Chapter Twenty Three

 

They parted company, Silas disappearing into a room near the back of the steamer, and Emma beneath the cool tarps of the tent. She found the deck of cards in question, sat down, took off her hat and set it aside, then shuffled the soiled, battered cards.

A game of solitaire was underway when she noticed a flap of the tent rise behind her. She did not look up, but broke up the game and collected the cards.

“That sure is a nice hat,” an unfamiliar voice said.

Emma turned with a start to find the surly fellow who had been giving her the stink eye all day.

“Name’s Finkle,” he leered. Emma noticed he was not staring at her but at her new hat. “You wanna cut the deck for that hat of yours?”

His voice was as oily and thick as the engine grease smeared on his clothing. He had no teeth—not even a chipped nugget of one—and his beard was not a beard, but a stringy mess of thin patchy strands. His own hat was even more pitiful and disgusting up close. Sections of the brim were torn or missing and a fly or two darted in and out through gaps in the crown. She even noted a few greybacks milling about. She feared the lice would look around the tent and deem the new surroundings much more habitable and therefore jump ship en masse.

“What? You ain’t got nothin’ to say about the proposition?” Finklle said, training his wild stare directly on her.

She looked over at her pistol, but it was too far away on the blanket for her to reach without making a bold statement to this intruder.

“Ya’ll is plain rude. When a man proposes a wager, it’s only polite to pipe up yea or nay. I don’t take kindly to being treated rudely,” he said as he put his hand on the butt of a hefty knife strapped at his side.

“Now, how about the hat . . . I say we forgo the gambling and make an even trade,” he said as he lifted his sour mess of a hat from his head.

Finkle was ripped off his feet and out of the tent faster than if tied to a whipped horse. The canvas flapped wildly with the movement. Finkle’s hat, filthy and sweaty, dropped heavily at the opening of the tent. Emma stepped around it and outside to see Herc standing over the man. Finkle was scrambling backward on his bottom.

“Listen here, Mister—” Finkle protested as he took in Herc’s muscle and madness towering over him.

“No! You listen here, you little grease spot! It ain’t civilized nor neighborly to intrude upon a man’s camp without being asked first. I don’t know you from this crew and I don’t want to know you from the manners you display. Now you just toddle on off to your work afore I bring Smitty down here and we discuss the benefits of throwing you overboard.”

Finkle sputtered a string of profanities as he turned a vivid shade of maroon.

“Cursing, though admired when done properly, will not help you here.” Herc took a healthy step toward the man. “You best get back to whatever job you were doing poorly before I make you a stain on the poop deck. I ain’t gonna tell you again.”

Finkle was still propped up on his backside as he slowly drew his right hand back and placed it on the knife handle.

Ezra Bean broke from his throne high on the crane hook, shrieking as he swept down toward the prone man. Finkle raised his right arm in self defense. Talons slashed lightly across his forearm, tracing shallow slices across the flesh. With one great downward beat of his wings, Ezra Bean rose and was soon flapping around the crane for another pass.

Thin streams of blood trailed down Finkle’s arm. Afraid to bare his face, he remained a-cowering.

Silas appeared from a cabin doorway and quickly took in the scene. Though he did not know how the situation came to that point, he knew by Herc’s posture action was required.

The churn and splash of the paddlewheel, the constant slapping of the water against the boat and the omnipresent low rumble of the machinery came together to mask his approach as he snuck up behind Finkle, until he was practically standing on top of him. Finkle’s attention was wholly upon Herc and his monologue of threats.

Silas noticed Finkle’s hand gripping the knife. He stepped on the man’s hand, crushing it like a cornered rodent in the pantry. Finkle howled, drew his hand to his mouth and nursed it there while Silas bent down, snatched up the knife and threw it overboard. A plop, a pillar of water and it sank down beneath the muddy swirls.

Finkle worked his gummy mouth in protest, but Silas quieted him. “Not one word, Mister, or you’re going in the drink next. You may not like losing your knife, but you should have contemplated that before you crossed us.” Silas crouched down beside the man and stared into his blood shot eyes, searching but finding nothing. “Besides, I couldn’t let you keep it and then be wondering with every log I saw if you’re sneakin’ up on us to use that rusty thing.”

“You better scat, Mister,” Herc growled. “And we better not see you even lookin’ toward our camp the rest of this trip.”

Finkel scampered to his feet and ran off, not risking even a single backward glance.

On the upper deck, Smitty leaned out of the pilot house, “What’s the bother on my boat? I will nae tolerate horseplay on the Lula Belle!”

“Nothin’ Cap’n! You all can get back to ridin’ this boat too hard!” Herc called up as he walked over to the abandoned hat and picked it up with two fingers. His distaste was evident by his wrinkled nose as he threw it overboard, too

The hat sank without the preamble of floating. There was not even a bubble to mark the descent. The boat quickly chugged past the burial spot.

Silas met Herc, and as they went into the tent, he asked, “What did he do, anyway?”

“I am not rightly sure. All’s I know is he was sticking his nose in our tent.”

Emma followed and the three sat down to a game of cards.

The hands were dealt and stared at. There was a round of discards and pick ups. Emma finally broke the quiet and said, “You all know I can take care of things myself.” She did not look up from her cards. Her words were terse and pointed.

Herc sorted his cards around in his hands with eyebrows as high as they could rise. “Allright, next time he’s all yours.” He slapped the cards down with a hoot and then bellowed, “Straight flush, Aces high!”

Silas threw his cards down in mild disgust. “I told you he cheats.”

“No doubt there,” she replied, “seeing as how I have an ace of spades identical to the one in his hand.”

“Why, how in the world . . .?” Herc flustered in mock astonishment.

A new deck was brought forth from Silas’ gear. “Stow them funny cards for the yokels, Herc. Now we are going to separate the boys from the men.” He looked to Emma and winked. “No offense.”

“None taken,” she replied in a strong basso.

Herc pouted like a child as he swept up his dubious deck and pushed them in his shirt pocket.

Emma looked at her cards as they were dealt, but she was not focusing upon them, “I have to ask, do you suspect there will be a next time with this Finkle?”

“There’s always a next time with the Finkles of life,” Herc answered. “You can scare the daylights from a rat, but furry curiosity will ever bring him back.”

“Yessir,” Silas added as he looked through his cards. “I suspect he will attempt his revenge before morning, but I am not distressed. You will handle him justly, Emmet. What was the focus of his grievance?”

“He claimed he wanted my hat.” She discarded an unsatisfactory four of hearts.

“It is a nice hat,” Herc said as he looked upon his cards with disappointment.

They played for white beans and Herc’s pile was soon much smaller than the others. Emma gathered Herc was not very good at cards unless he had his own deck.

The tent proved to be a true Eden on the water, though the celestial furnace raged on outside and even a stiff breeze down the Mississippi was a warm one. The slight shade provided by their encampment was a different, hopeful world.

“You men certainly have constructed a grand palace for us,” Emma said.

“Our time served incarcerated at the clutches of that old ‘Southern Hospitality’ gave rise to the occasion for us to hone them skills,” Herc grinned as he wedged out an apple with his knife.

She found it amazing a man could survive the hell on earth that was Andersonville Prison, and yet sit there chuckling lightly.

“You either became as skilled at tent-work as a Bedouin or Blackfoot, or you cooked like a worm in the Georgia mud.”

Silas added, “He is correct there. Some men got so sick they just boiled to the color of a lobster, their skin blistered and peeled and—”

“Now let’s not get all graphic in nature about it,” Herc cut Silas off. “Emmet here don’t need no nightmares more than what he’s got . . .”

Silas nodded and continued, “No shelter was provided by our captors. It was a constant chore to keep your own makeshift tent stretched, and people would steal your shield if you looked away for but a moment. One fellow had used a flag of the United States for a sunshade, and had many detractors who threatened him good. He took it down and scrounged some other fabric, but after a few months, he was allowed to re-string up Old Glory. By then, any old trousers pulled across your head was just as holy as the stars and bars. I remember every day and minute staring out across that sea of desperation.” He looked to the river ahead, but only saw the persistent past before his darting eyes. “It was . . . something.”

The men sunk back into a mild, silent reverie as the next hand was dealt. Emma kept respectfully quiet for a good ten moments or more, until all were roused by their first visitor, Sharp, the card man.

He played well and fair and soon had the bigger pile of dried white beans they were using to represent money.

“Sharp, you got you enough beans to make a soup for the crew,” Herc complained good-naturedly.

Silas was sullen but polite. “I shouldn’t have strung out my luck on that last hand. We will surely feel the financial squeeze down the bend.”

“Y’all ain’t got to worry none,” Sharp smiled as he rose from the game. “Romeo said he’d bust my behind if I took money from y’all. Let’s just say this was an exercise in humility for y’all and leave it at that.”

“You could say it don’t amount to a hill of beans for you,” Herc said. “Still, we appreciate your generosity and your tutelage.”

Sharp stood at the tent opening, sun shining on his deep brown skin, his smile as bright and warm as any ray of light. “If I had my druthers, I’d be walking out of here with clanking pockets, but I ain’t gonna get my ass beat by Romeo never again in this life.”

He closed the tent and drifted back to his endless toils.

Moments later, Emma was confused in thinking Sharp had changed his mind and returned to retrieve his winnings. There he stood in a different shirt—this one blue and buttoned up to collar and down to cuff despite the weather. Then she saw the fervent look in the eyes. This was Sharp’s twin brother, Preacher.

“I have not come to gamble. I have come to see that every man, woman and child I meet does not wager their souls against the sinful ways of this realm. May I testify as to the power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?”

Herc set the cards aside and stretched his legs out before him. “You are in a tent; let’s have us a service.”

“Amen,” Silas added.

If he thought the men had been flip in speaking about the Lord, Preacher showed no injury to the words. Preacher set sail through one of the stormiest sermons Emma had ever weathered. The young man’s verve was infectious. She did not subscribe to the same tenets and theologies as Preacher, but she found herself nodding along with his enthusiasm. Herc nodded also, but in sleepiness. Silas sat and finished the cleaning of his special rifle. Emma was herself alone responsible in returning Preacher’s attentions.

The young man went without script or scripture before his eyes, but Emma envied the passion emanating from him. He loved the Lord so fully and gave all trust to Him. She had loved her own father with that same abandon and was left alone by him. She went from jealousy to pity as the pulpit-less messenger wound it down. She knew what loneliness lay in store, and though he had faith in his Father, she feared he too would be bitterly disappointed in the end.

Preacher shook hands with all and thanked them dutifully for opening their ears and their hearts to “a poor servant of God.”

He left a moment later and the three travelers sat in silence to contemplate his words—or at least give a moment to respect his passion. As if a funeral procession were rounding the corner, Herc waited until he was out of sight then immediately shuffled the cards of a new hand.

Over the next hour or so, Herc and the other two took turns entertaining as the men aboard took their individual breaks. A bottle was produced from the ship’s stores and Herc took no time draining the unidentifiable liquid. Stories were shared while cards spiraled through the humid oasis between the black iron beams. Many aboard took respite, save Smitty and Finkle and a few men on watch. To a river man, any rare moment of levity and leisure must be stretched in the mind to seem like hours, as a morsel can seem a meal to a starving man.

A few hours after midday, Silas announced he was off to commandeer the galley, as negotiated earlier. “Though our spirits be filled, our bellies are a different matter entirely.”

Herc claimed the need to visit the ship’s head, but after a half an hour, she heard him being chastised and run off from the pilot house. Upon his return, he confessed to Emma, “That fool won’t listen to a syllable of reason. It unnerves me to be pushing this hard. We only let the paddlewheel go still for that wood stop, but he kept that boiler a-kindle like the eternal flames of Hades. Ain’t no boat should be treated such. I fear we may not make Memphis.”

Having no idea of the technical aspects he was speaking of, Emma simply nodded in blind commiseration.

Beyond their shady refuge, the clamor of a battle was waging somewhere in the innards of the main cabins. Emma and Herc looked out the tent to see Ezra Bean fly off as the noise was great enough to roust him from his nest in the eaves of the pilot house. They slipped up the starboard side of the broad deck running alongside the superstructure, arriving in time to witness several kitchen implements flying through an open doorway and out into the river. Emma peered off the edge to see an earthenware pot bobbing in the wake. It tipped to one side, filled with water and quickly sank.

“I wonder if that fellow with the knife has tried the old ‘divide and conquer’ on our friend,” Herc whispered over the shouting.

“You mean Finkle?” Emma imagined a pitched battle, but rested easily in the knowledge Silas was more than a match for that scab of a human—unless, perhaps, he had been caught by surprise.

They rounded the corner of the doorway and saw Silas, red-faced and sweat-drenched as he waved a wooden spoon not at Finkle, but a dirty little man in a soiled leather apron.

Silas did not turn to notice his friends, though the little galley master peered around to them with pleading eyes. “He is mad, I tell you! He has thrown away most of my good pots and spoons—he says I could kill someone with the way I keep my kitchen. Please, do something to stop him before I have no tools left.”

“You should have kept a proper pantry, brother—or never let him near your galley,” Herc said. “He is a strict enforcer of proper hygiene and food handling.”

“Well, can you hold fault with me? Look here at this venison he was set to poison us with.” Silas displayed the haunch of deer, white spots of mildew and several maggots squirming beneath the patchy hide. “He said he was gonna cook out the ‘bugs’. I will shoot this man myself before he poisons me with unhealthy carrion.”

Herc motioned the cookie to follow him out of the cramped room. “Your best bet now is to step aside and pick up the pieces after this tempest has passed.”

The three of them exited leaving Silas stewing. The deer meat flew out into the swirl.

They glanced back as Silas hurled eggs at the fleeing chef. “All these eggs is cracked as your skull’s gonna be. You know what kind of fungus flourishes in the crack of an egg?”

Herc and Emma made their way back to the tent. Emma found the experience amusing but a touch frightening. “Is Silas going to be alright? He seemed a little . . .”

Herc patted her on the shoulder. “That there is another hold-over from our time in Andersonville. He was our cookie for many months. Bad food was all he could scrounge and not much of it at that. No matter how he strived, some of the few fellows in our camp could not maintain on the meager menu. Many got so sick they couldn’t eat and when they did, they couldn’t keep it down. Some died from improper nutrition or soured staples. We got this mush from the rebs that always had a blue fuzz growing in it—them Johnny’s didn’t have much better grub for themselves on their side of the war. Silas did what he could, but when a fellow died, he always felt like his cookwork was partially to blame. Ever since, it has been a bit of a mania to him where food is concerned. He’s always tryin’ new things and watches real close what we eat. Yeah, he is a might over top with it, but he has them demons. We all do sometimes.”

Later, Silas threatened Smitty nearly at gunpoint to take on wood and coal and let him haggle for a fresh doe. The butcher at the port had a small garden near the launch, and he was talked into a deal to include a bushel of mixed root vegetables and kale.

The sun climbed down off the throne and the darkening twilight began the ascent. The whole crew, except Finkle, who was brooding elsewhere aboard, had supped on a stew made of some of the most tender venison they had ever put teeth or gums to.

Emma realized why he had been cooking at the hotel. His cuisine was fit for high society. The savory, thick broth he had rendered, along with the darkly roasted turnips and tender greens, these were what she would compare all future repasts.

They had eaten in the tent alone. Silas took their empty plates to be cleaned. Emma moved to the bow of the steamer and once again dangled her feet over the edge. To her surprise, Herc joined her and mimicked her leisure, save the difference of a half empty bottle of whiskey in his grip.

“He may be driven by demons, but he don’t disappoint, that boy,” Herc sighed. He looked worn out, but she understood it to be more the liquor and less the actual work done that day.

Emma rubbed her stomach as she watched the sky over the Mississippi turn a pale orange then pink. The zealous calls from hidden perches signified a good-night from the birds of the river. She noticed a gap in the cane break. As they came up along it, a wide, placid dell spread out and up from the banks. She watched as fireflies set to twinkling low to the grass. They danced and flashed so, the stars themselves would be jealous.

The Lula Belle pushed past before the darkness fell completely.

The crew were not afforded the after meal rest period. They were put to work even harder as the day’s last light slipped away. They stood at various points along the edge of the boat with one fellow posted outside the pilot house. Though night blind to but a few feet before them, they tested the depth of the river with their long rods and sent the news updeck.

It was a new moon that Sunday night and cloudy as well. Any sane pilot would slow the pace under the low visibility—no matter how familiar with this bend or that shallow the man claimed to be. Smitty was not any sane pilot. He was a driven man. Despite his blindness at night, he refused to see the light in Herc’s perpetual warnings.

Long poles were used by the men to measure depth, so efforts to keep running deep were largely successful even though one plumb became irrelevant almost instantly at their speed. How long were they expected to stay vigilant without their rest? Smitty gave no sign.

With pitch black embracing them, and the captain not allowing any lanterns to be lit as they would impair his night sight, the trio of passengers resigned themselves to a noisy slumber.

Despite constant shouting from the crew, there was a hypnotic cadence to the engines thrumming, the motion and sloshing of the water and the close proximity of her guardians. It all provided Emma with a gentle yet swift descent into slumber.

“Shallowing out starboard,” was called, but Emma drifted off, not hearing it.

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