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April 28, 1865
As he rested on the narrow hospital cot, Gabe could hear the whispered speculation about the impending investigation into who was to blame. But he barely listened, for he had little interest in the rumors of a Confederate bomb planted near the boilers or in the whispers about bribes passed between Union army officials and the Sultana's captain.
Some part of him realized that perhaps he ought to care whether the steamboat had carried too much weight or had been pushed to an excessive speed, whether the destruction was intentional or the result of gross stupidity. But that part of his mind felt separated, as if it had been walled off behind something lead-gray and impenetrable. None of it really mattered now.
Only the people mattered: the soldiers catapulted from their sleep into the flooded Mississippi, the panicked passengers clutching and then overwhelming the same sinking wooden plank, a woman shrieking frantically as five crewmen?her own husband among them?abandoned her in a small boat used to sound the channels.
Yes, the people mattered, and certain people mattered to him even more. One woman and three men. A tiny fraction of the hundreds, perhaps even thousands, aboard the overcrowded vessel. But so was a heartbeat a tiny portion of what made up a man. Tiny but so crucial, something that he couldn't live without.
He covered his eyes with bandaged hands, as if that action might blot out the pain of all that he had seen. But darkness afforded him no mercy, for memory is made up of far more than a man sees. As he lay beneath a crisp white hospital sheet, his body trembled with the smells of what hadhappened, the acrid odors of burning wood and coal, the sickly, meatlike stench of roasting flesh. And even more insufferable were the sounds that rose up like specters from a thousand moonlit graves: the muttered prayers and curses, the wrenching pleas and screams?all nearly drowned out by the almost deafening explosion, by the thunder on the river, in the waning days of war.