I plunged the rusty can into the murky water in the bottom of our boat and tossed it over the side and then did that again and again without letup. We had been underway for about two hours without seeing anything or anyone on the river or on the banks either.
“It’s about my turn now,” Andrew began and then said, “I think we’re coming up on the first place Murphy told us about.”
I would be glad to take the easier task. “You mean Kingston?” I asked. How can you tell?”
“I see smoke over to the right, and that’s usually a sign of disaster or civilization, either one.”
“They’re about the same thing these days,” I said. “But I think you’re right. So keep on rowing, but be alert for anything that looks like a place where boats come in.”
“You can do the looking,” Andrew countered. “Like I told you, it’s time to switch.”
“Oh. You’re right. I should have known that.
We exchanged places, and as we went around a bend came upon what had to be the town, although it didn’t look like much. The buildings by the river looked like Murphy’s place with their aged, unpainted wood, except there were more of them. The riverfront proper extended for about a hundred yards, and we only saw one steamer tied up. I had no way of knowing if it were the boat that Laurel were taken on, but there was only one way to find out. I hoped it was her boat, but doubted that we had caught up with a steamboat with our need to bail and row at the same time. So we came up to the dock and tied up. I couldn’t see anyone around.
The dock was built for larger boats, and we couldn’t see any way to climb up to it. We sat there for a moment.
“So, what are we going to do?” Andrew asked.
“We need to get up on the dock, and unless you have a rope or have learned to fly recently, we’ll have to wait until someone comes along to help us out. At the very least we can ask when this boat came in. That will tell us if Laurel is on it.”
“I hope she is. I guess we have no choice but to wait.”
“We’ll see. I’m afraid we will have to wait. I’ll try to think of a way to get up there.”
Try as hard as I might, I couldn’t think of any way to get up on the wharf, so we sat there for fifteen minutes, and then I decided this couldn’t be Laurel’s boat, and so we started to make ready to go down the river again. “We might as well keep going,” I told Andrew. “No one’s here, I guess. Get ready to keep going.”
Andrew started to push us off, and I prepared to pull on the oars when a head appeared above the wharf. It was that of a boy about twelve years old. “Hello!” he called. “Who are you?” He looked at us curiously.
“Some travelers in need of assistance. Will you help us?”
He wrinkled his nose. “I meant what are your names? I asked you that already.”
I was irritated to think he wanted our names, wasting time while Laurel went further and further down the river, but I pushed down my ire and said, “I am Caleb and this is Andrew.”
“I’m Hiram. Where are you from?”
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking for my wife. She’s on a boat like the one tied up at the dock. When did it come in?”
“About two hours ago.”
I turned to Andrew. “That has to be her boat!” I went back to Hiram. “Can you find a rope or something you can use to help us get up there?”
“How much will you give me?” He grinned mischievously.
I sighed. “A dollar.” We could afford it, and I really wanted to get up to the boat. I wonder if he made a lot of money from travelers this way.
“Wait there,” he said, and disappeared.
As if we were going to go any place, I thought, but I said, “We’ll be here when you get back.”
Andrew made a face. “Isn’t that obvious that we’ll be here?” he asked.
“Well, it is, but I wanted to say something to him after he asked our names and wanted money. He was wasting our time.
Hiram came back in about a minute with a short ladder that looked as doubtful as the buildings along the wharf. I hope it’ll hold, I thought. I held up my arms to take the ladder.
“The money first,” he insisted. “You don’t pay, you don’t get the ladder.”
I sighed and lowered my arms. “Andrew, throw him up a dollar coin.” He rummaged in his pocket and tossed the coin up. Hiram grabbed it and clamped down on it with his teeth.
“I can never be too sure. I’m thinking of the kind of people I have to deal with.”
“Are you always this difficult, Hiram?”
He shrugged. “I have to be. It’s a difficult life.”
“I’m sure. Now please put the ladder down.”
“All right. Here it comes. Watch out for splinters.”
“So now you’re concerned for my safety.”
“You bet. I might make some more off you.”
And you’re quite the philistine, I thought, but said nothing. He lowered the ladder, while I made sure I had my revolver. “Andrew, you stay here. This shouldn’t take long.” I had no idea how long it would take, but I felt I had to say something.
“All right, Caleb. Be careful.”
I clambered up the ladder and took off running toward the ship. Hiram ran with me. He was surprisingly fast for someone who has such short legs.
“Don’t come with me,” I said. “This might get dangerous. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
“Are you a robber?”
“No, but I was robbed. I have to get my wife back.”
“I think you’re a robber.”
“Think what you want. You’ll see what’s happening.”
Hiram matched me step for step, and as we drew near the ship, we saw a man in a grayish uniform that didn’t look like a soldier’s wear standing at the rail we came up to. “Hello there!” I called, and I saw the uniform was that of a captain of ship. We were in luck. I hoped.
“Good afternoon to you, sir. Captain Anderson of the Tennessee River Steamboat Lines at your service. How may I help you?”
“My name is Caleb Dillard and the young man I am with is named Andrew. I have a question for you. Did you get in about two hours ago from Chattanooga?”
He pushed his hat back on his head. “Aye, it’s for certain we came in about eleven, but we are headed the other way.”
I felt my heart sink. This was not the boat Laurel was on. He saw my look and said, “Is there something on the other boat you wish to see? We passed her about an hour ago, headed downstream.”
“Yes,” I said wearily. “My wife was taken from me and is on that boat.”
“Oh! I am so sorry. I fear I cannot help you since I have to keep to my schedule or else suffer for it. The company is quite strict about these matters.”
“Thank you for the information.” I started to walk off, and then thought of something. I turned back to Anderson. “Captain, how much would it cost to hire your boat long enough to catch up with the other one?”
Anderson considered for a moment. “I’m not sure I would do it for any price. The consequences to me would be dire. I see that you are armed, and suspect that those you took your wife are as well. Your encountering them would result in a dangerous situation that I want no part of. I’ve grown too old for armed confrontations, so I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to find another way. I wish I could help you.”
A great sadness overtook me, followed almost instantly by rage at this development. Something changed deep within me, and I drew my gun and held it on Anderson. He held up his hands.
“Now hold on a minute there, fellow. You be careful with that thing. Someone might get hurt if you don’t put it down.”
I held the gun steady. “I’m desperate enough that I don’t care if I’m careful with it or not. You will take us down river or I will do it myself, if it comes to that, and if you catch my meaning. I will give you a fair price and endeavor to be sure no harm will come to you if you will cooperate with me.” I turned to Hiram, who stood open-mouthed at these developments. “Hiram, go tell Andrew to get up here and bring our supplies. We’re going down river!”
“Can I go, too?” He looked eager.
“No. It’s too dangerous. You might get hurt. What would your parents say?”
“I don’t have any parents.”
I was incredulous. “You don’t have any parents? How can that be? ” I looked at Anderson for confirmation.
“He doesn’t,” He said. He’s what we call a wharf rat who hangs around the docks and tries to get money by any means from people who are passing through.”
I grimaced. “Yes, I know about that. Again, tell me how could he not have parents?”
Anderson chuckled. “That’s what we say, but what we mean is that he never knew who his parents were. They left him in the care of others.”
“Relatives, I assume?”
Anderson shuffled his feet and lookeduncomfortable. “Not exactly. I can’t explain it now.” A look came over his face and he shouted, “We need to get going! Speed is of the essence. Damn the Guard! Full speed ahead!”
The old man was certainly becoming agitated about the matter. I was shocked that he had changed his mind so quickly, and wondered what had caused that. I would surely find out later.
I turned back to Hiram. “You can go with us, but it will be dangerous. Do you understand that you might be hurt or killed.?”
Hiram nodded. “Yessir. How much will you pay me?” I had to smile at the idea that, as serious as the situation might become, he was focused on how much he was going to make out of the experience.
“How about a dollar a day, collectible when this is over, if you’re still alive? Is that fair?”
“No. I got a dollar for bringing you the ladder. And that wasn’t dangerous. I want five dollars.”
“No. Those are the wages for a working man for a week. I’ll give you two. As I was involved in this exchange, I thought, Laurel and Caleb are getting farther and farther away, and I’m standing here arguing about what to pay a twelve-year-old. I never thought I would do that.
“I want four.”
“I’ll go to three. Final offer.”
I gave in. “All right, I’ll do it. It’s still too much.”
“I’m glad you saw the light. That’s fair enough,” he said. “And I’ll be alive when all this is over!” he exclaimed, and ran off to fetch Andrew.
I went back to Anderson. “Can you get this boat underway by yourself, or will we have to wait for the crew to return? I hoped we would be able to get underway with just Anderson and the three of us.”
“Well—” he hesitated and thought for a moment. “The crew’s all gone into town, and I hope they don’t get drunk. They’re the worse bunch I’ve ever had for that. There is the stoker, Brenner, who’s down below. He’s not entirely right in the head, so we make him stay on the boat for his safety—and that of the towns. It takes someone like him to put up with shoveling coal endlessly. It’s a boring, thankless job, but he doesn’t’ know the difference, so it’s a good job for him.”
“In that case, can you and Brenner get this thing going?”
“No, we can’t. Not by ourselves. You and the boys will have to help, but I’ll tell you what to do.”
“We can do that, but can we trust you to take us in the right direction?”
“Just a minute,” Anderson said, and a different sort of look came into his eyes. “I have something in my cabin I want to show you.”
He went back to his cabin before I could say or do anything. I was thinking this was another delay and that Anderson could run off or alert someone, but he came back shortly with what looked to be an old naval officer’s sword hanging from his belt and equally ancient hat that might have fit him years before. Instead, it just perched on his head. He tried to pull the hat further on his head, without much success. He then gave me a salute, which I returned by reflex. “Former Ensign Arthur W. Anderson reporting for duty, sir! What are your orders?”
I was so surprised, I couldn’t say anything, but stood there with my mouth open. I looked over at Andrew and Hiram, and they had the exact same expression. We’re going to catch some flies, I thought, if we keep standing here like this.
I finally recovered and asked Anderson, “You were in the Navy?”
“Yessir. I was a midshipman first, under the command of Captain David Porter of the Essex out of New York in the summer of 1812, right at the beginning of the war. The whole crew was greenhorns, like me, but we soon learned what we were about and what we needed to do when we ran up again our first British ship. We gave them Britons a right hard time, capturing ten of their vessels during that campaign. And during one of those engagements, I saved the Captain’s life, and he promoted me to ensign! Right on the spot! I couldn’t believe it! I served the whole war, but on different ships as one after another either sank or was captured. I thought I was jinxed. I sure was lucky to be alive when it all ended.”
For a while I could think of nothing to say about this. Finally I recovered my wits and said, “That’s a remarkable story.”
“I’d say it is.”
I looked at him and asked, “With all you’ve just said and done, are you declaring with us, then?”
“I surely am! I cannot bear scoundrels, and anyone who would take a man’s wife is the worst of all scoundrels in the world. I was the handiest of men with sword and pistol both, and I pray that I still am.”
“Do you think you still are?”
“I do believe it, but there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there? Engage the enemy board to board and face to face to see who comes out the better. Now let me ask you another question. From the way you returned my salute without thinking, I surmise that you are a member of the military.”
“I am. I was.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I was in the army.”
“For which side?”
“Both. It’s quite a long story that we don’t have time for now.”
He made a face. “We will have to untangle the mystery of your military career at a later date. I suspect it is an interesting one, full of twists and turns. Now we must be about it!”
“First, I must ask one more question. What will the owners of your boat say about your putting in with us? Will you be in serious trouble?”
Anderson swore a colorful oath that reddened Andrew’s face, cursing all owners of enterprises and wealthy men back to Noah and then forward again. “I say hang the owners if they do not see the necessity of what I do. And they would be hard pressed to replace me. It should be obvious to you that an old man such as I am is the last resort of any employer. There would be none to come after me since those who are able are in the war, with the apparent exception of yourself, who has other matters to attend to, or so I believe. I believe I have them right where I want them. Damn them all if they don’t understand!”
His swell of words made me dizzy, but I said, “Well, you are a fine and brave man, Ensign!”
“Hardly! I’m just an old sea dog who hopes he has one more fight left in him. But let’s get to it! Brenner! Brenner! Brenner, I say! Topside! And hurry!”
We heard someone dragging up the ladder, and then a rail-thin man came into view. He was two heads taller than I am, and I am considered to be above the normal in height. I might have met a taller man before, but I don’t think so. How he shoveled coal or chunked wood or whatever they used to make steam was beyond me because he seemed so frail. His arms and legs were extremely thin, and I wondered if he got enough to eat or what he ate or how much. He must have been able to do his duties, or he would not have been in the station he was in, although more than likely the steamboat company was desperate for anyone who could do the job. I don’t know.
“Yessss, Captain,” he half croaked, half hissed. He had an odd way of speaking, as well. I could not place his accent, and finally decided it was a combination of several, and such that I could not tell from whence he came. All that didn’t matter: he would be part of the effort to return Laurel to me. “What is it you require?” he asked. He looked more ancient than Anderson, if that was possible.
Anderson let fly with a volley of oaths this time, and Andrew looked as if he wanted to be any place but where he was. I am used to such language from the army, although I do not hold with it myself, but I was amused at Andrew’s reaction. He was receiving an education of a different sort since he had come to be with us. Hiram made no sign that I could take note of, giving me to think he had been around plenty of people with foul tongues and minds, some of whom no doubt raised him. He was used to it, and simply stood there, not speaking.
“What in the blazes (a term which he most decidedly did not use) do you think I ‘require’? I require you to do your job, your poor excuse for a sea monkey, and do it quickly! Now off with you!” He unloosed a further stream of invective, which had no visible effect on the gaunt fellow before us.
Brenner blinked slowly and said, “Aye aye, Captain.” Then he slowly turned and made his way back down below. A few seconds later, we could hear the scrape and clang of metal on some hard substance from there. I supposed the poor old Brenner was indeed, somehow, shoveling coal. I would have liked to seen him at work, but I had more important things to attend to.
We all followed Anderson to the pilot house, but he turned on us and cursed us soundly again. I do not know if he was in the habit of doing that, or if he was excited by the prospect of military action. “Do you suppose that you can do your part sitting in here?” he asked.” By the gods and all that’s holy, get to your stations!”
At least he didn’t curse us with that, I thought. We stood there, not knowing what to do. I had served aboard a ship, but that one had sails. I had no experience with this sort of vessel.
“Excuse me, Captain,” Andrew said. “I think we don’t know what to do!”
The Captain struck his forehead with his hand. “What a bunch of lubbers are ye! Go on! One of ye to the front to cast off, one to the back to do the same, and you, Mr. Dillard, or whatever your name really is, watch for errant vessels or other obstacles marine, terrestrial and celestial! Step lively, now!”
I had to smile at the idea that anything could come from the sky, save cannon shot, but he must have seen my expression and said, “Don’t be smilin’ there, mister. I once was aboard a ship that was nearly hit by a meteor! It sizzled as it came toward us, but missed the tops’l by a good three fathoms, if my reckoning was correct. It caused a huge splash and a towering cloud of steam. The cloud that the Children of Israel followed must have looked the same. I bet the fishes were surprised. Or parboiled! Hah! But I don’t know that even seein’ it in time would have helped us much. A good twenty feet lower and we would have joined the fish in their fricassee. But enough talk! Cast off fore! Cast off aft! And keep a sharp eye for all manner of things and creations, Mr. Dillard! You know where to look now!”
I found myself smiling again at the way Anderson keep telling us we had to get moving while he made some other comment or told another story. But he had finally gotten down to business.
By this time Brenner had gotten steam up, and Anderson put the wheel over smartly, setting us on a course from the dock to the center of the river. Anderson pulled on the whistle, three long blasts of sounds that rattled my teeth as I was so close to that infernal machine. Anderson laughed madly. “It’s just a little noise!” he called. “We’ll see and hear much worse before this day is over!”
He advanced the engine telegraph to “Full ahead,” and it felt like we were flying on the water. Since we had been on rafts and rowboats, any greater speed seemed more than it was. But I was glad of it. It meant I would have Laurel back sooner.
At the same time, I thought, what have I gotten myself into? Then I thought again, if this crazy menagerie can give me my Laurel back, I am for it. I would sail with the Devil and all his imps to have my wife back at my side. Inspired by this line of thinking, I shouted, “Course on! And the Devil take the hindmost!”
I could see Anderson’s open mouth and hear his laughter over both whistle and engine. My time in the navy was not particularly pleasant, but I could hear myself think under those circumstances. Still, it would be worth a little noise if it enabled me to be with my Laurel again.