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The Caroline

By johnksutherland All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Romance

Blurb

Soon after the failed murder attempt, Caroline's elder brother dies from his wounds. Three years later, in New Orleans, the father disappears without trace. The third; the remaining brother, attempting to recover the failing fortunes of the family in a poker game on a riverboat, seeks to cheat his opponent and at the same time to get rid of his sister, Caroline, who has unexpectedly shown up, and threatens trouble. His first attempt on her life as they travel upriver had failed, and a second attempt appears impossible as she now has a strangely attentive protector named Wyatt. Her brother sees an opportunity to be rid of her in a rigged poker game with Wyatt, where he will wager her away in a demeaning contract. He intends to destroy them both. However, nothing goes as planned.

Helena, Arkansas. A Tale Begins.

Helena, Arkansas. A Tale Begins; A Rescue: August 23, 1868


It is shocking, to some, to learn that the natural state of humanity is to be at war. Some family histories are much the same.


It was very nearly pitch black outside of the small pools of light from the lanterns hung irregularly along the jetty that jutted out a little into the river. He was wringing wet and could do nothing about it. There was no point in waiting for the skiff to come and pick him up to get him across the river now. They would have pulled it out of the water once those clouds had begun to empty themselves and the light had finally gone. He decided to return to Helena, a mile and a half below where he was, to the cabin on the landing there, and spend the night by the stove to get his clothes dry and take the ferry over in the morning.

It was raining one of those torrential downpours that swept up the river from the gulf and deadened all other sounds around it as it dripped with a million gentle drumbeats out of the trees and onto the river surface, beating it as flat as glass, had anything been visible. The fire that usually blazed on the bank at the river’s edge was now almost entirely extinguished with that sudden thunderstorm and the squalls that had followed it.

The noise of the storm was how they had been able to sneak up on him without being seen or heard as he turned back from the small jetty. His attackers seemed to come out of nowhere in the dark, taking him by surprise. He was felled first by a cudgel blow and then was wounded by a cowardly blow from a saber, swung at his head as he lay almost senseless. It opened up a grievous wound on his forehead, but not a fatal one, as had been intended. An overhanging branch, bent low by the weight of rainwater, had deflected the blade enough and held it up and turned it to limit its damage by that first blow. His main attacker, the foremost of three men, stood over him and decided to torment him a little in the few seconds left to him, with who was doing this to him before he would kill him with a final blow.

Before he could be finished off in the dark and rolled into the river, the wounded man unexpectedly produced a pistol and shot the assailant closest to him several times in the middle of his body as he stood above him. He heard him scream in pain and fall away in horror at what had happened to him as he clutched at his belly, dropping his saber into the river. The other two were cursing at the first man for not completing what he had set out to do and laying them open to the tables being turned as they seemed likely to do in that narrow place. Fortunately, it was dark, and nothing could be clearly seen outside of the pool of light from the blazing torch that the second man foolishly still held, instead of dropping it after that first shot, and before the man on the ground might see clearly enough to do worse damage. They dare not shoot for fear of hitting one of their own on that narrow place, but the other man on the ground had no such concern after what had happened to him. Only his enemies were in front of him, and they were partially illuminated.

He fired again and another of his attackers fell away with a cry, holding his arm, cursing at the pain of it, and wondering how best to escape. That man did drop the torch onto the wooden deck, but too late. They had not expected him to be armed. Everything they had hoped to do was suddenly not going as they had intended.

The oldest of the trio, William—the one farthest from the fallen youth, father to the other two—tried to bring his own pistol into play; but before he could use it, it was shot from his hand in a random shot, leaving him cursing and in immense pain as he clutched his arm to his chest. He found to his great shock that most of two of his middle fingers on his right hand had gone with his pistol into the river, leaving the rest of his arm numb from the shock of it, except for that sudden pain, which made him feel suddenly sick, but he could not give in to that.

All four men discovered themselves in dire straits, with one of them at least unlikely to survive, and possibly not the man attacked either, considering the head wound inflicted on him by that cowardly attack.

As the two still on their feet dropped back, the young man they had thought to kill weighed his options. His gun was now empty, and two of his attackers—he recognized them well enough: Henstridges—would be only temporarily discouraged in their pain, with the other either dead or dying. He slid off the landing and into the warm river and, floating on his back, he kicked out into the channel. He would take his chances with the river. He tried to ignore the pain from his head, intent only on getting out of the light. The current would carry him downriver and allow him to escape, if he survived. He just had to get far enough away that they could no longer see him to shoot at when they recovered from their injuries. The water revived him as he kicked out toward the middle of the river. When he was far enough away from roots and other entanglements, he would let the current take him downriver and he would get himself ashore and find some refuge and someone who could treat his wounds rather than want to see him dead.

It took them some moments to realize what he had done as he drifted into the darkness out of their sight. Shots followed him, aimed wildly in the hope of hitting him.

“I saw his face for a while, but I don’t see it no more.”

“Look after your brother. Make sure he don’t slip into the river. And stop that bleeding and that noise he’s making, though those shots will have been heard far enough.” The younger son, Robert, tried to bite back his own sharp retort to his father and could see that there was nothing he could do for his brother except stop him from rolling into the river and drowning, though that might be the best thing that could happen to him.

“I’m wounded myself and losing a lot of blood, thanks to him. Why didn’t he finish him off when he had the chance?” As he spoke, he was busy trying to stop the bleeding and was attempting to bind up his own arm with a small length of rope that had been lying on the walkway. “He broke the bone in my arm, I think.”

“I’m hurt too, damn him!” He could not decide if he was more angry with his son or the man who had shot him. “I lost some fingers here.” He cursed at the pain of that as he held his hand tightly to prevent more loss of blood. He quickly took off his belt and wrapped it around his hand, pulling it tight. “Lucky I didn’t lose my life. No point in wasting time here. Bind yourself up and let’s get out of here before others come to see what those shots were about once their first fears have died down. Let the river finish him, as it has for many another before him. We’ve got to get your brother out of here to a doctor or he’ll not survive, and we both of us need to be fixed up. We can drag him out of the way.

“Say nothing of this. If anyone asks what happened we were set upon by some drunken Union soldiers with a grudge to settle. They took off downriver in a skiff.” That explanation would have to do if anyone came to investigate the shots, unless they could think of something better.

“I never knew him to carry a gun before.”

“War changes a lot of things. Your brother got careless thinking to gloat in his face, and look what it cost us. Damned fool deserves to die for that and what happened to us because of it! I could kill him myself for letting this happen. Remember, we were set upon, and they took off.” His son didn’t think that would sound plausible.

“Who’d believe us? That war ended three years ago.”

“Not for everyone. It didn’t for me or for a lot of others like me who saw their livelihood disappear along with the slaves. You don’t strip a man of everything that he valued and expect him to be happy and to do nothing about it. They may have won that war but I never surrendered.” He paused and considered. “Come to think of it, his father [he spoke of the man who had preferred being drowned to being shot] was a surgeon before that war, and he don’t live far from here when he’s in town. He might be the only one able to help us. He can’t know who shot us or that we killed his son, and we won’t tell him either. Ironic, us killing his son like that and then seeking his help.”

“If we did kill him.”

“We did. We’d better have or there’ll be hell to pay. He’ll help us, so keep your mouth shut and hang close to your brother. We may need to shut him up if he starts to rave about what happened and to throw names about. Cut those leathers off him and toss the scabbard into the river. It was too dark to see anything clearly, and we didn’t expect anything. They took us by surprise as we waited. We were unarmed, remember!”

“What about him? He’s still out there. He must have recognized us with Jeff trying to play games like that, and he might try to make it to his father, if he lives, if he gets out of the river, and bring the law down on us.”

“Who? He wasn’t even here and neither were we. We’ll take that risk. He recognized us right enough, thanks to your stupid brother taunting him like that, but he won’t survive that wound from what I saw, and not if this is his blood and not ours—and it is—and neither will Jefferson if we don’t get him seen to. If he lives, one of us has to be with him at all times to keep him quiet.”

They could hear a steamboat in the distance making its way downriver to meet the wharf boat from Helena, putting out a mile below them, once they heard its characteristic whistles. It would be abreast of them in another ten minutes. The rain had slackened a little, and they could just see the flaming torch at the prow of the wharf boat but not its stern lantern.

“Go and get some horses. We need to be out of sight and well away from here. We’ll borrow a cart and get your brother into town. We’ll deal with whatever happens as it comes at us.”

“There’ll be a lot of questions.”

“There always is. It’s answers you should worry about. I told you what to say. Better still, say nothing. Let me do the talking and make sure your brother can say nothing. If anything should have gone cleanly and easily, this was it, and Jefferson had to try to play games and got us all shot.”

“Maybe we should leave him here. He’s gonna die anyway, gut-shot like that and losing blood the way he is.”

“No! He leads everyone to us having been here. We can’t risk that. He comes with us.”

“Then the river.” Jeff might be his brother, but there was no love lost between them.

“No. Not with that other body out there!” He turned on him in anger. “He may be a useless fool, but he’s your brother, dammit! What are you thinking of? He comes with us. I wish to god we’d never been here this evening and had never met up with him. I thought that providence had played into our hands when I first saw him here, but now I know otherwise. I never felt so much pain in all my life as I feel now in this hand.” He rethought his original decision. “Maybe it ain’t such a good idea to head to town. You can use an oar, and so can I. Better if we say nothing, and cross the river. A doctor can’t do much for him. We’ll strike out for home when that steamer’s gone by. We were never here tonight.

“Say nothing to your sister or anyone else about this. She must learn none of this from us. She might guess what happened, eventually, but I’ll think up some explanation to fob her off as much as I can.”

They both took a hold of his coat at the neck and clumsily dragged him off the narrow walkway and onto the bank as he writhed and screamed at the pain. They ignored him. He had been conscious the entire time and had heard what his younger brother had said about leaving him or rolling him into the river, and there was nothing he could do about it, helpless as he was.

The trail of blood would soon be washed away to hide everything that had happened.


The steamboat blew its unique steam whistles in sequence once more—reminiscent of the musical sound that a steam calliope in a fairground might make—to identify it as the Pelican and to announce that it had cargo or passengers to drop off. It had gone to the left of Island 60 rather than to the right where it was less deep except at middling to high water. Its engineer responded to the pilot’s instructions down the voice tube, or by the sound of a bell rung in a certain way if the voice instruction might not be understood, and slowed its wheel, bringing it to a stop before putting it into slow reverse as they moved across the foot of the island, toward the right shore. The momentum of the boat and the heavily laden rafts, as well as the current flowing at about three miles an hour, would continue to pull them downriver for a mile or more, just about to where Helena was. The pilot, Jennings, who was also the captain and the owner of the boat, could just see the bow light of the wharf boat putting out to meet them.

He was distracted for just a moment by something indistinct in the water beside them, shown up by one of their own lanterns being carried forward. It was moving downriver with them but not quite as fast: a log and a man holding on to it. He had seen a feeble wave from the man’s hand. He gave the wheel to the steersman—“Man in the water. Stop rotation. You have it from here”—and opened the window beside them as he shouted down to men on the rafts ready to meet the wharf boat and to tell them of what he had seen.

“Get the skiff out, starboard. There’s a man in the water fifty feet out, falling astern of us now and holding on to a log!” The steady swish, swish of the wheel subsided. No one wanted to see a man fighting for his life already, pulled into the wheel. The skiff was put out in a matter of less than a minute with two men at the bow with flaming torches of oily rags and two men at the oars. They had already been standing by to meet the Helena wharf boat.

He watched as the individual was hauled from the water and returned to the boat as the skiff was pulled back onto the raft and the man it had plucked out of the river was carried up the ramp onto the deck, where he lay vomiting. He had been close to drowning.

There was a former Union army doctor on board going down to New Orleans, and he was even then being summoned urgently from his bed to treat the man. If he could be treated. From what Jennings had seen in the weak light from the lanterns and torches, the man pulled from the water was a young man, badly wounded about the head, at least, and more dead than alive. But alive! The pilot shouted further instructions out of the window to those below that he could no longer see.

“Get him to the forward stateroom up here. The light will be better in there with the mirrors. Get him stripped off and dried so the doctor can see to him. And get him warm.” He closed the window and turned back to the steersman. “You handle the transfer and get us under way again. The channel is easy below here for about eight miles if you stay in the main current in the middle.” He left the pilothouse. The steersman knew the river almost as well as he did and would soon recover his night vision after the unusual brightness of so many torches.

The great stern wheel resumed its reverse running as the boat slowed to meet the wharf boat. When they were both tied together, transfers were quickly made. Two passengers were leaving: one a land surveyor and his assistant from St. Louis with half a dozen trunks, and one was coming aboard with a heavy carpetbag. There were others on the wharf boat, white and black, but they did not head for the Pelican but headed off in the other direction along the rafts and down to a raft with a faint glow of a covered fire on it. The carpetbagger would be a paying passenger, and out of the rain, the others would not be, but could huddle under canvas by the fire and eat what they had brought with them. Jennings had no difficulty with that as long as they looked after themselves and helped if their labor was needed to move cargo or firewood, and they did no damage. The transfer took barely a minute. Then the rain came down again followed by lightning and thunder. It was a miserable night.

Once the wharf boat had cast off and was rowed back to shore with its nose angled upriver against the current, the steersman called for forward engine. The Pelican rejoined the swifter part of the river toward the middle of the channel.

Jennings walked in on the doctor as he leaned over the young man and observed, while saying nothing for a while. The man had been stripped off and dried. He watched as the doctor cleaned off the wound on the youth’s scalp. He did not seem to have any other injuries. The lad might be eighteen or nineteen, halfway between youth and man. He must have got rid of his shoes into the river, but the quality of his shirt and trousers which lay on the floor, suggested that he was a gentleman or the son of one. There was no jacket and no obvious identification. The doctor brought the edges of his scalp back together and began to sew the two sides with gentle speed, fineness, and skill that a seamstress might have envied. It still oozed blood when he had finished, but it was clean, and it was closed. It would leave a noticeable scar, but there was no avoiding that.

After the doctor had dusted a whitish powder onto the wound, he took time to examine the young man in more detail from head to toe. Apart from a bruise on his shoulder, there was no other mark on him. There was a ring on his finger but only a copper ring that someone had hammered out. It was simply done. He covered him over after that and turned to the man beside him. “Saber wound! It nearly scalped him. I thought I had seen the last of those when that war ended. Somebody had a grudge against this young man to do this to him, or they robbed him and left him for dead, and not long ago.” He looked up as though to see out of the windows to find out where they were on the river, but it was raining and dark.

“Helena. Cotton town.” The captain filled in the name and character of the town they had just left behind.

“Probably where he lives. He wasn’t in the river long. He lost blood, but not so much as to kill him, and he’s got a strong pulse. More drowned than anything else. I can keep an eye on him until we get to New Orleans, but right now he needs rest. It might be best if someone can sit with him. He shouldn’t be moved around too much.” The man beside him nodded in agreement as the doctor packed his things away in his bag and continued, “He’ll either be on his feet by then—or dead. Tomorrow will tell.”


He was a young man, and but for that wound he was in good health. He survived. His outer wounds healed quickly, but the inner ones—the outcome of the attack that had so sorely wounded him and other effects from that—were much slower to mend.

There had been just one scrap of paper in the young man’s pocket. The writing had mostly been obliterated by the river water, but there was enough left to suggest that his name was Wyatt or at least that was part of his name or someone else’s name. It would have to do until he was able to tell them for himself.

As he recovered, he bunked in the same cabin as Jennings. There was room enough, as Jennings was rarely there. When he was there, he was aware of the turbulence in the young man’s mind from the night he’d been picked up. He was restless and mumbled in his tortured sleep as he relived the violence of that night, and what might have happened before that—a lifetime away now.

Jennings had a drawing done of him to try to identify him and would see it shown when they got back up to that area, though Wyatt—he was given that name until a better one came to mind—decided that he did not want it shown or circulated for some reason that was easily guessed.


Jennings, who was both captain and pilot, did not usually wear the stovepipe hat that seemed to be the mark of a pilot and other respected professions, but Wyatt began to wear a fairly wide brimmed canvas hat to hide his wound as it healed and to keep the sun out of his eyes. He wore it for other reasons too, to obscure his identity. Whenever they got above Vicksburg, Wyatt also paid careful attention to who might get on the boat; and when they stopped at Helena, which was not so often, he was even more attentive, staying out of sight until he had seen all who had come aboard. Jennings recognized that behavior. His enemies were still there.

He sat down with Wyatt most evenings to talk or to play checkers or chess, and swap tales, almost all of them Jennings’s. Even though the young man did not say very much, Jennings was astute enough to read most of his history from the little bits and pieces he let drop in his less-guarded or preoccupied moments. Jennings learned that he had been set upon that fateful night at the landing just above Helena and had wounded his assailants before he had slipped into the river to avoid being killed by them. He had also known who had attacked him.

Had Jennings not seen him in the river that night, he would not have survived. Those others must have assumed that they had either killed him or that he had certainly drowned.


After about three months, in November, Wyatt had mentioned that he would need to leave the boat for about half a day, or preferably overnight, when they next put in near Helena. As the river was low and not conducive to pushing ahead at night without a full view of the channel, they would tie up under the Mississippi State shore and Wyatt could go ashore and do what he needed to do.

Jennings knew that he had written letters that he needed to see delivered, presumably to reassure others—family or loved ones—who might know him, that he was still alive. When he came back before first light that next morning, Jennings noticed that he was much more at ease with the world and even had a different letter with him that he packed away in a small trunk that he had been given. Jennings would not pry. Wyatt would tell him what he wanted him to know when he was ready.

After that brief interval ashore, Wyatt seemed to find much more direction in everything that he did. He took an even deeper interest in the river, intent on learning all that Jennings could teach him. He spent many hours, day, and night in the pilothouse either with the steersman or with Jennings when he was on duty and learned what he could of the river and its history. He also learned about the running of the boat itself and of everything that Jennings knew of its history even before he had pulled it off that island.


Jennings was an old man but knew no other life than being on the river. He and Wyatt would sit down together of an evening in the pilothouse, and he would tell him of his history and some of the tales of his own life and the river that he did not mind relating. It took Wyatt’s mind off other things that were troubling him. Most of it seemed to be over a woman. At least revenge, a most destructive emotion, did not seem to be foremost on his mind. When he thought about it more, it might be.

Jennings had got his start in manually moving rafts of logs or of squared-off logs for lumber from the north, and had later been responsible for overseeing the towing of cribs and strings of lumber by steamboat in the 1850s to meet the demand for building, from the ever-increasing population, even down to as far as St. Louis.

After some years of that he had seen the value of trading along the river and had put his savings into a large store boat of some forty tons (when loaded) in partnership with a man Irving Judson, twenty years older than himself, and his multitudinous family who lived on the river most of the year in a small cabin at the back of boat. The man had injured himself moving farming implements and had been obliged either to sell out or take on a younger, fitter, and stronger partner. Jennings had been that man. Jennings had taken an immediate interest in the oldest girl, Madeleine, of that family and she, in him, so it was not hard to persuade him, though he had needed no persuading. They had been married, according to simple custom, in the presence of her mother and father and their numerous children, even as he was welcomed aboard to join their family. Few men were privileged to have such a wife where love blossomed even as they had looked at each other, and he knew it.

They loaded with stores in St. Louis in October or November and then drifted downriver, trading as they went and hoping to avoid truly cold weather or being frozen in the river. Apart from their initial investment, all it cost a man was time and his labor. The river was an open and free route from north to south most of the time and was both larder, classroom, home, and life for hundreds if not thousands of such traders who hauled their entire families with them. They did not need horses or all the attention and expense that they demanded. They lived on the river and would die on the river when their time came, if that was where they were. It was a rewarding lifestyle. They could even hunt as well as fish, shooting game in the water or on the bank and then dashing in with a small rowboat to retrieve it before some other animal or an alligator (if they were far enough south) made off with it. What they could not eat of it, they could trade at the next landing. They had no need to worry about floods in their own little arc, containing all they, or anyone else, would ever need to survive.

They mostly bartered. They set out with guns (rifles and pistols), gunpowder, ammunition, woodworking tools, nails, farm implements, flour, whiskey, as well as a store of high-value goods, like bolts of fine cloth, women’s jewelry (necklaces, rings, cameo broaches) and fancy combs, pocket watches, telescopes, compasses, medical salves, herbs, and scientific and medical instruments. They ended up in New Orleans three or four or even six months later loaded with pelts, which brought a big price in Europe, and agricultural produce for sale. Along the way downriver, that family had tied up for sometimes days at a stretch and had dropped off one or more of their children to trusted families to work for their board and lodging and a small wage, promising to pick them up again when they returned upriver in the spring after selling everything, intending to get back up to St. Louis or Pittsburgh and to start again. The steamboat made that return journey easy.

Samuel Johnson, a famous Englishman who must have seen the river but had been blind to its value had said, presumably in an attempt to be humorous, “It is strange to see how humans value a stream of mud merely because it is big and boats float on it. I would not give two guineas for the Mississippi River—no, not unless it came with chips, ale, and a saucy maid.” Jennings had his own saucy maid to make it all worthwhile. She was all he needed.

He had made that trip repeatedly over five years with that same family and loved the life, the freedom, and his adoptive family. Then his wife had died in childbirth along with his newborn son, and he had lost interest in that venture about then, even as Mr. Judson’s older boys had matured into it. He had struck out on his own after that, determined to one day own his own steamboat just as other boys and men yearned to be a river pilot. He had called many women wife after that time and consorted with many others, but they could not make up for that first loss, which he never told anyone about. His life seemed to have ended the day she had died.

When the steamboats came along, starting with the New Orleans in 1811, a side paddle wheeler, they had changed the character of life on the river; but it took many years before anyone thought to use them in earnest to move rafts in the lower stretches of the river, though they had been used to move rafts of logs across one of the lakes in 1851. There had been a serious attempt to push rafts on the Mississippi with one of those hitched to them in about 1863 more than fifty years after the first steamboats on the river. The experience had been an unpleasant learning moment for the captain involved, as he had not thought enough about it or persisted for long enough to learn the trick of doing it.

Jennings, older and wiser by then, had been on that boat and had learned by what he had seen and experienced. He had seen how it could be done. What seemed to be lacking was a secure buffer between the rafts and the steamboat so that it could adjust its position. There were already men on the lead rafts with large sweeps to adjust their heading, but the difficulty was with the boat behind. Jennings had also seen that an alternative was to fasten the two of them securely together so that they formed but the one single entity, with the boat being pushed deep between the rafts for almost its entire length and then with them both being fastened securely together with heavy ropes or chains. The captain at that time had been an impatient and irascible man who did not take kindly to being told anything by anyone, so Jennings had held his tongue but stored away in his mind what he had learned. The boat had also been a side-wheeler, as well as too small, and with insufficient power for the job at hand.

Then, Jennings had been temporarily conscripted into the Union army to command a steamboat, ferrying troops and supplies across the Mississippi to the northern army, as they dictated. Wars interfered damnably in the courses of everyone’s life that they touched, but there was no point in railing against it. He would learn from it, if he could. He began to bring into use what he had learned about putting rafts and steamboats together and had a special iron yoke and heavy chains made to fasten a bigger boat, a sternwheeler, into the rafts. He had used what he learned to move rafts holding horses, men, cannons, limbers, and supply carriages across and up and down the river with considerable success and profit. He had been involved in the successful battle for Island Ten and had been caught up in the first Battle of Memphis, when the Union had foolishly not taken advantage of its victory but had been in New Orleans when the battle for Vicksburg took place. He disliked being used by the Union forces, who had briefly taken over his newly acquired second boat after the lessons they had learned at Memphis about not letting anyone not in the army command a Union boat.

Shortly after the Battle of Island Ten he had bought his first steamboat: the Pelican. He had pulled her off a mud bank after she had run aground under the guns of the defenders. Others had tried before him, but he was the only one who had planned it and prepared for it. Her pilothouse and funnels had been blown off, and she had been temporarily abandoned. She had been one of a new breed of steamboat, barely in service a month, with stouter oak timbers and of much better construction to withstand bombardment, and stout enough to have mortars and cannons on her deck. She was little damaged, but she was well and truly stuck. Jennings had been in the right place at the right time. He had bought her for almost nothing from her dying owner who had been in the pilot house in that last action and, after some careful planning, had seen her pulled back into the river one dark night with no one to see or object and hauled her off to New Orleans for major refit. On the way downriver, they had moored out of sight between islands or under overhanging trees as far as they could during the day, moving silently and only at night. Once she was in New Orleans, she had been refitted. Jennings had added more decks above the solid hull and outfitted her for passengers as well as cargo. She was a sternwheeler, a workhorse, not the fastest or the most impressive boat on the river; but she was rugged, and one of the better-constructed boats. Jennings had great plans for her when she came back onto the river. She was outfitted to move rafts and had the power to do it, and he knew how it could be done after the war ended which it seemed likely to do with Union control of much of the river. The river would be the only way to move goods at first. He would seek to maximize his advantage before the railway came into use again, and others saw how easy it was to move rafts with a sternwheeler. He soon followed that purchase with others as the opportunity presented itself. When the war ended in ’65, he owned three riverboats and knew most of the river better than any man alive.


Wyatt listened as Mr. Jennings had told him of the first commercial venture upriver after the war had ended. Today, they could make the trip up as far as Cairo, or even to St. Louis, in about ten days—though others could do it in less than half that time—hauling cargo to drop off en route, or to pick cargo up. On that first trip he had taken almost a month learning about the new river as it then was, referring to the earlier river pilot charts, and making detailed notes about snags, wrecks, sandbars, and cross currents, and had traveled only during daylight. Going upriver meant that you encountered fewer surprises that you could not back away from, or that you could use the river current to push away from, before you came back up again in a different place. If you were coming downriver without that same knowledge, with the full push of the river’s force behind you, you could be aground before you knew it, and with the river’s current grinding you deeper into the sand. He had learned that lesson on the store barge, and had learned the value of pulleys and good anchors, as well as knowing how to use them. A few of the inexperienced pilots, fresh out on the river, still had to learn that lesson the hard way.

Wyatt proved to be intelligent as well as a fast learner and developed a close bond with Jennings.

Whenever they came by Helena he would go ashore on the Mississippi State side of the river, if he could, with a letter or even two of them for just an hour or two. There was no other letter that he returned with, as he had on that first occasion, except for bringing one of his own back with him. The person or family he had intended it for had not been there. He tried not to show his deep hurt and disappointment. It weighed heavily upon him, but he was young and would easily adapt to life’s many unexpected difficulties, as Jennings had. Nonetheless, Jennings felt his pain and knew what he was suffering.


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