The next morning, the rising sun woke me, and I made bread and had some dried fruit I had found among Finn’s supplies. I considered that a good breakfast (I had certainly had much worse, especially in the army). And so I started a long period of floating down the river, not seeing much other than steamboats passing going the other way, wildlife, and very few people. I wondered why this was so until I came to Memphis and went into the city. I came across and old fellow sitting on a bench.
“Say, can you tell me why I’m not seeing a lot of people on the river?”
“Yessir, that would be because General Grant is fixin’ to take Vicksburg. If you’re smart, you won’t go anywhere near that.”
“I see. Which way should I go?”
“If I was you, I would travel west, try to get on the Red River and get on down to Shreveport, if that is where your business would take you. There aren’t many other choices, though.”
“I’ll do that. Thank you, sir.” I didn’t go into detail about why I was on the river, but I figured that didn’t make any difference.
I would have to go overland to the Red, which meant I would have to leave the boat on the river after I had floated as far south as I felt safe, and then carry as much as I could from the boat. Then, when I reached the Red, I’d have to find a way to get down to Shreveport. I was certain that Garrett would be doing the same thing since Grant was blocking his way as well.
I got back on the Mississippi and went down it for about two more days, when I began to hear the sound of cannon not too far away. That was a sign to me that it was time to strike out for the Red River. I took as much as I could carry, and left Finn’s boat tied up to a tree. I thought how kind he had been to Andrew and me, and how it was my fault he was shot and died since he was trying to help me get Laurel back. I would always remember him.
It took me the better part of a week to walk to the Red River, and when I got there, I stood on the bank, surveying the scene and looking for a boat. I didn’t see one, which meant, at least for a while, I would have to walk and hope I would come on some way to use the river to get where I wanted to go.
I had walked for about two days when I came upon some lumber that had slipped off a barge and lodged itself in some trees along the shore. I thought I could use it to make another raft. I had taken some rope that Finn had on his boat, and so I set to work lashing the planks together, leaving one out to steer with. I made quick work of my project and loaded my pack and other supplies on the raft. Then I got on myself, and with my plank, pushed out into the current, which was strong.
I was surprised to hear sounds of a city only three hours later, but of course glad to get off my raft, which is not the most elegant way to travel. I pulled it onshore under a bridge and left everything there except for my pistol. I didn’t know what I would find, but I hoped it would be Laurel.
I climbed up the bank, hoping to meet someone who might have seen my wife. I supposed that Garrett came down the river like me, and so I went to the docks. I had forgotten how crowded and noisy cities were, and how many different kinds of people were in them. Most looked hurried or even hostile, which did not surprise me because I knew the conditions there must be bad because of the war, even though they weren’t near enough to Grant’s army for him to make a difference.
I hailed the first fellow I came across, who had the look of a sailor. “I’m from another place and want to see if you’ve seen a woman—blond hair, short, should be traveling with a boy about the age of two.”
The man stopped, and I could immediately tell he had been drinking. A lot. “Can’t say as I have, but if you see a woman, I could use one. Bad.”
“Thank you anyhow.”
I went on, drawing neared and neared the dock. A navy captain came along, and I repeated my request. He thought for a moment and said, “Yes, I do recall seeing someone like that, a couple of days ago. They were with a rather desperate looking character.”
“That’s them! Do you know where they would have gone?”
“They couldn’t go downriver, so they must be somewhere in the city.”
“It’s a big city…”
“I’ll find them,” I said, and headed toward the main street in town. There I was once more assailed by the sound and smell of people in large groups. I looked up and down the street, to no avail. Exhausted by my efforts, I went into a saloon to get something to eat. I did not want alcohol, but hoped they had a good supply of water.
The interior was dimly lit, and some of the characters standing around throwing down drinks didn’t look too savory. I got my food and water and took it to a table. A man sitting at the bar looked over at me. “And what would you be wanting?”
I didn’t want to tell such a person what I wanted, so I said, “I’m looking to join up with the navy.”
He spat. “They call themselves sailors! I could show them a thing or two about that and about killing Yankees. I’ve done in plenty in my time! Why do you want to join that sorry bunch?”
I said nothing, but kept eating. The man stood up and came over. “I asked you a question. Why don’t you answer me?”
I didn’t look up, and he grabbed me by the collar and pulled me to my feet. “I’m talkin’ to you!”
I put down my fork. “I’m listening.”
“I’ll repeat it since you were too good to answer it earlier. Why do you want to join the navy?”
“I want to do my part.”
“That’s no reason.”
“It’s the only one I have.”
He drew back his fist and hit me square in the face. I fell over, and everything went black.
I came to, lying in a dark room, but the room seemed to be moving, pitching from side to side. Where am I? I wondered. I felt my nose. It wasn’t broken that I could tell, but it sure hurt a lot. I raised myself up on one elbow and looked around. From what I could see in the dim light, I was on some sort of ship, a large one judging by the size of the room I was in. I raised myself to my feet and looked for a way out. I saw an opening in the next part of the hull, and went toward that. The deck was above my head, and I couldn’t reach far enough to pull myself out. “Hey!” I shouted. “Help me out of here! Please help!”
About half a minute later, a face appeared. “Who are you?” it asked.
“I’m Caleb Dillard, and I don’t know how I got here. Please help me!”
The man reached down and got me by the wrist and pulled me up. I collapsed on the deck. “Thank you, mister.”
“All right. What were you doing down there?”
“Like I said, I don’t know how I got there. I was having a meal in a bar when this guy came over and didn’t like something I said. He hit me and knocked me out and I woke up in the hold. What short of ship is this?”
“We’re on the Laurel, a blockade runner. We’re on our way to Cuba to pick up some munitions.”
“I can’t go to Cuba! I have to try to find my wife!” It was not lost on me that the ship had the same name.
“We can’t turn back. And we’re short-handed. Do you have any sailing experience?”
“None at all. I was a farmer and a soldier.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll teach you how to be a sailor.”
“I can’t do that. I have to look for my wife!”
“No, sir, someone hit me in a saloon and knocked me out. I woke up on your ship, but I had no intention of doing that.”
“I see. I take it Donovan here has explained that you won’t come back to Shreveport until we’ve finished our business in Cuba and made the return trip.” He looked at me as if I were addled. “I told you we have to get to Cuba. You might as well resign yourself to that fact. Come on, I’ll introduce you to the captain. He likes to know who’s on his ship.”
I followed him to the captain’s cabin. He knocked on the door and went in, apparently after hearing someone that I couldn’t hear. I followed him and found myself looking at a man in a naval uniform and sitting behind a large desk. The man who had pulled me out of the hold saluted. “Captaint Ramsey, I found this fellow in the hold. I don’t know how he got there, and he doesn’t either.”
Ramsey looked me over. “So you don’t know how you got here.”
“Yes, sir, he did.”
“What were you doing in Shreveport?”
“Looking for my wife and son. Someone took them, and I have good reason to believe that’s where they are.”
“Well, a pity that you won’t be able to look for them for a while. Donovan also explained that we need more crew?”
“What do you say to that?”
I smiled ruefully. “Under the circumstances, I’d say I have no choice.”
“You’re right. Any experience being a sailor?”
“None. I was a soldier, and before that, a farmer.”
“Ah, good, although with our needs we’d take a Yankee. We’re have to keep an eye on him, though. We won’t have to do that with you, will we?”
“Good. Donovan here will outfit you and tell you what your duties will be. You’ll be an ordinary seaman, unless you do something extraordinary, in which case you’ll be promoted. Don’t count on it, though. I don’t expect much to happen on this trip. I should say I hope much doesn’t happen on this trip. You are dismissed.”
He saluted, and I reflexively returned his salute. Donovan took me below decks to a storage area where he pulled a uniform out and gave it to me. “Here. This looks like it’ll fit you. Put it on and I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping, and lets you sleep some, and then you’ll have your first lesson in being a seaman.”
He left me alone, and I put on the uniform. My head was spinning with all that had happened to me in the past day. Moment by moment I was becoming further and further away from Laurel, and I did not think that I would see her any time soon.
Donovan showed me where I would be sleeping. “I’ll let you turn in. With the day you’ve had, you need the sleep. I’ll wake you up when it’s time for your lesson.”
“Thank you,” I said.
He waved a hand. “Don’t thank me until you see what you’ll be doing. It’s not easy.”
He left and I lay down. Lulled by the motion of the vessel and exhausted by what had happened to me, I soon fell asleep.