We'll put in at Vicksburg tomorrow.
“We’ll 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 remaining earthworks that both sides constructed, I could offer you my escort. We have several rafts of cargo to offload too, 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 too, 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 too 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 too, 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 had sat there 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 had to refuse after a most substantial dinner. They both of them thanked him. Her brother had not dined like that 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.