The Caroline

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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.

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