It was eleven o’clock on Saturday night as Lewis Halliday looked out the window of the Mississippi steamboat he captained. The sunset was long behind him, and he guided his ship deftly down the river in the dark, taking care to avoid the dangerous sandbars he knew to be lurking just below the surface of the water.
Halliday kept his practiced hand on the wheel, every vibration and shudder of the boat travelling up through his arms. At this speed, they’d reach Memphis by morning. His hopes for an easy journey were dashed, however, when he felt, more than heard, the engine go silent.
“Silas!” Halliday called for his first mate. He knew he could trust the brawny man to help him sort out any problems. “Get to the engine-room! Make her right!”
“Yes, Sir!” Silas acknowledged from somewhere on the deck outside the bridge.
The engine-room was a Dickensian nightmare of steam pipes and fittings. Silas inspected each one for a flaw that might have slowed the mighty vessel. If he didn’t repair the engine soon, the Dixie Princess would be uncontrollable with no way to steer clear of the river’s obstacles. Silas hoped that the fix would be easy. There was no way to fabricate a part in time, if that’s what was needed.
Before he could finish his survey, the pistons began to move again as the steam built up. Control was restored to the helm.
“Well done, man!” Silas head the Captain’s voice from the speaking-tube. “She’s mine, again!”
But Silas scratched his head. What had just happened shouldn’t have been possible. After all, he hadn’t even seen the cause of the problem. He climbed a steep ladder back up to the open-air balcony at the stern of the boat. From his new vantage point, he watched the huge paddle sweep the water, driving the boat forward. He couldn’t detect any hint that moments before, the wheel had been solidly stopped.
Captain Halliday watched Silas duck back through the door to the bridge. “She feels good. You did a fine job.”
Silas took off his hat, and walked closer to Halliday. In a hushed voice, so that other crew members could not hear, he explained a recommendation to the Captain.
“What?” said Halliday loudly. “We have a schedule to keep. I can’t allow us to stop for a moment, especially now, as we’ve already been delayed. We can’t miss our target.”
“Sir,” said Silas. “I beg you to reconsider. We need to tie up and shut down the engine to find out why it cut out.” Then he caught himself, and began to whisper again. “I know we have precious cargo, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that tonight is the first time the Dixie’s engine has ever failed.”
Halliday closed his eyes. He realized his mate was right. He replied, matching Silas’ low tones. “You’re correct again, old friend. But we can’t stop. Not for anything. I need to you go to stateroom three and stand guard. Perkins will relieve you in two hours. Don’t move for anyone but him.” Halliday turned his eyes back to the river before he spoke again. “If the engine goes quiet again, ignore it. Enter the room and shield the girl at all costs.”
Silas nodded, and left the Captain without another word.
Stateroom three was on the top deck of the boat. Silas looked down at the black water, four stories below. He pulled a three-legged stool beside the door of the cabin, and sat down. His hand fell to the smooth butt of the pistol he’d strapped on after leaving the bridge. They’d reach their destination in a little less than six hours. He needed to protect Miss Emma Becker until then.
Captain Halliday examined his pocket watch intently. Then he bent over the wheel and spoke to the Dixie. “Hang together, Grand Lady. We’ve got a deadline to make.”