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SUMMER OF PEARLS
Port Caddo, Texas 1874
JUDD KELSO FELT AS IF HE HAD JUNE BUGS IN HIS STOMACH. HE STOOD AT the stern of the Glory of Caddo Lake, staring into the muddy waters.
The bayou lay dark and flat as ink in a well. Strange silhouettes of moss and cypress towered around its fringes, raking the dying stars. A pale yellow light reached into the sky from the east, defining the dark, angular shapes of Port Caddo squatting among the pines.
Kelso set his jaw, his facial muscles writhing like animals under his beard stubble. He listened to the sounds of men throwing wood into the furnace, the boat creaking under her load of cotton bales, the cook clanging his skillet down onto his wood-burning stove. He smelled bacon and coffee he knew no one would have a chance to eat or drink. The June bugs crawled in his stomach, and he turned around to study the riverboat.
The Glory of Caddo Lake sat low in the water, her first two decks encased in bales of cotton. A buyer in Jefferson had held the cotton in a warehouse for almost a year, waiting for prices to climb at the cotton exchange in New Orleans. Each bale was worth a few pennies more now, and was on its way to market. Captain Arnold Gentry had takenon as much as the Glory could handle, careful not to swamp her. She was drawing four feet, but the lake was high and the Glory would skim the shoals and plow through the sandbars that lay between her and deep water.
The rousters had stacked bales all the way to the ceiling on the main deck, leaving labyrinth-like passages to the engine room. Then they had stacked more bales on the boiler deck. Cotton completely filled the promenade around the staterooms, blocking the doorways, shutting out the light. The passengers could only enter their rooms now from the doors inside the passenger cabin.
Up the bayou, in Jefferson, Kelso had mused over all the work the rousters put into loading and stacking those balesbales he knew would never reach New Orleans. He had felt a dark power. Now all he felt were the legs of bugs crawling in his guts.
As the first light of dawn struck the high tops of the cypress trees, the whistle blew. Four notes stepped off harmony as they climbed the scale, then a fifth shook windows as it struck an octave below. Roosters croaked feeble replies. Twin columns of smoke boiled from the chimneys and merged high in the morning air. Cords of pine stood on the foredeck, in front of the furnace. Captain Gentry rang the bell, signaling the engineer to throw open the valves and set the big paddle wheel to work.
Judd Kelso felt the nervous flutter in his stomach surge as he walked forward through the narrow passages left between the cotton bales. "You heard the bell," he said to his apprentice as he reached the engine controls. "Back her into the channel."
The apprentice, seventeen-year-old Reggie Swearengen, cracked the valves and fed steam to the twin engines. The riverboat shuddered as the blades of the paddle wheel dipped into Big Cypress Bayou. The Glory backed slowly away from the Port Caddo wharf to the pop and hiss of exhaust valves, rippling the inky bayou.
"Listen for the bells," Kelso ordered as he left the engine room at the stern. "I'm goin' forward."
"Yes, sir," Reggie replied.
Kelso was engineer and mate on the Glory. As engineer, he wasbarely competent, and he knew it. He had little experience with steam machinery. His apprentice had a much better knack for it than he did. He knew just enough about mechanics to keep the steam engines stroking. His real value came in his capacity as mate.
At bossing rousters, Kelso knew he had few equals. The deckhands were muscled-up black men whose scowls alone might wither a timid man. It was Kelso's job to work them as long and as hard as he could without killing them. He gave them no rest when there was work to do taking on freight or fuel, stoking the furnace, or winching the boat over shoals..This was his real job, and he liked it. He thought of the men as little better than animals, and treated them as such.
Kelso stood stump-like in build, shorter than six feet, but weighing over two hundred pounds. His jaws rippled constantly with ridges of muscle as he ground his teeth smooth. The rousters said he had gator eyesmean little beads set at a slant under the ledges of his bony brow. No one on board liked him, but Captain Gentry knew his worth as a driver of men.
Kelso's father had worked as overseer at a big Caddo Lake plantation before the war. Judd had grown up learning where to poke a man to hurt him without ruining him. He remembered watching his father taunt black slaves with a whip. He remembered that same whip stinging him at times. It had made him tough. That's what he told himself. He took pride in meanness, considered it a strength. When rousters fought on his boat, he thought nothing of splitting their scalps with four-foot-long wedges of cordwood. He was worse than his old man in that respect. In his father's time, black men had held value as property. As far as Judd Kelso knew, they were worthless now.
He grabbed the iron capstan bar as he left the engine room and walked forward along the dark corridors formed by the bales of cotton. The majestic old boat creaked and moaned as she backed slowly into the bayou under him. In spite of the June bugs that continued to crawl, Kelso wore a smile on his face. He was going to have a little fun with the stokers.
He found the firemen standing back from the furnace, four-foot lengths of pinewood in their hands.
"Give me fire, damn it! Don't just stand there!"
The black men looked at each other. "She's hot, Mister Judd," one of them said.
"Oh, she is?" Kelso waited until the man turned his face away, then jabbed him hard with the capstan bar, between his rib cage and hip. The black man buckled, and the others reluctantly threw their billets of wood into the furnace.
"Get up, boy!" Kelso said to the injured man. "Stoke the fire! Damn you to tell me she's hot. You ever heard of a nigger engineer? I'm the engineer on this boat, and I want steam."
The stokers chucked in more fuel as the roar of the fire grew. Kelso knew they were hoping he would just go away.
"If you don't want to do your job, I can boot your black asses over the guards right now. I guess it wouldn't make much difference. Your jobs are all goin' to shit anyway."
The stokers glanced at each other and scowled at Kelso without looking him in the eyes. "What you mean, Mister Judd?" one of them asked.
"Haven't you boys heard about the railroads comin'? There's a new one gonna build in from Louisiana, through Marshall and Jefferson. They call it the Shreveport, Houston, and Indian Territory. The S.H. and I.T.!"
Kelso laughed like a rasp, but the stokers just looked at one another, puzzled.
"If you boys could spell," Kelso said, "you'd know S.H. and I.T. makes shit. Like I said, your jobs are all goin' to shit!"
"Yours too, ain't it, Mister Judd?" said the stoker who had been stuck with the capstan bar, now pulling himself back to his feet and grabbing a chunk of wood.
Kelso brandished the iron rod again, but only grinned at the man without using it. "I'm a mite smarter than you. I already got it planned to make my fortune."
"How you gonna do that?" another stoker asked.
"You'll be the first to know, boy. Now, stoke that fire good. The captain wants to show this town some speed. Good for trade."
Four hogsheads of spoiled bacon stood among the cords of firewood. The bacon had gone bad in a Jefferson warehouse. Captain Gentry had bought it cheap to use for quick heat when the Glory needed speed. Kelso pried a lid off one of the barrels and grabbed a hunk of bacon. "Come on, boys. Pour it on!" He threw a few pieces of bacon into the furnace, then brandished his bar at the black men. "We'll need the steam to move all this cotton. Come on, damn it, hurry up!"
The stokers plunged their powerful hands into the stench of putrid bacon. They fought the blistering heat to get near enough the furnace door to throw the fuel in. The bacon fat crackled fiercely as it hit the wood coals and flared.
"Use that whole barrel up," Kelso ordered. "I'll be back directly and it better be empty!" He waved the capstan bar at the stokers. "And sing one of them damn coonjine songs loud enough for the captain to hear. You know he likes to hear you boys sing."
The stokers scowled, but one of them lit into song, hoping Kelso would leave if they started singing. He sang low as a foghorn, and the others grudgingly joined in.
Oh, shovel up the furnace, Till the smoke put out the stars. We's gwine along the river Like we's bound to beat the cars ... .
They continued singing as Kelso disappeared behind the boilers, heading aft. But he paused to listen and make sure the men continued to feed the fire. He could barely hear two of them talking over the singing and the roar of the flames.
"That fool's gonna blow us to hell," one of them said to the other.
"Just listen for them safety valves," the other replied. "They won't let out steam fast enough to keep her from blowin', but if they start talkin', you know it's time to jump."
Judd Kelso grinned, the nervous crawl in his stomach increasing. He passed quickly by the heat of the boilers, until he got aft of them. Then he stopped, the warmth still reaching his back down one of thecorridors of cotton bales. He turned slowly and watched the boilers as he listened to the stokers sing. Poor bastards. They would never know what hit them.
Then he heard it. Above the shuddering of the boat, the hissing of the steam engines, the singing of the firemen, and the crackling of the pork fat, he heard the faint ticking of boiler plates. They were expanding, pulling against their rivets. He eyed the edge of the starboard boiler. Maybe it was his imagination, but he swore he could see it swelling, heaving like a living thing taking in breath. He turned quickly back toward the engine room.
Ellen Crowell rolled out of her berth in her stateroom on the boiler deck. The movement of the boat had wakened her. Feeling her way across the tiny six-by-six room to the window, she pulled the curtains back and saw only shreds of light seeping past the bales of cotton. She had forgotten in her sleep how cotton-imprisoned she was, denied escape to the outer deck in case of an emergency. Her only way out of her stateroom was by the door that led into the saloon. Boats made her nervous. She couldn't swim.
Her son could swim. That gave her some ease. Ben could shame otters. She felt her way back across the tiny room and put her hand on him as he slept in the upper berth. She was taking him to New Orleans to visit family. They had boarded in the night at Port Caddo and waited for hours as the rousters took on wood and the engineer made repairs and adjustments. Now, at last, they were under way.
Ellen knew she couldn't sleep through the vibrations of the steamboat. She put on her robe and opened the door into the saloon. She didn't understand steamboat nomenclature. She was on the boiler deck, but there was no boiler on it. The boilers were below, on the main deck. And this saloon wasn't a saloon at all, but a long, broad hallway running between the two rows of staterooms.
The saloon's piano stood right outside her room. It was a grand pianotoo big for a small steamboat, but Captain Gentry did things in a big way where the Glory was concerned. Her door almost hit the pianobench as she opened it. She didn't know if she liked the piano being there. She could imagine drunken revelers keeping her awake with wild song, every night, all the way to New Orleans. The thin stateroom walls insulated against sound little better than mosquito bars did.
The so-called saloon was quiet, except for the rattle of pots and pans in the galley, where the cook was fixing breakfast. Ellen passed polished hardwood tables and walked a few doors down to the ladies' washroom. She found a community towel on a rack, and even a common toothbrush tied to the washstand by a string. She was glad she and Ben had brought their own towels and toothbrushes.
She tried to calm herself. She had chosen the finest steamer on the lake for their trip. Nothing bad would happen. She looked for something to ease her worries. Tin washbasins were nailed down to the wooden washstand. In them, she found fresh spring water. Now, see there. Most steamers used common bayou water. Yes, she had chosen well.
Billy Treat opened his galley door out onto the promenade and threw a bowl of eggshells over the guardrail, into the bayou. The rousters had left him a gap in the cotton bales on the boiler deck so he could throw refuse overboard. The rousters took good care of Billy Treat. He always cooked double what the passengers could eat. Rousters ate leftovers, and the deckhands of the Glory fed as well as any on the bayou, thanks to Billy.
He lingered at the rail. It was a beautiful morning. Summer coming on. The boat was still backing into the bayou, getting in position to steam down the channel toward Caddo Lake. He listened to the stokers sing the coonjine as his pale blue eyes swept the sky over the cypress tops.
Billy was a stranger to every man in the crew, though he had cooked for them now for a year and a half. They knew him as a courteous fellow, but one who avoided long conversation. Nobody knew where he had come from. He didn't talk about his past. And, though he didn't frown, he rarely smiled, and never laughed. He was youngmaybe thirty. He moved with strength and grace. He had more than his share of good looks. But he was suffering something powerful.
Just as he was about to go back to cooking breakfast, Billy saw the young apprentice engineer, Reggie Swearengen, climbing the guardrails and jigsaw work up to the boiler deck. He enjoyed watching the boy climb recklessly about the boat.
"Good morning, Reggie Swear-engineer," Billy said.
Reggie Swearengen grinned. "Mornin', Billy!" he shouted as he climbed around the cotton bales.
"What are you doing?"
"Kelso told me to lower the yawl."
Billy smirked. "The yawl? What for?"
"Said he wants me to tow him behind the paddle wheel when we get underway so he can look at something."
"Look at what?"
"I don't know," Reggie said, throwing one hand into the air as he clung to the hog chains with the other.
Billy shook his head. "It would be a shame if you should loose your hold on the rope when you were towing him."
Reggie laughed at the suggestion and climbed onto the hurricane deck to lower the yawl.
The Glory continued to back slowly up the bayou as Billy turned back into his kitchen. He tested the heat of the griddle, flicking some water onto it with his fingertips. He heard Captain Gentry ring the bell, giving the signal to stop the engines. He felt the vibrations cease, and heard the coonjine, louder now that the exhaust valves were silenced. The pulleys squeaked as Reggie lowered the yawl to the water.
Billy heard the splash of the yawl as he whipped a wooden spoon through a huge bowl of pancake batter. Now the captain would align the boat with the channel, ring the bell for full speed ahead, and blow the whistle as the Glory of Caddo Lake steamed down Big Cypress Bayou.
The bell rang. Billy waited for the engine-room vibrations. They didn't come. The captain repeated the bell signal. Something was wrong. Putting his pancake batter aside, Billy stepped back out onto the promenade and looked toward the engine room. He saw Reggie climbingdown from the boiler deck and Judd Kelso stepping into the yawl. One of them should have been in the engine room, following the captain's signals. It was Kelso's fault. Reggie was just following orders. Kelso had no business being an engineer.
The entire boat suddenly came alive under him. It felt as if he were trying to stand on a monster gator twisting its prey to death underwater. The air shook with a sound so loud that he heard it with the marrow of his bones, and something hit him in the back with incredible force.
Now the waters of the bayou were all around him, morning-cold. He felt disoriented, couldn't find his way to the top. As he held his breath and waited, hopefully to surface, he realized that he had heard a double blast, absorbed a tremendous percussion. It seemed long ago, but his senses were coming back to him now, and he knew it had just happened. He found the morning glow of the surface above him and swam upward.
Copyright © 2000 by Mike Blakely