Life, Death, and the River
By 1863 control of the Mississippi and Red Rivers has become vital to the Confederate cause. Cotton must reach their European allies so the Confederacy can buy desperately needed war materiel. On the Red River, Union forces work furiously to free navy ships from shallow waters so they can be used to harass Confederate vessels, while downriver a vigilant Confederate force readies to engage them.
Between the two armies, at the confluence of the two rivers, sits a rich prize, a vast plantation run by young, beautiful Mrs. Hawkland. At any moment Union or Confederate forces could seize her land and set fire to her home to prevent the enemy from doing so first. Confederate officer Jamie Russell comes to her plantation by chance, only to find that that she is no stranger; his dreams of their brief but passionate encounter fill his nights as war fills his days.
As the river conflict rushes inexorably to a violent climax, their two fates are drawn into the maelstrom of the war that irrevocably will change them both. . .
About the Author
A life-long resident of New Mexico, P.G. Nagle has a special love of the outdoors, particularly New Mexico's wilds, where many of her stories are born. Her Far Western Civil War series of novels includes Glorieta Pass, The Guns of Valverde and Galveston.
Nagle's work has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and in several anthologies. Her short story “Coyote Ugly” was honored as a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Award.
Read an Excerpt
…on the 1st instant I ordered Colonel Charles R. Ellet, in the ram Queen of the West, Captain Sutherland, commander, to run the batteries at Vicksburg and destroy the steamer City of Vicksburg, lying before that city.
David D. Porter, Acting Rear-Admiral,
U.S. Navy Commanding Mississippi Squadron
Nat Wheat glanced up from the cramped space between the wall and the wheel in the Queen of the West's pilot house, peering anxiously toward the southeast where the sky over Vicksburg was lightening with the coming dawn. He was sweating despite the February chill that hung wisps of damp over the Mississippi River. Partly it was due to the work, but mostly to the knowledge that this task had taken far too long.
His gaze fell on Adams, the junior of his two mates, crouched in the nearby corner waiting to assist. The negro was a good carpenter but Nat was uncomfortable around him and just now he had no patience to spare. "Step outside, Adams. There is not enough room here for both of us."
Adams looked up, dark eyes meeting his gaze briefly, then without a word picked up his toolbag and went out onto the hurricane deck. Nat felt a stab of annoyance with himselfhe had spoken rather curtly, which Adams did not deservebut there really was room only for one to finish adjusting the wheel.
Nat was the Queen's carpenter, and he and his mates had been hard at work since 4:30 A.M. restoring the wheel to its proper place after having moved it down behind the bulwarks the day before. Colonel Ellet had hoped the change would provide better protection for the pilot, but when the ram had started forward toward Vicksburg in the dark of early morning it had been discovered that the wheel could no longer be handled with sufficient accuracy. Nat had tried to tell Ellet this would be the result, but the colonel had been adamant. Ellet was youngonly nineteen, while Nat was twenty-fourand though his intentions were good he was sometimes impetuous and unwilling to listen to advice. It was a family trait, Nat thought with a grimace.
He checked the seating of the rudder cable on the pivot, then gripped one of the spindles and played the wheel back and forth a bit. Satisfied, he got to his feet and glanced toward the bench where the pilot, Mr. Long, sat reading a St. Louis newspaper. Nat took advantage of his inattention to grasp the wheel, enjoying for a moment the feel of the polished wooden spindles in his hands, the view of the river before him as he stood in the pilot's place, the place he wished was his. The growing dawn light to the east reminded him of his duty and he gave the wheel a final turn, then shouldered his toolbag and stepped out onto the deck. He noticed Adams sitting on one of the cotton bales that had recently been added to the hurricane deck to protect the pilot house and companionway from sharpshooters, but his attention was drawn to Colonel Ellet, who came quickly toward him.
"Well?" demanded the colonel.
Charles Rivers Ellet, trim and dashing in his high-collared coat and feathered hat, was the son of the man who had hired Nat. His father, Charles Ellet, had conceived the idea of a river fleet of rams, built it for the army, and led it to victory in the Battle of Memphis in the summer of 1862. This triumph, however, had cost him a shattered knee, and his refusal to have the leg amputated had cost him his life. Command of the ram fleet had fallen to his brother, Colonel Alfred Ellet, who on attaining a general's rank had in turn handed the fleet over to his nephew. All of the Ellets were contentious and stubborn, qualities that reminded Nat of his own father.
"Almost," he said to Ellet, and stepped to the side of the boat, looking down toward the main deck where his other mate, Sperry, was waiting. On Nat's signal Sperry went into the engine room to observe the movement of the rudder arm. Nat returned to the pilot house and slowly spun the wheel in either direction, judging the action to be right, then came out again.
Sperry reappeared on the deck below. "She's responding," he called. "She looks right!"
Nat turned to Ellet, who waited expectantly though he had surely heard Sperry's report. "She is ready, sir."
"Good." The colonel strode forward to the bow where Captain Sutherland stood gazing out over the river, and brought him back to the pilot house. Both went in, and a moment later Nat heard the bells for "ahead half," then the slow, muffled hiss and creak of the side-wheel beginning to turn. He felt the subtle shift underfoot as the Queen glided out into the current at last, heading for Vicksburg.
The Rebel city lay on the left bank just below a sharp bend in the Mississippi. Though the town was blocked from view by the wooded point around which the river turned, Nat knew there were batteries all over the cliffs poised to scour the river. At the feet of the bluffs lay the steamer City of Vicksburg, the Queen's first objective. Their orders were to ram the steamer at dock and sink her, then continue past the batteries to the lower Mississippi. Colonel Ellet's intent had been to run the batteries under cover of darkness, but moving the wheel had cost them that advantage. Nat wondered if the colonel had considered postponing the run. It appeared he had not.
Ellet came out of the pilot house and went down the companionway. Nat should follow, he knewan assembly had been orderedbut he wanted to stay a moment longer on deck. Glancing astern he gestured to Adams to precede him. When the negro had descended out of sight and he was alone on the deck, Nat looked up at the sun rising pale and yellow-gray through the mists that clung to the river.
The ram swept past the canal dug across the peninsula by General Grant's men in an attempt to bypass Vicksburg's batteries. It had never carried enough water for a fighting vessel, but Nat had traversed it in a skiff the previous summer to visit his brother Quincy, an acting master aboard the U.S.S. Harriet Lane. The Lane had then been stationed below Vicksburg while the Queen was above, but shortly afterward the Lane had departed for blockade duty in the Gulf. Today, the second of February, was one month and one day since the Harriet Lane had been captured at Galveston. Quincy was a prisoner of war.
Suddenly unable to bear the Queen's cautious progress, Nat turned and hurried down the companionway. The sound of Colonel Ellet's voice carried up from below. Nat followed it to the main deck, stopping on the bottom step and peering between the shoulders of the fireman and sailors crowding the deck.
First Master Thompson, one of the Queen's senior officers, glanced at him and smiled. "Hello, Chips," he whispered.
Nat smiled back, accepting the navy's customary nickname for the ship's carpenter. He joined Thompson and turned his attention to Colonel Ellet.
"We shall ram the Vicksburg under full steam," the colonel was saying. His gaze raked the assembly. "You are not to concern yourselves with rescuing her crew. When we strike her, you are all to shout out 'Harriet Lane' as loud as you may."
A murmur of approval rumbled through the assembly. Nat's throat tightened as he thought of Quincy and the others who had served aboard the Lane. Her captain and executive officer had both been killed in the battle, and Quincy had been wounded.
"Sergeant Campbell?" Colonel Ellet continued.
"Here, sir," replied the gunner, raising a hand.
"You will shot the starboard gun with three turpentine balls."
"Stand alert at your stations," said the colonel to the crew. "We shall be engaged within the hour. Dismissed."
Nat remained where he was as the men dispersed. Looking at Thompson, he raised an eyebrow. "The starboard gun?"
Thompson stepped nearer, speaking quietly. "Word from below is that the Vicksburg lies at the spot where the Arkansas was last summer."
Last summer, when the Queen had first run the Vicksburg batteries, and had struck at the Rebel ram Arkansas on her way down. Last summer, when old Colonel Ellet had lain dying, and when Nat had last seen his brother.
"We'll have to come at her across current, then?"
Thompson nodded. "And if it happens as it did before, we will be turned upstream."
Nat grimaced. Without the river's force behind her, the Queen had struck the Arkansas only a glancing blow instead of sinking her.
"That is why the colonel asked me to make the incendiary projectiles."
Thompson nodded, and Nat swallowed frustration. He wanted the Vicksburg destroyed, wanted it all out of proportion to his duty. He suspected Colonel Ellet felt the same.
The colonel, who had been speaking with the chief engineer, now came toward the companionway. Nat waited until he reached its foot, then said, "Thank you, sirfor the Harriet Lane."
The colonel paused and a sad, uncertain smile flicked across his face, revealing the youthfulness that his manner normally concealed. "I cannot take credit for the idea," he said. "It was Admiral Porter's suggestion. A good one."
"Yes." Nat nodded, unable to say more.
"Be ready to make hasty repairs," Ellet added, resuming his air of authority. "We shall be under fire as soon as we round the point."
"Yes, sir." Nat resisted an impulse to apologize for the delay that had been none of his fault.
Colonel Ellet went up the companionway, and Thompson, nodding farewell to Nat, followed. Nat watched them go, then decided to visit the engine room to look at the rudder arm himself. Moving through the cramped space around the engines, he passed engineers and firemen all watchful and tense at their stations. He stayed long enough to assure himself that the rudder arm was indeed moving as it should, then returned to the companionway, uncomfortable in the closeness of the deck's confines. The Queen's engines were on her deck, not down in her hold as on some of the gunboats. With her machinery protected only by the oaken bulwarksnot enough to stop a wellplaced shot or shell from the heavy guns on shoreshe was vulnerable. Damage to a drum or a pipe could fill the deck with steam, scalding anyone nearby in an eye's blink before it shot straight through the main cabin. Nat's stomach tensed at the thought. His Uncle Charlie had died as a result of such an accident.
Your uncle is dead, his father had said. Nat winced at the memory of the rage that had followed, and hastened up the companionway to the gun deck.
It was slightly safer here; should the boiler be hit he would have a few extra seconds before the steam reached him, possibly enough time to jump through a porthole and save himself. In theory. Not that it mattered. The Mississippi could kill just as thoroughly as an exploding boiler, and there were sharpshooters in the Rebel batteries if he happened not to drown.
Both 12-pounders already protruded forward out of the casemate, a crewman of each waiting with lanyard in hand. Sergeant Campbell glanced up as he arrived.
"Keep out of the way, Chips."
Nat nodded. "I will."
He took up a position by one of the narrow rectangular portholes on the starboard side, between the gun and the wheelhouse. Through the porthole he could see the sunlight beginning to touch the bare treetops on the peninsula. They were coming up fast on the point, the shore rushing past in a haze of gray leafless trees. A tingle crept over his scalp as the Queen's bow passed the point and flew out into the swifter current at the river's narrowest part. A few seconds only of silence, then the discharge of a heavy gun sounded from the left bank. Nat's blood surged as the shot howled past overhead; high, but only just. The sound brought up memories of other fights, fire and blood, smoke and shouting. His pulse began to race.
The Queen proceeded around the point, crossing out into the current now, headed toward the left bank. Another gun fired from the shore batteries, and anothera muffled double thud as the round encountered compressed cotton, passed through, and fell spent on the deck above Nat's head. A breathless moment, a quick flurry of voices overhead; it was not a shell. Nat remained by the porthole, watching puffs of smoke rise from the shore, noting the location of the Confederate batteries. The port-side gun fired with a deafening thump, and its crew leapt to swab, load, and run out. It was mostly for show; what, after all, could two 12-poundersone, at present, as the starboard gun had no target yetdo against the thirty or more guns on shore? It was defiance; it heartened the crew. The Queen was not a gunboat, she was a weapon in herself. Her bow, reinforced and filled solid with oak, could crush an enemy vessel's hull. Nat had seen it, had felt the shock underfoot, and wanted to feel it again.
He moved to the port side, keeping clear of the gun crew and covering his ears as he stood against the bulwark to stare out a porthole at the left bank. The first shore battery was behind them now, still pounding away. More guns awoke downstream. The pale cliffs lay in shadow, the sun just beginning to touch their edges with light. A puff of smoke from a clifftop; beyond it Nat spied a spire, then another. He was looking down the length of the city. His heart thumped as he strained to see the docks at the feet of the cliffs, but he could not make out the steamer.
A shell burst just off the port side, very nearly as loud as the 12-pounder's fire, making Nat flinch backward as fragments of iron ripped at the oak of the cabin. A flurry of general cursing gave way to cries of "There she lies!" Nat strained his eyes and found the dark shape of the Vicksburg by the shore, Rebel colors at her mast. The Queen was gathering speed, moving out into the main current, edging across the river as she made for the steamer. More guns fired; the 12-pounder answered, a single voice against dozens.
Nat found that he was clenching his teeth. With an effort he relaxed. He stared at the Vicksburg as if he could set her afire with his gaze, impatient for the attack.
The Queen angled across the current and seemed to bog, though her engines were driving her wheels as hard as they could. Rifle shots began to crack from the helpless Rebel boat; her steam was not up, she had no escape. Nat licked his lips, watching the span of water between the vessels shrink. The pilot was aiming just forward of the Vicksburg's port wheelhouse, almost dead-on now; Nat could not have chosen a better spot himself. Despite past experience, he hoped and prayed that the blow would have enough force to crush her hull and sink her.
The rifle fire increased. The Queen slowed abruptly as she neared the shore, and the fast current caught her stern and began to swing it about, just as Colonel Ellet had expected. Nat looked over his shoulder, frowning in frustration. A horrific crash struck the bulwark ahead of him; splinters flew and a wave of sulphurous smoke enveloped him, then a mighty thud shook the deck. Turning, he saw the port gun dismounted, ruined, a man writhing beside it. A gaping hole in the bulwark revealed the Vicksburg mere yards away but at the wrong angle; the Queen's bow was turned upstream, and struck with scarcely enough force to make Nat shift his balance. The steamer's hull gave, yes, and she heeled over toward her dock, but the damage would be minor. Nat glanced up at the starboard gun in time to see Sergeant Campbell give the lanyard a furious jerk. Fire belched from the muzzle; a dragon's breath playing over the Vicksburg.
"Harriet Lane!" cried Nat, rushing to the starboard side to watch the result of the incendiaries.
The gun crews took up the cry. "Harriet Lane!" they shouted again and again. Cheers filled the deck as flames leapt out aboard the steamer. The Rebel sharpshooters had stopped their popping and were scurrying about the steamer's deck.
"That's for you, Quincy," Nat murmured in the mayhem. He wondered if the Queen would come around again for another strike, to finish her off.
"Fire!" someone shrieked in panic.
Smoke began pouring in through the starboard portholes near the wheelhouse. Blinded and choking, Nat stumbled back, even as he realized the cotton on the deck above must have been set afire by the enemy's shell. More smoke came in from the shattered bulwarks forward; the cotton on the bow was alight as well, perhaps touched by the incendiary shells. The gun crews grabbed up their sponge buckets. Nat didn't stay to see more but ran aft to the companionway, clasping his toolbag.
The stairwell was filled with smoke. Nat held his breath, hand to the wall, gasping as he reached clear air on the upper deck. He glimpsed Thompson by the pilot house, heard shouts that he could not distinguish. Men were throwing buckets of water at the flaming cotton.
"No," cried Nat, coughing. "Cut 'em away!" He pulled his work knife out of his toolbag and attacked the ropes binding the bales by the starboard wheelhouse. A gust of smoke made him pause; he wiped the back of his hand across his streaming eyes and sawed on. Crewmen, river men, pulled their belt knives and joined him. A smoking bale tumbled over the side. The men cheered, then worked on.
Nat glanced up at the Vicksburg. The Queen was falling away from her, carried downstream by the current. The Rebel steamer's crew were dousing the fire. A wave of bitterness swept him as he saw she would survive, but at least they had struck a blow. He bent to the ropes, never looking up again, even as the Rebel batteries below Vicksburg took up their harassing fire.
• • •
Sunlight slanted through the gauze-curtained windows of the Capitol Hotel's breakfast parlor, accentuating the stark mourning clothes of Jamie Russell's two companions at table. He himself was in uniforma Confederate artillery lieutenant's jacket and trousers that Mr. Lawford had insisted on buying for him, and which itched with new-wool stiffness. The cloth had come from the Huntsville penitentiary's mill, and the tailoring had been at the hands of the costly Houston expert who enjoyed Mr. Lawford's patronage.
Jamie glanced from his sister, Emma, to Mr. Lawford, who should have been their uncle and who had for months now behaved as though he were. Lawford's hair had been mostly black when they'd met last summer; now it was becoming a waving mane of silver, with only the side whiskers still dark. He had loved Aunt May with a silent passion, sheltered her from every breeze that threatened, spoiled her by catering to her extravagant whims, and failed to persuade her to marry him. If she had not fallen ill she might have yielded, but it was useless to ponder that now. She was gone, and having lost the object of his affections, Mr. Lawford had turned his lavish generosity upon her niece and nephew. Nothing would do for him but to whisk them away from battle-torn Galveston, lodge them in Houston's finest hotel, buy them their trappings of mourning and war, and hover protectively over them until Jamie, knowing Emma as he did, was silently impressed that she was able to refrain from shrieking at Mr. Lawford to leave her alone. The grief she had suffered over her fiancé's death last year had given her a new store of patience, perhaps, and all too clear an understanding of Mr. Lawford's pain.
Jamie looked at his sister, whose black bombazine gown was impeccably tailored, made by Aunt May's former dressmaker. She mourned as much for Martin as for May, though he had died nearly a year ago. Stephen Martin had been Jamie's captain, killed at Valverde, Jamie's first battle, far away in New Mexico. He swallowed at the memoriesthe horror of the carnage, of killing for the first timeand tried to shove them out of his thoughts.
Emma's dark hair was long enough now to be pulled back in smooth bands and pinned with a little jet comb that had been May's. She must have let Daisy dress it for her. Jamie knew his sister didn't care to be fussed about, but since inheriting May's two slaves she had tried to find things for them, Daisy in particular, to do.
She took a sip of coffee, then looked up at him. "Have you had any word about Dan?"
Jamie shook his head. "It's still too soon, I think." Their eldest brother's regiment, the 8th Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry's Rangers, had been engaged from the day after Christmas right through New Year's. While Jamie had been struggling against the Yankee navy in Galveston, Dan's regiment had spent a week of skirmishing in the rain culminating in two days of battle at Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Details of the battle were still filtering init was hard to communicate across the Mississippiand though until today Jamie had been on detached duty at District Headquarters where the news would arrive first, he had not heard anything about the Rangers.
Emma set down her cup. "At least Matt bothered to let us know he wasn't killed at Fredericksburg. I swear it's the only letter we had from him all year."
No, Jamie thought, he also wrote to inform us he hadn't been killed at Sharpsburg, but as that was hardly a comforting reflection he kept it to himself. Emma also lapsed into silence. She had been rather quiet since New Year's. Jamie's heart inevitably quickened at the thought of the battle at Galvestonfresher in his memory than Valverdeand he sipped his own coffee to settle himself down. He could readily recall the huge guns on the Yankee ships hurling destruction into the city, the crackle of musketry around the wharf, the dead floating in the bay. It had been the worst of nights for Emma, too, caught in a city under bombardment while Aunt May lay dying after months of illness. Inside she grieved, Jamie knew, though she was tough as ever under the city-polish her visit with May had laid on her. In that respect, as in many others, she was May's opposite. May's grieving would have been an ecstacy of woe, with many vases of drooping white flowers and yard upon yard of black crape. Instead, Emma and Mr. Lawford had agreed upon a very simple funeral, followed by a quiet reception for May's many friends.
The friends had gone home days ago, May's affairs had been brought into order by Mr. Lawford, and Emma could at last return home to comfort Momma in her grief over the loss of her sister and her worry over Daniel's fate. Momma had not been able to face the journey to Houston, had dreaded being separated from Gabe, her youngest and only son still at home. Emma had stood in her place at the funeral, chief mourner by way of blood, though it was Mr. Lawford who was most deeply wounded by the loss.
Jamie finished the coffee in his cuplukewarm, and far better than he'd ever get on campaign. Restoring cup to saucer with a small, strangely final click, he said, "I ought to be on my way. I have been absent from the battery far too long."
A shadow of disappointment crossed Emma's face, then she put on a smile. "Well, don't work Cocoa too hard. She's still thin."
Jamie smiled back. "I won't," he said. Emma couldn't help thinking like a rancher. Once she was home and back at work, she would be all right.
With a slowness born of reluctance to leave, he got to his feet, eyes straying to the luxuries of carpet, chandeliers, fine china and silver that he had never known before meeting May and Mr. Lawford. He would not see such comforts again for months, if ever. His place was in the field, and he found he was glad to be going back, though a certain dread attached to the prospect of another campaign.
Emma rose to give him a fierce hug, and Mr. Lawford stood up as well. Jamie shook the hand he offered.
"Thank you for escorting Emma home."
Mr. Lawford dismissed it with a shrug. "I was already going that way. I have some business to transact in Brownsville on behalf of the Hawklands."
Jamie tensed at the mention of the name, remembering with a start the last occasion on which he had seen the bewitching Mrs. Hawkland. It had been in this very hotel. A rush of memories, of the sort he could never discuss with his sister or even with Mr. Lawford, brought heat into his face. He glanced at the hotel's finery again, feeling suddenly awkward and out of place.
"You take care of yourself, son," said Mr. Lawford.
"Yes, do," Emma added briskly, "and hurry home."
Jamie couldn't agree to that. Who knew when he might get back to San Antonio? Maybe the next battle would be his last.
"I will write when I get to Louisiana." He caught Emma in one more hug, then let her go and left without looking back.
Copyright © 2003 by P.G. Nagle
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