Take the Hindmost
As we steamed down the river, I still marveled at how fast we were going. The trees and fields on either side seemed to blur, although I knew that was because of my lack of experience with such speed. They were in reality the same as they always had been. Of course, I was used to boats either rowed or carried by the current, and since we were moving downstream, the efforts of the engine were added to those of the river itself. That was wonderful, since our velocity meant we would catch up with the boat carrying Laurel more quickly. I kept having that thought, but I could not keep myself from it. And what we would do when we came upon them, I do not know. I would have to think of something, but I knew I was determined to have her back, no matter what it took on my part and whatever it cost me.
With the boat underway and Anderson commanding, there was little to do until we encountered the other boat. Andrew and Hiram came to me from their stations, and we sat on the deck together. Hiram, still kept a sharp lookout for anything that might be a danger to us. I found myself still curious about the boy.
“You say you don’t have any parents. What happened to them?”
“I don’t know. I never saw them.”
“How could that be? You had to have been around them at some point, or someone must have told you about them.”
He looked at me sternly. “I came to awareness when I was about three, on the wharf. No parents, no home, no nothing.”
“How did you survive?”
“Some ladies who lived near the docks took some small care of me and made sure I didn’t starve. It was the most they could do, given their station They also taught me to talk, but that was about it. They were too busy to teach me to read and write.”
“What was their occupation?”
“You have seen enough of the world to know what women do whole live near the docks and wharves of the world.”
“Ah, yes I do.” I thought for a minute and then said “So you don’t’ read or write?”
“I know a few letters, and I can recognize words by their shapes, if I’ve seen them enough, but otherwise, that’s all it amounts to.”
“It’s remarkable you’ve survived. How do you eat?”
He shrugged again. “Sometimes people give me what they don’t want. It’s amazing what they throw away. Other times I simply take it.”
“You steal food, then.”
“That’s what it’s called. It’s either that or starve.”
“Why did you come with us? You didn’t have to put yourself in danger. There’s no sense in it!””
“I like a good fight, and I have a feeling that’s what this one is going to be, for sure, like none I’ve ever seen before. I’ve been in plenty of fights, but it was with other wharf rats, and it was with fists or sticks or rocks. I’ve never fought where there were guns involved.”
“It’s an entirely different matter. Here’s some advice: try not to get shot.”
“I gather that’s the general idea. I’ll do my best”
“Anyhow, I appreciate your help more than you’ll ever know.”
“Yes, well, you’re missing your wife and son, so you don’t have a family right now, and I never had a family, so we’re alike, except you’ll get your wife back.”
‘You sound certain of that.”
“I know certain things. It might sound odd, but I think it’s a gift given me to make up for not having a family.”
“I surely hope you’re right. It would be wonderful if you were.”
“I know I’m right. You can count on it.” With that, he lay down on the boards of the deck, pulled his hat over his eyes and fell asleep.
“I wish I could do that,” Andrew said softly. “I’m really nervous about what’s going to happen.”
“That just shows you have some sense, but you heard Hiram. Nothing’s going to happen, and we’re going to have Laurel and Caleb back and all go home.”
“Yes, to your home. I don’t have a home or family any more.”
What Andrew said caught me up short. It had never occurred to me that he, like Hiram, was an orphan. Except now their little band was a kind of family with me.
Andrew looked doubtful about our chances in the upcoming fight. “I wonder. There’s six of them and they’re all men. We have you and me and a kid and an old sailor and someone who’s not right. I’d say those are not very good odds.at all”
“Yes, well, it’s funny, but I really do believe Hiram when he says he has a gift. There were people near where we lived who had that, and they were almost always right.”
“You said ‘almost.’ It seems to me that leaves room for doubt.”
“You can doubt if you want to. I choose to believe.”
Andrew lay down and pulled his hat over his face, “I choose to have a nap,” he said from underneath the brim. And that’s how he finished out discussion about the fight.
I knew I should have tried to try to rest before the upcoming encounter, but I went back to the wheelhouse where I found Anderson relaxed and whistling a tune I did not recognize.
“You’re awfully happy,” I told him.
“Yes, the thought of seeing some action takes me back to when I was a lad. It’s exciting.”
“What song were you whistling when I came in?”
“It’s ‘Buffalo Gals.” Have you ever heard of it?”
I shook my head. “Can’t say as I have.”
“We’ll have to work on your knowledge of music. It’s sorely lacking.”
“Maybe we can do that later, if we have time. How long do you think it will take us to catch up to them?”
He studied the shoreline, I suppose to gain an idea of our speed, and then he said, “I’d say about five hours. Plenty of time to get ready.”
“Do you have a plan? Because I know I surely don’t.”
He nodded. “I do. We carry about ten rifles, in case of trouble. I take it you know how to use one.”
I nodded and he smiled. “Yes, a man your age would be in the military on one side or another. I won’t ask you which. It doesn’t matter to me.”
“Actually, I’ve been on both sides. And in the Confederate navy.”
“Now, that sounds like quite a story. You’ll have to tell it to me some time when this is over.. After we rescue your wife, I mean.”
“Yes, yes. So what do you intend on doing?”
He seemed lost in thought for a minute or so, and then he said. “I figure we can come up on them in the middle of the river and rake them with rifle fire to try to force them into the shallows with the idea that they’ll run hard aground.”
“All right. And then what do we do?”
“We board her and it’s every man for himself. That’s the dangerous part.”
“You know I don’t want my wife or son hurt.”
“I can’t guarantee anything at all. If you want her back, you’ll have to take that risk.”
“Yes, I suppose do. Say, you still have a military mind, don’t you?”
He smiled. “Yes, I do. It’s been years and years, but there are some things you never ever forget. Say, would you mind steering for a while? I’m not as young as I used to be, and we left my second in command back in town.”
“Surely I can do that.”
“Here you go. It’s pretty simple. Do you think you could keep it between the banks in the wet part? Ha, ha, ha! That’s good! ‘Keep it between the banks in the wet part!’ I am so amusing, even if I do say so.”
He went over to the hatch and disappeared down the ladder, probably to take a nap, I thought. He was different, but I was glad he was on my side.
Steering down the center of the river with the sun out and the temperature balmy, I had a chance to think for the first time in a while. I did not know what we would do once Laurel and Caleb were freed. There seemed to be no good options that I could see, but maybe Anderson knew what he was talking about. If he didn’t, something would turn up.