Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1200
It was early summer. A young man carrying a carpetbag was walking to Boonville, New York, when a peddler named Jacob Turnesa picked him up. The young man said his name was Dan Harrow, lately a farmhand and now looking for work on the Erie Canal. A farm woman stopped them for news and gave them some root beer. She and Turnesa talked about Gentleman Joe Calash, a highwayman on the canal.
While Dan was looking for lodgings in one of the taverns, he saw Gentleman Joe Calash quarreling with Jotham Klore, canal bully. The highwayman struck Klore with his revolver and rode off in the darkness. Dan made no effort to give the alarm, not even for the two thousand dollars reward. Inwardly, he felt sympathy for the robber, who was, like himself, alone and without friends.
Looking for work, Dan went to the Ella-Romeyn, the canal boat of Hector Berry. He found Berry playing cards with Sol Tinkle and Mrs. Gurget, Sol’s cook. Mrs. Gurget was enormously fat and addicted to rum noggins with lots of lemon in them. Mrs. Berry was away, and so Hector, who could make no decisions without his wife, could only offer Dan a job for the short haul to Rome. Later that day, Mrs. Berry came aboard. She was suspicious of Dan because he was a stranger. Dan left the boat on reaching Rome.
At Rome, he went to Hennessy’s Saloon to see Julius Wilson about a job. While he waited, he overheard more talk of Gentleman Joe Calash and of the reward for capturing him. Then Molly Larkins, a pretty canal cook, joined him. Molly cooked for Jotham Klore. When Klore came in, he accused Dan of getting too familiar with Molly. Angry, Dan hit Klore. Gentleman Joe suddenly appeared, knocked out Klore, and held Molly and Dan with his weapon. When they promised not to give the alarm, he made his escape.
A little later, Wilson hired Dan for the haul to Albany on his boat, the Xerxes. Ben Rae was the captain and William Wampy, the cook and fiddler. Near Utica, they saw a tall thin man running from a crowd that chased him into a haymow. They learned that the man was a traveling preacher who had been paid for six sermons but had tried to sneak out without giving the last one. Cornered, the minister preached a fire-and-brimstone sermon from the mow. After he had finished, Ben Rae took the minister aboard. He explained that, though he had been trained for the ministry, he was not really a preacher. His name was Fortune Friendly.
At the next stop, Dan went ashore and encountered Molly Larkin again. She had given up her job with Klore and was going to Lucy Cashdollar’s place to get a new position. Later that night, Dan got into another fight with Klore and was knocked out. When he regained consciousness, he found that someone had carried him to the boat. He caught a glimpse of Gentleman Joe.
At Albany, Samson Weaver, captain of the Sarsy Sal, hired him to drive his team. On the first day of their haul, they saw a burning canal boat condemned because of cholera. Samson claimed he was not afraid of cholera, but he began to drink hard. Ill, he asked Dan to use his money for a doctor, but before Dan could get one Samson died. While looking for an undertaker, Dan found a funeral director who offered him ten dollars for Samson’s corpse. He took the money because he could not afford to pay for Samson’s funeral.
Deciding to carry on alone, he headed for Lucy Cashdollar’s agency. Lucy supplied girls as cooks for lonely canal men. Whether they married the canal men was no concern of hers, but usually she was glad if they did. By nightfall, Molly was installed as the cook aboard the Sarsy Sal.
Mr. Butterfield, the agent for whom Samson had worked, offered to keep Dan hauling for him at the rates he had paid Samson. Together they planned to reclaim Samson’s body from the surgeon to whom the undertaker had sold it and give it a decent burial.
On the wharf, Dan saw old Fortune Friendly again and hired him as a driver. Molly and Friendly talked about Jotham Klore and agreed that, sooner or later, there would have to be a show-down fight between Klore and Dan. Molly and Dan found Samson’s money hidden aboard the Sarsy Sal, more than eight hundred dollars. Dan thought it was enough to start a small farm.
When Dan decided to buy a pair of horses at the Utica fair, Molly, Sol Tinkle, Mrs. Gurget, Hector Berry, and Mrs. Berry went with him. While Molly and Dan shopped for a suit for Dan, the clerk treated them as man and wife. Dan almost asked Molly to marry him, but he lost his chance when Hector hurried them along so that his wife could witness the hanging of a woman who had browbeaten her husband and finally killed him. Hector hoped the hanging would be a lesson to his nagging wife. At the fair, Dan purchased two well-matched horses.
Autumn was in the air, and soon the canal would be closed for the season. Jotham Klore had not appeared. His fight with Dan would be postponed until spring. Dan and Molly saw Gentleman Joe again, and the highwayman gave them a jeweled pin as a memento. Dan had always linked himself with Gentleman Joe, feeling that neither he nor the highwayman was really part of the canal.
That winter, Dan and Molly realized that the initial warmth of their feeling for each other was over. Molly confided to her friends that she intended to stay on the canal and that if Dan decided to go back to the land she would leave him. When spring came, Dan received an offer to work on a farm, but the offer was good only if he were not married. Not knowing what to do and unwilling to desert Molly, Dan headed the Sarsy Sal west on the canal. At the Lansing Kill, they met Jotham Klore’s boat coming toward the lock. Dan and Klore fought on a square of grass that the excited, shouting boaters marked off beside the locks. It was a battle that men talked about on the Erie for years afterward, Dan and Klore pummeling each other under the hot sunshine while Molly Larkin stood by to see what the outcome would be. Dan won, and he and Molly started west once more, but the feeling between them was no longer the same. Dan felt that she was pitying Klore, the beaten bully of the canal.
Then Gentleman Joe was caught and killed, and for the first time, Dan saw the highwayman’s cruel, mean face. Somehow, he felt that the highwayman’s death freed him from life on the canal. One day, Molly left him to go back to Klore. Dan took the farm job that had been offered him. He knew that he belonged in the farm country from which he had come.
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