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In 1905, eleven-year-old Lucius Priest is on his way to Memphis with Boon Hogganbeck—a part-Chickasaw Indian man who is tough and faithful but completely unpredictable and unreliable and who is mad about machinery—and freeloading Ned William McCaslin, the Priests’ black coachman and handyman. They are riding in the Winton Flyer owned by young Lucius’s grandfather and “borrowed” for the excursion without his permission or knowledge. Lucius’s grandfather, the president of a Jefferson bank and owner of the Winton Flyer, only the second automobile ever to be seen in the county, has gone to Louisiana to attend a funeral. Boon tempted the boy with the proposal that they drive the Winton Flyer to Memphis, and Lucius finally succumbed to the temptation. After considerable conniving, they set out, only to discover shortly afterward that Ned William McCaslin had hidden himself under a tarpaulin on the backseat.

Because of the condition of the roads, the truants are forced to make an overnight stop at Miss Ballenbaugh’s, a small country store with a loft above it that holds mattresses for the convenience of fishermen and hunters. The next morning, after one of the breakfasts for which Miss Ballenbaugh is famous, they start out early and soon reach Hell Creek bottom, the deepest mud hole in all of Mississippi. There is no way around it—if they go in one direction, they will end up in Alabama, and if they go in the other, they will fall into the Mississippi River. The automobile becomes mired and remains stuck in the mud in spite of their labors with shovel, barbed wire, block and tackle, and piled branches. As they work, a barefoot redneck watches and waits on the porch of an unpainted cabin nearby, his two mules already harnessed in plow gear. When the boy and his companions give up in exasperation, this backwoods opportunist appears and pulls the car out of the slough, remarking that mud is one of the best crops in the region. Some stiff bargaining follows. Boon argues that six dollars is too much to pay for the job, all the more because one of his passengers is a boy and the other is black. The man answers that his mules are color-blind.

Eventually, they arrive in Memphis, but instead of going to the Gayoso Hotel, as Lucius is expecting (the McCaslins and the Priests always stay at the Gayoso because a distant member of both families had in Civil War times galloped into the hotel’s lobby in an effort to capture a Yankee general), Boon drives his passengers to Miss Reba’s brothel on Catalpa Street so that he can see Miss Corrie, one of Miss Reba’s girls. That night, Ned, a reckless gambling man, trades the borrowed automobile for a stolen racehorse never known to run any better than second. Before the three can return to Jefferson, it is necessary for young Lucius to turn jockey and ride the stolen horse in a race against a better horse, Colonel Linscomb’s Acheron.

Lucius also fights with Otis, a vicious boy who has slurred his aunt, Miss Corrie, and with this chivalric gesture Lucius restores the young woman’s self-respect. Boon and Ned become involved in difficulties with the law, represented by a corrupt deputy sheriff named Butch Lovemaiden. It is discovered that Otis has stolen the gold tooth prized by Miss Reba’s maid, Minnie. Boon finds that he has rivals for Miss Corrie’s charms, and he has to fight them. As a result of these delays, Lucius is forced to assume a gentleman’s responsibilities of courage and good conduct. He loses the innocence of...

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childhood and is at times close to despair, but he realizes that to turn back would bring him shame.

Lucius survives his ordeal, but at considerable cost to his conscience and peace of mind. Grandfather Priest, who arrives to straighten everything out, has the final word on the boy’s escapade. When Lucius asks how he can forget his folly and guilt, his grandfather tells him that he will not be able to, because nothing in life is ever forgotten or lost. When Lucius wants to know what he can do, his grandfather says that he must live with it. To the weeping boy’s protests, the old man replies that a gentleman can live through anything because he must always accept the responsibility of his actions and the weight of their consequences. He concludes by telling Lucius to go wash his face: A gentleman may cry, but he washes his face afterward.