The Caroline

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As Wyatt recovered, he bunked in the same cabin as Jennings. There was room enough, as Jennings was rarely there. When he was there, he was aware of the turbulence in the young man’s mind from the night he’d been picked up. He was restless and mumbled in his tortured sleep as he relived the violence of that night, and what might have happened before that—a lifetime away now.

Jennings had had a drawing done of him to try to identify him and would see it shown when they got back up to that area, though Wyatt—he was given that name until a better one came to mind—decided that he did not want it shown or circulated for some reason that was easily guessed.

Jennings, who was both captain and pilot, did not usually wear the stovepipe hat that seemed to be the mark of a pilot and other respected professions, but Wyatt began to wear a fairly wide brimmed canvas hat to hide his wound as it healed and to keep the sun out of his eyes. He wore it for other reasons too, to obscure his identity. Whenever they got above Vicksburg, Wyatt also paid careful attention to who might get on the boat; and when they stopped at Helena, which was not so often, he was even more attentive, staying out of sight until he had seen all who had come aboard. Jennings recognized that behavior. His enemies were still there.

He sat down with Wyatt most evenings to talk or to play checkers or chess, and swap tales, almost all of them Jennings’s. Even though the young man did not say very much, Jennings was astute enough to read most of his history from the little bits and pieces he let drop in his less-guarded or preoccupied moments. Jennings learned that he had been set upon that fateful night at the landing just above Helena and had wounded his assailants before he had slipped into the river to avoid being killed by them.

Had Jennings not seen him in the river that night, he would not have survived. Those others must have assumed that they had either killed him or that he had certainly drowned.

After about three months, in November, Wyatt mentioned that he would need to leave the boat for about half a day, or preferably overnight, when they next put in near Helena. As the river was low and not conducive to pushing ahead at night without a full view of the channel, they would tie up under the Mississippi State shore and Wyatt could go ashore and do what he needed to do.

Jennings knew that he had written letters that he needed to see delivered, presumably to reassure others—family or loved ones—who might know him, that he was still alive. When he came back before first light that next morning, Jennings noticed that he was much more at ease with the world and even had a different letter with him that he packed away in a small trunk that he had been given. Jennings would not pry. Wyatt would tell him what he wanted him to know when he was ready.

After that brief interval ashore, Wyatt seemed to find much more direction in everything that he did. He took an even deeper interest in the river, intent on learning all that Jennings could teach him. He spent many hours, day, and night in the pilothouse either with the steersman or with Jennings when he was on duty and learned what he could of the river and its history. He also learned about the running of the boat itself and of everything that Jennings knew of its history even before he had pulled it off that island.

Jennings was an old man but knew no other life than being on the river. He and Wyatt would sit down together of an evening in the pilothouse, and he would tell him of his history and some of the tales of his own life and the river that he did not mind relating. It took Wyatt’s mind off other things that were troubling him. Most of it seemed to be over a woman. At least revenge, a most destructive emotion, did not seem to be foremost on his mind, though when he thought about it more, it might be.

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