The morning dawned clear and a little cold. Mercy collected her things from the officer’s suite and departed the Salvation Army mission as soon as was reasonably polite-or, rather, a little sooner; but she hadn’t slept terribly well and was eager to leave the building far, far behind. Her dreams had been plagued by skeletal forms with clacking teeth and a taste for fingers, and with the burned-yellow smell of death from the gritty substance in Irvin’s ears and nose. She’d dreamt of a whole hospital full of those biting, corpselike men with runny eyes.
She shuddered under her cloak, although it was not really cool enough to warrant it, and hustled away from the mission as fast as her legs could carry her.
This might’ve been a bad area of Memphis, or it might only be that it was dawn, and therefore both too late and too early for much traffic; but she found the city as unthreatening as most places, and less threatening than some. Perhaps Mrs. Gaines had been accustomed to a different standard of living up in Maryland. More likely, it occurred to Mercy as she glanced around, the other woman simply wasn’t accustomed to living amongst so many people who weren’t white.
Mercy stopped a small newspaper boy, unloading his wares onto the curb and setting up his sandwich board. The little fellow had rich brown skin, plus eyes and teeth that seemed unnaturally vital and white compared to the dying men upstairs a block away.
She said, “Boy, could you tell me how to get to the docks?”
He nodded, pointed the way, and gave her a few quick instructions. Like a good little capitalist, he added, “And you can have a paper for just a couple pence ’federate.”
A quick glance at the headlines revealed words like union lines, Chattanooga, civilian crash, and Dreadnought. Since many of those things had had such a recent impact on her person, Mercy said, “All right,” took the paper, and handed the boy some change. She rolled the purchase up and stuffed it into her satchel, then followed the child’s instructions down to a river district that startled her with its size and complexity.
Between the boats, the boardwalks, the businesses, and the early-morning bustle of commerce beginning, Mercy could see the river in slivers and peeks. She’d heard stories about the Mississippi. Hadn’t everyone? But to see it in real life was to be astounded by the sheer breadth of the thing. By comparison, every other waterway she’d ever passed had been a stone-skip across. This one-and she saw it better when she brought herself across the street, dodging a pair of carts overflowing with cargo-seemed all but endless. Standing as near to the edge as the civilized crust of the city would let her stand, she still could not see the other shore through the morning mists.
She held her hand up to shield her eyes, but since the sun was still rising behind her, the hood of her cloak served the same purpose when she turned around to take in the scenery.
The strip was thick with cotton retailers and distributors, their signs swinging back and forth with every gust of wind coming high up off the water to the bluff where the city was built. Down the street she saw piles of crates with stenciled labels that declared COCOA, COFFEE, and BULK CLOTH. Men haggled, bartered, and bickered with one another, either arranging for transport for items freshly delivered or seeking a ride to someplace else.
She scarcely knew where to begin, so she asked a woman sweeping a stoop which way she might walk in order to buy passage on the river. The broad-waisted shopkeep thought about it a moment and said, “Go down that way, past the next couple of streets, down the bluff to the port proper, and ask about the Anchor Line. Them’s the boats what run up and down the river most often, taking people as much as cargo.”
Mercy followed her instructions, and in another twenty minutes found herself standing at the docks for the Anchor Line steamers, only to realize that she couldn’t possibly afford to take one. Every boat was a floating palace of white gingerbread with gold trim, red paddles, and polished whistles that glinted in the lifting dawn. But this was just as well, because from Mercy’s new vantage point, she could see a big REPUBLIC OF TEXAS RIVER TRANSPORT STATION sign strung up between two huge columns shaped like the pumps that dredged up the wealth of that nation.
The Providence was right past the pumps, low in the water, God-knew-what filling its cargo hold and a big Lone Star flag flying beside the topmost whistles above a red-and-blue-painted paddle wheel at the stern. It lacked the gingerbread and polish of the Anchor Line crafts, but its design appeared sturdier, more ready to face a fight with a cannon instead of a gloved hand. Maybe it was the set of the prow, like a bulldog’s jaw; or maybe it was the gray paint job and straight, unfrilly lettering on the side that announced the vessel’s name.
Mercy pulled her cloak’s hood back so that her hair hung almost loose, having halfway fallen from the bun she’d put it in an hour earlier. The breeze off the river felt cool and smelled bad, but it was fresh air, and it didn’t carry even a whiff of gunpowder-just the occasional flash of petroleum fuel, which reminded her of the mechanized walker outside Fort Chattanooga.
She approached the dock and stood anxiously, not knowing what to do next. Broad-shouldered colored men in plaid cotton shirts hefted crates to and fro, two men to a crate, and a pallid white man with a stack of papers was bickering with another man who held another stack of papers.
From behind her, a voice asked, “Hey there, ma’am. Can I help you with something?” in a Texas accent that could’ve stopped a clock.
The speaker wore a hodgepodge outfit that was one part Rebel grays, one part western ranch wear, and one part whatever he’d felt like putting on that morning. His mustache and sideburns were blond once, but had faded on to gray in such a fashion that they grew the consistency and color of a corn tassel.
“Er . . . yes. I think. Thank you, sir,” she said. “I’m Mercy Lynch, and I’d like to buy passage aboard this boat.”
“This ship in particular? That’s right specific of you.”
“I was referred to the Providence by Mrs. Henderson, who I met on a dirigible from Richmond. She told me the captain was her brother-in-law, and he might treat me kindly if I could pay my way. And I can. Pay my way, I mean.”
“Adora? On a dirigible? You can’t be serious.”
“Her first name’s Adora?” Mercy responded.
“It fits her about as well as a glove on dog’s ass, don’t it?”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that-”
His face bloomed into a smile that stretched the full length of the mustache. “That’s all right. You’re not family, but I am, and I don’t just say it, I declare it.”
She guessed the obvious. “So that must make you the captain? Captain . . . I’m sorry, she only called you Benham, and I won’t presume.”
“Captain Benham Seaver Greeley, at your service, Nurse. You are a nurse, ain’t you? I’ve seen that cross before. Salvation Army, isn’t it? Or no.” He shook his head. “Something else. But I’ll be damned if I can recall just what.”
“I’m a nurse, yes. With the . . .” She brandished the ornamented side of her satchel. “With the Red Cross. The organization’s very popular in Europe. Miss Clara Barton is trying to establish a solid presence here in the Americas, too.” She did not add that she was not strictly a member of this agency, in case it would’ve mattered.
“But that’s a little like the Salvation Army, right?” he asked, still trying to get a handle on precisely where the situation stood.
“I guess. I mean, I’ll treat anybody who needs treatin’, and I try not to look at the uniforms. But,” she added quickly, “I’ve been patching up our boys for the last few years. The Rebel boys, I mean. And a few Texians, too.”
He nodded, as if this made sense, or at least it didn’t confuse him any. “And now you’re moving on, to patch up some other boys? I don’t know if Adora told you or not, but our run’s between St. Louis and New Orleans.” He said New Orleans in two syllables: Norleans. “Our afternoon run will put us in Missouri by the end of next week, so if you’re looking to head down to the delta, you may want to wait for the return trip at the end of the month.”
“No, no. I’m headed north. And west.”
“West? Out into the Republic proper?”
“No sir,” she said, and she gave him the same story she’d given half a dozen times already, about her widowhood, and her ailing father in the Pacific Northwest. “So, you see, I need to reach St. Louis, and from there I’ll find myself a transcontinental line out to Tacoma.”
He let out a low whistle that rattled the edge of his facial hair. “That’s a monster of a trip you’re taking, Mrs. Lynch. Another two or three thousand miles from here, depending on the way you go and the trains you catch.”
“And the steamers I talk my way on board,” she added with a note of hope. “Captain, I assure you, I know what I’m doing. And even if I didn’t, I’d still have to find a way. Will you carry me as far as St. Louis at your usual rate? I’ve some savings, set aside for just such an occasion. Though I don’t know if you take . . . you must take Confederate money, don’t you?”
“ ’Federate money, Yankee money, Republic money-all that and anything else worth a stitch. Got paid in wampum once, and one time I took a horse. Another time, somebody paid me in a crate of books I never did read. So I sure do take your Rebel coin, and I’ll be happy to have you aboard. The trip upriver will run us about ten days, if all goes according to plan. We can chug along right about thirty-five knots if nothing stops us, and the trip’s about three hundred miles.”
“Thirty-five knots?” Mercy repeated, attempting to sound impressed, though she had no idea if that was fast, slow, or standing still. “That’s . . . quite a clip,” she finished.
“Ain’t it though? We could run circles in the water round any one of them Anchor Line boats, I tell you what. You want me to let you know why that is?”
“I’d be tickled to hear it.”
“This-here boat’s not strictly a steamer. She’s a two-fuel runner, with fully a ton of diesel on board to give her that added boost.”
“That sounds like . . . a lot.”
“It is a lot! And it’s a good thing, too. Otherwise, you’d be stuck on this river with me and my motley crew for two weeks or longer. So let me just get your paperwork in line and get you squared away on board, how does that sound?”
“It sounds just about perfect,” she said, relieved to have found a spot so easily after all the tangle and turmoil of the trip’s first leg.
“Then come along with me. I’m between activities at the moment, so I’d be happy to show you around.” He held out his bent elbow, and she put a hand on it, not for the sake of assistance but for the sake of the show he was clearly delighted to make. He reinforced her suspicion by adding, “We don’t get too many ladies going up or down the water. Mostly we get men, moving from one lost fortune to the next one, or running away from the war or running off to it. Sometimes we get merchants and managers, keeping an eye on their stock, and once in a while we get a few Injuns and even Mexies and whatnot. Don’t you worry about it, though. Nobody’ll give you any grief; you’ve got my promise on that. Anyone treats you less than purely gallant, and you tell me about it. I’ll toss ’em overboard sooner than they could squeak.”
“Thank you, Captain. And I’m glad for the offer, but I hope I won’t have to take you up on it. Generally speakin’, I done some of my best work surrounded by men-in the Robertson, I mean,” she blushed and added quickly, lest he get the wrong impression. “I’ve learned the hard way how to handle them myself.”
“Robertson. That rings a bell.”
“The big hospital up in Richmond.”
“That’s right, that’s right. They do good work there, don’t they? That’s the place where they send all the fellows who got real torn up. And there’s a lady what runs it, ain’t that right?”
Mercy nodded. “Captain Sally. She runs that place good as any man, and probably better than some.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he said, leading her down the gangplank and waving a dismissive arm at the bickering men with papers, who had stopped to call his name in unison. “Not now, boys! Can’t you see I’ve got a lady on my arm? Rare as it happens, I won’t have you spoilin’ it for me!”
At the end of the gangplank, they took a small step onto the gently swaying deck of the Providence, which bobbed very faintly as the river’s waves lapped against its underside and the current tugged against the moorings. The decks were clean but made of hand-planed boards with a grain that scraped against Mercy’s boots. She let the captain lead her around the lower deck in a full circuit of the craft, then inside to the first deck, where the galley and its workers managed all the meals, the alcohol was stored and served, and a set of tables was reserved in a lounge for the men who wanted a game of cards.
The captain led her to a narrow wood-slat stairway that went up to the top deck. There, the rooms lined either side of a hall that was scarcely wide enough to accommodate the two of them side by side. “Up here are the cabins. We’ve only got the nine, including my room up near the pilothouse. When we take to the river, we’ll be traveling not-quite-full. But if you feel the need for feminine company, I’m afraid all I’ve got is the nigger girl who helps the cook. She’s a sweet thing, though, and if you need something, you can ask her about it-I’ll let her know you’re here.”
“Which room’ll be mine?”
He drew her toward the end of the row, on the left. “How about this one?” He opened the door and held it open for her. “You won’t have anybody next door to you, and across the hall is an old oilman headed up to count his money in Missouri, since he’s already counted everything he made in Texas. I keep telling him he could afford a better ride, but he don’t care. He says he’d rather ride fast in a shitty cabin than take all month on a la-dee-dah paddler covered up in frosting like a rich lady’s cake.”
“Can’t say as I blame him,” she said.
“Me either, all things being equal. But he’s getting on up there, maybe close to eighty. If he gives you any guff, you can probably take him.” The corners of his mouth shot up even higher as he said the last bit, lending a comic angle to every facial tuft. “Anyhow, I realize it’s a tiny space and none too pretty, but we keep all the rooms straight as possible, and have plenty of fresh water on board for the basins.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. This is just as big as where I lived at the hospital, almost.”
He handed her a key from a ring he carried on his belt, dangling just below his waistcoat. “Here’s your security, ma’am, and I’ll be pleased to show you the rest of it-what little there rightly is to see. You can set your things down, if you like. Pinch the door up, shut it behind you, and no one’ll bother it.”
“But my money and my papers-I still have to pay your clerk.”
“Don’t worry about him. He’ll be on board, too, and you can sort that out any time. If you don’t square up before St. Louis”-which he pronounced Saint Looey-“then we’ll just keep you here and let you work it off in the galley. Come on. I’ll show you the top deck, the pilot’s house, the whistles, and anything else I can think of that’ll slow that old bore Whipple from cornering me over the cargo weights.”
Together they chatted as they walked around the Providence, killing time until the last of the cargo was loaded and the final passengers had presented themselves for boarding. By then, Mercy had been treated to the ins and outs of the craft, had met most of the crew-including Millie, who worked in the kitchen-and felt as if she might spend the next ten days quite comfortably and securely in the quiet of her own little room. So when the gangplank was pulled and all the moorings were loosed, she felt practically optimistic about the way her trip was now proceeding. As the Providence heaved slowly into the current and began to churn against it, she sat on one of the benches that lined the bottom deck to watch Memphis up on its bluff, sliding away behind her.