He sat in the pilot house watching Emmie through the wide front windshield as she hopped from the shore side barge to the outside one securing the lines in the short tow that they were contracted to take downstream. Given the light trip it was just the two of them on the boat today the other two of the regular crew enjoying a day at home.
He had taken her aboard the Maddy Belle over the summer as a favor to her uncle-whom it was better to have as a friend than an enemy. Three years widowed and a riverman for life, James Shacksbird had felt himself sliding into a comfortably solitary existence; his relationships a series of contracts, contacts and gentleman’s agreements. He relished the chance to have done something for the Deacon-to perhaps have him, if not in his debt, then at least well disposed toward him.
Watching her at her labors he had noticed a slight wobble in her gait. Something that, underway, could be attributed to a wave or the flow of current-but they were tied up tighter than a tick. Nothing was moving. It wasn’t a stagger-not a stumble-just a wobble. But with one as sure footed as Emmaline, who he had seen walk yardarms on the old schooners, a wobble was telling.
Gray drizzly October day. Couldn’t blame her, he thought. When he was drinking these were the days that did him in. He slid the side window and put his head out.
She paused and turned toward him. “Yes?”
“Put on your life jacket.”
“We’re not underway.”
“Is that the river below us?”
There was nothing to be said. With a touch of petulance she took up her float and strapped it on. He probably would have just gone back to his book had she not paused once correctly outfitted and, coming to attention, snapped a quick military salute toward him.
She was always-different-with him when the others weren’t on the boat. She was headstrong and independent, used to running her own life and answered to no one ashore. Out on the boat, actually having to maintain subordinate position chafed her. Not a lot, but he felt it when they were on the Maddy alone. He had made mental notes to not do solo runs with her but mental notes are meant to be erased.
“Emmaline”, he called again. “Come up here please.”
One of the reasons the Deacon wanted her on the boat was to keep her out of the taverns. As he put it, his niece had an outsized thirst for strong drink. She had proven to be a quick learner, fearless, a more than capable riverhand, but always thirsty.
“Yes, Cap’n?” she asked cheekily as she stepped into his pilot house.
“You’re drunk woman.”
“Oh, I’m woman, am I? Not girl or child.”
“I never disputed you a woman.”
“Which, then, gives me leave to be drunk on occasion. If I were. Which I’m not.”
They eyed each other across the small space.
“What then are you?”
“If so, does that seem a characteristic I would want in a mate or even a deck hand?”
“The British Navy would feed their sailors rum by the bottle.”
“By the shot actually-not the bottle. And this isn’t the British Navy.”
She was warming to the banter and became anxious when he went silent pulling on his lower lip. She had made a study of James these last months. The man was difficult to read beyond orders but she knew this to be his thinking posture. She thought of the bottle stowed on the barge, under the ropes. Maybe she had touched it one time too many that morning.
“What are you thinking?”
“Wondering how quickly I could get word to Thomas to join me on this tow once I put you ashore.”
“Ashore!? I’m not going ashore!”
“You are. We discussed this.”
“The last time you were…tipsy.”
“Your uncle would not appreciate me allowing you to drown on my watch-or be crushed between barges-because you were drunk. He will understand why you’re not on the river anymore.”
Emmaline panicked that the decision seemed to have been made already. This wasn’t a debate anymore-this was the end of her short river career.
“That wasn’t all you said!” she yapped nervously. “You didn’t say you’d fire me. You remember what you said?”
Since he quit drinking he forgot nothing. It was misery-every word he uttered stacked like cordwood in his head to be recalled at will. But these ones he let be.
“I remember telling you I’d put you ashore.”
“No. You said you would thrash me. You said you would beat me purple if I were drunk on your boat again.”
“Figure of speech. A threat to discourage you, that’s all. Fat lot of good it did.”
Emmaline was somewhere in her twenties-a full decade younger than he. She had a sharpness about her that extended beyond her tongue. She kept her dark hair short but no one would describe her as boyish. Athletic yes; nimble yes, but well-endowed top and bottom. It was solely the fact that she was clearly in his charge that had kept James from regarding her in way he might any other woman of her age and appearance.
“You should do it, then.” She said her voice tight in her throat.
Continued in (If the boat’s a rockin’…)