A Change of Plan
They'd left Natchez behind some hours before and had reduced speed. There was a mist on the river where the hot and humid day, met the colder water coming down from the north, but it was not thick enough to cause them to reduce speed. Not yet. They would not be likely to make Vicksburg before nightfall at this rate. This would be their third night on the river.
As she usually did after her evening meal, Caroline took a turn about the upper deck to stretch her legs, aware that she had a protector hovering close by. She had not seen her brother at all after that first meeting and had deliberately avoided him, as he did her, after what had happened. He was probably gambling somewhere.
She was not about to make herself a prisoner because of him. Having lost two of his companions in unknown and uncertain circumstances, with them never being missed by anyone but him, he might be concerned over what was believed or might have been learned from one or other of them before they had disappeared. He was lying low, probably ready to take to a raft or escape to the bank as his companions may have done, if it seemed necessary. She would try not to betray her knowledge of what he had attempted if she bumped into him. His teeth had been pulled for the moment, but she carried her pistol anyway. If he saw an opportunity to see her go overboard or to silence her himself, he would—she knew that now.
She knew that she was watched over by others on each of those occasions and that the youth who slept outside her door was always close by.
Others noticed her close escort but were not to be put off from trying to make her acquaintance. She was a beautiful young woman, though she would have hesitated to have described herself in those terms, and beautiful young women were usually watched by many men. Some of them even dared approach her and strike up a conversation, anxious to learn—diplomatically and carefully, of course—if she was one of the women of that other kind, though the ones she knew about were already spoken for. She always responded politely but soon closed off the conversation before it had gone very far and let them know that she wished to be left alone. If she had been unable to dissuade a more persistent inquisitor, she soon excused herself and retired back to her cabin to read for half an hour or to make entries into her journal before venturing out on deck again.
On this night, she did not find anyone approach her at all. She had gently discouraged them all, and they had remembered. Either that, or they had found a more amenable companion among those women that had joined them at Natchez.
She strolled forward toward the bow, just able to make out the navigation light and to see a small fire on the lead-most raft, but the mist was thickening. They would soon need to pull in again or drop anchor out of the channel for the night if that was still their intent. She had seen some of the logs coming at them downriver and saw most of them poled off out of their way, but that was in daylight. There were not so many of them now, but some of them were very large and not so easily seen and would be easy to overlook at night. If they hit one of those at speed, then the Caroline would join the other five hundred or more steamships that had been lost on the river during its brief history of the last sixty years, most of them in the last ten years.
As on the previous night, when she had walked forward to the bow, she had found Wyatt sitting at one of the tables. He was trusted to maneuver the river during the day, but at night he spent some of his time in the pilothouse, relearning about the river, and loath to leave, even to sleep, as time not spent watching the river meant sections that he was still unfamiliar with, though during the less awkward stretches he did catch up on his rest. With them tying up as they had been obliged to do, both he and the captain had been allowed to catch up on rest as others had seen to securing the boat.
He stood when he saw her and indicated the empty chair for her to join him. She did not mind his company. There was a faint smell of a woman’s perfume still lingering there, as though a woman might have just left the same table even as she had approached it, yet she had seen no one. She gave it no further thought. Some of the candles, with their glass chimneys to protect them from being blown out, were perfumed in a delicate way, and that may have been what she could smell. She saw him signal to someone behind her and knew that her shadow had been told that he could go off and do his other duties and that he would see to her now. She found it amusing as well as comforting, but did not comment upon it or object. Her brother was still aboard and was no doubt plotting mischief of some kind if he were not engaged in the gambling he seemed to be addicted to.
“Will we be putting in tonight also?”
“In a few minutes, when we find the right place to lie up with this number of rafts and out of the main channel, but we have another reason tonight, apart from the mist, which will be heavy before morning. There is a boat ahead of us coming downriver. This is a difficult section at the best of times.”
“Is that why we slowed? There are many boats coming downriver all the time, and a few even passed us going upriver.”
“Not like this one. The pilot is unfamiliar with rafts and takes too much river. He is a somewhat reckless fellow who does not know the river as well as he should and has poor judgment for speed and distance, even in daylight. The next few tens of miles are awkward, with a lot of sharp meanders, and not a good place to meet an inexperienced pilot. He tends to take more channel than he needs. He has an old boat that has too little power. He’ll learn, but we do not want to be the one that he learns on, in the dark. We would like not to meet him at night in this next section if he has some poorly secured rafts. There are some tight bends and some awkward currents. He and his kind learn rapidly, or they don’t survive long on the river. He will not survive long. We’d rather pass him this way, and more quickly, than have him going the same direction as we are, up or down, and getting tangled up with him. Others are also cautious of him.”
“How do you know he’s coming downriver and is so close?” He said but the one word.
“Telegraph.” Of course.
“Do you remember seeing that small skiff join us an hour ago?” She nodded. “He got a message to us that Skellhorn [the pilot I was telling you about] had just passed the Davis Plantation this afternoon making good speed downriver. He warned others at the same time. That told us how many hours apart we were. Sometime tonight he’ll go by us. We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt tonight, and then we won’t meet up with him again for almost two weeks. During the day, I don’t mind so much, but in the dark it can be difficult to estimate distances. I would rather have continued up to Vicksburg, but I am more a pair of eyes, an observer, on this trip than anything else, and Vicksburg is still at least two hours away. We will put in there tomorrow for some repairs; the other reason we slowed. We got a few cracked boards from one of those smaller logs we didn’t see, and didn’t miss, or it was a dead-head.” She had heard a solid thump a few hours earlier but had felt nothing. That must have been it.
“We will need to put in at Vicksburg tomorrow for a day at least, for repairs to the boat’s hull and some engine repairs, including to one of the pressure valves, and that might take more than a day, and to clean some sediment out of the settling tanks and replace some of the leathers on the pumps. When we are forced to do one job we tend to do a lot of others at the same time, so it will be a busy stopover. There are also at least two heavy raft loads of scrap iron waiting for us. It is still being picked up from all of the shots fired in the siege and from destroyed ordnance, to go with us. We will tie onto them and get them started on their way up to the Mound foundries in St. Louis.
“If you would like to see the town after that siege by Grant and the Union army and see some of the many remaining earthworks that both sides constructed, I could offer you my escort. We have several rafts of cargo to offload, including a very nice carriage and furniture, as well as a piano. I feel inclined to rent a couple of horses and deliver the carriage myself to the family that bought it, and let them know the rest of their cargo arrived, so if you would like an outing, you can also see a little of the local countryside for all that there might be to see. However, it will make a change from the routine of the last few days and the relatively cramped conditions aboard a boat. We do sometimes get to stretch our legs ashore for an hour or so, as we did in Natchez, or it would become quite boring day after day despite the distractions of the cuisine and the wines.” She knew that to be true. The Caroline catered to a much different class of individual than those steamers that rocketed off in made haste. She recognized the difference. “Would you care to go with me? But only if you would feel secure being alone with me for the entire day.” Was he challenging her? He had an unusual look on his face, waiting for her response.
“Will it be safe?” She had known better than to ask but was curious how he would respond.
“It will be safe if you are with me. And safer, I think, than if you stay here. But then you also carry a gun and seem to know how to use it. You almost shot me last night as I was about to follow that man into your cabin. However, an unaccompanied woman should always be able to look after herself, and you gave me the impression that you could do that. You expected trouble.”
“My brother is on board.” That seemed to sum it all up for her. “I had no illusions that he was pleased to see me. I think I might have been the last person he wanted to see. I grew up with trouble and learned to expect it, though I have been shielded from it while I was in Europe. I am out of practice, or I would not have missed something vital. If I did. Yes, I think I would like to accompany you to see more of Vicksburg and some of the countryside, if you would not mind my company.”
“I would welcome it. You should dress to ride, as we will need to bring the horses back. In addition, considering the noise of what will be happening on board for the next day or so, I can recommend that one of the hotels in Vicksburg might allow you a better night’s rest than being on board the boat with all of the work that they will be doing. There is work on the boilers to do once they cool enough and on parts of the firebox. We do not often stay in one place for long enough to do all the little things that build up, so this will be a good time to catch up. I shall be staying at the hotel with you, so you need not fear for your safety or being left alone. Or perhaps you should.” She laughed at that. She did not see him as a threat to her now, having got to know him quite well over the last three weeks.
She heard the engines slow and recognized that they were quite close in to the bank and barely making headway as the captain looked for a large enough tree that he remembered, to tie up to, and that would leave them in deep-enough water, that if the river level dropped overnight, they would not be stranded. She began to appreciate the difficulties that faced those responsible for moving about the river.
The pilot must have given some signal to the men on the lead rafts. She had seen a skiff set out from the front of the procession and head to the bank with rope, as anchors of some kind were let down into the river, leaving the rafts in deeper water but out of the main channel and behind a bar. Anyone coming at them downriver would run aground before they might collide.
As the flies were not too bad, she and Wyatt sat talking for many hours, soon joined by others escaping the stifling heat in their cabins now that the boat was not moving.
Some of the crew were even then dragging buckets of clean water up to the deck from a tributary stream beside them (they had chosen their mooring point for that reason) and were sluicing them down and mopping to take away some of the heat of the day. Most of that clearer water from that rivulet, as with rainwater, could be collected for use in the boilers to stop the buildup of sediment and scale, all of which could lead to uneven heating and catastrophic boiler failure—a far too common end on the river for many boats.
She saw the youth who had been her escort earlier, bring them coffee and even some of the delicate little cakes that she had admired, but had to refuse, after a substantial dinner. They both of them thanked him. Her brother had not dined like this where he was staying. She could hear a banjo playing on one of the rafts and could hear a man singing. She saw men starting a fire on the riverbank, beginning from a modest little campfire and eventually blazing up to a good size. It might also attract some of the flies from the boat. Someone had also caught a catfish. There would be a feast tonight of catfish, bland and relatively tasteless without the many spices that were used heavily, with whatever else they might be able to add to it. No one starved on the river unless they were truly stupid. There was a good deal of noise from the rest of the boat as there was most nights, but it would begin to fade about midnight.
She learned the next morning that Skellhorn had passed them during the night, but she had heard nothing, as her cabin was on the port side. By the time she was fully awake and had washed and dressed, they were already pulling into the landing at Vicksburg. She had heard the increasing noise and felt the vibrations from the engines, as well as the slight surge from the paddlewheel as they had pulled ahead from where they had been tied up, but as it was barely daylight she had not stirred.
She saw Wyatt speaking fleetingly with the young Creole woman that had come aboard with an older man. It was indeed the same woman—one of the three women—that she had seen leaving the Montezuma, a sister ship, tied up ahead of the Osprey, in New Orleans. Could she be the young woman that Mrs. Bainbridge had briefly alluded to in Wyatt’s life? They did not behave as one-time lovers, but there was something very intriguing between them. They were very close to each other in some way. Few of the married couples she had ever met had seemed closer. She had seen him smile at her with the kind of a smile that would have had most women’s hearts beating furiously, as he briefly touched her hand and elbow, as he had helped her step up onto the ramp when she had first joined them. His smile had been most charmingly returned. They had secrets between them, that pair, or a very deep understanding of each other. The older man she was with, had not noticed but was conducting a conversation with others on the landing; or he might have been jealous and have objected, as seemed to be the norm in the South, by challenging him to a duel for toying with his wife, though she was more likely his mistress or a more temporary distraction.
She felt not only stirring curiosity but a most uncharacteristic feeling of jealousy. She could not believe that. Had Wyatt nudged enough into her life so soon and so well to do that to her? She firmly put that feeling aside. No! She would not betray a memory that easily.
After breakfast, without Wyatt being at her table—he had eaten earlier—she changed, and packed a bag with riding clothes from one of her trunks, and enough for an overnight stay, and waited for Wyatt to let her know when he was ready to leave.