The River Pirates by Manly Wade Wellman (1963)
Manly Wade Wellman led an interesting life. He roamed the Ozarks with folklorist Vance Randolph; he wrote the first issue of Captain Marvel Adventures; he beat William Faulkner in a short story contest; he held a law degree; he worked as a bouncer in a dance hall; he (reportely was the adopted son of a tribal chief in Portugese West Africa where he was born; and he was a connoisseur of fine moonshine. But above all, Wellman was a writer. He has won the EQMM, Edgar, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Locus Awards. Although best known today for his science fiction and fantasy stories, he also wrote mysteries, frontier stories, sports stories, and historical novels. He wrote popular and regional histories about his beloved South. For a period of close to a quarter cenury, he turned out 32 juvenile (today, they would be called young adult) adventure stories dealing mainly with the Revolutionary and Civil Wars and the American frontier.
The River Pirates is one such. The time 1811 and young North Carolina-born, Tennessee-raised Lee Parham has struck out on his own. At 19, Lee is an experienced gunsmith, having learned the trade from father and granfather. Lee has made his way to the town of Clark's Landing on the Mississippi River and has set up shop. His competion was from the town bully Sugg Fitzner. Lee is goaded into a winner-take-all fist fight with Fitzner; the loser to pack his bags, leave town, and let the winner have a monopoly in the gunsmith trade. A much smaller man and and inexperienced with the art of fighting, Lee loses. One witness to the battle was Peter Crawley, the owner of a Mississippi keelboat headed upriver. Crowley takes Lee on as a crewman, allowing Lee to travel upriver until he can find a new location to set up shop once again.
The life of a riverman is hard, sometimes poling the keelboat, sometimes pulling along with along the shore with rope. There's danger from treacherous eddies and danger from river pirates. Lee finds himself fitting with his tough crewmates and gets some valuable lessons in boxing from Crowley, who had learned the art from a noted champion while he was in England.
Dillard Munro has led a band of river pirates preying on the river for over six years. He has escaped attention from the authorities by the simple means of killing every person on the boats he has taken. Boats often go missing on the river -- who's to say if a boat goes missing by accident or by human design. Using trickery, Munro and his men capture the Wanderer, Peter Crawley's boat. Lee is knocked unconscious but not killed. He awakens to find himself bound and condemned to die by Munro's orders. Lee challenges Ringtail, the biggest of the river pirates, to a fight and wins, impressing Munro, who offers to grant Lee anything he wants -- except his life. Lee notices then that Crowley is beginning stir -- although wounded in the head, he has not been killed. Lee then tells Munro that he, if he to die, then Crowley must live. The river pirate considers himself a man of honor and agrees.
But then Munro discovers that Lee is an experienced gunsmith. Rather than kill lee, he puts him to work crafting guns because Crowley has an ambition to carve out an empire for himself along the Mississippi; he already has men stationed in twenty towns along the river and -- with the weapons Lee can provide -- will be able to put his plan into action.
Wellman's juveniles -- especially those based in history -- are good reads, full of action and character. I'm not sure how today's YA audience would appreciate them, but I like them just fine. For some reason, The River Pirates was the only one of the 32 I had not read before and I'm glad I got a chance to finally read it.
The Forgotten Books game of musical chairs continues as Todd Mason plays host this week; catch the links today at his blog Sweet Freedom. Next week the hosting duties will go back to Evan Lewis, and then (if I've the schedule worked out) to Patti Abbott, the Queen of Forgotten Books.