“Diamond Courage,” Part 40

 

Chapter 40

Return

March,1863

The next morning, we arose, and made our way to the church, only to be told that the minister’s wife was no better, and that we should try again the next day. We repaired back to our room, where I fell into a brown study. Andrew did his best to cheer me.

“Let’s go walking. We may uncover something.”

“I did that yesterday, to no avail.”

“That was yesterday. Today is a new day.”

He finally managed to convince me that my mood would not improve if I stayed in the room dwelling on my loss, so after we had lunch, we went once again into the streets. After an unfruitful hour, I said to him, “You may continue if you wish. For my part, I am going to return to the hotel.”

“I will keep looking,” he said, “and I hope I shall return with good news.”

I left him, walking the distance of ten blocks we were from the hotel. As usual, the streeets were jammed with all kinds of people headed in every direction. I stopped to rest for a moment, and a man dressed in a uniform I did not recognize accosted me. “Are you Caleb Dillard?” he asked, looking at a piece of paper in his hand.

“I am he.”

“I am Lieutenant Marlow of the Provost Office. I require you to return with me to the Laurel.  You did not return by the end of your leave, and I was sent to find you and bring you back. Where is your uniform?”

“I had business that required I not wear it.”

“I cannot conceive what business that would be, but no matter. You shall have another uniform, but you must face the captain’s justice.”

“I must stay here!”

He took me by the arm. “You will come with me,” he said, and since he was bigger and, I could tell, stronger than I, I went with him.

“Let me at least tell my friend what has happened to me.”

“I must have you back to the captain as soon as possible, with no delays.”

I could see that arguing with him was fruitless, so I kept silent as we made our way to the ship. We arrived soon enough and went on board. Seaman Donovan stood at the top of the gangplank. “Here’s the one we were looking for,” Marlow said. “He’s all yours.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. We’ll take care of him, if you know what I mean.”

Both Marlow and Donovan laughed at this, but I failed to see the humor in it. Marlow turned to go down the gangplank, while Donovan took me by the arm. “It’s the brig for you, Dillard,” he said. “The captain will deal with you later.”

He took me down below decks, and thrust me into a small cabin, put me in shackles, and left me in the dark. He didn’t say how long I would be there, or what my punishment might be. Not being able to look for Laurel was punishment enough, I thought.

As I sat there in the dark, I thought about all that had happened since the war started. I felt that I had survived for a purpose, and that purpose was to be a good husband to Laurel and a good father to Caleb. If that was my purpose, why was I apart from them? I occupied myself with these thoughts and with tears until, exhausted, I fell asleep.

***

I cannot say how long I slept, or was in a collapsed state, but I could no longer see daylight through the bars in my door. It must be evening or later, I thought. It occurred to me that I was hungry and wondered when I might be fed. As if in answer to this thought, I heard a key turning in the door, which opened to reveal a seaman holding out a tin plate and cup to me. I tried to reach it, but couldn’t. “You’ll have to bring that closer,” I said. “I can’t reach it.”

He sneered. “We couldn’t reach you, so you try to reach this.” The plate and cup were just out of reach of my grasping hand. “Please—,” I started to ask him again to move it closer when the door slammed and was locked. I could barely see my food, and wondered what I would do. I wouldn’t starve overnight, but the pangs of hunger were becoming worse. I thought, and finally decided to see if I could move one of my legs, shackled as they were, enough to move the plate over. I stretched and strained and although the manacles cut into my legs, I was able to slide the plate over so I could grasp it with my hands. I was less successful with the cup, spilling about half of it as it jerked along the rough flooring, but I had my food! I didn’t care what it was as long as it was edible, and although it seemed half rotten, it felt good to have something in my stomach. I might become sick from eating it, but I was no longer hungry.

I finished what had been brought to me and lay back, contemplating the empty hours in darkness. I knew the captain would have to see me at some point, and prayed that would be sooner rather than later so I would know what would happen to me, although as late as it must have been, I would probably have to wait until the morrow to know anything.

I lay in my cabin for a long time, wishing to fall sleep, but not having that happen for what must have been hours. Finally, mercifully, I drifted into sleep and slept dreamlessly and well from exhaustion, I am sure.

I was awakened by the sound of a key in the lock to the door of my cabin. The same seaman who brought me my food the night before pushed a tin plate toward me, and then a tin cup filled with some liquid. This time he put it near enough that I could reach it easily. “Thank you for putting that so I could reach it this time,” I told him.

“I want you to be able to eat so the captain won’t have to punish a starving man.”

“Do you know when the captain will see me?”

“Do I look like him? When he’s good and ready, that’s when. You’ll just have to wait!” With that, he slammed the door and locked it. I could hear him as he walked away, cursing at deserters and miscreants.

I ate the pork and hardtack that constituted my breakfast and drank the brackish water in the tin cup. I then lay down again to await what might happen next. Judging from its motion, the ship must be on the high seas, and moving fast. That was certainly an asset for a blockade runner.

A couple of hours later, I sat up and, stiff from not moving, tried to stretch my limbs as best I could. While I was doing this, I heard the key in the lock again, and the door opened to reveal Seaman Donovan, who was more civil than the seaman who brought my me meals. “The captain will see you now,” he said. “I’ll take your manacles off now, and I would advise you not to try to escape by jumping overboard. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, we’re miles from land, and these waters are filled with sharks.”

“Since you put it that way, I won’t try,” I told him. “You will have no trouble with me.”

He conducted me to the captain’s cabin, which I knew the whereabouts from my time on the ship earlier. I ducked my head to go through the hatch, and came upon Captain Ramsey sitting at his desk, signing some papers. He looked up when he had finished and said, “Ah, Seaman Dillard. You’ve given us quite a chase. What were you doing?”

“Looking for my wife and son.”

“Did you succeed?”

“If I had, I wouldn’t be here.”

“Precisely. You know that I am able to punish you however I wish. The captain is the absolute authority aboard his ship.”

I dropped my head. “I am aware of that, sir.”

“What have you to say for yourself?”

I stood up straight. “I’d do the exact same thing, except I would find my family.”

I heard Donovan take in a sharp breath, but Ramsey smiled. “If my family were missing, I would do as you have done. Nonetheless, my estimation of that does not matter. You have violated a naval regulation, and must be punished.”

“I understand, sir. I await whatever punishment you give me.”

“I could have you put into prison when we return to Shreveport.”

“I’ve been in prison already, sir. I know about that.”

“Really? Did you lead a life of crime before the war?”

“No, sir. I was captured in an action at Fairfax Station in the northern part of Virginia and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, D.C. It’s not too far from the White House.”

Ramsey looked pensive. “I see. I did not know that you served in the army. How did you come to be here?”

“It is a long story and one I shall tell you some time, but the long and short of it is that I was trying to keep my family safe.”

“So you brought them to Shreveport.”

“If they are there, and I believe they are, someone brought them there.”

“And who would that someone be?”

“I believe it was a man named Garrett. Somehow my family got away from him, and I believe they might be in a home for desperate women in Shreveport.”

Ramsey’s expression softened. “That is remarkable, but I still must punish you. In light of all you have suffered, your punishment is to wear leg irons during the day for the remainder of the voyage. I will have them remove so you can sleep and so that others around you can as well. Do you have any questions?”

“No, sir. That is a most generous sentence.”

Ramsey sighed. “It would be different if I had more men, but, as you know, I don’t. Serve out your sentence, and you’ll have three days once again to look for your family. I wish you well with that. You’re dismissed.”

I saluted him, as I had been taught to do so long ago. He returned my salute, and went back to the work on his desk. Donovan went with me back to the brig to put the leg irons back on. “I have never heard of such a thing happening. The captain is known for his swift and just punishments, but he did none of that with you. You are a lucky man.”

“That I am, and I wish some of that luck would extend to finding my family.”

“Now that I’ve heard more of your story, I hope it does as well.”

Back in the brig, Donovan put the leg irons back on, and took me to my first work assignment, which was coiling ropes and putting them in their storage area. I did not mind this task since I was out in the sunshine and open air. And so we continued on our course for Cuba

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