Chapter Twenty Eight

On the banks of the Mississippi

Hickman, Kentucky  2:20 a.m.


Once it was discovered Emma was able to walk among the living, the trio moved slowly with their horses, making their way inland a few rods to a clearing. That site afforded a view of the burning wreckage through the trees. A modest camp was started.

“I imagine if we can salvage anything, it will be as wet as my matches,” Herc complained, shaking the box to his ear like a child with a broken toy.

Silas procured some dry kindling and Herc, drawing from his deep well of surviving, was able to start a fire with a two sticks and a tuft of dried, mossy fuzz.

Emma sat nearly on top of the small fire. She coughed wetly in fits for a time.

Silas paused whatever he was doing and watched her closely until she stopped.

Herc, still playing the part of field surgeon admirably, reached into his saddle pack and produced a flask. “Here, Emma, you’re gonna need a bit of this.”

Without suspicion or care, she took a long draught.

Silas, outraged, turned on his longtime friend. “What in the world! She don’t drink liquor! And that mashwater you suckle is high grade! You are liable to poison her—”

Herc held his hand up to hold his friend off for a moment. He winked at Silas and turned to Emma.

She swallowed and grimaced as if she had indeed gulped down poison. She squeezed her eyes shut and puckered her mouth up tighter than a miser’s purse. A mere moment later she jumped from beside the fire and ran to the edge of the woods and sprayed the fauna with a mix of liquor and muddy river water. She wiped her face and, putting the cap back on the flask, handed it back as she said scornfully, “I do not think I am much of a drinker just yet, but when I begin, I shall not be cutting into your store of hooch.”

Herc looked at Silas sagely. “Seeing as how my tobacco is a little soggy and there ain’t no ipecac handy, a swig of liquor was needed to do the trick. She had her a bellyful of Mississippi delta and it’s best she purge as much as she can before it starts gettin’ digestitated.”

Silas shook his head, but smiled. “Every once in a great while, you have method in your madness. Just let us in on the treatment next time, Doc.”

She was almost in the fire, yet she shivered in spasms, her eyes peering through the brush back toward the wreck of the Lula Belle. “Do you think anyone is alive?”

“I hold no hope, but I aim to go have a look about,” Herc said. He wrung out his coat as best he could and put it about her shoulders.

Silas found a few more sizable fire-worthy lengths of wood and piled them off to the side of the fire. He wrapped his gun belt around his waist and buckled it. “I will look. You stay here and tend to her. You reckon you can hold off trying to poison her again until I return?”

Emma answered for him, “He wants to kill me, it sure won’t be by setting me ablaze. Have you had a look at this measly campfire? I think I should die of exposure first.” She punctuated the sentiment with a deep shiver.

Herc chuckled, “You sure do get mean when you drown.”

“I am sorry, Hercules. I have never almost died before, so if you will forgive me . . .”

“No offense taken. Silas, you give a holler if they’s anyone alive or if you need a hand, check?”

“Check. I will explore about for signs of life, but I would like to also see what of our gear may be salvageable before it sinks or burns.”

“I have some of our stores in my bags. I will try to get some cans open for us to chaw on. Emma might be needing some grub to settle her stomach off.”

Silas marched off to begin his search. Picking his way through the fat vines and fallen limbs, he heard Emma call out faintly, “Please be careful, Silas.”

He looked back, smiled and tripped on a stump.

The wreck burned brightly in various places as it continued to consume what was flammable. He used this illumination to navigate back through the bush and onto the beach. By the steady fire, he saw the sad remnants of the steamboat. Pieces smoldered in random heaps. Some had fallen from the sky or had been blown straight out and lodged in the river bank.

As if by the hand of God, the wreck of the Lula Belle lay broken, shattered and strewn about. She was not just a noble steamer, built well and sturdy, she was an icon known to many ports and people in her brief life. For her end to come in such a lonely spot added to Silas’ sorrow.

The Lula Belle reminded him of some animal carcass, laid open and left like carrion to the ravages of nature’s appetites. The aft had been dislodged from the rest and bent out into the river. The stern wheel was on its side and half sunken and some of the sturdier timbers of the superstructure still stood upright, resembling a sort of ribcage. The fore of the boat was slanted up on the rising incline of the river bottom and the crane resembled an iron skeleton neck. Even the smoke swirled about like some mass of black flies swarming bones.

He thought himself a vulture as he tallied in his mind the most meaty portions of the ship to scavenge. He knew others would follow to pick away the scraps and parts and soon the Lula Belle would be swept from this earth and memory.

The search for the living was a draining effort. Silas was beyond tired when he combed the beaches and looked aboard the wreck from the shore, but the grim discoveries he made as he inched along wore his mind out as well.

He saw a few men scattered about. He could not recognize some casualties as white man or black as they were mostly charred, or soot covered, or drenched in their own dark blood. A shift of wind carried the smells to him. At first he assumed it was the smoldering wet wood of the decking, but when he tasted the copper tang on his tongue, he knew it was cooked human flesh.

His throat tightened and his stomach lurched. He removed a soggy handkerchief and tried to expel the smell from his nostrils, but he was sure the sensation would linger for some time. In no hurry to catalogue the sorrowful scene in close proximity, he continued to move in a circle to the north, staying close the banks.

Over the soft crackling of the fire aboard the boat, he heard a slight snapping of branches high above in the trees. He spun on the noise, reflexes forcing his hand to whip down onto the handle of his pistol in holster. He saw a man hanging upside down from the branches of a huge, dead tree.

He stepped closer to inspect. “Tinker? Is that you? Are you hurt? Can you climb down?”

He waited for a response as he let his hand ease away from his weapon.

He drew ever closer and was preparing to address him again. The body shifted and fell limply, landing on the head with a loud crack. Silas did not need to rush to his aid, for he ciphered from the distance that Tinker was dead and likely had been from the moment of the explosion.

He came to the body, slowly, and turned him over. His head lolled to the side and his vacant eyes stared skyward.

He surveyed a bit farther and saw another body, this one sitting in a forward-leaning position. A young fellow with no shirt. The poor soul looked to have been decapitated, for Silas saw only his shoulders and arms at his sides and no head. The high flames reflecting off the glistening, dark flesh showed the fellow was a black man. He had been spared being cooked alive but looked just as dead.

Silas moved on, for seeing a headless friend was another thing he could put off for a time, but before he took his eyes away, he saw the body tremble.

He rushed to the man.

Silas knelt beside him. The young man did not look up, but Silas at once recognized him as one of the twins, either Sharp or Preacher. It was hard enough to tell who was whom in the daylight, let alone in the flickering shadows.

Seeing the man without a shirt, knowing Sharp hardly ever wore one, Silas played a hunch. “Hey, Sharp! You hurt?”

No response. Silas got the notion the fellow was unable to hear. His own temporary deafness had only just subsided. Silas nudged him.

Not even a blink from the survivor’s shimmering eyes. Tears tracks charted down his cheeks, but his eyes ran dry. Silas nudged him and shouted more closely and loudly, “Sharp! Where is Preacher? Has he survived with you?”

The mention of his dead brother brought a mild reaction as Sharp raised his head a bit. He turned to the sounds beside him, but his eyes did not focus on Silas. He was dazed and Silas wondered if he had received a blow to the skull.

Silas lightly patted Sharp’s cheeks but the younger man hovered just off the center of awareness.

Silas had seen men in such a deep state of shock during the war. Some men never were affected by the impact of the battles and the death. Silas avoided these men, for they were there for the killing and were generally not good, safe company. Some went away from themselves but came back in time. Silas tried to help them when possible, for he had been there himself. Others lost their grip and were unable to climb back up again. Those poor fellows were beyond his meager aid and in order to protect his own mind, he also avoided that group.

Silas intended to find out which category Sharp was in as he slapped him hard with an open palm across his face. “Sharp! Where you at, son? You need to collect your wits! Where is your brother?”

Sharp came to, for he shook his head hard and shot Silas an angry glare, but did not speak. He pointed with a shaky finger to a body wedged beneath the Lula Belle, hands floating on the surface of the river.

Silas did not move to investigate but stayed beside Sharp for a moment. He knew Preacher did not need the help and his brother would. Finding Sharp gave him the pull to look for other unlikely survivors, but he gave the young man his time.

A few moments later, staring at his brother’s hands, Sharp finally said with a quavering voice, “Why? Why God gonna go and punish the good one and leave me, the sinner, alive? It don’t make no kind of sense. He had nothin’ but love in his heart and he goes and gets ripped right from this earth . . . I sorely wish it was me. I give myself right up if he could be here and I could be there. Why, Mister Silas?”

“I ain’t gonna pretend like I know why the Lord goes and does any of the things he does. Maybe he needed him up there and not down here with us reprobates. Besides, I am sure you are not the deep sinner you claim. Hell, I ain’t got no ideas about nothing after what I seen tonight.”

Silas heard himself and knew it was merely words—feeble ones at that—but it was all he had to give this man. He paused, hoping it would seep through the tangled, tight emotions.

Sharp wrapped his arms around himself tightly, as if chilled. He rocked back and forth. “We ain’t never been apart, Mister Silas. How’m I supposed to carry on? He wasn’t just my brother, he was . . . he was half of me. I know you wouldn’t understand, but that’s the only way I can explain it. It’s like I know he’s gone, but I can still hear him talkin’ to me.” He stared right at Silas, fully within his senses, and earnestly asking for something.

“I think I understand, Sharp, and I can tell you that you are fortunate to be able to still hear him. You need to worry when you can’t hear him no more.” Silas regretted saying it the second it flopped out of his mouth, but he had to move on and the more he tried to comfort Sharp, the worse his talking would get. “We gotta move now, Sharp. You come along and I’ll take you to our camp over yonder. Herc and Emmet are safe and just beyond—”

“I be along yet, Mister Silas. I just wanna be alone a bit more.”

“As long as you’re sure? I need to see if any others might be alive.”

“I am sure. I will tell you, though—ain’t nobody done made it but you, me, and your friends. Nobody alive.”

He had found nearly half the crew, and knew a good five or six were either lost to the river’s current or blown too far or too high into the trees to locate.

Silas returned to Sharp, who acknowledged him, but had not moved from his vigil.

Silas noticed Sharp helf a clenched fist before his eyes, a thin jute cord running out over his fingers.

“What you got there?” Silas asked, just to have the man talking instead of slipping back into grief.

Sharp opened his fingers to reveal an old wooden cross on the string. “It were Preacher’s. It come off when I was trying to…our Momma done gave us both one, but I gave mine to a girl in Natchez.”

He closed his fingers again and clutched the cross so tightly, Silas feared he might break it. Silas did not speak, but gave Sharp’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. The younger man shook with weeping and cursed under his breath as he threw the cross up and over the wreckage where it disappeared into the night.

The ship’s remains were getting more dangerous by the minute as plank and timber burned without check. Knowing the timing of the situation, Silas threw his attentions to boarding the boat. He located a long timber on the shore. It was a framing beam, charred and smoking along its edges. He leaned it up against the hull and used it as a gangplank to scramble aboard the tilted, burning deck.

With the weakened structure creaking and groaning beneath his feet, and the intense heat from the burning remains, he knew he had to move rapidly and carefully.

He looked down in the gaping crack of the deck and below, into the bilge where he saw a man floating face down in the muck. The smoke was more intense here, so put his handkerchief and over his face and tied it loosely behind his head. He reckoned he resembled a bandit, which is what he felt like anyway, scavenging a still-warm body.

The crane towered before him. The tarp that had served as their shelter still clung to the iron beams, but the main sections were burned away. He took a step and a plank beneath his feet weakened by the heat gave way and his leg dropped through to his knee. The sharp edges ripped at his trousers but did not break his skin. He dislodged himself and climbed the slight incline to where they had encamped near the crane.

He had feared the worst about their supplies and was correct in that. Only a few of their belongings lay amongst the crates not blown off the boat. The remaining crates were shoved about, with one broken open. He searched inside and found some mechanical equipment, but nothing of use.

He spied Emma’s bag and some of their canned goods strewn across the deck. He stored what he found into Emma’s bag and scrounged a few other items. Emma’s Stetson lay nearby,  the brim trapped beneath a length of heavy chain. He swept it up and placed it upon his head over his own hat.

The cranework was imposing its weight on the deck. He heard the fibers of the wood planks as they rubbed together and called out their surrender. The flooring sagged and bounced, which he felt through the balls of his feet. He knew he had but moments before the crane crashed into the bilge room below.

Silas crossed beneath the crane toward the bow and flung the loot out as far as he could, toward the shore. He spied the glistening barrel of his rifle protruding from some debris farther near mid deck. The oils he had administered earlier reflected the flames. He lunged for it and managed to grasp the tip of the weapon. He slid the rifle strap over his neck just as the weakened deck buckled under the weight of the crane.

With the deck falling inward, crossing back under the crane to where he had climbed aboard was surely suicide. He swung himself up on the long, square beam of the frame nearest him. He climbed quickly while the crane arced up, away from the shore, and back toward the center of the boat. As it swung, he scrambled to position himself on top.

The intense heat singed his face as he watched the wreckage pass under him. He rode the falling crane and launched himself toward the river. As he fell, he hoped he entering at a spot where the water had fair depth.

Silas plunged in and came swimming back to the surface just in time to witness the crane come crashing down into the center of the wreckage. Though not as loud as the boiler explosion, it still thumped and rumbled out over the water. The echo soon returned from the far western banks.

As he swam back toward shore, he located both hats floating nearby. Though they were damp, he placed them both on his head, one on the other. Both arms were free to stroke back to shore.

The crane had shifted the embers and re-stoked the fire. The spotty flames on the Lula Bell joined to an inferno.

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