The Boatman's Howling DaughterThe Boatman's Howling Daughter 
An American Tall Tale

Her name was Sal Fink, and she was best known for her holler. "Hiiiooowwweeeewhoooo," she would yell, and whenever people heard that sound, they shook their heads with wonder, and they'd remember all her astonishing feats.

Her Daddy was Mike Fink, the keelboat man who was famous for his daring deeds on the rivers of Ohio and Mississippi. And Sal? She was as brave and bold as her daddy. People say she once road down the great Mississippi River on the back of an alligator, and I'm pretty sure that must be true.

She was short and she was sturdy, and she could be rough. After all, her daddy was Mike Fink, and her Ma was the woman who once caught a thief all on her own and frightened him so badly, he swore he'd never steal another thing, so long as Ma Fink promised she would leave him alone.

One day when Sal was just a little girl she was wandering in the woods when she heard a peculiar growl and grunt coming from inside a hollow oak tree. She peered inside, and there she saw an enormous She-Bear feeding her seven bear cubs.

Well, everyone knows how she-bears feel about intruders who come close to their cubs, and sure enough, that big she-bear rushed out of the tree and started chasing little Sal. Those seven cubs were right on Ma's heels.

"Hiiioooowweeeehooo," Sal cried, and that amazing sound stopped the She-Bear and those cubs right in their tracks.

But just for a moment.

That big She-bear jumped on little Sal, and in a minute they were wrapped in this big bear hug, rolling and rolling over each other as they wrestled there in the woods.

Then Little Sal discovered that She-bear's teeth and claws were tangled up in all her long, black hair and in the fringes of her little buckskin skirt, so she twisted and she turned. She wrangled and wrestled. And then she punched, and she knocked the wind right out of that big She-bear. Then she dragged the She-bear home to show off to her parents, and those seven little cubs followed behind.

But Sal could be kindhearted too. She took pity on those little cubs, and she fed them, and after that those seven cubs followed Sal wherever she went. Those seven cubs were like pet dogs.

One day in the middle of a blustery winter, Sal was in the forest hunting wildcats when suddenly a band of fifteen riverboat pirates surrounded her. The bears were back home, and Sal knew her odds. Fifteen to one, she didn't have a chance.

Those pirates picked her up and carried her all the way to Dead Man's Hollow, and there they tied poor Sal to a tree, and they built a big fire at her feet.

They sat in a circle around her, and one of the pirates chuckled. "We'll ask for a ransom for her," he said. "Old Mike Fink will pay handsomely for his little kid."

"No, no," one of the others said. "Let's sell her to someone else. Anyone would pay a bundle for this gal."

But then a third one called out, "No, let's light the fire!"

"Let's do whatever makes Mike Fink most mad," said a fourth pirate.

You see, these were the brothers of a pirate Mike Fink had killed. These fellas wanted revenge.

"Ransom!" cried a fifth pirate.

"Fire," argued the sixth.

"Sell her!" said the seventh, and the eighth one said, "Drown her like he drowned our brother!"

"Sell her!"

"Hide her!"


And round and round they went, arguing the way pirates do.

"It's a stroke of luck we found her," said the twelfth pirate," but that was the only thing they could all agree on.

Now all this time Sal was watching them very closely, staring at their dirty, bearded faces, studying the pistols and knives they had jammed into their broad pirate belts.

Sal wiggled a little, testing the ropes that held her.

And those pirates? They continued to argue, and after a while that fire was beginning to warm their toes, so they pulled off their big heavy boots.

Sal grimaced. "Oooweee," she said, "that smell reminds me of the time a dozen skunks got stuck under our barn."

But the pirates paid no attention to her insult; they were too busy arguing, and by the warmth of that fire, they soon grew tired, and one by one, they fell fast asleep.

Now the big full moon began to rise, and by the time it was high in the sky, that last pirate was fast asleep, and all of them were snoring loudly.

Well, now Sal let her temper flare. "I won't stand for this!" she muttered, and she flexed her muscles, and she burst those ropes as if they were string.

She crept quietly from the tree, and without making a sound, she took every last one of the pirates' weapons and she tossed these away, far into the woods where they'd never be found. Then she grabbed the tangled rope and tied all their legs together, and she wove a long cord through those bonds.

Now she held one end in her hand, and she smiled up at that bright moon, and then at the top of her lungs she cried, "Wake up, you snakes!"

Sal's voice was so loud, all the leaves in the forest trembled, and as the pirates woke, Sal jerked on the rope and pulled them, feet first, into the fire that had burned to hot embers.

Those men began to yell and curse their burning feet, but Sal just left them there to cry. She picked up her wildcat pelts, and then she saw a chest of pirates' gold, so she picked that up too, and she turned to the pirates and bowed. "Thanks for the gold, fellas," she said, and then she ran off, faster than a wildcat, and the pirates went on howling and shrieking as they struggled to untangle those knots.

From far far away, out in the dark forest, the pirates heard that sound.

"Hiiioowwweeeewhoooo," that howl that woke all the folks from the headwaters of the Ohio to the mouth of the Mississippi, and when it did, everyone who heard the cry just shook their heads and sighed, for they knew Sal Fink was out there under the full, fat moon, pulling another one of her stunts.