Shall We Gather at the RiverBy Bobby Neal Winters
Cowboy looked up from the seat of his skiff at the clear, blue sky and felt the chill wind at it whipped past his face. It was cold, but no colder than would be expected on a mid-December day. They’d been no snow yet, but the early morning’s frost, now erased by the sun’s rays, had hinted at things yet to be.
Whenever people asked Cowboy what he was doing out on days like this, he said he was out looking for arrowheads along the creek. It was a believable story as it was the sort of thing that people did in this part of the country. And today was a good day for arrowhead hunting in any case. There’d been a long, dry summer which had been relieved recently by some heavy fall rains. With the grass killed out and the erosion of the rains, there might be some new arrowheads exposed.
And who knows, he thought, I might even find a few arrowheads. It was the communing with nature, he liked though. He loved being in the out of doors with only the sky for a roof.
He pulled his skiff up to the creek bank and carefully stepped out. It was a beautiful day to be out in the open. The only cloud he saw wasn’t actually a cloud; it was smoke rising from a fire up on the hill a short way ahead. In other places and times he might’ve thought it was hunters, but here and now Cowboy knew it belonged to Wendell Warthind, who’d been a childhood friend of his father’s. He had a pretty good idea what Wendell was doing too and he made up his mind to ignore it. Not ignoring it would make life complicated. He had every intention of following through with this purposeful ignorance, but events weren’t going to allow it.
Cowboy planted his oar in the mud of the bank and tied his boat to it.
He’d taken one step, maybe two up the bank when he heard the blast.
The sound could’ve been an explosion. Cowboy knew what Wendell was doing up there and an explosion was one possible outcome of that. That wouldn’t happen if Wendel was at his best, but he’d been slipping lately.
But Cowboy’s practiced ear knew differently. While it was technically an explosion, it was one that was more precisely characterized as a shotgun blast. He pulled is 44 magnum from its holster and began running toward the sound when he heard profanity issuing in Wendell’s voice and several sharper explosions which Cowboy recognized as rifle shots.
He came in sight of an opening in the trees where in he saw Wendall hiding behind a large stump over which he was pointing a thirty-ought-six hunting rifle. In the middle of the clearing was the campfire whose smoke Cowboy had seen. It was beneath a device that Cowboy recognized as a still.
Wendell hadn’t seen Cowboy yet, so Cowboy slipped behind a tree and looked in the direction that Wendell’s rifle was pointed. The first thing he saw was a jeep with two flat tires and a couple of bullet holes in the side. Then he saw a pair of feet beneath the jeep. He followed those feet up when he saw the top of a blond head.
When he repositioned himself a little, he saw the whole face and his jaw dropped. The face belonged to the new preacher over at the Pentecostal Church, the Reverend Mosley.
Mary Beth Mosley.
Cowboy turned his attention back to Wendell It looked to Cowboy that Wendell had a bead on Mary Beth and that if something weren’t done pretty quick there was going to be a-killing. It was then that Cowboy pulled out his badge and started talking loud.
“Okay, there, Wendell,” he said with his 44 pointing straight at his father’s old friend. “This has gone far enough. Put the gun down.”
Wendell was caught off guard.
“What the hell?” he said as he turned.
“Put that rifle down!”
It came with enough force that Wendell put it down.
Cowboy now turned his attention to the Reverend Mosley.
“Mary Beth,” he said. “Throw that shotgun down.”
Mary Beth stood up from behind the jeep revealing a figure that caused Cowboy to curse it being wasted on a lady preacher.
She had a double barrel shotgun in her hand.
“Oh, Sheriff,” she said brightly, “I am so glad to see you.”
Cowboy didn’t respond to her brightness.
“Put that shotgun down,” he said. There wasn’t a hint of a smile.
Her brightness dimmed considerably as she put her shotgun down.
“Okay,” Cowboy said. “You come over here.”
As she got closer to him and farther from the gun, he moved toward Wendell, grabbed his rifle, and tossed it into the woods. As he did this, he noticed that behind Wendell was a glass three-gallon jug of a clear liquid which he appeared to be protecting like the apple of his eye.
Just at the word was forming in Cowboy’s brain, he heard it coming out of Mary Beth’s mouth.
“Moonshine,” she said. “He’s been making moonshine up here. I figured that I’d bring my shotgun up here and blow some holes in his still, but he was here. I was trying to shoot that big jug, but I got him instead. He had it coming, though, because that’s Satan’s brew.”
It was then that Cowboy noticed that Wendall had been wounded in the leg.
“You all right, Wendell?” he asked.
“I’ve been better,” he said.
Cowboy then went to the jug and smelled it.
He picked up a tin cup from the ground, tipped a little of the jug’s contents into it, and took a swig.
He looked at the jug, he looked at Wendell’s leg, and he looked at the lady preacher’s jeep. He finished his cup of whisky with a cough.
“Okay, I need to get you all back to town,” he said. He reached down and picked up the jug. With it in one hand and his 44 in the other, he said, “Follow me.”
It only took them a short time to get to the river, but the amount and the viciousness of the fighting made it clear that he wasn’t going to be able to leave them alone together. Once they arrived, another problem became apparent.
“That is surely Satan’s brew,” the Reverend Mosley said. “We ought to just pour it into the river.”
This caused Cowboy to lick his lips as it was the finest tasting brew he’d had in a long time. There was no way he could let that happen. He then looked at the creek and his small boat and a new problem occurred to him. How was he going to get these two people and the jug of whiskey across the river? The skiff was only big enough for him and one other thing.
If he took Wendell across first, Mary Beth would dump the whiskey into the creek, and Lord Almighty, that would be a crime. If he took the whiskey across first and left Mary Beth and Wendell alone together, one might kill the other. There was only one thing he could do.
“Okay, Mary Beth,” he said, “you come with me.”
He put the jug down, sat in the back of the boat, and invited Mary Beth to sit between his knees which--after looking a little suspicious--she did.
It was a cold day, and it warmed Cowboy up--in more ways than one--to have Mary Beth snuggled between his knees as he paddled across. Once there, he put her out and made the return trip. He’d been doing a little thinking on his way across and he’d gotten an idea. When he got to the other side he had a plan.
“Wendell,” he said, “hand me the jug.”
“Ain’t you afraid she’s going to dump it out?”
“Hand me the jug,” Cowboy repeated.
Wendell gave him the jug, and he went back over. Once there, he got out, put the jug out of the way on the far bank, and turned to Mary Beth.
“Okay, come back with me,” he said.
“Don’t you trust me with the whiskey?” she asked. The way she was smiling, she new the answer.
“No,” he said.
She climbed back into the boat and he slipped his knees around her again. This time there was no protest. Cowboy rowed back over, and when they arrived at the other side, Cowboy, directed his attention to Wendell again.
“Okay,” he said, “you trade places with her.”
This was done with no more problem than an exchange of hateful stares.
When he rowed Wendell to the other side, it wasn’t nearly as pleasant as it had been with the lady preacher.
“Ain’t you afraid I’m going to run off with the whiskey?” Wendell asked when he got out.
“Not the way that leg is looking,” Cowboy replied.
He then headed back, fetched Mary Beth, and brought her back, all the while regretting that this would be the last time. When they arrived at the other side, she didn’t seem to eager to get out either.
Wendell broke the spell, however.
“Where do we go now?” he asked.
“My truck’s up there,” Wendell answered. “I think I’ll take you to the emergency room first and once that’s squared away, I think I’ll take Mary Beth...I mean Reverend Mosley home.”
Cowboy thought he saw Wendell’s eyebrow move ever so slightly.
“Is he going to jail after that?” Mary Beth seemed eager to know.
“You never can tell what’s going to happen next,” he said. “You never can tell.”