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Camilla Beaumont cautiously opened her bedroom window and leaned out. It was one of those inky Mobile nights when warm April air met earth still cool from winter, brewing up a fog as thick as gumbo. A night when the Union blockade crouched like a sullen watchdog far out in the bay and Confederate soldiers camped under abandoned cotton shelters at Camp Beulah just outside town. A night when any civilian with a grain of sense was tucked up asleep under the breeze of an open window.
She paused with one leg out the window and took a deep breath. With practiced ease she grabbed the knotty old wisteria vine that twined around the lattice and began the climb down.
It was amazing she hadn't been caught and sent to the prison on Ship Island. In the early days her forays had been executed with haste and blind luck. Lately, however, every move and communication were plotted with exquisite care, orchestrated by an anonymous sponsor. Camilla longed to meet him, one day when the war was over, the Yankees went home, and the Southern conscience woke up to the truth that slavery was wrong.
As she scooted into an alley behind the Battle House Hotel, a baby's cry from an open upstairs window stopped her in her tracks. She prayed there wouldn't be a baby tonight. Babies made her task twice as difficult and dangerous.
Shuddering, she continued down empty residential streets, slipping from behind one tree to the next huge old oaks dripping with Spanish moss that tickled her face, magnolias just beginning to bud, and scratchy, richly scented cedars. She sneezed, then looked around, stricken with fear, breathing in and out. The fog was so dense she could barely see her hand in front of her face. When all remained quiet, she continued, knees trembling.
At the waterfront, noise and light from inside the buildings spilled out into the fog. She paused outside the Soldiers' Library to watch the approach of two gray-uniformed soldiers. They seemed more intent on observing the ribaldry inside the gambling saloons and oyster bars than enforcing the 9:00 p.m. slave curfew.
Slouching into a bowlegged, droop-shouldered posture, she lurched out into the road. An inebriated vagrant wandering the downtown streets in the wee hours of the morning was a common enough sight. As long as he was white.
She hesitated at the corner of Water and Theater streets, peering blindly into the mist, and nearly jumped out of her skin when cold fingers tapped her cheek. She stifled a shriek with one hand.
"Now, now, Missy, I thought you wasn't comin'." The whining whisper was so close to her ear that she could smell the speaker's fishy breath.
"Shh! Virgil, you nearly scared the life out of me. Come here before somebody sees us." She grabbed a skinny arm and towed him deeper into the shadows.
Any passerby who chanced to see them would have found little to tell them apart. Much the same height, they wore the same disreputable costumedark stocking cap, patched pea jacket, canvas pants of an indeterminate color and hobnailed boots.
"Where's the bag?" Camilla turned Virgil around and yanked off the burlap sack slung across his back, then placed her hands firmly on either side of his vacant face. "You forget you saw me tonight, you hear?"
Virgil nodded with childish pleasure. "I ain't seen you, Missy."
"Good." Camilla reached into her pocket for a coin and a slightly fuzzy toffee. "Get yourself something to eat, and I'll sell your papers for you."
"Yes'm, Missy." He popped the toffee into his mouth. "You'll bring my bag back when you're through?"
"Haven't I always?"
"Yes'm, shore have." Virgil grinned, then shuffled away into the fog without a backward glance.
Camilla watched him go with a mixture of pity and gratitude. Since no one considered him capable of putting two thoughts together on his own, Crazy Virgil the Birdman could come and go as he pleased. When she assumed his identity, she was virtually invisible.
Disguise complete, she stepped into the street and continued northward to where the Mobile and Tensaw rivers dumped into Mobile Bay.
Camilla could remember when the quay of Mobile was lined with stately hulls and a forest of masts. After General Bragg forbade cotton to be shipped to the port lest the Yankees succumb to the temptation to attack, the steamers made increasingly rare appearances downriver. The docks looked embarrassingly naked these days.
But there should be at least one riverboat tied in. Camilla strained to see through the fog. There she was. The Magnolia Princess, flambeaux peering through the mist, bumped gently against the pier like a cat nudging her mistress's skirts.
As Camilla approached, a burst of laughter reached her ears, faded, swelled again. The Magnolia Princess, one of the few pleasure boats remaining in these grim days, carried a troupe of actors and singers and dancers, as well as floating card games run by professional gamblers.
Ready to hawk her newspapers should she be noticed, Camilla stole across the boat's gangway, darted across the lower deck and found the ladder down into the hold.
Wooden beams creaked all around her as she descended, and the smell of oil and burning pine from the stoke hole was suffocating. Sticky turpentine oozed from the frame of the boat and clung to her clothes and hands as she felt her way down the rickety ladder. She was nearly at the bottom when she felt strong hands clasp her around the waist and lift her down.
"Horace," she breathed in relief.
"Me and the boy both here, Miss Milla, but we got to hurry. The train, she leaving in less than two hours."
Camilla took a deep breath. "There'll be four this time."
She dropped the bulky bag full of newspapers, then with the two men began to examine the barrels crowded into the narrow space. At length Horace kicked one in disgust. "Porter say he mark ours with a X, but it's so dark down here I can't see a thing."
Camilla wiped her sweaty face on her coat sleeve. It would be deadly to send the wrong barrels north on the train. She hesitated, then whispered, "I know you're not supposed to make a sound, but we're running out of time, so I want you to make some little noise so we'll know where you are."
There was a moment of thick quiet. All she heard was the creaking of the boat and the slosh of water against her pontoons. Then, barely audible, came a scratching sound from the barrel upon which Camilla sat. Grinning at Willie, she hopped down. When they'd found the three others, she assisted the men in hoisting them one at a time up the ladder.
Porter, their accomplice on the boat, had done his jobkeeping the crew away from this end of the deck. The thick fog aided them, as well. They spoke not a word as they worked, and Camilla flinched every time one of the barrels bumped against the ladder going up. But no sound came from within any of the barrels until they were loading the last one onto the wagon. Losing her grip, Camilla gave a dismayed little squeak.
Just in time to keep it from bursting open on the ground, Willie grabbed her end of the barrel.
As a muffled wail came from inside the barrel, Camilla flung her arms around it. "Shh, it's all right," she whispered through the knothole near the top. "I know you're scared, but hold on. We're almost away."
Horace patted her shoulder and jerked his head toward the rail station a quarter mile or so up the quay.
Taking a shuddering breath, Camilla nodded. "All right. Let's go."
The wagon lurched into motion.
As they rattled along the waterfront, Camilla strained to see through the twining fog. The military watch was spread thin. Maybe they'd escaped.
"Hey, you there!" A hoarse voice penetrated the darkness. "Stop where you are!"
Camilla clutched the side of the wagon as Horace drew the horses to a halt. Boots crunched on damp shells as a gray-clad watchman appeared out of the fog. She and Horace and Willie waited, letting the picket make the first move. Camilla kept her head down and pulled her cap over her face.
The soldier leaned against the wagon. "What you darkies doing out here?" He reached out and whacked Camilla on the head with a gloved hand. "What's in them barrels, boy?"
She cowered. "Nothing, sir."
Horace drew the sentry's attention. "We's just coming back from market, sir. Mistress need supplies for baking."
"In the middle of the night? I don't think so." The man laughed and walked around the wagon to plant the barrel of his musket in Horace's ear. "You all holding a voodoo ritual?"
Close to vomiting from terror, Camilla felt for her newspaper bag. "Please, sir, we been delivering" The bag was gone. She must have left it on the boat. Think, think, think. She struggled to her feet, and her toe struck one of the barrels already in the wagon before they loaded the otherfour. "Oh, please, sir, don'tlook in them barrels!"
"What you got there?" the man demanded. "Moonshine?"
Horace again drew fire away from Camilla. "That against the law, sir."
The soldier turned. "It sure is, you black rascal! But I might forget I saw you out after curfew if you let me have it."
"Sir, Colonel Abernathy get upset if we let this load go. But we might could find you some more in a couple of days."
"Colonel Abernathy, huh? Why didn't you say so?" The man shouldered his gun and stepped back. "I'm on duty ever' blasted night this week. You best deliver my load within two days, or I'll have to remember I found two darkies and an idiot running around in the middle of the night. You hear me?"
"Yes, sir," chorused Horace and Willie. Camilla was too relieved to speak. The wagon started up, pitching her on her rear, where she sat hugging the closest barrel and shaking like a blancmange.
Virgil was going to be in serious trouble if she didn't find his bag.
In the quiet darkness Gabriel Lanieretrained physician, thespian and horse wrangler who presently found himself masquerading as a ministerleaned on the rail of the aft main deck of the Magnolia Princess. It was the only pleasure boat docked among the shrimpers, oyster boats and merchant vessels in the quay of Mobile Bay. He'd waited out the noisy leave-takings of the last of the gamblers. The only sounds on the boat now were the snores of the crew huddled behind the boiler and a faint scraping sound coming from the direction of the gangplankmost likely a straggler meandering home after being left behind.
Gabriel touched the full-blown red camellia in his lapel. It had been tossed at him with a wink a few hours earlier by the "incomparable" Delia Matthewsbilled as the "star of Simpson and Company," a pleasing comedy in two acts, as well as the laughable farce The Omnibusa symbol of her code name. Miss Matthews had indeed proved to be an actress of some versatility and ingenuity. Gabriel hoped her courier skills would match her ability to bedazzle a theater full of drunken Southern gentlemen.
What he had to report to Admiral Farragut could not wait.
The scraping noise came again, followed by a muffled grunt. Frowning, he straightened away from the rail, but paused when a deckhand appeared out of the mist that swathed the gangplank. The man carried a soft felt bag, which he tossed from hand to hand with a soft chink.
Gabriel retraced his steps and found the hatch down into the hold of the boat. As he descended the narrow ladder, rumors he'd dug up in New Orleans crawled through his thoughts. Even now he could hardly believe the words he'd encoded on the paper in his pocket. Fish boat. Underwater torpedo. Naval warfare was undergoing radical change, literally under Farragut's nose, and Gabriel's mission began with alerting the admiral to the fact that the engineers of this dangerous vessel had moved their secret enterprise from New Orleans to the unlikely backwater of Mobile, Alabama.
Thensearch and destroy.
Some two hours later, he was still sitting on a barrel that smelled of sorghum molasses, his head clearing the overhead planks by a scant quarter of an inch. The hold ran the length and breadth of the boat, but it seemed to have been designed for the undernourished roustabouts who spent sixteen of every twenty-four hours loading and unloading bales, hogsheads, sacks and crates, and firewood for the ravenous jaws of the furnace.
He had been containing his temper by reciting the human bone and muscle systems. Which made him think of Harry Martin, who never could keep straight which was the fibia and which was the tibia. Last he'd heard, Martin was serving as a field surgeon with Grant. Probably hacking off limbs right and left.
He shifted his position and began on the muscles again. Delia Matthews had better have a good explanation for her tardiness. Admiral Farragut, who had recruited and trained him, insisted that intelligence work was five percent action, twenty percent listening and seventy-five percent waiting. Most times Gabriel did it by sheer force of will. And he didn't mind when the objective was in sight. But endlessly waiting for a courier who should be right here on the boat
A light tap of boots overhead interrupted his seething thoughts. Someone removed the square hatch cover, relieving the pitch-darkness. A pair of scratched and broken boots descended the ladder, then hesitated midway.
Gabriel slid off the barrel.
"Now where in creation is he?" The voice was lighter than he'd remembered it onstage. She was a cool one. Serve her right if he scared her.
He opened his mouth to utter the pass code, but a shadow loomed in the hatch.
"Who left the hatch open?" grumbled an unseen male voice. "Harley, I told you"
The thumping of heavy boots, and Gabriel saw the woman's panic in the tremor of her body. She was about to scream. He reached her in one silent lunge. Clapping one hand over her mouth, the other arm clamping her arms at her waist, he snatched her into the corner under the stairs. Sliding to the floor with the actress's shaking body held close, he waited for disaster to strike.
But the mate stood at the top of the stairs, peering down into the murky darkness and muttering. Finally he turned and stomped back up the stairway. The hatch cover clanged into place, submerging Gabriel and his captive in darkness and silence.
The slim, lithe form in his arms continued to tremble. Fearing the return of the mate, Gabriel kept his hand over Delia's mouth, his hold gentling as she relaxed. Her clothes smelled of turpentine and fish, and the small head was covered with a ragged knit cap that scratched his jaw. A good idea, as the luxuriant mass of hair would have given her away if she were seen away from the cabin area.
Squirming, she expelled a little sigh that tickled his hand.