Journey into Darkness

The Excerpt

“a the main channel. Thet’s Milliken’s Bend. Beyond there it’s only one more set a bends round the mouth a the Yazoo River b’fer Vicksburg.”

The boy watched the approaching landmark. For a few minutes nothing more was said. The vessel swung easily through the last arc of her turn until she was in line to follow the main channel. Milliken’s Bend drifted off the starboard side, thenslipped gently behind.

“Come on, Dee,” Kearney instructed. “We’ve some thin’s ta tend ta fer we reach port.” He started toward the door. “Mr. Wyatt, ya hold yer course. I’ll be back in a half hour.”

“Yes, Sir, Mr. Kearney.”

The boy followed the captain through to the deck.

“Ya go ta the main deck ‘n bring Captain Masters ta my cabin,”

Kearney spoke as they reached the ladder. “I’ll meet ya there.”

Duane passed through the commotion of activity on the lower decks, passed the skipper’s order to Captain Masters by way of Sergeant Reilly, and tarried to visit with Sammy Winters while the sergeant searched for the officer.

“Dee,” Captain Masters called as he worked his way through the clutter of humanity lounging about the sun-shadowed deck,

“Sergeant Reilly tells me yer lookin fer me.”

“Yes, Sir. Captain Kearney wants ta see ya in his cabin.” He spoke once more to Sergeant Winters before the captain arrived.

“Soon’s I kin, I’ll be back down.”

“I’ll be here,” the sergeant acknowledged. “Ya run ‘long now.”

Following protocol which Captain Kearney had begun to teach the cabin boy, Duane led and the captain followed. “This way, Sir.” They ascended to the quarters on the upper deck.

There Duane opened the door and announced the captain.

“Come in, both a ya,” Kearney invited. “Dee, fergit the formalities ‘n bring yerself a chair. Captain, take the rocker.”

As the two made themselves comfortable, Kearney settled into the chair at his desk and drew quietly on his pipe while he awaited their attention.

“Dee,” he began, “when we started this trip tagether I said I’d think on yer askin me fer help. An I’ve done a heap a thinkin.

Captain,” he paused to exhale a light cloud of aroma and to collect his thoughts, “yer familiar with the boy’s story?”

“I’ve heard it,” he glanced at Duane.

“Da ya know why he’s on this boat?”

“I assumed he was workin fer ya.”

“No Sir. He come ta me ta help him git ta the war so’s he kin find his pa. I’ve bin givin it thought all ‘long the way ‘n I have a idea if yer willin ta help, too.”

The boy sat forward with elbows on knees and chin on clasped hands, listening intently as the discussion unfolded. Kearney sucked gently on his pipe while the officer responded.

“How kin I help?” he asked.

There was a brief pause to lay the pipe aside and release a small cloud of tobacco smoke. It hung briefly in the air as it faded to a wisp of pleasant odor.

“Yer company’s on its way fer assignment ta the army up north near Tennessee. We figure Dee’s pa ta be up thet way. Ain’t it so,

Dee?”

“Yes, Sir,” Duane confirmed. “His last letter says he’s goin ta help git Grant at Fort Henry.”

“We lost Fort Henry last month,” Masters informed. “Ain’t ya heard? Grant took Henry ‘n Donelson, too.”

The news came as a stunning blow. The boy was suddenly drained of all enthusiasm. It didn’t matter any more. There was no reason left to go on. He cried within, but the tears did not come. A blank stare passed beyond the wall in front, focusing on nothingness.

“Dee,” the captain continued, “thet don’t mean yer pa’s lost.

A lot a our troops slipped away fer the end an only the garrison was taken prisoner. Even so, there’s talk of a prisoner exchange.”

Duane cheered up and listened while Captain Kearney continued. “Thet all bein what it is, I figger the captain’s comp’ny could use a drummer boy ‘n Dee here could go on with ya. When ya hitch up with the big army, ya could look up his pa ‘n he could think on what ta do next.”

There was a short silence while all three considered the skipper’s proposal.

“Would thet help ya, Dee?” the officer inquired.

“Yes, Sir!” the boy beamed, breaking into a smile.

“We kin do it,” Captain Masters agreed. “We’ll check with our quartermaster ‘n fit ya up with a uniform an see if the musicians from the Pine Bluff company have an extra drum. I’ll have my lieutenant add ya ta the company roster. By the time we’re arrived ta Vicksburg ya’ll be an official drummer boy. Maybe we’ll even find one who kin learn ya how ta play.”

“Yer set, Dee,” Kearney stated. “We’ll git yer gear packed ‘n see if yer sergeant friend kin find ya a have’sack fer ta put it in.”

He stood and extended his hand to the officer. “Captain, we sure thank ya fer yer help.”

Masters rose from the rocker as the boy, too, stood. “Glad I could.” He accepted the outstretched hand. “We best git ta puttin this in order. It won’t be much longer.” He turned to the boy. “Dee, ya come with me ‘n we’ll git ya outfitted. Then ya come back ‘n pack yer thin’s.”

The three started for the door as the captain finished.

“Captain, I’ll see ta the boy’s needs at present ‘n see ya later fer we go ashore.”

“Thet’ll be fine. I’ll be busy fer a time until we tie up.”

They left the cabin. The boy and the officer departed below.

The skipper paused to watch them go and to knock the ashes from his pipe, then turned to climb back to the pilot house.

The Queen passed the mouth of the Yazoo and rounded the point to a heading northeast. Within the half hour the river rounded the point of land to the right, revealing high bluffs on the far bank and the city perched on its top.

During this time Captain Masters and Sergeant Winters had worked to transform Duane from a cabin boy to a drummer boy, and to equip him for his new lifestyle in the army. It wasn’t much for a uniform. He wore his own trousers with an oversized brown shirt and grey forage cap. Now the captain was busy with the many details in preparation of landfall. Duane stood near the bow of the main deck, his arm around a deck support post against which he rested his weight. Sammy stood at his side with a protective arm across the boy’s shoulders. They gazed in awe at the great city atop the bluffs-the biggest place either had seen in his lifetime. The river ahead was alive with motion. The great wharf had several riverboats at its side.

As the boat’s whistle echoed off the surrounding hills, the boy thought back over the events of the past two weeks. Home seemed so far away and so long ago. He missed Jamie, Mrs. Riggs, his ma, his home. God, how lonely he felt! A sharpness stung in his eyes and throat. His vision blurred as tears slipped quietly down his cheeks. Sergeant Winters sensed the boy’s lonesome grief and squeezed the small shoulder gently to say he cared. Duane slipped both arms around the strong waist and buried his face in the folds of the man’s shirt. He cried quietly as Sammy held him close. Momentarily the boy pulled away and wiped his face with the back of the sleeve on his new shirt.

“I’m okay,” he announced.

“Thet’s good,” Winters acknowledged. “Cause we’ve a whole lot a work ta do ta git unloaded and move in ta the army camps.

Here tell we won’t stay here long, though. They got a railroad

thet’ll take us north in no time.”

“I neve seen a railroad b’fer. But I heard of it,” the boy stated.

“I ain’t seen one either,” the sergeant added. “Guess it’s a first time fer both of us.”

Deckhands moved about to prepare the mooring lines, the gangplanks, derricks, and winch lines. Captain Masters called his subordinates together to assign work details for unloading wagons and horses and for reassembling wagon parts and harnessing up the teams.

“Where da we go from here?” Duane asked as the sergeant turned to go to the captain.

“As I hear it, the army’s gatherin up north at a place called Corinth. The railroads go through there from all parts.” He was gone toward the meeting which was held at the first wagon.

Commotion crescendoed about the boat. Passengers gathered at the upper rail. Soldiers from both companies set to work to free wagons and cargo from safety lines which had held them in place. The engines changed their rhythmic pounding as the vessel slowed for docking. The whistle shrieked. Foremen shouted orders. Duane found himself drawn in on a work detail preparing one of the wagons to be rolled down the rampway to the wharf. The din of noise closed in about him as the Ozark Queen slipped between two other riverboats and bumped gently against the timbers of the dock.

This was Vicksburg. It was the end of the trip. It was the beginning of a new journey.

Behind lay the boy’s childhood.

Ahead lay war.

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