“The Knights need a teetotaler driver tomorrow, Jimbo,” Harlan Kittredge said. “Be you a teetotaler?”
It was the evening of June 20. Tomorrow the White Knights of Temperance, formerly the Kingdom County Outlaws, were headed to Boston to catch the twin bill between the Sox and the Yankees. They’d gotten together tonight at the Common Hotel to put the finishing touches on their plans for the trip.
At fifteen Jim Kinneson, the Knights’ shortstop and lead-off hitter, was the team’s youngest player. Unsure what a teetotaler was, Jim looked over the top of his Orange Nehi at his older brother Charlie for assistance. Charlie was ogling Miss Pinky, the girl singer in the hotel band. A cat-eyed crooner out of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with a voice like a rusty yard pump, Miss Pinky could belt out “If You’ve Got the Money, Honey” loudly enough to be heard all the way from the hotel barroom to the United Church at the far end of the village green. For months Charlie had been begging her to accompany him on an all-expenses-paid romantic weekend in Montreal. In fact, the entire baseball team was in love with Pinky. Jim was infatuated with her himself.
At present Miss Pinky and her fiddle player were taping a cardboard sign over the bar. It said, “We Still Love You Hank.” Miss P had hand-lettered it with a red crayon in tribute to the late, great Hank Williams, who, at just twenty-nine, had died this past New Year’s Day. That was the day the Outlaws had taken the pledge and changed the team’s name. Right here in the hotel barroom, with Armand St. Onge, the proprietor, as a witness, the boys had raised their right hands and solemnly sworn to let the hard stuff alone for an entire year. Beer was still permissible. It was a well-known fact, at least to the Knights, that you couldn’t become an alkie like Hank on beer. Even Armand said so, and he should know. Armand drank two six packs of Black Label every weeknight and three apiece on Saturday and Sunday.
Still, suds and long-distance driving didn’t mix. If the Knights were to get to Boston tomorrow, they needed a sober driver. Jim didn’t drink beer or hard stuff. According to Charlie, the team’s attorney and catcher, the fact that Jim didn’t have his driver’s license yet was immaterial. Like most other teenagers in the Kingdom, Jim had been driving for years.
Miss P shimmied her way over to Jim and Charlie’s table, shut one eye and surveyed the “We Still Love You Hank” sign to see if it was plumb. She had long dark hair down her back and a complexion the color of Armand’s black-cherry bar. She was tall and slender and sang with a Cajun accent. The fact that she was the only Yankee fan in Kingdom Common made her even more exotic.
Armand stepped up to the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “straight from the Lou’siane bayou, Mademoiselle Pinky, dark as chocolate and just as sweet.”
Pinky rolled her eyes as the boys hooted and stomped. The fiddler played a bar of “Jolie Blon” while she adjusted the mic.
“Listen, all y’all,” Pinky croaked in a voice like a swamp bittern. “Whichever one you alkies, you, bring me back a baseball signed by Joe DiMaggio, I’ll take you up on that weekend in Montreal.”
She pointed a long finger straight at Jim and winked. “That include you, hotshot.”
Snub-nosed and hunch-shouldered, the team bus sat in the hotel parking lot in the mountain dawn. It had formerly belonged to an automobile junkyard dealer from Pond in the Sky who Charlie had gotten off the hook for possession of stolen property. The dealer had paid Charlie in kind with the property in question. The words “Burlington Transit Company” could still be faintly discerned on the side of the bus where the junkyard owner had tried to sand them off.
Harlan Kittredge had painted the team’s new name just below the imperfectly deleted “Burlington Transit Company.” In fire-engine-red letters a foot high Harlan had inscribed the words “White Nights of Temprance.” Someone, probably Charlie, had added an inebriated-looking “K” in front of “Nights.” No one had bothered to correct “Temprance.”
The bus had a new name of its own: The Ark of the Covenant. It had been conferred by Charlie in commemoration of the vow they boys had made to leave the hard stuff alone.
They headed out just after five a.m. Jim had been practicing for the trip by driving the Ark to away games. Shifting through its six forward gears was the biggest challenge. “Shift!” the boys hollered as the Ark headed south between the village green and the brick shopping block. Jim mashed down on the metal clutch pedal and ratcheted the floor shift to the next gear up.
At the end of the brick block, Jim’s dad, Editor Charles Kinneson, was unlocking the door of The Kingdom Monitor. He glanced over his shoulder at the bus but didn’t wave. The editor was down on the Sox because they hadn’t yet broken at the color barrier in Boston by signing on a Negro player. Neither for that matter had the Yankees. Jim’s dad hadn’t told him that he couldn’t go to Boston with the Knights, but Jim knew that he didn’t approve of the trip.
The night before, planning the drive to Fenway, the boys had closed down the hotel barroom. This morning they had frequent recourse to the team’s water bucket and dipper. Approaching Kingdom Landing, they began to sing “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” The song petered out at eighty-five bottles. By the time they reached St. Johnsbury most of the players were asleep.
Jim’s only disappointment was that he would miss seeing Ted Williams play. Ted was serving his country in Korea. Seeing Joe DiMaggio would be the next best thing, even if he was a damn Yankee. In Jim’s jacket pocket was a brand-new, official American League baseball Charlie’d given him for his fifteenth birthday. If they arrived at Fenway in time for batting practice, Joltin’ Joe might sign Jim’s baseball for Miss Pinky.
“Just Ahead Second Longest Covered Bridge in the World.”
“Swing in there, Jimbo,” Harlan said, pointing at the pull-off beyond the sign. “Pit stop.”
Jim nosed the Ark into the pull-off beside a green trash barrel. He got out and stretched. Across the river in New Hampshire the sun was just coming up behind the White Mountains. While the boys went down to pee in the river, Jim read the historical marker beside the entrance of the bridge:
“This covered bridge over the Upper Connecticut River was built by James Kinneson in 1789. In 1812, ‘Abolition Jim’ rallied a contingent of local loggers, trappers, Abenaki Indians and farmers, and declared the independence of ‘God’s Kingdom’ from Vermont and the United States over the issue of slavery. In 1836, in a day-long battle at this bridge, James and eight of his fellow abolitionists were killed by federal soldiers sent from Boston to put down the insurrection, and Kingdom County was duly reincorporated into America.”
It seemed strange to Jim to read his own name on the historical marker. It was almost like reading about his own death.
“I guess old James was pretty independent-minded,” Jim said to Charlie.
“He was pretty crazy,” Charlie said, laughing. “Now you know where I get it from.”
“Well, looky there, boys,” Harlan said, coming back up the bank tugging at his fly. He pointed at an ad painted in white over the arched entryway of the bridge: “Whittemore’s Country Store 1 Mile Ahead in Woodville N.H. Coldest Beer in the Granite State.”
“They sell beer at Fenway, Harley,” Charlie said.
“It’s still early in the forenoon, Charlie K. We’ve got what, seven hours to get there? We’ll put her to a vote.”
The Knights voted fifteen to two, Charlie and Jim dissenting, to make a beer run to Woodville. Harlan would direct the Ark across the bridge while Jim drove.
Harlan walked backward into the bridge, holding his arms out at eye level and waggling his fingers for Jim to come ahead. Suddenly there was an incredibly loud, crunching noise, followed by the clatter of falling timbers and beams as the entryway of the second longest covered bridge in the world collapsed onto the roof of the bus.
Jim tried to throw the shifting lever into reverse. Instead he hit first again. His sneaker slipped off the clutch and the Ark gave a bound forward. Jim twisted the steering wheel to avoid Harlan. The bus smacked into the north wall of the bridge, knocking some boards down into the river. Finally Jim located reverse. The bus bucked sideways and the black shifting knob came off in Jim’s hand. The Ark was wedged diagonally across the bridge with its back wheels and three feet of its rear end hanging out over the river.
Standing in a jackstraw heap of beams and timbers, Harlan nodded. “Yes, sir, gentlemen,” he said.
“One thing now,” Harlan said as the Knights got out to assess their handiwork.
“This ain’t young Jim here’s fault. Nothing would do but we must make a beer run. I was directing. I checked for width but never looked up. This ain’t on Jim’s head.”
The boys agreed that Jim was in no way responsible for destroying the bridge. Charlie said they should call for a tow truck. He dispatched Cousin Stub Kinneson to a nearby farm on the Vermont side of the river to put in the call. Harlan and the Riendeau brothers volunteered to slope across the river to Whittemore’s Country Store and fetch back a case or two of the coldest beer in the Granite State.
Jim walked down the bank and stood beside the river. In the deep pool under the bridge a school of suckers flashed their reddish fins as they scavenged their way along the sandy bottom. Downriver a hundred yards the Boston and Montreal railroad tracks crossed the river on a wooden trestle. The tow truck would have to arrive soon for the Knights to make batting practice at Fenway.
Harlan and the Riendeaus showed up with eight cases of Black Label in a blue wheelbarrow. Harlan eyed a notice tacked to a soft maple tree near the trash barrel: “Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages Prohibited within 100 Feet of National Monument.” Harlan peered inside the trash barrel, then turned it upside down and dumped some sandwich wrappers and empty pop bottles over the bank. He shouldered the barrel, carried it down to the river and sozzled it out. He brought the barrel back up the bank, got out his church key and began opening the bottles of Black Label and pouring their contents into the barrel.
“We’ll drink turn and turn about out of the water dipper,” Harlan explained. “In case anybody comes along.”
Cousin Stub returned from the farmhouse to report that the Woodsville wrecker was down for transmission repairs. He’d tried Bradford but couldn’t get through. Finally he’d gotten hold of White River. The White River wrecker was out on call but would be up as soon as it got back.
“Hark. I do believe I hear the sound of a si-reen,” Harlan said.
Jim heard the siren, too, from across the river. It was coming their way.
A white Ford sedan with blue flashers and “Town of Woodsville Constable” stenciled on the driver’s door in red pulled up to the far side of the second longest covered bridge in the world. A rotund man in a blue uniform and a blue hat with a black chinstrap got out and started across the bridge.
Jim could feel his heart going faster. Maybe the accident wasn’t his fault but he’d been driving at the time.
“What’s this all about?” the constable said. “Didn’t you fellas see the load limit sign?”
The officer looked into the barrel. “Have you boys been drinking?”
“Certainly not,” Harlan said. “We’ve all tooken the pledge. Our driver, Jim Kinneson here, is sober as a judge.”
The policeman surveyed the Knights out from under the brim of his hat. “There’s no drinking within one hundred feet of the bridge,” he said. “It’s a national monument, up on the historical register. I’m afraid I’ve got to write you boys up.”
Traffic was beginning to back up on the Vermont side of the bridge. The driver of a milk truck with Massachusetts plates laid on his horn, then backed up the hill and turned around in the farmer’s barnyard. An older couple from Mississippi stopped to read the historical marker. They stared at the bus trapped in the bridge. “Look at this,” the man said to his wife. He pointed at a flyer tacked to the bridge beside the entryway: “Minstrel show 7 p.m. July 4 Kingdom Common Town Hall. Music, Skits, Amos and Andy, Walkin’ for de Cake. Admission Two Dollars, Chirren under 12 Free.” The woman from Mississippi shook her head. “Vermont,” she said to her husband.
Three carloads of Pony League ball players on their way from Bradford to a game in North Conway began to chant, “Throw the cop in the river.”
“Here now,” the policeman said, putting away his citation book. “You boys want the truth, I’m just a part-time constable, weekends and evenings. Mainly, I’m a Hoover repairman.”
The morning was wearing away. There was no word from the towing service in White River. Jim overheard Harlan tell Charlie that Boston might be out the window.
The Pony League team took their lunch down beside the river and had a picnic. Afterward they played flies and grounders in the farmer’s cow pasture. Charlie arranged with their coach for the White Knights of Temperance to play them, the Knights to bat left-handed. The part-time constable agreed to umpire from behind the pitcher. By the second inning the Knights were down 16 – 0.
In the top of the fourth inning the farmer appeared to report that the first game at Fenway was in the seventh inning stretch. The Yankees were ahead 7 – 2.
“What’s the story with White River?” Charlie asked.
“Still out on call,” the farmer said. “Their wench cable snapped in two. They had to send to Barre for a new wench cable.”
Later that inning, a blue hound with a frayed hank of rope around its neck ran out of the woods onto the playing field. “Look there, boys,” Harlan said. “Somebody’s nigger chaser done got loose.”
“Jesus, Harley,” Charlie said. Then he looked at Jim. “I hope you’re getting all this down in your head, Mr. Storywriter.”
Without quite knowing why, Jim took himself out of the game and went to sit in the bus, where it was cool and dim and quiet. After awhile he drifted off. When he woke up it was late afternoon. The Pony Leaguers had gone home to Bradford. The Sox had lost the first game of the twin bill and were behind 4 – 0 in the nightcap.
Some of the boys were skinny-dipping in the pool under the bridge. A passenger train with a glass-domed excursion car went by on the trestle and the Knights whooped and wagged their business at the excursionists. A lady looking out of the observation car put her hands over her eyes.
The farmer returned to report that there was no further word from White River and the Sox had now fallen behind 8 – 1 in the second game. The Yankees’ ace pitcher, Allie “The Chief” Reynolds, had given up only two scratch hits.
An argument broke out between the Knights over which one of them could “get a bat on one of the Big Injun’s fast balls and at least foul it off.” Jim believed that he knew the answer to this question but didn’t offer his opinion.
Toward evening the Knights decided to hold a temperance meeting. They stood around the trash barrel in the pull-off and passed the last dipperful of Black Label from hand to hand. Each team member took a sip and spoke a short piece.
“My name is Stub Kinneson and I believe in a higher power.”
“My name is Porter Quinn and I am not an alkie on account of you can’t be on beer.”
“My name is Faron Wright. I use to be an alkie until I quit the hard stuff.”
Faron handed the dipper to Jim, who passed it along to the constable.
“Jim don’t drink,” Porter explained to the officer. “Not even beer.”
“Jim here is living proof that you don’t have to drink to have a good time,” Stub said.
The constable held up the dipper to toast the White Knights. “From this day onward I am a full-time Hoover repairman,” he said. “Here’s your tow truck, boys.”
The driver from White River wore a cap that said “Junior” over the visor. Junior backed the truck up to the shattered entrance of the bridge. He hitched the tow hook of his new cable to the rear axle of the Ark and winched it back onto the floor of the bridge. A few more timbers and boards rained down into the river.
While the boys negotiated payment, Jim got his jacket out of the bus and walked down to the river one last time. He took the official American League baseball Charlie’d given him out of his jacket pocket and tossed it up in the air and caught it. Then he cocked his throwing arm. Just before Jim hurled the ball as far down the river as he could, Charlie grabbed his wrist. Charlie took the ball from Jim, and on it, with his ballpoint lawyering pen, he printed, “To Jim’s girl, Pinky. Love, Joe DiMaggio.”
Charlie flipped the ball back to Jim. “Enjoy Montreal, bub. You can borrow my pickup.”
To Jim’s surprise, the Ark of the Covenant was still drivable after its ordeal, though the steering wheel pulled hard to the right and he had to fight it all the way back to the Common. They arrived at the hotel just as the last strip of light was fading from the sky. The barroom was quiet. Armand was setting the charts upside down on the tables. The stage behind the chicken wire protecting the band from flying bottles was dark and empty.
“Like thieves in the night,” Armand said, handing Jim a Nehi. “The darky run off to Montreal with her fiddler like thieves in the night. I sent the others home for the evening.”
Jim got out his signed baseball and set it on the table. He wished that Charlie had said something more to Harlan about the stray-dog remark. He wished he’d spoken out himself. He supposed that he should feel relieved that he hadn’t had to watch the Sox lose twice to New York, but he didn’t. Nor did Pinky ever return to God’s Kingdom. For that Jim could scarcely blame her, but for a long time afterward, whenever he thought of her long dark hair and husky voice and the way she’d winked at him, he hoped that she would.