Synopsis: A patient peddler takes his chances on an unusual hitchhiker near Dove Creek.
The peculiar hitchhiker was moseying next to his limping horse on the side of the dirt road. From behind, Alphonse approached uneasily with his peddler wagon. Alphonse debated whether he wanted to pick up the barefoot guy. Could he be trusted?
But something about the fella made him dawdle the wagon and ask, “Want a ride?”
The frowning stranger took his time, tying his horse’s reins to the wagon.
“My horse threw a shoe,” said the guest, as he hoisted himself onto the seat of the dray.
The wagon resumed its journey toward San Angela. Both commuters were uncomfortably silent, as noisy sheep scattered on the prairie.
Finally Alphonse asked, “Where are you headed?”
“Knickerbocker,” scratched the passenger.
“Well that’s on my way. I think we just follow Dove Creek downstream, and we’ll be there before you know it,” Alphonse answered.
More silence ensued. Is this hitchhiker just uncommunicative, or is he scheming a theft? Alphonse thought.
“Say—have you had any trouble getting rides?” Alphonse broke the quiet.
“Yes,” was the grunted response.
“What’s your name, if you don’t mind my asking?” Alphonse queried.
“Ned Land,” the guy replied, as curtly as possible.
Alphonse was content, since he now had a name for the face.
“How did you know that I wasn’t going to rob you when I picked you up, Ned?” he continued.
Ned smirked and said, “Guys like us know when we can clobber a man or not. You don’t look that tough to beat.”
The driver countered, “Well, I’m just a pots and pans salesman. I’m low on cash since most people barter for my wares. But I ain’t gonna mess with the likes of you.”
A hush occurred while they snaked their way along the creek on the dusty road.
Finally, out of courtesy, Alphonse asked, “What kind of work do you do?”
Ned’s nostrils flared as he mouthed deliberately, “That’s none of your business!”
Shaking his head, Alphonse assumed he’d have no more conversation with his new acquaintance.
But much later, for no reason at all, Ned snapped, “If you must know, I’m a spotter for Jimbo. When he’s struggling with wrestling rough individuals, I take over. My friends and I are also scouters in the wild.”
After a moment, “So, you’re in some kind of gang, like Buffalo Bill’s?” asked the driver.
“We ain’t no dime novel riffraff,” replied the offended passenger.
“Well, why are you stopping in Knickerbocker? Shouldn’t you and your band be going further, to San Angela, to clean up that town?” Alphonse probed.
“Our business is miles upstream. We don’t go where there’s too much howling and festive drunkards. We hate card sharks and men sulking at bars. Dove Creek is our lair.”
Alphonse was impressed with the discourse.
“Jimbo’s the leader of our group. And we’re not elegant beings! We’ve broken from civilization for reasons I will not disclose. And we do not obey the rules,” Ned shouted.
“OK, don’t get lathered up,” criticized Alphonse.
“We’re misunderstood. Every day we tour Dove Creek on our raft. The three of us look for settlers having trouble with bad individuals,” he bragged.
He continued, “Why, I killed my first river monster two years ago. It was a five-foot-long water moccasin. It had been bothering Miss Belle. So for an hour, the beast and I wrestled till it succumbed. Then last year, a forty-five-pound snapping turtle was causing problems for the Shafer family. Jimbo and I grappled together on that giant. His shell was half a yard wide! He became a fine turtle soup.”
Alphonse thought about Ned’s responses for a twinkling of time. He didn’t want to belittle Ned, but he had to ask, “So, your gang protects settlers from river monstrosities?”
Ned replied, “It’s not that simple! We don’t carry firearms! Have you ever brawled with an alligator gar that is eight feet long and weighs 250 pounds?”
Ned barked, “Well, I have!”
“But why did you manhandle a gar when you could have just speared it?” the peddler inquired.
“Our group didn’t have a harpoon when the Lopez family was destitute. We had to make do with the situation at hand.”
With raised eyebrows, the trader looked ahead, feeling cantankerous about his odd traveler. After taking a deep breath, he probed, “What else have you killed with your bare hands?”
“Well for fun, the crew and I sometimes noodle catfish out of their egg hole. Jimbo wraps a rag around his arm when we’ve found the tunneled daddy-fish. Then he sticks his arm into the hollow and wriggles his fingers. Pierre and I are on both sides of Jimbo, in case the giant takes him down.”
“Well, I take that back. Half the time, Pierre isn’t in the water with us. He’s writing a dime novel about it. At any rate, I help Jimbo bring the catfish to shore. Those seventy-pounders sure make for good eating.”
Though Alphonse could go on listening to this routine for hours, he could see the lantern lights of Ned’s town up a little ways.
“What’s your horse’s name?” asked Alphonse during their final moments together.
“Why, he’s Nemo, of course.”
That figures, thought the merchant.
Before Ned could brag any further about wrestling twenty-five-pound soft-shelled turtles or twelve-pound largemouth bass, Alphonse asked which direction he should take to get to Ned’s nighttime terminus.
“Right up the road at that wooden shack. See the man holding a book and a lantern?” he whispered.
They made their way there.
Then they stopped at the hut. Ned got down, untied Nemo from the wagon, and led him to the barn.
When Ned was out of earshot, Alphonse said to the man, “I see that Ned has a good place to rest up for tomorrow’s exploits.”
Mr. Land patted the book, “I was reading Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea when Ned was born, eleven years ago.”
“We’ve read the book countless times since then.”
“So, his daily recollections of upstream events are always bizarre.”