River Rats

July mornings really are the finest, and Tom always took full advantage of them. It was not yet eight in the morning before Thomas Sawyer, self-proclaimed King of St. Petersburg, Missouri, had appropriated one of Aunt Polly's red apples and was marching down the street in the fair morning light. He was not setting out anywhere in particular, merely wishing to go "out there" – as he put it when he set about adventuring to new places. After twelve years of resolute exploring, there were not many "out theres" remaining, and a rather lot of "right heres" (which were, unfortunately, rather boring to dear old Tom.)

The sleepy town had just set upon waking when Tom was out strolling. Fresh market stands were just establishing themselves as Tom came sauntering merrily by, apple chewed down to the core with a tune on his lips.

Fruit stands blossomed into reality as burlap covers were removed and loads of stone fruit and berries were unloaded into empty baskets. Tom, finishing his breakfast by neatly munching on the core, took to standing and watching the unfolding of the stalls. To his left, a grand umbrella stood tall, shadowing over a blackened grill and ears of fresh corn, which were to be turned into delicious mid-day snacks. And beyond that, a stand set all over with clusters of tomatoes and cucumbers and sweet yellow squash. And beyond that a stall hung all over with sausages and hanging chickens. Tom's eyes lit up, for on his right stood a wooden stall covered in jars of fresh red-and-white peppermint candies.

Tom, concealing himself skilfully, waited until the vendor's back was turned and, with the grace and agility unbecoming of a teenaged boy, darted forward and took a fistful of candies from a wicker basket. Jamming them in his pocket (and one in his mouth), Tom flew off from the flowering market and set away from the town center, his mouth sweet with mint and apple.

Ten minutes later, he found himself by pier's edge, nearly having consumed all his peppermint candies with no adventures to show for it. Deciding to save a couple of the sticky treats for later, Tom laid back against the dock in the hopes that adventure would come knocking upon his door for once, instead of the other way around.

Luckily, Tom – who hated waiting more than he hated Sunday school – was soon greeted with adventure in the form of fleet-footed Huckleberry Finn, who was galloping down the grassy hill, eyes wide and bright with excitement.

"Tom – Tom!" said Huckleberry Finn as he came to a stuttering stop at the edge of the dock.

"It ain't Huck!" Tom said, righting himself and turning about to face his friend.

"Tom – by Lordy, do I got something to show you!"

"Well, go on then."

"Only I cain't right now," Huck said breathlessly.

"Aw, Huck, why'd you come hollerin' down here for then?"

"I mean I cain't right here – you'd gotta come with me, Tom."

Tom brought himself eagerly to standing. Surely, he enjoyed his pier very much, but in the absence of anything to do, it was growing very tiring indeed and Tom would have used any excuse to escape it.

"Let's go then," Tom said excitedly.

"Only, but first you gotta promise me you won't tell no one, Tom."

"Aw, I promise. 'Course you know me, Huck."

"I do, but you gotta swear on your Aunt's good name you ain't gonna tell no one, alright?"

"Alright – I swear on Aunt Polly's good name I ain't gonna tell no one," Tom said keen to hear Huck's tale.

"– and may your traitorous heart stop dead if you should –"

"– tell anyone. Yeah, yeah, I swears," Tom recited.

"Okay. Take a look here," Huck said, drawing from the waistband of his trousers a teardrop-shaped leather bundle.

"What is it?" Tom asked enthralled.

Huck drew from the leather cover a beautiful silver dagger. Inlaid with rubies and sapphires and emeralds, it gleamed in the morning sun. Silver lacework found itself from handle to tip, and the edge was as sharp as a tack. It was, in the boys' eyes, a masterpiece, the magnum opus of weapon design.

"Huck!" Tom said amazed, "you got – oh Lord, you got a –"

"Pirates knife," said Huck, grinning like the Devil.

"Where'd you get it?" Tom asked, admiring the glinting weapon with envy.

"It's a secret," Huck said mysteriously, sheathing the blade again.

"Aw, Huck, why'd you gotta tease me so? Ev'one knows you ain't got the tact to steal it – you gotta been gettin' it or findin' it from somewhere."

"Ain't tact Tom, I got too much moral fibre to go on and steal like you," Huck said, sounding as if he were reciting words he heard before (he certainly was – Father Sprague said such the last time Huck had been in Church, which was a very long time ago indeed.)

"Oh fine, just tell me where you got it, Huck? Please Huck? Please?"

"Told ya, it's a secret."

"Oh Huck, I tell you 'bout everything I find. What's fair in that?"

"Oh," Huck sighed dramatically, "I suppose I could tell you. But you promise –"

"I promise!"

"Okay, follow me."

And off they went. Only moments later Tom was tearing on after his friend, who was nothing but a black-haired blur of a boy before him. Down and down they went along the riverbanks, to destination unknown. It was a thrilling time for Tom, sprinting over territory to destination unknown. Tom thanked the Higher Powers for awarding him with a friend like Huckleberry Finn.

"Are we there yet?" Tom asked, panting as he strode aside Huck.

"Almost," Huck said shortly, drifting amongst the bushes and taking leaps over stones and logs that scattered their taken path.

Finally, they arrived at the mouth of the great river that wove around their little town. Towering oaks and dogwood stood along the riverbanks, and watched as the boys leapt from rock to rock across the stream heading towards the small island in the center of the stream. They had to wade through some parts, the water reaching up to their knees, but it was mostly a catlike game of leapfrog, from one mid-current stone to another.

At last they reached the island, their feet sore and legs wet because of it. Tom, his passion for adventure not diminished by their misfortune, looked eagerly amongst the trees, as if expecting pirates to leap from their boughs.

"It's further along," a bemused Huck said.

On they trotted, over rotten logs covered in velvety moss, under the scraggy limbs of lightning-charred trees, through prickly scrub, and in coppices of tall emerald reeds. Further and deeper they ventured, until the thick canopy of trees began to block out the rays of sunlight and the forest floor became littered with the rusty brown corpses of fallen leaves.

Tom was beginning to feel a bit sceptical, so he voiced his concern to his dearest Huck: "Huck, are we going the right way?"

"Sure are."

"It's getting' awfully dark."

"As the Widow Douglas says: gotta get worse afore it gets better. Now get a move on, Tom."

After a half-hour of marching through the terrible and silent woods, Huck came to a stop. Tom could just hear the crashing and rumbling of the stream, but above that he could hear the high clattering of a guitar and the jangle of a tambourine, along with laughter and incomprehensible voices. Huck stole carefully through the prickly dark green shrubs that blocked their path, and beckoned Tom to follow. Pushing through a veil of grass, the two boys set upon a clearing – a clearing filled with people.

"Ah, if tisn't Huckleberry Finn," a grey-haired and grizzled man said with a peculiar accent.

"Howdy," Huck said, grasping the man's hand and shaking it. "This here's Tom. Tom Sawyer."

"A mate o' yours?" the same man asked.

"Best of my heart," Huck replied proudly.

"He t' be trusted?"

"I reckon I'd trust him with my life."

"Well then! Welcome, Tom," the man said, extending his hand to an excitable Tom, who took it nervously. "I'd say ye want to know who we are?"

"Yessir," Tom replied.

"The name is O'Grady. Me and my mates, we're wanderers, like ta go up an' down the rivers, looking for hospitality wheres we can. We're what you folk like to call River Rats."

"No, sir," Tom replied, "I'd call you pirates!"

The man laughed. "Aye, aye, pirates. Now, y'see, we're from Ireland originally, but y'see, we took a boat over to New York to look for a better life. And that's how we made our way down 'ere."

Tom was thrilled. A real group of pirates – from New York! – were here in Missouri. Huck really had outdone himself with this surprise. Tom was quickly introduced to all the gathered pirates – Meg, Sean, Jim, Doyle, Bess, Jonas, Charlie, and Liam – and he shook hands with each calloused hand. Soon, he was set up with a good-sized piece of cured venison, and sat amongst the river rats, hearing their tales around the campfire.

"So," Tom said at an interval between stories, "you're the ones who gave Huck that knife?"

"Ah! Speak o' the devil, I darn near forgot 'bout that knife. Now give'r here Huck, we'll have none o' your thievery. Think you could fool a bunch of thieves! Ha!" Reluctantly Huck handed over the jewelled dagger. "Ah, yes, we certainly did give 'im that blade, said he wanted to show it off a bit, and since I trusted the lad, thought I'd give 'im a bit of a go at playin' pirate."

And thus, O'Grady recounted the tale of the dagger: "When we were still in Ireland, my brother Jim and me, we snuck down t' London for a bit of a get away. And when we were down there, we slept down near Tower o' London. Heard 'bout it at all?" Tom nodded. "So we're down by t' Tower, y'see? An' then we heard that them jewels, the crown jewels kept up in t' Tower, y'see? So Jim and I, we's got us a rope and climbed the walls o' the Tower! We were hundreds o' feet 'bove the water with naught but a rope keepin' us there, y'see? Then we climb in through t' window, grab a handful o' jewels, and climb our way back down. Now, we sold bunch o' the jewels, but I kept this one. She's a beauty, isn't she?" Tom nodded enthusiastically, feeling himself so excited he could damn near burst. Thieves, brigands, jewel heists – it was like the best Christmas day Tom could ever have hoped for!

The afternoon passed in a flurry of stories and games and even a dance or two as ol' Dread Pirate O'Grady strummed a joyful melody on his guitar. Indeed, it was one of the best times Tom had ever had in his life. Tom was let down to know that not all pirates were bloodthirsty villains, (for those were the people Tom admired most) but in this circumstance he was content, as it meant that he was not to be cooked and served for dinner!

The festivities ended as the sun began to descend, copper and purple in the west.

"Huck, Tom," O'Grady said, "I'd say t'was time for you to be heading on home."

"Aw, O'Grady, cain't we stay down here with you for a bit longer?" Tom complained.

"And get your mother worried half t' death? I'd say not, young Tom. Now be on your way lad, we'll still be here t'morrow."

"She ain't my mother, she's just my aunt."

"And she care for you, don't she? Now head on home Tom, I won't hear no more o' this."

It was with reluctant footsteps that Tom and Huck bid their pirate friends goodbye and set off back through the forest and on home.

They reached the edge of the island by nightfall, and, instead of crossing, sat on a big rock by the river's edge, to catch up with their racing hearts and panting breaths. They sat side by side, dipping their toes into the pitch-dark water, and made friendly talk.

"That sure was somethin'!" Tom said brightly, as he swung his feet around in the water.

"Sure was," Huck replied wistfully.

"What do you reckon we should do now?" Tom asked, feeling a touch rebellious and not wishing to go home just yet.

"Reckon there ain't much we can do," Huck said, putting a blade of grass between his teeth and sitting back contentedly.

"Then let's just sit here," Tom replied, content with his decision. So sit they did, their legs dangling into cool water, watching as ferries crossed the river, onboard lights reflecting like stars in the dark river. The moon soon graced the sky, and bathed the world in a dim, blue light. Otters leapt out and about in the river, and raccoons, undisturbed by the boys' stillness, washed their faces just a handful of feet away. Everything seemed serene and pristine in that hour of night, and it was a perfectly wonderful end to their day of pirating and River Ratting.

Conversation happened, and friendly punches to the shoulder, and stories and laughter drifted between the friends like so much imagined colour. They waved and whistled at passing ferries, all strung up with miniature white lights, which, if you squinted, looked like fireflies swinging together in tandem. Crickets chirped in chorus, and bullfrogs croaked loudly. It was truly a wonderful night.

The hour was approaching midnight, and Huck was finding his eyes beginning to droop. "I reckon we should go our own ways now," Huck said sleepily.

"I say so, too," Tom agreed. "Just give it a minute though. I reckon I'd like to do something first."

Huck looked at Tom amiably, and gave the boy a nudge. "What's that?"

"I ain't sure, just been thinking 'bout it."

"Well, you gonna tell me?"

"Surely am. Just don't know how t'say it."

"Just go on out there an' say it."

"Well, we good friends, right Huck?"


"Well, I was just thinkin' that I reckon I'd like to kiss you."

Huck paused for a moment to consider the offer. He turned and regarded Tom with a curious expression. "I ain't never been kissed afore."

"I kissed Amy Lawrence after school few times."

"It any good?" Huck asked inquisitively.

"I'd say so."

"Well, I reckon I'd like to have a go," Huck said. And with that, Tom edged over, turning his head to his friend. Huck regarded him pleasantly and asked: "You just lean forward and that's it?"

"Sure 'nough."

And thus they did. Huck, his eyes closed as he'd seen adults do, leaned forward and felt his lips make contact with Tom's. Soft and tasting of peppermint, Huck found the kiss rather enjoyable, and so pushed a little into it, finding his lips sliding into a comfortable position against Tom's. He nuzzled a bit deeper, his satisfaction with kissing growing. Subconsciously, Tom's hand found it's way to the back of Huck's mop of dirty black-brown hair, his fingers winding into his curls. The kiss lasted a few moments longer before it ended rather uneventfully, though the sweet feeling remained.

Tom fluttered his eyelashes open and found a smiling Huck before him, who said: "I reckon I liked that."

"I did too."

"Reckon you'd like to do it again?"


They edged forward again, their lips touching with less hesitation. This time, having experienced and enjoyed the previous kiss, they kissed with more energy. Huck found his hand in Tom's dirty-blond hair like Tom had his in Huck's. They leant into each other, tilting their heads and finding their lips pressed pleasantly together. Huck's lips were soon parted by Tom's small pink tongue, and Huck reciprocated, finding the sensation marvellous. A few moments of play later, their tongues touching furtively, brushing and pushing along lips and sometimes against teeth, the friends broke apart from their second kiss, feeling much satisfied with their efforts. They smiled at each other cheerfully.

"Well," Huck said pulling himself to standing, "reckon we should get goin'." He extended a hand that Tom took.

They crossed the river, rock to rock, wading through the open water until they came to shore. Standing on the grassy shore, Huck said: "I'd say that's goodnight, then."

"Surely is," Tom said. "You'll be round t'morrow?"

"I'll be sleepin' out behind the tavern in the empty sugar hogshead."

"G'night, then," Tom said, embracing Huck quickly.

A quick wave goodbye and the friends parted ways, their hearts just that much lighter from the night's activities. Tom couldn't help but smile, and deep down he knew Huck was smiling too.