Hell Fire on the Mississippi

Dick saw the boats first and called out in his high weasel’s voice, “Der! Mista’ Sho’man! Deres dem hell fires sho’!” Sherman yanked up the reins on his courser and blocked the sun from his eyes as he looked up river. At first his eyes were thin and still, and the boys began talking low to each other.

“What do you see sir?” I said.

Sherman remained still for a moment longer, then turned to us with a small curl in his lip. “Oh boys, oh my sweet, sweet boys. Dick is correct, we have ourselves some visitors from Duckport up North.” He waved me to his side and when I reached his heels, he produced a dark brown sac from his coat. He gently raked the tobacco with the tips of his fingers. “Do you smoke?”

“Yes,” I said. “But I haven’t seen fresh tobacco since Tallulah. Sir.”

“Mm. But you have paper? I’ve seem to run through mine.” Just then, a boom crashed against our ears and sent alligators dashing off rotten logs into the milky green water of the Bayou behind us. “Damn it all, starting already? Must be lighting up New Carthage now.” Another incredible blast choked a whimper out of several men. “The paper?” Sherman held his hand out without looking at me.

“Paper? Yes—” I patted my chest and belt, finding the small silver tin Martha had sent with me the day I came to fight the rebellion. I held it half-out to Sherman and he snatched it from my hand.

Sherman popped open the clasp and took a dry leaf of yellow paper from the case, then tossed it to my open hands in my lap. Before I had finished replacing the tin, Sherman had rolled and lit the cigarette. He exhaled the thick white smoke just as another nauseating tidal wave of cannon fire washed away what little courage I had left and as I spoke, my teeth chattered. “Shall I call the boys to attention?”

But at this, Sherman only smiled. He clamped the dark yellow-black end of the cigarette in his teeth, now fully bared, and pointed a long crooked finger at a point just beyond where the Mississippi meanders from view.

Then it did not take Dick’s keen eye to see the tall metal smoke stacks wheezing black clouds into the air; creating an artificial night that shaded their passage down river.

“No need son,” Sherman said with a throaty laugh. He took one last pull of the tobacco and squeezed the remaining stick in his bare hand. He crowed like a madman, removed his hat and waved it about his head. “Come on boys, its time to sink some rebel gators!”

This was a scene sketch I wrote this morning loosely based on the Vicksburg campaign of the Civil War, March 31-July 4, 1863.






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