Come Love a Stranger
Whither will I wander,
Thither will I roam
’Round the world, and back again,
This way will I go,
Marching down the steep hill,
Tramping up again.
Ever will I ramble,
’Til I’m home again.
THE quiet peace of the moonlit river was broken by the hushed murmur of voices and the steady pulsing of pistons in a powerful engine. The rushing burble of water beneath a stout hull softly harmonized with the long sighs of these monster steam pistons and the chugging splash of water under the paddle wheel as the huge floating palace came around the bend and left in its wake a luminescent path beneath the chasing moon. Lanterns shone from every deck, seeming to set the stern-wheeler ablaze with lights, but inside the pilothouse, which commanded a position well forward and high on the uppermost deck, only a binnacle lamp was lighted, giving off a dim glow as the helmsman grasped the wheel and scanned the oil-black surface of the river far ahead. The captain stood close beside the helmsman and, in a low voice, warned of approaching landmarks or shoals. Under his direction, the steamer slid with firm, square-shouldered ease around a sandbar and, further up the river, a floating tangle that had attached itself to a small uprooted tree.
A tall, broad-shouldered man leaned against a window jamb at the rear of the pilothouse and smiled to himself as he felt the sure, unfaltering pulse of the ship vibrate through the deck beneath his feet. In the curve of his arm he held a young woman, and she nestled close against his lean, muscular frame, savoring the relaxed pride of her husband as his River Witch made her virgin voyage up the river.
Removing the pipe from his mouth, the captain turned his head aside slightly and spoke over his shoulder: “She handles well for a new one, sir.” There was also a gruff pride in his voice. “A wee bit tight, but as light on her feet as a frightened doe.”
“That she is, Captain.” Absently the tall man stroked his thumb across the back of his wife’s arm. “That she is.”
The captain puffed again on his pipe before he remarked, “The boilers are well seasoned, and the pistons stroke with barely a whisper. Why, we must have made a good eight knots during the daylight hours, and that was against a healthy current. The river is a little higher than usual this year.”
He leaned forward to speak with the helmsman as he pointed with his pipe to a large mass that floated far ahead of them near a turn in the river. “You’d better take her close to shore as you go around the bend. Otherwise, we might get tangled up in that.”
The tall man hardly heard his captain’s comments as he glanced down at the woman at his side and met the smiling green eyes. His arm tightened about her briefly, and her fingertips caressed his vested chest in answer. The man dragged his gaze away from her. “We’ll leave you to your duties, Captain. Should you have a need, I’ll be in my cabin.”
“Good night, sir.” He tipped his hat to the lady. “Missus.”
Leaving the pilothouse, the couple made their way out along the narrow walkway to the stairs. They paused on the lower deck, and their two shadows merged as one as she leaned back against his chest. Together they admired the idyllic scene of silver-plated river and frothy white path stretching out behind.
“She’s beautiful, Ashton,” she murmured softly.
“So are you, my love,” he whispered in her ear.
She turned within the circle of his arms and tenderly caressed the strong, manly line of his jaw. “I can hardly believe we’re married. It seems like only yesterday I was resolving to be a spinster.”
Ashton chuckled as he found humor in her statement. “Wasn’t it only yesterday?”
Her soft laughter joined his as she shrugged. “Well, it must have been at least a month or so ago.” She raised her arms, laying them around his neck, and pressed the length of her body against his. “Do you always sweep a lady off her feet in such haste?”
“Only when a lady captures my heart as fiercely as you have done.” He peered down at her with a questioning brow raised. “Any regrets for not waiting for your father’s approval?”
“None!” she assured him fervently before she returned an inquiry to him: “And you? Are you sorry you’re no longer a bachelor?”
“My darling Lierin,” he sighed as his lips lowered to hers. “I never knew what living was until you came into my life.”
From somewhere below a sudden soft “pop” made Ashton pause and lift his head to listen. The sound was followed by a loud “clank” and then a louder “bang!” A shattering screech began and grew in volume until the couple’s ears fairly ached. A billowing cloud of steam, roiling up from the boilers, engulfed the rear of the River Witch, and slowly the paddle wheel shuddered to a stop. The once graceful boat became an ungainly raft as she lost way and began to swing broadside to the current. Shouts of alarm came from below, and in the pilothouse the captain snatched for the whistle lanyard only to be rewarded with a bellicose wheeze as the last of the steam pressure faded. He snatched for the bell chain and kept yanking it to broadcast a warning to all who could hear.
The large mass of floating debris drifted nearer and, though it seemed impossible, took on more of a rectangle shape. It slammed into the side of the stern-wheeler with enough force to send a shudder through it. Almost immediately a swarm of men sprang from the piles of brush that had been used to disguise the now discernible barge and threw out grappling hooks to snare the wounded River Witch.
“Pirates!” Ashton shouted the single, dreaded word. Almost immediately a shot rang out, and a sound like an angry bee whizzed past his ear. He ducked, pulling his wife down with him, and barked out several more warnings to the crew as the brigands leaped across to the lower deck of the steamer. Brandishing various weapons, they sprinted along the gallery toward the stairs and climbed to the upper decks. Other shots began to swell as passengers and crew alike realized their peril and snatched whatever weapons they could lay hold of. The decks erupted in bedlam as the thirty or more river pirates scrambled to engage them, and there were bellows of challenge and rage as fighting broke out on every quarter.
Ashton tore off his dark coat and threw it over his wife’s shoulders, making her pale-hued gown less of a target. Crouching low, they began to work their way toward the stairs. More shots zinged past, and he pressed her against the outer wall of a cabin as he shielded her body with his own. The sound of running feet drew Ashton’s attention to the deck behind him, and he spun about to meet the vicious charge of a knife-wielding brigand. With a startled scream Lierin stumbled across to the railing as the force of the man’s attack drove Ashton back against the wall. A frantic struggle ensued as the pirate tried to bury his blade in his opponent’s flesh.
Similar battles had spread throughout the River Witch while the captain and helmsman struggled to regain some control of their clumsy vessel. The bow scraped across a bar they had previously passed, and the boat tilted to port as the currents lifted her up and over. She struck the main shoal and lurched hard to starboard, sending those in the pilothouse ricocheting off the walls of its narrow confines. The helmsman fell, blood streaming from a wound in his head, while the captain sank to his knees in stunned confusion.
The violence of the starboard lurch flung Lierin over the railing and far out into the black night. Her scream dwindled as she fell, and it ended abruptly in a loud splash. The sound cauterized Ashton’s mind, and fear gave him the strength of a raging bull. Throwing off his assailant, he sprang to his feet and drove a booted heel into the other’s face. The man went limp, and Ashton flung himself against the rail. His wife’s name exploded from his lips as his eyes searched the flickering dark water for some trace of her. A gleam of something pale rose from the depths, and she broke the surface. Yanking off his boots, he grabbed the rail, intending to climb atop it and dive into the black void for below, but a crushing jolt took him in the side, spinning him halfway around as the roar of a pistol shot reverberated within his head.
“Lierin! Lierin!” his mind screamed as his legs slowly crumpled beneath him. He had to save her! He had to! She was his life, and without her, naught else mattered. He collapsed upon the deck, and the night seemed darker than before as he labored to lift his head. Through a haze, he saw a snarling, bearded face with a mop of curly black hair hanging about it. The thief came forward with a long-bladed knife held ready, but somewhere a rifle discharged, and the brigand halted in sudden shock and gaped in disbelief as a ragged, bloody hole appeared in the side of his chest. His right arm fell limp, and as he stared, the knife slid out of his numb fingers. The darkness closed in around Ashton, and he never knew when the pirate staggered back down the stairs.
Lierin was not as fragile as she looked, and her determination to survive had flared strong in her mind. The thought had flashed through her consciousness that she had not found love so recently just to let it be rudely snatched from her grasp. She struggled valiantly to stay afloat as her once buoyant skirts threatened to drag her down again into the murky depths. But fight she did…until she saw the flash of the pirate’s pistol and her husband’s fall. The thief ran forward to ensure his work was finished, and her spirit died. Only a gnawing emptiness remained where joy and hope had been only a few moments before. The current caught her skirts and whirled her about as it dragged her into the shadows. The cold dark waters closed over her head a second time, and the struggle to rise above the surface became too much for her. She sank into the stygian void, and slowly her arms ceased their labor.
MARCH 9, 1833, MISSISSIPPI
A CIRCLING, confused wind had pelted the earth with a slashing rain for most of the day, but as night settled its ebon shroud upon the land, the driving storm and the erratic breezes abated. The countryside grew quiet in hushed relief. The very air seemed to hang in breathless suspense as an eerie white mist formed close upon the ground. The wraithlike vapors twined in aimless questing through the marshes and black-shadowed thickets, spreading ever onward, filling low hollows and rills and curling about massive trunks. High above the invading tendrils, gnarled branches waggled their mossy beards and sent small droplets plummeting into the roiling mass. Now and again the pale moon pierced the broken, scudding clouds and, with its silvered light, created an unearthly landscape of dark shapes rising from a luminous haze. A decrepit brick mansion, hugged by a cluster of trees in an overgrown yard and bounded on four sides by a tall, sharply spiked iron fence, seemed to merge with the small cookhouse in the rear. Together they drifted in the sea of fog as time slowed its passing. For a fleeting moment nothing moved and nothing stirred.
A squeak of hinges intruded into the silence, but the sound ended almost as quickly as it began. A bush twitched unnaturally by the back door, and a shadowy form cautiously emerged from behind the shrub. A waiting hush prevailed as the phantom carefully surveyed the enclosed yard; then like a large, winged bat the darkly cloaked figure flitted through the swirling vapors to the side of the house and settled beneath billowing folds at its base. There, the latticework between a pair of stone supports had been pulled away, and gloved hands hastily struck flint to steel over a small, sheltered mound of gunpowder. Sparks splashed outward until a sudden blaze flared up and became a cloud of dense gray smoke which mingled with the mists. Three slow fuses came to life in the flash and continued to glow after the powder was spent. Burning steadily, they trailed off in different directions beneath the house, meandering ever so slowly toward shallow, gunpowder-filled gullies that led to separate piles of oil-soaked rags and dry kindling. A nervous chittering and squealing grew as the fuses shortened, and as if sensing the approaching disaster, the furred denizens of the dank crawl space fled their burrows and nests to scatter abroad in the night.
The stealthy shadow retreated from the house and quickly crossed to the iron gate. A broken chain was lifted from it, and the earth-bound specter slipped through the opening and dashed toward the edge of the woods where a horse was tethered. It was a fine, tall gelding with a white star blazoned upon his forehead, an animal made for swiftness. Once astride, the rider held him in check, keeping him on the sodden turf to muffle the sound of their passage. When the need for caution was behind them, the quirt lifted and came slashing down, setting the steed to flight. Of a common hue with the night, the pair were quickly swallowed by darkness.