Scattered pieces of the wreckage splashed down around the trio as they fought the current to shore. Herc flapped and floundered, but having not let go of his horse’s reins, he was dragged behind it for a couple rods as he reeled himself in closer. He took a slippery hold of the pommel, and the old horse, being a grand swimmer, verily dragged him ashore.
Silas had not found Herc’s luck at being close to his horse when he splashed in. He looked about as he buoyed above the waves. He spied Emma trailing her horse halfway to the shore. He saw neither of them were good at swimming.
Emma, for her part, had taken in a lungful of the muddy Mississippi after she was pitched out into the river. She panicked for a brief few seconds as she had no notion of up or down. She focused at a faint flickering of yellow light above the waves, her instinct telling her it was the Lula Belle aflame. She ceased her swirling about and swam up toward it. She coughed up at least a pint of the water, but took in a couple ounces more with her open-mouthed, bubbly wheezing. She spun about, the black plane of the river spreading out to the west before her.
The waves slapped against her as pieces of the Lula Belle still plopped around her. She saw her horse, Shot, off to her left, his neck straining above the water, his eyes wide and white, reflecting the nearby flames. She knew she may not reach him, but decided to not try meant death.
She kicked and flailed her arms, finally finding the right combination of awkward strokes to propel herself forward.
She paused time and again when she judged herself to be in reach, but was disappointed and a bit more exhausted with every attempt. With one last lunge, she found the strands of Shot’s tail beneath the surface and clenched it between her fingers. She wrapped her other hand around the first and hung on for dear life as Shot, more fear-stricken by something yanking his tail, swam all the harder.
Not being able to use her hands to keep her up, she dipped beneath the river surface then bobbed as she was dragged behind. She wished to time her gaspswith the surging rhythm, but too often she gasped as she was pulled back under.
Herc had made it ashore on shaky legs. The inferno that was the Lula Belle illuminated the entire southeastern bank, the image of some wretched corner of hell. Weak orange light pulsed and flared around him and his horse, casting long, wicked shadows across the sandy shore.
He gathered the reins and tied his horse to a nearby thick sapling near the low weeds and cane-break of the tree line. He found his hat bobbing in the shallows and wrung it out while he watched the progress of his friends. He untied a length of rope from his saddle and neared the water, waiting to see who may need the life line.
“Emma? You alright? Signal if you need the rope!” He saw the girl gasping for air a few rods out as the horse dragged her toward shore.
He judged she was coming in just fine, though still not in standing depth, so he held off throwing.
Emma heard snippets of Herc yelling. She was swallowing more water than air. Both tasted of mossy death.
Silas swam parallel to the waves behind Emma and Shot. He was making for his own horse, which had gone a good distance until it hung up on some submerged hazard. Silas had a firm stroke and he moved swiftly. The current flowing with him was strong, pushing him toward the center of the river, but he was stronger. Having grown up on the Ohio River across from Cincinnati, he swam at the bathing beaches in Dayton, Kentucky since he was old enough to crawl.
He reached his horse and found the soft, spongy riverbed beneath his feet. He wondered if the horse had bogged, but after investigating with his hands, he found the horse’s reins had unfortunately become entangled in a waterlogged tree limb. He blindly unknotted the leather straps from the slimy branch and slogged up the banks leading his mount.
“Here, Herc,” Silas said, winded, “take them horses further up into the trees—in the off chance that boat ain’t done with her exploding.”
“Right-o. I been spyin’ down the line, but I must sadly say I have not seen a soul stirring. I can’t hear too well—ears a’ringin’—but I do not think there are going to be survivors.” He sloshed in soggy boots as he turned Silas’ mount and both climbed carefully around stump and vine and wreckage alike.
Silas blocked out the idea of rescue or search until he knew Emma was safely ashore. He watched as Shot craned his neck out above the water. Shot pulled Emma like a tug towing a slowly sinking dingy. Silas knew she was losing strength when he saw her head loll to the side and dip under. He threw off his gunbelt to the sandy shore and waded in toward her, though she was still ten or fifteen rods off. When he was waist high in the river, he saw Emma gasp weakly one last time. She let go and floated face down as Shot pulled away from her.
Silas knew he had but moments to get to her.
Her horse had found the riverbed incline and splashed wildly past him as Silas dove forward and under. He kicked and stroked beneath the surface with renewed vigor. He did not open his eyes as he knew he would see nothing anyway, but he kept his line to her and felt around with each forward lunge of his hands.
After what felt to him like hours, he found the cloth of Emma’s shirt and clenched it tight. Silas broke the surface with a gasp and spun Emma’s face to the dark sky. She was limp, which Silas knew from past experience, was a mixed boon. She was unconscious and may die shortly, but a flailing, panicked person was harder to save.
With his aching legs, he searched for purchase on the river bed, but had no luck. He slid his left arm under Emma’s and across her lifeless chest. With his right arm and legs straining but in concentrated rhythm, he surged slowly toward shore. He was himself taking in more water than before. Her weight was dead, but it was weight nonetheless. He clutched her tighter, knowing she would not feel it. He pressed his cheek against the drenched hair he had barbered the night before.
Images flashed briefly across his mind: the Uncle and his angry assault, seeing her for the first time atop her horse, dinner by the stovelight and then the haircutting. He remembered the way she sort of rocked back and forth when she ate his biscuits. Then he panicked at the thought of her no longer being. He doubled his efforts.
Soon he was remembering farther back to a little girl stretched out on the banks of the Ohio. People milled about in mourning. Silas’ father sprawled across the tiny child as he clutched and hugged her and wailed to a stifling summer sky.
He heard himself crying and pleading, a voice from the past, “Poppa, I tried! I tried to save her!”
His tears flowed and dripped into the muddy waters of the Mississippi, cousin to the river that hundreds of miles away and a lifetime ago took another he loved.
His knees finally struck mud beneath them, but he was leaning so far forward his face splashed into the river before he could get both legs under him. He rose, dripping, and lifted Emma high over his shoulder. He slogged through the shallows and found Herc standing there in a panic as he twisted the coil of rope worriedly.
“Is she? Is she breathing?”
Silas, with no breath left of his own, just shook his head emphatically, water flicking from his brow.
Herc found a long, fat branch and effortlessly snapped it in two over his leg. He laid it in a clear spot on the banks. “Lay her down, boy! Stomach down, right over this log!”
At first, Silas was disoriented and stood there with Emma draped over his shoulder like any sack of wheat. With a tortured grimace, he wailed to Herc, “Maria! She’s gonna die just like Maria!”
Herc did not speak, but strode up to Silas and slapped him hard across his face. Herc did not wait for a response as he lifted Emma easily and laid her face-down across the huge log. He positioned it right under her abdomen and kneeled down behind her. He began from her waist and pressed down firmly as he pushed up toward her shoulders. “Snap out of it, Si! She ain’t gonna die. I will not allow it.”
He repeated the process and soon, with each motion, brown liquid spewed out onto the banks and soaked into the sandy earth.
Silas, sobered from the slap, slumped to his knees beside Emma and vomited his own river slosh. Sufficiently emptied and exhausted, he flopped onto his back and watched, chest heaving as Herc ministered to Emma.
She did not come to, so Herc rolled her off the log and onto her back. Herc scurried around to her head and gripped her arms. He pulled them up toward himself and then pushed them back down to her sides. He repeated this until Emma emitted a watery cough. He kept at it and soon another cough—and then a veritable geyser of water spewed up and rained down her cheeks. Still one more pump and her eyes were aflutter. She rolled on her side, away from Silas, and emptied a good quart or two of brown bile from her stomach.
Herc patted her lightly on the back. “That’s right, girl. Let it all out! You ain’t dyin’ today. I told you I would not allow it.”
He fell on his backside and sat behind Silas amid the sand and vines. The thick smell of smoke, slimy moss and dank, muddy river filled their nostrils. Silas retched again, and a globule of mud came free.
She fell back herself and looked about dazedly. “Oh, my. I swear to the Lord, I sure thought I was done.,” She coughed hoarsely but no water came along with it. “Thank you, Herc. I swear to the—”
Unable to control himself, Silas leapt to Emma and embraced her. “Oh, Emma! I thought you was gonna—I thought it was to be just like Maria!”
She did not respond, but coughed a bit more and wrapped her arms tight around Silas, returning his joy unspoken.