By the River

Are there killer sharks in the Ohio River? One old man knew the truth; but no one would believe him.

Almost no one believed the old man when he warned visitors about sharks in the Ohio River. They attributed the old man’s DANGER: SHARKS sign to senility—until he showed them the evidence. Then they sang a different tune.

Of course, he knew that one day a visitor would laugh at his sign and step carelessly into the muddy waters. Then there would be a tragedy. But some people could not be saved from themselves.

He lived by the river’s edge in a houseboat that had seen far better days. The old man lived alone with his memories. He was surrounded by photographs—of a wife who had died many, many years ago, and two children whom he had also outlived. There were also pictures of seven grandchildren; but they were all early middle-aged now. They had families and lives in distant cities. None of them had visited the old man for many years.

Most of the time he kept the boat docked in its usual spot on the Ohio side of the river. Its motor leaked oil; and anyway, there was nothing much to see on this stretch of the Ohio River except the rugged hills of rural Kentucky on one side, and the similar landscape of Ohio on the other.

I am an old man, he thought to himself. But I am not quite helpless; and I will do what I can. I will warn others so they will not die unnecessarily.

One afternoon in early August, a young man and his girlfriend (the old man assumed that she was his girlfriend, though he could not be absolutely certain) appeared in the parking lot that abutted the boat dock. They saw the old man rocking on a chair on the deck of his houseboat. Then they saw the sign that said: DANGER: SHARKS.

“Excuse me, sir!” the young man called out. The old man guessed that the boy was maybe twenty years old, at the most. “What’s this all about?”” he gestured to the sign. “Is this an inside joke?”

“It’s no joke,” the old man replied. On the far side of the parking lot was a four-wheel drive vehicle with a trailer behind it. A jet ski was perched upon the trailer. The old man knew immediately what the two young people had in mind.

“You can’t be serious,” the young woman said. She wore her long hair in a ponytail. Like the young man, she was dressed for the water. “There are no sharks in the Ohio River.”

“Don’t be so sure.” the old man said, beginning a variation of his long-practiced spiel. “We aren’t talking about a shark like the one in that movie that came out years ago. Ever heard of bull sharks? Bull sharks can survive in fresh water. They’ve been documented in the Mississippi as far north as Illinois.”

The young man chuckled and the old man thought: He is not a bad sort—not really; but he will try too hard to impress the girl. Young men always fall into that trap.

“Yes, sir, I’ve heard of bull sharks; and I’ve heard those old stories; but sharks in the Mississippi are extremely rare. Like hen’s teeth. And we’re hundreds of miles up the Ohio River!”

The young man turned to the girl and smiled confidently. “Come on, Cindy, let’s hit the water!”

The girl did not move. She did not return the young man’s smile. Instead she said to the old man: “Can you show us, Mister? I mean, can you show us the sharks?”

The old man sighed. He appraised the two young people standing on the riverbank in the parking lot: They had their entire lives ahead of them. 

“Wait here,” he said and disappeared into the cabin of the houseboat.

When the old man emerged from the cabin, he was carrying a piece of raw chicken in each hand. The old man’s hands were wet from the blood and juices of the meat.

“Watch closely,” he said. “Because this chicken was supposed to be part of my supper tonight.”

The old man walked to the edge of the houseboat, in a spot where the two young people could easily observe him. They stepped closer to the houseboat and the riverbank. Now they were standing in the grass, near the steep decline into the water.

“That’s plenty close,” the old man said. “One slip, and well—you get the idea.”

The old man tossed the chicken into the water. He tossed the pieces upstream a ways so that they would float back down past the houseboat.

“Looks like a waste of a perfectly good meal to me,” the boy said; and the girl nudged him.

The old man did not bother to acknowledge the young man. Let him laugh, he thought. For just a few minutes before the young people arrived, he had seen the familiar dark shapes beneath the surface of the water.

A dorsal fin protruded from the muddy shallows near one of the pieces of chicken. There was a glimpse of a blunt grey snout and an unmistakable flash of teeth. Lots of teeth.

The first piece of chicken disappeared inside the shark’s mouth, and then the big fish quickly submerged again.

Another splash of roiling water, and the second piece of chicken disappeared as well.

The girl gasped. “That was a—”

The boy was too dumbfounded to say anything for the moment.

“How’s that possible?” the girl asked. “There shouldn’t be sharks in the Ohio River.”

“Just because there shouldn’t be doesn’t mean there can’t be. Ever heard of Matawan Creek?”

The young woman shook her head.

“July of 1916. A twelve-year-old boy was killed by a shark in Matawan Creek, New Jersey. No one ever expected a shark to be there. He was almost twenty miles inland.”   

“We’re a lot more than twenty miles inland,” the young man said.

The old man laughed. “And that was in 1916. Living things change over time, right? People used to live in trees. Then we lived in caves. Now we live in apartment buildings and subdivisions and—” He stomped a foot on the deck beneath him. “Some of us even live on houseboats!”

The two young people both laughed at the old man’s humor. It was an obligatory laugh.

“If you can accept that,” the old man went on. “Then why shouldn’t you be able to accept that a few sharks—of the same species that has always been in the Mississippi—are now in the Ohio? The Ohio and the Mississippi are connected, after all.”

“Have you told anyone?” the young woman with the ponytail asked.

“I tell everyone I can. But most people don’t believe me. And I can’t always prove that the sharks exist. They aren’t always close to my boat like this. I called the police twice; but the sheriff brushed it off. He thinks I’m senile, no doubt.”

“Global warming,” the young man said. Perhaps it was a final attempt to salvage his dignity before his girlfriend. “It has to be global warming.”

The young couple needed no more convincing. They were done with the water. As they were driving away, the woman rolled down the window of the four-wheel drive vehicle and waved at the old man.

“Thanks Mister,” she said. “You saved our lives.”

The old man stood on the edge of his houseboat and watched the two young people drive away. Soon it was dinnertime; but the old man found that he had no appetite.

The remaining chicken will keep another day, the old man said to himself. He sat on the deck and grew sleepy as he watched the sunset paint the waters of the Ohio River orange and red.

* * *

Late that night two more people visited the old man. They were thieves and they surprised the old man in his sleep. They beat him badly; and when they had beaten him nearly unconscious they demanded money from him.

“But I have no money,” he said through broken teeth. “Look at the way I live.” He shrunk back against the floor of his cabin, wishing that the thieves would simply go away. But he knew that they would not go away. Not without killing him first.

“Very well,” he finally said, suspecting that another beating was imminent. “I will tell you: I keep ten thousand dollars in old coins buried in the river. The coins are locked in a watertight box, about the size of a shoe box.”

One of the old man’s attacker’s gave him a skeptical look.

“How do you keep the coins from washing away?”

“There is a metal post driven into the riverbed, about a foot below the water’s surface. I will show you where: You can easily find it; and then you will have the coins.”

The two thieves nodded to each other and smiled. Ten thousand dollars would buy plenty of whisky and weed, and maybe some women as well.

“Show us where!” the larger of the two thieves said, hauling the old man to his feet.

They shoved the old man onto the deck of the boat. As one of the thieves held a knife to his throat, the old man pointed to a moonlit patch of murky water. “There,” he said. “The coins are buried there.”

“You go get them!” the larger thief said.

The old man shook his head. “Look what you have done to me. I can barely stand. If I step into that water I will collapse and drown, and you will never have the coins.”

The smaller of the two thieves said: “He’s right, Jack. He can’t do it. This old coot must be eighty years old. Probably can’t even swim on his best day. And we need him alive—”

“Until we get the coins,” the thief named Jack replied.

The two thieves took off their shoes and dropped them onto the deck of the boat. They seemed to have momentarily forgotten the old man. He was no threat to them, after all. He collapsed onto the deck of the houseboat, not far from where the thieves had dropped their shoes.

“Wait,” the old man said. “You have to take some meat for the dogs.”

“Dogs?” the thief named Jack asked. “What are you talking about?”

“There are wild dogs in the woods,” the old man said weakly. “When they hear you splashing around, they will come running, thinking it is a deer or a flock of geese.”

“Can these dogs swim? I’m warning you old man, don’t lie to us. We’ll bash your head in and throw you to the catfish.” He winked at his accomplice as if to say: We’ll bash his head and throw him in anyway—as soon as we have the coins.

“The dogs can swim. But if you throw the meat onto the bank, the dogs will forget about you and eat the meat. The dogs don’t want to kill anyone. They only want to eat. They aren’t cruel.” The old man drew a wheezy breath before continuing. “There is some freshly butchered chicken in my refrigerator. It’s still bloody, in fact. Take it with you so you’ll have it to throw to the dogs.”

The thief named Jack took a moment to appraise what the old man had said. Then he jerked a thumb at his companion.

“Go get the chicken. We can shove it into our pockets.”

“We’ll get blood on our clothes!” the other thief protested.

“We’ll also get ten thousand dollars in old coins. Now shut up and get the chicken, before I bash your head in.”

The chicken taken from the refrigerator, the two thieves each stuffed several pieces of it into their pants pockets. Chicken blood ran down their legs as they eased themselves off the edge of the houseboat and into the dark, muddy water. The night was quiet, except for the sounds of crickets in the nearby woods, and the sound of the river slapping against the side of the houseboat.

“Where is the box?” Jack shouted to the old man.

“Near the back edge of the boat,” the old man said. “About three steps toward the middle of the river,”

The thieves began wading through waist-deep water toward the place that the old man had indicated.

“Here?” Jack called.

“That’s about right,” the old man said. “You’ll have to bend over in the water to find the metal post.”

There was some grumbling from the thieves, as no one likes to submerge his head in river water after dark. But the promise of the coins—and the pleasures they could buy—apparently moved them. The old man heard the two men plunge beneath the surface. Some conversation passed between them when they came back up:

“Jack, you find anything?”

Not yet, you idiot, keep looking!

Then the old man heard another swirl of water. He raised himself up on the deck of the houseboat just in time to see the first dorsal fin break the surface of the river. The grey fin was wet and shiny in the moonlight.

“Hey, Jack, what is—?”

The smaller of the two thieves screamed and disappeared into the river. The bigger one, Jack, apparently had no inclination to save his accomplice. Jack turned frantically in the direction of the riverbank, his feet slipping and sliding in the mud beneath.

There was a sudden whoosh! and another splash as a second dorsal fin appeared. From what the old man could see, this shark had wrapped its jaws around Jack’s lower back, sinking its teeth into the area above the man’s kidneys.

Now the two thieves were both thrashing around in the water. The fish were thrashing, too. Both men were screaming. The commotion drowned out the sound of the crickets singing from the woods along the riverbank.

And then it was over. The men were gone and the big fish were gone. The old man struggled to his feet and staggered toward the boat’s cabin. He paused in the doorway of the cabin and scanned the shadows along the riverbank.

He could see the silhouette of his DANGER: SHARKS sign. But he could not read the words in the darkness.

Those thieves believed the story about the coins that do not exist, he thought. But they would never have believed about the sharks, even if I had told them.

* * *

The next day was a scorcher and the waters of the Ohio River shimmered in the white heat of the afternoon.  The old man sat in his rocker near the edge of the deck—but not too near. He was still hurting from the beating the thieves had given him. He knew he would recover, though. He had been through worse and survived.

“I am an old man,” he said to himself. He took a drink from a sweating glass of cold lemonade. “But I am not dead yet and I am not helpless yet. I will live out whatever time is left to me. I will warn whoever will listen about the sharks in the river.”

He stared into an eddy near the back of the boat, and he saw what looked like a dorsal fin. The sharks had eaten well in this place; they would probably stay near his boat for the rest of the summer.

“I am an old man; but I will do what I can.”


This story is part of the collection Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense