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We met Mike Fink briefly last week. He’s another tall tale character, although in this case the legends are based on a real man who was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania around 1770 or 1780. In addition to the exaggerated and imagined feats that make up his story, it may have been woven from the stories of two or more men with the same name.

Be that as it may, I read his story in American Tall Tales by Adrien Stoutenburg. The story starts with Mike Fink growing up in the woods around Pittsburgh, shooting wolves, bobcats, bugs, anything really. He was tough and bragged a lot, but always backed up his bragging with a show of his skill. He entered a shooting contest and beat out all the soldiers, hunters, Indian scouts, and boatmen, all the best shots in the country, even though he was just a child. He was too young to fight in the American Revolution, but when he was 17 he found his calling.

Mike Fink became a keelboatman. He fought, made friends and pushed the boat upstream with a long pole. He became the best keelboatman anywhere and the strongest, toughest fighter. He and his best friend, Carpenter, would take turns shooting cups of cider off each other’s head on lazy days as target practice. Then one day,a shot comes out of the woods and pierces the cup before Mike can. It was Talbot who then joins Carpenter and Mike on the boat, after they have a fighting match of course. Apparently all these men had to fight before they became friends.

With the invention of the steamboat, Mike Fink wasn’t the boss of the river anymore and the cities were becoming to civilized, sot the three of them went out west, part of a trapping-party headed up the Missouri. Tall tale characters need wild, untamed areas, they can’t be contained in cities. Turns out Mike was as good a trapper as he was a hunter.

One day, Carpenter and Mike got in an argument, but my version doesn’t say what it was over. They almost got into a fist fight before they remembered they were friends. But then spring came, and Mike and Carpenter were showing off. Carpenter put the cider cup on his head, like always, but Mike had trouble holding the gun steady and shot Carpenter dead in the forehead. At first he states it was an accident, but he can’t stand folks thinking he wasn’t the best sharpshooter around anymore, so he roars that he didn’t miss, that he had aimed for Carpenter’s forehead. “Talbot lifted his own rifle and shot Mike through the heart, not spilling a drop of blood.”

Right to the end, Mike Fink continues bragging.

“Whoop!” he roared. “Cock-a-doodle-do! I’m the original Pittsburgh screamer, roarer, and thunderer! I can out-shoot, out-fight, and out-yell anybody anywhere at any time!” He took a final, small breath, and the words came out so faintly that is was almost a whisper. ” And I was the best keelboatman that ever lived.”

Mike was bragging still, there at the end. But those last words, as everybody knows, were the honest truth. (pg. 63)

That end almost brings tears to my eyes. This bigger than life man, more or less killed by his own bragging, his shame to admit that maybe he was getting old. On the other hand, maybe that is part of the reason his legend lives on.

I really like the Stoutenburg’s re-tellings. In this one, the tall tales origins in the bragging contests of the American frontier really come through.

“Whoop, holler, and hailstones!” Mike yelled, jumping into the air and banging his heels together. “My name’s cholera, pestilence, and sudden death! I’m the original meat-grinder, man mauler, muscle-ripper, and the meanest, cruelest, blood-thirstiest creation that ever drew breath!”

Talbot took a deep breath and shouted back. “Whoop! I’m the man who invented fighting. I’ve got fists so big they make mountain look like bumps. I’ve got a hide like an alligator and a heart as black as a buzzard in a coal mine. I’m so mean, I hate not being able to kill a man more than once!” (pgs 59-60)

I love tall tales because they’re our stories, stories about America before it was what it is now. Our rivers are tamer and we’re more likely to see barges around here than anything, but next time I see the Ohio, which will actually be this evening, I’m sure I’ll think of Mike Fink, the “king of the keelboaters.”

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.