A Past Life
Later on, when we came upon someone who could tell us what day it was, we figured that we met Finn on New Year’s Eve. I took this to be another benevolent sign attached to his appearance. On the first day of the year, we prepared to float further down the river, led by Finn, who had apparently made this trip many times.
As we gathered what we had to put it on the raft, Laurel drew me aside. “Did you hear Finn talking in his sleep last night?”
I shook my head. “No, I slept too soundly for that. What did he say?”
“He was calling someone named Jim. And then he said, ‘I’m sorry, Jim. So, so sorry.’”
“Did he say anything else?”
“No, he kept repeating that for about fifteen minutes.”
“Obviously, he’s sorry for something he did to Jim.”
“It might just be a dream and Jim is some figure of his imagination.”
“We can’t tell. And we can’t ask him. It will have to remain a mystery.”
We boarded our vessels. I had intended to find another, better and bigger boat somehow, but Finn said we were about a day away from the place where we would start for the Territory, so there was no use in trying to find another vessel. This was fine with me, for in truth I had no idea how we could have done such a thing. We didn’t have enough money, and I was unwilling to steal something. Our only hope would have been to find something that had been abandoned, but in all our time on the river, we had not seen any such boat. And so I have the idea up and bid it good riddance.
We had a tranquil day floating down the river, putting in only for lunch. Along about sunset, as we were preparing to go ashore to eat, Finn called back, “We’re about at the right place where you can start for the Territory. We can camp here tonight and you can start in the morning. I’ll strike off more to the southwest, so I’ll be leaving you then.”
These words caused some sadness in my heart at the prospect of leaving Mr. Finn, for although he was a rough and unlettered character, he through his advice had kept us from making a terrible mistake and ending up in captivity again. I had had more than enough of that, so my gratitude was heart felt.
We sat around one fire after we ate, Laurel inviting Finn to partake with us. We told stories and jokes, alternately laughing at that which was funny and wiping our eyes at the sentimental and sad accounts. About halfway through the evening, Finn went over to his swag and came back with a small bottle.
“I don’t have much to share with you,” he began, “but I thought you would enjoy a taste of my whiskey.”
I’m not a drinker, but it would have been impolite to refuse such a heartfelt offer. Finn passed me the bottle and I had a small pull on it and passed it to Andrew.
“Can I drink some?” he asked.
“That’s why I gave it to you.”
“My parents don’t drink and don’t want me to.”
I whispered, “It would be impolite to refuse.”
He studied the bottle for a moment, and then said, “They’re gone, so they won’t know what I’m doing.” He also had a small pull and passed it to Laurel. I knew she also did not drink, but she took the liquor and helped herself to a large swallow. She coughed and I had to go over and beat her on the back to help her recover.
She hacked some more, and then recovered herself enough to say, “Thank you, my love. I have never tasted anything that felt like fire going down my throat.”
Finn regarded all this with amusement. “That’s why it’s sometimes called firewater, m’am. I admit it is strong. The man I bought it from makes it that way.”
I thought that somehow the maker of the alcohol had not come anywhere near a revenuer’s office. Apparently, those were the kind of people that Finn kept company with. That did not surprise me.
We passed the bottle around twice, with no ill effects that I could see on Finn or me. Laurel and Andrew were a different matter. The young man fell asleep sitting up, so that Finn and I had to carry him to his deer hide, and Laurel was about to drift off when Finn addressed her.
“May I give you something?”
“Sure,” she slurred. “Jush mak it quick lahj. I can’t sthay awakes much longurr…”
Finn went over to his pack and came back with something small that he held in his hand. He gave it to Laurel, and she peered at it sitting in her palm.
“Wash is it?” she mumbled, making an effort to focus.
I couldn’t see from where I sat, but Finn said, “It’s a locket that I was told belonged to my dear mother, who died shortly after I was born. An aunt saved it for me until I was old enough since my father was a no-count drunkard.”
Laurel’s hand went to her mouth. “Oh, misstar Finn, I couldn’t taksh thiss…”
He folded her hand around the locket. “You must. I have never had a woman be kind to me since my mother died, so you in a sense are taking her place. Thank you.”
“No, thanksh you…” Laurel mumbled, and fell over, dead asleep.
“I can take her over to her skin,” I told Finn. When I came back, I said, “I guess it’s just you and me now, eh, Mr. Finn?”
“M’boy, call me by my first name.”
“And what would that be?”
“Huckleberry, but I’m called Huck.”
I wondered what kind of name that was, but he said it was, and I believed him. “All right, Huck. Say, how’d you get that name?”
He chuckled and took another pull on the whiskey bottle. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t remember being named, but that’s what they called me, so I guess that’s right.”
“I see. How’d you come to be on the river?”
“I live out in the Territory, further than you’d want to go, but I need to come in to buy supplies every so often. That’s what I was doing when I came across your party.”
“We’re fortunate that you did. We would have been in a world of trouble if we had continued on.”
He nodded. “That you would have been. I don’t have much truck with other people, but I could tell you needed help, having a wife and son with you.”
“We’re much obliged. How’d you come to live in the Territory?”
His eyes got a far-away look. “A long time ago, I got tired of folks telling me what to do, so I ran away. I used the Mississippi to do so, and I didn’t know where I’d end up. I didn’t care, as long as it was far away from the folks who kept telling me what to do. And here’s the different part: I traveled with a slave.”
“You could have gotten in a lot of trouble.”
“I could have, but it worked out all right. Anyhow, what I saw on the river was so much worse than what I’d been through. I told myself that if that was civilization, I wanted no part of it. And that’s how I came to live in the Territory.”
“That’s quite a story.”
“Yes, and now you’re going to join me, roughly speaking, of course.”
“I hope it will work out.”
“I do, too. I’ll see where you’re going and visit you when I come back by.”
“I’d like that. Like I said, I don’t care for most people, but there’s something about your family that I find interesting. I believe you in particular are destined for great things.”
“That’s kind of you to say so.”
Huck shrugged. “I can tell about a person, and I know what lies in store for you. Well, that’s enough talk. I’m going to bed. I hope you don’t have the dreams I have.”
“Dreams about Jim?”
He looked startled. “How’d you know?”
“Laurel heard you talking in your sleep, asking Jim to forgive you.”
“Didn’t know I did that, but what I did to him was not good.”
I waited for him to tell me what that was, but I guess he wasn’t ready to do that. “Good night, Huck.”
“Good night, Caleb. Tomorrow’s another day.”
“Yes, it is. We’ll see what it brings.”