The Caroline

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Gateway to the Gulf.

Caroline stepped cautiously outside of the companionway to watch five of the many cattle in the hold being transferred, one at a time in a canvas sling, to a barge moored alongside in the wide and still river (it was all relative; it certainly wasn’t still, farther out where the wind was stronger) while other heavy cargo was winched to dockside off the other side of the ship. The nerve-jarring screaming of the winches and the slight tilting of the ship as their heavy loads were swung out away from the ship, fore and aft, to be lowered quickly to the dock, were a little unsettling at first, but were to be expected.

Five of the thirty cattle that were aboard, four of the cows already marked for transshipment by paint on their horns, and one of the two bulls, were transferred directly to a barge, which had been maneuvered alongside by a small steamboat. One of the three handlers went with those cattle.

They would anchor that barge, temporarily, out in the river where there was a brisk breeze, and save the animals from the torment of heat and flies if they were taken ashore. Where they were, water could also be taken from the river to wet them down, though they were under canvas to protect them from the direct blast of the sun. Grass could be cut for them and brought out each day they might be on the river, along with the finer shoots of sugarcane, corn stalks, and grain, to get them back into condition. The lengthy crossing had caused them some loss of weight from anxiety; but at least they could now see more sky, trees, and fields; and they would eat well where they were once their minds were taken off the surrounding water.

She kept well out of the way and was pleased and relieved to see that the transfer of the cattle that were to go upriver later that day seemed to go more smoothly this time, and without the anxious struggling and scared noises from the helpless beasts as they and their companions were hoisted in a sling out of the hold and swung out with minimal waste of time. They were lowered onto the front of an empty store barge—empty except for the family that lived aboard—that was to be eventually pushed upriver to St. Louis or up the Ohio to Pittsburgh, to be loaded up again with hardware and whiskey and then turned loose on the river again. It was a way of life for some. Accepting the cattle into their lives for the trip upriver, had offset the cost of going upriver for them.

The cattle did not like that process and struggled, but Wyatt had made sure that they could not work free of the sling. One of the cows was ready to give birth, so she was handled more carefully, and her handler rode over with her and had put a sack over her eyes. Seeing the open sky and greenery (at a distance) and being able to see farther than just a few tens of feet would be settling for them on the barge, except for the water lapping close at their feet. It was freshwater. The Mississippi. She could see large white birds, pelicans, sailing majestically—if one could describe a pelican as majestic—just off from the rafts. There were almost equally large black birds, cormorants and perhaps anhingas, snake birds, sitting at the edge of the rafts too, with their wings spread out on either side of them like sinister caped figures, waiting for their feathers to dry out so that they could resume fishing. Both the pelicans and the other birds were clumsy birds on land and tended to stay in the water or on a perch by the water.

Wyatt was where he had told her he would be that morning, supervising transfer of the cattle and, after that, giving instructions to those on the dock who expected to receive cargo. He was also to make sure that they signed for it before he would release it to them, as he checked his manifest for matching the cargo with names of individuals or companies. She watched him for a while. He was confident and capable in everything he did. He was a quiet man, very different from the usually garrulous sailors or even the officers, and rarely joined in their conversation at dinner—the select few around the captain’s table—unless he was asked a direct question. Then, he spoke gently and well. He was like her in that regard, observing and learning. He was not a regular part of the crew. He seemed separate from them yet was able to give them directions and orders, which they never questioned. He was not one of the ships regular officers either.

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