A body in the water.
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 stern wheel, bringing it to a stop before putting it into slow reverse as they moved across the foot of the island, toward the western 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.
Jennings 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 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 Jennings 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 lead raft. 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 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 Jennings, 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.