Down below the Big Drop, while Bernie and Sammie emptied their canoe and examined their soaked cigars, cigarettes and billfolds. Benton fixed Margaret with his baleful brown eyes. "See, I told you it was nothing," he said. Then he cackled and scratched his stomach.
Still, if the usually benign Big Drop was this tough, what would it be like downstream, say at Wreckin' Rock? The smooth stretch of river leading to that obstacle passed without remark (low bluffs, birdsong, the insectlike click of dripping water from the pour-offs). The tension eased when Wreckin' Rock hove into sight. Harold was right: the river was so high that many of the impassable shoals were fully covered, and the canoes could run Wreckin' Rock to the left, missing it completely.
Now the party relaxed and began exchanging lore about the bluffs as they drifted past. To the right was Bee Bluff, thus named in 1916, when a couple of local boys discovered a buzzing megalopolis in the cliff. They scaled the bluff from the river, burned out the bees with rags soaked in sulphur and then dynamited the crevice that guarded the honey. More than 400 pounds of honey and wax were collected, but the climbers themselves got little or none of it. By the time they got down, after lowering the spoils by bucket, their comrades had made off with—or eaten—most of the goodies. Bee Bluff was also the scene of a Faulknerian tragedy: around the turn of the century the last bear in Newton County was done in here. "For a week they chased him with horses and hounds," Hedges related. "Finally they cornered him on the bluff, and the bear went over. A heck of a comedown, but bears have returned since then. So have deer, beaver and bobcats. Some say there are even some red wolves again, though I haven't seen their sign."
Roark Bluff slid past on the left, half a mile of imaginative physiognomy and utter silence. To the urban ear, such quiet is in itself disquieting—no jets overhead, no reassuring rip of tires on concrete, not even the hum of electricity as background noise. It takes a few hours for the ear to adjust, and then the natural sounds begin to fill in with a random background noise of their own: a grumble of rapids ahead, a quick slash of wood-duck wings, the enormous clashing rattle of an elephant (or was it a rabbit?) in the bankside brush. Benton worked his bow paddle and studied the bluffs in silence, looking like an aged Einstein with his rumpled white hair and untrimmed mustache. Then he shattered the image with a squirt of tobacco juice into the clear water.
On a gravel bar across the river from Big Bluff the canoes beached for lunch. Big Bluff is the highest cliff in the Ozarks, rising 750 feet above the riser in a convex double bulge. Along the seams of the bulges runs the Goat Trail, a tricky but beautiful vantage point which canoeists sometimes scale—half a sweaty hour each way—simply for the view of rolling green hills and snaking blue river below. While Margaret built ham-and-cheese sandwiches on slabs of her home-baked whole-wheat bread, John Callison searched for arrowheads. The region had been a favorite hunting and tool making ground of the Osage Indians, and the early French explorers called it Aux Arcs (of the bows), which was later corrupted to Ozark.
Bernie and Sammie dried their clothes and their tobacco, blissfully unaware of what would happen to them downstream, where the water got tough again. Benton studied the riffles: perhaps they reminded him, in their bright whorls of random color, of the later work of one of his students, Jackson Pollock. Then he munched a handful of watercress that Margaret had picked the previous evening. Watercress is not native to the Ozarks, Margaret explained. "I picked this batch from Nellie Villines' ditch in Boxley. There used to be a tomato cannery there, and the immigrant French girls who worked in it often had watercress in their lunch pails. They dumped their leftovers in the ditch, and now we have fresh watercress year-round. One of the few instances where littering paid."
Homely little touches of history like that are one of the dividends that accrue on the Buffalo. "There's an oral history here that's fading fast with each old farmer's passing." says Harold Hedges. The best of the local historians is Mrs. Orphea Duty, a birdlike little woman who until recently was the postmistress of Boxley. Orphy, as everyone calls her. is also the best cook around. Two tables, replete with fresh-cut flowers in season, are always set at Orphy's for anyone who drops in hungry for fried chicken, cherry tarts and Buffalo lore.
After lunch Benton took a nap on a mattress of life jackets—"nooning." he called it, "just like the quail do"—and then the party moved on. Just below Big Bluff, after a squiggle or two, the river forked around a wooded island. To the right: shoals and willow stubs, leaving the left-hand channel as the only alternative. With the river high, the chute was deceptive. Most of the snags were invisible, hinted at only by a few bulging hummocks of water, and the banks were thick with brush—sinuous willow as whippy as an Osage bow. "We'll have to run it between the rock and the hard place," said Hedges. "The trick is to keep to the middle, but the current doesn't like you to do that. It prefers to keep you to the left."
It kept B & S there. The bow of their canoe hit a willow stub with a thump that made Margaret—who was out of sight upstream—look up for the plane that had caused the sonic boom. Sammie catapulted skyward—all 228 pounds of him, eyes a-goggle, arms and paddle flailing—while Bernie did a slow roll to the right and disappeared with a rueful grin under the waves. Benton saw it all. His static old face cracked with laughter—"GAW damnit! Gaw DAMN! I never saw so nice a dive in my life!" he told Sammie when he finally washed up a couple of hundred yards below on a gravel bar. "From now on you're the River Diver. Son of a gun, I wish I'd had my sketchbook out. I wish I'd had an automatic sketchbook. Hey, Sammie. why don't you go back up there and do it over again?" Sammie coughed river water and belched blearily. Bernie's shirt went floating past underwater—a ghostly flash followed shortly by suntanned Bernie himself, spluttering and laughing.
"We've got to give that chute a name," said Margaret later. "How about Feeback's Fling?" Sammie would have laughed if he could have.