Chapter Twenty Two

 

The Lula Belle on the Mississippi, 1:45 p.m.

 

The iron strands of the railroad’s web were being strung across the remote corners of America. Whether wanted or not, the lives that rode those rails were changed forever, but that was made by the science and technology of man.

The Mississippi was a mythic beast that changed lives as well, but man had never tamed her. Man only slipped a bridle on her and road her bareback as she bucked and rolled through the middle of what was once a wild frontier. The Mississippi was never broken, but in modern minds, she was put out to pasture in the advent of the Iron Horse.

The train was a wonder of science, but the Mississippi was magic.

Emma felt that magic as she sat in the early morning sun on the foredeck of the Lula Belle. She had stood at one point or the other along the Missouri shoreline near her childhood home and gazed in mild awe as the river flowed past. She had been impressed, but never really moved.

Emma rode those waters and realized for the first time how powerful and transformative the flowing aorta of America was. Towns and plantations were built up and down the river and they prospered for many years. Some remained as stubborn, hopeful bastions in a war long lost. Others survived the decades and the real war, only to be swept away by the water’s ever-changing course or by the progress of those rails crawling westward.

All along the Mississippi, Empires were built and crumbled, generations raised and moved on.

She was moving on too, and the farther away from her home she steamed, the more it sunk in that she was really going to be free. It scared her quite a bit.

Silas and Herc constructed a makeshift camp between the Lula Belle’s huge iron crane beams at the front of the boat. They strung together a few of the old tarpaulins that normally covered the ship’s cargo. This was an “empty run” so the tarps went unused.

Silas climbed one beam and then the other to the height of about twelve feet, lashing each end of the cloth to the supports, stretching them tightly to provide a lean-to shade from the sun beginning to beat down steadily. Herc took the excess of canvas as it draped over the sides and front of the crane and tucked them under crate edges or odds and ends found on the deck. They had an actual tent.

Silas rigged an awning to shield the horse’s heads. The men had decided to leave them saddled since they had not been ridden that day. Many of the supplies were taken from the mule and placed amongst the machinery beneath the crane. It was evident the mule was still nervous about his boat travel, for he let his bowels free at an annoying rate. He was moved and tied to a support beam closer to the main structure of the boat, where his evacuations could be more easily nudged over the side.

“May I help?” Emma asked, sitting at the bow, legs dangling over the churning water.

Herc moved into the shade of the tent they had built and looked around to see if anybody had heard her. “No, Emmet, we are almost finished with our task, but may I caution you again about keeping your voice down? You ain’t yet mastered the male cadence—no offense. You are burdened with the voice and tone of a prairie songbird. How about we tell everyone she’s a mute?” he said to Silas, who was setting a package in a clear space in the shade.

“She is needing to get it down tight, Herc. How in the world is she gonna do that if you hush her?”

“Well, alright, but maybe she could sort of whisper more . . .”

“Sorry,” Emma said in a voice so below her range, her voice croaked.

“That was better, but unless you’re intending to start off a bullfrog mating frenzy, you may need to bring it up a touch,” Silas said, laughing.

Ezra Bean had gone off into the woods on the Illinois side of the river. He returned after a bit and found a nice perch in the crook of the massive hook dangling from the crane. There he swayed contentedly in the breeze, with a commanding view of all he surveyed.

Emma turned back to become lost in the river again. The bright brown water slapped against the hull as the Lula Belle pushed through. Eddies formed and churned in the path and the colors changed from deep sorrel to light goldenrod. A lapping wave crashed, sending a cascade of beads across Emma’s face. Looking ahead, the wide currents spread out, creating a fairly smooth surface.

Sandy banks lined the wide expanse. Some were thin slivers of pale, baked mud, and others widened and undulated to become vast white dunes spanning many dozens of rods from tree line to water. Dead trunks thick and thin lined the banks, some parallel to the flow and others half submerged. Emma pictured the rise and fall and power of the river over time.

The plane of water was periodically broken near either shore by some hungry fish snapping up insects on the surface, or by an even hungrier fowl diving into the murk to pluck a minnow or small panfish. The life hidden beneath the surface of the shining, muddy waves was mirrored by the life hidden amongst the dense foliage on the banks. A chaotic ballet of birds and mammals danced through the branches and leaves and bushes below. There were popping flashes of bright red feathers here, shining grey coats of fur there. Though rolling down the center of the wide highway of water, far from either shore, Emma made out a murder of crows in one massive, ancient oak and found a horde of muskrats foraging around a water-rotted elm.

It was not windy, yet a brief, faint breeze swept through the cottonwoods sending a flurry of white seed pods out over the river. They collected in a downy mass, then flung out and strewn one by one on solitary paths to waft down and float atop the rolling waters. A few made the journey through the winds to the Lula Belle where they collected together in quivering clusters at the edges of the iron crane.

A solitary dragonfly whipped its way toward Emma, darting down in an erratic pattern to dip quickly into the water and flit back up as it kept course for her. It hovered, matching speed with Emma and the steamboat. They inspected each other closely for a moment before the dragonfly zipped off behind her and shot off through the frame of the crane.

“Emmet, can you join us here for a moment?” Silas asked.

She swung her aching legs up onto the deck and coaxed them beneath her. She felt another wave of nausea. Her constant nausea had been done no favors by the motion of the boat upon the currents. Silas and Herc were busy tending to their firearms. They sat opposite each other, cross-legged with a blanket laid out between. Upon this was strewn the parts and pieces of their weaponry in various states of assembly. Cleaning cloths, oils and reamers were deftly put in use.

Herc was tending a pistol while a repeating rifle lay beside him and Silas was polishing the barrel of a long rifle she did not recognize. The hammer was a long, curved affair with a flat lever on the end. The trigger guard was thin polished silver and cocked out at an odd angle leaving the breach open. Behind the firing mechanisms was a range finder folded down against the stock and on the tip of the barrel perched a small tube for aiming.

Emma did not know anything about the weapon, but she knew it surely had to be as remarkable as the man handling it.

“You gentlemen expecting trouble here in the middle of the river?” Emma asked, practicing her tone.

Herc smiled and nodded in appreciation. “That’s much better, Emmet. I hear a little bass, though not too much. As to your question, we began our adventures the moment we climbed aboard. From here on forward, the safe cradle of city softness is no more. Accepted, we may have no immediate threats bearing down upon us presently, but I would rather be ready instead of surprised, full of regrets and bullets.”

“I had always hoped when I am dead, I might finally let go of my regrets, not have a whole bunch more heaped upon me at the moment I am going,” Silas opined as he inspected the view through his pistol’s barrel. He blew into it and took a small file to a burr only he could see.

Emma wondered what regrets he had collected over the years. She hoped she would not be the source of more.

Along Emma’s thoughts, Herc injected, “Son, your only regret has been you did not unload me upon Estelle when the chance swam by. You been needing to get off on your own for many a year, and yet here I am like a tick in your backside.”

Silas smiled wide. Emma watched his eyes shine and the lines of laughter beside them deepen. She thought he was a handsome fellow when he laughed. His face shed years and his eyes sparkled like an impish child.

“No, my friend, I reckon I would have been dead many times over of it weren’t for your heavy, hairy hand to guide me along,”

She supposed this was as near to compliments and camaraderie as these two strayed. The gentle ribbing reminded her of her father and his teasing. She missed him, but turned the sad thoughts aside quickly, for he was gone and Theo eclipsed all fatherly memories. In some dark, selfish moments she was even angry at her father for leaving her in Theo’s clutches. She looked upon her current guardians and absorbed the fact they behaved as a father and son, more than some who were bound by blood.

She watched them working on their weapons and a thought struck her. “Am I to be allowed a sidearm?”

The two men barely glanced at each other, but Herc’s brief I-told-you-so look to his partner suggested the men had discussed the possibility.

“Yes, you probably should be armed. In the unlikely event we become separated, you need to protect yourself,” Herc said as he brushed out the chamber of his pistol. “We bought you a gun in town.”

He reached down and plucked a short-barreled revolver that looked anything but new, or even workable. The spinning chamber was pitted and deeply tarnished and the once creamy colored ivory handle was browned from the oily hands of some previous owner. Emma thought the barrel appeared bent.

“It does not even look as if it could fire without exploding in my hand,” she said. “Can it even be operated?”

Silas and Herc exchanged another glance.

Silas looked up at Emma, “Seeing as how we are short on funds, we couldn’t afford a fancy brand new pistol for you.”

She reddened at the reminder of her short changing their business dealings with them yesterday morning.

“I’m sorry, Emma—Emmet,” he too, reddened as he replied. “That did not come out quite as I had meant it. I speak a little frankly sometimes and my feelings are hardly veiled and thus, well-known.”

” ‘Frankly,’ he says,” Herc chortled. “Sometimes your sharp talk could keep a herd of cattle penned. What he should have come around and said was: it’s the best we could get and it will have to do. That is, unless you had no aversion to brandishing this . . .”

He flipped up the flap of a worn saddlebag nearby and retrieved a long-barreled single action Colt revolver.

“How did you get that?” she asked excitedly. “That was my father’s! The one I learned to shoot with.” Her confusion was quickly set aside by wonder and joy. She received it like a long-lost friend coming back from the dead and standing before her.

“I, um, borrowed it from your Uncle Theo.” He turned it over in his hands, looking for the special qualities only Emma could recognize.

Emma shuffled on her knees closer to Herc who extended it out, holding it ceremoniously with two hands. “I reckoned it was his and so thought you may not want to see it lest it remind you of him.”

“Theo claimed it as his—along with everything else that used to be my father’s . . .” She took the pistol and wrapped her hand around the grip. She turned away from the men, laid a blanket of her own in the shade nearby, and gingerly placed the weapon on the soft felt. She returned to the fellows and collected a few of their cleaning supplies. “May I?”

With curiosity, Herc nodded, “Why, of course . . .”

Silas raised a brow at his partner.

Emma laid the implements neatly around the Colt, sat cross-legged on the blanket and pushed her Stetson back on her head so as to give full view of her task. She paused briefly to gaze upon the weapon. She slowly ran her fingers along the length of the barrel, stroking the sharp downward curve of the walnut grip.

Herc rocked himself as if to rise to her aid, but was discouraged by Silas, who lightly touched his arm and shook his head.

She at once swung out the cylinder gate, revealing the bright brass rims of the unspent cartridges. The ejector, a small rod along the length of the barrel, was employed by being pushed backward into each chamber where, one by one, the ejected cartridges slid out and clicked together in her palm. She placed them to the side. Her nimble fingers worked proficiently as Emma smoothly half-cocked the gun then pressed a button on the frame below and to the front of the cylinder. She slid out the pin holding the cylinder in place, tilted the gun sideways and popped the cylinder out into her hand. She picked up a short, thin brush, and attached it to the end of a small ramrod.

She bit her lower lip absently as she worked, her hands beginning to grey lightly from the fouling collected by the brush and rod. Both men stopped their own work to admire hers.

Emma daubed the brush with cleaning oil from a small tin, then worked the brush inside the barrel. She repeated the process for each cylinder and held it out toward the shining river to inspect her work. She blew into one of the cylinders to remove some residue.

Next, she worked the bristles all around the inside of the gun frame, around the trigger the firing pin, and finally into the gap where the hammer and pin struck. She oiled a small cloth patch and, using the rod, slid it into and through the barrel and each one of the cartridge chambers. When a cloth became too soiled, she tossed it aside and began anew with a clean one. Lastly, she oiled a larger cloth and worked it into every crevice and corner of the frame she had used the brush upon. One last general oiling and wiping and the entire disassembly process was reversed.

Emma serenely clicked back the hammer a few times, half cock, then full, while rotating the cylinder with her fingers, which were darkened from the lead of previous firings. She picked up the five cartridges, inspected them and then slid them into the cylinder, leaving one chamber empty.

The entire process took but a few moments, and the men were held mesmerized, surprised by her skill. Herc’s spell was broken when Emma swung the gate closed on the cylinder and Herc noticed one cartridge left on the ground beside her. He rose and picked it up, offering it tentatively.

She declined it, smiling politely. “Father always taught me, ‘Best to keep the hammer resting on an empty’.”

“Well, I suppose that gun’s hers.” Herc’s awe was barely muted.

“Suppose so,” Silas said, laughing, as he tossed Emma a holster and belt.

The gear and camp having been tended to with satisfaction, the men wandered about the boat to re-acquaint themselves with the craft and crew. Emma hung back and only nodded or tipped her hat in greeting, or mainly slouched about with hands in pocket.

The crew was of a pleasant sort, save the wild-looking fellow with the mangy hat whom Dee Dee had warned Emma about. He did not come forward to introduce himself, but merely skulked about with rope and pulley. He did, however, pitch a constant staring match with Emma. Her unease grew with every glance she stole, but she never held eye contact with him for more than a brief second.

Sharp and Preacher were introduced as they were finishing up the stowing of the tie lines.

“Nice to meet you, Emmet,” they said in unison.

“Emmet don’t talk much, so don’t be expectin’ no sparkling conversation,” Herc said.

“It is good that one should wait quietly for the Lord to speak to us,” said the twin she assumed to be Preacher. “That way you can hear every word He says.”

“Hold up on the sermon, brother,” said the mirror image beside him. He turned to the passengers and asked with poorly-veiled nonchalance, “Y’all got time to play some cards?”

As similar as they were, they had their own distinct callings. Emma wished one had a halo and the other a pitchfork so she might tell them apart more easily.

“We ain’t got no money to waste in donation to God or to lose at cards,” Silas said with a broad smile. “Check back with us in the evening when you get down time. We may have a friendly game workin’, but the pots is gonna be low.”

“Check y’all later, then,” Sharp said with mirage of cash before his eyes.

The trio strolled away and Herc turned to Emma. “Why, I never thought to wonder. Do you play cards with the same skill you clean guns, or is that too much for a road-worn traveler to ask?”

In a voice fulfilling her disguise in tenor and depth, “I have sat in on a game or three.”

Herc clapped and rubbed his hands together. “This journey is surely brightening at every bend!”

“He cheats, you know,” Silas leaned in and whispered to Emma. His breath was sweet in her nostrils.

She forced herself not to turn to his face, so close to hers. “So do I, if required or provoked.”

Herc was ignorant of the aside as he looked up to the pilot house. “Emmet, you go and bust out the cards from my gunny and start the shuffle. I’m gonna head up and have a word with our illustrious captain and see if he is gonna be easin’ up on them boilers. We must be trotting along at thirteen knots. That cannot keep up. This old tub needs more care than he’s willing to spare.”

“Aye, aye,” Emma replied, saluting him. Herc nodded, accepting the formal address and strode off.

“He used to have a small stake in the Lula Belle, but sold it off to Smitty when we hired on at the hotel,” Silas explained. “He may be having proprietary longings from the past. Still, we are chugging a little fast for boiler health. Same as running a horse too hard. You have to pace a boiler.”

They watched as Herc climbed the stairs and stepped into the pilot house.

“I would like to see the steering room up there . . .” Emma said hopefully.

“Let’s give it a while. You need to be more familiar with Smitty before he lets you in the pilot house. You go on back to the tent. I’m gonna go and start to bargaining with the cookie about galley privileges. He’s been wanting my cobbler recipe for a while now.”

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