I recall a trip we took around my tenth birthday. A mighty blizzard had been blowing for over a day, with snow like I had never seen. We were on board a steamer, the Carrie Martin, heading to Falmouth, Virginia to visit General Hooker and his army. There was Pa and Ma, and me, and Pa’s friends, Mr Henry, Mr Brooks, and Mr Bates.
The weather forced us to anchor for the night in a cove on the Potomac, near Indian Head. Everyone settled at the benches in the mess room for a drink, and Pa began telling us a tale.
I knew the story. One of his favourites about a very slow horse he had been lent back in Springfield. It had been such a dawdling beast; it had almost meant he missed speaking at an important convention. When Pa returned the horse, he asked the Liveryman if he kept the animal for funerals.
‘Oh no, not at all,’ the Liveryman exclaimed.
Pa replied, ‘Well, I’m glad of that, for if you did, you’d never get a corpse to the grave in time for the resurrection.’
The room erupted with laughter. Mr Henry banged the table and a toast was proposed to both the horse and Liveryman. There were calls for Pa to spin another yarn, and I saw my chance to escape. I went below, to the kitchen, to see Cook.
Cook was worried. Worried with deep lines etched across his fat face. He chopped onions faster than a carriage piston, as he told me the extra stop meant supplies were spread thin.
‘They give me the food and I will cook it. I will cook it fit for any man breathing. But I cannot make dishes out of thin air.’ He pointed upwards and scrunched his nose. ‘What’s he going to say, huh?’
‘What’s God going to say?’ I asked, confused.
‘No.’ He waved me away. ‘Your father.’
I laughed. I shouldn’t have laughed. It wasn’t right to. But it was funny to think Pa might care about what he ate. Pa would have eaten stale old hardtacks if Ma let him.
Cook stopped chopping and leant down towards me. ‘Tad,’ he said and a line of spit seeped out the corner of his mouth. He smelt sickly sweet, like rotten apples. ‘You can laugh because he is your father. I can’t laugh because he’s the President, and I do not want to be remembered as the cook that let Old Abe Lincoln starve to death.’ He returned to the chopping board. ‘No sir. Not me.’
I didn’t like to see Cook all riled up like that and felt bad, watching him dice those onions. I shouldn’t have laughed at him, and I saw how I could make it up – I was gonna catch some fish for dinner. I had my rod with me and I’d been hankering to do some fishing since we boarded. I figured, come supper time, no one could complain if they each of us had a nice juicy bass to tuck into.
I didn’t hang about to tell Cook my plan. It was gonna be a surprise. I ran straight to our cabin, set my reel, and picked up my bait box. I was in such a rush, I forget my hat and jumper, and didn’t notice until I arrived on deck.
It was mighty unpleasant out of doors. The cold stole the breath from my lungs, and icy gusts blew from all directions. The riverbank was gloomy with thick snow. I feared the sight of spirits.
Yet, I was determined. Cook needed fish and there wasn’t long before supper. I settled, shivering on the port rail, and cast off into the flurry.
Strange now, to think our little steamer was out on that river completely alone. No guard to speak of, or even a soldier on watch. Mr Brooks had said we were so close to the rebels; if they knew, they might have gobbled us up without firing a single shot. Funny, the whole time no one seemed fussed over the fact we might have been attacked. The gripes were reserved for the darn nuisance weather.
The conditions did not make for easy fishing. Part of the river had frozen over with slushy ice and floating snow, and it was difficult to hold a decent line. Soon, I began to figure that if the fish were anywhere near as cold I was, they weren’t gonna be in any mood for eating. I was colder than a pair of snowman’s scratchers. My teeth chattered fierce together and my cheeks ached with the freeze.
I was close to calling it a day after less than ten minutes when I got my first bite. It took me by surprise and I struck too hard at that fish, hoping it would be the size of a whale, so I’d only have to catch the one to feed us all plenty.
No such luck. The line slackened and I pulled my bait-hook clear free of the water. I toppled backwards off my perch and whacked my backside hard on the deck.
I was dazed for a second. That’s why I didn’t instantly react to the sound of coughing. I was too busy finding my feet. Then, when I got up off my knees, I heard it again. The sound of a man coughing, his splutter arriving in the howling wind.
I dusted down my pants and stepped forward to investigate. The noise had come from near the stern rail, and I approached slow. Snow blew in my eyes and chilled the snot still under my nose, even when I sniffed.
Briefly, it crossed my mind to go and get Pa, only I couldn’t stop myself edging closer to the back of the steamer. The nearer I got, the more certain I grew that I was not alone. It was a thrill the good side of terrifying and knotted my stomach right up to the back of my throat.
I ran out of deck to walk on. I remained still for a spell, my teeth a-chattering, my ears pricked for the sound of more coughing, sore with cold.
Slowly, I reached up to peer over...
‘Thomas Lincoln, for the love of all things holy, you’ll catch your death out here,’ Ma cried out behind me. Her voice near made my heart explode in fright.
‘Ah Ma, we need the fish for dinner,’ I tried to explain, turning round and snuffling deep. ‘Cook says supplies are thin.’
‘Cook can go jump if he thinks you’re sitting out here to fish.’ Ma had my hat and jumper, and took a firm hold of my neck to force them onto my body. ‘Look at you; you’re soaking and frozen stiff.’
‘Ah, Ma!’ I protested.
‘Ah, Ma, nothing.’ She wiped my nose with her sleeve. ‘You need to get inside next to the fire and warm up. You know your chest is weak, and this weather just won’t do to be out in.’
‘Ma!’ I wasn’t done arguing. ‘The snow’s not so bad no-more.’ I pointed over the rail. ‘And I just had a bite...’
‘And I would say that is quite an achievement, Mother, in such trying conditions.’ Pa arrived with Mr Brooks.
‘Well, the weather has certainly eased some,’ Mr Brooks said, puffing on a thick cigar. ‘Unpleasant I grant you, but passable.’
‘Indeed,’ Papa replied. ‘We’ll be on our way again come morning.’
‘Pa, I was catching some fish for supper.’ I wrestled free of Ma’s embrace and took a firm grip of his arm.
‘And catching his death on this terrible wind.’ Ma had tears in eyes. They were not entirely for my sake. She was thinking on my brother, Willie, in heaven again. She often thought of him and got herself lost in grieving his memory.
‘Now Mother, we would be harsh parents who put a stop to their son fishing on his birthday excursion,’ Pa replied. ‘But Tad, you need to be better prepared for the inclement conditions. Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.’ He took hold of my hand. ‘Come now, I have just the ticket.’
Pa led me back through the boat to his cabin, and took off his old woollen coat. It was black and thick, and always warm to the touch. I recall the label said Brooks Brothers of New York. He draped it over his arm and picked up a gas lantern.
‘You may find these useful if you’re intent on catching dinner,’ he said, beaming a smile.
We met Ma and Mr Brooks in the gangway. Ma was still not happy. She protested at Pa for letting me go back outside, and when he wouldn’t relent, she made do with yanking my hat over my ears in a fuss.
On deck, Pa settled me near the port rail, closer to the stern, and neatly arranged the lantern so the light lit my bait box. He encouraged me to cast off, suggesting I keep a short line. He nodded his pleasure at where my effort landed and draped his coat across my shoulders. Its weight was a welcome barrier against the cold.
‘There now Tad,’ he said and patted me on top of the head. ‘I believe you are prepared to fish. I want immediate reports on any successes.’
‘Pa,’ I said as he turned to leave.
‘Yes, my boy.’
I opened my mouth to tell about the coughing I’d heard, but my tongue stopped wagging, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure on the words to say.
‘Thanks, Pa,’ I eventually said.
‘You’re most welcome.’ He bowed and disappeared below deck.
The instant he was gone, I wriggled out of the coat and abandoned my line. I went straight back to the stern, freeing my ears to listen.
The sensation that I was not alone returned, stronger than before, and I was happy with listening on the wind for a spell. I prayed to brother Willie to make sure I was protected from any ghosts and witches. This gave me courage. I was sure brother Willie wouldn’t let me down, and took a step forward to peer over the rail.
The shock I received froze my insides more than the bitter cold. Below me, a pair of hands gripped a rung of the steamer’s stern. The hands belonged to the face of a man, bobbing in the water. His eyes were closed and his skin was pale white. Whiter than the snow itself.
I thought he was dead. I’d seen dead people before - old ones, young ones, bloody ones – such sights did not fret me. But then those closed eyes burst wide open, and the man lunged up toward where I stood...
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