The Ferryman

by Tim Poland

The pot-bellied stove gone nearly cold, his dog still dead. Each fact became slowly evident as Gabriel’s eyelids struggled to flutter open. He lay curled in a lump, shivering, the side of his face pressed into the old braided rug spread on the plank floor. His right hand rested on the side of the dog lying dead beside him, its flesh cold as the air in the room, inert and unresponsive. Curled up the way he was, Gabriel appeared only slightly larger than the dog next to him. He passed the callused palm of his hand delicately over the dog’s stiff flanks, once, twice, three times, then pushed himself up from the floor till he rested on all fours. His head throbbed viciously, and his stomach snarled. He crawled to the stove and opened the grate. A few burning embers still glowed in the ash. He scooped a handful of shavings from the kindling box, dropped them onto the embers, and sat back on his heels, waiting for the tinder to ignite. When he looked over his shoulder to gaze at the dead dog again, the movement made him dizzy. He turned his face back to the stove grate and dropped back onto his hands and knees. After a few flames began to flicker within the stove, he slid in three stove lengths of firewood, closed the grate, and dragged himself up onto the straight-backed chair by the table to wait for heat. A small stove, but a small room as well. The heat would come quickly.

The empty moonshine jar lay on its side by a blue enamel water pitcher and a dimly burning oil lamp. Though the jar was empty, it still gave off the potent reek of the shine it held last night, and Gabriel’s stomach clenched. He turned the jar upside down, sealing its open mouth against the surface of the table. The last few drops of moonshine clinging to the sides of the jar dripped out and pooled in a gouge on the scarred surface of the wooden tabletop. Clawing through the brambles of his liquor-addled mind, Gabriel tried to bring the setting before him into focus. Though details were fuzzy, the moonshine, the dead dog, these he understood, knew why they were there. What confused him was the light. Never could he recall having awakened in the morning after sunrise. Judging by the angle of light into the room at that moment, the sun was already well above the horizon. He slid his arm across the tabletop, turned the wick down on the lamp, and rose halfway from the chair to look out the window. Even through his fogged eyes, from his little clapboard house up the slope from the landing, he could see the hoof prints and wheel tracks in the wet, silted ground to the side of the gravel path leading up to the ferry. Old Mrs. Denby had been there, as usual, while he slept in a stupor beside his dog’s carcass. She’d have sat in her one-horse runabout while her driver, George, rang the bell. When Gabriel didn’t appear, she would have sat and waited at the landing, not allowing George to trudge up the slope to rouse him. The world was to attend upon old Mrs. Denby, not the other way around. His one certain fare of the day, and he’d slept through it, drunk and heart-broken. That was one thing. Lizbeth would have been left on the far bank, waiting. That was the other thing.


Third in a line of short, red-faced men with the same name, men who poled the ferry over the Hatcher River, this most recent version of Gabriel Dalton sometimes tried to tally ways he might be different from his forbears. He was the ferryman—in that much he was exactly the same. He poled the long, flat-bottomed ferry barge between the Dalton’s Ferry landing and the village of Cross River on the opposite bank. He kept the ferry caulked and watertight, the guy wire taut, and the trollies oiled. And he collected the fares—two cents for each person, five cents for a buggy or carriage, a full dime for a loaded freight wagon. His grandfather, the first Gabriel Dalton, had tacked a wooden, hand-painted sign onto a fence post at the landing on each side of the river announcing “Dalton’s Ferry.” A bell dangled from a bracket mounted on top of each post, to be rung to summon the ferryman if he weren’t in sight at the landing. Every three or four years this third Gabriel Dalton traced over the sign’s original letters with a new coating of paint. He’d lost some business, mostly freight wagons, when the wagon bridge opened two miles downstream back in 1891. After the pipe works opened a year later, business came back up some, workers coming over from Cross River to the pipe works usually willing to give up twenty cents or so of their week’s pay rather than walk an extra four or five miles each day to get to and from their jobs. The irregular stream of pennies, nickels and dimes made for a thin living, but it had been enough to get by. And he had the little two-room clapboard house and the land it sat on.

His grandfather had launched the ferry in 1864 after retreating rebel forces burned the old covered bridge behind them. At the end of the war, when the Denby place lost its slaves and started selling off parcels, the land between their old house and the ferry landing began to sprout shacks, cabins, and modest little bungalows. For years the only designation of any kind to give a name to the place where the inhabitants of these shacks and bungalows lived was the sign the first Gabriel Dalton planted for his ferry. It took very little time for everyone to begin calling this spot Dalton’s Ferry. Twenty years ago, when the surrounding area was officially incorporated as a town, the more respectable folks tried to give their new community a more respectable name, but since hardly anyone could remember calling it anything but Dalton’s Ferry and saw no need to call it anything else, the informal name became official. It was a sparse living, running the ferry, but he owned the little clapboard house and the land it sat on in a town named for his forbears, for him, and for what he did. He got by. Just like the first two Gabriel Daltons.

His grandmother had died only three or four years after giving birth to his father, and his own mother had lasted only two years after his birth. Dalton women apparently remained only long enough to insure an ongoing line of solitary Dalton men. For a third generation the little clapboard dwelling housed a solitary boatman. The same as the first two Gabriels. He had yet to find a woman with so few options as to affix herself to a short, red-faced ferryman. This was one of the ways in which he differed from his ancestry.


He’d intended to save the moonshine for him and the dog to toast the New Year. Midnight tonight. 1900. The first day of the twentieth century. The coming numeral had sounded so new, so modern. Life at the landing for this Gabriel Dalton differed in no significant way from the lives of the previous two ferrymen. Still, the numeral seemed to announce transit, an unfolding. He would drink to the number. A simple plan, one he looked forward to, until his old dog failed.

Less than a year since his father’s death, since he’d become the sole proprietor of Dalton’s Ferry, the dog, likely not more than a year old then, wandered up the river bank and appeared at the landing. It carried a dead muskrat in its jaws. Looking around for a good place to settle in and eat its prey, the dog spotted Gabriel stepping down to the landing from the bow of the beached ferry. It set its front legs, locked into a half crouch, and growled, prepared to defend its prey from any threat. When Gabriel showed no interest, shrugged his shoulders, and walked up the slope to his house, the dog relaxed, ate all but the head and tail of the muskrat, and never left. Gabriel called him Muskrat. Seemed fitting, as good a name as any. They hadn’t spent a day out of one another’s company since.

Muskrat rode along on the ferry with Gabriel at every crossing. As Gabriel poled the ferry away from the bank, he pressed the pole firmly into the riverbed and walked slowly toward the stern of the ferry as it drifted out into the river. His pace was so perfectly matched to the movement of the ferry that as he seemed to move toward the stern he, in fact, remained in exactly the same position above the river as the ferry moved beneath him. Muskrat moved along the deck in step with Gabriel’s position. As a young dog, he pranced and barked, his tail wagging wildly. With the passage of time, the dog slowed, grew less excited, but always matched his position to Gabriel’s as the ferry glided out into the current. As recently as three days ago, the dog had been there, limping along painfully, but still determined to shadow Gabriel’s progress toward the ferry’s stern.

For the past two days, the dog hadn’t been able to get up, could barely raise its head. Gabriel left its side only if a fare came to the landing, of which there were precious few. Sitting by the dog on the rug before the stove, he kept vigil, stroking its sides gently, speaking to it softly, assuring his dog that he was there with it. His father had once told Gabriel that his grandfather always said, when a dog could no longer get up and around to fend for itself, it was time to dig a hole and oil up the rifle. In this way, too, he differed from his forbears. He had cooked up a salty broth from a rabbit he’d shot and offered it up in spoonfuls held to the dog’s mouth. Other than a perfunctory lick or two, Muskrat showed no interest. The time for food had passed.

When its last breath rattled up from the dog’s throat, Gabriel lay down on the rug beside it and pressed his hand against the dog’s still flank. His hand slid up to the dog’s head. He ran his hand along the dog’s jowls, over its head, and slowly down its spine. Muskrat had died easily, gently, without struggle or suffering, and Gabriel breathed a sigh of gratitude for that into the cooling air of the room. He rose from the floor and dropped another length of wood into the stove. When he turned his eyes back to the dead dog on the floor, the first wave hit him. Violent spasms rolled up from his gut into his chest, shook his shoulders, and he dropped to his knees beside the dog, weeping uncontrollably. The irrevocable loss flattened him, more than he could have imagined, beyond his comprehension. He scrambled to his feet, retrieved the jar of moonshine, and downed an enormous gulp to stanch the sudden pain. The dog had finally died well past midnight. By the time Gabriel had gulped his way through half the moonshine, it was near 3:00 in the morning, and his weeping had subsided into a steady whimper. By the time he’d drained the last of the moonshine, dawn was approaching and he’d sunken into a numbed silence. He fell off the chair, crumpled onto the floor by the dog’s body, and collapsed into a thick, impenetrable slumber.


It was done now. The dog was dead and the moonshine gone. He’d ring in the new century alone and sober. It was just as well. His stomach rebelled when he swallowed a mouthful of water from the pitcher. Stumbling, still dizzy, he lurched to the door, managed to tug it open, and made it one step outside the little house before he emptied the rancid contents of his stomach onto the ragged, weedy ground by the kitchen door. He’d never been able to hold his liquor. Another way he was different from the previous two Gabriel Daltons. He slumped against the side of the house, his head hanging forward, as he gasped, waiting for his stomach to calm. Involuntarily, his eyes followed the path down to the landing, the moored ferry, and out across the river. Lizbeth stood on the far bank, alone. Still there, still waiting.

Gabriel lumbered back inside the house, stomped into his boots, pulled on his old wool coat and slouch felt hat, and glanced back down at the dog. He’d bury it when he got back. First he’d cross over to Lizbeth. He owed her at least that much. As he poled the ferry away from the bank, he imagined the shape of the dog shadowing him as he strode the deck toward the stern.

Most everyone in Dalton’s Ferry referred to the little chapel in Cross River as Mrs. Denby’s chapel. It sat on land still owned by Mrs. Denby and dated back to a time when the old covered bridge yet stood and much of the Denby farming operation was located on the other side of the river. For several years after the family reestablished their primary residence at the old place on this side of the river, the Denby family and those of their class still attended church services there. Sundays had been good for the ferry business. Later, after life became increasingly concentrated in Dalton’s Ferry and people began to attend the new Baptist and Episcopal churches there, old Mrs. Denby allowed the black community in Cross River to use her chapel. Every Sunday morning, she arrived at the landing in her little runabout, driven by George. The faded, worn old livery coat Mrs. Denby insisted he wear was only slightly darker than George’s skin. In the crocheted bag she clutched in her lap she carried two nickels for their ferry fare and the key to the chapel. And each Sunday, Lizbeth was there on the far bank, waiting for the old woman. Lizbeth worked for her during the week and had been the one to ask her that she permit the black folks in Cross River to use her chapel now that the white folks had gone elsewhere. Old Mrs. Denby had agreed, but insisted that she must be the one to arrive each Sunday morning, to unlock the chapel door and ascertain that the premises were in proper order before allowing the congregation to enter. Lizbeth was given the responsibility of locking up when services were concluded and returning the key to Mrs. Denby the following day when she came to work.

Once Gabriel poled the ferry out into the current, he let out more line on the stern trolley. The stern of the ferry drifted further downstream than the bow, the current caught the angle like a rudder, and pushed the ferry on across the river, the trollies rolling along the guy wire. Once the river caught the craft, Gabriel hardly needed to use his pole at all. This easier part of the crossing sometimes left him to contemplate the nature of his business. Was the river a boundary, a barrier? Or was it a seam that stitched together otherwise divided worlds? His mind couldn’t afford him the traction to pursue the question much further, but either way, the profit lay in connection, in transit to the other side. These occasional, dreamy ruminations made him, he assumed, different from the two ferrymen who preceded him.

Today the answer to his question seemed to tilt in favor of the river being a barrier. As he neared the opposite bank, he saw it in Lizbeth’s face, and he was sorry for his part in putting that look there. Her lips pressed tightly together in a flat line across her face, her eyes fixed on the landing on the opposite bank, looking past Gabriel’s approach. Her bonnet was tied snuggly around her face and head, but a few curlicues of black and gray hair had escaped its confinement. Wrapped as she was in her heavy shawl, Gabriel could tell her hands were clasped, clenched beneath the thickly-woven wool. The hem of her long skirt seemed to grow up out of the landing. She would have been right there at the appointed time, waiting. Old Mrs. Denby would have pulled onto the opposite landing, as expected, and George would have rung the ferry bell. Then, while Gabriel snored on in a dead sleep, stunned by grief and moonshine, they would have remained there, each in their designated location, staring at one another, waiting, one unwilling, one unable to do anything other than that. Each woman would have stayed fixed in place, focused on the tiny, distant form of the other across the impassable barrier of the wide river, until Mrs. Denby determined she had waited long enough and instructed George to turn the buggy around and return home.

Gabriel poled the ferry barge into the landing until the bow wedged firmly into the soft mud and silt of the bank. Lizbeth’s eyes remained fixed on the opposite landing as Gabriel walked forward from the stern and dropped the narrow ramp gate at the bow onto the landing. Lizbeth’s face revealed no sign of having noticed his approach or arrival, but she spoke the moment he stepped from the ferry to the landing.

“Ferryman supposed to bring forgetfulness, but it seems every Sunday all you bring is too much remembering.” Her eyes finally moved to Gabriel’s face. “Whether you here for the crossing or not.”

Gabriel held onto his ferry pole, poked it into the mud and steadied himself with it.

“I’m right sorry, Lizbeth,” he said. His stomach clenched, and he gripped the ferry pole more tightly.

Lizbeth’s gaze turned back out across the river.

“Got to live every day in a world they still own. All we get is a couple hours on the Lord’s Day with the blessing of sanctuary in a place to ourselves. And she can’t even allow us our share of God without her hand on it.” Sharply, Lizbeth’s eyes swung back onto Gabriel. “Without that ferry boat of yours, we don’t even have that.”

“I’m sorry.”

Gabriel kept his head down, staring at the tip of his pole sunk in the mud. He brought his head up at the sound of Lizbeth’s footsteps on the gravel of the landing path. She had turned and walked a few paces away on the path before she stopped and turned back to Gabriel.

“Where’s that old dog of yours?” she asked.

Gabriel’s grip on his ferry pole tightened. His breath came up slowly in his lungs.

“Dead. Died last night.”

Lizbeth stood still for a moment before speaking, her eyes locked on Gabriel’s red, sunken face.

“Never seen you here once without that old dog. I’m sorry for you, Gabriel.”

He couldn’t have spoken at the moment even if he had tried. He kept his eyes on the ground and nodded to her in response.

As she turned and continued to walk away from the landing, Lizbeth called out to him over her shoulder.

“You’ll be there for the old woman next Sunday?”

“You got my word on that, Lizbeth.”

“And a Happy New Year to you,” she shouted as she turned onto the path through the trees and up the hillside.

What had been the bow became the stern and the stern the bow as Gabriel Dalton poled the ferry away from the landing for the return crossing. He shortened what had been the stern trolley line and let out the other, waited as the current grabbed the ferry and drew it out across the river. He’d get right to it once he got to the other side. The little clearing just downstream from the landing would be a good spot. The shovel leaned against the outhouse where he last left it. He stood in the middle of the deck, leaning on his pole. The brim of his slouch hat and the collar of his coat flapped in the breeze. As the ferry passed the mid-point of its crossing, the wind funneling up the river channel whipped itself into wintry gusts, and the ferryman lifted his face up into it.

TIM POLAND lives and works in the New River Valley near the Blue Ridge Mountains in southwestern Virginia. He is the author of a novel, The Safety of Deeper Water (Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press, 2009), Escapee (America House, 2001), a collection of short fiction, and Other Stones, Kinder Temples (Pudding House, 2008), a chapbook of poems. His work has appeared widely in various literary magazines. He is the recipient of a Plattner/Appalachian Heritage Award (2002), and his work has been included in the Best of the Net Anthology (2007) and has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.