Authors: James M. Cain
I lay awake and was bothered plenty. But I must have gone to sleep, because I woke up all of a sudden with the light shining in from the living room, and Mom by the bed, shaking me. At first I thought it was more of the same.
“Dave,” she whispered, “there's somebody down on the island. They're hollering.”
The “island” was a little hummocksy hill in the river that had stuck out from the east bank where we lived and then had been cut off by the river a couple of years before. It was in sight of the ranchhouse where we kept a light burning to make it look like someone was there. It wasn't in sight of this house, though, unless you went upstairs to look.
“Mom, you're imagining things. No one could be on the island. There's no way on this earth they could get there. It's probably some drunk on the road, wanting help with his car. Now go back to bed. Leave me alone; let me sleep.”
“Maybe no way on this earth. There could be other ways.”
“Other ways? What are you talking about?”
“What do you think?”
Then suddenly I remembered the newscasts, the flashes they kept coming up with while we were watching TV about the plane a guy had hijacked by holding a gun to a girl as his hostage, a stewardess on the plane, and making it fly all around in a crazy way, from Chicago to Pittsburgh and back and around, while $100,000 and a parachute were brought and handed overâwith 28 people on board and a storm coming up. Mom stood there in the half-dark, staring down at me, and whispered: “He's hollering and she is too, that girlâshe must be the one he was holding the gun onâit's got to be that.”
I jumped up and ran back to the kitchen and listened. Sure enough, I could hear a man yelling, and then in between a girl.
“OK,” I said. “We have to go down. Get the flashlights while I put something on.”
HE WAS ALREADY DRESSED
, waiting for me out back. I put on my pants and shoes but no socks and a sheepskin coat, without a shirt. In the kitchen I picked up the rifle that always stood there. It was an Enfield from World War I my father had got at a surplus sale in Marietta. I threw the bolt and rammed a round into the chamber. With both of us holding flashlights, we went down the path. As we got near the water's edge, the guy stopped hollering and all of a sudden said: “Hey!”
“Hey,” I answered. “Who are you?”
“Never mind who I am. You got a boat?”
“You got a car?”
“Get the boat. Show me the car. Hand me the keys.”
“Oh please,” the girl cut in in a trembling voice, “do what he says or he'll kill me.”
“You heard me, kid. Do it now!”
“And you heard
, I hope,” I said. “OK, but there's a couple of things we have to get straight first. Lady, who are you?”
“I was the stewardess on that plane, the one he hijacked last night. He kept holding a gun to my head. Then when they finally opened the door, he was too scared to jump, and I pushed him. He grabbed me, and we both went. He kept hitting me to make me let go, but I wouldn't, and then we came down in the water. Oh, please, he could kill me
“Oh no he won't.”
“What makes you think I won't?”
“If she gets it, you do too.”
No answer to that, so I told him: “You can't get off that island without me ferrying you over. God help you in that water if you try to swim. It's flood tide. They'll fish you out dead nine miles down when you go over the dam. Understand?”
“OK. Now I have to get oars from the houseâ”
“Over that hill.”
“I don't see no hill.”
“I'll have a light put in.”
I said, “I'll be back with the boat” and started for the house, whispering to Mom: “Whatever I do, keep talking.” By now she had turned off the spotlight. I went on up to the house and into the kitchen to look at the clock. It said five after five. Daybreak was only a few minutes away, so I had to move fast. I went outside again, picked up the oars from the back porch, and went down the other path to the boat which was tied up to our little landing. Fortunately, a week or ten days before, I had put it up on a trestle.
It takes a few days for a boat to swell after being out of water that long, and of course it leaked, but not much. The second time I had bailed it out there wasn't much to bail, which meant it was tight and ready. So, after stripping off the tarp I had put on, I was ready to go. A johnboat is a square-ended thing the size of a soap dish, with a seat in the bow, one in the stern, and one across the middle. I got in and tilted one oar and the rifle on the seat in the bow, using the other oar as a paddle. Then I shifted the shot bag from cuddy under the front seat, to balance my weight, and cast off. The shot bag was a sixty-pound canvas bag full of buckshot to trim the boat with when I went out alone. Then I sat down on the seat in the middle, holding onto the landing. With the river being so high, the boat was less than a foot out of water, which, of course, made it handy. Then I waited, watching the sky in the east. Down below I could hear voices, yellingâMom's, the guy's, the girl'sâthe girl's loudest of all. I had no idea what she was yelling about, but if she was yelling, she wasn't dead. So far, so good.
The sky was beginning to turn gray, so I shoved off. I shot the boat out into the stream and started to paddle. It was a left-handed way to go, but I didn't dare row regular, on account of the noise it would make, the thump of the oars in the oarlocks. I rounded the point. Sure enough, Mom was there on the bank talking. I steered to bring the hummock, the little hill that was part of the island, between me and the guy and the girl. I feathered the oar to swing in close and let the current carry me. I came to a tree, one sticking up out of water where the river had risen around it in the spring flood we were having, and caught it. Suddenly all three voices came through, the girl yelling at Mom: “Do you want him to kill me? Is that why you dare him to do it?” And Mom yelling at her: “I'm trying to get through his head what'll happen to him if he dares do it, that's all I'm trying to do!” And the guy telling Mom: “OK, OK, but I goddamn well might; I might blow her head off if she don't shut up and you don't!”
That made no sense at all, but I'd told Mom to keep talking, and if that was her idea of something to say, I couldn't stop her now. I pulled the boat in a foot at a time to jam it against the tree with one end on the bank. I could just see the guy, silhouetted against the sky. I picked up the rifle and aimed it at him. “Drop that gun,” I said, very quiet-like.
He didn't. He whirled and shot. I heard the
of the bullet as it cut twigs over my head.
He cursed as the recoil lifted his gun, which was a small one. It couldn't have been more than a cheap .32.
I still had his head in my sights and squeezed the trigger.
The flash lit up the island, and suddenly he wasn't there.
“Oh thank God, thank the merciful God!” sobbed the girl, coming suddenly into view toward me. But after a few steps she fell and started moaning about her feet. “They're all cut up!” she said. “The river took my shoes.”
I tilted the rifle back in its place against the front seat, hopped ashore, and ran to her through the bushes. She was half-sitting, half-lying against a stump, her teeth chattering, and moaning. I whipped off my coat and put it on her, telling her: “Hold on to me now, give to me when I lift.” I put one arm around her back, the other under her knees, at the same time kneeling myself. Then I got to my feet and carried her to the boat. “I'm so cold, so cold, so cold,” she whispered.
“Take it easy,” I said.
I helped her to the seat in the stern. This time, instead of paddling, I set the locks in their holes and rowed. I pushed clear of the tree, backed into the current, and let it take me below the island. Then I pulled for the east bank, shooting the bow up on it right beside Mom. I jumped ashore, gave the painter a hitch on a tree, and helped the girl ashore. But her feet still flinched at each step, and I picked her up once more, this time not having to kneel. “Get the rifle, will you?” I told Mom.
She didn't answer or even act as though she heard me. She gave the girl's hand a jerk and yelped into her face: “What'd he do with the money?”
“Who is this crazy bitch?” screamed the girl. Then without waiting for me to tell her, she exploded at Mom: “How would I know what he did with the money? How would I know what he did with
? All I know what he did with was what he did with that gun, thanks to you trying to get him to shoot me, daring and daring and daring. Didn't you know he had to be nuts? Didn't you know he just might have done itâkilled me, like you said? Didn't you know that all that crap you dished out about what might happen to him if he shot me meant nothing to him at all? Hey, I asked you something! Why did you do that to me?”
“Get the rifle,” I repeated to Mom.
“I'll bring it!” she snapped. “But first I'm going out there, going out and having a look.”
“Have a look at what?”
“The money, that's what.”
“What do we have to do with that?”
“A reward'll be out for it. They always pay a reward! If we turn it in, we can claim it.”
“Mom, you leave things lay.”
“I will, except for the money.”
“If I can put in a word,” said the girl, touching Mom on the shoulder, “you could take off your clothes and start diving down in the river. It got everythingâhis parachute, his hat, my shoes.”
“How do you know it got his hat?”
“He kept talking about it.”
By now it was full daylight, and Mom kept staring at her. Then: “OK,” she said to me, “take her up to the house and give her some clothes to put on. There's some old ones of mine in my bottom bureau drawer.”
“Mom, use some sense.”
“And don't you call no one, Dave, till I give you the word.”
“I have to call the sheriff.”
“But not till I give you the word.”
I still had the girl in my arms. At last we could start for the house. After two or three steps she whispered: “I'm sorry to be so much trouble.”
“You're no trouble.”
“Am I getting heavy?”
“Not to me you're not.”
“Mom? She's your mother?”
“I took her for your wife.”
“I don't have any wife.”
“I'm sorry I yelled at her, but she almost got me killed.”
“She gets some funny ideas.”
“Dave? Dave what?”
“Howell. What's your name?”
“Jill. Jill Kreeger.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jill.”
A wan smile crossed her face. By then we were on the back porch of the house. Her arm suddenly tightened, the one around my neck. That brought her face against mine. She kissed me, first on the cheek and then on the mouth. “Hey, hey, hey! Jill, will you open the door?”
She reached down and turned the knob. We went through into the kitchen. I kicked the door shut behind me, then carried Jill up the hall and through the living room to the den. I was ashamed of the bed, all mussed up with only blankets oh it, a pillow without any case and no sheets. But she didn't seem to mind, dropping off my coat and getting ready to jump in. But she had on those soggy clothes, such as they wereâshort red pants, a red bolero, as she called it, and some kind of thing like a bra. I stripped them off her quickly. She was standing in front of me, naked, a beautiful thing to see. I banged open a bureau drawer, grabbed a towel, and rubbed her dry, then bundled her into the blankets. But in the cold air of the room with no clothes on, her teeth started to chatter. “I'm having a chill,” she said.
I started upstairs to the bathroom, but ducked back for one more kiss. She wanted it too, but her lips were cold as ice.
PSTAIRS I TRIED THE
water. When it was hot, I left it running while I went back to Jill. She was still in the bed, shaking. I wrapped the blanket around her, knelt by the bed and lifted, and carried her up to the tub. I took off the blanket, so she was naked again, and smacked her one on the tail.
“Get in and get in quick.”
She did. She stretched out in the hot water and for a second the chattering went on. Then it stopped and she closed her eyes.
“Yes, it's heaven.”
“Is from this angle, no kidding.”
“Am I pretty?”
“I want to be, for you ... Know what you looked like? From my angle? Out there just now?”
“I'll bite. What?”
She said it low and solemn. I didn't gag it off or make any answer. After some time, she said: “Well? You always heard that hell's hot, but you find out that cold can be worse, especially wet cold, with a rotten guy holding a gun to your head and a crazy, screwball woman egging him on to shoot. Then a voice behind you speaks. Then a rifle goes off. And from being down in hell, you're in heaven all at one swoop. How would he look to you, the guy that flew you up there?”
“Like he needed a shave, I bet.”
She touched my chin and said: “God wears a beard, too. I'm sure he does. It shows in all the pictures.”
“OK, but I couldn't tell you what would show in a picture of
It would be against the law.”
She slapped water over the things I was talking about and asked, very innocently: “You like them?”
“I love them.”
They were round, with the nipples all spread out in the hot water, and beautiful. She slapped along, then said: “They're floating upâto you.” At last I dipped my hand in the water and cuddled one, and she whispered: “It took you long enough.”