers open up and spread their bright, color-y petals? Or the fox; what clock does she consult ‘fore she knows to take fer her den?” Leaving Sam at the hut’s doorstep, he breezily strolled over to the Plymouth and leaned against the maroon front fender. Plucking a smoke-stained corncob pipe from his trouser pocket, he stuck it into the corner of his mouth without lighting it. After a few thoughtful and impotent draws, he pulled it out again and jabbed it towards Sam.
“For that matter, what fancy timepiece does the rooster check before he announces the break of the morning sun? And I never, in all my life, heard a’ mighty ocean tides obeyin’ the hands of a clock.”
Sam sighed defeatedly, “Okay, I get your point. What about if I paid extra, would you be willing to bring me over—right now?”
“Th’ ferry’s free, friend. Don’t cost no penny to pull Eda across the Oos’.”
Sam thought that Eda was perhaps the dumbest name for a boat that he’d ever heard, but then, considering the shoddy vessel, he deemed it fitting.
“I understand, but I’m offering to pay you to leave right now. You can have me over to the far side and back before full-dark. And then that’ll be the last trip of the day.”
Hadley just shook his head apologetically. “’Fraid I can’t do that. Like I said, th’ ferry’s free. Besides, the next trip is already the last trip.” His eyes narrowed skeptically, “You’re sure in a big hurry to get ‘cross, mister.”
I’m not falling for it this time, Sam thought to himself.
“Yes, I am. In regard to a very important and very private matter.”
Brushing aside the insinuation, Hadley just stuck his pipe back into the corner of his grin and said, “Suit yerself. But iffin’ you was in a hurry, you ought’ve taken the bridge. I can’t say as where your headin’, but it’ll get ya to most places on the far side of the Oos’.”
Sam was dumbfounded, and his lower jaw dropped open like the ferry’s ramp. “What?” he asked, anger flashing across his face. When Hadley only gawked back at him in confusion, Sam explained acidly, “The man at the petrol station told me that this was the shortest route!” His voice had grown louder than he realized, though he wouldn’t have cared if he had.
Despite his visible fury however, Hadley only chuckled. “Izzy? You sayin’ you asked Izzy for the shortest way to where yer headin’, and he sent you right down t’ here? Hah! Well now, don’t be mad at ol’ Israel—he’s one hundred percent corrr-rect,” he said, breaking the single word into two. “But, now, the shortest doesn’t always mean the fastest, does it?”
Sam stomped through the gravel towards his car, yanking the door open in a huff.
“Whoa friend, easy now. Where you off to in yer big rush?”
Sam stopped beside the open door, “I’m going to drive back up and then take the damn bridge, like I should have done in the first place!”
Hadley’s face got serious, and he said, “Oh, now I’m ‘fraid that’s no good ‘teether.”
“What?” asked Sam, exasperated. “Why the hell not?”
“Well, see, when you ass’d him, Izzy was right, and this here ferry was absolutely the shortest route—just not necessarily the fastest. But, now that yer here, and seeing as the day is so late already, this here is now the shortest and the fastest.”
“So it would take me longer to go back up to the bridge than just take the damn ferry, is that what you’re saying?”
Hadley withdrew the pipe, nodded and winked. “Precisely, friend.”
Releasing a dejected sigh, Sam shut the car door again. “Fine. I suppose I’ll just wait here after all.” He walked over to front of the car and leaned against the bumper as the resident crickets commenced their first chirps of the evening. To no one in particular, he said, “This has been one doozy of a day, let me tell you.”
“Well then, ’s a good thing its almost over. That’s what momma always used to say when I had a bad day. ‘Haddy-bug,’ she’d say, ‘thank the good lord in heaven that tha’ sun drops on good days an’ shit days alike,’ pardonin’ my language of course.”
Without looking over at him, Sam nodded. “She’s got that right, sounds like a smart woman.”
The ferryman’s mood suddenly changed, and Sam could sense a dimming to the electric aura that surrounded him. “Was,” he said simply, “she died when I was little. Fever stole her right after breakfas’. It took a long time for the sun to go down that day too. Thanka’ th’ lord those kind are far and few, huh?” His voice had grown softer, more subdued.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize… my condolences.”
Like the passing of a rain cloud though, after a brief moment of silence Hadley rebounded to his former cheery attitude. “No worries, friend. S’all water under the bridge now—hey, that’s a funny play on words. Besides, t’whole towns my real family. Yessir, ever last one of em’ come by here sooner ah later just to say ‘hello’.”
“Can’t ask for any more than that I suppose,” said Sam, considering his own casually indifferent familial relationships. “So what’s the story with this ferry anyway? Why don’t y’all just build a regular bridge down here like the other one?”
Hadley laughed again, almost spitting his pipe out onto the ground. “We never asked for that one,” as he motioned to some vague location upriver. “One of those silly gover’mint projects meant to put the lazy city folk to work and get money in poor folks hans’. They all come out here with their big trucks and machines, huffing and puffing from all the hills. Damn near killed half of em’ just puttin’ it up!” His next outburst of laughter sent some anonymous nocturnal critter scurrying through the underbrush in alarm.
Sam suspected that Hadley might be embellishing the story a bit, but he decided to let it go—mountain folk were notoriously proud people, especially when it came to their urban neighbors. Instead, he asked, “Don’t y’all feel cheated though?”
“Cheated? Outta what? Another silly ol’ bridge?”
“Well no, all of it. It isn’t just about bridges. I mean look at this,” gesturing towards the rickety ferry, “this is the twentieth century for crying out loud! Nobody uses ferries to cross a simple river anymore. It’s archaic. It’s borderline primitive. It—”
Gasping offendedly, Hadley’s lilting voice turned stern. “Now hold it right there, friend. We may not zip around town in your smoky cars all day long and run e-electricity cables all over the place like a cat’s cradle, but we sure ain’t no pree-mates. Just like that silly ol’ bridge upriver—what’s everyone gonna do when it breaks and falls right down into the Oos’? How they gonna get t’ the other side then? It don’t take no genius to throw up a stupid ol’ cement bridge. We was all fine ‘fore it, and we’d be fine wit-out it.”
Sam stood upright from the bumper, suddenly balking at the ferryman’s stubborn traditionalist attitude. “Any bridge that’s been properly constructed will long outlast any ferry,” he said, gesturing to the boat with a jerked thumb. “I’d rather drive across a bridge that had been built—”
“Ain’t no bridge on all the Oos’ gonna outlive Eda, I personally—”
“—who cares, Eda’s just going be buried beneath the reservoir in the end anyw—”
Hadley abruptly stopped talking, looking stung. Cocking his head to the side skeptically, he asked, “What you mean ‘’neath the reservoir’?
Son of a bitch!
“Oh. Nothing, it’s just a figure of speech that folks say around the city.”
Hadley’s eyes were still narrowed, but he said, “Hmm. Ain’t never heard that one ‘fore. What’s it mean?”
Sam again found himself scrambling to contrive an answer. “You know, ‘buried beneath the reservoir,’ like… ‘nothing can stop the march of time,’ and all that stuff.”
To his surprise, Hadley exploded with another burst of laughter. “Oo-wee, I like that. ‘Under the reservoir,’ shoot. But mister, real life or city-talk, some things are just different up here. We abso-lootely can stop the march of time.”
Yeah, just wait and see about that—friend.
“If that were the case, you’d have been able to stop that bridge. But you didn’t. It went right on up anyways.”
Sam’s flippant remark was met with granite-like silence. The ferry landing had become almost completely draped in darkness, and only the feint outlines of familiar objects alluded to their precise location. He could hear Hadley boots crunching on the gravel as he walked closer, the solid outline of his wiry frame stopping directly in front of him. The pungent aroma of body odor and smoke filled Sam’s nostrils before trickling down the back of his throat.
As the last weak rays of sunlight drained from the land like a fading dream, Hadley’s eyes flashed their brilliance only inches from Sam’s own. Was the man going to sock him? Could he really have gotten that offended? Despite the muted tension though, Sam refused to turn away. Then, Hadley raised his hand through the insidious gloom and gently rested his fingertips against Sam’s chin before slowly pushing his head to the right.
There, on the far bank, hung a burning lantern. Sam stared at it in confusion for a moment until the striking of a match startled him, illuminating the landing in its phosphorous flash. Turning to look at the source of the sudden light, he saw Hadley finish setting the wick ablaze in his own boxy lantern, still hanging from the wall of the hut.
“Well looky there mister big-city,” he said, grinning broadly in the orange lantern light, “time t’ shove off.”
Click here for Part: IV (Conclusion)
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