Preston peered over the railing, observing the mass of soldiers that snaked through the wharf. Rows of men were still waiting, yet another train had arrived and rumor was, the SS Sultana was expecting to board still more POWs.
Two other vessels had already departed, laden with soldiers returning home. It was with no small degree of distress that he had watched them leave. Had he been assigned to one of those he would already be underway, already closing the distance between him and Arianna.
How long had it been since he’d seen her? Heard her laugh as she scolded him for interrupting her reading in the library? He wondered if she was aware he’d been freed. He couldn’t be certain she’d known of his capture and the months he spent as a prisoner.
It had been too long. Years. He’d been one of the first to enlist and had remained by the men he now called friends month after bloody month, year after beleaguered year. His time as a POW had been harder than the atrocities of war. Overcrowded conditions, lack of food for even the soldiers, let alone the prisoners they guarded, disease and vermin. He doubted the world would ever know how many lost their lives in the squalor.
Shifting his weight, Preston bit into the sores in the soft tissue of his cheek to keep from groaning out loud. His undershirt had long ago gone to pieces and the scratchy wool of his uniform, embedded and fused to his skin with dried blood and pus, tugged at the wounds on his back. His feet throbbed inside boots that were too small, the skin having blistered, busted and festered. He knew the infection was worse. He could smell the rot.
Preston’s gaze drifted from the crowded dock to the Lady Gay. She was leaving the wharf without a single prisoner. Yet, there were hundreds still waiting for transportation home, to board the Sultana. He exhaled, turning his attention back toward the dock, but the breath failed to release the growing concern in his belly.
“How many do’ this boat hold?”
He’d been wondering the same thing, but Preston ignored him and returned to watching the line of weary soldiers. The decks were shrinking but as the men left land, their mood shifted. Songs were sung. Laughter and camaraderie filled the air.
“Rumor is they done patched the boiler.”
This time Preston turned to the old man standing to his left. The malnourished state of bodies was so common place among them that Preston would normally pay no mind. This man was no different, hardly more than leathery skin draped over bones. His body, crooked forward at the waist, caused his unkempt, white hair to shield the sides of his face, despite his cap. The stringy mess swayed from side to side each time the man danced from one foot to the other.
What struck Preston about him was his uniform. The tattered remains of the worn material were comparatively clean. Tidy stitching held frayed ends together on his right sleeve where a musket ball may have ripped through. Many other neatly stitched repairs peppered his dress.
The buttons that remained were polished and complimented the glint in his gray eyes. He was proud of the years he’d offered of himself, and it showed in his dress, bedraggled as it was. Preston had no doubt that mentally, the pride and stature of the old man’s spine was ramrod straight.
“Patched it?” Preston asked.
“That what they say’in. Say it ain’t the first time, neither.”
Until the war, Preston’s hands had barely known the feel of labor or industry, but he did know the boiler should have been replaced. Hearing this news, and knowing that extra supports had been added to the decks, gave Preston the idea that the captain himself was worried about the extra passengers. Why else would they need to fortify the boat? News of the boiler caused the simmering concerns he already had to reach out and squeeze his heart.
“Names Bill,” the old man said, continuing his musing. “How many folk you reckon this boat was meant to hold?” he asked, again.
He asked the question as if he were inquiring about the price of a horse and Preston couldn’t help but admire the soldier’s steel nerves.
“Not more than 400, I’d say.”
An agreeable nod of his head was Bill’s only response. Preston stuck out his hand. “I’m Preston Wade.” Knarled fingers wrapped around Preston’s offered hand with a firm shake. A lifetime of callouses scraped against Preston’s palm as their grips relaxed and their hands parted.
“Mr. Wade, proud to know ya,” he said with a nod.
They turned back to the railing letting the joyful noise of the boat fill the silence. Even mother-nature seemed to be encouraging the joy, sending brilliant hues of blue and orange streaks across the sky as the sun dipped beyond the horizon. Nightfall seemed to temper the merriment. The men grew quieter, except the mumbled grumblings when another train of POWs arrived. Another boat departed the dock with hardly a passenger on board. Bill exchanged a silent but knowing look with Preston.
If there had been any doubt that there was greed behind their cramped quarters, the departure of the empty vessel dispelled them. It was no secret the boats were being paid to take them upriver; five dollars for each soldier, ten dollars for officers. Preston surveyed the open decks, the shadows of men, their meager clothing hanging from their emaciated bodies, sick, diseased and covered in louse, they were men, nonetheless, and being herded onto the boat and corralled like cattle. Still, the decks swelled with bodies and every vacated space created on the dock was filled with another soldier waiting to board. They cycle continued well into the night.
When the Sultana was finally freed from her moorings and slipped away from the dock, a chorus of approval rose from the crowd. Preston surveyed the scene from his coveted spot along the rail. Not a square inch of room was spared. But, they were finally underway, even if the massive paddle wheels were begrudging in their efforts to propel the overloaded boat up the swollen Mississippi.
“You got a lady at home?” Bill propped his crooked frame on the railing and turned his attention to Preston.
For the first time since boarding, Preston smiled. A lady was an understatement. Arianna was his everything. He lived and breathed for her. He bowed his head to hide the tenderness he knew exuded from him when he thought of her. The old man smacked his lips and hummed knowingly.
Preston didn’t have to admit it. Thoughts of Arianna changed him from the inside out, the relaxation and peace he felt when he was lost in those memories transformed his physical presence from standoffish and broody to handsome and approachable.
Bill made no attempt to hide his smile. “Mus’ be somethin’ to be gett’n a man like you off kilter.”
Preston’s smile grew wider. “She is. My father remarried after my mother passed,” he explained. “A younger version of my mother, you see. I have two half siblings, a brother and a sister and Arianna came to tutor.”
The old man nodded and Preston leaned against his cramped span of railing. “My sister is the youngest of us all and Arianna was hired two years before this war began.”
Preston faltered in his reminiscing, as if something from the memory gave him pause. “We’d made a dirt track for racing our horses at the farm of my friend, Michia. It had rained the night before I met her and my young mare, while she was fine for travel, she lacked the breeding and motivation for even novice racing. I was covered in mud from my ride behind the pack.”
Preston ran a hand over his unruly and unkempt mass of black hair as if expecting to find it caked with mud. “She was just finishing her meeting with my father when I had burst into the house proclaiming my frustration. Despite my outburst and appearance, she was kind and friendly.” Preston dipped his head at the memory of her, and turned his attention back to the conversation.
“During our brief conversation there remained a hint of amusement in her eyes. It was much later in our talks before she asked what had happened to me that day and since then, every time my temper began to simmer over the insignificant, she’d remind me, “Your mud is showing.”
Those had been the moments that kept Preston company at night. It was Arianna’s voice he heard comforting him when the sound of cannons threatened his reason, when the cries of men ate at his sanity. Those moments were his and he replayed them when a moment of peace could be found.
Bill seemed to recognize Preston’s nostalgia and left him to his thoughts, perhaps wanting to spend the miserable journey lost in his own. It was fine with him. It gave him the solitude to remember the days spent with Arianna before the war, to remember her laugh as they walked through the garden, her delicate palm against his face as she held his gaze in a moment of tenderness.
The vision of her tear streaked face when he’d left her still haunted him, her forced smile doing nothing to hide the despair and fear in her eyes as they had said their goodbyes. He’d vowed then, before ever leaving the boundary of his father’s estate, that he would spend the remainder of his life making sure tears never stained her cheeks again.
How would she see him when he returned? Would she be appalled at the rank sight of him? Revolted by images of not just the things he’d endured, but the things he’d done?
These horrors were insignificant in the scheme of things, but for a moment, Preston considered delaying his return home until he was healed, until he was some semblance of the man he’d been when he’d left her. Yet, his mind found comfort in the thought of Arianna’s gentle hands cleaning his wounds, her love and patience washing away the remnants of the war from his mind while she healed his body. His need to see her was fierce and grew more desperate with each turn of the Sultana’s massive wheels.
Time passed and distanced was closed, but Preston merely had to breathe deep to remind himself where he was. Men on the decks slept where they could, the open air doing little to dispel the stench of sickness and disease, of war. It was slow, miserable travel, but the Sultana continued upriver to Memphis.
There, Preston, along with some of the other soldiers, helped to unload cargo and earned some money for their work. Preston headed to the telegrapher’s office, eager to contact his family before taking off again. It was surreal, his new found freedom, the idea that there wouldn’t be a skirmish or full blown battle just over the next hill, around the next bend in the road. Perhaps a familiar word from home, an endearment from Arianna, would settle the unease that haunted him on this journey.
After spending most of the afternoon waiting in line, Preston scrawled a message and passed it through the window. Coming home. Love, P. Success would be unlikely as most of the wires had been strung and then destroyed by the military. Still, he waited, pacing outside the office until the Sultana signaled her impending departure. He had to get back or the boat would leave without him.
Preston was halfway across the gangplank when he heard the boy calling. Fighting against the flow of human traffic, he fought to reach his body across the handrail, grasping for the paper in the boy’s hand. He stretched, unable to meet the small slip of paper. Closing his eyes, he stretched and reached until he felt the paper in his fingertips. Pulling himself back onto the ramp, his fragile grip gave way and the paper fluttered to the water.
Grabbing the handrail, his jaw tight with disappointment, Preston looked to the young boy, who took an instinctive step back. His young face was watching as the paper float away. He swallowed hard and pulled his gaze up to Preston.
“What did it say?” Preston growled.
The chaos of the dock drowned out the child’s timid words.
“What did it say?” Preston made a conscious effort to neutralize his expression and not scare the child away. He wasn’t angry with him, after all, but to be so close and lose the slip to the water was infuriating.
His little hands balled into fists at his side, but he didn’t look away.
“Tell me,” Preston yelled.
“Fever.” The boy blurted it out and then looked around like the enunciation of such a word might infect others. His gaze settled back on Preston.
Preston’s body froze, his intense expression fading to understanding as his heart captured the word.
“Hurry, she’s dying.”
His heart was pounding in his ears. A painful vice was gripping his chest. No matter how much air he gulped, he couldn’t seem to get enough to keep his body from feeling dizzy with a need for more.
A hand patted his shoulder but Preston didn’t bother to look and see who was offering him comfort. Amid the cesspool of decay surrounding them, his was only one tragedy in thousands.
Preston allowed himself to be led through the bodies, back to his spot by the railing where he sank to the deck, his once large frame forced to create a space in the mob. Even amongst all the bodies, he was no longer capable of finding warmth for his emaciated body. A dreadful cold had enveloped him and Preston folded his bony arms around his knees in an effort to ward it off.
He’d never imagined anything other than returning to the beautiful wife he’d left behind. The meager letters he’d received from home had been taken and destroyed by his wardens, a blistering emotional blow when physical torture had failed to yield information that could be used for their cause. The letters had been hopeful and held a lifetime of promise in what would be the rest of their lives.
Now, his mind conjured a lifetime without Arianna and the vice around his chest tightened. It wasn’t possible. She was all that was right in his world. He had not survived the life of a soldier to return a widower. He’d thanked God every day that she offered herself to him. To live without it now, after treasuring it so long, was unthinkable.
Preston’s mind faded into a pattern of remembering their life before the war and imagining the lonely future without her. The further they travelled, the further he sank into despair. It was unimaginable that he would survive the war only to lose Arianna before he reached home.
Oblivious as the Sultan steamed toward Arkansas, Preston was barely aware when they docked and took on a load of coal. Chatter rose among the prisoners, whispers of blasting powder and a conspiracy to sabotage the Sultana. Preston ignored it all. He was beyond caring. This was his third night on the boat and his resolve to remain on board had waned.
Even after the Sultana delivered him at his destination, there was hundreds of miles left to travel over land. Rumors were rampant about renegade attacks. Travelers weren’t safe. If travel on the Mississippi was slow and tedious, the remainder of the journey would be perilous and fraught with the unknown. Even if he survived unscathed, Arianna would not likely live to see him return.
Cursing her fate, his weary muscles contracted in anger. His pulse throbbed in his temples as he accepted the idea that he’d endured the atrocities he had, only to lose everything when he was free of it. Preston rested his head on his knees, silently raging at the dead president, the men who brought on this war, and himself for giving into the promise of a quick and efficient resolution. There had been no victory, no glory, and now, there would be no Arianna.
They were several miles out of Hopefield when he felt it, a gentle rumble in the bowels of the ship. Preston raised his head, but his vision was obscured by the hoard of people sharing the space. Seconds later, the decks exploded in a torrent of burning coal, steam and debris.
“The boiler blew,” Bill screamed.
Preston tried shoving himself to his feet, but chaos had erupted on the boat and men scrambled, stumbling over one another, shoving, yelling and cursing as each man tried to put some distance between himself and the danger.
Scrawny fingers grab his shoulders, fisting what remained of his uniform into their grasp, and pulled him upright. Once on his feet, Preston’s years in battle had him assessing the moment. Men had been blown clear of the boat, others were jumping into the cold Mississippi in an effort to escape the flames licking the shell of the Sultana. Men screamed in pain and terror. Some were on fire, their bodies glowing and flailing against the black sky, trapped in the prison of bodies that surrounded them.
Others managed to fling themselves into the water. A few tried to push their way to the wounded to help, while others stood in shock, watching. An explosion on a boat had no chance of being contained. Fire and debris was raining down on the open decks, creating more injury and fire.
He looked at Bill and a shudder passed through him at the set features of the old man.
“They’ll likely be more,” the soldier warned. The Sultana had four boilers, but the explosion of one would likely weaken or damaged the others. At best, the other boilers would hold, but either way, the inferno was out of control and would consume the boat.
Preston scanned the river, taking in the bodies flailing and bobbing in the cold water. Some had managed to snag and hold on to debris. Others were struggling to stay afloat, unable to fight the current, or unable to swim at all. A few cognizant souls aboard the boat were flinging everything they could find or rip away into the water to buoy those already struggling, and those that would seek refuge as the fire spread.
The river was probably four miles wide where they were. They were tired. They were hungry. They’d never swim that far in the freezing water in the condition they were in. Despite the overwhelming odds, Preston made a move toward the wounded. Every one of them deserved the chance. Then another rumble shook the boat, stopping him.
His thoughts went to Arianna. Without her, the world had nothing to offer him. He smiled at the image of reuniting with her on the other side and the immediate need to escape faded. They would meet again. If anyone deserved to live, it was her. She deserved a lifetime of beauty and peace. Eternity would come sooner or later. It didn’t have to be now.
“Save her,” he whispered, turning his face to the night sky, ignoring the screams of pain and agony that surrounded him. The waxing moon allowed a brilliant display of the stars and Preston found and focused on the northern star. It was the beacon that would have led him home.
The world fell away and the celestial light loomed larger, brighter, until he was enveloped in its comforting warmth. His arms opened to the radiance and Preston’s heart took on a cadence he could feel in his chest. “Save her. Take me,” he breathed.
Another explosion erupted, sending torrents of shrapnel and fire into the night. Preston felt the impact in his stomach. His body jerked forward, his hand reaching for the searing metal protruding from his gut. He fell to his knees, his life spilling onto the wooden deck of the Sultana.
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