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I swung myself down from the seat of the canvas-covered freight wagon, the steady rain streaking my face when I looked up to take my leather bag from the driver's hand. "It's over there," the driver said. "Other side the stables."
Daylight was almost gone, but I could read the irregular white lettering along the side of the building: LIVERY FEED & SALE STABLE. I hurried on through the rain that pattered upon my wide-brimmed hat and was soaking my linen duster, STEEVER HOUSE, the sign read, in the same uneven characters that were painted on the wall of the livery stable. Built of logs and rough planking, the hotel was two floors high but not much wider than the length of the wagon I'd been riding in all day. It appeared to be leaning against the rain-laden wind. No lights showed in the windows, and when I reached the wooden sidewalk, I saw a shingle sticking in a crack between the double doors. The word Closed was scrawled in shoe-blacking across one side of the shingle.
Swearing aloud, I turned and started back toward the livery stable. A large man wearing an India-rubber poncho that could have been military issue loomed out of the darkening weather, halting a few steps in front of me. "Looking for lodging, mister?" the man asked. His voice was disembodied, the sounds rolling as though he were speaking inside a cave. I attributed this to the atmosphere, but nevertheless felt an eerie sense of unease.
"I was hoping to stay the night at the Steever House," I told him.
"Closed," the man replied.
"How much longer?"
"Some days, I expect. They left this afternoon, Miss Nettie and her both, to go upriver to that new fort." He paused and then said slowly as though the words he spoke held some secret significance: "They were sent for." He shook rivulets of rain from his shiny black sleeves and stepped closer. He was peering at me, wanting to see more clearly, and in doing so revealed for the first time his own face illuminated by flashes of distant lightning. His eyes were set in deep sockets so that I could discern no glint in them. A short heavy beard covered the sides of his face except for a long ugly scar from ear to chin that was like a burned brand on his left cheek.
"I said they left," he added offhandedly in his hollow voice, "but they're still down there on the steamboat. It's tied up for the night because of the storm."
He made a slight gesture toward his right, and I turned so that I could see the indicated black fringe of cottonwoods slanting away from the settlement. "The boat landing's down there?" I asked.
The man nodded. "You could sleep back here in the stables," he suggested mildly.
"Thanks, but I'll try the boat." I shifted my bag to the other hand and started down the sloping road toward the river, my boots sinking to the ankles in mud.
I cursed the weather and the Saint Louis Herald. In my mind I composed a scorching letter to the editor whom I'd worked for during three years of war. As soon as the fighting was finished, he'd had the gall to send me up the wretched Missouri River in search of more stories of conflict and gore. Oh, I'd seen worse than this Dakota weather and the greasy eating places and bug-ridden inns along the river, far worse I'd seen and endured from Shiloh to Vicksburg and Chickamauga and Atlanta and following Sherman to the sea. But I was past thirty and ready to settle down in Saint Louis and marry that pretty German girl out there at Belle Fontaine. She wasn't going to wait around forever while I gallivanted back and forth across the states and territories of the Republic.
A gust of wind splashed raindrops against my neck, and a cold wetness seeped down my collar. But before I could raise more self-pity for my miseries, the fights of the steamboat at the landing came into view. Below a pair of tall smokestacks, running lanterns along the side of the pilothouse cast a glow upon a recently varnished nameplate. "The Roanoke!" I yelled out, after a moment of refusing to believe my first stroke of good luck in weeks, and went sliding and splashing down through the muck to a crude platform of logs that was the loading dock.
I called to the startled deckhand posted on a packing box nearest the gangplank: "Is Captain Enoch Adams on board this boat?" He roused up from a half sleep, unwilling to accept that anyone would appear out of such weather in so lonely a place to board the Roanoke. He told me that Captain Adams would likely be on the saloon deck and then he let me come aboard, offering a gunny sack to wipe the mud from my boots. As I climbed the companionway the sound of music became audible, a melodeon. Someone was playing "There's a Good Time Coming," and when I reached the entrance to the central lounge, a strong baritone voice sang out the last stanza. I stowed my bag against the wall and stood there a moment, letting my eyes grow accustomed to the yellow lamplight. The melodeon player was a young woman in a scarlet-and-white-striped dress, her back to me, very slim-waisted, her reddish hair netted and decorated with a bunch of artificial purple violets. Standing beside the melodeon and looking fondly down at the young woman was a lieutenant colonel in a neat new blue uniform. For a moment her face was in profile as she exchanged a few words with the lieutenant colonel, and then she began playing spiritedly again, accompanying herself in a fine mezzo-soprano:
Some folks like to sigh,
Some folks do, some folks do.
Although the lounge was crowded, there were the usual three or four passengers moving around the edges of the attentive audience. A stout thick-necked man crossed between me and the melodeon, blocking my view of the young woman. The lieutenant colonel joined her in the chorus:
Long live the merry merry heart
That laughs by night and day,
Like the Queen of Mirth,
No matter what some folks say.
The face of Captain Enoch Adams, clean-shaven except for a drooping moustache, his hair grayer at the temples than when I'd last seen him in Saint Louis, suddenly materialized before me. "Sam," he said, offering his hand, "I had no idea you were at Bell's Landing." Neither his voice nor his looks conveyed any hint of surprise at my unanticipated presence, but I'd learned during the war that the captain rarely showed any reaction to the unexpected, or revealed any emotion publicly. When he was master of the late lamented Effie Deans, I'd made three wartime journeys with him, and although we'd endured a number of surprising, indeed dreadful experiences, I never saw him exhibit any evidence of excitement except possibly an occasional brightening of the color in his otherwise mild blue eyes when events were at their most perilous.
The nearest he ever came to betraying his feelings toward me was one evening on the Tennessee River when he suggested that I call him Enoch instead of Captain Adams, but he'd been through a very trying day and had consumed more than his usual one glass of bourbon. After all, he was old enough to be my father, and I could never bring myself to address him other than by his title.
"The editor of the Saint Louis Herald put me here, captain," I explained. "May God forgive him."
"I suspected as much. You'll be wanting shelter against the weather, I suppose."
"Judging from the crowd," I said, "you must be filled up. If so, I'll sleep below."
He turned and pointed a thumb and forefinger at a rosy-cheeked Irish lad who was wearing a sort of brass-buttoned uniform to indicate that he was the Roanoke's steward. The music of the melodeon had stopped and the audience was beginning to disperse.
I could not hear what Captain Adams said to the steward, his words being drowned out by the sudden laughter of the young melodeon player. She had pressed between the captain and me and was crying out in a husky, almost breathless voice: "You did say that I might invite someone to accompany me to the captain's table this evening, did you not, Captain Adams?"
The captain's manner changed instantly. The old rascal almost simpered, but he was not quite as far gone as the fawning lieutenant colonel. "Why, yes indeed, Miss Kathleen," he stammered.
"Then I've chosen Colonel Harris for my table escort."
"Lucky fellow, you, colonel." The captain smiled at Harris, and then winked at her. "I'd hoped that I'd be your choice," he said softly, as he regained his composure.
"Why, sir, you're the host," she objected. Her red-and-white dress twirled as she spun half around, her green eyes looking into mine.
The captain turned back to me. "Sam, I want you to have the privilege of knowing our loveliest and most accomplished passenger. Mrs. Kathleen Hardesty. Mr. Samuel Morrison." I thought her response was something special for me, but I soon came to know that she had a way of making her eyes lock into the eyes of whatever male happened to be exchanging looks with her. After I'd managed to murmur a word or two, our eyes unlocked, yet she continued to survey me with as intent a scrutiny as I've ever received from a woman. It was as if I were being measured, although I was flattered to hear her husky voice saying: "I greatly admire journalists, Mr. Morrison, they are such interesting gentlemen."
There was about Mrs. Hardesty an odor of peppermint, which was just right for her. As she swept away from the captain and me, her red-and-white-striped dress enveloping her lithe figure gave her the appearance of a peppermint candy stick. She glanced back at me once with those measuring green eyes and went off with the lieutenant colonel in the direction of the ladies' staterooms.
Captain Adams and his steward put me up in the last available cabin, both apologizing for its crowded condition. It was half filled with tins of imported biscuits bound for some Scottish fur trader at one of the forts upriver. The captain had stored them in the empty cabin to keep them dry.
"If I hadn't had this stateroom," he explained, "I would've stacked them in my quarters. Old McLeod can't abide a soft biscuit, and they would dampen down below."
The steward made a neat row of the tin boxes along the upper bunk and placed the remaining ones along the wall opposite, leaving me just enough space to get to the washstand and crawl into the lower bunk. "Your bed will be made during the dinner hour," the steward promised.
"Yes, and you'll dine at my table, Sam," the captain added. "About twenty minutes from now."
After they'd gone I washed up and chose my least-soiled shirt from the bag. For a few moments the sound of rain drumming on the hurricane deck made me sleepy, but then I thought of Miss Peppermint and her green eyes and of how I would soon be looking into them again at Captain Adams's dining table.
Fortuity, a deviation from our usual routines, the accidental crossing of pathways—what remarkable effects they have upon us bungling human beings. Chance had saved my life more than once during the war, and on this night, when I might have been enduring the discomforts of a dreary livery-stable loft, chance had closed the Steever House and brought me that mysterious stranger in the India-rubber poncho to tell me in his hollow voice of the presence of a steamboat at Bell's Landing. And chance had somehow brought me Miss Peppermint, only she was not Miss Peppermint, she was Mrs. Kathleen Hardesty. And why Mrs. Kathleen and not Mrs. John or Thomas or Something-or-other Hardesty? And what was she up to, being so cozy with Lieutenant Colonel Harris?
I suppose I was a bit giddy for lack of decent food during the past day or two. Anyway when I stepped out of my cabin into the aromas of soups and fishes and roasts, I dismissed Mrs. Peppermint partially from my mind and thought mainly of feasting. And do not the wise men say that food and romance are complementary?
On the Roanoke the lounge between the gentlemen's cabin and the ladies' cabin was used as a dining room as well as a dance floor. The captain's table was forward, opposite the melodeon and nearby the pantry door. Captain Adams was already seated, with Mrs. Hardesty and Lieutenant Colonel Harris on his left and two empty chairs on his right. He motioned me to the chair at the end opposite him, so that Mrs. Hardesty was very close to my right elbow, the table being an undersized one as are most dining tables on small steamboats.
Mrs. Hardesty was frisky and exuberant, chattering about the stormy weather and how positively exhilarated she was by lightning and thunder. She was stopped only by the approach of the captain's remaining two guests, and when I rose to greet them I received another pleasant surprise.
They were Dr. Konrad Lieber and his wife Emilie, acquaintances from Saint Louis. Lieber was an excellent physician and an accomplished musician, a violinist. He must then have been in his mid-forties, but his sandy, neatly trimmed beard showed no trace of gray. When he was a young boy he and other members of his family had emigrated from Germany to Saint Louis, but he had returned to that country for his medical education. Later he had married into one of the wealthy fur families of Saint Louis, the Chenaults. Although Emilie Chenault Lieber was reserved in manner and rather plain in appearance, with her mouse-colored hair parted in the middle and rolled into a tight bun at the back, beneath the surface she was quite jolly and agreeable, and a woman of some passion. Before the war the Liebers held weekly musicales in their home overlooking the Mississippi River, and I had been fortunate enough to be invited to several of them. Indeed, it was at the Liebers' that I met that pretty German girl from Belle Fontaine, whom I intended to make my wife if the editor of the Herald would only cease sending me to wars and frontier imbroglios.
As Lieber settled into the chair nearer me, he remarked in an exaggerated jesting tone that he often used: "Captain Adams gave Emilie and me fair warning that you had come aboard." He spoke English with a slight accent that thickened only when he became angry or excited.
"We're pleased that you've joined us, Mr. Morrison," Emilie Lieber said, leaning closer to her husband so that I might hear her soft voice above the clatter of the diners. "I suppose your newspaper is sending you upriver to compose a piece about the commemoration at Fort Rawley."
"Beg pardon, ma'am," I replied, "but I must confess my ignorance of a fort named Rawley or a commemoration."
"And you a newspaper writer!" Mrs. Hardesty cried out, and laughed teasingly into my right ear. "You're supposed to know everything."
Captain Adams defended me. "Our scribbler has been out on the Plains in pursuit of the Indian treaty makers and the nefarious railroad builders. The first that any of us heard of this memorialization was after you left Saint Louis, Sam."
"Do I receive an acquittal this time?" I asked Mrs. Hardesty, but turned quickly away from her bottomless green eyes. "Rawley, Rawley? Isn't he that big wartime senator from Ohio?"
"Yes, but it's his son who is being honored." Dr. Lieber brushed his fingers across the close-clipped sandy beard on his chin. "I was the army surgeon at Fort Standish when Major Rawley was there. The War Department is naming the replacement fort in his honor. They insisted that I be there for the occasion."
Out of my memory of the war I recalled something about Senator Rawley's son. At the time I had been following the Union army in Tennessee but I'd read about Charles Rawley and Fort Standish in a packet of newspapers that came from Saint Louis. A battle with the Indians somewhere in Dakota. Killdeer Mountain. Senator's Son Charged with Cowardly Conduct Under Fire. That was how I remembered it.
"Wasn't he court-martialed?" I asked Lieber.
"No, no, it never came to that. An inquiry only. He later redeemed himself entirely."
Emilie Lieber smiled at me. "Konrad is always the modest one. Everybody credited him with restoring young Charles Rawley's faith in himself. You should see the letter of thanks he received from Senator Rawley."
Lieutenant Colonel Harris was pouring wine into our glasses. "The commemoration surely is worthy of your reportorial pen, Mr. Morrison," he said. "I was sent from Washington by President Johnson to represent the White House."
"Ah, yes," Captain Adams agreed. "Several of the high and mighty of our Republic will be there, Sam."
"Are they aboard the Roanoke?" I peered at the tables across from us.
"A few. But the main party is on the Deer Lodge. They left three days ahead of us. I'm told that Senator Rawley and his entourage occupy half the staterooms aboard the Deer Lodge."
Excerpted from Killdeer Mountain by Dee Brown. Copyright © 1983 Dee Brown. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 9, 2013
Posted November 12, 2012
Posted November 12, 2012