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Past All Dishonor
By James M. Cain
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1973 James M. Cain
All rights reserved.
I FIRST MET HER, this girl you'll find soon enough, when she fished me out of the Sacramento River on an occasion when I was showing more originality than sense. I was taking a day off from my job, which was secesh spy, though I may as well say right away there was no bravery attached to it, or anything like what they put in the novels. Last year, when Lee got kicked out of Maryland, I figured it was time to quit griping at how the feds ruined Annapolis, and do something about it. So I was packed for Port Tobacco, where I was to cross into Virginia and enlist, when a friend of mine heard something that scared him worse than what had happened to Lee. He's got a big statehouse job, and gets a lot of stuff not everybody gets. And he heard about the Column from California, as they called it, that crossed the Colorado and moved through Arizona and New Mexico into Texas, and when we laid it out on the map it looked like they were going to scoop the Confederacy right into the Gulf of Mexico like a scythe scoops wheat. So he got a bunch together, and they had it all night, and decided there was still a chance for the western republic idea, but that our trouble was we didn't know anything about California. So I got elected to go out there and send news back. But right away they warned me not to send any military information, unless it was hot and important, in which case I was to wire in a simple code we had that wouldn't be suspected. Mainly I was to send newspaper clippings, and as Sacramento was a central spot, specially for political stuff, I settled down there, and took a shack by the river, on the Yolo side, so I could use a glass on the boats and anything else I wanted to see without anybody asking why. Couple of days a week I rockered a placer up on the American River, so there couldn't be any question about what I was doing there. As a matter of fact I got enough color to live on. About once a week I'd take a steamboat trip up one of the rivers, to see what was going on, and there's been plenty. That independent republic may not be such a dream as you'd think. And every couple of days I'd send on my clippings, covering both sides, like I was just a young fellow keeping his friends back east up to date. On the wire part, there wasn't much to send. California is not where the war is, and even in San Francisco, outside of training new outfits going east, there's not much military news.
One day in spring it got hot, and I put on some trunks and went in the river. The Sacramento, it's not any Severn, but it felt good just the same and I fooled around quite a while. Then a boat came in and I swam over for her wash. Then I decided to board her for a dive. Her bumpers were out, and by pulling up on her wheel I could catch one and go over the rail of the freight deck. But I had forgotten how they do on these river boats. They hit the pier like they hit it, put out a plank to let off passengers, and then later they snug in for the day. So when that wheel began to turn, it was bad news. All hands were wharf-side, and nobody was there to hear me holler and maybe tell the engineer. I hung on for a second, but that was taking me right up in the box. I dropped, and that put me at the bottom of the river, with mud swirling all around me, and that wheel overtop of me hooking it up like a thunderstorm.
How long I was down there I don't know, and if a blade clipped me I couldn't be sure. Next thing I knew I was coming up, and my head was out, but I couldn't breathe on account of the foam all around, smothering me. Then something hit me on the head and I grabbed it. It was a fire bucket, the kind that's made of canvas, with a rope on it, that they heave into the river when they want water quick. I hung on, and got some air, and caught sight of her, but whether she was young or old or pretty or plain I didn't notice. She tied the bucket to the section of rail that goes over the hatch, and stretched her hand down to me. It didn't reach. She threw both legs over the rail, turned around with her back to the river, dropped a foot down, and told me to catch hold of it. I did, and then inch by inch I went up. Each time she'd pull, a little noise would come out of her mouth, but it had guts to it and I knew if I could just hold on she'd get me out.
Then I caught the deck, and then we were on the rail. After I got my breath back, I began to notice what she looked like. She was around medium height, but seemed taller because she was so slim. She had on a black silk dress with white dots, but with no hoops in it, and you could see what a soft willowy shape she had. She had a pale skin, black hair, and thick red lips. She was plenty good-looking. "Well say, that was pretty nice of you. Thanks."
"That all the sense you've got? Fooling around a place that any couter would know enough to keep away from?"
"I craved me a dive."
"You got one all right. You know what's good for you you'll go back where you come from and quit getting yourself in a mess somebody else has to pull you out of."
"I still crave me a dive."
"Then you still got no sense."
I went up to the passenger deck, then on up to the texas deck, and straightened up for my dive. But then my head began pounding and that water looked an awful way down. Then I fell against the texas, and then I was down on the passenger deck again, holding on to the rail to keep from falling into the river. On the other side of the boat they were rolling freight, and she was down there on the freight deck, at the foot of the stairs. It crossed my mind, what was she doing there, when all other passengers had gone ashore? Then she happened to look up, and came racing up to where I was. She put her arm around me, took me in the main saloon, and from there into a stateroom, and sat me down. But my teeth started to chatter, and I thought if I didn't get warm I'd die. She got a towel and rubbed me off dry. Then a blanket was around me and she was helping me to the bed. Then I was under the covers and that was all I knew for a while.
When I woke up it was dark and a lot of talk was going on outside the door. Pretty soon I began to listen, and it seemed to be between the boat captain, a deputy, and some woman that claimed she was robbed. "It was just an ordinary black pocketbook with a strap across the back for my fingers, but it contained all my worldly goods, twenty-six double eagle pieces, four dollars in silver, two cents in copper, my wedding certificate, and a lock of my boy's hair that went in the army."
"Where did you miss this here pocketbook?"
"At Rio Vista."
"Not after they pulled out from Rio Vista?"
"Mr. Deputy, can't I read? We were tied up at Rio Vista wharf with the sign looking me right in the face. I was watching the people come aboard, and my heart almost stopped when I realized I didn't have my pocketbook. By the look on this girl's face I knew she took it, and right away I went to the captain."
"But it was Rio Vista?"
"How many times have I got to tell you?"
"Then it's a Solano County case."
"It has to be handled by Solano County, not Sacramento County. I take her to Rio Vista, you go with me, I turn her over to the Solano County officers, and they hold her for the grand jury. The grand jury hears you, returns an indictment if the evidence warrants it, and the ease is tried."
"They hear me?"
"You're the one that lost the pocketbook."
"When do you take me back?"
"Why can't she be searched now and I get my pocketbook back and that's all I want anyhow without me having to go clear on back to Rio Vista?"
"Did you explain her that, captain?"
"I've explained it till I'm tired. Madame, they got laws in this country and nobody gets searched on my boat till they're under arrest and I see the papers. This company is not taking chances on a case that rests on the look somebody has got on their face. Did you ever see the look on your face?"
"I say she took it."
"Then charge her."
She didn't answer, and the captain said: "Madame, will you kindly make up your mind one way or the other, so I can get out of here like I was supposed to do three hours ago? We've been all afternoon fooling around with you, looking up officers and neglecting everything else, and I ask you, for God's sake, will you kindly hatch a chicken or get the hell off the nest?"
"You stop talking to me like that."
"Then say something."
"If I charge her do they search?"
"And haul you back."
"I charge her."
It was up to me to get out, because a nearly naked man in her bed wasn't doing her any good. I opened the door on a crack and looked, but they were all over the saloon, not only the girl, the captain, the deputy, and the woman, but twenty or thirty passengers with drinks in their hands listening. I closed the door and went to the window. Nobody was out there, but it was so small I wondered if I would get stuck, like a pig under a gate. But it was my only chance, so I stuck my head out, got an arm through, and commenced to squirm. I'm six feet three, but I thought I had grown to eight yards from the skin I left on that sill and the rip I gave one leg, where it swung against a raw screw that was sticking out of one of the bedposts where the knob was missing. Finally I was out, and I wasn't one second too soon, because when my rump hit the deck a light showed, and when I raised up to peep they were in there.
They went through her trunk and the pillows on the bed and the mattress and bedclothes, and then the deputy said: "Very well, young woman, I'll leave you here with the maid, and deputize her to search your person."
Then the men went out, and the maid stepped over to search. She was a big blonde girl that looked like a Swede. And the woman that lost the pocket-book stepped over to watch, her lips pulled in and her chin pushed out, and the breath whistling through her nose. But then my heart gave a bump. Because the way those black eyes were narrowed down to two little slits, and the way those thick red lips were twisted up, I knew there wasn't going to be any searching, not by this pair. The maid knew it too, because she backed off and began to chatter something about her not being responsible in any way, she was just deputized by the officer. And the woman knew it too, when that smack hit one side of her face like a pistol shot, and the curls were jerked off the other side so hard the hat and wig came with them, and she standing there screaming, as bald as a coot. When the deputy came in with the captain and some men, he backed off from those hard eyes too. "And maybe you think you can search me?"
"Miss, I'm not required to use force, and I've no intention of doing it. I'm required to warn you, however, that whatever you say and do can be used against you, and if you refuse to submit to search, that fact will no doubt be most interesting to a jury. Beyond denying you the freedom of the boat, which I had intended to give you, and locking you in this stateroom, I won't go into the matter any further."
"You mean you can't."
"Have it any way you like, miss."
"But he can."
She walked over to the captain, switching her hips. "Because he's pretty. And because I can't have things used against me. Because I'se pretty too, and can't have myself put in any jail." She raised her hands above her head and looked up at him. It was the first I had seen her smile, and I hated it she was smiling at him, not me, and letting him feel all over her breasts and hips and legs, and even lifting her dresses so he could search her better. Outside, the passengers were laughing and yelling dirty stuff, and every word a stab into my heart, that had been beating so hard before because I was proud of her. At last it was done, and they were all gone, except that the captain looked her in the eye on his way out, and said he'd drop by if he had time, and she said please do. I thought I ought to say good-bye to her, and thank her for saving my life, but couldn't make myself do it. I slunk down the stairs to the freight deck, and went over the side the way I came aboard, and swum across to the shack.
I was climbing out on my little plank landing before I felt that throb in my throat. Because there was my boat, the oars tucked under the seats, and all I had to do was jump in and I'd be alongside that steamer in a minute. I think I did it in half a minute. I threw the painter over the same rail she had used for the bucket, vaulted over to the freight deck, and ran up the stairs. Nobody noticed me that I could see. The deckhands were all in the bow, rolling freight off the pier, and the passengers were at the rail watching them, or else in the bar, having a drink. She was lying down, reading a paper, when I called, but she jumped up and came to the window. "I was wondering where you'd got to."
"I've been getting my boat. Come on. Hurry."
She dragged her trunk over, and I lifted it out the window. It was one of those little leather ones that fit nice in the stagecoaches. Then she got her black cape and I took it, and leaned out the window so I could pull her through. We slipped down the stairway and I helped her in the boat. As I lowered the trunk, a bell rang in the engine room. It seemed a year before I could cast off the painter, grab the oars, and dig. As I shot away, the wheel began to turn. I was headed upstream, because the current had swung me that way, but I didn't take time to turn. I kept on going, past the steamer's bow, and shot under the next pier. She was in the stern, but now she moved up beside me, and we sat there, and held our breath, and watched. The steamer was pointed upstream too, because they always come in against the current, and she kept on that way until she was pretty close to the bridge. Then a hawser lifted out of the water, and you could hear the deckhands grunt as they began pulling it in. She came around till we could almost have touched her, then she was pointed downriver, and the wharfmaster threw the hawser off the piling, and another bell rang in the engine room. We got some spray in our faces, and almost before you could believe it there was nothing but lights going downriver while the band played Oh! Susanna.
We laughed. Then we laughed again, and I put my arm around her and she let me. Then she came close and kissed me and I kissed back and I knew I loved her and she had to be mine.CHAPTER 2
"WHAT DO I DO now?"
"Your family live here?"
"My family's dead."
"Where did you figure to go from the boat?"
"To a hotel."
"You can't do that now. They'll be looking for you."
"What you trembling about?"
"I got a shack."
"Must be cold there, the way you shake."
"You could come in there."
"It's not much, but you'd be hidden."
"What's your name?"
"Roger. Roger Duval."
"You from Louisiana?"
"The name's French, but I'm from Maryland."
"Morina's my name. Morina Crockett."
"You talk like Louisiana."
"I was born in Mobile, but I lived in New Orleans."
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-three. How old are you?"
"My little piece of live bait, with blue eyes and curly gold hair, that I pulled out of the river. Roger, when I get a little bitty shrimp, I like to hold him in my hand, just to feel him wiggle. Suppose I get to wondering how you'd feel wiggling?"
"Then you're coming?"
"I'm a coon up a tree. What else can I do?"
She moved over to the stern, and leaned back on both hands while I pulled across the river, and kept looking at me, her eyes big and black in the starlight, and just a little bit it seemed they were laughing at me. At the landing I stood up to help her out, but she kept sitting there, and then: "Roger, could I borrow your boat?"
"... What for?"
"Something I got to do."
"Well, can't I do it for you?"
"It's kind of private."
I stood there figuring, and all of a sudden it hit me that if she could handle a boat and pull up the next landing, that would kind of take care of everything she had to worry about, specially as it was on the Yolo side and there would be no Sacramento officers to be looking for her. I must have sounded pretty sulky: "Take it, then. Will you drop me a note where you leave it? So I can come get it? It handles nice and I kind of like it. Roger Duval, care general delivery, Sacramento, Calif."
"I bet you wiggle nice."
"And watch the oarlocks. They're loose."
"Aren't you taking my trunk out? ... You're the cutest thing I ever saw in my life, and I'm not leaving you. But I got a use for this boat."
Excerpted from Past All Dishonor by James M. Cain. Copyright © 1973 James M. Cain. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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