C&O Canal Great Falls MD June 1901
Vernon Hilliard raised the boat horn to his lips and blew a long, groaning call. He squared himself on the rear deck of the canal boat, Shenandoah, and set aside the horn. He took the tiller with both hands, planted his bare feet wide, and steered down the center of the canal. Blackish water passed beneath the boat, sliced by the rudder, and the green bottom of the boat left a wide wake behind. Away down the canal he saw Violet’s Lock, still distant, through the white oak trees that lined the shore. Spring had come early, and the Redbuds along the bank of the Potomac River began to bloom as the days started to heat up.
Vernon rubbed the back of his neck, stiff from an overnight at the tiller. He pulled off his battered grey fedora and wiped his balding head with his shirt sleeve. Yes, he was tired. The run down from Cumberland always took its toll, but Vernon made no complaints. He’d come out of the mountains, like many men before him, seeking a living wage, and he’d found he enjoyed life on the canal. He had been ‘a-boatin’ some five years now, hauling coal down to Georgetown, and empty barrels or general merchandise back up to the towns along the canal. He was judged to be one of the best of the boat captains that plied the C&O Canal from Cumberland, Maryland to Georgetown, DC. That meant he stayed unusually sober for a canal boat man. Most of the captains and the crew who worked for them drank heavily, and the taverns along River Street in Georgetown and all the towns up and down the Potomac River knew them well. Vernon avoided their company. He drank little and only between runs.
His older sister Ophelia climbed out of the little cabin of the boat onto the narrow deck and stood with her back turned to him. Her long gray hair pushed up, she pinned it there to keep it off her neck in the heat. Tall like her brother but broader built, people called her horse-faced behind her back, but never to her face. Fearless and proud and stronger than most men, large muscles knotted her arms and legs. A life of physical labor spent on a hardscrabble farm in the mountains had made her formidable. She wore bib overalls like her brother, frayed and patched many times, but clean.
Ophelia’s daughter, Viola, poked her head out of the cabin and clambered onto the whitewashed deck beside her mother. Vernon reached out to smooth her blond hair with one brown, callused hand. “Well, looky here, if it ain’t my new little boater,” Vernon said. “Did the horn blowin’ wake you up, honey?”
“Yes, Uncle Vernon,” Viola said. She pulled down on the hem of her yellow sundress to straighten it. “What’s the horn for?”
“That’s how we tell the locktender we’re a’comin’ and to ready the lock,” he said. “You remember I told you how the locks lower you when you’re going down to Georgetown and raise you up when you’re a’comin back?”
“Yes, sir,” said Viola.
Ophelia climbed up on the canal boat roof, stepped down a bit, and sat down cross-legged. She took her banjo out of its tow sack and launched into an old ballad, “Little Omie Wise,” her voice spare and lonesome.
“Here, now we got to get a line on you, Viola honey,” Vernon said. “You know you can’t be out here on deck without your line until you get used to walking around the deck.”
“’Deed I know, or I might fall in the canal and drown like Omie Wise,” Viola said.
“We don’t talk about drownin’ much out here on the canal, honey, it’s bad luck,” he said, raising his voice so Ophelia could hear. He threw a half-hitch around and above the girl’s waist, and snugged it up under her arms. When her eyes were elsewhere he looked down at the growing bulge of her stomach and shook his head slowly.
“Viola,” Ophelia called. She stopped singing and set her banjo down, waving a hat. “Come get your straw hat, that sun’s got the power today.”
“Ophelia, can you bring it down here?” Vernon said, “I’ve put the line on her.”
Ophelia shuffled along the narrow white deck and brought the hat down to Viola. She stood watching her daughter as she put the hat on, and the love in his sister’s eyes for her daughter seemed nearly overflowing to Vernon. Vernon knew Ophelia to be gentle and caring with the children. She loved her Viola, and his own boy, James, with the fierce love Appalachian women can have for family. “Come not between a mother and her child”, the mountain saying went, and if it was ever true of any woman, it was surely true of Ophelia Hilliard.
Vernon looked to James up ahead on the shaded towpath. The boy had sprouted this past winter and his long arms stuck out of his shirt sleeves and his pants legs rode up past his ankles. The old snap brim cap James wore to keep the sun out of his eyes barely covered his clump of red hair. The boy steered the big mules along the gravel towpath, stooping once in a while to pick up a rock and skip it across where the river cut in close. Ophelia acted as a second mother to his boy. His sister came down from their home place in the Blue Ridge Mountains to ‘do’ for James and Vernon after Vernon’s wife died. Vernon knew the real reason she’d come, though. Ophelia also left to escape the prying eyes and wagging tongues of the backward villagers of their home back ‘up the country’ when Viola’s “condition” began to show. But now folk began to talk around Cumberland, too. She could expect more of the same. So the way things were Vernon reckoned the girl and his sister might as well come on ‘a-boatin’.
Ophelia went back to her seat on top of the cabin and took up her banjo. Vernon heard her start in playing again. Damned if she didn’t start to sing that one about Johnny Howard who got hanged for killing his boat captain.
“Christ Almighty, Ophelia, can’t you sing no songs ‘cept about murder and drownin’?” Vernon said.
“Vernon Hilliard, do not take the Lord’s name in vain,” Ophelia said. She didn’t seem offended, however, and paid him no mind. She finished that song and struck up “Banks of the Ohio,” another murder ballad.
Vernon shook his head. She’s mighty contrary sometimes. He heard the relief mules scuffling about in the forward cabin, their big hooves scrapping against the bottom of the boat. Ophelia’s songs or something else made them uneasy. He reckoned they didn’t like banjo music too much. He put his mind on steering the canal boat down towards the lock, watching James out ahead passing under the big sycamore trees that lined the canal along here.
The Shenandoah moved on down, arriving at lock #7. The warm afternoon sun filtered through the trees along the towpath. Vernon’s sweaty overalls and shirt stuck to his back. Green shadows and light flickered on the red roof of the boat, and Vernon watched Viola, her back against the cabin wall, dangle her pale legs over the rail, the heels of her black shoes clicking against the gunnels. He heard Ophelia frailing away on the banjo, no words this time, just an old fiddle tune she called “Sally Ann”.
“Whoa, Jack, whoa Tom.” Vernon heard James yell out ahead on the towpath. “Oh, ouch goddamit, he’s stepped on my foot!”
Up ahead, Vernon could see James hopping on one foot and struggling to hold down Jack, the big lead mule and Tom, the second, as they reared and pulled at the leads. Jack, lurching about the towpath, stamped his huge hooves.
“Are you all right, James?” His father called from the stern.
“No, Daddy, something spooked the mules, and this god dam’ jackass has stomped my foot.” James said. He hopped to the side of the towpath and tied the mules’ leads to a big white oak.
“There’s no excuse for cussing,” Viola said. She said it again, ‘sing-songing’ it this time.
“Let the boy be, girl,” said her uncle. “I reckon you ain’t been stepped on by one of them big hooves of Jack’s, it’s enough to make anyone cuss.”
Vernon put the tiller hard over and brought the canal boat to the towpath side. He slid the fallboard off the roof and made a bridge to the towpath. God help us if he’s hurt bad. The next doctor lived some two hours away in Georgetown. They’d barely passed lock number seven.
“Ophelia, come take the tiller,” Vernon said. “I’ll take Viola and see how bad the boy’s foot is.”
Ophelia hurried to put her banjo back in the tow sack and climbed off the cabin roof. As she stepped down to the deck from the roof, Vernon heard the relief mules inside the small stable area lurching about. She teetered along the narrow deck beside the cabins and took the tiller from Vernon.
Vernon removed the line from around Viola’s waist and, holding her hand, stepped on the fallboard to cross over to the towpath.
The two side-stepped half+way across the wooden fallboard when the canal boat lurched away from the bank. The end of the fallboard slipped off the deck, and, turning slowly downward, dumped Viola and her uncle into the dark, murky water.
Vernon surfaced, coughing. He saw Viola rise further out in the canal.
Viola screamed. “Mama!” She disappeared beneath the water.
“Vernon, oh my blessed Jesus, what is that?” Ophelia said.
Vernon looked where she pointed and saw a shape in the water at the back of the canal boat becoming partly visible now, its broad and scaly back breaching the surface. He glimpsed Viola’s blond hair and blue dress beneath the surface of the water, starting to move away with the thing.
Vernon stared, stricken.
“Viola!” Ophelia flung herself off the canal boat and onto the monster that clutched her child. She clambered astride, gripped the thing’s back with her left hand and striking it with her right fist, rained blow after blow upon it, hammering at the thing.
“No, no, no, God damn you. Let her go.” Ophelia bit and scratched and clawed at the creature until at last it reared, heaving the woman up and off its massive back. Long yellow talons at the end of the wing-like arm slashed backward at the woman’s face as she hurtled through the air. She landed like a broken thing half on the gravel towpath and half in the water.
Vernon, standing up to his waist in the canal, stared in horror at Ophelia lying beside him. Three razor-clean cuts sliced away the left side of her face, cuts so deep that the cheek and jaw bones lay bared. Her left eye completely gone, Ophelia lay quaking. The blood from the deep gouges in her face ran in rivulets across and down the grass and green leaves of the weeds on the canal bank into the water, and the red stain spread away on the current that flowed south down to Georgetown.