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The Phantom Bandit
By Frank Bonham
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2005 Gloria Bonham
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThey'd had their differences, Todd Macon and Jasper Peacock, yet never before an argument they couldn't thresh out in a day's wrangling. But tonight, as darkness closed in upon the deserted Cincinnati wharves, they sat in glum silence at opposite sides of the lamp-lit wheelhouse. Neither man could give an inch and ever again look his conscience in the eye. They were in a deadlock, with time crowding them closely. Todd's lean face was hard as he twisted his black New Orleans cheroot above the lamp chimney until it began to smoke. All over the nation, he knew, partners like Jasper and him, families, even, were being pried apart by the bloody wedge that had been driven into the heart of the country.
Down in South Carolina a fort had been shelled. There was no longer the slimmest hope that the nation's differences could be fought on the floor of Congress. The smell of blood and powder smoke was in the air, and millions of men were leaving farm and office to rush to the front. From the windows of the wheelhouse, Todd Macon could see the cobblestone waterfront climbing to the city. In the deep dusk it was deserted, the stones, damp from an afternoon shower, stained a dull red by the setting sun. Only three other steamboats lay sawing at their spiles; two of them were already smoking up.
Along the wharves, peace-but up in the city bonfires crackled at street intersections andcrowds formed and dissipated like dust whirls along a wind-whipped way. The Queen City had worn her neutrality like a crown. But Abe Lincoln had at last called upon her for loyalty to the Union. In a matter of hours, it would be known whether the Rebel element or the loyal would take the ascendancy in the sprawling Ohio River trade town. Her wharf boats were jammed with tons of pork consigned to Charleston, with tubs of butter and sacks of wheat the Confederacy was counting on to help feed her soldiers during the winter.
Upriver and down, churning paddles threshed the river to foam as packets sought safety in waters of known stripe. Southern boats raced south to beat the blockade at Cairo, Northern captains reaching for Pittsburgh, should Cincinnati go Rebel. But the Natchez still lay nuzzling her rope bumpers, undecided.
Julie, Jasper Peacock's eighteen-year-old daughter, angrily kicked the draft of the stove shut. "Are you two going to sit there all night, stickin' your jaws out at each other?" she demanded. "We're the last packet in town but three. You'll never settle this without getting up on your hind legs and caterwaulin' a little."
Todd spoke without turning from the window. "No more caterwaulin' to be done. Far as I can see, we'd as well get busy with saws and cut this tub in two. You and Jasper can take your half down to Memphis. I'll straighten up for Pittsburgh."
Against the red glow of the city he was sketched in long, straight strokes. Todd was tall and lean, with muscles that were close to the bone. His face was long, lanky-featured, and brown. His eyes were the sultry color of the river at flood.
"Bring on your saws," Jasper Peacock said. "The Natchez is South right down to the bull rails ... and South she's a-goin' if she hoists a bucket."
The lamp put specks of gilt in Todd's eyes as he turned. "She's South like Boston baked beans! They laid her keel battens in Paducah. Paducah declared for Abe Lincoln last week. Besides, you ain't going to find a free crew to take a boat into slave territory in this town. Those gents are holdin' onto what they've got. If she pulls out of here at all, it'll be upriver. You might as well give up, Jasper. You're licked six ways from nothin'."
Jasper Peacock got up on his short, bowed legs, a squinty-eyed mastiff of a man, deep-chested, heavy, and hairy of limb. His ears were big, his scarred face full of crow's feet and deeper lines. He wore his leather-visored pilot's cap at a right angle to his face. As tough a man, for his size, as ever tromped a wheel, river men said of him. "I was hopin' you'd listen to reason and save me having to play my ace," he said. "But you're as pig-headed as all the rest of the damned Yankees. I've got my legal rights as captain of this boat, just like every state's got the right to govern herself. And no ex-mud clerk's going to stand in the way. Julie, ring up a head of steam!"
"Comin' up, Pop!" It was what Julie Peacock had been waiting for. She hurried forward and reached for a bell pull. On his long legs Todd Macon was there an instant sooner. He had her wrist in a hurting grip as he yanked her aside and faced Jasper.
"None of that, you broken-down old Reb! Not a paddle does she turn while I've got half the stock in this outfit."
Julie tried to break loose. She was long-legged and wiry, clad in a striped jersey and short skirt, and she had a temper to match her strength. But Todd's big hand kept her from reaching the cord.
Across the threadbare carpet Jasper came like an icebreaker attacking a head of mush ice. Todd's wide mouth broke into a grin and he thrust the girl away from him.
"Gonna tune my whistle, eh? Well, lower the heel and pitch in! It's as good a way as any of settling it!"
"Cut it out, now, you two!" Julie cried out. But she had the common sense to grab a chair out of the middle of the floor as they began to circle.
A distraction came, in the sound of a heavy and uneven stride crossing the hurricane deck to the pilot-house stairs. There was an arresting quality of strangeness in the sound-an eerie thump-and-drag that conjured a picture of a cripple dragging himself up the steep companionway-that caused both men to turn slowly to face the door.
They were standing like that when the door opened. It seemed at first as though two men must have been coming through at once. Then the stranger came into the light and Todd saw that it was only one man, although he filled the portal to bulging. He stood in the lamplight, a white-bearded, fanatical-eyed giant, leaning on a thick cherry-wood staff carved like a snake. The fires of hell lighted his eyes. His nose was like a scimitar, his beard a stringy, square-cut tangle of dirty gray hair. Todd stared at him, thinking that if ever there had been a zealot, a prophet, this was he. He thought of Brigham Young, and John Brown, and Moses.
"My sons, my sons!" His voice was the rumbling of boulders down a subterranean riverbed. "On this night of nights, with a thousand brothers at one another's throats, must honest boatmen like yourselves go mad with hatred?"
"Honest?" Jasper snorted. "He's a low-livin', cross-compound son-of ..."
"Peace!" The prophet raised his serpentine staff. "I did not come here to listen to profane ravings."
Jasper's eyes snapped. "There ain't nobody holdin' you back if the language gets too hair-chested for ye."
The stranger's eyes flashed, but his answer was restrained. "Would you gentlemen be good enough to offer me a chair? My leg ..." He rapped his thigh with a knuckle, bringing forth a hollow sound. "A poor, dead thing of wood and steel. Tires a man to come far on it, and I've walked a weary way."
Todd spun the chair. "Sit down," he said quickly.
Lowering himself, the big man fought with his artificial limb and failed to make it bend. Savagely he attacked it with his staff, until a rusty joint creaked and he fell into the chair. Then he looked up at the partners, breathing hard.
"Now, then! My name is Hogg. Parson Hogg, late of Bentonville. I've rowed, walked, and ridden seventy-five miles to hire a boat. Now I find only four boats in town. The captains of three of them, being cowards, would not listen to my proposition. There remain you gentlemen. May I ask where your sentiments lie ... with Lincoln or Jeff Davis?"
"We were just settling that," Todd said, "when you came in."
"Perhaps my proposition will help you to decide. Would you be interested in a trip of four hundred miles at four dollars a mile?"
Julie Peacock's tanned face lighted up. "Would we!"
"Politics permitting," Jasper qualified.
The black hairs of Hogg's brows, sticking up like pitchfork tines, pulled in toward the bridge of his nose. "Politics," he muttered. "The devil's bait to lead peace-loving men from the way of righteousness. Well, here is my problem. You know Father Amos?" Their blank looks caused him to rap the floor impatiently with his staff. "I see you do not! Father Amos is a true believer in the vineyard of the Almighty. At Cow Island, below Bentonville, he has a church and nearly a hundred followers. I say has, but, unfortunately, the town went Rebel yesterday and burned his church because he had preached Union. Father Amos and his band managed to escape, but their homes have been destroyed."
Resentment kindled on Jasper's red face. "Name your business, Hogg."
Hogg struggled to his feet. In his ragged brown coat and pants, with his shapeless boots that were big enough to bathe a dog in, he appeared a seedy-looking prophet indeed. But his head was flung back and his eyes burned down on this miserable sinner who was Jasper Peacock.
"I am saying," he intoned, "that Father Amos and his people have taken refuge on an island seventy-five miles below here, where they are hiding without food or shelter. I helped them to escape. Until I find a boat captain with the courage to help me take them off that island to the safety of a Northern town, I shall continue on up this river."
Jasper Peacock flung open the door and stood by it. "Proud to have made your acquaintance, Parson. But this here is a Confederate boat."
Todd Macon, clapping the purpling parson on the shoulder, grinned. "Only his half, Parson. I'm half owner of the Natchez, and me and the larboard side are dragging our smoke North in about two toots of the come-ahead whistle. You look like a husky 'un. Maybe the two of us can lash this river rat to a pile until we get where we're goin'."
With a backward reach, Jasper Peacock took a quart bottle of his favorite patent medicine from the shelf at his back. Brandishing it like a club, he matched the younger man's grin with a wicked flash of teeth under oakum mustaches.
"Have at 'er, gents! The second battle of the war is going to be fought right here!"
Julie was down the wall and beside her father, a fire-axe in her hands. In horror, Hogg raised his heavy staff. "Peace! Peace!" he said, not looking at Todd. "Young man, I believe I can reason with your partner, if you will leave us alone for five minutes."
Todd's brown eyes were on Jasper as he rolled his sleeves back from lean, hard forearms. "Man's got to have a brain 'fore you can reason with him."
Swinging his staff horizontally with some force, Parson Hogg stopped Todd's advance by thumping it heavily across his chest. This time the heat of those courage-shriveling, hell-lighted eyes was for Todd.
"I asked you to leave, pilot!"
Todd's anger melted as he looked into them, and he felt like a small boy being chastised. For a moment, resentment boiled through him. Then he touched the brim of his cap with two fingers. "Good luck, Parson," he said slowly.
Walking up and down the tarred hurricane deck, he rolled and reduced to ashes two cigarettes. It was early June, and the damp night air held a bone-penetrating chill. There was a finger of ice in Todd's heart, too, that made his long face seem even longer.
They'd tripped up and down this old river for six years, he and Jasper and Julie. Every hazard river folks can meet, they had worried through together. Black, blizzard-torn nights when the head of the Natchez was a solid chunk of ice and a man had to crawl on all fours to reach the texas. Flood times, when the river was mined with hidden snags. Fog, wind, and darkness-the three horsemen of the boatman's Apocalypse. For all his cantankerousness, Jasper was a man to stand a trick with. And Julie ...? They'd never talked about love, wouldn't have known how to start. She was too independent to invite such talk. To Todd's tongue the words didn't come anyhow. Well, maybe it wasn't actually love. He respected her judgment where river things were concerned. Had to admit, grudgingly, that she was almost as good a pilot as he was. That she could stow a trip of freight so the boat didn't haul her paddles out of water and spin them dry. Still, he had this same respect for Jasper. He guessed the difference was that he'd never wanted to kiss Jasper.
Julie had never known any mother but the river. An old Negress cook on one of Jasper's earlier boats had taken care of the girl after her mother died when Julie was still a baby. But it was to the river that she owed her real education. She learned not to trust a smiling face that hides treachery as the sun-rippled countenance of the river conceals its savage teeth. When the wind howled and the river was plowed by portentous cross-currents, Julie sat among the cotton bales, chewing a wad of cotton and laughing at the lies the water was telling, knowing the bottom was deep and smooth. Thus she learned that the most blustering of men aren't necessarily the most dangerous.
Some of the river's tawniness had gone into her smooth skin. She was red-haired and green-eyed, with a figure that took a man's mind off his work. Todd had had the picture of her before him on many a long night watch; he knew that, if they split up now, he'd see her on many lonely watches to come.
From time to time Todd thought he heard soft laughter from the wheelhouse. Puzzled, he would stop and cock an ear toward the glowing windows high above him. At length Parson Hogg was limned in the doorway. He clanked down the steps, his cranky artificial leg banging against the risers.
A yellow-toothed smile parted his dirty white whiskers. "If you'll speak to the engineer about some steam...."
"The old hoss didn't agree?"
"Jasper Peacock has enlisted in the army of the right. He said to tell you to stand the first trick ... and to show me to the best cabin."
After he had lighted a lamp for Hogg and brought him a pitcher of water, Todd stood outside the room and scratched his head. The tattered prophet of doom had done in five minutes what he had failed to achieve in a week. Still puzzled, Todd went down and stuck his head into the oily reek of the engine room.
"Touch 'em off, Big Sam!"
Big Sam, the engineer, jumped down off the wood rick, a lanky Negro the color of tanned cowhide. Eighteen pairs of eyes peered from under the boilers, where the roustabouts were keeping warm.
"Which way we goin', Cap?" Big Sam inquired. "'Cause, if it's souf, I'm huntin' a new boat."
"We're goin' north ... by way of Cow Island," Todd said. "We're on an errand for Mister Lincoln, you might say. We'll raise the island by dawn and loaf along so's we'll pass Cincinnati tomorrow night, on the up trip. Nobody knows how the town's going. You boys'll be all right. That's a guarantee."
When he went up again, Julie was shuttling coal into the stove. Jasper, cursing a headache, grubbed among the bottles on his medicine shelf.
"Damn a man that'll argify his pardner into a sickbed!" Peacock grumbled. "I won't be wu'th boiler scrapin's this trip. Got one of my scalp lifters comin' on."
He took a long pull at a favorite elixir, hiccupped, and replaced the bottle. No man on the Ohio had more rugged health than Jasper. But no man courted ill health as he did for the opportunity to grouse. Every patent medicine vendor had a sure sale in him, so long as the alcoholic content of his product was up to standard-ninety proof.
"What kind of a trick are you pulling on the damn' old gimp?" Todd demanded.
Jasper's glance was peremptory. "Keep your tongue civil when you speak of Parson Hogg. He convinced me I had my logbook made up all wrong. But I'll take no I-told-you-so talk from you."
"Don't worry," Todd said. "You won't get any. Because I've got a hunch there's a few rotten ones in this crate of eggs!"
That feeling still rode him, when Big Sam signaled that the Natchez had her 240 pounds of blue ruin creaking in the boilers. Todd rang up and the packet backed full head into the sweep of the current. Live steam hissed into cannon-like cylinders, stubborn pistons drove into motion, and the Natchez moved down the river with dense white heads of steam bursting from her escape pipes.
Excerpted from The Phantom Bandit by Frank Bonham Copyright © 2005 by Gloria Bonham. Excerpted by permission.
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