“I hope to God you brought one of those ice packages of yours up,” said Captain Smith as he stood in the gloom at the helm.
Although the sun had mercifully set beyond the hills to the starboard, the breeze blowing downriver had yet to stir any real relief from the blazing summer heat. Captain Aubrey Smith remained sweating at command of the Merry Anne, willing her to move faster toward the Mississippi delta.
“I did,” I replied as I crossed to the cupboards on the port side of the tiny pilot house. “but I gave half of it to Brooks and Mills when I checked on them in the boiler room. Tell me again why you insist on continuing to run at full steam toward New Orleans when we could let the current carry us downriver at night? It’s still hotter than hell in that boiler room.”
“Money, Fulton. The faster we go up and down this goddamned river the more times we can stuff cargo into that ice house of yours. The more cargo carried, the more money we make.”
I split the last of my packet of ice between two glass tumblers and carefully wiped my hands dry before reaching for the captain’s bottle of Tennessee whiskey. The humidity was so thick in the air that it immediately condensed and rolled down the sides of the glasses. Before I could finish pouring, I twice had to push my spectacles back up the bridge of my nose. No matter how much I made use of my handkerchief, I could not keep the sheen of perspiration from my face. Summer on the Mississippi is hell.
“Truth be told,” he said as I handed him his whiskey, “I won’t rest easy until that abomination of Dr. Barrow’s is off my boat. We’ve agreed to carry bodies downriver before, but that weren’t no natural body.”
“The good doctor would not stop asking questions about how cold I could keep the ice house in this sweltering heat either. ‘Are you sure it’s kept in a constant state below 20 degrees? How did you manage to seal that much space from leakage? How often is it accessed from the outside?’ I was pretty proud of how I had managed to create a way for us to haul ice and foodstuffs until he came along,” I grumbled.
“You have every right to be proud of that wonder of steam powered engineering,” he grinned. “That’s part of the reason I want to get us down to New Orleans as quickly as possible. The pile of telegrams at the last port were full of requests for shipping more ice. This heat is going to make us rich men, my cagey engineer.”
He reached up, probably to give me a slap on the back as he was wont to do, when a shriek of tearing metal stayed his hand. I stood still beside him to listen. The thrum of the boilers and pistons continued without pause. The paddle wheels were still churning. Whatever it was, it did not come from the boiler room.
“The ice house,” I said.
Before I could say more, we heard shouts and gun fire from the decks below the pilot house. Captain Smith quickly toggled several switches at the helm and stepped aside to let the automaton take control of the wheel. With a grim set to his face he took his rifle from it’s place on the wall and went down the starboard ladder of the pilot house.
I made to follow him, but a fear gripped me. My sidearm didn’t seem like near enough protection against whatever may be out there. What was even worse, I had no rational explanation for feeling this way. All I knew is that along this stretch of the river was absolutely nothing, and that whatever caused the men to start shooting had to be aboard the Merry Anne.
I grabbed the fire axe more for the comfort of its size and weight than its usefulness as a weapon, and slipped a few rungs of the ladder in my haste to rejoin the captain on the deck. I could hear his heavy steps a few paces ahead of me, but there were no other noises out of the ordinary. As I got closer to the ice house, I could feel a chill creeping down the starboard side of the deck. That sound of rending metal had to be a breech in the ice house wall.
“Fulton,” Captain Smith’s voice was a hoarse whisper, “go back for the lantern. I fear there is blood pooled on the deck, but I cannot see with the moon still low to port.”
“Aye,” I replied and made my way astern for the lantern at the foot of the ladder.
I quickly dashed back to the ice house with the axe in one hand, the lantern in the other, and my heart in my throat. Aubrey Smith was ghostly pale and standing in a pool of blood. I shifted my eyes from his face to where his gaze was set. Brooks’ face was stretched in terror and his body looked to have been mauled by a beast. One arm and most of his lower body were missing.
Something growled further toward the bow. As we turned to look, an enormous form arose at the edge of the lantern light and snatched up Captain Smith. I wailed as I dropped the lantern and pulled the revolver from my holster. Despite years of training, I shot wildly and emptied the gun to no avail. The abomination broke Smith’s body like a rag doll and threw him aside. Like a fool, I gripped the axe as if it could save me.
So help me God, I would rip this thing apart or die in the attempt.